Iran

28 10 2007

Dogubayazit to Maku – into Iran!
Today’s the day – I made it to Iran! I’m pretty excited about it, and perhaps a little nervous too. I’m not really expecting any of spectacular nonsense that I’ve been warned of by some, but I will be taking extra care on the roads – I have no doubt about the accuracy of the traffic reports I’ve been hearing.

I got up nice and early, and managed to find a breakfast of soup & bread just down the street. Mt. Ararat finally decided to show itself, looming large and impressive to the north. I packed up quickly and got the gear on the bike, then got rolling eastwards again, headed for Gurbulak – the border – 30km away.

Nice and flat, under a clear blue sky, the ride to Gurbalak was a lot of fun. I really felt a surge this morning – I’d been awaiting this day since the trip began. I can’t quite explain why crossing into Iran was such a big deal for me – perhaps it represents where my ‘true adventure’ begins. In fact, every country from Denmark to Turkey was new to me also, but there’s something about entering a country where your visa may actually be denied that makes it feel like more of an achievement. Whatever the reason, it had me tingling in the saddle, and the glorious sunny kilometeres dissolved under my front wheel like sugar in Turkish chai. (Yikes – I’m a poet!)

Soon enough, the Turkish border town of Gurbulak was within sight, with the military checkpoint dominating the road just beyond. A long line of parked or idling semi-trailers led up to the checkpoint office, and before I got more than three trucks deep, a friendly driver flagged me down for a cup of tea and a bite to eat. I parked the bike against his truck, and he pulled up a collapsable stool for me. He and a fellow driver were eating an early lunch out of a large storage box that was slung beneath the trailer he was towing, and it was jammed full of pots & pans, bread and spreads, tea and coffee. He pushed some bread towards me, along with a spoon, and motioned to get stuck into the jar in front of me. It was full of a mixture of honey and pistachio nuts, along with a few other types of nuts. The nuts were all lined up in a pattern to tile the inside of the jar, and the whole thing looked quite artistic. I dug my spoon in and pried out a wad, smearing it on the bread clumsily. It tasted pretty good, I have to admit. He also poured me a cup of hot lemon tea, made from a sachet, which I later learned was from Bulgaria. This was pretty good too, so he made me another, and then insisted I take half a dozen sachets with me for my trip. Top bloke.

On to the border, where I was met by a curious police man and an empty check-point office. My Turkish Lonely Planet warned that things ‘slow down’ at lunchtime, which must be a diplomatic way of saying ‘grind to a halt’. I sat around for about an hour, along with a couple of bored-but-friendly workmen, while the customs guy persisted in his absence. I dug out my maps and Iranian Lonely Planets, and after a half-mimed ‘conversation’ with my fellow waiters, the customs guy suddenly appeared at the circular hole in the glass, without any of us hearing him approach. The gents went first, then he quizzed me a little about my trip and sanity, and I was off towards the Iranian checkpoint, 300m up the road.

The same guys were at the gate to Iran, cooling thier heels again. The Iranian immigration official appeared much more quicky, thankfully, and welcomed me warmly. He let me through the main office (with the bike) to a desk where I handed over my passport, and explained my plans in Iran. The gents at the desk were quite serious-faced about everything, but were nice enough in what they had to say.

As soon as I’d set foot into the building, a couple of sharks had started circling, calling out ‘Hey mister – change money?’, and once I was done at the desk they came in for the kill. The first guy to reach me looked a lot like Willem Dafoe, only more so. With his severe, hollow features and death-ray glare, he looked about as trustworthy as a crack-addicted scorpion, and his manner did nothing to change this impression. He was all over me, hooking my arm in his and steering me to a side-door while motormouthing about lira, rial and dollars. One of the customs guys shouted something – apparently I wasn’t quite done yet, and I was leaving without permission. The guy let me go, whispering severely that he’d wait just outside, and would ‘fix me up good’. Indeed.

The customs guy took another look at my passport, then warned me that the sharks were not affiliated with the immigration department, and advised me to use the small bank office within the building for currency exchange. This matched what my Lonely Planet said, and when he waved me on with a stern face I thanked him and headed for the bank door. It appeared that I’d entered the bank through the back door, as I was on the inside of the teller box, rather than the customer side, but after a moment of confusion I was ushered to a chair and taken care of. I changed $400 into rial, and was handed a huge slab of notes – maybe 5cm thick… I guess the look on my face got the teller’s sympathy, because he took back the telephone book of legal tender and handed me a smaller stack of higher denomination notes. Still no way to get even a quarter of it in my money pouch though… Then I was out to face the sharks again. I had very little to give them, and I knew the current interbank exchange rate for Turkish lira to Iranian rial, so they didn’t do very well off of me. Extreme Dafoe wasn’t thrilled, but he payed and played, short-changing me 2000 rial (about 20 cents) – ‘business, my friend – only a cup of tea…’. So be it.

And that was it – I was in Iran!

The road from the border station was all downhill to the town of Bazargan. I stopped for a couple of photos of myself with the bike under the ‘Welcome to the I.R. of Iran’ sign, then rolled down the dusty hill with a big smile. Most everybody in town stopped and stared at me as I rode by, a few asking ‘Where are you from?’, or offering ‘Welcome to Iran!’, and a surprizing number asked if I needed to exchange money – from young teens to wizened old men – sharks everywhere, but these were very friendly sharks, and waved me on with a smile.

My first taste of Iran was dusty, noisy, a bit bizarre – an ‘anything goes’ vibe on the road, and very friendly. I loved it, and I couldn’t get the smile off my face. On I rode, the bike spinning sweetly.

Just as I exited Bazargan, I was somewhat surprised to see a statue of a woman atop a monument on the dividing strip of the road. She was dressed in nothing but a flowing white robe, off-the-shoulder and quite form-fitting. Definitely not in keeping with Iran’s “Islamic veil” laws, and fairly sassy by most standards. *NOTE* – I’ve just had a close look at the photos, and it seems I’ve gotten the little issue of the statue’s gender mixed up. Either that, or the unfortunate lass is blessed with a particularly flat, muscular chest… Doh!

The landscape of north-western Iran is quite magnificent – vast undulating planes of nothing but sandy dirt and scattered rocks, punctuated by enormous jagged hills and mountains, jutting out of the ground on dramatic angles. Even at fairly close range, the land ahead often looked impassable, but a road would meander through the severe peaks on a flat ribbon of earth, without any significant rises or dips. Very interesting, and quite beautiful.

As 4:00pm approached, I rolled into the beginnings of a spectacular gorge, with high rocky cliffs vaulting up on either side. At the same time, a wisp of cloud hovering over the south lip of the gorge became a thick, dark cloud, and the heavens opened up about two minutes later. I decided to ride through it without the rain gear, but changed my mind a short while later when it appeared that things were going to get really heavy. I donned the rain jacket but persevered without the over-pants, and was soon feeling the creeping coolness of the rainwater finding its way through my jocks.

