As promised to a few people, not least my splendiferous parents, I’m having a go at keeping a blog while I attempt to cycle from London to Sydney with the almighty Henry Compson. It’s my first time writing one so I don’t really know where it will go but it will almost certainly end up containing plenty of the phrases that I’m sure you’re all deeply missing back home…
First up I want to explain why I’ve decided to do this, then I’ll introduce my travelling partner in crime and then I’ll let you know what I’ve been up to since I left glorious England.
Why am I doing this?
Had I not gone to a travel talk by the magnificent Quin Murray in October 2015, this idea may never have got off the ground but alas I did and the rest is history! Quin was talking about a cycling trip that him and two other friends, Wil and Toby, did years ago where they cycled from Canada to Mexico. His talk was great – it really grabbed my attention and I went home thinking I really wanted to do a cycling trip of my own and the only question remaining was where I would be aiming for. Shortly before I hit the hay that night, the idea of England to Australia popped into my head and I immediately knew that was what I wanted to do. That was still the case the next morning and still remains the case today!
Those that know me well may still be somewhat perplexed by this, not only because I’ve never expressed any real interest in cycling, aside from a leisurely sojourn around the South of France with Kim Le Geyt in 2011, but also because to say my practical skills are ‘limited’ would be a highly generous interpretation! However, the idea of the trip has really captured my imagination for the following reasons:
1. I think it will be a great way of seeing the world. I’m excited about the whole trip but in particular I can’t wait to see Turkey, Central Asia, India and Myanmar. Additionally, the great thing about doing this by bike is that it takes you through a lot of the smaller towns and villages you wouldn’t necessarily go through if you were backpacking so I’m looking forward to seeing what countries are like as a whole rather than just the big cities.
2. It really excites me as a challenge that will push me both physically and mentally as well as putting me in situations that will be well outside my normal comfort zone.
3. Obviously most importantly – starting preparations early to make sure I’m ‘beach body ready’ for Summer 2018.
Fortunately, I’m not doing the trip solo as Henry (left) joined me in Frankfurt for the rest of the trip. Henry and I have been friends for almost 9 years now and we lived together for two years in Brixton so hopefully we know each other well enough not to kill each other! Henry works in politics (hence his minor delay in leaving for this trip due to the election) and is a supporter of Fulham Football Club, which is a regular source of entertainment in my life. Unlike me, Henry is a keen cyclist, which is good as it means he actually knows how to ride a bike… In spite of his questionable choice of football team, it is an honour and a privilege to be joined by the self-styled ‘greatest Lib Dem campaigner ever.’*
*may not accurately reflect Henry’s own views.
The trip so far
We’re currently in Belgrade having followed a route that’s taken me through England, France, Belgium, a smidge of Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and now Serbia! Cycling through Europe has been an absolute joy, partly because the weather has been glorious but also because there’s always a new and exciting place to aim for in a few days time. I won’t bore you with a blow by blow account of the trip so far but here are some of the highlights below:
June 4th – the trip begins!
It was really great to be seen off by this cracking bunch. I was unbelievably excited to see this idea come to fruition and actually get started after 18 months of thinking about it but I was also sad knowing I wouldn’t see some great people for potentially a long time – not least my parents who have always been incredibly supportive of everything I’ve done but especially for this trip.
Vienna was a completely new place for me and I absolutely loved it. It has great variety to it. Compo and I had an awesome day wandering around the grounds of Schonbrunn Palace (pictured above), checking out St Stephen’s cathedral, visiting Sigmund Freud’s house and indulging in some cheap Wiener Schnitzel and beers at the academy of fine arts, which famously twice rejected Hitler’s application to study there.
Budapest is rapidly becoming one of my favourite cities not only because it’s really fun but also because it’s incredibly picturesque. The ride into the city (pictured above) was my favourite so far as it had stunning views.
Sbrobran, Serbia – meeting Mladen!
One of my favourite moments of the trip so far. We stopped off at a corner shop in this small village and Mladen (above) saw our bikes and asked us what we were doing. We told him we were cycling from London to Sydney and he insisted on buying us beers, which was wonderfully generous of him! We then had a really interesting chat about his life (he’d fought in the Yugoslav wars) and what he thought about life in Serbia now.
Novi Sad – Exit festival
One of my favourite days of the trip so far. We’d already met Mladen today but the day continued to be wonderful as we met up with some of mum’s family who she had put me in touch with. They treated Henry and I like we were their long lost children and fed and watered us until we could hardly move. They then suggested we go to exit festival which is this music festival in Novi Sad fortress that happened to be starting that night. We got extremely lucky and got tickets on the door and ended up seeing Liam Gallagher (awful picture above!) among others. Absolutely magnificent day though the cycle into Belgrade the next day was a serious struggle!
Next up we leave Belgrade later today and start heading towards Sofia, where we are looking forward to seeing some friends there at the weekend.
A blog dedicated to India. Partly because it’s absolutely massive and partly because it’s already right up there as one of my favourite places I’ve been on this trip.
The Golden Triangle – Dehli, Jaipur and Agra
We started in Delhi where I was absolutely delighted to see mum and dad. Not only had they bravely ventured out to India but they also were celebrating 30 years of glorious matrimony – a pretty solid effort considering they have me and pb as kids!
The first full day in Dehli will live long in the memory. It was unbelievably fascinating. I’ve never really experienced anything like it – on first sight it felt like complete unmitigated chaos. Think people sleeping in the middle of roundabouts, masses of traffic that always seemed either to be in a standstill or about to kill someone with a reckless manoeuvre, motorbikes and rickshaws diving down alleyways clearly originally designed only for pedestrians and all kinds of different businesses popping up on the sides of main roads such as shoe shiners or the most rudimentary of barber shops.
