A long time before Italy…
Half way through our sprint through China, my mum had asked where we thought we would be for Christmas. Never thinking we would even get out of China, we had plucked for Istanbul. But having flown to Georgia, we were way ahead of time, arriving in Turkey’s biggest city exactly a month too early. Fortunately this gave us the opportunity to leisurely soak up the vibrancy of this city which, once we got beyond the tourist touts, completely got into our blood stream, becoming our favourite city of the trip so far.
A problem with Hooch’s special gear system was soon fixed at a fantastic new bike shop and Rohloff service centre dedicated to cycle touring. For anybody cycling from the east or the west we would highly recommend dropping by for any maintenance or to replace any tired/broken camping equipment. Plus they are an interesting and friendly bunch with plenty of cycle touring experience. Their website is: http://www.bisikletgezgini.com/english
Due to how long we had before my family arrived for Christmas, we decided to cycle on and give ourselves a head start by getting as far as we could, leaving the bike somewhere, before taking public transport back to Istanbul. We were all set to leave Istanbul but then we got chatting to an elegantly bohemian-looking chap in his mid-twenties with a delicate handlebar moustache who was staying at our hostel. We so enjoyed talking to him that when he suggested a walk to a tranquil tea garden overlooking the Bosphorus we thought one more day wouldn’t make a difference.
It was a beautiful day with a beautiful view set in beautiful gardens. We and our new friend shared, along with plenty of tea, tales of our home countries, both of which held special places in our hearts. But unlike us, our friend was unable to go back to his home country. He had to flee in order to avoid military service, in order to avoid being ordered to kill his own country men, women and children. He was a refugee from Syria and meeting him startled me into reality.
When reading online newspaper articles about the atrocities that are occurring in his country, whilst shocked and dismayed, I had forgotten that the figures quoted are not just numbers. Each and every single ‘one’ of the thousands and thousands of people affected is an individual person who has dreams, fears, loves, hobbies, families, friends, stories, jokes. Our friend was not somebody that we could not relate to, being some ‘foreigner’ from some far off distance country. Quite the contrary, he was a man that we could easily see ourselves sitting with on the banks of the Thames, drinking with, talking about his art and photography, talking about our trip, making jokes together, sharing an affinity, as we were doing in Istanbul. He was somebody that we could be friends with.
Hearing him tell us of how he worried about his parents he left behind in Damascus as they did not want to leave their home, how he is trying his best to make a living with his photography, his plans to set up a project to help rebuild the lives of the thousands of Syrian refugee children who are traumatised at what they have witnessed and who have not been to school for years and how he battles the guilt that he is ‘safe’ whilst others he love aren’t, made the conflict in Syria all of a sudden seem very real; not just some story read in a newspaper. He, along with his ordinary fellow country people, are caught in the middle of the crossfire between the government and rebel forces, in the middle of international politics played out within the United Nations. Our friend never asked for any of this. All he wants is peace, to live his everyday life which was once filled with all the things we take for granted, in the country he holds in his heart, his home.
Saying goodbye to our friend was hard to do. I just wanted to do something to make everything all right but then, as now, I had no idea what that could be. All I was able to do was hug him tightly, wish him all the very best and hope with all my heart that one day we can visit him in Damascus, for him to show off to us the sights and sounds of a city restored to the vibrancy he described before this horror began. I sincerely hope that day is not far away.
What, no stamp in our passport?
There we were, handing our passports over, no need to have a wad of cash in our other hand to pay for a visa this time. A quick double take at Steve’s clean-shaven passport photo, then his face, then his passport again. Then with a jovial wave and the prospect of no more stamps in our passport we finally made it into Europe via Greece.
I’d read that wild camping in Greece was illegal. Being a bit of a goody-two-shoes, I was a bit apprehensive of breaking the rules but seeing a perfect camp spot, I knew I just had to get on with it straight away otherwise I would lose my nerve. So we set up camp, about 300 metres from the main road, tucked in amongst some trees, invisible from the road, dismissing evidence of dogs as just that of shepherd dogs. After a nice dinner, then probably an episode of Spooks on our laptop, we drifted off into a deep sleep.
2am. Cold and pitch black. We awoke with a start to the sound of a pack of dogs, barking viciously, getting louder and louder as they got closer. Barks sounded as if they were coming from every direction. We felt surrounded. Our presence in what we presume was his territory had really displeased one dog. It sounded big as we traced the noise of its thuds circling the tent. His barking sounded like he was calling for back-up. Then he began a snort/growling noise that chilled my blood as we could sense he was sniffing right under the fly-sheet of our tent. Both terrified, not having a great deal of experience with dogs, let alone wild dogs, we stared wide-eyed at each other. My gut reaction was to try and stay as still and quiet as possible hoping the dog would get bored and move on. Steve obviously didn’t have the same instinct as he unconvincingly said ‘There’s a good boy!’ A quick dig to the ribs and we were both on the same page again.
