9 short travel stories from a bicycle journey around the world
funny, weird, and sometimes scary or sad
One of the main reason to travel is to collect stories, stories that you experience in first person and facts people tell you. Traveling by bicycle is certainly a great way to gather short stories during your journey, the way bicycle touring connects you with people and the environment is unique, comparable only to hitchhiking or long walking trips.
During our years on the road we witnessed a lot of crazy stuff, some were funny, some were scary, some just plain sad. We decided to collect in this blog post 9 of these short stories about our journey, the ones that are most memorable to us and that someone else might find interesting, curious, incredible and even enlightening. We sure have much more stories to tell, but we reserve them for another occasion, maybe for when we’ll meet at the bar, in front of a cool and tasty pint of good beer.
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9 short stories from a bicycle journey
1. Mt. Aso, Kyushu, Japan – scared the shit out of us… by a cow
The climb was intense and demanding but the landscape rewarding at each turn, we pass through forests covered in ashes by a recent eruption of the volcano, we are passed by a group of girls on Harley Davidson that probably came out straight from a manga.
We are at the top, we see the caldera from below, besides us is a vast grassland, closed by fences but with an open gate, inside a few dozen cattle are chewing grass. The view from there is astonishing, the terrain just perfect, “what a camping spot” we think, and we pitch our tent, at the peak of happiness.
In the night, while camping in this beautiful spot on mt. Aso (the biggest and most active volcano in Kyushu) we ear some heavy steps and grunts and whispers very close to our tent, we think it must be a wild boar, we wait but it doesn’t go away.
So armed with our TiGr Lock we go outside just to find out it is a cattle. We shout at him but he seems not to care, anyway we feel relieved, it’s just a cow by the way. But it stays by the tent all night, sometimes pushing with head and horns on it, quite scaring.
We go out two times again but it doesn’t seem a normal cattle, it’s threatening, its eyes are red and it looks on the verge of attacking me. Its horns are huge, we never thought about how easily a cattle can turn into a bull, just a matter of perception.
We can’t sleep. In the morning one of Elena shoes is disappeared and the cattle is not in sight… it is then that we found some little mushrooms that look like hallucinatory psilocybe, could be a cattle in a psychedelic trip?!
After a little while it’s back, again threatening, smelling our bags and looking at us with a freaky expression, at the end we go away and it follows us, almost charging… we run away, scared by a cow, and without a shoe.
2. Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan – meet the baron who owns the lake (and your dreams)
Passed the town of Grigorievka, where we have a couple of oily piroshky while staring mesmerized at a huge marijuana plant in full blossom, right in front of the barbershop. People laugh and invite us to take some flowers, we don’t.
The northern shore of the Issyk Kul is a bit more boring compared to the south one, the lake is always some few kilometers far from the road. Around evening we take a small road between the fields that lead us into a beautiful grove on the lake, about 3km from the road. It’s idyllic and quiet. Even if there is garbage from some Sunday picnic, or maybe from three months ago.
After bread and cheese we go to sleep, or rather, we would have liked. Around midnight, a guy appears in front of the tent, it seems quite drunk. Daniele goes out and understands that he got stuck with the car as he was going fishing (?) and wants us to help to push the car.
Daniele goes to help but there is nothing to do. Back in the tent, the guy continues to babble, begging for another attempt. To get rid of him Daniele tries again but the engine wouldn’t start. After a while comes another guy who claims to be the Baron (?) owner of the land (?) and takes away the crazy n°1. We think we can finally sleep…
But after a while, the Baron is back and reveals his real crazy nature! Keep talking and talking, he does not go away. We understand he wants to sleep with us in the tent (?) or with me or with Daniele (he’s confused). We think he’s drunk and we tell him, but to demonstrate he’s not, he does some strange acrobatic move. Now we are scared, if he’s not drunk then he’s a psychopath.
After more than one hour trying to get rid of him, Daniele takes the trusty TigrLock to show him we could be a tough cookie, but he’s not threatening, just very creepy, and a bit slimy.
At the end I say that I will call the politia (police), (lie… who knows the number? And then how should I talk to them and explain where I’m?), but at the sound of the word politia he’s gone! If only had we know it was so easy…
Anyway we cannot sleep after these two hours of stress, we understood that to “disconnect yourself” too much from civilization is not always safe.
