Bears, Vampires and Street Dogs, Oh My!

The road into the Romanian capital of Bucharest was hideous, arrow straight with nothing really to see along the route, a long closed petrol station offering the only respite from the persistant drizzle that plagued us. We did pass through one town and stopped a unique establishment which seemed to be the local betting shop, cafe, supermarket and pub all in one go, Meaghan asked for a bathroom and was given directions to a small shelter with three walls, a concrete floor with a triangular hole in it and a nice view of the main road through the one open side, she decided to hold on! A local man stopped us as we were leaving and motioned us to wait, he returned with a decrepid bicycle and set about attempting to convince Meaghan that it was better than hers and therefore a trade would be a bargain well struck. Time to go we thought! Our final run into Bucharest through the suburbs involved passing by several scrap yards and other properties which used dogs as protection, they took great interest in us and would always give chased. My hand held ultra sonic dog deterrent was doing a stirling job while Meaghan chose the more traditional pocket full of rocks as her weapon of choice. None chased us for more than a few metres but we keen on putting them off the chase as much as we could.

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We had a warm showers host and hostess lined up for Bucharest who had given us directions to a pizza restaurant that was a favourite of theirs just around the corner from their apparment. Their pizza reccomendation told me that they were a fan of spicy food! After we were done we wandered down the nearby street until we heard a shout from a balcony accompanied by a freindly wave, we were ushered in off the street and after removing our luggage stowed our bikes inside. We were introduced to Paul, Anca and their three political house cats Pampa, Shoshana and Mychkine before being handed a beer. Paul’s knowledge of the history of his country was incredible and he gave us a great insight into Romanias rocky past and how things had changed over the recent years. We had asked Paul and Anca if we could leave our bikes and some luggage with them while we caught a train north to the town of Brasov where some chap called Dracula lived, big fan of blackout curtians apparently. We found our way to the ticket office and the process was suprisingly easy and found our way to the comfy seating for our journey of a few hours North.

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We rolled into the station and started on task number one, find a map so we could make it to our accomodation, a helpful newspaper seller sorted us out and we were on our way. A couple of kilometres walk across the city into the older part and were welcomed to our hostel with a cold beer, our plan the following day was to take a tour out to see three sites, Dracula’s Castle at Bran, Rasnov Citadel and the aptly named Libearty Bear Sanctuary. A packed day! The highlight for me was the bear sanctuary, one of Romanias major issues is the keeping of bears in tiny cages by restaurant and hotel owners to entertain guests. the bears are kept in cages raised off the floor so spend their lives walking around on the bars. The result is deformed feet, mental and anxiety problems and general health issues. One bear living in the park couldnt accept that it now lived in several acres of enclosure and wouldnt leave the fence believing it was still inside its prison. The only being capable of leading the bear away from the fence and deep into the forest was a lone wolf also rescued from captivity, neither would live with any other animal bear or not!

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We had the following day looking around Brasov before heading back south, picking up our bikes and heading onwards to join up with the Danube. Our hosts Paul and Anca convinced us we needed to spend a day exploring Romanias capital, its pubs and best places to eat. How could we refuse? Pauls knowledge of the city, his countries political and social history and that of the local pubs and eateries was incredible, like in many countries and many people we met particularly the younger generations, Paul showed great distain for Romanias history and a deep desire for social change. Romania had come a long way but there was still progress to be made.

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To make up a little time we decided to jump on a train to the border town of Drobeta-Turnu Severin. We arrived early evening and had a short ride out of town towards a bridge that would not only carry us over the mighty Danube but also into our next country, Serbia.

Return to European Soil

I decided to take a bus back along the coast to Izmit to meet Meaghan, she finished teaching for the summer soon and our plan was to cycle back into Europe together for a few weeks before parting ways for a little while. I needed a couple of days to sort some kit out and make sure I left nothing behind in Meaghans apartment. Rather than have to fight our way through the never ending madness of Istanbuls traffic laden roads we elected to take a bus through the city to Plovdiv in Bulgaria, Me and Chris had stopped here many months before and found a great place to visit, one of the oldest cities in Europe. It’s a small place but is jammed with historical sites, good food and some great views. We had booked into the same hostel we used on our first visit who welcomed us back with open arms as I took my first steps in Europe after 6 months away.

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I was stepping back into a Europe changed forever, A referendum in June of 2016 had resulted in the United Kingdom deciding it no longer wanted to be a member of the European Union. The country still seemed in shock at the result and already seemed to be doing its best to loose the United part of its title as talk of Scotland moving to become an independent nation and the potential for Ireland to follow suit filled the media. I won’t dwell on this too long but as I wandered the streets of Plovdiv I wondered what the future would hold for the continent now the Union devoted to keeping the peace was seemingly beginning to unravel and the threat of terrorism was ever more an issue.

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But enough of that! Back to the story, after a day looking around Plovdiv we left heading North heading for the band of mountains that separated us from the river Danube and Romania beyond. We had planned to camp by a lake around 100km’s away and despite the constant threat the clouds held on and we stayed mostly dry as we ticked off the kilometres along a fairly boring stretch of road. Punctuated only by passing an army base where a gun crew were running through firing drills with blanks (we hoped and not shelling some unseen Russian invaders which was a distinct possibility the way things were going politically!)DSCN5329.JPG

We knew the next day would include the majority of the climbing up and over a pass called the Shipka Pass and so dreamt of clear skies and no rain to accompany our ascent. Unfortunately the skies looked anything but clear when we awoke and so we packed up our kit not entirely looking forward to the day ahead. We found a handy restaurant at the base of the climb and decided to fuel up properly with coffee and some food before we set off, this also allowed us some time to see if the clouds were going to make their mind up on whether to let loose or not. It seemed to hold off so we had no excuse but to carry on and see what happened. The gods smiled on us and it held off, actually brightening up as we climbed up and up. I relish a good climb as the views that accompany it are often worth the effort and this one, like many others, did not disappoint

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We were soon at the top and it was time for a good feed once again! A friendly local helped translate the menu for us and we soon had some hot food to enjoy before we rolled down the far side of the pass. We didn’t really have a stop planned for the night but once down on the flat roads whose condition was pretty good progress was quick and we passed a few big towns before we got to the big town of Veliko Tarnovo where I had thought we would be able to find somewhere to stay. Unfortunately the town was built around a small and extremely steep valley, neither of us fancied a short steep climb up with no guarantee of finding somewhere to sleep so we decided to carry on and camp if we didn’t find anything better. In the next town we came across the type of accommodation cycle tourists dreams are made of! I think it was around 7 quid for the two of us for a lovely little room with en suite, dinner, and breakfast! There was little argument when I asked Meaghan if she was happy with the price!

