Turkey

27 08 2007

Edirne
26th August, 2007

I was up and rolling pretty late today – a couple of late nights in a row came to bite me in the morning when I tried to get up at 7:30am, and a few blinks later it was almost 9:30am…

In Bucharest, Christian had given me the movie ‘Serenity’ to watch in my free time, and I’d been catching 10-minute grabs of it over the last few nights. I was really getting into it, so I decided to do it justice and watch it through properly. Very cool movie – I wish I’d seen it at the cinema.

Anyway, it was closing on noon by the time I got myself on the bike and pedaling towards the Turkish border. The sun was already playing hardball up in the sky, and I was paying the price for my late-start indulgence in no time.

I reached the border at about quarter to two in the afternoon, and was quite concerned to see the incredible number of cars and buses backed-up for hundreds of metres before the customs gates. Many drivers had killed their engines, ready for a long wait – those with air-conditioning kept the motor running, making things even hotter (for me). I took my place in line behind a mini-van and swapped my helmet for a cap, then peered around the van to see how far the line went. I couldn’t see the front of the queue, but I could see quite a long way – and it didn’t look good at all.

The guy behind me got out of his car and came to have a chat with me, asking where I was from, where I was going, etc., and then prompted me to skip the queue and just pedal up to the front, assuring me it would be fine to do so. I didn’t want to upset a hundred hot, impatient Turkish & Bulgarian drivers (especially as they would all be overtaking me at close range a few kilometres down the road), but it seemed crazy to just stand straddling the bike in the beating sun for the next couple of hours. I thanked him, then slowly broke rank and rolled up towards the customs cubicles. I got a few smiles (and a few glares) from the cars as I rolled past, until I was about 15 metres from the front, where I waited for someone to wave me back in line. Nobody did. One car full of guys about my age were staring at my bike intently, and finally dropped the window to ask me the standard questions – but the driver made very sure not to leave any gap in front of him that I could fit into, and the other drivers followed very close behind. I finally mimed an appeal to be let into line to a few cars, and one sour-faced guy suddenly smiled and waved me in front of him.

The huge back-up of cars was due to the fact that, despite there being 10 customs cubicles spanning the border station, only one of them was occupied, and all cars had to go past this single point of entry. Each car took between 30 seconds and two minutes to answer the questions and pass inspection, and it was looking pretty grim for those poor guys at the back of the line…

When I got to the little window in the cubicle, a very serious-faced officer barked ‘passport!’, and I handed mine to him. He looked at it for about half a second before declaring that I didn’t have a visa, and that I must go back to the visa office and buy one, then return to the cubicle. Great. Pretty stupid of me, though – I’d gotten used to the hassle-free EU thing, and never even thought of it…

Having paid my 15 euro (I didn’t have any Turkish Lira at that point), and persuading another driver to let me back in line again, the same officer glanced at the little visa sticker in my passport, then asked me where I was going.
‘Istanbul, Iran, Turkmenistan, China, Japan…’ I replied (skipping a bit), which was met with raised eyebrows and pursed lips.
‘Bicycle..?’ he asked.
‘Yes’.
He looked at my passport again for a second, then nodded once and handed it back to me. ‘Welcome to Turkey’, he offered, waving me on.
‘Thank you, sir’ – and I was pedaling again.

I had to pass one more check-point – the Turkish police – and as I approached this final obstacle, I couldn’t help but notice the layered domes and tapering minarets of a mosque, just beyond the vacant no-man’s land of the border area. I’m sure it was nothing special compared to the huge, grand mosques I look forward to seeing in Istanbul and elsewhere, but for me it was a symbol of having entered a new phase in my trip, and I paused to take a photo, silently congratulating myself for making this far. I was in Turkey!

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I then made my way back onto the main road, thankful for the cooling effect of my sweaty T-shirt as my speed picked-up. I passed an unbelievable number of trucks on the other side of the road – and endless procession of multi-coloured semi-trailers, all (I assume) waiting their turn at crossing back into Bulgaria. I took note of my odometer reading to try and figure out how long the line actually was – it stretched over 7km! Most of the trucks were driverless – I guess they knew they weren’t getting over the border today, so they just parked their trucks and went home or something…

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The road into Edirne was excellent (as was the road approaching the border from Bulgaria) – two lanes in either direction, and a fully paved, lane-wide shoulder for me to ride on. I felt extremely safe, with at least two metres of asphalt between me and the trickle of cars and trucks overtaking me. The terrain was fairly flat, with a few long, rolling hills creeping in as I approached the outskirts of Edirne. By 4:30pm, I was cranking my way up the hill into the centre of town, doing my best to stay out of the way of the drivers roaring up to the main traffic island, honking furiously at each other (and me, I assume).

I’ve already noticed that the drivers in Turkey have a passionate love affair with their car horns – they’ll honk at anything, any time, for any reason you can think of. The traffic lights are interesting too – as well as the regular red, amber and green lights, they have a digital count-down for the red and green, telling you exactly how long you have before the lights change. When waiting at a red light, they all start honking at each other about three seconds before the lights change, just to make sure everyone is paying attention – and the front cars go screeching off the line about one second before the change occurs, regardless of whether there are still pedestrians on the crossing. The car is king here – pedestrians rate way below potholes and broken glass on the scale of things not to hit. I’ll be very careful indeed while riding over here. It’s a different feeling on the road compared to the homicidal drivers in Romania, though – in Romania I think the drivers were more hateful, actually curious to see what I’d look like pasted across the street as they ran over me, whereas here it seems that driving is just one great big rally-sport adventure, and casualties are simply part of the entertainment. At least half of the honks at me are friendly encouragement, but they all sound the same until you see a smiling face or a wave.

It took me a hell of a long time to get my bearings in town, despite having a decent map in my Lonely Planet. Sadly, my GPS is no longer much use in street-level navigation, as I have only major highway data for Turkey and beyond. I finally found myself a hotel (thanks to the Lonely Planet), got settled and showered, and decided to have a look around town.

It seems the fire I spotted yesterday was headed this way, as a huge cloud of smoke blew into town soon after I arrived, gusty winds swirling ash and smoke around everybody on the streets. I headed up the hill to the famous Selimiye mosque, designed by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, who also takes credit for a lot of the amazing constructions in Istanbul (so I’ve read). I don’t know much of anything about the architecture of Islam, but I have to say this mosque is absolutely incredible. I’m a big fan of the catheral architecture found throughout Europe, and this was my first time to take a real look at the Eastern equivalent. Wow. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves on this one.

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After walking around the grounds briefly, I wanted to enter the mosque to take a good look. I wasn’t really dressed appropriately (still in my cycling gear – shorts and a T-shirt), but I spotted a few locals dressed similarly, and I decided just to give it a shot and go right in. I took off my sandals, initially hiding them behind a broom before I noticed the big shoe rack near the entrance, and slowly passed through the huge stone archway into the building. I hovered near the entrance, half expecting someone to tell me that I can’t enter wearing these clothes, but no-one even glanced at me. In fact, people were milling around, blatantly taking photos of the mosque and each other, despite signs instructing not to do so. I really wanted to take some shots myself, and after a while I dug my camera out of my bag and decided to join the crowd. I was later told by an official-looking man that the rule was really meant for prayer-time, and that no-one really cared except for that.

