Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Last Chapter?

NOTE TO NEW VISIOTRS: This was the final post of my travel blog. If you are new here and want to follow my voyage from the beginning, you can start here:

Istanbul is, without a doubt, the biggest city I have ever visted.

I rolled upto what appeared to be the outskirts of its core at about 2:30 pm, 'we are the champions' playing in my head and feeling a bit giddy about the fact that - yes, I had actually done it.

That was two thirty. The freeway rolled on, and on. Signs continued to point forward indicating Istanbul ahead. Then any mention of Istanbul disappeared, replaced by the names of unpronouncable burroughs - no helpful bullseye symbol and corresponding 'center' direction either. I'm there - I must be there. Five lanes of traffic in either direction, moving freeway speed. It starts to rain. I pull off into burrough after burrough, to ask "istanbul?" - I'm pointed further, further every time. It takes me a full TWO HOURS to work through these layers of high density residential and industrial rings of the city, before I find the exit I am looking for (by intuition or chance - I'd like to think intuition). This is my introduction to the city.

Over the next few days I explore. Istanbul is a city of thousands of mosques. Western Europe certainly has its masterpiece churches - Notre Damme, the Segrada Familia, The Duomo... Istanbul has about five or six masterpiece cathedrals (mosques, naturally) within its central core. Stick that in your pulpit and preach it! The blue mosque was, to me, the most impressive - alas, my camera crapped out on me the day I visited; I got two pictures I think.

I rode my bike up the European side of the Bosporous - the legendary waterway that has a choke hold on the Black Sea and saw its beautiful sea wall, billion dollar houses, and the rather impressive suspension bridges that twin the straight. I spent another afternoon touring the length of the massive wall that surrounds the old center of the city (the area that was Constantinople). In some areas it is marked out as a park. In others, the inside of the wall joins seamlessly with peoples homes. In yet others, it provides an open space for farmers who grow produce and sell it right there on the side of the road.

The Markets of Istanbul are noisy, bustling, and packed with anything you could ever want. We had the good fortune to be staying with some really cool couchsurfing hosts who directed us to one of the many REAL baazaars that serve istabul's actual population (this versus the tourist-oriented 'grand bazaar' and spice market located in the old city). We ferried over to Kadikoy to check out this tuesday and friday market where Turks buy their produce, cookware, clothing, scarves, and well, pretty much anything else.

More than the water pipes and backgammon, more than the busy streets and intense, adrenaline fueling traffic, more than the tasty and cheap food, or the living markets, more, even than the overpowering sense of history that this EurAsian city has built into its architecurally diverse and eyecatching structures however, one thing struck me the most. The Turkish people themselves.

I've met friendly people in many countries, and have been the object of (at times, quite irritating) curiosity in others (primarily albania) - but in no other country have these two traits combined in the way they did in istanbul. I was approached many times and in different environments - bars, on the ferry, parks, the street - by local folks who could see I was different and just wanted to talk to me. Nothing more. Generally they were very curious about me, my country, and what I was doing with the bike. Similarly, they were generally quite passionate about communicating their view of turkey to me as an outsider, as many Turks feel that they are being badly misrepresented by the media outside of their country. It was enlightening and incredibly refreshing to meet people like this - completely unafraid of the unknown.

My days in Istanbul were also marked by my chance encounter (they were staying at my CS host's as well) of a different pair of english bikers. These two - andy and tom - are cycling around the entire planet in for aproximately four years. Their attitude to the project really reflected a lot of things that I'd found important as well and we hit it off pretty much immediately. Just when I'd made peace with returning home, I found myself reinvigorated to travel on, and a little jealous when I would watch them start to plan their next leg. It was hell of hard to turn down an offer to ride on with them. I look forward to seeing you two when you make it over to this hemisphere, guys - what you are doing is truly incredible. To anyone who has found reading this blog interesting, I reccomend you visit Tom and Andy's website at They've even got a really good independent film company producing a video podcast for them with footage they've shot.

