Saturday, 28 August 2010

Where to from here?

When we left the UK, we were a little apprehensive about how we would cope with our bike trip. We had dreamed about cycling to Australia for a while, but then Freddie got a joint inflammation in her back. After many months of fruitless physio treatments, she finally had a cortisone injection a couple of weeks before we set off on our trip. Nobody knew at the time if it would really fix the problem. We set off towards Dover anyway, not knowing if we would make it past France. Luckily the injection worked like a dream and so far, the pain has not returned.||

At the time we only focused on getting to Istanbul, to make our goal more achievable. The thought of cycling to Australia when Freddie wasn’t even able to cycle 10km without pain was simply too daunting. 

After our first few weeks on the road, we started feeling fitter and healthier, and more confident about what lay ahead. We enjoyed the ride through France, Germany and Austria. At times it was flat and easy cycling, with no major challenges and quite a predictable daily routine.

Keeping relations favourable with the better half started off a little shaky. One infamous quote from the wife went something like this. "You know, if it continues like this we will be divorced by Istanbul". Luckily the situation soon settled and we found a way of managing our newly found time together: a second laptop! Certainly worth every ounce of extra weight.

By the time we hit Vienna we were ready for more challenging terrain, though also a little unsure if we would enjoy Eastern Europe. We ended up having a blast touching in and out of Slovakia and cycling through Hungary, where we happened to meet Di, a New Zealand girl who we ended up cycling with all the way to Istanbul. The war torn border towns of eastern Croatia were sobering, Serbia was a lovely surprise and Romania was a joy. Leaving the Danube after so many kilometres was like saying goodbye to an old friend, but crossing through the diverse terrain of Bulgaria made up for it. We had worried about cycling into Istanbul but ended up choosing a great route on which we enjoyed some amazing Turkish hospitality. Of course we also had some hard times, cycling in extreme heat almost every day for the last two months, coping with headwinds and bad roads, as well as some unfortunate food poisoning incidents (cheers Taka Taka man).

Tomorrow we will pedal out of Istanbul and head to the Cappadocia region, and then across Turkey towards Eastern Anatolia. It all gets a little more exciting from now on, bigger hills, more remote countryside, faster dogs...

We have successfully applied for an Iranian visa during our stay in Istanbul and would like to visit Iran, as we have heard many amazing stories about the hospitality of its people and the beauty of places such as Esfahan and Shiraz. We are of course keeping an eye on the news, and if the situation should become unsafe, we could detour north into Georgia and Azerbaijan instead.

From Iran, there are a few options for onward travel. The first option is to go through Central Asia and China to South East Asia, which is pretty much the only way of going overland all the way to Singapore. However it will be winter by the time we get there, and winter in the Himalayas is not the ideal time to cycle… The Central Asian countries (or the “Stans”), also make it quite difficult for cyclists due to their strict visa regulations which have to specify exact entry and exit dates, and in the case of Turkmenistan, only allow you a week to cross their country.

The other option is to go through Pakistan and into India, however the border area between Iran and Pakistan is quite unsafe, and with a risk of kidnapping a police escort is compulsory. Obviously there have been quite a few terrorist attacks recently as well as the terrible flooding. As it currently stands Pakistan is not for us so we are planning to take a ferry from southern Iran to Dubai instead. In Dubai we hope to secure a visa for India and catch a flight to Mumbai (due to recent changes in Indian visa regulations we are unable to apply for our visa before we get to Dubai).

We will cross India and probably fly out from Chennai to Bangkok. There is no way of getting in and out of Myanmar via its land borders, so we will have to fly over it. We will ride through Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, and then take one last flight to northern Australia where we will review our final route to Melbourne.

One of our goals for this journey is to raise funds for SOS Children, which helps orphaned and abandoned children to regain a stable life with a new family in SOS Children’s Villages around the world. SOS Children is also working in Pakistan, providing food and shelter for families affected by the current flood disaster. Please consider sponsoring us by donating to this cause, any amount will help. Click here if you wish to donate >>

We love hearing from you, so if you have any thoughts to share or questions to ask, please send us a message.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Final days to Istanbul

Shortly after leaving Vize, we saw our first touring cyclists since we left the Danube. They were two young Swiss guys who were cycling about 50km apart from each other as they had had a barney in Istanbul and decided to split up. They were on their way to Romania, so we were able to give them some route advice.

