Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Across the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul

From Iznik Lake we had only one small pass to cross before the Sea of Marmara. At the top we headed west off the highway and into rural/mountainous country again, heading for Termal, a hot spring complex 15-20km from the coast. There were some pricey looking retreats but the country was very much unspoilt otherwise. A hodge podge of unmarked country lanes eventually got us to Termal. We bypassed the tourist hotels with private spas and went to the most traditional public bath, with its many cupolas, abundance of marble, and separate male/female baths.

(This was a pricier resort hot swimming pool - didn't go here, though it looked great at night with the steam rising.)

In the male baths I met some local men from Yalova and managed a basic conversation in Turkish - always a thrill. (Soon I'll lose most of my Turkish.) One of them then offered to wash me! It was a public place and it seemed above board so I agreed. I got a good scrub down with no added extras - very good! So much grime and maybe a little fatigue. My host refused a scrub in return... The tent found a spot on one of the forest walking trails nearby.

The next morning it was a simple roll downhill to the small port city of Yalova where we joined large numbers of bored commuters on a Channel crossing style ferry over to Istanbul. All of a sudden Europe felt close.

Here's Julie coming off the ferry and arriving in Europe!
Yenikapı port, on the western side of the Bosphorus, and only a short walk to Sultanahmet and the Golden Horn.
Wow - Istanbul. A bustling almost-European megalopolis, in an extraordinary location between Black and Marmara Seas, saturated with competing Western and Eastern influences.

A plate of börek to celebrate. They gave us tea on the house - even here in Istanbul.

This was it, for now, after almost 11,000km and 7 months. Continuing on into Greece seemed the most natural thing to do - if it weren't for the increasing drizzle, cold weather and approaching winter (and a few other commitments!). I don't get bored of bike touring - how could you? The equilibrium which you develop over months is sustainable over years, as some of the characters you meet on the road demonstrate - but something slowly happens to your mind, and it gets harder and harder to even think of going home...

A special mention has to go to my Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres (700C x 38mm)
- not a single puncture over that whole distance. Outrageous.

(En route to the airport bus stop, where the bikes went into the boxes.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Up to the Sea of Marmara

Just before Emirdağ I spotted a sign pointing towards a potato 'fırın' ('fyryn' in English) - meaning bakery - and Julie happily agreed to investigate down the village lane. We found a small bakery in a home where 4 or 5 women were baking big round loaves of potato bread. They were very excited and happy to see us! A cup of tea turned into an invitation to stay the night. Nobody spoke English or German but it turned out that the 25 yo son had married a German-born Turkish girl. So after lunch he turned on MSN and I chatted in German with his Turkish wife and brother-in-law. She was wearing a headscarf but spoke better German that Turkish. Later they called more relatives in Brussels. Grandpa sat next to the laptop cooing to his grandchildren, and I chatted with their 12 yo niece in my pretend Dutch.

It was a little bizarre to experience how these Turkish families use modern technology to maintain their very traditional family links.

Emirdağ is known for its high number of emigrants to France, Belgium and Germany (not the UK, though). Everybody proudly told of their relatives who live there and most of the men who approached me speaking French, Dutch or German told how they had spent a few years there.

Many said that they wanted to go to Europe for well paid work and more opportunities.
I began to suspect that their relatives over there, maybe for reasons of pride, weren't revealing just how difficult life is in western Europe when you can only do jobs requiring no education. Very few seemed to understand that a salary of € 1000-2000 a month is easily wiped out by the high cost of living.

Back at our bakery, mum and dad went downstairs to the big oven in the evening and baked fresh cheese, egg and beef pides for dinner - along with delicious 'hash hash ekmek' - slightly sweet layered bread with ground poppy seed and spices inside.

Beyond Emirdağ we crossed the main Ankara - Izmir highway and on dirt roads headed into some more secluded countryside with mystery abandoned villages and Phrygian ruins tucked away in the rolling hills.

Close to dusk, we met some grandparents baking börek in a clay oven outside. They had the family visiting from town, so the house was packed. Grandpa was the caretaker for an unused school- we camped there, under an Atatürk portrait.

Next day we discovered that this was a significant Turkish/Islamic holiday - 'Bayram' - a three day holiday in which the men of every household make ritual sacrifices of goats/lambs/cows. I thought it was meant to celebrate the end of Ramadan so I'm not sure why it started on Dec. 7.

Anyway, that morning I watched Grandpa cut the throats of two goats while Julie drank tea, looked the other way, and covered her ears when necessary.

As we continued on we saw a lot more slaughter that day. We met some teenage Turkish-Americans who had spent their lives in New Jersey and Istanbul. They had been at their grandparents in the village for 3 hours and were already bored and itching to go home, despite all the nearby caves, ruins and cliffs they could have explored.

In the evening we ran into an ambitious young engineer, Mehmet, and his wife who had come from Eskişehir to visit his parents in Yapıldak and invited us home. His parents were great but Money Mehmet milked me for English lessons all night and was only really interested in how much we earnt and how much more he could earn by learning English. He wanted to go to the UK for a three month language course. His wife was young, conservatively dressed and stayed very much in the background. We asked if she would go with him to the UK and this obviously hadn't occurred to either of them!

From here we rolled mostly downhill to Eskişehir, camping one night, with a serious frost now hitting the tent overnight. Eskişehir is a modern Turkish city with poor value overseas calls (thanks to the Turkcell monopoly) and excellent marble lined hot baths - 5 YTL ($A5) a pop. It was dark by the time we got out and we were just getting a little chilly and wondering what we should do for the night when we ran into Money Mehmet and wife trailing. He immediately invited us to his place and we agreed. But first we had to go to a modern bar packed with smokers where Mehmet and his wife kept telling us, 'We don't normally come to this kind of place.' I don't recall them answering our question, 'So what do you normally do? Why don't we just do that?'

North of Eskişehir we were surprised to find a petrol station selling gazyağı (fuel for my stove - between shellite and kerosene) after a long gazyağı drought. Up steep roads over the Sündiken Dağları range, with the first winter snows on the top at 1500m or so.

In Mihalgazi on the other side we resolved to stay in a mosque at long last and went sniffing around the first one we found. Unfortunately the old bearded fellow we met took us back to his place instead. He was friendly but had no idea what to make of us and mostly sat and looked dumbfounded.

Following morning: steaming hot hashhash ekmek straight from the oven (second sighting of this delicious feed) and lots of pomegranates to harvest on the road down the valley.

