The death-defying meesters

A windshield was just a slant of glass until East Timor.

Deep, aching regret chased my decision to add myself to the human-stuffing inside this microlet – the local bus – whipping through the clamorous streets of Dili, the country’s capital. I had bagged a front row view along with three other men whose buttocks also vied for a share of the two front seats. Despite the unyielding terror my perspective endowed, I was fascinated. I snatched a glimpse of a motorbike as it disappeared behind a two foot long yellow caterpillar. An ambulance, plowing so fast through traffic it was surely going to maim more people than it could ever save, flickered in and out of view amid plastic yellow birds and a limp Manchester United jersey. Where I expected sky, there was only yellow fur.

Almost every inch of glass was covered with cutesy toy animals and football paraphernalia, suckered on, through which the teenaged driver peered. His head jerked left and right to counter the motion of the dangling zoo. His red tinged Mohawk jerked too. And it went on like this – lurching past invisible vehicles, Daffy Duck consuming a gaggle of pedestrians, fleeting thoughts of my family and early life, a vision of a crumpled bus and a blood-stained Winnie the Pooh. Was it my audible whimpering that invited the driver to wink at me and offer a double thumbs-up? Maybe, but considering a Darwin Award was on the cards it seemed a perverse way to offer reassurance, all I could do was fake a smile and will those thumbs back to the only place thumbs of visually impaired drivers should be – on the steering wheel.

Given the circumstances, it was hard to imagine adding another dynamic more crippling to the driver’s ability to concentrate, bar a passenger launching a bucket of ice and another of fire ants onto his lap. For starters the Indonesian pop music that blasted from speakers was jet plane loud and each bass note sent tinny rattles through the chassis, bounced the vast array of juxtaposed cuddly animals and inspired violent head bopping from the front row, me excluded, though I was often jolted involuntarily roof-ward when we smashed into Dili’s cavernous potholes. A weave of scents – petrol fumes, cooking meat, and rank vegetables – gushed through the open windows. Between songs the noise of the streets clawed back, caged roosters crowed, the tangle of careering motorbikes revved and backfired.

I recognised my hostel (superimposed by Tigger) and tapped a coin on the roof to signal my stop. Disgorged now, a jumble of insouciant school children in the back of the bus stared out at me on the pavement. Perhaps only a front seat had offered full appreciation of our breathless foreplay with providence. The driver winked at me once again, yelled ‘See you next time meeester!’ and as he jerked the vehicle back from kerb to chaos I could only stand, watch and ruefully mouth those parting words – Next time meester. Next time. If we did meet again I might be on a bicycle, and on the less survivable side of the windshield.

It seems unforgivable to label anywhere in the world’s largest continent as quintessentially Asian but on the streets of Dili the clichés added up. Meandering roosters, pots of bubbling broth and dumplings, careering motorbikes adding to the heavy fug of hanging smog. These streets belonged to the people, they worked them and they lived them. For almost a year I have pedalled through sanitised, au fait, developed nations. My eyes are wider now, I’m leaning forward, senses piqued, and content because we have a new border to our back and a torrential rain of differences, drenching me with questions. We went in search of some history to help bring to life the newest country of the millennium, one of the poorest in Asia and a land without tourist information, a British consulate, or even a purchasable road map.

Rubble was one of those unanswered questions. In Dili piles of it spot the city, it’s a playground for children, and casts refuges of shade in the late afternoon for the city’s many stray, mangy dogs. It tells a story too – of a wretched history, branded by war and rebellion. The former Portuguese colony was heading for full independence in 1975 when Indonesia invaded with backing from the US who at the time were making warmongering something of a hobby themselves having just ravaged Vietnam. Indonesia was the most important non-communist state in SE Asia and the US wanted them on side. One inconsequential point I should mention: the Timor sea has massive oil reserves, though I’m sure American military strategists and politicians never once gathered around a map of East Timor, rubbed their hands and gawked with glee. That would be wholly unprecedented.

