Archive for September, 2006

Greetings from Koh Tao

Wednesday, September 27th, 2006

Yo guys,

Greetings from Koh Tao!!!

Well this should be an interesting email. An email from a guy who’s cycling round the world but hardly has anything to do with cycling. More a glorified postcard.

I left the town of Hua Hin about 2 weeks ago. I reckon I’ve cycled maybe 200 miles in that time. Thailand does that to you. You fall in love with the place and you don’t want to leave. I’ve met people who came here for a week’s holiday and have been here for seven years. Sure it has it’s negatives but unlike most places, you have a real choice if you want anything to do with those negatives. There’s always an option. You’ll find a Thai hospitality and sense of fun that’ll bring joy into your life no matter how weird your upbringing.

From Hua Hin I cycled down to a town called Prachuap Khiri Khan and found a place to stay which, by my standards, was the height of luxury. Running hot water and everything. During the evening I went out to check out the town and find some food. First restaurant I came across, a young Thai girl ambled towards me, looking down at her order book. She looked up, saw me and just turned and screamed “Farang” which is what the Thais call foreigners. What must have been the Farang expert came out to inform me that they were full just as about 10 busloads of Thai tourists turned up for their pre-booked meal.

PKK

I tried a few more restaurants but couldn’t really find anything I was keen on so returned to the hotel. I got chatting to a guy at the next table who it turns out is hitch-hiking around the world which tbh, ignoring the safety aspect has to be one of the best ways I can imagine to travel. I mean how can you not meet people? If you don’t then by definition you don’t go anywhere. He’d been traveling pretty much non-stop for 9 years, always looking for the next big challenge which I’m guessing is how he arrived at the idea of hitch-hiking around the world. Makes me wonder where all this will end. Are some people just pre-destined to keep pushing the boundaries of travel?

I left in the morning and headed for a quiet beach town called Wat Tan Sai. A place which possesses the type of beaches you see in travel magazines. I have a photo of me sitting on the beach and there isn’t another person for miles in either direction. I slept in the local youth hostel which had a few, but not many tourists. The rest of the youth hostel was home to 250 students from Bangkok University on holiday for the weekend. I met the other tourists at the resort and had your standard travel conversations. As you’d expect of 250 university students, the whole place eventually turned into a big party. The owners kept coming over and apologising but tbh it was pretty tame stuff compared to what their equivalent Western counterparts would have been getting up to. Later on in the evening they started a ritual with candles and some cool songs. None of us tourists could figure out what was going on so I figured I’d go and ask a few of the students to satisfy my own curiosity. Turned out it was just how they create a bond between the 3rd and 1st year students although looking at the booze they were consuming, I had a sneaky suspicion there’d be plenty of bonding going on later anyway. They were really curious about what I was doing and after showing them my bike, I sat and told a few tales about my travels so far. Eventually I left them to the latter stages of their bonding process and headed for bed.

The Beach

Crazy Thai Students

In the morning I met another of the tourists I’d missed the night before. The guy was an American and couldn’t have been more of a traveling cliche if he’d tried. He’d obviously watched Val Kilmer’s performance in The Doors and figured that was the look and persona for him. All laid back and plenty of “duuuuuuude” thrown around the conversation. He’d been coming to Thailand since 93, “before this became all touristy, just jungle” was how he put it. Like once he arrived in 93 they should have just closed off the borders and halted all development. I kept on expecting him to tell me he’d been in “Nam dude” but his age made this impossible. Turned out he had that one covered anyway as he’d been in “Bosnia dude” where he’d seen some “shit”. He even looked off into the distance all haunted when he said he’d seem some “shit”. He said he’s been in Cambodia and when I asked him how he’d found it, he said it was just to the right of Thailand. I assumed he was joking but he wasn’t. I figured I’d get going before the Jim Morrison tracks started playing.

Around this point I decided I wanted to try some diving. It seemed sacrilege to travel through Thailand without sampling some of their world famous diving spots. I decided on the island of Koh Tao which is considered one of the best dive spots in the world and accessible by ferry from the town of Chumphon, about 85 miles south of Wat Tan Sai. I arrived in Chumphon around 7 in the evening with the intention of catching the midnight ferry to the island. The night ferry was billed as being either a fantastic experience or one of the worst nights of your life depending on the weather. Sounded perfect.

