Norway – Istanbul by bicycle (8100km in 96 days)
In mid 2005 while sitting down watching the cricket on my sister’s lounge in London, I had a realisation. For the previous 18 month I’d been studying in Leeds England. I’d consumed a lot of beer in those 18 months. I found myself laying on that lounge in, quite possibly, the worst shape in my life. I’d drunk and partied most of my savings fruitlessly away. I’d made some really good friends who, after having returned home and finished their studies, were now scattered across Europe. I was lying on the couch in London recouping after having just completed an 18 day hike along the Pennine Way. I had all the time in the world but hardly enough cash to get to France for a fortnight, let alone see half a continent. I wanted to be home to see my family for Christmas and wondered what to do with myself in between. By about the second innings it dawned on me. – a bicycle all boxed up in the corner of my sister’s lounge room! Why not ride my bicycle to all my mates’ houses and see Europe along the way! It all suddenly made perfect sense. With my tent and sleeping bag left over from the hike, I didn’t have to pay for accommodation! With some welcome leg power, I didn’t have to pay for transport and hopefully I’d get fit at the same time! With my bike I could be free! And within the space of about half an hour I decided to make the trip home a little shorter (and cheaper) and ride my bike some of the way home to Istanbul. I was the pedalling hobo and I loved it!
So, within a week, I’d traded by backpack for a bike with panniers and bought a plane ticket out of England. The first stop was to visit some family in Norway and gain as much weight as possible. Needless to say my family in Norway weren’t so thrilled with the idea and, to their credit and my stubbornness, probably didn’t think I’d make it. After two weeks of help to find more gear, some donations to my cause and a packed brown goats cheese sandwich for lunch, I said my goodbyes and rode off down the road with a vague set of plans, no map and a whole lot of possibilities. (See the route on Google Maps here).
Three months later, I found myself at a university campus in a computer lab and wrote an email to friends and family back home…
“After some 8100km across the continent of Europe, I’m finally able to put my feet up and rest knowing that I don`t have a single kilometre more to pedal, and it feels really, really, really, good!
I’m now resting in Istanbul, the final destination for this long, long ride on a bike. I’m being looked after by my good Turkish mate Serdar who is never short of humour and a good laugh. I haven`t seen him for some five years since last time he and I were in Australia together. I’m being shown that famous Turkish hospitality! I’ve even been catching up with some fellow travellers I met in Tallinn two months ago, driving from Ireland to Japan and now stopping in Istanbul to save some more money. And they think I’m crazy?? But the best bit is being able to shower every day, having food in the fridge, clean clothes, a warm Turkish tea in the morning and a pillow at night! I’ve come to realise that it`s the simple things that, all too often, we fail to appreciate.
The last week has been by far, the hardest. I was exhausted after riding for nearly three weeks straight. My muscles hurt, my legs refused to function. Mentally unbalanced after weeks of riding alone, having in-depth conversations with myself for hours, even talking to Judy, the bike! Somehow I pulled myself through it all urging myself on: ‘This is the finish, come on, just a few more kilometres to go!’ Nursing the bike into Istanbul and myself drained, I’ve discovered a stubborn tenacity, a dogged determination that I have never seen in myself before. I pushed myself harder than I ever have, managing 160km days then 170km the next. Cycling from sun up to sun down I tackled 201km one day, pedalling through the night without lights, just using beams from the passing cars, the white road markings and a slither of a crescent moon to guide my path.
I had envisaged riding across the Bosporus on one of the very few bridges that span the continents of Europe and Asia, listening to the call to prayer echoing through the city. Pedalling through the cold and wet of a drizzly day, drenched yet again, but now for the very last time, I came to that spanning bridge. I cycled three hours just to get into the centre of Istanbul, through the traffic along the waterfront and into the city darkness. The lights along the Bosporus guided my way. With no map and being totally lost in this huge city, the bridge lit like a hanging chandelier made my final destination a beacon. Instead, I reached the bridge only to be told, in one word sentences by a bored police officer sitting in a cold cubicle monitoring the passing traffic, that they no longer let cyclists or pedestrians cross the bridge. Too many jumpers I suppose, terrorist dangers to the shipping lanes perhaps. He was interested to know what I was doing, an English speaking westerner crossing the Bosporus on a muddy bike loaded with wet gear at such an hour. I tried to explain that I had cycled all the way from Norway across Europe and this was my final 500 meters! This was my goal!! But no matter how much I tried to argue in broken English hoping he would understand, but he was as determined to not let me pass.
