The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Thank you and Goodnight (for now...)

At 1:30 last Saturday we pedaled back into Hyde Park, to the very spot where the adventure began 20 months ago. Over 52,000 miles, 598 days and hundreds of vehicles later we had done it: 3.6mph around the world without once jumping on a plane.

We had been imagining the day even before we had cycled off on the trip in September 2008. We had pictured sunny days, rainy days, windy days and everything in between. Lots of people, nobody there, just family, maybe just sneak in and don't tell anyone. We bid goodbye to our final hosts on the trip and navigated the suburbs before stopping for an hour in Greenwich. We stood on the edge of the hill above the Maritime Museum with the city laid out below and the moment swept over us. Surrounded by groups of tourists, weekend joggers and a group of Japanese school children we sheepishly asked for someone to take a photo of us before nibbling nervously on some cake in the tea room by the observatory. We were so close, but we had said we'd be there at 1 and so sat with a stomach full of butterflies. Finally it was time to ride the last miles under grey drizzly skies. Isle of Dogs, Tower Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, a nervous sweep round Hyde Park Corner roundabout and then into the Park. Who would be there?
So nearly done. So much emotion, a few tears from the back seat but we rounded the final corner to be welcomed back in style. Friends, family and even some unknown blog fans surrounded us and instantly we were filled with the warmth of home through an onslaught of booze, hugs, silly grins and squeals. It was an incredible magical moment for us both and the whole weekend of being thrown back in and amongst loved ones was one we hope never to forget. We are now convinced more than ever that it is the people that make home home so its pretty lucky there were so many of you there!

Hol: It is now a week since putting the bike down and I am yet to feel inclined to get back on it for a while. Having a wedding to plan and life to shape should satisfy any lingering desire for adventure for at least 6 months. If anyone felt sorry for us missing Christmas two years in a row then you can take it back; we have just had 7 back to back Christmas days. Food, generosity, drinks and home comforts on tap. Those that perved enviously at our toned bodies last Saturday can rest assured that our old selves are quickly coming back to shape. Alongside all this feasting we have also been trying to throw away most of our previous lives, which living out of a bag for 20 months makes you realise you don't really need. Unfortunately for parents who are still stuck with our possessions, an alarming proportion of them seem to be fancy dress orientated and therefore pretty hard to give up. At least they have now been labeled as fancy dress so not to cause too much embarrassment in case the world has grown up in our absence.

So considering that the last week has been filled with 4 of our favourite pursuits; hanging out with those nearest and dearest, eating, drinking and discovering silly things from the past, being home is yet to be a rough ride. That said, some things have been rather challenging to get our heads around. When you are away from home everything is unfamiliar, which means its the smaller things that fill up your mind. When you have a challenge to complete, making sure you complete it in one piece is your entire focus. Simply put, we have spent the last 18 months entirely focused on what now seem simple tasks; how to communicate, reading a map, where to eat, not spending money and finding a bed for the night. On being back in familiar lands suddenly all these things are cleared up for us rather quickly, which means are minds are worryingly free to contemplate other things. Life being so easy can seem rather stressful. That said, whizzing along at 70mph in a car through rain and up and over hills without even feeling a thing on the legs was hugely welcome and I'm becoming slightly obsessed with baths, showers and the washing machine.

Nick: Now that we're down in Devon with some space to ourselves we have a bit of time to reflect. It hasn't been the huge shock some people suggested it would be. Yet the change in life creeps up on you unexpectedly. The inevitable questions of what job, where we will live etc. are regular subjects at all tables, but the main pressure to answer them is from us. We are looking forward to the next years of our lives, but then suddenly you remember where you were 6, 12, 18 months before and you are jolted back as if from a dream. Did we really sail the Atlantic, hitch on rusting banana boats, cross the Pacific, guide ourselves through the glaciers of the Himalayas, cycle 6,000 miles, nearly drown in a kayak...? The list goes on, but at the time it all just seemed to move with inexorable momentum guiding our feet along without our input. There are sudden rushes of pride in what we have done. We made the decision to do it, we planned every detail, we saved the money, we finished it. We saw it through in good and bad times and got back in one piece.
It's mind boggling to look back on. Then at another moment you just think it was Hol and I, on our own out there on our own very personal adventure in a very big world. I have no regrets about our decision to go on the trip. People time and time again said how they wish they had, would if they could, still plan to go. We are back where we started but with so much shared experience between us. To think back to us as a couple when we left and look at us now, it is as if we didn't know each other at all. Now there is so much we have seen, shared and discussed that even if all else was lost, the chance to get to know my future wife as well as I have has been worth all the effort.

