«the bicycle diaries alastair humphreys round the world by bike 4 years and 46000 miles on the road Europe and the Middle East On The Road (18 ...»
round the world by bike
4 years and 46000 miles
on the road
Europe and the Middle East
On The Road (18 September 2001)
Finishing my breakfast, waving goodbye, pedaling up the hill round the corner and out of sight for 3
years was very odd indeed. My first cry helped. My round the planet bike ride had begun.
After Day 1 I was exhausted and the face-punch of reality had kicked in. There was no glamour at all
and this was going to be very hard work, in every way imaginable. By London I was very, very depressed and felt an almost unbearable reluctance to leave England. But I had the horrible feeling that I had no option, that I was trapped. By Dover the sheer scale of what I had got myself into was absolutely terrifying me. The delayed, rain-sodden ferry and 7am lager-swillers made the au revoir to England somewhat less than satisfactory.
In France I was wet, lonely and cried a lot. But finally the sun came out, I settled into a relaxed pace, took up sketching and coffee drinking with reckless abandon and things began to look up. A rainy morning merited a lie-in: a huge duvet sleeping bag, pistachio nuts for breakfast and the sports pages from the newspaper (albeit last Saturday’s). And I claim this to be tough!
In sunshine I rode through quiet cornfields on aimless country roads: the killing fields of World War
1. Soldiers are admirably remembered in immaculate cemeteries. One highlighted the madness perfectly:
row upon row upon row of Allied soldiers’ graves, lying in the same cemetery alongside similar numbers of Germans.
Mum had given me a handful of Belgian coins before I left home. So I embarked on a 16 mile detour to Belgium, mouth watering at the prospect of burgers and gluttony. The first shop across the border sorted out the out-of-date, obsolete coins, handed me a can of Coke and 3 small chocolate bars and packed me off back towards France.
Luxemburg was nice. And small. I met Chris there, a fellow cyclist and we pedaled East together. The company is great, his demon speed uphill is not. A garage owner became my new hero when he gave us free rein on his cappuccino machine and sent us on our way with a new map, a bottle of beer and a very large sausage.
One rainy morning someone vaguely mentioned to me something about a plane crashing into New York’s Twin Towers [September 11th 2001]. What incredible happenings I am unaware of in my weird little world, yet this may have huge repercussions later on my journey. Time will tell.
The beautiful Romantische Strasse stood out in the rain; the village of Rottingen boasted no fewer than 27 different sundials. If only they had some sunshine! And now, replete from the astonishing hospitality of Biggy and Guy T (a former pupil of my school) I turn towards a gentle meander down the
Thanks for all the very amusing emails. They are greatly appreciated. Here’s a very quick summary of my progress, followed by a longer piece about cycling down the Danube and my viewpoint of the terrorist situation from how I have seen it out on the road.
Down the Danube to Budapest was perfect cycling. I honestly cannot imagine a more perfect stretch on my entire journey. The only downside was scores of fellow cyclists- middle-aged Germans in purple shellsuits and indecent lycra. Hardly conducive to me thinking of myself as a tough adventurer!
Chris and I arrived in Vienna Sunday morning. Everything was closed and the rain was wild. Unable to buy food we headed straight back out of town. Is my mental picture of Vienna as a deserted, wet, grey collection of motorway flyovers a unique one? Our hunger drove us through hideous rain across the border into Slovakia. We camped under a motorway bridge. Soldiers with AK-47s caught us but took pity in the pouring rain. We dried out and enjoyed Slovakia and Bratislava. A cross-country shortcut then saw us pop up on a dam guarded by armed police. They seemed rather surprised to have been ‘left-flanked’ by two English cyclists but eventually pointed us in the right direction.
And so into Hungary and Budapest. Massive plates of food, probably some spectacular sights too.
Earnest calculations as to whether I can make the England cricket Test match in India on December 10th… But, before that, my journey is now seriously jeopardised by the terrorist situation. There are several options for me to consider; through Iran and Pakistan, north through Russia or turn right for Africa… Something will turn up.
