Raining on the train: CZE, AUT, SVN, HRV

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Arriving at the Czech border town of Český Tĕšín, Abe and I cross the river to Poland. A series of produce stalls are selling bulk potatoes along the road parallel the river, massive dried sunflowers and dill stalks accompany the display. We climb a wet cobblestone street into the old city in search of cover. We spent our last Czech koruna at the Billa supermarket across the border. Now, we seek a Polish ATM to withdraw zloty for the next week. We’ve seen the forecast, and it calls for some days of rain. In the past week these forecasts have become increasingly grim, with two days of rain growing to a full week of rain. Going through the motions, we withdraw cash, eat pastries and kefir under cover of a bus stop and pedal to the start of the Main Beskid Trail in Ustron, about 20 km away. En route, we both realize that the GPX tracks we have loaded are incomplete. The files we loaded contain nearly 13,000 points and our Garmin eTrex devices will only display tracks with up to 10,000 points, so only 200 miles of the route are shown. At the top of the mountain we pass a turn which would connect us to the Beskid Trail but we decide to descend into town to modify the GPX track and reload it to our Garmin units. 

In Ustron, we stop into a local bike shop where Abe borrows a wrench to tension his leather B-17 saddle. He asks how many spare sets of brake pads I am carrying, expecting me to reply “None”, along with some secrets of lightweight travel.

“Four. Four pairs.”

Abe is impressed.

I contest, they are small and I don’t think it will be easy to find pads for my SRAM Guide brakes. He agrees.

Abe buys a pair of Shimano brake pads. The shop is a small room, clean and professional with a small inventory of bikes and some quality equipment, including Maxxis tires, disc brake pads, and carbon handlebars. A row of kids bikes are lined up out front of the shop, several models featuring a long handle with an ergonomic grip for a parent to follow behind. We ask to log into the wifi network at the shop to use an online program called GPS Visualizer which I know can modify our GPX track as needed. Instead, they suggest we use the free wifi in the city center about 300m away. We roll to the city center and link to the internet, where we discover that we must input a cell phone number to receive a login code. Neither of us has a phone. We manage to ask the woman at the tourist information office to use her mobile phone to receive the code. Once she understands our request she willingly agrees to help.

I begin work to condense our oversized GPX tracks through the GPS Visualizer program and limit them to 9999 points, enough that the entire track will load on our devices and the track resolution will be adequate. I connect my eTrex 20 and begin loading the file. I do the same with Abe’s eTrex 30, although my old USB cable ejects the drive several times before I successfully load the track. Right before we pack and roll out of town, I check the latest weather forecast. One site shows rain for every single day, for two weeks. My fingers are cold while typing next to an open window in the tourist office in Ustron at 1300ft. We plan to climb up to almost 5000ft over the next couple of days, topping out on Babia Gora along the Polish-Slovakian border. Memory serves the distinct sensation of soggy shoes, and sweaty rain jacket, and incompetent cold hands fumbling with zippers. Add to that poor visibility, wet roots, muddy trails. I inform Abe of the forecast. He doesn’t say anything, the sometimes necessary job of a first mate. But I can tell. I don’t want to be wet for two weeks either. I load the German rail site in English and run a few searches. A second Google Maps tab reminds me of the geography of Eastern Europe. Ostrava to Zagreb results in relatively few connections and a 15 hours trip with a layover in Vienna. Just something to think about. We pack our things and ride out of town to a public picnic area we passed on our way into town. I spotted a large wooden pavilion on the descent and figured we could come back for the night if needed. 

Przemek arrives around 9:30PM, his young dog waking me by licking my eyeball as I sit up from my sleeping bag. Abe and I have been asleep for over two hours. Przemek and I hug awkwardly from my seated position in my sleeping bag. His first question, “Do you want some wodka?” What do you say to a towering Polish man with a Husky mutt when he asks if you want wodka in the middle of the night. “Of course.”

I hear the van door slide open across the park, and then slam closed. Przemek arrives with a bag of oranges, a pouch of rolling tobacco, and a bottle of spirits, a Lithuanian vodka called Strumbas with two raspberries sunk to the bottom. This is a perfectly acceptable evening digestif in this part of the world, although it might be short a few cloves of garlic and some pickled fish, or pork. We talk under cover of the pavilion until midnight before disbanding to sleep. It rains all night.

Przemek and I have shared trails in Poland, Ukraine, Montenegro, Albania, and Colorado. He and his partner Saška were some of the first riders on the Baja Divide this past fall. This summer they married and are expecting a baby in the next few weeks. Przemek is working in Poland while Saška is with family in Slovenia. Once he receives the call, he will make haste to meet his daughter.

Lael and I first met Przemek in Zwardon on the Poland-Slovakia border in 2013. We met at the train station and immediately began climbing out of town on a steep walking trail. Thus began my love with Polish footpaths. The next few days we followed his lead along ridgelines between the two countries. We continued riding together for the next month in Poland, in the Ukrainian Carpathians, and in Crimea. In that time, we all got food poisoning, we enjoyed late evenings with Djorka and Yulia and their friends in Strij, and we were escorted off a Ukrainian military base in Crimea. In that time, Przemek curated an alter ego as a slippery Polish man working to illegally import wodka under the guise of operating an Italian pizzeria. He was alternately Mr. Polish and Tony the Pizza Man, and you’d never know who might crawl out of his tent in the morning. If he didn’t have a university degree that allows him to commission power plants in Europe I think Przemek might have found a career recording his shtick to budget comedy LPs.

I had said that I wished it to rain all night. I said, “I hope it is pouring in the morning”. Now that a seed had been planted and we might be able to escape the rain, all I needed was the affirmation to make that decision. I didn’t need much, and it would have taken a miracle of morning sun and a perfectly clear forecast to change my mind. Instead I was hoping for a deluge of reasons to escape the impending rainy season. It rained all night.

We are going south.

Abe and I confer. I suggest we take the train to Zagreb and I think it a good idea to avoid two weeks of rain. He quietly chuckles in agreement. We have both been wet and cold before. This time, we fold our hand and find another card table. We are going to the Balkans. Summer will be ours once again.

Missing the chance to visit Ukraine leaves a little hole in my summer. It is a special place that has provided so many positive and meaningful experiences. Visiting family in two consecutive summers, and celebrating two consecutive birthdays in Ukraine is part of it. The riding in the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains is also a great adventure. I’ll be back. It will be there. Had I been traveling alone I might have pressed on in the rain and bought an old farmhouse with a good roof and a fireplace in the Ukrainian mountains and disappeared forever. Good thing Abe is here.

And so, with no plan other than a good weather forecast and a taste for burek, and figs, and rakija, we are going south. Our train will arrive in Zagreb just before midnight.

Follow our travels on Instagram at @nicholascarman and @akschmidtshow, and check Abe’s blog akschidtshow.

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Mr. Polish, aka Tony the Pizza Man, aka Przemek. 

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Landing rubber side down, Antelope Wells to Alaska

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Lael departing the Ted Steven’s International Airport on her blue Raleigh XXIX.  She will begin work this week.  We hope to be back on the bikes full time this fall.  There will be more stories from the Tour Divide on Lael’s Globe of Adventure, as well as several other media outlets.   

Lael arrived at the Ted Stevens International Airport just before midnight on July 3.  She told me the day she finished the race that she wanted to be home by the 4th of July.  She hadn’t seen her sister and her family yet, in almost a year.  Fourth of July in Alaska– even though it wouldn’t be in Seldovia where she spent this day throughout her childhood– would be her homecoming.  I booked a flight from Silver City to Albuquerque, and from Albuquerque to Anchorage via Salt Lake City.

Thanks to Monica and Lucas for picking Lael up at the border at Antelope Wells, and for housing her, clothing her, and feeding her in Silver City.  Lael borrowed a bike in Silver City to get around town, and to visit Jamie at The Bike Haus, and friends Chloe and Tim.  Lucas expertly packed her bike into a box, although she was forced to cut the box to pieces to fit it onto the 8-seat airplane to Albuquerque, operated by Boutique Air.  Lael arrived in Albuquerque where she had arranged a ride to Santa Fe for the evening, catching a few moments with Jeremy, Rusty and Melissa, Owen, and John.  These are old friends who now comprise the Santa Fe crowd.  Sadly, Nancy and Sage were out of town until the next day.  We lived in Albuquerque in 2012-2013 for about six months.  Lael borrowed Jeremy’s Jones 29er to roll around town, and to meet Aaron Gulley in the AM for an interview.  Incidentally, Josh Kato also rolled through Santa Fe on his way back to Washington state.  Lael seems to think that Aaron was shocked by some of the details of her ride.  Coupled with her excitement for retelling the details– like the white fox in the night that stole her food, or the day she left the hospital and rode and hiked into the night over Lava Mountain, or the 275mi push to the finish– she seems like a crazy person.  The fact that she enjoyed the ride and is fueled by this kind of energy, is a large part of her success in long-distance events.  Not that there wasn’t some suffering, but as she says, “that’s not the point”.  

“Fueled by positivity.”  That how we describe it.  Why is excellence so often entwined with suffering?

