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Bittersweet Joys

Bittersweet Joys

Earl Nightingale
“All you need is the plan, the road map, and the courage to press on to your destination.”

Day 55 – 3,891 miles

The miles are slowly clocking up but the numbers associated with my overall target are too great for me to grasp. Having checkpoints en route gives me small targets. Istanbul was one of these. It represented the crossing of Europe – an achievement in its own right. With family meeting me in the city, I knew could relax, shower, sleep and eat well. It was a relief to make it, find a bar and have a beer with the lights and mosques of this historic city dominating the skyline.

Chaotic. Cultured. Charismatic. Contentious. Conflicted. Complex. Colourful.

Istanbul is all of these and so much more. I wish I could have stayed longer. One could explore Istanbul for months and still remain wide-eyed with intrigue and get lost in the craziness. Hagia Sophia (537 AD), Galata Tower (1348), Topkapi Palace (1459) and Sultan Ahmet Mosque (1610) are historic features in a city that continued to astonish. The delicious array of meats, freshly caught fish and ripe fruit was a welcome change to my palette after my diet of breads and spreads. An unplanned wedding invite, mosque visits, the bobbing allure of Turkish dancing and local markets all added to a memorable few days.

No Strings Attached

Departure morning felt stressful knowing what was ahead and saying goodbye to my family was hard. The goodbye itself is often so trivial compared to the reality of what it means. I knew that would not sink in just yet as I needed to be alert to leave safely. If arriving into the city with a frenzy of sirens, horns and lanes was alarming then the route out hardly filled me with much enthusiasm.

A heavily laden cyclist approaching on the right failed to be recognised by the passenger of a taxi as she flung open the door. An unavoidable and painful collision. Clutching my bleeding collar bone and cursing while sat on a pavement was frustrating. I immediately feared it was fractured but was equally concerned for the welfare of Dorothy. She’s a sturdy steel gal though so was faring rather better than her rider.

Cautiously I proceeded until the next unavoidable collision as a pigeon clattered into my head while crossing one of the busiest bridges in Istanbul. Farcical scenes. More amusing now than it was at the time with 6 lanes of traffic whizzing in and around me.

Leaving this majestic capital was another chord being cut from my safety parachute. Asia lay ahead with no convenient stop-offs on the horizon. A new culture, language and religion was waiting on the Turkish mainland.

I needed to make a final call to O2.

“I’d like to cancel my contract please.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir. Is there anything we can do to persuade you otherwise?”

“Afraid not, I’m going to be out of the country for a while.”

I did not want a Turkish sim card, I wanted to be free for a few days.

The social media, WhatsApp and tracking updates would come again in the future and was/is a key part of this trip. The support I’ve had from back home is so integral to my morale and I’m hugely appreciative of it. For a brief stint, I wanted to fully embrace where I was and Turkey seemed an ideal spot.

Unexpected Kindness

A solo bike trip means constant vulnerability. You’re vulnerable from traffic, weather, crowds and your own mind. There’s always an alarm bell in the back of your mind about what could happen. Expect the unexpected. Sometimes though, the unexpected comes and reduces you to tears.

The kindness of strangers is something I was told would happen when venturing alone. Three incidents in Turkey stood out to me and each of them would be enough, without everything else the country offered, to give me only fond memories from the place.

1. The Van Driver

I was stopped on the side of the road tucking into another jam, peanut butter and banana sarnie – nothing odd there at all. A van pulled up alongside me and motioned me toward the door. Often when I stop I just need to decompress but got up regardless. He handed me two bottles of water, gave me a thumbs up, a smile and drove off.

No words spoken, no names exchanged and we’d never cross paths again. It was pure selflessness. Many acts of kindness result from human interaction but this was merely a consideration of the needs of someone else. Small gesture, big impact.

2. Mesut

Almost every petrol station in Turkey has a little table outside, an urn of çay tea and someone smoking a cigarette. I was a regular visitor at these spots. At 20p each, a couple of çay teas provided moments of calm before moving on again.

I was on one of these stops when I got chatting to Mesut who manages the petrol station. He spoke good English and after an initial intrigue in my bike, he offered me a cigarette and we made polite chit chat. He offered me in for food but I had to say no. He insisted. I relented.

Green bean curry, pilaf, sigara böreği, chocolate pudding and more çay tea.

“Are you full now, George? I hope so. I wish you well my friend.”

