It is often said that it is not necessarily the destination, but the journey that leaves fond memories and stories that are reminisced over a drink with friends and family. However, this cannot be said for the planning phase of an expedition. In this case, I would like to refer to the ‘destination’ as walking to the airport departure lounge knowing that all required visas have been approved, plans are in place, bags are packed and have been checked in with no last minute antics, homemade pitta bread in hand with a much needed coffee. The ‘journey’ can therefore be defined as the research and preparation of an expedition that incorporates: repeatedly changing start dates and starting locations; countless hours spent sifting through product reviews, repeatedly increasing the trips budget and making excuses as to why a new camera or a new tent is essential to the trip; applying for visas with what was believed to be more than ample time for processing, when in reality it dawns on you that you will have to apply for an Indian visa whilst in Pakistan; starting to book flights realising that the intended starting location was inaccessible unless one is willing to fork out over the cost of your bike on a flight and spend up to two days travelling between airports and boarding four separate planes. Despite knowing that the ‘destination’ is in fact the start of the trip of a lifetime and a decade long dream, the ‘journey’ to get there can prove to be a stressful endeavour.
In the early stages of the trips planning phase Jacob and I spent a few evenings planning routes, calculating gradients and distances to estimate the average pace of our cycle tour to ensure that we could have the time to explore and enjoy places visited along the way and to avoid pedalling ourselves into a coma. Though it soon became evident that to ensure that we would be able to cross the China-Pakistan border at the Khunjerab Pass in the Himalayas and ensure that we could enjoy northern Pakistan without being snowed into our tents in the Deosai National Park we would need to bring forward the start date of our trip by three weeks and change the starting location from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar, China. Sadly however, this meant we would be unable to attend our friendship group’s joined thirtieth birthday in Slovenia and the annual Woods family gathering in Derbyshire.
My kit list was ever expending though the item of utmost importance on a cycle touring kit list is most obviously, the bike. Being a mid to long distance runner and mountaineer and not actually owning a bike, since my bright red mountain bike when I was in secondary school, which would actually probably have still fitted me to this day, I had practically zero knowledge of bikes or ancillary cycling equipment. This realisation was followed by seeking advise from my cyclist friends, watching YouTube videos, reading reviews and calculating gear inches of different drive-trains. I’m still not quite sure if I was doing that correctly. After much comparison and deliberation I finally settled on a Fuji Touring Disc 2018 model. This bike wasn’t the ‘all singing and all dancing’ Herculean touring bike, but in my very limited opinion it ticked all the boxes, 30 gears, a low gear ratio, a steel frame, drop handle bars, mechanical disc brakes and a rear pannier rack. When the bike was finally delivered, despite spending 70% of my initial cycle touring budget on one item, I was an extremely proud owner and couldn’t wait to get out on the road. This purchase was swiftly followed by innumerable deliveries from a plethora of cycling and outdoor expedition retailers to acquire the components necessary to complete the cycle tourer transformation. It wasn’t until a month before take off when the realisation that the total expenditure of the trip so far exceeded my first estimated budget by 200%.
Finally, I was mobile on two wheels and had the capability of carrying the necessary equipment to survive independently for a few days. I planned a number of short-term cycling trips, twice to the Peak District and once to the Lake District National Park. All of which provided important lessons that I am glad to have learned in the safety of the green pastures in the United Kingdom and not while out fighting a sandstorm in the Xinjiang region of China. Lesson 1: Drink water regularly, especially at the end of a long, hot and sweaty afternoon, a pint of pale ale is not a means of hydration and will most probably lead to severe dehydration, headaches and nausea. Lesson 2: Despite how hungry you are, always drink water first. Don’t feel it necessary to demolish a kilogram of carbohydrates at lunch time as this will leave insufficient space for water, may enhance the onset of dehydration and will be very uncomfortable to continue cycling. Lesson 3: Look after yourself and stretch off. If you are in pain it will become increasingly difficult to continue and may result in injury. Lesson 4: The back of your hands do get sun burned, apply sun cream generously.
A few trivial pieces of gear and equipment remained unchecked on my kit list, though the next crucial step was to apply for visas for China, Pakistan and India. This proved to be a fiasco and took an awful lot longer than first anticipated. Acquiring a letter of invitation and submitting a detailed travel itinerary for the Pakistan visa, booking flight reservations and accommodation in China, intricately completing visa application forms and then realising that appointments were mandatory at the respective Visa Application Centres meant that, as I had planned an eight day rock climbing road trip in France the week before our departure date, applying for my Indian visa from the UK was an impossible task. It became a realisation that a cycle tour extending to eight or nine months can perhaps not be planned in its entirety before departure. To top things off, Jacob was only granted a 30 day Pakistan tourist visa, whereas I was fortunate enough to be gifted 60 days. This meant that we would both have unavoidable encounters with the government officials in Islamabad.
We had progressed as far into the visa application realm as possible, with only two weeks before our proposed departure date it was time to book our flights. It quickly became evident that finding an affordable and efficient flight to Kashgar, China was not possible. With yet another swift change of plan, to what I believe to be ‘Plan G’, saving ourselves over £600 and only having to board three flights as opposed to four and a respectable 28 hours transit time, it was official. On August 8th 2018 Jacob and I would depart from London and fly to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. This meant that we would be 7-10 days behind schedule, but we were delighted to have the opportunity to cycle though southern Kyrgyzstan and have a taste of the cycle touring life in the mountains, passing from Irkeshtam and into China at one of the worlds most remote boarder crossings, situated at 3005 metres above sea level.
Despite the stressful times endured throughout the planning and preparation phase, it would be rather exciting knowing that some logistical parts of the tour still need to be ironed out. But sometimes these unavoidable circumstances become the tales shared with acquaintances over a pot of tea. If all expeditions were straight forward and planned meticulously with no uncertainty, then consequently, reaching the final destination may not be the journey you once envisaged it to be.
“If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I would spend six hours sharpening my axe.”