We are Katrien and Kobe. Two 24 year old Belgians that just graduated as environmental engineers traveling the world by bike!
We’ve been together for more than four years and have always dreamed of making a long trip after finishing our studies. So we saved some money and just went for it! During our studies we were regularly confronted with climate change and the impact we as humans have on our planet. Before leaving we tried to live consciously: eating vegetarian, reducing our waste production, buying second hand … We knew from the start that our trip should not involve us flying all over the planet, we needed to move in a more environmentally friendly way. After a long decision process, the bicycle was the only option that made sense!
We like to think of ourselves as the perfect travel team:
Kobe is a cheerful and enthusiastic adventurer, always up for trying new things. He is really sociable and great at connecting to people at first sight. Also, he is the handy man and expert navigator of the two of us. He’s also chaotic and easily distracted. Luckily Katrien is always there to temper Kobe’s many impulses. Katrien is the calmer one. She likes to observe the world and listen to peoples stories to then contemplate all these impressions on the bike. She is always considering our next steps, carefully observes the budget and collects our memories in a journal and shares the most lovely ones on social media (Instagram: @katrienenkobeopavontuur). We find each other in our curiosity and our desire to see the world as it really is.
We both knew we wanted to travel for a long time. When we were finishing our studies we knew we were not ready for the typical commitments that come after: finding a long term job, buying a house or car, marriage, having children …
We decided to travel because we wanted to be outside, exploring beautiful nature, and to see how people live their lives in other countries with our own eyes. How and where remained uncertain for a long time. It was only about one year before we departed that we decided to travel by bike. It was a scary idea at first. We thought that people traveling by bike were crazy sportspeople, that we would never be able to do it ourselves. Only after talking to some people who had actually done it, reading some blogs online and following many instagram accounts, we decided that it would be the perfect way of travelling for us.
By traveling with our bikes we can almost eliminate the environmental impact of our transport completely, which was very important to us, but not the only reason we chose bike touring. We have always loved adventurous travel, hiking, camping … and want to spend as much time possible outdoors, in nature. We also liked the idea of traveling slowly, and exploring places that tourists or backpackers usually don’t travel to. With our bikes, we often spend a few days cycling through small villages before reaching a big city or a touristic highlight. We are fast enough to actually go to many places on our trip, but slow enough to really soak up the environment and observe peoples daily lives. We carry everything we need ourselves, and we are not dependent on other people for our transport. This means that we can go wherever we want, whenever we want, which is a huge advantage. Finally, being on a bike allows for a lot of interaction with locals. We can easily greet people as we go, and often strike up conversations with the people we encounter on the street.
An Albanian family invited us to stay with them. They gave us dinner a nice google translate conversation and a warm bed!
Local Turkish workers came to us and offered us lahmacun and turkish tea.
Our adventure started in October 2019 in Belgium, where we waved goodbye to our families and got on our bikes, telling our friends and family “we are cycling to China”.
China is indeed the furthest East we are planning to go, but we don’t consider it our destination. We are travelling through many interesting countries and we determined our route based on all places that seem interesting to us. The first weeks we cycled through mostly familiar places: our own country, Belgium, Luxemburg, France, Germany and Austria. We slowly made our way South and East via the Balkans and Greece and ended up cycling in Turkey.
This journey has taken us 5 months, and we have covered 6758 km so far.
We would continue our way through Georgia and Azerbaijan, over the Caspian Sea, through the steppes and mountains of central Asia, via India, Nepal and Southeast Asia into China and on to Bejing. There we could travel back to Europe via the trans Siberian Railway and cycle the last stretch to Belgium. We have no exact route planned yet, we take it country by country and love asking locals about nice places to visit. Some countries are too big to cycle through all the way, and in the future, we might resort to taking some trains, or hitchhiking, especially in Kazachstan and Uzbekistan. We would love to finish this journey without flying, but are still hesitant about cycling through Pakistan. We’ll have to decide soon, though, because of some visa applications.
In total, we would cycle an estimated 25.000 km.
We had planned to travel for about 18 months, but we are starting to have the feeling it will take longer. We love cycling, but moving constantly can be tiring and we would love to take some more longer breaks in the future. During these breaks we want to spend time volunteering in interesting ecological or social projects we find along the way.
The original plan:
& then corona happened...