However, after a couple of days I very quickly learned that this ‘chaos’ is much more organised than initially meets the eye. For example, in the traffic realm the horn seems to be the one universal language in India and even though everything seems to be on the verge of disaster, it also works and it’s remarkable how few traffic accidents there are. And in many ways, I think that’s quite a good analogy for India as a whole. It challenges your perception on what’s normal, but it also gets the job done. A bit like my skiing technique for those who have had the privilege of witnessing that.
Dehli itself proved to be a contrast in another way. At times it felt incredibly congested but there were also a number of landmarks that were in huge spacious grounds such as Raj Ghat, which is the memorial to Gandhi, and my personal favourite the marvellous lotus temple.
After Dehli we moved onto Jaipur, which has a number of spectacular landmarks including the Amber fort, the Wind Palace and the Water Palace. The Amber Fort is particularly impressive and so majestically massive that photos really can’t do it justice so I can’t recommend enough that you see it with your own two eyes.
The top two photos here are of Amber Fort and the last one is of the Wind Palace.
We also had the pleasure of watching a Bollywood movie at a famous cinema in Jaipur which was both hilarious and incredibly uplifting even if we didn’t fully understand what was going on all the time!
After Jaipur we moved onto Agra, to see arguably the crown jewel of the Golden Triangle – the Taj Mahal. I have to admit I was somewhat apprehensive about going here as I’d seen it in so many photos, I was worried I might be slightly disappointed when I saw it in the flesh. However, fortunately it is undeniably worth the hype as it’s a truly breathtaking place and well worth a visit.
We then headed back to Delhi where it was sadly time to say goodbye to mum and dad. This also signalled the return to our bicycles fully armed with the knowledge that we were gloriously unprepared for actual India having lived the high life of good hotels and nice restaurants for the last week and a half (thanks again m+d).
Dehli to Varanasi
After some time off the bikes, I was actually extremely excited to get going again as dare I say it I was actually starting to miss it! We started out on the Delhi to Agra expressway which i think is India’s first attempt at a motorway and it felt very bizarrely western with lay-bys having food places such as Subway and Dominos. Also surprisingly, it was by far the safest place we cycled in mainly because it had a big hard shoulder and a real lack of traffic.
It was also punctuated with some fairly comedic signs along the way, which is certainly an interesting way of trying to tackle India’s traffic problems!
However, we felt like we weren’t really experiencing the real India by sticking with this route so we found another route through the countryside that we could take to Lucknow. This turned out to be a really good decision as we went from cycling in relative vast swathes of nothingness to passing through villages and towns every few kilometres and meeting lots of locals along the way.
Another advantage of this was that it was much easier to find places to camp, which was also aided by the fact that no one in India seems to care where you sleep. Though we regularly seemed to become points of fascination for Indians when we did set up for camp as often crowds would form to watch us put our tents up.
We stopped off in Lucknow for a day mainly to break up the 900km ride to Varanasi but it ended up being a really great mini highlight of our time in India. I’m not going to lie, this was predominantly because of the food which was absolutely sublime and our day here was without doubt my favourite food day of the trip so far. We feasted on glorious kebabs and the most succulent chicken that melted in your mouth. Neither looked like much but both were undeniable bastions of deliciousness. And as a bonus both our meals that day came from recommended hole in the wall restaurants that can’t have cost more than a fiver.
Lucknow also has a couple of decent sights including the Bara Imambara, which includes a really unusual complex labyrinth of corridors and the Lucknow residency. If you’re ever in India, I would definitely recommend it for a day!
Lucknow to Varanasi
The undoubted highlight of the ride down to Varanasi was meeting these guys below.
They kindly let us stay for the night and plied us with about three meals worth of food. We ended up meeting three generations of their family and they showed us around the town. One of the younger guys even took us to meet some of his friends and we hung out with them for a couple of hours which was great. We then ended up at their neighbour’s house and briefly watched a bit of Scooby Doo which I got embarrassingly excited about as it was my favourite show as a kid. This moment is probably in the top three times I’ve missed home on this trip. (The others are watching cricket and going to the darts – yes I need to get a life.)
In my humble opinion, Varanasi is a bit of a one trick pony but much like Arjen Robben – it’s a pretty good one. The real focus here is around the ghats on the river Ganges and it’s an incredible place to spend a few hours people watching. Hindus believe that the river Ganges is sacred water so you see people doing a number of activities that you and I probably wouldn’t consider normal elsewhere.
The first of these is that many people bathe in the water because they believe it will wash away their sins.
The second is that many bodies are cremated on the ghats lining the Ganges. It’s considered a particularly significant place to die as passing away here offers liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Watching a cremation was an incredibly captivating experience partly because there seemed to be a surprising lack of ceremony to the whole process but also because so many unrelated locals and tourists watch the bodies being cremated. Something extremely different to anything else I’ve done before and strangely fascinating.
This process really dominates the town to the extent that you can be having dinner in a restaurant and then see a body being carried past you which I have to admit is one of the more odd experiences I’ve had whilst dining.
Finally the river Ganges is a cracking place to capture a glorious sunrise.
Goa was way off my route but i had heard really good things so I decided to leave my bike in varanasi and fly down there for a week.
If you like beaches then Goa is the place for you. It’s an absolute paradise with loads of picturesque beaches, many of which can be reached within an hour by moped from Anjuna.
It’s also really good fun with lots going on in the evenings and it was so nice to have a week of more typical backpacking and meeting new people pretty much on a daily basis, which is something I’ve always really enjoyed about travelling.
