tourism

Back in the (Former) USSR

I’ve been off the bike for a whole week.

I’m feeling a little bit chubby, and a little bit lazy.  Especially lazy, as I watch from my warm room as yet another band of cold rain strafes Tashkent.

It’s been worth the time off, I think.  A few days to recharge, and to ready myself for a lot of long, hard miles to come.  And a little time to adjust to the cultural and meteorological differences between India and Uzbekistan makes the change less stressful.

And it really is a different world on this side of the Hindu Kush.

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I was a little nervous flying over Afghanistan on the way here (above).  Not because I was worried about flying over Afghanistan, but because of some of the stories I’d read about Uzbekistan.

It’s apparently impossible to get hold of dollars here, as the handful of cash machines in the country are always empty.  And I wasn’t sure I’d managed to collect enough in India to get across Uzbekistan.  Customs apparently take your bags apart, searching for prescription drugs, undeclared cash and pornography.  And the currency is apparently so shot that you have to take your money around in carrier bags (due to the fact that the highest note here is only 1000 Soms).

All very dramatic and a bit worrying.  And mostly not quite right (dollar cash machine working, customs polite, bags scanned but unsearched).  Although the currency is definitely shot, and my Uzbek Som are, indeed, in a carrier bag…

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As it turns out (so far, at least), I feel surprisingly at home here.  Yes, it took a few minutes to get India out of my system.  I got in the wrong side of the taxi at the airport.  I gawped at the cleanliness and quietness of the streets on the way into town.  And I thought I might have gone deaf for a moment, due to the almost total lack of honking.  We even stopped at a pedestrian crossing to allow people to cross.  It was all a bit disorientating.  Disconcerting, even.

But, fairly shortly after arriving at my magnificently old-school Soviet hotel (above), I realised that I actually knew how things worked here, and that I was probably going to enjoy myself.  Not that the relatively posh hotels will last for long, mind you…

I was lucky enough to spend many months in the former Soviet Union when I was (a lot) younger, as countries crashed, recovered and crashed again in the 1990s and the noughties.  And I speak enough Russian to get by (it’s the common language here).  By the time I’d had my second conversation about unofficial money changing (with the second person I spoke to – it’s a national sport over here), things were starting to come into focus for me.

The currency here is, indeed, something of a mess.  The government sets the official rate (currently just under 2900 Som to the dollar).  The market sets a more realistic rate (currently around 6600).  Although you’re unlikely to get quite the market rate as a foreigner, you can get close with a bit of haggling (another national sport).  You can see both rates here.

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The dual exchange rate basically halves the cost of anything which is priced in dollars.  Which means that dollar prices initially appear really expensive.  For example, my SIM card and internet package, which was outrageously priced up at $35, actually cost more like $17.  Still very pricey, compared to South East Asia and India, but not too bad.  And, unlike India, it worked as soon as I bought it.

While it’s no longer true that the biggest Uzbek note is 1000 Som (less than 20 cents), things have not changed that much.  The biggest note is now 5000 Som, which is still less than $1 at the ‘real’ rate.  The picture above is a million Som, or less than $200.  And it’s still pretty bulky.

Apart from readjusting to life in the 1990s, I’ve spent my two days in Tashkent generally staring at driving rain.  I managed a couple of little strolls, to inspect the impressive city centre buildings, but the weather has been woeful here since I arrived.

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I’ve also been enjoying the widespread availability of proper cheese, which is an immense step forward.  And I unpacked and rebuilt the bike today, alleviating the last of the major concerns that were bothering me over Afghanistan.  As always (so far!), the bike survived the flight with no obvious problems, and is ready to hit the road tomorrow (Friday).

And it’s hitting the road in a big way over here.  Most riding days will be over 100 km, as I head south-west for a long, long way, before turning to head north-west to Kazakhstan (for another long, long way).  Ancient cities, camels, and long desert days should be in the offing.

There are likely to be some tough days ahead.  But for now, I’m fed, rested, and raring to go.  The Silk Road is calling, and I’m excited to see what it brings.  As long as the rain stops, I’ll be happy…

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Is it Growing on Me? Or Have I Just Got Used to It?

