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Cycling to India (John Watson) PDF Printable Version E-mail



An Excerpt from the Journal of John and Sally Watson

Leaving Istanbul: August 2006

John and Sally 42_John_and_Sally_at_Esztergom[1].jpgWatson set off on Sunday 9 April 2006 to cycle from London to Delhi. They have taken a year out from their work in London (he is a Shetlander in a Canary Wharf bank; she a Geordie at the Victoria and Albert Museum), to do the ride and to raise money for charity.

We met them last summer in the Hungarian 43_Sally_at_Esztergom[1].jpgtown of Esztergom. We had just crossed the Danube from Slovakia; they had followed the river through Austria and were on their way to Budapest. Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about and it was after lunch before they left the following day.

Their webs49_John_and_Sally_at_Esztergom[1].jpgite: www.cyclingtoindia.com is excellent! Log in and follow their wheel tracks all the way from London to the beginning of their ride across Iran. Despite his tender years (about half our average), John writes a very full account of the journey, in a style which combines the wry humour of Bill Bryson with a well-researched understanding and an empathy for a country and its people worthy of Nick Danziger and William Dalrymple. If life in the bank palls after this adventure, John has an alternative career as a traveller and a writer. After all, his middle name is Buchan!

One aim of their ride is to raise money for two hands-on charities. John writes: "It was incredibly difficult to decide on which charities to support but in the end we agreed on two: Cornerstone, a Scottish charity providing support for disabled people and MSR, a tiny UK-based charity providing very basic training and equipment for hospitals and surgeries in Eastern Europe. The latter has an income of under 100,000 a year. Our aim is to raise as much and as equal an amount of money as possible for both charities.

We have contacts at both charities and know that every penny will go to a good cause. We are friends with Nick Baxter, Chief Executive of Cornerstone and also with Patrick Colquhoun, Director of MSR."

If you would like to make a donation, you can do so via the internet:

To sponsor MSR, visit: www.justgiving.com/johnandsallywatson

To sponsor Cornerstone, visit: www.justgiving.com/sallyandjohnwatson

If you wish to find out more about the charities please visit: www.cornerstone.org.uk and www.msr.org.uk

On their ride, John and Sally visited a hospital in Zalau in northwest Romania which MSR are using as an exemplar of good practice for other hospitals in the country. We also passed through Zalau a short time later, to visit the restored Roman fort on an ancient trade route in the mountains high above the town.

Here is an excerpt from John's ongoing record of their progress, as an encouragement to you to visit their website and enjoy the whole ride. They have been delayed in Istanbul by illness and by the hassle of getting visas for Iran and Pakistan. John starts his account by discussing proposed changes to their route.

Waylaid by illness and taking longer than we thought to reach Istanbul, we've decided to revise our route across Turkey. By skipping out on the Aegean and Mediterranean coast and heading through Northern Anatolia we'll cut a more direct path to the Iranian border, twelve hundred miles to the East. After long deliberation, we've also changed our proposed route between Iran and India. We originally planned on skirting around the North of Afghanistan by heading East across the top of Iran and onto Central Asia.

From there we'd drop down into Pakistan via the Karakoram Highway. However this high altitude pass connecting Pakistan and China closes whenever the snow arrives and remains shut until the following May or June. Winter usually arrives in November, but if the snow comes early then it's a six month wait until the pass reopens. Meaning that if we arrive too late we'd either have to abandon the trip, backtrack several thousand miles or get friendly with the locals and wait for spring to arrive.

We're cutting it fine as it is and have decided to take the alternative route which skirts around the bottom of Afghanistan by heading South East across Iran and on to Pakistan. This path relies on increasing our daily mileage and being granted visa extensions, but we've heard this is a fairly straightforward process. We're sad about missing out on Central Asia which promised to be a fascinating and memorable leg of the trip. However, it means we'll get to spend more time in Iran and Pakistan and see many of the cities and sites we'd otherwise have missed, which we're very excited about.

So, after a month of fighting off flu and carpet salesmen, we are finally ready to leave Istanbul and do battle with the mountains of Anatolia, central Turkey.

Wednesday 23rd Monday 28th August Istanbul to Akcakoca 120 miles

Europe: it's the final countdown! Asia Minor here we come! The hotel staff send us off with the customary 'gule gule'! (Pronounced like the "gooly" in ginggang gooly) . Descending into the blanket of nicotine tinted smog that permanently shrouds Istanbul, we freewheel through Sultanahmet's cobbled streets, passing through Emperor Theodosius's great walls. These fortifications saw Istanbul's citizens through a near constant succession of protracted sieges. During one, Sergius, the Patriarch of Istanbul, introduced a particularly novel form of intimidation, making daily trips along the parapets with an enormous icon of the Virgin Mary held above his head. Apparently this was all too much for the eighty thousand barbarian heathens camped outside. Striking terror into their hearts, they soon abandoned their siege and headed for the hills.