I suspect a big part of Goa’s overall delightful charm is how different it is to the rest of India. The pace of life here is so much more relaxed than the rest of India that it’s almost hard to believe it’s part of the same country. Whether it is things like people or traffic, everything feels much less intense. This feeling was demonstrated to such an extent that I met quite a few people who were going back to goa for Christmas because they felt like having a holiday within a holiday.
Aside from relaxing on the beach and doing some watersports, goa also saw me make my first foray into the land of yoga. Probably to the surprise of no one, I was hilariously awful at this and while I could go off on a rant about how it’s even possible something that is supposed to be so relaxing can be so hard, I feel my experience is more elegantly summarised by the photo below:
Varanasi to Kolkata via Bodhgaya
I headed back to Varanasi and then got back on the bike and started to make my way further eastward towards Kolkata. This was quite a long ride punctuated by lots of briefs stops in villages and towns along the way and a slight detour to Bodhgaya, which is where the Buddha attained enlightenment 2600 years and consequently is known as the birthplace of Buddhism. I unfortunately did not achieve such enlightenment so my relentless pursuit of finding myself continues.
Having spent just over a week making my way to Kolkata I was delighted to finally roll in for two reasons. First, to joyously celebrate compo hitting the grand old age of 28. And second because the day after we were joined by the immortal Rohan for a couple of days. This was a cracking surprise, not least because it hadn’t being on the cards when we initially arrived in India, so thanks again for making the effort to come out Ro!
This second photo was taken at Bukhara in Kolkata which is an absolutely glorious restaurant if you’re ever in the area.
Ro was kind enough to let us hang out at his hotel so we chilled there for a bit and then we checked out some of the nightlife in Kolkata which was actually surprisingly lively.
We also went to the Victoria Memorial which is a magnificent building but also a reminder of India’s colonial past which is probably why it is perhaps less celebrated than some other buildings in India.
After Rohan had departed, Compo and I went to a local football match. We have watched quite a bit of budget football on this trip and this was no exception. The only difference was that former premier league icon Robbie Keane was gracing the pitch for Kolkata and he actually scored a very good winner, having spent the rest of the game getting delightfully pissed off with his teammates. The extremely niche 1% of you may be interested to know that Robbie has now added a bow and a namaste to the end of the double somersault celebration he’s been doing his whole career.
The Indian super league is only in its fourth season but Kolkata certainly enjoyed some pretty decent support so hopefully the league will go from strength to strength, as it could have some serious potential.
We ended up spending Christmas in Kolkata, which actually was surprisingly Christmassy, which was a most welcome bonus.
Christmas in Kolkata – Santa Claus ft Spider-Man.
We took the opportunity to watch Star Wars on Christmas Eve and spent Christmas afternoon in the pub before indulging in some truly awful Indian whiskey while watching Dunkirk, which I’m sure we can all agree is the most quintessential of Christmas movies. Not the most typical of Christmases but certainly an enjoyable one!
Christmas with Diet Coke – the greatest gift of all.
In amongst sorting out our lives prior to leaving Kolkata, we also went to mother Teresa’s house, which was extremely interesting and gave a really great insight into her incredible life.
Cycling in India
Prior to the trip, India was for sure the country I was most apprehensive about cycling in. I really wanted to go but I was also slightly concerned about the stories of ludicrous (and arguably dangerous) amounts of traffic.
Undeniably this expectation proved to be accurate on occasion as the traffic was at times absolutely horrendous, especially in the cities where traffic was quite often reduced to a standstill and even then cars and motorbikes still found a way to nudge into us. I also definitely won’t miss lorries coming straight at us on the wrong side of the road causing some rather unconventional dives off the road! But actually once I basically started acting like a car, cycling here was surprisingly manageable. While some might reasonably argue that’s a first step to insanity, it was a very effective tactic in this slightly crazy country!
However, in spite of the traffic it was also one of the countries I felt I most benefitted from cycling in and it has absolutely been one of my favourite places to cycle. This is primarily for two reasons:
First, hardly a day passed where I didn’t see something absolutely ridiculous which made cycling here incredibly entertaining. Elephants, camels and cows roamed the roads. People slept in all kinds of ludicrous places and positions. Motorbikes and cars carried ludicrous amounts of passengers. If buses were full, people just sat on top of them while they hurtled down the road.
Photo 2 ‘angry baby rides motorbike’ is already one of my favourites.
Second, more than any place I have cycled in, I met so many interesting and curious locals along the way. Almost without fail, when one of us stopped to buy food and water, we would return to see the other surrounded by a group of people wondering what the hell we were doing. And a reasonable amount of the time, someone in the group would speak decent enough English to have a good conversation too which was a most welcome bonus. And quite a few people I met along the way have also been nice enough to keep in touch which is great.
These things allied with the plethora of wonderful sights I saw along the way has made India dangerously close to my favourite country I’ve been to so far.
Today marks seven months since I left home and I’ve now got a pretty decent view of the rest of the trip which is both very exciting and slightly daunting.
First up starting tomorrow is a roughly 3000km ride from Yangon to Singapore which will take me through Bangkok and Krabi in Thailand before having a brief break to spend some time on the islands off the west coast. Then we’ll carry on into Malaysia, checking out Penang, the east coast and Kuala Lumpur before a short 350km ride to Singapore.
Then I’ll fly from Singapore to Cairns in early march (unless you fancy giving me a lift in your boat sweeting 😉). It’s just under 3000km to Sydney but I’m going to take my sweet time here as there’s loads I want to do on the east coast. I am extremely excited about this part of the trip as it’s honestly the only bit where I’ve known exactly what I wanted to do since I started! Finally, all being well I should roll into Sydney in mid May!
As always, thanks for reading and wishing you all the best for 2018.
