Not the Proudest Moment of my Life

As we begin the final kilometres to peak the 2025m high climb the snow becomes terrible and the road worse still. The fog is heavy. Black and white are the only colours we can see in this foggy overworld. Ski chairlift structures emerge through the haze but no skiers are to be seen. An old yellow bus trundles past at a walking pace on the single-lane farm track. Now the iced over puddles crack as the wheels crash through the frosted mud and nearly push me and the bike over the edge of the pass and in to the white noise abyss.

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When we arrive at the top the snow is piled two metres high and it was time to tighten the brakes, don down jackets, gloves and sock-gloves and get started on the descent. But not before being stopped by some older men driving by. One wore a shotgun over his shoulder and asked if I wanted vodka, but since every move of my fingers felt like a frosted crack I voiced for the teetotal option. “No no!” He cried “You must”, he ran back to his car and carried what the fog only revealed to be a brown lump. As he drew closer this brown lump turned out to be a dead eagle and there I was posing for a photo with him.

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It was remarkably light for such a powerful animal. This magnificent creature shot down by some vodka-fuelled Georgians driving over the wild pass. The sadness of this later struck me. Over the last few thousand kilometres I had ridden alongside many eagles soaring high above or below gliding through the valleys, and had thought of their stoical struggle through the winter. The eagle had become a bit of a symbol of beauty on the trip, and as such this foolish shutter-happy behaviour on the pass summit was not the proudest moment of my life.

We were in Georgia. Leaving Batumi we cycled through puddles collecting the incessant rain of three days and continued up the valley of a river in to the mountains of the autonomous region of Adjara. After the open dry plains of Turkey and winter of Europe Georgia felt like a tropical hinterland, it’s greens lush and the rivers gushing.

The pass we were now summiting was 2025m high and the last 30km had been off road: a muddy farm track on which it wasn’t the potholes to look out for but the sparse few flecks of level rocks to ride over. We hadn’t expected this surface, nor had we prepared a feast for the day, making the generous offering of some tar-black coffee from a Georgian on the ascent all the more nourishing.

image imageShortly after the black of the coffee arrived the white of snow. And hail down it did as we approached the top. Towns rapidly diminished as did the road surface and the temperature cooled to chill our fingers and toes once more. The situation seemed desperate: no food, I had no serious gloves but socks, it was well below freezing and there was no infrastructure up here. Our brake pads too were not well-equipped for the ragged corners of the off-road descent.

But the trickle of cars that passed us would stop for a chat in broken Russian and cheer us on. The sheer rarity of being on that pass in those conditions on a bicycle seemed to bring a smile to most faces. A group of young lads stopped and rooted for a group picture and facebook befriending, suddenly the backdrop of desolate mountain had changed: this scene of boyish humour and back-slapping didn’t seem possible only moments before. Eagles, shotguns, snow corridors, it was all happening on the peak of the pass. We continued on down and in to the first village we could find.

The snow was settling now and we needed shelter. We found it but at a hefty price. A derelict building next to a stream in the hub of the town, piles of rubble and dusty rotting bricks sat in the first room, taking on the novel usage as a public toilet. The warmest and most hidden room was at the back of the building. This room was termed the black hole: the mass of cobwebs hanging from the low ceiling, lack of natural light and a floor made of cow manure contributed to this image. And as we later set up the stove a bat flew out and hung upside down from the rafters, the Russian-termed ‘flying-mouse’ glaring at us and screeching to help it sense through the black hole. But it was better to have no sense data in there. The place was literally a shithole.

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We left sharp the next morning.

Georgia was refreshing: people appear blunt, smiling isn’t a popular past time. But they are simply friendly without the trimmings, hospitable beyond belief offering us cognac shots while we rode past small foothill villages. We stopped in one petrol station on a main road and the attendant was shaving, stopping mid-stroke to answer our request; often cars are brandless or the cubic Lada, relics of their soviet past; military vehicles standing out on the hillsides, debris of recent conflicts with Russia; cows ambled along these lanes, often galloping in surprise or staring as they blocked passage; there were no barriers on the cliff-face roads and ancient rocky bridges formed crossings over the rushing muddy water of the river below; the petrol stations consisted of a hut with a pump, the intercontinental giants of the oil world unmissable throughout our trip were curiously absent in the Georgian mountains.