The map above shows our plan before the coronavirus started hitting Europe. We were in Turkey at that moment and the borders around us were closing. Our travel insurance called us to let us know we were no longer covered for corona related costs. The embassy continuously advised us to go home as soon as possible because they couldn’t predict the future. Because we did not want to get stuck there for an indefinite amount of time, and because we started realising the seriousness of this crisis, we decided to fly home. We did not want to risk getting sick or spreading the disease, because as cyclists we would not be able to properly quarantine ourselves.
Right now we are safe in Belgium, looking for a meaningful way to spend our time before we can start travelling again. Most likely, we will stay here for another year or so, before we head back to Turkey by public transport to resume our trip.
Every day on our trip is special, but some memories stick with us more than others:
One of the most interesting and humbling experiences we had so far was in Kavala, Greece. Via another cyclist who was two days ahead of us, we were brought into contact with Noor, an Afghan refugee living in the Kavala refugee camp. Noor invited us into his small home in the camp, where he lived with his wife and three children. They cooked an amazing Afghan lunch for us and we stayed for a few hours, talking about their journey to Greece, life in the refugee camp and their hopes for the future. Noor and his family were so kind to us even though they did not have much. We thought about this experience a lot in the days after, and it really put our whole trip in a new light.
It made us realise even more how privileged we are to be able to travel so easily. We have a strong passport, good health insurance, plenty of savings on the bank and a safe home to return to, while others need to secretly cross borders at night, put their families in dangerous boats and pay thousands of dollars to smugglers, just to find a safe place to live.
It is so unfair that your country of birth, skin color or religion determines how easy your life is. We think it is important to constantly remember this while travelling, so that we don’t take our luck for granted.
Resting at Nuur’s place in the Kavala refugee camp.
The best moments on our trip usually involve the people we meet along the way. One of our favourite moments is the night we ended up dancing the sirtaki at a party of retired airforce officers in Greece.
We met Stavros, an ex -airforce engineer, at the side of the road when we were looking at the map. He asked if he could help us, and we said we were looking for a place to pitch our tent. With his car, he escorted us to a little field near a church. When we arrived there, he said we could also sleep in his house if we wanted to. Of course we did not refuse this offer and we spent a comfortable night in his backyard studio, thinking this was the end of the story.
Stavros had some more things planned for us though. He instructed us to go to the next village where he had a friend who makes mosaic. We could get a tour of his workshop before we went on. We arrived there and were introduced to his friend Grigoris, a retired pilot, who told us the mosaic could wait: he had caught a fish and lobster and wanted us to join for lunch. We ate the best grilled fish of our lives and had lobster for the very first time. We spend the whole afternoon there, talking about our travel plans, showing our homes on google street view and eventually had a look at the mosaic.
A while later, we were instructed to get into the car to visit yet another friend. As a true airforce pilot, Grigoris raced us over small, unlit mountain roads to the friend’s house. This is how we ended up at the party. We had some amazing greek food and lot’s of wine and after dinner everyone started singing and dancing. We didn’t know the songs and did not speak any Greek, but we had so much fun listening and dancing along! It was truly an amazing night.
We stayed in contact with the people we met those days and a few weeks later Stavros messaged us a link to an article in the local news. It was about us, and it was on the front page of the paper! We are still amazed by the chain of events that occurred after such a small encounter on the side of the road. It is just unimaginable how open and welcoming some people are!
The most important thing we learned, or actually are still learning, is to let go of expectations, both our own and of others.
Before leaving we made up a whole idea of what our trip should look like: how many kilometers we would want to cycle each day, how often we would rest. We started dreaming about places we wanted to visit and roads we wanted to travel. In the end these expectations were just holding us back to make the most of our trip and we started learning that the best moments often come unexpectedly. That we should not say no to something because it would mean we would not cycle enough that day, and that it is okay to skip a nice sight if the weather is too bad to cycle there.
For example, we spent three days cooped up inside a small dormitory at a farm in Albania, because of a storm. In the beginning, Katrien was so restless! She had the idea that on our big trip, something exciting should happen every day and slowing down proved hard for her. In the end these were very valuable days for us. We realised that we had enough time, that it is okay to sit inside doing nothing but reading books and watching movies every now and then.
When you move around so much it is even important to take a step back and reflect on everything that has happened. If we wouldn’t take a long enough rest every once in a while it really puts a big strain on our relationship and we end up fighting a lot over nothing. It is not always easy to plan when this will happen, so we needed to be flexible and listen to our bodies and minds and take time when we needed to.
What a typical day hiking around the world looks like:
On a typical day we would wake up in our tent, right after sunrise. Sometimes in a beautiful spot in nature, at other times in a dense thorny bush by the side of the road. We are both not really morning people so we spend some time in the tent having tea or coffee, before we break off our camp.
