puncture

Complications

The Balkans are a complicated part of the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Records and the Elusive Capital

It’s been a long few days since Yangon.  Over 400 km.  Two (sort of) records set.  And my first puncture of Part 2.

And yes, punctures are noteworthy enough to get a mention.  That’s only the sixth I’ve had in 12,000 miles of loaded touring.  I like my tyres.

Anyway, most of that mileage has been undertaken on the old Yangon to Mandalay Highway, which essentially runs pretty vertically northwards along the spine of Myanmar.  It’s remained crowded, bumpy, dusty and diesely.  But also flat, which is a bonus.

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After the excitement of my first day with zero climbing last week, you’re probably salivating at the thought of what other records could have been set in the last few days.  I’ll warn you now that they may also be slightly underwhelming.

The first ‘record’ was set on the first day out of Yangon (Tuesday).  I stopped overnight at Bago.  I’d also stopped at Bago on the night before I got to Yangon.  Which makes it the first place I’ve stayed overnight on two separate occasions.  In fact, if the rest of my planned route remains as it currently is, it’ll be the only place on the whole round-the-world trip to achieve this honour.

Well, I hope that met your expectations.

The second record is marginally more impressive, as I managed to put together the longest day I’ve yet done on Wednesday: 101 miles (162 km).  And all because of another glitch in the world of online maps.  They really don’t seem to have Myanmar dialled in properly yet.

It was hot, dirty and bumpy, but I did get to meet Marisa and Jiri, an Austrian / German couple, who were heading in the opposite direction.  We had the usual long-distance cyclists’ comparison of notes before they headed south and I headed on north.

After those hard miles, it was great to finally find the first of the smooth, empty highways I was obsessing about last time.  It’s the ‘Expressway’ between Yangon and the new, artificial capital of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw.  For some reason, while running parallel, and only a few miles apart from, the old highway, it’s barely used.  Maybe the tolls are too high, or something.

Unfortunately, it was only about 20 km of beautifully smooth dual carriageway before I had to turn off.  And the road (also kindly recommended by online mapping) suddenly looked like this:

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Still, I was well on the way to Nay Pyi Taw by then.  If you haven’t had enough of Myanmar’s oddities yet, Nay Pyi Taw is a classic.  The country had a perfectly good capital, Yangon, but the government decided to move to, essentially, the middle of nowhere.  They built several dual carriageway ring roads, and masses of hotels, conference centres and so on.  It covers a truly massive area.  I think they expected that everyone else would follow them here.

Nobody has, yet.

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This was one of those ring roads this afternoon.  Again, beautifully smooth.  With absolutely nothing on it, except for me and an ox-cart (or are they buffaloes? Some research required…), which was on the wrong side of the road (so clearly not expecting to face a huge amount of oncoming traffic).

I arrived in the city itself just after five this evening.  I’m about a mile from the city centre, apparently, although I’ve not seen it yet.

But this is what the Friday afternoon rush hour looks like in Nay Pyi Taw:

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Yup.  An entire herd of buffalo (or oxen?) crossing the main drag.  They would have been holding up the traffic, if there was any.

And so, I’ve apparently arrived at the heart of the capital city of Myanmar.  Anything resembling a city is elusive in the extreme.  But it seems like an extremely odd place, and I quite like odd places.

I should find out more tomorrow (Saturday), as I’m having another rest day.  Recovering from the road before, and looking forward to some more big miles afterwards.  So hopefully, a bit more intrigue and mystery, and a few more smooth and empty highways to come…