Cycling in countries not normally on the tourist trail – and in some cases considered outright dangerous – was the goal of Dan Martin when he set out to cycle from Korea to Cape Town.
Along the way, he discovered the hidden gems within countries that most cyclists don’t go to and in this column he shares some of his experience, gleaned along the way.
In 2009, Dan is setting off on another big journey. His Global Triathlon will take him from New York to France by swimming across the Atlantic. From there, he’ll ride his old trusty bike Cecile across Europe and through Siberia during winter, reaching the Bering Straits in February. He’ll complete the loop by hiking and running from there to New York.
But first, Dan takes time out of his busy training regime to answer 10 Questions for us on cycling in extreme places.
1. There are so many nice, calm places in the world. Why would you go somewhere as extreme as the countries you’ve visited? Is it just bragging rights or is there another reason?
I think dangerous places are all about perception. If you believe the news then you’d never leave western Europe and yet every cyclist and traveller I’ve ever met has countless stories of amazing hospitality and warmth from these ‘dangerous’ places. My home town of Peterborough is far more dangerous than any place I’ve been. You are far more likely to be mugged and robbed in the US and major European cities than in the Middle East and Africa.
Obviously there’s a difference between the danger of cycling through third world countries and countries that have specific threats of war, terrorism, disease and extreme conditions. I think one of the main reasons I do these trips is to experience the struggle-we’re so wrapped in cotton wool in our day to day lives, struggle and danger is kept at bay by over zealous health and safety rules and our twitchy media.
I remember on my first trip cycling from London to Cape Town through the Middle East and down the East Coast of Africa I was petrified of heading into Syria and Sudan and yet these two places really stand out as beacons of hospitality and were two of the highlights. With this in mind I planned the next trip to try and highlight how amazing some of these ‘evil’ places are. I did my research and never took an uninformed decision or unnecessary risk but I wanted to show that if I could cycle through these areas then perhaps they’re not all rammed with terrorism and murder. I think I just wanted people to think of Afghanistan and Iraq and think about me pedalling through before they jumped on the ‘axis of evil’ band wagon.
2. When you’re dealing with places off the beaten track, how do you assess if it is safe?
Good question-and the answer is…well it depends what you mean by safe!
The biggest danger of a cycle tour is the cycling-traffic can be nightmarishly shocking and takes some getting used to. Two cities that stand out for me for having bad traffic are Cairo and Lagos. There are no road rules and everyone is out for themselves-as soon as you work these rules out then attacking the traffic becomes fun. It’s not like in England where cars speed by at 70mph not expecting to see anything out of the ordinary. Drivers in Cairo struggle to get up any speed in the mess that is the road system and they are always expecting a donkey to run out of an alley, some kids to run out in front of them, expecting that car in the right hand lane to pull a U-turn to the left. It is chaos but with the right frame of mind it’s fun!
I presume by safe though you’re not talking about traffic. When it comes to personal safety you have to make the decision yourself, you need to take on advice from every source and then make your own informed decision-it’s your life.
I usually check the FCO and Lonely Planet Thorn Tree websites and ask local expats and locals-I then take all this info with a pinch of salt! Expats are scared of their own shadows and live in fear of stories blown out of proportion at cocktail parties. The FCO has to err on the side of caution. Lonely Planet has some great contributors and you can usually get a pretty good idea about a place from people who have already been there. I always try and network some local contacts ahead of time so I’m not cycling into a hotspot without some help at hand. In short-you can’t have too much information!
3. How do you find the reputation of the countries you’ve been to compares to the experience you have once you’re there?
On my last trip I went through North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria and South Africa and the only two countries that lived up to their reputation were Nigeria and South Africa. I found that countries that have a reputation for terrorism were massively friendly and almost tried to overcompensate for their reputation in the west.
Countries that have a reputation for aggression, however, usually lived up to them! The good thing I found about most countries was that they have the ability to separate a country’s government and armed forces from the general population. I can’t remember how many times I was told that they hated Bush/Blair but loved the American and British people. They all love Manchester United and Chelsea and all listen to Eminem and 50 Cent-I remember seeing some 50Cent graffiti in the citadel in Arbil, Iraq.