The rain was short-lived, however, and was easing up as I rounded the sweeping bend to face down the main strip of the city of Maku. This town is really long, and quite narrow due to the confines of the gorge. Thankfully I was on the uphill side, and could just roll my way through town while keeping a lookout for the hotel I found in the Lonely Planet. I stopped a couple of times to try to establish where I was – the main street seemed endless – and had a quick chat to a young guy who was walking along the road-side. I told him where I was from and where I’m going, asked if he knew the Hotel Laleh, and kept moving. About 10 minutes later I found the hotel, booked a room and got the bike sorted out in the lobby. Before having a shower I wanted to buy some more water, and on my way out the door I bumped into the same young guy – his name was Mahdi. In fact he’d come to my hotel in search of me, as he wanted to continue the conversation we’d had – ‘because… I love you!‘, he explained.
Ummm… I think you mean, “I like you” – right?
Yes! I like… tourist
That’s very nice‘. (What else could I say?)
You can come to my family house. You can stay my home. I want.. you to cancel this hotel!‘ he said with a big grin.
That’s very nice, but I’ve already paid for this hotel…
The conversation went in circles for a while, with me not quite ready to go and stay at this guy’s family home (his folks had no idea about any of this).
Eventually I went and explained the situation to the hotel owner, who looked at me quite sternly. He sat me down and explained that the police don’t go for tourists staying in family residences, and that it brings trouble for both the tourist and particularly for the family involved. My curious young friend couldn’t resist evesdropping on the conversation, and got a faster, stronger version of the same warning in Farsi (or maybe Azeri – not sure). In the end, we agreed that I’d go and have dinner with Mahdi and a friend of his after I’d had a shower, and he would wait for me in the hotel lobby. I had a power-shower and got myself ready for my ‘date’ in about 20 minutes, while Mahdi got the full run-down on the police/tourist thing from the owner. He must have learned something pretty heavy, because he was quite apologetic for putting me on the spot later on, and I never even entered the front gate of his house that night.

He still wanted to show me around his neighborhood though, which was up the other end of town. He decided we should try to get a taxi, which is far easier said than done – about 50 other people had the same plan, and it was literally a shoving match at the nearby intersection. As soon as a taxi would start approaching, several competitors would make a dash for it, grabbing the door handle of the still-moving car and holding on for dear life. This would send him ploughing into the crowd behind him, but if he could keep a firm grip on the door and block the people behind him, the taxi was his. This went on endlessly, with more people joining the mess every few minutes, and scarcely any taxis. I just watched from the rear, not wanting to start an ‘international incident’ in the first few minutes of being in Iran. Mahdi gave up after a while, and I suggested we just catch the bus. This surprised him – he didn’t think I’d ‘lower myself’ to taking a bus like a ‘regular person’, but I assured him I would, and we were soon on a very crowded mini bus heading up the street. The roof of the bus was so low, I couldn’t stand upright even with my head looking straight at the floor. Everyone on the bus had their eyes glued on me for most of the trip – I don’t think they’d ever seen a foreigner on the bus before… But the ride was over soon enough, and we were walking toward his friend’s house a few minutes later.

I met his friend Rahied, and after a bit of chat we agreed to go and get some dinner. On the way to the kebab shop I got the full run-down on his part of town, and learned that this was the more affluent area. The houses looked quite nice, actually, and there were several vacant lots waiting for new houses to go up. There were hardly any street lights, however, so the whole place had a slightly spooky and abandoned air to it – if not for my hosts, I probably wouldn’t have hung around here.

We feasted on a bunch of kebabs on pita bread, with onions and ‘sumak’, some kind of reddish powder sprinkled liberally over the meat. The guys were a bit concerned about how many kebabs I was eating – which I later discovered was because they had planned to pay for the lot, and they didn’t have much money on them. I assured them it was no problem – the kebabs were about 80 ceach, and I was hungry. I insited on giving them some money, which they very reluctantly accepted, only because there was no other choice.

We talked about life in Iran, Australia and Japan, and especially about the difficulty young men having in meeting and getting to know girls in Iran – a topic I was to hear over and over again in my later travels. International politics didn’t rate a mention – if you can’t get a girlfriend, nothing else is particularly important, it seems.

We walked around and chatted a little more, stopping for an ice-cream at the local confectionary store. I asked what flavors were available, but this just confused eveyone – ‘Flavors? What do you mean?‘ – apparently ice cream came in only one flavor in Tabriz, and that was pink bubble-gum… The owner gave me a second helping, on the house.

Then it was time to go. On the way to the taxi area, they took me to thier local mosque, which I learned was where Mahdi’s father worked as a religious teacher. We discussed religion briefly, with me choosing my words carefully, and tried to explain that I wasn’t particularly religious. This too was met with confusion – it seemed unfathomable that someone could be ‘without faith’ (in their words), and they wondered how I could live like that. ‘Quite peacefully‘, I replied…

Then we walked over to a corner where a share-taxi was sure to come by, and waited until one did. They told me the price I should pay, which was good to know (about 50 cents!), and I was off with thanks and handshakes. Very nice guys, and a great introduction to Iran!

Maku to Qara Ziya’Eddin

Man, what a day. A day of absolute extremes – blissful, dream-come-true cycling through dramatic rocky landscapes and vast open plains. Heart-warming hospitality and genuine friendliness from complete strangers, all welcoming me to Iran and wishing me a safe journey. Homicidal rage at another group of kids who really caused me some grief today – more about that in a moment.

Woke up a bit later than planned – 7:45am – and went looking for breakfast. A few misses before the banana salesman pointed me to the hotel across the street from mine (which I hadn’t even noticed). The manager prepared a fine meal of two very runny fried eggs, and a elliptical piece of salty bread, which was great. The hotel itself was also very nice, a few notches up from the place I was staying at – I wish I’d seen it on the way in. Not sure why everyone recommended the place I stayed at… Must be the price.

From there I was off and rolling, all down-hill through Maku’s gorge and out on to an enormous open plain. The weather was fine, the sky huge and spotlessly blue, and I was having a ball.

I got a bit concerned when a couple of the more major-looking towns on my map turned out to be virtually non-existant – just a few very shabby mud coloured buildings that may or may not have been occupied. The ‘town’ streets were just dust and rocks, and there was virtually no sign of inhabitation. Certainly nowhere I could buy anything, like water or food. Hmmm…

My GPS is back to using the very vague ‘World Map’ dataset, which seems to be quite a bit worse than useless. Many of the roads it shows don’t seem to be on my paper map, or if they are, they’re extremely minor. The major roads it does show are completely wrong – up to 5 km off the mark, as I discovered today. They’re the right shape, maybe, but they’re at the wrong angle, and *way* off the reality of where they start and finish. In the end I switched the unit to elevation view, so I didn’t have to suffer the doubt and concern that a bad map brings. I clikmbed about 300m over 30 km, which made for some slowish riding without actually puffing my way up any big hills.

