Posts Tagged ‘Turkey’

Doctor, soldier, vagrant, priest


I left Cappadocia the day the weather changed. A soft breeze began blowing south towards Syria and the temperature dropped by seven degrees overnight, right on schedule for the start of September. I had some downhill to look forward to, and it felt like a freebie. I was almost a kilometre and a half up in the East Anatolian plains but I had hardly noticed the gain in height as it had been earned so gradually on my ride across Turkey. Soon enough I found myself cycling through the stunning Taurus mountains which were covered in pine forests and sprinkled with deep valleys and craggy outcrops which looked fit for Simba from the Lion King to be stood aloft. I cruised down the side of valleys at over 70 km/hr and when I made it to a small town high in the hills another stranger, Fatih, clocked me with my bike and invited me to join him and his family break the fast. It was still Ramadan and only when the Imam’s call sounded from the local mosque could we demolish the sumptuous grub.



Before I left they gave me a warning of wild pigs and snakes in the surrounding hills. As long as I get a good photo, I thought. Before long I encountered some of the local wildlife in the shape of a family of large blue lizards. I leaped around for over an hour like Steve Irwin, trying to get them into the open to capture a descent image.



I cycled down and out of the hills and through arable land with few settlements in sight. As night approached I encountered what appeared at first glimpse to be some ruins, but then not just ruins, a castle, on a hillock a few kilometres ahead. Deserted, eerie and daunting in the dusk. With a penchant for scaring myself and the long unfulfilled desire to spend the night alone in a castle, I decided it was the perfect place to settle down for the night. I turned up a rough track and pedaled up towards it, the view became more and more foreboding as it’s outline loomed over me in the fading light. My mind raced with thoughts of what might be lurking within it’s walls. Heart thumping I peered into every nook and cranny, found a good spot and put my head down. Once the adrenaline had run its course I got a little shut-eye, but more often than not one eye remained open. By morning I didn’t care about my fatigue because I was king of my own castle. From the crumbling turrets you could see the surrounding land for miles in every direction.



The heat returned with a vengeance as I lost altitude. I began to relish the times when trucks came zooming close by. The warm breeze and slight escape from the heat became an easy trade for their noise, their stench and the obvious threat to my personal safety. I have to admit for the next few days I was tired. Tired of the heat and tired of the insects. Tired with people asking me the same questions and tired of giving the same answers. Tired of noisy trucks and their noisy novelty horns. Tired of people staring. Tired of bread and cheese. I cheered up when a lorry driver chucked me a lemon from his window. Why a lemon I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s all he had to chuck. Turkey had taken longer than I had anticipated to cross, not for the distance, the weather or the mountains, but because it’s hard to get far without the invitation of “chai and a chat”. I developed slightly selective hearing towards the end. If I had stopped for every shout, whistle, wave or “Hello my friend!” I would still be somewhere close to Istanbul.

At the border the Syrian guards seemed a little confused that my bike didn’t have a license plate but they waved me through anyway and announced “Welcome to Syria Sir!” and I was excited to be here. A new nation to roam but now a new language and alphabet to contend with. I high fived kids on the street as I rode towards Aleppo and watched them playing in the irrigation ditches in the countryside to escape the heat. There’s no better feeling than waking up in a dilapidated hostel in a strange new city with time off my bike to explore. Aleppo beckoned.



The tourist guide produced by Syria’s Ministry for Tourism was beautifully optimistic and full of random embellishments…

“Syria always has a pleasant Mediterranean climate”

“Most Syrians also speak French and English”

“Every cultured man belongs to two nations… his own and Syria!” (owing to Syria’s reputation as the ‘cradle of humanity’)

I noticed young men in Syria often drove cars with a large photo of Syria’s president, alongside two high ranking companions, in the back window. I tried to imagine yoots in south London proudly displaying large photos of David Cameron and Nick Clegg from the back of their suped up beemers. I couldn’t. Here the media is often state run and there is a ban on Facebook in internet cafes. I couldn’t even access my blog without the cafe owner adjusting the settings that are applied in case government officials come in to make an inspection.




I wondered around and purposefully got lost in Aleppo before I realised it wasn’t just me that was lost but also all of my credit and debit cards. It was the eve of a festival called Eid which marks the end of Ramadan and in one hour everything would be shut for three days. I had no money of any sizable denomination in my pocket. In amongst some running around in an attempt to find them, a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to reach home and get money wired and then lots of calling myself a numpty, I met a tres gentil French girl called Charlotte who chilled me out and lent me money. Of course I immediately realised I was on to something, blew the cash on champaign and caviar and then went on the search for more gullible French tourists to sell my sob story and take advantage of (just joking Charlotte, thank you).

I realised that on the road to Damascus it would be my 30th birthday. Quite apt I thought, the term “road to Damascus”‘ has come to stand for a sudden turning point in a person’s life, after the story of the conversion of the Apostle Paul on the road from Jerusalem. Birthdays are perhaps a good time for some resolutions. I scribbled down a few ideas…

Don’t stress about things you cant control
Try harder with the local language
Eat more fruit
Apply more sunscreen
Drink much less beer. Or at least buy cheaper beer.
Buy a new stove

Always have a achievable one at the end, in case you fail at the rest. I would also like to advise anyone thinking of buying an MSR WhisperLite stove not to, unless you have a degree in mechanical engineering or would relish the opportunity to repeatedly beat yourself in your own head.

I couldn’t find a decent map of Syria anywhere in Aleppo, despite it being a city of two million people, so I opted to put my trust in my compass, point my front wheel south and start pedaling. Slowly, as I rode out of the tourist bubble, I became more and more aware of the environmental catastrophe on Syria’s doorstep. In Albania I was shocked to see the pure volume of roadside rubbish and junk caste aside. In Syria it was staggering. In every city I passed, and for almost sixty kilometres into the countryside, litter was sprawled in every direction. In southern Aleppo people lived in it, children played in it and dogs scavenged in it.

Eventually I made it into the desert. Here people seemed astonished to see me. Men gawped and children chased. I passed the legendary dead cities where people up and left their homes over 200 years ago and the settlements still stood, unused and abandoned.


