Dust, skidding paws, and a brawl of fur and teeth

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This post continues from my previous post, which you can read here


The next morning, I cycled in the rain to the border. My lorry driver friend Alexander dropped me off in Kovel in Ukraine about 50km from the border, I hope that little cheat doesn’t upset too many of you. Thank you Alexander!

The following  day I began my four day cycle along the M-07, one road which goes all the way to Kiev, two days of which I had wonderful tailwinds, and the rest, soul-destroying headwinds. Ukraine seemed to be as poor again as Poland compared to Germany, the road was lined with people supplementing their income by selling mushrooms they had collected in the forest in the early morning. Sometimes in the dawn while cooking my breakfast I would see them walking quiet as ghosts with a bag or bucket and a knife, they never disturbed me or spoke to me. I took very few pictures in Ukraine due to cycling so much which I feel a little regretful of. They’re of course all in my head, I just can’t show you! What I saw of Ukraine is beautiful with the peaceful pine forests, and wetlands with open plains. There were so many peacock butterflies fluttering along the road, although sadly many succumbing to car windscreens, reminding me to be careful if I didn’t want to meet a similar but messier end.

Soon I was in Kiev taking a day off staying with some more amazing warmshowers hosts. Anton and his wife Sveta and their very cute four year old son Vanya, took care of me and welcomed me into their small flat with my bike and it’s parasitic luggage. They treated me to proper Ukrainian food which was delicious, the last night of which included dried fish with a beer, or two. They sent me away with five fish wrapped up in paper which I really enjoyed with another couple of Ukrainian beers, in the dark, in my tent.

Anton and Sveta and their lovely food

The journey from Kiev to Kursk was headwinds all the way which upset me massively at first but I learnt to deal with them, and learnt that shouting profanities into the wind has the opposite effect you would want, what with the microgram of thrust produced by your own breath slowing you down even more. So I decided that the extra force required to overcome the headwind would make me stronger and the rest of the journey easier, a philosophy which could possibly be applied to many aspects of life?

Kiev

Just before the Ukrainian Russian border in the ancient town of Hlukhiv I was taken by surprise. I was at a shop about to buy some food when a guy called Roman stopped on his bike and started talking to me. He asked where I was going and where I had come from and as is usual was shocked when I told him my intended destination! He then invited me to his home for food and said that he and his Father would cycle with me to the border.

Me with Roman and his family

The Ukraine-Russia border was… totally fine, they were very friendly but ever so slightly intimidating, which I think is no different than any other border crossing. They did a little search of my stuff, thankfully no rubber gloves were needed.

Roman’s Mother and Father

It was pitch black by the time I got into Russia, so I cycled about 2km and put up my tent in some woods in the dark, cooked my dinner, had a dried fish for pudding, and went to sleep. In the morning in my tent while packing up I heard a Jeep pull up next to the woods, cracking twigs and quite voices alerted me to the fact I had been discovered. I came out of my tent with an unthreatening friendly face and was greeted by two young border guards with Kalashnikovs. They weren’t at all intimidating, apart from said Kalashnikovs.  They asked for my documents, looked at them and then smiled and left. I then cooked my breakfast and packed up.

So my first day in Russia began slightly eventfully and continued that way with yet again, wait for it… (is this getting boring?) more human kindness!! I went into a small village shop to see if they would accept Ukrainian money, as it was so close to the border. They didn’t accept it but asked in very broken English and hand gestures what I was going to buy, I told them just some water and some crisps because I wasn’t really sure but I couldn’t say I wasn’t going to buy anything. They took them from the shelves and put them on the counter. I told them I have no money, they laughed at me and said “it present, for you!” I tried to say no but then quickly accepted as I didn’t want to offend them.

