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Book Serialisation

What happens to me on this journey is mostly outside my control

I promise you this camera is on its way out. I give it another … I give it another three weeks.

Having now cycled in temperatures approaching fifty degrees Celsius, and comparing it to cycling in temperatures of around minus thirty degrees Celsius two winters ago, I have to say – it’s definitely better to be too hot than to be too cold. I suffered a lot more that winter than I have done here.

Yes, it is very hot, and it is uncomfortable, but in the extreme cold it’s a real … I dunno … you’re aware of your mortality, and the fact that these are seriously dangerous temperatures, and that without shelter and without the right equipment you won’t last long. At least in the heat, as long as there is water around, it’s probably not going to kill you.

I know I’m putting it in a very general sense. But it’s better to be too hot than too cold. Definitely.

There’s another reason why I’ve been doing really long days recently. And it’s because Tenny and I have been in touch with each other by email. And it’s given me the motivation to push it a little bit further every day. Because I do miss her a lot. I mean, there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about her.

It’s not something that should distract me from the experience I’m having here. But it’s something that’s keeping me going, and it’s giving me focus. And therefore … therefore, it’s got to be a good thing.

I think that before I met Tenny, Andy and I – I think that there’s a danger when travelling to get lost a little bit. There’s always a danger that you … there’s a saying that ‘you can be so open-minded that your brain falls out’. And I think that might have applied if we’d carried on. There’s no knowing where we’d have ended up, and how long we’d have travelled for.

In the end, it does become more self-indulgent than anything else, I think. There’s always a natural end to every stage of one’s life.

 

The heat sits across my back and shoulders like a cloak. My route has swung south-east on a newly built tarmac road. Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, is behind me, and I will soon arrive at the Ethiopian border, the remainder of Sudan still being out of reach for the independent traveller. The south is preparing for a referendum, and Africa’s largest nation looks set to be cleft in two. By the time the sun dips below the horizon I’ve cycled a hundred miles, and it is clear already that an entirely different atmosphere shrouds these lands. Gone are the pretty, friendly, brightly painted villages. Gone are the reassuring sprouts of palm branches that told of closeness to the riverbank. The most enigmatic period of travelling I can remember has come to an end, and the road heads out into the featureless wind-blown gravel plains of the Sahara, which is beginning to look increasingly like the ten million square kilometres of purgatory I’d always seen in my childish imagination. I snatch a few hours of sleep beneath my mosquito net, and am back on the road an hour before sunrise, head down, face shaded beneath the sunhat I’ve tied to my head with string to prevent it being taken by the infernal wind.

These are the longest days I’ve ever spent in the saddle. My body had never been so attuned to the task of cranking out sheer distance. But the newly paved surface is not here to help. Dotted occasionally alongside the tarmac are collections of sad crumbling shelters, some inhabited, some ruined and empty, none resembling a community. I revert to eating alone from my supplies, carrying as much water as possible. Lonely figures shuffle across the wastes between forlorn huddles of houses, sometimes wandering the empty desert, like sickened animals looking for some place to finally give in to the unrelenting heat, sand and god-damned sun.

I stop briefly at a tiny shop with a fridge full of Pepsi, Sprite and – my personal favourite – Stim, something similar to Appletiser. The owner’s existence depends on selling a few bottles or a packet of overpriced biscuits every day to passing buses and pick-ups travelling the long road between the bigger towns. He doesn’t ask why I’m alone in the desert on a funny-looking bicycle. An old woman shoos me away like a stray dog when I approach to ask to camp within the perimeter of her village. Nobody smiles or waves. The atmosphere is heavy with oppression. And, knowing nothing but odd snippets of hearsay about the history of Sudan and her internal conflicts, I can only pass by. That night, as I lie on my back in the sand, sinking into sleep’s oblivion beneath the clearest starscape on earth, I can’t help but wonder why it has to be like that. But, for now, I am about to leave Sudan behind. And, as always, I will leave with more questions than answers.

 

‘Hello Mister!’

‘Hello.’

‘Are you fine?’

‘Yes, thank you.’

‘Where are you from? Germania? Farrance? America?’

Ah, the Germans. Great travellers indeed.

‘England, actually.’

I wonder what name my home country is known by here. Anything beats the Arabic ‘Br-r-r-itannia’, or previous incarnations: ‘Ingilterra’, ‘Anglia’, ‘Angle’, ‘Inglestan’.

‘Ah, my friend! England! Wayne Rooney! Margaret Tatcher! David Beck Ham!’

‘Er. Yes. I couldn’t agree more.’