A tricky question.

Can it be, despite the continued flat landscape, the homicidal driving, the noise and the dust, that I’ve quite enjoyed the last few days?  Or have I fallen victim to some Indian variant of Stockholm Syndrome?  What’s going on?

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On the face of it, not much has changed.  Since Lucknow, I’ve pushed nearly 400 km across India in four days.  The roads have remained pretty flat and featureless, and the temperature is starting to push upwards towards uncomfortable, in comparison with the lovely 23-24C which I’ve had up to now.

But there have been a couple of small but significant changes.

Firstly (and most astonishingly), my third Indian SIM activated itself.  Twenty-four hours later than it should have done, but who’s complaining?  It was the least promising of the three I’d purchased, having been sold to be by a pair of rank amateurs in a shop with wires hanging from the ceiling and protruding alarmingly from walls.  But it’s the only one that’s broken India’s bureaucratic stranglehold, and I finally have mobile internet!

That makes me happy.  As well as saving a fortune in more-expensive-than-necessary accommodation…

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Secondly (and probably more importantly for morale), I’ve had cross-tailwinds all the way from Lucknow.  I checked, and it’s been a while since I waxed lyrical about the benefits of tailwinds.  Especially on a touring bike, with the bags acting like sails.  The difference pre-and-post Lucknow is remarkable, according to both my GPS and one of the guys above, who chased me down the road on his motorbike, shouting my current speed at me for 20 minutes.  He didn’t speak any other English…

Before Lucknow, with an irritating headwind, I was struggling to average 20 kph / 12.5 mph.  And it was hurting.  After Lucknow, I’ve been cruising effortlessly at 28 kph / 17.5 mph on the main road, and averaging 24 kph / 15 mph including the standard (i.e. dreadfully slow) town riding.  And I’ve been knocking off 100 km days without even blinking.

Way quicker.  Way easier.  Way happier.

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Even a massive increase in long waits at level crossings (well, two in three days) hasn’t dented my spirits.  When everything’s running ahead of schedule,  you can treat it as an opportunity to people-watch, and to marvel at the myriad ways they slide their motorbikes under the barriers (and then look shocked when the train nearly takes them out).  It’s not intensely irritating any more; it’s kind of fun.

And then there’s what’s at the end of all those miles.  I rolled into Agra this afternoon.  There’s a fairly famous building here, which I’ve so far only seen at a (very) long distance.  It’s closed on Fridays.

But even from long range, with scaffolding on, the Taj Mahal looks quite impressive at dusk:

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I’ll have a closer look at the Taj tomorrow (and hopefully squeeze in Agra’s impressive Fort, too).  It’s the first really stunning landmark I’ve come across in India, and it’s a bit bewitching, perhaps because the scenery’s been a bit bland until now.  I was staring and taking photos for a couple of minutes before I realised I was stood on top of a massive open sewer.  Which probably sums things up quite nicely.

So, is India growing on me?  It might be.  I’m certainly less disgruntled by the dust and the traffic.  But I guess I’ll only really find out if when the wind changes…

Ireland Hopping

UK Tour Stage 3 (Isle of Man, through Northern Ireland to Irvine, Scotland):
Cycling Distance – 311km / 193 miles
Ascent – 1960 m / 6429 ft (0.22 times the height of Mount Everest)
Toughness Index – 62.99 (100 = Really Tough)

Total UK Tour Cycling Distance – 1036 km / 644 miles
Total UK Tour Ascent – 6821 m / 22373 ft (0.77 Everests)

My little adventure outside the UK, on the Isle of Man, didn’t last long.

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Douglas, the main town, is a nice enough place; a very traditional (Old-fashioned?  Yes, definitely old-fashioned) seaside resort.  Terraces of Victorian hotels, a promenade, horse-drawn trams, and shops that shut at five sharp in the evening.

I wasn’t really on the Isle of Man for its genteel touristic charms, however.  Or its exceptionally low rates of income tax.  There are two things which move a little quicker than the trams, and rank alongside offshore finances as the island’s best-known features.

