Truly Asia

Our departure from Istanbul was a stress filled experience. After queuing for ages to check our luggage in, the check in staff couldn’t find the information that we’d booked and purchased cargo space for the bikes. After that was solved, we were sent to the oversized baggage area for the bikes, but they refused to accept them because we’d been given no luggage tags. In a rare moment of assertiveness, Richard refused to go back and queue again. The guy we spoke to just shrugged and left, but fortunately someone else helped out.

We landed in Kuala Lumpur the day before Richard’s birthday, so that combined with the fact that the bikes needed some work doing, meant we planned to stay in the capital for a few days. Nothing whatsoever to do with me booking a hotel on “food street” and wanting to eat everything I could. I guessed that of the food cultures in Malaysia, Indian would be the one we might not see as much, so took advantage of roti breakfasts and curry dinners. We probably stayed a bit too long though, as we were itching to get going again almost immediately.

On the way out, some of KL had a bike lane, which was really pleasant. It was a Sunday, and lots of cyclists were out and about and stopped for a chat or just waved. And then there wasn’t a bike lane but a road hellscape for cyclists. And like the circles of hell, the roads were all at different levels, so not only did we need to find a road going in the right direction, but one at the right height. However, once we got on the correct road out of the city, there was an entirely separate motorbike path running alongside an expressway. It ended at one point, disintegrating into roadworks and a jungle, but the expressway was the only road and clearly signposted as no bicycles or even motorbikes. A guy on a moped noticed our confusion and rode over to check we were okay and knew where to go, I told him where we were heading. “Follow me” he said and rode off onto a small piece of the expressway and then down a fenced off path and back onto a motorbike lane. He waved us on as he went his own way. We never would have found our way, it couldn’t be seen from where we were and wasn’t signposted.

The next day we overreached, underestimating how soft our legs and arses had become after a couple of weeks off the bikes. I was coming down with a throat infection, we had a headwind and found doing 100km a slog. There were lots of friendly waves and hellos throughout the day though and we have found Milo in cartons, which is the single greatest non alcoholic drink in the world. We used to order cans and cartons from an online Thai food shop, but they stopped doing it a few years ago. The hot chocolate drink is available in the UK, and it’s nice, but not the same. That evening we ate at a small outdoor restaurant. The young guy who served us came over with his phone to translate that the business was started by his mum 30 years ago, and was the first chicken rice restaurant in this town, and he wanted to let us know that his mum was happy we wanted to eat here.  He then brought out a huge sharing bowl of dessert as a gift, and then took a round of photos with his mum and her friends.

The following day we took some small rural roads and were treated to some gorgeous scenery and  sightings of otter and monkeys. We planned to get a small ferry boat across the Penak river, but the road started to deteriorate and seemed to be going through a large logging space. The road was blocked, and from a security hut a man very aggressively told us we couldn’t go through. With no other way to get to the crossing, we had to turn back. I wondered if it was just that we weren’t allowed into the area where there was clearly some very scorched earth deforestation going on, but on our way back a moped rider pulled alongside for a chat and told us the boat isn’t running. So gatekeeper guy saved us a few more miles of backtracking. It was a major detour to double back and then get to a bridge, adding about 20 miles onto the day. We’d been lucky the first couple of days cycling in Malaysia that it’s been very overcast, but as the day wore on the clouds gave way to the intense sun, which makes things difficult on top of the humidity.

As the days had gone on, my throat problem had been getting worse, and when it got to the point of struggling to eat (I’m almost entirely driven by food, so this was distressing) we knew we had to rest for a couple of days. Cue catching up with washing and giving the bikes a good clean too, so at least the time wasn’t entirely wasted.

As we travelled further north the opportunities to ride routes along small local roads have become fewer. The deltas and wide rivers mean being funnelled over the large bridges which are only accessed by bigger, busy roads. There have also been flood warnings in the north, and we’ve seen many rivers bursting at the seams, so it doesn’t seem a good idea to go too far off piste and get caught out. The rains have been like clockwork every day in the late afternoon. Heading up the coast, the landscape has changed to huge palm oil plantations, which means there can be stretches with not many services, since it’s all plantation land. It’s very safe riding here though; most of the main roads have a large shoulder or even a whole side lane, because there are so many mopeds. On roads where the opposite lanes are separated by a central reservation, there are even bridges specifically for motorbike use so they can cross safely. They also love to pull alongside and say hello or “Welcome to Malaysia!”

We made it up in the north to a nice seaside town where I was hoping to get a river ferry boat across another river, after the disappointment of the last one. But alas, this one wasn’t running either. At least this time we were prepared for it, so the detour to a bridge wasn’t as galling. On the road later that day we pulled over to rest at a bus stop when a driver pulled over, went into a nearby shop and came over with two cans of drink for us. The kindness of some people never ceases to amaze me.  

The scenery in the far north changes to endless rice paddies and karst formations. It’s a nice change from the palm oil plantations, and signals how close we are getting to Thailand. We’ve spent the whole time in Malaysia surrounded by political party flags, banners and posters. They drape from every lamppost, bridge and pillar, and the flags are planted for miles upon miles with no space in the ground for any more. We’ve ridden past rallies and huge preparations for more of them. We knew there was a general election coming up, impossible not to, so we decided to cross the border to Thailand before the day itself, mostly just to avoid the massive disruption.

There aren’t too many land border options on the West coast, the only one really available to us is at Padang Besar. We read some reviews of the Thai border guards being really strict, but in the end the process was smooth and friendly. And as luck would have it, for a limited time Thailand is offering 45 day visas rather than the usual 30.

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed Malaysia, despite me being ill for all of our time on the road. But our intention is to loop round South East Asia and come back to cycle down the East coast, so it’s farewell and not goodbye.