‘My friend, you like football, no? I very very much like Chelsea.’

‘Really? Why?’

I haven’t the foggiest clue about football; if I had, I would still be somewhere in Egypt having a stimulating conversation in a tea shop about the ins and outs of the English Premier League.

‘Before, I like Liverpool. Everybody like Liverpool. Very, very good. But not now. Now everybody like Chelsea.’

‘Oh, right …’

‘My friend, maybe you need help? What are you look for? Hotel restaurant-bar-change-money?’

Yes, I was waiting for this, and I’m sure you have friend who has very good hotel-restaurant-bar-change-money.

‘No, thanks, I’m OK. I’m just walking. I like to look around on my own.’

‘Why? Mister, you need help! I have friend, he has very very good hotel-restaurant-bar-change-money!!!’

 

One expects an arbitrary frontier on a map to bear little relevance to what one sees on the ground. But borders are often established where they are for good reason. In many cases there really is some major geographical distinction – mountain ridge, significant waterway, deep valley – that was fought over at some point or other in the past and which was too defensible or treacherous to allow either neighbour to overcome the other. And, once past this historical boundary, modern-day social and economic influences shape the landscape on each side: differences in land-use alone can mark drastic changes in the space of a few metres.

The Ethiopian side of the river is greener than Sudan’s scrubby desert, bristling with strained, ambitious flora; a hazy backdrop of distant peaks telling of the high-altitude ride ahead. Ethiopia, the continent’s most mountainous nation; rarely remembered for that reason. Those I’m still in touch with back home doubtless harbour the same guilt-laden images of Ethiopia as I do: dusty skin stretched over sunlit ribs, bellies swollen with hunger, flies gathering around staring white eyes. It’s been two decades since the awful pictures of that famine reached British screens, so I’m hesitant to guess at what I might find as I take a pedal-powered cross-section of this wounded place.

But these dismal thoughts are quietened by the unadulterated sense of life that radiates forth as I stare up the wide gravel road in front of me. Lined on either side with unkempt rows of tumbledown shacks that extend beyond the reach of sight, as if carelessly scattered from on high by a distracted creator, Metema’s street scene is absolutely crawling with people. Men. Women … women in public! Children weaving among adults like rivulets down a streambed. Rickshaws. Donkeys. Wood smoke and freshly baked bread. Honking and yammering and a cacophony of competing sound-systems – music! How long has it been since I last heard music played in the street? I eagerly push my bike up the track and into the fray, Islamic Africa and the Middle East already a relic of my mind.

 

As a rule, I’ve avoided hanging around national frontiers. These settlements evolve to tempt newcomers with their trade, to extract the maximum possible cash before moving guiltlessly on to the next punter who comes their way. The tricks of the trade are ever-changing and easy to be duped by, but the rule of thumb remains: there is no free lunch in a border town. Yet for every rule of thumb there is a contrary little pinkie to be found.

I follow Nega from his office across the road, and we duck down an alley between grey, rickety wooden walls and emerge into a small yard decked out with a couple of little tables and stools. Nega has a centred, confident air about him, applying himself to each task as it comes with equal quantities of calm and concentration, whether giving the waitress our food order, making a path through crowds of street-vendors and loiterers – or finding a particular page in a medical textbook in order to show me a magnified image of which of the four strains of malaria he has just diagnosed me with.

Malaria

It had been that unusual ache in my legs, together with the very beginnings of fever, that gave it away; that groggy feeling you get when you stand up quickly and the world seems to glow slightly, lagging a split-second behind. A little twinge at the back of the throat rounded off the symptoms I needed to send me in the direction of Metema’s sparsely furnished clinic and into Nega’s treatment room for a blood sample. While the smear of red on the glass was left to dry, he’d asked me to accompany him across the road to one of the many eateries, and that was where I realised that I was in fact about to get a free lunch in a border town. Then I’d sat in the clinic’s waiting room, reading the bold, lavishly illustrated posters on the walls that detailed the fundamentals of condom use. He’d delivered the news to me shortly after with the same friendly, plodding diplomacy that he employed in everything else he did. Don’t worry, he said. This is just the first stage.

 

Still not sure what to make of having malaria, to be honest. I feel very weak … and … mentally weak, also. I feel …

I don’t know, really.

In Sudan, the temptation to do very very long days, day after day after day, was too high, and I couldn’t pace myself. And now I’m paying for it. I’ve just run myself into the ground, basically, by pushing it too hard.

My – my body just feels like it needs a rest, and I don’t mean a couple of days in a city, rushing around trying to do chores – I mean some proper rest, where I do nothing but stay in one place and have some serious recuperation time.

