Back to Blighty: Adjusting to Normality

24km to Calcutta

24km to Calcutta

After a few busy days in Calcutta in mid December, arranging my luggage and the shipment of my bike back home, I caught a flight back to merry old England. A journey of more than five months, and 6,587.4 miles, had come to an end. Following almost precisely the same route I had pedaled those many months, the Boeing 777 of my return journey took just 12 hours. I landed in a damp and chilly Heathrow airport in time to see the grey light of the December morning begin to illuminate the bleak, wintry English countryside. I was still hours away from my native Yorkshire, but already I felt at home.

For the longest time I wondered how I would feel upon returning home. There were times when I longed for it like nothing else, and others when I was terrified at the very thought of bringing this great adventure to an end, and trying to return to a normal life. I reflected on what I had wanted the trip to be, what I had wanted to get out of it, and whether I could be content that I had achieved all I had set out to achieve. I had overcome all of the challenges and temptations that threatened to bring my journey to a premature end without reaching Calcutta, or even India. But it was never about getting to India. It was about doing something out of the ordinary, about stepping outside the box and plunging myself, head-first, out of my comfort zone, and into the deep water of the unknown. No amount of research prior to setting off could prepare me for what I was likely to encounter, but an open-mind, a positive attitude and a will for adventure only made this more exciting.

Of course, countless people, from all over the world, have had longer, harder, wilder adventures than mine. People have ridden bicycles around the world, doing it in record times, or spending years. There are people who have travelled to far more countries than I have, and probably have even better stories to tell. I wasn’t the first person to cycle to India, and I certainly won’t be the last. But it was never supposed to be a competition, and I do not measure myself or my adventure against any other benchmark than my own sense of satisfaction that I have done it. I would often find myself, during the long days of long miles, grinning from ear-to-ear, hardly believing that I really was living my dream. I may no longer be on the road, my sun-tan may be fading, and my waistline may well be expanding back out to its previous size, but I still find myself grinning to myself sometimes.

Cycling to India was a dream that I’d harboured, in various forms, for years. Once I’d realised the opportunity to fulfill that dream, I felt that I would be being unjust to myself not to take that opportunity. But it also gave me the opportunity to help other people, and allow it to be greater than just myself, by supporting a charity. Cancer care is something that has been especially personal for me after it claimed the life of my cousin, Claire Jones, in 2006. Doing something on this scale allowed me to promote not only my own adventure, but also the cause of two charities, the World Cancer Research Fund, and the Teenage Cancer Trust. With the help of many donors, and the exuberant efforts of my mum (who was the main driver behind the fundraising whilst I was busy cycling), a total of £1,755.45 has been raised, which will be divided evenly between the two charities. If you haven’t donated yet, there is still time to either visit the Just Giving page, or contact me.

Smiles for miles

Smiles for miles

It really was quite strange being home at first. Things which had always seemed very normal to me, things I had once taken for granted, suddenly seemed very foreign, as I found myself looking at everything from an altered perspective. Simple things, like a trip to the local shop, were so incredibly unlike what I had been used to for a good while. The streets, peopled only by the occasional dog-walker, seemed so very quiet and calm. Cars drove down the road on the correct side (as apposed to both sides), and didn’t sound their horns without due need. I could go to the toilet without having to support myself over a squalid hole in the ground, without my legs screaming with pain as they cramped up, and without the obligatory rat, tentatively peering at me from the hole. It felt like I’d entered a different world. It was a culture shock that, ambling along at a few miles a day, I hadn’t really experienced on my way to India.

It seemed strange, too, to stay in the same place for more than a day or two. I had become so used to the incessant push onwards, and eastwards. I suddenly found myself with no real direction, no destination to reach each day. Fortunately, arriving home just a few days before Christmas, a sudden dash out to do my Christmas shopping, and the liberal availability of mince pies, sufficiently occupied my attention. It was great to see my girlfriend, my family and my friends. I enjoyed all the home comforts that I had longed for and had promised myself during my months in the saddle half-way around the world. A fry-up was certainly long overdue.

In the last week, I have returned to Leeds, where I moved into a new flat, and a successful interview with my old employers was enough to get me a job. Life is slowly returning to normal, but my changed perspective remains undiminished.

My bike, packaged up and ready to head home

My bike, packaged up and ready to head home

Having shipped my bike back home, it arrived just a couple of days after I did, like an enormous yellow Christmas present, with ‘DHL’ written all over it. I unwrapped it and pieced it back together, and was surprised how shiny it looked. It will certainly need a few replacement parts, but I have a feeling that it has many miles, and perhaps another great adventure, left in it. After months on the road, I’m quite content to return to normality for the foreseeable future. I have a job, and a new flat, and I’m willing to limit my adventures to evenings and weekends for the time being. But I wonder how long that contentedness will really last. I wonder if I, too, have another great adventure left in me.

