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This is the largest landlocked country and the ninth largest on the planet. Each time I visited, I was able to explore a new region as it was just a short journey from our home in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. It's not as central Asian as Uzbekistan, more Russian in feel, but it's size means that it is quite diverse.
My experiences ranged from the grey and dank Tashkent-Shymkent highway, the ski resort of Shymbulak near the glitzy city of Almaty, and the desert-scapes of Charyn Canyon near China.
If one can look passed the nuclear test sites and the clouds of smog in some parts, its really quite nice. When the locals are not on the vodka, my experiences with people were calm and pleasant. When they are on the vodka, they either want to be your best friend, or to punch your lights out. Another huge generalisation, but I am just sharing my observations.
I love this chapters photo, coined as Matt vs. Donkey vs. Machine by my only road-cycling friend for a year or so. No one understands why a foreigner would ride a bike here, unless they are poor or crazy. To be fair, judging by the way I was treated on the roads, you'd have to be crazy. No surprise then that the state sponsored Astana Pro Team would often come south into Uzbekistan for the relatively sedate road conditions in Uzbekistan. This would make no sense to anyone who has cycled in Uzbekistan, but it is true.
By far my favourite day of cycling in Kazakhstan was in the far southeast of the country at the summer-only Karkara mountain border with Kyrgyzstan near Kegen. We had woken early that morning in our tent surrounded by a field of wild horses. We tootled down to the checkpoint with them as they wandered for a drink in the ponds and puddles which had gathered either side of the raised gravel road. The border was little more than a few huts and a barrier across the track, but thanks to our forward planning, we had no problem with permissions and paperwork and were soon on our way.
There were a few 4x4's around and the odd Lada, but little traffic crossed this way, as the road was terrible. Things were changing in Kazakhstan though, as we spent a few hours finding our way through serious construction sites. I would say they were just road works, but there was little evidence of the road at this point. We met some young French cyclists, who were as laissez faire a pair as I ever did meet, with little gear and unsuitable bikes, they were eager to hear our stories of Kyrgyzstan and us theirs of Kazakhstan. They told us we were definitely going in the right direction, because a few hours away was a wonderful descent of over 1500 vertical metres to the desert plateau, scarred with many canyons.
It quickly heated up as we zipped down a relatively smooth road, and before we knew much about it, we were baking in 40 Celsius heat. The final seven kilometres were a real test as we could see the village we hoped to stay in, shimmering like the typical oasis scene from many movies. Except that this scene had dilapidated bus shelters, soviet warehouses and one tree in town. When we finally touched our feet down on the squidgy road beneath, we were not optimistic about our chances of sleeping anywhere. However, a storekeeper showed us around the back to a crumbling prison-cell with a gutter for running water full of sheep shite. Perfect. By the morning it had crumbled some more, as a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit the region, making for a unique wake-up call. We had routed this way mainly to see the Charyn Canyon. This was actually a diversion of a few days from the route east towards China, but from what I had seen from my favourite travel documentary 'The Long-way Round', it would be worth the effort. It certainly was, but we had learned that cycling through and out of it towards China was no longer possible, even with an unloaded bike, so we reluctantly hitched the 35kms to the turn-off from the road.
We hung around at the next junction, scorching and squinting in the dry desert, hoping for a lift for the last 10kms off-road to the entrance of the canyon. It only took a few vehicles to pass before we were picked up. A lovely European family on an unusual break from their jobs in the capital was excited to hear our stories, but they couldn't hide the looks on their faces of utter disbelief and fear that we were crazy to be bike touring around here. The route back was not quite as smooth as we had spent a good while gawking at the massive slit in the earth and lost track of time. We asked the only official looking person how to get back and he pretty much just gave us a litre of water (the only water we had), wished us luck and gestured that we started walking. We eventually made it back to the road, and just as we were starting to struggle to swallow, a big old soviet car came rolling around the bend. Bottle in hand and gold teeth beaming, we had no option, so just smiled back at our willing driver. We sang songs all the way back to our luxury cell, received chocolate bars from concerned truckers, and spent the evening sitting on some steps with a polish couple who had no idea why they or we were there.
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Considering my Mum lived in Japan for over a decade, I really didn't cycle much here. I’ve visited three times and enjoyed each one a great deal, but each time that we ventured away from her home city of Tokyo we did so by some other form of transport, my favourite; the ubiquitous Bullet Train.
