Monday, November 02, 2009

The Victory Lap

Ayas, November 2

I am sitting in an internet cafe, watching recurrent gusts of rain blow in off the Mediterranean. It has been apocalyptic weather for the past 48 hours, ever since I got to within 10 kilometres of the end of my Silk Road Ride. My victory lap was done in blinding sheets of rain mixed with large hailstones, enormous and disturbingly close bolts of lightning and zero visibility. The hail has gone, but the rest of the weather has remained, foiling my plans for triumphant photos with my bike on the beach. Instead I have been lying in bed drinking copious quantities of tea and reading Shakespeare, letting my poor leg muscles relax.

My four-day final stage from Antakya was somewhat anticlimactic, at least partly because of the grey weather. The first day was actually sunny, and I rode southeast towards the Mediterranean through the coastal hills. On the way, I stopped to see the hilltop ruins of the Church of St. Simeon Stylites the Younger. This involved a steep climb of 400 vertical metres, past families engrossed in the olive harvest. There was nobody at the ruins, and I enjoyed having the place to myself. Ten years ago, Joanne and I had visited another Church of St. Simeon not far away, on the Syrian side of the border, and had been mightily impressed by the beautiful cluster of four churches meeting at the sad stump of the saint's rock pillar, chipped away by generations of larcenous pilgrims. This complex follows exactly the same plan, but the four basilicas lie in complete ruined disarray, covered by modern football fan graffiti. From these location, exposed to the cooling mountain breezes, the ascetic saint could look down on Antioch, the city which he viewed as a sink of iniquity. He spent many years living atop a metre-square platform atop a high stone pillar, performing various painful exercises in faith and having his meals passed up to him on a pole. I climbed up the truncated pillar and contemplated the stillness and simplicity of the world and had my photo snapped by a Turkish mother and daughter who had just arrived. It amazed me that two people would choose exactly the same sort of eccentric austerities near the same city, have the same name and end up with the same design of religious complex built around the site of their pillar-dwelling existences. On the other hand, a recent exercise in pillar-standing in Trafalgar Square in London was wildly popular with the public, so maybe there's a Stylite hidden inside all of us.

I dropped back down to the Orontes valley and rode to the Mediterranean, the first time I had seen the ocean since leaving Bushehr two and a half months earlier. The limestone hills backing onto the sea were dotted with ancient tombs and a feat of Roman engineering, the Tunnel of Titus and Vespasian, which saved the port of Seleucia in Pieria from recurrent floods in heavy rain. The city itself was the original capital of the Seleucid province before it moved to Antioch, but it remained as the deep-water port for the area. A lot of Chinese silk must have moved through this port over the centuries before it silted up. I had a delicious lunch of bread and hummus and then went for a swim; while the locals may have found it cold, it was similar to summertime swimming in Lake Superior and I enjoyed the sensation of having arrived at the end of a continent.

From Seleucia I rode along a tiny dirt road along a wild cliff-lined coast, where the only humans in sight were sport fishermen on the rocky beaches. After 30 kilometres I re-entered an area of dense settlement and, just as I was despairing of finding a place to camp, I found a tiny commercial campground, Orient Camping, in Kovacik. Run by an energetic Turkish-born hang-gliding aficionado and autodidact who had recently returned from 28 years in the Netherlands, the only other guest was Mike, another veteran traveller with a love of organic farming and escaping from the industrialized farming that rules so much of the world. We three spent an enjoyable evening of conversation before I took to my tent.

I woke up at dawn to the first drops of rain, and spent the entire next day cycling in various degrees of downpour. I passed through Iskenderun, ancient Alexandretta (Alexander the Great, like his general and successor Seleucus, established an amazing number of new cities named after himself throughout his domains, of which this was one of the first). It was a thoroughly modern industrial port that didn't detain me at all. To the north, somewhere along the blighted industrial landscape, I passed the site of the decisive Battle of Issos in which Alexander inflicted a heavy defeat on the Achaemenid emperor Darius III, opening up the Syrian coast to the Macedonian conqueror. In the downpour, I can't say I saw much all day until I camped in a pause in the rain in an olive grove outside Osmaniye. My tent and sleeping bag were both pretty moist from the night before and it was not a wonderful night of sleep.

