Cracking Berlin – Pt 1.

wind t

 

The learning curve of those first two weeks spent riding across northern Europe was far steeper than I could have anticipated. I continued to wrestle with the wind, rain and constant need to make decisions. Settling in to life on the road was taking some time, and the prospect of finding somewhere safe to camp at the end of each day was an increasingly stressful propostion. Tiredness was creeping in but I felt the need to endure this bedding in period, hoping – though not certain – that a more sustainable rhythm would develop.

I persevered for several days longer with the R1 route, learning to keep a keen eye for the small signs which mark the way. The route was truely interesting and I had managed to find gardens and trailer beds to sleep in along the way thanks to kind hearted German families. Still I was growing increasingly frustrated by getting routinely lost, at least twice a day, and making very slow progress as a result. Both of these things I knew would easily be remedied by switching back to following the road network.
Three days out from my 25th birthday I could feel my grip slowly loosening on the prize of a few days off in Berlin to celebrate. A thorough look at the map suggested that if I dispensed with following the R1 that morning then I might just give myself a chance. I had already lost the trail the previous evening before camping so the seperation was made. Setting off down hill on the Easter Monday felt good, a new start almost. Yet somehow, within just 5km of setting off, the road had intersected once more with the R1. Astonishing. After days of trying to follow it and losing it so often, now that I had tried to purposefully leave it – I had found it again with ease. Tragically like a moth to a flame I was drawn into giving it one last chance. I confidently powered up an offroad ascent, eventually leaving the forest and taking lunch up on a ridge overlooking the road I had negected to follow. This was the life. I set off once more. Hopeful.
Shortly afterwards the path hit a cross roads, and to my dismay (but not surprise) there was no indication of which way the R1 continued. An “educated” guess with the compass only resulted in losing an hours progress and gaining an extra 3km climb. The time had come to leave the R1 for good. Buoyed by finally taking this decision I blasted along tarmac roads for several hours further, at times benefitting from a considerable tail wind – comfortably surpassing 100km for the day. Finding a spot to tuck the tent in to that evening was more of a challenge; inevitably the list of criteria for what counted as suitable dwindled as my tiredness increased. Eventually I took my chance as the road went quiet; taking a sharp 90 degree turn and careering up the track to the base of a wind turbine. I quickly stashed the bike behind it, then crouched down in the grass, breathing hard, my heart pounding in my chest from the sudden effort – I watched for any sign that I had been seen. A few minutes passed with no movement from the surrounding houses, my breathing slowed. Safe. I began to cook, leaning back against the immense steel collumn, completely hidden from view and sheltered from the heavy rain that was falling. The stage was set; around 180km north east of me was a warm bed and good friends in Berlin. Would I make it the next day…
TBC.

Europe phase one: Pt 2.

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In theory it only takes one short pedal revolution to set off on a ride of this magnitude. Just the same as a four hour training ride or a five minute spin to the shops. But I think somewhere in the build up to that moment, nervous potential energy abounding, that simple action becomes far tougher. So you need to somehow break the behemoth down into steps.

Now, whilst I was volunteering in Romania I was taught to weld by a great Dutch man named Hans. I knew he was living somewhere back in Holland and in the days before I set off I managed to make contact with him. He and his family would be waiting for me in a small village outside of Zwolle, my first beacon to head towards on this long solitary road. It was a beautiful moment when I first glimpsed his well used yellow VW van cruising down the road towards me; kitted out exactly the same inside as when we had sheltered from the harsh Romanian winter over coffee. A brief moment of calm after the first four days, and all the madness in the build up.

I stayed two nights with Hans and his beautiful, tight knot family. Reminiscing about the time we worked together, and talking about what might lie on the road ahead. The Jaspers all love to be on the road so I couldn’t resist the big sell of a road trip down to France and then up across the UK next summer before I hit the road again, bound for northern Germany.

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After spending a night camped out of site on the edge of a village football field it was just a short ride to a non descript border town and over to Germany. I had read about the R1 euro velo route which runs from Amsterdam as far as St Petersburg. It runs east west across Germany and then swings northward to Berlin. Perfection; I thought, as that was my next major target. In hindsight I can see that such an ambitiously long cycle route might succomb to the odd missing signpost or want for clarity. At the outset though I was convinced it would be plain sailing.

I should add- at the very first tourist information office I visited, in the first town I entered in Germany I was offered the chance to buy the custom map for the bike route. For reasons which now escape me, I declined. I mean, how hard could it be ?

Initially the signage for the route was plentiful and I was happily diverted left and right to enjoy the best possible view of every stream, meadow and castle. It was so enjoyable that even when muddy track – doubtless dry as a bone come summer- became better suited for a mountain bike race than a fully loaded touring bike it was no problem. But all of a sudden the route began to intersect with other bike routes, seemingly going to the same town by different means. In the name of efficiency I opted to try and follow the shortest option, and rejoin the main R1 route in the given town. Brilliant plan.

