The route was going to be every bit the challenge we’d imagined

I followed Andy north along the Asian bank of the Bosphorus Straits, then – when the city started to recede – we headed east on the smallest through-road we could find. My dormant leg muscles brought the world into movement once again; the simple pleasures of fresh air and perpetual motion mine once more. Soon we were climbing a quiet lane through the wooded hills, all orange and brown with the passing of autumn, just like home; the world suddenly damp and cool and clean-smelling after the month of city life. I can barely remember such a pleasant shock to the senses as clearing the north-eastern outskirts of Istanbul.

It was already the second day since departure, correctly speaking. The first day had involved rounding up a few things: primarily Andy, who’d been with his girlfriend and whom I hadn’t seen for some days; secondly a piece of mail that had finally appeared but that sadly proved not to contain my new bank cards; and thirdly our worldly possessions, which by this time were scattered about the districts of the city like the spoils of some bizarre treasure hunt, in the basements and living rooms and cupboards of the young Turks with whom we’d stayed. Halfway out of the city, the usual kind of thing had happened: we’d met a chain-smoking Robert de Niro lookalike in a betting shop who’d given us a pocket-sized bilingual dictionary and a cheese pasty and introduced us to a one-eyed tramp who had offered us one of his secret back-alley hideouts for the night. It’s OK, he’d said; he wouldn’t be using it that evening. Andy had taken up residence under a table outside (naturally, since I’d had the table on the rooftop), while I’d shared a shed-sized hovel with the tramp’s accumulated clutter and the local rodent population, my feet protruding from the narrow doorway. Thus was the manner of our departure from Istanbul.

Riding through the autumnal Turkish countryside, everything damp and sun-speckled, I wrestled with the value of the previous month; thirty days that had so easily disappeared into Istanbul’s vast underbelly. Most of that time, I felt, had been frittered away, waiting to leave. The delays themselves felt self-inflicted. Had it really been necessary to have new wheels posted all the way from England? Couldn’t a bike shop have been found, selling a half-decent wheel, in a city of nearly twenty million inhabitants on the edge of Europe?

At least I’d had one piece of good news: the wallet that I’d lost in Bucharest several weeks previously had turned up down the back of our host Eliza’s sofa! It had contained a hundred and seventy euros in cash. Eliza was pleased to hear we’d made it to Istanbul, and offered to take the euros to a Western Union branch. The agency, whose black and yellow signs I’d always seen and ignored, transferred the cash – after taking a fifteen percent cut – and I’d received this incredible mountain of money in a Turkish bank, whose manager ordered glasses of tea to be brought while it rained and we wrangled over the distinction between Tom (the name on the transfer) and Thomas (the name on my passport).

Andy’s new wheels seemed to glitter crazily, spinning in the sunlight. But I knew it wouldn’t be long before they gained the same kind of coating of dirt and grime as our bikes and luggage had accumulated over the last few thousand miles. With life back in perspective, and with nothing better to do but stare at the scenery, I performed a few calculations and came up with an estimate of roughly a month of riding to cross the country. That gave me a budget of five euros a day, which was massively extravagant. Stretching it to six weeks, enough time to reach Tbilisi by the end of the year, would still work out at more than three euros a day. Suddenly I felt rich. Imagine how much bread and cheese and pasta that would buy!

The low hills flattened out into a humdrum coastal carriageway taking goods traffic between a handful of small cities. It was forgiving terrain for two out-of-practice cyclists, but it wouldn’t last for long: Zonguldak was the location of the first big climb. It was late in the day and by nightfall we had barely cleared the city on its eastern, uphill side, and were feeling drained, having not yet re-adapted to the calorie-heavy diet we needed to sustain this much exercise.

The sense of a new chapter in the story of this journey was heightened by a keen awareness that Andy and I were now forging a route into the Middle East as a solitary pair of old mates. Maria was no longer with us; no trace of familiarity now remained but for each other’s grubby and increasingly hairy faces. I’d barely seen Maria since she and I had parted ways on the second day of our stay in Istanbul; lack of space in her friend’s apartment meant I’d ended up staying on the other side of the city. Weeks had passed and contact had grown dimmer as we each fell deeper into the attractions and distractions of the city, and Maria had quietly dropped off the map. Despite the fact that Andy and I would now have to confront our various differences, I found myself curiously unmoved by the fact that Maria had gone her own way. It seemed somehow inevitable, after our carefree months of hedonistic fooling around in Europe. Now, having learnt the ropes, we had a serious mission to tackle – to Ride the Earth proper – and as gutsy as Maria was, she would only have slowed us down.

