On the day I turned 30, I’d made it to the Black Sea. It wasn’t so sweet a meeting because it was my birthday, but rather the previous four weeks I’d spent in freezing conditions cycling through Northern Iran, Armenia and Georgia. With ongoing health problems since India and with the onset of winter fast approaching, cycling northern Turkey had suddenly become a race to get to Istanbul.
A kind person I met in Yerevan helped line up some contacts for the remaining part of Armenia. His name was Nick and he was working for the U.S. Peace Corps. He also happened to have the only spare pair of Avid BB7 disc brake pads in the whole of Armenia! So, not only did I have people to stay with out of the cold, but I also managed to get my rear disc brake working again after a week of cycling on just the front pads. After the pass leading to Georgia I was as happy as Larry. (For the record, I don’t know who Larry is or how that expression came about – but if he’s out there I understand how happy he is!). I had a 250 km gentle downhill ride along a river that would take me almost all the way to the Black Sea. I didn’t count on a landslide which covered the pass I needed to take to get there. I thought about cycling up and carrying my bicycle over the pass, but eventually I heeded the advice of the locals, instead heading through the Turkish mountains. In the end I only spent three days in Georgia – the shortest time in any country I had visited so far.
It was cold in the mountains of Eastern Turkey and the riding was relentless. It was getting down to -15 degree conditions at night and I was suffering. I can’t tell you how it feels. I lived in a Norwegian winter once and it’s nothing like that. On a bike you just can’t escape the cold. There is no warm house/bus/shelter to get to at the end of the night. It gets into your bones and, even when I was rugged up in the tent, it was still cold. The only place I found comfort was at lunch when I found a restaurant to dry out my wet clothes, sip a Turkish chai, wrap my hands around a bowl of cheap soup and count my blessings that I had relief, if just for a few hours. Those days, when I found such a place in the mountains, my spirits were high.
At night, sleeping in the forest or in an abandoned building, I had to put on just about every piece of clothing I carried. What wasn’t wrapped around me served to insulate the floor from the cold. I would pull the sleeping bag up so tight that only the lower part of my nose and my mouth touched the frigid air. In the morning, my bread was so hard no knife could cut it; the bike was covered in icicles; the tent was coated in ice (inside and out) and my water had become a frozen block. I needed courage just to get out of the sleeping bag in the morning. It became a monumental effort, slowly undressing inside the sleeping bag, keeping all the warmth on hand and putting on the dry parts of my cycling outfit. I would stay in the bag for twenty minutes until I felt the bike clothes warm up. Harder still was the courage to get moving again knowing what lay ahead of me, another cold day in the mountains. They were long, exhausting cold and uncomfortable days and nights. Still, I found that sense of adventure, the enthusiasm, that spark of energy inside which came from somewhere unknown to me.
The roads were treacherous and I found myself struggling to keep the bike upright. Worse than the slippery, icy road were the stray dogs. On hearing me approach or seeing me close to their domain, alarms would ring across a village. Dogs would come out of nowhere and chase me down the streets. The only way to prevent them chasing and/or biting me or the bags was to stop and stand firm. But, in the cold, stopping quickly would lock the wheels. Skidding always threw me off and the bicycle and me on my arse would slip and slide along the road some twenty meters. I got so angry once, partially because I was so exhausted and sick of the cold, (the only time on the whole journey this happened) and I actually got up off my arse and started running after the dogs. I was yelling and screaming in a big fit until they scampered away back to their houses. On this occasion some men nearby had seen the whole thing and were in stitches laughing. When I saw, I stopped, gave them a big wave and a huge smile and continued on. I ended up with many bruises.
I wondered how I could get out of this mountain maze to find my way to the Black Sea but, with the help of friendly Turks who gave me places to stay when it was freezing outside and others who invited me for a chai (Turkish tea), I got there. I found enormous tea plantations on the road down the mountain. It snaked and weaved it’s way from a frosty summit to a mild ocean. In fact, the Black Sea didn’t look black at all but more a deep green. It was a fitting day to have a birthday and I was happy to talk with my family.
The route along the black sea was a motorway at sea level half the way to Istanbul. It was difficult to find a camp site each night, the traffic noise was incessant and it rained most of the time, but I didn’t care. It was flat and it wasn’t snowing. After the motorway turned into the mountains, cycling along the Black Sea was much tougher than I expected. The mountains quite literally fall into the sea. The only reason the motorway existed was because it was built into, out over the sea! So I was forced to ride up over every small mountain then down again into the many small rivers that flow to the Black Sea. I went up and down, up and down like that nearly the whole way to Istanbul. It was hard going but warm, relatively speaking of course. I thought about my decision almost a month before, having chosen the Black Sea route when I could have been cycling along the warm Mediterranean Coast. Such thoughts were unhealthy at best.