With our legs almost numb from climbing and our bikes starting to make the strangest of noises Kathmandu’s high rise buildings came into view. It is a memory that will stick with us forever. We finished stage 1 of ‘Silk roads to Shanghai’ this afternoon, with the toughest climb of our lives and some of the most breathtaking scenery we have ever witnessed. Thank you to everyone who helped make it possible.
Reaching Kathmandu in enough time to finish our logistics and training for the running and rafting sections of this adventure have turned the remainder of our cycle into the type of relentless push we experienced in Turkey.
As I write this I am sitting in the dark in one of the nameless fields we have learned to call home on our journey through Southern India. We arrived as we always do about 15 minutes before dark and will be gone within 30 minutes of the sun coming up. I have enough energy to write this evening on account of us giving ourselves a half day to get over a bit of mild sun stroke the day before, usually it’s a case of getting the tents up and drinking water for 30 minutes before going to sleep.
Our journey through India probably isn’t the one you read about in the guide books. In fact if you did read a guide book it would most likely tell you this is not the best time to visit. The temperature is now hitting 40 degrees by 10 o’clock each morning and isn’t dipping below it until after 3. In short it has been a struggle but one that is necessary to prepare us for the riggers which lie ahead.
Still looking ahead is not the reason we choose this adventure and during the cooler parts of the day we can appreciate India for more than just an opportunity to train. Despite being home to 1.2 billion people it is still remarkably green and full of picture perfect campsites. The contrast in this regard to the sparse landscapes of Southern Iran was most evident as we passed through tropical forests on our first week heading north, but has continued as the palm trees have given way to green fields and roadsides covered in wild flowers.
Another major bonus for the journey cyclist is the abundance of roadside restaurants, cafes or huts which serve our daily dose of Dosa , Vegetable Masala, Pallak Panner or Biriani. The list of dishes goes on, but the quality remains constant. There are so many good choices that we have started to blindly point at menus or simply ask for local specialities. This is some leap of faith when you consider our budget only stretches to €5 per day and food is our most important purchase - we are rarely disappointed.
So what of the 1.2 Billion people? In only three weeks it feels like we have met most of them, such is the commotion of a day on the road. As soon as we begin cycling each morning the horns begin and the throngs of curious scooter, lorry and bus passengers start the daily round of questioning or most commonly give a generic what are you doing? puzzled look. Our replies depend largely on the time of the day. Between 11 and 3 is really no time for idle chit-chat and conversations are invariably brief. Its outside these hours or most commonly at lunchtime that we have had the same levels of wonderful encouragement and generosity that we have received all over the world. This is quite something when you consider the extent of poverty in the subcontinent.
However, for once it is not the people that have characterised our journey through a country. Instead the heat has stood out during the 1600km from the Southern Tip of India. As my mind drifts to tomorrow I feel a strange mixture of dread and excitement. India could be the toughest country we have ever travelled through, but if you’re ready for it there is certainly an adventure to be had.
After a 15 week process we have received the disappointing news that our Pakistan visas have been declined. The official line is that only business or diplomatic visitors looking for short term stays are being accepted. In reality we know people who have been both accepted and declined in the last few months and are at a loss as to know how we could have improved our chances, the whole process would appear to come down to the flick of a coin.
The uncertainty has led us to pay more attention to alternative plans and the extra time set aside for anticipated Pakistan problems has given us a large enough time window to attempt something significant in India rather than merely skirting the North. We will go from the Southern tip and cycle the length of the country to the Nepalese border during the monsoon.
Cycling during the monsoon is unknown territory for us and what this will entail is anyones guess. But as someone once said; "Real adventure only begins when carefully laid plans are rendered obsolete."
On the second attempt I manage to lift my now fully packed touring bike up the three steps separating Hotel Arafats doorway from the street outside. We have been in Istanbul for less than 24 hours and its been over 2 years since I last lifted a fully packed touring bike.
“Does yours seem a bit heavy?”, I shout at Maghnus as I make a clumsy attempt to balance the bike against a nearby curb. Inevitably it falls and takes me a good two minutes to pick it up and prepare for a photo marking the beginning of our 16,000km journey.
I’m rusty, that’s for sure, my longest cycle of the last two years has been the 5km jaunt to work and my general fitness has fallen by the wayside as I’ve devoted my attention to expedition logistics.
Turkey was supposed to be an opportunity to clean out these cobwebs and grow accustomed to a way of life I once knew so well. Alas visa complications meant this wouldn’t be possible and from the moment that photo is taken we are up against the clock with an ambitious target of 1600km in 14 days lying ahead. I push off, wobbling over the cobbled stones, hoping against hope that I begin to remember how I used to do this and quickly.
