Reflections on a year spent cycling

A couple of weeks ago we flew over the broad, flat expanse of the Mekong Delta during our descent into Ton Son Nhat airport. A year and 2 weeks beforehand a few kilometres to the north west we’d loaded up our bicycles and peddled northwards. Our destination the COP21 climate change negotiations in Paris. Our mission a 16,000 km bike ride to help alert the world to the threat of catastrophic climate change and the fact that this meeting probably represented the last chance to prevent it.

Sadly in that mission we failed. For all the fine words expounded, the Paris conference was an utter disaster, as I explained here. The world is now virtually certainly on course for catastrophic warming which will render most of the world uninhabitable desert and in the process destroy human civilisation. And within a frighteningly short time frame – probably within the lifetime of someone born today. However despite the ultimate disappointment the past year has easily been the best of my life. I have seen so many beautiful places, been blown away by all the wonderful people we have met and marvelled at the rich culture and history soaked into the route we traversed.

The highlights are too numerous to mention in this short post. The world really is an incredibly beautiful place and our route took in some of the most picturesque regions. From deserted palm fringed Vietnamese beaches, through twisting roads up Chinese mountains, ancient oasis towns in central Asia, the vast open spaces in the mountains of eastern Turkey, and historic hilltop villages in Italy and France. Virtually every day was a joy. New places to see, new people to meet, and so much history and culture to learn about. However there are a few places that stand out. So here are my highlights of highlights. The beautiful almost deserted coast road between Quy Nhon and Quang Ngai in Vietnam with thickly forested hillsides and eagles circling on the thermals just above us before we dropped down to the empty beach below. We stopped at a tiny café nestled in some trees. As the first foreigner to visit the establishment I was treated like royalty. The owner bringing out candied ginger, cakes and sweets and insisting we eat it despite it being far in excess of the value of the drinks we bought. In fact it was one of the cheapest drinks I have had throughout my 2 years living in Vietnam and in stark contrast to the often vastly inflated prices I was charged as a foreigner in most of the rest of central and northern Vietnam.

We received amazing hospitality wherever we went. One Uzbek family who we asked if we could pitch our tent in their field kept plying us with food freshly picked from their garden. Whilst another family in Kyrgyzstan insisted we sleep in their house rather than our tent, even cooking us dinner and breakfast. Of course there were the numerous wonderful people who hosted us through Warmshowers and Couchsurfing. All lovely lovely people who helped to give us a unique insight into the culture of the places we visited. There are too many to mention individually, but you know who you are. The only disappointment was that due to the time constraints imposed by having to reach Paris in time for the conference we usually only got to stay one night which simply wasn’t long enough. Indeed that was my one big regret about the tour. Having only 10 months to travel 16,000 km meant that we were on the bikes pretty much every day. Pausing for a rest day only once a week or whenever we were applying for visas. It was fine and never felt like a chore but next time I won’t set a deadline. It would be nice to have the option of staying somewhere longer, or even changing direction if the mood takes you.

Although there were a few places that run it close the most hospitable country was Iran. We were just blown away by the friendliness and kindness of the people. Almost every day we were given something. A bottle of water, some fruit, a water melon, tea, an invitation for lunch, or dinner or to stay the night. One day we had asked a host if there were plenty of places along our route to get water and been told yes. Of course there wasn’t and we’d run out. So I stood beside the road holding out a water bottle. A car going the other way stopped, drove me back the way he’d come and took me to his orchard. After filling up the water bottle he grabbed some plastic bags and started filling them with all manner of bounty, tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, peaches. Looking at the bags straining under the weight of the harvest I protested that really it was far too much. Just the water would be fine, but he was having none of it pressing the two bags into my hands and apologising that the apples weren’t ripe yet.

It was in Iran too that we encountered our only thief. We’d camped in a field across a dried river bed from the road. After the bright nearly full moon had set I was awoken by a rustling at the entrance to the tent. Shaking myself awake I scrabbled around for the torch and opened the flap to reveal my shoe being dragged across the wheat stubble by a fox. Transfixed by the light of the torch it just stared back at me for an age, only trotting off when I stood up and made a lunge for my shoe. A magical moment.

We experienced great beauty almost every day, but the most beautiful country we visited was Kyrgyzstan. It was June when we passed through, so the lower slopes were bright, bright green with spring grass and the valley floors carpeted with flowers whilst the peaks were coated with a thick layer of snow. The numerous lakes were an incredible turquoise colour and the sky’s clear and bright blue. All combining to give the landscape a jewelled effect. It was incredible. Especially after spending weeks traversing the drab, burnt out desert and semi-desert of western China.