Cutting northwest across rolling hills towards İznik Lake we chanced upon
Söğüt, with an excellent pide shop opposite the bus station - and which is also known to Turks as the birthplace of Sultan Osman I, and hence the Ottoman Empire, in the 12th century. Hence it's quite a pilgrimage destination. Didn't rate a mention in a certain popular travel guide, though. Turkish flags were everywhere, on most cars even. It turned out that this was conscription day for young Turkish soldiers. Popular Turkish TV dramas often seem to pit valiant Turkish soldiers, doctors etc. against evil Kurdish terrorists. Boring and formulaic, but the Turks lap it up.

Further northwest we reached İznik Lake, surrounded by olive groves. Discovered that olives taste awfully bitter when raw.

İznik had a range of ancient Roman ruins including an amphitheatre, and decent B&B style accommodation - it's popular as an escape from Istanbul.

A little further around the coast of İznik Lake we found an olive oil factory!
I'd been guzzling olive oil since Iran and soaking all of my cooking in it so I was delighted to get an impromptu tour - after which I pulled out my oil flask and got a refill.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Camping at petrol stations

The other night we were riding across rolling empty plains until dusk - empty, except every square inch suitable for a tent was ploughed. Eventually we got to a petrol station with a lokanta (cafe). A jocular young waiter with a cheeky grin came out and called us in for tea. We had found a camp site at the side of the servo and asked, 'Is it OK if we cook dinner there on our stove?' (that's an OPEN FLAME!) He asked, ' Is it a small one?' 'Yep.' 'OK, should be no problem...'

Overnight we thought the trucks coming and going might keep us awake - but no, instead it was a little plastic disposable tea cup which blew over to us and somehow got stuck in an eddy, rolling backwards and forwards for hours on the concrete just near the tent - 'rrr...rrr...rrr...rrr' But at just above zero who wants to get up for that?

The next morning at sunrise I was cooking borghul porridge when the first car rolled up. As it drove off I heard a huge snap/crack - and looked up to see the car driving off with the LPG nozzle and hose attached! White LPG was pouring out of the bowser - 25 metres from my stove... As I stood up and applauded the boys in the car got out and laughed. I think it was the servo attendant's fault - he's the one with the cute uniform that smokes all day, next to the pumps, too.

Just near Emirdağ now. Meeting more and more Turks with famıly in Germany/France/Belgium - more later.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Turkish dogs

Today I went past 10,000 km - just on sunset, with nothing around. Quite a thrill. I picked a pretend finish line and sprinted to it. Julie's done over 5000 km too - pretty impressive for a first bike tour! I've been telling locals 'besh ai' - five months - on the road but it's been more like 6 and a half. Time has become somehow fluid.

Otherwise, the biggest thrills on the bike over the last few days have come courtesy of huge, vicious, Turkish attack-guard dogs. These are mostly tied up around highways and big towns but worryingly are on the loose around many villages. Riding in China I always had a stick to whack them with, but over there dogs were smaller and more of a pest.

Here as we approach villages we can hear the barking start from a few hundred metres away. Then we see these big white things loping across paddocks to intercept us.
A couple will be waiting ahead on the roadside, panting.

I always preferred to ride away from them if possible, kick out maybe, or hit with a stick. The pannier bags protect you a fair bit - dogs try to bite them.

The other day Julie got nipped on the ankle by a yapper. No real injury but a nasty shock. The next morning (0 degrees) a dog nicked off with one of my gloves. I yelled and chased it - so it ran away, wanting to play. Eventually I got clever and got down on my knees and called it over. It dropped the glove and came panting over for pats.

But over the past few days they have become more frightening. The first bad incident was being attacked by a guard dog on the highway - with regular big trucks. Julie stopped and put her bike between herself and the dog while I threw half bricks at it, scaring it but also enraging it even more. She walked slowly along until we'd left its territory.

Today a huge beast with metal spike collar attacked me and I tried to ride away from it. It caught me and bit and pulled at my bags - pretty terrifying. Eventually it turned for Julie, who I had abandoned behind to her fate. I yelled abuse at the owners who had come out while she went back to her bike fort strategy, which kept her safe.

The faster you ride away, the more furious you get, so I think I'll have to use the Julie method too. It goes against instinct but they seem to calm down and get a bit unsure of themselves if you just stop.

Off across the plains. Cold.

In Aksaray we restocked with a big tour of the local fruit n veg market which had almost everything we needed - unfortunately these bazaars only seem to be open one or two days a week, but this time we got lucky. Getting out of town was very complicated, mostly because we asked a young Turk who was desparate to help us but spoke next to no English. It was already dark (5pm) and the plan was to camp a bit out of town after finding the BP servo on our route which we were told had a hot shower! After a bit of mucking around our friend guided and ran next to us as far as his car and indicated that he wanted to escort us out of town. He said he wanted to go with us to the next town, 40km away. We tried to say 'Don't bother' but it was too hard. As he got in a Turkish schoolboy called me over and pointed excitedly to something between apartment blocks ın the evening sky. All İ could see was a new crescent moon. Then İ realised ıt was a 'Turkish' moon, just like the one on their flag! İnteresting thing to get excited about! We rode about 5km out onto a freeway with our friend paying close attention. At red lights we had a few chats and İ told him we were planning to camp 10km or so out. He said he was a policeman and that it would be very cold. We said, 'Yes, we know.' Eventually, 5km out while Julie was scouting for a shower at the first servo, he decided to ring his wife. Then the breakthrough! 'Come home to my place.' No problems with your wife? 'No, no, no.' Only the second time in three weeks we'd been invited in for the night - a bit surprising given the freezing weather. His flat turned out to be huge, his wife lovely and we were given full guest treatment - best of all, including washing machine use. Luckily they were both leaving for work by 8am the next morning so we knew we'd get away on time.

40 km straight down a flat road towards Konya we reached Sultanhani, where there was a 12th century caravanserai, supposedly one of the biggest in Turkey. Inside some guy tracked us down and wanted money, and when I refused ('where's the sign saying you have to pay? Who are you anyway?' he started screaming at me and hitting his book of tickets. We soon left. A few km down the road we stopped at a servo for water. The truck stop restaurant was run by a charming French Turk. After chatting for a few minutes he invited us to try a little local speciality ('as a service to you'). We'd just eaten but thought we'd accept the kind offer. He overdid the service a bit, gave us more than we'd asked for, and unfortunately then tried to shamelessly overcharge us. İ felt very naive. After talking with him for at least half an hour İ just hadn't seen it coming at all. It doesn't have to be free, but do you really need to rip me off?

Then off the main road and north west across increasingly barren plains to Cihanbeyli, which is on the main Ankara-Konya road.
Camped en route on a freezing misty evening - sheet ice flaking off the tent in the morning, and bike lock frozen solid for the first time (had to warm it to get it open).

