23 August 2012
Around Eastern Europe on a Folder
The ride was completely unsupported and I was self sufficient with 1 pannier of 15-20 Kg for the entire 2 months. Accomodation was at hotels, and guest houses and warmshowers cyclists and geological associates.
These comments are from the emails sent along the way.
I used a home made rear pannier rack as this bike frame does not accomodate the Pacific Cycles rack. Frame serial # P5275180. For this tour I changed the crankset to a compact to give slightly lower gearing for climbing the alpine passes.
Despite the loaded touring I had relatively little bike trouble and no tyre trouble on this tour. Although I rode on paved roads for almost the entire journey, I had to deal with wet weather and road grit and this gave rise to sticky gearshift cables and loss of grease from the wheel bearings. And I had no broken spoke problems at all. The only real problem was the breaking of my rather flimsy home-made pannier rack - but that was fixed with a zip-tie!
Darwin to Switzerland
Yes, you all knew that the cycling fever would not leave me alone and the only question was "where next, and when". The time is now, and the location is eastern europe, Zurich to Budapest and back!
Just as i thought i was completely prepared, my mini-laptop computer decided the letter S was unnecessary. It had worked fine the previous week, but now i had to panic and dismantle the keyboard to try and fix it on the morning of my departure. And that attempt failed. So i remapped the s key to the cap-lock key - which i never need. Now i have to remember when i type that the s key has moved to the left!! so dont be surprised if my "pelling look" weird. This was beginning to look like a bad day to urvive - i mean SSSSurvive. !!!
Despite this setback, on monday, stage 1 started with my ride to Darwin airport and another fold and bag the bike exercise, which amused several bystanders. Checkin went ok as the whole bike and luggage was just 21 Kg and inside even the stingy Jetstar limit of 23 Kg. I did cheat a bit and put my computer and GPS in my hand baggage! In Singapore I had to reclaim my baggage and recheck it on my next flights to Zurich via Dubai and this also went smoothly and off i went to Dubai for a 4 hour stopover before my connection to Zurich. Dubai was a surprise. At 5 am when i arrived , it was already a beehive. Although it is a large airport, it has become a major connection hub like Singapore and it was full of people just waiting for their next flight and spare seats were as scarce as the letter ess on my broken keyboard! I must have been flying on cheap airlines too much lately as it was nice to actually get a blanket and some food on Emirates, even though I was, as usual, flying in cattle class, and both flights were completely full. These arabs are taking a serious hold on airline travel!
As we flew toward europe I watched our track on the on-board computer, and was curious that we flew up the gulf and over Baghdad to Turkey, then made a zig north before continuing to Zurich. This was not the shortest air route and I wonder if this was done to avoid flying in Iranian airspace! Perhaps even the arabs and Iranians are not mutual friends!
Just 2 hours after landing in Zurich early on tuesday afternoon, I had cleared the airport formalities, changed clothes to become a red-and yellow cyclist and reassembled my folding Reach bike and was getting lost on the way out of the airport while trying to convince my brain that riding on the opposite side of the road was now acceptable! In fact essential!
Navigating the maze of roads was a problem and I became lost several times, but it did not really matter as it was pleasant discovering all the new scenery. By 5 pm I had not traveled very far, because I had been riding in circles, but there were dark clouds and some rain about, so i found a cosy hotel for the night and some sorely needed sleep! This hotel was right beside the railway track and I was concerned the noise from the trains would be unpleasant. But I found that I had to stop talking to hear the sound of a train going by. A very different experience to my hotel adjacent to a railway line in Nevada, where I had to stop talking so I could hold my teeth in place while the train thundered by! There really is a difference to the way things are done in Switzerland.
Next morning was sunny and cool, just right for cycling as I headed off for the nearest mountains. No point coming to Switzerland to ride flat roads. I found 3 or 4 passes to cross as I cycled east. Despite my slow progress uphill, I soon found myself about 100 Km away and nearing the edge of Switzerland already! Despite deliberate stops for coffee and to look in some bike shops, by 3pm I had crossed the Rhine river and was entering Austria, where the border guard was uninterested in a lone cyclist and just waved me through. In just one day of cycling I had completely run out of country into the neighbouring one! Europe is such a compact place!
In Feldkirch there was a festival, so the main hotels were full. I decided to look for a "gasthaus" in the suburbs away from the main tourist route. This worked, but they really dont speak much english in such places and I am now learning German fast! Next morning was overcast, but while I ate breakfast (that is fruhstuck,I mean), it started to rain gently. It was not too cold, so i followed a very twisty bike path to a town some 30 Km away at the base of the mountain pass I had to cross. (Cars go through a 14 Km tunnel here, but bikes must use the old road over the pass.) After getting lost again, I decided it was a bad idea to cross the pass in such weather and have retreated to a hotel to await either better weather or more courage - or both!