Hol: So I think we should at least attempt to wrap up the blog with some wise reflections from traveling the globe. On coming home we are more than ever reminded that this adventure was essentially a selfish undertaking. We didn't raise money for charity, we're not going to write a book and we're not trying to save the world from the perils of air travel. Before settling down it seemed like a good plan to run away from structure, pressure and familiarity for a while. Its as simple as that and the main things we've learnt along the way are equally simple:

  • People are good, a very small proportion are bad. By opening yourself up to this goodness you get a lot more out of the world than you do by being constantly worrying about the baddies. 
  • Belongings should only be collected if they are going to be used or enjoyed regularly and must never become a burden. The world around us tries very hard to make things complicated so you have to make a conscious effort to keep them simple.
  • Kindness is the most important quality in humans. However big or small the gesture, it is universally recognised and appreciated. From now on we are both determined to take people in when we can and give away stuff to those who need it rather than hoarding it for ourselves. I am also going to stop ignoring lost tourists on the streets of London – it really means a lot to be offered help by a local before asking.
  • Exercise, regular bowl movements, living within your means and an appreciation of simple pleasures are the key to happiness. 
Nick: It may not seem much to learn having spent 20 months and £30,000. However, if we can remember even a couple of things from this trip and still remember them in 50 years time then I reckon it's worth it. Thanks to everyone who has helped and supported us on the way. You have made the trip what it is. One day we hope the repay even some of the favours, gifts, help from you all. For those in foreign lands you must never hesitate to get in touch if you ever come to the UK. Thanks also to everyone who has wished us well on emails, texts, comments on the blog or just old fashioned letters. There were some ups and downs and knowing we had good friends back home made the idea of finishing back where we started feel like just the right decision. I hoped for some pithy quote to end our travels that would sum it all up. However, nothing captures the sense we have now better than just to say, “Thankyou”. A thousand times to a thousand people. “Thankyou”.

Some reminders of the trip if you get (extremely) bored:

Photos: this has links to all the albums from the last 20 months
The map: You can click on here and see our whole route on Google Earth

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The last 1%

We're home! Alive, safe and happy. But before we let you in on the ups and downs of completing the adventures and bore you with the nerdy facts, here's a bit about the end of the journey, written on the penultimate day of the tip.

Hitting France 5 days ago felt like a momentous moment. From there a quick hop, skip and jump over some hills and The Channel and we're done. But as is the way with challenges, the last 1% always seems almost too much to handle. The weather turned the moment we left Germany. 40kmh head winds brought with them freezing grey skies and soggy wintry days. The land became void of services and we cursed the French for their laziness as shelter and food throughout the days grew scarce. The landscape closed in and nasty, steep hills seemed never ending. Our legs grew heavier every day and Carlos started to fall apart.

Our minds and bodies were impatient to get home, but also trying to hold on to the joy of the adventure. Not surprisingly confusion and exhaustion often bubbled up into stroppy exchanges. But doom was not meant to be. One evening we stumbled across a local fair in the ancient French market town of Charlville-Mezieres. Wine, beer, cheese, stew and cake seemed to be flowing from every corner of a square filled with men in medieval costumes and rosy faces (not our kind of thing at all really...). The perfect setting to swig a litre of wine and give ourselves a good talking to: These last few hundred miles may seem long but we've got to soak up the adventure rather than get stuck in a mad rush to get home.

So it was we got to Dunkirk in one excitable piece. We managed to arrive at The Channel 40 minutes before the professional bike teams competing in the Tour of Dunquerque did so were rather appropiately cheered on by all the local villagers in the last 10 miles of France. Soon we were looking out over an expanse of gray, choppy water, now all that seperated us and England. But before any tears could drop onto French soil we go about finding our ferry, a windy and truck filled 20 miles out of town. Our first slice of England slapped us in the face at border control as we pedal up to a fat, balding man at English customs.

'Do you need our passports?'
'Na I just sit here doing nothin' all day luv'

Ah, sarcasm, its good to be back. From here on the strangely familiar scents, tastes and sounds of home inch closer with great haste. The ferry becomes a mini playground of remembering England; weak cups of tea, sachets of heinz conidments, soggy chips and cheap sausages, newspapers, television we understand, the ease of conversation, picking up regional accents, pounds, funny looking plugs... A map of South East England and a route into London to be planned. Before we know it the white cliffs of Dover loom up in front of us. Tears rise up but get quickly swallowed. Our goal is Hyde Park and we seem to have an unwritten understanding to hold emotions and celebrations back until then.

