Freewheelin’ Asia, Chapter I

On a spaceship to Asia

About a bike journey and leaving it all behind

Freewheelin’ Asia by Alex Prieto, Chapter I Asia

At the end of six months of travel, I arrived to Delhi twenty-four hours before the expected date of return: I had my flight booked for the following day. But at the scheduled departure time, I decided not to show up at the airport. “You can always come back. The hard thing is to set out”. My journey extended from the planned six months to over a year. This is the chronicle of my days across Asian lands.

  • On a spaceship to Asia

    Alex’s journey through Asia: in the map of Asia as seen by the artist Ángela Palacios, the traveller’s hazy route from China to Pakistan, from India to Japan.

A few years ago, I was at a friend’s place reading one of those bike magazines and I found this story of a guy who travelled through the seven most important deserts of the world. In one of his travels he went from the Atacama desert, in the north of Chile, all the way up from Patagonia to Bolivia through the Carretera Austral. It was pure adventure. I wanted to go for a journey like that. It just so happened that I’d left my design job and I went to travel in South America for three months and had an astonishing experience. For years after that first journey, I couldn’t stop thinking about travelling. So I decided to go again, this time for something bigger.

  • On a spaceship to Asia

    Bike Olovbike w/ Rohloff gearshifter.

  • On a spaceship to Asia
  • On a spaceship to Asia

In the months before leaving, I was so busy at work in order to earn money for the journey that I had no time to prepare. I only did a few bike tours the days before. When I went to the doctor for my knee, he told me my actual preparation would be the travel itself and I would slowly recover my tendinitis while cycling. I would regain my form step by step. So when I was flying to Beijing it felt like being in a spaceship to Mars, I was really frightened. The first two days in China, I didn’t go out from the hostel, apart from getting some food. It was a radical shock.

The biggest problem when you set out on a journey is the “Just in case”. When you start thinking “I’ll bring this one just in case, I’ll need that one with me”, that is when you start fucking it up. You really need to pack and unpack several times until you realize what is really necessary. You need to force yourself to choose. Days before leaving, I had bought a small guitar I really wanted to take with me. When everything was already packed, the guitar “turned out to be” so big that I had to leave it. On a journey like this, you need to consider well what to bring.

Traveling is hard. It is not like going on holidays. You have to find the right balance between comfort and weight. If you’ve been pedaling through the steppe for 8 hours, when night falls you are really grateful to have brought with you a bigger tent, even if it weighs a few kilos more. When you are going to a town where food is scarce you can’t just get plenty of food, you can stop somewhere else, have something to eat and drink or you can take food with you but it will affect your route.

I had high expectations, and I wanted to go until the end. When you set yourself a goal, you need to go until the end. But the most important thing is the experience itself. No matter where you go, people you meet and the places you see are essential. You find yourself alone facing unusual problems and situations you’ve never been in before. And you need to deal with them. That’s when you discover parts of yourself you didn’t know. That’s the point. To go, to set off, to leave behind your monotonous routine, as well as your comforts and your social setting, is a very intense feeling. At the beginning of my trip, at overnight stopovers I often had this unconscious sensation that after all that cycling I could hang out with a friend or watch a movie, as if I was back home.

I gradually lost this sensation along the way. After a few months you start realizing that your life has turned into an extraordinary life. It’s one of the most impressive and shocking feelings you get. Being at 2AM in a town in Pakistan looking for accommodation can be quite a tough situation, but you take it in your stride. In one year I had already embraced that out-of-the-ordinary life. In the end, when I got back to Barcelona, I experienced a reverse cultural shock. Returning to my home culture after being accustomed to a new one was actually stunning. It was like finding yourself back at your first day of school playing with the other children. It’s a strange sensation, something you have already lived but suddenly you don’t belong there anymore. Re-entry was a shock. I was lost during a period of time.

Sometimes I felt lonely of course, but actually I suffered much more when back in Barcelona. When I broke up with my ex-girlfriend some years ago, I remember being surrounded by my family and friends but still feeling so lonely.

I got frustrated when I had to banish those fucking spiders from my room, that’s for sure. Or when I found myself alone in dangerous situations; and I got fed up with listening to music or reading books… of course all these thing happened to me! But I don’t remember feeling this inner emptiness. On the contrary, waking up early in the morning and getting back on track on my bike, always made me feel so grateful and fulfilled. When you are on a journey like this, your life is simplified.

  • On a spaceship to Asia

But it can always get complicated all of a sudden. Cycling through Pakistan and the Northern India region of Ladakh, close by the Himalayas, was an astonishing experience. I was so euphoric when I was riding my bike on the Leh–Manali Highway, which is supposed to be the world’s highest road. I met some really good travelmates on the way, and in terms of adventure and landscape it was an amazing time. I have such wonderful memories of these days. On the other side, Mongolia was the setting for my worst experience. In the north of the country there’s a region called “Little Gobi”. I tried to take a shortcut through this small desert area. I thought “Well, if there’s a road, it will be fine”. It was hell. It was a solitary path, nobody was passing. I had been riding downhill for kilometers. Then I came to the desert and it was horrible: I spent hours and hours pushing my bike with sand up to my ankles, struggling to get out of there. I only had little water and food left. Completely exhausted, tears started running down my face and I sat down on the ground next to the bike. I knew that nobody could rescue me from there but me. After one hour, thanks to a twist of fate, a wood-transport truck appeared. The guys took me on board, gave me some water and dropped me off at the first town on their route.

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Alex Prieto

Alex Prieto

Graduated in Graphic Design from Bau school in 2001. After working at Base Studio for three years, he started working as an independent designer . With a special interest in graphic systems and typography, his work focuses on corporate identity and editorial design, mostly for clients in the arts and culture spheres. He spices up his career with bike rides and travels from time to time.
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