From Waterford to Kyrgyzstan on a Pushbike
Sean Hoban pedaled from his home in Ballybricken, Co. Waterford, Ireland to China. Think about it, that’s a distance of 11,600 km across 18 countries on a pushbike, that’s some tipping.
Sean is a young man, only eighteen when he set off, now nineteen, but he’s been around the block, he is a mature head on young shoulders. Incredibly Sean didn’t train. He isn’t bragging, that’s not his style, he explains, that the first two to three weeks for a trip like that is training, you go at your own pace, you get the body used to its new role. Basically, Sean leaped on his bike in Waterford, cycled to Rosslare and took the ferry to France. And when he got to France, he leapt back on his trusty Ridgeback Expedition 2018 bike and pedaled on.
The allure associated with such a journey is even more impactful nowadays, in a world of immediacy, of speed, of urgency, plodding along, on just a bicycle across two continents is all the more appealing. Sean posted regularly on social media, and some of his posts are straight out of Kerouac’s On the Road laced with the great travelogues of nineteenth-century British Empire adventurers.
For instance, on the eve of cycling across the formidable Shipka Pass from Europe into Asia, he cooked his evening meal in a dilapidated farmhouse, sharing a bottle of wine with an Aussie bloke who was crossing the Continent on a unicycle. Later, he marched into Istanbul, laying down a marker (the Irish tricolor) in front of The Blue Mosque a la Sultan Mehmed II in the fifteenth century. His crossing of Turkey was an epic – 1,600 kilometers with an elevation of 12,000 meters. His line when he reached the Black Sea is pure box office – “finally made it to the Black Sea, it’s all flat to Georgia.”
He carried everything, of course he did, how else are you going to have everything you need? He was wild camping, which for the uninitiated, is pitching your tent anywhere that is not a designated campsite. When you are not used to it, it can be intimidating, never mind doing it on the steppes of outer Uzbekistan. Sean admits that he possessed reservations, but he has been in the scouts since he was six, where he learned cooking and camping skills as well as being independent. He says you get used to wild camping, after a couple of weeks, you just flop in and fall asleep.
He’s tough is Sean, he can endure, he cycled through the oil fields of Azerbaijan, after which, Stoic like, he took a refreshing dip in the Caspian Sea. From Batumi in Georgia, he attempted to cross the Godenski mountain pass to Tbilisi, when nearly at the top, he discovered it to be completely snowed over, he overnighted in a ski resort cabin. Cycling into the unknown is not for the faint of heart.
A really striking aspect of Sean’s journey was the kindness of strangers, he was regularly brought into people’s homes and fed, watered and given a bed. He slept in some interesting places – in the bunkhouse of a fire station alongside the Black Sea, in a tea café in Rize, Turkey, and in a one-room house on the Turkey/Georgia border.
Another interesting facet of Sean’s trip was the micro-community of people cycling across the globe on bicycles. When he wintered in Tbilisi, he met dozens coming and going from the Pamir Mountains. Sean explains that Tbilisi is the perfect place to sit out the bad months of winter as you don’t need a visa for a year, there are plenty of hostels to work in, it is cheap and most people speak English.
He met, befriended and cycled with fellow adventurers. People such as James Owens and Ron Rutland, who were cycling from London to Tokyo, for the Rugby World Cup or his friend, Jacob, who had cycled over 91,000 km in four years.
Sean crossed into Iran from Astara, Azerbaijan, he was nervous, who wouldn’t be? However, he was bowled over with the friendliness and warm curiosity that he received. Everywhere he went, he was met with smiles and laughs. He tells me about his first night in Iran with his friend Mo –
“We camped that night behind a wall near an abandoned rice field. Who knew northwestern Iran’s biggest produce is rice! We were tired but happy and excited to see what Iran had in store for us. Our second night we camped on a beautiful Caspian beach. It was just too nice to not jump in the sea. We were also in bad need of a wash, not showering since Tbilisi, two countries ago. It was glorious! The water was a little cold but we didn’t care. Afterward, we cooked up a fine meal, well deserved after our dip in the sea.”
They stayed with a gentleman named Amin and his family in the city of Rasht, Iran who he met through Couchsurfing. They were very welcoming, so welcoming in fact that Sean and Mo were invited to a family wedding. Sean tells it, “So we put on our best dress, which to say the least is not much. For me my nice pair of hiking trousers, a clean sports polo, a clean fleece and my only pair of shoes, my dirty old runners. Mo was lucky, he was lent a shirt by Amin’s brother.” And away they went.
In North Iran, they camped inside Caravanserai – roadside inns that ancient Silk Road traders would rest in. Cars constantly stopped to give gifts of fruit. Indeed, throughout the trip, Sean encountered nothing malevolent. He explains that when you are on the bike, “people want to help you, as you look vulnerable”, he laughs, “there were lots of Mammies across the world wanting to mind me.”
Central Asia is an area of the world still cloaked in mystery and intrigue. One would be hard-pressed to draw a map of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Sean dove in, from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to the Pamirs, exploring the exotic, the unknown. They appear wild to us, but Sean found them to be welcoming, civil and beautiful. But tough…visas into Turkmenistan are difficult to come by, they refuse more than they grant, Sean was given a five-day transit visa, which meant covering 500km in five days. On one of the days of this Turkmenistan dash, he cycled 185km in rough terrain and furious headwinds from sunset to sunrise. Crossing into Tajikistan from Uzbekistan necessitated cycling through the Anzob Tunnel, aka the Tunnel of Death –
“Lucky for me the police had not arrived yet and I was free to cycle through. That was it, I was going to do it. I donned my headlamp and put my lights on. I took one last deep breath of fresh air and entered then black hole that lay ahead of me. I was very fortunate to have a very slow truck to draft behind. His rear lights lit up some of the tunnel, but with the amount of smoke and fumes inside it didn’t help much. It was 25 minutes of pure stress. Avoiding potholes that you can barely see. Filling your lungs with toxic fumes. The sound from the trucks and cars was deafening and really scary. Some parts of the tunnel were flooded too. It was so, so dark in there. It was definitely clear how the tunnel got its name. It really was a dangerous spot. Finally, I saw the light at the other side, emerging from the tunnel with an insane rush of relief and adrenaline, my face was black with smoke, my nose, and eyes filled with black awful goop. I was rewarded for my bravery or stupidity on the other side with 75km of pure descent to Dushanbe.”
In Tajikistan, he cycled over Ak Baital Pass, towering at 4,655 metres, which is the same height as Mount Blanc! People who have pedaled at that altitude are as rare as hen’s teeth. Indeed, he was over five weeks in the beautiful but grinding Pamirs, all the time over 2,500 metres, he suffered a loss of appetite, headaches, and nausea. But man, he endured, pedaling the Pamirs, at the top of Central Asia in the snow, gazing past herds of horses and yurts into Afghanistan. He says crossing into Kyrgyzstan was akin to entering Eden – green with good beers and good chocolate bars.
Inspirational stuff. It’s really striking, isn’t it? The fact that he powered himself from here to there on a bicycle. Just with his legs and a heart of steel. Sean is now back in Waterford, plotting his next adventure, some man…