Hello from India! Henry, myself and our bikes have arrived here from Almaty in that rather unusual form of cycling transport known as a plane. This was of course not the initial plan but the delights of Chinese bureaucracy made it impossible for us to get a visa so taking a flight was sadly the only option! Slightly annoying as the pocket of western china we had hoped to cycle through would have been very interesting but there’s nothing we can do about it so it’s just a case of onwards and upwards!
Speaking of onwards and upwards, onto the last six weeks in wonderful Central Asia, where I ventured through Uzbekistan, Southern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and back into Kazakhstan.
The end of Uzbekistan
Having spent the last month cycling through the desert and the fascinating former Silk Road towns of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, it was almost surreal to roll into Tashkent, the first place that even came close to resembling a city since Aktau. However, Tashkent is one of these entertaining places where a lot of things don’t quite work so it proved to be a delightful halfway house between the desert and full blown civilisation as you and I would know it back in London. What Tashkent lacks in functionality though was more than made up for by its Irish pub and upon arrival I had a truly delightful day reacquainting myself with premier league football and shooting the breeze with the marvellous range of characters that tend to frequent Irish pubs abroad.
Fortunately, there is more to Tashkent than its Irish pub and I spent a very enjoyable half day wandering around the state museum of history of Uzbekistan. This museum is not only incredibly interesting but also a marvellous example of a dictator using a museum to provide some indoctrination about how wonderful he is, much in the same way as the Castros have done with the national museum in Cuba. Below is a cracking endorsement from the president of China for Islam Karimov.
I also enjoyed exploring Chorsu Bazaar, which is a huge market with a great combination of varying aromas and products. And finally, having been living off the staples of manti, lagman and plov for a month, it was nice to indulge in some international food, in particular khachapurri, which has proved to be a wonderful food discovery for me on this trip.
Having decided on a route to Almaty, I set off for Southern Kazakhstan but my progress was slightly slowed as I was given one more reminder of the unbelievable hospitality of the Uzbeks. About 10 km from the border I stopped to check my route and ended up chatting with a local who spoke impeccable English. Next thing I know, he’d invited me into his home and we were having tea, sandwiches and a takeaway pizza, while chatting about his life in Uzbekistan and the trials and tribulations of trying to run an import business here. A very fitting end for one of my favourite countries of the trip so far.
I eventually left Uzbekistan and set off on my route to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, which would take me through Shymkent, Taraz and Merke. I had chosen this route purely based on the fact that it didn’t contain any 4000 metre mountains to cycle up but it ended up being a beautiful route where I was regularly treated to glorious views of snowcapped mountains.
I also had a great run meeting people on this route which is always appreciated when you’re cycling solo. For starters, I met this cracking bunch outside a shop about 50km into Kazakhstan.
We had a great chat about my trip and European football amongst other things. Then one of the kid’s dad kindly gave me one of the traditional felt hats you see in this part of the world which was a lovely gift and one that will be taking prime place in my next abode when I eventually get home.
This meeting had one consequence that I certainly wasn’t expecting when I got to Shymkent. I was sitting in a food court having lunch when a couple of locals randomly approached me and shook my hand. I didn’t really know what was going on until one of them showed me their phone. Turns out the guy I had met in the photo above 50km from Shymkent had posted a photo on facebook and these guys had seen it and wanted to say hi and chat about the trip. An excellent boost for the fragile ego and I was delighted to leave Shymkent the next day revelling in my newfound southern Kazakhstan celebrity status.
Southern Kazakhstan was not only beautiful but it was also interesting for a couple of other reasons.
First, it was a massive transformation from the last month or so. Shymkent is only 100km from Uzbekistan but it felt like a different world. Shymkent was very modern with American style food courts, shopping malls, ATMs and contactless payments. By comparison, I can’t recall seeing any western brands in Uzbekistan and the only way you could get local currency was by exchanging US dollars.
Second, the people in Southern Kazakhstan were also generous but in a completely different way to the Uzbeks. Uzbeks were very generous with their hospitality, whereas in Southern Kazakhstan, I had numerous people getting out of their cars and offering me money.
I had a delightful welcome to Kyrgyzstan as upon crossing the border, I was immediately offered a free bed for the night, which was much appreciated given it was starting to get pretty cold. Cycling into Bishkek the next day, my first impression was that there seemed to be police everywhere but they weren’t doing a lot aside from telling me when I shouldn’t be cycling on the road. Alongside police, there were also lots of cows. To the extent that on multiple occasions they were singlehandedly responsible for causing traffic jams.
I used Bishkek as a base for the next week or so and had a nice explore around the north and east of Kyrgyzstan. This included a great trip out to beautiful Lake Issyk Kul.
The landscape and scenery in Kyrgyzstan is truly stunning and if you like your hiking, I would say it’s well worth a visit!
Bishkek itself doesn’t have much from a tourist perspective, not least because the state history museum was sadly closed while I was there. However, much to my own surprise, I found it very liveable with lots of good restaurants, bars and a few nice parks and could certainly imagine myself having a good time there if I had to live there for say six months or a year.
While in Bishkek, I had one of my favourite experiences of the trip so far. One of the staff at the hostel asked me on google translate if I’d like to go to the mosque with him for Friday prayers. Without really thinking about it, I said yes and we were driving over to his local mosque pictured below:
Friday prayers involved an imam delivering a two part sermon with a pause in between to allow for a time of personal prayer. The mosque was absolutely packed to the rafters but fortunately the guy from the hostel showed me the ropes so I could at least sort of look like I knew what I was doing! Such a fascinating experience and it was a genuine pleasure to witness such a vibrant and communal atmosphere.
