Have you ever been brave enough to make a U-turn in the middle of a big adventure, or were you too scared about what people might think if they saw you backing out? This new travel book throws you right in the thick of the dilemma as motorcycle fanatic Graham Field battles with a huge shift in the dynamic of his overland trip across two continents – fortunately he has ‘a free will and an ever-changing plan’ (p.392).
Armed with his trusty KLR650, a brilliant tank box and a not-so-brilliant Sat Nav, he’s prepared to take on embassy jobsworths, a history nerd in an Armenian cave network and whole hordes of tourists clogging up a supposed ghost town.
Field’s refreshing honesty struck me immediately; it’s pretty clear from the off that this isn’t going to be the rose-tinted view of travel you get from a glossy brochure or a celebrity documentary. ‘Batumi has a lot more to offer the wealthy visitor than it does to the tight git’ (p.183) may not be the kind of phrase the tourist board would approve of, but it perfectly sums up this Georgian city. His musings on national identity are just as entertaining , deciding that ‘The Turkish are clearly not a nation of allotment lovers’ (p.122), and the Bosnians are ‘anally tidy’ with their ‘manicured lawns’ (p.380).
Beyond the humour, some moments are just mundane or frustrating for him, and why deny it? With Field’s efficient daily diary entries and voice recordings channelled into the book, there’s no disguising his disappointment when a much-needed cup of coffee is described as ‘thick, black high density tar’ p.294) or when ‘Tall oppressive soviet housing blocks each side of the road create a valley of their own and I ride in their depressing shadow’ (p.229). That’s not to say these low moments are by any means dull for the reader. For instance, who knew you could pay a police fine using an ATM in Georgia?!
In an age where it’s standard practice to spend hours gloating over our holidays, from the booking stages to the post-trip uploading of endless photos, it’s great to be brought back down to earth. After all, the public image of the trip that we project through Facebook is a carefully crafted and edited version of events, and this is the – probably Photoshopped – yardstick we measure ourselves and others by. What Ureka offers is a warts-and-all account of travelling, down to relentless ‘bureaucratic hurdles’ and the realisation of ‘feeling burnt-out and tired, uninspired and unenthusiastic’ whilst on a dream trip (p.210-211).
Just as Field finds photo-worthy scenes in unlikely settings, he finds poetry in the everyday and the unique. Some of his best sentences are dropped into paragraphs about checking into yet another anonymous hotel (‘The room is tiny and dark, and I decorate it from TV to curtain rail with my hanging moist clothing as I peel off the layers’, p.31) and hitting bad weather (‘hail hammers down. It turns the road white and whips my fingers raw’ p.176).
Of course, aside from the everyday, the vivid descriptions continue when travelling through incredible landscapes. Take this moment in Bulgaria: ‘I go down to the coast, where the Mediterranean is dark and inky, peppered with darker islands that float like oil slicks’ (p.72) and, later, the mental image of villages being ‘one generation away from abandonment’ (p.75). I also really relished his descriptions of life in Iraq, with the safety and friendliness of Kurdistan, in particular Dohuk and Amedi, showing the country in a new light to UK readers more familiar with war-torn Baghdad seen on the news. I’ve now added Kurdistan to my bucket list.
The experience of being on the road is equally ripe for observations. Let’s not forget that Field is just the person to describe the roads themselves, whether they’re like a ‘cliff-clinging ribbon’ (p.99) or packed with ‘gusty switchbacks’ (p.268). He also shows how warped a country’s borders can seem when you’re on the ground. There’s the fluidity: ‘Kurdistan is both south and north of me, its squiggly boundaries appear to overlap Turkey and Syria’ (p.162) and the rigidity: ‘I run along a lakeside… usually a body of water is divided down the middle but not this one. Turkey has claimed it all and the Armenian villagers can’t even fish in it’ (p.280). None of this rich detail could be found from the window seat of an aeroplane.
Naturally, other details are added about the mechanics of maintaining a working bike, many of which went over my head as I’m a total novice, but they proved there’s a lot more science and craft to biking than I could ever have imagined. The closest I’ve got to being a biker was a Vespa trip round Rome, though Ureka has certainly tempted me to broaden my horizons.
