Archive for December, 2011


Homeward bound

Monday, December 19th, 2011

As I sit here on the plane flying back home, it would be easy to feel a sense of failure at not having finished the trip by cycling into London, but instead I find myself reflecting on the last two years away and playing a movie of my own adventure in my head.

When I left the UK for New Zealand in September 2009, with our shiny touring bikes and pannier bags so new that they were stiff to fold, I had no idea how far I would get or what lay ahead. After the first few tough weeks, with New Zealand’s many hills and mountains, my fitness began to improve and I was spoilt by the spectacular scenery of the two islands. There were days where I was reduced to tears by the wind and the climbing, and others where the tears were joyful, emotional tears that you cry when you are overcome by the beauty of place like Lake Tekapo or the Rainbow Valley. As Chris said back then, beautiful places are often hard to get to. They are, but so rewarding too, as you stand there aware that many people may never have the chance to go there and see what you can, right at that moment.

Along the way there were many challenges and times where I wanted to give up. In Australia, the lack of research meant that cycling the east coast was a rollercoaster of hills, endlessly going up and down in the heat. In Malaysia the 45 degree heat and humidity was unbearable most of the time and I cycled with a pounding headache most days. In the Gobi, the strong, constant headwind facing us everyday, along with freak hail storms and 24 hour sand storms, meant that we cycled slowly across the monotonous empty desert and it will be a long time before I greet sand with a smile again.

Despite the hard times, I seem to have developed a skill for rose-tinting my memories, even immediately after the event. Chris will stand laughing and shaking his head when he hears me saying, “Ah it wasn’t that bad really”. I believe my strong sense of optimism and the ability to endure situations outside of my ‘normal  habitat’ have kept me going all this time. Plus as my best friend would say, “you’re bloody stubborn’. I never saw myself as a stubborn person, but being on the road for such a long time gives you chance to really get to know yourself. And she is right, I am pretty stubborn. However, despite this mental strength and determination, we all have our limits.

I believe that the human body is amazing and we are capable of far more than we realise. The days where your legs ache and you feel that you need to stop, but you push on either through lack of choice or determination and find that you can go much further than you thought. Most of the battle is mental, mind over matter and all that. Being cold however, seems to sap that mental strength and whatever mind power you might have in milder conditions seems to melt away. Once the mental battle is lost then it’s hard to continue.

I will be sad not to cycle into London as the final destination and feel that sense of euphoria. But I have already experienced many moments like that during our trip… reaching Wanaka in NZ, the place where Chris and I met 5 years earlier, reaching Sydney having cycled all the way from Melbourne, reaching Penang to sail with Chris’s Dad, reaching Chiang Mai having cycled the length of Thailand and of course reaching Ulaan Bataar after the 680km through the Gobi. So I have much to be proud of already.

But it’s not just all about me, far from it. The joy of travelling across the world by bicycle is the people you meet along the way. In a world where our news media saturates the airways with tales of war and horror and cruelty, it’s easy to lose sight of all the good in the world. In every single country we have visited, we have experienced kindness beyond politeness, friendship from strangers, help in the most unlikely situations, waves and big smiles from the people who have the least (possessions) and the overwhelming feeling you are left with is: that people are good.

There are so many stories to tell, but the one I will share now would be in Java, Indonesia when we couldn’t find anywhere to camp, it was getting dark and after 90km we were flagging. That was the night that we were taken in by a whole village. The children sat cross-legged in a semi circle watching as Chris cooked up some rice and vegetables for us. The adults gathered around the children and some of the older ladies gave a running commentary. The man who had invited us in, said to me in a quiet voice “look even the little boys are watching him cook, this is better than TV!”.  A priceless moment. The rice took ages to cook and Chris, feeling the pressure of cooking, what is Indonesia’s staple dish, Nasi Goreng, announced that this was in fact Nasi Ingris (the English version). This had everyone laughing and they seemed to get the joke, nodding their heads to show they understood. When Chris pulled out some rather tired, long green beans that had been sweating it out in our pannier bags, the women looked horrified, one came over and took them away, saying they were no good! The following morning as we packed up to go, the village came out the greet us and say goodbye and we were given bottles of water by the young lads. At the last moment, one of the ladies came over and presented Chris with some fresh green beans. It was such a lovely gesture and a memory that I will treasure forever.