After enjoying a fairly easy week, I left Bishkek and set off on the last 240km of the route to Almaty. This was full of rolling hills, scenic views and a long stint of flat where you could build up some good speed.
Otherwise, it was fairly non eventful aside from me belting out a magnificently out of tune rendition of Les Mis, which I’m sure the locals greatly appreciated.
I made it to Almaty a week and a half ahead of schedule so I decided to take advantage of the extra time I had and check out Tajikistan for a few days.
While in Tajikistan, I based myself in Dushanbe, which is the capital. Dushanbe has some lovely parks and the world’s second biggest flagpole, which it seems to take great pride in. It used to be the biggest but has since been overtaken by one in Saudi Arabia, in what is arguably one of the most delightfully pointless competitions ever.
However, the undoubted highlight of Dushanbe was the hiking just outside of the city. I got a good tip from the lonely planet and met up with a group who goes hiking on Sundays in the mountains around Dushanbe. The scenery was absolutely spectacular, though my complete lack of anything appropriate to go hiking with made the hike somewhat difficult!
Much like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan is great if you like your hiking. The hike I did was very much just the tip of the iceberg and Henry assures me the scenery on the Pamir highway is sensational.
Many important and significant things happened in Almaty like the below:
Having had any previous beard growing attempts stunted by my fledgling consulting career, I was delighted to finally allow it to fulfil its full potential. In Almaty, it was at the peak of its powers but sadly, much like Mouldy’s parkour career, it was woefully short lived.
In the end I decided it had to go in Almaty, partly because so much food was getting stuck in it but also because my mother was threatening to disown me. Mum, I’ll leave you to work out which reason was more important 😉
One additional upshot of my trip to the barbers was that I had one of my favourite encounters of the trip so far. Another customer there kindly started acting as a translator for the guy who was trimming my beard. We got talking afterwards and ended up going for drinks, where I quickly discovered that he was a professional illusionist from Belarus! I then enjoyed a cracking evening sampling some Kazakh delicacies, being generally bamboozled by his dazzling array of tricks and sharing one of the below, which is a concept we should really see more of in the UK.
Here’s a video of some of his work in the link below if you are interested!
That aside, coming out to Almaty from England is a seriously good effort so thanks again all!
I’m currently coming to the end of a great week and a half with my parents doing the golden triangle. We’re back on our bikes tomorrow and kicking off our 1600km route from Dehli to Kolkata. Very excited to see what else India has to offer, though I suspect it will be extremely different to the relative high life we have been living the last ten days!
8000km cycled now – about halfway there!
Hope everyone is well back home – thanks for reading.
Hola amigos from Tashkent in wonderful Uzbekistan!
The last six weeks have been an absolutely phenomenal part of the trip that has taken us through the north east of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It’s also included a trip on a cargo boat across the Caspian Sea and two weeks of desert cycling through Kazakhstan and Western Uzbekistan – two things I definitely never thought I’d do prior to entertaining the prospect of doing this trip! I’ll dive into the delights of each of these countries shortly but first a quick update on the respective healths of Bennett and Compson.
Following a somewhat calamitous last entry, I’m delighted to report that there have been no further hospital visits! I was still having some problems with my eyes but the purchase of some edgy and trendy cycling glasses not only completely solved the problem but also made me the envy of my peers in the fashion stakes…
And Henry hasn’t crashed into any more stationary cars – cheers to you Compo!
Onto what we’ve actually been up to, starting with the end of Turkey.
Last few days in Turkey
The last few days from Samsun to the Georgian border were gloriously flat and on excellent road so we were able to cover the remaining 530km in good time. We were lucky enough to catch a game of football in Trabzonspor. It was a really good atmosphere and quite a decent standard and the crowd went absolutely wild when Trabzon scored a winner in the last minute. They have places where you can pray at the stadium, something I’d never seen before. I can think of a few teams back home that could do with similar facilities!
The last couple of days in Turkey were relatively plain sailing and upon arrival at the border I was greeted by this guy wearing nothing but his swimming trunks…
I still have no idea why he was dressed like this but it made for an interesting crossing! Border crossings, while always a bit nerve-wracking, have actually proved to be one of the many benefits about cycling around the world so far. Being on a bike has meant we get to go straight to the front of the queue. There’s nothing more satisfying than going past a massive queue of traffic, knowing that if you were in a car, you could be there for hours!
Georgia was a wonderful combination of good scenery, great food, friendly locals and my favourite new city so far in Tbilisi.
We started off in Batumi, which is just 10 miles over the Turkish border. It’s trying to market itself as a sort of Las Vegas of the Black Sea and the billboards for casinos and nightclubs everywhere is quite an interesting change up from conservative Turkey! It’s a nice place to wander around, with a lovely old town and a few nice beaches. Whoever got to design the place must have had a field day as there are a few delightfully wacky buildings, including one with a Ferris wheel carved into it!
Batumi was also where I had my first khachapuri, a wonderful combination of bread, cheese and egg or as Robbo magnificently describes it ‘the bread boat with the egg in’. I shamelessly stole the photo below from the internet as I forgot to take one but it’s absolutely delicious even if it is definitely a heart attack of a meal! I also really enjoyed Georgian dumplings, steak and red wine.
Onto Tbilisi where I was delighted to be joined by my bro PB! Paul was travelling with his friend Rob and we also had Alex with us who we had met in turkey so we had a great group for Tbilisi.
I really liked Tbilisi and it proved to be an excellent location to spend my birthday. I particularly enjoyed the flea market, which was selling a truly ridiculous combination of things, such as knives, swords, irons, chessboards, tennis racquets with broken strings, tennis racquets with no strings and a copy of mein kampf next to a copy of yellow submarine by the Beetles.
