Homeward bound

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.

Bike all packed

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.

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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 🙂

The best of times, the worst of times

I’m sure I have mentioned before that life on the bike, cycling most days, has it’s ups and downs. Well, last week I had the whole rollercoaster in the space of 24 hours – arguably the worst day on the bike, and I could make a decent argument for it being one of the best days. Let me explain…

After taking a few days rest in Istanbul, to avoid the crazy traffic cycling out the other side, I took a local’s advice and caught the ferry south to begin the next part of the journey on quieter roads. The advice paid off and I spent my time on peaceful roads through small towns. I was cycling towards the central part of Turkey, around the capital, a high plateau compared to the rest of the country. Over a few days I cycled from sea level over steadily rising, rolling hills to an altitude higher than the highest peak in the UK.

Each day my GPS told me I’d broken my previous record for the most elevation climbed in a single day, and soon my legs were starting to tell me the same, aching more than they had since my first weeks on the bike. Starting to think I was due a rest day, and my clothes were overdue a clean, I decided to divert to the capital, Ankara, and booked to stay at a hostel. Two days to cycle 100 miles or so, should be plenty of time I thought.

The next day, I woke up still feeling tired, my legs still aching. I was camped part-way up a hill (always a mistake) so I began the day climbing, and it was a painfully slow crawl. It was all I could do that day to creep up the hills, and let gravity do the work on the other side. I limped along to the next town, after covering around 40 miles I called it a day. I checked in to a hotel for only the second time on the trip and collapsed on a moderately comfortable bed.

As I lay there, I was sure I wouldn’t be able to cycle the rest of the way the following day – more than 60 miles with a lot of climbing. On top of that, I knew the weather was supposed to turn overnight; a temperature drop of more than 10 degrees leaving the mercury at low single figures, and a forecast of rain all day. I walked down to the desk and tried to ask if there was a bus from the town to Ankara. With the help of Google translate, I got my point across and the man on the desk said he would check for me.

I then set about aiding my body’s recovery. I walked out in to the streets and found the nearest restaurant. When I sat down, I saw that the menu had pictures – always a bonus! I saw a stew served with rice which looked like it would be perfectly filling. When the waiter came over I fumbled with the pronunciation but he interpreted my pointing. He seemed hesitant and I eventually understood that he was explaining to me that was a meal for two people. “Perfect!” I exclaimed. He gave me a look that told me he was sure I still hadn’t understood him but took my order nonetheless. When it came, it was served in the large pot it had been cooked in with a wooden spoon to take one ‘portion’ at a time. It also came with a large salad and, like every other meal in Turkey, a whole loaf of bread, and when I had finished I ambled back to the hotel at a slow pace, completely sated.

As I walked in, the man on the desk handed me a piece of paper with all the information about the bus – the departure time, which number, and where to catch it from. I took the information and thanked him, although as I held the piece of paper I wasn’t sure I was going to need it. I went back up to my room and planned the route on the bike – if I add some miles on here, I can remove some of the climbing there… Eventually I had a route I was happy with and I fell asleep.

I woke with renewed vigour. My legs still ached but they felt strong, I felt positive and keen to get on the bike. Some days it takes more motivation to get on the bike than others and I can’t always say where it comes from but it needs to be a choice. The day before, I felt like I didn’t have any options; I had to be in Ankara the next day and had to cycle without knowing if I could do it. Now, with a potential bus trip, I had options.

I duly packed the information about the bus in my handlebar bag and attached it to the bike, like the person that has given up smoking but keeps a pack of cigarettes in their pocket to reduce the craving. Wheeling out of the hotel, a local sat on a step waved me over for a broken conversation.
I was cycling to Ankara, I said.
It’s cold, he said.
I know, I said.
And with that I hopped on my bike and cycled off. As if to complete the metaphor, and not just for the purposes of an anecdote, I cycled past the bus station on my way out of town. About 30 minutes until the bus left.

It was cold. I had three layers on, my Buff bandana around my neck, and trousers rather than shorts but the cold air was biting. My fingerless gloves were the first weak point to be exploited and I tucked my hands in to fists on the handlebars to protect my fingers from the wind.

I was pleasantly surprised on the first hill however, to find my legs felt good and they carried me up at a steady pace. On the downhill I was flying! What a machine my bike was, I thought, to feel this good to ride after more than 4000km. Surely the cars and trucks were noticing how fast this little bike sharing their road was going, I wondered. Wanting to make hay while the sun shined (strictly metaphorically, as a light rain had started to fall), I cycled for nearly two hours before I stopped in a town. 25 miles down, nearly halfway.

