Cappadocia update coming as time permits – I took almost 500 photos there!
Dazed & Confused in İstanbul
İstanbul – wow, what a city! I can’t say I’ve seen it all, or even that much of it (it’s so big!), but what I have seen is very, very cool. I’ve been a lot longer that I ever intended, which is both a bonus and a headache. The bonus comes in the people I’ve met, the things I’ve seen & done, and the preparation I’ve managed to complete. The headache is that I’m now *way* behind schedule, and facing a very wet, chilly & difficult ride through the toughest part of my journey…
But I think I’ll dwell on the pluses here
During my overnight stay at the semi-posh hotel, I learned that virtually all hostels in İstanbul are in the district of Sultanahmet, on the SE tip of the European side of İstanbul. (A little geography lesson for those not aware: one of İstanbul’s many claims to fame is that it’s the only city in the world that spans two continents – Europe and Asia – and is divided by a straight called the Bosphorus.) The next morning I had a little chat over a tourist map with the concierge, and once semi-confident of my bearings, I was off to find my ‘real’ base in İstanbul. As previously lamented, my trusty GPS was no longer much use to me (I had the ‘all Europe’ data DVD, but Turkey isn’t Europe… yet), so I was reduced to using the generic World Map data; very low detail and no route-finding capabilities. The two major roads into İstanbul were shown, but that was it. I decided to just ignore it and try to follow the road-signs to Sultanahmet. This plan sort-of worked out, right up until I stumbled into a crowded market street (I later learned this was part of the Grand Bazaar). It was choked to death with cars, trucks, barrow-carts, scooters and hundreds of people, all milling around intently. The vehicles honked in fits, cursing the unseen enemies ahead, while the people darted between them, trying not to get squished for entertainment. The road curved down and around a hill, and I could only really see for about 30 metres. A number of side streets radiated from this clogged lane, but they too seemed to curve off in various directions. Before I could even count all of my options, a nearby shopkeeper asked me where I was going. He grimaced and shook his head when I told him – clearly this wasn’t the way to Sultanahmet.
About five or six curious people gathered around me, and a few pointed at various side-streets, encouraging me to take them. The shopkeeper argued passionately with them for a while, as a battered delivery truck slowly bore down on me in the inching traffic. Just as the truck began honking and shoving me into a stack of boxes (and the curious on-lookers), the shopkeeper fixed me with a fiery glare and pointed off to the left. I waved thanks and pushed away from the truck, taking the left side-street to escape this impossible obstacle course. The side-street was very steep, and immediately became a narrower and more clogged version of the parent street. Within seconds I was stuck in another people-jam. A group of teenage guys were sitting on some assorted junk nearby, and one jumped up and bounced over to me. He straddled my front wheel, facing me while gripping my handlebars, yelling ‘Romania! Romania! Romania!…’ to my face.
‘No, no – Australia!’ I yelled in reply, forcing a smile.
‘Ooooh! Australia – ha ha!’, he clucked, then hopped aside and moved to the back of the bike. ‘Full service! Full service – yes!’ he shouted to his friends, messing with a rear pannier. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to remove the pannier, or sit on top of it, but either way I wasn’t having it.
‘Gotta go now!’ I warned with a grin, and cranked the pedals hard. I saw the guy pitch off-balance as I dove around the van in front of me and down into the crowded path, forcing everyone to get out of my way. I kept weaving down the street, through the pedestrians and vehicles, turning complete strangers into furious protesters at an impressive rate. I finally cleared the market zone, and wound up at the bottom of the hill, on the waterfront – the Golden Horn! Another battle was taking place here – cars, trucks & motorbikes were facing off against trams that were sweeping around the corner in both directions. The tram drivers made no attempt to slow down or stop, so it was up to the traffic to make space, which they somehow succeeded in doing.
It was here that I realized I’d come down the wrong side of the promontory – I was on the north side, when Sultanahmet is on the south. I decided to ride along the waterline, rather than try to fight my way up and over the market hill again. The weather was perfect, and the sun, sky and sea made a beautiful sight after all of the dry grassland and harvested fields on the way down here (not to mention the asphalt, concrete and traffic!). I soon made it to Sultanahmet, and I started climbing back up the hill from the other side, hugging the wall of Topkapi Palace.
