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Europe passed into history with the wave of a soldier’s hand

Europe passed into history with the wave of a soldier’s hand, and smiling officials beneath big red and white Turkish flags welcomed us to their country and gave us permission to stay for three months. We’d never need that long, of course, but it felt good to have been given plenty of breathing space for the new wheels to arrive from England. The road from this remote border-post passed through misty wooded hills and suddenly opened out into an immaculate highway, three lanes wide on each side, without the slightest hint that a motor vehicle might ever have driven upon its pristine surface. Simultaneously the woods came to an end and the landscape turned into a brown, rolling, uninhabited expanse, and as we descended to the plateau the warming air somehow smelt and tasted exotic.

We rolled into the first small Turkish town. White-haired men with moustaches and flat caps raised teacups aloft in salute as we passed by, shouting encouragements. Clearly we were only the latest in a steady trickle of travellers headed for Asia. The road was far better than I expected, fully paved, no less – in better shape, even, than roads at home in England. Towns were frequent and sprawling and a lot more modern-looking than back in the Balkans, and the Sea of Marmara appeared on the horizon like a mirage, seeming to confirm, finally, that we had come to the far end of Europe.

The coast was heavily developed, one settlement blending seamlessly into the next, suburb after suburb of comfortable-looking apartment blocks painted in pastel shades, built to a standard blueprint, interspersed with shiny shop-fronts and furniture superstores and Internet cafes and eateries boasting trays of steaming stews and rice we couldn’t afford to eat. The reappearance of the Roman alphabet – extended by a scattering of unfamiliar dots and swirls – was comforting after Bulgaria’s indecipherable Cyrillic, and English words littered the urban spaces, shouting loudly in bright colours about paket servis, taksis and sandviches. Symbols of modern-day prosperity appeared in every direction. Turkey, it seemed, was not a developing nation at all – it had caught up with and overtaken its recovering Eastern European neighbours. Or perhaps Turkey had always been a developed, powerful nation. After all, hadn’t the Ottoman Empire reached the gates of Vienna? Why had I assumed that leaving Europe would be like going back in time?

Andy, now possessing the sole remaining source of funds, was thrilled to discover a drive-by cash machine in a little booth on the roadside – so convenient! Deciding that this would be an opportune moment to withdraw enough funds for the weeks ahead, we watched speechlessly as the machine swallowed Andy’s card and settled into a lifeless, unresponsive torpor, leaving us with nothing but a few quid’s worth of lira and the entire width of Asia to look forward to.

Andy began to physically beat the machine. Just as it looked like he might be winning, a security guard from a nearby building came over to see what all the fuss was about. But despite everyone’s best efforts, and a number of confused phone-calls to various equally confused helpline operators, it finally became clear that we would not be getting our last remaining cash card back. I’d heard that my own replacement cards were now on their way to Istanbul, along with two new wheels for Andy. I hoped they would all arrive in good time.

For the time being, though, it seemed that we would be living off the remaining contents of Andy’s wallet, which amounted to worryingly little. As we pedalled east along the coast towards the looming promise of Istanbul and a place to sort ourselves out, I remembered Laszlo, our host in Budapest. Laszlo had been a man who seemed to float above the passage of time like some omniscient philosopher, quietly evangelising what he’d dubbed ‘The Process’. He’d cultivated this idea as a result of spending half a year as a barefooted beggar in India. The thrust of Laszlo’s theory was that the ever-unfolding procession of all things was better simply accepted as it was than shaped to one’s needs. As part of this trust and acceptance of the unknowable and unplannable, Laszlo encouraged us as itinerant travellers to shake off the need to assume dominance over the world, and instead to let things run more loosely, because only then would we be able to concentrate on the experience that was being … well, experienced. Only by forgetting about abstract goals would we be able to see other opportunities dangling under our noses.

It sounded like a lot of new-age whacked-out hippie nonsense. But since my idea of new-age whacked-out hippie nonsense was a preconception anyway, I started to wonder whether behind the mere words lay something clearer and more honest, which could hardly be more relevant to the mission that had brought me to Laszlo’s home (or, as he put it, the place where he and his turtles happened to be living). And an opportunity had arisen to put it to the test. Could we continue travelling with next to no money whatsoever?

Now that our poverty was real, rather than self-imposed, we approached a series of roadside restaurants closed up for the coming winter, assessing whether or not we thought we’d get away with sleeping surreptitiously under an awning or in a doorway, there being no open land to camp on. It wasn’t until we began to investigate the ruin of a construction site, fallen into decay halfway to completion and already adorned with graffiti and vagrants’ paraphernalia, that we struck it lucky: an attendant from the petrol station next door suggested we sleep on the floor of a small kiosk in the parking lot. The kiosk was dusty and had evidently been out of use for some time, but the brick hearth full of ash identified it as once having been a handy little kebab hut. As we unpacked our sleeping-bags, the kindly attendant reappeared with a stack of broken-up cardboard boxes for us to sleep on, and this confirmed, beyond all question, that we were now fully qualified tramps.

Lying on the floor of that dusty kiosk, listening to cars and trucks thundering to and fro, Andy snoring quietly next to me, Asia just over the horizon, I found myself with plenty to wonder about. How could Turkey be defined? Was it Europe, the Middle East, or somewhere in between? How would the winter affect our continuing journey? And would we really get by on such a tiny budget?