Mid morning, we pulled into a small village to have a short break. Outside of the villages there was not much shade to rest in, so we found a quiet, shaded corner in the village to drink something cold and have some snacks. We made sure we were a bit tucked away, as we felt guilty eating and drinking in front of people during Ramadan. However, after a few minutes a small crowd had gathered around us, and one of the ladies who lived next door invited Freddie into her little garden to pick some tomatoes and peppers for us. The local English speaker was found, a young man who had just finished university, and he showed us around the village and its market before we said goodbye and cycled on.

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For lunch, we really wanted a quiet spot so that we could eat without having a guilt trip while everyone else was fighting the heat of the day without eating or drinking. We found what we thought was the perfect spot, a shaded area under a tree in a field. As soon as we had pulled the bikes in, we heard a dog barking and some cow bells tingling, and sure enough a cowherd came through the trees and made his way towards us. We shook hands and he offered us a cigarette (which we declined), before leaving again. Once we had sat down to have our lunch, he came back with another cowherd. They sat down with us in the shade. We offered them some food, but of course they were fasting and could not accept. Feeling guilty as hell we ate lunch in front of them, but they didn’t seem to mind at all. We could only communicate with the few Turkish words we had learned so far, and the Point It book didn’t help us out either as the cowherds’ eye sight was not very good. They were very friendly chaps, and even though they looked very poor, they still offered us anything they had, which in this case was a cigarette and some freshly picked hazelnuts.

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Shortly afterwards, we were cycling up a hill. Guy was in front, as he came to the crest of the hill, head down and concentrating on the climb ahead of him, he could see two feet coming into focus. In front was a swinging bag, squeezed in at the bottom was that unmistakeable oval shape, yep, another dreaded water melon. But not just any watermelon, an 8kg beast. The giver turned out to be a lovely university professor from Istanbul who had seen us struggling in the heat and decided to give us a melon and some bread.

Sportingly Guy strapped it on the back of his bike through gritted teeth and was thoroughly knackered a few km further on, when he had to stop by the side of the road to have a quick break. A nearby honey seller spotted us and offered for us to have a nap on some rugs and pillows that he had laid out under a tree, but we had to decline as time was getting on. We felt the conversation between him and his friends probably involved the words “tourists” and “not so bright”.

We knew that there would not be any bigger towns now until Istanbul, and therefore we would have to wild camp. Normally we don’t mind too much, but in the current heat wave, camping without access to water is not the most enjoyable experience. As it was getting late, we pulled up in a village to see if there were any opportunities to camp. We had a tea in the local tea house and got chatting to a guy who spoke English. We asked about camping and were told that we could camp anywhere in the forest area around the village, or maybe on the local basketball court. The village seemed to have water with special properties, as there was a huge queue of flashy cars waiting to fill up big water bottles at the village tap. Apparently people come from Istanbul to get water in the village, as it is good for the stomach. We elected to buy some water as we did not want to queue, and just as we were leaving, the English speaking guy asked us what our plan was and offered for us to camp in his garden. We were not shy to accept and followed him through the village to his house.

Erzoy was an aircraft technician for Turkish Airlines, and had a nice house on the edge of the village with a beautiful lawn to camp on. We set up camp, and soon enough a table and some chairs came out, with a plate of watermelon. Local town folk appeared at the gate to get a glimpse of the funny looking cyclists. Apparently it was the first time an Australian had graced the village, so they now think all Aussies look like Guy. Sorry about that.

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Just as we got ready to cook dinner, we were presented with a plate of stuffed peppers and roasted tomatoes. Then the neighbour donated some baklava and more watermelon to us. After dinner, we noticed our host firing up a large samovar in the garden, which was blowing lots of smoke and had flames coming out of it. It was quite a spectacle! We were invited for tea, and soon the neighbours joined, along with more friends and family until there were about a dozen of us. We had a fun evening and went to bed around midnight.

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The next morning, we were in a tricky situation. Our host had not mentioned anything about a bathroom, but we knew there was one in the local mosque, which was about 500m away. Considering Guy´s rather immediate morning bowel rumbles this felt as close as Mecca. As soon as we got up, we jumped on the bikes and powered it towards the mosque. Some of the villagers were already up and looked at us in disbelief as we raced through the quiet streets. Chickens dashed for the road side as we came round the final bend. Almost jumping off before he had come to a stop Guy headed straight for the throne, hoping he would not be bailed up by the local Imam. We've never run to a building of religious significance so quickly, we are sure the village folk think all Australians are the most devout Muslims.

