“After a while I’d told enough people that I thought I’d better go and do it. I think I pressured myself into it a little bit.”
Not exactly the most encouraging opening lines to a story about one mans quest to cycle solo around the world. But, Paul Woollams doesn’t really care whether people are interested or not.
“One of the main reasons that I had started planning something was because I couldn’t get on in Holland anymore. I was always working temporary contracts, I had no chance of buying a house or getting a pension.”
Woollams at that point had spent many years living and working in Holland as a welder. But a combination of broken contract promises and a feeling of general malaise pushed him towards his big adventure.
In May 2011 Woollams arrived in India to start his round the world tour, and to get himself into peak riding condition. The draw to start in India was strong.
“I’d been in Holland for ten years, but in 2008 I visited India. That trip to India got the travel bug going in me again.”
There are many ways to explore the Indian subcontinent. For most people the extremes in climate make traveling by bike the last thing they would think of.
“I like cycling. It’s a good way to get around. I didn’t want to travel by bus and train. I’ve traveled by bus in India and Asia before, and I’ve always found it to be a negative experience,” said Woollams.
“You travel somewhere overnight, and you’re just shagged the next day. A ten hour trip then takes you another 14 hours to recover from.”
Obviously, there has to be more to this trip than just avoiding public transport. There must be something bigger at play here to make a man in his forties set out on such an epic trip.
“It’s just the experience really.”
Woollams also wondered how he was going to translate such a trip into his daily life when the whole thing was over.
“I don’t think it ever does really, unless of course you’re speaking to other people who have traveled. I mean it’s going to be a good conversation piece, a good conversation starter,” laughed Woollams.
“It’s something to say that I’ve done, and I feel that I’m just going to carry on anyway. I think it’s something that I’ve found out about over the last six months or so, that this is something I want to carry on doing.”
Traveling on your own is one thing, but carting around almost 60lbs of gear with you on a bike in the Himalayas is another thing altogether. The stresses and strains that a rider has to be prepared to endure are varied.
“You get low moments, when I first started the roads were so shit that I even considered flying somewhere where the roads were going to be better. Cycling in the mountains you go through lots of emotions anyway. Thankfully there weren’t too many low moments,” said Woollams.
“But when it’s good, you feel that you’re on top of the world. You’re 4000 meters above sea level in the Himalayas and everyday is the weekend. It’s just a good feeling really.”
While the low moments were a little less than would be expected, there were of course other difficulties to deal with.
“I ran out of money quite a few times, not having an ATM card. That was pretty stressful actually. At one point I had hardly any money and I thought I could exchange some travelers checks at a place in the Spiti Valley. After about a day I found someone who could change some dollars for me.”
“Otherwise if I couldn’t, I would have had to cycle about 5 days back to the last town. What’s funny is the reason I couldn’t find anyone to change money was because a bunch of Tibetan monks had come through and exchanged loads of fake dollars about two years ago. This made everyone a bit shy of changing money,” observed Woollams.
“Whether the monks knew they were fake or not I don’t know.”
Having survived his brush with insolvency in the mountains Woollams continued cycling in some of the most inhospitable areas of India. Navneet Prasad, a foreign exchange student from Northern India puts the situation into perspective.
“The conditions out there are really harsh, it’s a different kind of mountain out there. You won’t see any greenery up there. It looks more like a desert kind of place, it’s barren land you know. But, there are so many lakes out there that are crystal blue. You can see through them, they are beautiful.”
“The weather is really tough, you won’t find people out there. People out there might have freaked out a little when they saw him. The population is so scarce, they wouldn’t have even expected to see Indians up there. But they would have been helpful, mountain people are really helpful,” said Prasad.
“I’d say the Spiti Valley, I’d been there before, it’s just really interesting as not so many people go there. It’s hard work unless you’ve got your own transport. I’d say that was the best part, Kashmir was good as well.”
“All of it has its good points, but I’m going to say Spiti because of its remoteness. At one point you’re only ten kilometers away from China. I just had a really good time there, I was on my own all the time, and I never saw one more cyclist.”
Of course out in the middle of nowhere you’re going to meet some pretty interesting people. It could be middle-aged Indians bombing about on Royal Enfield motorcycles or it might be members of the Indian security forces.
“The most memorable person I met was the security officer dealing with me when I was detained by the Indian Army in Chakrata. There are loads of military academies there and I was trying to take a shortcut. Of course, foreigners aren’t supposed to go up there. But, I just turned up and hoped to take about 400 kilometers off the journey,” said Woollams.
“It started off all serious, and one or two days earlier a foreigner had actually been arrested in the town and he was in jail. I had to fill in a form stating my means of transport and I asked if I should just write ‘bicycle?’ The whole thing changed from then. All of a sudden the officer was saying, ‘You’re so brave Mr. Paul,’ and then he wanted to search my bag for bombs and rockets. Obviously he was taking the piss then, but that was pretty cool.”
“He just helped me after that. He said ‘We are the Indian Army and we are going to help you Mr. Paul.’ And then the police turned up and the copper looked pretty pissed off, but the security officer told him to shake my bloody hand, and then everything was fine with him as well. Then they sorted me out a taxi jeep, told me to go to the nearest town and not get off until I got there.”
Coping with unplanned stressful situations is one thing. But, simply underestimating a task, or conversely, building something up to be harder than it actually is can mess travel plans around as well.
“Actually the ride up to that Army place was a bit daunting. Every village I went through told me that I shouldn’t go any further, and I began to doubt whether I was going to be able to get through. But I just kept going and going, and getting more and more apprehensive. But I managed to get through in the end,” said Woollams.
It goes without saying that there were things that didn’t go according to plan.
“I didn’t cope very well above 5000 meters,” remarked Woollams nonchalantly.
“I actually found out that I don’t function very well up there. The lack of oxygen up there affects people differently and I found that above 5000 meters I got a bit of altitude sickness. I had a constant headache and I was very easily annoyed. I think that’s just something that if you can’t cope with it, you can’t cope with it.”
Loneliness wasn’t a factor for Woollams either, “I spent about three weeks on my own and then I met some Polish cyclists just before Keylong and I cycled with them. But then I couldn’t wait to get away from them. I like my own company and I’ve always traveled on my own. You got more done yourself, you have to do it.”
Living on your own on a bike also means that you have to cart everything needed for survival around on it. Woollams’ home built bike only has rear panniers on it, but these still carry around 55lbs. Woollams also kitted his bike out with a Brooks hand made leather saddle during the trip. Some of his technical choices prior to beginning the trip didn’t pan out either.
“I added some pretty cool carbon fiber parts, but it’s not designed for touring. It’s actually a mountain bike, but that’s what I prefer. It’s got an aluminum frame and Shimano Deore wheels. It’s nothing really special,” said Woollams.
“I had big problems with the real derailleur, I had the most expensive Shimano XTR and it just went into the back wheel one day and exploded. Now I have a Deore one and I’ve had no problems with that. I don’t think you need expensive parts really.”
Woollams was happy that his minimalist approach was paying off though, “I met an American couple that had four panniers on each bike, then on top of the back panniers they had a 70 liter backpack. The guy wondered why he’d been through two rims so far on the trip. The rims had just cracked. They had everything, they even had a mandolin,” laughed Woollams.
Before hecontinued on his way Woollams mused on the one big fact that as been indelibly scarred into his psyche. It seemed that some mornings weren’t always bright and sunny.
“I’ll hate waking up in a wet tent for the rest of my life.”
© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved