Rolling into Istanbul

This is a long read - so grab a cup of tea. It’s been an absurdly long time since I wrote a blog post and due to a recent change of scenery, (hello India), I am going to cover off everything from Slovakia to Istanbul in this one. In truth, a lot of the past month or two has been uneventful, with a few random encounters, food poisoning and a game of visa tennis with the Indian consulate in Istanbul adding some spice to the mix. The cycling took care of itself, with my careful planning allowing me a slow and steady roll across the last stretch. I'm not sure if I would put running two marathons in a week down to careful planning, however...

Two marathons (and a long way between them)

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Way back in early October I was staring down a week in which I would run the Budapest marathon and cycle 400km to Zagreb in order to run the Zagreb marathon. This happened. And I could easily keep it short and say this not the most enjoyable week of my life. But in reality, from arriving in Budapest to leaving Zagreb, it was the most exhausting, brilliant, brutal, painful, rewarding and uplifting period of my cycle across Europe. 

I'm going to set aside the fact Budapest is utterly gorgeous and shot straight to #1 of the European cities I've passed through, and ignore the stunning scenery en-route to Croatia's capital, and the post-marathon beer, screaming crowds, messages of support, medals around my neck, adrenaline in my veins and big stupid grin on my face. Ignoring all that I'm left with aching limbs, a pain in my ankle, battered blistered toes, creaking knees and the tail end of a stinking cold. The sign of a job well done then, I'd have done it even without all of that other stuff above.

The run in Budapest came during a period where I was feeling particularly drained. What started as an irritating cold turned into a feeling of my chest caving in after 30km during the marathon. I got through another 12km while short of breath, coughing, spluttering and sniffing my way along the Danube. A pretty grim finish but one that made me all the more elated at getting through my fifth marathon. 

A week later in Zagreb, it was more straight-forward. Too straight-forward. The marathon route ran in a straight line from the city centre and out into the suburbs. It returned on the same road back out the other side of the city and then took us on the same lap for a second time. It was a mind-numbingly boring route with precious little to look at in contrast to Budapest. To make matters more frustrating there was a half-marathon in progress at the same time - so the thousands of people participating in the half peeled off after the first lap, leaving a very empty second lap of the course. Almost being lapped by the elite runners fortunately gave me a much need kick up the arse for lap 2.

My saving grace on the second 20km was a man (read: absolute legend) pouring shots of Reika, a plum liqueur, on the roadside. Taking a shot after 30 km and a second after the final turn of the course was enough to see me through to the finish. I bought another shot of Reika the following evening to celebrate and almost spit it out  - I hadn't actually tasted it during the marathon but it was pretty rough on the third try!   

Beautiful Budapest and beyond

Getting into Budapest was a dream. Coming out of Slovakia I linked up with the river Danube across the border with Hungary. I found one of the best stretches of cycle path in Europe, only metres from the water and tracking its meander right into the heart of  Budapest. I was staying the Jewish quarter and spent a couple of days exploring its history and wonderful food. Mazel Tov, in particular, is one of the best restaurants I've found on my travels and is well worth a visit if you're ever in the city.

Exploring the city at night I took some shots of the intricate and imposing parliament building as well as the historic chain bridge across the river. By day these places were heaving, but by night there was plenty of space to ramble around and admire the architecture.

Much of the time I was walking around the city, thinking that the people on the hop-on-hop-off bus tours were doing it wrong. When it came to running around the city during the marathon I was even more convinced that open top bus tours are ridiculous, and in fact running 26.2 miles around a city is the best way to see it. The course stretched along the river for much of its route, taking in all the major landmarks that bob the bus driver would let you fleetingly glimpse as he barrelled on by on the bus tour. 

As for seeing the world in between big capital cities, cycling is hard to beat. Leaving Budapest I headed south-west along the rim of Lake Balaton. A 70km stretch by the water, past ice cream shops, cabins, parks and sunbathing tourists. This was like therapy after the marathon weekend, peaceful, soothing and easy going on the bike. 

