Tag Archives: travel

Eastern Turkey By Bus

For those of us who pay our own way in and out of the country, there is a common grumble about the cost of using Iraqi airspace. When I explain to friends back home that a straightforward return flight to the UK can set you back somewhere north of $1,200, they look at me blankly for a while. Then it dawns on them.

“Hold on,” one considered during my recent Newroz holiday in England, “I could fly to New Zealand and back for that money.” I could see the steam coming out of his ears as he bought up a mental world map. “Isn’t Iraq on the Turkish border? I flew to Bodrum last summer for about £100 return. No wonder you only come home once or twice a year.”

I try to explain that there’s probably some insurance issue, and that the airlines can afford to charge that because the majority of people flying in and out are doing so on business. But really, I find that I’m just kidding myself, and that I don’t know the real reason that the airlines are able to take such blistering liberties with the cost. And, after all, even if I did know, it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. My ignorance doesn’t mean I am missing out on deals. But, necessity being the mother of invention, the price has led me to finding alternatives.

Last month, I decided to trade a week at home for a week in Turkey, travelling overland to Istanbul from Erbil. I spent some time in Mardin, Sivas and Istanbul before flying to London on a cheap flight. I returned via Dusseldorf, having spent a couple of nights with friends in Amsterdam. In all, I saved around $400 and racked up some fun in other countries than my own.

So, I’d like to heartily recommend the less visited areas of Turkey, or Northern Kurdistan if you prefer. I’ve crossed the border at Ibrahim Khalil a few times now, into Silopi and then taking bus onwards. The crossing can be the most exhausting and infuriating part of any journey in that direction. I’ve once sailed through in an hour, but more often than not it takes around 6 hours. A good book, a full iPod and a packed lunch are essential. For this reason, booking any onwards travel in advance can be a little optimistic. Silopi bus station is the best thing about the town (in that it’s the quickest way out), and services most of the cities within a 12 hour ride, as well as Ankara and Istanbul. Depending on your luck, you can usually find something going your way within a few hours – whilst it’s not a very inspiring place to be stuck, there is a small shop, a fairly decent restaurant and the bus companies are happy to share their WiFi.

Mardin is forever a fantastic place to start a trip around this area. The old city, thought to have been settled as early as 4,000 BC, clings to a mountain looking south to Syria. In the spring the plain feels almost like some verdant sea as it disappears to the horizon. Madrassas, churches and mosques can be explored, whilst Turkish, Kurmanji, Syriac and Arabic are all spoken.

From here, heading west is the historic capital of Kurdistan, Diyabakir. The old city and its walls are a great way to lose a day, although if you suffer from vertigo, a walk along the top of those walls can be daunting. Yet further west is Ganziantep, a city on my list to visit, as are the ‘beehive’ houses of Urfa to the south.

East of Mardin is Hasankeyf. Simply put, you don’t have long to visit this town, seven times the capital of Mesopotamia. Over the next couple of years, once the Turkish government have finished damming the Tigris river upstream, it will be flooded. Byzantine bridges, ancient minarets and historic hammams are all set to be lost. The caves’ walls, deeply inscribed with cuneiform carvings, will be lost forever, whilst at the moment many of them are freely accessible. These caves have only recently been abandoned – in fact I know a shepherd who still lives in them, the final resident of a lifestyle set to disappear.

One final town I’d like to recommend is Van. Sometimes a place gets under your skin, and for what reason you don’t know. This happened to me when I visited Van last year. On a very high elevation, the ski resort is open for at least half the year. A mineral lake plays host to visiting flamingos in the summer. The breakfasts are amazing and the old fortress a treasure. You may remember that there was a devastating earthquake there in 2011, and it was impossible to avoid the evidence when I visited. That said, there was plenty of reconstruction to witness as well, and the place seemed determined to grow. As a border town with Iran, it has an edginess as well, a feeling that much of the money made springs from an illicit economy – certainly some of the cars I saw there were of a different class than those I’d seen elsewhere.

The thing that links the cities of Turkey is the excellent coach network. Every bus provides tea or coffee, makes regular rest stops and there are TVs on the headrests. Many now have WiFi as well, which for me meant I could listen to English radio as I didn’t understand any of the TV channels. Sure, this isn’t first class, but it’s a comfortable and economical way to explore one of the greatest areas on earth – and if there’s a cheap flight back to England at the end of it, I couldn’t be happier.

Day Of The Dogs In Kangal, Turkey.

