For previous blog entries of our ride through NZ, Australia, South East Asia, China and Central Asia, click on the little arrows beside the dates in the Blog Archive below and use the scroll down menu.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Europe -Bulgaria back to Scotland

As we cycled towards the Turkish/Bulgarian border, it seemed like the end of an era for us. We had spent over a year cycling the entire span of the great continent of Asia and knew that in a few minutes we would finally be crossing back into Europe. I was surprised and a bit offended when two heavily-laden cycle tourists zoomed past me without even slowing down, giving me a just a casual "Bonjour" before disappearing off into the horizon. When Ben caught me up, I expressed my surprise at the unfriendliness of the two Frenchies. Stopping and chatting is an unwritten rule in the world of cycle tourists. Ben then laughed, explaining that it had been a hilarious joke which he had pre-arranged with them a kilometre or so back up the road. Benoit and Thomas were waiting for us at the border and we had a good old laugh about the cunning ruse.

Enjoying a liddahhl whaan with Thomas and Benoit
Thomas, the two Ben's and I then cycled in the sun to the first Bulgarian town after the border. In Svilengrad, we went shopping, buying picnic food, cheap beer and a 3 litre bag of Bulgarian wine for under a fiver. We then found an idyllic campspot just out of town where we sat under a bridge surrounded by cannabis plants getting drunk and eating blue cheese. These two had been on an amazing journey for the last three years, cycling 16,000 kilometres and sailing to some of the most remote micronesian and polynesian islands. Their photos put ours to shame.Our first night together with them was a hoot and we rolled into our tents after much merriment at 1am.

Next day we cycled around 70 kms to the town of Haskovo with me stopping every 10 kms to get off the bike and get feeling back in my numb leg. Benoit and Thomas were very understanding about it and didn't seem to mind at all. In Haskovo, we parted company as we had a Couch Surfing couple to stay with. The Frenchies cycled on up the road to camp and arranged to meet us the next day to carry on together towards Serbia. Our first Bulgarian CS hosts were Teri and Ivan, a couple who had hosted over 100 travellers. We spent a nice night together in their Soviet style apartment block, exchanging stories and sharing a nice meal before flopping into a comfy bed for the first time in ages. The following morning my neck and shoulder were killing me. At last, I decided to do the sensible thing and at the last minute told Ben to leave without me. I would take the bus to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia and have a couple of days off there waiting for Ben.Teri was due to set off for a hitchhiking trip around Africa in a few weeks and suggested I hitched a lift to Sofia instead of taking the bus. I'd hitchhiked many times but only in company, but after giving it some thought decided it was the thing to do. Ben left to meet our French friends a few kilometres up the road and I settled in for another night in Haskovo. Two other Couch Surfers turned up that night who were in the middle of a European motorbike trip back to London and we finished off the remainder of my bag of Bulgarian wine. The following day I cycled out to the Highway, parked my bike in full view of the passing traffic and stuck my thumb out.
Teri and Ivan's building, Haskovo

Teri and Ivan
Had I been doing this in Asia, I would have got a lift in seconds. However, being that we were back in Europe I waited a good hour before anyone stopped. I imagined I would be spending the next few hours in the cabin of a Bulgarian goods truck with the driver talking incessantly to me in a language I couldn't understand. However, in the end, it was a small red Alfa Romeo that pulled in and a friendly Dutchman called Daniel and his 3 dogs got out to greet me. As you can imagine, the car was already pretty full but as is usually the way in life, it is often the people with the least to offer who have the most to give. Daniel was unconvinced that myself, himself, 3 dogs, a bike and all our luggage could be squeezed into the tiny space but I was convinced it could be done. Half an hour later we were packed up and ready to go, me in the passenger seat with Stan dog in the footwell between my legs and Milka on my lap.
As we became acquainted, I discovered that Daniel runs a dog charity in the Netherlands. He travels to countries like Turkey and Romania to free dogs from suffering and abuse and infact his current dogs were dogs he had rescued from sheer misery and rehabilatated not so long ago. On arriving in Sofia, Daniel called for his friend Joanna and the 3 of us(yes, believe it or not we managed to fit someone else in the car!)drove off to a local lake. We had a picnic, the dogs had a good old run around and Daniel even went for a swim. Daniel's final destination was Holland. My almost final destination was Holland. He offered me a lift all the way.

