Egypt, and the beginning of Africa

From Cairo to Aswan along the Nile Valley

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The iconic image of Egypt

Egypt. There are so many things I want to say about this complex and complicated country. It has certainly left a lasting impression, in both good and bad ways. It is not somewhere I would necessarily have chosen to cycle, but I am glad I did, because I don’t think I would have otherwise had anywhere near as immersive an experience of this country on the edge of Africa.

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Pyramid dorks

Our Egyptian experience started off in the best possible way. After negotiating a taxi for us and our bikes (straight into hardcore haggling) and then being whisked through crazy Cairo traffic, we were deposited at Mohamed’s house, an oasis of calm in this hectic city of 70 million. We immediately felt at home and were humbled by Mohamed and his families’ kindness. Not only did his wife Shaheera cook us a vegan meal, Mohamed was also full of information about cycle routes and what to do in Cairo.

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Cairo Metro

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On the hunt for Koshari

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Success!

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Delicious bread

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Cairo at night

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Exploring the old parts of Cairo

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Beautiful Mosque and moon

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This covering up of european number plates is apparently a status symbol..

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Cairo Museum

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More night time exploring

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Loving the chaotic streets

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Smoggy Cairo streets

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Of course there is a giant shopping trolley!

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Catching a local mini bus

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Cairo

For the next few days we eased into Egyptian culture. Of course this involved exploring the pyramids of Giza as well as the Egyptian museum (literally crammed full of antiquities!), but also how to take micro buses and the metro like locals, what to eat and generally how to negotiate this new country. I had a wonderful feeling of excitement, the one you get when you arrive in a totally different culture, where everything is a bit hectic, confusing and new. I always feel so positive and excited in a new country, everything sparks my curiosity. After a time this naturally fades, as the realities of a place set in and you become more immersed and familiar with the culture.

From Cairo we caught an 11 hour night bus to Dahab on the Sinai peninsula. We had decided to take a break over Christmas to join our friend Loiuza who was running a retreat, as well as to do some scuba diving in the Red Sea. Getting to Sinai itself is a bit of a mission; the north of Sinai is considered unsafe as it is infiltrated by several Islamic terrorist groups, this means getting off the bus several times in the middle of the night at army checkpoints and having your stuff searched. Understandable, except don’t try and apply logic. After having our bags searched and no one getting on or off, we drove 5 minutes, only to have the whole thing happen again. A taste of what was to come on our cycle later on…

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Tea and waiting for the bus to Dahab

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Dahab sheep

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Dahab toilets!

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Our home in Dahab

By the time we arrived in Dahab we were both exhausted but so happy to have arrived. Dahab is a hippy oasis, in what can at times feel like quite an oppressive country. It is completely different to the rest of Egypt and so far the only place I’d want to return to. It is relaxed and low key, a mix of divers, expats, locals on holidays, Bedouins, and Egyptians looking to escape the craziness of the capital. This being Egypt and the nature of the current political situation, I am not going to say much more about our retreat. What I will say is that we had an amazing time. We met such wonderful people over those 5 days and by the time we left we felt like we had made real friends.

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Dahab. Such bliss.

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An amazing mix of beach and desert

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Morning swim

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Sunset looking out towards Saudi

Aside from taking part in the retreat, we went swimming, did yoga, meditated and laughed a lot. We also learnt lot about Egyptian politics and culture. Some of the Egyptians we met had been active during the revolution, and it was awful to hear about the trauma they had been through, only to have everything they had fought for hijacked and turned into something that is perhaps worse than before. There is a collective depression amongst progressive Egyptians (Mohammed had said this also), a loss of hope that is palpable. It was sobering to be reminded of our own privilege. Here were these amazing humans who had literally put their bodies on the line to try and achieve the things we take for granted. Not to say our societies are perfect, or that there isn’t corruption or censorship on some levels too, but a lot of things (like civilian government, being able to put on a play without government involvement, journalistic freedom – to name a few) we take for granted. Not to mention our ease of travel, or the fact that the Egyptian economy (heavily reliant on tourism) has slumped significantly since 2011. Life is difficult in Egypt if you have an education and a job, let alone those who are stuck in poverty. In saying that I don’t want to just write about doom and gloom, our new friends were some of the kindest and most wonderful humans we have met. Their spirit really touched our souls and we were buoyed by their openness, despite all that stood against them. It is telling that I am not including any photos of them here. Perhaps I am being paranoid, but with people disappearing, and some in jail for something as simple as a facebook post, I am not taking any risks.