I said my latest goodbye to Mardin from the centre of the new part of the old city. The coach left at 5.30pm and got into Sivas at about 4am. I had this sub-conscious expectation of a run-down truck stop, dawn illuminating old men with white moustaches playing backgammon and drinking tea. I was fully aware that we were arriving at 4am, but my rose-tinted imagination had it that way. So when we pulled up to a modern otopark much like many of the others I’ve seen around the larger cities of Turkey, I was surprised and relieved – clearly I’m not as much of a romantic as my thoughts. Whilst I still feel this part of the world to be far safer and more respectful than Europe, carrying a large-ish amount of cash (spread across five currencies because I’m quite the jet, sorry, bus-setter) stops me from napping with ease. Even the overnight buses (honestly, so safe for a single man who growls rather than speaks the local language) find me watching the head rest TV rather than sleep. I laid down and watched the headlights of the arriving coaches dance through the semi-circular glass front of the station. The line of coach companies had yet to open for business, and I had a deep rumble in my gut. Cursing my choice of rice and spicy aubergine stew, or rather disappointed that I’d allowed my roadside appetite get the better of my golden rule, I donned my pack and searched resignedly for a crapper. Even in the most modern terminals, the squat drops are often a grim affair, at best wet from the buckets of water available for cleaning. Being so unpracticed, it’s difficult to shit without getting my trousers wet and then wondering. To my audible joy, there was a disabled toilet available in the men’s room and I sat down like a toddler as my feet couldn’t find the floor from the raised height. The Golden Rule to long distance bus travel in Turkey is always micturate when given the chance and grab a sit down defecation moment with both hands….well, you know, just take a shit when there’s a clean Western-style growler.

Moving on from what is excellent advice, I passed the next couple of hours reading a compelling but slightly nerdy fishing travelogue until a few of the agents sleepily appeared from the mirrored back offices. I’ve been warned not to rely on my limited Kurdish in this central region, and with no Turkish aside from ‘thanks’, I went from booth to booth inflecting ‘Kangal’ with a little accent and enquiry to no avail. Heavy-eyed clerks with weary dispositions seemed to implore me to give them a moment to adjust to waking up literally in the office. The open waiting area had fewer prostrate bodies now, all in need of tickets – north-west to Ankara and further to Istanbul, south to Gaziantep, back west to Van or Batman. One vendor indicated a bus to catch, but I missed it. My simple plan of grabbing a local bus to Kangal, just an hour away, was beginning to feel naive. Then another booth opened and I repeated my one word request. “Tamam” (ok) and he wrote me a ticket – 8 lira, 8 o’clock, bay 8. I have a numerologist friend, and I’ve no idea what he’d make of this, but I’m hopelessly superstitious when travelling and took it to be A Good Sign. A smaller bus arrived, and with the conductor looking at me askance as I puffed away on my e-cigarette, I stowed my rucksack and took my seat – 13, but I always let the darker omens go. I don’t remember leaving the station, I fell fast asleep. Woken by a pleading bladder and a slowing vehicle, I looked out of my window – a massive kangal, bushy tail coiled, standing like a show dog. It was a full two metres at the shoulder and cast from cheap concrete, but at least I knew I was in the right place. I did that confused panic thing that we all do when we’ve woken almost too late, only to be ushered back to wait until we were in the centre of the 11,000 strong town. It gave me time to get my bearings, take in a little of what is an unremarkable town, strung with the bunting that drapes the country at this time of local elections. Bunting, posters of men (in this town it appears to be a moustache competition, with at least two candidates who could represent Turkey at the world championships should their political ambitions stall) and cars blaring music rather than promises. In Mardin, with its heavily mixed population, I could understand this – Turkish music from the ethnically Turkish parties, and the reedier, faster Kurdish music from the BDP. In Kangal, a poorer town, tired amplifiers and speakers nestle in bungees atop older Renaults, and the distorted result grates somewhat.

When I did disembark onto the street, I was immediately tugged by a taxi driver. In his hands he held a ragged tourist information pamphlet and jabbed his nailless index finger almost through a photo of a spa. The type where little fish feed on your flaking skin. Should I be offended that he doesn’t see me as much of a man, or flattered that I’m clearly the type who takes care of himself. The truth is somewhere in between, and I wasn’t in Kangal for fish. There are pictures of the dogs absolutely everywhere, and given the chance I’d vote for them. But as they’re not standing and I’m not voting, I just pointed at one of the photos and looked at him. Now that I was in Kangal, my Turkish was down to zero words but he got hold of my intentions, so I trusted my gut. I pointed to a cheap looking hotel, he fetched the owner from the butcher’s below, I dumped my bag and we were off. Not even being able to ask the price, I pointed to my wallet and he just cheerfully said ‘meter, tamam!’ OK, whatever, he seemed a sure bet to find the dogs. A large man, he talked incessantly and his breath was not good. But he was friendly enough and locked into my use of hand signals to augment our chatter. 2km out of town, he swung right across the road and we parked at a kennels. The gates were locked and my corpulent ‘fixer’ snagged himself through a barbed wire fence, so I followed. There was a large poorly maintained house behind us to our left, but up ahead were 7 or 8 pens in which I could see the fawn bodies and dark masks of kangals. I motion-suggested to Yilmaz that we might like to ask first, but he just strode on and I followed for the second but not the last time that day.