We left early to cycle towards the Bosporus. We were unsure how busy the traffic would be, but for the most part it was absolutely fine. There was just one area where they were building a motorway in parallel to the road we were on, which meant that dozens of trucks thundered past us to access the roadworks. It was not very pleasant, but the truck drivers gave us enough space and we kept our cool. An invitation for tea by a shopkeeper also helped keep us going.

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For most of the day, we cycled in a densely forested area with rolling hills, which felt like it would never end. It certainly didn’t feel as if we were on the doorstep of the fifth largest city in the world, with its 13 million inhabitants. As we struggled up a hill in the afternoon heat, we were saying how we sometimes wished that somebody would stop and offer us an ice cream or a cold drink. A few minutes later, we saw a guy waving to us from the other side of the road with some ice cold water. We pulled over and he poured us some water into a little plastic cup. We had no words in common, but this simple act of kindness certainly lifted our spirits.

A little later we turned a corner, and suddenly the Bosporus stretched out in front of us. It was magical. We were quite high up in the hills and could see the ships passing through the Bosporus on their way from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, Asia on the other shore, and the suburb of Sarayer directly below us. Overcome with joy, we stopped right there for a drink, at a little outdoor cafe with an amazing view over the Bosporus. We also commented on a little grass area to the side of the cafe, saying how perfect it would be for camping.

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Soon, the cafe owner came over for a chat. He spoke very good German, had lived in Germany for a long time and loved everything about it. We asked him about hotels in the area, but he said there was only one, which was a luxury hotel way out of our budget. “But,” he said to Freddie, “why don’t you just sleep here? You could stay on that grass patch over there. You are German, so you are like my neighbour. Please be my guests.” Bingo! Again, we were quick to accept his offer and soon pitched our tents, stopping frequently to admire the views. Murat also invited us to eat with him and his family for the Ifta meal, which is eaten soon after sunset to break the fast. He even let us use his private shower. We then chatted with him, his brother and his wife until late at night, looking out over the twinkling lights of Istanbul.

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Our plan was to get up before sunrise and cycle the last 30km into central Istanbul before the rush hour. We were expecting a pretty horrific ride with a lot of traffic. We were up and left as it was still dark, and there was no traffic at all, just a few stray dogs barking at us. Cycling on a small road right next to the Bosporus, we watched the sunrise and the local fishermen who were already up.

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We cycled through the prosperous northern suburbs of Istanbul, past many tempting sidewalk cafes and along an inviting seaside promenade. By 7am the traffic started getting a little busier, but drivers were respectful and we really enjoyed the beautiful ride into the city. When we arrived at the Galata Bridge, it was time to celebrate. We got a fisherman to take a picture of us, and bought some pastries. We then spent about 3 hours just sitting in a cafe and soaking up the atmosphere, before we crossed the bridge and found our hotel.

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Our plan is to stay here for 12 days, before we continue cycling East. We have a few groups of friends visiting, as well as Freddie’s dad, so we have a sociable time ahead. Di is flying back home to the UK next week. We have cycled together since Budapest and have gotten along really well. It will be weird when she is gone and her little tent is not pitched up next to ours anymore.

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Saturday, 21 August 2010

Cycling into Istanbul on the D020

Just thought we would write a quick blog about our experiences for anyone intending to cycle into Istanbul from the west. We have read frequent accounts of bad experiences and many cyclists vowing never to do it again. Our experience was very positive and was actually a very memorable journey that we would be happy to do again.||

We wanted to cycle into Istanbul but we are not risk takers so we researched the quietest route possible even if it meant adding a few extra days onto our journey. For us the D100 was not an option as we are not brave enough to take on multi lane motorways. So we took the D020 instead.

