And now, the time has come…
It’s ten minutes to eleven and I’m sitting in a garden in Tiana, 20 minutes away from my flat, which I have already emptied and left this morning, trying to relax and to get some much needed rest before setting off tomorrow morning at seven.
This is it, I realize. I have spent so much time these last weeks lost away in preparations that I had not realised how nervous I was, and it all has hit me today, as I was saying my goodbyes to my flatmate, my parents, my sister, her boyfriend, my grandmother… I am leaving and not coming back for two months. I’ll spend most of my time on the road. I feel sad leaving so many loved people behind, but at the same time I am really excited, looking forward to all the places I will see, people I will meet, problems I will have, experiences I will live.
Before hitting the road tomorrow morning, I would like to thank all the people that has been near me this last year. Thank you all for your support, advice, interest, inspiration, help, for patiently listening to me rambling on and on about this trip and for following me on this blog.
I will see you on the road.
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind
Day 1 – Tuesday 25th of June – Tiana to Vizille (718 km)
I do not really know whether the answer is there or not, but I have had plenty of time to listen to it (the wind, not the answer). I have set off at eight o’clock this morning, thinking how a few months back I was afraid of being slowly baked on the motorbike wearing the riding gear and how different it has turned out to be. The sky was overcast and it was even a bit chilly. Not enough to justify putting on the thermal lining on the jacket or even wearing anything else than a T-shirt underneath, but cool enough to require a scarf and having the hands a bit cold (I was wearing summer gloves). I had decided that if I was going to stick to my daily budget, I could not afford to pay tolls all the way to Grenoble, so I had planned to take A-roads and B-roads to Montpellier and then, depending on how much time I had left, get on the motorway for the last 300km to get to the campsite I had found before reception closed at 20:30. The motorway from Barcelona follows the coast, but I have not got near the sea until the border with France, and there is where the wind has started.
I know the Mediterranean coast along the north of Catalonia and the south of France is usually very windy, so I was expecting this. What I was not expecting was the wind to still be there once I turned inland, and I was definitely not expecting it to be so strong. I have been told that it gets quite bad on the open spaces of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, so I guess that today has been good training. I thought the only problem today was going to be boredom and fatigue, as it is the longest day of all (720km), but the wind has made it so much harder. It blew constantly and from all directions, creating turbulences all over the screen and the helmet that have almost driven me crazy. I am still wondering how I have not ended up with a splitting headache. Not only that, it was strong and unpredictable enough to throw me off course, and more than once today I have been close to flying off the side of the road, being blown into the path of oncoming vehicles or being blown against the cars to my left on the motorway. But the wind, despite having spent the whole day trying to kill me, has not been the worst part.
Pulling out onto the street from the car park and looking back to say goodbye one last time to Nat has been the hardest thing to do. I have taken some long(ish) trips on the bike, some of them for more than a few days, but there was always someone to go back to at the end. At that moment I have finally realized that I’m going to be riding away from home for a long time before turning back.
I teach languages, and that means that I spend most of the day talking and listening to people. Very often, just as someone who spends the whole day in front of a computer at work does not want to check his inbox to see that hilarious video you have sent them, when I get home, the last thing I want to do is talk, so I thought that spending some time on my own would be great. Well, it is, and I like it, when I know that at the end of the day I will have someone to tell how great it has been, so today, by lunchtime, I have found myself looking forward to my first couchsurf tomorrow, much more than I thought!
I do not mean this as a negative comment about travelling on my own, quite the opposite. I am glad to have realized I feel this way, as I am quite a shy person and I was a bit worried about that getting in the way of the experience, but I see now that I am going to be even more open to meeting new people and sharing the experience.
This morning, about an hour after setting off, an elderly man has approached me as I was fuelling the bike in a small town near Olot and made a comment about how much stuff was on the bike. That has quickly turned into an enjoyable conversation about the trip, and the guy working at the petrol station has also joined in. In the afternoon, already well into France, I have stopped to buy some fruit and the same kind of conversation has taken place again with the couple who were selling their stuff by the road.
This is a great way of travelling, so different from jumping on a plain and suddenly being in another place. I knew what the French villages on the Pyrenees look like, I knew how the coast of Brittany looked like, I also knew how Paris looked like, but I had no idea what the country really looked like. I had only seen a few parts of it. There is no way we can say ‘yeah, I know Germany, I’ve been in Berlin a few times’ for example. I had driven all across France six times, but even that was on the motorway, 12 hours, non-stop. Today I have seen a completely different country for the first time, and if a country I thought I knew has been such a nice experience, I wonder how the rest is going to be like.
I am now typing this on a laptop lying in my tent, in Vizille, near Grenoble. I seem to have found a lovely campsite – in the forest, with great facilities, really cheap, quiet… that is missing the two things I needed the most today: beer and the internet. I have got here relatively early, so I have decided to set up camp, go for a shower, have dinner and then go to the reception bar for a beer and write this post while I drank it seeing the sun set behind the mountains. Wrong timing. This is not a Spanish campsite on the coast. The bar was closed. And a quick expedition into town has been equally fruitless, so I have decided to call it an early night and take the chance to write a good long post about the first day.
My quest for a sticker
Day 2 – Wednesday 26th of June – Vizille to Brogliano (580km)
I want to get a sticker from each country I visit. You know, one of those with the initial of the country and/or the flag, to stick at the back of your car. It seems quite an easy thing to find, when you think of how many cars drive around with one or more stuck on their tailgates. Well, it is not, I even had difficulties trying to get my own country’s! I tried petrol stations, car accessories shops, stationer’s, souvenir’s shops… everybody knew exactly what I was talking about, nobody sold them. In the end I was given one bought at a bookshop. It was the same story in France. All across France. I am now in Italy and have left France without being able to get one. Well, at least I am riding through the country again on my way back, I will try again then.