I mounted my bike again feeling rather heavier than before. Tears quickly began rolling down my cheeks. It had been a tough day up until that point and, having held it back when I was with Mesut, the tears represented deep joy at the positivity of humanity.

3. Bahri

Another favourite for çay tea stop offs were seemingly unappealing little restaurants near the roadside – the sort of restaurant that only travellers and truckers tend to visit. “One çay, please.” Bahri motioned me over to his table. Initially reticent given my desire to just chill, I headed over and took a seat diagonal to him.

We spoke no words of each other’s language. We managed to gesticulate and speak our own languages enough to work out what each of us were trying to say – this is something I’ve become fairly accustomed to doing. Bahri is a father of four, two sons (both truck drivers going to and from Kazakhstan) and two daughters. He has owned the small restaurant for forty years and continued to offer me more food (homemade soup, fresh bread, pilaf and çay tea) until I finally had to resist given the mileage I was due to cover.

Once again, Bahri’s kindness had an impact on me and I spent the remaining few hours churning through the miles and reflecting on the small things we do for others. I hope that in time I will be able to do the same for others when their need is greater than my own.

Contrasting Fortunes

I enjoyed exploring inland Turkey. The heat was unremitting during the day, the mountain passes unyielding and the mosquitoes as opportunistic as they were numerous. Despite that, my legs felt strong, my body felt conditioned and my mind was content with the choice I had made. I was happy to be away. Ups and downs on a daily basis were a norm I had become accustomed to. I knew I was going to get happy, sad, reflective and excited. I knew what music suited the mood. I knew when I needed to make up mileage and where I could pitch my tent. The naïve novelty of the trip had worn off but the day-day planning and intrigue was, and still is, a constant.

I made the decision to head north to the coast. Not only would it provide new scenery but it would shave off a few days: a no-brainer. Thankfully this choice was vindicated by consistent day-day distances of over 150km and serene camping spots. Ending the day on the beaches of the Black Sea with the sound of the waves gently tumbling in and Isha (night prayers) from the local mosques are memories that represent the cultural and aesthetic cravings I want for this trip.

Sunset swims, anxious rampages through nerve tingling tunnels, battles for position on the hard shoulder with the Allah Kerusun taxi firm and a daily dose of fresh Turkish bread made for a joyous stint.

Turkey is a country of contrasts in terms of cultures, religions, lifestyles and palettes; a bittersweet contrast at times. Their most popular chocolate is the bitter 70+% cocoa variety (something I’m also partial to) and their coffee is famous for its distinctive taste and bitter finish. Equally, the country is famous for its sweeter tastes such as baklava and tulumba.

The final push to Georgia seemed to be my own bittersweet depiction of Turkey.

After a long day of 187km, I had regained the distance I lost in fiendish headwinds the previous day and gone beyond my checkpoint. I had noodles cooking, water ready for the following day, clothes drying after a cleansing dip in the Black Sea and a quiet camping spot prepped for sundown. Life was good. Turkey, thank you for a charming finale. Don’t count your chickens.

What followed was madness. Out of absolutely nowhere, and I’m usually reasonable at spotting weather patterns, was a total barrage of rainfall. This was the sort of ‘find the nearest bus shelter and wait it out’ kind of rain. Immediately thinking of keeping kit dry, I erroneously decided to erect my tent. The tent and I, as well as the majority of my kit, was soaked. Cue a mad rush to protect the stove, save the noodles and save my phone. I did my best but eventually just sat it out, smoked a few cigarettes, chuckled at the absurdity of it all and sought to amend the issue when the downpour subsided a bit.

As I was repositioning my tent location – the initial one was now a quagmire – I thought back to two friends of mine, Gav and Billy, who I know are following this trip. Both were instructors when I was in Officer training at Sandhurst. Like all Officers, current and former, the influence of their initial instructors seems to act as a constant administrative conscience. And oh how they would have chuckled seeing me towelling down the inside of my tent with a head torch in a Turkish wood. Another farcical sight. As a former Phase One instructor myself, I thought of the report I would have given myself on the previous hour.

“Mr Stewart showed good resourcefulness to regain momentum after a haphazard and ill-prepared reaction to the initial incident. He would be advised, once again, to take on board the 5 P’s – Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. Overall he has shown some potential but still has a lot to learn at this early stage of the venture.”

Despite numerous expeditions and five years in the Army, there are always lessons to be learned. This was another night that would be etched into the memory for a while yet.

A fitful and ineffective attempt at sleep was regularly interrupted by the sound of the Black Sea crashing into nearby rocks, my groundsheet pooling water or the wind buffeting the sides of the tent.

