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 İstanbul

İstanbul – wow, what a city! I can’t say I’ve seen it all, or even that much of it (it’s so big!), but what I have seen is very, very cool. I’ve been a lot longer that I ever intended, which is both a bonus and a headache. The bonus comes in the people I’ve met, the things I’ve seen & done, and the preparation I’ve managed to complete. The headache is that I’m now *way* behind schedule, and facing a very wet, chilly & difficult ride through the toughest part of my journey…

But I think I’ll dwell on the pluses here 🙂

During my overnight stay at the semi-posh hotel, I learned that virtually all hostels in İstanbul are in the district of Sultanahmet, on the SE tip of the European side of İstanbul. (A little geography lesson for those not aware: one of İstanbul’s many claims to fame is that it’s the only city in the world that spans two continents – Europe and Asia – and is divided by a straight called the Bosphorus.) The next morning I had a little chat over a tourist map with the concierge, and once semi-confident of my bearings, I was off to find my ‘real’ base in İstanbul. As previously lamented, my trusty GPS was no longer much use to me (I had the ‘all Europe’ data DVD, but Turkey isn’t Europe… yet), so I was reduced to using the generic World Map data; very low detail and no route-finding capabilities. The two major roads into İstanbul were shown, but that was it. I decided to just ignore it and try to follow the road-signs to Sultanahmet. This plan sort-of worked out, right up until I stumbled into a crowded market street (I later learned this was part of the Grand Bazaar). It was choked to death with cars, trucks, barrow-carts, scooters and hundreds of people, all milling around intently. The vehicles honked in fits, cursing the unseen enemies ahead, while the people darted between them, trying not to get squished for entertainment. The road curved down and around a hill, and I could only really see for about 30 metres. A number of side streets radiated from this clogged lane, but they too seemed to curve off in various directions. Before I could even count all of my options, a nearby shopkeeper asked me where I was going. He grimaced and shook his head when I told him – clearly this wasn’t the way to Sultanahmet.

About five or six curious people gathered around me, and a few pointed at various side-streets, encouraging me to take them. The shopkeeper argued passionately with them for a while, as a battered delivery truck slowly bore down on me in the inching traffic. Just as the truck began honking and shoving me into a stack of boxes (and the curious on-lookers), the shopkeeper fixed me with a fiery glare and pointed off to the left. I waved thanks and pushed away from the truck, taking the left side-street to escape this impossible obstacle course. The side-street was very steep, and immediately became a narrower and more clogged version of the parent street. Within seconds I was stuck in another people-jam. A group of teenage guys were sitting on some assorted junk nearby, and one jumped up and bounced over to me. He straddled my front wheel, facing me while gripping my handlebars, yelling ‘Romania! Romania! Romania!…’ to my face.
‘No, no – Australia!’ I yelled in reply, forcing a smile.
‘Ooooh! Australia – ha ha!’, he clucked, then hopped aside and moved to the back of the bike. ‘Full service! Full service – yes!’ he shouted to his friends, messing with a rear pannier. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to remove the pannier, or sit on top of it, but either way I wasn’t having it.
‘Gotta go now!’ I warned with a grin, and cranked the pedals hard. I saw the guy pitch off-balance as I dove around the van in front of me and down into the crowded path, forcing everyone to get out of my way. I kept weaving down the street, through the pedestrians and vehicles, turning complete strangers into furious protesters at an impressive rate. I finally cleared the market zone, and wound up at the bottom of the hill, on the waterfront – the Golden Horn! Another battle was taking place here – cars, trucks & motorbikes were facing off against trams that were sweeping around the corner in both directions. The tram drivers made no attempt to slow down or stop, so it was up to the traffic to make space, which they somehow succeeded in doing.

It was here that I realized I’d come down the wrong side of the promontory – I was on the north side, when Sultanahmet is on the south. I decided to ride along the waterline, rather than try to fight my way up and over the market hill again. The weather was perfect, and the sun, sky and sea made a beautiful sight after all of the dry grassland and harvested fields on the way down here (not to mention the asphalt, concrete and traffic!). I soon made it to Sultanahmet, and I started climbing back up the hill from the other side, hugging the wall of Topkapi Palace.

Rather than continue this blow-by blow description of everything that has happened to me in İstanbul, I’ll try to give you the ‘edited highlights’ version…

I stayed at three different hostels while in İstanbul. The first (Antique Hostel) was good, but fully booked-out after I’d spent two nights there. They even had air-conditioned rooms! The second (Orient Hostel) wasn’t much good at all, mainly thanks to the surly attitude of the guy at the desk – only one night there. The rest of the time was at the Sultan Hostel, which I can highly recommend. Great staff, clean rooms, and a very easy-going, friendly atmosphere.

I met my first friend in İstanbul at the Antique Hostel – Carlos, a smart, softly spoken Mexican/Texan living in Spain. We got chatting immediately, and were soon out walking the streets of Sultanahmet on the hunt for dinner.

Carlos & I wound up going for dinner a few times over the next week, and had one memorably chilled-out discussion over Turkish coffee and a ‘sheesha’ (water pipe) at a coffee house. I don’t smoke, as a rule, but I found myself enjoying the aromatic apple-infused tobacco a little more than I expected…

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My second İstanbul buddy – and a guy I have a lot in common with – I met out the front of the Sultan Hostel. As Carlos and I wandered up to the front of the Hostel to check it out, this guy was lounging at a table with a couple of girls (he seemed to know every girl, in fact everybody, on the street). He peered intently at my bike, then looked up at me with a savvy grin. We introduced ourselves while Carlos popped inside to check out the prices and vacancy situation. His name was Christian, from Austria, and he was cycling his way to China. He’d arrived a few days earlier, and was here in İstanbul taking a break, waiting for his Iranian visa to be approved. A fellow nut-job cyclist! Excellent. We briefly traded notes on the route, the gear we were carrying and a bunch of other ‘exciting’ cycling details, and agreed to catch up later.

As it turned out, Christian and I were to become very good friends, and a bad influence on each other. We hardly managed to escape the limits of the street, or even the Hostel cafe – we pretty much sat around the hostel most days, beer in hand, discussing the intricacies and concerns of our chosen routes, gear, preparation, visa timings and sanity in general. Especially our sanity. We finally agreed that we were both nuts, that I was going to freeze to death somewhere nasty, and that he was going to die of lethargy or alcohol poisoning. He finally got his Iranian via, but his timings got screwed up a bit, so I think we decided he was going to freeze to death too – just a little later than me (maybe).

For a while there was a chance that we would be riding together for a few days, but his route included Georgia, Armenia and possibly Azerbaijan, before entering Iran (where he would wait-out the winter), whereas mine would take me straight across Turkey and into Iran. He was keen to see the Black Sea coast, whereas I was more interested in central Anatolia, specifically Cappadocia. In the end, we decided to part ways at the same spot we met – in front of the Sultan Hostel. Christian – If you’re reading this, best of luck mate – we’re both going to need it!

So what did I actually do in İstanbul? Well, let me think…
I saw the amazing Aya Sophia (a.k.a. Hagia Sofya):

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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 İstanbul just over the wall. Some pretty cool stuff in the armoury too, but neither of us were impressed with the jewel-encrusted gold style they had going on. Everything from tea cups to mega-thrones, all plastered with gold & precious stones – it looked pretty tacky if you ask me. No photos were allowed of the glittery stuff, but I’m not too disappointed. All the money in the world can’t buy taste, right?

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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 🙂

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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 İstanbul from London – they had each bought a bike from the local supermarket for 150 pounds a piece (!), then rode them all the way down to Turkey with *minimal* gear. One of them – Ashley – wore the same shirt for the entire journey! The bikes were in a bit of a state when they arrived, but they made it, and I’m very impressed (in a horrified kind of way). Oddly enough, they all claimed to have enjoyed Romania immensely, and met lots of friendly, generous people while they were there. Clear evidence of the Parallel Universe Theory in action…

There was also the Aussie backpacker – Nick ‘stinkybeef’ – who joined in the fun with the English cyclists, including a bit of Frisbee action from the rooftop, and a lot of bow-and-arrow misbehavior (of the suction-cup variety, thankfully).

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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 İstanbul office of the same company. They met last year at a conference in Germany, and hit it off well at the dinner after the conference. Luckily for me, Maki stayed in contact with her, so when I got to İstanbul Hande and Burak were good enough to take me to a very trendy place in Taksim (the shopping & nightlife district of İstanbul) and made sure I had a great time. They even paid for my dinner! I still feel a bit guilty about that, guys. Please come to Tokyo sometime so I can repay the favour!

