It was almost as if the very land conspired to help us on our way

The riding continued, slowly and methodically, but the days ended too early: December had arrived. Turkey wasn’t quite as warm or exotic as I’d imagined, and the available daylight hours were shrinking fast. One night, setting up a makeshift bed beneath a table in an abandoned summertime beach complex, my ailing head-torch finally broke from its mounting and the temptation to continue into the night in order to cover more distance was extinguished. We would now have to share Andy’s equally puny head-torch between us for the fourteen or fifteen hours of nightly darkness. I made do by holding the torch’s remains between my teeth while writing my diary; globs of unstemmed spittle joining the splotches of rain that began to fall onto the pages.

The rain fell throughout the night, and the meagre stretch of grassy land behind the beach transformed into a frigid, saturated marsh. A couple of old guys – caretakers, we supposed – were holed up in a trailer down the beach. They’d given us permission to sleep under the awning of the disused beach bar we’d made our home. It was in a state of severe disrepair – impossible to say whether it was merely closed for the winter, or out of business for good. As the morning light grew after the longest night that had ever passed, Andy and I stared out at the dismal torrent, and we knew without speaking that we wouldn’t be riding today. The thought of voluntarily setting off through that amount of flying water was simply too depressing. Anyway, it was high time we took a rest day. We were sure the old guys wouldn’t mind.

Scouting around the sorry little refuge, we found a large saw and took it in turns to dash out into the rain to collect logs, with which we started a fire in the beach bar’s rusty old barbecue. We kept it burning all day, building it absurdly high and hot, feeding it long into the evening as a kind of cathartic distraction from the sudden stillness of the world around us. As we settled down for another night on the concrete beneath an elaborate shelter of tables and chairs, I realised we’d hardly spoken for the entire day. Andy had been engrossed in a book, and I’d been writing my diary and reading my book as well. The weather had had a drastic effect on my mood and morale, exposed as I was to its whims twenty-four hours a day. The only place to hide, faced with adversity, had been within my own skull.

The following morning the rain was still falling. We bit the bullet and headed miserably off along the hilly coast once more. Within an hour we were soaked to the skin. Despondently we continued pedalling until a tea shop appeared in the crook of a valley. Off came drenched ponchos, jackets, trousers and T-shirts, and in a moment of pity the owner set us up in a back room with another stove and suggested we stay the night. We had covered a pathetic twenty miles. I dreamed of fancy waterproofs that would have cost me half a year’s food budget. And during the following procession of impossibly wet and cold days, we sought and found refuge in the most unlikely places: the changing rooms of a football ground, a concrete bunker beneath a radio mast in the hills, a wooden holiday cottage (complete with hot shower), another seafront beach bar ruin, a hotel run by a kindly middle-aged couple – and a government-run hostel for visiting teachers attached to the secondary school of the town of Turkeli. I had caught a cold, and the teachers decided that this was sufficient cause for us to take a day off. But first, they dragged us into the school to appear in front of four morning English classes (all in the same room, and at the same time).

Knowing how much I hated being the centre of attention, Andy volunteered to film the occasion while I squirmed in front of a hundred or so teenage school pupils. The boys wanted to know my favourite Premiership football team, while the girls wanted to take each others’ photographs with me on their mobile phones (goodness knows why; I’d neither shaved nor had a haircut for five months and was wearing a bright red skin-tight racing jacket and a pair of filthy linen chinos tucked into my ski socks), and everyone wanted to make sure I knew who Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was and why he was such a complete and utter legend. Then we joined some of the youths for a game of lunchtime volleyball before one over-eager player walloped the ball over the fence and into the sea. We stared forlornly through the mesh at the ball, as the current carried it slowly out of sight.