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Our next major aiming point was the town of Ruse on the banks of the Danube and where we would cross the river and the border into Romania, but first there was one last sight we wanted to see. Just short of the city was a monastery built into the rock walls of a river valley outside of a small town called Basarbovo, these are quite common in the area and its well worth stopping and checking out these unique places on your way through. We stayed the night before just over the river in a climbers hut right next to some crags looked after by an extremely wizened looking climbing yoda type figure. I mimed fire and me cooking over it to ask if we could cook in his kitchen, he shook his head however when I got some food out later and asked again he said yet, god only knows what he though I was asking for with my miming! After dinner we climbed into the climbing bunks and got our heads down for an early visit to the monastery in the morning. A very sleepy/bored looking monk with a tiny kitten welcomed us and we climbed up the precarious stone steps to the rooms carved out of the rock, understandably it wasn’t the largest monastery I had ever visited but it was am impressive size all things considered!

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(Photo Credit: M Perrotta)

Now all that stood between us and our next country was a short ride to the border and one last town to navigate through to find the Friendship Bridge that linked the two countries. It was a fairly long cycle over the bridge complicated slightly by some roadworks going on! Soon enough we were over and into Romania (country # 15 for those counting!) We quickly got hold of some of the local currency and got on the road to the capital Bucharest….

Canakkale/Gallipoli

The next morning it was a short ride of around 50 metres from the perfectly positioned hostel down to the ferry and a very cheap crossing to the town of Kilitbahir. Almost immediately you get the first illustration of what was happening in this small but strategically critical piece of land sticking out into the Aegean Sea that formed the Dardanelles strait I had just crossed 100 years ago. A recreation of the trenches that were dug in the hills far above us filled with bronze soldiers, the two sides looked pushed closer together to fit them in the exhibition but I would learn later that it wasn’t far from the truth. I stopped at the supermarket in the town, this would be the last I would see for a few days and started on the road south. Soon I was passing through ancient fortifications that made up the Turkish defences and past various monuments to individuals who fought on the Turkish side.

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It was interesting to be in a place where a battle was fought and the story told by “the bad guys” from my point of view, stories of the British ignoring the red crescents painted on Turkish field hospitals and bombing them, we didn’t do such things surely? Apparently we did.

The main roads on the peninsula were very good to ride on, the area sees a large volume of tourist traffic from the main land,  and the scenery was simply stunning along the coast. When I arrived at the southern tip, where I intended to spend the night, I could see storm clouds forming out to sea! I inquired at a campsite but the price the guy gave me was way too high, either it was bumped up for tourists or he hadn’t had any business for a while, either way his facilities were lacking somewhat! We settled on a cup of cay instead while I watched the storm roll in. Time to try and find some shelter to pitch my tent! I cycled off towards the Cape Helles memorial to the mainly British forces which attacked the area to find a spot. Camping behind the walls surrounding the memorial would have been perfect but somehow didn’t seem right so I ended up a kilometre or so away in a shallow valley behind a clump of trees that gave me just enough shelter to get some sleep overnight as the heavens well and truly opened.

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Considering the magnitude of the storm that smashed into the peninsula I actually got some reasonable sleep and woke up in the morning to clear skies and sunshine thankful that the storm had been overnight and not during the day. I spent some time at he Helles memorial as well as the remains of the Turkish fortifications overlooking the beach before continuing along the road that runs up along the western coast. As I was cycling along the stunning coastal road I passed a group of Turkish fisherman enjoying the sun as well as some wine, bread, tomatoes and plums. They flagged me down and also had an Englishman and a Kiwi for company who were walking around Gallipoli taking in the sights also. I stopped and had a few minutes of company and some shared food with the locals who spoke little English, it was interesting to hear from the guys on foot and their plans though. The next major stopping point, other than the cemeteries that seemed to be around almost every corner was Anzac cove, legendary among Aussies and Kiwis as the place that galvanised their nations identities across the world. It was clear that the chance to visit that spot meant a huge amount to this particular traveller.

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The beach front road pictured above is what fills the dreams of touring cyclists everywhere, flat with beautiful beaches to stop and picnic on to one side and stunning, steep and rugged terrain to view over on the other. Looking at the terrain that would have faced the young Anzac’s today it seems incredible they got as far as they did, climbing up the steep bluffs covered in short prickly shrubs while be fired at from all angles must have been horrendous. The road then swept inland towards a small village that was more reminiscent of the villages back in the Turkish interior, it was clear from the looks I got that not many visitors ventured this far! Just outside I found a good field to camp in and got set up for the night, thankfully there was no bad weather this time!

