touring

The End (Part 2) – Closing the Loop

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

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

I’ve circumnavigated.

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

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

It was a pretty relaxed final leg in the end.

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

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

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

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

IMG_2341 Edit

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

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

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

IMG_2346 Edit

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

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

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

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

IMG_2365 Edit

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

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

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

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

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

20151222RTW_1 Edit

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

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

Advertisements

Swiss Rolling

Another long gap between posts.

Who’d have thought that Switzerland, and then Germany, would produce such formidable technical challenges?  No electricity in one, and virtually no internet in the other…

I should’ve known things were going to get tricky.  Just a few kilometres out of Albertville on Sunday, the road towards Chamonix was closed.  This was, on the face of it, a bad thing.

It meant that I missed my reconnaissance of the Tour de France mountain time trial, which I’d been intending to ride (in reverse) on the way towards the Swiss border, as well as the Col du Forclaz on the border.  A swift re-routing was required.  This was a pain.

On the other hand, the only alternative was up a long, and very pretty, cycle route to (and along) Lake Annecy:

IMG_2167 Edit

Which was the first in a series of spectacular lakes.

And after one more (low) alpine pass, I was done with the French Alps, and parked up near the Swiss border.  Ready to have a proper look at the country, after my 90-minute preview a couple of weeks ago.

Like several Swiss towns which sit on the border with other countries, Geneva has ‘foreign’ suburbs.  So it was only a few minutes on the bike from my overnight stop in France to the centre of town, and Lake Geneva:

IMG_2183 Edit

The first thing you notice (as a cyclist) in Switzerland is the proliferation of bike lanes.  You can roll into pretty much any town on marked routes.  Often, these are segregated, although a lot are just British-style paint on the road, too.  In either case, it makes a nice change from having to fight for space on crowded streets.

The second thing you notice is how hideously expensive everything is.  This is obviously exacerbated for me by the inevitable economic damage done by the ‘Brexit’ vote – thanks for the extra 15% on everything, Britain!  But Switzerland is outrageously expensive anyway.

IMG_2186 Edit.jpg

For example, my campsite at Lausanne was in a beautiful lakeside location (above).  But US $24 for one person and a tent is not exactly as economical as camping should be.  A fizzy drink and a bottle of water costs US $6 in the average cafe or petrol station.  A ‘value’ meal in a well-known burger chain runs to US $13, (and those prices are against a pretty strong US dollar).  So you know you just need to cross the country as quickly as possible.  To get somewhere (anywhere!) where you can survive on less than a banker’s salary.

While I was out of the Alps, I still had to cross another range of big hills (the Jura) before reaching Basel, and the Rhine valley.  At first glance on the map, the Jura look quite intimidating; ridge after ridge after ridge of fairly high, steep hills barring the way north.

IMG_2204 Edit

But a little more planning reveals that there are little gorges between the valleys, so you actually ride all the way from Neuchatel to Basel with only one major climb.  Despite fairly often heading into apparently closed valleys with dismayingly steep sides, there’s always a little ‘doorway’ through which you can escape (like the one above).

Which made for a fairly relaxing run down from the lakes, and through the hills on Wednesday and Thursday.

The city of Basel is another Swiss border city.  I’d been flipping between French and German-speaking Switzerland every few kilometres from Neuchatel, and Basel sits on the border of three countries, with France and Germany both sitting across the city limits to the north.

Given that this triple border lies on the Rhine, which is one of Europe’s great rivers, I was hoping to get a picture of the wide river, with all three countries in one photo.  Unfortunately (certainly when heading to Germany), all you see is warehouses and industrial buildings before the – empty – border post.  At which point, you enter Germany, while your phone lights up with a ‘Welcome to France’ message.

IMG_2212 Edit

Thankfully, there are some flags to make the ‘triple border’ point without the panoramic picture or the inaccurate text messages.

And so, yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, I rolled along the flat Rhine valley in yet another country; Germany.  I can’t say much about it yet, as the area’s heavily forested (it’s on the edge of the Black Forest, in fact).

