7 months into his journey riding 34,000+ kilometres around the world, we catch up with Boru McCullagh on the top 10 days of his Mind Mapping adventure so far. From views of the Himalayas to remote gravel roads in Cambodia, follow Boru on once-in-a-lifetime climbs and exotic hidden gems in these highlights from his travel diaries (with accompanying routes on Strava).
1: Temi Tea Estate: Sikkim, India. Day 68
Perhaps the most beautiful climb in the world. I nearly didn’t take this road as the day before I’d a bad stomach so spent it in bed in Gangtok, the capital of the State of Sikkim that I was in at the time. The day began with a fast descent dropping over a kilometre in elevation, before starting the climb up to 2300m through a tea estate in the Himalayan foothills.
I’d spent enough days dancing around these mountains and sleeping at altitude that I felt amazing that day. As I climbed, the view of Kanchenjunga (the world’s second highest peak at 8586m) emerged from behind the smaller mountains obscuring its view at the lower elevations. The temperature progressively dropped, the pine trees became more frequent, the looks of bewilderment increased.
I was listening to a podcast at the time about Tenzing Norgay, one of the duo who first summited Everest, and within that learnt about the spiritual weight the Himalayas carry in Buddhism and Hindusim. I could feel that as I climbed this mountain, it was a humbling experience to stand so small in the face of this mountain range.
2: Mali Alan Pass: Croatia. Day 19
Similar to the Temi Tea Estate climb, I didn’t expect to have a good day. I’d eaten some bad chicken the day before and it was a challenge to get out the door. I felt so awful when I was on the beginning of a gravel climb, one that I thought was Mali Alan Pass, that I decided to turn back and take the road instead. I was pretty crushed I didn’t have the legs; Mali Alan was up there on a list of ‘Top 10 Gravel Climbs in Europe’ I’d googled before starting this whole ride. But I had to get on with the day, and before long was turning off the music to find my rhythm (I can never listen to music whilst climbing) on an extended gravel section. This time round, there was no road alternative, and it didn’t stop going up. It wasn’t a small gravel section, but whole climb. I was loving it.
Once I crested the top I recognised the moon-like rock structures and otherworldly atmosphere that I’d seen in photos. This was Mali Alan, not the one I skipped earlier! I was so relieved, all day I was trying to console myself for having skipped it, and here I was at the top.
Sometimes the best experiences come when we least expect them, a lesson I would learn to put into practise as I travelled further and say yes to any opportunity for the possibility of what might lay on the other side of the unknown.
3: Cal Dagi: Fethiye, Turkey. Day 40
Cal Dagi in my mind holds an almost mythical status. Along the south-eastern coast of Turkey, Finley Newmark and I planned to ride up Babadag, a 2000m mountain on the Mediterranean coast. Before we started the climb, we met a man called Ian who strongly advised against Babadag and told us about Cal Dagi, an equally impressive climb, but completely unknown to the tourism machine that can too easily commercialise areas of natural beauty.
We did the climb the day after we met Ian. The road up was so hidden (it’s only used to have a fire spotter atop the mountain in the summer months) that we initially couldn’t find it. Ian, who as well as Cal Dagi holds a mythical like status in my mind for his Tom Bombadil-esque nature, seeming to have knowledge on history, the world and the land he lives to such a degree it seems too much to have learned in one lifetime, drove us to the base of the climb in the morning.
The climb itself was as challenging as it was made out to be. One of those ones you have to break it down into different pitches and target them one by one. We hid our luggage in a bush and rode, carried and finally left our bikes to climb the final section to the top.
Just in time, the call to prayer sung out from the Mosques in the valleys beneath us as we took a seat at the summit. Perhaps one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced.
4: Ha Giang Loop: Ha Giang Province, Vietnam. Day 90
The Ha Giang Loop is a famous 350km loop around the mountains of north Vietnam.
I had to ride the wrong way around the world to get to this part of Vietnam, but I was rewarded tenfold for the effort in doing that. The climbs, sheer and humid, have been some of the toughest so far. There isn’t the space for the long, sweeping switchbacks typical of Europe; Most of the roads here are steep, without breeze but with a certain mysticism around them, especially with the morning rain and mist which hugs the carpet of jungle that clings to the mountain beneath it.
This particular day had a climb with gradients that hurt my legs to think about. Tough, beautiful and I’d go back in a heartbeat.
5: Battambang to Siem Reap: Cambodia. Day 136
All of the days so far have been for their climbs but Battambang to Siem Reap couldn’t be further from those days. On paper it was a 175km day with 50m of climbing to circumnavigate Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South-East Asia, which conveniently sits just off the centre of Cambodia.
I wasn’t looking forward to it one bit, but in addition to everything I learned from the Cambodian people in my time there on how to live my life a better person, I also learnt how to truck surf. And truck surf well.