Lael borrowed Susan’s Surly Ogre in Albuquerque to roll around town visiting old friends from Vinaigrette where we worked and Old Town Farm where we lived.  Dan and Susan were our first contacts in town, who we met through Warmshowers.org in 2011 when Lael first rode a chunk of the Divide on her Long Haul Trucker in late October and November.  We’ve since kept in contact and seen each other almost every year, and Dan gave Lael a ride to the airport the other day, almost four years after our first meeting.  Dan and Susan have advanced from supportive parents of a post-collegiate cycletourist, to participating in organized group tours, to their first unsupported bike tour in Maine this year.  We’ve also maintained contact with their daughter Jacquie, who is the foster parent to Lael’s old Cannondale Hooligan.  Jacquie used the bike to travel to South America.  We are lucky that through our travels, we have friends like family all over the world.

A group of nine wait for Lael next to the frozen yogurt stand at the exit of the terminal in Anchorage.  Seven of us arrive by bike, lifting our bikes up two flights of stairs to securely stash them inside the airport, within sight.  Lael’s parents pack her trusty blue Raleigh XXIX; they will trade for her boxed race rig.  She will ride home with us.

Lael’s mother Dawn, a schoolteacher, has raided the art room at Russian Jack Elementary and painted a six foot banner celebrating Lael’s ride.  Seventeen pink LW dots line the spine of the Rockies.  Each of us are given a pink LW bubble to hold above our heads when she arrives.  Lael exits the airport wearing borrowed denim, carrying a Cormac McCarthy novel and a powdered turmeric supplement in a clear plastic bag.

We load her boxed bike into the Prius, and slide the front wheel back into the Raleigh.  Lael pulls up her hood and pedals ahead of us.  “Bluie is riding great!”  I describe to her that I’ve installed a lightly used 8-speed cassette from a repair with a new $6 chain (at my cost).  I cleaned and tuned the bike as best as possible, removing layers of calciferous mud from Israel.  I left a mounded pile under my work stand that night.  Underneath the framebag and the mud, is a frame painted in a weathered layer of blue paint, large sections missing from the headtube and the down tube, replaced by the hardened patina of rust polished by luggage.  Underneath the shiny exterior of her Stumpjumper, there is this weathered blue bike.  Underneath the smile and the pony tail, is a girl who can sleep in the dirt, ride all night, and stay focused.  But there is one thing that never changes, she is not serious. 

While walking up Galton Pass on the second day, in respiratory distress, Chanoch Redlich comes pedaling from behind with Rob Davidson.  Chanoch, a friend from Israel, instructs Lael that she must sleep more, sound advice from his three days of Tour Divide racing in 2012.  Chanoch leans to Rob and says, “she’s good, but she won’t listen”.  That is probably also true.  She has her own way of doing things.

The group rolls away from the airport, talking in small groups along the shoulder of International Airport Boulevard.  We stop for a celebratory beer at a picnic table on the shore of Lake Hood, an active aerodrome for float planes in the city of Anchorage.  There, we enjoy the midnight sun coming from the north side of the lake, the mounded head of a Westmalle Dubbel shaken in my framebag, poured into enameled steel mugs; and Kevin’s technical prowess on his new Trek Stache+ wheelie machine.  She’s back, the race is over, life continues.

Thanks to Kevin, Nathan, Jordan, Jim, James, and Christina to riding to the airport.  Thanks to Dawn and Paul for the awesome banner and LW bubbles.  Thanks to Dan and Susan in ABQ; Zach, Blakely, Wyatt, Sierra, and Sam in ABQ; Jeremy, Rusty, Melissa, John, and Owen in Santa Fe; Lucas and Monica in Silver City; and to Lael for keeping it real.   

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JNB, DOH, CAI

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JNB, DOH, CAI.  Johannesburg, South Africa; Doha, Qatar; Cairo, Egypt.  

Run to the bicycle shop to pick up bike boxes, catch a ride home in the shop’s team van.  Pack bikes.  Ride to Sandton Gautrain station, sitting next to boxes in back of a Honda CR-V.  Gautrain to O.R. Tambo airport.  Check in with Qatar, luggage under 30kg no problem, bikes fly free.  Process VAT tax refund for camera and shoes, money which will arrive on a cash card in 6 weeks or months.  Running to catch plane to Doha, despite lots of extra time.  Movie selection is great, lamb and basmati rice with French red wine and chocolate torte, hand wipes, earplugs and eye mask if you wish.  No sleep, just movies.  Doha, again. Never thought I would return.  This time it is amusing and comfortable.  Almost miss the flight to Cairo, for real, Lael somewhere between the bookshop and the ladies room, head in the clouds.  Movies, snacks and birdseye views of Arabia all the way to Cairo– Persian Gulf resorts, Arabian Desert farming, Suez Canal, and Cairo, the city seemingly made of sand.  Deboard.  Buy tourist visa for $25, fastest customs processing ever.  Reassemble bikes in the shade, with watchful but polite eyes.  Ride away on wide boulevard, peaceful for the first kilometer, followed by 20 mad kilometers, increasingly frenetic.  Ride fast to keep up with the stream, no traffic lights.  Finally, elevated highway with no exits and entrances and traffic slowed to 35 mph, safer if not safe.  Drop back into the madness, slowly understanding how 16 million people can move through the same city without a single traffic light– civility.  One truck carries thousands of eggs, neatly stacked and unsecured.  Traffic is jammed near the center, bikes win.  Hotel which I’d arranged is lame: empty, and politely rude on the phone, no thanks to Lonely Planet’s top recommendation online.  “Welcome to Egypt.  You need hotel.  I give you good price.”  No thanks, but one such clever streetcorner entrepreneur suggests the Blue Bird Hotel, which is perfect.  The young brothers that own the place, one named Islam, ask what we’d like for our welcome drink.  “Coffee?”  Of course.  There is a familiar spice in the coffee, which at least the Egyptians are humble enough to call Turkish coffee, unlike the Greeks.   Leave the bikes in a storage closet and sleep in a dark room for a long time.  Tomorrow we walk twenty miles to the pyramids.

The Gautrain takes bikes which are packed in a box or a bag, although plastic bags and tape can conceal a mostly complete bicycle.  Qatar Airlines accepts bikes weighing less than 30kg free of charge, but overweight items are ridiculously expensive.  Riding anywhere in Cairo is possible with nerves of steel; best to come and go in the morning– the city sleeps late and is slow to start.

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Arabian farming.

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Suez Canal.

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Cairo, the city seemingly made of sand.

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A Limpopo Christmas, South Africa

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I’m calling it holiday gambling.  The stakes are low– there is little to lose, yet much to gain.  Get on a bike, go somewhere, and wager with that special day by trying to be in the right place at the right time to meet new people to see what the hell it is they do on the hottest day of the year when much of the rest of the world is shoveling snow and waiting for a fat guy to come down the chimney.  The summer solstice arrives in coincidence with our passing the Tropic of Capricorn, going north, which means that we’re in the tropics, it is extremely hot, and the sun is unusually powerful for about 80% of the day.  I’m excited to describe to Lael the mechanics of the sun and the Earth and how at noon, the sun is exactly overhead.  Sweat drips off her brow.

Christmas holds much less magic to me than it did when I was seven, eight years old.  Yet even after enduring that deflated feeling the day after– year after year– the arrival of Christmas still awakens some childlike excitement.  I’ve stopped giving and receiving gifts in the last few years, except for a few bicycle related gifts and books that went in the mail to some small people in Anchorage, who miss their dear Aunt Lael.

Passing from Mpumalanga to the northernmost province of Limpopo, things change.  There are more people, sprawling rural communities, and dismal dirt roads.  We’ve said all along that South African roads are built and maintained to a very high quality.  Something is amiss in Limpopo.

It doesn’t take long to notice the most glaring change: we are the only white people around.  Children wave and wonder where we are going, much as in Lesotho or Albania.  Women laugh to themselves, not inappropriately, yet curious as to why we’re riding the dusty rural backroads of Limpopo.  Not that there is any hostility against us, but I make an effort to introduce ourselves as “Americans, from Alaska”.  Not that there was any hostility when we were supposed to have been South African, but it seems to help that we are American.  

We’ve diverted from the Dragon’s Spine Route to make some route discoveries of our own.  The chance to wander again at will is liberating, even if the heat is stifling.  As such, we spend a lot of time sitting out front of the General Dealer or the Bottle Shop, bullshitting with locals and enjoying cool drinks.

And on Christmas Day, fueled by less than a few hours of sleep, we begin placing bets.  The previous night is too hot to sleep comfortably, especially after our 3000ft descent to the humid lowveld.  Music bumps from a nearby farm house until 2AM.  We’re awake by 5:30, riding by 6, and drinking cold beer by 7:30.  At seven, we’re seated outside of a grocery with empty bottles of maas and ginger beer at our feet.  At seven thirty, two tall glass bottles of Castle Lager lay empty.  Roasting ourselves for such self-fulfilling fortune, we exchange a knowing look.  Merry Christmas.  We’re poised for one hell of a day.

Limpopo looks a lot different than most of the rest of South Africa.  For all the high quality graded dirt roads which access expansive karoo farms, I am astonished at the condition of these roads which connect thousands of (black) homes.  Limpopo is statistically the poorest province in South Africa.  On our first night in Limpopo we are kindly offered a place to put our tent as the sun goes down.  A young man in a hatchback Toyota leads us to his mother’s house.  

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We are given a place for the tent.  In time, we are given a cold bottle of apple soda and a roll of toilet paper, which one of the younger men purchased for us at the store.  A small tub of water arrives for us to wash ourselves.  And then a stack of white bread, six slices in all.  And a warm can of Koo brand baked beans.  Amazing.  

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Everyone is home for Christmas.  We’ve been hearing about the significance of this time since arriving in South Africa.  As many people move away from home to find work in the cities, they are reunited with their families only several times a year.  Many are visiting from Guateng Province, including the cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg.  Many are home for two or three weeks. 