Wet through and cold, I had enough food with me but the warm lights of a nearby café drew me in, and I wandered in to take shelter from the rain, heavier now. I sat under the heater and hung my jacket and gloves over the nearby chairs as I drank tea and ate warm soup. A temporary nirvana.

Eventually I had to bite the bullet and go back out to battle the elements again. My attempts to dry my clothes had been in vain and I hesitantly pulled on my damp gloves. Walking out the door, the rain was now heavy and the temperature felt like it had dropped a degree or two with my muscles having cooled slightly. My first turns of the pedals were slow but purposeful, as I was about to hit the main hill, the crux of the route. I was peering through the small gap between my hood and my bandana, cycling against what was becoming a small river at the side of the road. My trousers, shoes, and socks were soaked through, and the cold air sapped my body heat. As the hill ramped up, I wasn’t sure if it was sweat or rain covering my face, yet I could barely feel my toes anymore. I saw the peak of the hill and I pushed on, knowing there was a downhill and flat riding the other side.

As I crested the hill I slowed, exhausted, to take a quick, celebratory swig of chilled water before slipping the bottle away and gripping the handlebars for the descent. I could barely push the levers to work the gears up, my fingers now with as little feeling as my toes but the joy of the effortless speed meant I didn’t care much. I was checking off the miles in my head and as the road flattened out, I realised I could already see the start of the city! 20 miles to go. I push the pedals over to keep the momentum up. 15 miles. I confidently move through the traffic, high on positivity. 10 miles. Feeling my legs start to tire, but I can rest when I get there. 5. Close now, navigating turn by turn, I’m on the right road, I roll to a stop. I’m there.

I don’t go in to the hostel right away, but drink my bottle dry. I lean forward on the handlebars and wonder at how I was able to cycle so far, so fast, after struggling so much before. I smile. If I write a blog about this, I thought, at some point I will have to say, what a difference a day makes.

Found this guy at the side of the road on a cold, wet day

Crossing Europe, Part 2: Dogs, bugs, and a rough ride

UPDATE: I’m pitched up in my tent by the side of the road on the high ‘plateau’ of the central region of Turkey. Over the last couple of days I have climbed from sea level to an altitude higher than the peak of Ben Nevis and my legs are aching more than they have for a good few weeks! Since leaving Istanbul, I have not had to buy one cup of tea (çay) or pay for one night’s accommodation, such is the generosity of the people I have met. Tonight’s camp spot is a small well-kept field beside the road – it was clearly owned by someone, with a picnic bench under a tree, but it was not clear who owned it or where they lived. As I cooked dinner before pitching my tent, a car pulled in and a man stepped out and approached. Thinking he would ask me to leave, I had my apologetic face on, but when he greeted me he assured me in broken English that it was “no problem”, that I should stay as long as I like, and asked if there was anything that he could do for me. I offered my sincere thanks and spent the evening shaking my head in astoundment of the hospitality of the country.

N.B. I started writing this blog 2 days ago so the above wasn’t written today…also, a warning, this post is long!

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I left Part 1 on something of a cliff-hanger but unintentionally, so I will have to start Part 2 with something of an anticlimax.

When I left Bratislava I cycled down through Slovakia and I stumbled upon a town street party with all the local delicacies I could eat from a dozen or so stalls. I decided to stay the night south of the river, across the border…

Hungary: Turned away from the first camp site, I was directed down the road where “my friend” just went. I assumed there was some miscommunication but maybe there was another cycle tourer who had done the same. I was right, and at the next campsite I met Paul and later Cedric who were both on their way to Budapest (coincidentally, we had all come from the same hostel in Bratislava and I had passed Paul on the road that day). We coordinated and headed to Budapest, still my favourite city that I have visited. The capital city stood in stark contrast to other parts of the country I cycled through for the quality of infrastructure – I spent my days in the countryside weaving over potholed roads and broken pavements, with the occasional oasis of smooth tarmac which my bike ate up at speed. I remarked to someone that this was the first country that I had seen stray dogs, to their surprise. The dogs were only a minor curiosity to me at this point, only taking a barking interest in me if I cycled through towns quicker than the local bikes (i.e. walking pace) – little did I know how much I would have to take notice of them in the future.

Croatia: Like Switzerland and Slovakia, I only spent a short amount of time here in the quiet city of Osijek. There was definitely a different ‘feel’ to the poeple and style of buildings but nothing I could put my finger on. I can say however, the border guards were the friendliest I’ve met!

