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August 27, 2007

The Balkans

LOCATION: Belgrade, Serbia
Longitude: N:44deg.46'36.
Latitude: E: 020deg.32'21.
Kms from Istanbul: 1,033

The overall impression I have of this particular part of the world we are traveling through at the moment is that if it weren't for the occasional rusty sign in cyrillic one would be hard pressed, at least from the saddle of a bike, to distinguish it from northern France or even England: hedgerows bursting with lush, green vegetation comprised of many plants and trees I haven't seen for many years but recognize from back home - elderflower, oaks etc. And yesterday morning while breaking camp I was stung, for the first time in what seems like forever, by a stinging nettle. A wake up call to being back in Europe proper.


On a people level, crossing into the Balkans is a bit like stumbling onto a set of The Benny Hill Show: short, fat, balding men wearing wife-beater vests surrounded by scantily clad females dressed up like porn stars (the ones that don't look like Benny Hill. And the ones that do look like Benny Hill and dress like porn stars...well, let's not go there). Anyway, I'm amazed at how little care the men take in their appearance compared to the women and I'm fascinated to know why.

Merlin has been particularly influenced by this low maintenance dress strategy as can be seen here -

Merlin modeling the latest in sweat-stained Balkan Wife-Beaters

Anyway, over to Merlin now for more sensitive and sensible impressions of our journey from Edirne to Belgrade -

We are now in Belgrade about two thirds of the way to Vienna from where I joined Jason in Turkey. It now seems likely that I will say my farewells to Jason in Budapest or just short of it. We decided against taking a route up through Romania, although the "unspoilt" nature of Romania would have been appealing. Instead, we chose the more direct way through Bulgaria heading West and then, once over the mountains, South - North through Serbia.


We have been doing 100 km plus a day, trying to get in as much riding as possible at the beginning and end of each day to avoid the high temperatures. In Nis (pronounced Neesh) we were hitting 43 degrees. I have never drunk so much water in my life before - up to 10 litres a day. On the whole, we have been taking the main roads, including motorways. God bless the hard shoulder. We managed to get past the toll booths, rather I suspect in much the same way as Jason and Sher got past the checkpoints in Egypt. One chap tried to stop us on the way off the motorway and I recognised a word similar to "arrest". I stopped to reply "Ne razumen" ("I don't understand" in Serbian) and then carried on, even if we couldn't exactly make a speedy getaway.


There have been some interesting stretches off the motorway, on side roads running nearby. In the more traditional villages, there are beautifully kept yards, barns and stores. Logs have been laid in for the winter. Peppers and maize hang out to dry and goats and chickens pick and munch away at their patch. The towns and cities are in complete contrast. In Bulgaria, we bypassed hideous looking tower block towns with abandoned factories in what appeared to be thinly populated countryside. On the other hand, Sofia has a lovely centre with old buildings. The yellow bricks forming the streets are perhaps a somewhat corny metaphor for the wealth on display in the shops, showrooms and gleaming cars.


The last stretch yesterday afternoon was the hardest of all that I have done. We came off the motorway to join the Danube. We had thought we would then be hugging the river as far as Belgrade, but found that instead we had to go over a series of killer hills in the heat and with a lousy road surface. Never was a mountain bike bottom gear more welcome!

Merlin Lewis


Posted at 4:49 PM

August 20, 2007

Into the EU

LOCATION: Varbica, Bulgaria
Longitude: N:42deg.03'03.
Latitude: E: 025deg.20'16.
Kms from Istanbul: 311


I joined Jason on 17 August having flown with my bike from London to Istanbul and then caught the coach to Edirne, 300km NW of Istanbul. Edirne is tucked in the NW of Thrace, the part of Turkey in Europe right up against the Greek and Bulgarian borders. For quite some time it had been the capital of the Ottoman Empire and there are some stunning mosques. My favourite is the Old Mosque with its giant black calligraphy murals.


