TURKEY - THE END OF ASIA
It is a thoroughly foul day for cycling and not at all the kind of weather I’d hoped would accompany my crossing into Turkey, the 15th country of my ride around the world. This is a crossing and a country which I have been looking forward to more than most; the last country standing between me and a return to Europe for the first time in more than 3 years. Arbitrary continental boundaries aside, I am aiming with single minded focus for Istanbul and the Bosphorus – I will not consider myself to be back in Europe until I am standing on the western side of the river. As well as being the gateway to Europe, Turkey remains one of the world’s most interesting countries, with a remarkable history and a fascinating culture. For thousands of years the land now called Turkey has been at the centre of the world. Empires have spread themselves across it. Persians, Greeks, Byzantines and Ottomans (to name a few); Turkey’s place is assured as one of the great staging grounds of history.
Although I want nothing more than to explore at leisure, I have set myself the task of making it home by Christmas to surprise my family. For weeks now I have been leaving a trail of misinformation in order to keep my whereabouts hidden – as far as my family and the world of social media are concerned, I am still labouring north through the endless Central Asian steppe towards Kazakhstan. I cross from Georgia into Turkey on the 19th of November, leaving me with a little over a month to ride the remaining 4200km to England. My next stop will be Istanbul; along the Black Sea coast and then inland through the mountains, some 1200km away. I am aiming to make it there in just one week.
The weather is not helping me however; Turkey has greeted me with probably the most miserable day I have ever ridden. The rain is torrential and unceasing; the temperature hovering in the danger zone of just one or two degrees above freezing. As I cycle west with clenched teeth I wish that it would get just a little colder; snow would be far easier to ride through than this deluge. I am wearing full waterproofs but with such heavy rainfall it is inevitable that I will end up soaked to the bone and fighting to stay warm. Only a few days ago in Georgia I reached the Black Sea and was ecstatic to see the ocean again for the first time since the Gulf of Thailand on the other side of the world. Today though the water is dark and angry, and the visibility is too low to make out much of the towering rocky cliffs on my left.
I spend three days following the Black Sea coast west for 500km to the city of Samsun, from where I plan to leave the sea behind and cut inland through Turkey’s mountainous centre. The days are hard, with few smiles. The rain is relentless, not pausing for even a few minutes, day or night. I ride hard and stop only occasionally, partly to get the mileage in and partly because the conditions make stopping so appalling – the body heat generated by pedalling is the only thing keeping my core temperature up so whenever I stop I am wracked by uncontrollable shivers within minutes. There is no way to get dry, no shelter from the wind and the rain. Nights present a challenge too as there is nowhere to camp – on one side of the road is the raging Black Sea whilst the other is blocked by an endless line of cliffs and settlements, leaving me searching for abandoned buildings to hide myself in, something I haven’t had to do since my days in Southeast Asia.
Mornings are the worst. Having to strip naked in near-zero temperatures to pull on soaking wet clothes from the day before is a singularly unpleasant experience that you can only fully relate to if you have actually had to do it. The Duchess is struggling too, with increasingly worrying clunking noises coming from her rear wheel. Closer inspection leads me to conclude that there is a problem somewhere in the rear hub, something I do not have the tools or replacements to fix. There is nothing for it but to press on and hope that she holds together for long enough to get me to the next bike shop in Samsun.
Not for the first time I find myself wondering why I am doing any of this. When I started travelling three years ago I set out to find adventure and to see the world, not to put myself through endless days of gruelling physical slog. As I have got closer to home my ride has developed, become more rushed and intense. Challenging myself to get home for Christmas is the culmination of a developing masochistic streak, an irritating inability to choose the easy option and to allow myself to relax. I tell myself that once I’ve made it home and have set out once more I will force myself to go slowly, to take plenty of rest days and throw away my bike computer. I long for days of neither knowing nor caring for mileage. But for now, I am committed and determined, so I force myself to pedal on.