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Relaxing by the beach after snorkling

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Another perfect sunset

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Dahab goats

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More goat

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View from the rooftop of the house we were staying in

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Dog love

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Diving happiness

From Dahab we travelled to Saint Catherine, one of the oldest Coptic monasteries in the world. It is quite a magical place, with a long history of Muslims and Christians living and working together. There is mosque inside the monastery, and many of the Muslim Bedouins’ are employed in the monastery. We stayed at a desert camp and also hiked in the mountains, before heading back to Cairo.

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Looking out of the mountains around Saint Catherine

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Donkey!

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Sweeping views across Sinai

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Walking up into the mountains

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Around Saint Catherine

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The Monastary

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Monastary

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Sunset

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More awesome views

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We hiked up to this ruin which was built by a Turkish Sulatan

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So much beauty

Once back in Cairo we stayed with one of our new friends and attended the necessary admin, which mainly involved applying for out Sudanese visa. At the embassy we met 4 other foreigners, three of them cycle tourists like us. We were all leaving within a few days of each other, and one of them gave us the link to a WhatsApp group of nearly 200 cyclists currently pedaling between Cairo and Cape Town (see, we aren’t the only crazy ones!). A super way to stay up to date with information, especially in an ever changing continent like Africa.

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“Lining up” at the embassy of Sudan

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Random cyclist meeting at the Sudanese embassy

After spending time with our Dahab friends in Cairo (they mostly all live in Cairo) and with Mohamed, it was finally time to leave the comfort of sedentary existence. Mohamed kind as ever, led us out of the city, before wishing us well and saying goodbye. Now it was just us and around 12,000km of Africa in front of us.

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Saying goodbye to Mohammed and Cairo

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Sweet potato seller

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Bread on the road out of Cairo

Our first day was the slight cultural shock I knew that it would be. We’ve been living in comfort, in Cairo and Dahab where many foreigners reside. The Egyptians who we’d befriended were open minded and while not rich, they’d travelled and lived lives not so different from ours. The truth is, the rest of Egypt is very different. At least what we experienced anyway. Once passed Giza and out in the countryside, our mere presence evoked a lot of attention. Boys driving tuk tuks and on motor bikes followed us, people waved and shouted ‘welcome to Egypt’, and at one point we had car loads of people following us, shouting and waving, and in each village we seemed to collect more and more and the whole thing was fun, but slightly overwhelming. We were certainly now in a different Egypt; the rhythms of rural life dominated here, and the modern world seemed partly suspended. People wore traditional dress, women became less visible, there were animals everywhere; goats, donkeys, chickens, as well as groups of boys who were usually mildly annoying. On the road side there were chai tents, where we could stop for refreshing tea, and many places to buy falafel or fuul.

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Pedalling out of Cairo

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We start to get a lot of attention

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Everyone comes to check out the crazy foreigners on bikes

By evening of the first day we were exhausted from the constant stimulation, the traffic and attention. As the sun set, the call of the mosque could be heard reverberating around the Nile Valley and people passed us by on their way home from the fields. There had been nowhere visible to camp – Egypt is known to be tricky for wild camping – discovery leading no doubt to a lot of attention, or the police. We were however in luck. In fact, it’s quite funny how in tune we are. I’d spotted a place and slowed down, Astrid had seen the same spot and was looking at it, rather than the road and almost ran into me. It was in fact perfect, hidden completely from view of the road, in the yard of a ruined and deserted house. Wild camp win for Egypt.

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Riding along the canal

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Sunset

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Meidun pyramid

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Wild camp win

Unfortunately, our freedom in Egypt drew to a close that morning. We’d been expecting it. Egypt is notorious amongst cyclists for the annoying police escorts that are forced upon you. In fact, it’s so bad now, barely any of the country is completely rideable. The Nile Valley is about the only route where they won’t at some point force you on to a bus or van (in our experience). We had an escort from about 100km outside of Cairo to at least Luxor. We’d asked our Egyptian hosts whether it was necessary for security and their answer was a resounding no. Plus they surmised, if there was an attack on us the kind of police sent to escort us would be pretty useless. Of course there have been terrorist attacks in Egypt targeting tourists, but they are random and infrequent, targeting big groups on buses rather than lone cyclists. There are also terrorist attacks in London and many other places in Europe. And surely, what better way to advertise that a foreigner is in the area, than a great big police escort?! They made our presence completely unsubtle throughout Upper Egypt.