The ride down was fantastic. I took some quiet roads and cycled through some small villages and, after a few hours, the part of my body getting the most tired wasn’t my legs but my arms and face from returning the smiles and waves of the locals. I cycled through one village and the entire town was out on their veranda and everyone waved and said hello. I felt like a visiting president. That’s what I said about Thai hospitality earlier. You just can’t help but be seduced by it. If you read the Lonely Planet guides you could have a degree of cynicism about people’s motivation but being away from the city on a bike, removes any negatives I can see.

I can usually measure a town by how long it is before I’m asked by a prostitute if I’m looking for a good time. Chumphon was about 45 seconds. I told her I’m on a bike so I’m already having a good time but thank you for the offer. Luckily I’d only be in town for a few hours. In Chumphon I came across another of my traveling cliches which, unfortunately, seems particular to the English. I was in a bar, reading a book, when two girls came over, both absolutely hammered. I was polite but made it obvious I’m just here for a bit of quiet reading. They left me and returned to the bar where they just sat, argued, swore and shouted for a few hours. The background to this is that the Thais hate confrontation. They’ll avoid it at all costs which is where the famous Thai smile comes from. You could see the distaste the local Thais had for these girls, who were oblivious to everything. At one point they were f-ing and blinding there way through an argument about who’d done the most traveling and I just sat amazed that you could travel for so long but never learn to respect the local culture. What’s the point in traveling if you never learn anything either about yourself or the people around you?

I caught the night ferry and seemingly got lucky with the weather as I slept all the way. The boat itself was a fantastic rickety affair where we all slept on a big communal mattress on the top floor. The scariest moment was when the guys carried my bike onto the boat across, what looked like, the most unstable plank known to man but, as with everything in Thailand up until that point, there was “no probleeeeem”. I arrived in the morning on the island of Koh Tao to the sight of a guy holding a sign up with my name on it. I’ve waited all my life for this to happen so it was fitting it happened in Thailand.

Koh Tao

The diving course started in the evening where I met my co-students. I was to take the course with two people, Eyan, a 32 year old Israeli guy working in IT and Irene, an attractive 22 year old student from Regensburg in Germany a city which I’d cycled through a month before. Luckily we were all traveling on our own so, after the diving was over for the day, we’d stick together, go for meals or check out the local bars. The bars here are fantastic. Right on the beach with cheap beer and everyone just chilling out on the comfy mattresses. You could spend hours just lying there, listening to the surf, the various languages floating around you while staring up at the sky. Eyan was an interesting guy but it became a bit of a standing joke that he started every story with “When I was in country>, I met this girl…..”. Probably a little unfairly he was labeled as the ladies man in the group but I suspect it’s a label he quite enjoyed.

The gang in Koh Tao

After a few days the group had grown to around 8 people mainly due to Irene’s boredom at having to hear Eyan and I discussing politics in high speed English for hours on end. Her English was excellent but it’s understandable that you need to seek out people speaking your native language from time to time. The people we met were wonderfully considerate anyway and, even though it would have been a million times easier to speak in German, they’d converse in English most of the time just so Little Englander me could take part. It’s kind of shamed me into wanting to learn German when I get home. Irene tried to teach me some German but I kept on asking for random translations and my memory is a bit rubbish anyway. Strangely, the only word I remember is “verfuhren”.

Yeah me again

The various people in the group started leaving a few days ago. It’s one of the downsides about traveling that you meet people you care about and it’s entirely plausible that you may never see them again. I stayed an extra day mainly because I needed some time to reflect and write this email. Time on my own to think has been in short supply of late although I’ve enjoyed it.

My Thai BH

It’s time to leave the island now. I’ve done what I wanted to do and met the people I wanted to meet. My ferry leaves at 21:00 back to the mainland to Surat Thani and then it’s time to get cycling again. I think I’ve used up all my rest time so it’s time to go earn some more. Time to be on my own again.

Lots of love as always

Craig.

XXX

Grettings from Hua Hin

Thursday, September 14th, 2006

Yo guys,

Grettings from Hua Hin!!!

