Journey to the East 2013

Marco Polos fabulous journey to the East left wild dreams in my mind since I was reading it as a child. Herrmann Hesses "Journey to the East" did so some years later, as well a a picture book about the Himalayan - the roof of the world. And finally after a long winter the snow melts. Now Kathrin and I are ready to venture out to a long bike journey - to hopefully meet a lot of friendly people and face incredible landscapes and colorful cities from here to the Himalayan.


 

We are backsave and sound. Here is where we went.

journey roadmap

 April 15th, 2013: finally the roads out of our winter asylum in Tabarz, Thuringia are free of ice. The piles of snow are melting - time to take off again. At the first junction our ways divide: Kathrin choses the cultural trail through Erfurt, Weimar and Dresden towards Prague while I take hilly hillbilly route. First granny gets our used laptop, then I visit daddy. Sunny days on the road. Spring boosts. First night camping. I meet Georg in Bavaria, work on his webshop while he brings my bike in shape again. The programming project takes longer than expected, but Georg is happy with the solution found, and I have new handmade wheels and parts. The joint training rides every second day bring me back in cycling shape after the long winter break. Meanwhile Kathrins seatpost and saddle gets stolen in Dresden, out of the backyard of a youth hostel, including some emergency cash and passport copies. She gets a replacement, and enjoys hiking in the rocky Elbsandsteingebirge.

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Two more cycling days along the bike trails along the Moldau, then Kathrin meets friends from Switzerland in Prague. Being busy on the new cyclocross-store.de till the last minute, I arrive two days later by train. We stay in a fancy hotel, enjoy great food and a marvelous nightwalk along the golden city. We look forward to cycle on towards Bratislava. My blood freezes when I see Freddy (Kathrins bike) alone in the backyard, and my lock cut in pieces in the grass. Apparently someone fancied my bike a lot despite the worn look. Video streams of the hotel cameras are checked without success. Police comes by in the evening to file a report, without further investigations. We put flyers with rewards on the neigboring entrances and hope. Luckily we can stay in the hotel for three more nights. One day I rent a bicycle, and we tour the cities doggy districts, visit the "bazars". No trace of my bike but big eyes for the reward.

 Karlsbridge by Night

Weary of the city and the situation I convince Kathrin to do something else. We apply on a Wwoofing farm nearby Prague and get an immediate response. Frantiska, the owner, painter, healer, runs the farm after living for decades in France. Finally Spring in our minds - cherry blossom and birds singing everywhere out here in the tiny village. With Lucy there is another Wwoofer here for the weekend. Weading, shreddings last years shrubs, incredible how much progress is visible day by day. We put new flyers out in Prague with an increased reward for my bike, but still no success. Three long journeys, 20 something countries, bye bye Mono: I wish your new rider cycles with you to Karakorum Highway. :-)

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Frantiska travels to Prague for a couple of days, lets Kathrin and me stay on the farm. We quit the faggs, weed the weed, think about our future plans - and decide to move on towards Istanbul. Manually handling four paneers and a tent bag is no fun without bike, so a new bike would be desireable. I'm haggling with the hotel owner to have him cover a part of the damage, and stupid me forgot about the travel insurance, which I actually wanted to do this time.

If you want to donate parts for "Monos Revenge", you can use the following bank link:

Germany:
Deutsche Kreditbank; Empfänger Sven Schirmer
Kontonummer: 1013382641
Bankleitzahl: 120 300 00

Switzerland:
Postfinance, Empfänger Kathrin Heim
Kontonummer: 18-344484-5;
Bankleitzahl: 9000
IBAN: CH46 0900 0000 1834 4484 5
BIC: POFICHBEXXX

international:
Deutsche Kreditbank; Sven Schirmer (that's me)
IBAN: DE52 1203 0000 1013 3826 41
BIC: BYLADEM 1001

Here is a rough list what is needed:

Kinesis Maxlight Disc 450 MTB-Gabel 1 1/8 Zoll Ahead 129,90 €
Quantec SUPERLIGHT MTB Rahmen 254,00 €
Shimano Deore 590 Gruppe V-Brake schwarz 229,90 €
Schwalbe Marathon Mondial Performance MTB Drahtreifen 50-559 45,80 €
Deda RSX01 Sattelstütze - schwarz matt
Länge/Durchmesser: 400mm/31,6mm
25,90 €
Tubus Cargo Evo Gepäckträger - schwarz
Version: für 26" Räder (Bauhöhe: 363mm)
69,90 €
Tubus Tara Vorderradträger - silber 49,90 €
Shimano PD-A530 SPD-Pedal
Farbe: silber
35,90 €
Trivio Basic 95mm Bar Ends
Farbe: schwarz
8,90 €
KCNC Dark Side Flat 8° MTB-Lenker
Klemmdurchmesser: 31.8mm
24,90 €
Race Face Deus XC 31.8 Vorbau 2009
Vorbaulänge: 100mm
39,99 €
Specialized Bodygeometry Contour Locking Grip Griffe
Ausführung: Regular - Grey/Black
19,90 €
Shimano-Mavic MTB Laufrad Deore - XM317 schwarz
Ausführung: Vorderrad + Hinterrad
106,90 €
GPS Bike Locator (to prevent the next thievery) ~ 140 €
Verschiedene Kleinteile (Steuersatz, Bowdenzüge, Trinkflaschenhalter, Tachometer...) 100 €
Primus Brennstoffflasche 16 €
 Summe 1.296 €

Cheers lads, thanks a lot in advance. Kathrin and I really appreciate your support!

After almost two weeks of wwoofing at Frantiskas farm near Pribram, CZ Kathrin and I went for a great weekend camping trip to Karlstejn with Frantiskas old mountainbike. Spring has definitely arrived, all trees are vivid green, the meadows blossom. The fortress of Karlstejn is very impressive.