The first (and slower) of these are some of the finest racing cyclists in the world.  Mark Cavendish and Pete Kennaugh are the current cream of the Manx crop.  I thought it would be good to have a little ride around some of the roads they grew up on.

They’re nice roads, but I’m not sure why Cav can’t climb hills very well:

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The other fast thing is the Isle of Man TT.  Also on two wheels, but just a little quicker.  If you’ve not seen what motorbikes look like while doing 200 mph on public roads, this video gives you an idea.  I thought it would be good to see how the Beastlet matched up.

I took most of the bags off, and rode up to the top of the TT’s Mountain course (from where the picture above was taken).  It was surprisingly easy, having dropped 20 kilos of weight.  And, having admired the view, I turned around and legged it back down the 400 vertical metres to the TT finishing line as fast as my tiny touring chainrings would allow.  My legs were a blur.

It only took about 15 minutes to pile down the hill.  Which was somewhat quicker than the climb up.  I was quite pleased, as there was a bit of traffic.  But the fastest TT riders are close to 17 minutes for the whole 38-mile lap of the island.  Read that again.  17 minutes for 38 miles.  Hairpin bends, mountain roads, mini-roundabouts and all.  An average speed of over 132 miles an hour (210 kph), and a max 0f 200 mph.  Phew!

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It’s fair to say that I’m unlikely to match that sort of speed pedalling.  And putting engines on bikes is cheating, anyway.  So I reluctantly shelved my racing dreams, had an early night, and awoke in darkness to catch the early boat to Northern Ireland.

I’ve been to the Republic of Ireland loads of times, but never been to the North before.  I guess it’s the same for lots of people my age, as Northern Ireland was, to say the very least, a bit of a mess for most of my life.  It’s a part of the UK which is still struggling with its past issues (to the extent that half the Assembly resigned while I was there).

The armoured police stations with their high fences, watchtowers and cameras are a reminder of the bad old days.  And there are echoes of that past all over the place.

I saw more Union Flags in Northern Ireland than I have anywhere else in the UK, together with red, white and blue painted kerbstones, and war memorials to members of the British army (like the one in Bushmills, below).  There’s not much doubt that people in these areas see themselves as being part of the UK very strongly.

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In areas and villages where there were no flags, the school names tended to begin with ‘Saint’, there were Irish Gaelic translations of the road names (add that to the list of languages in the UK), and the kerb stones remained unpainted.

It’s pretty clear that those old divisions (Catholic vs Protestant, Unionist vs Republican) are still there, not so very far under the surface.  Us versus ‘Them’ again…

But things are much, much better than they used to be.  The main terrorist / paramilitary (as usual, it depends on whether they’re on your side or not) groups on both sides aren’t bombing and shooting each other, or the army and police, any more.

I met a local cyclist called Des, who rode with me up a big chunk of a big hill, taking the edge off the gradient and the brutal headwind.  It was a classified climb when the Tour of Italy started in Northern Ireland a couple of years ago, which was some consolation.  Des was around my age, and had grown up with one Catholic and one Protestant parent (I can’t remember which was which).  He told me that his kids don’t believe him when he tells them how things were when he was growing up.

That can only be a good thing.  And I hope it stays that way, because Northern Ireland is stunning.

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Having spent Wednesday riding up to the north coast from Belfast through rolling farm country, Thursday was spent on the hills and coast of County Antrim.  First stop was the Giant’s Causeway, which is one of the very few places on earth where nature creates straight lines.

It’s actually quite hard to get your head around the fact that it’s not man-made (it’s much easier to understand that it wasn’t actually made by a giant, but don’t tell the kids).  And I managed to get ahead of the tourist hordes, which means that the pictures aren’t full of hiking jackets, which they would have been ten minutes later.

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The Antrim coast is beautiful all the way down to the port at Larne, where I was headed to get the boat to Scotland.  It was a hard day’s ride, with a 20 to 30 mph headwind raking the exposed coast once I’d got over the big hills in the morning.  But I wasn’t in a rush, thankfully, so could take plenty of breaks to soak up the scenery; bays and islands to the left, the glens of Antrim away to the right.  Lovely.