Despite the lack of sleep, deflating my thermarest and unzipping my sleeping bag were demoralising actions with the anticipation of what they meant. Movement. Progression. Enduring.

After being on the bike for about half an hour, I realised I needed to readjust what my norm was. When the sun is shining, you adapt. When the rain is pouring, you adapt. The motions are the same, the legs keep turning, but instead of a cap to block the rays of the sun, it is to deflect the water dripping into your eyes. Instead of a short sleeved top to prevent overheating, it was a waterproof jacket to remain dry. And instead of fearing the chaos of tunnels, they became a chance to seek refuge from the elements – a saving grace of warmth, light and calm.

Transcaucasia

I ploughed on long enough to eventually count down the miles to the Georgian border and the weather thankfully subsided allowing me to see blue skies and the coastline again. I was emotional again for no great reason other than the knowledge that particular challenge was over. I still had to negotiate some nonsensical border regulations but, having made it through successfully, I could breathe a sigh of relief. The main objective of the day was complete and anything beyond was a bonus.

Transcaucasia, or the South Caucasus, is a region on the border of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. I was enthusiastic about Georgia. I had heard great things about the scenery, mountains and people but, as always, wanted to experience that with my own eyes before formulating a more informed opinion. The last time I was in Caucasus mountain range was when climbing Elbrus back in 2008, a matter of days after the outbreak of the Russo-Georgian War, which made for a fascinating element to the expedition.

New country, new currency, new culture, new time zone and a new language. Another sensory overload at the border town of Batumi.

Border towns are often a frenzy of currency exchange booths and market stalls. I had learned previously never to cross a border late in the day and thankfully had enough sunlight to make my eastward turn, start ascending and escape the fevered atmosphere below. 130km was more than enough in those conditions and, after finding a quiet camping spot, I could lay out my kit to dry and settle into a deep sleep with potentially another long day ahead. If only I knew what was in store.

Goderdzi Pass

There’s often a choice in terms of routes: speed or scenery. It’s rare to get both at once but not impossible. The best views are usually up high but to gain altitude on a bike means grafting to get there. I opted, like I did in Romania and Bulgaria, to go for scenery. It meant heading up the A1 – the famous Goderdzi Pass. I had done no research on this but the zig zags on Google Maps rather compelled me to give it a whirl.

When I was stopped mid-morning by a Russian cycle tourer, Yuri, we exchanged a few simple words given the language barrier. He asked whether I was heading up and I nodded with enthusiasm. His final words were, “Good Luck.” It reminded me of the Liam Neeson film Taken, thankfully with less sinister intentions, and we shook hands before heading in opposite directions.

When I went up the Transfagarasan Highway in Romania, the lower slopes were a misty blur leaving me hopeful the summit would offer up clear views of the road I had yearned for. The lower slopes of the Goderdzi Pass were everything I hoped: steep green valleys, clear skies and minimal wind. The appeal of Georgia was obvious and omnipresent. It appeared to a combination of Slovenia, Transylvania and Bulgaria.

The road lacked the steeper gradients of the Transfagarasan and instead wound its way through the valleys tracking the source of the Chorokhi river. About 30km from what I thought was the summit, a sign said, “Message from the government of Georgia – we apologise for the roadworks ahead.” I thought little of this and a few bumpy sections would be a minor inconvenience on my journey upwards. Oh, the naivety! Ignorance is indeed bliss sometimes and, even as a few bumpy sections turned into longer dirt tracks, I was confident the road would even out.

I bumped into a trio of American cycle tourers who were a week into their two-month trip of Transcaucasia. Heavy wet mud was splattered all over their kit and bodies. We exchanged key details about our trips and what the ensuing stint was like. I told them they had about 10km of bumps to go and then it was alright. I asked how the top was and whether the road improved. “Gotta say, man, if you were hoping it gets better then I’m sorry to break the news…it’s pretty harsh up there. It’s pure mud and I hope you got some layers, it’s not easy and not warm. Sorry, dude. There’s still about 20km to go of this…good luck up there.”

Again, despite literally every bit of evidence suggesting otherwise, I convinced myself all would be fine so on I continued.

A few locals then started motioning to me to not go higher and camp there because of rain higher up. I saw this as a devious marketing ploy and pedalled on snubbing the local knowledge.

I was forced to push Dorothy up a few particularly steep wet sections as each pedal stroke just embedding the rear wheel deeper into the muck as it spun out. I viewed these as anomalies not a sign of things to come.