Serbia: I’m sure for many in the UK, like me, thinking of Serbia will evoke a flicker of memories of news reports from the 90’s. I knew little about the country before I crossed the border and after cycling through it for a week and a half, I only wish I knew more now. The people were super-friendly, and very ‘to-the-point’ in a way that sometimes shocked my British sensibilities. Part of the pleasant small-talk with strangers involved the question “how much money do you make?”, something I had never heard spoken aloud before.
I was taken back ‘home’ when I reached a town and decided to stay at a local guesthouse rather than camp – I was greeted by the owner as if I were her own child returning after months away, with a hug at the door and then taken to sit down as she prepared food, before I had a chance to unpack. Walking around, I found myself scanning each room to see that *everything* was ‘English’ themed. A clock showed the time in the UK, there were pictures from London with red buses, telephone boxes and various landmarks, another picture of the Queen hung in the dining room, and the owner had a right-hand drive car (the wrong side for Serbia) imported. The only thing that was ‘off theme’…noone spoke a single word of English.
News had got around the dog community that I was on the way and some of them had moved out of the towns to occupy the country roads as well, barking and starting to give chase if my speed made for an interesting and achievable pursuit. Not yet used to the game, the rush of adrenaline would cause me to try and sprint away, forgetting the weight of the bike doesn’t lend itself particularly well to acceleration!
The scenery was either spectacular, or spectacularly dull, having days winding through incredible valleys, and others in featureless agriculture. One of the most impressive days unfortunately coinsided with what must have been ‘flying-ant day’ in Serbia. Coasting down through a smooth, winding valley road in bright sunshine and amazing autumnal coloured scenes, when suddenly I would crash through a moving black cloud on the road and emerge the other side with bugs in my mouth, hair, and covering my clothes. One of those days where the balance of positive and negative in the world, however small, is immediately apparent!

Romania: I spent half a day looping in to Romania to pick up what looked to be the best route – I feel like I will have to take another trip someday to balance my opinion of the country. Half of the very few hours I spent there were on the worst roads I have ever cycled on that held me at a power-walking pace.
The dogs! Romanian dogs must have had a taste of cyclists, and they like it. If you’re lucky, you hear them before you see them. When you see them, they’re sprinting the 100 yard dash from across the other side of a field, in packs up to 5 or 6. Luckily this was when I was on better roads and I never found out what happened if they got to the end of the field before I did – it certainly kept the heart-rate up though!

Bulgaria: My first day in Bulgaria was a rest day and I spent it exploring the nearby national park with some great people from the hostel. I thought it would be fine to go for a four-hour hike on my ‘rest’ day but not having used my legs much for walking the past couple of months, I woke up the next day aching! I left the capital heading east and, not able to cycle on the highway, I ended up on some lanes and dirt tracks. At one point a wide stream was flowing over the track and as I approached I made a quick judgement, that it was shallow enough to cycle through…I was wrong. Well, half wrong, I was able to cycle through, but I was quickly shin-deep in water and forced the pedals round quickly to emerge the other side, shoes and socks soaked through. Slow-going for the rest of the day with wet feet – this was the second time I considered catching a train to the next town, but I pitched my tent instead. The next day, with my shoes still wet, I decided to book a hostel in the next city so that I could dry them and take a shower after the dusty roads. I made better progress but towards the end of the day I was still 20 miles from the city and the hostel – I had heard that the Bulgarian train service was decent and so, I pulled in to the nearest station and hopped on the train with my bike. The one and only time I’ve travelled off the bike.

Greece: Was I even in Greece? All of a few hours – my enduring memory is of a ford through a fast flowing river. I hit the deck twice trying to cross it, again getting my shoes wet, and eventually crossed barefoot and very slowly.

Turkey: The gateway between Europe and Asia. Upon reaching Istanbul I had crossed the continent. For such a big country that I will spend so long in though, I feel like it needs a post of its own…coming soon.

And so, that was Europe in a nutshell. There are some countries and stories I haven’t done justice to but I need something to talk about when I see people when I’m back!

Happy Friday everyone!!