Where the Avars, Huns, Persians, Goths and Arabs failed, the Ottoman Turks succeeded. On the 29th of May 1453, facing starvation after a three year siege, the gates of Constantinople were opened to Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II and his conquering army, bringing to an end 1,123 years of Byzantine rule and heralding the birth of the Ottoman empire. At its height the Ottoman Empire stretched from Morocco to Oman and from Budapest to the Ukraine.

Today these crumbling ramparts are studded with satellite dishes and air conditioning units. Hugging the Bosphorus, we follow the esplanade around the peninsula to the Galatta ferry terminal. The breakwater is packed with early morning sunbathers, mussel vendors and fisherman.

The Bosphorus hums with traffic. Tiny open-decked clinker yawls, each with a Turkish flag flapping in the stiff breeze, nip between ro-ro ferries and laden oil tankers. The sunlight glistens off the water and white horses smack off the side of the ferry's hull. Onboard, nimble tea servers weave along cluttered decks, precariously balancing trays of filled tea-cups and pretzels on upturned palms. We pass under the two enormous bridges that straddle the Bosphorus, connecting continental Europe with Asia. Towering above us are six lanes of traffic suspended by a cat's cradle of wires from two massive uprights.

After alighting, we enjoy a lunch of rich, viscous Turkish coffee and 'chiz tost' (cheese on toast) and contemplate the long climb out of Istanbul. Picking up supplies, a shopkeeper in a grocery store tells me that "Turkey is a very beautiful country" and that "Istanbul is a very beautiful city" and then, with the question fully primed asks: "Do you like Turkey?" There's only one answer to give: "Turkiye cok guzel!" which means "Turkey is very beautiful" or "too beautiful" (the 'cok' is pronounced like the choc in choc ice and the 'guzel' like gooz-elle).

Eavesdrop on any conversation in Turkey and it'll be littered with 'cok guzel' this and 'cok guzel' that. It's a catch-all superlative, describing not just conventional beauty but everything from a footballer scoring a goal to our cycling trip. On a television documentary following a drugs bust I even heard the officer in charge of the operation describing the capturing of Mr Big as "Cok Guzel!"

By three o'clock we've cleared the outlying suburbs and enjoy an uninterrupted view across mile after mile of oak forest towards the Black Sea coastline to the North. Mum was right when she told me that "Asia feels different son" during an earlier trip across the Bosphorus: we've truly left Europe behind now.

In the late afternoon we stop at a roadside restaurant to stock up on water. It is positioned on the banks of a river and surrounded by woodland and we gladly accept the proprietor's invitation to camp on his scenic premises. None of the family speaks English but with his sparing use of words and clear hand actions the son has an intuitive knack for communicating without a common language. Clearly he didn't inherit that gene from Grandma, who goes for the machine-gun approach, babbling away in long, uninterrupted monologues devoid of hand signals. She seems to be enjoying herself though. In the night I awake to shouts of "Help" from Sal, trapped in the toilet block by one of the 'friendly' dogs. The next morning we are treated to a tasty breakfast of fresh bread, olives, cheese, honey and big green chillies.

Disappointingly, after a month off in Istanbul, we're feeling as unfit as when we left London. My saddle feels like a piece of 4" x 2'' timber and Sal keeps stopping to cough, wheezing after a month's worth of Istanbul's toxic smog.

Today's warm-up routine takes place outside a Jandarm station. Like Scotland, Turkey's police force is called the 'polis', but in addition Turkey also has a strong-arm Jandarm just like France. An officer calls over to us whilst I'm in the middle of a buttock stretch. My general policy is to steer clear of the fuzz at all costs but, keen to stay on their right side and noting the semi-automatic slung from his shoulder, we accept. They only speak a few words of English, but with assistance from our phrasebook we tell them about our trip and enjoy several cups of tea in the well tended police station gardens. We return to our bikes just in time to see, but not to prevent, a dog cocking its leg against my rear pannier.

