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Start: August 16, 2007, Montevideo, Uruguay
Finish: June 23, 2009, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Over 14,000 miles (22,000 km)
How does one describe a 14,000 mile, 22 month bicycle trip through 30 countries in a few paragraphs? Whatever I write it will not capture the wonder of discovery, the fascinating locals, the rich cultural experiences, the thrilling downhill rides as well as the tough slow uphills, the hot, cold, rain, the depressing mechanical problems, the exhaustion… I could go on for pages describing the myriad of emotions I felt on this trip.
The best way to get a feel for it is to read some entries in my archives on the front page of this blog.
I updated the blog every week or so and included some of the best photographs. Besides that, I created several video clips, set to music, of each country I visited. You can find these here. I have combined these into a set of five high quality DVDs (about five hours of video in total) which I am selling for $50. Email me if you are interested in purchasing them.
Goals & Planning
I had been planning a global trip for many years, but really began to serious start saving about five years ago. I had decided to quit my job in July, 2007 so began serious preparations in the spring of 2007. My main goal was to cross Asia, but since I was not leaving the USA until August I knew I had to start somewhere else. Winter in northern China would be no fun. The obvious answer was South America. August in Uruguay is spring. A little cool, perhaps, but as time went on and I headed north the weather would get warmer.
I figured I had to be in China by May, 2008. It would be reasonably warm then and since I estimated three months to cross the country, which would put me in Kyrgyzstan by August and by October I would be headed south, as the weather started to cool off in the northern hemisphere. My original plan was to go through Iran and into Syria, but due to visa restrictions I decided to change that. Americans cannot travel independently in Iran. You must go with an approved guide. This would have been prohibitively expensive, and I would not be allowed to ride my bike. Instead, I opted to go from Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, through Georgia and Turkey, and then hit Syria from the north. This made the timetable even more critical as Georgia was quite far north and if I got behind I could hit some real bad winter weather.
My other area of concern was Sudan. Again, it is difficult for Americans to get visas, and I had to consider other options if I could not get one. The only logical one was to fly from Cairo to Addis Ababa, which is what I eventually did.
My daily mileage was not ambitious. I was shooting for 100 km/day, about 60 miles. I did not want to rush through places. The whole point of traveling bike is to enjoy the journey. Some bike tourists try to do 100 or 200 miles a day. I say what’s the point? If you are in that much of a hurry, just drive.
I ended up doing even less than 100 km/day, if you divide 14,000 miles by 22 months. But that’s mostly because I did not ride every day. I rarely rode more than 8-10 days consecutively before I took a day off to rest or sightsee. I rested a lot more than I thought I would, mainly because the places I stopped were so interesting.
I used my old Fuji Touring bike that I had bought form my 2002 Europe tour. But I completely overhauled it, replacing almost every single component, including top of the line Phil Wood hubs and high strength 48 spoke wheel. I bought a new tent, new panniers, new stove, new sleeping bag, a bike computer (odometer, speed, etc.), new racks, new cycling shoes and clothes, the works. I had spare spokes, tires, tubes, plus a myriad of nuts and bolts, brake pads, and other miscellaneous spares. Where I was going bike shops would be scarce.
In spite of all my precautions I still had problems. After riding for 73 days without a flat tire, I got three in one day and used all my spares. I had to hitch a ride on a truck to get me to the next town. In Japan my rear hub failed and I had to take trains and busses for a while until a replacement hub was flown in to Hiroshima. Then in the ‘Stans’ I again used up all my tubes and had to take busses to Tashkent where I had replacements sent in. I also had to replace my head tube, after I destroyed it the mountains of western China. I needed new pedals, new shoes, a new chain, and a new handlebar bag. Finally my handlebar stem weld broke in Tanzania, almost killing me.
As I mentioned, weather drove many of my planning and route decisions. I hate the cold, so I planned on cycling in places during their summer. For the most part this worked. I hit some cold weather in the beginning, as I expected. Spring in Uruguay is barely above freezing. But then nice weather until the Peruvian highlands, where the altitude caused freezing rain and snow. I had one real bad day where I was fortunate to find a small village at 4500 m and a small cafe that served me a hot bowl of soup and let me camp in an abandoned building by the llamas. It snowed that night.
I had another couple cold days on the Qinghai plateau in China, and again in Georgia and Turkey, but for the most part the weather was warm to hot to extremely hot. Western China particularly was scorching, 125 deg one day.