And what about this religion, Islam? Because I wasn’t sure that it could all be about beards, burkas and bombs – or that it had anything to do with those things whatsoever.

It’s Friday, which means the comments section is open for questions about this week’s instalments. Fire away!

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Book Serialisation

The world needs trailblazers. For people to stop treating places and experiences as products to be consumed

The last time I’d looked at a map of Sudan, no road had been shown on the Nile’s west bank. Nothing, it seemed, existed over there at all. But now I can see palm trees and foliage on that distant shore, just as over here. And anyway, I figure, the world needs trailblazers. For people to stop treating places and experiences as products to be consumed; to refuse to allow fear to dictate where they do and don’t go.

I plan to make a small contribution to this campaign, and in order to do it I will spend the afternoon gathering intelligence in the small settlement of Faaka. This turns out to be most enjoyable, as it involves sitting in a little restaurant-hut for several hours, eating fried fish and chatting to anyone who wanders past.

‘There is nothing over there,’ says an Egyptian telecoms construction manager who pulls up in a pick-up truck. ‘There is no boat to cross. It is a wild place. No people. For at least one hundred kilometres, there is just sand.’ He laughs, clearly pleased to have put me off this ridiculous idea, and shows me pictures of his girlfriend’s breasts on his mobile phone, expecting that as a European I will approve of his progressive sense of sexual liberality.

His supervisor, an engineer from Khartoum, disagrees. ‘Well, it is beautiful over there,’ he admits. ‘There are a few people. Small villages …’

But he too seems to think I’m going to suffer riding a bicycle – or, more likely, pushing it through the sand for the next few days. The restaurateur appears with another huge platter of flour-coated fish steaks, lights a cigarette and fires up a small gas stove upon which is balanced a huge frying-pan full of oil. A wonderfully decorated old single-speed bike rests against the wall; someone’s pride and joy, no doubt, but the owner decides not to show up. And I have heard enough to convince myself that I am going to travel the rest of the way to Dongola, the first decent-sized town on my route to Khartoum, on the opposite side of the Nile. I’m pretty sure it will beat another few days of dodging roadworks in the desert heat.

Mr Abud, a plump and ageing Nubian with a densely wrapped headscarf and a comical bug-eyed look, regards me with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion and eventually shrugs me off as a madman. He starts the outboard motor of his tiny wooden boat and we speed off towards the midstream of the broad green river, leaving Faaka far behind amongst the receding palms. With the wind lifting my matted hair and the river spray in my face, I think back over the day, and about the spontaneity I’m finding in travel, of the way I’m starting to say ‘yes’ when the chance comes to divert into entirely unknown waters.

Like all of the nations I’ve cycled through since I found myself alone, I have deliberately done as little research as possible about Sudan. If I know two pieces of essential information (how to get in, and how to get out again), that’s all I want to know. I’m tired of the opinions I never chose to have, and I’m tired of being proved wrong, time after time after time. I don’t want to arrive in a country I’ve never visited and expect to find myself in danger. I just want to arrive and to see what is put in front of my eyes. I don’t want to know what someone else thinks the cheapest or cleanest hostel is, or where I can get the best street food in town. I want to find my own way, and whether I end up at the same place or not is irrelevant. And I don’t want to know how old the ruins are that rise up from the sand, as impressive as Egypt’s yet devoid of tourists. I want to wander around them in complete and utter ignorance, having stumbled across them by chance. I don’t care whether or not I ‘understand’. It’s no longer important. It’s not the point.

Mr Abud drifts away from the shore. I push my bike up the bank and through the palm trees, the buzz of his outboard motor receding behind me. Wandering through the undergrowth, I stumble across a faint trail and, following it, I find myself in the middle of a tiny hidden village in the sand, on the far side of the river’s fringe of trees.

I stop amongst the buildings and honk my horn. The first Nubian to peer from a shady doorway gapes in disbelief; I wave and act out my sleeping-in-a-tent mime routine and, without a moment’s hesitation, he welcomes me to camp under the tree outside his front door. The tree is infested with millions of tiny fruit flies, so I set up the tent with my eyes closed and run away from the swarms to see who I can find. Wandering amongst the brightly painted walls that sprout from the sand, I meet another man, who suggests that I sleep in the small mosque where the insect population is less zealous. I thank him, and he gives me his head-net to wear for protection from the flies. And, on returning to strike my tent and move into the mosque, I find a little silver tray on the sand by my tent. On the tray is a pot of tea, a trail of steam drifting from its spout, and next to it a small glass, a bowl of sugar and a little silver teaspoon. I stand beneath the tree, looking about, but there is nobody to be seen.

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Magalie had decided to accept an offer from a university in England, and so Andy, Maria and I stood at Bucharest airport by passport control, waving goodbye to a fellow traveller who had become a friend.

Then, just across the border in the northern hills of Bulgaria, Maria failed to show up as we stopped to regroup. It was some time later that she appeared on the back of a small truck, unloaded herself and her bike, and told us that her knee had seized up and that she could barely ride. She was a person of purpose, and her lack of fear sometimes came across as recklessness rather than bravery, but it was obvious that she could not continue in this state. I was disappointed for her, knowing from experience how frustrated she must be. But she showed no trace of it, having already decided to hitchhike the few hundred remaining miles to Istanbul with only her bike for company. Soon she had flagged down another pick-up, Andy and I had loaded her bike, and she was waving at us from the passenger window as the vehicle pulled away.