Australia were complicit in the invasion too, and their actions since East Timor’s independence have marked them out as guilty of coveting Timor’s black gold. They have acted in the classic bully boy style rich countries deal with poor ones, at best protectionist and deeply cynical, at worst corrupt and in violation of international law. It’s notable that Australia, in the the midst of a lucrative mining boom, enjoyed negotiating with East Timor only when the fledgling country was particularly desperate, at its lowest ebb, and would take whatever was on offer. More recently East Timor has accused the Aussie government of spying. It is all quite complicated, but there is anger on the streets of Dili, and the walls of the Australian embassy speak of the outrage…

The crocodile is the national animal of East Timor
After East Timor we’d cross into Indonesia and every emerging fact about the nation left me further incredulous. With 250 million people the population of Indonesia is larger than that of Brazil, 3.5% of the world’s people are Indonesian. The 19,000 islands (you heard right) have a land area about on par with Mexico. With 60 days on our Indonesian VISA the plan was an island hop, seven in all: Timor (where we’d cross into Indonesia), Flores, Sumbawa, Lombok, Bali, train through most of Java (to bypass the busiest Indonesian streets and a particularly cantankerous volcano) to Jakarta, Sumatra and finally exiting the nation via a boat to Singapore. 60 days was double what we might have been granted, though I like to think our letter in Indonesian to the attaché helped in that regard (Dear Sir, we are so excited about visiting your beautiful country, which whilst we have never been there, we are certain it will be the most beautiful in the world…)

We rode the coast road first which passed by thatched huts clumped in small villages, scented with wood smoke and teeming with shambling goats and tribes of popeyed children who chased at our wheels yelling ‘Bon Dia!’ – a Portuguese welcome that lives on. Our welcome rippled through villages and the smiles seemed to leap out at us, full-faced, awe-inscribed, made with great red-stained lips from chewing the Betel Nut and which made their owners look maniacal, like the Joker from Batman.

I hate to make naff comparisons between countries but there was something of Ethiopia in this part Indonesia, specifically the attention we were gifted, or as was often the case, stabbed with. The polite ‘Bon Dia’ was replaced in busier West Timor by a verbal orgy dominated by screams of ‘MEEEESTER!’ (aimed at both myself and Claire) as in ‘I LOVE YOU MEESTER!’ a favourite, or ‘I NEVER FORGET YOU MEESTER!’. Occasionally ‘I HATE YOU MEESTER!’ or ‘FUCK YOU MEESTER!’ and chased by a hysterical scattering of children. Often though it was just ‘HEY! HEEEEYYY! HEEEEYYYYYYYY!’ The ‘Hey’ is not the kind of ‘Hey, hows it going?’ kind, it’s the kind of ‘HEY!’ that ordinarily is only used in response to a stranger stealing a newborn baby, sprinting off down the street with it under their arm and shouting ‘Dave, go long!’. It’s a ‘Hey!’ that’s not meant to engage anyone or kindle conversation, it’s self-serving, in your face and imbued with unnecessary violence. ‘HEYYYYYYY!’ is not screamed so much as vomited all over you.

The attention luckily isn’t always so affronting, and these islands are a hotbed of hospitality, actually after four years of bicycle travel around the world it’s hard to think of a country in which local people have hosted me as often. We camped outside churches and often in people’s homes where we chewed betel nut, played with kids and aired our flaky Indonesian. Every face threw smiles our way, they bounced off our own. Huts were upended to make space, food was cooked in our honour, children milled around us, adults crouched on their haunches, content just to watch and grin those sardonic scarlet smiles. One particularly benevolent man became so embarrassed after ants got into our panniers and his chicken ran amok and over our sleeping bodies in the night, that he refused our offer of money and we left with panniers choking with fruit from his meager garden. It was heartbreaking and our Indonesian couldn’t communicate our gratitude, so we just smiled a lot until he understood.

In Timor motorbikes often pulled up beside us, their riders question-ready and beaming. One man sat beside me on the grass as we took a break, he’d been giving me the eye. ‘Oh Meeester Stephen, I so glad I meet you, you’re so handsome!’ he piped up, his head lolling coquettishly to one side. Every so often he giggled and chirped ‘Oh Meester Stephen!’ as if I’d told the funniest joke he’d heard in years. He referred to Claire as ‘Meester Stephen wife’ a moniker which, to her chagrin, has stuck – I use it every time I need her attention, enjoying the implied sense of ownership and theft of her individualism. There was talk before of the possibility of Claire getting harassed by leering romantics in some countries, so we decided to pretend we are married, we didn’t foresee though my meteoric rise to gay icon-hood in Indonesia and I think Claire’s secretly a tinge jealous she hasn’t been wolf whistled as much as I have.

