It was only two hours later, when we reached Greenwich, that I started to comprehend the improbable distance we had ahead of us, and that the journey might not be as easy or as fast as the 47-hour drive that the Michelin Route Finder had suggested…
I vividly remember sitting round a campfire on a warm May’s evening in Dorset when Paddy suggested we walk from London to Istanbul. I pondered the idea for a moment but it took little to convince me and two days later we stood beneath Horatio Nelson in Trafalgar Square about to embark on an unknown journey across Europe with nothing but rucksacks full of the lightest of possessions, a single Beef Stroganoff ration pack and a map to get us to Dover. It was only two hours later, when we reached Greenwich, that I started to comprehend the improbable distance we had ahead of us, and that the journey might not be as easy or as fast as the 47-hour drive that the Michelin Route Finder had suggested…
Reaching France was the first of our milestones and it didn’t take long before we started to open the throttle to simply see just how far we could walk in a day. The key to our success was in daily routine and in setting a minimum distance that we had to cover each day. Each morning we would rise just before dawn. The reason for this was two-fold. Firstly we often needed to break camp undetected before being caught by a local farmer and secondly, we found that if we could walk (or sleepwalk) for two hours before breakfast the distances that we needed to cover became more achievable. We soon found that the map became our ally. Every evening we would take great pride in marking out a 40km route for the next day.
The days soon merged into each other but the red line we drew on our maps kept extending across France from Calais towards Geneva. On the horizon soared the Alps that we knew we would have to climb to reach Italy. As complete amateurs, plagued with tendonitis, in beaten up trainers and with a complete lack of any all-weather gear (Paddy had abandoned his coat on day four), were we perhaps chancing our luck?
We crossed the border into Switzerland at the Col de Coux above the ski resort of Morzine in the French Alps. The scenery was breathtaking in both senses of the word but we strode on, only stopping to refresh ourselves in the icy cold mountain glacial streams. It was a relief to leave the roads and footpaths behind and to be able to enjoy walking without the constant fear of being run off the road by another incompetent driver.
The other joy of the Alps was the freedom to camp wherever we wished. Life becomes simple when on the road. You only have two concerns each day: where your next meal is coming from and where you sleep that night. The Alps cemented our decision to never to pay for a campsite, and we indulged in the ritual of ‘camping sauvage’. This practice has its merits in the beautiful countryside but led to many an unhappy evening searching for a suitable wall or hedge to clamber behind, out of sight from prying eyes. Some days we had idyllic views from mountainsides and others would be spent under a railway bridge, in a cemetery, or wedged in the ruts of ploughed fields hardly sleeping with the fear of footsteps and cars.
On our first day in Switzerland we arrived at the bottom of a near-vertical climb, to regain some strength we broke off for a quick bite to eat. Paddy went off in search of bread, leaving me to chop saucisson with our trusty kitchen knife. On his return, he found I had acquired a donkey. My mother had advised me that should my rucksack become too heavy, or an injury occur, a donkey might be an effective solution. Paddy seemed surprised at my resourcefulness and immediately expressed concern that we might have to split our food three ways. ‘Trigger’ followed us for about an hour before the path steepened to a treacherous ascent where only a thin chain, delicately affixed to the rock face provided assistance from the "you fall - you die" climb, and it was with great reluctance that we left our new friend behind. Paddy's rationing concerns were assuaged. My pack-carrying ones were not.
At the top of our climb we emerged at the bottom of an enormous glacial trough, surrounded on all sides by snow-covered mountain peaks to find ourselves in the midst of eine kleine Gruppe of stark-naked Germans. Such a sight is not normally surprising, of course, but 6,000 ft up a glacier, with no piles of discarded clothing in evidence, it made us wonder if perhaps they weren't Germans at all, but defrosted Neanderthals, celebrating global warming with a pool party. Not seeking an invite we slunk off through the boulders for a further three-hour climb to the summit. Dressed only in t-shirts, shorts and trainers, the steady flow of professional climbers, hauling ropes and crampons only brightened our sprits and spurred us on to the top. The descent was as hairy as the Germans. Forbidden by our own rules to use our rucksacks as toboggans, we shinned down cliff-faces, slipped over snow-fields, traversed gorges and waded through mountain streams for a couple of hours until we reached the shore of the bright blue Lac de Salanfe. Exhausted from a long day with heavy packs we set up our tents and collapsed with a warm beer that had been carried for the last three days’ walk in readiness for this celebration. The worst of the Alps was behind us.
