August 30th-September 7th: A change of plan...off to the Middle East. Istanbul, Turkey.
Syrian visa in hand, it's time to bid farewell to Istanbul. Somewhat at the last moment, after a sudden moment of inspiration, I've decided to re-route once again, taking in a slice of the Middle East: Syria, Jordan and Israel. The mad dash around the various embassies fuels my enthusiasm for the road ahead. Why this change of plan so close to home? Is it to satisfy a nagging feeling of disappointment in catching a plane over much of Central Asia? Certainly, the flight from Kyrgyzstan to Turkey propelled me into Europe far too quickly. It feels like the right decision to have made, as I realise my procrastination to leave this city has been for a purpose. What's more, my brother will be joining me to ride down from Aleppo to Damascus, before a hurried return through Europe to avoid the onset of winter.
I've enjoyed Istanbul, despite my initial inclination to leave as sharply as possible. Rosal has made her way to London, to seek, at least for the time being, her fortune there. After nearly four months of travel together, it's lonely being back on my own, and I miss her. Away from the party atmosphere of the popular hostels, I appreciate the anonymity and peacefulness of the family hostels we find. Populated exclusively by Japanese, my dorm mate is a traveller whose limited English, and my own even more limited Japanese, soon exhausts all conversation. It's an insight to chat to Aleaf, who runs the hostel for her parents, about living in a modern day Islamic society. I've travelled for months in Muslim countries, and seen how each applies the same words of the Koran in such different ways. She concludes that there is no way of understanding this religion without reading this sacred book, a task which few have completed. And only then will it become clear how it has been misinterpreted.
Here in the backpacker quarters of Sultanamet, I've also made a few new friends: two South Africans, Trevor and Noah, motorbiking (and motormouthing!?) around a vast chunk of the world, including Africa, Latin America and Central Asia. Visit their excellent web site at http://www.globeride.com. Their energy-filled enthusiasm and unremitting commentaries on the life around us jolts me out of my peaceful and slightly melancholic state of mind. Wandering the streets by day, we hang out in atmospheric mosques, scour the camera shops for lenses, sip tea and lunch on kebabs, chatting easily about long-term life on the road. By night, we hit Istanbul's stylish Taksim, alive with the cafes and clubs of modern day Turkey.
Travelling to me has always been as much about meeting others on their journeys as experiencing the culture that surrounds you. Amongst this newfound group of friends, there's Georgie, an Australian girl who began driving 240 tonne trucks in the mines of Perth at just 19. 'My boss saw that I had a talent for hydraulics!' she says, as she surpassed all the disgruntled men around her. Her roommate is a young New Yorker from the Bronx, who walks with a rapper-style lope, learnt Turkish in Kurdistan and has found himself a beautiful local girlfriend. 'If my Cuban girl back home met her... ' He lets us imagine the rest. Along with Suzanna, on the lookout for work as an au pair in the city, hanging out in Istanbul reminds me of the eclectic personalities who wander the world. All on adventures of their own, all driven by their own inspirations, dealing with their own issues. A few other cyclists come and go. I might have teamed up with French Canadian Nick, riding from Paris to Cairo, but he's unexpectedly fallen in love with a Berliner and is heading to Bulgaria to find her. As Lao Tzu once said, 'A good traveller is not intent on arriving...'
Inevitably, the time comes when such a group disperses as everyone moves on once more. These accelerated friendships are a strange reality of travel, where the only constant is change. For me, it's tided me over a time of loneliness and refreshed me for what lies ahead. Perhaps we'll cross paths again one day; I'd like to think so.
Visa in hand, I'm ready for this new Middle Eastern agenda. I'll have some company. Two French cyclists, Eric and Manu, are also heading that way, taking the same country lanes across from Istanbul to Cappadocia. Not for the first time, I find myself on a new and intriguing tangent on this journey home.