Being persistent, his senior officer arrived, who spoke more than 2 words of English but less than a dozen, informing me that the only way I was getting across that bridge was ‘bus’ or ‘taxi’. He just so happened to know a friend who owned a taxi nearby that could help, but in deciding that wasn`t in the spirit of the ride I declined his offer. I felt beaten and yet so close. I don`t know why I was so determined to cross this bridge but I had envisaged this end for weeks trying to stave off the boredom and hours of time thinking on the bicycle. A little disappointed, I decided to do what the locals do and cycled back down to the wharf to get a ferry across. I paid my million lira fare, pushed my broken and dirty bike onto the front of the ferry and waited to depart. The glow of the city lights reflected off the dark choppy waters, giving it this kind of yellow-orange aurora. It was a sight I will remember. The nose of the ferry broke from the landing and made for a 180 degree turn towards the other side, just as I was thinking I was beaten, I realised how beautiful it was on the harbor that night. Then the bustling noise of the far off traffic was broken by the piercing sound of a call to prayer through a nearby cheap loudspeaker. I watched the lights on each side of the busy shipping lane guide a freighter down the Bosporus as we motored across. The city seemed to be alive with noises, a pulse of its own. A great sense of joy came over me as I smiled to myself. I thought a fitting end to my 96 day epic.
I climbed Mount Olympus in nothing but my cycling gear as it starting snowing. It was a 7 hour climbed and I had to camp in a mountain refuge for the night. I marvelled when I reached the top above the hazy fog and saw that the sun was shining with nothing but blue skies and 4 peaks rising above the sea of clouds. I stood there alone, feeling this adrenalin driven buzz that I imagine all rock climbers feel! Standing there above the clouds understanding why this was a mountain of gods! I`ve ridden around the islands off Estonia, along the Danube in Serbia and on the terrible pot-holed ridden roads of Albania. I was Lucky to survive the 100`s of stolen 1980 Mercedes Benz in dirt poor Albania, thumping their horns as I rode along a 2 lane main road no bigger than a driveway. Somehow my increasing appetite for adventure saw me through. I`d ridden through thunderstorms, drizzle of every kind and through fog and high winds. I’ve been held up at border crossing fighting bureaucracy where they asked for papers for my bicycle. It took me half an hour to explain to the border guard the absurdity of an Aussie travelling through Eastern Europe then coming to Albania to steal a bicycle! Crazy…
I’d cycled through 15 countries, over, around and touched 5 seas surrounding Europe. I`d camped in forests of every kind, in farmers fields growing all sorts of fruits and grains, in a swamp one night, by roads, railway lines and rivers, on top of WW2 bunkers and even one night in a fire station in Montenegro. I`ve outrun packs of dogs of every breed and mix breed, some wild some domestic and stared down a pair of waist high wolf-dogs ferocious and meaner than any animal I have come across. I`ve seen huge mountains in Slovakia, spent hours riding to the top, filling my lungs with the fresh thin crisp air, only to cycle down the other side, on the verge of being out of control, in minutes. I`ve bathed in the cleanest of alpine rivers in Sweden, in the salty fjords of Norway and in the icy cold but stunningly beautiful sunsets over Lake Ohrid in Macedonia. I`ve zigzagged up mountains 1500 meters straight up, through passes as grand as any palace gates, along endless flat planes, constantly fighting headwinds of the Baltic countries.
I’ve laughed at grown men riding donkeys, saw destitute beggars in city streets, and seen people throw their garbage into otherwise pristine rivers, not being able to see past such a small action. I`ve been saddened by stories of war yet inspired by people returning to their homeland, with an unshakable enthusiasm about the future. I picked bullets out of the stone buildings in Mostar now reduced to rubble, which were the front line in the Yugoslav civil war. I saw the ruins of the ancient city of Troy, the battlefields of the Anzacs and been amazed by their patriotism and tenacity in such adverse circumstances. I`ve realised the futility of war, the desire and greed of political power and the need for tolerance.
I have been intrigued by other cultures and religions. I think I may have converted to Islam one day trying to converse with a friend of a friend in German. I think she thought she may have saved one Australian infidel! I got a new name (Kemal), prayer beads and my very first copy of the Koran. The first religious book I own! Everybody greeted my then with open arms and interest and I felt this sceptical but warming kind of love! I got drunk on homemade polish vodka over a meal with a friend’s grandparents in Warsaw. Some 10 shots over dinner then 4 for the road and my French mate Christophe whispered in my ear, ‘I have to go before I fall off this chair! … no really!’