I met Jason at the bus terminal out of town and the years dropped away although my kid cousin was certainly more than just that now. After one and a half days of Jason zipping around and staking his pitch on "the Great Circumnavigation Debate" on the computer and me doing a complete indolent unwind between the mosques, the hotel and various tea houses we set off for "Bulgaristan". Jason went up the street, I went nowhere. The pedals spun to no avail. Dear British Airways had targeted my bike with a suitcase and had twisted a chain link. Thank God Jason had the right tool and knew how to use it (no funny ideas please). Within minutes the chain had one less link in it but it worked just fine. The local traffic warden even came over to give us some sliced melon to eat from the husk.


At 5, we set off. Not far down the road, we met the first of a line of parked lorries, mostly Bulgarian, Turkish and Moldovan. The queue went of for several kilometers, as far as the border. We were then joined by loads of spacewagons mostly, it would appear, containing Turkish "guest workers", returning to Germany, Holland or Belgium for the school term.


We passed through any number of passport checks. We even had our tyres sprayed with disinfectant twice. The second time the Bulgarians were charging a tax to the car drivers.We were now in the EU (as so many signs said) and Christendom. Immediately everything looked a lot more impoverished and tatty. We stuck on the main road heading East - West through the middle of Bulgaria.


Until today (20th) all we saw was the road itself and the parched countryside beyond. Humanity and the Bulgarian culture was out of sight. Some interesting birdlife: shrikes and turquoise backed rollers perched on wires and tumbling over fields. There was no place to eat, drink or buy provisions. We could have killed for a bottle of Bulgarian plonk (it even sounds like a Bulgarian word). Once the sun was down, we pitched our tents off the road among some young poplars. Jason cooked up a delicious mash of pasta and soup and we guzzled our water. We were joined by a host of small creatures, including a praying mantis which landed in Jason's grub.


After an hour's cycling this morning, we stopped at an ersatz Little Chef and tucked into chicken nuggets and kebabs while admiring the physiques, not insubstantial, of the locals of both genders. Outside, a man was selling cheeses the size of a drum. The world of Borat did not seem so fictitious. Now, it's early afternoon, we have cycled through temperatures in the mid 30s and Jason is sound asleep under a lime tree in what passes as a village rest area.

Merlin Lewis


Posted at 1:44 PM

August 15, 2007

Moksha arrival Europe

LOCATION: Istanbul, Turkey
Longitude: N:40deg.58'40.
Latitude: E:029deg.02'48s.
Kms from Istanbul: 0 kms


Moksha is finally at rest in the front garden of Kathleen and Robin's house in Antwerp. Following the completion of the Arabian Sea crossing earlier this year she was loaded into a 40 foot container in Djibouti and shipped to Europe ready for the final crossing of the Channel and up the River Thames to finish at Greenwich.


Her rather dilapidated appearance is on account of having had all the paint stripped from her hull before leaving Djibouti. So one of the first jobs on arriving in Oostend next month is to throw on a new coat of marine finish and re-apply 2,000 names of friends, family and supporters who have assisted the expedition in a myriad of different ways since the beginning: from donating the equivalent of $20 USD or more, to providing a bed for the night, to hosting Moksha in their front garden (thanks Kathleen and Robin)! It is thanks to these people that the expedition was able to keep moving forward, albeit at a very slow pace, for the 12 years before we finally hooked a sponsor in the form of Aberdeen Asset Management in May 2006.


There are many factors affecting the speed at which a long-haul expedition like Expedition 360 can be completed: unforeseen mishaps and accidents, anomalies in seasonal weather patterns - all which have added years to the estimate of 3-4 that we originally thought it would take. But money has always been the biggest. For those wondering why it has taken so long to complete it is worth mentioning that since Aberdeen came on board a third of the expedition has been completed in just a year and a half. The first two thirds, when we had no sponsorship, took eleven and a half years. So one could reason that if we had found a funding partner from the very beginning our original guestimate would have been about right.


