Across the roof of the world

20 July 2013
Written by Monica Yeoman | Images by Dave Henley and Monia Yeoman
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From Singapore to the mighty Himalaya, Monica Yeoman and Dave Henley set out to experience all that life threw at them on the seats of their trusty bicycles


It was April 2012 when my husband Dave and I arrived in Singapore. Having come straight from a New Zealand autumn, we were hit by the thick, heavy equatorial air as we stepped onto the tarmac about to embark on a nine-month cycling journey through Asia and I was already exhausted…and sweaty!

In our late 20s, we’d found ourselves reluctant to ‘settle down’ and full of those feelings so familiar to many young Kiwis: itchy-footed and curious about the world beyond our South Pacific homeland. Craving a long journey of exploration and adventure:

physically, emotionally and spiritually, we ‘wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life’ – Thoreau, Walden.

What better way to do so than by setting out for nine months through nine countries and 15,000km on bicycles! From Singapore through Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China, Pakistan, Nepal and India. The exact route would only become clear as we travelled, for it all depended upon which countries would allow us entry. We knew that Singapore, located on the edge of mainland Asia, was a logical starting point and that our ultimate aim was to reach the Himalaya…by bicycle. All that lay in between would reveal itself over the following nine months.

Cycling was our preferred method of transport (and perhaps chosen expression of insanity) due to the freedom, independence and challenge that it offered. It took us through very isolated places, brought us into contact with people we’d never otherwise meet and threw us into unpredictable situations where outcomes were out of our control. As far as adventures go, for us, traveling through Asia on our bicycles was the ultimate. 

However, upon departing Singapore, I was filled with regret and doubt about what I was doing. I had travelled, yes and often cycled from A to B around Wellington, I went running most days and I’d even once biked 60km around the Otago Peninsula. However, that experience left me unable to walk for three days, so I never repeated it! But such a challenge paled in comparison to the first few days cycling in Asia. My bike training took place largely then and there, in gruelling 35 degree heat and 90 percent humidity. Suffering chronic stiffness and chaffing aplenty (more on that later), I would not recommend this approach to anyone other than masochists.

Throughout that first week we bonded quickly with our bikes, learning their annoyances and strengths. They were modest vehicles, bought on a tight budget, with few bells and whistles. I nicknamed mine Tricksie, for she kept me on my toes for the entirety of the journey with her worrying squeaks and annoying niggles, but she possessed a friendly, feminine element which I liked. Dave’s bike quickly became known as ‘Horse’, due to it’s ability to carry excessive amounts of weight and always plod onwards, however slowly! We learned to love these two friends through the ups and downs, knowing that they, in combination with our ever enlarging thighs of steal, were all that would get us to the Himalaya!

As with any long journey, ours had its fair share of challenges and lowlights - logistical struggles, bike maintenance issues, physical limitations and unpredictable weather to name a few. However, these trials were often wrapped in a sense of joy and excitement, underpinned by a deeper satisfaction that we were doing what we’d set out to do….experience life in a different way, in all its richness. 

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Our journey was a huge planning challenge, largely because we had not applied for any visas before leaving New Zealand, for given our pace of travel, we suspected there was a huge likelihood they’d all expire before we reached the desired country.

We made Hanoi, Vietnam, our base for four weeks while we learned the idiosyncrasies of various Asian embassies and applied for all our onward visas. This lengthy beauracratic procedure consisted of waiting in long lines for hours in stifling 35 degree heat, collecting and delivering documentation and desperately trying to exchange Vietnamese dong for US dollars, which was technically an illegal action but compulsory for the acquisition of certain visas.

At one point we headed to our final interview at the Pakistani Embassy, where we hoped to secure the visa that would allow us road access through Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway from China into India. Days of meticulous thought and planning had led to this moment and I didn’t want to stuff it up now. All that stood between us and a land passage to India was one interview and my ability to just let Dave do the talking. I wrapped a hijab around my already sweaty head, we locked the bikes and ventured inside.

However we need not have worried as all visas were stamped and we were off – our cycling adventure had begun.

The very nature of the journey was physically challenging, both on a fitness level and in terms of personal health and feminine hygiene.

On our second day riding up the East Coast of Malaysia, we had somewhat idiotically decided to cycle 100kms by 2.00pm, aiming to rest for the afternoon. Upon arriving at our chosen town, my bottom was bruised and battered, the skin on my thighs burned and my lower arms were sunburnt to a crisp. I crashed into a sweaty, disturbed sleep, only to be woken a few hours later by the horrible stinging sensation of thrush! That dreaded word! This was a case like none other, certainly not the sort I was willing to wait patiently for natural yogurt or garlic to fight! I was left wanting to tear the lower half of body off and could do little more than hobble around for the next few days, avoiding the bike seat and treating myself with generous amounts of NZ travel doctor medication. 

In contrast to the heat of the tropics, we also had times of struggling against immense cold and rain.

Evening was encroaching in Yunnan, Southern China and had brought with it ice and rain. The land was barren, and rimmed by 6000m mountains, from which a freezing wind was beginning to howl. We had cycled 50km uphill that day and found ourselves thrown into a world of plummeting temperatures and mild altitude sickness. 

Judging from our map (entirely in Chinese) we guessed the gritty little one-yak town we were cycling through was not our destination for the night. So in the hope of finding a bed and with any luck, a mug of green tea, we pressed on into the evening, through the dark and relentless elements. The rain turned to snow and stung my face, my hands and legs. Soon everything was numb. After what felt like forever, we finally spied the town of Xiao Zhongdian.

The place was wonderfully Tibetan and upon arrival all the anxiety of cycling through the rain and the dark faded away. The large family who owned the town guesthouse welcomed us like their own. They led us to a simple concrete room with two small beds and huge rugs, filled a small plastic tub in the corner with hot water to wash ourselves and asked us to join them for dinner around the old stove in their kitchen. 

We stripped off wet layers and for the first time in five months, dug out our thermals and ski socks! Then spent the evening conversing with the help of a daughter’s iphone to translate!

Mna ma’ the eldest girl said, as she typed the word and waited for the iphone translation. 
Ah….Daughter in law!’ I said.
You are their daughter in law’.  Sounding the words out herself with a measure of pride, she continued to establish everyone’s place here. 

Later, we raced back through the thumping rain to our little concrete room where we collapsed with exhaustion. 

Throughout our journey, the challenges and lowlights we were presented with at times felt immense. But without fail, each and every one of them was intertwined up within a much bigger, brighter highlight. Perhaps part of this was because of a personal choice to ‘look on the bright side of life’.  But more than this, light always found its way to us through people. There were thousands whom we crossed paths with, often in our times of need. People helped us, guided us, laughed with us, sometimes laughed at us, they fed us, shared with us and ultimately turned any challenges into experiences which we are deeply thankful for and will never forget. 

Back in NZ, we wanted to share our story and a few impressions of Asia. As avid musicians, writers and photographers, we racked our brains for a creative way to do so. Eventually we created a show full of live music, theatrical input, photography, film and story-telling! Since May we have been touring NZ, performing in living rooms, town halls, cafes, community centres and even a Mongolian yurt! With 30 performance under our belts so far, we have a large scale event coming up in Wellington at:

As part of our African journey, we will be recording a musical album from on the road, collaborating with local musicians and performing in schools, orphanages and hospitals through local NGOs. We are passionate about sharing this journey with people through film, photography and other creative outlets as we travel. 




0 #1 John 2013-08-06 13:36
great article - makes me want to jump on my bike :o)

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