Questioning the Status Quo
Throughout the book there’s a piercing social commentary on everything from modern communication to turf wars, with no subject too raw or too controversial to be tackled. One of the most striking moments happens during a ferry boat crossing in Turkey:
‘Soon sitting around all day will be the only occupation left. Up river, giant concrete “A” shape structures have been erected, the supports for the imminent bridge which will take away several little livelihoods overnight. The brief glance down into the canyon the crossing motorists will have, won’t ever reveal this social service, specifically here for the time-rich traveller who wishes to reach the other side. That’s how it happens, that’s how the world speeds up, and communities disappear, that’s how interaction is replaced with automation.’ (p.133).
It’s not just society being pondered here, as Field is also keen to put guidebooks up for scrutiny, rightfully resenting sections crammed with ‘flowery, over-rated enthusiasm’ (p.352). Special mention goes to the ‘sensationally misguided’ Lonely Planet Turkey, which lazily likens a stretch of road near Sinop to the Pacific Coast Highway in California (p.301) – something he can easily dispute, having experienced both. Conversely, Lonely Planet Georgia totally misses the significance and beauty of Ushguli, a medieval time warp of a village that Field waxes lyrical about. I’m adding Ushguli to my bucket list based on his findings, not least to try playing one of the locally made guitars which can supposedly forecast the weather.
Going Against the Grain
There’s no denying that Graham Field is the mainstream tourist’s worst nightmare. He freely admits to being ‘the after-hours observer’ (p.95) at popular attractions, keen to bypass places filled with ‘solid ugly hotels, shops of garish plastic beach toys and Manchester United towels’ (p.255). He’s more partial to visiting abandoned buildings, like Buzludzha in Bulgaria, and finding solitary spots for wild camping. Despite this, he’s also keen to prove there’s no glory in being a constantly free spirit, as shown in his encounters with a nomadic Swiss camper van couple and a deluded Turkish artist.
The Swiss couple have taken in 178 countries over 28 years, so they might seem like the kind of people who regularly seize the day, yet they refuse to have dinner out of the hotel room and turn down the chance to see the old city area of Baku. Their compromises in order to budget seem to cost them great experiences along the way. Meanwhile, the creative Turk is so caught up in his own genius (describing his work as ‘”Dali to the power of a thousand…My signature alone has infinite connotations”‘, p.304) that he has lost his grip on reality and is avoided by people on the street. These bizarre encounters are a good opportunity for reflection.
Now comes the difficult part. Whilst you can tell I’m championing this book, it wouldn’t be much of a review if I didn’t scan it with a critical eye, especially as Field himself is so good at critically reviewing the places he writes about. Being an uptight stickler for spelling and grammar, I couldn’t help feeling that Ureka needed one final edit to tighten up punctuation (generally misplaced or absent commas) and amend the odd typo (‘He lives is a tiny hotel room’, p.144) or spelling/grammar mistake (‘Shakespeare’s King Leer‘, p.28). For many readers this won’t be a distraction from the prose, but because I’m such a geek I found it took me longer to absorb the story when I was mentally getting out my red pen to correct phrases like ‘its wet, its sunny, its dry, it cold’, p.87. This isn’t a dig at Field’s writing: a quick proof-read by the publishers could have removed the errors. However, these issues certainly shouldn’t stop anyone giving this book a chance.
Ultimately, Ureka is the kind of book I wish I had the guts to write. It made me long for a type of travel I’m not often able to achieve – overland, slower paced journeys with time to meet locals and no strict itinerary, allowing mood rather than time pressures to set the pace. I’m now determined to try and take in multiple countries or destinations on each future trip, crossing borders and continents without being geared towards a single city and spending the bulk of the budget on flights to get there. Field has proved how easy it is to find authenticity and diversity when you really go looking for it and you refuse to accept a one-size-fits-all holiday. Now, if I can just get my hands on a motorcycle…
Disclaimer: I was kindly sent a copy of Ureka, but my review wasn’t subject to any editorial conditions imposed by the publishers, author or PR team behind the book.