Home at last! (but only just)

Trip Start Jun 20, 2010
Trip End Nov 20, 2010

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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

You must be kidding if you think your bringing that on the plane
So I have finally made it home however only just. This trip was supposed to be an adventure from start to finish and it definitely was, ending with an interesting 55 hour trip back from Turkey. I woke at six o'clock on the morning of departure looking forward to getting home and seeing my family. My bike was squeezed (literally) into a box, on to which I had written "fragile bicycle" in both English and Turkish. I was well rested, full of enthusiasm what could possibly go wrong? I was about to find out, it started as soon as I went to check in. As I pushed my trolley towards the check in desk the guy working there gave me a look which read "where the hell do you think you are going with that?". Luckily I had booked it on the flight in advance, as you're supposed to with Turkish Airlines so I wasn't too worried. The problem came when I showed him my pannier which I wanted to take on as checked baggage. I had phoned before specifically to check this was ok, which apparently it was for international flights however unfortunately this was a domestic flight.

Luckily he was in a good mood and asked if I minded taking the checked bag as hand luggage. I of course didn't care in the slightest so I was soon on my way happy that everything was ok. This was until I was walking towards customs suddenly realising that I was now carrying a small bag full of knives, pointy objects, heavy objects, a bike tool kit, etc etc. I realised my mistake and stopped just before customs. A women came to ask me what the problem was and when I explained I had scissors and tweezers in my bag, to my surprise she said "no that’s fine on you go". I put my stuff on the conveyor belt and walked through the scanner, of course setting it off as I did so, this led to a brief frisking although we couldn't work out for the life of us what was setting it off. It actually took another of these frisking later that day before I realised my mistake, cycling shoes with big lumps of metal bolted tend to disagree with airport scanners, I felt pretty stupid when I realised. I wasn't so lucky with my bag however, the looks on the security officers faces were a picture as they pulled out knives etc. What surprised me is the two items they didn't like, a lightweight aluminium bike pump and my lock, which to be fair does weigh a lot and would be a pretty good weapon (although probably not as good as the super pointy tweezers and scissors which apparently were fine). Luckily they were quite organised and one of the ground crew said he would leave it by the gate then put it on by hand for me (which saved me paying excess baggage so I was happy). That flight went without hitch and more surprisingly both my bike and checked bag had made it to Istanbul.

Heathrow is a no go zone!
I put my bags on a trolley feeling quite chuffed with myself and prepared for a 7 hour wait until my flight home. I decided I had better go to British Airways and just check if my flight was going as Heathrow wasn't exactly the best place to be headed (they had cancelled all international flights leaving there the day before as it was sitting under a foot of snow). I asked the nice lady at the desk who looked at me with a face that told me all I needed to know, my flight was cancelled. I was even more annoyed as my flight into Istanbul had been with Turkish Airlines who had given gate numbers for connecting flights leaving to Birmingham and Manchester, I wished I had just booked with them. The nice woman set about looking for alternatives for me and I was soon holding a set of tickets flying to Heathrow via Zurich with Swiss Air. I wandered round for a bit then suddenly thought that it would be much easier for me to go to Birmingham or Manchester. I decided I would go back and ask her if this was possible. As I walked towards the office she had a big smile on her face and said "Few! Mr Jackson, I was looking for you, sorry your flight via Zurich has been cancelled". She was in the middle of dealing with a very annoying woman who seemed to be talking forever (there were quite a few people heading for London who had been stranded).

After about 20 minutes she finally shut up, I said I didn't mind going to Manchester and was soon handed a ticket for the Turkish Airlines flight I had heard about earlier. She told me to "RUN" because it was leaving in about an hour. I wasn't alone, there was another guy in the same boat. I was literally sprinting full pelt with a bike box sideways on my trolley and nearly flattened at least 10 people as I ran the length of International departures to the check in desk. Unfortunately we arrived to find that the check in had already closed (actually even before we were given the tickets). After getting my breath back I decided to go back to the friendly lady and see what her next idea was. She was very surprised (and I think a bit annoyed) to see me again, she thought she had managed to get rid of me. There were a number of other options however some were via Germany where the situation was almost as dodgy as London so we decided they were best avoided. This left one option, Birmingham via Brussels. I got my tickets and set off a bit confused about which airline I was on and where I needed to go.