4. What do you tell your family and how do they react?
I always tell my brother where I am and usually let a few people know my schedule but I’ve found that ignorance is bliss for Mum and Dad! My parents tell me that they don’t worry, that they’ve done their job in bringing me up and that they know I wouldn’t purposely put myself in danger. I know they worry really though!
5. Tell us about a time when you felt you’d got in over your head and how you dealt with it?
I try and keep myself in relatively over my head for the majority of the time! Quite often things escalate out of your hands and all you can do then is to try and calm the situation down-this in some cases mean to be more assertive and take charge. I was in the desert in the Sinai on my last trip and a young soldier came out of the desert and asked for my passport and then stepped back and pointed his machine gun at me. I was furious and shouted him down. Thinking about it afterwards he was probably thinking he was just doing his job-he couldn’t have been more than eighteen.
I think the only real time I’ve genuinely felt that I was doing something dangerous was crossing a landslide in China. My heart was in my mouth for all three trips across-it was a stupid thing to do, I knew it at the time and for some reason I did it anyway. I’ve been shot at, lynched and robbed but all of those were out of my hands so there’s not a lot I can do about them.
6. Which was your favourite ‘forbidden’ country?
North Korea was the most interesting country I’ve ever been to. Yes, I had to go on an organised tour but even from this glimpse the place amazes me. I had lived in South Korea for a year and had completely bought into the South Korean/American viewpoint of the evil communists of the north. I expected to see slums and shanty towns and most of all a broken people. What I found was the opposite. I found a people genuinely proud of being Korean (be it naively or brainwashed). I loved this as living in the South I’d seen so much of the Korean-ness of the place swallowed up by the all encompassing aim of wanting to become like America.
The people were poor and the government corrupt but no more than I’d seen elsewhere in other third world countries. I thought I’d be marshalled from propaganda post to propaganda post but in the tour of the DMZ (the border with the South) I found much less in your face than the propaganda in the South. A lot of the stories about the war and the ceasefire since were started with ‘We believe this happened…’ rather than the more blunt terminology of the South. We were given and amazing amount of freedom for what I thought would be a militantly strict tour. I was allowed to speak to who I wanted to. We went to an amusement park and hung out with some of the families on their national day. I’d thoroughly recommend the tour to anyone with so much as a vague interest in history. This is a peek behind the old Iron Curtain.
Now I know people will disagree with this and I know I was on a tour and could have been completely hoodwinked by the system but I enjoyed my time there. I think I particularly enjoyed it because it was the country with the biggest difference from my preconceptions.
7. Any one you wouldn’t go back to?
8. Did you have any challenges getting visas for these places?
I’ve only really struggled getting visas for Libya, Algeria and Angola. All the other places it’s normally just a case of waiting for the visa to come. I find that these enforced stops are usually the highlights of the trip. Having some time to genuinely get to know an area and meet some people for longer than a couple of hours.
9. As you cycle through more and more extreme places, do you find the ‘ordinary’ spots boring or do you still see a beauty in them?
I do find that it is getting harder and harder to wow me-harder, but not impossible. I think this is less to do with going to ‘extreme’ places rather just being on the road for so long.
10. What’s the best tip you have for a cyclist who’s interested in some of these less travelled regions?
Over-prepare and then go with the flow. Find out everything you can, become the world expert on the area you’re going through and then throw that out the window and listen to the locals.
Thanks to Dan Martin for answering 10 Questions.
Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling in forbidden countries:
- Lonely Planet Thorn Tree
If you’d like to answer 10 questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.
31st December 2009 at 2:15 am #
You’ve been lynched? Really? Now *that’s* a story. Or does being lynched have a different definition outside of America (where it means to be hung)?
Loving the 10 Questions series!
31st December 2009 at 7:11 am #
I think lynching can also mean to be attacked and hurt by a mob, but I’ll get in touch with Dan and ask him to tell the story…
14th July 2022 at 6:02 am #
I wish to convey my appreciation for your generosity for all those that need guidance on this one question. Your real dedication to getting the message throughout had become exceptionally beneficial and has really enabled girls just like me to realize their targets. Your own valuable tips and hints indicates a whole lot a person like me and especially to my peers. Thanks a lot; from everyone of us.