Stickers or no stickers aside, today has been a great day. I got up at about 7am, packed everything away and went for breakfast at the campsite’s café. I did not prepare my own breakfast (as is the plan when I camp) for two reasons – one, I still had money left from yesterday’s budget, so I thought I would have a complete breakfast; two – I had forgotten to fill the jerrycan at every single petrol station I had stopped, so I had nothing to cook with. Yes, really clever.
With my stomach full and having stopped at a supermarket to get a few things I was missing (mints, bread and extra batteries) and see if I could find a sticker, I started to climb the road that led up to the Col du Lautaret. There was very little traffic aside from some cyclists (quite a lot of them, actually) but they were no problem to pass on the bike. The road wound its way up to the col along deep glacial valleys covered in thick forest and soon I was high enough to start catching some glimpses of snow covered peaks between corners.
As the road climbed higher, the views became more and more breathtaking, and I was busy trying to take it all in and enjoying the road, which was one of the best I have ever ridden. No wonder there were so many other bikers!
I stopped at the top of the col to see if they had stickers at the souvenir shops there, but no luck. Going back to the bike I spotted a trio of German bikers on naked Yamahas and went by to have a chat. They were from Frankfurt, and told me they came to the region regularly and had also been to Spain. I asked one of them to take a picture of me and told them about the trip, they were a bit jealous.
On the way down I stopped to fill up, and this time I remembered to fill the jerrycan even though today I had a sandwich for lunch and I was spending the night at the house of a couple that I had met through couchsurfing. And I asked about the sticker. No luck again.
I rode though Briançon, where they had no stickers either and then into Italy. I had spent all morning in the Alps, a lot longer than I was expecting to, but it was worth every moment; if I wanted to make it to Vicenza at a reasonable time now, I had to take the motorway. And believe me, that is a decision I regret… It was hours of sheer boredom. There was practically no landscape to talk about, only a vast expanse of concrete that took me on a tour of industrial Northern Italy, with hundreds of crazy Italian drivers to keep me entertained, automated toll booths that refused to give you a receipt even if you wanted one and did not display the price and a couple of traffic jams where I had the chance to compare French courtesy to motorbikes – they make room for you to filter through when there is a jam – to the Italian one – basically non-existent, they either can not be bothered to move out of your way or simply swerve onto your path to block you, because if they are not zooming down the motorway, neither should you, damn it. And to cap it all, petrol is a lot more expensive than in France. Well, at least they sold stickers at the first place I asked.
By the time I turned off the motorway I only had 20km to go and had paid way more than I had expected, effectively destroying my budget for the day. I made it to Brogliano, where I was staying, in good time, but at a high price. I will have to stick to B-roads all the way to Ljubljana tomorrow and hope the tank lasts to the border.
On the plus side, the landscape once I left the motorway was amazing, the sun shining low through the trees on the Northern Italian countryside that I had always imagined: undulating fields of green and gold between low hills, quaint villages and winding roads. And some more crazy drivers.
I followed the GPS instructions into the small village of Brogliano, into streets that became narrower and steeper until I came to a point at the end of a steep ramp that looked as if the street split in three driveways and ended there. The GPS, however, insisted that I had to turn left and keep going for about 150m more. Not wanting to ride into anybody’s front garden, I started to maneuver the bike in the narrow space, thinking how ridiculous it would be if my first fall was on a backstreet in rural Italy. When I had managed a quarter of a turn, an old man, who had probably heard the engine revving and was used to finding lost strangers behind his house, waved at me from a window and pointed at the driveway on my left. It turned out it was a street that opened into a bigger one, where I found Mattia, my host, waiting for me.
He helped me put the bike in their garage and then introduced me to his couple, Danilo, who was preparing a mouth-watering risotto for dinner. Taking the chance of having some space to work on, I greased the chain and topped the oil and then had a shower and sat down for dinner with them. They were great hosts, and Danilo is an excellent cook – the antipasti, the risotto and the cheese, as well as the home-made red pepper jam made by Mattia were delicious. They told me a bit about their trips and themselves and I showed them the route on an atlas.
I borrowed their internet connection to update the blog and get in touch with my next host and went to bed, exhausted but happy. And with a new sticker on my bike.
Ljubljana and Mikkeller
Day 3 – Thursday 27th of June – Brogliano to Smrjene (555km)
Unlike the first two days, in which I spent the morning on great B-roads and then had to take the motorway in the afternoon to make it on time, with all the boredom and fatigue that means, today has been the other way round. I got up after a great night’s sleep and had breakfast with Danilo (Mattia had already left for work), trying to have a meaningful conversation in my very poor Italian. He gave me some directions to get the most scenic route to Slovenia, I loaded the bike and went off.
The first part of the route took me through even more industrial parks and thick, slow moving traffic, but I was able to make good progress thanks to Italian drivers. I must now withdraw my previous comments on Italian drivers, as today they were absolutely wonderful – the moment they saw me coming on their mirrors they moved to the right, making way for me to overtake them without having to move over to the other lane, which meant that I could pass cars anywhere. There’s some road manners Spaniards could learn!