 

Turkey’s northernmost tip appeared one bright day over the brow of what I dearly hoped would be the last hill I ever climbed, and we decided to take a short detour along the little peninsula to the historical fort town of Sinop to find an Internet cafe and contact our families as we tried to do every couple of weeks, and perhaps find somewhere to sleep, seeing as it was already getting dark again. I also secretly hoped that I would get the opportunity to spend some time on my own. Andy and I had only been travelling together as a pair for a few weeks, but petty tensions peppered our time on the road. We had shared almost all aspects of our lives for a full half year, and biking across Europe in the summertime had been no preparation for this really quite miserable ride. Perhaps cycling as a pair shouldn’t be treated as a given. So much of what we’d originally planned had, after all, already veered off course. Perhaps, since we had each deliberately equipped ourselves for life alone on the road . . . perhaps the time was now coming for these two old friends to try their separate paths?

Well, if that was to be what happened, I wanted the parting to be on good terms. I’d heard enough stories of friendships gone sour through the forced proximity of a long-term expedition, and I didn’t want that to be the cause of our separation. On the other hand, we were adapting to these new challenges. We’d learnt how to stay relatively comfortable in the tough conditions, how to overcome the fierce gradients and the unsettled weather. Although I usually awoke in the early hours, aching with cold in my miserably inadequate sleeping-bag, the bad nights hadn’t prevented us from getting back into the saddle. I even found myself looking forward to the ‘proper’ winter ahead; nice dry snow instead of horrible wet rain.

With that thought in my mind, I sent an email to one of Ride Earth’s equipment sponsors, asking if they’d be able to send out some warmer sleeping-bags. Should be fine, came the reply, and I expected that they’d get back to me promptly for a receiving address, so I emailed some contacts further down the road. We were still awaiting a couple of small bits and bobs that the sponsor had failed to supply from the outset, so they could send those too. I’d offered to pay for the cost of the bags and the shipping, if they couldn’t justify sending them free of charge. I just hoped we would get our hands on them soon – the nights were only going to get colder, and we could spare little money for accommodation.

 

Turkey, however, was not yet ready to release its friendly grip. It was almost as if the very land conspired to help us on our way. Led astray on the way into Sinop by the overpowering aroma of freshly baked loaves, we had barely polished off one boulder of dense white bread when yet another cafe-owner dragged us into his establishment for a second lunch of delicious red lentil soup, yet more bread, and a round of questioning (between grateful slurps). Now stiff and painfully bloated from too much food, we trailed the quaysides of Sinop for hidden tramping spots. Andy popped into a hotel to try and haggle the rack rate down to something more reasonable; meanwhile I walked into the tea shop opposite and walked out again with the former national skin-diving champion of Turkey and the keys to his fishing boat. Events like this no longer seemed in the slightest bit unusual, and presently Andy and I were helping to haul the small launch in and heaving our bikes aboard. There was almost enough space in the cabin amongst the huge jerry-cans of diesel for the two of us to stand up; the berths were almost long enough to lie down on, too. We thanked our new friend profusely; he shrugged.

‘Stay as long as you like.’

We told him we’d stay a night and then press on, and thank you very much – teshekkur ederim! And we hopped back to dry land to try and walk off the epic bread with a romantic little evening stroll down the quayside.

This, it turned out, was a mistake. Within minutes we’d been accosted by an overenthusiastic young man with too much time on his hands, who appeared to know everyone and everything about Sinop. There was absolutely no convincing Berk to leave us alone without appearing outright rude, so off we trailed, trying to appear grateful for his hospitality while secretly wanting to lock him away in the fishing boat for the rest of the evening. I could barely contain my horror as we were led into a cafeteria and presented with two more bowls of soup! I peered at the bowl; this was a new variant. Our new companion passed me a bottle of garlic sauce and indicated that I should season what I now identified – with a stifled groan – as tripe. The chunks of furry white stomach lining floated obstinately in the greenish-yellow liquid, stinking of the sheep from whose interior they’d recently been extracted. And this, apparently, was a mainstay of Turkish cuisine! To this day, I am unable to qualify exactly how I reached the bottom of that bowl without redistributing the contents all over my newest friend and the restaurant floor.

