Picture the scene. Claire Mason and her boyfriend Andre are hunched under a bridge in the harsh countryside of Myanmar, sheltering from a downpour of torrential rain. Mason begins to wonder whether travelling half-way across the world on just a bicycle was such a good idea.
On The Brink of Giving Up
Mason is on the brink of giving up. She’s lost half her tent and her possessions are completely soaked. Starving, cold and utterly exhausted, she speculates as to why she is putting herself through so much misery. Yet, as the dawn approaches and the weather clears, Mason gazes out over the horizon and breathes in the stillness of the rural landscape. For a moment, the utter silence of the world seems so precious, and she wishes she could wrap it up and keep it with her forever. Like Dorothy after being dropped in the middle of Munchkinland after a whirlwind tornado, she reimagines her end goal, her fantasia, her Oz: Tokyo!
The Kindness and Hospitality of Strangers
From ancient underground cities, mysterious burial mounds, wild landscapes and spectacular fortified churches, Claire and Andre had come a long way since the inception of their journey in East London. Leaving the smog-ridden, bustling city behind, in a quest for an exciting ethical adventure seemed a little daunting at first. Then, the unexpected kindness and hospitality of strangers changes everything.
Did you have a full plan/ travel itinerary before setting off?
“We had a vague plan of the places we wanted to go, but the plan changed constantly. That was one of the difficulties but also one best bits of travelling by bicycle. Sometimes it was hard to accept such uncertainty over where you would be next month, next week or even the next day, but that feeling was also exhilarating and liberating. It was great to be able to change our route at the drop of a hat if a local tipped us off on a beautiful place or must see site.
“We moulded our initial rough plan around places where we both had never been to and places we both had a desire to see. Eastern Europe, Central Asia, SE Asia etc…. However, it didn’t go exactly to plan. We had originally wanted to visit Iran. Sadly, due to a change in visa regulations we were not able to go. However, every change in our route has led to new adventures in really interesting places. Georgia, Azerbaijan, United Arab Emirates and Oman were a few countries that were not originally part of the trip, but have ended up being some of the most fascinating and colourful places we have cycled through”.
What were the absolute highlights of the trip? Why?
“Besides the big sights such as the Taj Mahal in India, Effuses in Turkey, the Wieliczka salt mine in Poland, we got to see many other gems which were off the beaten track; beautiful monasteries, ancient underground cities; mysterious burial mounds; wild landscapes and spectacular fortified churches. But the most memorable moments are those few seconds on the road where you are somewhere mind-blowingly beautiful with no-one around. It’s just you on your bike in the wild open spaces.
There is no question, the absolute highlight of the trip was definitely the people we met during our travels. So many people along the way showed us such incredible hospitality, and became firm friends of ours in a short space of time; we really hope our paths cross with them all again in the future.”
What were the challenges of the journey? What did you miss on the road?
“There were many moments where I questioned why I was making myself miserable by cycling through the mud in the rain, hungry, cold and tired. However, this never lasted longer than a few hours. We didn’t miss modern conveniences as much as we expected however, there were times when I would have killed for a clean, western-style toilet with running water!
“The hardest part of the trip was definitely missing my family and friends. Not being home for engagement parties, pregnancy announcements and even simple stuff like catching up over a pint in our local. It was also difficult to rely on one person to be your entire social support network. One person can’t fill all the roles that your friends and family used to and it can put a strain on your relationship! Spending 24 hours a day, every day with your partner was definitely hard for both of us at times; but I think it strengthened our relationship in a lot of ways and was good for us too.
“After eighteen long months of being on the road, you wouldn’t blame Mason for fantasying about hundreds of warm, happy faces lining the streets, waving flags and screaming their congratulations as she crossed her finish line. Alas, this was not to be, “We soon realised though that two people cycling to Japan wasn’t really that big of a deal”. The less than romantic image of two sweaty Westerners, huffing and puffing as they stepped away from their bikes, was as Mason puts it – “anti-climactic”.
Yet, as she said her goodbyes to Tokyo, Andre and the journey they had travelled, the feeling of incompletion nabbed at her.
When did the idea for the journal come about? What is the message behind it?
“Travelling by bicycle from London to Tokyo opened my eyes to discovering countries in a whole new way, and I wanted to reflect on my experiences by keeping a daily journal. I liked the idea of blogging but we had limited access to internet and in the end I really enjoyed having something tangible and capturing my memories not only in words but also sketching and sticking mementos into it like a scrap book. The journal I used was good, but I wanted to design one specific to cycle touring, organised in a way to make it easier to capture the details of life on the road…and so the Cycling Travel Journal was born! We hope to inspire people to embark on their own adventures and tell their stories using our journal.”
Why was it so important to you to make the journal out of eco-friendly/sustainable products?
“The sustainability of the journal was of huge importance to us. Whilst cycling across Europe and Asia, I witnessed first hand the devastation we are all causing and both Andre and I wanted to minimise the impact our journal had on the environment. We chose an eco-friendly workers cooperative printing company based down the road from where we live in East London to reduce the miles the journal will travel! It is made from recycled paper and recycled envelopes, vegetable-oil based biodegradable inks, and using renewable energy. However, the bit we are most proud of is the rubber band! We both spent weeks and weeks researching the most sustainable and ethical way to keep the journal together. This search led us down quite the rabbit hole and we almost lost our minds weighing up air miles versus fair trade versus eco-friendly! In the end we opted for a rubber band from a german company which uses 100% natural latex with no additional fillers. In addition the rubber production follows the strict standards of the FSC and environmental and social considerations are taken into account to the final product.”
Through all the trial and tribulations, having lost socks, tents and occasional patience, Mason gained a stronger sense of security for herself. Having faced the tough roads of rural Europe, encountering dozens of people who welcomed them with open arms and a warm bed for the night, the world began to feel a little lighter than it had before.
What did you learn over the course of the journey? Did it change you in anyway?
“I would say the trip definitely changed me in three ways. The first and most important is that I feel my whole perspective on the world has shifted somewhat. It sounds a little corny but I really am convinced that the world is mostly filled with nice and kind people who are curious and want to help, of course this is not true of everyone, but I think when you are at home watching tv and absorbing the media it is easy to become convinced the world is a scary place, full of people who want to do you some harm and it’s just not true! I feel much more positive about the human race and life in general than I did before the bike trip, and less scared to just go and explore it. Secondly, I would like to be more generous to my fellow humans; the generosity we have been shown along our trip has blown us away and made us question how we would have treated travellers in our home countries before the trip. Hand on heart I am not sure I would have been half as generous or patient as many of the people we have met and I aim to change this in the future. And lastly, I am not so worried about the future and whether growing up and perhaps having a family will spell the end of my travelling days. We have met so many people travelling the world from all different walks of life and of all different ages. We have also met quite a few families with young children doing huge round the world trips in camper vans. This is something that excites me and makes me feel optimistic for the future and the adventures still to come.”
“On a much smaller scale I am now okay with wearing the same pair of socks two days in a row – never used to seem okay before!” To read more about Claire Mason’s adventures by bicycle, visit her website punctures and panniers here
Interview as Told By Claire Mason to Kevin Worrall. Edited By Alison Jane Reid.
Pictures Courtesy of Claire Mason.
Now enter our exclusive competition to win one of Claire’s handmade ethical travel journalists or a beautiful illustration from the journal.
Where did Claire locate a 100% natural latex rubber band to bind her journal?
To enter, visit our Facebook page, like us and leave your answer there! Two winners will be chosen at random from all the correct entries.
Closing Date December December 31st 2016