Everyone’s got goals. For some, it may be excelling professionally, paying off their student loan, or buying a house. For others, it is travelling from Paris, France to Shenzhen, China, on the border with Hong Kong by bicycle. Basile Verhulst tells us what he’s learnt from his 16 month-long cycling adventure.
An adventure seeker since he can remember, Basile Verhulst spent his childhood climbing trees and building zip lines with ropes. After graduating from university and working in two tech startups as a machine learning engineer, Basile felt there was something more in life waiting for him. His inner compass led him towards biking from his home country France, to the East.
He took the leap of faith and started his 18,077 kilometer cycling adventure from Paris, France all the way to Shenzhen, China, on the border with Hong Kong. From April 2017 to August 2018, Basile travelled across 24 countries including Greece, India, Iran, Turkey – among many others – in 492 days.
Basile learnt how to live with the unexpected by making the world his personal teacher. He sits down with us to share his remarkable journey and the passion that continues to drive him.
As a non-professional biker, what was the catalyst for your decision to take this remarkable journey?
I always knew that I wanted to do at least one large adventure in my life – the kind of journey I can look back to with pride on my deathbed. I just didn’t know if the adventure would involve a horse, my feet, or a boat. Crossing from the West to the East, the choice was clear: a car was too fast and walking was too slow, so I decided to ride a bicycle.
How did you physically prepare for the journey? Did you do anything to mentally prepare yourself?
The biggest preparation work went into researching and acquiring the appropriate gear for the journey.
My rational mind could find a million reasons to remain committed to my family, job, friends, and comfort zone. However, this was the moment when I consciously set myself free from my attachments and decided to respond to my calling. I trusted that after the first pedal, new encounters, experiences, and life will take care of me – just like how a river finds a path down a hill no matter what obstacles are in its way.
Before you started your journey, what was your biggest fear?
My biggest fear was that events beyond my control would stop me from crossing the continent. However, nothing happened in 2017-2018. Another fear was that money would run out, but I spent most of my time in people’s homes or in my 1.5kg portable home (my tent) so the budget I set of US$10,000 was just enough.
Did you have any personal goals?
It started with an inner voice desiring to be free, break loose, and pursue something bigger. The goal was to seek and learn from the unknown. I had just finished university and was looking for the next chapter of my life. I was aware that I knew close to nothing about the world. Questions ran through my mind such as, “How do most people live their daily lives?” or “What beliefs and religions shape our civilisation?”. The world is out there, filled with its undiscovered mysteries and welcoming people. I could either spend the rest of my life in a bubble of expectations or I could take a leap of faith and discover the marvellous.
What did the first month of your journey feel like and how did that differ with the rest of your journey?
My first day felt like jumping head first into a never ending river. I knew it would carry me, but I didn’t know which course it would take. It was one of the fullest manifestations of what life actually is – an uncharted journey driven by dreams and aspirations. In one month, I cycled from Paris to Pisa, Italy. Despite the strangeness of biking alone, western Europe still felt like home. The further East I advanced, the stranger things felt.
Travellers almost always have a destination in mind. However, during my journey, I followed the direction of the rising sun. I now remember a continuous trail that connects the dots between the world’s regions. The transition between ethnicities was soon notable, often occurring between mountain ranges. Transitions between Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist faiths was however much more gradual. The journey provided a fascinating insight into the way people and ideas have moved around space and time.
Can you take us through 24 hours on your journey?
My day was surprisingly regular despite the ever-changing environment. I had a daily routine which brought some stability and structure to my day. I usually woke up in my tent at around 8am. After a bite of overly dry bread, I usually started biking for half an hour to two hours – depending on how far the next city was. On average, there was around 70km of cycling per day. Sometimes, I met people who spontaneously invited me to dinner or to stay at their place. Other times, I set up a campsite. In the evenings, I either immediately fall asleep or wrote in my journal about all the new things I had experienced that day.
I wrote a blog on a typical day during my journey! Learn more here.
Any wild facts you can share about your journey?
I met a 23 year old soldier whose mother was the only woman he had met in his life. In Pashtunwali tradition, the bride and groom often first meet each other on their wedding day.
What was the hardest part of your journey?
