Finding My Way and Not Getting Lost – Cycling around the world
In 2011, Cress Allwood began a journey on her bike that would take her around the world. Here, she describes some of the highs and lows of her adventure across multiple continents.
The start of my journey did not go as planned. On 28th August 2011, I stood by the check in desk at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, mentally trying to comprehend what I’d just been repeatedly told: ‘No madam, you cannot fly to Pakistan today. You must have a return ticket.’ After endless months of planning a bike ride – the big one – and having just led a month-long trekking expedition in Nepal, to aid my fitness and acclimatisation at altitude, this was not a conversation I had anticipated. Not what I had ever imagined. Upset, angry and impatient, it was taking time for my brain to compute. I’m not going to Pakistan? Is that what she said? Why did I need a bloody return ticket when I wasn’t coming back!? Can’t you see I have a bike box! I have to go – it’s all planned and my friend is waiting!
I’d travelled extensively up to this point, leading adventurous expeditions during holiday periods – how could I not know this critical piece of information? I refused to cry, feeling hurt, foolish and decidedly alone among the throng of other travellers. The Pakistan International Air (PIA) representative was adamant: it began to sink in. Without a return ticket, PIA were not allowing me to travel with or without my bike, today or any other day. The piece of paper in my hand with flight details held no value: further conversation made that fact ultra-clear. Struggling to control the intensity of conflicting emotions within, I knew I had no choice. I turned my back on the check-in desk and headed instead for the mayhem outside.
I knew what I had to do – having written the address of the nearest travel agent on the back of my hand, I pondered my chances of buying tickets for later that day. What a nightmare! What a Muppet! And it was not yet midday!
The trip started in Pakistan when I finally arrived in Islamabad, two days later than expected. A friend had agreed to join me and for the first few weeks we followed Laura Stone’s ‘bible’ to take us over the monumentally beautiful Karakorum Highway into China. This was undoubtedly one of the most memorable sections of riding. Enormous 8000m mountains surrounded us for days, as we nudged away at gnarly climbs and marvelled at the expanse of the Hunza valleys. Blue skies predominated. We were blown away as much by the kindness and selflessness of the people as by the incredible scenery, being offered three cups of chai and uncluttered, genuine conversation throughout. I’m still saddened that so many people warned me not to visit this part of the world, and so deeply glad I stubbornly ignored the voices of doom and ignorance. Yes, one needs to heed Foreign Office advice, but for me the benefits of exploring outweigh the risks. Right from the start of the trip I discovered how generous other cultures can be. I went to Pakistan to see for myself what such an exotic nation held, and I relished the education.
The following months saw Deb – who would accompany me as far as Greece – and I follow, by and large, a route we’d concocted ourselves. China gave us smooth, joyful and fast tarmacked roads in places and scrunched, frowning foreheads in others – the contrasting array of shiny, new and lurid neon lights in towns that still felt old was perplexing. Visa limitations defined our duration of travel, and a week spent in Urumchi, while I waited for a Kyrgyzstan visa to be processed, meant that our planned three weeks in Tajikistan were reduced to two. The dusty, hot and largely deserted Pamir Highway was impossible for us to ride quickly. Arriving a day late at the Tajikistan border posed a temporary hitch, solved by random dancing, intense discussion of Manchester United’s tactics and, ultimately, bribery of the border guards. This was much more fun than the strip-searching experience we’d had in China – where we learnt to never again look the sadistic, teenage-looking officials in the eye.
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan
Arriving cashless and exhausted in Uzbekistan, we were immediately given a huge watermelon and money by passing strangers. We had no idea how we looked (neither of us carried a mirror, and weeks of camping and washing in streams had taken their toll.) Such seemingly small gestures prompt lifelong memories – and a depth of faith in the world that rarely occurs in normal life. It is these moments of wonder that make touring so special. Sitting by the roadside, next to our bikes, devouring the sweet melon with relish and humble gratitude, made us joyful, warming our souls. Life was great! It didn’t matter that we had no money and no clue what we would find ahead. Being there was enough.
Subsequent weeks were filled with more wonder as we sought out the gorgeous blue mosques of Samarkand – a place that had been in mind for years – and sections of the ancient silk trading route. We dealt magnanimously with endless fried eggs and slightly more serious medical matters. An abscess in Deb’s mouth needed urgent attention and a visit to a private medical centre. The wonderful simplicity of cycle touring made everything seem all right. We experienced more unexpected kindness from Uzbeks who became friends, and I happily smelt the scent of many roses along the roadside as we cycled – another simple, unexpected pleasure that made me smile. Life was good.
