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Cycling Eurasia : The adventure begins

Josh Cunningham
4 Aug 2015

Josh recounts the first leg of his trans-Eurasian bike tour - Scotland to Istanbul through the snowy landscapes of a European winter.

Not 10 minutes before and I was happily snoozing in my sleeping bag on the cosy living room floor of my Warm Showers host (an accommodation network akin to Couchsurfing, but exclusively for touring cyclists). Then, at the ungodly time of 4:30 in the morning, I found myself welcomed to the day in the most bracing fashion, stood outside in a cruel -10 degrees. The final piece of my six-layer defence was being whipped like a sail off the coast of Cape Horn by squalls of icy wind. The occasional snowflakes caught amid the tireless breeze, cutting back and forth in the darkness, stung my face. Fresh snow crunched beneath my feet as I began to unlock my bike and wipe it clean of the white coating it had acquired during the night.

I was in Lindau, on the eastern shores of Lake Constance in the far south of Germany, and had been forcibly tasked with a foolhardy ride to neighbouring Austria. I was destined for Innsbruck, which lay over 200km away on the other side of the Arlberg Pass. 14 hours later, having finished one of the most beautiful and difficult days on the bike so far in the trip, I arrived. Once again in darkness, I stood at the door of a friend of a friend of a friend who was studying in the city. Except this friend had gone away for the weekend so I found myself sipping beer, and eating homemade pizza, with his housemate and friends, who weren't in the slightest bit phased by my random appearance; A fitting end to a day that, with its challenges, landscapes, border-crossings and generosity of strangers, encapsulated long-distance bike touring.

Cast back a couple of weeks to January 23rd and it had taken me six days to get from my starting point of Dumfries, in Scotland, to Dover and the smoothness of the ride had given me full confidence in my bike and equipment plus an intense eagerness for the journey ahead. The Dover-Calais crossing was familiar to me after years of racing in Europe, and the subsequent ambling through Belgium via meetings with old friends (and foes of the cobbled variety) made the event of leaving relatively easy to handle. As I headed south, rain in the Ardennes turned to snow in Luxembourg that made for some tricky riding between jack-knifed HGVs abandoned on the un-gritted surfaces but also meant that I enjoyed virtually empty roads and Christmas card scenery.

Bizarrely, progress was good because the weather enforced it. Mealtimes consisted of moseying around food shops to buy the ingredients for my self-titled hobo pizza and hobo Bolognese dishes (pasta, ketchup, cheese and bread). I was spending every moment of the day outside and the deep reaches of the cold made any activity that didn't involve pedalling, or being wrapped up in the sleeping bag, too uncomfortable to entertain. Even the latter was at times second best and on a few occasions across Europe I was even forced to pack up my tent and start the day at four or five o'clock in the morning just to get warm. But still, I told myself: Better to endure a winter in Europe than a winter in the Himalayas, which is what an alternative departure time would have dictated.

The Black Forest in Germany is somewhere that had always intrigued me, if not for the name alone then for the pictures I had seen of its fairytale mountains and forests. As I made the ferry crossing over the river Rhine, I could see from the first buttresses of densely wooded slopes that I was not going to be disappointed.

The climb up to the main arterial road, the magnificently named Schwarzwaldhochstraße (Black Forest high road) was closed due to snow, but with the alternative being a 100km detour I overruled local advice. I must confess that further I got from home the more ignoring advice became an increasingly inadvisable thing to do, so I was delighted in only having to drag my bike over 200m of unrideable snow near the top. The rewards were the dramatic views of dense, endlessly sprawling, forests ossified under angry skies and the prospect of a descent that would more or less last until the Austrian border.

After my alpine entrance between Lindau and Innsbruck, I was snowed in for three days before I could take on the Brenner Pass, which took me across another border into the German-speaking region of South Tirol, Italy. 'Ein Tirol' read some graffiti on a wall at the top of the pass, echoing the transnational sentiments of those either side of the border, who very much see themselves as Tyrolean.

