bicycle

The End (Part 2) – Closing the Loop

As you’ll probably have gathered from my brief post last Friday, the long line of red blobs on the map of the world has finally become a loop.

Or, put another way, I’m no longer circumnavigating.

I’ve circumnavigated.

20140715-192620-69980158.jpg
Last Friday was just over two years since I began (above), including the time off after the accident in Thailand.  I can’t quite believe I was that chubby…

Still, after 480 days actually on the road for the round-the-world ride (and considerably thinner), I rolled back into Kent, then Greater London, then Greenwich, and finally back to the viewpoint next to the Royal Observatory where the whole thing started.

It was a pretty relaxed final leg in the end.

Splitting the ride from Calais to London into three days gave me plenty of time to dawdle, and get used to the idea of finishing the trip.  Although I’m pretty sure that even now, after a few more days and a surprisingly large number of intoxicating beverages, it still hasn’t properly sunk in.

From central Calais, it was just a couple of kilometres to the port.  And then another couple around the miles of high security fencing.  Through the French exit checks, then the UK entry checks, then the ferry check-in.  I was (at least bureaucratically) back in the UK before I got on the ship.

A millpond-flat crossing to Dover, a long wait for all the motorised vehicles to clear the ferry before I was allowed off, and I hit English tarmac for the first time in ages.

Turns out the roads are still rubbish.  Though not quite as bad as Belgium, as I now know…

IMG_2341 Edit

Apart from the port, there wasn’t a lot to keep me in Dover, so it was up the hill and into the country lanes towards Canterbury, my first overnight stop back on home soil.  Tiny country lanes, as you can see above.  But full of cyclists; I was running along a National Cycle Network route, and there was a large London-to-Paris group heading the other way.

Nice though it was to be constantly saying ‘hello’ to dozens of other adventurous cyclists, it was also a slightly sobering reminder that, while they were just starting their adventure, I was very close to finishing mine.

When I wasn’t nodding and grinning at the other bikers, I was trying to keep a reasonably straight line through the lanes.  The tiny roads caught me out twice.  Not by getting me lost, but by allowing me to head off on the wrong side of the road after map checks.  Given that I’ve spent most of my life walking, driving and cycling in this country, that’s pretty much unforgivable.  But I guess it was just taking a little while to readjust; the last time I’d been expected to ride on the left was in India…

IMG_2346 Edit

Canterbury was a nice last urban stop before the metropolis.  A bit like York, which is probably better known to many tourists, it’s an ancient cathedral city, with narrow lanes and city walls.  It helped that the weather was (by UK standards) spectacular.  And that it’s not exactly difficult to find a good pub for the first decent cider in a while.

After Canterbury, it was the old pilgrim trail to London on Thursday.  Following pretty much along the line taken by Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales.  At least until the distinctly less-than-medieval M25 motorway came into sight, marking the visible start of London’s massive gravitational field.

IMG_2351 Edit
And all that was left the next morning was the suburbs.  Only about 20 miles, but back into the urban traffic madness of the capital.  It took me past the end of the entirely unremarkable street where I used to live in Bromley (above).  Where the journey really started (or, at least, the idea for it was born).  I still find it a bit odd that just selling a tiny flat on that road bought me the time (and the bikes and kit) that I needed to get around the globe.  It’s a bit of a shame that I haven’t got another one to sell in order to keep going…

A cup of coffee, and then it was just a mile of parkland and driveway to the end of the road.  And the mandatory approach to finishing something like this (thanks to LG for both the champagne and the photo):

IMG_2365 Edit

If I seem to be concentrating very hard on spraying the champers, I can assure you it was nothing compared to the concentration required to remain upright by the early hours of Saturday.  And I think that waking up with a brutal headache probably masked the mixed feelings produced by finishing the ride.  They’re just starting to crystallise now.

I’m very happy to have made it, of course.  And to be able, finally, to think of myself as a ‘proper’ round-the-world cyclist.  It’s great to be catching up with family and friends (and having drunk arguments with some of them!).  And to be able to look back with a degree of satisfaction on those deserts, high mountains, tropical forests, lakes and coastlines which have provided such a spectacular backdrop for my life in the last couple of years.