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My next move was to climb up a sneaky back road that would join the main tourist road which runs around all the major spots in a one way loop. This proved to be a good move as the gravel track that lead me up to the high points was spectacular! Beautiful views over both he interior and towards the coast lines all the way and a pleasant gradient meant that I was smiling all the way. At the summit before I joined the main road at the statue of Ataturk looking over the ground he earned his famous victory on there was a fire watchers station. Looked like a great job to me! Nice and peaceful with a couple of colleagues to keep you company, a fantastic view and not another sole to share it with. Apart from one sweaty English cycle tourist of course…

 

I wished the road would continue forever but sadly it had to end sooner or later and I had a wonder round the monument to the man who went on to found modern Turkey which was surrounded by reconstructed Turkish trenches and had a snack. The road I would descend from this high point seemed to roughly follow the front line at the furthest points the allied troops made it inshore, an astonishingly short distance as the crow flies from where they disembarked their ships and fought for 9 months suffering 141,000 casualties with around 1/3 rd killed. Off to the right the original allied trenches could still be seen and on the left there were markers to indicate the Turkish front lines sometimes barely the width of the single lane one way road separated them and punctuated by Turkish and Allied cemeteries full of troops that were quickly buried in the closest available ground.

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I quickly arrived back down on the western coast and made my way back across to the east. My plan from here was to head further up to the town of Gallipoli itself to cross back over to the main land, again the road here was nice to ride along, not quite as spectacular as the opposite coastline but still pretty good. Once in the town I set about finding a ferry back across and quickly found myself ushered onto a locals boat at the last minute, it was full of lorries and tractors and the crew refused any money that I offered. Despite the town bearing the name so synonymous with what happened 100 years ago I don’t think many tourists made this far up, particularly those on bicycles. Soon I was across and heading back south towards the Canakkale where I was aiming to stay in the hostel again while I planned my next few days.

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After leaving I was glad I had taken the time to visit the area, through the whole of my time there the significance of the events for three nations in particular became more and more apparent. One an ancient empire seeking to hold onto its position in a changing world that won one last great victory before dissolution and the other two much younger countries bursting out of the shade of British rule and gaining their own identities on the world stage. History aside the whole area was stunning to ride around, much like other parts of Turkey, well worth a visit whether by bike or by tour bus (I’d recommend hiring a car, doing it on your own schedule and leaving the beaten track to find some stunning quiet spots of your own).

 

 

Turkce Yok

The week in Bodrum brought a lot of food, drink and relaxing. With my younger brother and sister and a villa with a pool there was lots of playing and swimming too. Meaghan also flew down for the weekend to visit, the week was over almost as soon as it had started. The Mediterranean coast was stunning as usual but very different to the other parts of Turkey that I had seen so far, tourism was king down here and the locals told us of the stark reality of the situation. Visitor numbers were down after the attacks in Istanbul and Ankara. There had been no trouble down on the coast but still  the ongoing issues were having an effect.

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The hardest days of the trip were always cycling away from family, it was great to have visitors to share in the journey at various points but them leaving was always difficult. I cycled north and began to follow the coast towards Turkeys 3rd largest city of Izmir, the road was good, not too busy and it took me past more ancient ruins and a great view over a large lake. After a couple of days I found myself close to the city and needed to find somewhere to camp before I got too close to the city, I found a small track that took me off the road and into some fields. It seemed like a quiet spot and I put my tent up. A couple of farmers came past and I asked if it was ok to camp in my limited Turkish backed up with some gestures and all seemed fine. Later as I cooked up some pasta a man appeared with a flat bread filled with grilled chicken! This country and its people never failed to provide incredible hospitality.

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Content I crawled into my sleeping bag and was quickly asleep. I woke up a few hours later with lights shining at my tent, too bright for a torch it was clearly from a vehicle. There was a road close by that I could be spotted from if you looked hard enough so I guessed that the vehicle would pass soon. It didn’t, and soon there were voices heading my way. Up until now I had had no problems at all camping anywhere but here I was close to a large city and there were buildings close by from which I could be seen. The voices began to say things in Turkish clearly directed at me. I unzipped my tent and called out “Turkce Yok!” (No Turkish!) and as my eyes adjusted to the bright lights shining at me they focused on several machine guns…

They understood I could not speak a lot of Turkish and asked for my passport, there were about 7-8 Jandarma spread out, a couple held back and kept there guns pointed at me. They clearly meant business and there were too many to have stumbled upon me while they were out on patrol. I guess someone nearby had objected to my presence and had phoned to report me, despite all the chicken and bread making me feel like there was no issues. After what felt like an age the interrogation was over and they were satisfied I was going to do no harm. Safe to say I didn’t sleep much the rest of that night and was up and gone early, after the man who had brought me the chicken had appeared with some tea to have with my breakfast.

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I packed quickly and found my way back to the main road, I wouldn’t camp that close to a major city again anytime soon! The roads were good as I worked my way up the coast towards Canakkale and I made quick progress. Along the way there were plenty of Roman and Greek ruins to see just by the roadside and also more friends to be made. In one village a local called Hasan, a keen cyclist insisted I stay for a drink with him and his friends. Thankfully there were plenty of less ‘spicy’ camping spots on my route towards the peninsula, with the time I had left before I needed to get back, meet Meaghan and head back into Europe proper my options were cycle all the way back or explore the Canakkale/Galipoli peninsula and then catch a bus.

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After 600 Kms in 6 days it was definitely time for a day off to decide! There was one last problem, there always is!, I punctured about 2 kms from my accommodation. I was distinctly unhappy with this as I unloaded my bike next to a sign that helpfully reminded me that Canakkale (a town on the coast) was definitely at 0 metres above sea level. I found a hostel, the only one in the town, and got my bike secured in a store room before heading out to find some tasty Durem. There was loads to see in the town, mainly based around the famous WW1 battle fought just over the water, I decided to head over and see the peninsula myself, there wasn’t much accommodation over there, only a few basic and quite pricey campsites, most people base themselves on the mainland and take day tours over. I spent the evening stocking up with food and supplies and got ready to take the ferry over the following morning.