Soon I began to feel ill. Something I had eaten in Aleppo was having a heated debate with my digestive system, and the dodgy kebab was winning. I had to stop and rush off my bike to find toilets every half an hour, cycling was no fun at all. Syria wins the Cycling The 6 Award for most invitations in one day. Seven invites for a meal and a bed in one afternoon. I had to decline the first six, my stomach was in knots, but perhaps all the goodwill helped tame my angry belly and soon I was feeling better. When a young Arab called Tariq invited me into his home I jumped off my bike to join his clan.

The strange thing about traveling alone is that you start to believe that every seemingly fortuitous occurrence is due to right decisions and good judgment whereas every bad night, every problem and every obstacle is your own fault. In reality luck probably has more of a hand in it than anything, but the four nights I spent on the road between Aleppo and Damascus illustrate how the collision between good decisions, bad decisions, worse decisions and chance can impact on the experience. The four nights ranged from the luxurious to the frustrating to the frightening and to the magnificent. Here’s the tale…


Night 1 (the eve of my 30th birthday)

Tariq had a large extended family all living close to each other in the village. As soon as I hopped off my bike they began to pamper me. First off a large cooked meal, prepared just for me. A shower, with optional aftershave and hair gel. Some tea. More tea. Arabic spiced coffee. Let us wash your clothes. Would you like to watch English television? When they found out it was my birthday the following day they even offered to throw me a birthday party. In the evening I discovered why Arabic families are so big. Whilst we were sitting around chatting a slightly rotund gregarious man arrived. The women suddenly scarpered making room for him on the rug. People stood to embrace him. Here was Mustafa, the head honcho. Quickly I learned through Tariq (the only English speaker and so my translator) that Mustafa had four wives (the most a man can have under Islamic law) and eighteen children. He proudly told me that he usually fathers two sons every year. The gathering grew and soon Tariq’s cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents were plying me with questions. Whilst they learned a little about me, I tried to extract a little from them. It was interesting to find out that for a man to get married he must pay the prospective wife’s family upwards of 4000 US dollars. These were not rich people and that would be a small fortune. And what if you have no job, I inquired. “No job, no money, no wife” came the reply. The family erected a sheet tent in the garden for me and again I was waited on hand and foot. I slept peacefully in the open air and woke up refreshed and now thirty whole years young. 




Night 2

Tariq’s uncle got me up and after breakfast he decided my clothes were no good. They dressed me in traditional Arabic garbs. Feel free to chuckle at the photos below. I straightened my shemagh and joined his uncle on a local tour. He paraded me in front of his friends, from village to village and from people’s homes to ramshackle tea houses. Each time I was introduced as “The English Doctor”  to murmurs of approval and Tariq’s uncle would then give an account of my journey by bicycle from the UK to Syria. It began fairly accurate but as we visited more people my host’s description became more elaborate and he would throw in more and more exotic locations “Mongolia, Tanzania, Vietnam!”. I could see those who knew a bit more geography scratching their heads, perhaps wondering how I had cycled from London to Syria via southeast Asia. Twice my medical opinion was sought. A large lady wanted to know the secret to weight loss and an elderly man wanted a cure for his arthritis. After a meaty lunch prepared in my honor I waved goodbye and realised that I now saw Syria and it’s people suddenly in a different, more familiar, light. Before I had wondered what people were thinking as they stared at me when I rode by, now I felt I knew and understood a little more and I felt more at ease. I rode the thirty kilometres to the highway after deciding that I had to give up on the small roads and make up some time so that I didn’t overstay my 15 day Syrian visa. I thought about how, at least to me, it looked like a strange juxtaposition to see Arabs sitting in Starbucks in Heathrow or Gatwick nursing a Mocha in traditional dress. Here they looked completely at home, with their shemagh wrapped tightly around the face, sunglasses on and riding speedily by on motorbikes. I stopped to ask a roadside caf for somewhere I could pitch my tent. Instead I was offered a old bed, lying at a jaunty angle in a car park. I took it. I was kept awake all night by the superimposed gabble of lorry engines and horns, loud Lebanese pop music and nearby television sets on full volume as well as by the bright white lights overhead. The next day would be an effort.




Night 3

The following day I ploughed on, covering 130 kilometres down the motorway. The small fur trees by the road lent south, pointing towards Damascus, ushering me towards my next stop.


I found myself in the outskirts of a Syrian city and somewhere I wasn’t too chuffed to be camping. I’d run out of light but had found myself a pine forest near to some tower blocks. It was almost pitch black as I erected my tent. Suddenly I could hear some mumbling from the bushes. A silhouette was stumbling around, groaning and muttering. I shone my torch into the darkness and a figure came into view. Bearded, bedraggled and wretched looking, he began to shout in an unintelligible dialect, he sounded angry about something. As he lurched towards me I caught the stench of alcohol. Then I saw two torch lights shine out from behind him. It was couple of his boozy chums. They shook my hand and signaled to me that their friend was crazy. At first their presence put me a little more at ease, until one raised his right hand, protruded his tongue from the corner of his mouth and swiftly moved his hand across his neck to indicate his throat being cut. Or my throat being cut. I didn’t know at this point whether this was a threat, or if he was just warning me about the area I had planned to sleep. Either way I packed up in haste and moved on. I found some Syrian soldiers outside their base a few kilometres away. Eagerly they invited me in and let me camp. I was soon having tea with the Syrian army. Army barracks were the last place I thought a British tourist would be made welcome in Syria, the “rogue nation”. Proof, if any were needed, of the chunky divide between people and politics.


Night 4

The next day I had an agenda. My goal was to reach Ma’lula, an ancient settlement high in the cliffs fifty kilometres from Damascus. I got as high as I could, admired the prehistoric caves, passed by some of the oldest Christian monasteries in existence and finally found a small church up on the cliffs. I asked to camp near by. You must find Brother Tophias, I was told. Brother Tophias was a polite, confident, mirthful man but when I asked if I could camp nearby I got a “no, no, no”. I was disheartened until he grinned and announced “you will sleep on the panorama!”. This sounded right up my alley. He showed me up to the terrace, an open space with a staggering vista of the valley, cliffs and landscape below, a view better than any hotel in town, and I had it all to myself. That night I looked down on the town and to the myriad of luminous crucifixes on people’s houses, up to the stars and then across the town to the firework display and congratulated myself. Which was a bit silly, as it was mostly just good fortune.



