To the next corner. Just until the next corner. Right foot down. Left foot down. Breathe. And again. Pedal stroke by pedal stroke I am moving towards the next switchback, slowly, knowing there are many more to come, even though my body would like to lie down and rest in the grass next to the asphalt. I know it would only be harder to keep on riding later, so I keep on moving my legs. Meter by meter, my bike is moving forwards – and upwards. My breath is going deep and fast as if I am sprinting on flat terrain. Except, that I am probably going slower than any hiker would walk. At least it feels like it. I put my head down and tell myself, “Keep pedaling. Just keep pedaling,” while watching the grey of the asphalt below me move endlessly towards the back of my bike.
When I reach the switchback I steer towards the outside curve in the road, where the gradient is less steep. Once the curve is over, I let my eyes wander to the left, down to the valley, to the houses and streets that now look so tiny. “I’ve come all this way, I might as well ride up those last 14 switchbacks,” I am telling myself – and everything is on repeat. Right foot down. Left foot down. Breathe.
“This is it”, I thought, ignoring the fishy smell in the dubious shed behind a beach restaurant I was about to take a shower in, “this is the adventure I came for.” Shower might be an exageration. There was a hose and there was cold water coming out of it. There was no way to lock or even close the door, so I asked Gerald to guard it while I was in there. The other boys had already washed off and sat around a table of the restaurant at the sea shore, enjoying our daily ritual of ordering something from the menu without knowing what we would be served. Today, it would turn out to be a whole, cooked chicken and fermented vegetables on the side.
South Korea. It had sounded far enough to promise a deep dive into a culture I would completely be lost in and close enough to become reality. With five friends, who like to live on the road and sleep under the sky, I was sure to find myself in plenty situations I couldn’t come up with if I tried.
The plan was not to have a plan. To find some good trails during the day and some food and a place to sleep during the night. Here we were, six mountain unicyclists from six countries, some of them the best riders in the world, and none of them to be taken seriously at any second. Maks jokingly cursed the weight of the medals he had won at the world champs that took place in Seoul the week before—because they made his luggage noticeably heavier.
We had picked up our space wagon from the airport and filled it to the roof with six big bags, six mountain unicycles, ourselves and a plastic bag of bananas, toast and peanut butter each. “So where are we going?” I asked from my seat in the very back of the car where I could barely move. “Yeah, let’s at least figure out the rough direction,” Gerald said from behind the steering wheel. We really had no idea. And we loved it.
You could call it ignorant to travel to a country with a culture distinctly different from your own without doing any research, and I would probably agree. But you could also call it fun. This is as close to a real adventure as it gets in a world with mobile internet, google earth and GPS tracks.
I would even argue that you can experience more of a place, in all it’s rawness if you come less prepared. Three of us did not bring any camping gear whatsoever. The first night, Jakob, Matej, and Maksym intended to sleep on a table at a camp ground, when all of a sudden we saw a tent walking towards us. Never before did I rub my eyes because I didn’t believe what I saw. It turned out to be the campground owner who wanted to save us from the mosquitoes and gave us one of the tents he sold in his shop for the night. He explained that in Korean, smiling, and we answered in English, returning the smiles. Sometimes that’s all you need to understand.
Once we all attempted to sleep in the drenching hot summer night, hoping sleep would eventually come, I heard nylon fabric rustling, then something heavy falling on the ground right next to my hammock. One by one, we turned on our lights again and couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Gerald had fallen out of his hammock. The fancy one, that he had talked about for half the drive.
The next morning we started what quickly became our daily routine. Peanut butter and crackers for breakfast, some added canned tuna, and avocado. I had already learned to appreciate the refreshing taste of some oddly small-looking cantaloupe melons. Maksym had started to wear nothing but his brightly colored speedos, which would turn out to be his preferred outfit when off the unicycle. He and Jacob found a gps track somewhere on the internet, in some dodgy forum from 2001, and had a very deep look at google earth. An hour later we were finally packed, managed to stow all our limbs in the car and hit the road.
There are places as empty as the photos we take of them suggest. Otherworldly landscapes not even locals visit. The trail leading there might be long-forgotten and overgrown. Here, all sound seems to have drained away, even when you listen closely. No wind. No bugs. No rustling in the bushes. There’s a blanket of silence lying over everything. The sound of your feet touching the ground and the rustling of your jacket is soft and clear, making you aware that there is no other soul near or far to hear it. This is what it must feel like to live in a vacuum. Time doesn’t exist and the sun and the stars take turns in watching over you.
We have travelled many miles, hoping to look around a corner and find a new universe. Three old friends, whose lives are so different every day, with their hearts beating in the same rhythm. The second we buckle up in our green little time machine our routine kicks in. How are you what do you dream of which color is real?
We pull over, cook dinner in the sunset and continue driving until we find a lake on the map and brush our teeth in the darkness.
We sleep in a new country, on a road that’s long behind us when locals start commuting the next morning.
We find our pin on the map in real life, park, put on hiking boots, grab our gear, some water and look for a sign that this trail that could be it.
Sometimes there is nothing holding me back from adventures, but my own thoughts. Luckily, I have friends to help me out in these situations.
Marius is pouring hot water over his holy drip coffee maker.
Marius: “Let’s do something cool this weekend.” Stephanie: “Okay. But how? Berlin is flat.” Marius: “Bohemia! It’s wild, it’s romantic and it’s a different country!” Stephanie: “Sounds great!” Marius: “We have a plan. I’ll bring the coffee. And the food.” Stephanie: “I’ll bring everything else. As always.”
Marius performs a ridiculous break dance move on the floor.
We drive. We park the van, pack our bikes, almost spit out the super strong, super black coffee I make and ride into the forest. We race trams that take people uphill to go hiking.
Stephanie: “Was that a waterfall?” Marius: “Yes, that was THE waterfall.” Stephanie: “It’s tiny.” Marius: “Says you.”
This is how we plan most of our trips: We all want to something amazing. Nobody has an idea or time to research. We don’t plan anything. We get to a country half around the globe with hardly any local knowledge at all. And somehow we manage to make it a memorable adventure.
This time it was different. Lutz proposed to not drive as far this time, to skip the ever amazing Dolomites and take the risk of trying something new – with local knowledge. A vacation in a tiny country that a lot of people have never even heard of? Let’s go.
Jesper flew to Berlin, we drove down to Frankfurt, threw Jenni into the van, met Lutz near Lake Constance, went budget food shopping (no meals at huts, no eating out, that’s our deal) and a little later we were sitting at Markus’ table with his family, enjoying pasta and home made pesto. Markus Büchel is a local rider and known for organizing ELSBET, a wicked mountain unicycling convention with shuttles up to the mountain and incredibly good downhill trails that attracts riders from all over the world to come to Liechtenstein. Markus gave us a stack of maps, marked some trails and none of us listend to his directions for good camping spots well enough.
We found it anyhow. And it was one very okay spot.