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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 İstanbul on broke down, he managed to pull some strings and get himself a flight to Tehran instead. He thought it was the following morning, so we all braced ourselves for another big night, but it turned out the flight was to be that very evening. Ken sat down just long enough to have his cake and eat it too (which he thoroughly enjoyed, as you can see), then he was off. This is possibly the only photo of him drinking Coca-Cola in existence…

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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 İstanbul (a joy-ride for them, my farewell), but Murphy’s law took effect and it never happened, which is a shame.

Just before I left İstanbul, I got to know a Greek-Scottish guy named Alex. He’d just started studying civil engineering at a university in İstanbul, and was looking around for a place to live when we met at the hostel. Strange-but-cool to hear him switch between fluent Greek on the telephone, then a clearly Scottish version of English talking to me. A very interesting guy too – I hope we get a chance to meet again.

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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 İstanbul – you’re all welcome to come and crash at my place in Tokyo any time – just not at the *same* time, please!

If I get the chance, I’ll definitely be coming back to Istanbul someday…

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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!





Turkey

27 08 2007

Edirne
26th August, 2007

I was up and rolling pretty late today – a couple of late nights in a row came to bite me in the morning when I tried to get up at 7:30am, and a few blinks later it was almost 9:30am…

In Bucharest, Christian had given me the movie ‘Serenity’ to watch in my free time, and I’d been catching 10-minute grabs of it over the last few nights. I was really getting into it, so I decided to do it justice and watch it through properly. Very cool movie – I wish I’d seen it at the cinema.

Anyway, it was closing on noon by the time I got myself on the bike and pedaling towards the Turkish border. The sun was already playing hardball up in the sky, and I was paying the price for my late-start indulgence in no time.

I reached the border at about quarter to two in the afternoon, and was quite concerned to see the incredible number of cars and buses backed-up for hundreds of metres before the customs gates. Many drivers had killed their engines, ready for a long wait – those with air-conditioning kept the motor running, making things even hotter (for me). I took my place in line behind a mini-van and swapped my helmet for a cap, then peered around the van to see how far the line went. I couldn’t see the front of the queue, but I could see quite a long way – and it didn’t look good at all.

The guy behind me got out of his car and came to have a chat with me, asking where I was from, where I was going, etc., and then prompted me to skip the queue and just pedal up to the front, assuring me it would be fine to do so. I didn’t want to upset a hundred hot, impatient Turkish & Bulgarian drivers (especially as they would all be overtaking me at close range a few kilometres down the road), but it seemed crazy to just stand straddling the bike in the beating sun for the next couple of hours. I thanked him, then slowly broke rank and rolled up towards the customs cubicles. I got a few smiles (and a few glares) from the cars as I rolled past, until I was about 15 metres from the front, where I waited for someone to wave me back in line. Nobody did. One car full of guys about my age were staring at my bike intently, and finally dropped the window to ask me the standard questions – but the driver made very sure not to leave any gap in front of him that I could fit into, and the other drivers followed very close behind. I finally mimed an appeal to be let into line to a few cars, and one sour-faced guy suddenly smiled and waved me in front of him.

The huge back-up of cars was due to the fact that, despite there being 10 customs cubicles spanning the border station, only one of them was occupied, and all cars had to go past this single point of entry. Each car took between 30 seconds and two minutes to answer the questions and pass inspection, and it was looking pretty grim for those poor guys at the back of the line…

When I got to the little window in the cubicle, a very serious-faced officer barked ‘passport!’, and I handed mine to him. He looked at it for about half a second before declaring that I didn’t have a visa, and that I must go back to the visa office and buy one, then return to the cubicle. Great. Pretty stupid of me, though – I’d gotten used to the hassle-free EU thing, and never even thought of it…

Having paid my 15 euro (I didn’t have any Turkish Lira at that point), and persuading another driver to let me back in line again, the same officer glanced at the little visa sticker in my passport, then asked me where I was going.
‘Istanbul, Iran, Turkmenistan, China, Japan…’ I replied (skipping a bit), which was met with raised eyebrows and pursed lips.
‘Bicycle..?’ he asked.
‘Yes’.
He looked at my passport again for a second, then nodded once and handed it back to me. ‘Welcome to Turkey’, he offered, waving me on.
‘Thank you, sir’ – and I was pedaling again.

I had to pass one more check-point – the Turkish police – and as I approached this final obstacle, I couldn’t help but notice the layered domes and tapering minarets of a mosque, just beyond the vacant no-man’s land of the border area. I’m sure it was nothing special compared to the huge, grand mosques I look forward to seeing in Istanbul and elsewhere, but for me it was a symbol of having entered a new phase in my trip, and I paused to take a photo, silently congratulating myself for making this far. I was in Turkey!

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I then made my way back onto the main road, thankful for the cooling effect of my sweaty T-shirt as my speed picked-up. I passed an unbelievable number of trucks on the other side of the road – and endless procession of multi-coloured semi-trailers, all (I assume) waiting their turn at crossing back into Bulgaria. I took note of my odometer reading to try and figure out how long the line actually was – it stretched over 7km! Most of the trucks were driverless – I guess they knew they weren’t getting over the border today, so they just parked their trucks and went home or something…

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The road into Edirne was excellent (as was the road approaching the border from Bulgaria) – two lanes in either direction, and a fully paved, lane-wide shoulder for me to ride on. I felt extremely safe, with at least two metres of asphalt between me and the trickle of cars and trucks overtaking me. The terrain was fairly flat, with a few long, rolling hills creeping in as I approached the outskirts of Edirne. By 4:30pm, I was cranking my way up the hill into the centre of town, doing my best to stay out of the way of the drivers roaring up to the main traffic island, honking furiously at each other (and me, I assume).

I’ve already noticed that the drivers in Turkey have a passionate love affair with their car horns – they’ll honk at anything, any time, for any reason you can think of. The traffic lights are interesting too – as well as the regular red, amber and green lights, they have a digital count-down for the red and green, telling you exactly how long you have before the lights change. When waiting at a red light, they all start honking at each other about three seconds before the lights change, just to make sure everyone is paying attention – and the front cars go screeching off the line about one second before the change occurs, regardless of whether there are still pedestrians on the crossing. The car is king here – pedestrians rate way below potholes and broken glass on the scale of things not to hit. I’ll be very careful indeed while riding over here. It’s a different feeling on the road compared to the homicidal drivers in Romania, though – in Romania I think the drivers were more hateful, actually curious to see what I’d look like pasted across the street as they ran over me, whereas here it seems that driving is just one great big rally-sport adventure, and casualties are simply part of the entertainment. At least half of the honks at me are friendly encouragement, but they all sound the same until you see a smiling face or a wave.

It took me a hell of a long time to get my bearings in town, despite having a decent map in my Lonely Planet. Sadly, my GPS is no longer much use in street-level navigation, as I have only major highway data for Turkey and beyond. I finally found myself a hotel (thanks to the Lonely Planet), got settled and showered, and decided to have a look around town.

It seems the fire I spotted yesterday was headed this way, as a huge cloud of smoke blew into town soon after I arrived, gusty winds swirling ash and smoke around everybody on the streets. I headed up the hill to the famous Selimiye mosque, designed by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, who also takes credit for a lot of the amazing constructions in Istanbul (so I’ve read). I don’t know much of anything about the architecture of Islam, but I have to say this mosque is absolutely incredible. I’m a big fan of the catheral architecture found throughout Europe, and this was my first time to take a real look at the Eastern equivalent. Wow. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves on this one.

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After walking around the grounds briefly, I wanted to enter the mosque to take a good look. I wasn’t really dressed appropriately (still in my cycling gear – shorts and a T-shirt), but I spotted a few locals dressed similarly, and I decided just to give it a shot and go right in. I took off my sandals, initially hiding them behind a broom before I noticed the big shoe rack near the entrance, and slowly passed through the huge stone archway into the building. I hovered near the entrance, half expecting someone to tell me that I can’t enter wearing these clothes, but no-one even glanced at me. In fact, people were milling around, blatantly taking photos of the mosque and each other, despite signs instructing not to do so. I really wanted to take some shots myself, and after a while I dug my camera out of my bag and decided to join the crowd. I was later told by an official-looking man that the rule was really meant for prayer-time, and that no-one really cared except for that.