I take the train back to Bavaria, where Georg helps me to assemble my new bicycle. Thanks a lot for your generous donations - I'm very happy with the bike and its handling, weight and look!

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Meanwhile Kathrin cycled on towards Vienna with the bulk of our equipment. Two days later I follow her. I beam through green hills and valleys, see many old stone sculptures of saints beside the roads, rush through Marianske Lazny. Clingggg - a broken spoke on the cassette side of my old rear wheel shortly after. Get it fixed in Plzen and head towards Pisek on small hilly backdoor roads. Great forests, meadows, crop fields and tiny villages with barking dogs. Few road signs, no traffic. Blood sweat and tears on the slopes. I have a rest during the rain in Blatna, and a quick rush to Pisek on the main road that wasn't too bad in terms of traffic. Sight seeing beside searching a guesthouse in the last light of the day. One more racing day - 100 miles to Bitov to catch up with Kathrin again.

SAM 2537Rest day - a walk to the scenic castle over the water reservoir. The campground is great. Finally we tent together, cook our meals and coffees on the little stove as we intended. On the way to Bratislava we briefly cross into Austria to visit the castle of Hardegg in the Thaya valley national park. On the way back to Czech republic, the cycle route leads through a forest of mighty oak trees. I'm taken by the beauty of the Czech nature. The fragance of blooming whitethorn and holder make the cycling incredibly pleasant. 

We stay a night in Znojmo, visit the historical town center and the vast system of man-made catacombs under the city. The guided tour is funny, full of history and fairy tales. The catacombs have been dug since the 12th century for food storage and shelter during war periods for hundreds of years. Then, they were abandoned and forgotten until the bombings of World War II revealed strange holes under the ruins of some old houses.

Looking forward for plain roads from here, we face a tough day of head wind through the crop fields and wind parks in Northeast Austria. Eventually we reach the river March (Morava) at Angeren and take a ferry to Slowakia. The Iron Curtain trail leads us further South towards Bratislava, through beautiful stretches of big willow and cottonwood trees.

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A night of wild camping on a  lake with a marvelous sunset between storm clouds and millions of mosquitoes. At 6AM the transportation bands of the quarry pond start to rattle.

A few hours later we arrive in the pouring rain at the ruins of of Devin castle, towering on a big rock over the merging Morave. Utterly soaked we enter Bratislava, and eventually find a hostel after an hour of criss crossing the Danube. Without the rain, I would have appreciated the big balcony of our room and view to the castle a lot. Yet at the time, the gray 1970ies soviet style Hotel Kiev dominates the view, and my mood. There is a Slovak cooking session in the evening. Paula teaches us some lentil soup recipe, and even better, some Fanky sweet dough fried in oil. Yummie! The following day we join a free walking tour around Bratislava and learn a lot about the Slovak history. Kathrin get herself a pink tablet and I feel a little abandoned afterwards.

Sunshine on the following day, time to take off again. A nice tailwind blows us down the Eurovelo 6 cyclist highway along the Danube river (which we hardly see), and by lunchtime we are already in Hungary. Red poppy flowers and storks beside the road, red cherries on the trees in the villages - if we just knew how to ask the owners at the fence for a few. We reach the town of Györ and a nice cafe just before a heavy rain shower, and continue towards Komarom afterwards. But the Eurovelo route is difficult to find, and the road we would have taken is forbidden for cyclists. After we pass the Audi factory and some single trails in the woods, we eventually get back on track, and find the camp site we wanted. A 100 k's, that's descent!

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We have lots of opportunities to see the rising levels of the mighty Danube on the way to Esztergom. There is floods in Germany and Austria, and apparently Hungary will get its share in the next days too. However, for today we can still camp  at the riverside in Esztergom, which is most famous for its Basilica on a rocky hill over the river. We take the small cat stairs in the old town uphill, marvel about the view over the river and the mighty marble sculpture of a crowning ceremony. The sky glows in vibrant colors. When we get to the basilica, I'm taken away by the scale of the eight columns at the entrance portal and the mighty green door compared to the visitors. A high priest and his servants celebrate a ceremony, sing and pray and walk to several altars outside the Basilica. Kids stray flowers on the cobblestones between them and the worshipers. We are at the heart of the Hungarian catholic church.

In Szentendre we can stay for two nights in a bungalow on piles on Papsziget island in the river. In the neat old town, people prepare flood walls to protect the old town center. Others would cut the gras on their premises. Surprisingly, everyone is calm, no one seems to be too concerned as we talk to them. Almost all German discounter chains are omnipresent in Hungary, with similar low profile. We watch the Danube rising from our hut, and wonder which direction to take after Budapest. To stay near the flood is probably not very wise.

30 more kilometers to the Hungarian capital. Bicycle trails are partly flooded. Tomasz, a young army student we meet on the way kindly escorts us into town with his bike, and gets somewhat lost too. Eventually we reach the Varosliget city park with the hero square, make some photos with a nice Indian family. The nearby Vajdahunyad castle somewhat looks Disneyland, yet was build around 1900 for the Millennium celebrations of the Hungarian state. Budapest is charming - its history reflected in buildings, the bridges over the mighty stream. When crossing the chain bridge to see the great Parliament building from the Buda side of town, we watch a young man escape an ambulance car and jump over fences into the river. Hmm.

Good news for cyclists: there are many bicycle tracks in the city centre. And the people here like their bikes - they like it fancy and fast. You may see pink racer bikes with pink tires and the cyclist with pink hair too. As well, there is a significant portion of fixies in town.

A great surprise is the Greenbird guesthouse we booked. Not a noisy hostel, but a fully equipped flat near the Parliament building - with our own kitchen, bath. In the basement - we hope the water level won't rise too much. After a long day visiting the Buda hills, we spoil ourselfes with an incredible organ concert in the St. Stephens cathedral. The following day we venture to the traditional Gellert thermal bath, get sunburned and crown the day with a visit to the Belvarosi Festival in the park next to our flat.

