A slightly misleading title because…I’m already back in the UK! There has been a distinct lack of blogging in recent weeks after I made my decision to turn back. There were some long cycling days in the final week and a loooong journey home. I stopped the clock after more than 5000km cycled, a lot of lessons learnt, and one journey travelled. I didn’t make it as far as I had planned but I’m happy with as far as I went, which is as far as I hoped to get at the beginning.
There was more than one reason I decided to call it a day. Having originally planned to be further across Asia by the time the northern hemisphere winter set in, I thought I could avoid the coldest temperatures and worst of the weather. After my last week in Turkey though, it was set to turn and I had seen pictures from people cycling the other side of the Caspian sea, having to uncover bikes and tents after a night of snow. This was weather I was definitely not prepared for and didn’t have much room on my bike for extra gear.
I also had my own time limit, needing to be back in the UK by December, and I knew the further east I travelled the harder it would be to get back (more on that later). I needed to be back, if for no other reason, because it will be my birthday! I wasn’t worried about spending my birthday away but it is a time of year, in the run up to Christmas, where it is nice to be home around family and friends.
Which is also my final reason – I was simply ready to go home. Three months of cycling almost every day, camping more often than not – it was challenging and hugely enjoyable with things I will never forget, but once I had decided I wouldn’t go further than the Caspian sea, the thoughts of returning home crept in and I began to look forward to that more than another day of cycling.
The journey back was another challenge in itself. The idea of cycling away and flying back from wherever I ended up hadn’t sat well with me for the whole journey. There is something inherently unsatisfying about such a ‘linear’ trip, and I worried that the low-carbon travel from months on the bike would all be undone with one plane journey. There were options – buses were the primary mode of transport for many around Turkey; there were also trains if you picked your route well; ferries went back and forth across the black sea for a slightly different experience altogether. After a *lot* of exploring the options, I decided the easiest, quickest, cheapest, and most environmentally friendly option was the bus.
From Georgia, I could travel all the way back to Istanbul on one bus. Istanbul had buses to several cities in Europe and I opted for the bus up to Sofia in Bulgaria, and then on to Vienna. So far, I was tracing my exact route in reverse but unfortunately the bus to Munich had sold out so I had to return to London via Prague. Then just one more bus the short hop to the South West! 6 buses, 11 borders, 4 days and 4 nights travelling.
Firstly I will say, yes, it was as horrendous as it sounds. 100 hours of snatching sleep where I could, lucky to get an hour undisturbed. At the first border back in to Turkey I was told I had to disembark and walk across the border carrying my luggage. By this time, I had dismantled the bike and packed it in a box, with the rest of my gear divided between two bags – it seemed an impossible task to carry it all before my travel companion in the seat beside me offered his help and between us we struggled with the oversized box for what felt like a couple of kilometres between the two passport checks, successfully negotiating with the customs police who wanted to open the box to check the contents. After that the bus would stop seemingly ever hour and regardless of the time, all the lights would come up and everyone was encouraged to shuffle off the coach in to a quiet café or petrol station.
In Istanbul, I had to navigate my way across the city to another bus station. After hauling bags and box to the nearest metro station which turned out to be closed, I exhaustedly hailed a taxi and spent the next 10 minutes with the driver attempting to force a big box in to a small car. Eventually, back seats dismantled, I ended up with my knees against the glovebox for the heart-racing dash through the traffic.
In Sofia, I had a 10 hour wait for the next bus, and had to spend the first few hours huddled in negative temperatures while I waited for the office to open so that I might be able to leave my luggage and make my way in to town to get some food and pass the time.
I couldn’t say that I would recommend back-to-back bus journeys as the way to get around Europe but with some overnight stops, I imagine it would have been quite enjoyable, and it was cheap! For me, it was interesting to retrace my route overland and I was happy I was still travelling fairly sustainably so, if I had the choice, I would do the same again.
And so, my journey is over for now. Part of me thinks this was ‘Attempt #1’, that sometime in the future I will go further and faster, but I don’t feel like I failed in this attempt. I saw a lot, and I learnt a lot – mainly that, even when cultures and landscapes are different, people remain similar, fundamentally kind and curious. One thing is certain, I will attempt other challenges; I cannot promise they will be any less ambitious.
A quick side note – I haven’t done this cycle in an attempt to raise money for a particular charity. This journey was an ambition of mine and I find it difficult to dress what is ultimately a selfish endeavour as an act of altruism. But, there is merit in acting as a prompt for people to give to those that have a greater need, so if you are able, pick your favourite charity or cause, and whether it is your time or money, give something to help them out 🙂