The first flight was with Turkish Airlines and I knew straight away I might have problems because you’re supposed to book bikes onto their flights. The situation wasn't helped by two (seriously) annoying Spanish men who both had at least two cases which were obviously oversized and looked incredibly heavy (yet somehow they still thought they had a chance of getting them on the plane). These guys selfishly blocked the whole oversized baggage counter for at least half an hour and couldn't seem to understand why there was a problem with their bags. The women behind the desk eventually had enough and disappeared off to find someone else for them to annoy. I didn't have as many problems as expected (I think she was just happy to be speaking to someone nice for a change) but I did have to pay and excess charge for my bike. I also made the critical (although I didn't realise this as the time) decision to collect my bags at Birmingham and not Brussels.

Brussels the home of beer and chocolate
The flight went smoothly and I was very glad to get to Brussels although a little worried when we were coming in to land as the whole airport was white. There was quite persistent snow and you could see the tyre tracks in the fresh snow when we taxied into the terminal (which in itself was interesting, as only one runway was open so we had to taxi for about half an hour, pretty much the entire length of the airport to get to the right terminal). We had been late leaving and these added delays meant that I wouldn't be able to make my Birmingham flight, not that this mattered as I soon found out that it was cancelled anyway. Soon enough I found myself queuing to talk to British Airways again, the problem now was that I had entered Europe so there were 10 times as many people stranded and the queues were therefore 10 times as long. I think it took about an hour and a half to talk to someone. By the time I reached the desk they had given up on getting rid of anyone that day and I was handed a 15 euro voucher for food, booked in the Hilton Hotel in the city centre and given a ticket for a flight to Birmingham the next day.

I didn't have any real need to be home so I was quite happy as I tucked into 15 Euros worth of free pizza at Pizza Hut. I caught the train into the centre of Brussels to find the hotel, it was quite an interesting sight when I walked out of the train station. There was a good few inches of snow, the roads were covered in slush and people were walking back from work in hiking boots and massive furry coats, all looking like they were on an adventure in some far flung snowy wilderness. It was pretty odd for me, Antalya had been a comfortable 18 degrees and sunny the day before so the freezing temperatures were a bit of a shock to the system. The Hilton was obviously a lot nicer accommodation than I was used to and I very much enjoyed having a bath and watching some decent British TV for a change. The best thing was that my flight was not until three the next afternoon so unlike the last time I got put up in a posh hotel I was actually able to make the most of it. The buffet breakfast was probably my favourite part (the cycle touring appetite doesn’t go away for a while), there was hot stuff, cold stuff in fact just about anything you can think of which could be considered breakfast food was there. Not surprisingly there were quite a lot of stranded passengers talking away over breakfast about their lengthy trips and the latest cancellations. My journey back to the airport was a bit special as I got to go on a double-decker train, something I have seen a lot in Europe but never actually got to experience. I had enough time before leaving to buy the customary Belgium chocolate and beer as well as some duty free Christmas pressies.

Whilst wandering round I realised the extent of the chaos the weather had caused. The Red Cross were there giving out camp beds so people could camp on the airport floor. There were whole Indian families camped with their kids all sat round playing cards (some people were stuck for literally a week). All these people were living off food credits given out by the airlines. Airport food is so expensive that often I saw fathers paying for a meal for their family which would come to about 120 Euros!! However they didn't care and just counted out 12 vouchers from the massive wodge in their pocket. There were also a number of TV crews filming the chaos which didn't help as usually they were blocking exactly where everyone else wanted to walk. It made me realise that it’s always best to go with a 'proper airline’ and I will definitely be avoiding the so called ‘cheap’ airlines in the future after seeing how they treat people that are stranded.

How far?
Our flight must have been one of the only ones leaving to the UK that day. I actually found out afterwards I was very lucky as we were pretty much the last plane to leave Brussels before the de-icer shortage caused by closures on the French roads closed the airport completely. Because this was one of the only flights leaving to the UK there was a queue of people waiting anxiously to see if there were any spare seats going. My favourite story came courtesy of the two guys I sat next to on the plane. These guys had been somewhere in Europe on business. They had originally been trying to fly from Germany to London however all the flights had been cancelled. They were then told they could get a flight to London but via... wait for it.....Chicago, as they had nothing better to do and work was paying they decided it was worth a bash. However after crossing the Atlantic they found out their flight to London had been cancelled so they then flew back across the Atlantic to Brussels presumably as they thought they might be able to get a train across to London. This of course was a no go, the Eurostar was probably worse than the airports, they had finally managed to get on this flight to Birmingham after 3 days of travelling and god knows how many miles. What I found even more amazing was that one of them was getting (he hoped) a train from Birmingham down to London meeting his family and the next day was due to fly to......Germany for a family get together. We couldn't believe he was considering doing it all again the next day, but it just goes to show the lengths people will go to.