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After spending a while wandering the inside, I went back out to the courtyard, where I was accosted by a group of postcard-and-souvenir sellers. Despite considerable (friendly) persistence on their part, I politely declined to purchase anything, and after a while they gave up with a smile and looked for their next prospect. It was getting dark now, and I passed through to the garden area just as it turned 8:00pm. Suddenly, dozens of loudspeakers sprang to life with a passionate, droning chant, and I stood alone in the garden, listening with fascination as the call to prayer rang out across the city. It was remarkable, and quite beautiful to listen to – a strange, wailing tonal progression, drowning out all other noise, echoing across the hills and buildings of the moon-lit city. The hairs on my arms and neck were standing on end – it was really an amazing experience. The chant ended with what sounded like the NTT ‘failed to connect’ tone on Japanese phones (I’m sure there’s an irony in there somewhere), and then silence. I was impressed – but no applause.

It was also interesting to see the observant muslim ladies, looking quite devout with their heads all covered in shawls – yet oblivious to this masterpiece of architecure, opting instead to play with their mobile phones, wandering around like distracted penguins. For a moment I thought I was back in Japan…

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For dinner I explored the area surrounding the mosque, eventually opting for a kebab joint when the cheerful proprietor came out of his shop to invite me to an outdoor table. I ordered a kebab sandwich and a bottle of water, and the kebab was really, amazingly good. So I ordered another, along with another bottle of water. The bread was fresh, soft and chewy, and the chicken perfectly tender and tasty, with mayonnaise, sauerkraut and chilli sauce. I could eat one every day for months, and be extremely happy. But two was my limit (I needed room for ice-cream yet)… and the price? 1.25 lira each – 75 euro cents!

I topped it all off with some stretchy Turkish ice-cream – also excellent – and then it was back to the hotel to catch up on some sleep.

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I like Turkey already.

Lüleburgaz

27th August, 2007

Today was really tough. The road I’m following to Istanbul, the D100, is in reasonable condition, but the terrain makes for pretty exhausting riding – endless long, rolling hills, like riding on a giant ocean of wheat fields in 50 metre swells. I think ‘steppe’ is the correct geographical term. According to my Lonely Planet, the D100 used to be the main highway from the border to Istanbul, but since the new multi-lane toll-highway opened up a few years ago, the traffic has reduced substantially. It used two be two lanes in either direction, but it seems that rather than pay for the maintenence of four lanes of asphalt, the powers that be have decided to down-grade the road to a single lane going each way. This leaves a full lane-wide shoulder (of varying quality) to ride on, which has been pretty good so far.

But the wind! My gawd, it was just bloody terrible! It wasn’t so bad in the morning, a bit of blustery side-wind, but it developed over lunch time into a full-on howling headwind, relentlessly pushing my rig back in the direction I was coming from. It was so frustrating, so demoralizing – even the down-hill bits became a chore, as I had to keep pedaling to get any speed at all. If I free-wheeled down-hill, I maxed out at 13kph – what a joke! And the uphills – well, I started getting pretty creative and fluent with my curses toward mid-afternoon, and my knees are feeling very sorry for themselves at the moment. As Gerry commented back in Belgium, I tend to pedal while seated pretty much all the time, only standing on the pedals to crank up the really tough grades. But today I had to get up off the saddle almost every climb, or I’d be wobbling all over the place from lack of speed. Absolutely miserable. My only relief was having the iPod tunes going to keep me distracted a little, though with the noise of the wind, and the constant honking from passing cars and trucks, I didn’t really hear much…

My goal of reaching Çorlu (pron. ‘Chorlu’) by evening was a write-off – I was shagged, and quite happy to call it quits when I reached Lüleburgaz instead – almost 50km short (!) My average speed today was pathetic, something in the range of 13kph, and at that rate it would have been well dark by the time I made it to Çorlu, if my knees could have taken it. I stopped at the first hotel I found on the way into town (too expensive), then another smaller, more ‘rustic’ establishment, where I booked a room and unloaded the gear.

I’ve developed a bad habit of lying down as soon as I get my bags in the room, and it bit me again tonight. I flopped on the bed at about 7:30pm, and suddenly it was 9:45pm and I was hungry, tired and stiff, still in my filthy riding gear. I quickly took a shower and put on my ‘good’ clothes, then headed out for some dinner, hoping a restaurant would still be serving at this hour. It turns out the Turkish are night-owls, and most every kebap shop and restaurant was still serving at 10:00pm. I chose one at random, and the young guy at the door was very friendly, miming for me to follow him to the back of the restaurant. He led me out to a very attractive covered courtyard, complete with little waterfalls, fountains, and plenty of greenery. He seated me at a nice table with water burbling down the rock-wall beside it, and offered me the menu. Fortunately there were pictures on the menu, so I just pointed to a picture of a few skewers of meat on a plate, along with rice and grilled vegetables, and he disappeared into the kitchen. I was pretty thirsty too, but before I could grab another waiter, he returned again with a bottle of water and a glass, and poured it for me. I didn’t see any beer on the menu, so I decided not to enquire – I’d seen adverts for Efes beer on the street, but it seems most eateries don’t serve alcohol around here – maybe you have to go to pubs for that.

The meal was really good, and I was very well-fed by the end. The manager came to my table just to say hello, and offered me a tea or coffee at the end of the meal. I don’t normally drink coffee just before bedtime, but I decided to give the Turkish coffee a shot. It arrived in a tiny white and blue porcelain cup, as black as night, and thick like corn soup. It was also very sweet (I didn’t add any sugar), and tasted great. But there went my plans for an early night – there must have been enough caffeine in it to revive a wooly mammoth…

I naturally hunted down and devoured another native ice-cream – three scoops of words I couldn’t pronounce, but turned out to be pistachio, walnut, and ‘fruits of the forest’. Very nice.

Back to the room, where I washed and hung my riding clothes, re-packed my bags a little, and lay staring at the ceiling for several hours. I think I finally dozed off at about 4:00am, and was rudely disturbed by my alarm about 4 hours later. But that’s another day…

Çorlu

28th August, 2007

Today was even tougher than yesterday! A genuine dog of a day. I now officially hate headwinds more than anyone else in the world…

I was pretty groggy this morning – my little nap yesterday evening, followed by a killer coffee and another 4 hours sleep didn’t help things get moving *at all*. My legs were really tired too – just descending the stairs for breakfast was ugly, and as soon as I’d mounted up and started pedaling, I knew it was going to be a hard day.

The merciless wind was there, ready and waiting for me, and the moment I rounded the corner to face the open road, I was nearly brought to a halt by the bastard. I gritted my teeth and plugged ahead, but it was soon apparent that my progress was going to be even worse than yesterday’s. My legs were really not interested in this little party, and calling them names wasn’t having any effect. I could feel the wind gusting though the gaps in my teeth, and all of the grass in the fields was lying flat to the ground (an enviable position). On the rear horizon, I caught a glimpse of the fire that has been following me, and saw that the smoke was now blasting horizontally along the ground rather than rising up in a column.

But I caught my frustration, lectured it a bit and sent it off with a laugh, and just decided to pedal at the pace that was comfortable (or possible), rather than trying to fight my way through the next five hours. I was going ridiculously slow, almost falling off half the time, but I was still making some sort of progress. The iPod earned its keep yet again.