So it’s short on stunning views so far.  I do know that it’s much cheaper than Switzerland, which is good.  And that staying in a small spa-town with ‘lots of old people’ (as I had it described to me) is not a recipe for a decent internet connection.

It was also the wrong choice of country.  Had I chosen the French side of the river, I’d have watched a glorious footballing victory last night, instead of a bitter footballing disappointment.

Still, I’ll hopefully find out more about Germany as I go along.  In the meanwhile, the weather is good, the roads are flat, and I have exactly two weeks left to enjoy my ride around the world (I’m expecting to get into Greenwich on 22nd July, barring any problems).

Oh, and I received the photo I mentioned last time, which is nice.  For those who haven’t seen it on Facebook yet, the picture below is me and the bike taking on the Col du Glandon last Wednesday.

KV6B4807 Edit.jpg

Not quite in the style of the Tour riders (including Steve Cummings, who just won today’s stage up the Col d’Aspin in the Pyrenees), but a professional photographer certainly makes it look easier than it was…

More from the heart of Europe next time (hopefully a bit quicker, and with fewer technical problems).

* * *

For UK-based Touring Cyclists

Note that most ‘universal’ adaptors for UK electrical devices do not fit modern Swiss electric sockets.  The socket design prevents anything other than narrow, two-pin European plugs from fitting.  There are a few old sockets around (I managed to find one in the whole country), which will work, but it makes sense to check whether your adaptor will fit Swiss sockets before you get there.

Otherwise, you might not be able to update your blog for a week 😉

Deflection. Reflection.

I’m not where I thought I’d be.

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

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

IMG_1942 Edit

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

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

IMG_1947 Edit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_1957 Edit

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_1964 Edit

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

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

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

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

Grinning from Ear to Ear

I’m not sure that I ever thought that I’d find my cycling paradise in Macedonia.  I certainly didn’t expect to find it in Albania.

But after two superb days of stunning mountains, gorges, lakes and rivers, I’m beginning to think that this might be it.  At least, it might be if the roads weren’t quite so ropey, and the driving standards quite so poor…

IMG_1769 Edit
There wasn’t much of a clue as I left Skopje on Saturday.  Some reasonable scenery, and reasonably flat roads, but nothing to indicate that I’d spend most of the following days grinning like a crazy person.

And Sunday began with an 800 vertical-metre climb into Mavrovo National Park, pushed up against Macedonia’s border with Albania.  I reached the top feeling fairly hot, and slightly tired.  A coffee by Lake Mavrovo perked me up a little bit.  And then it was time to head for the border town of Debar.

IMG_1777 Edit

I’d kind of registered that there was a lot of downhill from the lake.  But I didn’t realise that it was around fifteen miles of downhill.  Down a magical gorge road (the two pics above).  Magical because the road kept falling as the mountains on either side got higher.  And because every twist and turn just revealed another spectacular view.

It was actually a bit dangerous, as my head was constantly swivelling to catch the next snow-capped peak, or overhanging cliff, or village clinging improbably to the side of the valley.  I’d normally have been paying a little more attention to the next bend, or the next vehicle charging towards me on the wrong side of the road.

It was a stunning piece of road.  And when I finally hit the bottom at Lake Debar (below), I was so elated that I didn’t even mind the nasty, 20% ramp before Debar town.  I barely even noticed it.  But I did feel sad to be on the verge of leaving Macedonia so soon.

IMG_1781 Edit

Debar is typical of western Macedonia.  All the way from Skopje, you can feel the Slavic and Orthodox Christian influences weakening as you approach re-entry into the Muslim world at the Albanian border.  Once you get to Debar, you can really feel how close you are; I noticed several mosques, but no churches.  And the statue in the town park was of the great Albanian hero, Skanderbeg.

This morning (Monday), it was just a five kilometre ride to the border.  Another super-relaxed crossing, although the Albanians do still stamp your passport, and I was rolling into country number 27 (they really clock up quickly round here).

