Preliminary practice: Bath to Brighton, Easter 2016

Why go?

It felt luxurious, planning a cheeky 10 day holiday just one month before we quit our life as we know it for a year long bike ride towards the far East.

However, the last couple of months have felt like major project crunch time: next to our regular work preoccupations we would wake up worrying about finding tenants for Cyrils house, go to bed talking about gear and spare bicycle parts, and wake up in the middle of the night breaking out in cold sweat thinking about the Pamir Highway.

We wanted to spend some time with friends and family in the UK who we will not see for quite a while, and to practice cycling and flying with the Surly. The Surly  is outfitted with couplers, meaning it can be packed down to regular sized luggage and travel on the plane/train without extra costs. It also has a Rohloff hub, which is a bit different fromt the regular gearing system with derailleur, so this too needed some practice even if it is very low maintenance overall.

The Pamir 'highway' between Dush and Khorog.
The Pamir ‘highway’ between Dush and Khorog.

Instead of being constantly occupied with preparing for the trip ahead and worrying about how we are going to leave our lives here in Amsterdam behind, cycling around the peaceful UK countryside and spending days with family and friends brought us back to enjoying the here and now. It also reconfirmed that this is what we love doing the most. Not that we had any doubts, but still. We have been so preoccupied with preparations we were starting to forget how simple life on a bicycle actually is. Within a day we were in the familiar cycling holiday rhythm: in bed by 9pm, awake by 6.30am and ready to spend the day following little muddy country lanes. Eating stupendous amounts of foods. Sleeping deep and dreamless sleep. Smiling a lot, and meeting really interesting people such as Chris the wood frame builder who is working on a modular container house that can travel on a truck. This is what it’s all about.

The coupler system, I’m happy to report, works really well. It doesn’t pack down quite as small as I expected and it takes almost an hour to take apart and put the bike back together again, all the while being stared at by ‘normal’ airline passengers who are waiting for their luggage. But it’s the best feeling in the world to cycle out of an airport and be completely free to go wherever you want to go.

Travel diary

We flew into Bristol late in the evening and cycled into town in the darkest of darks. We spent a very enjoyable morning meeting up with Jamie from the Headset Press and explored the cycling community hangouts of Bristol he recommended. Roll for the Soul is a lovely place with delicious coffee and a great DIY vibe, the Bristol Bike Project  gets more people into cycling and tinkering and Mud Dock served us a decent lunch, right on top of a well stacked bike shop, as wel as a new pair of casual Giro spd shoes for Cyril.

From Bristol to Bath we followed an old train track that has been turned into a traffic-free and ever so gently rolling bike path connecting the two cities.

After a couple of days spent with family in Bath (and a visit to the small but excellent Museum of Bath Architecture) we made our way to Salisbury via one of the Sustrans bike routes. We really enjoyed this one; little traffic, beautiful winding country lanes, starting off from the Two Tunnels path which got us out of Bath without having to deal with any traffic. Last year we did a similar trip and followed the Avon and Kennett canal path out of Bristol which is also really beautiful.

Interior of Salisbury Cathedral
Interior of Salisbury Cathedral
Detail of Salisbury Cathedral
Detail of Salisbury Cathedral








All this relaxed rolling was lovely but after Salisbury we decided to find some challenges as to prepare us for the harder stretches in the Pamirs. We followed some horse trails across the New Forest and got deliciously lost when the path eventually disappeared, stomping through mud among the half wild horses, pigs and cows that roam the marshy heather lands. Beautiful and yes, a challenge. We did end the day with fish and chips and a pint on the Isle of Wight, very satisfied.

It's a pigs life
It’s a pigs life

This is the second time we traversed the Isle of Wight; last time we picked the North route as we were short on time, this time we leisurely made our way around the South route. Todays challenge involved looking for an impressive Stone Age standing stone, to be found at the end of yet another horse trail. I love these standing stones: the earliest form of human interventions in the landscape that we can still witness today, very often in remote and silent surroundings where you can spend a while alone to contemplate the achievement of our early ancestors.

Standing stone
Standing Stone

We took a short break on the Southernmost cliff, high above the UK’s oldest amusement park Blackgang Chine. It was a bit surreal to feel alone on top of the world (cliff) but with the sound of Duelling Banjos wafting up from the amusement park below.

