Pamir Highway

20 Aug

Ever since abandaning my plans of a long bike tour in 2014, I have wanted to see this part of the world from the saddle. Finally, it became a reality during the past two weeks.

Just before flying to Dushanbe, I discovered that it is possible to apply online for Tajik e-Visa, with the Gorno-Badakshan autonomous region permit (GBAO). Since getting the latter previously involved visiting some sort of office in Dushanbe, the e-Visa had the potential of saving me 1-2 days. Although it said that processing was 2 work days, I applied  the day before flying, and luckily enough received the visa pdf just in time. The document itself did not look very official – but it turned out to work. No problem at the airport, or any of numerous police check points.

Arriving in Dushanbe was a depressing experience. The city was very run down, in a Soviet kind of way, and pretty much everything seemed dysfunctional. I set out on a quest to send  some post cards. Locating the post cards was easy (took one hour). Stamps were another deal. First post office said that they would have stamps the next day. Taxi ride to the “main” post office took some time. There they reluctantly sold me stamps. (For future reference: TouchNote – very cool mobile app, which generated physical post cards).

Next day, I took a taxi with my boxed bike to the Uzbek border. Within an hour of assembling, I was off. And within another two hours, it was baking hot, approaching 40 C. I cycled past farmlands, and aluminum plant, and the ruins of the ancient fortress at Hisor.

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A bus stop next to the Uzbek border.

Cycling through Dushanbe was much easier in terms of traffic than I anticipated, and soon a slow climb started – which would eventually take me to the Pamir plataue at 4000 m.

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One of very many picutres of the the countries president (for life).

In the afternoon I caught up with a Dutch cyclist, and we asked some locals if we could pitch our tents in their apple orchard.

Next morning I woke early, and being keen on getting riding, said bye to my new-found Dutch friend. The uphil continued, and things changed into a foothill landscape, as the rode got worse.

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This is where the hills and bad road surface begins.

On the third day, the road had turned into a jeepable sandy gravel path, but the scenery was fantastic, with many sorts of rock formations, along a river gorge. Day four was a climbing day, which took me up a 3200 m pass, from where it was all down-hill to the town of Kalai-Kum, on the Afghan border. Before rolling down, I filled up bottles from small streams. Mint was growing abundantly, and the water had a distinct mint taste!

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Approaching the first mountain pass of the journey.

During the long down-hill, my front tube literally exploded (this has happended three times lately, and I will never again juse Continental MTB tubes). The whole business was a bit exciting, with the prospect of falling several hundred meters, if not being able to stay on the road.

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Yet another picture from the road.

Kalai-Kum was an interesting place. Whereas all other villages thus far had a sleepy air around them, this town seemed rich and alive. Perhaps it is the trade with various vegetable extracts from across the Afghan Wakhan that has resulted in this wealth?

From Kalai-Kum the ride continued along the Panj river, which constitutes the border to Afghanistan. Looking across the river, one directly realized the difference in standard between the countries: Tajikistan had houses, Afghanistan mud shacks. I was cycling on a road (more or less), the Afghan side had a iffy-looking path clinging to the rock face. The crags were either way looking like the ones one would expect snow leopards to hang out in, but of course I did not see one.

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Instead I met a Polish man on a scooter (!!!). He had just crossed over from Afghanistan. He was not very impressed, and said it felt utterly unsafe. Close to Mazar-i-Sharif, he had been arrested by Americans, who hold him during a whole day, after which various phone calls made it unlikely that he constituted a threat.

Next stop was Khorog, known as the “capital of Pamir”. Most cyclists stay at the Pamir lodge, but I found out that very many people there were sick, so I went to the next-by Lalmo homestay – which was one of the nicest places (tent excluded). There I met Martin, who had been riding his motorbike around the world during the past 4 years, covering some 400 000 km.

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Old carts of various sizes and types were everywhere, presumably used by the shepherds.

From Khorog I hitched a ride with jeep across the river, into Afghanistan, where I ate a late lunch/early dinner with another traveller whom I met at the Lalmo’s. There was a market, but then not really much more to do, so we went back and spent time in the waterfront park in Khorog instead, from where we watched youths swim in the rapids of the river.

