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  • Tom Blower

To the edge of Europe


This won’t be a day-by-day travelogue. That would not only be far too difficult for me but far too boring for anyone who’s got the stomach to read this nonsense. Here’s hoping that some of it is in the mildest bit entertaining, or will at least someday remind a senile and demented me of a selection of moments or thoughts that stuck out to me during the first five weeks of this trip, which have taken me from Saffron Walden to Istanbul; a journey of 2,278 miles, 12 countries (the UK, France, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey) and innumerable litres of peach ice tea.

Trying out the Sweaty Batman look. Laon, France

Trouble with the 5-0/one-time/slops/rozzers/battenberg

A diversion through some roadworks on the way out of Luxeile-les-Bains made me worry that the road ahead would be shut, but it was worse than that. Arriving at a roundabout onto what my map told me was a route nationale, normally fine for cyclists, I saw my route ahead was barred by a sign telling me that the next 12 kilometres were an autoroute – two lanes each way, no cyclists allowed. Well, I thought to myself, it’s either this into a fourth day of headwind, or another more circuitous route into a fourth day of headwind. Let’s chance it. I pretended I hadn’t seen the sign and pushed ahead on the generously wide hard shoulder.

The going was alright, but a little slower than I’d have hoped with the wind: were it behind me, I’d have been flying. Only two vehicles honked at me to let me know that I was on the wrong road, but otherwise things were well in my mind: Turbowolf’s Pale Horse pumping, picking my way past occasional scraps of shredded tyre and glass, I could see a sign ahead of me, signalling the end of the autoroute. Yes!

No. A few seconds later, and with an inglorious flashing of lights at someone going a pittance of their speed, a couple of gendarmes pulled me over, informed me that cycling on the motorway was, in fact, interdit, took my passport, and told me to pull in at the next exit (ironically at the end of the autoroute). I tried to explain in my best French that I was just trying to get to Lure (3km away), and that I hadn’t seen the sign, blaming my map; and the one who’d done all the talking furrowed his brow. After a couple of seconds, he handed back my passport, saying that normally there was a fine to pay for this, but that for now, he would just ensure that I knew which roads I could and couldn’t cycle on before sending me on my way, which I nodded profusely throughout. I waved them off, chewing nervously on some locally-made sweets.

I’ve read in several cases that the best way of getting out of these situations is by playing the ‘ignorant tourist’ card; pretending not to understand the rules, or even how to speak the language. I’d say that it’s only partly right. Feigning ignorance of French highway laws – with the help of my map – I think helped a little, but at least being able to speak French to a reasonable degree helped prevent the situation escalating out of frustration; something I wouldn’t be able to rely on in two days’ time when I left French-speaking territory for the foreseeable future. I dreaded to think how much that fine would have been, and made a mental note not to risk that sort of thing again unless it as absolutely necessary.

What is luxury?

After several weeks of trying - and frequently failing - to live on less than £10 a day (having set myself a budget of £20, the miser in me wants to go one further), I’ve found that my perception of what I perceive as a ‘luxury’ is slowly shifting. I wouldn’t say that I’m sliding into the category of total asceticism, but certainly having a routine as routine as mine currently is, gives me the opportunity to divide things into what is ‘necessary’ and what is ‘luxurious’.

With food, it’s quite easy. I’m trying to follow Mark Beaumont’s advice to eat as naturally as possible, and consequently, anything that’s more than what I need to get me through the day (as well as providing me with a decent number of daily portions of fruit and veg), is a luxury. In a shop my eyes will flick to price before even bothering to check the ingredients, and I have to stay my tempted hand from such extravagances as yoghurt drinks and other treats (though as the heat increases, this has become harder and harder to do).