What an offer. The thought that I could be in Amsterdam the following day seemed incredible. While I mulled it over I got back in the car having accepted a lift at least to Belgrade in Serbia. We crossed the border in the middle of the night with no problems and as we reached Belgrade, Daniel was almost having to prop his eyelids open with matchsticks. His tiredness worried me during the last few kms but in the end he got us there in one piece. It was 4am and Daniel wasn't going anywhere without a sleep. In a run down housing estate in the middle of the city we parked up for the night. Daniel and the dogs slept in the car and I slept on the grass outside with my rollmat and sleeping bag. Daniel was impressed by my ability to sleep anywhere, to me it had become completely normal.

The next day I reassembled my bike and said goodbye to my new friends. As I was leaving, Daniel said I was the sort of person he could travel with for a long time. I felt the same. We had enjoyed each others company immensely and had been a small but very important part of each others trips. As the red Alfa Romeo I had come to know so well disappeared from view, I was on my own. In retrospect I was a fool to turn down his offer but hinesight is always 20/20.

Sadly, Ben had the camera during this part of the trip so I have no photos of Daniel and the dogs. Boo!

I cycled off into Belgrade to find the hostel I had booked the previous day on Hostel World. This city was alive and kicking and heaving with some of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. The sheer amount of these Slavic beauties was mindboggling and I wondered what on earth was the reason for the Belgrado women being blessed with such good looks. I had a pleasant night in the very quiet, relaxed Hostel Belgrade(5 quid a night) where the friendly staff offered me home made moonshine. After a couple of hours of solitary drunken YouTubeeoke I headed out in search of food and found a great place selling huge pizza slices. I bought one for myself and one for a dog with a really sore eye who I had made friends with. I thought of Daniel's charity and wished I could do something to help this lovely, gentle dog. Me and my new friend then went out to a pub beer garden and I had another beer, unfortunately not finding any humans to chat to. Nonetheless I had a good night and had decided by the time my head hit the pillow that Belgrade was a very cool city indeed.

Unfortunately next morning I discovered that the hostel was fully booked that night so I had to relocate. Hostel number 2 had gone up to 7 quid a night and was in a different part of town. The New York lights hostel wasn't as nice as the last place but the owner Steven was very friendly and I felt safe leaving my bike there. I had arrived in Belgrade just before the start of the Belgrade Beer Festival. The 5 day event was free and had acts like Marky Ramone's Blitzkrieg, Simple Minds, The Scorpions and Serbian Michael Jackson and Blues brothers cover bands! Weird line up or what? It had to be good. I went along on my tod the first night to see what it was all about and couldn't believe the size of it. It really was a proper music festival with tens of thousands of punters. I stayed sober the first night having decided to return on night 2 with renewed enthusiasm. On night 2 I got a bit merry and found over 5 quid on the ground. The first night my total was 3.50 so I wasn't doing too bad especially as the beer was cheap. Simple Minds live made me want to kill myself but a Serbian band doing covers of Irish pub songs made up for it. On night 3 I made some friends for about half an hour, found some more money then chatted at length with a drunken Serbian man about what was going on with the women in Belgrade. By night 4 I had relocated to the very nice King of Belgrade hostel which cost 6 pounds a night. This hostel was very cosy and friendly and I made friends with all the young backpackers staying there. I had a night off from the festival and stayed in watching I-Robot.

By this point I couldn't deny it any longer, I was starting to feel detached from reality. What was I now doing with my life other than hanging around in youth hostels with a sore neck and cycling my bike around the city? I was feeling like I had lost my purpose in life and it wasn't a good feeling. Don't get me wrong, I like a bit of city sightseeing as much as the next man but this was not what my trip was about. I was meant to be on my bike, cycling, eating, camping and sleeping. I missed it so much. I went for a walk and managed to get myself onto the Danube cycle path. It was a glorious day and before me stood a map of the entire length of the famous cycle route which runs right into Germay. I had been so looking forward to cycling it with Ben on our exciting last leg of the journey and here I was stood staring at it alone, with no bicycle.