A playlist for the ride:

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A Fond Farewell

The steppe of Central Anatolia is not entirely flat, but it is very barren. Very large towns are interspersed with nothing much at all. The route is a grind, and isn’t as rewarding as the scenic coast and mountains, but has its own charm to me. This is unspectacular Turkey, without anything to draw tourists, but with the same warmth and kindness from people as everywhere else. Not much beer though. Inland it has become very noticeable that it’s difficult to find places that serve alcohol, and when we do see them, they are generally full of older men, and have the atmosphere and smells of Working men’s clubs. And the roads are not as well kept here; there were some particularly godforsaken ones around Aksaray.

We finally made it into the town of Nevsehir, which gave us a short ride to the centre of Cappadocia, known for its distinctive “fairy chimney” rock formations, and one of the highlights of our travelling. Richard got a puncture riding there, the third one in the same tube. We tried to change it, rather than fixing it on the road, and discovered that we have brought the wrong inner tubes with us, so we have no spares. We do nothing but ride bikes and carry a few bags, but we can’t even manage to have our shit together even when we have so little shit.

The roads were incredibly quiet, and we kept expecting to see hordes of tourists and the sky full of hot air balloons, one of the things this area is known for, but they never materialised. Richard saw one take off early in the morning (me: asleep) but none the whole rest of our stay. We decided to base ourselves in one spot in Cappadocia, and it was great to be able to explore without the bags weighing us down. We spent the first day riding to see Ortahisar rock castle, then past the eastern outskirts of Göreme. On our unladen bikes we were able to get off road, where usually only the quad bikes go, and get up close to some of the rock formations, which was amazing. We were also able to ride off road through Love Valley, though it was a bit of a slog on very sandy  tracks, then walk round Uçhisar rock castle, which was well worth exploring. The highlights of the other two days were the ride through the Zelve Valley, which was incredible, and the Göreme open air museum. The latter was easily the busiest place we went to, but overall the area was eerily quiet, and we are very lucky that through a combination of things which have affected tourism, we’ve been able to see this otherworldly place without crowds.  Even better, the evenings are now getting chilly. After being blasted with heat for 4 months, it’s nice to feel a change of seasons.

Leaving Cappadocia, we headed West for the first time in ages. The overcast weather has set in, and there were lots of horrible bumpy roads covered with bone jarring chippings. If anything, the random acts of kindness have been more frequent here. On one dull and drizzly day, we were flagged down by a guy in a car who gave us some halva sweets, and then at the top of a hill by a lorry driver, who had stopped in a lay-by to take a break. He made us tea and gave us bread and some honey from the bees he keeps in his time off. We are also cheered up most days by some of the passing coaches bearing the company name Kamil Koc, which causes more hilarity than it should for people our age.

The towns along the way have been fairly non-descript, as has the cycling, although Eskesehir was really nice, with lots of cafes and restaurants by the river. But it’s everyday Turkey and full of unassuming but welcoming people. Our spoken Turkish and our understanding has got better as we’ve gone on, and I’m glad we didn’t do this route the other way round or we might have struggled, since English is pretty widely spoken on the coast, but not so much here. We’ve mostly been eating in very small kebab and soup places, and I think perhaps because we are a novelty, people have been rightly keen to show off food, with our plates being piled high.

As we’ve carried on towards the West, Autumn colours and temperatures have really set in. I’m wearing a coat in the mornings for the first time in ages, and slightly regretting only having sandals to wear on my feet. We were expecting the few days riding before we reached Istanbul to be purely functional, but Turkey keeps serving up great surprises. Heading towards Bursa, the scenery was really lush and beautiful. Although the ride through the city itself was a stressful slog through intense traffic and smog, and being constantly cut up by buses and cars pulling in and out in front of us.

We may not always make the best decisions, but knew that cycling into Istanbul would probably be lethal, so we stopped in the town of Mudanya so we could get a ferry across the sea of Marmara instead. Richard had his second haircut in Turkey (£3.24.) For someone who mostly shuns social interaction, he had a fine time sharing with the barber maps and photos of the places we’d been. The barber was insistent that at his age he must have children, so he made up a daughter, who is apparently 20 but doesn’t have a name.

We arrived in Istanbul almost a week ago. A wonderful friend of mine, Glayne, flew out to visit us. It was amazing to see someone from home, and to have someone other than Richard to talk to. We spent a few days relaxing with lots of great food and beer, and doing enough sightseeing and walking to justify that. The remaining thing to do before we wrap up here was to get bike boxes and get ready for a flight. Packing up the bikes has been a complete nightmare, but we were fortunately near some tool sellers and bike shops who were able to help.

We’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the two and a half months or so we’ve spent here. Turkey is a vast and diverse country, and while I’m happy with what we’ve done, I would love to come back and spend time riding in the far East and North. The cycling here has been physically tough, but the kindness of the people we’ve met and the places we’ve seen have made all the pain worthwhile. We’re lucky that we will almost certainly be able to come back to this amazing country. In the meantime, if I’m ever jaded or doubting the goodness of people, I only need to think of this place.

A playlist for the ride:

The Kindness of Strangers

I have been tired and lazy about keeping this up to date. Now we are inland in the Autumn, the baking hot days and amazing coastline are a distant memory. But back to where we left off: We took a very pleasant couple of days off in Dalyan, a very chill place considering it is a tourist hub. We chatted for a couple of evenings with Veysi, a restaurant manager who told us all about his travels, taught us some things about life and politics in modern Turkey, and inspired me to one day ride to Nordkapp.