Cycle touring here is becoming a big thing these days as the land is varied, the people are welcoming and there is good food at every corner. However, it is still only a feasible destination for those lucky enough not to have to worry about money. Communicating with often immensely polite and kind people can also be a real challenge. So too is checking you are in the right place and going in the right direction as the Hiragana script on road signs means you have to be a bit of a code-breaker sometimes, even with apps a plenty.
Recent accounts of touring here prove that wild camping is possible and safe, but the population density in some areas makes this awkward. Avoid the month of August if possible, as the high temperatures and humidity are almost unbearable in some areas. In contrast, the snow, especially in Hakuba near Nagano is the best I’ve ever felt for skiing. Given that Japan is about twice as big as the UK, an End2End here would be an exciting challenge, but tricky to time right.
My only real quality pedalling time was around the small city of Nikko in the mountains north of Tokyo. I took in views of the river valley from severely arched red bridges, stopped in the cedar grove to see the lavish Shinto shrine (1617) and visited a Japanese hot spring called an Onsen. All of these confirmed my imagined view of what Japan outside of a huge city would look and feel like.
Japan is seriously investing in cycling. More and more 'Cycling Roads' are opening all around this island nation. AirBnB's and 'Rider-Houses', especially on Hokkaido Island in the north, are becoming more common. They provide good options that are both cheaper than a guesthouse and more comfortable than a tent.
Travelling is all about seeing, feeling and learning about places and the way people live. Our commonalities that bind us as a species, and those quirks which make us unique. However, more than any other of the 70 plus countries I’ve visited, there are many things that totally bewilder and baffle me in Japan. Whether it is the self proclaimed 'Freaks' in the city parks dressed as Gothic Elvis', or the Air-Conditioned coats (just take a layer off), the special functions of their toilets (and the toilet museums), the coffin style rooms at capsule hotels, or the white-gloved officials on train platforms who are paid to push and squeeze people on to carriages.... I could go on and on.
I think my confusion comes from thinking that some things are familiar, when they are not. Why should they be? Many things in the country feel like they are quite westernised in many ways, but totally 'out-there' in the interpretation of some of these western things. Fascinating as long as you know that it's not an effect of any medication you might be on. Don't try too hard to understand things. Touring on a bike here is on my to-do list as it would certainly be a good place to come with family, take your time and enjoy the differences.
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This chapter is very much work-in-progress. Having just married into an outdoor-sporty Irish family, I am sure that my knowledge and the subsequent stories of cycling in Ireland will grow.
In the various visits I have made to Ireland thus far, I have already built up a sense of how riding in these parts is good for the soul. The fresh ocean air on the west coast certainly blows away the cobwebs, and my mind constantly wanders to the travellers who must have passed the same way over the millennia. One can feel the history, the traditions, and the pride at every turn. Your expectations of Ireland will be met, whether it is from the glow of a decent pint of Guinness, the welcome you'll receive even as an Englishman or the moody views you will see.
The Wild Atlantic Way, running 2750kms along the west coast, has become one of Europe's great journeys. Now that the tourist infrastructure is in place, and now that the millions of people from around the world with Irish heritage have been reminded, this route it is hotspot. It would make for a tough and windy bicycle ride whether one cycles north or south, as the blustery conditions and the gradients of the craggy bays would be a test for anyone. I have not yet cycled much of this, but have seen enough in the car to want to give it a go one-day.
Each year the 180km Ring of Kerry bike ride takes place. This is a one day event, but this loop which is mostly on the Wild Atlantic Way, would likely best be seen over a week, allowing time to visit the beaches, pubs, and hillsides. This would also provide enough time to dry out overnight in the various hostels and guesthouses along the way.
I once rode along a narrow pass known as the Gap of Dunloe, weaving through Ireland's highest mountain range the Macgillycuddy's Reeks. It was a full days ride of about 60kms, with dozens of switchbacks and stops for wonderful views across five lakes, surrounded by hills of a purple hue. The road was fairly quiet when we rode here, but it becomes very busy in summer. Most drive in a northerly direction, so best to do so too as suddenly meeting oncoming traffic on these narrow roads could be nasty. Again, there are hostels and guesthouses to stay in with real fires and great breakfasts. Just ignore the rain and the pain, and love the ride.