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I’d highly recommend Northern Ireland on a bike, and I met quite a few tourers on the roads over there.  It’s a beautiful place, there are stacks of sights to see, enough hostels and campsites around, and the roads are much like the Republic of Ireland; small and quiet.  It’s hilly and windy, but that’s par for the course in the British Isles in general.

Another start in the dark, and a slightly spooky pedal through the silent streets of Larne, dropped me down to the ferry for the mainland yesterday morning.  The wind was high by six-thirty (high enough that it managed to blow the bike and bags over when I parked against the fence at the terminal), but it would be pushing me up through Scotland, once I got across the water.

Two hours on the boat, and I arrived into the tiny port of Cairnryan.  Into Scotland, the fourth and last of my UK countries-within-a-country.  And I’m still slightly astonished that I’ve crossed all those borders without showing ID once.

Hitting the coast road north, with the wind at my back, I was running quickly yesterday (Friday).  Progress was marred only by the staggering ugliness of the road, which I kept having to stop to photograph:

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This is Robert Burns country; Scotland’s favourite writer (and national hero) was born and died in Ayrshire and Dumfries, and I passed through both areas on the way north.  Which brings me to another British linguistic quirk.  Burns wrote mainly in Scots, but I’m not sure whether it counts as my fifth UK language (I’m disregarding Manx, as the Isle of Man is not in the UK).

Scots is the language of Burns, and pops up in everyday speech in both Scotland and Northern Ireland (the Ulster-Scots community is strong over there too).  If you’ve ever used the word ‘wee’ to mean ‘small’, you’ve used Scots.  And it’s on the road signs here, too:

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But is it a language or a dialect?  Nobody seems to know.  If you speak English, it’s not hard to work out that the sign above means ‘Come Back Soon’.  Although a really strong Scots accent can be hard to decipher for an English person.  It’s not an official language (unlike Scots Gaelic, which should pop up as I go further north), and most Scottish people don’t think of it as a language.  Even those who identify as Scots speakers.  But it is recognised as a ‘traditional’ language by both the Scottish and Northern Irish governments*.  Once again, it’s all as clear as mud.

One thing that’s definitely true of Scotland, especially in the west, is that it gets a lot of rain.  It’s been hammering down all morning, and after a few hard days in the saddle, and passing the 1000 km mark on the bike, I’ve decided that another rest day is in order today (Saturday).

With a bit of luck, the next few days will be dodging showers, rather than getting soaked, as I pass Glasgow and head on north.  Mountains, lochs, valleys and the mysteries of Loch Ness to come, before I even get to the capital of the Highlands at Inverness.

And no more ferries (I think) until the top end of Great Britain.  Time to focus on the big island again for a little while…

*Thanks to Wikipedia; for the information, and for someone to pass the blame to if any of this is wrong…

Border Country

UK Tour Stage 2 (Bristol to Heysham, Lancashire):
Cycling Distance – 385 km / 239 miles
Ascent – 1949m / 6393 ft (0.22 times the height of Mount Everest)
Toughness Index – 50.66 (100 = Really Tough)

Total UK Tour Cycling Distance – 725 km / 450 miles
Total UK Tour Ascent – 4861m / 15944 ft (0.55 Everests)

Borders are funny things.

Funny in the sense of ‘peculiar’.  And sometimes funny in the sense of ‘not funny at all’.

They’re just (usually squiggly) lines on a map.  Artificial, squiggly lines, by and large.  Created almost at random, by geography, by prehistoric tribal areas, by war, by shifting royal alliances, or by the straight, ruled lines of an administrator’s pen.  There’s often no good reason why they cut through one field, rather than the one next door.  And there’s usually no significant difference between the people on one side and the people on the other.