Naturally such a simple and ingenious plan was bound to come unstuck. Not long after I found myself committed to following what was becoming an increasingly “agricultural” track. Sticky mud, slowly forward, squelching, slipping, sliding. Not one for making U-turns I ventured on and sure enough found myself in the middle of a freshly ploughed field; finally admitting that I may have taken a wrong turn. I got out map and compass, and after some more walking, dragging the bike behind, and a short traverse through the back garden of a farmer I rejoined a road. Sadly I couldn’t say “the road” implying that I knew which road it was, or indeed where I was. It was one of those days.

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And yet,despite this clear failure I was not discouraged from developing a further navigational “techniques”. To catch up the time lost I would use road signs in conjunction with the cycle route signage to finally make some headway. Sadly after two hours of trying this I had only succeeded in developing a very nice but ultimately circular route around the towns just west of Munster. My spirits were not terribly high now, and then it began to rain. Again.

I remember making one final effort to rejoin the elusive R1 route, but found myself trapped in the same village I had been in hours ago. Unbelievable. As the light drained from the sky and my patience even faster I decided it was time to find somewhere to camp. I scoped out the hill above the village, and walked through a small wooded area but nothing was screaming ” campsite ” at me. So I headed back to the village with vague hopes of finding a garden to camp in.

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Armed with a translated note roughly explaining my endeavors and my hopeless command of the German language there was nothing else for it. The first two attempts came to nothing but then I found a man outside his house splitting logs for the fire. He briefly pondered the note, and then, with barely a moments hesitation began to explain in very good English the different options I would have in his garden. Amazing. And when the offer developed into using his warm kitchen to cook out of the rain and a cup of coffee, what a had been a frustrating day was redeemed for a most memorable one.

Europe: Phase one.

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It was in no way an act of running away. Other than the job things were good, I was in love, good friends, family, security. It felt more like wrenching away from those things, to pursue a long held idea or dream for which the stage had finally been set. A window of opportunity that had been crafted, laboured over and fought for but that could not remain open for ever. A jump into the unknown, away from all those safe and good things. I cried as I rolled away from the house where I had grown up, and again for an hour after saying goodbye to her outside that shiny Holborn office block. I felt that I had to go, to at least enter the arena, to ask those questions; but will all this in the back of my mind and the cynical words of a cocky Essex tree surgeon ringing in my ears on the second day it was little wonder that I was already asking myself what on earth I was doing as I got within 20 miles of the ferry at Harwich. Damn the bike felt heavy in those days.

Of course one is bound to make some planning over sights on such a trip, but I surprised even myself at not taking a map of Holland. It was only the first foreign country I arrived in after all. It was about 5° when I rolled off the ferry, some 10° less than it had been the day before when I left England. And so the theme for the first two weeks of riding was set, cold and damp. Two pairs of gloves, winter tights, too cold to stand around and freezing for camping. Down jacket on inside down sleeping bag was the vibe. It didn’t take too long finding a map on that first morning and shortly thereafter I discovered the joys of the Dutch cycle path system. Which I would now say is unsurpassed in all Europe.

I remember it being grey, bleak and windy and not being able to find a garden to camp in for mile after mile. Eventually, after a phone call from London and more road side tears, well after darkness had fallen I found a patch of land that finally didn’t seem to be owned by someone and snuck off the road. More layers went on and then I stood in silence, straining to hear if someone might be coming. Still nothing, so I cooked a simple meal of pasta as quietly as I could,locked the bike to a nearby tree and jumped into the tent; all the while holding my breath and expecting someone to appear. Clearly this was going to take some getting used to.

TBC.

Smash and Grab.

TF Pass

Motion. Shift. Change. React.

Some choice words to describe how it has been leading the team down in the Alfa community in Arad these last nine months. It feels like the one constant has been the amount of change. It’s had me thinking a lot about courage recently, especially since Julia preached on it a few Sunday’s ago, and I hope to get some of those thoughts down on paper in the next few days.

But, in the meantime what better way to display courage than by deciding to take a last minute hitching trip last weekend. So last minute that I was texting Luke at 7.30am before heading to work last Friday, to pack a bag and be ready so we could head off as soon as the day was over. We both hate planning ahead anyway, here’s how it looked.

Friday 9th May

18.00 : Start trying to hitch east out of Arad. Finally get a ride with a guy who stopped to take a leak, but only after about 2 hours of waiting.

22.30: Arrive in the centre of Deva, which has an unwelcoming feel at best. Drowsily we browse the isles at Billa looking for dinner before rushing back to hold up our “SIBIU” sign at the hitching point. Maybe 15 minutes later, if that, a huge 18 wheeler pulls over and offers us a ride. We’d make it that evening!

Saturday 10th May

00.30: We get dropped off on the hard shoulder of the highway passing to the north of Sibiu. Ecstatic and slightly delirious we hop the crash barrier and start walking towards the town. After some “discussion” on where we might spend the night, we opt for crashing under a bridge near the highway and christen it the “concrete tent”.

03.30: Some dogs briefly join us under the bridge, they found it a bit cramped and decided to move on after not too long.

08.00: Aroused by the strong smell of sheep dung under the bridge we head into the beautiful town of Sibiu. The architecture and cobbled streets are stunning, could have been in France, Switzerland or Italy. We take a coffee and Luke wonders who the homeless man staring back at him from the mirror is. I wonder.

