A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about cycling

Things Fall Apart

sunny 29 °C

Does anyone actually live in Montenegro? Is the Balkans the best place in the world for cycle touring? How did we end up staying on a boat along side super-yachts with Jeffrey Sweetbaum, an New York born, Moscow based entreprenuer? And what happens when things fall apart with a 1,100m descent over the horizon? Will this blog post actually ever say anything or will it just be a series of meandering convoluted questions? Perhaps...

We stood at the top of an 1,100 metre pass and looked down all the way to Kotor, a beautifully preserved historic town, nestled at the foot of a sunken canyon in Montenegro. We were all set for one of the most spectacular descents of the entire trip, except for one problem. Three spokes on my back wheel had broken and the the wheel was in perilous danger of falling apart. It had been an eventful week to say the least. Cycling through the lakes of Macedonia before crossing into Albania had offered spectacular views and fascinating encounters. Albania has only been open to tourists for a few years now and arriving there was like entering another world. There is a feeling of the wild west here, soaked with adventure and lawlessness. The roads ranged from perfect newly laid tarmac to dirt tracks (on the same road!) indicating that money is now beginning to be spent on infrastructure. A booming tourist industry will no doubt follow due to the incredible mountains and beaches but for now this place is still untainted by mass tourism and provides an awesome experience for travellers looking for something different. bizzarely almost everyone drives around in clapped out old Mercedes, apparently the only cars which can endure the awful roads. IMG_6234.jpg
On our second day there, we began looking for somewhere to camp and spotted a lake on our map. However, when we arrived we were unable to access the lake except via someones property. We wheeled our bikes down their driveway where we were greeted by a squat Albanian man by the name of Nico. No we could not camp down at the lake he said in Italian. We must stay with him and his family in their house. This was typical of the amazing hospitality we received here and at dinner time we were constantly told to eat more food and drink more of their home made grappa.
The next day we set off descending down through deep canyons and gorges until we reached the main coastal road which took us through to Shkoder, the centre of which contained very pretty streets and houses which bustled with life as day turned to night and people spilled out from their homes and offices. We stayed in a former communist hotel, a big brutish concrete structure that was the cheapest place in town. However, our stay became slightly more expensive when 2 days later i realised i had left half my cycling clothes in the room, never to be seen again. All the way through Albania we were greeted with toots from cars and enthusiastic greetings by people genuinely happy that we were visitng their country and we were sad to leave but know we will return.
We crossed the border into Montenegro, a country we had greatly been looking forward to visiting after hearing of its spectacular natural beauty. Without doubt this was another wonderful country for cycling with very quiet roads and stunning landscapes. However, we hardly encoutered any Montenegrans other than those working in the tourism industry and the place laked the exciting vibe of Albania. The ride along Lake Shkoder was truly breathtaking and we camped that evening at a small beach on the lake shore after enjoying fish caught from the lake (actually Mariana had a tomato salad). Our decision to camp at the lake meant we started the next day with a 250m steep ascent back to the road. Already soaked in sweat we continued on to Virpazar another beautiful town located where the river meets lake Schkoder, surrounded by a lush green nature reserve. The next day we cycled on to the former capital of Montenegro, Cetijne, a beautiful old city though sadly lacking in the buzz of a thriving city.
The following days cycle to Kotor was all set to be one of our most spectacular yet; a wonderful climb through pine forest and craggy mountains up to 1200m before traversing across a high plateau and then a descent to sea level involving 25 hairpin turns. As we set off my bike was making a strange sound and I looked down to see one of my spokes broken. Further examination revealed that actually 3 had broken. Usually this would not be too difficult to fix but 2 things prevented this. First, the broken spokes were all on the rear wheel cassette (the gears) side meaning i would have to remove the cassette to replace them, and secondly, the spare spokes seemed to have dissappeared from Mariana's bag. We managed to find the cities only bike mechanic, an eccentric old Montenegran who ranted at us for several minutes before indicating we could return at 2pm. When we did return the wheel was still in a sorry state and the mechanic seemed angry - he was unable to remove the cassette. We asked if he thought it was safe to continue to Kotor. He shrugged his shoulders. What choice did we have. So on we went.

What a ride. Even going slow so as to ensure i got down in one piece the cycling was one of the highlights of the trip so far. So breathtaking that i kept having to stop to take in the view in an attempt to imprint it on my mind.
When we finally reached sea level and the old town of Kotor we phoned our couch surfing contact; Jeffrey Sweetbaum. Now Jeffrey is definitely not your average couch surf host. First of all he owns a large boat which he spends most of his summers on, sailing around various parts of the world. He is also an eccentric New Yorker who decided to go to Moscow after the fall of the Communist regime, in his words "to see what was going on". It turns out plywood was going on so he set up a business in it. Anyway, we spend a lovely couple of days hanging out on his boat, riding his dingy around the lake, and swimming in various coves.
Feeling refreshed after some rest, we cycled the last leg of our Balkans adventure, an 90km ride to Dubrovnik (still with 3 spokes missing). After 80km we decided to stop at a lovely beach just outside Dubrovnik, a place Mariana had stayed 10 years earlier, with a lovely campsite and beach. The next morning we rose early and arrived in the city for breakfast. Although Dubrovnik is undoubtedly beautiful and incredibly preserved, the place has become a tourst circus, heaving with English and Americans following guides holding colourful sticks so that they dont get lost. No Croats actually live in the old city and after 1 day we had definitely had enough. "Lets get out of Croatia" i said "the place is heaving. Lets go to Italy!"