Back to Istanbul

For those who don’t know I have somehow collected a girlfriend on my travels, Meaghan is a friend of Liz, the Canadian warmshowers host that me and Chris had stayed with in Izmit, Turkey. As far as she was concerned I was carrying on cycling out of Burma into Thailand and south through Malaysia into Singapore. She is a teacher in Turkey and for part of her summer break she had planned to cycle from Turkey into Europe for a few weeks, I had arranged to join her after reaching Singapore. She didn’t know that I had booked a flight back to Istanbul from Bangkok a month or so early so was a little surprised when I knocked on her door after a ridiculously delayed and long journey back from South East Asia.

Unfortunately the baggage handlers had managed to damage my bike in transit, not serious but I had to wait for some spares before I could continue, my plan was to cycle south for a couple of weeks and meet my Dad, his girlfriend and my brother and sister in Bodrum on the south Coast of Turkey. After a week the bike was back in action and I was ready to leave, the first day was tough, along the coast for a few kilometers before a steep climb up into the hills. I was rewarded with a much more gentle climb through a stunning and quiet valley before dropping down to Iznik lake where I found a campsite right on the shore and set up for the night. The roads in Turkey through the central hilly parts are so great to cycle, not too much traffic and some incredible views, the next day took me further into the hills towards the biggest climb on my route and some kind cafe owners let me camp in their garden and refused to take the full amount of money I owed for the bill! Rain clouds gathered as I packed up the next morning, I set off up the road and stopped at a perfectly positioned tea house as the rain began to fall. I sat down with a warm cay to wait and see how long the rain was going to stick around, as lunch was kindly donated to me after a while it was clear it was going nowhere…

Enter Rustu and his Cement truck, the next part of the road was a long and steep climb over some hills to the next city, I didn’t fancy it in the rain so his offer of a lift was gratefully accepted. My bike was tied to the side of his truck and off we went lurching up the hill in the never ending rain, there were also plenty of wild looking dogs about so I was doubly glad not to be riding up the road. At the top we stopped to buy fresh Strawberries and a fruit that looked like a tiny apple, no idea what it was but it tasted good! Rustu dropped me off at a petrol station at the bottom of the other side of the pass and gave me the left over mystery fruit, some chewing gum and some wet wipes that he had in his cab. Another super helpful legend to add to the list of Turkish heroes I met.

 

The next section took me over to Dumlupinar and along one of the best roads I had ever cycled. Great tarmac, quiet, great scenery and not too hilly! Dumlupinar was small but had plenty of Turkish paraphernalia due to Ataturks decisive victory over the Greeks on his way to pushing them out of western Turkey. I found the local lokantasi and ordered some food, a couple of the locals came over for a chat as usual and asked me about my onward route. He recommended a slightly different route than I planned but it would take me past “the second biggest canyon in the world” at Ulubey, a fact that the rest of the world seemed to dispute! The canyon none the less was spectacular and had a glass bottomed viewing platform you could walk out over the canyon sides for a great view down the canyon. A couple of kilometres further on there was also a free campsite I took advantage of to spend the night over looking the dramatic scenery.

I was now nearly back on the Mediterranean coast and due a day off, I chose to have a day at the UNESCO heritage site of Pamukkale. There is perched atop a bizarre snow white outcrop is the ancient city called Hierapolis, complete with baths, theatre and plenty of other ruined buildings to walk around. Underneath all this are the travertines, pools formed from the travertine deposited by the water flowing from hot springs. Visitors are allowed to bath in certain sections and the hours soon vanished as I relaxed in the warm spring water. The peace only disturbed by an Irishman who was unfortunate to take his Iphone for a 20 minute soak in the pool next door, there was some swearing!

The next day my journey back to the sea continued and I made my way to the tourist town of Marmaris with the intention of working my way along the peninsula to catch a ferry over to the next peninsula where I would meet my family. The information I could find about the ferry online wasn’t clear whether it was running or not, I was lucky enough to find a last minute warm showers host thanks to another friendly local and set up my tent in the back yard of a bike shop for the night. He rang around for me and found out that the ferry indeed was not running as they were working on the docks so boats could not get in. A little frustrating as I would have to retrace my steps and the descent into Marmaris was a big one to get back up! I was soon back on track though and worked my way down some quiet back roads through tiny villages and up some big climbs, Turkey at its best though, stunning views and great locals. I also met some Turkish cycle tourists heading the opposite way so we were able to swap intel on the respective up coming roads. I also  had my second (I think!) crash of the trip, I was coasting down a broken road as the sun dropped and didn’t see a patch of loose gravel until it was too late, my bike vanished beneath me and I was sent skidding down the road. No damage done though and I found a quiet spot tucked behind some log stacks with only some roaming cows to disturb me. I was now only 30 or so kilometres from where we would be staying for a week while my family visited, thankfully I arrived first and used the pool side shower as it had been over a week since I had last found one. It would be nice to be in one place, drink, eat and relax for a week before my journey back north again.

 

Yangon-Bagan-Mandalay-Inle-Yangon

The first part of this post actually starts before the end of the last one…

I walked into the hostel lobby and a guy wondered past with a bike helmet in his hands, your on a bike I said and he replied and guessed I was too. His name was Daniel and he came from Poland, he had been riding for a little while in Australia and Malaysia and was heading back to Poland ultimately. We had a day together with the thingyan festival still in full swing before he set off for Bagan to the north, he had been in Kuala Lumpur for a month volunteering at a bike shop so was keen to get moving again. A friend I had met in Hampi was due to fly in so I stayed around an extra day to catch up with her before I would leave the city. Dan and I arranged that I would catch him up before or around the town of Pyay about halfway to Bagan, he would leave a message at a monastery along the way so I knew his progress, he made sure I owed him a beer so we would definitely see each other again.