To my relief my faithful, battered and extremely sodden steed completes the journey, bringing me in to the city centre of Samsun just after 10pm. I search fruitlessly for accommodation within my budget, but everything is far too expensive so I quickly settle for another abandoned building just outside the main bus station. There would have been a time when skulking around a derelict building in a foreign city in almost total darkness would have been distinctly unnerving, but these days I am too wet and cold to much concern myself. Besides, in my experience the only things you tend to find in places like these are a few stray animals or the occasional tired cyclist.
The morning is cold but the rain has stopped and it is clear and beautiful; I feel like dancing when I see the sun for the first time in four days. I make my way to the only bicycle shop in town where the Duchess is fixed up by a friendly mechanic who changes out her rear thread and bearings as I sit and drink several cups of tea. Turkey is a tea drinkers’ paradise; everywhere I go in Turkey I am greeted by a smile and a cup of chai, usually taken black and served in delicate tulip shaped glasses. Even when stopping to buy fruit from roadside stalls I am often invited to stop and share a drink, which will usually be brewed over a small wood stove. The British have nothing on the Turks when it comes to having a cuppa.
My mechanic knows what he’s doing and by midday I am once again in motion, the Duchess purring along smoothly as I leave the coast and gradually climb into the mountains of interior Turkey. The ride could not be more different, with days of gorgeous blue skies and bright sunshine. The road is hilly, so I have to ride hard to cover the distance but without the endless rain I am able to settle into a rhythm and start to enjoy the journey. The only part of the day which I do find difficult is the morning; nightly temperatures drop to -10C and my cold weather gear is woefully inadequate so the first few hours riding after dawn are hard on my fingers and toes. Nights are unpleasant; I sleep bundled up wearing every single piece of clothing I have including four pairs of socks, two hats, my waterproofs and even my towel - my electronic equipment has to be stuffed into my sleeping bag to keep the batteries from dying.
One evening after dark I have just finished putting up my tent and am busying myself with chopping potatoes for a stew when I suddenly hear voices and see a powerful beam of light approaching my concealed campsite. Having wild camped almost every day for over a year now I have become very comfortable with sleeping in places I am not really supposed to be, and can count on one hand the number of times I have been discovered. Nevertheless the voices sound agitated so I quickly stand up and put on my best smile to greet the neighbourhood. I have to work hard to keep my smile from wavering when I see that my visitors are grim faced and armed with rifles, and there is a moment where time seems to freeze as we stare wide eyed at one another. To my relief however they are more frightened of me than I am of them, and as soon as they take in my tent and bicycle they visibly relax and lower their guns. Through sign language they explain that they had thought me a bandit and had therefore come up wearing body armour, expecting a fight. Their relief at instead finding a harmless Englishman is obvious, and we are soon chuckling at the misunderstanding with both of us fearing the worst from the other. I invite them to join me for dinner but they (perhaps feeling one brush with death was enough for the day) politely decline and depart, after assuring me that they are quite happy for me to camp for the night. As I said, the vicious axe wielding murderer you imagine lurking in the darkness is almost always nothing more than a weary bicyclist, and there is something distinctly comforting to that.
Only a few months ago was the failed Turkish coup d’etat attempt to remove President Erdogan, and I encounter deeply mixed feelings for the man. There is an underlying sense of unease with the political climate which I cannot help but notice in many of the people I speak to. Turkey is a country on a crossroads, both literally and figuratively. Caught between Europe and Asia, between secularism and the Islamic influence of the Middle East, it is a powerhouse that does not yet seem to have decided what it wants to be. For my part, I have already fallen in love Turkey. The scenery is spectacular, the tea abundant, and during my occasional stops I am struck by the warmth and generosity of the Turks I meet. I am very lucky to have been greeted with great friendship in almost every country that I have cycled through but certain places do shine through, and Turkey really does stand out for me in terms of its’ people.
