We reached South Korea after nineteen months on the road. We’ve managed to pedal from Lincoln, England to Almaty in Kazakhstan by taking some ferries, including:
We also took a train from Aktau (Kazakhstan) to Nukus (Uzbekistan) after suffering from dehydration and sunstroke, twice we attempted to cycle through the Mangistau desert during a heat wave. For a year, despite these “motorized” journeys, we remained resolute in our decision not to fly. Everything changed the day China refused our visa.
February 2014. Only a few months after we met in the United States, we are living in a van in the middle of an alpine winter in Chamonix. As is often the case when returning from a trip, we already want to leave. So when Adam suggests, “We should go back to Yosemite together,” I said, “OK, but we’ll go cycling and without flying.” From that moment, we spend every evening scheming. We can already see ourselves pushing our bikes on the ice between Russia and Alaska. Our imagination is never ending “we could be towing kayaks, which means we can also put our skis in”. One day we finally decide to confront reality. Hand in hand, we go to consult the oracle of Google at the library. Suddenly, everything seems much more complicated.
October 2017. After two difficult months of discussing possibilities and imagining the worst case, we found a compromise. We were going to fly to Thailand, spend the winter climbing in Southeast Asia and come back with the Chinese visa in our passports to pedal what we had flown over. The plan was perfect. This would allow us to be in Kyrgyzstan in the ideal season for a mountaineering expedition and to hit the road where we had flown. We’d even heard of people getting the Chinese visa easily in Bangkok. Yes, the plan really was perfect.
First disappointment: the Bering Strait is impassable. Between the melting ice and the cold relationship between Russia and the United States, we had to find another way to cross the Pacific. The solution seems to be hitching rides on boats. The Frenchman Olivier Peyre was at the time close to the end of his world tour without plane by combining bicycle and sailboat. It is possible. Looking a little closer to the sea routes, it may be easier to start by going down to Africa to reach America crossing the Atlantic. At the same time, we come across Arnaud Petit’s book, Parois de légende (thanks to the Chamonix library for its inexhaustible mountaineering collection). Climbing legend, guide and passionate climber, him and his wife Stephanie Bodet have drawn from their many years of vertical wanderings to create a guide book outlining some of the most impressive cliffs on the planet. Our new Bible seems to reinforce our basic idea: Morocco and Algeria conceal little explored mountainous treasures. Starting in October 2016 to the south, it would allow us to spend the winter in acceptable temperatures. Second disappointment: Morocco and Algeria are separated by the longest closed land border in the world.
Everything was planned. We spent the winter physically training on crags that, despite their charm, do not totally match what we are looking for in climbing. We spent a small fortune in climbing equipment needed to tackle big walls (cliffs of several hundred meters requiring several days of climbing), including a portaledge (a suspended tent), a second rope, a haul bag. We had contacted an agency in Bishkek for permits and porters, we had collected all the necessary info: topos, maps, beta and contacts of climbers knowing the area. We even wrote a document describing the expedition, which you can still read here. Everything was coming together as planned. Except for one detail.
Back to stage one. Let’s give up Africa and the admin headaches for now and start in Europe. If the idea of the hitchhiking a boat does not work, we have found a shipping company that takes passengers from Shanghai, China to Vancouver, Canada. Plus after all, October is still only autumn and we’ll reach Croatia and Greece quickly where winter shouldn’t pose a problem.
March 2018. We take advantage of our parents’ visit to Thailand to settle what we thought would be a simple formality. The last piece of the puzzle missing from our plan for the next 6 months. The fabled Chinese visa. For the occasion, we buy new clothes, more presentable than our faded, stinking and holey (light weight) t-shirts and trousers. We spend hours filling out forms, booking trains and hotels that make us look like real tourists travelling by acceptable means in the eyes of the Chinese authorities. We take a taxi to the embassy to avoid getting there in a sweaty tropical mess. Closed. March 1st is a national holiday in Thailand. Naturally, we didn’t know. March 2nd, round two, and this time we’re in business. Adam, freshly shaven, hair cut, dressed to the nines gets up when his number is called. He strides with confidence to counter 35 and hands in his application with a smile.
Despite the question marks, we don’t want to change our plans again. September 20, 2016, we start the engine of our house on wheels with a heavy heart. It’s time to say goodbye. Chamonix had welcomed us so well. Two weeks in Bourgoin at my parents home, two days driving with the bikes in the boot, two weeks in Cammeringham at Adam’s parents house. The van is no longer ours. Only the road remains.
He sits facing blank beaurocratic indifference. The pages turn, his passport is studied, each stamp is meticulously scrutinized. A tightening of the lips, a raised eyebrow. When the eyes rise, they express incredulity and disapproval. He is handed a pen to write a letter explaining his stay in Tajikstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. He is asked for his email address and advised to check his inbox regularly. For me, it’s over in two minutes. Not necessarily a better sign. March 3, 2018. 8pm. Panic stations. The embassy urgently needs a third letter from Adam, once again detailing our stay in Turkey and Uzbekistan. On my side no news.