I was really beginning to wonder where Ben and the Frenchies had got to as I'd expected them to have arrived already. However, when I arrived back at the hostel on Day 5 I was relieved to find him standing in the hallway. The 3 of them had had a great ride and at last Ben had met his match. The ride to Belgrade turned into a testosterone-fuelled race to the death every day with the winner being presented with a Tour de France-esque yellow jersey to wear the following day. The categories for yellow jersey presentation were: who could pull the peloton for the longest and who was first up a climb(i.e king of the mountains). Ben won the first 2 days however on the third day Thomas kicked ass, leaving Ben(10 years his senior) for dust. Thomas then continued to whoop both the Ben's asses for the rest of the ride which did wonders for the young Frenchman's already over-inflated ego.

As well as being great lovers, everyone knows the French are great cooks. Benoit and Thomas cooked most nights so Ben was happy. The camping was wonderful and most nights they slept in a prime spot. Crossing into Serbia, the breakneck pace continued until they arrived high as kites to meet me in the stylish capital city. Their timing was perfect as that night we headed out to the last night of the Belgrade festival. It was so nice to have some company at last instead of being on my own and the Frenchies loved it. All 4 of us ended up making our way back across the city separately though as we all got split up. I got chatting with a guy at the end of the night after I'd lost everyone who offered to shout me a beer. I accepted and went off to the toilet while he queued up for the bar. I returned however completely disorientated and couldn't find him again so I called it a night and went back to the hostel.

The next day Benoit and Thomas were all set to get going again but in the end we talked them into having a day off. I cooked a meal for everyone and enjoyed their company for one last night. You see, I had decided to take a train to Budapest. My neck had been so sore the whole time I'd been in Serbia and I'd been having pins and needles in my arms at night. I wasn't right and considering continuing cycling like this was just a joke. Ben cycled me down to the train station and helped me load my bike on the train. I waved goodbye to him again from the train with a very sad face and arranged to meet him in a few days. Belgrade had been such a cool city. The young people were cool, friendly and open-minded and the city had an amazing buzz about it. I would definitely go there again I decided. Ben cycled one last day with Thomas and Benoit before they too said goodbye for the final time as the intrepid Frenchmen headed West for the Alps.

Ben then carried on on the Danube river cyclepath towards Budapest averaging over 100 kms a day. On his second day alone after leaving the Frenchies, Ben managed a 176 km day, 4km less(I'm happy to say) than the unbeaten longest day we set together in Kazakhstan. One day, the Serbian police stopped Ben and told him he couldn't continue on the motorway. They asked "where you go?". He said "Scotland". Then, "where you come from?". He replied "New Zealand". They looked suitably impressed and rewarded his efforts by letting him carry on up the motorway.

Jonathan from Edinburgh

At the Hungarian border, he flashed his passport and was into country number 17. Once again, the police stopped him on the motorway, telling him he couldn't continue by bicycle. The policewoman had a got look at all the stamps in his passport, saying only "by bicycle?". She then told him of an alternative route he could take and escorted him off the road in the pitch black. He then carried on several more kilometres on a pitch black back road and camped in a park in a small village.

I arrived in Budapest 8 hours later off the train which had cost me less than a tenner! I was surprised to find Budapest a pretty rough, run down looking place with loads of homeless people and drug addicts hanging around outside the station. I said goodbye to Andrew, an American I had befriended on the train. When he learned the story of my bulging discs he asked if he could say a prayer for me. Why the hell not? I'd try anything now. He put his hand on my shoulder and told God in no uncertain terms that my neck injury was 'unacceptable" and demanded that it be healed straight away. I liked his style and the man himself very much. As I exited the station I said to myself , 'Okay Jesus, c'mon get on with it".

I cycled through Budapest over the Danube river to meet my latest Couch Surfing host. Zsuzsa had no references and very little information on her profile so when I arrived at her door I really didn't know what to expect. Zsuzsa was really new to this and it took us both a little while to warm to each other. However, on the second day, a spark ignited and I began to see just what a wonderful woman she was. By the end of the second night we had become good friends. I still laugh now thinking of how we rushed her son's pet hamster up to the local vet with a suspected tumor on his backside only to be told by the amused vet that it was infact his bollocks! I also adored spending time with Zsuzsa's 10 year old son Max who was a great helper and translator when I went round the shops to find a box to put my bike in.

