Have you ever dreamed of taking a long bike ride, maybe even staying overnight along the way? Alastair Humphreys did – and he actually followed that dream.
In August 2001, when he was 25, Mr. Humphreys left his family and girlfriend and cycled out of Yorkshire, England, on a bike he named Rita. He didn't return until November 2005.
During those four years and three months, Mr. Humphreys cycled 46,000 miles. He traveled through parts of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South America, North America, Asia, and back through Europe. He rode through cities and across deserts, mountains, permafrosts, savannahs, and pampas. And he met and stayed with hundreds of people.
Here's how Alastair Humphreys answered some questions about his amazing expedition:
How did you decide to take such an ambitious journey?
When I was a child, I used to read tons. But later, at university, I started reading books about people climbing Mt. Everest and going to the South Pole. And I began to wonder if I could do that. The combination of a full bookshelf and maps of the world can get you in real trouble!
How did you fund your trip?
I worked through uni [college] and saved my student loans. I left home with the worldly wealth of £7000 ($11,000 then), and I had to make that last.
You originally planned to ride through Asia to Australia and not through Africa. How did Sept. 11, 2001, change your initial route?
Once war broke out, I thought it wouldn't be safe to ride through Iran and Afghanistan and perhaps Pakistan. So when I got to Istanbul [Turkey], I decided to turn right and head through Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. From there, I went through Egypt and on towards South Africa. I will never know how things would have gone had I continued [on the original route]. Certainly, everything would have been totally different. But I had a good time the way I went!
Describe a typical day.
In between cities, I loved to begin riding before sunrise. I usually rode about 100 to 150 kilometers [about 62 to 93 miles] a day, stopping to eat, take pictures, and talk to people. At sunset, I looked for a place to camp – usually a place in the quiet countryside where I could hide. I set up my tent, cooked dinner, and read while I ate. By dark, I went to sleep.
In the cities, I stayed with families and had to fit into their lives. I usually did school presentations, interviews, and squeezed in some tourist time and relaxation. I also had to organize my visas for the next stops, mend my bike, and get maps – boring things I put off till the end of my time [in a location].
Describe some of the extremes you experienced.
I met people in mansions and huts. I rode to Peru, 4,900 meters [16,072 feet] above sea level, and Jordan, 250 meters [820 feet] below sea level. The hottest temperature, 45 degrees C [113 degrees F.] was in Sudan and Turkmenistan. The coldest, minus 40 degrees C [same in Fahrenheit], was in Russia. My longest time without a shower was a month. My longest time without a break was also a month: 4,200 kilometers [2,608 miles]. My longest time without a conversation was eight days, except for a truck driver who offered me a ride. I said, "No, thanks." And he drove off.
You had adventures – some funny, some dangerous. Which ones stand out?
There are so many, but here are a few. In Tanzania, I rode through the Mikumi National Park where a sign warned: "DANGER. Wild Animals next 50kms." Luckily, I only saw giraffes, zebras, warthogs, baboons, and impala – and no lions. But I pedaled very fast!
In Siberia, I was robbed ... by some ... men who then gave me directions to the next town. There is a bit of good inside everyone.
In China, I slept on the Great Wall under a full moon. I stayed with shepherds in their yurts in the Kyrgyzstan mountains, sharing horse sausages and boiled sheep heads with them.
You also met people from varied backgrounds. How did they respond to you?
The kindness of strangers was the greatest privilege of my ride.
Spontaneous invitations to stay came from Bedouins in Jordan, Sudanese families on the banks of the Nile [River], Maasai [a people in Kenya and Tanzania] ... Patagonian cattle ranchers, Colombian police, Baptist ministers, Yakut Indians, Russian village mayors, Chinese men in Inner Mongolia, Kyrgyz farmers, Bosnians, Frenchmen, and loads of expatriates all over.
In Alaska, a lady stopped her car and gave me her take-away pizza.
In Chile, I stopped to ask for water at a house, and the man invited me in, fed me, invited me to relax on his sofa and spend the night in the spare bed whilst he went out for the weekend.
In four countries, I stayed in orphanages run by my favorite charity, Hope and Homes for Children. Those were real motivating, inspiring experiences.
What did you find exhilarating?
Freewheeling down mountain passes, swooping down through curves for an hour or two was amazing – especially if the sun was setting, and I was ... looking forward to a well-earned supper in the beautiful quietness of a secret campsite in some far-off, exciting land.
Falling off my bike and putting up my tent in freezing Siberia, having bike breakdowns, and getting visas.
After four years of traveling, what did you learn about the world and yourself?
That the world is a good place filled with nice, normal people. It's not all filled with the terrible events we see on the news. I learned to trust more. I saw my strengths and weaknesses highlighted in the good and bad times: loneliness, self-pity, determination, an openness to get on and communicate with whatever kind of person I'm with, a stubbornness not to quit, a fear of failure. I came to really appreciate my friends, family, country, and good fortune.
What is your advice to someone who wants to follow in your tire treads?
Everyone has dreams. The hardest part is just the beginning. The rest is definitely easier.
• To find out more about Alastair Humphrey's bicycle journey, visit his website, www.alastairhumphreys.com.