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After spending a while wandering the inside, I went back out to the courtyard, where I was accosted by a group of postcard-and-souvenir sellers. Despite considerable (friendly) persistence on their part, I politely declined to purchase anything, and after a while they gave up with a smile and looked for their next prospect. It was getting dark now, and I passed through to the garden area just as it turned 8:00pm. Suddenly, dozens of loudspeakers sprang to life with a passionate, droning chant, and I stood alone in the garden, listening with fascination as the call to prayer rang out across the city. It was remarkable, and quite beautiful to listen to – a strange, wailing tonal progression, drowning out all other noise, echoing across the hills and buildings of the moon-lit city. The hairs on my arms and neck were standing on end – it was really an amazing experience. The chant ended with what sounded like the NTT ‘failed to connect’ tone on Japanese phones (I’m sure there’s an irony in there somewhere), and then silence. I was impressed – but no applause.

It was also interesting to see the observant muslim ladies, looking quite devout with their heads all covered in shawls – yet oblivious to this masterpiece of architecure, opting instead to play with their mobile phones, wandering around like distracted penguins. For a moment I thought I was back in Japan…

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For dinner I explored the area surrounding the mosque, eventually opting for a kebab joint when the cheerful proprietor came out of his shop to invite me to an outdoor table. I ordered a kebab sandwich and a bottle of water, and the kebab was really, amazingly good. So I ordered another, along with another bottle of water. The bread was fresh, soft and chewy, and the chicken perfectly tender and tasty, with mayonnaise, sauerkraut and chilli sauce. I could eat one every day for months, and be extremely happy. But two was my limit (I needed room for ice-cream yet)… and the price? 1.25 lira each – 75 euro cents!

I topped it all off with some stretchy Turkish ice-cream – also excellent – and then it was back to the hotel to catch up on some sleep.

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I like Turkey already.

Lüleburgaz

27th August, 2007

Today was really tough. The road I’m following to Istanbul, the D100, is in reasonable condition, but the terrain makes for pretty exhausting riding – endless long, rolling hills, like riding on a giant ocean of wheat fields in 50 metre swells. I think ‘steppe’ is the correct geographical term. According to my Lonely Planet, the D100 used to be the main highway from the border to Istanbul, but since the new multi-lane toll-highway opened up a few years ago, the traffic has reduced substantially. It used two be two lanes in either direction, but it seems that rather than pay for the maintenence of four lanes of asphalt, the powers that be have decided to down-grade the road to a single lane going each way. This leaves a full lane-wide shoulder (of varying quality) to ride on, which has been pretty good so far.

But the wind! My gawd, it was just bloody terrible! It wasn’t so bad in the morning, a bit of blustery side-wind, but it developed over lunch time into a full-on howling headwind, relentlessly pushing my rig back in the direction I was coming from. It was so frustrating, so demoralizing – even the down-hill bits became a chore, as I had to keep pedaling to get any speed at all. If I free-wheeled down-hill, I maxed out at 13kph – what a joke! And the uphills – well, I started getting pretty creative and fluent with my curses toward mid-afternoon, and my knees are feeling very sorry for themselves at the moment. As Gerry commented back in Belgium, I tend to pedal while seated pretty much all the time, only standing on the pedals to crank up the really tough grades. But today I had to get up off the saddle almost every climb, or I’d be wobbling all over the place from lack of speed. Absolutely miserable. My only relief was having the iPod tunes going to keep me distracted a little, though with the noise of the wind, and the constant honking from passing cars and trucks, I didn’t really hear much…

My goal of reaching Çorlu (pron. ‘Chorlu’) by evening was a write-off – I was shagged, and quite happy to call it quits when I reached Lüleburgaz instead – almost 50km short (!) My average speed today was pathetic, something in the range of 13kph, and at that rate it would have been well dark by the time I made it to Çorlu, if my knees could have taken it. I stopped at the first hotel I found on the way into town (too expensive), then another smaller, more ‘rustic’ establishment, where I booked a room and unloaded the gear.

I’ve developed a bad habit of lying down as soon as I get my bags in the room, and it bit me again tonight. I flopped on the bed at about 7:30pm, and suddenly it was 9:45pm and I was hungry, tired and stiff, still in my filthy riding gear. I quickly took a shower and put on my ‘good’ clothes, then headed out for some dinner, hoping a restaurant would still be serving at this hour. It turns out the Turkish are night-owls, and most every kebap shop and restaurant was still serving at 10:00pm. I chose one at random, and the young guy at the door was very friendly, miming for me to follow him to the back of the restaurant. He led me out to a very attractive covered courtyard, complete with little waterfalls, fountains, and plenty of greenery. He seated me at a nice table with water burbling down the rock-wall beside it, and offered me the menu. Fortunately there were pictures on the menu, so I just pointed to a picture of a few skewers of meat on a plate, along with rice and grilled vegetables, and he disappeared into the kitchen. I was pretty thirsty too, but before I could grab another waiter, he returned again with a bottle of water and a glass, and poured it for me. I didn’t see any beer on the menu, so I decided not to enquire – I’d seen adverts for Efes beer on the street, but it seems most eateries don’t serve alcohol around here – maybe you have to go to pubs for that.

The meal was really good, and I was very well-fed by the end. The manager came to my table just to say hello, and offered me a tea or coffee at the end of the meal. I don’t normally drink coffee just before bedtime, but I decided to give the Turkish coffee a shot. It arrived in a tiny white and blue porcelain cup, as black as night, and thick like corn soup. It was also very sweet (I didn’t add any sugar), and tasted great. But there went my plans for an early night – there must have been enough caffeine in it to revive a wooly mammoth…

I naturally hunted down and devoured another native ice-cream – three scoops of words I couldn’t pronounce, but turned out to be pistachio, walnut, and ‘fruits of the forest’. Very nice.

Back to the room, where I washed and hung my riding clothes, re-packed my bags a little, and lay staring at the ceiling for several hours. I think I finally dozed off at about 4:00am, and was rudely disturbed by my alarm about 4 hours later. But that’s another day…

Çorlu

28th August, 2007

Today was even tougher than yesterday! A genuine dog of a day. I now officially hate headwinds more than anyone else in the world…

I was pretty groggy this morning – my little nap yesterday evening, followed by a killer coffee and another 4 hours sleep didn’t help things get moving *at all*. My legs were really tired too – just descending the stairs for breakfast was ugly, and as soon as I’d mounted up and started pedaling, I knew it was going to be a hard day.

The merciless wind was there, ready and waiting for me, and the moment I rounded the corner to face the open road, I was nearly brought to a halt by the bastard. I gritted my teeth and plugged ahead, but it was soon apparent that my progress was going to be even worse than yesterday’s. My legs were really not interested in this little party, and calling them names wasn’t having any effect. I could feel the wind gusting though the gaps in my teeth, and all of the grass in the fields was lying flat to the ground (an enviable position). On the rear horizon, I caught a glimpse of the fire that has been following me, and saw that the smoke was now blasting horizontally along the ground rather than rising up in a column.

But I caught my frustration, lectured it a bit and sent it off with a laugh, and just decided to pedal at the pace that was comfortable (or possible), rather than trying to fight my way through the next five hours. I was going ridiculously slow, almost falling off half the time, but I was still making some sort of progress. The iPod earned its keep yet again.

However, my woes were about to get worse. Within an hour of leaving Luleburgaz, the road decayed into a genuine single-lane-either-way road, with no white line on the edges to mark a shoulder. The traffic was getting denser with heavy vehicles (Çorlu is a big industrial town) and the trucks were driving right along the edge of the asphalt, making it suicidal for me to stay on the road. I had no choice but to ride along the gravel and dirt shoulder, trying to find a rideable surface between the ragged edge of the asphalt and the gravel embankment on my right. The shoulder was littered with potholes, plastic bottles, broken glass, rocks and spatters of tar, shredded retreads and (worst of all), big patches of sand. As soon as I’d hit the sand, my front wheel would wash-out completely, digging and sliding aimlessly. My back wheel would start squirming to my right, following gravity down the embankment, and I’d have to jump out of my pedals and stomp my feet on the ground before I fell right down the embankment, or worse, regained traction and rode straight up in front of a passing truck. Not fun at all. The headwind (coming slightly from my left) was continuously trying to send me off the embankment, but whenever a truck passed, the sudden abatement in wind and the violent wake-gust from the truck would suck me back towards the road like a ping-pong ball to a vacuum. This continued for 44km, and when I finally made it to Çorlu, I was in no mood to continue.

