Gannin’ Hyem

Written by James in Tehran.

I rolled into my first major city in Iran full of wonder, happy beyond words to finally be in a country I’d dreamt of visiting for many years. On the eve of my visit I’d spoken to my dad on Skype, who described Iran as “possibly the jewel in the crown of your trip.” After reading the blogs of countless other cyclists over the years I’d come to the same conclusion. This was, universally, a land of joyous hospitality, strangers that became friends and a society that couldn’t be more welcoming.

The day I crossed the border I’d woken at 4AM like a child on Christmas morning, my present at the bottom of a hill was to be a whole new country to wander, with its foods ready to be devoured, landscapes gawped at and people to meet. It was only a matter of rolling downhill for a few miles to leave Armenia behind. After picking up giardiasis in the country I’d spent more days resting in guesthouses than tackling mountains, and those that had involved cycling were characterised by swearing and pushing up hills I didn’t have enough power to pedal and not the usual sense of accomplishment that comes from getting to the top of a hill. But things were improving as I got closer to Iran, my appetite had returned and some renewed energy had flowed into my legs. I crossed the border under a cloudless sky with a restored sense of optimism. This was what I’d dreamed of. This was Iran!

I’d arrived into Tabriz, Iran’s fifth largest city, to spend a few days with someone from the Warm Showers website and get an introduction to the culture I was anticipating so keenly. As the heat of the day subsided I rode with my host Yassar and two of his friends to the edge of the city, to a busy park, where Iranians go to partake in one of their favourite pastimes: having a bloody good picnic. We intended to join some friends doing the same, watching the sun set with enough tea to make a grown man wet himself.

But things didn’t quite work out that way. Within two minutes of arriving I’d collapsed off my bike to the ground. My memory of the next four days consists simply of the noise of an ambulance’s gearbox shifting through its gears and Yassar repeating “You’ll be fine dude, you’ll be fine.” I woke after three days of unconsciousness tied to a bed in intensive care, thrust into a confusing world of delusion and distress. I couldn’t work out where I was, what I was doing in this gloomy room and why my limbs were immobile. The doctors and nurses looking after me later said I had spent many hours shouting at the top of my voice to be let go, including offering extensive threats to beat up the staff unless they released me. While being so charmingly polite I squirmed around to such an extent that the bedheets tying me down wore away the skin from my lower legs.

Unbeknown to me during my extended naptime moves had been made to get in touch with my family back in England. The new friends I’d made in Tabriz had found my profile on the CouchSurfing website, then sent a message to a friend I went to university with, he had then passed the message to another friend, who had passed on the message to a third friend of my family I’ve known since I was a child. Thus my brother received a call at 1AM saying “James is a bit sleepy in hospital.” Or something like that. From then my insurer became involved (more on them later) and the Foreign Office. The rumour mill cranked up and, sadly, some of this filtered back to my family in England forcing them to consider getting out to Iran as I was “not speaking” “not allowed to cycle for six months” and “getting worse and worse.” Thankfully none of this was true.

In the absence of blood relatives I acquired a surrogate Iranian family, a group mainly made up of men in their twenties who had heard about my illness and spoke of a “sense of duty” in looking after people in need. Most of the time these remarkable people were not introduced to me, they simply surrounded my bed and stayed out of sheer kindness. They offered constant advice, reassurance, places to stay and recuperate once I was discharged, gifts and even went as far as paying my £700 hospital bill when my useless insurance company refused to pay and I didn’t have the cash to cover it (I paid them back after a midnight drive to Azerbaijan with my bank card as there aren’t any ATMs on the international network in Iran due to economic sanctions). Even more remarkably these men refused to accept my thanks for their help, they “needed no thanks for something that is a duty.”

Slowly I started to accept I was in hospital and not orbiting in outer space as I had originally thought. I moved from total confusion to a determination to get out of the door as quickly as possible, and after a few more days and various tests I was allowed to leave hospital, clear to cycle on as long as I took a few drugs and rested for a while. So with my new group of friends I strode out of hospital sporting a lovely pair of blue pyjamas and felt the soothing sun on my face. Freedom!

Several people, however, had told me my ride was now over, a period of convalescence was essential and I’d have to have a break from cycling. I was having none of that, I was determined to crack on as soon as possible and continue my trip. This seemed even more important as I’d lost valuable travelling days asleep rather than in the saddle. I tersely dismissed any suggestion of not cycling. It wasn’t going to happen. I’m a stubborn bastard and was going to pedal on whatever.

But in truth there are some hangovers from my accident that are still affecting me and would have an effect on ability to continue. The next few thousand miles of my route don’t exactly lend themselves well to a gentle re-introduction to cycling after a month off either. First I’d be crossing arid Turkmenistan in five days due to visa restrictions followed by the heat of Uzbekistan and a rather remote road through Tajikistan. These geographic conditions coupled with the lack of available healthcare, and the poor quality of what is available, are certainly not ideal. The remoteness of the Pamir Highway through Tajikistan in particular is a worry. A relapse there offers serious problems, both for my health and finances if my insurer decide they don’t want to pay out on any further claims.

Speaking to my family I was urged to consider these issues but chose to ignore them instead, I was determined to carry on with my original plan. Then over a period of days I began to think more about my situation. I feel I’ve got a good gut instinct, and that’s something that shouldn’t be ignored. Back in Greece someone told me I was going to be robbed but my gut said the opposite and I was correct. Something, at present, doesn’t feel quite right in my body.

So a period of rest is called for back home in Durham. I believe it is the right decision to take considering all of the potential outcomes. Even continuing and being perfectly fine isn’t without problems as the lack of communication in the ‘stans may mean my family won’t hear from me for a long time, forcing them into an interminable situation of constantly worrying if no news is good news. Additionally, as I’m lucky enough to have been born in a country with progressive social policies that provide free health care I can be sure whatever problems remain will be sorted out without having to worry about writing a big cheque and wiping out my entire savings. I fly home from Tehran on Friday 13th…

My first priority is seeing a doctor on returning, but apart from that I’m not really sure what’s in store. There are the obvious things of course, the exciting things; hugs with family and friends, a new niece and a nephew to meet for the first time, pints of India Pale Ale, slabs of Stilton, Taylor’s of Darlington pork pies and a visit to Durham miners’ gala on the day of my return where I’ll drunkenly ramble on about my time cycling while reflecting that nothing at all has changed in England. Depending on how long I’m back home there may also be the need to use my time constructively in some capacity, whether this involves a very brief association with a sensible paying job or something more exciting through the superb HelpX website I don’t yet know.

And although I may be forced into keeping a routine for a short while, with The Ride Round temporarily stopped, it will be back as soon as is possible. This trip means far too much to me and much like a bloated bank in the credit crunch it is too big to fail. To get only ten months in to the trip and have to stop, just when I was entering a part of the world that intrigued me so much, is beyond frustrating. I don’t want to stop this wonderful life I’m lucky enough to be living, where I wake each day and do whatever I like when I like, with nobody able to stop me. Long may it continue.

Since I started pedalling last August I’ve had such great support from readers, through donations and messages, that I thought a full explanation was deserved about why I’m getting on an aeroplane and flying back to England, hence this long blog post. Please keep checking back for updates here and on Twitter about when I will be back on the road.

Finally, to my new Iranian friends: I’ll never forget how you helped me in Tabriz. You all represent the very best of Iran, of selflessness, warmth and kindness. Thanks also to the superb doctors and nurses of Emam Reza Hospital. Apologies if I tried to hit you.

Turkey Curry

Written by James looking at the Tbilisi skyline.

Although I’ve been in Georgia for nearly two weeks Turkey is still on my mind. That’s a mark of how intoxicating I found the country, and how special the time I spent there was. But yesterday I realised the only blog post I posted here about the country was one about an unfortunate incident. It’s a shame to leave you with only one brief and slightly sad blog. So here’s another on why Turkey is my favourite country of the trip so far.

Tea Time
If I accepted every offer to share a cup of tea at the roadside I probably would have cycled less than ten miles each day. The offers come throughout the day, shouted from young and old by the side of the road, sometimes not involving words but the sign language of stirring sugar into a cup of tea. Turks are relentlessly friendly, and a new friendship always begins with chai.

Izmir
My favourite city in Turkey. Sure it can’t rival Istanbul for magnificent buildings, a sense of history or museums. But liberal Izmir was a joyous place to be, brimming with young people from its many universities. I arrived to stay with a group of students for two days and was still there two weeks later, securing friendships that will last well beyond this trip, cycling and walking by the sea, and not missing being on my bike in the slightest.

Erbaa
Like Izmir I arrived in Erbaa intending to spend a couple of days there, which turned into a lot longer. A small city where it’s still possible to find remains of Hittite pottery in loose soil the place is a relaxing place of calm compared to the larger cities of the Black Sea region. I spent several days in a local school, speaking to different classes about my journey and answering an intriguing array of questions on everything from poetry, love and destiny to wild animals, football and food.