It’s just what to do while I’m waiting, really, because resting while you’re ill is not really resting, if you see what I mean – it’s being ill. I don’t really know what I’m talking about, to be honest – I did start this video diary with something in mind, but it seems to have gone astray somehow. Erm …

I think I’ve talked too much, now. I think I’m going to stop.

 

I return to the hotel in which I’d spent the previous night to tell the staff that I won’t be checking out just yet. I’m clutching a small packet of multicoloured pills and instructions to rest throughout the three days of heavy medication I’ve been prescribed. I’m not planning to argue with this – after all, I’ve just learnt that the world’s single biggest killer has taken up residence in my bloodstream. I should be terrified. I have malaria, for goodness sake – the disease that kills one African child every forty-five seconds. So why do I feel so flippant? I have a bit of a fever, sorer-than-usual legs, a handful of pills, and a couple of days off to look forward to. What’s missing is any sense of the gravity of having being diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. Why is that?

Here’s the thing. I have already accepted that what happens to me on this journey is mostly outside my control. I prepare for a balance between expected and unexpected. I’d taken anti-malarial drugs, for example. They hadn’t worked. I’d covered up and slept beneath mosquito nets: a couple of bites got through anyway. Bad luck. I’ve already dealt with so much in the way of unpredictability, of being exposed and vulnerable, on this journey that is rapidly proving the biggest test of my life. Learning precisely how little grasp I have over the way these elements of life play out, I long since stopped trying to fix the odds in my favour, or wasting energy on emotions like fear or frustration or anger which have absolutely no positive effect on the cards that have been dealt. And I suppose it is the same with this. I know that a reaction will not change what has already come to pass. So why bother? Why waste energy on tears or terror or panic when that energy would be much better spent taking the medication, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, and making a quick check that – were things not to go my way – I had at the very least been pursuing a life that was authentically mine?

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Book Serialisation

I had lost my way so badly that I risked losing everything

The north-east coast of Turkey was famous for its unique take on the national cuisine; also for its tea and hazelnut plantations. Huge cheese-filled pizzas swimming with molten butter and chunks of spicy sausage; great platters of grilled meat with rice; stews of aubergine and tomato and green peppers and chickpeas: these delights sat tantalisingly behind big glass windows in restaurants that we were too sodden and grubby and poor to enter. We celebrated the shortest day of the year by cranking out the longest day’s ride of the journey so far, but the internal disorder which had afflicted me so memorably in Sinop had still not subsided after almost a fortnight, and when we finally arrived at the historic fortified city port of Trabzon I threw in the towel and declared that – for the first time in a quarter of a year – it was time we rented a room. I was sick of stopping at every petrol station and dashing for the toilet, and Andy was probably sick of waiting around for me, although he acted with admirable patience and never said as much. The facilities were invariably of the squat-and-hosepipe variety. I couldn’t even sit down to be ill.

We’d heard that the three-day bayram festival – the ‘sacrifice feast’ – was now under way in Turkey, and that custom dictated that half of the spoils would be given away to the destitute, the homeless, and to travellers, which sounded like a cracking way to spend a day off. We found a twin room in a hotel-hostel in Trabzon city centre, all dull lino and pastel shades and greenish fluorescent lighting, which to us was a luxury of the highest possible order. But first, we had important chores to attend to. And so, after the obligatory luggage explosion, we headed out into the small city and Andy called our friendly equipment sponsor for the umpteenth time, pouring yet more of our precious and dwindling cash down the line to England. It had been more than a month since they’d agreed to help get new sleeping-bags to us, and the delay had become particularly acute on the many nights we’d had to spend in the open, tossing and turning all night, waking bleary-eyed and frustrated, frozen to the bone. That we’d resorted to sharing a single tent was a measure of how desperate the situation had become.

‘It’s ringing!’ said Andy, as I listened in from the door of the booth. ‘Hello there – it’s Andy from Ride Earth here. Can I speak to Dominic, please?’

A female voice twittered back.

‘OK, thanks … ’

There was a pause while the whereabouts of Dominic, our contact at the company, was identified.

‘Erm – probably not,’ replied Andy, having been asked if he could hold the line. ‘I’m in a phone box in Turkey at the moment. So I don’t know whether …’

‘Tell them it’s urgent!’ I interrupted.

‘It’s pretty urgent,’ continued Andy. ‘Er … we’ve been trying to get in contact with him … a fair amount, recently.’

This was the diplomatic understatement of the century. I began jogging on the spot for warmth, attracting stares from passers-by. On the other end of the line, the chattering continued.