‘Look after each other! See you in Istanbul!!!’

And off she went, barely batting an eyelid at her sudden change of plan. Almost without warning, our merry band of travellers had been disbanded; the end of a period of time on the road more enjoyable than any I can remember. For all the heroics and hard riding this journey was supposed to be about, these sudden separations were numbing.

Andy and I rode onward though thin green woods towards the Bulgarian coastline. A short while later I spotted him up ahead, dismounted and standing on the roadside. He had ridden ahead as usual, his natural athleticism still outstripping whatever fitness I’d gained from cycling across Europe. At least it would give us both some much-needed time to ourselves.

I pulled up beside him.

‘Mate,’ he said dryly. ‘We have a problem. A really big problem.’

I looked down. After only a few thousand miles, his dream bike’s rear wheel had – with a dramatic cracking sound, he said – exploded. A six-inch split ran along the rim, and the inner-tube was bulging horrifyingly from this jagged aluminium maw.

It was the latest in a merciless run of unfortunate events. We’d had so much fun in Bucharest, and then, leaving the city, I’d discovered my wallet had gone missing. I’d even taken a taxi back to our host’s apartment and turned the place over, revealing nothing. And now the bikes we’d spent an entire year designing were disintegrating before our eyes. We’d barely even taken the bloody things off-road!

Short of the frame snapping clean in half, a cracked rear rim was just about the most critical failure possible. Along with the shock came a jolt of nostalgia, a memory of a time when bicycle technology actually used to be interesting. When my bike had spent more time in the garage than actually being ridden, it had been easier to believe that this or that amazing newfangled engineering innovation might make me a better rider or improve my sex life. Indeed, the entire mountain bike industry revolved around convincing people with cash that this was in fact true.

Four months of living in the saddle had evaporated all interest in shiny bits of metal, especially when confronted with a couple of girls who had rescued old bikes from a scrap-yard and proceeded to get on just as well as us – if not better, as they hadn’t had to worry about expensive bikes breaking.

After discovering that staring at the crack would not cause it to go away, we elected to continue carefully in the hope that the wheel wouldn’t fail completely and render the bike unrideable. Paranoid and painstaking in our progress, dodging every pothole and rumple in the asphalt, we eventually came to a little seaside town perched atop a rugged promontory. Since there was no bike mechanic in town, we attempted to remedy the situation by getting fairly drunk in a bar and talking to anyone who would listen.

Quickly realising that nobody was even faintly interested in us, we bought some overpriced street food and wobbled back downhill in the dark from the peninsula to an empty beach we’d seen earlier, setting up camp for the night on the decking in front of a boarded-up beach hut. Bulgaria had been the only nation whose inhabitants had failed to offer us a night under a roof. Perhaps the sight of two serious-looking blokes with beards invited less sympathy than two pretty girls and their ‘boyfriends’ – or, previously, a blond guy with a goatee and a fluorescent yellow sock on his head.

Somebody had kindly left the dregs of a bottle of whisky and a pile of firewood in plain sight in front of the little hut. As we helped ourselves to both, I realised that this was the first night that Andy and I had spent on the road with nobody but each other for company. And, as the nostalgia of group riding faded away, there came in its place a strange sense of finally having begun – as if the previous four months had been one long goodbye to Europe, the places we called home, and only now were we setting out on the mission that had begun all that time ago with that text message. In Romania I’d received an email from one of the veteran cyclists we’d met at the Royal Geographical Society:

‘I’ve just calculated that at this rate it will take you eight years to cycle round the world!’ she’d written. If we were going to be taken seriously by the long-distance cycling community, it was time we stepped up our game.

‘I bet this beach is actually really beautiful,’ said Andy, breaking the campfire silence. ‘Especially at sunrise, with the sun over the water. Might go for a swim!’

‘Mmm – that’ll be romantic!’

‘Probably about as much action as I’m going to get with a beard like this!’

In the run-up to our departure from England, Andy had been dating a Czech girl who lived in the nearby town – though I’d never met her, and he’d never brought her along to any social occasions, which was not entirely unusual for Andy. He had ended the relationship before we set off, knowing that Ride Earth would occupy his life for several years to come. I tried to imagine how that conversation over a candlelit dinner might have gone:

‘I’m really sorry, but I’m leaving you.’

‘What?! Why?’

‘Er … because …’ – utter deadpan – ‘… I’m going to cycle round the world.’

‘What d’you reckon’s going to happen with Maria?’ Andy asked. She’d be well on her way to Istanbul, if not already there. The journey already felt quite different without her; the circumnavigation sidling back into view.

‘Dunno, really,’ I said. ‘It’s one thing saying, “Yeah, I’ll cycle with you to Romania on a fifteen-euro bike from a scrap-yard” – it’s only a few hundred miles, and it’s only one country. Cycling onwards with us to India … as soon as we leave Istanbul, there’s no decent bike shops until New Delhi. That’s the best part of five thousand miles!’