Alas, all good things truly do come to an end. I had some fun adventures in Istanbul traffic riding my bike box home from the bike shop where I got it (one hand on the box, one on the bars, shifting gears with my feet while dodging busses. Its the little things that make life worth living). I headed out to the airport by bike and then light rail, catching the last train of the night before spending the hours of midnight until three AM packing my bike in the box and reorganizing my panniers for the plane. 5:30 AM and I said goodbye to turkey and hello to the wierd timeless nowhere zone that is airtravel with layovers.

Then it was home - I got a little misty eyed when I looked out the window and saw the coast mountains. A little more when I saw how many friends had come out to meet me at the airport. We rode back to vancouver in celebratory spirit, before I popped in the house to spend some QT with the family. My adventure was at an end.

Its bittersweet really. I love this place, and it will always be my root home. But there's a part of me that I left out there wandering the world with a bike and a map, and not much else. I know I will be doing this again, and maybe sooner than I think.

When I close my eyes I think of how I've slept in abandonned villages and army barracks, on top of a volcano and under several bridges, at the top of the pyrenees and in a hammock swinging from the deck of a boat on an island off spain.

I've climbed 1800 meter peaks fully loaded, drafted dump trucks through pitch black, unfinished freeway tunnels, portaged venice and survieved the arc de triomph, Albania , and Istanbul en velo. I've lived in a squat in Barcelona and Amsterdam, in a tent, and in a staggering variety of incredibly wonderful, friendly, and trusting peoples personal apartments.

I beat the mountains of Catalunya in July and road the vertical length and entire south coast of France.

I've had Baklava and Ouzo in Greece, pizza and gelato in italy (as well as pasta prepared by 'a real italian granny'), tried beer in belgium, tapas in spain, and the wealth of cheese france and turkey have on offer.

I've had so much sand on me that I literally clogged the drain when I finally found a shower.

And endless other experiences, some small and some life changing...

So - my voyage has reached its last chapter. But has this blog?

I dont think so. I've spent so long writing here that I've become accustomed to it. I intend to keep it as a record of the journey - a snapshot of my own mind at a particular time in my life. To all of you who've followed my adventure: thank you for your support. Thank you for putting up with my at-times-wonky spelling (I blame the foreign keyboards and time sensitive access to internet. Seriously, who has time to edit a blog when you are exploring a continent?) Thanks for riding along with me, and maybe one day we can do it again...

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Now Where's That Dammned 'at' Symbol?

Another country and another frustratıng keyboard configuratıon...
They actually have TWO 'i' keys here, whıch, untıl I fıgured ıt out led to a frustratıng half hour of me thınkıng that the turkısh government was eıther blockıng certaın sıtes or that some of my passwords had been hacked. I'm feelıng rather foolısh now - honestly, these constantly changing keyboard configurations are killing me.

Woke up wıth the raın today, packed my soggy gear ın the raın, rode ın the raın and some bastardly headwınds (I have, I kid you not, actually screamed 'damn you Aeoleus!' on several occasıons durıng thıs trıp).

Crossed the border to a couple of surprıses. One was the 45 euro entrance fee (er, Vısa fee, pardon me) that ıs conspıcuously NOT mentıoned on the CDN Foreıgn Affaırs websıte. The other was seeıng Brıt bıkers Duncan and John roll through rıght after me. Frankly I was shocked to see them because I should have been mıles ahead. Indeed, I should have been but they boys had cheated a lıttle (traın, taxı) because John was on a mıssıon to see the fınal game of the rugby world cup, and wasn't above kıllıng a grandma or two ıf ıt was necessary ın order to get there. They had 230 kılometers left to Istanbulş and about fıve hours to make the game.(About 20 k on the other sıde of the border, soggıly rıdıng through puddles and a raın-haze, I heard a serıes of honks and looked up ın order to see John's arm extended ın a thumbs up, mane flappıng ın the wınd out of a taxı wındow - the bıkes were crammed and bungeed ınto the trunk). I got so wet on that hıghway that I broke down for the fırst tıme sınce Amsterdam and paıd for a room. My tent and a bunch of clothes are hangıng up ın there dryıng out rıght now - ıf I have a dry tent, I can handle campıng two more nıghts even ıf ıt keeps pıssıng on me lıke thıs.