The city I’d planned to stop at for lunch just didn’t exist at all – not a single building. Very strange, and quite a concern, as I was getting really hungry, and the next town was marked at 39km further. The paper map showed it clearly, and My GPS showed it off to my right, but I couldn’t see anything. No real choice but to carry on – luckily I had a banana and a couple of Snickers bars in my bag.

As I rounded the next big bend, I saw a group of about 10 young boys streaming down the hill towards me, shouting and waving. Great, just what I needed. They lined up along the side of the road, like supporters of the Tour de France, and the first couple held out their hands for a ‘high five’ as I passed. No problem – slap, slap. The next guy held out a big stick at head level, and I swerved to avoid it, shaking my head. He took a good swing anyway, but missed. I sped up. The rest of the guys all decided to give my bike a good hard shove from the side as I passed, sending me out onto the road into the path of a truck coming up behind me. The truck screeched to a halt, swerving slightly into the boys and forcing them to step back. The driver shouted something pretty serious at the kids, then caught up to me and waved apologetically. I waved back in thanks, and he overtook me, keeping a short distance ahead of me. A few seconds later, another group of kids lined up for the same sort of ‘fun’, but the truck stopped right in front of them, and he waved me around the other side. He was running interference for me! This happened once more, and I waved a really big thanks as he overtook me for the last time, both of us rolling onto the open plains.

A short while later, I came across a trio of men and a little boy, all trying to load a huge log into the back of a pickup truck. They were having trouble, and obviously needed another man to take over from the kid. I stopped and parked the bike, then offered to help out, which they happily accepted. The log was about twice as long as the truck, and even after we got it into the tray, it jutted out a couple of metres. They weren’t concerned about it, so I just shrugged and wished them well. One guy stayed back with me as the others drove off (he would take the tractor back later). I asked him about the map and my current direction, and it turned out I was on a different road to what I thought. I was still going in roughly the right direction, but I had another 60km ahead of me, with a 1000m climb in the middle, at it was already geting late. A 1000m climb? No thanks. I decided to go back to the non-existant town and look again, as this guy swore it was there, and even recommended a hotel for me – Hotel Azerbaijan.

The only problem with this plan was, I’d have to pass the damned kids again, and this time I’d be going uphill, a lot more slowly. The thought was almost enough to have me pitch tent in a field instead, but I told myself to stop being silly, and started pedaling back the way I’d come.

I hoped the kids would be inside by now, or elsewhere at least, and the first group were. The second group came running for me, but they were too distant, and I got past before they could get to the road. The last group, however, were right at the roadside, and were delighted to see me. They all lined up again, dropping a huge stick – more of a log, really – right across the road. I tried my best to swerve out at the last moment and put on a burst of speed, but I was too slow. As I swooped past the last one, I looked back and my heart sank – there he was, holding my helmet aloft, shouting in victory. I stopped the bike and turned around, and immediately the kid with my helmet started running up the hill away from the road, and into the distance. The others all ran toward me, and crowded around the bike. Before I could say anything, they had the pockets and main zip of my left pannier open, and were working on the right (which was padlocked, fortunately). I screamed at them to ‘go away’ (or something like that), slapped away a bunch of hands, and rammed the ones behind me with the (extremely heavy) bike, sending them flying. I’m still not sure how I refrained from punching some of their heads in. Other kids were pushing buttons on the GPS and one was trying to remove it from the bracket. I gave him a decent shove, and in that moment a kid removed my lightweight fleece that was bungeed to he rear rack. He shoved it under his shirt and took off up the hill too. I was absolutely, homicidally furious, and was quite ready to do things to the kids that I won’t type here. In fact I was in the process of dropping the bike and grabbing one of them when a man arrived on the scene. I hadn’t seen him arrive, but he must have come over when he heard all the commotion. I forced a smile and a ‘salaam aleykom’ (greeting), then tried to explain the situation. He was not impressed, and trudged off across the field and up the hill to try and recover the helmet and fleece. I waited in silent anger while the other 7 or 8 kids kept antagonizing me, all demanding I give them a pen or some money. I completely ignored them (other than keeping an eye on their hands), instead visualizing what I’d do with a pen if I got one in my hands.

About 10 minutes later, a different kid came trotting down the hill with my helmet on his head, and one of my antagonists (who was now pretending to be on my side) rushed down to collect it for me. He came and handed it to me, just as another man arrived by moped. I told him what was going on as best as possible, and explained that I still needed my fleece back. The kids all broke into a shouting match about where it was and who had taken it (I assume), and one kid kept trying to say that a dog had taken it. I was grateful for the man’s prescence, as the kids were a bit better behaved while he was there, and he also prevented me from systematically strangling each of them. The kids kept screaming and tugging my clothing, competing for attention. I totally lost my temper, and shouted at the top of my lungs for them all to ‘SHUT THE *#!$ UP!!!‘, which worked for about half a second. The man on the moped could see I was starting to crack, and gently suggested I forget about the fleece and get rolling. He shrugged his shoulders and waved down the road, and all the kids took this gesture to heart immediately, repeating over and over with comically annoying faces.

But there was no way I was letting them get away with this – and what sort of message would that give them anyway? So I did the only thing I could think of that might actually work – I lied, and told the man that my passport was in the fleece. His expression changed instantly, and he nodded slowly, shouting something at the kids which seemed to shut them down a little. I said I’d have to get the police over here if I couldn’t get it back, because it was a very serious situation for me, and the man agreed. He rode his moped up the hill to the village, where by now pretty much everyone had gathered around watching the show. The kids stayed with me, and persisted in annoying the hell out of me by gathering around the back of the bike, despite my warnings to get where I could see them. I grabbed one kid by the nose and dragged him around in front of me, almost lifting him up in the air. He yelped and twisted, then immediately went back behind me! Man, I was going to seriously lose it in a moment…

Fortunately, the moped guy returned from the village, and there was my fleece, sitting on his lap. He handed it to me, but seemed concerned because he’d looked through the pockets and only found a little money – no passport. I made a show of looking through all the pockets, inside and out, then ‘surprisingly’ found my passport in my handlebar bag, to his relief (and mine, of course).

One of the kids had the gall to hold out his hand for a handshake, and I momentarily considered crushing every bone in it. But that would be pretty uncool, even if rather satisfying to my current state of blood-lust. I glared at him, unsmiling, until he gave up, and then I was gone.