Also went through Gölyazı where we met some very friendly Kurdish carpenters. They told us Kurds live all over Turkey and that they were doing all right.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Down onto the Anatolian plains

From Ürgüp (favourite town in these parts) we did a loop through Zelve, Göreme, Uçhisar and then headed down through the Ihlara Valley, and then descended to Aksaray. The main feature of the landscape was all the caves and even underground cities burrowed by fellow troglodytes into spectacular finger like outcrops of soft volcanic rock. Of these the oldest Byzantine Christian ones were the most touristy ones, in 'World Heritage' areas. Unfortunately despite exorbitant (and excessively strictly policed!) entrance fees they weren't well protected, with almost all of the frescos well and truly wrecked (even post restoration?). No information in English, either. Didn't feel much like Europe to me. The best part was just exploring isolated caves by ourselves, away from popular areas. Vegetation wise nothing of real note. Lots of tiny marmots (??) which squeak (very high pitched) just as we ride past. Have found their burrows but not seen them yet. Or maybe I'm going mad?
Still not many meaningful encounters with locals... the friendliest men are still the ones who've worked in Germany...
Most embarrassing is when the freezing souvenir sellers (still busloads of Japanese turning up) find out we're Australian and go, 'Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie...' Cringe.

4 quality cave nights (tent in cave), each with its own special feature:
- a wild dog running past panting loudly just as dinner was almost ready (it kept going)
- an excellent balcony where I got stuck in the cold unable to move for 15 minutes when a Turkish (?) couple drove down to what they thought was an isolated spot, got out and started 'making out' on the grass 5 metres directly below - luckily it got too cold for them too and they retreated to the car where they continued for another hour with the engine running (climate vandals)!
- special visit by group of drunken mystery Turks (they were poking around in the cave below ours)
-a mystery ventilation (or other) shaft 25 metres deep which we found just behind our tent - in the dark behind a ledge which I sat on briefly

Eating lots of delicious olives, olive oil, fetta cheese, good white bread, bulghur/borghul, helva (plain/with choccy/with pistachios), baklava, honey.
New taste sensation - üzüm pekmeze (grape molasses) - goes well with fine bulghur for a morning porridge!

Weather cooling down a bit - it's been SNOWING here. We have now entered 'breakfast and dinner in sleeping bags' season (known to others as 'winter').

Two weeks or so left for the remaining 700km to Istanbul...

Friday, November 28, 2008

South to Cappadocia

Through Trabzon and on to Samsun - pleasant coastline, good roads, the weather held out - but all in all just a little dull. None of the interesting encounters we were used to. Getting up at 3.30 am local time - 2 hours before sunrise - to make the most of the short days! For a long time we left our watches on Georgian time - prefer getting up at 5.30am and sunset at 6.30pm! Sunset at 4.30pm is just depressing!

Then rode 105km into Samsun and jumped straight onto a local train south to Amasya.
Amasya - excellent fort and a 15th. century multidomed Turkish hamam (bathhouse). We had decided to make a detour south by train so that we could go from Cappadocia through central Anatolia up to İstanbul, and needed to save a bit of time.

"Türkiye - güzel!" - being presented with a Turkish flag pin, a moment of great honour...

Then another train south to Sivas a day later.
Met some characters on the train:
-A nomadic Turkish tennis coach based in Cape Town who (I eventually worked out) was riding trains all over Turkey with a month pass (accommodation: random trains!). His passport signature read 'Beatles' (his favourite band!)
-An elderly Turkish language teacher, spinster, who spoke good German but had never left Turkey. She gave me a primer on Turkish conspiracy theories re: PKK and Kurds (basically: the EU and USA covertly and sometimes overtly support Kurdish terrorism)
-A young Kurdish ship captain from Adana on the south coast - had dinner together in Sivas.

Then one more train to Kayseri. Here the central tourist information man chatted to us in German, rang a journo and we got into 4 newspapers.

Locally made 'Bison' bikes - they look seriously indestructible. With a kid seat on the top tube. Didn't pick one up.

Here we also met some İranian refugees and refreshed our Farsi.

Got invited to stay by Ahmet, an English language teacher who lectured me about Islam on the ride home to his wife and three lovely kids. His sister came over and the evening turned into a domestic violence consultation. Later I found porn on his computer by accident (hit 'previous image' on an image browser!) and he tried to get me to attract Russian/Ukrainian girls to chat with him on Skype!!! ( 'Ask her to turn the camera on! Ask her to turn the camera on!')
His wife says he spends 2-3 hours a night 'chatting' after they go to bed - in the same room.

Have the horrible feeling that most İranian men would be doing exactly the same thing if they had computers and İnternet skills.

İn Cappadocıa now and it's SNOWING!!! Better than rain - just...

The last 2 nights we've spent in caves - a bit chilly but very pleasant and better than paying 70 euros for a cave hotel! Our balconies were better!!!
(Only had to flick one turd out of last night's cave and avoid a pair of mystery underpants on the floor).

Cave security!

Note the first tourists of the day arriving above... didn't realise we were below a lookout! Our accommodation was the cave behind me.

When we arrıved ın Ürgüp we found a petrol station with a hot shower! (only in the mens', mind you, not the womens', but that wouldn't stop Julie) Enjoyed a full wash/clean up/service/oil change there... unfortunately we both had to endure what I refer to as a 'poo sauna' courtesy of other Turkish toilet patrons... still, we went back again the next day on our way out of town...
..if this were Germany İ would have then found the shower locked with a sign saying: 'For customers only! Please collect key AFTER paying for your purchase!' Luckily this is Turkey and instead we were offered tea after our second shower!
On the other hand Cappadocia is currently a vast cold empty tourist precinct with overpriced 'oper air museums'.

So far Turks generally seem very insular with little interest in the outside world. Very little English is spoken, even compared to İran, where there is much more interest in English - but much less opportunity to speak it! We are admired for our 'exploits', instead of asking questions about our homes, Turks generally just insist that we find Turkey 'çok güzel' (fantastic).

Gastarbeiter German is still much more useful than English. The standard attitude was, 'Isch arbeiten 30 Jahren in Kölle! Nur ein Monat hier Urlaub machen und dann zurückfahren - Rente in Deutschland is besser, nich?' - i.e. 'I've been working in Cologne for 30 years, just come back here for one month holiday then I go back to Germany cos the pension's better there...' Some have come back for good after being sacked before qualifying for pensions ('Deutschland kaputt, nix Arbeit mehr!') These very working class Turks all seem to LİKE Germany - surprisingly enough. I suspect it's only really because of the association with good wages!

