It seems far longer than 6 months – but at the same time it feels like we left yesterday!
It’s an odd feeling, but I think I can pin it down to the fact that we have removed almost all trace of routine from our lives. I begin each day with little real idea of what will happen. Usually (but not always) I’m pretty sure it’ll involve some cycling. Today was no exception, but we were using our bikes to get around Trabzon, rather than having a long day’s slog on the road. In the previous 4 day’s cyling, we’ve covered over 350km and we’re having a couple of days off.
With each and every day offering endless possibilities for meeting people, discovering places, following a trail of clues to a suitable sleeping spot, there is a constant stream of things for the mind to digest and make sense of. Sometimes it becomes very tiring, and rest days are as much about mental relaxation as physical recovery.
I think that this way of life has brought with it a new perception of time, where the idea of several days or weeks merging into one is a distant memory. Looking back over the last 6 months, I can see that the journey has had definite stages of meaning and feeling, as well as the cultural and geographical aspects of the ride.
There were the first couple of weeks of acclimatization, paranoia, shattered preconceptions and annoyingly wet weather. The French and Swiss Alps – physically-demanding riding with the pay-off of beautiful mountainscapes and green, sun-soaked valleys. The intensely hot, long days of the Danube and Vienna. The rock-bottom food-poisoning episode, knee problems and spiritual development of our 2-week stay outside Budapest. It is at this point that I feel the adventure began, and the enjoyment of the trip took precedence over the hardship and stress.
After Budapest, we had a few weeks of company in the form of 2 English girls, and the social side of travelling was at the forefront of my mind. Romania beat us into submission with the culture-shock and the weather, then dazzled us with its majestic, remote mountain ranges and hospitable people. We arrived in Bucharest and the social differences were staggering, the city vibrant but relaxed, and the people we stayed with some of the most vivacious and outlandish of the trip!
Getting from Bucharest to Istanbul was a bit of a slog and a mentally frustrating and low time. The autumn was closing in and the vast, sprawling metropolis of Istanbul seemed unreachable. We finally arrived and were sucked into its Western-looking, liberal social scene, in which we hesitantly floated for a whole month with the postal system doing its utmost to keep us locked in that enjoyable and varied but increasingly restrictive urban cage.
Upon leaving Istanbul, we experienced the countryside afresh, but having missed a fair chunk of the autumn-winter transition, camping took on a new aspect with the temperatures starting to test our equipment. The weeks spent sweating up and freezing down incredibly steep coastal roads were the lowest point of the trip so far, with the short days and difficult riding causing problems for my equipment and my motivation. Clearing the mountains and making excellent progress to Trabzon after over a week of stomach problems has helped to rectify my motivation in a big way.
We’ve now stocked up on winter equipment, with the exception of a warmer sleeping bag – a problem over which we are still pondering. Mentally, I feel ready to hit the mountains of Georgia and Armenia – two countries that I know practically nothing about. I’m anticipating the excitement of entering a culture untainted by my preconceptions, and looking forward to tacking the challenges that winter will undoubtably bring.
In the meantime, we’ve experienced some of Turkey’s traditional cultural activities today. I watched from a few metres away as a group of men sacrificed a ram on the roadside. I saw the beast led gingerly into a yard, where it was coaxed into a comfortable resting position. A large knife was produced and the men kept their grip as the animal flinched and quivered. A pool of blood grew rapidly on the wet tiles, and the quivering stopped.
The Sacrifice Feast, as it translates from the Turkish bayram?, is a Muslim holiday lasting 4 days, with today being the first day. We wandered around residential areas of Trabzon, and observed several large groups of family members and friends stooping over sheep carcasses in various stages of butchering. We watched 3 men with bloody hands and a wheelbarrow full of offal depositing their heavy, wobbling load in a pre-dug grave on the verge of the road.
I guess I’ve been through enough by now to see it as just another cultural phenomenon, as my own emotional reaction to what was going on around me was accepting and not in the least bit shocked – and I have to say that this did surprise me a little, although I had no real idea how I would react. But these were not public displays of bloodshed, but traditional Muslim family occasions for sharing and celebration, with the sacrifice carried out without the slightest concern or digust, as I suppose many unaccustomed Westerners might feel. Of course, it’s as normal to the locals as any of our Christmas traditions – carol singing in the street, or the traditional goose or (thanks to America) turkey dinner, for example – would be to us.
(Yes, there is a bit more blood involved, admittedly!)