Tag Archives: teaching and travelling

A Collection of Tales from the Road: #4 Austria

Austria was the second country of nine cycled across in six days during the world record attempt called ‘9in9’.  Here’s a newspaper article about it. I remember whizzing down sunny mountain valleys from a high lake at the border with Italy, north and then west to Liechtenstein.

I was joined by two teaching colleagues and a friend. It was the springtime in the Alps and after a rough patch in my life, I had just learned that I would be moving to teach in West Africa, so I was full of optimism and excitement. We crossed the start line in a ceremonial roll-out in front of some press and many red uniformed students at the Priory School in Hertfordshire, before getting into a packed minivan support vehicle and heading to the English Channel. I also felt good embarking on this serious physical challenge with a purpose having raised a lot of funds for the Children with Cancer charity, as one of our students had been battling the disease.

Austria, in hindsight became the cause of the reason why I am not an official Guinness World Record holder. We had meticulously prepared the paperwork and the necessary details as stipulated by Guinness in advance of the ‘Epic Journey’ attempt. However, the official record still stands at seven countries in a week, not nine as we had covered. Guinness told me in retrospect that we required police testimonies from each town stating that we all arrived and left by bicycle. This was a horrible surprise to say the least. It was the first mention of a need to involve police in the attempt. It would certainly have been time consuming and a headache to have done so, and therefore may be one of the reasons why the old record still stands.

Whenever I think back to our ride through Austria, one split-second springs to mind. As we approached a tunnel on the mountain road, surrounded by packed snow and ice, we noticed a policeman in his car in a bay by the road. I had researched ahead of time, and knew that it was legal to cycle through this tunnel, but this tunnel looked a bit too dark and tricky, so a flashing thought about stopping came to my mind. But we did not stop to ask the policeman for an escort. Had we done so, and had we known to ask for evidence from him that we had cycled through, maybe I would not always feel angry when I hear any mention of Guinness World Records. Maybe I would be one of 4 official record holders. We know we rode the entire way, and we know that it makes us record breakers, but alas, our names are not carved in stone.

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A Collection of Tales from the Road: #3 Argentina

During a whistle-stop tour of South America I had the good fortune of meeting a guy with a bike in El Calafate, a town on the southern edge of the Patagonian Icefield.

Although brief, the day ride out and back from the edge of the town into tundra like flatlands, certainly gave me a taste of the place. I struggled all morning mainly because of the persistent winds upon which 3 metre wide condors soared above carrion, and worryingly, me.

I was in the region mainly to visit the vivid blue Perito Moreno glacier. One of the few in the world to not be receding. It was like a huge living creature. Creaking and cracking it’s chilly way down toward the lake. The relative calm of the noises that it made during the day we were there, were occasionally interrupted by a splash, as chunks from its face dropped off into the dark blue water. It was a pretty serene scene, but in 2016, a huge section of the face and the ice bridge it had created collapsed causing a tsunami.

On the way back into town I prepared myself mentally for the battle ahead against the dogs.

I’m not a big mutt fan, and being a cyclist I often feel that I am little more that two spinning dog treats, as far as they are concerned. I have never seen so many dogs and clearly the authorities were concerned by the numbers too, but I should never have been worried here. Although locals say that they belong to the town, none of these dogs seem to be owned. They do however remain well looked after, and are all coded by a coloured collar depending on their physical status, shall we say. They seem to be totally at ease, if anything, they seem to own the town, and as I pondered this over my Mate tea in a high street cafe, I remember realising what a remote part of the world I was in and how nature is nature, so maybe the balance of power the swaggering pack dogs have here is a good one.

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A Collection of Tales from the Road: #2 Armenia

The birthplace of wine and the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion is Armenia. An intriguing place that I almost didn’t visit. But as I pedalled south from Tblisi at short notice, I felt that, although hurried, I had recently discovered just enough about it to have a desire to see some of it. I’m pleased I did.