Other areas, however, are a little more graded. After a few weeks on the road I’ve come up with what I hope will be a new internationally-accepted scale of bathing, from ‘luxury’ to, well, not-so-luxury:

  • ‘Proper’ job – Running water, maybe even heated, with soap, not needing to dry oneself with one’s own clothes and a camp towel no bigger than a flannel

  • Spit wash – A mouthful of water (in total) spat into the hand and rubbed over the important parts to freshen things up as much as possible

  • Pits’n’Bits – A lovely chemical mix that apparently has the properties of actually washing the body but just feels like rubbing expensive water on the goolies. Apply not too liberally

  • Grass douche – Take a handful of grass or other available plant material covered in dew/rain and rub over the dirtiest looking parts of skin, remembering not to let any seeds or detritus remain so you don’t get a saddle sore/look like you’ve slept in a field (which you almost certainly have)

  • Friction bath – No water required: simply take a dry finger or thumb and rub the skin and whatever’s on it until it balls up into little black pellets that can be brushed off. Ideally not to be performed in polite company (or at all if possibly avoidable)

Going ‘topless’ - and bottomless - in Slovenia

Being outside for the majority of the time really makes me realise what a luxury it is to be able to have a solid structure where I can dry my wet clothes, not sit on the floor, and perhaps even bathe myself. For many, perhaps, it’s stating the obvious, or simply something that I need to learn to control, but when you’re outside for days on end it’s really hard to stop the weather dominating your emotions. Hills are challenging, traffic can be demoralising, but wind and rain are the absolute bloody worst, and to feel like I’ve fallen and am trapped in a deep, wet hole, is enough to make me want to throw in the (miniature) towel for the day or simply not crawl out of the tent at all. It strikes me that four walls and a roof is not just a way of placing oneself in the world and creating a concept of ‘home’, but also a barrier allowing the creation of a psychic space that is under one’s control both physically and emotionally, not perturbed by the incursions of nature and others. I hope that I’ll get better at self-regulating my emotional flow whatever the meteorological circumstances (or whatever deities you believe in) throw at me, but for now, I’m getting a far better idea of what ‘luxury’ truly means, at least to me.

Stari Grad, Dubrovnik, Croatia

A night at The Hotel

Newly renovated Skanderbeg Square, Tirana

As much as I love the city of Tirana, it felt good to be pushing on along new roads, away from the anti-government graffiti and into the mountains. The ride out of the capital was long, especially after I departed from the ‘old’ main road to Elbasan, instead taking a rougher but more direct and less altitudinous route through the village of Krrabë. After this, the road ceased to be one; more like a steep track of gravel and stones, some bigger than my head, interrupted for a little while by asphalt which crumbled and quickly gave up the ghost as the gradient became more than my gears and legs could take. Puffing, I got off and started pushing. Eventually I crested the hill separating the capital from the next valley, taking in a view of much more greener than I’d seen on the Adriatic and Dalmatian coasts, and then headed tentatively downhill with a combination of riding, scooting, and walking, until eventually I came to where the small track met with the newly constructed motorway tunnel (cyclists not allowed), my primary obstacle of the day tackled. It had taken an hour and a half to do just less than five miles: I did the next ten in less than half an hour.

On the road to Krrabë

Whilst the city of Elbasan is situated on a wide plain, the river flowing through it funnels through a narrowing valley meandering through the mountains, which I followed it upstream towards the North Macedonian border. The morning had conditioned me to the climb, and it didn’t take too long to reach the town of Librazhd, where a kindly shopkeeper offered me some locally-grown apricots, which I savoured on a makeshift bench in the shade. (This was my second free nourishment of the day: a woman had deemed it more hassle than it was worth trying to sell me a single tomato when they were normally bought by the kilo, and had simply given it to me and waved me off.) The road then became steeper as it wound away from the course of the river, finally plateauing at Prrenjas Fshat, the last sizeable town before the border.

With several hundred lekë in my pocket, I got some supplies for dinner and the following breakfast, even daring to risk some delicious meat-filled byrek, followed by kadaif and ice cream. I sat on the porch of the bakery, looking out at Prrenjas’ communist-era industrial heritage crumbling slowly against a backdrop of verdant mountains; a contrasting but truly gorgeous sight.