Rain was not a big problem. I had bouts of it from time to time but nothing too serious. I would try to hole up in a cafe or bus stops or under a tree if it rained too much. If nothing else was available I would open up my rain fly and sit under that until the rain passed. But I did get drenched a few times. Cant’ be avoided.
Of course I hit all types of terrain. Flat boring farmland, forest, mountains, desert, savanna, steppe, etc. The highest point of the trip was in Peru–4500 m. and the lowest point was the Dead Sea in Jordan – 1338 ft below sea level. I rode through a number of deserts–the Chaco of Paraguay, northern Peru, western China, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and northern Kenya.
Camp or hotel
I camped out some, but only about 25% of the time. There were many times I could have camped but because hotels were so cheap I would go that route instead. I only camped when I was pretty isolated. It was easy to find a site most of the time. I would just walk my bike off the road a few hundred yards and look for a flat spot. I would take a sponge bath, cook up some ramen noodles and enjoy the quiet. It was nice. Most hotels were pretty basic and cost $5-$20 for the night. Many did not have private bathrooms, TV or aircon. In fact, many did not even have electricity all the time, or running water. In large cities I was able to get mid-priced hotels ($30-$40) which had nice amenities.
It was frustrating many times when I could not communicate. I had no problem in the Americas, as my Spanish is pretty good. But the rest of the trip was tough. I tried to study some basics in many languages which actually helped a lot. Even speaking only a couple dozen words in Japanese for example, is a lot better than nothing. I studied the following languages during the course of the trip: Japanese, Chinese, Kyrgyz, Russian, Uzbek, Azeri, Georgian, Turkish, Arabic, Amharic and Swahili.
The end of the trip was a real letdown, as you know if you have read the bog. For some inexplicable reason I suffered a herniated disc in my neck one day. It was extremely painful and after three weeks had not improved, so I was forced to abort my trip ad head home. Other than that, the worst issues I had were diarrhea. This was especially bad in South America, where every couple weeks I would be fighting it. I tried to eat healthy (avoided street food, uncooked veggies, etc.) but I still got bugs every now and then. Some were serious–I was laid up for a day or two in Cuzco, Guyaquil and a few other places. Too weak to even get up. Spent the day in bed.
I had stomach probelms elswhere too. Kyrgyzstan was bad, as was parts of Africa. One place I was surprised at was China. As dirty as it was I did not get sick once there. My diet was mainly steaming hot noodles so the food was safe from parasites.
The only other problem I had was a kidney infection I picked up in northern Kenya. A result, I think, of dehydration and drinking brackish water. I had to visit two different docs and take a series of antibiotics to fix that one. I never drank tap water. I usually bought bottled water or filtered water from the tap. Occasionally I had to filter river or lake water.
I budgeted $50/day for the trip, which is a lot compared to most bike tourists. I met one guy who was traveling on about $2/day. But I wanted some comfort when I was towns. I stayed in medium priced hotels, not the cheapest ones, and sometimes splurged on nice meals. I also bought a lot of souvenirs which I sent home. The budget also included all ancillary costs such as visas, spare parts, immigration fees, and occasional bus and ferry rides. I managed to stay within my budget no problem.
I got bothered by the police a number of times. The Chinese were particularly annoying. I was fined and escorted out of a few areas because they were off limits to foreigners. But I never had to pay a bribe in China. The Kyrgyz police were a lot more corrupt, and I experienced several shakedowns in Bishkek and at the borders. In Turkey the military was everywhere and searched me few times, but they were nice and did not ask for money. I had a weird encounter in Syria when I was accosted by plain clothes intelligence officers. They wanted to run a check on my passport. I did not know this of course and we had a standoff because I did not want to surrend my passport to what looked like regular people. Finally one showed me his ID to prove he was legit. They were nice and served me coffee while checking me out. Finally I also got interrogated for two hours by the Jordanian military for swimming in the Dead Sea after sunset. Israel is just across the Sea of course and they are very sensitive about people wandering around the border area.
For the record here are some statistics of the trip.
