This week’s If We Can Do It interview is with Tom Bruce who had an absolutely incredible grown up gap year when he cycled 23,000km around the world to raise money for the charity SOS Children’s Villages. I am completely in awe of his journey and just reading about it makes me want to jump on a bike!
1. Why did you decide to take your grown up gap year? Was it a difficult decision to make?
I have always liked cycling and I have always wanted to travel. The first time I linked the two passions was when I did a coast-to-coast ride in the UK with my mate Jonny after my GCSEs. I then did a trans-Alp tour from Munich to Lake Garda off-road, which was absolutely amazing. I fell in love with bike touring and decided I needed to do something bigger. I read books by people who’d done adventures in the past and decided to do a long tour.
I thought about Europe at first – a tour around Europe sounded good. Then I started thinking bigger: what about Asia, was that possible? I decided it was, so I thought if I could cross Europe and Asia I might as well try to cycle around the world. I thought I might as well do it properly, so I set myself the challenge of cycling every inch of the distance, no public transport was allowed.
It was a difficult decision because I was deciding to spend nearly 10 months away from my girlfriend. If I had had no ties, it would have been very easy though.
2. What were other people’s reactions when you told them your plans?
Most people thought I was mad. Some told me they were sure I would make it; some told me they were sure I wouldn’t! Some people were very jealous and loved the idea and others simply couldn’t understand why I would want to spend so long on my own, cycling.
3. How long did your trip take and where did you go?
It took nine and a half months. My route took me from my front door, through France, Switzerland and Germany, to the Danube River, which I followed across Europe to the Black Sea. I cycled through Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea, which I crossed on a Ferry to Kazakhstan.
A long crossing of the Kazakh Steppe and the Karakalpakstan desert from Beyneu to Nukus brought me to Uzbekistan and next up was the high altitude Pamir Highway in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Then into Kazakhstan again before a two month crossing of China through Xinjang province, across the Tibetan Plateau, along the Yellow River, then via Xi’an to Beijing.
After that I flew across the Pacific to tackle North America. I cycled across the USA from San Francisco to Florida via California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi. I finished in Daytona Beach, Florida.
4. How did you finance your grown up gap year?
I managed to live rent-free for six months before I left and was working at the time. I lived very cheaply and used the money I earned to pay for the trip – which was very cheap on the whole because I had a tent on my bike. I provided my own accommodation and transport. The only day-to-day cost was food.
5. Did you go alone or with family/friends?
Most of the trip was alone, although I met other people on the way around. I cycled with a Swiss guy from Austria to Istanbul, a French couple in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and a Dutch guy in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. My cousin, Phil, cycled across most of China with me and my friend, Harry, crossed the USA with me.
6. What is your travel style? (Ie. Budget hostels/Mid-range hotels/Luxury travel – less is more, travelling slowly/pack in as much as possible)
Living in a tent/sleeping in pipes under the road. The cheapest hostel/hotel I could find every fortnight or so to wash clothes and myself! I travelled slowly when I could but when I had visa constraints, to get a flight, or meet someone, I sped up. It really depended on where I was. In Georgia, I wanted to spend more time in the country (my favourite of the trip) so I cycled about 50 miles a day. In Kazakhstan (the second time I was in the country) I had only five days to cross the country because of visa issues, so I cycled over 100 miles per day.
7. Do you go for tours or do it alone?
I did it alone – it was a solo adventure, there were no tours available at any point.
8. What is the best thing about taking a grown up gap year?
I don’t know where to start – the freedom is the most valuable thing I think. The nights sleeping in the desert under the stars, with nothing man made around for hundreds of miles were incredible. Crossing the 4,000+ metre high Pamir Highway was an unforgettable experience. Meeting the locals in countries I knew nothing about and experiencing their hospitality.
9. And were there any downsides?
On the whole – nothing – no regrets at all.
10. What advice would you give to anyone thinking of setting off on their own grown up gap year?
Do exactly what you want. It will probably be the only time you have to do it, so make sure you make the most of it. Don’t stick rigidly to any plans and don’t get stressed out if you can’t do exactly what you originally planned. Throw yourself into the experience and integrate with local people as soon as possible.