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  • Tom Blower

Caucasian Shores


Since leaving Istanbul I’ve done just over a thousand more miles through Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, winding up in the capital of Baku (a city still so enraptured by the Champions League final that I’ve had to start pretending I support Liverpool again). As I had imagined, this part of the trip has been testing, and certainly hasn’t quite gone as planned, but I’m here, I’m happy, and I certainly can’t complain of boredom.

Leaving Gori, Georgia

But the flesh is weak

I knew that this day had probably been overdue for some time. Having averaged over 70 miles a day for just over five weeks, with four century days and several more just a couple of miles off, I awoke to find that my body was simply not up to the ride ahead. From the first pedal stroke of the day, my left knee twinged with a sensation all too familiar from my last tour in eastern Europe; where I’d overworked myself and had had to cut my ride short in order to rest the joint and whatever was the cause of the pain. Except now I didn’t have this luxury. Yes, I was 35 miles up on target, having pushed hard yesterday with a cracking tailwind for the first time since entering Turkey. But now, as the land rose incrementally, my gears dropped and dropped until I was spinning on my lowest gear, trying to reduce all possible pressure on my knee, and realising I would have to take some drastic action.

The day’s first 14 miles were a long, slow climb, and though not at an unendurable angle, but relief filled me as I saw the land sloping down towards Düzce, with waves of mountains in the distance rising from a sea of mist at the other side of the valley. After a blissful downhill section the road flattened out, and by the time I arrived in Düzce my knee felt almost normal. I felt that I wouldn’t be doing myself justice if I didn’t at least try to get to Bolu, a bigger town in the next valley, on the other side of a 2,100-foot climb (if maps.me is to be believed). I pushed on, and passing Kaynaşlı, my originally planned goal for the day, I felt a surge, but it was short-lived: the road rose at a 10 percent gradient, and I crawled in my lowest gear for a mile and a half before stopping, getting off, and pushing.

In the next hour and a half, I covered just over seven miles, about 70% on the bike and 30% on foot when the ache in my knee became too much. When at last I reached the top of the pass I was soaked, and needed only to clench my fist for the sweat to come dribbling down my forearms and out of my gloves. I sat at a café with a scenic view, looking over the valley I was soon to leave, watching the road I’d climbed snake up its side while the motorway lazily meandered below into a tunnel beneath the mountains. Setting off towards Bolu, I felt I’d earned whatever rest I could get, though I was still disappointed knowing that if I’d tried to push all the way to the Black Sea coast I could do myself a lot of damage.

I was so busy singing to the music I was blasting as I rode downhill (appropriately, Freddie King’s Going Down) that I nearly missed the sign, still several miles from the centre of Bolu, for the otogar and I stopped. Another threshold, this time between travelling by bicycle and travelling with a bicycle. Did I really want to do this? No, of course not. The words of Default by Atoms for Peace came floating from the back of my mind:

I laugh now

But lately it’s not so easy

I gotta stop

The will is strong but the flesh is weak

The will is strong but the flesh is weak. I pulled into the bus station and bought myself a ticket for the following evening to Samsun. With a little begging and explanation of my injury I was allowed to take my bike on the bus, and so bought the next 300 miles for just under £18 and with wises to ‘get veel soon’ from the staff at the station. I had thought they were saying ‘Get Wilson’, before realising that wasn’t my name.

This wasn’t my only time to take alternative transport. Along with a train into Italy under the Gotthard Pass, and then a further bus from Trabzon to Batumi once the pain returned to both of my knees with a vengeance on the Black Sea Coast, so far I’ve skipped 450 miles of road. Yet I don’t have regrets. Or, at least, far fewer than a past me might have done. This journey, all this time, money, and effort, is an investment in myself; so why squander it and prevent myself from enjoying it all for the sake of having a ‘pure’ cycling trip? Had I all the money and time in the world I’d wait weeks for my knees to rest in the same place and then continue at my leisure. But I have a budget, an itinerary, and a limited supply of insulin, and as such, I am finally coming to peace with the idea that this may not be entirely a journey by bicycle, but rather a journey with my bicycle. I’ve come over 3,300 miles, the furthest I've ever travelled in one go by bike, and I’ll be damned if I let a poor attitude ruin it for me. I think that Alastair Humphreys puts it really well in this video – if your mindset doesn’t change, neither will your journey, and all your discontentment will end up as just another weight to carry. Whatever comes of this trip, however much of it and in what manner it’s completed, I’d rather have long-lasting positive memories than long-lasting painful injuries.