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We sped through to Tbilisi, the capital, a place of intrigue since entering this unique country. Georgia doesn’t fit with Europe geographically, separated by the monolithic nations of Russia and Turkey; it doesn’t align with Asia ethnically or religiously. It has a language and alphabet of it’s own: forming the basis of an independent family group, disconnected from the Turkic and Indo-European groups that include Turkish, Baltic, Slavic, Hindi, Germanic and Latin. The people have characteristically Georgian features: exhibiting facial structures of remarkable similarity. Even the spice selection for the excellent meals was incomparable: a milder version of Asian cuisine but rich, earthy and varied. 

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The Russian land mass was once detached from the Turkish. As the two tectonic plates they sit on collided the Caucasus mountains were formed in what is essentially a continuation of the Himalayas. These mountains now form a natural border for Russia, and a continuation of the once separate lands continues.

The Caucasus are home to a tight concentration of ethnically diverse peoples, the recent conflicts over these mountains stem from a range of factors but partly date back to a period in which Stalin displaced entire ethnic populations, the Chechens after a revolt in the 1940s for example. After 1956, under Khrushchev, they were eventually permitted to return to their homelands to find home and property occupied by others. The region is politically fragmented quite unlike anywhere else in the world, the mountains and extreme terrain playing their part in these conflicts too. We saw many military vehicles lining the road, now being utilised for more peaceful means.

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From Georgia we headed to Azerbaijan, a country yielding no expectations. We rode through fast in order to maximise our time to wade through the bureaucratic swamp that is Central Asian visa territory and give presentations to some schools in Baku, the capital. And this is where I write this now. In the living room of some teachers at one of the schools, two ex-Peace Corps volunteers with excellent stories from Senegal and Turkmenistan.

image A shop we passed in Azerbaijan sold inflatable footballs next to a cow mid-butchering, a blade being glided underneath the leathery skin. This for me sums up why bike touring is what it is. You see a country without filter, the shepherd who walks past your campsite as you wake, whistling to his two hundred sheep is just as important as the spectacle of a famous mosque in the heart of the capital. Your view takes it all in from entry to exit, unobscured by guide books or hotel recommendations. You sleep on the floor of a kind cafe owner you’ve just met or watch the butchered cow strung up next to children’s toys in the apricot glow of an early morning sunlit town square, and it all colours in your picture of a place. You see the natural borders and the subtleties of change emerge passing over a river or mountain range, sometimes yielding more change than the border of a nation. And one thought surfaces buoyantly above any other. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. Kind acts offered from mechanics, lorry drivers, lawyers, shop owners. People on the whole are decent folk, trying to get by wherever they are, extending kindness to some passing bike riders.

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The Tentacles of the Ancient Citadel