Here’s how it works on Indonesian roads: A vehicle pulls level, perhaps a car, most likely a motorbike. Multiply the wheel number by two and you have roughly the number of occupants, unless it’s a bus, then square it seven times and add infinity. The driver will drill me with an undeviating gaze, oblivious does not begin to describe it, for him the known universe has just vanished. He is like a shark in a shoal of mackerel, scattering horn-sounding oncoming traffic to ditches and crash barriers. After a dragging infinitude, amid the screams of maimed motorists and police sirens, the driver will summon the courage to ask ‘Hello Meester. What is your hobby?’ Indonesian drivers are ambidextrous lane users who rarely resort to trifling things like binocular vision, still, they are genuinely better than Australians, which really does say something.

Ahhhh Indonesian food. Cheap and gratifyingly ambiguous if not always wholesome. Warungs are local haunts where the food is served, and it’s best not to think about the bound slavering dogs that can be seen on the back of Indonesian motorbikes en route to some local restaurant. Coffee comes with enough sugar not just to make diabetes completely unavoidable but to actually caramelise your circulating blood volume. We went economy class for the boat to island number two, Flores, and for our thriftiness we received a fish head and a sprinkle of rice for dinner. Cockroaches and chickens had the run of our shared living quarters and when we returned from sallies to the toilets we had tales of stomach churning adventure. We shared with about 70 men who were stretched out on black mattresses amid botanical garden humidity and hanging body odour. Because this is Indonesia our 70 cohabitants were also 70 rampant chain smokers puffing their way to emphysema by our next dock, some were almost certainly going to be photographed posthumously for government anti-smoking campaigns. Our floating dorm mates had other traits in common too – they all owned mobile phones with the capacity to play bass-less music and had strikingly bad musical sensibilities, evidenced by the frequency with which ‘you raise me up’ by Westlife drifted through the cabin like the unwelcome smells. They were also all very enthusiastic amateur photographers whose preferred subject matter was white people attempting sleep. They too were karaoke enthusiasts, hawkers, stand-up comedians, wide eyed voyeurs, incessant hecklers, greeny-hacking experts and English language students who would from time to time shake one of us awake and ask ‘Hello meester. What is your hobby?’ 

We arrived in Ende, the largest city on the mountain-crowded island of Flores, and after gleaning route advice from another intrepid long-term biker, the wise and dreadlocked Jonno of ‘Homeless But Not Hopeless’ renown, we decided to visit the venerated lakes at Kelimutu. We left our bikes in Ende for the detour and so on the way I was endowed with a wind-blasted panoramic view because I was about about two foot taller than the child who drove the Indonesian motorbike taxi. We dodged slumbering dogs, up, past the infinity pools of flooded rice paddies, up some more, into a world of tree ferns. We both later confided that our thoughts had at times veered towards craniotomies and neurological rehab. We jumped off the motorbikes and our drivers headed off, presumably for warm milk, cookies and bedtime stories, and we trekked up to the three lakes – one a bottle green, another black watered and red rimmed and the third a kind of turquoise that ordinarily belongs only to exotic butterflies viewed after a hit of LSD.

Leaving Ende we cycled past a statue of two extended fingers, the international symbol of peace or victory, or at least that’s what those who arrive to the town get, when you leave you get the more unwelcome reverse, perhaps whoever commissioned the statue hadn’t thought of that, but I like to think they had. Rain fell, big, sopping drops of it, making the road ahead steam. Black beaches were laid out below us, and the coastal road was crumbling slowly into the surf. Villages were a jumble of palm thatched huts and heaps of coconut husks where raggedy children played and the balmy smell of humanity loitered. Dogs harangued us. Women collected blue-green stones on the beach and carried them on their heads. ‘MEESTER!’ – the chant ambushed us everywhere, firing in from the road’s mysterious margins like darts from blow pipes. Sudden cones of volcanoes appeared through billowing cloud. Tribes of children ran at our wheels, all eyes, giggling into their hands. Buses swept past, honking, arms flailing, music pounding, giddy screams. Indonesia never lost its heady pace.

Indonesians love music, they love it marginally more than sugar, football and hair-gel and less than unfettered noise masquerading as music, which is the national obsession. Indonesian buses, or bemos, zipped past on our way into West Timor’s main city, Kupang, hecklers hanging out of the bass rattling doors, their rear windows decorated with an image of a local hero – sometimes pop sensation Avril Lavigne, sometimes Harry Potter, sometimes Jesus Christ. I wonder if these celebs ever share other territory here, Harry Potter on stained glass perhaps, sexy miniatures of Avril Lavigne next to Buddha and Ganesha at roadside shrines.