Well this should be a quick one. No introspection in Thailand. You don’t get the time. Everyone is just too damned friendly and everything is just too damned interesting. You couldn’t be an introvert in this place if your life depended on it. Even riding your bike is a social event. People on motorbikes pull up beside you and just chat along to you. Trucks go past with scores of people on the back and they all wave and smile at you. Thais are the smiliest people on the planet.

I left Athens on the 11th. I took a bit of a chance with the bike and didn’t bother packing it. I had to sign a waiver saying that if they accidentally threw my bike out the plane, I couldn’t complain about it and I had no real choice but to sign it. I wish airports would try and be a bit more accommodating towards cyclists but there you go. While I was on the plane I was selected for one of those “what do you think of our service” questionnaires and I sat boring the poor stewardess to death with how airlines should really do more for cyclists. Of course it was pointless as that wasn’t her department so I have to hope the “looking after you baggage” guy asks me the same questions next time but I get the feeling he doesn’t do customer satisfaction surveys. Luckily bike survived in tact and we had an emotional rendezvous at Bangkok airport.

Bangkok madness

The journey was about 24 hours in total. I had a 9 hour stopover in Dubai which was an opportunity to buy more books and then read them straight away. I read a PJ O’Rourke book which was too right wing and now I’m reading a Chomsky book which is too left wing. I need a book in the middle somewhere to suit my vague middle of the ground politics. Vague middle ground people never seem to write books though.

I also broke new ground and bought myself a Lonely Planet guide for Thailand. I did this for a number of reasons. First reason is I get the feeling Thailand is the type of place you can get yourself seriously ripped off if you don’t know what the score is. I’m interacting with the service industry much more over the next month and it really helps to know which guest houses to aim for, which restaurants to eat at and what I should pay. The second reason is that along with NZ, Thailand is one of the places I’ve always wanted to visit and it really helps having a guide. I’ll never be a fully fledged tourist, doing all the usual tourist things, by the very nature of what I’m doing but it helps to know which towns to head for and what to expect.

I arrived in Bangkok on the 12th at about 19:00. The traffic outside the airport was just mental and, with it being dark, I decided on a safety first policy and caught a taxi. The taxi was a fiver for a 15 mile journey which seemed worth it all things considered. It was a wise decision as there’s no way I could have found the main guest house area and that’s assuming I would have survived the journey which is open to debate. I headed for Banglamphu and the main strip known as Th Khoa San. It’s the mad, decadent place you always see in the movies. I got propositioned by three prostitutes just trying to find a guesthouse. I have no idea why they’d think a guy pushing a 50kg bike would be cruising for sex but maybe there’s some really kinky cyclists out there who can only perform with a fully panniered bike in the room. Personally I just wanted to hear one of them say “Me love you long time” but alas I doubt many of them have watched Full Metal Jacket.

I found a guest house just off the main strip. It was 120 baht for the night which is less then 2 quid. Don’t get me wrong we’re not talking the Hilton here but to a man who’s spent over a month in forests, drainage ditches and abandoned houses anything with a bed in it is luxury. After dumping all my stuff in my room I headed out to check out Bangkok by night. Seemingly a guy wandering round on his own in Bangkok must be looking for sex because I was some sort of prostitute magnet. They tap you on your arm as you walk past which I’m guessing is code for “Me love you long time”. I guess without the bike I was more of an attraction. I met a few fellow travelers on my wanderings as everyone is very friendly. Obviously all the conversations are very much in the “where you been, what you done mold” and obviously my story is pretty interesting even to people who have just spent a month milking yaks in Nepal or whatever crazy travelers do for kicks nowadays.

I only stayed in Bangkok the one night as it’s probably just a bit too decadent for me. There’s just too many Western guys going out with Thai girls for my liking and while it’s not for me to cast aspersions on the relationships of others, I’m just a bit suspicious of the validity of such relations. I’m not sure who’s exploiting who but there seems to be an awful lot of it going on and it just isn’t for me. I don’t like meeting people and having to question their motives all the time.