This morning I ride out of Istanbul on the final leg through Europe. I meet my cousin Merlin Lewis in a few days at the border with Bulgaria. Together we'll ride through Bulgaria, Romania and Austria before he flies out of Vienna early September. The company will be welcome after being alone for so long through Africa and the Middle East.


Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Posted at 7:02 AM

August 7, 2007

African Leg Completed & Rowing the Bosphorus

LOCATION: Istanbul, Turkey
Longitude: N:40deg.58'40.
Latitude: E:029deg.02'48s.
Kms from Djibouti: 6,893 kms

Shortly after 11 o'clock yesterday morning I found my feet firmly planted back on European soil after a 13-year absence with Expedition 360. I was now standing on the western side of the Bosphorus, the legendary strip of water dividing Europe from Asia and where the great city of Istanbul, the gateway between east and west, has stood for over two millenia.


For the expedition it is especially symbolic. In addition to marking the completion of the 6,893 km leg through Africa and the Middle East from Djibouti to Istanbul, it signifies the beginning of the 16th and final leg: 3,000 kms across Europe through Bulgaria, Romania, Austria, Germany and Belgium to the circumnavigation completion at Greenwich in England. The plan is to reach Oostende in Belgium by the 23rd September, allowing at least a week to prepare Moksha for the final crossing of the Channel and passage up the River Thames.


But first - the past few days. Having a little extra time in hand I took the scenic route from Ankara to Istanbul through the rich agricultural region directly west of the capital: Beypazari to Nallihan, then gradually dropping down to sea level again at Sakarya. This non-highway route afforded me a brief but memorable glimpse into Turkish rural life: every square inch of ground is put to use growing something and there was never a problem finding food from the numerous fresh vegetable stands by the side of the road selling tomatoes, cucumbers, water melon and even hazelnuts harvested from the wild. Many of these kiosks are owned and operated by the seasonal labour force camped in makeshift tents throughout the growing area. Beautiful country, if a little harsh on the legs with all the hills to be negotiated. But after putting in so many miles on the main, at times rather boring, highway since southern Egypt, it was well worth the extra effort to go a little slower and get to smell the roses.


On the final section to Istanbul I met the first cyclist since northern Sudan! Rodrigo is Brazilian, having biked across Asia from Thailand to India, Pakistan and even Afghanistan, and finally Iran before Turkey. The stories he told of the hospitality of the Iranians especially were similar to ones I'd heard of before. I mentioned about how nice the Nubian people in northern Sudan were and we reflected how strange it was that the nicest people seemed to live in countries with the worst political leadership and international public image.


We cycled together and I think we both valued the company after so many thousands of kilometres traveling alone. Rodrigo has a twisted sense of humour which I miss tremendously, so it was good to have a few laughs, mostly at each other but also at some of the bizarre situations we'd both found ourselves in over the past 6 months. For example he has this stupid decorative wall plate that some girl from Azerbaijan gave him. It must weigh at last 10 kgs and is the ugliest thing I've seen in a long time. He complains bitterly about having carried it this far already, but he just can't bring himself to throw it off a cliff (he couldn't give it away). I guess she must be really worth it...


After sleeping in a Shell petrol station on the outskirts of Istanbul (the local mosque turfed us out of their garden when they found us about to roll out our sleeping mats), we rendezvoused the following morning with Cetin Ozturk from the Turkish Rowing Federation whom Erden from Around n Over had kindly put me in touch with.