 

Leaving Khorog, the climbing up to the actual Pamir plataue begun. Fortunately I was spared from any altitude problems throughout the trip, but frequently faced with rather horrible head wind (although the predominant wind direction in Pamir is W/N).

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The wind can be quite horrible from time to time, as indicated by the covered faces of these shepherds.

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And this is my own version (picture taken some days later).

Arriving in Alichur, I was utterly exhausted from the head wind, and found a rather shabby homestay. Next morning, it was still windy, and I did not feel very well. However, after climbing a small pass, the wind was replaced by sun, and an extremely long and gentle downhill ride to Murghab (where the wind reappeared).

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Pamir landscape close to Alichur.

Murghab is one of the strangest places I have been to. There were some other travellers at the Hotel Pamir, and I made friends with a British couple my age, living in Hokkaido. It turned out that we shared a lot of common interests and experiences – foremost cycling and skiing. As opposed to other places so far, the food at Hotel Pamir was delicious, and I decided to take a rest day. In the bazaar – consisting of Euro-containers doubling as shacks, I got hold of a spare tube. It was some cheap Chinese stuff, and did not inspire much hope. However, it lasted without a single puncture for the remainder of the trip.

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Downtown Murghab.

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This very interesting-looking mosque lies just a few minutes walk from Murghab.

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And this is Murghab’s gas station.

Next after Murghab, the road offered a 4600 m pass, which was very easy getting up. However, going down was horrible, as the gravel had an awful washboard structure for the next 15 km. In fact, I cycled most of the distance in the sandy mud next to the road, to avoid the shaking. Despite the bad surface and high pass, I managed to put in a long day, and made it to the Karakul lake, where I a stayed with three Mongol Rally teams, overlooking high peaks and the beatiful lake Karakul.

Next morning, weather was not very good. There were a mix of rain and hail storms, but after the first pass of the day, it got much better. The second pass took me to the Kyrgyz border, after 20 km of cycling in no-mans-land. The Kyrgyz border guards made their own situation much more complicated than it needed be, but eventually I was rolling again, heading for Sary-Tash.

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This is the road heading to the Kyrgyz border.

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The Tajik-Kyrgyz border at 4600 m.

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Hills just behind Sary-Tash.

After a tasty meal at a guesthouse, I agreed with a man to pick me up at the Chinsese border pass, 75 km east and 1000 m up in the air. The ride was doable the same afternoon/evening, thanks to an extreme tail wind. I left everthing apart from bike to be light and set out – arriving just before dark. My original plan was to cross the border, and end my trip in Kashgar, which is the first city on the Chinese side. However, I found no cheap (or at least fast or uncomplicated) way to get out of Kashgar. First I would need to go to Urumqi. I could cycle there, but was not keen on 1000 km of Taklamakan desert, so options would be train (do they take bikes?) or flying. From Urumqi, it would take another three or so flight to get home. Much easier then to cycle to Osh in Kyrgyzstan and fly out of there.

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Yet another unlikely color combination.

The road to Osh was mainly downhill, with beautiful scenery. There was, however, a 800 m continuous climb to a pass in between. I was very lucky, as two minutes after sitting down at a restaurant at the pass, a violent thunderstorm with hail and rain broke. It lasted only 20 min, but would have been utterly unpleasant to climb in.

After the storm, the downhill continued. I pitched the tent next to a small river, and watched thunder while cooking food inside the vestibule.

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Typical view from the tent.

The last 50 km to Osh were downhill with tail wind, and went extremely fast. Osh turned out to be a much nicer city than Dushanbe, and after leaving stuff at a hostel, I set out for the Bazaar in hunt of things to pack my bike in. I also got help from my wife, to buy a next day flight ticket. Unfortunately the cheap flights were sold out, but I got hold of a business class ticket with Turkish over Istanbul. At least comfy seasts, and access to the luxurious lounge at Istanbul Atatürk airport (from where I am writing this).

All in all, my little Pamir adventure turned out rather easy, and took just half the time I had set aside – as a result of long but slow days in the saddle. While I was very sceptical to the whole thing in Dushanbe (due to the cities depressing atmosphere), the scenery along the way made this one of my most memorable trips by bike. Its a good thing that there are plenty of other places with mountains and bad roads, perfect for touring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nordkapp-Tehran

22 Jul

 

Ingrid and I just finished the missing leg between Nordkapp in Norway and Tehran in Iran. This was not undertaken as a single tour, but rather chopped up over a few years. And my plan is to to continue slowly inching my way east…

 

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From here…

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…via this route…

…to here.