Albania proved fairly pretty, but irritatingly uphill and headwindy until lunchtime.  And then it all changed again.

IMG_1785 Edit

For the second day in a row, I found myself on an almost infinite downhill.  There’s a new road in the bottom of the valley (above), which is not finished yet, so the current road twists and turns its way along the valley side.  You can just about see it.  There’s very little in the way of barriers or other safety equipment here, so the ride is a little more exhilarating than it strictly needs to be.  Which is fun, as long as your brakes keep working.

By the time I’d worked my way down the upper slopes, and round the corner to the right, I could actually smell the discs heating up.  This is a first for me on a bike (possibly indicative that Albanian driving habits are contagious), and I was relieved to find that there was no scary brake-fade as a result.  Because I was about the hit the really fun part.

IMG_1789 Edit

It’s always hard to appreciate on photos, but there’s still quite a long way left to drop on the picture above.  Another five or so miles of passing trucks, bouncing flies off my teeth, leaning through hairpin bends, and slithering a little bit on the occasional gravel patch.  And all the time with this magnificent landscape all around.

If I’d smiled any wider, I’m pretty sure my face would have split.  And I’d have started ingesting unacceptable amounts of airborne insects.

The last few miles to Burrel were flat and pleasant farmland, along the valley bottom.  With the exception of another steep spike up into the town itself.  Just like yesterday, I didn’t mind the hill at the end at all.  I even had a go at chasing a local cyclist (on his carbon fibre road bike, complete with race number) up the incline.  I’m pretty sure he let me catch him, but he did a great job of looking impressed.  A fantastic end to a brilliant couple of days’ riding.

IMG_1796 Edit

And, as the sun fell over the hills at Burrel (above), and a well-deserved steak rounded off a near-perfect day, I realised that I’m already halfway across Albania (it’s not exactly the fattest country).

It seems almost a shame to be progressing so quickly.  People here are insanely friendly (roadside high fives, and even slaps on the back, are common), and the riding is just great.

I have a feeling that I might just be back around here one day…

On the Edges

Borderlands are always interesting places.

Mountains plunging into the sea provide stunning landscapes.  Places where cultures bump into each other produce fascinating history (even where they also – all too often – provoke conflict).  It’s at the edges where things are most compelling.

I’ve been in border country since the last post, although I’ve only really appreciated it today.

IMG_1598 Edit
Bolu (above) was the last proper city in the hills.  Since then, it’s been small towns and smaller climbs (and some immensely fun downhills), as I’ve crossed from the mountainous interior of Turkey back towards the Sea of Marmara.

And the sea (together with the Aegean, immediately to its south, and the city of Istanbul at its northern end) has been a cultural crossroads since people started writing history.

So the borderland between the hills and the coastal areas is also the edge of a fuzzy cultural boundary.  Although I’m not in Europe yet, things are changing already.  Up in Bolu, things still felt very Asiatic, with the fairly mono-cultural cityscape of mosques, minarets and square buildings dominating.  Within a couple of hundred kilometres, things are much more cosmopolitan.

But the noticeable changes had already begun at Bolu.  Just a few kilometres east of town, my road had been joined in its valley by a motorway.

IMG_1600 Edit

That’s not just a road with a designation beginning with ‘M’, as was the case in the former Soviet countries.  It’s a proper, European-style motorway (the main drag between Ankara and Istanbul).  The sort of road where bikes are not allowed.  It’s the first road I’ve seen for months that I can’t ride.

I know that this will be the new normal from here on (and that it’s my normal normal in any case).  But I’ve got so used to rolling along whichever road I want that it feels like a big change.  So does the fact that the chocolate bars in petrol stations have suddenly become the same as at home, where further east, they are all Turkish versions.

I think my perspective might have got a little skewed somewhere along the way…

There are still plenty of reminders that I’m not home just yet.  It’s pretty certain that a flatbed van in Europe wouldn’t be allowed on the road with a ton of apples tied loosely on the back with string.

But that appears to be what caused me a twenty minute delay this morning:

IMG_1621 Edit

Thankfully, things got slightly more organised after the big guy in the red shirt started waving his arms and shouting.

