Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Giant Hogweeds of Destiny

Let's start off with some drama. Today it was only down to pure luck that I wasn't killed. But let's come back to that in a bit.

So I'm in Russia. I'd been told all sorts of horror stories about Russia and so let's explode a few myths:

Myth 1. The Border is Bad: I'd been told border formalities can take up to three hours and include a full bag search - yikes! I have self-labelled blood pressure pill bottles. My crossing involved no search whatsoever and took less than ten minutes. Next!

Myth 2. The People are Bad: You'd think that Russians were demonic if you believed what I've heard. They aren't. Yesterday, due to reasons that I'll explain later, I had another spoke go pop. Although I was only halfway through my day, luckily I was just a few kilometres from Ostrov, a town of about 20,000, which around these parts is massive. I figured it'd have a bike shop. In the past, most bike malfunctions have resulted in some serendipitous interaction with the locals. Given Russia's monstrous reputation I doubted it this time.

I saw a man with a bike. He had his head down. So I asked him, in my finest Russian (which isn't fine at all) where  the bike shop was. He looked up, pissed as pint glass full of newts, with food - or vomit - all around his mouth and slurred, 'Da!'. OK, maybe he misunderstood and so I tried again. But no. I got another 'da!' And then another. Maybe his sense of the absurd lead him to an extremely literal form of dadaism. Or perhaps, as I suspect, he'd had one bottle of vodka too many. Not a good start, Russia.

But the next cyclist I asked, Alex, spoke about ten words of English, took me to the bike shop, waited outside with me until it reopened after lunch, purloined a spoke and a spoke key - at least I saw no money changing hands - took me to his garden, introduced me to Valya, his retired English teacher wife, gave me lunch, attempted to fix my bike with less knowledge than I have (the bike shop only sold spares, it didn't repair), gave up and, as time was getting on, helped me find a room for the evening at a place for Russian army officers. I don't want to sound ungrateful but the hotel - which, by the way, is too grand a word - had hints of Patarei Prison, the scary one I'd seen in Tallinn the other day. But on the plus side it was cheap, and cheap is good. Alex and Valya were a great couple and if the entirety of this country is filled with Ian Huntleys, their loveliness still balances out Russians on the niceness scale pretty damn well.

Alex and Valya

Myth 3. The Roads are Bad: Ha! They aren't bad. They are fucking atrocious. They would make the transport minister of a banana republic blush with shame.

I'd been lulled into a false sense of security. From the Estonian border to Pskov, the road was fine - nice tidy tarmac, a little hard shoulder, and no traffic. Only the nasty Giant Hogweeds standing sentry along the roadside gave a hint of the horrors to come. After Pskov, the hard shoulder becomes a sand and gravel pit, alluringly rideable at times, when the intimacy of a speeding juggernaut three inches from your left-hand cheek gets too much. The road surface itself became Ukrainian in its shitness, which was another reason why the sandpit was alluring. For the quality of ride, these roads may as well have been made of cobbles, and that was the coroner's verdict for yesterday's spoke death.

Today things just got worse. The trucks got closer and so the sandpit became even more alluring and, like all sandpits, you never know how deep they are. And then your front wheel goes in and your handlebars go somewhere else and you fall into the road on to the tarmac, skinning both knees, praying, "Please, please, please let there be no cars coming from behind." I got up as quickly as I could and spun around. Phew, an oddly clear bit of road. Not wanting the shock of a dismount to unnerve me, I continued immediately, with a racing heart and stiffening, bloody knees. It was a few kilometres before I stopped and took stock of what had happened. Then I carried on and the same thing very nearly happened again, this time with a juicy truck hovering just close enough behind to squish my head. Luckily I caught the bike before it threw me from it.
Roads in Russia are scarce. There's no alternative to the route I've been taking. It took the rest of the day to come to a big decision.

That this is stupid.

Myth 4. Moscow is Rubbish: Apparently, Red Square aside, there's very little worth seeing. This is one myth that I won't be able to explode, because my decision is that I'm not going to go there. I've checked on Google StreetView, and with the information available, I would be encountering these types of roads every day for the next three weeks. I just don't think that my luck could hold out that long. Besides, I have a lovely girlfriend and a doting mum (and a dad, but dad's don't get factored into these equations for some reason) and I'd like not to die just yet. I'm not missing out on much. Russia is just a massive forest. There are few settlements of any size. There are only so many times you can look at a tree and go, "Oo, it's a tree!" But boredom isn't the reason for avoiding Moscow. Death: That's the reason for avoiding Moscow. Even the stupidly expensive visa isn't enough to make me want to carry on.