I’m also happy that (apart from occasional lingering aches and pains, and a funny-shaped shoulder) I’ve not caused myself any permanent damage on the way around.  And I’m immensely grateful to the people I met all over the world who, without exception, chose free lodging, free food and water, and roadside rescues instead of robbery, theft, or hitting me with their cars.

But there’s definitely sadness too.  No more heading off to see new things and ride new roads every day.  And a slight sense of dislocation.

My life for the last two years has been pretty simple.  Get up, ride, eat, sleep, and then do it all again.  Now, of course, there are things which need sorting out.  I’ve got a blank sheet of paper, which will need filling in.  I’ll need money, and all that tedious sort of stuff, which it’s been so nice to escape for a while.  Where am I going to live?  What am I going to do with myself?  None of this has received a great deal of my attention of late.

20151222RTW_1 Edit

The road ahead may not always be a literal road like the one above.  Although I’m pretty sure that it will be again (and hopefully on a bike) before too long.  The feet are already itchy.

But the Unknown will always be there.  Around the Corner.  I just need to work out how I’m going to keep on finding it…

Flanders Fields

The transition from the hills of the Ardennes to the flat coastal plains of Flanders was my last significant change in terrain on continental Europe.  Next (and last) up will be more rolling hills.  In Kent.  In England.  Tomorrow…

Getting out of the hills was a welcome relief for my legs.  But it’s been accompanied by a rise in temperature into the realms of ‘uncomfortably sweaty’.  It also didn’t improve the Belgian road surfaces.

IMG_2307 Edit

Most places with bad roads that I’ve ridden tend to be trying to improve them.  In Belgium, they just put up a sign saying ‘Knackered Road’ (above), and leave them to deteriorate.  It’s amazing that the country produced Eddy Mercxx, and other world-class cyclists.

Flanders is famous for two things: the cobbled classics of the spring cycling calendar, and the horrendous death and destruction of the First World War.

It used to be famous (in medieval times) for wool, importing the raw material from England, and producing cloth for sale elsewhere in Europe.  Many of the towns became wealthy, with hugely impressive town centres, like that in Mons:

IMG_2298 Edit

But, as I first noticed in Mons (still in French-speaking Belgium), the old buildings here are just a little too straight and well-preserved.  A little too perfect to be truly old.  I noticed the same thing when I got across to Ypres (or Ieper) after crossing into the Flemish part of the country.  Most of the towns in this part of the world have been rebuilt.

There are hints as to why this might be spread all across the Flemish countryside.  Little green signs pointing to rows and rows of headstones in carefully-tended cemeteries.  Millions of of young men from Europe, North America, Africa, Australasia and Asia died in these fields a hundred years ago.  Four years of mechanised trench warfare, where the front line moved just a handful of miles at the cost of millions of lives.

20160718RTW_22 Edit

At Ypres, the Menin Gate is built into the old city walls.  But it looks like it could just as easily be a monument from the centre of London.  It has the names of around 50,000 British and Empire soldiers on it.  It was intended as a memorial to those who died in the area, and who had no other grave.  50,000.  Just the British and Empire troops.  Just in the area of Ypres, and just those with no grave.

And, despite the apparently endless list of names on the Gate, it wasn’t big enough.  The list continues elsewhere.

All quite grim.

IMG_2330 Edit

Thankfully, the roads (very, very flat and not falling apart – above), and the absolutely stunning weather allowed me to shake off the depressing history of this area a little today (Tuesday).  As I headed toward my final stop in continental Europe, the port of Calais.

Probably, like most Brits who began travelling before the Channel Tunnel was constructed, Calais has been familiar to me for a long time.  It’s the French end of the shortest ferry crossing between England and France, and has the most frequent cross-channel ferries.

IMG_2335 Edit
For many people of my advanced years and older, the sight of the Calais from the boat, with its colossal town-hall tower (below), was their first sight of ‘abroad’.

Maybe it’s fitting that it’ll be the last sight I have of ‘abroad’ for this trip, as the ferry pulls out towards Dover tomorrow (Wednesday).  It’s time to float over to the last country on the round-the-world trip.

Back to the UK.  Back home…

Crossing Alsace: Canals and Cols. And a Scalping.

