Last April, I received an unusual parcel from Germany. Parcels from Germany are unusual in any case, but this one was especially odd, as it consisted of nothing more than a Lidl bag, a few sticky labels and a single strip of sticky tape. It was a triumph of budget engineering over the more rigorous requirements of the Post Office. Opening it, I discovered a book. It was a copy of The Men Who Stare At Goats, which I had lent to my friend Leo a few months back. Further exploration uncovered a note tucked into the front cover, explaining that he had set out from York on his bicycle a couple of months ago, and that he was currently in Germany, getting rid of all extraneous weight prior to taking on the rest of Europe. He also invited me to write to him by email. And so began an amusing and educational correspondence.
Leo is a chemistry PhD whose hair and beard have long since reached the length where they self-regulate, and he looks like Leonardo Da Vinci after a particularly wild weekend of non-stop inventing. He speaks in a low, genial rumble, eats no meat, and drinks no alcohol. After a year of non-stop cycling, he is currently in Thailand, having cycled across two continents. According to his last email, he is hanging around in a small village waiting for new inner tubes from Bangkok, where everyone keeps tying things onto him.
‘When I arrived, I had one sacred thread (from monks in Lao) on my left wrist, now I have 4 bloody sacred threads and an Isaan waist cloth thing. Also, they’ve named a beer after me.’
Here are some of the highlights of our (rather sweary) correspondence.
I’ve finally found time to email. Getting in and out of Istanbul was a fucking nightmare, and so was being in it. I figured I’d do a 2 day run from Erdine (which is lovely btw) to Istanbul (140 miles) and have a rest day in Istanbul. Unfortunately, when I actually got to Istanbul I could only afford a bed in a shared dorm and I found all of the old city to be touristy as fuck and generally horrible to be in. I suppose it’s ok for aeroplane tourists, but I’ve had so much better and I really can’t be fucked with the tourist thing anymore. It’s like a great big invisible wall that very cleanly divides people into locals, tourists, and touts and hinders freeform interactions with people. I’ve learned a few words of Turkish (crazy language – a few words like English, a few like Urdu, but otherwise none recognisable – on the plus side, it’s phonetic and consistent) and that helps to break the barriers usually, but not in Istanbul so much. So yeah, a 1 day whistle stop in one of the biggest cities in the world. Hectic. And the traffic getting in was absolutely tragic. It was so damned special I actually enjoyed the sheer death-defying insanity of it. Getting out was hard too, but a lovely cafe owner let me camp on his grass about 30 miles out of Istanbul (and refused payment). picture is of his dog, Marco Polo, who fell asleep in my tent.
Ankara was pretty cool. It’s all govt stuff there and it’s pretty much the model city by Turkish standards. I stayed there for a couple of days, then proceeded at high speed to Samsun and then along the D010 coastal road east. I spent a few days with a Chilean lifetime traveller who used his dog and a screwdriver to fake a dog bite on my leg (so I can get Rabies vaccine – normally not available for tourists) and then went on ahead. I’m currently about 4km from Findikli where I’ll get my 7 day Rabies shot tomorrow (and figure out how to explain why I didn’t turn up at the 3 day mark – pre- and post-exposure schedule is different) and then proceed to Batumi in Gurgistan, as they call it here.
Cycling with the Chilean geezer was fucking slow but very educational. I learned a lot about low-cost cycle touring and ways to save money. For instance, I cook with a Trangia alcohol burner; he finds wood and builds a fire in a big metal pot every time he wants to cook. You might imagine he’d have problems finding firewood, but there’s a surprising amount of usable wood lying around everywhere. He also fixes his bike using bits he finds on the road. For instance, he found me a lovely bit of mudgard from a car to replace the part of mine that had broken off (and is actually a fuckload better). Also he’s a master blagger, and in one night managed to get us for free, a place to camp on some grass near the beach, some hot water for chai, lots of sugar, and wifi. This is useful because I’m trying to spend as little money as possible at the moment and have given up hotels and other luxuries (last 3 days I have spent 30 lira – about 11 quid). Turkey is good for this because people are generous as fuck and you can camp pretty much anywhere. The weather is also really hot, so I can take my morning bath in the sea or in a mountain stream, wash my clothes at the same time, and hang them on my bike to dry (or just wear the wet tshirt – no danger of getting cold). I highly recommended Turkey for easy cycle touring.
