London to Asia

In 2014, after two years of living in London, I realised I had to get out and get a taste of adventure. I record my journey here. All these blogs were first published in spring 2014.

The Headbanging Holy Man and the Turkish Brothel

A dolphin from the Turkish coast

Turkey has rivaled Serbia in its friendliness and welcome.  Many times when I was cycling with Robin we were beckoned into a house or petrol station for tea or food.  One man stopped his car to chat and later bought us lunch in a local restaurant.

Ahmet was our first host in Turkey and it was in his flat that I first noticed the call to prayer which rings out all across Turkey.  Ahmet is a practicing Muslim and prays 5 times a day and although he says he only does the minimum required I’m impressed by his devotion.  Several times when he was showing us his city, Edirne, he would hop into a mosque to say prayers before the tour continued.   The mosques are the most impressive sights and it was in the Selimiye Mosque, watching Ahmet and the others pray and listening to the imam sing his beautiful song that I felt my most peaceful moment on this tour.  It was a strange contrast when Ahmet then took us to the basement of a tower block and led us to a back room to experience his other act of worship.  A large flat screen was surrounded by plastic guitars and drums and a games console with Guitar Hero 5 lay on the floor.  Robin and I were on the guitars and Ahmet fronted the band with the energy and intensity of a rock star, head banging and screaming along to Rammstein.

Strange tan lines

Strange tan lines

Ahmet was one of the profoundly generous people I’ve met on this journey.  He is a 6th year medical student and had to be at hospital from 8:30 am til 1 pm both days we were there.  We had arrived in the evening with no Turkish money and Ahmet took us around town, fed us lambs intestines and took us home at 2 am.  We woke at 11 the next morning.  The table had been laid and two parcels waited for us with a note.  He had crept out and bought us breakfast before leaving for work.

After Edirne we stayed in Luleburgaz with another generous Turkish host and watched football with cold beers in his beautiful apartment.

leg

A bit of leg for the ladies

Robin and I separated at Corlu as I planned to follow the NFL all night in a cheap hotel.  I popped out to the local pub for a quick drink and found myself in a dark bar with music blaring out.  I settled down in a corner and started writing my diary.  A lady started drinking next to me and occasionally stroked my beard.  She spoke no English so I tried to gesture that I was only here for beer.  When I came to pay the bill I found I had been charged for my companion.  After 15 minutes of questioning the bill I found myself surrounded by 3 women and a handful of young men, one of whom spoke broken English.  I explained several times that I did not wish to acquire the services of anyone and would only pay for the beers.  After a while they tired and accepted 15 lira for the two beers I drank.  Since then I have been put off bars in Turkey and have stuck to tea shops.

The Coffin

Leaving a job take some time.  The morning after my last day at work, my mind clicks back to preparing for clients.  I’m thinking of things I forgot to say and do and even compose an email to my (now ex) boss from my bed.  My top tip for leaving work is to shred your to do list, whether finished or not.  The uncompromising teeth of the shredder have no discernment.  They gobble down my unfinished to do list at the same rate as every other document, and all of a sudden I have cut ties with all I have been doing.  Destroying the hook that pulls the load, unshackling me from my work.  But like the stretched leather and worn in grooves of a saddle, so the effects of work don’t just disappear.  It takes time and the use of oneself for other purposes to reshape and remold a person for a new way of being.

And now, five days away from D-Day (departure day) I’m starting to fret about things. Rabies, for example, from untamed Bulgarian dogs or that I’ve still never cycled 60 miles in a day and the super light-weight tent I bought resembles a coffin.  I’m hoping to spend as little time in the coffin as possible and plan to use the brilliant website www.couchsurfing.org to arrange my accommodation.  I have already planned my first stay in Chelmsford with a stranger who seems lovely and has kindly agreed to let me sleep on a floor.  Its now time to start asking strangers in Holland and Germany to host me.

I have also decided to add some philanthropy to my otherwise self indulgent adventure and will be raising money for a great charity called Bethany Village Leprosy Society (BVLS).  BVLS works to provide jobs through social enterprise to those living with the effects of leprosy in India.  I have been to Bethany village and seen the vibrant community created with the support of BVLS.  If you would like to support me you can donate at uk.virginmoneygiving.com/wareami.

