Azerbaijan 13th – 20th July. Stage 2 complete!

Azerbaijan. Say it out loud. Go on! Say it out loud – you won’t regret it!

How cool does it sound?

When I had stared intently at our huge world map on the wall back at home in our operations room (dining room) I had looked at Azerbaijan with such curiosity. What’s there? Who’s there? What’s the main religion? What is the cuisine like? It sounds dry and baron, is it dry and baron? I would not seek the answers to my questions, instead preferring to find out on the road. We were ushered past hundreds of cars queuing to cross the border, the vast majority with token cigarette holding hands dangling on the outside of the car door. A sign above us stated ‘Azerbaijan border. Good luck’. As we crossed the border, we looked at each other laughing, amused and proud that we had cycled to Azerbaijan from London. Maybe it was the sheer distance we had clocked up by now, or maybe it the fact we had cycled to a country that had a ‘z’ in it. I screamed ‘AZERBAIJAAAAAAN’, not for the first time whilst in this wonderful country.

Azerbaijan is known as Turkey’s sister nation, and we could instantly see why. It was like catching up with the partner of a good friend in that you felt like you were indirectly connecting with that absent person. We were welcomed with familiar endearing and infectious smiles; offered Cay (Tea) by passers-by, and were asked with sincerity if we needed anything. Why can’t the whole world be filled with such caring, genuine and wise people I asked myself. Why are we not able to replace greed and selfishness with altruism and selflessness for the greater good of all people? Why have we not realised that this is the key to the world’s problems? Guilt seeped in, unable to convince myself I was not part of the problem. I was committed to learn from people on this trip and I again felt I was being given a greater education from the humble people of different parts of the world than I could get back home in my country.

We stopped at the first place we could find to get some food. We always get so excited at our first meal across a border, expecting drastically different cuisine from what was on offer thirty miles back down the road, and continuously being surprised when it’s identical but with a marginally different spelling of its name. We sat inside a large empty restaurant clad with plastic wood effect walls decorated with dusty family photos. Passers-by had gathered around our bikes. Bemused they stood circled around the ownerless heavily laden bicycles, staring, scratching heads, pointing, discussing. A young boy arrived at our table, his smile breaking into giggles. His father stood twenty metres behind, clearly having sent the boy to deal with us with the hope that he may have a better idea of how to communicate with the foreigners sitting in his restaurant. His giggling was infectious as we all just laughed at the fact that none of us knew what we wanted to eat and had no way of agreeing how to resolve the situation. In our smooth border crossing where we barely stopped our wheels from rolling, we had forgotten to do our usual queuing activity of learning the basics of the language spoken metres away, so our Azerbaijani consisted of only one word – Azerbaijan. Unidentifiable meat swimming in an oily broth with a side-salad of cucumber and tomatoes was devoured and the still giggling customers thanked the still giggling boy and the now giggling father as we vacated the restaurant.

We cycled through beautiful landscape all day. Particularly noteworthy was beautiful seemingly endless woodland. We spotted the occasional cute food/drink shack in the woods but were still too full on oily broth to stop. Later in the day however as the sun was now leaving us and concentrating on warming the backs of those back home, we stopped at a primitive place under the trees with a topless big-bellied owner; a makeshift sign, a beer keg and roaming cats. Our kind of place! We got comfortable. Too comfortable.  After a few beers and long lazy chats, the night drew in and we decided it was probably wise not to cycle to our proposed night spot 5kms away and that we would ask if we could camp in the forest instead. To our surprise we were told it was forbidden so we cycled like mad with bellies full of beer to a spot on our map we were told we could camp in. Finding a camping spot in the dark is not fun. Neither is cycling at night in a new country. The forest got thinner and we turned off the road and crossed a dry riverbed to find a tucked away spot. Just as we pitched the tent, the heavens opened and didn’t stop until noon the next day. We didn’t care. “AZERBAIJAAAAAAAAAAAAAN”.

As well as being coined the sister nation of Turkey, Azerbaijan is also known as ‘the land of fire’. Hannah decided this description was incorrect, and that a more appropriate name was ‘the land of puppies’. It made more sense. I hadn’t seen a single fire, but there were puppies everywhere! ‘But where were the older dogs?’ I questioned. I quickly diminished the images of the unidentifiable meat in my soup from the day before, but they crept back in as we cycled into a roadside eatery late in the day. We lent our bikes on a fence and walked towards the hub. A creaking noise behind us called us quickly back as the weight of our bikes nearly broke the fence.

A man sitting on his own at a bench outside (there was no inside, I don’t think they really do inside in Azerbaijan) stood up and enthusiastically called us over to join him at his table. We sat down unable to refuse the hospitality of any person since we left Europe. With a big smile on his face and his hand miming a drinking motion he simply asked ‘Pivo?’. We accepted his Russian spoken offering of a beer and made ourselves comfortable. His second question in Russian baffled us and he quickly realised that we neither spoke his native Azerbaijani or Russian beyond the words yes, no, beer and tent. He could not disguise his disappointment and clearly regretted asking us to join him. All was not lost however. Google translate came to our rescue and yet again we had a memorable evening with a local communicating through an app on our phone and charades. He spoke of his children, his job, his past life whilst we ate chick peas and stringy goats cheese covered with salt and lemon. The other customers sat playing dominoes whilst simultaneously looking and laughing at the awkward yet enjoyable experience at our table. As more beer and more chickpeas arrived we realised we had done it again. It was getting dark. We didn’t know where we were sleeping. We downed the beers, thanked the man and I went to pay. The bar owner closed his eyes, shook his head and shooed us off with his hands. We looked at the man at the table. ‘No problem, no problem’ he said. I begged to pay. I was flatly refused. Like Turkey, it seemed it was rude to argue with someone who has paid your bill. With huge thanks and a warm hug we said goodbye to the man who waved us away with a smile.

The smile was infectious and stayed with us until some twenty minutes down the road we became worried about where we could sleep. It was now getting dark and we asked in a roadside restaurant if it was at all possible to camp on their land. The place looked too posh to allow two dirty cyclists and a tent in the garden, but it was worth a try. A sharply pruned man in a waistcoat directed us up a road whilst repeatedly saying ‘Army, army’. An army base? Really!? With no alternatives we followed his directions. We cycled up a dirt track and spotted a rifle-holding soldier in an outpost on stilts. I felt uneasy, Hannah was fine obviously. I tentatively cycled towards the outpost. I half expected to have the gun turned on me and told to stop. We got to the bottom of the outpost and stared up at the soldier. We knew Russian was spoken by many here so made pyramids with our hands like tent shapes and asked ‘palatka?’ (Russian for tent). The man didn’t even acknowledge us. I repeated myself twice. Without leaving his long forward gaze toward the horizon he simply nodded behind him. I looked at Hannah for confirmation of what I thought I had seen as an offer to pass behind him. We rolled our bikes past the army barracks and looked for a place to pitch up in the dark. I didn’t like it. I felt uneasy. Hannah had the opposite feeling, she felt protected by the soldier’s invitation. It’s strange how our inhibitions and trust of people can vary so much. With the soothing sounds of stomping and barking army soldiers in the background, Hannah nodded off. I on the other hand guarded our tent, suspicious of the guard guarding the army barracks.

The following day started badly. We were both feeling quite rough and decided to have a slow morning drinking sweet tea and rehydration salts in a café, to ‘top up the levels’ as we called it. The kind café owner would not accept our money. Turkey’s sister nation for sure. Azerbaijan in comparison to its ‘brother nation’ was less committed to its Islamic roots and seemed to be being pulled towards a more liberal European way of life. Islam was less openly practised; women’s fashion was under-clothed in comparison, bars openly sold alcohol and American pop music was a trend amongst children.

Roadside stalls are one of the greatest joys of cycle touring. They are a welcome rest stop, a place to try new and cheap local food, and an opportunity to converse with locals. Today’s treats were buttery spinach breads cooked in roadside tandoor-style ovens for main course, followed by a dessert of frisbee sized discs of sugary dried fruit brittle. Our enjoyment of the breads led our appreciation to be rewarded with a full-sized loaf being gifted to us (trust me, you cannot say no, you can try, but you will lose the battle). Our appreciation for the brittle however, was less genuine. We could never quite understand why roadside vendors selling the same product would all group together. There would be thirty, forty, fifty purveyors of the same style of bread bunched together either side of a stretch of road, and five miles down the road would be just as many pitched up selling the brittle. What would happen, we questioned, if one day one of the bread vendors dare venture into brittle territory? Would there be mass confusion? Would there be anarchy? Would Azerbaijan become a failed state? Just as we daren’t consider the repercussions any longer, someone sharply pulled over in front of us, got out their van and presented us with a 15-kilo watermelon.

The third gifted watermelon of our trip so far was yet another portrayal of great kindness, generosity and complete lack of understanding of how difficult it is to carry watermelons on bicycles. The gifter was desperate to help us in any way he possibly could. He seemed genuinely saddened at the fact there was nothing he could do for us other than pose for a group selfie. The kindness we received from locals since leaving England and in particular since Turkey never failed to humble us and was never taken for granted. Out of sheer desperation of presenting the man with a problem he could help us with, Hannah asked me if it was inappropriate to ask if he had any experience with healing saddle sores. She didn’t risk finding out.

We rode through miles upon miles of seemingly endless beautiful woodland. Amongst the many trees the land was bare and free of fallen trees and shrubs. This was taken advantage of with hundreds of rustic relaxed eating and drinking places dotted under the shaded canopy. Some had fairy lights, some had hammocks, some had BBQ’s, some even had fountains and swimming pools, all had cute little picnic tables that were very tempting to stop and rest at. After a roadside disagreement (argument) as to what the definition of enchanted was, we happily agreed that these forests were an example. We deliberated stopping but aware of two big climbs ahead, we decided to tackle them instead, not knowing how long they would take to beat. In hindsight, we should have stopped, called it a day and relaxed. However we were still amateur cycle tourers keen to chew up the road. On that note, one of my tips to anyone considering a long cycle tour, is that unless you are attempting to break a world record, slow down. It can be very tempting to have one eye on your destination, but once there, the experience ends.

The first of the day’s climbs passed with relative ease as the trees shading the road and steady incline made light work of a meaty climb. The second however was horrible. The sun was higher in the sky, there was no shade, and the air was drier. It was relentless. We quickly went through our emergency water reserves. The heat on our backs was zapping us of energy. The noise and fumes of roadworks added to our shitty moods. It’s hard not to look up at the top when you are climbing, however it never helps, as the top is never where it appears to be, and you are always left more frustrated and with more climbing to do. As we slowly crept up a wide corner, a car came at us on the same side of the road, tooting like a mad man trying to force us off the road. Hannah’s stubbornness fuelled by the frustrations of the climb was released on the driver. She stood her ground and waved at the driver to quite rightly get back on his side of the road. She won the battle and the irate driver passed very close to us hurling what must have been Azerbijani swear words. I definitely heard the word ‘twat’ too.

As we arrived at the top of the climb, we received a round of applause from the cars that had passed us on the way that were now parked up enjoying the far-reaching views. The summit was blustery and cloud-covered and our skin soaked up the coolness. Our bodies broken, we quickly absorbed the view before rolling down hundreds and hundreds of metres of windy road to find a bed for the night. The contrast in the landscape was distinct. On one side of the ridge lay green trees and brown soil. This side, was orange. It was the start of what lay ahead for thousands of miles. Sand. We felt like we had just been dropped in the Middle East. Our map told us we were only just above Iran, so it was unsurprising. We were met by rolling dunes and covered faces at the bottom. We soon realised it was time to wear own face protection from the stinging sands that were wrapping our bodies like pin-covered blankets. Today had taken its toll on our bodies. It had been a big day of riding in uncomfortable conditions and we needed a good night sleep. We didn’t get one.

It’s strange how Hannah finds the feeling of safety in emptiness and I find it in the comfort of others (except army guards). Hannah would much rather dive into a quite area and pitch up the tent where I would get a better night’s sleep camping with permission on someone’s land. Tonight, my preferences prevailed and we ended up pitching our tent behind a large detached roadside house with a café occupying the ground floor. I write this description knowing it sounds nicer than it actually was. There really was no other word that could describe it better than shithole. Our tent was pitched next to piles of exposed rubbish. The toilets we were told we could use had not been cleaned or even flushed for that matter quite possibly since they had been built. I attempted to share my exaggerated (purely false) enthusiasm for our evening’s location with Hannah but for some reason the feeling was not reciprocated.

Not our finest camp spot

Puppies to the rescue! Dirty, bouncy balls of fun were living in a cardboard box near to where we had pitched up and this took the edge off the situation for a moment. The two young men who had taken pity on us and taken us in invited us to come and drink tea in the café. We were too tired to cook so decided to take advantage of what the café had to offer. Upon sitting at the table at the empty café and absorbing the surroundings, it was clear that nothing had been cooked on the premises since roughly 1976. We settled on ordering two packets of crisps and two snickers’ bars. I’m not sure if it was local custom or if they had gone to extra lengths in preparing our snickers bars, either way we were not disappointed as our chosen cuisine came sliced and lay overlapping like a piece of steak in a Thai restaurant. We ate it delicately, giving it the respect it deserved.

After a shitty night’s sleep on sloped ground in between a pile of rubbish and toilets only a bomb could clean, we thanked our hosts, said goodbye to the puppies and made our way towards Baku, the capital and our final destination in Azerbajian. I must have had a good nights sleep however as Hannah told me I snored my way through a harrowing performance from what she thought was a jackal. She was not amused when I told her it was probably a puppy.

We rode for a long portion of the day on what felt like Mars before the land became dotted with houses and Baku came in to view. The exposure to the sun on unshaded roads had again taken its toll despite umpteen litres of water and rehydration salts. As we navigated our way around Baku looking for a hostel we were surprisingly unenthused about being in the city. We needed rest. The long hot rides and poor night’s sleeps had taken it out of us and we saw Baku not as a bustling city to explore, but as a place with a bed where we could lie with fans permanently fixed on our bodies. The city was undeniably beautiful however. An attractive Islamic old city surrounded by Russian imperial opulence, both clear signs that there was once great trade and wealth here. Not far from here however are many grand futuristic looking structures than any modern city would be jealous of, and a statement of current wealth from another oil boom in recent years. As the many tourists wandered the streets either enjoying the architecture or the host of designer clothing and jewellery shops, we sat in a hostel kitchen sharing stories with a family from Afghanistan. Each to their own.

We had wanted to cycle through Iran but were unable to get a visa due to recent events affecting UK-Iran relations. We had left it too late to get a visa on the road to go up and around the Caspian Sea through Russia so were left with the only choice being to board a commercial vessel transporting truckers and lorries to Aktau in Kazakhstan. There was apparently a boat going to a port in Turkmenistan, south of Aktau. This would be more on track with our final destination being China, however the caveat was that you had to cycle 500km across a dessert to reach Uzbekistan on the only visa available – a 5-day transit visa. Many cyclists take this option known as ‘The Desert Dash’. Most make it, some don’t. Strong winds are usually the reason for the latter. We opted for the just as windy, just a desserty, longer route.

We were in contact with the port and shipping company every few hours whilst in Baku as we had heard of cyclists waiting up to a week in the port for a boat to depart. Nobody knew when these boats would leave as departures were dependant on many factors such as wind strength, the number of lorries wanting to board, and what colour underpants the captain happened to be wearing that day. Today was red pants day and with news that a boat was leaving at 9pm that evening, we packed up our freshly cleaned clothes and nearly rested bodies early in the morning and made our way to the commercial port. The ride was crap. Strong headwinds made a 70km journey a long and tiring slog. Arriving at the port around 1pm, we were told that a boat was indeed leaving at 9pm. We felt lucky to have timed our arrival in Baku with a boat’s departure so well. There was plenty of time to eat and snooze in the shade and wander around the port.

Nice tan lines!

Shake your mind like an etcha-sketch to remove the romantic images of strolling around a port hand-in-hand like something off the opening credits of ‘Wish you were here’, for this was merely a lorry park where entry was only granted to diesel fragranced men with grey vests pulled up over pot bellies. Hundreds of lorries sat gridlocked. Bodies lay underneath on cool concrete hiding from the suns glare. As the sun begins to set these nocturnal beer-bellies, native to the lorry car park, crawl out from their burrows to dine with one another on barbecued whole chickens whilst playing dominoes. They will remain here until a lucky few make the small group migration across the sea and onwards towards China where they will nest for some time before making the great migration once again in reverse.

Hannah made friends with the only other lady in the port amongst a thousand men and was awarded the sole key to the women’s toilet. As Hannah made the most of the facilities I sat on the ground with our map out, marvelling at how we had cycled from London in two and a half months. Looking at the date reminded me, it was my Birthday tomorrow, and I would be spending it on a boat of truckers on the Caspian Sea. It would certainly be one I would not forget. I went to the only shop in the port which turned out to be smaller than the women’s toilet (so Hannah boasted). The tuck shop sold frozen whole chickens, toothpaste, razor blades and dominoes. Not the obvious birthday party shopping list. I played a quick game of ‘Ready, steady, cook’ in my mind but could not quite think of how I could make a birthday cake out of these ingredients so left the front of the queue empty handed.