A group of children crowded around me when I was stopped on the side of the road and handed over a collection of walnuts before waving me on my way. I nestled them into my front panniers for a reward in time. There seemed to be fewer and fewer people heading up now. No more presidential election posters were plastered on walls like they were lower down. It seemed to be heavy duty 12-wheeled trucks and one cyclist ploughing into the mist.

I was still in shorts and sandals but my headtorch was on. I was working so hard that the cold hadn’t yet taken centre stage. I couldn’t see the top through the mist and fading light. I couldn’t see the next bend until it reared up in front of me with a new 10% sign caught in the beam of my headtorch. My optimistic brain started to misinterpret the signs as meaning it was downhill. Yes, this is it. I’ve made it to the top. And then I would see it rise up again and realise my touristic idiocy. I was digging out clumps of filth as they clogged up in the mudguards.

This is part of the adventure I sought…cracking on alone into the haze. I enjoyed the battle of body and mind. It was slightly reckless and unnecessary; I could have camped anywhere below the summit but I wanted the struggle to get there. I knew it would be worth it.

Gone was the amused soundtrack of “Mud, mud, glorious mud by Flanders and Swan. This was headphones in, motivating tracks and sisu time. This is why you’re here. Every corner was surely the last one. Until then it was the final corner and a few lights flickered ahead. I took a video at the 2,027m summit before staggering into a restaurant the Americans had told me about. Safe.

Nargizi (pictured) and her husband Otali had probably seen similar sights before given the number of messages pinned on the wall of their little hut. They immediately put me next to the fire and made a cup of tea. I never asked but while Nargizi prepared dinner for their son and Otali’s brother, they gave me a plate, cutlery and small glass.

“Gaumarjos!” Down went another glass of chacha (Georgian brandy). The first one stung the back of my throat. The rest went straight to my rather dehydrated head. Mushroom chashushuli, sulguni cheese and bread was on the menu. They spoke and laughed as a family. I sat peacefully, observed and took pleasure at their joy. “George, today, you family… gaumarjos.” Another chacha. It was starting to have an impact.

As the darkness settled in, I was invited to stay the night and slept appreciatively near the stove despite the inevitable drama that would unfold the following day. At that point I didn’t really care.

Nargizi loaded me up with sulguni cheese, matsoni (Georgian yogurt) and bread for breakfast before slipping a Snickers into my handlebar bag. I wrote them both a little note for their wall, used google translate to explain my thanks, mounted my bike and headed downhill.

As expected, the road was not much of an improvement but it did lack the fiendish wet mud of the western side which was appreciated. It became a little frustrating but I knew it wouldn’t last. The feeling of tarmac under the rubber was blissful. One more night in my tent then I would be Tbilisi with a friend, have a shower and relax.

As I neared 4,000 miles on my trip, I was making quick progress to Tbilisi. The image of a bed and the peculiar draw of being able to type and jot down my thoughts was a huge motivation. I am hugely grateful to Lauren for hosting me as well. A friend from Sandhurst, she’s posted here and a familiar face without the small talk to strangers is something that is, and will continue to be, a great pleasure.

Lauren told me before arriving, “Just be careful. I have never seen a cyclist in Tbilisi before.”

Every country seems to have their own approaches to driving. Georgia: impulsive and unpredictable. Expect every car you follow to swerve violently left or right without warning. Expect every taxi to stop instantaneously. Expect a lot of horns. A good car body work specialist in Tbilisi would do rather well given the large number of scratches, dents and cosmetic damage on a large percentage of cars as well as a concerning lack of front bumpers. Something to consider for the future perhaps.

What’s next?

I write this from Tbilisi. There are a few cyclists working and waiting out the winter here in Georgia. I don’t have the flexibility or desire in terms of time and money be able to do the same. If it means more a challenging cycle, then so be it.

However, knowing what’s ahead makes me reticent to leave. The declining daylight hours, the Chinese winter and the lack of familiar faces. The next face I’ll recognise is likely to be in Hong Kong – 10,000km and about maybe four months away. It’s an alarming thought that I can’t really consider.

The trip must go on…soon I head east again to Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea and into Kazakhstan. I am a little wary of the coming months. Up until this point it was reasonably smooth logistically and socially.

4,000 miles I will always remember but 4,000 miles that I know will soon seem a distant memory as I delve into more remote places.

The nervous excitement I feel is why I’m on this trip. This is the freedom I have chosen to seek and something tells me it could get interesting.