My favourite days riding would have to be the route down into Metsovo and on to Ioannina through the mountains of northern Greece. We’d done most of the hard work the day before and camped at around 1400m. Next morning it dawned brightly. The clouds were piled up against the peaks from the next valley and were pouring down the steep slopes like a fluffy waterfall. Most of the day was spent descending down some vertigo inducing roads with a few sharp but not too taxing climbs for a bit of variety. With the day finished off in spectacular style with a glorious drop down to the lake and the ancient town nestling on its shores. Stunning.

The prize from the easiest riding goes for the Eurovello routes in France. Simple to navigate, with large sections on off road paths and the rest on lovely quiet country roads. A huge contrast to the busy highways we were forced to traverse over much of the journey. Although having said that, there was only one place where I felt unsafe and that was the highway which transects the Turkish city of Bursa. There’s no shoulder, the traffic is fast and drivers have no consideration for cyclists. Everywhere else whilst respect for cyclists was rather lacking this was more than made up for by the incredible hospitality we received from people once they were outside their cars.

Of course there is one person without whom the journey wouldn’t have been half as pleasant. That is the love of my life Kim Ngan who accompanied me almost every pedal of the way (apart from a couple of weeks in Turkey due to their discriminatory visa policies towards Vietnamese nationals). Being able to share this journey with her made it all the more wonderful. Many people have said what an incredible achievement it was to cycle to Paris. For me personally I don’t think it was. I was doing something I loved and it never felt like a chore it was in fact much easier than going to work every day. However in the case of Kim Ngan I would say it really was an incredible achievement. First off she doesn’t even really like bicycles, and the furthest she had ridden prior to the couple of training rides we did was the 10 km or so home from school when she was a teenager. To say she was out of her comfort zone would be an understatement. This was her first time in a tent, the first time outside of Vietnam for longer than a couple of weeks, and the first time away from Vietnamese food. The shift from a diet rich in vegetables and rice to one of lamb and bread played havoc with her health and she experienced stomach problems all the way from Kyrgyzstan to Greece, ending up in hospital a couple of times and suffering on the bike on numerous days. In fact travel like this is so unusual in Vietnam aside from one woman who rode an electric bicycle to Spain she is the first Vietnamese woman to undertake a tour like this. Then add in the fact that she ignored the wishes of her parents who told her she couldn’t go gallivanting around the world by bicycle with a strange Scottish guy and you can begin to understand what an incredible achievement it was. Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan I salute you. You are an amazing woman, an inspiration and love you with all my heart. Thank you for sharing this experience with me.

I can honestly say that this journey was the best thing that I have ever done and I would urge everyone to try something similar. Not only will it reinforce your belief in humanity but a bicycle really is the best way to experience this beautiful world of ours. You see so much more, you can stop whenever you like and you’re much more likely to have human interactions. And I would urge you to go sooner rather than later as a journey like ours is going to become increasingly difficult and in the not too distant future is likely to be impossible.

And that would be down to the very reason I went on this journey in the first place. Climate Change. In the later decades of this century parts of Iran and Central Asia (alongside much of the rest of the Middle East and North Africa) will become so hot that just simply being outside will kill you. Midday summer temperatures are predicted to reach 50C. Of course temperatures at which cycling becomes dangerous will be reached even sooner. In fact we already experienced temperatures in Turkmenistan where it was dangerous to cycle in and we were forced to take shelter during the hottest part of the day and commence cycling whilst it was still dark. Heat stroke is likely to occur even at rest if you spend more than 6 hours above 36C, when riding a bicycle it will occur at lower temperatures. As soon as 2050 summer temperatures are expected to reach 46C over much of this region and perhaps even more importantly night time temperatures will stay above 30C. This will make camping dangerous as it won’t allow the body to recover from the stresses of the heat.

Of course such temperatures can be avoided by travelling during the cooler winter months, but that will make the logistics much harder as many nearby areas especially in the mountains will still experience inhospitable winter temperatures and conditions. Eventually dangerously warm temperatures will even be experienced in Spring and Autumn making a ten month trip like this virtually impossible.

However before this happens climate change will likely pose security problems. High temperatures aren’t just bad for cyclists they are bad for agriculture too. This coupled with increased droughts are likely to prove devastating to this region. For example within the next 30 to 40 years as many as 30 million people in Iran could be without water. As the water runs out and agriculture collapses conflicts between and within countries will flourish and societies will begin to collapse. The climate change exacerbated drought in Syria was one of the many catalysts for the conflict there which could provide a template for what is to come for neighbouring countries. As the climate disaster unleashes floods of refugees, borders will become harder to cross. As it progresses instability and conflict will make many places simply too dangerous to visit.

Vietnam will be suffering just as badly. The Mekong Delta has an average elevation of 1.5 metres. With sea levels expected to rise by 2 metres or even more over this century the region where we started this journey will simply disappear.

We probably have a window of 20 or 30 years of relative stability before this scenario begins to play out. If you want to experience this wonderful world before it is too late, you’d better get on your bike.

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