Video #1 – Europe

Whilst enjoying our time off in Istanbul we’ve had a play around with some of the video footage we’ve taken so far using the camera that was a very kind leaving present from work.  You can see our first attempt at amateur video editing below:

(If the video above isn’t working, click here to view)

The end of Europe – Nis to Istanbul

After Bex’s last post we left Nis (south east Serbia) and battled the strongest headwinds I’ve ever experienced either side of the Bulgarian border. The wind was being channeled down the valley we were cycling through and gusting savagely in our faces. We were down to 9kph on the flat whilst pedalling at full power and were both blown off the road a fair few times. Having to pedal even when going downhill is not good for morale!

After wondering at times whether we would ever make it, we were relieved to finally arrive in Sofia where we stayed with Andrew and Tereza for a well earned rest day.

With recharged batteries we set off for Plovdiv where we planned to meet Rob, who was cycling from Hungary to Istanbul. Rob had spent the previous week chasing us through Serbia in the same gale force headwinds which, when combined with the punishing schedule he’d set himself to make our rendezvous, required repeated dawn to dusk days on the bike, on his own. It sounded extremely tough, but at least he was full of entertaining stories about the various low points on arrival in Plovdiv. The three of us were to cycle the rest of the way to Istanbul together at a considerably more relaxed pace.

The plan came together nicely as we all arrived in the pre-determined hostel on the same day and used our two days off to catch up over some delicious cheap Bulgarian beer and explore the city. Plovdiv was surprisingly nice – I knew nothing about it before we arrived, but Roman ruins, a centre busy with families and a good rock pub made it a great place to spend a weekend.

We left Plovdiv excited about the prospect of Turkey – one of the best things about starting the trip from England is that the excitement increases seemingly every day as we get further from home. To us, everything is always new and the differences, although gradual at bike speed, are continual.

The most clear cut change happened as we entered Turkey. Every other car greats you with a horn blast and a wave, we’re woken every morning by a call to prayer booming out of the nearest mosque at 6am, and when we stop anywhere an offer of a cup of Turkish tea is made almost instantly. The tea houses seem to be a real focus of the village communities we’ve passed through so far, with the locals passing the time playing dominoes or having a chin wag alongside endless tiny glass cups of ‘cay’. We’re trying to say yes to every offer as these little experiences along the way are what travelling by bike is all about, but at some point we have to politely say no to another refill as otherwise our 90 day Turkish visa would expire before reaching Istanbul!

The friendliness and hospitality displayed in these villages has meant we felt confident enough to ask in villages and tea houses at the end of the day if we could pitch our tents somewhere in the village. This usually leads to interesting experiences that would be missed if wild camping in woods or staying in a hotel. Every time so far we’ve been shown a place to pitch our tents, which have included next to a mosque, a shopkeeper’s garden, and behind a petrol station. Luckily the night we camped behind a petrol station was the same night our fuel for the camping stove ran out. Two minutes later we had a fresh litre of petrol, the beauty of a multi-fuel stove.

Rob noted that the challenge provided by not knowing the language or where we would sleep as the sun begins to sink provides many of the best experiences.  My favourite moments from our short time in Turkey have come when incredibly kind families have invited us into their homes for a meal, minutes after our arrival in their village.

We cycled a northern route towards Istanbul to avoid the busy and notorious D100 road that runs from the border straight into the city. Although it took a couple of extra days, the alternative route meant we visited lots of small villages that were the scene of most of the hospitable acts described above. The weather is still amazing – aside from one thunder storm we’ve had clear blue skies and warm sun, so our long days in the saddle meant we all looked like raspberries most of the time. The rolling hills of this less direct road combined with our heavy bikes got the sweat dripping off our brows, our efforts rewarded by the clean air and long views from the summits. Shepards hearded their beasts across the green fields to our right whilst the Black Sea was far beneath us to the left.

Then last weekend came the moment we’d been looking forward to – we cycled into Istanbul!  After the quiet roads and small villages the heavy traffic and fifteen million people of Istanbul provided an abrupt change. It was awesome to cycle past the Blue Mosque and we stopped for some end of Europe photos on the banks of the Bosporus.  All that remains is for us to catch a ferry over the famous stretch of water before we can begin tackling Asia.  It felt good to check into a cheap hostel for a few days, take our first shower in a week, tuck into a kebab and begin exploring a new city. We had a celebratory night out which somehow ended with Rob and I (after one or two half shandies) getting up on stage in a bar and performing an acoustic double act. I know about 3 chords on the guitar and Rob couldn’t remember the second line, but we escaped major embarrassment (I think…).  Apologies to Frank Turner for butchering one of his songs.

