About five years ago, a London doctor named Stephen Fabes left his life behind for the roads of the world. Four years later, I was fortunate to come across Stephen's blog (Cycling The Six) and was immediately blown away by a genuine narrative of people and place that transcends borders; his wry, honest insights on culture and poverty; and the immensity of the six continent journey itself. Since then, I've been following along as he makes his way to the final continent in his path: Asia. Currently in Kyrgyzstan, Stephen was able to take a moment to answer a few of my questions and affirm my sense that this isn't just some guy skipping from country to country and adventure to adventure on a shoestring budget: he's a man on a mission.
Your cycling journey began five years ago in a London pub garden and you've since biked over 76,000 km (the equivalent of 17 coast-to-coast trips in the United States). At what point did you see cycling six continents as something more than just an intriguing idea? How did you find yourself in front of St. Thomas' hospital on just two wheels and the whole world ahead of you?
I planned the trip in a pub, but when I waved goodbye to friends and family from London I cycled immediately back to that pub where I sat in some distress for about four hours wondering what I'd got myself into. The world seemed too big. I was unfit, underprepared and full of self-doubt. Thankfully I didn't come up with an excuse to quit that my friends and family would buy, so I set off, vowing to take one day at a time. I still do.
But the real crunch time arrived two years before I left, some time in 2008. I loved my job and had a close circle of friends in London. It seemed at best idiotic to leave all that behind. But I had a thirst for an adventure and I knew if I didn't at least set off, I'd regret it for forever.
Your blog provides some important perspective into the conditions of life in remote, impoverished areas of the world that rarely, if ever, see tourism. How has seeing these parts of the world changed you?
Fundamentally, it hasn't. But of course it has enlightened a new perspective, perhaps shifted my priorities. I'm interested in the health problems of marginalised people, and in the story of those who make it their place to help them. Much of these experiences I've left out of the blog and hope to include in a book one day. I've visited refugees in Myanmar with HIV, glue addicted street children, patients deformed from untreated leprosy and dying from hepatitis. Medicine is my passion, as is travel. I wanted to combine the two, learn about the needs of communities along the way and consider the obstacles to changing the lives of people at the physical or figurative edge of society. I'm only able to get a surface view as I don't live and work in these communities, but even so, it's been enlightening and invests my travels with a touch more purpose.
How do you fund your travels? What choices do you make when traveling to limit expenses?
I'm on a dirtbag budget. Splashing out involves buying some cheese. I ran out of money after three years on the road despite spending less than 10 dollars a day. For the last two and a half years I have survived mainly by writing features for travel and cycling magazines, and through giving presentations at private and international schools and public events (I give free ones to schools without the budget to pay speakers). Running out of money seemed like a shit reason to go home, so I had to get creative and figure out what portable skills I had because I didn't want to stop and work anywhere, but to keep moving. I wasn't much of a speaker or a writer – so I had to learn.
Have you ever wanted to give up and catch the next flight back to London? What was the closest you ever came to doing so? What kept you going?
There are times when the length of my journey really hits home. Recently I absent-mindedly tried to change gear whilst pushing a supermarket trolley – there was of course no grip shift, and I thought ‘yeah, maybe I should go home now!' But the tough times never last, and even though I'm a little burnt out (let's say I'm sizzling), I still love the road and realise I'll never have this amount of freedom again. I've honestly never considered giving up. The hardest times have been during a winter crossing of Mongolia – a lonely, difficult place, especially when it's minus 35 at night! But there's something alluring about the challenge. Harder than that was the knee injury I sustained in which a two cm chunk of cartilage sheared off my left femur. It happened only after 4 months of riding, and my dream felt in jeopardy. I stashed my bike in Istanbul and hitchhiked 3000 miles back across Europe to have surgery, after a brief rest I was back pedaling and I haven't been home since. The knee does flair up from time to time, and it's these out-of-control moments that worry me most.
What do you miss about home? How do you minimize homesickness after five years on the road?
I miss my collection of early 90's hip-hop on vinyl, my mum, my friends, and chocolate hobnobs. Not necessarily in that order.
I deal with homesickness by chatting away on Skype and by cajoling friends and family into visiting me, which they have done a number of times now.
Before you return to London in 2016, you're going to cycle the vast breadth of Asia. What are you looking forward to in this last leg of your journey?
So much! Predominantly the Pamirs and the Caucasus I think – I love big imposing landscapes, and the thrill of conquering mountain passes.
These questions are nearly impossible to narrow down for someone who's experienced life and culture in 59 countries, but we just had to ask... Which landscapes have made a lasting impression?
The Andes – especially the high mountain passes dividing Chile and Argentina (I crossed that border at ten different places). The Bolivian salt flats of course, and the experience of cycling over and sleeping on the frozen surface of Lake Khovsgol in northern Mongolia will always stay with me.
Which cultures and people have surprised you?
The entire Middle East is so full of hospitality and without the animosity that I think a lot of travelers come to expect. I was in Syria in the months before the war and it was incredibly welcoming. I was even thrown a birthday party in the desert and dressed up in Arabic clothes. One of my best memories. People in Myanmar were very kind as well, but in every single country I have been invited into homes for food or to stay the night. I have also slept in police stations, fire stations, schools, army barracks, hospitals, churches, monasteries, mosques and temples. In a shed with a buffalo. I just ask, and people help. It's that simple.
Which obstacles have been the most satisfying to overcome?
I always relish overcoming a physical obstacle – crossing the Andes or getting through the Mongolian winter with all my fingers and toes. But the mental battle is the harder one. You appreciate the little things more after a ride like this, and after months of loneliness, making new friends, or seeing old ones, is always exciting.
What advice would you give a beginner looking to see the world from a bicycle seat?
Document as much as you can. When you get home and the memories start to fade this is all you'll have to help recall the experience. Do whatever suits you. Keep a journal and if you have a penchant for writing, start a blog. Take good photos or video and get some tips before you set off. Remember also to document how you planned and prepared for the journey. It all takes time, energy and money, but it's good fun too.
Don't over-plan. Avoid the temptation to plan every detail of your journey before you leave. Chances are you'll meet other travelers, perhaps even other cyclists, and you'll get some inspiration about your next move. I relish that flexibility and enjoy making spontaneous decisions about the roads ahead.
Get off the beaten track. People are more welcoming and surprised to see you when you're away from other tourists. Take advantage of the bicycle, you have the perfect vehicle to see the world slowly and in detail. The world's roads are getting ever more dangerous and crowded by cars – so use the back roads.
Don't rush, enjoy the present. I met a number of cyclists rushing through at breakneck speed. Fine if you're chasing a world record or you're in a competition, but why else would you want to fly through? Savour the experience. Don't always take the shortest or easiest path. By setting a time limit you beef up the challenge but sacrifice something more important - the adventure. You may see a lot, but you experience little. The times I have felt most alive have not been on busy highways but on those rough tracks on the very edge of civilization, in those wild places.
Eat plenty! There's nothing more bleak or farcical than someone sporting baggy Spandex.
Don't believe the hype. Before I entered Africa I was assured it was the most dangerous, frustrating and incomprehensible continent on earth. I think I will remember Africa as the most life affirming, the most human and the most surprising. Throughout my journey I've heard warnings of ‘bad people' yet 99.9% of the people I met along the way were welcoming, open and friendly. You are much more intimately connected to people when you pass through on a bicycle; trust them and you will enjoy the ride even more.