Approaching Croatia I found a couple of incredible forest camping spots, trekking my bike up some serious gradients to reach the top of tree-lined hills. Surrounded by nothing but a sea of fallen leaves, towering trees and no one to tell me to get up and go. Autumn camping is the best. 

Into Croatia - #autumnwashere 

Croatia really passed me by after a few days in Zagreb. I'd planned to head south to Split and Dubrovnik but realised I did not have enough time to deviated that far. Instead, I stuck to the north of the country, heading directly for Serbia and Belradee, passing through gorgeous autumn landscapes lit up by a persistantly present sun overhead. (The summer of 2018 seems to have extended from early May in the UK all the way through to November in Istanbul).

My final night in Croatia I walked my bike through an orchard to find a flat bit of ground above the rows and rows of fruit trees. This was the first and only time I thought I was going to get told to move while wild camping. I spent a good hour huddled at the door of my tent as torchlights swept over my camping spot. Tiredness led to paranoia and the nearing footsteps were obviously a sign I was trespassing on someone's precious land and was about to be told to politely bugger off at 11 pm.

The only time I have felt this nervous was while camping was on my first night heading north on the three-peaks challenge when I was convinced the torches on the other side of the river I was camped on were going to ruin my evening. Whoever was meticulously inspecting my tent in that orchard clearly decided I was going to ruin his harvest and much like that first evening, my paranoia was utterly unfounded. 

Through Serbia, slowly

I continued my slow march towards Istanbul through Serbia - a highlight of the journey so far. It wasn’t so much the landscape that made this place special, (though it was admittedly breathtaking), but the common decency and hospitality of its people.

Nowhere else in Europe have I experienced such a stream of people waving, cheering, honking horns, shaking my hand and just saying "hello" as in Serbia. I was told on alleged 'good authority' by a man in Zagreb that Serbia was a s***hole and I should avoid it at all costs. I hope to meet him again and tell him what a muppet he is. Serbia is bloody fantastic. Rolling hills covered in autumn colours were a joy to cycle through. As were the tiny villages filled with bemused and intrigued locals screaming their support by voice and car horn. I'm always surprised at the capacity of a fully-loaded touring bicycle to cause a scene... 

I was flagged down in a small village a few days out from Belgrade by a farmer and his two sons. The man had overtaken me a couple of kilometres back and had pulled over at the next village to make sure he could stop me. My initial apprehension at this guy walking out into the road flailing his arms at me quickly vanished as he shook my hand, guided me over the street to a small shop and promptly bought me a beer. We shared a brief conversation about his landscaping business and my ride through Europe as he translated for his children and the growing crowd of locals asking him to ask me questions!

I hit two big cities while in Serbia which were a dramatic contrast to the rural settlements I had gotten used to. Sremska Mitrovica provided a rest stop a days' ride away from Belgrade. Here I met Marko, a WarmShowers host, who took me on a brief tour incorporating his favourite pub and his favourite restaurant. As it happens there wasn't much else to see here, but it was a worthwhile stop once I realised a round of 3 beers and 3 whiskeys cost only £9.

It was in Sremska Mitrovica, the morning I left for Belgrade, that I made a big change to my plans for the coming months. The original schedule had my continuing across turkey, following the silk road across central Asia and heading into China in the new year. While attempting to research how to get a Chinese visa I thought about spending winter in central Asia, where temperatures drop to -20*C, and wondered whether it was worth it. It would be a hell of a challenge, but I wasn't convinced I would get enough out of it to justify the likely suffering. I was also bemused about how to actually get that Chinese visa and decided it was too much of a gamble to head that way and not get it sorted. (Little did I know I would end up playing a game of chicken with the Indian consulate in Istanbul to get an Indian visa).

I looked south instead and went to Plan C, which was actually my Plan A (the silk road being a Plan B)...

Plan A was to head to India, and I had initially decided against while planning the trip as I thought negotiating Pakistan to reach India would be pretty fraught. By the time I reached Serbia however I had slackened my criteria for the ride, which had included only flying when absolutely necessary, and promptly booked a flight from Istanbul to Delhi. The fact I spent the entire 80km ride into Belgrade that day excited and mentally planning my cycle through India suggested it was the right decision.