This afternoon (Tuesday), the cultural variety and complexity of this area became clearer.  I dropped down to lake Iznik.  I’d been trying to get to a town on the edge of the lake, which is marked up on Google Maps as ‘Nicaea’.  And I’d been getting increasingly concerned that I’d not seen it signposted.  I was just following signs for ‘Iznik’, and hoping that Nicaea would become obvious.

It turns out that Iznik and Nicaea are the same place.  Google uses the Greek name for some unfathomable reason.  Although that was the town’s name when it was established (by a Greek mythological character, apparently), it’s been Iznik for ever as far as the locals are concerned, and Google should probably have caught up by now.

IMG_1628 Edit
But it’s not just the names of the town that show how many cultures have had a say in this region over the full course of recorded history.  The city walls, which I casually parked the bike against on the way into town, were originally built by the Ancient Greeks.  The local tourist guide notes, sadly, that ‘only Roman and Byzantine construction remains’.  And that’s still not counting the role of this area of Turkey in the birth of the Ottoman Empire.

There’s an intimidating amount of history in this part of the world, on the edge of so may empires.

I’m going to have a day off tomorrow (Wednesday) to have a proper look around Iznik, and digest some of this stuff.  It’s only about half a mile across, but has ancient churches, mosques, Roman arches, and so on.  It even has a mosque called the Ayasofya, which used to be a church.  Just like Istanbul.  But much, much quieter.

20160510RTW_6 Edit
I’m happy I can get all the layers of history around here, as I’ve decided not to head to the metropolis on the Bosphorus.  I could probably have got to the outskirts today, and entered European Turkey tomorrow.  But I’ve been to Istanbul before, and I’m not quite done with the Asian continent just yet.  And I’ve heard a lot of nightmarish stories about the Istanbul traffic.

Instead, once I’ve had my rest, I’ll head along the south of the Sea of Marmara.  It’ll take an extra few days to get to Europe, but I should see some more interesting places, and enjoy the coastline.

There’s one other, slightly fuzzy edge which merits a quick mention (in my book, at least).  And that’s the edge of space.  This is usually considered to be the Karman Line, and is 100km (62 miles) above the surface of the Earth.

Why is the Karman Line of any interest?  Because, yesterday, while grinding up yet another incline, I reached 100,000 metres (or 100 km) of vertical gain on the round-the-world trip.  I’ve climbed to the edge of space on a bicycle with bags hanging off it.

No wonder my legs need a break…

On Climbing and Waiting for Rain

I wasn’t sure that I’d get very far after I left Samsun yesterday morning (Tuesday).

First, there were some horrendous weather forecasts flying around.  Most of which suggested that I’d be pinned down by thunderstorms and wave after wave of heavy rain until Saturday.

Second, it was time to hit the mountains again.  This was sure to slow me down, and so leave me trapped in the middle of nowhere as the lightning flashed and a month’s worth of rain fell in twenty minutes.

All in all, it looked a bit nasty as I pulled on my brand new cycling shorts*.  The cloud was already down on the tops of the hills around the city, and I almost decided just to go back to bed for a week, and wait for the rain to get to me.

IMG_1543 Edit

So far, it’s been a decent decision not to.

The clouds began to clear as soon as I turned inland, and the remnants of the breeze which had pushed me along the coast were funnelled by the hills into a little tailwind.  The road has been beautifully engineered throughout, too.  But it was still quite a surprise to start at sea level, and to hit a 900-metre (close to 3000 ft) pass before lunchtime.  At an average of 13 mph.  And in the sunshine, too.

I wasn’t fooled, though.  This was not allowed to be a brilliant day.  I knew the mass of rain that the TV news was showing couldn’t just disappear.  It was just a matter of time.  I watched the skies, suspiciously.

Still, as I rolled into Havsa yesterday afternoon, I was still bone dry.  There were a handful of heavy storms about, but they were all pretty small and none came too close.  I figured I’d got lucky, and prepared to be rained in the next morning.