My view of kids was at an all time low. But I forced a positive attitude, and managed to smile and greet the people I met on the way back into (the hopefully re-materialized) EQZ. Sure enough, there was a turn-off sign that I must have missed earlier, and I started my way into town. About 1km into town, a couple of kids (aaaarrrgh!) started tailing me, excitedly asking questions (that I couldn’t understand) and commenting on my bike. But they seemed like good kids, and I let them tag along.

I stopped to ask a guy about Hotel Azerbaijan, and he pointed down the road, gesturing 2 km. When I – I mean, we – finally found the place, it turned out to be a restaurant – not a hotel at all, despite the name! But a group of men approached me, and told me I needed to go into the town center to find a hotel. An elderly gent told the kids to lead me there, in fact, and we were back on the road. The lead kid was very excited, and called out to dozend of people along the way to ‘check out the Australian guy’ he was leading. Quite impressed with himself, he was, but doing a good job. My view of kids recovered somewhat. We arrived, soon followed by the hotel manager (also on a bike, strangely), and I got myself a room. The manager took me out to the local mini-market for supplies, and a corner store for a couple of sandwiches. Apparently all the kebap shops had closed at this late hour of 6:30pm. Strange, if you ask me. But the sandwiches were good. I hope I don’t dream of kids tonight, is all I can say…

Qara Ziya’Eddin to Marand

Up early today, thanks to an early bedtime, and was surprised to find the manager at my door at 7:45am. He thought he’s come and help me out with breakfast and the like, which was very good of him. I’d saved most of one of the sandwiches from last night, to serve as a solid breakfast – I hate starting the day on an empty stomach. But he seemed quite unhappy with the idea that I would eat it, and took me to a kebab joint for a few cups of tea and a double kebab. Iranian kebabs are quite different to the Turkish variety – much simpler, just some grilled mince lamb in flat bread, with some kind of (fairly tasteless) red condiment sprinkled over it. No vegetables or sauce, and not especially exciting if you ask me. But a solid breakfast none the less, and I ate it all happily. The manager left me at the shop after he’d helped me order, and wished me a safe journey. “Maybe we’ll meet again in a few years…” he said – unlikely, but I’d be happy if it were true – he’s a good man.

I’ve already noticed in Iran that when the map shows nothing between towns, there really is absolutely *nothing* – not a single house, gas station or bus shelter. Zip. Certainly nothing to eat. So I’m having to be a little more careful with carrying my supplies. I decided to order another double-kebab to take with me as lunch, in case I couldn’t find anything to eat. This proved to be incredibly difficult – either I’m incredibly crap at miming, or the old guy serving had a bullet-proof skull. He just couldn’t imagine what I wanted. I’d already paid for the first kebabs, and he was deeply confused about why I should want to pay him more. He kept shaking his head and waving me down the street, while I repeatedly pointed at the grill, miming taking another kebab and putting it in a bag. Finally another guy noticed the situation, watched me for two seconds and said something in Farsi (or maybe Azeri), and immediately the old guy’s eyes lit up. Yes, I’d like another kebab – to go, thanks…

Packed and ready, with lunch now taken care of, I was off. Thankfully today wasn’t anywhere near as stressful or aggravating as yesterday – but it was a little more taxing physically. The lay of the land here in Iran is a bit deceptive. From the saddle, it generally looks like I’m going downhill a little, or at least riding on the flat, but I’m not. The pedaling is always a little difficult, like riding into a slight headwind (which I am, on occasion), and it never seems to get any easier. I switched the GPS to show my elevation, and sure enough, I was climbing. Very gradually, but non-stop. I started at 900m above sea level in Qara Ziya’ Eddin, and had reached 1150m by the time I was within sight of my destination, 100km later – the town of Marand. Things changed significantly as I approached Marand, which was clearly at a much higher elevation than the surrounding countryside. It turned out to be a 500m climb into (and through) town, to finally reach my hotel – which had a good 13% grade on the (very long) driveway. I was completely stuffed by the time I reached the front steps – but I’m getting ahead of myself…

Back to lunchtime. I decided to take a break at the 65km mark, hoping to have a lake-side view as I ate. Both my GPS and paper map showed a 5km wide lake that lapped up against the roadside, just around the next set of hills. But when I got there… nothing. Well, not nothing, actually – there was a long razorwire fence, with hundreds of birch trees following the fenceline, but the fence certainly didn’t enclose a lake. There was nothing to be seen within that was any different to the surrounding land. Behind the whole lot, however, was what looked like a high security prison, or perhaps a military complex. A little disappointed, I parked my bike against a shattered concrete block in a bus pull-over area, and ate my kebab lunch.

As I ate, almost every passing car, truck or motorbike honked their horn and/or screamed something out their window at me. Always friendly, and quite excited, but I was starting to understand what it must feel like to be an animal at the zoo – everyone shouting and trying to get your attention, even when you’re just doing something as mundane as eating your lunch. I’m not complaining, of course – I chose to come here, and I’m obviously quite a curiosity (even in Europe, let alone Iran), so it comes with the territory. It’s just a bit different to what I expected, I guess – I imagined being out in the great open land, riding in isolation from town to town for hours on end. But in fact I have enormous blinking neon signs, pointing at me from all directions, so I rarely get a moment’s peace from the excited crowds. This must be what it feels like to be famous – my arm is tired from all the waving!

I stopped at a market shack to get another bottle of water, and got into a conversation with a Bulgarian truck driver. He was very impressed that I’d cycled all the way here, and was quite happy to hear I’d enjoyed Bulgaria – which I really did. The shop owner poured me a cup of tea, and then another, while I sat in relative peace and quiet. He smiled and fiddled with some things on the shelves, asking me a few very simple questions in German (he was about 60, and didn’t speak English – but he did speak some German, like many people I’ve come across here). Then I was off again, and soon after was on the approach to Marand.

After fighting the peak-hour traffic and passing through Marand, with about 1000 people shouting, whistling and waving at me, and countless “Hello! How are you?” ‘s, I chugged past a small silver car, parked on the roadside. About 100m later I stopped to ask directions from a couple of guys building a fire in a steel drum, and the same silver car came to a sudden halt beside me. Before I could say anything, the guy at the wheel was introducing himself in perfect American English, waving his business card at me. His name was Doctor Sahand Safari, an Iranian national with U.S. citizenship, who was back in Iran for a while. He meticulously explained how to find the hotel (which, simply put, was straight ahead for 2 kilometres), then offered to help me with anything, anytime – just give him a call. I thanked him sincerely, and I was back to chugging up the (ever steepening) hill.