On towards İstanbul, probably skipping Konya...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Past Trabzon

Cruisy ride along a big quiet empty freeway straight down the Black Sea Coast. Regular towns full of bizarre half built and empty apartment blocks (due to some kind of tax rebate scheme???) Not many people around. Occasional vicious downpours but otherwise perfect riding weather.

Found what we thought was a great coastal camp spot 2 nights ago (at an out of the way, closed seaside cafe) but then an Alsation came just as we'd cooked dinner, along with 'Crazy Man' (a very angry Turkish man, presumably the owner) screaming 'Motherfu--er!!! Siktirgit!!!' He tried to drag the tent, then the bikes away and I had two little wrestles with him (my headtorch straight into hıs face was no deterrent). Then he left, swearing, and as we moved the tent four more men came down. Uh oh. Luckily they were friendly and said, 'Oh yes, crazy man!'

Happily the next day a lovely family invited us in for some lunch so not all hope is lost in Turkey. It's funny - everywhere else people were overexcited when we rode past, here they often look bored or disinterested. Why?

Have seen very little TV but the pick of the bunch is a local TV channel, 'Karadeniz' (Black Sea) which mostly shows music videos for local folk acts. The male lead singer, generally in a pink shirt, wanders among rows of tealeaves and dancing girls in full traditional regalia. Everybody seems to be having a great time, huge smiles abound, and various mysterious stringed instruments keep appearing. Folk music seems healthy here!

Spent last night in a cosy remote pedestrian tunnel (due to downpour). A fisherman we met just on dusk said he'd forgotten his fishıng basket down there and it was still there two days later. That's safe enough!

From here further west to Samsun.

Friday, November 14, 2008

From Batumi into Turkey

Today we rolled 7 km down the rugged Black Sea coast after one final futile attempt to camp in Georgia (yep, invited in again).

"Good luck". That's the border in the distance, with the minaret of a little mosque beyond.

The Turkish border crossing was easy (20 dollars each for a crappy little sticker they call a 'visa') and we got another 20km before a torrential downpour stopped us. It was a new experience to hunt down a small, reasonably priced hotel and a cafe with dolmati and rice for dinner. Why? Nobody had let us escape from their hospitality for a month or so! Even when we ate in cafes in Georgia, they didn't want to charge us! The Turks we've met so far are very friendly and helpful but strangely enough you end up paying for yourself! The supermarkets are much more European, with correspondıng prices. Oh well. I just regret that we weren't able to give our Georgian hosts more. They were upset when I offered money. At least the kangaroo and Australia pins Julie bought have been a big hit.

About 1200km from here to final bike destination İstanbul but we might catch a train south towards Cappadocia from Samsun (500km west of the Georgian border along the northern, Black Sea coast) and then head northwest from there.Go

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Out of Iran - up to the Caucasus

First attempt to leave Tabriz was dashed by a 'snap' sound at the front of Julie's bike. It was her front pack rack, probably not helped by her secret hoards of dates and Iranian sweets. (Don't buy cheapo Bor Yueh.) We retreated to town and found a very friendly bike shop. The main mechanic, son of the owner, kept chanting 'Tourist I love you!' There wasn't a perfect replacement but after more than three hours of mucking around, with me trying to temper the mechanic's impatience and be helpful (not easy), we combined a cheap back pack rack with a bit of the old front one. It came together well.

We headed north, buying our last melon for a while. The weather became chillier and chillier and by the time we got to Jolfa things were very wintry. North of the river we could see jagged snowy peaks in Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Jolfa we camped in our last Iranian public park, under one of the familiar rotundas to keep the tent dry.

A desolate road wound eastwards along the border (the river) for 60km past Nakhchivan, the Azeri enclave, to the Iran-Armenian border. As we rode we could see the old Soviet railway line, intact on either side, but blocked off and and partially destroyed since the 1993 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Bombed out carriages lay in no man's land.

On the Armenian side we were delighted to see female border guards in pure James Bond get up - calf high boots, woolen tights and short skirts! It was a novelty to see women gainfully employed and Julie was thrilled! $US 50 at the border for a 3 month visa.

Over the other side it was dark. The only hotel was overpriced and dismal so we camped behind a petrol station (thanks to the helpful chain smoking attendant). He said there were wolves up the road and nowhere to camp anyway. When I asked if I could use my petrol stove he was horrified and said, 'No no no, it's too dangerous!!' We cooked on his hotplate instead.

Next morning we found that there was indeed nowhere to camp - sheer cliffs on one side and barbed wire on the other. In the first town, Meghri, we dropped into another servo to ask about the road. The two men there manhandled me inside and pushed a glass into my hands: '100 grams to make you bold!!!' (meaning a double shot of vodka). They pulled out chairs, vodka (Russian and moonshine), bread, honeycomb, wine, cheese, pomegranates and a strange yellow-orange fruit I hadn't seen before (korolyok in Russian) - it was a persimmon. While feasting they were notably polite but also natural, and straightforward, in how they related to Julie. Would the 'dama' (lady) like wine rather than vodka? A Russian girl with a violin case walked past - Russian border guards are still here. We had a series of toasts and eventually we got off up the hill with a haul of fruit and half a litre of delicious home made wine. More gifts of fruit were made on the outskirts of town. I learnt to be wary of unripe persimmons.

From 500m altitude it was another 2000m vertical up a beautiful valley with golden autumn leaves, persimmon trees and grape vines to the Meghri pass at 2535m. Snow lay on the steep ridges not far above us. We camped just below the pass and it was ominously cold overnight.

From here an icy curling descent down down down into the next misty valley - where it was even colder. An excellent warm midday feast in a local cafeteria. Up again into drizzly rain. A dacha caretaker took us in for the night - more moonshine (ouch). We discovered that the Armenians love Turkish coffee - though of course they objected to this description!

Then over another 1700m pass during which we got snowed on for the first time.
At the top some park rangers invited us into their hut where we were offered Turkish coffee, vodka and a white mush made of calves' hooves and fat boiled for 10 hours. Yum.
On the descents our fingers were getting seriously cold despite full gloves and we made frequent armpit warming stops. The final descent on this day was on a road famous for its 52 switchbacks.

Skipping ahead - we rode to Yerevan and then got an overnight train to Tbilisi in Georgia (as the Armenian - Turkish border was closed). $US 10 each. 60 dram ($45) for a 90 day visa at the border.

Tbilisi was bustling but peaceful and pretty, and no Western tourists were to be seen.
We met an interesting Russian - Alexander, a retired engineer - who invited us to stay at his ex wife's place (???) She turned out to be a fiery chain smoking Chechen. The following night he decided that we should stay with him and his new wife - in their old Soviet one bedroom flat.

