7th April 2020
Spoke & World
Bikepacking Thailand to Ibiza | 10 months, 18,900km
4 years ago, the seed was planted that marked the very beginnings of Kat & Lewis' bikepacking adventures, some of which we will learn about in the feature below. Around 2.5 years into that journey, Lewis purchased a Bokeh. The years between then and now, having seen him & Kat return from the adventure have flown by.
Since February 2019 we've keenly followed their journey on their Spoke&World IG profile where their beautiful photos and detailed captions really carried readers along with them. If you hadn't been following their journey from the beginning, please: go back through the posts to the start and vicariously ride through the Wakhan Valley hearing your tyres echo in the stone cathedrals; eat delicious street food daily; and meet kind humans and share happiness.
Bikepacking and world travel has many profound effects on us, and we've seen Kat & Lewis grow as bikepackers and as you will read below, as people, along their ride. It is also interesting reading about the nuances of bikepacking as a couple, along with the situations this may bring about.
Overall this Q&A is a thoroughly useful, accessible and practical guide to the how?, where? and why? of bikepacking from the novice to the accomplished. Please do follow the links provided in the shared IG posts for comprehensive details on kit lists and further guidance.
We are very much looking forwards to the day we can meet Kat & Lewis again at the Barn, we'll share stories, coffee and, surely, hear all about their next big adventure.
Hi Kat & Lewis, please introduce yourself : ]
We are Katharine, 35 from London & Lewis, 37 from Lincoln. Katharine organises and Lewis gets things done, somehow we meet in the middle. Before this trip Katharine spent 11 years working in the Arts, painting or as an Art Lecturer and Lewis had worked for 19 years in the cycling industry.
So you've just returned home after 10 months bikepacking. Where on earth have you been?
In February 2019 we flew to Bangkok, Thailand and cycled through 22 countries, covering 18,900km on our way to Ibiza, Spain. We cycled through SE Asia, Central Asia, Caucasus, Turkey, Europe and the Adriatic countries. When we landed in Bangkok we had no idea which direction we would head in and that theme continued for most of the trip. We were always open to suggestions from locals, our hosts and from other cyclists we met coming from the other direction. Often we had a destination in mind but it would be at least a week of cycling away.
How long had you been planning it? What was the rough idea?
What inspired you? Biggest challenge to leave?
Around 2016 we became drawn to bikepacking gear, stories and videos online. In 2017 we got our first Apidura bags for the ‘Chase the Sun’ ride. From here we talked more seriously about making this trip happen. We began buying more equipment and started looking into getting new bikes that would be more suitable than our current road bikes.
Motivation for this trip was change, challenge, reassessment, fresh perspective, plus of course we LOVE cycling! Both of us wanted to change our career path, we tried moving out of London but couldn’t take the plunge and commit to anywhere. It felt easier to get far away from everything so we could totally reassess. The logic was that after all the challenges of cycling round part of the world, finding a new home would feel like a walk in the park. In a bizarre way the struggle to leave London became part of the catalyst for the trip.
Once we had decided we would do this trip, the biggest challenge to leaving was getting enough money saved and finding the least obtrusive time between the personal commitments that life throws at you. Sadly Lewis’s father passed away a month before we left. Although this was very upsetting, his family wanted us to continue and we both knew he was excited about our trip, so it felt right to keep going.
Yes, we had a rough idea of the order we would go through the different countries, but in regards to planning the route that was about as specific as it got. A lot of effort went into getting the right gear and bikes, the rest we figured we would work out as we went along. It was too much work to plan everything, researching all the kit was enough of a job. Planning the route for such a big trip felt counterproductive when we didn’t know the places or what we would come across.
Was there a particular destination or section of trail you wanted to visit?
One thing we have always been certain of is that we wanted to cycle over the Pamirs. It’s raw remoteness and unforgiving landscape had a pull on us ever since we saw pictures of it in traveller's blogs. It looked unlike anywhere we had been before and the challenge of it excited us. The Pamir Highway and Wakhan Valley is really the only place we knew we wanted to cycle, everything else was an open book.
Did you have any bikepacking experience before this adventure?
As for direct bikepacking experience we had little to none. However we are both passionate cyclists and have a lot of experience with bicycles. We actually met each other working in a bike shop. On top of that we both love camping and are very practical minded, bikepacking felt like a natural choice and I guess we trusted we would adapt.
