Appendix – Switzerland – 1000km – Part 4

11th August 2018

Last night we had a great family reunion at my sister’s house in Sirnach. I’d taken a break from my tour through Switzerland for it and stayed there overnight. But this morning I continued again. I had been planning to see three parts of Switzerland that I really didn’t know much, Appenzell, Valais and Jura. I’d spent some time in the first two of those, so now what was left was Jura. To make the most of my time left in the country, and also because I’ve already spent so much time in central Switzerland already, I took the train to Basel. Trouble was that last night it got a bit late, so I got up fairly late in the morning too and it was early afternoon already by the time I arrived in Basel. It wasn’t really worth setting off towards Jura today. But then, Basel is a great city and I hadn’t really seen much of it either. I booked into a hotel and then took off again to explore the city and surroundings somewhat.

It was Saturday afternoon, in the “dead” hours when all the shops were just about closing but before people start heading out for the evening. It seemed a better option to explore the surroundings of Basel first up. The city sits in such an interesting setting where the city centre is right at the border to both, France and Germany. This has always fascinated me, so I went on a round-trip. First up, to Riehen, still in Switzerland, but then over the border into Germany to the small village of Inzlingen in Germany. The reason I went there was because there is because there is a real oddity in the way the border runs here. Switzerland has this very narrow but long stretch into Germany, called “Eiserne Hand” (Iron Hand).

Eiserne Hand

Eiserne Hand

This has always puzzled me and I wanted to see what the reason was for this odd border. Well, now that I’ve been there, I still don’t really know. While the border follows the narrow ridge of a hill, either side of the hill is German territory. There is nothing there other than forrest and a small hiking path along the ridge, and a small gate at the end where it borders into Germany.

It’s very pretty though and considering how close this is to Switzerland’s second largest city, this really quiet and peaceful and looks like a good location for a hike. It had been uncharacteristically steep riding the bike up there though, it was also still incredibly hot, so I was glad that from here I got to roll downhill into Lörrach, a town that, although fairly large, felt a lot sleepier than I had expected. I continued on towards Weil am Rhein, which meant I had to cross over a small section of Switzerland again. Weil am Rhein by contrast looked a lot livelier and busier. From the number of department stores and shopping malls right at the border, this looks to be a bit of a shopping destination for France and Switzerland.

Moving further west, I had to cross a fairly large bridge. I wasn’t actually sure if I was back in Switzerland, still in Germany or whether I’d already crossed into France. I’ve been crossing back and forth between borders so many times today, I had actually lost track of which country I was in at the moment! I only found out later when I looked at the map that I was still in Germany, in the tiny town of Friedlingen. I wasn’t there for long though, Friedlingen is right on the Rhine and crossing over the pedestrian/bike bridge brought me to Huningue in France. From there I went to St. Louis, a very nice town where I stayed overnight a few years ago. Today though even St. Louis was uncharacteristically quiet too, so I went back across the border to Basel.

Basel is quite a cool city though. I don’t know it well but it always struck me as somewhere that would be good to live in. Of course it looks especially nice on a beautifully hot summers day, but one thing I admire about Basel is how they make use of the Rhine. Every evening you’ll see lots of people socialising on the shore and in summer people are swimming in the river, right in the city centre.

Basel

Rhine at Basel

12th August 2018

Next morning I was ready to head towards Jura. Basel was fairly quiet, it being Sunday morning, which worked well for me. I got through the city quickly and headed south towards Therwil. That looked like the last of the suburbs and from there on it felt like I was in the countryside.

Just like yesterday, it was brilliantly sunny and very hot. There were a lot of very pretty bike tracks around this part of the world too, mostly following the train line. That made the going a bit easier. Even though this one of the few areas of Switzerland without any real mountains, it is exceptionally hilly, so it’s a constant up and down. Following the train line at least took out the worst of some of those short, sharp hills.

Laufen, one of the larger towns along the way, has a very pretty old town centre. There was also a beach volleyball tournament on right in the town centre. This is the third time in the last few days that there’s beach volleyball in a country town. There must be some sort of championship going on. While that would normally feel a bit out of place in Switzerland, it was so hot and sunny, it looked right at home now.

Following the Birs river upstream, it wasn’t long before I crossed into the Jura canton and with it the language border from German to French. Not much else changed initially. The landscape still looked very remote country side, a stark contrast from where I started this morning in Basel. Before long I arrived in Delémont, Jura’s capital and largest city. That’s not saying much though, it still only has barely over 10,000 people living there. I first went to the historical town centre trying to find somewhere to eat. It was lunch time and I was starving. But everything there was closed so I went to the new town centre where at least a couple of restaurants and shops were open.

While I had lunch I also studied the map a bit to see where I should go next. Initially I had wanted to head north towards the Ajoie region. But I had been there before, a couple of years ago and it looked like I should be able to reach La Chaux-de-Fonds today, a city I’ve long wanted to see. So I decided to head there instead, even though it wasn’t going to be all that easy. La Chaux-de-Fonds, even though it’s one of the larger towns in Switzerland, is quite a long way up and sits at over 1000 metres above sea level. I’d have to do quite a bit of climbing in mid-30 degree temperatures today.

This got complicated even further. The route I was originally following out of Delémont started fantastically beautiful as I went from Bassecourt along this stunning forested canyon uphill towards Petit Val, only for the road to be closed a few kilometres in. So that meant having to backtrack 10 or so kilometres to Bassecourt, I’d also have to do a lot more climbing. As it turned out, not just was there more climbing, unlike the first road I was on that had manageable inclines, this one was insanely steep! This would be tough any time, but in this heat, with a loaded touring bike, that really had me sweating! About halfway up I took a break when I spotted some trees that provided a bit of shade. As soon as I stopped and unpacked some food, I got visitors.

Mr. and Mrs. Ed

Everyone’s interested in my bike

I made it up to Saulcy, which wasn’t quite the end of the climb, but from here on the road became a bit more manageable. It was a hilly high plateau rather, so lots of up and down, but it rarely got anywhere near as crazy steep again as the road up had been. From here it was also just lots of very small country towns every few kilometres and crossing the border back and forth between the cantons of Jura, Bern and Neuchatel a bunch of times.

I’d been going for several hours through all these tiny villages, lots of farmland, meadows with cows on them, basically landscape that looked as rural as it comes. So when I got to La Chaux-de-Fonds it was quite a bit of a shock. There were no suburbs, it was rural countryside, then you come over the ledge of a small hill and suddenly there’s this large, busy city in front of you! No suburbs at all, in an instant you cross from rural farmland into metropolitan city. And all this at over 1000 metres above sea level.

La Chaux-de-Fonds is interesting for other reasons too. It’s the centre of the Swiss watch industry, but more importantly, almost the entire city got destroyed in a fire in the 18th century and when it was rebuilt, it was done so by following a grid layout. Something that is quite foreign to European cities. This means the city also looks like nowhere else in Switzerland. While it still has typically Swiss buildings, it all feels quite odd with roads that are almost completely straight and at 90 degree angles. It is a pretty city though, even if there isn’t much of note to see.

13th August 2018

I woke up, surprisingly, to rain. It had been so hot and dry in Switzerland for so long, I really hadn’t expected this. But it was wet and remarkably cool this morning. That probably had something to do with being a long way up too.

It’s a pity though. I don’t really mind riding in the rain so much, but what I find is that when it’s raining, you tend to not see much. It becomes more of a ride just to get from A to B. It also informed the route I was taking today to a degree. Initially I had planned to head towards Neuchatel and then Thun, but that more direct route looked a bit harsh in this weather because there is a lot of climbing and downhill along the way. Instead I chose the longer, but easier, route which went via Biel. A route that, in nice weather, is likely also incredibly pretty as it follows this incredibly long valley downhill all the way into Biel. But I barely stopped along the way until I actually got to Biel where I then had lunch.

Somewhat unexpectedly, while I had lunch the rain stopped. I was also down from the mountains and it was quite warm again. Nothing like the heat of the last few days but far more pleasant than the chill I felt up in the Jura mountains. From Biel I headed towards Bern. At times there was even a bit of sun poking through the clouds, although never for long. I skirted Bern and headed straight south towards Thun. I’d wanted to stay there overnight, but Thun in the high-holiday season is damn near impossible to afford so I ended up staying a few kilometres out of town in Heimberg instead. With impeccable timing, just before arriving there the rain started again. Luckily that didn’t last long, so after a shower and change of clothes I went into Thun. I’d been here before but only very briefly. Thun is an incredibly beautiful city though. Much larger than I had remembered, quite touristy, but I can see why everyone wants to come here. The setting right along the lake, on a couple of river islands is amazing and the city itself looks almost cliche Switzerland pretty.

14th August 2018

I had booked myself into the hotel in Heimberg for two days. I still had a couple of days left on my Swiss rail pass that I bought to get to the family reunion a few days ago. So I took the opportunity to make today a “rest” day and explore the country by rail. A few days ago I was in Zermatt but didn’t have enough time to get up to the Gornergrat. But Thun, even though it’s on the other side of a huge mountain range, is very close to Zermatt and Swiss railways go everywhere, even tunneling through that mountain range which meant I could get there relatively quickly. Sounds like a plan!

Annoyingly the weather, although it was no longer raining, hadn’t really cleared up that much. It was still quite overcast and cooler than it had been for some time.

I rode the bike into Thun and took the train from there to Spiez where I had half an hour between trains. Spiez from the little that I’ve seen, also looks incredible.

Spiez

Spiez

From Spiez the train went almost straight into the mountain, only to emerge again 20 or so minutes later at Visp. From there I went on the same train I’d been on a week ago to Zermatt. Unlike last time where it was an absolute sauna in the train, today with the cooler weather it was quite pleasant. Zermatt was also far, far cooler than last week. Not cold, but nothing at all like the insane heat from last week. I quickly got on the Gornergratbahn which apparently is the highest electrified rail line in the world and is going up the mountain at incredibly steep gradients. Unfortunately with the heavy clouds today the view wasn’t anything like it would be normally. Still quite amazing, but more often than not I saw little more than clouds. When I arrived at the top, over 3000 metres above sea level, I was right in the clouds. I could barely see anything so I went for a coffee first up. There is a large hotel and restaurant right at the top. And of course a couple of very cheesy souvenir shops where you can even get your photo taken in 19th century mountain climbing gear in front of a green screen where the Matterhorn ends up getting CGI’d in.

After that break the worst of the clouds had disappeared. It didn’t look like it was going to get much better anytime soon, so I took off for a hike. Even though the weather was disappointing, this was still fantastic. I’d love to come back and spend a lot more time here. This is quite a stunning area for hiking, even with limited views.

Gornergrat

Gornergrat

The hike I was on only went for a bit over an hour before I reached the Riffelberg cable car station. Tempting as it was to hike all the way down into Zermatt from here, in my flat running shoes that probably wouldn’t be the best idea so I took the cable car down into town. The train ride from Zermatt to Visp still looked incredible, even in this weather.

