road

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.

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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…

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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…

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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.

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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):

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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.

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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…

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.

Kansas to Colorado – the Sequel

To answer the question that I know has been burning in your minds since the last update: no, neither of my Indian SIM cards ever activated.  Hence the long gap between posts, again.

Needless to say, within half-an-hour of crossing the slightly shambolic, but unusually friendly border into Nepal this morning (Tuesday), I had a new, shiny, fully-functioning mobile internet connection.

A tiny, poor, landlocked country can make this work perfectly.  A country with both nuclear weapons and a space programme just messes you about for a fortnight without success.  Go figure…

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Anyway, it’s not been a bad few days to be off the air.  Almost nothing of interest has occurred, except that the unfortunate rash cleared up, and I developed a rather brutal cough from my daily doses of dust and diesel.

After crossing the Ganges (above) on the way out of Patna on Saturday, there’s been a lot of flat, flat country.  Fields, a few trees.  Then some more fields and a few more trees.  Northern Bihar is just like Kansas was.  Minus the soybeans and sweetcorn, but plus a total lack of driving standards.

Take five seconds to spot the two people in the picture below.  That’s about as exciting as things got…

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The roads were, at least, of a pretty reasonable quality.  Most of the way.  Nice, quick riding all the way from Patna to Motihari.  Motihari, for the trivia buffs amongst you, is the birthplace of George Orwell.  Who knew?

And then…

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The short, 35 mile run to the border at Raxaul yesterday was meant to be a formality.  Pan flat, and on an international highway to a reasonable-sized border crossing.  It might become a formality in a few years, once they’ve bothered to finish the road.  For now, it’s an unsurfaced nightmare, meaning that India (Part 1) finished in a cloud of dust and a rattling of racks and panniers.  An all-too familiar feeling for me and the Beastlet.

So, the verdict on India so far?  Nice food and people, but could do better in a few areas.  Like roads, driving standards, pollution, dirt, bureaucracy and (guess what?) internet connectivity for travellers.  Hopefully it will improve when I return for India (Part 2).

Nepal looked much the same for the first few kilometres.  This was fairly unsurprising, as the miles after the border are still part of the same plain as I’d been thrashing across for days.  And most of the lowland population there are ethnically Indian.

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But as soon as the road started rising into the first ripples of the Himalayas, things started to change.  The air cleared.  The road was a little bit lumpy in places, but not bad at all.  There was hardly any traffic, given that I’m piling up the main highway to Kathmandu.  And the scenery got quite pretty quite quickly, although I’m still very much in the foothills.  The high mountains should be spectacular.

And you can feel the culture change as well.  I’m only 60 kms up the road from India, but the feeling of Nepal is completely different.  There’s a significant wealth differential (India, on paper, is a lot richer than Nepal), so I was expecting the country to feel much poorer.

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But it doesn’t.  It feels much more relaxed (maybe because of the relatively low population).  And the town where I am this evening, Hetauda (picture above), has an unexpectedly European feel to it.  I had a wander along the smooth, wide pavements this evening.  Yes, that’s smooth, wide pavements!  You can walk around town without risking getting mown down or tripping over an exposed electrical cable!

Families were wandering about doing a bit of shopping or a bit of eating out.  Some drunks were playing in the traffic.  Almost British behaviour…

There’s a bar on the ground floor of the hotel, which feels like a nice cosy pub, and there seems to be more English spoken than in India, too.  And, of course, there are those big mountains looming at the end of the high street.

The Himalayas are just beginning, but I already feel like I’m going to like Nepal.  Now it just has to live up to my impression that it’s the subcontinent’s Colorado to northern India’s Kansas…

To Mandalay, and Beyond

Well, that’s Myanmar done, then.

Due to the whims of international flights (primarily down to the fact that there aren’t many out of Myanmar) and pricing, I find myself briefly in Bangkok this evening, en route for Kolkata (Calcutta) in India tomorrow.

I’m a bit sad to be finished with Myanmar, to be honest.  Dodgy road surfaces apart, it was a really interesting place, with truly lovely inhabitants.  And I never did work out some of the odder aspects of the country.  Especially what the point of Nay Pyi Taw is…

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Still, as I rolled out of beautiful Bagan on Thursday, beginning the last hundred miles or so of the long road to Mandalay, there were already a few thoughts running ahead to India, and what I’ll find there.  I think this was partly influenced by the landscape, which had got much dryer and more scrubby than it was in the south of Myanmar.  More like what I (probably inaccurately) imagine India will look like.

I was also slightly haunted by the nagging feeling that I should be riding to India, rather than flying.  The German guys I met in Vietnam had made it through the high mountains of India’s far east, and entered Myanmar overland.  I should really be doing the same in reverse, shouldn’t I?

I still feel that I might be missing out a little, but there are (I hope) fairly sound reasons behind the decision to fly for a little bit.  The north-eastern states of India have ongoing issues with Maoist insurgents (how old-school is that?), and the UK Foreign Office, probably over-cautiously, advises against all but essential travel there.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in itself (I’m fairly sure the FCO would advise everyone just to stay at home if it could), but it tends to affect the willingness of travel insurance to cover you.  And, having required repatriation to the UK not so long ago, I’m not sure I’ve got the appetite for risk required to enter a low-level war zone uninsured.

