A Smooth Transition Into The Orient
Samuel Roy was the Tour Leader Trainee on the 2022 Orient Express. He looks back at the final stage of the tour.
Paris and Istanbul, France and Turkey, tied together by outstanding gastronomy but disconnected from each other at their respective poles of the European continent. Two completely different worlds we’ve had the pleasure to discover on this year’s great Orient Express tour.
Like on every TDA tour, our perception of time stretches and compresses in funny ways, creating a wave of days that blend into each other like a blur and others that seem to never end. Six weeks after the start in Paris, fellow rider David O’Donnell reflected, ‘’It feels like we left the Eiffel Tower just yesterday but at the same time, it feels like we were there ages ago.’’ We knew we’d traveled a long way from Paris when prayer chants became our alarm clock and when we started to see more sheep and cattle than cars on the road. The contrast is real between these two historic hubs but the transition has been smooth and progressive for us. Thanks to the slow pace of travelling by bike, we have gently eased into the Oriental world km by km, country by country.
Cycling out of Austria and into Slovakia felt like the first step of our transition into the Orient. Slavic accents, cheap beer and Soviet history – here we were, Eastern Europe opening its doors to our cheerful bunch of hungry and curious cyclists. Up to Budapest, the ride felt a bit like a warmup for what was coming, both in terms of cycling and cultural familiarity. Indeed, for most of us, cycling through the first few countries felt a bit like home. We had our references of languages, customs and foods and could easily identify with the local culture. As we left the Danube cycle path and the flat lands of Hungary behind, mountains rose before us and invited us to the challenge, roadside dogs started to chase us impulsively as we rode by, drivers seemed a bit less accustomed to sharing the road and friendly Roma on horse carts joined the traffic.
In the middle of it all stood the Transfagarasan, 26 km of gruelling climbing in bear country – up and over Romania’s spine. A day we will all remember as the toughest one on tour but without a doubt, the most beautiful as well. After the first 1000 m of vertical climbing down in the forest, we crested above the tree line into a grandiose alpine valley, following the endless hairpins to the summit. Our arrival at the top was a bit hectic. Indeed, the Transfagarasan is now one of Romania’s most popular touristic destinations and we happened to be there on a national holiday. However, it wasn’t designed to welcome so many people, hence the bumper-to-bumper traffic at the top. It was built in the 70’s during the rule of Ceausescu who wanted quick access over the Transilvanian mountains if the Soviets were to invade. Fortunately for us, it is now one of the best roads to cycle in Eastern Europe. By sunset, everyone had gone and we were the lucky ones to spend the night up there by the pristine Balea Lake.
After being confused by Bulgarians who shake their heads instead of nodding to communicate their approval, but very certain about our appetite for their cuisine, we crossed into Turkey to complete our transition into the East. It was a perfectly balanced progression that peaked on the very last day where we took the scenic route to say the least. Hopping on a boat north of the Turkish capital, we sailed down the Bosphorus, sandwiched between Europe and Asia, enjoyed a salty swim and finally raised our glasses in honour of our memorable journey to Istanbul.
As our Tour Leader Gergo put it, the journey isn’t only in the kilometres we’ve cycled and the countries we’ve been through, the real journey happened within us. We’ve opened our minds and hearts to other cultures, new experiences and challenges that have allowed us to grow. The journey also lies in the connections we’ve deepened along the way, with strangers that crossed our path, with ourselves and with fellow TDA riders. Until next Orient Express, the train has pulled into the station.
It was in 1889 that the original Orient Express train completed the Paris to Istanbul route for the first time. Our cycling version of the Orient...