Thursday, June 15, 2006

Zvolen, Slovak Republic

Friends: At last I am in a country where the word for hello doesn't take countless repetitions to remember and slides right off the tongue with no worries of mispronunciation. The Slovaks greet each other with "ahoy," as in "ship ahoy. "

Even better is the quality of the roads here and the quality of the cycling. The primary highways actually have a semblance of a shoulder, so I don't have to cling to the jagged edge of the roadway for dear life when traffic passes simultaneously from both directions. And the secondary roads are wider than any I've been on, even in France. But there is so little traffic, it hardly matters. Yesterday evening, as I was gliding through miles of thick forest with the chirping of birds my sound-track, I grew alarmed that there had been no approaching traffic for so long I feared that the road ahead was blocked. A driver, who had slowed to wave frantically at me, seemingly in a friendly manner, added to my worries. It was the rare occasion when I longed for traffic to come along to verify that the road did go through. When at last a truck came by and no other passing driver reacted to me, I could settle in and fully enjoy the soul-satisfying, too-good-to be-true, cycling.

I camped in a meadow on a hilltop off a dirt road to a radio transmission tower that showed no tire marks in its cracked mud, camping as glorious as the biking. I know its going good when I discover myself whistling a merry tune. That's a true indicator that the cycling has become meditative and transforming, rather than merely an exercise in getting from one place to another. When conditions are less than pleasant, my peace of mind is often hijacked to concerns about surviving a rough road or surly traffic or nasty weather.

I was in need of the quiet, peaceable roads of Slovakia, as my final hours in Hungary were a minor horror with traffic bordering on Italian intensity and road conditions and hassles much worse. I had to ignore "No bikes allowed" signs for several stretches, as there was simply no alternative. I tried to be law abiding and even back-tracked four miles when I came upon one of those dreaded "No bikes, tractors or horse drawn cart" signs about eight miles north of Budapest.

I had the option when I left Budapest to follow the Duma River on a road along either its east or west bank. I selected the eastern side as there was also an autobahn paralleling it. Ordinarily such a road would draw all the traffic. That was not the case. This two-lane side road was as clogged with speeding traffic as the autobahn. When after eight miles I was inflicted with the "no bikes" sign, I didn't wholly object to having to abandon this treacherous route. It was four miles back before I came to a bridge that crossed the Duma, which at this point had forked into two channels. The mile-long bridge was just for trains and bikes and pedestrians.

I was crestfallen to discover the road on the west side of the Duma also forbade bikes. It was six pm and the rush hour traffic was thick and ferocious. I took a dinner break to let the traffic thin, and then planned on making a run for it. I had seen an occasional racing cyclist riding the road. I thought possibly the sign posters had run out of signs forbidding just tractors and horses and had falsely posted a sign that included cyclists as well, though they weren't meant to be forbidden. Whether or not cycling was legal, it looked treacherous.

By seven the traffic had hardly thinned. I was down to two hours of light to escape the urban sprawl and find a place to camp. Rather than following the river north, I decided to find a road heading west into the hills. According to my map one should have been near, though I had seen no signs for it. I noticed a 60-year old man with a bike on a train platform across the street. Miraculously, he spoke English. His advice was to hop on the train with him and to take it to the end of the line in suburbia. Before he could go into further detail the train arrived and I reluctantly followed him aboard. He showed me where we were on a map of stops posted
in the train. There were about seven to go. He said that a conductor would get on in three stops and ask for tickets. He said to tell him I got on the stop before and to absolutely refuse to pay a penalty, which he can demand, since passengers are on the honor system to have purchased their tickets before boarding. That was a hassle I didn't care to endure. After two stops I noticed the six-lane highway along side the train had narrowed to just two and there wasn't all that much traffic, so I exited the train and resumed my biking. I came upon a road that climbed into the hills and left the urban sprawl. It didn't take much more than an hour to find a most suitable campsite on the other side of some train tracks, hidden from all.

There was considerable more morning traffic, however, and about six miles from the Slovak border the road once again forbade bicyclists. I studiously ignored it. I could understand why the authorities wouldn't want casual cyclists cluttering up the busy, narrow road, but I survived. I crossed the Duma one last time to leave the country. On the Slovak side there was a plaque stating that the bridge had been destroyed in 1944 and not rebuilt until 2001. There was as much foot traffic on the bridge linking the small cities of Esztergom, Hungary and Sturovov, Slovak Republic, as motorized, and plenty of places to change florints for koruns.

Besides the quality of the roads, another indicator that I am in a country of some affluence is that rags, or scraps of cloth, are not in short supply along the road. I had been in need of a rag for a couple of days to give my chain a cleaning and wipe all the spattered dirt and dust from my frame and panniers.

Later, George

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