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Why I travel in the slowest and most painful way imaginable

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Seeing the world on a bicycle is not for everyone, but it does have its merits.

Every year, I try to do at least one big trip on a bicycle. I take at least three weeks off, put my bike on a plane, and fly to a country to ride. It’s a weird way to travel, especially for Singaporeans who come from a country without a strong biking culture.

Yes, this way of travelling is not for everyone. It’s slow, you’d probably won’t get to see all the tourist attractions and it can be exhausting.

But here’s exactly why I do it.

Cost

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Accommodation when you’re biking and camping. Can’t use your Airbnb voucher tho.

I spend an average of S$1,500 for a month-long holiday, excluding flight tickets. Most of this expense is transport (moving your bike around when it’s not feasible to ride) and food.

Accommodation, one of the major costs of every holiday, is usually settled with camping.  I carry a tent/tarp with me. Of course, on days I’m craving a hot shower and clean sheets, I opt to check into a roadside motel.

You see less and more at the same time

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I went to Mongolia in April 2019. I didn’t see all the tourist attractions there, but I did hang out with the locals a fair bit in one of the nomad settlements. IMO I’d pick that over being ferried from place to place.

In my opinion, the whole point of travel is to learn and expose yourself to new experiences and cultures.

I’ve been on tons of holidays that involve rushing from one attraction to another, without spending meaningful time in each place to learn its little quirks. At the end of the day, you’ve got your bucket list ticked off,  but I always feel empty visiting big cities – after awhile they all start to feel the same. A Starbucks here, a H&M there. There are night markets in all major cities selling the same junk as Bugis Street.

Think about that.

When you accept you’re a slower vehicle and not in a rush to get anywhere, you get more freedom

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One of my side trips off the paved road in Mongolia brought me to Puntsaaga and his two dogs. That place was impassable on a car.

I love road trips on a car, but there’s often reluctance to stop because you’re worried about getting to a fuel stop, breaking the law, inconveniencing the car behind you, or it simply being terrain that the car can’t cross (I once got my car stuck in a mud in Australia and paid $500 to get it out.)

A bicycle is immensely slower, no doubt. But when the road is damaged, you can discount, carry your bike over the obstacle, and then keep riding.

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Again in Mongolia – I passed by what looked like a car wreck from afar but upon closer inspection, it turned out to be the carcass of a massive vulture.

You don’t exactly worry about petrol stations, because it’s powered by you.  How far you go depends on how fit you are, and 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, it’s light enough to throw into the trunk of a car/bus/lorry you’re hitchhiking with.  Or a train.

It’s one of the best ways to experience nature

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2018 in the outskirts of Kyoto, in the aftermath of Typhoon Jebi. When you’re on a bicycle, everything is closer and feels bigger.

I used to hike a lot, but any hiker will tell you, sometimes hiking with 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 litres of water, your tent, sleeping bag, clothes, food, etc etc.

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My bicycle, a humble $800 Marin Muirwoods in Mongolia. It’s a modified city bike that I’ve adapted to go to rougher places.

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.

I doubt I could do that walking.


Get fit on holiday 

Your entire body will ache quite a bit, I guarantee you. But how many people can combine a leisurely trip with getting fit?

Here’s the problem I’ve had on most holidays. I go somewhere. I love the food. I want to try everything. So I do.

When I get back, I’ve gained 5 kg.

Not good for fitness or body image.

It might not seem like it, but cycling 700 km can burn a lot of calories, and it creates an insanely good appetite. What that means is that you can gorge yourself with all the local cuisine and not feel guilty.

On the flip side, if you need to lose weight, just eat in moderation. You’ll lose weight.

Environment reasons

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The humble bicycle doesn’t need fuel to power it and it’s almost zero emissions.

Well, this is pretty self-explanatory.

The bicycle + how you will carry luggage

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You don’t need an expensive bike to go on holiday. I use the bike I ride to work every day to do the job.

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

When it comes you buying bicycle luggage (also known as panniers), a good place to start is Decathlon. It’s not the most high performance ‘luggage’ around but honestly, it’s cheap and decent enough.

Or you could probably rent it too.

Where I’d recommend doing it. 

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View from the campsite in 2017, Hakone, Japan.

In general, anywhere with lots of nature is a nice place to ride. After getting off the airport, take a train to a small town and start there.

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Japan is one of the best places in Asia to start. Pictured is the ferry towards Awaji Island. You can throw your bike on and ride off from the jetty.

In general, start with well-established routes, then proceed to stuff that’s more off the beaten track. The former is great for beginners if you hate camping. The latter is for when you are more experienced in dealing with the outdoors.

Just off the top of my head, the US, Europe, Japan, Australia and Taiwan has plenty of these well-established trails and beautiful sights to see.

If you’re feeling more adventurous, Mongolia’s pretty decent too.

Interestingly, a lot of these countries have pretty pricey accommodation, so by camping at night, you could save quite a bit of money.

Where I’d not recommend doing it. 

I think there’s a place for every holiday. If you’re going to any major Asian city outside of Japan and Taiwan, I would say skip the bike and take public transport instead. Places like Jakarta, Myanmar, Hongkong are terrible for cyclists.

Skip the misery and just take a taxi around instead. Accommodation in these places is pretty affordable too.

Okay, I’m in, how do I start?

Try Bikepacking.com for all the routes classified according to the continent.

This cycling route in Japan is pretty popular and spectacular. Try it the next time you go to Japan.

Taiwan is a great place for anyone to start traveling by bicycle. They have amazing cycling infrastructure.

 

 

 

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