So yesterday I arrived in Kursk and just before that wonderful moment which I will get to, I was chased by a pack of dogs. There I was, cycling along happily, quite tired, when I heard barking. Looking about, I couldn’t see a dog anywhere, so I continued my cycling, but the barking wasn’t going away, confusingly it was getting louder. I turned around and, holy shit! Running out of the entrance of a large mechanic’s garage was a pack of about five dogs, paws skidding, throwing up dust in a brawl of spit and fur and teeth. You’ve all seen Jurassic park, you remember that scene with the T-Rex and the jeep, the T-Rex is gaining on the jeep and Jeff Goldblum is screaming at the driver to go faster. Imagine five T-Rex’s. So I started peddling, screaming mentally at my legs to peddle as hard as I could. One of the dogs impressively ended up alongside me, I could hear its panting and guttural growling, teeth bared, legs at full stretch, obviously enjoying the chase. I’ve never peddled so fast, i didn’t think with all of the weight on the front of my bike it would be possible to wheelie it, but out of fear I pushed so hard the front wheel came off the ground and luckily I didn’t poo myself. There was also a woman at a bus stop laughing at me, I was also laughing manically out of fear. After this intense burst of physical activity combined with fear I felt superb. Note: I’ve heard the dogs in Kyrgyzstan really are quite terrifying, I’ll look forward to them.

So, the wonderful moment of arriving in Kursk. I let my Warmshowers host know where I was and then sat down in the local park to eat my lunch. You already know what I’m going to say. A woman came up to me and asked in Russian where I was going, I told her and then she took me to her house and gave me coffee and biscuits and chocolate bars.

The kind Russian lady and I

I need to remind you of my state at this point, unshaven, probably stinking of a mixture of BO and fish because of my late night snacks in my tent, filthy hands and stained trouser. This woman invited me, a complete stranger who doesn’t speak her language, into her lovely warm house for coffee.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this update, I know it’s been a long time coming! I’ll do my best to get some more posts out.

Human kindness (again), and the meditative joys of cycling

If you enjoy reading this post, please find the time to donate to my fundraising page. I’m trying to raise £5,000 for CLIC Sargent and Hope and Homes for Children!

So, I’m in Kursk in Russia enjoying a day off, well organising/uploading photos and writing this post. Five days ago I was in Kiev, rushing around trying to see as much as possible, but then decided to take it more slowly and absorb more and leave bits for another time. I can’t believe how quickly that milestone has come and gone, soon I’ll be in Kazakhstan!

Kursk

Eleven days ago I was at the border between Poland and Ukraine with a Ukrainian lorry driver called Alexander whom I had persuaded to take me across after asking about six other drivers because you aren’t allowed to cross on a bicycle. Nine hours later and we were through, Gary the snail from Spongebob would have won in a race with me. I should have been in a really really bad mood considering I cycled in the rain all the way to the border but spirits were high rather than sodden.

Into the distance: Ukraine

I’ve been on the road for over five weeks now! It’s gone by in a flash yet it feels like I’ve been gone forever. I’ve seen so much! The easy part of the trip is gone I think, summer is coming to a close and autumn is falling. The trees have started their September and October shift to different hues of oranges, browns and reds. Over the past two weeks the mornings have gotten colder, which oddly I’ve been enjoying, although that might change… In the cosy warmth of my hosts’ home here in Kursk, they informed me that at 8am this morning it was 3°C… which will be perfect for my -18 sleeping bag as I’ve been waaaay too hot.

I have a feeling that the trip over the next month will transition to a point where the highs are much higher and the lows are much lower than they have been. The further east I go, the friendlier and warmer the people seem to become but obviously winter is coming and with it bitter cold and brutal, yet mindblowingly beautiful, landscapes. Over the past month I’ve been in the pleasant comfortable middle ground of Europe where everything is relatively familiar and neither overly exciting or overly boring, unlike the thousands of miles of Kazakh steppe ahead of me, which also oddly, I’m looking forward to. Now I’ve begun to boldly wander into the much wilder lands of the adventure, full of scary Russian people and bears and wolves… Before I do that and have almost no internet access I should probably let you all know how everything has gone up to this point.

First of all, as I was cycling through Europe, I was constantly reminding myself of how incredibly lucky I am to not have been born two or three generations ago. I’ve been acutely aware of the history I may have been cycling past, or maybe I should say I’ve been acutely aware of my huge ignorance of the history I’ve probably been cycling past, to the point of disgust that I don’t know more about the huge sacrifice that millions of people made within living memory. I intend to educate myself more on it after this journey.