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The next day, we shoot for a potential connection through the Northern Drakensburg, the mountainous continuation of the Great Escarpment which has been our approximate guide since the Western Cape.  We find an abandoned 4×4 track through an incredible wilderness reserve.  We’ll talk more about our route across Lesotho and South Africa soon.

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We descend the escarpment from tolerably extreme heat to sweating all night in a bug net next to another sweaty person to awake at 5AM, sweating.

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On Christmas Eve, ten minutes before dark, we meet this man.  He took a taxi bus to the city of Tzaneen early in the morning, bought a bicycle, and then rode 60km home.  He also bought a new hat in town.

Across all of South Africa we’ve met many self-proclaimed mountain bikers (in plainclothes, always), but I haven’t met a single one of these well-endowed cyclists on the road or trail.  I’ve met about two dozen farmworkers riding all kinds of 26″ wheel bikes, but never the hallowed 29″ wheels that cyclists in South Africa rave about.  So what’s the secret to becoming a real cyclist?  Riding.

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Christmas Day.

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There is a line out the door at the butcher shop.  The butcher shop is just a small room with a band saw.

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Steel cans, crushed, rusted– single, double, triple, quadrupletrack.  We’re following the GPS routes from the Dragon Trax resource again, weaving doubletrack and walking trails through the bush between villages in the last few stages toward the Limpopo River, between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

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A taxi driver stops to speak with us.  I ask if he is working on Christmas.  Sort of, not really, but many others are working in bottle shops, groceries, and fruit stands.  

We agree that it is too hot.  He invites us to his home for a beer and some food.  His wife provides a plate of chicken and pap.

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We share the food, eating with our hands.  There are some approximate rules to the ritual of eating which I try to learn on the fly.

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His children, more or less.  Family details can be hard to follow.

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We are led to the center of town, “at the top of the hill”.  Not much of a hill, but there are a few shops and as many shade trees.  

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Much like the Midwest or Mexico or anywhere else, we enjoy cold beers and cars and loud music.  Here, we transition from the custody of the taxi driver to that of an older man, who we remember as “the uncle”.  He immediately learns both of our names, and for the rest of the day insists that we “feel at home”.  

“Nico, feel at home”, he says.

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Where there’s music, there is dance.

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The party has been going since Christmas Eve, at least.  A quick nap at the bottle shop should prepare this festive soul for another round. 

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Everyone is home for the holiday.  Most cars are from Guateng Province, listed as GP on license plates.  This is an old Corolla.  Toyotas outnumber any other make.  It is reported that many preowned cars and trucks are offloaded to South African ports from Japan.  

The group insists we visit the next town.  We ride, they drive.  I feel like a freshman roaming a state university campus for a party. 

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We are led to visit some family in this town.  Someone’s brother I think, mothers, some sisters, lots of kids, a second home in Joburg, the grandfather with a doctorate.  All is well in what seems like an especially civil environment compared to the bottle shop, until a small feud about money erupts.  Christmas isn’t complete without a few tears.  The group splinters back into two; we return to our village. 

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To meet the uncle’s mother.

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And to a town transformed.  Now, there are hundreds of people along the main dirt road through town.  A stew of load music pollutes the air from every direction.  African stereos only know one volume.

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The day’s extended meet and greet session continues as we arrive in town for the second time today.  This time, all eyes on us.

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We visit another town before dark.  The bottle shops can’t keep up with the demand for cold drinks, especially as some (many?) people do not have refrigerators at home.  We’re looking for some cold ciders, I am told.  They weren’t cold enough in the first town.  Hang on.  Agree.  Wave.

The day is an agreeable whirlwind of activity.  After hours and hours of alternating between cold beers, warm beers, brackish water, and cold beers, we are led to our home for the night.  Here we meet the rest of the uncle’s family, including most of the women and children.  They provide plates of food, which we eat in the dark at a table outside.  Rice, squash, beets, chicken…

An older man dances to the music by himself.  He’s a very good dancer, and he doesn’t look to see if anyone is watching, nor does he watch himself.  A woman dances, separate but near the man.  Lael joins and the women laugh loudly.  Most of the women now join for the rest of the song, and I am drawn in.  The two children are invited by adult hands.  The group poses for a series of grainy cell phone photos until I offer my camera with a flash.

Music plays into the night from all across the village, like a symphony of crickets across a field.  One by one, into the night, the voices fade.  They return just after sunrise. 

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If the sun is shining, the music is blasting.

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Pap is prepared for the day.

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Hot tea and bread for breakfast; a special treat to use the tea set, which is unearthed from a dusty cupboard just for us.  A fresh bag of black tea is opened.

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Last chance for photographs.  Goodbyes.  Great thanks to our Christmas family!

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A big bag of mangos for the road.

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Hot and humid and deflated just like I remember, we pedal our tired Christmas spirits down the road.

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Αθήνα, الدوحة, Kaapstad

For immediate release:  Last seen in Greece, in the vicinity of Athens.  Tickets booked to South Africa, via Doha, Qatar.  Currently presumed riding in the Great Karoo, northeast of the Swartberg Mountains of the Western Cape region, South Africa. 

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Athens, Greece

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Doha International Airport, Qatar

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Hout Bay from Chapman’s Peak Drive, Cape Town, South Africa

Awake on a steep dirt track just below Delphi, below steep-sided mountains, above a deep valley of olives.  We’re going to Athens.  Several days prior, while waiting out rain in Karpenissi on the Bike Odyssey route, we make a plan.  Winter will arrive.  It is not here yet, and November in southern Greece may be perfect.  But the time to visit the mountains of Turkey is closing– at least by the time we get there– and if we go to Israel to ride the Holyland MTB Challenge route or part of the Israel National Trail, winter will come there as well.  And after Israel?  Egypt, Jordan?  We could wait out the winter somehow and return to Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia next spring and summer, but that is many months distant.  The other option is to take a cheap flight across the Mediterranean to Cairo, for about $100 (the ferries have not been running for several years).  But arriving in Cairo seemingly leaves us many long stretches of tar to the south.  Sudan is meant to be extremely friendly.  Ethiopia has mountains, although many cyclists retell stories pf children throwing rocks.   The solution, via a well-priced flight found in a fit of Kayak.com shopping, is to fly to Cape Town, South Africa.  

Cape Town is at the southwestern tip of Africa, turning toward summer as the mountains of Turkey fall prey to winter.  South Africa is huge, with deserts ad mountains and the sea.  The Freedom Trail beckons, offering over 1000 miles of backcountry riding and navigation, and a few famous overland traverses.  Joe Cruz and Jill Homer both rode across South Africa on this route last June.  Logan and Virginia toured South Africa and Lesotho en route to points further north, and the photos and stories they shared are motivating.  Lael has been talking about going to Africa for years, either something that would have never happened or something that would happen in a spontaneous decision.  It proves to be the latter, and even so, South Africa isn’t really Africa, they say.  We’ll get there.

Our route from Delphi to Athens traces dirt roads near the shores of the Sea of Corinth.  We camp on the beach, swim in the sea, and stay cool in the shade.  It is hard to leave this land when everything is so perfect, but we know we’ve made a good decision.  Haven’t we?  There is only one way to know.  

Like much of the rest of rural Greece, there is almost no one on this coastline.  

In Athens, our bikes are improved for many more months of travel.  Lael gets a new drivetrain and sends her Sidis home in trade for a pair of platform pedals.  We scout shoe stores and bike shops across this city of 5 million.  George, who originally suggested the Bike Odyssey route to us was kind enough to host us for several days.  Friends of a friend of a friend in Santa Fe also hosted us as we packed our bikes into boxes in the days before our flight– thanks Alex and Fontina.  We also camped for a few nights at the top of a hill in a little used park on the outskirts of town.  In over a week in Athens, we never made it to visit the Acropolis, but we sat in cafes and navigated traffic and visited dozens of small shops.  We like Athens.  Half the country lives here, including youth and families, and there are diverse neighborhoods.  Times are still tough in Greece, but there are jobs here, technically.  Rent is cheap.  There are people our age, which is nice.  There are ruins older than anything in America, crumbling alongside the city’s metro tracks.  

We take an extension of the Athens Metro to the airport, which allows bikes during all hours of the day for no charge.  At the airport, the Qatar Airlines insists that we will not be allowed to enter South Africa without a return or onward flight.  We discuss and argue for some time; I insist we will cycle out of the country in three months time.  They are skeptical.  We sign an indemnity form releasing them from liability in case we are not allowed in the country. 

Our plane lands at the brand new airport in Doha, Qatar.  It is everything you would expect, including high-end shopping, rich Qatari men in traditional dress, a Maclaren parked near a Lexus in the main forum.  Apple computers are fixed to stations for public use.  Seemingly low-paid airport employees have wide eyes for the spectacle of it all as they slowly push dust brooms in the middle of the night.  There is no place to get a beer, although the airport is the only official importer of pork and alcohol into the Muslim country.  We buy salt and vinegar chips and an expensive soda from the newstand.  Lael lays down her new foam sleeping mat across from the Burberry store, next to the 24-hour complimentary child care center.  We sleep on and off for several hours under bight fluorescent lights.  The air is stagnant.

In Cape Town, we deboard the plane in a corridor lined with public advertisements for touristic attractionss in the cape.  Two large-scale mountain bikers are smiling as they ride out of the wall on top-shelf full-suspension XC bikes.  I’ve prepared myself for customs.  All I get is a friendly smile and a stamp.  No hassle.  No return or onward ticket.  

