Brazilian Photographer Carol Sachs and her partner saved up money for over three years in order to go on a 15-month round-the-world trip by tandem. Carrying little else apart from her cameras, Carol gradually sent film back to the UK as she travelled. On her return, she was greeted by hundreds of photographs of their life-changing trip. These definitely are not the kind of run-of-the-mill travel snaps you’ll see someone posting on Facebook during their gap year. Here Carol tells us how you go about planning a 15-month-long bike ride, and what to expect along the way.
Give us your route, in a nutshell.
Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, back to Vietnam because we loved it so much the first time, back up to China to connect to Central Asia, then Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany and Switzerland, ending at my brother’s house in Zurich.
Can you talk me through the reason why you wanted to do this trip? Particularly why you wanted to cycle, and why it was two years long?
My mother and I had our 60th and 30th birthdays the same year and celebrated together with a 10-country, two and half month trip. At some point I noticed we’d been travelling long enough for the worries I had before, in the life I’d temporarily left, to no longer hold much power over me. They felt blurred, almost abstract. All the while returning was still too far away for future worries to occupy much of my mind. It was a powerful feeling of both presence and suspension from regular life.
I came home and told my partner we had to do a big one, but he’d just had a spark of his own. He’d just read Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt, the story of her solo bike trip from Ireland to India in the ‘60s. I was open but not immediately convinced because I was not a cyclist at all. I had only learnt to ride a bike properly at the advanced age of 28 and though I loved it, I would still get off and push at certain major roundabouts.
Then we were introduced to the wonderful world of tandem bikes and suddenly it seemed more feasible. I could ride without having to navigate traffic! We did a quick test tour through France that summer to see if we would actually like being on a bike all day every day and camping most nights, and we loved it! From then it still took three years for our work and schedules to align and we left without an end date. That was the most liberating of all. We wanted to ride as long as our money and love of the road lasted.
Were you nervous? If so, what were you scared of?
We were both particularly scared of the Pamir Highway in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. We read about its long, remote stretches of awful roads, insane winds, no shops, no towns, no people, no trees. How it’s a big expanse of ragged peaks and high altitude, airless desert. But despite my partner having a history of bad altitude sickness, we did it! It was challenging, beautiful and full of other cyclists. I did have diarrhoea and cried, weak and airless, up the highest pass at 4655m (15,272 ft), but at this point it wasn’t scary anymore. It was tough, yes, but not as extreme, lonely or insurmountable a challenge as we had feared. Except for the wind: an incessant, bullying arse of a headwind. But we had picnic lunches with other cyclists, and even managed a hotel room and hot shower halfway through.
How does one actually go about planning a trip like this? From the minutiae to the larger stuff.
Sort the big stuff: insurance, visas and gear (especially the bike). We also had to leave our house and get rid of most of our stuff. Oh, and reassuring our family we hadn’t lost our minds.
With a project so big and time consuming, did you know what you wanted to communicate with it, or did that come later?
It was first and foremost a life project. We wanted to experience the world ourselves, and ourselves in the world. Though we did consider a bunch of different ways in which to have a predetermined outlet for our experiences, ultimately what felt right for us was to first live it and give ourselves the time and space to process it all and then, if we felt the urge to, see how we could coherently put it all together.
Creatively how did you challenge yourself on this trip? Was there anything you wanted to push or try out in your work?
My only photographic agenda was not to have one, which was a bigger challenge than it sounds. I had spent the previous nine years working hard and was very fortunate to have had a lot of jobs and worked with brilliant people, which was wonderful. But I was feeling a bit of burnout, so I wanted to allow myself the freedom to only shoot what took my fancy, to not be “on” all the time.
At first it was hard to shake a specific “assignment” mindset, but eventually I relaxed, which was great.
Is there any advice you'd give someone who was about to do a trip like this?
A good lesson we learned early was to make and accept our own trip. We went in with a certain preconceived idea of how a trip like that is done: you rough it, you camp, you spend only when absolutely necessary, you ride a minimum per day, you suck it up. When we didn’t manage to live up to this, succumbing to a hotel room with air conditioning in Japan even though it was double our daily budget; when we had a short day because we were tired, or took a train to avoid a particularly ugly and industrial stretch of road and just wanted to get to a big city already, it felt like a failure. Like we were letting ourselves and the trip down, like we were not doing it right. A load of rubbish, of course. We did a better service to ourselves finally accepting that perhaps our journey wasn’t going to score that many rad points in the hardcore adventure circles, but we were the ones living it, and we had to enjoy it.
Did you get into any scrapes?
The biggest hurdle were three herniated discs on my lower back which were not a consequence of the cycling, which all decided to give around the end of the second month in a random, small town in China.
Who was the best person you met?
So many! If I have to pick one it would be Davide, a blind Italian cyclist riding from Italy at the back of a tandem. This man is inspiring in so many ways. The rest of us cyclists were unable to imagine going through the efforts of the road without the views as reward. But he was undeterred, and the pleasure he found in everything was obvious. They were really great guys, and incredibly generous to share the coffee they’d been carrying all the way from Italy with the rest of us. Gino would sit under the big tree in the courtyard with his Italian press and drink with everyone that stopped for a chat, surrounded by bikes and bike parts, drying tents and sleeping bags.
Which camera were you using and what kind of film? Were you processing film en route?
I started with my trusted Fuji GFX and a Contax T3, which I had never used before, and which turned out not to be a good fit for me. When we got to Seoul I swapped it for a Contax G2, a camera I had loved for years but had left at home in favor of the tiny T3. At some point I used a Fuji X100F, but eventually settled for the G2 and a Sony A7RIII. This turned out to be a good compromise in terms of size/weight and image quality. I used Kodak Portra 400 film all the way, and shipped the film to my lab in London whenever I found myself somewhere I could trust the postal system.
Physically and mentally, how did you prepare for this journey?
I didn’t prepare physically at all and paid the price dearly from about day two on the first mountain we had to climb in Japan. The truth is I am lazy when it comes to exercise, so in my mind why train if I would exercise every single day anyway? Fitness was inevitable. But it took three weeks for the inevitable to happen.
I'd love to know more about the actual biking part, how far were you biking per day and for how many hours?
It varied wildly. Our shortest day was 12km and our longest was 135km. And because we like to stop and linger so much along the way, we ended up spending around eight hours on the road each day, often more.
Where had the tastiest food?
Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand, but I think China was the most exciting.
How much could you carry with you, and was that a problem?
On a tandem you can actually take about half as much as two people on single bikes. So we had one pannier each for our clothes, one for our documents, computers and cables, and one for sleeping bags and cooking gear. Then a frame bag with the tent, another with tools and small things we used often like sunscreen, and a basket at the back with sleeping mats and a basket bag at the front with other often used items and snacks. I also had a camera bag attached to the handlebars for easy access while riding.
What did you learn about yourself, your relationship, and humankind?
It does seem kind of inevitable that most cyclists we met or whose stories we’d read seemed to have learned the same thing: that the world is a much less scary place than we believed.