Rather than continue this blow-by blow description of everything that has happened to me in İstanbul, I’ll try to give you the ‘edited highlights’ version…
I stayed at three different hostels while in İstanbul. The first (Antique Hostel) was good, but fully booked-out after I’d spent two nights there. They even had air-conditioned rooms! The second (Orient Hostel) wasn’t much good at all, mainly thanks to the surly attitude of the guy at the desk – only one night there. The rest of the time was at the Sultan Hostel, which I can highly recommend. Great staff, clean rooms, and a very easy-going, friendly atmosphere.
I met my first friend in İstanbul at the Antique Hostel – Carlos, a smart, softly spoken Mexican/Texan living in Spain. We got chatting immediately, and were soon out walking the streets of Sultanahmet on the hunt for dinner.
Carlos & I wound up going for dinner a few times over the next week, and had one memorably chilled-out discussion over Turkish coffee and a ‘sheesha’ (water pipe) at a coffee house. I don’t smoke, as a rule, but I found myself enjoying the aromatic apple-infused tobacco a little more than I expected…
My second İstanbul buddy – and a guy I have a lot in common with – I met out the front of the Sultan Hostel. As Carlos and I wandered up to the front of the Hostel to check it out, this guy was lounging at a table with a couple of girls (he seemed to know every girl, in fact everybody, on the street). He peered intently at my bike, then looked up at me with a savvy grin. We introduced ourselves while Carlos popped inside to check out the prices and vacancy situation. His name was Christian, from Austria, and he was cycling his way to China. He’d arrived a few days earlier, and was here in İstanbul taking a break, waiting for his Iranian visa to be approved. A fellow nut-job cyclist! Excellent. We briefly traded notes on the route, the gear we were carrying and a bunch of other ‘exciting’ cycling details, and agreed to catch up later.
As it turned out, Christian and I were to become very good friends, and a bad influence on each other. We hardly managed to escape the limits of the street, or even the Hostel cafe – we pretty much sat around the hostel most days, beer in hand, discussing the intricacies and concerns of our chosen routes, gear, preparation, visa timings and sanity in general. Especially our sanity. We finally agreed that we were both nuts, that I was going to freeze to death somewhere nasty, and that he was going to die of lethargy or alcohol poisoning. He finally got his Iranian via, but his timings got screwed up a bit, so I think we decided he was going to freeze to death too – just a little later than me (maybe).
For a while there was a chance that we would be riding together for a few days, but his route included Georgia, Armenia and possibly Azerbaijan, before entering Iran (where he would wait-out the winter), whereas mine would take me straight across Turkey and into Iran. He was keen to see the Black Sea coast, whereas I was more interested in central Anatolia, specifically Cappadocia. In the end, we decided to part ways at the same spot we met – in front of the Sultan Hostel. Christian – If you’re reading this, best of luck mate – we’re both going to need it!
So what did I actually do in İstanbul? Well, let me think…
I saw the amazing Aya Sophia (a.k.a. Hagia Sofya):
This remarkable building was originally a patriarchal basilica, the biggest cathedral in the world for almost 1000 years, before being converted into a mosque by the Ottomans when they took over in 1453. The minarets were added, as well as a few internal architectural changes and additions – but much of the Christian artwork was spared or plastered over, rather than destroyed. Upon ‘suggestion’ by the secular Republic of Turkey’s venrated leader Mustafa Kemal (known as Attaturk – ‘Father Turk’) in 1935, the Aya Sophia became a museum. Check out the Wikipedia entry for more details:
I also visited the glorious Sultanahmet Camii (a.k.a. Blue Mosque). This mosque sits adjacent to the Aya Sophia, but is much newer – completed in 1616. It isn’t actually blue, but it does have an incredible tiled interior that features a lot of blue detailing in the patterns. See for yourself:
Contrary to expectation, Christian and I did manage to venture all the way to the end of the street, meaning we could get into Topkapi Palace for a look around. The place is huge – I was there for almost four hours (Christian bailed after three) and I still only saw about half of the rooms. With beautiful, serene courtyards the size of football fields, it was actually possible to forget about the chaos of İstanbul just over the wall. Some pretty cool stuff in the armoury too, but neither of us were impressed with the jewel-encrusted gold style they had going on. Everything from tea cups to mega-thrones, all plastered with gold & precious stones – it looked pretty tacky if you ask me. No photos were allowed of the glittery stuff, but I’m not too disappointed. All the money in the world can’t buy taste, right?