Mattertal

Mattertal

The railpass allowed me to travel anywhere in Switzerland, so instead of going back the same way I’d come, I took the long detour and headed to Lausanne for a quick city trip. I’ve been to Lausanne heaps of times, but it’s probably my favourite city in Switzerland. It’s beautiful, has an incredible setting and also feels a lot more metropolitan than just about any other city in Switzerland. I was also out of clean clothes, I had miscalculated somewhat and didn’t have enough clean clothes left for the remainder of my trip. I also didn’t have time to do laundry for the last few days, so I did some clothes shopping in Lausanne too. After that it was back to Thun by train.

15th August 2018

The last day of an epic 7 week bike trip. I’d covered nearly 4000 kilometres and went through 12 countries. There was just one more day of riding ahead, I needed to get from Thun to Buochs where we’d have another family get-together before I head back home to Australia tomorrow.

Luckily the weather had cleared up today after two wet and overcast days. It was gloriously sunny and already fairly warm when I got up this morning. Riding into Thun from my hotel, the mountains on either side looked gorgeous with the sun rising behind them.

I didn’t stop at Thun but instead went straight toward the lake. About six or seven years on my first ever bike tour I’d come through here and I remember it being one of the prettiest areas I’d ever come through. Seeing it again today, that still holds. This is just flat-out amazing!

Lake Thun

Lake Thun


Lake Thun

Lake Thun


Lake Thun

Lake Thun

I had to stop every few kilometres just to admire the scenery. The pictures from there are pretty, but they don’t do it justice. This is a brilliant part of the world!

Towards the end of Lake Thun I spotted a parking spot and small shop along the road. Initially I just wanted to get a drink at the shop, but then I saw that this is the entrance to a cave system, St. Beatus Caves. I still had plenty of times and that just looked too good to pass up, so I bought myself a ticket and went on a cave exploration.

St. Beatus Caves

St. Beatus Caves

St. Beatus Caves

St. Beatus Caves

How have I never heard of this place? This is amazing! The caves are huge. So far only about 15km have been explored, but they’re likely much bigger than that. The public area alone reaches over a kilometre into the mountain. Being so deep underground it’s also quite cool in there, a welcome relief from the hot weather outside. Really glad I didn’t miss this, and another of those accidental sights you come across bike touring that you’d probably miss driving past.

It wasn’t long from the caves to Interlaken, one of the tourism capitals of Switzerland. It’s a very expensive and upmarket place, even if it has Switzerland’s only Hooter’s restaurant right next to a super-expensive five star hotel.

The last time I came through here six years ago I rode along the northern shore of Lake Brienz. That was pretty, although I always had a suspicion that the southern side was likely the better option on the bike. So today I was determined to go there. It immediately paid off, there was a very pretty road along the lake with practically no traffic all the way to Iseltwald.

Iseltwald

Iseltwald

Lake Brienz is almost impossibly blue!

Iseltwald

Iseltwald

The road into Iseltwald had been basically a bike path already. But from Iseltwald it became a bike and hiking path only. The only other road, the freeway, went into a tunnel from here. The mountains got very steep and ran right down into the lake. So the bike path went a long way uphill through thick forrest. It was almost all unpaved, but very pretty. Every once in a while you could see almost straight down to the lake. The southern shore is a lot tougher, but definitely the much prettier ride along Lake Brienz.

Giessbach

Giessbach

Eventually I hit the end of the lake and the road went steeply downhill towards the shore. I stopped at Brienz for lunch. I had been doing so many stops and so much sight-seeing, I’d really not come very far at all this morning. But it was the last day, I had time and this was just far too pretty to just rush through.

After lunch it was about to get tougher though. I had to get over the Brünig pass. Although this isn’t one of Switzerland’s highest passes, it nevertheless is quite an uphill hike and by now it was boiling hot again too. The first part of the pass is quite pretty and easy as you come through a small mountain road uphill with the car traffic diverted through the highway. But after 2 or so kilometres the bike road joins the highway and it becomes a bit of a chore. The road and views are still very pretty but there is an awful lot of traffic, even on a Wednesday afternoon. There also isn’t much room for the bike. Even worse, about 2 km from the top, another highway joins up with the pass road and the traffic gets very heavy. It is basically non-stop cars and trucks going up the road and really isn’t much fun riding a bike up there. It’s a pity because the landscape here is stunning with incredible views through the Bernese Oberland mountains.

Luckily once I got to the top of the pass I spotted a bike detour. So at least I wouldn’t have to ride downhill with the same traffic. The bike road was quite pretty and went through some forests and farms until it eventually hit a ridge with an incredible view of the Lungernsee down below.

Lungernsee

Lungernsee

So, from here it was downhill to Sarnen, the capital of the Obwalden canton. I was totally dehydrated from the climb up and the heat and raided the first shop I saw of drinks! The climb up the Brünig pass had also taken a bit of a toll and the last few kilometres into Buochs got quite tough. But by about 5pm I made it there, went to my cousin’s house and met up with lots of cousins for an awesome dinner!

That’s another bike trip finished. I keep thinking that I should really do something different for my next holiday, but these tours are just so much fun. Even though I’ve just finished an epic trip, this was just so fantastic, I’m already looking at maps of the world and start contemplating where to go next!

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Appendix – Switzerland – 1000km – Part 3

8th August 2018

Valais is one of those regions in Switzerland that I really don’t know well at all. It’s not just a long way away from where I used to live, it’s also one of the least accessible regions in Switzerland. To the east, north and south it is bordered by the tallest mountains in Switzerland. The only open entry is in the north-west at Lake Geneva. The whole of the canton is basically one very long valley where the Rhone river cuts through the mountains.

But today I finally made it to Valais and had time to explore it a bit. And what an amazing part of the world this is! It is sensationally beautiful. Good thing I have a few days here, but really, this is the sort of place where I could see myself riding the bike through for weeks.

I started off from Oberdorf where I’d spent the night. Oberdorf is still quite a long way uphill and sits over 1400 metres above sea level. Like so much of Valais, it sits right on the Rhone river. Even if the river here is more of a creek than a river. That said, the river may not be very wide here but it flows at enormous speed.

Thankfully the weather was great. Unlike yesterday there wasn’t a hint of rain in the air, it was blue skies all over. In the early morning and with me still up in the mountains, it wasn’t too hot yet. Also unlike yesterday, it was a gradual downhill rather than the steep road that I’d had down from the Furka pass. The valley got wider too and I every few kilometres I came past a small town. They were all exceptionally pretty though. Architecture here, in the Oberwallis region is quite unique. Practically all houses are made of dark wood with small windows and flowers outside the windows.

Oberwallis

Oberwallis

There is also something else that is very common here but is something I’ve never seen anywhere else before. There are a lot of houses that have stone disks that separate the top floors from the ground floor. There is not stairwell that connects the top and the bottom. This really had me puzzled at first. Eventually I found out the reason for this. These are old grain stores. The stone disks are to stop rats from getting up to the top floor where the grain is stored. So the only way to get there is via a ladder that gets removed when it’s not used. Quite ingenious really.

Grain Store

Grain Store

When I got to the small town of Fürgangen I spotted a very long pedestrian suspension bridge going over the Rhone which by now was running along a deep canyon some distance below. That looked like the sort of thing I should explore!

Bridge

Bridge Selfie!

There was a tiny village, Mühlebach, on the other side and also a road that ran parallel to the highway I had been on, but with practically no traffic, so I stayed on this side. Before long though that road did a turn down one of the many side-valleys that Valais has. A road sign assured me that this would still lead towards Visp where I needed to go, so I kept going. Even though this was going to be a detour and it was uphill again, this was just far too pretty to miss out on. I do wish I’d stocked up on more drinks though. By now it was blistering hot again.

The road ran along the Binn river, even though I couldn’t actually see the river, it was a long way down the valley. Eventually I got to Ausserbinn, a small town of only a few houses. Shortly afterwards the road led into a tunnel but I also spotted a road sign for the bike path to Visp which went in the other direction, down the valley along a very steep nature path. This was really more of a hiking path than something suitable for bikes. Nevertheless, it was exceptionally pretty. Quite busy too. There were the odd bicycles there, but mostly it was hikers. After about a kilometre or so I reached the bottom of the valley where the Binn ran through. I needed to cross to the other side of the river, over an old bridge built by the Romans.

Binn Valley

Binn Valley

Unexpectedly the path went uphill again afterwards. I had expected that since the Binn ran into the Rhone, which was where I needed to go, the path would just follow the river from here. But it went uphill again and at times incredibly steeply. So much so that there was zero chance of riding up, especially on a nature path. The wheels would just spin, I had to push the bike. I really hadn’t expected to do so much uphill climbing today, but then I was on a detour, and even though I’d had two tough days just behind and was hoping for a bit of an easy one to recover, I’m really glad that I didn’t miss out on this detour. This really is one of the prettiest areas in what is already one of the prettiest country on earth.

Eventually I did get to go downhill again, quite steeply too, towards the Rhone, which I reached at Mörel where I crossed to the left side and the main highway again. Just a few kilometres later, I got to add to my collection of great European town names…

Bitsch

Bitsch!

I was now quite a long way down the mountain and it the heat had gotten very intense. Time to stop for lunch. I stopped at the first restaurant I spotted in Brig, the largest town in the German speaking part of Valais. While I was waiting for my lunch, I studied the map to see where I could stop for the night. It was only about 10km from here to Visp, one of the larger towns in Valais. But more importantly, from Visp there is a train that runs straight through the Mattertal to Zermatt. It was still so early in the day, I decided to make this a short biking day and instead spend the afternoon in Zermatt.

After lunch I quickly raced to Visp, which was a bit more complicated than I expected. From Brig onwards the canton of Valais gets much more heavily populated so suddenly there are freeways and busy traffic roads again that I need to avoid. But I got to Visp before long, quickly checked into a hotel right next to the train station and then headed off to Zermatt. The train ride up was something else again. It was absolutely boiling inside, I guess the Swiss aren’t used to such hot temperatures. The train had no air-con, but very large windows. It was an absolute oven inside. But the ride up the Mattertal was spectacular. Steeply uphill through canyons and along steep mountains, the scenery was spectacular.

Unfortunately the train ride took longer than I had expected, so I only got to Zermatt by mid-afternoon. Still enough time for a bit of a wander through town, but not quite enough time to really do anything. I was really tempted to take a ride up to Gornergrat or one of the other cable cars. But I also wasn’t equipped to go on a hike either. Still, the town is quite pretty, even if it is insanely touristy. Cliche touristy even, but I still couldn’t help like it.

Peak Switzerland

Peak Switzerland

Unfortunately there were a few persistent clouds around the Matterhorn, so you could never quite see the top of it.

Mount Toblerone

Mount Toblerone!

9th August 2018

It’s a bit of a pity that I went straight from Visp to Zermatt and only got back late. It meant that I basically didn’t see anything of Visp at all. The little that I did see looked nice though.
But this morning I also had to leave quite early, I wanted to cross the rest of the Valais canton. Having done so little actual distance yesterday, that meant I had quite a long day ahead. Unfortunately when I got up it was raining. It was still very warm at least and by the time I set off the rain had gotten fairly light too. Still, in overcast conditions like this, Valais doesn’t look quite as amazing as it does in bright sunshine.