 

Back in the Romanian capital, we had made a tough financial decision. Our video camera was beginning to grow faulty and unreliable; a message had arrived from the film company that a whole batch of tapes had proved unwatchable due to recording errors. We’d had a long and difficult discussion, and – with the producers in London unable to help with funding – had eventually decided to put more than a thousand pounds of our savings towards a brand new video camera. It was superior in every way, and would produce fantastic quality footage. But it had eaten over a year’s worth of our budget in a single purchase, and I began to feel that despite the encouragement, Ben and James were no longer quite as enthusiastic about our story as they once had been. But things were just about to start get interesting. They needed to understand that.

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I would forever relish not knowing what lay round the next bend.

Andy stopped ahead of me and I did too while we waited for the girls to catch up. Standing in the shade, I swung my arms around to warm up, and – suddenly – accidentally flung off the beaded bracelet I’d worn since leaving home. It flew through the air and into the undergrowth. I ran after it, digging in vain through the foliage, but it could not be found.

I scrambled back out from the bushes. ‘Damn it!’

‘What?’

‘I’ve just managed to lob my bracelet into oblivion!’

‘Was it a special bracelet, or something?’

‘Well … erm …’

The bracelet had been given to me by an ex-girlfriend. We’d been together for a few years – since university, in fact, where it had been easy enough to find ourselves heading in the same direction. But the relationship had been amongst the casualties of the Ride Earth idea. Along with a career, a salary and the expectations of my friends and family, my girlfriend had gradually been relegated to the world I wanted to leave behind, her relevance to my life dwindling beneath the magnitude of what I was planning to attempt. So self-involved had I become that I barely noticed it happening, and I should not have been surprised when, one weekend visit, she laid it bare to me: I clearly had better things to do than take our relationship seriously any more. I told her that was a load of bollocks; she dropped me off at the railway station and then bought a Lonely Planet guidebook and a pile of expensive apparel and a one-way ticket to New Zealand; I returned home furious and continued laying my very important plans. She had, of course, been absolutely right: I’d forgotten her needs almost entirely as a result of taking myself too seriously. The bracelet’s loss represented the last emotional tie I’d kept to my former life – apart from the presence of Andy himself, of course.

‘ … actually, you know what? It’s probably for the best.’

The two girls eventually emerged round the bend, both on foot; Maria red in the face but smiling, Magalie sauntering casually beside her, cracking jokes. Magalie’s new bike had twenty-one gears; Maria still rode the three-speed antique she’d found in the scrap-yard in Budapest, backpack strapped wonkily across the rear rack. Dressed in everyday summer clothes, happy to dismount and walk and laugh about it, they appeared to be perfectly normal people – two former schoolmates, a little older now, abroad for the summer, sharing the fun of a bike ride together. It was, I thought, almost enviable to be able to see it that simply. Because if they were serious about it for the long-term, they’d really need to equip themselves properly, as we had spent so long doing. It wouldn’t be long now before paved roads, bike shops and outdoor equipment supplies receded into the distance, and they obviously couldn’t continue in this carefree, haphazard way forever.

The day was drawing on, the air becoming chill, and we searched in vain for a concealed piece of ground where we could get our heads down for the night. Down in this narrow channel carved from the rock, it didn’t look likely that we’d find the dream location we’d fantasised about all afternoon, and, as the light grew fainter, tensions began to rise.

I tried to remember how I used to think about accommodation. It was easier in so many ways. I would have decided where to go, researched hostels or hotels and made a booking, and then turned up on the appointed date, dumped my bags and followed a guidebook around for a while. Simple, predictable, safe. Fun. A break from something called ‘the grind’. No chance of being lost deep in the Romanian mountains at sunset with nowhere to stay, no idea what might lie round the next bend.

Round the next bend was a village of Roma gypsies. Little roofs jutted half-hidden from the forested mountainside, high above the road to the east. On the far side of a little river, a dirt track ran parallel with our own, and lining the track was a jumbled row of walls and windows and fences and gates. Chickens pecked at the dust and dodged industrious women with brooms and baskets. Kids dashed and shouted. An untethered horse pawed at the ground and slurped from the stream. There wasn’t a car to be seen, no sound of machinery; no indication that the industrial age had penetrated this remote backwater of Eastern Europe, which looked for all the world like a turn-of-the-century peasant village reconstructed for some trite period drama – save for a gigantic communist-era concrete bridge that spanned the stream.

Before we could decide whether to turn back or ride straight through we were surrounded by dozens of inquisitive faces, feet shuffling to get a better look, eyes peering out at us from beneath headscarves and dusty hats. Nerves bristling, I asked Andy what he thought we should do, but Maria and Magalie were already befriending the mob of kids who emerged from between adult hips and legs and began inspecting our curious means of transport with a flurry of fingers and thumbs. My bike, with its bulging cargo trailer, was far more interesting than I was. But neither Andy nor I was in the mood for a repeat of the previous night’s extortion. We wanted to continue, to find a quiet spot and pitch our tents in peace and anonymity.

Then a young woman pushed her way through the growing crowd and introduced herself. She was around my age, somewhere in her early twenties; she carried a baby and spoke better English than anyone I’d yet met in Romania, and when we told her what we were doing and that we were looking for somewhere to camp she immediately invited us to follow her to her parents’ home.

No … not again. I explained that we had no money and that we just wanted to camp. And at that moment, I realised with horror that it was absolutely true. I’d given my last lei to Simon, and in all of the fury and haste of escaping Sebeş I had completely forgotten to withdraw any more cash. We faced a long, remote adventure through the Fagaras mountains without a penny to our names.