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Coming from Bulgaria we crossed over the river at Lyubimets and onto the E85 which we stayed on for about 15km until we hit the Bulgaria - Greece border. The road was moderately busy but it was no problem as there is a narrow hard shoulder to cycle on. The border control out and in was very quick so we were soon into Greece. Once in Greece the road turned into a dual lane highway but the hard shoulder widened to over a meter and there was very little on traffic on the road. The towns marked on our map were well off the road so we ended up running low on water until we found a service station some 20km in from the border. Stay on the E85 until you see the turn off for Turkey. From the turn off it’s only another 3km or so until you reach the Greece – Turkey border. The small Greek town of Kastanies just before the border is a lovely place to devour a few Greek specialties, the friendly locals stuffed our bikes with bananas!

The Greece - Turkey border is also very quiet, as there is a weight limit so that lorries can’t cross at this border. We had to queue for 15 minutes to get our entry stamps, then we were off again and into Turkey.  The first major town you come to in Turkey is Edirne. A lovely place in which we happily spent 3 days wandering around the colourful streets and admiring the stunning mosques. Not many tourists make it to Edirne so there almost no touting.

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Leaving Edirne we followed the D100 east for about 10km until the fork intersection with the D020 that heads due east. The D100 was busy so we were very thankful for the small hard shoulder we had.

Once on the D020 we felt immediately comfortable. It’s a single lane coarse tarmac road through rural farm land. There is no hard shoulder but it’s not necessary as they is little traffic and the traffic that does pass we found to be very courteous. According to a local, drivers are used to cyclists on this road.

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On our first night we stayed in a hotel at Kirklareli. The next day we cycled to Vize and stayed another night in a hotel. The road conditions stayed pretty much the same, the terrain is consistently undulating, with no big climbs but we struck extremely hot weather and a headwind, so the going was tough at times.

After Vize we continued to a small village called Akalan where we were put up by some friendly locals who allowed us to camp in their garden. The area is very forested with plenty of wild camping opportunities too. There are also hotels in Saray and Subaşi.

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The next day we continued along the D020 which theoretically becomes the D010 but the road signs never really indicated this. On this day we encountered some heavy traffic just after the village of Örcünlü as they seem to be building a new motorway which at times runs parallel to the D020. As a result there were lots of top end loader quarry trucks transporting gravel back and forth. We felt a little squeezed in but the drivers gave us a gentle toot to let us know they were passing.

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This continued for another 50km until the town of Kemerburgaz where we turned off into a lovely forest road that takes you all the way to the town of Sarayer on the Bosporus.

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We ended up free camping in a small village just before the town as accommodation options are very limited. Apparently there is only one hotel nearby, and it is very expensive.

The next day we cycled off at 5:30am, just before sunrise and joined the promenade road that runs right along the Bosporus and into Istanbul. Expecting a ferocious motorway it turned out to be a lovely single lane road weaving through small villages, suburbs and marinas. With the sun rising over Asia on the other side of the Bosporus, this was one of the most memorable and enjoyable rides we have ever done.

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A truly fantastic way of arriving in Istanbul. The road does become dual lane as you get right in the heart of Istanbul, but the traffic was fairly slow moving and nothing worse than a regular city road at rush hour. This was only for the last 3km or so before the Galata Bridge. The rush hour started around 7am, so if we had started half and hour earlier we may have avoided this.

The link below is a gpx file of the route that you can upload to any GPS device. The total distance from Lyubimets to the center of Istanbul is 370km.

Download Istanbul GPX file

The route profile is shown below:

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We would be interested to hear from anyone who has since done this route as to their experiences and in particular the state of the roads between Örcünlü and Kemerburgaz. It looks to us as if the new motorway will run alongside the D020, which may result in even less traffic on that road.

Please contact us if you would like any more information about cycling into Istanbul, we hope you have the same enjoyable experience that we had. Our blog here goes into a little more detail of our experiences along the way.

Happy and safe riding.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

4000km photo

Snapped this photo coming out of Edirne, Turkey clocking up our 4,000th km. Really hot day, you can see the joy on our faces! It was not long after this we were given a nice juicy watermelon.

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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Our first day cycling in Turkey

Posted a few days later due to lack of internet access. We have made it into Istanbul this morning – more on that later.