Actually, having been in Delhi for 5 days at the time of writing this was the best decision I have ever made - I have fallen in love with India. 

I took a few days in Belgrade to start planning the new route ahead. And found this city to be another positive Serbian surprise, full of fantastic food, buzzing markets and another bunch of lovely people. It was also home to a couple of the slightly more interesting individuals I've met on the road.

A few interesting encounters

At my Hostel in Belgrade met two larger than life individuals that were well worth a long conversation on a chilly evening in Belgrade.

Bryce was an eccentric Canadian who insisted I help him fix a tube and tyre on his bike. His delight at my help was pretty hilarious, I essentially just used a tyre lever to put his tyre back on the rim correctly - but I was happy to play this off as a big job. Bryce had travelled extensively and lived in India and was able to help me plan a rough route through the country with chalk and a blackboard (below). I added him to my list of people who are wonderfully positive, helpful and full of life - every Canadian I have ever met is on there.

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Bronco was a Fijian living in Serbia who also frequent the hostel despite having a flat in the city. The short version of my interactions with Bronco is that I didn't know his name until I left Belgrade,  (he is saved in my phone as 'Fijian Australian Serbian guy'), and yet we had a fairly detailed conversation about how he wanted me to help him raise some money to get back to Fiji. He needed to extract some raw diamonds from an unlicensed diamond mine and sell them on a black market to be cut and polished, avoiding any legitimate government-approved route (and taxes). He was disappointed that I didn't have any contacts that might be useful to him, but still bought me a beer and took me on a tour of the local market. Top man.

Back in Zagreb I had met Bryan (not his real name) who I am pretty sure had links with the FSB, worked for the Russian government as a banker and was laying low in a backpackers hostel while waiting for the Croatian man who stole his client's investment to come back from hiding in London. Bryan's company/client/mafia/whatever had arrested the Croatian's wife and taken his kids to Moscow as bait. Honestly, I am not making this up. Bryan told me about his experiences of corruption in Russia, as well as at the top levels of huge financial organisations across Europe that he had dealt with. He spoke about his difficulty in getting £1million in cash through Frankfurt airport and how his colleague had once laid down a pistol on the desk when a British banker was asking for more money as part of a 'business transaction'. I declined his kind offer of assistance while I was in Asia, though I'm sure his contacts would have been very hospitable.  Top man? I'm not so sure, but he did buy me a beer.

Catching up in Sofia

I met some more familiar faces in Sofia after crossing into Bulgaria. Suzie, another University friend who I cajoled into meeting me in Europe had booked us an AirBnb for a few nights - relative luxury compared to my admittedly spacious and comfortable tent. Suzie's parents joined us for a few days exploring the capital, walking halfway up a mountain and gorging on local cuisine, full of meat, cheese, bread, wine and other extremely good things. Suzie's parents Chris and Sonia were also massively helpful in my planning for India having travelled through much of the area I was considering on a recent trip. 

It is a bit surreal to see close friends after a long period apart. Nothing really changes and it immediately feels like no time has passed. This is always comforting when thinking about being away from the UK for so long - it will all seem very short and insignificant when I'm back.

With the end of Europe in sight, I was getting itchy feet about moving onto Asia. I had a couple of battles to get through first, however. One in the form of another marathon and another which had me clutching my knees in a Bulgarian woodland wishing for the comfort of that AirBnb again.

Saturday night, 3am

I've been fortunate thus far to get away without any illness or health issues on the ride. Apart from the grim cold I had battled in Budapest I had been pretty fit and healthy throughout. Food poisoning likes to kick you when you are least expecting it though. And I can only assume it was food poisoning that had me curled up in the foetal position for two days after leaving Sofia, rising every hour to paint the forest floor another shade of green.

Much like a dog pissing against a wall I made my mark on that piece of woodland.