As for the trip in Norway, it offered some fantastic scenery as always, and miserable weather, as usual. We had at least one big portion of rain every day, and at one point had to haul the bicycles through several snow patches on a gravel road. This turned out to be hard work, as the front dug deep enough into the snow to get jammed by the panniers.

The highlight in Norway was Rallarvegen, which is an old gravel road in the mountains used to build a stretch of the railway between Oslo and Bergen (the two biggest cities). It is a popular cycle destination, but almost everyone else cycles it in the opposite direction. Cycling it our way involved a climb from sea level to 1300 m on rough terrain, but was definitely worth it.

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One of many nice scenes along the little gravel road.

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This was a rather unexpected place to meet a cyclist (but we did).

 

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And judging from these, we guess that there is a lot more snow in winter.

In Fredrikstad, which lies in the very south of Norway, we visited the studio where Ingrid worked with glass blowing more than 10 years ago. The owner was around, and invited us for some lunch. It was very nice, and did not feel like it was 10 years ago Ingrid was living in Fredrikstad.

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Ingrid in front of her old workplace, the glass studio in Fredrikstad.

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Nearing home, the weather had turned wonderful – like here at Italienska vägen (the Italian road) overlooking Mölle village.

This was also the first time we cycled (rather than flew) back home. It was quite convinient to end the trip in a garage, rather than chasing material to pack up the bikes and all gear at a random airport. Having home as a destination also felt interesting in retrospect, as it put the trip a bit more into perspective, than what the fly-in-fly-out trips have done.

This will be a short blog post, I’m off to Tajikistan next week, and hope to get both som preparations for that and normal work done in the meanwhile.

Kashmir

24 Jan

My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon, I will return again
Sure as the dust that floats high in June, when moving through Kashmir.
–– Jimmy Page / Led Zeppelin, from the song Kashmir.

It’s not 1975 and and the summer dust is nowhere to be seen. A testimony of the first observation are two wrecked VW hippie vans, along the road from Srinagar to Gulmarg.

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Definitely Insha’Allah this bus will leave in 10 minutes.

We are three happy friends sitting in a jeep, having spent three hours negotiating at Delhi airport to get our avalanche rescue backpacks through security.

Arriving in Srinagar, we were hurried out of the airport, luggage hurled onto the roof of a jeep and off we went. The somewhat hurried sortie, along a road bordered with armed forces, was explained by the fact that the head of local government had died the day before, and the Indian forces did not want foreigners to hang around longer than necessary.

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Filip making friends.

Finally installed in our accommodation, it was time to check out the mountain. The snow season is typically mid-Jan to early March. Hence we were lucky to have a thick white cover of Mt Afarwat, and a high pressure with sunny days throughout our stay.

Despite the fact that it did not snow throughout our stay, we skied powder lines every day. This is not so surprising, on a broad system of ridges and bowls along a 4000 m + N face, which we shared with roughly 10 other skiers. (Although the number grows during peak season.)

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Why not drop off the nice big Afarwat ridge cornice (given the stable snow conditions)?

The snow situation was relatively stable, and made for good touring. We set out enthusiastically, and somewhat disoriented skied the backside of Afarwat, resulting in quite a hike to get back. Following days made for shorter but equally interesting adventures. The only down side is that skinning up the mountain is hard work at 4000+ m elevation.

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On top of Afarwat (4000+m), with twice as tall Nanga Parbat in background.

Officially, many of the nearby mountains and valleys are closed to civilians due to the ongoing border conflict. However, the military doesn’t seem to care, and it was possible to move freely in this landscape. Talking to Luke, who runs the ski patrol (and, as it turns out shares several of my friends in Kathmandu), we found out that we had been touring what is considered the Pakistani Border. From what he told us, winter is the time to visit: “There are land mines along the ridge line, but with 3 m of snow on top, they won’t set off”.

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Not to be taken too seriously.