On the roads motorbikes back fired and smoke billowed from burning litter, both added a flavor of ‘war zone’ to our surroundings. Occasionally a great cavalcade of big polished cars sped past us, led by siren sounding police cars. The occupants I imagined to be some important visiting foreign dignitary, perhaps the third uncle of the former vice attaché to Mali.

One night we stayed in a convent and visited the nearby school, led by Sister Selfie and Father Fluffy, and I promise those names are genuine. Last year a section of the sea front school collapsed into the lapping waves. Most of the kids we were told are just lucky to be in high school, they won’t go on to university or city jobs, most likely they’ll be stone pickers like the bent and languid old people we saw as we arrived. It was a sobering thought, and whilst the ecomony is growing fast here, so is the population, and many Indonesians have the kind of obstacles I never did. I never opened textbooks to find starfish and hermit crabs. The blackboard was never obscured by driftwood. History class never got cancelled because of high tide.

Claire and Oscar looking out of the cobweb rice paddies near Ruteng
As we travelled across the island I sunk into a black mood, mainly because I couldn’t fix my brakes, the hills kept rolling in and the attention we garnered was exhausting. I could say ‘hello’ and mean it the first 679 times, but by 680, which in Flores is around 2pm, it got hard to keep smiling. Also, I had a rubber chicken on my handlebars called Herb, and it’s impossible not to look like a giant douchebag if you’re miserable and have a rubber chicken on your handlebars. I hated myself for being so grumpy, especially after children galloped out of their homes, yelping exuberantly, joy written in their eyes, only in place of the fun and fascinating foreigner they expected they found a mopey, stone faced let-down. For those Indonesian children it must be the same as coming down stairs on Christmas morning to find Santa drunk, puking on his santa boots, sexually assaulting his reindeer and then removing his beard to reveal that he is in fact Bob, your dad’s drinking buddy from the Red Lion.

Herb the chicken is the newest member of team Cycling The Six
People often ask me whether wild camping is dangerous. I’ve never been robbed in my tent, though I’ve met scores of travelers who have been stripped of their money and gear and almost always the story is set on a bus or in a hotel. Unfortunately in Ruteng our own story unfurled…

After four nights rough camping or sleeping in villages we choose a cheap hostel to spend the night. The next day we left our room to have breakfast which was served on the same floor, about ten metres away, and so we didn’t think to lock the room, and yes, that does make us giant shamefaced douchebags. After about twenty minutes we realised someone had been in our room, rummaged through our bags and snatched a couple of million rupees (about 150 dollars). The usual emotions ploughed in – anger, disappointment in humankind, and a not insignificant amount of self-blame. We called on the hotel manager who had a single agenda, and it wasn’t sleuthing or sympathy. He wanted just to communicate how far from responsible his hotel was for our problem. Light years, apparently. I set off for the police station.

I explained the situation to gathered officers and spent the next half an hour repeating bits of the statement and agreeing with them when they reminded me that doors have locks and that locks stop bad people stealing your shit and that I’m a bit of a twat for letting this happen. Whilst I waited for something else to occur, perhaps a police report, though the prospect looked remote, one officer staring glumly at a ream of papers said to me ‘Ohhh, it’s terrible. It really is. Do people die like this in your country?’ He handed me a real life crime scene photo of a very dead, mutilated man, his face barely recognizable as a face. Before I could laugh insanely or puke, it may have been either, six armed police men tore through the station, jumped into a van and set out for our hostel.

Meanwhile back in Hotel Rima Claire was busy penning a letter for the insurance company whilst the hotel owner peered over her shoulder and cajoled her into changing the story: ‘Can’t you just say you lost the money on a plane?’ Then the agitated squadron and heavy artillery arrived to photograph the crime scene. Claire was ferried to the police station where together we gave a statement. On recording our details Claire was awarded an extra decade in age. They asked all kinds of pertinent questions like ‘religion?’ and ‘how many children do you have?’ to which we answered ‘none’. There was a brief silence followed by muttering. I filled it by asking Claire what she was planning for her 40th next May. The silence deepened. Claire asked the officer what was happening now. ‘Well, we are just wondering why you have no children’ he replied. ‘And no religion’ confirmed another. We left wondering if the report would get added to a dusty pile labelled ‘atheists’.