From Georgia – which he really didn’t like…
Road from Batumi to Tbilisi was fucking hard work. At first, there is only a single carriageway snaking its way up and down steep hills, which means getting passed at close proximity by countless trucks. Thankfully, most of the big trucks are Turkish, because the Turks are much nicer drivers and don’t try to kill you as often. After that, I left the main highway to take a ‘shortcut’ via Vani to Zestafoni. First part way beautiful with nice roads, few trucks, and some absolutely gorgeous downhills with corners that really let me push my tyres. After that, the road kind of went to shit and entire sections were potholed to fuck. Some were simply gravel and could not be ridden on. Also this part of Georgia is derelict as fuck. I swear half the buildings in Vani were abandoned and the vibe was terrible. I got a police escort through Vani and I’m not sure why – to help me navigate the junctions, to protect me from the locals, or to move me on before I see too much? I have no idea. Country towns in Georgia are absolutely full of weirdos and are best traversed as quickly as possible. Villages are ok though. Also I stopped off and asked the village shop where I’d just bought a coca cola if I could use their toilet. Even though I’ve travelled in India for a month, it was absolutely the worst toilet I’ve ever encountered in my life. The smell was so bad, my nose had gone unconscious after a minute (except the receptor dealing with ammonia – that was still ringing intensely) and I still feel nauseous thinking back to it. Seriously, they’re drinking vodka before the clock hits noon all over Georgia and I suspect it’s the answer to so many questions, like: Why are the roads so fucked? Vodka. Why is the electricity on and off all the time? Vodka. Why are prices high even though it’s virtually a 3rd world economy? Vodka. Why is every second building derelict? Yeah… you get the drift. I won’t say this out loud until I’m safely in Azerbaijan, but I think Georgia would have done well to convert to Islam. Tbilisi looks a lot nicer, though. I think all the creative energy of the country is focused here and it feels a lot more upbeat.
On meeting fellow bicycle tourers
Socially, it’s awesome to meet like minded people fluent in my native language, especially when you can share your greviences about the shit we have to put up with (the abysmal Uzbek roads, and the constant stream of idiots shouting “ATKUDA???” (where are you from, in Russian) being the top two annoyances). Atkuda even became a running joke, and we atkuda’d a few Uzbeks as well as an old Englishman on a motorbike who stopped to say hi. But it’s also nice to cycle alone most of the time because it lets me interact more with the country – one person is much more likely to be invited into someone’s home than 3 people, for instance. On rare occasions, people know English and it is easier for me, otherwise I struggle on with my pisspoor Russian and smattering of Uzbek/Turkish words. Or sometimes German; this was especially popular in Turkey.
China’s a mad place. So very different from the USSR. It’s modern and absolutely full of economic activity and construction works. Technology is rife here, and everyone’s wearing fashionable clothes and carrying smartphones. Food is cheap and almost universally awesome, and the roads are also by and large absolutely fucktastic. And you can slurp your food when you eat (it’s encouraged), and blow snot rockets and spit whereever you feel like, and there are no religious sensibilities to offend. Also, women have equal rights here and a social standing very similar to what we’re used to. And people are friendly, but not overly friendly, generally upstanding and intelligent, and quite often speak reasonable English (it’s been mandatory in schools for ages, but teachers are often crap and it’s difficult for a Chinese speaker to pick up in the best of circumstances). So yeah, overall, it’s pretty damned awesome and I’d well recommend a visit.
Actually, the really outstanding thing about China is how it’s all self-created. Be it cement mixers, fridges, electric scooters, mobile phones, or clothes, it’s all made inside China. And the big engineering projects all seem to be Chinese, too. It’s a really terrific achievement and it’s nice to be in the midst of it. I think it’s all enabled by the clean-mindedness of the Chinese. They have no cultural or religious stupidity holding them back (the Uigurs being an exception, but they’re economically marginal, even in their home province) so they’re free to adopt new thought patterns very rapidly.
The drawback with this, as I see, is that they can tend to go overboard and haven’t really thought too far ahead; they’ve adopted western technology and implemented it to the extreme (some of these wind farms are HUGE) but haven’t yet figured out the solutions to the accompanying problems (environmental destruction being the big one). I think they’ve massively overcooked the construction thing too, as accomodation in big cities is way beyond what a regular worker can afford, and new buildings are springing out of the ground at an alarming rate – the road to Urumqi has what looks like entire cities rising out of the desert – partially constructed skyscrapers adorned with more cranes than I’ve seen before. So yeah, it’s really awesome, but I think there could be a hell of a storm at some point in the future. Come see it while it’s on the up 🙂
On the first night, I was invited to stay in a monastery (I just dropped in to admire their Buddhas). The monks were cool as hell and we hung out for a bit and did evening prayers together. In the morning, they sent me off with a load of sticky rice and lots of Chinese snack foods. Wouldn’t have thought monks would have much in the way of Chinese snack foods, but these were the gum-chewing cigarette-smoking type of laid back Lao monks, not the puritanical variety. And yeah, Lao’s fantastic.