Just as I finally reached the U-turn lane where I could double back to the horribly steep hotel driveway, his car re-appeared next to me, and did the U-turn first, leading the way to the hotel with his hazard lights blinking. He said he wanted to make sure I found the place (which was fairly easy, given it was the only place within a kilometer or so, and had bright red, green and blue lights out front). He then helped me to check in, which was a good thing – despite most of the signs around the lobby being in English, the staff spoke absolutely no English whatsoever. Dr. Safari’s nephews (who were also in the car) helped me to carry my bags into the hotel, and they were gone with a handshake. I’m pretty sure I spotted my friendly doctor tipping the staff with a bunch of notes, which I can only assume was for them to take care of me. Quite a gentleman – I’ll be thanking him in an email once I get internet access…

I think I may be the only guest at this hotel. It’s very expensive by Iranian standards – US$25 for the room, about eight times the price of my other lodgings, but I was told repeatedly by the town residents that there is no other choice in this town. At least this place has western toilets, and even toilet paper (!) After a deeply appreciated shower, I went down for dinner. In the huge ball-room sized restaurant area, I sat completely alone. The staff showed me the substantial menu, but after a lengthy series of me pointing at a meal, and them shaking their heads, it was finally revealed that chicken kebabs were the only item they could actually prepare – and only enough rice for one helping. Still, it was very tasty, and I ate it ravenously. I also ordered a can of Pepsi (shock!), and I had to do a double-take at the can – it had a genuine, original design pull-ring opener! I haven’t seen one of those since I was a little kid in the U.S.A. – and that was at least 25 years ago…

I’ve hand-washed all my clothes, and now it’s 2:00am – I really need to get some sleep. Tomorrow I head for Tabriz, and it looks to be all uphill again. But at least they’ll have Internet!

Marand to Tabriz

Far out – I just can’t believe what an over-the-top welcome I’ve received here in Tabriz. To call these people ‘warm’ is a bit like calling the sun ‘warm’ – it’s true, but it’s also absurdly short of the mark. But I shall start at the start, as I should…

I was out of bed and at the breakfast table by 8:30am, which wasn’t too far beyond what I’d planned. A simple yet enjoyable breakfast of white cheese, honey with rose petals, and a few pieces of semi-crisp dimpled bread was served. I made short work of it, but I was still a little hungry, and somewhat anxious about the mountains directly behind the hotel (on the route I need to take). I went to the front desk and requested a second breakfast, and the manager (who actually spoke some English) revealed that I could also have ‘eggs with oil’ – meaning fried eggs. Bingo. I scoffed that too, along with about four cups of tea, and I was off to load up the bike.

While checking out, I had a rather frustrating time trying to explain that I would like to order a large and small bottle of water, and some extra food to take with me (to serve as lunch). They all seemed to think I was having a problem with the bill, and kept tallying it up before my eyes to make sure I understood the cost break-down. In the end I just payed for everything I’d already used & eaten, then started fresh with the water & food request. One guy nearly lost his cool, but I just stared at him until he put his smile back on. I finally went and found the English-capable manager myself, and explained what I wanted. He barked a few words at the desk staff, who suddenly looked rather embarrassed, and a minute later I had my bottles of water and a pakage of bread and cheese – no charge.

The first 50m of today’s were great – straight down the brutally steep driveway. From there, the next 8 km were a very steep climb. I rose 300m over 3.5km, which makes the gradient 8.5% – not great on a full stomach. The rest was almost as steep, but it finally levelled out as I neared the apex of the pass, and rolled to a stop at the police check-point right at the top. My freshly hand-washed clothes were a sodden mess, but it felt good to be at the peak. The police let me through with a few friendly questions, and then it was party time – fifteen kilometres of blissful downhill cycling! I cruised at about 38km/hr for most of it, peaking at 46km/hr. Bloody fantastic, it was – payback for yesterday’s grind.

My fears of a lack of lunch were completely unfounded – I rolled through the small town of Sufiyan half-way to Tabriz, and easily found a kebab shop. I ordered a couple of kebabs, some soup and rice, and waited patiently while every patron in the shop took turns asking me the same questions. When my meal arrived, it was HUGE – each kebab was more than twice the size I expected, and the plate of rice was enormous. I ate as much as I could, but it wasn’t pretty…

Back rolling again, the road levelling out now, but the pedaling still easy. I passed an enormous concrete factory on the way, that seemed to be a city unto itself. Soon after I was on the green, manicured outskirts of Tabriz. The roadsigns were quite simple to follow, and several passing motorists stopped to offer direction, including a driving instructor with a rather nervous looking student at the wheel. I had a hotel in mind, from reading the Lonely Planet – Hotel Sina – and it looked like I was going to find it, with all the help that was on offer. But it took a lot longer than expected. I stopped at a busy round-a-bout, and decided to confirm that I was going in the right direction by asking one of the men standing at the curb (all staring at me, of course). I never escaped. Every passing gent stopped to say hello, welcome me to Tabriz, and ask me the same questions (Where are you from? How old are you? How long are you in Iran?). They had me off the bike, seated in an office with endless cups of tea, cake and cookies foisted upon me, while I tried to answer three different people’s friendly questions at once. The office was a real-estate agaency, belonging to a young guy named Mahdi Rezvani, and I was destined to be his prized guest for the rest of the evening. He sat me in front of his brand new PC (2 days old), and proudly demonstrated his dial-up Internet connection. After about an hour of the red carpet treatment, Mahdi proclaimed that I needn’t to go to Hotel Sina, as I could stay at his place tonight. I mentioned something about tourists, hotels and the police, which brought a rush of conversation I couldn’t follow. Finally, he apologetically admitted that perhaps I should go to the hotel after all. He was still living in his family home, and his father was a police man!

But before taking me to the hotel, he led me on a little tour of his neighbourhood. First, he took me to his local mosque, where the call to prayer was underway. I took off my shoes and entered with him, sitting in the corner at the back. As I watched, the dozens of men and boys all lost themselves in thier conversations with Allah, privately telling of thier grievances and wishes for the future. Then the mullah handed a microphone to a boy of about 10 years old, who began wailing an Islamic verse in a high voice. All present began the ritual of praying to Mecca, dropping to their knees and touching thier foreheads to the carpet in unison. Mahdi quietly told me it was fine to take a photo if I wished to, and despite my reservations I snapped a couple of shots. Later, friends of Mahdi came by to shake his hand and mine, and welcome me to thier mosque. A very friendly lot, and very decent people I must say.

After that we popped into at least half a dozen nearby shops, Mahdi nonchalantly introducing me to the shopkeepers as his ‘Australian friend’. He rewarded me handsomely for all this by buying me bunches of stuff along the way, despite my protests. By the time we returned to his office, I had a box of dried apricots, a bag of delicious almond & pistachio cookies, a 900g bag of green sultanas, a 500g bag of pistachios, two bananas, a litre of washing detergent, a carton of pineapple juice and an apple! And we hadn’t even gone to dinner yet!

