“The thrill of exploring the unknown and getting lost in the far corners of the globe just called out to me until I could no longer ignore it. That was when I quit my job and hit the road,” said Phoebe Tan.
Ironically, cycling was never a hobby and Tan’s bike (a present from her brother in 2006) had spent more time in storage than on the road.
But all that changed when the 34-year-old Malaysian decided to heed the call of the wild. Tan, a quantity surveyor who was based in Bristol in England then, embarked on her road trip in 2014. Tan and her bike, nicknamed Thorn, have been on the road since.
“The journey started with me accompanying a friend who was bike touring from Finland to Norway. When he flew home, I continued cycling to Denmark.”
The brave lass said that she had no prior experience or training so it was all learnt through experience. “The first month was about getting used to the routine. Just three days into the trip, my friend made me cycle 140km in a day. When we arrived at our destination, I left my bike by the side of the road and lay down on the ground. My muscles hurt so much that I couldn’t even walk properly!”
Tan has also cycled through Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, South Korea, and Japan.
“The longest I’ve spent in a country was four months in China, followed by two months in South Korea recently,” she continued.
“My favourite place was Tajikistan in Central Asia, and I miss it dearly – the raw natural beauty, the people’s hospitality, the inquisitive children, the challenges that befell me as a cyclist riding through rough terrain, going to sleep and waking up with my tent and bike covered in snow – it was just so full of adventure,” she reminisced fondly.
When asked about her route, she replied: “The plan was not to fly with the bicycle, so it had to be neighbouring countries that I could get to by road or ferry.”
“I did a spreadsheet to sort out the logistics, got a rough idea of the route, and I just went. There weren’t any tedious or complicated preparations. One of the difficult things was the first half hour trying to balance myself (I fell many times!) on my heavily-loaded bike as I rode out from my home,” she explained.
“And, I didn’t have any sponsors. My trip is self-funded through my savings over many years of working,” she added.
“For accommodation, my priority was to stay with people – either friends or families of friends – because that gives you insight into the lives of the local people.
“Hostels make you run out of money fast and are not found in some locations. But they can be a treat when I need rest, washing up, and in big cities, where I can do some blogging, and also during bad weather. Otherwise, it’s fun being creative with where to set up my tent. At times, I get awesome views at no cost,” she enthused.
“For communications, I only get a sim-card if I’m in the country for over a month, otherwise I just rely on the free wifi at hostels,” she said.
As for getting lost or not speaking the local languages, Tan said that wasn’t a major issue.
“Learning some basic words in the local languages comes in handy, and knowing the names of your destination in the local language helps when asking people for directions. That, plus body language and the use of maps, helped me to find my way around,” she explained.
Tan admits she didn’t really make that many contacts with cyclists from other countries, through Facebook groups or other social networking communities, before her trip. “I only read a few bike tourers’ blogs before the trip. I did join those social groups after embarking on my trip, but then, I hardly have time to follow them. I prefer to be out there, getting things rolling because we can never be 100% prepared for such a trip.
“While it’s good to get advice from experts, it might make you nervous sitting at home, trying to get the answers from others. At the end of the day, it’s better to create our own experiences, than to walk in other’s shadows,” said Tan.
As for her most memorable experience, she said that there were too many to name.
“I befriended this guy, a friend of a friend, who invited me to join a filming crew and interview some socially-active women in Iran. The women I met were like silent rangers actively working towards making positive changes in their society – from a woman who managed a factory, setting up businesses to help other women, to a teenage storybook writer, a woman starting an orphanage, and a cafe owner. They showed me how they reached their goals, taking one step at a time, and why they wanted to empower other women to achieve the same.
“I left the place feeling inspired and positive, because they were working hard towards breaking gender stereotypes,” said Tan.
Tan has had her fair share of nasty experiences too.
“One incident was when I lost my memory in Turkey. My helmet was cracked, and my neck and the back of my head hurt terribly, so I guess I must have fallen. Someone brought me to the hospital and then sent me to a small hotel. I was so disoriented that I couldn’t even remember who I was initially or what had happened.
“Although still in severe pain, I was back on the road and on my way to my next host, who fortunately, was a doctor. After a few days’ rest, I continued my journey, wearing a neck brace,” she said.
Tan admitted that as a woman on a solo cycling trip, the biggest annoyance was sexual harassment from men who think that women are weak and vulnerable.
“There was a time in Iran when a truck driver pulled up while I was drinking water by the roadside. He came down to offer me a drink, and suddenly tried to grab my breasts. We were hidden from the road by his big truck, so passing vehicles could not see us. I spat and pushed him off, riding away quickly, feeling disgusted and helpless. But, thankfully, that unpleasant incident didn’t cloud my perception of the country because Iran is one of the countries with the most hospitable and friendly people,” she said.
She added that keeping safe, whether male or female, is basically common sense. “You’ve to trust your instincts. If you feel something is wrong, then stay away from that situation. Be tough and don’t behave like an easy victim. Don’t carry a lot of cash, just enough to get by, and don’t put all your cash together, but spread it out. And don’t flash your valuables in public,” she advised.
Having said that, Tan admitted with a laugh that she didn’t have much: just some tools, smelly clothing, food, and a dirty cooking pot.
When asked what tips she would give to other women who wished to embark on a solo cycling trip, she replied: “Any fear or danger you’re thinking of might not even happen, so don’t let that hold you back. Any hardship you encounter will pass. Be flexible, don’t restrict yourself because plans may change. The only rule is, have fun!” she said enthusiastically.
“It’s not always necessary to have extensive technical skills about fixing your bike. It does help, but most times, the basics are sufficient. I’ve met people who couldn’t even fix a puncture when they first started their bike tour!” she exclaimed.
But what if they are caught in the middle of nowhere with a punctured tyre, no idea of how to fix it, and nobody around to help?
“Even if a person starts out with nothing, they’ll have to do whatever it takes to look for help. Sometimes it means walking until they find someone. That’s how we learn from such a trip. It takes us out of our comfort zone and teaches us to think out of the box.
“Just keep smiling. That’s a universal language that everyone knows, and it always works!” Tan added.