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Beautiful misty sunrise

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Riding towards the pyramid

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Mist over the canal

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canal sunrise

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Meidun

IMG-20190112-WA0003.jpgAnyway, a police escort picked us up as we went to look at the nearby Meidum pyramid a little after sunrise. The individual officers are nice enough, but completely don’t get what we are doing. They basically want to hand us over as quickly as possible to the next area, to be rid of us. Stopping to eat, or rest is a hassle for them, and we actively had to fight to stay off the main roads. More about that later. Our first day with an escort was uneventful but annoying, as they made us stop and wait at check points for the next escort and lied about where we could eat (resulting in us both getting irate). Luckily, one officer spoke good English (although he asked us how our husbands could allow us to be traveling like this) and we arranged with him to meet up with two other cyclists, one we’d met at the Sudanese embassy, and one I’d been chatting to on WhatsApp. Ewaut and Martin were only a bit ahead of us, and had already found somewhere to stay that night. I felt that joining them would be the easiest option, and potentially we could ride together, at least for a bit to ease the frustration of being followed constantly.

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This lady was so kind and gave us free breakfast

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Our freedom is over. The police escort hover nearby while we eat.

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Our constant shadow for the next two weeks or so

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Chocolate Haliwa while waiting for our next escort

Although the police were initially concerned that we’d be with two men, we assured them we could handle it. We pushed on for 130km, finally arriving at a ballroom by the Nile a bit after dark. Ewaut and Martin had gone rogue, deserting their escort they had pedalled to this weird theme park kind of complex. The people there had kindly allowed them (and now us) to sleep in their ballroom and the police appeared to have agreed. After a frustrating day, it was a relief to see Martin and Ewaut, even though we didn’t know them at all really. An experienced shared is somehow easier. We debriefed about our equally frustrating times with the police and settled down for the night. The police were so paranoid, they even followed us to the toilet.

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Happy to be riding together, the awesome habibi team is born.

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Our ballroom/bedroom

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Outside the ballroom

We didn’t know it then, but that night was the beginning of our awesome ‘habibi’ cycling family that would last all the way to Ethiopia. The more I travel by bike, the more I realise these chance meetings on the road often make the best teams. While happy to share the road, we are all quite independent and that somehow changes the dynamic in a subtle but important way.

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The Nile!

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On the agricultural road

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Our police milling about, always a little impatient with us to get going.

Martin and Ewaut are both exceptional humans and we slowly got to know each other over the next few days and weeks. Martin is British and in his 60’s, (we’ve actually met him before at the cycle touring festival in the UK!) and we bonded over our shared appreciation of tea and Radio 4 (amongst other things). He has a wealth of experience cycling all over the world and is full of the best stories. Ewaut is 25, has already built his own gypsy wagon, hitch hiked all over the US, cycled Spain to Senegal and plans to build his own sailboat. Plus he’s a podcast and techno guru! The four of us got along so well, and our banter and humor helped us all deal with what was at times a frustrating cycle through Egypt with our ever present police escort.

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Probably arguing with the police about what road to take

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Often the cycling was quite pleasant in the small roads.

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Donkey traffic is better than car traffic!

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Smooth tarmac

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Typical road side chay stop

Every morning we had to fight to stay on the small roads that ran along side the canals in the Nile Valley. This sometimes involved pedalling passed yelling police officers with guns, and even locals who were trying to stop us. Even if we took the time to talk to the officers and explain and show them the map of our route, they would always try and force us on to the main, heavily traffic routes anyway (which was obviously more of a threat to our safety than terrorism). Or they’d lie and tell us the road stopped, despite the obvious through traffic. Once we’d forced ourselves onto the small roads, they’d eventually calm down and follow us from a distance. Part of me felt bad for being so disobedient, it wasn’t their fault, they probably didn’t want to follow a bunch of tourists on bikes. We tried to be as kind to the officers as our patience allowed, remembering it was their superiors that ordered this ludicrous escort. Occasionally, when cutting through villages, we’d lose them in the hectic traffic and could hear their desperate sirens as they tried to catch their rogue ferangi.

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Donkey traffic

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Curiosity wherever we go

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Staying off the main roads, possibly one of the times we escaped the police for an hour (:

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Such a lovely time of day to be on the bikes

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Normal traffic in Egyptian roads

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Always searching for the small roads

For breaks we stopped at road side tea stalls and snacked on delicious fuul, tamia (falafel) and koshary (amazing carb fest of rice, pasta, chickpeas, sauce, fried onion and garlic). The Egyptians we met were kind and welcoming, although we often even felt hindered in even speaking with them as the police would hover around and try and interfere. One officer told us that the reason they follow us is because we cannot speak Arabic and the traffic is so dangerous, while I really don’t think this is true, but it does go some way to explaining the overbearing attitude of the police. They cannot, it seems conceive of what our lives are like, because it is so far from their reality. To tell them we’ve all cycled in many parts of the world with equally (if not worse) crazy traffic, where we also don’t share a culture, or language, falls on deaf ears. Perhaps because they themselves have never been outside of Egypt, or perhaps they just lack imagination. Either way, the prevailing attitude is that we need to be protected and helped, especially Astrid and I. The sexism was fucking infuriating.