Cape Town is familiar.  The roads are wide with sidewalks and stop lights.  Much of the city is newer, and the old parts aren’t that old.  People shop– most of them– at the Pick n Pay or the Shoprite or the Checker’s, full-size supermarkets full of deals and stuff.  There are fat people and homeless people and accents and faces from all over.  It feels like home.

We are welcomed at the airport by Juliet, our Warmshowers.org host.  She and her family spent three months touring across Europe this summer, with children aged 8, 12, and 14.  When asked about their favorite part of their tour across Europe, the children unanimously indicate the time spent with family in Germany, when they didn’t have to cycle.  Baked goods and internet and flat cycle paths were second favorite features along the way.  We stayed in the the children’s playhouse in the back yard, affectionately known as the “dollhouse”.  We finalized bike-related matters, loaded maps and tracks to the GPS, and for some time, waited for something in the mail that didn’t arrive due to a postal strike.  We make a three day tour around the southern cape region while waiting.  Immediately apparent are the ever-present fences, security agents, and prohibitive signage, but the coast is beautiful.  It feels like home.

Below Delphi, Greece.

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This chapel stands alone in this valley, among the olive trees.  The door is unlocked.

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At last, we arrive at the Sea of Corinth.  This is how we imagined Greece.

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Except, there isn’t anyone here.  At this small community by the sea, there is no one.  We lay our bikes on the beach.

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Several mountains lay in our path.  We choose a series of small dirt roads, and one steep hike-a-bike between power line service roads.  

Cotton.

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Apples and a church.  You are never far from a church, chapel, or roadside monument in Greece.

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We approach Athens from the backside, taking a ferry to the nearby island of Salamina for $0.75.  This avoids some busy corridors leading into town.

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Athens, Greece

There are neighborhoods for miles, and traffic and young people and graffiti.  All of this is refreshing after weeks in the abandoned countryside.

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FYROM

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We are stopped by a procession of young people in a dilapidated-but-changing neighborhood of hip cafes and small groceries and old stone storehouses near the railroad tracks.   

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We’re not certain of the origin of the festivities, but the drumming goes on for hours.  Later in the evening, the crown moves several blocks away, facing the back of a truck that has been readied for the party.  Electrified Greek music, much like music elsewhere in the Balkans, is sultry and rhythmic and charming, if a little quaint.  Everyone is loaded with colored powder, contained in little cloth packages tied with string. 

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We cover the city to find just the right pair of shoes, and bike parts.  The Sidis go home for future use.  

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Tsirikos Bikes is well-euqipped as they are the front end of a prominent online retail operation in Greece.  They have all kinds of parts in stock, including lots of cheap Shimano stuff.  We buy a $6 chain, and an $8 bottom bracket for Lael’s bike.  The cassette is $11.  The bike inside are now cheap, with a variety of unusual models.

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NS Aerial Pro pedals– light, strong, sealed bearings, traction pins, concave platform, orange.

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The new sleeping pad is $5 and “Great for tourist”, including alpine slalom skiing and daiquiri sipping on the beach.  Bikepacking is somewhere on the list.  

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Also in the mail is a new framebag from Revelate Designs.  Eric is working on a series of designs for long-distance cyclists to endure many months of hard use.  Zippers are the weakest part of any framebag or garment.  We’re both using experimental designs: mine has a zipperless main compartment while Lael’s has some unique features to limit the strain on the zipper.  She’s been tasked with abusing the zips.  Apples and bottles of wine will be stuffed in there soon enough.  Despite her looks, she’s the ultimate zipper killer.  

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Off to the airport, €14 for the two of us.  Greece is especially civil, safe, and clean.

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Doha, Qatar

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Exchange just enough currency to buy a bag of chips and a soda, not quite enough for a watch or a luxury car, but they are also for sale.  Shopping boutiques are open all night.  There are few windows in the airport.  I spend the night reading about Qatar, which is strange and fascinating.  

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Everyone must take selfies in front of the demented bear.

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Cape Town, South Africa

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Cape Town is busy and colorful and much like home.  The air is warm and the wind never ends.  Wines are abundant and excellent, and cheap, especially the sauvignon blanc which is celebrated by a local festival the weekend of our arrival.  Cycling is popular, assuming you like narrow-tire XC mountain bikes and riding on gravel roads, mostly.  Every talks about the Cape Argus and the Cape Epic.  We’re clued into more unusual events like the Freedom Challenge and the Trans-Afrika.  Mountain biking is the new golf, they say.

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Mountains and the sea are never far away.

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Table Mountain, as seen from Table View at night.

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From our temporary residence in Table View, we follow a brand new bike path into the city, which follows the new MyCiti bus line a distance of about 20km.  The city is a very nice place to ride.  Despite a population in the millions, the center of Cape Town is not especially large.  Individual communities radiate outward in all directions from the center, for many miles, yet are officially considered part of Cape Town.

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Full suspension XC race bikes are the flavor of the day, while 29″ tires average between 1.9″-2.1″ inches.  Tires up to 2.2″ inches are available in shops, while I spotted a 2.3″ Specialized Purgatory at Revolution Cycles in Cape Town.  Tubeless tires, tape, valves, repair kits, and sealant are all common.  I’ve never seen so much tubeless tech, not even in Arizona.  

We buy a grip of 800ml bottles and cages to tape to our forks.  We plan to have 4-5L of water per bike.

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The Handle Bar is a great cycle-centric place for coffee and wi-fi.  It is also a small bike shop.

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Sea Point, headed south towards Cape Point.

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Chapman’s Peak Drive is a famous road ride in the area along the coast.  We spend a few days touring the cape while waiting for some mail.  The area is gorgeous, but we look forward to leaving the city behind.  Everything is fenced, signed, and guarded.  South Africa has extreme poverty aside much wealth.  Many blacks live in poverty and many whites live like Europeans and Americans.  There are exceptions, but there are clear patterns.  There is still much mistrust and misunderstanding between people.  Everyone warns us to be careful never to leave our bikes, and to “watch our backs” .  I’m still trying to decipher which are urban problems and rural problems; which are real problems and which are perceived problems.

South Africans are exceptionally friendly.  They love bikes.  

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Simon’s Town, near Cape Point.  We choose not to visit the actual point to avoid the $10 charge to enter the preserve.  Fences and guards and fees and signs…

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Soon, we’ll be out of the city and off to ride a version of the Freedom Trail across South Africa.  The route is notoriously challenged by fences and traversing permits, long stretches without food and water, and navigational challenges which make necessary connections not possible by road.  However, much of the route is composed of motorable roads.  Since the route was first developed in 2004, most riders have raced and toured the route during the Freedom Challenge, which takes place in June.  Very little information exists about a self-made tour on the route, although the website has most everything you need including a series of 80+ detailed maps sections and a complete route narrative.  We hope to bring back some valuable information about the route.

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Willing hostages in Albania

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In the past, especially in America, I have become a part-time recluse on tour.  Eating a yogurt outside the grocery store somewhere in the U.S.A, a man asks where I am going, where I am coming from, where I sleep, and my favorite, “What do you eat?”  He pokes and prods, asks if I have a place to sleep for the night (he’s not offering), and then warns me that it is expected to rain.  All the while, I just want to eat my yogurt.  

In Albania, I’ve become an extrovert.  I’ve learned to pass through villages dragging my brakes to bring attention to our arrival.  I’m grateful for my unusually loud Hope freehub, which attracts the attention of every dog in earshot, and thus, every young boy, man, and woman.  In remote mountain communities, I purposely ask for water when I don’t really need it to get a better look at the beans that are drying near the house, or the grapes hanging from a trellis overhead.  Even so, part of my interest in the grapes is feigned, to get a better look at the young boys, who I know want to get a better look at me, and my bike.  I want to meet the women of this country, who spend much time out of the public space.  I want to see how people live and eat.  Old ways are still alive in Albania, and more than anywhere I’ve been, I want to see it and learn about it.

Albanians reciprocate my curiosity, and fuel it, with the most legendary hospitality I’ve experienced.  They invite us inside long before we exchange names or they learn where we are from.  They feed us in heaping piles of food, a purposeful gesture to treat us like royalty.  They pour us round after round of homemade raki, not because they want to drink with us or get us drunk, but simply because the glass is empty.  As in many places, the most open and honest people live in the mountains.  For several days in Albania, in between memorable dirt roads, singletrack cattle trails, and serpentine pavement, we’re willing hostages of energetic Albanians.  In two days, this happens with the regularity and substance of three square meals a day.

Leaving Kukës, we immediately shoot for a series of small dirt roads near the border with Kosovo.  There is an obvious secondary road which travels south, which is surely quiet, and paved.  But it has been too long since a proper ride in the mountains.  The weather is good and we wish to prolong our time in Albania.  The best way to do this is to go high and accept the pace of the mountains.

Our route from Kukës to Cajë includes a total elevation gain of 6,000ft, climbing on dirt roads to Xhaferaj, and then footpaths and cattle trails up to the grassy mountaintops.  From there, we continue on little-used dirt roads up near our high-point at 6,900ft.  There we find an array of 13 mushroom-shaped bunkers, and a shepherd with a large flock of sheep.  The high peaks of Macedonia and Kosovo loom in the distance.  Like an afternoon snack amidst the regularity of our three-times-a-day meetings with Albanians, he asks us to sit with him in the grass.  There isn’t much to say, and I don’t have any cigarettes to offer him.  We spend a few minutes sitting in the grass, the wind blowing just strong enough to erase the intensity of the sun on this fall day in the mountains.  And then, we’re off with handshakes and goodbyes.  We descend 5,000ft back to pavement.   

