Borderlands

“Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard that they exist in the minds of some people.” Thor Heyerdahl.

Now, I have never thought a pretentious quote is a good way to start a post so I hope you will forgive it. I saw this particular quote on the tote bag of a tourist walking around a city – just to dispel the illusion of being particularly well read – but it did seem to capture the theme of the thoughts I’d been having recently. People, places, countries, borders, geography! Right up my street. Allow me this one post to geek out just a little.

I have crossed a fair few borders in the trip so far but until recently, most of them were unbeknownst to me. Unless I was particularly vigilant, I might have missed the small sign on a streetlight, or the small post painted in the colours of the new national flag. Following the river as I often have been in Europe, to cross the border was to cross the bridge. When I found myself cycling in Slovakia on a public holiday that I hadn’t expected, I wondered how I would get supplies with all the shops closed; it took me half a day before I realised, I can just cycle over the bridge to a shop in Hungary!

Without distinctive geographic boundaries, like a river or a mountain range, borders fall seemingly arbitrarily at city limits, across roads, farms, and through forests. Sometimes the relic of a checkpoint from times gone by but otherwise no people, no questions. I realise that this is primarily because I’m cycling through the EU and, more specifically, the Schengen Area – leaving politics aside (you’ll be glad to hear), it is hugely refreshing! When I approach borders and see people moving back and forth, I wonder if they even think about it. “I’m just jogging to Austria” – I’m sure there were plenty of Slovakian dads living near the border that made that joke after they joined the EU.

More recently, crossing the frontier between Schengen and EU, then EU to non-EU, I have been through the checkpoints – I decided at the first checkpoint that it would be fine to abandon British conventions and skip to the front of the queue; with no complaints from cars or guards, I’m assuming this is the done thing. At every checkpoint so far I have caught the attention of border guards early on as I wheel my bike towards them. At the first crossing I handed over my passport and, after a quick look, the guard handed it to the policija officer sat next to her. “Is this going to be less simple than I thought?” I worried silently as I wheeled forward to the next window.

“Where are you going?” he asked, looking from the passport to me to the bike.

“Cycling to Osijek, then east to Serbia.” I answered promptly. Something in his reaction told me he hadn’t been interrogating, as much as he was just intrigued. “Then I’ll be cycling to Istanbul*” I added which drew a smile from the officer to break the stern border guard facade.

“All by bicycle?!” the original guard asked, ignoring the car that had moved up to her window. I nodded. “You’re crazy” she said with a smile and a shake of her head. I shrugged and returned her smile as I took my passport back and wheeled off.

*(I had taken to telling people Istanbul as I crossed Europe – it doesn’t require as much explanation!)

It has been the same story at each passport check, a laugh and a joke with the guards as I tell them where I’m heading. Some advice on how I could better spend my time before the stamp of approval. Long may it continue as the borders become more visible and the checks more frequent!

Frustratingly, the borders that enclose countries I’ve yet to reach, and the politics within them, have continued to dictate my route. For obvious reasons, I (and the Foreign Office) thought it best to avoid Afghanistan right now. No bother, after crossing Iran I could move north to avoid it. Since cycling however, travel advice is now to avoid Iran, and my visa applications have been thwarted. OK, well after Turkey I can go through the Caucasus, I’ve heard good things about Armenia anyway! Nope. Border crossings are closed between Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan after their disputes! Fine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and across the Caspian Sea then!

And so, my final route won’t be exactly as the original, and my plans seem to change daily at the moment, but I continue East! I added a link under the route map to show the actual route I’ve taken through pins where I’ve been staying at the end of each day, feel free to check it out.

Rich

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