Rich

Crossing Europe, Part 1: Ups, downs, and flat roads

UPDATE: It’s official, I am now 1 CONTINENT down! Europe, done. Currently drinking tea (sugar, no milk) in Istanbul. Over the past week in Turkey, I have experienced more generosity than anywhere since the beginning of the journey, partly because I have grown more open to accepting it. With more than half of my time on the road now elapsed, but less than half of the distance, it has been clear for some time that I won’t make it to my final destination on this trip. As is written on countless café walls, notebook covers, and lunchboxes however, it is more about the journey than the destination! I continue East, happy that I have crossed Europe and curious of what I will see and experience over the next month or so. Plans for completing the journey in the future are already being formed so watch this space…

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A lot of my posts so far have talked around cycling without saying much about the day-to-day stuff: the different countries, the food, daily anecdotes etc. This has been entirely conscious but I realise that kind of thing is interesting too so, now that I’ve reached a bit of a milestone, here’s a bit of a recap (apologies in advance for the stereotypes…):

France – Ah France, our long-term neighbours whom we make pleasant conversation with over the fence but talk about behind each other’s backs when we are indoors.
I often forget how large France is. Only when I began to plan the route I realised I would be spending the first week or so crossing it, and only once I had crossed it did I realise it’s one of those countries that has it all, as far as landscapes go. Countryside not dissimilar to our own, just with fewer hedges, the sunny South, beautiful coastlines, and the Alps to cap it off! I stuck mainly to the countryside and kept the Alps at a comfortable distance on the horizon, but I certainly had the sun. The first week was still tough going and more than once in the evening I strapped my water bag over my legs as a makeshift ice pack to try and aid their recovery. Physical exhaustion often leads to mental fatigue and there was several moments I wondered if I had the strength to continue in both senses.
I was surprised by how few people spoke English and mildly guilty that I didn’t speak better French; a self-inflicted guilt as I didn’t feel I was being judged too harshly by the locals.
One thing I miss: biscuit and caramel Vienetta
What I don’t miss: a distinct lack of publicly funded toilet paper.

Switzerland – I criss-crossed the border for a couple of days, only staying long enough to cycle up one picturesque Swiss hill and eat as much Swiss chocolate as I could find. It would be unfair to judge a country by such a fleeting visit so I will reserve my opinion. Stay neutral, as it were.

Germany – a country with the efficiency that we think is a cliched stereotype but gets reinforced at seemingly every opportunity. The rivalry built up on our side of the channel certainly isn’t reciprocated by the Deutsche and they seem to view Brits, or at least the English, with a quaint fondness. There was certainly a different air of friendliness with everyone I spoke to.
I decided to take the short route in Germany, leaving the river and heading out in to the hills. I thought the newly gained strength in my legs could cope with anything but was quickly taken down a peg or two when on a tough day my legs ‘cracked’ after less than 50 miles (similar to hitting ‘the wall’ in running). I was due a rest day in Munich after one more day’s cycling but still had 70 miles and many more hills. It was the first time I seriously considered jumping on a train and skipping a day of cycling (but not the last). After a night’s sleep however, I hopped on my bike and had one of the best days on the bike in the whole trip! Coincidently, it was the first day I discovered the delight of a huge pasta salad for breakfast..
Stunning weather and decent roads meant the rest of my time in Germany was a breeze.

Austria – The hills may well have been alive with the sound of music but I didn’t hear any of it, sticking to the river and the flat, smooth paths and roads as I did. Austria is another country with some truly stunning scenery and it’s almost as pretty when you’re in the towns and cities. Cycling along the Danube in Austria is so leisurely I found myself pushing to cycle fast just to convince myself I was working hard..
Meeting up with my dad in Vienna, I realised, quite bizarrely, that the previous three weeks was probably the longest I had gone without seeing someone I know in my entire life! A record I have since beaten however. It was the most distinctive break from cycling I had taken to that point and I wondered how I would feel, stopping and seeing family. I went with my dad to the airport as he was about to fly out and it was the first time I considered the fact that, if I wanted to, I could just stop cycling. It was in that same moment however that I realised I didn’t want to stop, so that was a positive!

Slovakia – By Slovakia, I really mean Bratislava, and by Bratislava, I mean the small part of Bratislava that I stayed in. I vaguely followed the river in to the country though I didn’t often see the water, staying in the capital for one night before moving on. All I can say is, I got some good ‘vibes’ and ate some good food. I later found out I stayed in the same hostel as a couple of people I met up with the next day…

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That wasn’t meant to sound like a cliff-hanger but this is ‘Part 1’ so I’ll leave you there on the edge of your seats while I pen the next instalment!

Peace and love,
Rich x

The kindness of strangers..

UPDATE: I have reached the penultimate country in the Europe leg of my journey – Bulgaria. I’ve taken an unexpected day off in the city of Plovdiv having cycled some fairly rough ‘roads’ over the last couple of days, it sapped my energy more than I thought and I’m sure Stephanie (the bike) would be glad of a day off and some TLC! Yesterday while cutting between two roads across a once-used but now overgrown track, I saw my first bear print in some wet ground – having to push my bike over the pertruding rocks in the washed-out lane, it certainly made me more attentive to my surroundings and it was the first time my bell has been used as a bear precaution! Tomorrow I move on, two days to the border and then another few days to Istanbul!

