Claire and André have cycled from the UK to Japan. On their website Punctures and Panniers they talk about how they came up with the idea: “The idea started as a kind of joke. We had been on a few shorter cycle vacations, but we were always disappointed about how rushed they felt. We both had a strong desire to visit Japan, even before we met, and one day we just joked about cycling there. It was a crazy idea that quickly became more and more realistic.”
All photos: Punctures & Panniers/Claire Mason
Claire was keen to share her insights of travelling by bicycle and how she feels now on upon her return. If you are interested in more of her thoughts about preparing for the trip you can have a look at their FAQ page.
But the most spectacular moments are those few seconds on the road where you are in a picturesque landscape with no-one around. It’s just you on your bike in the wild.
It has been a while now since you have returned from your journey. How has it been to be back and cope with not travelling by bicycle anymore?
I have found it really hard, and still do. Looking at my photos often gives me an ache in my stomach, like a longing! At first I was happy to be part of society again! I was really happy to see my friends and family and I still am glad to be a bigger part of their lives and them mine, I get to be a part of the events that are going on – weddings, babies and house purchases. However, on the flip side – I still haven’t found a job I enjoy enough that it can compare to waking up every morning and feeling truely free.
Having nothing to do every day but cycle and explore some corner of our planet that I have never been to before was incredible – not every day, there were bad days too – but mostly I loved it. I am worried I will never be able to settle again after my adventure and will always be wishing I was on my bike. Daydreaming at my desk is a common occurrence.
Have you done any trips since? Any trips planned?
Sadly not really. We have done some small weekend cycling trips in the UK and we have been on plenty of holidays but not any cycle tours. I always have trips planned out in my head, I would love to cycle around South America or go back to Central Asia and explore the bits we didn’t get to see on our previous trip, but at the moment I am trying to focus on the Cycling Travel Journal and figure out what I want to do with my life career-wise!
Looking back at your journey, when were the most profound moments for you and why?
I think the most profound moments were always when we were shown such kindness and generosity by complete strangers. To begin with we were always so shocked and overwhelmed that we didn’t always know how to react. I think these experiences changed my entire outlook on the world and made me feel much more positive about the human race. Our positive experiences far outweighed any negative ones we encountered.
It was pretty difficult sometimes to reflect on myself and my own behaviour and to really question whether I am as kind or as generous to strangers as these people were to me. In the past I don’t think I was but I am trying to change that now.
Do you think you and your partner André experienced the journey in a similar way?
I think we did really, I think many of the things we observed and experienced we felt similarly about. However, we did each have our own issues and demons to contend with. I struggled more with physical tiredness and the hills would really get me down and affect my mood. Andre found asking people for help difficult. I would often be the person that would have to approach someone to try and communicate our need to sleep in their back garden for example! We met a guy who had been cycling solo for a long time and he cycled with us for a few days, he said people treated him completely differently when he was cycling with a female, people were warmer, more generous and more willing to open their homes to him. It was interesting to hear his experience of this.
Have you made any decisions that (if you look back now) really made sense? Do you have any regrets?
I definitely don’t think I have any regrets about the trip. When we found out we couldn’t get visas to Iran because of my British passport I was pretty upset and didn’t think I would get over that disappointment. Also due to timings and weather conditions we missed out on a whole chunk of central Asia which was a big decision to make. We ended up flying from Baku, Azerbaijan to Dubai, UAE and then cycling through Oman to Muscat.
At the time we were both pretty annoyed about missing Central Asia however the cycling we did in Oman was incredible, we had an amazing time. If we had been able to go to Iran we would never have cycled Georgia, Azerbaijan, UAE or Oman – and we met some fantastic people and have some incredible memories from these countries. My hope is to go back to Central Asia on another trip and do it another time. I think you have to be flexible and not get too attached to one particular route.
When you are cycling what do you think about? Do you have a certain routine/rhythm? How do you cope with boring stretches?