Here are some pictures from Budapest:

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A patchwork of marked bicycle tracks on the main road and random stretches on bumpy sidewalks lead us out of Budapest. The fancy bicycles disappear quickly. Eventually the city is behind us, and we find a little road towards Jaszbereny. Corn and grain fields are interrupted by shrubs and trees. In the villages there are cottages with big greenhouses and stork nests. Late in the evening we arrive at a camping in Jaszapati. Friendly German campers point us to the attached thermal bath on the next morning. We get attached to the idea of camping near thermal pools, and manage to stop only on such campings on our way to Romania. We cross the Hortobagyi National Park with its many lakes and flooding areas, a big sanctuary not only for migratory birds. The land is flat, cherries are ripe. We make good mileage. Hajduszoboszlo has the biggest thermal bath in Hungary, and the perhaps most expensive campground in Hungary. Last day in Hungary – we are off the tourist tracks where coffee costs like 30 cent. Where villagers carry their shopping (10 liters of soft drinks in big plastic bottles plus two big shopping bags) for some 20 kilometers to their homes. Where there is a stork nest on almost every farmhouse, and I get a feeling the storks belong to the families.

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Hortobagyi National Park (Hungary)

And then, we are on the border that isn't really a border anymore since Romania belongs to the EU. Goats weed on a railroad. A few kilometers later we pass the first Orthodox Church, a white building with silver roof and its unique bell tower style. We arrive in Oradea a little later. The communist style suburbs with its aged and dark gray 5-floor chicken farms (ehh living quarters) are decorated by colorful advertisements. The city center with its many tall 19th-century buildings is beautiful - e.g. the town hall, the splendid hotel across the road and the nearby Church of the Moon. Oradea has once been an important strategic spot during the centuries, and therefore hosts the ruins of a once mighty fortress. Restoration and new construction work goes on everywhere in town. We can feel the boom, can imagine the past and future prosperity. There is a lot of Hungarian influence here in the area, which helps us communicate. Plus, the first two people we really spoke to, would talk French and Italian in addition. A Swiss organic-garlic farmer gives us a lot of funny stories about Romania.

The E79 takes us out of town and gets very busy when the motorway joins in. We ask a young man for alternatives. He shows us his black oily hands and mourns about his "shit country". Apparently he broke his car somewhere nearby. Little later this major road is less paved than pothole covered, with all the trucks and cars and horse carts maneuvering around them. We find a bypass road via Holod through the hills of rural Romania with small farmhouses with stork nests and fields and meadows.

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Oradea and Bihor countryside in Romania

Climbing up N75From Stej, there is the scenic route 75 through the Apuseni Mountains into Transylvania. We climb up the switchbacks through the beautiful forest up to 1200 meters. At times, Kathrin finds us some wild strawberries. The road sides are limited with brick walls instead of metal barriers, and the limestone mountain tops. Just behind the peak we enter Var Top, a Romanian version of winter holiday and ski resort with building sites everywhere. From there we follow the river Aries through its valley to Garda de Sus, where we camp for 10 Lei (2 Euro) a night. The contrast of a white painted church with silver roof beside a wooden church in the narrow valley is awesome. The paintings in the church display holy men, devils and all sorts of wild creatures, the latter feasting on human body parts. On the first resting day, we visit the nearby gorge with a cave, and chill in an underground limestone spring. On the following day, we cycle up a steep road to visit the famous Scarisoara cave - a giant 3000 year old ice block in a mighty hole. Beautiful views and alp feelings at 1200 meters above sea level.

Our fascination for Romania and its beautiful nature keeps growing and growing on our way down the amazing Aries valley. Steep rocky cliffs, small waterfalls, lush oak and beechwood forests. Wooden monasteries with long bearded priests wearing long black coats and black hats despite the heat. Summer has definitely kicked in and we are grateful for every opportunity to dip in fresh mountain creeks. A dozen man sit under sun roofs in front of the magazines in every village, sharing their 2.5 liter bottles of beer at any time of the day. Finding a restaurant is way more difficult. Still some of the famous wooden cottages are left.

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Pictures from Route 75: featuring Garda de Sus and Pestera Scarisoara

The Turda gorge with its 200 meter high limestone walls feels somewhat like the Californian Yosemite valley. The main trail through the gorge is just a few kilometers, but definitely worth the visit. We zip along the E60 to Sighisoara. Lots of new built houses indicate a prospering country, or rising private debts? Comparing the high petrol prices to the average income of approx. 200 Euro per month, I keep wondering how the people can afford driving a car, not to mention to buy a new one.

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Cheile Turzii near Turda -

not just a climbers paradise!

Sighisoara used to be a center of the Saxon settlers. The fortified medieval town on a hill has been declared World Heritage by the UNESCO and is well conserved. Suddenly there are streams of tourists. Beside the towers and town walls, the historic house of Count Dracula attracts the crowd. Sighisoara is surrounded by a number of fortified churches to protect the Germans from the attacks of the Turks. Bierthan is one of them, located some 20 kilometers away in a lush hilly area. The church is surrounded by three wall rings, and never fell, as the guarding woman tells us. There are only a few very old Germans left here, she says - the younger ones mostly left for Germany after the fall of the Ceausescu regime. In the past, famous wines grew on now fading terrace fields she says with a somewhat mourning voice.

Near the village of Bradeni we spot a stork gathering. Dozens of the big birds flock between two fish lakes. Here we are invited to camp in the orchard of Greg and Christina. They are both teachers and enjoy hosting bicycle travelers. Their three boys help a lot on the farm and with the two cows. At night we talk a lot about Romania's past, about the German settlers and gypsies and the changes after Ceausescu. The Germans would only allow their kind into their fortified churches and cities. And they employed the gypsies. Now that the Germans left, the gypsies gained some of the houses and lack employment and motivation. Other buildings are still remote-controlled by German church institutions far away. The EU spends hundreds of millions for tourist roads, while the local government lacks money for school books. Actually, we are headed for one of these tourist roads over the Carpatian mountains next.