So wish me warm weather for western Austria - I am going to need it!
After the rain on my first day in Austria, I was itching to get cycling despite the weather still being grim. Although it was not actually raining when i started, i had to cross the Alpenberg pass which rises to 1800m high. It was certainly going to be cold and miserable up there, but I ignored such thoughts as i departed. It was a long slow climb and above 1400m I was in the clouds and could see nothing more than 20m away. Perhaps a small mercy to prevent me seeing just how much mountain lay ahead of me!
But the scary part was actually the descent! I was freezing and my fingers could barely grip the brakes. The road was wet and the hairpin bends were extreme - i needed all the braking I could manage to avoid getting some involuntary flying lessons. And the wind and damp made me very cold at these speeds. Some 5 Km down there was a ski village so i stopped for lunch to try and warm up. But that did not work and the only solution was to start riding hard to generate some body heat as I screamed down the rest of the descent.
The upside to all this is that Austria is actually a country of long river valleys. Once you cross a pass, you go downstream for the next many Km. So i had 2 days going east down the river Inn, before it turned north, forcing me to cross another mountain pass into different river valley. All this helps with the navigation as you merely follow the river and railway line and valley. There are few alternative roads to deal with!
I followed the Inn valley for over a day before it turned north and it was time for me to climb some more passes to change to the Salz valley. There was an exhibition of old farm machinery at a village on the first pass and as I climbed I felt satisfied as I passed some old 1 cylinder tractors struggling up the pass even more than me! But around the next bend there was a very steep pinch and the chugging tractors passed me! But not for long as I caught up and passed them again as the gradient eased! Then it was on and up over the Pass Thurn - an easy (???) one at just 1300m. This day was warm and dry and it was fun screaming down the descent, slowed only by the camper vans ahead of me!
Now each day I would climb a pass and cross to the next valley south, first to the Enns and now the Mur valleys. Life is just a mountain pass or two and another river valley!
After 3 days in Austria I began to wonder if i was making enough progress to reach Budapest on time. But i have had 2 dry days and covered enough mountains and valleys that my schedule seems Ok, barring yet more rain! I plan to avoid Vienna- it would be a nightmare trying to navigate. I can get lost trying to traverse even small towns, though in my defence I should add that all towns are full of bendy twisty roads built on hilltops and navigation is an artform here!
You see lots of cyclists here, but most are on heavy utility bikes as they are used regularly for travel around the villages. And there are lot of bike paths, usually well sign-posted. I have used these paths a bit, but they zig and zag a lot and progress can be slow, so i usually return to the roads. Although the roads have no shoulder, almost all traffic is courteous and gives me a lot of clearance. Or is that just because of my bright red and yellow clothing and fluorescent yellow socks - probably enough to dazzle even the sleepiest truck driver!
OK folks, time for some rest- I forsee yet more mountain passes in my tomorrow!
Eastern Austria and Budapest
Although i had crossed many mountain passes in Austria, I was still only half way across the country as Austria is far wider (E-W) than it is in the N-S direction. But the weather was kind and dry and even the mountain passes were enjoyable and the views from the top were impressive. As I traveled relentlessly east, I noticed that the valleys became wider with less rugged mountains on either side. The alpine mountains were gradually morphing into rolling hills before disappearing completely. The last major pass was "small" and only 1000m high, so it should have been easy, but I found it harder than expected. Was i becoming tired of mountains? Maybe I just needed to eat more pasta for fuel, and less apple strudel!
Now I had reached the eastern border of Austria with hungary where I expected english to be less understood than in Austria. Not to mention the fact that I could not pronounce the strange names of hungarian towns. Some distance before the border, a sport cyclist on an impressive cervello bike passed me, so i tailed him across the unattended border post. How strange that the formerly strongly enforced border with eastern europe was now completely irrelevant. Because I had followed the other cyclist, I had now arrived in a town I had not intended on visiting. But why should that matter? The sun was out, the cycling was sweet and the breeze gentle so i just pointed myself east and enjoyed the vast open cornfields of hungary.