We also managed to get across the Bosphorus and took a taxi up one of the big hills on the other side of town, giving a nice view of most of the city from the Asian side. Christian found a couple of Swiss girls to join us (not the same girls as before), who had just gotten into town after visiting Jordan and Israel for a while. They enjoyed their trip, but weren’t too thrilled at their treatment by Israeli customs as they left the country – a full baggage check and strip search, followed by a 90 minute grilling, for no reason they could determine. They had to show every photo they’d taken too. I’d have to laugh (or cry) if that happened to me, as I’ve taken just over 3000 pics now…
On a less touristy note, I managed to find a decent camping shop and a few bike shops that weren’t quite useless. Between these places I picked up a decent alpine soft-shell jacket, some hiking boots (sandal season was rapidly coming to an end), the GPS data for Turkey (yay!), spare cables for the bike, a spare chain (after watching Christian break his right in front of me) and an emergency ‘space blanket’. You know – those foil blankets that astronauts use to avoid getting hypothermia. Or something like that. So I now won’t die in the Pamirs! Yay!
Christian teaches a desciple the art of hand filthing.
Regarding the jacket, specifically the color – orange – there’s a little detail that neither Christian nor I were aware of until we were just heading our separate ways. It seems orange has been adopted by anti-Bush lobbyists as the color to represent their discontent with U.S. foreign policy, and have urged everyone to wear it as a sign of their own unhappiness with the state of affairs in the middle east. As such, it’s a bit of a sensitive issue in Iran to be wearing orange (or so I’ve heard), so it looks like I might not be using the jacket while I’m there. I hope it isn’t cold! But I don’t feel too bad, because however cold I get, I know Christian is screwed
In our days of lounging about the hostel, Christian and I met quite a few interesting characters. There were the three English guys who had also ridden down to İstanbul from London – they had each bought a bike from the local supermarket for 150 pounds a piece (!), then rode them all the way down to Turkey with *minimal* gear. One of them – Ashley – wore the same shirt for the entire journey! The bikes were in a bit of a state when they arrived, but they made it, and I’m very impressed (in a horrified kind of way). Oddly enough, they all claimed to have enjoyed Romania immensely, and met lots of friendly, generous people while they were there. Clear evidence of the Parallel Universe Theory in action…
There was also the Aussie backpacker – Nick ‘stinkybeef’ – who joined in the fun with the English cyclists, including a bit of Frisbee action from the rooftop, and a lot of bow-and-arrow misbehavior (of the suction-cup variety, thankfully).
One remarkable (and clearly insane) fellow we met went by the name Paul Gardner. Christian & I were just hanging around in the lobby area when this guy walked in with his backpack, and in the course of conversation it came out that he had just walked – yes, *walked* – from London! I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for having ridden it by bike, but to walk it is a completely different level of craziness… Hats off to you Paul – I really can’t imagine how you actually did it, but it truly is an amazing achievement. Check out his blog: http://london2istanbul.blogspot.com
I must also say a huge thanks to Hande and her husband Burak. Hande is a colleague of Maki’s, working in the İstanbul office of the same company. They met last year at a conference in Germany, and hit it off well at the dinner after the conference. Luckily for me, Maki stayed in contact with her, so when I got to İstanbul Hande and Burak were good enough to take me to a very trendy place in Taksim (the shopping & nightlife district of İstanbul) and made sure I had a great time. They even paid for my dinner! I still feel a bit guilty about that, guys. Please come to Tokyo sometime so I can repay the favour!
I should also mention Ken, the mad (but helpful) Irishman. I was out at a bookshop at 7:00pm, just on closing time, asking the staff about the new 2007-edition of the Lonely Planet for Central Asia. I’d been looking for this book everywhere since I learned that a new edition was to be released in August this year. As expected, the shop didn’t have it, but just as I thanked the guy anyway, I heard a voice from the doorway behind me. ‘You’re goin’ through there, are ya?’ said the fellow that I soon got to know as Ken. We got talking about Iran & central Asia on the way back to the hostel district. It turned out that he was going through that area himself, by a mixture of plane, bus and taxi, and he was using the same agent (David Berghof, Stantours) as myself for many of the arrangements. Ken is an air-traffic controller by trade, very organized with a no-nonsense approach. This also extends to drinking, as I discovered the hard way later that night. Together with Kristy and Travis (a couple of other new friends) we self-destructed gracefully at the table in front of the hostel. At least, it seemed fairly graceful from where I was lying.
Oh – the rough-nut in the front of the photo is Volcan, one of the staff from the hostel. A great guy, with a great name!