I followed the Rhone for a bit and before long the rain stopped and I started getting a few sunny bits. When I got to Leuk, the last German speaking town in Valais, it had gotten quite sunny and once again very hot. I didn’t get into Leuk itself though, I wasn’t quite keen on riding up the hill to the town. It looked nice from the distance though.

Leuk

Leuk

From Leuk there was a bit of downhill through a nature park before I got to Sierre. The first French speaking town and one of the largest towns in the canton. At Sierre I also more or less hit the bottom of the long valley that had started two days ago from the Furka pass. From here it was going to be mainly flat for the rest of the day, even if I still had very tall mountains on either side of me.

It wasn’t long to get from Sierre to Sion, the capital and largest city in Valais. I stopped there for a coffee break. But when I left the cafe the weather had turned again and although it wasn’t raining yet, it was quite overcast and there were some dark skies in front of me. I decided to try and get to Martigny, about 30 kilometres further on and stop for lunch there, hopefully before the rain starts. That meant I unfortunately didn’t have a lot of time to see much of Sion.

I followed the Rhone once again and kept going as quickly as possible to try and beat the rain. I almost made it. Just as I got to the outskirts of Martigny it started raining. I stopped briefly under a covered part of the sidewalk and then decided to just leave the bike there and walk into the centre of town and have lunch. Surprisingly after lunch the rain had stopped again! It looked very dark earlier on, not like it was going to end any time soon.

But with the break in the weather I had some enthusiasm to get going again. Martigny is where the Rhone valley does a 90 degree turn from south-west to north-west. That also meant an end to the fairly heavy headwind I’d had getting into Martigny. Unfortunately even with the rain stopping, it was still very overcast and dark. So I didn’t really see as much of the spectacular scenery around me. The valley which had continually gotten wider and wider was narrowing again until there was only a very small passage through the mountains at St. Maurice.

St. Maurice also looked like an exceptionally pretty town, but unfortunately this is where the rain started again and I didn’t feel like stopping. I rode pretty much straight to the end of the valley at Port Valais right on Lake Geneva. The rain had stopped again there and I stopped for some drinks. It might have been raining, but it was still very hot and I was totally dehydrated.

I checked the map and internet for hotels in the area, but this being the Lake Geneva region, the only thing that was even close to being affordable was in a small French town about 15km from Port Valais. I quickly booked it and set off again. I’ve not seen much of the southern shoreline of Lake Geneva but it’s quite different from the northern shore where it’s very heavily populated and very expensive. But on the southern side, there are only a few small towns, at least until Evian and even though it’s still superbly pretty, it does feel a lot more low-rent than on the northern side.

I first got to St. Gingolph, the last town in Switzerland, and the first town in France. This is a really odd town, the border runs right through the centre of town!

St. Gingolph

Border at St. Gingolph

On the photo it doesn’t quite show how truly odd this feels. You come into town, it starts getting busier until you hit the centre with a few shops and restaurants for a typically Swiss looking town, and then suddenly there’s a customs right in the middle. Immediately after it’s shops and restaurants again, but now the town looks distinctly French. I was really hungry, and thankfully one of the first shops after the border was one of those fantastic French bakeries.

I still needed to get about 10km further to the town of Meillerie where my hotel was. Meillerie was tiny, there were no shops at all there and seemingly only one other restaurant other than the hotel. I wasn’t really keen on a restaurant dinner. Both, the hotel and the other restaurant had fairly up-market food. I was really only after a sandwich. With this part of Lake Geneva being so uncharacteristically sparsely populated, I had to ride another 10 km west before I finally came across a town that had a small supermarket. At least I got to see a bit more of the area now.

10th August 2018

I really didn’t plan this properly. Or rather, like usual, I don’t do much planning on bike trips at all. But today we’ve got a family reunion at my sister’s house. Meanwhile I’m not just at the other end of the country, I’ve even gone beyond its borders and am in France. So of course there’s no way to ride the bike there. But being where I am, at the southern shore of Lake Geneva, I’m quite a long way away from even a train station, even more so one where express trains stop. So this morning I first needed to ride half-way around the lake. Luckily the weather was great. The rain and overcast weather from yesterday had disappeared and I woke up with a glorious view over Lake Geneva from my hotel room.

Luckily I had plenty of time to head to my sister’s house. So I could even do a bit of sight-seeing this morning too. I first rode back into Switzerland at St. Gingolph with its weird border right in the middle of town. Then following the lake I continued on to Montreux and the stunning Chateau Chillon.

Castle Chillon

Chateau Chillon

And some cool art.

Lake Geneva

Fork!

I hadn’t been in Montreux in nearly 20 years, even though I’ve been around Lake Geneva lots in the last few years. But I always ended up just seeing the western end of the lake. I knew and remembered that Montreux is quite upmarket, but this looked seriously like where the 1% live. It’s very pretty and glamorous but it just about makes Monaco look cheap.

I’d looked at some train time tables and the best option was to take the train from nearby Vevey. Montreux and Vevey have practically grown into a single town nowadays, but Vevey too is a very pretty town. It looks a little more affordable though. I went to the train station and bought myself a four day railpass. It looked like a cheaper option than single tickets twice across the country. I had initially thought of leaving the bike parked here at the station, but then I decided to take it on the train, so at least that would give me the option of heading to a different part of Switzerland to continue the ride.

Appendix – Switzerland – 1000km – Part 2

6th August 2018

It always feels a bit odd when I take off from my sister’s house in Azmoos. I might live half-way around the world now but this is where I grew up, so in a way it always feels like I’m starting a fresh trip from here. This means I usually start off with a bit of sight-seeing and checking out if the town has changed much.

I also needed to do a bit of bike maintenance on the road. One of my pedals is creaking badly and gets stuck every once in a while, so I had to find a replacement. Especially since I’d be back in the mountains again today. Early on Monday morning is rarely a good time to find bike spare parts, so I hung around nearby Sargans, where I used to live for seven years, for a while until the big shopping centres opened at 9am. It’s weird but while I’m generally more of a night than a morning person, for this whole trip I’ve been getting up between 5 and 6am and am usually on the road before 8am. I don’t make it to work this early, and I work from home!

Once the shops opened and I got my new pedals, I mounted them straight away and then took off towards Chur. Even this early in the morning it was stinking hot, going alone the Rhine at least meant that there was a bit of a gust of cooler air from the river coming through every once in a while. By the time I got to Chur I was already somewhat exhausted, even though this had been the flat and easy part of the day and there was still a good 80 or so kilometres to go, mostly uphill. That said, I didn’t really have a set goal for today. The plan was to head into Valais tomorrow or the day after, so I’d just see however far I’d get today.

After a quite lengthy snack and drinks break in Chur I took off again. Rather than follow the easy highway I picked a route that looked a bit more interesting through Felsberg and Tamins. It certainly was more interesting and pretty, but also meant going uphill for a bit. Initially that felt quite easy but then the combination of heat and climbing got quite tough. By the time I got to Bonaduz I was already keen for a break again. It was just about lunch time, so when I spotted a nice looking restaurant there, that was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Even though I was sitting in the shade in the beergarden outside, it was so blindingly hot, I was keen to get underway again just to get a bit of wind in my face. From Bonaduz the proper climb starts. Right out of town there is a very long and totally straight road heading uphill. The gradient was quite easy though and since it was going through a forest there was very welcome shade for most of it. And then suddenly I came out of the forest and this whole gorgeous canyon opened up in front of me! How have I lived only 40km from here for 20 years and have never seen this?

Rheinschlucht

Rheinschlucht

Rheinschlucht

Rheinschlucht

That road along the canyon was brilliant. Practically no traffic, stunning scenery, this is just perfect! This was however followed shortly after by a relatively brief but quite steep climb up to the town of Versam. Well, I blame the heat but that climb really knocked the stuffing out of me somewhat. I was quite glad that a few kilometres later it started going downhill towards Ilanz, even if I knew that I’d have to climb this up again later on. Ilanz is a much larger town than I expected though. There was a fairly sizeable Migros shopping mall in town, and since this is likely one of the few air-conditioned places there, I used the opportunity for a bit of a break and a cool-down. I also studied the map and even though there was a fair bit of uphill to go, it looked like I should be able to make it to Disentis in about two hours or so. This would also leave me in a good position to head over the Oberalp pass tomorrow. I quickly booked a hotel via the internet and got ready to head off again.

Like many shopping malls, there were no windows there. It was all artificial light. So it was quite a surprise when I came out again and the skies had turned very dark. There wasn’t any rain, but it looked like it was just about to start. If I hadn’t just booked a hotel, I would have stayed in Ilanz instead, but now I pretty much had to take off and just weather the storm. Stupidly when I dropped off part of my luggage at my sister’s house a couple of days ago, I also left the only jumper and raincoat there. It hadn’t rained in Switzerland in weeks and the forecast had been for at least another ten days of heat.

For about 45 minutes it looked like it would just be dark skies but no rain, but then it started. Naturally that was right at a spot where I was a long way between towns and there was no shelter nearby. I did find a small shed, although its doors were locked. But if I squeezed very closely to the wall I could avoid the worst of the rain that came absolutely bucketing down now. It took nearly half an hour of standing glued to the wall before it finally eased off a little. That was good enough for me and I took off again. It wasn’t long before the rain stopped completely, and with that lengthy break, shortly after having a lengthy break in Ilanz, the remainder of the stretch to Disentis felt a lot easier than the climb earlier in the day had been. Even though I was heading higher up now, Disentis sits at just over 1100 metres. But those long breaks also meant that I got there quite late. Disentis is quite a small town too so there wouldn’t be all that much to do anyway. But it’s been a tough day and I was quite glad for the excuse to just take it easy.

The hotel I’d booked turned out to be fantastic. Not just did it have fantastically cozy rooms, the proprietor was super-friendly and helpful. He even arranged to get my sweaty t-shirt and shorts washed for free.

I wasn’t really all that hungry, I’d been eating snacks all day, so I just went to the thankfully still open shop to buy a sandwich and then went back to the hotel to relax in front of the TV for a bit. It had been a tough but fun day today. Tomorrow would be an even tougher day though with at least one alpine pass, and possibly two to cross.

7th August 2018

There was a bit more rain overnight and it had cooled down a little, although that might just be because I’m up in the mountains now. Nevertheless, it suddenly felt like my light t-shirts wouldn’t be quite warm enough. There were higher peaks ahead today. It was still relatively early and quiet when I set off from Disentis, but it wasn’t long before I got to the next town along, another ski resort, Sedrun. Although the town was only about the size of Disentis, it did have a sports store there where I bought a light raincoat. That should do the trick.

A short while after Sedrun I reached the tiny town of Tschamut. From here on the real Oberalp pass road started. Although it had been going steadily uphill since Ilanz. Tschamut is at 1700 metres, so I had climbed about 1000 metres since Ilanz. But from here the road started looking more like a pass road too with some switchbacks and higher gradients. I must have looked like I really struggled uphill here, at one stage when I came past a lookout where a couple of Scottish motorbike riders who were parked, one of them said “You are my hero” as I rode past. Thanks for the encouragement!

