Adventure Profile – Sean Hoban
The incredible story of an Irish teenager who cycled to the Chinese border.
Who are you?
My name is Sean Hoban. I am a 19 year old Irishman from Waterford City. I have been in scouts since I was six. I am currently working in a bike shop in my hometown. On the 31st of August I left home on my bike and over 10 months, I cycled solo and unassisted all the way to the Chinese Border.
Talk me through where you went and how?
On my way I cycled roughly 12,000km through 18 countries. (in order) Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. On the trip I did not take any lifts. Throughout my whole journey, from when I left home to my final destination, I pedalled on two wheels.
What sort of planning had you done?
I first had the idea to do a year long trip was when I was 16. I had just got a job in a local bike shop. Using my salary, I began saving extensively. Then in the Spring of 2016, I met a man named Danny McDermot who was planning to cycle from Ireland to Istanbul for charity. I was amazed, and absolutely intrigued. It lit a fire under my ass and I began researching online about other round the world cyclists. I came across the blog of Alastair Humphreys, English explorer who cycled around the globe over 4 years way back in 2001. Well after a couple hours of combing through his blog I was inspired. I would do a big ass cycle trip. The next step was to plan a route.
So I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of money and this is why cycling appealed to me so much. I could cook and camp myself and all the mileage was done using manpower. It was perfect for an 18 year old just out of school with minimal funds. Over the next year and a half, I roughly planned a route and saved more funds. It was only in January of 2018 that I fully committed to the trip, by booking the non-refundable ferry ticket to France.
From then on out I had 8 months to fully plan the trip. I spent long evenings hunched over the family laptop planning routes, equipment, visa, when I should have been studying for my Leaving Cert. I finally decided to cycle to Asia and more specifically make it to the Pamir Highway.
Tell me about your bike and did you have any issues?
For my trip I bought my first ever brand-new bike. A ridgeback expedition 2018. I chose what is called an adventure touring bike. It’s sort of a bike that is specially designed for doing a big cycle trip. The bike is designed so that it is easy and simple to maintain and also with parts that are widely available anywhere in the world. It has 26” wheels, a steel frame, straight handlebars, puncture resistant tyres, an extended chainstay to accommodate pannier racks and a comfortable geometry also. I didn’t have any major issues, just some small issues that were simple enough for me to solve myself. Punctures, snapped cables etc. in Tajikistan my rear rack broke but with the help of some locals we fixed it.
What was your favourite place and why?
Favourite place was definitely Tajikistan. The mountains were just so immense, and the culture in the mountains is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I also really enjoyed my time in Iran. The people there were just so friendly and the history and historic landmarks were so intense.
Turkmenistan was also hugely interesting although I was only allowed to stay for 5 days.
Did you pass through any scary places?
Cycling through the Tunnel of Death (Anzob Tunnel) in Tajikistan was the only moment of the trip where I felt truly scared for my wellbeing. It took me 40 minutes to cycle through the 5 km tunnel. It has no ventilation, no lights, is pretty much potholed the whole way through. You can’t see 10m in front of you with the black fumes that fill the inside of the tunnel. It’s mostly huge trucks too (look it up on YouTube to get a perspective).
What about food? Did you carry European stuff, buy local or rely on the generosity of strangers?
Food was mostly different in every country. In western Europe I mostly cooked myself because of the price of food. In eastern Europe, especially the former Soviet countries, I could eat in restaurants often very cheaply. Turkey had to have been my favourite for food. In 5 weeks I don’t think I used my stove even once. I could eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in roadside restaurants for around €5 a day. Street food in Iran was also pretty amazing and scarily cheap. There was probably only one thing I carried no matter what in every country, mayonnaise. Was very important.
Depending on the country, but mostly everywhere, I was invited to eat with locals. In eastern Europe I was often invited to drink dangerously strong shots of “Rakia” even at 10 in the morning. In Islamic countries I drank chai or tea with locals every day. I drank tap water all the way to Tajikistan where I was cycling with some Swiss guys who had a huge water filter. So, for the last month we drank exclusively from rivers.
Tell us for favourite story from your adventure.
In Tajikistan I cycled along the border of Afghanistan for 3 weeks with 4 swiss cyclists. The Panj river was the border between the two countries. The border doesn’t have a fence just a daily patrol of four young soldier with AK 47s who walk along the road. Upriver the water flowed small and the river shallow. It was very teasing for us looking over at Afghanistan for that long and as the river got smaller and smaller as we cycled upstream, we had an idea. We thought it would be cool to wade across into Afghanistan, take a picture and quickly come back.
We had just seen a patrol going the opposite way so we thought we were in the clear. So we stripped down to our shorts and tried to cross. Well halfway across we spotted 4 young felles in camo and we nearly had a collective heart attack. We waded back to shore and they didn’t look happy. Luckily none of them spoke English so using charades we told them we were just washing. After a while they got sick of us and trudged on, not before radioing in what they saw. We thought we were f***ed.
So that’s the story of how we nearly got caught illegally crossing into Afghanistan. We thought about it over the following day and realised that if the border is the river, and we made it to the middle of the river, you could say that we made it to country number 19 but that is left up to interpretation.
Have you any tips for someone going to set off for a year?
● Plan ahead but be flexible and see where the road takes you.
● It’s so worth it to put in the time to find a nice campsite with a water source to wash yourself in a river before getting into bed is priceless
● Bring a kindle, I wish I did. I also wish I loaded a small hard drive up with tonnes of movies to watch.
● Write every day no matter what. Even if it’s only a few lines. I have an awful memory and now I have 10 months of handwritten journals that I can read back through.
What’s next for you?
I met a lot of people on my way who have actually seen more of Ireland than myself. So, my next trip will definitely be in Ireland. I might take a summer and cycle from Waterford to Waterford around the coast. If I was ever to do a long trip again I would do the Pan American. That’s Alaska to Chile. But will probably have to wait a couple years.