Mr. Firozi, who ran the Samsung shop next-door announced he was going to load my bike & gear into his delivery truck and take me to the hotel personally, which was 2km away. Seeing as it was now completely dark, and the traffic on the streets had built to a honking, crazed frenzy, I decided to accepted his offer. Soon Mahdi and I were squeezed into the cab of Mr. Firozi’s little pick-up truck, ploughing our way through the chaos of peak-hour Tabriz. We arrived at the hotel after a hairy cross-town sprint, my thinning hair a few shades whiter. I checked in, locked the bike up, and was showered and changed 10 minutes later. Mr. Firozi left with his truck, while Mahdi & I took a taxi to Tabriz’s Grand Bazaar – the Greatest Bazaar in the World, according to Mahdi. He may well be correct, too – despite being largely closed at this hour (9:00pm), it was very impressive – I’ll be going back tomorrow for sure.

We met up with his friend Saied, who arrived by car, and were soon careering down the streets of Tabriz again. Saied’s English was very good, and we spoke at length about the cultural differeces between Iran, Australia and Japan. Specifically, both Mahdi & Saied were very vocal about the difficulties that young Iranians face in meeting partners and having relationships. The laws as they stand make it illegal to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, and even basic communication with the opposite sex is strongly frowned upon by the government and most parents. Knowing that these guys live in a society where many things I take for granted in the West (or Japan) would get me executed was a sobering thought… As a result, even basic social skills with the opposite sex are pretty much non-existant over here.

I discovered why Saied’s English was so good – he was a student at an English conversation school, and he promptly invited me to join the following night’s lesson as a guest. Apparently they’re discussing the Mona Lisa, and the myriad ‘hidden messages’ contained in Da Vinci’s famous painting. I don’t really know the first thing about it, but I’ve agreed to sit-in for a while, just to be social and meet a few locals.

We stopped for dinner at a popular kebab restaurant, and the three of us crowded onto a little platform covered in Persian rugs for a traditional sit-down dinner. Saied ordered a mix of chicken and lamb kebabs, along with a large bottle of fizzy yoghurt drink – strange, but refreshing – and some Coca Cola. We ate our fill of the thin bread and meat (something I’m getting quite used to) while continuing our discussion about life in Iran, Australia and Japan.

After dinner, we drove up the street for some ice-cream (on my request), then headed over to El Goli park to stroll a lap of the man-made lake, admiring the colourful fountains and the attractive mini-palace in the middle. Apparently the Shah had had this built as his own little place to hang out before the Cultural Revolution in 1979, and now it was a public park. Very nice.

The night had gotten cold quickly, and poor Madhi wasn’t really dressed for it. We tried fighting off the chills with a couple of cups of hot tea, and while drinking at the table we spotted a group of girls and guys sitting together, talking over thier own steaming cups. Saied remarked on it, saying he wasn’t sure how they were getting away with it – they must be university students, with loose supervision – but it was a dangerous thing to be doing. Almost as though they had read his thoughts, they separated into two groups, and sat at adjoining tables instead. Part of me wanted to laugh, but I could see by the expressions on my host’s faces that it was no laughing matter…

It was getting colder by the minute, so we decided to call it quits. Saied dropped Mahdi off at his place, then took me back to the hotel. I’d had a very interesting and enjoyable night as an honoured guest of these guys, but they absolutely refused any payment for the food or fuel. Amazing hospitality.

Rest day in Tabriz

Shown all the sights of Tabriz – Grand Bazaar, downtown, driving all over the place. Then sat-in with Saied’s university English class, where I was grilled for two hours by 9 very keen, smart and friendly guys and gals (yes – a mixed class! Almost unheard of in Iran, and quite illegal except in this special case) . After a few questions about life in Australia & Japan, they asked me my opinion of Iran so far, which I tried to answer as diplomatically as possible – I wasn’t kind about the traffic, but I certainly didn’t have to soft-step around the incredible hospitality! The class leader, a very smart and outspoken girl, then homed-in on the only topic that seems to matter to the youth of Iran (understandably) – Girls and Guys. Life is very tough indeed for the young adults of Iran – especially the women – and to be seen talking together in public spells disaster for all concerned. How anyone actually does meet a compatible partner in Iran remains a mystery, both to me and everyone in the room. Very sad, and certainly bad for any sense of pride or support in the current political and social system.

Then we were off for a huge dinner again, at a big kebab restaurant, before I all but fell asleep in the car on the way to the hotel. Killed with kindness.

Tehran

I rolled into the outskirts of greater Tehran with growing apprehension, as the early evening slowly sapped the light from the sky. Scary memories of the chaos of Istanbul traffic filled my head. Everything I’d heard or read about Tehran’s traffic proclaimed it to be a magnitude worse than anything previously encountered, which I was having trouble imagining. As I closed in on the heart of south-west Tehran, I didn’t have to wait long to ‘understand’ – though I use that word very loosely.

All of my fears of the legendarily insane traffic proved – incredibly – far short of the reality. I can’t really do it justice in words, but I could only describe it as an absolute, anarchic free-for-all. SO many cars, trucks and motorbikes! Lanes marked on most streets, but they were utterly irrelevant. Plenty of traffic lights, all switched off – no point wasting electricity, I suppose. There may or may not have been any road rules at all, but they were long forgotten, or openly despised. I was stunned by the breath-taking audacity and madness of the drivers… High-speed U-turns across multiple ‘lanes’ of vehicles, without hesitation – or even a glance in the mirrors, from what I could see. Motorbikes racing head-long through traffic, contra-flow, directly into hundreds of oncoming, zig-zagging cars. Taxis reversing at amazing speed down the street in the wrong direction. And no-one even flinched – all this happened without raising an eyebrow. Roundabouts were unbelievable – everyone just ploughed straight into the fray, regardless of who or what was approaching, and came to a screeching halt as deep into the pack as possible. From there, they had to shove their way through in short, lurching steps, playing chicken every three seconds to see who gets in front of who.

I spent quite a while at a standstill, trying to come to grips with the situation, and wondering how the hell I was going to get more than 50 metres in the next hour or so. I consider myself a pretty good city traffic rider, and I’m not easily spooked in tight spots – at least not in Tokyo – but this was really something else *entirely*. There was every chance of being reversed into at high speed, rammed mercilessly at a roundabout (or anywhere, for that matter), or flattened by a passing vehicle. I was drawing a lot of attention too – people openly staring at me (instead of the road), grinning or honking. I eventually figured that while the daylight held, I at least had a chance of getting along carefully for a while – if people noticed me, they would only kill me deliberately, rather than accidentally… Right? I tentatively put this theory to the test, and managed to cover a few more kilometres – but the light was fading fast now, and it was getting very hairy. I came up against a huge, multi-lane roundabout, fed by about a dozen roads, with cars zipping all over the place (including the wrong way, in reverse). There was a slew of buses parked along the perimeter, arriving and leaving every few seconds. This was a serious challenge, and I wasn’t sure which way I supposed to be going anyway, so I stopped and dug out the Lonely Planet again.

