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: