Long dark nights, full of ice, full of snow, had taken hold of the world. Down a dark and cobbled alley, deep within the belly of the city, I sat, staring from the window of a rundown hostel onto the white and sparkling world of an Istanbul winter. A snowstorm raged outside. Howling through the streets. Beating at the window. Battering everything in its path. The ancient palace towers, the crumbling walls of the old town. The spires and domes, the red flags of Turkey, gulls from the surrounding seas all struggling to survive in this lamplit, bitter, windswept world. Istanbul had become a chamber. Winter it’s lock. And, somehow, days had turned to weeks and weeks to months in the city. Ultimately, four months were to pass, working in the hostel I had first reached on Christmas day, hiding from the cold, the storms, before I managed to move on again. In Istanbul I had closed my eyes for a moment and let spring return to the world. But, during those dark winter nights, fears had emerged in my mind, fears of what lay ahead. Old habits, old comforts were allowed to creep back into my life and a problem, a struggle much greater than any cycling adventure came back to haunt me. Fractures formed in all of the happiness, the joy and momentum I had created during the ride from England and I know now that a deeper, darker story lies within my ride around the world. A story that needs to be shared. A demise began in the recesses of Mavi Guesthouse in Istanbul, with my bike hidden away in the rooftops and my mind allowed to wind down. A demise that’s impossible to ignore… In the first days, before the storms, before the snow, I felt nothing but excitement towards a change in pace, towards a little stability. I took to using my feet again, walking through the bazaars, the cafe lined streets, wrapped up in warm, winter clothing. I let the city dazzle me with its ancient architectures, towering and ominous, magical, arabian. In the daylight there was a sense of trade, movement, history. At night, the palaces would become a blaze of colour, the city flooded in rainbow’s of light. The icy, shoreline waters bathing in it’s glow. I cooked for the hostel, receptioned for them, was given food, a bed, often a whole room in return. For a small place, in a cramped backstreet, a buzz hung always in the air at this cheapest and most characterful of guesthouses. The new year had bought to the city hundreds of travellers and with them endless nights full of music, full of dance, street food, waterpipe-smoking, bath house scrub-downs and wide-eyed, smile inducing conversations between adventurers of journeys to come and roads already travelled. I will never forget those first days. Safe from the cold winter. Full of energy, joy and tales from the long autumn bike ride that had come before. Surrounded by an ever changing group of characters, all full of prospect, passion and a willingness towards the world. Everything seemed to have fallen into place for me. I let the storms rage. Let time pass. Let Istanbul become my home. Unaware of the regression that had begun in my mind.
January crossed into February. The snows were joined by ice and fog and a coldness clung to the city, to my heart and the hostel cleared out, at times completely. Lifeless for days on end. Mostly, in these quiet days, I just sat in the dark reception, huddled next to an electric heater for hours, running the hostel single handedly whilst the owner, Ali, covered errands. The excitement that came with travelers faded for a while, as I churned away on my photography and convinced myself that I was progressing, writing and creating. But, I was just delaying, looking into a glowing screen for hours or out of the windows onto a grey and damp world. Reflecting on what had been. Imagining a future yet lived. When February crossed into March, when the first pink petals burst from the trees and into the world, I knew that, after three months, I had stumbled into a routine, that I was locked, that, when presented with the opportunity to withdraw from life, I still took it. The arrival of spring was something I should have experienced by bicycle and I was growing irritable because of it. Some days, during the snows of February, I would never leave the hostel, moving from reception to my room, restless when too many arrivals came at once, disrupting the balance of the world I was now in charge of, frustrated by the lack of privacy. This had happened before, in a place that seemed so long ago, a small office at the top of cramped london building. It was still an incredible time. I was required, simply, to be friends with everyone, to talk to guests, make them feel welcome, learn about them, from them, make them happy whether they were escaping their ordinary lives for just a week or an entire gap year. This was my job & knowing that my journey could continue again at any time, that there was a beautiful future for me beyond Turkey made it even more enjoyable. The large scale advertising campaigns I had worked on months earlier in London seemed insignificant and unimportant in comparison to this small hostel job. I saw joy on the faces of travellers and holiday-goers, excited to be in such an exciting city. We laughed. Listened. Shared. Inspired and I became a part of their own beautiful journey. More time in the Guesthouse should have meant only new travellers and more connectivity. But, it was an addictive, easy and unchallenging lifestyle, a static one, which made me grow more restless by the day. To go from four months of absolute momentum to total immobility is not good for anyones mind. In time, the question I was always asked by new guests, what are you doing here? felt awkward in the answering. There was no bike to be seen, I was putting on weight and the journey across Europe I had taken was slipping into memory the longer I sat in reception. The answer, I am cycling around the world, felt like a strange reply.
A Final Goodbye to Europe
Late into February, but before the spring, I’d found myself on a bus, travelling across nighttime motorways, along the very roads I had cycled months before. When dawn came, I woke to a Bulgarian landscape in the city of Sofia. A soviet world, grey and cold and full of concrete buildings, snowbound and grid-like. I’d travelled west across the border for a Turkish visa-renewal and it was to be the strangest moment of my journey so far, as if I’d stepped back in time. The balkan mountains, now clouded and dark, surrounded the city. The last time I had been in this region the sun had shone, the skies had been clear and the colours of autumn were varnished with gold. The empty parks, the soulless streets, were wet, white and dank here, less than a hundred miles from Macedonia and a field I’d camped in almost four months before, with my bicycle, with forward motion. I had been given a chance to step back in time for twenty four hours, to say a final goodbye to Europe and to realise how much time had passed by since Greece. I knew I had to return to Istanbul and begin to move on and out of this stark winter, move back into the wild on my bike, before the first flowers of spring blossomed. On that day, simply waiting for a return bus, I wandered through the streets of this strange Bulgarian city, staring up at the grand, soviet monuments, the government blocks and appreciating the reminder that change was healthy, that I was not suited to sitting still, no matter how easy it was to do. I returned to Istanbul, but it was still months later, in early May, after eighteen whole weeks of living in the small hostel, that I eventually pulled my bike from the attic and pushed on into Turkey, on with the rest of a round the world cycling adventure. I wish that this was the end of my Istanbul tales but, sadly, there still remains one final chapter from the city, from the winter, left to share with you. A chapter twenty yeas in the making and one that took nine months to accept, to realise that there was no running from it. All that I am, all reasons for this adventure and the beginning of problems that would challenge the entire journey throughout a Central Asian summer.