IntroductionI was looking through some old photo albums last night. Memories of almost forgotten adventures came back. When I had read my old travel logs and looked through all the photos, I was struck by two thoughts:
I’m very happy I’m alive today.
I was a complete idiot.
Torbjörn and I took off for Bulgaria. Our plan was to cycle to Cairo, Egypt.
That was the plan, plain and simple. No details were set. We were on a low budget. $3/day was our limit. Torbjörn had no real bicycle. He decided to use his old 3-gear monster with balloon tires.
"I have to go with that bike or not at all. Easy choice!"
Idiots in CappadocciaWe enjoyed Turkey a lot. Lots of interesting places to see, wonderful people and nature.
After 1½ months we arrived in Cappadoccia, an area famous for its strange looking rock and mountain formations. Of course we had to hang around for some time and explore this cool place. We cycled off to an area full of high rock pinnacles. To start with we felt it was enough to just bike around and try out our abilities mountain biking. It was a lot of fun, but after some time we couldn't resist the temptation climbing a bit.
Torbjörn was a good rock climber. I had climbed very little back then and hesitated a bit. Climbing without ropes? Nah. At first I didn’t like the idea at all, but when Torbjörn started I followed. I felt more and more confident and we went for more difficult targets. Some of the monoliths in the area were full of holes and tunnels. A long time back people had lived in them. In some parts of Cappadoccia these caves are still in use and in Ürgüp some have been transformed into hotels and restaurants.
We spotted a high monolith full of nice looking "windows" higher up. The route Torbjörn started to climb looked very tough and steep and I hesitated. I followed. At times I was close to loose the grip and I really had to focus to stay on the wall. I never looked down.
When I finally crawled over the edge to the plateau on the summit I was wasted. Torbjörn was euphoric.
"This is the first time I have free soloed a 5"! *¹
I had no clue what he was he was talking about and didn’t really care. What I did care about was the situation I was in. The bikes looked very small down there and I was struck by a sudden onset of vertigo looking down. How could I possibly get down alive?
Torbjörn was already on his way to the first cave. We started to play around in the tunnels and explore the interior of the monolith. A spark of hope. Perhaps I could find a tunnel which took me down without climbing on the "outside" of the monolith?
I went further and further down the tunnels, just to realize all of them had collapsed and boulders and gravel effectively blocked the way. Unrealistic thoughts about helicopter rescue started to pop up in my mind. Torbjörn was ready to climb down. I hesitated. For about 15 min. Torbjörn made it down and shouted to me to follow.
"Come on! It wasn’t a big deal. Piece of cake".
I felt I had no choice and started downwards. Torbjörn was taking photos of me and that made me really irritated. I was fighting for my life and possibly falling to a certain death and he was getting it all on film. Bastard.
I finally made it down. Knees shaking and dizzy, I made a promise to myself. I would never ever do anything that stupid again. It took about 20 hours until I broke the promise.
*¹ - Torbjörn talked about the Swedish grading system.
Idiots in KaymakliA person in our guest house recommended Kaymakli, an ancient underground city. The whole place was a maze of tunnels, rooms and pits. After some time we found a barrier in one of the tunnels. A sign on the rope said: “Closed area. No entry”. We just had to see what was on the other side of that rope and continued to climb down a steep tunnel. Down, down, down to a quite large cave. At first it seemed to be the end of the tunnels, but we found a narrow entrance in one of the corners. On all fours we started to crawl into the tunnel. It got even narrower. We had to snake on forwards. After perhaps five minutes the tunnel got very narrow and I started to think about my situation. I was almost stuck. There were some papers and other garbage in front of me. It looked like it was affected by water. Warning bells went off. There had been some rain clouds in the sky before we entered Kaymakli. What if…I told Torbjörn to turn back. Fast. I didn’t want to drown in a tunnel. Claustrophobia started to set in. It was hard to snake backwards, but after some time we reached the cave again. We laughed nervously and joked about a water slide passage to hell.
On our way back up to the surface we got lost. In the public area of the underground city there were sign posts but not here. After some time we found a black vertical pit. I don’t remember why I felt like exploring it, but I started to climb down into it. In the beginning it was easy and there were foot- and handholds on the walls. After just two meters they got much smaller and almost disappeared. Undeterred I continued downwards. Torbjörn had found a light bulb connected to a cord and used it to illuminate the pit. Carefully I looked down. I couldn’t see the bottom, just a scary black abyss.
Torbjörn’s voice held some worry when he said:
“Let’s see how deep it is”!
He told me to move off a bit from the center of the pit and dropped a little rock. Seconds passed. Adrenaline arrived en masse. It felt like eternity had passed before I heard the distant echo of the rock hitting the ground far, far below. I almost panicked. I couldn’t get up. Carefully, I started to move slowly down the pit. Thoughts about falling forever into darkness arrived. I tried to block them out and I think I managed pretty well. No time for making the situation worse. After a time, which felt very, very long, I arrived at a small hole in the wall of the pit. I managed to get into a cave and collapsed from the adrenaline shock. My whole body was shaking from the mental and physical exertion. Torbjörn arrived from a tunnel and (giggling like an idiot) I asked him if he was going to give the route a repeat.
