Far Away (and back again)

After setting out from Eastern Europe to cycle across Asia in 2019, Sabina Knezevic and Robin Patijn are currently based in Sweden and training for a postponed Atlas Mountain Race. Having amassed a wealth of stories on their travels, with Farawayistan the couple aim to inspire cyclists from all over the world to embark upon their own adventures—big or small. Here they discuss how the seeds were sown that led to a life-changing journey, their experiences on the road as a couple and how, when it comes to chasing society’s consumer goals, less can indeed be more.

cyclespeak
So where did your cycling stories start?

Robin
I was the cyclist before we left on our around-the-world tour. It’s the classic tale of playing football and then, when my knee was injured, my father encouraging me to try cycling. So I went out on his road bike, loved it immediately and with my very first paycheck bought my own bike. Years later, I met Sabina…

Sabina
On Tinder [laughs].

Robin
Quite a modern way of meeting, maybe?

Sabina
I was scrolling through Tinder – because that’s what you do when you’re single – and there was this profile of a guy who looked kind of interesting because of all these travel photos.

Robin
I must just mention there were no photos of me in lycra [smiles].

Sabina
When we started dating, I didn’t ride a bike but I was very sporty. Crossfit five times a week, surfing, yoga. But I had this certain idea in my mind about cycling because in the Netherlands road cyclists have a very bad reputation. We have a lot of cycle lanes that are very busy and road cyclists don’t have bells and can be complete assholes.

Robin
It’s a stereotype.

Sabina
So I was absolutely certain that Robin would never get me into lycra. But, in the end, it only took about a month before I tried his mother’s bike and it was, fuck, this is so much fun!

cyclespeak
And that, in turn, led to the idea of making a trip by bike together?

Sabina
Right from the start, we’d always really connected on the travelling part but after a few months as a couple we decided it should be a cycling trip. Perhaps a little risky as the only experience we had before we left was a small test trip in the Netherlands. Riding in a full-on storm [laughs].

Robin
Typical Dutch spring weather.

Sabina
There was a weather warning but we figured why not just go for it. And we still had fun despite the awful headwind which we thought was a good sign. 

Robin
That was the very first weekend we’d assembled all our kit – the tent, stove, sleeping bags – and we wanted to test everything. 

cyclespeak
You’d already decided to quit your day jobs, sell all your belongings and start exploring. Was it difficult to break ties with your regular lives and all your physical belongings?

Sabina
At that time we were already in a place where we were really into minimalism.

Robin
We were living in a house that the municipality had scheduled for demolition prior to building new ones. So we knew we could only stay there for one and a half years.

Sabina
And we were both quite frustrated with our jobs so that also made the decision a lot easier.

cyclespeak
Just out of interest, what were your jobs?

Sabina
I was working at a publishing company as the editorial manager for a couple of magazines.

Robin
My job as an air quality engineer was quite technical.

cyclespeak
From breaking these professional ties, you arrived at the concept of Farawayistan. So I was wondering how you define ‘faraway’? Does this necessarily imply a physical distance or is there also an emotional element?

Sabina
Robin was already enjoying photography and I have a communication background and really like sharing stories. So we were brainstorming about different names and Farawayistan started out as more of a joke. We wanted to travel far away and ‘stan’, as a suffix, means a country. So you combine the two…

Robin
And also, at family meetings, everyone asked where we were going. So we’d reel off Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan – all these ‘stan’ countries.

Sabina
There’s also an element of escapism. Which for us meant getting away from the everyday, consumer aspects of life.

Robin
But this can be a few miles from home. You don’t have to go to Uzbekistan to go faraway [smiles].

cyclespeak
I read your journal piece on persuading your girlfriend to go bike touring. Over time, has that dynamic changed in the sense of who has the ideas or chooses the direction of travel?

Robin
I’m a thinker and Sabina is more about acting. Just going with it.

Sabina
I can have an idea and straight away say, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ Half of the time not fully realising what I’m getting myself into.

Robin
For example, riding the Annapurna Circuit was an idea I was thinking and talking about but Sabina said…

Sabina
Let’s just do it.

Robin
And it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

Sabina
But when we first got together and were getting to know each other, it was something we both had to learn how to deal with. To balance out these different aspects of our personalities, so we could make our relationship work.

cyclespeak
So what’s it like to spend so much time travelling together as a couple? Does it strengthen or test a relationship? Or maybe a little of both?