Could you share a few of the highlights? This could be locations, people, surprises, feelings etc
In all the countries we visited we were greeted by amazing people reaching out to meet and help us along the way. We never dreamt we would come across such generosity out there on our bikes. Being invited into homes really gave us a deeper feel for the country we were in. We would engage in conversation and learn about culture, lives, food, music and for us it was special to see what people valued. On reflection we think maybe it was the bicycle that was the key to making some of these moments possible. You become more approachable as people recognize the effort it must take to keep moving everyday, they are very interested in where you have been and where you are going and always want to know your story.
We spent 50 days snaking our way across Turkey and had a blast. The people, terrain, food and cycling was unbelievable. The hospitality was unbelievable, we were given food by strangers as we were cycling, invited into homes for a meal halfway up a mountain and invited to stay. After a few tough months through Central Asia with bad roads, falling sick many times and crazy weather it felt like a welcome break.
Tajikistan was a highlight simply because of its remoteness and challenge. At the time is was difficult but we were so focused and never dwelled on it at the time. When looking back the tough times are always the biggest highlights, you forget how hard it was in the moment and focus on how great the achievement feels.
It would always be a highlight to find a good camp spot after a hard day cycling. One of our favourites was in Tajikistan, in the Wakhan Valley just south of Kharjush, it was about 3500m up, so it was cold at night. There was an idyllic stream for water, wild donkeys and on the other side of the valley were the Afghan mountains. But to top it off there was an old shelter with three big thick walls protecting us from the wind and cold.
And similarly, some of the low points?
Early on in the trip we entered Vietnam during the new year celebrations. Applying online for a visa it warned us that delays were expected over this period. We chose to continue to the border, get a visa on arrival and extend it once there, big mistake! So much stress and wild goose chasing accumulated in a demoralizing day dashing around Ho Chi Minh, repeatedly one step forward two steps back. We chose to scrap the extension after being quoted $250 for one visa that should cost $40 they also wanted to keep our passports for two weeks.
In the Pamirs, cycling from Murgab to Alichur the relentless headwind continued, most of the day was a long slog ascending. The gradient peaked with a 50km gradual descent to Alichur, we were both focused on getting to the top and worked together pushing to get there. Finally we made it and rewarded ourselves with half a snickers at the top. The descent was heartbreaking, the wind was so strong we were putting more effort going down, it turned out we were slightly sheltered from the wind on the climb. It got worse as the sun was setting, the temperature was freezing and finding shelter from the wind to pitch our tent on the open plateau was near impossible.
One day in Kyrgyzstan when we took a 120km gravel washboard wrong turn and ended up back where we started on the road towards Kazarman. Quite possibly the most broken we felt on the trip.
In September we flew to a friend's wedding in Toulouse, after three weeks off the bike and seeing close friends it took a bit of adjusting to get back into the rhythm of bikepacking. The next country was Greece, having had an incredible 50 days in Turkey, Greece felt more belligerent, furthermore at night our mattress was faulty and deflating. Coming into a new country or culture you have to figure out how it is going to work for you. It took a week to get back into the swing of it till we adapted and found a routine again.
Our trip ended quicker that we anticipated, the relentless heavy rain in Italy broke us. We decided to cut our trip short taking a ferry to Spain. The inability to camp and having to rely on finding a host or pay for accommodation is not what we enjoyed. It wasn’t how we wanted to see the country, pedaling from destination to destination. It no longer felt like we were exploring, plus getting soaked everyday had become tiring. We were sad to end the trip early.
We loved following your great IG during your trip, if you visit it now there's a ton of super interesting kit photos. It's clearly well thought out and everything is necessary.
How close did you get to having the right kit before you left?
Overall we did really well! We put a lot of effort into getting the right gear. In the lead up to the trip Katharine had a spreadsheet with all the gear we wanted and the weights of everything. We were scrupulous about what we bought and took. Our chain of thought before the trip was “by choosing to carry less we would have the freedom to go faster. We needed kit for both warm and cold climates, by the time we had got all the essentials there was very little room for anything else. To be honest the first time we packed our bags properly with everything was in Bangkok!
