Amaya’s Quest to Bicycle Through Every Country on the Planet

Amaya Williams is on quest to bicycle through every country on the planet. Together with Eric Schambion she has been cycling since 2006 and been through 102 countries so far!

After 10 years on the road and a total of 119,000 miles (191,500 km) pedaled, we got the chance to talk with Amaya and ask a few questions about her and Eric’s quest.

Please tell us a bit about yourself

I grew up amidst the Rocky Mountains in the wide open spaces of Montana in the American West. As a child, I hated camping and wasn’t particularly fond of the outdoors or sports. My idea of adventure was checking out a new shopping mall. Nobody (including myself) would have ever predicted that I’d dedicate over a decade of life to cycling the world.

How did you get into bicycle touring?

My life was fairly typical until around the age of 30. I attended university, got a job in banking and joined corporate America. Then one day I was plodding through some marketing proposal and suddenly became disillusioned with my career and a future that seemed all too predictable.

I quit my job in San Francisco, sold everything, and set off for Asia. While backpacking around Laos, I met my future husband. One year later, we were married and building a life together in Europe. Travel was always central to our relationship and from the beginning we were plotting ways to become financially free in order to explore the world.

We started off as your typical backpackers, not bicycle travellers. After ticking off all the must-do destinations in Asia and South America, we were keen to experience more of local life and escape the travellers’ hangouts in which we so often found ourselves.

Bicycle travel seemed like the perfect solution. We could go at our own speed surrounded by nature and have the freedom to explore spots far off the beaten path.

Nowadays I couldn’t imagine my life without a bicycle. The simple act of pedalling brings me the greatest joy imaginable.

How did you decide to cycle through every country on the planet?

We’re goal-oriented individuals, so we initially set our sights on riding from Europe to Cape Town. At the time, we’d never ridden more than a few hundred miles so such a journey felt very ambitious.

After 18 months biking through the western half of Africa, we reached the southern tip of the continent. Those had been some of the most challenging, but ultimately happiest months of our lives. Why quit when we were having so much fun!

We turned around our bicycles and began biking north through East Africa.

It took us three years to completely circumnavigate Africa and return to Europe via the Middle East. At that point, we were fairly confident in our ability to navigate the world by bicycle.

We’d biked over big mountains, and negotiated through tricky situations at borders. We’d become accustomed to a very simple way of living and felt at home in remote villages surrounded by people of vastly different cultures. We were masters at living cheap and our finances were in order.

Most importantly, we’d discovered that we didn’t miss much from our sedentary lifestyle. Continuing to bike around the world seemed like the logical next step. Setting ourselves a goal to cycle through every country in the world was extra motivation.

Obviously, some countries are currently off limits due to safety issues (Afghanistan, Somalia etc). Saudi Arabia and North Korea don’t allow women to ride bicycles, so those are out until there’s a change in the law. And some tiny island countries such as Nauru and Tuvalu are going to be logistically challenging.

What have been the lowest and the most difficult moments on the road, mentally and physically?

My lowest points come when I’m biking through areas that have been environmentally devastated by man. Biking China’s heavily populated eastern seaboard, we rode past factory after factory spewing thick, black pollution into the air. On the island of Borneo, we witnessed the destruction of the rainforest and the vast plantations of palm oil. In India, we cycled through the slums and shantytowns of the crowded cities. These places deeply depressed me.

Physically, the biggest challenges have been high-altitude passes in the Andes and the Himalayas. I’ve suffered altitude sickness on two occasions and know how debilitating that can be. The combination of difficult terrain and limited oxygen made me want to give up. Luckily, my husband was by my side to urge me on and encourage me to keep going.

What are some of your happiest bike touring memories?

Reaching the summit on an epic mountain climb, surmounting periods of overwhelming physical challenges like intense headwinds or bitter climate conditions. At these moments I feel strong and proud of my accomplishments and really living in the moment. All my worries and anxieties disappear and I’m overcome with a sense of well-being and contentment.

But most of all, it’s those random encounters with amazing people that leave the strongest memories. I’ll never forget the young Bangladeshi man who biked with us for almost a full day just to guide us through the countryside and make sure we didn’t get lost. We’ve had countless experiences like those and are always touched deeply by the kindness and generosity of strangers.