Hungarian maps have serious problem to deal with because Hungarian towns all seem to have names at least 10 syllables long! Consequently, the names dont actually fit on the map and nor could I memorise them. The villages were a strange mixture of dilapidated and new houses, showing signs of the stagnation during communist times. At the town I stopped at for the night, there were signs mentioning a tourist information centre, which I decided to visit! This was very difficult to find, as if you were meant to know that information existed, but you were not actually allowed to make use of it! When I did find the poorly signed hidden doorway to the information centre, I was
the only "customer" and was greeted by an authoritarian guy who seemed annoyed that i had interrupted his sleep. And asking a question was obviously unwelcome! The remnants of communism seem to live on, and I left quickly before I was classified as a dissident.
I was now within 1 day from Budapest, but well ahead of schedule, so i decided to detour to the renowned lake Balaton in southern hungary.
This is a favourite destination for cyclists as there is a cycle path right around its 150Km perimeter. But I found the path annoying as it was crowded with pedestrians and often in disrepair, so i travelled mostly on the adjacent highway, despite the presence of strange signs which i suspected were to advise that cyclists were not permitted on these roads. Never mind that there was no reasonable alternative! Late in the afternoon as I began looking for a place to stay the night I realised I had made a big mistake by coming here. It was summer and this entire area was the hungarian equivalent of a beach resort. Everyone was here for their holiday! It took many attempts before I found some available accommodation in a hotel which had been a communist era holiday resort for railway employees. It was quite acceptable, but the room had a distinctively "retro" style with exposed plumbing and tired furniture.
I was now just 150Km from Budapest and this would be the last day of my trek. As i neared Budapest the traffic became heavier and I was unable to find a quiet side route through the industrial outer suburbs. Eventually I reached the university, but then I had to find my pre-arranged apartment which was some 4 Km away. And I had forgotten to print a map of how to find the apartment! Fortunately, I came across a bike shop and the owner used google to show me a map to my destination which was 3 blocks away.
After 10 days and 1200Km I now have a day to get organized for my conference tour to Romania - this time by bus. I am not sure how I will manage to sit still on a bus for 5 days after this adventure!
At the Conference - Budapest and Romania
Now before you all think that I have been defeated and resorted to bus travel, I should explain that I have now commenced my geology conference and the first part was a geological visit to Romania- hence my travel with a group of geologists by bus. I did have a day to ride around Budapest before my departure and it is an exotic old town but with too many tourists and a big muddy river - the danube. And too much traffic, so it is not a bicycle friendly city! Cities are just - well, boring cities!
Our bus trip east was going well until we reached the Romanian border, where the immigration officers took ages to process our small group of 20 people. But we were a diverse group with people from Columbia, USA, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Italy, Australia and Iran! It was the Iranian student that the Romanians were unsure of, even though he had a valid visa and was currently doing a research project in Austria. After a very long delay we were allowed into Romania, but this did destroy our schedule for the day! But noone seemed to care as we relaxed in the fabled Transylvanian mountains.
Next day we found lots of nice rocks to collect as we traveled deeper into the scary lands of dracula - which were actually quite pleasant and scenic - with nice rocks too! We visited several mines which were operating in Roman times and earlier, and searched (unsuccessfully) for gold that the romans had left behind. We also discovered that Romanians tend to live on pork and tomatoes. Although the tomatoes were nice, having pork every meal for several days was not appreciated by any of us! Least of all the Iranian muslim, but neither by me! Sometimes life as a vegetarian is a good thing!
After 3 days enjoying the rocks, we headed back to Budapest, but once again we had a shock awaiting us at the border! No, not the Iranian this time - now it was caused by the Columbian! He had not realized that Hungary is the edge of europe and going to Romania meant he had departed from europe. And his visa was only for a single entry to europe, so he could not return to Hungary without a new visa! After a very long 2 hour wait we had no option but to leave him behind in the transylvanian forests as food for Dracula while the rest of us returned to Europe and Budapest, though it was 10pm when we finally arrived at the university!
There was one free day before the conference sessions began, so of course I went for a bike ride to nowhere - well, nowhere that I can spell or pronounce at least, just to unwind my leg muscles after too much bus travel.
Now I have to pretend I am a normal pedestrian for a week during the conference, which sure is difficult. However, I am already planning the next cycling adventure to Slovakia, the Czech republic and germany to visit some more mountains with interesting rocks to see and collect. I sure hope I have my visas all correct or I too may end up stranded as vampire food in the zombie land between 2 border posts!
I asked the Iranian student about the strange airline route I had observed as we flew north from Dubai and he explained that the United Arab Emirates (Dubai) are in dispute with Iran about the ownership of a barren sand island between these two countries in the Persian Gulf. So Emirates airlines has to avoid flying in Iranian airspace, hence the unusual bend in the route.
