Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Istanbul or Bust - A Long Way Home

We were about to leave Bosnia (new readers might want to begin here) and there was quite a queue to get to the border. Not because the process was arduous but because some idiot had tried to drive round a truck on the bridge over the river that divided the two countries, and nothing could go anywhere. As the traffic eventually started to move and we rode away, a Bosnian border guard walked over and tapped on the offending driver's window. I got the impression one of them had all day to kill, and the other was in a bit of a hurry. It was almost poetry.

Crossing the bridge, we arrived at the Croatian border post. When we'd started this trip Croatia was a candidate for EU membership. By the time we got there it was a full-fledged member which meant no hassle with customs, just a quick glance at my passport and the usual quizzical look at my vehicle paperwork.The woman in the booth demanded it, then clearly had no idea what she was looking at, and shooed me away.

This would be where the group first split. We'd all intended to ride to Bardonecchia, near the French border in Italy, and Steve couldn't quite bear the prospect of a 550 mile day riding across Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. He also wanted to pop in to San Marino, thereby adding another country to his tally and guaranteeing two 600 mile days instead. Sometimes I wonder about people. I needed to be home a day earlier than Mark and Simon, and the prospect of riding to Bardonecchia and then doing 700 miles the next day to get home filled me with dread, so I'd decided to skip Italy and split a direct route over two days. But we had another destination in mind first, so we shook hands with Steve, waved him off and made a move for our final stop in Yugoslavia.

Simon, through his job, had got to know a chap, Dalibor, who was his Croatian counterpart. We'd been invited to stay at his summer house near Bjelovar, just east of the capital, Zagreb. Our host for the night had arranged for friends from two local bike clubs to join us for a barbecue and general biker-lifestyle piss-up, and it seemed like a pretty good deal. The 80 mile ride from the border introduced us to the Croatian approach to speed limits, which seemed to involve putting up random signs at random intervals with random limits that everyone comprehensively ignores. With 50k limits through the countryside, followed by 80k limits through towns, I opted for the tried-and-tested approach of latching onto a local for a bit, before giving up and just riding at whatever speed felt appropriate.

Before long we arrived in Bjelovar where Dalibor was waiting to lead us into the town centre to grab a coffee and meet his friends. We all introduced ourselves, had a drink and got chatting, sometimes directly, sometimes with one of the English-speakers acting as interpreter. Once everyone had turned up we went back to the bikes and followed our host in his car to a nearby village where we were spending the night. It quickly became apparent that what I thought was blatant disregard for speed limits had been small-fry compared to that shown by the locals, and in no time we were parked up and the beer was flowing..

We were soon adopted by two patch-wearing bike clubs, and with the beer flowing we were able to overcome all language barriers. The same trick had worked well for us everywhere we'd been and this was no exception. To give an idea of the scale of our trip, I dug out my full set of Michelin maps for every country we'd been to and spread them out on some wooden decking.

Even Genghis Khan didn't sweep across a continent that fast

To be honest, with them spread out before us, even I was surprised at the scale of our venture. I know people do longer trips, but as a first time out east, with a tight timescale, it felt like we'd gone a bloody long way. By that point it was something like 5600km in twelve days' riding, fairly respectable considering we'd hardly seen a motorway or dual carriageway in Europe since we'd left Hungary ten days earlier. Our host explained, somewhat tongue in cheek, that for his club a typical ride would be more like 50km, followed by a six hour lunch, and another 50km home. Not so different to the UK really, and the kind of thing that some of our group had seemed like they'd prefer at times, but a world apart from what we'd been doing.

Wine followed beer and with the wine came a cracking meal. Our hosts did themselves proud, and I thoroughly enjoyed what I knew would be my last night of the trip as part of a group. All too soon it was time for people to head home, and once again we realised we'd been the only ones hitting the bottle. With yet another long day ahead we headed straight off get some sleep.