I`ve been accompanied by a Canadian cycling around the world, passed by an English couple on a tandem bike, some 4 meters in length circling Europe, and another couple from England and New Zealand who got stoned while travelling in Amsterdam and thought it would be a great idea to ride bicycles to Athens via turkey! I met a heavy weight Croatian bike team, who threw their bikes together, making a game plan on the road yet determined to cycle and climb any decent mountains they could find around the Adriatic.
I`ve found food in all sorts of places, stealing corn from farmers fields, collecting walnuts fallen on the ground, picking apples from trees along the road and eating wild berries that grew in the pine forests in Norway and Sweden. I`ve met farmers who gave me food for helping them in the fields. I went days when I was starving trying to make it to the border before I had to change money or caught in between cities and towns from poor planning on my behalf. Then other days when I had plenty, yet kept eating determine not to waste anything. I ate out of a camping tin and stove eating the blandest of meals that I tried to season using salt and pepper I saved from a previous meal! I developed an addiction to the fresh breads and pastries of passing bakers. I`ve met people that would kindly buy me a beer, to people that would offer me a place to stay for the night and even one kind American who took me out to this amazing restaurant opposite the Hilton hotel in Budapest! All paid for! I hadn`t eaten that well in a long long time.
I still have some kind of intestinal infection that I have been carry for nearly 2 months now. I was violently ill throwing up all night outside my tent in Slovakia camped in the middle of nowhere. I figured I must have drunk some dodgy water somewhere, some bad milk perhaps. To this day I have no idea what it was but know that something still isn`t right! I haven’t drunk out of a river since that day, sticking to and reluctantly paying for bottled water. I`m eating and eating till my stomach hurts, then waking up starving again the next morning. I’m looking forward to having a good chat in English with an Australian doctor who is able to do test after test to sort this business out! I’m sick of feeding the bugs, the parasites, the worms.
All this from a crazy idea while watching the cricket at my sister’s place in London. I`d returned from a hiking trip from England to the Scottish border with my mum and another English friend. I was sitting on the couch and noticed my sister’s bike in a box near the TV ready to be taken home. I had very little money and wanted to travel as long as I could. Two and two came together, my sister lent me the bike, on the condition that I bring it home with me, and suddenly I was on a plane heading to Norway. People laughed when I told then what I was doing, some friends thought I was crazy and dare I say a few of them probably even thought I’d never make it. I just hope my sister forgives me when I show her the state of the bike. Wheels that are more oval than round, bent axels, broken pedals, torn bags, 6 busted spokes that I prayed would hold out just a little longer while cycling into Istanbul, stitched up bags, underwear with holes in the bottom so big that I had to stitch back together one night so that my testicles stopped falling through the bottom! I`ve also learned that a good roll of duct tape is priceless when things go wrong. I used it to fix everything from my helmet to my shoes!
… And now I find myself here, Istanbul. Beautiful as it is chaotic. Some 16 million people live here, in this giant village! There is no central square, no highways or large malls; in fact there is no planning at all. Millennia of urbanisation of growth of rebuilding and rebuilding again has seen this city just grow into this giant village as one Turkish friend put it. Yet everything seems to just mesh together, the streets are filled with noisy traffic determined to use their horn at any opportune moment, the squares and main streets jammed with people all the time. After months of riding in wide open spaces and being alone in the country for days at a time it`s hard to find my own space here. I really like Istanbul; it is a blend of cultures and religions, and mix of the old ways and the modern. Quite narrow street cafes and small grocery stores everywhere. Buildings older than my country line the back ally`s, slowly falling apart yet still surviving after the many earthquakes this city receives being situated right between a fault line. I have been very tempted to stay here, maybe teach English for a little while, and spend some more time travelling! Even plotting ways I could change my flight, but I think of my family I haven’t seen for a long long time.
I am really looking forward to getting home. I haven’t been home for two years now. I’m especially looking forward to seeing my dad again, catching up over a pint at the local bowling club. I`m over joyed at that prospect alone considering his heart condition and that I had considered the possibility of never seeing him again when I left Australia 2 years ago. I have a niece that I have never laid eyes on and another that I can`t wait to hug and see how much she has grown. Over the last year my younger sister has been reminding me that she`s grown into a little person now! I`m looking forward to catching up with old friends and being home again. There is no feeling like it in the world!
Without that first pedal from my familyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s house in Norway, that spark of an idea, that spontaneous decision on my sisters couch, the determination I found and the help from others along the way I never would have made it this far. Yet I found the best and most apt quote I have read in months on a friend’s website that seems to sum up my entire experience… if into this you throw some adventure mix in some hard work and stir in a little culture…”
“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.”
John F. Kennedy
Chris Roach (Email to friends and family dated November 2005)