The Black Coast

On the coast of the Black Sea, perched high above the waters, stood the city of Samson. An ancient port. A winding maze of cliff born tower blocks. Here, a blacksmith repaired an already cracked pannier rack on my bike, I took a haircut in a local barber shop and down at the southern shores I found myself celebrating National Turkish Day with thousands of locals.

Crowds of people lined the streets, waving at me, shaking my hand and the policemen took pride in dressing my bike and bags with Turkish flags. I thought back to Mavi Guesthouse and thought of the backpackers celebrating too in the city of Istanbul already hundreds of miles ago.

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After the long hard slog that was central Turkey I rode this northern Coastline like a new man, legs churning, summer sun beaming, red flags blowing in the wind. As always, it was only as I neared the end of a country that I began to truly relish it. The days passed back and forth between sun and rain. Flash floods rolled in from the sea and their wet winds pushed me on at high speed through the last of the Turkish cities.

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It was a powerful week, growing from strength to strength and shedding weight. I continued to sleep in petrol stations, in bus stands, carpet shops and roadside food halls. Feasted on soup, bread and kebabs in roadside cafes. Fuelling myself with sugary tea handed out to me like a marathon race by the locals. The coast was a dark, damp, green place and its road was lined with tea plantations that scented the air with coal and leaf. Through the humidity, through the beauty, in and out of tunnels I flew, a smile returning to my face with each turn of the pedal.

Several hundred kilometres later I reached the city of Trabzon in Turkeys far north east and the Iranian embassy. In a city in the far north east of Turkey, on the brink of the Middle East, I found myself at a crossroads. Behind me Europe and a thousand memories of roads I’d taken and the people I’d met. In front the unknown, the true adventure. But the path ahead had been remapped by the rejection of my Iranian visa application at the local embassy in Trabzon. Turmoil between Britain and Iran meant I could now only apply for entry online, but my stay in Turkey had almost run out and there was no time left to wait. I had to push on and out of the country so, days later, on a warm summer’s night near the edge of Iran I changed course, turning north beneath a full and silvery moon, along the last stretch of Black Coast towards a new destination: Georgia.

I would cycle north of Iran and pick up the visa from the Azerbaijan capital of Baku before dropping back down towards Tehran. But, after standing in the embassy line, having watched three frenchmen all given forms to fill out, I was turned away and asked to leave because I had said the words I’m English to lady at the desk. After thousands of miles and nine months of cycling there I was with a piece of paper in my hand and a web address scrawled onto it that would change my entire journey across the Middle East and Asia.

At the time, standing in that street in Trabzon, I didn’t realise the extent of it, but it was the beginning of a new and unplanned route across several countries I’d never meant to visit and on that final days ride in Turkey, down an ever quietening highway out of the city, the blue skies turned black until there was neither car in sight nor sound upon the air. The moon glowing, crickets clicking in the grassy hillsides to my right and the waves of The Black Sea shimmering silver and silent to my left as I rode for the Georgian border. In and out of tunnels. On through the darkness. Dwelling over all the places I had travelled, all the roads that had lead to that point.

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When I think back on all the the towns I rode through, the faces I saw and the hands I shook riding through that great country, it would be hard to make them sound memorable or to explain why they were so special to someone else. There were no crazy moments, no vast mountains or wild dog chases or stunning camping spots, yet a great joy washes over me at the thought of my time in Turkey. As with all the countries I had crossed and left behind on this journey, I felt both a sadness that they are now just a memory and joy at having been there at all. The further along the adventure I go, the more intense the nostalgia gets, playing havoc with my mind. The constant saying of hello and goodbye to people and places forcing me to think of the both the past and future simultaneously and, on that road that night, alone and riding through silence I knew that I was facing the unknown.

I had finally started to step out of time, out of the loop of life, neither here nor there and events were now spiralling out of my control, my route turning towards new lands, dictated by visas and rules and laws and, suddenly, in that moment, Turkey felt like home – it wasn’t in the extraordinary that I had found joy there, but the ordinary and now, only hours a way from leaving it behind, did I realise how much I would miss it. But things were moving too fast to really dwell. Adventure was forming like a hurricane around me. Sweeping me along and pulling me where it chose. The best I could do was pull my wits about me and embrace it.

It started to rain. I rolled into a petrol station as was allowed to sleep in the repair garage. Warm in my sleeping bag, squeezed in behind a truck and some tool boxes I let the skies pour out and my thoughts glide across the last six months. Between that frozen winter forest beyond the Greek border to this warm garage floor, thousands of miles away, it had he been the little things I’d remember most…

The bread and eggs and tomato breakfasts. The tiny glasses of sugary tea. The hammock I’d found in an abandoned forest park. The villagers that had offered me an entire village green to camp on for the night along a random highway. That lentil soup from that highway pitstop, sheltering from the headwinds. The cycle enthusiasts who’d stopped and waited for me at a restaurant twenty kilometres away so that they could buy me lunch and try to give me money for the road ahead. The empty campsite built onto ledges overlooking the Black Sea where a local journalist asked to take my picture and write an article on me, an article I would never read or be able to read. Caught in a lightning storm and battered by torrential rain in the middle of the night, on that hilltop, in that forest. The towers of Istanbul and the call to prayers ringing out across it’s sunset skies. All of these memories I hadn’t captured on film. Stories too many write, best left for another time, far from now, when grand nieces and nephews ask me to tell them tales of far away lands and strange, magical adventures.

But, in the petrol station that night it felt like so much that had happened was coming to an end with the closing of another country. Really, it was all just beginning. In fact, it was beginning over and over with each fresh moment, each new day of the adventure but, at the time, I couldn’t see it and I dreamed only of what was to come. Like the laying down of a great jigsaw built from a thousand moments and memories. Without knowing it, I was taking forward all the people I’d met, all the places I’d seen, they were now a part of this ride. and a part of me too, despite the fact then that I was still living in the future. Still dreaming of the Himalayas.

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Looking back now, I can see that there was beauty in that moment alone, sheltered from the rains, warm in my bag in the back of an oily petrol station garage, safe and warm. In the morning I woke to sunshine, to smiling faces and the smell of freshly baked bread from the next door bakery. It was the perfect ending; warm bread, jam, tea, an hour from the border. I watched the lady bake. So humble. So simple. An ancient technique. An age old recipe. Heart warming and homely. This was the Turkey I was saying goodbye to.

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