9pm came and went and we were annoyed with ourselves for thinking this was going to be anything other than a smooth process. We met another cyclist. A timid, young man from Belarus. His heavily blistered hands and forearms were signs he too had suffered from the literally blistering heat on the road. He rode a racing bike with little more than a change of clothes and a few spare parts. His bike made ours look more akin to the lorries surrounding us. I was impressed. People were always shocked at how fast we were moving across the world, but this Belarusian was flying!

Midnight came and we celebrated the start of my birthday with a warm fizzy drink. I had tried to buy a beer but there was no alcohol on sale in the port. This makes complete sense thinking about the hundreds of bored men sitting around for days even weeks on end being told to take control of their lorries at any given moment. At 1am we were given the green light to board and we were greeted on deck by a deep-voiced feisty Russian lady in a night dress. She seemed to be in charge of everything on the ship other than steering it and her first words to us were ‘this is where you sleep’, ‘there are no sheets, they are dirty’, ‘the shower does not work’, ‘the toilet does not work either’. ‘Is there wifi?’ Hannah asked. ‘You are silly’ she smiled. I think she took an instant liking to Hannah. She was the only other woman on the ship and she was clearly used to dealing with a ship full of men. Let’s just say she didn’t take any shit.

We made ourselves comfy in the tiny diesel smelling cabin on the old Russian boat by laying out our sleeping bags on our bunks and opening the window. We were pleased with our little cabin as we had read horror stories from others making this crossing. We slept for a few hours until the diesel fumes and the sound of the Russian lady woke us up. Hannah remembered we still had the Belarusian rocket fuel given to us by the crazy Belarusian we met back in Georgia. There wasn’t much left so Hannah decided to feed me a mini cap full every hour. We played games and laughed and joked about everything that had happened on our journey so far and how weird this birthday would go down amongst others.

Without me knowing Hannah had slipped the Russian lady $20 and we were invited into the dining room of the ship after everyone else had eaten for romantic dinner. She pulled back some 1950’s red velvet curtains to reveal a regal wooden cladded room that had clearly seen some parties and who knows what back in the ships hay day. Despite feeling incredibly seasick we managed to eat half the food and a quarter of the birthday cake that the Russian lady herself had baked especially. It was an utterly surreal and memorable experience and we laughed at the weirdness of it all before sea-sicking ourselves to sleep.

Land ahoy! The morning came with a new country and we quickly disembarked to get away from the diesel smell and the still clearly not working toilets. We cycled past the long line of trucks that were even more keen than us, towards a small hut that looked like it may be able to stamp our passports. The trucks, clearly displeased at our presumption that we could jump the queue, made their frustrations known by performing a beautiful rendition of ‘cyclists are dicks’ with their horns. Up until now we had been very respectful and waited in line until at border crossings until someone usually came and grabbed us and ushered us to the front. Our presumptions were then met with laughs as we had to make our way back to the ship to be stamped out by the immigration police that had boarded the ship earlier. We knocked on the elaborate mahogany door and were met by an intimidating bushy-moustached Russian-speaking official in full military gear. Despite being completely legitimate I still panicked and thought I was going to end up in a Kazakh army prison for the rest of my life. Hannah was much less disturbed at the idea. After complaining that we didn’t speak any Russian the man continued to speak in the Queen’s finest English to us. He turned out to be a lovely man who wished us well on our journey and dismissed us with an endearing hairy smile.  

Georgia 3rd July – 13th July

We stopped just the other side of the border at a small town on the beach. It was getting late and we didn’t want to cycle further in the dark. The roads looked awful by Turkish standards and either for trend or necessity, all cars had no front or rear bumpers and drove like maniacs. GP Tim went on to the larger town ahead. We spotted a bar/restaurant on the beach as the sun was setting. Excited by the new cuisine on the menu we ordered half of it, followed by ridiculously cheap draught beer. We were excited to be in a new country. We had been in Turkey for three weeks, by far the longest in a country so far. There was a much more liberal feel in the air. English pop music blared loudly as people strolled by with more skin on show than we’d seen in the whole three weeks in Turkey. It did not however feel liberal in a positive sense, it felt tacky, almost disrespectful. Had our short time in Turkey converted us to Islam? These thoughts quickly passed as quickly as the cheap beer did, and as the dancefloor filled with booty-shaking teenagers we came to the conclusion that Georgia was going to be fun.

Batumi was a large beachside town described by many as a mini Las Vegas. Visiting Las Vegas is extremely low on our list of places to go so we weren’t too excited about the place. It was however going to be a base for a couple of days to relax after the heat, hills and long cycling days of Turkey. We spent a day off here resting the legs and enjoying Georgian food, which as far as we could tell, consisted of three ingredients – bread, cheese and egg. Take a long loaf of pizza style bread make it into a bowl shape and fill it with eggy melted cheese and you are halfway to Georgia. In contrast to Turkey, Georgians love their beer. The local man of the cloth walking back and forth from the liquor store with 2-litre bottles of beer every few hours was a symbol that alcohol and religion have a much stronger bond here than Turkey. Georgians also love a t-shirt with an English slogan that makes no sense on it. “I like things fast women” declared one beer-bellied man, proudly.

As we rolled out of Batumi fully doughed-up we had an anxious feeling about cycling. We had taken a couple of days off and got used to the comforts of a bed, a roof and generally staying in one spot. These feelings thankfully disappeared as we left the town behind and made our way along beautiful country roads towards the Goderdzi Pass – a 2027metre mountain that was to be our biggest climb yet. Our destination for the day was a nice camping spot at the start of the climb that the kind guys working at a bike shop in Batumi had told us of. One guy also warned us of the many groups of drunk men we will encounter en-route that will try and get us to join them. I wasn’t sure if I was excited or scared. The day’s ride was through lush countryside and then very abrupt spectacular and dramatic mountain views. The only dampener was a puncture on Hannah’s bike. 2-1 to Hannah. People waved and cars tooted as they passed us. They were happy positive toots, but they still scare the shit out of you.  

With the heat of the day exhausting our water supplies and nearing our camp spot for the night we stopped at a local shop to top up. “Hi, do you have any water please?” I said to the only person in the shop who vaguely looked like they could work there. I was not quite confident enough to test out the few Georgian words I’d learnt on a ‘Learn basic Georgian’ app on my phone. “Vodka” came a voice from a corner of the shop filled with four men sitting on beer crates drinking clear spirit from label-less clear bottles. “Ah, no thank you”, I smiled as I mimed out that I was riding a bicycle, and that after drinking vodka the bicycle became uncontrollable. “Vodka” said the lady in a strong almost Russian tone who was now behind the counter, clearly not witnessing my acting skills excellently performed to the men. “No, I’m just looking for water” I said gratefully. “Do you have any?” “Yes, vodka” said the lady pointing to a whole shelf full of the clear glass bottles of home brew. “No, water, not vodka, water” I said, in a slow clear tone, shameful of my presumptuous Englishness that everyone in the world can speak my language. “Yes, vodka, have” said the lady now clearly thinking ‘why is this guy asking for vodka but not buying the vodka’. My miming skills which extend to turning a water tap on and filling and drinking a glass of lovely refreshing well-needed water was for some odd reason not understood. The laughing and jeering coming from the four men was pushing me to the point of buying the bloody vodka. I left the shop empty handed and explaining the story to Hannah she pointed at an empty water bottle on the floor. “Show her that”, she said. I returned to the shop. Holding up the water bottle to the lady resulted in a “aaahhhhhh…. voda!”. “Yes, voda, thank you” I said nodding and smiling with relief at resolving the situation. “No” she said “only funta”. “Fanta?” I responded trying to hold back a smirk. “No, funta” she said as she put her palms on the counter and leaned her head in towards mine. She scared me. I bought the funta. We arrived shortly after at a quiet spot well off the main road beside a small river and next to a beautiful old stone bridge. As two boys on the other side of the river fished and poked a small dying fire, we pitched the tent a few metres from the waters-edge and enjoyed the tranquil sounds of the river, the views of the imposing surrounding mountains, and the sweet taste of orange funta.

We woke hours later than expected, probably due to the hypnotic sounds of the river. As I stumbled out of the tent in my pants and t-shirt scratching my head and looking for a place to pee, I was welcomed by a bus load of tourists stood taking photos of the bridge. “Hannah! We need to go! ” I said, trying not to make eye contact with the tourists. We quickly packed up and moved away from the now clearly obvious tourist attraction. We found a place to eat breakfast in a pretty hillside town and filled up on very local dishes of a kilo of cheese smothered in a gravy-type sauce, and pancakes filled with garlic and of course, more cheese. They were delicious but very heavy and a food coma ensued. We debated staying nearby the town as it was by now nearing midday and we had a huge mountain pass on a gravel road to negotiate and didn’t want to get stuck near the top too late in the day.

Half-way up with our tires slipping in the gravel, dodging potholes and searching out any part of road that looked remotely cyclable, thoughts of remaining back in the village were starting to slip in. Time was getting on, but we were still confident and determined to get up and over the pass before sunset. We had heard that attempting to ride up the 18 miles of steep gravel road was enough for cyclists to get picked up by trucks, but not one single motor vehicle had passed us since the morning, and we were still in no mood to be defeated. We were however, both in a mood. Facing a tractor coming down the dirt track in front of us, I chose to stop and let it pass. Hannah however riding behind me was not aware of my decision to stop before she rode into the back of me, crashing to the ground in the process. It was the first fall of the trip and the first disagreement. Hannah told me I broke when I shouldn’t. I told Hannah she was riding too close behind me. The mood was sour as we painfully and slowly crept up the mountain pass. Both the location and the steepness of the climb on our heavy bikes on gravel, were breath-taking, in different ways. Hannah was suffering from some serious, almost blistering chafing from her saddle. The heat was taking its toll on both of us, and any talking since our disagreement was only to complain of feeling heavily dehydrated. Realising that Hannah falling off her bike may have been my fault but still not sure enough to apologise for it, resulted in karma serving me many quick and continuous bouts of diarrhea, requiring many stops for me to jump into the bushes. Our first mountain pass was testing us, and we were failing.

A chirpy Belgian guy came cycling down at speed and stopped to tell us how much he loved cycling downhill as fast as he could. His bike was rattling as his panniers were being held on by bungee cords and duct-tape. Thirty minutes later his girlfriend carefully rode past, her bike in pristine condition. Every corner we took nearing the top we hoped it was the last. The top seemed elusive. We considered calling it a day as the sun disappeared behind the mountains with an unknown amount of climbing still to do. We found a spot away from the road and sat for a moment to weigh up our options. We were tired and weak. Low quantities of water on us and no visible water source nearby made the decision for us that we had to keep on going. With heavy legs and no energy or enthusiasm for all things bike, we arrived at the top of the pass at 2027m, at 7pm. Our hopes of being rewarded with spectacular far-reaching views were dashed. Clouds had rolled in obscuring the views beyond a hundred metres or so. It was a bit of an anti-climax. Still, we were chuffed to have climbed our first mountain pass. It self-certified us as adventure cycle tourers. It was by far the toughest cycling so far and scarily and anxiously a mere taste of what was ahead of us in the mountains twice the height in Tajikistan.

We did not want to cycle much more down the other side of the pass and agreed to stop at the first spot that looked okay to pitch our tent. We walked our bikes towards a sign declaring the pass’s altitude and took a half-hearted selfie. There was more life than expected at the top and a small restaurant looking like a mountain farm-hut housed a lady at its entrance inviting us in. We didn’t want to cook as we were too tired, so we wandered in to see what was on offer. The lady greeted us like an auntie we hadn’t seen in years and her smiley, grey-haired and instantly likeable husband was equally welcoming. They wore many layers of clothing revealing how cold it must get at this altitude. On the shelves of the tiny restaurant stood a lonely box of snickers and a few packets of crisps. On the floor were cardboard boxes of onions and trays of eggs. Behind the counter was a wonkey-eyed man in a farmer’s hat who we guessed was the son of the couple. In front of him was a single draught beer pump. His hands were placed either side of it on the counter as a show of sole responsibility. We asked the lady if we could eat before we continued on to find a camp spot. She looked at her husband and without opening her mouth or changing her facial expression, asked him a question. He responded in the same manner, no words or visible reaction. “You can camp here, next to the restaurant” she said. We looked at each other and quickly and gratefully accepted their offer.

Two pints of the wonkey-eyed-man’s beer was ordered and we asked the lady for a menu. There was no menu. The lady told us to sit and assured us we would be well fed. We sat looking around the tiny restaurant of two tables at the many photos on the wall of passers-through, and stickers advertising adventurer’s journeys from various European start points to destinations in Asia and beyond. A priest and his family entered the restaurant and sat at the only other table next to us. After some small talk about our journey and his family, he asked us the burning question. “What religion are you?” he said with seemingly pending disappointment at our answer. “We appreciate all religions” we said. “Hm” he managed, returning to his now more interesting than us meal. We ate our delicious dinner comprising a large pot of garlicky melted cheese with a huge side of pizza style bread to dip, and then retired to our tent to looked for our thermals, tend to Hannah’s chafing, and eat frozen and out-of-date snickers bars.

We woke to find the previous night’s mist curtains pulled revealing the most incredible view. Sitting atop the mountain pass looking out across Georgia we soaked up the mountain air and tranquillity. It was truly stunning and a reward for all of yesterday’s hard work and discomforts. We went back into the restaurant for breakfast, which was effectively the same as last night’s meal. This time however, the garlicky, cheesy, eggy mix was inside the pizza bread. It was hard to leave the beauty of the mountain-top behind and we compromised with a very slow descent for kilometres on end soaking up the surroundings. We played in a waterfall; we stopped and spoke to every child; we stroked every dog we came across in the simple but gorgeous hamlets. The houses were beautifully primitive wooden structures, with wild animals grazing the surrounding grounds and wandering in and out of the houses. It was an admirable display of self-sufficiency, simplicity, and solitude. It made me wonder if the residents saw the same beauty in their way of living as we did, or whether they were desperate to live in more developed surroundings.

A car pulled up beside us and the chirpy driver asked in a Russian accent where we were from and if we had any marijuana. He was disappointed at our lack of class A’s and informed us he would find some himself. He parked his car at the side of the rocky track and disappeared on foot over a hilly mound and was gone. Strange chap, we thought. Twenty minutes later the car pulled up beside us again. ‘Stop! I have a present for you’ he said and handed through the passenger seat window a small bottle of alcohol. The strange Russian was in fact a lovely guy from Belarus on a driving holiday. The alcohol was from his hometown and came with a verbal strength warning. A quick taste and throat-burn confirmed the need for a warning, and we thanked him greatly for his generosity.

Further down the mountain we came across Dr Tim again. He had passed us and our tent the night before and camped further down the mountain. We cycled together for the afternoon through rapidly changing landscapes of rocky mountains, lush green hills and finally to a river flanked by giant intimidating rock faces. All three of us kept looking at each other smiling, confirming the sheer beauty of our surroundings. We stocked up on a few random supplies in a village shop and looked for somewhere to camp. A rope bridge across the river appeared a couple of kilometres down the road. We looked at each other with approving smiles, both Tim and ourselves were now well trained in sniffing out a good sleeping spot and we knew we had struck gold. Flat grass in a flowery meadow, next to the river, hidden by trees and a sun just setting behind a mountain backdrop – perfect. We played ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’ with our random selection of ingredients and produced something mildly pleasing to eat. Tim was no chef so luckily there was no food envy. We stayed up chatting for a while before the excitement of getting into bed was too much for all of us. We slept with the roof off our tent under the stars whilst Tim opted for his hammock amongst the trees. We fell asleep smiling and whispering about how much we were loving this beautiful country. We had only been in Georgia some five days, yet we were both totally love-struck.

As Tim took a turn in the road towards the higher mountains of Georgia, we took the mountain lake road and climbed up from 1000m to over 2000m on the most beautiful gradually climbing road through fields of wild flowers. It was the most beautiful road we had ever ridden on. We were both silent and smiling, not just at the surroundings but in the knowledge of the same shared feelings. We had been told of an app called ioverlander, designed for touring cyclists and drivers to share places to sleep at night. We had read of an idyllic lakeside spot on some land next to a monastery maintained by monks. It sounded intriguing. It was early in the afternoon as the monastery came into view. The location was just breath-taking. The mountain backdrop and lake were too incredible to pass, and we very quickly agreed to take the afternoon off and enjoy this beautiful spot. We dropped our bikes down in a meadow next to the lake and strolled over to the monastery to seek permission to stay. The stereotypical short, tubby, hair-deprived monk in brown robe I had expected turned out to be a bearded young monk in tracksuit bottoms and a fleece. He had the air of Greenpeace activist more than man of the church. Either way, he was incredibly hospitable and declared the Monastery’s meadow next to the lake was God’s land and for everyone to enjoy. He invited me in for tea. I declined, thoughts of quickly erecting the tent and lazing in the meadow at the fore of my mind. I regretted this decision after and wondered what interesting conversations could have been had with a modern-day monk over a few cups of tea. As the sun set, the mountains glowed in a kaleidoscope of purples whilst birds put on an air and sound display in the foreground. It was the most incredible camp spot so far.