We wound up getting together a couple more times over the next week – the carnage was ugly. But we had a lot of fun, and we parted ways with an impromptu birthday celebration for Ken. After missing his train to Tehran when the bus he was returning to İstanbul on broke down, he managed to pull some strings and get himself a flight to Tehran instead. He thought it was the following morning, so we all braced ourselves for another big night, but it turned out the flight was to be that very evening. Ken sat down just long enough to have his cake and eat it too (which he thoroughly enjoyed, as you can see), then he was off. This is possibly the only photo of him drinking Coca-Cola in existence…
Then there was Will & Ben, another couple of strapping young cyclists from England, who had just made a dash from the U.K. to Tehran. They clocked some impressive daily distances on the way there, and were great fun to talk to. We had planned to go for a ride together on the way out of İstanbul (a joy-ride for them, my farewell), but Murphy’s law took effect and it never happened, which is a shame.
Just before I left İstanbul, I got to know a Greek-Scottish guy named Alex. He’d just started studying civil engineering at a university in İstanbul, and was looking around for a place to live when we met at the hostel. Strange-but-cool to hear him switch between fluent Greek on the telephone, then a clearly Scottish version of English talking to me. A very interesting guy too – I hope we get a chance to meet again.
In fact, I hope to be able to catch up with any and all of the excellent people I met in İstanbul – you’re all welcome to come and crash at my place in Tokyo any time – just not at the *same* time, please!
If I get the chance, I’ll definitely be coming back to Istanbul someday…
Erzurum to Horasan (pics soon)
A cold, windy day today. I set off a little late, after having some trouble getting a decent breakfast, and feeling a little run-down for some reason.
After sorting out the bill for the hotel, and getting stung badly for the (crappy, unreliable) wireless Internet, I was off and rolling for Horasan. Erzurum is the first place in all of Turkey where I’ve had to pay for WiFi access at a hotel or hostel, but the guy showed me the ISP bill and explained that it’s not an all-you-can-eat plan like most places. I’ll be sure to ask in advance next time…
The scenery was quite dramatic, with a huge line of snow covered hills and mountains to my left, brooding under a heavy, clouded sky. The pace was fairly quick, as Erzurum is about 200m higher than Horasan, so I had a slight down-hill most of the way, and the wind was in my favour. I passed through open, rolling hills and broad harvested fields, with the occasional farm house dotting the landscape. At one point I rolled through a town presided over by a citadel, perched up on a rocky cliff. Fruit & vegetable vendors lined the road in stalls and trucks, selling bags of potatos, cabbage, melons and other produce. They all had something to say to me – mainly encouragement (I assume), though a lot of them wanted to know where I was from, and where I was going. Most just made as much noise as possible, in a kind-of-nice-but-annoying way. I also passed a mini man-made Cappadocia house, quiet strangely out of place in this landscape…
As I passed a beautiful old bridge, two guys that were crossing it broke into a run, shouting at me and gesticulating wildly. These guys looked a bit rough-and-ready, and I wasn’t sure I should stop, even though I really wanted a photo of the bridge. In the end I did, and waited for them to approach. The shouting and carry-on stopped when they realized I was actually stopping for them, and they walked up quietly with curious grins. The men were in their late 20′s, I’d say, and didn’t speak a word of English. They gestured for a cigarette (as many of the people I meet do), but weren’t upset that I didn’t have any. I think I might buy some as an ice-breaker, though. We had a very lop-sided conversation, with me speaking slowly and carefully, and them looking at each other in confusion, before I finally shook hands and hit the road again. Nice guys, I think, but this particular language barrier was bullet-proof…
More dramatic hills, fields and mountains. As I passed what looked like a school, a bunch of kids ran squealing across the road, nearly getting hit by a passing car. They yelled ‘Allo! – money! money! money!’ and one kid hurdled the crash barrier on my side of the road to pick up a small concrete block, which he promptly pitched at me, hitting me on the bum. I was furious, and seriously considered turning around to ‘teach them a lesson’, whatever that might turn out to be. But it was pointless – if I beat one up, then I’ve beaten up a kid. Gold star for that. Yelling at them would be nothing but entertainment for them. Or else they all start pitching stones, and I get a broken GPS, sunglasses or teeth for my troubles. I kept riding, dreaming up vengeance that belongs in a Tarantino movie.