After three frozen nights in the mountains I complete another 150 mile day and finally arrive at the end of Asia. The outskirts of Istanbul seem to go on forever, with satellite towns blending together to form a continuous sprawl that seems to take an entire day to infiltrate. As I draw close to the centre I begin to worry that I will not reach the river until after dark, and I pedal furiously to make it in time. The traffic is thick and chaotic as I dart between cars like a madman, at one point grabbing hold of a slow moving lorry to brazenly truck-surf past a parked police car up a final big hill overlooking the city. A few close calls amid frustrated weaving through hectic multi-lane traffic, frantic glances at the fading light and a final slog through the packed and undulating streets; finally I emerge on the shores of the Bosphorus as a brilliant orange sunset sparkles across the water.
I am deep in thought as I stand on the ferry watching Europe draw closer and my feelings are difficult to describe. The sounds of the city echo across the water and in the distance I can make out the shapes of the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. But though I am drawn to look ahead, towards Europe and home, I find myself looking wistfully back at the Asian shore, at a continent which now lies behind me but which has, for me, both given and taken so much. A continent I have now ridden clear across. As a boy I had dreamed of the exotic lands of the East, of the Orient and of Asia. It all seemed so distant then, so far away and so romantic. Yet already now Asia has faded into the night leaving only the lights of Istanbul to mark its borders. Crossing Asia has been one of the great experiences of my life, and already the journey is coloured by nostalgia, many of the hardships and pains forgotten. Beside me a group of teenage girls laugh and take selfies. A couple ahead of me talk quietly as their young son watches a movie on an iPad, oblivious to the world around him. This is a momentous moment for me, a return to Europe after more than three years and a major personal achievement. But to everyone around me, it is just another day. If there is one thing that crossing Asia has given me, it is a sense of perspective.
As the ferry lands, a wave of emotion rolls over me. I wheel the Duchess off the boat, take a deep breath and step out onto European tarmac. It’s been a while, but I’m back.
I check in to a hostel and take the following day off to explore. Istanbul is an incredible city, one of the best, and nowhere else in the country is the whirling juxtaposition of people and culture that is Turkey so keenly on display. Commercialism and western shops are everywhere and after months riding through rural parts of Asia it is strange to realise just how easily I could buy just about anything in a place like this. I have become used to struggling to find things; new tent poles, bike parts; even basic equipment. Here everything is available, something that I now realise I have taken for granted for years. Yet contrasted to this overload of western convenience is the impossible to miss Islamic side to Turkey. The Call to Prayer echoes out five times a day like clockwork; drifting back and forth between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, singing a song over the city. I have never seen so many minarets in a country as I have in Turkey.
Street vendors sell roast chestnuts and hawkers clamour for business as I roam the city; Istanbul is alive with activity. I cross the Galata Bridge, passing hundreds of people fishing into the Bosphorus. Everywhere there is a sense of energy and colour. Istanbul’s bazaar is arguably the most impressive that I have seen, with lanes and hallways going on for what feels like forever; my final stop at the end of the Silk Road. At one point as I walk down a side lane the Call to Prayer sounds out once again. For a few surreal minutes the streets grind to a halt, with thousands of people suddenly stopping, a break in the storm. Adorning the high walls are enormous billboards - scantily clad girls wearing racy lingerie beam down on the crowds of prostrate, praying Muslims. Time seems to slow, the moment frozen before me. Then, just as suddenly, it is over; and the day goes on. As a metaphor for a country, I can think of no better example than this, and when I think of Turkey, I know I will always think first of this scene.
All too soon though my day of rest is over and it is time for me to leave Istanbul. I Skype my family, telling them I have just arrived in Kazakhstan and am expecting a long wait before crossing the Caspian Sea. I tell them that I am hoping to make it to Istanbul for Christmas in Turkey, but that I am not sure I will able to cover the distance in time. Then I say my goodbyes, load my gear back onto the Duchess and ride west out of the city towards Bulgaria. It is November 27th. I am ahead of schedule, with just under one month to ride the remaining 3000km back to England. Europe lies ahead, Asia behind. One last month.