Shortly after the road became one of the most beautiful I have ever ridden. All the way no just to Slovenia, but to the very capital, Ljubljana, it was a narrow, winding road with smooth tarmac and beautiful views. I had set off with three (out of five) bars left on the fuel gauge and after seeing how expensive petrol was in Italy I was hoping I could make it to the border and fill up in Slovenia. If I had to, I was even going to use the fuel in the jerrycan. I got near the border at about lunchtime and stopped at a village called Gradisca D’Isonzo for lunch. I found a nice park with a memorial to those who had died in WWI and WWII and sat down to prepare a sandwich. As I was eating there, with those names carved in stone in front of me, it occurred to me what a simplistic view we often get of such conflicts. We tend to think of the war as something with clearly defined sides, the good and the evil, the ‘you are with us or you are against us’ kind of thing some Americans love so much. However, those names belonged to young people from a small village who probably knew nothing about the people they were sent to fight against or the reasons the whole thing had started, they were just told to go there and die for their country. A country. What is that? Riding from one to another, crossing borders the concept becomes blurred, artificial. It is just a random line on a map and it becomes clear that we are all exactly the same, with the same hopes and fears, pastimes, worries, and all those little things that make up moments of happiness in our lives. I shared the last cherries from the box I had bought in France with a homeless guy at the park and headed for the border, the fuel light flashing.
I stopped at the first petrol station on the other side and was pleased to see that fuel was much cheaper and they had stickers. I filled up and rode into biker’s paradise. Slovenia is a hilly country and it seems that practically all roads are interesting.
When I was planning the trip I sat down at the computer and tried to plan the most scenic routes possible on the software that came with the GPS, BaseCamp. I quickly remembered why I prefer to use good old paper maps. As is often the case with case when there are computers involved, the bloody thing had no logic at all and even though I marked waypoints along the route I wanted to follow, it went back and forth, doubling back and sending me round and round to places I did not want to go. In the end I decide to just get the coordinates for the places I want to finish the day at, set it to avoid toll roads and let it guide me. And boy it works! Yesterday’s route could not have been better if I had plotted it myself on a map – the roads were amazing all the way to Ljubljana.
I got there a bit later than I expected and ran into the afternoon rush hour traffic. I had to cross the whole city, as my host’s house was on a hill on the outskirts on the other side. I discovered that it is not a good idea to get into heavy traffic in an unknown city tired after a long day’s ride. Fortunately I made it to the other side without problems and were greeted by my hosts, Metka and Franci, fellow bikers who were delighted to see me and the motorbike.
We started talking about it right on the front door, and Franci commented that I should use a CrampBuster, a plastic thingy that allows you to hold the throttle open without having to grip the handle all the time, so you can rest on long motorway trips. I tried to find one in Barcelona just before leaving, but nobody sold them and it was too late to get one online. He then made a quick phone call to a friend to see if it was possible to get one in the city that day and then gave me his own as a present!
They took some pictures and showed me my room, which would make a five-star hotel room pale in comparison. Franci works as a translator, but he studied electrical engineering and he really is into domotics. He and Metka bought their house half finished and then he designed a fully intelligent and environmentally friendly house (and wrote the software that controls it himself). It would take pages to describe what the house can do, suffice to say it is mind-blowing.
I had a shower, got changed and jumped into the car with Metka, who had already called a friend of hers who spoke some Spanish and was glad to have a chance to practice a bit. On the way to the centre we discovered that we are both beer fans and while we were waiting for her friend Maja to come she took me to a small beer shop that had an amazing selection of beers for connoisseurs. We bought a few for dinner (which she refused to let me pay) and then went for a drink with Maja at one of the terraces by the river. Back at the house, Franci, who had finished work, prepared some traditional pasta and then we had some beers with a couple of their friends, also bikers, who dropped by to say hi. It was such an enjoyable evening, telling travel stories and anecdotes that I totally forgot to write.
Oh, and Ljubljana is a beautiful city, by the way.
Three countries in one day
Day 4 – Friday 28th of June – Smrjene to Budapest (532km)
What a day! One of the things you hear about trips like this is that it is when you start having problems that the real adventure begins. Well, it must sound like some kind of twisted logic, but it is true – I had my first fall today, and despite this, it has been another wonderful day.
The fall was not serious, but it was quite embarrassing… I had just left Smrjene and went back into the city to cross it and get on the road to the border following the instructions on the GPS. The traffic was quite heavy again, it was the morning rush hour and I was stopped at a red light behind a panel van that blocked most of my view forward. The light changed and traffic started moving when suddenly the van slammed the brakes and so did I to avoid running into its back. I was just starting to move, so the bike was leaning slightly to one side, not having gained enough speed to stand upright by itself, so when I braked it leaned to far to one side and past that angle, the fall was inevitable. It crashed onto its side in the middle of a fully crowded main street in the city center. I got up, made sure I was OK (I was) and quickly tried to lift the bike to get out of the way, but soon discovered it was too heavy fully loaded to be able to lift it myself. Fortunately, a young guy ran across the street and through the traffic and helped me pick it up. I started it and moved to a bus stop to check for damage. It had landed on the BarkBusters, which did their job very well and protected the clutch handle and on the left pannier, which had a very small scratch. The outer bottle holder had broken free from its lower bolt, but that seemed to be all the damage. I restarted the bike and went on.
I have been told that on such long trips, you need some time to get into the rhythm of the whole thing, and I started to find that to be true today. I had a long way to go again, but this time I was not worried about wasting time if I stopped to take a picture of something I liked or took a rest more often. I knew I had all day to get there, and I had to enjoy the road.