The third day out of Antakya I rode all day under grey skies threatening further rain. I visited the deserted Roman city of Hierapolis Castanaba and had the place to myself. The ruins weren't spectacular but they had a melancholy air that suited the weather. I then put my head down and rode steadily across the fat, flat plain of Cukurova, covered with corn and cotton. This was the site of the medieval Armenian state of Cilicia, allied to the Crusaders. I stopped just short of their old capital of Sis, now renamed Kozan, and slept in the final campsite of the trip, an overgrown pomegranate plantation that was too close to a mosque's loudspeaker.

My final day of cycling dawned without rain for once, and I set off early for Sis. I was quite close to the town before the castle loomed out of the mist high above me. It was a stiff 250-metre grunt up a cobblestone road to get there, but it was well worth the sweat expended. Sis castle is one of those perfect fairy-tale castles that you picture in your mind but rarely see. Atop a steep ridge, it is a jumble of curtain walls, circular bastions and hidden underground vaults, sprawled picturesquely among overgrown shrubs and rocky cliffs. I wandered around taking photos, then sat down and sketched the upper citadel. Until 1921 this castle was also home to the second most important archbishopric in the Armenian church (after Echmiadzin), but that, along with all the Armenians who once lived in the area, is now just a historic memory. I had the entire castle to myself, aside from a plethora of lizards and a friendly cafe owner with whom I sat and drank tea.

The ride here took longer than I had expected; my lame map of Turkey didn't show distances to Ayas and guesstimating by eye I came up with a total that was some 30 km too short. I ground south across the plain, passing under the Roman hilltop fortress of Anavarza (I longed to go inside but the tyrant clock was against it). As I neared Ayas, passing a couple of minor Armenian castles, the sky darkened over the Mediterranean and the last 10 kilometres into town was, as mentioned above, a nightmare of monsoon rain and some very painful hail. My visions of drinking wine on the beach and taking photos of the bike and me vanished into the annoyance of trying to find a pension in the hurricane. Once İ had found a place out of the rain, İ did drink a few toasts of wine (one of the foods that travelled west to east along the Silk Road, from its invention somewhere in the Caucasus) and have a celebratory lamb kebab at a restaurant whose owner was so drunk he could barely stand. And that, suddenly, was that.
Ayas is an interesting city, at least what little İ have seen of it so far through the rain. Lots of old Venetian buildings, including a nice offshore castle. Not only did Marco Polo begin his epic 3-year overland trek to China here; some historians believe that shortly after he returned to Europe in 1295, he may have been captured by the Genoans at a naval battle off Ayas. It is certain that during his captivity, wherever he was captured, he recounted his stories to his prison cell-mate Rustichello, a professional story-teller from Pisa, who subsequently published them and elevated Marco Polo from an obscure but prosperous merchant into the most famous European traveller of all time. So Ayas may have launched his fame not once but twice.

I can't believe that it's over, but after 17,725 kilometres of cycling, some 3 million pedal strokes, two bicycles, 11 countries, eight and a half months and too many adventures to recall, I have finally succeeded in following perhaps the most famous and important trade route in history from one end of Asia to the other. I started the trip as a 33-year-old who thought he was immortal, and I finish as a 41-year-old all too aware of the frailties and limitations of my mortal frame. I am very happy, very tired and ready for the next cycling adventure: blitzing through the Balkans.

Riding Day No.

Date

Distance

From Bushehr

Daily

Distance


Final Elevation

Vertical

Metres

Cycling

Time


Average

Speed

Maximum

Speed

Daily Destination
8310/287440.487.31213776:3613.257.5Konacik
8410/297533.192.7638175:3316.832.2outside Osmaniye

85

10/30

7622.6

89.5

27

233

4:57

18.1

53.4

15 km from Kozan
8610/317725.7103.1106066:1816.438.7Ayas

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