We wake up after a night of weird dreams, the Baron was a tiny gnome and was sleeping at our feet inside the tent, while outside there was a party going on…
We find out that a Crosso dry bag is missing, it was empty and I used to cover the connector for the GoPro in case of rain. Probably it was taken by the crazy baron. Among other things, the car with the crazy number 1 and the Baron is still there, and there is also another guy. It seems pointless to try to go to talk to them… we want to cope no more with those mad assholes, and we are still in the middle of nowhere.
3. Bohol, Philippines – poor creepy little boy needs to improve his theft skills
A bitter story that isn’t fun at all
Beautiful Bohol, the exact copy of my dream of a tropical island. During our trip around the Philippines we passed through this amazing island, mostly we slept in cheap guesthouses but, one day, we found a quite tempting camping spot, a sort of concrete porch overlooking the sea.
7. Valea Lui Stan, Romania: playing ukulele for a whole gypsy village
Valea Lui Stan, just a few houses along the river. A few children, some young boys, and the usual horse-drawn carriages. It’s almost dark, we can’t stop now. We set up the tent between the road and the river, tomorrow we will be here and we will see how the situation and the people are.
This morning I found another four-leaf clover, third of the trip. I don’t look for them, but as I walk, I often see them. I have seen this close to the river where we slept. A very nice river, shallow and clear, but icy. Too bad the surrounding lawn is being used as a dumping ground.
Valea Lui Stan is a resettlement area where Roma people have been moved during the times of Ceausescu, remote, very poor, and allegedly dangerous. We would like to talk to the people here to write a little reportage about this place.
We decide to go for a coffee in the “town center” which is a bar with no sign in front of a school, in which lawn five or six horses are parked. Just around the corner, two boys and a man who could be sixty or forty years old, tell us not to go there because there are just gypsies and they are dangerous… even though it’s clear that also they are Roma, they don’t want to admit it.
We go to the bar anyway and, as we imagined, it takes about 2 minutes for the whole village to be around us, maybe 50/60 people. No one speaks English. But somehow we understand each other. Romanian and Italian are very similar.
We have the deepest kind of conversation with the villagers, they say that Daniele is definitely impotent because at our age we should have at least six children. We propose the exchange of bike with two horses, but no way, we’ll have to pedal.
A black BMW with Bulgarian license plate and dark glasses pulled over at the bar. A guy came out and began to give away money to the people. That indeed has some mafia flavor. The guy goes and we continue our weird conversation.
We tease each other, Daniel asks them to play some music, everybody knows all gypsies are musicians, ain’t they? In response the begin pushing loud house music from a truck stereo. So Daniele decides to affirm he’s more gypsy than them, take out the ukulele and improvise a song about being friend with horses, half-Italian/half Romanian, everyone laughs and claps. A happy moment of deep connection we’ll hardly forget.
5. Nagashima Island, Kyushu, Japan: the mushroom God invades my dream
Quintessential Japan, Kyushu is just a magical island, covered in lush green forests, dotted with waterfalls and volcanoes. We are riding the beautiful and underrated Amakusa Archipelago, passing by stunning beaches at every turn. We’re on the island of Nagashima, it’s almost dark, we see a shrine between rice fields and go check. One of the most beautiful places we ever slept.
We arrive at dusk, through the Tori gate we see the sun falling into the sea. The perfect Japan postcard. There is a huge tree, certainly very old, and then there is the statue of a god with a mushroom cap on whose shoulders are sleeping a little frog on one side and a snail on the other (the frog and the snail are real, and maybe even the mushroom god).
Like we always do when we sleep in shrines, we leave offers to the shrine god, some sake, a few coins, and a bit of wasabi sauce. Near the tent there is a huge mushroom, in the night Daniele dreams of a giant triceratops dashing towards him and wakes up startled, the big mushroom is exploded and nearby many more small mushrooms have born.
6. Sumba, Indonesia: caught in a crossfire of stones, guns, and horsemen throwing spears
In the ancestral village of Ratenggaro, set in the wild landscape of the East Sumba, everything is ready for the Pasola. People gather here from all over the province of Kodi and beyond.