We met a Swiss couple cycling from Vienna the next morning, and we spoke at length about routes, building our own bikes and who had the nicer coffee. They had the same panniers as us which revealed that we had been fixing ours to our bikes incorrectly since leaving London over two months ago. Oops. They asked how far we had cycled the day before. When we told them we had only managed 80kms, they laughed. “What did you ride yesterday” we asked expecting a huge admirable distance. “14” they laughed. They had got ‘stuck’ in the lake region they exclaimed. We understood why.

More beautiful road through remote hamlets led to a steep downhill where we clocked up speeds of over 40mph. We celebrated our fastest recorded speed of the trip by eating vast amounts of Georgian pizza buried in cheese and egg (it’s called Khachapuri – google it, you won’t regret it). As we made our way towards the capital, Tbilisi, headwinds slowed us right down, or we’d just eaten too much pizza and were heavier than the morning. Gusts of wind came from the side as we turned a corner. We were nearly thrown off our bikes towards a serious drop. We stopped for a moment and discussed waiting it out, but we were so close to Tbilisi. We were tired and wanted to arrive as soon as possible in the city of which we had spoken about our desires to visit for years. We cycled uncomfortably in the open surroundings before Tbilisi came in to view and the outskirts provided some protection from the elements. Hundreds of metres above the city, we paused to take in the view. A mix of new and old architecture and a slicing river filled the valley below. We descended at speed into the city through different neighbourhoods of tall modern generic offices and apartments, juxtaposed by steep cobbled streets lined with gorgeous traditional wooden houses with ornate balconies, tall narrow windows, and wrought iron gates covered in twine. We arrived at our apartment and home for the next three nights at around 9pm that night – 12 hours after waving goodbye to the young monk. Our host passionately shared the city’s offerings and we strolled out into the night to explore, walking like we were on holiday.

Nude bathing in your own private sulphur bath followed by incredibly good wine and culinary treats. Now that is how you relax for a couple of days off the bikes. Tbilisi translates as ‘warm place’. Not because of the wonderfully warm nature of its inhabitants, but because of the natural hot springs that adorn the area. We can’t lie, we had no clue what to expect in the local baths. Each country seems to have its own rules and traditions in terms of what to wear, how to clean yourself before getting in, and whether or not you can chat and socialise. When in doubt, google it.

Arriving at one of the many, many baths in Tbilisi freshly cleaned and towels underarm, I asked the glamorous lady at the counter if my wife and I could borrow her bath for half an hour. “Make booking, come back in two days” I was told. Oh. On to another less appealing one we resolved. Problem was, none of them were particularly less appealing. They were all beautiful, elaborate buildings with Middle Eastern style ornate tiling inside and out and a luxurious warm glow from the lighting. We settled on making a booking for that evening at another bath house that was on our very touristy ‘top ten baths in Tbilisi’ list.

If we are not on our bikes, our favourite activities are walking, eating and drinking, and Tbilisi allows for all three in abundance. Despite its valley location with many steep roads, Tbilisi is very much a walking city. Hours and hours were spent walking along the river and getting lost down small cobble-stoned alleyways, looking up at beautiful architecture, down into wonderfully dank wine cellars, and through mouth-watering food menus. We avoided the fancier establishments near the river and instead sniffed out a busy eatery by a bus station. There were a few sets of eyes upon us as we entered but we were generally made very welcome so proceeded to drool over the menu. After much deliberating we fizzled our choices down to six plates of food. A smirk and an ‘anything else?’ comment from the waitress translated as ‘you greedy buggers’. Now, I don’t particularly like the word ‘foodie’, to me, a foodie is anyone who enjoys eating food as opposed to eating purely for fuel. But, if someone was to ask us if we were foodies, we would answer a very enthusiastic ‘Yes!’. Tbilisi dramatically surpassed our expectations in terms of food. We knew from a few days in Georgia so far, that it would be comforting, but we had not anticipated the incredibly vibrant colours, fragrant smells and spice-filled flavours. We asked about ingredients, wrote down recipes, and took photos to allow for attempted efforts to recreate the dishes back home. We devoured all six plates and returned to the same place a further three times in two days.

We had chosen not to take advantage of the renowned wine scene in Tbilisi that day. Thoughts of being half-cut in a boiling hot sulphur bath didn’t sound fun. Instead, we went for wine tasting. Clever huh! A glance down a dark, musky grape smelling set of stairs led the eyes to a wall of wine and large oak barrels. “Would you like a taste?” said the polished, slick looking man as I ogled his wine from floor to ceiling. “Yes please” I said, after a very fake “eeerrrr?” in an effort not to sound desperate. Now what is it about being polite with tasting? “That’s delicious, thank you, I’ll pick up a bottle of that later, don’t want to carry it around with me” clearly translates to the wine vendor as “that was lovely, but I’m a cheapskate bastard and only came in hoping for a freebie”. Why can’t I just say that? Why do I play the game? Maybe next time I told Hannah, both knowing we would forever be discerning addicts of the game.

“I can see your willy!” said Hannah, when I asked her to take a photo of me in the sulphur bath. “Only send it to my brother then” I said in response. Soaking your cycle-shredded muscles in warm, naturally heated sulphur-rich water is the perfect remedy off the bikes. We had our own private bath. Hannah got bored. I did naked handstands.

Looking like two hot prunes we left the wonderful experience behind and cooled off at a corner table on the rooftop of a quaint, traditional restaurant perched on the side of one of Tbilisi’s steep natural walls. The views across the city were remarkable. You couldn’t help but be drawn back in time by the beautiful old buildings and the fragrant smells of herbs and spices. We drank more delicious wine and more exquisite food. The pattern of the day became the theme for our short but punchy time in Tbilisi. We could have stayed longer, a week, a month, many months. We fell it love with it. But we had to remind ourselves we were on a cycling expedition. We often say we will be back to a place when we leave. Sometimes you say it wondering when however, and questioning if you ever actually will. There are no such doubts with Tbilisi. We WILL be back.

The bike blues were once again with us as we rode out of Tbilisi. They don’t last long. Today a ride up and over a 1600 metre climb didn’t help matters though. I was struggling. I was lacking energy in the heat and was feeling under-caloried. After two months on the road I was noticing the weight loss. Despite gorging vast quantities of food, I just couldn’t keep up with the amount of calories we were losing each day. A nice problem to have for a ‘foodie’, I agree. The heat was also not helping the condition of our bodies. Despite attempting to keep on top of our salt, mineral and nutrient levels, we were too often feeling deflated and even sick. It was a stark reminder that despite making conscious efforts to keep on top our body conditions, we were doing something that was, well, very damaging to our bodies. The body most certainly is not made for sitting in a saddle, cycling a silly number of miles in the sun all day for weeks on end. It was something we chose not to dwell on. Our bodies are miraculously resilient and a two-week holiday on a beach somewhere at the end of all this would surely fix things. Another nice problem to resolve we thought. Onwards and upwards.

Rolling down the other side of the big climb was not as fun as it should have been. Sharp bends. Potholes. Traffic. Big insects flying into your eyeballs. And rain. Lots of rain. It was at least warm rain and a quick comparison to cold English rain made us grateful for its refreshing qualities. As we neared the bottom the skies behind us lit up with lightning. A deep, too-close-for-comfort rumble followed. Bikes and storms just don’t mix. We’d ridden far too many sodden miles so far on the trip so sped up, hoping to out-chase the storm. We arrived at a ghost town and sniffed out a lovely looking café run by a lady who really couldn’t give a shit about serving to English cyclists. Everything we pointed at on the menu was greeted with a shake of the head. Her half-open eyes merely making contact with us added to her disinterest. We settled on whatever she could feed us and ordered a couple of beers knowing we weren’t far from our intended wild camp.

The rains cleared and we rode around a pretty lake that held wild camping spots, or so we were told by another cyclist we had met earlier that day. A few swimmers and bottom-half-dunkers lazed in the lake as we eyed-up the only spot around the lake that looked both vaguely hidden, and flat and open enough to camp on. It wasn’t a great spot, and my fears of wild camping in a spot where we would be bothered returned. We had no choice – it was getting dark. We pitched up the tent and hoped nobody would come by this late. We sat in a large decked open-air amphitheatre cooking up a basic meal whilst looking at an empty stage backed by the now empty lake. A castle on the other side of the lake sat proudly raised-up and surrounded by forest like something out of a Disney film. A huge rainbow topped off the scene. It was a beautiful spot. Laying in the tent an hour later the Princess’s castle was blaring out 80’s pop music. You have to laugh in these moments.

Being woken in your tent by laughs and torchlight is not fun. Especially when it is not your wife. It must have been around 1 or 2 in the morning. The laughter belonged to what sounded like at least three young men and was edging nearer. Their torchlight hit our tent seemingly unexpected as the laughter and footsteps abruptly stopped and was met with silence. A sneaky giggle and snort and a few intentional shakes of torchlight on the tent were as bad as the taunting intimidations got and the group moved on, probably disappointed at someone else having taken their drinking spot. We woke up sad. Not at the lack of sleep the party castle or giggling boys deprived us of, but at the realisation that today was our last day in Georgia. The last few hours in fact. Georgia had been our favourite country so far. And not knowing it at the time, probably our favourite country of the whole trip. It had everything we love – great food, wine and beer; hospitable and characterful people; an interesting history; beautiful nature; an air of outer-European exoticism and almost Middle Eastern feel; and adventure around every corner. Georgia was like going on holiday to a friend’s house. It looked after us, fed us, ploughed us with wine and entertained us. It gave us a loving wave goodbye whilst thanking us for coming, wishing us a safe journey, and demanding we come back again soon.  

Watch our 1-minute video of Cycle Touring Georgia here…

And for the ‘Foodies’…

Turkey Pt 3. 27th June – 3rd July

Today’s ride was less relentless in its elevations but more so in its temperatures. We are well aware of the discomforts and dangers of riding in extreme heats all day from our riding in South East Asia a few years back and are quite in tune with our bodies and their messages. Whilst the legs continue to move as if they know nothing else, the head provides as many signals as it can to stop this self-inflicted stupidity. Despite gallons of water, by mid-afternoon we were both feeling the signs of dehydration; light-headedness, were quite sick and zapped of energy. The breeze on your body when cycling in this heat masks and even comforts the strength of the sun’s rays felt if you were still and you can quickly turn from feeling well-hydrated to weak. Our clothes bore dry salt puddles from the dried sweat. We carry rehydration sachets by the bundle for such situations and half an hour in the shade with a couple of sachets containing the essential salts and minerals lost, normally gets the body back to a cyclable condition.

Apparently today was ‘national asshole behind the wheel day’ in Turkey. The Turks seem to take their time with everything in life, except when they get in a car. It’s like they slide off the sofa on to the floor in a puddle, then roll themselves up and drag their feet lazily toward their cars with their heads bowed down like zombies and once the key turns in the ignition their bodies enliven in a rage. Their eyes widen with a crazed glare and their right foot crushes the accelerator pedal almost through the footwell until they arrive at their destination, turn off the ignition and slide lazily out of the car resuming their normal relaxed ways. We pulled into a petrol station to make use of the WIFI to let family know we were alive and well. The inquisitive members of staff made for a good hour-long chat about our journey, football, and the amounts of meat each boastfully claimed to eat each day. Conversations came to an abrupt and uncomfortable end when we announced we were vegetarians. One guy was not perturbed however and continued to show me images on his phone of his family, his house, his car, the inside of his car, and then the furniture inside his house. I politely nodded and made an ‘uh-huh’ noise to every photo whilst Hannah smirked and pretended to be on her phone.

After a long hot days ride we reached Sinop, a historic town on the coast. We bought two cans of beer from a small shop on the beach to enjoy on the sand whilst looking out to sea, grateful of the strong, draining sun finally setting. Alcohol is given to you in a black bag here whereas everything else is in a white bag. You are (quite rightly) shamed for your purchase, much less so as a tourist but enough to make you hide your purchase in your pannier. The beach in Sinop was more commercial than others we had camped on so decided to get advice/permission from a beachside restaurant on camping here. We were told that camping was forbidden but that we could camp on the patch of sand in front of his restaurant for a small fee. We didn’t entirely believe him but for a small fee and some security we weren’t going to question the situation further. The elder brother of the small family run restaurant told us it was completely secure to leave our bikes unlocked in front of the restaurant whilst pointing to a small CCTV camera that was pointing to the sky with a tuft of cut wires hanging out the back. I locked the bikes with an extra lock whilst watching Hannah being chased by a sheep from the toilets.

We woke early the following day as a big day lay ahead with lots of climbing. Turns out the map on the GPS was not aware of the many tunnels that had been blasted through the mountain terrain some years before and so we cruised along making great distance despite the terrifying ordeals of Turkish tunnels. We stop just short of the entrance to tunnels to turn on our bike lights. Now when I say bike lights what I actually mean are not only our dedicated bike lights but our head torches turned round to the back of our heads and our tent light that has a strobe setting known as the ‘party-party’ setting, dangling off the back of one of the bikes. We are lit up light Christmas trees as we cycle at warp-speed to reach the end as the tunnels acoustics make a car sound like a lorry, a lorry sound like a fighter jet and us sound like big screaming wuss’s. We don’t look back, we just have faith that Turkish lorry drivers like Christmas trees.

We arrived at our intended end location for the day at lunchtime and after some delicious pidé (Turkish pizza), we carried on for another 75km. I was distraught to pick up my first puncture of the trip, not because I had to fix it, but because it was on my bike and not Hannah’s. At this point we decided to keep a tally of punctures and the person with the most at the end of the trip would have to do a forfeit. The campsite on the beach was hosting at least fifty tents and was blaring out Turkish pop music to volley-ball playing teenagers, picnic eating spectators and lazy dancers. Despite the forgotten ‘party-party’ light still flashing on my bike we were in no ‘party-party’ mood so decided to wild camp on the beach somewhere. This proved trickier than we thought when we were moved on by a police officer after rolling out our tent on the sand. Whilst in two minds whether to return to the ‘party-party’ campsite in a more ‘party-party’ mood or find a more hidden spot away from prying police officers, we spotted a couple of tents on a lawned area facing the sea amongst some buildings. We asked the tenters if it was okay to camp here and as they nodded and assured us it was, we pitched our tent in relief. All was well as we watched a wedding celebration in the neighbouring building spill out on to the beach and kick off the evening’s celebrations with the first dance. However, come 8pm all the tenters around us had left, clearly just picnicking with a tent for shade, leaving us alone and feeling very conspicuous as evening walkers passed by looking at us inquisitively. We had no choice than to stand our ground and hide in the tent. In true Turkish fashion though the night did not get quieter as it got later, but louder and busier. We gave up on reading in the tent and went out to see what was causing the rising commotions. Dozens of groups of people surrounded our tent chatting and laughing whilst tending to their tea-urns. Fireworks from the wedding were filling the skies and everyone’s ears. There was a man selling fish, another selling pumpkin seeds, and a clever fellow selling fish and pumpkin seeds. Children ran around our tent playing hide and seek. Then a topless child rode by on a mobility scooter. At this point we realised we should have stayed at the ‘party-party’ campsite for some peace and quiet.

This theme continued into the following night. We arrived in a town called Ordu after cycling our longest distance yet of 171kms. We were shattered but unwilling to splash out on the costly campsites on this stretch of coastline. There was no public opening to the beach where we could sneak down and find a hiding place so instead opted for cycling along to find the shabbiest looking accommodation to plead for a safe place to pitch our tent. A small group of static homes in need of much repair appeared up ahead. A pack of equally shabby looking street dogs roamed outside and a broken swing and even more broken fridge-freezer were the chosen ornaments by the nearly broken entrance gate. Perfect, we thought. As we wheeled our bikes past the lazily growling dogs a greasy-haired lady too hunched for her age peered up at us from her standing position on her rubbish-filled porch. She pointed at another chalet in response to our request to pitch a tent somewhere. A kind looking man sat in a doily-covered armchair, clearly the authority, gave us permission to pitch our tent just outside the chalet grounds on the beach for free. He smiled endearingly as we thanked him greatly as such permission inadvertently comes with an element of (possibly false) security from the host. Not long after cooking up and devouring our third Turkish ravioli dish in as many days, a just-married couple strolled on to the beach from their plush wedding venue for their wedding photos. I can’t imagine they best pleased to see us on their photo set but we were far too impressed by the wedding fireworks and Turkish music to notice.