If we have food we have breakfast at or near our campspot, and if we don’t we cycle on a bit grumpily until we find a shop. We typically eat at the supermarket, because we don’t want to carry all the food we buy for too long. In Europe it would be us sitting on the floor of a parking lot, with many people looking strangely at us. The more East we went, and especially in Turkey, the shops got smaller and we often got offered a table to eat at and sometimes even a cup of tea.
The rest of the day we would mostly spend cycling, which we usually enjoy very much. If the scenery is beautiful we enjoy absorbing the nature and landscapes around us. On long boring stretches we like to listen to music or podcasts. Sometimes the cycling is hard work, when there is a lot of wind or a steep hill, but sometimes it is also very relaxing. To our surprise, in the five months we spent on the road we almost never got sick of riding!
In the evening we start looking for a camp spot about an hour before it gets dark. We try to find a place that is hidden from sight, behind some bushes in a field, in a forest… Usually this is not a difficult process and the more East we went, the laws became less strict and the locals less concerned. Kobe would cook (almost always rice with lentils and vegetables) and Katrien sets up the tent. After eating we spend some time hanging around in the tent, talking, reading books, watching netflix, updating social media…
We spent most of our trip cycling in winter in Europe, so we did not have much light in the evening and it was too cold to sit outside long. This made us crave for our warm sleeping bags early and usually it would not take long before we were ready to sleep. Only towards the end of our trip being outside in the evening, and we could sit outside longer, look at the stars, make a campfire (this is legal in Turkey in not too dry areas)… and camping became truly enjoyable. Our routine always changed depending on the season and weather, living truly close to nature!
Of course we did not sleep in our tent every night and we did not cycle every day. We often used hospitality platforms. Warmshowers is a website where cyclists can offer other cyclists a place to stay and, as the name tells, a warm shower. This is the platform we used most of the time, but we also found some hosts through the more known page, couchsurfing. Sometimes we didn’t even need a platform like this to find a place to stay.
Every now and then someone we met on the street would take us in for the night, how amazing is that! We had the honour of meeting so many wonderful people and sleeping in a lot of much appreciated beds this way.
Every now and then we would crave for the combination of a nice bed and some privacy and we would pay for a hotel, but most of the nights we could sleep for free.
We took one or two days a week off cycling to “rest”. Usually we would end up doing a hike, or exploring the city we were in that day, and hang out with our host, making us feel more tired after the day of rest ;). But still, it is nice to also visit some touristy spots or change the bikes for our hiking boots every once in a while!
Having brunch with the Selcuk bicycle community
Important things to know before going?
Just do it! We, especially Katrien, have found out that you don’t need to be avid cyclists to take on a journey like this one. You don’t even need to be sporty or have a cycling passion.
Katrien almost never exercised and practically only used her bike for transportation, and she managed to get all the way to turkey and probably would have gotten much further if we weren’t forced to go home.
All you need is to love being outside. The cycling part will come naturally over time. In the first two weeks we would not cycle more than 40 km per day.
We took our first day of rest already after three days and just kept it slow for a while to let our bodies adjust. By the end, we were cycling 80km per day and tackling many mountains with our loaded bikes.
The only thing you need to do is listen to your body and take it slow or rest when you feel tired. Even though for us it was hard sometimes, it is important not to measure yourself with other cyclists. We were comparably slow, but every time we tried speeding up we ended up fighting after a long day of cycling so we realised this just wasn’t for us. Try to find your own way, the way you enjoy it most!
The bikes in our studio in Belgium
The world of bicycles is big. There are mountain bikes, road bikes, city bikes, cargo bikes, touring bikes and everything in between. They all have different geometries, components and looks. You could say they all have a different purpose in mind.
However, the type of bike you have doesn't limit you in your options to travel by bicycle.
The comfort, packing capabilities and repairability on the road might be different among different models. There is always a tradeoff when considering which bike you need. If you buy a cheap second hand city bike, your chances of having some mechanical problems will be higher than with a new touring specific bicycle. So go for that cheap bargain if you're willing to accept the risk!
If you browse the web, you'll find a bunch of people who cycled across the world with second hand mountain bikes they bought for 100€. Everything is possible.
I would like to emphasize the importance of the fit of the bike. Make sure you buy the right frame size for your length. If you try to travel with a frame that's too big or too small you'll get a sore back, sore hands, knees...
We decided to invest in a touring bike because we weren't familiar with bike maintenance and we were scared something would break in Central Asia, where bike shops and parts are hard to find.