I chugged uphill past a miltary complex on the way into town, and right at the front entrance was this tank on display:

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About one second after I took this shot, I heard a sharp whistle and a shout from my right, and looking over I saw a soldier staring directly at me. He was holding an assault rifle (a G3, if I’m not mistaken) and making a swift horizontal cutting motion through the air with his free hand. I nodded obediently and put the camera back in my bar-bag, but before I could get it buttoned closed I heard another shout, and a second soldier was also gesturing at me – cranking his hands in a pedaling motion, then pointing down the road. I got the message, and gave them a friendly wave (which they returned), and I was gone.

When I found the town centre, I waited for the first person to start talking to me (which doesn’t take long in Turkey), then asked him if he knew of any cheap hotels in town. He didn’t speak a word of English, but I believe he claimed he didn’t know of any, explaining that he lived here and had no need for a hotel, but then mimed that there might be one just around the corner. There was, and it was cheap (25 lira – 12 euro), and that’s where I’m sitting right now. No air-con, but tonight is pleasantly cool for a change, so I’m happy.

I did my same trick of falling asleep when I got to my room, but fortunately woke up by 9:15pm, so I quickly showered and hit the town for dinner. Similar to last night (though not as big, or as good) – lamb şiş-kebap with rice, salad and some kind of bread, washed down with water. In my dessert-quest, I found a very busy ice-cream joint, right opposite a mosque and another military complex. I ate a superb ice-cream sandwich, under the watchful gaze of a soldier with a machine gun.

Time to hand-wash my clothes again, then get some real sleep…

İstanbul

29th August, 2007

Now that was scary. Suicidal, exciting and ridiculous in roughly equal measures, with a lot of “what-the-bloody-HELL-am-I-doing-HERE!?!” thrown in. But I made it! And mostly in one piece…

As a feat of madness, riding into Istanbul ranks fairly highly in cycling circles (at least, in all the blogs and stories I’ve read). And so it should – I had just about every bit of nastiness you could think of on the way in here. Gleefully psychotic ‘drivers’ on some truly horrible roads. Choking oil fumes, spiteful climbs and mad, wobbly descents. More freakin’ buses than I ever thought actually existed, pulling over in endless waves, right in front of me (or on top of me). Absolutely *mental* road layout, with so many lanes and on-ramps and crash barriers and roadworks teams and traffic jams and loonies trying to sell me flowers (!) in the middle of torpedo rally chaos. Everyone honking at me – mainly in perverted encouragement, several in furious indignation, and a few in morse code, from what I could tell. And I just couldn’t get off the damned road – every time I looked to my right, I had about 3 lanes of traffic, with miles of crash barrier dividing us, and at least one drop-off of a couple of metres – and it only got worse as I got closer to the city. I can’t fathom what kind of design principles the engineers were following when they built this mess (assuming it was ever actually ‘engineered’), but getting off obviously wasn’t part of the plan. You just barge into the flow, go like a rabid monkey, and pray you can honk and shove your way to the far side of town.

Ok, maybe it didn’t help that it was peak-hour evening traffic. Or that I was already exhausted from a long day of riding just to get near this frantic battle. Or that the sun had just set, and everything was dimming to a dusty blue-grey. But seriously – what the *hell* would I want with a bouquet of fancy red flowers, sandwiched between 5 lanes of roaring diesel monsters? These guys just stood in the thick of it all, barely batting an eyelid as they were strafed by buses and trucks at break-neck pace. Impossible to slow down enough to even grab them, let alone pay for them… I had to laugh, despite being nearly knocked in the path of a hay-laden dump-truck. Insane.

But I should’ve really started at the start, instead of giving you the big action scene up front. So…

I woke up this morning feeling a good deal stronger than I did yesterday, and went downstairs to be disappointed by the meagre breakfast the hotel had on offer. A single piece of cheese, half a dozen black olives, tiny tubs of strawberry jam and oily melted butter, and a couple of pieces of bread left in the basket. You get what you pay for, I guess…

I swiped some bread from the table next to me – the guy had finished and left a few bits in his basket – and ate everything, washed down with a cup of Turkish tea (‘çay’ – pronounced ‘chai’). Then back upstairs to pack my life back into my panniers for the 100th time (literally – over 3 months on the road now!).

The road was a dramatic improvement over yesterday – I was back to riding on a decent, paved shoulder for the most part, occasionally turning to gravel, but it was firmly packed, and none of the dreaded sand. Despite this change for the better, it had become painfully clear that Istanbul didn’t want me – the closer I got, the harder she tried to blow me away. The wind was ferocious in the morning, and the curses started early. Only as I started my final approach did it gradually fade from an obstacle back to an annoyance (to instill in me a sense of false confidence, I now realize).

At 3:00pm I stopped at the top of a long, slow climb for a late lunch break at a Shell service station. It was a pretty dismal affair, which I’m getting used to. Service stations in Turkey don’t offer anything beyond cookies, chocolate bars, beer snacks and ice cream as ‘food’ – nothing resembling a sandwich or even a bread roll to be found. I reluctantly grabbed a choc-wafer bar and a little bag of pretzel sticks, along with a carton of orange juice and some water. As I paid for my feast, I could hear my bicycle bell ringing repeatedly out front, and when I got outside I found a little kid of about 5 years old busily thumbing the ringer as fast as he could, in fits of giggles. I slowly approached my bike, and when he noticed me he started nodding his head up-and-down, proclaiming ‘yes!…yes!…yes!’ with every ring. I stared at him, trying to figure out if it was the same kid I’d met in Edirne.
‘I see you’ve found the bell’
‘yes!…yes!…yes!’
‘You seem pretty excited about that’
‘yes!…yes!…yes!’
‘Do you have a bell on your bike?’
‘yes!…yes!…yes!’
‘How about you show it to me?’
‘yes!…yes!…yes!’

Then to my considerable surprise, he raced into the garage and pulled out his own little BMX (chrome plated, with pink, green & yellow plastic stars in the back spokes) and started ringing his own bell, loud and fast. And I thought he was just humoring me…
All this excitement was enough to bring dad out too, and we soon got talk-miming about the regular things – where I was from, where I was going, etc. – while the little kid dashed into the shop. He emerged a few seconds later with a plastic shopping bag full of small bread rolls, and offered me the entire bag. I hesitantly took just one roll and bit into it (a bit stale, but ok washed down with water), so I accepted another. He kept pulling out a roll every time I’d finish one, and in the end I’d eaten about 7 or 8. I thanked the owner (who insisted I take the remaining 20 rolls too) and got back on the road.

Not 1km further on, I found what I’d been looking for in the first place – a kebap shop. A kebap trailer, to be specific, and it was open. Despite the fact it was getting late and I’d just eaten a stack of stale bread rolls, I decided to pull over again and eat properly, as I had a feeling I still had a lot of work to do before this day was over.

The owner and his teenage son were sitting at a table out the front, and were very welcoming. The son gestured to a table and explained how it all worked, with a big smile:
‘Come on!! Sit down!’
‘Uh, thanks.’
‘You want kebap! Come on!’
‘Yes, I do. Do you have lamb?’
‘What??’
‘Lamb – sheep – you know… baaahhh…?’
‘No. We have menu.’

I looked at the laminated page and tried to guess what was what. I pointed at the first listing with ‘kebap’ in it.
‘Yes, we have it. Ok – you want drink?’
‘Water, please’
‘No problem!’
, and he pulled a bottle from the fridge.
While I waited for my kebap, I studied the map to see how far I thought I could really get this evening. Istanbul was still quite a ways, and it was getting late. I decided it might be smarter to look for a place to stay in a satellite town of Istanbul, and run the gauntlet of actually entering the city when I had a little more daylight up my sleeve.
The son walked up next to me, grinned and hesitated a moment, then all but shouted ‘Come on!!’ in my ear and offered me a plate with my kebap on it, and a plastic tub of pickles.
‘Thanks. I think you want to say “here you are”, maybe…’
‘Yes! Enjoy it!’
‘I’m sure I will’

And I did. It was chicken, as it turned out, and very tasty.

While I was eating, the father paced up and down the length of the platform at the top of the stairs, in front of the serving window. Suddenly there was a loud metallic stomp, and he lunged as if to do a Super-Man onto my table. He just barely recovered, hands whirling about as he teetered at the edge of the top step, then cursed loudly and shouted at his son to come and help him. He’d tripped on the mis-matched edge where two steel staircases joined, and decided to rectify it with a shovel, propping up one part while the son shoved stones from the surrounding gravel underneath. I finished my kebap quickly, and got out of firing range from the impacted gravel as soon as I could.

