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End Of The Beginning

End of the Beginning

Christopher McCandless
“The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”

Day 37 – 4,546km

I’ve been fascinated by maps for many years. Every time I see one, I’m compelled to gaze ignorantly at the location of places I haven’t heard of and others I dream of visiting. It’s easy to breakdown long ventures into miles completed, countries visited and continents crossed. The statistics, however, barely scratch the surface of the experiences and adventures along the way. I write this having cycled just under 5,000km, visited 8 countries and, I guess, crossed a continent. Although the rest of Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan sit ahead of me, Istanbul is historically the divide between Europe and Asia. In fact, last time I was in this historic city was when I was doing just that, swimming the Hellespont from Europe to Asia with a St Andrews friend. But that seems so irrelevant right now because this is not the end point by any means. In fact, it is but a small, six week old, bitesize mouthful given the scale of what lies ahead.

Alpine Bliss

In his masterful book Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall discusses the physical boundaries that shape the borders of a country. Mountains, rivers, open plains and oceans all impact how each country has come to be. Crossing the Alps a second time, this time from Italy to Slovenia, was an example of how physical borders remain just that, a physical presence that can represent little social changes. Winding my way through the woods having struggled against headwinds and the flat landscapes of Northern Italy, my inner feelings of joy began to surface. I saw the past few days in Italy as a bridge to cross before arriving on the far bank with increasingly interesting landscapes. I was not disappointed.

Gone was the chaos of Fiat 500s, gone were the arrow straight roads but equally gone was some kind people, a glorious coffee culture and the safety net of Western Europe. Slovenia is not an impoverished nation struggling from a post-communist identity crisis in any way, but neither is it an iconic cultural, social and financial hub like UK, France and Italy.

Welcoming me, however, were lush landscapes, rich lakes, steep valleys and a sparkling sunshine. It felt peaceful and calm. A level of simplicity was present within a few hours of being in the country. Aged tractors pootled along the undulating roads, men and women toiled in the fields while cattle roamed around aimlessly. The cars had predominantly rewound in age by about thirty years but remained respectful of a heavy-laden cyclist hauling his load. I felt happy. Happy to be somewhere I had fond memories of from previous visits and happy to be moving into a new landscape.

Beyond the scenery, Slovenia welcomed me with kindness in different guises. Sometimes it was just smiles and waves from locals or civility from motorists but examples like Janja stand out. I wearily stopped for an espresso at a small cafe before getting chatting to the waitress – a sweaty guy and an obnoxiously large bike don’t always blend in. Janja, an amazingly talented handbag designer, thought I was on a great adventure and proceeded to buy me a pizza and several coffees before heading home after her shift. She said her soul believes in the kindness to others, often strangers who need it, are what makes life rewarding and fulfilling. She asked for nothing in return but gave me plenty to ponder for the next few hours, and days, on the bike about how I treat strangers.

Beyond Borders

I was saddened to leave Slovenia for obvious reasons. The country and people had been good to me and I recommend it as a place to visit. I had to transit through Croatia for a few days before reaching Hungary which did nothing to liven my spirits. How a perception of a place can change based on what part of it you happen to visit? Imagine judging England on Somerset versus London or Scotland on the Highlands versus Glasgow. Impossible of course. One can spend months, years even, travelling to small places to see it all so we can but give an opinion on what we have seen. The coastal part of Croatia that I’ve visited before is thriving with young people, boats and parties. It is touristy and fun. The northern part where I found myself in, were a total contrast – bland, unkempt and unloved. It was as though the government wanted to continue to feed people down south and keep this part a bit quieter. Unmemorable towns blending into one another are but a fleeting memory now. I was a little saddened by this because it was a country I feel has a lot going for it. In a sporting sense it has certainly made its mark and the small pitches dotted about combined with their distinctive red and white flag proudly displayed lifted my spirits.

Crossing the Drava river into Hungary was an obvious physical boundary but again represented small cultural alterations. Other than the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I was not that familiar with its history or identity. I was not quite sure what Hungary was and what it still is. Even on a couple of breaks I took for food and water, the warmth I had felt, certainly in Slovenia, had disappeared. Looks of distrust and wariness became the norm. My only prior memory of Hungary, some admittedly quite hazy, was a long weekend in Budapest. This rural, flat, southern part of the country is a different place altogether.

The next couple of days in Hungary did little to raise my enthusiasm for the place. Perhaps unjustifiably, but totally understandably, my perspective was tarnished by unrepresentative factors. Headwinds, bleak weather, long flat days, bike repairs, sodden nights and a broken stove ensured it was a phase that I’m grateful has passed. Often those bad periods are the things we learn from most – they give us the bank of experience that will provide little tips for the future.