For most people, returning home from a big trip is amazingly smooth; land in an airport, get greeted by loved ones, ushered into a car and plonked back home. The end of this trip is rather more extended. Home isn't landing in England, home is seeing loved ones and putting down the tandem having completed a full circle around the globe. This involves two days of cycling in England. Arriving in Dover was therefore an overwhelmingly confusing moment. So confusing was this non-event of arriving on English soil that it was one of the most despairing few hours of the trip. For a dark, dark moment, I thought I hated England. Roads are full of pot holes, traffic is too fast, there are so many humans, too much stuff everywhere, people rushing in all directions, boys with stupid hair swigging back booze on street corners, lippy school kids, impatient bus drivers. Suddenly the tandem felt silly and out of place, we're used to being weird outsiders but it felt all wrong being so in our own land.

Within 20 miles of Dover all this mess in my head was cleared up. After failing to find a campsite we ended up spending the night in Sue and Jim's B&B in Ashford. It took being welcomed into an English home to feel at home. A kettle, tea bags, biscuits, toffees, a visit to the local Chinese buffet, an hour shouting at ignorant politicians on the TV and a massive, incredible English Breakfast in the morning and my chi in England is restored. Thank God for that! From here on England got better and better. We ditched impatient driver filled roads for rabbit warren lanes through the North Downs. As we darted up and down over forested hills and fields full of blue bells and blossom it felt good to be back in the shire. It turns out England is pretty brilliant - village shops full of shortbread and weirdos, fish and chips on every corner, charity shops selling literally anything for 50p, pubs full of locals, warmth and ale and sunshine that is so unlikely you smile every time you see it.

Once we hit the M25 we resisted continuing on to London, a day earlier than planned. Swanley Community Center staff spent the best part of an hour trying to find us a local camping spot and after several cups of tea and no success pointed us in the direction of the best B&B in town. 10 minutes down the road Antonio and Pauline welcomed us into their spare apartment. After explaining our trip we were plied with kindness once more; tools to fix the still falling apart Carlos, chocolates, sweets, biscuits, fresh coffee every hour, sausage sandwiches and another massive breakfast. Thankfully, it turns out you don't have to go too far to find the generous souls of the world.

Monday, April 26, 2010

12 days to go... Tandeming through the Iron Curtain

We should be sailing into view of the white cliffs in 12 days. It's been a long time away, but the weather has been fine for the last week and the landmarks keep ticking along. Suddenly we were half way across Europe having made it to Budapest, then we were through the line of the Iron Curtain, then we waved goodbye to the Danube. Soon we will be heading across the Rhine, into Belgium and then we'll be looking out across the English Channel for the first time in around 600 days. Our heads are full of everything from impatience, to jittery excitement to confusion. But the simplicity of cycling home is keeping us going; everyday we pack up our panniers, hop on the bike and keep heading another 100km or so closer to our end goal.

But the last 4 weeks haven't been all that easy. Hol and I have had to re-learn how to love the tandem. We had looked forward to getting back on Carlos for months, but after 3 weeks of steep hills leaving Turkey, breaking bike bits, horrendous roads in Romania and wet weather in Hungary we still hadn't hit our stride. It was partly due to a 'so near yet so far' feeling as we inched across the map, but we had also forgotten how poorly suited one's ass is to perching on a wedge of metal and leather for 5 hours a day. I am glad to say that as we sit munching on cake in Schwabing Hall in Southern Germany we have once again hit the rhythm and life is good.

I think our initial troubles were in part due to the fact that Hol and I have different approaches to riding the bike. I feel that a laden Carlos is the size and weight of a small car and should therefore be on the road. Hol feels that as there are bike lanes criss-crossing Europe in a finely woven web we should be on those. The first weeks were full of repeated grumbles as the bike paths along the Danube turned into unpaved levées and you felt like you were spelling your name out riding through people's back gardens and on narrow pavements. I favoured racking up the miles on busy roads, Hol liked the more loopy, leisurely approach. This led to alternate moments of frosty silence from the front or back of the bike. As we come to a halt on the edge of a rutted forest track Hol will pipe up with something positive about the nice clean air, birdsong or spring blossom. In the same way, as we are passed by the fifth large articulated lorry in as many minutes caking us in filth I will shout into the wind about how great it is to leap across the map. The frustrated one simply lets out a sigh just audible enough for the other to take it on board.

However, after a wonderful day off in Budapest staying with a family friend from Devon we found our bike chi again. The roads in the West are quieter, better surfaced and the bike paths resisted the temptation to disappear down rabbit holes and farm tracks. We also started camping again. It was like the old days in the States as we followed the Danube around the 'Golden Bend' and West into Austria. We had imagined there to be a clear shift in the roads as we crossed the line of the old Iron Curtain, but the suddenness of change was even more than we could have expected. Austria has to be the most ludicrously bike friendly country in the world. In fact it got kind of creepy how organised everything was.