Artwork in Ukraine

The adventure so far, plain and simple, has been brilliant. Getting out of your normal life and surroundings seems to bring such clarity of thought to your mind, much more often than you would in the humdrum of daily life and routine. Cycling almost seems to be meditative at times and I get these tendrils of creative thought rapidly weaving their way through my mind: ideas; ideas for the present, short, medium and long term future, I have a hard time keeping track of them and sometimes if they seem important enough I have to stop and write them down. As I mentioned before, I’ve also become aware of how important it is to be in the present, which can be difficult at times when you’re hungry and tired and worried about making up the miles to get through Russia before your visa expires!

Since my last post I’ve traversed two countries. As you’ve seen, peoples’ kindness is just incredible and continues to be so. They’re all routing for me and I’ve felt such a strong sense of support from so many strangers.
I want to thank Henrik and Elisa in Meiningen, Germany who I spent two nights and a day with. Even though Elisa was eight months pregnant they still warmly welcomed me into their home and since that time Elisa has given birth to a beautiful baby girl called Linnea! They cooked traditional German food and I was given an evening tour of the town. The next day they then cycled on their tandem 20km with me to say farewell and good luck. I can’t thank them enough.

Henrik and Elisa

Wild camping is illegal in Germany but I was never stopped, either because people are kind or because I’m too sneaky. Germany is beautiful, it seems to have it all and there isn’t enough space here to describe it.

Germany

Poland was very different to Germany, almost an instant change on crossing the border which I didn’t notice I had crossed until, about 2km in, I thought, ‘this doesn’t feel very German’. It is obviously a much poorer country and that’s not surprising considering how much it’s been beaten down throughout history, it hasn’t really had a chance to stand up. I had only my second day off after stopping in Wroclaw with Mateusz, whom I also found on the Warmshowers app. After a last minute request to stay he amazingly accepted and that evening took me on a tour around Wroclaw, he was a fantastic host, thank you Mateusz! I particularly enjoyed the vodka and beef tartare in the vodka bar and the shop-bought Bigos we both enjoyed.

Mateusz

The next day I had my broken spoke incident with my lack of tools which you can read about here. This taught me the wonderful lesson that apparent problems can lead you to the greatest tear-jerking experiences of human kindness.

After a few more days of wild camping I then stayed for a night in Lublin with Poweł, an acquaintance of someone I had also contacted on warmshowers. Talk about networking! Poweł is a vegan and cooked me a delicious homemade pizza for dinner from scratch, dough and all! And then a huge breakfast of coconut butter on bread with peanut butter, nuts, raisins and two bananas!

(CLICK the images to enlarge them!)

After Lublin I slept in my last wild camping spot in Poland, a fond farewell in utterly stunning surroundings.

My last camping spot in Poland

The next morning I cycled in the rain to the border. My lorry driver friend Alexander dropped me off in Kovel in Ukraine about 50km from the border, I hope that little cheat doesn’t upset too many of you. Thank you Alexander!

Part two of this post is coming soon!

The kindness of strangers

This is a mini post about meeting one of the kindest humans I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so far.

Two days ago I snapped my first spoke, in the rear wheel on the cassette (cogs) side, so I stopped at a suitably shaped tree to use as a bike stand and went about trying to fix it. This is where I quickly discovered what an utter moronic novice I am, I didn’t have a cassette tool or chain whip to get the rear cassette off so that I could then take the old spoke out and put a new one in. To top it off it was a Sunday so all the bike shops were shut and I had just had a day off and only cycled 30km and I’m behind on my schedule to get to Russia… but I figured, this adventure is at least 180 days and decided it really wasn’t all that bad, what’s an extra day, the obstacle is the way as the stoics would say.

So, I walked my bike another 5km and pitched my tent early, relaxed and enjoyed falling asleep to the sound of heavy rain drumming loudly against the fabric of my tent. In the morning I had breakfast, packed up and slowly slowly cycled to the nearest bike shop. When I arrived, they told me they were too busy to fix it but a guy called Andrzej Bos would be able to. So, I then turned up at a kind of farmhouse-looking place, with lots of bicycles outside, it had a nice feel to it and I could see an old workshop with the door open but no one inside. I knocked on the front door and a rather grizzled and sour-looking – but as it happened, very nice – old lady opened it. I understood nothing she said, but through an open window I could hear the sound of plates clinking and I assumed the bike mechanic guy was still having his breakfast, so I waited and played with a little black Labrador puppy.

