Eastern Europe

We nipped into Greece for Paul’s birthday and spent four days in the lovely town of Alexandroupoli surrounded by the sea and olive trees.

After Alexandroupoli we biked up a mountain and into Bulgaria where the scenery changed drastically.

We spent some time in Plovdiv which has amphitheatres from the second century!

On our way to Sofia we found a lovely spot to camp. We finished dinner and were about to have wine and chocolate when it started to absolutley pour. We set up the tent and took the chocolate and wine (obviously) when suddenly there was a flash of lightening and a bang of thunder so we scrambled to get out of the tent. There was no shelter except for the tiniest picnic table in the world, so I wedged myself under it while Paul just crouched low a short distance away. Thankfully we were nestled in a little gulley and not on the ridge above us where the lightening was striking! I know you’re all wondering about the wine and chocolate, but no need to worry. Without realizing, I kept the wine safe by taking it everywhere with me during the storm!

There’s a trickling waterfall in the background which you probably can’t see, but with all the rain it pretty much turned into Niagara Falls! It was terrifying and I sat, squished under the two-planked picnic table hoping we wouldn’t get struck by lightening.

We spent a couple of days in Sofia where we slept in the basement apartment of a bike shop. The door for the basement was a flap on the floor of the main floor and in the middle of the night I woke up to the lights switching on and the door/ceiling closing! It turned out to be one of the bike shop owners, but not wanting to be trapped in the basement, I stood upstairs awkwardly while he got what he needed from the shop and then spent the rest of the night waking up to every little sound, afraid of being held captive in a basement. Sofia is a nice little city though and the guys at the bike shop were really great and not trying to kidnap us!

Remember Paul’s tire which was sewn up with dental floss? He managed another 1800 km on it before having to get a new one! Below is how it looked (with new repairs using a plastic bottle and K-tape) as we JUST made it to Sofia.

Next was Serbia. I didn’t really have any expectations but the towns were really lovely with pedestrian-only town centres where everyone gathered every evening to eat and drink.

It was also supposedly the start of the Eurovelo cycling routes. Europe has a huge network of cycle paths which can take you to most corners of the continent…or so we thought. Serbia proved you can put up a sign, but it doesn’t have to be for any particular reason. We followed some Eurovelo signs but were still on busy roads with no shoulder or on something which was probably a road at one time. The cycle route into Belgrade was the only way allowed by bicycle and it was an overgrown grass path with mud!

Belgrade had a bicycle elevator onto a bridge though!

And there are sunflower fields everywhere!

Next was Hungary and the actual start of the Eurovelo paths. It’s so nice to be separated from the traffic now. We had some nice camping and spent some time in Budapest. (Neither of these are Budapest. Those pictures are on my camera.)

We spent less than 24 hours in Slovakia before heading to Austria.

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Turkey

I know I say this about everywhere but Turkey is another one of our favourite countries.

We entered from Georgia and spent a couple of weeks along the Black Sea coast.

We headed inland towards Istanbul and entered the land of optical illusions. For several days we were biking uphill, but it looked downhill! Talk about mental anguish!

It wasn’t all bad though. We spent a couple of days in the lovely town of Safranbolu.

Paul’s hair has gotten a bit long and the owner of our guesthouse decided to style it for him.

Paul also had some tire trouble on the way to Safranbolu and sewed it up with dental floss!

Did I mention we are now celebrities in Turkey?! On our way through a random little town one day, we were stopped by a journalist from the local paper and he wanted to interview us. In places where we can’t easily communicate, if someone asks if we’re married, we just say yes because it’s easy. We got the link to our newspaper article and they spun their own tale about a honeymoon cycle trip across the world! They made up a wedding date and everything! We couldn’t stop laughing and bought a copy of the paper with our article.

We made it to Istanbul via two boats and and three failed hotel booking attempts. Istanbul is a really beautiful city but I think if you have the opportunity to see it with someone from there you’ll have a better time. It’s full of people ripping you off. Even the hotels. It’s the first place we’ve ever been where hotels wouldn’t honour booking website reservations, either by charging a higher price on arrival or by cancelling the reservation all together. There are also cats everywhere begging in restaurants. One cat was so annoying he meowed as if you were trying to murder him even if you weren’t near him! This made other patrons feel bad for the cat and give us dirty looks! The cat even scratched Paul causing us to frantically look into the risk of rabies (high, even in the middle of Istanbul). Luckily after not too long Paul forgot which leg was scratched and couldn’t find the scratch on his leg.

The above picture is from inside the main bazaar in Istanbul.

