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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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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