Two things! Firstly, it was hard knowing that it will be a long time before I ever see my family or close friends again. However every now and then, some of them flew in by plane to join me for a leg of the journey, including my two best friends who cycled with me from New Delhi to Kathmandu, Nepal and my then long-distance girlfriend who visited several countries with me.
Secondly, it was hard sleeping in places that people would normally consider extremely uncomfortable or downright dirty. When I wasn’t staying at someone’s home, or in the mountains under the stars, I would pitch my tent in a public park, a shelter below a tree, or a construction site. Every day at around nightfall, an unmistakable reptilian urge would kick me to find an appropriate shelter before it gets too dark. My life was like an adventure movie!
There were ups and downs – moments of boredom, and moments of strong adrenaline. One thing for sure was that it was always diverse and physically stimulating. I rarely felt physically in danger.
Have you ever had a moment where you felt like quitting?
I remember when I crossed Myanmar during monsoon season. I would be riding on a concrete road whilst watching nearby farmers with rice hats harvesting chilli peppers and then suddenly, heavy gushes of rain would erupt and I would be half an hour from the next shelter. My nerves got tested these nights when I crawled into my sleeping bag only to realise it was soaking wet. At the end of the day, I learned from my mistakes and wrapped a plastic bag around it in the morning after finishing a bowl of oatmeal.
I never truly felt like quitting. I trusted the process even though I didn’t know the road. I trusted that enough small steps would eventually bring me to my destination.
What are misconceptions you think people have about a trip like this that you’d like to debunk?
Firstly, it is unsafe. A disclaimer: it most certainly is less safe for women to do such a trip. However, I have seen a woman walk from Germany to Nepal on her own. She told me that a mix of awareness and confidence can make a woman go through the most difficult encounters. To me, the biggest danger in such trips would come from collisions with cars, not people. Hence the importance of wearing a helmet!
Secondly, it’s lonely. If you’re curious about the different types of cultures, then you’ll always be in good company. Don’t travel alone – take your other half!
Thirdly, it’s difficult. This is the kind of journey that can be physically challenging and will push you to your limits. By far, the most difficult aspect about this journey was to make the decision to do it. If you are considering it, don’t overthink it. Prepare your gear and documentation well. The internet is full of advice. You’ll be on the road and the adventure of a lifetime before you know it.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned on the road?
What I learned about the world:
I learned that technological change seeps into every corner of the earth. Everywhere I travelled, I saw the use of smartphones; some remote villages I passed through had 3G coverage. I also learned that we are afraid of each other, but there’s no reason to be. The encounters during my journey followed the same pattern. In the beginning, the locals and myself were afraid of trusting each other- since we came from two different cultures. In the end, it was hard to say goodbye to each other. The countries you are the most afraid of might surprise you the most. If you make the first step forward, you will be rewarded.
What I learned about myself:
I learned that the mind-body connection can be explored in infinitely deep ways. Across continents, I have seen how different types of food affect my energy levels. I saw how being in the rhythm of the sun and moon affects my temper. I also learned that you might find your purpose on the road less travelled. This journey did not bring anything to my CV. It was a road less travelled, full of unknowns, but the day I was on it, I knew I was doing the right thing. As we advance through our life and career, society presents us with different paths for the attainment of our well-being. What we don’t know is that there are millions of paths we have not yet discovered. The truth is we are free. We are free to liberate ourselves from the constructs that shape our lives and discover what is true and what is important.
Learn more about what I learned here.
What did you do to unwind after such a big journey?
I closed my eyes and thought about what brought me here. I would recollect the landscapes and each camping spot that connected Europe to the far East. Emotions flowed and I even cried at the beauty of what I experienced.
The transition to my next chapter was quick and radical! My journey ended in Shenzhen, China, on the border with Hong Kong.
What is your next big adventure?
The adventure continues now. I founded an AI Consulting Startup for enterprises. The company was born during the pandemic, so we are completely remote. This means I continued to work while travelling. The only difference is- I have 60 hour work weeks.
My next adventure: using a kayak to follow a large river downstream for a month, crossing Mongolia on a horse, learning the ways of the indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest, who knows! But I know I’m ready for more. Follow me on Instagram to keep up with my next adventure.