Mostly, when I think of Christmas, I think of arguments and fighting or of shopping streets full of shoving people, rushing people stressed and panicked, trying to get hold of all the things the television had told them to get.
But a small part of me, left over from childhood, still thinks of green trees covered in snow, of log fires, of the smiles on people’s faces when they open a gift from you. Of great mounds of food. Turkey breast. Potatoes. Parsnips. Peas. Sprouts. Roasted veg. Boiled veg. Mashed veg. Yorkshire Puddings. Stuffing. All covered in gravy and cranberry sauce.
The good things were all I could think about the day I rode from the forest towards Istanbul. It was Christmas Eve. I imagined all the family traveling up from their homes to the cottage to be with my Dad and step mum. People at work going home to their families. Warm in their homes. Together.
I got it into my head that the only present I could give was to video-call home on Christmas day, from Istanbul and a personal race to reach the city began. The day was a cold one. The leggings were on. The gloves were worn. The hood down and little treats like biscuits or boiled sweets got me through the colourless farmlands. The roadside puddles were hard from ice as were the muddy cotton fields that seemed to roll and roll.
Temperatures plummeted that evening and, with every possible piece of clothing wearable being worn, in an attempt to cycle through the night, to reach the city at sunrise, I zipped up, plugged in, clipped on and rode into the darkness. The race was on and, like some biblical wiseman, traveling through the night and by the stars to a far off city and an ancient part of the world, I cycled.
The skies were clear for the first time in weeks. The stars, a myriad of diamonds, shone across the horizon. The freezing temperatures deadened everything, the sounds softened, the wind dropped and it was kind of peaceful.
But my idea had been too optimistic. It was too cold. Far too cold to reach Istanbul. Nearing midnight even my eyes had started to hurt from the plummeting temperatures. My back was sore. My hands ached. But still, I’d reached the coast of a new sea, The Maramara, and a campsite sign appeared along the highway by the waterside. Not so much a campsite as a patch of grass with a fence and a bungalow beside it.
The first few hours of my Christmas day, knowing that back home people were eating breakfast in bed or opening gifts, had been of frozen taps and a blocked squat toilet. I found myself brushing my teeth with orange juice.
North Western Turkey was all straight roads and endless horizons. Roads full of trucks and petrol tankers and the constant smell of gasoline in the air as everyone trundled through the brown fieldlands towards Istanbul. It was tough work in the cold. I hadn’t dealt with unbending roads like this before and it took some serious focus to just keep pedalling.
All I wanted was to pull into a station and sit by the radiator. In fact, this I did for two hours at one point, just so my legs would loosen up. Turkish Tea or Cay always seemed to be on the go, served up in little shot-sized glasses and often full of sugar. It became hard not to stop at each station and even harder to say no to a second, third or even fourth pouring.
The present to myself that day, riding the last 100km to Istanbul, had been to wash my bike in one of the petrol stations. Drenching it in soap spray and then jetting it down, completely blasting it with hot water. It cost just one Turkish lira, about fifty pence, and made me smile a whole lot. Cleaned and oiled and riding smoothly.
The sun was setting by the time I reached Istanbul and I was still riding strong. But when the light faded and the roadlamps lit up the city I became lost in a maze of traffic and pollution and tower blocks and it took four hours (yes four hours!) to ride the twenty kilometres from outskirts to centre.
Central Istanbul was mostly cobbled or tramlined too which made it a nightmare finding the tiny hostel called ‘Mavi Guesthouse’ that I’d booked a bed in. By the time I found it, down a small backstreet, beneath the shadow of the city’s grand Hagia Sofia Mosque, the reason I’d tried to reached the city so qucikly, to phone home, I was too tired to do! Tomorrow, I’d told myself after all that. But, I’d made it. It was Christmas Day and I’d reached Istanbul. After nearly four months of cycling it was time to have a rest.The first stage of The LifeCycle was over.