There were also a couple of furniculars that took you to the top of the city and provided magnificent views as well as some really good restaurants. We also enjoyed watching another football match in Tbilisi for the princely sum of 66p. Though this was an absolutely surreal experience as we were watching the biggest team in Georgia in a 54000 seater stadium but there can’t have been more than 1000 people there!
Finally the nightlife here was pretty good, in particular the courtyard by our hostel had a great collection of bars and restaurants that proved to be very popular with locals and tourists alike. In fact, the hostel as a whole was wonderful, probably the best I’ve stayed In so far. It had a cracking and hugely substantial all you can eat breakfast and the staff were wonderfully friendly. They even gave me cake on my birthday, which was very kind of them!
The cycle over to Baku did not begin well for me. About 25km in and going up the first hill of the day, I had the realisation that I could no longer get into my lower gears. Henry and I couldn’t determine why my derailleur (for non-cyclists, this is the part that moves the chain from one sprocket wheel to another) was no longer working so I decided the best course of action was to turn around and try to get it fixed in Tbilisi. There are few things more demoralising than cycling back the way you’ve come from but all I could really do was laugh!
Fortunately, I managed to get my bike fixed the next morning and armed with a new derailleur, I set off for Azerbaijan. I wanted to cover about 580km to get to Baku in just under four and a half days which would be quite ambitious for me but I was looking forward to the challenge.
Azerbaijan was probably the first place on the trip where at times I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere and disconnected from the outside world, which in many ways was a good feeling. This was partly to do with the lack of wifi til Baku but more interestingly because there just weren’t any real towns over the 530km or so through Azerbaijan into Baku on the coast. Quite often I’d see a sign for a place on the main road and when I actually got there, there’d be nothing of substance there at all. Compo had quite a similar experience on his route, which certainly creates the impression that they’d put all their focus on developing Baku and had kind of forgotten about the rest of the country!
The ride itself was fairly non eventful apart from being treated to outstanding levels of generosity from the locals on an almost daily basis. I even had one night where someone offered to buy me dinner, the restaurant then let me sleep on their floor and then a new group of people offered to buy me breakfast in the morning! This was also the first country I’d been to where lots of the locals had regularly asked for photos. This could be because a touring cyclist is quite rare out here or equally just because I look absolutely ridiculous in my cycling glasses!
Baku itself was surprisingly picturesque and had some cool architecture. It’s one of those cities that is really nice to wander around not least because there’s a wonderful promenade right by the Caspian Sea. It was also great to catch Paul again before he flew back home. I could easily have spent a couple more days there but we had to leave to catch the boat – more on that in a minute.
The cargo boat from Baku to Aktau
This was an experience in itself and the way it is organised quite frankly defies logic! The main reason for our slightly early departure from Baku was because we got a call at one that afternoon saying that the boat was going to depart that evening at 6pm. There isn’t a timetable for these boats so the general advice is to get on one as soon as you know one is available, as otherwise you could end up waiting for the next one for a week or more.
Normally such short notice would have been manageable, except for the fact that we still had to buy our tickets in a location that was 30 minutes away and involved a trip to a bank for payment and then we had to make it 70km to Alat, which was the location of the port.
Fortunately everything fell into place and we made it to the port with about 5 minutes to spare. We went through Azerbaijan customs very smoothly and things looked like they were going well. That was until it very quickly dawned on us that the boat wasn’t going to leave until it was full and it was currently hilariously empty. However, because we had gone through Azerbaijan customs, we were now essentially trapped on the boat and couldn’t leave.
24 hours later, after many false dawns, we eventually left and from then on things went pretty swimmingly and we arrived in Aktau about a day later! While at times it had certainly been a frustrating experience, the one big positive was that we met a few incredibly interesting people on the boat, including two Egyptian brothers hitch hiking to Almaty, three Berlin flatmates that had all quit their jobs to travel Central Asia, two Spanish guys doing their own version of the Mongol Rally and a guy who was cycling around the world for the next two years (which really puts us to shame haha). It was such a pleasure to chat to these guys and hear about their trips and their experiences so far.
After a shade over 48 hours, we made it to Aktau in Kazakhstan! The guy on the right is Alex. We met him in Cide in Turkey and spent pretty much all of August cycling with him. Not only is he excellent company but he’s a pretty intelligent guy too, being a fellow Manchester United supporter from the South.
Desert cycling – Aktau to Bukhara
Following a couple of days resting up in Aktau, Henry and I set off on one of our biggest challenges yet – 1700km of cycling through the desert to get from Aktau to Bukhara in Uzbekistan. We hoped this would take about two weeks.
This required a new approach for us compared to the rest of the trip so far mainly because we knew we were going to have long distances (140km in some instances) where we wouldn’t be able to buy food and water, and given it was going to be hot, we’d also get through more water than usual. The consequence of this was that we stocked up a lot more on food and water – I was probably carrying around double the amount of water I usually do and far more food. It also saw us change our attitude towards food, as we very much treated every meal we had as though it could be our last. This resulted in lots of double breakfasts and dinners, which I think we both saw as an opportunity rather than a problem!
Fortunately, there were a couple of excellent blogs on the internet of this route so we had a reasonable idea where we would be able to stock up and where the tricky points might be. As you can probably imagine, there were hardly any towns on this route so our refuge came in the form of chaikhanas (which translates as tea houses) – tiny nondescript white buildings that proved to be havens of delight for us as they brought the promise of food, water, tea and occasionally even a beer.
In terms of food, we very quickly got used to three staples; manti, plov and lagman (respective photos below). This was occasionally supplemented by the odd chicken and some sausages and eggs for breakfast. The food did occasionally get repetitive at times but it was actually all pretty good and in particular I loved the lagman, which was delicious!