I was slightly wary of the four or five large animals not in cages, stretching out in the sun of the spring morning. Aside from the puppies almost a year before, I have never met a pure kangal. Some friends have a kangal/German shepherd cross back in Erbil, a stately chap called Faisal. I’ve met him a couple of times, and love his temperament – gorgeous and enjoys a fuss, but not overly affectionate; just calm and the friendly side of brooding. However, research kangal online, and one finds the overwhelming amount of material is dedicated to their fearless nature. There is also a lot of material about them being amazing family pets, fantastic with children and coping with their place in a group of humans. However, to be faced with five untethered on their own patch as an introduction is a striking proposition. As it happened, they lifted their heads, barked their deep welcome and got back to the sunning themselves. The pens were about 2.5m wide and ten deep with shade and a kennel at the back. They needed a clean, but I’ve seen worse conditions. Each housed a dog and a bitch. In the first, an older dog lifted his shanks and stretched his fore legs, before yawning and pacing up to the thick wire between us. He was a dark fawn colour, a ginger tinge in the sun almost. Thick and powerful, his muscles were visible through his thick coat, and he stood at waist height. His face was jowly and black as soot, the looks that have gone on to be familiar in any number of mastiffs. His companion by contrast, was sleek and lighter in build and colour. Her face was tighter, the black hairs of her mask spread thinner. In short, she was a very pretty, elegant dog, whilst he was a handsome, confident beast. These differences aren’t based on the sex, but it’s rare to see a big bitch – or at least, that’s my observation on the basis of this day. Walking down the cages, we saw just one puppy, which sat back and eyed us with a head cocked in vague interest. Some dogs showed signs of having been in fights – whether for ‘sport’ or work, this is what they are breed for in these parts.

Walking back to the car, I felt a little deflated. This was a bloody long way to come to just visit a zoo for ten minutes. I reached into my bag and passed a note to Yilmaz. Written by my friend Rojda the day before, it read in Turkish, “I apologise for not speaking Turkish. I want to find working Kangal dogs. Would you please introduce me to a village mukhtar (mayor) so that he may show me a coban (shepherd) and his dogs? With great respect and gratitude.”

Back in the taxi, I noticed with alarm that the meter was up to 50 lira (over $20) already. He was on the phone as soon as we hit the tarmac and we drove further out of town. Hanging up laughing, he turned to me and explained, I think, that we were going to visit a mukhtar with the best dogs. He kept talking, which made me uncomfortable, and I cracked the window to allow his breath past me. It was around then that I became acutely aware of my own odour and admonished myself. Poor bastard was earning his money with me in the car, and I snuck a look at that relentless meter. 80 lira. This was close to what I had budgeted for this journey, and we weren’t on the return yet. We forged on in the gently rolling landscape, the mountains in the distance still capped with snow. The earth was brown from ploughing, and the fallow acres remained the dusty colour of the dogs, springs rain yet to weave its verdant magic. Eagles soared against the blue heavens. After about 10km I took a very obvious look at the meter and sighed. Over 100 lira, and he just tapped my hand as if to say “Don’t worry.” I didn’t fully trust him, but figured we must be close. But every time we turned a corner or breached a hill, there was nothing. We entered a village and I felt we must be there. But we ploughed through and took a dirt road, actually a smoother ride than the pot-holed asphalt over which he drove with abandon. 20 minutes after leaving the kennels, we arrived at a farm house in the middle of nowhere. Once at the end of the drive, in front of the house, I could see four dogs chained up. I went to get out of the door, but Yilmaz motioned for me to stay in and blew his horn for attention. I always exercise caution with any dog I don’t know, and these were large wearing steel spiked collars. Yep, I’ll wait for the big guy. And look at the meter. Shit, 150 lira.

The big guy was actually slight, wearing a beard and farming clothes, bottomed with amazing rubber shoes patterned like brogues. He waved us out with a smile, chattered away in Turkish and took us around the back of his house where we saw four more chained males. An older one, the grand old man, came down to us and Yilmaz hid behind me before the chain restricted his progress. I laughed a little, as I’ve been guilty of this, but our host’s ease around them and lack of instruction to us dispersed any worry. Then we double-backed down the driveway to a barn. Behind the barn, various poultry and fowl gobbled and squawked and there was a bitch and a dog, chained. In went the breeder, careful to close the gate behind him He released the chain from the concrete pile keeping this magnificent male in check. Up past his owner’s waist, he growled happily and trotted out in front of us. It reminded me of my teenage days when I would take our wolfhounds up onto the local common land – some wag would always ask, “Who’s taking who for a walk?” and if I’d known the Turkish, I might well have been unable to restrain myself from asking it. The dog marked his territory without breaking stride, keen to see his pals up the road.