Opuchka, the town I'm in right now, is my last chance to escape Russia relatively easily. It's only 70 kilometres to the Latvian border. The rest of my trip will carry on as planned but I'll get to see both Latvia and Estonia again, which is nice. I liked both of those countries. Neither of them tried to kill me.

So has my challenge failed? In a way, yes. But in another way, hell no. I started off with a plan to see 50 capitals. But then I decided to include Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. So even by dropping Moscow, I will still have done 52 capitals. Turn a negative into a positive.

UniCycle52 - it's the future, baby! And I'd quite like to have a future.

Friday, 28 June 2013

To Russia With...Fear

Yes, I know, I know. Just over a month ago I promised you the second part of a blog about Belarus and I didn't deliver. I've seen four more countries since then too. I could have told you about Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, but I haven't. One excuse was the exam I had in Riga whose revision took up all my time, but even that was two weeks ago. But look at it this way: Why would you buy my book at the end of this ride if you knew everything that had already happened? You wouldn't, would you? Oh, and the things I've seen! That woman in Warsaw giving birth to a live monkey! That velociraptor on the loose in downtown Vilnius! That amusing parsnip shaped like a penis! OK, I made the last one up. So you'll just have to buy the book.

Amazing times though I've had, amazing people though I've met, amazing food though I've eaten in all these countries, I don't want to linger on the past. I want to talk about the future. My immediate future. And, if the advice I've received is correct, my immediate impending doom. Y'see, Monday brings me to the border of Russia, and apparently Russia is scarier than a naturist weekend on the surface of Venus.

This advice has come from Brits, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and, most worryingly, real life Russians living in Estonia. There was an all-night party a few days ago and about twenty of them impressed upon me just how likely I am to be robbed, skinned and eaten alive as soon as I take my first breath of Russian air. And some of them had even been there!

Last night I Skyped The Lovely Nina. I mentioned my concerns and the warnings about being robbed. Always positive, she said, "You'll be OK. No one'll rob you. You look like a tramp." Now, I'm not sure how much consolation that should be from your loved one, but I've gone and ruined it. Today, here in Tartu, only two days' ride from the Russian border, I foolishly went and got my hair cut. I've de-tramped myself. With my newly coiffured Estonian style and slightly greying stubble I could pass as super-tycoon Roman Abramovich. I'm a sitting duck. I may as well just fling my rouble-stuffed panniers from my bike as I pass the robbers in the streets.

A lot of Russia's problems seem to revolve around alcohol and I've seen a few warning signs myself. The closer I've got to the border, whether in Ukraine, Belarus or the Baltic states, the more people you see stripped to the waist, clutching bottles and staggering about the place. I saw one wobbly guy like that today, but he had the charming additional feature of very recent and extensive Dr Frankenstein-style facial stitches from which leaked fresh blood.

If people are *that* pissed I don't mind so much. There's only so much damage you can do when your central priority is balance. But here's the worry: Put them behind the wheel of a car and their balance isn't an issue. They can scream around, pinging cyclists from the road at will, just for a laugh. And, according to one person I spoke to, here in Estonia the police are incorruptible and so drink driving equals prison, whereas in Russia all you need to do to avoid arrest is to buy the copper a bottle or two of vodka and it's all sorted. And then I might be being pinged off the road by the fuzz!

Then there's the other problem: Moscow. Moscow is absolutely massive! If you've ever wondered how daunting it might be to cycle into London or Paris or Rome, all I can say is don't be a wuss. Moscow is sooooo big that the whole of London could comfortably fit inside the first 'o' of Moscow. More people live in Moscow than in the whole of Europe, including Russia. That's how big it is.

But I have a map of the city. And I think I have a small party of British cyclists meeting me about 100 km from Red Square to escort me in, although they've never attempted this route either.

Mmm, what could possibly go wrong?

Monday, 27 May 2013

Belarus Part 1: Dreading Belarus

It was with a mixture of excitement and dread that I was approaching Belarus. It is, after all, the last dictatorship in Europe. It's also the last country in Europe to hang on to communism. Communism suggests poverty, shifty secret police and endless queues for basics like bread. Is this what I would find? I had so many questions but the internet couldn't tell me. Really it was the unknown that I was fearing.