Small towns were immaculate to the point of almost being sinister; where was the local village drunk, the awkward goth teenagers, the crappy charity shop in the middle of town? It was too fixed and controlled. I don't want to be down on Austria as it was a beautiful country with a huge amount going for it, but people were so serious, smiles scarce. People don't go for a stroll, they go 'Nordic walking'. This is simply walking with ski poles. We chortled when we saw the first people doing it, we were concerned when we saw a group of students being taught how to do it(?), we despaired when we found paved 'Nordic walking' trails through the countryside. Everything had been laid out for efficient convenience to the extent that we managed to cycle all the way through Vienna without riding on a single road as specialist tracks, populated by nothing more dangerous than a rogue unicyclist, let us float through the capital. These people seemed to have everything sorted, but yet nobody was smiling... at all.

We pedaled onward through one immaculately tended, but eerily sterile, village after another, past ancient castles, vineyards and all the time criss-crossing the Danube as it slowly narrowed as we neared the source. Before we knew it we were entering Germany. I had been wondering about spending time in Germany and had to confess to not being sure if I would like it. I can't trace this feeling, but am sure it is deeply wrapped up in the historical relationship with the UK. However, the shift as we crossed the border near Passau was almost comic. Everyone was suddenly waving and smiling at us. Maybe they were all grinning at the sight of the scowling Nordic walkers on the other side of the river, maybe it was that everywhere here has large beer gardens and sausage stands. On our first night in Germany our gap toothed campsite owner insisted we tried his local most (scrumpy), before giving us a blanket off the antique tractor to keep us warm and waved us on the way the next morning after offering to help with everything he could. And since then we have just had an incredible time going across Southern Germany. The landscape is stunning, the history of the towns and cities is mind boggling and the overwhelming impression is that the Germans are the closest race to the British we have seen on the whole trip.

They love nothing more than sitting in a pub garden in the sun eating sausages from a BBQ and drinking large quantities of beer. They choose to shun suncream resulting in extremely sunburnt faces on the first warm day of the year. They love whizzing around on motorbikes, cars and anything with wheels, wings or on water at the weekend. It is a version of what a certain type of person strives to make England; efficient, better tended and cleaner. All the roads are smooth, well sign-posted and all the towns are well planned without being deserted like Austria. There is also the added bonus of people wandering around in an extraordinary mix of what I can only really call 'Euro-style'; hugely suspect mullets, exceptionally dodgy tracksuits, occasional huge moustaches and some far too tight t-shirts. Sitting in the sun at the Schwalbisch Hall festival knocking back a few beers yesterday was eerily like being home, but maybe with more mixed ages in the pub from toddlers to Grandparents. I wonder if it is just having been away for so long that makes this land seem so similar to home.

We have around another 4 days before getting out of Germany and into Luxembourg and Belgium. Having had a bike stolen in Belgium in the past I will most likely be sleeping with the tandem as a pillow. The thought of being this close to the finish and something going wrong is a horrible one, but each day at a time, and before we know it it will be time to stop...

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Going home, going home, going home, going home...

If we told you about our 1,400km from Istanbul to Novi Sad in Serbia 48 hours ago it would be a different tale. The last two weeks have been one of ups and downs; Glorious spring sunshine alternating with freezing, rainy headwinds; smooth and quiet then pot holed, truck filled roads; quaint villages full of humble rural life and depressingly deserted, boarded up industrial towns.

For the first week I couldn't shake the stuck record of, 'We're going home, we're going home, we're going home, we're going home, we're going home' from my mind. We cycled through lands that felt impenetrable through language and cultural barriers. In Turkey people looked at us curiously, shrugged, smiled then gave us a welcome cup of chai before getting back to their tasks. In Bulgaria people gawped in utter confusion for so long that there was no time to see their reaction once they had processed what they were seeing. In Romania we whizzed through ancient villages getting heckled by gangs of boozing men in guttural tones that weren't clearly positive or negative. One man seemed simply to bark at us. In Serbia on the other hand, reactions to the tandem have been more finely tuned.

Yesterday we had been cycling for 1,300 km and 12 days without a day off. We had pegged Novi Sad as our day off destination and had a nice steady route planned to get us here, avoiding the apparently doomful traffic of Belgrade. We were therefore a bit tetchy and tired when we pedaled into Pancevo yesterday only for there to be no room at the inn. Our choices were another 115km to Novi Sad or traffic misery into Belgrade. We decided to slump down in the main square to eat some sugar and make a plan. Little did we know a plan was already descending upon us.

'Hey hey, cyclist, cyclist', a man in a full length black leather coat, flip down mp3 fitted shades and grey curly barnet taps Nick on the shoulder.

'Me, me cyclist, come come see', We get ushered to one side of the square, reluctantly heaving the tandem when really we just want to collapse and not have to deal with any suspicious looking men in long coats. 'See, look, me... Stockholm, Regensburg, Athens, Tulcea.' Our weary faces lift as the man shows us a board of photos of his cycling trips. This isn't just any oddball, this is a cycling oddball, which means we can relax.