The meeting between the dogs was tense. It was clear to me now, that these dogs were used mostly for fighting each other, the way they strained at their chains.


I hate dog-fighting, abhor it, but it wasn’t my place to pass judgement on this man’s choices. I was merely thrilled to be amongst them. 15 months ago, I saw my first picture of a Kangal, and here I was, seeing them in their home region. The alpha clipped to another concrete retainer, we were invited in. The small home is filled with trophies from shows (the alpha won the Turkish equivalent of Cruffs two years ago, as Best In Show. The runner-up was a Yorkshire terrier!). At the computer I was shown videos that confirmed my fears. Dogs set against each other, but mostly protected by their thick fur and trimmed ears (something else that turns my stomach). More upsetting was the video of four dogs slowly, incrementally ripping a boar apart. The noise was grim, but it was the lack of bite on the neck to kill the quarry that had me looking away. I was shown about 90 seconds of this footage, and would guess the animal struggled for several more minutes. Then I was shown photos of dead wolves held up next to the dog that had killed it – whether working to protect sheep or hunting for sport, I don’t know why these clashed. I hope it was for the former, but am realistic enough to surmise it was the later in all probability. Most disturbing of all was the picture of a small leopard, lifeless on the floor beside and behind a Kangal. It was difficult to estimate its size, but I’d hazard a guess at three feet from nose to tail. Perhaps the size of a large ocelot. In contrast, photos of the alpha being climbed on by the two young kids who found me intriguing, confirmed what I’d heard about temperament.

Worried that the meter might still be ticking, I got Yilmaz’s attention. Outside he still avoided the dogs, but I couldn’t leave without stroking the calmest of the pack, which lived under the front door steps. He was pretty, rather than fearsome, and loved the attention. Our host took my hand and led me up the hill to the alpha. He clearly meant for me to have a moment, so I did. It was amazing. This beast, clearly the strongest and most fearsome of the pack, turned into a puppy. Pawing at me, nuzzling, playfully taking my hand in his jaws. I tried to get him to ‘dance’ to get his paws on my shoulders, that iconic big dog pose, but he wouldn’t. I had some photos taken with him though, and I still curse the missed opportunity for an ‘epic selfie’.

We arrived back in town and I’d decided that I’d offer $50 for the ride and negotiate from there. It seemed fair for a couple of hours work in a town where the taxis don’t seem at all busy. The final reading was 285 lira – just shy of $130. Yilmaz didn’t seem offended by my opening offer, just shook his head with a smile. He made a chopping motion half way up his left forearm, indicating he’d accept half price. Another $10 and 20 lira satisfied us both. No need for a fight.

Life In Kurdistan, a piece for http://asfar.org.uk/

It’s over two years since I touched down in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), or if you prefer, Iraqi Kurdistan, Northern Iraq (Saddam’s moniker for the area, not a name which will win you many friends if used here, understandably) or increasingly, as tourism opens up, The Other Iraq. Amongst expats here, we refer to it simply as Kurdistan, or Iraqi Kurdistan when we’re explaining to friends and family just where in the world it is we’ve found ourselves.

It’s over two years since I arrived, seemingly by accident.

In November 2010, after a year of unemployment in the UK, I ploughed the end of my savings into taking a CELTA course, a month-long teacher-training program, qualifying me to teach English to adult speakers of other languages. I’d done a little unqualified teaching in Ukraine, where I lived for two years in the past, and had a hankering to return to a CIS country, utilising and improving upon the little Russian I’d picked up in that time. The first job for a newly qualified CELTA teacher is quite a tricky thing to find, with almost all positions advertised carrying a requirement of two years’ experience. Couple this with the time of year, and my email outbox betrays many applications made once a drink or two had been taken during the course of Christmas celebrations, that start early in the UK, and often end sometime into the second week of January. I remember that schools in Russia, Argentina, Columbia, Thailand, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, China and Palestine all received my particulars, juiced with experience in Kiev, working with children and an ambitious play that my late 30s made me the ideal candidate. As it was, I accepted an offer to work in Samara, central Russia. My meager earnings from delivering pizzas, with the lack of tipping typical to a depressed town in a depressed country, funded a one way ticket to the country and the attendant visa fees. I arrived a 3am on a bloody cold March morning (-22C to be precise, a personal record). My meeting with the boss the following morning confirmed the worst fears of a gamble – he was a Walter Mitty character, and it became clear that he had swindled many thousands of dollars from others in the city, and I made plans to make good my escape. And then, an email. “Do you still want to work in Iraq?” Hmm, I don’t remember ever wanting to work in Iraq, but after an interview and a promise to buy my ticket to freedom, I accepted. My connection to the internet was prohibitively slow, and I arrived in Erbil late April, with no real knowledge of where I was.