However, my woes were about to get worse. Within an hour of leaving Luleburgaz, the road decayed into a genuine single-lane-either-way road, with no white line on the edges to mark a shoulder. The traffic was getting denser with heavy vehicles (Çorlu is a big industrial town) and the trucks were driving right along the edge of the asphalt, making it suicidal for me to stay on the road. I had no choice but to ride along the gravel and dirt shoulder, trying to find a rideable surface between the ragged edge of the asphalt and the gravel embankment on my right. The shoulder was littered with potholes, plastic bottles, broken glass, rocks and spatters of tar, shredded retreads and (worst of all), big patches of sand. As soon as I’d hit the sand, my front wheel would wash-out completely, digging and sliding aimlessly. My back wheel would start squirming to my right, following gravity down the embankment, and I’d have to jump out of my pedals and stomp my feet on the ground before I fell right down the embankment, or worse, regained traction and rode straight up in front of a passing truck. Not fun at all. The headwind (coming slightly from my left) was continuously trying to send me off the embankment, but whenever a truck passed, the sudden abatement in wind and the violent wake-gust from the truck would suck me back towards the road like a ping-pong ball to a vacuum. This continued for 44km, and when I finally made it to Çorlu, I was in no mood to continue.

I chugged uphill past a miltary complex on the way into town, and right at the front entrance was this tank on display:

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About one second after I took this shot, I heard a sharp whistle and a shout from my right, and looking over I saw a soldier staring directly at me. He was holding an assault rifle (a G3, if I’m not mistaken) and making a swift horizontal cutting motion through the air with his free hand. I nodded obediently and put the camera back in my bar-bag, but before I could get it buttoned closed I heard another shout, and a second soldier was also gesturing at me – cranking his hands in a pedaling motion, then pointing down the road. I got the message, and gave them a friendly wave (which they returned), and I was gone.

When I found the town centre, I waited for the first person to start talking to me (which doesn’t take long in Turkey), then asked him if he knew of any cheap hotels in town. He didn’t speak a word of English, but I believe he claimed he didn’t know of any, explaining that he lived here and had no need for a hotel, but then mimed that there might be one just around the corner. There was, and it was cheap (25 lira – 12 euro), and that’s where I’m sitting right now. No air-con, but tonight is pleasantly cool for a change, so I’m happy.

I did my same trick of falling asleep when I got to my room, but fortunately woke up by 9:15pm, so I quickly showered and hit the town for dinner. Similar to last night (though not as big, or as good) – lamb şiş-kebap with rice, salad and some kind of bread, washed down with water. In my dessert-quest, I found a very busy ice-cream joint, right opposite a mosque and another military complex. I ate a superb ice-cream sandwich, under the watchful gaze of a soldier with a machine gun.

Time to hand-wash my clothes again, then get some real sleep…

İstanbul

29th August, 2007

Now that was scary. Suicidal, exciting and ridiculous in roughly equal measures, with a lot of “what-the-bloody-HELL-am-I-doing-HERE!?!” thrown in. But I made it! And mostly in one piece…

As a feat of madness, riding into Istanbul ranks fairly highly in cycling circles (at least, in all the blogs and stories I’ve read). And so it should – I had just about every bit of nastiness you could think of on the way in here. Gleefully psychotic ‘drivers’ on some truly horrible roads. Choking oil fumes, spiteful climbs and mad, wobbly descents. More freakin’ buses than I ever thought actually existed, pulling over in endless waves, right in front of me (or on top of me). Absolutely *mental* road layout, with so many lanes and on-ramps and crash barriers and roadworks teams and traffic jams and loonies trying to sell me flowers (!) in the middle of torpedo rally chaos. Everyone honking at me – mainly in perverted encouragement, several in furious indignation, and a few in morse code, from what I could tell. And I just couldn’t get off the damned road – every time I looked to my right, I had about 3 lanes of traffic, with miles of crash barrier dividing us, and at least one drop-off of a couple of metres – and it only got worse as I got closer to the city. I can’t fathom what kind of design principles the engineers were following when they built this mess (assuming it was ever actually ‘engineered’), but getting off obviously wasn’t part of the plan. You just barge into the flow, go like a rabid monkey, and pray you can honk and shove your way to the far side of town.

Ok, maybe it didn’t help that it was peak-hour evening traffic. Or that I was already exhausted from a long day of riding just to get near this frantic battle. Or that the sun had just set, and everything was dimming to a dusty blue-grey. But seriously – what the *hell* would I want with a bouquet of fancy red flowers, sandwiched between 5 lanes of roaring diesel monsters? These guys just stood in the thick of it all, barely batting an eyelid as they were strafed by buses and trucks at break-neck pace. Impossible to slow down enough to even grab them, let alone pay for them… I had to laugh, despite being nearly knocked in the path of a hay-laden dump-truck. Insane.

But I should’ve really started at the start, instead of giving you the big action scene up front. So…

I woke up this morning feeling a good deal stronger than I did yesterday, and went downstairs to be disappointed by the meagre breakfast the hotel had on offer. A single piece of cheese, half a dozen black olives, tiny tubs of strawberry jam and oily melted butter, and a couple of pieces of bread left in the basket. You get what you pay for, I guess…

I swiped some bread from the table next to me – the guy had finished and left a few bits in his basket – and ate everything, washed down with a cup of Turkish tea (‘çay’ – pronounced ‘chai’). Then back upstairs to pack my life back into my panniers for the 100th time (literally – over 3 months on the road now!).

The road was a dramatic improvement over yesterday – I was back to riding on a decent, paved shoulder for the most part, occasionally turning to gravel, but it was firmly packed, and none of the dreaded sand. Despite this change for the better, it had become painfully clear that Istanbul didn’t want me – the closer I got, the harder she tried to blow me away. The wind was ferocious in the morning, and the curses started early. Only as I started my final approach did it gradually fade from an obstacle back to an annoyance (to instill in me a sense of false confidence, I now realize).

At 3:00pm I stopped at the top of a long, slow climb for a late lunch break at a Shell service station. It was a pretty dismal affair, which I’m getting used to. Service stations in Turkey don’t offer anything beyond cookies, chocolate bars, beer snacks and ice cream as ‘food’ – nothing resembling a sandwich or even a bread roll to be found. I reluctantly grabbed a choc-wafer bar and a little bag of pretzel sticks, along with a carton of orange juice and some water. As I paid for my feast, I could hear my bicycle bell ringing repeatedly out front, and when I got outside I found a little kid of about 5 years old busily thumbing the ringer as fast as he could, in fits of giggles. I slowly approached my bike, and when he noticed me he started nodding his head up-and-down, proclaiming ‘yes!…yes!…yes!’ with every ring. I stared at him, trying to figure out if it was the same kid I’d met in Edirne.
‘I see you’ve found the bell’
‘yes!…yes!…yes!’
‘You seem pretty excited about that’
‘yes!…yes!…yes!’
‘Do you have a bell on your bike?’
‘yes!…yes!…yes!’
‘How about you show it to me?’
‘yes!…yes!…yes!’