‘Right … well, basically, we’re planning to cycle across Central Asia in the winter, and then across Tibet. So it’s going to be really cold. And we were talking to Dominic about the possibility of getting some, erm, warmer sleeping-bags sent out. Because at the moment we’ve only got summer ones. And we’re getting a little bit chilly.’

‘Tell them it’s snowing!’ I interjected.

‘It’s starting to snow and stuff, so …’ Andy swung round to look at the phone booth’s little screen, where our calling credit was gradually counting down to zero. The receptionist, doubtless, was now desperately looking for a way to wind up this unexpected call from West Asia and resume the nice quiet game of Solitaire she’d been enjoying.

‘Is, er, Jeremy there?’ asked Andy.

Jeremy was the managing director of the company. I remembered our first meeting with him, in which we’d reeled off our pitch and he’d told us that he thought we were complete idiots. While Andy waited, muttering under his breath, I looked around the little square. Bare trees surrounded a central plaza, once hosting outdoor cafes, now empty, scattered with the winter leaves. Figures in thick dark coats, flat caps and tightly bound headscarves traversed the damp stone tiles; traffic circled the square beneath a dismal sky.

‘OK. Alright, then. Well, er, drop … drop us an email, then, if he’s still on the phone. I mean, is he going to be on the phone for a long time, d’you think, or … ?’

‘Tell them we’ll ring back!!!’

My fingers were finally beginning to warm up, and I stuffed them into my armpits, so that they could warm up as well.

Andy grimaced. ‘OK, no worries. Well, if you could, er, tell him when he gets off the phone that I’ll call back in five minutes … Alright then. Thanks very much. Bye!’

He hung up the phone. The glass double doors of the booth slammed shut behind him.

There was an outdoor equipment store on the eastern outskirts of Trabzon. As far as we knew, it was the only such thing between here and Beijing. Now, at the end of December, I had finally decided that a replacement fleece pullover was worth the huge financial outlay. But the expensive imported sleeping-bags were far beyond our budget, and we’d decided to give our sponsor one last chance.

‘We just need an answer, really. Just an answer,’ Andy was saying to me.

‘I know. It’s ridiculous. How long does it take to say yes or no, for god’s sake?’

‘I wish we could just go and buy some sleeping-bags, or another blanket, or something. So when it’s snowing on us in the night, we’re not freezing our tits off.’

‘Dying of hypothermia, more like.’

‘Or we could just go and get some geese, pluck them, then get some plastic bags, fill them with feathers and stitch them together. That might work!’

‘Hah! Maybe!’

‘It’s a religious festival – do they slaughter geese today?’

‘I think geese is – er – Christmas?’

‘Oh yeah, of course …’ Andy’s face broke into a grin. ‘Hey, it’s almost Christmas, isn’t it? Brilliant!’

 

Andy entered the booth again in a last-ditch attempt to save ourselves a five-hundred-pound outlay for two brand-new sleeping-bags. Five hundred pounds was supposed to get us from here to China. Meanwhile, two small boys, attracted by the sight of a hairy Englishman doing aerobics to keep warm, had decided to make a nuisance of themselves.

‘Can you tell the kids to go away?’

‘Bye!’ I barked at them. They ignored me.

‘Hi there, could I speak to Dominic, please?’

‘Yeah, don’t do that,’ I said. The boys were trying their damnedest to get into the phone booth.

‘Oh, hi! It’s Andy here. From Ride Earth.’

One of the kids wore a baggy hoodie and had a streak of blond at the front of his black hair, making him look like some kind of eight-year-old gangster-rap superstar. He stood at my feet and – incredibly – started frisking my pockets!

Yok! Yok!’ I snapped, brushing the marauding hands away. ‘Para yok! No money!’

‘Why!’ he squeaked back up at me.

‘Yeah, I’m in a phone box.’

‘WHY!!!’

‘Shut up! He’s on the phone!’

‘Shut up!’ shouted Andy. ‘Go away! No, I’m not talking to you, there’s some kids hassling me. Erm, basically – how’s it going?’

Andy forcibly shut the doors on the kids, who turned their attention to me.

Para! Para! Money! Money!’

They yammered at me in Turkish. Then the rapper-child reached up and stuck his hand into my left trouser pocket.

Para! Para!!!

‘No!!!’ I fumed.

‘Why!’

‘I don’t have any money!’

‘Why!’

‘I don’t have any money!’

‘Waaahh!!!’

‘Can someone please help me?’ I shouted to everyone nearby. ‘I’m being molested by children who’re trying to get money off me!’

