They’ve been on the road since 2011, taken in 19 countries, and are now in Siem Reap. But Roberto Gallegos and Annika Wachter haven’t caught one plane on their travels – they believe that pedal power is the way forward and that riding bicycles long distance is an “excellent way to get to know our planet and the different people who live in it.”
German Annika and Mexican Roberto went roaming by bike back in September 2011. Living in Germany at the time, they had no major plan apart from heading east.
“Malaysia was the first big goal,” says Annika. “We thought we’d head there and then see. We didn’t even know if we’d continue all the time by bike because I, for my part, had never done a bike trip before. I’ve always wanted to travel the world but actually bikes scared me in the beginning.
“With all that baggage, I thought it must be really hard, and I didn’t think I was sporty enough to do it. But on our first day we made 55km which was the longest bike day ever for me and it was great.”
As a fallback, the pair took backpacks in case they got sick of cycling or it became unfeasible.
Roberto and Annika started in Europe, making their way through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and eventually into Southeast Asia.
“Things got a little bit more difficult when we got to Serbia where there are no bicycle lanes,” says Roberto. “But then you get used to it and once you get used to the life, you’re there.”
Kyrgyzstan presented their greatest challenge when they ran into difficulties in the icy Taklamakan desert.
“It’s 4000km of desert and it was minus 20 degrees,” says Roberto. “The problem was our equipment – we just had our normal clothing. We had gone up the Alabel Pass and we were celebrating. But when we went down the sun had already set and it was so cold that the wind was chilling our hands. Annika and I felt our hands were freezing – we couldn’t even move them.”
The pair was forced to catch a lift with a passing truck driver, and later had to take a 55 hour bus journey through the desert.
This setback aside, from China they continued into Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, with Malaysia and Singapore next on the agenda.
Astonishingly, all this biking was not carried out on top-of-the-range touring bikes, but on two-wheelers costing under $100.
“I didn’t want to spend a lot of money because I had no idea how long we were going to do this for,” says Annika. “So I thought I’d just get something cheap, but good. I got it on eBay for 75 euros (US$98). I bought it to the bike shop and asked if there were any upgrades I could do so it would take me more or less to Asia. They laughed and said the bike wouldn’t make it out of the country.”
Roberto adds, “You can actually travel a long, long distance – I’m talking more than 5000km – with a normal, 7-gear bicycle if you take good care of it, and if you stay on the roads.”
Both feel cycling “strengthens social empathy”. To fund their travels, they write articles, a blog and e-books – Roberto’s guide to cycle touring, written in Spanish for Mexicans, and Annika’s on how to tour on a budget.
“We’re also working on a project called Tasting Travels,” says Roberto, “Which promotes bike travel as a means to strengthen social empathy. We try to seek opportunities where we can promote this message, to show the possibilities of the bicycle.
“We think the bicycle is probably one of mankind’s best inventions because it’s healthy, friendly, clean and removes barriers. And it’s not only about the people, it’s about the environment – you feel the rain, you feel the sun.
Inside a car, you’re isolated from those things.”
Roberto says their travel has led them to believe the bicycle can “stitch relationships.”
“We have so many examples of how bike travel has given us the opportunity to make new friends,” he says. “Also I think that every time we enter a country, we become something of it. In China our pace was probably a little fast, but when we entered Cambodia everything was more relaxed. With cycling, you take on a little bit of the country, it’s in you. That’s how we feel.”
The two cyclists say they have been won over by Cambodia, after entering the Kingdom in the north at Steung Treng.
“The route was very close to the Mekong so it was village after village with the kids waving and shouting hello,” says Roberto. “There’s an image I’m going to take with me my whole life. We were cycling and there was this group of kids who were very excited. And then I saw this little girl on top of a bicycle, she was saying hello, and she only had one leg.”
“But I barely noticed it. I looked at her face, and saw her happiness and that’s it. That just teaches me that sometimes you want to see what you want to see.”