Well it has been a year so it is difficult for me to remember exactly what I would think about. However, on a bad day I think I would ruminate about all the things I was currently worrying about – how big are the mountains we have to climb tomorrow? What are we going to eat tonight? Will I ever find a job again after the bike trip?! But on a good day… I would be in the moment enjoying everything that is going on all around me, the scenery, the smells and people watching. On the boring stretches I would sing, attempt to chat to Andre, and often I would listen to podcasts.
What is your favourite time of day when cycle touring? What does your favourite day look like? Can you give any examples?
I loved cycling really early in the morning, especially in Asia as it is still slightly cool before the sun had become fully fierce. It is also calm and still before the streets become full of hustle and bustle. For us to wake up and get on the road at that time of morning was so rare that it always felt pretty special too! An example of my favourite day would be one with beautiful views, tasty street food, sunshine and a wonderful tail wind. The day would end with us finding a fantastic wild camp site in a picturesque place on a beach or river so I could have an evening dip.
How would you describe your comfort zone? Has it changed? Have you become a different person because of this journey?
The quick answer is yes, I think the trip did change me. I am much more calm in difficult situations, things don’t faze me in the same way as they used to. I am more able to deal with uncertainty than I used to be. The idea of not knowing where we were going to sleep that night made me feel stressed early in the trip but many months in I realised it always turned out okay, we always found somewhere to sleep. The world is not such a scary place anymore, I feel confident in my own strength and my ability to cope.
My personal hygiene habits have definitely changed. I thought it would be hard to let go of certain habits – like showering daily but turned out it was really easy!
I stopped wearing make up, shaving and we often went long periods of time without showering or washing our clothes. You quickly get used to your own body odor and it is really not so bad! The only thing I continued doing always was plucking my eyebrows – couldn’t give that one up. This attitude has stuck a little even now I am back in ‘civilised’ society, I don’t get as bothered if I can’t shower every day, I don’t mind wearing the same pair of socks twice and I really haven’t gotten back into the habit of shaving my legs – just seems like such an unnecessary hassle now!
Has being a woman provided you with unique insights and opportunities?
I think being a woman always provides you with a unique set of insights! And this was also true on the bike trip. In strictly muslim countries, I got to see both sides of the coin as I was often treated as an ‘honorary man’ because I was foreign but also I got to spend time with the women, something which was completely forbidden for Andre. Whilst in Oman we were invited to lunch by someone we met on the road. It was a lovely lunch prepared by the man’s wife but we were never allowed to meet her or even see her. At the end of the lunch the man asked if I would like to go out to the back of the house where guests are forbidden, to meet his wife and children, I of course went and it was nice to chat to them but also very strange. His wife had a degree in mathematics which shocked me, forcing me to realise I had some very preconceived ideas about her being an uneducated and subservient woman – when really I had no idea how she felt about her situation or her experiences of being a woman in Oman.
Have you struggled with observations of the world around you? With which observations did you struggle the most?
Two things; How women are treated. This seems to be an issue the world over and it made me heartbroken. Every country told the same sad story of domestic violence and women struggling to achieve the things men already have and take for granted. Yes the extent of the problems changed from country to country but the problem was constant throughout my journey. This troubled me often and I just tried my best to connect with the women and girls I met, to listen to their stories and tell them mine. I often hoped it might inspire them to see a woman cycling the world but then I would remember it’s not as simple as that, their roles, social norms, expectations and opportunities are different to mine. I am so so lucky.
Secondly, how we all treat the planet. We saw some awful things, entire towns dumping their rubbish down the side of mountains, rivers being polluted, the air being filled with fumes from the toxic trucks in India.
The sheer scale of the damage we are doing was terrifying and would often overwhelm me as I have no idea how we can even begin to start fixing it.
How did you deal with being together all the time? Did you have any unwritten rules or agreements to make life easier being together 24/7?