In desperation, I turned and set off in the direction of two men who looked like they had nothing better to do than scold street urchins. I felt a tug on my left arm. The elder of the two, pale and scrawny in a puffy red jacket, had grabbed on to the sleeve of my fleece and was now jumping and yanking aggressively.

‘Why! Why!’

‘Why, why, why – why, why, why!!!’ I shouted back. I felt another hand go into my right trouser pocket. Turning, I grabbed the arm and pulled the thieving little fingers away.

Para why!’ yapped the discarded rapper-child, rubbing his fingers together tauntingly in the globally understood sign for cash.

Para yok!’

Para!

Para yok!!!

‘Why!!!’

‘It’s none of your bloody business why, is it?!?’

As-salaam alaikum! Ha-ha!’

 

We set off from Trabzon the following evening to avoid wasting any more money on accommodation, no closer to obtaining our sleeping-bags than we had been a month before. We rode single file into yet another hideous highway night ride. It felt schizophrenic – an eternity of pitch darkness interspersed with the blinding roar of passing lorries, whose drivers would arrive in Georgia, warm and dry, in a few short hours. The pressure to keep pedalling was becoming exhausting. In order to get ourselves invited to some kind of Christmas Day celebration, we would need to cover the hundred and forty miles out of Islamic Turkey to Christian Georgia by Christmas Eve, which was just two days away.

As we rode, I couldn’t shake a feeling of utter dejection, of suddenly hating this life that I’d chosen for myself. The riding sucked. The weather sucked. And I was forcing myself to cycle through it towards some dream of Christmas in a nation that I knew nothing about, and in which I would know nothing and nobody. I was driven by a memory – of all the other Christmases I’d known at home; of the smell of cinnamon, the twinkling fairy-lights, something good in the oven, and the faint hope that it might just snow this year. Well – this Christmas would be nothing like it. It would be freezing cold, and it would be no less lonely than today or any other day.

Maybe the source of this misery lay beyond the weather and the tedium. Maybe it was the way in which all the support had seemed to drop by the roadside as we drew further and further from home. Everyone had been so positive, so encouraging, as we’d laid our plans. But these voices had fallen silent. Mark had left to pursue another kind of life. Maria and Magalie had had their shot too, but had also gone their own ways. Then the film company had pulled the plug on our story, just when it felt that we were finally getting somewhere. And now, despite the platitudes, I knew that our equipment sponsor was letting us down. Nothing would come of these promises. They would sink into oblivion, and if we weren’t careful they would drag our mission down with them.

And I couldn’t help laying the blaming for all of this upon myself, and my foolish ambition and idealism. It had been my and Andy’s decisions that had ultimately got us to where we were now: out of money, riding pointlessly through the grim bleakness, hopelessly unprepared for a winter which had already begun and would only get worse as we forged inland and across the Caucasus mountains. The idea of Turkey being nice and warm had been laughably ignorant, and it would be just the same for Iran.

I suddenly resented Andy for not saying anything when I’d tried so hard to insist the journey looked like the one I’d always planned, when really I should have stopped and taken a step back.

And I resented myself for still being the same stubborn old Tom, for getting angry when things didn’t go the ‘right’ way; for forcing all those square pegs into all those round holes, for verbally bludgeoning my best friends into silence as I made mistake after mistake.

I found it impossible to talk to my riding partner about all of this. We were both struggling; too stubborn to admit that this was more of a challenge than we’d expected. Our tempers frayed easily, and there was nobody to take it out on except each other. The tiniest aspects of Andy’s behaviour seemed to irritate the very centre of my being: the way Andy sucked noisily, habitually, on the corners of his lengthening moustache; the way Andy cleared his throat all the time with an unnecessary shouting sound; the way Andy broke into a rhythm of abrupt little coughs whenever he was trying to hide being angry or annoyed; the way Andy would sing the same repetitive inanities while riding behind me; the way Andy would reduce any disagreement to some philosophical twaddle about the true meaning of ‘knowledge’ or ‘perception’. Instead of the comradeship I’d expected, my best mate was now simply pissing me off. And – after half a year in each others’ shadows – I had no doubt that I was doing exactly the same thing to him. Andy had not been his usual self since his encounter in Istanbul with the backgammon girl. Yet, if he was missing her, he never uttered a word to me about it. Then again, given how I’d reacted to Mark’s relationship troubles, perhaps I shouldn’t have blamed him for keeping silent, or for our ability to communicate to have broken down.