By about 4:30, I rolled into Horasan, trailed by more screaming kids, all shouting ‘Hey! Tourist! Tourist!’, and I decided that stopping would be a mistake. I chugged up the main street, looking for a hotel, and spotted one across the train tracks. The bike felt pretty sluggish, and when I crossed the tracks I found out why – the back tyre was virtually flat. My slow leak must have developed into a fast leak, and the rear rim bottomed-out on the track, making me cringe. What to do? Get off and push, and be mobbed by the kids, or keep riding on the crippled wheel, risking damage and disaster? The tyre still had a little air, so I decided to go for it, and pedaled quickly toward the door of the hotel. The ‘lobby’ was really just a grubby tea salon, with a few patrons (all men) sitting around smoking and sipping tea. The guy on duty must have seen me coming – not surprising considering I looked like a space-invader, towing a string of screaming kids in my tractor-beam. He opened the door, and I virtually rode straight into the tea room, the rim bottoming-out again on the door frame. He shouted something at the kids, who all plastered themselves to the front window, leaving grubby hand and nose marks on the glass. Another shout, and most reluctantly peeled themselves off the glass and stood back, but a few die-hards kept pushing their luck. He then welcomed me, and pointed at a spot to put the bike (against the window, which brought all the kids back in force). The grizzled patrons of this establishment all eyed me and the bike in silence, sipping their tea and hazing up the room with smoke. I offered a ‘Merhaba’ (hello) to a few nearby, then asked about a room. The hotel guy was very friendly, and even spoke some passable English on certain topics. The room was, uh, a room – a tobacco-stained box with two single beds crammed in, some well-dead carpet, and no curtain. ‘Problem?’ he asked in a slightly embarassed tone. ‘No problem’ I said, and kind of meant it. At least no shoes were allowed in the rooms, which was just as well after seeing the state of the toilet… He helped me haul the bags up, and it was time to get clean.
The ‘douche’ was a little cubicle with a couple of taps, and a hole bashed through the floor (going somewhere, but not sure where – the trickling sound was puzzling). The water was nice and hot though, and I washed while seated with a plastic jug, scooping the water over me.
Feeling much better, I put on some decent clothes and went down to the tea room, where I introduced myself properly, and explained a few details of my trip, and about the bike. A friend of the staff guy offered to lead me to a kebap shop down the street, where I had the best Iskender kebap I’ve ever tasted. Fantastic!
From there, we returned to the tea salon, where I endeavored to fix my rear tyre. I discovered a nasty piece of wire stabbing though the tyre at a couple of points, just next to each other. When I checked the tube in a sink full of water, I discovered two leaks, on opposite sides of the tube. I patched them both, put the wheel back on the bike, and pumped it up. Fixed! I took the bike for a quick spin in the dark, and was immediately set upon by a group of young teenage guys. They started taking the piss out of me, but were curious at the same time. They couldn’t quite decide whether to be outright rude for entertainment’s sake, or to drop the crap and have a real conversation. In the end, an older patron of another tea salon across the street came out to greet me, and quickly took center stage. I would have sworn he was drunk, but that was highly unlikely in this area. He turned out to be sober, but basically crazy (in a friendly way). He forcibly hijacked me and the bike, shoving me into the tea salon and seating himself opposite me, inquisition style. I nervously eyed the bike every couple of seconds, as the teens all stood around it, pointing and fiddling with it on the other side of the glass. Eventually they all came inside, figuring I was better entertainment than the bike, while the owner of the place brought me cup after tiny cup of tea. We had a weird conversation, mainly centred on where I was from. Nobody seemed to have heard of Australia, and no mater how I pronounced it, everyone just assumed I was saying Austria. One guy, who spoke pretty good English, asked me what language I spoke in my country. When I told him we all spoke English in Australia, he was very troubled. He asked why we would do such a thing, as English speak English, French speak Frenchish, Germans speak Germanish, so why don’t we speak Austr(al)ianish? I explained the history a little, with English colonisation and all, which troubled him even more. I wish I’d had a map with me…
I finally escaped the crazy guy, and after politely refusing to give everyone a turn on my bike, I was rescued by the guy from my hotel. He steped across the street, plucked the bike from my hands and shot off down the road. I tried to explain that the bike has gears, and that he needn’t pedal so furiously, but he figured I was just trying to stop him, and gleefully ignored me. He finally parked the bike in front of the hotel, so I waved goodnight to the crowd and wheeled the bike inside.