Standing between two signs on the beach in Tirebolu after another puncture-dampening days ride, we looked at each other not knowing what to do. ‘Campsite closed’ read one old rusty sign outside the only campsite for tens of miles. ‘Camping forbidden’ read the other sign on the public beach. We asked a man at a closed-looking beach cafe if they knew if the unpermitted camping on the beach was actually enforced. His friend quickly arrived to interrupt the other man’s head scratching and told us we could camp on the patch of grass next to his cafe. The cafe was closed for a few weeks and the two friends were making some repairs in preparation for its opening. We thanked the friends greatly and quickly assembled the tent before the rain came. Refi, the more knowledgeable of the two friends as we found out as we sipped on tea gifted to us, turned out to be the owner of the cafe. We watched dozens of people dolphin spotting off a nearby rock as we spoke and asked if there were many dolphins this time of year. We were told that in fact the spectators were looking for the missing body of a local school teacher swallowed by the monstrous waves two days before. We felt awful for our comments. Refi quickly flipped the awkwardness on its head by smiling and offering us a joint. I thought I could smell it as we rolled into the cafe.

Shopping for an easy and quick meal in the local shop, Hannah was stopped by a lovely lady who asked her if she wanted a shower. We looked ourselves up and down and realised that a week’s camping on the beach was now visible in our appearance, well, Hannah’s anyway apparently. Hannah thanked the lady and politely declined, and then told me it was probably about time we paid for a hotel for a night. Maybe tomorrow we concluded. I too was making friends – comparing prices of jarred roasted peppers on the shelf, a firmly-spoken “this one” was accompanied by a point towards a particular brand of peppers. The owner of the strong voice was a man in his 30’s donning a tight vest and a military style haircut. Two girls of roughly 6 and 8 hugging a leg each did much to soften his look. Metin asked many questions about our journey and was keen to talk of his life in Germany and his holiday home where they were currently spending three weeks visiting family. I was met with a confused look when I told Metin we were camping on a patch of grass next to a cafe by the beach. I told him we liked it. Neither of us believed me. He wished us well as we walked from the shop armed with our jarred peppers for dinner and box of chocolates for a gift to our stoner host. A couple of hours later as we sat in our tent eating cheese spread and roasted pepper sandwiches and listening to the heavy rains hammer our tent, a “hello” came from outside. Ready to inform whoever it was that we were given permission to camp here, I unzipped the tent to find Metin’s face behind a large tupperware pot of mixed vegetables and rice. “My wife made this for you”, he said bent over peering into the tent with rain sliding off his slick short hair on top of his head. Our hearts melted once again as the Turkish hospitality made itself known. “You must come to breakfast at ours tomorrow. Meet me at the shop at 8am. Ok?” There was no other option than to gratefully accept.

Across a table coated in the entire contents of Metin’s fridge and cupboards we spoke with him and his family about their lives in Germany, and ours in England. Yet again what stuck with us was their devotion to their families, and their kindness to their friends, neighbours, and strangers. We were just about to carry our stuffed bellies from their home when Metin’s father came through the door with a large bag of cucumbers from his garden. A gift for us of course. Was there no end to this family’s generosity? I was half expecting Metin and his wife to ride our bikes to China for us. It was an emotional goodbye for someone we had met in the local shop only the night before. As we cycled away from the town we were in high spirits and laden with cucumbers. Yet again we had been shown the same valuable lesson taught by so many in our short time in Turkey. The lesson was becoming ingrained.

We had not made our families aware of our whereabouts and safety in a while so stopped after an hour or so at a roadside restaurant with a WIFI sign and ordered some tea. None of the staff knew the WIFI password but they did know how to socialise. The mother and father of the family-run restaurant joined us at our table followed by the grandfather, the two daughters, two cousins, an English teacher friend and of course her cousin. We were so full from Metin’s expansive buffet breakfast that we could barely sip our Turkish tea let alone accept the onslaught of offers to feed us from all corners of the now bustling table. We felt almost rude declining and felt they didn’t believe our breakfast story, or just chose not to want to hear it. We left two hours later well informed of the family’s history, future, current politics and with our family none the wiser of our whereabouts and safety. It was ok they assured us, we were now part of the Turkish family, or as they advocated, part of the human family. We were now close to the border of Georgia, a day or two away maybe and were already anticipating missing Turkey greatly.

Our final day in Turkey started with a call to prayer at 4am and ended with a beer in a Georgian beachside bar filled with scantily clad teenagers – what a contrast. At a roadside shop where we drank ice cold fizzy drinks as a feeble attempt to deal with the impending dehydration, a guy in his 20’s on a road bicycle pulled in and in a rather well-spoken English accent introduced himself as Tim. Tim, a trainee GP cycling from England to Azerbaijan had a big smile and a kind heart. We cycled together for the remainder of the day getting to know each other. Tim drank water from a petrol bottle and ate chocolate spread for lunch. I questioned at what stage of his GP training he was at. At the border with Georgia we were excited to be in a new country with new food, a new religion and contrasting views. However we were also sad to be leaving Turkey. It has been an incredible host. It has taught us the respectable values and morals of Turkish Islam that The West could learn a thing or two from. It has been a portrayer of genuine kindness, consideration, love and hospitality to us strangers as members of the same human family, and it has shown us the importance of time spent with, and love given to, family and friends. Turkey, thank you for hosting us and teaching us. We respect you, love you and will miss you.

Watch our 1-minute video ‘Cycle Touring Turkey’ here…

Turkey Pt.2 – 23rd-26th June

So we decided to ride along Turkey’s northern coastline to avoid continuous climbing in the searing heat. What we found on the coast however was, well, continuous climbing in searing heat. As we rode dozens of steep climbs and descents around the rugged coastline’s beautiful coves, tarmac melted under our tires making for slow and sticky riding. Turkey has made Europe feel like a cyclist’s playground in comparison. In contrast to the hospitality of the incredible people here, the cycling conditions are just rude. Gone are the flat riverside bike paths with dozens of campsites and amenities en-route that we had enjoyed just a few weeks ago. This was tuff. But it was nothing compared to what was to come further down the road so we better get used to it. It was however jaw-droppingly beautiful and the reward of setting up camp on the beach at night made the strenuous riding well worth it. This nights five star accommodation was so good that it wouldn’t let us leave the following morning and we spent a guilt-free lazy day on the beach eating grilled fish, swimming in the sea and snoozing to the sound of the waves. Every night that our tired bodies sink into the tent, we are reminded that we are on a personal expedition, this however was pure holiday bliss.

Leaving the holiday vibes behind we climbed up and out of the bay. It was only 7.30am and the heat was already blistering. A smiley energetic couple in their 50’s standing by a car at the side of the road waved us to a stop. They spoke perfect English with a strong French accent and quickly praised us on our achievements. I think just the sight of two sweaty dishevelled beings on bicycles each with five bags attached is enough for some to acknowledge that we are doing something praiseworthy; as we are clearly not just popping down to Sainsbury’s. For others I am sure, the sight of us raises thoughts of sheer stupidity. This couple however knew very well the hardship and pleasures we were experiencing as they had cycled from Paris to Istanbul a few years before. It was nice to speak to people who were neither shocked nor impressed to hear where we had cycled from, nor did they think we were crazy. They shared with us their passion for travelling long distances by bicycle, their love for Turkey and their dreams of travelling a long distance across Turkey, by bicycle. We did the kind and generous thing of offering to swap our bikes for their car to facilitate their dreams. They declined. They were clearly not pursuing their dreams.

The day was getting hotter and the climbs harder. The downhills sadly gave us no reprieve as the increased number of potholes meant braking and swerving instead of flying and whizzing. Halfway up one particularly steep climb, a van pulled up in front of us and wound down the window. As he pointed his thumb to the large empty space in the back, he told us he was going to the next town and would happily take us. To his bemusement I politely declined. A helping hand would be very tempting in the heat and hills, but this is a cycling expedition and we wanted no help along the way. This has happened a few times on the road so far and people really don’t understand what it is your doing. They think you are trying to get somewhere on your bicycle out of necessity and that clearly their vehicle is more superior at the job and we must surely take them up on the offer. I told this particular man that we are doing this for fun, that this is what we do, that we actually enjoy this. He burst out laughing as he put the van in first gear and wound up the window. Hannah quickly undid her seatbelt and got out of the passenger seat of the van.

As the sun lowered to a point in the sky that meant it was time to look for a camp spot, a small empty beach appeared a few hundred metres below the hill we stood atop. It was a good few hundred metres from the road and dense trees stood between the two. It was worth a try. At the bottom of the hill we rode back and forth looking for some kind of pathway, but it was no use. A burly man with thin hair and an endearing smile could sense our frustration and pointed to a thin, bush-covered track metres away. An elderly gentleman with kind eyes and the same smile as the other man quickly appeared behind and enthusiastically confirmed that down the track is where we must go. We pushed our bikes down the narrow track past a pretty stream, over giant tree routes and further into dense trees and bushes. As the sky ahead came into view so did the sand beneath our feet. The trees opened up to the most beautiful empty small white sand beach you can picture. A single old blue fishing boat sat in the middle. We looked at each other and smiled at the prospect of sleeping in such paradise. We pushed our bikes through the sand and sat to take it all in.

Standing at the seas edge full of excitement and anticipation of washing away the day’s sweat, dirt and sun cream, I caught sight of hundreds of small jelly fish. As I stood deflated and defeated in the knowledge it was their sea not mine, a young family appeared beside me. The father without fear strolled straight threw the large swarm of jellyfish and dived in. I asked if the jelly fish were harmful to which he replied with laughter, no way, we play catch with them! I laughed, and then apologised in my head to the jellyfish. I told the family how beautiful a beach it was, to which they told me they swim as a family here everyday, twice a day, without fail. Another example of strong Turkish family values and ties I thought. I tentatively tip-toed my way around the jellyfish and laid on my back in the warm sea, thoughts of family strong in my mind. Walking out of the sea I was ushered over to the family who were sitting in the sand together chatting and laughing. Three generations; the women modestly covered in accordance with their Muslim faith, the men rubbing their rotund bellies. Hannah and I were given tea and in response to my asking permission to sleep on the beach that night, was told it was everyone’s to enjoy.

Sitting outside our tent that night after cooking up a plain but very satisfyingly large amount of ‘manti’, a Turkish dish of tiny ravioli type parcels, we mimicked the Turkish belly rub as the sun set on the day. A figure appeared behind us with another in tow and we quickly rose half expecting to be told by the pair that we could not sleep here and would have to leave. The two men were the same men who had guided us down the path to the beach some two hours before. Elgin and Chetin were a Turkish father and son with strong German ties. Chetin had lived in Germany for many years before returning to his homeland to retire. He spoke fondly of Germany and would smile enthusiastically as he spoke German to me not knowing my German was limited to bratwurst and a very rusty count up to 20 taught to me when I was 7 by my brother in our Nan’s garage. I smiled and laughed as he spoke to me and somehow managed to not reveal my non-existent German. I sat hoping that he would produce 17 German sausages from under the table so I could show off my limited German. Elgin lived in Hamburg and was spending his three weeks of annual holiday allowance in Turkey seeing his mother and father. There was clearly a lot of love between the two, the father was obviously proud of his son and kept a hand on his shoulder at all times. They came with a gift in the form of a 2-litre bottle of coke and invited us to join them at their home for breakfast in the morning. Now I could say that it was to absorb ourselves in the Turkish way of life that we quickly accepted their offer but after our basic boiled meal it was probably the images of another Turkish breakfast banquet that led to our drooling nods. With a wave and a mild warning of bears and wolves, the pair disappeared into the night leaving us again heart-warmed by the eagerness to be kind in Turkey, not merely in physical gifts, but far more endearingly in the time they have for you.

We woke early to bird song. I swam in the sea. Hannah watched the waves. Not a sole could see us. It was our own little paradise. We sat and made coffee with thoughts of never wanting to leave. The jellyfish throwing family returned for their morning dip and tea drinking ceremony. Tea was delivered to us along with an invitation to join their breakfast picnic which we rather embarrassingly had to decline. This was Turkey, they were not surprised to hear we had already made friends in the tiny village and already had breakfast plans. They still delivered two plates of food as we packed away our tent however. We met Elgin in the centre of the nearby tiny village at 9am. As he guided us and our bikes up a dirt track towards his parents’ home, we were both distracted by the scent of the plentiful and varying fruit trees that provided both shade and food to the houses. Chetin greeted us at the top of the steps at the entrance to their home with the now familiar huge smile. We sat on a shaded breezy terrace for several hours discussing and comparing our different lives, our passions and our outlooks on life. It was sad to hear that both father and son both experience hostility as Muslims back in Germany. Such a kind, respectful and peaceful religion so naively misunderstood by so many. Elgin’s mother and her neighbour joined us after they had together cooked up every ingredient in the kitchen and laid it out for all to enjoy. We tried to make conversation with her, yet she was quickly distracted by any tea glass that fell below half full. I thought of my Mum doing the same. Hannah and I shared glances as we both spotted the similarity. Hannah also pointed out that Turkish goodbyes share the same distinct drawn out characteristics as my family’s. I love a long goodbye. There’s nothing better than starting a deep and meaningful at the doorstep.

Stage 2 – Istanbul to Baku, Azerbaijan

Turkey Pt. 1 – 15th-22nd June

Istanbul, where East meets West in a dense, crowded, noisy, fragrant metropolis. Our days blurred in to one as we walked, ate and drank our way around this glorious city. We were given some Lira by my awesome friends at Topman as a leaving gift and decided it would be best spent exploring the rooftop bar scene of the city. The views across the city from this perspective give you an idea of the sheer vastness and historical importance of the city. It allows you to picture it as the once hectic meeting point between two continents on the old Silk Road. We could have spent a lot longer exploring Istanbul but the road ahead was calling and we soon found ourselves packing up and hitting the road. We had debated what route to take through Turkey to get to Georgia as many were on offer. We left it to the last minute and were glad we did. The night before we left, we sat in a cool bar where we sat chatting to the owner and his friend who were keen cyclists. We opened the map and they both very quickly agreed on the route they would take if they had the pleasure of cycling to Georgia. They wished us well and gave us a candle to light on the beach when camping. We asked if they wanted to come, one said he would love to, but he didn’t like the route. Turkish humour.

Leaving the city was a much worse experience than arriving. We had done less research on a route out than we had coming in and this soon showed as after a short ferry across the river, we found ourselves on a four-lane road with no hard shoulder. There were turn-offs and filter lanes every few hundred metres which made for a hectic mess of cars in the slow lane, our lane. It was pretty terrifying. Hannah’s hands went numb from gripping so hard and she was growing more and more nervous about being on the road. We pulled over on half a hard shoulder and Hannah cried. She kept thinking if anything happened to us how stupid our family would think we were for being on that road. I agreed. Our map showed no other route but we didn’t care, we just wanted to get off the road. We took a turn-off and made our way out of the city on quieter roads. We followed roads leading roughly in the direction we were heading and hoped for the best. We met up with the main road later that day and were relieved to find a hard shoulder and much less traffic. We decided it was safe to return.

We were heading inland towards the mountains and countryside of Turkey. As we slowly climbed with the lush green mountains ahead of us we familiarised ourselves with the petrol station amenities and hospitality we had read and been told so much about. A toilet stop would often escalate in to a tea drinking marathon, gifts of icey cold water and fruit, use of the staff WIFI, long chats about English football and each other’s families and if you couldn’t tear yourself away, you were invited to pitch your tent round the back with the promise of a free tea delivery service. Today’s petrol station visit count was particularly high due to the fact it was pissing it down with rain all day. It was definitely more fun drinking tea under a shelter watching the staff attempt to ride your heavy bike around the forecourt than it was to be cycling in the constant heavy rain. However this was a cycling trip not a day out at a Turkish petrol station so we soon bit the bullet and rode on in the rain. As the heavens opened and the rain started to hurt we waited it out again undercover until we could see more than 6 inches ahead of us and be able to find somewhere to sleep for the night. The lone pump attendant of our eighth petrol station of the day was either terrible at charades or was trying to tell us to ride a chicken whilst punching your own forearm. Shouting louder at us, riding the chicken with more vigour and punching his forearm with gritted teeth did not make the advice any clearer or make us feel comfortable enough to ask to pitch our tent on his grounds. We rode on in the heavy rain and pulled in to petrol station number nine. Several trucks, a large toilet block and an attached restaurant made us deem this one ‘posh’.

We asked/mimed to a lady if we could pitch our tent on a patch of grass next to the toilets. She spoke in Turkish, turned around and walked off. Ok we thought. That was definitely a no. Then a friendly looking 20-something thickset man in a tight t-shirt appeared and we smiled and repeated our request. We guessed this was the son of the lady we had just encountered. Okan looked our drenched bodies up and down with an air of disgust and then nodded and pointed to a patch of grass next to the restaurant. We thanked him greatly and then like a dog sniffing out a pee spot we circled the area of grass looking for the least bumpy patch. The son quickly returned and ushered us past an outside seating area where a family, his family, sat drinking tea; and in to the restaurant. Clearly under instructions from his mother he showed us to a corner where we were told we could sleep for the night. We were so incredibly grateful. Pitching your tent in the rain is no fun, nor is rolling up a drenched tent for it to stink on its next use. Before we could take our bags off the bikes we were guided to the family table where a very welcomed river of tea flowed. Five hours, twelve cups and a Turkish feast later we were well acquainted with the family and friends of the restaurant. We met the mother, the father, the sisters, the uncles, the cousins, and the regular truck drivers who frequent the restaurant on their routes from Istanbul to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran and beyond. Through use of ‘google translate’ we spent hours answering each other’s questions about home life, family life, love life and trucking life. It’s incredible the depth of conversation you can have with the use of google translate, however when the uncle told us he was having a hard time going out with a tractor trailer we knew not to trust it entirely.

