Couple undertake epic year-long cycle from China to SA

2015-05-28 21:15
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If you sit on a bicycle in western China and ride it for 18 226 km you should eventually end up somewhere near Cape Town in South Africa.

At least that's according to Fran and Philip Johnson. After 326 days, 17 countries, an inordinate amount of coca-cola and a few hiccups along the way, they recently rolled into Cape Town on the same bicycles that departed Kashgar in Western China, mid-May last year.

According to the couple who met whilst living and working in Perth, Australia, they decided to undertake the epic adventure after "several years of gainful employment, finalising their respective studies and a New Year’s Eve wedding".

For them 2014 would become the year they would test themselves - and their new marriage – by attempting to cycle from China to South Africa.

Their intended route was established through Philip’s long-held interest in exploring the Silk Route and Fran’s desire to explore more of the African continent. 

But starting a trip in Kashgar in Western China and broadly following the former trading route of the Silk Road toward Turkey, then on towards the south to Egypt and continuing down to Cape Town comes with numerous challenges. 

With bodies and bikes still in one piece, after taking a bit of a hammering over the last eleven months, we caught up with Fran and Philip to find out more and gain some insights for those wanting to take on a similar adventure. 

Click here to see Fran and Philip's 18 226km cycle from China to South Africa in Pics


Traveller24: Such a mammoth journey, why?

"It seemed as though the stars were aligned for us; just married, with a love of cycling, we had worked for just about long enough to warrant a career break and we wanted to use the time to explore some strange places. And it had to be on bikes, as we’d have quickly got bored sitting in a car for a year.

What’s more, we were in the fairly rare position of not having anything that could really get in the way of taking a year off, in terms of those other responsibilities of children or mortgages."


Traveller24: What was the hardest part of your trip?

"We’ll assume that the constantly sore, tender legs are a given for a trip of this nature.

"Our recurring daily chore was the seemingly straightforward task of finding a place to eat and a place to sleep every night.

This sounds easy, but after a long day in the saddle upon arrival in some obscure village, this was not always the case.  We often stayed in places that could only claim a very loose association with the hospitality industry, or more frequently, settling for the night on a patch of ground where we hoped we wouldn’t be noticed until sunrise.

"We spent our first night in Cairo in a tiny storage cupboard behind the reception of a hotel, in Turkey we slept under the grandstand of a small football stadium, and countless nights we were forced to pitch the tent behind bushes a few meters off the main road.

"Because of this, maintaining confidence that this was a good idea was hard at times.

"Cycle touring in certain areas requires patience; not just the relatively slow progress made across continents, but also while organizing the necessary paperwork. Waiting it out in the cities of Central Asia for visas to come through, it seemed as if the trip would never gain momentum.

"The hot temperatures proved fairly tricky for much of our trip. Crossing the deserts of Uzbekistan, Egypt, Sudan and Namibia provided some thirsty miles that required some careful water management, diligent skin protection, and sheltering from the intense sun in the middle of the day.

Overall though, the hardest part of this trip for us was deciding to start it. This required quitting our jobs, storing our possessions, and digging deeply into the savings pot."


Traveller24: What you learnt about yourself during this cycling adventure and how has it changed you?

"1. We have seen/passed/encountered a huge number of people during this trip, which has helped not only give us a better understanding of our place in the world, but also a perspective of what is actually important – we hope not to spend too much time sweating the small stuff from now on.

"2. Living simply is invigorating - You don't need much stuff in your life; all the possessions we collect is noise that can overcrowd your life.

"3. How quickly we got to learn about each other as a newly married couple. We barely left each other’s side for a minute a day. 

"What we learnt about others was overwhelmingly positive. We encountered endless kind, helpful and generous  folks along the way, which far outweighed any negativity shown towards us. 


Which Five destinations experienced during this journey would you can highly recommend and why?

1. Uzbekistan: This country exemplified the Central Asian region through it’s architecture, history, and people. Cycling for days through deserts to then arrive at the spectacularly colourful cities of Samarkand and Buchara is a fairly unique travel experience.

2. Georgia: A lively capital city is found in Tbilisi, then just a few km's away you encounter the rural Georgia, with what is apparently the world’s oldest wine growing area, stunning landscapes, historic castles and shop keepers still calculating your bill with an abacus. 

3. Turkey: Quite outrageously hospitable people, a spectacular route along the Black Sea coast, and topped off with the incredible Istanbul. Turkey was a highlight.

4. Ethiopia: Probably the most unique country through which we cycled. The entire country is covered by mountains, which made for some incredible riding (with Abay Gorge being a particular highlight). This setting, coupled with the millions of locals, resulted in a fairly frantic yet memorable month.

5. Namibia: A friendly, spectacular country. This was probably one of the easiest to travel through despite a few hiccups with carrying enough water. Plus, this is on South Africa's doorstep so it is very easy to get to its fantastic camping facilities and as a destination is ideal for young families. 


Three tips or guidelines you’d tell anybody considering a similar journey?

"A trip by bicycle, it is an incredible way to get to know a country; you are well and truly exposed to all elements of the country, and everything it will throw at you. It is unlikely though that we – or anyone - would ever be able to recreate our exact same route, as the circumstances at the time dictated our route, and those circumstances will invariably never be the same again.

"1. Just go and do it.  Set a date and start saving.

"2. It’s unnecessary to plan too meticulously - we planned our general route and a rough timeline, but circumstances on route required flexibility, and even our best-laid plans always tended to change as we progressed. Don't get overwhelmed with the amount of planning you think you need to do.

"3. A guidebook is as useful or as useless as you want to make it. Overwhelmingly, our best times and most memorable experiences were not following any recommendations.

"There are plenty more roads to head toward though and south or Central America is a draw for us.  We’re already missing the simplicity of life on the bike, and the excitement of not knowing where we will sleep on any given night.

"We’ll take some time to recalibrate to normal life, then decide where to next."

Have you had similar experiences with tourists? Please share your experiences by posting a comment below. You can also email info@traveller24.comor share your travel experiences with us on our FacebookTwitter or Instagram accounts.

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