The dregs of Flores were starkly beautiful with rice paddies and vibrant green corn fields in every direction. Children sometimes ran behind pushing us up the hills but they soon got tired and ended up hanging on, wobbling the bikes and making it harder. Three times in Flores the road spiraled down to sea level and rose to over a vertical kilometer, the last day though – Lembor to Labuan Bajo – had some of the most protracted and brutal grades I had encountered for months, 30% on some turns. Every bend in the road revealed another tortured future of leg pain, wheezing and a torrent of sweat. I promised Claire the road would soon stop its incessant reach for the sky, but it didn’t, and we brooded. After hours of agony and small conquered targets we topped a pass and I joked a bit about Claire’s thundering promises of capitulation she’d made two hours ago. We laughed, but my jokes were premature, the road dipped and once again we were battling slopes Olympic tobogganists would wince at. Once we arrived in Labuan Bajo (which in our parlance had morphed into ‘Larry The Badger’) we were elated and swiftly laid waste to the hostel buffet as the sky purpled in the wake of a sunken sun and the silhouettes of bobbing boats scattered the harbor. The view would always have been a pearler, but we knew it was our grit and those lung-crunching twists of road behind us that made it extra special.

Thank yous – Oscar, Dave and Karen, Dave and Mary, Nahad and family, and scores of anonymous Indonesians in villages thoughout Timor and Flores who took care of us, hopefully the pleasure was reciprocal. Next up: Komodo, Lombok, Bali and Java, and a blog post from Jakarta.

Claire has recently interviewed several local artists and musicians in East Timor – part of her project to explore world music and its creators – here’s her piece.

Ain’t no valley low enough

I like to think that this camel in Jordan realised the comic potential in standing under this sign post. If you look closely you can see him smirking.

The approach the Syrian male takes to driving is akin to that the great white shark takes to lunch, and in Syria I felt like the seal pup. The ‘right of way’ is not a given, but instead a hard won battle involving lots of horns, aggressive manoeuvres and even nudging of bumpers. Mirrors are treated as functionless accessories. I knew Damascus, like other big cities, would be an exit fraught with near misses. But before I leapt into the tumultuous mayhem I had to find some inner tubes with a Presta valve, a rarity in the Middle East. It took me two hours to find the bike shop, half an hour to explain what I needed and then an hour following the proprietor around before being told to come back in an hour. I did. He had forgotten about our rendez-vous. He wandered around some more, kicking his way through rims, spokes and various cycle-related shrapnel on the shop floor. If the A-team were locked inside that workshop they could have constructed an aircraft carrier. He told me to come back tomorrow. I did. More meandering about the wreckage, another ‘come back in an hour’ and eventually a “tshh” and raised eyebrows. I’ve come to recognise this as “no” in the rich and frequently befuddling language of Arabic Sign. I walked away with a puncture repair kit and prayed that my patchwork held up until Amman.

During the usual faff at the border I started up a conversation with a motorist and mentioned that my plan was to cycle to Jarash and then Amman, the capital. “Oh my God!” he said with an American lilt and in a fashion that suggested I had just told him I was planning to throw myself off a tall building. “The road’s like 45 degrees man! And the heat! No way!” I’ve grown used to people I meet exaggerating features of my road ahead. It’s often too cold, too steep, too dangerous or sometimes mysteriously just “not possible by bike”, with no explanation offered. I reassured him and cycled off, wondering what happened to all the optimists.

I visited Jarash, allegedly home of some of the best Roman ruins in the world, outside Italy. I was impressed, but then I found some lizards in the rocks, lowered my camera and snapped away for half an hour. Some older tourists watched me with tilted heads and frowns, but I didn’t care. Nature’s glory has always outshone man’s achievements in my book. That night I slept on the floor of the tourist information centre, adding to my growing list of opportune and curious bedrooms. The next day I moaned a bit to myself as I climbed the hill into Amman, but at this point I hadn’t considered the Jordanian monster around the corner, at least five times the size of this amateur incline.

I rode into Amman after some swerving and hard pedaling to get away from a group of young boisterous misfits who chased me up the hill, throwing stones and shouting “hey you donkey! You crazy donkey!” I went immediately to meet Nick, a mate I’ve known from my years spent in Liverpool and who now lives and works in Jordan’s capital. We went out for a curry. A rubicund light had fallen across the city and Amman basked in a surreal, Martian glow. “Dust is coming in from the desert” said Nick. We left the restaurant and entered a strange, ghostly world. People rushed along the street, breathing through handkerchiefs and surgical masks. Within minutes Nick’s car had become coated in a layer of the fine dust and I realised that my respiratory tract would be suffering a similar fate. Visibility was plummeting. Amman can feel like a very Western city, complete with posh shopping malls and multiplex cinemas, but when the desert suddenly encroaches you quickly remember where you are.