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Surviving the heat and the streets of Transilvania, Sighisoara and Bierthan

Orthodox Cathedral in SibiuThree heavy thunderstorms hit us and three times we have good luck with just-in-time bus-stop shelters on the 70 kilometers ride from Bradeni to Sibiu. We move on the day after on the very busy E68. The new highway is not yet finished, and so the entire heavy traffic thunders on this roads through the small villages. Children play on the foot-walk. No speed-breakers.

In Saliste we find a neat campground (www.salisteanca.com) a few kilometers away from the highway and wait for better weather to cross the Carpathians. A stork nest sits on the entrance gate, and we are allowed to plunder the big cherry tree. David and Nicole, a German couple with a 4x4 camper are here as well. They just crossed the newly paved Transalpina in fog and rain. We plan to do the same road in a three day ride, and start with an easy 30 kilometer day from Saliste up to the village of Jina at almost 1000 elevation meters. Sheep flocks and horses grass on the meadows on the hilltops above the forests. In Jina, we lodge at the only guest house. There is small museum run by an old woman, with a nice collection of traditional clothes such as thick white sheep leather jackets and white dresses with excessive colorful embroideries. The cherries in the backyard are sweet. A five litre bowl of soup and sausage and mustard for dessert.

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The next day starts with great switchbacks down to Sugag, and then 40 kilometers up the small valley, past two scenic water reservoirs. Tourist hotels are in construction here, and lots of wood trucks pass by. The outlook of big business probably payed the pavement. The remaining 10 kilometers until the peak of the Tartarau pass are either very steep climb, or our legs are very weak already. No blueberries. 1700 meters above sea level and still thick fir forest, not much to see. We rest in a small cottage in Obarsia Lotrului, make friends with Bogdan and Daniel from Bukarest. They both speak fluent English and French, for both lived in Quebec for years. Bogdan invites us to Palinka, the local spirit and the cheese and sausages they bought on their ride over the Transalpina. A little later we start to drink Tuica (another home-made spirit) from a PET bottle. Hearty Romanian hospitality, campfires and a lot of laughters. I end up with a severe headache the next morning.

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On the Transalpina

However – the sun is shining - Kathrin and I decide to tackle the Urdele Pass. Daniel sponsors an apple, a banana and a power bar for each of us, which is somehow more helpful than Bogdans contribution. We see patches of snow on distant mountains. Steep switchbacks through the woods, then we reach the tree frontier. The donkeys up here love cyclists salty sweaty hands, and the many tourists with their cars and motorbikes celebrate us like rock stars. We climb on and on, with aching legs. In distant valleys it is hard to determine between the white rocks and the sheep flocks, and the snow fields get closer and closer. We reach the first peak. Makeshift shops sell souvenirs, and much more important for us - home made cheese and sausages. A feast with the bread we carry since Jina.

Blue sky, great views. Patches of snow and violet alp roses between the rocks. A few kilometers down, then up again to the actual Urdele pass at 2140 meters above sea level. We can see down South into the hilly Walachei now, and spot the hotels of Ranca not far away. Three days with more than 3000 elevation meters with all equipment – well done Kathrin and Freddy and Mono (which was baptized with snow on the event).

Old gnarled beechwood and oak trees on the meadows, fantastic outlooks South – it is a very pleasant ride down to Novaci. From there, it is a lot of ups and downs over the foothills of the Carpathian mountains to Horezu. Pretty jaded we put our tent on a campground with mighty oak trees beside the road. A dog with one and a half ears takes its opportunity to fetch our sausage during our Yoga session. She became a big fan of us with that!

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Around Horezu

Horezu has a really good tourist information. The office master tells Kathrin a lot about the famous monasteries in the area, the nearby National Park and the pottery and everything in perfect French. The hiking map provided and the encouraging words about safe camping in the National Park trigger new plans. As our man says with a big laugh, the bad guys have left Romania for Middle Europe.

Pestera UrsilorWe visit the beautiful Horezu monastery on the following day, and we admire the somewhat hidden pottery exhibition in the Casa de Cultura. I'm not into pottery, but the sort of fractal details of the decoration is so good that it even became UNESCO Heritage. The following day we pack our stuff and head for Bistrita in the Buila Vanturarita National Park. First we pay a visit to the monastery at the entrance of the gorge, which looks similar to the Horezu monastery. The courtyard is full of big colorful roses, and visitors in the church enthusiastically worship the displayed relics. The entrance to the cave church is locked, yet the view into the gorge already pays well for the climb.

A small gravel road takes us into the Bistrita gorge. Limestone walls of 200 meters height are divided by a small river, at some point just 6 meters wide. On the way, we visit the Pestera Ursilor (bear cave) with its 60 meter high and 30 meter wide entrance, that quickly narrows to gap just big enough for one person. Utter darkness in here, and the sound of bats!

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The campground we find after a few kilometers is an excellent spot. White limestone ridges tower above the forest. Nearby the river rustles. A carpenter shows up with two apprentices and two strong horses. He accepts our invitation for a coffee, while his boys and the horses pull a dozen of trunks from the other side of the river. We don't have a real language in common, but somehow we manage to learn a bit from each other. So we learn about the spring half a kilometer up the valley, and a small bear that hangs out around here. Loru (or Laurentiu) is a carpenter from a neighboring village. He worked on a farm in Germany for a few weeks a while ago and he is so curious about our trip that he watches and comments every photo on my camera. Perhaps he just liked to sit and rest. Just, he didn't really bother to talk to Kathrin. Perhaps, attitude already changes as we get closer to the Orient. At nightfall there are dozen of fireflies around us. And little later some rain to ease us into deep sleep. No bears, luckily.