Paddy opted for a pair of 19 EURO trainers from a supermarket which he assured me would do him proud for the last thousand or so kilometres to Asia.
Deciding to avoid getting caught up in the rat race, Andy Ward set off to walk from London to Istanbul on a whim. 5,000 kilometres, 2 pairs of shoes and a fractured leg later he crossed the river Bosporus into Asia.
Since then Andy has been professionally managing North Pole expeditions in the Arctic. When he's not working he can almost always been found waist deep in a river or loch pursuing his greatest passion in life, fly fishing.
Four long, hot, mosquito-plagued weeks took us across Italy to reach the Balkans. In the heat of the day we would shelter from the sun in the shade, write our diaries, snooze and I would practice my new hobby of resoling my boots with discarded rubber from the roadside. The countryside changed as we entered the rolling hills of Slovenia, which eventually flattened into Croatia.
We reached the Serbian border at nightfall for an early crossing the next morning, and clambered over a hedge and collapsed in the long grass of our campsite. Before long the stove was lit, beers had been opened, and our little tents had somehow erected themselves in the darkness. Our goulash was quickly devoured, we crept into our sleeping bags, and not for the first time, it seemed that the alarm on my phone was beeping me back out of my happy slumber before my head had hit the pillow.
Getting out of bed has always been anathema to me, flying in the face of everything I believe in, but the thought of our seventh border crossing waiting just down the road encouraged me out of my sleeping bag and, careful to avoid touching the wet fabric of my little tent I pulled on my clothes and unzipped the door, eager for coffee and the chance to stretch my legs (which idiot would buy a tent that’s 6” too short!). I'll confess the sight that greeted me wasn't quite what I was expecting. Our campsite was apparently on the edge of a minefield. Looking back, it all seems to make sense; the Serbo-Croat border, houses riddled with bullet-holes and shrapnel scars that we'd passed, the man in the cafe who'd told us "Those Serbs will slit your throats like hogs". And now we faced the conundrum of how precisely to extricate ourselves from the minefield without losing any of the lower limbs that we so desperately needed. We gingerly gathered our belongings and tiptoed to safety through a hedge and back onto the road, where we breakfasted in a lay-by, happy to be alive.
In Ljubljana, Paddy was forced to invest in a new pair of walking shoes as his previous trainers were worn through and the sound of slapping soles every step of the last two hundred kilometres was driving us both insane. Paddy opted for a pair of €19 trainers from a supermarket which he assured me would do him proud for the last thousand or so kilometres to Asia.
From Serbia we continued gradually southwards. As the nights drew in and autumn slowly turned to winter, we crossed into Bulgaria. With 4,000km under our belts we were in reasonable shape, and with cooler afternoons allowing us to walk from dawn till dusk the miles were flying by. We passed into the north-eastern tip of Greece, and two days later crossed our tenth and final border, into Turkey.
We had applied eight weeks in advance for permission from the Istanbul authorities to cross the Bosphorus bridge into Asia on foot: something not possible to pedestrians since the late 1970s, when a spiralling number of suicides committed by jumping from its dizzyingly high edges led to the walk-way being closed to pedestrians indefinitely. Some way short of the bridge, a small white hatchback began to follow us at walking pace, three burly men peering out through foggy condensation. It stopped to let one of the suited strangers out, who followed us on foot, trying to catch up our now ever-quickening pace. I gripped my walking stick, ready to swipe if the chap got much closer. Then we heard a shout: “Mr. Andy!” Stunned, we both turned to confront him. Mehmet explained that he was one of three detectives who had been assigned for our personal safety that day, and would be escorting us for the rest of our journey.
As the suspension towers of the bridge loomed out the incessant rain, we were joined by two motorcycle escorts. Our party, now seven-strong, set off to cross the final 1,510-metre span linking Europe to Asia. Six months older and a great deal wiser, we looked behind us at the muddy footprints in our wake. Eventually, inevitably, we were able to make out our friends and family beyond the eastern end of the bridge and perhaps more importantly, a few hundred metres in front of them, an enormous yellow sign proclaiming to oncoming traffic, and to two bedraggled pedestrians, ‘Welcome to Asia’.
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