From Tbilisi we caught a local train (электричка, or elektrichka) to the west through and past Gori, which is just south of where the worst fighting in the recent war was - Tsingvali. All the locals were telling me things were completely safe. There certainly weren't many soldiers around.

This man was delighted to see us having a break next to a little memorial for his 13 year old son, who had died here in a tragic accident. He insisted on giving us gifts of wine, grapes and persimmons.

We've now got as far as Batumi, on the Black Sea coast - a slightly seedy port town with lots of poker/gambling dens but also an utterly magnificent botanical garden on its eastern outskirts. Groves of mandarine trees everywhere - we picked our own and then were given more along the road. There are also forests of soaring eucalypts along the coast, planted anywhere from 50-100 years ago.

This is the New Zealand section!

The view northeast. Below is what in Soviet times was the Moscow - Batumi railway line. Nowadays only local trains run, and probably no further than Poti, 50km north towards the Abkhazian border. Although Sukhumi, its capital, appears on all Georgian road signs as if you could get there easily, Abkhazia is effectively Russian controlled and its border is closed.

Armenians and Georgians are the most lovely, hospitable people. Virtually everybody we met told us: 'We love and respect guests above all.' Whenever we asked about a spot to camp we were inevitably invited in for the night - most just refused to let us camp, as if it would be an insult.

A word about toasts. In Georgia especially they are long, complex and passionate. I was given a range of theories on what precedence various toasts should take. They would go like this:

'Firstly, I want to drink to peace. To friendship between peoples. That there be no more war and that everybody everywhere may live in friendship and peace...' etc.
'To our guests. We love our guests and will do anything for them. Whatever we have we will share with you. And if we have nothing, we will go and borrow from our neıghbours. Your house is our house, you are our brother, and your wife is our sister. God grant you safe onward travel, and may you return home safely to everyone waiting there for you...'
'To our mothers. We love and respect our mothers above all...'
A little later:
'To our fathers. We love and respect our fathers above all, and they understand more about us than even our best friends...'

These toasts were very genuine, heartfelt and often extremely touching. I was so happy İ knew Russian. Sometimes İ got a special toast for that, they were so delighted at being able to communicate. You'd think they might despise the language, but no, it is a language they have grown up with. Why hate a language?

An average would have been 10 toasts around an evening meal. If I was lucky, I'd get away with drinking the first shot or two and then only sipping. But I ran the risk of being told, 'You've got to drink the lot!' This also applied to full glasses of wine, though then I developed another tactic: 'I can't savour your delicious wine if I skull it!' And delicious it was. Julie got honorary man treatment with toasts, though she could evade them - I couldn't.

Every Georgian household we went to (outside Tbilisi) made its own wine, vodka or cognac. Extraordinary.
We are currently carrying 4-5 litres of wine and some cognac, all of which are gifts from Georgians and Armenians! The perfect antidote to Iran!

Over 9000km now since Urumqi. More soon if luck permits.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Over the Kopet Dag into Iran

After the heavy climb (1500m vertical) from Ashgabat up to the border - right on top of the arid range - we were intrigued to see what Iran would be like. Julie pulled out her scarf and donned 'hejab' for the first time. The officials were impeccably polite and friendly, and there were absolutely no issues. A promising start, but we were more worried about what Ramadan (1-30 September) would mean for our appetites. 23 days to get through! Cross border contraband included a bottle of wine (see Turkmenistan), a Salman Rushdie novel and 'The God Delusion'.

We rolled down past the long queue of Iranian and Turkish semitrailers to Bajgiran, a desolate little border town, where we were amazed to find Coke (real Coke) in the first shop. (I confess to a mild soft drink addiction over August - in the heat - and Julie and I had shared our 'last Coke' back in Ashgabat.) A dorky young Iranian man on a motorbike spoke OK English and invited us back to his place to stay the night. He turned out to be the local librarian, on assignment here with his young wife. 'I hate it here.' We soon found out how Ramadan works: 'I don't fast because it is too difficult for me, but my wife must because she is fat.' Ouch. Next surprise came very quickly: satellite TV with raunchy Lebanese MTV (which ran non stop) and endless Arabic porn channels (which I found playing with the remote)! Questions included: 'Do you have free relations in your country?' and 'Can you watch movies and TV on the Internet?' It made me ashamed to think how much bandwidth (or whatever the hell it is) rich people must squander on crap. Of course the Iranians all want it too. Next morning Julie stole a bit of girl time with librarian wife (boring questions about weddings) while I briefly found out just how boring a librarian's job can be. Turns out he spends all his time 'studying English' - and during Ramadan only has to work 8 am (read 9.30) till 1pm (read 11am)!

That first morning we discovered the delights of Iranian bakeries. This one churned steaming hot 'barbary' flat breads out - for 500 rial each (believe it? - 5 cents.)
As soon as you stand in the queue the locals turn around, make sure you're served quickly, and help you with the change.

Next village a shopkeeper invited us in for tea. In his courtyard the sharp eyed bastard spotted my bottle of wine, buried below three water bottles! He kept winking and nudging me conspiratorially then asked for some and came back with an empty
bottle! I poured him a sip and tried to tell him he was a Muslim AND it was Ramadan!

We rode through these beautiful, dry, empty mountains towards the west and after two days descended into our first Iranian city - Quchan.

First impressions: lots of 125cc motorbikes. Lots of men staring. Fewer women, almost all in black chadors, obscuring their faces.

It was 4.30pm when we got to town and we thought we'd find a feed. There were plenty of bakeries working, but not a single restaurant in town open. A kindly local man volunteered the location of a 'park' for 'camping' (they use the same words in Farsi). We retreated to this leafy park to eat our fresh bread with honey, spotting a few kanoodling couples and a few people picnicking on a blanket. It seemed this was a 'safe zone' for eating. Turns out anybody 'travelling' and certain other groups (pregnant women, diabetics) are exempt from Ramadan - but it's still unacceptable to eat in 'public'.

A friendly bloke walked past and eagerly wanted to show us something. He took us back to a kiosk and pointed out a spot on the concrete under a spotlight where we could camp. He was saying something about 'police' and pointing to himself. No uniform, though. Then he opened the kiosk and got out some icecreams for us. He rode off on his bike, suggesting he'd be back later. Sure enough, later he turned up - in uniform. In the meantime we'd met three other policemen who were delighted to find us a spot to camp, and offered tea. We chose a rotunda in the shade, just near the police mini-station. This was our introduction to camping, Iranian style.

Next morning we said farewell to our police friends and I received my first kiss (on the cheek) and a pink rose (signifying friendship??) from an Iranian man...