After a week on bus tours and another week at the conference, it was time to get back to some serious cycling again. During the conference the weather was just great - sunny and warm. At lunchtimes, I sat at some tables in the sun to keep warm, but no-one else sat in the sunshine. I just did not understand - until a local person explained to me that it was a terrible heat wave and they were all melting in the shade! While I was only just managing to stay comfortably warm in the sunshine! I was rather nervous during my conference talk- but i don't think it mattered as by day 4 of the conference most of the audience was suffering from scientific overload and were no longer paying attention to the talks! By monday morning, however, the weather had changed and it was now completely overcast and rather cool, although dry as i departed north along the Danube towards Slovakia. Getting out of Budapest during morning traffic was quite stressful as i tried to find a low traffic route to the Danube bike path. Following it would then be easy and safe. HAH! not so. The path exists in many places, but is discontinuous and takes unusual twists and turns. I often lost it and used the roads until i found the path again. By 10Km out of Budapest it had turned into a goat track (and a bad one at that!) and i was traveling very slowly, so i changed back to using the road. Bike paths don't work as they just don't connect up properly like the road system does! After 50Km I found a small store to buy a coffee and cake. But the owner was annoyed at my inability to speak hungarian and understand him as i tried to order by pointing at things. He became more and more agitated and launched into a long tirade in hungarian that i could not understand, but his attitude was clear in that he despised tourists, so i just rode off to find a less aggressive store owner who was happy to accept my money! I don't blame him for not understanding english - he is in his country. But he was very intolerant of my inability to speak his language. He was a (bad) exception as most people tolerated my language inability and were helpful and even excited to meet a foreigner.
Later, as i rode into Slovakia, a motorist who passed me slowed and his passenger tried to talk to me. Despite no common language, he was excited to see a foreign cyclist and his smiles and cheers were a pleasant contrast to usual motorist attitudes. But sadly, an hour later a passing motorist displayed the all too common arrogant road rage for having been slowed down behind me for 5 seconds. Amazing how such a tiny delay causes such disproportionate aggravation in motorists. By 4pm I was wet enough that I decided to stop at the next town, but there was no accommodation in that small town, so i continued for another 15 Km before finding refuge from the gently weeping clouds.
Although I did find some nice roads to ride through the hilly volcanic terrain the next morning, it was still wet so again i am hiding from the crying sky. Could be a few more days of this to come, sadly, so i eagerly await more sunshine!
Slovakia is a curious place. It can be up to date, but off the main routes, it still shows many signs of its socialist past. And english is not widely understood as tourism has not taken hold here.
In order to avoid the rain, I stayed south of the main Carpathian mountains for several days. I rode a very circuitous route, but i did not care as i had no destination and I was enjoying exploring the countryside and villages. Even getting lost was not an issue and i actually went right down south back to the Hungarian border before circling back north again. Most of the villages I saw were quite monotonous with identical plain houses and were very depressing. And the people were often uninterested, even afraid to wave or greet a cyclist. Many villages had loudspeaker systems installed all along the streets, doubtless to keep residents up-to-date with the latest "ideas" - or as a westerner would say, propoganda. Some villages still use these speaker systems which you can hear over a Km away. It seems that certain fortunate people (dissidents??) had a speaker pointing right at their house to make sure they received the "message of the day". And in the fields i could still see watchtowers used to make sure all the communal workers kept working. As a brash westerner, this looked to me like some sort of prison management system. I think I understand why many people tried to leave the eastern block as even now there remain indications of a regimentation that I have never known in Australia. But I have met people who dislike the changes and would prefer to return to their socialist guaranteed life. Capitalism and the free market system are not perfect either!
After a short day riding in circles, the wet weather crushed my desire to ride and I found a rather large town full of enormous 8 story high apartment blocks. But nothing seemed to happen here - it was a very nothing town. After 2 circuits I found one reasonable restaurant and crept inside for warmth and food. There was no menu- so i asked for "menu". That seemed to be understood- but suddenly soup arrived. Oh - this was a system I had seen in Spain - there is a set menu each day, which I had just accidentally ordered! Never mind, it was actually quite a nice 3 course meal - for 2.5 euro - about A$3.50. I was amazed - and very well fed.
The rain eased next day as I headed north discovering some more serious terrain on secondary roads. My overnight stop was in a large town, but it was curiously quiet. It was not until the following day that I worked out it had been a public holiday - no wonder everything had been closed all day! Next morning, after a quick look at an old castle (boring - they are just castles) I traveled east to deliberately find some mountains, and i slowly climbed and climbed to a ski resort area. There was only one town where I could stay after this and although it was quite large with many of the now familiar, identical apartment blocks, there was just one hotel in the town. It was cheap - just 13 euros- plus 2 more euros to store my bike safely inside! And it was very secure - the fire escape door was carefully locked to prevent intrusion! But I must have been the first foreign tourist this town had ever seen. This town had nothing interesting and the only occupation seemed to be wheeling baby carriages around- and lots of them too!