On Saturday morning, I woke up in Germany, just a couple of hundred yards across the river from the French border.  Today (Tuesday), I’m having a rest in France, just a couple of hundred yards across the river from the German border.

Which makes it sound a little bit like I’ve not gone very far.  Just crossing the river would’ve done it, wouldn’t it?

IMG_2230 Edit

In fact, I’ve left the wide, flat plains of the Rhine valley, crossed Alsace and Lorraine, and arrived on the banks of the Saar.  I’ve moved from the eastern border of France to the northern border of France.

The Rhine is like a motorway between northern and southern Europe.  Traditionally, it’s been freight that has made the journey, either on the river itself, or on the canals which flank it (pic above).

Today, it seems to be just as much a ‘motorway’ for cyclists, with a surfeit of choices of waymarked route; do you want to be on the road, or car free?  By the canal, or by the river?  Through the towns, or bypassing them?

The only thing you don’t get a choice about is the terrain.  It’s either flat, pan flat, or billiard-table flat.  Which, after the drama of the Alps, and the hills, lakes and gorges of Switzerland, was just a bit, well…  Boring, I suppose.  Good for making distance, but no expansive views, and the sort of area where a headwind can make your day a misery.

IMG_2235 Edit

I opted for the canals for the first couple of days.  No navigational issues; you just follow the (generally) well-surfaced paths.  Fairly straight lines, too, so you’re not doing lots of extra miles like you do on the roads.

And the canals here take you straight into the town centres, like Strasbourg (above).  A nice, straight, traffic free route into the city centre.  And straight out of the other side.  Like many canal paths, it’s not necessarily the quickest riding, as you avoid tree roots, kids, dogs and the elderly.  But the lack of traffic lights (and traffic) make it just as fast overall as the road, and without any of the stress.

IMG_2238 Edit

Still, as I trundled further along the canal path to the north of Strasbourg (above), I’d had enough of the flat lands.  It was time to cut away from the canals, and to give my legs a little bit of work to do.

The thing that’s very obvious in Alsace is that it used to be part of Germany.  It was given to France after the First World War, which is a reminder that I’m quickly heading towards some of the areas most affected by that horrible conflict just a century ago.

And as I headed into the rolling hills towards Lorraine, it was easy to forget I was in France at all.  The villages all look German, and the names on the signposts all look like this:

IMG_2248 Edit

Of course, you never forget completely.  Whether it’s having to speak French to people, or the amazing (in this 24/7 age) habit of closing everything for a two hour lunch break, you’re always reminded that this is France.

And France had one more little surprise for me.  I rode up a fairly large hill to discover that I’d just bagged my last French col (below).  It says something about the size of the hills around here that this is considered to be a ‘Col’ at just 350 metres high.

IMG_2250 Edit

And it says something about how much my climbing has improved in the last few weeks that I cruised up it in the big ring, without even really noticing.  I’d have struggled to do that without the bags before I left on the trip in 2014.  There’s not much doubt that loaded climbing makes you a stronger bike rider.

I said ‘one last surprise’, didn’t I?  Well, I got another this morning.  After putting it off (arguably) far too long, I finally got my first haircut since Kazakhstan.  Despite being sure that I asked the guy to cut it short, but not too short, I’ve ended up with the hair of an eighteen-year-old army recruit.

Which is something to remember France by as I head back into Germany tomorrow (two years to the day since I set off from London), and towards Luxembourg and Belgium.  I just hope it grows out a bit before I get home; it scares me a little every time I catch sight of my reflection…

Out of Aprica (And How to Cross Switzerland in 90 minutes)

Up into the big hills.  Turn left.  Keep going until you hit the lakes.

That’s pretty much it for the last few days.  After another rain-enforced rest day on Sunday, of course.

Naturally, there’s a bit more to it than that.  These are big hills, after all.  So there’s been over 3000 vertical metres of climbing (around 10,000 ft) in three days.  And a comparable amount of decending.  And boy, is northern Italy beautiful.

20160620RTW_1 Edit

The first and biggest pass was the Passo Tonale, which topped out at 1884 metres.  It’s used fairly regularly by the Giro d’Italia bike race.  The pass itself is ‘only’ 15 kms (9 miles) of fairly hard (6-7%) climbing when coming from the east.

