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.
|An egyptian ‘hill’. Scary, white knuckle stuff.|
|An Egyptian traffic jam|
How to confuse another tourist whilst cycling around the world…
“So where are you from?”
“I’m from England”“Oh great. And where have you come from?”
“From England”“No no. I mean where have you cycled from?”
“From England”“Oh wow. (pregnant pause). That’s a long way. How long did that take?”
“Around six months”“No kidding! And where are you heading?”
“Back to England”“How long will that take?”
“Around four and a half years”
I had a few conversations along these lines in Dahab. It made me chuckle, but reminded me that after clocking up eight thousand kilometres I’m still only one tenth of my way around the world. My days by the Red Sea were spent indulging in nice activities like snorkeling in lagoons, eating nice hot food, drinking nice cold beer, having a nice chat with nice new friends and occasionally having a nice quiet siesta. It didn’t feel right. It was only six days but a guilty feeling descended like a curtain, and with it an urge to push on. I kept poring over my map and the route inland across Sinai. More hills. I had a debt to pay and those mountains were calling it in. I reminded myself that hills are just like all those cold showers. The thought is always worse than the experience. This would be the last vertical test until the highlands of Ethiopia, maybe 2000 kilometres away. Until then the theme would be Red Sea coast, Nile valley and Sahara desert. Dahab was a great place for a break, but there were few solitary travelers here, everyone seemed to be part of a group. I started to miss home. Recently whenever I’m feeling a bit nostalgic something quickly crops up to put a smile back on my face. Sometimes all it takes is a tailwind or an exotic creature in the road, sometimes some local hospitality or if I’m lucky it’s meeting another cycle tourer. On my way inland across Sinai, whilst my mind wondered about the people I’d left behind in England, I met two.
The first was Nils, a German guy who’d taken off on his bike at the ripe old age of sixty six. I realise now that our conversation would probably have sounded strange to anyone else if they happened to be listening in. Two strangers met in the road and covered, in quick succession, altitude, kilograms of gear, prevailing wind directions and then the pros and cons of Rohloff hubs. I happened upon a pilgrim whilst riding through Turkey perhaps a month or so ago. A sunny, gregarious character from Austria called Martin who was walking from his homeland to Jerusalem. Amazingly Nils had run into him too, in Serbia. I waved goodbye to Nils who was just finishing his tour and then tried to ignore taxi drivers who frequently stopped to offer me a lift. I thought it was fairly obvious that I had put at least some time and consideration into my chosen method of transport, but they tried their luck anyway. I asked a couple if they wanted to ditch their taxis and find bicycles. They didn’t get what I was on about. I’d picked up one of those water spray bottles they use in hairdressers whilst I was in Dahab. I intermittently soaked my face to escape the heat and I liked it resting in my bottle holder. It contributed nicely to my increasingly bizarre appearance. The police at the numerous check points found it hilarious. I think every cyclist should have one. Also great for washing up, brushing teeth and for a very limited “shower”.
The second cyclist was Rob. A Brit who’d cycled all the way from Capetown, he’d made it in seven months despite more then a couple of chunky loops and detours. He was heading to Istanbul. We greedily traded information, the road ahead for the road behind. He probably knew a bit about my future and I of his. His tales inflamed my curiosity. These encounters with cyclists coming the other direction, more then any guide book or web search, help shape my decisions about the route ahead. Rob was full of useful tidbits. Here’s his entertaining blog. Cycle tourers met so far… It’s England 2, Germany 1.
Cycling through desert can be an uninspiring effort. After Sinai it was a stale, stagnant, unchanging landscape. Only the odd dead White Stalk and red or green stripes of mineral deposits in the rocks roused my interest. Nothing but the bare beige backdrop to stare at. To me camels always look glum and a little bemused. Stick twenty in a lorry, with their heads poking out of the top, and drive it fast through the desert and they look quite comical, but that was all that broke the monotony. Only one thing to do then. Three cups of coffee, some new school breaks on the IPOD, switch off that internal monologue and get cracking. At the end of the day is when the desert really shines, the nights and evenings are magnificent. The bleached blandness of the day diminishes with the light. Shadows rise, colours sharpen, contours look to twist and morph. With few settlements, no light pollution and dependably clear skies, the cosmos fluoresces in all it’s glory. During the desert nights I could easily make out the hazy streak of the Milky Way, luminescent planets, star clusters and even the faint haze of Andromeda, our neighbouring galaxy, three million light years away.
I ran out of food again after consuming the edible dregs from the deep recesses of my pannier. After fifty kilometres and still no breakfast I spied a coastal resort, and then once inside to my delight, and their imminent regret, an all you can eat breakfast buffet. French and Italian tourists picked at the salads and cereals. I went to town. When I piled my plate as high as I could manage, for the third time, a few olives bounced away under the table. The bill then quickly arrived without me asking for it. I stuffed two hard boiled eggs into my pockets, paid and made for the exit, ignoring the disgruntled looking staff. I felt no shame. This is not the first time, and it will not be the last time, that I take a few liberties with buffet carts.