Sabina
I think I moved in with Robin within a week of becoming a couple and we’ve been together ever since.

Robin
Especially now as we’re both working from home. And the weekends are the same as we like to go on short camping trips.

Sabina
We’re kind of dependent on each other [laughs]. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not but it works.

cyclespeak
It sounds a good thing to me.

Sabina
I mean, we do fall out. Especially when we’re cycling and hungry and there’s a headwind. But you talk it out and it’s fine again.

cyclespeak
In terms of preparing for your travels, how did that process unfold?

Sabina
Robin had been planning this trip for six years. Long before he met me.

Robin
Maybe dreaming is a more accurate term [smiles].

Sabina
I do remember, well before we left, having a big discussion about panniers versus bike packing bags. On this point I followed Robin’s gut feeling and accepted we needed to carry a certain amount of kit so panniers would make sense. But maybe we didn’t need quite as much kit as we took [laughs]. And then, mid-way through the trip, I changed to bike packing bags and let him carry most of the stuff.

Robin
When we left from Tbilisi in Georgia, on the very first hill we knew then we were carrying too much kit. Books, extra pairs of shoes…

Sabina
I had never in my life cycled up a hill – let alone a mountain – and in my naivety I thought, how hard can it be? Just go a bit slower. But I soon found out [laughs].

cyclespeak
You obviously got the hang of it.

Sabina
Overcoming all these obstacles – that seem impossible at the time – is part of the journey. And knowing that sometimes it’s OK to just hitch a ride [smiles].

cyclespeak
You must have so many memories and stories from your travels?

Sabina
Hundreds. And not necessarily about me and Robin.

Robin
We caught up with two friends we made in Tajikistan over Zoom yesterday and we were talking about our adventures and one of their stories in particular that still makes us smile. James, this British guy, was cycling by himself up a mountain pass just a few days behind us. He had severe food poisoning and was delirious so couldn’t go any further.

Sabina
It was already dark, he had a puncture and he was completely exhausted so he just stopped and set up his tent. Next morning, he woke up feeling better, zipped open his tent only to find a group of people wearing bulky, protective clothing and carrying metal detectors. And it turned out he’d spent the night camped in a minefield.

Robin
He was OK so it’s quite a funny story.

Sabina
But looking back on our own experiences, there’s all these little things that made it so special. Like realising in India that tuk tuks are the perfect way to draft.

cyclespeak
Your stories often include photographs of the local population from wherever you’ve been travelling. Is this engagement important?

Robin
I really like different cultures and interacting with the people we meet. And even though we often don’t share a common language, you can laugh and smile and shake hands and try to have a conversation.

Sabina
If I leave him alone for five minutes he’s making new friends. Even here in Sweden in the supermarket and Sweden is well known for people not talking to each other.

cyclespeak
So you’ve met some interesting characters on your travels?

Sabina
I really enjoyed hitchhiking because we’d spend this time in a truck with someone who genuinely just wanted to help us. Which I suppose is funny because there’s such a misconception that hitchhiking is dangerous. For the most part, these people are alone all the time and they see these weird cyclists by the roadside and they’re just curious even if we don’t speak the same language.

Robin
Those moments were really special. Sitting in the cab with the driver and he’s making a phone call to an uncle somewhere who speaks a few words of English and he puts the phone to your ear. Showing photos of his wife and children. Super personal even though you’re with a total stranger.

Sabina
There was one particular truck driver who wanted Robin to try chewing tobacco and he got so high [laughs]. He was sweating and had to lower the window to get some fresh air.

Robin
But those moments of interaction are, for me, the most valuable.

Sabina
Yes. The warmth of the people inviting you into their homes. I think you only get that when you’re hiking or cycling. Travelling in such a manner, people very often treat you so kindly.

cyclespeak
Perhaps you’re seen as being vulnerable so people want to help?

Sabina
This one time when we were cycling in Georgia’s wine region Kakheti, it was so hot that I was having a hard time. Admittedly it might have been after a wine tasting which kind of explains why I was having a hard time. We couldn’t find a place to pitch our tent so when we saw this family sitting on their porch, I basically just crashed to a halt in front of them before asking for some water. They immediately invited us to join them on the porch where they were shelling hazelnuts from their farm. So I was sitting there helping the family with this task and, at the same time, they were asking family and friends over for a barbecue.

cyclespeak
It sounds like members of the local population were overwhelmingly hospitable.