But this ignores the fact that you have to climb nearly a thousand metres just to get to the ‘official’ bottom.  The picture above looks nice an unthreatening, doesn’t it?  But it’s all gently uphill, and the climbing doesn’t stop until you hit those snow-capped peaks at the back of the picture.

Here they are again, a couple of hours later, and a little bit closer:

IMG_1999 Edit

Stunning, but ever so hard.  Thankfully, there’s the payback of a nice (but all-too-short) downhill to come.  Once again illustrating that, while headwinds and hills are both hard, hills do, at least, give you something in return for your efforts.  Though I have to say that this would have been more comfortable with working brakes (fixed now!):

IMG_2016 Edit

A dip, and another climb to another pass at Aprica. The climb to Aprica is rated (by none other than the arch-villain of cycling, Lance Armstrong) as one of the hardest in Italy.  It certainly looked it, from the sweating faces of the recreational cyclists I flashed past in the other direction.  It’s certainly another contender for ‘downhill of the trip’ as far as I’m concerned.  The brakes were heating up, and the insects dying in droves against the crash helmet once again.

I could feel the temperature increasing as I plunged down.  And, I was dropping quick enough for my ears to ‘pop’ twice before I got to the bottom.  I’d highly recommend it to anyone (though you may want to get the cable car up to the top!).

From the bottom of the Aprica downhill, it was a long, flat valley road to Lake Como.  Quite a different landscape, but still with those big mountains lurking in the background.  There’s nothing like lakes and mountains, as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve been cruising around staring at picture-perfect views for a day-and-a-half now.  It makes me very happy.

IMG_2028 Edit

And from Como, I’ve managed to cross a country today (Wednesday).  It only took and hour-and-a-half, and some of that was due to traffic problems.  A massive tunnel, a city, and a few kilometres of road near the airport.  And that was it.  There’s a slightly odd-shaped wedge of Switzerland jutting down into Italy around the town and lake of Lugano.  And a gentle ride today, including plenty of coffee stops and chats with other cyclists, took me straight across it.

IMG_2032 Edit
I’m now back in Italy (literally by fifty yards).  But don’t worry, I will be giving Switzerland a bit more time on the way home.  I just have to nip across and have a look at the French Alps first…

Rediscovering the Adventure Mojo

What a difference a day or two and some sunshine makes.  And the mountains, of course.

Thursday was the last of the flat, straight roads for a while.  Constantly harassed by showers and big black clouds.  But I realised halfway through the day that my diversion plan must actually be working.  Despite missing the north of Slovenia and a little bit of Austria, I was still moving.  I was beating the big storms.

And yesterday morning (Friday), I awoke at the entrance to the mountains.  The sun was out.  And I was ready to get my exploring head back on.  No more whining about being nearly home.  Or the weather, if I can help it.

IMG_1968 Edit

The nice thing about the Alps (and the Dolomites, to which they are joined with no obvious boundary – I think I’m in the Dolomites at the moment, but will apparently be climbing in the Alps tomorrow) is that, although the mountains are big, the valleys in-between tend to be wide and quite flat.

There is the odd place where you have to climb, and then drop, a few hundred metres to cross to another valley, which can be quite spectacular:

IMG_1974 Edit

But, if you hit the right valley, you can make quite a lot of progress without too much climbing.  The flip side of this, of course, is that when you do hit a proper climb, it’s likely to be massive.

Anyway, this part of Italy is a mixed area.  There are German speakers as well as Italian speakers here, and many of the towns have two names.  It’s probably the only place in the world where a frankfurter pizza is actually an authentic local dish.  Or at least, that’s what they told me… Which suits my healthy touring cyclist’s diet perfectly.

20160617RTW_6 Edit

It’s also an area with more fairytale castles than you can shake a stick at (one pictured above).  And as you roll up the valleys, you hardly notice that you’re gaining height, as the mountains on either side just open up more and more astonishingly beautiful vistas.