One Sheriff Three Punctures

Bulgaria is also a dangerous place to stop if you want to get anywhere fast.  We stopped to buy a loaf of bread in a Bulgarian village and before we know it we are sitting down with the sheriff and a lady I assumed was his wife, chatting over coffee and chocolate.  The chat was fairly dysfunctional as they chatted in Bulgarian and we in English but with the aid of a map and some fabulous charades on my part I think we understood each other.  I did ask ask whether the role of sheriff was to catch bad guys and the lady laughed and gestured it was more about cutting ribbons.

I'm looking forward to shaving this off

I’m looking forward to shaving this off

The we I speak of is Robin and I.  I decided to follow Robin as he seems to know where he’s going.  We managed to ride 162.34 km on leaving Sofia which is significant because it is a fraction over 100 miles.  The next day we managed half that as I had a burst tube and two slow punctures throughout the day.  After 43 days with no punctures I get three in one day.  The repairs were carried out with the aid of a stream and we were able to find a nice camping spot in a petrol station.

Again Bulgaria has been a friendly place with an unexpected level of generosity.

 

Serbian Generosity Knows No Bounds

I am now in Sofia and our troop of riders will be splitting up today.  The 5 days of cycling together have been wonderful. We have wild camped three nights, been hosted spectacularly for one night and now have a hostel in Sofia.

Spot the Englishman

Spot the Englishman

On the second day we rode as a group I managed to loose my handlebar bag which is possibly the worst thing that could happen.  It contains my wallet, phone, ipad, insurance details, Turkish visa, keys and passport.  I searched in a frenzy and realised I must have left it sitting on the street in a town 4 miles back.  My fellow riders kindly waited and watched my panniers as I raced back wondering what on earth I would do with nothing but the clothes on my back and a tent.  I arrived and found my little red bag untouched, sitting where I had left it 40 minutes ago, nestled on the pavement.

Too much Schnapps

Too much Schnapps

It is this kind of thing that slows down a group of 6 riders.  There are 6 times as many bikes to break and someone is always wanting to stop for wifi or just to sit in the sun.  One day through the Serbian hills we passed a hunting lodge and were beckoned in for schnapps and a brief attempt at communicating through hand waving.  After three shots we hit the road again and after a couple of miles were accosted by a farmer with more schnapps and wine.  Three shots later and we continued.  No more than a mile on the road and a family gave us bread, 8 fresh eggs, apples and water.  They even apologised for not having schnapps to give us.  the friendliness and generosity of Serbia has been unrivaled and I was sad to leave.

Mild-Camping as we called it

Mild-Camping as we called it

Sitting now in the hostel in Sofia I am preparing for the loneliness of my onward journey. Istanbul feels close now and I have bitter sweet feelings as the end draws in.

Too Much to Write. Not Enough Time

I arrived in Belgrade and was accosted by a bearded man in lycra who approached me like an old friend and asked if I was Matt.  I had to inform him that I wasn’t but we chatted bike touring.  He was heading to the Philippines.  I left him and headed to my host who declined the opportunity to sing to the new Serbian government in order to host me.  She took me along to her opera lesson which was phenomenal, two opera singers with voices to fill a hall trapped in a tiny practice room.  I left in awe and sad from the melancholy Italian themes.

After Belgrade I was over taken by the same bearded man in lycra that I met before.  Jason is a cockney and managed to pick up a young German going to china and a chap from Leeds heading to Yemen.  I stuck on their wheel and they persuaded me to change my route and head to the mountains, and Sofia.  We wild camped in a park thanks to a local police man.  The next day we passed two Swiss cyclers who joined the convoy and by the end of the day a Serbian student (Aleksa) was directing us to his parents village house in the hills.  We arrived and his father brought out a bottle of Slibovica which is the local face burner.  We finished the first bottle and made headway on a second.  Their generosity was amazing.  They fed us and let us sleep in their lounge.  The 6 of us woke up groggy the next morning and headed for Sofia.  right now we have set up camp for the night and are preparing dinner.

Riding in a group is shockingly different to being alone.  All 6 of us have been alone till Belgrade and riding together requires a change of style for us all.  Aleksa’s brother left us with a beautiful blessing, as the 6 of us rode out he said “I hope you all find what you’re looking for.”  I wonder what my fellow travelers thought of his comments and as we left on our way and I began to wonder what they were looking for.

Picture: From left to right Aleksa, Andrea, Matt, Robin, Jason, Michi, Aleksa’s brother, Aleksa’s dad

Crap Viu?