IMG_1561 Edit
After watching the sun go down behind the mosque, I considered composing a few sentences on how my trip has also been a little window onto the Islamic world.  Then I realised that nobody likes a pretentious cycle-tourist, and went to bed instead.  To everyone’s great relief, I’m sure.

I was woken after midnight by the sound of rain pounding down outside.  I felt vindicated, and a little smug, and drifted back off again.

The morning sunlight woke me before my alarm went off.  I was confused.  There really wasn’t supposed to be any sunlight this morning (Wednesday).  I looked outside.  There were some clouds scudding about on what looked like a fairly strong headwind.  But nothing that really spelled the sustained heavy rain I was anticipating.

I put my jacket on against the wind, and pedalled onwards in the sunshine.  Towards Osmancik.  More hills, more tunnels, and another 1000-metre pass.  With a beautiful, swooping decent off the top (below), which was only partly spoiled by the headwind.

IMG_1580 Edit

But finally, as you can see above, the horizon was darkening.  A mass of cloud was rushing toward me.  This was obviously the forerunner of the huge area of rain.  I actually thought I’d cut it too fine as I dropped into town, with another small but vicious-looking storm pummelling the valley next door.

As you can see, I didn’t get under cover a moment too soon, as the sky blackened over the castle, and the rain began.

IMG_1582 Edit

It stopped five minutes later, having barely wet the street.  And although there have been a few evil-looking clouds about since, it’s still dry as darkness falls this evening.

The forecast, needless to say, reckons that it’s already raining here, and will do so (heavily) for the next 48 hours.

However the weather works out, I’ve got to congratulate the Turks on their main roads.  The climbs are very long, but barely get above 3%.  And the road surface is almost silky, meaning that the bike rolls really nicely on the inclines.

So, if the weather seems designed to make me look silly at the moment, the roads are making me look good.

There’s definitely a lot more climbing to come, though.  And I can’t help feeling that the rain’s going to have its say eventually…

* This was a great result: I found a far-flung branch of Decathlon (large, French outdoors store) in Samsun, so was able to get a cheap (but reasonable quality) pair to replace my original shorts, which… erm… seem to have melted.  Or maybe rotted.  Don’t ask…

The Land of Enlightenment and Salvation

Those awful roads and outrageous levels of dust couldn’t last for ever.

They just felt like they did.

One more day north from Jamshedpur, which got me even filthier than the road there, and things started to improve.

They kind of had to, or I’d have gone completely round the twist by now.

IMG_0879 Edit

The roads smoothed out, and, with the odd exception, have remained decently-surfaced since Ranchi, which I reached on Sunday.  I even found a few small hills to play around on, though the views haven’t been too spectacular (the picture above is about as exciting as the scenery has got).  And I’ve piled on some fairly big miles before another rest day here in Patna today (actually, the first rest was on Thursday; I’ve ended up having two days off here due to the still-ongoing SIM card saga…).

IMG_0891 Edit

While the scenery hasn’t been much of a distraction, the driving standards remain hysterical, and have kept me simultaneously entertained and terrified whenever I’m not on a dual carriageway.  It’s odd that the two German cyclists I met back in Vietnam were shocked by Hanoi’s traffic once they got there.  While Hanoi was pretty ‘interesting’, every large-ish town in India makes it look fairly tame, in my opinion.

My favourite Indian move is the ‘Double-Take, Double-Overtake’.  Usually carried out by a motorcycle with passenger, but can also be committed by tuk-tuk, or car.  You overtake a foreign cyclist.  You stare a couple of times, then slam your brakes on, and dive into the side of the road to let him back past.  Then you re-overtake with the smartphone snapping pictures or video.  Or just waving and shouting.

It’s clearly fun for the locals, but it makes for a few more mobile chicanes than I really need to be dealing with, given the general driving standards here.