The Turkısh-Greek border ıs the fırst REAL border that I've crossed here. There are no mıld and ınoffensıve guards wıth dorky hats and tıes and maybe a pıstol at theır sıde. There are soldıers. wıth bıg fuckıng guns. everywhere. The actual border lıne ıs ın the mıddle of a brıdge that must be a kılometer long - ıts paınted blue and whıte on the Greek sıde and red and whıte on the turkısh sıde. Both ends are manned by soldıers. Quıte the ımpressıve lıttle scene actually. As I crossed ınto turkey one of the soldıers raısed hıs and and saıd 'welcome!' to me - I felt awesome for about 10 mınutes untıl the vısa ordeal. (I neglected to mentıon that I had already changed all my money ınto turkısh cash by thıs poınt, and had to go chance ıt BACK ınto euros. redıculous.)

Anyway, I'm 200 km from the fınısh lıne and feelıng pretty good. Maybe ıt was that kebab I just ate though...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Its all Greek to me...

Good times in Thessaloniki.

After a couple of rather rainy days stomping about in the mountains of Greece (let me tell you, they have some pretty respectable mountains), we made it to Greece's second biggest city. Adventures seeking an unfinished freeway (and drafing a dumptruck through a 2km tunnel in the pitch dark). Mountain goats. Being above the cloud level. I've eaten about forty Gyros now, cumulatively that is (they seem to form the basis of my diet here), been out on the town, explored the old city, and been taken out for lunch at a legit greek restaurant for good eats and ouzo. We've lucked out on some amazing couchsurf hosts, and been talked into staying an extra day.

From here I ride east to the sea again, and then plan to take a boat over to Samothraki, the northernmost greek island in this neck of the woods, (and aparently 'quite a spiritual place'), before boating back to the coast and riding, solo, my final leg of the trip. Its been a riot riding with duncan and john (they are, i assure you, completely insane. They're carrying a living goldfish from Calais, france, to Hong Kong), but I feel like I need to finish the journey on my own power. Then a week to explore Istanbul before heading home. Its a bit surreal to be this close to my goal; The closer home gets the more real it becomes and the more i miss the little things there... at the same time, the ephemeral nature of my exotic location and freedom loom large. Ah paradox...

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Fier and Loathing in Albania.

It was the worst shit hole I've ever been in.

Well, maybe that's a bit harsh, since we didn't stick around long enough to really find out, but it impacted our senses hard enough that we knew we didn't want to.

Fier is the name of the town - about halfway down the albanian road (there's only one road that runs the lenght of the country). All was going well up to that point - the road out of Tirane to Dures (where we saw an overpriced and undermaintained roman colleseum - one had the impression we were the only ones to visit it in a long time) and south was smooth and fast (of course, continuing to be full of drivers that honk at you every. time. one. passes. you., half built gas station-hotel-bar-restaurants, hand carwashes every 50 meters, and the occasional pile of burning garbage).
Then things started to get worse. the road... well, disappeared. They're in the process of building a new one (and doing a terrible job of it - the new stretches arent properly blocked off and are being ruined by impatient drivers grinding gravel into it) and the old one doesn't even bear mentioning, add to that its over congested . We jumped onto a stretch of unfinished gravel highway and stuck to it happy to be free of cars. As we got closer to Fier, things got worse - the air thickened with a sort of acrid fog and traffic got worse.
We arrived at the edge of town just in time for sunset - we were greated by a black and grey river of sludge, massive piles of burning garbage (the source of the mysterious fog) and a sort of mortal panic. This place felt like one of the gates of hell. We stopped to take a picture or two of the river (it was the worst we'd yet seen), but soon the smoke and darkening sky mingling to create a sort of ominous haze, the traffic and noise, the stench of burning plastic began to get to us. This place felt wrong. We wanted out. A quick conferenece and it was decided to get the hell out as fast as possible, never mind the ruins near the city, nevermind anything just go go go - this is one of the gates of hell.