But then we, our governments, and our media define ourselves against (and it’s pretty much always against) the people on the other side of the imaginary line.  We are good.  ‘They’ are bad.  Our religion is right.  ‘Theirs’ is wrong.  We go overseas to work.  ‘They’ come here to steal our jobs.  We retire abroad.  ‘They’ sponge off our healthcare system.  ‘They’ need to be controlled, or we’ll be ‘swamped’ by a ‘swarm’.

So we build the borders higher, and wonder why desperate people turn to smugglers to help them escape from death or persecution.  ‘They’ must be stupid, too, mustn’t they?  And we scratch our heads in puzzlement, and watch ‘them’ die against our fences.  For years.

Until a picture of a dead child on a Turkish beach reminds us that ‘they’ might be people, just like us, after all.  I wonder how long that little glimmer of truth will last…

As you can probably tell, riding long distances on a bike can give you a bit too much time to think.

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Thankfully, the border I was concerned with as I rolled out of Bristol was the border between England and Wales.  It’s been around pretty much since the Romans left Britain, which is quite a while.  The Anglo-Saxons, the English and the Welsh have all fortified chunks of it over the years.  And its history is just as messy as any other border.  Hundreds of years of keeping ‘them’ out of England.  Violently.  But the last couple of centuries have been a bit quieter.

Straight over the Severn Estuary from Bristol, you hit the Wye valley.  It’s a steep, beautiful river valley, with England on one bank and Wales on the other.  The ruins of Tintern Abbey (above) dominate the Welsh side at the southern end of the valley.

I lost track of how many times I crossed the border over the next couple of days.  Sometimes there were bilingual signs (that’s UK language number three, after Cornish and English) welcoming you to Wales.  The ‘Welcome to England’ signs were all monolingual.  Sometimes, there was a (thankfully) sleepy guard dragon instead of a sign:

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And sometimes, I only noticed that I’d swapped countries again when I saw the word ‘SLOW’ painted on the road.  If it just said ‘SLOW’, I was in England.  If it said ‘ARAF’ too, I was in Wales.

As I was approaching Welshpool, after a lovely-but-hilly day through the border area, I saw this signpost, which illustrates how hard it could be to remember how many border crossings had happened:

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It’s bilingual, so I know I’m in Wales.  Chirbury (2 miles down the road) is in England.  Church Stoke (another 2 miles down the road) is in Wales again.  I think that’s right, anyway.

After Welshpool, I headed into North Wales (or at least, in and out of North Wales).  The hills had levelled out, as I was avoiding beautiful Snowdonia, where the big Welsh mountains are.  But there was one more hill I had to climb before I left Wales.

Because I wanted to see the canal boats in the sky.

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I’ve come to the unexpected conclusion that there aren’t enough aqueducts in the world.  Many of those that do exist just move water from one place to another.  But the Pontcysyllte aqueduct is a little more ambitious.  It takes boats across a valley.  A couple of hundred feet in the air.  Over a river.  Well worth the detour.

After the excitement of the aqueduct (boats go across it as fast as 2 mph!), it was back to the flatlands.  A quick nip through Chester, which was once a Roman fort, for controlling the Welsh border.  And a pause to appreciate what’s reckoned to be the world’s first ‘indoor shopping centre’ (note the medieval covered galleries on the buildings, to enable the wealthy shoppers to avoid the toilet buckets thrown from the upper storeys.  And the rain of course).

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At this point, I was only a few tens of miles from finishing the English section of the tour.  It was nearly time to depart the UK for a couple of days.  I just had the flattest day so far, across the plains of Lancashire, to go.

Liverpool is only a few miles up the road from Chester, and I trundled up the Wirral peninsular to take the ferry across the river into town on Sunday morning.  As you’d expect, no clichés were spared; The Beatles were playing on loop in the cafe while I waited for the boat to arrive, and they managed to play ‘Ferry ‘cross the Mersey’ twice over the PA on the boat during the short crossing.

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I’d not really seen much of central Liverpool before, but the waterfront, which saw so many migrants depart from Europe (that’s right – hundreds of thousands of migrants leaving Europe; who’d have thought?) for Canada and the US, is really impressive.  And the city was quiet as I headed north across the flat lands for Lancaster.