Dalyan is the first of the popular holiday towns on or near the Levantine sea, the next one up is Fethiye. The ride through and after Fethiye was full of lots of both tourist and industrial traffic, on a very busy road. It was the only time I’ve felt a bit unsafe cycling here. Even though the roads were wide, there were no lines, so the usual safe little shoulder we claim wasn’t marked out. We took a slightly quieter road after this experience and had a long day in the sun, and I was feeling a bit under the weather. We were now scaling the medium climbs with ease, but the coast roads zig and zag and we found ourselves with a nasty headwind. We pulled over to a bus stop, and a pickup truck pulled alongside us. The guy got out and went into some nearby bushes and then looked like he was climbing a tree. Weird, but none of our business. Then he emerged from a grove and handed us some figs to eat, so he must have been up the tree picking them. A few minutes later, a couple on a moped pulled up, and through some signs and gestures, we realised they were saying that they’d seen us a few times today and had stopped to say hello. It’s a big boost to know we are fast enough to play at tag team with a moped.

The next few days we had our biggest climbs yet in quick succession, breaking our record each day. The worst hill was ridiculously steep, I could barely turn the pedals in the lowest gear. Thankfully we’d stocked up on drinks, because it was a bit of a barren run. We then had a descent through the town of Kalkan, and followed the D400 road along the coast. It was spectacular, with perfectly clear sea, beautiful coves, and a giant turtle sighting by Richard. It was easily the most scenic road I’ve ever cycled.

It was undulating, and as the day wore on, the earlier big climb took its toll, and at some point my legs just gave up the ghost. Other days the muscles ache and cycling is hard, but not to the point I couldn’t push through. This time there was just no power or energy left at all. We stopped at a bench in the shade, with a family having a picnic nearby. After a few minutes a young woman came over, with a tray of tea for us. I couldn’t even express to her how grateful we were, but I hope she understood. When I got up to return the tray, the mother came over and pressed a large plastic tub towards me, which I tried to refuse, but she insisted. It was full of fresh grapes.

At the end of the day, Richard discovered that he had a slow puncture, the only one so far after about 6,000km. We found the tear in the inner tube, but it wasn’t clean, it just looked like something had worn rather than punctured through. It took another couple of days, and another puncture, to get rid of a bit of wire which had worked its way through the tyre at an angle, which made it difficult to find.

After riding through Kas, the road cuts inland. Cycling along the coast is beautiful, but inland the scenery was great too, and even though we took a fairly major route we had it all to ourselves for long stretches. It was eerie being able to weave around all the lanes with not a soul in sight. Inevitably this made me wonder what would happen if the zombie apocalypse occurs when we are up here away from everything. We would just be blissfully cycling away while everyone else is eating brains. We would probably fair pretty badly though when we reached civilisation, as once the downhill runs out, I ride so slowly I could be caught by almost anything faster than a tree. We only have a pocket knife and a small folding knife to defend ourselves, and they will be useless because I’m a coward. We have no skills or knowledge to survive in the wild. Rolling my own cigarettes is probably the standout survival skill that I possess. It turns out that Richard hasn’t thought about these things, and sometimes I envy that.

Despite finding the ride along Turkey’s Levantine coast to be stunning and rewarding, we didn’t really love any of the towns. Patara and Kas were nice enough, but we’d hoped to fall in love with somewhere that we’d want to stay for a few days and relax. We’d heard Cirali was one of the most amazing beaches in Turkey, so we took a detour there (long descent in, painful climb out,) but it wasn’t our kind of place. We did really like Demre, maybe because it was just an ordinary town and we liked wandering around seeing ordinary people just going about their business.

After Demre, the road turned north around Kumluca, and there remained one final beast of a climb before things flattened out and the traffic built towards Antalya. We did a long day to get to and get clear of that city. There were two tunnels which wiped away the minor hills we were expecting, so it turned out to be the flattest day we’d had riding in Turkey. But the endless heavy traffic became unbearable, and the main road felt dangerous now with the constant slip roads and on ramps, which are always hair raising to negotiate. It became not just unenjoyable but not worth it. We both knew it was time to head north, away from the coast and the string of resorts now lined up along it.

We turned inland feeling satisfied about the change of scenery, and eager to reach Cappadocia, one of Turkey’s great jewels and one of the things left that we desperately want to see. The Southern coast of Turkey here is separated from inland Anatolia by the Taurus mountains, but we were just far enough West to avoid the biggest of them. The roads are thankfully wide and smooth, and now the heat is easing off as we head into Autumn, they were manageable. We were surprised with how verdant they were after a summer of searing weather. Even quite close up it looks like folded carpets of trees down into deep valleys, with villages nestled impossibly amongst them. It seemed like another country from where we’d just been. And then, not two day’s ride later, the steppes of Central Anatolia. Barren, arid plains for as far as the eye can see. The vastness of it is somehow more dramatic than the jagged coastline or the soaring mountains. I hope I don’t live to regret losing my rag at some busy coastal roads and giving them up to cross this. But we should be able to cover a lot of ground quickly, and at the end of it will be a fairytale landscape like nothing else in the world.

A playlist for the ride:

Riding High

We spent a couple of days off doing almost nothing but resting. We came across a launderette which we decided to splurge on, and it’s incredibly tragic how excited we were to have truly clean clothes, and not just ones we rinse every night with shower gel in a sink.

On leaving, we had a few miles of off road cycling, which I found a nice change, especially as we’ve been on some busy tourist sections. It was pleasant to just have some quiet away from the traffic noise. Richard hates this kind of cycling though, so not the best start to the day for him. 

Soon we reached Lake Bafa, and rode alongside the south road. It was a day of amazing scenery, although it’s such a busy road there were limited opportunities to stop much and really appreciate it. The road was mostly undulating and the day was very hot (as usual,) so we stopped at the top of one of the inclines where there was a roadside stall. A woman asked if I wanted water, so I said yes and picked up some bottles from a stack on the ground, but she put them back and went and got some cold bottles from a fridge instead and gave us a seat in the shade.