These two photos are of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The ceiling is stunning!

We were in Turkey for most of Ramadan and in the evening just before everyone breaks their fast at sunset, towns are buzzing with people getting their last minute groceries to make it home in time for Iftar or making it to one of the many restaurants set up for large gatherings. At sunset, the call to prayer sounds and in some towns I think they also set off a cannon! The cannon sounds weren’t in every town so we jumped out of our skin every time we heard it! Once the call to prayer ended and the cannons settled, towns were silent and the streets emptied completely. It was amazing to see places so busy one minute and completely deserted the next.

The people in Turkey were lovely and were always insisting on tea and if you didn’t want tea, you were given coffee. On one particular day we had three tea stops in less than 1km. You could see the last place we stopped for tea each time but people really wanted to give us tea. On one particular night this lovely couple force fed us tea as a storm was rolling through. They even let us set up our tent and sleep in the tea house.

…and that’s it for Turkey!

Azerbaijan and Georgia

We usually get asked the same two questions about Azerbaijan and Georgia 1. Where the heck is that?! and 2. Why are you going there?

Well, here they are:

and here’s why:

Plus we wanted to go to Georgia but it was much cheaper to fly to Azerbaijan and it only added a few extra days.

After spending six months in Southeast Asia and India, Baku was like walking into a 5 star hotel – there were fancy buildings, no piles of burning garbage, no open sewers and soap in the bathrooms! (OK, so a one star hotel would be fine)Don’t get me wrong, we really liked our time in Asia and it made us realize how lucky we are, but it also made us appreciate places with soap, clean streets and closed sewers!

Biking through Azerbaijan was nice and flat plus the weather was really pleasant for biking. The people along the way also made sure we had at least 10 cups of tea a day. We were regularly stopped by people running onto the road inviting us for tea.

Above is our first night camping in Azerbaijan. Below is our second night view…

and below is the reality of our second night! Azerbaijan is pretty flat and open so we had to try and camp behind the tallest grass we could find…which was basically a ditch.

On our last morning in Azerbaijan we were biking past a house and the man who lived there invited us in for tea. We quickly realized he was a shepherd because he was leading us to his house like he was herding his animals! There was a small ladder to climb into his yard and it was only after he fell to the ground after reaching the top that we realized this guy was wasted! His wife, while friendly towards us, kept muttering to him in Azerbaijani. We have no idea what she was saying but he was definitely being told off. The man introduced his daughter to us and because no one spoke the same language the poor thing had to just sit there politely and look at us until her mother told her she could leave. We quickly drank our tea and left the most awkward setting in the world!

Leaving Azerbaijan was a process. We had to wait in line and were guided through a gate and from immigration officer to immigration officer, had our bags checked and then had to wait at another gate to leave. We got to Georgia where, because all the hard work had just been done for them, they just stamped our passports and away we went!

We spent a couple of days in Tbilisi (pronounced Tib-lisee) and then went to Kazbegi National Park and hiked to Trinity Church.

Below is Uplistsikhe, a cave village in Georgia that was inhabited from 1000BC until the 12th century and at one time had upwards of 20000 people living in it.

Our diet since arriving in Azerbaijan has consisted of cheese and bread, including cheese filled bread in Georgia (the national dish) and more cheese and bread in Turkey and I’m sure throughout the rest of Europe. We will likely be a bit tubby when we get home!

India

India…home to 1.3 billion people, I don’t know how many different languages and the head wobble. Yes, the head wobble – it means yes, no, thank you, you’re welcome and down the street and take the first left – it can mean whatever you want it to mean! It’s also impressive to see. It’s kind of like a swivel and not quite a bobble but it’s sometimes as if the person’s head is floating above their neck. I’ve been practicing but it just looks like I’m stretching my neck. Paul’s been practicing as well but he just rolls his eyes and moves his whole body.

India is beautiful but can be exhausting and frustrating. Our first experience with this was having to spend 3 hours getting a sim card once we found a phone company that didn’t require a local, personal reference! Getting our sim cards even required our father’s names on the applications!

Our second experience involved spending 3 days trying to get a train ticket out of Bangalore. The train journey was 16 hours so we wanted a sleeper, and afraid of being crammed into a train carriage with a hundred other people, we wanted a more expensive carriage with fewer people. We tried booking these online where, first of all, my name was too long (in India I’m just Mary – my name is not allowed to be any longer than 15 letters – even on handwritten forms!) but the site also wouldn’t accept foreign credit cards. We decided to go to the booking office and were dropped off at a crazy looking market and were told ‘it’s in there somewhere’. After weaving through stalls of clothing and food, there was a real building in the middle of it and sure enough, somewhere in there, was a ticket booking office…whose system was down and we were told to go to the train station.