From Quchan we headed across arid plains with grape farms to Bojnurd for more Iranian-style central park camping with lots of locals, mostly travelling to/from Mashhad for the holiday. Kids would periodically appear next to our tent with melons, cakes, bread and other little gifts sent over by their families. At dusk we went to a canteen style restaurant where everyone was eating a set menu chicken and rice. Out the front was a self important parking attendant in a white uniform with red braid. We had a few swigs of wine left so thought we'd go for a wander in the park before dinner to finish it off. I got it out of my bag (where it was now well buried) - discreetly, I thought. But when we got back the attendant started raising his voice and demanding to inspect the bottle!!! I ignored him and just turfed the bottle as soon as I was inside. How the hell did he pick that?

Then south over another range to Esfarahen, where we'd been invited by a lovely family. From here across empty desert and up onto a plateau, then down through beautiful lush temperate forest to the Caspian Sea coast.

Julie rode in a loose long sleeved top and pale travel pants, with a headscarf under her helmet. That didn't stop endless stares. I rode in pants for a very short while, got sick of it, and went back to my baggy mountain biking shorts (knee length). After consulting with a few locals I decided my policy would be to whip pants over the top if we were stopping off in a town for a little longer - or maybe if a policeman told me to put some on. (This never happened.) Most people didn't seem the least bothered that I was wearing shorts - they were too fascinated. Only once or twice did I see an older man 'tut tut' and shake his head disapprovingly. As time went on we got a little sick of eating and drinking inside little shops during daytime (most restaurants and cafes were closed). Occasionally a shopowner would even put shutters down so we could eat freely. But we became a bit more relaxed after a while and started to have a few nibbles and sips in towns. Only rarely did we get strange looks and in any case we had our line ready - something along the lines of 'masi - dochakhe mosaferat.' (Christian - bicycle journey). It was amazing, though: you literally would not see anybody chewing gum or taking a sip of water in public during daylight hours. I'm sure young men everywhere were stuffing their faces all day behind closed doors, though.

We ran into extraordinary hospitality almost everywhere. It took about 3 weeks to pay for accommodation - not for lack of trying. In Azad Shahr an English teacher took us to a hotel as we'd requested but then said, 'It is not so good. I have a flat in town which is empty, you may stay there. Or you may return with me to my village and stay with me. I am at your service.'

Another regular, very warm greeting: 'Welcome to Iran. Is there anything you need?'

Families were great to us. Young men, on the other hand... The towns near the Caspian coast were increasingly packed with bored young John Travoltas on motorbikes, cruising around doing laps (of us), shamelessly checking Julie out, hooning past on the inside and yelling to scare us, and generally harassing us. Not fun at all. These boys style their hair with kilos of hair gel and are extremely fashion conscious, checking themselves out in public mirrors all day. Tight jeans, muscle T shirts, jewellery... Complete disinterest in anything Islam screams out at me. Yet there are absolutely no sanctions on their behaviour. They seem to be able to do anything, any time they want. As for women...

Moving west the traffic seemed to settle down. From Chalus, on the coast, we rode south over the Alborz mountains and through the terrifying Kandovan tunnel (2km long) then down through more long tunnels to Karaj - a satellite megalopolis of Tehran. These tunnels generally had bored police and ambulances/paramedics at one end. Our worst tunnel moment came when a car without headlights (like about 30% of cars in tunnels) overtook towards us (single lane, tunnel wall 50cm to our right) as cars were about to pass us from behind. Luckily, these braked in time. On the open winding mountain road, it was just a matter of watching out for the constant overtaking, often in blind corners, in our direction. Oh, and tailgating.

A word or two more about Iranian traffic: diabolically awful. Most cities and towns are gridlocked, mostly with Paykans, which are Iranian made Hunter Hillmans (late 1960's- early 1970's models). Very many of these are taxis, marked and unmarked. The traffic generally moves very slowly, but all drivers constantly weave left and right trying to find gaps. They're also constantly watching cars next to them and avoiding collisions. Lanes mean nothing. Indicators are very rarely used. Cars turning onto the road in front of you do not look at all towards oncoming traffic - they virtually have right of way. This also has the advantage that they will see whatever motorbike is inevitably coming up the wrong side of the road towards them. Or it might be a car reversing back over an intersection. It could be anything.

Share taxis constantly stop and swerve over to the side of the road (no indicators) to pick up/drop off/hunt for passengers.

Traffic lights also mean nothing. At the busiest intersections in Tehran you can see motorbikes simply riding out into the intersection, making all the oncoming traffic in both directions stop, and sneaking across. Footpaths aren't safe either as motorbikes are quite happy to ride on them at 30-40km/h to avoid gridlock.

Motorbikes are especially dangerous at night - they don't slow down and often have no headlights...

Another pet hazard - women in chadors who are too busy covering up and chewing on their chadors to look at traffic. Also shocking at night. Talk about a death wish.

Roundabouts are maybe the worst. Imagine you want to go straight ahead. As you ride on, many cars coming behind you will just cut in front to turn right. Then cars coming from your left will also cut in front of you to continue straight. Eventually you're stranded somewhere in the middle, with cars heading towards you weaving left/right as they try to guess which way you will go. If you freeze with panic, at some stage somebody will courteously wave you through. At any time a motorbike could come at you from the wrong direction.

It's an extraordinary driving culture. 28,000 deaths a year on Iranian roads, I've read. I didn't realise that this kind of martyrdom was recognised by Allah.

In favour of Iranian motorists: they honk discreetly, mostly to say hello, and there is remarkably little road rage - certainly none towards us. When I yell abuse the response is almost always a silly smile and a wave! The bastards!

The roads? Generally excellent. Petrol is 1000 rial (10c) a litre, though it's 'rationed' to 4 litres per car per day or 1 litre per motorbike per day (smart card system). Beyond that it's 40c a litre.

Road police? Activity level zero. On the other hand, two cop cars with sirens did scream to a halt near our campsite one night when it was reported that a young woman was not wearing proper hejab (as we heard later from other campers). I looked up to see Julie blithely wandering away towards the toilets, ignoring the calls of the police. She took her time and they left before she appeared.

There is utterly excellent food in the Iranian markets - apples (from 20c/kg), grapes ($1/kg), pomegranates ($1/kg), tomatoes (from 20c/kg), eggplants (40c/kg), greens, dates, honey, halva, Iranian olives and olive oil (delicious).
All of the fresh fruit and veg has been better than anything in Australia, let alone Europe... On top of that delicious fresh bread, fetta/cream cheese, yoghurt...
On the other hand restaurants are very hit/miss. Lots of basic kebab joints and fast food stores dishing up unappetising 'pizza', hot dogs, hamburgers.