There's a web site called There you can find nearly ten thousand blogs of cyclists who have a story to tell. If you need to research your own trip, it's a great resource to learn all you can about the places you're interested in visiting. If you type in 'Belarus' and search through the results you realise that only two of those bloggers ever visited Belarus, and one of those was a quick two-night stay to the far north-west corner of the place. No one cycles here. There must be a reason for that.

Well, there are lots of reasons. First of all, the visa is expensive and tricky to obtain. Second, the politics of the place scare a lot of people away. There may also be fear of radiation, since Ukraine's Chernobyl selfishly dumped its worst on the south-east corner of Belarus. There's a chunk of the country that's still a restricted area.

But I came here, via the swampy south of the land. The border guards were friendly although the mosquitoes weren't. I came away with my visa stamped and my legs smeared in my own blood as I wiped off hundreds of the buggers. Three days later I was in the little town of Mar'ina Horka. I had a reservation at a hotel there. Such is bureaucracy here, and my rubbish Russian, it only took 25 minutes to check in.

The next day, the morning of my 43rd birthday, I had some very special cycling companions: Bruce, the UK ambassador to Belarus; Martin, a good friend of his and whose wife also works at the embassy; Chris, number two at the US embassy; and Denis and Pavel, two Belarussians, one of whom had done an MBA with the Open University. It was nice to hand over the route-finding decisions for one day only as Chris directed us for 80 kilometres on smaller roads to the riverside cycle path on the edge of Minsk. This path would take us all the way to the centre of my 39th capital and to the appropriately named Victory Square.

The team: Martin, Denis, me and Bruce (and Chris taking the photo)

Bruce, the UK ambassador, clearly loves a challenge. Of all the European ambassadorial roles this one has to be the trickiest. He has to make connections within Belarus but he can't get close to the regime. He has to be positive about the country but remain critical about it too. His mantra is: "It's clean, it's safe, everyone has a job". The way that he rattles off that statement makes you expect it to be followed with a big, fat 'but'. But there is no 'but'. It's a clever trick, positive and yet critical.

But these three things - cleanliness, safety, full employment - aren't to be taken lightly. There's no other country in Europe that can boast this trio. As soon as I hit Mozyr, the first town over the border, it was obvious that the place was a lot tidier than any of the countries I've visited so far except perhaps Austria and Switzerland. And full employment is a first. No one was homeless or looked like they were desperately short of a meal. The roads here are the best in non-EU, eastern Europe (so far), the exact opposite of Ukraine's, the worst in Europe, just over the border. And Belarus's apartment blocks, at least the ones I saw, are not crumbling like Romania's. Something is right here.

But then again something's wrong too. There's a darker side to Belarus but for the casual cycle tourist it's not something you would ever see. Bruce has been here nearly a year and he admitted that he hadn't seen it first hand either. I'm perhaps not seeing the table, just the varnish but it's a varnish that enables me to walk around feeling entirely safe.

I'm torn. Freedom is everything. The UK's politics is adversarial. Whenever one side proposes something, the other side takes the opposite view. It's about scoring points. It's about one side gaining or retaining power. We have some massive decisions to make soon, decisions about climate change, peak oil and sustainable pensions for a start. Their solutions will not come within a single term of office. They'll take decades. And it'll be painful. But it can't happen with our system of party politics because whichever side is causing the pain necessary to solve the problems will be kicked out next time around. There needs to be a stable government in power for decades to see the plan through to its conclusion. The system here in Belarus, with one man - one dictator - in control,  for all its serious human rights abuses, is more geared up to solve long term problems than the UK's. And yet freedom is everything. Freedom versus solutions. That's why I'm torn.

And so while I came here with a dread of the country, I leave with a grudging admiration for the place. Its past political violence and police heavyhandedness can't be forgiven but I will happily wear the bright red and green Belarus t-shirt given to me by Martin as a surprise birthday present (it was a surprise for him - he didn't know it was my birthday) and talk fondly of the country and remember these few days not as a nightmare I survived but as one of the highlights of my entire trip.

Sorry, that got a bit serious, didn't it? Part two will be back to the usual frivolity and tell of a great bunch of co-riders, jazz concerts, reindeer soup and elk for lunch, cheeky photographers, ambassadors and Ferrero Rocher and include no politics whatsoever.