So we did. There were queues and forms for everything and we were shuffled from window to window and building to building. At one point I waited in the ladies’ line where a little old lady about 4 feet tall was pushing so hard against me I thought she’d become my conjoined twin if I had to wait much longer. Luckily I have sturdy legs and can’t be easily budged because once I got to the window, this lady meant business. You might be thinking ‘just let the little old lady go ahead’ – not a chance! She’s Indian street wise and was probably just waiting for me to cower to her pushy ways, so I made myself big and powered through to the ticket window where I was told I couldn’t get my ticket there and to go upstairs. The little old lady moved in and had her ticket and was on her way before I could even process what I’d been told.

I went upstairs where it was more window shuffling and form filling and were told to come back the next day. We did…and were then given a piece of paper and told to come back the next day (the day we we wanted to leave) and that we would probably get seats. We banked on getting seats and checked out of our hotel and got our bike boxes to the train station and I had to go to yet another building to put another form in a drop box like it was a contest and the winner got train tickets. I asked reception ‘do I wait here to get my ticket?’ and he responded with a head wobble. I interpreted the head wobble as yes but the head wobble really meant you don’t have to wait here but check online in 2 hours and your seats will be listed there. It was a whole other headache trying to get our luggage on the train, but we did and we made it to Thiruvananthapuram (somehow this name isn’t too long!) and started our journey up the west coast of India. Wow…that was a bit long-winded!

The first stop was Varkala which was a great little town on a cliff overlooking a beautiful beach.

From there we took a boat through the backwaters. Apparently in some areas these waterways are used instead of roads.

The rest of the trip through the state of Kerala was through really wealthy areas with giant mansions and quiet roads along the beach…we’re definitely not in the real India.

One of the weird things about Kerala is trying to get a drink. In 2014 the government decided to stop selling alcohol everywhere except 5 star hotels. Because this was stupid, when the new government took over the rules were loosened slightly and drinks can be served in 3 & 4 star hotels as well as depressing looking liquor stores where people have to line up to get their drinks handed to them from a metal cage.

Here’s a couple of photos from the alcohol free Kerala coast:

We reached the 10000km mark the other day! Unfortunately we were under this bridge and not along the beach. But at least Paul looks a bit happier in this picture.

We made it to Goa recently which is the end of the line for us in India. We had a whole week at Palolem Beach and a couple of other beaches before we head to Azerbaijan to start the final 4 months of the trip!

Palolem Beach in Goa.

Trading in the bikes for kayaks at Palolem Beach.

Village of Malpe.

Somewhere along the coast.

Myanmar

We thought about skipping Myanmar, not only because of the Rohingya Crisis (which would have been more of a government boycott and not out of fear for our safety), but also because of actually biking around the country. Camping is illegal and the police are known to wake up campers in the middle of the night and move them along to the next town; but also because, as foreigners, we were only allowed to stay at specially licensed hotels, which could mean 30km between hotels or 200km between hotels.

I am so glad we went.

Here’s how our first few hours went:

We were stopped at a police checkpoint where the police gave us more bananas than we could carry and tried to give us more food!

Next, as we were cycling by a celebration for the opening of a new temple, I was probably looking miserable while biking up the steep hill, when all of a sudden members of the military (armed with giant guns and grenade launchers!) started pushing me up the hill! Then they gave us ice cream! Then we were given lunch and water!

We finally made it to our destination for the day where we knew we’d have to get a bus for the next 100km because of road construction. We looked around until we found a bus and we were told to go back at 2 o’clock. While waiting for our bus to leave, a woman found us at a coffee shop because, as the only English speaking person in the village, someone called her and told her we were there and she came by to see if we needed help! After chatting with her, we got on the bus and were the only two people on the greyhound style bus – it turned out the bus didn’t even stop in the city we needed, they were just being nice and dropped us off on their way through. This type of kindness was repeated daily over the next three weeks.

Because of the crazy distances between places where we were allowed to sleep, we decided to get a bus from Yangon to Inle Lake, cycle across to Mandalay and Bagan, and then get the train back to Yangon.