Ten minutes and zero English later we are pushing Carlos into a small garage on the outskirts of town and being ushered into Dusan's one room pad next door. A map of all his cycling trips plasters one wall, Mount Olympus posters adorn the other and in pride of place sits an oil painting of his 20 year old Specialized 'Epic' racing bike. In between speakers that take up about half of the room and a table tennis score board lie stacks of books he's written about his cycling adventures. It's from this moment that we realise we have stumbled across another gem of a human being and roll with the brilliance of it. Before we know it we're collapsed on the bed-cum-sofa being taken at top speed and volume through his live music DVD collection: Pink Floyd Live in Pompei, ACDC in Munich, Roger Waters Super concert of The Wall in Berlin, Walter Trout (?), Jimmy Winter ('White Jimi Hendrix, albino man'). and last but not least, Jeff Wayne's War of the World's Live tour. Of course.

Before it gets too weird that we have no means to communicate other than the medium of Rock, his 21 year old son Niki arrives. His excellent English and long flowing locks suggested that he might have grown up watching a few too many of his Dad's DVDs.

'My father says you can stay here tonight, he must go and talk on the TV now and later he has to train the local table tennis team and then tonight he is out of town so you can have his bed.' Wow. Its more bizarre than we can ever have hoped for. But free, warm bed – brilliant. After missing a train into Belgrade we spend the afternoon with Niki exploring Pancevo and eating hamburgers twice the size of my head (the Serbs are incredible hamburger makers). After days of cycling through places and being desperate to ask questions its good to get an insider's view of this part of the world. Frustration with politics but an appreciation of things getting better and a definite intrigue at the future role of the EU comes over strongly. But most telling, for this soft mannered Serb, Canada, a paved cycling path and house in the mountains is the dream.

As we head off for a post burger beer a vision in white flashes across the road. Its Dusan on the aforementioned Epic in full white cycling gear (were the gloves with silver floral detailing made for women?) tearing through the streets of Pancevo as if it's a time trial track. Amazing! For the first time the tandem wasn't the most conspicuous thing on two wheels in Eastern Europe. After some exchanges in Serbian Nicki asks 'Er my Father is wondering if you would mind talking on local television with the tandem. Only if you are not too tired, no problem if you would rather not.' Our response was fairly positive. Its not every day you get the opportunity to feature on Serbian TV with your beloved tandem. An hour later we were parked in the middle of the town square being interviewed by an enthusiastic TV reporter asking such questions as 'Are you tired?', 'Why are you in Pancevo? Do you have enough money?' and 'Do you like White Snake?'

After all that excitement we get some much needed kip on the sofa before its back into action again at 7am with the return of Dusan. The TV is on at full volume with Jean Michel Jarre live in Houston blasting out and some cheese pies for breakfast. Nicki and the vision in white lycra ride with us half the way to Novi Sad, kindly, if a little dangerously, protecting us from trucks and giving us a slip stream (tricky with a fully loaded tandem and two tiny racers). Half way through the ride Nicki turns to me and says, 'Today you have made my father very happy, all his life he has been with women who do not like cycling. He always wants a women who likes cycling, who understands, and today he has seen you on the bike and so he knows they exist and this makes him very happy.' After a photo shoot in the middle of a puzzled looking Serbian village, we say our goodbyes and all wish each other the best of luck in the future. I have a feeling we might see those two rocking up in London one day in some phenomenal cycling gear with big grins.

Novi Sad was bombed extensively by NATO in 1999 to put pressure on Milosevic to end the Yugoslav regime, but has since reinvented itself into a youthful city full of cafes, restaurants and and drinking holes. Perfect for our day off and to top off the Serbian hospitality our hostel owner welcomed us with a massive grin and glass of beer, full of joy because tomorrow he gets to look after his lambs in the fields. There is a local speciality here called 'lescovacki voz' (Leskovac train). This is essentially a 'train' of meats brought to you throughout the evening. It would seem churlish not to try it... From here we head pretty much due North to Budapest, West to Vienna and then hit the straight line to London through Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and France. ETA into Hyde Park is 4 weeks time today on the 8th May, but as with all great adventures, you can never be too sure what might get in our way or speed us up en route.