However, apart from high military presence, and having Martin (on skis!) chased by a dog belonging to the Indian army down a ridge, we felt completely safe throughout our stay. The locals are very friendly and helpful, and not at all part of the conflict. They are Kashmiri, and not very fond of the Inidian military presence.

Apart from good skiing, we had lots of great food, and met several interesting characters, both local and foreign.

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This is for sure a place to return to, and a good advice to anyone who is confident with backcountry travel on snow. Also, If spending more than two weeks, my guess is that you’ll get away cheaper (including flights!) than if visiting a resort in Europe or North America…

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Martin was wearing his awesome wool Phiran even in bed.

Perhaps there will be another off-topic post, but soon enough bike season starts again!

Running Season

24 Jan
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View of Manaslu, along the way to Sama.

It is low season for biking (at least for me) at the moment. We are looking into some interesting routes for the summer – more on that later – but right now focus has been on mountains.

The Himalayas have really grown on me, and I was not very surprised to find myself in Nepal for a fifth time last November. As usual running / light packing was on the schedule, and I decided to do a fast solo traverse of the Dading district, to then meet up with Richard and the Manaslu trail race.

Dading

Dading is the district beneath the Ganesh Himal, wedged between the Ghorka District (Manaslu) and Langtang. Apart from a cultural heritage trail, linking a few Tamang villages, it receives very few tourists. This particular year the April earth quake, of which Langtang was one of the most affected regions, followed by fuel blockade due to constitional crisis and uprising of the Madeshi people of the southern Terrai planes, did not exactly increase the number of visitors.

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Dading with its abundance of paddy terraces.

A half day jeep ride took me from Kathmandu to Syabru Besi, where I spent the night. Following morning, I set off west. The first day was not overly exciting, but the following week was truly amazing. Running thought paddy fields, occasional villages, high alpine pastures and old growth forest with a Himalayan back drop cannot get much better.

There were zero non-Nepalese, and in fact very few locals on the trails. Finding accommodation was easy, but official guest houses were only to be found in very few villages. I took some time for detours, particularly up the trail to Paldor Peak. Without gear it was not possible (at least for me) to summit it, but hiking well up into the snow made for a nice experience.

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Alpine forest in Dading.

The last day was a bit of an adventure, starting with getting mildly lost in the jungle, to then find the correct trail to the Budhi Gandaki river valley, to then get lost again. After a lot of vertical, I reached the paddy terraces high above the Gandaki, but could find now way down. Finally I found a very tiny well-hidden trail, just to discover that the suspension bridge had been destroyed by the earth quake. A hard climb back up in the afternoon heat, refill of water, and forced jog got me to Soti Khola just after sunset.

Manaslu

After jogging a bit up and down the Gandaki, the runners of the Manaslu Trail Race, organized by Richard, arrived. I joined them from the second day of the race. I tried to run well, but not so fast as not to enjoy things. The first two days went well. Then, staying at a fantastic location – the Hinang monestary – I got violently sick, and spent the night awake at the sub-zero toilet. No more running for me, but just walking these trails is quite nice (and I ran the thing solo a few years ago, so did not feel I was missing out too much.

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It’s nice that there’s still some of these old school bridges left!

The race itself was amazingly well organized, and it was actually way more fun to spend evening with the other runners than I had expected. Reaching the valley of Tibetan refugee village Sama, we found that the border to Tibet was open for trade (which it is 10 days every year) and saw a caravan of 600 yak make its way across, to purchase ramen and cheap electronics.

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Preparation for the 2015 Sama children’s running race.

Another interesting discovery was Youth Cyber, an internet café at this very desolate location. The place is operated by Nyima in a very modest chack, and if it wasn’t for the satellite dishes outside, nobody would suspect its existence. Spending two nights in Sama to acclimatize, there was also time to visit the home of a Tibetan family, the small local monestary, and make a detour up a ridge toward the border.

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Hinang monestary. Beutiful, and in a perfect location.

Leaving Sama, we crossed the Larkye La, slept in Bimtang, and then jeeped out from down the valley. I spent a fair bit of the jeep ride thinking of what would be a nice itinerary for a possible future run, and for sure a high traverse of Dolpo on the Tibetan plateau is high on that list…

 

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A magnificent view of Manaslu, on a clear sunny day.