The bus journey started out with having our luggage loaded onto a bus until it was decided there wasn’t enough room for the bikes (in a place where we’ve seen motorbikes carrying other motorbikes on the back and even once a motorbike carrying a motorbike and a small fridge!) but somehow there was no room for our bikes under the giant bus, so we got put on another bus where I had to sit behind a man who spent the entire 12 hours HAWKING! It was an overnight bus and because of the blasting aircon, we were given blankets. At one point at what we thought was the middle of the night, the bus attendants were asking us for money for the toll into Inle Lake AND they wanted our blankets! We were half asleep and confused as to why no one else had to pay money, or more importantly, why no one else had to give up their blankets! It turned out we had arrived and they had to tell us several times to get off the bus while tearing our blankets out of our frozen hands!

Inle Lake was beautiful and we took a boat ride around the lake and stopped at a silver making workshop and a weaving workshop, which sounds lame, but was so impressive! There’s probably much more efficient ways of weaving, but the time and effort these ladies put into weaving is amazing.

From spinning thread from lotus plants:

To threading over 2000 individual pieces of thread by hand:

I realize this is really boring but I was amazed and also realized I will never want to be a weaver.

Here’s some scenic photos of the Inle Lake area:

We spent three days cycling to Mandalay which included a 30km and 1400m descent. It started out OK but then the road construction started and the road was sandy, rocky and being built by hand by men, women and children wearing flip flops, carrying rocks by hand and climbing and hammering precarioulsy from cliffs above the road. But here are some photos from that day!

We spent another two days cycling to Bagan. We somehow managed to drive past the toll for entering Bagan and avoided paying the $25 US fee!

Bagan impressed me more than I thought it would – there are over 2000 temples here! The big thing is to get up for sunrise photos. National Geographic posted this photo of Bagan on instagram today:

This is what our sunsrise photo looks like:

We didn’t have optimal sunrise conditions as it was a bit cloudy. We also didn’t have an optimal viewing point because we didn’t want to be asked for entry tickets. We are also shit photographers!

Myanmar is definitely the poorest country we’ve visited so far and cycling through small villages and even taking the train gave us a glimpse at how bad things are in some places. The most heartbreaking was seeing children lined up along the train tracks looking miserable, and they were just standing there hoping someone from the train would throw them money. One of the most shocking things we saw was a man watering a vegetable garden using a hose that led directly from the open sewer/canal and using his hand to direct the spray of the brown water.

We’ve been in India for a week now and will try and write an update soon because we already have some funny experiences.

Coffee, Caves and Mountains

Each new country we enter seems to be our favourite and Laos was next on the list. It’s beautiful and was the hardest cycling yet. We arrived in Thakek where we decided to do a popular route called the Thakek Loop. The loop takes you through some amazing mountains and normally people arrive in the village of Konglor and take a boat through Konglor cave and then back to the village, but we were able to go through the cave as part of our route. We took a back road that motorbikes aren’t allowed on and had one of the best days of the trip so far:

We arrived at one end of the cave, got a boat for our bikes and a boat for us and travelled 7km through Konglor Cave to the village on the other side!

After finishing the loop we spent a couple of days in the capital, Vientiane, and a couple of days in Vang Vieng where we went tubing and to more caves.

Afrer a couple of relaxing days in Vang Vieng it was time to start the hardest part of our trip – cycling three days to Luang Prabang, which included two days of biking up mountains and after meeting TWO families who had cycled this part, we had no excuses. One family had 10 year old twins and the other family consisted of the dad on a regular bike with an attachment on the front for one child, and the mother in a recumbant bike with a baby strapped to her chest!!! Cycling up and down crazy mountains! We also met a 70 year old woman who spends 5 months of each year cycling in some part of the world!

Luang Prabang was the end of cycling in Laos and we got a two day boat down the Mekong River to Thailand. We spent a total of 16 hours on this boat and in that time neither of us managed to get a picture of it!

We entered Thailand again in order to make our way to our chosen Myanmar border and our first stop was Chiang Rai. On our way there we stopped to look at our map when someone helped us with directions. His name is Kong and he invited us for coffee at his coffee shop where we found out he grows and roasts his own beans! We even got invited to the coffee plantation to see how coffee is grown, harvested and processed. A lot of the coffee at the plantation is actually sent to Canada – maybe you’ve heard of Doi Chang coffee? This is where it comes from!

While we’re talking about Chiang Rai, I’d also like to tell the world (well, the 10 of you who read this) about the best burger we’ve ever had. It’s from Heaven Burger in Chiang Rai and I’m genuinely upset that I’m never going to have one of their burgers ever again. If you go to Chiang Rai, have one of these burgers! Anyway….

