An accidental run to Smalley Green Part 2

To discover what motivated this journey, read part one. For the journey itself, read on…

I like running, but not in the way some people like running. In the days before I set off on an unplanned run through the UK, footage appeared on social media and TV news of the two Brownlee brothers at the end of a triathlon so gruelling that just pondering it saps calories. In the video, one of the brothers pauses, reels on the spot, staggers, looks about as close to cardiac arrest as it’s possible to look without being attached to a defibrillator, and then his brother appears, throws his arm over his brother’s shoulder and aides him in an ungainly stumble, reminiscent of a three-legged race, towards the finish line where he swoons into pain, physical oblivion and post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a psychological aberration. People are sectioned for less.

But I do get the draw of pain and punishment. To some extent, far removed from the Brownlee’s limit of endurance, I enjoy exertion. I thought this as I began my run from my Mum’s house in Oxford, an unplanned jaunt to no destination, with no time-frame, route or objectives. I felt the light-headed buzz of breathlessness, the gush of endorphins. I passed a sign advertising a coming fun run. Fun. That was for wimps. This would be the unfunnest, unfunniest, most funless run of my life. But if I got really tired I’d stop and have a cup of tea in Subway.

Video highlights from six years biking around the world

Apologies if you’d been expecting my monthly update and got radio-silence… It was the first time I’ve missed a blog post in the last seven years. My excuse is that I’ve been embroiled in all manner of projects since coming back and the blog had to take a back seat. But I will continue to post here.

Europe part 2: Revenge of the vagabond

When the night time temperature in Germany fell to minus thirteen, I wasn’t surprised. When the sun brought a pale haze to the valleys, and when the world stiffened under ice and trees became ghoulish, reaching things, I felt no upheaval. This is how it should be. Europe has always been out to get me.

Six years ago, when I set out from London to cycle around the world, it was also winter in western Europe: the coldest for thirty years.

Serial satellite images from the day I left home, if I’d bothered to look at them, revealed a clutch of blue talons reaching in callous steadiness over Europe. The following day over 250 schools across Kent called parents and delighted their children with the news that school was off; there was simply too much snow for anyone to cope. My first days on the road were spent negotiating up to two feet of the stuff and gangs of children rampaging with snowballs. I was slow and preposterous-looking; the ultimate prize.

The most cherished moment in a child’s life, I have discovered, is this: you are playing in the snow. Your mum shouts ‘Hey Benny, school’s cancelled, too much snow! Come inside for ice cream!’ ‘I’m coming Mum!’ you shout, but as you put the finishing touches to the densest, roundest snow ball of your young life, a huffing, unbalanced looking creature on a weighty bicycle teeters into view. He’s entombed in Lycra, unmuscled, weaving regretfully as if at the back end of seven consecutive Ironman contests. Your best friends gather about you, in a kind of platoon; he sees you all, pleads with his eyes, and develops a look that suggests the slightest distraction might send him painfully crashing to the icy ground. He begs a little in a string of whimpering ‘no’s’, but it’s too late for him, and he knows it. A silence falls as you take aim. Never will childhood be this joyous again.

The attacks lasted for two days. In my memory there was something military-like about these encounters: the kids were organised. For over a hundred miles they fired at will as I rode through Kent, flanking bridges and opening assaults from overhead walkways. I heard call signs, ‘Enemy three o’clock!’ and near Ashford a sure voice commanded: ‘Let’s get him in the face!’ What? No! I thought. Let’s not… But I could only wince as subordinates began chanting with Lord-of-the-Flies zeal: ‘In the face! In the face! Yeah in the face! Get him in his stupid face!’

But that was six years ago… I’m loving it here now.

It’s not surprising that the continent of my birth and earliest wanderings is my favourite of the six I’ve pedaled through. I tell myself I’m not biased, that the history writ large, the gastronomic hedonism, the architectural feats all validate my leanings, but I can’t be sure of that: home will always find a pedestal. We all ‘know’ Europe is stocked high with sweet-scented food, beautiful people, lovers, artists and bike lanes. Bloody bike lanes! Statistically speaking, if my bicycle is to be stolen over the course of a round the world ride, most likely this would occur in Europe too. The bike lanes would probably expedite the pilferage.