From Kukës, we pass under the highway and onto a freshly paved road.  There are several small border crossings in this region with Kosovo, although the roads to the border are unpaved.  

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Passing a small crossroads and the intersection of two streams, we ride around an industrial structure.  It appears to house some water catchment and distribution systems.  We continue on one of two dirt roads at the end of the pavement.

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The road turns up, steeply, towards Topojan and Xaferaj.

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Above both villages, at dusk, we find a small flat spot on a narrow ridge, just off the road.  I expect the road to run out soon, and I’d asked a young man who spoke English if we could camp somewhere nearby.  He laughs, and says “anywhere”.  He invites us to come back down to the store to have a beer with him.  He and a few others from the city live in the area during the construction of some water utilities.  

Within a few moments, some boys arrive to see what’s happening.  A man in his mid-thirties arrives, and takes control of the conversation.  He invites us to come stay at his house.  We like our campsite, and gratefully decline.  He is not satisfied, and tries to invite us again, injecting a little more vigor into his invitation.  Again, we decline.

Next, he warns us that the area is not safe.  I insist to know why.

He suggests there are some people around here which make it unsafe, and there are animals, and it will be cold.  A small crowd of young boys show no concern, and are watching with blank faces.  I insist to know who we are worried about meeting in the night?  “People!”  And which animals?  “Beers!”

“Bears!”, I exclaim, correcting him like every other non-native English speaker who pronounces bears like a refrigerator full of cold pilseners.  

Listen, I am from Alaska.  I’ve seen bears.  I will not be cold.  Thank you, but we will stay here tonight.  I think it will be safe.  

By now, he’s using Google Translate on his smartphone to translate more advanced concepts.  We both wait, staring at the phone as it slowly loads.  “Pity”, it reads.  

I now understand his motives more than before.  He wants us to come to his house, and to be his guests.  He may think it is cold and perhaps he would be afraid to sleep outside, but these are not actual concerns.  

Soon, an older man in a camouflage jacket arrives, speaking assuredly in Albanian and carrying a tall wooden staff.  At the instruction of our captor, he is now telling us to take our things to come to his house (or perhaps this is another house).  Lael points to the tent, and says that this is our home.  He looks at it, runs his hands along the thin nylon fabric, and scoffs.  He reaches to begin pulling out the stakes.  I put my foot down, literally.  The young boys are quietly laughing to one another, which after all the talk of bears and unsavory characters, I’m now convinced cannot be true.  After a short fight, the old man quits.  Our captor leaves us to our pitiful campsite, high on the hill.  He leaves us after a half-hour of frustrating, if hilarious, conversation.

Pasta is boiling, night has come.  Another man arrives with his two sons to insist that we come to his house.  He is softer in his approach, and kind.  I thank him generously, stuffing my hand into his with as much confidence as I can muster after a 3,000ft climb and a tiring conversation.  He understands, I think, and leaves us.  

Our food is salted and vegetables cut.  Nearly as my spoon enters my mouth, two boys are at the roadside.  These are the two boys that had been here moments earlier with their father.  One of them has been there since the beginning, and knows the entire history of the situation.  I stand guard, ignite my headlamp and engage them, preparing for a fight.  They offer a large packaged chocolate croissant and a liter of peach juice, purchased from the store below.  “Thank you.”  They leave us alone, and the village leaves us alone.  

Everyone in this valley now knows who we are and where we are camped.  Surely, we are safe now.  

We finish our dinner.  A truck arrives with two men.  The driver is the young man who we’d asked about camping earlier in the evening.  It seems a group of people has been waiting for us at the store.  He offers us a ride –no more than 250m– which we decline.  We clean up and ride down the steep dirt road.  Inside, a half-dozen men are waiting, with only a few beers in circulation.  They pretend not to be waiting for us, but they are.  We enjoy a pleasant conversation with our host and his friend, the store owner.  His family is from this area, but he lives in Tirana.  We ask all of the things which we haven’t been able to ask for days.  He is intelligent and mature, and we learn, only 21 years old.  Another man in the room that arrived on a loaded horse, looks at us smartly.  He’s a shepherd or a farmer, but claims to have been a teacher at some point.  He speak a little English, and writes a note on a napkin.  He looks exactly like our friend Eddie from Key West.  Actually, everyone in the room is healthy and well dressed, in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in a bar in Fort Collins, although this is a really small village at the end of a dead end dirt road in a very steep valley in Albania.  We are not allowed to pay for our beers, but I insist to leave a tip equal to the price of the beers.  I explain, this is how we make our money in America, and they laugh. 

If we want coffee, we are told that the shop owner will return at 7:30 in the morning.  As we thank the group and begin our ride up the hill, Lael and I agree that they probably don’t normally open at 7:30 or serve coffee.  In the morning we arrive for our coffee as prescribed.  The store is open, which I could see from our vantage on the hill.  The shop owner has spent the preceding 20 minutes smoking a cigarette and looking in the general vicinity of our camp.  He opens a fresh pack of Turkish coffee, lights the stove, and pours the boiling liquid into two small ceramic mugs.  He offers each of us a slim cigarette, turns on the TV and selects an English-language music station.  He quietly retreats to keep watch behind the counter.  Again, he will not accept money for the coffee.  Instead, we buy a few packaged croissant at his store.   

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The road ends a quarter-mile after the store.  Only three or four houses line the road beyond our camp.  As we’ve been warned, the route to Turaj is not passable.  I ask for clarification that in fact it is not passible with a truck.  

“With a horse?”  Yes.  “On foot?”  Yes.  “Might it be possible to walk my bicicleta?”  Most likely.

At first, the path is steep and muddy, rutted by horses and cows.  Then, it is rocky, like a narrow old wagon trail.  It becomes more level and smooth, rounding the hillside like an engineered rail trail.  Finally, it diverges into several narrower tracks, footpaths and cattle trails.  We select our path via the GPS, which actually indicates a trail up the mountain.  

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At the top, we encounter a series of small dirt roads, broad grassy meadows, and a cemetery.  We navigate a network of dirt tracks upward.  Passing through the community of Kodra, I stop for some water at a house.  

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In moments, a young girl is fetching a watering can to fill our bottles.  The older woman, weathered but no more than 40 years old, takes Lael by the hand and seats both of us inside.  She suggests, offers, insists that we will have some coffee as she lights the stove.  The wood stove in the center of the room is warm, and a large pan of milk sits atop it.

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I admire the space and the hand-carved wood panels which make the walls and the cupboards.  The building has settled over the years, the ceiling is sagging.  The floors are dirt, there is a television in the corner.  We poke and prod at the silver cylinder on the floor.  It is powered and purring.  A laundry machine?  A sanitizer for canning?  Eventually the woman opens the machine to stir it and reveals a quantity of milk, on its way to becoming yogurt.  The table is populated with bread and butter, yogurt, cheese, and one spicy yellow pepper.  Two glasses of milk arrive, and two coffees.  And then we eat, and everyone watches.  The neighbor children arrive to watch, as does an older woman who smiles a lot and makes conversation with us in Albanian.

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Everywhere in the Balkans, Turkish style coffee is prepared on a small high-heat burner.  The recipe seems to call for sugar and coffee and water in equal proportion.  Only the size of an espresso shot, it should take some time to consume, often up to an hour or more.  

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The road trends upward with the gentle curve of the hills.  Ridable rural dirt provides us with some of our happiest moments on the bike.  We’re part time mountain bikers, and cities are becoming more appealing to me while on tour, but this is the kind of riding we love.  We can talk and think, and for only a few minutes at a time serious attention must be paid to the ride.  

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Juniper berries, ripe and ready to become raki.

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An assortment of dirt roads and cattle trails take us to our pass.  We have several options down the mountain.  With several hours and warm weather, we shoot for a longer route to another road further south.  This should bring us another 1000ft higher.

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A large concrete structure stands atop one of these mountains, most likely an old military facility.  The three-way border of Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia is nearby.  In recent history, this was simply the border between Albania and Yugoslavia.

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The last ride (or push) is up a steep 4×4 track to 6900ft.  This will be our highest point in the Balkans, and in Europe.  

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At the top we break for some olives and almonds and admire our good fortune.  An array of concrete bunkers loom at grass height.

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There are thirteen on the distant hill, the most I’ve seen in one place.

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Just as soon as we begin down the mountain, a shepherd stops us to “chat”.  We sit quietly in the grass for a few minutes.  I indicate that we are from Alashka, Amerika. I point towards Greqia.  He understands.  We roll on.

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The GPS indicates a track of some sort.  There is a feeling to the grassy hillside that makes me think we are following something, but the complex of cattle trails is deceiving.  Nonetheless, we can see where we are going.  Much of the steep meadowy hillside is rideable in a switchback pattern, although a bit technical.

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Two cattle trails do not make a doubletrack, but my eyes hoped that this would be a “road” down the mountain.

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Instead, we continue overland down to Cajë.

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And down the valley back towards the pavement.

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Immediately, the paved road climbs toward a pass.  We stop in Bustricë for a beer, and let the light fade without a plan or a place to camp.  In time, the men at the next table warm up to our presence and ask where we are from.  They buy us another round of beers.  They send a plate of feta and olives to our table.  After I quickly eat everything on the plate –Lael gets none of it– they ask if we’d like another.  They invite us to their table, buy another round of Skopsko pints, and we talk.  We learn that the bar owner has provided the beers, while his brother bought the olive and cheese plates for us.  His son is serving us, and speaks excellent English.  His other son, we met by the roadside as we entered town.  

