Tracks across Europe with Alexander the Best. Paris to Istanbul.

28 07 2010

Bikes UK – Paris – [Eurostar – 2 hours]

We booked the bikes on months in advance and for a small fee they were wheels away. Picking them up at the Gare Du Nord was a bit tricksy – we were offered a lovely pair of Trek off roaders which Liz politely declined and firmly insisted that ours would be preferable. A few mins of grunting and paper shuffling later and she was plopped into the mail buggy to be formula one’d across the station – letters and packages showering onto the concourse at  every swerve to the obvious irritation and bewilderment of the driver. To finally be delivered to our trusty steeds, who were (by some miracle apparently!) unscathed by their ordeal… ok .. so far!

Paris – Munich – overnight [11 hours]

Easy – peezy. We tucked our bikes into their carriage for the night and bedded down into our little two bed birth. No passport control, no baggage checks (no worries here about the threat camping fuel might pose to a 50 million pound train!).

Munich – Budapest – day train [Railjet – 8 hours]

‘What have you done today to make you feel proud..’… We survived the evil bike bagging experience! The German officials assured us that once bagged there was NO guarantee that we would be able to get the bikes on the Railjet train, which seemed sheer insanity given the volume of bikes trundling about at Munich station.

I’ve been losing hours of sleep over the past month about bagging our bikes. In the end though it took about 45 mins for us to bag both up and pop them on a trolley. We opted for a really light covering bag – we are planning to post it on to Thailand for the journey home (with a load of extra padding it should be ok for the flight home). The down side to this is that, once dismantled, the bikes were really very vulnerable. We managed to stow them in the vestibule of the train – a less than satisfactory solution as they required constant monitoring to ensure that they didn’t fall over, get leaned on, get knocked by the snacks trolley etc. To make matters worse it was a very busy train with about 15 stops to have to negotiate.

The train belched us out only 40 mins late into the sweltering humidity of Hungary. Interestingly the train ran to the second through Germany and Austria, but the minute it hit Hungary everything went to pot.

Budapest – Bucharest – sleeper – [15hours – 2 of which were delay]

Budapest is in Eastern Europe – no Euro, no efficient German trains and plenty of room for bribes.  We wound our way up the platform to a cacophony of tutting, shakes of the head, ‘no’s and assurance that we would have to pay for the privilege of taking our bikes (prices ranged considerably).   The guard, an immense man with tiny eyes, was mightily unconvinced that we would be able to fit our bikes into the tiny berth with us and it was only with patient humour that he let Catherine prove him wrong – oh the power of cheeky doggedness! 10 Euros (tax?!) later and we were sandwiching ourselves onto our bunks in a slump of satisfied relief.

One midnight passport check as we crossed into Romania – the first of many relatively Kafkaesque experiences of being quizzed by immigration while in bed.

Bucharest – Istanbul – sleeper  – [21.5 hours – 1.30 of which were delay]

‘Call me Alexander, Alexander the Best’ – not Alexander the greatest? – ‘ No! Alexander the BEST. Take your bikes on if you can, I won’t charge you but in Bulgaria they are hungry so.. it’s your risk’. A smile cracked across the moon face of Alexander our cabin controller and a booming laugh rippled up his belly; ‘Hurry, hurry the train is about to leave’. With the delay of the last train and the scramble to flip our handle bars and secure our bikes from the cabin hanging rail we had no time to get any food supplies. We were faced with the prospect of a gruelling 20 hours with only an emergency nut bar and a packet of peanuts to see us through. And we were not alone.  Our carriage was peppered with the great unprepared.  Thankfully Saint Alexander the Best was indeed just that and soon set about breaking up his personal supplies to provide a biblical feast of home-grown tomato’s, bread, chicken, cheese and beer for us to share! What a hero! Romania rocks.

Alexander was right about the hungry Bulgarians – there was yet another 10 Euro “bike tax” – this time it took 3 people, 20 minutes, and triplicate carbon copies to deliver the  ‘tax certificate’.