Chasing my shadow through the desert in Iran

Chasing my shadow through the desert in Iran

Sand, Security and the Sub-Continent: Pakistan

Baluchistan desert

It has been an interesting few weeks, during which I’ve scarcely had chance to draw breath, despite spending precious little time on my bicycle.

Southern Iran proved to have one omnipresent feature which enchanted me at first, but soon began to lose its appeal: sand. As I rode through most of Anatolian Turkey, and later northern Iran, I would have described the landscape around me as desert. It was not until I saw proper desert in southern Iran, though, that I realised the mistake in my premature classification. In southern Iran I saw sand dunes and camels. My tent would collapse in the night; sand doing little to secure tent-pegs against the strong desert winds. And I discovered that dragging my fully laden bike through deep, soft sand in search of a camping spot out of sight of the road, is far more difficult than riding up even the steepest of hills, or into the strongest of headwinds. As I passed into Pakistan and into the Indian Sub-Continent, I was disappointed to see the desert continue.

I was not as disappointed by this, though, as I was by the news, upon entering Pakistan, that I would not be able to ride my bike at all in Western Pakistan, due to the instability of the security situation. As tempting as it was to tweak the nose of fear, drop an ice cube down the vest of danger and international terrorism, and high-tail it into the desert on my bike regardless of such warnings, the reality was that I simply was not allowed. Policemen roamed everywhere, lovingly clutching their Kalashnikov machine guns, waiting for an excuse to put them to use. In the hills, if the warnings were to be believed, terrorists, bandits, and all variety of ghouls, monsters and unpleasantness lay in wait for hapless western tourists such as myself, sharpening their disemboweling cutlasses with glee. So the police ordered me to take a bus.

But the bus, on the eve of the Muslim festival Eid, were fully booked for three or four days. Fortuitously enough, I was able to hitch a ride with an Australian couple, who were driving their Toyota Landcruiser from Cape Town to India, and just happened to be crossing the border at the same time as me. We lashed my bike onto the bull-bars, threw my bags in the back, and I shared the front passenger seat with a policeman with a long beard, only three teeth, and a single shot rifle. I sincerely hoped that, should we come across any hostile characters on the road, they would only attack one at a time.

For various reasons, too dull and plentiful to go into any detail here, we were stuck in the city of Quetta, the capital of the western Baluchistan region, over the Eid holidays, after which the police were still adamant that I could not ride my bike eastwards. The security situation and endless, inefficient and utterly illogical bureaucracy began to get on top of me, so I ended up loading my bike onto a train to Lahore. I wanted to get into eastern Pakistan, where I would once more be free to travel where, how and as I pleased. And 26 hours on the train proved to be an interesting experience. A small community quickly established itself on the train, and I learnt much of Pakistani culture and way of life, whilst watching the scenery slowly grow lush and green through the window, as we entered the Punjab region.

On my first night in Lahore, the owner of the hotel I was staying at told me that he was going to sacrifice a goat – would I like to join the feast? I only hoped that the poor blighter was not being sacrificed on my account. Needless to say, the goat had the last laugh; I was laid low the whole next day with chronic food poisoning; I can’t ever remember feeling as ill. Indeed, I didn’t quite feel my usual self for another two or three days.

I now find myself in Islamabad, where I’m waiting upon the Indian High Commission to process my visa application. All being well, I should be rolling across my final frontier, into India, around this time next week. India is so close I can almost smell it (though that could be my crusty, unwashed socks, festering in the corner of the room), though there is still about 1500 miles to go until Calcutta, and the end of my road.

With India now within sight, I would also like to make a point of thanking everyone who has sponsored one of my chosen charities so far. Your donations and messages of support have meant a huge amount, and have, at times, lifted my spirits as nothing else could. For those who haven’t yet done so, I’m sure you’re just waiting until I reach India, before you show your generosity and support for my extensive efforts!

Lonely Roads and a Farmer’s Shed: Iran

My beautiful bike: holding up well against the rugged Iranian roads

The border crossing from Turkey into Iran seemed excessively overcomplicated to me. I must have shown my passport to no less than ten people, be they Turk or Iranian. The only thing that told me that I’d crossed into Iran was the emergence of the looming portraits of the religious big-wigs hanging on the walls, and the huge mustaches under the noses of the Iranian immigration officers. To my surprised relief, nobody gave my bike so much as a second glance, and before I knew it I was rolling down a hill into the Middle East, into Iran!

Camping in an apple orchard, Iran

After a stop in the bustling north-west city of Tabriz, I headed generally south-east towards Esfahan. The landscape is generally arid and mountainous, and there have been a few occasions where I have started to worry about finding somewhere secluded to camp. As the sun creeps below the mountainous horizon, though, I always seem to spot a distant copse of trees, some useful mounds of discarded earth, or some dead-ground, out of sight of the road. One particularly pleasant evening was spent in an apple orchard, with the most lush, green grass I’ve seen since western Europe! Unfortunately my petrol stove ran out of fuel halfway through boiling up some water, so lukewarm smash was the order of the day, though it did little to dampen my spirits – it was still far superior to stale bread and cheese, to which I’ve become rather accustomed.