Nepal Today

30 Nov

Here’s another non-bike post, this time from Nepal.

Nepal is very complex. I am not pretending to understand it, and this section is merely an assembly of bits of insight gained by speaking to expat friends, Nepalis, and reading news from various sources.

The country has enjoyed stability since end of the civil war in 2007. The high military and police presence we saw back then is long gone. However,  corruption remains a huge issue.

After the devastating earthquake of April 2015, the forever ongoing process of drafting a constitution for the country gained some momentum, and eventually a version was passed. The new constitution has some content that was (I believe rightly) perceived discriminating by the Madeshi people of the southern Terrai plains of the country. They are since declaration of the Independece Nepali citizens, but a bilateral agreement allows for free movement over the Indian border. As a result many Madeshi have family ties across the border. The new constitution contains limitations for the Madeshi. For instance, children born to only one Nepali parent cannot claim citizenship.

The Madeshi started demonstrations against the constitution in September. The government sent down military, who fired live rounds into the demonstrations, killing many. With unofficial support from Moodi, the Madeshi responded by blocking the border, for crossing deliveries of fuel and cooking gas – of which Nepal is 100 % reliant on India.

Since then not much has happened. There is a steady trickle across the border, but it cannot meet the demand. A litre of gas now costs over USD 5, and people have defaulted in cooking on wood, with all its adverse effects. Kathmandu shows no sign of backing off, neither do the Madeshi.

In the meanwhile, China sees this as an opportunity to gain influence, but threads gently, in order not to upset India. The main road between the countries (from Lhasa to Kathmandu) is heavily landslide-affected since the earthquake. Instead, trucks with gas are passsed on very rudimentary gravel roads. I was witness to a convoy traveling across the Tibetan border into Syabru Besi. I also found out that a new road is being planned over a high pass into Ghorka (to Samagaon via Samdo).

The above picture is not shared by all. I know Nepalis who think the constitution is good as-is, and that the southern uprising is directed and fuelled by India, who they claim are after increased influence (or even occupation, as suggested by some radical voices).

A paradoxal consequence of the fuel shortage is grid lock traffic jams in Kathmandu. A well-known “problem” in aviation is that if all planes would need to be grounded simultaneously, there would not be enough airports. Aparently, this goes for buses and cars in Nepal as well.

It will be interesting to see where this leads. The combination of earthquake recovery and complete cut of fuel and cooking gas is not a moral booster.

Next up – after getting hold of a card reader or camera cable, I will briefly about the wonderful experience of running through Dading disctric, and equally wonderful (minus being very sick a few days) joining a friend’s stage race around Manaslu.

Local Ride

25 Oct

This weekend Ingrid, I and my parents went for a little bike “tour” along the river, to a nice brunch place in the city park. While my mum is biking a lot, its a rear occasion to trick dad out biking. We had a fantastic ride in fall weather!

Cycling in Lund.

Cycling in Lund.

This was perhaps also the last bit of riding this year. Later today it is off to Nepal, and mountain running. I have heard from friends that there is no smog in Kathmandu. This is due to a fuel crisis, being the result of the recently passed constitution – and subsequent violent riots and protests on the Terrai bordering to India. A brief background is given in The Economist. It will be interesting to see what the situation is like, and to figure out a way to get to the mountains.

Shoes for Nepal

3 Sep

This is not quite bike related, but perhaps can help to inspire anyway. My friend Richard in Kathmandu manages Trail Running Nepal. One of his activities is to coach promising Nepali athletes, especially women. Several of them have recently appeared (and done great!) on the international trail running scene. To many people in Nepal, a pair of running shoes is a major investment. Furthermore, it is hard to find high quality ones. To support the Nepali runners, I have therefore sourced 61 pairs of new, high quality, running shoes. I’ll bring as many as I can down with me this October, but doubt I will manage to bring them all. If you know someone flying from Scandinavia to Nepal, let me know!

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Shoes, soon seen on Nepali runners.