Then to my considerable surprise, he raced into the garage and pulled out his own little BMX (chrome plated, with pink, green & yellow plastic stars in the back spokes) and started ringing his own bell, loud and fast. And I thought he was just humoring me…
All this excitement was enough to bring dad out too, and we soon got talk-miming about the regular things – where I was from, where I was going, etc. – while the little kid dashed into the shop. He emerged a few seconds later with a plastic shopping bag full of small bread rolls, and offered me the entire bag. I hesitantly took just one roll and bit into it (a bit stale, but ok washed down with water), so I accepted another. He kept pulling out a roll every time I’d finish one, and in the end I’d eaten about 7 or 8. I thanked the owner (who insisted I take the remaining 20 rolls too) and got back on the road.

Not 1km further on, I found what I’d been looking for in the first place – a kebap shop. A kebap trailer, to be specific, and it was open. Despite the fact it was getting late and I’d just eaten a stack of stale bread rolls, I decided to pull over again and eat properly, as I had a feeling I still had a lot of work to do before this day was over.

The owner and his teenage son were sitting at a table out the front, and were very welcoming. The son gestured to a table and explained how it all worked, with a big smile:
‘Come on!! Sit down!’
‘Uh, thanks.’
‘You want kebap! Come on!’
‘Yes, I do. Do you have lamb?’
‘What??’
‘Lamb – sheep – you know… baaahhh…?’
‘No. We have menu.’

I looked at the laminated page and tried to guess what was what. I pointed at the first listing with ‘kebap’ in it.
‘Yes, we have it. Ok – you want drink?’
‘Water, please’
‘No problem!’
, and he pulled a bottle from the fridge.
While I waited for my kebap, I studied the map to see how far I thought I could really get this evening. Istanbul was still quite a ways, and it was getting late. I decided it might be smarter to look for a place to stay in a satellite town of Istanbul, and run the gauntlet of actually entering the city when I had a little more daylight up my sleeve.
The son walked up next to me, grinned and hesitated a moment, then all but shouted ‘Come on!!’ in my ear and offered me a plate with my kebap on it, and a plastic tub of pickles.
‘Thanks. I think you want to say “here you are”, maybe…’
‘Yes! Enjoy it!’
‘I’m sure I will’

And I did. It was chicken, as it turned out, and very tasty.

While I was eating, the father paced up and down the length of the platform at the top of the stairs, in front of the serving window. Suddenly there was a loud metallic stomp, and he lunged as if to do a Super-Man onto my table. He just barely recovered, hands whirling about as he teetered at the edge of the top step, then cursed loudly and shouted at his son to come and help him. He’d tripped on the mis-matched edge where two steel staircases joined, and decided to rectify it with a shovel, propping up one part while the son shoved stones from the surrounding gravel underneath. I finished my kebap quickly, and got out of firing range from the impacted gravel as soon as I could.

From there, it was a fairly straight run into the outskirts of Istanbul, with the traffic picking up steadily as I got closer. I had one pretty sizable valley to traverse, clocking 55kph on the way down (scary, with all the weight), and an long, steep climb up the other side (annoying, with all the weight). The climb peaked at a rather dangerous division in the road, where buses and trucks were supposed to go right, skirting around the apex, while cars and motorbikes veered left up to the very peak of the hill. I figured I looked more like a motorbike than anything, although my pace more closely matched that of the laboring trucks. I decided to go with the light vehicles, and climb the extra few metres to the summit. A glorious view of the coast and the Mediterranean, at the foot of a fancy space-age tower was the reward. Trying to merge back with the heavy vehicles coming from my right, two lanes deep was my punishment. Scary stuff.

Beyond that, I started to notice that it was becoming quite difficult to find a place to pull off of this road, and my chances of finding a cheap hotel for the night were getting slimmer. The sun was quickly setting behind me, with the walls of glass and concrete in front all turning a brilliant orange-brown. I followed a bus into an off-ramp, which in turn led to another off-ramp and a side-street, and I stopped for a breather. As it happened, I was right in front of a hotel! I parked the bike and went in to investigate, but I had failed to notice the four stars etched on the sliding doors… Eighty-five euros for a single room – back on the bike.

Merged with the madness again, the sun bleeding the last of its smog-blaze into the picture, and a few kilometres later the scene described at the beginning of this post ensued. I actually did stop at the tail of one huge traffic jam and bought a bottle of water from a kid wandering the crush. At least he was selling something practical! I also managed to half-crash the bicycle, cutting too closely to a very tall curb as I passed a bus stop. My front-right pannier swiped along the curb, twisting the handlebars to the right. I nosed into the concrete and dropped the bike, the pannier popping off and tumbling along the road. Luckily it was uphill at a low speed, no damage done (other than my pride).
I finally hit my comfort threshold for near-meatloaf experiences, and, feeling that I was actually within greater Istanbul itself, decided to take a more aggressive approach to getting the hell off the road. I pulled a nasty multi-lane swerve, cutting up the inside of a turning bus (all eyes upon me through the open doors) and squeezed past the front as it arced toward me. I found myself on a curving ramp that became a bridge over the highway, packed solid with traffic and going nowhere. I managed to pull-up beside a car before running into anyone, then carefully threaded my way up the ramp until I was on the road across the bridge. More crazy drivers and nasty squeezes, but at least this was a road I could manage.

After pushing my way along progressively smaller and darker streets (all choked with traffic), I finally pulled into a service station and decided to figure out where I actually was. I was helped enthusiastically by the station staff, with all of us peering at a tourist map of Istanbul that I’d picked up in Edirne. No-one seemed quite sure of our exact location, but I could see roughly where we were and decided to play it by ear for another few kilometres. Just as I was about to leave, a customer walked in that they all seemed to know, and I was told excitedly that he could speak English. It turned out he spoke a British variety of English, and spoke it perfectly – he had gone to school in Oxford for several years, and was in fact the son of the mayor of this area of Istanbul! Bingo.

After introductions and a bit of a chat, he very kindly offered to show me to a reasonably-priced hotel in the area, suggesting that I put my bike in his car. I smiled and pointed through the window to my bike with all the bags, and after a brief double-take he smiled back, proposing instead that I follow behind him as he drove slowly. I mounted up and started tailing him through the traffic. He somehow omitted the little detail that the hotel was at the top of a substantial hill, so I was up out of the saddle the whole way up, stomping the last traces of composure out of my poor legs.

About half way up, going around a sweeping right-hand bend, I came upon a storm-drain grating in the side of the road. I’d noticed these things earlier in the day, and was quite concerned at how wide the rungs were spaced – easily two-inch gaps between each rung. This would be extremely dangerous for cyclists, if it weren’t for the fact that they were all aligned perpendicular to the curb. All except this one. Before I could react, my front wheel sank instantly to its axle, the bike freezing on the spot as I lunged forward over the handlebars, front panniers flying off to either side. I somehow avoided face-planting the asphalt, tumbling onto the road while a passing bus narrowly missed turning my left pannier into a Cordura pancake. I was not happy. I made this quite clear to whoever cared to listen. Surprisingly, the bike was completely unharmed by this little stunt, and after retrieving the panniers and checking everything carefully, I re-mounted and chased after my friend in the car. He had missed the excitement, and figured I was just slacking off.

We finally arrived at the hotel, and after a brief discussion with the security guy, I was permitted to lean my bike against the wall and enter the building. The security in this area was pretty tight – every 15 metres a pair of police stood along the street, decked-out in ballistic vests and automatic weapons. Opposite the hotel was some kind of government building, and they clearly weren’t accepting casual visits. The hotel was a little more expensive than I’d hoped – ‘reasonably-priced’ is a subjective term – but there really wasn’t much choice, and I was too tired to start searching for alternatives. My new friend bargained the room down a little for me, we exchanged details, I thanked him for his help, and he was gone.