But there are definitely easier ways to climb in the mountains than by pedalling.  I’ve always fancied having a go at paramotoring (essentially flying around on a parachute with a propeller attached to your back), and the guy below was having a great time dive-bombing cyclists in the valley this morning:

20160618RTW_6 Edit

Maybe that’s the next challenge; it’s certainly a lot less sweaty than cycle touring, but possibly more dangerous in thunderstorms…

My musings about how I could attach a bike to a parachute were, however, rudely interrupted by the tunnels.  As you can see from the rugged landscape, there’s a lot of call for them, and the Italians seem to love building them.  This is the entrance to the second of three on the drop down to Trento:

IMG_1984 Edit

The last of the three tunnels was by far the longest I’ve done on the trip so far, at over 3km.  And it was pretty steeply downhill.

Downhill tunnels on a touring bike are a bit like a theme-park ride.  Italian tunnels are well-lit, and I remembered to take my shades off this time (I’ve done a few nearly blind due to dark glasses), but the inside is still dark enough compared to the bright sunshine to to be disorientating.  Then there’s the noise, with every engine echoing and amplified by the tunnel walls.

And then there’s the wind, as every truck, bus and car creates a pressure-wave of air which has nowhere to go.  So it pushes you about.  And pushes you forward.  Faster and faster and faster.  The Italians have electronic speed warnings on a lot of their roads.  I hit the speed trap in tunnel three at 77 kph (48 mph).  And still accelerating.  If you want to know the speed limit, I’ll refer you back to the photo above.  Oops…

IMG_1985 Edit

I exploded out of the end of the last tunnel like a cork out of a bottle, and, after a little break to let the adrenaline subside, headed up the valley through Trento.  I was on a short day today, which ultimately joined me up with my original intended route, after the longish detour of the last few days.

Returning to the original plan made me happy, and I began looking at the slightly menacing clouds over the valley walls (above) as just a spectacular landscape feature rather than anything to worry about.

This was nearly a mistake, as there was a rogue downpour lurking, which almost pinged me before I got to shelter:

IMG_1988 Edit

The benefit of that shower is that it stopped me getting too intimidated by being able to see much of tomorrow’s climb.  It’s the only hill I’d class as a ‘monster’ before I get to the French border (I’m using the valleys to good effect), but it’s unavoidable if I want to get further west.

Nearly 1900 metres (or nearly 6200 ft).  Gulp…

Here’s how much my attitude to the weather has adjusted itself.  There’s a chance of heavy rain tomorrow afternoon.  Just for a few hours.  I’m thinking that I might be glad of an excuse to break that climb into two manageable chunks.

It’s just possible that I’ll actually be wishing for rain…

Deflection. Reflection.

I’m not where I thought I’d be.

One of the joys of bike touring is that you can pretty much go where you like, and change your plans when you want.  One of the pains of bike touring is that sometimes your plans get changed for you, and you have to miss things to keep moving.

So I’m in Italy today, when I should really be in either Slovenia or Austria.  I’d better explain why, I suppose…

IMG_1942 Edit

About two inches of rain fell in my part of Croatia on Saturday, in the couple of hours it took England to make a typically underwhelming start to Euro 2016.  In contrast to the football, the lightning was pretty spectacular.

Then it rained all day on my day off (Sunday) too.  Thankfully, my now well-tested bike chrysalis stood up to the deluge (above – a good reason to carry a tarp, even if you never use it to keep yourself dry).  So the Beastlet was saved from drowning.  And the rain failed to dampen the spirits of the locals, who celebrated Croatia’s first goal in the competition by lighting every flare in the marina, while running around in clouds of early-afternoon alcohol fumes (below).

IMG_1947 Edit

But the rain was starting to get to me.  You might have noticed that the last few posts had lost a little sparkle.  Spending what has felt like weeks dodging thunderstorms wears you down eventually.  But I think I’m also suffering from quite a bad case of end-of-trip blues.  Of which more later.

Monday morning dawned cloudy and drizzly.  Some time before I eventually woke up, needless to say.  I was heading for Slovenia, my last ex-Yugoslav country.  I’d been there on a brief work trip years ago, and was looking forward to heading north through the big hills, and reacquainting myself with the pretty capital, Ljubljana, and lovely Lake Bled.

But the central European storms are back.  I’m not sure they ever really went away.  I can’t imagine it’s been much fun for people who live there for the last few months, as storm after storm has just bombarded the whole area.  But the weather forecast on Monday showed an area of storms nearly as big as Germany sitting all over the mountains to the north.