On top of the world
On top of the world

From the Isle of Wight we made our way out of Portsmouth alongside heavy traffic (not the kind of challenge we particularly like, but one that needs practicing nonetheless) until we were climbing up a narrow country lane to the South Downs Way. The South Downs is a chalk ridge following the length of Englands South Coast, with a path from Winchester to Eastbourne. The steep up and down and rutted terrain proved too much of a challenge for the fully loaded Surly so after about 20kms we descended into the vally just North of the Downs to continue our way along the country lanes to Storrington, and one day later we rolled into Brighton after yet another sunny day on the bicycle. We were guided into town by an incredibly well dressed gentleman rider (grey Rapha knickerbockers paired with green knee socks, black and white polka dotted cycling gloves, a bordeaux longsleeve jersey: Ronny is a veritable cycling sartorialist). Another chance meeting we really enjoyed.

The bikes got to spend some well deserved days off leaning against the enviable bookshelves of our airbnb hosts, and we were left to dream of days to come. We made a day trip into London, and visited the Cycle Revolution exhibition in the Design Museum.

Bristol to Brighton '16. 5 days, 350km
Bristol to Brighton ’16. 5 days, 350km


Not everybody travels because they feel like it

Here’s a thing that has been bugging me for a while now.

Cyril and I have been on some great cycling trips. Over the years we’ve hosted people who are doing the same through warmshowers. We choose to cross borders and live with what we can carry on our bikes. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes the weather is shit, but overall it’s a most beautiful way to travel. When we are done with traveling we come back to homes, jobs, friends and family. The best part of our travel memories is meeting people from different places and being made to feel welcome everywhere we go.

Refugee crisis

On the other hand there are the refugees crossing the Mediterranean. They have no homes, jobs, friends and family to go back to. They are crossing borders because they are fleeing wars and persecution and poverty. They are not welcomed and only reluctantly taken in.

I am embarrassed by the growing inequality in the world. I’m lucky to be on the right side of the divide, by the sheer accidental chance of having been born in The Netherlands. One of the richest countries in the world. I could have been born in Syria. I could have been involuntarily traveling this summer, risking my life in a boat across.

I’m embarrassed by my government not doing more to help and I feel helpless when I look at the media stories about the refugees. They are portrayed as a ‘swarm’, it’s a ‘crisis’. Overall the refugees are being dehumanised in the stories we read. Even more so in the horrible comments a lot of people post below these articles. People who apparently do not realize it could easily have been their family suffering if they had been born in a different place, at a different time. I know it’s not nice or pretty to look at. It might disturb our nice little lives. But, we cannot stick our heads in the sand and pretend that we don’t hear the people knocking on our door. Asking for our help.

This is a situation that is a given: people cross borders, lots of them. They are looking for a better life for themselves and their children. They are willing to do whatever it takes and that in itself is admirable. Lets help them make their own lives better and give them a place in our society. They might make our lives better too.

In Amsterdam

Today I visited an emergency refugee shelter in Amsterdam. It’s one of the places where people who arrive in Amsterdam can stay until they get somewhat better (temporary) housing where they await the processing of their refugee status application. The shelter was in an old school building close to the ring road around Amsterdam. The first impression was somewhat off-putting; security guards hanging around the entrance, gruffly demanding ‘which organisation?’ and ‘passport!’ from me, before providing me with a visitor pass.

Once I entered I noticed how Amsterdam volunteers make a great effort to make this makeshift home a somewhat more welcoming place. Kids running around, little groups of men and women talking in corners with sofa’s and plants, an overall calm atmosphere, a splash of colour here and there. I didn’t speak to any of the refugees so I can only imagine the many feelings of the people who are here: relief, resignation, despair, impatience, trauma, loneliness, sadness, happiness, anger, hope… I can also only imagine how I would react in a similar situation; probably a whole lot less dignified, knowing my own impatience.

I went to give away an old bicycle, and I hope someone in the shelter will gain a little bit of the freedom and agency, that we take for granted every single day, by riding it around town.

Photo by Ahmad Zamri - refugee bicycle
Photo by Ahmad Zamri

Sketching the route

Here’s a sketch of the route of our upcoming trip. Red is cycling, blue is train, black is airplane, green is boat. Looking at it like this it seems as if we are not going to cycle all that much. Still, I think this is at least 20.000km on the bicycle.

Route of the Big One

We are not purists in the sense that we feel we HAVE to do everything by bicycle, but still, it would have been nice and more environmentally friendly. We had to make some tough planning decisions about taking trains and flying based on seasons and climate, visa restrictions and the time frame we set for this trip. Because Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have a limited window of opportunity for cycling due to winter closing down the mountain roads we decided to fly over Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to start the famous Pamir Highway in Kyrgyzstan in time before the road closes down for winter. The same goes for flying from Thailand to Korea; weather and visum considerations make this the sensible choice. We’ll arrive in Korea and Japan at the start of spring. Lovely!

Choices, choices… undoubtedly we’ll have to make many more choices as we go, but all of them will be interesting. This is just a draft. Suggestions are welcome by the way!


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