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.

**************

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 🙂

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!

DSC00148

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

Finding my way

No ceremony for border crossings in Europe. Quick picture in the rain..

Slight hiatus from the blog but I’m back!

Two weeks, around 800+ miles, 30,000+ calories burned and still going! I was acutely aware after a week of cycling in France I was still firmly in ‘holiday’ territory but now on country number 3 (France, Switzerland, now Germany), it’s feeling like more of a cycle tour and I can finally say I’m getting used to the routine. The bags are packed so everything is where I need it, the mileage is less of an effort every day, and I’m settling in to the saddle so that I would almost say it was comfortable (but not quite).

One of the biggest challenges so far hasn’t been the packing, the camping, or even the cycling really, it’s simply getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’. Now, I love a map, and the idea of plotting my route before I left, point to point, road to road, and making notes, filled me with joy; but it soon became clear that on the road, because of the scale needed and the distance I planned to cover, I would need to tow a trailer just to carry all the maps I would need! So, I decided to go 21st century traveller and put my faith and control of the navigation in to electronics, somewhat against my better instincts. The results have been mixed, to say the least.

The basic idea is I pick the ‘waypoints’, every 20-30 miles, and an app decides the best cycling route between them; I can then display the route as a rudimentary line on my little GPS. It doesn’t show place names or distances, just a line, and I am either ‘on course’ or ‘off course’. This meant I still had to pay attention to signs, place names, and generally keep my head up, and struck a good balance, so I thought.

Now, before I get up on my soapbox, I should say that 99% of the time everything has worked perfectly and it’s been exactly what I needed. True to human nature though, it is not the 99% when things go right, that we remember, it is the 1%, and the 1% has been testing at times!

For rather than taking the well trodden paths with the other cycle tourers, or even the roads less travelled, occasionally I have been routed down more ‘adventurous’ tracks. In the last couple of weeks I have joined the farmers, the foresters, and sometimes just animals on lanes, tracks, and paths that have tested my bike control and my patience!

One particular time that comes to mind was the afternoon of a 30°+ day last week. I was keen to get the miles covered early in the day to avoid the worst of the heat but it was mid afternoon now and I still had around 20 miles to cover. The line on my screen suddenly took a sharp right, turning off what seemed like a perfectly good road; I pulled up at the side of the road where the path diverged to see where it was sending me. When I looked right it had all the signs of being a farmers track, and I couldn’t see far to see if it led anywhere, but like the modern slave to the computer, I thought it must know something I don’t so I did as it said and continued right.

It was slow going at first, mostly dried dirt ground with scattered stones I was keen to avoid. I startled a couple of cows who were lying close to the fence and clearly don’t get many passing cyclists. The line went left so I went left, now there were several patches of deep gravel and the bike bogged down trying to cross one patch turning the front wheel and sending me tumbling to the dusty ground. I picked up the bike, irritated at the situation. *Deep breath* “I’m sure I’m just cutting the corner to another road” I thought. On I went, another left. Now the occasional pothole became constant potholes, like a metal detectorist had scoured the area, and me and the bike were like the ball-bearing from screwball scramble (for those that remember), a victim to the terrain! A right turn. Now I could see where the lane went… I don’t know why I continued cycling as I was now picking a line between recently harvested crops, but I had invested so much energy, I felt like I had to bring it to a conclusion; I was in the middle of a farmer’s field. I cycled, following the line on the screen until I reached the bottom of the field; a fence, a stile.

With the sun hot on my back, the prospect of hauling my bike over a fence to who-knows-where was not my preferred option I realised so, begrudgingly, I turned and pushed my bike back the way I had come. Back on the original road, one hour since I was last there, the day still hot and 20 miles still to go. I vowed to double check all the routes in the future!

The view from the end of the lane where the GPS took me

I think of when I cycled across the UK 10 years ago, with a map and some route notes. When I almost got lost cycling in to Chester, unsure of where the hostel was, I managed to strap my phone inside my bike helmet, with my dad on the other end giving me turn-by-turn instructions using what was presumably a fairly basic version of Google maps, until I arrived without one u-turn. It makes me wonder how far we’ve come!

Anyway, another one of those learning curve moments – I’ve made some edits to the routes and bar the occasional wild excursion to keep things interesting, it’s been more plain sailing.

More regular updates and anecdotes from now on…

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.

IMG_20180823_113906