It was somewhere 40 km north of Ahvaz, in some desolate Khuzestan plain where we found shelter for the night in a newly built but not finished ghost town in the middle of nowhere. Another long, dark evening in the dust of an unfinished apartment building led to the final resume of a long led discussion we had inside of ourselves and between us: Should we really continue to travel by bike?
In a pretty rational manner we summarized our experiences of the last months, added what was possibly lying ahead of us and compared everything to our long previous hitchhiking tradition with all the experiences we gathered using our thumbs. We came to the conclusion: All pride and ambitions aside, looking deep into us we did not enjoy traveling by bike nearly as much as we had hoped for. We should go back to what we always loved to do, to hitchhike. The next day we drowned in mud and all dirty and soaked arrived in Ahvaz hitchhiking. We were glad of having made the decision before this emotional low point in a rather rational way.
We will try in this post to make our reasoning transparent, in the hope to help other people drawing their own conclusions for possible travel plans.
1. The season as the biggest reason: Yes, we knew our route wouldn’t spoil us with pleasantly warm nights and shiny days. But honestly, we did not expect the winter to arrive that early in Turkey. Already in Cappadocia we had to make use of our additional sleeping back as the temperatures went down to zero at night. After many hours of cycling in mostly windy conditions, we would have enjoyed some recovering in the evening. Instead, especially if we couldn’t light a fire, we had to retreat into the tent, cover in the sleeping bags and soon fell asleep in this position. The days got shorter as well. If we wanted to make some distance, the days would mostly consist of eating, cycling and sleeping. Too many of all the side activities that we enjoy while traveling (writing, reading, playing music, hiking etc.) got reduced to the non cycling days. But then we always felt the pressure to move on, as it surely wouldn’t get warmer in the east but the first snow soon arrived.
2. Flexibility and freedom: Two of the aspects we hoped the most to gain while cycling, it turned out to be the two things we felt very hampered in. By bike you have a certain limit of distance possible in a day. In the vast countries of Asia it often means spending days in stretches that are not enjoyable. Often one is stuck on the traffic heavy main roads as well. Add in a few days of bad weather in a region. In our hitchhiking times we had the flexibility to just make a solid jump and the next day all is better! Sure, even by bike in countries like Iran you can hitchhike or at least take a bus or train. But it lacks the spontaneous energy, as it mostly requires some preparation and mostly we spent the ride rather worried for the conditions of the bikes. Sadly for a good reason a few times. We feel if the season was better, it would have been great to take time and make use of the flexibility by exploring the small country roads and roaming through villages. But it goes back to 1.) that we felt the need to make distance too often. Also, the big issue that it is very difficult to just explore a place, a town or just a shop together as mostly one of us has to guard the bikes if there’s no safe place to put them.
3. Main roads, pain roads: Consequently, we spent most of our time on Turkish and Iranian main roads. As much as we tried, we couldn’t find it all too enjoyable. More time was spent dealing with the traffic than really enjoying the scenery. And well, the scenery. The real beauty is definitely rarely found left and right of the highways, but in the hinterlands. Then take a good amount of kilometers without a shoulder and roaring old Mercedes trucks honking loud while passing by and the peaceful image of cycling is quickly painted black. And we couldn’t exactly hope for the traffic turning friendly in places like India or Pakistan.
4. Visa pressure: Why did we have to stick to main roads all too much? Because out of Europe in most places something else than the season is severely pressuring. The old visa issue. Not too many countries in Asia grant the traveler more than a 30 day stay. And they don’t care too much if you travel by bike and are rather slow. So you can carefully plan ahead, to reach the next border or visa extension place in time or will end up rushing somewhere to save your passport by bus or train. Especially looking ahead to the countries further east, we did not want that kind of rush, but rather engage spontaneous situations without looking at the calender. As a hitchhiker the flexibility is just higher in that regard.
5. The weight of the world: An essential aspect of what makes traveling great for us, is the reduction of all material belongings down to the very essential. The weight that is lifted from you, when all you need is right on your back, makes the physical weight of the pack much more tolerable. Sure, as a bike traveler you definitely experience this reduction as well compared to most people’s daily life. But still it is so much more! All those separate bags, the bike parts, tools and the additional equipment is more than we could easily carry from a) to b) when not cycling. Furthermore, the additional financial value is a factor. We already had no high value bikes, but still as a traveler it is a big chunk of additional value you have with you. Being back to the backpack, we just feel lighter – even while carrying heavier now.
6. A traveler’s mind – no athlete’s: Many bike travelers, through personal meetings with them or their blogs in the internet seem to be driven by a solid amount of willpower and sportive ambition. The satisfaction one can gain from reaching far away places only based on own physical strength is definitely great. Even before starting eastwards we were very aware, that we do not have much of this attitude and don’t even want to have it. Our main goal is to enjoy what we are doing and to feel content about it as many times as possible. To overcome those tough stretches of cycling through areas or conditions we just do not enjoy, we would have needed more of the former mentality.
7. The disparity in physical ability: Another aspect we were aware of before starting and one we feared. It was clear that I am just physically more capable than Maria, who basically had to start from nearly zero after a relatively sports free time in their final semesters of studying. We even thought of getting a tandem to overcome this problem – which turned out as too expensive! Still, we managed quite well to be considerate of each others performance levels. But it was very tough for both sides! Maria definitely improved quickly and fought her way up many climbings and I tried to adjust my speed as good as possible to save catching up times. But sometimes frustrations just boiled over, for example with the evening approaching and no proper sleeping place in sight. Besides that, to enable Maria an enjoyable cycling experience we tried to avoid many smaller roads, that often led into more mountainous terrain – which would have surely been more beautiful than many roads we took on behalf of their convenience.
8. We tasted blood…: Already in Turkey towards Trabzon and later in Iran we had a few stretches of hitchhiking. It felt like getting back to the roots and suddenly we had this taste of freedom while riding trucks towards the Black Sea, being invited to lunch by the driver, hitchhiking pick-ups in northern Iran, the wind in our faces, arriving, taking the backpacks and just walking on.
9. All the facets of traveling: Lastly, we realized that we enjoy the many different ways of traveling with their own distinctive ups and downs too much. Hitchhiking is just great for its energy, sometimes you feel like relaxing and letting your mind fly, what’s better than a train ride? In oriental countries even a local bus can be a festival of interaction with people. In short – we feel too much for all those different ways of getting around. Restricting ourselves pretty much to just one way, biking, didn’t feel right.
Still, we are absolutely aware about and already experienced moments in which we wished to have the bikes back! If you could only fold them and make them light enough to find place in a backpack, it would be magic! The time for biking is maybe not right now for us – but that definitely doesn’t mean never! We are absolutely sure that traveling by bike will receive another chance, with us being smarter and more reflective about all the aforementioned aspects.
But for now, thumbs up and eastwards we head! (…alright, forget the thumb as long as we are in Iran 🙂 )
P.s.: The loss of the bikes is made much sweeter by the knowledge that both are going into great hands. One carries a young french filmmaker now, who journeys back to France after two years in Mongolia – the other will hopefully enjoy many adventures with an ambitious Iranian man, who always dreamed to travel by bike and finally found a suitable one!