The Danube bike path

I feel this deep compassion I have for Europe as I stroll about the Christmas markets of Budapest, mulled wine in hand, snow gently piling up in the streets about the many spires of the parliament and the hushed glide of trams glittering with fairy lights. As I stop to admire the pedestrian traffic lights in Vienna which depict two women or two men, and not, as is customary, a mixed sex couple. As I use the excellent city transport systems, symbol not just of development, but of a liberal slant to the politics, of thriving social systems that prioritise equality arguably more than elsewhere, and that should make Americans blush and neocons wither away like vampires exposed to sunlight. And (Brits excluded), Europeans are often so multilingual that you want to remind them how unattractive it is to show off. Around one million Syrians made their home in Germany in 2015 whilst Republican front-runner Trump suggests banning not just Syrians but all muslims, and Australian fear-mongers wage a cynical war against new comers, conflict zone origin or not. I’m proud of my continent, if not in this case, my country. Perhaps Trump would like to meet the mother of the nine year old boy I met in an Afghan hospital who’d survived a suicide bomb with a deformed limb and severe psychological trauma and consider again why families take the risks they do to find another refuge.

My map of Europe was reassuringly spiderwebbed in roads, with a key that told of service stations, chalets, roman ruins, speed cameras. I recalled my map of Uzbekistan which looked as though the cartographer had given up or died abruptly before the job was done, as if someone had tugged out the map from where his slumped torso had pinned it to the desk. If there had been a speed camera in the desert, it probably would have been assigned the sprawling yellow shading of a metropolis.

I have to tell you something: service stations in Europe sell sandwiches in packets. In packets! Sandwiches! I’d almost forgotten sandwiches can come in packets. Add to my extreme excitement the discovery of chocolate hobnobs. When I first glimpsed them I did a little jig in the aisle, but stopped abruptly when I realized a displeased elderly lady was looking at me sideways as I directed some pelvic thrusts towards the Weetabix. Weetabix!

I have been roughly following the course of the Danube. Freezing fog filled my days in Serbia and Hungary. Dew made shining orbs on my clothes, and froze to frost. I couldn’t see the landscape, the tilled fields, fully appreciate its boredom. So I listened to vast amounts of funk on my iPod, I imbibed it like hot coffee, it livened and warmed me as I rode.

I haven’t been zipping between must see sights but following instead a random scribble of river on my map, planning less than usual and submitting to whatever the breeze. Mostly I have been happy to enjoy the simplicities I’ll go without and miss when I’m home: Rough camping. Thinking. Following whims. Taking hospitality. Spirited eating.

My campsites have been more carefully selected seeing as though they will be my last for a while: clearings in pine forests. On a rise overlooking mist-filled moorland. Little acts of kindness have followed me like a parting in the clouds, a service station manager in Serbia bought me a sandwich, a map and some tea. An Austrian hotelier gave me a night for free and a huge bag of doughnuts.

Each day the sun has taken its puny efforts below the horizon at around 4 pm, and the dark that follows is long and snow-riddled. I’m always up well before the sun rises again the next day, a teasing, jaundiced smudge in the clouds, keen to make use of the frustratingly few sunlit hours winter bestows.

Nostalgia blurs my days. I’ve remembered my first crossing of Europe, all those sunrises ago, when I was hesitant, intrepid, finally at large in the world and in love with being so. I was clueless of my own limits then. I remembered too all the terrible places I rough camped in 2010, on the edge of suburbia in Italy when the police were called to move me on, but who let me stay instead. And when I cross vast rivers like the Danube, a slippery looking sweep of water as wide as a lake, I recall the Yangzee in China and other monstrous rivers I’ve reached.

The mobility of Europeans is on show virtually everywhere now amid the porous borders of the EU. I found myself talking to a lady from Yorkshire in a Bulgarian village. In Romania I had whole conversations in Spanish, our only common tongue. That it’s easy now for Europeans to move around, to experience each other’s homelands means people have a greater understanding of their neighbours lives, and more opportunity to export the triumphs.

The thing about bigotry is that it has a global home, in this regard it doesn’t discriminate. Europe was where I met Barry: A 70-ish year old man from the UK who’d been living in Bulgaria for six years. ‘This country’s going to shit’ he told me. ‘It’s the Roma people, outbreeding the Bulgarians. Gypsies everywhere! All they do is breed and steal and do things with their women’. He went on to moan about corruption; his only positive reflection was that Bulgaria was cheap. He stood next to me as a bought some chicken from a nearby kiosk. ‘What’s the word for thank you in Bulgarian?’ I asked him, two days into the country myself, so I could thank the shopkeeper. ‘You know, I’m not sure’ he mumbled. I thought: you’ve been here six years. Six! You have Opinions on the Roma, and you can’t say thank you in the lingua franca. Perhaps you should rethink what you ‘know’ and try a bit more immersion.