I showered thoroughly, but still managed to blacken the towels with road-grime that was embedded in the super-sticky gel sunscreen I use. I checked the email briefly, wrote a temporary blog entry, then crashed one more time – at least this was a soft and comfortable landing… in İstanbul!

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Bulgaria

20 08 2007

Update – added Nova Zagora on 26th August
Update – added Svilengrad on 26th August

Ruse

I just rolled into Ruse, Bulgaria this evening, after crossing the Danube yet again (and the border) over the longest steel bridge in Europe at 2.8km. The ride down from Bucharest was pretty good (but very hot) – the road was in excellent condition, with two wide lanes going in either direction, and a very broad, flat shoulder to ride on – excellent. Quite a contrast to the road into Bucharest from the north – I can’t recommend that to anyone.

I met a few cyclists on the way out of Bucharest today – one couple were just looking around town, before heading off for the Black Sea coast to lie on the beach for a while. The guy was from France, his girlfriend from Ireland, and they had been riding down the Danube from somewhere in Europe. I also met a Romanian cyclist by the name of Edy, and his younger brother Alex. They were riding in the same direction (to visit a local monastery that they had never been to), and Edy was very interested in my little adventure. He had just recently ridden through Bulgaria and Greece, and was full of useful advice about the best roads to take in Bulgaria. He also gave me a few home-made pancakes (filled with jam) and some fruit for my trip – thanks Edy!

So far, I’m very impressed with Bulgaria. The city of Ruse (Roo-seh) has a peaceful, dignified air about it, with a huge and beautiful open square in the middle of town. For dinner I had perhaps the best pizza of my life tonight – they call it ‘The Wall’ on the menu for some reason – plus a good local beer, all for about 4 Euros. I’m trying to get my head around the Cyrillic alphabet, but so far I haven’t got a clue how to read the street signs or menus – luckily many people here seem to speak a bit of English.
That’s all for now!

Veliko Tarnovo

Wow, I don’t know if I’m fit enough for this…

Yesterday was probably the toughest day of cycling in my life (so far). Not a great distance from Ruse to Veliko Tarnovo (about 110km), but the temperature, roads and terrain made for some very harsh riding.

I woke with a slightly dodgy stomach, and sat down to my breakfast without the usual anticipation. This was the first time in the whole trip that my stomach was unhappy, but it seemed to pass after a couple of hours.

Leaving Ruse, I thought I’d try to get off the main road (Hwy 5) by taking a minor road and avoiding most of the trucks enroute, but that didn’t work out too well. As I approached the turn-off for the minor road, I noticed that all of the traffic seemed to have the same idea, and I soon found out the highway was under construction – everybody had to use this minor road. It was very tight going on the road, and trucks were barely able to squeeze past each other, which sent me into the gravel shoulder countless times. The truckers were fairly considerate, actually, and I didn’t have any near-death experiences, but it was still a serious pain in the saddle. On the plus side, the roads were in better condition than Romania – but that wouldn’t be hard to do.

It was HOT – a good 40 degrees after 1:00pm, and not a single tree close enough to the road to cast any shade. The landscape was quite ‘dramatic’ too – enormous rolling hills the whole way, with me grinding my way to the top of each of them, sweat dripping in a continuous stream through my eyes and off my chin, only to do battle with the traffic on the downhills as the cars & trucks rushed by. Not fun.

Sweating like a maniac, I reached a small town at about 3:00pm, out of water and in need of a break. I asked the friendly policemen on the side of the road (catching speeding motorists by the dozens) where I could get a bottle of water, and they directed me to a quiet cafe/diner. Inside, I grabbed a litre of orange juice and a bottle of water from the fridge, paid (very cheap here – 1 Euro for the lot), and downed the OJ in one continuous gulp, to the wide-eyed concern of the owner. I then asked if she had any sandwiches, and was answered with a blank look as she shook her head. ‘No problem’, I said, and sat down at a table, half-watching a swashbuckling Spanish daytime drama dubbed into Bulgarian, as I tried to find a dry part of my shirt to wipe my brow with.

She woke me up sometime later by plonking a warm salami & mayo sandwich in front of me, which was a welcome surprise. I’d forgotten that shaking the head side-to-side means ‘yes’ in Bulgaria, despite being told by several travellers along the way. I munched it down, paid again, and (somewhat reluctantly) got back on the bike.

The next 60km were marginally less tough, though the ‘Tranzit’ (detour) was still very annoying. At one point I was actually going faster than the traffic, which had banked up for quite a distance. I was finally stopped by an extra-wide truck, with no way of getting past it, so I crawled along like everyone else, the heat all the worse for lack of airflow. At one point I thought I was going to pass-out, as we rolled though the cause of the traffic jam – about 100m of fresh, steaming-hot tar being layed by an unhappy-looking road crew. They gave me a confused look, more concerned about me running over their new tar than anything, and shook their heads as I tried to match pace with the accelerating traffic up the next hill.

I stopped again at a small service station about 90 minutes later, hoping it was open (or even in business – it didn’t look like it). A grizzled old fellow eyed me suspiciously from behind his tobacco-stained window, but was fairly easy with me pointing at his fridge and him pulling out a couple of drinks. I held out some coins for him, from which he carefully took the required sum, and gave me a kurt nod before returning to his torn vinyl chair. I sat in the only shade I could find, under a rusting gas cyclinder, and traded glances with a curious dog that circled from a distance, sniffing the air. The owner then returned to the door and invited me to come and sit in his air-conditioned office, which I gratefully accepted. He sat me on a well-butchered sofa, and we watched a documentary about traditional life in parts of Bulgaria while I sipped my water. He got quite excited about some parts, and almost shouted while reeling off place-names and pointing at different points in the air. He picked up his own drink (a brown 2-litre plastic bottle of beer), and made a big upward spiral with his finger, cracking a smile and pointing at his head. I think he had the right idea, actually. I tried to explain where I was from and where I was going, but I’m not sure if I penetrated his armour. He looked at me strangely a few times though, which was a good sign. I then made my excuses and hit the road.

The final approach was tough – I was really shagged from all the hills and the heat, and Vileko Tarnovo is a city that sits atop the walls of a dramatic gorge. One more push to get up the ‘entrance’, and I was at the foot of town. As soon as I stopped to dig out my Lonely Planet and orientate myself, a taxi came to a screeching halt next to me and the driver lept out in greeting. ‘My friend! How are you today? You are looking for place to stay? I have room for you, very nice, very close to city centre. Come, come…’. I quizzed him on the room and the location, and he whipped out a few photos – not bad- and the price? – 20 leva (10 Euros). I was simply too tired to argue, so he jumped back in the taxi and patiently idled up the hill while I cranked the last of my energy out on the damned 8% grade, reaching the room in a few minutes. He helped carry my bags up the stairs (the only person to have done so on my entire trip) and handed me the keys with a huge grin. I paid him, put the bike on the mini-balcony, and collapsed on the bed ‘for a minute’. I never even got my shoes off. I was out cold for twelve hours, on a badly-sprung mattress in my sweaty gear, but it was ok – I had made it. So much for the nice traditional Bulgarian dinner I could get at the restaurant opposite, as the guy had promised…

Nova Zagora

Well, today’s riding was, in a word, *fantastic*. What a contrast to my ride into Veliko Tarnovo! And to think I was a little worried about the ‘big climb’ today…

But first, I’ll back up a bit to yesterday – I spent the day in Veliko Tarnovo, exploring the Tsarevets Fortress on the hilltop (once the daily furnace died down a bit), getting the clothes washed and hung out, getting prepped for today’s ‘big ride’ (water, food, checking the bike), and recharging the batteries (mine and the GPS’s).