Istanbul is a major milestone for us (and all European cycling expeditions heading east) for a number of reasons, including it being the conclusion of our first continent, a change in dominant religion, and it marks the end of the warm up leg through relatively familiar territory.

Our task gets harder now, not least because the countries get much larger. We’ve cycled for 4 days across Turkey so far and have barely made a dent on the total distance. Our thoughts have turned to possible ways of negotiating the impending middle eastern winter whilst continuing to make progress on the bikes. Our Iranian visa applications were successful and we’ve collected them already here in Istanbul. As such, we intend to slowly cycle along the Black Sea through Turkey followed by Northern Iran (roughly as per our route map), taking as long as our visas will allow. This should allow us to spend the worst of the winter in these slightly less cold countries before heading up through the ‘stans to China in the spring, visas permitting (we’ve begun the tricky business of lining up the visas already, I’ll write more on the details of this when we’ve finished the process).

However, this is all very much educated guesswork from us – we don’t know for sure how cold it will get en route (certainly parts will be sub zero) or how well we’ll be able to cope when the temperatures do drop. We may end up having to hole up in a town if we hit a particularly cold snap, or seek alternative transport if snow halts our progress and our visas are running out. Either way, it will be good fun trying and we’ll give it our best effort to stick to the bikes and tough it out.

For now though we’re kicking back and enjoying Istanbul, combining some sight seeing with expanding our bike spares selection for the next leg of the trip.


Europe stats:

Distance cycled: 4000km (exactly!)
Countries visited: 11
Days on the road: 76
Days wearing the same shorts: 76 (we’ve been very lucky with the weather)
Days off: 21
Punctures: 3 (all mine – may have to cut back my baguette consumption)
Sets of eyelash curlers sent home: 1 (not mine, I hasten to add…)

Earthquakes and Mini Mountains – Budapest to Nis

We spent six whole days in Budapest! It is a brilliant city full of colourful bars, cafes, museums, a huge castle and thermal baths to relax tired legs. We got some welcome visitors from home and were treated to a few nights in a luxury apartment in the fancy part of town. Thanks Mum! The city is famous for its alternative courtyard bars so there are hundreds of cool and cheap places to go… Katy and Bill came with us on a rare night out to see a band, Drag the River, and we all had our fair share of the local tipple VBK (translated as red wine and coke). The locals really do like their red wine here, we even found a red wine fountain buried in the network of underground caves that flood the city. If it wasn’t for the previous night I would have relished it…

I felt a little lonely the first day after all the hustle and bustle of home left, it’s pretty quiet on the bike and for those that know me well will see that it’s a challenge for me to go so long at a time with just my self as company! The average day for us consists of a huge amount of pedalling and an endless cycle of eating, clothes changing and comfort stops. I’ve learnt the tough way that if I’m desperate for a bathroom break I have to act all nonchalant, other wise I swear someone knows and makes sure there isn’t a bush in sight or scatters farmers everywhere. If I don’t need to go the dense forest mocks me as I cycle past. Grrr.

From Budapest we cycled back along the Danube river and had a bit of a rough ride down bumpy tracks with terrifying dogs angrily chasing and barking at us. I surprised my self (and no doubt Ryan!) with how loud I can scream when one leapt out of the trees and went for my leg, even if it was just a small one it was still horrific!

We cycled for hours down the same path starting to look for a place to camp, frustratingly we couldn’t find anywhere safe and as the sun started to set Ryan suggested we just roll out our beds on one of the fishing jettys which lined the bank. It looked very romantic, but I decided I just couldn’t trust myself not to roll off into the icy waters beneath so we kept going, plus the bank was of course lined with more menacing dogs (don’t let the picture deceive you into thinking it was tranquil!). Eventually we found an old fisherman’s lodge and after some odd sign language and extra loud talking in our native tongues we were offered a bed for a few pounds each. We were then generously given a bizarre fish head stew for dinner, which we ate politely whilst restraining our gag reflexes, and continued our game of charades as we all attempted to communicate with each other.

A few days later we spent a night in Baja with another host, Ben, who is planning a big cycling trip next year. Ryan and he both rowed so there was a bit of chat I zoned out on while I ate the delicious home made pizza:-) I can’t express how incredible it is when we arrive at a house and get warmth, comfort, friends, a bathroom and all out of pure kindness. The next day we continued through our first proper border crossing and into Serbia. Excited to show our passports for the first time since Dover we pedalled out into our 9th country and I’m sure it got instantly hotter! Since arriving in Serbia over a week ago we are yet to see a cloud – even the tent is warm, dry and toasty at the moment.