So I did something else. I took the video camera, found a secluded spot by the sea, and tried to talk to the lens instead. It was difficult to begin with, and I felt uncomfortable opening up with my thoughts. But at least the lens would not argue with me. It wouldn’t bitch about my personality defects, or suck the corners of its moustache. It would just listen.

 

I’ve recently found out that the video series has been cancelled. I feel a little bit sick, really, because a very fundamental part of what I’m doing has just been taken away – just like that.

It’s not really what I wanted to hear. And I’m not feeling great. I’ve had a pretty hideous cold, and I feel completely and utterly drained – physically and mentally – by it, and also by the cycling, which is just very very tough, and very cold, and very difficult to try and stay warm and dry, and … just … get the distance done, in such short daylight hours. And the nights are just getting ridiculous – it’s so cold, now, that it’s actually becoming painful … and I’m missing my family and friends a lot, and … yeah, I’ve got to deal with this news as well.

I’m definitely going to keep filming, because there might still be a documentary to be made – and it’s an incredible record of my journey. But it’s not nice to have to deal with it all in one day.

 

The first tunnel took me off-guard. It had been recently bored directly through the small rocky headland. Two tunnels of half a mile each came in rapid succession, only just completed and still without any lights. Andy was nowhere to be seen when I arrived at the mouth of the first tunnel, and after a few pedal strokes I was riding blind. He still had the head-torch. Had he forgotten that we only had one between us?

I gingerly got off the bike and dragged it up onto a narrow sidewalk, less than a metre in width, and began to walk. The paving slabs covering the wide drainage channel wobbled musically beneath me like a giant concrete xylophone. A roar filled the air: vehicles had entered the tunnel and high-speed floodlights swept along my path, screaming past in an explosion of whiteness. This was no place for people to be exposed, trapped blind in a concrete tube full of hurtling metal, as if injected into some futuristic video-game.

After fifteen minutes of shuffling in the darkness, with container lorries thundering past a couple of feet to my left and a solid wall of rock and concrete on my right, I emerged into the daylight at the end of the second tunnel, irritated and not at all sure what my riding partner must been thinking.

‘You know you’re the only one with a head-torch, right?’

Andy stared blankly at me, headphones still in his ears, unmoving and silent. So I continued past him and along the road, wondering what I’d done this time to end up at the bottom of his priority list. Yet another argument an hour beforehand probably hadn’t helped.

A few miles later, another unlit tunnel appeared. By this point I’d calmed down somewhat – after all, arguing would get us nowhere. Andy was out of sight behind me, so I stopped and got off my bike to wait. Turkey’s highway-building fervour was impressive, but it was no comfort to the long-distance cyclist. I began to miss the early days in Turkey – those silent hills, steep enough to snap your chains, and the bright, quiet freshness of the coast. It already seemed so long ago. Here, we had to detour off the highway into a pickle of backstreets just to buy a loaf of bread! Dynamite-blasted cliffs on my right, sea-defences on my left, and nowhere to go but forward or backwards – either way, I’d have to take my chances in another tunnel.

I gazed once again into the gaping black maw.

Then a cyclist whizzed past me and disappeared headlong into the blackness, ears plugged with headphones, pumping the air with one fist in a mocking dance, and was gone.

It was Andy.

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Speechless, rage building inside me, I stared into the blackness where Andy had now stopped, and a smug, taunting voice called:

‘Are you coming?!’

I screamed obscenities. I wanted to turn round and cycle off in the other direction, never to see that arrogant arsehole ever again. That’d teach him to make a mockery out of what could be a matter of life and death!

But I couldn’t cycle off in the other direction. This was our challenge, our shared mission! We relied on each other! We were supposed to be a team!

I marched into the tunnel on foot.

‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!’

‘I don’t know what you mean, Tom!’

‘Are you – are you out of your fucking mind?!’

‘What? I stopped, didn’t I?’

‘D’you think that’s funny? Do you think this is funny?!’

‘Here you go, then! Here, look, here’s the head-torch! Off you go!’

‘Fuck you.’

I stormed back out of the tunnel, knowing my best mate was enjoying this. We’d known each other for twelve years. He knew exactly how to provoke me.

Well, I’d show him. Oh, yes! I’d show him exactly how expensive his little ‘joke’ would be!

I jumped furiously back on my bike and pedalled blindly into the void at top speed.

The head-torch lay on the ground at Andy’s feet.

I didn’t see the three missing paving slabs.

 

‘Er – hello? Er – my friend Tom … has just fallen off his bicycle. Erm – he hit his head on the concrete. On the floor.’