I left on the last day of the Thingyan water festival which would prove to be a disaster, I spent the day going from being burning hot to being soaked with ice cold water despite my insistence that I didn’t want to be sprayed at each stop. Some respected it to be fair but the majority were enjoying the festivities to the max and their momentum couldn’t be stopped. I camped just off the road in some trees after being fed at a village celebration for the festival and taking the obligatory selfies with the locals. My first time camping in Burma where it is illegal passed without incident and so the next day I set off again, I wasn’t sure whether the festival was over or not having lost track of the days but thankfully it was. My body had not known how to react to the previous days temperature fluctuations and has decided i must be sick, the symptoms of a cold manifested themselves as I woke. The next three days riding were tough to get to Pyay, there was no respite from the heat, in the evenings it barely cooled and camping on the baked earth was like hugging a radiator. I made it into town and started to look for somewhere to stay, it seemed to be pricy hotels and one confusing place called tourists home with the sign in english which apparently was only for locals… Then a cycle rickshaw told me to follow him and he took me to a guest house in the back streets that offered accommodation more suited to my budget. The owner told me a cyclist had left that morning who I correctly guessed was named Daniel, so close! The next day I could barely move from my bed, the cold I had caught made the 45 degree temperatures really hard to handle and the whole situation was not helped by me eating some questionable street food, it tasted amazing but I paid for it!

The Burmese visa only allows a 30 day stay so to catch Daniel up and to compensate for the lost days spent suffering in bed, I got in a train to Bagan with a backpacker called Robin. For something that ran on flat rails it was extraordinarily bouncy, but tickets were about 2 quid and 50 pence for the bike. The other downside was being told the train would stop for 2 minutes “sometime between 9 and 11pm” 2 minutes to load me and the bike into separate coaches was going to be a squeeze! So people of the UK are no longer allowed to complain about trains being late! The journey took a little over 12 hours and somehow we got some sleep, not a lot but some is better than none! It was about 10 kms from the train station to my hostel, Ostello Bello, run by Italians with free pasta served three times a day. Bagan has a huge concentration of temples, pagoda’s and stupa’s, there were at one point around 6000 but now only about 2000 remain. There are the main larger temples to see but there are so many that it’s always possible to find a smaller one to yourself. Sunset and Sunrise are particularly special here and the best spots draw large crowds.

Dan arrived after me and we made plans to meet and continue to Mandalay together, I was still fighting off the illness and having someone to ride with would be good for morale. Daniel had a different structure to his days riding, I would take the bull headed British style and push through the hottest part of the day with short breaks. Dan used the more sensible “stop at midday, eat, wash and sleep until 4” routine which was much better. Between Yangon and Bagan Dan had camped too, while I had had no trouble whatsoever with camping, and I wasn’t that discrete, Dan had stories to tell. He was hunted by officials and forced into hotels, the immigration service paid but it was still inconvenient to have to pack up your camp and move. Unfortunately Dan’s trend continued and we had further troubles on the road to Mandalay. Night one we opted to present ourselves at the local police station and ask to camp on their grounds, we would be safe and they would know where we were, they were not happy with that and wouldn’t let us leave. We insisted that we would find a bus to Mandalay but they still wouldn’t let us disappear into the night to find a place to camp. In the end the immigration services paid for a night in a hotel for us, that’s the length they are willing to go to so that visitors don’t come into contact with
locals apparently.

The next day we continued with the same pattern, ride, sleep, eat, repeat. We cycled through an area where they were building a huge new town, the place looked more like Mexican scrub land than the green and lush Burma we were used to. The impressions of the finished article looked impressive though and there was a workers canteen for some food and rest. Onwards on the road to Mandalay, we cycled aiming for a lake until we spotted a monastery and asked if we could stay the night there, they asked the master who granted us permission to pitch our tents and then sat down for some food and chai. We hit the sack quite early and after a couple of chapters of my book I drifted off, an hour or so later I woke, alerted by torch lights sweeping over my tent. They came closer and I stared up into the eyes of 4 police officers and one immigration officer who after firing questions at me ordered me to pack up my stuff and get ready to move. I grabbed my gear and stumbled down to the dining area where Dan was sat refusing to show his passport tired of the nightly routine of “checks” and also refusing to pack his gear. After an hour or so of phone calls and a few more chapters of my book they decided enough was enough and at 1am they were not going to find a truck to take us to the nearest hotel let alone Mandalay where they wanted us to go. We were “free” to stay where we were, I wasn’t allowed to put my tent back up where it was as there were snakes apparently…

We finally rolled into Mandalay after a journey that I remember being far longer than it actually was and found some digs for a couple of nights, Dan needed apply for his Indian visa. Time was running out on my Burmese visa and Dan only had a few days before he was due back in Mandalay so we decided to hitch to Inle lake, we made it with a couple of hitches in trucks and vans. We ended up sleeping inside a small grass hut we found after spending an hour taking some long exposure shots of a huge thunderstorm and also of some messages we wrote using our headtorches. We woke early at 5 am to sneak into the tourist area and found some breakfast before taking a boat tour out onto the lake, the locals live on the fringes of the lake in houses built on stilts. Everything is accessed by boats and there was lots of traffic! Longer faster boats weaved and dodged the smaller slower moving craft. And with that our adventure was over, Dan would hitch back to Mandalay to collect his Indian paperwork and I would catch a bus south back to the Capital Yangon, pack my bike up and catch my flight to Bangkok and back to Istanbul from there

I managed to find the time to visit the grave once more and give my thanks for inspiring my journey and bringing me to experience this awesome country.

Rangoon, Burma 1944: Yangon, Myanmar 2016

In April 1944 my great grandfather lost his battle with the much feared beri beri in what is still serving as Yangon’s main prison. Conditions inside under the Japanese I can’t imagine, within a month Sgt J Thornley’s brother Herbert would also succumb to conditions in the prison. They became the 2nd and 3rd Thornley brothers respectively to give their lives in the years of war between 1939 and 1945, the 1st Walter who did the extremely hazardous job of bring a test pilot was killed during the war, serving at home certainly did not guarantee safety. Thankfully the 4th brother was spared being only 16 at the outbreak of war and completing his training to join the royal signals as peace was declared in 1945.