Chaikhanas also proved to be an excellent source of accommodation as quite often the owner would kindly let us stay if we had bought dinner there. This proved to be extremely useful especially for the big stints between buildings of 130 plus km per day from the Uzbek border to a town called Nukus as it meant we could double up on dinner and breakfast as well as having a roof over our heads. Otherwise, we tended to sleep just outside a chaikhana, in a yurt, camp in the desert or very occasionally pay for a guesthouse if we were in a town. I have to admit at this stage I’ll pretty much sleep anywhere, no matter how cramped or unusual, which I imagine will be a highly useful skill when I eventually return to the London rental market.
Overall, the two weeks was a great experience but it certainly had its highs and lows. When we started, I was very excited to be cycling in such an unusual place but there were certainly other points where it was incredibly monotonous seeing the same landscape for hundreds of kilometres on end. And at other moments, I definitely questioned my sanity, mainly when we were cycling into very strong headwinds in the middle of nowhere and making very little progress! However, I think we were quite lucky as we only had two days of bad headwinds and crucially these didn’t happen on the long stretches between chaikhanas in uzbekistan, as that would have been mentally pretty tough. The road was also pretty good the whole way, except for an 85km stretch to the Kazakh/Uzbek border, which was absolutely diabolical. Overall, I’m very glad I did it but I’m not sure I’d be queuing up to do it again in a hurry!
The one thing that for sure made it 100% worthwhile was the slight detour we took to Khiva (photos below), which was the undoubted highlight of the whole two weeks. It’s a gorgeous walled former Silk Road town that was an absolute pleasure to wander around. I’d never seen anything like it before and it’s well worth a detour for a day!
The rest of Uzbekistan
Once we got to Bukhara, Henry’s parents joined us and we were lucky enough to have a tour guide around both Bukhara and Samarkand, which was really appreciated as both places have a lot of history to them. Along with Khiva, both are also incredibly picturesque and truly a sight to behold. It’s been great to see some sights that are completely different to anything we have back home.
We’ve also had a number of odd experiences in Uzbekistan that has certainly made our time here more memorable. First up, the president decided to scrap foreign currency restrictions in early September seemingly out of nowhere, which took the official exchange rate much closer to the black market exchange rate. When we last checked in Aktau, the rate was roughly 4,000 soms to the dollar so we were delighted to see that we were getting offered nearly 8,000 when we entered Uzbekistan even if we had no idea why at the time.
When I exchanged 100 dollars at the border, they gave me roughly 800,000 soms in 1,000 som notes. I walked out with my black plastic bag full of money feeling like some kind of gangster millionaire. However, when I worked out that 10,000 soms is roughly a pound and I was in effect carrying 800 10p notes, I think it’s fair to say I didn’t feel quite so big time.
Henry and I have also had the delight of having this regular conversation with Uzbek security:
Security: ‘No photo.’
DB & HC: ‘Why?’
Security: ‘Because no photo.’
I’m used to this happening in this part of the world at sensitive places like border crossings but here it’s tended to happen for seemingly innocuous things like bridges, statues or parks. Fortunately, our extensive knowledge of the (iPhone) bin has proved extremely useful and we’ve been able to recover our deleted photos with the Uzbek guards being none the wiser!
Additionally, we’ve had many unusual experiences in restaurants/chaikhanas here. Lots of instances of us scanning a menu for 10 minutes, only to discover that most of the menu isn’t being served or even better ordering food just to be told 30 minutes later that we haven’t actually ordered anything. We even had one instance the other day where the four of us ordered mains and only two of them turned up! I’m sure some of these have been lost in translation moments and generally the food has been great, once it has showed up!
Finally, Uzbekistan will always hold a special place in my heart as I’ve been asked twice here if I’m a professional sportsman. I was delighted to finally have my sporting prowess recognised on the international stage!
Compo and I have gone separate ways for the next six weeks or so as he is going to have a go at cycling the Pamir highway while honestly I couldn’t think of anything worse for me to do, although I’m sure the views will be spectacular!
I’m really excited for the next part of the trip as I don’t have any commitments til early November when a few friends join us in Almaty, which means I’ve got a lot of flexibility to go and have a real explore around Central Asia. I’m currently in the process of planning my route to Almaty but I’m looking forward to seeing where the wind takes me and whatever happens I’ll try to make sure it takes in a lot of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and hopefully a bit more of Kazakhstan if I have time.
I’m looking forward to reuniting with compo in early November and having a weekend of cultural exploration around Almaty with a few pals. Then on November 8, we fly to Delhi, where I am very excited for the next leg of the trip!
Thanks for reading – hope everyone’s doing well back home!
The last few weeks have been a bit of a rollercoaster after a pretty serene start to the trip so I’ll be talking about some of our hospital escapades and picking out some of the highlights from Bulgaria and Turkey before looking ahead at the route for the next six weeks or so!
Let’s get the not so good stuff out of the way first.
I think it’s reasonably likely on a trip like this that you’ll probably end up going to hospital at least once but I don’t think Henry and I ever thought we’d need to go three times in two weeks between us!
Hospital Escapades 1
I was the first to venture down the health tourism branch. Shortly after leaving Belgrade, I started feeling pretty unwell. I was getting pretty severe stomach pains, had lots of diarrhoea and had completely lost my appetite. This, coupled with a lack of sleep, was really not an ideal combination for trying to cycle 100 kilometres plus every day! I think the likely culprit was a pepperoni pizza I had in a restaurant about 30km outside Belgrade, which is definitely a valuable reminder that I should never betray Dominos again.