Every time I stop in Iran, it’s like throwing a chunk of bread into a crowded duck pond – with me being the bread. People immediately home-in on me from all directions, crowding around the bike and offering greetings, asking me where I’m from and where I’m going, and taking my book away to have a closer look at the map. It’s always a friendly experience, but it takes quite a while – I have to repeat everything I say about ten times, and patiently wait for everyone to look at the book and tell me the same information. It’s a bit odd, actually – because everyone just stands there and listens to me repeat myself – no one bothers to say “I’ve already asked him” or “I’ve already told him” – it goes around and around until no-one else can get close enough to take their turn at asking.

This time was no exception, except that one fellow seemed particularly keen on getting my attention, and on pointing the way to a good hotel. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he was quite insistent that I go to the particular hotel he was recommending. He tried showing me on he Lonely Planet map, but soon decided the map was incorrect (something I’ve noticed a lot, incidentally). A huge ring of people had formed around me, thanks to all the buses emptying their passengers a few metres away, and I could see I was in danger of being stuck here almost indefinitely. My new, insistent friend took the initiative and started clearing a path through the crowd, with me right behind him (he was a tall, strapping lad, which helped a bit).

He walked while I rode slowly along the very edge of the road, away from the traffic, and we tried to have a friendly chat. What he lacked in English, he made up for with persistence and gesticulation, and we managed to have a fair ‘conversation’ while he led me down the street to a safer & quieter spot. His name was Mohammed, and he was a card-carrying member of the cycling federation of Iran! He was an avid tour cyclist himself, and had done an impressive round-the-world tour about 3 years ago, taking in America, Europe, Central Asia, Tibet and China. As far as a friend in Tehran could go, I’d hit the jackpot!

He eventually decided to hire a motorcycle taxi, and get the driver to lead me to the hotel, which he did. The high-speed night ride though the streets of Tehran will be something I remember for a very long time – a big thrill, and thankfully not quite a dangerous as the main roads had been.

When we finally got to the hotel, I could see straight away that it was going to be a lot more expensive than I’d hoped. I’d only planned on staying in a cheap back-packer hotel, rather than a luxury dig. He seemed a little deflated by this, but he understood the realities of travel budgets, so we went off in seach of one of the hotels listed in the ‘Budget’ catgory of the Lonely Planet.

As we stood on a quiet side-street under a streetlamp, we were intercepted by the police, who obviously thought there was some shady business going on. I was clutching a few Rial in my hand (the currency of Iran), to explain the price I was hoping to pay for a hotel, and the police took quite an interest in this. I’d read that Tehran had a serious and growing drug problem recently, so I guess this looked pretty dodgy indeed. Mohammed’s easy-going style turned very formal, and the police asked me a series of questions in English. After checking my passport, and grilling me for a few minutes, they eventually seemed convinced of my intentions. But they ‘strongly recommended’ I go back to the nice hotel Mohammed had initially recommended, as the cheaper places were ‘not suitable for tourists – they are for locals’. We promised to do so, and headed back up the street. After the police left we checked the price of the nice hotel (Hotel Shiraz), but it was indeed too expensive, so we waited a few minutes before returning to the cheaper area. I finally found a place that was listed and open (Hotel Markazi), and checked in for the night. Mohammed excused himself while I unloaded my bags from the bike. I thought he had gone to the toilet, but in fact he returned with dinner! It was pretty late, and the only thing he could find at that hour was some canned tuna, heated up on a grill (somewhere – not sure where) and some pita bread, with bottles of Fanta. I was starving, and it was good.

Over dinner, I explained that I really wanted to get down to Esfahan to have a look around before leaving Iran, but that my visa was too short to do it by bicycle. I was planning to catch a bus, train or plane down to see the sights, than zip back here and continue on my way. He kindly offered to take me to a travel agent the next day, which was great, and we agreed to meet up in the morning.

I thanked Mohammed heartily, exchanged details and bade each other farewell. I tried to pay him for the taxi-bike and the food as he left, but of course that was impossible.

Tehran to Esfahan (by plane)

The next morning I awoke at 9:00pm, and about a minute later I heard a knock at the door. I thought it was the manager come to make sure I checked out on time (which turned out to be 2:00pm!), but no – it was Mohammed, back with a surprise breakfast! Fried eggs & bread, and we were off to the travel agency.

It was quite a hike, but we finally found the place – I’m still not sure if Mohammed had an agency in mind, or if we were just walking until we found something. He tackled the travel agent on my behalf, although she spoke very good English and soon cut Mohammed out of the conversation quickly. There were no return seats available on the flights for the day I wanted, so we agreed that I would fly down to Esfahan, and catch the overnight train back to Tehran a couple of days later. The flight cost? $24! The train was dirt-cheap too – about $3 or so. Amazing value… why am I cycling again?

With that all sorted, it was time to check out of the hotel, and take the bike & luggage to the train station, where I planned to leave the bike locked up while I was in Esfahan. That way, the bike would be ready and waiting for me when I got back (by train), and could make my way East from there. Hopefully.

With time so tight, and the traffic being what it was, I decided to throw everything in a taxi and get to the station as quickly as possible. This was quite an experience in itself – not much safer, really, but at least I was in experienced hands, and I could look around a little more freely than if I’d been riding. It was one of those moments where you know you could die a squishy, horribly at any moment, but you’re resigned to the situation – and it’s actually kind of fun. (I think the last time I recall having this feeling was in New Delhi, during a truly hair-raising ride in an ‘ambulance’. At least I had a seat this time, rather than pitching about on the floor…)

The storage area at the station was absolute bedlam, and the guy in charge of the lockers was quite a character. He seemed to have no end of fun telling me exactly what to do with the bike and bags, in a ridiculous degree of step-by-step detail. He made a point of talking right through every question I had, repeating himself over-and-over the instant he finished one recital, all with a big ckeeky grin on his face. Naturally I ignored him completely, talking to Mohammed over the clerk’s head as though he weren’t even there, which seemed to confuse Mohammed quite a bit. I guess the clerk didn’t get much chance to use his English, or antagonize foreign customers. He certainly had a ball, even if I did ignore him. Not the full quid, I suspect…

I thanked Mohammed sincerely – this guy was a real life-saver in the madness of Tehran, doing me a whole series of huge favours to ensure my time went smoothly and succesfully. I really owe him big-time – I never would have gotten sorted in time to get to Esfahan for a start, and would have had serious trouble finding the hotel area also. And he kept paying for everything! A true hero.