With this new mindset, I stopped for the first time shortly after leaving the city, and discovered that the left pannier was not closed properly. On closer inspection, I saw that the fall had pushed it into the frame, bending it enough for the shape of the opening to be deformed, so it did not line with the lid any more.
It was quite cloudy and Franci had checked the weather forecast in the morning and told me there was a possibility of rain in Hungary, so I was worried about water getting into my luggage, especially as that pannier contained my camping and sleeping gear. I decided to try to find a repair shop and see if they could bend it back into shape. I got back on the road keeping an eye open and soon spotted what looked like a garage. I rode up to it and when I got off the bike and into it I saw it was a kind of MoT station. As I was already there, I decided to ask where I could find a place to get it fixed, so I approached a man who has coming out with his car documents on his hands. He listened to me and had a looked at the pannier and immediately took his mobile phone out and called a friend who had a body repair shop. Unfortunately, he was not able to reach him, so he took me next door, where there was a car wash.
The guy at the car wash called his colleague, who had a small workshop behind the building, and he came and gestured me to remove the pannier from the bike and give it to him. I did, and ten minutes later he came back with it, straight enough for the lid to fit and close properly. I thanked them profusely and went on. A couple of hours later I found an old workshop by the road that had these photogenic relics outside and I stopped to take some pictures.
The roads were great again, and I was wondering whether petrol would be cheaper in Hungary or in Slovenia when suddenly, coming out of a corner and going up a very steep hill, I came upon a sign that took me by surprise.
You can unexpectedly run into people, into trouble, into a lamppost if you are not paying attention, but this was the first time in my life I had run into a country. I had, apparently, come across Austria.
When I checked on the map, there seemed to be a fairly straight line from Ljubljana to Budapest, but my GPS had apparently decided that I would like the scenic route better, and I did. It had taken me north, to Graz, and then east over the Orségi Nemzeti natural park and into Hungary. I really enjoyed spending some kilometers in Austria and I took the chance to get yet another sticker and fill the bike up, as petrol was cheaper than even Spain. So much for the biking holiday I someday wanted to take in Italy… at those prices I would much rather tour central Europe! The landscape is better, too. Once I crossed the border everything changed.
The road was still narrow, but in quite bad condition, and everything had an air less taken care of. I stopped at a petrol station right after the border to change some money for the first time and get yet another sticker.
It had been slightly overcast all day, perfect conditions for riding, no rain, not too hot… but in the afternoon the weather deteriorated and it seemed as if it was going to rain. I kept thinking I should stop and put the waterproof layers on the jacket, but that meant unstrapping the rack pack and my optimistic me kept seeing that the sky was clearer ahead. I had to change from summer to winter gloves, though, because it was getting colder.
In the end I made it to Budapest dry and found the place I am going to be staying at for the next couple of nights without problems. If you come to Budapest by motorbike or bicycle, this is the place to stay! I set up camp, borrowed a set of three precision tools (also known as hammers) and spent the afternoon banging the pannier back into shape. But more on that tomorrow, it has been a long ride today, about ten hours, and it is getting very late.
Day 5 – Saturday 29th of June – Budapest (0km)
Biker Camp is, as the name says, a campsite for bikers and cyclists in the center of Budapest.
It was founded by Zsolt Vertessy, a biker himself, who sadly died in an accident in 2004. The place has been run by his widow ever since, and offers a space to camp, toilets and showers, a washing machine, cooking facilities, wifi, tools, a self-service bar and the chance to meet fellow bikers. It is six underground stops from the city centre and is a great place to spend a few days.
I got here at about half past six in the evening and was shown into the camping space by the owner. There is room for about ten or twelve tents plus the bikes, but there was only another tent, which belonged to a Norwegian family who are on a cycling holiday.
I chatted with them over breakfast today and they told me they flew all their gear to Venice and are cycling back home from there, doing from 50 to 60 kilometres a day… with two kids! The youngest is only seven years old. When I think that most people back in Spain say that you can practically do nothing once you have had children…
After breakfast I took the underground, which is a couple of streets from the camp and went to explore Budapest.
The city is as beautiful as I expected from the tales of all the people I know who have been here before me, and today the weather was wonderful, which meant that I was a bit too hot at times!
I spent the whole morning walking around the city, exploring the most popular places and taking lots of pictures, and by lunchtime I went a bit off the tourist trail in search of a good place to eat. I found a small pub where I had a full traditional Hungarian meal for only 11€ – A very spicy paprika sauce to spread on bread, goulash soup, paprika chicken with cream, salad, coffee, traditional Hungarian bread, an enormous apple pie, and a pint of local beer. Delicous! The climb to the citadel was quite hard after that…
I was thinking that there were very few tourists in the city, until I reached the top of the hill and ran into an army of Japanese sun-allergic tourists hiding under their umbrellas and huddling together near their respective guides, seemingly afraid of getting very lost if they wandered too far on their own.
After spending some time there and taking some more pictures, I went back down into the centre and decided to explore the non touristy neighbourhoods between the centre and the place where I was staying. Not far from where most tourists were, the streets changed quickly and I was in an area of run down buildings with a very high proportion of drunkards, homeless people and very dodgy looking characters.
I put the camera back into its bad, as it was the only thing giving me away as a tourist, as my clothes are quite simple (I can’t really carry much) and the cropped hair and growing beard seemed to blend in quite well. I stopped at a small fruit shop to get some oranges and apples and then got the underground for the last three stops, because my feet were killing me. I was glad to have spent the day walking for a change, but I would not know what is more tiring…
This has been a shorter post than the previous ones, I will let the pictures do the talking here. By the way, since this is a blog, and not a photo album, I will be posting extra pictures on the Facebook page, so if you are interested, you can see them there.