I was cycling on the only two inner tubes I had left and it was making me nervous. The valves on the only ones available to buy in the Middle East didn’t fit through the holes in my rims. I hoped things would hold up until Cairo but of course the inevitable happened, a sudden ‘woooooosh’ and on examination a split, right where the valve comes off the tube. I hadn’t glimpsed a bike shop since Amman, over one thousand kilometres behind me. When my inner tube ruptured I was fifty metres from one. They didn’t have the right tube, but of course in Egypt my problem was not a problem. If the tube didn’t fit, the young mechanic would make it fit. He swiftly removed the tyre, chucked away my tube, grabbed some pliers and set to work widening the hole in my rim. Within ten minutes he had solved the problem, inflated the new tube and replaced the tyre, adjusted my brakes and refused payment. It took me longer to persuade him to at least take some money for the tube than it did for him to fix it. In the end I could only convince him to take the Egyptian equivalent of about two quid sterling.
I cracked on, hungry for Cairo, munching up the kilometres and trying to ignore the Egyptian stripped down, minimalist approach to motoring (who needs lanes, indicators, brakes, mirrors or eyes). Eventually I made it. I’ve spent about six months on the road, it would have been five were it not for that troublesome knee. I expected the hectic in Cairo, so sunnies off, headphones out and game face on. I needed all my senses. Time to embrace the chaos, forget the rules and above all, commit to every move and turn. This time I quite enjoyed it.
|Cairo… the old and the new|
When I first found out Nyomi might want to join me I asked her to choose a country. I didn’t expect her to answer “Africa”, but I’m glad she did. She arrives today and we have a lot to do in Cairo, on top of all the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of the city to sample. So what are my hopes and fears for the roads ahead through ‘the dark continent’? There are many. I’m not looking forward to the police escort we’ll get in Egypt from Cairo to Aswan. Egypt’s boys in white insist on trailing cyclists if you choose to ride down the Nile valley. Rob had them in tow for four days. I guess they don’t care much for independent travelers. They prefer tour groups, where you’re told what to look at and then escorted to the gift shop. Many a cyclist has also recounted tales of the stone throwing hoards of children in Northern Ethiopia. I don’t know if anyone knows for sure why they do it. Perhaps it’s perceived as bad luck to see a traveler on their turf, perhaps it’s just youthful mischief, either way many cyclists I have spoken to warn of sporadic attacks along this route. The road through Northern Kenya is notorious, a rough lumpy hot bed of ups and downs. Hundreds of kilometres of what amounts to back to back speed bumps, and then for us a few weeks of difficulty walking in a normal fashion. Ethiopia and Rwanda have some hefty inclines to deal with, and of course I also sometimes worry about having all of our stuff nicked. The temptation’s obvious. In Africa our bikes are worth a fortune, but it’s unlikely that I will pass through anywhere on my five year expedition that has a higher rate of bike theft than my prosperous home town of Oxford.
Malaria is one that sometimes hits cyclists. It is a particular risk when you’re outside all day, but we have tactics to deploy. Obviously covering up and avoiding bites in the first place, good mosquito repellent (and I have some), nets at night and prophylaxis. Many don’t bother, complaining the tablets are “not natural”, that they’re not 100% effective or that they have side effects. Personally I couldn’t give a mosquito’s arse about the first, the second is true, although surely you should try what you can to reduce the risk, and the third? Well malaria has side effects too. Off the top of my head… haemolytic anaemia, liver and kidney failure and occasionally death. Whilst I’ve never seen a patient who has developed side effects to anti-malarials severe enough to warrant a hospital admission, I have been involved in the care of quite a few patients with malaria, including one who subsequently died on the Intensive Care Unit. Some had taken prophylaxis, but most had not. We also carry a malaria self test kit and some Quinine for treatment of Falciparum malaria if all else fails. Finally there are those wild beasts of Africa. If Nyomi and Steve disappear without trace and only their camera is recovered, the last photo may just show grins of the purest gorgonzola and edam, the pair oblivious to the pride of lions in the corner of the image and just over their shoulders….
The geographer George Kimble put it aptly when he said that the darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it. In the next chapter of the saga I hope to learn something of the continent through the people we come across on the road. I hope to visit some of Merlin’s projects. I hope the journey is as exciting as it has been up until now. I hope my knee continues to fair well. I hope our journey’s hard and I hope it hurts and then I hope to sit on the beach at Capetown, beside Belinda and Nyomi, and know that we conquered Africa together and that all the sweat and tears and saddle sores and long days and bumpy roads and dodgy bowels and aching limbs and homesick times were worth it. Steve and Nyomi! Nyomi and Steve! Team Ny-eve! Hang on, that doesn’t quite sound right.
Every thousand kilometres I cycle I stop, write the distance on whatever comes to hand and take a photo. The idea is to put together a collection of eighty images for every thousand of the eighty thousand kilometres I expect to pedal. So far I have written in the sand, in stone, in the ice on my tent or just on a piece of card. Here are the first eight of these milestones…
|Fresh-faced in the French countryside|
|On the Italian Riviera|
|Getting a soaking in Croatia|
Reggae, rain and a dodgy beard
|A frosty morning in Macedonia|
Paranoia and pesky pooches
|Back on the bike after knee surgery, Istanbul|
The humble fare
Recovery, japery and some summer shenanigans
|South of Cappadocia, Turkey. I carved the numbers into the soft tufa rock|
|North of Amman, Jordan|
Ain’t no valley low enough
Doctor, soldier, vagrant, priest
|The Sahara desert, Sinai peninsula, Egypt.|
|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|
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.
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|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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|
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|
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.
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…
And this fruit…