 

Even before the ambulance arrived, as I lay on the roadside and Andy dug through his first-aid kit in search of surgical tape to glue my face back together, everything seemed to snap into focus; all these concerns and that had built up, unvoiced, which were easy enough to avoid as long as the forward momentum remained. I was surprised to find myself not particularly bothered about the feeling that my face had grown to twice its normal size, nor the pain in my head and the ringing in my ears, nor the fact that I seemed to be almost blind; but instead to be wondering why it had taken an accident like this for me to acknowledge that what I was doing was completely and utterly pointless.

I wondered how it had happened. I’d kept pedalling with the mantra that I simply should, because – given enough time – something would happen that would bring a little more understanding to things. Well, something had indeed happened that had done exactly that.

 

‘Problem? No, no, no – no, it wasn’t a car accident, no. It – he just fell off his bike, and hit his head.’

 

I was not a cyclist. I rode a bike because it fitted with my aims, not because I intrinsically enjoyed riding it or had built an identity out of doing so. I had set out from England to learn about myself and about the world. So why was I still pedalling all day with nothing left to do or think about? I gained no pleasure from the act of cycling, especially not down the hard shoulder of a highway. I had crossed eleven countries by bicycle power and felt no need to celebrate the crossing of a twelfth. I hadn’t frozen to death, or been dissolved by the rain, and no amount of coldness and wetness would ever teach me any more about how to deal with being cold and wet than I already knew having cycled along the Black Sea Coast of Turkey in the winter. No amount more pedalling would bring a change of conversation with the locals or any further cultural insight. And it was now starkly obvious that no amount of time on the road would cause the deteriorating relationship between myself and Andy to suddenly, magically improve. I was gaining nothing, and – if the events of the day were anything to go by – had lost my way so badly that I risked losing everything. Something had to change.

 

‘He’s got a headache. Erm … he’s just being taken away in the ambulance now, so … ’

 

As the front wheel had fallen away – as momentum had carried me through the black air, as I’d suddenly gone from upright and seated to lying in a disoriented heap on the floor, without any recollection of the moments in between; as I’d picked myself up matter-of-factly and walked the few remaining yards to the end of the tunnel, warm liquid running down my cheek, touching my face and finding it numb and wet – something within me woke up. Some voice in my head gave me permission to realise that Ride Earth was no longer important.

I heard that voice. And I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Categories
Book Serialisation

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.’

Categories
Book Serialisation

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.

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Book Serialisation

With a casual gesture along the top edge of a map, Selen sealed the fate of Ride Earth

I rose at sunrise, packed my makeshift bivouac on the quayside and began to cycle behind Andy along the hard shoulder of the enormous coastal highway towards Istanbul. The road signs indicated that it was still over seventy miles distant. Today would be a long and gruelling day.

Sometime after midday, the signs for Istanbul vanished. They were replaced by signs indicating our passage through new settlements, but we could not really distinguish between one and the next. And, as the afternoon wore on and the suburbs showed no sign of diminishing, we realised that we were already in Istanbul. The signs were for its districts. We had, in fact, woken up in Istanbul that morning. It seemed that the city would never end. But this was the home stretch, the heroic arrival at the end of our home continent! Adrenaline and an overpowering sense of finale kept the pedals spinning and our grins spreading, despite it being almost midnight before we arrived in the downtown districts, met Maria and were taken to the house of our host for our first night in Istanbul, almost eighteen hours since we’d set off from the outskirts of the city.

Istanbul wasn’t Turkey’s capital, and hadn’t been since the years following the First World War. However, it was still the hub of the nation’s cultural life, and by far its largest city. I was overwhelmed by the scale of the place, and the complexity of the public transport was brain-melting. It took, literally, hours to get anywhere, the logistics of a city centre split between two continents being something I’d never really considered before. Cycling in the traffic-clogged streets and up and down its precipitous hills was an ordeal.

None of this mattered while I could escape inside the welcoming confines of an apartment, and Couchsurfing once again provided no shortage of willing hosts in central Istanbul. Despite its location in the far north-west corner of Turkey, Istanbul and its liberal, educated youth were at the epicentre of what they saw as their country’s progressive and essentially European future. Turkey, they said, was the success story of the Middle East, relatively unrestrained by fundamental religion, confused conflicts or illegitimate leaders.