A couple of hills later and the road descends through fragrant pine forest to the Black Sea. Stopping to siesta through the worst of the afternoon sun at a beach-side picnic area, we see first-hand the Turkish national pastime of picnic abandonment. After enjoying an enormous all day outdoor banquet, many simply get up, walk over to their cars and speed off, leaving a trail of smouldering fires, plastic bottles, crisp packets and gas canisters. Worse, nobody else seems bothered about cleaning it up either and the beach and surrounding forest are strewn with rubbish. The stray dogs seem to be enjoying the after-dinner feast though.

Steep, rocky slopes, dense undergrowth and high population density mean that tonight, through lack of choice, we're heading to the 'Woodyville Cowboy Hotel and Campsite'. The proprietor spotted us on our bikes from his 4x4 jeep, ten miles from his campsite. His passenger rolled down a window and handed us a postcard. On the front, a photograph of a 'Paint Your Wagon' re-enactment, featuring encirclement of Indian chiefs and cowboys sitting around a camp-fire on straw bales. On the back, a helpful map and the motto: 'Woodyville Cowboy Hotel and Campsite: where nature calls'.

The road hugs the coast-line, descending and rising sharply into bay after bay. Exhausted, we push the bikes through darkness for the last hour, arriving just after ten o'clock. "What took you so long?" the creepy proprietor, dressed up as a cowboy, asks us. His prices are the steepest we've encountered on the trip. He attempts to levy additional charges on the bikes - a new one on us and as outrageous as the tariff policy used by many French campsites, whereby additional per child, per dog and per transit van fees are levied in an attempt to deter pikeys. "You've got to be kidding" Sal tells him. "There's no way we are paying that" I follow up.

Outside, a worker with a petrol-driven modified leaf-blower blasts a cloud of insecticide around the campsite. We saw the same thing happening in Istanbul, leaving a wake of coughing children. Holding our breaths, he guides us to the campsite which is situated in the middle of a dog-run. Later, true to it's 'where nature calls' tag-line, I return from the toilet block to find a dog has urinated on the tent. The dogs bark all night and several collide with the tent after tripping over guy ropes.

Daylight reveals the depressing reality of the proprietor's ranch fantasy. Devoid of a conscience and animal husbandry skills, a half-starved menagerie of horses, turkeys, dogs and sheep scavenge from dustbins. Ten yards away from our tent, a malnourished guard dog lies tethered on a metre long chain in the blazing afternoon sun. I notice that nobody has bothered to feed or give the dog water. By nightfall I decide to do something about it. The proprietor is schmoozing with hotel guests in the restaurant. He's dressed in his all-white cowboy evening wear, accessorised with a Stetson, leather neck-tie and a gun-slinger-style mobile phone holster.

"Excuse me, but nobody has bothered to give that dog food or water today."

He summons a waiter and I follow him over to the dog. He scatters a small plate of leftover chicken drumsticks which the dog crunches on.

"I think it needs a bit more food than that." But the waiter just walks off and doesn't return.

The next morning, as we are setting off, I untether the guard dog. Too weak to bark, he whimpers at me as I approach him. A claw hangs from his paw by a bloody clot of fur. Removing his collar reveals raw flesh. The dog bolts but unfortunately it's towards the proprietor's chalet rather than out the front gate. Later I write an email to the Turkish tourist board reporting the proprietor for animal cruelty. Just to make sure he gets the message, I email him too. So, with his rip-off pricing and botch-job ranch, perhaps the proprietor is a bit of a cowboy - but just not the kind of cowboy that he thinks he is.

It's really really hot. If you want to recreate our experience at home, then down a doner kebab with extra chillie, embalm yourself in Deep Heat and then leg it down to the nearest Turkish baths with an exercise bike underarm. Next, crank up the bike's resistance to its highest setting and pedal like fury all day. Almost every other cyclist we've met has long since adopted a get-up-early approach to coping with the heat. But we're useless at getting up early and whenever we set the alarm early we just sleep through it. By midday it's over forty degrees Celsius in the sun and it's getting to the point where it is so hot in the morning that we're forced out of the tent shortly after dawn.

The early morning sun soon burns off the dew. We cycle through lush forests; the road is lined with berry-ripe brambles and ferns. Further on and the workers are busy in the hazelnut groves, finishing off this year's harvest. Hazelnuts are a big part of Turkey's economy. When we were in Istanbul we saw rioters on the television throwing petrol bombs at riot police, who in turn were dispersing the angry crowds with water cannons and plastic bullets.

"What are those people rioting about, Octavius? Are they anti-war demonstrators?"

"No brother - it's the annual hazelnut riots. The farmers are trying to agree a fair price with the government."

Their technique certainly took 'hard bargaining' to a new level.

Now visit: www.cyclingtoindia.com!!