I was just in time to watch the second half of the Turkey-Greece qualifying match for the football World Cup. Turkey lost, 0-1, so the mood was not good. I made my excuses and went to bed as soon as I could.
Horasan to Elshkirt
Well, today was a very mixed day. I enjoyed some amazing scenery, chugged up a couple of passes, had a few run-ins with kids-from-Hell (and a few nice ones), and a show-down with a scary dog. I met a nice dog too. I also met a fellow cyclist named Gunter, from Austria, coming the other way. I learned a few things about myself too – perhaps not-so-good things… But I’ll come to that in a moment.
I started out early, getting up a 6:30 (thanks to the deafening Muezzin call of the mosque next door). After packing up, I hit the streets for breakfast at a ‘locanta’ (restaurant), choosing the only thing on offer – lentil soup and bread. As far as I know, I’m allergic to lentils (and most beans), but the lentils here are no problem. I ate a lot.
On the way back to the ‘hotel’, I popped into a surprisingly well-stocked supermarket to pick up some supplies – a couple of bananas, chocolate bars, some shower gel and a bottle of water. I suddenly remembered a troubling thought from last night too – there was no toilet paper in the squat toilet at the hotel, and clearly there never had been. I’m still not quite, uh, ‘localised’ enough to do the hand-and-water-jug method of cleaning up, so I thought I’d have a look for some toilet paper too. To my relief, the shop was well stocked in a wide variety of single and multi-ply rolls, but all types came exclusively in 6-pack or greater sizes. I hunted around for a double, or ideally a single roll pack, but the best I could do was a 4-pack I found in the specials bin. Armed with my essentials, I trotted back to base to load the bike and get rolling.
It was a good thing I remembered that troubling thought, as that particular essential became necessary about 15 minutes later. In a classic ‘Doh!’ moment, I discovered that I hadn’t actually bought a 4-pack of toilet paper, but rather a twin-pack of kitchen paper! Never the less, it performed admirably, and in many ways was a better choice – it also functions as tissue paper and even a rag.
I checked last night’s repair efforts, and was disappointed to find that the tyre still had a slow leak. Rather than repeat the ordeal, I put another 100 pumps of air into the tyre and hoped for the best. I’ll fix it tomorrow…
I was soon on the road, pedaling toward my first big climb under a clear blue sky. Erzurum is about 1800m elevation, and the pass I was headed for was 2300m (2290, to be exact). The climb was constant and gradual, and not particularly taxing, other than a few kilometres marked with ‘steep grade’ signs. Spectacular scenery – an endless procession of rounded snow-covered peaks to my right, and some very steep, greenish-brown hills to my left, completely barren. Now, this was the kind of cycling I’d been looking forward to!
About half way up, I picked up a friend. A fairly big dog, perhaps a border-collie mixed with something much bigger, bounded up the embankment to my right and started shadowing me at a distance of a few metres. I wasn’t too excited about this at first, but he didn’t seem to be at all aggressive, and was just loping along in a friendly way. I started talking to him, trying to get some conversation going, but he was non-committal. I paused for a ‘pit stop’ behind some bushes after about 10 minutes, and he just sat down at a respectful distance, whining a little, then stretching out in the morning sun.