Posted by roblewis 07:13 Archived in Albania Tagged mountains lakes bicycle croatia cycling montenegro albania couchsurfing mercedes Comments (1)

pedalling out of the cold

overcast 11 °C

You might be able to tell from Rob's last blog post that the bad weather in China - particularly the lack of sunshine - is starting to wear us down a bit. Every morning we hopefully draw the (often slightly mouldy) hotel curtains at about 7.30am to be greeted by dull grey sky and a cold blast of air if we are crazy enough to open the window. From Tanluo (the 'shit town with no redeeming features') we had initially planned to cycle for 2 days to get to the Detian Waterfalls, a transnational waterfall (between China and Vietnam) that is meant to be quite beautiful - it is the image used on the back of a 20 yuan note and on there is looks pretty good! However when we got up in the cold and saw grey sky again we made a snap decision that we weren't going to be able to spend another 2 days cycling through fairly bland scenery to stay in another tiny village with an unhygienic and cold hotel - instead we were going to head for the border crossing to Vietnam as quickly as we could.

To get to the next decent sized town en route to the border we were going to have to cycle 110 km to Chongzuo so we set off straight after our breakfast feed of youtiao and soya milk. For the first 25 km through Fushu and Zhongdong the roads were pretty bad - very dusty and bumpy so we were struggling to go at a decent speed. Things picked up a bit after about 11am. The roads were smoother and flat and banana plantations gave way to sugar cane fields, as far as the eye could see, and as it was less misty we could also enjoy the karst mountain scenery. Although we still couldn't see the sun it was warm enough to take our gloves and hats off for the first time while cycling and the day passed the breath test as we spent the entire day not being able to see our breath for the cold. Things were looking up!

We pulled into Chongzuo at about 6pm, pretty tired and in desperate need of a good shower. The responsibilities we have individually taken on since our trip started have developed organically according to our strengths. As Rob definitely has a more discerning eye for a good hotel it has naturally fallen to him to pick out our sleeping spot for the night when we pull into town while I 'guard' the bikes. Usually we pick the one that looks the nicest from the outside (although appearances are misleading as the facade of the building is usually the best bit, masking a shabbier interior). Anyway, Rob marched assertively into a decent looking hotel smack opposite the station. Five minutes later he reappeared 'It was alright but I think we can do better for that price' (a tenner). In hindsight it seems that we have been spoilt by our hotel experiences in Hezhou and Zhaoqing as four hotels and one hour later we slunk back to the original hotel. We had done the rounds of pretty much every hotel in Chongzuo (we should be on commission from the lonely planet!) and they were all pretty grim - particularly the bathrooms - and they were all about the same price. Back at the first hotel they gave us a room, but they took pleasure in telling us that they had let out the last double room ten minutes earlier so if we still wanted a room it would have to be a twin. Penance for procrastinating!

We got up early again and set off for a short day after our long cycle the previous day. So far most of our cycling days have been 'journey days' rather than 'destination days' so we decided to visit one of the few tourist sites in Chongzuo county: a leaning pagoda - apparently one of only 18 worldwide! Including our getting lost kilometres it was a 10km round trip to the pagoda that was perched precariously on a rocky outcrop in the middle of Phoenix lake. Although it was very well signposted (in English!) from the city centre there was no sign - not even one in chinese - at the actual turn off so we sailed past it, ending up by a sugar factory. Eventually after numerous attempts at asking for directions we found it. One of our best excursions in China, we were chauffered over to the pagoda on a lovely gentleman's houseboat. We did try to converse with him but didn't get very far... perhaps we were a bit ambitious when we tried to enquire about how the pagoda came to be leaning....

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We left the pagoda by mid morning heading for Ningming for what we thought would be an easy day but turned out to be one of the most punishing days of cycling yet. 10km after leaving Chongzuo we started climbing - going through the hills where we would spend the rest of the day, relentleessly going up and down. Although the gradients were initially quite gentle (they got steeper later) there were no sections of road that were flat for longer than 200 metres. The morning was pretty exhausting and we didn't pull in for lunch until about 2.30pm - into a nameless town as it wasn't on our map. Apart from a witnessing a frenzied card game there was not much there - the only cafe/restaurant in the town didn't have toilets and didn't serve tea and the only shop in town didn't sell coke (not a bad thing in principle but on a practical level it was inconvenient as it deprived us for a much needed sugar hit!).

