Cycling the length of an average sized country is a mammoth undertaking. Cycling around the whole world is borderline preposterous – but that’s exactly what 36-year-old Gurkan Genk set out to do in 2012.
He had no real experience as a cyclist but he’d dreamed of undertaking such an epic adventure since he was 12 years old and, after trying a series of different jobs, he decided that the rat race just wasn’t for him. So he got on his bike…and he’s been on it ever since.
Gurkan reached the UAE recently, marking three years into what will be a seven-year ride across every continent on the globe he’s calling ‘Pedal for The Future’. He’s currently recuperating in Dubai after being hit by a truck in Saudi and that’s not the first brush with death he’s had along the way.
“In one country they tried to rob me and I had to fight,” he says. “In another country I was arrested when I put my tent up in a Taliban controlled area. People have put their guns to my chest and tried to take my money, I’ve broken my chest two times, I broke my leg one time and yet still I’m on the road and still I’m alive!”
It takes a lot of determination to carry on after such hair-raising moments and Gurkan certainly has bags of that: “I have only one life in which to do this so I must carry on,” he says.
But these moments are rare dark spots in what has been a hugely enlightening and enriching experience for the eccentric Turk.
He’s seen sights and experienced cultures that most travelers can only dream of. As Gurkan explains, “Most travelers or tourists pick a point on a map and they go there. Then they pick another point and they go there – so they go from point to point. But if you cycle you do a line right through the whole country. You see the real culture.”
He’s found that his journey has, for the most part, revealed the best of human nature. “In the big cities, people have problems like ‘how can I pay the bills?’, ‘How can I pay the rent?’” he says. “But in other parts of the country people are very relaxed. They invite you into their houses a lot – in every country in the world. I’ve seen 42 countries now and religion, skin colour, it’s not important. If they see you on the bike they invite you into their house. If you went by motorcycle you wouldn’t get the same hospitality. If you have a motorcycle you’re a rich man, you have money. A bicycle is a public transportation machine. These people, the villagers, are always riding their bicycles with their kids. They all use them. So they share this in common with you and know that you understand real life.”
As you’d imagine, Gurkan’s journey has been more than a little physically demanding at times. He averages between 100 and 200km every day – sometimes in arduous conditions. “The toughest part was in Mongolia, in the Gobi Desert. For 750km and 12 days I didn’t see anyone. There’s no asphalt, no track – the sand is so firm that you can cycle on it but it’s tough. In the day time the temperature was 20 degrees but at night it dropped to minus 35. I ran out of water so I had to filter my pee and drink it to survive until eventually I arrived in Ulaanbaatar.
“I also experienced minus 57 degrees in Russia in 2013. It was February 2013 when I passed by the Arctic Circle so I choose some extreme weather conditions! I’m now set to be in Dubai for the summer time so that will also be challenge!”
Gurkan’s achievements thus far include becoming the first Turk to cycle the Central Asian States and the entirety of North Asia. He accomplished a 45,000 metre climb by riding all 32 Alpine Passes in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and France. As well as the Gobi Desert he’s also conquered the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan, the Wakham Valley of Tajikstan, which involved a 37,000 metre climb, and the Pamir Gateway – known as the ‘roof of the world.’
One question he’s frequently asked is: ‘How do you sustain yourself financially while on the road?’
“I have some companies who have sponsored me and I also set up a blog where I write about my experiences in English and Turkish which now has half a million readers,” he says. “People donate money through the site but I don’t need a lot of money because I live in a tent and like I said earlier, people invite me to stay in their houses and share their food a lot.
“I don’t want to save money – I just need enough to survive on the road so I’ve started to help the people in Turkey. I support the Turkish women’s national cycling team and I’ve funded some scholarships.
“I think it’s important to support women in my country and help with education and sporting development. You can change the country and change the world – that’s why I called my project, ‘Pedal for the Future’. People have asked me what I’m going to do when I finish my tour and I tell them that my next dream is to become a sports minister for Turkey.”
Despite undertaking such a physical challenge, Gurkan didn’t do any particular training for his round-the-world cycle, but has rather improved his fitness as he’s progressed. “When I set off from Turkey to ride to Japan I weighed 100 kilos,” he says. “But when I arrived in Japan I was only 80 kilos.” He also avoids supplements and specialist foods, preferring to stick to a diet that can be replicated easily wherever he is in the world. “I don’t use chemicals, pills, energy bars, energy drinks – anything like that.
“I drink water and I eat macaroni, lots of vegetables, lots of fruit – things you can find everywhere.”
Gurkan is hoping to leave the UAE by the end of July and head for Oman and Yemen and then down the east African coast to South Africa then onto South America, North American and finally Asia to Australia.
By the time it’s complete, in 2020, his World Tour will have taken in 84 countries across seven continents and he will have cycled approximately 115,000 kilometres. But despite seeing some strikingly beautiful sights along the way he will take one thing from his journey above all else:
“The people,” he says. “The people accept you everywhere with the bicycle regardless of skin colour or religion. You can find bad people anywhere in the world but generally the people are good. You don’t need to speak the same language as them – you say ‘hi’ or ‘hello’ or ‘salaam’ or ‘marhaba’ and they welcome you.
“My experiences with the people I’ve met along the way mean more to me than any of the sights I’ve seen.”