A letter to a third floor office chair

You and I have been through a lot together. You seated me on my first day of real, adult work, and though I never felt truly capable of the job I was doing, you certainly helped me look like I was. Hunched over my keyboard, creaking as I sweated and swore through a maze of Excel spreadsheets, or oscillating slightly in the depths of a long-distance conference call, you mostly made me look the part, hiding my fraud from those around me (except for those bits when I broke down and had to run out of the office to cry in the toilet).

You were there as the people sitting around me became my colleagues, and then my friends, with whom at times I laughed until I could barely breathe, or vented frustrations and shared solutions. I’m not good at talking to my friends, but I truly appreciate everything they’ve made me.

I am sure there will be others like you someday, others whom I hope will give me the same stoic, spongy support you gave me, my elbows, and my lumbar region, watching silently the stress, the anger, the fear, the camaraderie, the laughter. For now, though, I am happy I swapped you for baked earth and grass stalks, for discomfort and burning air. Despite the problems and disappointments I’ve encountered on this journey, at no point would I change where I am now to be sitting in you again, wondering how to make all those fucking numbers make sense. Besides, I’m sure you’d never have me back after all the hair and food I left you covered in.

Most professional regards,

T. Blower Esq.

Cyclist at Random

(P.S. Please pass on my sincere well wishes to all in the office. After all, it is they who truly made the job worthwhile.)

Potatoes: an exercise in vulnerability (via Google Translate)

As I sat eating my standard evening meal – one whole melon – by my tent under the shade of a tree by the road, a young man wheeling a barrow with a sackful of potatoes came to a stop in front of me, and came over to talk. He spoke little English, and I no Azeri, but this is a tale in the age of the Internet: he whipped out his phone and opened up Google Translate. He offered me tea from a flask, producing a sugar bowl seemingly out of nowhere, and soon enough we were swapping information and building up a picture of each other’s lives. He introduced himself as Ramin, and we sat together in the shade as the afternoon waned. However, a call came from the field – work was still yet to be done. Ramin introduced me to his mother, father, and his two brothers, all working together to harvest potatoes from the small plot of land the cultivated in the field behind my camping spot.

For the kindness of the tea I offered to help but was rebuffed with more tea, and more slices of melon as the family took a moment’s break from their work. It was interesting: it seemed like they got on very well as people. Certainly I don’t think I can recall seeing many families laughing so much together.

Ramin kindly let me use his phone as a wifi hotspot so I could contact my family to let them know I’d made I across the border into Azerbaijan (as with Georgia, my international SIM card was playing up and I couldn’t call or message anyone inside or outside the country). Then, he asked if I’d like to stay the night at his home. I was taken aback, and hesitated. I’m already set up for the night, right here by the road, ready to go in the morning – it’ll be a faff if you decide to change things now. But for some reason, and for the first time that I can recall in quite a while, I chose not to listen to that voice. I accepted the offer and packed up my things as the sun set, and the family worked their way deftly down rows of potatoes, unearthing them and collecting them in buckets before being sewn into sacks or placed in a pile and covered with mown reeds. Soon enough work was over and I was walked to the family home, a couple of small rooms in a two-storey building in the village of Qovlar. The village clearly didn’t see many tourists, and a host of faces watched me wheel my bike past (Ramin, however, was loving it).

After a serving of beef and potatoes cooked by Ramin’s older sister, we went down to the village café. We arrived to find Ramin’s father and his friends relaxing, beer and cigarettes in hand, to some live music being blasted across the courtyard on an overpowered PA system. The scales and trilled notes weren’t quite my jam, but the passion of the lady singing was undeniable, and the atmosphere rich. Ramin’s dad seemed very interested in the fact that the UK doesn’t have compulsory military service for young people, though the issue was a little confused by Google Translate. “But how can you defend your country without an army?” he asked, and I realised I hadn’t used the best choice of words. Even without the help of the internet, I’d found that there were sometimes enough loan words – telefon, mekanism, problem etc. – to make myself understood, but this was one I wasn’t getting around easily. At half past eleven I called it a night, and we headed back to the house, and I crashed into bed at five past midnight, falling instantly asleep.

I woke, as usual, before six, but though I had plenty of my own food for breakfast Ramin insisted that I eat with the family. We walked out of the village, back to the field where I’d first met him. There, under a makeshift kitchen/bedroom/dining room with one wall, Ramin’s mother was readying herself for another day of work. Ramin explained that a thief had come in the night and stolen some of the potatoes from their storage under the reeds. It seemed so petty: the family were far from wealthy, and it was a shame to see their loss of livelihood, but heartening to see their resolve. Boiled eggs, bread, tea, cheese, and homemade cherry jam were served, and the social pace of things meant I eventually parted from their company nearly an hour and a half later, with the wind once more at my back.

