Month: May 2016

Grinning from Ear to Ear

I’m not sure that I ever thought that I’d find my cycling paradise in Macedonia.  I certainly didn’t expect to find it in Albania.

But after two superb days of stunning mountains, gorges, lakes and rivers, I’m beginning to think that this might be it.  At least, it might be if the roads weren’t quite so ropey, and the driving standards quite so poor…

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There wasn’t much of a clue as I left Skopje on Saturday.  Some reasonable scenery, and reasonably flat roads, but nothing to indicate that I’d spend most of the following days grinning like a crazy person.

And Sunday began with an 800 vertical-metre climb into Mavrovo National Park, pushed up against Macedonia’s border with Albania.  I reached the top feeling fairly hot, and slightly tired.  A coffee by Lake Mavrovo perked me up a little bit.  And then it was time to head for the border town of Debar.

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I’d kind of registered that there was a lot of downhill from the lake.  But I didn’t realise that it was around fifteen miles of downhill.  Down a magical gorge road (the two pics above).  Magical because the road kept falling as the mountains on either side got higher.  And because every twist and turn just revealed another spectacular view.

It was actually a bit dangerous, as my head was constantly swivelling to catch the next snow-capped peak, or overhanging cliff, or village clinging improbably to the side of the valley.  I’d normally have been paying a little more attention to the next bend, or the next vehicle charging towards me on the wrong side of the road.

It was a stunning piece of road.  And when I finally hit the bottom at Lake Debar (below), I was so elated that I didn’t even mind the nasty, 20% ramp before Debar town.  I barely even noticed it.  But I did feel sad to be on the verge of leaving Macedonia so soon.

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Debar is typical of western Macedonia.  All the way from Skopje, you can feel the Slavic and Orthodox Christian influences weakening as you approach re-entry into the Muslim world at the Albanian border.  Once you get to Debar, you can really feel how close you are; I noticed several mosques, but no churches.  And the statue in the town park was of the great Albanian hero, Skanderbeg.

This morning (Monday), it was just a five kilometre ride to the border.  Another super-relaxed crossing, although the Albanians do still stamp your passport, and I was rolling into country number 27 (they really clock up quickly round here).

Albania proved fairly pretty, but irritatingly uphill and headwindy until lunchtime.  And then it all changed again.

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For the second day in a row, I found myself on an almost infinite downhill.  There’s a new road in the bottom of the valley (above), which is not finished yet, so the current road twists and turns its way along the valley side.  You can just about see it.  There’s very little in the way of barriers or other safety equipment here, so the ride is a little more exhilarating than it strictly needs to be.  Which is fun, as long as your brakes keep working.

By the time I’d worked my way down the upper slopes, and round the corner to the right, I could actually smell the discs heating up.  This is a first for me on a bike (possibly indicative that Albanian driving habits are contagious), and I was relieved to find that there was no scary brake-fade as a result.  Because I was about the hit the really fun part.

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It’s always hard to appreciate on photos, but there’s still quite a long way left to drop on the picture above.  Another five or so miles of passing trucks, bouncing flies off my teeth, leaning through hairpin bends, and slithering a little bit on the occasional gravel patch.  And all the time with this magnificent landscape all around.

If I’d smiled any wider, I’m pretty sure my face would have split.  And I’d have started ingesting unacceptable amounts of airborne insects.

The last few miles to Burrel were flat and pleasant farmland, along the valley bottom.  With the exception of another steep spike up into the town itself.  Just like yesterday, I didn’t mind the hill at the end at all.  I even had a go at chasing a local cyclist (on his carbon fibre road bike, complete with race number) up the incline.  I’m pretty sure he let me catch him, but he did a great job of looking impressed.  A fantastic end to a brilliant couple of days’ riding.

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And, as the sun fell over the hills at Burrel (above), and a well-deserved steak rounded off a near-perfect day, I realised that I’m already halfway across Albania (it’s not exactly the fattest country).

It seems almost a shame to be progressing so quickly.  People here are insanely friendly (roadside high fives, and even slaps on the back, are common), and the riding is just great.

I have a feeling that I might just be back around here one day…

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Complications

The Balkans are a complicated part of the world.

So I suppose it’s not surprising that things got a little bit complicated for me before I got to Skopje yesterday (Thursday).

Two different sources had told me the road to Skopje was flat. “Pan flat”, they said. “Easy”, they said.

It wasn’t either of those things. Which proves that local knowledge should be taken with a healthy (or unhealthy) pinch of salt.

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It was false flat, most of the time; just rising enough to wear me out (especially in combination with the constant headwinds). It was hard work. And then, there were hills. Quite big ones, with roads where the surface fell apart (above).

