Reading Time: 10 minutes

TAKE TO THE ROAD
WITH ALEX SAINZ AND CÉLINE RIMAUX

Encountering Yaks in the Pamir mountains

Travel as a life experience. Belgians Alex Sainz and Céline Rimaux (@our.only.home on Instagram) tell us about their year-and-a-half cycling journey through Europe and Asia, sharing their tips on how to avoid hot spots and travel sustainably.

Words By José M. Sainz-Maza

22/03/2021

Alex at Ak Baital mountain pass

On The Road 

Tourism has largely replaced travel. Even when more and more people declare themselves to be travel lovers, they actually fly to a certain destination for a few days, often with the motivation of visiting the latest hot destination or snapping some photos of an iconic location to post on Instagram. In contrast to this, there are still those who love being on the road, crossing little-known areas, enjoying unspoiled landscapes, and discovering how locals live in countries where tourism does not yet have a huge footprint. Alejandro (‘Alex’) Sainz and Céline Rimaux are this type of people.

Just three weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic triggered widespread border closures in Europe and movement restrictions in several countries around the world, Céline, Alex, and their dog Scotty had stopped at my home in Berlin for a few days. It was February 2020 and this Belgian couple had been cycling for almost a year and a half. After wandering through twenty-something countries across two continents, they were returning home.

Alex is actually my brother, and I was happy to shelter him and his partner on this last stage of the route. This is how, on the terrace of a café next to the Berlin Mauerpark, they brought me up to date on their adventure and I listened to all the details for the first time. Now, more than a year later, they have agreed to tell me about it again for Staiy EDIT.

“It was Alex who came up with the idea of ​​cycling,” Céline says with a smile. “He has always loved traveling, trying new food, and discovering what the world hides away from home. The truth is that we both like camping, backpacking, and enjoying nature, so getting around by bike seemed like a good option. We wanted to continue discovering new places but in a sustainable way, without making a negative impact on the regions we visit. This is how we started cycling regularly in Belgium and went on a couple of trips around the Netherlands and Romania. Little by little, the idea continued to grow and we began to feel like we wanted something bigger, a long journey.”

“It took us almost 5 years to take the plunge. Finally, we decided it was now or never, as dreams don’t come true if you don’t do anything to achieve them,” Alex shares. “We had in mind traveling to Mongolia because Céline wanted to visit it since she was little. We planned the route in just 3 months, and by the end of summer we had everything ready for departure.” In this regard, Céline adds: “It also helped that, back then, we were a little tired of the life rhythm in Europe, all the stress and the routine in Belgium. We wanted to be closer to nature, so we quit our jobs and canceled the rental contract for the house we were living in. It didn’t seem too difficult at the time, as we were really excited about the trip.”

Travel buddy Scotty in Turkey

Cycling Pamir highway

In the end, they wouldn’t make it to Mongolia. However, their journey led them to cross the Netherlands, Germany, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. “We changed plans on the fly because some places and people made us stay a few more days in a certain place, it’s the good thing about traveling this way,” Alex acknowledges. “Also, on certain occasions, inclement weather and low temperatures prevent you from moving forward. That was the reason we spent most of the first winter in Bosnia and Croatia. We had taken to the road in September, and we soon understood why hardly anyone travels by bicycle during the winter.”

Asked about what they did when it comes to accommodation, they tell me that in the first weeks, still in the European Union, they spent many nights outdoors in their tent. However, they soon discovered the benefits of Warmshowers, a system similar to Couchsurfing but designed specifically for cyclists. “It’s an ideal way to meet people,” Céline admits. “Also, from the Balkans onwards, we could see a change in the way people interacted with us, especially in small towns and rural areas. Many people often offered us to stay in their homes, and this was something that surprised us quite a bit at first. In many places, they do not receive too many tourists throughout the year, and they approached us more than once to ask us where we came from and where we were going, or even just to give us food.”

 

Warmhearted 
Encounters

“At first we were a bit embarrassed to accept these invitations, but we soon realized that people in those countries have a different sense of hospitality than we knew in Belgium, and we really enjoyed cooking, eating, and sharing conversations with them. We live experiences like this very often, even in the most unexpected places: for example, at a gas station in Albania, the manager approached us with free coffee and car air fresheners when he saw us cycling by,” Alex remembers. “Later on, we had very similar experiences in Central Asia. The friendly and close nature of the local population was of great help in not missing family and friends so much. In addition, it helped us get to better know the countries we crossed, consume less plastic, and produce less waste in general.”

Hospitality in Uzbekistan

Sleeping under the stars and connecting to nature

Consuming Mindfully

Sustainability was one of the aspects that most concerned Céline and Alex when planning the trip. They have always tried to be as respectful as possible with the environment when visiting different countries and took this transcontinental adventure as a way to test their principles and try to take them one step further. “For most people in Europe, it is normal to take a hot shower every day, go to the supermarket if you need to buy food, use plastic bags and containers and change clothes when you want. But this is not possible when you are cycling on little-traveled roads since space is limited, you cannot carry too much weight, and you do not have stores on hand whenever you want, “Alex explains. “So it is an ideal way of getting used to consuming less, being more careful with your decisions, and learning to live with fewer resources.” 

Connecting To Nature

Homestays and other local accommodation alternatives, together with the use of means of transport such as bicycles or trains, make travel much more ecological and prevent the worst effects of mass tourism, often linked to cheap flights and international hotel chains. “Besides, the experience would not be the same if we were only flying from city to city. Traveling slowly allows you to connect with the territory, with nature, and with your inner self, and the most memorable experiences are those you share with the people you meet along the way,” Céline expresses. “We made some great friends on this trip, both cyclists we met on the road and locals we crossed in towns.” She also fondly remembers her conversations with some Azerbaijani women on the shore of the Caspian Sea. “In the end, we are all very alike wherever you go, and it is very easy to connect with others if you keep your mind open.”

Pushing the bike in Karakol, Tajikistan

Traveling in depth

But not all were good moments in the year and a half their trip lasted. “We made some detours in Bosnia and Turkey, causing us to face the new autumn in the middle of Central Asia. There we found some of the most incredible landscapes we have ever seen, but also the harshest conditions to travel,” Alex smiles as he recalls their time in Tajikistan. “It was getting colder and colder and we didn’t want to get to Mongolia in the middle of winter, so we decided to go back west through Kazakhstan and Russia.” Remembering this part of their trip, they both share some more details about the hardest moments cycling through the Tajikistani mountains, at more than 4600 meters of altitude and with temperatures below zero every night.

“But in the end, you feel it is all worth it as you reach the top of a hill and come across a landscape so beautiful that it brings you to tears,” Céline says. “This physical aspect of the trip has also shaped us in ways we did not anticipate, and now we tend to face the challenges of daily life with more confidence. I often tell myself that if I was able to cycle up those mountains, I can handle anything,” she laughs.

Both Alex and Céline agree that traveling has helped them become more conscious of the way they live and their relationship with nature, as well as their attitude towards strangers. “Once the pandemic is over and people can travel again, it is fundamental to promote more responsible tourism models focused on the knowledge of local culture, instead of going back to the ‘Instagram tourism’ model that creates a major environmental impact and does not allow visitors to know in depth the places they arrive at,” they reflect as the interview concludes.