I eventually ask for a place to camp nearby, something simple.  They show me a place in the field across the street.  Perfect.  But within minutes, they’ve reconsidered.  You will come to our home.  

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We walk up the hill to the house.  It is nice and modern, simply furnished and open.  The door is wide open, covered in a thin fabric like a veil to maintain the flow of fresh air into the house.  We remove our shoes on the porch.  The man’s wife and his mother greet us.  We all sit down, drinks are procured and seats arranged around a small table taken from the corner.  The room is large with a kitchen along the far wall, and couches along two walls.  No permanent dining table is present.

It isn’t long before the likelihood of an oncoming feast is impossible to ignore.  Plates and piles of food are growing on the counter.  The oven light is on.  The men in the room, and Lael, are drinking and smoking and talking.  The women are cooking but when they come to the table to socialize, they borrow a beer or a glass of raki to join us in a toast, “Ge zuwar!”  They don’t drink.  We are instant friends. 

Dinner arrives, piece by piece, beginning as a hearty meal and growing to a modest feast, and then, an epic feast.  At one point, Lael is filled to the brim.  She sips a glass of water and pokes at some cucumbers and tomatoes.  Someone reaches across the table to pile more meat and potatoes on top of her heap of food.  That’s the Albanian way.  Despite what you’ve heard, hospitality is the only hazard in this country.

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Official photos are taken, and as has become habit, Facebook contacts exchanged.  The two boys, who have just come home from working at the bar are told to sleep on the couch.  We are told to sleep in their room.  The man’s mother– the grandmother– gives Lael a pair of knit slippers.  

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Lael’s had a big day, on the bike, and off it.

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The following morning we make one last stop at the bar-cafe.  Another round of drinks–coffees this time– for which payment is refused.  I leave a tip in excess of the price of the coffees.  The money is declined.  I insist, it is a tip for their son Kevin, who uses this English variant of his Albanian name in our presence.  He is only 18, but is living in Tirana to study English.  I insist, this is how we make our money as well.  Lael and I are assured in this gesture, thinking about the money she makes as a server or bartender in Alaska or elsewhere in the US.

We continue south towards Peshkopi, near the border of Macedonia.  The plan is to stop in town, briefly, and ride across the border. 

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We stop for coffees along the way, equally interested in the stone structure as in the group of men outside the rustic shop.  Each is a good excuse to enjoy the other.  The shop owner sends us with a bag of acorns.

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We break for lunch at a large communist-era monument on a hill between villages.  We cook the remaining sausages in my framebag, cut vegetables and cheese, and make a palatable expression of a bunch of two-day old food and plastic grocery bags.

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It is not long before the sound of young boys enter our space.  We hear them, and soon, we see them.  Nine boys are standing within feet as we consider eating lunch, trying to eat lunch.  They don’t say anything–  we speak to each other knowing they can’t understand, laughing at our situation.  Even between villages at the top of the hill out of site of any homes, they’ve found us.  Most of the time, young boys and dogs are best at sensing or expecting our presence.  Young boys are often the most talkative.  But not these boys, not yet.

“Hello, where are you from?”, one boy asks, without the capacity to make further conversation.  But we point and shoot and learn a few Albanian words as they share their English vocabulary with us.  Lael assumes the role of English teacher, which she declares is much more productive in Albania than it was in France where she worked for seven months.  Soon, they are asking for pictures to be taken in front of the monument.  They become boisterous, fighting and laughing with one another.  Some boys are older, and some younger; some are extremely talkative and organize the group, while one boy does not talk at all.

The energy in the group grows to a high.  I pull the bag of acorns from my bag to offer a snack.  They plainly refuse, an official policy I suspect.  Instead, I ask them to show me how to shell the nuts.  Then, I ask for their help to shell them all.  Soon, nine boys are (almost) quietly shelling my acorns, although most of them will not eat the nuts.  A few boys eat some.  By now we are friends, and Lael and I have lost interest in our lunch.  We cut our sausages into pieces and offer them to the boys.  Now that we’re friends, they accept, reaching and grabbing past each other.  Lael signals to quiet down and to only take one piece at a time, generally polite practices.  Instead, they take one sausage and hide it behind their backs, reaching with the other hand.  The same happens with our raisins, and almonds.  Preparing to leave, I pull out my stack of photos.  These are test prints and rejects from The Art of Bikepacking show I presented in Anchorage this summer.  Nine of those photos are now in a small town in Albania.  Nine Albanian boys have photos of Lael pushing her bike somewhere in Belgium, Luxembourg, Poland…

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Near Peshkopi, a young man pulls over to the side of the road to talk.  “German, English… French?”, he asks hopefully.  He speaks nearly perfect French, the result of having lived and worked in Paris for three years.  He is only 19 years old, at home for some time to visit his family and rest his ankle after an injury.  He and Lael hold an energetic conversation.  He verifies the Albanian principles of hospitality that we have recently experienced, and suggests that he will return to the city in an hour to meet us and show us around.  Tentatively, we agree.

After shopping for supplies (mostly burek and apples), we look about the city for some internet and a coffee.  We take our time, and have one last look near the plaza to see if Bajram, or Brian as he is called in France, has arrived.

We find him and are invited to sit with him and his friends for (more) burek.  We talk, several hours pass.  Again, it is dark.  There is some discussion about “hearing some music” at the discotheque across the street.  After some time, we descend a staircase to a club under the Grand Plaza Hotel of Peshkopi.  Music is at full volume, and nobody is in the nicely-appointed room.  Mirrors and curvilinear seating and small tables line the wall around a central dance floor.  The bartender, also the DJ, gladly invites us.  We are a group of four young men and one girl who hasn’t showered in weeks, wearing muddy Sidis.  We’d inquired about the club scene earlier in the evening.  It seems it is hard to meet girls in this city– a small city in the generally Muslim country– much unlike Tirana, or Paris.  Here, girls don’t go to clubs and if they did, people would talk.  

We have a nice time, Lael and I incited a brief dance party with our friends, and we listen to some really loud music.  Bajram leads us in a traditional Albanian wedding dance to the heavy beats of of a traditional tune over a modern track.  

All the reasons to go on a bike trip cannot be known from your current vantage.

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We pile out of the club with the authentic energy of a whole night in some big city discotheque, as if it were 5AM.  The streets of Peshkopi, just past 11PM, are vacant.  The plaza is quiet.

We arrive at Bajram’s house near midnight.  His mother is awake and waiting for us.  We sit on the couch.  A table appears along with a feast of cheese and yogurt, vegetables, and fasole, a traditional bean soup.  Bajram opens a bottle of wine, although we can barley keep our eyes open.  He and his mother quietly enjoy our company while we eat.  We ask to sleep and are given a spare room in their spacious home.

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Early the next morning, under foggy skies, we make a break for the border of Macedonia.  Thanks, Albania, it’s been great.

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Ukrainian meals

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Above: One of the finest meals presented to us, prepared by my mother’s godfather’s granddaughter, who visited us in the US in the early 1990’s.  Her grandfather was very close with my grandfather, as they emigrated to the United States together through Germany, during and after WWII.  

Between Amsterdam and Lviv, Lael and I dined and drank almost exclusively on the ground.  We purchased food in markets and in small town shops, and ate in parks and high atop hills.  We pointed at cheeses and meats and pronounced new words to taste the local flavors, ranging from fresh cheeses to the popular packaged snacks of the country.  In each place, we discover favorite in-season produce, packaged cookies, or alcoholic libations.  Cheeses and sausages change subtly between places, but they change.  Wine gets better or worse, depending upon your proximity to France, Italy, and Spain; while vodka gets better depending upon your proximity to Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.  Belgian and German beers are the best, while the Czech brands are also among the best, perfect for an afternoon in the shade.

In Ukraine, our patterns changed.  We left our bikes for a period of ten days to travel by rail, bus, and foot.  We visited family, dined in restaurants, and picnicked on overnight trains.  Most all of this time, we ate in chairs at tables.  Most impotently, we often dined with the guard of a local cook, ensuring a uniquely Ukrainian experience.  In Ukraine, we were served horilka (vodka) at breakfast, although we declined.  We experienced the season in which trucks loaded with watermelons from the coastal plains of the Black Sea flood the countryside with produce.  We tasted caviar from the Caspian and homemade wines from grapes grown overhead.  We ate familiar and unfamiliar things, discovering that many of the things we prepare for ourselves as Ukrainian-Americans is outdated, regional, or most likely reserved for special occasions.  As anywhere, we discovered a food culture which is far greater than the summary of a few popular dishes.

From my time at the Ukrainian table, both at home with my grandparents and in Ukraine, I know that simple handmade food is best.  In Ukraine, family-style dining is the only style.  Potatoes, cheese, tomatoes, bread, kovbasa, and maslo (butter), are good for you.

While in Ukraine, I stood on chairs at every dining table I visited.  I photographed markets, picnics, parties, and farms.  We dined in homes with family, and prepared simple meals while traveling by rail.  These photos are the result.  This began as a simple project to reveal several memorable and picturesque table settings.  It has become a broad catalogue of our time in Ukraine, and the relation of people and food and family.  It is an exciting reminder of where we are headed in a few weeks.