And, to top things off, there were the Macedonian cobbles:

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Right out in the countryside (and running for miles, sometimes with a thin skim of tarmac, sometimes not). Someone spent a huge amount of time and effort laying all these cobbles. It’s just unfortunate that they’re a recipe for snake-bite punctures if you’ve forgotten to pump your tyres up rock hard.

Thankfully, the puncture was quickly fixed with a ‘revolutionary’ instant patch kit that I got free with a big internet order for bike parts.

Less thankfully, it turns out that ‘revolutionary’ actually means ‘doesn’t work’. So I spent the rest of the day rushing a few kilometres, followed by stopping to pump up an increasingly quick ‘slow’ puncture. Eventually, just a few miles out of town, I had to get the wheel off again, patch the patch, and hope that I could roll into Skopje before the tyre went down again. I did. Just.

A simple, apparently flat and easy day’s ride made immensely complicated.

Thankfully, I was due a day off today, so I bought a new inner tube. And had a nice wander around town. Which proved to me that the Balkans are even more complicated than keeping my tyres inflated.

First, the Macedonians seem to build their cathedrals like mosques (complete with minarets):

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I’d guess that this architectural style probably has something to do with the Ottomans (again), who ran most of the Balkans for a long while.

But the Ottomans can’t explain all the odd cultural thefts that seem to abound around here.

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Alexander the Great (also known as Alexander of Macedon) sits proudly on a column in the main square in Skopje. Him and his Dad, Philip, pop up all over the place. Statues, motorways and stadiums are named after them. Big Alex built an empire which reached all the way to Egypt and India within just a few years, and then died at 32. He was a major over-achiever.

He was also, very definitely, Greek. While modern Macedonia was part of the ancient kingdom of Macedon, the town Alexander was born and raised in is in modern Greece. And he was, by all accounts, ethnically and culturally Greek, too. Not Macedonian in the modern sense at all.

So, Macedonia seems to have pinched Alexander from the Greeks. The Greeks are not happy about this. Or about the Macedonians using the name ‘Macedonia’ for their country, either. In fact, the Greeks are so upset about this that it’s holding up all sorts of international negotiations.

The Macedonians also appear to have tried to pinch stylish, red double-decker buses from London:

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They look a bit odd, as if they’ve taken a modern bus and welded an old-fashioned driver’s cab on the front. But I suppose imitation is some sort of compliment…

Possibly in revenge for these cultural appropriations (but probably not), the Albanians next door seem to have got in on the act as well.

Everyone knows that the world’s most famous Albanian was Mother Teresa. Tirana airport is named after her, and everything.

Except Mother Teresa was born here, in Skopje. She was Macedonian, in modern terms (though Ottoman at the time). So, it looks like the Albanians pinched her from the Macedonians.

It’s all really complicated, isn’t it?

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Anyway, what is clear is that Macedonia is a beautiful country with friendly people and bad drivers. And cobbled country lanes. I’ve enjoyed it so far, and I’ve still got another couple of days before I get to Albania.

Maybe I’ll be able to work out the apparent theft of Mother Teresa on the way…

Slowing Down

‘Three countries in three days’ probably doesn’t sound like I’m not making much progress.

I left Greece on Sunday, crossed the south-western corner of Bulgaria, and arrived today (Tuesday) in Macedonia. I’ve gone from the Eurozone, to an EU country with its own currency, to a non-EU European country (which accepts Euros quite happily).

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But I have slowed down. I’ve not been feeling great, especially today. I’m not sure if I’ve just overdone it on the hills. Or if the hay-fever that’s been bothering me for the last couple of weeks is starting to affect my riding.

Whichever it is, I’m definitely not 100% at the moment, and blasting up some fairly big hills too quickly probably hasn’t helped things much.

I didn’t expect Bulgaria to be as beautiful as it is. But I also didn’t expect the ride to Bulgaria to be as hard as it was on Sunday. There are very few flat routes through mountains, but I’d picked a relatively easy pass. Once the Greek downpours had subsided, I headed off quickly towards the border.

Probably too quickly. I’d had the unexpected day off due to the rain, and was feeling fresh. It was a fairly low pass over the mountains (about 700 vertical metres), on an easy gradient. I hit it pretty hard, pleased to find out that my climbing legs hadn’t deserted me.

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What I’d probably not appreciated enough was that there was not much chance to recover over the top. Just more hills up to the border, a headwind, and a fairly flat run – admittedly with a tiny bit of downhill – to Gotse Delchev, at the foot of the enormous Pirin range (slightly disappointing picture of a stunning mountain range above).