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From the Bistrita monastery there is a steep 5 kilometer gravel road to the Arnota monastery, with accommodation facilities and hiking trails on the mountains. This might be our last chance to hike for a while and since I don't like to leave our stuff in the village, we cycle up the painful road. The third Special Cyclist Panati in Casa Ana, Dagasenimonastery in three days – that's almost a pilgrimage! With my non-existent Romanian skills and desolate Bible knowledge, I watch the chapels paintings with little more understanding that an ant. However, the hike almost up to Mount Arnota was very pleasant in a buddhist way. I really liked the gnarling trees and the view of the surrounding hills and black thunderstorm clouds.

After the hike, we hop on our bikes again and cycle to Baile Gorova, a traditional spa town with a campground. The campground actually consists of wooden huts, tenting isn't allowed and the pool would shimmer in rainbow colors. Sunday morning, 8:30. Disco starts, or rather radio music distributed evenly over the camp. About 5 different songs were played during the course of the day. My flash for Romania gets chilled somewhat. However, we stay for two nights to recover our bums before moving on to Draganesti. Two nights in a decent pension with WiFi. The cook paints bicycles on our plates, with blueberry jam! Busy planning the next adventures – Bulgaria is just 120 kilometers away.

This last stretch on minor roads to Turnul Magurele is once again an amazing experience. Sunflower fields in full bloom are followed by long stretches of old farm houses. Horse and donkey carts rather than cars. Older villagers sit in the shadow under the plum trees, observe their gooses and turkeys and protect the plum harvest. Rarely we find a tree to harvest some plums ourselfes.

By 5PM, some unattended goose flocks cross the street, one after another, observed by the gander. Lovely Romania! 

Below are some pictures that did not really fit into the travel articles, sorted by topics.

Springs and wells: Romania has no good public reputation for the quality of the drinking water. At least in the mountains, there are plenty of springs with amazing fresh water. Even  in the rural areas we always found a clean well just in time. Whenever a cup was attached to the well, we considered it safe. 

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Animal power: Horse breeding is very popular in Romania. The well-feed animals are a common view beside the road or on the meadows. Even on the highways there are often horse carts loaded up with hay, building material or scrap. Older coachman will kindly greet, whereas the boys in charge often attempt to start a race with overtaking cyclists.

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Highlights in traditional and modern rural architecture: Traditional architecture of the farmhouses fairly changed from region to region, as well as the amount of incredible new houses and palaces.

 

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The modern Danube ferry from Turnu Magurele/Rumania to Nikopol/Bulgaria departs only twice a day. Even though it takes just 10 minutes to cross the mighty river and the next bridge is 100 kilometers away, the service is hardly used. Apparently there is little interest in each other.

Long stretches of sunflower fields are framed by Ganja plants beside the road. In contrast to our last day in Rumania, there are hardly villages between Nikopol and Pleven, and no ATMs. Giant farm machinery on the roads rather than horse carts. The good thing is, there is no grannies to protect the plum trees from hungry cyclists.

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Signs are written in Cyrillic, and sometimes in Latin characters. I'm thankful now I had to learn Russian language in school. After a few hills with aching legs we get into Pleven, the fifth largest city in Bulgaria. Kathrin interviews the tourist information on the central plaza, when a man on a mountain bike stops by and asks me where I am from and so on. I ask him for a bike shop to center my rear wheel. He replies that he's building bikes, and shows pictures of his self-made E-bike. Zezi is his name, he would look after my wheel and invites Kathrin and me to stay in his flat. So we rush after Zezi through crowded pedestrian areas and streets on wound bums. His flat is an incredible collection of more or less self-made electronic devices, books and pillows - Zezi is a creative genious.

After a shower and a nap Zezi invites us to cycle to a nearby park. Actually, we go to the famous Kaylaka park some 15 kilometers away. The citizen of Pleven have made this beautiful park after World War II. Ponds, meadows with flower beds, forests of old trees. At the end of the park there is a lake framed by 20, 30 meter high rocks. Hikers and cyclists hang out in small restaurants between the rocks and the lake.

Pleven became famous for the big siege during the Russian-Turkish war in 1873 that initiated the retreat of the Ottoman empire from the Balkan after some 500 years. Tens of thousands of men died in the brute battles, leading English observers to statements like "A battle without strategy is pure butchery". The communists erected a giant monument on the battlefield hill hundred years later, and put a museum inside. Weapons are displayed, and some big paintings illustrate the events that lead to the war. In the top floor, a 360° painting displays a battlefield. In front of the painting, the scenery is modeled with trenches, scattered guns and broken horse wagons. It looks so realistic, one can almost smell the stench of war.

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We cross the Balkan mountains at the Troyan pass. A fine forest of beech and oak trees leads from Troyan up to Beklemento. There are no trees on top of the pass, the land is used for sheep and sweet blueberries. We compete with a dozen of gypsies that harvest the berries professionally. A giant concrete monument honors Russian soldiers of the big wars. The strong wind up here chill my stealth-camp-mood. Luckily we find an abandoned farm a few kilometers down the road. It is a great spot to camp, hidden above the street and surrounded by mighty trees and beautiful views up to the pass and down into the valley.

Stefan the Blacksmith Stefan the Blacksmith

 In Kran we are picked up by the local blacksmith while fetching some cherries from a tree on the street. Stefan is his name. He asks us to follow, leads us to his cottage, and shows us his traditional workshop. With a few splinters the fire is started, and with a few dozen skillful hits with the mighty hammer, an iron rose leave is created, then another one. Souvenirs for us, Stefan smiles. We share the beer we just bought in the market, and talk about his family, his job, about Bulgaria. The Stefan sings us a gospel from the Orthodox church. When we leave, our bags are full of vegetables and fruits from his garden, and our hearts overwhelmed by the hospitality.