From there, it was a fairly straight run into the outskirts of Istanbul, with the traffic picking up steadily as I got closer. I had one pretty sizable valley to traverse, clocking 55kph on the way down (scary, with all the weight), and an long, steep climb up the other side (annoying, with all the weight). The climb peaked at a rather dangerous division in the road, where buses and trucks were supposed to go right, skirting around the apex, while cars and motorbikes veered left up to the very peak of the hill. I figured I looked more like a motorbike than anything, although my pace more closely matched that of the laboring trucks. I decided to go with the light vehicles, and climb the extra few metres to the summit. A glorious view of the coast and the Mediterranean, at the foot of a fancy space-age tower was the reward. Trying to merge back with the heavy vehicles coming from my right, two lanes deep was my punishment. Scary stuff.

Beyond that, I started to notice that it was becoming quite difficult to find a place to pull off of this road, and my chances of finding a cheap hotel for the night were getting slimmer. The sun was quickly setting behind me, with the walls of glass and concrete in front all turning a brilliant orange-brown. I followed a bus into an off-ramp, which in turn led to another off-ramp and a side-street, and I stopped for a breather. As it happened, I was right in front of a hotel! I parked the bike and went in to investigate, but I had failed to notice the four stars etched on the sliding doors… Eighty-five euros for a single room – back on the bike.

Merged with the madness again, the sun bleeding the last of its smog-blaze into the picture, and a few kilometres later the scene described at the beginning of this post ensued. I actually did stop at the tail of one huge traffic jam and bought a bottle of water from a kid wandering the crush. At least he was selling something practical! I also managed to half-crash the bicycle, cutting too closely to a very tall curb as I passed a bus stop. My front-right pannier swiped along the curb, twisting the handlebars to the right. I nosed into the concrete and dropped the bike, the pannier popping off and tumbling along the road. Luckily it was uphill at a low speed, no damage done (other than my pride).
I finally hit my comfort threshold for near-meatloaf experiences, and, feeling that I was actually within greater Istanbul itself, decided to take a more aggressive approach to getting the hell off the road. I pulled a nasty multi-lane swerve, cutting up the inside of a turning bus (all eyes upon me through the open doors) and squeezed past the front as it arced toward me. I found myself on a curving ramp that became a bridge over the highway, packed solid with traffic and going nowhere. I managed to pull-up beside a car before running into anyone, then carefully threaded my way up the ramp until I was on the road across the bridge. More crazy drivers and nasty squeezes, but at least this was a road I could manage.

After pushing my way along progressively smaller and darker streets (all choked with traffic), I finally pulled into a service station and decided to figure out where I actually was. I was helped enthusiastically by the station staff, with all of us peering at a tourist map of Istanbul that I’d picked up in Edirne. No-one seemed quite sure of our exact location, but I could see roughly where we were and decided to play it by ear for another few kilometres. Just as I was about to leave, a customer walked in that they all seemed to know, and I was told excitedly that he could speak English. It turned out he spoke a British variety of English, and spoke it perfectly – he had gone to school in Oxford for several years, and was in fact the son of the mayor of this area of Istanbul! Bingo.

After introductions and a bit of a chat, he very kindly offered to show me to a reasonably-priced hotel in the area, suggesting that I put my bike in his car. I smiled and pointed through the window to my bike with all the bags, and after a brief double-take he smiled back, proposing instead that I follow behind him as he drove slowly. I mounted up and started tailing him through the traffic. He somehow omitted the little detail that the hotel was at the top of a substantial hill, so I was up out of the saddle the whole way up, stomping the last traces of composure out of my poor legs.

About half way up, going around a sweeping right-hand bend, I came upon a storm-drain grating in the side of the road. I’d noticed these things earlier in the day, and was quite concerned at how wide the rungs were spaced – easily two-inch gaps between each rung. This would be extremely dangerous for cyclists, if it weren’t for the fact that they were all aligned perpendicular to the curb. All except this one. Before I could react, my front wheel sank instantly to its axle, the bike freezing on the spot as I lunged forward over the handlebars, front panniers flying off to either side. I somehow avoided face-planting the asphalt, tumbling onto the road while a passing bus narrowly missed turning my left pannier into a Cordura pancake. I was not happy. I made this quite clear to whoever cared to listen. Surprisingly, the bike was completely unharmed by this little stunt, and after retrieving the panniers and checking everything carefully, I re-mounted and chased after my friend in the car. He had missed the excitement, and figured I was just slacking off.

We finally arrived at the hotel, and after a brief discussion with the security guy, I was permitted to lean my bike against the wall and enter the building. The security in this area was pretty tight – every 15 metres a pair of police stood along the street, decked-out in ballistic vests and automatic weapons. Opposite the hotel was some kind of government building, and they clearly weren’t accepting casual visits. The hotel was a little more expensive than I’d hoped – ‘reasonably-priced’ is a subjective term – but there really wasn’t much choice, and I was too tired to start searching for alternatives. My new friend bargained the room down a little for me, we exchanged details, I thanked him for his help, and he was gone.

I showered thoroughly, but still managed to blacken the towels with road-grime that was embedded in the super-sticky gel sunscreen I use. I checked the email briefly, wrote a temporary blog entry, then crashed one more time – at least this was a soft and comfortable landing… in İstanbul!





Bulgaria

20 08 2007

Update – added Nova Zagora on 26th August
Update – added Svilengrad on 26th August

Ruse

I just rolled into Ruse, Bulgaria this evening, after crossing the Danube yet again (and the border) over the longest steel bridge in Europe at 2.8km. The ride down from Bucharest was pretty good (but very hot) – the road was in excellent condition, with two wide lanes going in either direction, and a very broad, flat shoulder to ride on – excellent. Quite a contrast to the road into Bucharest from the north – I can’t recommend that to anyone.

I met a few cyclists on the way out of Bucharest today – one couple were just looking around town, before heading off for the Black Sea coast to lie on the beach for a while. The guy was from France, his girlfriend from Ireland, and they had been riding down the Danube from somewhere in Europe. I also met a Romanian cyclist by the name of Edy, and his younger brother Alex. They were riding in the same direction (to visit a local monastery that they had never been to), and Edy was very interested in my little adventure. He had just recently ridden through Bulgaria and Greece, and was full of useful advice about the best roads to take in Bulgaria. He also gave me a few home-made pancakes (filled with jam) and some fruit for my trip – thanks Edy!

So far, I’m very impressed with Bulgaria. The city of Ruse (Roo-seh) has a peaceful, dignified air about it, with a huge and beautiful open square in the middle of town. For dinner I had perhaps the best pizza of my life tonight – they call it ‘The Wall’ on the menu for some reason – plus a good local beer, all for about 4 Euros. I’m trying to get my head around the Cyrillic alphabet, but so far I haven’t got a clue how to read the street signs or menus – luckily many people here seem to speak a bit of English.
That’s all for now!

Veliko Tarnovo

Wow, I don’t know if I’m fit enough for this…

Yesterday was probably the toughest day of cycling in my life (so far). Not a great distance from Ruse to Veliko Tarnovo (about 110km), but the temperature, roads and terrain made for some very harsh riding.

I woke with a slightly dodgy stomach, and sat down to my breakfast without the usual anticipation. This was the first time in the whole trip that my stomach was unhappy, but it seemed to pass after a couple of hours.

Leaving Ruse, I thought I’d try to get off the main road (Hwy 5) by taking a minor road and avoiding most of the trucks enroute, but that didn’t work out too well. As I approached the turn-off for the minor road, I noticed that all of the traffic seemed to have the same idea, and I soon found out the highway was under construction – everybody had to use this minor road. It was very tight going on the road, and trucks were barely able to squeeze past each other, which sent me into the gravel shoulder countless times. The truckers were fairly considerate, actually, and I didn’t have any near-death experiences, but it was still a serious pain in the saddle. On the plus side, the roads were in better condition than Romania – but that wouldn’t be hard to do.

It was HOT – a good 40 degrees after 1:00pm, and not a single tree close enough to the road to cast any shade. The landscape was quite ‘dramatic’ too – enormous rolling hills the whole way, with me grinding my way to the top of each of them, sweat dripping in a continuous stream through my eyes and off my chin, only to do battle with the traffic on the downhills as the cars & trucks rushed by. Not fun.