I was feeling rough when I got there, but seemed to recover OK overnight. Only to be faced with a much steeper pass, up to 1450 metres, yesterday morning.

I got up to the pass in less than two hours, which is pretty reasonable, considering the weight of the bike and bags. The effects of Sunday’s effort had apparently just melted away.

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And having hit the pass, and met its slightly fearsome guardian (above), I got to enjoy one of my favourite downhills of the whole trip: 25 kms of smooth, twisty tarmac. Surrounded by the spectacular scenery of southern Bulgaria. By the time I hit the bottom, I was grinning like a lunatic, and was having one of my best days ever on a touring bike.

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A look back at the Pirins (above), and it was a short(ish) and flat(ish) run to Petrich to finish the day, and for my second and final night in Bulgaria.

Today, there was just 25 kms to go to the border with Macedonia. I spent last night debating how far I was going to get towards Skopje, the capital. I reckoned I should be able to get there from Petrich in two days without too much effort.

I know better now. The climbs of the last couple of days in the mountains had caught up with me. My legs were still sore this morning (never a good way to start), and I felt like I was lacking energy. Oh, and I was sneezing every time I came within sight of a flower. And there are wild flowers in the edge of pretty much every field over here.

In the end, a leisurely half-day’s ride across the border to Strumica was as much as I was going to manage today.

Still, it’s country number 26, and it’s a bit flatter than Bulgaria, at least for the first few days.

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Better yet, there appeared to be a tractor-based protest going on when I got into town. You can’t beat a convoy of hundreds of little red tractors trundling past (for roughly twenty minutes).

What fun Macedonia already seems to be…

No Drama

You can tell you’re back in Europe when the weather decides to play a large (and largely unwanted) role in your touring.

I was pretty sure, heading west from Alexandroupoli on Thursday, that I’d be able to update you on southern Bulgaria today.  The weather was nice, the road was good, and the hills weren’t too big and threatening:

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Xanthi on Thursday, then Drama on Friday, and Bulgaria on Saturday.  Not even stupidly long days.  Should have been easy.

And Thursday was fine, with the exception of a nagging headwind.  More of a head-breeze, really, so not a major problem.  The sun was out, the birds were singing (there seem to be a lot more birds here than in Turkey, for some reason), and all was well.

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I even found that ultimate mark of civilisation, a Lidl supermarket, when I got to Xanthi.  It was probably the busiest shop I’ve seen in Greece so far, which may be an indication that the Greeks’ economic woes are not yet all in the past.

My usual weather check that evening was where things started to go a bit sideways.  A huge blob of slow-moving rain was due to cover pretty much the whole of northern Greece (and southern Bulgaria and Macedonia) for about 36 hours from yesterday afternoon (Friday).

This was unfortunate.  You’ll be aware of my enthusiasm for getting completely soaked from previous posts.  And this blob of rain had all manner of online weather warnings attached to it, so it looked like the internet didn’t think it was just going to fade away, either.

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But you never know with weather forecasts.  It’s not like they’re never wrong, is it?  And this is Greece.  And it’s almost summer.  Surely it couldn’t rain that much?

So, proceeding according to plan, I twiddled away from Xanthi towards Drama.  But it was already clouding up by the time I hit the coast at the Beach of the Giant Pineapples (above).  It’s not really called that, by the way.  And I’m pretty sure it’s actually some sort of palm…

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I decided not to stop in Kavala, despite its impressive old town, complete with ancient castle and aqueduct (above – you might have to squint a bit to see the acqueduct).

I’d get as close as I could to Drama before the rain came.  And hope that I didn’t get stuck in no-man’s-land between the two big towns.  So, pausing only to have a quick look at the monastery at the top of the hill out of Kavala, I ploughed on.

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And duly got stuck in no-man’s-land.

Last night was a bit damp.  Today has been wet in an English summer sort of way – pouring with rain one minute, drizzling the next.  Miserable.  And not entirely helped by being stuck in the sort of village where a car driving down the main street would be a local talking point for weeks afterwards.

It’s my own fault.  In retrospect, I could have got to Drama in the dry quite easily, but it just didn’t feel that way at the time.

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If I’d been here a thousand or two years ago, things would have been different.  Where now there are just a couple of villages, separated by the fairly large hill above, there was once a Greek / Roman city called Phillipi (roughly; the spellings, and even the name, have not been particularly consistent over the years).

It was on the Via Egnatia, which was the Roman ‘motorway’ between the western and eastern parts of the empire.  And it was, by all accounts, a busy place; an administrative centre and a military site.  It was also, apparently, the first place in Europe where St Paul started spreading Christianity to the Romans.  Then it was abandoned.  Pretty thoroughly.  And used by the Ottomans as a quarry, according to Wikipedia.