We clung to each other in the middle of the tent, as far away from the sides as possible in case the dogs tried to bite us through the flimsy material. Being cold it wasn’t long before nature called for the pair of us but hearing at least one dog still pacing outside we daren’t. The night time can always make things seem so much scarier. Noises are louder, dogs bloodthirstier, imagined scenarios more horrific. It was the first time wild camping that I felt truly vulnerable. Nobody knew where we were. We couldn’t be seen from the road. It didn’t seem to be a spot where there would be regular passers-by in the day. All we had for protection was our cooking knife. Ideas of going out and reasoning with the dogs were soon dismissed. Making a run for the road was dismissed. Sitting still and hoping for the best was all we could do.
The hours dragged by as we shivered from the cold and anxiety. I’ve never wished for daylight more than I did that night. Eventually we must have nodded off as we awoke to the sun’s glow on the tent. It all sounded quiet outside and by this time the call of nature was more urgent. Steve went out first, armed with the bike pump. Back to back we surveyed the scene around us. No sign of any dogs. Each of us took turns wielding the bike pump as the other let nature take its call. Both of us sighed in relief that we had made it unscathed through the night. Bags packed, tent packed and out of the corner of my eye I saw a dog running towards us. A cry to Steve and we re-armed ourselves, Steve with the bike pump, me with the fishing rod. The dog approached, sniffed wearily and then drifted off in the search of some food to scavenge. Surely that sorry sight of a dog could not have been that terrifying beast from last night. We’ll never know but you can be sure the next night I found myself a perfect stick to beat a dog with.
For those first few days of cycling through Greece the air was bursting with us air punching and shouting ‘yesssss!’ as we would point out to the other a familiar European sight. ‘Look, there’s a Lidl.’ ‘Yesssss!’ There’s a bikini beach.’ ‘Yesssss!’ ‘Look, graffiti’. ‘Yesssss!’ ‘Coffee-shops and bars everywhere.’ ‘Yessss!’ ‘Stone-washed denim jeans.’ ‘Yesssss!’ I don’t really know what it means to be European but the longer we have been away, the more we feel European. Like siblings, we have our different qualities, quirks and arguments, but underneath it all we share a long history that makes it at least easier for us to understand where the other is coming from and despite strains recently with the financial crisis, shared values that we should continue to cherish and improve upon; democracy, freedom, equality, respect for human rights. Or maybe it is just the shared love of walking around a Lidl’s discount store!
Winter in Europe
Our decision to go through Greece was mainly because of our concerns about a European winter. Our original route, drawn out when we had dreamily believed we would be cycling a never-ending summer, was to go through eastern and central Europe. But, with our ‘a bit on-the-cheap-side’ equipment, we knew we would be very hard pushed to enjoy cycling and camping in snowy conditions. So with that, we ripped apart our original plan, and decided to follow Greece’s coast to stay a bit warmer.
The new plan paid off with some pleasantly bright and crisp days along a spectacular coastline. The scenery begged you to ask what sights it had seen through its ancient history and fuelled the imagination to explore its rich mythology. With all the camp sites closed for winter, and now armed with the dog stick, my apprehension about wild-camping fell away and with such wonderful spots I was glad it had.
Cycling the coast, we had many lovely camp spots where Steve could do a bit of fishing in the evening. I hear you ask, ‘Has he caught anything yet?’ Has he ‘eck as like! But it always makes me smile as I finish off setting up our camp bedroom, watching Steve confidently stride off into the setting sun with his rod in one hand, a beer in the other, believing today was the day of the big catch.
However, there were some things that seemed strangely European. The huge gates and fences that marked the boundaries of people’s properties really took us aback. Alongside these, most of them had signs warning of extensive alarm systems and vicious looking guard dogs. It dawned on me that it is the same at home, everybody has their bit of land and marks it clearly for all to see with a fence, wall or gate. ‘This is mine, stay out’, it seems to say. But after the openness of so many of the countries we have travelled through now, I had quite forgotten this quirk. No longer would we feel we could march up to a door and ask for water or to see if it was okay to camp nearby as these barriers and warnings clearly didn’t invite you to do that. But all the Greek people we met day-to-day were as lovely, accommodating and keen to help us as any other nationality. It’s just with their homes that they seemed to want to create a divide and unwelcoming facade.