A particular highlight was playing myself in a role-playing exercise with an English class where I pretended to arrive in a village after a day’s cycling and ask “a peasant” for a place to pitch my tent (essentially me pointing at the classroom floor and repeating the word for tent), thankfully the peasant took pity on me and offered me a bed for the night instead.

Food
Kebabs galore, sharing grilled sardines in a petrol station, shovelling stuffed vine leaves into my mouth, soup for breakfast, delicious cheeses, tearing chunks of warm bread from fresh loaves. I couldn’t get enough of Turkish food.

A Single Day
As with every place I visit, it’s the people I meet that define my memories of it. To illustrate just how kind people in Turkey were to me here are the chance encounters, in a single day of cycling, from morning to evening.

- Wake in my sleeping bag on the floor of a schoolhouse that an imam had given me the key for. Enjoy a breakfast of bread, tomatoes and cucumber received from the imam’s friend.

- Called over for first pot of tea to share at 11 o’clock with a group of retired men. Talk in schoolboy German about where I’m from and why I’m sweating so much.

- Manage to cycle all of 300 metres before being called over for more tea with this group of men outside an antique shop.

- Decide to treat myself to lunch at a petrol station buffet (better than it sounds) and share my meal with a group of truck drivers, a waiter and a chauffeur. Payment refused when I leave.

- Spend the evening by the beach, chomping on sesame seeds with two strangers and watching the world go by.

I could have happily cycled round Turkey for the rest of this year, and being such a large and varied land I could certainly have managed it. Talking to people about their president, the European Union, the role religion plays in society and how rapid development is changing the country was a fascinating experience. Turkey is a very special place, one I will certainly return to.

I write from Tbilisi, a lovely city I will leave behind tomorrow for the short cycle to the Armenian border where I plan to spend a couple of weeks before entering Iran.

You can see all of my photographs from the beginning of the trip by clicking here. To read older blog posts hover over the ‘find content’ link on the menu bar at the top of this page.

British Tea Power

Written by James resting in a hotel.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to write about on this blog. Essentially the life of a cycle tourer is no different to that of any other person with a routine. There’s an alarm clock, a lunch break and a time when the day’s work is over. Maybe the only difference is my commute continues in one direction rather than travelling between two points day after day. The interesting times come when something breaks that routine, when an event takes place that warrants special attention. For me that means meeting new and interesting people in a chance encounter, so most of my blog posts revolve around exactly that, as do many of those on other cycle tourers’ websites.

Ordinarily this post would continue in the same vein, a heart-warming tale of human kindness, open-mindedness and friendship. For the first part at least, it will.

Yesterday afternoon I decided I had cycled enough miles and began looking for a place to sleep, rolling into a petrol station to stop for a rest. The humble Turkish petrol station is a welcome sight when one appears on the horizon. Its British equivalent isn’t somewhere anyone would want to spend an extended period of time, being full of overpriced confectionery and sandwiches made three weeks earlier, but the Turkish forecourt is something else altogether. A place to rest from the sun or rain, to sit on a comfortable seat and drink tea, receive route advice and on several occasions sleep.

After sharing a couple of cups of tea and asking if the staff knew anywhere I could pitch my tent I was immediately offered a room at an elderly man’s house across the road. I was welcomed into his home, given a drink, made to feel at home and encouraged to relax. A three generation family lived in the single storey building just off a dual carriageway, all working as farmers, with their eldest son, Ibrahim, telling me as soon as he finished school he too would become a farmer.

We wandered round their land, using my phrasebook to communicate as Ibrahim pointed out the vegetables growing in their garden and the fruits soon to begin growing on their trees. I watched the cows being milked, helped round up the chickens into their coop and felt content. Another chance encounter to remember.  As the last of the day’s heat subsided we all returned to their living room, six family members and I sitting cross legged round a table a few inches off the ground while gorging on plates of rice, yogurt, chicken and vegetables in the way only someone who has been working outside all day can.

With the absence of a tea room in the village the petrol station across the road was evidently the social hub of the community, where I returned with Ibrahim to slurp tea and relax. As we chatted we were interrupted by his father, who explained that it was no longer possible for me to stay with them, as his wife was uncomfortable with me being in the house. But don’t worry, we’ve found somewhere else for you to stay, they said.

After apologising profusely for making his mother feel uncomfortable in her own home we loaded my bike and bags into the back of a pickup truck and drove to where I would be spending the night, arriving at a restaurant come truck-stop two miles outside of the village. Then things fell apart very quickly. It was immediately apparent the owners of the truck stop had no idea who I was, or why I was there, and they certainly had nowhere for me to sleep. Ibrahim, realising his father had lied about arranging for me to stay at the truck stop began apologising as he walked to the waiting pickup truck ready to drive back to where they came from. For want of a better term, I’d been shafted.

As confused as they were by my presence the restaurant staff did what comes naturally to any Turk: they reached for the teapot and poured me glass after glass of steaming, soothing tea. While I drank phone calls were made, lengthy conversations about me took place between the staff, and chins were stroked. What do we do with him? The answer was to phone the jandarma and see what they had to say.

I’d had another encounter with the jandarma earlier in my visit to Turkey, where they’d stopped me cycling and made me follow them to their base “for my own safety.” After inspecting my passport the man in charge concluded I was Dutch and, for reasons unclear, questioned me in complete seriousness about whether I had parachuted into Turkey with my bicycle.

So news that more of these crack detectives were on their way to have a chat with me didn’t exactly fill me with joy. But it was past midnight by this point, rain was leaking down from the sky and I resolved to smile lots, say please and thank you and hope they would leave me alone to find a patch of grass to sleep on.

With one man guarding the door two uniformed men sauntered in and joined me and the restaurant staff at a table, asking me what was going on, which then involved a lot of hand waving and me rapidly flicking through my phrasebook saying things like. “MAN. VILLAGE. FRIENDS. FOOD. BED. NO. CAR. AWAY.” Again my passport was inspected and questions asked of where I’d been on my bike, leading to the farcical scene of five waiters, one restaurant manager, a chef and two camouflaged men waiting as I took two minutes to blow up the inflatable globe I carry with me in order to illustrate where I have been.

All of this was written down by one of the men, in a statement dictated in hushed tones by the other. So soothing was his whispering voice that the restaurant manager fell asleep. Then like heads of state signing some sort of trade agreement or peace treaty the document was passed round for us all to sign, including the chef, the waiters and the now awake restaurant manager.

“OK, we’re going to drive you to a hotel.”

Usually the prospect of paying to sleep somewhere would induce an allergic reaction in me, but at this point I couldn’t have cared less, I was prepared to take the financial hit. So we loaded Laila and all of her bags into the back of their van and set off down the road. As the blue and red lights flashing on the roof illuminated the night I perched on a bench in the back of the van, the silhouettes of three beret topped heads lined up at the front.

Checked into the hotel I shook hands with the whispering jandarma and smiled. “Nice to meet you.” He said “Your breakfast is from seven.”

I’m at a loss to explain why the family went from being so kind one moment to hostile the next, and I guess we will never know as I have no intention of backtracking to ask them.

I spent several hours thinking over whether to write this blog post. I wondered if I am doing a disservice to the overwhelmingly friendly people I have met in Turkey by writing about this? Perhaps I am. We often hear that only bad news sells newspapers and people don’t want to read about the true friendliness that exists in the world. But on my website I think you get a taste of what I really believe: that the world is a good place and people are inherently decent. Plus I think I owe it to you, dear reader, to record and write about the most interesting things that happen on this journey. And as far as this journey goes, last night was one of the most interesting.

Finally, to illustrate how wonderful my time in Turkey has been here is a selection of photographs showing some of the kind people I have met. These strangers who became friends. The rest of my photos from Turkey can be found here.

Time To Get Away

Written by James in a cafe watching wrinkly old men play cards.

My days as a full time olive picker are now over. The harvest is complete and I’m moving closer to the day when I’ll rekindle my relationship with my bicycle and spend long days pedalling past fields rather than in them.

I expect to start cycling again sometime in March, and when I say start cycling I mean it literally. I’ve used my bicycle only four or five times since the middle of November, and last time I went for a ride I wiped dust from the saddle before starting.

It’s easy to draw parallels between my last few weeks in Greece and those in England before I left home last August. Weeks spent counting down the days until departure, compiling lists, vague plans to learn how to straighten a wheel, very little cycling and trying not to eat as much cheese. When I do set off I doubt my first day will involve a pub lunch and several pints after covering less than 25 miles like that day in August did though.

My four months spent in this little village in Greece have been everything that I wanted, days of working hard and spending all day outside with an ever changing group of workers that had all come to Greece for the right reasons. But four months of knowing where I’ll be sleeping each night and a routine is enough for me, it reminds me why I started this trip and just how exciting it is to be travelling with a bicycle and a tent as your own boss, the freedom and possibilities that combination offers.