The next day I breezed into Damascus with a nice tailwind and lots of downhill. I made it there in the time it takes a Syrian Taxi driver to check for other vehicles at a busy junction, in no time at all. So a few acknowledgments this month… thank you Tariq, Jocelyn and Byron, Fatih and your respective families for all your hospitality. Thank you as well to the Syrian soldiers, Brother Tophias, Charlotte and anonymous roadside cafe dude. Onwards to Jordon.

Meltdown

Touchdown, wall of heat, passport control and Istanbul, once again. I flew back on August Friday the 13th. I saved money by laughing in the face of superstition and flying on a day less people feel inclined to board aeroplanes. I arrived on the second day of Ramadan and immediately I was reunited with my friend Tunc who I had met in Istanbul four months before and to whom I had entrusted my uninsured companion Belinda, after knowing him for just ten days. I sensed his good character. Belinda had been stored in his father’s basement. I opened the door and there she was. I apologised immediately for leaving her, stroked her saddle, tenderly caressed her frame and kissed her handlebars. Tunc looked on in bemused fascination.

The next four days were spent relaxing with my host and his friends, taking trips to the Prince’s islands and to the Black Sea coast. The difference between the day time maximum temperature and the night time minimum temperature in Istanbul was only 2 or 3 degrees. I didn’t even understand how this was possible. It wouldn’t be just the severity of the heat but it’s incessancy that would be most testing. No let up in the oppression. I hoped that as I moved inland the rise in the temperature would be compensated for a by a fall in the humidity. I would soon find out.

Turkey is one of those countries that’s bigger on the map than it is in my head. With this in mind I set off in earnest, cycling through the turbulent chaos of Istanbul’s congested heart and sweating buckets. I took a ferry across the Maramara Sea instead of cycling all the way out of the city, my memory still vivid of cycling in, a heart in mouth and hang on to your manhood affair. From Jalova I hit the highway and began my ride to a fanfare of cicadas knowing that the next time I planned to re-surface in the western world would be some time in late 2012.

The draw of cycle touring for me is all about the slow transition. As you move steadily forward you sense one landscape blending into the next. The terrain gradually transforms. You see a snippet of a new culture and then slowly you become immersed in it. You watch the world evolve. The climate too changes slowly and you can adapt, but having flown into Istanbul in mid-August, a decision borne mostly out of my own impatience to get going, I had thrown myself into a cauldron. I thought about all the unnecessary items in my luggage and wondered when would be the next time I would need my poncho, beanie or hand warmers.

I circumnavigated the shores of lake Iznik Golu and found fruit everywhere I cast my eye. Apples, pears, plums, grapes, peaches and some I didn’t recognise. I did my best to steer towards the bushes and pick and eat whilst pedaling. I stayed briefly in Eskisehir, a young vibrant student city, and left a little sentimental after meeting a couple who had put me up and shown me huge hospitality. Another goodbye to friends I’d only just made. My liver a little jaded, but my knee at least rested, I waved goodbye and cycled into the sweltering heat which had now become more intense. I recorded 51 degrees centigrade on my thermometer in the sun and I was drinking nine litres of water a day, and even then barely managing to maintain my level of hydration. I developed a new daily routine:

Get up at 5.30 for sunrise
Pack up my tent
Sweat
Eat fruit and drink warm water
Sweat
Cycle until noon
Lots more sweating
Find shade, lie down on my groundsheet and attempt a siesta (but without success as its too hot)
Cycle from 3pm to sunset
Set up camp by the road, eat, sweat
Try again to sleep without success
Repeat routine the following day

My weather meter at 48.9 degrees C
Any food I carried with me either melted or solidified, turned blue or turned brown and always smelt only barely edible. Barely was good enough for me. I pedaled toward patches of apparent shade only to be greeted by slightly darker patches of asphalt. Greens turned to beige as I entered the dusty, arid, empty scrubland. Nothing here cast even a human-sized shadow in which to rest. My lips became like rubber, cracked and sore. Blisters bulged from my arms despite factor 30 sunblock. Hoards of insects tracked my every move. Eventually sanctuary in the form of a 2.5 km long tunnel and then a wooden shack by the road, vines and huge bunches of grapes adorned the ceiling, ripe and ready to scoff.


I saw the notorious Kangal dogs in villages by the road. Large creatures with yellow fur, black faces and studded collars, bred originally for protecting the farmer’s flock from bears and wolves. None gave chase. Nothing moves faster than it has to in this heat. Puddles of water seemed to appear on the asphalt. As I rode through them I heard a sibilant sound arise from below. I looked down to my front tyre and noticed it had become coated in a black sticky goo. What I thought was water on the asphalt was actually the asphalt itself. The road was melting. I scraped it off my tyres and rode onward. Knowing that I was to blame for the hardships of cycling through this eastern furnace wasn’t making things any easier. Just as beginning my trip in mid-winter was born out of an inpatient impulse to get going, by leaving in mid-August instead of waiting I had pulled the same trick.

The road ahead was marked out as scenic on the map. Despite the obvious subjective nature of this label, I found it hard to appreciate. Or perhaps there’s some sort of formula I wondered. Waterfalls multiplied by lush vegetation, subtract number of roadside rubbish dumps. These eternally optimistic bunch of cartographers had perhaps confused waterfall with burst water main and lush vegetation with tumbleweed. I turned up the golden era hiphop in my headphones and kept spinning. Mini tornados or dust devils burst into life in the monochrome surroundings. The road ahead shimmered, lightened in tint, blurred and blended with the horizon. As I cycled south I loved watching my shadow which became a sinewy elongated insect-like shape as the sun got lower in the sky. It reminded me somehow of the solitary nature of the journey. The wanderer. A featureless outline, nomadic, drifting along.

A dust devil
I rode close to Konya and into Turkey’s religious heartland, it’s own equivalent to the “bible-belt”. Orchards spread from either side of the road towards the hills and a gold glow danced off the tree tops. Women, now all in head scarves, sold the produce by the roadside. Others were bent over picking from the fields. I would often see more elderly women in towns with severe spinal curvature, a lordosis from years of toil. The temperature fell slightly and I rode down the newly built lanes on the highway, closed to traffic but open to me. Other than pulling a shimmy for the odd JCB I had a ten metre wide car-less bike lane. I rode with the sun on my back, belly full of fruit and thought that maybe cycling in the summer wasn’t so bad after all.