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Typical breakfast place for us

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Tea and breakfast

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More chay and snacks

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And more

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Delicious Tamia sandwich was a favourite

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Loved these sandwiches

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Koshari, our standard dinner.

In the evenings we were always made to stay in hotels, and it some places they even tried to stop us from going out to dinner (we actively disobeyed this). We either had an armed escort, or on one occasion the extremely nervous man from the hotel following us, trying to prevent us from crossing the road and generally hovering right by us wherever we went. The whole thing starts of as kind of funny, but after days on end having armed escorts follow us to the toilet and sometimes driving directly behind us with sirens, my patience was waning.

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Negotiating hotel rooms with police and then getting all our gear inside is always fun at the end of the day..

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Some of the hotel rooms we stayed in a re a bit eccentric!

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We are a curiosity wherever we go

A few days before Luxor, the intensity of our escort thankfully waned. In Abydos we were allowed to explore the temple of Seti I and Rameses II unhindered. These temples completely wowed me. In fact, even after exploring Luxor, the temple of Abydos (Seti I) is my favourite. The carved and coloured hieroglyphs and paintings were absolutely stunning, and like nothing I’d seen before.

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The temple at Abydos. Probably my favourite.

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First beers in a long time post temple fun!

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Chay with the people from the hotel

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Hazy view of the Nile valley at dawn

The escort completely left us just outside of Luxor and we were free to choose where to stay. We chose Al Salam camp on the west side of the Nile and it proved to be a lot less hectic than the east bank. I think we were all grateful for the days off and the chance to drink a beer and just relax. Of course we explored the Valley of the Kings, riding out there one day and marveling at the tombs. They really are other worldly, the long and amazingly decorated corridors taking you deep (or so it seemed) underground to where the mummies once lay.

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Made it to Luxor!

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Beers on the Nile

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Luxor market

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Valley of the Kings

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Valley of the Kings

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Too expensive to visit, but here’s the photo from the outside

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Amazing remnants of ancient world are everywhere around Luxor

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Valley of the Kings (again)

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Riding into the valley of the Kings 

We did also head to the east bank to explore Karnak temple, which is also phenomenal. Such exquisite work. I tried hard to imagine how it would have been when complete; its grandeur was something I couldn’t quite comprehend. It would have been so beautiful, softly lit with torches, the faded colours that we see today bright…Amazing.

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The amazing Karnak temple, Luxor

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Admiring the huge columns

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Such a massive scale

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So amazing some of the colours have lasted

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From Luxor we headed south towards Aswan without a police escort! It felt amazing. On the evening of our first day out of Aswan we asked if we could sleep at an ambulance station. They readily agreed, and one of the paramedics actually spoke perfect English. We were treated with such kindness, given cups of tea and brought dinner, which we all shared together. Astrid and I even got to check out the inside of the ambulance, which was similar to the ones we work in. Although we were told Egyptian women don’t work as paramedics as they are too delicate. Sigh. We all bunked down in the same room to sleep, and I must say, their overnight work load is a lot less than Hackney. Not once did they go out on a job overnight! In the morning we were given tea and breakfast and sent on our way. I was so humbled by their kindness and struggled to imagine some dirty cycle tourist turning up at Homerton Ambulance Station and being treated the same way. What different worlds we come from. If only we could take a little bit of theirs and they could take a little bit of ours.

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We took it in turns to ride in front as we often had a headwind

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Resting on the side of the road

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Checking out the inside of an Egyptian ambulance

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The paramedic’s and their friends

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Relaxing at the ambulance station

After exploring Horus’s temple in Efu the landscape began to change. We were closer now to the Nile, there was more agriculture, smaller villages, less people, palm trees. Almost on a whim we followed a track through some fields to the banks of the Nile. What we found was an idyllic place to camp, we didn’t care that it had only been about 40km. You can’t really go anywhere in Egypt without people noticing and we soon had a small crowd watching us brew tea and generally relax. The adults came down later and assured us that it was fine to camp there. What bliss. We built a fire, cooked a delicious meal and watched the light fade over the Nile. Sometimes fantasies of countries do come true.