Zsuzsa and Max

As I lay in the bottom bunkbed in Max's room on my second night there, I started to feel a fizzing, numb sensation in both arms and legs. The sensation became worse to the point where I had sharp stabbing in all my limbs. I lay in the unfamiliar bed feeling utterly terrified thinking that I was on the verge of paralysis. I was overcome by a crippling panic attack and spent the next few hours bawling my eyes out feeling a million miles away from anything or anyone familiar. I awoke the next morning feeling much better however the previous nights episode had been enough to convince me that my world cycle trip was now well and truly over.

The next morning  Zsuzsa was a great comfort to me and asked if I wanted to go to a doctor's. However I didn't want to get treatment in a foreign country. It was clear that my disc problem had got worse and I felt that I had no choice but to go back home where I could see a neurologist and have any other treatment I needed on the NHS. I booked myself on a flight to Glasgow. I would be home in 2 days.

I dismantled my bike and packed it away in the box young Max and I had acquired the previous day. I then headed into the city for the night leaving my belongings at Zsuzsa's. Our good friends Lisa and Jared had arranged to come and meet us in Budapest and it was the day of their arrival. Ben was also due to arrive today. Considering the stress I'd been under the last few days, I couldn't wait to be with them. Ben was already at the very cheap and cheerful Maria Hostel when I arrived. I'd never been happier to see him. Lisa and Jared rolled in around 10pm and we had a good old chinwag before getting an early night. The hostel(an old nunnery) was oozing with character and we were lucky to get a 4 bed dorm to ourselves. The day of my departure Ben, Lisa and Jared accompanied me up to Zsuzsa's to collect my stuff. I said goodbye to Zsuzsa and Max and jumped in a taxi bound for the airport. It's hard to say how I felt at this moment now my trip was finally over. The thought that I'd be back home that evening was completely overwhelming and hard to grasp. Being with 3 people so dear to me gave me endless comfort and it was so nice that they came to the airport. I handed my bike over at the check-in desk, had one more round of hugs and kept waving right up until the last moment as I disappeared into the terminal. I'd see Ben again in around a month.

Maria hostel

Airport bound

After my departure Ben, Lisa and Jared went back to the hostel and spent another 3 fun-filled days together. They went to the aquaparks, hired bikes for excursions out of the city, ate, drank and were merry. Lisa and Jared went off to catch a plane home. What for them would be a 4 hour plane ride would be 1 month of hard slog for Ben on the bike. Ben felt a bit lost and lonely after his friends left but there was no time for feeling sorry for himself. He still had a long way to go.

Ben was on a mission to get into Germany now. He had no map and was simply following his compass. The rain coupled with a big drop in temperature made life tough and the cold came as a bit of a shock. He was finding the ride really tough and was mentally and physically exhausted. Hitting a low point, he had no choice but to hide from the freezing cold rain in a disused busstop full of rubbish. Some of the rubbish came in handy as he was able to rip up old bits of poster and cardboard and use them as a bed. He had to get out of his wet clothes, put on something warm and dry and cover the front of the bustop with a tarpaulin to keep out the elements. After making himself some nice hot coffee, he got in his sleeping bag and fell asleep for a while until the wind and rain had calmed down. After another 4 days of cycling in Hungary he was at the Austrian border. The final destination now felt tantalisingly close.


As Ben crossed into Austria, he was firmly on the tail of yet another bunch of roadies(road cyclists). He would draft these guys wherever possible to get his speed up. From this point there were no border controls between countries. Austria was a beautiful country and the stretch of the Danube between Vienna and Passau in Germany was certainly the most picturesque. The previous section had been a bit of a nightmare as the Danube cycle path would often veer away from the riverbank leading onto an unknown road. This all changed after Vienna. The path was easy to follow, hugging the riverbank at all times. Ben was delighted to see cyclists everywhere on the tow path. Families, cycle tourists, day trippers, they were all at it. The chasing of high-speed, luggage-free roadies on expensive bicycles continued but wasn't sustainable for too long with a 40 kg bike! Beautiful free camping was plentiful on the Danube and a Lidl was never too far away. During Ben's first night camping in Austria, his tent was surrounded by some wild boar. As is always the way with wild animals though, they were far more scared of him than him of them and they soon scarpered when he made his presence known. Every day was magical on this stretch of the Danube, some of the best cycling he'd ever done. He enjoyed crossing over huge dams and washing his filthy body in the river.