We begin by visiting my grandfather’s family in Bershad, near Vinnytsia.  There is a great market in Vinnytsia, adjacent to the train station.

Breakfast.

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Lunch, times three. As guests on my birthday, we received overflowing hospitality.

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Two.

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Three.

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Dinner

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When visiting, sometimes you need a snack between meals.

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And a snack between snacks.  When you want to be the best host that you can be, food is essential.  In a country that has experienced shortages and hunger, food is one of the most important things you can give.

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Traveling to Kyiv, thanks to my cousin Yaroslav.  A meal appears out of the trunk of the car.

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Visiting Olya, my mother’s godfathers granddaughter in the suburbs of Kyiv.  Another birthday cake, this one is the popular Kyivski Torte, most notably manufactured by the Roshen chocolate and confections company owned by recently elected President PoROSHENko.

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At the B&B in downtown Kyiv, probiotic yogurt, coffee, rolls, and fruit make a nice breakfast.  Kyiv is a world away from life in the village.  They might as well be separated by 80 years.

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Dining out is the only time we received individual plates of food, although we applied family-style dining rules.

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Great handmade varenyky and bliny at the Pecherska Lavra monastery.

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Picnic on the train, more Euro than Ukrainian.

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Chai, almost always plain black tea, is common.  How many scoops of sugar do you want?  They will look at you strange if you say none.  Some use enough sugar so that the spoon will stand up.

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In Stakhanov, in the far east, we visit my grandmother’s family.  We arrive to a refreshing lunch outdoors in the garden.

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They don’t buy the wine and horilka, but make it at home and reuse old bottles.  The woman in the green dress is like a great-aunt to me, and is reported to have a small business selling homemade horilka.  She’s got to be sure to test her product for quality, even at lunch.

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We enjoy a late dinner outdoors after taking Zhenya to see his first movie at the theater in town.  It is watermelon season, for sure.  Trucks line the roadsides selling melons from down south.

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The next day is structured around a meal at another house down the street.  The table sits beneath a trellis of grapes, next to the root cellar, amidst drying sunflowers.  These people are hardly farmers, but they grow most of their food.

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And make their own drinks to enjoy.

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Three generations.

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Back to Kyiv, via Kharkiv, on the train.  A quick snack in the train station.  Trains operate at maximum occupancy.  While many facilities and trains are old, the stations are gorgeous thanks to Soviet spending.

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Take-out in Kyiv, including traditional Ukrinian dishes and a French baguette.  Incidentally, it is harder to find tradtiionaf food in Kyiv than is it to find some more modern international offerings.  Sushi is immensely popular in the city right now.

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Leaving my parents and my family behind, Lael and I train back to Lviv, to ride our bicycles into the Carpathian Mountains.  We stop in Striij to rejoin Przemek.  He’s already made friends in town.  In fact, he’s made a lot of friends.

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Darts, once the meal has subsided.

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And a little homemade juice for the road.  Thanks Djorka!

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Into the moutnains, we stop at a small farm which serves simple meals.

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Down the road while filling water at a mineralic spring, we are invited to stay with Pavlo and his wife at their summer dacha, about 25 miles up the road.  We arrive to a hot meal of stuffed peppers.  They live full-time in Ivano-Frankivsk, and are lucky enough to have a small summer home in the mountains.

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The most typical Ukrainian breakfast includes buckwheat, prepared with a fried egg and a pickle in this case.  Black tea starts the day.

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While cycling in the mountains, we encounter a couple of young Ukrainian bikepackers.  We share a picnic outside a small shop including pickled fish, cheese, bread, vegetables, and chocolate.

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Returning to Striij, we enjoy one more meal with our friends.  We peel potatoes, cut watermelon and salo (pork fat), and sit under a starry sky.  Nights like this are validating and encouraging, despite occasional challenges on the road.

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Food in Ukraine largely comes from close to home.

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Just out the door.

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Out back.

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In the garden.

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Or out in the fields.

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Drying for later use.

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Underground for much later.

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Brought to the table bit by bit, until hopefully, the next harvest has arrived to replenish the supply.

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From local markets.

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Selling goods from distant regions.

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Or from local producers, selling goods which may be transported around the country, such as these wines from Crimea.

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Chardonnay.

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And horilka, this one made with buffalo grass to produce a lightly sweet flavor.

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In shops it is not uncommon to see an abacus in use, although it appears there is a calculator in case the abacus fails.

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On the trail, it is hard to ignore this bounty of apples.

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Or these honeys and nuts being sold on the roadside.

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Fresh almonds.

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In Crimea, samsa serves as fast food, sold from this wood-fired drum by the roadside.

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It is less than three weeks before our discovery of food continues in Eastern Europe. Oh, and there should be some good riding along the way.

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Two Nights in Kyiv, Ukraine; August 23-24, 2013

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Last summer, Lael and I traced footpaths across Europe by bicycle.  We connected unpaved routes from Amsterdam, Netherlands to the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains near Lviv, Ukraine.  With the exception of a train ride across Germany to shorten our schedule, we rode the whole way and were invested in the subtle changes between places.  For example, glutenous dumplings– called spätzle, knedle, knedliky and varenyky— slowly changed from Alsace in France through Germany, Czech, Slovakia, Poland, and into Ukraine.   At some point in France, we decided that visiting Ukraine was a priority.  Thus, we pointed our tires east.  There’s more to it than dumplings, but I’m glad we did it.

Trending towards the east, my mother decided to visit us and to visit our family in Ukraine.  The last time she had been to Ukraine was in 1977.  Things have changed.  At the time, she was allowed to travel only with a tour operator, and only to the cities of Kyiv and Odessa, as well as to the Russian cities of Moscow and Leningrad.  Several family members traveled great distance by train to meet her in those cities.  Many others remained in the villages, unable to travel for a variety of reasons.  This time, we would travel to meet them.

Lael and I make a plan to leave our bikes in Lviv, take a train to Vinnytsia and then a bus to Bershad to meet my grandfather’s family.  Traveling through Kyiv from New York City, my mom and my brother arrive in Bershad on the same night on a crowded bus from the city.  We spend three days in the small city of Bershad and the village of Romanivka, where my grandfather and his family lived.  Most of this story is told in my post entitled “Romanivka, Ukraine”.  On my birthday, we visit the site of my grandfather’s childhood home, on a farm in the village.  Extended family greets us with a tour of the farm, three meals at three separate houses, and a visit to the cemetery and the church.

Soon, my brother must return to school in Philadelphia and my dad arrives in Kyiv from NYC for the second half of our trip, to visit my grandmother’s family.  Our time in Kyiv coincides with the celebration of twenty-two years of Ukrainian independence, since the fall of the Soviet Union.  We stay at a small B&B near the city center, a block away from the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or the Independence Square.  This is the site of the fiery protests seen in the media only four months later.

For two nights, we enjoy a calm celebratory energy in Kyiv.  Well-dressed families walk the streets and talk, purchasing food and drink from vendors.  Daytime activities and nighttime performances attract many more people to the city center than usual.  Two things are clear after a few nights in Kyiv: Ukrainians love the concept of an independent Ukrainian nation, and, Ukrainians are peaceable en masse.

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A large stage is set at the far end of the square, across Khreshchatyk Street.

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Street musicians share their craft.

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All is calm and the air is cool for a summer night.  Kyiv is the capital and the largest city in Ukraine.  Near the center of the city is likely the most modern and cosmopolitain part of Ukraine.

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My mom and brother are excited to be here.

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My cousin Yaroslav and his girlfriend show us around.  He is from Bershad, but is now a business student in Kyiv.

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Walking towards the Drieper River, we encounter a collage of public art.  This colorful arch rises above a prominent statue celebrating Soviet brotherhood between Ukrainians and Russians.

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Empowering, even through my cynical historical lens.

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Also, a more recent statue of notable Ukrainian figures is featured to the side.  Among them are many writers and artists, and several historical military leaders.

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None of us can figure out where or when or how the technicolor arch originated, but the scene is surreal and awesome.

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Kyiv, like many great cities, is defined and divided by the Dnieper River.  This is the largest river in Ukraine.

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After nearly a week in rural Ukraine, Kyiv is full of surprises, including exquisite public places, ornate churches, and hundreds of sushi restaurants.

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Khreshchatyk Street is closed to motor vehicles for the week.

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On our second night in Kyiv, the party begins with musical performances in the afternoon, escalating with the country’s biggest pop stars in the evening.

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Everyone is happy.  Despite a crowd of thousands and a cultural reputation for alcoholism, the evening is as calm as several thousand people and the best fireworks show I’ve seen could possibly be.  This doesn’t happen in America, at least not anymore.  Next time you think that another country is failing based upon some scale of modernity or economy, remember the simple things they still appreciate, and all the things we’ve lost.  In contrast to Poland, where the economy is growing rapidly, life in Ukraine is simple.  Traditions remain strong.  People grow food.  Rural roads are quiet, relatively few people own cars, and families live together.

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As at the end of a ball game, the crowd disperses immediately after the fireworks display.  We go home for the night.  The streets are quiet once again.

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Krym to Colorado, plus the threadbare addendum

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This is the missing link.  From exotic cyan coastline in Krym to clear air Rocky Mountain high, we’re coming from and going to many amazing places.  So that the (un)important details are not forgotten– the rigors of traveling– they are included in time-lapse format for careful digestion.  It has been a strenuous couple of weeks, even if it includes many group dinners, exciting new equipment, and route planning.  I’ll never call any of this hardship, so don’t confuse my words, but I can be quite hard.  I might rather be riding.  