Round the next bend we bumped into a pair of cyclists, which was a huge shock. We haven’t seen anyone else on the road for ages. One was on his phone and the other waved us on, indicating that he didn’t speak English. But then they both came over and tried to chat using a translate app. They were both from Turkey (obvious anyway by all the flags adorning their bikes!) They are heading round the coast also, but we are diverting to see the lake, so I’m not sure if we’ll catch them up again at some point. The phone guy was wearing a long sleeved shirt, long tights, and a neck buff which also covered his face. He didn’t look hot and it probably very used to the heat here, but if I was decked out like that, by the end of the day I’d be like a banana wrapped in foil and put on a BBQ.

We were heading to a small village which was recommended to us by the guy who gave us a lift to Ephesus, and it was a great detour. We rode through some extraordinary rock formations, with a background of mountain vistas along a road with hardly any traffic, and alongside a beautiful serene lake. We stayed in a quiet little room, where we had the drama of Richard finding a lizard on the wall. He has to deal with spiders, but any other creature falls to me. We were really in need of a good night’s sleep, so were hoping that in such a quiet place that would be a given. But there was a wedding in the village that night.

Another day, another big hill, which will be a theme in Turkey. This one had a surprise tunnel at the top, which was nice as we were expecting to climb another couple of hundred feet. It was pretty well lit and not too long, and the downhill on the other side was joyous as usual. The next 10 miles or so was actually really flat, which made a massive change. We passed through a series of small towns, and exiting one a boy of about 8 or 9 ran to the side of the road and gave us both high fives.

We had a giant brake-busting descent right at the end of the day to a town by the sea which was locked in by hills, so we knew we had a nasty start to the next morning. We got a really early start to avoid the heat, and spent the first 3 miles climbing. A group of stray dogs made a beeline for us, and one of them attached itself by its jaws to a pannier for a bit, but didn’t do any real damage. My chain came off three times, my fault for not looking after it lately, but it did start to feel like a cursed day. We got to the top, where our biking apps and GPS assured us there was small coastal road, but were met will a high wall, a tall barrier gate and a padlock and chain. I felt sick as it sunk in that there was no way round this, and we had to backtrack all the downhill and do it all again in another direction, wasting the early start and all the effort put in.

The ride into Bodrum was probably the busiest yet. Most local traffic and the lorries and delivery vans are no problem to us, but tourist traffic, particularly the coaches, are always the worst. They are unforgiving with space and speed, and often get too close for comfort. We took a short rest to relax in a pool and catch up with washing. We met a lovely British couple (Louise and Kevin) and spent a good evening having a few beers. It was the only time on the trip that we have been a bit drunk, though my friends & family probably won’t believe that!

The next couple of days we followed smaller quiet roads through rural areas. We could go for miles without seeing a single vehicle. Even a couple of villages by some gorgeous coastline were very quiet, and we were able to have some leisurely paddles in the sea. The days were tough on the legs though. We had our biggest ascent and reached our highest point so far. It was through shady pine forests in the morning, and the difference of not having the sun beating down was huge. We stopped at a cafe for something to eat near the end of the day, and the guy serving us filled our water bottles and gave us extra to take with us before we left.

We then had the worst day yet, for me anyway. We had both managed the previous day’s climbing better than we thought, but I found out that a night’s sleep wasn’t enough for my legs to recover. After only a couple of miles of gentle uphill, my legs were screaming and I had a bit of fear creep in that I wasn’t going to be able to do the day we had planned. The next couple of hours of climbing were pure torture. I just had no energy and had to stop constantly to rest. It was the first time I’ve got off and walked some of a hill. I knew there was a flat section coming up, and when I got to the brow of it I was greeted by a man standing in the road, waving a corn on the cob and yelling “CORN!” at me, with Richard off to the side with an armful of figs laughing at it all. Richard had been at the top some time, and corn guy had been showing him round his fruit grove, and then how to spot and pick the ripe figs, which they had gathered for to us to eat (that is how slow I was.) He had a roadside stall where he pulled up some seats, and we sat eating figs and grapes. The man had been a teacher for 40 years, but now lived on his fruit farm and sold the excess produce at his stall. Richard and he had been exchanging the English/Turkish words for the various items, and since then the guy had been trying to entice passing trade with the corn waving and English. He asked if we would like tea. Normally it’s impolite to refuse, but it would have meant going off up a dirt track to his farmhouse some distance from the road, and he seemed quite understanding that we couldn’t leave the bikes and needed to get on. He told us that we had another kilometre of climbing and then some downhill, so we wearily set off again. I’d like to imagine that in years to come there will be a guy at the top of a hill in Turkey waving a corn on the cob in the road and shouting “Corn!” to passing motorists.

The rest of the day never seemed to end. We stopped frequently for cold drinks, and an ice cream, but nothing helped give me energy. We spent the last part of the day cycling right beside picture perfect turquoise sea, and it was a nice distraction, but by this point I was struggling with even the smallest undulation. I ended up walking the last half mile, and even that was a chore. We had a big dinner and a great night’s sleep, but I was worried about the next day. It was the longest distance we’d done for a while, but with much gentler climbs. I must just have had an off day, because once we got going I felt good. I was even relaxed about backtracking a couple of miles because I left two of my water bottles at a bus stop where we’d stopped to rest. We had a quiet and flat run into Dalyan, where we’ll take another day off.

When we first started riding in Turkey, we were wiped out at the end of every day, too tired to keep up with chores or to appreciate where we were. The plan to ride a few short but tough days and then rest for one full day has worked really well for us so far. We’ve been able to cope with the heat and hills, give ourselves time to recover and really enjoy being in Turkey. We also are feeling as though we’ve levelled up a bit physically, which is going to come in handy. Ahead of us soon is the Lycian Way and at some point after we will need to cross the mountains if we want to head inland and see Cappadocia.

