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.
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.
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.