Universal lowlight in Iran - the miserable status of women. Hiding/cringing behind chadors in smaller conservative towns. Highly educated with no prospects and utterly frustrated in big cities. A few drive but none ride motorbikes (though they all ride on the back as pillion passengers.) We saw one girl walking with a pushbike in Esfahan. We are told it's not 'socially acceptable' for women to ride bikes.

Politics / the government? Islam? More later. I'll just tell you what's on TV: endless lectures by imams about things like Palestine and evil Israel.

In Karaj I had my bike welded again - this time a bracket on the front fork for my front rack. Another back yard electric arc job, but it looked good.
We left our bikes in Karaj and caught an overnight train to Yazd from Tehran, then a bus to Shiraz, bus to Esfahan, and overnight train back to Tehran. A week all up - but we were busting to get back onto the bikes. A hunt for two replacement brackets I needed delayed us for a few hours, but was entertaining.

Over the past six days we've ridden from Karaj to Tabriz (about 600km) over refreshingly safe freeway. After a day stocking up and wandering in the most excellent bazaar today we're planning to head into Armenia tomorrow, then southern Georgia and Turkey. Why Armenia? 1. The lure of Armenian cognac. 2. Beautiful mountains, and autumn should be pretty. 3. They speak Russian there. 4. It's the nearest hejab-free zone. 5. It's a few borders away from Turkish Kurdestan.

8000+ km so far - since mid May.

Above all, I am really looking forward to escaping the constant terror of riding in Iranian cities. You only need so many reminders of your own mortality. It's sad that this fear sometimes overshadows the sheer joy of bike touring.


On September 2 we rolled up to the Turkmen border, having camped 5km down the road the night before. We had the typical 5 day transit visas. A truckload of German tourists just beat us to the border post but we managed to get over in 3 hours - excellent time. The Turkmen bank officials made 3 charming attempts to short change us on the silly $12 'departure cards', but no other hassles.

As we left a local Russian guide asked me if I'd seen her stranded Spanish tourists. We chatted, I joked about being a spy, and she hissed, 'Don't say that, not even as a joke!' Welcome to Turkmenistan, one of the silliest banana republics around.

I'll revisit this later.

Just one memorable moment: riding from the big Saturday Ashgabat market back into town, a bloke in a truck leaned out the passenger window as the truck went past and gave me a 1.5 litre soft drink bottle with what I thought was flat cherry cola, or some kind of juice. It turned out to be some kind of delicious wine, half way between shiraz and port!

Heading west from Tashkent

I forgot to mention a few details about the Georgian restaurant: how there were very few guests but a big 'in' crowd (which we snuck into) that dined like kings and never paid, the Russian girlfriends who kept disappearing to the toilets and came back sniffing with strangely elevated moods... then there was Georgian self described 'mountain man' - a well drunk Georgian businessman who wanted to take Julie to the mountains in a stretch limousine for the night and offered me 'any woman I want' in exchange... he really shouldn't have used me as an interpreter, though...
There was something else going on here!

Anyway, we headed west for three days to Samarkand where we camped in the yard of an elderly Russian couple. On two consecutive nights we wandered past and were invited into wedding feasts where we were fed with whatever was available in exchange for our dancing. It's supposed to be good luck to have extra guests at Tajik weddings. Fun. As for the days, we rolled around the markets and monuments of Samarkand, past the Registan to my favourite spot, the row of mausoleums at Shah-i-Zinda.

We also hunted down Volodya, president of the local bike racing club and bike mechanic, who took us back to his typically Soviet flat in the suburbs for the night and down to a lake for a swim. Next morning, full of watermelon and coffee, Volodya escorted us through the back streets to the road heading south towards Shahrisabz.

Past delicious pears and mountain honey over a 1500m pass to Shahrisabz, then another few hundred k's to Bukhara. More melon feasts. Once I stopped and asked and old bloke where I could find a watermelon. He took me back to his place where there was a pile 2 metres high in the back yard. He insisted I took two. We rolled 100m up the road, found a patch of shade, and got stuck into one of them. A granny found us and brought over a blanket. Then she brought over ANOTHER watermelon. As we left we were offered a fourth melon (thanks, but no thanks). Up the road I swapped one melon for two ice creams! It was stinking hot, getting towards 50 degrees in the sun (late August). We took to finding shade and melons for our early afternoon siestas and washed our shirts out a few times a day in irrigation canals.

A little further some teenage local girls approached Julie with more melon offerings as they were on their way home from a day in the fields. Unfortunately a bunch of men found us as well, took over the conversation (typical) and scared them off.
That night we were invited home by a man whose trade turned out to be... traditional circumcisions! He was very happy to explain his trade, got out his tools, and humiliated his 14 year old son by pulling his pants down to demonstrate! Not very useful when the kid's already had the job done! He then ducked off to a wedding feast (we declined to accompany) leaving another local man to be our host and get very sloshed while I poured most of the vodka under the table...

We left our bikes in Bukhara for a few days for a side trip (petrol fuelled) to Urgench and Khiva, 450km northwest.

From Bukhara it was another 100km west to the Turkmen border across either arid or irrigated plains. While checking out a melon stall en route our bus driver to Urgench (who we'd had dinner with) turned up! Back to his place for another feast...

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


When I got to the fringes of Tashkent I tried to change some money at a market, where there was a government exchange booth (1325 sum to $US1.) Unfortunately I was swamped by a horde of smartarse, aggressive young Uzbek men (black market traders) offering me 1330 - when I knew the rate was 1380. I told them to go away with no effect, then I turned my back on my bike for 15 seconds to express myself more firmly. One yelped, 'Hey! Your bike's gone!' and sure enough, it was. Laughter and heckling ringing in my ears, I ran around the booth and out into open space. No sign of my bike - and all my gear. Back to where it had been - just laughter. From the amusement I suspected a nasty joke but I was shaken. All of a sudden, after a few long minutes it reappeared. No clear culprit. I rode off using the best language I could muster, being abused in return with copycat trash from bad movies ('F- off motherf-er!!!'). Not a great start.

A lot of other things hadn't changed much in Tashkent. The broad leafy boulevards were the same. Still countless fountains and water features, as if they didn't know what else to do with all that water. Still excellent ice cream! As for the traffic - not too bad (though drivers predictably crap for a cyclist, cutting corners etc.). Still lots of flashy hotels which look empty. Still plenty of police around. Few foreigners/tourists. A hint of tedium.

What had changed since 1999? Mobile phones EVERYWHERE. Very soon I found people taking pics of me (or even filming me) - of course without asking. Lots of closed down internet cafes. Broadway, the pedestrian mall in the centre of town which used be be great value, was dead - apparently shut down by President Karimov.