We were lucky to find 2 showroom models in our size at our local bike shop. Katrien rides a vsf fahrradmanufaktur TX-400 and Kobe rides a vsf fahrradmanufaktur TX-800. The difference is basically the wheel size, 26" vs 28" but that's actually not that important. As I mentioned earlier, the frame size is crucial. Since Katrien is tiny we were happy to find this 48 cm frame.
Fyi: frame sizes are often expressed by the length of the seat tube.
Both bikes are part of the "expedition" range, heavy duty, no nonsense, bombproof touring bikes. We payed about 1700€ for each bike.
Which sounds like a lot (and it is haha) but it's really decent for the bikes we got. The steel frame is thick to be able to handle heavy luggage. Both bikes have a wide gear range so we're able to climb the steepest climbs and descend really fast. The components are common and available in most places in the world. We are genuinely happy with the bikes and can probably use them for the rest of our lives.
Do you need bikes like these for a trip through Europe? No. For central Asia? We believe so.
Apart from the bikes we needed some other stuff too. First of all we bought second hand panniers on a belgian ebay alternative called 2dehands. We ended up with a mixed collection of "vaude aqua" and "ortlieb classic" panniers. Both handled really well! We also bought a second hand MSR dragonfly for our daily cooking. The benefit of such a multifuel stove over a gas stove, is that you can use car petrol to cook with. Which is obviously widely available worldwide. We already owned a decent tent and sleeping bag of decathlon and some nice air mattresses of therm-a-rest. Depending on what you are planning to do you might need more or less stuff.
A bike, panniers, a stove, tent, sleeping bag and matress are the essentials for us.
A tired Kobe during our try-out in June
We tested everything before we left for China. Our local bike shop allowed us to lend the bikes for 2 weeks. In the beginning of June we went for a try-out in northern France. We wildcamped, asked people if we could put our tent in their garden and used warmshowers. We cooked on our stove, we slept in the tent and rode our bicycles. Everything was as it would be on our way to China.
We really enjoyed it and had the chance to try everything out. After that we bought the bikes and started planning our departure in Octobre. The preparations were stressful as it was such a weird feeling to leave everyone behind and just leave with the two of us on a bicycle. The loaded bicycle would become our kitchen, our bedroom, our bathroom our chillspace, our transportation, our daily exercise, our everything. It's a strange and awesome thought.
Food on the trip:
Cooking in the snow
Because we are on a tight budget, we mostly take care of our own food, without going to restaurants much. Supermarkets can be found anywhere and are easily reachable by bicycle (except in Luxemburg, where for some reason the supermarkets are all on highways). We usually ate bread with some local spreads or cheese for breakfast and lunch and cooked a meal on our fuel stove (MSR Dragonfly) in the evening. We only had small cooking pots so this was always a challenge. We tried to experiment with different recipes, but ended up eating rice with lentils and vegetables a lot. Rice and lentils can be found practically everywhere and are so easy to carry along. We would get sick of this meal quite often though. A potato-lentil dahl or pasta with fresh veggies were really nice alternatives. Upon reaching Turkey we noticed the prices in restaurants dropped a lot, so there we could eat out more. Turkish food is also amazingly delicious so our bellies were very happy there!
Typical Turkish Lokanta food
Spendings & budgetting on the road:
We bought two vegan “bratwurst” in Freiburg, something we rarely did in Europe to prevent excess spending
The most expensive part of the trip was the preparation: we needed a lot of gear. Both of us didn’t have decent bikes for touring; we needed the panniers and cycling clothes; we bought a decent camera; and health insurance for long term travelling is very expensive (but very important!). We tried to cut the cost by finding most of the items we needed secondhand, but still the list was long so expenses added up quickly.
Before cycling the first kilometer, we spent more than 5000 euros on material, and 1500 euros on insurance.
We could have done it a lot cheaper if we wanted to of course. It is definitely possible to tour with a less expensive bike and many of the items we bought to take along were “luxury items”, like a foldable chair, a camera (most phones do just fine) …
Luckily, the trip itself was much less expensive. We were able to travel of 13 euros per day, for the both of us. It includes all our expenses: food, accomodation, sightseeing, bike maintenance, shopping (at decathlon ;) ).
This seems like a ridiculously small amount but it was not that hard to achieve. Maybe we did not eat out as much as Kobe would have liked to, but still we did not deny ourselves too much comfort. The key is minimizing spendings on accomodation. We paid for a place to sleep about once every two weeks, all other nights we slept for free, in our “tent-house”, as we call it or with locals.