Hundreds of times in the last few years, in the many moments of big dreaming, and the very few of serious planning, I have sat staring at a map looking at the hunk of earth that is Central Asia. Alien countries that I knew nothing about. Not their capital cities, nor their major religion, staple food or national sport. Most of these I still don’t know. And as comforting as dreams are, to sit in idle moments and think that one day I’ll probably/possibly/maybe/definitely visit a certain country, they’re beaten by my current position. One where I’m doing serious research, considering routes, applying for visas and ordering maps of these distant places. Asia awaits, and I can’t be more excited to type these words.

A Night in Greece

Written by James in "The Bulgarians'" cafe, Greece.

In faltering and extremely limited Greek I tried to communicate with the man who had just climbed a flight of stairs beside a church and was now standing on the pavement in front of me. I was looking for a place to camp as usual. Tapping the bulging waterproof bag tied to the back of my bike I repeated the word for tent and gestured to the surrounding fields. The man tilted his head back and then sideways sharply, indicating that I should follow him.

Cloaked in a leather jacket that looked like it owned more to a plastic factory than a cow, hair slicked back and glued in place with a garden spade full of hairgel and light tanned skin the man was dressed like an actor with a bit-part in a cheap gangster film. The sort of bloke just starting out at the bottom of the criminal ladder, keen to impress and full of enthusiasm, but due to meet a premature end as he gets killed in a drive-by shooting having spoken a single line in the film.

As we walked the man worked his way through his repertoire of English words and phrases. “Chelsea, United Manchester, Liverpool, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole.” I nodded and smiled meekly, wondering, first, where are we going? And second, is this bloke as pissed as he appears to be?

Our destination, after leaving the town centre and walking to its periphery, was a single storey building that looked like a large garage, sitting on a thin slice of compacted Greek soil and surrounded by three storey apartment blocks. Its breeze block walls had been hastily pebble dashed by some less than conscientious builders who then topped off the construction with a cheap corrugated tin roof. But this wasn’t a storage area for a car, a home for that rarely used mountain bike, or a safe place to keep a toolbox. He swung open a metal gate and welcomed me into his home.

John was Albanian and shared his house with at least twenty other men, of varying ages, from across Albania. They were all migrant workers, brought here to pick olives for thirteen euros per day in the surrounding fields and were renting the house from their gangmaster. He showed me into a room with a cold concrete floor that contained beds for four people, a single gas ring and its accompanying metal bottle for cooking that sat on a table, a tired looking blanket hanging from the ceiling partitioning a corner of the room (used as the shower) and the suitcases of four people who were leading a temporary and simple life.

Encouraging me to sit down at the table he placed a shiny metal bowl and two spoons on the just wiped acrylic table cloth, pouring in a ladle full of a thick soup the colour of dirty dishwater into the bowl. With the gusto of a man who had spent all afternoon in a bar and was desperate for sustenance he spooned the gloopy mixture toward his jaw, spilling some from the spoon before it could reach his waiting mouth. His tongue emerged to collect the food on his face and deliver it to his body, his hand-eye abilities having failed to do so.

He completed his meal in the same fashion, again telling me about United Manchester and Chelsea while slurping down his soup. He then pointed to a single bed next to our dinner table and told me with some confidence that I would be sleeping here tonight, no problem. Finding a safe place to stay for the night, be it a farmer’s field, someone’s garden, or, like this, an offer of a comfortable bed with new people to talk to always provides an instant injection of satisfaction and calm at the end of the day, knowing that the search for somewhere to sleep is over and the time to relax has begun. This night was no different, with a new group of people who were as interested in my life as I was in theirs, to exchange stories, ask questions, learn and laugh.

Now with a relined stomach needing more alcohol John decided to embark on another session of liver abuse with two of his roommates. They ran combs through their hair, donned leather jackets and strode off to a nearby bar, leaving me alone with the one remaining roommate. The elder statesmen of the group had a large, spiky moustache dominating his face, as if a mischievous child (or, perhaps, a drunken roommate) had glued the tail of a grey squirrel to his top lip while he was asleep. Obsessively tidy, the man didn’t seem to know what to make of me, or why he was now sharing a bedroom with me. Our limited conversation eventually petered out as the effect of a day’s cycling took hold and I began to drift toward sleep, avoiding the glare of the fluorescent tubes lighting the room by observing the splintered joists and undulations of the corrugated metal sheets on the ceiling.

As I dozed the man caught my attention, pointing to my pockets, then rubbing his thumb and fore finger together. “Money?” I queried. He nodded. “What about it?” He then acted out a strange series of body movements: hand waves, pointing gestures and lots of head shaking. Confusing as most of this was it left me in no doubt about his main point: I should sleep with all my valuables zipped in my trouser pockets tonight.

Our lack of ability to communicate meant I was unable to ask him some of the questions that were now rather pertinent, like did he know something that I didn’t about the circumstances of my stay in this building? My mind immediately began warning me, thinking up different scenarios of what was going to happen, and why he had chosen to tell me. Had the other three roommates taken advantage of my ignorance of Albanian to openly discuss robbing me while I sat in front of them? Did they have a habit of bringing cyclists back to their lair, feeding them and talking about Wayne Rooney before emptying their wallet? Or did the man just think his housemates were a bit dodgy and it was better to be cautious, maybe he himself couldn’t think of any idea why they had taken me in. That may explain his apparent unease around me anyway.

Maybe I should have left the place while they were still out, packed up my bags and rode to a cheap hotel nearby to avoid whatever might happen later that night. Perhaps I should have. But aside from his comments nothing gave me a bad feeling about the situation. The others were friendly and I wasn’t nervous about them at all. So I decided to trust my instincts, have faith in the man I had shared a meal with and fall asleep instead.

I woke, several hours later, when the three others returned from their night’s boozing. Groggy from little sleep, my eyes were forced to open when they expected to rest. The three sat cross legged on the bed next to mine and played cards, John using a wing mirror detached from a motorbike and pair of tweezers to pluck hairs from his eyebrows inbetween his turns at the game. Nothing seemed suspicious, they were in good spirits after a night relaxing, as boisterous as you would expect three people who had been out spending their wages on beer to be.

One man in particular seemed to be enjoying himself more than the others, abandoning cards and excitedly jumping up every time his phone rang and running outside to talk. He was doing exactly that when I walked past him in the garden after using the toilet (relieving oneself on an olive tree). Waving at me he indicated I should take the phone and have a listen to what the other person was talking about. Or, it turned out, not really talking per se. For reasons still unclear the man had passed the phone to me to listen to a lady in the middle of a particularly passionate exchange, the sort that someone would normally engage in in private, an intimate exchange between two people in some sort of relationship, not two people and a smelly bloke from Britain you’ve never met before.

I wanted to enquire what sort of reaction the man was looking for from me. A high five? A nod and a wink? Perhaps an enthusiastic “Phwoarrr, well done mate, you’ve got a good one there. She sounds like a real minx.” Instead, after deciphering the whining noises as those of sexual ecstasy and not of someone mortally wounded I offered a lacklustre “Oh right… erm…” while nervously shuffling my feet. Not really wanting to continue our little ménage a trois I offered him a thumbs up before returning to the house, crawling back into bed and drifting to sleep as the card game continued.

Next morning my roommates were awake, dressed and standing amid a fog of cigarette smoke outside their house within ten minutes of waking up. During the night I wasn’t woken by the quiet shuffling of bags as someone riffled through my possessions, or of my bicycle being carried out of the room by an inverse Santa, as had crossed my mind.

Before climbing into the back of the pickup truck that arrived to take them to another day in the olive fields they told me to stay as long as I liked, then lockup and hide their key under a brick. They drove off as I waved goodbye from their garden, my pockets still stuffed with the valuables I thought I may wake up without, trusted with access to their home and possessions. These were decent, kind people and my faith in them had been vindicated.

An update on cycling.
The evening I wrote about above took place in November when I was on my way to Athens after crossing the border from Macedonia. I’m still in Greece, still picking olives and have now spent just as much time in this one village by the sea as it took me to get here from the UK.

I expect to leave sometime soon(ish)…

The Ride Round Awards

Written by James looking at the sea.

At this time of year the press will be in full retrospective mode, looking back over 2011 and declaring which musician made the best album of the year, who wore the best dress or shot the best film. Shamelessly jumping on the passing bandwagon I present the inaugural Ride Round Awards, to highlight the very best of my European journey. There are five awards, each covering a different aspect of life riding a bicycle.

An elite panel of experts recently convened in a secret location to debate and deliberate who should win one of the coveted awards, vowing not to emerge from their self-imposed exile until agreement had been reached. With maximum secur… OK, all of that is a load of rubbish. I thought this nonsense up while picking olives in Greece. Anyway, here they are.