Visitors to Iran may wax-lyrical about the ancient ruins of Persepolis, the beautiful parks of Esfahan, or the humbling generosity of the people. It is true that these are highlights – to that I will not disagree – but the highlight of recent days for me was the discovery of the availability of Chocolate Digestives in a small roadside shop! Eleven o’clock biscuit stops have since become a staple of my average cycling day!

It’s the simple things that mean the most: discovering Chocolate Digestives

English is certainly more widely spoken in Iran than it had been in Turkey (which is convenient, as I’ve long since given up trying to master Farsi in my limited time here), though it is true that many people are limited to “hello! How are you?”. I do meet the odd person that I can communicate well with, though. One such character asked me a few days ago what my opinion was of the Iranian people. Are they good to you, he asked. I said that they were fantastic people, everywhere, except on the road. When behind the wheel of a car, or when sat atop a motorcycle (which seem to abound in rural areas), the kind, generous, placid nature of the Iranian people becomes twisted and reversed, leaving what I can only explain as road-madness! It is common practice here, for instance, for cars to reverse the wrong way down a dual-carriageway without warning; other cars seem to be in competition in to how closely they can pass me at speed, and it seems to be bad form to even pretend to glance into oncoming traffic when joining a busy road from a junction. Cycling, particularly in the larger cities, requires immense concentration and the patience of a saint, not to mention eyes in the back of my head!

The Farmer’s House: my accommodation for the evening

But this is not enough to tarnish my impression of the wonderfully generous and selfless people. Despite what you may read in the newspapers, everyone in Iran is not enriching uranium in their back gardens. They are a nation of picnickers and socialisers. In the short time that I’ve been here I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been invited to join breakfasts, lunches and dinners, or to stay at people’s homes rather than camp in the open, be it by rural farmers or modern, educated city-dwellers. It pains me to say that I’ve had to begin to refuse some such offers, for the simple fact that if I don’t, there’s no way I’ll make it through Iran before my visa expires!

Me and my Iranian fans. I may have inadvertently told them I was in the Olympics, and they demanded my autograph!

I arrived yesterday in the central city of Esfahan, Iran’s second city, and once capital, in time to mark my twenty-forth birthday. As a special birthday treat, I’m staying in a rather extravagant hotel (at least by my standards), with a real toilet! – my first since leaving Turkey! It’s incredible how the simple things can mean so much on a journey such as this. Toilets and hotel rooms aside, I’m spending today exploring the beautiful city of Esfahan. I continue south-eastwards towards Pakistan tomorrow.

Bridge over troubled water (conspicuous in its absence): Esfahan, Iran

The Gates of the Middle East: Eastern Turkey

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Eastern Turkey. Vast and untamed. People warn of wild dogs and roaming terrorists. My biggest problem, I’m happy to say, has been a plethora of punctures! Having made it from England to Eastern Turkey with only a single puncture, I’ve had four punctures in the last five days!

The long ribbon of asphalt that I’ve followed for most of the breadth of this enormous country has left me in the frontier town of Dogubayazit, the last town in Turkey, at the foot of Mount Ararat, the country’s highest peak at 5176 metres. The mountain, which was, according to biblical accounts, where Noah grounded his Ark as the floods receded, looms high over the arid landscape. It is capped with snow, and wispy white clouds emanate from its peak. I can see where it got its biblical connections.

The sun sets early in the mountains. I watched the sharp silhouette of the distant chain of jagged mountaintops slowly recede into the darkness. The call to prayer echoed across the arid landscape, wild dogs howling along to the sound from the dark distance, and I’m glad I find myself once more in the comfort of a hotel. This is becoming an expensive habit!

When the sun rises over the mountains tomorrow morning, I will ride the final few miles to the Iranian border. I hope to leave my westernised preconceptions at customs, and head into this culturally distant and often mistrusted land with a open mind and a friendly smile. Finally, I enter the Middle East.

Where East Meets West: Greece, Western Turkey, and Istanbul

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All of my articles seem to begin and end with a frantic dash through heavy traffic, either in or out of a large city, and this one is no different. Laura and I left the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, in a state of directionless confusion, getting quite lost, and we somehow ended up on a motorway heading eastwards. I thought we were in for some trouble when we passed a parked police car in the hard-shoulder, but a grin and a friendly wave seemed to satisfy him, and we passed without a problem.

Roads disappeared into pot-holed tracks, and reappeared, became busy, and went quiet again. The sun continued to beat down with interminable heat, and days passed. We crossed into Greece briefly (for a matter of 25 miles or so), before finally entering Turkey near the city of Edirne.

