Sunday, 20 November 2011
Today I rode alongside the River Euphrates, or Firat, as it's known in Turkey. Actually it was the western branch of the river, Karasu or Blackwater. it's a light flow at this time of year, it chuckles delightfully over the rocks and flows tamely along its bed, but the dry channels and rocky canyons and deep embankments, and the gaping remains of bridges and houses, hint at the power it must have in the springtime, when the meltwater runs off the mountains.
Yesterday I rode over Sakaltutan Pass (2160 metres ASL) and crossed the watershed between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Yesterday I was riding alongside rivers which flowed into the Black Sea or the Meditteranean and west into the Atlantic, today I'm beside the Euphrates, water which is flowing towards the Persian Gulf. Crossing boundaries is always a great moment, especially when the change is accompanied by great drama. The narrow, remote valleys and hunkering mountains gave way to a huge flat valley along which the Euphrates runs as it picks up its tributaries. It took me four hours to ride the 22 miles from Refahiye to the top of the pass and about an hour and a half to ride the thirty miles into Erzincan, freewheeling most of the way.
Not all watersheds are geological: in September I'd been looking forward to crossing into the old Eastern Bloc in Europe. In a reversal of the stereotype, I rode from staid, insular Austria on a Sunday into lively, happening Bratislava. If it wasn't for the endless concrete in Bratislava (like it's been poured from the sky, as someone commented to me), I'd have thought Bratislava and Slovenia belonged in the West and unfriendly Austria in the East.
I had also been looking forward to leaving the Rhine's catchment area. When I was riding down the Tauber with Felix, we crossed over to the Altmuhl Valley. There was a small hill, on which we passed two German cyclists pushing their bikes. "why don't you push?" one of them asked. "Because it's easier to ride than to push," we cheerily replied.
It was a small moment but a big change. This marked the watershed between the North Sea and the Black Sea, between western and eastern Europe.
I have been ticking these off mentally as I've travelled east: first, leaving the island of Britain, crossing into Asia, then personal checkpoints such as the furthest east I'd travelled (somewhere in Hungary, I reckoned), the highest I'd been on a bike, the highest altitude at which I'd camped...
It's part of what drove me to do this trip, the desire to keep moving and see the landscape change. I like stopping at places to meet people and explore in depth, but more often I enjoy the sense of movement and change, and I become frustrated when I don't feel as though I'm getting anywhere. I'm always looking for the next watershed, the next dramatic shift, the next horizon to kiss.