The Bun In The Oven Award for best bread.
Awarded jointly to Serbia and Macedonia.
Cheap, filling and versatile a good loaf of bread is my staple food. Nearly every morning involves hunting out the local bakery to get my daily ration. Stored safely in a pannier bag a cooling loaf is ready to be smothered with sardines in tomato sauce at lunch time, dipped in the spicy sauce my instant noodles boil in or wipe my pan clean after a satisfying meal of pasta and tomato sauce before bed.

The Panel’s comments.
With France on the shortlist this award was always going to be tough for another country to break through. And while the country is to be commended for its commitment to quality, fresh bread and the near omnipresent boulangerie it fails to take the award.

The Panel instead award the honour jointly to Serbia and Macedonia, where huge rugby ball sized lumps of delicious warm bread can be found every day. The Serbian and Macedonian bakery also offer a smogersboard of treats to go with a daily bread fix, perfect for that mid-morning snack. Particularly recommended are thick slices of pastry stuffed with cheese or grated potato, or the Daddy of them all, a sausage encased in pastry with mustard already piped into the case as a filling.

The Hip Hops Award for best beer.
Awarded to a German beer in Germany.

Spending a wonderful night perched on a bar stool in a dimly lit German bar I was served a tall glass of superb beer. I’ve no idea what it was called, not because I was pissed, because I wasn’t paying attention. I can remember asking for a dark beer though, and savouring every drop of it, including the second one.

The Panel’s comments.
As producers of the best beer in the world (self-declared), Germany offers a bewildering range of beers to tempt the cycle tourer from handlebars to hangover. No other brewing nation posed a serious threat to their dominance.  Even a last pint of Taylor’s Landlord sipped on the night before leaving England failed to make the shortlist. It is disappointing that the beer cannot be named to allow others to enjoy its medicinal qualities, but, just like the Turin shroud, when the world will end, or how Maradonna got away with scoring that goal at the world cup it will remain a mystery.

NB When judging this award next year The Panel would like to make it clear that they are open to any form of persuasion by breweries or drinking establishments. Free samples are particularly welcome.

The No Hander Award for best road.
Awarded to an unnamed road from Kiveri to Skala, The Peloponnese, Greece.
I cycled this road on my last two days’ cycling of 2011, a fitting end to the first leg of my trip and a tease of the mountains to come in Central Asia. It has that wonderful combination of coastal and mountain scenery, very little traffic and plentiful opportunities to stop and gawp at your surroundings.

The Panel’s comments.
Macedonia could be forgiven for thinking it had secured this award by offering the magnificent E75 at the end of October. While its delights are surely not to be missed there was only one serious contender this year.

In only 130km this simple road, so modest it appears not to have a title, offers road travellers a pick ‘n’ mix of the finest elements that make up a good day in the saddle. The first half offers a smooth stretch of asphalt that weaves along a notch cut into the mountain side, ascending and descending past villages and sandy beaches with the sea and mountains beyond a constant companion.

Cutting inland it leaves the coast behind for a stunning twenty mile climb through a rock strewn landscape, where the only sound you’ll hear beyond your own breathlessness is that of goats devouring whatever flora they meet. Peaking at a pretty mountain village the road then drops away, the asphalt poured down the mountain side in the form of thrilling hairpin bends and descents that force water from your eyes.

Finally it reunites the rider with the sea, still warm enough for a swim, just choose your own beach from those that dot the coast.

The Clear Skies Award for best camp-spot.
Awarded to a building site in Fotina, Greece.

At the end of a day cycling round Mount Olympus I was offered a safe place to sleep in the form of a building site in a hillside village. My temporary home was in the early stages of construction, a concrete shell with steel reinforcements protruding from its floors, perched on a terrace cut into the hill. Pitching my tent on the bare floor I set about cooking up a classic meal of pasta and tomatoes, but was interrupted by the lady who had offered me the camp-spot who was holding a selection box of food to feed me, and blankets to keep warm.

Using her food as a starter I still had plenty of room for my own, and ate the soggy pasta overladen with raw onion as I sat cross legged on a balcony overlooking the rest of the village. The sun now set behind distant hills I washed up by torchlight and retired to my waiting tent, sliding into my sleeping bag cocoon. My dozing soundtrack was the noise of the men of the village returning from a day felling trees further up in the mountains, the argument of a couple in marital strife and, eventually, the sound of silence.

At dawn I packed up my tent, smoke rising from the chimneys in the village below indicating that my temporary neighbours were also awake, ready for another day.

The Panel’s comments.
The criteria for this award stipulated that a tent must be pitched to be eligible. Therefore nights spent in a house, cellar, empty flat or any other abode not involving a tent, however wonderful, were not considered.

Development of an uncanny knack for being invited into strangers’ homes meant large parts of the European journey had to be discounted. A tent was only pitched once between Vienna and Greece, for example. Nonetheless The Panel were satisfied that the long and shortlists offered a bounty of quality entries.

The eventual winner offered something that any person, from luxury hotel guest to tight fisted bicycle traveller, would consider essential for a memorable place to stay: a mesmerising view. Add kindness in the form of blankets and fresh food, an in house entertainment area (urinating off a second floor balcony to see how far it travels) and a nearby tap for washing up (or your hands after using the entertainment area) and there’s not a lot more someone needs to have a good night’s sleep.

The Soviet Union Legacy Award for best use of bureaucracy in a cycle touring setting.
Awarded to an unnamed official in the Serbian city of Novi Sad.

Before arriving in Serbia I had been a good boy and had checked the FCO travel advice website which informed me I should register with Serbian police within 24 hours of arriving in the country. Dutifully I found myself in front of a plump bureaucrat in Novi Sad police station, holding a half completed form to register my presence in Serbia that didn’t make much sense. The official scanned my form briefly before handing it straight back to me. She informed me I must return to her office with a copy of the rental agreement the person I was staying with had signed to live in her house and her residency papers. “And you only have six hours left to do it.” She said with a faux friendly smile, secretly delighting in my confused look. “And if I don’t?” I asked “You’ll go in front of a judge, be fined 50,000 dinar and be deported.” I left with promises to return.

The lady didn’t know I’d also done some research on that bible of truth Wikipedia. It said this silly little piece of paper was rarely asked for, which was good enough reason not to return, so I never went back. A couple of weeks later I cycled to the Macedonian border. “Your bike looks very heavy!” was the only comment from the border official as I rolled into Macedonia without question.

The Panel’s comments.
Thanks to the European Union and Schengen Agreement there was only one entry for this award this year. That should not diminish the strength of the entry in readers’ eyes, however. The Panel particularly enjoyed the official’s threat of judicial action, a classic piece of bureaucratic bluster straight from the textbook.

With a visit to Central Asia planned for next year, where form filling is the most popular sport in some areas, this promises to be one of the most hotly contested awards at the next ceremony.

So there you have it. If any tourist authorities or bakers’ trade unions want to get in touch to claim their award they can do so by sending me an e-mail.

I’m spending winter in Greece living with a wonderful family, picking olives, working the land and spending an inordinate amount of time staring at the mountains and sea that surround our house. When I originally ‘planned’ this journey I thought I’d be spending winter in Syria or Jordan, events in the former subsequently making that idea unlikely to happen. I then left England with my sights set on Turkey, to find a farm job and wait out the cold weather. That again changed with the offer to work with the family I’m living with. I’m planning on staying here until some point in early 2012, when the worst of winter has subsided. I’ll then cross to Turkey by ferry and cycle east, to somewhere I haven’t really decided yet.

This will be my last blog post of 2011 so I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone, friend and stranger alike, for their support and donations to Macmillan in the early stages of this trip. Without the support of people at home I’d never have got off my arse to start pedalling, and without the constant kindness from everyone I’ve met on the road I probably would have given up somewhere in Northern France (That’s enough award ceremony drivel. Ed.)

Nis to meet you

Written by James on a balcony in Athens.

A man I met in Budapest, when I told him I was cycling to Serbia, responded with “No, not a good idea. Too dangerous. Go to Croatia” Another cyclist I’d exchanged an e-mail with said the country was lovely but signed off his message with “Watch out for the gypsies.”

Thus Serbia, in my mind, became a country to tolerate, one to cycle through as fast as possible. To nervously look over my shoulder for chasing Roma in their horse and cart and watch for the dangers that lurked round the next corner. I used Google maps to calculate the distance of the country from top to bottom on the shortest possible road and then worked out how many days it would take me to ‘get through’ Serbia.

Even at the time I questioned what I was doing. I told myself the universal kindness I had experienced so far was not suddenly going to disappear as I cycled across the border from Hungary. People were the same everywhere, kind, friendly, and honest. It was ludicrous to be discounting a whole country and its people without ever going to it. Yet sitting in a house in Budapest I was ignoring all of my experiences and logical thoughts and had slipped into the default mode of being scared of my neighbours, of fearing the unknown.