The reason I stayed in this town was that the next ride was a serious challenge and would require a full day to complete. There were 9 river crossings next day, meaning 10 ridges between the rivers - all of them steep and some quite long also. I was deliberately riding across the mountain range face, rather than following rivers. Only a crazy masochist would plan such a route - and it was just great as the sun even shone for much of the day. By mid afternoon I had found a nature park to ride through and decided to visit a town that was near my destination but not on my map - surely it must be connected to my destination. The road kept going up, which surprised me, but I continued to yet another drab village. Then the road became very narrow, which concerned me, but it was still well paved. After reaching the crest, the road dropped very steeply - there was no way I was going back up that gradient! Then it suddenly terminated at a walking trailhead! This could be bad! But one trail sign mentioned the town I was trying to reach, and the walking trail was paved. And i do mean "was" - past tense - as only 20% of the paving remained. Although there was a sign prohibiting bicycles, it was too late for that now; I had no acceptable way back!
This trail was actually a track down a very narrow and rugged gorge in the limestone host rocks. I had to carry the bike in places, but it was a really nice gorge trail that I had found by accident and was a great climax to the day's ride. After 2 Km I was back on a proper road and stopped nearby at an almost new and very comfortable pension just before the rain started. What a great day - everyone should be so lucky to experience such a ride. Well, every masochist at least!
After more mountain passes and pleasant, but very cool riding, I am nearing the Polish border, but a cold and strong northerly wind defeated me today and I am waiting again for better weather tomorrow morning. The afternoons tend to be cloudy and wet, so i will cross the last mountain pass (1000m high) to Poland in the morning.
In several locations I noticed settlements of Roma people (gypsies) who have taken over disused buildings. Their plight was highlighted by recent events in France, from where they are being deported back to Romaina- which is not their country of origin either! These stateless people are much despised, but they did not threaten me and I sympathise with the plight of these people without a country or citizenship. Is deporting them to a less developed country (Romania) a solution - or the start of a new problem?
One day during my ride I stopped for a rest on a hillside, and 3 young boys on mountain bikes came by. Initially they were apprehensive of me, but soon they realized I only spoke english and we exchanged names and my country of origin - explained as the kangaroo country - australia meant nothing to them! We parted as new friends - we had been able to remove the cultural barrier between us by our shared cycling interests. It is a pity that all cultural barriers cannot be removed as easily!
From Slovakia to Poland
After the cold north wind defeated me in northern Slovakia, the next morning I climbed over the high pass and crossed into Poland. My entry was near a hydro power dam and an old castle and was now a tourist destination. The area was pleasant, the traffic light and Poland was looking great! But after 20 Km I was dealing with poorly maintained, narrow roads with much heavy truck traffic and my initial favourable impression with poland had dimmed considerably. At the first major town, Nowy Targ, I tried to find coffee. I had to learn a new word- it was now Kawa, but I still had trouble finding a nice coffee and cake stop. After 3 circuits of the town and a stop for lunch, I decided to head north, partly because I had not seen any hotels here either. How was i going to survive in a country without Kawa and hotels? Not to mention cookies!
The road north to Krakow was an extremely busy highway, with no alternative route and was quite unpleasant. As I left there was a young sport cyclist also heading North, and I followed him - hoping for safety in numbers! At a hilltop stop we introduced ourselves and decided to ride together, despite our language incompatibilities. Although he was faster up the hills, I was faster downhill and as the area was very hilly, we stayed together for some 40 Km. He then parted and went to visit a friend - perhaps a polite way of leaving me behind. But that was fine by me as it was now after 4pm and some 120 Km for me today and dark clouds were ahead. In the next village there was a "Motel" - a word I finally could understand, so i pulled in there. It looked rather derelict, but it was operational and I stayed there to avoid the grim weather ahead.
Next day was better as i completed my ride to Krakow by late morning. I used very minor local roads to avoid the traffic on the only other road, so I got lost a few times and discovered places I had not intended - but all interesting. The whole area was built up with neat houses on small plots of land. All very "western-world", and many houses were quite recently built.
Krakow is one of the more famous medieval cities in europe. Once I got through the mess of traffic and suburbs, the ancient city core was well restored and full of tourists. I enjoyed riding around the pedestrian precinct for several hours, and even found a decent cup of Kawa. But cities are not why I am here, so I decided that 4 hours was enough and was ready to move on again next day.