On arrival, gold-toothed ladies selling fruit, yards from the border, probably got a good deal from me. I can tell when this happens because often sellers belatedly give you a few free bits as the realisation that they have just shafted an Englishman starts to play on their conscience. No, maybe not. I like to think that what they chat about with their mates around them is that this harmless cyclist could do with some extra energy. So as I rode off to cries of laughter behind me, I took it is a positive first interaction and felt welcome. My target was a bar with some rooms and a TV, so that I could watch England play football. I was foiled yet again, they had no TVs, or doors.

When I woke, pointlessly sulky as I was alone, I soon realised that I would be following the enormous green Debed river canyon for the day as it grew deeper and darker. Soviet mines, cranes and gargantuan structures that I did not know the purpose of, loomed over me like a scene from the Lord of the Rings. I was excited to see a chair-lift, to what is probably a good viewpoint over the valleys, but it was closed. So I continued to pedal further south towards Turkey, only to find out that I had not done my hurried research very well at all before I left Georgia, as there has been no border between Armenia and Turkey for decades.

I won’t get into politics, suffice to say, there is a lot going on in this part of the world and they are not on friendly terms. To my east the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continued between Armenia and another neighbour, Azerbaijan. Totally stumped, I re-routed in Vanadzor so that I could get into Turkey after going north-west back into Georgia. This process of figuring out the situation and riding all had to happen pretty quickly, or I’d be stuck on a hillside somewhere near a border, riding eagerly in a circle, knowing that I had a flight to catch at the end of the tour. Adding to this unusually confusing tour section, is that Armenia is not recognised as a country by some of its neighbours. This means that any local currency I had at the time, had no value outside and cannot be exchanged. So I decided that there was only one course of action; to have steak and wine for dinner for the last few nights. Any other memories have been rather blurred.

Previous story: Albania

Next story: Austria

(Cover photo: Looking towards Turkey and Mt Ararat, Armenia)

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Beautiful Places and Moments: One Year on the Road

We are now half way through our ride around the world. Since leaving our teaching jobs at Tashkent International School, we have cycled over 12,000 kilometres through 11 countries.

Uzbekistan:

Kyrgyzstan:

Kazakhstan:

China:

Laos:

Cambodia:

Vietnam:

Thailand:

Myanmar:

Malaysia:

Indonesia:

Not the entire 12 months have been spent actually on our bicycles, it is just not that simple. Over a month was spent in certain cities waiting and resting, normally for visas or extensions. Two weeks were spent in sick beds in Northern Laos, a month off to see our families at Christmas, and really our one year is more like nine months on the road. I think this is quite typical, and we still consider ourselves successful in crossing much of the biggest landmass in the world.

A friend asked me the other day whether this trip is proving to be all I had hoped it would be. Looking back, I was disappointed with the brief answer I gave, so here are some more considered answers –

i.) If I answer that question based on the experience of a year touring this part of the world on our bicycles, then yes, pedalling in a mainly easterly direction from Uzbekistan to Lombok, has indeed been wonderful in its truest sense. It has also been adventurous and therefore rewarding; passing from high plateaus and densely forested islands, to featureless deserts and climbing between snow-capped peaks. There have been dangers such as busy roads and violent provinces, but measured consideration of the safest routes and most sensible riding time gave us an inner-peace that we are grown-ups and responsible for ourselves.

ii.) If my friends question was more about the places and people rather than the ride, then I think my preconceptions of Asia; that it is heavily populated, polluted and runs at a frenetic pace, were correct. But there have certainly been some pleasant surprises.

Kyrgyzstan’s sublime mountain-scape, it’s winding rubble roads up and down mountain passes for instance, were unforgettable.

Cycling near much of the Mekong river from China’s Yunnan province, through Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam was special too. It was as if the river became our friend, not only confirming that we were heading in the right direction,  but also provided some reassurance that we were getting closer to our goal of Ho Chi Minh. The river slowly widened from a cascading body of water, not much more than a stream, to what looked more like an ocean towards its delta.

iii.) Perhaps my friends question was less about the geography and more about the physical challenge. In which case – we have done well. We have dealt with the dry bbq-like 50 degrees celsius desert heat of the Kyzl-kum and Taklamakan deserts. As well as the boiling, dripping, shrivelling humidity nearer the equator. We have had a wide range of physical human experiences too, from feeling fit as fiddles and strong as oxen, to faint, weak and disorientated.