At dawn I pedalled across the border into Serbia, surprising the border guard who was reading the sport section of his newspaper while sipping coffee. I wasn’t met by packs of feral dogs ready to gnaw my ankles, or children preparing to reduce my bicycle to spare parts before flogging them in the nearest market. It was a quiet, peaceful and ordinary scene. Just like anywhere else I had been, and what I knew all along was going to happen really.

After a very short time Serbia evolved into a place to spend as much time as possible not as little, to talk to anyone and everyone (including those scary Roma), to eat its food, drink its beer and survey its mountains.

On one of my last days in the country I descended from a winding road onto a huge plateau. Just a few miles behind the landscape had been one of occasional greenery, shrubs, and thickets of trees. But by moving from one side of a hill to the other I had entered an entirely different landscape. This extended to a cultural shift too as the villages dotted in front of me each had the distinctive dome and minarets of a mosque pointing towards the sky.

Entering one of these villages I stopped and spoke to the first man I met, enquiring whether he knew of anywhere I could camp nearby. He invited me into his home without thought, to meet his family, to learn from him and to experience his way of life.

Together we rounded up his chickens, milked his goat then walked the animal through the village to his brother’s house. A cloudless, pristine sky accompanied the barren and dusty plateau and silence was broken only by the sound of the muezzin coughing into his microphone before issuing the call to prayer to the village. As he did so I stood with my new friend, who I had since learned was called Yupi and originally from Albania, and watched the sun drop away beyond the horizon to mark the end of another day.

The goat safely stored with his brother I walked to Yupi’s house and sat down to share a meal of Albanian food. The village was now shrouded in absolute darkness, a power-cut temporarily turning the clock back for the inhabitants by decades. Lit by the light of two tea-lights Yupi and I teared chunks of fresh, crusty bread from a huge loaf and dipped them into a thick bean soup his wife had prepared, crunched our way through fresh peppers from his garden and had our mouths coated in thick, cloying cheese produced by his goat.

Retiring to their living room with Yupi and his wife we went through the same routine that millions of people exercised on that same evening across the world. We ate, washed it down with a coffee then sat to watch the television, flicking between Serbian political debate, Indian soap operas and an international bodybuilding competition. Then I slipped underneath the woolen blanket laid on the sofa and slowly fell asleep, happy to be in great company, happy to be on this cycling trip and most of all, happy to be in Serbia.

To paraphrase Bill Bryson singing the praises of my hometown “If you have never been to Serbia, go there at once. Take my bike. It’s wonderful.”

Finally a quick note to say a big thank you to Axa Insurance for donating a fantastic amount of money to Macmillan through The Ride Round. The same thanks extend to everyone who sponsored my Dad who recently successfully tackled the Durham Big Ride.

Schnapps with Steve

Written by James in district 22, Budapest

“You like some schnapps with your beer, Steve?” asked Alex
“Erm, why not?” I replied

Alex was a retired Colonel from the Hungarian army and I was sat in his weekend house, the near overflowing Danube meandering past the bottom of his garden. With a bushy, greying goatee and thick black hair he resembled a healthier Ricky Tomlinson (if Ricky Tomlinson was a former champion gymnast who swims every day). Moments earlier I had rode past his house and asked if he spoke English.

“Italianish yes, Deutsch yes, Russian yes, Hungarian yes. English, not so good. Just from rock music.”

Germany, Austria, Slovakia and now Hungary continued the pattern that emerged in France. Asking if there are any good camp spots nearby more often than not ends in me being invited into someone’s garden. Alex had shown me a spot to camp in his but quickly retracted the offer. Instead he used a winch to lower a camp bed from the second story of his house out into the garden, we wheeled this into the ground floor and immediately I had a warm, comfortable place to stay for the night.

“We eat at seven, you are invited.” He said in a matter of fact way.

Ten minutes later I sat on the campbed writing in my journal when Alex strode in through the door again. “Steve, this is like winter in here, come upstairs for warmth.”

Joined by Alex’s friend from down the road we sat in the living room of his house and drank Slovakian beer followed by schnapps. Then Slovakian beer followed by schnapps. Then Hungarian beer followed by schnapps. Then a little bit of Slovakian beer just to keep the cycle going. I could feel the alcohol seeping into my legs, like adding a drop of food colouring to water and watching it disperse, it made its way down my legs and into my calves. When the food was ready I ambled over to the dinner table with that warm buzz that comes from teetering on the edge of sobriety.

By now the schnapps was poured from an unmarked bottle with various unidentifiable fruits floating in it. Luckily I went to town on the gherkins and cheese so had developed something like a stomach lining and could still hold a conversation with my Hungarian friends. As the night wore on and more alcohol was consumed Alex’s English became better and better (most of it was learned from The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys) and the conversation became more open.

We discussed the second world war and the history of this border region, how if you ask people in this village where their family history lies they will say Germany, but travel five miles down the road they will say Slovakia. The village had been prime recruiting ground for the SS and Alex’s friend’s Grandfather had been drafted into them as a young man. Ignoring the dictum to never discuss politics, religion or sex we rambled on as old friends until bed time. I’d like to tell you more about the decline of Hungarian territory, border politics and life in the Hungarian army but I can’t. Not because my host was a crashing bore but because he’d plied me with more than enough alcohol to make my memory go hazy. I remember it all being incredibly interesting though.

Next morning I woke sans hangover and pottered upstairs to say good morning. “Steve, I have prepared for you. Toothbrush here. Towel here. Now I make breakfast.”

Again we sat down together to eat. No fruit at breakfast nonsense for this Colonel, just bread, cheese, salami, weiners, mustard, tea and coffee. Just what I needed for my first full day in Hungary.

As we walked to the end of his driveway to say farewell I tried my best to thank Alex for his hospitality, just as I have done with countless other people in the few weeks since I left England. When I planned this trip I envisaged being welcomed into someone’s home very occasionally. I expected the majority of my time being spent camped away from towns and villages hiding in the safety of the woods. Truth is if the trip had gone that way I’m sure I’d be fairly miserable by now. The ensemble cast of characters I’ve met have each supported me in a way I really didn’t expect. And as nice as it is to ride a bicycle all day through sweeping gorges lathered in ancient forests, stare at medieval churches and observe the engineering achievements of mankind I’d much rather be in someone’s home. Finding out about their life and dreams, what they think of their government, their mother in law, or just to see how they make a cup of tea. These are the moments I enjoy, the ones to cherish and remember.

With a firm handshake and pat on the shoulder I left Alex in his weekend retreat and cycled in the direction of Budapest. “Good luck, Steve.” he said (I stopped correcting him after the second time and just let the name stick.)

The photos above cover my journey from the official ‘source’ of the Danube river in Donaueschingen, Germany to where I will leave it in Budapest.

The Other Side (Of The Road)

Written by James on a lovely sunny afternoon in Donaueschingen

I am stood in a corrugated tin bus shelter, last painted in 1983 and since daubed in graffiti by idle local teenagers as rain bounces down onto the road in front of me. I’d cycled for a few hours to get here, nothing special, no hills, no wind. Just a fair amount of rain. Feeling sorry for myself I unpack my stove and cook an uninspiring meal of pasta and tomatoes.

It’s a Sunday afternoon so nothing much is happening in this small part of France. A fat child who reminds me of Augustus Gloop rides his bike down the main street while shouting at his friend. I watch as a couple wave their family off who had been for dinner, kids waving from the backseats as Dad drives home. Feelings of jealousy rise up in me. Instead I’m listening to the rain in a bus shelter with no-one to talk to. Stupid bike ride.

As it gets dark I start to think more about where I’ll be sleeping that night and don’t really fancy riding to the woods. This village is small, everyone will be tucked up inside in an hour or so so I’ll just kip here in the bus shelter, job done. Not ideal but I’ll sleep alright.

Then thoughts turn to the hospitality I had received the previous night. I had been cycling along and asked a couple if they knew of any good wild camping spots near their village. After a brief exchange they had invited me into their garden, cooked a huge three course meal for me, offered me a shower and opened up their lives to me for a night. This is exactly the sort of tale I had heard from the many books and websites I had read about cycle touring before beginning this journey. How people want to see others succeed and will go out of their way to help.

Sod it then, I’m not sleeping in this bloody bus shelter. There are about ten houses in this village and there’s no reason to believe that the people living here won’t want to offer me a dry spot for the evening. Look at that house over there, its garage is huge, surely I could unroll my sleeping bag in it.

So I practice my lines, something along the lines of “Excuse me Sir, I’m a bit knackered and notice your garage is the size of an English terraced house, could I sleep on the floor please?”

Expecting to have to try several houses I ring the doorbell at house number one and a man in his 40s comes to the door.
“Errrr, pardon, errrr je suis…”
Recognising my alarming level of ineptitude at speaking his language the man immediately interrupts.
“Can I help?”
He speaks English! What a stroke of luck.