As I travelled west, again deliberately using very minor village roads, I noticed many more newly built neat houses for very many Km around Krakow. There is a new affluence in Poland and they like a semi-rural house setting just as most of us Australians do! Later that day I had my first chance to chat with another touring cyclist - a Kiwi! It is a long way to go to Poland to meet one of your Pacific neighbours!
In the late afternoon I reached a small town and contemplated stopping there. It had been an industrial town and was rather drab, so I rode on 20Km more in the hope of finding an interesting town to stop at. I was concerned that the next day may be wet and I might have to stay put, which would be better in an interesting town.
Now I am here in Pszczyna, (no, I cannot pronounce that either) and it is raining so I will stay here today.
I have heard there is a bike festival in eastern Czech republic this weekend, just 2 days ride from here, so I plan to visit the event on my way west to the famous Erzgebirge mountains in western Czech. Although the festival is for recumbent bikes and my bike does not qualify for that, maybe they will accept a lost aussie cyclist who is still trying to find a decent cup of kawa! And a blueberry muffin or a fruit bun would sure help too!
From Poland to Czechia
After the enforced stop for a day due to rain, I was glad of a bright sunny morning and keen to reach the meeting of recumbent cyclists in SE Czechia. I had planned a route which used very minor roads to try and avoid the traffic on main roads in Poland. This started off OK and I found the roads I wanted even though there were no road signs on them. But before long i had missed a turn and was unsure just where I was. But it did not matter- the sun was shining and I was headed south and west, which had to be about right. And I ended up more or less on course - just having to cross a busy town that I was hoping to avoid. Soon I had crossed the border from Poland into Czechia, and I had to find a place to change my polish money into Czech krowns.
I had some problems with navigation because when you are near a freeway, as i was, all the road signs assume you want to travel on it. But I needed to find the older, secondary roads to the same destination. On one occasion I rode on the freeway for 8 Km as i could not find the junction I needed any other way! It was not pleasant riding on the freeway as there was no shoulder and fast, though not much traffic, fortunately.
Eventually I saw some strange signs which seemed to indicate that the road ahead was closed and there was a detour. But I was not exactly sure what all the signs were trying to tell me in Czech! I ignored them and for some distance had a nice quiet road all to myself, until I reached a river crossing where they had removed the bridge while they built a new one. Disaster? No, they had installed a pedestrian bridge which was just perfect for a cyclist. No detour necessary for bicycles!
There were numerous roadside radar speed measurement signs along all the roads to keep motorists aware or their speed. As I was having fun descending one long, steep hill, a radar sign flashed furiously at me - 60 .. 60 .. 60! I think it wanted to issue me an infringement ticket! And as the sun kept shining all day I kept having fun and rode 190 Km before deciding to quit for the day just 50Km before the location of the cyclist meeting. Better to quit while feeling OK than to push on the last 50Km and spoil the day by becoming exhausted!
Next day I headed for the location where the cyclists would be having lunch. But a big town in between was having its annual pageant and all the roads were closed and even the sidewalks were jammed with onlookers! I asked some policemen if they spoke english to see if i could bypass the crowds, but their second language was german and they could not understand me!
Once I found the route the other cyclists were riding, I tied an empty paper coffee cup that I had brought with me, to the end of my bike pump, to make an equivalent of the "carrot on a stick" seen in donkey jokes. Near the crest of a steep hill, i dangled this in front of the riders and ran alongside shouting "allez, faster, Kawa". I was surprised to find that only about half the riders found this amusing and smiled, while the rest seemed to think having fun was a crime and some were seriously annoyed by this. Later at the camp, I saw more of the same dour behaviour and it seems the STASI is still present here in spirit and fun is quite illegal!
I did make friends with a number of people in the group, but they were Serbian, Slovenian, Dutch, German and Hungarian-Polish - none of them were Czech, despite Czechs comprising 80% of the attendees! And throughout Czechia, other cyclists do not respond when you greet them, and kids all cringe if you wave and say hello. There is something wrong with the czech psyche - is this a result of past socialist suppression???
Because I had arrived late, the meeting was already ending next morning so I said farewell to many new cycling friends and rode west into the sunshine, ending up at Brno, a largish town. The problem with large towns is finding your way out of them and this happened next day as i took over an hour to find the route I needed. I did find an english speaking policeman, but despite being less than 1 Km from the correct road , he did not know the area and could not help me!