Ireland is full of keen cyclists and the nation provides more than its likely share of elite riders. It is no real surprise as the terrain and the conditions here make you hardy. Partly because of this success, the popularity of cycling is at an all-time high and other road traffic remains relatively light compared to neighbouring countries. This all means that there are myriad resources out there to help you plan a visit, which you must. Combine your ride with a spot of golf and some Whisky with an ‘e’, and if you are anything like me, you'll think you're in heaven.
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Writing about this collection of 17,508’s island is going to have to be a generalisation. I am sure that many of the islands vary immensely from others, from idyllic mounds of sand in the sea, to slimy backstreets coated in the bi-products of modern day living. This slightly longer than normal chapter is about just four of them, but still, compressing the nation into just a few paragraphs is tougher than normal.
We entered Indonesia on the island of Sumatra, having taken a speedy ship from the Malaysian mainland. The town of Dumai looked just as unappealing as the port town we had just left. Development is certainly happening here too, but it seems with little consideration of the impact it may have on a once wild place shrouded in jungles, home to elephants, rhino and tigers. Little evidence remains of these, so we were very frustrated to see new, although to be fair, much needed roads piercing the last bastions of nature. Another place in the world where I worry about what I’ve been teaching kids about Economics. Have I been adding to this one-track advancement to riches and ecological collapse? I must put more emphasis on the alternatives and foster critical-thinking at every opportunity.
The main east-west Sumatran highway is little more than a few strips of tarmac in places, bulging in the heat and the overloaded trucks that hurtled passed us. We spent a month in Sumatra and we were rarely able to look around us for the traffic was unpredictable and the shoulders non-existent. There were brief reprises though; the highland town of Bukittinggi and the nearby Maninjau Lake were a welcome change from the industrialised villages and gas pipelines. The hair-raising descent to the lake, with its 64 switchbacks is used as a category 1 climb in the tour of Indonesia. Thankfully, we were going in the right direction and blasted downhill for two days to the ocean on the south of the island. We spent the next week or so edging along the coast towards Java, and occasionally enjoyed the off-road and back-road sections we chose to venture on, pausing to stare at a few quiet and undisturbed bays.
The island of Java is even busier than Sumatra, bursting at the seams with ‘progress’. Again, as people scramble to get their slice of the perceived good-life, little has been thought of the damage it may be causing the land, waterways and/or the people. Nor did we in the west at the time, so we are all to blame for the predicament we in.
I would not recommend cycling in Java to even my greatest enemy (maybe I would). It’s too late for this place, sad but true. There are still pleasant relics of times gone by though, such as Borobudur, some epic volcanoes and river valleys, all of which made it more worthwhile being here and a comfortable enough place to sit and wait for a visa renewal, amongst a cacophony of life.
Moving east to Bali was like entering a different country. Not just because we saw scores of tourists for pretty much the first time in weeks (a scourge in itself), but because people seemed way more relaxed and I got a full nights sleep away from the calls to prayer in every corner. Some of the places we stayed on the beach in the west and north were spot-on. It’s amazing how tourists seemed to cram themselves in on the peninsular south of Kuta and in the artisan town of Ubud. We wondered whether they knew about the calm bays and lush rice fields we were enjoying. Here, it felt like we were on a holiday, on holiday again. We could breathe again.
A second 30-day visa renewal meant that we needed to fly out of Indonesia and re-enter, so we chose Timor-Leste instead of the more obvious Singapore. That was like stepping back in time. The Portuguese port of Dili the capital was little more than a town. We liked it a lot, walking along the beach, choosing a Parrotfish to eat from the only restaurants menu, sipping good wine. This country was a great pit stop, albeit without the bikes.
Upon our return from ‘East-East’ as this is the direct translation of Timor-Leste, we decided to head to what we thought was the picture-perfect island of Lombok. It wasn’t. Ok, there were sections of quiet beaches and the occasional laid-back tourist town, but not a lot. We arrived on the public boat in the southwest as the speedboats could not take bicycles. The three-hour journey took eight, so we arrived in the depths of the night, but still optimistic about what we would find the next day. No doubt the majority of luxury package tourists would leave with a great impression of the place and this must have somehow transferred in to my preconceived vision of the place. We kept pedalling in the hope that just around the corner paradise would appear, but more often that not it would just be a skyrise hotel on the west and north coasts, or a fishing port with beaches of rubbish. It made us sad; we quickly had enough of the mess and the contrast of tourist hotpot and neglected dusty roadways used to build them, with nothing nice in between. We made a beeline for the boat back to Bali, having done a full clockwise loop of Lombok in only a few days, and enjoyed the end of a year on the road in a relaxed and simple manner, away from the worst of the crazy busy cities.