Leaving Uzbekistan we pedalled, as planned, to the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan, celebrating our arrival with a photo and wry, knowing smiles. We originally intended to hop on a boat heading West to Azerbaijan, before riding over more passes, exploring Georgia and Armenia. It was November: the weather was cold, with snow on the roads, dark nights and dismal food, and progress was becoming harder. We heard that various roads were likely to be closed: a route through the Caucasus would have to wait. Kazakhstan was vast – I had no idea it’s the 9th largest country on the planet. We decided to follow the railway line (our reference point and constant ‘handrail’ to guide us) north towards Russia, as our motivation became increasingly left behind. The sight of the Baikonur Cosmodrome (a Russian space station!) cheered us up in the vast desert steppe, but multiple days of cold weather with little food took their toll: it was no longer fun, and we weren’t that hardy. Time was running out before Deb was due back at work, and a change of plan was necessary. We considered our options, and in Aralsk (communicating by the use of stick men drawings) we booked two trains north, then flew to Istanbul.
From Greece to the East
Heading south to Athens, I discovered that Greece was not flat! The warmer weather made up for the hills on the last section of riding together. In mid-December it was time to go our separate ways. I lingered, watching my friend descend into the Athens metro station which would take her back to the UK, towards a way of operating in the world that we’d cheerily left behind. I was extremely appreciative of Deb’s company. We’d got on well and not completely peed each other off – no mean feat on such an extended journey together. Significantly, I knew I was far more confident and assured: ready to face whatever lay ahead. I’d been out of the UK for nearly 6 months yet had seen and learned so much. What was to come, I wondered? I had a month’s respite before I was to discover the world of solo touring. I had another expedition to lead and headed for Malaysia.
After a month in Borneo and a return trek up Mount Kinabalu, I flew to Melbourne, where I met up with Muriel (my bomb-proof, steel-framed steed.) Australia surprised me more than many other countries – perhaps because I had given her so little thought. Riding up the East coast to Sydney, I had no idea I’d find an endless stream of carefully laid out and organised campsites in great locations. I’d done zero research, as it seemed unnecessary to me in a more ‘Western’ society. Buying a map – once – and asking for advice saw me through. I loved the riding, hugging the coastline and indulging myself by swimming as often as I could. Being in the water felt wonderful for my muscles. I was fitter, stronger and in my element. Life seemed much easier – accessing water was easy and I could buy yummy avocadoes cheaply. If I wanted to, I could challenge myself to ride in the sun all day without collapsing from heatstroke. It was a carefree, novel and exciting way to spend January. I relished the warmth and the relative ease of travel. Being on my own was both fun and liberating – I enjoyed the absence of responsibility for anyone else. In February I flew to New Zealand and toured both islands, savouring the delights of a proper bed, a washing machine, soft bath towel and the myriad of luxuries (including a bike stand) that staying at a friend’s house afforded at the start and finish of my time there. Flights from Auckland to Santiago were relatively cheap – hence a quick decision was made to head for Chile.
I spent over a year cycling in a continent that stole my heart, almost literally at times. I’d been given a map of Chile 11 years previously, but hadn’t looked at the detail. When cycling through I began to appreciate the variety of terrain the country has to offer: the Atacama desert, sitting between the ocean on the west and the high Andean mountain passes in the North; an enormous copper mine (Chuquicamata) – I never thought I’d be visiting one of those along the way. Even more memorable were the beautiful and serene St James flamingos, peacefully feeding at the salty shallows of the Salar de Surire.
In Bolivia I took Spanish lessons and bumped down one of the best-known cycle routes, riding the Camino del Muerte – ‘death road’ – before climbing high mountain peaks. In Peru, I ate jelly babies by Machu Picchu, experienced utter vulnerability at a remote campsite and noticed that I’d fallen in love. Ecuador saw me calling upon my depths of knowledge, coaching someone through days of trekking on Cotapaxi, while in Patagonia I let my hair down and drank myself into oblivion. In Argentina I discovered unknown reserves of resilience, when injury crushed another dream.
My stories from South America are far ranging, emotional and life changing. The highs and lows were often intense here, yet I’d say I loved it all.
I returned to England in 2013, nearly two years after my departure: the same, but different. Life on the road is often governed by a beautiful simplicity which makes my heart sing. Adventurous cycle touring makes me feel fully alive. Feel fully alive – life’s too short to settle for less!
Cressida Allwood is a courageous, passionate and intrepid global traveller. Chucking in her job she embarked on a unique 2 year adventure cycling around the world: the perfect mid-life crisis! Starting in Pakistan she pedalled over the Karakorum Highway into China before heading to the Caspian Sea. Cressida explored remote villages in 21 countries and especially loved riding the spine of the Andes. She returned home from Ecuador 21,000km later.View Articles by Cressida Allwood