But the gauntlet, far from being over, was only just beginning. Opposite the cafeteria lay a patisserie. Berk asked the shopkeeper for a box of assorted baklava – a treat, under normal circumstances. I accepted the gift with a quivering smile and a repressed heave, explaining that it would be a shame to eat these little pastries right now – they would make such excellent on-the-road snacks, you see? Berk was entirely oblivious to my discomfort, sauntering casually, hands in pockets, extolling the virtues of his pretty little hometown by the sea, and we wandered the streets together, Andy and he babbling away incoherently, me trailing a short way behind and wondering exactly when the torture was going to end. I felt as though I’d had a pallet-load of liquidised bricks pumped down my throat. Some semblance of relief came when Berk suggested we visit a small nightclub, and I was able to sit for half an hour watching young people dancing and drinking and smoking too much and not being able to hear what anyone was trying to tell me as I carefully hid the fact that my beer bottle was still entirely full.

On leaving the club, Berk presented the final hurdle in his diabolical challenge: it had been at least an hour since we’d last eaten – we must be starving! How would a pizza or two go down? Being English, we politely declined, which was interpreted by the Turk as a resounding acceptance. And so I staggered behind him and Andy, eyes watering in agony, to a pizzeria along the seafront towards the boat, where I meticulously concealed an entire pizza somewhere within the tubing of my throat. Gasping for air and doubled over with pain, I thanked my host for the evening, who smiled and said we were welcome, and let’s do it again some time.

Anyone wandering the streets of Sinop in the early hours the next morning might have seen a figure in a skin-tight red windstopper leaping ashore from Mert Tugay II and jogging – buttocks clenched – along the harbour to the nearest public facilities, all the while uttering a series of disturbing groans.

On my fourth visit I decided I’d paid enough to have earned lifetime membership. Ignoring the sleepy cashier’s protests, I bolted again for the liberating bliss of the cubicle.

 

‘Somewhere in Africa . . . like Kenya . . . yes, that would be nice,’ I was thinking. Passing streetlamps flickered into life through the drizzle, the nondescript sky deepening into murky blue.

Andy strapped on our shared head-torch and we gingerly pressed on along the highway’s hard shoulder. Following his silhouette into the night was an act of blind faith. We had one rear light between us, and no front lights at all. There was nowhere to buy any, and we could not have afforded them anyway, but we simply had to keep going. We were both desperate to get out of Turkey. We’d been in the country for almost three months and were beginning to tire of the sheer uniformity of the huge nation; each coastal town a changeless clone of its predecessor.

A car passed, bringing a few seconds of respite. The road was illuminated for an instant by the sweep of the headlights, debris and texture harshly accented in a blinding white, and I memorised the road surface ahead for perhaps ten or twenty metres. Then the darkness returned and the sound of the motor faded into a background of crashing, invisible waves. Only the chill air on my cheeks betrayed any sensation of movement. I might as well have been riding on the moon.

I heard a squeal of brakes. Snapped out of my trance, I grabbed at my own brake levers, unable to see, before colliding with the back of Andy’s trailer. I was thrown forward by my own momentum, ending up bent double over my own handlebars, the back of my right leg stinging sharply where it had absorbed the bike’s weight through the teeth of a pedal as the heavy three-wheeled vehicle came to a sudden halt.

‘God’s sake! What are you doing?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Why the hell did you just stop like that?’

Andy sighed heavily. ‘I was just . . . stopping!’

‘Well, why didn’t you say anything?’

‘Well, why weren’t you looking where you were going?’

‘You’re aware that it’s the middle of the night and I can’t see a bloody thing?’

‘Well, what do you want me to do about it?!?’

Being in charge of filming for the week, I decided to capture Andy at his most unreasonable. Nothing else I’d tried seemed to have worked. I quickly flipped open my handlebar bag, pulled out the camera and its big long-life battery and slid the two together in a well-practised motion. Toggling the power switch with one hand and opening the screen out with the other, I pointed the lens at Andy and flicked the night-vision mode on. He flashed into view on the screen in a sickly shade of green; a lanky, helmeted figure astride his overweight bike, stood by a roadside crash barrier, body half-turned to look at the guy who’d just ploughed into the back of him.

‘What . . . what are you doing?’

‘Getting the camera out. So you can see what you sound like in these kinds of situations.’

Andy looked back at the road ahead, exasperated.

‘Isn’t it obvious that this is probably not the best time to be filming?’ he asked after a while with faux diplomacy, knowing that his words were now being recorded.