As I rode eastward across the descending plain into central Azerbaijan, I ruminated. There’s a part of my brain that always wants to stick to the plan: no committing to anything that could end up being an inconvenience and costing time. But there is a part of my mind, growing perhaps a little bolder with every day that this trip progresses, which says What are you doing?! You’re only going to be in this situation once, so why are you passing up on this opportunity? Yes, it might waylay you somewhat, but it’s a chance to connect with someone with whom you otherwise wouldn’t. That part of my brain understands that to enter into and even enjoy these spontaneous and uncertain situations requires me to become vulnerable. Vulnerable to awkwardness and linguistic or cultural misunderstanding. Vulnerable to uncomfortable social encounters and clashes of values. Vulnerable to being plied with situations and customs that feel more burdensome than hospitable. For with that vulnerability comes the statistical probability that you will be engaging with a well-meaning, open-minded human being with whom you have more in common than simply a bipedal skeletal structure and the ability to use Google Translate.

Honks, whoops, and waves

One thing that I hadn’t anticipated when I crossed the borders of the European Union – to give a roughly arbitrary division – was how much attention I could expect from other people on and along the roads I cycled. I had expected stares, and perhaps the occasional nod, but the further east I rode, the more excitable people seemed to get by the sight of a cyclist, especially when taking more rural roads to avoid the main highways. The sounding of a vehicle’s horn from behind I’d become used to from my first time cycling in the Balkans in 2016, but as I crossed the Bosporus and headed further into Turkey, then Georgia and Azerbaijan, the honking only increased. Sometimes it was a genuine warning, which helpful even when given a generous shoulder to ride on, but often a honk was a largely friendly gesture of acknowledgement, sometimes accompanied by enthusiastic waves, shouts, and grins from the windows of a speeding Lada overladen with melons or construction materials. This friendliness in road-users was also matched somewhat with an increase in risk-taking. I certainly felt this was the case when I came within a foot of being hit by an impatient Georgian driver who decided it would be best to ignore the road markings and try overtaking a long line of trucks and cars: in a tunnel. As poor as the driving was in Georgia – I’ve never in my life seen so many cars simply missing a front or rear bumper – I can’t fault them for their generally good-natured approach to me, whatever their cars might look like, and to be fair, there are far greater hazards on the road than me to be aware of.

Yes, that is a cow. On the motorway.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been shouted at angrily from a moving vehicle: by a vast margin, the majority of people I’ve encountered are simply kind and interested to see me, or at worst indifferent. I certainly wouldn’t expect attention, as without it I can simply turn my focus to the landscapes around me. That isn’t to say that encountering people is a bother: on the contrary, it’s largely a great pleasure, but some meetings aren’t ones I’d intentionally seek for. Fighting into the wind between Kürdǝmir and Hacıqabul, a long and empty stretch with few trees and fewer villages, I was plugging slowly away at my miles when a box van overtook me and pulled over suddenly onto the road’s gravel shoulder. I assumed that someone was answering an urgent call as I passed it by, but then it shot past me and pulled over again: this time the driver stuck his head out of the window and beckoned me over. I approached the window, my rhythm broken, wondering what the urgency was. The driver was a youngish guy, perhaps not more than a few years older than me, with a lightly set face and piercing eyes. With tongue in cheek – literally – he motioned; did I want to avail myself of the opportunity for fellatio? I quickly shook my head and rode on as quickly as possible, taken aback by the bluntness of the guy’s proposition. In retrospect, maybe my dress – lycra shorts and open jersey – misled him, or maybe simply because I didn’t look local, but it was sad that the only person he felt he could ask was me, a sweaty, hairy cyclist in what looked like the middle of nowhere who really, really did not want a blowjob. Azerbaijan doesn’t have a great record on LGBT rights, and as much as I was disturbed by such a proposal, I pitied him. Perhaps that’s not the right way to feel, but as it was, that’s all I felt. After a few more miles my thoughts were lost to the wind and the rhythm of my pedal strokes.

All in all, the past few weeks have been quite a ride. My body feels a lot more strained than it did when I reached Istanbul, but now after just over 3,300 miles I’m looking forward – albeit with trepidation – to the next part of the journey. Tomorrow I take a plane over the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan and resume my journey from Aktau. Let’s see what lies ahead.

Tom


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