When photographer Carol Sachs and her partner Hugo planned their trip across Asia and Europe, they were sure about one thing: they were in no hurry. That’s how they ended up riding 12,000 kilometres on a tandem. These photos tell their story.
We got our first tandem for £50 (€60) off eBay, to see if we could get used to it. Then we upgraded to a better one, which ended up being too small, and then another one for a test tour in France of about 800 kilometres, to see if we would enjoy cycling all day, everyday. We did and I thought, maybe this is something we can do.
For this trip we had the bike made specially by Co-Motion, a company in Oregon, USA. We realised it would actually be more expensive to import it to the UK, where we lived, than for both of us to fly to the US, pick up the bike and then fly across the Pacific to our starting point in Japan. This way we also got to meet everyone at Co-Motion, which was lovely.
On a tandem, the person at the front is called the captain and the person at the back is called the stoker. I was the stoker, which meant I had to be incredibly comfortable with not having control. I don’t have brakes, I don’t steer, I just push. You have to have a lot of trust.
Downhill, the tandem goes really fast because it’s so heavy. Sometimes we ran through a set of brake pads in a single downhill, or even had to stop halfway to change the pads.
We wanted to cycle as much as possible, but we also agreed from the beginning that if at any point we didn’t want to ride, we wouldn’t. There were bits that we simply didn’t want to cycle, and other bits that would have been impossible to cycle. We also learned to be flexible with our plans pretty quickly. Because something always came up – we discovered things on the way and changed our minds.
Before we set off from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to tackle the Pamir Highway, we had to send some stuff home. During that whole stretch we’d often have to carry a few days’ worth of food and water, because it was so remote. We stopped at the post office with our things in a plastic bag, hoping to buy a box, but they had none. The rude cashier told me to just give her my plastic bag and the next day she would find a box and ship it. I was convinced it would never arrive, but I had no choice. A month later, my brother sends me a picture. This grumpy woman had not only found a box and packed my items very neatly, she also wrapped it in canvas, sewed it up by hand in maroon thread and added wax seals, with my brother’s address handwritten on the canvas. It was one of my favourite things about this trip. She looked like she was going to bin my things as soon as I turned my back, but instead she made this beautiful thing. I still have it and I’m never throwing it away.
We met another Brazilian couple on the Pamir Highway also travelling on a tandem. Whenever we met someone on the road, they would ask, are you the Brazilians on a tandem? And we were like, no, we’re the other Brazilians on a tandem.
We fell in love with Vietnam. It was a country we didn’t even plan on visiting. We ended up cycling around the north, then through the Mekong Delta and, after some time in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, all we wanted to do was go back to Vietnam, which we did, cycling a different route and killing time over a million coffees on the sidewalks of Hanoi.
You wind up going through places and sleeping in towns that you wouldn’t usually stop at on a regular trip, because there’s no reason to. But some of our fondest memories are from really random places that we just had to go through because they were on our route. You get there and there’s this one restaurant with an amazing woman cooking the most delicious stuff, or a local festival, or a temple… A lot of lovely things we still carry with us and wouldn’t have been exposed to had we taken a bus or train.
“We would always arrive sweaty, dusty, filthy. People just found us incredibly funny”
You’re just passing through, but because it takes so long to pass through, you end up having a deeper experience of the place. When travelling overland, you see both the similarities and the differences, the sudden changes and the gradual changes between two countries as you near a border. You start to see bits of Thai culture when you’re still in Cambodia, and vice versa. Sometimes the landscape suddenly changes – sometimes the landscape is the border. Another thing we loved about border crossings was that we often met other cyclists leaving the country you were about to enter, and we’d exchange currencies, SIM cards, information and experiences.
I was shooting on film, so I would send the rolls back home to be processed whenever I found a reliable post office. The lab sent me files digitally, and when we got home I picked up folders and folders of negatives that they kept for me.
We would always arrive sweaty, dusty, filthy. People just found us incredibly funny. That levelled the playing field a bit, because we were fascinated by everything and everyone, but they were also fascinated by us. It broke the ice.
In Georgia we met some cyclists from the Netherlands, and we were a bit shocked they had gotten there so fast. But then they explained they had taken the ferry over the Caspian Sea. We didn’t know that was possible, but it meant we could skip Turkey and instead cycle through Europe in the fall, which was beautiful. So we changed our plans again, took the ferry to the Ukraine and rode to Zurich, where we officially ended our cycling trip at my brother’s house. Then we rented a car to Paris and took the Eurostar home to London.
A lot of people just gave us stuff. They would give us food or a little gift, or invite us over for tea. In Japan I lost count of the number of things people gave us. In Uzbekistan, soon after crossing the border in the midday sun, in overwhelming heat, a truck overtook us, stopped and waved us down. We were a bit suspicious, but then the driver opened the back of the truck and gave us ice cream! None of this ever happened to me when travelling any other way.
We met a lot of great people along the way, but the one that marked us the most was Davide, another stoker travelling on a tandem from Italy, except he was blind. Everyone at our hotel in Dushanbe (Tajikistan) was in awe of Davide. We all knew how hard it was to climb those mountains, but we had the views as rewards. Davide, instead, talked about the different smells of different altitudes, the beauty of the landscapes in all the ways we didn’t notice that much, and how he liked to prank his captain by braking really hard out of nowhere. They were travelling and raising awareness for blind people in sports. At the end of their trip they donated their tandem to Tajikistan’s first blind skier, who is an advocate for the visually impaired in his country.
“A lot of people really do want to help you”
At the start we were kind of cynical in a way. We’d hear people say, ‘You’re gonna find out that the world is a wonderful place and that people just want the same things…’ and we were like, oh, spare me. But in the end, even though we had times when we were tired or fed up, we discovered that a lot of people really do want to help you. And the value of going to meet people and experiencing other cultures for yourself is just immeasurable.