That was sort of the low peak, but it serves as a bit of a metaphor for how bad things can actually be there. The traffic is bad. The roads are worse (where they exist) - nothing south of Fier is either built or driveable, really. Every. Single. Car. Honks. At. You. As. It. Passes. There is garbage everywhere. Everywhere. I don't think I can over-stress this point. People dump it into rivers or down the side of ravines, and set fire to it. We met a french speaking albanian in a town called Ballsh (right before we witnessed an entire lake that had been covered with a three inch layer of black oil), who rather embarrasedly explained that Albanians just haven't quite developped the culture of putting trash in the bin yet. As if to emphasize his point, moments later one of the children in the crowd who had come to surround us (a regular occurance in Albania. Cute at first, then increasingly annoying) plucked a bit of trash from Duncan's handlebar bag and threw it on the ground, seeming to say 'geez you idiot, don't you know where that goes?'.

I guess I shouldn't be so hard on the place - they are trying. They've just been so badly fucked by history and circumstance. But the ball has certainly been dropped since the conversion from dictatorial 'communism' to 'democratic' capitalism, that's for sure. Its not that there are rotating power outages or that no large supermarkets exist. I can get by in conditions like that just fine. Its more the psychological despare I felt seeing the rivers of fucking garbage, the polluted and toxic environment, the wholehearted embracing of cars (even though they can't afford them), and the fact that they dont seem to fucking care. It hurt, really.

There are advantages to the place of course - its cheap; there are very, very few tourists there; its warm; its not hard to find good food. Gjrocaster, the largest town in the south is actually quite a nice place - clean, green, and with a genuinely charming old town (in contrast to the obsession with concrete boxes that the rest of the country seems to have. Progress!) The problem is that Albania just looks like a twisted vision of the post apocalypse... Again, I'm not being fair. Had I come through on a mountain bike and put some time into getting into real, rural Albania, I'm certain I would have been pleasantly surprised. Urban albaia then - well, be warned.

I crossed the border to Greece with my british companions (Duncan and John for the record) feeling like it couldn't have come too soon. Greece has been wet, and invlolved a surprising amount of mountain climbing - but clean, green, smooth roads... a dream really.

I'm in Thessaloniki now resting for the final leg of my journey - I can't believe there's only 5 or 6 hundred kilometers left...

Oh yeah, new photos up - both from my riding with Tim, and from the last little while..

Here and Here

Monday, October 8, 2007

Talking heads repreive

Really been on a 'heads kick lately.

Still thinking of Sarajevo; looks like David Byrne was too...

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


Wow I'm on the internet a lot these days.

After stopping in Schkoder, the Albanian border city to change money, eat lunch, do the internet, and buy a map (all of which, amazingly, took a fraction of the time they did in Montenegro - says a lot about which is the 'civilized country'), I hit the road again. I had planned to do another 40 k and find somewhere to crash, maybe pay for a cheap hotel for the first time since Amsterdam. Instead I blew the whole distance to Tirane, the Albanian capital, in a shocking 3.5 hours. Over 100 Km. I did, according to my maps, 137 km today - must have something to do with all that mountain riding I've been doing lately! About 20 minutes before hitting the city I stopped for a cola (caffine needed) and met two British cats who are riding london to Hong Kong. And I thought I was hardcore. We made plans to meet up tomorrow and will probably ride some of Albania together. The road from the border here, defying expectations was smooth - and, probably the reason for my incredible speed, completely flat. Inexplicably, everyone here drives Mercedes' ... and not just beat up old deisel ones either, but new looking models. They love to honk, and even more, love to pass one another. I was actually run off the road at one point by some Italian jerk driving a porshe cayanne oncomming. Other than that though, things seem good. The people are very friendly and I get a lot of honks, cheers, whistles, and waves of support - about 800% more than in any other country so far.