And I never got driven right off the road in Vietnam.  I’m at 11 times and counting so far in India.  You definitely need your wits about you here…

IMG_0893 Edit

Still, mainly larger roads brought me into the state of Bihar on Tuesday.  A state with the best slogan I’ve seen in ages: ‘Welcome to the Land of Enlightenment and Salvation’.  A lot to live up to.  From what I’ve seen of Bihar so far, it actually seems to be the Land of Small Brickworks (pic above), at least in the more rural parts.

IMG_0897 Edt

I rolled into the state capital, Patna, on Wednesday evening (or, at least, pushed and scraped my way in through the gridlock), with the prospect of a day off and another attempt to get a working SIM card on the agenda.  As I said, it’s ended up being two days off, partly because of yet more comedy registration issues at the mobile phone shop (and no, I still don’t have a working phone, eight days after I got my first SIM card!).  And partly because I’ve developed a weird heat rash which seems oddly reluctant to go away.  I don’t really want to push on too far from a major city in case it gets worse, though it seems to be improving a bit now.  Fingers crossed.

20160204RTW Edit.jpg

In any case, I’ve made it to the Ganges, India’s sacred river.  The picture above is just the arm of the river which runs closest to Patna city.  The whole thing is apparently somewhat bigger.  I’ll cross it when I leave here.

Even with the extra day off, I’m still making decent time.  It should only be a couple of days from here to the border with Nepal, which I understand will provide a little more in the way of scenic views.

And just a wee bit more climbing…

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…

IMG_0838 Edit

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.

IMG_0852 Edit

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:

20160123RTW_1 Edit

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:

20160123RTW_3 Edit

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…

Hills, Temples, Beards and Monkeys

A hot, dry day in central Myanmar.  A thirsty cyclist pulls up at a battered lean-to cafe at the side of a dusty, but surprisingly smooth road.

It’s a quiet day, just before lunchtime, and the owners are happy to see a customer (once they’ve stopped giggling at the sweating mass before them).

Then their toddler starts screaming.  And screaming, and screaming.  The cyclist waves, smiles, pulls faces and removes his reflective shades.  Nothing works.  The screaming just goes on and on, until the poor child is eventually removed to next door by his grandmother.

It’s the beard (the family explained in sign language).

As well as irritating me by its continued presence (it’s close to preventing me from eating properly now), it means small children think your head’s the wrong way up.  Which would be a little scary, I guess.

It’s staying ’til the end of Myanmar, though.  It’s itchy, and probably quite heavy, as well as apparently terrifying.  But it’s saving me a lot of sunscreen.

IMG_0817 Edit

Anyway, it’s been a few miles since the last post.

I never did find the centre of Nay Pyi Taw (if, indeed, it has one).  I entered from the south, crossed the urban area, and left to the north.  Plenty more massive and empty roads (above).  Quite a few imposing buildings in colossal plots of land.  But barely any people, and no city to speak of.  Very peculiar.

Soon enough, I was back on the bumpy highway, and heading through many towns and small villages, all with populations which might well be bigger than the capital’s.  A couple of humdrum and rattly days later, I’d made it as far as Meiktila.

20160118RTW_1 Edit

It’s an unsung little town, but was significant to me for three (I think) very good reasons.  It was rather beautifully located on a lake (above).  It was the point where I left the highway on a long, westward detour.  And it had a giant golden duck in the town centre.

Heading west, away from the highway, I was expecting the roads to get worse.  After all, the surface on the main road was (generally) pretty ropey, so the minor roads were bound to be hopeless, weren’t they?

So it was with some surprise that I found myself cruising along on the nicest road I’ve seen here in Myanmar (except for that lovely Thai highway at the start).  It’s not that the smaller roads are any better built than the highway.  They seem to be exactly the same – tarmac poured pretty much straight onto the ground, and then patted listlessly with shovels.  But the lack of trucks ploughing the road up makes a big difference.

It was great until that kid started screaming…

And so, after a relatively long, but pleasant run yesterday (Tuesday), I arrived at Mount Popa.