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Looking for the perfect spot

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Our idyllic spot on the Nile, with locals coming to watch the weirdos

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An early finish means time for bike maintenence

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We even built a fire

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Filtering water

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Sunset from our camp spot on the Nile

The next day we rode through some of the most picturesque scenery of Egypt so far. It was slightly hilly, with small villages, palm groves, fruit trees and views of the Nile. Unfortunately I was also creeped quite badly. I’d dropped behind to look for a place to pee and noticed a guy had seen me and turned around in his tuk tuk. At first I thought nothing of it and just kept going, but it became clear he was watching me, as every time I stopped, so would he and go to turn around to follow me. So I decided to just keep riding. Unfortunately he decided to follow me and get his penis out, while casually saying hello. I slammed on my breaks and just started yelling every profanity at him I could muster. He sped off. I picked up a rock and hurled it at his head as he came back passed. Sadly, it missed. I knew I was kind of in trouble, the road was deserted and I had an inkling he’d be back. I pedaled as fast as I could, finally feeling fear instead of anger. He did come back and ran me off the road while I hurled abuse at him. He did manage to grab me but I think I swore so much and so loudly, he left. What an utter arsehole. I shakily rode to where the others had stopped to wait for me and told them what had happened. After that we all went and sat quietly by the Nile for a bit. Then Ewaut and I collected a bag of trash, it felt somehow right to combat something so negative with something positive. Ewaut carried that bag the remaining 50km to Aswan and deposited it in a bin.

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Moon behind our camp spot

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A beautiful morning’s cycle

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In the Nile, about to start our trash collection

In the afternoon, things didn’t really improve. We were constantly harassed by what looked like 10 year olds in tuk tuks and one of them grabbed Astrid’s arse. I picked up a rock and chased them, but sadly was unable to catch the little arseholes. I mean being assaulted by a grown man is one thing, but by a barely teenager, it’s almost worse. Somewhere, they are being told on some level that it’s okay to grab and harass women when they are just kids. I mean what the fuck is that even about?!

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The landscape is changing…

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Feeling closer to the Sahara..

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cycling fashion icon

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Love these mud buildings

Luckily Ewuat had arranged for us to be hosted by Yeha in Aswan and it was such a relief to be around a normal Egyptian man. Mostly people are kind and respectful and it was important to be reminded of that. We had a lovely evening talking and I was super impressed about Yeha’s commitment and enthusiasm for Couchsurfing. I thought we hosted a lot in London but Yeha is a super host!

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Beer on the Nile

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All the flip flops

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All the dates

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Relaxing at Yeha’s

Our days in Aswan were fairly relaxed. We booked our tickets for the ferry to Sudan as we had decided to take the boat across Lake Nasser to Wadi Halfa. There was some shopping at the market, eating, drinking beer on the Nile, a felucca ride, meeting lots of other couch surfers, dropping by Yeha’s mechanic to encourage him to finish the much delayed service (as you do) and a movie night. One day we barely left the house, (only once to buy food) as we all just needed a break. Egypt relies heavily on tourism, and since the huge reduction in foreigners visiting the country after 2011, people are desperate for your business. Of course this is totally understandable, but it does get tiring being seen as a wallet on legs and hassled for taxis, felucca rides, clothes and any number of things. And then if you do happen to actually want something being asked to pay 5 times of what you know the normal price is.

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Exited sunset beers, Aswan.

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Sunset, Aswan.

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The idyllic Nile and Felucca boats

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Ewaut practicing for when he builds his boat

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Astrid sailing the Felucca 

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Relaxing on the Nile

By the time Sunday morning came around and we were getting ready to ride the 16km to the ferry, I was ready to leave Egypt. It has of course been overwhelmingly a positive experience. However, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at times a difficult country to cycle in. I will leave you now with some of my happier impressions of this country; laughing with friends around bowls of fuul and cups of tea in Dahab; snorkeling in the Red Sea; Mohamed’s hospitality; sitting by the fire on the banks of the Nile, watching the sunrise; hazy, smoggy, sunsets; old men riding small donkeys; 3 camels in a pick up truck looking suave; cups of steaming shay; delighted waves from friendly kids; the smiles of old men; palm trees and the shimmering blue of the Nile; giggling girls wanting selfies with us; shouts of ‘welcome to Egypt!’.

The ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa is a pretty authentic way to travel between two police states. There is a lot of paperwork, x-raying of bags and pointless procedures (poor Ewaut had to get an ancient computer to try and print out his online visa, as despite it being completely legal, the immigration officer freaked out about the stamp in his passport). Once we boarded, around 12 noon, we found a place on deck to call home. Then it was several hours of watching mainly washing machines and tuk tuk’s being loaded onto the boat. Finally, as a dust storm was blowing, we motored slowly out onto lake Nasser. We drank cups of tea, chatted to people, snacked and listened to podcasts and music, a perfect way to leave a country and head towards the unknown.