Friday, March 26, 2010

From Babushkas to Baba Ganoush

After receiving a heroes welcome by travelers and hostel owners in Irkutsk and waving goodbye to our fellow ice warriors it was time to board the Trans-Siberian and chug our way to Europe. Four days (86 hours) sitting on a train is as long as it sounds, not helped by the monotony of the landscape – 5185 km of flat white plains sprinkled with birch trees. But as we passed through the nothingness and blizzards of Siberia we weren't completely void of entertainment. Babushka (Granny) Victoria was our cabin mate for the entire journey. A small owl like lady with a sprinkling of gold teeth that managed to boss us around non stop, despite a complete language barrier; 'don't lay your head at that end of the bed', 'you must put your bed away now', 'get me some tea', 'wash my mugs', 'take your shoes off' and 'put more warm clothes on'. Tiring at times, by the end we were quite fond of our adopted Babushka, especially since we showed her the map of our trip and she beamed her gold teeth and gave us an enthusiastic double thumbs up. Other Russians came and went from the cabin, a glamorous lady, a stocky mountain man type and a young guy from the far East who had already been married 3 times and seemed determined to get us drunk. Each left with what we suspected was an earful of wisdom from Victoria after some heated discussions and occassional 'yes Babushka, no Babushka'.

Stepping off the train in Moscow was an exciting moment as we re-entered Europe after 14 months away. Unfortunately the crossing of the Ural's didn't yet bring balmier weather. Only after 2 days of wandering around in -8 degrees did we start to realize why the streets of Moscow are suspiciously empty. Rush hour seemed to be the only time people were forced to go outside, but even then bundles of furs, huge collars and high heels darted between heated underpasses, bars and gaudy metro stations faster than the animals they're wearing. But this eerie lack of people could not detract from the gold domed historical splendour of the city. The highlight, by a long way, was the exhibit of the Tsars' treasure in the Kremlin. Where else in the world can you see 1,000 year old battle helmets alongside priceless sleighs for princess' that were designed to be pulled by dwarves? The opulence of Russia's past did not fail to entertain.

If there's one conclusion we took from our Trans-Siberian experience it was that Russia is vast, more vast and full of nothingness than you can really comprehend. The saying 'you cannot understand Russia, you can just believe in her' suddenly made perfect sense as we questioned how on earth those in the far East of the country could feel at all related to those in the West. But somehow they do. A mutual love of vodka, cold meats, kebabs and a constant battle with the elements seems to unite these people more than most nations in Europe. The fact that Russian's are so fiercely Russian is an extremely attractive quality. They are not trying to be America, or China, or Europe, but do their own thing in a refreshingly no bullshit way.

After a quick 2 days in Moscow we rode the 26 hour train to the Ukraine. Snow gradually melted, the landscape turned brown and everything looked a bit more depressing. From the train, the Ukraine looked like a country that has battled hard for independence and then not quite known what to do with it. On pulling into the graffiti ridden, run down and grey suburbs of the black sea resort Odessa, I was slightly concerned about where on earth I had made my little sis come to visit us. But Odessa is not like the Ukraine we witnessed from our train. The mafia run this place and consequently its wealthy and glamorous, but with plenty of seedy roughness around the edges. From watching Madam Butterfly at the beautifully ornate Opera House to the sexy cave girl dancing with seals at the dolphinarium to stocky women with beards chopping up carcasses at the huge food market, Odessa was an ecelctic joy.

Yet however good the Ukrainian's are at cold beers, meats and mafia fueled luxury living, they quickly proved to be completely useless when it comes to a ferry service. We planned to hop down to Istanbul across the Black Sea on the regular ferry service that boasted all your meals as well as discotheque and cabaret lounge. Instead, 12 hours of sitting on the dock was followed by 48 hours of going at a miserable 4 knots meaning Luce missed 2 flights and we got into Istanbul seasick, cold and a bit miserable. But that's all behind us now and its time to look onwards and upwards. Nick's Dad and Hils met us off the boat and the last 2 days have been filled with feasting and buying bike parts in bazaars, in a city we will definitely one day return to. All in all its been perfect preparation for the 2,300 mile bike ride ahead. Tomorrow we will set off on our loaded tandem across the Golden Horn and cycle across Europe through at least 9 countries. It's a long awaited moment. Carlos is fully loaded and every mile covered is one closer to home.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Colder, harder and more brutal

The moment of stepping on the train in Beijing was momentous. It was the moment where we recrossed our path from September last year and started making progress towards Hyde Park again. There would be no more weaving back and forth round the deserts and mountains of Asia. It was time to head home.

The train groaned and grumbled North through steep valleys lined with frozen rivers before emerging onto endless white Mongolian steppes dotted with solitary gers and fur clad herdsmen. From there we finally crossed into Russia and turned West towards Lake Baikal. We knew it was getting colder outside because after Ulan Batuur whenever we flushed the loo out onto the tracks below a frozen cloud of steam erupted through the pan. Luckily, the cabins were as warm as the hospitality of our Russian companions who welcomed us in for smoked fish in their compartment as we saw the first glimpses of the lake. Sergei looked intensely at me and said simply, 'What do you think of beer?'. Unsure about the depth of response this question required I simply nodded, at which his face erupted into a huge grin and he brought over 2 large bottles that were dispensed into jam jars, coffee mugs and medicine measuring cups to toast our travels and imminent marathon.

