Across Continents

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Dark days, lonely nights

May 29th, 2010

 

“I cried a lot, I was scared a lot and I wanted to quit most of the time”

Back in February, beyond Istanbul, there’d been dark days, lonely nights. I’d really struggled, endless tussles with myself. Was this really for me? There were glimmers of light, my stay in Alapli with Zehra and her friends, but the clouds soon returned. But why? True, the Black Sea escarpment had some serious climbs – maybe six thousand feet each day – but that was bearable, even if I felt a bit frustrated by such slow progress. I was confused. The small villages I passed through reminded me so much of Serbia and Bulgaria, countries I’d felt so enthused by. People were welcoming, friendly, often beckoning me off the road for sweet Turkish tea. It just didn’t make sense.

There’d been tough days before, but never the insidious self-doubt that was beginning to creep in. I found myself becoming increasingly pre-occupied with self-analysis, much of it far from helpful, trying to work out what was gnawing away at me. I’d always imagined, even expected, there’d be times when I might falter a bit, question what I was doing, and why. But not yet, not here. I’d gambled everything on this project, thrown my all into it. Failure, I told myself, simply wasn’t an option. Period. There’d been tough times in my life before, but I’d always persevere, never given up hope, never quit. And I wasn’t going to start now. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – let people down – family and friends, The Outward Bound Trust, people I’d met on the road who’d been so kind and generous.

It seems so obvious now, looking back, but that’s the beauty of what mathematicians call an elegant solution to a problem, its breathtaking simplicity. I lacked focus. I needed clarity, definition, but instead felt as if I was drifting. I’d been determined, driven even, to set off on my chosen departure date, to stop talking about it and just get on with it. Across Europe, following the Danube much of the way, momentum borne out of wanting to stay ahead of the winter further east. Mission complete. Asia had a fairly well defined route – across Turkey, Georgia, the ’Stans and China, down towards Australia – but – given I had a year to complete it to achieve the optimum weather window for Alaska – I was missing the time pressure I’d found so motivating across Europe.

Back then, when things seemed far less clear, I at least knew I needed to do something. But what? So I bought a small notebook, scribbling down thoughts, ideas, issues I needed to address, searching for The Plan. Slowly, ever so slowly, the mists began to part, a glimmer of light. Then the realisation, so obvious now, that I needed to generate the same focus and momentum I’d had for Europe. But how, and where? For a brief moment – a few days – I’d contemplated a return to the UK, albeit not my own cottage, but my brother had rightly counseled against that. More scribblings, scouring the maps, and I hit on Malta. An elegant solution it seemed, and it was. Take up the slack in the programme for Asia, sort out some niggling minor injury, and a few other issues before wilder times in the ’Stans and China. I had the makings of a plan, something to drive at. I’d met up with my Dad in Trabzon, eastern Turkey, and discussed my idea. We agreed it made sense. I had The Plan.

But I was still feeling unnerved by my bouts of self-doubt. Was this really normal, to be expected? And so soon? I’d met Al Humphreys a couple of times when I’d been researching my venture. He’d spent four years cycling around the world and had written a couple of books about his experiences. Honest, frank writing, beautifully crafted, enthralling even for those who aren’t cyclists. I’d remembered he’d been very open about the tough times – “I cried a lot, I was scared a lot and I wanted to quit most of the time” – there’d been many, he’d often felt like quitting, but he’d made it. So I asked my Dad to bring the books out to Turkey. I read them quickly. Reassuring.

[To find out more about Alastair Humphreys visit www.alastairhumphreys.com]

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Staying sane

April 17th, 2010

Staying sane from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ever wondered how Ken amuses himself during those lonely nights on the road? Probably not. But find out anyway by watching the video.

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Back on form

April 17th, 2010

Back on form from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Back on form, catch up with Ken at the end of a ninety mile day as he prepares to cross the border into the Republic of Georgia.

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Reflections on Turkey

April 10th, 2010

I might have tired of Istanbul, but not of Turkey and its people. Waiting at the city’s airport for my flight east, my rudimentary Turkish still a bit rusty, an elderly chap, overhearing my efforts at ordering a coffee, helpfully explained that ’thank-you’ was in fact tesekkur ederim (pronounced teshekoor ederim), not merci. I thanked him, properly this time. My plane delayed into Istanbul by bad weather, it was late when I eventually reached my hotel in Trabzon. I was greeted at reception by Sena. She’d remembered me from my earlier stay with my Dad. This was much more like it.