 Leaving Vienna, Ben met a cyclist called Michael. He was doing a good speed so Ben drafted him for a while. They got talking and Ben explained that he was just about to click the 25,000 km mark. Michael was very impressed and offered to shout him some beers in a nearby pub to celebrate. After 2 pints in a pub on the banks of the Danube, Ben was pretty steaming. They carried on for a bit, cheered when Ben's clock hit 25,000 and then stopped for a break. Michael had done 160 kms that day so Ben made him a nice meal on the stove. As was usually the way in Germany, some naked sunbathers weren't to far away. The Germans love gettting their kit off and are much more comfortable about the naked body than us uptight, repressed Brits. Michael invited him back to his house for dinner with his wife, but Ben on a mission to get home, decided to carry on and do a few more kms. After a few kms Ben hit a post-beer low so popped into a shop to buy a Magnum. As he sat eating his ice cream, a couple of scruffy cycle tourists on a tandem rode past. Ben shouted over to them, "Where you going?". "England" was the reply. "Me too" he shouted. He finished his ice cream and then continued on up the road with his two new friends.


Cyclists enjoying the Danube

The 3 of them found a nice camp spot together and dived into the Danube for a spot of skinny dipping. They did 2 days cycling together and on the second day clocked up 100 kms. Tem and Alec had been so good to Ben and so on the second night Ben got some beers in to share. Tem made a lovely curry for everyone to share which turned out to be a bit thick. She grabbed what she thought was a bottle of water from Ben's bike to add some to the curry only to discover it was infact methylated spirits! Needless to say, they only had boiled rice for dinner that night. After cycling into Germany together, the three of them cycled to the train station where the guys were meeting up with parents. Ben said his goodbyes and cycled off into the rest of Germany. Ben was quite releived to be on his own again as he'd been really pushing it with these two the last couple of days. Tandems are pretty fast machines on the flat when they get going but are no match for a regular bike on the uphills. There wasn't so many cyclists on this stretch of the river and Ben enjoyed the peace, quiet and great camp spots. He was sore though and really needed a day off so he found a great campsite in a forest. In the morning of his day off, he left the tent and all his gear and cycled off to find a shop to buy water, brandy, meths, biscuits and duct tape. On the way back he found some cardboard which helped him get a morale-boosting fire going. He made himself a wee garden and lay back in the tent enjoying the view of his fire over a few brandy coffees.

Tem and Alec

Brandy coffee

The following day was spent battling into a relentless headwind and offroading through forest tracks with only his compass as a guide. He arrived in Nuberg where a Red bull bike show was taking place. He watched a few bikey backflips etc whilst eating lunch. Arriving in Frankfurt, Ben cycled through the red light district giving him the impression that it was a very dodgy place indeed. He found an internet cafe and was really pleased to find an email from our friends Ian and Anna giving him their Frankfurt address. Loyal blog readers, do you remember Ian and Anna? We met them on New Zealand's north island at the start of our trip where they were also cycle touring. We spent two amazing weeks with them and promised to visit them when we reached Germany. Ben was so excited at the prospect of seeing them again that he cycled off in the wrong direction up a 880 metre pass, running out of water half way up.

More rain

Hiding from the rain

Ben made it to Ian and Anna's village and went to buy a drink. Ian came over to greet him as he came out and took him back to the house. Anna run a  hot bubble bath for him which was heavenly after bathing in mouldy rivers for so many weeks. It was so nice to see them even if their time together was very short. Ben had arrived just 2 days before Ian and Anna were due to leave for England to visit Anna's brother. On the second day Ian took Ben to a local outdoor sauna with spectacular views over the countryside. Ben then spent the rest of the day chilling in the house while Ian and Anna were at work. I did a Skype call to the three of them which was no substitute for actually being there but was better than nothing. I will see them again real soon anyway.

