After cycling from Belgium to Japan, Dries Van Ransbeeck and Manon Brulard decided to show the world what they had learned about slow travel.
When Dries Van Ransbeeck and Manon Brulard first met in Brussels, Belgium, they quickly bonded through each other’s love for cycling. At the time, it made sense for New Years Eve 2017, for the couple to make the relatively easy 45-mile trip to Antwerp to use.
“While we were cycling we thought it would be great to take a long distance bike tour,” recalls Van Ransbeeck. With their appetite for long distance cycling now sharpened, they decided to really test their skills. “We looked at a map and found that you can’t go much further than Japan.”
Even though it was a distance of around 12,759 kilometers, Van Ransbeeck and Brulard took inspiration from other long-distance cyclists they followed on social media. Over the next 12 months, they went out of their way to make the trip of their dreams come true, spending every possible moment training and meticulously planning their adventure.
As they had planned in February 2019, their plan for the first few months was to cross Europe south to Turkey, explore Georgia and Armenia, and then head to Iran. But after being in Luxembourg, Munich, Vienna, Bratislava, Belgrade, Sofia and finishing, after 3100 km of cycling, in Istanbul, the duo quickly decided to change their route.
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“We saw that all the good food comes from the southeast and the Kurdish part of Turkey. There are so many different cultures that meet there. So we had to face it, ”explains Van Ransbeeck. “It’s actually the beauty of being there and listening to people. It influenced our trip throughout.
Wanting to be there only a few weeks, Van Ransbeeck and Brulard spent two months in Turkey, falling in love with the cities of Istanbul and Ayvalki in the northeast. They also saw Cappadocia and the majestic landscape of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, cave dwellings and remarkable rock formations. From there, they entered Hatay province near the Syrian border, where they also became infatuated with Gaziantep and Mardin. All this, due to the excellent exchange rate between Euro and Turkish Lira, was extremely convenient.
After leaving Turkey, they crossed northern Iraq in 10 days and then spent five weeks in Iran, where Van Ransbeeck and Brulard were in awe of the incredible hospitality they received.
“I was inspired by the way people are ready to give and receive,” says Brulard. “People are really nice and curious. You have so many opportunities to talk to people on your bike. The true friendship you can feel with people you have never met before is extremely deep. “
However, when they crossed the border into Turkmenistan, they immediately found themselves face to face with the most grueling part of their journey. Due to the country’s strict visa requirements, they had to travel 500 miles in just five days, all in temperatures over 100 degrees. After arriving at the Uzbek border, the couple were so exhausted that they remembered to cycle part of the trip and not just focus on the destination.
“That’s really the beauty of loaned trips,” adds Brulard. “You are part of your journey. You are not a person going from point A to point B. You are traveling alone. “
Now that they had traveled 8,500 kilometers, they had finally arrived at the most anticipated part: the Pamir Highway. Cited as one of the most ambitious road trips and bike trails in the world, they first spent a month amid the glorious nature and mountains of Tajikistan before using it to enter Kyrgyzstan.
Brulard and Van Ransbeeck insist it was the most beautiful landscape they had seen. Especially when they were able to cross the Afghan border into the Alay Valley and get a glimpse of the villages across the country while enjoying the endless landscapes and views. Their next stop, China, was just as illuminating, but for different reasons.
“I think the biggest surprise of the whole trip was China,” Brulard said. “Certainly not a perfect place. But there is so much history, so much complexity and so many different aspects.
Yunnan province, in particular, and its capital Kunming, were the highlights of the two months spent there, with the city harmoniously blending the old and the new of the country. More importantly for Brulard and Van Ransbeeck, it was easy to cycle there. “There is also a service that allows your bike to get ahead of you on a [separate] train, ”adds Van Ransbeeck.
In South Korea, the penultimate country of their trip, they took advantage of the Four Rivers cycle path, about 633 kilometers long and depending on the cities of Incheon and Busan, on both sides of the country. However, while it was safe and offered great views, Brulard said it also showed the downsides of cycle paths, as it kept the country at a safe distance.
” It’s nice. But you’re just on a bike path, ”he says. “So you don’t really understand South Korean culture. You’re just a little too far away.
In Japan, the last country of their trip, Brulard and Van Ransbeeck were impressed to discover how respectful its citizens were towards cyclists. Some even moved their cars for them. As for their favorite designations in the country, they were very impressed with the landscapes of Kyushu, the third largest of Japan’s five main islands, which is home to lush valleys, waterfalls, forests and volcanoes.
Once the trip was over, they returned to Belgium filled with the satisfaction of having accomplished their mission, endless memories and presumably sore feet. They also intended to help make slow travel the new normal. Especially considering the kindness of strangers they met on their trip when they used such hosting apps Hot showers, which is specific to cycle tourists.
The result was Welcome to my garden, a non-profit citizen network that offers travelers free spaces in Belgian gardens.
“Initially, we expected to find 30 to 40 people crazy enough to open their garden,” explains Van Ransbeeck. “But after a few hours there was so much interest from people, we knew we needed a team of volunteers. Now, after ten months, we have over 14,000 users. “
Van Ransbeeck and Brulard didn’t stop there either. They also hosted an online slow travel mini-festival, with various workshops on 1,001 Ways to Slow Travel, Plan Your Route, Best Tools to Bring, and Data Commentary to help you create better maps.
“We want to build a community,” says Van Ransbeeck. “And it all started with our trip.