Seeing the world by bike is slow, the pace matches that of the butterflies and birds, and as they flutter and swoop alongside you, there is time to take in everything around you. The earth is beautiful, for those hoping for paradise in heaven, I would say don’t rush for your heaven, you have a paradise right here, now. I’m not just talking about cliche waterfalls and orange sunsets, although they are beautiful, I mean the beauty of a colourful Chinese market, with all the fruits and vegetables you can imagine, or the delicate designs of the coral underwater, that somehow looks as if it were stenciled on by machine, or watching a pelican take flight, or the unspoilt mountains of Laos where all you can see is green and forest for as far as the horizon, in every direction, or children laughing and running and waving at you from a hillside, or watching a sea turtle have breakfast… this list is endless.

I feel privileged to have seen so much and am so humbled by this experience, and I hope I never take for granted what I have been lucky enough to see and do. I also hope I never stop reminding myself how lucky I am to be born in England. We have so much, not just material possessions or technology, but education, health, roads, schools, electricity, clean drinking water, hot water on tap, freedom…  your children don’t have to walk 10km to school, or bleed to death because the hospital has no blood, or fetch drinking water from a river or well, or risk being jailed as a student for saying something bad about the government.

If you put those difficulties aside though, I think there is much we can and should learn from Asia and other cultures. Family and community play a huge part and it’s common to see 3 or 4 generations of families living side by side, helping each other. There were times when we couldn’t tell who a toddler belonged to, because he was so happy in the arms of everyone in the village. Children being given responsibility and helping their parents, as well as having the freedom to roam and play without fear. The child riders in Naadam in Mongolia, race for 30km on their horses at the young age of 9 or 10, every year. Leisure time is valued and people find time to play as much as work. As you travel through places like Thailand it’s easy with our western mindset to think that people are lazy because they are not visible working, yet they are happy and provide for their families and spend time doing a whole range of things as well as work. I’m not sure where the belief comes from that all humans must work 40 hours a week. Places like China have a strong sense of identity and culture and the people are very proud to be Chinese. They are also very happy to have visitors and keen to show you their wonderful country, we often felt like guests of honour as we cycled through China. People of Asia seem to be open, trusting, smiling and take responsibility for their own lives. They made us feel so welcome and so happy to be there, with masses of kindness, modesty and hospitality, coupled with an immense capacity for humour. We couldn’t help wondering if we are as welcoming and helpful to visitors to our own country. I think we will be now.

Finally I have learnt how to be part of team, to listen, be more patient and work together. I had something more wonderful and unique to help me than just stubbornness and optimism. I had a partner, team mate, best friend, shoulder to cry on, all round amazing bestest person to share this experience with. Chris. Thank you for sharing your dream with me, (and for putting up with the whinging and occasional crying). It’s amazing to share so much together and to have such an opportunity. Can’t help feeling that every couple should go on some kind of adventure together, you really really get to know one another and yourself in ways that day to day life doesn’t always allow you to.

The plane is coming in to land shortly so I will close and leave you with this. I read a tweet last week from someone who’d heard a girl at work say ‘Travel is such a waste of money, just think of all the shoes you could buy!”. All I have to say to that is, I wouldn’t swap my journey and experiences for all the shoes in China, and that’s a lot of shoes!

Liz Ukraine Fastiv (600x450)

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Defeated by the Winter

Monday, December 19th, 2011

So after a lot of hard thinking both on and off the bike, I’ve decided to go home. It was a tough decision and whilst is seems strange to be defeated at the last hurdle, I didn’t want to spend the last few weeks miserable and finding myself hating it all. I also didn’t want to be a burden on Chris for that entire time, if your partner is cold and not pulling their weight, it can be both upsetting and annoying for the other person.