That evening I asked a family if I could camp in their orchard. They found me the perfect patch, helped me erect my tent and then brought me out an overwhelming amount of food on a tray. Again evidence that the spirit to give and to share is deeply ingrained in Turkish culture. A few nights later I stopped by a flour mill after a couple of men signaled me over. I sat with them and conversed. It’s amazing what can be said and understood with only the use of sign language. Here are some random one-liners from my new friend Mehmet during our game of charades…

“Have you been circumcised?”


“In Cappadocia you will find pretty girls and lots of marijuana.”


“I don’t have a wife because I think women talk too much”


“Why don’t you go by motorbike? Is it because you are very poor?” (I nodded in solemn agreement)

After the sun set I began to prepare food with Mehmet. I threw him some bread from my pannier and immediately he let out a loud cry “Allah! Allah! Allah!”. Whoops. Obviously bread throwing was not cool during Ramadan. He kissed the bread and held it up to the sky three times. I apologised, but even so he recited words in Arabic which I was then coerced into repeating. I presume I was pledging my allegiance to Allah, but to be honest I didn’t mind. I was hungry and felt a bit guilty about my inconsiderate food chucking.

In a small town just past Konya some more men called me over. They were stood outside their school which provided English language lessons to adults. A four foot photo of Big Ben decorated the front of the building. “Is this in London?” I was asked, “Is this a palace?“. They prepared some chai for me to drink despite not drinking themselves as they were fasting. Moving east Turkey became visibly poorer. In rural areas the houses became basic huts and sometimes just tents by the road. As the affluence fell the generosity never waivered. Turkey’s well funded military flew expensive jets over the small farms and villages. I bought food only when I needed to eat and found that in eastern Turkey a “market” is the appropriate term for an establishment that stocks just cans of beans and chewing gum.

So no punctures for four months and five and a half thousand kilometres and then six punctures in two days. Bike repair in Turkey is a communal sport. Whilst one person tries to fix the bike whilst cursing profusely (me), the other five or six individuals (usually aged less than ten) watch, giggle and point. Older onlookers join later and frequently offer advice or occasionally just grab a tool and get stuck in. Putting up my tent can be a similar charade.


I was aiming to rest up in Cappadocia, home of some of Turkey’s most famous and dramatic landscapes and a Mecca for tourists. I would like to say that I breezed into Cappadocia with spirit, vigor and gusto. In reality I limped, lurched and lumbered in. Swarthy, grubby and exuding a beetroot hue from my forehead with rubbery cracked lips from two weeks in the arid void, punctuated by amazing Turkish hospitality. I took only fleeting glances at the wondrous landscape around me and made a bee line for the shower. Afterwards I met with some fellow travellers and it felt good to converse without having to use my hands, even if the topic of conversation occasionally veered towards how the eight hour bus ride to Cappadocia was so trying and how there wasn’t even any on-board air conditioning. I took some time out and then explored the area and its impressive and frequently pornographic rock formations.

So for the next piece expect more of the same… rash thoughtless decision making, a resulting tangle, me trying to muddle through and of course, those statistics…

Hottest temperature: 51 degrees centigrade (in the sun)

Distance cycled: 5849 km

Most interesting flavour: Shalgam. A fermented purple carrot juice that has an, erm, unique and a very very acquired taste.

Worst book I have seen in a hostel book exchange: “Candida infection: Is your problem a yeast infection?”
I regularly sift through book swaps and I’m almost always disappointed. Everyone nabs the goodies and trades in rubbish. Finding this made me chuckle. Questions. Why bring a self-diagnosis / self help guide to having a fungal infection away with you travelling? What would make you believe this would make a good swap? And how did the owner convince anyone to let them swap it? Perhaps they tried to palm it off as the latest Harry Potter saga. Harry Potter and the ravishing yeast infection.

Finally one for all you budding botanists and ornithologists. If you can, please help me identify some of Turkey’s natural history.

First off this bird…



This plant…



And this fruit…

Leave suggestions in the comments section below. Many thanks

The humble fare


As a teenager, before I had enough money and time for exotic adventures overseas, I would hitch-hike wherever and whenever I could. For me this was a source of adventure. I would hitch to festivals and to visit friends, to go on holiday and sometimes just to see where I would end up. As any seasoned hitcher knows you meet many colourful characters along the way. Aging hippies, who are returning the favour after years of thumbing it themselves, are the hitcher’s staple. I have met my fair share of born again Christians who would often try to convert me en route. Some drivers want to talk, some to listen, some are comfortable with silence. Occasionally I’d be privileged to hear someone’s life story and at other times I would take on the role of a makeshift counsellor, my job would entail listening to the story of the driver’s latest relationship crisis. Once I was even privy to explicit phone sex when the driver’s girlfriend, who was on speaker phone, failed to realise her boyfriend had picked up a hitch-hiker. I have kept all my old cardboard signs to remind me of this time in my life… “M1 north”, “Glasgow”, “Glastonbury” and for emergencies “Anywhere”.

Hitch-hiking gets a bad press, there’s no doubt about that. Joe Public seems convinced that hitch-hikers are all potential axe murdering sociopaths. A quick survey of my friends and a unanimous verdict, not one would pick up a hitch-hiker. I can’t help but think that the demise of hitching is a symptom of the increasingly paranoid world in which we live. The sensationalist mainstream media (and American B movies) must be partly to blame but you probably have as much chance of meeting a sadist or psychopath on a social networking website or on the bus than you do when hitch-hiking. Only once have I encountered a problem on my travels around the UK when I got into a car, glimpsed a half empty bottle of whiskey in the foot well and quickly realised my driver was blind drunk. So clearly a small risk does exist and I am never afraid to refuse a lift if my instinct tells me to. Aside from the perceived dangers the other obvious reason as to why less people hitch-hike now is the ease of travelling around Europe via Eurorail or Easyjet and the ilk. Hitching may be a free way to get around the continent but I don’t hitch just to save money, it’s an adventure and dare I say it, I think you can learn something about human nature on the way.