20160119RTW Edit

Mount Popa is, for obvious reasons, a very literally big landmark around here.  To give you some scale, the temple complex (on the separate ‘little’ hill to the left of the picture) sits at about 750m above sea level.  Popa is just a bit bigger, as you can see.  And given that most of this part of Myanmar (in fact all the way up from Yangon) is at only around 100-200m altitude, it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Of course, I’d decided that a mountain-top finish was just what I needed after 100km in the saddle.  Not all the way up, obviously (that would just be silly), but up to the base of the temple rock.  How hard could that be?

IMG_0833 Edit

Well, it was a beautiful location, but the hill was a bit of a beast.  To say the least.  After a few kilometres of gently rising road, the last push to the summit was 350 vertical metres (call it 1000 ft).  No big deal, right?  Even after a longish ride.  With a 40-kilo bike and bags combo.  No big deal at all…

That’s true if the 350 metres is knocked off over 10 km or so.  The issue with Popa is that the 350 metres is reached in only two-and-a-half kilometres.  That’s just 2500 metres.  Or an average gradient of over 14%.  Now, I can do that sort of steepness with the bags on for a short while.  But 10% is about the most I can sustain for any length of time.  So trying to recover on a 7% or 8% section, before another 25% ramp heaves you skywards again, is just ridiculous.  Especially when there are monkeys trying to hitch a ride (or rob your bags) for the last few minutes of the climb.  Ouch!

Thankfully, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll have to ride another hill that steep on this trip.

Because I’ll be very carefully avoiding them.

Of course, there’s a major upside to overnighting high up.  It means that it’s (usually) all downhill the next day.  Today (Wednesday) was an absolute joy.  A steep, twisting descent off the mountain, followed by a fairly constant gentle downhill all the way (well, all of thirty short miles) to Bagan.

20160120RTW_3 Edit

And Bagan is an absolute gem (at least, if you’re into temples, pagodas and ruins).  It’s essentially a large plain between the mountains and the river Ayeyarwaddy (which used to be the more-easily-spelled Irrawaddy).  And the entire area is covered in archaeological marvels, dating back, basically, forever.

I had a poke around this evening.  You pretty much can’t walk for a hundred yards without stubbing your toe on another piece of history.

20160120RTW_10 Edit

And it looks pretty good as the sun goes down.  Well worth the (long) detour from the straight line to Mandalay.

It’s been a good few days, all in all.  I’ve even worked out how to fix a broken pannier with a water-bottle bolt –  a skill which I’m sure will be immensely useful in future.

Now I just need to sort out the scary beard…

The Wet, Muddy and Slightly Spooky Way to Perfect Cycling Country

The story of a day of two halves (and the day after, too)…

Sunday started damp in Vietnam, at the foothills of the mountains which form the physical frontier with Laos.  It had rained most of the night, so the roads were wet.  Which translates into dirty.  But, by the time I was ready to go, the weather had decided to restrict itself to low, dark clouds.  So I set off.

The road deteriorated into mucky dirt for a little while.  Then it turned into a four-lane highway for a few hundred metres.  Then it stabilised into a normal, average road.  Gently rising through smaller and smaller villages.  With very little traffic, which was a plus.  If a little odd for one of the main routes between Vietnam and Laos.  Maybe it’s busier during the week?

Then the climb began.  I knew it was about a 15 km, 600-odd metre haul to the border.  Which is just a little different from the Dutch-style flatness of the Vietnam coast, but I was prepared for that.  Jens and Bjorn (the two German cyclists I’d met the night before) had said that the hill to the border was really steep on my side, but that I’d have a great run on the other side in Laos.  So I was prepared for that, too.  And in the end, it wasn’t too bad; three or four steep sections of around 10-12%, with decent stretches of false flat in-between to get my breath back.

What I wasn’t so happy about was riding more than half the climb in the clouds.  Which really means light drizzle, with visibility down to less than 50 metres near the top.  I ended up putting the high-viz jacket and lights on to give the logging trucks half a chance of seeing me.  Several sections of the hill, where the surface had been removed for repairs, had deteriorated to mud and slimy puddles.  One of the muddy puddles was deep enough for me to get my feet wet.  Grr!