Here’s my playlist for this ride through Turkey:

Talking Turkey

We had a late start riding in Turkey, after getting a ferry and going through customs and immigration. We’d had two 5am starts to catch ferries, and not much sleep on either night worrying about getting up in time. With foresight we were going to be tired, but the first day’s cycling in Turkey was easily the worst yet. If I’d had an out at some points, I would have quit. There were long hills through barren land, followed by long hills on main roads. At first it was manageable, but then it never seemed to end. We went from town to town looking for somewhere to stay, always with more hills in between, and by late afternoon I was feeling pretty rough. When we finally found somewhere to stop I could barely move.

With hindsight I think I ate something dodgy, and was feeling really awful the next day, so we didn’t get far. Richard went to get a haircut, and I took myself to a tea garden. Some people just have kind faces, and the guy who brought me endless tea while I waited, and offered a seat under an umbrella when it started to rain was one of those. Richard eventually turned up, having had not just a great a haircut, but (thankfully) his ear hair taken care of with a lighter, and we were ushered inside as the heavens opened more. The next day as we were leaving, Richard recognised a man gesturing to us, but couldn’t place him, but I instantly knew that kind face from the day before. He offered us a seat and brought us tea. We knew really that this was a gesture and not a transaction, but worried both that it would be rude not to offer to pay, but offensive if we did. Richard went in to say goodbye, and the guy put his hand on his heart and wished us well. Turkey constantly reminds me that overwhelmingly, people are good.

We stopped off in Selcuk at a lovely little pansiyon, so we could easily visit Ephesus. The guy insisted on taking us to visit his friend who owned a hotel and a shop, who could arrange that for us. Unfairly, as it turned out, our instinct was to be on our guard against being hussled into buying a tour or a carpet. But his first comment was that he would love to show us round his shop, but knew we couldn’t carry anything on the bikes. He then gave us advice for riding to the ruins, a free lift there if we’d rather do that, and a book to borrow about the ancient city.

We chose to accept the lift, because who in their right mind would exercise when they don’t have to? If I ever had a bucket list, then Ephesus would be on it. Even Richard, whose tolerance for this kind of thing is about as low as mine is for football, enjoyed it. There were a few tour groups, but mostly it was very quiet. We got a cab back into town, and a kebab. Being in a Turkish taxi is a bit like watching Carlos Sainz: Fast driving, but you can’t shake the feeling that something will go wrong.

Oh look, another hill.

The hills and the temperature have not let up, but we’ve resolved that if the terrain and the heat are going to be this brutal, then we are going to make the distances short. It’s worked well so far. Even though the climbing has been horrendous, we can stop as much as we want and take our time rather than aiming for some far off destination. The lack of pressure to do really long days and ride ourselves to exhaustion has helped mentally dealing with the physical challenges.

The ride to and through Kusadasi was another tough one, this time because the climbs are on main roads, and the traffic around this area is very heavy. Turkish roads tend to have a very wide shoulder though, usually used by mopeds to keep out of the way on climbs, so we have always felt safe cycling here. We stopped at a pansiyon and campsite with loads of bike paraphernalia, and a great pide place opposite. The next morning, my legs still hadn’t recovered from the ride the day before, so I was hoping in vain that the day would be a little easier. The owner saw us off and asked where we were headed that day. Richard told him, and added that we were expecting some hills. The guy chuckled and said “Oh yes, there are going to be climbs. It will be very hard.” Wonderful.

Turkey has been pretty cheap, so we have treated ourselves to a couple of days off by the sea in a half-board hotel. There are four toilet rolls in the bathroom though, which I don’t think bodes well for dinner.

Here is a playlist for our first week in Turkey:

Greek Life

We have an idealised picture of cycling in Greece, and even though in the end the reality didn’t quite match, we still have that picture. The potential for Greece to be a near perfect country to cycle in is there, but it depends so much on when you go. It was August when we were there. Greeks holiday in Greece, not surprisingly, and like much of Europe many take the entire month off to do so. Other Europeans also holiday in Greece, mostly in August. Serbs and Germans drive to this part in droves. This is compounded by a major Bank Holiday Monday in the middle of the month, so those who don’t take the whole month will at least take that week. We knew it would be busy, but didn’t expect that every inch of the coast, including all the small villages, would be packed. Campsites were often full, and finding somewhere to sleep was a daily anxiety, whereas we’d been pretty relaxed about it up until this point.

It’s not unusual for temperatures in Greece to get above 40 degrees regularly, and it’s miserable to cycle in. We’d like to come back here, but in the Spring when it would be much more enjoyable. We look at the weather further south with envy; it’s wild that Turkey is cooler than Europe right now. As it was, the back roads of Greece and the coastal views were amazing. Parts of riding here are idyllic. There are lots of quiet roads and they are in really good condition. We had a couple of unpaved sections, but nothing too terrible, or too long. But there’s no getting round it, Greece is mountainous, and it’s unrelenting. It’s beautiful, but tough going. The hills are usually the sharp and steep lung and leg busting kind, but there is always cheap and plentiful gyros to refuel with.

In contrast to the great backroads, there are often no small routes into or around large towns and cities; usually it’s just the option of a busy main road. Thessaloniki, Athens and Larissa were particularly bad. We had a headwind and a multi lane dual carriageway into Larissa at the end of a long day, but there was no other choice. Richard blasted along, trying to get the road out of the way as fast as possible, so I had to put in a time trial to keep up with him, because I knew if I lost his slipstream it would be ten times worse for me. Even two weeks ago I wouldn’t have been able to do it, so the tough riding is starting to pay off.

Athens was oddly quiet. We visited many of the ancient sites in relative peace. Our Autumn goal has always been Turkey, but (maybe with beer involved) we started to muse about what else we might do before that. We hashed out the idea of cycling the North Peloponnese and up the coast to Albania and maybe even beyond, then taking a series of ferries back. In the cold light of day though it would have been excruciatingly expensive, and involve backtracking from Patras to Athens. So we stuck to our original plan to go straight to Turkey via a couple of ferries.