Here’s a selection:
Romanian potholes and abandoned petrol stations
Day 6 – Sunday 30th of June – Budapest to Ighiu (536km)
I woke up earlier than I expected today, Hungary is the easternmost country I am travelling through that is still on the same time zone as Spain, and at ten past five in the morning the sun was already shinning. I managed to get some more sleep before getting up and putting everything back on the bike, as I expected today to be quite a hard day – I remembered Romanian roads from a trip there three years ago and they are hard.
I had a coffee while I wrote a quick entry into the camp’s guest book, and then spent some time flicking through its pages and reading a few of the stories there. After a few minutes I was surprised to feel a tear forming in my eyes. There are hundreds of people travelling around the world by all possible means and I had read about some of them on internet forums, but this was different – I was touching the very same pages those people had touched before moving on to their following destinations.
The previous night I had tried to put the coordinates for my next destination on the GPS, only to find that whatever settings, it refused to give me a route. I tried choosing a destination in Hungary, near the border, but the result was still the same. In the end, it only agreed to give me a route to a town near the border and on the motorway, so after leaving Budapest I stopped at the first petrol station I found to pay for a matrika, the vignette that allows you to travel on motorways. I had managed to get through Slovenia, Austria and part of Hungary without paying for one, so I was a bit bummed. It turned out to be quite cheap (I do not know exactly how cheap, I still have not had time to calculate today’s expenses) and in an hour and a half I was at the border, which meant that I had all the afternoon ahead of me to enjoy the Romanian roads.
On the trip to Romania three year ago, my friends and I stayed at a place called Terra Mythica, near Alba Iulia. We were not quite sure what kind of place it was, but it was the only thing we could find in the region, so we made a booking. We got there at about 1 am to find it was a sort of summer camp full of children. Against all odds, we had a wonderful time – Dalina, the owner, and some of the stuff joined us after dinner once all the kids were in bed and we had one of the hardest drinking sessions I remember. To cut a long story short, we became good friends and she visited in Barcelona a couple of times, so when I was planning the trip I decided to take a little detour and come back to Ighiu, and I was really looking forward to it.
At the Romanian border I was stopped by the police for the first time in my trip, but they only checked my passport and waved me on. I stopped just past the gate at a small shack that changed money and sold road tax, which is compulsory in Romania, whether you take the highway or not (in fact, there is only one highway, between the capital and the coast). I got some leu and discovered that it was not necessary to pay tax for the motorbike, so I rode on happily.
The roads were better than I remembered from the last time I was here, or maybe riding all the way from Spain meant that the transition had been more gradual than getting off a plane and into a van. In any case, I made quick progress and soon realized that it was already well past 2 pm and I still had not had lunch. I started looking for a nice place, but roadside picnic areas or public parks are notoriously difficult to find in rural Romania, and the kilometers went by without a proper place turning up. The clouds were turning a nasty shade of black, and this time there were no clear skies ahead, so it was becoming more and more pressing to stop not just for lunch, but to put the waterproof lining on the suit. Then, as the rain began, I spotted a petrol station. I had not seen one since the border, and even though I still had fuel left, I was starting to worry, so I was glad to find one. As I got closer, however, I saw that it was abandoned.
Well, at least it had a rood under which I could get changed and eat something. I performed a little strip-tease to the delight of the lorry drivers passing by and then sat down to eat a kind of Hungarian sausage I had bought earlier and some bread and fruit.
The first time we came to Romania, people warned us about stray dogs, apparently there are many of them and they can be dangerous. I was enjoying my sandwich when this fearsome beast appeared:
I swear if I had been doing this trip on a car instead of a motorbike, I would have taken her home. The poor thing was clearly afraid of people, God knows what bad experiences she might have had in the past. I threw her some meat and she ate it from a distance. She stayed there all the time I was at the petrol station, but did not allow me to get closer than a couple of meters, she kept her distance.
After saying goodbye, I got on the bike and set off again, happy to see that the rain had stopped. I was soon regretting having put the waterproof lining on, as it was getting hotter, and I was quite sweaty when I stopped for fuel at a petrol station that was quite far removed from the ones I had been using so far. I had to check twice to make sure this one was not abandoned.
By mid afternoon, the landscape changed from the flat corn fields I had been seeing from Hungary into hills and valleys covered with forest, and I was soon reunited with that old friend from three years ago – the Romanian pothole. The Romanian pothole is not the kind of broken asphalt or depression on the road we might be used to encountering in Western Europe. This indigenous beast that populates the country roads in large numbers is generally round or ovoid in shape, with sharp, cliff-like edges, and deep enough to swallow the front wheel of the bike. It normally dwells on mountain and forest roads, where the harsher weather has deteriorated the road more, and to make matters worse, they were filled with water, making them more difficult to spot. Needless to say, hitting one would mean, at the very least, a badly damaged front rim and suspension, not to mention risking a very nasty accident.
It was cold again, but the weather got better in the afternoon, and as I rode the country roads, avoiding the potholes, I remembered what a great country this was. I got to Ighiu at half past eight, and was delighted to see Dalina again. Things were hectic at the camp, with 70 children to be taken care of, and still fully dressed in riding gear and before I could unload anything from the bike I was sat down at a table for dinner with Dalina and the rest of the staff who, came from places as far apart as California and India. I had a great time, and after dinner, I had a shower, got changed and sat down to write and have a chat with Rushil, who also has a motorbike back in India, and showed me pictures of Khardung la pass, the highest one in the world. If I ever go to India, I will definitely hire a motorbike and ride it!