I recently wrote about our trusty steeds in another post (link). They have been fantastic but also like dead weights sometimes. I have been reminded, more frequently than ever, that much of the challenges we face in our lives can be overcome by a positive mindset. Our pace has been good overall so we have been able to take time in places we loved and have blasted through those we did not.

The next stage in North America will be the penultimate in my 18 year attempt to circumnavigate the planet. 40,000km is the goal, and with about 10,000km left as we prepare for this long next leg, we are looking good to achieve this by summer 2019. Administration waits should be less of a problem on this next stage so our Christmas breaks with our families should be our only significant pauses, allowing for plenty of pure pedalling. We are also considering Cuba and the Caribbean in the new year, perhaps even some of central America, but right now the distance is the goal, and of course we will want to leave some parts of the world for exploring in the more distant future.

It is definitely the case that we are now living with a new rhythm. It used to be a rather busy beat, with long awaited silences to get our breath back in school holidays. Now, it seems we are both more easy going. I have noticed that I have become less worried about things, less edgy and stressed, and the need that I lived with for the last 10 years of dealing with everything immediately, has at least a little bit, abated. I feel calmer in myself, having had time to think, and good about my health as I enter the latter part of my 30’s. We have both enjoyed the experience of riding through foreign lands immensely. Sometimes different cultures and their ‘normal’ is a little bit hard to accept and deal with, so yes, from time to time we have felt a little bit travel fatigued, but nothing a good bike ride the next day couldn’t solve. I am sure that all of these little niggles will be the basis for many a daydream when we look back and chuckle in the future. Our relationship is stronger than ever. I think the sense of accomplishing this together added something that we were not expecting and we are both in a wonderful place mentally about our breaks with family and the dream of cycling through prairies on traffic free routes, camping in meadows and breathing fresh air.

Biking Stuff: Cycling Thailand – A Beginner’s Perspective

I only started cycling about 3 years ago and still consider myself a beginner, despite having cycled over 10,000 km so far. Thailand is a great place for bicycle touring for many reasons but it I found myself commenting often during our month there on how perfect it would be as a person’s first bike tour.

Convenience

The first thing to strike me when we crossed the border from Cambodia at Koh Kong was how much more developed Thailand is compared to the other countries we have toured so far. The second thing I noticed – a 7 Eleven shop. I was beside myself with excitement. The snacks, the drinks, the air conditioning, the overwhelming choice of cheap products. Obviously this shouldn’t be the main draw of a trip through Thailand but after months of dusty, mini-market shacks with fish-flavoured cardboard snacks, this felt like such a luxury. It was instantly relaxing knowing that there would be a reliable shop every few kilometres so we never needed to plan our days around where we would be able to stop for a rest and get a drink. We just stopped whenever we felt like it. It also meant that we didn’t have the extra weight of carrying enough water for a whole day. We could get some more whenever we needed. A pit-stop for a Cafe Amazon frappe and 7 Eleven sandwich became part of our daily cycling routine. Supermarkets like Tesco and Big C meant we could get fresh food like fruit, dairy and bakery items cheaply instead of the packaged cookies and cakes we had been living on before. Other conveniences are nice public toilets at petrol stations and Wi-Fi almost everywhere.

Great Roads

The road surfaces in Thailand are fantastic. No skidding through gravel and avoiding potholes here. The main roads are busy but there is usually a decent hard shoulder (or occasionally a dedicated bike lane!). There is often an option to take rural roads instead of the highway as long as you don’t mind a few extra kms and a bit of navigating. These roads are just as well surfaced and are surprisingly quiet…some were almost traffic-free. On the rural roads we could relax and look around more, often seeing colourful (and loud) birds and monkeys. One drawback of the back roads is that there is a much higher chance of being chased by dogs.