I was really green, as green as the unexpected mountains I was to see a week later, mountains that absolutely gave the lie to my preconceptions of deserts, dates and camels. I had just one day orientation at the headquarters of the school that had flown me over, and then I was left to my own devices in a run down hotel near the Citadel in the centre of Erbil. The Citadel (or Qalat in Sorani Kurdish, the most commonly spoken form of the language in KRG) purports to be the oldest continuously inhabited structure in the world, with one family remaining in the ancient walled community – evidence suggests that it has been settled for at least 7,000 years. I moved to Erbil from Sulaymaniyah at the beginning of 2013, and have struck up friendships with many archaeologists, this being the land of Assyria, Mesopotamia and Babylon – often forgotten in amongst the tragic violent history of the last 30 and more years.

During that week, I skulked around the immediate environs of the hotel, but was not assured by the guarantees of security that my colleagues had given me, and felt under threat (I was that ignorant). Each night, unadorned by beer (really, had I moved to a dry country? I hadn’t.), I watched a movie or three on one of the pirated satellite channels, only half-joking to myself that Al Qeada were to make me the next star in one of their grim broadcasts.

Happily, after a week, I got word that I was to travel to Sulaymaniyah (Suli) with my new manager, and start teaching. Along with a local teacher, Amjad, Omed duly arrived and we set off on the three hour car journey taking the route that winds over the mountains, commonly known as the Koya road. It takes a little longer than the Kirkuk road, but for obvious reasons, that is no hardship. The taxi route between Erbil and Suli skirts Kirkuk, and is safe at the moment, but you’ll have heard of the sporadic bombings in the city. Security of the city switches between Iraqi federal forces and the Peshmerga (literally, Those That Face Death), the once guerrilla Kurdish fighters who are now the de facto security force in KRG. Kirkuk is an Arab/Turkman/Kurdish mixed city, and a reporter friend of mine (again, there are still many here, so I’ve made many interesting contacts) tells me that ethnicity is not the root of trouble there, rather it is the desire to control the oil and gas deposits. Another large percentage of the expat community is involved in the oil and gas sector, with KRG having huge reserves. Fractious relations with Baghdad can be traced to the question of ownership of these reserves, with a substantial portion of the KRG budget still drawn from the federal capital. Naturally, the south wishes to share in the wealth being generated in KRG, and equally understandably, the semi-autonomous Kurds are keen to enjoy some financial security and independence.

Once we’d left Erbil, small hills began to morph into far more impressive mountains, verdant and simply beautiful. I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing, and relief swept over me, especially as we drove into Suli, along the entry road that passes the new airport and the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah (AUI-S). Dominating the skyline, albeit against the mountains that hold the city in a crucible, is Iraq’s tallest building, still under construction now. It is a 5 star hotel and is part of the Farouq Holdings business empire that includes the leading mobile network, Asiacell and other interests including cement factories. Construction is rampant here, with ‘villages’ of high-rise residential buildings being concreted into available space in the major cities (Duhok is the third largest KRG city, near the Turkish border), and is especially prevalent in Erbil. Concrete is not the preserve of the cities though, and government grants mean that most new houses in the rural areas are also concrete, the traditional brick and mud structures becoming an ever rarer sight. The urban villages are often named after nationalities, and a great many businesses too, reflecting the countries that provided refuge for those that fled Saddam and subsequently the Kurdish civil war, before returning.

Saddam’s ‘Anfal’ campaign against the Kurds is one of the great rarely reported genocides of the twentieth century. Up to 180,000 Kurds lost their lives in the mid to late 80s, as many as 5,000 in the 1988 gas attack on Halabja. After a no-fly zone was established during the first American led war in the early 90s, the promise of Kurdish autonomy was derailed by a senseless internal conflict between the Barzani-led Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), under the control of former ally and current Iraqi president, ‘Mam’ Jalal Talabani. But for now, conflict resides in the past as the KRG government looks to cash in on its new found wealth and try to attract more tourists. Certainly this is a growth market; whilst there is little in the way of a mid-range option, there are many independent travellers passing through, and at the exclusive end of the market, tours cost $500 per day and more. Without doubt, spring is the time of year to visit, and the Newroz (‘new day’ literally, but Kurdish new year informally) festival on the equinox is a joyous celebration, lit with flaming torches and sustained by the picnics that are ubiquitous at that time of year; the summer becomes uncomfortably hot, with 50C not unusual in Erbil, whilst Suli is typically 3 or 4 degrees cooler.

The thing that gives me joy more than any thing else here; more than the excellent hiking through springs and rivers, more than the sweet tea and rich dolma, more, even, than the education I’m receiving, is the people. Kurds are extravagantly hospitable, and a simple offer of tea, when accepted, is sure to become at least a meal. Most families have a dark recent history, and in time you might find this tragedy shared, but more likely you’ll find yourself holding hands and jiggling your shoulders in a line as you (try to) dance away the last kebab, sun glinting from the silver and gold on the dresses. Just look at the Kurdish flag, and you’ll see that dawn is finally breaking for the Kurds in Iraq. With the ever-changing situations for Kurds to the west in Syria, north in Turkey and east in Iran, the future will be interesting, to say the least.