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Travelling in India is intoxicating in many ways and totally addictive. The food and the people will keep me coming back again, but this account of an event which took place towards the end of my first extended trip abroad on my own, was one of the most heart-in-mouth experiences I’ve ever had.
It took place in the foothills of the Himalaya, near Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. We had taken the slow train from Delhi after blowing most of the cash we had left from a year on the road visiting the Taj Mahal. We had not actually been able to afford to get in, instead we contemplated the sacrifice which took place during the building of this stunning mausoleum from across the river. We did so for free as we had pedalled from our awful hostel in the town and were pleased with ourselves for likely being able to extend our stay in this pulsating country.
The train atop its narrow gauge railway crawled up the mountains as monkeys half-heartedly fled from the route ahead, only to hassle travellers at every opportunity. This place and this journey was unique, and the fact that there were not many other tourists around gave us a sense that we were really somewhere special. Arriving in the town we found a hostel and got a good nights sleep in the thin air, ready for a hike the next day.
The weather was perfect, the alpine air of the morning wafted fresh across our faces. It was lush, a pristine environment, quite unexpected after the suffocating smog of New Delhi and the harsh dry land of Rajasthan. I remember being very excited to stretch our legs as we clambered out of the white Bedford Rascal Minivan (Chevrolet Damas for my Uzbek friends) that had taken us up to the trailhead. We trotted off into the pine-cone covered floor of the forest, with joyful abandon. Total abandon we later found out, wallets and I.D too (well my travel partners anyway). It was nice that we had an hour or two to explore before the sinking feeling of empty pockets sunk in. We had planned to see much more of India, and other countries before heading home, but this was a large spanner-in-the-works.
We hitched back towards the town, quite quickly as every vehicle that passed us (white Bedford Rascal vans) were eager to pick us up. We were pleased to be able to explain to our driver what had happened in these, the days before smartphones (probably good as we would have lost those too). He was calm and re-assuring, but I sneakily caught him shaking his head in the mirror, although I have learned that head-shaking in India is not necessarily a negative. We did feel like a couple of twits though when we described the vehicle that we had left our valuables in, as we might as well be describing his. It definitely wasn't the same guy or vehicle though, as we had somehow remembered a Tottenham Football Club logo on the interior trim and this guy had a properly impressive moustache.
Arriving back at the taxi depot, we were flabbergasted to be totally surrounded by white Bedford Rascal Vans, darting around us with some serious Bhangra beats competitions taking off. Our driver was a saint, he patiently wandered the depot with us, probably enjoying having his increasingly pale new friends in tow. He spent a good while chatting to his mates without too much chuckling, trying to find the clean-shaven Spurs fan we had described. Before long, we had adopted an 'A-Team' of about a dozen drivers, who shot off in different directions in their vans to enquire in their home towns. Again, phone calls were not an option at this time.
We became increasingly worried, hungry and thirsty. I was relieved to be the type of paranoid traveller that I am, and had remembered that my Mastercard was in my wash-bag, in my rucksack back at the hostel. So, totally skint we started the funeral march back to our only source of sustenance, a piece of plastic that I had only ever used once in an emergency in Nepal (see Nepal chapter). This was before the days of E-Pos machines and ATM's on every corner, but we somehow managed to get a pizza, of all things. The most expensive meal we’d had for months.
It was late and we were mentally and physically exhausted from the trauma of the day, so we tried to rest. In a sleepy haze, we became conscious of a tapping on the window. We stumbled to peer out to see the 'A-Team' below, beaming with pride. There he was, the Spurs fan, with our valuables lofted above his head. The excitement and relief was epic and it remains one of the best feelings I’ve had. Even better that it was shared with my mate, even better still that it was mainly his stuff not mine. Almost needless to say; we had a great day. We bought a couple of bottles of terrible Whisky, but it didn't matter, we spent the day being chauffuered to lookouts where we partied with the group, all of us overjoyed. We danced and sang and laid plans for our now longer stay in the region. But it wouldn't be India without a steamy ending, and sadly we spent the next few days squatting with Pizza poisoning.