After too many cold days and nights, and too much time whilst cycling wondering how I could escape, I realised that I could go home. No one is making me do this and if I really don’t want to do it anymore then why do it. I knew that the terrain and the distance across Europe was achievable, after already cycling 12,000km I knew I could do it, but it was the winter and cold that was the problem. I feel I have achieve so much already and although part of me feels like I am letting everyone down, I have to look after myself and do what is right for me.

The support we have had has been amazing and overwhelming, thank you for following our journey and all the encouragement. It had been amazing to connect with so many people across the world via the web and knowing that people are thinking of you, gives you a huge boost on the road.

Chris will continue the journey alone and plans to be back in the UK in late January. Please continue supporting him as he cycles through the coldest months and keep reading the blog for his updates! He is a amazing!!

Liz

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Top 10 websites we use whilst travelling

Friday, December 16th, 2011

There are times when we wonder what it must have been like to travel 100 years ago… no mobiles, no internet, no digital camera, no cheap airlines, no email, just the occasional postcard or letter home. How different it would have been, and even in our lifetime we can can remember a time before sony cybershots, iphones and facebook. However the average traveller you meet now, has an mp3 player, a mobile, digital camera and probably a small laptop, maybe even an ipad or kindle. We stay connected more than ever and every third person seems to be writing a blog about their trip or tweeting about the local grasshopper delicacies at the night market.

Sometimes we feel as if we would love to escape all of it, ditch the mobile and laptops, disconnect and just travel without being in constant contact with the world, be free. Yet if we are honest, most of the time we are in awe of how marvelous ‘technology’ is and how amazing it is to be able to blog from the Gobi Desert or tweet from a mountain top.

So we have complied a list of the top 10 websites we use the most, as a celebration of how the interweb can be a useful tool for a travelling cyclist and how being connected can be helpful and inspiring to others.

1. XE Universal Currency Converter

Currency Knowing what your hard saved pennies will buy you is most important. This site is particularly useful when you first arrive in a new country and we often scribble down the value of 1, 10, 20, 50 and 100 or 1000 on a scrap of paper to refer to, until we get used to it. This will give you the exchange rate, although what you get on the ground may not be as good!

Top tip: rather than checking in pounds or dollars, we like to convert the currency of the previous country to the new one, for example 100 Chinese Yuan into Mongolian Tugrik, that way you can compare the local cost of food and accommodation, and make a comparison on value for money.

2. Google maps

6212839177_cd47fac6eb_mPaper maps are great, but Google maps comes into its own when you are travelling away from the main tourists hubs or when your paper map lacks detail. We use google maps on our mobile, allowing us to pinpoint our location using GPS, great for checking you are going the right way, especially in countries with few road signs!

It is also great for route planning as you can calculate distance and save routes, as well as zooming in to the satellite view to see the roads, forests and other details.

Top tip: take screen grabs of maps when you have an internet connection, that way you can view them offline when you are away from those free wifi areas!

3. WordPress

blog2 We’re sure many of you are familiar with blogging platforms like WordPress and Blogger. We use WordPress to run our blog and it allows us to share our travelling stories with friends, family, schools and anyone else who might be interested in our adventures. It’s also a way for people to comment and respond to what you are doing, which is great for us on the road as we love hearing from people.

Top tip: WordPress allows you to fully customise your blog to look like your website (if you have one), that way users have a seamless experience.

4. Lonely Planet Thorn Tree

train Most cyclists you meet will tell you that a big brick of guidebook is simply too heavy to lug round, when you have limited space and weight to worry about. Not only that but  it can be expensive if you are visiting many countries, and in the developing world the pace of change means that books quickly become out of date. However much of the information is now online and the most valuable resource we found on Lonely Planet is the forum, where other travellers post up to date, specific, first-hand information. Everything from the latest visa requirements, border crossings to new hostels and bus routes, a fantastic use of the web in our opinion.

Top tip: make sure you say which country you are from when you post about visas, as different rules apply to different passport holders.

5. Warm Showers

6504943899_70d800fa0f_m You’ve heard of Couchsurfing, well Warmshowers is like that but specifically for cycle tourers. Sometimes turning up places with your grubby bikes and loads of bags can be an issue, but with Warnshower hosts they know what it is like and will accommodate you and your bike without any fuss, in fact usually with great enthusiasm! We’ve had some wonderful times staying with Warmshower hosts and shared stories over a beer and a lovely homemade meal. So add it to your list: Warmshowers – Cyclists offering other cyclists a place to stay, all over the world.