Our bikes catch the eye of many, the tense faces, awaiting the sacred event. Someone could die and become a hero, his tomb carved in monolithic stone. Someone else might die, but in infamy, his body torn to pieces for not respecting the rules of the Pasola.
This is a Pasola, and is not a game. A sacred ritual where the blood must flow, metaphysically fertilizing the earth for a season without famine. It is, to simplify, a ritual battle to celebrate the season of rice planting, or rather a fertility rite.
Two different groups of men from different clans or tribes, on a horseback, throw each other barbed wooden spears. The aim is to shed blood in order to fertilize the soil. The Pasola is also a way to settle disputes between villagers and families.
In the Wanukaka region, where we are, as part of the ritual, the Marapu priests go to the beach at early morning, they sacrifice a black roster and discuss some of the entrails to see if the time has come.
Then, they enter the water, looking for colorful worms in the sand. If they find them is a good sign, especially if they are big and chubby, and the Pasola season can start. Otherwise, the crop will be ruined and also the Pasola.
We head to the battlefield, the public is very numerous, the men all have a sort of machete in their belts. At some point it starts,
they throw the spears at each other, mostly missing. At first seems a bit boring. The government has banned the use of sharp spears but it seems that, in many cases, they keep on using those. In short, you can not even decide how to die. The audience is cheering, but we don’t understand why, it is not that easy to follow.
The horsemen keep on circling the battlefield chasing each other but not many spears are thrown. At some point, the crowd begins to throw stones, fight brakes in the field, some say that a javelin has been thrown from behind, something forbidden. The lances must always be thrown when the opponent is facing.
The police enter the game and start shooting guns, first in air and then to the ground. The shots are just a few meters from us, we take shelter behind a pickup truck. The police continue to shoot, the crowd, the players, and horses disperse. It’s time to go for us.
Back in town, they tell us that a Pasola always ends up with the police firing, no one is dead so what we saw can be considered a peaceful Pasola. But we do not know what happened to the guy who threw the spear from behind, we believe it didn’t end up well. In one way or another blood must be shed.
7. Buzescu, Romania: Threatened by Italians and Roma mafia in front of the White House
Buzescu is one of the weirdest towns on Earth. A small town with less than 10,000 inhabitants, it has three roads, the side ones where the lowly houses are, and the main one, where the competition for the fanciest villa in Romania takes place.
Before the bridge over the river that separates us from the town we can already see them in the distance, Buzescu’s odd palaces, towering over the surrounding countryside. Golden roofs, silver gates, marble walls and dollar symbols everywhere. There’s also a copy of the American White House, maybe just a little smaller.
People here way less friendly than in Valea Lui Stan. A photographer from National Geographics came here a few years ago and wrote an article relating the rich villas to illegal businesses: gambling, prostitution, drugs. The local people didn’t like that much.
- To build one of this villas is not that expensive, materials and labor are still very cheap in Romania. 50,000€ for a three story one, just the structure though.
- What really is expensive here is inside the houses: precious wooden furnitures, gold bathroom taps and stuff like that.
- It’s really easy to end up from the main road to the unpaved side ones in just one night. It only takes an unlucky poker night.
The guy’s name is Marco, he’s here to visit his mother who’s dying. We visit his house, very humble, there’s not even running water or glass on the windows. Instead, there’s a beautiful horse in a stable. You’re nobody without a horse in Romania.
We talk a lot about how fucked up the world is, and how a few bad people ruin the good name of whole countries, we cook for him and sleep at his house.
The next morning the surprise comes, he asks us 100€ for the “hospitality”, we already were willing to leave them a small donation but for sure nothing even close to the price of a 5 stars hotel. Besides that, we don’t have that kind of money on us.
He becomes threatening, young guys approach the gate of the house with an unfriendly look on their faces, he makes clear to us we have to give him the money if we want to keep our stuff and get out of here in one piece. We propose to cycle to the nearest ATM (10km, only cash in Buzescu), they could follow by car, we’ll withdraw and give them something, but the answer is no. We have to go by car with them. Obviously, we are not going to leave our stuff unattended in this house so the option is only one: one of us will go with them in the car while the other will stay here.