22nd July 2022 at 12:48 pm #
I have to point out my respect for your generosity giving support to folks who must have help with this niche. Your real dedication to passing the solution all-around came to be surprisingly useful and have consistently empowered individuals just like me to arrive at their objectives. Your new warm and friendly help and advice entails this much to me and somewhat more to my colleagues. Regards; from each one of us.
1st August 2022 at 6:22 am #
I am only commenting to let you understand of the outstanding discovery our girl enjoyed going through your site. She discovered plenty of things, most notably what it’s like to have an incredible giving character to have many others smoothly grasp selected very confusing issues. You really did more than our own desires. I appreciate you for rendering these great, healthy, edifying and unique tips on that topic to Julie.
1st August 2022 at 6:22 am #
I wish to get across my love for your generosity in support of people that absolutely need help on this important area of interest. Your very own commitment to getting the message up and down appeared to be astonishingly powerful and has in most cases allowed employees like me to realize their aims. Your own informative recommendations implies much to me and far more to my mates. With thanks; from each one of us.
2nd November 2022 at 9:20 pm #
I must express some thanks to the writer for bailing me out of this type of incident. Right after surfing throughout the online world and seeing views which were not powerful, I was thinking my entire life was well over. Living devoid of the approaches to the issues you’ve fixed through your good post is a crucial case, and the kind which could have in a negative way damaged my entire career if I hadn’t come across the blog. Your primary mastery and kindness in dealing with all the stuff was very useful. I’m not sure what I would have done if I hadn’t come across such a step like this. It’s possible to at this time look ahead to my future. Thanks very much for your specialized and result oriented guide. I won’t hesitate to refer your site to any individual who will need care on this problem.
3rd November 2022 at 8:49 am #
I’m commenting to make you understand what a fantastic encounter my wife’s daughter encountered reading through yuor web blog. She realized some issues, most notably how it is like to have an awesome teaching nature to make men and women without problems learn about selected impossible subject matter. You undoubtedly did more than my expected results. Many thanks for churning out the productive, safe, explanatory and even easy tips on the topic to Julie.
5th November 2022 at 11:23 am #
I have to show my affection for your kindness in support of men and women who must have guidance on this content. Your very own commitment to getting the message throughout came to be particularly functional and has continuously made people like me to attain their aims. Your informative recommendations indicates a whole lot to me and much more to my office workers. Warm regards; from each one of us.
5th November 2022 at 11:24 am #
Needed to write you one very little observation to be able to thank you very much yet again considering the stunning things you have shown at this time. This is simply surprisingly open-handed with you to convey unhampered what a few people could have sold as an ebook in making some cash for themselves, most notably since you might have done it in case you desired. The techniques likewise acted like a great way to fully grasp many people have similar dream the same as my own to know a good deal more when it comes to this matter. I know there are several more fun sessions up front for folks who view your blog.
6th November 2022 at 12:15 am #
I simply wanted to jot down a remark to say thanks to you for some of the fabulous pointers you are sharing at this site. My extended internet investigation has finally been recognized with reasonable know-how to talk about with my friends. I ‘d say that most of us readers actually are definitely endowed to dwell in a superb community with very many brilliant individuals with insightful concepts. I feel extremely happy to have discovered your entire website and look forward to many more fun moments reading here. Thanks a lot again for a lot of things.
9th November 2022 at 3:18 pm #
I’m commenting to make you know what a incredible discovery my cousin’s princess found browsing your blog. She picked up such a lot of issues, including what it is like to have an incredible giving mood to get others completely gain knowledge of a number of impossible subject areas. You truly surpassed her expectations. Thanks for displaying such productive, trusted, explanatory not to mention cool thoughts on your topic to Emily.
9th November 2022 at 3:18 pm #
I wish to get across my gratitude for your kind-heartedness giving support to people who really want help on this particular study. Your very own commitment to getting the message around came to be pretty useful and have surely encouraged people like me to realize their desired goals. Your personal interesting publication can mean so much to me and a whole lot more to my mates. Best wishes; from each one of us.
