Most of us enjoy the bike as a tool, worshiped by some, but still only kind of means to an end. That end being recreation, leisure, adrenaline, exploration of the new, or merely transport, what need you, brought to our life when we bestride that light and pleasing vehicle. We bestride on occasions and, whatever the recurrence, the beloved and happily exploited bike returns to its resting place, most probably on a side of some wall which builds up our home.
But perhaps this is what makes it special and us so excited to get back on it some time again. Pure enjoyment due to no routine. Seriously, how do you feel about things that you do every single day? Now imagine turning cycling into such a daily bread. The main course of the menu, while you being left with hardly any other choice. No escape, no excuse. How? Let’s say you are in the saddle at the very moment. For two months now. Cycling every 5 in 6 days. 3500 hodós-km from home. With another couple of months ahead, only God knows how many kilometers. If your name is Hera van Willick, this is not just an image, you are at that point crossing the border between Ukraine and Russia and, believe it or not, you are still loving it.
Born in Netherlands, some might presume, she was meant to do it – 18 million bikes on less than 5,500 square kilometers, oh, come on! Brought up in Netherlands, some might note, she was meant to sit in front of her telly, consuming the supermarket food fetched by car, very comfortable indeed. Awaiting a promising upcoming weekend to take her bike out. But that’s not the point. The point is that destiny is nothing more than the way from now to our chosen destination. One Saturday, on the 5th of April 2014 to be exact, Hera did take her bike and, citizenship and such independently, set out for her cycling trip. Tilburg to China. And farther.
Since it is December now, if you want to catch up with the biker we’ll have to keep it real fast. First 10 days are for crossing Germany, 952 km – a warmup, just flexing your rectus femoris. A week later 1484 km on the odometer while on the minor roads of the northern Czech Republic. A month on the road gives us 2268 km, leaving behind Poland and bits of Slovakia, so we can find ourselves in troubled Ukraine. Add (less then) another month and we end up at the border of Russia. Assuming we pass through its bottleneck, via Volgograd, Kazakhstan awaits.
In Turkistan our counting hits 4227 km and since we ventured a bit around Kyrgyzstan, enjoying the local passes, we make it up to more than 6 thousands now, 3 months since
that Saturday. Before getting on the Pamir Highway, that is. Let alone China.
These dates and numbers don’t say a thing to you, obviously. You remain here being a reader and this unedifying shortcut of Hera’s route offered above hides – unattainably – behind the mentioned facts, a meaning, that is comprehensible only to the biker who was there for every single kilometer. Pedaling chiefly around a hundred of them at one blow, on the bike flanked with a survival kit of 28 kg. Consulting the urge to just cycle with the map, visas timing, everyday reason-driven questions of where do I sleep & shower tonight. Figuring out how to cross Kazakhstan’s steppe without dehydration. Not encountering people who share her idea of life for a couple of months, meeting many of astonished with it settlers instead. Not losing heart and mind when being alone with herself, as every passer-by is. Feel it now? Of course you don’t.
But you wonder. There’s got to be some good reason, right? Breathtaking landscapes
of the mountains and wilderness (in return) for the breath-stealing altitudes. Bordering
on the exoticness of the world outside your cultural circle for becoming an expat of the latter. Freedom of moving for giving up on the comfort of settlement and predictability. Being treated with unexpected kindness by strangers for putting yourself in a constant position of being one. Occasional ice-cold showers for sweating like a pig in a few hundred meters climb. Cycling almost every single day for the very simple love of it.
May I remind you that we are still in Osh, way behind Hera (who’s now enjoying Bali),
about to venture on the famous Pamir Highway. Famous among cyclists for its hell gravel roads and a guarantee of altitude sickness, as M41 will lead you throughout Tajikistan – a country of which more than 50% lies above the clouds and below your oxygen requirements. Still, when put on the stretched map of what’s behind and left ahead, this modest knot of roads winding amidst the Central Asia mountains can’t take your breath away really (perhaps aside from the views, these knock everybody down, no exceptions; yet those are not the first, nor the last heights on the route).
What can make it special then? “The company of like-minded cyclists” – let the biker speak out this one. “Cyclists can directly access and open up to each other, without expectations, but at the same time remain alone and independent, building on themselves. (…) Raw and pure, as I like to see and feel it, without masks and without reserve.” Seek and you shall find.
So was that what Hera was looking for on all these roads from Tilburg to Kashgar and farther, from Chengdu to Kunming and southwards, in Laos’ Luang Prabang and all the way down to Vientiane? “After four days of cycling together, I stayed behind while the others kept going. I felt like riding on my own again, at my own pace and free to do everything exactly the way I wanted to. (…) The day I left Vang Vieng it felt so good to be back on my bike, (…) that I cycled the full 159 km to Vientiane in one day.”
Is it that we expose ourselves to seclusion so that we can long for a company? And inversely – while basking in its warmth we anticipate the possible, available, needed solitude? Or perhaps this one is more of “quid pro quo” nature – depriving ourselves of one kind of companion makes us appreciate a different one. “The biking… I don’t know what it is with this biking… I just want to ride. The pedaling is almost meditative, it clears my brains, it’s like the fog rises and I can see everything clearly.. Thought pops up without warning or reason and I have imaginary conversations with friends, relatives and myself. All while challenging my body, using up my energy, pushing my bike another 100 km down the road… All this would not happen to me being on public transport or hitchhiking. I need to move on my own effort and pace.”
Every life, whatever the route and mean of transport, is a way. What does it mean?
Every one of us has in mind some place or state he or she is aiming at. We all make everyday choices of how we want to get there. What if, employing the chosen means to an end, we aimed more at the means instead of the end?
Her own effort and pace have led her to crossing the 10.000th km somewhere in between
the Thailand’s Thap Lan National Park and Bangkok, after 7 months spent on, or should I say with her bike. I think it’s high time you learn his name – it is Wilson. She feels, on this bike, the king. And what would you say makes one a king? “[when asked about the reaction of the people she meets on the way] They often find me very strong and courageous. Then I try to tell them that I’m not.. I just do it. That’s all. I have lots of fears! I just don’t let them stop me from doing what I want to do.”
To those who find what she does grand, why would you – it’s yet another way of wheeling your day-to-day life ahead. Hera’s second to last words: “So, now I’m enjoying my well-earned holiday on the beautiful Bali and Java.” I feel tempted to bold the word holiday here but you got it, didn’t you. And did we manage to catch up and level with the biker who is now taking (quote) a month off the bike (unquote) to travel around Indonesia? Maybe more relevant to answer your question than mine – the last ones were: “And, up to 20,000 !!!!”
the story was written 7 months ago but haven’t been published since. As the reader can imagine, Hera is no longer on Bali but, I am happy to announce, she made it back home safely & recently. I.e. after marking with Wilson’s tires Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Switserland, France, Belgium and – the one of a kind, when it comes to being covered by bicycle tire prints – Holland. But that is a completaly different story.
If curious, do have a look at Hera’s blog – https://heravanwillick.wordpress.com/ for more pictures and the almost week-after-week account of the whole journey (assuming you know Dutch; some entries are in English, however).
Last but not least, don’t get used too much to the idea that the cyclist propped her bike against the wall. The main journey does not stop, only changes places. Or geographical directions, urging us to face and pass through new qualities. An ocean, the Arctic Circle? You’ll see.