Eisenach to Horgoš


Eisenach to Horgoš

Eisenach is a small but beautiful city nestled in the heart of the Thuringia region of Germany.  Once home to Martin Luther and JS Bach, Eisenach is surrounded by beautiful forested hills and overlooked by Warburg Castle.

The valleys of Eisenach feature many beautiful old villas, most having since been converted to flats.  Many West Germans bought property here when the wall fell, but an exodus of young people to bigger cities has left some of the gorgeous old buildings abandoned and decaying.

I visited the castle, Erfurt and enjoyed – again – the luxury of having a warm place to stay and friends to enjoy it with.  Cornelia helped me arrange to have my vaccinations for rabies, typhoid, hepatitis, etc.  She contacted a local journalist and within days my somewhat embellished story appeared in The Eisenacher.

Cornelia even organised a friend to donate some winter cycling clothing from their business – Platzangst – and many other local stores gave me freebies and discounts.  I prepared to leave Eisenach fully rested and fully equipped with new winter gear and as I enjoyed one last Schnitzel from Cornelia’s parents’ restaurant I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness.  Cornelia and Antonio, their friends and family were all so friendly, but the sad reality of travelling to nice places is that eventually you have to leave.

Following cycle paths east towards Lomnitz it was only a few hours before my knee started playing up again.  It was already early afternoon when I left and with the days growing shorter and shorter it wasn’t long before the sun started to set.  I managed to find bicycles paths to take me in a mostly easterly direction – less direct than roads, but safer, scenic and usually offering more options for wild camping.  I pushed my bicycle up a small hill alongside the bicycle track, it was close to a a few houses but out of sight and I hoped I’d been surreptitious enough to remain unnoticed.

The sun wasn’t quite setting yet and I’d only cycled 30 or 40 kilometres, but it was a nice spot and I decided to wait for a while and pitch my tent when it started to grow dark.    Only 10 minutes had passed when I spotted a man pushing his bicycle up the hill about 20 metres away.  I greeted him in German – he looked at me somewhat suspiciously and without stopping – or saying anything – disappeared over the hill.  I wasn’t sure if he was local or just passing through. It was likely I still could have camped here without problem, but with my cover blown I decided to move on.  It wasn’t too long before I found another spot, much more hidden.  I pitched my tent, caught up on some TV, and fell asleep to the soothing sound of heavy traffic on the A7.

I often plan to make an early start, but very rarely do so.  The next day was no exception.  I decided to chill out for a few hours and try another afternoon/evening/night ride.  I had a long way to go before Dresden and I was ever conscious of my time limit of 90 days within the Schengen region.  The weather was good and I wasn’t sure how long that was going to last, so rather than make a short afternoon dash I wanted to ride as far as possible and that meant cycling through the night.

It was Friday night, around 2am as I passed through the city of Weimar.  My bicycle made an assortment of rattling noises as I cruised down the cobbled main street.  I followed the road around a bend and stopped for a moment.  A lit a cigarette and consulted my GPS, trying to determine which bicycle path I was going to follow.

A few moments later a man came jogging around the corner I had just passed and started calling out to me.  He seemed like a happy drunk, so I waited for him to approach.  As he grew nearer I realised it was the young man I’d noticed pissing against a wall next to the pub around the corner.  We talked for a while about what I was doing and where I was going and he came to the conclusion – repeatedly – that it would be a great idea if I go back to the bar with him, have some drinks with his friends and then crash at his house for the night.  I explained to him that I his offer was very generous, but I wasn’t actually looking for somewhere to stay – I intended to keep on riding until the morning.  He seemed perplexed by this and insisted that he wasn’t “gay or anything.”  I assured him that wasn’t the issue and eventually decided that I would return to the pub with him and at least have a drink.