Just outside of Stara Zagora we are happy see the first road sign for Istanbul. Like other towns we have seen in Bulgaria, most buildings are less than 50 years old. Yet here, there are thousands of years of human history buried under the streets. Already 5000 BC man settled here, living from agriculture and copper craft. The Tracians lived here, then the Romans. All left their traces, displayed in a great history museum. In its basement, an original Romans street is excavated, and outside an amphitheater is being reconstructed.

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We take a slow train from Stara Zagora to Sofia. A young lady near us speaks fluent English, and is very literate. In Sofia there is a great tourist information, somewhat hidden near the Sheraton Sofia Hotel. On the maps provide there, we see many historic places and great landscapes we have missed on our way through the country. However, we visit the synagogue and the Bajan mosque. It is my first time in temples of these religions – I marvel about the rich ornaments without painful dark paintings of saints and evil. In the courtyard of the Sheraton Hotel is a small but impressive Rotunda church that is 1600 years old. Nearby, a thermal bath erected by the Ottomans. Outside we fetch some healthy water from a tap. Sofia is said to be the capital with the best water in the world.

Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia

Protests against the corrupt government still go on near the Nevsky Cathedral. People of all ages sit with banners in front of small tents, or cycle around with whistles and Bulgarian flags. As we hear, there are three big parties ruling the country, without opposition in the parliament. Now the government claims it was elected, and won't change. Some Bulgarians call it stubborn Donkey behavior. Hundreds of police man block any access to the government buildings. With a big detour, we reach the impressive Nevsky Cathedral with its giant green dome and the white walls.

View from Boyan Waterfall Boyan Waterfall

On the next day we take a city bus to the Boyan church on the Southern outskirts. From the distance I can see the canopy of some trees that looks very familiar to me. A mighty trunk with soft red bark. An old man in the church park confirms my suspicion: they are Giant Sequoias from California, planted here 115 years ago. The following hike through the steep valley with the gushing river to the Boyan waterfalls is marvelous. Woods of great tree diversity – birches, beeches, oak trees, pines and even yew. Trunks covered in moss. There are beautiful water cascades already before we reach the actual waterfall. Not many tourists are out here, and the trails are pretty clean. The panorama tour back to Boyan features some great lookouts over Sofia and the surrounding mountains. Unbelievable to find such a neat piece of nature just outside a capital!

On we go towards Istanbul. Heat and hills and sweet blackberries on small country roads. Just after 2000, a famous Bulgarian history researcher discovered the Tracian tombs of Alexandrovo. Even nowadays, the place is little known. The tomb was erected in the 4th century AD, and the paintings inside were so unique and well preserved that Japan sponsored a museum nearby. Inside the museum a complete replica of the tomb including its paintings can be visited, and lots of maps, pictures and items illustrate the life of Tracians in this part of Bulgaria. The museum guide speaks good English and enjoys the chat as well as we do.

Last night in Bulgaria – camping at a swimming pool in Harmanli – what a treat after the heat of the day! The owner Alex speaks good German, has been dealing with German cars for years. He invites us for diner and beers and a chat with the local newspaper reporter. We leave Bulgaria on the following day, with deep thankfulness for the hospitality we received, and a feeling of having seen very little of a great country. And did I mention the endless sunflower fields?

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When the Spanish cyclists told us earlier about the constant headwind on their way from Istanbul to Sofia, I was hoping for a quick and easy 300 kilometer run from the Turkish border to Istanbul. It became different. We decide to take a minor detour through Greece to avoid the heavy traffic from Bulgaria into Edirne. At the Greek border, we meet a Swiss cyclist on his way home. When we left, it was high noon, the sun was burning and the wind softly blew in our faces. No traffic on this new and wide motorway, and no shadow either. Soft roll the hills up and down the dry country. No wells, all villages are bypassed. We are happy to find at least a gas station with industry food. The border town is more vivid, luckily, and the Turkish border patrol is taking it easy on us. Stamp, we are off the EU now!

Arman and his cousin guide us into Edirne In Front of the Caravansery

An old woman rejects our money when we buy some tomatoes from her shelf. We don't even know yet how to say "Thank you". Just when we spot the first lean minarets, some kids cycle along with us. One of them, Armagan, speaks some English. He and his cousin kindly lead us over ancient stone bridges and cobblestone alleys into the old center of Edirne, and deal with the hotel manager for us. There is a 500 year old caravansary near the bazaar that still emits the old flair, even though it serves as five star hotel nowadays. The first floor of the buildings in the shopping streets is made from wood here and there, and aged over decades.

Kathrin and the Selimiye MosqueSundown, minarets in the sky, a muezzin is singing. Veiled women on the streets. Men greet each other with a little slow bow and the right hand to the heart. We have arrived in the Orient! Not far away the Selimiye mosque is located – a masterpiece of ancient architecture. We can enter after taking off our shoes – luckily no scarf is required for Kathrin. The style of the decorations inside is simply beautiful and many windows make it a bright and light place indeed, compared to the somewhat dark Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. The floor is covered by a thick carpet. Children play between the worshipers. It feels so peaceful!

It takes us three days and a hundred hills to the outskirts of Istanbul. We get up very early, because by 10 AM the road already melts in the sun, as well as our spirits. Sunflower and wheat fields, shepherds with their flocks, few traffic. Villages here and there with old men sitting in cafes, greeting us friendly. They neither drink nor eat from sunrise until sunset for it is the Ramadan month, and we are happy to get some food anyway. Water we get from the big marble square shaped wells with the little overlapping roof. Up and down leads us the silver band on towards Istanbul. The outskirts of Kirklareli and Saray are big building sites. Dozens of uniform modern apartment blocks are being erected. Uprising economy or another big bubble boom, my head is wondering. One day we find a shady picnic area just after a big hill at lunchtime. Stove out, we cook and eat and sleep till 3PM. Next to us, some guys gather for a little barbecue. What a treat!