‘Look at them, Tom!’ implored Magalie. ‘They don’t want anything from us!’

Money was not important, the woman insisted. We were welcome to stay the night in this village. Neither she nor her parents wanted anything in return. They had everything they needed.

I was left with little choice but to let my reservations fall by the wayside. And I hoped that my faith in the kindness of strangers would, through these people, be rescued. Maria and Magalie were excitedly making their way down to the concrete bridge that looked so hopelessly out of place amongst the trees and dirt roads and timber-framed buildings. There was no backing out now.

The evening would be worthwhile, of course, and challenging, requiring mental energies that were difficult to muster after a day in the saddle. I would have to entertain the girl’s effervescent father and her one-eyed mother, whose mouthful of gold teeth cut through the darkness of their tiny shelter. But this was also the point. It was why, now I’d tasted the thrill of the unknown, I could never go back to the pleasant blandness of pre-planned travel. Life would never again be so easy, so convenient, so predictable. I would forever relish not knowing what lay round the next bend.

 

Up through the pines, the scattered homes twirling wood-smoke into the sky were outnumbered by the abandoned ones; otherwise little sign of life existed in these eerie alpine wonderlands, the track gradually disintegrating until it was little more than a trail of rocks and scree, cut through with channels formed by heavy rainfall. We came out onto a plateau, the summit of the pass, and then the track pointed downhill.

I had almost forgotten how it felt to be freewheeling, so long had we pedalled perpetually upwards, and I was taken by surprise to find my wheels rolling without input. Suddenly the southern valley opened up, a sea of forested ridges and peaks extending to the horizon. I’d spent several days looking ahead at nothing but valley sides and the prospect of further climbs, and the sight of these endless, undulating lands produced a satisfaction that arriving here by car could never hope to reproduce. It was the most brilliant venue for lunch, and Andy, Maria, Magalie and I sat gobbling up the last of our scavenged food in the sun, looking out across the great expanse.

We’d found refuge the previous night in a small mountain lodge. The staff, taking pity on us, had fed us bean soup and given us a room to sleep in and a bundle of firewood for the stove. In the morning we’d raided the buffet laid out for the lodge’s paying guests, leaving with several bags of cooked sausages, salami, bread and chunks of omelette. Munching the last fragments of egg at the highest point of this detour, which far outclassed Britain’s highest peaks, the rewards now lay at our feet. Yes! And we swept down from on high, whooping with adrenaline, the bikes we’d built for precisely these conditions eating up the terrain as we sped through the untouched Carpathian forests. And, on a particularly tight bend, Maria’s slender form was projected with Olympian grace over her handlebars to land in a blur of limbs on the gravel surface of the road.

‘It’s just a flesh wound,’ joked Magalie, borrowing the words of Monty Python’s Black Knight. Maria laughed. She was shaking with adrenaline, but her injuries seemed trivial, though there was quite a bit of blood on show. Miraculously, the clapped-out old bike had survived unscathed. Maria had been having so much fun on the downhill that she’d overestimated the control afforded by bald tyres on the loose surface – a beginner’s mistake.

We stopped to patch the poor girl up on a wide piece of grass, strangely glad to have found a use for Andy’s extensive first-aid supplies, which occupied almost an entire pannier. Maria propped herself up on a convenient boulder, ably tended by Magalie, ever the optimist and joker. The valley drained out of the mountains, opening up as it did so, and there was a stream flowing nearby featuring a small and inviting waterfall. It was an opportunity too good to miss: I had lost track of how long it had been since I’d had a decent wash. Andy and I stripped down to our shorts and plunged beneath the torrent; it took all my strength just to remain standing beneath the icy bombardment.

The decision to take the mountain detour had hung in the air, as we’d worried that the higher passes would already be snowbound and impassable. But we’d been forced to take our chances after our unfortunate run-in with Simon. Escaping Sebeş had taken precedence, and there had been no room to change our route or turn back. Now, heading back down from the silent magic of those mountains, it seemed absurd to think that there had been a real question over which option would be better: a few hundred miles of filthy motorway, sharing our journey with transcontinental freight lorries and badly-driven Ladas and four-by-fours; or an unpredictable adventure amid pristine wilderness and among people who would look after us, whose feet were planted firmly on the ground?

The detour had been a glimpse of my much-dreamed-of travelling fantasy. It would be easy to attribute it to chance, but the reality wasn’t so simple. Chance could never have sprung if we hadn’t put our trust in the mystery of what lay ahead. The result, I reckoned, had probably been the most memorable week of my life. Was this, in fact, the essence of adventure – something internal, intangible, impossible to describe in terms of routes and maps and schedules?

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This gruff little man seemed to jump at the chance to have three desperate explorers stay the night

In Sebeş, a dreary city of abandoned industry and loitering groups of men, we were due to be reunited with Magalie, and all of us – Maria in particular – were looking forward to the prospect immensely.

Needing somewhere to stay overnight while we waited for her arrival, and having found that the town’s sole hotel was obscenely overpriced, Andy happened to get talking to a middle-aged man in a tatty leather jacket who was filling his car in nearby petrol-station. This gruff little man seemed to jump at the chance to have three desperate explorers stay the night in his home: another fantastic display of the great outpouring of hospitality that seemed to await the bicycle traveller.