There are 6 things you dream of on a cycling holiday: flat, smooth tarmac, beautiful scenery, easy navigation, delicious food, a welcoming bed and an enticing final destination. The Danube River has it all. Flowing thousands of miles through Europe down to the Black Sea, the Danube is one of the World’s majestic rivers, dividing nations, uniting them by trade and creating a perfect cycle route at the same time.
It is a heady mix of history, landscape, wildlife and delicious beer and wine.
The Danube is not just for long-distance loonies. It is for everyone. Today alone I rode past families, young couples, septaguanarians and even a lady with a pair of crutches on the back of her bike, all enjoying the traffic-free cycle paths. Every junction is perfectly signposted, whether the path is winding through head-high cornfields, beside the river, through whitewashed, red-roofed villages, vineyards, orchards or deep in spectacular forested gorges past imposing castles.
The journey is a cruise -20, 40, 60 miles a day- any distance is realistic. It is entirely up to you. Flat tarmac solely for bicycles and warm autumnal days mean the miles flow easily. It is impossible to imagine a set-up more suited for cycling. Beer gardens lie beside the trail, tempting you with morning tea, lunchtime beers and meals and afternoon cakes and coffee. All this and the glorious Danube sliding by may well seriously limit the number of miles cycled each day! For those whose appetite outstretches their wallet (like me), village stores and supermarkets guarantee regular breaks for enormous cheese and ham baguettes on the river banks. Every two or three miles is a small village, each with several guesthouses welcoming weary cyclists with Austrian hospitality and fine food. Frequent campsites cater for those on a tighter budget.
From Passau (near the German-Austrian border) to Vienna is 200 miles, an ideal distance for a relaxing week away, or why not spend a few days in Vienna as a memorable climax to your journey? As I continue my round the world journey, this stage will really take some beating.
I am looking at a World seemingly on the brink of war. And, since September 11th, I feel that I am not really part of that world. I am cycling around the planet, heading from England towards Asia and beyond.
The terrorist attacks on America have highlighted to me what an unusual position I am in. Whilst on my bicycle I have no access to newspapers, radio, television and rarely even to any people who do (my Hungarian is nonexistent). I knew almost nothing of the situation for five days after the Twin Towers destroyed. And yet at the same time I feel integrally tied up in the whole situation as my journey heads inescapably towards Iran and Pakistan. The result of all this is that my viewpoint is short on hard facts but also unclouded by hype, hysteria and Western media opinion. I am also deeply conscious of the potential implications for my journey as I ride towards the focus of the world’s gaze.
Knowing now the full scale of the catastrophe, I find it astonishing that for days I knew virtually nothing of what had happened. A half-understood exchange in German was all I had to go on as I imagined what could have happened. Was it true? Who did it? How did they do it? Why did they do it?
Even “what happened?” I just did not know.
Eventually I sat awestruck and horrorstruck in front of CNN. I was amazed at how much we take instant coverage of the entire world for granted. How could I not have known about this?! I wasn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere: I was cycling through Germany, but sleeping rough in the forests, the language barrier and a week of incessant rain meant virtually zero human contact. CNN gave me facts but it only gave one stance- America’s New War, it screamed. Why not America’s Tragedy? I wonder how Muslim TV stations are covering it?
And then I had another ten days of silence, popping up now for an update in Budapest. English headlines on tourists’ newspapers scream ‘War’. And so now I am hunting for information, opinions, viewpoints. What will happen next? And what are the implications for my journey? My intended route passes through Iran and Pakistan. Is this still realistic, or even feasible, or even appropriate? Should I try and head north through Russia instead? Will the whole area become a war zone? How will I be treated by ordinary Muslim people: as an ordinary (ish) bloke on a bicycle or as a ‘westerner’- a representative of Blair and Bush? So many questions, so few concrete answers.
Even two weeks after the planes crashed every paper, publication and programme is still saturated with the story. I had never realized before just how removed I am from external influences when travelling on my bicycle. I know the essentials: terrorist attacks, Bin Laden, Afghanistan, Western response... but I feel I have had two weeks’ isolation from the world, running scenarios through my head, trying to think of the reasons, the consequences, the solutions, the rights and the wrongs. A giant, tangled spider diagram in my head, but at least it’s my own spider diagram. The horrors of September 11th have highlighted to me the sheer enormity of the power of global media in all its guises. Yes, it provides rapid, detailed information, but it also forms people’s opinions for them and I am not sure that is always a good
After another 15 solid days of pedalling up to 9 hours a day, I have finally made it from England to Istanbul. 2800 miles (4500km), 6 weeks, 1 continent crossed, but a long, long way to go! The end of the beginning perhaps?