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We were nearing the end of our summer stage cycling across ten countries in Europe when we entered Greece at the Dojran lakeside border with Macedonia, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as Greeks know it.
There were two goals in mind for touring this country:
1. Allowing time for celebration at Niamh's end point in Thessaloniki.
2. Meeting my folks at the border with Turkey in 10 days time.
The land quickly turned parched again after slipping away from the lake, and the punctures came think and fast. We were pushing ourselves to get to Thessaloniki, not because we needed to for time, but because the prize was in sight and we would be able to enjoy our extra effort even more when we arrived. We sure did. The Whisky and Craft Beers tasted even sweeter, knowing that we had managed to get from northwestern Italy to here ahead of schedule. We enjoyed some retail therapy and acted like we were on holiday, on a holiday for a few days. We even splashed out on a hotel with a pool and some treatments that scraped the remnants of abuse off our feet.
It was soon time for Niamh to fly home to Ireland, so I dashed out on my bike earlier than normal to avoid the inevitable awkward dragged-out goodbye. Except that back-fired when we realised that I had somehow packed her lovely new blue leather jacket, so I had to divert to the airport. We are both rubbish at parting, so I barely stopped for an embrace, rolling through the airport terminal fully loaded and out again in seconds.
I tried to make up for the unusual start to the day by pushing hard to get up and over the three fingered peninsular that the city is positioned to the southwest of. I spent the rest of the morning panting, as I rounded a bend to find another hill, constantly maneuvering across the road seeking shade from the blistering sun. I quickly discovered that Greek dogs do not like cyclists one bit. Each village had packs loitering on abandoned plots; no doubt the leftovers of the financial crisis, which had hit over-extended Greek's particularly hard. It was almost enough to ruin my cheap coffee and cake breaks for goodness sake. I dealt with them in the same way I always had - sprint away and scream. I later learned a better tactic in Georgia years afterwards (see Georgia chapter).
I finally made it to the other side of the peninsula just before sunset, which I settled down to watch on the balcony of a bargain guesthouse, hosted by someone who really cared about her guests. Stavros was a lovely spot and I enjoyed relaxing there for a moment or two. That was until I heard that Niamh’s flight had been delayed, meaning that her connecting flight back to Ireland had gone without her. She was still in Greece; her bike was nowhere to be seen. Neither of us had internet access, but I was kindly given permission to use the hosts computer, who could see the look of concern on my face, so didn't need to speak to communicate. I managed to book another flight but only for the next day with another stop in London. I finally got the message to Niamh before midnight, but she had been stuck at the airport all day with no idea what she could do. It must have been horrible, especially as her bike had disappeared.
Amazingly, a week later her trusty steed arrived at her home, almost unscathed. I'm writing this because the idea of flying with a bike puts some people off of touring. I understand the concern and the hassle that goes into dismantling and re-assembling for packing into a box. But after doing this dozens of times now, when the bikes finally arrive, there is normally no major damage. Airlines usually follow through on delivering to an address if they do not get the bike on the planned flight, and with plenty of 'Fragile' labels, and cunning box choices (TV boxes are best), they handle them with some degree of care. We have recently invested in proper bike bags, with re-enforcement and locks. These are proving to be great, but of course are no use if you are cycling onwards from an airport. You can't carry the bags and they are far too expensive to throw away. In summary - believe that people will care and be patient.
After that little drama, I woke early and hungry, so ventured out for some breakfast at a beachside hut. I returned to realise that I had locked the keys in the room. I was so angry with myself, but I used my by Spidey-skills. I scaled the drainpipes, shimmied across guttering and jumped the balcony. The wrong balcony I might add. There I was trying the slide-door to someone else's room. They were not well dressed, understandably as they were partly in bed. The guy woke, looked at me and simply closed his eyes again. Strange, but it seemed that I had not been detected, so not only was I acting like Spiderman but I was Doctor Invisible too. I confidently hopped onto the next balcony and to my relief saw that the slide-door was ajar. I was in, and ten minutes later, on the road, transformed into a wannabe Supercycletourman.