So an interesting past, and a desolate and rain-soaked present.  I do hope that’s not some sort of metaphor for the rest of my journey!

It shouldn’t be.  The bike’s had a clean and fettle today, so I’ll be ready to head on to Bulgaria whenever the weather clears.  Which will hopefully be tomorrow.

If there are no more dramas.  Except for Drama, finally…

The Last Continent (and the First)

It’s a little bit of a shame that EU border guards don’t stamp EU passports when you pass the border.

I’ve pedalled my little heart out, uphill and down, into the wind and through the hellish blue skies and sunshine of early summer.  I’ve crossed from Asia to Europe (geographically).  And then, I’ve crossed from Turkey into Greece.

And all I have to show for it is one smudgy exit stamp from the Turkish border this lunchtime.  Well, that and several shops full of tzatziki (and other assorted dips that I don’t like) around the corner…

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I caught sight of Europe on Sunday morning.  I was lucky it was a shortish ride, as the headwinds were really giving me a kicking, for the third day in a row.  The incessant whistling in my ears was doing my head in.  As well as making the riding much harder than it needed to be.  I needed some good news.

And then, the headland I was slowly rounding (above) curved south to form the eastern edge of the Dardanelles strait.  That landmass in the background, which is part of Europe, was only a couple of miles away.

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I found the ferry, and prepared to hop across the narrow waterway to my final continent of the trip.  Of course, it was also my first continent, and I still have to cross pretty much the whole thing to get home…

The boat was a nice surprise.  Somewhat bizarrely, there’s a charge for cars, a charge for trucks, and a charge for pedestrians.  But, apparently, no charge for cyclists.  You can’t get better value than a free intercontinental cruise!

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And so I landed in Europe.  At Gelibolu, on the peninsular of the same name.  For the British, and more especially, for Australians and New Zealanders, the English name is more significant – Gallipoli.

During World War One, the British Empire (as it still was at the time, including British, Indian, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand forces), and the French, decided to attack the Ottoman Empire (as it still was at the time), which had joined the war on the German side.  Somehow, this degenerated into an eight-month stalemate.  Presumably, they weren’t expecting the Ottomans to fight back.  The invasion never got far beyond the beaches, and by the time the Allies withdrew, there were a total of nearly half a million casualties.

Which, along with the rest of the First World War, is an astonishing waste of life.

In any case, from Gelibolu, it was just a gentle day-and-a-half’s riding to the Greek border.  Up the peninsular, and across eastern Thrace.  The wind finally shifted to a slightly more sensible direction (much to the dismay of a French tourer who I met going the ‘wrong’ way yesterday; he was trying to wrestle a tandem through the wind by himself, aiming to meet his girlfriend in Izmir).  So it was a reasonably gentle run for me, spoiled only by a valve problem on one of my inner tubes, which is now forcing me to pump the tyre up every 90 minutes or so.

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This afternoon (Tuesday), feeling reasonably fresh, I arrived in Alexandroupoli.  It’s a pretty standard seaside town nowadays, but, like Gallipoli, its short history is a reminder of what a turbulent part of the world this has historically been.

The town was founded by the Ottomans, only about 150 years ago.  Since then, it’s been controlled by the Russians, the Ottomans again, the Bulgarians, the Greeks, the Bulgarians again (World War One), the French, the Greeks again, the Bulgarians again (this is now World War Two), and finally, so far, the Greeks.  Amazingly, it’s not suffered any significant damage through this whole period.

But those shifts of control have shaped the history of the whole area I’m now moving into; the Balkans.  Empires have washed over this region from the dawn of written history, from Alexander the Great onwards, leaving a bewildering mixture of ethnic, religious and cultural influences behind.

The next couple of weeks should be fascinating, as I head north and west.  I’m having what feels like a well-deserved rest day tomorrow (Wednesday), trying to finalise a sensible route through the region.

But I think it’ll be interesting, whichever way I go…

Last Night in Asia

It’s been a tough few days, with a constant headwind trying to batter me into submission.  And a few more hills than expected.

But I’ve made it to where I want to be; just 60 km (38 miles) from the narrow strait between Asia and Europe.  I should get to the Asian side of the crossing just after lunchtime tomorrow (Sunday), from where a ferry should whisk me effortlessly across the (roughly) three mile gap between two continents.

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Leaving Iznik was hard, though.

Partly because of that interesting mix of history and culture that I discussed last time (the Ayasofya mosque, above, sums it up pretty well; an ancient church converted into a mosque, just like its much bigger and more impressive namesake in Istanbul).