I’d never hitched in Europe but I had heard that “autostop”, as its known, is an easier task than in the UK and I was keen to try. Although I was homeward bound I was also chuffed that I could cling onto some sense of adventure now that I couldn’t continue my journey by bicycle. I would swap my enemies… dogs, punctures and headwinds for boredom, the police and the ubiquitous axe murdering psychopaths that everybody at home knew I would encounter frequently en route. Due to the ash cloud emanating from the Icelandic volcano there was a huge backlog of passengers in Istanbul waiting to return to the UK and I would wait ten days if I wanted to fly home. I suspected I could hitch back within this time. I had no imminent deadlines, the operation on my knee is scheduled for the end of May, so I said goodbye to Belinda, my bike, glad that at least for her it will be an unbroken journey around the world, and set off. How long would it take? I honestly didn’t care.

The first challenge would be getting out of the immense sprawling metropolis that is Istanbul, the fifth largest city in the world. On my way in I had cycled for eighty kilometres, all within the city limits, just to find the house I was due to stay at. I started to thumb it from just outside the old town. After forty five minutes a car stopped and I jumped in. The occupant, Apo, was a perfume seller and producer in his late 30s, and he would be my first lift. The cloying scent of his perfume “Candy” filled the car and he told me his story. He was originally Kurdish but had left Turkey in his early 20’s to move to Germany where he had managed to work without a VISA for 10 years. Eventually he was discovered and deported but on arrival in Turkey the military police arrested him, this time for skipping his military service, and he was sent to the army for two years. After finishing this stint he had started up the perfume company with his brother and they were doing well. He brought me as far as he could and then bought me breakfast before I thanked him and moved on. In the end it took me eight separate lifts, each of just five or ten kilometres to finally breach the city limits.

In the neighbouring Turkish city of Tekirdag I had my first lucky break. Hussain, a Turkish lorry driver, stopped to offer me a ride. He chain smoked Winston’s and spoke to me in broken Italian whilst I replied in broken Spanish. Mostly we understood each other. That night I slept on the dusty floor of an old church near to a truck stop. I woke during the night to convivial shrieks and cheers from the inebriated Turkish drivers, who stayed up until the early hours drinking Raki. The next day I found Hussain and we continued the journey together but it was salt in the wound as Hussain drove down the exact same roads I had cycled along almost a month before. After waiting for three hours at the Turkish border whilst the lorry was checked we entered Greece and travelled the breadth of the country. For a reason I didn’t understand the Truck drivers were not allowed to drive me the last twenty kilometres to the dock where we would catch a boat to southern Italy so I began to hitch again.


The twenty kilometre stretch of road led to a port on the Greek mainland from which boats come and go to the party island of Corfu. ‘Boy racers’ sped past me, a brand of soul-destroying bland house music blaring from their expensive sound systems. When looking for a lift you begin to recognise your target demographic. The typical driver who stops is male, aged about 20-40 and usually on their own in the car. The exception to this is the ‘boy racer’. Young speedsters driving VW Golfs with blacked out windows. They virtually never offer a lift. They belong in the same category as mums on the school run and people who drive hearses, Ferraris or milk floats. They are a long shot. As I waited, thumb outstretched, they shouted abuse at me from the windows. One stopped, only to speed off as I approached. From another an empty plastic bottle was hurled in my direction. Most would put their thumbs up and flash me sardonic grins whilst speeding past. I was being mocked by idiots. And the worst kind of idiot. An idiot in white jeans, a Ben Sherman shirt and with terrible taste in music. Eventually I got a lift with an elderly couple to the port and took the nine hour ferry to Bari in southern Italy.

At Bari I spent most of the day in a lorry park where a couple of hundred vehicles were parked in rows. Turkish, Iranian, Polish and Greek drivers congregated, each playing music from their respective homelands at full volume and drinking copiously in the sunshine by the dock. The Turkish band of drivers found someone going to Naples for me. I got the impression that if I desired I could get all the way to the UK by being passed from one Turkish driver to the next at these lorry parks, but I had never visited Naples and I was curious, so I decided I would leave the truckers behind when I got there. I got a lift with another burly Turkish truck driver called Louis, a friend of Hussain. I knew only two things about Louis. First that he was driving to Naples and second that “he really likes Raki” as I was reminded again and again by the other drivers. Things would be fine, I decided, as long as his passion for Turkish liquor and the fact that he’s driving an 18 tonne truck along the Italian motorway didn’t get horribly intertwined.

I semi-reluctantly joined up with the tourist hoard in Naples and Rome and managed to squeeze in some sightseeing, although my attention was elsewhere. I found it hard to concentrate on all the museums, monuments and churches. The Colosseum was impressive but it had nothing on the Italian girls and I frequently found myself distracted. I began once again from outside Rome and hitched to a petrol station north of the city in the countryside just off the motorway. I ate strawberries as I waited for nobody to stop. I discovered that the strawberries had stained my hands blood red and that probably wasn’t giving off the best impression. That’s when the police arrived. I wasn’t sure if they had been called or if they had spotted me by chance, either way I began to think the world has it in for hitch-hikers.
One officer addressed me

“No autostop here. This highway” and he pointed at the section of tarmac on which I was stood, well away from the motorway.

“No highway. This petrol station” I retorted and pointed at the same spot.

“No. This highway” He replied with asperity.

“No. This petrol station” I chanced.

We were at a deadlock.

“Look” I said pointing to a vehicle ten metres away “He’s parking on the highway. Arrest him!”

Not even a smirk. They glowered at me before turning to leave. What could I do? I was in rural Italy surrounded by grassy fields, the highway and this petrol station. There was no chance to catch a bus or train. I banked on this being one of those situations where the police were forced to give me the official line, but knew I was in an impossible position and so would turn a blind eye if I continued. I had no choice but to keep hitching. Just in case, I mentally rehearsed my defence. I decided to pretend their instruction got lost in translation.