I spent the next few days feeling like an alien riding through package tour and lager-lout paradise. Except that I was one of them really. Ok, so I came here on a bike, preferred craft beer and wore cycling jerseys instead of wife-beater vests, but I was still a Brit on tour. Once again, I was embarrassed that people probably perceive me in a certain way, but pleased that I was a little different. I wanted to get away from the orange-red glow of buttocks on the beach and develop my own red-butt from cycling. So I re-routed to follow an old Roman road. This was a great call, as all those years ago, they had stopped at intervals each day the matched mine, so there was a settlement, or at least somewhere to pitch a tent in relative quietness. I had swapped the cursing clientele on the sticky dance-floors of resort towns with cursing domino-playing old men on sleepy village squares. Swapped the Lager for Grappa, and the Egg & Chips for locally grown veg.
My final night was spent in a lovely village near Alexandroupoli, a few hours west of the border with Turkey. I had planned to meet my folks on the other side, in a petrol station at an agreed time. Remarkably, the border was a breeze, and I crossed the carriageway to enter the station forecourt at the exact time that they rounded the corner in a car, so we arrived together. Smooth as a babies bum, and much smoother than mine at the time.
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Ghana seemed like a logical place to visit on a half-term break, so I threw my mountain bike in the back of my red 4X4 and drove from Lomé, the capital of Togo, my home at the time, to the border within 15 minutes.
I was once again reminded how travelling with a bicycle is much easier than a car, at least at borders. I spent my first three hours dealing with red-tape, and sadly having to pay a bit of a bribe to get on my way before nightfall. I drove along the southern coast towards the capital of Accra, but didn't make it. My Mitsubishi Pajero was a temperamental beast and decided to play up frequently. I gave up, and slept for a few hours in between dizzy spells from the heat.
The sun rose quickly, so I got on my bike and cruised around the Songor Lagoon until it got too hot. I then bombed it to the city to find somewhere with air conditioning. Accra is nuts, so I didn't want to hang around for long, and cycling was certainly out of the question. So I continued west towards the castles/forts/prisons of the Cape Coast. This area is steeped in history, but most of the history with a European theme is horrendous and, once again, I was the opposite of proud to be me.
The cycling between the forts on the beach alongside thousands of wooden fishing boats was great. I stopped to play football with some teenagers dressed in premier league favourites. Considering how most Europeans once treated the people of the 'Slave Coast', it was a surprise that I was welcomed the way I was. Maybe they just wanted to laugh at the white man playing on the beach, but I reckon I held my own and even scored, pulling my best England shirt over my face as I celebrated, hands in the air, stumbling. Again, if I had been in my car, rather than on my bike, I doubt I would have been received in the manner that I was.
Most of the native culture and history is difficult to get into in this area, so I was a little bit disappointed by the tourist scene. I decided to stop off at a tree-top walkway in the Kakum National Park which was described as a 'Extreme Experience.' I had to try it, even if I was a bit concerned by the total lack of safety warnings. It was indeed a adrenaline-filled experience, as the wooden bridge walkway swayed between the trees 30 metres up from the ground.
Later that day I continued north in the car, passed rather regal plantations for all sorts of tropical delights. The area became mountainous and was picture-perfect with bright greens and reds all around. I cycled up some hills to get some good snaps, leaving the car near the road. By the time I had, it started to rain heavily and it began to wash out the road. Before long the puddles became ponds, which then became lakes, and I became stuck.
I can surely say that I have never seen darkness like that night. My car had water in the engine, and a flat tyre, so at the first glimmer of light from a town, I stopped at the police station. Within minutes, I had a floor to sleep on and a mechanic arranged for the morning. The storm continued all night and the whole region lost power. It was another sticky night.
Mountain biking the next morning was a proper adventure. I barely saw another person, just cattle and jungle. At one point I thought about abandoning the car and cycling back to Togo, as I was having too much fun in the area. Eventually, the logical part of my brain over-powered the emotional part, so I returned to the town. The mechanic was there to greet me, beaming as he had successfully bodge-jobbed the car, which was ready to go. But I was invited to share a beer or five and some local moonshine, so I stayed another day. Why not hey? This is what travel should be about, feeling what is right and going with the flow. What a wonderful place to immerse oneself. True adventure, totally off-the grid in the heart of Ashanti territory.
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I have ridden in Germany as a school-kid and as a teacher, which is a nice full-circle thought. In addition, i've seen much of the country on holidays, professional development courses and by 4-wheels. From Hanover, Hildesheim and Berlin in the north, to Munich, Füssen and Stuttgart in the south, I feel like I have a good grasp of the diversity of land and people.
