Mercury News Columnist
Ethan Chang is a muscular young man from Taiwan with a happy, toothy smile and a stringy goatee. And with a yellow bandanna tied around his head, he'd fit into any international hipster scene. But what separates him from the crowd? His feet.
"Yes, they are really tanned," he said, pulling off his sandals during a stop Monday at the Cupertino home of his uncle, Victor Hung.
After 14 months and thousands of miles on a bicycle trip around the world, the tan lines on Chang's feet have turned them both wilted white and rusty brown. Crossing the Nevada desert last week in 120-degree heat will do that to skin, but Chang actually acquired the color of burnt umber much earlier on
"If you travel on your feet, walk or ride a bicycle, you will feel different than if you take a bus or a car," said Chang, a genuine free spirit. "On a bike, you can smell the difference between countries when you cross a mountain road on the border."
When Chang came up with the wild idea of cycling around the world there was absolutely no hesitation.
"I quit my job, sold my car and everything else I owned," he said with an unusual ease. "I asked my girlfriend if she wanted to go with me around the world. She asked a question that was also her answer. "On a bike?"she deadpanned.
"I might not have a girlfriend by now," he said. "I don't know."
Not so crazy
Surprisingly, the 33-year-old former designer of gardening tools never was a hard-core cyclist. He had traveled a bit by bus and airplane in Europe and Morocco, but a fateful marathon run inspired him to see the world under his own power. He tuned up with a 600-mile ride around Taiwan.
Chang believes at least one other Taiwanese cycled the world about 30 years ago, but he declares that his countrymen aren't daring adventurers.
"In Taiwan, people my age are expected to have jobs, get married, buy a house and have children," he said. "My parents thought I was crazy."
But he wasn't, really. He called foreign embassies for safe routes. The Russians at least were honest -- Nyet! -- too dangerous for travelers in Siberia.
"I wanted to go to Syria and Egypt, to see the pyramids, but there is a war going on," Chang said.
With no obligations or kids and about $25,000 in savings and health insurance, Chang took off on a fairly typical mountain bike with a leather seat. He headed out and cut a curvy line across China and Central Asia. The route took him through Iran, which turned out to not only be very safe but also one of his favorite countries.
"Once, I was writing postcards in a town square in Iran," he said. "People asked me where I was from, and when they learned I'm from Taiwan, they invited me into their house for a meal or to stay overnight."
He's enjoyed that sort of hearty hospitality about 40 times. Mostly, he pitches a tent along the road or stays in youth hostels or motels. He said he's made at least 100 friends along the way, some of them long-distance cyclists, who he plans to stay in touch with through social media.
"People respect you when you travel on a bike."
Speaking Mandarin and high-school English helped immensely, but he also picked up some Russian and Spanish by listening to language lessons on his MP3 player and by way of local radio as he pedalled along.
Not once did anyone try to rob or cheat him. He did pitch his tent next to dens of snakes in Turkey and Louisiana, but the slithery ones weren't as scary as the elderly woman in Texas who answered her door with a rifle when he knocked to ask for water.
"I think I'm lucky," he said of the whole trip so far. "Nothing really bad has happened, thank God."
A child of the Internet and a technology-mad nation, Chang writes a daily blog, calls on Skype, shoots emails from Wi-Fi cafes and banks by ATM. His mother follows his blog diligently.
"Every day she says, 'Oh, my kid is still alive.' "
When he arrived in Madrid, so did winter weather. His plan was to cycle across the continental U.S. but a taste of cold weather persuaded him to follow the sun and summer. He flew instead to Peru and cycled to the tip of South America, visiting the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu and cruising through Chile's entrancing Atacama Desert.
"I like seeing mountains in the distance with snow on top of them," he said. "Central Asia was like that, too."
Fatigue forced him to rest for a few days in Chile, and skip over Central America and Mexico. The U.S. leg started in Miami and he made it to the Peninsula on Sunday for a two-day rest at his uncle's. He will continue Wednesday up the West Coast to western Canada. About two months from now, unless a grizzly bear or bison intervenes, his amazing adventure will end in Anchorage.
At that point, Chang will have clocked more than 20,000 miles.
"I don't know what I'll do next," he said, still ebullient after all those miles. "Maybe I'll look for another job, maybe write something."
Thinking about a responsible future darkened his mood a bit. Unlike many daring adventurers these days, Chang didn't mask his adventure as a fundraiser for charities, or seek direct donations to pay his bills, or get a book agent before heading out. Except for one other interview with a small Texas paper -- The Brownfield News -- this has got to be the least publicized, around-the-world trip of the Information Age.
His blog -- http://ethan-around-the-world.blogspot.com -- simply reads like that of a healthy, young man stricken with wanderlust who takes photos and writes postcards from the middle of nowhere. His one regret is he didn't cycle any part of Africa on this trip.
Then, with a sudden grin, he blurted, "Maybe Africa is next!"
Around the World on a Bike
Follow Ethan Chang's blog, photos and route at: http://ethan-around-the-world.blogspot.com.