bike

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?

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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…

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…

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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…

Croatia to Bosnia (and Herzegovina) to Croatia to Bosnia (and Herzegovina) to Croatia

Border after border after border.

Today was the first day’s riding in the last week that I didn’t have to pull out my passport on the road.  Just since Dubrovnik, I’ve crossed four international borders.  But, because of the peculiar geography in this part of the world, I’ve only been in two countries.

I was slightly inaccurate in the last post, as I suggested that Bosnia and Herzegovina (‘BiH’) was going to be my last Muslim-majority country.  That’s not actually quite true, as the Bosniak (Muslim) population is actually marginally less than 50%.  And my time there only took in the Herzegovina part of the country, where the majority of the population are ethnically Croatian.

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But it is the last country that I’ll ride where the Ottoman Empire had a significant influence.  I’ve probably done a few too many lists of historical ‘owners’ of various pieces of Balkan real estate, so I’ll keep this one brief.  BiH had Slavic rulers for a few hundred years, then the Ottomans for a few hundred, then the Austro-Hungarians.  Then the Yugoslavs and the Communists.

It’s no wonder that there are bundles of fortified towns (like the one above) all over the country.  And perhaps it’s also no surprise that BiH was where the spark occurred that started World War 1 (the assassination of Franz Ferdinand).  Or that most of the worst damage and atrocities of the Balkan wars of the 1990s occurred there, too.

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The old town of Mostar is a beautiful place, sitting in a bowl between steep hills (hills from which my legs are still recovering).  Its ancient Stari Most (Old Bridge, above) had spanned the river for centuries before the 1990s.  And then, in a microcosm of what was going on all over the country, it was besieged twice in a few years.  First, the Muslims and Croats were fighting the Serbs.  Then they were fighting each other.

Hundreds were killed, and almost a hundred thousand refugees were forced out (pretty much the whole population).  And the Stari Most was destroyed.  Today, the bridge has been rebuilt, and much of the damage cleared up.  But the city still bears the scars over two decades on.  Several burned-out buildings still dot the old town, and bullet / shrapnel holes are still visible all over the place.

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Still, apart from its sometimes grim history, BiH is a beautiful country of mountains, valleys, and colossal thunderstorms.  I really enjoyed riding there, and was quite sad to be heading out yesterday (Monday).  Although the blow was softened a little by knowing I was heading back to stunning Croatia.

I had my longest and most thorough questioning at the border.  Not because I was looking especially suspicious (or even especially sweaty).  But the border guard was apparently a bit of a stamp and visa buff, and wanted to chat through pretty much the whole trip, while admiring the various stickers and marks.

I was a little relieved when another vehicle finally appeared behind me, as trying to identify visas on a passport being waved at you through partially-reflective glass is quite exhausting.

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Eventually, though, I was back into Croatia.  And I spent today (Tuesday) heading back to the Adriatic coast.  It wasn’t quite as downhill as I’d expected to start with, but there were some spectacular views to appreciate as I crossed the coastal range (above).

And then there was the drop back to the seaside, which was kind of spectacular:

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It’s not often that I’ll stop to take a picture halfway down a hill (apart from anything else, it takes quite a lot of effort to stop a fully loaded touring bike from 40-odd miles an hour), but this one was just fantastic.  Twisting right off the mountains down to the waterside.  It’s hard to get scale properly on photos.  But there’s a tiny boat with a tiny white wake just next to the big headland, which gives an idea of just how big those hills are.

Although it was lovely dropping off the big hills, my legs are feeling the effects of climbing them.  So it’s going to be nice to stick along the coast for a while.  I’ll be heading north, and an awful lot of big mountains will be looming all too soon.

A bit of island hopping and a little less climbing is probably just the thing for the next few days…

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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…

The Unbearable, The Unspeakable, The Unforgettable and the (Nearly) Undrinkable

Central Georgia.

Not top of many people’s lists of places to spend a few days on holiday.  But I think it probably should be.

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Since leaving Tbilisi (above) on Thursday morning, I’ve only covered a couple of hundred kilometres.  Pretty slack by my standards.  I even had an impromptu extra rest day yesterday.  But the last 72 hours have still felt quite intense.