Talk is of refugees, of course. Even in winter they come, thousands arriving to Austria and Germany every day. I have stayed with a couple who hosted a Syrian family stay in their home, another who had three Afghan men. Another volunteered in the refugee camps, another blamed them for sex attacks and suggested eastern European countries with no colonial history have no responsibility for the arrivals. I was pointed out the part of the Hungarian train station where refugees were stuck after Hungary closed its borders forcing them to take off by foot to Vienna. They are a presence here, invisible to me, spoken of like mythical creatures.

Globalisation, development, whatever your epithet, might lead inevitably to some degree of homogenisation, but there’s enough quirks in Europe to keep a tired traveler interested. Enter McDonald’s in Austria, I have discovered, and an automatic yodeling sound is activated by the door swing, plus the manager will be wearing some form of traditional Austrian dress. I’m not making this up. Europe is a place where people scribble James Brown lyrics on buildings in graffiti paint. It’s a place so bicycle friendly they plough the snow from bicycle paths, not bicycle lanes, but solitary paths! I saw it happen!

Predictably people have stopped to remind me that winter is a bad time to cycle across Europe, as if I’d got my hemispheres confused and was sporting sunnies and a sombrero. When they do a voice in my head says ‘Tell him about Mongolia! The nights of minus 40! Tell him ‘this is nothing!’ Luckily I don’t because another voice says: ‘you cock’. In Austria a lady dog walking was mortified when her darling pet bounded towards me, barking. She grabbed the dog and alternately scolded it and made obsequious noises in my direction. It hadn’t come within three metres of me. She has no idea what I’ve been used to. I’d put my hand into my pocket, watching the hound with narrow eyes and feeling the three stones I still keep there out of habit. I can hit a snarling target between the eyes, South America taught me that.

I flew to Spain to spend a happy Christmas with my family, followed by new year in Vienna. Then back to Budapest to finish up. I followed the Danube through the frozen wetlands of Slovakia, the pavement fretted with ice and piled at points in slush, the river flickering into view between bony-brown trees. And then into Vienna, swerving about the concrete graffiti-dashed supports of highways, as looming as sequoias. I set up a string of hosts on the warmshowers website, for company, conversation and to escape the cold.

So many signs! I kept thinking as I pedaled the Danube cycle way in Austria. Three or four different maps at each information point, which seemed to roll around every kilometer. Zoom-ins, large scale, different angles, extensive keys, florid descriptions with photos of local wildlife. Photos of local guesthouses. Historical titbits. There were maps that told you the location of other maps. There were altitude graphs, almost completely flat lines, in case you suffer some terminal brain disorder and had forgotten you were following the course of a large river and its floodplain. It reminded me of the short story by Borges in which a town so dedicated to making a detailed map they eventually make one bigger than the town itself.

Then more snow, stealing the tarmac in stacking sheets. But on one clear morning by an Austrian curve of the Danube the rising sun anointed the forest, once swan-white with snow piled upon boughs, no breeze to topple it. As soon as light fell onto the trees snow came down in clumps and flecks, a blizzard born under a solid blue sky. It was a spectacle utterly life affirming, visually dazzling, and for which there is probably a specific word in German. And that word is probably Shruntabintafrakan.

I should say German people have been some of the most openly curious, happy go lucky, hospitable people on my whole journey. But in Deggendorf, or any of the other towns that sound like characters in Harry Potter, I couldn’t imagine myself ordering anything from the local cafe’s beer menu.
‘Arcobrau Urfass Hell Vom Fass’? No thanks. Or ‘OK I’ll try some. Easy on the vom though, OK?’

It remains extremely cold, minus 12 by night here in Germany. The ‘Camping’ signs to lure summer bikers look more like warnings not to, loaded with snow and gleaming with ice. As the temperature dipped again the snow became frost-hard and stridently trod. Even the air has turned pale with just an intimation of pink, like the skin of a drowned person. But I’m close to home, that’s a thought that warms my spirit, even if my toes are only present by memory and not by sensation.

Next: The rest of Germany, Belgium, Holland and home. Thoughts about arriving to the latter will be the subject of my last blog post of this trip, though a new blog will rise from the ashes of this one.

Thank yous: My mum, George, Ronan, Siobhan, Anna, Margarita and her lovely parents Tony and Katerina, Lorna and Xavi, Barbara and Andreas, Alexander and Connie, Lui and Betti, Jan and Mirko, Zoltan, and Edit.


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