After another pleasant though cooler day, i encoutered another detour for a road closure, which i again ignored. This was for a railway crossing reconstruction and about 10 workers were surprised when I arrived, picked up my bike and carried it though their midst, then waved goodbye and rode on. Detours are for motorists - not for me!
Now it has again become cold and wet this afternoon so I have found a resort hotel on a lake-front in which to shelter. I am near Prague and some 180 Km from my next destination, the fabled (to geologists at least) Erzgebirge - Ore Mountains - on the Czech-german border. But the weather forecast is grim, all I can do is hope for dryness!
Beware of fun - the STASI are still watching!!!!!!!
Across Czechia to germany and south to the Swiss border
After the rain escape, the next day was not really less wet, unfortunately, but I had a schedule to meet Petr in Sokolov which was still 200 Km away! I hate schedules when I am cycling as they force you to ride in polar-bear weather. This time I did not escape the afternoon rain as my attempt to find accommodation in a golf resort hotel failed because it was full! Apparently golfers play in the rain! But 10 Km further on there was a surprisingly good hotel in a tiny nowhere town which was just barely big enough to warrant a name. Then I had a fierce and cold headwind next day as I tried to ride the last 100 Km in half a day - which is not possible for me even in the sunshine! This was the equivalent of cycling in a frozen version of hell! But after a grueling morning there was a 10Km decent on a smooth new road in a valley sheltered from the wind. It was amazing how quickly I forgot the morning pain while I enjoyed this exhilarating section! Now this was cycling in paradise! I never realized hell and paradise were so close together!
I was too late to meet Petr that day, but we arranged a meeting for next day. Petr was most helpful and we drove out to 3 different old mining areas and i collected some 20 samples to study. For those of you who doubted my geological intentions on this journey, I now have the greisen samples to reassure you! So now you will have to look up the definition of a greisen - and you will see that it was first described here in these mountains, the mecca of tin greisens!
On Saturday morning Petr and I parted as I headed up over the mountain range from Czechia into Germany. But there was a strange noise coming from the bike, which I soon found was because there was no grease in my rear wheel bearings. The rain and wet conditions on many days of my tour had washed out the grease. This is not a roadside repair task, so i dripped oil into the bearings to allow me to ride until monday came around and I could organize a repair!
Germany was really different. Although I had expected this, it was a big change with better roads, neat houses and villages everywhere,occasional bike paths and many sport cyclists out riding. And the cyclists were friendly and waved in acknowledgment as you passed by. While temporarily lost and reading my map in a small village, 2 young girls approached me to offer help - which they even did in english!
As I rode north there were few alternatives to a main highway, but the traffic was light and courteous. However, this area was very hilly and most gradients were surprisingly steep and slow, so i had to be content with a scenic ride rather than a fast one to Freiberg, my next geological stop to meet Peter and Astrid - and, hopefully, a bicycle repairman!
On my journey across Czechia, I had seen many very large farms of solar electric power panels. This seemed odd to me because Czechia has very little sun energy at best - certainly I had less than 10% sunshine time during my 8 days in Czechia - even in late summer! But also odd because all of the solar panel farms used static panel mountings. This is very inefficient and you really need to make the panels track the sun across the sky. Even sunflowers are smart enough to do that - but not the Czechs! When i encountered a solar farm in Germany I was relieved to note that the panels were mounted on sun-tracking, rotating platforms - as they should be!
Petr, in Sokolov had explained to me that the Czech government had initiated large subsidies for solar panel installations as well as a guaranteed high price for the electricity. This has resulted in high profits for solar panel farms and many were and still are being built. But electricity prices have already risen by 20% because of this badly planned initiative which has encouraged badly designed and inefficient use of resources. How can we resolve our human mismanagement of fossil fuel resources by supplanting it with equally stupid mismanagement of solar cell production and implementation??
In Freiberg, Peter and Astrid were my very generous hosts for 2 days as I had my bike repaired, and also learned much from Peter (who works at the Sachsen geological survey) about diatremes, carbonatites and even greisens! See you disbelievers - the bicycle has taken second place to geology (breifly) !!!!
I was sad to part company with my gracious hosts and colleagues, but I still had far to travel to reach Zurich for my return flight! The first challenge was to reach a small village, Geyer, where I could sample yet more greisen. But I was trying to use secondary roads to avoid the traffic, and these are poorly signposted. In addition, my route had to pass close to a big nasty metropolis,Chemnitz, which I desperately wanted to avoid. But Chemnitz is actually a big traffic magnet and all bicycles get sucked mercilessly into it - and I was also. Eventually I escaped this traffic "black hole", but I fell short of reaching Geyer by some 10Km because of these navigational problems.