We thought we’d have a quick, easy ride from the northern outskirts of Athens to Pireaus port just to the south, but no. It was a sweltering couple of hours navigating the inner city and the industrial outskirts. I was on the verge of a heat meltdown, so took myself into a nearby IKEA to pretend to look at furniture and cool down in the air conditioning.

We had an 11 hour ferry crossing to Chios, and then a short hop the following morning to Turkey. Plenty of time to think about the last couple of months, and the future. I was torn about what we were doing; I felt we had sold ourselves a bit short on Greece, and had been high on the idea of getting to the Balkan coast. But practically speaking, we are doing the right thing, and we can always go back at a better time for us. I also had plenty of trepidation about our next destination. Greece had been monumentally hard, and Turkey is going to be worse. We did a long tour over ten years ago, and it was tough. It’s even tougher now; I feel slower, my back aches all the time, my knees are sore, and there are countless other twinges. People much older than us do long bike tours, but it’s been a sober reminder that I’m not young anymore and won’t be again.

A playlist for the ride through Greece:

The Heat Is On

The ride into Serbia was fast and smooth, plus we found a car wash to give our bikes a scrub. We found a studio apartment for less than many campsites, and it was a relief to be in a cool room and out of the sun. We were lucky enough to be there for the annual town festival, with food stalls and traditional music and dancing. I had some kind of pork patty the size of a side plate in some folded flatbread. It goes without saying that I spilt paprika sauce down the front of my white top.

We had a climb out of town, and it was already over 30 degrees. I had finished half my water bottles and was a complete mess by the top. The views and the downhill were spectacular though, and it felt like a great day to be alive. Even better, I got a tow from a tractor on the flat and would pay to see the look on Richard’s face again as I flew past him. Halfway through the day’s ride, another big climb came into view on the road ahead, but before it a sign for a turnoff onto another EuroVelo bike route. The lesson we’ve learned is that the main roads in this part of the world are never as busy as we would think from a map, and the cycle routes are so often dogshit. But I’d already noped out of the climb in the heat.

At first the road was lovely. The views of the vast Danube with its fishing villages and beaches was almost like being by the sea. Then the road started to deteriorate a bit, but it was flat and nothing too bad. Then the surface become made up of large loose rocks which were incredibly difficult to cycle on and took chunks out of our tyres. The foliage on both sides had mostly encroached onto the tracks, so one way or another it will be impassable soon. The good news is that it was free of cars and mostly in the shade. We got to the end of the section and passed a Czech cyclist going the other way, who stopped to swap notes. He told us that parts of the road in Serbia where we were heading were terrible, the Bulgarian road was good but smelly (!)

The next 10km or so were dead flat and on a smooth road, but the heat had well and truly fried me, and I was having trouble concentrating and keeping the bike on the road. The temperature has consistently got into the 40s in the afternoons, and it’s just too much and is really getting to us. It’s still in the high 30s well past 8pm, so there just isn’t any respite from it.

The next day we hit what the Czech guy had been talking about – huge sections of road works. We didn’t find it too bad, it was mostly flat and the roads were very quiet, because most cars had taken a diversion. We’d reached the end of our time in Serbia, and it’s somewhere we’d be happy to return to.

The Bulgarian border guard used to live in the UK and was happy to have a chat at his very quiet border post. The border town itself is half abandoned and very odd, but there were lots of waves and hellos as we passed through. The next 15 miles or so was probably the quietest “proper” road we’d cycled on, with lovely scenery and lots of shade. That disappeared (obviously) for the climbs that afternoon and we limped into Vidin with everything zapped out of us. It’s too hot to even eat much in the evening.

We had thought that we might continue East and stick with the Danube all the way to the coast, but the heatwave continues in that direction, and I in particular am sick of it, so we ruled that out. We considered the Balkan coast, but knew this time of year the roads would be busy, and campsites would be full and expensive. We settled on getting to Sofia and spending a couple of days there to look at the options and make up our minds.  It was definitely cooler heading South, but the first morning in Sofia I slipped a disc in my back. It’s something that happens once or twice a year, and takes at least a few days before I become mobile again. It was frustrating to finally have some respite from the heat, but not be able to go anywhere. When I was back on my feet we had to take cycling easy, so made the decision to get a train South of the mountains surrounding Sofia and continue on from there.

The cycling in the South of Bulgaria has been the most spectacular so far. The road surfaces are perfect and quiet, and the scenery is beyond words. It’s managed to topple Serbia for the cycling top spot so far. As the second day of riding went on, I was getting faster and starting to leave Richard behind on the climbs. My belief that I was just getting super fit and fast was short lived when I looked back and saw him nearly collapsed on the road. It was a long afternoon of riding a few miles then stopping as he recovered. He seemed a bit better the following morning, so we put it down to dehydration and pushed on, but the same thing happened again, and now he was sure there was something wrong with his chest and throat. We decided to go to the West and cross into North Macedonia, as it had the only big town which we could reach in a day’s ride. It turned out that he’d come down with laryngitis, and was bedridden for the next three days.

We’ve both now been struck down physically in quick succession, but what’s been almost worse is how frustrating it’s been to be trapped when we want to be moving. So even though Richard wasn’t completely recovered, we thought we could do a short day through the mountains to at least get going again. We didn’t really have much choice about the difficulty, because even though getting to a town was the right thing to do, we’d boxed ourselves in with mountains. I felt a little bit guilty about how much I loved the day’s cycling, because Richard was still suffering and struggling. Our main climb was very long but with a gentle gradient, exactly the kind I like. The descent was dramatic and honestly a bit hair raising, but the views were jaw dropping and worth every bit of pain to get there.