During a five hour wait for my next lift two questions swam around my head “What the hell am I doing?” And “why don’t I just fly home?” Eventually a car pulled in and I was heading towards Genoa. On my route through Europe I have made lots of friends, I remembered I knew some in Genoa who I could call in on. The day after the night before started with a vicious hangover and perhaps I was not hitching enthusiastically enough but after another five hour wait at the port I still hadn’t found a ride. To my shame I cheated this time I took a short train ride to Turin, not far but I wasn’t waiting another day, I had to move on. The next day in Turin was the 1st of May or “workers day”. A procession paraded through the town. It was a curious mix of union members, protestors, communists, anti-capitalists and out and out anarchists. There was a party vibe as they made their way down the main streets. Towards the end of the parade I watched a girl, dressed as the pope, stand aloft a large truck waving majestically from a giant model vagina at the laughing crowd below.


I waited again for several hours by the roadside outside Turin. The traffic eventually thinned out and I realised I’d missed my opportunity for catching the rush hour. Every time someone made a hand gesture to signal that they were turning off or turning around I began to think “I don’t believe you”. Hitching in Italy I realised is near impossible. People eyed me up and then actually began to take aversive action! They drove in wide loops around me, perhaps worried that if they got too close I would use my telekinetic powers to force them to stop or that I would actually dive in through their windscreens. As I waited I noticed a large poster looming opposite me. It was an advert for Easyjet. Flights from Rome to Milan for just 22 Euro it boasted. What the hell am I doing? I kept thinking. After four hours finally a lift. He was a Swizz 6 foot 5 inch ex-basketball player on a nine hour mission from Rome to Lausanne to deliver coffee machines. More often than not hitching a lift is less a blag and more of a trade. My role in this instance was to keep the driver awake so we chatted away in broken English and French for several hours.


I debarked, thanked my driver and began again, hoping to find a lift over the French Italian border. People gawped and stared as if I were an ancient relic on display or the start of some alien invasion. Perhaps they were looking for clues as to where I had concealed my axe. What’s more it was a Sunday and most of the cars were full of families with no spare seats. I prayed for VW vans and old hippies, but none came. I was losing my faith in humanity. People I decided were either paranoid or selfish or both. I was entering that hitcher’s vicious circle. The more I waited the more miserable I became, the more miserable I became the more miserable I began to look and the more miserable I began to look the less chance I had of getting a lift and the more I waited. Yet again I wondered why I was making life so difficult for myself.

Eventually a car stopped to take me across the border to France. In my mind this represented the Promised Land, a veritable hitcher’s paradise, and as it turned out France did prove to be easier than Italy. Men and women often stopped to give me a ride and then from outside Lyon another lucky break, a lift all the way to Normandy. I would probably be back in Blighty before midnight I realised. The swarthy, tumultuous sky opened up and it began to rain. I knew England must be close. Rain is never a good omen for the hitcher. You might expect that a dejected hitch-hiker clutching a sodden cardboard sign saying something like “M1 north” might inspire a smidge of sympathy in your fellow man but in reality people just don’t want the inside of their precious cars to get wet. Luckily there was a brief respite from the rain between lifts.


After the ferry crossing from Le Havre to Portsmouth I decided a train would be the sensible option as it was already dark and I thought my chances of getting a lift poor. But I decided to give hitching one quick last shot. Within ten minutes a truck driver stopped and offered me a lift to my mum’s front door in Oxford. He had a thick Yorkshire accent. When I asked if he’ll be watching the world cup on tele he replied “Maybe I will when one of them footballers comes to watch me drive my lorry”. Although not exactly glad to be home, his answer made me not too miserable about it either. On the way to Oxford I watched a film on the small TV he had in the cab and finally reached my destination, ten days after setting out from Istanbul.

I’ve returned home to deadlines and to-do lists and dates have already started to accumulate in my diary. But I am trying hard to avoid anything resembling my old life. I don’t want to feel that I’m moving backwards. I will return to Istanbul, probably towards the start of August, after England win the world cup. Thank you to the 23 drivers who stopped, took me in and helped me out. Thank you as well to everyone who has sponsored my mini-adventure home, and if you haven’t you still can, now that I have completed the hitch, by visiting my sponsorship page.

Heartbreak


“Patience is the key to paradise” – Turkish Proverb
 
Patience may be a virtue but it is not one I am overly familiar with. Queueing and people who faff have the tendency to make me rage. I don’t like lie-ins and sometimes I wish people who walk too slowly in the street would be very promptly removed from society altogether. During my bike ride I always get riled if a problem occurs and I have to spend an extra day somewhere to sort it out. Impatience doesn’t seem like a personality trait very compatible with the life of a cycle tourer but actually when travelling by bicycle you get quickly used to the pace. I do suffer spells of boredom at times but as I ride I occupy my mind with many things. I re-live days in my past, I plan for the future and I daydream about the road ahead. I expected to cross Europe and reach Istanbul in four months, I have made it in three but despite this I have taken the roads less travelled en route. You could, if you wanted, cycle along dual carriage ways and make the journey even faster. Nevertheless cycling around the world can highlight the drawbacks of an impatient disposition and I have had to constantly strive to resist my inherent impetuous nature. I tell myself to stop trying to break my top speed on the downhills, just appreciate the rolling vista. In fact try to ignore the cycle computer altogether. Camp earlier. Look around more. Eat slower. Stop arranging ambitious rendez-vous on travel networking websites and then rushing to get there. I don’t need deadlines in my life. There is always time for a good photo and to write in my journal. Always take the route marked out as scenic on the map regardless of altitude or terrain and every so often cycle somewhere just because it has a funny sounding place name on the map.

I am still encountering the odd malicious mutt and I thank you for the myriad of suggestions of tactics to solve the problem put forward after my last post. I particularly liked Michael’s idea of improvising a handlebar mounted flamethrower using WD40 and a brake cable. Michael you have demonstrated intimate knowledge of how to construct a homemade explosive device and I am therefore slightly worried about you and whichever dissident militia you have become associated with. I have however stumbled upon not so much a weapon but perhaps a partial solution in the form of Motown. I have been cycling along buoyantly whilst listening to my IPOD and the vicious dog chase which followed just wasn’t as distressing. In the future I will reach for my headphones and put my faith in Marvin Gaye getting me through the ordeal.