At seven in the morning we gave up on sleep and decided to hit the road. The Turks complete disregard for sleeping through the night preferring instead to take on all of the noisy activities you would normally associate with daytime, meant we had a bout two hours sleep between us. As we packed up and thanked our hosts for the incredible hospitality, the laughs, the tea and the food which we again offensively offered to pay for, we were told we were in fact not leaving and must sit down and enjoy a Turkish banquet breakfast. The mother of the family told us it was unwise to cycle on an empty stomach and as there was a very steep climb to tackle on our route that morning, we must consume half their kitchen before being allowed to leave. We weren’t complaining, Turkish food is incredible! Many hours later we stood, rubbed our bellies and gave hugs of great thanks to our hosts. The family took us in as if we were their own. They gave us a roof, fed us dinner and breakfast, spent time talking and joking with us and we were genuinely sad to be leaving our new Turkish family. We returned waves as we rode off feeling much heavier and in marginally better weather than when we arrived.

Only an hour or so into our days ride the Turkish hospitality returned. A young chap parked by the side of the road was standing next to his car waving us down. He told us he had passed us some kilometres back and pulled over in a safe place to invite us back to his house for lunch. The rear window of the car sunk open and the smiling nodding faces of the mother and father of the young man reinforced the invitation. We didn’t want to offend the family, but we had only just got into the rhythm of riding and we had a long day’s ride ahead. Plus, our bellies were still aching from our previous hosts feeding. We had been told by other cyclists that if you accept every invitation for food or tea in Turkey it will take you forever to cycle through it. We politely declined. As we rode on we began feeling guilty for declining the offer. We agreed not to turn down any more offers and absorb ourselves in the culture as much as possible. We were going to be in Turkey a long time.

The theme of the day as we rode with tired eyes and trying to keep one another motivated was hills and showers. The views were beautiful but we were just not enthused. We decided to call it a day and asked a local where it was possible to camp. He very enthusiastically told us of a beautiful spot 15kms away. A kilometre away from his recommendation we decided we were too tired to cook and still quite full from the breakfast banquet so would just pick up some snacks for the tent. We crossed the road and turned in to a petrol station on the other side of the road. As we pulled in we heard a loud thud behind us. A lorry had gone into the back of a van. It was only an hour before that we were discussing whether a lorry drivers’ licence was issued only once they could prove they could drive a 4-million tonne truck with a phone in one hand and a fag in the other. Everyone seemed to be ok so after a few selfies with the pump attendants we stocked up on snacks for the night. As we were leaving a police officer walked over from the scene of the accident. Hannah’s stomach sunk as she knew what was coming. The lorry driver was blaming us for the accident. He was claiming we had not indicated when turning off the road and that we cut across him. We both knew we had indicated and were sure we were across the road long before the accident. I was confident that by pleading our innocence and telling the truth we would be told we could continue on. Hannah on the other hand had visions of being locked up in a Turkish prison sharing a dark cell with a 7-foot hairy Turkish giant named Mustafa. Her fears quickly changed to excitement at the thought and rapidly pleaded guilty to the police officer. As more police officers approached us we continued to explain what had happened through google translate. At no point did the officers make us feel intimidated and they assured us everything would be ok. They then told us it was best if they dealt with us back at the police station. At this point I must confess my stomach sank a little too. The police station was one step closer to Mustafa. As we followed behind our police escort on our bikes, we reassured each other of our innocence and that we just needed to tell the truth.

The sergeant at the police station told us to relax and make ourselves comfortable. He informed us he had telephoned a translator to come in and take our statements and offered us tea and cigarettes. Turkish hospitality is also available in police stations. An hour passed with no sign of a translator. As we were beginning to question whether we would be here all night, the sergeant came over to tell us we were free to go. What I thought was him playing asteroids on his Atari was actually him reviewing the CCTV footage from the junction of the accident. We thanked him for his hospitality, tea and repeated offers of cigarettes and rocketed out of the police station powered by huge sighs of relief. We thought it best not to return to the recommended camp spot as it was metres from the accident and an angry lorry driver might be lurking. We instead checked-in to the only hotel in town which was an expensive establishment but with free buffet breakfast. Every cloud. I fell asleep thinking of how lucky we were that there was CCTV footage of the incident. Hannah fell asleep thinking of Mustafa.

After the irresistible ritual of gorging on six plates of buffet breakfast and stashing as many boiled eggs and bananas in to our pockets as we could, we rode on through lush green landscapes in perfect weather to the UNESCO world heritage town of Safranbolu. We found a car park that doubled as a campsite and pitched our tent surrounded by fruit trees. We walked into the heart of what was once an important stop on the trade route between Europe and Asia and were disappointed with what we found. The streets were lined by beautiful 17th century Ottoman architecture taken over by tacky souvenir and ice cream sellers. The tour buses that filled the surrounding streets and the cars and mopeds that zoomed by added to a very inauthentic and underwhelming experience. We made our way back to our tent to cook up an authentic and overwhelming Turkish dinner.

As the temperatures rose to the early thirties and the metres we climbed each day rose to over 2000 our thoughts were drifting away from the beautiful lush dense interior of Turkey towards its coastline of breezy beaches and fresh seafood. We rode through gorgeous landscapes neither of us had anticipated but the heat and climbs combined were taking their toll. Energy levels were low. I hit the wall and had to devour an entire packet of biscuits before even considering tackling another climb. Hannah is convinced she will get me to love porridge before the end of the trip but at the moment it has to have cocoa powder, bananas and dried fruit added to it to for me to show even mild pleasure at its consumption. Today we both wished we had eaten more as we delved into our emergency food stocks. The combination of sweat and sun cream dripping down our faces was not helping. To distract attention from the burning in my legs I devised a new game of trying to catch the sweat dripping from my nose on my trainers as they slowly rotated uphill. But what goes up must come down and as any cyclist knows the reward of climbing is tearing down the other side with the wind cooling off your sweaty body.

We rode along a beautiful river and I submerged myself wearing all my cycle gear whilst Hannah delicately flicked a few beads of water on her face. We contemplated calling it a day and camping by the river, but we had no food on us and the beach was calling. As we cycled on, we passed dozens of people taking selfies on a small section of road. The section of road was as far as we could see identical to the stretches of road preceding and following it but this one was somehow selfie special. Spirits were much higher later in the day as despite my cursing every climb around every bend in the road. we caught glimpse of the coast. We spotted a sign for a beach campsite in a town called Amasra and rode over one final ridiculously steep climb to check it out. We were disappointed to find that it was party central. We were shattered, it was getting late and we didn’t want to cycle any further. We pitched up our tent looking out at sea and sat staring at the waves as a very hard day’s ride ended and night fell. From a neighbouring tent appeared a confident Turkish man in lairy long surf shorts nodding out of time to some shocking Euro pop. After I rolled my eyes, he strolled over to deliver us some biscuits. Reminder to self; be more Turkish when I get home.

Stage 1 Complete! Turkey 12th – 14th June

We were now days away from completing the first stage of our adventure, London to Istanbul. We had not spent more than a week in a country so far and knew that Turkey would take us at least three weeks to cross. We were excited to spend a longer amount of time somewhere, to get a deeper feel for a country, learn some more of a language other than hello, please and thank you, and eat loads of Turkish food. At the border a German campervan pulled up next to us and gave us some ice-cold energy drinks. Much appreciated in the soaring heat in the queue. Entering Turkey felt like a huge milestone. We were heading out of Europe and Turkey was keen to show us this. As we quickly arrived in a city called Edirne, we saw about twenty mosques in the first five hundred metres, men sat outside café’s drinking tea watching the world go by, women, a lot less of them on the streets, wore covered to varying extents. The smell of burning charcoal and cooking meat hit our noses and the call to prayer hit our ears. There was a huge contrast from where we had just come and was well, all very Turkish. Having a large Turkish community near our home in London, we had an idea of what to expect, culturally. But what we saw around us far surpassed our expectations. We looked at each other, smiling. We were going to enjoy Turkey very much.

As we cycled through the city the blistering sun was quickly masked by weighty black clouds. As it chucked it down as we cycled on we were grateful for the cool air and cooler rain on our skin. Hannah told me at times like this when nature helps you out when you need it most, that she thinks her Mum is up there looking down on her and helping her out. As the rain got drastically heavier and was quickly followed by thunder and lightning, she looked at me and told me she knew that her sister was the favourite.

Turkey welcomed us with open arms. As we rode along the dual carriageway that would take us to Istanbul a couple of days later, we were stopped by a car and asked if we needed anything. As we thanked the driver and passenger we were asked if we wanted some chai. We didn’t know it at the time but this would be a huge theme running through our journey across Turkey. Now let’s talk tea. We knew Turkey loved tea, but this was something else. It was more than having a cuppa a few times a day as we do at home, and the English love tea, no, this is more than a ‘aw I’d could murder a cuppa’, this is more than an addiction, more than an obsession. It is a culturally embedded obsession that seems to hold as much power and weight as Islam. In fact I daren’t ask someone to choose between their faith or their tea here. I don’t think it would be an easy choice. Everyone drank tea. Everyone wanted you to drink tea. Offers of tea came as often as hellos. And even when a hello was too much to muster, the silent mimed action of holding a cup in one hand and stirring it with the other was aimed at us from across the streets, from car windows and from groups of men as we passed café’s. If we were to stop and accept every offer of tea we were kindly given, we would never leave. We’d be Turkish. We would enjoy twenty cups a day and then don the stripes required to offer others tea. We would be tea-drinking prisoners in a tea prison in tea-town. We would drown in a sea of tea as our hosts would pump tea in our faces through fire hoses. Ok slight exaggeration, but you get the jist. And this is certainly not a pessimistic slant on the tea front. It was by no means a burden.

We rode on looking for a pastry shop and were quickly accompanied by a local in her car asking if she could help. Being a teacher in the local school she spoke basic English and we were promptly riding behind her en-route to her favourite pastry shop. After experimenting with some new Turkish treats she asked if she could help more. It was getting on and we asked if she knew of a budget hotel in town. At this point her husband and young daughter had joined us and a series of phone calls were made to friends, relatives, the local hotel and even the teacher accommodation at the local school. It was all incredibly kind and welcoming and we ended up taking their hotel recommendation. It was a bit over our budget but we did the very English thing of accepting as our hosts had found us a room. We were very grateful for their help and thanked them. After freshening up we went out to devour as much of the town as we could. The food was unsurprisingly incredible. We sat in the restaurant rubbing our stomachs discussing the instant warmth, welcoming and genuine care we had received on day one of our time in Turkey. Little did we know, we would experience this hospitality daily and it would be the primary reason for making Turkey our favourite country so far.

We had asked not to have breakfast included in our room rate as we wanted to leave early and get food on the road somewhere. The hotel employee given the job of sleeping on the lobby sofa all night was working hard snoring as we attempted to tip toe around him and hit the road. Hannah’s elephant feet quickly woke him out of his deep sleep and probable tea-filled dreamland. He was having none of our quick departure. After telling us to stay he disappeared on to the street and was quickly back with tea, bread and olives. What a lovely man. I offered to pay him but it turns out that this insult is on par with verbal abuse to ones mother in Turkey. We stopped a few kilometres down the road for Turkish coffee and were ushered to sit at the table of a chain smoking important looking grey bearded gentleman. We conversed in English with the aid of another less important looking but equally heavy smoking man at an adjoining table. He ordered another coffee and a juice to our table and gave us a wink. Upon leaving we were met with angry faces and groans from around the coffee bar as we attempted to pay. It took some time to get used to the very normal levels of generosity in Turkey and it became apparent the best way to deal with it is to accept the generosity, learn from it, adopt the same selfless and altruistic characteristics and share this beautiful way of living. Shortly after, I sent a text message to my Turkish friend Volkan back in London. I told him I used to think he was a very special person, but actually, I had now discovered he was just Turkish.

The road to Istanbul was undulating and was nothing to write home about (literally. We stopped for lunch in a town called Corlu which turned out to be another bustling place with what seemed to be the entire population on the streets. This was a common theme in Turkey. Everyone seemed to be outside. Whether drinking tea outside cafes, sitting on benches or standing in circles conversing, outside social space was always maximised. We ate Cig Kofte, a mix of walnuts, bulgur wheat and spices rolled up in a flatbread with lettuce. They became a big part of our diet in Turkey.

After another 50kms riding and another Turkish feast, we settled on a pretty strip of beach in a relaxed town to spend the night. Wild camping is legal in Turkey, or less technically but more importantly, nobody cares. We laid out our sleeping bags on the sand and watched had the sun drop, the moon climb and stars brighten. We were only asleep an hour or so before two local night fisherman appeared and pitched up next to us. A wave and a nod confirmed our chosen sleeping spot acceptable and we fell back asleep. A car arrived shortly after and drove directly on to the beach to pull in a small fishing boat with a single occupant. As the wheels spun in the sand it was clear the car was not leaving anytime soon. A pick-up truck arrived an hour later and attempted to pull the car out of its self-made sand den but failed. Half an hour later and now in the small hours of the night a tractor noisily took charge of the situation and pulled the car free. Drama over we soon slipped back to sleep only to be woken again by another torch wielding beach night walker. 30 minutes later and a car full of teens blaring Turkish hip-hop became our bed buddies until sunrise. I gave up on more sleep and sat on the beach watching wild dogs playing in the sand. It was a comical night. We didn’t at any time feel unsafe, it was however an introduction to the 24-hour Turkish day, sleep seems to happen somewhere between 2 and 5 in the afternoon as far as we could figure out.

On a couple of hours sleep coffee was clearly the word of the day as we had a big days ride in to Istanbul ahead. After having our coffees and freshly made lemonade paid for us again  we met a busy three lane road leading to the busy city and its 20 million inhabitants. There was a hard shoulder for most of it and we felt fairly safe. We had researched the route in to Istanbul for some time as we had heard many stories of how horrible it was. We made it within 20kms of the city centre when the first puncture of the whole trip appeared. We pulled in to a police-guarded driveway safe away from the busy road to fix it. A policewoman came out and told us to come through the barrier as it was safer. She had three friends sitting metres away chatting at a table. After the excitement of watching me fix the puncture had deflated (pun intended), they invited us to the table for coffee. We politely declined as we were shattered and just wanted to get to Istanbul and a comfy room for a few days. We told them this and they didn’t care. We told them we were meeting the host of our room and had to keep moving. They didn’t care. I said we had agreed to meet our host at an agreed time, to which he replied, ‘but you are here now’. It was a fair point. The future can wait. Now is more important. Coffee was delivered to the table as was a huge bowl of torte baby apples. The friends turned out to be off duty police officers relaxing on the grounds of what was the former presidents summer residence and now museum. Talks of Istanbul, London, our jobs and our concerning lack of children pursued. As did a tour of the former president’s home, 312 group photos and the promise of being welcomed in to their friends and families homes along our route. One of the police officers even called the mayor of a city we were going to be riding through to ask his permission for us to camp on a historical site overlooking the sea that was closed to the public. It was the longest puncture stop in cycling history but it was a wonderful experience. We made a note not to bother attempting to turn down tea and coffee stops, you won’t win.

The puncture returned a few kilometres down the road and our spare inner tubes had got holes in them after rubbing on something in the bag. I attempted to patch up the tube but the patches were not sticking in the heat and the puncture returned again. We were only 9kms away from our accommodation and we had to find a bike shop. We loaded up my bike with the majority of our stuff and hoped Hannah’s bike would make it. We stopped to fuel up on food in the way (priorities) and as we devoured at least a kilo of borek (a tasty baked filled pastry dish) the tire deflated in front of us. It was no use, I would have to walk it to a bike shop. Nobody knew where a bike shop was and the internet on our phones was now not working as we had left the EU. Our knights in shining armour were two 14-year-old boys on bikes. They pulled over at seeing the puncture and in their best school-learned English told us they would take me to a bike shop. We walked with our bikes through narrow walkways, over bridges and threw markets to get to the bike shop. I was doing my best to remember the route so I could return and find Hannah. Little did I know that she was being well looked after by the locals, particularly the men. She commented that it is the men here that make the most effort to help you, it is the men that feel comfortable to approach you, invite you and help you. Maybe it is because we are exposed to more men, it is certainly noticeable that it is mainly men on the streets socialising and in the cafes drinking tea and coffee. At the bike shop one of the boys told the shoe employee to fix the puncture for me. What a kid, to go out of his way to walk me to a bike shop and sort it for me. Bike fixed I went to pay only for the shop employee to point to the kid and shrug. This kid was incredible, he had paid for the puncture to be repaired. As much as I insisted to pay him he made it clear this was not the done thing and that he was offended. He cycled back with me to Hannah as they knew I had lost my way. He then went in to the shop where Hannah was waiting and bought us a big bottle of cold water. This boy was very special. What a kind heart. The 14 year old version of myself could probably muster an ‘oh dear’ at the sight of a tourist with a puncture at the side of the road. I hugged him and told him he was a remarkable boy to which he replied, ‘no, just normal, welcome to Turkey’. We exchanged numbers and have messaged each other since. I think Arif is a remarkable boy, even if he doesn’t.