Sweating like a maniac, I reached a small town at about 3:00pm, out of water and in need of a break. I asked the friendly policemen on the side of the road (catching speeding motorists by the dozens) where I could get a bottle of water, and they directed me to a quiet cafe/diner. Inside, I grabbed a litre of orange juice and a bottle of water from the fridge, paid (very cheap here – 1 Euro for the lot), and downed the OJ in one continuous gulp, to the wide-eyed concern of the owner. I then asked if she had any sandwiches, and was answered with a blank look as she shook her head. ‘No problem’, I said, and sat down at a table, half-watching a swashbuckling Spanish daytime drama dubbed into Bulgarian, as I tried to find a dry part of my shirt to wipe my brow with.

She woke me up sometime later by plonking a warm salami & mayo sandwich in front of me, which was a welcome surprise. I’d forgotten that shaking the head side-to-side means ‘yes’ in Bulgaria, despite being told by several travellers along the way. I munched it down, paid again, and (somewhat reluctantly) got back on the bike.

The next 60km were marginally less tough, though the ‘Tranzit’ (detour) was still very annoying. At one point I was actually going faster than the traffic, which had banked up for quite a distance. I was finally stopped by an extra-wide truck, with no way of getting past it, so I crawled along like everyone else, the heat all the worse for lack of airflow. At one point I thought I was going to pass-out, as we rolled though the cause of the traffic jam – about 100m of fresh, steaming-hot tar being layed by an unhappy-looking road crew. They gave me a confused look, more concerned about me running over their new tar than anything, and shook their heads as I tried to match pace with the accelerating traffic up the next hill.

I stopped again at a small service station about 90 minutes later, hoping it was open (or even in business – it didn’t look like it). A grizzled old fellow eyed me suspiciously from behind his tobacco-stained window, but was fairly easy with me pointing at his fridge and him pulling out a couple of drinks. I held out some coins for him, from which he carefully took the required sum, and gave me a kurt nod before returning to his torn vinyl chair. I sat in the only shade I could find, under a rusting gas cyclinder, and traded glances with a curious dog that circled from a distance, sniffing the air. The owner then returned to the door and invited me to come and sit in his air-conditioned office, which I gratefully accepted. He sat me on a well-butchered sofa, and we watched a documentary about traditional life in parts of Bulgaria while I sipped my water. He got quite excited about some parts, and almost shouted while reeling off place-names and pointing at different points in the air. He picked up his own drink (a brown 2-litre plastic bottle of beer), and made a big upward spiral with his finger, cracking a smile and pointing at his head. I think he had the right idea, actually. I tried to explain where I was from and where I was going, but I’m not sure if I penetrated his armour. He looked at me strangely a few times though, which was a good sign. I then made my excuses and hit the road.

The final approach was tough – I was really shagged from all the hills and the heat, and Vileko Tarnovo is a city that sits atop the walls of a dramatic gorge. One more push to get up the ‘entrance’, and I was at the foot of town. As soon as I stopped to dig out my Lonely Planet and orientate myself, a taxi came to a screeching halt next to me and the driver lept out in greeting. ‘My friend! How are you today? You are looking for place to stay? I have room for you, very nice, very close to city centre. Come, come…’. I quizzed him on the room and the location, and he whipped out a few photos – not bad- and the price? – 20 leva (10 Euros). I was simply too tired to argue, so he jumped back in the taxi and patiently idled up the hill while I cranked the last of my energy out on the damned 8% grade, reaching the room in a few minutes. He helped carry my bags up the stairs (the only person to have done so on my entire trip) and handed me the keys with a huge grin. I paid him, put the bike on the mini-balcony, and collapsed on the bed ‘for a minute’. I never even got my shoes off. I was out cold for twelve hours, on a badly-sprung mattress in my sweaty gear, but it was ok – I had made it. So much for the nice traditional Bulgarian dinner I could get at the restaurant opposite, as the guy had promised…

Nova Zagora

Well, today’s riding was, in a word, *fantastic*. What a contrast to my ride into Veliko Tarnovo! And to think I was a little worried about the ‘big climb’ today…

But first, I’ll back up a bit to yesterday – I spent the day in Veliko Tarnovo, exploring the Tsarevets Fortress on the hilltop (once the daily furnace died down a bit), getting the clothes washed and hung out, getting prepped for today’s ‘big ride’ (water, food, checking the bike), and recharging the batteries (mine and the GPS’s).

I decided to spoil myself after lunch with a sampling of some of the luscious-looking ice-cream they had on display at a road-side kiosk in town. I opted for three scoops in a cone, and was stunned at the size of the monster the girl handed me – all other places I’d been to recently had given fairly meager scoops (for a very low price, admittedly) – but this was humongous! I then discovered why – they weigh the resulting cone, and you pay by the gram… thankfully it was still relatively cheap – 3 leva (1.5 euro). I was *Happy*.

My plans for a super-early start the following morning (this morning) were sabotaged by my very first flat tyre of the trip. I guess I was lucky in a way – the puncture happened in a ‘good’ location, and there was still plenty of daylight. I was well off the road, sitting on my bike at the railing of a scenic lookout on my way back down from the fortress. After admiring the tiered levels of the town & the gorge below under the late-afternoon sun, I pushed off from the railing and started pedaling back toward the road. Immediately I heard a popping noise, like I’d run over an empty milk carton, and that dreaded squishy back wheel feeling told me I was going nowhere. Looking down, I saw my poor Panaracer Pasela flat as a tack on the (glass ridden) tiles of the square. I jumped off the bike and wheeled it back to the railing, where I did a quick mental check to see if I had everything I needed to fix the problem – I was travelling light for the trip up to the fortress, and I didn’t have any of my panniers. Luckily I did have everything, so I did my best to get the back wheel off and the tube fixed up without dealing a greasy death-blow to my only decent set of clothes. I discovered I’d scissored two parallel gashes in the tube wall when the rim had dropped down on it, as well as a glass-prick right in the centre. This tube was dead – fortunately I had another. Upon inspection of the tyre itself, I pronounced it dead too – the sidewall had a nasty 2-inch crack along one side, and the tread was looking very shallow, with several sharp little rocks trying to burrow through to the inside. It still got me home, but I later buried it in the trash can of my room, with a tear building in the corner of my eye – almost 4400km of excellent service…

By the way, I’m now officially a huge fan of the Thorn rear drop-outs, and the ‘box-type’ Rohloff connector – they made removing and replacing the rear wheel a breeze – no need to do anything special with the chain or gear cables, and putting the wheel back on was a simple reverse procedure. I still got my hands utterly filthy, of course, but it was all fairly pain-free.

A guy about my age watched me finish up, then wandered over to offer to help. He said he knew the owner of a bar nearby where I could wash my hands, but in the end I just asked him to pour some of the water from my drink bottle into my hands (which worked surprisingly well). I then asked him about the roads leading south, and which would be the best choice for me to ride on to Nova Zagora. A few people had informed me that the main road going south was closed for construction (for over a year now), but he told me that it was still possible to use this road, and that he himself uses it quite often because he has a house down that way. He encouraged me to use this route, as it’s virtually devoid of traffic due to the detour signs. This was just the kind of news I wanted to hear, and I thanked him sincerely.

I then limped back to my room in town and proceeded to do the tyre-change trick all over again, but to both wheels this time – I put the old front tyre on the back (being 1.75″ diameter) and a brand-new Scwalbe Marathon XR on the front (because it’s only 1.6″ diameter, and I wanted the fatter tyre on the back). I had quite a bit of trouble fitting the Schwalbe – it mounted onto the rim easily enough, but it took me over an hour of squeezing and twisting and messing about to try and get it to sit evenly. No matter what I did, I always had an enormous flat-spot after putting air into the tube, and was getting quite frustrated with it after I’d changed tubes and re-fitted it about 5 times. After deciding it was just impossible to manually wrench the tyre into submission, I decided to go ahead and pump it up to the maximum pressure I could give it with my hand-pump, and voila – no flat spot. Problem solved. (Oh, Nigel – you idiot…)

I should also mention that through all of this bike-wrestling in the confined space of my room, I was kept company by my new neighbours – a very nice Israeli couple by the name of Tali & Sapir. They had just arrived, in a somewhat surprised state, after thumbing a lift from a passing vehicle over 70km away. Apparently their saviour was some kind of metal-parts cleaning specialist, who lived only a few kilometres from where they were picked up, but he took it upon himself to drive them all the way to Vileko Tarnovo and give them an impromptu guided tour, including the church where he had gotten married. A very friendly lot, these Bulgarians.