I was happy to see the border to Romania. It was the first country on the trip I had never been to before and also the primary reason for my route choice. Transylvania, the mountains, the steep valleys and, of course, transfagarasan. I entered with all the things I was seeking from this adventure: intrigue, ignorance and excitement. I wanted to be fond of the place. I was biased before even getting through passport control.

What lay in wait was a mixture of vile rainstorms, rancid smells of roadkill permeating into my nostrils, unnervingly tight encounters with vehicles, uncomfortable nights and more bike repairs. Everything suggests Romania and I were not a loving pair. And yet…

Peace Offerings

I fell for Romania. The people were consistently kind to me, cheery in their glances and waves and generous in spirit. Several encounters with locals when I was in Lidl, sat in a park or stood next to the road all lifted my morale. There was pride in the colours of their country (blue, yellow, red) from playgrounds, bus stop seats and flags flying from houses. There was a simplicity of life be it selling fruit and veg, working the field on aged Fiat tractors or commuting in iconic Dacias. The thought of Top Gear’s James May and his giddy excitement at the Dacia Sandero was always a pleasant thought interruption. Lorry drivers heading in the opposite direction gave me a friendly poop and a thumbs up. Children waved and smiled as I pootled on by. All of them small gestures, but those were distractions enough.

At the end of that day with the unpleasantness of the thunder, headwinds and rain, there was a moment of utter tranquility that will remain with me. The weather subsided for a period, a gorgeous sunset brought with it an orange glow while in front, a double rainbow shone brightly. I had set off about 12 hours before, was drenched through, totally exhausted but felt at peace with where I was and the journey I was going on. Romania had thrown some tasty weather at me and then offered an open hand with which to welcome me into the rest of the country.

I slowly headed east and the wooded hills of Transylvania awaited. Beautiful natural surroundings are what give me a buzz and this was the place I was most excited about. I knew what was ahead…transfagarasan. It wasn’t just a road; it was the road. The road I had wanted to see for about ten years. I had seen the Top Gear episode, I had seen the pictures and I wanted to test my legs and lungs grinding up those hairpins. I wanted the views, the pictures and the memories.

I woke early with childish excitement about the day ahead and a clear sunrise gave me hope. Transfagarasan was built during the Communist regime in the 1970s and crosses between the highest peaks in the country. Within an hour I was deep into the mist. Passing motorists slowed to give me a thumbs up as I turned the pedals over with 30km and 1,500m of ascent ahead. One hairpin after another. Small checkpoints as visibility remained negligible. I wanted the clear views at the top but halfway up, I convinced myself that I didn’t really care. This ascent in itself was enough.

However, like with the rainbow and sunsets, Romania had another olive branch it wanted to extend my way. After escaping the canopy and entering the open valleys near the top, the clouds parted and everything cleared below. I took pictures with anticipation that this was a temporary blip as the top remained a grey blur. More switchbacks, more grinding on the pedals and then it all opened out. The sun shone and this quite astonishing feat of human engineering wound its way below me like a spaghetti strand illogically sweeping through the valley. The most phenomenal road I have ever seen.

After four hours, I finally hauled my heavy load to the top, indulged in some ‘Bulz’ – a traditional Romanian meal composed of grilling mămăligă and cheese. A treat and a well-deserved treat at the 2,000m summit.

I now just had the nerve-shredding descent to face. Usually flying down big alpine mountains on my carbon bike with its 24mm tyres at 50mph is as great a thrill as I can find. This was an adrenaline rush but not the relaxing kind. The road surfaced declined in quality as the metres dropped and each tarmac botch job would rattle my rear rack. My broken spokes already ensured my rear wheel was not aligned properly and the thought that the thing would collapse beneath me was never far from my mind. I squeezed the brakes and hoped it would be enough to see me around the next corner.

Dizzy after the switchbacks, hazy in body and mind after the physical toil (130km and over 9,000ft of ascent) I wearily took a side road and found a quiet spot to camp next to a corn field. With a broken stove, I was reduced to watching my noodles slowly expand in the tepid water as I gnawed at some stale bread and chocolate but I was happy. Another memorable day.

Romania did not make it easy. It made me earn the views and wide-eyed delight at this road but it was worth it. The temporary pain of working up the mountain, the absurd route detour to get to Transylvania and the wait having seen the road ten years before. It is always worth it!