Partly because it was a really nice, chilled-out little place with loads of lakeside cafes.  And partly because, from Iznik, the only way out is upwards.

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At least I got a last view of Iznik as I left.  The vast majority of Turkish towns I’ve been to have been flat, meaning there’s rarely a vantage point on the road to see the whole place at once.  And, despite a little shower as I hit the top of the hill, the short(ish) run to Bursa was unproblematic.

The only big issue in Bursa (which is regarded as the birthplace of the Ottoman Empire, by the way) was the traffic, which got a bit manic in the city centre.  It’s the biggest Turkish city I’ve ridden in, so I suppose this is excusable to an extent.  Although it made me very glad that I decided against riding through Istanbul, which is many times bigger (and therefore the traffic’s likely to be many times worse).

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Another reason that I was happy not to be riding into Istanbul on Thursday was that there was (yet) another bomb attack there that afternoon.  In the eastern suburbs, which may have put me nearby if I’d headed that way.

Then again, there was also a suicide bombing in Bursa only a fortnight before I got there (27th April), which I thought it was probably better not to mention until I was through, in case people worried.

It seems to be a grim, almost daily occurrence in Turkey at the moment.  And the frequency may go some way to explaining why neither attack appears to have made it anywhere near the news at home (along with obsessive Euro referendum navel-gazing, I’d guess).

In any case, unless you’re unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (and that could happen just as easily at home), you’d never even know they’d happened.  Bursa city centre was a scene of total, big city normality.  I’m sure Istanbul’s the same.

It’s a real shame that things like that seem to be putting tourists off coming to Turkey.  I’ve had a great time here so far, but I’ve lost count of the amount of people in the tourist trade bemoaning the lack of business this year.

I was much more worried about the bike’s health, to be honest.  It had developed a distinct wobble at the back end.  And wobbles at the back end can’t be good news.

As usual, it took a while to work out that it wasn’t something mechanical (and therefore expensive, and maybe problematic).  It was just the rear tyre finally giving up the ghost.

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I’d decided not to rotate the tyres this time, just to see how long they actually last.  The front will be fine all the way home, I think.  Maybe even for ever; it still looks almost new.

But the rear, having carried most of the weight, and delivered all the traction for 11,500 fully-loaded kilometres (including the UK Tour) had finally had enough.  As you can probably tell from the badly-focussed picture above; the replacement tyre (identical to the old one) is on the left, obviously.

Still, 11,500 kms is pretty good.  Especially as it still showed no signs of actually falling apart.  One puncture in all that time (way back in Myanmar).  Dirt roads, potholes, mud, rocks and glass dealt with with aplomb.  It’s just a shame that it didn’t quite last until Europe.  But, in the end, the wobbling was driving me nuts, and making the whole bike shimmy, so it had to go.

It’s possible that I just spent slightly too long mourning the loss of a tyre.

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For the rest of the bike and me, Europe awaits.  Although I’ve been roughly following the south coast of the Sea of Marmara for the last few days, I only got to see it for the first time today (above).

Tomorrow should take me pretty much along the coast, until it narrows into the Dardanelles (that strait between the two continents I mentioned before).  The ferry will take me to the town of Gelibolu.

Which, as well as being my entry into Europe, also gives its name to the peninsular on which it sits.  In English, its name is Gallipoli.  Site of one of the most appalling wastes of life in the First World War.

And that should certainly put today’s relatively tiny risks of terrorism into perspective…

On the Edges

Borderlands are always interesting places.

Mountains plunging into the sea provide stunning landscapes.  Places where cultures bump into each other produce fascinating history (even where they also – all too often – provoke conflict).  It’s at the edges where things are most compelling.

I’ve been in border country since the last post, although I’ve only really appreciated it today.

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Bolu (above) was the last proper city in the hills.  Since then, it’s been small towns and smaller climbs (and some immensely fun downhills), as I’ve crossed from the mountainous interior of Turkey back towards the Sea of Marmara.

And the sea (together with the Aegean, immediately to its south, and the city of Istanbul at its northern end) has been a cultural crossroads since people started writing history.

So the borderland between the hills and the coastal areas is also the edge of a fuzzy cultural boundary.  Although I’m not in Europe yet, things are changing already.  Up in Bolu, things still felt very Asiatic, with the fairly mono-cultural cityscape of mosques, minarets and square buildings dominating.  Within a couple of hundred kilometres, things are much more cosmopolitan.

But the noticeable changes had already begun at Bolu.  Just a few kilometres east of town, my road had been joined in its valley by a motorway.

