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"This Breathtaking World: Around the World by Bicycle" - Excerpt 1

note: the copyright for all text and images on this website belongs to Tim Doherty


Central Anatolia, Turkey

   ...I was bundled into a transit van with five armed jendarmes, and we blasted down to Cimsit and the scene of the crime. One of them kept cocking his pistol and pointing it at his head, pretending to blow his brains out. They were all hyped up at the prospect of going on a raid to help an English cyclist, and Urcun was doing his level best as translator. Joking about what they were going to do to Mr. Bilgin, they mimed his execution. Urcun told me, “We will string him up!”…

The very same day that I left Istanbul, I met a Belgian cyclist with his panniers full of the fruit he’d scrumped. He said he’d like to go with me to Syria, but knew he wouldn’t be allowed in as he had a stamp from Israel in his passport.


So it was that I continued alone again, which was fine at first because the mountains around the Marmara Sea were beautiful in the May sun. But then the boredom set in again as the weather deteriorated and I headed across the endless plateau for Cappadocia. My skin started to go again as I had to do a week’s free-camping with no showers. I was having a bad day of knee problems when I stopped in the middle of nowhere for a rest.


As I was sitting, cooking my tea, late in the afternoon, a minibus pulled up because it had a puncture. The passengers got out while the driver changed the wheel, and a man with two donkeys came over from one of the fields to see what was going on. He came over to me, his donkeys surrounded by orbiting flies. He then went off, sitting right on the back of one donkey, chasing the other one whilst making “Eeyore” noises and waving his arms around. When the minibus had gone, he came back and tried to talk to me in Turkish, asking if I had any cigarettes.

He asked if he could have a go on the bike. I let him ride it down the road and back, whilst I was eating. He pointed the other way, up the road, and I told him he could go that way for a bit.  Meandering off up the road, he showed off to his mates in the field. He got further and further away and I packed up my stove and sat waiting.


When it was became obvious that he wasn’t actually going to come back at all, as I thought might be the case, I stood up and had a look around. There were no houses in sight, and nothing at all on the drab horizon. I stood there with my handlebar bag in one hand, and a pannier bag in the other. It seemed that my bike had gone, and I wasn’t really bothered, as I’d been having such a bad day of knees and eczema. If I had no bike anymore, then it would be the end of my journey, which seemed just fine. He also had the other pannier bag containing the tent, my sleeping bag and some odds and sods.


One of the other shepherds came over, a stubbled man with dark skin and kind brown eyes. I took out my dictionary and pointed to the word “name.” He pointed to the next word down, which was “naïve” and then pointed at me! He wrote down his own name, Fikret Kobkovo, and his phone number. He also gave me the thief’s address and I took his photo, just in case. The other shepherds came over and told me the thief’s name – Mr. Bilgin.


We tried to flag down a few cars, but with no luck, until a taxi came along. He drove like a madman to a Jendarmerie twenty miles up the road, and wouldn’t accept any money. I tried to explain to the soldier at the gate and he blew his whistle to summon an English speaker. A lad called Urcun came to hear my story. I was allowed in, and once they’d sat me down inside the building, Urcun explained to his seniors what had happened. One of the men, a doctor, asked me to clarify the story by writing it down. I wrote:


“My bicycle has been stolen. It was taken by a shepherd…”


I burst out laughing when I saw what I’d written; it looked so ridiculous. It was decided that I should return to the scene by transit van, accompanied by Urcun and four others. Fikret had moved on with his sheep in the meantime, but we soon found him and we shook hands, then he talked to the driver and went back to his flock. We drove to a tiny village and I thought, “How do we know that this is it?”


The fact that my bike was in the shed right in front of me was a dead give-away! This was obviously Mr Bilgin’s house. I inspected the bike, then brought it out and laid it on the grass. Bilgin had obviously managed to crash it. The handlebars were bent, the brake levers were damaged, and the third water-bottle cage was twisted.