It looked like I could squeeze across the border before the rain hit on Monday, so I hammered along, trying not to notice the damage I was doing to my quads by climbing over a thousand vertical metres much too quickly.  I suppose it’s good training for when I hit the Alps…

And I did just get under cover in Slovenia before the rain hit.  And then got soaked to the skin just getting to the supermarket and back.

My only hope yesterday morning was that the weather forecast might have changed miraculously overnight.  It hadn’t.  At least three days of heavy electrical storms if I continued north.  Electrical storms in the mountains are a terrible idea.  Half a chance that the rain would be intermittent enough to keep moving if I swung out of the hills and made a run for the lowlands of north-east Italy.

Slovenia’s not a big country, but it is very pretty.  So it seems very unfair that my enforced deflection from my intended route left me riding only about 40 miles of the country.  And in the pleasant, but entirely unremarkable, south-western corner.  So unremarkable that it wasn’t worth any photos.  And I’ve missed out on clipping Austria before getting to Italy, too.

IMG_1957 Edit

On the positive side, as the picture above may suggest, the plan seems to be working.  There’s been occasional drizzle, black clouds, isolated showers, massive downpours overnight, and wet roads.  But nothing that’s stopped me riding.  Yet.  And I’ll hopefully be able to get up into the Italian Alps to rejoin my intended route in a couple more days, when the weather has (hopefully) eased a bit up there.

Shops selling wine in milk cartons for less than 2 Euros a litre helps to ease the pain a little, too.  As does access to lovely Italian food.  And proper coffee.  It’s nice to be back in Italy.

IMG_1961 Edit
And that brings me back to those end-of-trip blues.  I’ve had plenty of time on long, straight Italian (probably Roman) roads to reflect on why I’m feeling a bit off at the moment.

Getting back into Europe when I arrived in Greece was stage one.  Things immediately got more familiar.  Then I had the fascinating and beautiful Balkans, which were adventurous again.  But ever since I began working my way up the Croatian coast, I’ve been in holiday country.  People from all over Europe go to Croatia for their dose of summer sun and relaxation.  Same with Italy.  And it’ll be the same again with France.  You know you’re back in Europe proper when every incline has a Dutch caravan on it.

The Italians have even named a phone network in my honour.  So my phone now says ‘I Tim’ on it, just in case I ever forget my own name:

IMG_1964 Edit

I think the problem is that these last few weeks before home feel more like a holiday than an adventure.  It’s exactly six months today (Wednesday) since I pedalled away from Hanoi to begin part two of the round-the-world ride.  And just over 23 months since I left London to begin the circumnavigation.

And after all those months and continents, after the big accident in Thailand, after the deserts, mountains, different cultures, and interesting people, it feels a bit like I’m already home.  And that I’ve just nipped away for a couple of weeks’ break.

I should be enjoying feeling this comfortable, and having all the benefits of civilisation available on demand again.  And I know that the idea of riding a bike across western Europe should be an exciting adventure in itself.

But it just feels a bit tame compared to Uzbekistan.  Or Laos.  Or Myanmar.  Or even Georgia.  Which is why I need to get back to the mountains.  The Alps should snap me out of it.  Just as long as it stops raining…

The Adriatic

The small Balkan countries have been flashing past again.

Since the last update, I’ve left Albania, crossed Montenegro, and entered Croatia for the first of two visits.  And, after a day off in Dubrovnik today (Friday), it’s on to Bosnia tomorrow…

But such a brutally short summary doesn’t do any justice to the places I’ve been for the last few days.  Let’s start with finishing up Albania.

IMG_1812 Edit

Impressive when I first arrived from Macedonia, Albania got better and better.  My only full day in the country was a bit hilly, to be sure.  But the hills are what give you long descents through stunning valleys (above).

Unfortunately, the downhills eventually ended, and I was left on the flat for the last few miles to Shkoder, running alongside, but never quite within view of, the Adriatic Sea.  Which meant I’d pretty much crossed the Balkan Peninsular.

It also meant I was within a few miles of the border with the tiny country of Montenegro.