It was particularly lovely being back with old friends in Siria.  The seven year since we last met felt like seven days and although much has changed at Networks, some things haven’t changed a bit. They have grown from a small 10 person team to nearly 100 paid and voluntary staff working to alleviate the poverty here and build enterprises that can give poor villagers an income.  I spent my last night there with one of the most beautiful men I know.  Nigel, from Sheffield, laughed when he saw the state of my bike and despite a long day of working began to scrape the muck from my gears and clean the dirt from my chain.  He managed to find an unclaimed toothbrush to finish the job and left me with a gleaming bike chain.  He was covered in dirt from my bike whilst I was relatively clean.  I had been hovering round Nigel as he worked trying to do something useful.  He then invited me to his house for food and homemade tuica from vines in his yard.  It was another act of generosity I was unable to repay.

If you want to find out what Networks does you can go to their website here.  This might be a good time to remind you about the charity I am raising money for.  BVLS work with people affected by leprosy in India.  They do wonderful things and work towards sustainable social enterprise at Bethany village.

Leaving Siria I felt a strong sense of not wanting to be where I was, as if my spirit had wandered back to Sheffield and left this body aimlessly cycling the villages of Romania.  It was hot and muggy leaving Siria and my inflamed insect bites were reminding me incessantly of their presence.  Sitting in Timisoara later that evening, writing up the day, I felt my spirit float back to me.  The cool evening air is soothing and I began to notice the people round me returning from work and heading out to enjoy their evening.

After a lovely evening in Timisoara with Carmen, my wonderful host for the night, I had renewed energy as I set out for Serbia.  The extra air Nigel had put in my tires had me zooming along as though I was coasting downhill.  I felt nothing could stop me.  As I neared the Serbian border my google map on the ipad had led me to a road which wasn’t a road and after 50 meters of sliding across mud I gave up.  Clean Serbian roads were less that two miles along this track but I couldn’t even walk the bike without the wheels locking up with mud.  I looked up another route across the border which turned out to be another dead end.  At this point I had to contact my host for the night and say I wouldn’t be able to make it to his house.  I had to cycled 60 km along the Romanian border before I reached a crossing and managed to get to Serbia.  I found a hotel and treated myself to the luxury of a shower and an early night in a bed.  I realise that I’m exhausted with the cycling and socialising and have barely enough time to sleep let alone plan my onward journey.  I’m about to set out for Belgrade well rested and stuffed from the buffet breakfast.

View from Serbian hotel

View from Serbian hotel

Angels and Hailstones

I am now writing from a Romanian village called Siria. I lived here, on a farm, for four months in 2004 as part of a gap year.  It is a farm for homeless young men, part of a larger charity called Networks.  The journey from Budapest crosses the Hungarian plains (also called the Puszta) where there is no hill in sight until you cross the Romanian border, and in the distance the first foothills of the Carpathian mountains are a dusty silhouette on the horizon.  It is at the base of the first of these hills that Siria sits.

The Puszta is renowned for being desolate, windy and flat.  It is also one of the worst cycling experiences I have ever had.  The roads are bad and very straight.  The first day from Budapest was easy riding apart from the hailstorm which stung the bare skin on my legs.  I had a lovely host in Szentes who showed me the sights, and her grandfathers fruit brandy.  By the second day the novelty was long gone.  Turning onto Arad street I could see the road ahead cutting a straight line to the horizon through endless fields. The trees that occasionally lined the road act to remove any doubt of a turn anywhere ahead.  They framed the shimmering tarmac which glimmered like a torch on the horizon.  Add to this a headwind and you have a recipe for mental torture.  As I was in this state the Lord sent the angel Zsigmond to alleviate my pain.  Zsigmond appeared from nowhere and rode alongside me at midday.  We chatted about cycling mostly but he was great company till, after 5 miles, he turned off towards his home and life as a clerk.

Getting to the Romanian border and seeing the hills gave me a new lease of life.  The road I had found led me to an unmanned border crossing and as I ducked under the locked barriers I felt like a fugitive smuggling myself away to foreign lands.  Arriving in Siria was a wonderful relief after 95 miles and reminded me of being here in my youth.  I remember the young man who would not have imagined the adventure he is now on.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

My seat by the Danube in the centre of Budapest.

Heading into Hungary the sense of adventure has leapt up.  This is the first time I notice the wonderfully evocative sound of crickets.  The currency has changed and I feel a rich man with 10,000 Florints in my wallet.  A cheese burger meal costs 500 Florints which is about £1.50, as is a pint by the Danube in the centre of Budapest.