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Edging closer we found ourselves within a kilometre of our accommodation but amongst a maze of narrow, steep and even stepped ‘roads’ leading to our ever more deserved shower and bed. We asked locals for guidance as our map was now useless and we soon had bodies pushing our bikes up steep hills with the gift of cherries from an elderly gentleman at the top. We arrived at our accommodation at 7pm, shattered and filthy. It had been an eventful day. We had made it to the end of the first stage of our adventure, London to Istanbul. We had experienced so much in the past 6 weeks, so many changing landscapes, languages had changed weekly, so many individual encounters, differing foods, and now differing cultures and religions. And so many, many more miles to go…

Watch our 1-minute video ‘Cycling London to Istanbul’ here…

Bulgaria 8th – 12th June

With sore heads we cycled to Bulgaria. We chose to take the motorway, not because we’re idiots, because of the fact you have to pay expensive tolls meaning the road is pretty much empty and also has a large hard shoulder. We cruised along with pretty scenery pleasing the eye and the smell of wild coriander and wild flowers pleasing the nose (oh how mature I sound!) and were in Bulgaria in no time. The fashion instantly changed and the tracksuit and fag combo was clearly sweeping the nation. A can of energy drink completed the look and rose status. We were well received and we responded to the car toots and waves with over-enthusiastic waves and ‘woohoo’s’. I say we, it was just me. In the enjoyment of our new hosts welcome all afternoon, the sun had set and we were looking for a home for the night later than we would like. We had no idea what it was like to wild camp in Bulgaria so were looking for the permission of a landowner. We arrived in a village and asked/depicted to a group of locals if we could camp on what looked like common land. Mixed responses, some shouty, some confused, none welcoming, led us to move on. We asked at a hotel if we could pitch our tent on their land. They told us they had a full hotel as were hosting a wedding and sadly couldn’t accommodate us. I’d forgotten what Bulgarian was for ‘ah, but I’m the groom’s cousin so we had to move on. Our thoughts were leading to finding a shady motel to crash somewhere safe for night. We past a petrol station and our necks craned to a patch of grass just behind the pumps. We’d read that petrol stations were a safe haven for bike tourers in Turkey, allowing you to pitch up a tent safely out of sight somewhere and often accompanied with free tea. As a neighbouring country we thought we’d give it a shot. My polished Bulgarian dialect failing once more (must have been tired), I danced out if we could pitch up a tent next to their petrol pumps for the night and get free tea please? My silky moves were perfectly translated and we were welcomed in with big smiles. We decided against firing up our gas stove next to the petrol pumps so spent a small fortune on beer, crisps and biscuits. Looking out the tent door as the sun descended over the Bulgarian hills leaving an amber sky silhouetting three petrol pumps and air and water dispenser, we smiled at our accomplishment on finding our classic postcard view for the night. We then argued over who was going to ask for the free tea.

We arrived in Sofia not ready to stop to explore a big city so half-heartedly took a few photos and plotted our route for the next few days. We were excited by the sound of rural Bulgaria so opted for the scenic route north and up in to the mountains. There were smiles for miles as the quieter roads  took us up and up through spectacular lush green and rocky landscapes. The energy from the crisps and biscuit dinner was running out so we splashed out on a restaurant brunch in a small village. We chose the ordering method of pointing at other people’s food until the owner spoke some Spanish and we were able to communicate like adults. His adult Spanish was better than my childish Spanish but we still managed to get a decent meal. And I got a colouring book! Some ancient ruins on the map a couple of km’s off the road seemed like a good target for a wild camping spot that night and intuition rewarded us with by far our best wild camping spot yet (except for the petrol station of course). We pitched up a hundred metres from a Roman basilica. Towering mountains behind us, a river beside us and a deep valley below. We showered in the river and cooked up a bucket of pasta. ‘Aren’t we rich’.

This theme continued over the next few days. Beautiful cycling during the day, scouting out interesting spots to camp and making fools of ourselves. I spotted what I thought was a restaurant, the obvious giveaway being a big table of people eating and drinking at one of the two outside and a huge coca-cola sign on the railings. We parked up the bikes, walked in, and acted out the international motion for food to a lady walking past as we sat down at the empty table in the garden. As I eyed up the Dad’s beer at the other table and had the argument with myself over whether or not I deserved a lunch time pint, the Mum rather embarrassingly came over and broke the news to us that we were interrupting the family’s boozy Tuesday lunchtime meal. In broken English she said, ‘No restaurant. House!’. This is not the first time I have done this. Many years ago I walked in to someone’s living room in South Africa and asked them for sausages. It’s clearly a skill.

After camping on an Englishman’s campsite that night (it was strange hearing another English voice) we found ourselves at the end of another country, with the mighty Turkey in front of us…

Watch our 1-minute video of ‘Cycle Touring Serbia & Bulgaria’ here…

Serbia 2nd June – 7th June

Serbia instantly excited us. As we turned the corner after crossing the bridge in to a new country for us both, the street in front of us was lined with street food vendors, people shouting across the street at eachother, people selling goods of the floor, it was lively, and we liked it! We went in to a bakery and did the usual tourist in a new country thing and pointed at food and spoke English like we were talking to a five year old. So embarrassing. We were treated to cheap and delicious heavy pastries filled with spinach and cheese. It seemed we had entered a country where it was now cheaper to buy cooked food than it was to cook food ourselves… finally! A chubby boy outside the bakery asked us for some of our food. When we gave him some he kindly took it in his left hand and he smiled a cheeky smile as he then went and picked up his giant sandwich he had on his step with his right hand. He definitely knew where to position himself.

We stopped for a beer up the road. I calculated it was 90p for a litre. Is it sad that cheap beer excites me so much? Could have stayed all afternoon but had to remind ourselves that we are on a challenge, an expedition, and not a holiday. This happens a lot. We cycled along the Danube through a place called Novi Sad. We hardly explored it yet both had an instant soft spot for it. It has a huge fort up high on one side of the river, overlooking a bustling area of riverside cafes, sports courts, runners, and two tourists on bikes dinging their bells. We could have stayed longer but decided to press on and head to the countryside to find a place to sleep. Hannah had read of a campsite with a lovely host that offered free raki (the local spirit) made from the fruits grown in the garden. The host was indeed lovely. But my she could talk. We were shattered from a long days cycle and just wanted to crash (and drink free raki), yet she spoke for hours about people we didn’t know and more interestingly about the current situation in Serbia. She was keen to tell us how innocent Serbia was in the past, how hard done by they had been and how much she liked Albanians despite sharing her long list of reasons why she didn’t like Albanians. After the three hour speech Hannah was battling to stop her head falling behind her chair and I was swallowing yawns. The reward for not informing her of our tiredness and need for sleep was free raki. We felt like we passed the test.

We woke up early the next day so we could get to Belgrade as soon as possible and enjoy most of the day there. We attempted to sneak out to avoid another four hour conversation with Mother Serbia. Mission impossible style walking failed as we were nabbed at the gate. Thirty minutes later and armed with her full medical history and neighbours cats names, we made our way to Belgrade. We were super excited to visit Belgrade as we’d read and heard great things so we booked an Airbnb for the night. Riding in to the city gave us an instant insight in to the young, fun, creative city we had been informed of. The river was lined with hundreds of bars, elaborately designed and themed boats and structures acting as cafes, bars and nightclubs. As we rode on to find our apartment for the night, we kept looking at eachother and smiling as the city’s energy gave us a buzz. We instantly fell for Belgrade. I spotted a bike shop and needed to replace my lost bike helmet. When I came out with a huge luminous yellow helmet Hannah laughed and told me I looked like a five year old. Beggers can’t be choosers. And who doesn’t wanna be a five year old!

Arriving at our apartment we realised we had not considered what floor it was on as we squeezed our bikes in to a tiny old-fashioned lift one at a time for eleven floors. It was not fun and our host was not particularly amused that we had taken half an hour to get everything upstairs and hogged the lift, pissing off his neighbours in the process. Our bikes are our babies on this trip. Needs must. Sorry. We spent a wonderful day walking the city, eating, drinking and getting lost. It’s high, possibly highest on our list of places to return to.

We left Belgrade later than intended due to the reverse process of the bike/lift scenario. We had planned a long day cycling as we wanted to make up some distance, but plans when touring never seem to happen and we were soon stuck on a sludgy mud path that then turned in to thick high grass. Hannah had her first fall, nothing major, more of a slow motion topple. Hannah thought it was my fault for braking too hard in front of her. I thought it was her fault for riding too close behind me. The “debate” continued for some time as the path continued to disappear and the mosquitoes multiplied around us. We decided enough was enough and took a big detour just to get on tarmac again. We picked up some breakfast in a supermarket. As I struggled with the new alphabet on the packaging in the shop, Hannah was becoming increasingly nervous as the number of Albanian gypsies surrounding her and the bikes was increasing. I was keeping an eye out through the window whilst deciding whether what I had in my hand was yoghurt or sour cream, or washing up liquid for all I could gather. Cereal and washing up liquid in hand we quickly escaped the touchy feely gypsies and were soon being chased by a pack of dogs. These were the vicious, glazed-eyed, snarling kind that really make you wish you had a big stick on the bike to scare them off. We’d heard of different techniques to deal with dogs on the bikes including throwing stones, screaming and shouting at them and stopping to befriend them. We opted for the screaming and shouting option which quickly turned in to barking in my case. I figured I was bigger than them and if I could bark louder, I would have them backing down in no time. It didn’t work, so we opted for the last resort of cycling off as fast as we could. I continued barking, more as a nervous reaction than anything else.

We stopped for a beer and a big bag of pastries late afternoon and decided to discuss our route options. We’d found ourselves at a junction whereby we had to make the decision of continuing along the Danube or cut down more directly towards Bulgaria. We ended up doing both, increasing our distance in the process that day, but at least we now had a plan. We tell ourselves that no decision is a wrong decision when choosing a route. And it’s really not. You’ll never know what the other route would have offered. We asked the lady at the bar if she knew of any places to camp locally. She did not. We hinted at camping at the bar if we bought enough beer. She declined. As we started to roll off she stopped us and told us we could camp in her garden at her house, but she was not finishing work until midnight and we would have to wait. Thoughts of staying in the bar for seven hours flashed joyously past in my mind but we quickly thanked her and politely declined.

With the sun setting we rode in to another town and were quickly pounced upon by another pack of dogs. They were starting to annoy me now so I just shouted “oh shut the f$*£ up”. Serbian dogs have a good grasp of the English language it seems as they quickly did as they were instructed. I felt like an angry Dr Doolittle. I felt powerful. We asked a guy if he knew of any campsites locally. He did not but continued to search for one on google maps on his phone to help us out. We told him he was very kind. He told us everyone in Serbia is kind. We had to agree. Armed with the directions for a campsite we thanked the kind guy and cruised on as it was getting dark. Half an hour later we were having another conversation with another kind gentleman as the directions we had been given led us to a residential area, with no campsites. He directed us to a hostel a few km’s away, and we quickly settled on a ten euro room including free raki. The host was the most helpful and kind gentleman you could wish to have host you. He gave us cherries from the orchard in his garden and more raki than we agreed on. Two Dutch cyclists were the only other guests that night. We all sat in the kitchen until late putting the world to rights and polishing of all our hosts raki (he was pouring). A long, eventful day was finished with tired smiles as our heads hit the pillows.  It was nothing like we had planned, but that’s the fun of it…

A sad day followed. After snaking through Europe hugging the mighty Danube river, today we said our goodbyes as we made our way South East. We made a conscious effort to wake up early the next day and get some serious km’s under our belts. After 26 cups of coffee and more laughs with the Dutchies and our host, we picked up the bikes to roll off before the brunch time raki came out. Our host had been so accommodating, especially with the amount of raki he kindly shared, we overpaid to show our appreciation. Our host thanked us. And then told us the room was not ten euros but in fact ten euros per person. The Dutchies pretended not to have noticed but the childish smiles on their faces as they looked in different directions on the ground displayed otherwise. To make things worse I was due to take out some money and didn’t have enough to pay. An awkward drive with our host to the cash machine further delayed our early start and now the thought of lunch time raki and a twenty euro room was looking quite attractive. Thirty km’s down the road however and our plans of a big day were out the window as we were both struggling to really get going. You can do two things in this instance, pick each other up and knuckle down and do what you set out to do and feel proud with yourselves at the end of the day that you turned things around; or do what we did and say sod it, give in to the day, buy a load of junk food and find a place to camp.

I wonder what Stevie Wonder song gets more plays, Superstition or Happy Birthday? As the latter played out in our apartment room in the centre of a pretty city called Nis, Hannah was ushered out from her hiding place as she received her Birthday cake. Hannah’s request for her birthday was a day of good food and a cocktail or two somewhere fun, so a couple of days earlier we had decided we would aim for Nis and take a day off the bikes. We arrived the night before Hannah’s birthday and met our hosts at the bottom of the apartment building. Two parts of triplets, the brothers were crisply dressed, shiny headed, eye-brow plucked and smelling wealthy. I don’t think they were impressed with their dirty, crumpled, stinky guests but we’d already paid so we didn’t really care. They showed us to the room and after a good hours chat at the door about Serbian politics, British politics (apparently all our politician are ugly) and on a lighter note the quality of Serbian dance music (it’s eye-ball swelling, I can vouch), planned nose jobs (theirs, not ours) and the fact as triplets they were the three most decorated students in Serbia; they left us to make an absolute mess of the room. After a hearty prosecco and cake breakfast we took to the streets with an air of confidence, a probable result of the hot shower, clean clothes and breakfast prosecco combo. We walked, drank and ate, and the indulgence felt a comfortable distance from the love/hate discomforts of the trip.  We peaked too soon however and were back at the apartment far too early. Too early for us to disclose a time even. I blame Stevie Wonder, he started it…

Watch our 1-minute video of ‘A Typical Day Cycle Touring through Europe’ here…

Croatia 31st May – 1st June

As we crossed the border the sun was setting. Wild camping near a border never feels right, and the landscape was flat, exposed farmland, nowhere to hide. Hannah had read that morning that wild camping in Croatia was not advised due to the possibility of stumbling across old landmines. We would not be wild camping in Croatia it seemed. Hannah found a campsite on the map that was 40km away. For fear of arriving after closing and having to spoon a landmine that night, we cycled like mad. It rained again. We arrived at 8.30 and the campsite was empty, but it was open. We were the only ones there. We called the number on the gate and were to told to make ourselves at home. The small campsite was idyllic. Small, shaded from the rain and on the edge of a vineyard. There was an outdoor kitchen with a fridge full of wine and an honesty box. We honestly drank as we cooked up a storm in a storm and danced under the shelter. Fun times.

A stop in a town with a telly was forced upon us the next night as Tottenham were due to beat Liverpool in the Champions League Final, on the telly. I had the romantic idea of riding past a bar half an hour before kick-off and being allowed to pitch our tent in the garden. Hannah told me this was highly unlikely and that I would most definitely be disappointed and miss the game. We booked a room.

After riding past no bars all afternoon we rolled in to a town looking for our room. The Airbnb host told us to get a coffee in the café next door whilst the room was being cleaned after it had been rented to a truck driver for a day sleep. Classy. The host arrived at the café shortly after and told us the room would not be clean for another two hours. What he meant to say was, the truck driver is still asleep. We chatted in broken English (Hannah is still learning) for the next two hours about Croatian history, football, the worst rain on record that was sweeping across the region; his three jobs as a hazelnut farmer, graveyard worker and teacher of Croatian history to children, oh and he was a plumber in his spare time. He too was watching the game that night and was in the same drinking spirit as we were. He told us that he had never had drinks with any guests before and we felt quite honoured that he had taken the time with us. He took us to a restaurant round the corner where we scoffed some local cuisine and he bought us more beer. Four hours after we had met we realised that the match was about to start and that he had not yet shown us to the apartment, and we were still in our soaking wet cycling clothes. We missed most of the first half. Turned out we could have missed the whole game. Tottenham lost. A great day though.