In the end that 175km took me 4 hours and 30 minutes, averaging 39kph thanks to the help of a few truck drivers. The encouragement from those who I jumped behind and the cars who were overtaking us turned what could have been a soul destroying day into an adrenaline fuelled, fast paced and intense dash across the country. Sometimes, as with a few days prior to this, I want to go onto the gravel mountain roads and take it slow, but days like today the little kid who grew up racing at Herne Hill Velodrome comes out, and I was in the zone.
6: Durmitor National Park: Montengro. Day 25
Durmitor was another of those climbs that was supposedly among the best in the world. I can attest to that.
The day before I’d left Bosnia with the help of a local farmer who roped up my bike to get it across a huge, deep crater where a road used to be. The next day I was on perfectly tarmacked roads dipping around, under and through the sheer cliffs that borer Piva Canyon in Montenegro. One turn later and I was zig-zagging my way up the mountain side on my way to Durmitor, a stunningly picturesque National Park in north Montenegro.
The mountains here look like they’d been attacked by gods, with unnatural striations scratching the face and boulders that looked like they’d been flung around in some Olympian myth.
At the summit, a touring group had a huge lunch laid out and invited me over to join them. It was a fortunate coincidence, before long I found myself in some vast grass plains way off track, following the directions from the only farmer I saw for miles.
7: Slovenia to Croatia. Day 17
This day is up there for the number of borders I crossed that day. I travelled from Slovenia to Gorizia in Italy then back to Slovenia and back into Italy, this time in Trieste, then Slovenia again before entering Croatia. I hadn’t planned to go to Italy but the thought of a €1 coffee was too tempting to pass up. I had three.
This day has also stuck with me for the change of scenery and marked the end of the first real test of the ride, getting through the Alps. I began with the damp Alpine air hanging over the valleys I was descending through and as I dropped down towards the coast this evolved to become the harsh, arid and pine scented heat that is undeniably Mediterranean.
I felt I was making some headway into this mammoth journey with a mountain range now between myself and London. This was still the early days where I was struggling to process the size of the journey I was undertaking and feeling further from home made me simultaneously inspired and fearful.
8: Cardamom Mountains: Cambodia. Day 131
Part of the reason I loved the riding in Cambodia is because you’re never far from rough gravel tracks or a newly built, perfectly tarmacked main road. However, if you want a smooth drive travelling north to south in the west of the country, you have to be willing to take huge detours back to Phnom Penh.
This road through the Cardamom Mountains is a wide gravel road (for the most part) which is currently being built into a main road to connect the cities in the west. With no signal or route on my Wahoo, I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on a small gravel track through the mountains. The earth, the jungle… they were so vibrant. I knew I’d found a special pocket of the country that other Barang (in Khmer it means ‘French’ but they use it to describe any foreigner) would never find themselves on.
Fortunately just before dark I found a house and signed to the owner asking if I could set my tent up. He obliged and also insisted on cooking me a hearty dinner of rice, dried fish and pork accompanied by homemade rice wine and Sting energy drink. Chhngan khlang na.
9: Bao Loc to Ho Chi Minh City: Vietnam. Day 116
Not the most inspiring day, but riding into Ho Chi Minh City was a rollercoaster and has traffic so unique to anywhere I’d been so far. HCMC is a city of about 9 million, but within it are over 7 million motorbikes. That’s nearly three times the amount of cars that we have in London, and then add the 0.8 million cars in HCMC on top of that and you might have an idea of how wild the roads are here. Except for major junctions, traffic lights aren’t really a thing in Vietnam and if there are, they’re often just a suggestion.
I’m convinced that the Vietnamese drivers have the best spatial awareness anywhere in the world; the way the traffic flows seamlessly around and through itself is mesmerising. From the outside it looks like chaos, but once you’re in it you can see the order and they behave in pre-emptive and thoughtful ways. You can’t switch off even for a second here, there’s so much information to take in that you’re constantly on high alert. It was a big adrenaline hit.
10: The First Day: London to Dover. Day 1
No list of my top 10 rides of Mind Mapping would be complete without Day 1. It meant so much to me to see so many people wishing me a good send off and the route to Dover was a special one, with what I think I can say was over 100 riders rolling out together from Herne Hill Velodrome.
It was the start of something big and I was nervous, excited, fearful, encouraged. That first day was also the hardest day of riding of this whole tour. I struggled so much on the flats, and on the short climb between Folkstone and Dover with the weight of the bike that I wasn’t yet used to, kept on asking myself how on earth I’d got myself into this. How would I hope to get through the Alps on this bike? Let alone the whole world.
I couldn’t comprehend the journey that this ride signified and now 166 days later as I write this in Phuket, Thailand, I’m equally as nervous and excited for the roads I’m yet to travel. At least by this point and unlike the first day, the bike now feels like home.