I intended to leave Bangkok super early before the traffic became utter madness but the plane journey really knocked me for six and I didn’t get out of bed till 11. This meant hitting the streets at 12 which, as expected, was chaos. In reality I didn’t find it that bad and found the drivers better than in Athens. I don’t think I had a single moment where I felt in danger but maybe Athens has readjusted my danger levels a bit. It took me ages to get out of the city although I was impressed I managed it without getting lost.

Once out the city, things improved somewhat. All the main roads here have big hard shoulders which are populated by me and a load of friendly motorcyclists. It was 85 miles to my intended target which, with my late start, meant an hour ot two cycling in the dark but with the hard shoulder and all the motorbikes I felt completely safe. I arrived in Phetchaburi last night at about 20:00. I found my guesthouse eventually and as per usual it was stupidly cheap. A room, a meal and about 5 pints ended up costing me around 8 quid. Pretty much every town has budget accommodation and if you lay off the beer you could manage bed, breakfast and a quality supper for about a fiver.

I set off this morning at 9ish. I had a choice between doing 40 miles and finished the day early in Hua Hin or heading to Prachuap Khiri Khan which would have made it 100 mile day. tbh it seems like a crime to rush Thailand so I opted for the 40 miles and I’ll do the 60 miles tomorrow. The toughest part of cycling in Thailand is actually getting my lazy arse onto the bike. It’s just so fantastically interesting and the people are so wonderful that I don’t want to leave. Deep down I’m probably also a bit apprehensive about Oz. I’ll still stick to my 60 mile a day because I really need to get to Oz early October but I’ll take it a bit easier than I did in places like Serbia. Rather than cycle every hour God sends, I’ll try and bang in my miles quick and early so I can enjoy the country a bit.

If any of you are a little undecided on your next holiday destination I’d honestly consider Thailand. It’s a place I have a feeling I’ll come back to and maybe next time, bring some fellow cyclists along and do a big circuit of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Malaysia. It’d be a fantastic experience doing it with a couple of mates, just chilling and I reckon the money you save here offsets the additional cost of a plane journey to somewhere like Spain.

Anyways I’m off to the beach.

Later dude and dudettes and as always lots of love,

Craig.

XXX

Greetings from Atina

Saturday, September 9th, 2006

Yo peeps,

Greetings from Atina!!!

Well I made it. The European leg of my journey is complete. It’s a very tired yet mildly euphoric Craig sitting here. Just over 3000 miles in total in 46 days for an average mileage of 65 miles per day. I’ve had two rest days since leaving England and used a campsite 3 times. The rest has been hard riding and hard sleeping along with some fantastic experiences.

First of all I’d like to thank everyone for their support so far. I don’t think I would have gotten this far without you. The phone calls, the emails and the general well wishes have been over whelming. Obviously my closest friends have been fantastic as I expected. More surprising has been the support from people I hardly know. People I haven’t even met or only met once in my life. In an age of cynicism it’s great to experience such altruism. One of my hopes was that this would increase my faith in people and it has.

Sleeping on the beach

I’ll start with the positives about Greece. It’s a beautiful country as most of you know. When I saw the Aegean sea, it was incredibly emotional. The last time I’d seen the sea was in Denmark and it was an immense feeling knowing I’d cycled from the Baltic to the Aegean sea.

Aegean Sea

The great thing about this journey is that you get to see the real aspects of a country. It’s the Greek love of hospitality that’s stood out for me. On numerous occasions I’ve entered a cafe on my own for a bite to eat and been asked to join a group of people. I’ve had no idea what they’ve been talking about but like the English, the Greeks just shout at you if you don’t speak the language. They also have a habit of slapping you affectionately which is great but they tend to be big hearty slaps from big hearty men and after 3000 miles I don’t have much meat left to absorb the blows. I met a bloke in a small fishing village in NE Greece. He was obviously the town lothario even at over 60 and after insisting he cooked me a meal we sat watching the sea while he shouted at me and slapped me heartily. That represented Greece for me and it was by no means an isolated example of the hospitality I’ve experienced while here.