A beautiful traditional Turkish 'kayik' was waiting for me at the water's edge, and after loading up the bike and pannier bags we pushed off across the Bosphorus - myself rowing and two support boats following. I am not a very good rower, plus the different style of the oars crossing in front of me combined with the uneven chop of the waves took quite a bit of handling. I'm sure all the guys from the Rowing Federation must have been rolling their eyes thinking what on earth one of their gorgeous boats was doing in the hands of a complete idiot. But for me it was the perfect solution to crossing a potentially tricky bit of water. Originally I was planning on swimming across and although not very far (perhaps 1km?) the current is quite strong, especially on the east (Asian) side, and the water very cold funneling out of the Black Sea. It's also a busy shipping lane with good size container vessels, oil tankers and bulk ore carriers steaming north and southwards towards the Black Sea and Mediterranean respectively, none of which would see a lone swimmer in their path or be able to stop even if they did.


On the other side Gursel Akay was waiting, another contact courtesy of Erden, who owns a local bike shop in Istanbul 'Yesil Bisiklet' (meaning literally 'Green Bicycle'). So at the time of writing I am in Gursel's back office catching up on email, writing this update and my bike is out front having a quick 6,000Km service for the final leg across Europe. So all in all I have well and truly landed on my feet here in Istanbul thanks to all these wonderful people. Arriving into a big city is often a real stresser; dealing with traffic, the noise and finding a bed, etc. But this time it has been a doddle.


A special mention also goes out to Erkan (Erden's brother) and wife Bengi who took me out for a proper feed in Ankara and who have been calling me almost daily to make sure I'm not lying face down in a ditch somewhere.


MORE IMAGES (click to enlarge)

Posted at 3:31 PM

August 2, 2007

Struggling with Officialdom

LOCATION: Ankara, Turkey
Longitude: N:39deg.45'20.
Latitude: E:032deg.48'12s.
Kms from Djibouti: 6,418 kms

While I've been pedaling there's been quite a bit of activity going on behind the scenes in the UK with a volunteer group making arrangements for the finish on October 6th. Much of the planning actually started a good four months ago: contacting the Greenwich Council and the local police to secure permission and an escort to push Moksha through the streets. Both organizations have been great to work with and very helpful. A big thanks also goes out to Lee Reynolds and Penny Snowball from the group who are spearheading much of the action here.

Nathalie Lauwerier from Belgium has also been working tirelessly to spring Moksha from the Rotterdam Port authorities. It is no exaggeration to say that this woman has been through absolute HELL, dealing with a long line of #?%!ups performed by other people every step of the way. But I am very pleased to announce that at 6 am yesterday morning Moksha was safely delivered to her friend Kathleen's house just outside Rotterdam where she'll remain until mid-September. Congratulations Nathalie and a big thanks to all of YOU who contributed to the cost of getting her there.

Most things seem to be panning out, but there are still some big holes in the picture, most notably in dealing with the authorities at Greenwich regarding the actual completion at the Royal Observatory. When Lee contacted their press office about making plans for the 6th, instead of being helpful or even enthusiastic as one might hope, they were actually quite negative about the whole idea, informing us that they'd have to 'Think about it first, and then get back to us'. That was nearly two months ago, and none of our attempts to solicit a response have since been successful.

You'd think they would see this as an opportunity to promote the historic legacy of Greenwich, highlighting their mission statement of 'Working to illustrate for everyone the importance of the sea, ships, time and the stars and their relationship with people'. Instead we're being made to feel like a nuisance they'd sooner be rid of.

And they've been totally unforthcoming with a venue in which to host a party after the completion of the circumnavigation. The cheapest we've been quoted for a room for 6 hours is 2,350 pounds sterling - their normal corporate rate. Even though we're a registered charity they've refused to give us a discount of any sort. That's almost the entire budget for the last leg of the expedition through Africa!

What is wrong with these people?!?!

I'm sure it will work out in the end. But sometimes I get so frustrated with how narrow minded the Brits can be. It's bad enough not to get any proper financial support from our own country in the 13-years it's taken to complete this expedition, but to be faced with being blocked from finishing is the last straw. It almost makes me ashamed to be British.

If this was a French, German, American or Turkish enterprise - basically any other country than the UK - it would be a different story.


Posted at 8:33 PM