I guess I lost him after another kilometre or so, and not long after I met quite a different sort of dog. This was an Anatolian Carabash, very much a local tough-guy, and not a dog to be careless of. I used to live with a girl in Australia many years ago that had one of these dogs – quite a rarity in Australia – and I knew they could be very gentle-natured. I also knew they could be absolutely lethal if they felt their ‘flock’ was in danger, as their nature is to act as protector from wolves and other predators. He was in no mood for conversation. He stood in front of me, growling and barking, and there was no way I was going to try and ride past him. Having read about this situation in the Turkish Lonely Planet, and the Adventure Cycling Guide, I decided to try the advice. Watching carefully, I reached down and picked up a decent sized rock, and immediately the dog started backing off. I raised my hand, and the dog ducked and side-stepped across the road, still barking, but a little less sure of himself. I didn’t throw the rock, but I kept it in the air, and eventually the dog disappeared down the far embankment, to my relief. Apparently this is standard procedure in this part of the world, and the dogs all seem to know what’s coming when someone reaches for the rocks…
I sped up a little for the next kilometre or so, just to be sure. No sooner had I put that behind me, when a much more aggravating problem arrived in the form of the kids-from-Hell. A stream of five or six young kids, maybe 5 to 7 years old, came running down a hill, shouting and waving at me. After my experience from yesterday, I was not keen on this encounter. Sure enough, as soon as they were within a few metres of me, they started shouting ‘Allo! – money! money! money!’. Where do they learn this stuff? It must be part of their schooling…
This was one of the steeper parts of the ascent, so my speed was no better than walking pace for these kids, and they quickly gathered around the back of the bike. They hovered around like flies, eyeing the gloves, beanie and Lonely Planet I had strapped under the bungie cords. I tried to keep my eyes on them without crashing the bike, but it was difficult on the gravelly surface. I forced a smile, saying ‘sorry, no money!’, and tried to pick up the pace. One kid made a grab for the beanie, and I immediately stopped the bike, nearly dropping it to the ground. I shouted a few choice obscenities at them, which brough fearful looks for at least half a second, before they regained their composure and made another grab for the goods. The road ahead was even steeper, and out-running them was going to *hurt*. I hopped off the bike, which made them back-off a few steps, then jumped back on and pedaled furiously, upping the gears a couple of notches. They all broke into a run, chasing me up the hill, and I knew if they caught me, my stuff was history. I grunted and stomped up the hill, and surprisingly managed to lose them after about 50 metres. They pelted a few rocks and a bit of rusty cable, naturally, but all fell wide. I kept churning the pedals until my lungs were burning and my legs threatened divorce. After another 100m or so, I dropped back the gearing and gulped the cold mountain air, the salt stinging my eyes.
I wanted to run back down there with the biggest rocks I could find, or maybe a bull-whip. Yes, perfect! A bull whip! But the thought shook me up a little – these were only kids, even if they were Satan’s children, and violent retaliation would be ‘extremely uncool’, to put it mildly. What could I do? I kept pedaling. But the thought stayed with me, and troubled me for the rest of the climb.
I finally reached the top of the pass at about 2:30pm, and paused for the photo shoot, and to pump some more air into my still-leaking back tyre. I was now in the snow-line, and my fleece was quite damp after sweating it up the climb for the last few hours. I was really feeling the cold in the chill mountain breeze. Even with my breatheable rain-jacket over the fleece, I’d felt uncomfortably cold on the way down a minor descent earlier in the day. I decided to pull out the down jacket, and am I ever glad I did. I was warm and toasty the whole way down, the breeze having no effect through the lovely fluffy down filling – it really saved me a lot of grief. Big thanks to Maki-chan for sending me my winter gear in Istanbul!
About 7km down the descent, I met a fellow tour cyclist coming up the other way. We stopped for a brief chat – his name was Gunter, he’d been on the road for 16 months, started in Katmandu, and he was made of iron. This guy is amazing – he was only wearing a bandanna, a long-sleeved cycling shirt, trousers, and sandals with socks! Unbelievable – I was freezing without my down jacket, and he was dressed for summer cycling! He admitted to being ‘a little cold’, having sent his winter stuff home long ago after getting sick of hauling it through the desert summer in Turkmenistan. Plus, he’d already cycled 150km today, and was debating whether to pitch tent soon, or push on the extra 50km to Horasan, where I’d come from. I told him the summit was another 7km, then it was basically down-hill to Horasan. We exchanged details, took a photo each, and said goodbye. Incredible – this guy is *tough* – he didn’t even have gloves! He had a few ominous things to say about Tajikistan too – if _he_ says the roads are incredibly bad, and very difficult (and destructive) to ride, then I’m scared… Especially in the winter.
I finally arrived in Elshkirt at about 4:30pm. I had originally planned to stop here for lunch, thinking I would arrive much earlier, but was feeling pretty shagged (and very hungry) when I rolled into town, and the temperature was dropping. I didn’t fancy riding in the dark in these mountains, even if it was a 30km down-hill to Agri (my intended destination). After getting directions to a restaurant / petrol station, it turned out to be a truckers hotel too, and I gave way to temptation. I’m glad I did, actually, as it turns out I’ve caught a cold, and I’m running a slight fever with a runny nose. The extra exertion to Agri would have been ugly, but I’m hoping to feel better in the morning and make a strong start. At least this room is clean, and the bed feels good.
Elshkirt to Dogubayazit
Rest &Preparation day in Dogubayazit
Also coming soon – but I can tell you I visited the beautiful Ishak Pasha palace, and took plenty of photos. I also changed my Turkish Lira into US dollars, and it’s a good thing I did – they ain’t worth squat in Iran… Which is where I am, by the way!