Day 7 – Monday 1st of July – Transfagarasan Road
There were two reasons I had taken a 1000km-detour on my route – to visit Dalina and to ride this road, one of the most famous in the world. Build by Chauchescu to be able to move troops quickly across the region, it is simply breathtaking.
Dalina did not wake me up this morning, but my body is still an hour behind, so at 8:30 I was already up and having breakfast, chatting to her father, who remembered how drunk we got last time and told me, half in English, half in Romanian “tonight, we drink!”
I am not going to try and describe the road here, as words would not even come close to what it is. Those of you who watch Top Gear will be familiar with it. I will just post some pictures and, for those petrolheads with enough patience, a video of the whole ride from north to south once I have a connection that is fast enough to upload it.
Border crossings and police bribes
Day 8 – Tuesday 2nd of July – Ighiu to Lviv (607km)
Having been to Romania instead of heading for Ukraine straight from Hungary meant that I broke one of the rules I had set myself – to spend the night before a major border crossing near the border to get there relatively early in the morning in case there were problems with the paperwork and it took a bit longer than expected. Another consequence of that decision was that instead of going through an international crossing, I had to go through a small rural one, and some of those only allow locals to use it, not international traffic.
So, having also broken another rule – to keep journeys shorter the furthest east I went – I set off on a 10-hour ride through a border I was not sure would be open. I got there at about 2 pm, and lucky me, they let me into Ukraine! I was quite nervous about it, I was leaving the EU and I was afraid they would find some kind of problem with my documents or the bike’s, but there were none. The good thing about a small crossing is that there were no long queues, only four cars in front of me, but they still took their own sweet time and I baked under the sun for half an hour. Once into Ukraine, the bad thing about a small crossing became apparent quickly – the road.
Remember the Romanian pothole? Well, it is nothing more than a small bump on the road compared to this. Not only were they deep, there were thousands of them, all over the road, meaning that cars and trucks had to swerve around them, using the whole width of the road and often driving on the wrong lane. I had to stand on the footpegs and could only use first and second gear. It was hot, sweaty and dusty. This was the kind of thing that I was expecting in Kazakhstan, not on a road connecting two countries in Europe. It went on for about 50 km, after which the road turned into what I would have described as a bad road in Romania, which was a huge relief after that bit. I am ready to do this sort of stuff, but not as part of 600-kilometer days.
Once I joined the main road coming from Poland things changed, the road became much, much better and I started making progress. I did not ride too fast, as I had heard lots of horror stories about Ukrainian police and how strict they are with foreign drivers, but I still did what I had been doing for the last four or five days and what every other driver on the road was doing – overtake whenever you had space and was safe, regardless of road signs.
Well, it is common practice and there is nothing wrong with it, as long as you do not overtake the chief of police from the next village going back home in civilian clothes on his private car. Needless to say, he made sure that his colleagues were waiting for me at the next checkpoint, and as soon as I got there they flagged me down. The policeman spoke no English at all, but he made it clear that I had overtaken on a double line using gestures, and when the chief of police arrived he used the same gestures before driving away again and leaving me in the caring hands of his subordinate. The guy asked for the bike’s papers and then asked if I could speak Portuguese, because apparently he knew someone at the Portuguese consulate and was going to get them on the phone so that they could explain me what I had to do. He handed me his mobile phone and I spoke to a girl who spoke English, who told me that the fine was a hundred euros. Now, I had been given some advice on how to try to deal with police in these countries, but in this case it was obvious that I had broken the law, so there was nothing else to do but to pay. That would put a huge dent on my budget… However, the girl on the phone said that I had two choices – I could get an official written fine and then go all the way to Kiev to pay it before I could get the bike’s papers back, or I could pay there and then, it would be half price and I could go my way. I gave the phone back to the police officer and he gestured me to follow him into a smaller room. We walked in, he sat down and took some official forms, which were the fine, and his mobile phone, put them both on the table and pointed at them. I pointed at the phone, and then he handed me a piece of paper and a pen. I wrote ‘50€’, he nodded and then stood up, lifted the cushion on which he was sitting and pointed under it. I put the money there, he put the cushion back and then he was all smiles, asking about my trip while he walked me back to the bike, telling me to be careful where I parked it in Lviv because it was dangerous and even writing the speed limits on his palm to remind me not to break them.
Well, after the money I had saved over the last two days, I was only a few euros out of my daily budget, I had come off lightly and I had had a first hand experience in bribing the Ukrainian police. What a day!
After that I still had more than 200 km to get to Lviv, and once I got there, tired and smelly, it was hard work finding the place where I was staying. In the end, Igor, my host, walked out to the street and found me, trying to get directions from three guys who did not seem to understand what I was asking them.
He took his car and lead me to a car park a couple of blocks down the street where I could leave the bike for the night. He the took me to his flat, a small apartment in one of those big, gray, crumbling soviet blocks of flats, for the complete Ukrainian experience. He was the most wonderful host, prepared a very nice dinner for me and then we tried to overcome the language barrier and talked about the trip and motorbikes. He told me that he had had one in the past, and that was something we could chat about with very few words, watching the twilight sky from his balcony.
Follow that cab!