My thoughts on whether or not I should try exchanging the last of my lekë for North Macdonian denar when a friendly voice cried “Hello!”, and three well-sunned cyclists passed on heavily-laden touring bikes. I practically dropped everything to quickly ride along and say hi, letting my recent purchase of water and corn bread fall off my panniers in excitement. As they were going slower than me, I waved, dashed back into the exchange to change my money, then hammered back up the hill as fast as I could. I caught up with them just as they were pulling into a layby with a typical Albanian carwash; a man sitting in a leisurely fashion on a bench under a tree, with a hose at his disposal. Discovering that the three were French, and that they were planning on trying to camp behind the carwash in a large, partly-constructed building, I asked to join them and finally got to use the Albanian phrase I’d been practising in my head for weeks: “A mund të bëj kampim këtu per një natën?” Receiving a positive answer from the man, who pointed out the tap and even an outhouse with a rudimentary toilet in it, we wheeled our bikes into the two-storey concrete structure and set up camp.

Choman, Mickel, and Cedric were cycling from Orleans to Bangkok and, though not going at a pace that I’d find tolerable, it was great to converse and share experiences from the road and plans for the journey ahead. Like me, they planned to head north of Lake Ohrid, before crossing into Greece, and then on through Turkey and the Caucasus before crossing the Caspian Sea and arriving in Central Asia. It was such a warming sensation to be spending time with fellow cyclists, camped in a beautiful area, and after a hard but rewarding day’s cycling through by far my favourite country of the trip so far. I was very glad to have planned a return to Albania – the investment in time and effort repaid itself a thousandfold in memories and human kindness. The afternoon whiled away with talk, whilst Mickel and Cedric took it in turns using the ‘manwash’ for an impromptu shower.

As the sun started to set, yet another cyclist pulled up to what we had affectionately called ‘The Hotel’. Nico, a Moldovan cyclist with an ersatz road bike setup, had also started from Tirana that morning, and in the last twenty kilometres had suffered two punctures and a broken front luggage rack, but beamed with a cyclist’s recognition of kind as he rolled into camp. He was on a three-week tour, having come from Italy, and I recognised his bike from the basement of the hostel I’d stayed at in Dubrovnik: another happy coincidence to meet another traveller going in the same direction. The five of us chatted in a mix of French and English as the dying light coloured the clouds orange and then pink, and the occasional spots of rain coming from over the mountains ahead of us were happily ignored as we were under cover. The other guys cooked while I munched on an increasingly stale loaf of corn bread, and Cedric and Choman kindly offered round apple and white chocolate Snickers as a dessert. Eventually we hit the hay, contented by good company, good food, and the prospect of a new country tomorrow. Steel rebar and bare concrete it may have been, but my stay at The Hotel was my favourite experience of the trip so far.

“You have the frong Number my friend”

Although I’ve mentioned some particular experiences, the people I’ve encountered on my trip have really helped anchor my memories in what is fast becoming a haze of conjoined moments which I’m having trouble arranging in my head. These encounters have highlighted to me a lot of things I might not otherwise have considered had I met them:

  • Growth – My WarmShowers host in Corroux, Switzerland, was Silvere, a young but busy man with three children and a large vegetable patch with which he was experimenting in permaculture. He and his wife were extremely generous to host me, and like my other hosts before and since, I really hope that I can pass such a spirit of generosity on. Most adorable, however, was to ride out with Silvere and his son, Arthur, on the first few miles of my journey towards Bern: the pace was slower than I had become accustomed to, but it was an entirely different ride to see a parent encouraging their child to ride, but also to stop and wonder at the surrounding nature that cycling lets you experience so intimately. I am not sure about the idea of children in my life, but to see and encourage growth in the lives of all you love is surely one of the great treasures of what it is to be alive.

  • Salvation from the rain – Having tried Jobi’s phone several times by text and calling, I received at length a reply in imperfect – but entertaining – English: “You have the frong Number my friend”. Eventually I managed to meet Jobi, and to share a simple but delicious meal of homemade curry and rice with him and his flatmates dragged my mind from the depths of desperation to escape the rain and cold to feelings of companionship and a shared enthusiasm for life on the road.