Plus, there was a fairly major earthquake just a few weeks ago, centred on Imphal, the first big town across the border.  So after a fair bit of umm-ing and ah-ing on the way up Myanmar, the short hop to Kolkata seemed the better option.

Possibly a little cowardly, but there you go…

In any case, I had to finish Myanmar first.  The road toward Mandalay proved to be decently surfaced and full of cycle tourists.  Well, it had three other cycle tourists on it while I was there, and that’s pretty much a crowd.  On my very last day’s riding in the country, I met Alastair and Rachel (from London) in the morning, having stayed in the same hotel, and then I caught up with a French girl on her second-ever day of touring later in the day.

Whatever Kipling wrote about the ‘Road to Mandalay’ that made it so famous, it’s certainly true that (on Friday at least) the road to Mandalay is where the touring cyclists play.

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Mandalay itself has the great benefit (especially after the confusing nothingness of Nay Pyi Taw) of being a proper city.  ‘Bustling’ would probably be the appropriate adjective.

It also has the unparalleled tourist attraction of the best precariously-balancing-keepy-uppy-lady (as I believe the name of her act translates) in the world:

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Through a remarkable coincidence, I ended up watching the stool-climbing and bamboo-football-juggling display with Alastair and Rachel, who’d (entirely independently) turned up to stay at the same hotel as me again.  Even more remarkably, it turned out we were on the same flight out today.  So I got to see people over a longer-than two-day period for the first time since Vietnam.  And, even better, we got to irritate the airline staff with three bikes rather than just the one.

It’s hard to imagine more excitement, I know.

But I did manage a couple of exciting round-the-world milestones on the way to Mandalay: 11,000 miles for the overall trip so far, and my vertical climb finally reached the equivalent of 9 times up Mount Everest from sea level.  Phew!

Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered what the end of the road to Mandalay looks like, it looks like this:

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A massive, square red fortress, surrounded by a moat.  I reckon it’s over a mile on each side, so massive is definitely the right word for it.

It’s well worth getting to.  And hopefully, India will be too.  I’ll find out soon enough…

Meetings on the Road

Rest day today; relaxing in Royan, on the Atlantic Coast. I’m a bit more than halfway down France, and it’s pretty flat from here (I think). Problems revolve around heat and headwinds in this part of the world – it’s been close to 40 degrees at times.

Everything I read before setting off suggested I’d be meeting other cyclists all the time. By Thursday afternoon, flogging against the wind through the marshes to the north of La Rochelle, I was pretty sure this was nonsense. I sat by the side of the road, wondering how long I would have to wait before I saw another tourer. Fifteen minutes later, I came out of a pharmacy with a bottle of sun cream just in time to see three shoot past. There’s some old saying about buses, which obviously applies to cyclists too…

I caught up, to discover that all three were Brits; two 18-year old lads from Scotland heading for the Côte d’Azur, and a dreadlocked guy called Darryl, who was powered entirely by hemp protein (or something similar) and heading for a festival in Portugal. I was really happy to be running into other bikers, and we made quick ground, sharing slipstreams to a campsite near La Rochelle.

And then we were six. Two more bikers (and two more Brits) had just set up in the same campsite. Just three hours after wondering when I’d see anyone, I’m sat around sharing tips and routes and plans with a whole bunch of others.

On Friday we went our different ways; the Scottish lads headed off with a tight schedule and a master plan (we passed them a little later with their nth puncture of the trip), Darryl remained recharging in his hammock, and I headed south for Royan with a doctor called George.

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It was really easy riding in company; chatting and swearing at French drivers really makes the time fly. We covered 90km (including a top-notch transporter bridge near Rochefort – hopefully pictured) before pulling up in Royan for a rest day, which has included the constructive (washing clothes) and the slightly less so (multiple beers while gibbering endlessly about life, the universe and everything).

Tomorrow, George is swerving east, en route for Italy, while I’ll be back on my own and ploughing south towards Spain. We saw two German tourers this morning who are heading my way; the way things seem to work out on the road, I may well see them again.

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Hopefully above (still don’t trust the software) is a little corner of England in Royan.

568km / 355 miles so far, by the way. A bientôt, all.

First Three Days – London to Portsmouth and through Brittany

This is a slightly experimental first post from phone app. Hope it all works…

Well, off to a decent start; 309km or 193miles in three days, and out of the UK and into France. Slept on the ferry, in a wood, and now in a campsite. No discernible differences other than the herd of deer stripping bark from the trees all night. Not on the ferry, obviously.

Nearly starved when France closed down entirely yesterday (Bastille Day), but that’s as close to disaster as I’ve yet come. Met lots of friendly French people, some of whom were strangely concerned with my mental state.

And enjoyed beautiful Brittany; now aiming to cross the Loire tomorrow.

Please accept apols for the blog, btw. Think you can only follow if you’re on a computer at the minute… Will have to wait for a rest day to try and sort it. There were going to be some pics, but taking forever to upload; will put some up when I’ve a better connection.

Thanks, all, for the nice comments here and on Facebook. Will hopefully add a proper update soon.

UPDATE – looks like one of the pics made it after all. This is my nephew Tom making sure I left from Greenwich on Sunday.

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