Day 9 – Wednesday 3rd of July – Lviv to Kiev (557km)
There is a tunnel at the top of the Transfagarasan pass that connects both sides of the mountain. It is not very long, maybe one and a half kilometers, but it is very narrow, with just enough space for two cars, the road surface is broken asphalt almost turned into gravel with the occasional big pothole and it is pitch black, there is not a single light in it. When I rode it two days ago, the fog that covered the top of the mountains had also got into it, so visibility was almost zero. With the screen covered in moist, I had to stand on the footpegs to see over it, and I could see no further than eight or ten meters, the headlights hopelessly trying to pierce the fog. Had you asked me this morning, I would have said that was the most frightening experience I had ever had on the bike, but what I did today was far, far worse.
In the morning, Igor took me to an ATM so I could get some local money and then to the bike. I loaded it and checked the oil, a bit worried about a developing leak that I had spotted in Romania. When I started the journey I noticed a bit of oil on the bash plate, but since I had had the valve clearance checked and it was a job that required opening the engine, I thought that it had got dirty then. Just to be sure, I checked again when I got to Budapest, and things seem to be the same. However, once in Romania I noticed that there was a bit more oil, and on closer inspection I discovered that there was oil in the V where the cylinders meet, and it seemed to be coming from somewhere in the back of the front cylinder.
I cleaned it to see how long it would take to get dirty again, and today, after two days and about 1,200 km, enough oil has accumulated in the V to leak down the side of the engine. In normal riding conditions, it would take weeks for that much oil to leak, since I barely do more than 20 km a day, but things happen faster on the trip. I cleaned it again near Kiev to check how long it takes this time. The oil level has been descending at a normal rate for the number of kilometers I have been doing, so I do not know how worried I should be. I will be in Volgograd in three days (1,200 more kilometers) and since I need to have the bike serviced there, I will have the leak checked. I hope it does not get any worse before getting there.
I said goodbye to Igor, who refused to let me pay for the car park, thanked him for his hospitality, and went across Lviv center to get the road to Kiev.
It is a shame I did not have more time to visit the city, as what little I saw from the bike was great. What was not so great was the time it took me to get out of there, through streets clogged with traffic, and cobblestones and tram rails to make things more challenging.
Once out of the city the road was good an clear all the way to Kiev. The landscape was beautiful, green fields stretching far, but it was one of the most boring rides so far. After my last experience with the police I was not going to give them a reason to stop me, so I stuck to the speed limit (90), and did not overtake unless it was legal. Since I was the only one following traffic regulations, that meant that I was the slowest thing on the road, and on roads that were mostly straight and smooth, I had to fight hard to stay alert. On the plus side, I managed to get the best fuel economy form the bike ever – 4,1L/100km for the whole journey.
As soon as I got to Kiev things changed quickly, little did I know that I was in for a hell of a ride. Luda, my host’s secretary, who speaks some English, had told me to meet her at an underground station on the main road on the city limits, because it would be easier if she showed me the way from there. I was glad she had taken the bother to do so, as navigating big city traffic is usually hard. She got on a cab and told me to follow it. I thought it would not be very far, since she had come to get me, but boy, was I wrong!
The cab driver sped off into the afternoon rush hour traffic in 8-lane avenues chocked full of cars, trucks and buses, and I was left to do my best not to lose him. I was determined not to, and that meant sticking to his tail, absolutely no safety distance to speak of, and even so, the moment I left a couple of meters between me and him, somebody would try to get in the gap. And all that at speed well above what you would expect in the city. I could not even check the mirrors, as taking the eyes off the car in front for even half a second might mean an accident. And on top of that, the roads were badly potholed, which meant that the ABS was constantly kicking in, providing some extra scariness tot the whole experience, and obviously, riding so close to the car in front I could not see the potholes in time, so I basically ate them all.
After the longest ride of my life, we got to the apartment, on the 14th floor of another soviet-style building, and I was shown into the shower and then sat down for another enormous dinner consisting of the finest traditional Ukranian dishes.
Luda made her best to translate for me, and I managed quite a conversation with Sofia, my host. After dinner, a friend of hers told me he would lead me to his car park, where I could securely leave the bike for a couple of days. I followed him, fearing another crazy ride, but by that time the streets had emptied, and it was a lot easier. We left the bike there and he drove me back to the apartment. Sitting on the back of his plush car, I almost dozed off after the adrenalin rush of the afternoon.
Bitten by radioactive mosquitos
Day 10 – Thursday 4th of July – Visit to Chernobyl (0km)
It is difficult to describe today’s experience. I was looking forward to it, as it was one of the highlights of the trip, and it has been a very interesting visit, but at the same time it has been a most harrowing experience.
Luda took me to the city’s main square, where the tour bus was to pick me up, and once in front of the hotel that was supposed to be the meeting point, she told me she would be there again at 6 in the afternoon to show me the center a bit. I spotted a bus and a couple of people waiting and I asked the last person in the queue, who was the exact double of Hillary Swank. She was from Sweden, and since her boyfriend had decided not to take summer holidays, she was touring Ukraine on her own for a few weeks. We got on the bus and quickly started to talk about travelling, as we shared a taste for unusual destinations and Eastern Europe. The conversation was soon interrupted by the start of a documentary on the disaster, which turned out to be very interesting and much more complete than other things I had seen before. It finished shortly before we reached the first checkpoint. A big area around Chernobyl is still under military control and even though about 170 people, all of them over 70 and retired, have decided to move back to their land, nobody is allowed in or out without going through strict security checks. We got off the bus and after having our passports checked against a list, we walked past the checkpoint and waited for the bus to cross. It was then a short drive to the first and only inhabited town, which hosts about 5,000 people who work in jobs related to security and maintenance of the area. They live and work there for 15 days and then take 15 days off, and have to undergo frequent medical checkups.