The only major change we would make is switching to full frame bags, this would take the pressure off the rear bags. As for small changes; we cycled in Shimano SPD Sandals and carried some light weight trainers with us, after a few months of cycling it felt like we were taking them on a tour of the world. We ended up sending them back to the UK. Our sleeping bags could have been much warmer in Central Asia but we didn’t want to carry anything heavier, so we wore all our clothes and put up with the freezing nights.
How different was the kit for between the two of you?
There was no difference apart from our own clothes. We shared everything and carried it evenly between us. As we only needed one tent and a cooker it meant we could each carry a bit more without making our individual set up too heavy.
Did you pick up kit on the way?
Part of our preparation was putting together a care package that Kats mum kept hold of. This box had spare bike components from tyres to bartape. We estimated that after 7,000 to 9,000km we would need to replace some major working parts of the bikes but did not know where we would be in the world when this time came and what would be available to us. This package was sent to us in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This worked well for us so we had a friend put together another similar parcel and Kats mum kindly sent this once again later in the trip. As an item of clothing wore out we would replace it, we also picked up some warmer clothes on our arrival in Kazakhstan and smaller replacement parts along the way.
You said that you often moved kit around depending on what country you were in, please tell us more?
For most of SE Asia we didn’t have to use our sleeping bags or down jackets, we stored them at the bottom of our bags and slept in our silk liners. Sunscreen and sunglasses were always close at hand in this part of the world. We did not have to use our cooker much. Buying groceries was more expensive than buying delicious asian street food.
Central Asia was such a different climate, much colder and brutal, we were wearing our down jackets a lot and tucked into our sleeping bags every night. Shops were few and far between and no street food to be seen, one of Kat’s fork bags became our larder where we kept our rice, veg, spices etc, here we always carried enough food for 3-4 days. The contents of our top tube pouches and accessory pockets changed a lot depending on what we wanted accessible; gloves, sunscreen, snacks, headphones, waterproof. In Europe the supermarkets have great delis, so having our cutlery easily accessible for roadside picnics was a must.
Little things to make life easier/more comfortable?
Bose bluetooth headphones that connect together, we would listen to the same music and audiobooks. Having a comfy blow up cushion at night, long arm allen keys and we felt that traveling as a couple sharing everything, we could distribute our things more easily between us. Traveling with bikepacking bags you need lots of smaller bags to divide your belongings into. Unpacking and repacking everyday you need to have your kit organised. Our life was made easier having loads of small stuff sacks, dry bags and pouches If you stuff sacks are too big its difficult to slot them together in the bikepacking bags.
How / did your routine and values change from life on the road?
Apart from generally eating way too much sugar we started to eat our biggest meal for breakfast, eating porridge never gave us enough energy, often it was giant bowls of pasta or rice in the morning. Our sense of time also shifted, the Monday to Friday pattern gradually dissipated and became a more long term time pattern. In a similar way, our sleeping was dictated by when the sun came up and down.
We valued family and friends a lot more. In London we were physically very close to everyone but absorbed in the whirlwind of the city, we spent very little quality time with our family and friends. Being on the road we connected more with the people that are close to us.
Travelling without very much you naturally realise you don’t need so much “ stuff ” but at the same time it made us want to be more considerate about what we own in the future. Surrounding ourselves with things we love or something that does its job really well, rather than lots of things that kind of do the job and are not so nice to look at.
Can you share some tips for managing life together on the road?
Before we left we had lived together for 8 years, we thought we knew each other really well back then. The 10 months bikepacking together we disagreed, argued and butted heads more than the whole time living together. This is partly circumstantial, compared to normal life you have to make every single decision together, often they are pressured or critical decisions that neither of us would know the answer to.
Right from the start we could really see each other's personalities clearly, our differences became really apparent. When it comes to resolving a problem or decision we always approach everything in totally the opposite way. With a lot of choices to be made every day, this meant a lot of disagreements. It is very frustrating when we are tired, hungry, and cannot understand each other’s reasoning. Fed up of clashing we understood that ultimately the end point was always the same, we just got there in a totally different way and we began to stop fighting to do everything our own way.
Traveling like this we found everyday would be an emotional rollercoaster compared to normal life. Your days are filled with so many more ups and downs, you’re not always going to be in sync. When one of us was struggling the other would step up and take the lead.
Other than the bike, what other forms of transport did you take?
Aeroplane - from London to Bangkok & Kuala Lumpur to Almaty.