We had a little two week holiday in Chiang Mai and Pai while the bikes were with the mechanic and after all that time off, our legs seem to be resisting cycling again.

We’re all set to enter Myanmar tomorrow and have just over two weeks there and then we fly to India on March 19!

Vietnam

We love Vietnam!

We arrived at the border to get our passports stamped and Paul went first while I waited an appropriate distance behind him. As Paul was having his visa inspected, a man walked past me and set his passport on the counter and sure enough, his was next to be processed…clearly the yellow line means nothing! I noticed a woman walking up to the counter and not wanting her to get ahead of me, I leapt sideways, squeezing my way between her and Paul – think the classic Michael Jordan image (this is still a current reference isn’t it?!) only instead of a ball and a net it’s my passport and the Vietnamese immigration counter! I showed her! The joke turned out to be on me when about 10 other people casually walked up and added their passports to the stack, leaving mine on the bottom of the pile and last to be processed.

We got to Ho Chi Minh City that same day and managed to cycle into the city. Thankfully there was a separate motorbike lane we could use, which meant we were separate from the bigger traffic, but there were so many motorbikes it was hard to keep track of each other in the crowd. It sounds initimidating, but it was actually better cycling than walking because you’re moving at the same speed as the motorbikes and the sidewalks are actually for motorbike parking, so you end up having to walk with the traffic anyway.

HCMC, while abosultely crazy, had so many cool alleys filled with hotels, cafes and pubs. We spent most of our time in these places, mostly because we were able to walk around easily. On our first day we were standing at a crossing of a busy street that didn’t have lights (not that lights would make a difference) wondering how we’d ever get a break in traffic to make a run for it, when a man told us to follow him and stopped all the traffic while we used him as a human shield!

We didn’t spend much time in HCMC before heading up the coast. The first week we found some incredibile beach camping and even though the last three weeks we’ve been biking in rain and 50km per hour headwinds, the scenery is stunning! The southeast coast is only starting to be developed and resorts are in the process of being built but the roads are finished, so we’ve had great seaside biking on new roads with hardly any traffic.

This was at one of the beach camps…no filter needed for this!

These are two tiles on the bathroom wall of our hotel in Nha Trang. Just these two – the rest were normal and not creepy, but these two babies, with their lipstick and nail polish, looked over the toilet!

Bia tu’oi or bia hoi – fresh beer brewed on the streets of Vietnam that sells for about $1 for 2L! It was actually better than the bottled stuff we’ve been drinking!

Ghenh Da Dia – the Giant’s Causeway of Vietnam!

Beautiful rice fields surrounded by mountains. What you don’t know is, while riding through this tranquil looking countryside, in the distance is the sound of the local residents singing karaoke from their homes through the loudest speakers I’ve ever heard in my life! No one is singing a tune from the Ducky’s songbook either. Most songs are so depressing sounding I keep waiting for weeping to start mid song. We stopped at a shop one day and the owner started singing her baby to sleep but then switched on her mic so the whole village heard the performance! It’s hilarious! If there were a contest for the worst music, Vietnam would win. It’s kind of like gangnam style mixed with Scooter from the 90s. Those lovely beach photos earlier…this kind of music was blaring. Ever heard gangnam style Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer? We have!

When we’re in smaller towns our choice of hotels is pretty slim and the hotels of rural Vietnam seem to love rock hard mattresses. This one (and the previous two nights) were so hard we slept on our camping mats!

We arrived in Hoi An after a long couple of days. Paul has had three broken pedals – his original ones somehow cracked and completely broke and the replacements broke after only three days and now we’re constantly on the lookout for bike shops. Paul also woke up the other morning with an upset stomach, but because we were in some one horse town in the middle of nowhere sleeping on a cement bed, we decided to move on. We made it about 30km before Paul projectile vomited onto the road while riding his bike! Five seconds later a kid on a bike rode through it like he was riding through a puddle and didn’t even seem to care! Paul has since recovered.

Hoi An was beautiful and after a couple of nice days we headed over the Hai Van Pass and onto Hue. Apparently Top Gear named the Hai Van road one of the best coast roads in the world. It was a tough cycle up and while some people were impressed, others were confused why we didn’t just use motorbikes (a fair question!). On the way up, a woman asked Paul why he wasn’t using a motorbike. When he didn’t have an answer other than we’re idiots, she seemed to genuinely feel bad for us!

Well earned beers at the top of the pass.

This was at a cafe in Hue. The guy working took a sneaky photo of us.

At the moment we’re in a border town in Vietnam and will cross into Laos in the morning. The plan so far is to head north!