‘No, I think this is absolutely the best time to be filming.’

‘So you want us to end up being arrested?’

Andy was referring to an incident earlier in the day, when we’d set up the camera on the side of the road and filmed ourselves cycling past in the rain. This had attracted the attention of the Turkish police, who had turned up with a number of squad cars and a van, made a huge fuss, and demanded to see the contents of the tapes and of our digital cameras, as if they believed themselves foiling some kind of major international terrorist plot. Then a local diplomat had happened by in a blacked-out Mercedes with Turkish flags flying from the front corners of its bonnet, waved the gormless cops away, and told us with a wry grin that we were free to go.

‘Don’t be so paranoid!’ I replied. ‘How are we going to end up being arrested if nobody can see us?’

‘You’re . . . you’re just completely reckless!’

‘The world isn’t out to get us,’ I said, ‘and if there’s a problem . . .’

‘I know the world isn’t out to get us – I didn’t think that in the first place! I’ve been cycling with you for six months . . .’

‘And you think I’m reckless?’ I asked.

‘Sorry?’

Lorry.

‘You think I’m reckless?’ I repeated.

‘Occasionally, yes.’

Occasionally reckless?’

‘Yeah.’

‘OK . . . look, can we just go?’

We rode onward into the night. Some time later we came to a town. Andy spotted a taxi rank and we took shelter in a little heated den by the road with a huddle of smoking taxi drivers, before wandering surreptitiously over to the pedestrian subway beneath the highway, rolling out our sleeping-bags, and silently preparing ourselves for another sleepless night outdoors.

 

The following day I had something to distract me from this rigmarole. A message had popped up unannounced in my inbox: an email from Ben, one of the video project’s producers.

‘Without beating around the bush,’ he’d written, ‘the simple fact of the matter is that we have not been able to secure a sponsor for the podcast and because of this we have to stop work.’

We knew that episode six had been delayed. A hard drive failure. No backup. It was the editor’s fault. They’d already recut it and were just putting the finishing touches to it all. Ben and James had been ploughing more than a thousand pounds a month into the on-line series, dwarfing the budget of our journey. But the reality was that the funds had now run out.

It seemed unfathomable. Everyone had been so enthusiastic. Even Mark, after returning home, had taken a job with the company in order to help with publicity and sponsorship. The first five episodes had been entertaining; the editor had done an admirable job with the early spools of horribly amateurish footage, and we heard nothing but occasional blasts of optimism when we’d asked how it was all panning out. But we’d never been party to the audience figures or the publicity strategy – all that had been hidden behind an increasingly corporate wall. For all the upbeat talk, the series had failed to make a splash, and all the excuses and changes of tack couldn’t hide the fact forever: nobody was really that interested in watching our journey unfold. And, consequently, nobody wanted to foot the bill for a series without an audience.

Lying on the floor of a subway on a cold winter night, a few thousand miles from home and with no money, it seemed an appropriate moment to try to look at it all objectively. The fact of the matter was that Ben and James had tried to get the British cycling community interested in the story of three hopelessly idealistic middle-class university graduates on an extended holiday in Western Europe. We made slower progress than even the most uncompetitive gaggle of Sunday-morning roadies. We were slightly less entertaining than Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman (though of course far more heroic and adventurous). The camerawork was worse than in the shakiest home video. For all we’d imagined that would be impressive and noteworthy about the journey, it had turned out to make for rather uninspiring viewing.

‘Of course,’ Ben had gone on to write, ‘none of this affects the documentary film, and so the most important thing is that you keep shooting. I’m sure you will anyway. But don’t for one second feel that all of this has been a waste of time. This project has always been something of an experiment, and we’ve all learnt a great deal along the way.’

The comforting words rang hollow. For weeks we’d been posting packets of tapes into oblivion, and there was no evidence that anyone had even watched them. The final episode had finished on a sour note somewhere in Austria, featuring Andy and I coming to blows one morning over the mysterious issue of a broken trailer.

‘I strongly believe that every end has a new beginning and that this situation is no different,’ finished Ben’s message. ‘It just may take a while to materialise.’

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 →

Comments are closed.