We found a cheap apartment in a complex with a restaurant and pool on Lake Dojran to stay for a couple of nights, to make sure Richard was completely recovered before we head to our next destination: Greece. On our last night, the owner came over to our table, and through a mix of broken German and gestures told us that he usually sits down to chat with all of his guests, but he doesn’t speak any English so was sorry he couldn’t do that. He offered us some of his home distilled spirits, and I could see Richard shaking his head in the corner of my eye, but thought it would be rude to refuse so I said “yes.” I got given a large pour of mastika, and Richard some kind of whisky. I don’t know how straws are measured when it comes to this kind of thing, but I think I drew the short one, because I could barely see after finishing mine, while Richard was fine. On leaving the place, the guy gave us a bottle of his homemade wine to take with is, which was another very kind gesture, but not an easy one to carry on a bike.

The morning was overcast and blissfully cool. Easily the lowest temperature we’ve had in weeks: An auspicious start to a memorable day. We made fast ground to the border, and though the queue was long, one of the Macedonian guards came out and waved us through to the front. Not to be outdone, on the Greek side the guard asked if we’d ridden from the UK, and then offered us food and drink if we wanted. The distance to our destination was the longest we’d ridden in a while, but the roads were great and the hills easy and undulating. We both are now happy and almost healthy, and as we rolled along the quiet roads to the Greek coast I thought how lucky we are to be doing this. Then when we pulled over for a rest and a drink, Richard remarked “You know, we are so lucky.”

A playlist for the ride:

Through the Iron Gates

Our last day in Serbia was perfect. Lovely quiet roads, plenty of food, beautiful scenery, a tailwind. All the things a cyclist hopes for. There was a ferry crossing partway through the day, which was so expensive it caught us off guard. We knew we had another boat crossing to get to Romania, so we quickly went from wondering if there would be any place to change leftover money, to concerned about having enough Dinars left. We paid for the border ferry with about 30p to spare, even buying a bottle of drink that day would have left us unable to pay. The border crossing itself was from a textbook of how to take as long as possible to do a job and use what small power you have to make people wait for you.

The ferry and Romanian border were not where we thought they’d be. We thought we would dock in the town of Moldova Veche, but were dropped a couple of kilometres south. We made the smart decision to detour into the town to get supplies, because it turned out that there would be very few of those on this route, and to use a cashpoint of which we didn’t see another whilst in Romania.

The ride continued to be amazing, and even though it had been a bit stressful with the border crossing, we felt relaxed and were thoroughly enjoying ourselves. We stopped somewhere before the village of Liubcova, but felt like we could go on for miles. We knew the next day had some climbing, which would be substantial in the heat. We didn’t know that there would be no shops, kiosks or roadside stalls. The morning arrived, and it was already in the 30s before 9am, so we knew it would be a scorcher. Still, the road was excellent, there was almost no traffic and the scenery was jaw dropping. Every corner we turned had me shaking my head at what I was seeing, and being grateful to be here. Don’t worry though, I can find some negatives! Oh god, the heat. It felt as though every bit of me was melting, and when there was a breeze it was the same feeling as when you open an oven door. We pulled over to some picnic tables in the shade – there are lots of parking areas on the route for people to pull over and enjoy the view – and spotted a monument with a natural spring fountain on the other side of the road. There are not many better feelings than to be baking hot and getting dehydrated, and be able to satiate your thirst with ice cold spring water. I filled up our water bottles, 6 litres in total, and had finished it by the end of the day.

A few kilometres further on and we could see the beginning of the climb in front of us, and even though it was hot and the road was steep, I was feeling pretty strong. I overtook Richard when he stopped for a drink, and when I next looked back he was nowhere to be seen. I have never been faster than him on a hill. I even had the energy to go back and get his bike when he was struggling even to push it. He’d had no fizzy drinks during the day, and while I’m happy and used to existing on water on a ride, his body was zonking without his usual sugar. We had a blissful downhill and then a shorter climb, which he could barely make it up. We stopped for the day after that, so he had time to recover. The following day’s climb saw normal service resume, with me plodding along up a hill and him in the distance, full of cola and iced tea.

But the excitement was building, as now we are cycling through the Iron Gates National Park, and a date with this:

Ever since I found out about the rock sculpture of Decebalus, the first couple of months of cycling has been all about seeing it. I’ve inundated Richard for about a year with links, pictures and endless talk about “Stone Face.” He didn’t know exactly which day we would get there (he insists he didn’t look it up, and he does have somewhat more self control than I do) but predicted that I wouldn’t be able to contain myself and would give it away. That part is kind of easy when I’m usually about a mile behind, but the dramatic rock formations and stalls up ahead made it obvious that Stone Face was near. It was surreal to be standing in front of something I’d imagined seeing for so long. It was exactly as advertised, there had been no glossing or shopping the online pictures, and no case of it being smaller in real life. Here he is again:

The road became quite a bit busier after Stone Face (though it’s still a fairly quiet road,) we think because many foreign tourists make a detour to see him, but there is no easy way to get there from the other side. We saw a few groups of touring motorcyclists go his way and then return the same way. The scenery drops off a bit from here also, and with the lack of services we’d experienced, the fact that we really enjoyed Serbia and its cheapness compared to Romania, we decided to cross back across the Iron Gates bridge. The ride between the town of Orsova (after Stone Face) and the bridge is one of the Danube’s notorious ones, but although it was hair raising in places, we lived. The Romanian border guard was a smiley happy chappy who wished us a safe journey onward.

Even though seeing the Stone Face was something I’ve looked forward to for ages, it was the last fixed place we had in mind, and now we can just go wherever we want. We do know we’d like to see more of small town Serbia, so that’s our only plan for the moment.

Hello, Salute.

Here is a playlist for the Iron Gates National Park ride:

Welcome to Serbia!

We had a smooth and efficient border exit from Croatia, followed by such a long stretch of no man’s land which, if you’re an over thinker (hello!) makes you wonder if you’ve taken a wrong turn and are now in Serbia illegally.

