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Complications

The Balkans are a complicated part of the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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…

The North (Finally!)

UK Tour Stage 5 (Inverness to Unst, Shetland):
Cycling Distance – 360 km / 224 miles
Ascent – 2351 m / 7711 ft (0.27 times the height of Mount Everest)
Toughness Index – 65.25 (100 = Really Tough)

Total UK Tour Cycling Distance – 1715 km / 1066 miles
Total UK Tour Ascent – 10448 m / 34269 ft (1.18 Everests)

NB: I’ve been trying to post this for 36 hours now; please pretend that I’m not at Aberdeen Railway Station waiting for a train south 😉

There should probably have been an update between Inverness and here, but it just didn’t quite work out (my new habit of falling asleep while typing reared its ugly head again, compounded by the severe lack of decent internet access at the top of the country – sorry!).

There have been a lot of miles and a lot of islands since the last post.

And, in a carefully-planned attempt to undermine any sense of suspense, and just in case you didn’t see the mini-post earlier, I guess it’s worth starting with the fact that the road north finally ran out on Monday at around eleven-fifteen:

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That’s it.  The northernmost bit of road in the UK.  Just next to the northernmost house in the UK.  Just over the insanely steep hill from the northernmost phone-box, bus stop and brewery in the UK.

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The target of the last few weeks.  Since the sunny Isles of Scilly (above) at the southern end of the UK.  Four countries.  Over a thousand miles.  Climbing more than the height of Mount Everest.  Lugging 25 kgs of bags.  A proper test of my shoulder and back (which they’ve passed with flying colours – and a bit of ibuprofen).  Journey’s end.  Phew!

Except for another sixty-odd miles back down to the ferry south.  And, given how well my body has held up, another eight or nine thousand miles to finish the round-the-world trip in the fairly near future.

But that’s all to come.  Where have I been for the last few days?

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After leaving Inverness, the road north basically hugs the east coast all the way to the top end of Great Britain.  The landscape changes quite slowly (essentially, it rolls, sometimes by the shore, sometimes on clifftops), with lots of dives into little harbours, like the one above at Brora.

But one thing is immediately obvious to the road user.  Through the Highlands, all the signs are bilingual, with English and Scottish Gaelic (British language number – what? – six ish?) sharing space.  From Inverness northwards, on the coast at least, they’re not.

Why not?  Because heading north, you’re heading into Viking country.  There are many parts of the UK with Viking place names (they got around a bit, the Vikings), and they’ve tended to stay more-or-less the same, so there’s no real need for bilingual signposts.  That said, there’s nowhere I’ve been before in this country where the Nordic influence is as strong as in Orkney and Shetland.

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After John O’Groats, which is the northern end of the Lands End to John O’Groats ‘end to end’ (and which, as a pedant, I should point out – probably for the tenth time – is neither the northernmost point of Scotland nor Great Britain), I hit another ferry, this one to Orkney.  You can see Orkney pretty clearly from John O’Groats, so it would be hard to be happy with finishing there, in my little world, at least.

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And Orkney’s where you really start to feel the Scandinavian influence.  Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, is home to St Magnus’ Cathedral (above, behind the Beastlet).  You don’t get much more Nordic than Magnus as a name.  And the accents are fantastic; a beautiful mixture of soft Scottish pronunciation with lilting Scandinavian intonation.  Like a cross between Highland Scots and Swedish accents.  I’ve just changed ‘accent’ to ‘accents’ in the last sentence, as a couple of conversations in the bar in Shetland made it clear that locals up here can spot the difference in speech between one island and the next, let alone between Orkney and Shetland.

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Anyway, once in Orkney and Shetland, you really are in the Viking sphere of influence.  Both have flags with off-centre crosses (like Norway, Sweden, and so on).  And there’s a lot of shared history.  Shetland (Hjaltland) was actually part of Norway for a long time before becoming part of Scotland.

Heading north into Shetland, you can appreciate how beautiful, and how isolated it is (the picture above gives you a good idea).  And Shetland itself is an archipelago, within the larger one of the British Isles, so there are more ferries between islands with fantastic names; from slightly boring Mainland, through Yell (or YELL?) to Unst.

