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The Life of a Bicycle Traveler

By Edited Apr 24, 2016 0 0

Leaving Home

Thomas Ullmann with bicycle
Credit: Thomas Richard Ullmann

Those who have never dared, believe it to be a struggle beyond comprehension. So often I am asked why, why I would leave what I know, without the certainty of shelter, common culture, or familiar company. Why cycle anything up to 300km a day, from the extremes of snow to the smelting sun, why push your body and mind to such an extent?

There is no single answer, for I cannot know what will come of my journeys. It has become apparent after now completing two periods of six months traveling by bicycle, through 20 countries, that you lead a life rich in much of that which leads to satisfaction. The vast majority of the time the stranger is willing to share their home and company with you, enforcing an unavoidable recognition that human nature can be, and often is, good.

But there is so much more than this, though it all leads to happiness.

I have seen the greatest beauty, barren lands, those rich in life, recorded music in studios, celebrated weddings, made wonderful friends. I learn about how people live, skills, what people value, the similarities and differences between cultures. I must problem solve, think practically. I have learnt, experienced, and enjoyed more in the total of one year of my life more than the other 27.

The most important lesson I have learnt perhaps answers with the greatest clarity why in the future I shall go once again out into the unknown. I have learnt that pleasure and comfort, when made the priority of our lives, destroys our sense of satisfaction, happiness, and self belief. Yet, to the contrary, it is generally the main use of our currency and energies, the perceived optimum use of our time by so many.

The commonly held ideal is a life with no work spent mainly upon a beach, but this is a foolish notion that can lead to a way of life distant from happiness, meaning, and satisfaction.

The last time I left was exactly a year ago, the end of June 2012. I had been working as a teacher, relatively settled in the city of Antwerp. My life was one of vague routine, spent working with children, developing my music and various other interests in my spare time. Nevertheless, I knew within a couple of months before the beginning of the summer break that I wanted to leave, and leave behind Antwerp without any certainty of if or where I would eventually settle in the future.

Last Year on the Road

Eastern Turkey
Credit: Thomas Richard Ullmann

As with a great deal of my journeys my memories are vivid and easy to recall.

My first night was spent along the border between the Netherlands and Germany, sleep was difficult as a result of so many thoughts of where I would be and when.

The only vague plan was to find my way to Istanbul, most likely via Vienna given my family ties to the city. As such, I would cut through Germany.

The German hills and low mountains served to be testing for a body that had become accustomed to city life. Though I have spent seasons working in farming and have made prior trips, such as that to northern Norway, our bodies quickly change. Alas I remember my heart thumping through my chest as I hauled the bike, laden with guitar, tent, and other belongings. It could have been raining and I would not have noticed for the sweat streaming from my pores.

By the time I was in southern Germany there was a marked difference in my stamina, this in only a space of a week. To those who say they just simply could not do this I point to this change in myself regarding the immense ability of our bodies adaptability. This would surprise anyone embarking on such a journey.

Moreover the stamina and strength of mind also grew rapidly. I am unsure when it became a goal, but I would eventually cycle around the black sea, passing through Georgia, and as a result of visa limitations take a boat to Odessa in Ukraine before returning in the Autumn through a snowy eastern Europe.

I am a man of high expectations but my cycling adventures so often surpass them, a rarity in my life.

With the growth of stamina and strength of mind comes grit and determination that allows freedom like never before. Harsh winds and snow, the hottest sun that one could experience, these become embraced challenges, wanted, not feared.

Every journey reaches beyond the one before, it must to satisfy. Perhaps the need becomes habitual. It was, for example, of importance that last years journey went to the highest altitude and furthest point that I have thus far reached. This self bettering is an essential part of the journey.

Eventually after months on the road the daily practices of either camping, staying with welcoming families, and seeking food and fresh water become second nature. The sedentary life is made alien and thus the nomadic life the norm.

The Greatest Joys

Kurdish Village
Credit: Thomas Richard Ullmann

People and Culture

The photograph above is of a man in  kurdish village, far east Turkey. Whilst his pose for the photograph was stearn he was a kind man like the man thousends of people I was lucky enough to meet.

People are one of the joys of traveling. The majority of the evenings in Turkey were spent with families as a result of invitations. Within minutes of meeting people would trust me and invite me to share their home and culture. Turkish cusine is undeniably one of the tastiest I have come across, especially the home cooked food.

All age groups from young to the very old would invite me into their home and this is in fact relatively common in most countries but does roughly correlate with the wealth of the people/person in question.

Observing cultural norms allowed me to question my own and recognise the strength of both. A lesson learnt last year was that the family dynamic within the home is surprsingly similar in every home I have ever been. I have been mothered by many mothers along the way much in the same way my mother would prepare food for me and tell me to take care.

Beauty and Landscapes

Turkish Landscape
Credit: Thomas Richard Ullmann

Esthetically pleasing sights of all kinds welcome you throughout the day upon the saddle and come in many forms, from natural to architectual. What pleases my eye the most is that which I am not used to, this is something akin to childhood given the uniqueness of the moment. As we grow older in familiar surroundings we are not surprised by what we see and loose appreciation.

Philosophy and Thought

Something said least of cycling adventures are the immense quantity of creative thoughts that come to fruition. I have considered many philosophical, mathematical, and practical problems, among others, and clarified them in my own mind. The draw back is finding an effective way to keep these ideas noted down, as I have yet to find a practical way to do so and so often let these ideas pass.


Credit: Thomas Richard Ullmann

My greatest passion is music and finding myself in a studio in Budapest is a prime example of how my journeys satisfy my passion. I have played with numerous musicians from northern norway to Kuridsh villages in the south of Turkey and all these experiences have had a great influence upon my music, styles, and mentality. When common languages are not shared then music is the greatest language.

I could never imagine traveling without a guitar.

What Next?

I moved, fittingly by bike, to Amsterdam at the beginning of this year. Whilst the nomadic life upon a bicycle is beautiful, I believe no one way of life should be lead for it is the contrast between them that truly allows appreciation and satisfaction.

Thus I have begun my second degree in Physics here in Amsterdam.

Are my cycling days behind me?


Certainly not. My future dream is to cycle to South Africa, at least to begin with. I shall do this upon suceeding at this degree. No future dreams or ideas regarding future journeys could amount to anything less that I have already experienced or achieved.

The ultimate question is do I believe in an end point, in a single goal at which this stops. I am as curious as you as to whether this happens but for now I feel it would be unhealthy to consider. It has become a way of life and returning in itself only happens given a goal, such as studying. It is not simple to return to a way of life of certainty.

Most people fear uncertainty, but certainty itself has become somewhat of a prison for me. The trade off is that to have certainty you must commit yourself, and to do so life looses some of its excitement.

How and why I live this way hinges on many factors, namely being an only child and as someone without a place or country that I would readily call home or have strong attachment to. The clear advantages are evident and given that I achieve over the next six years what I have during the last, I shall be greatly contented.



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