Getting off the train in Irkutsk to meet up with Tim, Eoin and Grainne the breath was knocked out of us. The thermometer read -15 degrees centigrade and the cold stole the heat from toes, ears, noses and fingers with terrifying speed. Not only did the frozen air take our breaths away but so did the fact we appeared to have stepped into a James Bond film – full length fur coats, fur hats, long slick hair, big make up and 6 inch stilletho heels seemed to be the norm for every woman on the streets of Irkutsk.After being surrounded by small Asian people for 6 months seeing tall white people everywhere was a shock to the system. It took a good 12 hours to stop thinking we must know these people or they must be able to speak English, just because they had the same faces as our own. We boarded the minibus to Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal with high spirits, but a suitable undertone of nerves. The ice marathon was in 2 days time.

But signs were good when we arrived at the lakeside resort. We were shown into a traditional Siberian wooden cottage with newly stoked wood burner, ancient Soviet kitchen and bedlinen, frozen (broken) toilet and it's own banya complete with sticks to beat yourself with as you sweated away. You realise that when the weather is this cold, you need to do heat well. We could have sat around in our pants it was so warm and Alexandrey's mother regularly bustled in with more wood to ensure we were toasty.

The day before the race we briefly ventured onto the ice to try out our gear. Layer upon layer of clothing to cover as much skin as possible. Thermals, fleeces, windproof jackets, neckwarmers, balaclavas, hats, multiple socks. Luckily the Yaktrax shoe grippers seemed to work a treat and we jogged across the sheet ice feeling pretty confident. Seeing the people hacking triangles out of the metre thick ice to go diving simply confirmed this was a place for lunatics. It also didn't take long to realise what an epic undertaking this was. Crystal clear sheet ice spanning into the distance as far as the eye can see until it meets a frosty blue horizon is one of the most breathtaking sights of the trip.

The briefing the night before was the chance to meet other competitors and was everything we could have hoped for. The event was managed by Alexei; a mustachioed Russian who had the perfect balance of folklore, impatience, wry smile and respect. He would say things like 'Baikal living animal, we can never know what will happen' and explained how 'many earthquakes every day' and so 'often some cracks. Just use common sense rule'. The mostly rather serious German competitors alternately huffed and puffed at the lack of fixed info, with Alexei unmoved. On discussion of the weather he explained they consulted 5 very technical weather stations, but also, 'some special people in village who come out of house, look at sky and birds and make good understanding'. -15 degrees and clear skies were to be the order of the day. Alarmingly though he did mention that there would be around a foot of snow on the far side of the lake where we started.

Next morning all feeling pretty good and with the promised beautiful clear day. We all downed a shot of frozen vodka and then 5 hovercrafts took us over the ice to the far side of the lake. We soon began to realise quite how big the lake is. 646km long, 1647m deep and it holds one fifth of worlds fresh unfrozen water (more than the five Great Lakes combined). The hovercrafts set off on sheet ice on the finish side, but gradually patches of windswept snow built up. Everyone gradually went quieter and quieter as we had been thumping along for over half an hour and had not even reached halfway yet. By the time we got to other side I hopped out to have a final pee and sunk more than a foot deep into the snow. I stumbled, sinking deep into the snow over to Hol only to see that she was casually stood on top of the unbroken crust. Bugger. Back in the hovercrafts to keep warm we wait for 30 minutes before being cajoled out of warm jackets and heated cocoons for 40 or so people line up. Alexei stood up and rapidly explained that 'Caterpillar was meant to crush snow track for running. It broke.... GO!'. A brilliant strategy to stop people complaining, and soon a line of people is strung out ahead. Incredibly, some runners managed to go sprinting off, but I was left slipping and sliding in the thick snow and suddenly it dawned on me quite what we had got in for.

I had a nice race plan to try and get to half way (21km) feeling within myself and then press on the for the second half and see what happens. However, the thick snow put a halt to any hope of that as my legs ached, my lungs struggled for breath and it took what felt like an age even for the first 5km marker to come around. Quickly, I went from thinking of putting in a good time to just finishing the race. Eoin was in the distance seeming to skip over the snow with elven abandon, and I also waved Tim off ahead as I knew I had to get some kind of pace I could last at. Suddenly, my head was filled with questions of ruining my knees for the ride home, worrying about how Hol would cope behind me, whether I should just do the half marathon. The impossibility of getting any kind of rhythm had caused any confidence to evaporate in a puff of frozen breath and the last 4 weeks of no training seemed foolhardy. I set my sight on the next food stop at 14km and slipped and stomped onwards as the competitors spread out around me.