Andrzej with my bike

After five minutes a healthy-looking late middle aged guy in blue overalls and flip flops with socks came walking out straight towards me and shook my hand firmly with a warm smile and introduced himself. I told him my problem and he nodded his head vigorously saying yes to each thing I told him. Then I told him that I’d come from London; he seemed shocked. I then told him I’m going to Tokyo. “Tokyo, Tokyo?!!” he said, in a slightly higher pitched voice than normal, we both laughed and then he quickly wheeled my bike into the workshop and told me to sit down. He then asked if I was thirsty, with water and cordial being brought to me in response. Then, about five minutes later, coffee and cake appeared too. By this point I was pretty shocked by the hospitality and almost felt a bit guilty as I didn’t feel I had done anything to deserve being treated so well.

The unexpected coffee and cake

I sat and watched Andrzej work on my bike while I enjoyed my coffee, cake and the amazing workshop I was in which seemed to have a lifetime of memories bestowed upon the walls. Andrzej’s wife then came out and introduced herself, we did our best to communicate and she asked if I was hungry, I jokingly said I was always hungry when cycling, she laughed and then quickly disappeared coming back with sandwiches and tea. Andrzej then said something in Polish and his wife translated and said “you do not pay, this is all for free”, I tried to protest and did so more than three times but they refused.

There is such a thing as a free lunch

I had never experienced kindness like this and began to feel a bit emotional; all faith in humanity restored. In only my third week, I was experiencing yet again on this trip the true kindness people can show, the kindness you’re never really told about in the news.

Andrzej didn’t just fix my spoke and give me breakfast, he also checked and trued my front wheel, checked my gears, and cleaned my whole bike. After having one last try to give him some money for his time I was refused again and sent on my way with a packed lunch.


If you liked my post, please take the time to  head to my Virgin Money giving page to donate. Over the course of my trip, I’m hoping to raise at least £5,000 for CLIC Sargent and Hope and Homes for Children.

Reality bubbles, mouldy chocolate cake and a fusion reactor: the things I’m enjoying the most

So an update on my progress… with an extra four days of preparation at home after cycling from London to my house in Kent I finally set off for Folkestone to spend the night there with Jane and Chris, the operators of an airfield and some friends of friends.

I can’t thank them enough, they fed me dinner and were excellent company, especially Jane’s 95-year-old father Henry, who recounted his experiences as a Lancaster bomber pilot and his four successful flights in the Pathfinders unit. Henry recounted his fifth flight where he was shot down above Berlin, I listened with mouth agape, in awe, I felt so lucky to hear this.I think it’s so rare to come across someone with those experiences, let alone one who is willing to share them with you. That night I slept under the wing of one of their planes that they fly.

My first night in a tent, near Dover

The next morning was a mad dash to Dover, catch the ferry to Dunkirk and then spend the whole day cycling and wondering what the hell I’m doing trying to cycle to Japan. I really didn’t enjoy that first day on the continent, but I think like most things in life that are challenging and worthwhile, the first time you start out probably won’t be much fun, you just have to persevere and you’ll be rewarded.

The next day I cycled through Bruges. Just as I expected, it was very charming, and I’ll have to go there again after I have this trip under my belt. That night I found a great wild camping spot 10km west of Gent, sat down for my stove cooked dinner of chickpeas, sardines and tabasco sauce, (not as bad as it sounds), and contemplated what I was doing and how to make the most of it.

I realised I had been worrying a lot, first about the unknown, what was to come in the next six months and secondly about the day to day problems like how to buy food without getting your bike nicked. I decided to just accept that there will be bad days, when I’m hungry and thirsty and cold and tired and lonely but that they will all be worth it for the people I’m going to meet, the stunning landscapes and night skies I’m going to see and what I will learn about myself while I experience all of this.