It takes him less than two seconds to decide that yes I can sleep in his garage, and would I like a drink too? As we wander to the garage door he apologies as the garage is dirty, something that is of little concern to me. We walk upstairs and I discover a carpeted room he says I can sleep in, pure luxury compared to the bus shelter.

“Knock on the door when you’re ready and we’ll have a cup of tea.”

As we sit with his wife and children in front of a tree trunk sized log burning on their fire he tells me about some of the trips he has done in the past. His walls are spotted with photographs of friends drinking from water bottles on Andean peaks, 4x4s crossing the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and local people grinning into camera lenses. I tell the family about my trip but his wife says she would rather go business class.

So there we have it. I’m back in my garage room standing at the window and look over to the bus shelter and flick it the V sign. V for victory, victory for belief in human kindness and good deeds. As the French might say – “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

But had I just got lucky? Had I just happened to knock on the door of the only English speaking, open minded, caring person in this village? Would August Gloop’s parents have cared about me, or would they have told the sweaty Englishman to get lost?

From the rest of my time in France I can firmly say that that family were not an abberation. They were just one example of the sort of kindness I have received while covering a relatively short distance. From people filling my water bottles, refusing to let me eat lunch alone and instead driving me to their home, letting me sleep in their garden, office or attic, phoning their friends to organise for me to have a shower further down the road, passing on gifts of home-made jam and French military battle dress to keep warm or even just a friendly wave from the roadside. All of it has been unexpected but received with heartfelt thanks.

Getting the ferry to France I was apprehensive about what lay ahead and have had some real mental lows during the journey, questionning what I was doing. But I always knew this was the case. If this was easy then there wouldn’t be any point in doing it. If I didn’t have to work hard there would be no reward. I often think of a comment a seasoned cycle tourer wrote on the blog post of another person new to extended cycle trips – “Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.” I suppose I could have excluded this from my blog post and instead told you about the good bits, the life affirming, grin inducing, heart warming stuff. But I think it’s important to detail the reality of the trip, and hopefully that makes it slightly more interesting to read about.

While it is too early to say I am settled in this new existence after only a month on the road I can see I am making progress. Dare I say it, the last few days have even involved some of the F word. No, not that one: fun.

I’m now in Germany and will amble along the Danube river over the next couple of weeks. I expect it to be a beautiful area so certainly won’t be rushing myself to ride lots of miles.

First Steps

Written by James in a conservatory in Brighton.

The sandwich went round and round my mouth; a mushy mess of salty bacon and dry bread. My own body was unable to produce enough saliva to allow me to swallow the food needed to sustain it. Only slurps of hot, sweet, steaming tea allowed me finish my last breakfast at home. It was a laborious task chewing the cud while looking at my house through blurry, tear filled eyes.

Knowing that this would officially be The Shittest Day Of My Life I had kept my departure day as low key as possible, with only the closest family there to wave me off. It was a different type of departure to anything else I was used to. I wasn’t waiting for a taxi to arrive to pick me up, or counting down those last couple of minutes with a loved one in a rail station before a train departs. It was just down to me, to walk out of the door, sit on my bike and begin pedalling.

To signal to everyone it was time for me to go I clipped the strap on my helmet into place, tightened the Velcro on my gloves and walked out of my front door. “Right, this is it then.” (I think I said this, although it could have been just about anything given my state of mind). After more last hugs and a failed attempt to take some photos I gingerly rode down our cul de sac, looked over my right shoulder, waved a last goodbye and pedalled on in the direction of Darlington.

Two hours later that was it. A sluggish start on under-inflated tyres had taken me straight back to my old office, day one of my trip completed before midday. I rolled up to colleagues standing in the car park smoking cigarettes.

“So when do you start then, James?”
“What do you mean? This is it, first day done, Durham to Darlington.”
“Oh…”

That night I sat in a friend’s house who had offered to put me up and had made me a plateful of delicious food. Three attempts and as many hours later I still hadn’t finished the plate, I sat glaring out of the kitchen window, too many thoughts running through my mind. What am I doing?! Given up my job and left everyone for this?! I can’t even eat a plate of food.

I went to bed that night and passed out straight away, the emotion making me exhausted even if I’d done very little physical exercise. I’d like to say I woke the next morning a new man, full of gusto, ready to take on the rest of England and live a dream I had held for a long time. This would be stretching the truth a little, but at least I finished breakfast.

The next few days passed easily with me staying with friends and family all the way to Sheffield. The living was easy with cosy beds to sleep in, home-cooked food, infinite time to catchup and plentiful conversation. On day two I was kindly hosted by the Riley family on the night before their son also set off to cycle round the world. It was strange to witness those last minute nerves, planning (see photo below) and packing as an outsider only forty-eight hours after I had been going through the same situation.

After a weekend in Sheffield that mainly involved alcohol consumption and excessive takeaway food consumption (a kebab for lunch anyone?) I huffed and puffed through the hills of  South Yorkshire. A couple of nights camping in Nottinghamshire and Cambridgeshire led me to more days of rest, frogs’ legs eating and map shopping in London.

The few days of cycling that I have completed so far have still given me plenty of time to think about the trip and what lies ahead. So much runs through my mind when I’m riding along, thoughts about failing, success, adventure, loneliness, bike problems, injury. I’m certainly still in the early stages, where I’m unsure about what I’m doing, what I can achieve and what I want to achieve.

Tomorrow morning I catch a ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. The plan as it stands would mean the next time I leave land will be in Singapore. What really happens is anyone’s guess.

PS To those who have been asking about what ‘pulling gear’ I have packed with me, very little is the answer. I’ve got two pairs of trousers (one on bike one off), one jumper, a long sleeved shirt, an official Ride Round t-shirt, a long sleeved base layer type t-shirt to cycle in and three pairs of socks. Footwear wise I’ve got some flip-flops and a pair of boots to cycle in – they stink of Lancaster canal though.

“The past is a foreign country”

Written by James dancing round the kitchen.

Now that I’ve left my job I’ve been thinking about the difference between my old life working a steady 9-5 and the new one cycling.

Take the last two and a half years. I can look back through my diary and work out where I was on pretty much every day: sat in the same office. If I wasn’t in the office it would be a weekend when time would fly over all too fast and lead back to me sitting in the office again. As well as weekends there were the precious days of holiday my employer gave to me, where I would have to decide in December if I wanted to go away on a long weekend in July. Want a day off? Work out when it is, tell us six months in advance and then we’ll look on a spreadsheet and decide.

Compare this to my next couple of years. No applications to make, nobody to ask if I can have a day off next year, no forms to fill in. If I fancy a day off, it’s for me to decide when.

If I was still in my old job I could look at a calendar for 2021 now and say with some confidence that I would be sat at an office desk in the middle of August. How scary is that!? Knowing that your next forty years, apart from those few holiday days, has already been planned for you without any of your input.

Of course, as Confucius said “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”I guess that means my job wasn’t the one for me anyway. If you’ve found your vocation in life then I envy you. To be woken by your alarm clock excited about the day ahead is a brilliant feeling.

Now if I look to the future I have no idea where I’ll be in two and a half years’ time. Maybe I’ll be back home having completed a round the world ride. Maybe I’ll be halfway round. Or maybe I’ll have got to Turkey and never left. It doesn’t really matter where I am in the world or how many miles I’ve pedalled.

Nothing is planned, it’s just me and my bicycle and time is irrelevant. I feel like anything is possible, that our wonderful world and its people are out there waiting. Giving up my job to go cycling makes perfect sense. It’s the best decision I have ever made.

The world is mine to explore and nobody can stop me.

Recent Publicity

Written by James at home.

Recently I’ve spoken to a couple of journalists about my trip in order to raise some publicity, and hopefully a bit of cash for Macmillan. First of all I spoke to The Northern Echo. You can read the article here. Versions of the article also appeared in The Durham Times and Durham Advertiser and the Echo also featured an amusing cartoon indicating some interesting times ahead! (Click the image below to enlarge).

Following that I was invited on to Neil Green’s show on BBC Radio Tees to have a chat. Before I went into the studio I received a phone call from one of the production team saying “We’ve lined up a bit of a surprise for you.” “Hmmm, sounds intriguing, do tell” “Well, have you heard of Mark Beaumont?” “Yes…” “Well, he’ll be on the phone live on air so you can ask him some questions and have a chat.” As if I wasn’t nervous enough going on the radio and trying not to swear.

NB Mark Beaumont broke the speed record for a circumnavigation of the world by bike a couple of years ago and has since completed various adventures.

I asked Mark some questions about wild camping and travelling in Iran, along with the questions that Neil asked him. Thoroughly nice chap with some sound advice that I’ll put to good use in the very near future.

A combination of the radio appearance and a plug from Mark on Twitter increased the number of hits to this site massively, hopefully some of those logging on will come back and keep an eye on my journey when I set off.

