The most incredible, impossible adventure

We chat to UK writer, Jess Connett, who travelled over 13,500km through two continents on two wheels.

Words and photos: Jess Connett

North: What inspired you to take this trip?

Jess: At the age of 21 I was studying abroad in Hong Kong as part of my undergraduate degree.  I took my first ever solo trip – to Yunnan Province, in southwest China – and in a hostel I met two guys from the UK who were cycling through the mountains.  They’d started in Melbourne and were working their way back to London over the course of a year.  We went out for dinner and I listened to all their stories.  I just thought it was the most incredible, impossible adventure I’d ever heard of.

Jess' route took her through the villages of Bavaria
Jess’ route took her through the villages of Bavaria

Then I met a friend who had been dreaming for years about cycling to India, and I read Dervla Murphy’s incredible memoir Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle.  She writes:

“I proudly looked at my legs, slowly pushing the pedals around, and the thought came: ‘If I went on doing this for long enough, I could get to India.’”

The Danube's Iron Gates in Serbia
The Danube’s Iron Gates in Serbia

I felt exactly the same way.  It took three years to save up the money, and there were a lot of confidence wobbles when I wondered if I was doing the right thing, but it felt like the time was right.  Looking back, there were a lot of things in my life that I wanted to shake up, and embarking on a huge adventure was a catalyst for making those changes.

Jess taking some time off the bike
Jess taking some time off the bike

North: Did you have to train for the journey?

Jess: I already cycled to work every day and did all my other journeys by bike – I don’t have a car.  I’d done a couple of bicycle tours before, including a nine-day journey southwards from northern Scotland, so I had some idea of what was required physically, and the kit that I would need.  But nothing prepared me for how tough it was initially.  I also made some big mistakes, like using a brand new saddle I’d never tested before.  On the second day my bottom was so sore that I had to wrap a jumper around the saddle just to be able to sit down.  I’ve still got scars from the blisters.

Jess' friend Ben camping in a hammock in Germany
Jess’ friend Ben camping in a hammock in Germany

The 100km daily mileage physically got easier as my body adjusted to cycling for up to ten hours a day, but the mental exhaustion was often harder to cope with.  The pressure of navigating, keeping devices charged, getting enough food and water, and finding a wild campsite at the end of the day was constant.  I’ll be much more mindful of this on my next adventure.

Finding enough to eat and drink was often a challenge
Finding enough to eat and drink was often a challenge

North: What was the craziest experience you had?

Jess: The most intense section was a period of about 10 days that began with taking the ferry across the Caspian Sea from Baku in Azerbaijan, to Aktau in Kazakhstan.  After that I cycled over the Ustyurt Plateau into Uzbekistan, through the most inhospitable landscape I’ve ever seen.

The Ark of Bukhara,
The Ark of Bukhara, Uzbekistan

After 36 hours afloat in a soviet-era rust bucket accompanied by Ukrainian truckers, we disembarked into the absolute emptiness of the desert.  Camels were roaming along the roadside.  From the final town in Kazakhstan, Beyneu, to the first town in Uzbekistan, Kungirot, it was 400km on a straight road with no trees, no signs of life except electricity pylons and a railway line, and only a tiny shop or teahouse roughly once every 100km.  The wind howled and often the road surface disintegrated into sinking sand.  It was so flat that the curve of the earth was not just visible but the only thing to look at all day.

A typical road through the Kazakh steppe
A typical road through the Kazakh steppe

I found a great deal of mental strength at that time.  I’d been really anxious about this leg of the journey but in the end I found it absolutely beautiful.  Without any pollution the sunsets were dazzling, as were the stars.  The Milky Way dropped straight out of the sky and slashed through my tent, and I felt like a tiny speck in the vastness of space.

Camping on the Ustyurt Plateau
Camping on the Ustyurt Plateau

Rather than rushing to reach the next town, I felt incredibly privileged to have been able to travel slowly.  On a bicycle you hear and smell a place, feel the lumps in the road, eat with the locals, see the birds, and meet people going about their daily lives.  You miss so much of that extra sensory information on a train or a bus: you’re an observer, rather than a participant.

Jess in Samarkand's Registan Square
Jess in Samarkand’s Registan Square

North: How was your experience as a lone female traveller?

Jess: I did the first part of the trip with my friend, and then we parted ways and I spent four months cycling alone around South India, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.  Initially I was scared about facing India on my own, but I began to meet amazing, supportive people, and to believe in my own resilience.

Jess' trusty bike in tropical India
Jess’ trusty bike in tropical India
Indian elephants were a highlight of the trip
Indian elephants were a highlight of the trip

I had read a lot of warnings about the challenges of being a lone female traveller in India – let alone a cyclist ­– and I did experience some fairly nasty harassment.  But I also received a great deal of kindness and warmth from people I met, especially from families on trains who adopted me when they found out I was alone.

Fresh vegetables being prepared in Uzbekistan
Fresh vegetables being prepared in Uzbekistan

During the festival of Holi I was feeling particularly vulnerable, as revellers often take bhang (a type of edible cannabis) and high-spirits can get out of hand.  I was cycling through tiny villages between Jaipur and Agra, and as I rounded a corner towards thumping music I was greeted by a wall of about 30 men, shirtless, all covered head to toe in powder paint.  They stared at me like I was an alien until I smiled and got out my phone to take a photo.  They all crowded around shouting: “Selfie! Selfie!”  The tension was broken in a way that might have been different if I was a man.  The biggest lesson I’ve taken from the journey is that your vulnerabilities can also be your greatest strengths.

Actors dressed as Hindu gods in South India
Actors dressed as Hindu gods in South India

North: Did you experience kindness from strangers?

Jess: My abiding memory is of how immensely kind people were.  Almost daily someone would hand me food or water when they could see I was suffering.  Twice, complete strangers with whom I shared no common language invited me to sleep in their house.  In Kazakhstan an older lady pressed money into my hands with tears in her eyes.  And absolutely everywhere, every single day, people on the side of the road waved and smiled and shouted hello as I passed by.

 

The family of Shukarullo, who invited Jess to stay the night
The family of Shukarullo, who invited Jess to stay the night

Another cyclist from Bristol, Susannah O’Sulivan, describes her bicycle as a ‘peaceful weapon’ and I really feel the truth in that.  In Turkey I went into a bakery for all of 10 seconds, and when I came out practically the whole town was crowding around my friend, asking questions about where we were from and where we were going.  The only man in town wearing a suit, the bank manager, shook our hands and told us to drink tea with him once he’d been to the mosque.  The bicycle was the most perfect conversation starter, even when we couldn’t speak the same language.

Colour in Fort Kochi, India
Colour in Fort Kochi, India
Kyrgystan is nicknamed 'the Switzerland of Central Asia'
Kyrgystan is nicknamed ‘the Switzerland of Central Asia’

Jess Connett is a 29-year-old writer from Bristol, England. Over ten months she cycled over 13,500km (8,500 miles) from the UK to India, crossing mountain ranges, deserts and steppe in 15 countries. See more of her adventures on Instagram or Tumblr.

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