Martijn Doolaard lives a life that many of us could only dream of. His days are filled with far-flung places, encounters with strangers and making camp beneath the stars. Add to that the pure sense of accomplishment that comes with travelling the earth with your own power, and rest assured this man must sleep well at night.
He has already accomplished more than most, with an epic year-long adventure across Europe and Asia, and a book detailing the journey.
He returned home to Amsterdam, and yet a restlessness prodded him, making him want more and less at the same time. More adventure, less stuff.
And so, two years later, he hits the paved and unpaved roads once more, as he tackles the Americas on a ride from Vancouver to Patagonia.
Here, Martijn talks to us about his escapades, from how it all started, to where he goes to from here.
Before leaving for my Year On A Bike tour, I had never been away from home for longer than a month, and all of my trips had been more or less planned.
In 2010, I quit my design agency job and started freelancing. I found this gave me the power to focus more on the things I found important, and I started to feel more in control of my own life. I started to travel more. Some city trips, but mostly I went to remote natural areas, spending time in the outdoors and reconnecting with nature without the distractions of daily life. We are not made for sitting in offices five days a week. Life has so much more to offer.
With travelling came photography. I’ve always been creative, having been involved in design, music writing, and even directing music videos, but I appreciated the way photography offered a different way of storytelling, and urged me to capture moments as best I could.
On a trip to Norway with a friend, I started to think about how for most people, traveling to a destination is restricted to a certain time frame. I began to dream about leaving home without much more than a bike and some camping gear for an unlimited amount of time. No route, no planning, no end goal. Just to take it day-by-day and travel for the sake of traveling.
During my previous travels, from the comfort of my car, I used to see these crazy adventurers pass me by, laden down on heavily packed bicycles, taking on the elements. Then I read an article about twin German brothers cycling from Berlin to Shanghai, and it inspired me to rent a bike during a stay in Barcelona to explore the city, instead of relying on walking or public transport as I usually would. It made exploring so much more flexible.
That’s when I decided I wanted to do a long-distance journey by bike. Just me and the open road, a new perspective every day, a way to travel slower and yet see more.
While others would say that traveling faster would bring you to more destinations, I believed that in between two destinations there are 20 more to explore.
When I returned from Barcelona, I immediately went and bought a Surly Long Haul Trucker. I worked hard all Winter, saving up a travel budget, and took a test trip to the Swiss Alps to see how I would go. I made it to the centre of the Alps in 16 days, and I knew I could take on such a challenging bike trip.
One evening, I asked three friends to meet for a drink. I told them I was going to leave the next day. No farewells, no goodbye party, nothing of the sort. I had said goodbye to my family a week before.
I learned a lot on the journey. About myself, and about other people.
For instance, from Amsterdam to Singapore there is a lot of change in culture. You’ll notice it mostly going from Europe to Turkey, from Christian to Muslim culture. The change to India was also a big one. Religion colours culture in many ways. I’ve experienced when I leave the ‘west’ people are more open and inviting – ironically the Muslim countries are the most hospitable countries. If I speak with Americans or Western Europeans about cycling through Iran or Mexico, they always ask if I didn’t get into trouble. There is a lot of fear. The more developed and rich people are the more suspicious. I’ve learned that the poorest people will share the most.
In Islam, showing hospitality is of high value, especially when someone travels without company. One hot day in Iran, I passed an old man sitting with a little boy, eating a watermelon and watching a flock of sheep. The old man gestures to me to come over. I cross the road, park my bike, and sit down next to him. He points at a watermelon without saying a word. I take a piece and enjoy the intensely sweet taste. It’s so hot in Iran, and I am thirsty all the time, no matter how much I drink. We sit there for a few minutes watching the sun sink. I take a picture. They smile. Then the watermelon is finished and I go on.
I also tried to avoid places which are too touristy. Taking the same picture of a landmark with hundreds of others takes away a lot of the magic. Except for Cappadocia. In this small town in Turkey, every morning you’ll see around 150 hot air balloons lift off from the valleys with sunrise, thanks to the amount of tourists coming there. It’s an incredible sight.
Turkey held both one of my most awe-inspiring moments and one of my worst. I had a serious encounter with 8 aggressive stray dogs on a Salt Lake in Turkey. They were circling, attacking each other and on the edge of attacking me, and all I had was my camera and tripod with me to defend myself. Luckily, at the last minute, a man with a flashlight came and saved me from an unknown fate. I have never felt so glad to return to my hotel room at the end of the day.
Other places that stayed with me on this trip were Istanbul in Turkey, Bagan in Myanmar, Isfahan in Iran, and some tropical islands in Thailand. Though Thailand can be a very touristy country, so the best way to travel here is avoid anything you read in guidebooks and ask the locals.
Once I made it to India, my stomach was so beaten up that I didn’t get sick anymore. Either because of this or in spite of this, the food in India was my favourite, with Thai food a very close number two. The great thing in those countries is that the food laws are not so strict, so there is a lot of street food. People get creative.
When travelling through so many countries it can be a challenge to communicate. I speak Dutch and English fluently, and a bit of French, German and Spanish. So beyond that it’s difficult, but if I don’t speak the language I use the photos on my phone to show where I’m from, what I do, who I am. Photos tell a lot.
The journey from Amsterdam to Singapore was a lot of firsts. It was the first time doing a long trip, discovering how it works, getting familiar to the rhythm of life on the road, undergoing cycling through extreme climates. I had something to prove, to myself and the people following me. Now that I’m on my second long-distance journey, it’s different. I sort of know how things work.
I learned from my One Year On A Bike tour and bought myself a new bike which is more suitable for off road and trails. It means if I want to go to more remote areas, I can. I’m also taking more time in places to do work and connect with local people and culture. I think I’m taking ‘life on the road’ a step further than I did before.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the opportunity to meet incredible people. People like Kent & Joy, a couple living in a hand-built wooden house in the middle of a forest in Washington, living off the land with their own water and electricity, and no phone or internet. Or Sarkis, a Persian painter living in Taos, New Mexico, who speaks 7 different languages and has travelled around the world. Or Alberto Hernandez, an artist who over the past 25 years has recycled trash and second hand goods into pieces of art for his garden.
These people are such a big part of why I travel.
I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. There are days that are incredibly difficult, but there’s one thing that keeps me going – the new horizon. You just keep on going. It’s the only way. And if the cycling ever gets too much, I take a break and read a bit to get my mind off things.
I truly believe travelling is the best way to teach yourself in life. I’m not talking about going on holiday, but immersing yourself in local cultures worldwide. See and experience the differences and reflect on your own culture and values. It has opened my eyes so many times. Especially going through everything by bike. It’s a very rewarding experience, meeting the local people and undergoing this intense way of being part of many landscapes.
And once the Vancouver to Patagonia trip is done? I will have a lot of stories to tell, so I’d like to make something from that.
For the full rundown of Martijn’s cycling tour and the stops along the way, click through the map above.
Martijn has continued his adventurous explorations since this interview — follow him along on his Alpaca map, read more about his Vancouver to Patagonia journey on his website, and get the latest updates via his Instagram.
Martijn is using Alpaca to share his route through the Americas. Want to create a shareable map of your own cycling tours? Get started today.
Conquering the world on two wheels was originally published in alpaca.travel on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.