“No way in hell! Let’s get out of here”!
The feeling of extreme triumph filled me.
Idiots on ErciyesThe nice looking, 3917 meter high Erciyes was looming above us. We were dead set on giving the summit a try. We had no equipment whatsoever. I was in sandals and had wrapped my thermal underwear pants around my head to keep warm in the chilly, snow filled winds. My traditional Pakistani, baggy cotton pants were flapping all over the place. The sandals were not ideal for the icy and snowy parts, but after some time we reached a foresummit at 3700m without too much difficulty.
A Swiss-French team arrived from the higher reaches. They stared at us with a lot of disdain and contempt. They were roped, with helmets and the whole kit.
Cheerfully we greeted them.
“Hi! Did you reach the summit”?
“No. The weather is really bad, if you haven’t noticed. We’re going down. It looks too bad”.
“Come on. Some clouds, that’s it”.
We got a fierce and lengthy diatribe about how stupid we were going up the way we were dressed and on top of that, without any equipment in the beginning of a storm.
“It’s our lives. None of your business. We can take care of ourselves”.
“Yeah, that’s what I hear every year in the Alps and idiots like you die by the numbers there”. But you’re right. It’s your lives. Go ahead. Go kill yourselves”.
The leader of the group was a large man with a face that radiated strength. We departed and whispered something about chickens. We didn’t dare to say it too loud.
We arrived at a steep rock tower. Clouds constantly swirled around it blocking the view, so we couldn’t determine which route to take. Torbjörn decided to attack it head on, straight up the face. For some time it worked out fine. The rock was really rotten and my soft sandals weren’t optimal for rock climbing. Rocks which Torbjörn had dislodged swept past me from time to time. I removed my sandals to get a better grip. I instantly cut myself on the sharp rock.
“Get out of the way”!
I threw myself out of the way, just in time to make way for a 1.5x1 meter sized boulder, crushing past me at high speed. After taking short falls, drawing some blood here and there, we finally decided to give up. Depressed, full with the feeling of failure we jogged down towards the lowlands again. A blizzard hit when we reached 2800m. We couldn’t see the higher reaches of Erciyes anymore. Cold and shivering we arrived to the place where we had hidden our bikes and rolled down with only one thing in mind: We had to find a place with warmth.
Idiots in SyriaThe little desert road looked very tempting. A Bedouin told us (with sign language) it didn’t lead anywhere. Of course we had to try it out. From our crude photo copy map from a guide book, we knew there was a large road on the other side of the desert. What could go wrong?
An intense thunderstorm hit us the first night. We were extremely exposed to lightning on the completely flat surface of the desert. We moved the tent to the only little depression we could find and re-pitched it there. After half an hour the rain arrived with a force I have only experienced in hurricane and monsoon areas.
It all of a sudden felt strange to lie on my mattress. It was moving when I moved. It felt softer than ever. A feeling of being in a boat appeared. I opened the zipper to the vestibule. It was full of water. The tent was floating! The little depression we camped in was about to fill up with water.
The rest of the night was no fun. We covered ourselves with the tent lying in the mud on the lowest point that wasn’t filled with water.
To make a long story short, we cycled through the desert for another four days. Most of the time we found small paths which probably had been made by Bedouins. At one point we ran out of water completely. A day and a half later two Bedouins appeared from out of nowhere and gave us a dozen tomatoes. The liquid from the fruits kept us going, but when we finally arrived in civilization I felt quite a lot of pain in my kidneys.
Idiots in LebanonOur new won friends fired off round after round with different kind of weapons. We were amazed by their arsenal and tried out various types of guns and rifles. We were in a small mountain area in the very infamous Bekaa Valley. It was said to be a notorious nest for all kind of “bad people”, most notably terrorists and kidnappers.
We had made a very doubtful decision to accept an invitation from some guys in a Range Rover. We could sleep in their place and have food later, but first they had to go training a bit in the mountains.
“Don’t worry, we’re not kidnappers, just normal guys with an interest for weapons”, had convinced us there was no danger lurking.
Torbjörn had had some bad stomach problems for some time and he didn’t touch any of the wonderful food on the table. I felt a bit bad as well. After the time in the Syrian desert we had eaten some bad food. The girl looked seriously at us.
“You can’t cross the pass. It’s not impossible. It’s…very, very impossible”.
Regarding the way we felt, slightly feverish and with unpredictable stomachs, I considered to give up the plan of climbing the highest peak (Qornet es-Saouda) of Lebanon and also give up the planned crossing of the Middle East’s highest road pass.
But could we give up?
