Monday, 27 August 2012

Italy to Istanbul

The most recent day I have written about is day 29, the 14th of July. Today is day 73. My problem is a matter of time. I wake up five minutes before sunrise and cycle until no more than half an hour before sunset in order to set up camp and eat. As the seasons change and I travel further south the days only get shorter. Rarely do I find myself with time in the day to have a nap or read a book. The mountain passes in Pakistan will be snowed over by the end of November so I've got to keep rolling.

When I last wrote I had just passed into Italy. Since then I have gone back to Austria, did the whole of the Adriatic coast of Italy, caught a ferry to Albania (taking the shortest crossing possible), cycled there for two days before entering Greece and finally Turkey. Below I have made a slideshow of photos covering this period. I hope the photos can be as informative as text. When I come home I will write about all of my experiences in a satisfactory manner; there is nothing worse than rushing something you really care about.

Do watch it, it took me several hours to compile as I have thousands of photos to choose from. Below it are two bonus videos from Istanbul.

Navigating into Istanbul
Having fun in the Saturday night traffic

Why We Cycle

The road has an unparalleled ability to bring you close to another person in moments of time so short that you may trust someone with all you have, all you are, while in the same period back home the ice may still not have even begun to melt.

It's 4am on Saturday night and I'm riding my newly revamped bicycle through Taksim, the nightlife district of Istanbul. I am going to meet three Italian cyclists who have come from Milan who tell me they are having some beers under the Galata Tower. They are the same as many other Italians whose outlook I have grown to love since leaving home. I know of no other country from which so many people share the same wanderlust; the easily forgotten, often suppressed belief that we are free, the world is ours and that the only limitations are in our minds.

They also look the Italian part, at least that of the Italian who travels; thin, sculpted faces, enough facial hair to keep mosquitoes at bay and short, but getting messy, brown hair. In Italy, meeting people is much simpler than in England where I struggle to choose between "Hey, I'm Jude", "Hi, my name's Jude" and "What's your name". In Italian society, at least amongst the people I have spent time with, without exception the greeting is always "Ciao, Jude"; a simple greeting and all the information they need in one word; my name. Maybe my thinking about this is a sign of slight social awkwardness, but on the other hand maybe this is shared by more people than I'd imagine; people tend not to talk about such seemingly trivial matters.

With them is another man who I immediately pick out as an adventure cycle tourer. A cheeky smile, an expression on his face suggesting he is open to whatever is about to happen, and of course a rough and unkempt beard. His name is Augustine and he is cycling to Singapore. I ask him why he chose Singapore, but I feel quite happy with myself as I can tell he knows I'm not asking the most common question a tourer faces; "why?" (with "are you crazy?" also implied), as he understands that I share the same passion as him. I ask the question only as I am interested as to why he has chosen Singapore out of all the countries in the world. He tells me he chose it because "it's sort of at the end of the land, you can't go further in that direction".

Everyone fancies a little look at my bike, Surly being a brand with a great reputation for bikes that just don't break (I'm talking about the frame, not the third party parts, such as the chain, which has now broken four times). We walk towards the main square, and in the ten minutes that I have now spent with Augustine we have spoken about the Khunjerab Pass between China and Pakistan (for which we have to keep up a good pace as it closes in November), the Kulma Pass between Tajikistan and China (which China insists is open to foreigners but there is not a single report of any foreigner making it through) and variable visa costs for Iran.

I have met a few other people doing the same route to the sub-continent as me but Augustine was the first person who had done his research as thoroughly as I had; it was truly a joy to finally be able to talk passionately about this information which had taken me so many months of research to learn and so far has just been stored in my mind as 'how to get to India', now it was a topic of the most interesting, exciting and relevant conversation I have had in months. He tells me he has friends who are currently cycling in North Pakistan, reported by more than one cyclist to be 'the most beautiful place on Earth'. At this moment I have never longed so much to continue my journey, to get back on the saddle, to get my head down and to pedal the road beneath my bike, to put as many kilometres between by bed in the morning and my bed to be for the night.

Augustine asks if he can try out my bike. Of course I felt honoured that he, an experienced cyclist going on a journey longer than mine, wants to ride my bike. He jumps on the bike with the gusto of a child at Christmas and cycles down the main road, weaving through the drunk tourists who are pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in a country where over 99% of people are Muslim. When he is forty metres away I notice that my handlebar bag, containing my wallet, passport, debit cards, iPod etc. is on the bike, yet I didn't have a worry in the world. I know that however I explain this people will think I have let my guard down and that it's just not worth the risk but that's not a problem.

In the first place, there is no one, not even friends I meet along the way who I will let ride my touring bicycle, my vehicle to the world and my home. The only exception is cycle tourists. It's not simply that we have something in common, like when you meet someone who supports the same football team as you, but that I know that everyday, from when they wake up at sunrise to when they lay their head on the floor of a new home every night, they have to go through the same joys and hardships, the same beautiful views and rough rains but most importantly the same tough decisions we are sometimes forced into when faced with choice of trusting someone or not. This one was an easy decision.

I can try to explain further. It takes a certain type of person to step out of what for most people varies from mediocre lives to genuinely fulfilling lives and step into a way of life which throws greater extremes; higher highs and lower lows than you can experience by staying comfortable at home. Sure, the average of the highs and lows may not even be that much greater than the easy normal life, but to accept these moments, to be willing to embrace and deal with whatever is thrown at you is to experience the full spectrum that this life has to offer.

 Augustine, with the video camera, was leaving the next day and asked to take a quick video with the Italians, the people with whom he shared the road for just a few days. They jumped up and down in a huddle, celebrating nothing more than the fact that they are now great friends.