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Two teenagers set off on a cycle trip around the world. It didn’t go according to plan

<i>Adam Swanson</i><br/>He's been living on a budget of just over $20 a day since the journey began.
Adam Swanson
He's been living on a budget of just over $20 a day since the journey began.

By Tamara Hardingham-Gill, CNN

(CNN) — He set off on a two-year cycling trip around the world with a friend shortly after graduating from high school in 2021.

But just a few months into the journey, Adam Swanson from Minnesota, who was 17 at the time, found himself traveling solo.

Now, after a “few years of unconventional education,” cycling across 20 different countries and four continents, Swanson is finally on his way home, and will begin studying at the University of Minnesota in September.

“The majority of my friends are starting their junior year of college next year, when I’ll be starting my freshman year,” he tells CNN Travel.

Swanson, who comes from a family of keen cyclists, has been going on biking tours for as long as he can remember.

Long-held dream

“From when I was in my mother’s womb, in Eastern Europe, all the way up to when I was 14, and we biked across the US, we’ve done at least a two-week cycle tour almost every year,” he explains.

While Swanson had wanted to do a “big bike trip” since he was around 10 or 11, it was the prospect of studying for his college degree remotely due to the Covid-19 pandemic that prompted him to start setting the wheels into motion.

“I didn’t want to start college online,” he tells CNN Travel. “So I figured that now would be a great time to do it.”

For Swanson, the opportunity to explore the world and learn about different cultures was too good to miss and he began making plans to go on a two-year biking tour with his friend Henry.

He says he worked around the clock for his family’s painting company and also spent a few months working for UPS to get the money together to fund his travels.

On August 4, 2021, Swanson and Henry flew from Minneapolis to the Netherlands, where they would begin their cycling journey.

“I did not plan my route,” he says. “I did not train for it. I really just bought the ticket and started when I touched down in the Netherlands.”

From here, the pair cycled over to Germany then into Belgium, France and Italy before heading across northern Italy to Slovenia and Croatia.

However, after a few months of riding through Europe, Henry decided that he’d had enough.

“He’d run out of money, and he was ready to go home,” Swanson explains. “And I was not.”

Swanson then had a big decision to make. Should he return to the US as well, or finish the remainder of the journey on his own?

Riding solo

“When I started the trip, I was thinking if my friend goes home, I’ll probably go home too,” he admits.

“Because I’m not necessarily ready for solo travel. But then he went so much earlier than I thought he was going to. So I decided that I just had to force myself to keep going.”

After a couple of “rough” weeks cycling through Croatia during winter with a limited amount of daylight, Swanson decided to fly to Thailand, where he could “be a bit warmer and have more hours in the day.”

“Once I went to Thailand, I started meeting a lot more people and learning how to solo travel,” he says. “And since then, it has not been a problem at all for me. It’s been really easy.”

Swanson spent around three months riding through Thailand waiting for the borders to open so that he could explore more of Southeast Asia.

But restrictions remained in place in nearby countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam throughout this period, and he eventually gave up and flew to India in March 2022.

Swanson’s father traveled over to join him and the pair spent two weeks touring the country by bike, before he continued on to Nepal solo.

However, cycling through Nepal proved to be particularly grueling, and Swanson recalls exhaustedly pushing his fully loaded bike across the Annapurna Circuit, a trek located within the mountain ranges of central Nepal.

“It took me 14 days to get up and over that path,” he says, explaining that he later discovered that the route was filled with tea houses designed for trekkers to eat and sleep in, so there was no need for him to take so much stuff with him.

“And when I was up there, my tire exploded and I had to fix it with a superglue and Nepali cracker wrapper.”

Once he’d made it safely across the high-altitude path, Swanson rode to the Nepali city of Pokhara, and took a well-deserved dip in one of the area’s rejuvenating natural hot springs.

“That was so nice,” he recalls. “That may be the best moment of my trip.”

‘Unconventional education’

He then flew to Kazakhstan in Central Asia from Nepal and cycled across to Kyrgyzstan.

And while Swanson was bowled over by the landscape of Kyrgyzstan, he admits that riding through some of the more remote parts of the country took an emotional toll on him.

“That country is like a cycle tourist’s heaven,” he notes. “It’s so beautiful. But the central part of the country is pretty much just rolling grass, mountains and nomadic people.

“So I was riding for several days on my own without seeing any people. And no matter how cool that was, just riding with wild animals and these wild landscapes (around me), that was a point where I felt pretty lonely.”

From Kyrgyzstan, Swanson continued across central Asia to Uzbekistan, where he was briefly reunited with Henry.

“He came out to visit me,” he explains. “He flew into Tashkent, Uzbekistan and we biked across Pakistan, Georgia and half of Turkey together.”

Swanson stresses that he doesn’t “really hold anything against” his friend for deciding not to continue with the rest of the trip, and is looking forward to meeting up with him again when he returns home.

“It takes a lot to spend two years doing that (riding through different countries),” he says. “Maybe he just wasn’t ready for that at the time.”

From Turkey, Swanson cycled to Greece, and then on to Italy, Switzerland and Germany.

At this point, he rode back to the Netherlands, where he caught a flight to South America and spent four months riding between Chile and Argentina, before flying back to the US.

He arrived in Los Angeles in March 2023, and began making his way toward Minnesota.

Tight budget

Swanson has managed to survive on a budget of around $21 a day throughout the entire journey and says he actually saved quite a bit of cash during his time in East Asia due to the affordable accommodation options.

“I was able to stay under $10 or even under $5 a day for most of my time out there,” says Swanson, who tends to either wild camp or stay in hostels.

“Now I’m in the US, it’s a bit more expensive. But I can kind of equalize it with what I didn’t spend a year ago.”

He’s been riding the same Salsa Marrakesh bike he’s had since he was 14 throughout the trip, and aside from getting “bumped” a couple of times while in Thailand, he was able to make it back to the US without any major incidents.

However, he came off his bike while riding up a hill in California and hitting some algae a few months ago.

“I almost made the whole trip without any crashes,” he says. “I have not really gotten any bad bike injuries on this trip.”

Although the cycling tours he took with his family as a child involved a lot of planning, Swanson has tried not to plan out his route this time round, and enjoys the freedom this gives him.

“I rarely know where I’m going,” he admits, stressing that he does at least scan a map before setting off to ensure that he has the resources needed for the different locations he’s likely to pass through.

“Pretty early on, I realized that it’s best to plan with no plan,” he says. “So, just talk to the locals, and people who are traveling through the area and figure out the best places to go based on the opportunities that present themselves to you instead of planning everything before you get there.”

His parents have been following his progress closely and are “very jealous,” according to Swanson, who has been detailing his adventures on his blog, Two wheels one world.

“They want to do a trip like this in a few years,” he says. “So they’re kind of living through me right now.”

On June 16, nearly two years after beginning the adventure he’d spent years dreaming about, Swanson, now 19, arrived back in Minnesota, where he was reunited with his thrilled friends and family.

As he prepares to start college in September, Swanson admits that he has mixed emotions about the prospect of having to remain in one place for an extended period.

“I am very sad to be giving up this lifestyle,” he says. “I love exploring new places, always seeing new people and roughing it out here.

“It’s definitely going to be a transition to move into the life of staying in one place, studying and staying with constant people (around).

“But I’m mostly excited for it. Not excited for (the trip) to end, but excited for what’s to come.”

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