Headwinds, tailwinds, sunshine, snow, climbing, descending, motorways, tunnels, falling off the bike, home-made wine and Joe Stalin’s bathtub.  Actually, perhaps it really has been quite intense…  Where do I start?

When in doubt, I sometimes resort to stats.  Not this time, though (but there will be some at the end).  This time I have photographic proof of how unbearable the weather was on Thursday afternoon:

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You’ll just have to imagine the painful legs and tiredness that had developed during the morning.  I knew there was a lot of rain coming, but reckoned I could beat it to Gori.  The wind (into the face, naturally) began at about 15 mph, and got stronger and stronger.  By the time the picture above was taken, it was gusting over 30 mph (50 kph).  I got slower and slower.  And then the rain came.

It was only a brief (but intense) cloudburst; a prelude to the main storm.  I hid for a while, and then put the hammer down for the last 25 kms to Gori.  When I say ‘put the hammer down’, we’re talking about maximum effort in return for less than 10 miles-an-hour.  Unbearable.

I’m sure there’s a scale for how slippery things are.  I don’t need to look it up, because if there’s one thing that’s more slippery than wet ice, it’s wet cow droppings.

An unfortunately-timed gust of wind drops your front wheel off the road and onto the gravel shoulder.  This is a problem, as it starts sliding.  And it has bags attached.  Time slows down, reactions kick in.  You get the front wheel back on the tarmac (somehow).  Then the back wheel’s on the gravel.  Sliding again.  You get your weight forward to lift the heavy back wheel onto the road, just as the front wheel hits the wet cow droppings.  Bags or not, you’re now doomed.

The only good thing about Thursday is that, having stacked the bike and smashed into the road with my right shoulder (yep, the one the truck broke in Thailand), I can now report that the bike is a tough little thing, and that my shoulder appears to be in decent condition.  Apart from the new abrasions, that is…

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Thursday night.  Looking at the weather forecast.  It says that it’s snowing in Gori.  I stick my head outside.  It is snowing in Gori.  And blowing a gale.  It says that tomorrow will be dry, but that the wind will be up to 40 mph.  Average.  In my face again.  I believe it.  I’m having a day off.

The weather forecast was spot on.  As you can see from the flag ripping itself apart on top of Gori Fortress (picture above), the wind is, indeed, a wee bit brisk.  Thankfully, as well as the castle, and a pharmacy, Gori is the home of the unspeakable Josef Stalin.  So at least there’s a museum (or dictator’s shrine, depending on your point of view) to poke around while I’m there.

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I got to see Stalin’s bathtub, on Stalin’s personal train carriage.  It’s hard to imagine Uncle Joe sitting in there, playing with his rubber ducks and smoking his pipe, while supervising the deaths of tens of millions of people.  Or industrialising the Soviet Union and winning World War 2, depending on your point of view.

The museum is pure Soviet, and could really do with a bit of updating to include some of the less positive aspects of Josef’s career.  But I guess it’s a little tricky for the Georgians.  How do you play it when the only world-famous person from your country is a character like Stalin?

Focus on the scenery and the food (and maybe the wine), I think…

Because, once the wind had not only died, but turned magically through 180 degrees, the ride today was unforgettable.  Sun out, wind at my back, snow-capped mountains everywhere.  The little castle at Surami (below) was an especially nice bit:

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And I met my first fellow tourer since India.  I’ve no idea where they’ve all been.  As usual, I forgot to ask his permission to use his real name, so I’ll call him ‘Mark’.  Another Brit, and another solo inter-continental rider, heading for India via China (which is an especially long way round, in my opinion; but then he’d got to Georgia via Morocco, so what do I know?).  A great chance for the standard bike chat, with projected routes and info shared.

Both of us have been struck by the Georgian hospitality, and especially their penchant for ‘forcing’ home-made wine and vodka, some of which is outstandingly dubious, on unsuspecting guests (in my case, it was the same in Armenia, too).  ‘Mark’ was actually running with a hangover due to last night’s host insisting on ‘four for the road’ this morning.  And I had a 500ml glass of unusually yellow wine waiting for me at my lodgings this evening.