As you are probably aware, there has been a big earthquake in Nepal, and there is a large(er than normal) need of international support. Of course, shoes do not provide this kind of support – at least not short term. If you feel that you would like to help out, I strongly encourage you to make a donation to Tuki Nepal. They are a small Swedish NGO, who provide first hand help. That is, not a huge organization, where most funds are lost in administration, bribes, etc…

Northern Scotland in Two Weeks

31 Jul

This year has been a busy one, but Ingrid and I at least managed to squeeze in a two week bike tour. We chose Scotland, since we really enjoy touring in somewhat colder rough weather and the fact that SAS has cheap return flights from Copenhagen to Aberdeen.

Arriving in Aberdeen, we were instantly met by friendly Scottish people and rain. Getting from the airport was not so nice (big roads), but soon we stumbled upon the Eurovelo 1 cycle route going west to Inverness. We followed this well-signed route along old rail road lines and small country roads, stopping at a few castles and cafés. By the end of the day, we realized that it would be hard to find a camping spot, since everything was cultivated. In the end we learnt that there was some sort of hippie organic farm camp ground, and we ended up staying there.

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One of several well-kept gardens along the way.

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There are plenty of old things made of stone too.

Already the next day, we got away from the farm lands and onto the beutiful coast line. In fact, the camp spot for our second night, on the edge of a sea cliff, was probably the nicest during the trip. In the morning, we woke up to a pause in the rain fall and saw a pod of dolphins swiming by, far below.

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Looking for a good camp spot along the sea cliffs.

Inverness was a pretty city, but not too exciting. It was about to host the world orienteering championchips (where we have friends competing), but unfortunately we passed a bit too early for this. However, we met the entire French team at the parking lot of a super market.

Really neat café/bike shop along Eurovelo 1, entering Inverness.

Really neat café/bike shop along Eurovelo 1, entering Inverness.

From Inverness we followed the Caledonian Canal, and then the shore of Loch Ness, down to a point where we crossed and headed west to Skye. The landscape had now really transformed from farm land to highland, and we enjoyed the scenery between showers.

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The turntable Skye ferry.

The turntable Skye ferry.

One afternoon we encountered really nasty head winds blowing rain in our faces and forcing us to camp half way up a 300 m uphill. The weather did not get better the next day, and we had a tough time to get to the little Skye ferry, just to find a massively steep uphill headwind climb upon crossing. After the pass, the weather got much better and we met a couple of Germans, who were planning to bike from Germany to Singapore next year. This really made me feel like doing some of the remaining parts of this trip in smaller portions!

We visited the Talisker whisky distillery, but found it disappointingly touristy (although there was a nice pub close by). Speaking of touristy, we found it somewhat funny that there was virtually nobody to be seen anywhere in this beatiful landscape, while heards of (mainly Chinese) tourists were flocking around Loch Ness (to see the monster?), where the scenery was not very pretty at all.

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The wonderful combination of 15 % uphill, strong headwind, and rain.

After some (less hilly than expected) riding on Skye, we took the ferry to the Isle of Lewis/Harris, where we were met by a nasty storm. We managed to pedal a few kilometers, but had to turn and pitch the tent in the first area we found. The storm continued until the next day’s afternoon, and we had a nice time reading books in the tent, waiting for the wind and rain to die off.

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Typical camp site.

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Typical landscape.

With somewhat better weather, we had an enjoyable ride across the island and stopped at a fantastically cozy community café, where we tried pretty much everything on the meny.

After another ferry ride, we were back on the mainland. It turned out that the (small) road between Ullapool and Durness was very scenic, in fact our favorite.

The day with best weather also featured the best views.

The day with best weather also featured the best views.

Arriving in Durness we found out that there would be a “Highland gathering” the next day and that this was some sort of village party with competitions. Not knowing what to expect, we stayed and watched. It was a really nice day (and perfectly timed, since there was not a drop of rain). The whole thing started with a band of pipers. We were expecting old men, but were positively surprised to see that the marching band were all highschool age boys and girls. Then the games begun. There was running races, throwing of various heavy objects, pillow fighting, traditional Scottish dance contest, high jump and the egg and spoon race, where Ingrid participated and secured an unthreatened last place. Despite the whole thing being a quite small arrangment, in a village of at most a few thousand, the navy sent one of its ships and a low flying RAF fighter jet to entertain the crowds.

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Pipers.

...and dancing.

…and dancing.

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While biking away from the Highland gathering we both agreed that this was a very nice concept for festivities, with something for everyone regardless of age or interests.