да пабачэння!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Chisinau & Kiev

Sorry, it's been a couple of weeks, hasn't it? I've been busy with the cycling but also revision for my MT365 maths exam on the 11th June in Latvia. Since last time I've seen two more capitals, Moldova's Chisinau and Ukraine's Kiev.

What can I say about Chisinau? Well, I can't see many people adding it to their bucket lists. It's got no real sights to see and none of that magic that you sometimes find in smaller cities, like the joyous Sarajevo. Moldova itself was lovely, a giant allotment of a country with, it seemed, each household growing fruit or vegetables in its back garden, maybe out of necessity but it still looked pretty. Moldova does countryside very well. But its cities are not up to much. And the country as a whole is desperately short on road signs. Finding your way out of a strange, car-stuffed city with half a million inhabitants and without any help at junctions or roundabouts is a bit taxing. Perhaps it's the Moldovan government's way of keeping you trapped in town spending your money.

Luckily, using the power of my trusty compass, I escaped the city. The first road sign confirmation that I was on the right road out of town came about 20 kilometres from the centre. I was heading to Orhei or, rather, a small village, Trebujeni, nearby that has a little, pink house. And after the traffic, noise and dirt of Chisinau it was lovely to spend one evening sat in the garden of the little pink house, reading as the sun went down, being served up way too much Moldovan home cooking. Don't worry, it didn't go to waste; I took cakes and pancakes with me the following day to sustain me on the next leg. If you fancy a trip to Moldova, skip Chisinau and go to the pink house.

A week or so later I was hauling myself into Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. I'd been warned that hotel prices in Kiev were inflated. Although my first Ukrainian night cost me only €8, the cheapest bed of my entire tour, elsewhere in Ukraine I'd been paying around €25 for a room. Kiev would be double this, giving my budget a good kicking. Ten minutes after hitting the city proper, I found a hotel that €50. I was all ready to accept this when the glum receptionist added that she wanted another €4 per night to lock up my bike. Every other hotel on this trip has done this for free and so I walked away. If I'd found an offer so soon, how hard could it be to find a second?

It would be two hours before I found another room, cycling around a 2.5 million inhabitant city without a map. The first hotel I approached was full, the second was, ahem, a dog hotel (OK, I know the Ukrainian word for 'hotel', but not 'dog'). The next was full, the next's only remaining single room was 'premier', whatever that means, and was going to cost me €170. Er, no thanks. The next was full. I was beginning to think that I might end up sleeping in a park. But then I found a tiny place, with only seven rooms, and they wanted the same price as the very first hotel and were happy to include the price of the stored bike. Result! Much longer searching and I might have returned to the dog hotel and given them €20 for a cage.

So, having cycled around much of Kiev already, the next day I went out to explore. I wonder if all this city seeing is making me slightly jaded. Kiev has some lovely churches, the glittering, onion-domed towers of Orthodox architecture, but it also has a lot of the crap that comes with a successful tourist market, people dressed up in costume to winkle the cost of a photo out of a passing tourist. You could choose from a rabbit, a pharoah, Scrat from Ice Age and a manky-looking home-made Bart Simpson with a nose that would have been more more suited to Squidwood - all national icons of Ukraine, as you well know. And you also had plenty of those turnips who dress up as statues and then stand about. I think if you've looked at the balance of your talents and decided that your only chance of income comes from standing still for hours on end, it's probably time to get that CV moving with an OU course.

Chisinau and Kiev may not have been this year's Rome or Istanbul but I'm glad I've seen them, and even happier that I saw all the places in between. But now it's time to go as eastern European as it's possible to go. Next stop, Belarus!

Monday, 6 May 2013

When Old Ladies Attack

Never believe anything you read on the internet, especially if it warns you of the dangers of a place you want to visit. Fear is a good motivator to keep you ploughing through someone's blog but stuff can be made up or exaggerated to provide a good read. Don't worry - you'll never find me trying to provide you with a good read.

Here's a fine example - the Ukrainian border. I'd read on numerous occasions of time-wasting, total bag searches that keep you trapped for hours and then the compulsory bribe when the guards find a tube of Smarties that could - they say - be a party pack of something trippy. So, as I approached the Moldova-Ukraine border, I fretted a bit because my blood pressure medication consists of five tubs of self-labelled pills that could easily be mistaken for ecstasy (well, in my mind anyway, having never actually seen a real E). That's surely got to be a bribe in the thousands.