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That’s not just a road with a designation beginning with ‘M’, as was the case in the former Soviet countries.  It’s a proper, European-style motorway (the main drag between Ankara and Istanbul).  The sort of road where bikes are not allowed.  It’s the first road I’ve seen for months that I can’t ride.

I know that this will be the new normal from here on (and that it’s my normal normal in any case).  But I’ve got so used to rolling along whichever road I want that it feels like a big change.  So does the fact that the chocolate bars in petrol stations have suddenly become the same as at home, where further east, they are all Turkish versions.

I think my perspective might have got a little skewed somewhere along the way…

There are still plenty of reminders that I’m not home just yet.  It’s pretty certain that a flatbed van in Europe wouldn’t be allowed on the road with a ton of apples tied loosely on the back with string.

But that appears to be what caused me a twenty minute delay this morning:

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Thankfully, things got slightly more organised after the big guy in the red shirt started waving his arms and shouting.

This afternoon (Tuesday), the cultural variety and complexity of this area became clearer.  I dropped down to lake Iznik.  I’d been trying to get to a town on the edge of the lake, which is marked up on Google Maps as ‘Nicaea’.  And I’d been getting increasingly concerned that I’d not seen it signposted.  I was just following signs for ‘Iznik’, and hoping that Nicaea would become obvious.

It turns out that Iznik and Nicaea are the same place.  Google uses the Greek name for some unfathomable reason.  Although that was the town’s name when it was established (by a Greek mythological character, apparently), it’s been Iznik for ever as far as the locals are concerned, and Google should probably have caught up by now.

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But it’s not just the names of the town that show how many cultures have had a say in this region over the full course of recorded history.  The city walls, which I casually parked the bike against on the way into town, were originally built by the Ancient Greeks.  The local tourist guide notes, sadly, that ‘only Roman and Byzantine construction remains’.  And that’s still not counting the role of this area of Turkey in the birth of the Ottoman Empire.

There’s an intimidating amount of history in this part of the world, on the edge of so may empires.

I’m going to have a day off tomorrow (Wednesday) to have a proper look around Iznik, and digest some of this stuff.  It’s only about half a mile across, but has ancient churches, mosques, Roman arches, and so on.  It even has a mosque called the Ayasofya, which used to be a church.  Just like Istanbul.  But much, much quieter.

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I’m happy I can get all the layers of history around here, as I’ve decided not to head to the metropolis on the Bosphorus.  I could probably have got to the outskirts today, and entered European Turkey tomorrow.  But I’ve been to Istanbul before, and I’m not quite done with the Asian continent just yet.  And I’ve heard a lot of nightmarish stories about the Istanbul traffic.

Instead, once I’ve had my rest, I’ll head along the south of the Sea of Marmara.  It’ll take an extra few days to get to Europe, but I should see some more interesting places, and enjoy the coastline.

There’s one other, slightly fuzzy edge which merits a quick mention (in my book, at least).  And that’s the edge of space.  This is usually considered to be the Karman Line, and is 100km (62 miles) above the surface of the Earth.

Why is the Karman Line of any interest?  Because, yesterday, while grinding up yet another incline, I reached 100,000 metres (or 100 km) of vertical gain on the round-the-world trip.  I’ve climbed to the edge of space on a bicycle with bags hanging off it.

No wonder my legs need a break…

The Cloud Tunnel

Back at altitude, and dodging showers.

It’s felt like the same day over and over for the last few.  With the honourable exception of yesterday (Friday), which I sat out, due to the entire day being nothing but one long thunderstorm.  But I was due a rest, anyway…

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It took a little while to arrive, but the rain comes with a vengeance in the hills.  There was already a hint of it in the air as I left Osmancik on Thursday.  But it stuck on the mountains, and didn’t do more than spit on the road as I headed gently downhill in the Red River valley (above).

The downhills haven’t lasted long, as the road’s been mainly upwards.  I’m in Cerkes this evening (Saturday), due north of Ankara, and back up at around 1000 metres altitude.  So every down has been paid for by a slightly longer up.  And the hills have got steeper as I’ve got further in.  Where the first days out from Samsun were on lovely, moderate gradients, I’ve been copping three or four 10% ramps a day on the way here.

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By Thursday afternoon, as I dropped down another short valley (above), the clouds were closing in at the end.  For the whole afternoon, there was at least one massive downpour lurking within a mile or two of where I was.

A man at a petrol station pointed at the sky, and performed a very entertaining and realistic mime of a wet and shivering cyclist.  I was worried he might be right.

And whenever I wasn’t moving, I was staring at the sky, trying to work out if I could outrun the nearest rain before it got to the road, or whether I should stop and wait for it to pass.

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If there’s an effective incentive to finish the last (uphill) few kilometres of the day, it’s seeing a bank of black clouds following you up the road (above).