Sabina
I think it’s about the simpleness of the way we were travelling and not the clichéd Westerners quickly coming in to look at all the hotspots before immediately departing for the next. When you’re cycling, you experience everything in between with all these aspects of daily life.

cyclespeak
So is Farawayistan a job, a passion, a calling?

Robin
It’s a passion and I think it will always be so. To start with, it’s something we like to do. We enjoy taking photos and writing stories…

Sabina
And inspiring people. To show what fun it is to go out and explore. And, yes, if you travel to Tajikistan you’ll probably have more interesting stories to tell but it doesn’t mean that’s the only way you can have adventures.

Robin
It’s not our main source of income but it takes quite a bit of time – maybe even the same amount as a fulltime job [smiles] – and we’re not earning a lot of money.

Sabina
From time to time we do a photoshoot and write up a story for different cycling brands. We usually get ‘paid’ by keeping the products that are featured. And we also have a freelance gig at komoot where we write Collections for them. 

cyclespeak
Komoot and you two must be a match made in heaven.

Sabina
It’s a cool company and we really like what they’re doing.

Robin
They’re keen to have more personal experiences and not a series of route guides written by somebody sitting behind a computer.

cyclespeak
And now you’re both training for the Atlas Mountain Race. That’s pretty gnarly.

Sabina
Ultra-endurance racing is something that Robin has always been pushing in my face [laughs]. And the Lachlan Morton videos have also proved inspirational. So being at home now and not cycling as much as we’d like, we decided we needed a goal.

Robin
At first I was thinking about riding solo but now we’re going as a pair.

Sabina
I’d asked Robin whether he wanted me to join but wasn’t really sure if he was holding back his true feelings. And I still don’t know.

[No response from Robin]

Sabina
You see? He doesn’t answer [laughs].

Robin
No, no. Of course I want you to be there. I think I can really use your mental strength during the race.

Sabina
But I don’t think I’ll be able to draft on that terrain [laughs].

cyclespeak
I’m guessing you won’t be using the same Avaghon bikes from your world tour on the Atlas Mountain Race? Maybe the 3T bikes that I’ve seen pictures of you riding?

Sabina
To be honest, I was a little sick of my bike because it felt so slow and I just wanted to go faster. But I did really enjoy riding off-road so the 3T Exploro seemed the perfect fit. Really fast but also able to handle gravel and trails.

Robin
The bikes we rode across Asia were around 18kg even without luggage.

cyclespeak
Nice and sturdy?

Sabina
They were perfect for a world tour as my bike did fall off a moving bus in Nepal and it survived.

cyclespeak
With the pandemic having an impact in so many different ways, I do wonder whether it’s causing people to reassess what’s really important. Have you any advice for individuals wanting to make a radical change in how they live their lives?

Robin
I’m not sure about offering advice but we would encourage everyone to get outside as much as they can. It’s not only fun but it’s also healthy for the mind and body. I do understand that it can be hard when you’ve had a full day and you’re tired and maybe just want to rest in the evenings or weekend. But if you come into our house, at the front door we have a closet that holds all our camping stuff.

Sabina
Ready to go.

Robin
So it’s super easy to take that spur of the moment trip.

Sabina
But if you do want to make a radical change and there’s no extreme financial or emotional fallout – then just go for it. Because, usually, making changes is for the better.

cyclespeak
Are there any aspects that you miss about your previous lives?

Robin
I’d like to see more of my family but basically I have everything here that I need. I have a few bicycles, I have forests and cycling friends, and I have my camera.

cyclespeak
And have your experiences changed you? Are you very different people compared to when you first set out?

Robin
Sometimes, when people travel the world, they talk about re-discovering themselves but I wasn’t 18 or 19 when I left. I was 29 and an adult. Yes, I do look differently at things but I wouldn’t say that I’m that much changed. 

Sabina
Maybe it’s another cliché about getting to know who you really are? That also happens when you get older but travel can speed the process up.

cyclespeak
Is it important to be planning the next journey, the next move?

Robin
For me, personally, it is. Like we’ve mentioned, I’m a thinker and always daydreaming about the next adventure. I really need that to feel positive and well.

Sabina
And I need a challenge. Working towards something that might initially seem impossible is part of that sense of escapism. Like me finishing the Atlas Mountain Race [laughs]. But the ultimate goal for Farawayistan? I can picture us living out of a van with the bikes on the roof, creating nice stories and just making enough to keep on the road. That would be the dream.

Sabina / Robin

Photography with kind permission of Farawayistan

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