As some of you will know I’m mildly asthmatic. This seems to have completely disappeared on my journey and I haven’t used my inhaler since Newcastle. Ben the Frenchmen joked that maybe I’m allergic to England. I was trying to figure out which European country I’d choose as an alternative and it’d be Greece for me. The weather is obviously perfect for what I’m doing and I’ve slept under the stars every night since I arrived with no fear of rain. The downside of this is that it makes for tough cycling but I modified my cycling slightly and tried to make sure I was up with the sun and so got a good 30-40 miles in before the heat got unbearable. Then I’d find a cafe and sit and get shouted at and slapped till it cooled down.

Greek Mainland

The downside to Greece is the hills. It’s a seriously mountainous country and unlike other countries in Europe, the nature of the mountains means it’s impossible to go round them. Usually I’ve tried to stay close to the motorway as one thing I’ve learnt is that motorway engineers know their hills. The secondary roads have still been tough as they would have been built before people had the means to blast through mountains or build bridges so they tend to wind up the side of the mountain. Sometimes I’d be climbing for ages and look down to find out that even though I’d covered plenty of ground as the crow flies, I’d moved maybe 20 feet. One day I got a bit bored of following the motorway and set off for the coast which turned out to be a bit of a mistake. To get back on track again I had to cross a 1500m mountain. I reckon I was climbing for over an hour and, if my math is correct, it was an average incline of 15%. Bessie doesn’t like mountains at the best of times and it was tough climb. At one point I cycled through a section of fruit trees and it seemed like every fly within a 5 mile radius decided to swarm me. If I stood still I reckon I had upwards of 60 flies following me. 6 miles an hour got it down to 40. At about 10 miles an hour they disappeared but 10 miles an hour wasn’t really on the cards so, when shouting at them didn’t work (flies don’t seem to take things personally), I wrapped my shirt round my head and used it as a make-shift mossie net. God knows what people thought of the mad Englishmen swearing his way up the mountain with a shirt wrapped around his head.

Annoying Fly Mountain

At some point, my minimal daily target of 60 miles per day turned into 80 miles. The strange thing about Greece is that I found it difficult to motivate myself. I think this was for a combination of reasons. For one, cycling in Greece doesn’t really feel right. Imagine you find yourself in Greece, you’re on holiday and you’ve just woken up. Naturally you’re looking forward to a day by the pool but someone comes along and says you have to cycle 80 miles in 32C heat. It felt a bit like that. I’d wake up, look at the beach and head off into the hills. I think the other problem was that after Serbia, the numerous distractions were just too tempting. The Greeks are experts at predicting when and where you want to buy something so, on numerous occasions, I’d climb some monster hill and there’d be a little Greek guy with ice-cream and ice-cold coke standing at the top. Sometimes they’re a bit too enthusiastic and at the top of one climb, I noticed an out-of-business shop which had sold jeans. I have no idea who’d want to buy jeans at the top of a mountain in 32C heat and the answer is obviously nobody. I think the other problem is that Greece was the last country of my European leg and when I arrived at the border it felt like I should be finished. I’d aimed for Greece for so long, it’s like I expected something and that something wasn’t another 500 miles of monster hills. The 50 miles I did this morning was unusually difficult. My body suddenly decided it was time to remind me of all the aches and pains that I’d been ignoring for the last 3000 miles. I know it’s just psychological though as I’d gotten this far without noticing them.

Now I’m in Athens. I friend had told me that the Greek drivers are crazy and, up until I hit Athens, I’d assumed he was just making it up. Man I’ve never seen such chaos. I’d like to say it works but on the way in I saw two car accidents and some guy get knocked off his scooter. You have to cycle assuming the guy behind you knows what he’s doing even though everything in front of you pretty much contradicts this assumption. Initially I rode like I do in England, all polite and ordered but I wasn’t getting anywhere so I started following the examples of the scooter riders and made it here unscathed. Still, with that and the heat, it’s great training for SE Asia.

I’ve booked myself into a hotel for a couple of days. My original plan was to campsite it but the one I headed for turned out to be closed so I headed for the nearest hotel. I’m happy I have as, ignoring the cost, it’s great to have my own space just to sort myself out. I had my first bath in about 10 days when I got to my room and the bath looks like a water buffalo’s had a wash in there. It’s great to have a bit of time to do things like wash clothes, camping kit and do some bike maintenance. Bessie has taken a bit of pounding and some work will be needed for SE Asia. Now I have to organise the next stage of my journey and the complexities of traveling with a bike and 30kgs of equipment. It’ll be interesting to see what the airline make of all this. Macmillan have kindly provided me with a letter explaining the nature of my journey so hopefully this will give me some leverage but we’ll see.