Crossing the border, just west of Shkoder, I was entering the most recently independent of the ex-Yugoslav states (if you don’t count Kosovo, which not everyone agrees is a country).  It was only a mile or so after the border that I realised I’d only stopped at one control on the way through.  I’d been expecting to come up to the Montenegrin entry check at some point, but realised something was amiss when I saw a mini-market and a petrol station instead.

Frantically checking my passport stamps, I worked out that I’d skipped the Albanian exit gate somehow (I didn’t even see it, but maybe the guy was just on a break or something).  So I wouldn’t have any trouble leaving Montenegro again, as they had stamped me in properly.

Phew!  Although I suppose I may never be able to go back to Albania again…

IMG_1819 Edit

Anyway, Montenegro, as the name suggests (and as the photo above shows), proved to be another hilly country.  But really not very big.  I wasn’t rushing, and yet, despite constant ups and downs, I rode the entire length of its coastline in roughly eight hours (spread over two days).

The road essentially glued itself to the Adriatic coast, and just stayed there.  It’s still there at the moment, in southern Croatia, too.  Which makes for a lot of little climbs, and detours into bays.  And even the odd tunnel and ferry.  But I find it hard to complain about the little delays, the hard work, and the extra few kilometres when it looks like this:

IMG_1842 Edit

All too soon, I was a handful of miles from the Croatian border.  I’d soon be back into the EU again (albeit only for a couple of days).  Although, in keeping with the cultural oddities of the region, Croatia is in the EU, but doesn’t use the Euro.  On the other hand, Montenegro is not in the EU, but doesn’t have its own currency, and just uses the Euro regardless.  Odd…

Montenegro makes it difficult to leave.  Not just because it’s beautiful, but because there’s a monster hill up to the Croatian border (below, looking back into Montenegro).  I’m not actually sure which country you’re in as you climb; it’s about two kilometres of steep between the exit from Montenegro at the bottom of the pass, and the entry to Croatia / the EU at the top.

IMG_1846 Edit
Which is hard work.  But any fears that the effort might be rewarded by a much uglier country on the other side of the border were (kind of obviously) unfounded.  The coast, the hills and the bays all continue in the same, exceedingly pretty, way.

And it wasn’t all that far after the border, before I crested another steep hill, and saw the city of Dubrovnik below me:

20160602RTW_7 Edit

Dubrovnik is a world heritage site (that’s quite a few I’ve seen on the way round so far).  It was a city-state for most of its history.  And that history is very different from the Ottoman / Slavic battles of the Balkan areas I’ve seen so far.  Dubrovnik’s been squeezed between western European powers, such as Venice, and the Ottomans instead.  Although, given the amount of foreign influences and changes of ruler, you could just say it’s the same old stuff with a few different players.

20160603RTW_8 Edit

Anyway, I had a day off to explore (and to rest – it’s the first day off the bike since Skopje).  The old town is really lovely; tiny alleyways running between the main street and the massive city walls.  And you can really see the Italian influences; it actually feels a bit like a tiny Venice without the canals.

20160603RTW_17 Edit

Tomorrow (Saturday) will be a little strange.  And maybe a little sad.  I’ll be heading back out of the EU again, into Bosnia.  You can’t get from here to the rest of Croatia without either crossing Bosnia or using a boat.

But it will be a day of lasts.  Bosnia will be my last Muslim-majority country.  And the last country that I’ve never been to before.  Things will be getting increasingly familiar as I head closer to home.

No more of the excitement of crossing into places that I’ve never been before.  On this trip, at least.  I’ll have to savour it while I can…

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…

IMG_1643 Edit

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.

20160515RTW_1 Edit
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!

IMG_1654 Edit

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.

IMG_1656 Edit
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…

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.

IMG_1598 Edit
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.

IMG_1600 Edit

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:

IMG_1621 Edit

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.

IMG_1628 Edit
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.

20160510RTW_6 Edit
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…

Back Out of the (Former) USSR

The Black Sea isn’t black.

This was not exactly a massive shock.  What was quite surprising was that a day’s bike ride in Georgia can take you from snow-capped mountains to palm-lined seaside resorts so easily.  Though it might, I suppose, be trickier in the other direction.