Ben went in to Ian's school to tell the kids about the trip

Ian's 7000 euros worth of bike. No Ben you can't have one.

Ben said goodbye to Ian and Anna and set off on the short journey to Holland. I can only imagine how he must have felt when he reached Amsterdam. This was a moment we had both been savouring for a long time knowing that our next stop would be the UK. Johann flew to the Dam at short notice to spend the weekend with him. If anyone deserved a blowout right now, it was Ben. After a couple of days of silliness, Mr Jareckyj jumped on a plane and Ben got himself and his bike on the Amsterdam to Newcastle ferry. 16 hours later he stepped off the boat and onto home soil, relishing a moment that for so long had felt like it would never come. Not even the terrible weather could dampen his spirits and he set off up the A9 towards Edinburgh feeling on top of the world.



A proud moment. Ben cycles into Holland, country number 21.


Bert took Ben back to his house and gave him this lovely room for the night

Johann arrives in Amsterdam

At the airport I looked around for a familiar face but couldn't see anyone. Just then I heard a loud knock on the glass partitioning the baggage reclaim area and there she was. Jane put her arms around me and gave me a lovely hug to welcome me home. We packed the bike away in the car and then I made my way back to my old life. Back at Jane and Moz's it took around half an hour for me to feel that I'd never been away from this familiar house. As we clinked glasses of cava and I looked around at the familiar faces of my dear friends, it felt nice to be home.

Homeward bound

I won't go on too much about what happened for me back in Glasgow as this after all is a TRAVEL blog. I spent the first couple of weeks feeling like I was having an identity crisis, as though I'd left a huge part of myself somewhere else. It wasn't a nice feeling and I felt so unsettled. Every so often I would think of the moment Ben would cycle into the park and it gave me pangs of regret to know I'd missed out on that shared moment. However after the first couple of weeks, I started to settle back into life in Glasgow. Spending time with friends and family was what kept me going and I realised how lucky I was to have such great people in my life. As Ben's arrival date approached I set my mind to organising his homecoming. I wanted it to be wonderful for him.

What a feeling. Ben arrives in Newcastle

My plans for his homecoming were in place and on the morning of his arrival I, my family and around 17 friends on bike made our way to Strathclyde Park in my home town of Motherwell to meet him. It was the best welcome he could have wished for and fitting for someone who had achieved as much as him. I was and still am truly grateful to my family and all our other cycling friends who braved the terrible weather to welcome Ben home. I was amazed at the turn out and as I looked around at the crowd, was pleasantly surprised to see several faces who I had no idea were coming. Thankyou all.

My lovely family

And friends

So the 19 of us set off through the park, bound for Glasgow on the Clyde Walkway cycle path. The weather was truly abismal but spirits were high and everyone had fun. Just near the SECC however we realised we had lost the star of the show. Ben was nowhere to be seen. As we cycled into the park, we could see that Ben was already at the bloody fountain! I was livid and couldn't believe he'd gone in without us. It was a ridiculous blunder on the part of Ben who had completely lost us after he'd gone off for a pee in the bushes. I felt pretty disappointed that I had missed the grand finale but it didn't take long to get over it and forgive Ben for his error. The turn out was wonderful at the park and our friend Harry made a welcome home banner. Ben's Dad and Gran had even driven all the way up from Cumbria to be with us.We were finally here.

So here I am sat in our new house in the South Side of Glasgow, looking out at the rain hammering against the window. It's been almost 2 months since I got home and to be honest, the trip now feels like a distant memory. This journey was the greatest thing we have done in our lives and I am so thankful for having had the chance to do something like this even once. Life is much less exciting nowadays but it is nice to be home. My mind however has already turned to a second trip from Alaska to Argentina. All I need to do now is talk my bike mechanic into it! I would do it all again tomorrow and wouldn't change any of it, even the bad bits. Ben was a wonderful travel companion and to be honest I couldn't have wished for anyone better to experience it with. "Happiness is only real when shared" and I'm glad I shared it with you. The world is a beautiful place, full of wonderful people and experiences to be had. Thankyou to everyone who read our blog and supported us along the way. It was so encouraging to know you were right there with us. Wishing you and all people of the world much peace, love and happiness. Now go and read someone else's blog. Cheerio!