Wow. Our first day cycling in Turkey has been amazing. After spending 4 nights in Edirne to allow Freddie to recover from her tummy bug, we finally hit the road yesterday. Edirne is a lovely town with a very European feel and some interesting mosques, but the hotels are expensive and after a few days we had kind of exhausted its entertainment options.||

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Many cyclists take the infamous D100 into Istanbul, which is quite a major road with up to 10 lanes of traffic. It is certainly direct and probably much flatter than our route, but we are not keen on the traffic and have a few days to kill, so we are trying out a more northern route following the D020 all the way to the Bosporus and the end of Europe, and then turning south into Istanbul, reserving the option to jump on a downtown ferry if the traffic gets too mad.

Coming out of Edirne, the road quickly gets quite hilly, with constant ups and downs. We have also been battling with a maddening headwind, which slows us down considerably. Talking to some locals we found out that there is currently a heat wave in Turkey, which is resulting in the hottest summer for 60 years. Normally, temperatures are in the high 20s, but this summer they are in the high 30s (in the shade) every day. It’s quite relentless, with the roads actually melting. By lunchtime the tarmac is so soft and sticky that even our bike tyres are leaving marks in it, and it sounds like the cars are driving over water.

We haven’t had any punctures so far and were almost ready to celebrate our puncture free trip to Istanbul, when the air hissed out of Guy’s rear tyre yesterday at noon, just as we had clocked up 4,000km since London. There was no shade anywhere, so we had to stop by the side of the road to change the inner tube. Meanwhile we watched the mercury on Guy’s bike computer climb up to 47°C, the highest temperature we have recorded so far.

This is where the day turned into something really amazing, and the Turks proved to us what a great people they are. First of all, a young, smartly dressed guy in a car actually turned around and stopped near where we were fixing the puncture. He asked if we needed help, and even though we said we were fine, he got out of his air conditioned car and stood in the extreme heat with us, trying to communicate in Turkish, holding the bike while Guy was fixing the puncture, and helping us put the panniers back on.

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Di had cycled ahead to a small village where she was waiting in the shade. She had started chatting to a retired guy who spoke German, and when we arrived he bought us a watermelon from a nearby farmer. We felt a little self conscious, as it’s Ramadan and most people in the village were actually fasting. We really admire the strength of willpower of the Muslims who manage to fast in this sweltering heat, with long days of not being able to eat or, even worse, even drink a sip of water. Nevertheless, the man gave us watermelon to eat while he was fasting, and of course it would have been rude to refuse. We had a nice chat before we moved on.

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A little while later we pulled over into a small shady patch by the side of the road, on the other side of a little ditch. Just as we pulled in, a passing farmer stopped his tractor and we thought we were in trouble for intruding on his field. He came over and placed another watermelon, as well as some tomatoes and cucumbers on the ground in front of us, before getting back in his tractor, waving and driving off. Our lunch was much enhanced by his gifts, although we could not stomach any more watermelon quite yet. After a few more locals who stopped by on their motorbikes or in their tractors for a chat, another car pulled up and two smartly dressed men got out. They jumped across the ditch and gave us some plums. One of them spoke very good German, and we found out that the other guy was a journalist for a local newspaper and wanted to interview us. We then spent about half an hour chatting about our trip, with the German speaking guy translating, followed by a little photo shoot where we made fools of ourselves holding up the watermelon the farmer had given us.

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They were fun guys, and before they left, Erol, the German speaker, told us that he worked at the Shell service station in Kirklareli, the town we were planning to spend the night in. He offered to invite us for a drink and help us find a hotel. As they were leaving, the journalist started rummaging around in his car and picking up everything he could find to give to us, which included peanuts, chewing gum, a small bottle of perfume and some babywipes. He then pulled out his own bottle of aftershave and proceeded to spray some on Guy’s shirt before slapping him on the back and jumping in the car, laughing. It seems our daily showers aren’t really cutting it in this heat!

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We strapped the watermelon on Guy’s bike with the best intentions, but after another 10km or so of hills and headwind, we gave up, as it was just too heavy. We decided to give the watermelon to a group of locals sitting on a shaded table in the centre of a village. Guy just went over to them and plonked the watermelon down on the table, to much confusion. One of the guys spoke German, so Freddie went over to explain. They actually thought we wanted them to cut the watermelon for them, and when we said it was a gift for them, they laughed and invited us for some lemonade. They were lovely people, eager to help us in any way they could, be it with food or drinks, directions or route advice.