Days after Sofia have been tough. Since Sweden I had embellished fantasies of cycling through Bulgarian mountainscapes, sun-blemished snowy peaks glittering in clear spring days. As I had worried about frost bite and listened to snow clogging up my wheels I had had visions of sandy roads scorched by a Turkish sun. Surely this could only be what awaited me this far south. It was not to be.
The headwind rattled through my ears, the sound of a jet engine accompanying my Turkish border chase. Waking up to the sight of a collection of flags billowing towards the town you passed last night is a truly punishing sight. You can almost hear your willpower crack.
At least when you climb mountains you achieve something. As you climb you are depositing energy in a gravitational bank account, ready for later use. When the wind pulls you back you’re squandering those resources like a child in a sweet shop, trailing all your energy on the road behind. Imagine sitting down to write an email, pressing out 1,000 words, you check it over, you’re happy with it. As your finger hovers over the ‘send’ button the computer crashes. Now imagine that happens for 12 hours and you’ve got something akin to riding in to a headwind. Getting nowhere you just want to weep. But the harder part of your mind pushes on and instead sweat is the only body fluid you leave on the road.
At the Turkish border I had felt a little embittered as I tried to show my Turkish visa to not one but three guards, the response “no problem”. If only all border guards were this relaxed. It had rained every minute since leaving my tent in the morning and as I shivered waiting for customs to check my bags the border officials invited me in for a welcome cup of tea and a seat next to a heater. The long-rumoured Turkish hospitality was already making itself apparent.
My entrance in to Turkey was marked by a ride through the sunset-lit town of Edirne, calls to prayer echoed from one mosque to the next and the fort-like walls and tall apricot-coloured minarets of these mosques marked the gateway to the new religious setting of the East. The town bustled with life, kebab stall owners shouted out to anyone who passed and ‘kofte’ was lit in red from the windows of canteen-style outlets. Moustachioed men sat outside cafes drinking tea; trays of which were whisked in between the crowd in glasses shaped like roses. Europe felt behind me now.
I stayed with Trakya Bisiklet, a bike shop in Edirne. Another bike tourer had stayed the previous night and greeted me as I arrived. He had cycled from Hong Kong, where he originated, and had ridden through a mountainous Tibet and a politically unstable Pakistan where a government service had insisted on transporting him and the bike 500km through unstable territory to the Iranian border. When asked what his parents had thought of the venture he responded by saying they knew nothing of his trip and thought him safely in London despite the months he had spent on the road. Soup and Raki, a spirit much like Ouzo, were ushered to us emphatically by our hosts and three bowls of wild boar broth later I was struggling to force any more down and a rare moment of unconsumed alcohol had followed a drink of Raki, water was what I craved. The hosts were open and excited by our travels, explaining the Turkish tradition of hospitality: receiving thanks for which was honoured.
The landscape exhibited something totally unique on the trip, a vast agricultural ocean stretched in waves to the far horizon and the road carried on over each of these great tidal mounds, each peak held a burden: the vision of the road ahead. And with it an achingly crushing knowledge that the wind would not blow in any direction but against.
I had aimed to meet a good friend in Istanbul where we would continue on to China together. Josh is what military scholars might term ‘a tough bastard’ and would undoubtedly be an asset for the remainder of the trip. He had started from the UK at about the same time I had, struggling through much the same conditions, a real support knowing someone else had numb toes and aching bones throughout the last six weeks. And now I knew that someone else was pressing through this headwind like a cold whisk through frozen butter. image1 (2)
But alas, a delayed start and the interminable wind found me at dusk looking on to a dark dual carriageway, puddles reflecting the red tail lights of passing lorries. Almost exclusive heavy goods traffic and a wind capable of sporadic handlebar lifts led to a hesitant decision in favour of life preservation and the resolution to find somewhere to stay in the next town.
Some baked pitta had now appeared before me and I was sat at the table of a restaurant surrounded by five locals of varying ages and beard lengths asking questions of my journey. The manager of the place gently pulled a chair out next to the heater and arranged for small plates of tomato and yogurt to satellite my frazzled body.
The next morning I was up at 5 to meet Josh. More wind but this time it was negotiable as I would soon see the man himself and be polishing off the first of many olive and feta breakfasts, discussing the pains and joys of our respective trips. As I entered the lobby a familiar “‘ere ‘e is” echoed through it and so too did the sound of laughter and complete understanding as we exchanged story after story of shared experiences. A few pots of Nutella later and we were ready to leave. The macroscopic highs and lows of a solo trip were behind us, to be exchanged for a more palatable sense of companionship.
We rode the next 120km in to Istanbul, every minute detail sparking another discussion of life on the road. We finally arrived at the tip of the tentacles of the city at dusk. Istanbul is vast, 30km out you feel it’s energy and buzz. This intensity increases as you pedal in and the road system guides you on to the central reservation of a five-lane motorway, the descent on the undulating hills forcing you to weave in and out of the traffic like Lance Armstrong on every drug in the cabinet. Darkness now surrounded us but the bright lights of neon-branded shopping centres, gliding trams, towering skyscrapers and frenzied cars seemed to saturate the eyesight.
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Istanbul, the capital of three empires; the bridge between East and West, both physically and metaphorically; the city of three thousand mosques and four hundred bars. On first reflection it had the societal vibrancy of an African city, the historical ruins of Athens or Rome, and the modernity of Hong Kong. All of this sprawling over two continents, a river that formed the gateway for the Russian naval fleet and an ancient road the bottleneck of trade in to Europe. And as the final few pedal strokes of Europe were pushed out, the raw culture of ‘The East’ seemed to thrust itself upon us with the urgency of a call to prayer.
 
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