Grinding doggedly uphill as we were, slowing down much more would mean stopping altogether. And stopping at a petrol station for a rest meant striking up our usual question-and-answer session with the young men who manned the place. We were soon ushered into an adjoining storage room, which was empty but for a table, a row of plastic chairs and couple of large pallets of shrink-wrapped paper towels, and I was thankful simply for the opportunity to have a cup of tea and a sit-down. But soon, to our amazement, we realised that the smiling workers were offering us this storage room for the night! Again and again I checked, acting out the sleeping gesture of tilting my head onto a pair of flattened palms and pointing questioningly at the floor. Yes, yes, they replied casually; you can sleep here – of course! Problem yok – no problem!

As I rolled out my sleeping-bag on top of the stacks of paper towels – as comfortable as any orthopaedic mattress; I suggest you try it – I could not imagine wishing for better. Our next option would have been hunting for a suitable ditch in the dark, on the edge of an industrial town, or perhaps somewhere within a building site. But the best was yet to come. A big heater was produced and fired up; more glasses of tea were brought forth. Smiles continued to widen, and, to round things off, one of the younger staff returned with a plastic bag. As he extracted the kebabs and drinks he’d bought for us and laid them out on the table, I tried to ignore the unexpected image that popped into my head – the same scene played out at a petrol station in Britain, BP employees dashing from behind lottery scratchcard dispensers and stacks of cardboard coffee-cups to set a pair of cyclists up with a meal and a bed for the night. How laughable!

What was it that separated our cultures on this level? The more I thought, the more it seemed strange: why shouldn’t two strangers strike up conversation in the street? Why were we taught as children that talking to new people was bad? Here was a culture with precisely the opposite view, and they seemed to be getting on just fine. So from what, exactly, were we trying to defend ourselves?

I recognised in myself this impulse towards privacy, towards self-protection. But it no longer seemed right. Something needed to change. Was this what was meant by the ‘broadening of horizons’ cliché that was so often bandied about as one of travel’s great virtues?

Putting these thoughts aside, I was enormously grateful to these kind, generous young Turks who sat and joked with us as we ate our dinner, which tasted all the better for being an unsolicited gift. They clearly enjoyed the opportunity to display some of that world-famous Turkish hospitality that travellers past and present had raved about, and to hear the crazy story of two guys who’d ridden here on bisiklets from Ingiltera, and who were about to begin an even crazier plan – to cycle into the mountains of northern Turkey, right on the cusp of winter.

 

It was a spectacular ride: a slow-motion rollercoaster of earth and rock; violent clouds up close at the crux of each set of valleys within valleys; more clouds racing across the ocean towards the towering highlands. The air was chill, barely a degree above zero. Soaked in sweat on my way up the trails that coiled the spurs like spaghetti, I would arrive gurning at the top, stop for a breather and immediately begin to shiver as my body’s furnace shut down. The plummeting descent would leave me frozen to the bone. And the process would repeat itself with wearying regularity. I had left my warm fleece on a ferry in Istanbul, leaving me with the choice between a thin T-shirt and a skin-tight red windstopper designed for racing cyclists with severe upper-body deformations. My winter gloves, ‘borrowed’ from the quartermaster during my brief stint in the TA, were thick leather specimens, and became drenched with sweat as I rode, rendering them useless. With December drawing close, it would have been fair to say that I was ill-equipped. But I possessed no means of buying appropriate clothing – no money to spare, and no outdoor equipment shops in which to buy these things anyway. I would have to grin and bear it.

I awoke very early one morning and peered from my sleeping-bag, wondering why the bloody hell my legs were so cold. They were throbbing with pain. I screwed up my eyes, blinded by the glare of an overhead streetlamp. It was still completely dark. Then memories came drifting back: we had gone to sleep on the floor of a bus-shelter. I was lying in a sodding bus shelter. But the sky was somehow hazy. I blinked, and realised that the air was full of swirling snow.

