Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on January 2006
Most of us have gotten to the point that 36-year-old Steve Tallon found himself at last year. Life was getting predictable after a decade in Tokyo, with far too much time and energy being spent at work. He needed a way to break the cycle, and, pun intended, a cycle was just the trick. So he flew to London and simply pedaled the 15,160km back to Japan.
How did you go about planning the trip?
At first, it was just a vague idea—I bought a world map, drew a line between London and Tokyo, and pinned it on a wall of my apartment. I would see this image every morning and evening, and before long the idea became a plan. From the initial idea to actually setting out took about 12 months.
How did you deal with the loneliness of the long-distance cyclist?
Before this trip, I hadn’t considered just how difficult this aspect could be. On the road, I was often surrounded by curious locals, but I was unable to communicate. This especially made me realize just how alone I was. So I would spend weeks looking forward to the next major tourist destination, where I knew I could rest up in a comfortable guesthouse, eat decent food and chat with other travelers. I also carried a short-wave radio. Most people are fascinated by a foreigner traveling on a bike, so there was no shortage of opportunities to practice [speaking]. Many people had never seen a map of their own country so pulling out my map was always a good ice-breaker.
Ever want to quit?
Oh yes. Barely a month into the trip, struggling to communicate with people, no decent places to stay, no idea what to eat, no nights out with my friends, no movies…it struck me for the first time what I had embarked upon, and I just couldn’t believe I still had another seven months of this left.
Worst moment? Best?
Best: Every new day was full of surprises, so it’s hard to choose. But in western China, the moment I first caught sight of the Great Wall, a short distance off into the desert, was pretty exciting. This puzzled the locals who, of course, saw this sight every day, and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
Worst: Strangely enough, this was near the end, on the ferry from Shanghai to Japan. I’d expected to feel elation as the port came into view, but instead I felt a twinge of sadness. I realized that the end of this amazing trip was now in sight, and before long I’d be back in a normal life with all the pressures and stress that goes with it.
How much did you spend?
I spent a total of about $8,000, of which half was spent in Europe and Japan. In most of central Asia and rural China there just isn’t anything to spend your money on, even if you wanted to.
How did you handle finances?
I used an ATM card in Europe, and carried travelers’ checks that I could cash in major cities in most other countries. I hid the cash in a dozen different places upon my person, my bike and my belongings, well away from the greedy fingers of the local police. I’m still finding dollars rolled up in my socks and T-shirts!
Ever been robbed?
Only my mobile phone, which I didn’t miss. I think a common misconception is that doing a trip like this by bicycle is dangerous. But the reality is that most of the “criminal element” congregates around bus and train stations, leaving us cyclists well alone.
What is the one most important piece of equipment you carry?
A compass, as I have no sense of direction. It broke once, and I spent a day cycling in the opposite direction.
Can you summarize the route?
I left London in April, cycling through Western and Eastern Europe to arrive in Turkey at the end of May. From Turkey I cycled up through northern Iran into Azerbaijan and waited for a ferry to take me across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan. From there I covered central Asia (or “the stans”), eventually crossing into northwestern China at the end of August. Following the Silk Road, I continued down through the Gobi desert and into central China, eventually ending up in Shanghai. From there I took a ferry to Japan.
Was it easier or harder than you expected?
Both. I hadn’t realized before just how mentally draining it could get traveling alone. Having the freedom to go where I wanted, when I wanted, was great, but it also meant that I had to handle all the day-to-day challenges by myself. But I was also surprised at just how many good people there are out there in the world.
I passed through some barren places where I was expecting a certain level of hostility, but no matter how poor the people might be, or how hopeless their everyday situation was, I would almost always receive a welcome that shames our notions of hospitality in the West.
The welcome to Tabriz, Iran. People would lean out from cars or wave to me from the streets, shouting “Welcome to our country!” Walking through the bazaar, the traders were more interested in offering me tea and having a conversation than actually trying to sell me something. In fact, the kindness of strangers is the most lasting impression I have from the whole trip. People who had met me only minutes before would invite me to stay in their homes, meet their families and friends. Everyone loves a cyclist!
How has the trip changed you?
I guess I’ll find out in due course. Achieving something I thought impossible a year ago gives me
a positive outlook on things. Maybe there are other projects out there that I have a chance at.
Are you going to stay here now or go back to London?
I love the energy of Tokyo. It’s still full of surprises after all this time, but I can escape into the mountains or to a remote hot spring when I feel it all gets to be too much—yes, I’m staying.
Well, at least until the next time I draw a line across a world map…
Steve Tallon will be giving a slide presentation and talk at the February meeting of Half-Fast Cyclists at The Pink Cow in Shibuya. Feb 1, 8:30pm. B1F Villa Moderuna, 1-3-18 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3406-5597. Nearest stn: Shibuya or Omotesando. See www.thepinkcow.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.