Rider’s Lens: London to Hong Kong with Jack Boffy
In this edition of Rider’s Lens, we tag along with British photographer Jack Boffy on his ride from London to Hong Kong. He shares stories of camera failure, underbiking, and the highs and lows of a massive solo tour…
Words and photos by Jack Boffy (@jackboffy)
I was living in London for a few years and started to feel stuck in a rut. I’d always had a pipe dream to do a yearlong bike trip, so I started to think of it as a plan rather than an idea. This shift in thinking was all it took. Once you actually decide to go, the rest is just details. It was important to me to leave from my front door, so flying anywhere to begin the trip wasn’t in the cards. I also wanted to finish on the coast somewhere. Once I got a map out and started marking parts of Europe and Asia I wanted to see, my route pretty much drew itself.
Leaving was like ripping a plaster off. Got a few bits together, quit my job on Thursday, moved out on Friday, and was cycling on a Saturday. This was in March, so been on the road for about nine months now.
I chose to travel alone because I think it opens you up to a whole array of experiences that can pass you by when you ride with company. You’re more open meeting people, and the challenges are that little bit more testing. Plus, there’s a satisfaction that comes when you’ve done a tough few days and have navigated the whole thing by yourself. I’d say if you’re looking to have the best time possible, travel with others. But if you’re looking for that rollercoaster of highs to revel in and lows to test yourself – the kind that cycling lends itself so well to – then consider going it alone.
Riding out of London, I had my Canon DSLR and an old Voigtlander 35mm film camera that a friend gave me. By the time I got to the Republic of Georgia, the Canon had stopped working. On top of that, and after having a couple of films developed in Tbilisi, it was obvious the Voigtlander wasn’t cutting the mustard either. So began a stressful and frustrating few days trying to get my hands on an affordable and functioning film camera in Georgia, to at least have something. After many trips all over the city, I finally ended up with an old Canon EOS 3000 film camera. It may not win any prizes in a beauty pageant or go down in the annals of photographic history as a game changer, but it takes some okay pictures. I tend to use it for the occasional portrait now.
Using my iPhone for almost all of my shooting on this trip wasn’t originally the plan, but it came about out of necessity. With both other cameras on the fritz, it was the only option I had until I could find a replacement, which I never really did. It did take a little getting used to. At first, it felt like I was somehow ‘wasting’ the trip by not using a proper camera, but I found by just taking a little more time and going through a similar process, it could take some nice pictures. The iPhone does have its limitations, though. I have to admit doesn’t really work for portraits, in particular. Asking to take someone’s picture, then holding your phone up to their face feels very different to using a camera.
Of course, it’s great to have a purpose-built bike or a top-of-the-range camera, but if we waited until we had enough cash to buy all the best kit, most of us would never be able to afford to leave home. There’s obviously a limit to this mentality, especially if you’re heading right out in the sticks, but in general I think we overestimate what we need. At the end of the day, that old fleece will likely be warm enough. With a little help, the old bike will get you there. And the pictures from that point and shoot camera will bring you just as many fond memories when you look back at them in years to come.
Of course, it’s great to have a purpose-built bike or a top-of-the-range camera, but if we waited until we had enough cash to buy all the best kit, most of us would never be able to afford to leave home.
As a photographer, documenting the journey is obviously important, but in setting out on this trip I also just felt the need to shake things up and do something challenging. The chance to do that while seeing some amazing places was a no-brainer. In this regard, the trip didn’t have a singular focus from the onset, but was a way of marrying together all of the above.
In terms of the photos I’m shooting, there isn’t a particular theme to them, so I guess in the most basic sense I want a document of the reality of what it’s like to spend the majority of a year either in the saddle or inside a tent. Bizarre camping spots, interesting characters, or those amazing views that just confirm that I’m doing something worthwhile. Anything that sums up that feeling, or will bring it flooding back several years from now, has got to be worth recording.
Along the route, the high points tend to come sporadically. You’ll be freewheeling down a 20 km stretch in Georgia and find yourself completely elated at the freedom of it all, or sat by the perfect campsite in Albania in the evening, and just be really content. There have been small high points like this in most, if not every country. I prefer to look at these moments as a collection of highs throughout the trip as opposed to one region or country. That said, for the scenery – and the curry after months of central Asian food – the Karakoram Highway, especially around Passu in Pakistan, would be difficult to top.
Thinking about the low points – it’s a bit of a controversial one among cyclists – but I didn’t rate Central Asia too highly. While the scenery in Tajikistan was obviously unbelievable, the novelty of days spent on washboard roads and pushing through sand wore off after a while. Having to hide from the high temperatures of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in June was also a drag. Spending the hottest part of the day sleeping in road drains with scorpions and camel spiders for company is something I’m not in a hurry to repeat, and don’t even mention the food.
The singular rock bottom low point was probably trying to cable tie my rear wheel together on a roadside in Xinjiang. The crack in the rim had peeled away, causing the tube come right out the side on about a quarter of my wheel. It became a pushing and hitching job. A foreigner and a broken bicycle in a truck full of bananas and cigarettes raised some eyebrows at Xinjiang’s checkpoints.
Looking ahead, after Hong Kong, the bike will likely be having a rest for a while. I’ll head down to Indonesia and hopefully spend a few months working on some projects on a couple of the islands. As for future cycling trips, Iceland has always called to me, and I’d love to finish cycling the Norwegian coast. After a summer in Central Asia, I’ve developed an obsession for cold weather…
Near Kulma Pass, Tajikistan, 2018. A beautiful, barren landscape, complete solitude, and the promise of a tomorrow filled with unknowns. That’s what people come to Central Asia for, surely?
After leaving Murghab, itself a high altitude sprawl made up in no small part of shipping containers, it’s 100km of absolute nothingness until the Kulma Pass. The road alternates from tarmac to six-inch-deep dust and everything in between. Altitudinous desert spans as far as your vision can reach. To the south, the high peaks of Pakistan barely breach the mountainous horizon, white fingers in a beige world. Everywhere else, nothing.
It was Sunday night when I passed through. The border being closed at weekends meant zero traffic and a night camped in what can only be described as no man’s land, the remote area where Tajikistan meets Western China. The pass sits at 4,360m. Cold, remote, draped in razor wire, and overlooked by the towering 7,500m Muztagh Ata, it plays the part of intimidating foreign land border down to a T. I camped 10 km before the actual border fence, and this photo was taken seconds before the sun disappeared behind a distant peak. The dry, dead grass was glowing golden before the night time chill set in.
The phrase ‘otherworldly’ is often thrown around, but this was as close as I’ve come to feeling I was on another planet. No people, no animals, just me and the night sky. To feel what that’s like is humbling. It’s the kind of feeling that grounds you. Completely alone, relying on nobody, and thrilled by the whole experience.
About Jack Boffy
Jack Boffy is a British photographer who is currently making his way through Asia on a bike not entirely fit for purpose. His work documents journeys—through landscapes, portraits, and details. When at home, he can often be found drinking coffee or beer in England’s South West. Find more of his work on Instagram @jackboffy.