Truth be told, Oberalp is a relatively easy pass. What made it hard was that I did a lot of climbing in fairly brutal heat yesterday and I hadn’t fully recovered yet. It’s a very pretty pass though. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t great. It was overcast and there was occasional drizzle. The peak is just over 2000 metres up. There were quite a lot of people there, lots of bike riders too. I can see why, it’s a beautiful pass that is relatively easy but still goes over 2000 metres. There was even a large group of Japanese tourists on bikes. All of them looked like they were at least in their 50’s but still looked quite fresh, which immediately made me feel like I’d achieved a lot less than I had. Although I did ride up on a far heavier bike. Then again, there is actually a train station at the top of the pass! So maybe they came up by train and were about to ride down.

Taking off from the peak it was initially surprisingly flat. Gradually it started going downhill though, at first along a very straight stretch of road. Someone who’s less of a chicken on downhill roads than me would be able to do quite a bit of speed through here. Me, I started hitting the brakes once I got towards 50km/h. After a few kilometres the switchbacks towards Andermatt started and the view down the valley was absolutely gorgeous! One of the prettiest downhill runs I’ve ever done. Picture’s don’t quite do it justice.

Oberalp to Andermatt

Oberalp to Andermatt

Getting downhill to Andermatt, even though this is still at about 1300 metres above sea level, it got quite warm again. I’ve been to Andermatt a couple of times recently, it is an important intersection for a number of alpine passes, so it feels like all roads lead there. But it’s also by far the largest town that I’d likely see today, so that made it a good spot for lunch.

I hadn’t quite decided how far to go to today. It was still early in the day. The problem was really that there’s only one more town to come, Realp, before the Furkapass starts. Not just would that mean doing two major alpine passes in a day, something maybe fitter people than me attempt. But it really seemed a bit much on my heavy bike and after a tough day yesterday. The Furkapass is also much, much harder than the Oberalp pass. It’s a lot higher up and it’s got steeper roads. I decided to head to Realp and see how I felt when I got there.

I really struggled on the road to Realp! It’s only a bit over 10 kilometres from Andermatt and it’s only a slight uphill gradient. But there was also heavy headwind. I was quite stuffed by the time I hit Realp. Initially I favoured staying overnight here and tackling the Furkapass in the morning. But Realp is very small, I’d be better off taking the train back to Andermatt and booking into a hotel there. I hadn’t quite given up though, I decided to take a break and went for a coffee. While I was sitting outside and sipping my coffee, the weather cleared up and suddenly it got sunny. That looked like the sign I was waiting for and I decided to at least attempt it. A quick look at the map told me that the bottom is the steepest part of the climb. So I could at least have a go at it, if it became all too much I could roll downhill again and stay in Andermatt.

The road was definitely steep right out of Realp, but I’ve done worse. This definitely looked doable. It was also an exceptionally pretty road! One of the prettiest pass roads I’ve ever been on. One other thing I hadn’t realised was that this is where Alpine chase scenes in Goldfinger were filmed. But there was a “James Bond Str.” plaque on one of the turns. Time for a selfie!

Goldfinger

James Bond Str.

Furka Pass Road

Furka Pass Road

And the scene from the movie. On those last two photos, the selfie one is more or less taken where Sean Connery is standing, the second photo is more or less taken where Tilly Masterson aims her gun, although my photo is showing a different angle.

Goldfinger

Once I’d gotten through those switchbacks, the road levelled off a little and there was a restaurant. Good opportunity for another coffee break. You could actually see the top of the Furka pass from there and it didn’t look all that scary anymore. So by that point I was certain that I’d make it all the way up. Besides, I really was too far in to turn back now.

Although the road had looked easier from the restaurant, and it was easier than the start had been, it was still quite tough. The road ran over a quite a few creeks and rivers. They all came thundering down the mountain through waterfalls or steep drops and were incredibly loud! Before I saw the first one I thought the noise was thunder from a storm coming in.

Eventually I made it all the way up to the top. Time for another selfie! I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was also the highest I’ve ever been up on a bike. I thought the Pyrenees into Andorra that I did a few years ago was higher. But re-checking it, Furka at 2436 metres is higher. A new personal best!

Furka Pass

Furka Pass

The pass was also the border between Uri and Valais. Even better, this was going to be the highest point I’d reach on this trip and the highest point for quite some time to come. For the next couple of days it is pretty much all downhill. The few from there is quite spectacular too.

Valais

Valais

The switchbacks that you can see in the photo above are the Grimselpass that comes in from the Berner Oberland. Also a pass that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I was on such a high at having reached the Furka pass now that I contemplated going over the Grimsel tomorrow. It is supposed to be superbly pretty.

I still didn’t know where I should stay overnight though, but decided to just take my chances. I was just going to start riding downhill and see if I can find a hotel along the way. I only made about a kilometre downhill when I reached the Rhone glacier. There was even a beautiful looking hotel there with an absolute million dollar view. That just looked too good to pass up so I thought, bugger the expense, I’ll stay here. Unfortunately the hotel was closed until 2019. They’re probably doing renovations. A real pity. That would have been a fantastic experience and I’d get to start tomorrow morning with a great downhill ride. But there was still the Rhone glacier there too and I ended up spending nearly two hours sight-seeing there. It’s an amazing sight.

Rhone glacier

Rhone Glacier, and source of the Rhone river

From the Rhone glacier the road went steeply downhill for what seemed a very long time. Eventually I got to the first town, the small village of Gletsch. There was a surprisingly large hotel for such a small town. But when I asked for a room I was told that they were completely booked. The proprietor said that the next hotel is in Oberwald. Another 15 or so kilometres down the mountain. Well that puts a rest to my plan to head over the Grimsel tomorrow. From Gletsch it would have been quite straight-forward but from Oberwald it was just too far to head back uphill for 15km before even doing the pass.

The downhill road from Gletsch was quite amazing though. I was now back below the tree line and the road led through some beautiful forests, still going downhill at a fair gradient. After about half an hour I got to Oberwald. The town was very small too, but larger than Gletsch and actually had a couple of hotels. I booked myself into one of them and called it a day.

Appendix – Switzerland – 1000km – Part 1

I finished the bike trip to Odessa earlier than expected, so I had some spare time to ride through Switzerland and visit some parts of the country that I know relatively little, and also do a few more family visits. I didn’t blog about it initially, but I had such an amazing time, it’s worth adding this too. So this is a somewhat long post with tonnes of pictures.

3rd August 2018

I’d packed up the bike the night before and even arranged a taxi that would have enough room to take me to the airport with this large box. So for once, getting the bike to the airport was a fairly painless procedure. Odessa’s airport is fairly small and quite chaotic. I was there too early and there was no one at the check-in counters. Or rather, the check-in counters were all for other flights. So I had to wait for an hour with my huge cardboard box before the Austrian Airlines check-in counters opened. At least it meant I was first in line. As expected, I had to pay extra luggage, although the procedure was typically chaotic. They allowed me to do part of the check-in, then I had to go to a foreign exchange bureau at the other end of the airport to pay the excess baggage fee, where the woman at the counter then had to ring the check-in desk to find out how big and heavy my luggage is. Then after paying I had to get back to check-in with the receipt where they then completed the check-in. All while a huge queue of people were waiting behind me.

That sorted, I went through customs to wait in the small departure lounge. As was the case in the check-in area, this was gloriously confusing. Very little is labelled, neither in Ukrainian nor English. So you never really know where you’re meant to go to, nor when your flight is leaving, nor whether you’re on the right tarmac bus that brings you to the plane. It all worked out in the end though an I landed at Vienna two hours later. It felt quite odd being back in Vienna, a couple of weeks after coming through there on the bike. Just after Vienna I kept going through areas of gradually decreasing wealth all the way to the Ukraine. Although that was visible every time I crossed a country’s border, it still was relatively gradual, so it lessened the impact somewhat. But now, coming back to Vienna, even just the airport seemed insanely opulent.

I hoped to have enough layover time here to do a quick trip into the city and spend a couple of hours there. But seeing how long the airport train and bus takes to reach the centre, this seemed like I’d only get to spend an hour at most there, not really worth it. Of course that was before I’d then spent two hours waiting at the airport only to get a message that my plane was delayed by three hours. Damn!

The delay also meant that I only landed at Zurich airport at 11pm. I was going to spend the night at my brother’s place in Winterthur, which meant I still had an hour’s ride ahead of me. But my bike was still packed up in a box, so right outside the airport entrance I opened the box and assembled the bike from all the bits in there. Certainly got me a couple of odd looks. Once I had it all back together, I still had this massive cardboard box that I needed to dispose off. It was far too big for the small bins at the airport. When I found a security guard and asked him if there were any bigger bins, he said to just leave it next to a small bin, it’d get picked up from there. Ok then.

So with that, I’m off. Even at midnight, it was very, very hot. By the time I got to Winterthur, an hour later, I was drenched. And tired. I’d been getting up so early every day, I wasn’t used to being up this late anymore, plus there was the additional hour from the time difference to the Ukraine. But I also hadn’t seen my brother in a year and ended up chatting until it felt like I was about to go into a coma at about 4am and I went to crash.

4th August 2018

Even after the late night, I was still up relatively early. I didn’t really have any set plans of where to go in Switzerland for the remaining 10 or so days I had left here. But there were a couple of areas I wanted to see because I had never or only rarely been there. The problem was that these were about as far from each other as you can get in Switzerland, Jura in the north-west, Valais in the south-west and Appenzell in the north-east. Still, I had plenty of time.

I had no real plans of where to head to today, but since I was already somewhat close to Appenzell I headed in that direction. From Winterthur I first went to Sirnach to my sister’s house. Although she was away for the weekend, I still managed to offload half my luggage there. That should make the next few days a bit easier.

Europe has been going through a massive heatwave. Pretty much from the day I took off it had been in the mid-30’s in Switzerland without any rain. There were all sorts of fire restrictions and drought warnings in place. That sort of thing is exceptionally unusual in Switzerland! The heatwave was still going and by mid-day it was scorching! That, and the combination of the uphill road towards St. Gallen plus only getting a few hours sleep last night had me quite stuffed. I also looked up a few hotels online and practically anything in the canton of Appenzell seemed to be booked out. So the easy option then was to stay in St. Gallen overnight. Besides, I don’t really know St. Gallen well either.

The city is a lot smaller than I had expected, and far, far quieter. Maybe everyone’s on holiday at the moment? Even in the city centre there were barely any people outside. This on a Saturday evening. There weren’t even all that many restaurants open. The ones that were all looked super-expensive so I ended up just grabbing a sandwich from the train station instead.

It’s a very pretty city, but on first impression, definitely too quiet for my liking.

5th August 2018

After a stinkin’ hot night, I was quite keen to get going again in the morning. I love the heat when I’m outdoors, but inside it’s a different matter.

