In 2015, Joshua Cunningham rode his bike from London to Hong Kong. His journey took him some 12 months and 21,000 kilometers (13,000 miles), through 26 countries. Here, he shares some of the photographs and tales he collected along the way.
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”
The bicycle travel experience is one of complete immersion—in place, people, terrain, climate, culture and cuisine. By traveling through a region, as opposed to skipping between locations within it, you have yourself the opportunity to see everything the guidebooks literally miss out—and everything that they would actively choose to avoid too.
And as I made my way across the Eurasian landmass in 2015, the depth of Hemingway’s words became abundantly clear.
Leaving home on a long-distance journey can be an experience littered with feelings of trepidation, and the thought of wild camping can be a particularly daunting prospect. But after a few nights spent honing my skills and identifying the right time and place to stop, the freedom of wild camping became one of cycle touring’s greatest perks. After all, on a journey like this, time spent off the bike is just as important as time spent on it.
On the subject of time off the bike—whether it’s asking for directions, buying fruit and vegetables or refusing cheap tobacco, as a cycle tourist, you’re continuously meeting new people. Not only that, but cycle tourists will forever be indebted to the sheer kindness of strangers. Being the recipient of so much help and hospitality restores your faith in the world and its inhabitants; it’s nice to realize that most people are fundamentally good.
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For example, in Azerbaijan, Nile put us up for the night in his modest roadside café. He brought us hot tea, showed us a darkened backroom, plugged in a heater, and said goodnight before bringing us chocolate bars and more tea. We were complete strangers to him, but his hospitality was a lesson to both me and my traveling companion
On another occasion, after navigating through Europe, the plains of inland Turkey proved a challenge. The bitter chill of a still-wintry March, combined with the empty expanses and snow-capped peaks of the country’s interior plateau, made riding difficult. At least the riding was more enjoyable than when the clay roads forced us to walk our bikes for hours at a time, stopping every now and then to free the wheels.
Later, having suffered through a European winter for what felt like eternity, spring eventually sprang as we crossed the border from Georgia to Azerbaijan. Free of our gloves, hats and winter jackets, it was impossible not to rejoice in the wave of euphoria brought on by the warmer climes and the prospect of the road ahead.
And that road gave us plenty of opportunities to get to know the local shepherds. As well as one of the oldest professions, shepherding must also be one of the world’s most prolific, practised across a huge number of nations and cultures by men and women, old and young. Even in some of the most remote regions and inhospitable conditions, we would meet shepherds on the road and do our best to trade a few pleasantries; each party equally surprised to have some company for a while.
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We crossed the Caspian Sea on a three-day freight ship journey from Azerbaijan, and arrived at the edge of the Mangyshlak Peninsula in Kazakhstan. What lay ahead were hundreds of miles of absolutely nothing, in every direction.
We rode. And as the Kazakh steppe merged seamlessly into the Uzbek desert, we were faced with the familiar challenge of long distances between towns and resupply points. Every few days, we would hit upon a welcoming oasis of life and take time to stop and recalibrate.
Our path soon rose up into the tangle of mountains that form the core of the Eurasian landmass, and we found ourselves navigating its remote, moon-like landscape. The challenge of navigating its inhospitable terrain, combined with the grandeur of its snowy peaks, reminded me of the appeal of pursuing adventures like this.
After two weeks of traveling from the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, east along the Afghan border and over the first passes of the Pamir plateau, we descended into the former Soviet military post of Murghab. The only significant settlement for hundreds of square miles, it was our sole opportunity to fix broken bikes, resupply food stocks, and begin the lengthy process of applying for our Pakistan visas before heading back into the unconnected world.
As we left Tajikistan behind, the alpine meadows and rolling green pastures of Kyrgyzstan were a welcome sight. The two lads pictured above were the first people we met after crossing the border—they’d run to intersect our path after spotting us from their yurt. After seven weeks in the country, waiting for our passports to return from an agency in the UK, we’d meet many more like them; nomadic families who spend their winters in the valley villages, and their summers tending horses up in the high pastures.
We entered China and were surprised to find that the much of the local population shared their heritage with lands beyond their borders—as seen above by a Kyrgyz yurt camp along the Khunjerab pass that forms the Pakistani border. This junction of Chinese, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Afghan and Pakistani borders is extremely culturally porous, and goes to show how meaningless a line drawn on a map can sometimes be.
To get out of the high mountains of Pakistan, we first had to cross Attabad Lake. Formed after a landslide submerged an entire village and the famous Karakoram Highway road, the lake is now a barrier between the far north of Pakistan and the rest of the country. Cars, buses, trucks, livestock, food, people—everything, including us—must be loaded onto precariously tiny ferries and shipped across. While irresistibly beautiful for an outsider, it has been a life-changing event for thousands of locals, who wait eagerly for the new road, perched on the cliff side above, to be completed.
After making our way out of Pakistan’s Karakoram mountains and through the urban mayhem of Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Lahore, we crossed the border into India and arrived at the Golden Temple—one of the most sacred sites in Sikhism—in Amritsar, Punjab. Here, pilgrims from all walks of life are allowed to stay in its lodgings, and stroll around the inner sanctum.
After the Taj Mahal and the Buddhist temples of the Mahabodi complex in Bodhgaya, we visited the ghats of Varanasi, one of the most revered Hindu sites, which draws pilgrims from across the country to bathe in the waters of the Ganges.
We journeyed into the far north of India, where the Himalayas butt up against the Tibetan border in a maze of high peaks and plunging valleys, with a rich Buddhist culture flowing between them. Above, two young monks play on the steps outside Kaza monastery in the remote Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh.
The Kinnaur valley is home to what must surely be one of the most precipitous—and spectacular—roads in the world. Once called the ‘Hindustan-Tibet Highway’, it runs from the Tibetan border to the town of Shimla. For us, it was also the road that would take us out of the high mountains for good. After five months of exploring the Himalayas and its sprawling sub-ranges of Central Asia, we were ready for a new environment.
Rudyard Kipling once described The Grand Trunk Road, which runs from Kabul in Afghanistan to Dhaka in Bangladesh, as ‘a river of life’. We followed it across northern India, and found ourselves in the middle of some sort of street celebration, covered head-to-toe (and spoke-to-handlebar) in paint.
Then came Burma—which had proved difficult to get into with visas, travel permits and remote border crossings all having to be negotiated. But once into the country, it immediately felt entirely different to anywhere else we’d traveled through—perhaps a result of the country being all but closed to foreigners until relatively recently.
After negotiating Burma and the balmy rainforests of Southeast Asia, the final part of our journey hooked back north, into the dense forests and karstic mountains of southern China. A dramatically different landscape to the one we had encountered four months previously—in the high-altitude deserts of Xinjiang—and equally as removed from the mega cities further east, it was further testament to China’s diversity.
We had just 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) left to ride, but with my bike, body and mind in need of a change beyond that of a country, landscape or culture, the end felt close in more ways than one.
After a year on the road, with 21,000 kilometers (13,000 miles) and 26 countries having passed under our wheels, we arrived at the shores of Tsim Sha Tsui, with no land left to ride, and just a ferry ride away from our final destination of Hong Kong Island. The famous skyline, shimmering across the water in a mass of light, metal, concrete and glass, was like nothing I’d encountered for the entire journey and as such, it felt like a fitting end to it.
Joshua’s first book, Escape by Bike: Adventure Cycling, Backpacking and Touring Off-Road, was published in 2018 by Thames and Hudson and is available on Amazon.