So I turned up at the border, the guards and I chatted nicely about my trip - even the burly bouncer type border guard in charge seemed impressed with the distance (I'm now past 25,000 km) - and they let me through within five minutes. The irony is that I don't have high blood pressure and I now have loads of high quality drugs with a street value of three million pounds to sell in Kiev. Except I can't speak the lingo. Looks like it'll be personal consumption then.

If the first 24 hours of life in Ukraine is a yardstick for what's to come then it might take me a few months to get through the entire country. Yesterday, shortly after arriving here, I quickly searched for a hotel and quickly found one. Sat in what you could call reception but wasn't really (think hallway) were two middle-aged women: a small, chubbly, smiley one and a small, chubbly, moustachioed one. The latter was Maria, also a guest, a Polish lass here for Orthodox Easter. Despite my insistence that I don't believe in God and stuff she invited me to the celebrations at the local church the next day.

So I went. Now, I could write about this for about five thousand words but I won't. I'll summarise. If you want more, please buy my book. When I eventually write it. Each book will come with a free E.

Anyway, the service itself, like all church services, was tedious in the extreme with lots of chanting by a football team of heavily garbed priests in big hats standing in distant parts of the church that the congregation could barely see. I think boredom at these things is to be expected but I was there for the new experience.

Church service - Yeahhh....awn!

There was also an outdoors part of the service where we were all splattered with a large brush soaked with holy water. Some poor, old sod on the front row got a right soaking. It nearly knocked off her head scarf. But it was a hot day and we were all happy for God's cooling effect.

After the service, which lasted two and a half feckin' hours, there was an outdoor buffet. Buffets in the UK are very British. We all form an orderly queue with our little floppy plates and then, after collecting our goodies, we stand around in the middle of the room with the plate in one hand and a drink in the other wondering how the hell we are going to eat that pasta salad. Not in Ukraine. Here you stand around the table with a spoon in your hand and you dig in. (Yes, Nina - double dipping!)

Dig in, ladies!

And then once you've realised that the tall bloke with the weird blond eyebrows near the end of the table is from England you stop digging in and you make it your life's mission to feed him and make sure that he takes as much as possible of the table's contents home with him.

Next to me was Julia, a soft spoken German-Russian lady in her 60s with a lovely, open face ('open' as in friendly, not an axe wound or anything). We spoke in German. She topped up my plate about ten times, made sure I had plenty of wine and water and slied chocolates into my little rucksack. And then, when it was time to leave, she sneaked a bottle of red wine in there too. Oh, and two carrier bags of snacks. Then another older lady asked me to wait for a minute and then delivered a third carrier bag. I haven't lost the whole of my winter weight yet - I can't look that hungry. But lots of the folk around the table were doing a sort of 'strong cycling' mime - y'know, scrunched up faces and twisty hands - and so I guess I might need the sustenance to get me through the little hills that lie ahead.

Me and (one third of the) swag.

Normally it would be time to return to the hotel but not today. Instead Maria and her new friend Acsenti, a wonderfully friendly but manically talkative bloke, had decided to take me to the monastery at Lyadova. Only a visit - they weren't planning to section me or anything. So we climbed on to the back seat of Sergei and missus's car (yes, I know these are new characters - keep up) and off we popped to this 11th century church on the deep green banks of the silver river Dniester. And we saw skulls in caves, and drank holy water, and Acsenti bought me a couple of Jesus Top Trump type thingies from the gift shop for luck and health - if only I played Dungeons and Dragons! - and that type of thing. Look at the website - it was an interesting trip.

Skullls. You'd probably guessed that.

Just as we were about to jump into the car to go back to town, a family of Moldovans invited us - just like that! - to join their picnic. We drank their wine and ate their jars of meatballs and I really can't imagine something like that happening in, say, Blackburn.

The family of friendly Moldovans.

When the dad of the Moldovan family learnt of the nature of my trip, he said to me, "Your ride is a mission of peace". And even though I'd never thought of it like that, and - who knows? - maybe the religiosity of the day had got to me or, in reality, the totally wonderful and yet entirely unnecessary friendship that had been shown to me by absolutely everyone I'd met today, he was right. It's about peace, and it's about new friends, but some of it's also about old ladies sneaking bottles of wine into your rucksack.