There was no way for me to keep an eye on the bicycle while inside and nothing to lock it to.  I’d forgotten to replace the batteries in my bicycle alarm and chances were, even if it went off, I wouldn’t hear it.  The locals seemed friendly enough, but youth and alcohol breed unpredictability – there was no way I was leaving the bicycle and gear out of sight.  I offered to pay for the beer if he could fetch one for me, but he wouldn’t hear of it and clambered inside to fetch us an ale.  We stood outside, talked about travelling and engaged with the gradual procession of locals stumbling out of the bar to find their way home.

Germany is covered in bicycle paths, often switching between minor roads, cycling lanes and dedicated cycling tracks.  They’re generally well signposted, but, especially at night, it’s possible to lose the way.  By morning I’d found my way to Jena, stocked up on food and waited outside a local bicycle shop for them to open – hoping to replace the toe strap that had snapped a few hours previous.  I arrived at the local camp site, pitched my tent and made myself a much-needed brew.  Watching the local football game taking place on the pitch next to the camp site, I relaxed and soaked up what little warmth the sun had to offer as it crested the hills to the east.

The camp operator had given me directions to the cycle path I wanted to take me out of Jena, but apparently I hadn’t followed them properly.  After riding all over town it was nearly 5pm before I found my way and by 6pm it was pitch dark.  At 2am, I found myself slogging up a steep dirt track in a forest.  The place gave me the creeps, but I found myself exhausted and decided to camp for the night.  I couldn’t really see if there were any houses around, but I didn’t think there were – I pitched my tent using my light as sparingly as possible hoping to avoid detection.  The next day I cycled my way out of the forest and the bicycle path flattened out again.

The following evening I found myself on a dirt road ridden with dips and scattered with gravel, but compacted enough that I was to be thundering along at a good clip.  I stood up on my pedals and rode, manoeuvring around and sometimes down in to the dips, constantly scanning the road ahead to plan my course.  It was a fun game.  I was winning!  I was flying!   Woooosh, bump, wooosh, bump, bump.  I leaned the front wheel down in to a dip in the road and the rear wheel shortly followed, slamming the back of the bike down with a thud.  Seconds later – pfoooooshhhhhflopflopflopflop.  I brought the bicycle to a halt – the rear tyre was deflated – game over!

It was 5pm and the sun was threatening to set.  No time to mess around.  I unloaded my luggage, flipped the bicycle over, removed the rear wheel, removed the tyre and inspected the inner tube for damage.  A tear on the tube was clearly visible.  I had spare tubes but decided to try and patch it – One day I might run out of fresh tubes and be forced to repair one, now seemed as good a time as any.  I wiped the tube clean, roughed the edges of the tear lightly with sandpaper and applied a patch.

That wasn’t so hard.  I put the tyre back on, put the wheel back on the bike, reattached the chain, flipped the bicycle back over, removed my pump from the frame and went to work.  It tooks a few minutes of pumping before I realised I wasn’t getting anywhere.  The air was going somewhere, but it wasn’t staying in the tube.  *sigh*  Flip the bike over, remove the wheel, remove the tyre.  There was another similar hole in the same area of the tyre I had already patched.  That seemed odd.  i checked the tyre – it seemed my rear wheel had slammed down on to a piece of gravel in the dip so hard, it had damaged the internal structure of the tyre, forcing a nice sharp shard of plastic through to the inner surface.  No problem, I’ll put on another tyre.  “Oh bother”, I realised.  I didn’t have one.

I patched the second hole in the inner tube and applied another patch over the damaged area inside the tyre.  Tyre back on, wheel back on the bike, chain back on the wheel, flip it over and… success!  Five minutes later and my rear tyre was nicely pressurised once more.  As I reattached my luggage the darkness wasn’t threatening any more – it was well and truly present.  I shone my torch around the bicycle, making sure I hadn’t left anything behind, and rode away satisfied at a job well done.

pfoooooshhhhhflopflopflopflop.  Balls!