St. Gallen still felt a bit like a ghost town, although at least early on a Sunday morning that feels a bit more normal than on Saturday night. Getting from St. Gallen into the Appenzell Ausserrhoden canton was a lot easier and quicker than I expected. Crossing the bike “Ganggelibrugg” from the city and you’re there. What makes this impressive is that, firstly, the short bridge runs over the very deep and impressive Sitter river canyon, but even more, in an instant you’re from large and modern city in, what looks like, very remote country side where all you see all around you are mountains, meadows and farms.

Appenzell Ausserrhoden

Appenzell Ausserrhoden

While there are not that many tall mountains in the area, it is very hilly and the steep roads and heat had me panting and sweating very quickly. It still didn’t take very long to cross through the canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden and get to Appenzell Innerrhoden and its capital Appenzell. I don’t think I’ve ever been here before, but it’s a tiny city. I also found out why it had been impossible to get hotel rooms here. There’s a Swiss folk music festival on at the moment. Most of the city centre is barricaded off, which is a pity because I would have loved to see the town and it’s unlikely that I’ll come back here anytime soon. But I also wasn’t going to pay entry to the festival just to do an hour of sight-seeing either. Besides, Swiss folk music still gives me the creeps. The crowd there was quite a mixed bag. Half looked like they were locals, the sorts of people who’ve been going to these sorts of festivals all their lives. The other half looked like the type of person who doesn’t particularly like folk music, but who have recently discovered Swiss nationalism and now feel obliged to use their weekend off from sitting on the board of an insurance company to drag themselves to anything that has a whiff of “authentic” Switzerland. So they don their carefully pressed farmer’s shirt that’s never seen a speck of dirt in its lifetime and drive their Mercedes to festivals like this where they can then rail against “the elite”.

Appenzell

Appenzell

With Appenzell more or less off-limits, I decided to head out and see a bit more of the canton instead. It’s odd, I grew up just 50 or so kilometres from here, but have practically never seen this part of the country. The Appenzell region is somewhat difficult to get to because it lies much higher than all the surrounding country, so practically all rounds lead around it rather than through it. It is exceptionally pretty though, especially in weather like this.

I wasn’t sure if it was possible to head south and eventually get to my sister’s place in Azmoos, but I decided to just head into that direction anyway without even verifying this with a map. There was a fairly tall mountain range on the horizon though. But I had loads of time, so it didn’t matter if I’d end up having to turn around again. Once I got to Wasserauen though that seemed to be more or less the end of the road. Although it continued on a bit from there, it got quite narrow and when I did confirm with the map, I saw that it was ultimately a dead end. Nevermind though because coming into Wasserauen you could see a cable car running up a magnificently steep mountain, basically a cliff face. That just looked too tempting so I parked the bike and joined the surprisingly large number of people in the queue to the cable car. Once I got out at the top I could see why there were so many people here. This is totally stunning! You could see for miles and because of how steep this mountain is there were also lots and lots of paragliders taking off from there. That really looks like something I’ll have to try one day!

Ebenalp

Ebenalp

Ebenalp

Ebenalp

At the top I had also seen a sign pointing to a hiking path to the Aescher Berghaus. That actually rang a bell, I’d heard of this place before. It was only a 20 minute hike away so I decided to head there and see if there’s a restaurant there where I could get lunch. While the hike was only about 20 minutes, it was absolutely spectacular. Well the first half was a bit uninspiring, you just walk down a meadow. But then you reach the edge of it and you’re right next to this amazing cliff face with the path on one side vertical rocks and on the other it’s practically straight down for 1000 or so metres. It got even better, a few hundred metres further on the path led into a large cave where you have to descend into, what at first looks like pitch-black darkness until your eyes adjust. But the cave is stunning. The exit of the cave is very large and has a hut built right at the mouth.

Ebenalp

Ebenalp

A bit further down the track and you can see the Aescher Berghaus and it’s truly a sight! It sits on a small ledge of the cliff. On the right it’s overhanging rock, on the left it’s a few metres of grass before it goes straight down the cliff again.

Aescher Berghaus

Aescher Berghaus

The place was exceptionally busy, no wonder on a Sunday in stunning weather like this, but I still managed to get a fine Rosti lunch.

After lunch I headed back towards the cable car station. I really wanted to hike down, there’s a path that leads straight down, but that would have been a challenge with the flat runner shoes I was wearing. They’re ok on a bike but not for hiking down a steep path. So instead I took the cable car down, then rode the bike back to Appenzell where I stocked up on drinks before heading off again. I found a small road leading east towards Oberriet which would let me avoid the busier looking roads. That road was quite narrow and partially unpaved. But it was very beautiful, initially running through a few small farms, then into the forest and ultimately down the mountain.

Since I knew the area around Oberriet quite well and had already come through here a couple of weeks ago when I took off on this trip, I instead headed across the border into Austria. Then along the Rhine into Liechtenstein and finally to Azmoos where I stayed at my sister’s house for the night.

Day 28 – Tiraspol (Transnistria) to Odessa (Ukraine) – 103km

Odessa!

Much more than on previous trips, this time I really didn’t know whether I’d make it all the way to the end. Even over the last couple of days I had a lot of doubts. Not because it was physically tough, all up, this trip probably required less stamina than most others. The difficulty here was all to do with there being a lot of unknowns and going through parts of the world that don’t see a lot of tourists, but world champion levels of red tape.

Transnistria, due to its unrecognised status, throws up some oddities of its own. Such as not being properly connected to international banking, so hotels can only accept cash. Although ATMs seem to work with international cards.

Getting out of Tiraspol was remarkably easy though. It really is quite a sleepy town. Even with that, I had expected that the road to Odessa would probably be the busiest in the whole country, but it was practically empty! A quality highway all to myself. It wasn’t exactly interesting though. Very straight, practically unpopulated, flat and with a fair bit of headwind. There was really nothing of interest to see along the way and the headwind made it a bit of a chore. The only excitement was knowing that, things going well, I’d be in the Ukraine before long and in Odessa by the end of the day.

Whenever I get towards a border that I’ve never crossed before, I keep an eye out for number plates of passing cars. I do that just to get a feel of how busy the border is likely going to be. Lots of international plates is usually a good thing because it means that, for one, the border is open, but also that it’s likely going to be relatively efficient and easy to cross. But here, on the entire stretch from Tiraspol I saw practically no foreign number plates. Not exactly what I was hoping for.

It’s not far to the border from Tiraspol, or from anywhere in Transnistria for that matter. Transnistria is about 300km tall, but only ever about 30km wide. Just before the border there was a petrol station with a shop. Heaven sent! The weather had finally gotten hot, sunny and dry. The way I like it. But hot weather also means you go through a tonne of drinks and I was just about out already.

Petrol station radio is toeing the party line

The small amount of traffic thankfully also meant that there wasn’t a big queue at customs. Although surprisingly, given how there were practically no towns for the last 30km, there was quite a lot of foot traffic. There must have been a bus to the border. But foot traffic is good news, that means it’s possible to cross by bike. Not something that is always possible in this part of the world.

The Transnistrian exit customs collected my 24h visa sheet and sent me onwards. Over a small bridge towards the Ukrainian customs. There was quite a queue in front of the pedestrian customs counter, but it still was a fairly straight-forward affair. With a stamp in my passport I was now officially in the Ukraine! The final country on this trip and also the last of the difficult borders. Ultimately this one was a far easier crossing than I had expected. Really, the only difficult one on this trip had been Romania to Moldova, and to a degree Moldova to Transnistria, but only because I rolled up to the wrong border first up.

Welcome to the Ukraine!

There were quite a few shops on the Ukrainian side of the border. I tried to get more drinks, but none of them accepted my Transnistrian Leu that I couldn’t exchange before crossing the border. I half expected to be stuck with a bunch of money that is impossible to exchange anywhere, but eventually I found a small money exchange bureau that exchanged it to the fairly unpronounceable Ukrainian Hryvna.

Ukrainian side of the border

The change from Transnistria to the Ukraine is startling. Where Transnistria seemed wealthy (at least compared to Moldova and Romania) and everything was immaculately kept, the Ukraine looked poor on a level I didn’t think still existed in Europe. Of course it’s way too early to judge this, having seen all of 500 metres of the country. But the difference is nevertheless startling. Everything was in disrepair and cheaply put together.

After getting another drink, I took off for the final 70km to Odessa. The road quality here was significantly worse than in Transnistria. Worse than Moldova and Romania too. Possibly even worse than Hungary which had the worst roads I’d seen so far on this trip.

The landscape was still very flat, although less so than in Transnistria, there were a fair few small hills I had to climb up. With the heat and the fairly heavy headwind, I found this much harder going than I expected. Maybe it’s also because this is the last stretch and I can just about see the end point, after more than 2800km, but going through this desolate stretch of Ukrainian plain today was really tough. My legs were quite sore by now.

Ukraine really is very much in disrepair. I knew it wasn’t a rich country, even though historically it had been. But a lot of external factors have conspired against the country. From Stalin “starving” the Ukraine to the recent troubles with Russia which robbed it of its major export market. But the country side looks very, very poor. In a way, this is much more startling to me because the Ukrainians basically look like Germans. As terrible as this sounds, you don’t normally see “blonde” kids in poor environments like this. It’s the sort of thing you associate with Asia, or at best, Latin America.

Kamyanka Bus Stop

There were very few towns along the way. Unlike heavily populated Romania, or even to a lesser degree Moldova, the Ukraine felt very empty. Huge fields where you could see for miles, but there was only a small town about once every 30km or so.

That also meant that it wasn’t easy finding anywhere to have lunch. Luckily one thing the Ukraine has over Moldova is that there are more petrol stations and they pretty much always have a decently stocked shop (with free wifi!). So I ended up with a microwaved petrol station hamburger. Not the best introduction to food in this country, but it’ll have to do.

I also had one last run-in with a stray dog, but it was one of the worst ones. Not scary or dangerous like some had been, just really annoying. There were about four or five stray dogs at the petrol station sleeping under the shade of the station roof. All except for one were friendly, but the one that wasn’t was barking non-stop at me while I went into the station. He wouldn’t even stop while I was in the shop and started eating my lunch. Well eventually he did, but it took a good 10 minutes. Then when I came out of the shop he started again right away. He kept his distance at least so I ignored him while I unlocked my bike. Then as soon as I took off he started running after me. I immediately stopped and yelled at him, which got him to stop and retreat. Then when I took off he came at me again full speed. Again I stopped and he retreated. We played that over three or four times until I got really pissed off, turned the bike around and charged at him and yelled all insults under the sun. That got him to run off for long enough so that I could take off at last. I absolutely love dogs, but damn…

Much of the country looks quite abandoned

By early afternoon I reached the outskirts of Odessa. With that, traffic, which had been heavier from the border already, increased again. It was now busier than anything I’d seen since Chisinau. I also have to say that judging from the 70-odd kilometres I’ve cycled in the Ukraine, the local drivers don’t score highly from me. In general, drivers in most countries have been ok. The only issue along this trip had been the insane passing manoeuvres that were a constant in Romania and Moldova where cars passed each other without paying any notice of me. It’s not a lot of fun when you see two cars, side by side, coming head-on towards you at 100km/h on a narrow road. Drivers in the Ukraine did that too, but they also often passed scarily close to me even when there was plenty of room. I really didn’t fancy getting into an accident so close to the finish now, so I was being ultra-alert.