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Then it was off to the airport, in the same taxi. I had plenty of time before my flight, which the driver was relieved to hear. It meant he had time to pay his mobile phone bill, which he achieved by reversing at an awesome speed straight down the main street, stopping abruptly in front of his service provider’s shop. He left me in the car with people honking furiously at his apalling parking effort. I spied a great quote printed along the lower edge of his rear-view mirror – “MAN proposes, GOD disposes”. Indeed.

The flight was on-time and quite good – only 50 minutes, but the staff manged to feed us all and get everything cleaned up very smoothly. Interesting to see the Iranian Airways flight attendants’ uniforms – similar to many airlines, with the addition of an all-covering head shawl, and a stylish little hat perched on top. Screaming baby behind me, though.

I tried to catch a share-taxi from Esfahan airport into the old-town area, but after waiting nearly an hour, it seemed this wasn’t going to be an option. The taxi drivers all quoted me 50,000 rial, which I was sure must be a rip-off. I got talking to one driver who spoke near-perfect English, and he eventually agreed to take me for 40,000. He later explained that 50,000 really was the correct fare – government specified, even – but he wanted to practice his English, so he’d do it for a discount. Cheapest English lesson I’ve ever given, for sure…

I checked into the Amir Kabir hostel, quite pleased with the price – $4 per night – though rather less than impressed with the 5-share room and toilet – you certainly get what you pay for. But the location was good, and I was soon wandering down towards Imam Square. It was late, already 10:00pm, but there were still a few people about, and the beautiful buildings were all nicely spot-lit. I took a few photos, and made plans for my visit the next day.

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Back to the hostel, where I was soon regretting leaving my cushy travel pillow back in Tehran – the pillow on the bed was about the same size, weight and comfort rating as a sack of rice. Slept poorly.

Esfahan

Awoke with a nasty case of whip-lash, and headed downstairs to see what was on offer for breakfast. In the central courtyard I met a South African girl who had also been sharing the same room. She’d gotten up about 30 minutes before me, but so far had failed to get any joy from the kitchen – no breakfast, no boiling water – not happy *at all*. After brief introductions, she decided to go and give the staff a piece of her mind. She returned with the hot water, and a harried-looking fellow from the kitchen carrying our shrink-wrapped breakfast trays.

She had been travelling with her boyfriend by motorcycle (both on the one bike), but thier visas were running out fast, and they decided that he could ride much faster solo – so she was taking the bus to the border. She too had had trouble with kids pinching some stuff, but their solution was a bit more impressive than mine. They had simply ridden the bike up to the small village, where she marched into the nearest house and screamed her lungs out about it. The village parents were initially surprised, then amused by all of this – until she started systematically smashing crockery on the floor! The missing goods turned up in short order, and they were back on the bike and gone in a cloud of dust… Not sure that would have worked in my case – a bicycle doesn’t give you the same sort of options as a motorbike, and she said as much.

Over near the shower block, I spotted a bicycle, and upon inspection it turned out to be quite similar to my own – a Thorn Raven Tour. I managed to track down the owner – a young Aussie guy named Peter. He has been riding around for 5 years now (!), and was onto his third bicycle. He’d only gotten this bike earlier this year, but had also had a bit of grief with it, which I was keen to hear about – namely a lot of broken spokes on the rear wheel. It seems that Thorn hadn’t drilled the rear rim to accommodate the large diameter Rohloff hub, so the spokes were under a lot of stress, leading to many breakages. I remember when I picked up my bike, that the Thorn staff had made a point of explaining the benefits of the ‘Rohloff drilling’, so I guess I have Peter to thank for getting it sorted out in advance!

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I stepped over to the net cafe next door, and spent most of the morning answering emails and catching up on the world. I still can’t help thinking how different travel must have been 10 or 15 years ago, before the web…

After that, I tried to do the ‘Half the World Walk’, a walking tour recommended by the Lonely Planet for Iran. I got hopelessly lost almost immediately, which I put down to my poor sense of direction. But after conferring with a couple of friedly locals, it turned out the map was completely wrong – again. Gave up and went back to Imam Square, to revel in the amazing Islamic architecture of this remarkable public space. I entered the gorgeous Lotfallah mosque and stunning Imam mosque, taking plenty of photos (tripods permitted – as they should be! Turkey needs to learn some common sense on that score). Unfortunately there was a lot of unsightly awning and scaffolding in the courtyard of the Imam mosque, perhaps still leftover from Ramazan. But nothing could detract from the incredible detailing and beauty of the buildings themselves – absolutely awe-inspiring.

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I had lunch at a restaurant in the bazaar, which was just behind the facade of the north end of the square, near the Imam mosque. Then it was back out to take more photos and browse the numerous souvenir shops. I watched some of the traditional enamel artists practicing their skills, painting remarkably intricate patterns on enamel-coated copper plates and vases. These then get fired in an oven, and come out super-tough – every salesman I passed delighted in dragging keys and coins over the surface of these pieces of art, to demonstrate the durability of the finish. One guy even lit a match and scorched the plate black, then just wiped the soot off – good as new. Quite impressive, considering the delicate brushwork.

I was still wandering around the square well after sunset, taking dozens more photos. When I’d finally had enough, I headed back to the hostel, grabbing dinner at another restaurant along the way.

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I slept a little better that night – I think I’d tired myself out enough from all the walking that the granite pillow didn’t really matter.





Turkey – Part II

20 10 2007

Cappadocia update coming as time permits – I took almost 500 photos there!

Dazed & Confused in ─░stanbul

─░stanbul – 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 ­čÖé

During my overnight stay at the semi-posh hotel, I learned that virtually all hostels in ─░stanbul are in the district of Sultanahmet, on the SE tip of the European side of ─░stanbul. (A little geography lesson for those not aware: one of ─░stanbul’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 ─░stanbul. 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 ─░stanbul 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 ─░stanbul, I’ll try to give you the ‘edited highlights’ version…

I stayed at three different hostels while in ─░stanbul. 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 ─░stanbul 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…

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My second ─░stanbul 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 ─░stanbul 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 ─░stanbul? Well, let me think…
I saw the amazing Aya Sophia (a.k.a. Hagia Sofya):

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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:

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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:

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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 ─░stanbul 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?

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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…

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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!

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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 ­čÖé

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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 ─░stanbul 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).

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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

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I must also say a huge thanks to Hande and her husband Burak. Hande is a colleague of Maki’s, working in the ─░stanbul 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 ─░stanbul Hande and Burak were good enough to take me to a very trendy place in Taksim (the shopping & nightlife district of ─░stanbul) 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!

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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.

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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 ─░stanbul 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…

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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 ─░stanbul (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 ─░stanbul, I got to know a Greek-Scottish guy named Alex. He’d just started studying civil engineering at a university in ─░stanbul, 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.

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In fact, I hope to be able to catch up with any and all of the excellent people I met in ─░stanbul – 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…

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Ankara

Cappadocia

Erzurum

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

Coming soon!

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!