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Unst is definitely Norse; I stayed in Baltasound, and headed to the top of the country through Haroldswick (above), which sounds as Scandinavian as you could want.  It’s just as beautiful and harsh as the rest of Shetland, and the working farms and inhabited houses are regularly interspersed with reminders of how tough life up here was in the past:

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The end of the road nearly came as a nasty shock.  Just a couple of hundred yards from the end, I discovered just how slippery sheep droppings can be.  That would have been close to the ultimate catastrophe; being taken out by dense woolly creatures within touching distance of my goal.

Still, one heart-in-mouth front-wheel skid later, I was there.  Job done after a little over three weeks and a little over a thousand miles.

I’m rushing for a ferry south at the moment, so will provide a more measured summary of the trip (maybe even with a working map!) in a couple of days, once I’m back in southern England.  But it’s been a good little ride, and I’m sorry it’s over.

Now I just have to keep the fitness up to take on the rest of the world later in the year…

The Back Roads

After the days on The Slab (and I’d been on that road, and its gargantuan identical siblings for far too long), the back roads finally beckoned on Wednesday.

It was a nice change.  Virtually no traffic, an almost total lack of diesel fumes to breathe, and time to stop to admire the view.

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But before that, there was the mystery of the multiplying bikes to work out.

I parked up at the cheapest hotel in Chaiya on Tuesday evening, just before sunset.  The Beast was accommodated in the lobby, tied neatly to the railing on the stairs, and completely alone.

By the time I returned from grabbing some food, there was another bike trying (unsuccessfully, I hope) to mate with The Beast.  And two more (very expensive) adventure touring bikes nestled together on the other side of the room.

It was all very disturbing.  I didn’t see them arrive, and I didn’t see the owners.  It was like The Beast had just spawned a whole family in the time I’d been away.  Terrifying.

I didn’t see them leave, either.  Disembodied voices were all I heard, the next morning, as they all scooted off a few minutes before my alarm meant I was ‘officially’ awake.

Well, I did say I was a little slow in the mornings, didn’t I?

I never did meet the Dutch couple who owned the adventure tourers.  They were heading south.  But, having struggled out of my pit with my usual enthusiasm, I rolled north on the back roads, hours later.  And eventually saw a figure on a bike by the side of the road.  A familiar bike; the one that had been cuddled up to the Beast.

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The figure turned out to be Ringo Zheng, from Shanghai, who’s riding north from Malaysia.  He’s a really nice bloke.  Amazingly enough, his name isn’t really Ringo at all.  He picked it out of a list when he discovered his real name was hard to pronounce.  And only then found out that he’d named himself after the least famous Beatle.

Anyway, after a bit of chit-chat and some water melon, we got down to business.  It’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to share the work with someone else, and it’s amazing the difference it makes.  We took turns on the front, and were zipping along between 25 and 27kph (16-17mph) for a good few hours.

Ringo was nice enough to shoot a video of me putting in a turn on the front, which, if you’ve not seen it on FB already, can be found here.  I’m not sure it’s worth it unless you’re really interested in seeing what I look like from behind while riding.  But I couldn’t have shot it myself, so it’s nice for me to have.

We rode together until late afternoon, and then went our separate ways.  Ringo wanted to push on, while I’d made my target for the day.  I don’t think we’re that far apart still, so there’s a fair chance we’ll bump into each other again.  Though I’ll try to keep the bikes apart next time.  Don’t want any ‘accidents’…

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For me, it was back on the Slab on Thursday, making a dull but efficient run to Chumphon, where I had a day off on Friday (and finally got my clothes washed – well overdue).

And then, back to the back roads today.  Hopefully, I can stay on them for the next few days.

Apart from an increase in dog chases, which I haven’t had to worry about for ages, it’s much more pleasant riding.  Being by the coast, you get the chance to have a look at the beaches (mostly empty) and the scenery without having trucks and buses constantly bearing down on you.  And there always seems to be more interesting stuff to see away from the main roads, wherever you are.