For the weekend we were joined by Nick’s friend Jad and went on a jaunt to Wadi Rum in southern Jordan, an arid national park where sandstone and granite rise out of the red desert. Nick and Jad are avid climbers and went off to scale one of the surrounding cliffs whilst I did some trekking and then a bit more of my David Bellamy impression, gallivanting around enthusiastically after local wildlife. Afterwards we drove out into the desert. I’ve never owned a driving license, or even driven a car, so I was chuffed when Nick threw me the keys to a 4 by 4 Toyota and gave me the nod. After some enthusiastic ragging around on sandy tracks we decided that there was more than a strong possibility I had inadvertently driven us across the frontier and into Saudi Arabia, so we turned back. We slept in the desert, tent-less and under a full moon.

I had plenty of time to play with in Amman. I could have taken a day trip to the Dead Sea, leaving my bike behind, and then afterwards cycled from Amman south down the King’s highway. But continuing this journey’s theme of making my life more difficult than it needs to be, I decided it was important that I cycled to the shores of the Dead Sea itself. I felt there was something significant in bringing Belinda down to the lowest point of dry land on earth. This of course meant cycling back up again, a near continuous ascent from 400 metres below sea level to 1300 metres above, to roughly the height of Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. It would be serious hillage, at least a fifty kilometre, more or less continuous, climb. Factor in forty degree heat, 55 kg of bike and gear, few places to top up with food and water and this would be tougher than my efforts in the Italian Apennines, The French Alps or the Montenegrin fjord. It would be a test like no other.

I camped on a hilltop overlooking the Dead Sea, I could see the lights of Israel on the other side, Jerusalem just out of view. The night that followed was a lesson in the ills of procrastination. The two small holes in my groundsheet, holes that I’d persistently told myself I will repair later, became the front door to a stealthy nocturnal arthropod invasion. I woke in the early hours to an ant infestation after inadvertently setting up camp on their home. They had found my food and were dropping, like ants, onto me from all over the tent. The day after my restless night I sped downhill, reached the sea and floated and splashed about in the salinous waters.

The shores of the Dead Sea, 400 metres below sea level
The air felt thicker here, the atmosphere cloying, humid and heavy. My mosi repellent is excellent, potent stuff and has consistently kept the blighters at bay, but around the Dead Sea I could have been wearing Plutonium and I would have maintained my beard of fly. I felt violated when I caught an amorous pair in the act on my forearm. More followed suit. They seemed to have a preference for having it off on my nose or forehead. I had become an unwilling participant in an insect orgy. I opted to put up the inner of my tent, just so that I could have lunch on my own. Twice people stopped to offer me and my bike a lift. When I tried to explain I must travel only by bicycle they assumed I hadn’t understood their offer. Then, when they realised that I had, I got the “you must be a crazy nut” look. Getting this reaction makes every painful vertical metre worth it.

After the epic climb my appetite for sleep won over my appetite for food and I drifted off into a blissful slumber. I should have known better. The next day, with no food available to buy en route, I had to haul my carb-depleted ass uphill for almost twenty kilometres to the other side of a gorge. Luckily there were Bedouin around who kept me topped up with water. The next two nights I found some great but vertiginous spots to rough camp. I hoped that I hadn’t developed a habit of sleep walking during the night.

Night one

Night two
Tourism in Jordon is an expensive or lucrative game, depending on which side of the fence you’re on. Prices are escalating exponentially. Cheapest no frills beach on the Dead Sea – that’ll be ten quid please Sir. One hour hike through a national park – fourteen pounds minimum. Petra, as of next month, will cost fifty quid to enter. Jordan has a huge amount to offer, but I feel I have missed out on quite a bit due to my budget, and I’m not talking camel rides and hot air balloons, just access to some of the natural features of this varied land. If money was being ploughed back in and services were improving it would sting less, but the fact is that they’re not, not in any substantial way. There are good examples of money going to local people, the Bedouin in Wadi Rum is one, but I can’t help but think that someone, other than the King, is getting drunk, rich and fat on tourist cash. In fact if you look at the proportion of GDP earned from tourism, Jordan gets a good whack. If you discount islands like the Seychelles or the Maldives then Jordan proportionally is one of the highest in the world. Greedy touts will start to turn travelers away and then Jordan’s riches will be out of reach, especially to backpackers, and that will be a shame.