Nearly there

It took just under 3000km – Odessa!

The outskirts of Odessa, just like the country side, looked incredibly run-down and poor. It actually reminded me of Bolivia! But the closer I got to the city centre, the better it started looking. While it never looked really rich, there definitely is a massive difference between rich and poor here.

That said, Odessa’s centre looked incredible! This really showed off how historically important this city has been. It’s also full of live, unlike the countryside (at least the small bit I’ve seen) that had looked so dead and deserted.

Odessa is yet another “Paris of the …” city, but it is an apt description

Odessa

Catherine the Great, who proclaimed the city

I believe some movie was shot here…

The top of the Potemkin steps was totally crowded with girls who had their boyfriends take model type Instagram shots of them. What a life…

Odessa

Odessa

Odessa Opera House

As I walked past the Odessa Opera House I could hear someone practising arias through an open window.

Odessa

Graffiti outside my hotel room

Since this is the last stop, and I felt I earned it, I decided to splash a bit on a hotel and ended up in this incredibly nice place right in the centre.

Odessa is a very lively city. It does give off a bit of an impression of being a fun city to live in if you have money, but a terrible one if you don’t. It certainly looks modern, wealthy and lively. A world away from the countryside or even the outskirts of town.

I always find it fascinating what nationalities come to visit various countries. There are always some really unexpected ones. Being on the road so much, you see lots of number plates. In Romania for example there were a lot of French, UK and Italian ones, which isn’t that unusual, they’re big countries. But surprisingly, probably the one I saw most there were Belgian number plates. Here in the Ukraine there’s an even bigger oddity. While there are very few foreign plates overall here, there is one exception. There are lots and lots of Lithuanians here! A country that doesn’t even border the Ukraine and only has a bit over 2 million people living there, but it feels like about one in ten cars has Lithuanian number plates.

Now I had to work out how to get back to Switzerland. Because I had been so unsure whether I’d make it all the way here, I hadn’t even really looked into options of how to get back. I had contemplated getting the train back, but this would require huge detours and there is a big risk that I wouldn’t be able to get the bike on the train in some parts. The train would also take about two or three days. There is an international airport here, with flights seemingly mainly going to Istanbul or Vienna. Going to a local bike shop, I got an old cardboard bike box and packed up my bike, so it’s ready to be put on a plane. With that I booked a plane ticket and I’m off to Vienna and then Zurich!

Day 27 – Chisinau (Moldova) – Tiraspol (Transnistria) – 85km

This would have to be one of the most exciting days I’ve ever had traveling. I’m now in a country that officially doesn’t even exist! Getting there had some complications, but ultimately it was a lot easier than I expected. Much easier even than getting into Moldova had been.

I woke up to surprisingly nice weather. Still a little overcast but this looked like I finally could get a decent weather day, after about two weeks of rain and clouds.

Getting out of Chisinau isn’t particularly difficult, but also not a whole lot of fun, especially in peak hour traffic. But it did afford me the first sight of a road sign to Odessa, after 2700km on the road!

This absolutely counts as excitement! Fight me!

Gradually the traffic eased off somewhat as I got further away from Chisinau. But it was still far busier than the road from Ungheni had been. Initially the road out of Chisinau had been quite narrow, but thankfully after about 10 kilometres it became fairly wide with lots of room for the bike. The route wasn’t all that interesting though, at least at first. This part of the country feels a lot more industrialised than the rural country I came through yesterday. But here too, again like yesterday, it all looks like someone back in the 50’s took a sledgehammer to everything and built it from scratch, then neglected it completely. Everything looks around the same age and it’s all outdated and quite dilapidated. There’s also nothing that looks truly old or interesting. The landscape is very pretty though.

Moldova

Just before lunchtime I spotted a “shortcut” to Bender on the map. The civil war in Moldova had split the country into Moldova proper and Transnistria, the parts to the east of the Dnjestr river. Bender was just on the western side of that river so I assumed it to be the last town in Moldova. Despite the bad experience I had made with shortcuts yesterday, I was keen to get off this somewhat dull highway so I took the turnoff down a steep hill into the small town of Hirbovat.

This may be a small town, but it has precisely one impressive building.

This country is absolutely filled with roadside shrines

The town was in small valley, so as soon as I got out at the other end of the town, I had to take a very steep, but deserted uphill road full of gigantic potholes. It was very hot by now and totally cloudless, I was dripping with sweat by the time I’d made that 100 metre uphill stretch. Then suddenly there was a big iron gate with a small hut next to it where a policeman sat. It looked similar to the National Park entrance I went through yesterday. I briefly stopped but the policeman had zero interest in me, so I took off again. After the gate the road went through a field for about 500 metres and then I reached another set of gates, these ones closed.

When I rolled up to the gates, a puzzled Russian soldier came over. He then grabbed his two companions, all of whom only spoke Russian. Turns out that I was already at the Transnistrian border! I hadn’t realised that the town of Bender is already in Transnistria, even though it’s on the western side of the Dnjestr river.

The soldiers at the customs were thoroughly puzzled and intrigued by this guy on a bicycle rolling up to their deserted border post. They were super-friendly too. One of them, using an iPhone translator app, let me know that apparently this border crossing is only for the locals from nearby towns and that they’re not equipped to handle tourists. I would have to head back to the highway and then go via the main border crossing. They even gave me a 1 1/2 litre bottle of water! Despite not getting through the border, this was one of the nicer customs experiences I’ve ever had.

But now I had to head back downhill into town, and then uphill again to the highway. It may only be a 100 metre hill, but it was insanely steep and in 35 degree heat, that water I got from customs came in very handy!

My new favourite number plate

The highway route was quite a detour too and it took a good 15km or so until I suddenly came through a Moldovan police checkpoint. They just waved me through though, Moldova does not recognise Transnistria as a country, so consequently they do not have exit customs. Some 500 metres further I then got to the Transnistrian customs. The queue wasn’t as horrible as I expected but I still didn’t fancy waiting here under a very hot sun. Thankfully there was a separate office for foot (including bikes) traffic. The officer here also only spoke Russian, but he gave me a 24h transit visa and I was good to go!

Considering that I was crossing a civil war border, this was remarkably painless and easy. Mind you, hostilities have stopped nearly 25 years ago and while there’s been no resolution, relations between Moldova proper and Transnistria are not all that bad at the moment. I had sort of expected that crossing wouldn’t be too much of an issue, after all I’d seen lots of cars with Transnistrian number plates in Moldova which certainly didn’t make it look like being an active conflict. One oddity is that since Moldova doesn’t have exit customs and outside of Russia basically no one recognises Transnistria, I’m technically still in Moldova.

But crossing the border here was one of the biggest instant changes of scenery I’ve ever come across. I really didn’t know what to expect of Transnistria, but what it turned out to be would have been just about the last thing I had in mind. The language changed from Romanian to Russian and all writing was in cyrillic here. There isn’t even a hint of Romanian anymore, while in Moldova you saw lots of both languages, here it’s all Russian. But the bigger change is how everything looked. I wouldn’t have been surprised by an even more rural backwater than Moldova, but got the complete opposite! Right away from the border the roads were immaculate. Coming into the first town, Bender, was like taking a sudden and massive step into modernity. Everything was brand-new, spotless, huge, and as modern as tomorrow. This felt more like Dubai than the rural backwater I expected!

Bender

Russia very obviously has been buttering plenty of money into this region to make it look impressive. And I have to admit I was impressed. There are signs of being in a (dormant) conflict zone all over though. From soldiers everywhere to some of the monuments…

Tank!

It was about another 10km further to Tiraspol, the capital and where I was going to spend the night. Transnistria is really the place where the Soviet Union survived. There are hammer and sickle insignia everywhere, including the country’s flag.

Welcome to the CCCP

The place where the Soviet Union survived…

Compared to Bender, Tiraspol felt a bit like a sleepy town though. It looks like this is the historical regional capital that has just been renovated and rejuvenated somewhat. Since most people enter the country via Bender, that was built to impress instead.

Even Lenin survives, in front of Tiraspol’s government palace

Tiraspol

The whole town, and country, feels and looks totally like being in Russia now, something that Moldova had only hinted at occasionally. I checked into a hotel, which is slightly more complex here due to the unofficial status that Transnistria has. It is not connected to the international banking system so I had to pay in cash, which meant getting some local currency first.

I found a supermarket nearby with an ATM that thankfully let me withdraw some money though. I also had a stroll through the supermarket and it’s quite astonishing. The products on sale here are completely different to what has been on sale in Moldova. Here it’s nothing but Russian produce. There’s also an interesting way to deal with shoplifters here.

Shoplifters of the world unite!

This really is about the oddest and most unexpected place I’ve ever been to! For all the trouble I had getting into Moldova, and somewhat less getting into Transnistria, I’m really glad I didn’t skip these! I had been contemplating going directly from Romania to the Ukraine, which seemed a lot easier. But those two really have been an experience! It’s hard to put this into words how unexpected and odd this place is. This has really been one of the wildest travel experiences I’ve ever had.

So tomorrow it’s off to the final stop, Odessa. Which means another border crossing that sounds a bit like it could be a red-tape nightmare. And then I have to try and find a way back to Switzerland, with a bike in tow. Fun times.

Day 26 – Ungheni to Chisinau – 105km

Holy mother of god! I expected today to be one of the easier rides. It’s a relatively short one, going from one reasonably sized city to the country’s largest one, in a country that is relatively flat. Sounds easy. Should be easy. It became quite possibly the hardest day I’ve ever had on a bike!

There is a highway that runs straight from Ungheni to Chisinau. Well, not straight, it first heads north for about 20km before circling back south towards Chisinau. I was using a mapping app that suggested that there’s a direct route though, making a shortcut through that big circle and saving me about 30 or 40km. Sounds good to me. So, for the first few kilometres I had to follow the highway, which was remarkably good quality and yet had very little traffic before turning off to the indicated shortcut.

Bye Ungheni…

Straight away as I got off the highway I ended up on unpaved roads. Well, the mapping app suggested that there would be a few short unpaved sections. I’m sure I’ll be back on paved roads before long…

That road was very rough though, it also went uphill at quite a gradient. So much so that I ended up having to push the bike. With a loaded bike on a gravel road at this sort of incline the rear wheel was just spinning. It wasn’t far to the top of the hill, but I was dripping with sweat by the time I got there. Thankfully there was a bit of downhill to come, towards a small town, Manojlesti. The elation turned out to be a bit premature though, the downhill was almost worse on a rough road like this. I could still only do about walking pace.

The town was a bit of a revelation too. I thought towns in Romania were rural but this is a whole other level! There were no paved roads anywhere in town. Judging by the water wells I came past it looks like there’s no running water either. There were all sorts of farm animals everywhere, right in the middle of the roads. This is rural, the likes of which I didn’t think still existed in Europe!

The road out of town went uphill again and was even worse than the one I’d come in on. I was still positive though and sure that I’d be back on paved roads before long though. After all, how much worse could it get?