I wasn’t even 200 metres down the road.  Luggage off, bike over, wheel off, tyre off.  The problem was obvious – one of the patches had failed.  Again.  I removed it, attached a new one again making sure that the area was clean and waited a bit longer this time before inflating to full pressure.  Within another five minutes the tyre was slowly losing pressure again.  I was frustrated, it was getting cold and I just didn’t want to deal with the problem anymore.  I quickly found somewhere to camp.  It was a spot less hidden than I usually prefer but at this point I didn’t care.  The next morning I decided to abandon my efforts at tube repair and just installed a new one.

I worked my way towards a camp site just outside Meissen.  The weather was poor, it was cold and wet and I stayed here for a couple of nights even though I was only 50km or so from Anett’s house.  Even though I had plenty of gear to keep me warm while riding through rain, it was never a pleasant experience.  Glasses were a real problem, the lenses fog up, get droplets of water on them, and force you to stop to remove them so you can try and squeeze the salty mix of sweat and rain out of your eyes.

Staying with your ex-girlfriend, her parents, and her new boyfriend is probably not most people’s idea of the best way to spend your holiday.  The awkwardness of this made itself more apparent the closer I was to arriving.  Anett’s boyfriend, Peter, lived elsewhere from Monday to Friday due to a very long commute – which made things slightly less uncomfortable, but I suppose it was obvious to Anett’s family that I still had feelings for her.  Some people wear their heart on their sleeve.  At the time I was wearing mine, it seemed, in the form of a bright neon sign that read “I’m still in love with your daughter.”  Oh well.

Despite this, Anett was wonderful and took me around Dresden – we saw the city on guided bus tour, we walked around the new town, drove to Pillnitz, visited her sister in Leipzig.  I even rode a horse which was something I’d wanted to do again for a long time.

Anett took time off work and was persistent in making sure I had everything I needed to continue my journey.   Being around her brought back old feelings and it felt like we were on holiday again.

I started to think about my plans for cycling in the middle east, what visas I would need and when.  I discovered that Pakistan had recently stopped issuing tourist visas.  I spent hours reading about my options and made calls to several embassies.  It was possible to apply for a visa from my home country, but obviously this was no help.  The alternative, heading north through the other stans and China was possible but involved many more visas, fast travel through some parts and tricky timing.  Fast travel and a well planned itinerary just wasn’t my style though – I decided to put off any decisions until later – at my pace I still had some time to think about it.

Seeing Anett again did have an undeniable effect on me.  This, combined with the knowledge that she was the last familiar face I was likely to see in a very long time made saying good bye even more difficult.  A long lonely winter in eastern europe and the middle east lay ahead of me.  The mountainous terrain and visa nightmare of Central Asia lay beyond that.  All of this I would have to cope with alone.  No more friends to look forward to seeing, no more friends to help me deal with language issues.  No more week off here, 10 days there.  I made an effort to convince myself that the fear of being alone is worse than actually being alone but I didn’t believe me.

A few days before leaving it was Carnivale time in Germany:

I had some regret that I had dawdled so much in France and Germany that I now had to skip out of the schengen region by train – completely missing Czech Republic and only spending a couple of days in Budapest before catching another train to the border of Serbia.

I left Dresden on a wet dreary day.  I boarded the almost empty train and tried to maintain my composure as I contemplated thoughts of what might have been with Anett and me.  But when it came down to it, I wouldn’t have been happy in Germany and she wouldn’t have been happy in Australia.  Knowing that didn’t make it any easier at the time.

It was late evening when the train arrived and I found myself in the middle of Budapest.  The air was warm and had a dusty, unfamiliar odour.  An older man wandered past carrying an old VCR and asked me for a cigarette. I gave him one and he seemed genuinely appreciative.  As I pushed my trusty steed around the city, passers by gave me quizzical stares, something I’d grown quite accustomed to.  I found an ATM to withdraw some local currency, put on my best “I’m not a tourist, don’t mess with me” face and made my way through the city to the hostel I’d booked a few days earlier.