The descent off the Brenner rolled me out of Tyrol, before an easterly turn took me into the heart of the Dolomites; the distinctive limestone faces make it one of the most stunning ranges in the whole of the Alps. The 2244m Passo Sella and 2239m Passo Pordoi stood as the main obstacles in my route out of the mountains but their textbook hairpin bends, and the views which these provided, were ample motivation to haul my laden bike up the many inclines. At the top I found the company of skiers with which to enjoy a coffee, many of whom took great humour at the sight of a cyclist in lyrca mingling among the armies of puffer jackets and salopettes. 'Du bist kalt, nein?!'

After a more touristic excursion to the fabled coastal city of Venice, I rounded the northern tip of the Mediterranean and made a dash across a brief 70km stretch of Slovenia before plunging down to the myriad islands and coves that form the Croatian coastline. For five days I followed its contours as the road clung perilously to the side of the whitewashed, craggy cliffs and, after weeks of snowy conditions, took much encouragement from the blue skies and sun that blessed every inch of the south-bound 400km coastal route.

Despite the good weather, and picturesque scenery, my spirits were not always high. I had been on the road for over a month at this point and the reality check that had evaded me upon leaving Dover was now foisting itself into my head. A day of unrelenting headwinds, which had preceded by a night squatting in somebody's garage, was ended by being kicked out of a farmer's cowshed. In a desperate search for shelter, I was eventually finished off by carrying my bike, and then panniers, up a cliff to what looked like a building. My shoes ripped on a rock in the process and once in the building I discovered that the roof had caved in many years ago. A night in sleep-depriving fear of my tent being blown away, punctuated by thoughts of 'What am I doing?' duly followed.

I began to turn inland after negotiating the ancient Roman city of Split and found that the impressiveness that the crystal blue waters of the Adriatic offered, were replaced quite capably by the shades of turquoise of rivers I followed into the mountainous heart of the Balkan peninsula. First came the Cetina, as I cut inland from Croatia into Bosnia, and then the Neretva. I made my way to Sarajevo through the city of Mostar: a settlement that found its making by way of the Ottoman empire and its near-destruction during the Bosnian war of the early nineties. Entering Sarajevo bought a similarly hard-hitting cityscape: the sharp lines of eastern bloc architecture riddled with the rounded wounds of bullet holes and mortar damage - but it was my first city since London, and a few days spent wandering the concrete melancholia provided a welcome respite from the road.

I left Sarajevo for the Serbian portion of Bosnia, then subsequently Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia before entering a portion of Europe far removed from the western culture I had stereotypically associated with the entire continent. Ramshackle buildings of wood and recycled hardcore dotted the roadside, each with a menagerie of forlorn looking animals poking around in a run and a small plot of land baring the marks of a modest root-veg crop. The weathered-looking individuals tending these smallholdings - often an elderly couple working together - were wrapped from the cold in heavy coats and shawls and would momentarily lean an elbow on their staffs to watch my quiet passing before hesitantly returning my raised hand of acknowledgement.

I continued on south towards Greece, through the Balkan hills - hills whose brown, leafless, undulating nature echoed the perception of the infinite winter I found myself in. If the Alps were a sea of great whites, puncturing my leg strength with mighty bites, then the Balkans proved to be an ocean of piranhas, incessantly nibbling away at them. I could sense the comfort of a break in Istanbul and time was now ticking steadily towards the date I had set to meet a friend who was making his way across Eastern Europe, and in whose company I would continue on eastwards.

After having both fought against unrelenting headwinds since the border, it was in a rush of excitement that we met in the otherwise unmemorable Turkish industrial town of Corlu. Rob had come from Bulgaria, me from Greece. We both reflected back a bedraggled state of tiredness; the same indifference to appearance that allowed us to sit on a town centre pavement and fire up a cooking stove; the same understanding of what the past six weeks of learning how to bicycle tour had taken; the same enthusiasm to begin honing the art of the road. Before long we were on the road again and began crossing the Bosphorus towards the next leg of the journey: Asia.

For Part 1 of the journey: Preparing for the off

You can follow Josh on Twitter: @coshjunningham or on his website joshuacunningham.info

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