Europe passed into history with the wave of a soldier’s hand

Europe passed into history with the wave of a soldier’s hand, and smiling officials beneath big red and white Turkish flags welcomed us to their country and gave us permission to stay for three months. We’d never need that long, of course, but it felt good to have been given plenty of breathing space for the new wheels to arrive from England. The road from this remote border-post passed through misty wooded hills and suddenly opened out into an immaculate highway, three lanes wide on each side, without the slightest hint that a motor vehicle might ever have driven upon its pristine surface. Simultaneously the woods came to an end and the landscape turned into a brown, rolling, uninhabited expanse, and as we descended to the plateau the warming air somehow smelt and tasted exotic.

We rolled into the first small Turkish town. White-haired men with moustaches and flat caps raised teacups aloft in salute as we passed by, shouting encouragements. Clearly we were only the latest in a steady trickle of travellers headed for Asia. The road was far better than I expected, fully paved, no less – in better shape, even, than roads at home in England. Towns were frequent and sprawling and a lot more modern-looking than back in the Balkans, and the Sea of Marmara appeared on the horizon like a mirage, seeming to confirm, finally, that we had come to the far end of Europe.

The coast was heavily developed, one settlement blending seamlessly into the next, suburb after suburb of comfortable-looking apartment blocks painted in pastel shades, built to a standard blueprint, interspersed with shiny shop-fronts and furniture superstores and Internet cafes and eateries boasting trays of steaming stews and rice we couldn’t afford to eat. The reappearance of the Roman alphabet – extended by a scattering of unfamiliar dots and swirls – was comforting after Bulgaria’s indecipherable Cyrillic, and English words littered the urban spaces, shouting loudly in bright colours about paket servis, taksis and sandviches. Symbols of modern-day prosperity appeared in every direction. Turkey, it seemed, was not a developing nation at all – it had caught up with and overtaken its recovering Eastern European neighbours. Or perhaps Turkey had always been a developed, powerful nation. After all, hadn’t the Ottoman Empire reached the gates of Vienna? Why had I assumed that leaving Europe would be like going back in time?

Andy, now possessing the sole remaining source of funds, was thrilled to discover a drive-by cash machine in a little booth on the roadside – so convenient! Deciding that this would be an opportune moment to withdraw enough funds for the weeks ahead, we watched speechlessly as the machine swallowed Andy’s card and settled into a lifeless, unresponsive torpor, leaving us with nothing but a few quid’s worth of lira and the entire width of Asia to look forward to.

Andy began to physically beat the machine. Just as it looked like he might be winning, a security guard from a nearby building came over to see what all the fuss was about. But despite everyone’s best efforts, and a number of confused phone-calls to various equally confused helpline operators, it finally became clear that we would not be getting our last remaining cash card back. I’d heard that my own replacement cards were now on their way to Istanbul, along with two new wheels for Andy. I hoped they would all arrive in good time.

For the time being, though, it seemed that we would be living off the remaining contents of Andy’s wallet, which amounted to worryingly little. As we pedalled east along the coast towards the looming promise of Istanbul and a place to sort ourselves out, I remembered Laszlo, our host in Budapest. Laszlo had been a man who seemed to float above the passage of time like some omniscient philosopher, quietly evangelising what he’d dubbed ‘The Process’. He’d cultivated this idea as a result of spending half a year as a barefooted beggar in India. The thrust of Laszlo’s theory was that the ever-unfolding procession of all things was better simply accepted as it was than shaped to one’s needs. As part of this trust and acceptance of the unknowable and unplannable, Laszlo encouraged us as itinerant travellers to shake off the need to assume dominance over the world, and instead to let things run more loosely, because only then would we be able to concentrate on the experience that was being . . . well, experienced. Only by forgetting about abstract goals would we be able to see other opportunities dangling under our noses.

It sounded like a lot of new-age whacked-out hippie nonsense. But since my idea of new-age whacked-out hippie nonsense was a preconception anyway, I started to wonder whether behind the mere words lay something clearer and more honest, which could hardly be more relevant to the mission that had brought me to Laszlo’s home (or, as he put it, the place where he and his turtles happened to be living). And an opportunity had arisen to put it to the test. Could we continue travelling with next to no money whatsoever?

Now that our poverty was real, rather than self-imposed, we approached a series of roadside restaurants closed up for the coming winter, assessing whether or not we thought we’d get away with sleeping surreptitiously under an awning or in a doorway, there being no open land to camp on. It wasn’t until we began to investigate the ruin of a construction site, fallen into decay halfway to completion and already adorned with graffiti and vagrants’ paraphernalia, that we struck it lucky: an attendant from the petrol station next door suggested we sleep on the floor of a small kiosk in the parking lot. The kiosk was dusty and had evidently been out of use for some time, but the brick hearth full of ash identified it as once having been a handy little kebab hut. As we unpacked our sleeping-bags, the kindly attendant reappeared with a stack of broken-up cardboard boxes for us to sleep on, and this confirmed, beyond all question, that we were now fully qualified tramps.

Lying on the floor of that dusty kiosk, listening to cars and trucks thundering to and fro, Andy snoring quietly next to me, Asia just over the horizon, I found myself with plenty to wonder about. How could Turkey be defined? Was it Europe, the Middle East, or somewhere in between? How would the winter affect our continuing journey? And would we really get by on such a tiny budget?

And what about this religion, Islam? Because I wasn’t sure that it could all be about beards, burkas and bombs – or that it had anything to do with those things whatsoever.

It’s Friday, which means the comments section is open for questions about this week’s instalments. Fire away!

This is an instalment of the free serialisation of Janapar: Love on a Bike, my first book, telling the story of the ill-fated attempt I made in my 20's to cycle round the world. (Start at the beginning.)

Because long-term travelling is more complex than we like to imagine. On a journey of four years, a lot more will happen than just riding a bike. And maybe that's a good thing. It definitely makes for a better story...

Check out the Kindle edition & download a free sample →

2 Responses to “Europe passed into history with the wave of a soldier’s hand”

  1. Jack Brehm

    Tom, still going along with you. The last week was interesting and I am keen to have the rest of the story revealed. However, your day by day posting of the book is excruciatingly slow, like I was riding through each uphill and down. Shalom.

    Reply
  2. nick

    Hi Tom, really enjoying reading your tale everyday, looking forward to reading the rest- good source of daily inspiration to get back out there on the road!

    Reply

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