Earlier today, with less than twenty days to go until I set off, I went back to the radio studio for an update with Mike Parr. If you’re in the UK you can listen again on the BBC iPlayer for the next seven days. I’m on from 1 hour 52 minutes onwards. Click here to have a listen.

I will keep in touch with BBC Tees during my journey so regular listeners may hear my monotone ramblings again in the future.

The International Peloton

Written by James in the kitchen when he should really be out in the sun.

Not a week goes by without me discovering another person on the Internet who is planning a long distance cycle tour. The proliferation of cyclists returning from long distance tours, writing books, making films and giving talks about their experiences to excited people in lecture theatres and libraries all around the country has increased the profile of international cycling. I imagine many people have walked out of an auditorium or put down a good book and decided cycle adventuring was the life for them before setting about making it a reality. It is the slow trickle down effect that we see now, as people have saved hard, researched and planned until the day comes to set off and turn a dream into a reality.

This is certainly how I came to get involved in cycle touring anyway. I had an idea to go touring, read a few books and websites then went to see a cyclist give a talk. The latter was the catalyst that spurred me on to set off on my trip, the speaker giving me the belief that I would never find out if I didn’t give it a go.

Those tweeting, blogging and giving talks  are encouraging us to get involved in something that we could not have ever considered before. There’s no way 100 years ago someone like me would be able to consider doing a big bike tour. Trips lasting months on end are no longer the preserve of the wealthy or connected, anyone can now have a go. Research and inspiration through the Internet are free.

But no matter how good a website or blog is it can’t replace sitting enthralled for a couple of hours as someone stands and waxes lyrical on their most recent trip, with nothing but their storytelling ability for backup. If anyone is in any doubt about quitting their job to go cycling going to see an adventurer speak could be a very dangerous thing. Before you know it your possessions are on eBay and you’re spending your spare time researching Iranian visas.

Over the coming months I’m sure I’ll discover more people leaving home on long distance tours. For now keep an eye on these cyclists setting off on trips soon:
The Cycle Diaries – also supported by Van Nicholas bikes
Around The World For Water
Daring Dynamos
Cycle Africa
Next February sees the Global Bicycle Race setting off too.

Route Plans

Written by James gazing over maps at home.

Last year friends and family started to ask me when I was setting off on my trip, to which I would vaguely reply “This time next year.” I said it in March, April, May, June and July. By the time it got to August  I decided I had to stick a date in the diary rather than being vague. So here we are with less than fifty days until I set off.

Rather than researching the climate and seasons in the countries I planned on cycling through then tailoring the date I set off around that I did it the other way round. It went something like this:

Step one: Choose a date
Step two: Guess how long it will take to get through each country
Step three: Look on Wikipedia and check what the weather will be like at that time.
Step four: Oh dear

It turned out that my route following the Danube, through Turkey and into Iran would put me right into the heart of the ‘stans at a time when winter was in full flow.

With this in mind I had planned a slight detour through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan to see out winter before heading back through Syria into Turkey once the weather improved. However, ongoing events in Syria are making it less likely that I will be spending Christmas in Damascus as planned, and as Syria is the key country to getting into the region (I must ride through Syria to get into Jordan and Lebanon overland) my plan needs to change.

So plan number 375 is to cycle through Europe, via the Danube, or possibly slightly further south nearer the Mediterranean. I’ll then spend the coldest winter months in Western Turkey working on a farm. Once the weather improves I’ll set off toward Eastern Turkey and into Iran.

While it’s disheartening to not be able to explore Syria (for the time being at least) there are some benefits to this new route. If I find a farm within easy travelling distance of Istanbul or Ankara I can start the Iranian and ‘stan visa application process while working on the farm. Time it right and I could finish my time as a farm hand just when the visas are ready meaning there would be minimal time wasted waiting for visa processing. The Turkish visa is very flexible too, meaning I would just need to leave the country after three months and re-enter straight away to get another three months.

Turkey is an area that I have studied in the past so I’m really looking forward to being able to spend an extended period in the country. It’ll be nice to see the country through personal experience rather than reading about its landscape, people and food via someone else’s blog.

If anyone reading this has ever volunteered through the WWOOF network (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), especially in Turkey, I’d like to hear from you (contact details at the bottom of your screen).

Alternatively there is plan number 376, which isn’t much of a plan and just involves setting off without organising a place on a farm or working out a route, with the assumption that everything will sort itself out. The freedom that will come from this type of trip is really attractive. Yet ideally I want to be somewhere between being organised and disorganised, structured and unstructured. I want the chance to explore Europe at my leisure without having to pedal on when I don’t want to, but I also want the reassurance that will come from knowing I have somewhere to stay come winter.

Sailing on the Solent.

Written by James grinning at home.

Several months ago I spotted an advert offering crew positions on a yacht regatta on the Isle of Wight. No experience required, all that was needed was a keenness to learn and some effort. I found out I’d been accepted on the day before setting off on my trip to Scotland in April.

My previous encounters with boats didn’t really bode well for this trip. Apart from several queasy ferry rides from England to France my only experience on a water going vessel had been a disastrous attempt to row part of the Lancaster canal earlier this year. Making the mistake of believing the description of something on eBay we had drunkenly bought a “family size” blow up boat for the princely sum of thirty pounds. The seller clearly had The Borrowers in mind as, when it arrived in the post, it wasn’t the spacious cruiser with room for a lie down and a gin and tonic that I had imagined but an oversize child’s toy. We continued on with our plan anyway and set off rather gingerly from the canalside. Having snapped an oar within ten minutes, making the second person totally redundant (apart from as an eye spy partner), the boat then rapidly started loosing air in several places. “She’s going down!” shouted my mate as I steered toward land, forcing us onto the bank to witness the boat crumple from its multiple holes. Our four day trip had lasted for three hours. It then took us about five seconds to decide to jump in a car, drive to Scotland and walk in the splendor of the Galloway forest instead. If I was to share the only thing I learnt from that trip it would be this: don’t go on the Internet when drunk and buy things off eBay.

It’s safe to say I had higher expectations for this trip, mainly as it had been organised by people who knew what they were doing rather than a couple of drunken idiots.

My crew, from across the UK, had a mixture of abilities from complete novices like me upwards. With only one day of training before we started racing it was a steep learning curve to try and get to grips with everything that went on on a racing yacht. It was clear that nobody was a passenger on board, everyone had a clear role that was important to the team as a whole, and everyone could have an impact on the results of a race. Key moments that could alter the result of a race took place in seconds, even though the race a whole may be several hours long. Spend too long getting a sail up and your position in the race could alter all too quickly.

Added to this was the need to try and learn a whole new dictionary of nautical terms and jargon, difficult at the best of times but all the more when many bits of kit had three different names that were used interchangeably (Jenny, I discovered, was not the name of Forrest Gump’s fishing boat but the name for a sail).

One of the wonderful things about cycling is its special ability to turn me into a grinning idiot. Simply rolling down a hill with the wind in my face brings on cathartic shouts of “Whoop! Whoop!” and can bring a clarity of thought that nothing else has been able to match. No other sport I’ve tried has come close matching a bike’s ability to have that effect on me. I think I can add racing a yacht to this list.

Sitting with my legs over the side of a boat, a 30 knot wind blasting my ears, fresh sea spray cooling my face while watching the world go by never failed to bring a child like grin from ear to ear. Yet these moments of relaxation were interspersed by manic activity by the crew. With a shout of “Ready about!” from the skipper we would throw our legs back into the boat, sliding and climbing over each other to get to our allotted duties before bellowing “Ready!” in return. As the boat swung round sheets (ropes to you and me) were rapidly pulled, bodies slid over the deck from one side of the boat to the other and maximum effort was extolled by all.

Once it’d crashed around and got to my allotted spot on the boat I would straddle a winch, grinding my arms round and round as fast as possible, the skin on my face folded from the effort needed to turn the handle while the sea washed over the deck covering my feet and lower legs. As soon as the handle became too tight to turn and the sail was in place I’d scramble up to the high side of the boat, throw my legs over the side and again feel the cooling breeze of the sea. This moment of calm may last half an hour, or less than a minute, as once again the skipper would give the “Ready about!” command and we’d go through those initial moments of panic and jostling for position all over again.

At the end of a long, hard, day of intense activity that quiet sense of satisfaction that wells up after any exhausting day overtook me. Knowing that the sleep I would enjoy that night came from the simple physical act of turning my arms round and round and pulling on ropes, not from the weariness of staring at a computer all day, made it feel all the sweeter.

I sit writing this with a huge grin on my face, as I spent all of my week sailing apart from those gurning moments where us crew were at work. Sailing is at once an incredibly simple sport using the basic forces of nature to get around, yet incredibly complicated and difficult to master through its language and complexity of equipment involved. Anyone lucky enough to be offered the chance to try it shouldn’t think twice.

