Cycling to Saigon for freedom and human rights

"People see us and wonder 'What are these idiots up to?' and come over for a chat."

In March 2013 Matthew Kilgour and Alexei Vink (both 27) resigned from their jobs and set out to cycle from London to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.

Moving at a rate of roughly 60-70 miles per day, they cycle for four days and then rest for one, and plan to reach their destination in September 2013. We caught up with them on their journey.

AV: So, Matt. We've cycled about 5,000 miles through 14 countries so far. We've cycled in a metre of snow in the Slovenian mountains; we've cycled in 50 degree heat in the Kazakh desert. It's fair to say we've done a lot of cycling. What I really want to know is: when will I get a six pack?

MK: I guess it really depends on a simple formula of dividing the number of kilometres cycled by the number of snickers bars eaten. So in your case, I think you need to cut snickers intake by about 70%.

AV: I'm not sure I like the sound of that. Maybe we should up the kilometres instead. Then again, that might be difficult in the Pamir mountains - we'll have to watch for altitude sickness as it is.

MK: You’re right - when we traverse the Akybatal Pass in the eastern range, we'll cycle nearly the height of Mont Blanc - 4,600m at the highest point. Hopefully altitude sickness won't be too much of a problem - we won't spend too long up there. Besides, altitude aids beard growth - it's a 100% scientific fact that spending time in the mountains increases beard thickness.

AV: Yes, well, you've made a fine start on the facial hair already. I think it's fair to say we've been pretty well received all around the world. I wonder if your beard has anything to do with that?

MK: People do seem to respond well to the bedraggled look, and we really have been carried along on a wave of kindness and generosity.

AV: Yes - a never ending wave of kindness. The free meals and beds have been countless – and I’ve found that the poorer the people, the more they want to share with you. One of the many valuable lessons of travelling by bike. On which topic - there are many modes of transport – why is a bicycle your preference?

MK: Simply because I really like bikes. I think you get a better sense of geography when travelling by bike. You can't escape the weather - you aren't separated from smells or dirt or bugs by a windshield. And I think you meet people in natural and often cheerful circumstances. People see us and wonder, 'what are these idiots up to?' and come over for a chat.

AV: Sometimes cheerful, but not always! I remember hitchhiking my way out of the desert with a gastrointestinal infection. That wasn’t much fun.

MK: Being ill must have sucked. Is that what you’ve found hardest overall?

AV: The camping took some adjustment for me. Not so much camping with scorpions and camel spiders in the desert, but rather sharing an extremely snug "two man" tent with you. I like my space. And I'm a creature comforts type - not showering for days on end, wearing the same salty cycling clothes over and over - that doesn't sit well with me. It's worth it for the experience but I don't begrudge the day when I'll have a consistent bed again. You've never seemed bothered by it, I notice.

MK: I'm pretty happy in a tent. That and any excuse not to wash. I'm essentially an overgrown 6 year old - I want to go exploring, play with bikes and not have to shower.

AV: Sounds about right. Anyway. Fundraising. We had a lot of ideas - are you still glad we opted for Amnesty International?

MK: Definitely. Some of the countries we've passed through have clearly illustrated what happens to a populace with limited freedoms, limited human rights. There is a definite disconnect in Central Asia between people and government - staggering generosity and warmth from almost everyone we met but a definite sense of wariness when it comes to interacting with police or officials. It's quite hard to ignore the opulence on display in some capital cities, like Tashkent, when compared to the working wage of your average Uzbeki.

AV: Absolutely. Same with Baku in Azerbaijan. I kind of feel like you can gauge it from the number of patriarchal 1984-like posters strung up along the roads - "Father Is Watching" - the modern day equivalent of Stalin's statues. When you meet people you feel a mixture of outrage and sympathy. So, you have to appreciate the work of charities like Amnesty International for their steady improvement of the human condition.

MK: Right. Enough chatter. Back on the bike.

AV: To the mountains!

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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