The horrific moment when I realised I would be cycling without maps

The horrific moment when I realised I would be cycling without maps

I am fortunate that my mapping system is excellent.  The ipad I use with Google maps has directed me perfectly to every destination and been wonderfully protected by the kind people at Tech 21 who provided me with an Impactology case.  My ipad has not only survived the bumps and bashes expected of a tour but also been dropped at speed onto the concrete cycle path and survived unscathed.  However when I last tried to download maps for the route ahead I was perturbed to see a message informing me that maps in Hungary are unavailable for download.  Not only has Google let me down but the cycle paths of Hungary are not up to the same standard as their western European relatives.  They tend to end abruptly with nowhere to go and cavernous potholes can catch you unawares.  The Language is also so Foreign to me I have switched modes to lost Englishman abroad and plough through conversations loudly in well enunciated English, a gift acquired from my father.

These pesky signs are all over the country

These pesky signs are all over the country

It is interesting to note that after the anti-nationalist sentiment in Germany, nationalism has ticked up in Austria and Hungary.  The Jobbik party here has 47 seats and 16.7% of the vote.  They have close links to the BNP in England.  They are widely criticised for anti-semitic and racist views.  The press here is largely controlled by the ruling party which is also considered a nationalist and right wing party with a flare for populist policy.  Recently the government introduced a 10% reduction in energy bills with a further 10% planned and even plan to ban energy companies from giving a dividend.  This makes Ed Milliband’s price freeze seem rather lacking ambition.

My Host family in Esztergom were very welcoming and have two very cute children who I have been teaching to count in English.  We also watched the latest Disney film.  I’m now leaving Budapest looking for a cheap hotel or grassy verge for the night.

Austrian Schnapps and Afghan Jam

My Three stops in Austria have been wonderful.  My first night was in Wels where Julia was overflowing with kindness, plying me with endless Austrian schnapps and baking fresh cookies for me to take on the road.  We chatted, over food and alcohol, about many things but noticeably the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. She said “you’ve not done the Camino unless it hurts”, which got me thinking about my pilgrimage and what hurt I’m experiencing.  I left Wels feeling warm with optimism from Julia’s friendly welcome.

Leaving Julia I headed along the Danube almost alone.  It’s a week before all the cycle ferries and guest houses open up and on Sundays everything is closed anyway.  I had no host for Sunday night so I was preparing myself for a night in my tent.  During the day the temperature dropped and grey clouds threatened a downpour, but only managed a few light showers.  There was excitement and foreboding at the prospect of camping, and as I rolled up to a very closed looking bar, the sun quite suddenly shone out through the clouds, which I took as a divine blessing on this little eatery.  I parked up and found the bar open, and I the only customer.  Oddly enough they even had wifi and as I checked my emails I had a message inviting me to stay on a couch just 5 miles away.  I was saved from a cold night on the ground without a roll mat.  Lisa was very kind and we chatted about German guilt and their aversion to nationalism and consequently their support of the EU.  We also touched on the Scottish referendum which I now realise I know little about.

Agnes' Garden with a little Pope in the flower bed

Agnes’ Garden with a little Pope in the flower bed

My next leg of the journey took me to my last Austrian stop, Vienna. I met up with an acclaimed travel writer, Duncan Smith, who gave me the best tour of a city I’ve ever had.  We walked the streets near his house while he pointed out the secret wonders of Vienna.  Particularly memorable was sneaking into an old peoples home which overlooks a particularly significant Jewish cemetery hidden from public view.  We chatted about Austrian politics and Viennese history in between the hidden gems of the city.

My host in Vienna was a remarkable woman who had recently returned from doing peace work in Afghanistan for two years.  We spent two evenings and two mornings chatting and seemed to bypass the awkward small talk.  I particularly enjoyed her chosen Lenten abstinence, she had officially left the church, which in Austria requires forms to be filled and reasons given.  Agnes’ disappointment in Church shows its failure to be relevant.  Her search for a path in life took to her to priests who embodied something radically different to the oppressive structures she sees in the Church.  Priests who gave up the manipulative weapon of guilt and learned not to judge, whether with the homeless of Vienna or in Spanish prisons.  She had also walked the Camino and showed me a wonderful short movie called Plastic Bag which is almost about pilgrimage and wonderfully describes our need for impermanence.  Agnes had a lot of wisdom and endless stories of adventure and I dallied over Afghan jam on the morning of my departure, not wanting to leave