At the minute my plan for the ride is to fly between major landmasses. But if I get the chance to stow my bike and once again dangle my legs over the side of a yacht waiting for the sudden burst of adrenaline that comes from hearing the words “Ready about!” I’ll jump at the chance. As long as they haven’t bought their equipment off eBay.

Recent Fundraising Activity

Written by James on a sunny day in Durham.

I thought it was time for a quick update on how things are progressing with fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support.

Two events have occupied most of my fundraising time over recent weeks. At the end of May, through a combination of a dress down day, raffles, buffets and a quiz across several offices across the North East we raised over £700 for Macmillan. Thanks to my colleagues for supporting the cause, many who have never even met me.

Two days ago we put on an evening of music, food and booze at a bar in Durham. As well as being a fundraiser this was effectively my leaving do too as friends and family had come from across England to get together and celebrate. Despite our band cancelling two days before the gig (oh dear) and the DJ being taken to hospital one day before (double oh dear) we still pulled together what I think was a great night. Through a combination of raffle and ticket sales our total raised for the night was an amazing £1127.13.

I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to head up to Durham and contribute to that superb total, as well as the companies who were kind enough to donate raffle prizes. Support of friends and family has been limitless, something that I will need in spades when I hit the road.

Thank you all.

My trip to Scotland in April, in numbers.

Nights: 14
Miles: 500
Times waterproofs donned: 40
Times suncream applied: 2
Times I still got burnt: 2
Lochs cycled past: stopped counting at 47
Books read: 1
Ruined buildings slept in: 1
Sheep spotted: 1000 (approximately)
Free buffets abused: 1
Fish caught on fishing trip: 0
Whoop whoops! when speeding downhill: 100s
Times I caught myself singing Phil Collins while cycling: 1 (never to be repeated)
The Ride Round postcards sent: 6

Last year, in order to see if the bicycle touring life was for me, and if it was realistic to embark on a long distance tour, I decided to take a two week trip to explore the reality of life with my possessions strapped to a bike. I was quite clear that if I didn’t enjoy the trip I would stop rambling on to people in the pub about packing my job in to go cycling.

Well, no prizes for guessing how the trip went. The sun shone, I camped beside dramatic mountain landscapes, looked out on Northern Ireland and the expanse of Scotland’s west coast islands on a beautifully clear day from Goatfell, couch-surfed in a second world war lookout tower heated by chip fat, consumed vast quantities of cheese and met interesting people from all around Europe. This is, of course, with hindsight. I was also lonely, out of my depth, hungry, cold and worried. But all things considered I knew I would go through with the trip.

Fast forward twelve months and I have just returned from another two week tour of Scotland. This time rather than experimenting with the very idea of bicycle touring I wanted to run through some of the more practical aspects of living as a bicycle traveller. In particular I wanted to refine my packing list and try some of the equipment I’ve bought over the past few months in the environment it was designed to be used rather than my back garden.

As well as sorting out stoves and tents I also wanted to sample the lifestyle that I’ve planned for the foreseeable future (a tented, bargain basement, instant noodle chomping one). In this regard a two week tour obviously has its limitations. I can’t really practice saying farewell to family and friends and can only resign once, for example. Nonetheless it was still an opportunity to at least get a feeling for what it will be like to cycle all day without knowing where I’m going to sleep at night.

Two issues stand out that I need to think about more seriously about before setting off in August.

Food
When you’re spending a three figure sum on a stove and cooking gear you’d expect it to work reliably. Luckily it did. What wasn’t so reliable was my ability to select decent ingredients to cook with. Quite often I’d stumble into a supermarket, tired and hungry after a day riding and proceed to wander round for five minutes, eyes glazed while staring at all the food thinking “But I could eat all of this!” Invariably I’d then leave the shop clutching a bag containing a seemingly random selection of items like a sausage roll, bag of pasta and a carrot.

I guess cycle touring breaks the number one rule of food shopping – don’t go when hungry. Eventually I became a bit more sensible and got into a routine that forced me to think about what I was buying, by making a list before walking into the shop then sticking to it. This brought costs down considerably by removing the budget busting purchases that somehow kept falling into my basket on earlier parts of the trip (farewell pasties and Kettle chips).

As I expect to be so nervous that my appetite will be suppressed when I set off this is something I really need to keep on top of. What food I do consume needs to be useful to fuel my pedalling and keep me healthy at the same time.

 

Wild Camping
Of the twelve nights I spent on this trip less than half were spent properly wild camping. Undoubtedly this is my biggest worry at the moment. Accommodation expense will mount up very quickly and eat away at my budget if I continue the same routine when I set off in August. As with the food issue (walking into a shop and blindly making bad decisions) it was all too easy to roll into a town exhausted and find myself gravitating towards a campsite or bunkhouse with the promise of a warm shower. While an angel on one shoulder pacifies me with soothing words about a duvet and bed the devil shouts in my ear “You’ll have no bloody money left if you do this when you set off properly, mate.”

My biggest priority over the next few months will be to get out and get used to finding a decent camp spot. Until I feel I’ve developed an eye for the art it will remain so.

 

The above issues notwithstanding I had a great time in Scotland. Lewis, Harris and Skye in particular were an absolute delight. Most importantly I have returned more eager than ever to embark on my adventure and raise as much money as possible for Macmillan. A man I met on a sandy beach near Mallaig sums Scotland up pretty well: “The ex-wife wants to take the kids to Majorca. I said what’s the point when you’ve got all this on your doorstep? Maybe that’s why she’s the ex-wife.”

 

Last month I spent a couple of days back in England’s greenest city, a place with fond memories for me. Instead of waking at noon and propping up South Yorkshire’s economy through the consumption of pizza and kebabs I had returned to lend a hand at something I had somehow missed in my time studying in Sheffield, the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival.

I spent a couple of days helping out at the festival along with a great bunch of like minded people. In-between my duties I was lucky enough to get the chance to see a selection of the films on offer.

Through all of the films that I saw ran themes of commitment, passion and kinship. They featured determined people stretching themselves, their equipment and occasionally patience to achieve extraordinary physical feats, make a difference to the world in which we live or simply satisfy a longing to lead a good life and have fun along the way.

Take a look at the festival trailer here, then my selection of the best of the festival below.

Skateistan
A beautiful short about Kabul’s only skate park, an initiative encouraging the development of the city’s children. Focusing on the life of a couple of skaters in particular. You can see the full film below.

Last Paradise
From an era when adventure sport as an industry did not exist comes Last Paradise. A tale of men who worked out exactly what was important to them, stripping away the superfluous and unnecessary elements of life in New Zealand in the 1960s and instead building a lifestyle built around freedom, sustainability and friendship. If their enviable lifestyle wasn’t enough they also managed to pioneer several adventure sports along the way, staying true to their ideals to this day. Have a look at the trailer below.

Eastern Rises
A film about fly fishing? As in men sitting around starting blankly into murky water with a cup of steaming tea to escape their wives? I must admit this wasn’t exactly at the top of my list of films to see, purely for the above totally prejudiced reasons. The 28 minutes of Eastern Rises couldn’t have been any different. Fundamentally a film film about exploration the picture follows a group of pioneering fishermen through a trip to a little visited part of Russia.  Set against stunning wilderness it examines what drives passionate people to turn a hobby into a job and a job into a lifestyle. Trailer below.

Life Cycles
Achingly beautiful and gloriously shot with a brilliant soundtrack. Superlatives could fill your screen and wouldn’t do justice to this film. Not a story of heroism or adventure, more an extended series of photography. The finest bike film I have seen. If you get the chance make sure you see the full length version of this film.

Dougie Down the Pet
As far from the “Gnarly dude! Totally sick!” school of adventure film making you can get Dougie Down the Pet focuses on the bond between Scott MacGregor and his four year old son Dougie. Following them as they take a canoeing trip in Canada, camping, fishing and sitting by a warming fire en route. Dougie is given an introduction to the excitement the outdoors can offer while the viewer gets a sense of wonder through his eyes. Trailer below.

Postcards from Scotland

Written by James

When I set off in August I’m offering everyone the chance to receive a postcard penned by me, from wherever I happen to be in the world. Read more about the idea here.

Before that date in August I’ll be heading off on a few short trips around the UK, some over weekends and some slightly longer using my ever-so-precious days of annual leave. This coming weekend I am getting the train to Scotland and cycling for a couple of weeks, so what better time to test the postcard idea than right now?

Unlike the main The Ride Round route I have a fairly defined route that involves getting the train to Pitlochry and returning from Inverness. In-between my plan involves heading west to Skye, then on to Harris and Lewis before returning to mainland Scotland.

So, if you’d like a Scottish postcard please donate whatever you like to my justgiving page then send me an e-mail (link at the bottom of your screen) with the subject Postcard Please. I’m unlikely to check my e-mails in the two weeks I’m away so please send me your details by the end of this Friday 8th so I can make a note of it.