I decided to spoil myself after lunch with a sampling of some of the luscious-looking ice-cream they had on display at a road-side kiosk in town. I opted for three scoops in a cone, and was stunned at the size of the monster the girl handed me – all other places I’d been to recently had given fairly meager scoops (for a very low price, admittedly) – but this was humongous! I then discovered why – they weigh the resulting cone, and you pay by the gram… thankfully it was still relatively cheap – 3 leva (1.5 euro). I was *Happy*.

My plans for a super-early start the following morning (this morning) were sabotaged by my very first flat tyre of the trip. I guess I was lucky in a way – the puncture happened in a ‘good’ location, and there was still plenty of daylight. I was well off the road, sitting on my bike at the railing of a scenic lookout on my way back down from the fortress. After admiring the tiered levels of the town & the gorge below under the late-afternoon sun, I pushed off from the railing and started pedaling back toward the road. Immediately I heard a popping noise, like I’d run over an empty milk carton, and that dreaded squishy back wheel feeling told me I was going nowhere. Looking down, I saw my poor Panaracer Pasela flat as a tack on the (glass ridden) tiles of the square. I jumped off the bike and wheeled it back to the railing, where I did a quick mental check to see if I had everything I needed to fix the problem – I was travelling light for the trip up to the fortress, and I didn’t have any of my panniers. Luckily I did have everything, so I did my best to get the back wheel off and the tube fixed up without dealing a greasy death-blow to my only decent set of clothes. I discovered I’d scissored two parallel gashes in the tube wall when the rim had dropped down on it, as well as a glass-prick right in the centre. This tube was dead – fortunately I had another. Upon inspection of the tyre itself, I pronounced it dead too – the sidewall had a nasty 2-inch crack along one side, and the tread was looking very shallow, with several sharp little rocks trying to burrow through to the inside. It still got me home, but I later buried it in the trash can of my room, with a tear building in the corner of my eye – almost 4400km of excellent service…

By the way, I’m now officially a huge fan of the Thorn rear drop-outs, and the ‘box-type’ Rohloff connector – they made removing and replacing the rear wheel a breeze – no need to do anything special with the chain or gear cables, and putting the wheel back on was a simple reverse procedure. I still got my hands utterly filthy, of course, but it was all fairly pain-free.

A guy about my age watched me finish up, then wandered over to offer to help. He said he knew the owner of a bar nearby where I could wash my hands, but in the end I just asked him to pour some of the water from my drink bottle into my hands (which worked surprisingly well). I then asked him about the roads leading south, and which would be the best choice for me to ride on to Nova Zagora. A few people had informed me that the main road going south was closed for construction (for over a year now), but he told me that it was still possible to use this road, and that he himself uses it quite often because he has a house down that way. He encouraged me to use this route, as it’s virtually devoid of traffic due to the detour signs. This was just the kind of news I wanted to hear, and I thanked him sincerely.

I then limped back to my room in town and proceeded to do the tyre-change trick all over again, but to both wheels this time – I put the old front tyre on the back (being 1.75″ diameter) and a brand-new Scwalbe Marathon XR on the front (because it’s only 1.6″ diameter, and I wanted the fatter tyre on the back). I had quite a bit of trouble fitting the Schwalbe – it mounted onto the rim easily enough, but it took me over an hour of squeezing and twisting and messing about to try and get it to sit evenly. No matter what I did, I always had an enormous flat-spot after putting air into the tube, and was getting quite frustrated with it after I’d changed tubes and re-fitted it about 5 times. After deciding it was just impossible to manually wrench the tyre into submission, I decided to go ahead and pump it up to the maximum pressure I could give it with my hand-pump, and voila – no flat spot. Problem solved. (Oh, Nigel – you idiot…)

I should also mention that through all of this bike-wrestling in the confined space of my room, I was kept company by my new neighbours – a very nice Israeli couple by the name of Tali & Sapir. They had just arrived, in a somewhat surprised state, after thumbing a lift from a passing vehicle over 70km away. Apparently their saviour was some kind of metal-parts cleaning specialist, who lived only a few kilometres from where they were picked up, but he took it upon himself to drive them all the way to Vileko Tarnovo and give them an impromptu guided tour, including the church where he had gotten married. A very friendly lot, these Bulgarians.

They accompanied me through my bike hassles in part because the electricity was on the blink, and if they turned on their room lights, it tripped the breaker for us both – leaving us in complete darkness. My lights were ok, so they hovered about offering help and talking about our respective trips and interests.

I finally got to bed at 2:00am, so my 4:30am wake-up plan died as the lights went out.

So – back to today! I finally got rolling at about 9:15am, hoping to make the big climb of the day before the sun bared its fangs completely. That hope was in vain, however, as I managed to reach the bottom of the mountains at about 11:30, setting me up for a hot, sunny climb up to 700m (from my current 145m). Not a huge climb at all really, but my first ‘real’ climb this trip, and I was a little unsure how I’d handle it with all the gear I’m toting.

Getting to the mountains was bliss – the morning air was cool and refreshing, and just as the helpful bloke yesterday had said, there wasn’t a car to be seen anywhere. Odd that I could feel so grateful for roadworks, but that’s exactly what it was. Beautiful rolling scenery, wide open fields and the mountain range moving closer by the hour, with a first-class road all to myself – you couldn’t dream of better riding conditions.

When I started the climb, it was a very long, subtle incline for the most part, with only a couple of switch-backs, and the dreaded beating sun was surprisingly painless today (despite the reported 37 degrees in town). To be honest, I was completely comfortable the whole way up, smiling at and joking with the road crews, feeling strong and having fun. The road varied in quality from ‘pretty good’ to ‘bulldozed to Hell’, but I managed to navigate my way over the really rough stuff without a hitch, and avoided all the potholes in the tried old road they were digging up. I’d forgotten how enjoyable mountain cycling can be, having followed a series of rivers almost the entire trip, and was almost sorry to see the summit appear, much sooner than I’d expected.

I wasn’t sorry to see the roadhouse at the top though – I was getting hungry. I drank 1.5 litres of fluids (Ice Tea, water & some kind of Red-Bull imitation) and had a jumbo cheese-on-toast, followed by a really huge (and truly excellent) chock-wafer bar. And I mean HUGE – they kept these things in the fridge, and all the road crew boys were eating them. These are big guys, but they still looked like little kids trying to eat paperback books. I’m sure I looked ridiculous too, but at least it helped me ‘blend in’ a little…

Then in was all down hill. Absolute, pure cycling ecstasy. I put the iPod ear-buds in, fired up the Cult ‘Electric’, and blasted down 8km of spanking-new, immaculate asphalt, absolutely alone, at 50 kph – no fear of cars or trucks coming up behind me (the top was barricaded), and I even had a slight tail-wind. I was *very* sad to reach the bottom of that run – I think it ranks as my all-time Freewheel Nirvana, and I doubt I’ll ever find such conditions again. Unless I go back tomorrow…

The rest of the ride was also excellent, though once out of the mountains the heat certainly joined the party. Bakingly-hot on the flats around the lake, I was still on a high from the mountain run and couldn’t be demoralized. There was still virtually no traffic for the rest of the day, and apart from a last-minute surprise climb of about 350m, it was easy-riding all the way into town.