More midnight passport checks, one 3am visa purchase, a bus ride (a bridge was down 150 km outside Istanbul – bikes were not a problem at all here) and a boat trip later and we finally finally finally arrived with our friends on the picturesque island of Heybadeyila –just outside Istanbul in the Marmara.

And here we are….

4 sweaty, exhausting, stressful, and splendidly successful days in and our journey proper is yet to begin.  Our biggest mistake to date has been the fuel bottle debacle and we have yet to learn how big a delay it will inflict upon us. We also failed to appreciate that we would need a plethora of country specific currency for the train journey.  Our most super bit of preparation was bringing spare straps that supported our bikes on every night train.

Thus we are to be found encamped on our idyllic Turkish island itching to get our pedalling pants going!

*for detailed guidance on this journey plan reference

A wheely serious dilemma

28 07 2010

UK to Thailand in 9 months – deciding to hack off the first section by train took some umming and arring. Was it cheating? If we don’t pedal every inch are we frauds etc .. well. No. Quite frankly. We have committed to travel as much overland as possible for ecological reasons (certainly not economic ones!!!!). I guess this also raises the question of success and to us I think success is HIV/AIDS advocacy through the most unassuming and accessible means possible. To that end we are doing well; young people on the Champs Elysees talked about the pressures on young people to have unprotected sex in order to feel grown up; a young man in Istanbul’s grand bazaar called us over to ask about our t-shirts and, when we had explained our project, declared it a holy journey; our Turkish friend spoke of how HIV/AIDS in Turkish culture isn’t taken seriously (a point lamented by the chap in the bazaar). Indeed our research substantiates the belief that the impact of HIV / AIDS in Turkey is still small – however it is interesting to note that the largest rising infection group is heterosexual and young [Note – the validity of these stats is hazy]. And we hope to raise money for the two charities – The Food Chain and the Camillian Social Centre – both of which do really vital work to support those living with HIV/AIDS – huge thanks to all those who have donated so far!

Fort UK … clink clink…

27 07 2010

Picture it, we’ve been planning this adventure for months, there’s been packing and repacking, sorting, organising, planning and more planning.  Within an hour of setting of on our intrepid adventure we hit rock bottom – loosing a vital piece of kit.  Resulting in tears, huffs, accusatory glances and us texting Catherine’s mum for help within the first 4 hours – THE SHAME!  And it was definitely my fault.

Our full fuel bottle was confiscated by security at the Eurostar – now this isn’t any old fuel bottle, it’s a specific MSR bottle that is part of our whisperlite stove system and you need to pressurise the bottle to light the stove.  Therefore without the bottle the stove is useless.  And the reason it was actually my fault – Catherine specifically and very clearly asked me to ask BEFORE we went through security if we could take fuel on board – which I didn’t do (though I told her I had – I assumed since knives where ok camping fuel would be to – assumptions ay..) … and then worse I owned up and told them I had it –meaning they took it off me straight away ‘because the train costs £50 million you know’.  I know they were just doing their jobs – but the STUPIDITY on my part.

Once in Paris we went on a futile wild goose chase to look for a replacement bottle – but to no avail, Either the French don’t own a decent camping shop (as Catherine suspects) or we are just too pants at French to ask – ‘Croque – Mosieur, s’il vous plait?’

(Catherine takes over here….)

However our typically British lack of French didn’t stop Frances attempts to communicate with us! I can only conclude that Liz is a chat magnet. I suspect ‘chats’ are like cats – the more you look aloft the more they are keen to drift on over and purr up your leg. My attempts to look ‘open’ are more akin to the small child chasing the poor passing cat for just one little hug…. quickly shifting glances and swerving increased pace greeted my wide eyed, cheesy grinning visual tentacles.

First it was the helpful cyclist who waved us across to an internet cafe we couldn’t find, the second was an Algerian security guard who wanted to practice his English (at length) and the third (while I was off chasing youth up and down the Champs Elysees  – check out the Voices section to hear what I netted) a Taiwanese lady who proceeded to pin Liz in a series of acrobatic positions all round the bikes trying to capture the perfect Liz shot! – She even donated 10 Euro’s to the charity – Bonus! Go Liz the chat magnet!