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After lunch the roads got bad, then very bad. Better for the last 15 km as we approached Ningming where we would stay for a rest day as both of us were getting knee pain from all the hill work. Ningming is quite a small town and not unpleasant. Unlike most Chinese towns and cities we have been to it does seem to have a 'centre'. The buildings are generally rectangular concrete slabs but many of them have very intricately decorated facades and frontages.

As we will be leaving China in a couple of days after only 2 weeks here we wanted to take our rest day to explore the area before heading over the border. Only 15 km from Ningming are ancient murals on the cliff of Mount Huashan drawn by the Zhuang people about 2,000 years ago. Nice and local to where we are staying and perfect for our rest day. We woke up to rain and a drop in temperature back to about 8 degrees. A short trip on a louis vuitton upholstered rickshaw to the murals which were lovely (although we did spend about half an hour arguing over the price and Rob got quite irate that we couldn't get any tea to drink in the freezing cold!).

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So our time in China has been quite a mixed bag. We plan to head back into Yunnan in about a month hopefully when it warms up and it will be interesting to see how it compares to our experiences so far. Tomorrow is chinese new year and also the day we plan to cross the border into Vietnam heading for the warmth so our future blog posts will hopefully contain fewer obsessive rants about weather!

Posted by mrs lewis 05:50 Archived in China Tagged cycling cold karst dusty language_barrier Comments (1)

one pedal in front of the other

semi-overcast 16 °C

After a couple of days in Auckland fighting off punishing jetlag punctuated by a few exploratory trips round the city we assembled the bikes and bit the bullet for the first leg of the cycle. It felt good to get on the road quite quickly as we had both been feeling a bit anxious and nervous about how we are going to fare... So we decide to take it gently for the first couple of days - with our trusty bible 'New Zealand by bike' printed in the 80s as our guide. We set off to beautiful coramandel from Auckland on the ferry to tootle round the penninsula to have a very short day to get warmed up before the 'proper hills'.... or so we thought.

Clearly Bruce Ringer (author of New Zealand by bike) is made of sterner stuff than me as a couple of miles from we were stuggling up an eyewateringly steep road which wound its way uphill (mountain?). Every hairpin turn was faced with a bubble of hope that it would be the last one before the descent followed by crushing despair and increasing knackeredness (is that a word?) as the road stretched endlessly upward ahead. After about an hour I was staving off despair that I wasn't going to be able to make it and that I had been beaten on the first attempt - accentuated by the fact that Rob seemed to be finding it much easier than me! But fuelled by lucozade we plodded on and made it to the top about half an hour later. I can't remember the last time I felt so alive (and relieved!). We were on top of the world surrounded by bays, beaches and harbours to the east and west.

Mariana admiring the view

Mariana admiring the view

In afternoon we soared through dairy farms and pine plantations and saw less than 10 cars on the road for the two hours. Completely exhausted but exhilarated we stopped at Kuaoutunu by a beautiful beach for our first night in the tent to recharge our batteries before heading to Cook beach tomorrow.

beach in Kuaotunu

beach in Kuaotunu

Posted by roblewis 16:37 Archived in New Zealand Tagged cycling Comments (6)

The first dry run

semi-overcast 6 °C

Lycra-clad and raring to go our date of departure is looming large and the panniers we need to cram everything into are looking decidedly small.

Rob, being the organised one in this outfit, has suggested we have a dry run – testing out our gear and making sure we can actually carry everything on the bikes (and fit it all in the tent) before wobbling precariously off on our adventure. Yes, a sensible plan. So Rob sets about planning a 60km circular route from Potters Bar, camping overnight in Hertford. The concern about pannier sizes turns out to be well founded as we work out that we have space for two changes of clothes…. for ten months. Me: panic rising, Rob: the picture of calm.

Friday evening ended up going pretty smoothly – the most challenging bit was getting the bike up the stairs at Finsbury park station and narrowly avoiding it being crushed by the closing train doors. Made it to the campsite before dark and even though our tent is absolutely tiny and weighs about as much as a paperback we just about managed to squeeze ourselves in, teeth chattering, for a night in the great outdoors on the coldest night in England since April.

Finsbury Park Station

Finsbury Park Station

Saturday was slightly less successful… we overslept so started off late and quickly realised that I had grossly overestimated my fitness level and found myself puffing up slight inclines in our lowest gear. If we can’t get up the Chiltern Hills then the Alps might be a bit of a pipe dream, or involve a lot of pushing! So we are now on a frantic fitness regime (running, spinning, squats, lunges etc). Too little too late?

Posted by mrs lewis 04:11 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged camping cycling preparation Comments (2)


Welcome to our blog!

Here we will be planning and documenting our belated cycling honeymoon adventure starting in New Zealand gradually working our way back to London, including our routes, experiences, emotions and the size of our saddle sores.

We will be shunning all material trappings of our London life (except our GPS and iPod!) to experience life on the road; uncomfortable at times but hopefully filled with exhillaration, excitement and discovery. We are both very keen (but amateur) cyclists and this is our once in a lifetime adventure and challenge - what better time to do it than on our honeymoon.

Posted by mrs lewis 18:21 Tagged honeymoon cycling preparation Comments (0)

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