Who inspires you in the world of bicycle touring and bikepacking?

Alastair Humphreys was a huge inspiration to us before we set off. He was one of the first cyclists to write about his tour online and give others the confidence to attempt a round the world tour.

Harriet and Neil Pike are some of the toughest and most humble bicycle tourists around and they taught me to attempt more challenging dirt road rides.

These days, I love looking at images from Lars Bengtsson (the Lost Cyclist) on Instagram. He’s cycled just about everywhere and has a passion for really remote places. I’m also inspired by the many intrepid young women who are setting off on solo tours. Swedes Ann Johansson and Fredrika Ek are leading the way for a whole new generation of female bicycle travelers.

What advice can you give to help others have a better bicycle touring experience?

Most importantly, ride your ride and nobody else’s. I spent the better part of four years getting down on myself for not being a super-tough cyclist. I’d berate myself for being a wimp. Why couldn’t I be more like Al Humphreys? The team from Pikes on Bikes wouldn’t be griping about a measly 3,800 meter pass.

Finally I realized I was chasing somebody else’s dreams. It’s taken me a long time to accept that I’m no super-athlete who willingly withstands extreme hardships such as biking ten days through the wilderness with no sign of civilization.

We all have unique touring styles and different appetites for adventure. Not comparing your ride to anyone else’s seems pretty obvious, but I’m certain there are others who also struggle with this.

Any lessons learned that you can share with us?

  • All ‘helpful’ road directions should be disregarded unless confirmed by a minimum of three individuals.
  • There’s no need for Americans to slap a Maple Leaf flag on their panniers and claim they come from Vancouver. Locals around the world (and yes, even in the Middle East!) are savvy enough to differentiate between the government and its people.
  • When looking for camping spots, flowers surrounding a home are a clear indication of friendly folks inside.
  • If someone in the Andes assures you there are only a few small hills ahead, get ready for some serious climbs.
  • Bad roads make for better memories.
  • Podcasts rock! If you’re worried about brain rot and boredom during a long bicycle tour, just plug into a podcast and get educated and entertained.

What are your favorite spots for bikepacking?

For spectacular mountains, my favorite routes are through the Argentine Andes and over the high passes in the Tibetan areas of China’s Sichuan province. I’d definitely ride through northern India’s remote Spiti Valley again and I’d love to return to the tribal areas of southern Kenya and northern Ethiopia. My favorite desert riding is in Namibia, Oman and the American Southwest. For overall breathtaking scenery, my top pick would be New Zealand.

Do you plan your route weeks/months in advance or does it change often?

Since we’re not huge fans of cycling in extreme heat or cold, we try to sync our cycling route with the seasons. We always have a general plan of where we’ll be over the next 12-18 months but nothing is ever set in stone. If we hear about and interesting backroad route, we’ll tweak our itinerary.

Visa restrictions are another thing you have to keep in mind in many parts of the world. We’re headed to Central Asia next and that part of the world is notorious for bureaucracy and tricky visa rules. Luckily, the situation has loosened up recently and some countries are offering e-visas.

Would you mind sharing the cost of your adventure?

On average, we spend around $8,000 per year combined. That includes food, lodging, health insurance, flights and major expenses like replacing electronic equipment or purchasing a new tent.

What we’ve spent on over a decade’s worth of travel experiences is equivalent to the price of two new SUVs and an annual 10 day guided bicycle tour.

Our main costs by far are food and health insurance. Replacing gear can also take a big bite out of the budget, but we’ve been fortunate in that several outdoor companies have kindly replaced worn out gear for free.

Lodging costs us almost nothing. By using the hospitality networks Warm Showers and Couchsurfing, we can find free places to stay in cities and when we’re in rural areas we can always find a spot to pitch the tent.

Even in countries with high costs of living such as Japan, Australia and the USA, we are able to maintain a budget of under $10 per person per day. We simply cook all our own meals and eat basic food such as pasta, potatoes, and oatmeal.