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Another Roman city, this time with one eye aimed at the Scottish rather than the Welsh.  The last major Roman outpost before Carlisle, which sits right on the border of the Roman empire at Hadrian’s Wall.  It’s a bit of a shame that my route takes me away from there, and the Lake District national park between them.  But there’s new stuff to see, and I’ve been there before.

And so it was that I set sail yesterday, leaving England behind.  And leaving the UK behind, temporarily.

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A short ride from Lancaster brings you to the small port of Heysham.  Journey’s end for the English and Welsh section of the ride.  To the north of the port, you get stunning views across the bay to the Lake District.  To the south you get nuclear power stations.  Lovely.

Across the water to the west are new places for me to explore.  Tomorrow (Weds), I’m on an early boat to Northern Ireland.  For today, I’m offshore on the Isle of Man.  Same language, same accents, same buildings.  Different money, different taxes, and a roaming mobile phone.

But more on that next time.

I crossed a lot of borders on my half-way round the world trip.  Lots of border guards taking things very seriously.  Lots of people stuck on one side or the other because of their luck (or lack of it) in where they happened to be born.

On this ride, I’ve carelessly criss-crossed a border that was fought over for centuries, and left my country without showing any ID.  These are borders that don’t (at least generally) kill any more.  Nobody storming the ferry or sitting desperately behind a fence peering in.

Funny things, borders.

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…

Notes from a Multi-Millionaire

Regrettably, that’s a multi-millionaire with a poor connection – no photos on this post, I’m afraid.  Anyway…

There’s something strange about the money here in Indonesia.

It took me a while to work out that everywhere I’ve been so far (including my evening in Mexico, where I used US Dollars) has had a Sterling exchange rate of one-point-something to the pound.  The Euro, the Canadian, US, NZ and Australian Dollars.  All of them.  You kind of get used to it.

Then there’s the Indonesian Rupiah.  Currently at around 19,000 to the pound.  That’s a bit of a shock.  I’m a multi-millionaire!  But only after several visits to the cash machine; most of them only give out a million at a time…

Of course, the cash is only one small difference now that I’m very definitely out of ‘the West’.  This is the world’s most populous Muslim country, and there are many changes from the English-speaking, first-world countries that I’ve left behind.

Apart from the changed countryside, there’s now a significant language barrier to overcome, the prices are way down, and south-east Asian scooter madness is a new challenge to the touring cyclist.  Oh, and there are sometimes monkeys by the side of the road (much easier to spot than kangaroos!).

I was delayed getting on the road in Bali.  Not, for a change, because of the weather.  I was ready to hit the road on Friday morning, when I discovered that an old friend and work colleague had just arrived in Bali on holiday.  He was staying just a couple of miles up the road.  Clearly, a swift change of plan was required.  And, eventually, a day late (but a happy coincidence, a couple of Bintang beers and a pizza richer), I finally rolled out on Saturday morning.

Anyone who’s ever been to Bali will be able to tell you about the nutty traffic in the Denpasar area, especially the tourist areas around Kuta.  Indonesians theoretically drive on the correct (left) side of the road.  But the roads are very narrow, there are a lot of taxis, buses and vans around to block things up.  And swarms of scooters make up their own rules; no one way streets or traffic lights for them!

Once you get up the nerve to jump in, though, it’s not so bad to ride inside the maelstrom.  Although it’s chaotic, speeds are very low in towns, and it actually feels a bit more dangerous on the open road, with long-distance buses the main threat.

Anyway, I’ve been going gently for the last three days, allowing my body to readjust to riding after over a week off, and giving myself time in the shade and to get used to the traffic.  And I made it safely off Bali on Sunday, and onto Java by ferry.

Java greets you with a view of a giant volcano, and it looks like there are a few big hills to be had over here, certainly in comparison with the last weeks in Australia.  I’m going to have to re-learn how to climb…

Once I get used to egg-fried rice and tofu in chilli sauce for breakfast, and figure out how to use a squat toilet (tricky when you can’t squat without toppling over backwards), I think I’m going to like Indonesia.  The first big hills rear up tomorrow, and then I need to crank up the kilometres to make the most of my 30-day visa.  At my current rate, I’m not going to get all that far.