I closed my eyes and kicked my legs in a futile attempt to get some warm blood into them. It didn’t work; they were trapped in the sandwich of bivvy-bag, foam mattress and sleeping-bag. I would have to get up and jump around. But the very thought was so hideous that I elected to block out the stone-cold numbness in my shins, pull my hat over my eyes, and wait the darkness out. And soon I drifted back into a feverish, disturbed sleep.

It was fully light when I awoke – just in time to notice some feet by my head. Then a low roar grew and stopped with a hiss, and the legs disappeared with another growl and the sound of slush being slowly parted by heavy tyres. I sat up with a sudden sense of urgency – it was time to get warm, grab a quick breakfast and venture into the new, white world that had quietly descended and which had ushered out one season and brought in the next, quite literally overnight.

Then I looked down.

My boots.

Had they been six inches further under the canopy, it would have been fine.

But it wasn’t fine.

My boots were full of wet snow.

‘Bollocks!’

Andy seemed fine when he awoke, still having a fleece and dry boots, and having won the inside spot in a game of paper-scissors-stone, this being the only fair way to make such crucial decisions. I imagined he might have something to say about having woken up in a mountaintop bus shelter to find the world blanketed in snow. But when I pointed the video camera at him, he pretended not to have noticed and began silently packing his sleeping gear.

‘Well . . . ?’

‘Well what?’

‘D’you want to say something?’

‘Oh. Right. We woke up in a bus shelter, and it was snowing.’

‘Right . . . how about making it a bit more interesting?’

‘What do you want me to say, exactly?’

‘I don’t know – something about how you feel about it, perhaps?’

‘Well, that’s it, isn’t it? We woke up and it was snowing! I’m freezing my bollocks off! What else is there to say?’

‘Well, that’s not going to make a very interesting video, is it?! What happened to making an effort to . . . to communicate to people who might not have woken up this morning in a bus stop?!’

I didn’t want an argument; I wanted to film the bus stop and the snow, because although it might be fairly normal for us to sleep outside on solid concrete at sub-zero temperatures, it might one day be interesting to people back home. But Andy didn’t want to be filmed, and this meant that I’d get it in the neck for trying.

Filming had been Andy’s idea in the first place. He’d jumped at the chance to team up with the production company, convincing me to give it a try. I’d been much more interested in photographing and writing about the journey, but I’d agreed to give it a go, and Ben and James, the company’s founders, had driven up to my village for a two-day shoot shortly before the big departure. They’d also covered the leaving event itself, before essentially leaving us to our own devices. We’d been filming the journey ever since, which had been a difficult and time-consuming endeavour, but also a hugely rewarding one. We hadn’t had a clue what to do with our video cameras to begin with, other than press the red button and point the lens at anything remotely interesting. The subtle arts of composition, storytelling, continuity and the like – let alone the needs of editors and sound designers and directors – were things about which we’d never paid a thought. I’d eventually taken to the process, though, and I was determined to do the best job I could with the equipment and take the opportunity to try and tell our story. Granted, it was rapidly becoming the story of the most confused, interrupted, ill-prepared round-the-world bicycle journey of all time! But if that was going to be the story, then so be it. I felt that it was worth doing justice to, and spent increasing amounts of riding time mulling over new ideas for how best to commit the days, weeks and months of adventures to video.

Andy had had similar opportunities to work on his skills, and we’d watched some recent material and seen for ourselves how much it had improved since our embarrassingly awful attempts at the beginning of the trip. But I couldn’t understand his touchiness when I decided it was a good moment to ask him to tell the story to our camera. Maybe he was under more strain than he cared to admit. Could the mysterious backgammon-girl, left behind in Istanbul, have something to do with it?

As we gingerly nosed our way down the slushy switchbacks towards the little peninsular town of Amasra beside its picturesque lagoon, damp brakes squeaking, the snow thinned and vanished. Looking along the coastline at the endless rank of steep zigzag promontories that dropped into the ocean, the snowline was clearly visible; a band of white disappearing into the clouds above the green ribbon of the lower slopes, running along the coastline like the icing on a cake until it vanished over the sea’s horizon.