One minor gripe I have about this part of the world is the almost universal use of artificial sweeteners in the drinks. Anyone who knows me well knows that I hate artificial sweeteners, particularly aspartame, but I must have consumed 3 litres of the stuff today in various beverages. I needed the water (which I also drank), but I thought I’d keep it interesting by drinking some juices and ice teas as well. My mistake.

Svilengrad

Today, in my quest for lunch, I made a friend.

I was passing through the town of Galabovo, and I could feel the energy levels ebbing to critical. I’d been pedaling hard for about 4 hours in the roaring sun, and though I’d stopped numerous times for a bottle of water or an Ice Tea (only Liptons or Nescafe – the local stuff all has aspartame CRAP in it), no amount of re-hydration was going to put the wind back in my sails – I needed food.

I tried a mini-mart for a sandwich, and the guy was semi-sympathetic, but mimed that I’d have to buy a loaf of bread and some salami and make it myself if I really needed it. He then told me that there was a ‘hamburger shop’ about 2km down the street, and that I should give that a shot.

I’ve learned that everybody exaggerates distances for some reason (even the official street signs are reamarkably inaccurate), and sure enough – 400m down the street, I found a likely-looking establishment.

When I entered, the sole occupant was a customer – a middle-aged gent, face-down on one of the tables, dead to the world while the TV above him emitted some kind of local MTV. I stood at the counter for about 30 seconds, waiting for the proprietor to turn up, and eventually a lady with bright red hair emerged from the back room, somehow failing to notice me for a further 30 seconds. She asked me something in Bulgarian, to which I made my excuses in English – so she bellowed at the guy on the table to get up and deal with me. He jerked awake and looked around for a moment, very bleary-eyed, and then asked me ‘English or Doitch?’. I opted for English.

His English was, uh, rather patchy (he claimed to speak German much better), but I managed to explain that I’d like a sandwich and a drink. He asked me if I wanted salami, mayo and gherkin (a national specialty) and I agreed. I also grabbed a small glass bottle of Sprite out of the fridge, and sat down at another table to watch a bit of TV. I remembered that I had a (thoroughly molten) chocolate bar in my handlebar bag, so I asked him if I could put it in the fridge for a bit, to which he happily obliged.

He soon arrived at my table with a monstrous ‘sandwich’, more like a bread-football with great slabs of processed meat, pickles and heaps of mayonnaise jammed in the middle. I was stoked – great energy food – and I tucked in hungrily. While I chewed though it, he introduced himself as Petr (or something phonetically similar) and asked me my name, where I was from, where I was going, what kind of work I did and many other questions. He was particularly interested that I was a ‘network engineer’ (for lack of a better description) and that I was not married. He went to he fridge and pulled out a small bottle of water, putting it on my table and proclaiming it free of charge. I was very grateful. He also blurted out some orders to his wife (the redhead), and she appeared out of the kitchen with a grilled capsicum on a plate, and placed it next to my sandwich. The pepper was stuffed with rice, mince and garlic, and it was *delicious*. Before I’d finished the sandwich, he also put a freshly made espresso, a big bunch of grapes (from his own vine), and a handful of figs on the table, smiling broadly. I was really very surprised, and tried to offer him some money for it all, but his grin vanished and he wouldn’t hear of it.

I did my best to get through it all, but the grapes bested me. The espresso was really good too – he proudly pointed to his Lavazza coffee machine in the corner. He then explained that his daughter, who was unmarried and could speak some English, would be arriving in a few minutes, and that I should stick around. I agreed with a smile, but I was beginning to get a funny feeling about all of this…

He whisked out the door and jumped in his car, disappearing in a cloud of dust (and narrowly missing my bike!). His wife offered me a small, apologetic shrug, and went back to watering the flowers in the front yard. I sipped my water and wondered how this was all going to end, and soon enough he was back with his daughter in tow. She pointedly ignored me after a brief forced smile, saying absolutely nothing. Dad kept trying to instigate some conversation by asking me questions and having the daughter translate, but she wouldn’t join the conversation. I felt my exit-que being called, so I checked my watch in an obvious way and made my excuses, rising from the table. They were all eating the same scrummy stuffed-capsicums, but Dad jumped up and ran into the back garden, returning with a handful of plums and a very sorry-looking, immature bunch of grapes (a total contrast to the first bunch). He put them in a plastic bag for me, and escorted me out to the bike, where he repeatedly explained how to get to the next town (which was clearly marked on my map anyway) and wished me a safe trip. I tried one more time to give him some extra money, but he actually took my wallet out of my hands and put the note back in himself. The total cost for the meal, coffee & entertainment? Two leva – exactly 1 euro!

I then remembered my chocolate bar, and he raced back in to retrieve it. The wife pulled up a plastic chair next to the door and gestured for me to sit on it, while Petr explained that I must eat it now, or it will be melted again in another 5 minutes. My bulging belly didn’t like the idea at all, but he was right about the heat – so I did as I was told and dismounted the bike, plonking myself down on the chair.

As I unwrapped the (already melting) chocolate-wafer bar, I looked up at the sky and was startled to see an enormous black storm cloud right in front of us. It must have arrived in a hell of a hurry, even though there was no wind, and no cold-front that I could feel. But it was a bit strange-looking, and kind of the wrong colour, and a few moments later I realized that it wasn’t a storm cloud – it was smoke. LOTS of smoke, pouring up from the horizon, in the direction I was to be riding. I tried asking the wife about it, but she just nodded her head and waved her arms around a bit. Petr had nothing to add, other than ‘yes, fire, very big’, so I just chewed my wafer-bar and hoped the smoke wasn’t going to cause me any trouble on the road.

I pulled out my camera and asked if I could get a photo of him, which he was happy to pose for – but he then decided that I should take photos of his entire establishment – inside the restaurant, out the back (which was very nice, I must admit), around the side, a shot of his house next door, some shots of his grape vines and the trellises (‘the design!’ he proudly announced), and even the little ceramic figures along the tops of the walls. I dutifully shot everything he pointed at, until he started really hunting for each next-item, at which point I quickly put the camera away and tapped my watch face, with an apologetic smile.

I finally said my last good-byes and hopped on the bike, pedaling slowly and waving until I was around the corner. Then I picked up the pace, and was back on the road to Svilengrad (at last!)

The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful, apart from discovering that I wasn’t going to be incinerated by a wall of flames. The big fire was a couple of kilometres to my left as I passed, and the towering plume of smoke managed to block some of the power of the sun for an hour or so.

When I arrived in Svilengrad, a young kid on a bike pulled up next to me while I was consulting my map and started drilling me with questions (in Bulgarian). I smiled for a moment, then asked him ‘Centurm?’, and he nodded once, then waved at me to follow as he took off down the street.