So it was after some deliberation that I reached deep into my pocket for the entrance fee to visit the Dana nature reserve, one of the cheaper tourist attractions in Jordan. Whilst there I ran into a bunch of ten and eleven year olds from Amman Baccalaureate school. They were a bright and inquisitive bunch. I particularly enjoyed it when, after some conferring with a small group of friends, one young lad reported “we know you said that you’ve cycled from England, but some of us here don’t believe that’s possible”!

After Dana I made my way to Petra, one of the New Wonders of the World, a place I must see before I die, another one to tick off my Lonely Planet checklist (its hard to convey sarcasm adequately using the written word). But it was magnificent, undoubtedly. Highlights included venturing down the dim narrow gorge known as the Siq, the entrance to the city, but also meeting an ostentatiously eccentric gentleman from Borneo who gave me his unique take on everything from politics and history to religion and international relations. My Lonely Planet didn’t mention him. He said his name was Ivanhoe (he noted that his Chinese name wasn’t well remembered by English speakers so he changed it after reading a well known book). He drank stone water and wore magnetic bracelets for their health giving properties and to give him energy.

The Treasury, Petra

So far I’ve visited the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, the Marmara Sea, the Dead Sea (although technically a lake) and now it was time for the Red Sea. I cycled to the resort town of Aqaba. On the way two young lads tried to steal stuff from my bike after I declined to give them the money they had demanded. They retreated, after I got off my bike and did my best to look menacing, but I cycled off to a volley of stones.

Aqaba has some great reefs. Diving is definitely not compatible with my budget, but I decided snorkeling was, so I hired some kit and spent the day swimming in the corals and admiring the spectacular Red Sea marine life. I decided against the campsite next door to the beach, with its inflated tax for a small patch of land, and opted to sleep for free on the beach itself.

My al-fresco free bedroom

The following day I took the ferry to Egypt, with nasty feeling that every border post from here south was going to be a more and more frustrating venture. At the end of the ride the boat’s passengers were asked to surrender passports to the ship’s crew. In exchange we were given a slip of white paper with some uninterpretable Arabic scrawl, and then we were deserted. I was told the passports were no longer on board. I cornered someone looking official. “One minute Sir”, and with that he was gone. This would happen a lot over the next half an hour. I realised that if you hear “One minute Sir” you will never see that person again. Eventually we worked out the procedure which involved trekking between banks, police stations and immigration offices. It was a DIY arrival into Egypt.

In Egypt I cycled south down the Sinai Peninsula to Dahab, a small town that had been dubbed the hippy capital of the Middle East, but now bigger corporates had started to move in to compete for backpacker cash and resorts of the ilk found in neighbouring Sharm El Sheikh were beginning to surface. But Dahab still feels laid back and easy. There are more reefs to explore nearby and it sounds like a good place to vegetate until I hit the mountains again on my way inland to Cairo. I’ve already noted the ‘Churchill’s Bar and Grill’ complete with a photo of Sir Winston, the availability of fish and chips, the red and white striped Brits abroad and the Egyptian response to telling someone you’re British (“Lovely Jubly” in a Del Boy stylee) but I’ve got time to kill and here seems a good place to spend it. Nyomi flies out on the 20th of October and together we will begin the next chapter… all of Africa. I can’t wait.

Finally I leave you with a few images I managed to capture of the desert wildlife of the Middle East. I’m off to a Dahab nightspot where I’ve heard some DJ called “Dave the rave” is playing. Lovely Jubly.

A ladybird taking off

A Giant Painted Agama lizard

The last thing I expected to see crossing the road in the desert… a chameleon

A relative of the Wasp spider

The stunning male blue Sinai lizard, unique to this area

Punctures: 20
Distance cycled: 7656 km
Countries cycled through: 16
Top speed: 75.4 km/hr. Taurus mountains, Turkey.
Longest continuous ascent: 1700 vertical metres
Days on the road: 172
Lifts offered: 4
Lifts accepted: 0

ps. Contacts for Cairo are much appreciated! Please email me if you know someone who would like to meet up or to host us. As usual I will exchange tales from the road for a small piece of floor to sleep on.

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.


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
Eat fruit and drink warm water
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