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Time was getting on, and we were running late for our date at Shell service station. We pushed on through the headwind, and arrived in Kirklareli thoroughly knackered. Erol was not at the service station, but his colleagues immediately called him and gave us some cold drinks for free. When Erol pulled up in his car, together with his brother-in-law, he told us that his boss at the service station used to own a hotel in town, and had called the hotel to negotiate a special price for us, taking two thirds off the original price.

Erol took us straight to the hotel so we could shower and sort ourselves out, and he promised to meet us again an hour later. He showed up with his brother-in-law, Tavruk, and we went for a walk through the town and the local park, which was absolutely packed with people enjoying the slightly cooler evening air (it was still 30°C at 11pm…). They took us out for drinks and tea, and we met their sons, who were also in the park. Erol worked in Germany in the late 70s and early 80s, so his German was very good and we were able to talk a lot. After buying us ice cream and refusing any offer of us paying for anything, they took us back to the hotel, and we promised to pop by the service station in the morning to say goodbye.

All of us unfortunately spent a rather sleepless night, as it was just too hot to sleep. We had the windows open, and just as we had fallen asleep, the drummers came through. Ahh yes, the drumming, one of the less enjoyable aspects of Ramadan: Every town had a designated drummer (sometimes with a support band), and his job is to walk through the town at 3am beating his drums and making sure that everyone in town wakes up in time to have breakfast before the sun comes up. Nice chap. Unfortunately it also wakes up the travellers every night, but at least we don’t have to get up and have breakfast at 3am…

We got up early and left at 7am to try and beat the heat. Erol was not at the service station, so we said goodbye to his colleagues and left. As we rode out of town, we saw a motorbike ahead of us, stopped by the side of the road. Coming closer, we saw it was Erol who had come out to say goodbye. We were humbled by all that he had done for us, making our time in Kirklareli very special.

Today we headed further East, into the same strong headwind, and we only managed 58km before we arrived in Vize at lunchtime and called it a day. After the previous sleepless night we were desperate for air conditioning. Unfortunately the man at the only hotel with air conditioning knew his market well and quoted us quite an inflated price. We managed to reduce it a little by negotiating, but we still feel we are paying over the odds due to the lack of competition in town, although it is a nice hotel.

Generally we have found Turkish hotels to be very expensive, double the price we would have paid in Romania or Bulgaria. Kebab shops are good value, but restaurants are not much cheaper than in London. Some of them don’t have a menu, and so we sometimes feel they are lumping on the “tourist tax”. Slowly we are learning how much to pay for things, but there is still a learning curve ahead of us. Just as the Turks are the most generous, kind people in their private lives, they are also looking for maximum gain when they have their business hats on, and we need to learn to play along with their long tradition of bartering.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Baffled in Bulgaria

A shake of the head is yes, a nod is no, the same salad has three different names, small towns are virtually empty, Bulgaria has been rather baffling.

Approaching from the Romanian side we finally had a taste of the “real Romania”. The last 5kms was on a rough road that shook you to the core. Just before the border control we were given a hearty goodbye by some of the local canine members. True to our experience there was a local nearby the intervened and gave them their marching orders.||

On the side of the road was an old Industry which from first glance seemed abandoned but we soon noticed a toxic yellow gas bellowing out from one of the old decrepit chimneys.

Checking out of Romania we handed our passports to the officer. He took one glance, looked up and said with an authoritative voice, “there is a little problem” Instantly our guts feel to our knees. Damn, we can’t get through, were we not checked in properly?

“The ferry does not leave until 6pm” said the border guard.

He must have been surprised to see our faces as we broke into grinning smiles from ear to ear. This equated to a 6 hour wait, but to be going through was all we cared about. We soon made ourselves at home next to the sterilisation pit, watching frogs watching us with beady eyes in the bright green coloured water.

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No sooner had we settled than the ticket lady whom we purchased the tickets from announced we would be going on the unscheduled 3pm truck ferry and proceeded to celebrate the news with us with a round of high fives. We sensed she had gone out of her way to get us on the earlier ferry.

Waiting for the final truck to pull into position on the ferry we moved in. Tantalising close to the draw bridge we acknowledged the skipper for entry. He took one look at us and waved his index finger in a rather negative gesture. Clearly we weren’t going anywhere. A moment later we saw a cheeky smile emerge as he motioned us onboard.