Quiet Beaches 

I had been dreaming of Thai beaches since setting off on our around the world trip 9 months ago. At the same time, I was a bit worried that everywhere would be packed with other tourists and that it would be a bit spoiled. It’s true that some beaches are complete tourist traps but we purposely avoided these places and were surprised at how many perfect stretches of empty beach we came across. The road from Hua Hin south to Chumphon along the coast is dotted with small resorts catering to locals and quiet beaches. It feels a world away from the Thailand of full moon parties and tourist scams. Often, the road runs right next to the beach so you can cool off in the sea when you need a break from pedalling.

No Mountains 

If you are just starting out with bike touring and don’t want to tackle high mountain passes just yet, then Thailand is perfect. The route we took: Trat – Chumphon – Ranong – Satun was almost completely flat. We found it very relaxing and it meant that we could complete long distances quickly without spending too long in the blazing sun. It would be great for building up bike fitness at the beginning of a longer tour.

Easy Accommodation

Accommodation in Thailand is plentiful and cheap so the extra weight of bringing a tent is not essential. Dorm beds in hostels are a few dollars while ensuite rooms in guesthouses and hotels can be found for 10-20 dollars. Tip: Agoda has more options than Booking.com in Thailand and prices are usually a couple of dollars lower.

Tips:

  • There are plenty of ATMs in Thailand so you don’t need to worry about changing lots of cash at the border. However, beware the huge charges at some ATMs. Most that we came across charged between 200 and 300 baht per withdrawal. The purple AEON ATMs found near Tesco stores had a lower charge of 150 baht.

  • Packs of stray dogs roam Thailand and often chase cyclists. We have found that talking loudly when approaching dogs helps with not startling them. I have convinced myself that complimenting dogs dissuades them from chasing me. I’ll say “Hello puppy! You are so cute! Good doggy! Good doggy doggy!” even if it is the most ancient and mangy thing I’ve ever seen. If the flattery doesn’t work and they charge, we dismount with the bikes between us and the dogs and try to look confident. They usually stop when they see we are just humans and let us be on our way.

  • Don’t underestimate sandflies

  • If your visa is running out, a few days in Myanmar (pics above) is a good option as a visa run. The crossing from Ranong to Kawthaung is an experience and relatively hassle-free. Click here for more info.

  • If you don’t want the stress of cycling through Bangkok, take the ferry from Pattaya to Hua Hin, avoiding the capital. We had heard that you can’t take bikes in the ferry but had no problems when we tried. We went to the office at Pattaya port the day before the sailing and bought tickets that specified we were taking bikes. Ferry staff loaded and unloaded the bikes for us without needing to take off the bags. It was all really smooth.

Click here for an interactive map of our route in Thailand.

More videos of our bicycle tour around the world can be found on our You Tube channel.

Biking Stuff: Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is a paradise for bike tourers. Although most people haven’t heard of this Central Asian country, we met more fellow cyclists here than anywhere else we have been. Challenging climbs and rough terrain are rewarded with pristine views along with warm hospitality.

There are a thousand reasons to cycle in this country but here are my top 5:

1. Camping

Kyrgyzstan is a camper’s dream. So much of this country is uncultivated, rolling, green hills perfect for pitching a tent as dusk falls on another day of riding. Kyrgyz people in the countryside live in yurts and are therefore not at all surprised by the sight of tourists camping compared to the reaction of locals in some other countries. It is a really special feeling knowing that you are completely self-sufficient with your vehicle, kitchen and house underneath you. Since leaving Kyrgyzstan, we have camped less and less because of the availability of cheap accommodation and the lack of open space. We miss our routine of setting up camp, cooking and watching the stars at night.

2. Waterfalls, Streams and Lakes

Waterfalls, streams and lakes in Kyrgyzstan are not just beautiful, they are useful too. When you spend 4 days cycling between villages, the waterfalls become showers and sources of drinking water (when purified and filtered- although it’s probably some of the cleanest water in the world). The streams are a kitchen sink for washing pots and pans. As a person who absolutely despises housework, I can say that chores are much less of a chore when done in a cascading waterfall!