Not surprisingly there was a small cheer and some very happy faces as the wheels left the ground on takeoff. The flight didn't take long and we were soon landing in Birmingham however my journey was not over yet. I waited in the baggage hall watching the bags go round and was not in the slightest bit surprised when mine didn't show up. The bike should have come to a separate area for oversized baggage. I waited and waited hoping that maybe it might have made it on the same flight but soon realised it hadn't. Pretty much half the people on every flight that came in didn't have their baggage and the lost luggage queue was huge. I decided that before queuing I would check the heaps and heaps of bags just left lying on the floor in the baggage area (so many bags were being unclaimed as people hadn’t made it on their flights that the baggage handlers were just taking unclaimed bags off the conveyers and piling them up in the baggage hall, there must have been a few hundred there). To my amazement after a few minutes I stumbled across a small pile and amongst them was my pannier, a bit more broken than it was when I set off but it had arrived, obviously on an earlier flight than me. I was very relieved as it was a small bag and the chances of it going missing in the chaos were pretty high. The bike on the other hand was nowhere to be seen, luckily it had my address written on it and wasn’t the easiest of things to loose so I wasn't that worried. I queued up and got my lost luggage form which was being handed out as standard to everyone in the queue. I became a bit worried when the woman searched for my baggage tag and informed me that my bike had been on a flight earlier that day all the way from Istanbul. This meant that it should have been sitting in the baggage hall which obviously it wasn’t. I decided there was nothing else I could do so gave them the benefit of doubt and left to figure out how I was going to get home.

The trains aren’t much better either

It was already evening and I couldn't decide if it was wise trying to set off home or if I should just stay put and sleep at the airport. But in the end I decided I was so close to home I should give it a bash, I was going on the trains, how hard could it be? Once again I was reminded just how much a tiny bit of snow brings the UK to a halt. I got a train to Birmingham New Street and on arrival took a quick glance at the departures board, which to be fair was more like a cancellations board. As luck would have it there was a train to Shrewsbury waiting on the opposite platform and just about to leave. I decided that it was my best bet so jumped on, I didn’t have a ticket or any idea if I would be able to get a train from Shrewsbury home. The journey started well and I was sitting opposite a nice local fellow who had (to his annoyance) decided to take the train instead of driving. Apparently this was the first train that had been heading from Birmingham to Shrewsbury for 3 hours as all the others had been cancelled. He was really nice and actually phoned home and got his wife to check the train times from Shrewsbury for me, she said that in theory there was one leaving at about 11.

We were bowling along, I had good company and I was chuffed that I had managed to get the right train..... or so I thought. We got as far as Wolverhampton (so basically one stop) when the announcer said that this train would terminate here and we should all go to platform 1 to get another train. Everyone on the train (about 100 people) got off and trudged over the bridge to platform 1 where we waited in about -5 degrees for about half an hour. We were then told that the train would now go from platform 4 so off everyone trudged again. We waited there for about 20 minutes before another platform change was called out and another 20 minute wait ensued. The next platform change was my favourite, it was the one that made us realise they really didn't have any idea what was going on. The woman called out that we should go to platform 2 and wait by the train there for further instruction. This particular platform and train was the very one we had got off about an hour and a half earlier. People were starting to get just slightly pissed off, and just a bit agitated. Soon enough the loudspeaker came on again and the women confirmed that basically the staff at Wolverhampton station didn't currently have a clue what was going on. The problem seemed to be that there was a lack of people to crew the trains. This meant lots of the trains that were currently in service were having to terminate unannounced in certain stations because the crew didn't have any working hours left. Luckily after some more waiting and a final platform change we finally all piled onto a train which was heading to Shrewsbury.

Once at Shrewsbury I was met with possibly the most dead looking train station I had ever seen. However my greeting party was there in force, well I say party, it was two chavs (unpleasant urban youths, who wear tracksuits, hoodies and bling and generally cause trouble) with a bottle of port and a lot of enthusiasm. I was getting ready for some trouble but they actually turned out to be really nice chavs. They couldn’t get over the fact I had just ridden 10000km and kept saying "man that’s so cooooooool" in a slightly drunken way and giving me hi fives whilst offering me the bottle of port every two second. It was quite a funny encounter and kept me smiling.