Dive down to the bottom for an addendum to the “Threadbare” post I shared a few months ago.  More gear has found an end on this trip than on any other, due to rigorous conditions and timing.  Lots of gear has been with us for two, three, four, or even five years, including hundreds of days of riding and camping.  

Our last day in Krym is bittersweet.  Through lower and lower mountains and hills, the landscape blends into city.

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Simferapol, which becomes home for a few days.  The long list of tasks in the city includes finding two bike boxes, resting, writing e-mails, buying equipment online, and buying a plane ticket beyond NYC, most likely to Denver, we think.  Note: online retailers do not like purchases made from Ukraine, with a NY or AK billing address and a CO shipping address.  Three purchases were declined without further confirmation.  

Simferapol is ‘nothing special’, say the guidebooks, although it a unique retro-modern city that is the transportation hub of Krym.  We enjoyed the city greatly.  

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Bike rack and V.I. Lenin, the latter whitewashed in bird shit.  

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The market next to the train station is superb, and generally welcoming of nonnative tongues, unlike many markets in Ukraine.  Regional produce is much different than elsewhere in Ukraine.

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The train station is also a great place to view incoming and outgoing cyclists, on various paved and unpaved excursions.  Lots of backpacks and mountain bikes, or hardtail mountain bikes with rear racks. Lots of grit and determination.

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Buy these maps from the well-stocked outdoor store outside of the train station for $2 apiece.

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Lael and I picked up some ultralight sil-nylon backpacks to serve as traveling companions in the air, on the bikes and on foot.  We hope to make some short hikes away form the bike.  They may also serve as overflow when pulling away from a grocery, or when traveling by train, plane, or automobile.  Lael’s 15L bag weighs 110g, although it is short on features.  As such, it packs smaller than a t-shirt.  Price: about $25.

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We located to bike boxes several miles away, to be picked up on Saturday.  We brought them back to our hotel, but had to go out looking for a pedal wrench.  Eventually, we found a taxi driver with a 17mm box-end wrench, which mated well enough with the 15mm wrench flats on our pedals.  Through mud and rain, the hex-compatible socket on the back side of the pedal axle didn’t provide enough leverage.  The cabbie asks, “now how will you ride your bike?”.  

We velocipede all the way home.

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Bags are removed from the bikes for the first time all summer.  With only a few failings from hard use, these Revelate bags have served Lael well.  My Porcelain Rocket bags are a bit newer, and only show wear from sun exposure. 

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Preparing for our 5AM flight, we choose to sleep in the Simferapol airport.

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Aeroflot takes bikes as luggage for free, as long as they weigh less than 50lbs.  I had to unload a few items from my box to make weight.

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Norway– wow– we’ve got to go there!

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And Long Island.  Welcome home.  Still, a surpising amount of undeveloped land is visible form above, even in the eastern US.  After a summer chasing trails in Europe, I have new hope for such overlooked places.  How about Alabama?  New Hampshire?  South Carolina?  Kentucky?  South Dakota? Texas? Florida?  

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A night in the Jetblue terminal is as Lael describes, “like being trapped in a Gap store”.  Jason Mraz and Miley Cyrus play on repeat all night in the crisp white terminal.  Another early morning flight.  Little to no sleep for a few days is no good.  I find myself flirting with insanity, finding my way into the Ladies room in the middle of the night.  

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Bikes are $50 on Jetblue, same as on Alaska Airlines.  Frontier takes bikes for free, but flies from LaGuardia Airport, while we land at JFK.

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Denver, at last.  Clear skies and snow-capped peaks welcome us.  Pedals, handlebars, forks and front wheels are all removed from the bikes to squeeze into small boxes.  Less than an hour after we roll out the door, we are fully loaded and ready to ride.

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The first stop, after the $11 shuttle to downtown Denver, is the Cherry Creek Mall.  You know, there’s nothing like Orange Julius and Cinnabon for a welcome back to America.  Actually, I am insistent to visit the Apple store immediately to diagnose what I suspect is a busted internal hard drive on my MacBook Air.  My suspicions are correct, and the repair will take a few days.  The part is warrantied, while Lael gets a much-awaited haircut.  She asks for something special… 

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A light-rail train takes us to Littleton where Andy and his family host us for a few days.  Several packages await, and his bike barn serves as shelter from the snow to repair our worn bicycles and gear.

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I ride his 1984 Miyata Ridge Runner while my bike is in pieces.  This is as pristine an example as I’ve seen, and Andy has made some nice adjustments for improved functionality.  A very nice riding bike.

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We are enamored with American supermarkets.  Half-filled public buses take us to Fort Collins in comfort.  

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Desperately holding onto Ukrainian traditions, making dozens of varenyky with friends.  Sour cream helps the dough stick to itself when the dumpling is formed.  There’s no place like home…

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A quick visit to Pat Hegedus of Panda Bicycles in Fort Collins.

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Organizing electronics to reduce the redundancy of chargers.  A box of unneeded things goes home, or elsewhere.

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While a friend’s Jeep transports us to Boulder for a night to pick up a used lens from a Craigslist seller, and then back to Denver to look at a used Pugsley.  This time, the fatbike isn’t for me (not yet).  He’s trading his Big Dummy for a Pugsley, to be build with a Rohloff.  The frame had been modified to accept a belt drive.   

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Back in Denver, we avoid spending any more money.  Riding around town is better.

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After a few more Ukrainian feasts, we jump aboard another Jeep towards Grand Junction.  This time, a friend from this blog offers a lift over the mountains.  Changing seasons dictate a more rapid approach toward Utah.

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But wait, I remember that my friend Jane lives in Carbondale.  We met three years ago in Whitefish, MT, and have visited each other every year since.  An overnight in Carbondale to catch-up, then back on the road to Grand Junction the next afternoon.

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Carbondale is full of cool bikes.  These Pugsleys are on demo at a local cross race sponsored by Aloha Mountain Cyclery.  

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Mukluk with 29+.

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And a new colormatched Ti Mukluk, which pairs well with the VW van.  Has anyone noticed that Race Face Atlas handlebars and XX1 drivetrains are all the rage?  Where have we been?  And the government shutdown?  And that Miley Cyrus music video?!?  

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Download the track for the Kokopelli Trail, with help from Scott Morris at the last moment, and a couple snapshots of some paper maps just in case.  We expect to find some trail signage along the way.

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Willet whisks us to the trailhead beyond Grand Junction, outside of Fruita, just as thunderstorms pass and night falls.  Thanks for everything Willet!  Ride a few miles at night until showers and precipitous cliffside trails force us into a tent for the night.  From Krym, to Colorado. 

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Threadbare and repairs

More from the original “Threadbare…” article.  Below is an off-hand list of broken stuff from the last few weeks and months.

A broken bottle cage, after five months of use.

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A broken Salsa Anything cage, after hauling my 64 oz. Kleen Kanteen for two summers.  This things was broken in three or four places.  A reimagined Anything Cage is due out sometime. 

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Lael’s Revelate Viscacha has held up, except for the loops on the topside (not shown).  We put extra stress on them as we strap a sleeping pad to the top of the seat pack.  An old shoelace is used to make all four attachment points better than new.  A needle and thread goes a long way on a long trip.

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We had an extra bottle cage mount installed in Fort Collins last year at Panda Cycles, although we never bothered painting it.  It is probably time.

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Cutaway of the bottle cage mounting system on the fork, before stuffing the bike into a box.  Some rubber cushions the cage from the fork and protects the paint, not that the bike will see a showroom floor anytime soon.

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Stitched and fixed Carradice.  This thing is reparable, which makes it ultimately durable.  Needle and thread do most of the work, although stitching canvas and leather can be hard with a standard gauge needle.  A tire lever and diagonal cutters help a little.

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Back in Denver, Andy helps paint parts of Lael’s frame.  She dots her chainstay with pink nail polish.  She will not repaint or powdercoat the entire frame.  This frame tells stories.

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Some zippers misfire, as the sliders wear out.  A pair of plies and some light lube eek out some extra life.  The slider will eventually need to be replaced. 

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Lael gets some bottle cages on her fork, to prepare for the desert.  I have started to remove the back tabs to mount the cage nearer to the fork, to reduce the risk of broken cages.  A crude task with the tools at hand.

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More threadbare things:

Patagonia 5″ Shorts, worn threads at seam require constant repair, now past the point of repair (walking around Moab with a hole in my shorts)

Surly merino wool sweater is threadbare, has made me look more normal than technical gear and cut-off t-shirts

Maxxis Ardent and Schwalbe Nobby Nic are nearly worn on Lael’s bike

My drivetrain is well-worn, and will be almost entirely replaced to ensure a functional future (upgrading to 8sp!)

Need new rear brake pads

Need new cables and housing almost everywhere

New UV filters for camera lenses

New hard drive on MacBook Air (warrantied)

RockShox Reba forks need overhaul with new oil

Clean and lube everything that moves!

Patagonia Capilene 2 long underwear has holes, makes me look like a punk rock girl– not good.  Probably find another solution.

Tent has a tear in the rainfly, both zippers are functional but delicate

Sleeping bags desperately need to be laundered

Lael lost her sleeping pad in a monsoon on the ride into Simferapol, my pad has delaminated, exploding into a pool toy (both Thermarest Pro-Lite).

Sunglasses scratched, shoelaces broken, pot support needs repair…

 

Thanks to Andy and family, Alex, Jonah, Jake, Willet, Jane, Scott Morris, and Aaron at Aloha.