If we really needed to reduce our budget even more, we could cut out all the treats such as ice cream and chocolate. That wouldn’t be fun though, so I’d rather get a job!

How do you finance your adventure?

While working in Europe we were fortunate to have well-paying jobs. By living very frugally (more like college students rather than people with professional jobs) we were able to save about 70% of our earnings. Some of this money went into a retirement fund and some was used to purchase a couple of studio apartments. The rental income we receive is what finances most of our travels. Having a solid bank balance and being self-sufficient is important to us, because we don’t want to ever become a burden to the government.

Please share your top 5 favorite picks for bike touring gear

To be honest, I’m not much of a gearhead and like to keep things fairly simple. That said, there are a few items that make touring dramatically easier and more comfortable.

When you’re riding remote, a good water filtration system is essential. We use the Sawyer Mini plus a SteriPen as a back-up. The Sawyer weighs less than an apple and fits in the palm of your hand. Plus there’s no pumping so you can just set it up, wait for half an hour and the Sawyer Mini miraculously turns out safe drinking water.

I love photographing the bikes gliding through the world and have always struggled with getting decent shots of my husband and me riding together. Recently I discovered the Tamrac Mini Tripod. Most tripods are bulky and take a bit of time to put together. The Tamrac weighs almost nothing and snaps together in seconds, so you never miss a shot.

After too much time spent cycling in soggy clothing shivering and shaking while biking at high altitudes, I’m now convinced that investing in the right clothing can significantly improve your cycling experience.

At the beginning of our tour when we biked through Africa, shorts and a t-shirt were fine because the only extreme weather we encountered was heat. Not so in the Andes or the Himalayas.

These days we’re well-prepared for every type of climate condition. Lightweight down jackets (Marmot makes some great ones) keep us warm even in sub-zero temps and reliable raingear (ours is from Showers Pass, a small Portland-based company which designs their outerwear explicitly for cyclists) keeps us dry even in a downpour.

In order to drag myself out of the tent in the morning, I need the enticement of a strong cup of coffee. We used to make camp coffee using the simple pour over method but recently upgraded to an Aeropress. The Aeropress is compact and turns out coffee far tastier than what you’ll find at Starbucks.

My preferred riding surface is dirt roads, but sometimes we end up having to bike on busy highways. When that happens, there are three things I use that make me feel significantly safer: a rearview mirror (the Urbie mirror from Cycle Aware is one of our favorites) so I can keep an eye on traffic, hi-viz clothing (check out the Danish company Grip Grab for great hi-viz outerwear) and a flashing light (I recommend those made by Reelights because they don’t need batteries and are easy to install).

What will the future bring? Will you keep on cycling or do you want to branch out to other types of adventures?

Bicycle touring is our preferred adventure mode, but we’re keen to incorporate some long-distance hiking and trekking. The 2,659 mi (4,279 km) Pacific Crest Trail which stretches from Southern California to the Canadian border will be first on our list. Recently I got the opportunity to try kayaking and I absolutely loved being on the water. Maybe we can get a packraft and venture into even more remote parts of the world.

I’ve been dreaming of biking Central Asia and the Pamir Highway for over a decade. We’re very excited to be riding that route this summer. From Kazakhstan, we’ll be pedalling west back to Obernai, France, where the tour began in 2006.

Next up will be the wide open spaces of northern Europe in summer 2018 followed by a return to South America to ride through Peru and Ecuador, the only two countries we missed on the continent. This is an exciting time to be riding in the Andes, because more and more remote routes are being carved out.

After almost 200,000 kilometers of riding, my Koga World Traveller touring bike is about ready for retirement. I’m hoping the kind folks at Koga will set me up with a new bike (perhaps one with a fancy Rohloff hub) when we reach Europe later this year.

Follow Amaya on her website, on Facebook and on Instagram.

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One Comment

  1. Hello Amaya,
    Very inspiring, thank you for sharing your stories!
    I have been on a few shorter cycling trips and have been a guide for some (short lived) ;-/ It took the fun out of something I love.
    I am have been looking in to and dreaming of taking a longer tour and I was wondering what travel insurance you use?
    Thanks so much!

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