Novi Sad was the first main city we came to in Serbia and we stayed with a family who lived at the top of a savage hill just outside the city (which we both had to walk up). Shockingly the family have no drinking water as the supply to their house was cut off from a bomb over a decade ago and it still hasn’t been repaired. We have also seen buildings that are still lying desolate with holes blown out of them – a sad reminder of how recently Serbia was at war. The country is noticeably poorer in areas and we have found it difficult to find safe and discreet places to wild camp so have been “splashing” out on accomodation more often. The people here are so welcoming and as friendly as ever, it’s such fun when we meet someone who can speak a little English. Yesterday a guy gave us a giant pot of honey and went rushing off to get his son to meet us and take photos once he read our “magic letter”, translated into Serbian, explaining our trip.

We arrived in Belgrade after a long slog down main roads with some suicidal drivers overtaking around hairpin bends and over blind summits. Exhausted, we cycled straight past the place we arranged to meet my friend Dom at and got lost in the city for a few hours in the dark. Grumpy Bex would be an understatement for my mood, however a local cheered us up by offering to help and walking us to the right place. He then gave us 500 Dinar (approx 5 pounds) to buy some food, I guess we looked worse than we thought!! When we finally met Dom he took us for a KFC which we gobbled down tastily before Ryan went to get a lasagne for pudding.

Dom has an apartment in a communist style block of flats which are in the new part of Belgrade. We were all woken in the night by an earthquake which was frightening, the next morning we sadly discovered a couple of people were killed and the quake measured 5.3 on the Richter scale.

 The next day was a rest day but after all the sightseeing my legs were just as tired as they are after 100km on the bike. After another fairwell and a cheesy grin from Dom we hit the road once more. The cycle out of Belgrade was absolutlely glorious, I’m tempted to say my favourite so far. The weather was (and still is) perfect and the landscape mountainous and interesting. The big downside however is the increasing amount of roadkill, the further east we go the more cats and dogs we see sprawled out in front of us – which horrifyingly I can’t help but look directly at as we dodge past. Also, my Sherpa is broken – I have had to start carrying more kit and he is getting evermore cheeky. I’m sure if I had gone for one of the Mount Everest ones I would have dinner and camp waiting for me when I arrived at our destination each day!

We are in Nis now, and in two days we will be arriving in Sofia. It’s weird how far we seem to be getting on our map!

Oh and one more thing, my knees have miraculously recovered (wahooo!) and I’m in danger of getting fit. The hills don’t seem so bad these days and I even take the lead and let Ryan rest behind my big arse from time to time.

A hat-trick of capital cities in 7 days – Vienna to Budapest

It’s been an interesting last week on the bikes as we’ve been moving further east and cycled through three previously unvisited countries and capital cities.

First up was Vienna, Austria. We had a great couple of days staying with Stef and Angela who treated us to a few episodes of the new series of the Inbetweeners and an array of savage home brewed shots.

Whilst in Vienna we realised that when we’d arranged a date a few weeks ago to meet Bex’s family in Budapest, we’d been slightly over cautious – we now had eleven days to cycle approximately 350km (even going slowly, five days is more than enough). Still, this situation was infinitely preferable to our last attempt at arranging a rendezvous, which left us with 3 days to cycle 400km. Our forecasting skills clearly need some refining…

With clean clothes, a dry tent and fresh legs we cycled out of Vienna down the trusty Danube, entered Slovakia, and crossed the river into capital number two, Bratislava. We wanted to take the following day off to look around the city, but we found out that the campsite had closed for winter the previous day. As a result, we ‘treated’ ourselves to a bunk bed in a six man dorm in a hostel at a budget-destroying £14 per night – the first time we’d paid for a roof over our heads and our most expensive accommodation yet. The hostel actually turned out to be quite nice, and the discovery of a Tesco ‘hipermarket’ next door combined with the hostel kitchen even meant we could be slightly more adventurous for our evening meal than another round of pasta slurry.

Bratislava has a small but attractive old town, with lots of small cobbled streets, cafes and restaurants to attract the tourists. Thankfully the beer is getting cheaper as we get progressively further east (we’re down to just over £1 a pint now), which means it’s beginning to come into the range of our limited budget.

Our body clocks were still on camping mode (sleep at sunset, wake at sunrise), which coincidently was the exact opposite of our two Aussie roommates who were partying hard and living a nocturnal life. A pair of earplugs ensured I had a perfect night’s kip, although they probably thought we were losers for going to bed before midnight.

As you can see on our route map, we only dipped into Slovakia for a few kilometres either side of Bratislava, so shortly after leaving we’d crossed the border into Hungary. By the way, border crossing so far have been far from momentous – if it wasn’t for a wonky sign we’d never have known we’d left Slovakia!