 

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60 kilometers cycling through oak and pine forests for a change, yet another 1000 elevation meters in the burning sun. Just on top of a long ascend, a young cyclist stops by, and invites us for lunch at his grannies house in the next village. Erhan is here on summer vacation, and self-selected bicycle training. His granny has a winning smile. She serves us fried peppers and fresh melon from her garden, and spoils Kathrins bicycle Freddy with a bunch of nice flowers.

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Exhausted from a long cycling day and without a reasonable hotel available, we have our first beer in Turkey at a gas station outside Cacalta. With that kind of painkiller in the blood, the busy highway to the Marmara coast doesn't bother us anymore. We reach Büyükcecmece by sunset. The Sea, after three months cycling! We have a stroll on the crowded beach promenade with its restaurants and all sort of makeshift shops. The young Turks like this place a lot, and the vibes are very kind. The dress code for the women ranges from western style to fully veiled, right beside each other. And we spoil ourselves with a nargile, the Turkish water pipe tonight.

Theodosian walls

There is still 50 kilometers to go to the Old town of Istanbul. Partly we can cycle on beautiful beach promenades, partly on busy highways with desolate or non-existing bike tracks through new apartment block districts and industrial areas. Many smelly creeks lead into the sea, and an armada of mighty cargo ships occupies the Bosporus. We decide not to swim.

Late in the afternoon we arrive at the remains of the ancient Theodosian walls. 12 meters hight and 5 meters thick, they were erected in the 5th century to defend the city and the Byzantine empire. The mighty walls survived the heavy artillery of the Ottoman siege in 1432, but not the Byzantine empire. The contrast of thick white limestone layers and thin red brick layers is still magnificent, even after 1500 years.

Just in time for the evening prayer we arrive with our bikes on the Sultan Ahmet Square between the ancient Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The 3D sound of muezzins singing from minarets around us and the evening light are a great reward for the long journey!

In Front of Hagia Sophia

We stay a week in a shared flat in Sisli (Northwest Istanbul), rest our bicycles. It is hot in our room, we always leave the balcony door open. Never mind the muezzin. On the first night, about 2AM a man walks the street, drumming a fast rhythm load enough to start up the car alarms. I jump on the balcony. Some other neighbors hang out on their balconies and don't seem to care. What the heck? Shall I go down and help that drummer boy? I fall asleep again.

Outside the Hagia Sophia Islam and Christian wall decorations in Hagia Sophia

Of course we visit Hagia Sophia, the once and for 1000 years biggest cathedral in the world, that became a mosque after the conquest of the Ottomans. Its outstanding architecture influenced centuries of architects. Atatürk turned it into a museum in the 20th century. Some of the original Christian wall mosaics were restored between the mosque decorations. Another relict from the Byzantine era is the large ancient underground cistern with giant carp fishes, whose roof rests on 300 pillars. At night, the drummer passes by again. Car alarms on. No one cares. Seref, our host, smiles when I ask him what that is about. It is a Ramadan tradition to wake people early enough for their pre-dawn meal.

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On a ordinary street market we meet Ahmet, who speaks fluent English. He lives around the corner, and invites me to go fishing on the Galata bridge at night with his friend Orhan. The view over the Bosporus bridge to Asia. The mosques are illuminated. Phrases like "All man are brothers" are displayed in neon writing between the minarets. Wow! Dozens of men fish here every day and every night. For them, it is a nice retreat and social event. Ahmet introduces me to his friends there. We catch a bucket of small fish. I go to bed just after the drummer at 2AM.

Cistern in Front of Topkapi Palace Kathrin in Front of Rumeli Hisari

Kathrin and I visit the great mosques with their marvelous decorations and we walk colorful bazaars in the baking heat. And last but not least enjoy a tourist boat cruise with a 10TL beer. One day, we meet my ex-workmates Erman and Giray in Taksim. Giray is accompanied by his wife, who speaks brilliant English. Kathrin is more than happy for the conversation. Men in Turkey often did not bother much to talk to her. Taksim is traditionally a very liberal area. Only few girls are veiled here, and beer is served on the streets. A pity the nearby park was about to be doomed for another shopping centre, a pity the protests were stopped so violently. However, our dinner together is marvelous, with dozens of appetizers and tasty bread and finally fish, accompanied by some Raki.

Blue Mosque 1500 year old Underground Cistern

Another day, Kathrin and I are invited to Ahmets cool basement flat for dinner. He is a professional and loving cook. In no time he prepares a lentil soup, a salad, cheese wraps and the fish we caught. Afterwards Orhan and his wife take the three of us on a car ride. We zoom over the bridge to the Suleymani mosque, have Cay (Turk tea) on a rooftop restaurant. "Life is good" is his often repeated mantra. And he is so right with that! On the way back Orhan turns on Turk folk music. We swing and clap hands. Teshekür edirim! After a week, I can sleep without hearing the Ramadan drummer.

At Taksim Square with Erman, Giray and Nurcan Rooftop cafe with Ahmet and Orhan
   

After a week in the European part of Istanbul, we finally take the ferry boat over the Bosporus to Asia. The first rain since weeks chills the streets a little, and the outlook of beach holidays on the nearby Black Sea coast lets us climb steep ramps out of the city. An incredible view over Istanbul and a hundred ships on the Bosporus in the evening sun are a great reward for the sweat.

Sunset in SileBy sunset we have our first swim in a little village called Riva. A beach with an old castle, and only a handful of people. We have no place to sleep yet, but who cares if the colors on the horizon are that picturesque? Some local boys show us a somewhat hidden official campground a little later.

The hilly coastal road towards Sile leads through building sites of apartment blocks, and not too long ago deforested land. Rough gravel instead of pavement. The sun burns. We take a better logging road inland, and spot two turtles in action. The thick forest around us provides cooling shadow, the ramps are less steep. By lunchtime we luckily hit a real road again, and arrive in Sile in the afternoon. Just at the town entrance there is Nehir Motel Camping. Tall trees provide shadow, the beach is just a five minute walk away, what else can we wish for? Two families stay here sort of long term in big tents, escaping the summer heat of Istanbul. Jihan from one of the families offers us sweets and treats every day. Every time the muezzin sings, the neighboring dogs howl. One cute lean doggy becomes our best friend when we barbecue Köfte (meatballs) or fry cheese cigars ala Ahmet. Kathrin plays guitar again after a long break.