The Cardiff train was supposedly waiting at platform 2 however the "not in service" banner running across the top of the train which was sitting waiting didn't fill me with enthusiasm. I was therefore very surprised when at 11 as if from nowhere a whole train crew appeared and started prepping the train for takeoff (or whatever it is that they do). The train left ON TIME and proceeded to blast down he Welsh border, bizarrely it was going quicker than normal, maybe they wanted to get home for Christmas as well. I made it to Leominster (the nearest town to my house) by about midnight. There was no way I would make it home as we had a good few inches of snow and our hill was impassable without a 4x4. Luckily my dad was staying in town overnight so he could get to work the next day so I had a night on a floor in Leominster. The next day got off to a good start in the form of a full English breakfast with my old man, a good introduction back into the UK if ever I’ve had one. A neighbour happened to be in town so the final two parts of my mission of a journey home were a lift to the village with a neighbour I hadn't talked to in about 10 years. Then a mile long walk in the snow, which was still coming down, up the big hill to my house. I arrived looking slightly akin to a snow man and very much glad to be home at last. It was a fitting end as I always said I was going on AN ADVENTURE and this certainly felt like the end of an ADVENTURE!!!!!

Key Facts

Distance covered - 10300 km (6400 miles)   
This is equivalent to........
  • 2.5 times the distance from Perth to Sydney
  • Lands End to John O’Groats over 7 times
  • Further than riding across America and back again
  • Nearly 3 times the length of the Tour De France
  • Over of the Earths circumference
Total Accent – 99230 m
Which is the same as climbing from sea level to the top of......
  • Everest over 11 times
  • Ben Nevis over 73 times
Number of days - 185 (pretty much exactly 6 months)
Countries visited - 26
Currencies used – 20
Max speed - 66.4 km/h (41.3 mph not bad fully laden, speed is much more scary on a bike)
Max temperature - 38C (Germany in June)
Min temperature - at least -8C (Montenegro in November)
Longest day - 147.5 km (the second day of riding, rushing to get to Cambridge to meet a friend)
Different beers tried – for obvious reasons I lost track of this, I would estimate it was somewhere between 120-150 as I tried my best to sample as many different ones as possible. (Although if this is mum, ignore what has been said already and substitute 3 (this has to be done otherwise she will lecture me about drinking too much, you know what mums are like)).  
Ferry Crossings – 9
Stamps in passport - 16
Holes mysteriously appeared in my tent - 2
Kg of pasta eaten – Approx 27 Kg
Highest mountain pass – 1800 m (Kopaonik, Serbia. I was hoping for higher but missed the alps)
Punctures - 1 (this should be zero, it was totally my fault, I hit a curb because I wasn't paying attention and popped my tyre in the process)
Spokes broken - 4 (it's probably best to sort your bike out BEFORE you leave)
Things broken / worn out – Many! I lost track of this as by the end of my trip most of the things I had with me were slightly broken or been damaged in some way, shape or form. The most spectacular was probably the rack mounts on my bike which needed re-welding twice. I also had to superglue my shoes and panniers back together, my mudguard broke halfway through and spent the rest of the trip held together by gaffer tape (which not surprisingly performed faultlessly, its amazing stuff). I also had to search a Ukrainian market to find some bolts to bolt my panniers back together which was interesting (top tip, don’t use old knackered panniers)

The best and the worst 

Top 3 countries
1. Montenegro (amazing breathtaking scenery, not too busy, everyone is super friendly)
2. Ukraine          (very different from the rest of Europe, really friendly, lots of amazing sights and old    soviet stuff and Cyrillic signs to make the days more interesting)
3. Albania          (a bit grubby but the scenery is amazing, the roads are rubbish which makes it more fun, the flag looks evil (as do all the Mercedes with blacked out windows), people are genuinely interested in you (especially the kids), all of which makes for a much more interesting experience)
Worst country – None (they were all pretty good in their own way)
Scariest moment - being 20m away from a lightning strike in Turkey
Best wild camping – Sweden
Worst weather - Bulgaria (Thunder, lightning and torrential hail storms)
Best road – Montenegro (Kotor to Lovcen National Park)
Worst road – The sandy muddy track though an Estonian forest
Most memorable moment - Reaching the 10000km mark in Turkey!
Best Drivers – Bosnia I Herzegovina
Biggest pot holes – The Ukraine (although Albania came close)
Best method of transport observed – All the crazy cargo bikes in The Netherlands (although i didn’t like the donkeys in Albania and all the soviet vehicles in Ukraine)
Biggest mosquitoes - Sweden (forget the fly squat or repellent you need a bloody rifle)
Friendliest people - The Turkish, I couldn't go anywhere without being offered cay or food
Most attractive women - I should say Poland or my girlfriend will kill me but actually it's probably a tie between Norway, Sweden, Latvia and Denmark (however some women in Slovakia were amazingly attractive and I couldn’t help noticing the number of attractive girls on bikes in The Netherlands).
Worst value purchase - Campsite Norway €25 and you still had to pay for a rubbish shower! (Closely followed by beer in Norwegian supermarket at €3.50 a can, this was the cheapest available, I think you can probably guess which country was the most expensive)
Best value purchase - Ukrainian vodka €3 a litre, can’t go wrong with that (well actually......)