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Heading to the ferry that will take us to Sudan

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All the tuk tuk’s

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Settling in for the journey

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Relaxing on deck

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Life is better without drugs according to the Sudanese government (;

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Tea on the ferry

So, the first thousand kilometres or so of Africa are behind us. The Sahara awaits.

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Goodbye Egypt

 

A sense of history and freedom – our long ride through Poland

Introduction

We arrived in Poland with very little idea of what this large, Eastern European country had in store for us. Over our time here we have come realise that the history of Poland – wether it be when Imperial Russia, Prussia and The Austro Hungarian Empire decided to wipe them off the map for a while, or the horror of the Nazi and Soviet occupation, or more recently the brutality of communism, the Polish spirit has prevailed. There is a kind of distrust and disregard for authority (on some level) that we really enjoyed. After the organisation and rule abiding countries of Northern Europe, we felt freer. It suited our vagabond life of wild camping and pedalling. We were treated with much kindness and despite the worrying move of some towards the political right, the people we met and spoke to, convinced us that this Polish spirit will continue to shine against a new nationalism.

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Things immediately changed as soon as we arrived at the ferry terminal to take us to Poland. Firstly everyone wanting to take the ferry was Polish. There was a kind of organised chaos that we didn’t quite get. And unlike everywhere in the last two months, we couldn’t pay for our ticket by card (so I madly rode around looking for an ATM, worried we were going to miss the ferry). Once on board it became apparent we did not have enough cash to pay for our ticket, but the kind captain let us on anyway, saying we could go to an ATM in Kolobrzeg. The boat itself was all red velvet, brass, wood and sailor uniforms. I felt like we had stepped back in time and I liked it.

We arrived in the port town of Kolobrzeg and I loved it in an instant. It’s weird perhaps, but I finally felt like I was somewhere else. Just the feel of it was different, even in the darkness. Our host Maciek greeted us enthusiastically and led us back to his place to meet his family. We probably couldn’t have asked for better people to introduce us to Poland. Maciek, Ewa and their kids were engaging and interesting and we spent a lovely few days getting to know our new surroundings. We talked politics, history and got information about what we should see while in Poland.

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Exploring Kolobrzeg

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Loving the colours and vibrancy

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Delicious craft beers

The Baltic Coast

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I wouldn’t have thought of Poland as a seaside destination…

Armed with information and bucket loads of enthusiasm we headed off on the Eurovelo 10 towards Gdansk. Eurovelo’s for anyone not familiar with the concept are long distance pan European bicycle paths. It depends really on the enthusiasm of the country and municipality on how the funds get spent. It Poland this varied a lot. At times we were on smooth bicycle paths complete with bicycle work stations, other times pushing through sandy tracks, or on awful soviet era concrete slabs. Never the less we much enjoyed our ride along the Baltic coast which was heaving with holiday makers. In the towns that hugged the beaches we were confronted with a brilliant mix of communism meets capitalism with and 80’s sense of fashion. Bum bags were all the rage. We remarked that had this been at home we would have cringed and avoided it, but here it was a delight to see how enthusiastically people embraced all the kitsch fun there was to be had.

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The photo can’t quite capture how loud and fun this street was..

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More beach happiness..

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Eurovelo 10 at it’s best…

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Hmmm… a little inconsistent at times..

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Smooth again!

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Probably not meant to be ghost bikes..

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And sometimes it was more a walk your bike kind of deal…

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More questionable biking surface

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Baltic Sunset

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Water refill with stag

Our days consisted of low kilometres, swims in the sea, searches for sorbet in the supermarket fridges, easy to find wild camps and beers in the warm evening. It was hard not to feel like our summer holiday was stretching on and on.

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Sometimes the eurovelo was very well marked

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Thumbs down for the cheapest beer

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Bus stop fish love?

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Sunset beer by a free camp

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Found this lake just by the coast

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Bread, tomato, peanut butter and chilli paste is a thing…

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Happiness is a Polish summer

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This is awesome. Tools on the eurovelo 10

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Cooking dinner on the beach

 

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Choice spot for our tent

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View from my bed

Our first destination was Gdansk where we were embraced by the friendship of Anna, Robert and their cat Ozzie. Warmshowers is always wonderful but sometimes you really end up making friends. So it was with Anna and Robert and we extended our stay. During the day we explored Gdansk (and went to probably the best museum I’ve ever been in – the European solidarity museum) and in the afternoon and evenings we’d hang out with Anna and Robert – going to the beach, eating delicious food and exploring the less known parts of the city.