But later, as this particular storm again missed the road outside, I began to wonder.  There had been showers around ever since I left Samsun, and yet I’d not got wet.  More surprisingly, the road had not even been wet when I got to places where showers had seemed to be minutes before.

Maybe the road, as well as being smooth and well-engineered, has some sort of magical rain-repelling properties?  Maybe it’s a tunnel through the clouds.

It wasn’t yesterday.  Thankfully, I’d taken notice of the forecast this time, and decided that a day off was in order.  So I lay around, stuffed myself with food, and listened to the rain battering the streets outside.

But today, it seemed to be back in full effect.  Showers everywhere except on the road, even when I watched downpours apparently cross the route just in front of me.  I was certain I was about to get soaked three or four times, and yet I finished the day dry again.  Despite a vast amount of liquid falling from the sky as I approached Cerkes this afternoon:

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Whether the road really does repel the rain or not, things should clear up in the next couple of days.  And, from tomorrow afternoon onwards (after one more biggish hill), I should begin dropping towards the Sea of Marmara and Istanbul.

Though, as well as pondering the weather, I’m still trying to decide whether heading to Istanbul is the best option.  It’s a great city, but I know that because I’ve been there before.  And, although the Bosphorus is by far the most famous border point between Asia and Europe, there are other options which don’t involve the dire Istanbul traffic.

With a bit of luck, the more downhill nature of the riding in the next few days, together with fewer showers, will give me the chance to think through my best route to Europe.  I’ll let you know exactly where I’m going next time.

On Climbing and Waiting for Rain

I wasn’t sure that I’d get very far after I left Samsun yesterday morning (Tuesday).

First, there were some horrendous weather forecasts flying around.  Most of which suggested that I’d be pinned down by thunderstorms and wave after wave of heavy rain until Saturday.

Second, it was time to hit the mountains again.  This was sure to slow me down, and so leave me trapped in the middle of nowhere as the lightning flashed and a month’s worth of rain fell in twenty minutes.

All in all, it looked a bit nasty as I pulled on my brand new cycling shorts*.  The cloud was already down on the tops of the hills around the city, and I almost decided just to go back to bed for a week, and wait for the rain to get to me.

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So far, it’s been a decent decision not to.

The clouds began to clear as soon as I turned inland, and the remnants of the breeze which had pushed me along the coast were funnelled by the hills into a little tailwind.  The road has been beautifully engineered throughout, too.  But it was still quite a surprise to start at sea level, and to hit a 900-metre (close to 3000 ft) pass before lunchtime.  At an average of 13 mph.  And in the sunshine, too.

I wasn’t fooled, though.  This was not allowed to be a brilliant day.  I knew the mass of rain that the TV news was showing couldn’t just disappear.  It was just a matter of time.  I watched the skies, suspiciously.

Still, as I rolled into Havsa yesterday afternoon, I was still bone dry.  There were a handful of heavy storms about, but they were all pretty small and none came too close.  I figured I’d got lucky, and prepared to be rained in the next morning.

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After watching the sun go down behind the mosque, I considered composing a few sentences on how my trip has also been a little window onto the Islamic world.  Then I realised that nobody likes a pretentious cycle-tourist, and went to bed instead.  To everyone’s great relief, I’m sure.

I was woken after midnight by the sound of rain pounding down outside.  I felt vindicated, and a little smug, and drifted back off again.

The morning sunlight woke me before my alarm went off.  I was confused.  There really wasn’t supposed to be any sunlight this morning (Wednesday).  I looked outside.  There were some clouds scudding about on what looked like a fairly strong headwind.  But nothing that really spelled the sustained heavy rain I was anticipating.

I put my jacket on against the wind, and pedalled onwards in the sunshine.  Towards Osmancik.  More hills, more tunnels, and another 1000-metre pass.  With a beautiful, swooping decent off the top (below), which was only partly spoiled by the headwind.

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But finally, as you can see above, the horizon was darkening.  A mass of cloud was rushing toward me.  This was obviously the forerunner of the huge area of rain.  I actually thought I’d cut it too fine as I dropped into town, with another small but vicious-looking storm pummelling the valley next door.

As you can see, I didn’t get under cover a moment too soon, as the sky blackened over the castle, and the rain began.

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It stopped five minutes later, having barely wet the street.  And although there have been a few evil-looking clouds about since, it’s still dry as darkness falls this evening.

The forecast, needless to say, reckons that it’s already raining here, and will do so (heavily) for the next 48 hours.

However the weather works out, I’ve got to congratulate the Turks on their main roads.  The climbs are very long, but barely get above 3%.  And the road surface is almost silky, meaning that the bike rolls really nicely on the inclines.

