We Interviewed the Bicycling Vagabond on How to Survive Life on the Road
One year, one man, one bicycle. When Martijn Doolaard left his job in Amsterdam, he embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime journey across the world by bicycle. A skilled photographer, Doolaard documented each leg of his adventure and posted them on his blog Espiritu Libre. Our new book One Year on a Bike tells the story of Doolaard’s life on the road through exclusive insights and previously-unreleased photographs. We caught up with Doolaard ahead of the release of the book to find out how to have a better bike ride. Read his top tips for a life on the road below, or browse One Year on a Bike.
HOW TO PACK
It’s very personal: I know people who travel a lot lighter than I do, but also some who carry even more. I didn’t compromise on photography gear: I carried a small SLR camera with four lenses, a Macbook, hard drives, chargers, and cables, which all added to the weight. Regarding camping gear, I carried small luxuries like an inflatable pillow, a small but good matress, an extra tarp to use as rain cover or groundsheet. I also brought an Italian mokapot to make coffee in the morning and a thermos for hot tea during colder days that also kept water cool in the desert. These are the small luxuries worth their weight: they add to the camping experience.
Again, it’s very personal what to bring and what not to bring. One thing I learned is that the less you bring, the more you’re able to connect with your surroundings. It’s why I love the simplicity of traveling by bike.
HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS
A lot of new people entered my life, and I’m very grateful for that. After long periods of traveling alone, it’s great to share stories with people who have undergone the same things. You meet the most extraordinary people on the road, like Jan, a 55-year-old Dutch cyclist who cycles almost every year, or the Belgian couple on a tandem bike cycling to Uzbekistan.
The further from home, the more you meet the local people. When you’re cycling, people greet you eagerly because a heavily-packed bicycle is not something they see every day. There are the daily chats at gas stations, restaurants and marketplaces. In Turkey and Iran, people often offered me a meal or a place to stay—their hospitality was endless. The language barrier can make it harder to communicate; I communicate with pictures of my home, family, friends, and work on my smartphone. Pictures tell a story if you can't exchange words, and smiling is the same in every language.
HOW TO FIND YOUR WAY
I chose routes via offline maps on my smartphone, so as long as it had power, I didn't get lost. But since I didn’t really have a final destination, I did feel lost sometimes. You're always moving and don't have a home. When the sights were uneventful, I often wondered, “What am I doing here?” You can't just a skip a boring part of 500 kilometers: it's more than five days of cycling and you have to find a way to enjoy them. Traveling by bike is so slow that you have to learn to live in the moment. I said to myself that if I could just keep pedaling, things would come to me. I think it’s the unexpected surprises that kept me going. There is always something new behind the horizon.
HOW TO BE ALONE
First off, you have to enjoy spending time on your own, so a long-distance trip is probably not for everyone. But I do think being alone for a stretch of time now and then is good for anyone. Some people are afraid of being alone and, to be honest, I was also a bit scared sleeping alone in dark forests. I can remember a few of the first nights, and how I thought I heard animals around the tent—it totally freaked me out. It turned out it was only the wind playing with the trees and making the zippers chime.
Part of this trip was about overcoming fears. If you’re afraid of something, it’s natural to avoid it. But there is nothing more powerful than overcoming your fears. I got used to being in the wildest places on my own at night. I felt a great sense of belonging and connection with nature after spending time alone with these vast, remote landscapes.
HOW TO PLAN AHEAD
The first visa I needed to acquire was for Iran, and more planning was involved as visas for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are date specific. By the time I was in Iran, I had already found out that the Chinese visa would be a challenge to get while on the road. As winter was approaching, I thought that it would be better to head south. India had always been high on my list of countries to visit, so that’s where I aimed. I needed to fly from Kyrgyzstan because I couldn’t get the visas for Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan within a realistic timeframe. It would be great to cycle the whole distance, but it was simply out of my control. If you plan your journey more ahead you also have more control over getting the right visas on time, but I found it important to have the freedom to make changes to my itinerary as my trip unfolded.