-Distance pedaled: 22,097 km (13,730 miles)
-Duration: 645 days (just over 22 months)
-No. of countries: 30
(Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Japan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania)
La Paz, Bolivia
Cali, Medellin, Cartagena, Colombia
Panama City, Panama
San Jose, Costa Rica
San Salvador, El Salvador
Qingdao, Xi’an, Urumqi, Kashgar, China
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Nairobi, Mombasa, Kenya
Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, Tanzania
-Highest elevation: 4500 meters (14,765 feet), Peruvian highlands
-Lowest elevation: 408 meters (1338 feet) below sea level, Dead Sea, Jordan
-Hottest day: 52 deg C (125 deg F), Turpan, China
-Coldest day: -5 deg C (23 deg F), Peruvian highlands
-Highest one day distance: 134 km (83 miles), central Paraguay
-Number of consecutive days without a shower: 5, Tanzania
-Number of flat tires: Lots, about 50
-Number of tires: 7
-Number of falls: several but none serious
-Number of broken spokes: 1, Uganda
-Number of times hit by a car: 1, Amman, Jordan
-Cost of the trip: about $30,000
-Most difficult day: This is a tie between the day I rode into Abancay in the Peruvian highlands and the road to Kargi in northern Kenya. The road to Abancay was incredible. I rode/walked by bike uphill for 40 km, climbing 2000 meters in about 10 hours. At the pass, it was dusk and I sped down into the town of Abancay in the dark, a stupid, dangerous thing to do. I arrived completely exhausted.
The road to Kargi was in the desert on a difficult rocky road. Hot and with no water, I felt I was a goner. I also had a kidney infection. Luckily I was helped out by three Rendille warriors who I paid to push my bike for 20 km, arriving in Kargi after dark, exhausted and dehydrated.
People sometimes ask what are the most memorable places I saw. So I put together this “top ten” list. It is in chronological order.
1. Bolivia. A fascinating place where you can see how the Quechua indigenous people live. Spectacular mountain views. La Paz and the Highlands are worth a visit. You can also explore Lake Titicaca. Around La Paz you can bicycle the World’s Most Dangerous Road.
2. Peru. Peru has it all: Machu Picchu, highlands, Lake Titicaca, Beaches. You can spend a lot of time there. Great place to see Aymara and Quechua cultures. The floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca were fascinating.
3. Colombia. Hospitable people, nice mountain views, great salsa music, and of course, my favorite, Cartagena. Cartagena has great beaches, beautiful colonial buildings and a wonderful atmosphere.
4. Panama, the San Blas islands. Tranquil, postcard like beaches populated by the interesting Kuna indigenous people. a great place to get away from everything and everybody.
5. Japan. Anywhere in Japan is fascinating. Clean, orderly, everything works. Way out in the middle of nowhere you can find spotlessly clean vending machines to buy water,juice, beer or coffee. Amazing. But Kyoto and the many shrines are worth a visit.
6. Western China, especially Kashgar. You travel back in time to the great silk road markets, a fascinating glimpse into the crossroads of the east and west.
7. Kyrgyzstan. A mountainous beautiful country. Great for hiking or horseback riding, Wonderful cold fast flowing rivers to get water and bathe.
8. Jordan. Wadi Rum. A stark, beautiful desert, the HQ of Lawrence of Arabia and home to the Bedouins.
9. Kenya. The traditional tribal communities are fascinating. Then you have the animals: elephants, buffalo, giraffes, lions, zebras, hippos, monkeys, etc. Nairobi is a great city and Meru has the best mangoes I have ever tasted.
10. Tanzania–Here the Serengeti National Park stands out. More wild animals per square mile than anywhere I have seen. Zanzibar offers a fascinating glimpse into the Swahili culture and has some fine beaches.
Best of the rest
I loved the NW coast of Peru– nice beaches and beach towns. I saw the sun rise over the ocean one day after staying up all night chatting with some locals. There are great places to sway in a hammock and watch the waves while sipping a rum and coke.
Turkmenistan – A look at what totalitarianism can get you. An interesting police state with some weird places like the burning pit. Elaborate, gaudy statues to the former ruler, Turkmenbashi (Head of all Turkmen) still dominate the capital.
Georgia-Tbilisi is a great city. Cool architecture, lovely churches, a quaint old town with nice cafes and bars, and cheap accommodation.
Damascus – An interesting historical Muslim city. Nice hamams (steam baths) and souqs.
The Dead Sea, Jordan – A cool place to float. The lowest spot on earth and the saltiest lake.
Nuweiba, Sinai – great beaches
Cairo pyramids – Fascinating ancient Egyptian artifacts
Medellin and Cali, Colombia – Salsa until the sun comes up on a party bus. Then lie in bed all the next day with a hangover so bad you wish you were dead.
Xian, China–Terracotta warriors
Uzbekistan–The great Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, also a great place to get a massage.