I stayed for a couple of nights in the Aboriginal Hostel in Budapest.  I took a few walks around the city, but my heart just wasn’t in it.  I felt completely drained.

Packing my bike up once again, I made my way to the train station.  I asked the woman in the ticket office if she spoke english.  She shook her head and shooed me away.  I lined up at another ticket window, this time writing down the town I wanted to travel to and the time the train departed.  She didn’t speak English either, but this information and me pointing at my bicycle met with greater success.  The old train creaked its way up to the platform about 10 minutes before it was due to depart.  As I followed the carriages down the platform it seemed to go on forever.  The facilities on each carriage were indicated by symbols painted on the side.  I started to panic as I made my way down the length of the train, looking for a picture of a bicycle.  It wasn’t until the very last carriage that my paranoia subsided, i quickly unpacked my bags and loaded them on the train, two by two.  The door was narrow and with some difficulty I upended the bicycle and wheeled it around the corner in to the large bicycle compartment.  It was afterwards I realised that the side of the carriage comprised of massive sliding doors, specifically for loading bicycles.  I felt a little silly, but glad that my gear and I were safely on the train.

There were only two seats in the bicycle compartment, I was glad to have one so that I could keep an eye on everything.  People came and went throughout the journey, prying windows ajar and sneaking in cigarettes.  The odour was no doubt obvious to the conductors, but it seemed that in Eastern Europe, things like smoking on trains are only optionally prohibited.

It was early evening as Szeged slid in to view on my GPS screen.  I would be departing in the south of Hungary, as close to the Serbian border as possible.  I’d calculated my 90 days in the schengen region and I knew that I still had a full day left – just as a contingency in case things didn’t go according to plan – after all they rarely do.  As hints of civilisation began to whizz by the window, I decided to double check my 90 days, manually counting them off on a calendar.  After some mildly panicked recounting I soon realised that the online date calculator I had used earlier hadn’t included the first date of entry, which I knew was included in the 90 days.  This meant that instead of a full day to cross the border I had… about 5 hours.

I hadn’t exactly done a lot of research in to where exactly to cross the border, short of looking at a map and identifying that there was indeed a road that lead to Serbia.  Examining my GPS more closely it seemed to show two border crossings – the motorway and another one close by on a seemingly bicycle-friendly minor road.

It was dark, cold and foggy in Szeged.  I didn’t stop to take a single picture, I was completely focussed on getting across the border.  My GPS took me down some ridiculous minor roads, covered in gravel, rocks, larger rocks, mud and potholes.  I was surrounded by dogs, thankfully behind backyard fences and they howled and barked as my bicycle rattled and banged down the alleged road.  When I reached the border it was, much to my dread, closed.  I couldn’t tell if it was just closed for the night or closed permanently.  Panic started to set in as I wondered what the consequences of not being able to cross the border were.

I still had several hours to formulate a plan.  “What would MacGuyver do?” I pondered.  I soon decided that locating a propeller engine, paraglider wings and a copious supply of duct tape were beyond the realms of likelihood and consulted my GPS for alternatives.  All the other roads crossing the border seemed too distant to reach before midnight.  All except for the motorway – the one type of road I specifically exclude from GPS navigation normally because, well, bicycles aren’t allowed on them…

I retrace back a few kilometres where the road intersected with the motorway.  There were petrol stations on either side.  I decided to buy first and ask questions later.  Sipping on my coffee and apologetically asking if the lady at the counter spoke English, I explain my plight and ask if it’s OK to ride my bicycle on the motorway for a few kilometres to cross the border.  She understood my question but seemed completely indifferent and offered little more than a shrug before returning her attention to… anything but me.