Sgt Thornley had a son, born after he began his long journey to Burma to harass the Japanese as part of an experimental force called the Chindits. They would march behind Japanese lines in huge columns of 800 men re supplied from the air and do what they could. The night my grandfather was born in Blackpool the phantom of German bombers came to attack the city, clearly recognising him as a threat he would joke years later. He and my great grandmother were moved down to the hospital basement and safety. Sadly history meant that father and son would never meet, until 2016 that is.

I arrived in Yangon the day before my grandfather, mother and uncle who was making a surprise appearance unknown to all but my mum. I was extremely excited to see some family after 9 months of travel, the next day I woke very early and got myself to the hotel we would be staying in to wait in reception and greet them. They arrived early and were suffering from some jet lag so the day was quite a lazy one spent mostly eating, drinking and chatting. They also came prepared with a long list of sights and places to eat they wanted to visit, having only 6 days it was clearly going to be a jam packed week.

After a couple of days of exploring this fantastic city we decided it was time to visit the grave, breakfast was a little quiet that morning and we found a taxi driver to take us to the small corner of the city where the cemetery was located. Our luck so far with taxi drivers knowing exactly where we wanted to go had so far been patchy but the cemetery although small (1331 graves compared to 6374 graves in the main allied cemetery in Yangon) was well known to the driver, an indication of the impact that chapter of history had had on the city. My grandfather knew exactly which row and plot both my great grandfather and great uncle were buried in and so made a bee line to the correct section of the graveyard. Apparently he had some words prepared that he wanted to say however in the moment only tears came forward, I can’t begin to imagine what the moment felt like and my own emotion seemed to be repressed. We had some time at each grave, some photos taken and a wander around the rest of the cemetery, it was surrounded on three sides by temples so even though just off one of the cities major roads was extremely peaceful. As we left my grandad seemed content, that some deep unfinished business had been dealt with, the words and photos of his lost father had finally been replaced with a tangible and physical connection to his past.

The rest of the week was spent ticking off more sights from the list, from the big tourist attractions of the giant gold plated Shwedagon pagoda that loomed over the city to some more obscure parts of the city where we found some great beer houses and got to see everything from the exclusive Governors Residence now a hotel and restaurant down to the cities poorer communities. Yangon is a brilliant city, small and compact with the downtown areas regimented street plan is a legacy of the British who built the city giving way to the suburbs with lots of park land and lakes meaning peace is easy to find. During my time there I met plenty of western expats who had fallen in love with the place and never left, it was very easy to see why.

At the end of our stay the locals began to celebrate the new year with the Thingyan festival, I have never seen anything like this! Everything shuts for 5 days bar some small supermarkets, the streets are filled with water stations of various sizes, the main stages, with live music and dancing, are massive and small business’ and home owners make their own smaller stations. The locals then cruise around the city in open trucks dancing, spraying and getting sprayed by hosepipes and buckets. The whole atmosphere cannot be described, you should go there and experience it, its inescapable and even a quick trip to the shop around the corner results in a soaking. It was great to see such a good mood in the city with alcohol being consumed but no one getting out of control, just enjoying the moments, and children getting involved and loving it for obvious reasons.

The time came for my family to leave, the week had been the highlight of the trip so far. An incredible place to explore with great company and a special family connection. We said our goodbyes as they braved the water festivals hoses and buckets on their taxi journeys to the airport leaving plenty of extra time to get through the busy and chaotic streets. I had a friend, Catherine, who I had met in India flying in the next day so was planning to spend the penultimate day of the Thingyan with her before leaving the city. Yet another day was spent walking around getting periodically soaked with sometimes ice cold water, a welcome relief from the spring temperatures, we also got picked up by a Canadian family who had emigrated some years before and driven around in their truck for a while.

Finally the time came for me to leave one of the greatest cities I have visited so far, I packed my stuff in the hostel making extra sure everything was water tight and sealed as I knew I wouldn’t escape the city without getting wet, said good bye to some new friends I had made in the hostel and pedalled off into the city streets. As I cycled out of the city the emotion finally caught up with me, I had loved my time in the city and the memories of visiting with my family as well as of course visiting the graveyard put tears into my eyes as I tried my best to dodge the high pressure hoses of the locals who were determined to soak everything in sight.

Yangon is a very special place and I urge you to visit before the luxury hotels and apartments already going up in the city now this marvellous country has opened up to the world are completed and the city’s atmosphere is changed forever.

Hampi (India) to Yangon (Myanmar)

I arrived in Hampi sick and by train, I had let dehydration get the better of me and the that opened up my body to getting more sick. I had the flu which was hard to manage in the 40 degree heat of India’s summer, In my accommodation I found another sick cyclist, James so at least there would be some company! Chris had also decided to come to India, not with his bicycle but with a friend Phil from our university days to sample the world class bouldering Hampi offered. If it wasn’t for seeing some friendly faces I would probably have flown home, a few days earlier feeling very sorry for myself in a hostel in Mysore I had been on the verge of booking a flight home as my illness has knocked me out so badly.

Hampi proved to be the perfect place to rest and recover, a beautiful oasis of calm in India’s hectic landscape. It has a totally different pace of life and its oh so easy to get trapped there for weeks. The accommodation on the north side of the river (Hanuman temple side) caters more for the budget traveller, a bed space on a rooftop with mattress, mosquito net and some noisy monkeys to serve as an alarm clock can be yours for just 150 rupees. There are a huge number of backpackers and climbers in the various guest houses so always something going on or a game of cards to join in. The ruins of the ancient city are on the opposite bank of the river and the best way to see these is to join a cycle tour (obviously) but the guides are very good and it is a much more relaxed way to get around the temples than in the back of a bumpy tuk tuk. I had been in Hampi for almost two weeks which had crept up on me, I had recovered and finally got rid of the flu that had plagued me, spent some time exploring the ruins and boulders, done lots of swimming in the various spots, learned the greatest card game ever (Cambio), been to visit the monkeys of the Hanuman temple, been a passenger in a scooter crash and seen some amazing sunsets over the plateau.