By the time I had got to 14km and the second feed station I had settled on just completing the race and so stopped for longer for some strong black tea, energy gel and dried fruit. Feeling a bit merrier after that I aimed for half way which came around all too slowly. Luckily the snow begun to thin and patches of ice began to make the going easier. Jogging painfully into the half way point, the women in the hovercraft looked alarmed and another competitor started taking photos of me. My face felt pretty slow to move and like it was made of honey that had been left in the fridge. I looked in the hovercraft mirror and saw it was covered in ice. My nose had a large stalagmite of snot hanging from it and my right eye was pretty much frozen closed. She made me painfully wipe it off with a hanky and I plodded on. A few km later though both my quads seized up over the course of ten painful steps. Crouching exhausted and alone on the ice in the middle of Baikal was a memorable moment. Nobody else in sight, the ice stretching off in all directions. I looked down through a metre of crystal clear ice riven with cracks and there is just an incredible deep, deep blue below. As if to salute the moment, the ice suddenly makes a huge booming, splintering groan beneath me. Alexei had explained that cracks can appear at any time. I wasn't about to hang around to test him.

I got up and started stomping/power walking and trying to swing my arms to keep blood in them. With knees unable to handle more than around 75m of running without seizing up, there was little I could but stomp on. With 14km to go Hol whizzed up in a hovercraft with a beaming face having finished the half marathon. It made me feel so much better to know she had done it and was safe and warm and, judging by her face, very happy. What a legend. How many people would come out here and do this kind of thing with their other half I pondered as she zoomed off again to the finish? I'm a lucky man.

The final two hours were more stomping and stumbling with parts of my body gradually going numb. Without being able to run and the sun beginning to dip, my body temperature dropped and hands, nose, ears all began to lose feeling once and for all. You could see hotel at the finish from around 2 hours out, but slowly it inched closer. Despite thinking I would not be tired having not been able to run the whole thing, when I crossed the line I suddenly collapsed completely frozen and broken. My face wouldn't function and my speech was slurred. Hol helped me inside, whipped off my gloves and I sat comatose on the floor of the hotel lobby. Trying to force water down I started throwing up and realised that maybe I had put in enough to be content with the effort. Painfully I kept throwing up for the next 3 hours, unable to keep anything down.The main shame was not being able to take advantage of the free meat stew and I also missed getting to see Hol collect her medal. Along with Grainne, she came 3rd in the half marathon!!!!!!!! What a result.
Her knee had been almost unwalkable on for the last few days but running through soft snow must have done it some good and it decided to fix itself from the start line. This was such a relief that Hol pretty much smiled the whole 2 hours 59 minutes of her race. Eoin had come 4th with top foreign finisher in 4hr10m, Ginger had come in at 4h50m and I had struggled in in 16th place at 5h14m. Humbled, broken and vomiting it felt like we had all done something pretty special and that Siberia and Lake Baikal are things to respect.

The rest of our time in Listvyanka was spent wandering the town's street eateries and loving Siberia. The fresh smoked omul fish with cold beers, giant shashlik kebabs and multiple bottles of Baikal vodka all got taken down with a hunger worthy of our recent exploits. We even squeezed in some skiing for an afternoon on perfectly snowy and empty slopes overlooking the lake. The atmosphere in the town was all the better as it was a national holiday. The Russians at play have a great set up. Wrapped head to toe in warm furs, hats and jackets they filled their time having giant outdoor picnics, towing each other round the icy lake in their cars, drinking, ice skating, doing doughnuts in their hovercrafts and generally enjoying the finer things in life. There have been so many brilliant moments of surreal Russian life. Just snapshots of exactly what you imagine the country should be like.

Popping out for a pee from our little cottage I spied a large bosomed man silently smoking a cigarette outside the banya in a small towel. -30 degrees in the dark Siberian night? No bother. Then you spot someone spiralling their lada in loops on the lake as the sun goes down next to a women walking onto the frozen lake in immaculate furs and knee length high heel boots. The glamour, white faces and cold have all been shocks in equal measure. The stories of Russians being dour, inhospitable and grumpy has yet to be proven. So far people have been incredible. Interested, smiling, welcoming. Moscow may prove to be different, but then London isn't exactly the friendliest place for a tourist who speaks no English. 2 months or so until we are planning to roll back into London. The pace has upped now we're tearing across Russia, but I think it is somewhere we are going to come back to. Roll on Europe...

If you are interested in what we wore on our feet then check out Yaktrax. These things strap onto the soles of your shoes and meant we could skip around on ice and snow without falling flat on our faces. The Russians who won it seemed to have some advanced sliding technique, but for normals these were like wearing running spikes on ice. Genius...