They accompanied me through my bike hassles in part because the electricity was on the blink, and if they turned on their room lights, it tripped the breaker for us both – leaving us in complete darkness. My lights were ok, so they hovered about offering help and talking about our respective trips and interests.

I finally got to bed at 2:00am, so my 4:30am wake-up plan died as the lights went out.

So – back to today! I finally got rolling at about 9:15am, hoping to make the big climb of the day before the sun bared its fangs completely. That hope was in vain, however, as I managed to reach the bottom of the mountains at about 11:30, setting me up for a hot, sunny climb up to 700m (from my current 145m). Not a huge climb at all really, but my first ‘real’ climb this trip, and I was a little unsure how I’d handle it with all the gear I’m toting.

Getting to the mountains was bliss – the morning air was cool and refreshing, and just as the helpful bloke yesterday had said, there wasn’t a car to be seen anywhere. Odd that I could feel so grateful for roadworks, but that’s exactly what it was. Beautiful rolling scenery, wide open fields and the mountain range moving closer by the hour, with a first-class road all to myself – you couldn’t dream of better riding conditions.

When I started the climb, it was a very long, subtle incline for the most part, with only a couple of switch-backs, and the dreaded beating sun was surprisingly painless today (despite the reported 37 degrees in town). To be honest, I was completely comfortable the whole way up, smiling at and joking with the road crews, feeling strong and having fun. The road varied in quality from ‘pretty good’ to ‘bulldozed to Hell’, but I managed to navigate my way over the really rough stuff without a hitch, and avoided all the potholes in the tried old road they were digging up. I’d forgotten how enjoyable mountain cycling can be, having followed a series of rivers almost the entire trip, and was almost sorry to see the summit appear, much sooner than I’d expected.

I wasn’t sorry to see the roadhouse at the top though – I was getting hungry. I drank 1.5 litres of fluids (Ice Tea, water & some kind of Red-Bull imitation) and had a jumbo cheese-on-toast, followed by a really huge (and truly excellent) chock-wafer bar. And I mean HUGE – they kept these things in the fridge, and all the road crew boys were eating them. These are big guys, but they still looked like little kids trying to eat paperback books. I’m sure I looked ridiculous too, but at least it helped me ‘blend in’ a little…

Then in was all down hill. Absolute, pure cycling ecstasy. I put the iPod ear-buds in, fired up the Cult ‘Electric’, and blasted down 8km of spanking-new, immaculate asphalt, absolutely alone, at 50 kph – no fear of cars or trucks coming up behind me (the top was barricaded), and I even had a slight tail-wind. I was *very* sad to reach the bottom of that run – I think it ranks as my all-time Freewheel Nirvana, and I doubt I’ll ever find such conditions again. Unless I go back tomorrow…

The rest of the ride was also excellent, though once out of the mountains the heat certainly joined the party. Bakingly-hot on the flats around the lake, I was still on a high from the mountain run and couldn’t be demoralized. There was still virtually no traffic for the rest of the day, and apart from a last-minute surprise climb of about 350m, it was easy-riding all the way into town.

One minor gripe I have about this part of the world is the almost universal use of artificial sweeteners in the drinks. Anyone who knows me well knows that I hate artificial sweeteners, particularly aspartame, but I must have consumed 3 litres of the stuff today in various beverages. I needed the water (which I also drank), but I thought I’d keep it interesting by drinking some juices and ice teas as well. My mistake.

Svilengrad

Today, in my quest for lunch, I made a friend.

I was passing through the town of Galabovo, and I could feel the energy levels ebbing to critical. I’d been pedaling hard for about 4 hours in the roaring sun, and though I’d stopped numerous times for a bottle of water or an Ice Tea (only Liptons or Nescafe – the local stuff all has aspartame CRAP in it), no amount of re-hydration was going to put the wind back in my sails – I needed food.

I tried a mini-mart for a sandwich, and the guy was semi-sympathetic, but mimed that I’d have to buy a loaf of bread and some salami and make it myself if I really needed it. He then told me that there was a ‘hamburger shop’ about 2km down the street, and that I should give that a shot.

I’ve learned that everybody exaggerates distances for some reason (even the official street signs are reamarkably inaccurate), and sure enough – 400m down the street, I found a likely-looking establishment.

When I entered, the sole occupant was a customer – a middle-aged gent, face-down on one of the tables, dead to the world while the TV above him emitted some kind of local MTV. I stood at the counter for about 30 seconds, waiting for the proprietor to turn up, and eventually a lady with bright red hair emerged from the back room, somehow failing to notice me for a further 30 seconds. She asked me something in Bulgarian, to which I made my excuses in English – so she bellowed at the guy on the table to get up and deal with me. He jerked awake and looked around for a moment, very bleary-eyed, and then asked me ‘English or Doitch?’. I opted for English.

His English was, uh, rather patchy (he claimed to speak German much better), but I managed to explain that I’d like a sandwich and a drink. He asked me if I wanted salami, mayo and gherkin (a national specialty) and I agreed. I also grabbed a small glass bottle of Sprite out of the fridge, and sat down at another table to watch a bit of TV. I remembered that I had a (thoroughly molten) chocolate bar in my handlebar bag, so I asked him if I could put it in the fridge for a bit, to which he happily obliged.

He soon arrived at my table with a monstrous ‘sandwich’, more like a bread-football with great slabs of processed meat, pickles and heaps of mayonnaise jammed in the middle. I was stoked – great energy food – and I tucked in hungrily. While I chewed though it, he introduced himself as Petr (or something phonetically similar) and asked me my name, where I was from, where I was going, what kind of work I did and many other questions. He was particularly interested that I was a ‘network engineer’ (for lack of a better description) and that I was not married. He went to he fridge and pulled out a small bottle of water, putting it on my table and proclaiming it free of charge. I was very grateful. He also blurted out some orders to his wife (the redhead), and she appeared out of the kitchen with a grilled capsicum on a plate, and placed it next to my sandwich. The pepper was stuffed with rice, mince and garlic, and it was *delicious*. Before I’d finished the sandwich, he also put a freshly made espresso, a big bunch of grapes (from his own vine), and a handful of figs on the table, smiling broadly. I was really very surprised, and tried to offer him some money for it all, but his grin vanished and he wouldn’t hear of it.

I did my best to get through it all, but the grapes bested me. The espresso was really good too – he proudly pointed to his Lavazza coffee machine in the corner. He then explained that his daughter, who was unmarried and could speak some English, would be arriving in a few minutes, and that I should stick around. I agreed with a smile, but I was beginning to get a funny feeling about all of this…

He whisked out the door and jumped in his car, disappearing in a cloud of dust (and narrowly missing my bike!). His wife offered me a small, apologetic shrug, and went back to watering the flowers in the front yard. I sipped my water and wondered how this was all going to end, and soon enough he was back with his daughter in tow. She pointedly ignored me after a brief forced smile, saying absolutely nothing. Dad kept trying to instigate some conversation by asking me questions and having the daughter translate, but she wouldn’t join the conversation. I felt my exit-que being called, so I checked my watch in an obvious way and made my excuses, rising from the table. They were all eating the same scrummy stuffed-capsicums, but Dad jumped up and ran into the back garden, returning with a handful of plums and a very sorry-looking, immature bunch of grapes (a total contrast to the first bunch). He put them in a plastic bag for me, and escorted me out to the bike, where he repeatedly explained how to get to the next town (which was clearly marked on my map anyway) and wished me a safe trip. I tried one more time to give him some extra money, but he actually took my wallet out of my hands and put the note back in himself. The total cost for the meal, coffee & entertainment? Two leva – exactly 1 euro!

I then remembered my chocolate bar, and he raced back in to retrieve it. The wife pulled up a plastic chair next to the door and gestured for me to sit on it, while Petr explained that I must eat it now, or it will be melted again in another 5 minutes. My bulging belly didn’t like the idea at all, but he was right about the heat – so I did as I was told and dismounted the bike, plonking myself down on the chair.

As I unwrapped the (already melting) chocolate-wafer bar, I looked up at the sky and was startled to see an enormous black storm cloud right in front of us. It must have arrived in a hell of a hurry, even though there was no wind, and no cold-front that I could feel. But it was a bit strange-looking, and kind of the wrong colour, and a few moments later I realized that it wasn’t a storm cloud – it was smoke. LOTS of smoke, pouring up from the horizon, in the direction I was to be riding. I tried asking the wife about it, but she just nodded her head and waved her arms around a bit. Petr had nothing to add, other than ‘yes, fire, very big’, so I just chewed my wafer-bar and hoped the smoke wasn’t going to cause me any trouble on the road.