Chris and Phil left just before the festival of colours known as Holi, they were two very unhappy chappies as they crossed the river to find their bus back to the airport. I had decided to stay and experience Holi Festival in Hampi the following day and then make my way to Goa. Holi was a wild experience, the noise and colour seemed to be even more intense than “normal India”, the explosion of colour and energy was all over by lunchtime with the afternoon dedicated to visiting family and friends to continue the festivities. I had booked flights from Goa to Bangkok and then Bangkok into Yangon as it was by far the cheapest way of doing it. With the temperature ramping up I opted for a bus back to the coast in the hope of finding a cool sea breeze and spent a few days riding up and down the coast checking out the beaches before a few days in Panjim, a nice old Portuguese colonial city before my flight out to Bangkok.

As my flight rumbled down the runway and took to the skies I wondered what Bangkok would be like, I hadn’t read anything about the city or indeed the country but had constructed in my head an image of what it would look like. When I arrived I found a clean, modern city with a lot to see and do, as a city to explore I really liked it. Bangkok has 14 million inhabitants but compared to even a small village in India it was so peaceful, no beeping of horns or the constant hard sell you get in India, you don’t realise how hectic the country is until you come to leave again! Some great food and markets to wonder around as well as the palaces and pagoda’s to see among other sights. I had a few days to explore the city with a South African I met in the hostel who was on a visa run from China, by far the best way to get around is by river boat, cheap and fast! We clocked up 70kms walking over the 4 days we were there according to Ryan’s watch… On my last night we visited the famous Khao San road, Asia’s best known street on the backpackers circuit, not my usual kind of thing but the busy bars and hostels of the street itself and the slightly quieter surrounding streets were worth an explore, a beer and a tasty scorpion. And with that it was back to the airport for the next country.

It was time to head to Yangon, too meet my family and visit my great grandfathers grave, this needs its own blog post so that will follow shortly.

Trichy to Hampi

From Trichy it was a long days ride to Madurai, around 130kms and all slightly uphill, not steep but just enough to notice. Madurai has a few sights worth a visit, a museum about Ghandi and the independence movement as well as the standard temple. I also managed to find a game of street cricket and was invited to play by the locals! My next stop was to stay with a couch surfing host in the town of Kovilpatti, I had a day off here and it was great to spend some time with a local family and hear about what life is really like here in India. I was now two days from Kanyakumari which is the southern tip of india, after a stop over in Tirunelveli I made it to the small town. There was again a lot to see here, two small islands a boat trip away had an important temple and a huge statue dedicated to a famous Indian poet. There was also the sunset off the beach which was the most spectacular yet and drew a large crowd of locals an tourists to see the sun set over the ocean. It was impossible not to have days off all the time to see all the sights!

I had now run out of India heading south so it was time to head north. After I left Kanyakumari I entered the next state of Kerala, the instant I crossed the border the change hit me. The landscape changed massively from open farm land to the dense foliage of the backwaters and open rice paddies. Kerala is now the most visited tourist location in India after having overtaken the Taj Mahal a few years ago, this meant there was another big change, on the plus side a fledgling Indian hostel scene brought cheap accommodation, the down side being more expensive food. The hostels also meant that I wasn’t short of company in the evenings and as I passed through then next few towns, Varkala, Aleppey and Kochi I met backpackers and travellers from the UK, America, China, Finland and all over India.

In Aleppey I met a backpacker from Delhi who persuaded me to take a boat tour of the backwaters, this was a good choice and we spent a great couple of hours being paddled around the sleepy channels with a tasty breakfast and lunch at each end. We shared a boat with two travellers from Canada also, we would also all be heading to the next town of Kochi the following day. I met my first cycle tourists on my ride from Aleppey, unfortunately all heading the opposite way though! A couple from Sweden who were towing a two year old in a trailer, what an adventure to have at two years old. And a guy from England who had been in India for only a couple of days. Around half way I stopped in a shady spot to have some water and a bit of food, three or four school kids appeared and started asking the usual questions, where are you from? Where are you going? Then a girl came out of a nearby house and insisted I come in and have lunch with her family! She was studying English at a local university and wanted to travel to thank U.K. to study for a masters eventually so was keen to chat about what its like in England.

I arrived in Fort Kochi, the older part of the town and quickly found my accommodation, another great hostel in the perfect location to explore the town. I had another day off to see the sights with the Canadian and the Indian backpacker I had met in Aleppey and one more to do some route planning for the next part of the route. I wanted to head inland and across the mountains towards Mysore and then up to Hampi, too many people had suggested Hampi as a plan worth a visit and also I had some friends there who were on a climbing trip, Hampi is popular for its bouldering.

I had found another blog from a cyclist who travelled the same route but in reverse, after a couple of modifications I had my route decided on. It was impossible to avoid a big climb up into the mountains unfortunately, leg 1 to Thrissur was relatively flat at least. I had another couch surfer there to stay with, a doctor which turned out to be useful as when I arrived I was a little worse for wear. He put it down to a mixture of my malaria tablets and the heat which had gone from 30ish degrees to 40ish in the last week of riding and it was getting hard. From here on it was the beginning of the climb towards the hills that would take me over into the Indian interior. I passed through the small towns of Shoranur and Nilambur after a few days rest to recover.