So, if there's somewhere you fear going, just go. It'll be fine. Scratch what I said earlier. You can believe some things on the internet.

Friday, 26 April 2013

A Little Place To Call My Own

On Bucharest's Bulevardui Libertăţii is Romania's National Institute of Statistics. That must have been the best place to work during Nicolae Ceaușescu's dictatorial reign. As you might know, I love maths but there isn't much room for creative thinking. But in a communist statistics department you could invent any old shite. Productivity is up by how much this month, you say? Oh, I dunno. How about a million percent? That'll do. Brilliant.

Right across the road from the National Institute of Statistics is a building that has provided a few amazing statistics of its own. Although in the late 80s Ceaușescu - the man who put the first syllable in 'dictator' - was failing to balance the books, he decided to build himself a little palace. This palace turned out to be, then as it is now, the largest civilian building in the world, as well as the heaviest and the most expensive. Well, we're all in it together. Even though Cameron trots out that line, equality was never supposed to be the backbone of capitalism, but it's the very heart of communism. Given the squalor of a lot of Bucharest's apartments even today - judging by their crumbling exteriors at least - it's hard to see how building such a monument to himself back in the 80s could have helped Ceaușescu's popularity. Luckily it didn't and he was shot before it was finished.

The palace. Though in real life it's bigger than that.

The building itself - now called The Palace of the Parliament - is fuppin' huge. It has 1,100 rooms on 20 stories (8 of which are underground). To do a lap of the building's exterior is a two mile walk. The total floorspace is 340,000 square metres. Can't visualise that? It's approximately 50 football pitches. And then there's the opulence of its building materials. They used a million cubic metres of marble and 3,500 tonnes of crystal. The building has nearly 500 chandeliers for gawd's sake.

And it wasn't a green field site, oh no! In his wisdom, Ceaușescu - remember, to build his one home - demolished a vast area of Bucharest's historic district and with it nineteen Orthodox Christian churches, six Jewish synagogues, three Protestant churches and another eight that were relocated. Oh yes, and 30,000 homes.

The palace cost Romania three billion euros. When you see it for yourself, this monstrous white elephant with its huge Corinthian columns, you can imagine the effort, the labour, the time, the resources that went into. It's slightly worrying that the UK's deficit (the amount the UK's debt increases each year, not the debt itself) is about 40 of these palaces. That's two thousand football pitches of palace with twenty thousand chandeliers, each year. Just think how that money could have been spent instead. They could almost have built two palaces for each of the ConDem cabinet. Oh, go on, they deserve it.

Bucharest's Museum of Contemporary Art - usually a good-for-a-laugh pit stop in any city - is in the corner of the palace. Unfortunately it's the far corner and so it's a bit of a walk. The car park near the museum is falling to pieces. Its surface is in bits. Perhaps the budget isn't there to maintain such a palace. But the museum is free, or at least it was today. It didn't contain the usual collection of bonkers things that you'd normally expect in such a gallery although it had its moments. There was a film of a wolf and a very nervous looking deer trapped in a room together. The wolf stalks around, the deer wobbles a bit, the wolf lies down, the film repeats. You never get the death scene you are obviously anticipating. Is that what it means? Is it saying how we crave that blood lust moment. How should I bloody know? I just thought the wolf looked nice and fluffy.

That's the problem, and perhaps the beauty, of contemporary art. You can interpret it any way you like. It means nothing and everything. There was another film of a circle of about thirty people, all different ages and ethnicities, laid face down with an outstretched, bandaged palm towards the centre of the ring. A woman - the artist I'm guessing - lays a fuse in a large circle over each hand and then, when she's finished, she sets fire to it. A closeup of each hand shows the person's reaction as the flame passes over their particular bandage and lightly frazzles their naked fingers. What does that mean? Maybe it means we're all in it together. Or maybe it means one single person can cause pain to a large group and there's bugger all you can do about it. Maybe it's a metaphor for the palace itself.

Or maybe it's just a load of cock. After all, most contemporary art is cock. And I've got the statistics to prove it. I know 'cos I just invented them.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Live From The Crossroads Motel

I was expecting snow and ice and polar bears, wasn't I? It didn't happen. I got lucky again. The evening before I set off, as I trudged to a grungy pub in Graz to say a final farewell to good mates Damian and Jo, it was sleeting a sort of miserable, icy chowder of depression. The next day, Pete and I began this gymungous journey and it managed to stay dry but a frozen wind blasted our stupid, little faces until the only option was to dive into another bar, but one that wasn't a dive this time. Then, the next day, Pete left to return to reality and the sun came out. That was over a week ago. And the sun's been out every day since. And it's forecast for the foreseeable future, as long as we only try to foresee for a few days. I'd say 'thank you, God' but He's probably busy infecting African babies with malaria or something.

