The road ran around the coast. Dark clouds swept across the hillsides. Swirling masses beyond the horizon, lost within the grey, rolling over and down the peaks. When night fell, lightning danced its way through the mountains and across the skies, slicing the darkness and lashing the earth.
Far below, a man with a bicycle pulled into an empty Turkish restaurant to shelter from the rain. He sat staring blankly into the storm, the scene before him alive with the cracking of thunder and explosions of light. His journey was no longer a simple ride through the park. He was not going to reach the edge of this vast country in time. He was moving too slowly and felt too small.
The world seemed endless and he was now totally alone, facing the complete unknown, with a hostel full of life in a city at the edge of Europe far behind him. People partied there, in the warmth of the city. People drank & toasted to life and to new friends and to their own unwritten adventures in the safety of that hostel. But here, in the heart of Northern Turkey, now firmly back in the saddle after two weeks of riding though rained out farmlands, exhaustion had caught up and he could go no further.
A bus rolled pulled in. Locals trundled out into the rain, ate soup with grim faces and shuffled back onto the safety of the coach again. Before the doors shut, before the cyclist knew what he was saying, the words came out Is there room for my bicycle?
Two Weeks Earlier…
So much had happened in Istanbul. Looking back I feel only positive nostalgia for those days. I had always imagined riding away from that little backstreet hostel, where I had cooked breakfasts & made the beds & sheesh’ed the winter nights away, into an ancient Turkish land full of dry, sunlit citadels that glistened on the horizons.
I’d pictured myself on the road to the mythical Cappadocia, pedalling fearlessly through summer suns towards the border of Iran. But, in reality, the first days ride in almost four months, around the Istanbul coast, had been full of grey skies, gentle showers and heavy emotions.
Fishermen lined the rocky shores. The city spread out across the bay for days and, on that first ride of the year, I felt lost, like day one all over again. Only this time I was cycling away from so much joy & so many friends that I had found & made in Mavi. I’d ridden across the whole of Europe and become happy at the end of it, so why was I back on the bike again. It didn’t make much sense.
Pedalling felt strange. My bike heavy. My legs weak again. No music could lift the clouds from the skies or my mind. I was so happy to be riding but so swamped by how endless the road ahead now seemed. Europe had been just a fraction of my journey, yet I had experienced so much, travelled so far and for most just those four months would have been the trip of a lifetime. Seven times that distance and seven times as many interactions was now about to take place. That was four months. The journey would last for four years!
I kept stopping every five minutes to just try and imagine what was out there. My thoughts kept spiraling in on themselves, asking always why are you cycling away from a world you had just begun to settle into in Istanbul? Why are you on the road for hours and hours each day again? What’s out there anyway when you had so much back in that hostel?
The himalayas felt further away than ever. They lay somewhere beyond this country, across a great inland sea and a handful of deserts far far away. It was all so overwhelming. My emotions shut down as I rode. My body was shaking and, at one point, in the late afternoon, my wheels came to a halt. I rolled onto the pavement and just lay there looking to the skies for what must have been an hour. In Mavi, in that city, I’d ground to a halt.
Problems with OCD had surfaced to the point where I needed to write an entire chapter about it. For a moment there I’d forgotten my purpose, my aim, to cycle from London to London. Now that I was back on the road all the little habits to do with cycle touring felt alien to me. Stopping to check the map. Pulling into petrol stations to buy snacks. Clipping into my pedals. Finding spots to lean my bike against. These were very tiny parts of the journey that made it whole. My mind was still thinking of the hostel, but my body was reacting subconsciously to being on the road again.
But, in the middle of the night, as the backroad I travelled came to a dead end beside a locked-up camp site I was given a place to pitch outside the home of a neighbouring family. They fed me. They gave me tea. They gave me hope. I found I could speak basic Turkish and they loved me for it. They owned the campsite and felt bad that they could offer me no spot to sleep there.
The gardener enjoyed showing me around the camp, proud of the work he had done to get it ready for the next season. The family all came out to see me and stare at me and laugh. It was nice. It was new. It reminded me that I was not cycling to a destination: the destination was right here, with these people, right now. New faces. New memories. The journey had begun once more.
The rains continued along the outskirts of Istanbul, a sprawling coastline of Timber factories & rail lines, all churning smoke into the already grey skies. After that first night in the car park of a Turkish family home, brushing off the grass & bugs from my tent and rolling it up for the first time that year I’d pushed out over the last of the peninsula hills and the city I had stayed in for so long disappeared behind them. The shoreline south of the water eventually merged with the one I was riding and I knew… it was the end of the mediterranean and the beginning of Central Turkey.
The distance to Iran was nearly 3000km and, by the time I reached Turkey’s eastern edge, six whole months were to have passed since entering the winter before. Entering then amid floods & snowfall and leaving in a few weeks from now at the height of summer. Beyond Turkey the land opened out. The roads drove straight across vast hills that rose and fell slowly over many kilometres. The farmlands were hedgeless. The quiet roads lit by no lamps come nightfall and when the rains passed, with summer all around me, with the trees and the birds and the meadows all singing, Turkey would become a beautiful memory. No other traveller was met, but it was in the locals that I found help, humour and friendship.
The first city outside of Istanbul was Izmir and it was here that I discovered Petrol Camping. Around midnight, lost in a maze of outland warehouses, I pulled into gas station looking for directions. When police turned up five minutes later it was just to tell me that I could sleep on the station lawn, that I would be safe here and the workers would look after me. I found myself pitching up beside the carwash, with toilets to hand, a shop to grab breakfast from and pump workers to drink a cup of Tea with before sleeping. It was the start of an amazing sequence of accommodations. Here are a few tales of Muslim hospitality from my time among the Petrol stations of this beautiful country…
Along the Black Coast I was offered the floor of a petrol station prayer room to sleep on. After declining, but sleeping on the grass outside in my tent, I managed to travel just one kilometre down the road before a crowd of people rushed out from a supermarket to greet me.
Simple hellos became rides on my bike until the manager himself came out, invited me to the office for lunch and then gave me a lift along the road to catch up the time I had lost. They were so excited to see and help me that they’d even called a restaurant to cook and deliver a lunch of Pida and salad for me. I was so full that, after the drop off, I made another discovery – lorry backing – holding onto the corner of a truck to pull up the hillside! I used this technique throughout Central Asia and the drivers loved it, waving goodbye as I let go at the peak!
I lost track of town names and distances as the road grew long, hot and dusty into the centre of Turkey. After one exhausting, rainy day’s ride through flatlands I asked to sleep beside a station restaurant. Instead one of the chefs gave up his bed for me. The men sipping on tea around the tables smiled fondly until I snuck away to crash amongst on the mattress amongst boxes and tins of veg in the larder turned bedroom.
Along the black coast, towards Trabzon, the road was so tight to the cliffs and the cities stretched out around the shoreline so far that it made camping difficult. It got to a point one night in the early hours of the morning where I could cycle no more, pushing the bike up to a closing up cafe to ask for help. What they provided in return was ridiculous : hot chocolate, cake, the next door carpet and sofa shop was opened up for me, given to me like a hotel, with fresh towels and wifi from the cafe.
I lay there in the night just speechless, but by this point used to the kindness of Turkish people, surrounded by rugs and chairs and looking out as people walked by the full glass doors at the other end of the shop… some of them looked in at the bike and the make shift bed on the floor where a foreign man lay sleeping.