I didn’t have any problem with the idea of riding on the motorway but I could see it was riddled with cameras and I had visions of police cars, difficult conversations and large, hairy-backed men in my jail cell.  This was Eastern Europe though, and perhaps it was just another one of those things that was optionally prohibited.  I took the bridge over to the other side of the motorway to the identical petrol station on the other side.  Cars and trucks would stop here before crossing the border – I came upon the idea of offering to pay someone to transport me and my bicycle across the border.

I hadn’t even parked my bicycle when a man jumped out of his truck.  I introduced myself, his name was Michael – he was German and had just finished his driving run, ready to hand the truck over to someone else.  I explained my dilemma.  I must have looked worried  as he told me not to panic and that it would be fine to travel across the border on my bicycle.  “In Germany” he said “it would be a problem.  Here?  No problem.”  We chatted for a while, the urgency of my situation having disappeared and he ran through all the usual questions about what I was doing, where I had been and where I was going.  “It’s only a couple of kilometres to the border.  You’ll be fine.”

There was still some light fog, but visibility was improving.  I paraded past a line of trucks – literally over a kilometre long, all waiting for inspection before being allowed to cross the border.

This was my first border crossing since France. There was some discussion about my passport between the border officials but they let me through.  On the Serbian side, they seemed amused by my overloaded bicycle.  “Where are you going?”  they asked.  “Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey” I told them – not wanting to discuss what my plans in Serbia were, being that I didn’t have any.

Another passport stamp and I was on my way.  Within a few kilometres I was able to get off the motorway and found myself in the town of Horgoš.  I’d planned to ride to Subotica, another 30km away as I knew there was a hostel there.  It was getting late though and I wanted to see if I could find somewhere closer.  I rode around the town looking for a hostel, a hotel, anything.  I attached my ipod touch to the handlebars, searching for wifi so that I might look up the details of any accommodation in the area, if there was any.  It was a very small town, and there were literally no cars on the road as I coasted down the main street.  My eyes darted between the buildings on the side of the road (looking for any sign of hospitality), my ipod (looking for any sign of wifi) and just occasionally on the road ahead.

Suddenly, inexplicably, the bicycle started to move beneath me in a new and thoroughly unexpected way.  Before I even had a grasp of what was happening, I found myself travelling along the road at a decent clip without the aid of a bicycle.  It just seemed to slide away beneath me and off to the side.  I’d become somewhat adept at falling off my bicycle, but this was so sudden, so unexpected, I had no time to devise any graceful exit strategy.  My body instinctively raised my arms and I crashed in to the pavement.  “Ow”, I thought.  “That hurt.”

Priority number one – Can I move my legs?  Of course you can, you big sissy.  My elbows and knees seemed to have taken the worst of it – and my wrist.  My wrist hurt.  It hurt quite a lot.

Priority number two – Am I about to find myself underneath a car?  I looked behind me.  The bicycle and a few detached panniers littered the road, but the road was otherwise as empty as it had been for the last 10 minutes.  I recalled that I’d just been crossing a railway line.

Priority number three – Any trains coming?  Nope.  There was complete, absolute silence.

Priority number four – I think I’ll just lay here for a while.  I raised my arm to rest my head, pulled a crushed cigarette out of my pocket and lay there for a good few minutes.  My internal monologue gave myself a jolly stern talking to for being so careless.

After some time I removed myself and my belongings from the road.  It wasn’t easy – picking up a 70kg bicycle that’s flat on the ground takes some effort at the best of times.  I feebly tested the reduced capabilities of my damaged wrist. Gripping the bicycles handle with any force was almost unbearable.  Add vibration from the road and it was, in fact, unbearable.  I was reduced to alternating between riding one handed, and leaning forward with my elbow on the handlebar.

I’d never given much though to Serbia.  I had intended to pass through in a week or so – or however long it took.  Now I would probably have to stay for a little while longer to give my wrist time to fully heal.

Little did I realise at the time, that “a little while longer” would be over six months.

Map for this entry:

Eisenach to Horgos

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