Shaving Part 1

At the age of thirteen I was obsessed with my late flourishing puberty. For most boys, the “hairing up” process can be private, inspected and willed on in the safety of his bedroom or the family bathroom – for me, it was in the glare of 50 or more other boys, in the communal showers and dormitory “ends” of a British public school (ah, it that why they are so-called?). At one end of the scale a 12 year old in another house, who could already convert a rugby penalty from the half-way line, was in possession of an extraordinary five o’clock shadow, his pink phyisog carpeted from shirt collar to cheek bones in thick, no doubt coarse stubble. At the other, a boy in the year below was rumoured to have been put back several years in his physical development due to an operation on his testicles. Some boys refused to shower without swimming trunks on (creepily teased for this by a school master, as I recall) whilst others stood proud in the shower, thickets of pubes sprouting. I have a clear memory of finding my first armpit hair under intense examination in the mirror – the joy! I was on my way.

The beard is the last to arrive, of course, and so desperate was I to feel roughness as I stroked my chin, that I resorted to shaving bum fluff. I was not the first child to do so, I won’t be the last. Now, as back in the puberty days, I am pretty average – I’ve got an average covering of face fuzz, not the permabeard of my college friend Bob, nor the sparse smoothness of school friend Steve. It is Steve I envy now; Bob I wonder how he manages. I don’t enjoy shaving and didn’t once take a razor to my face in 2010, preferring to wear a closely clipped beard. But I don’t mind being shaved, in fact surrendering my neck to a stranger with a cut-throat is one of my great pleasures.

My first experience of this was in 1996; I can even recall the address, Lebu Chuliya, Georgetown, Pulau Penang in Malaysia. The street was dotted with backpacker cafes in which myself and my companions, Bella and Andy, started each morning with banana pancakes and tea. Whilst they perused the travellers’ tips books that littered hostels and cafes in the pre-internet world, I wandered off one morning. I watched a rat, of which there are many in the town, scurry under a cabin just off the street. Looking up I saw two Indian gents lathering faces and wielding their blades. The sheaths into which the blades are folded when unused were at right angles, sticking up like the pinky of lady taking afternoon tea. I’d like to decorate the description with sun glinting from the metal, but it probably didn’t, it was quite gloomy in there.

Without hesitation, I took my place in the queue, reading my book until I was called up. The brush was dipped and vigorously circled my face, which was fresh from a few minutes under a hot, damp towel. My barber scraped through my short beard in a few minutes, before rubbing a camphor, menthol and eucalyptus oil all over my head, massing my scalp and shoulders. Then, quite unexpectedly, he placed one hand on my left temple, the other on the right hand side of my neck, briskly turning my head to face the open door of his shack. The crunch was incredible, if a little surprising – I’d hardly digested it, before he repeated the process in the opposite direction. My neck felt free, and not broken and useless as I worried it might be, the result of too many action films in my youth.

On my return to breakfast, I was asked where I’d been. I explained, and said that in all likelihood I’d be returning in a couple of days. Andy jumped aboard the idea, and a quite different idea formed in my mind. I happily explained the process to him, forgoing one or two minor details. When we arrived Andy was shown directly to his seat, whilst I sat outside. Andy was rather sweetly excited, and when the chance arose he turned to me outside with a huge grin and gave me the thumbs up. Head repositioned by his barber, I smoked and watched. The barbers were quick, and it was easy to imagine cartoon swirls of the Tazmanian Devil variety accenting their flourishes. The mix of oils was splashed into the barber’s hand, from a greasy cafe sauce bottle. He clapped his palms together and then massaged it into Andy’s grinning chops from behind him. I could see my friend’s eyes closed in the sheer luxury of it all, even in these incongruous surroundings. Slowly the face massage rose to the scalp and Andy tilted his head back – half bliss, half sleep, still all smiles. I watched with a tight, nasty little smirk on my face and the hands took the position and I whispered to myself, “Please, please…”

Andy’s head was twisted with measured violence from left to right, and his wide eyes stared directly into my laughing ones, his mouth open in silent shock. I collapsed on my haunches, wiping tears away with the heel of my palm.

The Thames Path, Day 1

Privately, I fantasised about having a liaison, but didn’t expect to fall in love. I hoped for clear skies, but was blessed with faultless azure heavens, polished by ash. I certainly expected to talk to myself once or twice, but not like a demented marine.

