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.