This much worse…

But even this was far from the worst I was to encounter today. Some parts of this road were completely soaked in liquid mud and I had to carry the bike through the surrounding forrest. Eventually I got to the top of a hill and another very rural town. This one wasn’t quite as 1930’s rural though.

Jesus guards their water well

Not as many horse and carts here as in Romania, but they’re still around too.

Initially the road out of town was an improvement. I was already hopeful that this would be the end of terrible roads now. Well, that was a bit premature! Within about a kilometre, the road became a mud soaked dirt path again. But even that wasn’t the worst yet. Suddenly the “road” disappeared entirely. The mapping app suggested I had to do a left turn through what it labelled “hiking path”. I was standing right there, but couldn’t for the life of me see anything that looked like a path. There was the barest suggestion that maybe someone had walked up that hill before, so I followed that. There was no chance riding the bike here, I had to push it. First the “path” went through grass land where you could still see the barest inkling of a thin track, but eventually even that disappeared. The app indicated going straight ahead and there was no other direction with a path anyway. I really had just two options, push ahead or head back all the way to Ungheni and start again on the highway instead.

I hate backtracking, so I pushed ahead. Before long I had to fight my way through thick undergrowth, thorn bushes and steep uphill stretches. My arms were bleeding all over the place from being scratched by thorns. Hiking on foot would have been difficult through this, but pushing a loaded bike was insane!

Eventually I got to the top of the hill and there was a road (e.g. mud track) again. It even looked good enough to ride the bike! But that would have been too easy. I’d picked up a puncture! Probable from some of those thorn bushes, those thorns were incredibly sharp, long and hard.

Once I’d fixed the puncture I took off again and within about a kilometre I hit an actual proper road! Still just gravel and very rough, but a damn sight better than what I had just come through. There were even road signs along the way! It felt like I was back in civilisation.

At the first intersection the mapping app directed me left, which looked ok initially. But I was sceptical after the experiences so far this morning so I doubled-checked with Google Maps and Via Michellin, both of whom indicated that the route on the left would lead to a dead-end. I suspect I’d end up in the same circumstances that I’d just come out of. No thanks!

The road leading right was at least marked on Via Michellin and showed it joining up with the main highway again some 15km further on. So that was an easy choice. First it went up to the town of Radenii Vechi, which was very steep uphill, but the main street in town was actually paved!

Moldova’s has no mountains. Its highest point is only 430m above sea level, but I reckon I hit every one of its highest peaks today! Halfway through town, the road became gravel again, and then suddenly I saw a couple of massive iron gates closing off the road in front of me. There was a guard house next to them. Turns out I was entering a national park. The guard gave me the ok to go through and off I went. Even though the road was still gravel, the quality was a long way better than the earlier gravel roads I’d been on. The park was very pretty too.

At long last I made it back to the highway! I felt like kissing the pavement. I’d covered all of 30 kilometres and it took me four hours.

Just like it had been out of Ungheni, the highway was remarkably good quality and with hardly any traffic. At the first larger town, Calarasi, I stopped for lunch. Thankfully the restaurant had a menu with pictures. People here speak either Romanian or Russian. English, French or German don’t get you anywhere.

Shortly after taking off again my rear wheel went flat again. The repair job I made didn’t hold. So I swapped out the tube instead.

The weather today was better than it had been in some time. Still mostly cloudy and very hot and humid, but at least it didn’t look like it was about to start raining any minute. After all the delays with puncture repairs and terrible roads, I was now finally making a bit of progress now. Once I got to Straseni, about 25km out from Chisinau, the traffic picked up markedly. It still wasn’t terrible and the road was wide enough that it felt safe to ride on.

Just as I got to the outskirts of Chisinau, thinking that remarkably I managed two days in a row without getting soaked, I spotted some very black clouds on the horizon. Within a couple of minutes there was thunder, lightning and rain like the apocalypse had started. Luckily just as it was about to start raining I spotted a petrol station with a cafe, so I decided to wait out the rain there. It took about 20 minutes before I ran out of patience and decided to head off, but with perfect timing, just as I went outside the rain stopped!

However, like Romania, Moldova doesn’t do irrigation. Any rain here means flooded streets. With rain this heavy, there weren’t just puddles on the road, there were some that were completely under water! Not easy to navigate on a bike. I had to avoid crashing into one of the many potholes which were now invisible under water, try not getting my feet completely under water and also time any ride through one of the many lakes to make sure there wasn’t a car coming through and splashing me all over. Not an easy task as it was now rush hour and traffic got very heavy.

Surprisingly I made it to a hotel relatively dry, although the bike is completely filthy now.

Chisinau is the first real city I’ve encountered in Moldova. Everything else was just villages. Even the country towns didn’t really feel and look like cities. But Chisinau does feel like a metropolitan city. It also totally looks like it was built mainly during the Soviet era. The Russian influence here is very heavy. There’s not much to see, but I reckon the city does have a bit of an odd charm to it. It’s certainly a long way from some of those rural towns I came through today.

Moldovan Parliament – Chisinau

Tomorrow it’s off to Transnistria! Even though there’s the unknown factor of crossing a border into a country that isn’t recognised by any UN member countries, I still think that unlike today, tomorrow is actually going to be an easy day now.

Day 25 – Vaslui (Romania) to Ungheni (Moldova) – 115km

Damn! I expected it to be somewhat difficult to get into Moldova but this is ridiculous!

I discarded the route via Husi that I’d initially planned on taking. It would have made today a long and difficult day with seemingly no options to stay overnight along the way. So I headed north instead towards Iasi, Romania’s second largest city and 65km away from Vaslui. I more or less followed the border but there were no crossings anywhere between Vaslui and Iasi. I had to rush it too. While there didn’t appear to be any road crossings in Iasi, there was a train to Ungheni, just across the border in Moldova. The train ran just after lunch time so I had to make sure I’d be there early enough to find the train station and buy a ticket. This meant that I barely put any stops in along the way. The weather was totally overcast anyway, so that made it easy to just rush through without doing a lot of sight-seeing.

I got to Iasi at lunch time and headed straight for the train station. There was a special ticket counter for the Ungheni train with luckily only about three or four people in the queue. The woman at the counter didn’t speak any English, but when I asked for a ticket and pointed to the bike, she said “No!”. #$%^! She seemed nice enough and I’m sure it wasn’t her call, but I still could have murdered her. I mean, WTF, no bikes allowed on the train? That would be understandable if there was a road or pedestrian crossing alternative, but there isn’t. Despite this being the second largest city in Romania and Ungheni, just across the border being one of the larger cities in Moldova, there is no road crossing. The only border crossing here is on the train, and they won’t let me on it.

The nearest border crossing to Iasi is 25km further north, for reasons I cannot comprehend. Here you have two population centres on either side of the border that total nearly half a million people, and yet the only border crossing is 25km away in the middle of absolutely nowhere. So, with not being able to get on the train, I had no choice but to do a 50km detour.

I was so annoyed with the idiocy of it all, I wasn’t even in the mood to at least have a look around Iasi, even though it seems like a very nice city. Instead I took off north, not even knowing whether I would be able to cross the border with a bike there. Apparently many Moldovan border crossings don’t allow bikes. So I might end up having to head back to Iasi to camp overnight and consider my options.

I was even contemplating leaving the bike in Iasi and taking the train and bus to Odessa before heading back to Iasi and flying back to Switzerland from there.

But I really needed to try to at least cross the border on the bike. I’m sure that I’d regret not having gone all the way to Odessa by bike. The ride to the border was nothing to write home about though. A large, fairly good quality road with barely any traffic, but going through some not very interesting plains with the odd hill every once in a while. In nice weather you might have gotten some good views from the top of those hills, but it was very overcast, but also very hot. Not the nicest conditions for a bike ride, especially one that just seems like a pointless detour.

About an hour and a half later I arrived at the border crossing at Sculeni. I was hoping there would be at least a small Romanian town there where I could eat lunch and also get rid of some of my remaining Romanian Leu. But no such luck. There was nothing there, of course the border crossing is in the middle of nowhere rather than near any population centres or even near any roads or natural features that would make it sensible to have the border here, but this location looks like someone threw a dart on a map.

Even though there hadn’t been a lot of traffic going up to the border, there was a queue of cars extending hundreds of metres back. A solid hint that the crossing is not going to be straight-forward! Having learnt from the Balkans, a few years ago, bikes are more or less expected to just ride past the queue and head right to the front. At least I was hoping that would be the case, otherwise it might be a good three or four hours before I get to customs. I still didn’t even know if bikes were allowed across here, although I did see a couple of elderly locals on bikes, so that’s a good sign. I did get stopped by a Romanian customs official at one point, telling me I needed a fluorescent vest and helmet to get across the border. I had neither. Nor had I ever seen anyone in Romania wearing either a vest or a helmet. In yet another completely inexplicable rule, a fluorescent vest is required to cross the border on a bike. It is needed to cross 50 metres of terrain, and nowhere else in either country! Seriously!

When I told the customs officer that I didn’t have one, he asked “why not?”. The correct answer would have been, “because I’ve never heard of such an idiotic requirement and why would I get a vest that I need for 50 metres on a 2500km trip?”. But this is customs, where how you respond has a huge impact on how smooth your trip is going to be, so I just said I didn’t know, and thankfully he let me continue on. The elderly locals I’d seen on bikes were obviously prepared and had done this before, so they’d gotten out a vest and helmet that they put on as they got to the border.

Eventually I reached passport control. But of course if there’s a simple and a complex way to do things, customs officials in this part of the world always go for the inexplicably difficult option. I kept getting sent back and forth between different counters for reasons that are beyond me, they seemingly all did the same job. Eventually passport control passed me on to customs who luckily just waved me through.

That was the Romanian customs, so I have only half the job done so far. After crossing the small bridge over the Prut River I reached Moldovan customs. I nearly rode right past it by accident. The road straight ahead was clear and there was no indication that this wasn’t the right one. Until a truck driver who was waiting to get through customs in the opposite direction told me that I was going the wrong way. So I had to turn around, then do a left turn to get to the Moldovan customs. There were all sorts of customs officers walking up and down the queue, talking to people in cars, collecting passports and forms, inspecting cars and luggage, but all completely ignoring me. Eventually I just pushed my passport onto one who took it to a small office, and after a few minutes handed it back to me without saying anything.

I checked the passport and there was an entry stamp in it. Odd as it was, but it looked like I had cleared customs and was now in Moldova! I rode off before one of them changed their mind.

There was a small shop and cafe right after the border. I stopped there to try and change some money and also get something to eat. I still hadn’t had any lunch. No luck on the lunch front, but I got my money changed. I also found a couple of biscuits in the shop, that would have to do for lunch.

Now that I had made it across the border, I tried to ring the only hotel I could see listed in Ungheni. I found their number on a website and rang it. The person answering only spoke a few words of English, when I asked if I could book a room, she said “Yes”, then there was a long pause, then the line went dead. I rang again, same scenario. I really had no idea what happened, but decided to just take off and hope for the best.