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Gdansk Ship Yards

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Where it all started…

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Solidarnosc…the beginning of the end for communism in Poland

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Old town, Gdansk

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Robert sharing the delicious wine he made

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Ozzie

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Relaxing at the beach

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Candid swim shot..

Because the four of us really didn’t want to part ways, to give us an amazing send off, Anna and Robert rode 80k with us to Robert’s friend’s farmhouse in the countryside. There we sat by the fire, eating amazing food and sharing wine. It is these connections with people and the landscape that bring me the most joy. Looking up into the sky, the fire warming my face, conversation flowing around me I thought: this is why I travel. It was such a heartwarming, life affirming feeling.

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On our way with Robert and Anna

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Lunch!

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Through the Polish countryside

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Bus stop break

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The farmhouse

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inside the farmhouse

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fire and polish sausages 

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wine time…again

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Malbourg Castle

Saying goodbye to Robert and Anna was hard. We all shed a few tears. What wonderful, generous and fun people they are. I know we will meet again some day.

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Goodbye beers

The Mazury Lakes

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_10a96After exploring the Teutonic Castle of Malburg our route took us east towards the lakes of Mazury. This area is a network of more than 200 lakes, connected by rivers and canals. People mainly come here to sail and when we turned up at a (free) campground we were greeted by a handful of yachts already moored. We were quickly invited over to join the group around the fire. Astrid and I both felt a bit awkward as we didn’t want to make people speak english on our account. We decided to go over for half an hour to be polite. Of course this being Poland we were warmly embraced, given food and spirits and spent a wonderful night chatting and listening to the occasional spontaneous outburst of Polish song. I think we stumbled into our tent at about 3am.

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Right near where we camped

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sunset..

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The lakes are hugely popular for sailing

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Ready for a morning swim

The next day i kind of lived out my Robinson Crusoe fantasy. Being a little unfit to cycle we decided to stay. As it was the end of the summer holidays all our new polish yachting friends were leaving. So it was just Astrid and I and this beautiful lake. We built up a fire and kept it going all day, heating water for endless cups of tea. There was swimming, reading, meditation. A perfect, lazy day like we don’t often have, completely devoid of any technology (all our devices after days of camping were flat).

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Kettle is always on..

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Living the dream

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Bialowieza National Park

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In the far eastern corner of Poland on the border with Belarus lies one of Europe’s last primeval forests which is also home to half of Europe’s Bison. In 2017 the Polish government began logging parts of this forest that had until now not been logged (plus tripling the quota of logging permitted). There was an international outcry and EU’s top court ordered Poland to stop. While logging has slowed, it remains under threat with Poland’s conservative, anti EU government fairly keen to continue to devastate this wilderness for profits. Having heard about what was going on and wanting to see the forest for ourselves it was here we headed next. And what a magical place it was. It resonated with my soul, there was something truly wondrous about standing in a forest that had barely be touched by humans. Even though we had spent so many nights camping out in the woods, this place felt different.  It was wild in the true sense of the word. These places are precious in a way that cannot be easily described, let alone translated into profits. I hope for a day when human’s will stop decimating this finite home of ours and realise that we are all connected to the planet and by destroying it we are destroying ourselves.

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Watch out for Bison!

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Sadly we didn’t see them

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Old growth forest

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Mushrooms!

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There is magic in the forest

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Exploring

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Zubr beer in the Zubr forest?

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Our sweet camp spot. With vodka.

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more forest deliciousness 

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Meditation and forests

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While Bialowieza was the only true old growth we visited in Poland, our time here has been dominated by forests. Asides from the Baltic Coast and the lakes, almost every night has been spent in the woods. Often plantation pine but also natural forests. Being autumn and knowing a little about mushrooms we were able to pick and eat chanterelles and a new one for us “chicken of the woods” (this mushroom seriously tastes like chicken when cooked!). It was exciting to forage part of our dinner and it was very delicious. We also began meditating every morning, which fitted in so well with our quiet, natural existence. While this may be a cycling blog, I’ve never been one just to write about our experiences on the bikes. For me it’s a one dimensional way to tell this story. Travelling by bike with hours each day to think, reflect, meditate, really makes you face yourself; you cannot hide from who you are, or what is going on inside. I have written before how I find this life makes you feel and experience things more acutely.  And here in Poland we both began using meditation as a tool to foster even more calmness and happiness. At first I found it very difficult but before too long we were both meditating up to an hour each day and have completely made it part of our day.

