Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Together again

A few days ago I took part in a wonderful reunion.

In 2015, while staying in Prague, I rewarded myself for surviving a year of extremely hard work and personal drama by buying a beautiful new bicycle. I then rode said bicycle to Katowice in Poland – a city which I feel oddly guilty about, because I’ve travelled through it so many times and never once really treated it as a destination in and of itself.

After overnighting in Katowice, I caught a train up to wonderful Warszawa (Warsaw) and noodled around there for 10 days, before heading to Ukraine where I spent almost three weeks with my son Timur, my friend Scott and my bicycle.

All-told, then, in that summer I rode about 500kms – sometimes in short bursts, other times from town to town in day-long rides.

At the end of all this, I had a problem: there was no obvious way of getting the bicycle out of Ukraine, because no-one in Lviv could offer me a suitable box to pack it in – not the post office, and not the numerous cycling shops I visited. So I gave it to a Ukrainian friend called Nataliya on ‘extended loan’.

I have to say, I was glad that the bike was going to a good home, but parting with it wasn’t easy. When I saw it in the bike shop in Prague, it was love at first sight, and by the time I’d finished taking it for a test-ride around their car park I was deeply smitten. And since giving it away, I’ve missed it a lot – as would be evident to anyone who’s seen the photo of it on my computer desktop.

(Feel free to think that's sad, btw, but I'm not ashamed. Some people have cars on their desktops, and cars are a stupid plague upon the Earth. So there.)

Anyway ... cut to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where I’ve been living and working for the past two years.

There was a time when I relished the challenges of residing in this city, but sad to say, that time has now passed.

The reasons for this are numerous, but I won't run through all of them here – partly out of respect for the many good people I know and have met over the years in Almaty, and partly because I don't want to bore you, my dear reader.

However, given that we're talking about bicycles here, I do need to rant about one particular negative aspect of Almaty life: namely, the fact that it's a TRULY, EPICALLY SHIT place to be a cyclist.

For a start, the whole city is basically a mountainside – or at least a giant foothill. Not only that, but most of the footpaths are utterly broken. This is courtesy of the city council, who appear entirely comfortable focusing on the 'making money from property development kickbacks' side of local government, while blatantly ignoring the 'providing residents with basic requirements like a reliable water supply, a functioning police force and a decent public transport system' side. This bunch of self-important jackasses really ought to be put on trial in the main square – except that (thanks to the council's own spectacularly bad urban planning 'strategies'), the main square is a crap place to do anything.

Sorry ... tangent.

To these issues, one must add the childish aggression of Almaty's drivers. Not being a professional demonologist myself, I don't claim to understand the process by which raging demons are able to possess the souls of normally calm and amiable Kazakhs whenever they get behind the wheel of a car (or indeed a bus). But in any case, it happens. These demons delight in doing things like slowing down at a pedestrian crossing, waiting until you're directly in front of their cars, then surging forward so that they're nearly touching your legs – a pointed, aggressive warning that if you don't hurry up and get off 'their' road, they'll be only too happy to break your shins.

Probably needless to say, the demons are not at all ‘cycle conscious’, and to the extent that they even notice the presence of a bicycle in their domain, I imagine it annoys them even more than the presence of a pedestrian.

And then there’s a question that I’ve repeatedly posed in my mind over the last couple of years: if I had a bike in Almaty, where would I actually ride it to? To work, in 40-degree summers and treacherous, ice-bound winters? To the hideous shopping malls which have sprung up around town, reinforcing the illusion of 'progress and modernity' that's regularly foisted upon the citizens of developing countries like Kazakhstan? To the city’s one and only sizeable 'park' (dedicated to the President of course), where Almaty's citizens are permitted to walk along two or three more or less perpendicular paths, but not permitted to bring in bicycles, pets or skateboards, to have picnics, to walk, sit or play on the grass, or to do pretty much anything else that free people think of when the phrase "Let's go to the park" is uttered?

No thanks. I’ll pass.

And so, for the last two years I’ve frequently pondered the question of whether I should brave the dangers and become an Almaty cyclist; but ultimately, the final decision has always been “Nope, It’s just not worth it".

Now cut again to last Thursday.

We’re in Lviv, Ukraine – a quietly grand, thousand-year-old city where almost nothing is more or less perpendicular (except for the regrettable Soviet-era apartment blocks which most people now live in).

I’d arrived two days earlier, and my friend Nataliya was sadly out of the country on holiday. So by prior arrangement, instead of showing up at her flat, I went to the school where I used to work and where she works now. And there it was, waiting for me, behind a vertical blind in the accountant’s office.

The Apache X5 Cross. My beauty!

I’m fairly sure there had never been another time when I was so pleased to be reunited with an inanimate object.

As I took off across Petrushchevicha Square, I felt totally elated. Finally, we were back together – me, and the thing I’d spent two years craving. It was blissful :-)

I stayed in Lviv for a week, visiting my son. But of course, knowing in advance that the bicycle reunion was coming up, I’d also planned a little adventure to follow.

And so it was that, at 5:30 this morning, I dragged myself out of bed and started the long process of getting the trip underway.

The process was long because, in Ukraine, couriering anything is a major undertaking. I had a suitcase which I wanted to send to Warszawa, where my journey will once again end. But half a day of traipsing around Lviv, trying to find willing couriers (since none of them would answer their phones and their websites either didn’t exist or didn’t work) proved insufficient. So on the morning of my departure, I still had the suitcase.

I grabbed a taxi to the bus station and put the case in the locker room there. Then I went back to the hotel by bus, grabbed my panniers, loaded up the bicycle, cycled back to the bus station, bought a ticket to Poland and retrieved the suitcase from the locker room – all of this before 8am.

A bit over two hours later we reached the border and, after a long and tedious crossing, arrived in Przemysl, Poland’s easternmost city. It’s a place I know quite well, having done this border crossing more times than I could count – and yet, never before had I dragged a bicycle and a suitcase through Przemysl at the same time, looking for a DHL office that turns out to be located on a parallel plane of existence which is invisible from our own mortal realm. It’s not an experience I’d recommend ;-)

In the end I gave up and went to the post office. There, with immense patience and good cheer, a woman packed my suitcase inside a black garbage bag and secured it with (at a guess) about 15 metres of Scotch tape. We then attached the relevant documents, along with my name and booking.com reservation number, so that the hotel would have some idea of why this giant garbage bag had turned up on their doorstep.

And the cost of this service, including the Scotch tape? About 8 Euros.


Around 17 hours after my journey had started, I arrived here in Katowice, where I’m staying the night – and once again feeling a bit guilty about using it as nothing more than a transit hub.

Tomorrow I’m crossing the rest of Poland en route to Dresden, a place which (despite many glowing recommendations) I’ve never visited before. I’ll stay there for a couple of days, just to have a look at the city, to shop for a few things which are either unavailable or insanely overpriced in Almaty, and to relax a bit. After that, the cycling will happen.

Much adventure lies ahead; I’d better get some sleep.

More from me soon, no doubt.



  1. Before being taken to accountant's office by Alexander, your bike was part of a design of our glass balcony in the TR with everyone wondering whose this thing is and how it appeared to be there :)

    1. Haha ... nice! I'm glad I brought some intrigue and mystery to the teacher's room ☺