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One of the joys of being on the road is the number of people that you come in to contact with every day – whether it’s shopkeepers, other travellers, or just people out and about in towns and on the roads, every conversation and encounter is different. Before I started the trip, this would have been one of the daunting prospects, partly for my own trepidations about unfamiliar social situations, and partly for fear of the unknown that I think most people share. With each day that passed however, it became more enjoyable and I was far more likely to follow up chance eye-contact with a friendly “hello” to break the initial social barrier.

In almost 2 months I have met nice people, good people, funny people, interesting people, and other than a small number of impatient drivers which I could count on my fingers, I can’t think of one negative experience. The memorable moments have been the times where people showed genuine kindness; unsolicited, unrewarded extentions of generosity, empathy and friendliness to someone they have never met.

One day, while cycling in Germany, I had spent a long day on the road trying to cover the miles to get to the next town. Cycling through small backroads to avoid the traffic on the main road, I was following signs to the town and thought I was making good time until I realised I had gone a few miles without seeing another sign. At the next signpost, the town wasn’t listed and I assumed I must have missed a turning; slightly annoyed at myself, tired, and worrying about the time, I was turning my bike around to retrace my steps when a middle-aged couple cycled up behind me. Asking something in German (presumably whether I was lost), I told them the name of the town that I was aiming for. After they interpreted my poor pronounciation, the husband spoke briefly to his wife, turned his bike around and waved to indicate I should follow. Slightly surprised, I was happy to comply and cycled to catch up – we managed a broken conversation as he guided me turn-by-turn for the next 5 or so miles. At one junction we stopped, he pointed down the road and gave me directions to the town – thankfully in German that I did recognise: “Geradeaus”. Straight Ahead. I expressed my gratitude as we shook hands and I cycled the last 10km high on positivity and my tired legs had renewed energy!

Most days on the bike the physical exertion isn’t too strenuous and I’ve realised that what determines how difficult a day in the saddle is, can often just be mental attitude. It sounds clichéd, and I’ve also learnt how much food and a decent night’s sleep can play a part, but when my spirits are high, cycling becomes a breeze even when the roads and conditions are against you.

It also strikes me that when spirits are low, this is often the time when the kindness of strangers is most prevalent. In Hungary, having left Budapest a couple of days before, a long day of cycling without finding a decent camping spot led me to a town that I had seen had a hostel that you could also camp beside. Before even pitching my tent, I took out the food I had bought earlier in the day to have for dinner – a tomato pasta salad so I thought. When I opened it however it was something quite different – a stodgy mess of processed meat and something to stick it together. I had picked up the wrong thing in the shop without noticing. Needing some sort of sustenance, I persevered but could only get a few mouthfuls in before setting it to rest beside me. Tired and still hungry, I began to put up my tent and just as I was finishing pegging the rain cover, I saw an older woman walking towards me. She began to speak in Hungarian, pointing across the grass. Obvious I wasn’t understanding she turned and began to walk, waving a hand, beckoning me to follow – a universal signal I was discovering. As I followed her, I saw she was walking towards a large table surrounded by a family 10 or 12 strong with gift bags covering the surface – I was joining a family party it seemed. The chair at the head of the table was free and she gestured for me to sit in it. Still in my cycling gear I sat down, smiling with a hand raised in greeting to the new faces looking at me as the woman that had brought me over spoke to them. She disappeared quickly and before long she brought out a large bowl of warm soup with chunks of bread – I couldn’t tell them how much this was exactly what I needed. As I ate, the glass of wine by my side was constantly topped and, after a round of cake for desert, we raised our glasses around the table before I took my leave for a much needed shower and some rest. This, I thought as I lay there in the evening, this was why I came cycling.

As I have moved further east, it has become more common for cars to give a friendly toot and a wave as they pass, for road workers to shout encouragement as I cycle slowly past up a hill. Just yesterday as I was standing my bike up outside a supermarket at lunchtime, a burly man with a bald head shouted to catch my attention and, again, waved a hand that I should follow and bring the bike. Walking in to a shell of a building being decorated he pointed up to a camera, that the bike would be safe there, and told me with individual words that downstairs was ‘fitness’, ‘toilet’ and ‘water’ – a gym as it turns out, he owned it and offered its services, for no reason other than he saw me outside.