Simon’s wife fed us chicken risotto and prepared a makeshift bed on the floor of the living-room. A mangy dog trailed around behind her, looking forlorn. Simon was very accommodating, but – unusually – made no enquiries about our journey; neither where we’d come from nor where we were heading, which were by far the two most frequently asked questions. He seemed more interested in how much our collection of cameras and bicycles was worth. And the following morning, after his wife had taken Maria to meet Magalie at the station, Simon sat Andy and I down at the kitchen table and began to lay out his demands.

Now, an average Romanian’s salary, explained Simon in a mixture of English and German and scribbles, was about one hundred and twenty euros a month. And a night in the hotel up the road, he repeated with solemnity, was a hundred euros. My heart was already sinking. I kept my mouth shut, my eyes on the scrap of paper and my face as blank as possibly as Simon billed us the equivalent of two hundred euros in Romanian lei for the night we’d already stayed and for the second night that he had suggested we also spend in his home. This, after all, was the same as what we would have paid for the hotel.

I looked at Andy. ‘What exactly are we supposed to do now?’

‘I dunno, mate.’

‘Well, we can’t pay him two hundred euros. That’s ridiculous. We don’t even have two hundred euros.’

Which was true. I reached into my pocket, as the one responsible for food this week and thus the only one with any cash, and withdrew a bunch of fluff containing about sixteen euros’ worth of lei. It was enough to feed the four of us for another couple of days.

‘He’s basically blackmailing us.’

‘I know.’

Simon sat in silence, not understanding our deliberately colloquial English and looking intently at the bright pink of the wall across the room, elbows resting on the table, fingers interlocked and rocking gently back and forth in front of his mouth. Anger began to rise inside me. How dare this little man abuse our trust? How dare he take such extreme examples of cost and use them to justify landing us with this ludicrous bill? And how dare he destroy the trust I’d learnt to invest in strangers to help me on my way?!?

I picked up the pen and paper and tried to explain that my daily budget was less than five euros per day, and that two hundred euros should last me several weeks, not two days; all the while drawing ridiculous scribbled pictures of globes and bicycles and calendars and annotating them incomprehensibly with calculations and sums of cash. When he stared blankly at me, I lost my patience and told him outright in English what I thought. The meaning was lost, but the tone said it all. I rose from my seat, followed by Andy, and we began packing our panniers as quickly as we could. I thrust the last handful of lei into Simon’s hand – a modest amount, but still far more than our presence had cost him – carted my baggage outside into the muddy yard, and stood expectantly by the tall wooden gate, waiting for Maria and Magalie to return, to tell them the bad news: that we’d been conned, that we were getting the hell out of this dump right now. Softly, rain began to fall. Simon came down the little steps to the yard to plead with us to come back inside, was brushed off and so went inside himself and closed the door, came out again and resumed standing in the open doorway, looking out across the tangled sprawl of mud roads and yards and houses. The rain set in. And we all waited in this uncomfortable stalemate.

Poor Magalie: she’d been so enthusiastic about continuing her spontaneous bicycle adventure that she’d ridden trains all the way from France to Romania, somehow convincing guard after guard to let her on board with a bicycle in tow. She and Maria arrived back at our ex-host’s house, opened the gate to find our sorry little huddle of ponchos and bikes sitting in the yard, expressions of doom written across our faces, and were suddenly given instructions to look sharp and get packing, half-washed laundry and all. The truth was that we hadn’t had a day of rest since our stay in Budapest, which by now seemed to have taken place on another planet entirely.

 

Riding south from Sebeş and into the foothills of the Fagaras range of the Transylvanian Alps, it became clear that we were entering a region of very sparse habitation, and ‘real’ wild camping – for the first time – began to look like our only option. We’d spied a network of tracks on a map of the country, and it had looked as though we’d be able to piece together an off-road route through the mountains, rather than rejoining the busy main road. This back-country route had looked remote and daunting, little evidence of settlements along the way, but we’d decided to make it the basis of a scenic detour. Now, kicked out into the rain, I could think of little but finding a spot within the alpine peaks to lay low for a couple of nights and get some much-needed rest, because the events of our first days in Romania – a new world for all of us – had been fraught and exhausting.

The sun reappeared from behind the rainclouds, only to disappear again as the valley sides rose high and steep above the little road. Traffic dried up, save for an occasional grumble from ahead and the appearance of a logging truck loaded with huge pine trunks for a timber mill back down the valley. These same pines clung to the higher reaches of the steep slopes all around us. In the well of this winding valley, our route traced the path of a narrow, fast-flowing river, and it became clear that we were gaining altitude. The air was clear, moist and deliciously cool as the climb began to make itself felt. I passed through a little hive of activity: a group of road-workers who were building the very road on which we had been riding for the last couple of hours. Amid the reek of hot tar and the surprised looks of the labourers, my front tyre rolled off the tarmac and onto the uneven gravel track that continued into the invisible depths of the mountains. A thrill passed through me; surely this was the kind of detour worth taking!

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Book Serialisation

I was dimly aware that the proving grounds were coming to an end.