Anyway, while I'm waiting to get in touch with my couchsurfing host for the evening (a canadian in albania! who's bike toured the west coast! rad!) I'm finally uploading some photos of the leg from Sarajevo to Albania. Find them HERE.

And in case you are curious, here is my route from Italy to Albania:

(holding somewhere around 4678km total now)

Albania, yo!

So here I am in albania.

Pretty much everyone told me not to come here, though, having crossed the border I dont know why.

I left Podgorica yesterday a bit late after running all over town trying to get basic business done after dealing with yet another frustrating sunday. I had one particularly scary episode trying to convert my Bosnian Marks (called, hillariously, the Konvertable Mark). Bank after bank sent me somewhere else - nobody wanted to touch the stuff (literally) - as if it was contagious and handling it would transmit civil war or islam or something to them. The central bank sent me to their affiliate, who's front desk man flat out lied to me (oh yeah, their man called and said that they sent you to the wrong place - yeah, it was a woman who sent me over, bucko). I was starting to sweat a bit because I still had a hundred euros worth of the stuff and that would be a pretty nasty hit to the pocketbook. Finally I found a bank who took them, without even batting an eyelash, and the emergency was off. I had similar fun finding a bike shop (spare parts to carry into supposedly 'postapocalyptic' albania), and a map of albania too. Finally suceeded on the bike parts, but not on the map. Everyone I asked looked at me like I was crazy - why would you want a map of albania?

Hit the road at about 1:30 and was making good time at first. Passed another bike tourer heading the opposite direction and stopped to chat for a bit - she was a Californian looping the former Yugoslav countries. It was nice to compare notes with someone else on the road.

Things slowed up a bit though when I hit the Skadarsko, the large lake that forms a natural border between montenegro and albania. I decided to follow the lakeside road rather than the major road that cuts all the way to the coast. Its marked as a park on my map. I should, of course, know by now that how things look on the map is 95% of the time absolutely nothing what they look like in reality but I learned once again. I was treated to an afternoon of nasty mountain climing on windy one lane roads. The view was indeed spectacular, but the going was slow. Finally, about 45 minutes before the light started to fade I hit this wierd little plateau/ valley between mountains, about 15 km long, andfilled with luch vegetation and flat terrain (versus the rock farm that the previous several hours had been). Counting my blessings I found a hidden and apparently unused farmer's field, and set my camp up just in time for the light to fade and to eat my dinner in the dark.

Up early this morning, and booked off the last few mountin km, before being treated to a long and fast descent to the albanian border.

It reminds me of some of the places I saw in southeast asia - busy, noisy, alittle crazy and not so filled with outsiders. There are lots of cars and scooters, and, yes, horses pulling carts.

This is the email that someone I was lucky enough to get in contact with who is currently doing the same route as me by motorcycle sent me, so you'll have and idea of what's next for me:

I just traveled the road you are discussing for the second time. i travel on a small 200cc motorcycle and i have seen several bicyclist doing so. The road out of montenegro is tricky to find. it is a small backroad, not much traveled and it is fine for a bicycle. the road into montenegro is quite good, as you know, but as you get closer to albania it becomes rutted and in poor repair, but you should not have a problem. From the border to Skhoder the road is acceptable, but busy. As you may know, cars were outlawed in albania by the communists, so they saw little point in investing in infrastructure, but that is now changing. The problem is that Albanians only recently learned how to drive, so you must be careful. As always, stay to the right a smuch as you can and check your mirror frequently for motorists wanting to pass. Albanians toot their horns seemingly at random, and you have to get used to that. The road from the montenegro border to Tirrane is not bad, but it is busy and there is a lot of garbage around, and they burn it and it is pretty disgusting. You wil wonder why you came, but keep the faith.... you wil be rewarded. From Durres southward the road is now excellent. they just built it last year. It is a smoth, fast road. However, as you get closer to Fier they are stil working on the road and it is pitted and rutted. often, due to cinstruction, traffic stacks up so be careful. In Fier, make a right at the traffic circle with the sign that says "Appolonia". you priobably are planningthis already, but it is a very interesting site of an old Roman city. it is about 8km outside the city. the road is pitted and ugly, as are many of the roads in albania. Try not to stop in fier for the night. it is an ugly city and locals tell me it is not very safe. Continuing to Vlore the road is also in poor shape, until you reach Vlore. I stayed at the hotel Pavaresi.. a new hotel that is a little above what I am used to but my 35 euro room was extremenly luxurious. It is at the foot of the main drag, just before you turn south to go out of town. It is next to a restaurant called the Britania. From here your ride wil be very scenic. The road is excellent, having been built last year. it is two lane and very smooth. About 20km out you will reach the tiny town of orikum. There are supposedly ruins there, and there's even a sign that points the way, but after two years of trying I never was able to find them, Now comes the hard part.... right out of Orikim you begin the climb up the Llogarosa pass... a spectacular ride, but not for the faint of heart. The road is excellent, but it is steep and there are many hairpin turns. The area near the top is a national park. At the top comes your reward.... you wil see stunning views of a 12km white sand beach. I cannot recal the name of it and i do not have my map with me right now. it starts with a "P", I think. If you like remote beaches do stop there. Now you wil have a desecent of many kilometers and it is all scenic. At the bottom you wil see a sign marked "Dhermi", 1.5km. This is a great beach area, but although i intended to stop there for a two day stay, I found most places closed. If you walk down the beach 1km through some olive groves there is another great beach. Unfortunately, the great road has only been finished to about 2km or so above Dhermi, then it goes back to the rutted unkept roads for which albania is famous. There are survey crews out there now so they are working on extending it. The next town you come to is Himare, a sleepy little port on a crescent shaped bay. this is where the Ionian meets the Adriatic. it is said that Odysseus harbored his ships here in the 5th century B,C, there is a nice litle hotel called the Hotel Joni.. about 20 euros for a room with the balcony over the sea. Continuing on the road gets worse and is rutted and pitted. there is anice beach a few km out of there called Llaman.... a small stretch of nice beach. Continuing on you come to the fortress of ali pasha, wel worth a visit. be careful not to get lost inside like i did the other day!! There is a nice cove there that is a nice place to camp if that is what you are doing. Continuing on you wil come to a town with a long stretch of undeveloped beach called Queparo. there really isnt a road to the beach... one local questioned why anyone would build such a road... there is nothing to go to but the ocean (it then dawned on me why tourism isnt doing so well here). Next you come to the town of Busho (?), also a good beach. remember.. beaches here are dirty.. no one cleans them like they do in greece and Italy. Eventually you come to sarande, wher I am now. this is worth a few days. Its a great place to rest and the ruins of Butrint are 25km south and wel worth a visit.It is a Roman city that was aresort area for wealthy Romams. the ruins are extensive. If you dont want to ride, there are frequent buses. i shoul;d say that as you get closer to sarande the road has been repaired, but not replaced and it is acceptable,and much better than the other parts, but beware of these crazy albanians who only recently learned to drive and who toot theuir horns seemingly at random.I stay at the hotel delfini.. a nice family place. My 20 euro room is super clean, has a private bath, and a balcony over the sea, only a few meters away. To eat cheaply, there is a Greek taberna on the promenade that sells gyros and meat dishes at very low prices. I am always watching my money. Next comes the road to Greece. that is really rough. if you do not want to stop in sarande, just before you get here, take the turn to the left that says "Gjorkaster".. that will eventually take you to greece. i wil be on that road toimorrow. last year I drive it and it was rutted and pitted and very bad.there is a lot of up and down climbing for you on a bike. There is also a lot of climbing involved. now here is the good news.... when you get to greece the roads are great.. nice and smoooth and very well signed.I hope this helps.
Robert Spano
redding, california USA (in Albania now)

Still cant seem to get my pictures off my memory card, though this is by far the nicest internet cafe I have been in for a while. Seems like the poorer the country the better their internet facilities... perhaps most people dont have it at home?

I'll leave you with something that's been stuck in my head for a couple of days on the road now..

(really, one of the best movies ever)