On the road through Macedonia and Greece I was consumed by worry. My left knee which had swelled up in Italy had improved some but was still a real problem. I could still cycle but now I had pain walking, especially up or down stairs. I could feel a small curious mobile mass within the joint space which often got trapped causing me sudden pain. My medical sensibilities told me this was very bad news. I arrived into Thessaloniki in Greece with a plan to get some answers knowing this was not a problem I could ignore. I went to a particularly chaotic emergency department to be confronted by a overworked junior who glanced at my knee and wrote me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory medicine without laying a hand on me. I unashamedly played my doctor card. I needed to get this sorted out. A more senior physician appeared and after an innocuous looking x-ray and much debate there was only one option left open to me and I bit the bullet and shelled out almost my entire monthly budget for an MRI scan of the troublesome joint and the curious lump within. After the scan the grim-faced radiologist leafed through a medical textbook and pointed at the page entitled “Osteochondritis Dissecans”. I confess I wasn’t overly familiar with the condition but I knew enough to know that this was not a term I wanted to hear.



The curious lump migrating around my knee was a piece of loose cartilage sometimes referred to as a “joint mouse”. I wondered why it had to be given such a cutesy name and decided something like “joint wraith” or “knee plague” would be more fitting terminology. Repetitive micro-trauma from my cycle ride across Europe had caused the piece of cartilage to break off the end of my femur and this rogue chunk of useless debris was now roaming free inside my knee. He pointed out the 11 millimetre lesion on the scan blunting the contour of the lower part of my femur and I stared at it in anguish and disbelief. There it was. An unequivocal abnormality. It was worse than I had anticipated and the radiologist agreed this could be a serious problem for me. He made a call to a friend, an Orthopaedic specialist with a private clinic who would see me for free out of “professional courtesy”. The Orthopaedic doctor was thorough and detailed in his questioning, clinical examination and study of the films. I instantly had faith in his judgement.

Is there any doubt as to the problem? None.
Can I continue to cycle? It will almost certainly get worse.
Do I need a keyhole surgery? Yes you do.
How long after the surgery until I can cycle again? It will be three months. I’m sorry.

Gutted. Crushed. Heartbroken. I had developed a problem which affects just 15 to 30 people per 100,000 and my dream of an unbroken journey around the world by bicycle lay in tatters. It was a punch in the stomach that wouldn’t kill me but didn’t feel like it would make me any stronger and in an instant I plummeted to my lowest ebb. Had my inpatient nature been partly to blame? Looking back, I don’t know. I have had twenty days off my bike in the first two months before my knee became sore and I felt as if I was moving at a comfortable pace.

Before I left London a few things did worry me. Perhaps I would run out of courage and would not complete the challenge. Possibly. But I was more afraid that something entirely beyond my control would prevent me from continuing. It felt like my greatest fear was coming true and so early into my trip. I have to admit my impetuous character has made it hard to resist the temptation to carry on regardless, and perhaps if I was 3 or 4 years in I would, but I realise that soon I will have little access to scans and western style health care as my route takes me next into Africa and afterwards South America. In reality I have no choice but to return home to the UK and get the problem fixed. I have contacted doctors at my previous place of work in London who have reviewed the images and agree. I will fly back from Istanbul, head down and pissed off. Three months at home feels like an eternity. After the post-op recovery and some physiotherapy I will return to Istanbul and continue my world ride.


Perhaps some think I’m being a little melodramatic and perhaps I am, but mentally preparing myself to leave home for five years was not an easy task and neither is very abruptly and prematurely having to prepare myself to return. I will now probably miss the friends I had arranged to meet in Syria, Jordon and Malawi but it’s not a life-shattering problem, not even dream-shattering, just a set back. My proposed route took me through Europe twice so my goal remains intact. The journey can still be an unbroken trip across six continents as I’d planned. If I pass through Istanbul on my way home it will also still fulfill the criteria of a true circumnavigation of the world. But I know that these are trivial objectives. I’m not trying to break a world record.

Frustratingly although the knee becomes sore I am still able to ride, but to avoid further damage I took a flat unchallenging route to Istanbul and moved slowly, determined to at least finish my first continent. I tried what I could to eliminate the thought of the impending journey back to England from my consciousness and decided to try to decipher and learn the Greek alphabet from road signs en route. I passed through a lake district and stalks wading in the shallows looked on impassively as I weaved down the arrow straight roads trying unsuccessfully to dodge huge flurries of mosquitoes. I was due to collect my mosquito repellent in Istanbul and was therefore defenceless from the bombardment. In a cruel twist of fate the vast majority of bites I sustained were centred around my left knee. To boost my morale I decided I would take a boat from Alexandroupolis to the island of Samothraki, a verdant land where tourism has not yet taken over island life and nature predominates. I needed some time out to consolidate. The first part of my break did little to settle me. After getting on board the ship to the island we were all ordered to debark. “They think there is a bomb on board” remarked the passenger next to me with surprising nonchalance. People gathered on the tarmac giggling and laughing, there was not a sliver of alarm amongst the crowd. Another passenger informed me, with deep sincerity, that calling in a bomb scare usually happened when someone was late for the boat and needed to delay the departure. A few stragglers arrived and I wondered. The police were already there when we got off. An ambulance and fire engine soon arrived followed by a News crew. The gathered hoard were engaged in insouciant banter. The Police chatted wıth the Firemen who chatted with the Ambulance staff who chatted with the ship’s crew and the passengers talked amongst themselves. I tried to imagine what was being said and guessed it was something along the lines of “God not another bomb. Every damn Wednesday”. I chuckled at the fact that in Greece even bomb scares were treated with calm coolness.


In Samothraki I camped under a perfectly clear sky, strolled around the island, skinny dipped in river pools, clambered up to waterfalls and explored hidden coves. I regained some karma, cleared out my cluttered cranium and started to see the silver lining. Money was always a worry when planning to travel for so long and the Euro to Pound exchange rate has decimated my budget. I am very lucky that locum hospital work in London pays an hourly rate equal to a week’s living expenses in the developing world and I will take advantage of this fact after the operation when I am able. Perhaps after I set off again on my adventure I will not have to spend hours in local book shops trying to memorise sections of maps and guide books whilst feigning to consider making a purchase. Another plus is that I will now also miss most of the stiflingly hot summer in Syria, Jordon and North Africa and there is no rush to get to Patagonia as I will arrive comfortably after the winter. I will also be at home for the Football World Cup and not in the Sudanese wilderness. A small consolation at least. Slightly kinder weather, a bit more cash and a world cup on the tele… I would trade it all to continue. I don’t know if everything happens for a reason or not, but if it does at least I have some reasons.