I looked at my satnav before hitting the sack, and told it to take me home. I looked again in the morning. It was Saturday, and I was somewhere east of Zagreb in Croatia. Home was 1124 miles away, a good 1800km on top of the 5600 I'd already done. And I had to be at work in London on Monday morning. This was going to be a tough gig.

Estimated arrival, 4pm. Tomorrow.

We'd planned to be moving around 8am, so we were up early and had just finished packing our luggage when Dalibor arrived to make us breakfast. I can never really manage food that early in the morning, but Simon and Steve happily tucked into ham and eggs while I mainlined coffee to try and get myself in a fit state to ride. Only a little later than planned, we hit the road, making a quick stop for fuel before heading for the motorway.

A hundred miles or so later we stopped for fuel and vignettes for Slovenia. Like Austria, Slovenia charges to use its motorways, and for small vehicles they do it the right way: you have to buy a sticker. I had a minor panic when the the alarm on my bike failed to disarm. I pressed the button on the fob, nothing happened. I pressed the button on the spare fob, still nothing happened. I was a long way from home, had no time to lose, and this was the last thing I needed. Mark suggested I try pushing the bike away from the building, which caused the alarm to go off several times, but eventually did the trick, and with another press of the button I was set to go. Panic over, time to hit the road.

Our next stop was the Slovenian border, which only a few days before had been the boundary between the EU and the outside world. Now it was just another border within the union, and there was a sense that a lot of bored people manning their posts suddenly had not a lot to do. Just outside Ljubljana I pulled off the motorway again. We were approaching the point where I'd split off and head north to Austria, while Mark and Simon would go straight on to Italy. After shaking hands and generally congratulating each other on a job well done, we rode to the next junction, and I peeled off.

I'm not ashamed to say that moment was quite emotional. I was still 1005 miles from home, and was now on my own, after spending quite possibly the best two weeks of my life with some good friends. But I was also now free to ride at a pace that the other bikes would have found challenging, keep my stops as short as possible, and bring that distance down to something less intimidating.

Travelling companions

Somewhere around Bled I stopped for fuel again, and while parked up a bike appeared beside me with a Belgrade plate. I got chatting to the rider, a Serbian on his way to Munich, and since I was going the same way he asked if I wanted to ride together. I was torn for a moment, because having just split off on my own this was likely to slow me down, and I had a long way to go, but I wondered how often I'd find myself in Slovenia with a random Serb asking me if I wanted to go for a ride. Besides, it'd be useful to have someone around if I ran into any problems, and he seemed like a nice enough chap, so we set off as a pair towards the Austrian border. We were back inside the Schengen area, so the only sign we'd entered a new country was the toll booths for a tunnel through the mountains that had clearly doubled as the border post in years gone by.

We stopped once for fuel in Austria, and the stops are the times when it's good to have company. I don't mind riding alone, but it can be a bit boring when there's nobody to talk to when off the bike. From Austria we crossed into Germany, and it struck me that if one new country a day over the previous week had felt excessive, one country an hour was just taking the piss.

Before too long we were nearing Munich, and I pulled off the motorway to say goodbye to my temporary travelling companion. It was time to get my head down, make the most of roads with no speed limit, and get miles done. I still had a long way to go, and I told myself that if I could at least get to Stuttgart then the next day would be a little less painful. We swapped email addresses, shook hands and I let rip with the KTM's throttle and shot off into the distance. The Autobahn was, as usual, infested with roadworks, but in the clear sections I held a steady 95-100mph. I also have a large sportsbike, a GSXR1000, which only really sees track use these days. On that bike, those speeds would have been a doddle, almost too slow. On a bouncy supermoto, loaded with luggage, it took commitment. It did the job though, and the miles started to tick down. I stopped only for fuel, and allowed myself a single coffee and a few squares of chocolate about a hundred miles short of Stuttgart. I tweeted at each stop, counting the distance, to reassure myself that I was making progress. 6096km, 6406km and, by early evening, 6640km. I'd made it across the Rhine and into the fifth country of the day, France.

