Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on January 2005
He’s spent three and a half years on the road so far, cycled 53,000km through 46 countries on five continents. He’s kept the foot to the pedal in temperatures ranging from 45 degrees Celsius in Sudan to minus 40 last month in Siberia. Otherwise, he appears sane. And he’s doing it for the children (see box).
Meet Alastair Humphreys, 28, graduate of Edinburgh and Oxford universities, clearly a dedicated cycle-tourist and a bit of a poet. He set off from Britain, followed the Danube through Eastern Europe, Turkey, the Middle East, Egypt and Sudan and down to Cape Town in South Africa. There he hopped a ride on, of all things, an ocean-going racing yacht (the Maiden) to Rio, spent five and a half days on a bus to Patagonia, and from there proceeded north along the west coasts of South, Central and North America to Alaska, where he caught a freighter to Siberia. He’s now in our fine archipelago (he called Hokkaido, at minus-18 degrees, “lovely and warm”), taking a deserved rest and doing some bike refitting. From here, Humphreys plans to go on to China, follow the Silk Road through Central Asia, Iran, and “a quick dash home across Europe.” We caught up with him in an apparent state of serious culture shock as he tucked into a cheeseburger at Wolfgang Puck’s.
What makes a person do such a thing?
Well, I’d already done three three-month bicycle trips [Pakistan and China, Mexico to Panama and across South America from Buenos Aires to Lima], and I thought it was time to do something serious. Besides, an extended cycling tour is more than a bike ride; it’s a way of life, and a wonderful one.
How do you deal with the loneliness?
The loneliness was the hardest thing about the trip and something that I had underestimated. It’s kind of sad that no one will ever know all the things I’ve experienced.
Ever want to quit?
Going down through Africa, while I was still relatively close to home, I had serious second thoughts. I missed my girlfriend terribly. I remember sitting in a hotel room in Damascus crying my eyes out. And down through Africa the rationalization was that I had already come so far, I could go home with my pride intact; I’d done enough. But then I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.
What was the best time?
Getting to the end of Africa, my first continent. It was good because I never expected to get there. And having gotten through one continent, you know you can get through four or five.
In Peru, I hadn’t seen a car in days when one stops and several men get out, yelling, “You must go back!” They had just been robbed by an armed group around the next bend. I approached each bend after that with great caution.
Why did you do Siberia in winter?
I wanted to. More of a challenge. As in most inhospitable climates, the people are unbelievably accommodating.
How do you make $11,000 [his budget] stretch over four years of travel?
Only buy the cheapest food (mainly cup noodles), and have a ruthless attitude toward chocolate and other luxuries.
What do you think about Japan so far?
I’m finding it very amusing. Before, I knew nothing but the clichés. I’m really enjoying finding out about it firsthand.
How do you handle finances?
Cash cards, lots of US dollars in different pockets in case of robbery.
Ever been robbed?
Just once. In Russia. Getting mugged was so annoying, because the Russians were so nice. Except for these three drunken 20-year-old morons. With guns. I wish this hadn’t happened in Russia. But it could have happened anywhere.
What’s the one most important piece of equipment you carry?
My Leatherman tool, but that’s not very exciting. Books, an English pipe, given to me by a guy who said all English explorers should have pipes, and a mess kit spoon given to me by an ex-SAS guy who persuaded me one time not to give up.
Humphreys has far more to say than we have space for here, and does so with intelligence and wit on his thoroughly entertaining, often moving website, www.roundtheworldbybike.com.
You can meet Humphreys at the February 2 meeting of the Tokyo Bicycle Network at The Pink Cow (www.thepinkcow.com), starting at 7pm. See listings or call 090-5813-6721 for details.