No, we were so close and we had fought so hard to get where we were. It was one of the planned highlights of our trip. We just had to continue and how impossible could it be?
There was snow on the side of the road. Sometimes meters deep. The road was clear to quite high up. Torbjörn felt really bad. We had to camp. He was throwing up all night and the weather deteriorated. Our situation had changed from bad to miserable.
“Ok. I have had enough. I have to go back down. I'm feeling too bad”.
“I forbid you to turn around. If you feel fine, continue. I know how much this mean to you. Let’s meet again in Beirut”.
I hesitated and argued a little bit, but Torbjörn was adamant. I continued up in the storm which got worse by the minute. Now the road was blocked by snow and I had to lead the bike through the white out and guess which way to go. As long as I was going up, it was the right way I convinced myself.
I slowly started to give up all thoughts about climbing Qornet es-Saouda. It felt bad, but I realized more and more I was in a bad situation. My feet started to get numb. Sandals, even with two pairs of socks don’t suffice in snow.
I sat down to have a break and drink some water. It was frozen. I ate some snow and without much interest I saw my water bottle blow away and race down a slope. A saw something else moving in the white chaos. First I got scared I had started to hallucinate. A red dot got closer and closer.
“I just couldn’t give up. No way”.
He looked completely wasted and staggered like a drunk. His eyes were glowing with that dark look I had seen once before. In Nepal, two years earlier. We had hitched a ride with a logging truck to get down from the Dhaulagiri massif. I had been white knuckled and shit scared bombing down the narrow switch-backs on the mountain roads. Torbjörn and my psycho ex-girlfriend had constantly pestered the driver with comments like; “Come on, why are you driving so slowly”? “My grandmother drives faster than this” etc.
I lost the track of time. We stumbled on in the white, ever changing surroundings. Sometimes we had vision ten meters ahead, sometimes it was down to almost nothing. Finally it flattened out. We were probably on the pass, or at least on a high point of the ridge. I was worried about my feet and went for a desperate plan. At all places where it was steep enough, I chucked my bike down the slopes and jumped after. The snow was deep enough to protect me from injury. Hours passed. My memories are restricted to snow, white and tumbling down. When we finally reached some parts with gravel in the snow, we realized we must have had the extreme luck of hitting the road again. I got puzzled when I found out I continued to fall even on the areas free of snow. When the truth dawned I got a bit concerned. I couldn’t feel the lower parts of my legs and therefore it was hard to keep the balance.
We arrived in Bcharré long after dark. Torbjörn went straight to a hospital and I to a hotel. All night I tried to get some feeling back in my legs. After midnight the lukewarm water from the tap had made miracles to almost all my before dead parts of the legs. Three toes looked horrible and so did a part of my middle left foot. At 7 o’ clock two men arrived. They told me Torbjörn was ok but very weak and had to stay in the hospital for some time. One of the guys told me he was a doctor and examined my foot. He looked worried.
“You have to go to Beirut. It looks bad”.
In retrospect, my decision to cycle the 110km was nothing but plain stupid. At the time it was no question it was the right thing to do. I had cycled every meter from Bulgaria, so I was not to take the bus now because of an annoying case of frostbite.
When arriving in the suburbs of Beirut a guy was pointing at my left foot and his face looked like he had seen a ghost. I looked down and realized it was covered in blood. I had bumped into something and cut myself without noticing it.
As I had very little money and was 100% determined to save the cash for the rest of the journey to Cairo, I went for cheapest area I could find. The notoriously dangerous downtown Beirut. I checked into a “non-official” hotel, where the clientele consisted of illegal immigrants and other kinds of people from the dark side of society. Somehow, someone managed to get me a doctor. His diagnosis was grim.
”I would like to amputate at least one toe. Possibly two”.
He probably saw the look on my face and with a vague and encouraging smile he added:
”My friend. Don’t worry. During the war in Lebanon I have done many amputations. I promise you, it won’t be painful. I’m very good at what I’m doing”.
I appreciated his friendly manner, but told him I wanted a second opion.
An idiot going homeAfter that everything happened very quickly. I packed my gear, went to the airport and got myself a ticket to Copenhagen, Denmark. There was a flight 10 hours later to Sweden, but I felt the urge to get back home a.s.a.p. I went straight to the Denmark - Sweden ferry and further to the largest hospital in Malmö.
Yes, it was a nasty case of frostbite, but they didn’t want to start cutting on the spot. After two weeks a doctor told me my toes would definitaly stay on my foot. About three months later I had all the feeling back.
Torbjörn spent two weeks resting. First in the hospital and later in a little hostel at the warm Lebanese coast. 1½ months later he arrived in Cairo. As I wasn’t around he didn’t feel obligued to swim over the Nile in central Cairo as we had had a bet about. On a side note I can reveal Torbjörn’s stomach took a bad beating after swimming over Ganges in Varanasi some years earlier and he was happy not to deal with the potential consequences of a swim in Egypt.