In mid-December 2009, I was made redundant from my sales job. Whilst not unexpected, it left me in a state of flux, and I resolved to make some tentative enquiries prior to Christmas, with the intention of hitting the employment campaign trail hard in the New Year. Naively perhaps, I felt sure that there was an information sales job out there for me. “Felt sure” could be read as “utterly dreaded”. So I returned to the bosom of my family and friends in Gloucestershire, and sat about in pubs, barfly that I am. As usual, there was the conversational mix of bragging and piss take, football and New Year’s plans. The issue of my lack of employment came up more than once, and in a conversation with Steve, a friend who’d flown in from Sri Lanka for the season, I idly proposed that I may walk back to London. Then the snow came, and I returned to the big city to continue my search for The Gainful, swerving the walk.

A few weeks later, I was back in the Shire for Easter, spending time at the smallholding where my good friend Miles lives in rural idyll. A goat shares a field with some sheep, ducks and chickens present eggs and a solitary sow awaits her big day – she’s going to drop piglets, not a visit to the abattoir. Her two friends have gone that way. The weather, you may recall, was glorious as Easter weekend so often is. I’d reached a point where moving back to the country was a real possibility, but felt I needed just a few more days to think about it. A seed that I’d planted but neglected to water for some months, germinated and after I’d mentioned this Thames Path walk twice more in the setting of ale houses, I had to do it. Rather like saying “Candyman” three times.

So it was that I spent the next week or so sort of planning. I looked at the Thames Path website, but not fully enough to realise they suggest doing no more than 13 miles a day, and to take time off en route. I walked around London a little – 6 miles, 12 miles and 13 miles. I overpacked my rucksack, including both my mobile and my radio, two things I’d originally decided to leave behind. I decided I’d be as well to do this for charity, and selected Naked Heart Foundation, set up the Just Giving page and pestered in cyberspace. Can you tell how half-arsed I went at this? Time would show me.

The big day arrived, and my mother dropped me off in Cricklade on the 15th April. I chose this Wiltshire town as it looked a wide enough part of the river from Google Earth. Stopping in the Tourist Information, I discovered the location of the path, and with a wave and a chuckle, strode out with pack and tent strapped to my back. On reaching the river, I set off in the direction I felt must be correct. My feeling was confirmed once I’d established that I should be following the direction of the flow. Now you should realise quite how ridiculous this little wander was.

It was much as you’d expect – rolling fields, swans (more about them later), bridges and the very occasional other walker. At one stage I had to get all Ray Mears and build a branch crossing over a ditch, which I re-traversed within a minute. I discovered I was actually in someone’s garden and I’d strayed from the path for the first, and certainly not the last, time. Before I reached Lechlade, where the river widens to the extent it can handle boats, there was an unpleasant diversion along the A361. When the path rediscovered the fields and river, my path was blocked.

You hear things about these beasts, and I was sure they’d be spooked by my tent. I re-routed around this field, and got my first sight of some narrow boats. I love these vessels, and one day I am certain to live in one – just need a job, of course.

Once I’d rested up in Lechlade, I pushed on through the flora and fowl, iridescent mallards proud in the spring and made it to my first boozer, The Swan at Radcot. They were enamoured with their new television, busy breaking the first rule of TV in pubs. They were in a position to be forgiven though – all planes in the UK and Europe were grounded because of Iceland. Not been a good couple of years for them, has it? However, the beer was good, the staff friendly – it took me 2 pints before I could face more walking. We looked at an old framed map, and my suggestion that I could make Oxford by the end of the following day provoked laughter that followed me back to the path. At this stage I was over 16 miles for the day, and felt like I could extend myself by another 2, maybe 3. I ended up doing about 4 or 5 more. I had a half in The Trout at Tadpole Bridge (dreadful posh place – had the sort of welcome one would expect if you walked into a stranger’s house on Christmas Day and pissed on their kid’s presents) and then did another mile or so, before I pitched on the side of the path. I listened to the three party leaders bore Alastair Stewart into high-pitched frustration and fell asleep.

Arriving At Volgograd Station

Arriving Volgograd

Nic leaned out of the window feeling the air fresher on his face than he expected. The Baku “Express” was about halfway to its ultimate destination and he’d had none of the trouble warily predicted by those that had never used the train. The Azeri train guards, truly Caucasian with clipped moustaches, who had regarded him with amusement throughout the journey, grinned and nodded when he pointed to the floor and asked, “Volgograd?” He sought further confirmation with the childish Cyrillic scrawl that he had copied from his guidebook which made them laugh from their bellies. A little embarrassed that he had not just shown them the book, he stuffed the paper into his pocket and set about readying his backpack. The late morning sun was bright through the coupe window and Nic felt like a pioneer. There was a true sense of some inspiring adventure before him. It bathed him with new found peaceful anticipation instead of the bile that had leeched into him during much of the journey so far and he was surprised to note that he was not at all worried about finding the driver who was to take him directly south to Elista, the city home of City Chess.