The journey back east had given me plenty of opportunity to reflect on Turkey, and what it was to be Turkish. A strong national identity for a start. The military given equal prominence on television with the politicians. You sensed political satire was still in its infancy, and criticism of Ataturk, founding father of the modern Turkish nation, would be ill-advised. YouTube had apparently hosted a few offending clips and, despite their prompt removal, a court order blocked access to the entire site for a couple of weeks.

Authoritarian undertones? The male predilection for dark clothes certainly adds a Kafkaesque feel, but no, just different boundaries to our own, and certainly not oppressive. In fact the military would probably argue, with some justification, that they have only ever sought to protect the constitution from wayward governments attempting to undermine or erode its tenets.

But things are changing, the balance of power gently shifting towards the democratically elected administration, as tolerance by the Armed Forces of the recent arrests of senior military officers for their alleged part in an suspected coup plot would seem to demonstrate. Either way, a strong Turkey is no bad thing, providing a buffer between Europe and more turbulent nations further east. But I doubted if much of this ever had much of an impact on the lives of ordinary people. It just flickered by in the news bulletins.

Fact is I’d been made very welcome, from the moment I’d stopped to get my bearings in Edirne, my first day in Turkey. Back then, Nadir and Beckant had approached me, keen to show me their home city. They’d been Tugba in Istanbul, Zehra and her friends along the Black Sea coast, Yaren, Ali and Sena in Trabzon. And so many people in the villages who’d so often dragged me off the road, plying me with sweet, warm Turkish tea. Couldn’t ask for more. But now it was time to see what Georgia had to offer.

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European City of Culture

April 10th, 2010

I was really pleased to be back in Trabzon, eastern Turkey. They’d be a brief stop-over in Istanbul. The city seemed different, much more unfriendly, almost aggressive, than when I’d passed through on my way to Malta just five weeks earlier. The four am flight probably hadn’t helped, but despite dozing for just a few hours on the plane, I didn’t feel at all tired.

Wandering through the old city, the streets noticeably busier with tourists, prices hiked accordingly, I headed for a place I knew offered decent coffee. I found myself viewing others with suspicion, and disliked myself for doing so. Whilst the various scams I’d encountered on my previous visits had not yet been evident, my cynicism was not without some justification. I’d sought to obtain some more US Dollars in a Bureaux de Change, only to catch them trying to palm me an old high denomination note. No apology, just a shrugging of the shoulders.

consulate

Seems a touch ironic now, but later in the day I found myself in a small second floor office in an old apartment block. It had taken a while to find, a small sign and an even smaller sticker on the entrance buzzer. I was sure he said he didn’t actually speak Kyrgyz so my efforts at a greeting fell flat. But the Consul’s English was good, his manner warm and friendly. Return in the morning, he explained, and I could have a one month tourist visa for the Kyrgyz Republic. Said how much I was looking forward to visiting the Capital, Bishkek. Remember thinking to myself it would probably be a much more friendly city than Istanbul.

buzzer

The next day the Consul was true to his word and I had my visa. Then off to the airport, onward to eastern Turkey. It was time to leave the European City of Culture.

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Back East

April 10th, 2010

Back in Trabzon, eastern Turkey from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Back in eastern Turkey, reunited with Emma, his trusty steed, Ken makes final preparations for the Big Push east towards Hong Kong and the edge of Asia.

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Onward bound

March 2nd, 2010

I was back in Istanbul, albeit briefly, and was finding the place unexpectedly tiresome. It wasn’t the usual gauntlet of carpets salesmen or waiters touting for business, for this was a Sunday morning, shops closed and the streets almost deserted. Perhaps I’d just become accustomed once more to passing through small villages, being beckoned off the road for cups of warm, sweet tea. Friendly places, especially cosy on a cold, wet day.