At a personal level I was trying to figure out what and if anything has changed. I’ve lost weight. Probably in the region of 7-10 kgs. I also seem to have picked up numerous cuts and bruises. My feet is the thing I’ve noticed the most, probably because I stare at them when I’m groveling my way up the mountains. They’ve gone all dark, hard and with numerous cuts and scars. With the feet and the weight loss I look a bit like a Mexican fruit picker. Like I’ve spent too much time outside and not enough time in the bath. Apologies to any Mexican fruit pickers on the mailing list btw. Someone told me I look like Jesus the other day which opens me up for plenty of Christ on a Bike jibes.

Mentally, I’ve obviously gotten tougher. One of the most important aspects of this journey is patience. I know it sounds strange but it takes a lot of patience to continuously get up every morning and put those miles in. Most days you barely make a dent in your map. It also requires motivation. Many a day I’ve just wanted to lie there and watch the world go by instead of tackling the hills I know are waiting for me. My confidence has increased as well. Some people would argue that my confidence wasn’t really an issue but it’s different. Whereas before, I’d never feel at ease in situations outside my comfort zone, now I do. It feels easy to talk to complete strangers whereas before it didn’t. As mentioned, my faith in people has increased. The kindness and interest shown has been fantastic. I’ve also experienced an increased interest in people and places. I mean an interest at a personal level rather than what you’re read in a newspaper. When a guy says he’s Albanian and definitely NOT Serbian why is it so important to him and what aspects of Albanian history is he so proud of? It’s these things that I want to find out. It’s a strange trip because it’s like you want to do it over and over. You want to do it once and find out what you don’t know, stop and educate yourself and then go back again and find out what you still don’t know. It’s also shown me the travesty of border controls which keep talented people from traveling and increased my belief that the European Union should be continuously expanded to give those people a chance to prosper. I know people worry about the homogenisation of cultures but from what I’ve seen, people are still culturally proud whether part of the EU or not.

All of this is given me thoughts about what I want to do with my future. The thoughts aren’t complete as yet but they’re getting there. I have another 13000 miles or so to make them concrete and then hopefully, this journey will have given me the motivation and discipline to put them into action. As with everything, we’ll have to see. 13000 miles is a long way and there’s plenty of things to come. Both good and bad.

Anyways I’m off to enjoy Athens now, have a few drinks, relax and enjoy a good hot meal. Once again apologies for the introspective nature of the email but 10 hours a day on a bike is a lot of time to think. My next email will probably be from Thailand so bye until then.

As always, lots of love,

Craig.

XXX

Greetings from somewhere in Northern Greece

Saturday, September 2nd, 2006

Hey folks,

Greetings from somewhere in Northern Greece!!!

Well I’ve made it to the last country on my European travels. You can’t imagine the sense of elation on so many different levels. Pride, relief, just so many different emotions.

In my previous email I mentioned unfriendly border guards but this proved to be way off the mark. Having said that this could be that on trying to exit Hungary I used the wrong border post and tried to use the bilateral one instead of the international one. They seemed to find plenty to smile about sending me to the next border post which involved a 40 miles detour. Ah well I guess it’s all miles in the bank.

Serbia was a tough ride. Probably one of the toughest experiences of my life. It’s a tough country to ride. As you’d expect from a former communist state and recent war zone, it was hardly a tourist trap. I’ll start with the bad bits first and then move on to the better bits.

Serbian Roads

For one, it rained all the way through Serbia. The great thing about this trip is the sense of relativity it teaches you. You think it rains a lot in Germany and then Serbia takes you to a whole new level. You think the roads are bad in Hungary and then Serbia takes you to a whole new level. Difficult to find places to sleep at night, new level. You get the picture. I arrived in Serbia last Sunday and it started raining on the Monday and didn’t stop till I left. When I say it didn’t stop I mean it in the literal sense. I worked out that I cycled for 20 hours over a two day period and for 19 of those 20 hours it rained constantly. When it stopped raining it made no difference anyway because the Serbians haven’t yet figured out the concept of drainage so if it isn’t raining, you’re cycling through rivers anyway. Now normally, I’d cycle round the massive puddles but this meant driving out into the road and that’d involve making myself more of a target for the Serbian drivers. The puddles were a risk themselves because most of them housed potholes that could swallow me and Bessie whole but being swallowed whole by a pothole was preferable to the 20 ton trucks that were trundling by.