To say I felt shattered would be the understatement of the century. By the time I parked up outside a Campanile in Hagenau, north of Strasbourg, I was ready to drop and the sheer sustained concentration had left my mind in a very strange place. After two weeks in places I'd only ever seen on on tv, France felt almost like home. I tweeted at the time:
France is my 15th country in 15 days and it feels overwhelmingly familiar. I think this trip might have been a little bit life-changing. 
Either that or I'm just so tired I'm going mental. Probably a bit of both.
A little later I posted a few more words:
Yesterday morning I was in Bosnia. Last night I was drinking with a bunch of patch-wearing bikers in Croatia. Today I rode just over 1000km from Croatia to France via Slovenia, Austria and Germany, about 200 miles of which were with a Serbian chap on a Z750 who I bumped into after splitting from my friends in Slovenia to come home.

Yesterday Bosnia, today Strasbourg. I'm having trouble digesting it all, to be honest. Got a bit emotional earlier when I split from the group, over a thousand miles from home, in a country I'd never seen before - not worried, just... this has been one hell of a trip.

Only 500 miles to do tomorrow. And then work on Monday morning. Adjusting to normal life is going to take some effort.
The restaurant at the hotel was closed but I'd spotted a place opposite which looked like it might be OK, Les Pins. One quick shower later I had a table to myself at a busy restaurant and when the waiter asked what I'd like I had only one answer: a very, very large beer. The food was fantastic and should I ever be around there again, it'll be top of my list of places to go back to.

As soon as I'd eaten, I went straight back to the hotel to go to bed. I was exhausted and dropped off to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. When I woke up in the morning, after a sound night's sleep, I was still almost 500 miles from home but only had one country left to cross. I was also now free to get moving straight away, so packed my things, checked out of the room, and hit the road.

The distance to home now tumbled, as I roared along the autoroute towards Calais, stopping every hundred miles as usual for fuel and a quick coffee. With a couple of hours left to go I used my phone to book a tunnel crossing and by 4pm I was standing next to my bike on the train chatting to another chap about our respective journeys. He'd only been riding a year and had just done a tour round Germany on his 650 V-Strom. When I told him where I'd been, and how long we'd been away, I got that look, the one I'd seen on people's faces every day. It'd been one hell of a journey.

By early evening I was home, the contents of my luggage strewn across the floor, and a cold beer in front of me as I contemplated what I'd just done. A little later, I reflected on the moment we reached our goal:
We only scratched the edge of Asia. There's a whole continent out there, and it's a lot bigger than Europe, but it'd take time I don't have, not unless I make drastic changes to my working life. Just getting to Asia was enough, something most people, the vast majority, will never do. And I can settle for that. For now, anyway.
Two weeks later, I still haven't quite taken it all in. It was simply too much to digest in such a short space of time, and writing this as a stream-of-consciousness has only brought the memories flooding back in glorious technicolor.

If you've read this far, you could check out the Storify I put together of tweets we posted along the way. A lot of it will seem familiar, but it's a glimpse of what we were thinking at the time, rather than a couple of weeks after the moment.

The final tweet sums up everything I felt about the trip, and it bears repeating here:
7415km, home. Thanks to Mark, Simon, Steve, and everyone we met along the way. You made it what it was: amazing.


  1. fantastic ride and write up, brought back many memories from my own trip http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/stu-dowell/
    also on a KTM.
    thank you for sharing it.

  2. Dude, this is simply E-P-I-C!!!!!

    I've been riding for less than a year.
    I've done a tour of Wales and a Tour of Europe.......or should I say Western Europe :-), managing 2100 miles in 7 days and travelling through France, Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland before heading back home to the UK.

    I long for an adventure like yours, just not sure I can leave my family for too long..........and work too!

    Thanks for sharing your experience man, much appreciated!

    Ayo (Skybaba)

  3. Inspiring....amazing what you crammed into 12 days.... Must take the 950 for a trip.. Sit won't be that Adventurous though.. Great read, kept me glued all the way through...thanks for posting..