The rain still hadn’t stopped when dawn broke, exposing the same dark clouds and pot-holed thoroughfares that had welcomed us into the country. The heady days of good living under the summer sun now seemed like a distant memory. Grim faces drifted along broken pavements, eyeing us suspiciously as we cooked breakfast in a dilapidated bus shelter and washed up in a puddle.

Although occupied by our present misfortunes, I was dimly aware that the proving grounds were coming to an end. My bike and I had survived an important test in making it this far. This was my first ever long-distance bicycle journey, and despite the relatively merciful experience I’d had until now, the learning curve had still been steep. Poised on the brink of Western Europe, I had hoped that it would begin to flatten out. Romania, though, seemed to have other ideas.

For the next few days our bedraggled trio rode through bleak plains, weaving around gigantic craters in narrow asphalt lanes, pressing on through the dreary nothingness for lack of any other option. A cloaked figure drifted through the drizzle, crook in hand, vaguely attached to a distant flock of sheep. The eastern horizon ahead, long, inexpressive and featureless, began to bubble with suggestions of approaching uplands, which lifted my rain-drenched spirits. While passing through the Alps, I’d felt a humbling sense of smallness amongst the pillars of rock and earth and ice. We are sometimes confronted with a thing infinitely more vast and powerful than ourselves: an impenetrable mountain range, a frothing ocean, a furious lightning storm. We’re given the chance to look upon it, to exist quietly in its presence, and to be ignored; reminded viscerally of our own insignificance.

The rain subsided and a beam of late afternoon sunlight came through the clouds ahead. We took off up a hillside track and made camp in wiry yellow grass on the valley’s northern slopes to take stock of the previous days. Things here seemed rough around the edges, incomplete and uncared for; beaten, weary and stripped of dignity. Roads crumbled beneath the wheels of spluttering Ladas and donkey-drawn carts, weaved through villages constructed in an age of fervent uniformity, now barely holding themselves together. Dogs, pigs and chickens roamed the muddy streets freely; grass and weeds sprouted from cracks and gutters and foundations. Abandoned shelters, factories and warehouses of unknowable purpose littered the landscape away from the villages, mostly empty but a few now serving as makeshift shelters for herds and their drivers. I felt the presence of something ambitious, some enormous thrust of progress that had long since withdrawn, leaving its remnants and its people forgotten and decaying, and I wondered what memories these fading edifices held for those who might have seen them proud and gleaming, as they were in their heyday.

Desperate for shelter from the rain one evening, we spotted a little concrete platform in the middle of a grassy pasture at the bottom of the valley through which we were cycling. It was open-sided, had a little tin roof supported by a metal pole at each corner, and was about fifteen feet square. It would make an ideal place to build a fire, dry out a few belongings, and sleep in relative shelter.

Dumping our bikes, we clambered onto the raised platform and stood under the roof, looking out at the surrounding hillsides. The place immediately felt like home. There was a kind of intuition at work here that I’d felt time and time again: a sudden feeling of certainty that this was the place. We would pass the night in safety here. The spot might not look particularly different from any other – at least, not in a way that I could identify. But the feeling, one of immediate relief and relaxation, was palpable and welcome. I had not had this feeling about our ill-fated hiding spot beneath the thunderstorm.

Without hesitation, Maria took a head-torch and set off across the pasture to where the river would be, venturing into the thin row of trees in the hope of finding firewood.

‘Funny, isn’t it?’ I said to Andy, who was tying a length of string between two of the roof supports to create a drying line for our sodden clothes. ‘It’s like – someone says they’re going to cycle round the world, and you think it means they’re going to get on a bike and pump away until their legs fall off and then come home victorious. But it’s not actually like that – it’s not about how many miles you can do, or how fit you are.’

‘Yeah. I’m really impressed with Maria.’

‘Yeah, me too! And look at this place. It’s so quiet. This is what it’s all about.’

While I fired up our little petrol-powered stove to boil up some pasta, Andy built a fire with the damp wood, and soon we were sitting on the concrete, staring into the heart of the blaze, entranced by the flames as the world about us faded away. Soon the glowing embers were all that could be seen, throwing a dim orange cast across Andy and Maria’s faces, the fire’s remnants reflected in their eyes as tiny points of light. Our damp shoes sat in a row, steaming, silent additions to the campfire audience; the reeking wood-smoke collecting below the roof before dissolving into the night.

‘I feel like we should have some kind of story-telling thing, or something,’ I said, to the fire.

‘Go on then, mate. Tell us a story!’ replied Andy.

‘I’m not going first! I’m no good at stories …’

‘You tell us a story then, Maria.’

She squirmed. ‘Really … ?’

‘Yeah, you can do it! Tell us something we don’t know about you.’

‘OK … er … well, I used to be a waitress in New York. I can tell you about that.’

‘New York? What were you doing there?’

‘Well, I got kicked out of England after I finished college – I went to college in London with Magalie, that’s how we know each other – ’

‘Hold on – how did you get kicked out of the UK? You’re English, aren’t you?’

‘Well, yes, I am! I mean, I was born there, I mostly grew up there, and I went to school there … but because my parents are both American, and they didn’t do the right paperwork when I was born, I got to the age of eighteen – I was supposed to get my own passport, and it turned into this … this nightmare situation … I ended up in court, and the judge was like, “I can’t quite believe this, but for some reason the law is finding against you, and there’s nothing I can do …” – and they ordered me to leave the UK!’

‘Seriously … ?’