  • The Haywain – Having been keen to avoid registering with police in Montenegro, I’d pushed through from Croatia to Albania in a single day, wondering (and puffing) at miles of rising and falling coastal road before turning inland and crossing the border at Dodaj. It was as I was setting up camp in a disused carwash (with the blessings of its owner) that I saw a sight I’d come to associate with the non-EU Balkan states: a heavily-laden cart of straw, slowly being pulled into sight by a weary-looking nag. Atop it was a wizened-looking old man smoking a cigarette, staring stoically ahead into the setting sun. I asked him, as best I could, if I could take his picture, and he consented. Rather, however, than remaining in the pose in which I’d first seen him, hands on the reins, going about his business, his hands came up to form peace signs, which to me gave the impression of many of the kawaii pictures of east Asian students I’ve seen (don’t take that the wrong way). It struck me that what was important in that situation was not what I wanted from the photo or the experience of meeting him, but rather the way in which he would rather be remembered. We are all performing roles – the traveller, the host, the photographer, the photographed – but the way in which those roles interact are not predictable, and the ways in which people interpret their roles are always interesting

  • Turkish hospitality – I had been pushing hard to get through northern Greece in an effort to try and get an extra day off in Istanbul, which meant several long days perhaps rather unwisely riding through the hottest parts of the day to get to somewhere with a shop and then some shade to camp in. This wasn’t too much of a problem until I arrived in Turkey, where the hills sapped at my legs and trees were far less forthcoming. Yet I found my days buoyed by the great charity and hospitability of many of the Turkish people I encountered. Sitting on the concrete, panting like a dog in the shade of a supermarket, I watched a man and his wife pulling up on a 125cc motorbike. The man took a look at me and then walked over to a small stand selling ice cream, bought himself a cornet, then signalled at me to come over, before buying one for me. Later that very day, the owner of a small drinks shop seated me down after I bought a carton of juice, and introduced me to his wife and son in a mixture of Turkish, German, and English. Over the next two hours I was served cold water, tea, coffe, kofte in pancakes, and fresh nectarines; and every time I offered to pay for them, the matter was out of the question. In the few days I have been in Turkey I’ve been shown many kindnesses by strangers who are interested in where I’ve come from or where I’m going, and these encounters have really taken the harsh edge off of some harsh days.

I can only hope that one day I will be able to repay the kindness and generosity of strangers. My mode of travel feels a very selfish business, and I owe it to the people I’ve met to sow the goodness I have reaped.

For the record - farmer sempai

The Divide

Sun rising, Sultanahmet Mosque

The 15th July Martyrs’ Bridge, which spans the Bosphorous Strait, has become an image epitomical of the division – however simplified by Orientalism – between Asia and Europe, East and West; it’s even on the 50 kuruş coin, crossing millions of palms all over Turkey every minute, every hour, every day. For me, it’s also the division between what was supposed to be the ‘easier’ first portion of this journey and the more challenging terrain and conditions as I make my way into Asia. Sitting in the attic room of a hostel overlooking the sea, or wandering the streets of Istanbul, I’ve had some time to reflect on what this journey is and what it means to me.

For want of a half-decent picture of the real thing...

The next two or so weeks could alter significantly how much of a pedal-powered trip this is: there will be heat, a hell of a lot of hills, and though my body has coped this far, I’m beginning to feel the strain of riding at this pace and in this way. Having worked on this journey for nearly five years, and despite all my experiences of bicycle touring in the intervening time, there’s still part of me that wants to keep this ‘pure’ and do all the miles on the bike. However, I’ve already had to let that notion go, as I was forced to take a train under the Gotthard Pass when it was closed due to hazardous weather conditions; so, by that standard, it shouldn’t really matter what I do now. At this point in time, I’m trying to bridge the divide between seeing this as a challenge that should be stuck to or suffered through if necessary, and an investment of time and money in myself at a point where I’m physically and mentally healthy enough to be able to do this, making it a trip whose purpose is enjoyment and regretting as little as possible. While this debate continues in my head, I think that for now the best thing to do is just ride and see what happens. The divide isn’t yet bridged, but I hope it will be someday.

Apologies that this hasn’t been better broken up and uploaded sooner – I’ll make an effort to be a little more regular than this, but no promises: being beholden to anyone isn’t my idea of making this trip more enjoyable. That said, thank you to all those who have supported me this far, with or without words; to all, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, I wish you happiness.

Your friend,

Tom


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