Hungary 29th – 30th May

We left the weird campsite in haste the next morning and were pleased to accidentally be charged half the amount. 200 metres down the road karma thoughts kicked in. We continued. Too far down the road to turn back, karma thoughts really kicked in. Damn it. We’re going to hell. The mornings ride was beautiful with paved riverside paths lined with wild flowers guided us to Hungary. The sun was shining and we were in high spirits. Then the paved path ended. We were reduced to a snails pace as we cycled through sludge. Karma. We were in low spirits. We hate taking the roads if there is an alternative but this was just not fun. We took a detour and followed a map app called kamoot. It came highly recommended by many tourers as an alternative to google maps and maps.me and was a good aid until today it decided that the steep forest walking path in front of us was a cycleable road. It didn’t even look like a walking path I would take. Then the heavens opened. Then they really opened. Karma. We took another detour and were faced with some big climbs in the heaviliy pouring rain. We put all the lights we owned on the backs of our bikes and looked like really crap Christmas trees as we slowly pedalled over the border in to Hungary. Cold, damp, and spirits damper, we rolled in to a campsite on the outskirts of Budapest. The campsite had a kitchen so we took advantage of the free fuel and made a slow cooked tomato sauce with red wine and mushrooms. Oh how food can change a mood…

We skirted Budapest as we had been there back in December. It’s an incredible city. We love it. But after Bratislava we were not ready for another stop. We were ready however for langos. The tasty Hungarian lovechild of the doughnut and the pizza. It’s a sweet doughy bread topped with sour cream and cheese and garlic. When not cycling they are a treat, when cycling they are a necessity. We cycled around a beautiful town called Baja until we found a langos seller. The smiley lady at the window was ecstatic at the sound of our groans as we worked our way through more than the average helping of langos. The person behind us in the queue bought us drinks. We had not even communicated with him. What a kind gentleman.

Determined to find a wild camp spot that night, we cycled until late, our legs were getting heavy and the sky was getting darker. Armed with a Google translate paragraph describing our journey and asking for permission to camp, we knocked on the door of a farmhouse. No answer. We shouted. No response. We really shouted. No response. We continued cycling. We settled on a quiet hidden spot next to the cycle path and pitched the tent. A moped passed as we were making home and waved. Being seen when you are wild camping is not ideal. We told ourselves that nobody cared what we were doing and started cooking up. Ten minutes later the moped returned. Uh-oh. After a five minute game of charades we concluded that the moped driver was telling us to go to a campsite 2km’s away. We didn’t want to stay at a campsite that night but thought it probably best to move on after being told to do so. The campsite turned out to be a work in progress, a project by the mayor’s son to provide a spot for locals and tourists to camp next to the Danube for free. The mayor’s son welcomed us and the moped driver smiled in the background, happy with his work of bringing in the first tourists. We camped in the most beautiful spot next to the Danube and cooked up in the dark. We were incredibly grateful the moped driver moved us on that night.

We cycled along some beautiful small roads as we made our way out of Hungary. We were playing games like the alphabet game (real conversation clearly having dried up by now), when we noticed the clouds above us turning darker. We could smell the rain in the air and when we looked behind us we could see the rain falling on the road some 100 metres back. Feeling like we were in Jumanji, we cycled as fast as we could in attempt to outrun rain (sounds so stupid when you write it down). It caught us up (obviously) and it pelted it down. It was rain that hurt. We ducked in to a half built house to wait it out. We did the only thing you could in this situation. Make tea.

Half a pack of counterfeit Hungarian rich tea biscuits later, we realised that in our rain-racing haste, we had missed the bridge that would take us over the Danube to the Croatian border. Arriving at the bridge, something was missing. It was the bridge. A closer look at the map revealed that we had mistaken a ferry crossing for a bridge. Expecting to cross the border, we had left the last town having spent every last Hungarian coin on crap biscuits. The ferry was the equivalent of £2. With no Hungarian currency on us we offered to use our card at the counter. We were met with a shot of nose air by the lady with the power to send us cycling back to the town we had left some 30kms in order to take cash out. We scratched around our bags for lose change. Our emergency euros had been used in an emergency beer situation a few days earlier but we managed to cough up 3 euro coins. Euro coins were accepted but we were 2 short. I’m not sure if it was the fact we were drowned rats, or the fact we literally begged (probably the latter) that helped us, but ferry lady smiled and said in a deep Hungarian accent “Go.” So we went.

At the border, we were asked to show our passports for the first time. A real border crossing! There was only a presence from Hungary, nothing from Croatia in order to enter. The border control officers were clearly bored as they asked more questions about our bikes than they did us. It was getting late at this point and we asked one of the officers if he knew of any campsites across the border. He told us he’d never been to Croatia. I told him if he took two steps left he would be in Croatia. He was not amused.

Watch our 1-minute video of ‘Cycle Touring Austria, Slovakia & Hungary’ here…

Slovakia 26th – 28th May

It was obvious we had crossed in to Slovakia. An abandoned shell of a building was clearly an old border crossing. Old military outposts a hundred metres or so either side reinforced this. The cycle paths disappeared. The cycle route signs went too. Graffiti appeared on the walls. The buildings were a lot less attractive. This is something you don’t see when you fly in to an airport. The overland transition is something I enjoy experiencing. Arriving on the outskirts on a bicycle and not at the international airport walking through duty free is not the way the government wants to welcome you. I like this. You feel like you are getting a more honest portrayal of a country.

We had cycled every day for the last three weeks. We’d stopped early a couple of times but a days rest was due. Hannah’s thigh was still playing up and with Bratislava around the corner we decided now was the time to take a day off. We both wanted to see the city as had heard good things. Bratislava was a luxury for us. We got an apartment for the night. We washed our clothes for the first time (I know. Cue the ‘uuuurrrgghhhh’s’). We walked the streets of the old town with shampooed hair and donning our ‘off-the-bike clothes’ late that afternoon. It was beautiful. The stag do’s and the loud voices of English lads were evident but not overwhelming. We knew Bratislava was a bit of a stag do location but even though it was a weekend it was pretty quiet. Don’t get me wrong, I love a stag do, I’m sure I’m one of those loud English guys letting loose in quaint foreign cities, but we have been a million miles away from this kind of seen so far on the trip. We wandered for a while and then dined on Slovakia’s finest hearty goodness. Mashed potato. Dumplings. Cottage cheese. Dough. Cabbage. It was far from colourful but it was goooooooood. We crashed out with full bellies on white sheets. And with pillows! Bliss…

Our first day off the bikes was just perfect. We ran some errands in the morning. We posted home  5kg’s of stuff that we had not yet used and felt we could dump, and we stocked up on some more supplies. Then the fun stuff. We bought three big bags of crisps, six cans of beer, and four frozen pizzas and watched the entire last season of Game of Thrones. It was needed. Our bodies thanked us.

Even though we had only taken one day off, we missed being on the bikes. We missed our tent. It was our home and we were ready to rough it again. Hannah’s thigh was still playing up. The days rest had not worked. She decided to raise her seat post ¾” in an attempt to make it a bit more comfortable. Bingo! Problem solved it seemed. Such a little thing took away the pain and the problem has yet to return. We cycled for a long time along a rough muddy cycle path. It was fun for the first five minutes and then the fun was replaced with boredom and sore bums. When we finally reached tarmac Hannah reminded me to put my helmet back on (she’s good at this). My shoulders dropped as I realised that I had left my helmet on the ground miles back when adjusting Hannah’s seat post. Hannah chilled out in a bar with a pint of kofola (a local cola type drink with a coffee kick and a hint of aniseed) while I cycled back pannier-free to collect my helmet. I rode for miles and miles way past where I thought I had left it. It was gone. I was distraught. I spent a small fortune on a really good helmet for this trip. It was the second of its kind as the first one I bought for the trip I had left on a train a few weeks earlier on its first outing. I cycled in silence for a while until I could laugh about it. What a knob…

We stayed in a really weird campsite that night. We were the only ones in a tent amongst lots of camper vans and caravans with grass growing high all around them. We were looked at oddly when we cycled in and pitched our tent. Clearly not much happens around here. Even cooking up a big pot of lentils, chick peas, kidney beans, sweetcorn and tomatoes raised eyebrows. To be honest, if I came home from work back home and Hannah was cooking up the same dish in the kitchen I think I’d pull the same face. Onwards to Hungary…

Austria 20th -24th May

The hills were indeed alive. It was like something you would draw as a child. Big, green, sweeping hills with a token house and the sun in the corner. We didn’t know what to expect from Austria. Neither of us had been here before. The clues to crossing the border were the change in beer signs at the bars, and the architecture. The houses instantly changed, they became, well, typically Austrian houses. Alpine like, with big overhanging roofs. Cycling along the river and not on the main road means you don’t see the usual signs to inform you that you are in a new country.

A lot of the riverside paths we wanted to take were closed due to the volume of rain. Big diversions were put in place. There is always a bit of dilemma in these cases. ‘Is it really that bad ahead?’ you ask yourself. ‘Risk it?’ we say to eachother in unison. Once you wheel your bikes round the bollards there’s no turning back. Our experience of this yields mixed outcomes. Today was manageable with the added benefit of a million frogs (I didn’t count them). Their group conversation was a beautiful symphony of rivets (Hannah’s words, not mine). It was getting late and it was time to make the call. Try and find a campsite or wild camp. We chose the latter as the map showed a lot of green areas along the river. Three hours later and getting dark we chose our spot. It was not ideal. The green areas on the map turned out to be incredibly steep forest areas that not even hikeable let alone cyclable. We laid out our sleeping bags in the long grass (never ideal, my Brother Craig knows only too well about camping in long grass, ticks!). As we opened up our kitchen and started the stove, the ants and flies came in droves. This was not going to work. We packed up and rode in the dark in search of a) a better spot, b) a camp site or c) last resort, a hotel. We were gifted only a kilometre later with a farmhouse and a camping sign. The cutest little spot next to the house was a god send. We cooked up in the dark and under stars. And relax…

The bridge we were to cross the next morning was non-existent. The owner of the farmhouse took us across in his boat and sold us a shot of his homemade walnut liqueur, it sat nicely on our porridge filled bellies. I told Hannah that I dreamt that a peacock was screaming in my ear in the night before. It was no dream apparently. The scenery in these parts has blown us away. You could be in New Zealand. The river cuts through towering forests. We look around mouths open. Austria by bike or boat along the Danube is highly recommended. Hannah was finding it harder to enjoy the surroundings as she had developed a pain in her thigh which was only getting worse. She’d had the same problem before on a previous tour and was worrying about the repercussions for the rest of the trip ahead. We stopped early at the next campsite we found which ended up being one of our favourites to date. It was a wake-boarding lake and we enjoyed watching the skills of the locals as we caught up on some admin and serviced the bikes in to the early evening. As the sun set over the lake we were appreciative of the break that was forced upon us. We had yet to take a day off the bikes, maybe the continuous pedalling was taking it’s toll…

The following day had it’s ups and downs. The stunning views continued as we hugged the river through more natural beauty and picturesque villages. Hannah’s thigh however was getting worse. We were seriously thinking that a couple of days off may be in order. Saw our first dead snake on the path. Hannah’s enthusiasm for wild camping was now as dead as the snake. We rode through beautiful vineyards and tried to scope out a spot to hide for the night. We stumbled across a restaurant selling wine from the neighbouring vineyards. My Mum had given us some money on the day we left with instructions to spend it on a bottle of wine on the ferry from Dover. We were so tired on the ferry we thought it would be wasted. Here was the perfect moment. Mum would have agreed. The wine was outstanding and we stayed a lot longer than anticipated. I rode behind Hannah, laughing as she zig-zagged her way on and off the path for the next few kilometres to our campsite for the night. I told her this was not the time to try and ride no-handed, too late, she crashed in to some vines. The campsite was too crowded for our liking, but we’d bought a bottle of wine from the vineyard attached to the restaurant, situation saved.

Cities are not fun on our big heavy touring bikes. You can’t weave through traffic, you can’t quickly change direction, you don’t really know where you’re going, and you can’t really leave your bikes for a wander around. Vienna was a city we both wanted to see but like most big cities they warrant a lot of time to get to a real feel for. I’m not really a fan of going to big cities for the weekend as I never really feel like I have properly seen it. Big cities, for me, need to be lived in to be understood. Not having 6 months to hand, we rode through for a glance. On the way in to the city we noticed a naturist area on the banks of the river. I love naturists. ‘Why not!’ is my opinion. We again hunted out a wild camping spot as we rode through farmland away from the river. We were aiming for a national park as figured the land would be public and easier to sleep in. Two attempts failed. The first due to swathes of lakeside mosquitos. The second due to a nearby structure that looked like a bomb. It wasn’t a bomb, obviously. But we didn’t know what it was and our instincts had taken over. So we ran away as if it were about to explode…

We were awoken by the sunrise as we lay in our sleeping bags in a national park car park. We had failed to find the idyllic spot the night before so settled for a hidden patch of grass on the edge of a big concreted area. It’s not all glamour this lark…

Wild camping

A few years back my brother Craig and I got the bug to camp out in beautiful natural spots, away from people, noise, light, and just hide for the night where you’re not really supposed to. We have camped under the stars in just our sleeping bags in forests, on beaches and on mountains and have since combined this with cycle touring and with other friends too. In some places it’s quite easy. In Dartmoor national park for example it’s allowed. If you head off the beaten track in the Lake District and The Peak District nobody will know you are there. And if someone does see you, they probably don’t care…

This last point is the one that I still struggle with. What if someone see’s you? What will they do? I often think the worst and feel like a sitting duck. There is a a definite psychology to wild camping. There is a skill. There is a skill to not care almost. Sniffing out the best spots with a nice view, flat ground, short grass, and where nobody can see or find you is a skill for sure, but being able to relax and enjoy the experience and get a reasonable night’s sleep is, for me, the hardest part. My brother is good at this. Hannah is too. ‘What are they gonna do?…. Nobody cares’ is the response to my question of what if someones see’s us?’ I’m getting better at this skill, and can easily sleep and enjoy the experience in most cases, but if there is any discomfort with the choice of location made I will often wake up in the night with a pang of worry and than not sleep any more.

On this trip we have been incredibly lucky to find some idyllic spots where we have felt highly confident that nobody will see or find us. This allows for a good nights sleep. Hannah is better at this than me and falls asleep instantly without worry. Maybe it’s instinct, or being protective, or something else, but I have to be comfortable with a spot before deciding on it. Hannah and I have a rule. If one of us is not 100% confident with a spot, we move on. I think this applies more to me as it’s generally me that is not happy with a spot. I think Hannah would sleep next to the M25 if that’s where she finished cycling for the day.

We have found some beautiful spots so far, and we have found some pretty grim ones, but we have always felt safe. The spot overlooking the valley in Luxembourg was incredible. The spot by the river in Germany was just perfect. The spot in the car park of the national park in Austria was boring, but we felt safe. Our latest experience in Turkey was on a quite beach where although we were visible and had night fishermen for neighbours, they really weren’t concerned with what we were doing and it felt safe. Even though fishermen were walking out of the sea in scuba gear at 2 in the morning and cars were pulling up blaring music, we felt safe. I didn’t sleep much due to the activity but I felt no threat or danger. This is the key for me. The psychology of feeling safe. I’m getting better at it. Maybe by the end of the trip we’ll both be camping next to the M25…

Germany (with a bit of France thrown in). 13th – 20th May

We arrived in Germany, and then ten minutes later we went to France. Then we went to the supermarket in Germany, and then went and camped in France. I don’t like the idea of borders. The very fact they exist is sad. Products of conflict, war, greed, power, under the guise of security (uh-oh I went deep). In contradiction, the contrasts in culture they produce is one of the main reasons we are here. The often instant transition of food, language and currency that border towns produce fascinates me. The difference in wealth can be instant. The buildings appear different. Even little things like road signs instantly change. This border crossing was not so clear. We were at a confluence of Luxembourg, Germany and France and found a campsite nearby with a riverside location and an incredible view of a castle (oh god, I sound like an estate agent).

As we cut across a corner of France through Strasbourg, our journey the next day was quite a tough one. It was incredibly hot and we had a headwind most of the day. Unknown to us until we arrived at a campsite with not even an employee on site that night and pitched up next to a lake, we were overheated and overwinded (definitely not a word). Hannah was feeling quite rough so took some medication and hit the hay. We had experience of the strength of the sun from our last cycle tour. We soon realised that drinking ump-teen litres of water was not enough. You often don’t realise it until it’s too late that the sun has been draining you of vital salts and minerals all day. You often have a breeze on you when cycling that masks the suns rays and the damage it’s doing and you only feel the strength of it when you stop. This time we were well stocked with medication.

We both woke the next day beaten up and lacking energy still. Nature was doing it’s best to distract us with a spectacular stretch of river with resident woodpeckers and cuckoos. Nature was again distracting us with Hannah experiencing some side effects of the heat exhaustion and having to duck in to the woods on a dozen occasions throughout the day (too much information?). We didn’t see another person or even bar or shop for a very long time and soon ran out of food and water. We eventually arrived at a village towards the end of the day with a token shop but nothing else. We bought tinned food (it was the only food on the only shelf, sad times). Yet another beautiful campsite was found, surrounded by dramatic rock formations we dined on undecipherable tinned stuff and crashed out. We were invited to have drinks with some nice Dutchies, I was very tempted but just too tired from the days ride to socialise (more sad times).

