Round The World by Bike #3: Budapest, Hungary


Budapest (27 September 2001)

Here’s a very quick summary of my progress, followed by a longer piece about cycling down the Danube and my viewpoint of the terrorist situation from how I have seen it out on the road which I have written.

Regensburg to Budapest
Down the Danube to Budapest was PERFECT cycling. I honestly cannot imagine a more perfect stretch on my entire journey. The only downside was scores of fellow cyclists – middle-aged Germans in purple shellsuits and indecent lycra. Hardly conducive to me thinking of myself as a tough adventurer!

We arrived in Vienna Sunday morning. Everything was closed and the rain was wild. Unable to buy food we headed straight back out of town. Is my mental picture of Vienna as a deserted, wet, grey collection of motorway flyovers a unique one?!

Our hunger drove us through hideous rain across the border into Slovakia. We camped under a motorway bridge. Soldiers with AK-47s caught us but took pity in the pouring rain.

I dried out and enjoyed Slovakia and Bratislava. A cross-country shortcut saw me pop up on a dam guarded by armed police. They seemed rather surprised to have been ‘left-flanked’ by an English cyclist but eventually pointed me in the right direction.

And so into Hungary and Budapest. Massive plates of food, probably some spectacular sights too. Earnest calculations as to whether I can make the England cricket Test match in India on December 10th! But before that, my journey is now seriously jeopardised by the terrorist situation. There are several options for me to consider; through Iran and Pakistan, north through Russia or turn right for Africa… Something will turn up.

The Danube Canal from Passau to Vienna
The Danube
There are six things you dream of on a cycling holiday: flat, smooth tarmac, beautiful scenery, easy navigation, delicious food, a welcoming bed and an enticing final destination. The Danube River has it all. Flowing thousands of miles through Europe down to the Black Sea, the Danube is one of the world’s majestic rivers, dividing nations, uniting them by trade and creating a perfect cycle route at the same time. It is a heady mix of history, landscape, wildlife and delicious beer and wine.

The Danube is not just for long-distance loonies. It is for everyone. Today alone I rode past families, young couples, septuagenarians and even a lady with a pair of crutches on the back of her bike, all enjoying the traffic-free cycle paths. Every junction is perfectly signposted, whether the path is winding through head-high cornfields, beside the river, through whitewashed, red-roofed villages, vineyards, orchards or deep in spectacular forested gorges past imposing castles.

The journey is a cruise – 20, 40, 60 miles a day – any distance is realistic. It is entirely up to you. Flat tarmac solely for bicycles and warm autumnal days means the miles flow easily. It is impossible to imagine a set up more perfect for cycling. Beer gardens lie beside the trail, tempting you with morning tea, lunchtime beers and meals and afternoon cakes and coffee. All this and the glorious Danube sliding by may well seriously limit the number of miles cycled each day! For those whose appetite outstretches their wallet (like me), village stores and supermarkets guarantee regular breaks for enormous cheese and ham baguettes on the river banks.

Every 2 or 3 miles is a small village, each with several guesthouses welcoming weary cyclists with Austrian hospitality and fine food. Frequent campsites cater for those on a tighter budget.

From Passau (near the German-Austrian border) to Vienna is 200 miles, an ideal distance for a relaxing week away, or why not spend a few days in Vienna as a memorable climax to your journey? As I continue my round the world journey, this stage will really take some beating.

Passau is easily accessible from Munich. It would be easy to return by train at the end of your journey. Cheap flights from etc. To keep costs down bring your own bike – anything from a one speed granny shopper to a fancy mountain bike would be perfect. Panniers, etc., are available by mail order from Edinburgh – There’s no need to book accommodation at this time of year – you can be very flexible.

Or get all your accommodation sorted, bicycles provided and luggage transported from hotel to hotel – try or Several British-based companies also arrange the trip.

The Terrorist Crisis: my viewpoint out on the road

I am looking at a world seemingly on the brink of war. And, since September 11th, I feel that I am not really part of that world. I am cycling around the planet, heading from England towards Asia and beyond. The terrorist attacks on America have highlighted to me what an unusual position I am in.

Whilst on my bicycle I have no access to newspapers, radio, television and rarely even to any people who do (my Hungarian is non-existent). I knew almost nothing of the situation for five days after the World Trade Centre was destroyed. And yet at the the same time I feel integrally tied up in the whole situation as my journey heads inescapably towards Iran and Pakistan. The result of all this is that my viewpoint is short on hard facts but also unclouded by hype, hysteria and Western media opinion. I am also deeply conscious of the potential implications for my journey as I ride towards the focus of the world’s gaze.

Knowing now the full scale of the catastrophe, I find it astonishing that for five days I knew virtually nothing of what had happened. A half-understood exchange in German was all I had to go on as I imagined what could have happened. Was it true? Who did it? How did they do it? Why did they do it? Even ‘what happened?’ – I just did not know.

Eventually I sat awestruck and horrorstruck in front of CNN. I was amazed at how much we take instant coverage of the entire world for granted. How could I not have known about this?! I wasn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere: I was cycling through Germany, but sleeping rough in the forests, the language barrier and a week of incessant rain meant virtually zero human contact.

CNN gave me facts but it only gave one stance – America’s New War it screamed. Why not America’s Tragedy? I wonder how Muslim TV stations covered it?

And then I had another ten days of silence, popping up now for an update in Budapest. English headlines on tourist newspapers scream ‘War’. And so now I am hunting for information, opinions, viewpoints. What will happen next? And what are the implications for my journey? My intended route passes through Iran and Pakistan. Is this still realistic, or even feasible, or even appropriate? Should I try and head north through Russia instead? Will the whole area become a war zone? How will I be treated by ordinary Muslim people: as an ordinary(ish) bloke on a bicycle or as a ‘Westerner’ – a representative of Blair and Bush? So many questions, so few concrete answers.

Even two weeks after the planes crashed every paper, publication and programme is still saturated with the story. I had never realised just how removed I am from external influences when travelling on my bicycle. I know the essentials: terrorist attacks, Bin Laden, Afghanistan, Western response… but I feel I have had two weeks of isolation from the world, running scenarios through my head, trying to think of the reasons, the consequences, the solutions, the rights and the wrongs. A giant, tangled spider diagram in my head, but at least it’s my own spider diagram.

The horrors of September 11th have highlighted to me the sheer enormity of the power of global media in all its guises. Yes, it provides rapid, detailed information, but it also forms people’s opinions for them and I am not sure that is always a good thing…

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