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 🙂

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

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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The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Now that I have some followers (four family members and counting..), I suppose I should start to add some content to the site! Just about one week to go until my ferry departs and I start the approximately four-month journey across Europe and Asia by bicycle; I should make it clear at this point, I have no idea what I am doing.

I know exactly when I’m going without knowing exactly where, and I know where I’m aiming to get to but not where I will end up! All being well, I should arrive in Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, some time early in December – I will use this site to update you on the probability of that happening.

Why Bhutan I hear you ask? I haven’t yet come up with an answer to satisfy anyone else who has asked the same…a secret desire to show off geographic knowledge of some of the world’s more obscure countries? Maybe. But the allure of a country, nestled in the Himalayas, that sanctifies the environment for the benefit of it’s people, and most famously pioneered ‘Gross National Happiness’, was too great and I’ve always wanted to see the country. Perhaps the cycling is just my attempt at low-impact tourism..

Stay posted!