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A typical forest camp for us

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I love lying on the forest floor and looking up..

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Many forest tracks were found

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Waking to this is always good

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such good cycling

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Salmon and Astrid on a mission

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Fungi!!

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Ready for the day

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Yum!!!

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Chanterelles, “chicken of the woods” and something else

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Bike repair

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Bliss

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Goodnight

 

Warsaw and Krakow

I kind of always enjoy seeing the capitals of the countries we visit as after all this is where the majority of the people live. A lot of locals questioned why we would want to go to Warsaw but Warsaw ended up being one of my favourite cities. It’s not always pretty but it is vibrant, rich in history and full of amazing vegan food. In fact Polish cities all had an amazing selection of vegan food which surprised and delighted us. Heading south towards Slovakia we of course visited Krakow, which everyone had told us we must visit. And yes, it is beautiful and special in a way those rare cities not destroyed by world war two are. It also would be weird to write about Poland and not talk about the Holocaust. The horror of the Nazi occupation, concentration camps and mass graves are hard to ignore. At one point we unintentionally wild camped right near a memorial where mass murder had occurred in a forest. And in Warsaw we stared at the place where the Jews had been loaded onto trains to be flung across Poland into various Nazi concentration camps. By the time we reached Auschwitz both Astrid and I felt like we had had our head in this dark part of history for many weeks. The camp’s themselves were obviously horrific. State sanctioned incarceration and genocide on such a scale with such organisation is absolutely petrifying. It left us feeling emotionally raw and haunted by the spectre of Fascism that is once again spreading across Europe, felt especially strongly here in the east.

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We made it!

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Love the street art

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Gardens in Warsaw

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These dudes

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Exploring Warsaw

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Exploring Warsaw

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This building still has shrapnel damage from WW2 

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University library with a garden on the roof

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Looking hot in a vegan cafe

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Bar in a train station. My kind of place.

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Border of where the Warsaw Ghetto once was

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Traditional Polish food but without cruelty

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Krakow

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Main square, Krakow

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Walking. In Krakow.

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Astrid v Herring

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Autumn is coming..

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Auschwitz 

The Tatra Mountains

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Lying on the grass in a park in Krakow, our bikes packed and ready beside us, Astrid and I realised we were a bit exhausted. Since leaving London we had been on the move most days, camped 98 percent of the time and been hosted the other 2 percent (aside from our cottage in Copenhagen). We had spent very little time inside, just the two of us. It’s a mental exhaustion I had forgotten about. The one that creeps in (at least for us) after a few months. We didn’t want to talk to anyone or see any sights. I wanted a kettle, a kitchen, a space that was ours (not our tent) and some wifi. I wanted to sit in my pants (undies) and watch netflix, or a film. Read a book. Write. Drink wine. Do yoga. Maybe go on a run. I didn’t want to engage with anyone but Astrid. I didn’t want to cycle. I wanted tea. And toast.

We made a decision and booked a flat on the edge of the Tatra mountains. This happened to coincide with a severe weather front that was about to hit (we’d had weeks and weeks of sun and it was September). We pedalled two days from Krakow into the beautiful mountains and late on the second day rolled up to a cute little place we were going to call home for the next five nights. What utter luxury. It was amazing to have this space and exactly what our brains and souls needed. We did all the things I mentioned above and by the time we were ready to leave felt well refreshed.

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Towards the mountains

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Towards the mountains

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View from our balcony

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Happiness is sometimes a kitchen

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Snow on the mountains…happy to have been indoors!

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Breakfast!

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The End

Now it was time to leave, not only the comfort of 5 days of indoor living, watching weather fronts rather than being in them, but also to finally leave Poland. When we arrived at the beginning of August, summer was still in full swing. Our two weeks here had somehow very easily become six and we could feel the hint of autumn. The trees were slowly turning, the air in the morning had a hint of cold and the light had shifted to be infused with gold. It was time to head into the mountains of Slovakia.

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Obviously gang material

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“Arm exercises”

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Graveyards is where we often collect water from

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Drying out and phone charging at the church..

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Lunch

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Pancakes with freshly picked berries

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Vegan pierogi. the best.

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A rest stop we decided to camp at

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Radler stop

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We got into “arm exercises”

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Morning swim spot. We ignored the sign that said NO.

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We were not expecting to see a bear. Warsaw Zoo is right on the main road. Disturbing.

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Chilling

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Churches offer a good place to place to do some subtle cloth washing…

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Love a pink church

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Typical lunch scene..

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Our favourite! We ate these most nights..

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Outside the budget supermarket..

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Oh dear..

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A tub of vegan ice cream!