I pulled out my camera and asked if I could get a photo of him, which he was happy to pose for – but he then decided that I should take photos of his entire establishment – inside the restaurant, out the back (which was very nice, I must admit), around the side, a shot of his house next door, some shots of his grape vines and the trellises (‘the design!’ he proudly announced), and even the little ceramic figures along the tops of the walls. I dutifully shot everything he pointed at, until he started really hunting for each next-item, at which point I quickly put the camera away and tapped my watch face, with an apologetic smile.

I finally said my last good-byes and hopped on the bike, pedaling slowly and waving until I was around the corner. Then I picked up the pace, and was back on the road to Svilengrad (at last!)

The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful, apart from discovering that I wasn’t going to be incinerated by a wall of flames. The big fire was a couple of kilometres to my left as I passed, and the towering plume of smoke managed to block some of the power of the sun for an hour or so.

When I arrived in Svilengrad, a young kid on a bike pulled up next to me while I was consulting my map and started drilling me with questions (in Bulgarian). I smiled for a moment, then asked him ‘Centurm?’, and he nodded once, then waved at me to follow as he took off down the street.

Upon finding the (rather nice, green) town center, I went on the hunt for a place to stay, and after a few misfires I wound up at a huge Soviet-era hulk of a hotel. The lobby had the look and feel of an out-of-date gymnasium, and I did a double-take at the switchboard next to the front desk – a huge bank of 1/4-inch sockets with a dozen or so cables making connections. But the lady at the desk was friendly, and the room itself was surprisingly good and modern (apart from the psychedelic carpet). I showered, hit the town centre for a pizza, searched in vain for a net cafe (the guy I spoke too just couldn’t come to grips with the idea of Internet and coffee in the same establishment). Well-fed and exhausted, I slept in air-conditioned bliss…





Romania

17 08 2007

Timişoara

Deva

Sibiu

Piteşti

Bucharest
Currently enjoying being entertained and looked-after by Christian & Mieko, at their new place in Bucharest. Thanks guys!





Hungary

17 08 2007

Győr

August 2nd, 2007

I crossed the border into Hungary today! I can’t really say I was sorry to exit Slovakia, though I guess Bratislava had a few points in its favour (mainly the fellow travellers I met, and the fact that it’s cheaper than Vienna!).

20070802-to_hungary_border.jpg

Over the Danube again, and a bit of fun with the border-control boys. Two uniformed fellows met me at the checkpoint – one big and burly with a friendly face, the other more regular-size and quite serious looking.

‘A cyclist?’ the big one asked. I smiled and nodded in response, taking off my sunglasses and helmet.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Tokyo, Japan’
The big guy’s eyes widened a little and he let out a surprised laugh, followed by ‘Japan!… By bicycle?’. The other guy’s eyes narrowed, and he peered at me intensely, slowly starting to circle around behind the bike.
‘Yes, I hope so’ was my truthful response.
‘Your passport, please’ said Big, which he took and handed swiftly to a third guy I hadn’t noticed behind him. Intense was right behind me at this point, and he gave my rear tyre a gentle kick, testing the pressure (I assume). ‘Japan – is very far, yes?’ asked Big (he likes rhetorical questions, it seems). ‘Yes, very far’ I replied with a slight grin.
Third went into the booth with my passport, where I saw him hand it to a silhouetted figure seated at a desk.
‘How will you go there? The… route?’ asked Big
‘Uh, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan…’
‘Iran? You go to Iran? Not to Russia?’
‘No, not Russia. The visa is very difficult, and it’s far from here’ I said, pointing back the way I came.
‘Yes, but Iran… What is in your bags?’
(Intense said nothing during all of this. He had completed his circle of the bike and was now boring into my handlebar bag with his X-ray vision)
‘A tent, camping gear, clothes, bicycle parts… everything I need’ (I omitted the PC).
The silhouette emerged from the booth, and was clearly the man in charge, the others all backing off as he approached.
‘You are going to Japan?’ he asked. ‘By bicycle?’
‘Yes, that is the plan’
‘Oooh, this is very far, no?’
‘Yes, about 12,000km, I think’
This brought silence from all of them, followed by a reluctant grin from the Boss. The mood was never really serious, but now it eased right up, and we were all buddies. Intense asked me where I was going from here.
‘Uh… Gyor’
‘Ah yes, Gyor – you can go this way’ he said, pointing at the only possible way to go.
‘Thank you’ I said, and I meant it.
I asked if I could take a photo, given that everyone was all smiles (except Intense), and the camera wound up in Big’s hands, taking a shot of the Boss and I, with the bike.
The Boss started saying something I couldn’t understand, and Big translated for me. It turned out that the Boss’ 19-year old son was studying law in Prague, and that he had an email address at the university. He wanted me to send the photo to his son, along with an explanation (I assume) of what was going on, which I promised to do.
The translation session had pushed Big’s English to its limit, and he was looking tired. Staring thoughtfully to the upper-left, he summoned up one final gem:
‘You may pass… freely!’ he announced (in a grand-yet-hesitant tone)
At this, Intense finally cracked and burst out laughing, and I thanked them all, shaking hands with the Boss and pedaling down the road… into Hungary!

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I soon discovered that bicycles are illegal on the main roads of Hungary (including the road that Intense had advised me to take), as are horse-and-carts and tractors. Big glaring no-go signs met me every few hundred metres, but having absolutely no alternative, I carried on cautiously. I passed several police cars, both moving and stationary, but none of them seemed to pay me much notice beyond a passing glance at the bike itself. I passed within spitting distance of a speed-trap, a bloke standing road-side with a radar gun on a tripod, and he barely turned his eyes towards me. I kept pedaling.

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When I finally reached Gyor, I was very pleasantly surprised to find a really beautiful town, with a magnificent central square. I checked with the tourist office about campsites in the area, and I was directed to a place over the river, about 5 minutes out of town. One extremely handy point of the Hungarian tourist information (for me, at least) was that the pamphlets all had GPS co-ordinates of the attractions, so I could punch in the numbers directly (which I did), and off I went. I still had a bit of trouble finding the place, as I didn’t really believe the house I’d ridden past twice on the main street was actually a ‘campsite’, but I was wrong. I hesitantly wandered around the back of the house, into a vast backyard complete with permanent caravans and a couple of shacks, and a tent in the back corner. I interrupted a guy on a hammock, who mimed that I should ring the doorbell, which I did. A couple of friendly elder ladies greeted me (in German) and ushered me around the back of the house again, telling me I could pitch my tent anywhere I liked. The light was failing, so I quickly chose a spot and got the tent up, and was later greeted again by the guy in the hammock. He was a Frenchman named Jerome, and he was also Cycling down the Danube river, from Strasbourg to Budapest. He had a guidebook written by an elderly English gent who wrote a very detailed account of the ‘traditional’ cycling routes down the river, and the histories of each of the locations along the way. I really wish I’d had that book a few weeks ago…

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I was starving, so a quick shower and I was keen to get back in town. But Jerome was quite interested in my bike, and after offering to make me a cup of mint tea (which was really, and quite unexpectedly good), he related the tale of how his bike had totally self-destructed on the cobblestone roads of Passau. Apparently his frame had come apart at a couple of (rather rusty) points, and the bike literally collapsed underneath him! But according to him, he walked no more than 50m down the street, into a bike shop, and bought his replacement bike for 30 Euros (!) Yes, *30* Euros! I nearly choked on my (excellent) mint tea, and asked him how the *hell* he managed to do that. He said the bike wasn’t new, and that some parts were a little ‘old-school’, but still… I didn’t have the nerve to tell him how much mine cost. Let’s just say that if I did it his way, I could afford to have my bike explode at every major city I came across on this trip, and I’d still come out way ahead. But I’d rather not have the hassle or danger of an exploder-bike, thank you very much – and it could easily be life or death in the the really ugly stuff (yet to come), which he happily conceded.

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After that, I zipped back into town on my extremely sturdy and rugged bike, and found a great meal of spicy goulash soup and ‘schpatzle’ (similar to the stuff I had in Bavaria) that would easily have fed two people. I ate it all, of course, but it was a very slow ride back to camp…

Esztergom

Budapest

Kecskemét

Szeged





Slovakia

17 08 2007

Bratislava