But something bad has happened. As I sit here, in the most inappropriate motel in Romania (I'll come to that in a minute), glugging a glass of Transylvanian red, which appropriately looks like a cup of blood, I can't remember anything about Hungary. Well, that's not entirely true. I remember Budapest but, from what I saw, Budapest doesn't seem very representative of Hungary. I mean, it had buildings and stuff. Most of Hungary is this big, flat, featureless thing. You can't take a decent photo of a big, flat, featureless thing. It can't be done. Have you ever seen a decent photo of an absolutely massive pancake? Well, have you? No, you haven't.

So the long days of ticking off the kilometres as I passed through sparsely populated Hungarian villages, where the only human interaction was someone who looked like the big, lurchy fella from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre gurning at me from every bus stop, has added up to an indistinct memorial blob of partially flooded, very, very flat farmland. Oh, and cheap beer. If you're Hungarian, don't get me wrong. I probably chose a really rubbish route. And I'm not knocking Hungarians. I had a great chat with Robert, one of your lot, who ran a hotel in Budapest. I think. Maybe I just dreamt that conversation to fill in the gaps.

Anyway, now I'm in Romania and I have to tell you that the roads are bleedin' mental. If you look at my Romanian road map, there are basically four choices of road. There are motorways, of which there are not many and it seems no one uses them anyway. How do I know this? Because all the traffic that should be on the motorway is on the A-roads. The colour of motorways on my map is irrelevant as I can't go on them. A-roads, which are red on my map, are usually in an OK condition, except the shoulder, i.e., the bit I have to cycle on. The shoulder is full of stones and broken glass and twisted metal, so I try to keep out of that. But then the juggernauts might get me. So I go back into the shoulder. And so on. It's not perfect.

There are two other types of road. One of these is yellow on my map and appears to be a sort of B-road. I haven't found one of these yet but I'm hoping for one the day after tomorrow. And then we come to the last type of road, the really thin, little, white one. On most European maps this indicates something like a peaceful, idyllic lane. And it can mean that here too. But if instead of the map showing a really thin, little, white road, it shows a really, really thin, little, white road - and you honestly do need a magnifying glass to tell the difference - then it means an unsurfaced road, the sort of track they used to have on the 80s motocross show Kickstart, and there are loads of these. Bloody millions.

Today my destination forced me on to a purely red, A-road route. It was trucks and coaches and cars going at light speed all the way for about six hours. I'd planned to go a bit farther but, with a strong headwind, I quit early when I found a roadside motel. I felt frazzled. I thought a beer or a glass of wine might calm me down and remove the heavy goods vehicles from my nightmares. But, silly me, this motel sits right by that busy A-road. Each time a juggernaut goes past - about ten per minute on average - my walls wobble like I'm on the set of Crossroads. So  I won't get much peace. And then I discovered that the train comes past my window too. When that happens the whole room turns inside out like in that film Inception. But apparently this too shall pass and so everything's just dandy.

If you're planning a cycling holiday in Romania, may I suggest France instead. Or not cycling at all.

Monday, 8 April 2013

No Cheese, Sherlock!

Some people have a difficult start in life. Take US goalkeeper Tim Howard for example. He was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome as a young boy. But I think, like Sherlock Holmes on a pushbike - Bicyclelock Holmes if you like - I've deduced that little Tim was the victim of a terrible misdiagnosis. Let me explain, by which I mean let me waffle nonsensically for a bit and then come back to it right at the end.

Country number one this year is Hungary. It's where I'm sat right now, in a forgettable little town, drinking beer at 1980s prices. Before leaving Austria yesterday with good mate Pete, I'd given him a little cribsheet of important Hungarian words, written phonetically for ease of pronunciation. My cribsheet is very useful for this bizarre language but having done my extensive research there are some words in Hungarian that I will remember until the day Alzheimer's sets in. It's hard to forget that the Hungarian word for 'cheese' sounds exactly like 'shite'. Or that one version of their word for 'no' is 'minge'. Oh, and 'trees' sounds like just like 'faaaak'. I could be wrong about all this. I got my information from Google Translate's virtual speaker. Maybe it had been hacked.