And, if I wasn’t happy about it, the Beastlet was even less so, as it clicked and ground its previously spotless drivetrain (and even the disc brakes) on mud:

IMG_0645 Edit

I finally clattered and wheezed my way to the top of the hill to find the spookiest border crossing I’ve yet encountered.  The visibility was down to maybe 20 metres, and I spent a while on the Vietnamese side circling parked trucks, shouting “Lao?” at the handful of ghostly figures who emerged from the gloom from time-to-time.

IMG_0639 Edit

Eventually, I found my way to the apparently deserted border post on the Vietnam side.  I checked a couple of empty rooms which might have been passport control.  I began to worry that I might accidentally leave the country and enter Laos without even seeing an official, let alone having visas or stamps or anything in my passport.  About the fifth ghostly trucker I asked finally pointed me to the passport desk.

I knocked on the glass to wake up the sleeping border guard (as you do), who dealt with my stamp very efficiently, and then, slightly bizarrely, offered me some chewing gum.  I’m still not sure exactly what he was trying to say, but I was out of Vietnam.  Almost.

There’s about a mile of no-mans-land between the two frontiers, with another huddle of parked buses and lorries, and a massive building, which I guess will one day be a new Vietnamese border post.  It’s still completely deserted at the moment, but with near-zero visibility, cost me another few minutes trying to work out if I needed to do anything there.

I gave up in the end, and started down the hill, hoping to come across a border post for Laos.  The clouds began to lift almost immediately.  By the time I glided in to the well-staffed and friendly Laos border at Nam Phao, sorted out my visa on arrival, and had my passport stamped (all of which all only took about 15 minutes, but cost me an extra $2 because it was Sunday), it was dry, and the sun was threatening to put in an appearance.

By the time I’d negotiated my way around a comically aggressive miniature poodle, and got a couple of kilometres down the road, it was wall-to-wall sunshine.  On a perfectly smooth, almost empty road.  With a tailwind.  That is a decent recipe for a big smile on a muddy cycle-tourist’s face.

And I even got a nice sunset, just after I got into Lak Sao, the first town of any size (or the last, I suppose, if you’re going the other way).  I’d only been in Laos for a couple of hours, but I already liked it.

IMG_0643 Edit

If the first impressions of Laos were good, yesterday (Monday) blew me away.  I was only going 60-ish kilometres (still easing in to the ride, so not piling the miles on too hard).  But what a 60 km!

20151222RTW_1 Edit

The road from Lak Sao was stunning from the start, with mountains on both sides.  There was still virtually no traffic.  The sun was out, but up at around 400m altitude, the temperature was around 25C, and the humidity negligible.  And after the permanent haze, diesel fumes and clammy dampness of northern Vietnam, the air was crystal-clear.  Beautiful cycling in a beautiful country.

Towards the end of the ride to the little village of Na Hin (where I’m having my first full rest day of Part 2 today), there was a short, sharp 200 metre climb, with some properly steep (15% plus) sections.  So I got a decent workout.  And then, over the top, a superb, fast, twisty 400 metre decent to Na Hin.  I nearly hit a snake and a deer (not at the same time), and I did hit 40 mph on a loaded touring bike for the first time in ages.  An absolutely spectacular day’s riding.  I’m still smiling now, just writing about it.

20151222RTW_3 Edit

So, what next?  Well, it’s nearly Christmas, apparently.  In marked contrast to Vietnam (which left me never needing to hear Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’, or any form of dance-remixed carols, ever again), it’s no big deal here in Laos.

I’m thinking at the moment of riding through the big day to Vientiane (I should be able to get there by Christmas afternoon if I can get across the mountains to the Mekong river tomorrow; it’s less than 300 km in total), and then having a mini-celebration and another day off on Boxing Day.

But we’ll see.  In case I don’t get another update in beforehand, I hope you all have a great Christmas.  I’ll certainly update this again before New Year.

Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying this spectacular country on two wheels.  Which feels like a pretty decent present at the moment…