I have just started reading a book with the same name as this post – stories from others that have travelled or just spent time with relative strangers. Tales to warm the heart and inspire a blog post. I hope that when finished my trip, I can pass on some of the kindness offered to me when I return home – goodwill to all, it will be Christmas by then after all!

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

Going solo

UPDATE: I’m in Serbia (country #8 after a short detour to Croatia)! 5 weeks of cycling and my facial hair is such that I could probably pass an old acquaintance on a busy street unnoticed. As well as languages changing, I’m now on my 4th or 5th currency, and my wallet is a colourful and confusing array of faces and denominations. Places are beginning to sound far away from home and I’m having to start making decisions about what I’ve been thinking about as the next ‘leg’ of the journey: Asia.

The saying goes that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. Well, I suppose this trip slightly goes against the grain of that proverb as I’m learning how to go far, alone. Whenever I spoke to people about the cycle, it was always one of three questions asked: where are you going, how long for, and who with? Telling people that I was going alone always seemed the most surprising aspect to them but in truth I had never really thought twice about it.

The whole time that I was thinking about the trip, the idea of going together with anyone had never occurred to me, though I can’t think why. I suppose if I ever tried to explain it to anyone, I couldn’t say exactly where I was going, why, or how long it would take. There is probably only a small sub-section of people that would agree to come along under those circumstances; I’m not sure I’ve met any of them and the rest are presumably under fairly close observation.

It was the same story when I cycled across the UK, though I was slightly more in my comfort zone, it never really occurred to me to go with anyone or in a group. I’m not sure what that says about my character and I might not want to dwell on it for too long but as I’ve been cycling along I’ve been considering the pros and cons of solo travel:
Pros:

  • Flexibility – I’m able to go wherever and do whatever I like without discussion or compromise. It’s also quicker to get ready, change plans etc.
  • Less stress – unless you are very compatible with someone, small differences or disagreements can lead to tensions. I also feel that other people are less comfortable with my level of preparedness (or lack thereof) than I am, so I think I would feel under pressure to plan further ahead than I usually would
  • Meeting people – I feel more open to meeting people when I’m on my own and, I think, more approachable, and less introverted

Cons:

  • Less conversation – despite being fairly comfortable in my own company, I can’t help but feel slightly envious of the cycling pairs chatting together as they ride side by side. Even more so of the pair I saw with walkie-talkie headsets!
  • Two heads are better than one – even though it is quicker and easier to make plans alone, with two people come two ideas, and often you pick the best one between you, so it can be better to have more input
  • Experiences – for all the people and places I visit and those yet to come, I often think of the book/film ‘Into the Wild’ and the idea that experiences are always enhanced when shared with someone else. You also never end up in your own pictures

This isn’t the list of the pros and cons of just having company however, for I think whether travelling together with someone or going solo, people seek out company. I’ve noticed that many people travelling alone will often gravitate towards each other, for a break from solitude. I have taken to staying in camp sites along the way and my route so far seems to be joining the dots between cities and the hostels in them. Not only is there the advantage of the *much* needed and coveted shower at the end of the day, but it is a chance to meet and talk to other travellers.

Now, I love hostels. Every time I stay in one I marvel at these melting-pots of society – a juncture of so many paths and stories and characters. It’s easy to meet people and you never fail to meet someone interesting or eccentric (but always fail to get a good night’s sleep). Whether it’s a ‘government official’ sitting in his underwear drinking wine from the bottle, or a young entrepreneur travelling around Europe on an electric unicycle, there’s always a story behind it! You only have to sit alone in a common area and, provided you don’t have your head buried in a book (or more likely your phone), you will soon be chatting with the person next to you or whomever wanders over. For such ephemeral meetings, names become unimportant and can often be the last thing you ask before parting ways, after swapping life stories.

More recently, I’ve been learning the difference between good hostels and bad for meeting people. Just before reaching Budapest, a series of coincidences led me to meet two other solo travellers at a campsite. They had met before and were also heading in to the city so we decided to coordinate and head to the same hostel. I realised that they were looking in more detail at each hostel than I generally had been (beyond the price and rating) to decide where to stay. Trusting their judgement, I booked the same place and we ended up in a great little hostel with such a chilled vibe and interesting people, that my first two-day rest quickly became three days!

After four weeks being constantly on the move, not stopping for more than one day, three days surrounded by people was quite a change. After that, I found it hard to get back on the bike and cycle away from a city I loved and people I would now call friends. It was a lonely half-day cycling to get over the ‘happiness hangover’ before being back in the swing of things, and by the end of the day I had found a beach on the Danube 60 miles south, pitching my tent just in time for a stunning sunset. It reminded me of the things I had been missing in the days before and reminded me of the positives of my self-imposed solitude. To be able to decide where I go and when, and find company when I stop has been great so far. Can’t wait to see who I meet next!