The next few days, we enjoyed highland scenery in somewhat better weather, and in the end made it back to Inverness, from where we took the train back to Aberdeen. We were amazed by how convenient it is to travel with bikes on trains in the UK! (As opposed to between Lund and Copenhagen, where I have been denied to board with my bike in a box four times, despite having paid the bike fare and there being plenty space on board – never again Skånetrafiken to the airport…)

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There were only two bad sections of the Eurovelo 1. One was north of Loch Ness, where a sign told us to climb a big hill (in the wrong direction), and here, where we don’t really know what they were thinking.

Back home, we are thinking of what would be a good next destination. Martin and I are planning a short trip to Central Asia next summer, while Ingrid and I will hopefully do some more touring in Europe within a near future.

12 May
Around the World On a Bicycle.

Around the World On a Bicycle.

My lunch past-time the last week has been to read an excellent book, lent to me by one of our professors. It is the first volume of “Around the World on a Bicycle” by Thomas Stevens. This volume covers his 1884- journey from San Francisco to Teheran on a high wheel bike. For me the book is extra interesting, as he follows more or less the same route as I did from Germany to Teheran.

As seen on the picture below, Stevens was travelling very light. Reading the book I came to realize a lot has changed, while other things remain.

Today we can rely on Satellite navigation and communication, weather forecasts (to some extent), and modern medicine. Bicycles today are significantly more comfortable and handle better. They are also possible to repair yourself to a much greater extent than Stevens’ high wheeler. These novelties can all kill the adventure to some extent, if over-used. On the other hand, they can save your day, or your life.

Back in the 1880ies, there were not a lot of cars, meaning fewer roads and an infrastructure built around slow travel. Today it can be very hard to find local convenience stores in rural areas (as people can easily drive 20 km to the nearest store), and the same goes for accommodation. This is probably one of the main reasons that Eastern Europe feels more enjoyable to tour through than Central and North – the rural areas are alive, not just food factories.

A San Fran hipster, 1887 edition.

A San Fran hipster, 1887 edition.

I was also happy to find that there are still today people who take on challenges. Like this man, who recently completed a world tour on … a high wheeler. As for me, I will stick to my current touring bike for at least the next few years. This summer Ingrid and I are continuing our “rain tour” (previously rainy places: Norway, New Zealand) with a trip to Scottland, the Isle of Skye and the Hebrides which are all known for beautiful views, and of course, rain.

New Zealand Part 2

12 Jan

Road trip
We’re now back from our little NZ trip – actually at the airport again, waiting for our flight to Japan, for a few weeks of skiing.

Being short on time due to my one week in bed with laryngitis, we decided to rent a car for the last week – to see a bit more of the island. The drive took us from Qeenstown to the west coast via beautiful Haast pass. It would have been a fun ride, with many switchbacks.

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Looking back at the road leading up to Haast pass.

The west coast that followed was really scenic. Cliffs dropping into the sea, rain forest, mountains and glaciers. We made several stops to go for walks in the rain forests and along the vast beaches. We were told that weather is often nasty along the west coast, so we were really lucky with mostly sunshine and clear blue skies. The only patch of bad weather was on new years’ eve, when we cooked lamb chops inside the tent to get away form the rain and wind.

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Typical west coast scenery.

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Another picture from the rugged west coast.

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…and yet another.

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New Years!

We made two additional stops along the west coast. One at the layered Pancake rocks scenic reserve and another at the base of Fox glacier (just before Franz Joseph Glacier), of which we caught a glimpse before it was immersed in the clouds.

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Pancake rocks.

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The Fox glacier – making it almost all the way down into the forest.

Just before leaving the coast we made a short detour to Arthur’s pass, which connects the two coasts, at the height of Christchurch. Weather was rugged, but we saw several interesting things, including wild mountain parrots (Kea). They were very curious and one of them sat on our roof as we drove away from the parking lot.

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Our Kea friend, not wanting to sit anywhere but on our red roof.

After the west coast, we drove north to Farewell Spit, which is a long sand snout. Most of it is closed off to protect wildlife (birds), but the first few kilometes are open. It is almost like walking in a desert of white sand, but behind the dunes on each side, there is the Tazman sea. It is quite a strange and special place.