Upon finding the (rather nice, green) town center, I went on the hunt for a place to stay, and after a few misfires I wound up at a huge Soviet-era hulk of a hotel. The lobby had the look and feel of an out-of-date gymnasium, and I did a double-take at the switchboard next to the front desk – a huge bank of 1/4-inch sockets with a dozen or so cables making connections. But the lady at the desk was friendly, and the room itself was surprisingly good and modern (apart from the psychedelic carpet). I showered, hit the town centre for a pizza, searched in vain for a net cafe (the guy I spoke too just couldn’t come to grips with the idea of Internet and coffee in the same establishment). Well-fed and exhausted, I slept in air-conditioned bliss…





Romania

17 08 2007

Timişoara

Deva

Sibiu

Piteşti

Bucharest
Currently enjoying being entertained and looked-after by Christian & Mieko, at their new place in Bucharest. Thanks guys!





Hungary

17 08 2007

Győr

August 2nd, 2007

I crossed the border into Hungary today! I can’t really say I was sorry to exit Slovakia, though I guess Bratislava had a few points in its favour (mainly the fellow travellers I met, and the fact that it’s cheaper than Vienna!).

20070802-to_hungary_border.jpg

Over the Danube again, and a bit of fun with the border-control boys. Two uniformed fellows met me at the checkpoint – one big and burly with a friendly face, the other more regular-size and quite serious looking.

‘A cyclist?’ the big one asked. I smiled and nodded in response, taking off my sunglasses and helmet.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Tokyo, Japan’
The big guy’s eyes widened a little and he let out a surprised laugh, followed by ‘Japan!… By bicycle?’. The other guy’s eyes narrowed, and he peered at me intensely, slowly starting to circle around behind the bike.
‘Yes, I hope so’ was my truthful response.
‘Your passport, please’ said Big, which he took and handed swiftly to a third guy I hadn’t noticed behind him. Intense was right behind me at this point, and he gave my rear tyre a gentle kick, testing the pressure (I assume). ‘Japan – is very far, yes?’ asked Big (he likes rhetorical questions, it seems). ‘Yes, very far’ I replied with a slight grin.
Third went into the booth with my passport, where I saw him hand it to a silhouetted figure seated at a desk.
‘How will you go there? The… route?’ asked Big
‘Uh, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan…’
‘Iran? You go to Iran? Not to Russia?’
‘No, not Russia. The visa is very difficult, and it’s far from here’ I said, pointing back the way I came.
‘Yes, but Iran… What is in your bags?’
(Intense said nothing during all of this. He had completed his circle of the bike and was now boring into my handlebar bag with his X-ray vision)
‘A tent, camping gear, clothes, bicycle parts… everything I need’ (I omitted the PC).
The silhouette emerged from the booth, and was clearly the man in charge, the others all backing off as he approached.
‘You are going to Japan?’ he asked. ‘By bicycle?’
‘Yes, that is the plan’
‘Oooh, this is very far, no?’
‘Yes, about 12,000km, I think’
This brought silence from all of them, followed by a reluctant grin from the Boss. The mood was never really serious, but now it eased right up, and we were all buddies. Intense asked me where I was going from here.
‘Uh… Gyor’
‘Ah yes, Gyor – you can go this way’ he said, pointing at the only possible way to go.
‘Thank you’ I said, and I meant it.
I asked if I could take a photo, given that everyone was all smiles (except Intense), and the camera wound up in Big’s hands, taking a shot of the Boss and I, with the bike.
The Boss started saying something I couldn’t understand, and Big translated for me. It turned out that the Boss’ 19-year old son was studying law in Prague, and that he had an email address at the university. He wanted me to send the photo to his son, along with an explanation (I assume) of what was going on, which I promised to do.
The translation session had pushed Big’s English to its limit, and he was looking tired. Staring thoughtfully to the upper-left, he summoned up one final gem:
‘You may pass… freely!’ he announced (in a grand-yet-hesitant tone)
At this, Intense finally cracked and burst out laughing, and I thanked them all, shaking hands with the Boss and pedaling down the road… into Hungary!

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I soon discovered that bicycles are illegal on the main roads of Hungary (including the road that Intense had advised me to take), as are horse-and-carts and tractors. Big glaring no-go signs met me every few hundred metres, but having absolutely no alternative, I carried on cautiously. I passed several police cars, both moving and stationary, but none of them seemed to pay me much notice beyond a passing glance at the bike itself. I passed within spitting distance of a speed-trap, a bloke standing road-side with a radar gun on a tripod, and he barely turned his eyes towards me. I kept pedaling.

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When I finally reached Gyor, I was very pleasantly surprised to find a really beautiful town, with a magnificent central square. I checked with the tourist office about campsites in the area, and I was directed to a place over the river, about 5 minutes out of town. One extremely handy point of the Hungarian tourist information (for me, at least) was that the pamphlets all had GPS co-ordinates of the attractions, so I could punch in the numbers directly (which I did), and off I went. I still had a bit of trouble finding the place, as I didn’t really believe the house I’d ridden past twice on the main street was actually a ‘campsite’, but I was wrong. I hesitantly wandered around the back of the house, into a vast backyard complete with permanent caravans and a couple of shacks, and a tent in the back corner. I interrupted a guy on a hammock, who mimed that I should ring the doorbell, which I did. A couple of friendly elder ladies greeted me (in German) and ushered me around the back of the house again, telling me I could pitch my tent anywhere I liked. The light was failing, so I quickly chose a spot and got the tent up, and was later greeted again by the guy in the hammock. He was a Frenchman named Jerome, and he was also Cycling down the Danube river, from Strasbourg to Budapest. He had a guidebook written by an elderly English gent who wrote a very detailed account of the ‘traditional’ cycling routes down the river, and the histories of each of the locations along the way. I really wish I’d had that book a few weeks ago…

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I was starving, so a quick shower and I was keen to get back in town. But Jerome was quite interested in my bike, and after offering to make me a cup of mint tea (which was really, and quite unexpectedly good), he related the tale of how his bike had totally self-destructed on the cobblestone roads of Passau. Apparently his frame had come apart at a couple of (rather rusty) points, and the bike literally collapsed underneath him! But according to him, he walked no more than 50m down the street, into a bike shop, and bought his replacement bike for 30 Euros (!) Yes, *30* Euros! I nearly choked on my (excellent) mint tea, and asked him how the *hell* he managed to do that. He said the bike wasn’t new, and that some parts were a little ‘old-school’, but still… I didn’t have the nerve to tell him how much mine cost. Let’s just say that if I did it his way, I could afford to have my bike explode at every major city I came across on this trip, and I’d still come out way ahead. But I’d rather not have the hassle or danger of an exploder-bike, thank you very much – and it could easily be life or death in the the really ugly stuff (yet to come), which he happily conceded.

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After that, I zipped back into town on my extremely sturdy and rugged bike, and found a great meal of spicy goulash soup and ‘schpatzle’ (similar to the stuff I had in Bavaria) that would easily have fed two people. I ate it all, of course, but it was a very slow ride back to camp…

Esztergom

Budapest

Kecskemét

Szeged





Slovakia

17 08 2007

Bratislava





Time-out with Maki-chan

17 08 2007

Vienna (Austria)

Prague (Czech Republic)

Linz (Austria)

Grein (Austria)

Melk (Austria)

Vienna (Austria)





Austria

17 08 2007

Linz

Pöchlarn

Tulln

Vienna