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Why I travel by bicycle – the most painful way possible

cycling image
Yes, yes, not only do I cycle to work, but I also cycle on holiday. I’m weird like that, 

In case you haven’t noticed, achieving financial freedom in your 20s or 30s requires quite a bit of sacrifice. Part of this sacrifice involves taking fewer holidays/staycays.

I’ve got quite a bit of flak in the past – critics say I advocate ambitious financial goals at the cost of wonderful life experiences.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, wonderful life experiences are right out there to be had – I just don’t believe in paying big bucks for three nights in Bali and other short holidays.

Which is which I’m a huge advocate of bicycle touring. For every year since 2016, I’ve tried to take at least three weeks off, fly to somewhere with my bike and start exploring. Yes, I don’t go on a lot of holidays a year, but when I do,  I make it count.

Now, I know this is a strange way to travel and it’s definitely not for everyone, especially  Singaporeans who come from a country without a strong biking culture.

It’s slow. You won’t get to see all the tourist attractions listed on TripAdvisor. And it can be frustrating and exhausting.

But here’s exactly why I do it.

It’s quite affordable

Tarp camping Arkhangai Mountains
When you bike and camp, accommodation is often free. Can’t use your Airbnb coupon tho.(Arkhangai Mountains, Mongolia, 2019)

Let’s start with the obvious.

I usually aim to spend between $1,800  – $2,500 on a month-long holiday, including flight tickets. Here are some reasonable estimates, should you want to try it out.

Accommodation, one of the major costs of any holiday, is usually defrayed with camping.  I carry a tent/tarp with me. Of course, on days I’m craving a hot shower and clean sheets, I check into a roadside motel. hostel or hotel.  Estimated cost: ($0-500)

Food is usually more affordable outside major cities and tourist centers, and being on a bicycle usually takes you to quieter, more affordable towns. That said, when I do stop in a major city – say Osaka – there’s nothing stopping me from splurging on an okonomiyaki restaurant. Estimated cost: ($200 – 500)

Airfare. Bringing your bike on a plane doesn’t cost as much as you might think.  It’s FOC for a lot of airlines, but it does need some careful packing so your bike doesn’t become count as oversized luggage. Be prepared to buy up to $100USD if that happens. Still, not too expensive.  Estimated cost: ($600-$1,000)

Transport. This category is minimal because you’re cycling. That said, don’t rule out the occasional bus or train on days you need to rest. Estimated cost: ($0-200)

Experiences. Forget Disneyland or Ocean Park. Or squeezing with hordes of people in queues. Most of the places I choose to visit are small museums, historical landmarks or nature parks. Admission fees are usually lower for these types of places.

Here’s the cost breakdown of a trip I made recently from 28 April to 16 May (20 days):

Item  Cost
Airfare to Ulaanbaatar (Return) $996
Food $300 
Accommodation (4 days in a hostel in the city, 2 days in a B&B at Tseterleg) $148
Bus to Tseterleg, return (the town to start cycling)  + Tax from the airport $100
Experiences and Admissions

(Various museums and temples) 

$100
Shopping (Souvenirs) $100
Tips $170
Total:  $1914

^ Turn this into a road trip with vehicle rental, and the cost will start to skyrocket.

You see more (of what matters)

nomands mongolia.jpg
That’s me being amazed at a fifteen-year-old kid riding his dad’s motorbike through near blizzard-like conditions.  Later on, I’d be more amazed because he ferried five of his siblings and repeated the feat. (Chuluut Valley, Mongolia, 2019)

In my humble opinion, my preferred outcome of travel is to learn and expose yourself to new experiences and cultures. (If I wanted to chill out and unwind, I’d just stay at home with a good book to save money)

 

Before bike touring, I’ve been on holidays that involve rushing from one attraction to another, without spending meaningful time in each place to learn its little quirks.

Which brings us to the paradox: traveling slowly can actually you to see and experience more.  

Which brings me to my next point:

If you accept the limitations of a slower vehicle and not in a rush to get anywhere, you get more freedom and flexibility to explore 

puntsaaga dogs.jpg
Bicycling has brought me to places where cars would have gotten stuck. Unless you rent an expensive 4WD, many of rougher trails are off-limits. This picture is of 14-year-old Puntsagaa and his dogs (the big one is the little one’s mom)

I love road trips on a car, but there’s often a reluctance to stop because you’re worried about getting to a fuel stop, breaking the law, inconveniencing the car behind you, or getting onto terrain that a car can’t cross.

 

A bicycle is immensely slower, no doubt. But when the road ahead has obstacles, you can dismount, carry your bike over the obstacle, and then keep riding. I would even go as far as to say it’s one of the most flexible ways to holiday.

dead vulture.jpg
Cars are amazing for covering huge distances at a time. But there are things you inevitably miss when you’re in a metal box going at 80 km/h. While riding slowly along a quiet Mongolia road, I decided to check out a car wreck just a little off the trail. It turned out to be a dead vulture.

You don’t exactly worry about petrol stations, because it’s powered by you.  How far you go depends on how determined you are to reach your destination.

 

If you see something cool, you can go off the road for a little bit to do some exploring.

And if you decide you’ve had enough, you can throw your bike into the trunk of a car/bus/lorry/train to get back to civilization.

It’s one of the best ways to experience nature

trees twigs.png
Seeing trees snapped like twigs in the aftermath of Typhoon Jebi made me feel small. But I also witnessed firsthand how fast the Japanese were prepared for natural disasters.  (Kifune Shrine, 2018)

I love Singapore’s efforts to preserve nature and provide greenery. But you can’t walk around in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve for days to escape your boss (or maybe you could, I’ve not tried).