Though to get here, I still had to drop out of the high mountains, towards one of the few flat areas of Georgia, which I’ll cross in the next couple of days, before hitting the Black Sea.

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Lower hills, but the same tailwind and stunning scenery.  By the time I got here, I’d all but forgotten Thursday’s hardships.  A really beautiful run down the valley, twisting and turning in the warm sunshine.  A coffee in the shade halfway down.  Lovely.  That’s bike touring for you…

And, somewhere along the way today, I hit some large-ish numbers.  23,000 km for the round-the-world trip so far.  8000 km (and 5000 miles) since I started Part 2 in Vietnam in December.

So that’s the last three days.  A milestone or two for the trip.  Some unforgettable scenery.  The unspeakable Uncle Joe.  Sometimes unbearable weather.  And the home-made wine.

Which, it turns out, isn’t undrinkable at all…

Sailing the Steppe (to Where the Streets Have No Name)

In the olden days (olden enough that even I wasn’t born then), ships couldn’t sail against the wind.  Captains would wait in port for a favourable breeze before putting to sea.  Otherwise they’d just get blown straight back to where they started.

I know very well that loaded touring bikes work in exactly the same way.  So I waited another day in Beyneu, enjoying the surprisingly fast internet and the nearby supermarket.  Waiting for the wind to change.

And finally, on Saturday, it was time.  The wind flipped to a more-or-less favourable direction, and I weighed anchor and set sail across 475 km of steppe towards the Caspian Sea, and Aktau.  I was going to try to hammer it in three days, before the wind decided to change again.

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The Beyneu to Aktau road is notorious among long-distance touring cyclists.  A few years ago, it was described as ‘the worst road in the world’ and ‘the bicycle demolition derby’.  It was mostly rough dirt (remember that track from the Uzbek border to Beyneu?) until very recently.

The only reason I thought I could get across so quickly was my chat with the two German cyclists I met, way back in Vietnam.  They said that the new road was only a few months off completion when they came this way last summer.  And, as you can see from the picture above, times have, indeed, changed just a little.

With the exception of a handful of kilometres, the whole run is now on decent tarmac.  And it even has informative signs.  Although, I’d be slightly concerned about why a brand new road already needs warnings about bumps…

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While the first couple of hundred kilometres were just as featureless as the Uzbek desert, things started to change a bit after the little town of Say Otes.  There’s a steep drop-off from the Ustyurt plateau to lower ground (you can just see the – still dirt – road down the cliff on the right of the picture above).

And the scenery suddenly looks…  Well…  Like southern Utah or Colorado in the USA.  It’s not just me, is it?  It definitely has the look of the landscape between Monument Valley and the Rockies, just in different colours.  If you’re not convinced by the picture above, try this one:

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Or maybe it really is just me.  In which case, put it down to desert fever…

Anyway, with the wind still favourable, the riding was good.  I started to imagine I actually was in the States, rolling along long, straight, smooth roads between the Mesas.  This was only contradicted by the occasional disapproving camel, which I studiously ignored.  The wind actually got stronger, and at some points, I was being pushed uphill without pedalling.  Just the power of the wind on the bags / sails.  Fantastic.  This three day thing was going to be, erm, a breeze.

By the end of day two (Sunday), I was already 335 km (210 miles) down the road from Beyneu.  One more long-ish day to go; maybe 90 miles.  The wind would be mostly behind for the first stretch, pretty much across me for the second part, and a cross-head wind for the last forty-odd kms.  But I’d nearly be in Aktau by then.  It wouldn’t be a problem to gut through that.  I went to bed a very happy boy.

Then Monday happened.  These deserts really do have a habit of kicking you in the backside if you get ideas above your station.

The first stretch went much as planned.  Wind in my sails again, I whistled along effortlessly at over 30 kph to the junction at Tauchik, where I turned onto stage two of day three.

Then I got blown off the road.  Twice in five minutes.

Quite literally, blown off the road.