So, if the weather seems designed to make me look silly at the moment, the roads are making me look good.

There’s definitely a lot more climbing to come, though.  And I can’t help feeling that the rain’s going to have its say eventually…

* This was a great result: I found a far-flung branch of Decathlon (large, French outdoors store) in Samsun, so was able to get a cheap (but reasonable quality) pair to replace my original shorts, which… erm… seem to have melted.  Or maybe rotted.  Don’t ask…

The Lego Brick Coast – Northern Turkey

I’ve covered a fair bit of ground in the last few days.

The sea has remained much the same, and, although it changes colour as the sun appears and disappears, it is still resolutely refusing to live up to its name.  Green, blue, grey, yes.  But never the Black Sea.

Except at night, obviously.

The mountains on the other side of the road have gradually shrunk as I’ve headed west.  Although they still look a little intimidating.  I’ll find out on Tuesday, after a day off here in the city of Samsun.

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Maybe it’s the terrain, squeezing all the towns into the same shape between hills and the sea.  Or maybe it’s just how things happen when small fishing villages are subject to rapid development.  But every small and medium-sized town along the coast is built on an almost identical pattern.

First, there are a straggle of houses and small businesses along the main road on the way in.  Then, as in the picture above, there’s a mosque in the middle.  The mosque is surrounded by square blocks of flats (usually five or six storeys – the ones above are larger than usual), many of which have shops on the ground floor.  And there are a few cafes and restaurants.  Then, there’s another straggle of houses etc on the way out.

I’ve come to to think of this as the Lego Brick Coast.

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Given that the sea and the towns have remained the same, and that the road has been flat and smooth, it’s been left to the bigger cities and the weather to keep things interesting on the bike.

Despite benign winds, there’s been a constant battle between a huge blob of rain over the hills to the south, and the onshore sea breeze.

When the breeze is winning, it’s wall-to-wall sunshine, and the riding is easy.  When the rain gets its turn, it’s cold, grey and a bit miserable (as you can probably see above).

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The bigger cities along the coast provide most of the personality.  My ‘sea view’ at Trabzon (above) was not exactly what I was expecting, but watching the bustling port in action was a nice change.

The steep, cobbled streets of the old town of Giresun provided an unexpected cycling challenge.  And that was before the guesthouse owner and his friend decided to take me out for a few beers (and English practice) on Friday night.  After which, the challenge of the steep cobbles was on a whole different level.

Most of the cities have bundles of building work going on.  Both Trabzon and Samsun are building new football stadiums on the outskirts.  And Samsun already has some imposing architecture, which definitely doesn’t fit into the ‘Lego Brick’ category (below).

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And there have been one or two smaller places which have bucked the identical towns trend.  The lovely old castle and harbour at Tirebolu was the highlight for me, and probably the nicest place for a coffee break on the whole coast:

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Still, the Black Sea coast, ‘Lego Brick’ or otherwise, is over for now.  I’ll be cutting inland from here, across those big hills.  With a bit of luck, they won’t be nearly as high as those near the Georgian border, where most of the passes are over 2000m.

I’ll use the rest day tomorrow to prepare the legs.  They’ve had it much too easy for the last few days…

On a more personal note…

Today is May 1st  2016.  On this day last year, I was on a sofa, watching the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire professional bike race on TV, while trying to find a comfortable position for my accident-damaged back and shoulder.

The peloton grappled with the beautiful, but rugged, North Yorkshire Moors.  The riders were tackling the roads where my Dad grew up and went to school.  Today, May 1st, exactly a year later, the same race was tackling the same roads again.

And May 1st was Dad’s birthday.

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Dad died a few years ago, at the age of only 65.  He died with dementia.  A cruel way to go, and one which is still both incurable and (generally) badly treated by health and social services.  It’s a disease (or rather, a group of diseases) which will affect more and more people as the global population ages.  And, as Dad’s case shows, it doesn’t always wait until you’re old.

I never wanted my journey around the world to be sponsored – too many obligations and too much pressure on what is supposed to be fun.  So this is not a request for money (though I’m sure the organisations below could use anything you could afford).

If you can find the time, though, please have a look at the relevant link(s) below.  Inform yourself about dementia, how it affects sufferers, and just how many of those there may be in future.  And then, maybe, think about doing something about it.

In the UK:

Alzheimer’s Association
Alzheimer’s Research UK

Outside the UK – Alzheimer’s Disease International has a Global List of Dementia Associations with information in your own language:

Alzheimer’s Disease International

Thanks,
Tim

Samsun, Turkey.  May 1st 2016.