Jonathan Kambskard-Bennett had never cycled more than 10 miles in his life when he began his 3-year trip around the world. A total novice, he barely even knew how to change a flat tyre. “But that’s what makes it fun!” he says. “Every day was a learning curve”.
Jonathan’s journey took him 30,000 miles across 42 countries for a total of 639 days. He recounts tales of wild camping at temperatures as low as -20 degrees to being invited for Easter Sunday lunch by a Romanian Grandmother and hanging out with the Kazakh military and.
We spoke to Jonathan to find out more about his trip and how he handled 3-years of cycling around the globe.
What kind of cyclist were you before you left on your trip? Did you enjoy cycling?
For me, cycling has always been functional. I never used to ride for pleasure or for exercise, it was just a convenient (and cheap) way to get around. When I was cycling around the world people often laughed when I told them I didn’t really like cycling that much. I loved the way in which cycling enabled me to see the planet, but I never really cared that much about the actual act of sitting on my arse and pedalling all day. Now that I’m in an office I’m heading out for leisurely rides at the weekend – it’s actually the first time in my life that I’ve been out riding for pleasure!
What pre-journey planning – if any – did you do?
A large part of the appeal for this trip was about cycling the Silk Road and exploring Central Asia. The only road I really knew I wanted to cycle before leaving was the ‘Pamir Highway’ from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan, so much of my initial planning – albeit minimal – revolved around getting there.
Most of it was pretty ‘go with the flow’, but you’d be surprised how much of it makes itself up for you when you start looking at the map. For example: crossing from Europe to Asia isn’t straight forward. Riding through Pakistan/Afghanistan isn’t very safe, and you’ll probably be forced to take a police escort – if you want to ride every metre (like myself) it’s not an option.
If you want to ride across Russia, you’ll find getting the visa and freedom pretty tough. If you go ‘through the middle’ and cross the Middle East in Iran, you need to get through Turkmenistan, but the Turkmen will only give you a 5 day ‘transit’ visa.
After all this – there is actually only one road left, so your choice of route from Europe to Asia has been reduced to just one road!
Your initial plan was just to head off east. At what point did it transform into a journey around the world?
I’m not entirely sure to be honest! I think I probably started thinking about it just after I’d been on the road for a year (when I was in China). It was around that time that I realised I definitely had it in me to reach Australia and so I think I started wondering – ‘what next after that’? I remember Googling what counted as an ‘around the world journey’ but I didn’t commit to the idea until I took a break in Australia to earn some money.
Did you ever just want to stop? What kept you going day after day?
Not really! There were difficult times, don’t get me wrong. There were moments when I felt wildly out of my depth; scared, lost and homesick but usually I knew that there would be light at the end of the tunnel if I just kept cracking on. The positive times always massively outweighed the negative ones.
The only time I really wanted to pack it in was in North West China. Winter was arriving quickly – the nights were starting to hit -10C and it was only getting colder. The daylight hours were short and I hated being in my tent for so long out in the desert. I had a lot of trouble from the authorities up there (Xinjiang is a pretty ‘sensitive’ province in China) and I found it hard to engage with the Chinese during my first month in the country. But it would have been such a faff to get home that it was actually easier just to keep on riding. Sure enough – things got better once I started climbing up onto the Tibetan Plateau (although a lot colder!) and I ended up loving the country.
You did a load of wild camping. What were the best places you stayed? What were the weirdest?
The best places were the most beautiful ones. Although I had lots of memorable nights camping amongst locals and making new friends, the best part of camping is to get lost in nature.
When you need a place to sleep, anywhere becomes a potential spot: I went through an odd faze of camping underneath motorways in China and often pitched in abandoned buildings.
My two rules for wild camping are this: either camp where no one will possibly find you, or camp where people know you are there. The one thing I never wanted was for strangers to find my tent in the middle of the night (although it occasionally happened)!
Are you glad you cycled solo?
I am glad I cycled solo but I didn’t really do it out of choice – I just did so because no one wanted to come with me! I loved the times I cycled with other people but I also realise that lots of wonderful opportunities presented themselves because I was riding solo. I think strangers are much more likely to approach you and extend a helping hand when you are on your own.
Travelling on your own can obviously be risky at some points – when do you think you felt most uncomfortable and in danger?
I never really felt that uncomfortable or in any real danger. I met a few ‘dodgy’ people along the way but generally I was more concerned with my wellbeing. For example – getting frostbite sleeping in cold temperatures or suffering from heat stroke in the desert. I was also aware that in very remote areas, all it would take would be one bad accident and I’d be in serious trouble.
In contrast to that – what were the highlights of the trip? The memories that you think you’ll share most often?
Probably the most memorable moment was arriving in Darwin, Australia. Even though I’d taken my first plane of the trip (an hour long crossing from Dili in Timor-Leste), it was the most important milestone I ever hit. There were many times when I thought I’d never make it, so it was an empowering moment.
How important do you think it is to be willing to embrace the unknown to do something like this in the first place?
Very important! Taking that initial ‘leap of faith’ is the fear that cripples most of our dreams for adventure. Many of us find that we are capable of all sorts once we have stepped outside our comfort zone but taking that first step is always the hardest part.
What advice would you have for people who are looking to embark upon an adventure, but are unsure how to take the first steps?
I would say – just go it for it! If my adventure has proved one thing, it was that you don’t need to be an expert to start. Learning on the job is certainly a steep learning curve but absolutely the most beneficial. You will make mistakes at first – but that is all part of the experience.
Click here to read more about Jonathan’s cycling trip around the world.