It’s no wonder I was ripping along that first stretch; the wind was gusting over 40 mph.  And now, it was being funnelled through the hills, so I never knew exactly where it was coming from next.  The only thing that was clear was that it was further round than it should have been, and pretty much stopping me in my tracks.

One minute, I was in my lowest climbing gears, struggling to make walking pace as the wind battered me head-on.  The next, I was leaning over at twenty degrees to keep the bike upright, as the wind made a concerted effort to push me off into a herd of those disapproving (and by now, slightly alarmed) camels.

Those sails of mine are really not great when the wind’s not playing ball.  But at least the scenery was still impressive:

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By the time I’d made it a few more kilometres down the road, though, even the landscape wasn’t keeping me happy.  My quads were fried from fighting to move forward.  My back was fried from trying to stay upright.  Even my ears were getting wind-burned.

And, maybe more importantly, I realised that this was actually quite dangerous.  If you’re leaning over against the wind, and the wind suddenly stops, you swerve uncontrollably into the middle of the road.  This is dodgy enough if it’s just the wind gusting and then easing.

If the wind happens to have been blocked by a passing truck, it has very alarming consequences.  Impressive though the wheel-nuts on articulated trucks are, I’d rather not be looking at them from a couple of feet away while swerving towards them in goggle-eyed panic.

After a few more near-misses with lorry wheels, I pulled over to rest and consider my position.  Maybe those sea captains of old had cunning ruses in hand for when they suddenly found they were being blown way off course.  Maybe.  But I didn’t.  At the pace I was going, I’d die of old age before I finished the last 50 miles to town.  If the trucks or the camels didn’t get me first.

For a moment, I was actually considering walking it (over two days, probably).  Thankfully, that particular line of stupidity was cut off by the arrival of Rustam in his shiny 4×4.

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Although he spent a bit of time mocking my idea of a windy day (apparently, you can get sandstorms out here which last for days when it’s having a proper blow), Rustam turned out to be an absolute gentleman.  Bundles of insulation in the back of the car were moved.  Seats were dropped down, the bike was loaded.

And, and hour or so later, I was in Aktau with my rescuer, who also insisted on buying the coffee.  I may not quite have sailed all the way from Beyneu under my own steam (so to speak), but this was a far better ending than I was contemplating by the roadside a short time before.  Thank you, Rustam!

And so, I found myself on the shores of the Caspian Sea.  In Aktau, where the streets have no name.  They really don’t.  I was vaguely aware of this from researching the region before I started riding.  I doubt if Bono and U2 had Aktau in mind when they wrote the song, though…

The city is divided into ‘micro-rayons’, which are essentially large city blocks.  The micro-rayons are all numbered.  Roughly speaking, the micro-rayons change at every major junction.  And, again roughly speaking, the numbers increase the further from the centre you are.  Your address here is just three numbers: micro-rayon number, building number, and apartment number.  That’s it.  It completely does my head in.

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It may also be the most interesting thing about Aktau, from a tourist’s point of view.  It’s a port town, so it’s pretty functional, rather than fascinating.  But it’s good to have the benefits of civilisation (beer, pizza, cash machines etc) again after the desert.  And there are Soviet war memorials, statues, parks and shops.  It’s getting wealthy, too, from oil, as is a lot of this part of the world.

And I’ve managed to get a ticket sorted out for the next stage already.

Depending on how you define it, it’s Europe on the other side of the Caspian.  The Russians see the sea as the dividing line between Europe and Asia, together with the Ural mountains further north.  As a western European, I’m struggling to think that a region which is east of Turkey (which is clearly mostly in Asia) can really be in Europe.

After all, I can’t be that close to home already, can I?  Anyway, more on that next time…

For Touring Cyclists:

I’ve put together a PDF guide to the Aktau to Beyneu road, as it was quite difficult to find anything current (after 2013), and the road has changed so much in the recent past.  The PDF has GPS distances, water and food points, road conditions etc.  Beyneu to Aktau – April 2016.  Or feel free to contact me, and I’ll be happy to discuss.

The Full Soviet

I had to tear myself away from Khiva in the end.

