From afar we could already see the impressive red flag, waving proudly on top of the hill of Çeşme. We instantly noticed the strong representation of the national colours, and the beauty of it. The flags are everywhere and always in perfect shape, bright red with the crescent moon and star braving the winds. For us Belgians this feeling was something new, we are often very judgmental about our homeland. The only time everyone waves their tricolor flags is when the national football team is playing. When they’re not, we are only proud of our beer, fries and chocolates.
Before we continue, let’s look back on our first four months in Europe. All four of us agree that nothing went as planned, but that’s not a bad thing. Also, we should be realistic and say that we didn’t know what to expect, being the touring cycling rookies we truly are. So for those who haven’t followed us from the start, or want to know what we learned so far, here’s a summary:
Netherlands: We pushed our first day to the limit, against all advice from veteran bikepackers. It’s a weak spot of ours, being told a thing is impossible or only for the experienced. There’s something super satisfying about the challenge to achieve against all odds. We usually succeed, but feel the consequences later. This is a quality the four of us have in common, and the main reason we’ll be able to push through until our goal has been reached. When we entered the lowlands, our legs caught up to our minds and we had to call it a day fairly early. Rookie mistakes, but it’s better to learn from personal experience than to take anything anyone ever says for truth. So, a piece of advice, when starting a trip like this, build your kilometers slowly. And pick a destination close to home so you can practice. And cycling to the other side of the world is not something the average person is cut out for. Good luck!
Germany: Let’s flash back nine months before departure. We had all committed to the trip, and were sitting in Yuri’s attic with the map in front of us, ready to start planning. “OK, so, Germany is really expensive, the people are uptight and the roads flat. We should just do 100 kilometers per day and hurry to Czech”. Agreement all around, and we started drawing a straight line between Brasschaat and Prague. *Flashback fades* Stef, Anton and Oli are cursing at the endless climbs and descents, while Yuri is on the train to give his knees much needed rest. So far it’s been hard enough to hit our minimal 50 kilometers per day. We have received beds, food, coffee and much more from friendly and generous locals. This had us rethink the whole planning we did. What else were we wrong about? What should we have done more or different? The truth is that the planning only goes so far. You just need to make sure you have the essentials: a decent bike, shelter, money and the hunger for adventure. We’ve experienced that the best plan is no plan. The most fun comes from letting your senses do the planning and making decisions impulsively.
Czech Republic: Czechoslovakia, much poorer than expected and the first time we don’t share the language with locals. By this time we’ve gotten accustomed to the new lifestyle, and are ready to take things to the next level. Even though we had reached Prague on our 28th day instead of our planned 7th, it still felt good to have crossed that 1000 kilometer mark. This infamous party city was swashbuckled by us under the spell of the inebriating Czech absinthe. After exploring Prague's day- and nightlife, we soon found ourselves surrounded by more rural areas, where we picked up an alternative communication skill. People did not speak English here and to be fair, our Czech could have been better too. All parties usually decide to explain things is their native tongue, getting information across through body language, sign language and voice intonation.
Slovakia: We spent only 4 days in this country, just a pass-through between Czech and Hungary. We loved it, even though we only saw a small piece. Oleg, the man we met in Bratislava, also became a very important figure in our story. He walked up to us randomly, started talking about his adventures in Greece and showed us around in Bratislava. The further we are away from home, the more open we become towards strangers, and it pays off every time. Oleg kept following our blog and even tracked us down for a surprise visit in Greece, we have no doubt he is one of the lifetime friends we made this trip.
Hungary: “Yeaaaah guys let’s go to Balaton, epic swimming time!!!” We cycled a full 100 km day for the first time since day one to reach this famous destination. Upon arrival we saw the lake was surrounded by tourists, paid beaches, hotdog stands and dissapointing water quality. We could barely even find a place to hang up the hammocks without having to pay for it. After two months of living in the trees, we started to appreciate untouched areas, which Balaton clearly was not. Some areas are predigested for tourists, everything marked and labeled with the red carpet leading up to the attractions.This is where we realised that we prefer to chew ourselves, and venture off the beaten path, in search for nature’s raw beauty, which there is plenty of in Hungary.
Croatia: We expected Croatia to be expensive, and decided to try cutting the daily budget. We learned that there are many ways of achieving this goal. On the first day we socialised with a farmer, Zeljko, who was eager to show off his vineyards and vegetable gardens, and sent us on our ways with filled bags. On our way to the Sonus festival we met a DJ duo called Azimute, gifting us free backstage vip passes for the week. We also got us some American sugar mommies that treated us to anything our hearts desired. Our social skill came in handy once more when we met Shanks, a mysterious spearfishing pirate, who provided us with shelter and a weeks worth of entertainment.
