Miles on the clock: 6,985
After a couple of days of nightclubs, restaurants and repose in the affluent seaside town of Varna, I felt a little cumbersome as I climbed inland and up into Bulgaria’s hills.
Reaching Turkey had lain as a significant landmark on my mental horizon for almost three months. After 17 countries, 13 currencies and 6,000 miles I was finally leaving the EU. My thick, blank passport finally had a visa stamp and that night I heard the first of many, often tuneless but always evocative, muezzins making the call to prayer from the rocket-shaped minarets that stand grandly over even the most humble of rural hamlets. I felt like my adventure was beginning in earnest.
That night we camped on a hill under an astonishingly-bright full moon and made a fire hemmed by a high rock barrier to defend the surrounding tinder-dry brush. The lunar-lit landscape lunged away; rolling interlaced hills of varying russet shades, and shallow valleys tracing a course among them. Our valleys, I possessively thought. It seemed there was nobody for miles around and our hill was a throne. We talked by the fire until late; it was a magical night.
The next few days en route to Istanbul were a pleasure. It was the first time I had been accompanied on the road for more than a day. The weather smiled benevolently and there was a new and interesting culture to absorb (one I failed to notice on a two-week holiday, aged 14, in a Southern Turkish beach resort where I discovered that Germans really do rise early to bag poolside seats and I learned to loathe raki). Nicholas and Joanna are endearing to watch on their tandem. Nicholas steers at the front and hands-free Joanna is the navigateur (or wingman in the parlance of Top Gun). Their constant and concise communications regarding gear changes, and their patient reception of my shouted fragments of French, often lost in the slight headwinds, were just a fraction of their charm.
We camped in good spots, ate well, took our time, and one day entered the impossible sprawl that comprises Istanbul. The extensive and unbroken chain of satellite towns merge, through a bustling, bumpy and cacophonous web of roads, with the centre of a city that is home to 13 million souls and spans two continents. Our excitement upon arrival at the “Gateway to Asia” (and one of this years European Capitals of Culture) waned slightly in the heart of a perpetual gridlock. I enjoyed weaving in and out of the hasty vehicles and clamouring on my klaxon wıth the best of the impatient drivers. However, the weaving was wearisome for the long and less-maneuverable tandem and we were all relieved to pass through a gate in the ancient Roman wall and enter the inner-city where out three hour search for a cheap, welll-located hostel began.
I asked one man for directions to the backpacker’s district and he tutted knowingly, wobbled his head from side to side and, after a deep inhalation, began: “Ah! My friend, it is very far. Very, very far. You must take a taxi. My brother here is taximan…”
“Is five kilometers.”
I glanced down at my odometer (which had recently clocked over 10,000 km) and politely thanked him with the Turkish six-syllable word (Teşekkür ederim), restraining an insufferably-smug chuckle. At length we found a hostel and checked in to its 30-bed dormitory in the basement. The snoring, farting and fornicating that surrounded me during my six nights in that over-peopled pit was quite a shock after the perfect privacy and peace of my one-man tent; and, believe it or not, the dorm smelt worse.
Once installed I began the hunt for visas to get met to Nepal where I have arranged to meet my family for Christmas. My original plan to head south to the Dead Sea and then west through Saudi Arabia has proved an impossibility as I cannot get a Saudi visa without first converting to Islam. So, to continue eastwards I must cross Iran, Pakistan and India. I organised my Iranian visa with little trouble and arranged to collect it in Eastern Turkey to save time. The Indian consulate were very welcoming and polite, greeting me by name (“Mr Walker, sir”) on my second and third visits. When I collected my visa I observed the dutiful, ever-smiling Indian doorman make several precise, minute adjustments to the angle and positioning of a plain, brown doormat. Pakistan, howerver, poses a problem. I embarked on a four-hour expedition in search of their ill-advertised consulate with aTurkish man called Moses and a Latvian man called Jesus. Jesus, Moses and I found the consulate’s former location with difficulty and finally, at the plaque-less, flagless new location in an obscure residential suburb, were informed curtly “no visas”. After several disappointing phone calls to other consulates and embassies in Iran and Turkey I decided to solve the problem nearer the time and fly over Pakistan if absolutely necessary.
Being the entrance to Asia, İstanbul is also a place where many cyclists’ routes converge in a geographic bottleneck. I met Rob and Mat from Yorkshire who had cycled from home in just six weeks; Leigh (www.pedal360.com), also from England, who is cycling around the world; and Ashley (www.travelpod.com/members/ashventures) from New Zealand who would join me on the road ahead.
I also wandered aimlessly for hours through the confusing warren of streets centred around the Grand Bazaar. There seem to be streets dedicated to every conceivable product ranging from the mainstream (a busy boulevard of jeans shops) to the unusual and niche (a thin, haunting alley populated purely by shops selling mannequins arranged in ghoulish displays of perfect-figured, smooth-crotched bodies).
After almost a week my feet began to itch and I loaded up Old Geoff once more. The short ferry ride across the Bosphorus was a momentous moment form me and I couldn’t stiffle a meek cheer as I rolled off the boat and onto the Asian continent. Things would be different from there onwards. I knew the relative familiarity and ease of Europe was behind me and ahead lay differences in custom, religion, wealth, landscape and ethnicity. At least two things would remain unchanged though: my sign language when trying to buy eggs (clucking, flapping and at last laying) and loo paper (use your imagination). From here on the punctures began too. During my first week in Asia I had more than in three months in Europe; one a day became below average.
Together we climbed into the mountains and followed the road ever eastwards. Each day we would be innundated by offers of çay (chai, Turkish Tea served in tiny glasses) and, when we accepted, would try to pick up some Turkish language. Or rather, I would try and Ashley (a self-confessed polyglottal geek) would succeed. The friendly honks from passing drivers increased and we were oftern startled out of our wits by the sheer volume of some of the lorries' booming, multi-tonal horns.
The morning we left our castle was clear and we were treated to a view that kings would have enjoyed from the same spot almost 3,000 years ago. The heavily-waterlogged valley floor spread away seemingly from vertically below us and, dappled in swathes of low-lying mist, stretched towards the distant valley walls behind which lurked snowy mountain peaks. We hit the road in a slight funk (having just passed an hour cleaning fresh, clay/mud off our bikes as the wheels couldn't even turn) but were soon cheered up by two army offıcers, Yalcin and Sülleyman, who invited us into their 100-man base and gave us lunch. They even called in a couple of the troops to play guitar and sing to us in the orange PVC tent that serves as the officers mess. While the shaven-headed Turk crooned a beautiful and well-known ballad, a muted television tuned in to Turkish MTV displayed a nearly nude Britney Spears gyrating epileptically.