After collecting yet more rocks at Geyer, none of which were helping make my bike lighter or faster, it was time to head south and west in the remaining 5 days. But rain and bad weather was forecast for 2 of these days and I was still some 500Km from Zurich!
As I travelled south next morning I again ignored a roadworks detour and enjoyed 10 Km of traffic free road. And I waved politely to a group of workers who paid little attention to me as I rode through their busy bulldozers and diggers as they rebuilt the road! Bicycles don't need detours!
Then I saw it. An incongruous construction that nearly escaped my attention. It was a freeway bridge over a deep valley. Obviously a recent construction for the new freeway. But in this age of pre-stressed concrete and steel bridges, here was a stone arch bridge, 60 metres high with some 15 arches built using genuine Roman vintage stone construction methods! An aquaduct misplaced by 2 millenia! What logic could justify this? As I pondered this problem, some 10Km further on I found a big sign about the "unification of Europe". This location had been the east-west german border before 1989. And I noticed many subtle changes in the countryside and the next town, Hof. Ahhhh - there are still fossil remains of the former 2 germanies! The differences are small, but they still exist. And I think the stone freeway bridge is just one of these still-visible signs of the different methodologies on either side of this non-existant border.
After a great day riding in the sunshine, with yet another "cannot find the way out of big towns" interlude, I had covered 160Km and was near Nurnberg when the forecast bad weather started to happen. After several failed attempts, I eventually found a hotel room in a small village.
I had been careful to cycle a route which would give me access to a train-line, should I need an escape option. And next morning as it rained persistently, I needed such an escape option so I took a "traincut". This is a new term I have just coined, which means I took a shortcut by train! It was pointless riding in the miserable cold rain, and I needed to be far closer to Zurich than I was to meet my flight schedule. See - there is that nasty word "schedule" again! The bane of all cycling tours!
So I sit here on the shore of the Bodensee which separates Germany from Switzerland, hoping for a sunny day, but not expecting one. And waiting for a ferry ride to the next and last country of my circuitous trip around (mostly) eastern europe.
If you cannot take a traincut - at least take a shortcut!
Switzerland and the return to Darwin
Fried bananas? - that means I must be in Singapore. Delightful!
After the cold and wet day which led to my "traincut" in germany, the next morning was still damp and an attempted ride was too miserable to persevere with. But I could see sunshine in Switzerland across the lake, so I caught the ferry across Bodensee.
It was a less rainy in Switzerland, though just as cool, so I found a steep 18% gradient mountain to ride up to warm me up, which it certainly did. At least when you climb mountains there is always a great view and this was certainly the case as I looked north across Bodensee back to Germany - where it was still rainy.
I was not far from Zurich airport, but had 2 days to reach there, so I rode some circuitous loops and spent even more time in bakeries than usual, to savor the end of my eventful tour. And Remo kindly hosted me and allowed me to clean my bike thoroughly (a necessity for transport into Australia) the night before my departure.
Then it was off to Dubai for a connection to Singapore, then Darwin. My connection in Singapore required a 24 hour stopover, not a problem as I like Singapore. So upon arrival I reassembled my bike and rode downtown to my hotel. Edwin, from Austria, watched and held the bike as I reassembled it in the airport and seemed amazed when I told him my age (62). Don't all 62 year olds embark on adventures like this? Why is this unusual?
The only exit from Singapore airport is on a 6 lane freeway and cycling that for the first 4 Km was unpleasant even at 10.30pm. But then there was a quiet service road for the rest of the journey. After checking into my hotel and wheeling the bike through the lobby and into the elevator up to my room (which did not raise a comment at all) I went for a stroll to relax in the midnight warmth - something I could not have done in Europe! The street restaurants were still open and busy and I relaxed with a coffee and fried bananas for $3 - ah, life in the tropics is just right for me!
My plan to ride around the island next day was thwarted by an all day tropical rain, so I hung out in the computer mall and bought computer toys instead. Then it was time to pack up (again) and catch the 10pm flight to Darwin. My 4 am arrival in Darwin led to the usual intense quarantine inspection because I was carrying rock samples and after taking 15 mins to inspect each of the 100 rocks individually, they barely even bothered to check my bike! With yet another bike assembly, I headed home in the warm, pre-dawn light.
So thats it folks, just over 4000 Km in 32 days of cycling during 2 months. And a heap of new rocks to contemplate, and many new friends and colleagues. But for the rain, I might have completed the entire route by bike as the train journey was only for about 300Km. But I dont do bicycle punishment in the cold rain - I can change transport modes when it is appropriate, as it was!