However, I cycled during none of these visits, so I will now concentrate on two other spots in this blogpost:
The first is where I got my first taste for bike touring. I was given the opportunity to visit some family friends one summer during my school-years. I must have been 14 and I needed a break from what was going on at home. Staying with Claudia and Axel's family was just the ticket. I spent days playing the piano, writing melancholic poems and generally doing what a teenager does, with a tinge of angst. I was staying in their beautiful wooden home near the town of Wolfenbüttel, close to a peaceful forest. I met a young lady on the second day of a few weeks there, as she stopped by the house on her shopping bicycle. I have never learned a language so quickly. Before I knew it, I had accepted her offer to go out into the forest the following day with a group of people on bicycles. I had not done a lot of recreational outdoor-pursuits as a boy, other than Cubs, Scouts and the Sea Cadets, so this leisurely camping trip was new to me.
I remember a lot of cassette tapes with stickers, a lot of snuff and a bit of schnapps. The average age was about 17, so I had to try and play it cool so as not to give away my lack of years. The warm summer sun flickered through the trees, drenching our young faces with optimism and excitement.
I won't go into details of the evening, but it was great and very cozy. I slept like the baby I really was, and found it hard to leave after a hearty cooked breakfast. But we did leave, all very efficiently, strapping our bags to the bikes and clearing up the campsite meticulously.
The second ride in Germany was in the extreme south west as we rode from Switzerland to France. It was the fifth country of nine that we cycled through as part of the world-record attempt (see Austria post). We rode along the edge of Lake Constance and Untersee, surrounded by typical alpine meadows, stopping occasionally for refreshments and to form a plan with our support vehicle. It was during one of these stops that the four of us, in T-Shirts with the charity logo, decided to get a few action shots. Our support vehicle driver was in place as we took our positions alongside each other. It was a lovely backdrop, an old wooden town, which must have once been a transport hub for a railway. There we were, smiling, whilst trying to look strong and determined, when all of a sudden one of the team disappeared. He had inadvertently positioned himself on the old railway line, his wheels caught like a trolley. Strapped into his pedals, he had no chance, the slightest sideways movement sent him crashing to the ground, badly twisting his ankle and knee in the process. The road must have felt like sand-paper as it drew blood, but he was a trooper and we got the money-shot. This was only a few days into the ride, yet he soldiered on each day, pushing himself through the pain barrier.
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I will need another visit to Georgia to understand what it is. For the week or so that I was there I noticed that it was a melting-pot of cultures; Russian, Turkik and yet also very European.
Cycling through the country was challenging due to road conditions as there were no shoulders on the roads I travelled, and there is no such thing as passing space. I felt wing-mirrors many times during this part of the summer tour from Baku, Azerbaijan to Kas in south-western Turkey. The speeds were crazy here too, and judging by the number of car graveyards I saw, many of the decades old cars can't handle the abuse. The prostitute-lined road into the higgledy-piggledy centre of Tblisi from the east, and the undulating road south towards Armenia, were some of the hairiest moments i've had on tour.
Aggressive dogs were also a bane. Georgia is right up there for me with Greece and Mongolia as a scary place to ride. I was chased along the road a dozen times by packs of stray dogs, often hanging out in landfill sites. I know that dogs love a chase and that I should always stopped, but my 'flight' reflex was too strong. Once or twice though I couldn't out-run them, so my tactic was to slam on my brakes once at top-speed, turn, and in my best British accent, assertively tell them to go away. This worked best on gravel roads on which I had more traction they they did, so they would often skid passed me, legs flailing like in a cartoon. Except these were very real beasts. Many of them were large Kangal dogs and they really affected the ride, everyday. I would be fearful coming up to any settlements and became jumpy throughout. I have no problem with dogs in general and totally respect their ability and willingness to protect property, but many roamed freely around towns and fields, so I would spend much of the ride paranoid, scanning hedges for movement.
One day i'd had enough, so I found a shop selling Dazer devices. Before I made the purchase, I asked fellow cyclists how to handle dogs via online forums. I wanted good Juju, so I didn't want to cause dogs any harm, I just wanted to know what I could do. I was not surprised that many people had been bitten by dogs in this region, which convinced me that there was a need to be 'armed'. I was surprised however by the number of people who accused me of being an animal hater. I couldn't believe it. People were stating that dogs have more rights to be there than me, and should be respected. I get the respect bit, but they need not invade my space, or legs. These Dazer devices are pretty simple and do not hurt when deployed, they simply emit a high-pitched noise which at least made dogs think twice. It wasn't very effective, at best they would just look over their shoulder and wonder what that annoying noise was, but it had a positive affect on my mental state. Armed with this, a can of compressed air and a strong stick strapped to my bike, I pedalled out of the city a few days after the Brexit Vote, 23% poorer (on paper) than I was when I entered.