Traveling by bike also means practically no costs for transportation: everything is done on your own power. Besides that, we became very good at finding the cheapest cookies in supermarkets and we almost never ate out. Apart from hitchhiking, cycle touring must be one of the best ways to travel cheap!
In order to avoid excessive spending we made a budget beforehand. We knew or trip would be about 18 months, we knew how much we spent on materials and we knew how much money we had in the bank. This way we could calculate how much money we could spend on a daily basis. Katrien is a planning-freak and went all out on this budget-plan. We looked up all visum fees, estimated our transport expenses and summarized it all in one big excel telling us that we could spent a maximum of 18 euros per day. This was our guideline, but in the end going cheaper and cheaper became kind of a game to us! During our trip we used an app called “TravelSpend” to log all our expenses, which was very convenient for keeping track.
Basically it is all up to you how much you want to spend while bike touring. We met someone who survived of 3 euros a day in Europe. This is very extreme but he looked like he was having a good time :)
We started planning our trip by visiting a travel fair, with the topic of long term travel. We were able to meet a lot of travellers, and this is actually where we came up with the idea of traveling by bike. One year later, we left. We did not spend so much time planning, but in the end there were a few things that we needed to do:
Establish an approximate route. For us this basically meant a list of countries and regions we wanted to go to, which we created mainly through watching tons of travel videos on youtube.
Find the perfect bikes. This was mainly Kobe’s job. He compared the specifications and prices of many bikes, read a lot of reviews and eventually found our beloved vsf fahradmanufakturs.
Make a list of needed materials and find them. We found a lot of the stuff we needed in our basements, on second hand websites, but also made a lot of trips to decathlon and browsed many webshops to find everything we needed.
Find an insurance. This was a hard one. Not many insurance companies are specialised in long term travel and it was hard to know which one had the best coverage. In the end we went for a Special ISIS insurance of the dutch company JoHo, and had our bikes insured at VDAB. It is important to compare many options and ask about the coverage in detail. Our insurance covered us even in regions with negative travel advice and did not assume we had a basic health insurance in our home country.
Plan the budget. As you may have read above, having a planned budget was a huge help to keep our spendings low! It can also be of great help if you are still saving up for your big trip.
Convince our parents. We have to admit, our parents were not too happy with our travel plans. We were able to somewhat change their minds by organising a presentation showing our “preparedness”. We talked about our plans and dreams, but also about the risks and how we would cope with them. This left them reassured that we knew what we were doing, and left us at ease that our parents supported us again!
Plan the detailed route. We would not recommend doing this too much, but we had a plan of where to go and sleep for the first two weeks, which helped us settle into our new lifestyle.
All the other things, like the rest of the route, where to eat or sleep and which places to visit we decided on the go. This made us more flexible to stay longer where we liked it, and to change our routes based on advice of locals and other travellers. It really is best to just “go with the flow”!
Some route recommendations for those dreaming to head east:
Check out the EuroVelo routes. This is an awesome European project connecting many major cities and sights with bike routes. Some of them are already signed, of others the GPS information can be found online. (https://en.eurovelo.com/)
Don’t be afraid of the Alps! We followed the Donauradweg through Germany and Austria, which was beautiful, but somewhat flat and boring. We regret not having cycled through the Alps.
If you plan to go to montenegro, don’t miss out on panoramic road 3. This was the most beautiful part of our trip!
If heading out in winter, sticking to the Mediterranean coast is a strategy that worked well for us. Only forget about your illusion that Greece is a paradise where it is always warm. It can be pretty cold, especially in the mountains. Don’t be too afraid of snow though, we have had some great adventures because of it.
Take enough time in Turkey. Just because it is so awesome there, you don’t want to be facing a time constraint.
Unfortunately we did not make it any further than Turkey, so after that you are on your own!
Some other recommendations for those ready to start travelling by bike:
Use warmshowers and couchsurfing, these platforms are so awesome to meet locals and make friends!
Graphhopper is a great website to use for planning your routes and exporting them to your GPS.
Caravanistan.com is the holy bible of land travel along the silk road. All border crossings, all visa and all problems along the way are explained and discussed. Ideal for people traveling by bike, car or motorcycle.
Learn a few words in every local language. People appreciate it so much if you try to approach them in their own language. We usually at least learned “Hello”, “Thank you”, “goodbye”, “can we have water please” and “tent”.
Reach out to the awesome online cycling community. There are so many people out there sharing their bike touring experiences on instagram and facebook. Everybody is very open to questions so just ask around for tips!