 

Maybe that’s why I always make it a priority to experience a fair bit of nature on every trip.

I used to hike a lot, but any hiker will tell you, carrying a 15 kg backpack and walking in the forest has its dull moments.

Hiking and trekking still have a special place in my heart, but if you want to cover 100 km in three days, it simply can’t be done on foot carrying 3 liters of water, your tent, sleeping bag, clothes, food, etc.

resting bicycle.jpg
Cycling with lots of camping supplies can be tough, but carrying them and walking is tougher.  Cycling has allowed me to see a lot more nature at a reasonable pace vs hiking, where you see ALL OF NATURE at an excruciating pace.

A bicycle’s metal frame deals with weight a lot better than flesh and bones. I’ve loaded my bike up with 15 kg of stuff and rode it through the Mongolian steppe, covering as much as 70 km a day.

 

If you’re not in perfect shape and can’t walk for long distances (yet), a bicycle is an extremely useful tool to explore wild and remote areas.

Guilt-free eating

guilt free eating.jpg
It might not seem like it, but pedaling 700 km can burn a lot of calories, and it creates an insanely good appetite.

Have you ever went on an eating spree on a holiday, only to come back 3 kgs heavier? Or felt guilty about trying new food because you have got a diet to follow?

With a cycling trip, there’s no such fear.

Environmental reasons

Well, this is pretty self-explanatory. Air travel is a huge contributor to climate change. Basically, the more you fly, the more you contribute to climate change.  I try to fly no more than twice a year, and I shun holidays where you have to take multiple flights.

How to start: The bicycle + how to carry luggage

Marin Muirwoods.jpg
I use the bike on holiday is the same one I ride to work with. It’s a humble, inexpensive bike that’s durable and functional. Not the fastest tho. (Singapore, 2019)

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a very expensive bicycle to start bike touring. You could even just fly overseas and rent a bike there. I choose to bring my bicycle – an $800 Marin Muirwoods – overseas each time because I’m sentimental like that – cool to have all your miles on one bicycle.

 

Realistically, any bike not bought from the supermarket can do the job. Decathlon is a good place to start looking for bicycles, and they sell panniers (bags you carry on bicycles).

If you prefer cycling in the wilderness, you might want to opt for a mountain bike with bigger tires and more lightweight set up with bikepacking bags.

(Of course, if you were a true Woke Salaryman you’d just use the bike you already have, instead of going to buy another.) 

Where I’d recommend doing it. 

hakone japan.jpg
The hard-earned views of a campsite on the banks of Lake Ashi in Hakone, Japan (2017).

Just off the top of my head, the UK, US, Europe, Japan, Australia, and Taiwan have plenty of these well-established trails and beautiful sights to see. Interestingly, a lot of these countries have pretty pricey accommodation, so by camping at night, you could save quite a bit of money.

If you’re feeling more adventurous, Mongolia‘s pretty decent too. But the level of remoteness requires some advanced outdoor and bike repair skills because you can’t depend on people for help.

againsst a ger
My trusty bike leaning on a Ger/Yurt in Mongolia. The people were ridiculously friendly and hospitable. This family hosted me for a night when I just showed up amid their herds of sheep. (Arkhangai, 2019)

In general, anywhere with lots of nature and fewer cars is a nice place to ride.

If you’re starting out, I recommend the Taiwan Cycling Route No. 1, or Japan’s Shimanami Kaido.  I haven’t tried the former, but it’s extremely popular. I completed the latter as part of longer trip in 2017 where I cycled from Tokyo to Hiroshima.

awaji island.jpg
Japan is one of the best places in Asia to start bike touring. Pictured is the ferry towards Awaji Island, famed for its onions (and onion burger). You can throw your bike on the ferry, and ride off from the jetty.


Where I’d not recommend doing it. 

If you’re going to any major city in Southeast Asia, I would say skip the bike and take public transport/taxis instead. Places like Jakarta, Myanmar, Hongkong are terrible for cyclists.

Don’t bother camping either. Accommodation in these places is pretty affordable too.

That said, the countrysides in SEA are still a great place to cycle.

One last caveat

I’d be first to admit that bicycle touring isn’t for everyone.

It’s tough, rough and it often requires lots of mental strength to keep going. It’s also incredibly slow. If you have limited time on your holiday, this won’t be the ideal holiday for you.  And those with children might want to do something else altogether.

But for those looking for a holiday that…

  • Keeps your weight in check
  • Gives you a better idea of how the locals live
  • Brings you to places the tour bus won’t
  • Offers freedom and flexibility to make plans on a whim
  • and saves you money…

You should definitely consider bike touring. At some point.

(PM us if you’ve got any questions!)
Stay Woke, Salarymen.

 

Written by: He Ruiming

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4 replies to “Why I travel by bicycle – the most painful way possible

  1. Can you share how you ensured safety and security when you camped out and how did you get through the snow with your bicycle. Thanks!

    1. Hi Benedict! I actually shivered in my shelter for a night before seeking refuge for another three nights with the nomads. I just showed up and knocked on their door one day. They must have been weirded out, but they were really cool about it.

  2. Wow, what an incredible experience, it looks easy, especially for accounts almost 0, but can you do this feat anytime? I am a lover of hiking and camping everywhere, but this seems too extreme, at least for me, excellent article, to be able to share your experiences and thus make known that nothing is impossible

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