Interview solo female cyclist
Phoebe Tan – Norway to Singapore – still pedalling
— Lake Karakul – Tajikistan 2015 —
Malaysian – born 1983
22 countries – 21,595km – 25months …still on the road
Loves travelling, adventure, the great outdoors and always knew someday I’ll go on a bigger trip. Left home 12yrs ago for England and decided to quit my job in 2014 to travel home ”slowly”. I left with little knowledge of what cycle touring is all about, starting in Finland with a friend who was on a short cycle tour holiday and went solo from Norway. The plan is to cycle home to Malaysia but I will finish in Singapore.
1. Which of the many countries you cycled in so far has offered you the biggest adventure? Can you explain why?
It’s also one of my favourite. Fighting against head wind on bad roads, waking up in snow and muddy roads, more bad ”washboard type” roads, temperature dropping day by day, limited variety of food, waking up in the middle of the night holding a mouthful of vomit and had them shooting out from my mouth and nose onto their potato field after I managed to figure out how to exit my host’s house and constantly running out one of my host’s house to their “open air toilet” at sub-zero temperature because of diarrhoea and above all with the visa expiry bomb ticking away…
— Slept by the roadside – Tajikistan 2015 —
2. The picture above shows you sleeping at the road side. It doesn’t look like the coziest place for the night. Is there a story you can tell?
I felt nausea after dinner at my host place and thought I could sleep over it. Set off anyway with a funny stomach towards Khargush in Tajikistan. Leaving Langar up that winding road, I felt weaker and weaker. Ended up pushing my bike and throwing up along the way (I left a trail of vomit behind me) up that steep road.
Mentally I was angry with myself for not staying back and physically it felt like the longest walk ever as I barely made it over 6km and its already getting dark. The only place I could sleep was this little space by the road, with a fever brewing and bad headache.
I really didn’t mind…it doesn’t look like the most comfortable place in the world but I didn’t take long to pass out… then again I still get a nice view when I got up in the morning and guessed what…few kilometre down the road there was a nice flat area perfect to pitch my tent with water source too…bahhhhh!
— Hosted by a Police family Uzbekistan 2015 —
3. How has this tour impacted your mental health ?
I’ve actually grew better with my instincts and decision making like where is the best place to camp, when to stay away from wrong people etc. Also I used to get nervous with bad roads and big mountains but now there is lesser doubt of my capabilities because I figured if you have the right attitude you’ll eventually made it through.
Our brain is really capable of many fascinating things and I find that the joy of such tour depends on what you tell your brain… if I start having negative thoughts, I usually try to divert my attention, like listening to music, focusing on my breathing or counting the number of pedal spin.
— desert – 48 C – without shade – Xinjiang Province/China —
4. Seeing your pictures it is obvious that you were confronted with some extreme weather conditions. How did you deal with it? Any tricks you might like to share?
My most recent one was crossing the desert in Xinjiang, China. The one time I measured it was 48 Celcius and for the rest of the days I didn’t bother checking the temperature anymore as I didn’t want to torture my brain…
I always covered myself from face to toe so I don’t get burnt (basically dress like a Ninja), drink insanely and spot for shade even if it’s only a tiny shrub. 3 to 4pm is the time I try to avoid cycling and if I could, I’ll cycle at night too since its cooler.
I bought cold pads from the pharmacy and stuck them on my forehead but this luxury didn’t last long and it turned into heat pad very quickly. There were also days where I was hit with sandstorm but luckily there were passageway under the road where I could hide.
— Crossing the 20.000 KM marker in China 2016 —
5. You crossed parts of Europe. How did some of the Europeans react to an Asian lady touring solo in their country?
They are usually surprised to see a ‘young’ (I figured it’s difficult for Europeans to tell an Asian’s age) and petite ‘girl’ touring on a loaded bike which is heavier than herself.
But Balkans onwards rather than saying ‘Hello’ in their native language, I always get people shouting ”China? Korea? Japan etc” at me. I also find it really funny when people use their fingers to pull up the corner of their eyes which make their eyes smaller to reflect Chinese but sorry this is really weird. I find it very offensive too when young people shout ‘chin chang chong’ (no idea what kind of Asian language this is) in my face and just left.
— Orphanage visit with a local filming crew – Iran 2015 —
6. Since you started at the North Cape in Norway you have spent two years on the road. How has your way of travelling changed over the time ?
I started as a novice, knowing very little about the lifestyle of cycle tourer or what to expect. So being the perfectionist I was very organised then, making plans and having many ‘should’ to follow. Then along the way when touring became my way of life I realised I’ve became more flexible and chill with things and less hard on myself.
I travelled more slowly to enjoy places at its best, taking sufficient rest if I needed one and became more in love with ever changing plans and unknown of everyday encounters. Sometimes rather than feeling overwhelmed with things I’ve seen or experienced it has instead triggered memories of my past experiences. There is so much more of just being there.
It also doesn’t matter whether I’ve visited any attractions as long as I’ve enjoyed myself which can be from simple things like food, people, landscape etc. Seeing wealth and poverty, the highs and lows, I began to feel more deeply for other people.
— Tatev Monastery – Armenia 2015—
7 What were the more difficult moments for you?
I lost a day of memory when I was in Turkey and until now I still don’t have a clue of what happened. I vaguely remembered I was taken up a van (maybe ambulance?), ended up in hospital then got taken into a small hotel and woke up in serious pain on my neck and at the back of my head, my helmet was damaged too.