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Rain forest close to Farewell Spit.

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A warm afternoon hike on Farewell Spit.

Our next stop was  the Abel Tazman national park, where we went for a fantastic walk along a path in the rain forest, interrupted by long sand beaches and views of a clear blue sea. At one of them we took a swim, before heading back and spending some time at a café, where the local seniors’ club performed Hawaiian music.

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One of many beaches of the Abel Tazman National Park, here at low tide.

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This is the bay where we went for a swim.

The drive then took us down the east coast where we stopped for seal colonies and to have a look at the rich marine life around the Kaikoura peninsula, before returning to Christchurch after a nigh at a little bay on the volcanic and scenic Akaroa peninsula.

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Very many lazy seals.

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The grassy slopes of the volcanic Akaroa peninsula just outside Christchurch.

Finally, we spent the last evening with our friendly hosts in Christchurch. We had a nice dinner and went up the mountain behind their home to have a look at the views.

A long journey home

The journey home was not equally memorable. I caught a bad eye infection, rendering my left eye all swollen and red for two days. Despite this, we had a very good time in Auckland with friends Niffe and Lizette. Again we headed to Piah to surf, but at low tide with 4 m waves breaking over very shallow water, I stayed ashore this time. Then it was time to fly again. No problems until Guangzhou, where our original plane was cancelled. We had to wait a few hours to get new boarding passes and luggage tags. The flight took us to Paris, where we spent the day. Everywhere were “je suis Charlie” posters, and there was almost no queue to the stairs up the Eiffel tower. The flight from Paris to Copenhagen was a bit shaky due to an advancing storm system. The cabin crew announced they would probably need two attempts, but managed to put the plane down on the first. The airport was a mess, more people than I’ve ever seen and after having wiggled our way to the train, we were thrown of by the conductor, who said our luggage was too bulky. In fact, the train was far form full and it would have been just fine if he had instructed a few people to move a few meters. Protesting did not help and so we waited for the next train. But the storm had increased in intensity and the bridge had closed, so we had to wait 6 hours until 3 am, before being able to take an expensive taxi ride home, across the newly reopened bridge. Door to door, it took us almost 60 hours to get back from NZ.

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… and a short stop in Paris.

Advice for Cycling NZ

So, what have we learnt? First off, something that we knew already – that 5 weeks is a bit short for cycling the south island. We only had limited time and really wanted to go skiing too, so this was a compromise. Two months is probably ideal. When it comes to car vs bike, bike was a clear winner! Many times, we were sitting in the car and discussing how nice the current road segment would have been on the bike.

In terms of itinerary, we started out with a big mistake, cycling through the utterly boring Canterbury plain for the first three days. The right choice would have been to go inland and follow small roads up to mount cook, then take a dedicated cycle path from the mountains down to Oamaru. From Oamaru, we went inland and cycled the Otago rail trail. An option to this is to stick to the coast all the way. The inland had some interesting scenery, but most was dry half-desert. So this comes down to what you like. The south coast (particularly the Catlins) is fantastic and cycling up to Queenstown we really recommend the gravel road plus steam boat (from Walter’s Peak Station to Queenstown) option. From here on we were in a car, but the west coast should be beautiful on bike. However, it can be a bit nasty in bad weather with some significant hills, particularly Haast pass and during the first half up – the second half is flatter. Abel Tazman is a must see, and we really enjoyed Kaikoura too. There are lots of vineyards in-between throughout Marlborough, if you are into wine. The rest of the east coast ride down to Christchurch is not very interesting.

Some other practical tips:

  • There is limited wilderness camping options. Bring a map (or smart phone app) showing camp grounds along your way.
  • The DOC (Department of Conservations) camp grounds are among the cheaper and almost always much nicer than Holiday Parks or other options.
  • Treated water is not available at all camp site (particularily not all DOC sites). Bring water treatmentsuch as steripen, tablets or filter.
  • Be visible! The roads are winding, narrow and often with no shoulder. The speed limit is almost always 100 km/h despite of this. Also remember to wear a helmet – it is the law, and it is enforced.

That was the last little trip of 2014. We don’t have big trips by bike planned for 2015, but for sure there will be a few weeks of riding somewhere, somehow – perhaps in the summer. Happy New Year!