On the subject of the Serbian drivers, that was a challenge in itself. I’d read a lonely planet page in Budapest which stated that Serbia wasn’t cycle aware. This is a complete lie, they’re very aware they just don’t care. The biggest risk was from a row of cars coming towards you. The varying degrees of car quality inevitably meant that there was a Lada in the front with 55 Serbians in the front seat and a high powered BMW behind it. No problem, just overtake and bollocks to the guy coming the other way on the bike. Self preservation dictates he’ll pull onto the verge which I obviously did. Add this in with the rain and the roads which threatened to vibrate my fillings out and you have a tough, tiring ride. At the end of each day I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Sometimes I just couldn’t take anymore and I’d just pull over, sit on the side of the road, in the rain and wonder what to do next. Equally disconcerting was the Serbian habit of putting the graves of people who die on the road right next to that section of road. It’s like driving through a graveyard. You’d expect this would make the drivers think twice a little before their next near suicidal overtaking manovure but no such luck.

On the plus side this meant I was always keen to keep moving. I managed three rides in excess of 100 miles last week. Another three days were 85 miles plus for a total of 620 miles for the whole week. This was also helped by the difficulty in finding places to sleep. I couldn’t find any trees so most nights it was a case of just sleeping next to the road which sure as hell makes you get up nice and early. That was the interesting thing about Serbia, there is no luxury. Every other country there was always the option of bailing out and maybe finding a quality campsite for the night. Granted it’s an option I rarely took but it was there. Serbia doesn’t have any campsites. In 500 miles I saw one hotel that looked tempting. Sometimes I’d feel like a bar of chocolate just to lighten the occasion but the chocolate would taste like it was from the communist era. There was just nothing you could do to alleviate the difficulty. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining btw. This is all part of the experience and I knew it would be. It’s made me a better, more appreciative person and I’m thankful for it.

Another strange thing is that I didn’t meet any Serbians. Not in Serbia anyway. I met plenty of Albanians, Croats, Hungarians, Slovakians just no Serbians. Every person you meet defines themselves by not being Serbian. “Hi I’m NOT Serbian, I’m Hungarian” is a common greeting. It’s very odd. I have no idea where all the Serbians are. Maybe they’re in hiding with Slobodan Milosevic avoiding prosecution for war crimes. I don’t know.

On a positive note all the non-Serbians you meet in Serbia are kind, friendly people. I’d stop at traffic lights and people would chat and offer me cigarettes which means they’ve kind of misunderstood the idea of cycling 100 miles a day on a 50 kg bike but it’s the thought that counts. I’d sit down at a cafe for a rest and a non-Serbian would give me a cup of coffee free of charge. It was these random acts which kept my spirits up.

On my first day in Serbia I met two non-Serbians who were two of the kindest people I’ve yet to meet. It was getting dark and for the life of me I couldn’t find a single tree to camp near so I headed for a town. One non-Serbian was mock offended by my observation about the lack of trees and pointed out they had one 6 kms down the road so I pointed out that if this clump of trees needed a direction and some distance, then they could do with more trees. I was cycling through town just looking for anything when a guy fell in beside me and asked if I needed any help. He was on a top end MTB bike which in Serbia is a rarity. I explained I needed a cash machine and after helping me he asked if I’d mind sitting and chatting with him for a while. He introduced himself as Bela and we sat talking for a while and you could tell he was in love with cycling. We sat and spoke about cycling for a while and then he offered me a place to sleep on his boat for the night which I was obviously grateful for.