10.30: We had been hoping to meet up with three friends who were down the road in Brasov, but in the end we decided to roll the dice and head to the Transfagarasan Pass. So we jumped on a train to get a bit closer, hoping our thumbs would do the rest of the work. A smash and grab job.

13.30: Jump off the train and start walking towards the base of the mountains that stand ahead of us shrouded by immense rain clouds. A lift from a very kind local gets us onto the road, and then a school bus hired  by a group of American artists pulls over and takes us as high as the cable car.

16.00: Now we’re standing in the snow at a little over 2000m altitude. One heck of a view back down the pass, the road they call “Ceausescu’s folly” is entirely insane and I’m already thinking about plans to head back on a bicycle.

20:00: We cruised back into Sibiu on the same bus full of quirky artists, ate a pretty suspect burger and chips and opted to start hitching back towards Arad that evening.

21.30: Picked up by three workers on their way back to Deva. They weren’t in a hurry so we stopped off for coffee and cigarettes and some bizarre conversation at a petrol station.

23.00: Suddenly back in Deva in the middle of the night, lovely. Grabbed some mcflurries and then did our best to get out of there ASAP… eventually being picked up by Romania’s answer to Michael Schumacher in a Mercedes Sprinter van. Man could he drive, and thank goodness as we flirted with a near head on collision at one point.

SUNDAY

02.00: We hopped out in Lipova a way short of Arad, sleeping at the ruined castle up on the hill.

07.00: Wake up freezing thanks to the wind sweeping over the hill. Decide to bust out of there with no chance of more sleep.

08.30: Back in our little village of Siria in time for breakfast and a well deserved nap. Over 700km hitched in under 48 hours, now that’s what I call a weekend.

I think just grabbing hold of an idea and running with it is the most exciting way to travel. Cheap, no plans and no frills.

Of course it was back to reality at work the next week… taking pregnant women into hospital, children in the homework club, handing out flour. Also had the humbling experience of being cleaned up twice by people in community this week. Slipping over on my ass outside a house as the 8 kids inside looked on in absolute hysterics, it was very funny and their mum helped clean me up. I also for the first time had a gypsy kid poo on me this week, a year and nine months of picking up beautiful children is a good run of not getting messy, and again someone helped wiping me up.

Love this place, people, country. Thanks for the prayers and support.

A.

At last we made it!

First of all the good news, WE MADE IT. We crossed the border into Romania yesterday around lunch time, and cruised into the village where I will be living in the early evening, tired yet overjoyed. It was completely surreal, and hard to believe that we had actually cycled all the way out there. I think it is all still sinking in, but after one evening back here I realise it was worth all the sweat and tears.

I have to say sorry that we only managed one blog update from the road, a combination of the “smart” phone not being able to hold a charge over night, and not being able to connect to WiFi without a foreign mobile number made it much trickier than I thought it would be. Plus we did have to spend a lot of time in the saddle. I did manage to keep updating facebook via text message from a second phone, so I’ll copy those real time updates below for those that won’t have seen them.

In the mean time I would love to start sharing the photos from the journey but the tech woes are continuing this morning and I haven’t found  a laptop to read an xD card, yet. Sure this will be resolved and plenty of stories from the ride still to come. If you’ve been thinking about donating but have’t got round to it yet now would be a fantastic time I’m sure you’ll agree, click here.

So here’s the run down of FB statuses after the first post came out, hopefully gives you an impression of how we were feeling on the road. Lots more thoughts and photos to come soon.

31.8.13

Dodging rain showers and camping in the black forest tonight. Road maxed out at 1057m , had to descend away from scary ghost town, safe for now.

1.9.13

Just pitched the tent in a cornfield in liechtenstein, hard day where we both had stomach problems after lunch. Knackered. Huge day tomorrow, up the Splugen Pass into Italy! Please check out the blog and think about donating, time for some sleep…

3.9.13

Stopped for ice cream in Brescia after worst 100 km ever ridden, seems we picked the same single carriageway road as every truck crossing northern Italy. Lake garda tonight once we have our nerves back…

5.9.13

Ran out of energy and light on the 27km climb of mount grappa last night, camped 4km from summit. Popped to the top this morning followed by sketchy descent. Smart phone issues making blog update difficult, trying to find a work around.

6.9.13

Flirted with the mountains again this morning, climbing out of Slovenia back into Italy and then a long afternoon smashing across Austria. Four more rides, can’t wait for that shower.

7.9.13

Breakfast in Austria, lunch in Slovenia, chased by first dog in Croatia and feeling very tired and Hungary tonight. Three to go.

9.9.13

Monday morning and some Hungarian men already supping beers at the local bar, luckily coffee seems to translate in most languages.

9.9.13

Today reminded us its not over til its over, five hours of riding in freezing rain saw to that. Felt more like white water rafting as lorries sent waves crashing over us. Tomorrow we finish the ride we started two weeks ago, dreaming of Romania tonight!

10.9.13

Just crossed the border into Romania near Cenad and stopped for some lunch. Feels like we’ve nearly cracked it, so happy!