3. Horses

If you are into horses, then go to Kyrgyzstan immediately. Families of wild horses idle on the sides of mountain switchbacks while herds gallop past your tent in the evening. One morning, we even saw a group splashing and bathing in a stream next to the most remote border crossing I have ever been to. Kyrgyz people love their horses and treat them well. A highlight is the national horse games festival held in the summer at Song Kul lake. You haven’t lived until you have been a spectator to teams on horseback scoring points by throwing a headless goat carcass into a tyre.

4. Unrivalled Alpine Beauty

The place is just stunning. People say it’s “the Switzerland of Asia”. I’ve never been to Switzerland, but if it has even a fraction of the beauty of Kyrgyzstan, then it must be pretty nice. Also, Kyrgyzstan is approximately a million times cheaper (my economist boyfriend might argue with my math there but you get my point). Don’t need to say much more about this… the pics can do the talking.

5. Local Treats

Food should probably be in the top 5 and lots of people love Kyrgyz cuisine. But personally, having lived in neighbouring Uzbekistan for 3 years, it was just more of the same for me. And I’m not really a fan of kumis (fermented mare’s milk). So instead, let me tell you that like most of the former Soviet union, Kyrgyzstan offers bottles of great/questionable vodka for less than the change in your pocket. There are also some decent cognacs to be sampled as a reward at the end of a gruelling climb.  Ден соолугубуз үчүн (cheers in Kyrgyz – shortened and taught to us as buzuchun).

Click here for an interactive map of our route in Kyrgyzstan.

Videos of our bicycle tour in Kyrgyzstan can be found on our You Tube channel.

Follow our journey around the world at www.pedalgogy.net or on Facebook.

Winter Break: International Teaching Style

One of the most amazing things about international teaching is the ability to travel. Most families budget specifically just for travel. When Jamie and I moved overseas, we saved about $5000 a year by not having to pay for gasoline. Additionally, house payments, health insurance, and utility costs were suddenly zero.

With more disposable income and now living overseas, it became our goal to travel as much as possible.  Our first winter break overseas, we spent 3 weeks touring Thailand (Bangkok, Chang Mai, and Koh Chang). Our Christmas dinner was some delicious Thai food on a beach restaurant that just about caught our mouth on fire.  We woke up at 3:30 am to Skype our parents as we tried to find the best wifi signal.  I’m sure many international school families have similar stories.

We go home about every other winter break, especially when our calendar allows for 3 weeks.  One particular trip, we spent 3 weeks traveling to southeast China, Laos, and Thailand. The highlight of the China portion of the trip was a 10 hours of hiking to Tiger Leaping Gorge. I spent Christmas that year in a small hostel in Dali sick as a dog from food poisoning from a “pizza” at a local restaurant.  That cheese sure did taste funny at the time, but the carolers staying at the hostel sound nice out of my bedroom window. Our 2nd week was spent in Laos after a 36 hour bus ride from China into Laos.  It was a sleeper bus, so it wasn’t too bad.  Interesting, it was freezing in China, hot in Laos, and our third week of the vacation was spent in business clothes interviewing for jobs in Bangkok, Thailand.  Certainly a trip of a lifetime.

I keep saying that phrase, but the longer I’m overseas, I realize these trips aren’t trips of a lifetime, they are your life!

This winter break, we had scheduled a trip for Germany to check out the Christmas markets and all Germany has to offer over the holidays.  Due to Jamie expecting on December 6, that trip has now been cancelled for bigger and better things with the birth our our 2nd son.

My coworkers have trips planned to just about all corners of the globe and the diversity of my students means that their holidays will be well traveled as well.  Many teachers go home to visit family over the holidays, but a good many do take time to travel somewhere interesting.  Many in the Middle East either head to beaches of southeast Asia or the snowy wonderlands of Europe for winter break.

Like any teacher, winter break is a time for family, friends, and resting from a hectic fall semester of school. Unlike most teachers, international school teachers have the opportunity to make their winter breaks into something of which even Santa Clause would be jealous.