After my short break I continued slowly to the Turkish frontier. Up until this point I had been without dilemma at the border posts and I was just contemplating this fact when I approached the Turkish border and had my first dilemma. The Greek border guards were all smiles, ‘Bravo’ and handshakes when they saw me ride up. I had grown accustomed to these pleasantries at the border. The Greek and Turkish posts were separated by a 200 metre long bridge, the start of which was manned by two soldiers holding rifles. Both very young, perhaps just teenagers, and both looked very unassuming even with their obvious armoury on display. ‘There are no bicycles allowed across the bridge. You must find another way across. I’m really sorry.’ One said despondently. I knew instantly what he meant by this other way. It was a 150 kilometre round trip. I pleaded and argued against this bizarre and irrational regulation, after all the border guards had let me through, there was virtually no traffic and the bridge was only 200 metres long. They called their commanding officer but the answer that came back was fırm and indisputable and I would not be allowed to cross. I returned to the border guards affronted and perplexed. There had obviously been some tension between the guards and the soldiers in the past because after I related the story the guards tutted and sighed and cursed the soldiers. One advised that I wait two hours, have some tea and try again when there would be new soldiers on shift. I doubted this would work. Then another piped up ‘lets smuggle him over in a truck!’. This idea was seized upon instantly and they all started tittering naughtily like school children about to play a hilarious prank on their teacher. Only five minutes later and a Greek Farmer and his wife pulled up in a truck with plenty of room in the back. There was nowhere to hide but I reasoned that it didn’t really matter and they drove me up to the bridge. Travelling by means other than by bicycle has been strictly against my religion but I told the purist in me to stop complaining, it would be 200 metres by truck or 150 kilometres by bike. I couldn’t resist waving at the soldiers as I passed by. To my surprise the once stern and obdurate senior officers on the other side of the bridge found it all very amusing and waved mirthfully as I crossed. I climbed off the truck after the bridge and cycled into Turkey to collect my first VISA. Two days later I reached Istanbul and stared across the Bosphorus to Asia with mixed emotions. Angry and upset that I could not yet continue my journey, anxious about what had befallen my knee and what lay in store at home but with one continent in the bag… a touch of pride.

In the wake of the volcanic eruption in Iceland and with European air travel in chaos I realised that even though I must return home I am stuck in Istanbul. So I made a decision… My adventure will not yet be over. I will hitch-hike back to London from Istanbul. I found somewhere safe to store my bike and most of my equipment and scribbled the words ‘Volcano Victim’ on a sign I can hold up by the roadside. I will set off this week. I have set up a new Justgiving page so people can sponsor my hitch-hike home. So far people have been immensely generous and have donated almost 10,000 pounds to the charity Merlin for my bike ride. I hope that we can raise 2000 quid for my hitch-hike home. Every penny will go to the UK medical charity Merlin.

If you want to help me make the best of a bad situation please sponsor my mini-adventure back to the UK for my surgery by visiting www.justgiving.com/bustedknee to make a donation.


My memory flicks back to the sign I saw on my first day of cycling just outside London which read “don’t give up” and I know that a small problem like this will not get in the way. The three months I have spent on the road have flown by. I suspect the three months I will spend at home will not. But I remind myself that three months out of five years is a snip. I will be back riding as soon as I am able. This blog will continue and I hope you will still be reading. My trans-European ride has been more than magnificent and this is just a small bump in the road and another test of that elusive virtue… my patience.

So it’s one continent down and five to go. At the end of continent number one here are the Cycling The 6 European Awards… the best and the worst of the continent as I saw it…

Best food – France
How I still managed to lose weight during my Patisserie fuelled ride across France is perhaps the biggest mystery of all.

Fastest Drivers – Croatia
I often think that the little flashing green man shown walking calmly at Croatian traffic lights should be replaced by a panic stricken red faced green man diving headlong towards the curb.

Toughest cycling – The French Alps
Spectacular and challenging. It was a love and hate relationship. I will never forgive them for what they have done to my knee.

Cheapest – Albania
“Byrek” – a cheese filled pastry purchased for the equivalent of less than 20 cents a pop washed down with 1.5 litres of Albanian beer for less than a Euro. Happy days.

Best Welcome – Albania
Salutes, waves, cheers and jubilation. It felt like a homecoming.

Fiercest dogs – Rural Greece (Turkey was a close second)
Chopper stay back! No Chopper! NO CHOPPER! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Favourite city – Thessaloniki, Greece

I stayed in Thessaloniki for ten days. It may not be the most beautiful but Thessaloniki has lots of history, friendly locals, great food and fine weather but most of all a young energetic heart and a quick pulse. Everywhere there are raucous parties and young people cutting loose. It’s a good place to have fun and I relished hanging out in the university drinking frappes, munching copious grub in Tavernas with traditional Greek music or dancing to techno in dingy squat parties.





And of course… The statistics

Distance cycled – 5000 km (I arrived into Istanbul on 4960 km. I had an obsessive-compulsive twinge and rode around until I had clocked up a nice round number.)

Countries cycled through – 13 (UK, France, Switzerland, Monaco, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey)

Amount raised for the charity Merlin – Currently £9271. Thank you to everyone who has donated.

Accomodation – 99 nights (Slept for free for 80 of them)
Rough camped – 40
Couchsurfed (for the uninitiated CS is a travel networking website where local people put you up for free) – 32
Hostels – 18
Campsites – 2
With strangers who have invited me in – 3
With friends – 4
On my bike – not yet

Most expensive pint of Guinness – 6.80 Euro in Nice

Bike repairs – I’m one tyre, two sets of brake blocks and a chain link down

Punctures – Only one and brilliantly after just 20 km of the 5000 km outside Ashford in Kent.

Lowest temperature – Minus 19 in the Alps

Top Speed – 67 km/hr, coming into Gap, The French Alps.

Top altitude – Around 2000 metres, The Alps

Longest continuous ascent – Sea level to 1200 metres in Montenegro. 35 km of uphill riding.

Two things I lost count of – random acts of generosity from strangers and random acts of terrorism from dogs.