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I’m still waiting for the hordes of tourists to emerge.  Everything seems suspiciously quiet so far.  But I’m edging into the resort areas now, so I guess it’s only a matter of time.  I should only be a couple of days to Hua Hin, where I was once part of those hordes myself.

Not sure whether I will be again?  It would be nice to think that being on a bike and going around the world makes you a traveller, rather than a tourist.  It certainly feels different on the small roads and in the little villages.  But in a tourist resort, with a load of other foreigners?

We’ll see, I suppose…

Celebrations and Coincidence on The Slab

Dull but efficient.

There are hardly any worse words with which to begin a post, I’d imagine.  Sounds like a lecture on German public toilets, or something.

However, it’s the only way I can describe Thai Highway 41 (also known as Asian Highway 2).  And it’s dominated the last few days.  It’s a pretty flat, very smooth, unnecessarily wide and interminably long lump of tarmac that runs all the way up peninsular Thailand.  It’s got me pretty much all the way across to the east coast.

But it’s crushingly boring.  And it’s hot.  And it just goes on, and on, and on.  I’m calling it ‘The Slab’.

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Thankfully, other events have taken my mind off it in the last couple of days.

To start with, I stayed up too late on Sunday, and had an extra drink.  Or two.

I should know better than to have too much beer on a school night (especially now that ‘school night’ implies that the next day will involve a vast amount of sweating).

But it was a momentous day, as I’m sure you’re all aware.  Bristol City were playing Walsall in the FA Trophy final (now named after an otherwise obscure paint company) at Wembley Stadium.  I spent ages trying to find a live stream.  I ended up listening on internet radio.  Not quite the same as being there.  Still, City won 2-0, and will now forever be the first team to win the trophy three times.  So you can hopefully understand why a small over-indulgence was called for.

An entirely predictable consequence was that I didn’t get enough sleep.  But, given no obvious hangover (and more importantly, a tailwind), yesterday became a low effort, high-speed rush along The Slab for 90-odd kilometres.  I even had enough time to grab a picture of the one interesting thing I saw; a huge, lonely Buddha waiting on a huge building site for a temple to be built around him:

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The lack of sleep (and, just possibly, a touch of delayed dehydration) caught up with me this morning.  I felt abysmally rough, and failed to get out of bed with anything approaching enthusiasm.  It was baking outside already, so I did some emergency re-planning, and settled on a much shorter day to give myself a chance to recover.

I was, therefore, only about 60km down the road by three o’clock this afternoon, and nearly finished for the day.  I saw a loaded touring cyclist, decked out in Thai flags on the other side of the road.  He didn’t notice me, but I noticed a cafe behind him.  I trundled over for a drink.  And saw another loaded bike hiding in the shadows.  It belonged to Colin.

And, get this…  Colin is from the UK.  From England.  From the West Midlands.  From Walsall.  What are the chances?

Bristol and Walsall meet twice in three days.  Once at Wembley Stadium in London, and once (with bikes) in a cafe in southern Thailand.  And all because of that extra lager on Sunday.  Isn’t that remarkable?

No?  Well, it’s as remarkable as this post’s getting, anyway.

The only other vaguely remarkable thing to happen to me in the last few days is my discovery of the range of room quality that you get in Thailand for more-or-less the same price.  A few days ago, my room had an improvised washing facility involving (spotlessly clean) dustbins.  Yesterday, I was in a brand new motel unit.  With (slightly alarmingly) mirrors on the ceiling:

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That picture looks odder the more I see it…

Now, the sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the title of this post implies that more than one celebration should have been featured.  The second has nothing to do with me, at all (not sure that the first one had that much to do with me, either, come to think of it).

But it’s still well worth celebrating.  My cousin Jess, and her husband Jay (though I’m guessing he’s getting less of the credit), have just had a baby girl!  Congratulations and love to all three of you, and I’m looking forward to meeting Winnie when I get back home.

And that seems like a good place to leave it for now.  My dependence on The Slab should lessen from tomorrow onwards, as smaller coast roads link the various seaside resorts and hotels along the shore.  There might even be something interesting to write about next time.