Top tip: Email hosts well in advance. Some hosts want to show you around, take you on a tour and cook for you, others will leave you to your own devices. You either need to manage their expectations or simply go with the flow.

6. Wikitravel 

5464466984_b1eda42b93_m Like the main wikipedia site, but specifically for travel edited and written by the wiki community. This site can provide info on places that would never make it into a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide book, or places that LP will say ”there is no reason to go to this town”. As a cycle tourer you are often passing through places that tourists wouldn’t make a beeline for, yet you may be in need of a hot shower or post office. Wikitravel is great as it will give you that kind of info as well as historical or cultural information about the place. Lately we’ve found small hotels listed in tiny towns, that don’t exist elsewhere on the web.

Top tip: Consider stopping at these smaller towns and villages as they can be really welcoming and interesting. Some of our most memorable and real experiences of local culture, have been in these smaller places, with people offering us places to stay, helping us and refusing to let us pay for meals and generally being excited to see us in their town.

7. Wunderground

5689959725_a3962222ff Wunderground gives you reliable weather reports from anywhere in the world, even in far flung places like outer Mongolia.  We are all at the mercy of the weather and mostly we just get on with it, however if you are cycling out in more remote places it is worth checking the forecast. We’ve been caught in snow storms, freak hail storms, sand storms that last for hours, heat waves and gale force winds on our bikes. If you know what you are going into you can make sure you have enough food and water, not to mention mental stamina!

Top tip: The forecasts are quite detailed, so again, you may want to take a screen grab so you can look later when you are offline. Check the spelling of the place name carefully as it is quite sensitive and won’t return results for misspelt place names.

8. Spot Tracker

If you are planning on going off the beaten track in a serious way (ie no hospitals, no real roads, no mobile signal) then a GPS Spot Tracker is a gadget to consider before heading into the wilderness. You can press a button which send an email to specific addresses (ie your mum) to say you are ok and give your exact location. Or you can press an emergency SOS button if you get into big trouble which will scramble help to rescue you in an emergency. The website allows you to manage the messages sent and edit email addresses and contact details, as you travel.

6180231726_b0a354c979_mWhilst the debate may rumble on about the freedom to roam without anyone knowing where you are and having an epic adventure, for us the point of our adventure and exploration is not to cause worry and anxiety for loved ones at home. The Spot Tracker gives us and them peace of mind. And as great as our wilderness first aid skills might be, we’d like to know help would come if we had a serious injury whilst biking across a remote area.

Top tip: Your location is also plotted on a map which you can embed into your website or blog, which is great if you have people following you or schools wanting to track your journey.

9. Hostel World

5353592905_48e9b7fd5d_m Wild camping rocks, but in cities it can be tricky and let’s be honest who doesn’t want a hot shower and a soft bed after several days on the road? Finding cheap accommodation is priority for most travellers, if you want your money to last. Hostel world lists all the hostels in an area, with reviews and live availability and booking. There are also map and photos which can save time when trying to find a place.

Top tip: Booking online sometimes gives you 10% discount, free breakfast and generally seems to be cheaper than arriving in person and booking. We also use the website to help negotiate a better price in person ( ie “It’s says 50 RMB per night on hostelworld.com can you match that price?”).

10. Flickr

5353341541_6f120e8631_m Great site for organizing and uploading the gazillion photos you’ll end up taking on your travels. Not only that but you can use it as a way to back up all of the photos, so if your laptop or hard drive go missing you still have copies.

Top tip: If you’re expecting (or hoping for!) media coverage, or have sponsors, it’s allow a great way to promote them with shots of your tent in wild remote locations, as well as showcasing your own photography skills – one of our photos made it into the 2012 Hilleberg catalogue!

 

 

 

There are many more we could include in this list of course…Seat61, BBC News, Twitter to name a few more, but what are your top websites?