Once the obligatory period of rest was over and we’d satisfied our itchy feet by wandering the backstreets in search of nothing in particular – god forbid we stumble upon a tourist attraction! – Andy and I sat with our hosts and discussed our plans. Our ambition was riding high, bolstered by our successful crossing of the entire European continent by bicycle, and our sights were set on something altogether greater and more heroic than cycling to India: a crossing of Central Asia during its bitterly cold winter, crossing the Tien Shan Mountains at the earliest opportunity and entering the Far East via Tibet. I’d just received an email from another young Englishman who had spent the previous three years cycling from Siberia to England via Australia, offering us advice on the routes ahead that he’d just covered. His email brought with it renewed desire to accomplish a similarly grand journey. Tibet, China, the Far East … what an achievement that would be!

First, though, there was the small matter of a thousand or so miles of Turkey during winter. TV news reports were already showing pictures of mountainous Eastern Turkey gridlocked by blizzards to a dramatic orchestral score, and it was still November! Selen, our friendly host, suggested visiting her home town of Adana. The weather would be better down there; we could then cycle along the south coast, most of which was apparently a major tourist destination. But we soon put her right: we weren’t tourists, Selen; we were eternal, nomadic travellers! We wanted hardship and authenticity, not pizza and beaches!

‘In that case,’ she said, ‘I suggest you try the Black Sea Coast.’ And, with a casual gesture along the top edge of a map, Selen sealed the fate of Ride Earth. We would cycle along the far quieter and less-visited north coast of the country, and see what we would find. It would take us much longer, certainly, than a direct route across the Anatolian plateau – by all accounts it would be a steep, remote, rain-lashed place. But speed didn’t matter too much as long as we had momentum.

 

Leaving Istanbul was easier said than done. After three weeks of making friends and partying and exploring the city on foot, Andy’s new wheels still had not arrived. A full day of investigations uncovered the fact that they’d been sitting for a fortnight in a customs compound somewhere in suburbia, waiting for import tax to be paid on them.

Meanwhile, Andy had struck up a relationship with a girl we’d met through our first hosts in Istanbul, and we’d eventually moved into the flat she shared with two other girls. I never really managed to get to know this new love-interest of his, despite living in the same building for several days and being roundly thrashed at backgammon by her over several litres of tea. Her English was practically non-existent, and I wondered how that left any room for she and Andy to enjoy their fleeting romance. Andy was careful to sidestep the topic of the relationship, and I saw him less as he spent more and more time with her. He was always cagey when it came to discussing such things. Even though we’d been best mates for over a decade, I’d never been treated to more than the briefest of updates on the basic factual aspects of his relationships. A wall went up at the slightest hint of any deeper enquiry, leaving me wondering if it was something about me and my listening abilities, or if it was simply Andy being Andy. Either way, I was – as usual – left in the dark. He was somehow involved with a woman, and beyond that fact I would have to make my own guesses.

At the same time, I discovered that one of her flatmates had something of a crush on me! Not only that, but she wasn’t shy about expressing it when the hour grew late. While I wasn’t averse to the idea of a casual fling, I had no qualms about making absolutely sure it went no further. After all, I had a new purpose in life – cycling round the world, living permanently on the road – and a relationship certainly had no place in that. Which was why, when it came to making guesses about Andy’s shenanigans, I came to the conclusion that it was foolish and stupid to be getting emotionally entangled with a girl. In the grand scheme of things, we had barely even left home. We had most of a planet still to ride! Andy was setting himself up for a whole world of hurt, because we were duty-bound to leave Istanbul – and with it, the girl.

In the end, the inevitable was forced on us. The third young lady in the flat, clearly feeling left out, announced one day that she wanted us gone. Or, more correctly, her father wanted us gone. Immediately. Running out of places to stay, Andy and I found ourselves loitering guiltily outside the entrance to a block of flats, rolled-up sleeping-bags under our arms, looking with concern at the black clouds approaching across the Mediterranean. Soon enough the latch clicked, a middle-aged man exited the stairwell with a quick glance and started off down the street. Andy jammed his foot in the door and we dashed up to the top of the building. The open roof was flat, surrounded by low walls, with grubby rings on the floor where water had pooled and slowly evaporated. There was a discarded table in one corner. Nobody would come up here. At least, we hoped not! And we cackled like the pair of naughty schoolboys we’d once been.

The full-on thunderstorm was an impressive thing indeed – more so than any man-made light show or concert. A few curious souls watched from between parted curtains in the little orange-lit windows that lined the street below; meanwhile I shivered as the first moisture seeped through the lining of my sleeping-bag. The table had only been big enough to shelter my upper body. Rain lashed down. The roar of the torrent was deafening, even without the peals of thunder rolling across the sky.

What the bloody hell am I doing here?

Water began to penetrate my clothes. We had been here too long. We had outstayed our welcome, and the city was kicking us out. We had to leave Istanbul. Now.