We followed our noses through the clean, empty streets to a bakery and, while eating breakfast on its doorstep, were invited into a nearby tea house by its owner for another friendly chat about our journey while we gradually warmed up. We were always being invited into tea shops; indeed, they became shrines in our heat-seeking pilgrimages as the temperature dropped. Approaching one particular village, we’d made a very deliberate decision to decline any and all invitations. We would accomplish this by cycling through at high speed – we needed to make progress more than we needed yet another tasty shot of caffeine. But upon hurtling past the village tea shop, an elderly patron had burst forth and charged down the street after us, bellowing in protest and brandishing in one hand what appeared to be an old shoe. He was just about to rugby-tackle Andy from his bicycle when we decided that a cup of tea might be a good idea after all.

These chay salonus followed an endearingly predictable formula: large misty windows making way for a large and sparsely decorated room set with square tables and wonky-legged classroom chairs and stools, heated by wood-burners whose tin-pipe chimneys followed artistic routes about the walls and ceiling to the point of their eventual escape. The village’s elderly men would sit in groups, talking little, playing lots of card games and backgammon, overlooked by little pendants – a royal blue stone depicting a single eye in black, white and yellow – and at least one portrait of Ataturk, who could also be found loitering in the toilets. Hours would pass in an indistinguishable blur of wood-smoke, warming fingers and toes while being fed endless glasses of the sweet amber brew and holding identical conversations in bad German with the retired members of what must have once been the entire Turkish merchant navy. I had never met so many ships’ captains, or so many flat-capped woolly-jumpered old dudes who’d sailed the seven seas for a living. Africa . . . America . . . Panama . . . Dubai . . . Liverpool . . . the wealth of seafaring experience contained within the tea shops of the Black Sea Coast appeared to be matchless.

As we began to tackle another steep ascent out of Amasra and back up the side of the wall of rock that defended Northern Turkey from the waves, it dawned upon us that the route was going to be every bit the challenge we’d imagined. Our little map of the country didn’t speak of terrain or elevation profiles, but, looking down the coast, our eyes could fill in the missing data very well. A couple of days’ ride inland lay the arterial east-west route across the country’s north. This could have got us across the nation within a fortnight or so. But it had been so much fun to sketch out challenging, adventurous plans from the comfort of a warm city-centre flat – far easier than actually executing those plans, it was turning out.

But Andy and I were determined to beat these hills and this sudden onset of wintry weather. We were back in motion and enjoying the quiet simplicity of the off-season seaside life. On the way out of town I popped into a supermarket for the day’s supplies and was delighted to discover that the store was holding a sale on pairs of the itchiest woollen long johns the world had ever known. No more uncomfortable nights in my tent, I thought, as I handed over yet more of my tiny cache of precious lira.

 

We wrenched our bikes up and down the tiny roads with the expanse of the Black Sea crashing against the rocks below. Far beyond that northern horizon lay another of the growing list of places I realised that I knew nothing about whatsoever – the Crimean Peninsula. I vaguely recalled something about a war, but nothing more.

I was becoming aware that I was taking a superficial, subjective cross-section of Turkey, and that what I didn’t know would always outweigh what I did a million-fold. Cycling the Black Sea Coast didn’t mean I’d later be able to say I ‘knew Turkey’, even though it would be very easy to claim that I did. Every day I watched fears germinate from the tiniest seeds of information via the news bulletins on the television set that would be found in every tea-room and cafeteria: dramatic-sounding newsreaders delivering hourly reports of insurgency and violence over a stirring orchestral score; flashy graphics depicting F-16 fighters and guided missiles; slow-motion replays of targets exploding in fuzzy lo-fi; exultation at the successful Turkish repulsion of yet another terrorist threat from just over the border – this time in Kurdish Iraq (while the terrorists in Armenia and Greece and Syria were of course simply biding their time). Between reminders that the whole world was out to get poor Turkey, singers crooned emotively charged refrains amid time-honoured dance routines in a kind of sensory reinforcement of the essence of Turkishness in the face of perpetual threat. And, wherever I looked, fluttering white-on-red crescent flags flew proudly, and the annoyingly benevolent face of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the country’s beloved revolutionary, stared out at me.

Meanwhile I rode with Andy along undulating roads through peaceful lands, growing fitter than ever before, and pondering some of life’s big questions, such as exactly which was the best packaged biscuit from Turkey’s vast array. We eventually settled upon Tutku – a vanilla-chocolate shell enrobing an inner treasure of chocolate fondant. It was one thing, at least, on which we managed to agree.

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 →

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