On departure day, I forget my passport. Three days in England, a ferry crossing, ten days in the Netherlands. Curious people ask us where we are going. “America”. Skeptical looks.
March 6, 2018, in Adam’s mailbox “We need to keep your passport for a month to study your request.”
The trees blush as the leaves change colour, the days are getting shorter. At least the sun is with us.
March 7, 2018, in my mailbox “We need to keep your passport for a month to study your request”.
November 5, 2016. Winter has arrived in Germany at the same time as us. Frigid, biting wind, rain, sleet and snow. For more than a month we scrape rock bottom. Adam suggests taking a train, I refuse to give up so soon. Arguments, weight loss, expensive cafe breaks to counter the cold. December 15th. We reach the Adriatic coast a month late. Winter has taken its toll on us.
We’ve only got 25 days left on our Thai visa and they know it. When I go to collect our passports, I face a new wall of indifference. They explain with a knowing smile that no, we are not refused the visa. We can reapply in another country without having to tick the box “visa refused in the past”.
Winter took its toll on us. We also learned a lot. Making plans is important. Sticking to them at all costs can lead straight into a brick wall. From then on everything goes smoothly. Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan. Islands, mountains, cliffs, canyons, deserts. We overcome the challenges one by one, never making plans more than a few months in advance. For a year, we remain steadfast, we will not fly. Everything changes the day China refuses us.
Just like the first time, China did not really refuse us the visa. They only ask for things we can’t give them. Back to discussion and compromise. It’s too stupid to give up on our Kyrgyz expedition idea. Pedalling on wild tracks to reach a remote valley’s big walls before completing our land crossing of Eurasia. It was too big of a dream to abandon. Our last hope was Russia. To carry on training and get back to traditional climbing smoothly, we flew to Korea from where we expected to apply for the Russian visa. Yes but no. Sometimes it’s not meant to be. British citizens must apply for the Russian visa in their country. Without a Russian visa, without a gateway to the East, our expedition has lost all meaning. Taking a plane to get there, taking a plane to leave. No, that’s not what we wanted.
Me, obsessed with the idea of not flying “We could spend the winter in Kyrgyzstan and reapply for the Chinese visa to pedal in the spring” Adam, going crazy after six months without climbing “We could climb in Thailand all winter “. The memory of this flight I took in Mexico haunted me. After pedaling from Canada to the tip of Baja California, I broke my trip in two to meet the deadlines that I imposed myself. I regretted it badly. I didn’t want to repeat the same mistake. However today is diferent. We are two and this road is a dead end. Fly to continue the journey or stop and wait. After all spending the winter in Thailand is certainly a much better idea than waiting in Bishkek for a visa that may never come. “Okay we’ll fly to Thailand but we come back next summer to pedal what we flew over. “Okay and at the same time we will climb in the Karavshin Valley”. This plan was perfect.
We need a new plan. Are we about to give up our plan for Kyrgyzstan? Now that we are in Korea what do we do? Should we go to Japan? There are no big walls in Japan. With the money we have left, we may still be able to carry on for another ten months but after that we’ll have to work. Where? How? With which visa? We have been on the waiting list for the Canadian working holliday visa for six months and still nothing. Let’s not count on it. We’ll find a solution in time. For now we’ve got a portaledge and we are in need of great vertical adventures. “Do you remember at the beginning of the trip when people were asking where we were going? We used to say America. Why don’t we go now? ”
This plan was perfect but it seems like it’s not the right moment. We won’t forget about it, we keep it in the back of our minds for another day.
Squamish slabs, Oregon trails, Yosemite cracks, Californian deserts and Joshua Tree boulders. America, here we come!
Tomorrow Wednesday, June 13, 2018, we’ll take a plane from Busan to Vancouver hoping that everything goes smoothly. Why worry, you say.
1st reason. 24 hours before checking in, we are in our tent at a campsite 8km from the airport. It’s been raining for three days and we don’t have bike boxes nor have we started to pack our bags yet.
2nd reason. We have a 10-hour stopover in Beijing. After China refused our visa twice, they could send us back because of our Turkish stamps. Several people were refused entry despite being there with a ticket for a conexion flight.
3rd reason. Between the time we bought the tickets and today, Adam received an invitation for the Canadian work visa. Great news that comes at the wrong time. His application is being processed and he should receive the answer within a month. The problem is that he is not meant to go to Canada before getting an answer. Again, people in the same situation were sent back to their country, others were allowed to stay as tourists. We have prepared all the documents proving that we do not want to work at the moment but only continue to travel.