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In the bleak mid-winter…

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

When the first real snow arrived, we were camping in a field that also appeared to a local fly-tipping spot, with bits of old telly and wet clothing scattered about. We stopped quite late and the roads were already covered in ice. We have Schwalbe snow stud tyres on and it was a good chance to test them out. Setting up the tent was a cold affair and once inside I struggled to get warm. Chris passed me our thermometer and it said -4 degrees. It was only 5pm and so cold already. I layered up with socks, down boots, fresh t-shirt, merino wool layer and my down jacket, plus my hat and then got inside my sleeping bag. Come on clothes, make me warm please!

The next morning we woke up to the sound of snow and sleet hitting the tent. I could see that the tent already had a good layer of snow on it and unzipped the door a tiny bit to see outside. It wasn’t quite as deep as I’d expected but a cold biting wind made it quite unfriendly.

We packed away slowly, inside the tent, trying to stay as warm as we could before having to get out. The tent was sopping wet in places and frozen in others, and the poles were freezing cold too.

By the time we reached the road, my feet were already cold and the wet snow was being blown into my face, making me want to look at the floor and not where I was going.

2011-12-08 001 (600x450)

I haven’t cycled in snow much and was a little careful to begin with, but it was ok and if anything the spray from the traffic and slush was more tiresome. After only 8km we reached a small village to stock up on food.  Standing outside briefly why Chris went in, I immediately cooled down and felt my feet turning numb again. You really have to keep moving in this weather.

We set off again and started climbing up onto a very exposed area with fields and no trees or hedges. The snow and wind whipped across the sky, hitting us with it full force and it was a slog to pedal. I wanted to stay warm, so kept on going, head down and buff covering most of my face. Hmmn not sure which bit of this is meant to be fun exactly? I could feel my morale dropping and wished that my feet didn’t hurt so much.

For lunch we tried to find some shelter and sat out of the wind. It was too cold and I took my boots off to try and warm up my feet. My socks were wet!! No wonder my feet were so cold. I cut some bread and cheese and ham for us, but kept having to stop and put my hands in my pockets. I was feeling really miserable, too cold to eat really and just wanted to get going again. At this point I just wanted to stop cycling in this ridiculous weather and be somewhere warm. Fighting back tears as I ate my lunch, I felt it was just too hard and painful. I hate being this cold.

We agreed to cycle to the next town and find somewhere to stay, to get warmed up. Getting there meant going up and down lots of hills, which was fine as it got the blood pumping and my feet actually thawed out for a while. We sang Christmas carols as we went, trying to remember the words and realising that after years of performing in concerts, we both knew pretty much all the words and the descants!

As we arrived in the town, we saw a lady with her little boy, he was carrying balloons. She smiled and he looked on curiously. We pulled over on the ghi street and a man stopped to talk to us.  He was very friendly and dashed into his van to give us a big bar of dark chocolate, before driving off. We passed a petrol station that had a bed sign and went back to enquire. After a telephone conversation with the man’s daughter we managed to get a room for the night. Then a lady came with a set of keys and we had a hilarious 30 min conversation, where we both tried to understand one another despite not being able to speak each others’ language. Worked pretty well – context and props contribute a lot.  She was quite obsessed with the keys and the locking of the doors. I did my best to reassure her that we would lock everything, unplug everything and turn off the lights! The daughter turned out to be the lady with the little boys and balloons!

Relieved to be inside, I peeled off the layers of clothing and stepped into the shower,  so thankful for the heat of the water.  I must have been cold as the water felt really hot, but Chris said the water wasn’t very hot at all.

I cooked up some pasta on our stove, on the bathroom floor and we stayed inside for the rest of the evening, cosy and warm.

The next couple of days saw us going on the back roads of Ukraine, which basically means going up and down lots of hills, on very bad potholed and cobbled roads, through mud and snow and ice. If I had realised how bad that route would be, I think we would have taken the longer way on the main roads. I put my feet inside plastic bags, so they had stayed dry and this made a difference of course, but they were still cold. However it was a chance to see rural life and local people, they were pretty surprised to see us, but friendly. I can imagine in summer it would be wonderful…

As we reached the last town before joining a highway, we stopped to camp. Most of the land is cultivated and agriculture seems to be the main ‘industry’ here, so finding grass and trees to camp in was  a bit harder. Here we were by a river, trees and no farmers were growing anything so it was perfect. The moon was full and it was relatively, quite warm.

