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!’
‘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.’
‘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.
‘No!!!’ I fumed.
‘I don’t have any money!’
‘I don’t have any money!’
‘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!!!’ 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.
‘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!’
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.