I allowed the lady who ran the guest house to persuade me that I should stay one more day.  She’d read the tea leaves, or something, and was convinced that if I left on Wednesday, I’d just get soaked again, and probably freeze to death.  It would be much better to leave on Thursday.

Plus, she’d get an extra day’s money, of course…

I’d checked the more scientific weather forecast, and, while it didn’t suggest much rain at all, another day in Khiva felt like a good idea (I’m not sure I’d fully recovered from that marathon 200-plus kms a few days before).

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So I stayed.  I had another poke around the old town, sampled some more coffee and kebabs in various hostelries, and gave the bike a good clean, which it much appreciated.

Needless to say, it was sunny all day.  And when I awoke to get moving northwards on Thursday, I was greeted with a heavy shower, black clouds, and gusty winds that would be at least half in my face all day.

Oh, good.

Still, if I’d stayed in Khiva any longer, I’d have started growing roots.  So I resigned myself to a longish, slowish slog for a couple of days.  I donned the cold weather gear and the rain jacket again, and set sail for the last chunk of Uzbekistan that stood between me and  the border; Karakalpakstan.

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Or ‘Karakalpakistan’, as people took to calling it the closer I’ve got to it.  By the time I crossed the (frankly over-ornamented) border, above, the spelling had shifted all the way to ‘Qaraqalpogiston’.  It’s no wonder that it’s a bit tricky to search for stuff on the internet over here; there are usually at least two possible spellings in Latin script, plus at least one Cyrillic version.  It’s amazing you can ever find anything…

My target was Nukus (or ‘Nokis’, etc, etc), which is the capital of Karakalpakstan / Qaraqalpogiston.  It was only about 180 km up the road from Khiva / Xiva, but it felt like an awful lot further.

Thursday was essentially spent trying to outrun showers, while dodging potholes.  And averaging a colossal 15 kph into the teeth of the wind.  Urgh!  Progress was not really helped by the awareness that, after Khiva, I was out of charming Silk Road cities to explore.  And that all I was really doing was positioning myself for hundreds of kilometres of desert.

Given the lack of ancient historical sights, I thought I’d better concentrate on the more prosaic and everyday aspects of life in a post-Soviet republic.

Thankfully, Karakalpakstan is just the place to do this.  Which made the second day to Nukus (Friday) much more bearable.  I crossed a fantastically flimsy, improvised pontoon bridge, made it back to the main road, and took a left towards Kazakhstan.

The beautiful new road has not made it this far north yet, and you can see the consequences below; the old road (quite chewed up), the shoulder (dirt, but smoother than the road), and the unfinished new road (behind the camel).

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Oh yeah, the camel.

This was something new.  Although I’ve had my path obstructed by a number of beasts in the past, this was my first wild camel.  But they’re apparently quite common further up the road.  I’ll try to get a closer picture next time; this guy actually strolled right up to me, but I’d put the phone away by then, in case I needed to make a run for it.

Turned out he was much more interested in the bins at the nearby petrol station than in me, so I’ll try to be a little braver next time.

The camel is a fairly normal sight over here, but not something I’d usually expect to see.  Nukus, on the other hand, is a straight copy from the template of small, ex-Soviet cities.  It’s pretty easy to find Nukus clone-towns from the Sea of Japan to the Polish border.

Naturally, I’m once again staying in the most Soviet place I could find:

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And this hotel may actually not have changed at all in the last 25 years.  Certainly, the plumbing and electrics (as well as the carpet) are of that sort of vintage.

The town itself is a mixture of grandiose public buildings, large concrete blocks of flats, and dirt streets lined with small shops.  All carefully planned, and sensibly placed.  After all the beautiful mosques and minarets of the Silk Road cities, it’s a little bit of a come-down.

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On the other hand, it’s the last city I’ll see for quite a few days (if all goes according to plan), so it’s nice to be able to stock up at the supermarket, get a decent cuppa, and wander the broad, carefully-swept boulevards.

Soviet-style or not, I have a feeling I’m going to miss the benefits of civilisation as I head back into the desert again…