Moldova is both, the poorest and least visited country in Europe. In a way, considering how hard it is to enter the country, it’s no wonder no one visits! I immediately felt like a novelty there. In the Romanian countryside I occasionally got some odd stares and receptions, but it probably wasn’t that unusual to get someone coming through there on a bike. But here it seems like that’s almost unheard of. I got some sort of reaction from just about everyone I came past, sometimes a “hello”, or a wave, other times just odd stares.

While the landscape here still looks very similar to what I had just come through in Romania, the country still looked different. Even though most people here are ethnic Romanians and speak Romanian (albeit with seemingly a few small differences), the country looks somewhat more “orderly” than Romania. At least the little bit that I’ve seen. In Romania, much of it felt somewhat randomly developed over centuries while here it was quite evident that the country went through a couple of decades of Soviet planning.

Like in Romania, roadside religious shrines are everywhere here

A bit over an hour after taking off from customs, I arrived in Ungheni. From looking at the map, this is one of the larger towns in this part of Moldova. I could see the apartment blocks and factories from quite some distance away. But when I finally got into the town centre, I nearly missed it. There’s basically nothing there!

I checked into the hotel I’d called from the border, luckily they did have rooms because as far as I can tell there are no other hotels here. This one is quite huge though, and feels completely empty. Devoid of staff and customers. After a shower and change of clothes I went out exploring again. Eventually I found a few shops and some life, but like the hotel, this city really seems like it was planned for way more people than actually live here. Or maybe it used to have a much higher population. It’s got a bit of a “Life after People” feel to it and large parts just seem abandoned. There are grand boulevards and wide streets, but often either nothing alongside the streets or some long abandoned buildings. There are also some very new and shiny supermarkets, coffee shops, mobile phone shops, etc. in the mix. It’s a really odd combination.

There is a surprising amount of Russian spoken here too and many shops advertise in Russian.

Ungheni

Russian WWII memorial, across the road from my hotel

Right next to the international train station. This is one of the first buildings you see arriving in the country.

I have a feeling that one of the major hurdles in getting to Odessa sorted now. At least when I was planning this trip, getting in and out of Moldova and Transnistria had been the parts that looked the most difficult. Being in Moldova now, completing this trip definitely seems possible now. If things go right, I should be in Odessa in about three days. I have a feeling the remaining border crossings are not going to be as bad as this one, even though one is going into a country, Transnistria, that doesn’t officially exist.

Day 24 – Bacau to Vaslui – 88km

I’m in a bit of a pickle now…

My plan was to get to Husi today, the last sizeable town in Romania and only about 20km from the border with Moldova. But more importantly, the last town that appears to have a hotel for well over 100km, all the way to Chisinau, Moldova’s capital. There is however only one hotel in Husi and it doesn’t allow online booking, over even have a website. So one of two things was likely to happen. I get to Husi, find the hotel, they have a room, I stay overnight and then, the next day, ride to Chisinau. The second possibility is, I get to Husi, there are no rooms left and I’m stuck there with nowhere to stay and the nearest hotel some 50km back to where I just came from. Not the sort of thing I’d fancy, especially after having already done 140km in a day.

So once I got to Vaslui, where I was planning to stop for lunch, I had to make a decision. Stay here or risk continuing on to Husi? If I stayed here, then I’d have an enormously long day tomorrow though. So while I was at Vaslui I tried finding a phone number for the hotel in Husi, which wasn’t an easy undertaking. But eventually, after about 5 false starts, I finally got through on a number I found on the web. The person who answered didn’t speak English, but we managed to get enough communication going for her to tell me that there are no rooms free. So there’s no point in continuing today. I went to find a hotel in Vaslui and plan the next steps.

That does make tomorrow very difficult though. I really didn’t fancy doing a gigantic long day tomorrow, one that includes a potentially difficult border crossing and is running over lots and lots of hills. The other problem is that there are not a many border crossings into Moldova, and apparently a lot of them don’t allow bikes or pedestrians to cross. So, looking at the map the best option seems to be if I do a detour and ride up north to Iasi, the second largest town in Romania and also just a few km from the border. It looks like there’s a train from there that goes to Ungheni, just across the border in Moldova. That means at least one extra day, but it should be an easy enough option.

But all that is for tomorrow. Today I got up and for the first time in forever, it was sunny! Makes me all the more keen to get underway. Getting out of Bacau was fairly straight forward, and it being Saturday morning, there wasn’t a whole lot of traffic either. It’s amazing though, within a kilometre or two out of the city, it felt like I was in very remote countryside again. Although the small towns around here don’t feel quite as rural as they did in the Western Carpathians, they still feel like a step back in time. Other than some “modern” cars, e.g. cars that are only about 20 years old, it doesn’t look like some of those towns have changed in 80 years or so.

Even though I’m out of the mountains, today involved some really hefty climbs. It’s very hilly around here and some of those hills pack a real punch! It’s beautiful when you get to the top, but it takes a lot of work. And usually behind every hill there’s another, bigger hill.

Romania really is far prettier than I would have guessed!

The view is great, but man that was hard work getting up there!

Even though there were no sizeable towns along the way today, I still came through a village every few kilometres. Romania is far more densely populated than any of its neighbours. The other day I read up a bit on the Romanian Revolution of 1989. An event that I still vividly remember, although I didn’t know as much of the background as I thought I did. One thing I wasn’t aware of was that Ceausescu had a vision of a “big Romania” which also meant the country having a large population. To achieve this, not just was abortion illegal, but even any sort of birth control was outlawed. So one of the many triggers behind the revolution was having a rapidly growing population and the government failing to make the additional infrastructure investments to cope with the rising population.

Infrastructure is still lagging behind, although I doubt it’s anywhere near as bad as it used to be. There is a massive difference between city and country though. While the cities do not look rich, they at least have a somewhat modern feel to it. But in country towns time has really stood still. Farm work is still done mainly by hand. For every tractor I’ve seen, I would have seen 20 horse and carts. There is just about no farming machinery here, but lots of people with scythes or other tools that I hadn’t seen used in decades. Or ancient manually operated wells that look very picturesque but would be hell having to rely on as your town’s water source…

Water wells

I got to Vaslui without getting rained on! This feels almost like a novelty and must be the first time in at least two weeks that I didn’t get wet. But as it turned out, the only reason I didn’t get drenched today was because the day ended up being shorter than planned. Within a few minutes of checking into a hotel here, there was a massive rainstorm coming through.

So, with a bit of luck, tomorrow I should be in Moldova!

Day 23 – Miercurea Ciuc to Bacau – 140km

There is currently an almost unprecedented heatwave in Europe. But I’m in a corner of the continent where it’s been raining every day for about the last two weeks! It’s been ages since I had a day where it’s been dry all the way through. To be fair, almost every has had some sunshine, but also every day has had showers and occasionally even heavy storms. Normally this wouldn’t be so bad but on the bike it means I get soaked and then spend the rest of the day in wet clothes. Apparently this sort of weather is quite unusual here. The receptionist at the hotel I stayed last night reckoned it’s “English Weather”

Weather aside, this was another good day. Romania really has turned out to be an unexpectedly beautiful country!

Today it wasn’t just back into the mountains, but also over a pass. It was going slightly uphill right out of Miercurea Ciuc and initially I found that somewhat hard which had me a bit worried about heading over the pass. But as so often happens, I just took a bit of time to warm up. Once the real incline started, about 15km in, I was fine. It helped too that the scenery was gorgeous too!

Good Morning Romania

I ended up making that pass a lot easier than I had expected. Either I’m fitter than normal at the moment, or these mountains in Romania are just not as steep as the ones in Switzerland were.

Carpathians

After that pass it was only a short downhill stretch into the first town. But for the 80(!) kilometres after that the road was going slightly downhill as it snaked itself out of this very long valley. Awesome! The drawback though was that the roads here were the worst I’d encountered in Romania so far. In general, Romanian roads have been a lot better than the ones in Hungary and Slovakia, but today’s were very hard to navigate on a bicycle.

When you are on a bike and don’t have any distractions, other than traffic of course, your mind can get occupied by the weirdest thoughts and things. Often I get songs stuck in my head. That’s usually triggered by seeing something along the way that reminds me of a song. As an example, I came through a town called Agas early on, and for the next two hours I had this stuck in my head. You’re welcome.

For a long time I was following the Trotus river downhill. There were lots of pedestrian suspension bridges over the river, most of which looked completely suicidal!

I bloody dare ya!

Going slightly downhill on a road with very little traffic, I moved a lot quicker than I generally had been in Romania, so by lunchtime I had already made it to Comanesti, a town I had considered making the overnight stop. It’s not a particularly pretty or large town, so I just had lunch there instead.

The next sizeable town was a full 60km away though, so today would be quite a long day. Probably the longest on this trip.

While I had lunch in Comanesti, it started raining, but my mind was already made up and I took off anyway. The remainder of the day became an interchanging mix of bright sunshine and rain. Romania doesn’t exactly have a working irrigation system, so as soon as it starts raining, the roads get flooded and muddy. I keep getting splashed with dirt, so both, the bike and me are pretty much permanently filthy!

For some of the heavier rain storms I tried to wait out the worst of it, which meant that I got to Bacau quite late, at 6pm. I didn’t just want to rush through the town and besides, today had been a long day and I still have plenty of time left. So even before I arrived I made a decision to make tomorrow a rest day.

Although in reflection this is probably not the best place to do so. While Bacau is quite a large town, it is definitely the ugliest town I’ve seen in Romania so far. It looks like it was all built in quite possibly the worst place and time for architecture, Eastern Europe in the 70’s. It’s all hideous, badly kept and there is literally nothing to see here. There are a surprising amount of casinos here though.

The hotel I’m staying is almost a miniature version of the town. An eyesore of a huge 70’s brutalist bunker that has seen much better days. With furniture and interior wood panelling decor to match. Like most 70’s Eastern European architecture, it manages to be both hideous and kind of cool at the same time. Even the receptionist at the hotel fits right in, with her massive amounts of 70’s make-up that would make ABBA blush. Breaking the stereotype, she was exceptionally helpful and nice though and offered to let me park my bike behind reception for safety.

At least with nothing to see here, I don’t have to feel guilty about doing pretty much nothing all day. The weather is quite terrible too, still.

“We need something to decorate our church.” – “Oh, I have the perfect thing!”

Well I didn’t quite do nothing after all. I had to do some bike maintenance. My brake pads are completely worn. The first bike shop I went to didn’t have the right replacement pads, which makes me think these may be somewhat specialised and hard to find. But when I got to the second bike shop and showed the mechanic the pads and asked if they sold these, he literally had the exact same ones in his hand at the time!

I thought it best to replace them myself so that if I have to do this again on the road I’ll know what to do. Took a bit of effort and trial and error, but I have a fully functioning bike again!

The way it looks, I’ll have another full day in Romania ahead tomorrow before heading into Moldova. That is likely going to be a culture shock! Moldova is the least visited country in Europe. Romania and Hungary were somewhat difficult to travel at times, but I expect Moldova to be multitudes harder! It’s a small country though and I’ll likely only spend about two days there.