In the morning however we woke to fresh coat of snow…

2011-12-11 003 (600x450)

It was chilly and the snow was crisp and icy. I realised that most of our water had frozen solid and the tent itself was also rigid! My boots were frozen too.  I can just about cope with cycling in this weather, but what i find most challenging is everything around it – the cooking, collecting water, putting up the tent, getting changed… all out in the cold. The fuel bottle is really cold to touch, like ice cubes in the freezer. The stove is cold metal and when your fingers are cold it all seems so tricky. The ground is cold, the clothes from yesterday that you have to put back on are cold, even the pannier bags are cold. I really don’t know how arctic explorers cope! (I don’t think they put up with me moaning about the cold that’s for sure!).

2011-12-11 005 (600x450)

I nipped out the tent to go to the loo and was just standing up when I saw a man coming down the hill a few metres in front of me. He had a gun slung over his shoulder and I quickly darted down, as I hadn’t quite finished pulling my trousers up! You think you’re in the middle of nowhere and then a man appears.

Before i knew it, 3 more popped up and then more. Where were they coming from, it was first thing in the morning? They gathered on the path not far from our tent and seemed to find it all rather amusing that we were there. Chris got out and I gave a little wave. One of the men came over and invited us to join them. They were a hunting party on a sunday morning shoot. They all had shotguns and dogs. So far they had caught one hare.

2011-12-11 016 (600x450)

We were immediately given a shot of vodka each and food. They had a whole picnic of lovely food with them and lots of vodka, schnapps and grappa. They kept topping us up and we managed to tell them what we were doing and speak with them. They were very nice and made us extremely welcome.  We took some photos and one man dashed over, giving me the hare to hold and his shotgun. The hare was big and I was surprised how heavy it was.
2011-12-11 019 (600x450) After some more vodka, they wanted us both to have a go at shooting a target, just an old bucket.
2011-12-11 024 (600x338) Chris went first and hit the target. I went second and also hit it. The men all seemed very happy with this and were entertained by me reeling back, as the shotgun gives off quite a kick to your shoulder.

What a surreal morning this was turning out to be!

Eventually they were on their way to continue their hunt. We returned to the tent, both a bit wobbly and giggly after so much early morning vodka for breakfast! I didn’t feel cold though, now I can see why these fellas drink it!

We managed to do some cycling that day and made it to the highway H02, reaching the town of Zolochiv.

2011-12-11 034 (600x450)

Tomorrow we will cycle to the city of L’viv 60km away and stay there for a few days (out of the cold) and explore the many churches, museums and hopefully fit in a trip to the Theatre to see an opera or ballet! We are also looking forward to having a skype chat with Class 2 at Middleham School back home.

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Picture this

Friday, December 9th, 2011

Over the last few days we have slept in fields, forests, scrubland near a tip, a petrol station with rooms and we’ve cycled in the wind, snow, sunshine, sleet and rain. The roads have been quite bumpy and hilly too. It’s been finger numbingly cold at times and  a bit tough, but the campfires, smiles and hot showers have made it bearable! Here is a picture blog to give you an idea…

Winter wonderland campsite in the forest, with picnic tables, fireplaces and wood. Luxury!

Lunch in a roadside picnic area. Chris wanted to move in and set up camp for the day, but we still had more kms to do!

Waking up to a very cold, snowy day. Liz wrapped up ready to go, but feet already cold and numb :(

Low sun in the sky - feels as if it is ready to set again, only a few hours after rising. Chilly temperatures as we cycle.

Every village and town we pass through, no matter how small, has a spectacular church, complete with gold domes and ornate details. e think they are Russian orthodox churches, but if anyone knows otherwise, please tell us.

Crazy half hour of listening to music and dancing... Sweet dreams - Eurythmics, Surfin USA - Beach Boys (liz dancing here), In the shadows - The Rasmus, One way - Levellers, How do you do - Roxette!!

Cyclist's lunch

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