IMG_1485 Edit

I made the most of what the weather forecast said was going to be the last day of tailwinds (on Sunday), and decided to get as close to Batumi as I could.  Before the wind decided to punish me again.  I ended up only around 30 miles short, and was rewarded by my first view of the non-black Black Sea (above).

Looks nice, doesn’t it?  Those snow-capped mountains in the background, dropping into the sea in the spring sunshine.

The short ride into Batumi on Monday was beautiful, marred only by the knowledge that it would be my last night in the country.  The last chance to stuff my face with delicious, cheap Georgian food.  And the last night for a while that I’d have a language in common with the locals.  I’m going to miss Georgia, I think.

IMG_1490 Edit

Batumi is one of Georgia’s major ports, and also a tourist resort, as well as being the last major town before the Turkish border.  The locals also seem to have developed a taste for architecture, with an impressive array of oddly-shaped towers springing up on the skyline as I approached.

The one aspect of Georgia which I won’t miss is the driving.  A bit like Thailand, they have good roads, but drivers whose skills have not caught up yet.  The massive amount of traffic cops on the roads (mostly in equally massive American police cars, for some reason) is hopefully an indicator that they’re working on it.  I had a sudden thought that I hadn’t seen a bicycle lane for thousands of miles.

A few kilometres north of the centre of Batumi, a cycle track magically appeared.  It took me all the way into town.  And then it multiplied.  The whole city is covered in bike lanes.  It was almost shocking.

IMG_1507 Edit
I had a wander around town in the afternoon, and marvelled at bike lanes zigzagging between cafes and their outside seating areas, between supermarkets and their fruit displays, and dead-ending at busy junctions.  The one above is one of the more sensible ones.  Which just stops at every road it crosses.

There doesn’t seem to be any great planning involved.  And the locals appear genuinely astonished when a bike actually uses a bike lane (which is usually for drinking coffee, walking the dog, or shopping).  But the effort is commendable.  And the major bike lanes along the seafront and the main roads are light years ahead of anything I’ve seen for months.  So, hats off to cycling city Batumi!

IMG_1511 Edit

Still, after my stroll, some seaside ice-cream, and a proper feed, it was time for bed.  And a few hours later, to cover the last ten miles of the Former Soviet section of the trip.  It’s been a great few weeks, all the way from Tashkent.  From the desert to the mountains to the seaside.  More people should come here.

The road to the border (and after the border, for that matter) hugs the shoreline, with the impressive cliffs, and more impressive snowy mountains, dropping straight to the water.  The picture below is from the last headland in Georgia (the border is in the next bay).  So the land ahead is Turkey.  It seems a little strange that the landscape it reminds me most of is New Zealand, which is a long, long way from here.

IMG_1514 Edit

Another five minute border crossing, and I was in country number 23, heading south-west along the Black Sea coast.  A coast which takes you straight to Europe.

It’s starting to feel perilously close to the end of the trip now.  Turkey’s quite familiar to many Europeans as a package holiday destination, and the local time has ticked back to within just two hours of the UK.  It begins to feel like home is just around the corner.  Despite the beautiful scenery, the sunshine, and the wide, smooth road, I was feeling a little melancholy as I trundled along.

Then I heard a muezzin calling from a minaret, and I remembered that there’s still actually a long way to go.  Turkey’s going to take a few weeks, as it’s another big country, and then there’s the huge variety of relatively tiny European countries to look forward to before home finally beckons.  No need to worry about the end just yet.

IMG_1517 Edit

I haven’t formed much of an impression of Turkey so far.  Yesterday was just the pleasant ride from the border, and I’ve cunningly spent today having a rest while the rain hammers down outside (above).  My weather anticipation is definitely getting better.

But the people have been friendly so far, even though I’m back to having significant language barriers.  Things are more expensive than anywhere I’ve been since Vietnam.  And it’s still cold when it rains, so it’s definitely not summer here yet.

I’ll find out more over the next little while.  I’m heading straight along the coast to start with, but I’m still not sure of my exact route after the first week or so.  There are three options, all of which are more-or-less the same length (though with massively different levels of climbing).

I’ll make up my mind on the way.  The Black Sea might not be black, but it is quite big.

So there’s plenty of time to work things out as I go…