On the way there, we passed several villages, but the only thing that remained were the road signs, as the military had bulldozed and buried the houses after the disaster and nature had quickly claimed the land back. We had a short stop in the town, where we saw a memorial, a fire station (whose members where the 3rd team to arrive on the site right after the explosion) and some of the vehicles that were used for the cleanup.
There used to be a bigger collection of vehicles at a place called vehicle cemetery, but they were deemed too radioactive to be safe and that part of the visit had been cancelled years ago and the vehicles buried.
Then we drove through another checkpoint to get into the exclusion zone itself, where no people live, even though lots of them work there. Before reaching the nuclear plant we stopped to see an abandoned kindergarden which, together with a post office that was barely standing among the trees, were the only two buildings remaining of the last village before the plant.
Then, as we were driving out of a corner, it came into view into the distance. The high chimney that stood between reactors three and four. We stopped one last time before reaching it, to see the construction site of a couple of cooling towers and reactors five and six, still surrendered by high construction cranes.
They were never finished. The bus stopped on the road and when we got off to take some pictures, the guide told us not to step off the road and onto the grass, as it was highly contaminated.
We got on the bus again for the final short drive that took us next to the sarcophagus that covers reactor number three. The structure looked quite old. It was the first and only of its kind, and its construction had taken several lives.
The people designing it and working to build it had never done anything like it, and nobody had ever worked or trained to work in such conditions. Thousands of people worked to build that sarcophagus, for no more than one minute at a time to avoid the deadly doses of radiation, and even that way, they all suffered horrific consequences. All of those who were there to contain the disaster gave their lives to prevent a much more dramatic outcome, one that might have rendered most of Europe inhabitable. Some of them knew what they were in for, other were sent by their superiors unaware of the great risk they were running, but without them, the tragedy would have been much bigger. From the first firefighters on the site, to the miners who dug a tunnel under the reactor to pour concrete and stop the melting uranium bars from reaching the water below and exploding, from the people who got on the roof of the number three reactor to clean the highly radioactive pieces of graphite with their own hands to the helicopter pilots who flew directly above the radioactive blaze to drop tons and tons of sand and then lead to try and stop the fire. From the people who walked as close as possible to the core of the reactor to get readings to the workers who built the sarcophagus, they are all unsung heroes who saved hundreds of millions of lives and have now been forgotten, left to suffer the terrible consequences their bodies bear for the rest of their lives alone.
Near the original sarcophagus that covered reactor number three, a French company were busy at work , building a colossal structure – a new sarcophagus that will cover the old one and ensure safety for a hundred years. Its dimensions are hard to appreciate on the pictures, but the red boxes near the top are shipping containers, which gives an idea of the size.
And it still has to grow to be twice as tall and twice as long. It should have been built about ten years ago, as the old one has long exceeded its useful life, but there were no funds for it. It will be finished in 2015. We were told there that we could only take pictures of the reactor and the new sarcophagus, as there were military buildings in the area and we were not allowed to photograph them.
In a way, I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to take this tour now, as these visits might have their days counted, at least as they are now. In three years the number three reactor would no longer be visible, buried under its new cover, and the city of Prypyat will have crumbled down and be claimed back by nature. The bus dropped us at what was the main entrance to the city where 50,000 people had lived here at its heyday, all of which were evacuated in two days without being able to take more than a couple of suitcases with them. They were never allowed back to their homes.
Today, it was hard to recognize it as an avenue. Trees and bushes had grown wild on both sides, reducing it to little more than a dirt road across a forest. The buildings have been abandoned ever since the disaster, so most of them have leaking roofs and are in danger of collapsing at any moment.
The bus dropped us off at the main square and we started walking into the city, careful not to touch the plants. We went around some of the main buildings at the square and found the amusement park, one of the most unsettling and infamous sights in the city, the ferris wheel still standing, frozen in time.
From there we went across what looked like a forest until the guide stopped in the middle of thick vegetation and announced that we were standing in the football field in the city’s stadium. Coming out of the trees we found the stands, and that was one of the two buildings we were allowed into.
The other one was the sports center, with its basketball court and empty swimming pool. It all made for a fascinating visit.
The bus met us again on another avenue almost turned to a trail and took us out of the exclusion zone and to the canteen in the town where present day workers live. We went through a comprehensive anti-radiation cleansing process consisting on washing our hand with an old chunk of soap and then sat down to enjoy a soviet-style meal.
After eating, we stopped at the main checkpoint and were made to walk through a radiation check machine that looked like the kind of thing you would expect to see in a cold war movie, Then we were let go, clean as a whistle.
On the way there in the morning, there had been an tense silence in the bus, with very little conversation, everybody full of expectation at what they were about to see. On the way back, tension broke, and there was light conversation and jokes. A Dutch teacher who was sitting behind me said that his wife was going to make him throw away all his clothes as soon as he got back to the hotel, and I met an American guy who worked for the CDC who had hundreds of anecdotes to tell about all the places he had been stationed at.
Back in Kiev, Luda was waiting for me to show me around the city a bit, as I still had a few hours left. She had brought along a friend who also spoke English, and we went for a bit of sightseeing before heading back home to pack my stuff for the next morning.
Kiev is an enormous city, an urban sprawl of over 3 million people, far bigger than I had imagined, and it was very obvious that I was missing so many things. I made up my mind to come back and visit it in the future.