Anyway, we set off yesterday on what was possibly a stupidly long distance for a first day - 134 km (90 miles). I hadn't cycled so much this winter and it turned out that Pete had never cycled so far in his entire life. By the time we hit the Hungarian border, still with 60 km to go, we were tired and extremely Hungary. Luckily, just over the border was the sort of transit cafe/bar you see in lots of places over here. There appears to be a rule that they are only allowed one party of customers at a time. And - lucky us! - we were that party.

The staff, of which there were many, spoke a little German but we tried our Hungarian phonetic cribsheet. Something that sounds like 'kate scher' got us the two beers we desired. Yeah, Google Translate! Scanning the food menu, my eye was drawn to their burger options, particularly their 'shiteburger'. Fearing that they might know enough German to fulfil our order a little too accurately, we went for the 'extraburger' without really knowing what the extra was. It turns out to have been cabbage. Nice cabbage though.

We struggled on to Szombathely, our destination, with a fierce headwind and collapsed into the cheapest hotel we could find, which was also the only hotel we could find. This saving allowed us to eat in the only restaurant open on a Sunday evening (apart from McDonald's) and go a bit mental. The highlight was a bottle of wine that was made from a bizarre Hungarian grape that could only be enjoyed if it was blended with a more popular grape, a bit like the way that people can only stomach Piers Morgan if he's interviewing someone much less of a twat. The wine tasted alright though. And then there was the main course. I ordered a mountain of meat offering allsorts but also, and this was the reason I choose it, pigs' trotters. It was another first for me. Mmm, they're, er, gelatinous.

What the 'trees' has all this got to do with Tourette's Tim Howard and his effing and blindingly good goalkeeping. Well, Tim Howard was born in the USA - wait for it! - of Hungarian parents. Have you put the picture together yet? Tim wasn't swearing uncontrollably. He was just talking to his dad in his native tongue. Tim's doctor clearly didn't have my phonetic cribsheet. Or am I talking 'cheese'?

It's Snow Joke

(This was supposed to be on my other blog - the Open University one - but they don't seem to be replying to my emails...)

I'm excited. By the time you read this I will be either preparing to leave Austria or already on the road to Budapest on the final leg of the UniCycle50 tour. And unless something amazing has happened to the weather between writing this post and you reading it, it's all going to be a bit snowy. The whole point of splitting the ride into three stages, from April to September for three years, was to avoid the cold stuff. Oh well.

So far, over the 22,500 kilometres I've cycled, I've been spectacularly lucky with the weather. Over the twelve months of actually moving through Europe I have probably had less than three weeks of rain, and six days of that was trying to escape England right at the beginning. And if the rain wasn't as severe as expected, neither was the summer sun. August 2011 probably wasn't the most intelligent time to be cycling through Spain, but then again neither was it ideal to spend the whole of July 2012 in Turkey. Luckily for me, the temperature rarely exceeded 35C (95F) in either place and that's bearable on a bike as long as you keep moving. As this year is the Northern European stage I can't imagine it's the heat that's going to be the problem.

So it looks like, statistically, I'm due some rubbish weather. Fortunately, the countries that I'll be cycling  through during the coldest period of 2013 - Austria and Hungary - get a good dumping of snow every year. Surely they will be able to cope with it better than the UK does. I'm expecting clear roads, although the campsites might be more of an issue. That is, if they've even bothered to open at all by the time I pass by.
I'll be presented with a bigger challenge if this year's winter continues into the second half of April. The only hills of any decent size this year are the spooky Carpathian mountains that rise up shortly after I cross the border into Romania. Romania is known for its dodgy roads even at the best of times. If there's snow at the bottom of the hill, climbing up to a pass at 1200 metres will be interesting. Still, no one said it was going to be easy.

So, six months of cycle adventure and study is spread out before me like a slightly scary duvet, taking me through some of the most rarely visited places in Europe. And if you happen to live in or around Budapest, Bucharest, Chisinau, Kiev, Minsk, Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, Tallin, Moscow, St Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Cardiff, Dublin, Belfast or Edinburgh, I'd love to meet up for a beer or, more likely, a giant mug of steaming coffee and a warm blanket. You can reach me at once my computer has defrosted.