My legs were weary the next morning but I knew that in 150km I would be in Bucharest with two days’ rest. A friend had kindly come to visit me and the thought of seeing her, a wash and a bed to sleep in was motivation enough to charge along the gradually descending road and collapse into a bar in Bucharest come the afternoon. It was another checkpoint I had highlighted – an arbitrary little objective that adds impetus.

Bucharest provided a sense of calm. I arrived tense, still so focused on the ride and the administration associated with it (wash clothes, charge electronics, fix bike) that I needed to sort that before I could just be. It was important to be able to do that – sit in a café, see the famous monuments, explore the side streets, taste local delicacies – just be a tourist. I was extremely grateful to the generosity of my friend. It was such a selfless decision to see me before I head further away and the flight time/time zones/internet access add to logistical headaches. These acts of kindness and messages of support can and do make a big difference.

Final Push

I had an emotionally unsettled day have parted ways in Bucharest. It was another link in the chain of stability and normality that I was letting go of. More introspection about the life I was leaving behind and the road I have chosen to take dominated my thoughts.

Initially I viewed Bulgaria as a means to an end – a transitory place before I get to Turkey and the real goal of Istanbul. However, as is often the case, my preconceptions were wrong. It appeared a nation proud to be part of the EU, rarely was a Bulgarian flag seen without the blue EU flag next to it. However, it was further removed from previous countries. There was not a Lidl flanking every town and so I was visiting local bakeries, small town shops and fruit sellers on the side of the road. I was moving into the next phase of travel in that regard after I crossed the Danube for the second time.

I planned a route through the trees and over the mountain road, the Pass of the Republic, another unnecessarily hard but rewarding route choice. I found remote camping spots to establish my home, savour the vivid sunsets and rest until morning. Nature, as it often does, provided a much-needed sense of serenity and peacefulness. A transitory few days it may have been before I reached Turkey but equally an unexpected joy.

I knew things would change as I entered Turkey. I was out of mainland Europe in terms of culture, language, religion, currency and physical appearances. No longer would I have constant phone signal and logistics would be harder. I needed that. I’ve loved “being connected” but for a few days I could simplify my life another notch and further remove myself from normality.

I read more, I ate more delicious local food and I was the recipient of more random and unprovoked acts of kindness. Dorothy (my bike) and I have got used to attracting attention when we stop but it also provokes conversation and interaction which, although a chore initially sometimes, is always something I’m grateful I engage with.

And then there was cycling into Istanbul.

I had read about this. I had spoken to friends who had cycled into the city but it has to be done to be truly appreciated. Initially what struck me was the sheer distances from where I was, a seemingly built up and hectic city, to the centre of Istanbul. Getting there would be tough. Two lanes into four lanes. Four lanes turn into six lanes. Two tiers of roads. Six lanes heading in the opposite direction. Rain lashing down. Police sirens, car horns, swerving buses, a narrowing hard shoulder, no hard shoulder. Sweaty inclines soon became steep 75kph descents. It was a case of hold on, keep a straight line and hope nobody does anything rash in front. It was chaotic, laughably so in fact, as I just kept spinning the legs and hoping.

Finally, I knew I was in the centre. I was in Istanbul proper as famous mosques and iconic buildings emerged either side of me.

Almost 5,000km and 37 days after leaving home, I had reached this ancient city and the historic boundary between Europe and Asia happy and proud. I have a couple of days’ rest here before I continue on through Turkey so for now…time to find a bar.

Reflections Thus Far

London to Istanbul has been an amazing journey in itself. Obviously, this city was a major checkpoint before things get a bit more remote and “adventurous”. I remain eager to head east and explore Turkey before navigating from Georgia to Azerbaijan and then into a whole new domain once again.

I have not made it easy for myself thus far – I have wild camped almost every night, covered some hefty mileage and lived off a pretty tight budget. However, those are all conscious and necessary choices to enable this trip to happen. More days = more money and more money = less days. I have a finite budget that I have saved money for and I have to make that work to achieve my ambition.

Even just on this first leg, I have had issues I knew would emerge (broken spokes, punctures, foul weather, lonely days and a lot of teary miles). I have encountered issues I did not foresee (coordinated nighttime ant attacks on my tent, broken panniers, broken stove, faulty inflatable mattress). Equally, I have been extremely fortunate to gain a new insight into places I thought I knew, visit places on my bucket list, gaze in awe at stunning scenery and be the recipient of extraordinary kindness from strangers.

This stint will remain in my memory for a long time. The first few pedal strokes into a new life. An exciting and stimulating life but one far removed from the life I had. This is my new routine. No day is the same. No 9-5. No settling down. No reason for me to turn back just yet. This is my new home.