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Miscommunication

UPDATE: As I write this I am sat in my tent in Hungary…yesterday I traversed down the Slovakian border from Bratislava along the Danube river. Today I will come off the river and take the more direct route down to Budapest – a swift 60 miles with just a couple of big hills (I now consider this a relatively easy day!).

I have officially cycled the furthest I have ever cycled in one trip! Over 4 weeks I have travelled well over 1000 miles, across 6 countries and counting. Without wishing to tempt fate, the bike and the legs are holding up well and feeling ready for the next few weeks cycling down to Istanbul.

The last few days I have been crossing beautifully translucent borders so often I have barely been able to keep up with which country I am in, let alone which language I should be attempting to communicate with people in!

I was eased towards the communication barrier, starting as I did in France for a week and a half, then another week and a half in German-speaking nations. Contrary to what my aging GCSE results would have you believe, my French language skills, such as they are, are considerably better than my German. However, not having exercised those neural links for some time, my low confidence caused me to preface conversations in the first days with “Désolé, je ne parle pas francais, parlez-vous anglais?” [I don’t speak French, do you speak English?]. A sentence that I’ve always thought must sound odd when spoken in French and perhaps that’s why I was quickly encouraged by my conversation counterpart to admit I spoke “un peu francais”.

Most conversations involved a bizarre exchange of someone speaking the little English they knew to me, and me replying in my little French, plenty of smiling and nodding on both sides. After a week in France I had abandoned all introductory warnings to the condition of my French and just dived headfirst in to the sea of unfamiliar words and sentence structures. There was more and more understanding with less and less gesturing and it gave me a renewed ambition to improve my language skills.

The chat with other cyclists on the road was generally limited to a passing ‘bonjour’ but I was heartened to think of the number of times I must have been passing a fellow Brit and despite our shared language (albeit unknown), we exchanged pleasantries in the language of our temporary host nation. It did mean however that my only extended conversations during the week were the rare times I came across another English-speaking traveller in the evening or a phone call back to the UK.

Crossing in to Switzerland, the language change was dazingly sudden. My confidence of French on a high, I now found myself instantly having to interpret signs and conversations of German, a language I hadn’t ‘revised’ and perhaps naively thought would just come back to me. In truth, over the week it did come back but it was certainly slower than I had expected/hoped! One day early on I stopped for lunch in a small restaurant (a rare treat)…

ME: *looks blankly at menu in German*
WAITER: “Hallo, bist du bereit zu bestellen?”
ME: “Sorry, my German..uhh..mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut”
WAITER: “Do you know what you want to order?”
ME: “I might need some help, I want quite a big meal”
WAITER: “You want pig?”
ME: “Like pork?”
WAITER: “OK, I would say for this *points*, it is quite a traditional dish”
ME: *recognising the word ‘salat’* “Is it a salad?”
WAITER: “With salad? Yes, OK”
*Waiter takes menu and leaves*

A less successful conversation. Although it was delicious.

Since then I have learnt a couple of phrases in Slovak which were of limited use in the two days I was there, and now I am struggling with Hungarian but I’m taking a day off in Budapest tomorrow which should give me ample opportunity to take some ‘hello, please, and thankyous’ for a whirl!

More updates to follow. Peace and love.

Rich x

Learning to ride a bike

I said to someone, not long before I left: “Cycling is great because you can cycle all day and wake up the next morning without feeling it and do it all over again”. Well, I take it back. Around 170 miles down and I have felt most of them! Whether it’s that I wasn’t used to the weight on the bike, or the distance (or the 10 years since the last time I did something similar), the first couple of days on the bike were a struggle. The ‘training’ rides I did were with a lightly packed bike, seeing how many miles I could cover in a couple of hours – then multiply that out for the planned number of hours on the bike, and that was my daily mileage target. The first time I packed all the gear on to the bike was about 5 minutes before I had to pack it all in the car to go and catch the ferry. With my family there, we each took a turn to try to lift the bike which was now close to 40kg – I laughed to counter their concerned faces. The good thing about doing things last minute, as I have discovered throughout my life, is that there are no choices left to make; by that time, it is what it is and the only thing to do is make the best of it!