The other thought that flickered through my mind when I saw these structures dedicated to keeping strangers off and out of their properties was how much the residents must worry about their home and possessions. Worry to the point of paranoia even. To erect the signs and barriers you must be worrying about the safety of yourself and your things. In turn seeing the signs makes you worry about your safety, thinking that something must be amiss here to warrant all this. I couldn’t help but think that it was these structures that created a feeling of fear and unease rather than ‘strangers’ here being any less honorable than any other parts of the world. Interestingly it also seems that the less you own materially, the less you worry.
To get to the city of Larisa we had two options. We could cycle there directly through the narrow Vale of Tempe on a bicycle-unwelcome road or go the long way round meaning an extra 40km. With night only an hour or so away we decided to take the direct route.
We cycled up to the toll booth, Steve warning me to be cheery and to pretend as if we didn’t know bicycles weren’t allowed on this road as I backtracked on my previous agreement and whinged that we really shouldn’t be on this road. We were waved to a rest area where a man came out to explain that the road through the gorge was narrow and dangerous. The only alternative he gave us was the round-about route. When we suggested that we would much prefer to cycle this way and whether he would forbid us, covering himself, he reminded us that he had told us this way was dangerous but if we chose to ignore his advice it was on our heads be it.
The thought of an extra 40km when this route was only ten made our decision for us. Off we cycled as dusk began to descend. The gorge was absolutely stunning as we weaved in between sheer rock faces towering above us on both sides, the lowering sun making the rocks glow warmly. The Pineios River ran down below us. The gorge was narrow, only 25 metres wide in some places. Traffic was light and with our day-glow outfits we were easily spotted. Nevertheless, to take my mind off my natural instinct to worry, I tried to imagine who would have explored this gorge throughout Greece’s ancient history. Later I found out this had been the scene of numerous battles with armies of Athenians and Spartans, numbering 10,000, gathering to fight off the Persian invasion of Xerxes in 480 BC. I didn’t contemplate for too long that this valley’s recent history is now notorious for terrible road conditions and truly horrific traffic accidents.
Once out the other side of the valley, night came quickly and so we looked for a spot to camp. Nestled in a thin strip of land between the road and the railway track we had another very cold night. The next morning, tired having had little sleep as we were too cold, over excited at the prospect of seeing family, we decided to cycle the short distance to Larisa and begin our Christmas holidays earlier than planned.
All I want for Christmas is you…
We left the bike and most of our bags in the safe hands of Kiki, Adonis and Kostas at the cheap and cheerful hotel we found near the train station in Larisa. They were quick to correct our use of the name Istanbul, instead referring to the city’s old name of Constantinople, suggesting old wounds are yet to heal. After a train and overnight coach we once again found ourselves in the hustle and bustle of Istanbul.
And before I knew it the day I had been looking forward to for an entire year was upon us.
We spent a couple of days exploring Istanbul with my mum before my brother and his girlfriend flew out to be with us. And what an eventful couple of days they were.
As we disembarked from the ferry on the Asian side of Istanbul we walked straight into a huge demonstration. We were doing our best to work out what the demonstration was about but there were so many different billboards we struggled but it all looked peaceful so off we went to explore the back streets and their markets.
After a little while the urge for an Efes beer was overpowering so we found ourselves a nice bar to sit outside and watch the world go by. Not long after sitting there I found my eyes watering and mentioned to Mum and Steve that somebody must be cutting some strong onions. Mum agreed and then suddenly everybody around us began suffering the same. All at once it dawned on us that tear gas must have been used against the demonstration. The bar man quickly herded all of us inside and shut the doors as we watched people walking past coughing and spluttering and covering their faces from the gas. At this point we were quite a long way from the demonstration so I dread to think how powerful the tear gas must have been where it was released.
Once the tear gas had dispersed we made our way back to the ferry port, passing a vandalised bank and talking to a man who was very keen to explain that the demonstrations were because the Turkish people strongly wanted to defend their secularism and were angry at the alleged corruption that seemed to go through the heart of the government and included the arrest of the head of the bank we saw vandalised.
The following day we were checking out the main avenue in Istanbul, Istikal Street, when disaster struck as Mum was so busy checking out all the sights and sounds, she didn’t notice the huge pot hole which completely knocked her off balance. Being a big brave solider, Mum dusted herself off and managed a smile throughout the rest of her trip, never revealing to me how much pain she was in. When she got home, an x-ray showed three broken ribs! I wish you’d told me!
Leaving Mum to rest after her fall, Steve and I headed back to the arrivals lounge once again, full of nerves and excitement at meeting my brother, Tom and his girlfriend, Ellie.
Then we were suddenly on our own again
After a few magical days with my family, easily picked up where we left off since we last saw each other, they were gone again. But knowing that at least we had an end date in sight the goodbyes were not as hard to say although that didn’t stop my tears!
New Year’s Eve
Crossing the bridge we headed straight for the port of Patras where with only minutes to spare we boarded the boat to our next country, Italia!