The train slowed to oil tanker rate, and during the last 200 metres it was difficult to notice that it was moving at all. This served to maintain the calm, and with a surprising lightness Nic bounded from the train and onto Russian soil, the door held open for him. He reached up behind him and shook hands with the two still smiling guards leaning to meet him halfway. It had been a tiny education for all. He fished his cheap sunglasses from his pocket and threw his head back to take the sun on his face. Then he just stood. He didn’t know where to go and really didn’t care.

He dropped the ‘pack to the floor and perched on it, the weight of his body taken more on his haunches and flat feet. Ignoring the no smoking signs, he licked the microscopic holes on the speckled brown filter of a Marlboro Light to marginally increase the strength. Once the end was glowing he sucked in deeply, imagining the cloud filling his lungs and blew out with the satisfaction of a deep breath rather than a nicotine hit. In fact he gained satisfaction from expelling the noxious fumes, but that did not stop him from poisoning himself once more. He stared at the carriage, 3 metres from him. Looking at all the parts, he went back to the time when a friend of his, a train driver, took him on an illicit journey.

Kenton referred to himself as a “basher”, and as far as Nic could work out, he was essentially an extreme trainspotter. The extreme part was that to tick the engine from his list, Kenton had to ride up front. Nic wasn’t sure whether Kenton had become a driver because of this obsession or whether the obsession had overcome him once he had begun his career. In either event, Kenton had been travelling through Nic’s local station late one evening, and had promised to call to see whether he had wanted to make the three hour round trip with him. Nic decided to give it a go and he and another friend, Bruce, had jumped on the Class 38 train as Kenton slid it through the station at about the same pace as the Baku Express had docked minutes before. It was dark, sometime after midnight and once the diesel engine had got its full head of steam back up, or whatever it was that diesel engine’s had to do to get to a decent pace, Kenton had let Nic drive. There was nothing to it, the most demanding act was to sound the horn before entering the tunnel (against the rule book at that time of night, but this was once-in-a-lifetime stuff), an act which in itself elicited child-like excitement. The fun of the horn was replaced with the horror of an alarm ringing directly behind him. It was a full 1960s fire alarm and it wrenched Nic from reverie and planted him firmly in terror. Kenton responded by coolly stuffing a canvas glove between the bell and the hammer and explained that “this old thing is forever doing that.” The adrenalin breaking down in Nic’s system was making him nervous and after Bruce had declined taking the controls, muttering something about the Titanic, Kenton took over once more.

“Why don’t you two look at the engine?” he suggested above the roar, and with a nod the two of them had headed out of the door behind them and into the engine. Directly into the engine. The noise was incredible, really louder than anything either of them had heard. Bruce punched Nic on the shoulder to get his attention, and although he was clearly shouting from just a metre away, Nic could hear nothing but the din. He turned away from Nic and motioned to the other end of the roaring lump of iron, encouraging Nic to follow. He instinctively knew that this was because he knew he wouldn’t follow and now he felt compelled. With great cloaks of claustrophobia enveloping him, Nic made his way along the chamber, back pressed against the wall as if it offered some protection and arrived at the back where Bruce had already opened the back door. It was like a Bond movie, looking out over the roofless carriages that carried the cargo, a bright moon behind them slightly to the right. They just stood there for a while, appreciating the wind, the terrific feeling of movement and the receding countryside. It was exhilarating and calm all at once.

And that was what Nic felt now. The peace of just sitting and smoking belied the knots in his stomach. He was pinching the end of his smoke and flicked it at the gears and gauges underneath the carriage, and it landed perfectly still on some horizontal bracing between wheels. Pleased with this exceptional omen, the knot slipped straight and he got up, wrestling the backpack happily into place as he did. The driver that he had managed to arrange should be easy enough to spot, a Kalmyk with his distinctive Mongol features amongst a crowd of Russians. He could not make out the size or design of the place as he strode across the tracks, but walking through the building he was impressed by the high ceilings and marble walls. It was lighter than Lviv and less modern than Kyiv, but typically Russian. It seemed that everyone was travelling with a plastic, gingham, zip-up case, of the type used for laundry back home, but used for pretty much everything here. He kept up his determined pace to the front of the station and at the top of the stairs outside took some water from his bottle and settled on his haunches to have another cigarette and see if he could spot someone. Resting back against his pack, against the wall, Nic surveyed the crowd and judged that it should be simple. The sun was on his face and he thumbed the half smoked stick into a crack in the pavement before tossing the butt into the bin. As he stood up, someone was in front of him, speaking to him in Russian.

“Ya ne govoryu po-russkiĭ,” he spluttered under his breath. As it fell from his lips, he confused himself wondering whether he had just lied, by explaining he didn’t speak Russian in Russian. Before the thought could take hold the stranger was speaking English no better to him.