Yellow fields in Austria

Yellow fields in Austria

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Getting My Leg Over in Aschaffenburg

Cycling the Rhine was so easy that I decided to up my game and after Mainz head directly to Wurzburg.  Google maps told me this little leg of the journey was 150 km, and so confident was I that the night before I decided to paint the town red, finishing at 2am with a flaming Sambuca.  Despite this I still managed to be up and out at 8.  I cruised the 45 miles to my lunch stop, Aschaffenburg, in what felt like no time at all.  My average speed was 13 mph thanks to the first noticeable tailwind I’ve had.  I treated myself to a Doner Kebab and 90 minutes of basking in the sun.  The combination of a hefty Kebab and little sleep the night before was at this point taking its toll on my motivation for further cycling but I had already arranged my stay in Wurzburg.

Freya and Arnaud, My hosts in Wurzburg

Freya and Arnaud, My hosts in Wurzburg

It was about 1:30 when I launched my leading leg over my steel steed, ready to embark on the rest of my days travel.  It was this action that triggered shooting pains to course up my leg, becoming a serious cause for concern.  I set off in considerable discomfort, playing out scenarios of lifelong injury and camping immobilized in the wilderness.  As I got into the rhythm of cycling the pain seemed to ease a fraction, but with a drop in the pain came a rise in the incline.  My carefully planned route had followed two river and a coastline in order to avoid hills and only left a small gap between two little rivers, the Rhine and Danube, which could present a problem.  It was this gap I had now entered.  The experience of climbing this mountain reminded me of watching the extended version of the last of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The experience of watching endless scenes of Frodo and Samwise climbing up the barren landscape of Mordor and Mount Doom was much too similar to my grueling hours of very boring climbing, all the while nursing my painfully injured right leg.  By the time I had rolled into Wurzburg I had covered 96 miles , by far my longest day, and climbed in altitude much more than my entire journey thus far.

Passau

Passau

Wurzburg was a pretty hippy place.  I was greeted by a man in boxers shorts who enquired who I was through a little hatch at face height in the front door.  Once I had dropped my bags in their hallway I supped a cup of tea in the kitchen listening to the sounds of the neighborhood.  Someone in a flat across the square was clearly in the early stages of learning the didgeridoo and later an impromptu percussion jam seemed to break out with pots and pans being banged and tapped all across the block.  The walls were full of posters and street art and an atmosphere of veganism and hemp pervaded the old and ramshackle block of flats.

I set off on another long day to Nuremberg where my host was a lovely family of English, American and German nationality.  Lawrence was a true adventurer, moving from the UK to Hungary in 1991 just after the fall of the soviet union.  I had some fabulous chats with him about European politics and his adventures.  Quite by chance a friend of mine was also playing a gig in Nuremberg that night beneath the old castle at a wonderful venue called USG 6.  Lawrence and I went to see The Officer and my friend Drew Worthley play some wonderful songs that made me yearn for home.

On the town hall they show the flooding levels they have had in Passau. In 2013 the water reached to well into the first floor of houses.

On the town hall they show the flooding levels they have had in Passau. In 2013 the water reached to well into the first floor of houses.

After another Long days ride I reached the Danube which would accompany me most of the way to Istanbul and suggested flat and easy riding.  My Host in Regensburg was another German guinea pig owner and this clearly a big part of his life.  He had called one of his pets Nelson Mandela and after writing to inform him he received a signed photo of Nelson.  The guinea pig cage was also covered in pictures of German midfielder Schweinsteiger, whos name resembles Meerschweinchen (guinea pig in German).  The myriad images of Schweinsteiger had all been defaced to resemble a rodent like appearance with whiskers and prominent front teeth.  Phil had also traveled almost everywhere and told countless stories over beer in a traditional Bavarian beer house with waitresses in traditional attire.  This turned into another late night which made the ride to Passau a little more of a challenge.

My Host in Passau had done her own cycling tour of France, staying with many French couch surfers who showed her infectious generosity. She took me out to an all you can eat Chinese which is perfect after a days riding.  She insisted on paying for me despite being a first year student with little money.  Somehow she persuaded me to cycle up a monstrous hill which gave a fabulous view of Passau and the three rivers that meet there.  I have now crossed over into Austria without any sign of a border and I look forward my first Austrian host.