10th November 2022 at 3:43 am #
I am just writing to make you understand of the exceptional discovery my cousin’s girl experienced using your blog. She learned plenty of issues, which include what it’s like to have a marvelous helping spirit to let a number of people effortlessly fully understand specific advanced issues. You actually did more than her expected results. I appreciate you for churning out the essential, trusted, educational and even easy tips on this topic to Ethel.
10th November 2022 at 3:44 am #
I precisely wished to thank you very much once more. I am not sure what I would have sorted out in the absence of the actual points shown by you on my problem. It previously was a daunting situation in my view, nevertheless seeing a professional form you solved the issue took me to jump over joy. I am happier for this information and in addition trust you find out what a great job you have been putting in training others thru a web site. I am certain you haven’t met any of us.
10th November 2022 at 3:44 am #
I precisely needed to appreciate you once more. I do not know what I would’ve taken care of without these strategies discussed by you regarding such a question. It previously was the challenging circumstance in my opinion, nevertheless discovering the very specialized style you managed the issue took me to jump for delight. I am thankful for this support as well as believe you recognize what a great job you have been putting in educating the mediocre ones using your websites. I know that you haven’t come across any of us.
20th November 2022 at 11:15 pm #
I wish to convey my love for your kind-heartedness in support of folks that need guidance on this idea. Your real commitment to passing the message all-around had been surprisingly valuable and has surely permitted associates just like me to achieve their desired goals. This warm and helpful facts denotes a great deal a person like me and substantially more to my fellow workers. Regards; from all of us.
21st November 2022 at 10:31 am #
I would like to voice my respect for your kind-heartedness giving support to visitors who require guidance on this one niche. Your personal dedication to passing the solution along has been amazingly helpful and has always helped girls just like me to achieve their aims. Your entire interesting tips and hints indicates this much a person like me and especially to my office workers. Thanks a lot; from each one of us.
21st November 2022 at 11:24 pm #
I wish to show my passion for your kindness for those people who actually need help with your matter. Your special dedication to getting the solution all through came to be surprisingly significant and have empowered people just like me to get to their endeavors. Your entire insightful information indicates a lot to me and far more to my mates. Many thanks; from each one of us.
24th November 2022 at 4:38 pm #
I have to voice my gratitude for your kind-heartedness giving support to those who have the need for help with your subject. Your personal commitment to getting the solution up and down had become particularly useful and have in most cases empowered those just like me to realize their objectives. The warm and helpful facts can mean much to me and far more to my office workers. Regards; from all of us.
25th November 2022 at 7:41 pm #
I have to show my thanks to the writer for bailing me out of this setting. Just after browsing throughout the the web and meeting basics that were not powerful, I believed my life was gone. Being alive without the strategies to the problems you have fixed by means of your main short post is a crucial case, and those which might have in a wrong way damaged my career if I had not encountered your blog. Your own expertise and kindness in handling almost everything was very useful. I’m not sure what I would’ve done if I hadn’t discovered such a subject like this. I’m able to at this point look ahead to my future. Thanks very much for your specialized and results-oriented guide. I will not be reluctant to propose the blog to any individual who wants and needs assistance about this area.
1st December 2022 at 12:26 pm #
I am commenting to make you know of the brilliant discovery my cousin’s girl experienced studying your blog. She came to understand numerous things, which include how it is like to have an excellent teaching nature to have other individuals completely know precisely certain impossible topics. You undoubtedly did more than my expectations. Many thanks for distributing such beneficial, dependable, edifying and as well as easy tips on that topic to Ethel.
1st December 2022 at 12:27 pm #
I want to point out my love for your kindness giving support to persons who really need guidance on this one area of interest. Your special dedication to getting the message all over appears to be extraordinarily powerful and has specifically enabled employees just like me to realize their ambitions. Your entire interesting report signifies this much to me and even further to my peers. Thanks a ton; from everyone of us.
29th May 2023 at 11:07 am #
Thanks for each of your labor on this site. Betty loves carrying out investigations and it’s really easy to see why. Most of us hear all of the lively mode you offer informative tactics via the blog and as well boost contribution from other ones on the idea and my child is undoubtedly discovering a great deal. Have fun with the remaining portion of the year. You are conducting a really good job.