Urcun said, “Be grateful to God that you have it back. Don’t examine.” He had a point. The thief wasn’t around, so we couldn’t go into his house to retrieve my other belongings. The entire village gathered around us, and there was a hysterical woman who must have been Bilgin’s mother. For two hours we awaited his return, until well after dark.


A beaten-up Renault 12 turned up with five more jendarme crammed inside. Urcun’s colleague made the silly mistake of telling the villagers how much the bike was worth, and two of them started fighting. The situation rapidly developed into one of edginess and anger, as one of the fighters pointed at me, shouting venomously, and the armed soldiers tried to break up the fight. I was made to sit in the van for my own safety, and I watched with Urcun through the dusty window. The scene looked just like one of those harrowing items on the news; the village with its simple adobe houses, barred windows and muddy streets, the peasants arguing amongst themselves and the soldiers trying to break it all up. I could just imagine one of them taking his pistol and shooting a peasant in the head, to shut everyone up.


Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but I sat there feeling guilty for having brought this upon them. One of the men in the fight, it turned out, was Mr. Bilgin’s uncle and he was on my side. He said he was sorry for what his nephew had done, and he even brought Urcun and me some tea, bread and a plate of macaroni!


I’d only just started tucking in, when the jendarmes jumped back into the van. It was obviously kicking off time. We drove to another Jendarmerie where I was entertained and asked about Manchester United, whilst they plied me with tea, along with chicken and vegetables. But I was still worried about the rest of my stuff.


At ten p.m. we got into the van again, drove for a while and stopped in the middle of nowhere. I had to get out and wondered what was going on. I realised that we were back outside Mr. Bilgin’s house, and there on the grass was all my stuff. Actually my trousers weren’t there, Bilgin was still at large and was probably wearing them, along with my garish swimming trunks, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of there.


I told them everything was there, shaking hands with the uncle and the mother to show my gratitude. I sat in the van and she came over, looking timid, her brow furrowed with worry. She wiped her hands as if to say, “Is that all over and done with, then?” I did the same to say, “Yes”. Six hours after the theft we drove off, as the whole village waved goodbye.


The two vehicles raced each other along an old narrow road. As we followed only inches behind the Renault, it struck me that Turkish drivers say, “Turkish drivers are dangerous,” without realising that they are talking about themselves.


We got back to the first Jendarmerie, alive, and spent the next two hours making reports on old klanky typewriters. One of the men, an incredibly tall and lanky soldier, asked me to write a letter to their Headquarters in Ankara, saying how grateful I was, so that his boss would get a pat on the back. His energetic miming and fast Turkish talking were hilarious, while he tried to explain what he wanted me to write.


At nearly one o’clock in the morning, Urcun showed me a selection of photos of himself trying to look beautiful, posing by blossoming trees. The idea was that I should take one of the pictures back to England to help him find an English girlfriend. This happened every few days; Turkish men wanting either an English girlfriend or a visa.


I finally got to sleep in the soldiers’ dormitory, without having had a desperately needed shower, because Urcun forgot to ask his boss, but you can’t have everything! The beds in the dorm were far from clean, but everything was folded up and positioned exactly. Urcun woke me up at half past seven from a very deep sleep to ask if I wanted some breakfast. I ate in his office and he said he’d been up working until three in the morning.


He told me that he couldn’t wait until he’s finished his National Service. He worked in a hotel before, and after he’s finished he’ll work in a Camel cigarette factory. Another lad said he was working as a DJ on a Turkish rock radio station in Istanbul, and he’ll go back there afterwards.


 Urcun had to put on his smart clothes and shiny shoes to nervously take me to the big boss man to finish the diplomatic stuff. The big boss man was all smiles and handshakes. I thanked him and Urcun profusely, and soon I was back on the open road. I had to ride the first twenty miles just to get back to where the bike had been stolen. A rainstorm stopped me for an hour, just two miles beyond that place. I sheltered at a petrol station and glued my eyes to the bike.


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