The moment I woke up was really scary as I didn’t know what day it was or where I was and I had to check my phone to find any traces of last messages I sent. I tried to ask what happened but it was really difficult to get details with the language barrier and that no one actually knew anything.
I felt very lost in this place and knowing that I have a warmshower host one day ride away who was also a doctor, I decided to set off even though I was in severe pain. It was quite funny as I couldn’t even turn my head left or right..I could only look straight and every bump on the road will send so much pain through my system.
I’ve never had so much pain before to the extent that even falling asleep was difficult. It was quite a tough week for me but I could only deal with it and move on after a couple of days rest, still wearing a neck support while cycling.
— Fixing my 14th puncture on a drizzling morning in Kyrgyztan 2015 —
7. Have you had any serious issues with your gear or bike ?
My rear tyre burst when I was in Turkmenistan and I didn’t have a spare tyre. So I sewed it back together, then placed aluminium foil and plastic patch over it and duct taped it. Then I had to keep my finger crossed that it will last me through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and until Dushanbe in Tajikistan where I will get my replacement.
It lasted till Samarkand in Uzbekistan but along the way I had to keep pumping my tyre. Luckily I got a free Chinese tyre from a friend in Tashkent even though it was a wider tyre it was still good enough to get me to Dushanbe.
— Waking up in snow – indoor temperatures minus 5 C – Tajikistan 2015 —
9. What is your most challenging hospitality experience ?
My brother done his share of cycle tour with his friend 11years ago and I went back to visit one of the family who hosted them before. Carrying some photos and descriptions of the location, I finally found them. The moment I showed them the photos that was taken 11years ago, there were tears rolling down.
It was such an emotional moment that I wished I had the chance to capture it, but it happened too quickly…especially when they saw the photo they’ve taken with grandma who had sadly passed away. They took me in like family again and hosted me for many days, never wanting to let me go.
It was really nice seeing everyone especially those kids in the photos who were all grown ups now…they were a huge family and everyone still lives next to each other. It was really hard to say goodbye to them and they gave me so much food to take away that I could barely pedal my bike.
I was taken in by a family of four in a village in Turkey. They were very nice, everything seems perfectly normal and the wife even wanted me to stay another day. In the morning when she left for work, the husband knocked hard on the door to wake me up for breakfast then showed me something on google translate…he asked if he could have sex with me (by the way, his daughter was still sleeping in the other room).
I was so furious and quickly packed and stormed out of the house and accidentally left my watch and medical bracelet (both gifts to me from friend and family) behind. The wife messaged me when she didn’t find me at home and I told her what happened…she agreed to post me my stuff but suddenly blocked off all contact from me and didn’t even send me my stuff. It wasn’t something I expected if I was being hosted by a family and a few days it kept me wondering who can I actually trust.
— Seafood fest from the shells picked by the lake side / Norway 2014 —
10. Which three Nations offered the best food and which three the least ?
China – Hmm what can I say…I’m an Asian and suddenly I’m exposed to food that I’m familiar with. There is so much variety that you’ll always be spoilt with choices and it changes from one region to another. Go to the night market or simply just go to their bigger supermarket you will know what I mean.
Turkey – Ohh I’m not sure why but I was addicted to Menemen (their scrambled eggs breakfast) and Ayran..even though you can find Ayran in the next few countries, I still love the Turkish version best. I was also spoilt with lots of home cooked food from my hosts like Dolma,Kofte, Pilav, stuffed vegetables dishes etc. and gosh Turkish coffee I missed so much and their huge selections of desserts if you have sweet tooth like me.
Greece – Greek food is very diverse too. I was working on an olive farm during winter and my hosts happened to have a fisherman friend so we had lots of yummy octopus and fish…I love seafood. Also the home-made olives, pitas, fish/lentil soup..now I’m missing the times when we went to the village cafe to have Meze (appetizer) with Ouzo / Tsipouro drink.
Only one… Tajikistan. I love food and trying new cuisines, but in Tajikistan my diet was pretty dull. It wasn’t them to blame but for convenience sake, I was on instant noodle or Naan diet most of the time. If not my hosts served fried potatoes floating in oil which was not ideal for my bowel system at that time…again I wasn’t being fussy as this was something they grew in their field but the method of cooking in lots of oil was pretty scary.
— Invited by a family as they drove past me and then led me to their home – Tajikistan 2015 —
11. What surprised you the most ?
The kindness of people towards complete strangers especially the generosity of those who had very little really surprises me.
I also wasn’t expecting men to think solo women are easy targets or very deprived when it comes to ”sex matter” which is one of my biggest annoyance on the road…Trust me, I’ve run out of lies to tell them and no matter what, they will still take the chance to pop the sex question.
Then there were times I felt even though the world is so big, once you are on the road it somehow seems smaller, especially when I met someone who knew someone I knew (suddenly everyone seems connected) or we bumped into each other again in another country.
One thing I must mention is that the people in cycle touring forum are so supportive and encouraging and that there are so many women out there who are doing the same…its such a great community.
— Rare flat road – Tajikistan 2015 —
Find out more about Phoebe and her great trip here: www.riding-cyclette.blogspot.com