We rolled into the border town (Bačka Palanka) intending to stop for a coffee, when we were noticed by Trivo Ilic, who happily wanted to welcome us to Serbia, and insisted that we look round his business and have a chat and a cold drink. He has owned a driving school in the town for 30 years, and his father before him for 50 years, is also a professional football coach, and infectiously enthusiastic about those things and about how much we would like Serbia. He was adamant that his fellow Serbs would be kind and friendly to their visitors, and indeed he was right.

We’ve had some great cycling, and some awful cycling. There have been smooth tracks through rural villages, where we’ve come upon old school shepherd’s camps, complete with wooden crooks and herding on horseback. There have been long, fast narrow road sections, where the cars pass each other at insane speeds, and the roadside has countless memorial stones – we passed at least 10 in one 2 hour stretch. And we had a morning of lashing rain, which inevitably meant there had to be a long section of mud track. After about 100 metres both bikes became bogged down and we had to drag them back because the mudguards and brakes were too clogged for the wheels to turn, and then do a long detour to find a good road. The one thing that’s stayed consistent has been how warm and friendly the country’s people have been, and that’s kept our spirits up when things have been difficult.

A “road.”

And then nothing could have prepared us for the final part of our ride into Belgrade. There is no city I’ve cycled into that can touch Istanbul for near death experiences, but Belgrade is now second. There was no approach to the city that didn’t involve roads that looked like motorways. The final part was a bridge crossing. The good news is there’s a bike/footpath. The bad news is that sections of the paving were slanted and unstable and we could see all the way down. Not the greatest experience for someone scared of heights. The city itself wasn’t worth it at all. Travel sites probably bore on about the same copy & paste things they do for every Eastern European city – cafe culture, lots of clubs, lots of bars etc and there might well be a nice clean square at the centre, we didn’t go there, but in general it was shockingly dilapidated and run down. It’s very at odds with what we’ve seen of Serbia in general.

We took a rest day in a quiet town called Kovin, not far from the border with Romania. It was the first day off where we really didn’t do a lot. Richard got a haircut (for £2.52, as I’ve heard numerous times) and we both ate a lot, but other than that we just mooched around because it was such a peaceful place. I am not a woo person. Places don’t have auras or energy fields, and such stuff is bollocks. But I do think we subconsciously  receive and interpret many clues about our surroundings, and those add up to our instincts. Serbia feels open and welcoming, and an all round good place to be. It is the first country we’ve been through that we have a strong desire to come back to.

Here’s a playlist for the ride in Serbia:

Different Place, Different Pace

More gruelling riding in Hungary. The road surfaces are just really bad. It’s impossible to avoid potholes, and the constant jarring takes its toll on the wrists, neck and shoulders. Not to mention that it’s reignited saddle sores we thought were gone. And it’s either those roads or long straight gravel tracks where the horizon never seems to change. In all fairness, those trails are flat and the surface in the dry weather is better than the roads, but it’s draining mentally because it’s so monotonous and also very exposed in what is becoming scorching heat.

The driving here can be a mixed bag. When there’s nothing coming the other way, passing cars and lorries always signal and give us loads of space. But if there is something coming the other way, they will not wait behind us and they pass when there isn’t much room. I can’t imagine what it would be like cycling here having grown up riding in Germany or The Netherlands, where there are dedicated bike lanes everywhere, cyclists are given priority to cars in many ways on the roads. One advantage of being from the UK is that we’re used to this kind of thing.

Our first day south of Budapest  we were on some bumpy roads, when we stopped for a rest and were approached by a Hungarian family and invited to join them later at a campsite by the river. They were off on a kayak daytrip, but were camping in the evening. The people were lovely, and the campsite looked great. We were sorely tempted, but it was only 11.30 and we wanted to push on. I was kicking myself the rest of the day. We need to take these opportunities to meet people and to slow down. We’ve been in a kind of frenzy to go as far as possible every day, even though it’s beginning to burn us out. The campsite that night was a bit of a downer, which didn’t help. Dirty, most toilets out of order and no hot water in the women’s showers.

We did our longest day yet after that. One of the long, hot, monotonous days on gravel tracks with no shade and nowhere to rest. We were only a few miles from our destination and desperate to stop, when we took a turn out of the flat plains and were hit with a massive sharp climb. One of those ones where you think it’s over but round every corner is an even steeper part. There was a monument and flag at the top, and a couple of road cyclist who crawled up after us, so it did feel like an achievement getting to reach the end, plus the views and some downhill. The following day we started by riding through rolling hills. Far better than steep climbs, but still with nice views. It was some of the best cycling so far, and I think had we both not been so tired then we might have enjoyed it more. We promised ourselves that we will rest when we get to Croatia – we haven’t had a day off since Austria.

There was some anxiety about our border crossing. The Hungarian government website makes it clear that non-EU passport holders can’t use all border crossings, but don’t list which Croatian ones they can use. We were reasonably sure from looking at maps and pictures that it would work out, but it’s not easy to backtrack and divert when you’re on a bike. Fortunately it was fine, and we got our Schengen exit stamps.

Part of the ride across the border involved some rough tracks, fields, and a ravine, but once we got on the roads we had some smooth sailing. The road conditions here are really good, and there is nowhere near as much traffic as in Hungary. Even so, we were still getting a bit frayed round the edges and very tired. We picked the town of Vukovar to take the day off, purely on geography and exhaustion. We since found out that it was one of the key battles of the Yugoslav wars, and the site of a subsequent massacre and ethnic cleansing. The huge water tower which received heavy shelling has been left standing as a reminder of what happened here. There is now a museum near the top of the tower, and it’s a moving place.  

The ride into Vukovar

We’re heading now for Serbia, and planning on some shorter days and taking rest when we need it.

A playlist for the ride in Southern Hungary and Croatia: