When we travel, we generally rely on all modes of transportation available to us. Through the years, we flew on domestic Brazilian and Peruvian airlines, took overnight trains in India and Egypt, rode subways in Mexico City and Barcelona, and bounced in packed mini-vans in Jamaica and Guatemala. We also zipped through Japan on a bullet train, breathed dusty air in tuk-tuks in Cambodia, and cruised through the jungle in Vietnam on motorcycles. The transportation options are always endless, and we do not shy from embracing them all, even though at times the choices seem dubious and not well thought out (yes, the motorcycles in the jungle part). One of our favorite ways to explore places abroad is by getting on a bicycle and pedaling through a new, exciting destination.
Thailand was the first foreign country where we got on a bike. We were in Sukhothai, the former capital of the Thai Kingdom, known for its historical park filled with crumbling 13th-century temples and giant statues of sitting and standing Buddhas. Because walking this expansive park in sweltering midday heat was not an option, renting bikes was the only sensible way to explore this unique place. The bikes that we rented at the entrance were old and creaking, but they were dirt cheap and gave us the mobility and freedom of exploring the ruins at our pace. Riding from one cluster of temples to another with a warm breeze hitting us in the face was the best way to discover Sukhothai, and the experience became the first chapter of our cycling diaries. We wanted more!
Riding a bike in a foreign country can produce some funny memories. In 2017, we visited the city of Xian and did one of the most popular activities there - riding a tandem bike on the top of the massive stone wall encircling the old part of the city. Xian’s city wall is so thick that it can safely handle hundreds of people riding bikes at the same time. As we were riding and admiring the views of this ancient Chinese city, I suddenly heard Julia screaming behind me. When I looked back, I saw her yelling at another couple riding a tandem bike. The girl who was sitting in the back pretended to be pedaling but in fact, did not pedal at all. Her boyfriend/husband riding in the front was not aware of such treachery, and Julia decided that it was her duty to correct this injustice.
“Hey!!! She is not pedaling!” she yelled, pointing at the confused girl. “She is cheating!!!”
The startled Chinese couple was looking at us with astonishment as they could not quite grasp why this random person was yelling at them. But we were chuckling and then effortlessly passed them as both of us were diligently and honestly pedaling.
Riding bikes abroad is also about overcoming fears. In Vietnam, in the town of Hoi An, I floated the idea of renting bikes and riding them to a nearby beach. Julia initially dismissed it. Deep inside, I was not sold on this idea either. The streets in Vietnam were always crowded with people, bikes, motorbikes, and cars, and it seemed nobody followed the road rules or whether the rules even existed at all. We often felt unsafe to even cross a street in Vietnam. Did we really want to become active participants in this madness? Yet, after some deliberation, we decided to take the chance. The first 15 minutes of riding through Hoi An were absolutely nerve-wracking. The chaotic traffic made no sense, and we were constantly freaking out. Also, because Hoi An is one of the most beautiful towns in entire Vietnam, it constantly distracted us with its striking architecture. However, the more we rode, the more confident we got. As we left the town, we were riding through some dreamy landscapes. In the distance, the Vietnamese farmers were tending their crops, while the menacing-looking water buffalos were freely roaming right next to our biking path. We soon reached our destination and spent half a day at a local, low-key beach swimming in the South China Sea. Returning to Hoi An later that day, I looked back and was profoundly proud. Julia, who the day before nearly vetoed the idea of renting bikes, was on her bike in the middle of a busy intersection surrounded by motorbikes, cars, and pedestrians. As the traffic light changed to green, she casually pushed herself off the nearby car and continued her ride. Just like a local!
In Belgium, bikes even saved one of our days of sightseeing. After spending a day in incredible Ghent admiring its medieval architecture, exquisite merchants’ houses, and picturesque canals, we had very high hopes for the neighboring Brugge. Yet, when we arrived there the next day, we were hugely disappointed. The city was postcard-pretty but was suffocating with tourists. The town’s historical part is compact, and that day it was crushed by tour buses. To take a boat ride, we needed to wait in line nearly for an hour (there was no wait time in Ghent), to get to the top of the belfry, there was another long line (no such line in Ghent, too), to get to a local art museum, there was another line. The narrow streets of Brugge were packed with people, and it was nearly impossible to have any personal space to admire the surroundings. After the Chinese tourists that a mammoth tour bus unloaded in front of a chocolate shop elbowed us relentlessly inside, we had enough. We went to the central square, rented bicycles, and rode out of the town as fast as we could.
Leaving Brugge, we experienced immediate relief. Riding to a neighboring village of Damme, we were surrounded by bucolic landscapes of tall trees dotting the road, old windmills, and spotted cows roaming the pastures. We spent the afternoon peacefully riding through the countryside and nearly forgot the tourist hell of Brugge. When it was time to return to catch our train back to Ghent, we agreed to scrap Brugge from our memory and replace it with this enjoyable bike ride through the Belgian countryside. A pleasant surprise was awaiting us as we were riding back into town. We were returning to Brugge after 5 pm with all tour buses gone, and ... oh wow! ... the city was a delight. The medieval buildings basking in golden sunset light were stunning, the canals peaceful, and cobblestone streets invitingly empty. We immediately forgot about our traumatic experience from just a couple of hours earlier. Riding our bicycles through the town center, we made frequent stops to take in the atmosphere while mentally apologizing to Brugge for hating it earlier.
Bikes are not the first mode of transportation I would usually consider in a foreign country, but once in a while, they can bring a much-needed change of pace. I first learned to ride on my first childhood bicycle, a yellow Soviet-made Orlenok that my parents bought for my eighth birthday. It was a simple, no-frills bicycle, but brought me hours of joy and a “wind in my hair” thrill as I pedaled down the streets of my town. It allowed me to explore the world around me and gave me my first taste of freedom. As I travel the world now as an adult, I am still that kid who is ready to get on a bike anywhere.