When the sickness abated, around 3 am on a chilly Sunday morning, I found myself sitting outside my tent wondering if I was going to make it to Istanbul. I rode on for two days, stopping twice to vomit on the roadside and eventually pulled into Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city and booked a bus to Istanbul for the following day. I hadn't quite cycled all the way across Europe (though that 3000km detour to Norway was absolutely worth it), but in hindsight, I wasn't disappointed. Rolling into Istanbul on a coach and seeing the scale of the highways running into the city I was glad I wasn't on my bike. By many accounts, it is not a pleasant city in which to cycle. I can attest to that after a scary 12km dash from the bus stop to my hostel.

Recovering, reunions and running, again

The end of the road, or at least the first leg of it, in Istanbul felt like a pretty massive milestone. There to greet me were some very excited parents and my eldest brother who was to run the seventh of my European marathons with me, having also run with me in Paris and the South Downs. 

Side note - Chris has run 10 marathons this year, three as part of Ironman triathlons. Someone commented to him recently "I knew you were crazy but I didn't realise how crazy. And I see it runs in the family..."

This run may well have been one of his toughest having undergone his own bout of food poisoning only 24 hours before the race. With myself still recovering and Chris only managing to force down half a banana before the race it was a bit of a struggle.

Fortunately, we had two enthusiastic supporters on hand to motivate us. Our parents had staked out a good spot from which to cheers us on after 10km, and caught us twice more during the race, including the final 100m sprint to the finish. Having seen them through FaceTime and Skype for the past 5 months it was a little surreal being able to spend a week with them. A hugely welcome reunion, ad a perfect way to cap off my time in Europe.

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Having collected our medals we were set upon by Japanese and German tourists who for some reason wanted to take photos with us. I really hope they thought we were the winners. As we were standing outside doping control at the time this isn't entirely implausible. I plan to be in Japan in spring 2019, so I'll be able to see if I'm now famous over there. 

Getting sheered, Turkish style

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Towards the end of this five months across Europe, I became increasingly infuriated with my facial hair, specifically the morning moustache dip into my coffee, the post-dinner beard comb to remove stray crumbs and the increasing resemblance to Sasquatch. Being called a hairy Prince Harry can only get you so far!

I decided to hit the local barber to sort myself out, which was a unique experience. It proceeded like any normal haircut until the application of hot wax to my face, nostrils and ear canals which was allowed to dry before being ripped off, drawing some tears from my eyes at the same time. A final flourish with a cigarette lighter to burn away loose ends left me smelling like your arm after you've sprayed it with deodorant and set it alight as a teenager, (we've all been there). Fortunately, my family were able to find the barbershop just in time to witness the more interesting practices, and I spent the next 20 mins trying not to laugh in my barbers face while their faces formed into various shades of surprise and horror.

So sadly, my face Yeti is no more. Probably for the best considering India is still hotter than an English summer, and all that air resistance was slowing me down. 

Exploring Istanbul

I spent almost a week with my parents delving into the chaos of Istanbul, particularly the 'Old Europe' side. Its scale is hard to grasp unless you get up high. Views from rooftop hotels and restaurants, or the impressive Galata tower in 'New Europe' provide vistas across most of the city. With the Golden horn splitting the European side in two and the massive Bosphorus river separating Europe from Asia. 

Sights like the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, and a river cruise up the Bosphorus satisfied our sightseeing requirements, while rambling through the Grand Bazaar, spice market and countless small winding cobbled streets gave a slightly more authentic experience.

I ended up staying a little longer than anticipated thanks to 3 unsuccessful visits to the Indian consulate to secure a visa and a fourth at which I was told it would be another week to process. My Dad warned me about the perils of Indian bureaucracy having previously spent many months working in Hyderabad, but I hadn't anticipated encountering it before I had even entered the country. When I finally gave them sufficient information, documentation, proof of funds, scans of identifications, hotel bookings and a curiously precise amount of US dollars the consulate gave me a receipt and told me to come back in 8 days. 

I'd seen much of the city by this point and instead took some time to completely switch off, catch up on sleep and begin planning in earnest for India. Now I'm here in India much of that planning has already gone out of the window, for starters I was only given a 3-month Visa instead of the 6 months I requested. But the longer into this adventure I get the less concerned I am about sticking to my original plans. The new plans I have made are even more exciting, challenging and potentially stupid. More on those to come.

Enough rambling. Onto Asia!

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