Immediately it began feeling a bit more Eastern European after the weeks spent in Germany and Austria, although this was enhanced by the fact that we were in a rural farming area. Run-down tractors were as common as cars, and signposts forbid bikes, tractors and horse-drawn carts from using the busiest roads. We got a cheery wave as we overtook a renegade farmer in his horse and cart, feet up and smoking whilst ignoring the rules and taking his chances on the A road.

Later that day we were cooking dinner under a tree in a rainy campsite when the owner took pity on us and invited us into his nice warm house. We were given some lethal spirits from an unlabelled bottle and, as he spoke no English and us no Hungarian, tried to explain our journey using school boy German and gesturing. After forcing down the last of the drink (it took a huge effort not to gurn horribly) a beer appeared, and I settled down in front of the fire with Champion’s League football on the TV. Inexplicably, Bex decided that a wet tent was preferable to this slice of heaven and made her excuses.

We arrived in Budapest (capital number three) on Thursday and have spent the last few days exploring the city with the help of our host, Jani, and giving our bikes some much needed maintenance – the ‘bike routes’ in Hungary have taken us down some very muddy tracks, and as a result our bikes were caked in mud after the first day!

The subtle differences noticed whilst cycling through Hungary have confirmed how much I’m looking forward to visiting countries that are completely different to the western world that I know. A large part of the reason for choosing New Zealand as our target was that we would have to pass through a wide variety of different cultures to get there. However, Germany and Austria were great for cycle touring and the perfect way for novices like us to begin the journey, as the similarities with England far outnumber the differences.

Clear skies and cold nights – cycling the Danube

We’re currently in Vienna and since the last post we’ve been enjoying cycling down the Danube, although mostly into a hefty headwind. Bex has become a master of riding 3 inches from my rear wheel – apparently I create a nice big wind shadow. I can hear cries of “it’s SO easy back here” as I’m grinding the pedals into a force 5 gale.

We had a great day off in Passau (where we first joined the Danube) and we were greeted by glorious sun from the minute we arrived. It was hot enough to rival an English summer’s day, not bad for October! Our state of the art, high tech expedition thermometer (purchased from a supermarket for €2.99) nearly exploded when we put it in direct sunlight.

Whilst in Passau we were lucky enough to stay in an amazing flat belonging to Max and Annika, friends of a friend of a friend. Max runs MyMuesli where you can create your own custom-mixed organic cereal online. They also have a small store in Passau and after a couple of visits to taste test, I can confirm it is excellent stuff. Cereal is something we’ve been missing (as we can’t keep milk fresh), so it was a double bonus.

With our batteries recharged (it’s funny how just one day off and a clothes wash can leave you feeling like new) we set off down the Danube, which we planned to follow for the next 700km or so. As we crossed the border into Austria, country number six, it felt like the sort of cycling that we needed back at the beginning of our journey to patch up any holes in either of our equally intensive (cough) pre trip training regimes – short days, flat roads and good weather. Just before arriving in Vienna we had 5 days in a row without seeing a cloud!

We’ve been mostly staying in campsites whilst on the Danube – there are loads on this popular cycling route, and they’re quiet and cheap as it’s out of season. Whilst looking for a campsite one evening an old man picking apples pointed towards what looked like a farmhouse. Apparently their garden was the campsite, although there were no signs to show it. Either way we were happy, and even more so when he gave us some dodgy home brewed cider to sample. His English was poor and our German is even worse so conversation was a challenge, but he seemed impressed when he found out that we’d cycled all the way from London.

The following evening in the next town we were directed to a rowing club – for a small fee we could sleep on the mattresses in the club house, use the showers and kitchen, and even help ourselves to the bar. The lady then left us with the keys to the boathouse and instructions to leave our money on the side in the morning.

The nights are getting colder as autumn arrives – it was below freezing on clear nights in Austria and we could see our breath inside the tent as ice formed on the outside. Fortunately we were nice and warm inside our sleeping bags, although it did make the night time toilet trip swifter than usual.

Bex’s knees have recovered now and we’ve cycled every kilometre together since leaving Munich a few weeks ago. When Bex started cycling again I thought it would be nice if she had the compass and map (we only have one to save money). Unfortunately Bex didn’t fill me with confidence when she took a confused look at the compass and said “what does the red pointy bit mean? Does that show the way we’re going?” “Only if we’re heading north” I replied, trying to remain calm. After a quick compass 101 lesson we were good to go.

Whilst on the subject of navigational issues, our low point so far came when we decided, over breakfast on a village bench, to take a handy scenic shortcut through a forest. Three hours later, after walking our bikes through a shallow river twice, we returned to the same bench for lunch. Horrific for morale and a few toys were promptly ejected from my pram. We stuck to roads for the rest of the day.

After a rest day or two here in Vienna we’ll continue to follow the Danube to Budapest. Now if the wind could just swing round a bit…