After Budapest I battled (unsuccessfully) astonishing numbers of mosquitoes across Hungary’s Great Plain. Into Serbia, riding for Belgrade. In Novi Sad a temporary bridge spanned the Danube, the original destroyed by NATO bombs just 2 years ago. But Belgrade was buzzing: vibrant, friendly, expanding, bouncing back with verve from the last shocking decade. It was a really refreshing city. Belgrade also boasted the most beautiful girls in the world (probably) and the best street stall sausage sandwiches (definitely)!
I returned to the Danube once more. By now it feels like a good friend. Fields bursting with crops then into a stunning gorge; forest, limestone cliffs, blazing sunshine and the imperious river. I ended the day drinking homemade (read hideous) schnapps with a farmer. The morning began with coffee and sunrise on the clifftop before swooping down across the river into Romania.
My back wheel collapsed. I hitched back to a town to try and find a replacement. All I could find was a very cheap, very tacky wheel rim: it was time to learn how to build a wheel. It took late night candle burning and the next morning too; working in a vineyard with a bored shepherd as technical adviser I eventually built my first wheel, albeit a slightly egg-shaped wheel.
Romania was in wedding and funeral season. Both involve street processions and music so it was hard to decide whether a sombre, sympathetic nod or a cheer and a jaunty ring of my bell was more appropriate as I rode by each one.
Crossing into Bulgaria at Ruse I waved adieu to the Danube and headed for the hills. In Bulgaria nodding your head means ‘No’ and shaking it means ‘Yes’. This is almost impossible to get to grips with!
By Turkey the wind had risen to a gale. Pedalling hard downhill at 9mph is not good for the soul.
And so I arrived in Istanbul, the end of Europe, the Gateway to Asia, like a true romantic young wannabe adventurer- hammering down the motorway in pitch darkness towards the amazing hospitality of Caroline and Gurkan Kopuzlar. But ahead of me now my whole journey is in jeopardy; Iran and Pakistan are looking increasingly unsettled. Do I head north for Kazakhstan or turn South towards Africa?! So, for now, it’s one continent down, many still to go, and absolutely no idea where to turn
Listen! When you finish this article don’t just fold your paper and get off at your usual stop. Go home, get your passport and cash card, head for the airport and fly to Istanbul. This is Istanbul from scratch where ignorance is bliss. No schedules, no preconceptions, no guidebooks, no maps, no speaka the language- no problem! This is the incredible Istanbul I have stumbled into.
I won’t woo you with historical tit-bits, fancy place names or lists of ‘must-sees’, purely because I don’t know any. Besides, it’s more fun to find them for yourself. Before I arrived I knew that Istanbul was the gateway to Asia. From my University nights I remembered that Turkey was the spiritual home of the kebab. That was about it. After just a few days here I have seen and heard and felt and smelt so much more now.
At dawn all 12 million of us in this glorious sprawl are greeted by the exotic, haunting call to prayer from the minarets of countless sky-lined mosques. As Istanbul awakes I join the mayhem, burying into the scrum at random. Memories fly at me like a photo album scattered over the floor. I find stalls packed tight together, humanity filling the gaps and huge barrows of hazelnuts or pistachio nuts maneuvering impossibly through it all. Every way I turn are streets selling everything you could possibly imagine, one product per street: bath taps, rugs, dodgy pirated music cassettes, leatherwork in quick succession. Sacks of spices and herbs lure me. I have no idea what they all are but the colours and aromas and textures are intoxicating. Precarious pyramids of pomegranates for freshly squeezed juice. I see old men sagely and ceremoniously sip from glasses of amber-like tea. Sausage stalls, giant blocks of cheese, fish plucked fresh from the Golden Horn of the Bosporus.