Brussels was my next stop but I needed some water and didn’t want to buy any. Instead, I turned around and cycled 100m back to a hotel I had seen, you never know…

Norbert’s delicious food

The man who owned the hotel – his name was Norbert – seemed shocked and amazed by the scale of the challenge ahead of me, but told me that of course I could have some water. When he came back he had two bananas and an orange with him. This act of kindness put a massive smile on my face and confirmed in me why I was doing this. I sat down, was about to start eating when Norbert came out again with a full plate of food, something that looked like a chicken casserole, I was elated, I couldn’t believe the random kindness I was experiencing, my day went from a good day to an amazing day. I sat and enjoyed my meal and spoke to Norbert who told me he used to be the chef for the Belgian cycling team. Again I felt so lucky to meet such great people.

Onto Brussels, where I spent my first night behind solid brick walls rather than a layer of fabric. I stayed with Benoît, the brother of my best friend’s girlfriend, and his wife Anne-Lynne. They were both incredibly supportive of my project and took me out to dinner, gave me breakfast and lunch to take with me the following day, and donated to my two charities!

Again, I was amazed by peoples’ hospitality, I can’t thank them enough. The next night I camped within 30 metres of a motorway in a small clump of trees completely invisible to anyone, and slept like a baby. The night after that it was another farmer’s field, and now here I am in Germany, another night wild camping enjoying eating dinner in the dusk, under a pink star-spotted sky, with nature’s evening chorus in full swing.

So what am I enjoying about the trip so far? The wildlife. People watching. The exercise. The unfounded fears being dissolved. I’m enjoying the sunsets, seeing that giant fusion reactor that hangs in the sky get redder and redder as it slowly dips below the horizon. I’m enjoying cycling through people’s bubbles of reality, for me I get to see the roads, landscapes and the people change, and even the smells from the various restaurants, urging me to go in. Yet, the people I go past know each of these places as their homes where everything is more or less permanent and they except that that’s the way it is. I already miss the silky smooth cycle lanes of the Dutch parts of Belgium, now I’m mostly confined to the edge of the white line.

The bike seems to be holding up well with its 40kg of luggage attached to it like some sort of giant parasite.

What am I eating on my travels, you might ask? Mainly rice, for breakfast lunch and dinner.

Breakfast: Rice with cinnamon, allspice, mixed nuts and honey, and a cup of coffee.

Lunch: Rice with a tin of fish and some chopped vegetables. Dinner: Rice with tinned tomatoes some spices and whatever I’ve bought, maybe some sausage or fish. Plus some ketchup because I’m immature.

Snacks: A piece of fruit and some nuts, the flapjacks my grandmother made me disappeared three days ago and are sorely missed. The last mouldy piece of chocolate cake that my mum baked for me I ate two days ago, mould scraped off. It was still delicious and I feel fine.

Also, I smell. Bad. But, I’m having a terrific time, so it’s all okay.

More photos to come!

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Please head to my Virgin Money giving page to donate. Over the course of my trip, I’m hoping to raise at least £5,000 for CLIC Sargent and Hope and Homes for Children.

Beginning of a 9000 mile journey

On Tuesday 14th August I officially began my solo cycle tour from London to Tokyo. The boiling cauldron of emotions mainly consists of pure excitement, fear, curiosity, trepidation and relief to finally be setting off after having the idea seven months ago back in frosty January.

Knowing that I had been planning to travel ‘to I didn’t know where’ the idea instantly took root in my mind and I knew I wouldn’t be able to brush it off, deep down I already knew I was going to do it but most of me wanted to resist such a seemingly mammoth undertaking and the planning required to make it happen… But here I am, writing this post after cycling from London to my home in Kent, 50 miles down, 8950 to go. Most essential trip items purchased, including a Russian and Chinese visa, I’m anxious that I’ve forgotten something crucial to the trip or dilemmas such as how many pairs of pants should I take, two maybe? I remember my old geography teacher reminiscing about a mountaineering trip, he proudly recounted to the class how many days he could wear one pair of pants, here is the method for anyone that’s interested:

Day one: wear your pants

Day two: wear the pants back to front

Day three: turn the pants inside out

Day four: wear the pants inside out and back to front

Day five: Burn the pants with fire/send them in the post to someone you don’t like, or wash them if you’re on a long expedition.

I’m sure the details will work themselves out along the way. Right now I have some last minute packing and organising to do…