I tried to power through but it soon became clear that I was really struggling not least when I deemed myself capable of taking a two hour nap on a slab of concrete (see photo below). Once it became clear that I wouldn’t make it on time to Sofia, we decided it was best that I take the train from Nis in eastern Serbia to Sofia. This was both very frustrating and disappointing at the time as I had really hoped to do the whole journey by bike but with the benefit of hindsight it was absolutely the right decision.
I had hoped a few days off the bike would help me recover but by the end of the weekend I still wasn’t feeling great so I popped into a hospital on Sunday afternoon. Perhaps naively, I had hoped it would be a short visit but I ended up staying 5 nights! The hospital experience was quite interesting in itself, they had a lot of contraptions there that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an episode of Doctor Who. And there were a lot of lost in translation moments until fortunately we found an English nurse on the second day who could act as a translator. After a couple of days they worked out what was wrong with me. Turns out I had a viral infection in my stomach so they started giving me the required treatment and set me on my way a couple of days later! They said I should stay off the bike for another week which meant I’d have to get a train from Sofia to Istanbul which was disappointing but by then I was already somewhat resigned to that fate.
I’m glad to say this one has now completely cleared up and obviously I can’t wait to take on the food in India…
Hospital Escapades 2
Just as I was recovering from my stomach infection, my right eye started to get very painful and was weeping and struggling to look in bright light. I eventually managed to find somewhere that would examine me on a Sunday and discovered I had managed to get a small tear in my right eye.
That fortunately has now healed and although I still have a small bit of conjunctivitis, I am definitely well on the mend!
Hospital Escapades 3
Not to be out done, Henry had a hospital trip of his own. He somehow succeeded in cycling straight into the back of a stationary car at a fair old speed when we were cycling in northern Turkey. The family in the car were absolute superstars and helped Henry out straight away as well as calling for an ambulance. The ambulance arrived swiftly and took him to the hospital to get him checked out. He then returned a couple of hours later in a police van which picked up his bike and took him back to the nearest town.
This was a pretty hairy moment and could have certainly been a trip ender for Henry and/or his bike so I am very pleased to say that Henry emerged relatively unscathed with a few stitches above his right eye. It seems his bike is also made of as sturdy stuff as he is, as only the bike fork was bent and we were able to get that fixed in the town nearby. All in all, it was a very lucky escape and it was almost surreal to be back on our bikes by the end of the day.
As you can see, we’ve been in the wars a bit but we’re in good spirits and looking forward to the challenges ahead!
Now onto the good stuff.
I’d been really looking forward to Sofia since the beginning of the trip as we had friends coming out to see us so I was delighted it lived up to my high expectations! Not only was it a really fun weekend but it was also awesome to see everyone and get treated to some truly spectacular karaoke performances. Additionally, it really served as a powerful motivator to get through the first six weeks so thanks again to everyone for coming out and I hope you had as good a time as I did!
As an aside, congratulations to James Moulds for making it to Bulgaria but not quite making it for the weekend due to a parkour related incident. An outstanding achievement – cheers to you James.
First and foremost it was great to see my parents who came out to see us.
We spent just over a week here and it was absolutely fantastic for so many reasons. It’s a delightfully chaotic city. People and cars seem to compete for the roads and buses think they can get everywhere no matter how narrow the street is!
There is such a wide range of things to do. We particularly enjoyed getting a boat along the Bosphurus which took in both the European and Asian sides. Istanbul is growing so quickly that it’s fascinating to see how the huge number of mosques, many of which are often hundreds of years old, contrast with the ever increasing number of skyscrapers like in the example below.
We also enjoyed having a look around many of the beautiful buildings Istanbul has to offer. In particular, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace were all fantastic. It was also great to wander around the Grand Bazaar and watch mum attempt to barter with the locals! There’s also a very good collection of museums – we particularly liked the Istanbul Archaeology Museum though we were almost overwhelmed by the huge amounts of information on offer!
Finally, one undoubted highlight was going to a Turkish hamam, which is the Islamic variant of a Roman bath. This involved a sauna, followed by a wash and a massage. It was incredibly relaxing and you feel so refreshed afterwards that I would strongly recommend the experience to anyone who goes to Istanbul!
The glorious Turkish coast and countryside
Since we left Istanbul we’ve been working our way eastwards primarily along a road that runs mostly by the Black Sea. Parts of it have been very hilly but it has also been spectacularly gorgeous.
We have been in Turkey for almost three weeks now and the one thing that has really struck me is how unbelievably generous everyone is. I’ve lost count of the number of free cups of tea we’ve been given or the instances where people have given us fruit, water or even accommodation when we couldn’t find a place to camp. We even had a supermarket knock us up a free dinner when all the restaurants in the village were closed (see below)! On top of this, every friendly wave or honk of a horn when we are on our bikes really makes such a difference and it’s serving to make Turkey a really enjoyable and memorable experience.
The route ahead
We’re starting to get to a really interesting part of the trip now which looks as follows for roughly the next 6 weeks:
Tomorrow I’m going to get cracking towards Trabzon, which is about 325km away from Samsun before heading to Batumi which is just over the Georgian border. We are hoping to then stop off in Gori, which is where Stalin was born. I’m looking forward to both seeing my brother and celebrating my birthday in Tbilisi before we head to Baku, where hopefully we will pick up our Uzbekistan visas among other things!
We then take the ferry across the Caspian Sea from Baku to Aktau in Kazakhstan, which apparently is an adventure in itself. Next up we’ll have a go at cycling what some cyclists have described as ‘the worst road in the world’. The landscape is extremely barren and there are very few towns on this 500km stretch, which will provide a completely different challenge to what we’ve experienced so far. Then, we will drop into Uzbekistan and head towards Bukhara before hopefully meeting up with Compo’s parents in Samarkand.