‘Bloody hell.’

‘So I thought – well, I’ve got nothing to lose, I might as well go to America and start a new life there. So I got jobs waitressing and behind bars – they didn’t actually pay me a penny, everything I earned was in tips – that’s how it works in the US … but I didn’t really enjoy it, and one day I was on the phone to Magalie, and she said the same thing about her job … so we both decided to quit our jobs and spend the summer travelling around Europe. And that’s how we ended up in Budapest!’

‘So … you actually have an American passport, then?’ The border-crossing fiasco was starting to make sense.

‘Yeah, I do.’

‘No way! Go on, let’s see it!’

Maria dug through her backpack and pulled out the navy blue booklet. Emblazoned across the front cover in gold script were the words ‘United States of America’. How absurd, I thought, that the particulars of your little coloured booklet could so powerfully affect your options in life; where you could go, and how you’d be treated when you got there.

‘But it really made me think about what I’d got. I have friends in the UK, obviously; friends in Switzerland – family, too – and in the US, and I speak French and Spanish … so now it’s really nice to feel comfortable moving around, but still having all of these ties in different places. It’s a really nice balance.’

 

Our route bent south-east towards the far end of Europe, and the weather settled into a pattern. Night-time and morning rains gave way to breaking clouds and the first rays of sunlight by lunchtime, followed by pleasantly warm afternoons. Mornings were a struggle of trying to motivate ourselves to begin the days’ riding; they brought a dampness and a chill we’d not previously felt: the damp and chill of autumn. I was now sharing my tent with Maria, as Andy – through a campaign of weary sighs and ‘clumsy’ elbows in the night – had made it clear that he did not enjoy sharing his with me. The sound of rainfall on the taut flysheet always sounded far worse than it would prove to be when I finally hauled myself out, still stinking of the previous night’s campfire. Turkey, which of course would be nice and warm, became an ever-more enticing prospect – and then of course there’d be Iran, which would obviously be baking hot. But two of south-east Europe’s largest nations, Romania and Bulgaria, would need to be crossed first.

We followed valleys eastwards which, although tranquil, were riven with the same desperation I’d felt when we’d first entered the country. Commerce seemed non-existent; villages seemed to subsist off vegetable patches and scattered livestock, and their residents were packed three or four generations deep inside dilapidated houses and their wire-fenced compounds. A single grocery store carved out of a former sitting-room, shelves of meagre stock hidden behind counters, would constitute a village ‘high street’. Tucked away down a side-street off the main thoroughfare might be a bakery, or a street-vendor selling watermelons or tomatoes out of a barrow.

On the scale of a globe, I was barely a finger’s length from home, yet I found myself astounded by the ruin that I’d cycled into. Romania had recently been accepted for full membership of the European Union, and I’d somehow convinced myself that it must have made leaps and bounds forward from the days when images of orphanages filled our screens. That had been almost twenty years ago. But those with ambition had simply left the country to find a better life in the West – in Italy, Spain and further afield. I tried to imagine hundreds of thousands of Brits making the decision to pack their bags and flee the country, with no intention of ever returning, due to the political and economic climate. It was impossible to comprehend. Yet this was precisely what had happened here, and between four and twelve million Romanians now lived in the overseas diaspora, depending on whose definition of ‘Romanian’ you used. And this turmoil was all so close to home that I’d been able to cycle here from my own front door.

I tried my hand at approaching people, to ask for water or the whereabouts of a shop or Internet cafe. Though the Romanians were initially tough-mannered, often unsure quite what to make of our bizarre appearance, this attitude was easily dispelled with the usual tactic of an earnest smile and a bit of friendliness. We stuck to small back-roads, many unpaved, and one evening we were offered a patch of grass to camp on within the compound of a family home on the edge of a village. By the time Andy and I had scouted out their back garden for suitable spots, the old couple had become so enamoured with Maria – who had discovered that she could communicate through judicious use of Spanish – that they invited us inside their tiny two-roomed cottage, where we sat on ancient settees piled high with grubby patterned blankets and shared a delicious meal of salted pig fat with fresh tomatoes and chipped potatoes fried in lard. The sitting-room, such as it was, had been painted a loud turquoise; yellowing lace curtains were tacked to the splintering wooden window-frames; a tapestry of threadbare rugs skinned the floorboards while brown sheets of flypaper hung from above. A disproportionately grand old television set perched upon a cabinet, overlooking the low room, and the ancient matriarch switched it on when the conversation ran out of steam, filling the little room with the off-kilter brass and intricate percussion of Balkan pop, which we politely sat and watched for what seemed like hours.

As darkness fell outside, the rest of the family returned, smiling and curious – a young husband and wife, one of whom must have been the son or daughter of the old couple – and a handful of small boys who surreptitiously fiddled with the little moving bits on our bicycles and otherwise darted about in silence, clearly under orders to make themselves seen and not heard in the presence of guests. A hotchpotch of brick and mortar in one corner was identified as a stove – a soba – when a couple of logs were thrust inside and the door closed on a lit match, and a homely warmth began to permeate that little cottage in the hills. And we trotted out our well-practised charades, miming and foraging for words beneath the dim glow of a light bulb, as the region prepared to put to rest the harvest of another year.

It’s Friday, which means the comments section is open for questions about this week’s instalments. Fire away!