Bela

Bela then explained he needed to do some training before turning in for the night and tbh I thought he was joking but he wasn’t. He asked if I’d mind sitting reading for a few hours and seen as my social diary was looking a bit bare for that night, I agreed. Off he went and five minutes later he returned in full team kit with his attractive younger sister Judith in toe. I expected 84.6 Father Christmas’ to turn up as well but no such luck. An internet test told me btw although it didn’t ask if I had a habit of doing stupid things like walking in front of cars or cycling through Serbia. This was one of the more surreal nights of my life. I was sitting on a park bench in Serbia, chatting to his lovely non-Serbian sister while in the background he kept whizzing past at 20 miles an hour as he did circuits of the town centre. To add to the experience, Bela had told the locals kids about my journey and two young kids came over and asked for my autograph.

Bed

Waking up on boat

I slept in Bela’s boat that night. It was the closest I’ve been to a real bed since I left. In the morning Judith brought us breakfast and coffee. Man how I wanted to take her round the world with me. Later they showed me the town which killed all of 13 seconds and then it was back to the boat. Judith was some kind of athletic goddess and taught the local kids how to kayak in her spare time and seemingly up for anything at the moment, I asked if I could have some lessons (kayaking that is). Apparently I was a natural and there was much debate about me lying to them and refusing to reveal my previous kayaking experience. Tbh, it the balance aspect of it isn’t dissimilar to surfing so yeah I guess I did have a slight advantage.

Kayaking Rulez OK

Beginner paddling

Before I left we had a meal at a local restaurant and it was the least I could do to pay for the meal. I guess it was pass it on for the meal in Austria. Everyone had fish, coke, beer etc and the cost for everything came to 6 quid. More than worth it for the kindness they’d shown me. Bela and I agreed to to a tour of Croatia one day. Apparently the coast line is an experience to behold and I’ve marked it down on my list of things to do. I gave Judith a book I’d been reading as a leaving present. It’s called History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes and really is a cracking read and one I recommend wholly. Man, cycling round the world, kayaking and book reviews. Next watch me juggle.

After I left I met someone else. A guy who worked in a bike shop. I wasn’t too sure about him though and didn’t stay for too long. He was one of those fast talking guys and one thing this trip has taught me is that if I’m not 100% about someone, I just walk away.

The hills of Macedonia

Eventually I left Serbia and entered Macedonia. Tbh I cheated in Macedonia as I couldn’t find any small roads so I cycled on the main highway. Now I know it’s illegal and I know my mother will be fretting but I didn’t have any choice. Anyway it was the safest 150 miles of my trip. I had 12 feet of hard shoulder to myself and the well wishes of the entire trucking community it seemed. On top of that I had permission from the Macedonian police. I stopped off at a cafe on the motorway and parked the bike outside. Five minutes later two policemen walk in and asked who the bike outside belonged to. I figured the game was up and at best would be told to leave the motorway. They asked where I was going so I said Australia. This seems to impress pretty much everyone so they asked if I minded if they joined me (Ummm YES) and we sat down and discussed my trip. Once again two fantastic guys. Just as they were about to leave they asked if I knew it was illegal to cycle on the motorway. I couldn’t lie so I said yes and they laughed and said now I had official permission to use it all the way to the Greek border. Armed with this knowledge (and their names) I nailed it through Macedonia in under a day. Helped by a glorious tailwind and some quality tarmac I was big ringing it at speeds between 15 and 20 miles an hour. Big ringing it isn’t some sexual deviance for the non-cyclists amongst you but refers to using the biggest ring on your front mech and the smallest on you back. Basically your toughest gear.

Macedonia's Finest

Now I’m in Greece. An interesting thing about my knowledge of southern Europe is the lack of it. I thought when I hit Budapest it’d be a quick trip down to Athens. Well Serbia is one big country and even though I’m in Greece I’m still around 400 miles from Athens. Hopefully that’ll be about 4 days riding and then it’s on to SE Asia. I think I’m going to try and make Oz by October. Sure it’ll be tough riding but it’s preferable to trying to kill time elsewhere and it means I hit other parts of the world at preferable times such as the States. As I’ve said previously, my current rate for exceeds anything I expected but I’d rather have a bit of time at the end than be killing time now and having to rush with the seasons later.

Anyways best go as I still have to find a place to sleep. Apparently it’s Saturday night night but it makes no real difference to me.

Kind regards to you all and as always lots of love,

Craig.

XXX