Almost balancing this out is the beauty and calm of the landscape to the north of Tblisi where steep sided valleys play host to adrenalin fuelled activities such as mountain-biking and and white-water rafting. We enjoyed both of these a lot in the warm summer air, and were snug in a wooden cabin for the night. The hillside town of Signagi in the east of the country with is terracota roofs, cobbled streets and monasteries precariously perched on ledges around the valley, was a real highlight. Not least of all due to the welcome I received in a guest house, the good food they offered me and the wonderful homemade wine I sipped, frequently. Getting there was a real challenge and remains one of the toughest climbs i've managed on a loaded bike. Well worth the effort for the place itself and the descent down towards the capital.
Vardzia, in the south west of the country is a must see. A mainly 12th century settlement of 50,000 people at it's peak is a series of cave-cum homes with stores, places of worship, and entertainment halls all carved out of the mountainside high above the Kura river. It is at the end of a dead-end road, as the mountain range to the south is a natural border with Turkey, but it is truly spectacular and has managed to avoid the modern day travesty of over-doing 'refurbishment'. I found the cheapest guest house in the area, but since it had no road access, I spent an hour walking to and fro across a tight-rope style bridge with parts of my bike and load. The isolation was wonderful, and the host family provided me with fresh warm milk and schnapps for the night. A special place.
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France is of course just a a short-hop from the south of England, so as a kid I cycled many slices of the country. Sometimes on school-trips, other times on holiday and once around the suburbs of Paris whilst playing in a Rugby tournament. The land has always felt very familiar, but the people not so much.
I remember drinking strong coffee made by a host family when I was about 12, before flying down the motorway at 180kph in a convertible Ford Escort XR3i. Life was lively here, to the contrary of my pre-conceived notions.
My most recent experience in France was as the 7th country of 9 cycled in the one week world record attempt (see Austria post).
The thought of cycling in France always evokes images of 'Le Tour' and, sure enough, at times we felt like we were in it as we sped along tree-lined roads, past farm houses, lavender fields and vineyards.
Three other riders and I entered France from Germany and stayed in Strasbourg for the first night, before heading roughly 280kms NNW to Luxembourg via Thionville. By this point in the challenge we were riding strong and feeling good, managing over 150kms each day. Fractures had started to appear in the team however, and a bad call by me to meet other team members in the next town caused a massive delay and bad moods. I had initially thought that I would be helpful by finding a cafe and ordering lunch ready for us all to warm up and recuperate from a morning of battering rain and headwinds, but half the team took a different route into the town and we missed each other. Thankfully we had a support vehicle and its driver managed to inform them. They had already passed the town and were not going to come back, so when we eventually caught up to the group, I could sense the angst in the air. They were tired and not best pleased, so I tried to make amends by towing them for the rest of the day, as I felt like I owed them. I
The bad weather had tempted us all just to put our heads down and carry on to the town we had chosen as a good target for the day. There is only a certain amount of cold and wet you can get on a bike, and once suitably saturated you tend not to feel any worse, or so I have always thought. Some team members were exhausted that evening and this was likely my fault. It certainly affected the next few days and ultimately may have been the tipping point for the altercation in Belgium a few days later (see Belgium post).
A team should remain a team, especially when cycling; lesson learned. I should never have gone ahead. Being in each others slip-stream when cycling in a group can conserve up to 40% of one's energy based on always being sheltered by the person ahead and in their drag. I did more than my fair share upfront that day, and was likely part of my thinking to get ahead and find a lunch spot. Selfish I know. There were times before that day where we had been working fairly well to take it in turns up front, at least with one other member of the team doing his bit.
Staying together would mean slowing down, which by the time we got to France, need not have been a big issue as we were on world record pace. So I learned to gauge others more often, as just like me (when i'm not whinging about something), people often say that they are fine when they are not. I was still new to riding in a pack and now having reflected on it, would love to do a better job of it one day. Thankfully the conditions over the next few days improved as we neared Luxembourg we all enjoyed a great feast in a barn with good wine and building sense of achievement.
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