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The first thing we noticed onshore in Bulgaria was how deserted the town was. At the time we put it down to the border town blues that we had experienced many times before, but we later noticed that most villages and small towns seem quite deserted, with many abandoned, window-less apartment blocks on their outskirts. With daylight fading we were keen to get out of town and into the country side to find a wild camp for the night. The country side was lush and hilly, the road smooth and we had the new country excitement spurring us on.

It was only a few km cycling alongside the Danube before we finally parted company after travelling some 2,300km together. We headed south into Bulgaria off the official Danube cycle route, whilst the Danube continued another 500km to melt into the Black Sea. It was sad to say goodbye, we never really thought we would have such strong feelings for a river!

We soon noticed that most villages had a well maintained water fountain so we embarked on filling up at the last village before a promising wooded area to camp for the night. The towns folk initially seemed reserved but obviously curious about these odd looking foreigners as all kinds of excuses were conjured up to suddenly visit the water fountain. It was a little awkward as our smiles were returned with blank stares and the outgoing bubbliness of the Romanians seemed a million miles away.

A few kilometers after the next village a car pulled up beside us and asked if we spoke German. The lady heard from one of the village folk that there were some strangers passing through and taking the chance that at least one was German, hunted us down to offer us some Bulgarian coffee. Vili herself lived in Germany but had come back home to visit her parents.

We were a little hesitant as it was getting late and we needed to find a camp spot, but she dispersed our worries and convinced us to come back to the house. The house itself was quite unassuming, a slightly crumbling concrete affair, but the garden was amazing. There were separate sections for fruit trees, a vegetable garden, vines which provides enough grapes for over 400 bottles of wine a year, and a large area for the chickens.

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Plucking fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions and parsley from the garden and adding a little feta and olive oil, our host prepared a Chopski salad for us, which was served with meat balls and bread, and, importantly, home brewed schnapps to wash it down with. We also indulged in some birthday cake, which was left over from one of the children turning 8, as well as coffee.

Finally it was time to raise the question of a place to sleep again, and Vili asked her mum if we could set up our tents in her garden. Alarmed, we watched as her mum shook her head vigorously while responding in Bulgarian. “It’s ok, you can stay”, Vili said. Oh, right, a head shake means “da” - yes…

We set up camp under the plum trees, right next to the chicken house, with the help of Vili’s little niece and a very cute kitten, who unfortunately proceeded to jump on our tent repeatedly, digging in her little claws in the expensive and delicate fabric as she climbed up to the top.

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That night, we did not sleep much. The excitement of the day and the effect of the coffee took a while to wear off, and when we heard steps and talking close by, paranoia set in as we imagined curious villagers coming to inspect our tent.

Leaving early the next day we pulled up shortly after the village to have breakfast in a field as shepherds wandered passed us with herds of goats curiously eying our presence.

After the lack of sleep we were all down on energy and the roads felt like sand and our legs as heavy as lead. The heat was also taking its toll so when we pulled into Veliko Tarnovo 90km later, we were wrecked. Unable to find our desired hostel at the other end of the hilly, historic town, we stumbled across Nomads Hostel. As soon as we arrived we were ushered in for tea, our bags taken to our room and our bikes stored safely away. Among the hostel staff were Giorgi and his girlfriend Katja, who also have ambitions of cycle touring across Europe and beyond so the conversation soon fell to bike talk. That night Giorgi cooked a traditional Bulgarian hot pot of vegetables and layers of cheese and eggs, which we were invited to share. Bulgarian cuisine has really impressed us, with its abundance of fresh local salads, as well as some Greek and Turkish influences.

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Perched up on a hill the hostel offered lovely views of the valley below and with international travellers coming and going it was a very lively place. We soon felt at home and stayed 3 nights, which could have easily been more.

Leaving such a friendly welcoming place is always hard, but this time it was especially difficult as we knew we had the Bulgarian mountain range, the Stara Planina, to cross and we knew it would be around 40 degrees with questionable roads. We spent the night in Elena, a town just before our big climb up to over 1,000 m height. Luckily, the next morning we had overcast weather and a temperature of only 20C, the coldest it had been for weeks. All was going swimmingly well, until the tarmac cracked, then further deteriated into little islands of tarmac, then finally flat out gravel roads. This made the final 20km and 400 vertical metres hard going, and we sometimes had to push the bikes as the road was unrideable.