It’s one of the scariest hours of our trip, being separated and not knowing how the other one is doing, we only have one phone in two. In the end, I withdraw and give them 30€. They seem satisfied enough and let us go. We cycle faster than we’ve ever cycled in our lives out of this odd, creepy town.
8. Somewhere near Sisak, Croatia: Scoppio, a dog who took its chance for freedom
We leave and the dog follows us for a couple of kilometers. In the meanwhile it stops being “the dog”, we give him a name: Scoppio. We try to convince him to go back, but no way.
We turn on the TV and on all channels we see the same images, the Kura river has overflown many people died, lots are evacuated, the woods are completely flooded, we only see the tops of the trees, it seems that crocodiles can suddenly appear. A true swamp, the worst flood in the last 100 years in Serbia.
9. Singkawang, Indonesia: Eating a raw dog puppy to frighten the police
Once a year Singkawang becomes the center of the Universe. All the Spirits, Gods and Demons of Taoism (and not only them) gather here, to spread their blessing upon this special place. The Tatung are the shamans, the vehicles through which the spirits manifest themselves, possessing and guiding them through other states of consciousness, thanks to which they can perform the most extreme corporal mortifications without shedding a drop of blood and without no scar remaining on their faces or bodies.
But this event is also a symbol of the brotherhood that now binds the Chinese Hakka and the Dayak tribes, after decades of civil wars and assassinations. The spirits of Kaharingan, the ancestral religion of Borneo, invade the streets along with the Taoist colleagues, joining, in fact, two metaphysical universes.
It’s the morning of February 21, it is the first day of the Cap Go Meh (正月 半 Jang Ngiet Ban in Hakka), it should just be a day of prayer, no performances today. But already at 6 am at the main temple of the city, a van arrives. A father, his son, and a group of musicians, who play always the same rhythm with gongs and drums, to maintain the trance state of the Tatung.
We quickly realize that there is great movement around. It doesn’t seem to be just private prayers, as they told us, it all looks very organized.
After a few hours of visiting temples, we arrive in a countryside sanctuary filled with Tatung. There’s a guy with 4 or 5 piercings in his face. We are unwittingly in the middle of a protest. The Indonesian government is anxious to make this tradition into a carnival for tourists. In town, they are setting up the stands for the paying audience and the platform for the VIPs and the rulers of Singkawang, which are strangely Muslims (while the wide majority of the citizens are Chinese).
Our contact tells us that last year the Tatung, already possessed, sitting on the swords and with piercings stuck in their faces, had to wait until the end of the Mayor’s speech and various politicians jabber for two hours. When the parade finally began it started to rain, the audience was gone and the Tatung were now no longer possessed, out of the state of trance. This is particularly dangerous because coming out of the possession the Tatung begin to feel the pain and when piercings are extracted blood spills.
There are only 4 or 5 policemen on the streets, in a state of bewilderment and concern. The ceremony was supposed to be tomorrow, and no one expected this demonstration, which in summary means “this is our tradition, it is a religious ceremony and politics needs to stay out.”
Around midday also the Dayak, the natives of Borneo, come to the temple. This shouldn’t be their festival, their Gods do not inhabit the Taoist temples. But the relationship between Chinese and Dayak is so strong here that they decided to celebrate together. The Dayak come to pray in the Taoist temple as a sign of respect and some of them are Tatung.
We are told that under President Suharto, the Indonesian dictator from 1967 to 1998, Dayak and Chinese were mass killed by the government who tricked them both blaming the Dayak for the Chinese killings and the Chinese for the massacre of Dayak. Dividi et impera.
This generated a war between the two groups, and many died. When they realized that it was the work of the dictatorship, they promised each other eternal mutual protection, renewing an alliance more than a century old. A few years ago the Muslim administration wanted to eliminate a dragon statue, very dear to the Chinese. The Dayak came from the forest armed with machetes. The statue is still in place.
In the square in front of the temple, we see a lot of people, we approach, a Dayak has just beheaded a puppy dog. They are eating it along with another Dayak, raw as it is. He does it right in front of the police, going towards them with madness in his eyes, the police back down, they look terrified. The government banned the dogs eating practice, and this is a clear protest against the constant interference of the Indonesian Muslim majority.