Train - Through part of Uzbekistan, Kat was very sick so we skipped cycling in 50° heat through flat desolate desert.
Boat - Singapore to Indonesia. Cargo ferry across the Caspian Sea. Italy to Spain.
Car - about 30km in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan & Turkey.
What different accommodation did you use? Warmshowers, wild camp etc. What challenges did they each present?
Wild Camping - the challenge was knowing when to stop.
Camping On Private Land - the challenge was being bold enough to ask someone. At the start we called it “De-Britishfing” ourselves. As we got better, it was also about learning what to say in the different countries or cultures.
Staying In Locals Home - Usually the only challenge was trusting that it is ok & safe. We always followed our instincts and never had a bad experience staying with people we met on the road.
Warmshowers - a few times the challenge was having the energy to engage with people for a few hours in the evening when very sleepy.
Couchsurfing - There were so many hosts, the challenge was spending time contacting people and getting few replies. Unlike Warmshowers most hosts are not cyclists and perhaps are not ready for overnight bike storage.
Bedsits/hotel/hostel - The challenge could be finding somewhere safe for your bikes and place to cook your dinner or breakfast.
For some people looking at the images from your trip, the mountains and rugged landscapes might not look so fun. Can you explain to someone who may be daunted by this sparseness how these areas draw 'people like us' in?
It’s the challenge and sense of achievement that is so enticing. Doing something that is out of your comfort zone that will stretch you mentally or physically and ultimately give you fulfilment in yourself. You can’t progress without taking some kind of risk, for us cycling on tougher and higher roads has helped us grow as people.
Likewise, how much do you adapt to the adventure and challenges as you go?
It helps that it is all in your hands, nothing is going to change or improve if you don’t do something about it, whether it’s big or small. For us the cycling was always the easiest part of the trip. The hardest part was adapting to this new way of living, getting used to sleeping somewhere different every night, learning how to interact and talk with strangers, how to find somewhere safe to camp and always being hungry. If we handled something badly we would talk about how we could improve it next time, often this was all to do with our personalities. Adapting, I guess was part of the challenge, we just didn’t anticipate how important it would be. Ultimately it happens by trial and error, and I think it has to happen that way, you can’t know everything before you start.
How do you prepare for the unexpected and potentially dangerous situations? Did you face any injuries or bad situations?
We had a tailored first aid kit and downloaded some first aid apps, multiple offline maps and good weather apps. Alongside this we had a SPOT satellite tracker, a perk of this was our family and friends could log in and see exactly where we had been for the previous seven days. For safe drinking water we had a Sawyer squeeze filter and steriPEN.
Generally we didn’t face any injuries or bad situations, in Central Asia we both had stomach parasites for a while, which obviously wasn’t that pleasant. Katharine struggled a bit more, in the desert in Uzbekistan we were rescued by a local as her health was regressing worryingly fast, she got medical help in the village and we continued on our way. In Georgia a similar thing happened and we were rescued again! Fortunately a training nurse spotted us, an ambulance came and gave her some shots, she then took us to her home, gave Kat her bed, nailed a drip to the wall and monitored her condition overnight till she was ok.
You made maps!
Just do it! Maps are beautiful and many people can relate to them. The messier and more personal the better.
Tips for others wanting to do a similar thing..?
Everyone travels in their own way, some people like to cycle with a lot of luggage, some will go fast, others will prefer to go slowly, some won’t want to break the line on the map with alternative transportation, some will prefer to be in the wild while others prefer to see and meet different people. There is no correct way of traveling by bicycle, you just want to be true to yourself.
The very first photo on your IG blog was of you two holding your passports. Looking back at that, what would you tell yourselves and what if any has been the biggest change in you?
Now we feel we are both more relaxed versions of ourselves, perhaps a bit more quietly confident. We feel like we’ve scratched a very big itch, I guess we feel more fulfilled...for now. If I had to tell ourselves anything it would be to be direct and bold with what you want. But I think the time processing an experience is fundamental to it having meaning or relevance to you personally.
Now we are back in the UK and have moved to Somerset, we are very lucky that one of us has got a job which started at the end of March. We have always cycled and always will. For now our bikepacking trips are going to be one or two nights adventures and the odd week trip. There is a lot of the UK and Europe we want to explore and in the future we would love to do some month long adventures….South America looks nice.