Now, how many millions can a man spend in a month?  I’ll keep you posted.  And hopefully, get some pictures together for next time.

Bundaberg

First, an extremely belated ‘Happy New Year’ to all.  This is actually the third post I’ve written this year, but I seem to be particularly prone to technical gremlins in 2015, so it’s the first one to make it up the pipe to the internet.  Hope that improves as the year goes on…

Now.  On to a slow-moving tale of sweat, rain, witches and cartoon statues.  Pretty much business as usual, then.

You may remember (it was a while ago) that I got stuck in Brisbane for longer than planned due to the weather.  That’s the trouble with heading towards the tropics during the wet season.  It rains a bit, and the rain can be quite heavy (for those from outside the UK, that’s a fair example of British understatement).  And when it’s not raining, the sun comes out, making it phenomenally swampy when combined with 70-plus percent humidity.

New Year’s Eve found me on the receiving end of the heat and humidity, which had been building ever since Brisbane.  I scraped into Maryborough, gasping for refreshment and looking forward to welcoming in the New Year.  About an hour later, there was a light shower:

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The storm took out the electricity to the whole town, as well as others up to 20 miles away.  For about four hours.  It took its toll on the NYE celebrations too, as it becomes incredibly difficult to buy anything when the cash registers don’t work.

I’ve been running very slowly, dodging perpetual showers ever since I left Maryborough.  Having ducked and dived a few paltry kilometres further north, I’ve been stranded in Bundaberg for the last couple of days.  But I have high expectations of escape tomorrow (Wednesday).  The fact that I’m still here is down partly to the consistent streams of drenching showers rushing in off the ocean.  And partly down to the witches.

I thought they were witches the first time I clapped eyes on them: three local old crones cackling around steaming cups of coffee.  All very Macbeth (though I think that was on a blasted heath, rather than on Bundaberg’s main street).  But then, they seemed so nice when I started talking to them, and I quickly concluded that they must just be very noisy old ladies.

I’d already packed up the Beast, and was ready to roll this morning, but had been temporarily halted by yet anther monstrous shower.  The witches saw the bike, and pointed out that there were inky black clouds and columns of rain as far as the eye could see.  Then they brainwashed me into staying another night, as it was bound to rain all day.  Needless to say, it dried up by about eleven, and was bright and breezy until dark.  I assume they enchanted the elements to wind me up.

The moral of the story is that you should probably get weather advice from the local weatherman  (‘showers clearing later’), rather than a bunch of random octogenarian sorceresses.

They did suggest the (tiny, but free) local zoo as a distraction, though.  So I got to see a sleeping dog in a cage:

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Bundaberg’s charms don’t end with sleepy dingos, though.  It’s sugar cane country around here, and something has to be done with all that sweet stuff.  The city is famous for rum and ginger beer (both separately and mixed into a refreshing cocktail).  The rum is really nice, but I’ve been addicted to Bundy ginger beer for a long time, and it’s likely to remain my rehydration solution of choice, as long as I can find it in shops.

Sugary treats aside, Bundaberg should also be famous as the birthplace of Bert Hinkler.  I must confess that I’d never heard of Bert before arriving in town.  But after seeing everything from shopping centres to streets named after him, I looked him up.  It’s no wonder the town is so proud of the first person to fly solo from the UK to Australia (as well as making several other long flights, fighting in WW1, and piloting a plane in the inter-war Schneider Trophy seaplane races).  Which makes it all the more surprising that Bert’s statue looks like a cartoon man.  With a giant chin:

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Much though I’d like to spend a few days pondering the possible links between Bundy rum and the city’s intriguing artistic rendering of its favourite son, I really need to move on.  I’m running behind, and need to push on up the coast towards Rockhampton, and before that, the Tropic of Capricorn.

Providing the witches haven’t spooked the weather, it shouldn’t take too long.  And I’ll try to get the next update in a little quicker…