My first metaphorical steps on the fully laden bike then, were boarding the ferry. As I waited, I realised I might look ‘noteworthy’, enough at least to start a conversation between the family in the nearby car, and I wondered if I looked as clueless and inexperienced to them as I felt at that moment. Descending the ramp to the oily car deck, the back wheel took a side step at one point and almost went from under me; I caught it just in time as a road bike behind with thinner, slicker tyres hit the deck, sending the rider tumbling. He assured me that both he and the bike were fine, and we navigated our way to a small cupboard space where the bikes were to be tied up for the crossing. Having got through that part unscathed, all that was left was to settle down for an uncomfortable night’s sleep before starting out in France…

The night passed quickly enough, and I was soon encouraged off the ferry and on to the public roads. I was keen to play the part of the cycle tourer that I thought I might look like and set off in earnest, overtaking a cycling couple paused with maps out over handlebars. I might have hoped that the ferry to Caen would have dropped us a little closer to the city itself but as it was, I soon discovered I was about 10 miles from the start of my planned route – a small oversight of mine. I began to follow the signs to the city and quickly came upon a main road that ran all the way to the city with the ominous sign I’m certain meant ‘pas de vèlo’. No cycling. I darted up a lane that looked like it ran parallel to the main road and after a detour through a farmer’s field, a couple of dead ends and a lot of guess work, I ended up on a picturesque bike path that ran the length of the river to the city. The creeping thought that perhaps there was a much easier route than the one I took was confirmed when after 20 minutes I overtook the same couple along the path, again looking at the map.

My initial encouragement with the apparent ease of cycling with the weighty bike along the bike path was dispelled when I hit the first mild incline and I began searching for low gears that weren’t there. With this and the slow start, I began to worry that I wouldn’t get anywhere near the distance I had planned in my head for the first few days. Suddenly I began sprinting down hills and pushing up climbs, forgetting rule #1 of cycle touring, Pace Yourself! After only 30 miles, my legs were struggling, and I stopped in a small shop for supplies; bread, jam, and cheese, this would surely give me the strength to plough on at speed. I probably needn’t tell you, it didn’t. I managed another 20 miles slowly and saw on the route that there was a fair hill in the next 10 miles. “I’d rather not have that to do in the morning” I thought, and so I persevered. I hit the bottom of the slope at speed with a boy-like naivety, that I would conquer this hill, but after a mere 50 metres or so my legs waved the white flag and I had to climb down. For the first time in my life, I was pushing a bike up a hill. I learnt to swallow my pride by the third passing car and continued to push rather than pretend my chain had come off and start spinning my pedals. In honesty the pushing didn’t seem much easier than the cycling and at the first plateau I re-mounted and continued up the last bit of the slope. At the top, the joy was only slightly tainted as I dripped with glorious sweat. I thought to double check the map, as the climb seemed steeper than I imagined it should have been and it didn’t take long for me to realise, I’d climbed the wrong hill…

Never mind, just a few extra miles over the top of the hill to get back on track, I found a perfect ‘wild camping’ spot a short walk down a bridleway. Still quite light, I thought I would wait a short while to see if the area was used at all before pitching my tent; I sat down to rest my legs and had a bit more of the bread and jam…when I woke up, an hour had passed, and the light was fading. I’d fallen asleep out on the grass sat up against one of my pannier bags. I was exhausted. My knees felt strained and I had a sore backside. That evening I wondered whether this was the adventure I was seeking out, whether I was ready for it, whether I could do it…

Then I remembered rule #2 of cycle touring, Do Your Own Tour. I’d read about a dozen tours and I think I started out trying to achieve the same. I wasn’t ready for a 60-mile day on my fully-laden bike; I relaxed, took the pressure off and the next days have felt easier with still decent mileage. These were always supposed to be training days after all. Now the legs feel stronger and I’m used to the weight on the climbs. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be ready for another 60-mile day but let’s see what my body feels like and what the road has in store; let’s just enjoy cycle touring.

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Caen to Bhutan

Good morning!

24 hours until the pedals begin to turn in France! Nervous, excited, apprehensive, and every other emotion right now. First ever long-distance, international cycle tour and I have no idea what to expect, or how my body and mind will cope with it, but I’m keen to throw myself in and see what happens!

The route is now online – Caen to Bhutan (it rhymes) – there may be deviations and diversions along the way but that’s part and parcel to the journey. Anyone who knows me will look at the map and wonder how I’m even going to navigate off the ferry; I wish I could reassure you that everything has been planned diligently… I can tell you that I have a compass..

Now I just about have time to brush up on my French before le grand depart – to my family and friends, see and speak to you all soon, I’m going for a bike ride.

Au revoir!

Rich x

 

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