An altercation with a shoe shiner hadn’t helped, left me feeling a bit jaded. He’d walked past me when I noticed that he’d seemingly dropped his brush a little way back up the street. Picking it up, I’d yelled after him. He seemed very grateful, quite insistent he give my boots a quick brush in return. Reluctantly I agreed. Then the patter. Four young children, another only yesterday. Could I make a donation? A scam after all. No, I said firmly, absolutely not. Told him I’d done him a big favour by picking up the brush, and promptly walked away. Tirade of abuse behind me. Quite good English though.

The journey from Trabzon had been uneventful enough. I’d flown back to Istanbul rather than travel by coach because, whilst the cost was about the same, eighteen hours on a bus lacked appeal. Emma, never keen on flying at the best of times, had agreed to remain with friends in Trabzon, and this had made travel arrangements quite a bit easier, and cheaper.

Over a quiet coffee, a pleasant change from the usual warm, sweet tea, I found myself mulling over my return to Istanbul. Simple necessity, the international airport a major regional hub, unavoidable if I was to enact the plan I’d devised for the next month or so. If the city made me feel weary, jaded even, it was only for a day. I’d a plane to catch early the next morning.

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Contemplations

March 1st, 2010

Between sips of my now lukewarm coffee I made a few pencilled scribblings in a small notebook. My Dad had headed home, and I was now contemplating my next move. There were a few issues that needed to be dealt with before heading further east into the ’Stans. In itself, this didn’t hugely concern me. A four year challenge after all, so I’d half expected the unexpected to crop up once in a while. I was playing the long-game. And I’d a year to cross Asia, so time wasn’t a huge issue. Besides, a brief pause would bring better weather further east and more daylight for riding. Incidental benefits, but welcome nevertheless.

I knew exactly what I needed to do, which would take me a month or so, maybe a little bit more. But where best to do it? More jottings. I’d already resolved not to remain in Turkey, relishing the chance to experience a new country. Which was, after all, what it was really all about. The list of considerations was growing. Another sip of coffee and I weeded out the more trivial ones that had crept in. Sudden clarity. I’d the makings of a plan….

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Day on the dolmus

February 23rd, 2010

Downstairs the men. Upstairs the women. A modern cafe in the small town of Macka – pronounced Machka – about thirty kilometres inland from the Black Sea. We’d made our way here on the now familiar dolmus – shared taxi – from the coastal city of Trabzon. Just £2.70 return. We’d chosen Macka simply because we’d wanted to travel inland into the mountains, needed a destination and noticed that there seemed, on the map at least, to be a good road. And we’d learnt that there was a regular dolmus service.

Dolmus

In the event, the town was like so many I’d seen, but a new experience nevertheless for my father. Familiar mix of shops with a sharp, modern appearance – especially the eczanes (chemists) and pastanes (patisseries) – alongside the darker, scruffier tea drinking establishments generally frequented by the older men of the town. In the main square a small military post, an armed sentry standing smartly outside.

We’d wandered around for a while, a brief visit into the local mosque, and then time for lunch. Traditional spicy lentil soup – mercimek corbasi – and warm tea. We watched as the women entered, ordered and then disappeared upstairs, out of sight.

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Simple misunderstanding

February 22nd, 2010

We were feeling increasingly nervous, sat in the back of a van speeding out of the city, the only other occupants the driver and his associate. We’d jumped into the dolmus (pronounced dolmush) – a shared taxi – expecting to be taken to Ataturk Alani Square, somewhere in the centre of the city. Instead we’d found ourselves heading up into the mountains behind. It was looking a bit ominous, but we were clinging on to the hope that they’d be a plausible, innocent explanation.

And there was. A simple misunderstanding, borne of language difficulties and good intentions. We’d mentioned ’Ataturk’, and the driver had assumed that we’d want to visit the Ataturk Museum high up in the hills behind the city. After all, this was tourists did. Not quite what we’d planned, but it turned out rather well. A pleasantly warm and clear afternoon, a small cafe next to the museum overlooking the Black Sea coast. A strong Turkish coffee seemed in order.

Dad with coffee

A brief foray around the museum and then a municipal bus back down into the city. To Ataturk Alani Square. The place we’d originally intended to visit, and, ironically, the spot where we’d jumped into the dolmus. We just hadn’t realised we were already at our destination. A simple misunderstanding, a few worrying moments but a memorable experience nevertheless.

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