A recent conversation about Bulgarian bears living in this area did nothing for our anxiety as we passed through the more remote stretches. The very occasional van or truck that passed was normally filled with gypsies seemingly out foraging in the forest. Near the summit we came across some dodgy looking woodcutters that were chopping down the old hard woods right on the road banks. They gave us some unfriendly stares whilst swinging their axes, and we made sure to speed up a little and leave them behind as soon as possible.

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Just over the summit at 1,060m height the unexpected happened: we hit tarmac, smooth, uninterrupted tarmac, the real McCoy. We had visions of a slow bone shaking downhill but instead the 12km down hill was pure delight.

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That night we treated ourselves to a hotel in Nova Zagora to celebrate the big climb. From then on, the Bulgarian countryside was still hilly and pretty, but there were no more major climbs. Outside the village of Glaven, we came across an irresistible wild camp spot, with great views of the valley below and well tucked away from the main road.

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The following day we cycled our final 50km through relatively flat terrain but always interesting landscape. In one small village we turned the corner to be greeted by an ultra modern looking complex, very out of place with the surrounding village homes. Coming up the hill a voice called out to us with a thick Somerset accent, “Are you lost?”. It turned out to be an Englishman who spends half his time in New Zealand and the other in Bulgaria. We never really worked out why he lived in such a remote village. He explained to us that the complex we noticed was a 15m Euro EU funded project to build nothing less than a winery. To hell with the potholed roads, the crumbling schools, the many village homes with no canalisation, more wineries seems to be what Bulgarians are crying out for.

We have found Bulgaria to be the prettiest country so far in terms of the countryside, very reasonably priced and with great food. The villages have been fairly ugly and depressing, and the people not as openly friendly as in Serbia and Romania, but always there to help when we needed it. The roads were much worse than the roads we cycled on in Romania (the road on the photo is an extreme example).

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The end of Bulgaria spells the start of Turkey, our final destination for phase one of our trip. We were super excited to be so close to the border but first we had a quick 30km dash through northern Greece to get to the quieter Greece-Turkey border, as the Bulgaria-Turkey border near Edirne is apparently one of the busiest border crossings in Europe, with long queues of trucks to negotiate. We recorded our hottest temperature on the highway in Greece, the mercury pushing 43 degrees Celsius. We were close to running out of water as the villages marked on the map ended up being inconvenient deviations. A fuel station materialised like an oasis, and we blew half our daily budget on water and ice-cream, a reminder of the higher cost of living in the West.

With less than 2km to go we asked for directions to the border.

“Not far, a left and a right, you’re almost there” advised a local farmer.

With only 1km to go we turned the corner to be faced with a steadily flowing river, cascading over the road that led us to the other side. Only the odd car was braving it. Before we could come up with a plan a young Greek man greeted us and said one thing to us.

“Before you leave Greece you must at least have a Greek coffee.”

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And with that we were ushered to a table whilst he served us some truly delicious coffee and gave us a brief run down of some of the “must sees” next time we are in Greece. He said that we could free camp anywhere we liked on the picnic area, and with an offer of a free camp next to a river with sandy beaches we knew Turkey would have to wait one more day.

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The camp site was not as clean as it could have been. The area was so beautiful but people still abused it dropping litter all around, the odd lump of horse shit dotted the camping area and frogs hoped around in the shower basin. The only way to flush the loo was with a garden hose attached to one of the sinks. 

We had run out of food so we had to eat at the snack wagon. The guys running it were very nice and the first night gave us a hearty assortment of meats and salad, as well as free schnapps, pancakes and watermelon. The next day we ate there again but this time without the complimentary shot of schnapps. Bad move, a few hours later Freddie was on the big white telephone and spent a rough night running out of the tent every half hour or so. Stoically she pushed on the next day and made it through the border to Turkey. We actually ended up backtracking a little to avoid the river crossing and take a bridge instead.

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We cycled just 20km to get to Edirne, where we are taking a couple of days off to recover and prepare for our final push into Istanbul. With the mosques and lively markets it is exciting to be a the doorstep of Asia. Our plan is to reach Istanbul via a longer, quieter and more hilly route near the Black Sea coast, avoiding the busy highways in the south. Once there, we will evaluate our next move, but one things for sure, there’s still a hell of a lot of cycling to be done.