Not only the people were generous. Mother nature spoiled us with figs, apples, pomegranates, cherries, oranges, clementines, melons, dates, plums, grapes and sunflower seeds. Her generosity was not limited by land, as the crystal clear Adriatic provided an endless supply of shellfish to cook. We also made good use of our fishing rods and Shanks’ speargun to keep our protein levels up.
Thirdly, wild camping is prohibited in Croatia, but that wouldn’t stop us from trying. We realised that there are areas where forest fires were common, so we made sure to watch out with fire. Aside from that there are plenty of hidden areas where camping is possible and nature is unspoiled, we also try to keep it that way by gathering all trash, even if it’s not ours.
At first we took these measures to help our purses, but in reality they helped us live the way a true travellord should live.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: We were here for only one reason: the infamous Mostar bridge jump. In 2014 Anton, Oli and Stef have stood on the 25 meters high bridge and didn’t take the leap of fate, but this time we wouldn’t bail out. The atmosphere in the group grew more and more quiet as we were approaching. Yes, we were extremely nervous to take this challenge. The highest cliff jump we did was 16 meters, a difference between minor injuries or possible death.
We prepared by jumping everywhere we possibly could in Croatia, to get used to the feeling. On D-day, we took a lesson from a local expert. He showed us the real tricks of the trade and perfected our technique. More importantly, he would decide whether we were ready to spread our wings on the Stari Most or not.
In situations like this it is very important to make your own decision, and avoid to be persuaded and feel ‘forced’. Everyone decided for themselves whether they would take the jump or not. In the end, all four of us took the ‘small step’ under guidance of Gianni, our teacher. After thinking about this over and over, we all knew sometimes it’s better to take the risk and go for it, and maybe regret it after. Rather than not doing it and regret it for the rest of your life. This is without discussion the most thrilling experience of all four of our lives. A turning point, that left with just enough adrenaline to make it to China.
Montenegro & Albania: The downside of our extensive Croatian adventure is that this gave us the feeling the we were forced to make progress. Arriving in Greece we realized this was a huge mistake. We shouldn’t have panicked and just cycled around and do as we like, without worry. In fact, if we had really thought straight about this, we should have known we had time we had to spare to do whatever we want. Montenegro and Albania were extremely cheap and beautiful. Instead, we ended up spending too much time in the expensive country Greece is. Damn you, past Silk Road Cyclers! You guys missed a lot of these two gems of Europe!
Macedonia: Macedonia was not in our original itinerary, but after Tirane we studied the map and saw that it would fit perfectly in our route. We would have to climb a bit more but this is not something that scares us anymore, on the contrary, we’ve grown rather fond of the uphills. And just like that it was decided, Macedonia here we come! After the kooky captain Draga had lured us onto his boat, and dropped us off at the other side of lake Ohrid, we were facing our longest ascend yet, starting at a little town called Trpejca. Twenty kilometers of non-stop climbing rewarded us with a most magnificent view and a descent into pure, untouched nature. No words can do this place any justice, you have to go and experience it. We are doing you a favor not giving a full description, allowing you to explore this place yourself. If you are looking for a vacation away from other tourists and to enjoy Mother Nature in its full beauty, go to Macedonia!
Greece: After four months on the road, we had finally arrived at the last European country. Upon entry we started recalculating our route a bit according to the seasons. Macedonia had proven colder than expected, and we were not quite ready to give up summer so we decided to head south towards Athens instead of going straight to Istanbul. We concluded that it would be beneficial to spend about a month in Greece, but this raised some discussion. We all had a different plan in mind to kill the time. Luckily there were some distractions. First, we met three fellow cyclers and two of them joined us for a while, conquering Mt. Olympus and enjoying the last days of summer. We continued, by recommendation of Yuri’s grandpa, deeper into Greece towards Meteora.
By this time we ran out of distractions and the discussion rose up again. This was the first time it proved to be difficult travelling with four. We all had good idea’s on how to waste our time, and since the goal was to literally waste time, everyone agreed that this was the perfect moment to part ways and do what we wanted ourselves without having to take the group into consideration. Stef took off for a physical challenge, Anton followed his nose, stopping only to swim, and Oli and Yuri found two puppies. Travelling as a group can be hard because more often than not there will be a difference in opinions. I suppose in the end we all agreed to disagree since this did not get in the way of our bigger goal. After going solo for a while, which we highly recommend for anyone who can’t find a partner in crime, we met back in Athens before heading off to the long awaited Asia.
For those who have not noticed yet, we added a comment section under every blog post, so feel free to add your thoughts, personal experiences or rambles of any kind. Enjoy!
Lastly, below you can see our route until Istanbul, tracked with our Spot GPS device.