So what next?
Anyone who is doing a trip such as this (where there is a lot of time to think about things) will tell you that normally you will come back having planned a multitude of other future trips whilst on the road. Mostly this is because you meet other people, talk to them about their trips and travels and get loads of new ideas. I am no exception and I have a few cycling trips which I would love to do given the time. In the long run, as mentioned previously, I would love to go back to Antalya and tackle the next continent, Asia. I would probably set off with the same aim, to go to as many countries as possible on the way (although take a more direct route than I did this time). I have a plan that eventually in many years time and over a number of trips I might be able to complete a loop around the world (which would be a cool thing to say you have done). In the short term however there are also a couple of smaller trips I would like to do. I am going to have to put my chemical engineering degree to good use and look for a job (unfortunately I don’t think I can avoid the daily grind forever). Depending how lucky I am I could have a bit of time before starting so might be able to fit the following trips in this year.

Adventure Touring
The thing I loved the most about my cycling adventure was getting out in to the countryside on the gravel tracks and lanes. You see the best sights and get the biggest sense of adventure. This led me to thinking that I next I would like to do a trip by mountain bike completely off road and develop my skills as an ‘Adventure’ tourer. Obviously I would have to travel light and the trip wouldn’t be totally off road but where possible I would try and take tracks and trails. There are lots of countries where I think this would be a great way to travel however first I probably need to get some practice in more familiar climbs, which planted the seed of an idea. I haven’t seen much of the UK (compared to how much of the rest of the world I have seen) especially places like Scotland and Northern England. To solve this problem I was considering walking from Lands End to John O’Groats because staying in this country would be a cheap way of having another adventure. However walking would take ages, and probably get a bit boring but more importantly doesn’t involve a bike and thus isn’t really my style. I wouldn’t want to ride it on the road because everyone does, it isn’t really very adventurous, it wouldn’t take long at all and doesn’t appeal to me. There is an off road route which I considered but then I came up with a better plan. I love mountain biking so why not cycle from Lands End to John O’Groats but on the way try and go to as many mountain bike centres and mountain bike trails as possible, a kind of best of British mountain biking adventure. Obviously this would be longer, more hardcore and more of an adventure than the standard off road route. Even better though it would involve lots of looking at maps and route planning (something I really enjoy). It would mean I could kill two birds with one stone, see some more of my home country and also sample all the mountain biking I have been hearing about for years but never had the chance to ride.

Single speed touring
The second idea I had sounds a bit crazy (to the uninitiated) but I think it could work. At home I mostly ride a single speed bike, I have probably put at least three or four thousand miles on it in the last 2 years (unlike the stupid, trendy, fixie crowd in town I do proper riding on mine and I’m not afraid of the odd hill or three). I used to do 50 mile night rides with a mate who also rides single speed and it was great fun. Whilst doing this we noticed how easy it is to ride long distances over varying terrain with only one gear once you get used to it. This of course got me thinking single speed cycle touring, I like to be different and I haven’t seen many people doing this, I’m also sure some of my mates are crazy enough to give it a go with me. Obviously I would have to travel light but I think with the right gear (on the bike) it would be possible. Hopefully I might be able to put the idea into practice sometime this year. Obviously I would start easy and head somewhere like....yes you guessed it, The Netherlands (and maybe some of the other flat countries nearby) and who knows if it goes well, some longer tours could happen on one gear in the future. If any of these plans come to fruition I’m sure there will be another blog on here to accompany them so keep checking. But who knows, maybe I will actually manage to find a job, which could put an end to my adventures for the time being.

The final word
Obviously it goes without saying that I had amazing time, met some great people and saw lots of cool countries. I would definitely recommend cycle touring to anyone even if you don’t really ride at all normally. It is nowhere near as hard as you would imagine, most newcomers I met couldn’t stop enthusing about how easy they were finding it. So go on, give it a go! All that remains is for me to thank you for taking an interest and reading my blog. It has been quite an effort for me to keep it up, being dyslexic I really don’t like writing but on the other hand I do love telling people my tales from the road. Due to all the effort it takes (especially whilst in remote places) I really appreciate at least a few people reading it, it makes it all worthwhile. Who knows hopefully it might have encouraged one or two of you to follow suit and go on a cycling adventure of your own.

Take care, have fun, stay cool and may the wind always be behind you!

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