Within a week on the beach we decided not to follow the Black Sea route. During the Bayram festival at the end of Ramadan there won't not be much space nor peace on the campgrounds. We will head for Ankara instead, and from there to Cappadocia.

The expected invasion from the city arrives at the campground at 6AM. We wanted to take off early, alright. The newcomers questioned us eagerly whether we would leave. And if our neighbors would leave this morning too. With running motors. And curious kids.

So the road has us again. Steep hills for 50, 60 kilometers through oak tree and pine wood forests on back roads. Kathrin gets sad from hooting young man in pimped cars and gawking villagers, whereas I feel almost like a rock star by the greeting and waving guys. By the end of the day, we reach the city of Izmit on the Eastern end of the Sea of Marmara.

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Riva beach
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Road to Mudurnu
Road to Mudurnu
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The country road South of Lake Sapanca provides few views of the lake. Instead it is framed by business areas and settlements. Luckily Kathrin spots a small underpass on the Eastern tip of the lake for our siesta. Some hours later, we arrive in Akyazi, a charming town with big mosque and an somewhat old center. Seeking a cheap hotel we are dragged onto small seats at a nearby bakery, and spoiled with Börek, Baklahva and tea. Orhan, the charming owner of the traditional bakery doesn't mind we don't speak much Turkish. With big smiles he shows us the big stone oven, the mill and the kneading machine, and lets us store our bicycles in his barn. Eventually, his German speaking nephew arrives, who currently spends his holidays in town, to translate a bit. Like so often, men approach me for a chat, but Kathrin ends up widely unrecognized. The women would at most muster her.

In nearby Kuzuluk a funny girl serves Kebap with a white head scarf with green skulls . We spend the heat of the day dozing on shady park benches. A man approaches me with real good English, offers Kathrin and me two great peaches. He is Halil from Istanbul, a very bright man who tells us a lot about Kuzuluk and its thermal springs and the bath, about Atatürk and much more. The Thermal bath is a classic building with two big domes. Entrances are separated by sex. The round shaped hot pools are roofed by the domes and the entire interior is decorated with white marble – a fantastic view. 10 TL entrance fee is a bargain compared to the prices of the touristy Hamams in Istanbul.

From Nallihan to Cayrhan
From Nallihan to Cayrhan
Barbecue with Kemal and Mehmet
Mudurnu
Mudurnu
Girls of Nallihan
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Chai with the truck driver on the road
Last climb before Ankara
Last climb before Ankara
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Just before sunset our road parallels a river. Some cars are parked at the river bank, families having their picnic in the shadow of the cottonwood trees. The ideal place for our camp tonight we just think, and luckily receive an urgently needed gallon of fresh water by a leaving party.

We celebrate our 4000 kilometers on an endless ramp through lush oak forests, shrubs and dry meadows. Two young cyclists from Slovakia overtake us, traveling fast and light towards China or so. By lunchtime the sun grills us on an empty wide bypass road. We are starving for food and shadow. Kathrin's cycling spirits have faded - the hills, the heat, the early rising day by day, the lack of communication took their tolls. The lunch break in the village is little relief with toy gun firing kids. However, the following kilometers are less hilly, less hot. Gnarling pine trees grow on the rocky ridges beside the road, then the valley opens to a wide vegetable plain which is followed by strange gray and cone-shaped hills.

Old man sitting on the street in MudurnuThe old town of Mudurnu with its narrow lanes and traditional Ottoman houses in an awesome rocky valley is National heritage. We stay two nights in a nice 100 year old hotel made of wood and clay. The ultimate highlight of our stay is the bath with massage in the 600 year old Hamam (Turkish bath), for just 10 TL.

The road from Nallihan to Cairhan leads through fantastic landscapes. Red, purple, yellow, white and gray mesas in the arid flat remind us a lot to Utah or Arizona. Erosion and wind stripped millions of years of earth history in colorful layers before our eyes. Cycling does make sense after all. Nearby a big water reservoir, we stop a a vegetable stall to get some tomatoes for dinner. Kemal and his friend Mustafa won't let us go without a bag full of vegetables, and another bag full of grapes. Just asking for a place to pitch our tent, we are invited to spend the night on the barn of his families farm house. We have a great barbecue for dinner with the entire family. Good for us – Kemals brother Mehmet who lives in Germany since 30 years, is just visiting his family here.

The last night before Ankara we pitch our tent near a mosque in Ayas at sunset. Naturally after asking the neighbors. Cycling fellows from Turkey have always told us that camping at mosques is allowed. But an hour later a police car stopped, and a rather young police officer insisted that we should leave. The Imam and the neighbors pledges for us did not change his mind. One of the old men spoke some German, and offered us to stay in his apartment. Saved at last.

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Our host Botstein wakes us at 6AM, won't let us leave without breakfast. By 10AM, we have climbed the second pass before Ankara. A long soft decline follows, and by lunchtime we are in Ankara. Never mind the dense highway traffic.

We find an inexpensive hotel room with balcony in the Ulus district. Young and old men sell used shoes, computer main boards and mobile phones on the pedestrian. In the bicycle district, I find an old man who fixes the loose spokes on my rear wheel. Why he put oil on the rim and the hub I still don't understand.

It is just a short walk to the Ankara castle with its old worn clay and wood houses. The mighty walls with its cut stones from former Greek and Roman temples reflect dozens of civilizations dwelling and battling in this place. From here – and our balcony - sunsets over Ankara are definitely impressive.

Last Climb before Ankara