I don’t think we had any unwritten rules or agreements I think we just learnt as we went along which situations always cause friction and would try to be more patient with each other! If I was hungry or on my period I was more snappy than usual. I also hated it when Andre had the GPS and wouldn’t communicate how much further our destination was. I felt I needed to prepare myself by knowing what was still to come! That tactic definitely didn’t always work and we had many arguments along the way, some were even pretty major ones! However, we soon realised that we needed each other and often we couldn’t stay mad as we had to solve a problem that was more pressing than our argument! It is difficult to rely on one person to be your entire social support network. One person can’t fill all the roles that your friends and family used to and it can put a strain on your relationship if you don’t realise that! Spending 24 hours a day, every day together was definitely hard for both of us at times but I think it strengthened our relationship in a lot of ways and was good for us too.
Have you ever thought you could not go on? What did you do? What made you continue anyway?
Yes, it happened a handful of times on the trip, usually when it was rainy and I was tired and hungry and we were cycling up some mountains. I would start to question why the hell am I doing this? This is not fun, I am wet and cold and hungry. I would start to feel homesick and also obsess over food I missed – in Asia this was usually cheese and bread, or a massive burger with chips! Then I would get into a bad mood, moan and whine for a bit and then I would realise there is nothing I could do about this situation right now. I can’t go back down the mountain so I have to continue up, there is no magical delicious restaurant in this bleak stretch of rural China and actually I am so lucky to be here doing this!
Sometimes the only thing to fix this mood would be to stop and take a break, shelter from the rain and cold, eat something and then maybe listen to some upbeat music – that would usually do it! Personally I never wanted to quit the trip for longer than a couple of hours, I nearly always felt so incredibly lucky to be able to do this that my bad mood would disappear in a fairly short amount of time. The thing that always made me continue was the realisation that no one was going to ‘save’ me and if I just stopped on the side of the road that wouldn’t help at all! I needed to continue so I could get to a restaurant for some food or so I could enjoy the downhill that was just over the ridge!
I nearly always felt so incredibly lucky to be able to do this that my bad mood would disappear in a fairly short amount of time.
On your return you have been really busy with a new project. Can you tell a little bit more about the Cycling Travel Journal?
After completing my bike ride from London to Tokyo I wanted to try and use my experiences of life on the road to design and create an eco-friendly, illustrated Cycling Travel Journal. I collaborated with another female cyclist and artist friend of mine. Our aim is to encourage women to capture the details of their adventures and then go on to tell their stories – although the journal is for anyone, not just women.
We wanted it to be more than just a travel journal, it is also a sketch book, space to store your mementos and a place to plan the details of your trip – turning your dreams into reality. It is designed and organised to help you quickly, and creatively capture your own adventures and the pages are filled with beautiful illustrations inspired by my trip. Plus when purchasing the journal you need not worry about compromising on your principles, as the journal has been sustainably and ethically produced – phew! The project was successfully kickstarted in November last year and now we have been selling them all over the world.
Which inspiration did you take from your journey and put in the journal?
It is a travel journal or notebook that other people can use to jot down the details of their own trips. The illustrations are inspired by photos from my bike trip to Japan. The design and organisation of the journal is inspired by my experiences whilst travelling. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for other cycle tourers to capture the important stuff.
What would you tell other women who are thinking about the idea of heading out to travel by bicycle? Do you have practical advice for them? What would you have wanted to know before setting off on your journey?
It is not the same as a holiday, if you are going for a long period of time it will be hard and you will have bad days as well as good. If you will feel lonely sometimes, and your partner will annoy the hell out of you – but the freedom and the excitement of travelling by bicycle will be more than worth it.
I was lucky and had no real health issues, but even so I still experienced, pussy lumps in places where you really don’t want pussy lumps, blisters under my bum cheeks, sores on my lips, my periods stopped due to lack of nutrition in my diet and for the same reason my hair started to shed pretty badly for a while! I am not telling you this to put you off more just to give you fair warning that it can be tough physically as well as mentally.
Balance fear with caution – don’t be scared of the unknown however do go into new situations treading carefully. Don’t be laissez-faire with your personal safety. However, I think if you are open and warm, you will be treated the same in return the majority of the time. A smile and positive body language can do wonders when there is a language barrier. I was shocked over and over by the kindness and generosity of people in every country we travelled.
Quitting my job for a cycling adventure was by far the best decision I have ever made, so stop making excuses and do it!