I’ve always shuddered to think that I may one day become the kind of British tourist who travels far from home, only to expect all the luxuries of home: English food, television, beer, and of course English-speaking people. But when I saw the ‘London Cafe & Pub’ in the heart of Edirne, just down the road from the great mosque, a thought flashed through my mind: maybe, just maybe, they would serve a proper English fry-up! Bacon, sausage and egg! Even black pudding, baked beans and fried mushrooms! With Yorkshire Tea, perhaps! Maybe it would even be followed up with a small tray of McVitie’s chocolate digestives! Of course, it was a fool’s hope. So I made do with an omelette.

A raging headwind, coupled with poorly surfaced roads, made the next few days tougher than they should have been. We were joined by two German cyclists, who had ridden from Berlin, Mattias and Ralph, and finally rolled down the final hill into Istanbul. The blue water of the Bosphorus glistened at the end of the final street, and we sat by the water for a while, soaking up the fresh sea air and considering our achievement. I had reached the edge of Europe! Asia loomed on the far bank of the Bosphorus. I had just cycled across Europe!

Istanbul, the city where East meets West. For as long as I can remember, I have been intrigued by the place, and now here I am! And I had just arrived here by bicycle!

A Generous World: Serbia and Bulgaria

Cycling through Serbia with Laura

I left Belgrade with Laura, spending the day fighting through busy traffic, oppressive heat and increasingly undulating terrain. The Danube cycle path, which I had been following since its source in the Black Forest in southern Germany, had become more a series of directions along busy roads, rather than any discernable or pleasurable cycle path. But it was with a heavy heart that I left the Danube valley behind in the Serbian town of Smedavero, heading southwards towards Bulgaria. I caught one final glimpse of the great river shimmering a deep shade of blue in the afternoon sunshine. I will not see the same body of water again until I reach the Black Sea, where it will flow through the Bospherous towards the Mediterrainian.

The old fortress in Beglade, Serbia, felt a long way from western Europe

I have been so incredibly touched by the incredible generosity of the Serbians I’ve met. Every time we stopped, it seemed, someone would come and talk to us, with varying proficiency in English (though usually much better than my Serbian!), smile, and laugh. We were often given gifts of melons, coffee, cold water, beer and rakai (a spirit made from fruit, often plums). While snoozing in a park one afternoon, hiding from the powerful heat of the day, I was awoken by a man with grey, stringy hair, smiling and offering us cold apple juice, fruit amd, slightly bizzarely, reams of paper to lie on. ‘In Serbia’, he told us, ‘money is problem. Paper, no problem!’ . A few minutes later he insisted that we followed him into his office, where he said he was ‘master of the building’, and cooked us a lunch on a small hob and we drank beer with him until the sun sank low in the sky.

It’s the kind of generosity I may have expected much later in my journey, but something I hadn’t anticipated so apparently close to home, still in Europe.

Serbia begins to feel like the wild west!

After passing through the southern city of Nis, the terrain became wilder and more mountainous. A narrow road lead us through a steep, rocky gorge, through 13 dark tunnels and increasing lengthy tunnels, taking us all the way to the Bulgarian border.

We’ve been enjoying a couple of much needed rest days in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, before we head eastwards towards Turkey tomorrow. The weather has cooled in the last few days; a trend which I hope will continue across Turkey!

Multiple toilet options at the Bulgarian border with Serbia

Feeling Far From Home: Serbia

Six wheels to India: Laura, Brad and myself, cycling through Osijek, Croatia

We crossed the border into Serbia and I suddenly felt so much further away from home. The first market town we stopped in for some lunch was a hive of activity, and came as something of a shock after the sleepy towns of Croatia. People roamed the streets mostly on bicycles or on foot, busily visiting market stalls and small shops. Gone, it seems, is the over-dependence on the large supermarkets on the edge of town on which I have predominantly subsisted since Germany. There were beggars in the streets, more noticeable than at any other point during my journey. A man lay, apparently unconscious, in the street, and nobody seemed to mind. The local men would often stare and grin at me and begin to speak English, before giving me a parting pat on the back. The traffic on the roads seems prolifically horn-happy, and the weather is punishingly hot.

Riding into the capital, Belgrade, with the ruins of the great fortress on the sun-bleached hilltop overlooking the Danube, the place all felt more North African, or perhaps near Middle East, than Eastern Europe. The city centre is a little more ‘European’, perhaps cosmopolitan, but I certainly feel further away from home than in any other country so far; a theme which I expect only to continue as I continue to head east.

Brad is riding eastwards towards Romania, while Laura and I head southwards through Serbia towards Bulgaria, expecting to meet again in Istanbul. The weather is expected to continue to heat up, so I think a few dips in the river will be in order over the coming days!