Im writing this 4 weeks and 2500km down the road sitting in the comfortable surroundings of and cafe in downtown Tehran. The intervening month has been in equal parts demanding and rewarding. I am a full stone lighter with hands covered in cuts and more photos on my camera than I gathered in 24 months at home. It is for this reason that I enjoy this way of life so; it demands everything but gives back in equal measure.
Each day is full of unexpected events and involves a full range of emotions. There is disappointment at the sound of morning rain on your tent , satisfaction at the top of a climb , disillusion as you cycle into a head wind and elation at a border crossing.In fact the only emotion not to feature could be boredom.
The one prerequisite to succeeding in this business is that you love the process. Being rusty is manageable, only boredom has no place.
Just 3 days and 380km left to the Iranian border, will put up a video, pictures and blog describing our trip through Turkey when we get our first day off.
I have two thoughts as to how best start this blog; “Its wonderfully difficult....” or “It’s horribly difficult...” Actually, the syntax is largely irrelevant the way I’m feeling, it’s just difficult. The cycling I mean. The juggling act which involved fitting five protracted visa applications into two months left us with only fourteen days to cross Turkey and enter Iran before the visa period expired. The result has been near continuous cycling.
On Monday and Tuesday we climbed incessantly for hours and both nights slept below freezing. Come Wednesday afternoon I was frantically searching a town for suncream as temperatures soared above 30 degrees Celsius. Today we cycled surrounded by a landscape hidden completely by snow in t-shirts and shorts desperately trying to stay cool.
We now have four days remaining with which to cycle the remaining 560 km climbing over 2000 mtrs in the process. Turkey has been nothing if not unpredictable. The people have been magnificent, the climate a contradiction and the cycling a constant challenge. Confronted with such extremes and save for sitting on our bikes and peddling most things are out of our hands, however, the one thing we have been able to control is our diet. And control it we have;
- 1 days cycling 8-10 hours.
- 1 days eating;
- Half-pan bread
- 4 tablespoons Turkish nutella
- 100g cheese
- 150g Salami
- 250g pasta
- 1.5 - 2 ltrs coke (or equivalent)
- 1 packet biscuits
- 250 g Turkish cake
- 200g beans
- 4 slices brown bread
- 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
Gotta go pitch a tent.
What makes a good campsite? Solitude? Security? Access to water? Large rock to sit on/lean? What does a good campsite mean to the traveller? To us it meant nearly 200 extra kilometres on dirt track roads, it meant cycling through charred darkness with only l.e.d. headlamps to light the dirt, and it meant a room or at least a wall between us and a true campsite. As the world rolled from the sun’s glare we scoured the roadside for that elusive site. As night followed dusk, day after day, Ethiopia seemed devoid of ‘good campsites’. Rather than settling for what we perceived to be inadequate spots, we cycled endlessly and at times dangerously toward settlements where we could pay for what the countryside could not provide. Three months and 8,000km later I crawled into a sleeping bag wedged in a storm drain with a 2 and a half foot diameter under a road at the apex of the highest mountain pass in South Africa and slept as if in the bed i grew up in. What changed in the intervening months? We had.
To a large extent the place in which you find yourself has little bearing on one’s ability to find a ‘campsite’. The prevailing factor is not the existence of a site but our ability to see a site. Humour me for a moment. Imagine yourself plodding along a road, backpack straining on your shoulders, boots nagging at your swollen heels and the sun flirting with the western horizon. Now imagine glancing up from the road and in front of you lies the perfect campsite. What do you see in your mind’s eye? Perhaps i am being presumptuous, but i would wager that the picture looks something like this; A relatively secluded spot, but by no means vulnerable. Lush grass growing from forgiving yet dry soil and a stream flowing faster than a trickle nearby. A tree or two delineate the site and provide as yet unnecessary shelter. The road is quiet and the only sign of life is the chatter of curious birds.
Details may vary but for those of us who were not brought up on the road this postcard of the outdoors represents are only insight into what we should be looking for. Thus when we are confronted with tired legs and an aching back on roads and trails, near and far, we find ourselves searching for this idyllic spot. Unsurprisingly, as we learned to our cost, such a spot is hard to find. The reason for this is no great mystery. The worlds greatest campsites have already been taken, we call them cities. The very good ones are occupied too, we call these towns. The good ones? You see where I’m going. Humans seek what they perceive to be the most idyllic campsite they can find. When we do we stay put. We always have. We look for the obvious spot and if were not sure where that is we’ll follow the herd.
Thus, in an evermore populated planet the camper must learn to see what the masses cannot. Like all skills worthy of the name this ability can only be attained through failure. I now immediately discount scorched earth when considering a site after spending a night ‘cooking’ on its’ released heat. Nor will I pitch a tent in a hollow having woken in a bath. Lessons such as these and countless others endow upon the camper a hard earned knowledge. The ideal campsites are mostly taken so stop looking for the characterisitcs of a great spot, instead start recognising the terrible ones. A campsite’s value is not determined by what is has, but rather by what it does not have.