From Nilambur the climb started more seriously, the climb wound its way up through the jungle and seemed to be going on forever. As I was now inside a national park there were no shops to buy cool drinks, I had plenty of water with me but it was nice to have some cool every now and again. There were signs everywhere warning about elephants and the locals would also warn me I had to be very careful whenever I showed them my route through the hills. As I ground further up the climb it was beginning to get too hard, slightly cooler with the increase in altitude and the tree cover but the hill was unrelenting. With the weight of my bike it was beginning to be too much, I was on the side of the road and had basically given up, I though the best plan was just to head back down the hill and find another way round. All of a sudden a group of local cyclists our for a ride came down the hill and stopped for a chat, I told them I had basically given up and my plan was to head back down. They decided to cycle back up the hill with me for a few kms, I was near the top they said. Without this kind act and the moral boost it gave me I wouldn’t have made it for sure, they even phoned me that night to check I was ok and had found some accommodation. That day I didn’t make it to my target for the day but got a huge chunk of the climbing out of the way.

I was looking forward the next days ride and it was totally worth sticking out the previous day, after a little more undulating terrain I arrived at the entrance to the Mudumalai tiger reserve. This was the part that people had warned me about, it was elephants I needed to watch for but there was also wild dogs, buffalo and of course the tigers. The gate guard waved me through no problem and I cycled into the reserve, the tarmac was really nice and riding through the forest was am incredible experience. My ears were wide open listening for any noise though! Thankfully it was mostly down hill, I got to a small village in the centre of the reserve and tried to find some food with no luck but was told there was a place to eat further down the road. I cycled on, half way through the reserve you cross a state border and therefore technically you enter a new tiger reserve, the gate guard at the new reserve entrance was having none of me riding my bike. Apparently the elephant movements on this side were much more frequent and there was no way he was letting me ride my bike through. I pointed at their jeep and asked for a lift across, there was no way I was cycling back! Eventually they flagged down a trucker who was heading across the second half of the park, threw my bike and luggage in the back and off we went for a bumpy ride out of the park. I never did see any elephants….

It turned out that the truck driver was heading the same way as me all the way to Mysore and offered me a lift the whole way. It was hard to turn down as I still wasn’t feeling 100%, this turned out to be a good call as the road was in terrible condition and wouldn’t have been a fun ride at all. Although the truck option wasn’t that fun either and I was pretty glad to get out when he dropped me on the outskirts of the city, as I was heading towards the city I bumped into a guy who invited me for a coffee. It turned out he had walked 830 kms from Mysore to Kanyakumari back in 1985 in just 22 days! I was impressed and he was always keen to chat to other travellers. Mysore had a lot to see so I had planned to have a day or so off here. The next day over breakfast a Canadian guy said he wanted to fly his drone over the huge palace of Mysore to get some footage, something which the police and security staff were not happy about at all. He needed help and I volunteered, we found a piece of scrub land and his ourselves behind some cows hoping not to attract too much attention. The bike was left running while he flew quickly over the palace and as soon as it touched down it was grab it, jump on the bike and make our escape. Trying to hold onto the bike, the drone, the case and make sure the drone didn’t get hit by any passing traffic was a little scary!

The morning’s excitement over I headed for a look around the palace from the inside this time, it was beautiful, lots of carved teak and rock and full of paintings. I had decided to try and take a train from here to Hampi, I was still feeling a little weak on the bike and also a train seemed like it would be an adventure in itself! Thankfully one of the guys who I met cycling up the hill had a cousin who lived in the city and he was a great help getting a train ticket, no mean feat in India! He then spent the day showing me a few of the other sights of Mysore too. Soon enough it was time for my 12 hour train journey to Hampi, I cycled to the station and booked my bike onto the cargo part of the train, I said goodbye to it not 100% confident we would end up in the same place and grabbed a porter to take my luggage and show me to the right spot on the platform. My friend Simon’s top travel tip, learned from first hand experience, is “if you think you have shit yourself on a train, don’t check with your hand” useful advice to remember! Unfortunately I was a little to sick to appreciate the train journey and was asleep for most of the trip, I was worried about missing my stop so was awake and packed a little early probably. I was so glad when I found my bike waiting for me on the end of the platform, loaded up my luggage and headed for Hampi itself, about 10 kms away. I plan to stay here for 10 days or so to get better and think about the next part of the journey, I have about 3 weeks left in India before I will fly to Burma next month.

For those that like a fairy tale ending, my friend Simon did end up marrying the girl he was travelling with at the time of the train incident so it all turned out well!

6 months on the road, here are a few of the many things I have learnt.

1. Don’t believe everything the media says, its all bullshit. Especially when it comes to the Muslim world.

2. You will always find somewhere to sleep, even if its in a pipe on the side of the road.

3. You don’t need to spend thousands of pounds on a touring bike, this guy cycled from London to Athens on a bike that cost £100. That said I did and am still waiting for my first puncture let alone any other mechanical issues. Please take a moment to touch everything made of wood around you.

4. Albania is more cycle friendly than Croatia.

5. Warm showers and couch surfing hosts should wear super hero capes.

6. This world is full of incredible people, I have lost count of the amount of times I have been pulled off the street and given shelter, food and a warm drink. Bike shops have done work for free, people have paid for my drinks and taught me how to speak a little of the local language.

7. Watching a great sun set never gets old.

8. Back packers and cycle tourists are different breeds, both are awesome but different. Apart from Mr Yolo and his £100 bicycle mentioned above, he is a mongrel.

9. There is no limit to the way the coffee bean can be prepared.

10. You won’t die if you tour on 700c wheels, you won’t die if you tour with a derailleur, you won’t die if you tour with a rohloff. I’ve seem people touring on all sorts, penny farthings, unicycles, tandems, mountain bikes, racing road bikes, gravel bikes and recumbents. The important thing is you are touring. For the record a 26 in wheeled, steel framed and rohloff equipped bike is still the way to go though 🙂

11. Blogging is great, but also sometimes a pain in the bum!

12. I will leave this one to Mr Clarkson to explain! (India Specific)

13. The Turkish breakfast might just be the one to challenge the mighty Great British Fry Up.

14. Cycle tourists hell will be populated entirely by Indian Bus Drivers.

15. Cycle tourists heaven will be full of the rest of India, the roads, the people, the scenery and the mangoes.

16. Touring with partners is great, touring solo is also great.