Hannah awoke feeling normal again. More delights along the river today with a pretty village in particular with a market selling freshly cooked dishes that were out of our daily budget. We were tempted by paella (so very French) and beer until we realised it was 9 in the morning, paella is not a breakfast dish (boom boom). We rode through Strasbourg and over the Rhine back in to Germany. We decided to ignore the obvious cycle route that takes you around the Black Forest through Basel and head straight through it. We found the reason why the cycle route takes you around it as halfway up and over we felt heavy and hot as we tackled our steepest climbs yet. Good training for what is to come further down the trip at least. The forest was incredible. It felt tall, enchanted, with dramatic Alpine views whenever we looked up and away from the sweat dripping on the tarmac below us. Despite the most beautiful wild camping spots on offer, it was just too early to stop and we annoyingly settled for an average overpriced campsite at the end of the day. We always seem to be 60km before or after the best wild camping spots. You may be thinking, what’s the rush? Why not stop and relax? Well, we need to get through Europe pretty quickly as our goal of heading to China takes us through the Pamir Highway, it’s ten mountain passes up to 6000m high mean that reaching this area before the passes become too snowy and challenging trumps taking it easy in Europe. We tell ourselves that Europe is next door and we will likely re-visit these areas more than mountain passes in Kyrgyzstan. Hannah has just returned with the running style and excitement of a child and the news that you can buy hot giant pretzels from vending machines. We will definitely be returning it seems…

More rain. Then thunder and lightning. Then hail. We got absolutely drenched as there was no shelter anywhere. And once you’re wet, well, you’re wet. You can’t really get more wet than wet. Unless you’re wet, wet, wet in a swimming pool (I wonder if Francis Rossi makes the same joke to himself at his local pool). We’d experienced all types of rain so far. Light rain, warm rain, big old fat rain. It can be quite refreshing at times. We get strange looks when we’re cycling in the pouring rain. But it’s not like at home. All our bags are super waterproof (hopefully) and it’s not like we are cycling in our finest suede brogues (I don’t own suede brogues). You just think, sod it, let’s get wet, it’s quite nice.

We continued east and out of the Black Forest enjoying the flip-side of climbing up to the top… uninterrupted downhills, “weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”. We found the start of the eurovelo route 6 in a town called Donaueschingen at the start of the Danube river. We would be following this route all the way along the Danube to Bulgaria. Our theory being that there would be not much map-looking and a nice picturesque, car-free route for weeks to come. As we approached the city of Tuttlingen late afternoon, Hannah was suffering from bad stomach pain and was finding it hard to cycle. She was annoyed to be stopping short of our daily goal of 80 miles but had to due to the pain. It was time to decide where we were staying that night. Looking on the map, Hannah found a free campsite in the city centre. Sounded a bit weird but in for penny ‘n all. We treated ourselves to a beer on the river. Hannah was looking quite coy. ‘What’s up my love?’ I said. ‘Feeling better?’ I followed. ‘Yes’ she said. ‘What’s up then?’ I quizzed. ‘My stomach pain was just wind’ she said hesitantly. ‘Nice’ I concluded. When we arrived, we were a bit confused as the campsite turned out to be an empty small patch of grass in the corner of a huge city park. Coming from London I was not completely at ease with pitching my tent in a public park. Anything could happen! (I sound like my Mum). I told Hannah that you wouldn’t pitch your tent in a park in London and that it didn’t feel right. She informed me that this was not London and felt more like a Cambridge. I said I wouldn’t pitch my tent in Cambridge either (no offence Cambridge).

After a broken nights sleep in Cambridge worrying about all the Londoners we continued out of the city heading east. I was still annoyed that my urban camping experience was forced upon me by Hannah’s wind. As we stopped to cross some traffic lights we saw another cycle tourer a few metres away. A huge smile and arms in the sky made us smile in response. Michael from the USA had cycled the world. We were envious. At 57 he had retired some years before and had decided to hit the road. When we told him our plans all he said was ‘YES!…YES!’. This comforted Hannah as the normal response is ‘Are you crazy?’, or ‘Is that safe?’. We cycled with Michael for most of the day. It was our most beautiful path yet. Towering limestone formations either side of us, we cycled on a car free path along the river crossing bridges and darting through forests. Michael’s positivity, enthusiasm and energy for life were infectious. He was incredibly knowledgeable and we felt pretty thick in his presence. Especially when it came to history. We said our goodbyes and felt blessed to have met him.

We were unsure that night whether to commit to finding a wild camp spot or really go for it on the bikes and do more than we wanted to make it to a camp site. As we left the car free experience behind and picked up a small road leading to a typical Bavarian village, we were faced with an old stone built brewery with several bicycles outside. The decision was made for us. Two pints of the most incredible cloudy beer later we were cycling with the well known two-pint confidence in the hunt for a nice spot to sleep. This night we were in luck as we found the most beautiful little patch of ground next to the river hidden by trees. We were out of sight and confident (probably the beers) that we had found the perfect spot. We cooked up another random pasta concoction and slept under the stars. These are the moments we dreamt of weeks ago when planning the trip. Fun times…

Cycled through a city called Ulm, where Einstein was born apparently. Forgot what day of the week it was and didn’t know that supermarkets were closed on Sundays. It was Sunday. The only place we found open was a bakery. Oh crumbs (pun intended). Filled up on savoury beigeness. No complaints. We were on a mission to do 150kms today. It was a target we had yet to meet. We were awake early as we had wild camped, the weather was good, the roads were flat, the odds were in our favour. By mid afternoon we had clocked up around 110kms and were in high spirits as the big bag of beige from the bakery was keeping us energised. With plenty of sunlight left the 150kms was happening. Then we met Saha. The happy, sunny face cycled up behind us and was intrigued as to our journey. We talked and cycled and instantly hit it off. As we neared her home town and the end of the road for her she informed us of a brewery a couple of hundred metres off our route that we should visit. The 150km goal was thrown in the Danube as we entered the brewery with Saha and sunk another great pint. Saha was a great soul and we talked and laughed like close friends. She talked of her love of Marvel superheroes and of her story of fleeing Croatia for Germany in 1992. She bought us our drinks and even gave us a bottle to take with us to enjoy at the end of the day. So, so generous. I hope one day we can repay the favour… We eventually manged 146km before stopping at a canoe club and pitching up for the night. The bar was closing up but we were ushered to a vending machine that distributed bottled beer. First warm pretzels, then cold bottled beer, what else will Germany offer us through a vending machine? Answers on a postcard…

Rain. Just sod off now please. I take it back. You can be more than wet. You can be pissing wet and pissed off. Hannah often says I can be overly optimistic, especially when it comes to the weather, but today I was not. We ducked in under a bridge and made a lunch of pumpernickel (I know! It’s a real thing!) and cheese spread and decided on a plan. Hannah found a free camp spot for canoers and kayakers. I’d left my canoe at the last campsite but hoped nobody noticed as we pitched our tent in the pissing rain (note how the rain has gone from quite nice to pissing, it’s the same rain as yesterday, just the mood that’s changed). I rode off in the rain to get some supplies and then sat outside making fajitas in the rain. It was not nice. It was actually really not nice. But I bought some interesting beers and we got afternoon drunk in the tent. Every cloud…

Watch our 1-minute video of Cycle Touring Luxembourg & Germany here…

…and chill.

I’m slowly learning how to relax. It takes time. To switch off from a day-to-day life where you feel there is always something to do. Something that needs doing. I’m guilty of replacing something on my to-do list as soon as it’s ticked off.

Cycling all day gives you time. Time to think. Time to forget. Time to zone out and do nothing but methodically, robotically pedal whilst slowly drifting amid your surroundings.

Cycle touring amplifies this feeling. You travel a long way each day and you see so much. It affords you the extra luxury of contemplation. Your leg muscles learn how to let you do this. They adapt. They acknowledge it’s their daily routine with little complaint. You drift, you float, and you chill…you really chill….

And then a fly rockets directly in to your pupil and forces you to swerve in to the middle of the road. You curse nature.

Cycle touring…

Luxembourg 12th May

Hannah woke up cold. Despite having brought her entire winter wardrobe some more thermals were needed. I fixed the stove. Boom! (Not literally luckily, boom in the positive sense).

We were both super excited to be on our way to a new country we hadn’t been to before, visiting new countries and new experiences were a massive part of this trip in the planning stages. We entered Luxembourg. We got lost. We went up our steepest hill so far. It was in the wrong direction. Time to eat. We quickly realised that in times of doing unecassary miles the best thing was not to get back on track as quickly as possible and speed up a bit to absorb the miles lost, no, the better choice is to stop, say oh shit, and then eat, or get coffee, or beer.

We did a supermarket shop. We are taking it in turns to do the supermarket shop as someone has to stay outside and watch the bikes. We both love foreign supermarkets and fight over who’s turn it is. We’re not overly fussed over eating out at the moment as we kind of know what to expect in the restaurants and it would damage the budget a fair bit. For now we are working our way through every pasta recipe we know. The budget for pastries however is separate and i’m smashing my way through every sweet and savoury oven baked beigeness I can find. The joys of cycling…

We were keen to sniff out a wild camping spot tonight as there were no campsites near, only flashy hotels. We ventured off a forest path that felt right and stumbled across the most beautiful hidden spot overlooking a valley. With the sun about to set we cooked up (pasta.) before making our bed for the night at the last minute before it got dark. It was Hannah’s first night properly wild camping and she was a bit bervous but felt comfort in my comfort. She likes to push herself. We opted for our bivvy bags which are covers for our sleeping bags that allow you to sleep without a tent. A deer wandered by. We slept under the stars and over the valley. A memorable night.

We woke to frost covered sleeping bags and iced water bottles. It had gone down to the minuses over night. We were wrapped up and slept well. We quickly moved on without leaving a trace and made coffee and breakfast a few km’s later (note that miles have now disappeared as a measure and kilometres have taken over. So continental European).

Luxembourg city was frustrating. We were trying to stay on the Eurovelo route to save us navigating on our phones or using maps. Making sure we were staying on the route took the fun out of exploring the city and although it was beautiful to pass through I left with the hump that I hadn’t enjoyed the experience. Lesson learnt.

Aaawwwww Germany now please…

The rest of Belgium 8th – 11th May

Only a short day in to Ghent to meet our friends Robin and Miet who we havn’t seen since our wedding day. Along the way it chucked it down and Hannah’s trusty waterproof jacket turned out not to be trusted… some shopping to do in Ghent.

A man stopped and asked Hannah where she was going. She told him, China. He laughed. She said she was serious. He looked concerned and asked if she had children. No she replied. You must have them by 34 he said. Ok she responded. We must get to China in four years she told me. Ok I said.

We arrived at the front door of Robin and Miets home. Such a warm welcome. It was wonderful to finally meet their beautiful children. We caught up over tea and chocolates. There was a lot to catch up on. We reminisced and then the beers came out. I was super jealous of Robins motorbike/bicycle workshop where Robin quickly took to fixing a couple of already occured issues on the bikes. We were cooked for as the beer and laughs flowed. It was just like old times when we had travelled together in South America some six or seven years ago.

Robin was able to join us on our 125km ride the next day and had planned a super nice route predominantly along the river. It was so nice to have some really long chats together and get to know him even more. What a cool bloke. Such a nice ride. Miet and the girls drove to meet us in the evening and we made a camp fire in a very cool spot in the woods Robin knew of. We were left to camp here as we said our goodbyes. We were incredibly grateful for their hospitality and adored the time spent with them.

We were missing our tour guide the next day as at some point in the afternoon we found ourselves a fair way off the route Robin had planned for us. China was feeling further away, not closer. We eventually picked up the Euro Velo route we were looking for. We planned to take these vast collection of cycle routes all the way to Istanbul, if we could stay on them. We went through a beautiful place called Namur and very early on in the trip started making a list of places to return to. We also srarted a lessons-learnt list. 1 and 2 on the list were, eat before the other gets hangry, and leave camp earlier. Point 1 will remain top of the list I feel.

The Ardennes were just wondeful, and the ups and downs were a welcomed warm up for what was to come. We encountered stove issues far too early on in the trip for my liking which led to a 3 course meal with a starter of 45 minutes of taking apart and rebuilding of stove followed by a sumptuous spread of cold cheese sandwiches followed by a dessert of f-words. Memories made.

Watch our 1-minute video of Cycle Touring Belgium here…

Dunkirk to Bruges 6th – 7th May

We woke afresh after 11 hours sleep. Clearly needed. As we started making our way towards Bruges it really started to dawn on us… we would not see our families for a long time. As much as we thought about it before and amid the goodbyes, the adrenaline of leaving had slighty masked the current realisation. We were silent for a while.

Our feelings of being away from home were magnified as we rode along designated cycle paths nearly as wide as the roads beside us. If someone was walking on them in front of us we would ring our bell and be met with a wave and a smile. Hannah says she is scared to ring her bell in London. I’m a dinger.

We followed riverways in to Bruges. Hannah took the reigns and led. We got lost. 10kms out the way later we were back on track. We followed our noses to a bar that we loved when we were here six years ago on a trip on the trains around Holland and Belgium.

We camped at a site that Hannah and her friend stayed at previously. We spent our first night alone accompanied by some banging Belgian beers…

Let’s roll 4th – 5th May

We left Kelsale in Suffolk on the 4th May joined by friends and family. A Chinese themed breakfast with a banner and bucks fizz at the Salters is how every big bike journey should commence. Take note. We all rode off like we were in the Goonies and then 50 metres down the road we realised we had forgotten our tent. It was going well. We were joined by more friends and family at a pub in Woodbridge and after one too many drops of beer and the perfect amount of drops of tears, we waved goodbye and hit the road south. Hannah and her sister Lorna couldn’t hide how much they were going to miss eachother, and saying goodbye to nieces and nephews is just brutal.

A mammoth homemade Indian spread was put on by Brother Craig and Sister Tan in Hertford and we enjoyed a wonderful last night together. More friends and family joined us the next day to ride to Mumma’s house for a champagne breakfast. Mum was making it very hard for us to leave. After more tears, and more incredibly hard goodbyes, we hit the road and cycled through London towards Dover. It didn’t really feel any different to a normal days ride around London other than our bikes weighed an absolute ton. Either we were carrying far too much or the last months heavily socialising had taken its toll. Definitely the latter. Probably both.

Brother Craig was joining us on the second part of our two day cycle to the coast and met us in Kent at a pub where we were pitching our tent. To our delight, our 12 year old nephew Ruben was with him and joined us on the cycle. We had plans to take him all the way to China but for whatever irresponsible reasons Craig didn’t allow it. We all camped together in the pub garden. Memories for life were made. It was the first night we had stayed in the tent. It was strange to think it would be our home for the next however many months.

We all cycled together to Dover the following day. It was a lot harder than we expected and we were so proud of Ruben on his longest ever bike ride, and a tough one that ended with us lugging our bikes over the cliffs of Dover (not over the edge, that would be silly). The last goodbye was accompanied by another punch in the throat. We were now on our own.

We boarded the ferry. Shattered. We met a Belgian girl and had a two hour brexit-question-dodging conversation all the way to Dunkirk. We got off the ferry at about 8pm. After two and a half seconds of deliberation we thought it may not be the best idea to commence the wild camping and pitch our tent next to a barbed wire border fence, so we headed to the nearest hotel to get a good nights sleep and contemplated what lay ahead.

After all the planning, researching, bike-building and packing, it was really happening. We were on our way…

Time flies when you’re having fun

Or does it? For me, time flies when you are in a busy routine. Not that my busy routine wasn’t fun, but I was becoming increasingly concerned that time, the greatest commodity of all, was slipping away faster than I liked. I wanted to slow things down. On a long weekend away over Christmas amid a ‘life chat’, it became clear Hannah and my thoughts aligned. The seed was planted.

I’m writing this sitting at a table in a cafe in Belgrade in Serbia, just under a month after we left home on our cycle from London to China. Let’s face it, I’m starting this way later than I’d hoped, but cycling all day every day is tiring!

It took us a while to get around to deciding what to do, when and how to do it, but thoughts eventually came to agreeing we would go on another adventure on our bikes, to see more of the world and spend more time together. A few years back, we spent six wonderful months cycling around South East Asia. It was all new to us at the time but we quickly got in to the rhythm and enjoyed the comfort and security of a cheap hotel, a hot plate of food and a cold beer at the end of each day. This time… it would need to be harder.

We’d spoken many times about places we wanted to visit in life and Central Asia kept cropping up. What better way to see it than by bicycle, and what better way to get there than, well, by bicycle. It was decided. We would cycle through Europe down to Turkey and then onwards through to China, fully unsupported carrying a tent, a camping stove and probably too many comforts.

We spent a good month before we left home spending as much time with friends and family as possible. The goodbyes were horrible. They punch you in the stomach and then in the throat and then poke you in the eye, but they certainly remind you how much people mean to you. Mixed emotions were an understatement. We were excited to go, nervous about what lay ahead, and sad to say goodbye. But it’s all part of going on a long adventure.

Time was about to slow down…