The first kilometer is the hardest

Joakim Ekendahl and Wej Supaporn recently completed a fulfilling journey from Sweden to Thailand on bicycle. Over mountain tops, through deserts and snow, more than fifteen thousand kilometers in the saddle.

 

The idea of cycling through numerous countries, while experiencing distinct and different cultures as bicycle globetrotters, would perhaps be thrilling to many. But also scary and overwhelming. Joakim Ekendahl and his girlfriend Wej Supaporn, decided to actually do it, instead of letting the idea remain a fantasy.

“When you go from Sweden to Thailand by plane, you have a drink, watch a movie, perhaps sleep some hours, and suddenly your plane is landing, and you have just missed half of the world,” Joakim says. He and Wej decided back in 2012 it was time to experience that half.

Joakim Ekendahl and Wej Supaporn are in the mid forties, and was living in Gothenburg, Sweden, up until their bicycle journey. They became a couple almost twenty years ago, when Joakim worked a few years in Bangkok. They moved to Sweden, where Wej worked as a librarian and Joakim worked for different companies commuting week in and week out, through most of Sweden. But not anymore. Enough was enough. Time to see the world. Joakim quit his job, while Wej took a longtime leave from the library.

“We both like bicycling and traveling long distances, so why not do this,” Joakim says.

 

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The overwhelming hospitality
The couple has biked through all types of weather and natural scenery in countries such as Poland, Georgia, Romania, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China, spending nine months on and off the saddle. That may seem physically gruelling, but the challenge was much more a mental one.

“It becomes a meditative state of mind. Everything else but you and your legs moving the bike is excluded, while you are in a deserted part of Kazakhstan and there is no real civilization the next 500 km,” Joakim explains. Of course it was not in anyway a downside that both him and Wej are experienced bikers with long distances under their belt, before this one.

The potential fighting and couple-arguing, that to some might seem inevitable during a trip like this, was never a real issue.

“When you are on your bike, you do not have time to do that much talking anyway,” Wej says. Although they both agree, that Joakims spirit were a bit more up and down.

“Perhaps, I am a little bit more stable,” she says. “Joakim is the one with the Visa Run and the route on his mind.”

Every country they passed on the way had a unique culture to offer in terms of food and customs, but most of them had an essential element in common.
“It was really an overwhelming hospitality we meet. Especially the Islamic countries. In Turkey, for instance, it was sometimes even hard in a polite way to say no to whatever people were offering,” Joakim recalls with a smile.

 

Snowstorm in Hungary
The couple slept in every kind of accommodation possible from welcoming sleepovers, hotels and a tent put up by the Caspian Sea or in a cave in the deserts of Uzbekistan. Quite a hot experience cycling through the deserts, Joakim recalls.

“Sort of hell on earth. 47 degrees in the shade. No trees anywhere.”

Luckily they had a trick for keeping the ever important water cold, or cool at least for some time. They soaked a sock with water and covered it around the bottle, so the water kept cold until the sock had dried up. Apparently a trick that is used på cyclists everywhere.  Even though the desert was like cycling in a big heated oven, the most extreme weather they experienced was in Central Europe, in March during the winter.

“In Hungary, they brought the army tanks out to clear the snow, but luckily for us, we had the big wind in our over backs, just cruising besides each other, “ Joakim says. So most of the road from Hungary to Slovakia was a nice rest for hard working legs  on the pedals.

A human skull in China
The list of funny, bizarre or baffling moments during the couples nine months long adventure is long.

In Uzbekistan, there is not a single ATM machine, and people usually trade money on the black market. The currency has minimal value, so carrying a standard wallet is out of the question.

“We exchanged 300 dollars, and the stack of money was this high,” Joakim recollects, while demonstrating the length of his forearm. Every little coffee shop had a money counting machine, the ones you normally only see in banks.

But the most surreal moment happened, while they were in the northern part of China. Having just spend a comfortable night on a three star hotel, a rare occasion, they hopped on the bikes in morning to continue the journey. It was a dust storm, and Joakims pedal was cranked, so they had to stop and put up their tent, before planned. Unfortunately the ground was a hard as a rock, so the spikes for the tent could not go in. Joakim decided to walk a few hundred meters in search of some softer ground, and found a nice spot on top of a hill.

“Then I looked a few meters to the right, and there was a human skeleton! Just below a pile of gravel. A skull and a leg that was coming up from the ground, “ Joakim recalls. A Lucky Luke type of scenery, not exactly the thing you get to see along the pavements of Gothenburg.

Just let go, and do it
Even though the couple experienced moments of absurdity during the bicycle road trip, it is the warmth and kindness of all the different people, they met along the way, that comes to mind.

“People are nice! The only danger we met was the road, “ Joakim says. When they tell their story, they are often asked about the potential aspect of luring danger. Especially from Thai people. They seem to be afraid of the unknown.

“I would like to encourage the Thai people to travel abroad more, independently. And perhaps inspire the employers to let their workers get some time off to restore energy, “ Wej says. The allowed annual leave from work is usually only up to ten days in a row.

“The decision to go is so significant, “ Wej underlines. Joakim easily agrees with his girlfriend and cyclist companion.

“Just let GO, it will work out,.leave the comfort zone. Once you have done it, it works out from then. The hardest kilometer is the first one. There is no headwind or uphill as hard as the obstacle of getting it done, making the decision to actually do it.

 

Hopefully Joakim Ekendahl and Wej Supaporn´s story can work as inspiration for adventurous  people flirting with the idea of cycling out and across parts of the globe.

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