Oh, and the police have been kitted out with spiffy new green uniforms.
Julie flew in to Tashkent airport in dry summer heat and was abandoned by ground staff for a while (left in an empty stairwell with locked doors) but at least the indifferent Uzbek staff didn't try to extort any money from her (this had already happened in Bangkok for 'excess weight'). Her bike got through unscathed, plus I only had to wait two and a half hours for her - bonus. We found a comfy hotel with a pool and next day checked out the Turkmen embassy, with its huddles of miserable victims and extremely grumpy neighbours. 10 days processing time for a 5 day transit visa – along a pre specified route.

Julie bought some galvanised iron (fashioned by my dad!) and some Bunnings clamps which seemed to sort out my busted frame good and proper!

At the Chorsu Bazaar we stocked up with sultanas, peanuts, dried apricots, apricot kernels, dried cheeseballs, and headed out of town to escape the heat while waiting for our visas.

150km east, snug up against the Kyrgyz border, were the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains, a big azure blue reservoir and the ski resort of Chimgan. On the way up Julie began discovering the delights of Central Asian cuisine, including shurpa (clear soup with potato and a hunk of bone/meat) and pelmeni (Russian style ravioli, in a clear broth). First night was on a tapchan (elevated platform with cushions) in front of a wayside inn – after a feed they often won't charge you to roll out your sleeping bags and spend the night. Julie also soon discovered gastro and was pretty miserable as I dragged her (gently) up into the hills.

On a chairlift near Chimgan.

We checked out one of the Soviet relic sanatoria where Uzbeks buy 5-10 day passes to 'rest' and eat set menu cafeteria food 3 times a day for about $16 per person per day, all inclusive. Up in Chimgan some local Russians invited us back to their dacha, tucked away in a remote canyon down a 4WD track. On our way back down from the hills we ran into some junior road racing cyclists near Gazalkent. It turned out that this was an Uzbek junior development training camp, run by Lyudmila, a former road racing champion of the Soviet Union. The team was all staying at a school boarding house, and they dragged us back there for the evening meal. Next morning we rode with the peleton back down the road to Tashkent (50km) with coach Lyudmila escorting us in her minivan (and carrying our bags).

Lyudmila told us she was on a salary of $US300 a month as a senior development coach. Her son was road racing professionally in Italy and a lot of the bike gear she had was sourced from him - though there were always dramas trying to get it through customs, which of course want to 'tax' everything. The gear the kids rode was a bizarre mixture of ancient Soviet steel frames and top notch Colnago frames that had obviously been in huge stacks and had somehow been welded together... but they managed to ride vast Soviet style training distances on it.

Back in town Lyudmila offered us her son's flat to crash in for a few days while waiting for our visas – a great spot in the centre of town, just opposite the Alai Bazaar. This son was in Moscow but there was one other Russian woman living there, who was rarely home. This was Tamara, who turned out to be an obsessive fitness coach with no end of nasty bitching to do about Lyudmila, her husband and her three sons. At least she wasn't home much and the Olympics were on TV. But three days later Lyudmila's husband turned up unannounced and began berating me – should have guessed that the same kinds of things were being said about us - 'we are barbarians, never wash, never clean up' etc. He was also getting anxious about our need to register with the police. It was time to move on and when we left I made a little comment to Tamara about her personal attributes. Her response: 'Well, you shouldn't call our President a fascist then.' Ooops, I had forgotten all about that!

We dropped in on the Georgian restaurant in town where I used to take clients so regularly that I translated their menu for them. Just as we arrived a Georgian friend of theirs had won a wrestling gold medal and so we were invited straight in for celebrations which ended up lasting for the next three days (or at least that's when we left!) After three free feasts I had to insist on translating the new menu on our last night. I got it done by 9pm with Julie's help in time for a final feast and we rolled out of town at midnight on cool, empty roads - excellent - camping 25 km out of town.

Dushanbe to Tashkent

My kind hearted granny, Baba Lyolya, turned out to be full of amazing stories. She gave me a family history lesson and dug out 100 year old photos from her parents' era in Petropavlovsk, in southern Siberia, where she was born. (I think it's now Kazakhstan - the distinction is vague up there, northern K. being very Russified.) Most of these were from studios with great props and Sunday best furs. She really put across how isolated Dushanbe was back in 1954, despite the railway built in the 20's. When she arrived the local Tajiks were still living in clay pot homes ('kibichki') and the girls would flock around her to stroke her ponytails in awe.
From there on her stories ranged from her involvement in organising (illegal) backyard abortions (she gave a detailed 'recipe') and stories about how she'd go to Termez (on the Afghan border, now in Uzbekistan) to catch the first supplies of household products to stories about her work as manager of the neurosurgical hospital in Dushanbe, with long gone Jewish and Russian consultants... Extraordinary living history of the Soviet Union.

The following day I went back to the Iranian embassy having decided to resort to begging. Who knows, maybe they don't take this whole reference number thing so seriously. They seemed receptive and said come back in the afternoon. By that time my number had magically appeared.

From Dushanbe my route headed north over two big passes past Khojand towards Tashkent. I'd had some horror reports of the road, with massive road and tunnel construction works going on.
So I thought I'd get a lift on a truck. 'Smokin' Granny' (my new name for her since I discovered she secretly puffed on old school 'Polyot' cigarettes) kindly decided to cook me French toast for breakfast. Very sweet of her but I soon offered to cook it for myself - not so easy when you're blind.

I rode up the road 15km or so and waited well into the stinking hot afternoon near a police checkpoint for a truck to offer a lift. I had plenty of company - due to sky high petrol prices (and roadworks) not many drivers were interested in going over and transport was scarce for everyone. Eventually I got lucky. The truck turned out to be empty- hmm, not so good, nothing to cushion the bike with! All I could use was my groundsheet. We headed up past the Tajik president's silly palace-dacha into the mountains and the road soon turned to hell. The tunnels were as bad as feared - 30cm of water over rubble! Glad I didn't ride. My Tajik drivers were in a hurry to get home and hammered over the first pass. At 2am there was a roadblock so the boys decided on shuteye till 5.30am. We slept on a tapchan (open air traditional tea house platform, with cushions) next to a mountain stream. Over the next pass helter skelter and we stopped to get my bike out. I was nervous. Climbing up into the container dust was everywhere and I found my bike right at the front- it'd obviously been tossed all over the place but was intact, thanks to the 4 panniers which had protected it. Only minor casualty was my billy - a bit of panelbeating gives it character, anyway.

I rolled down through apple trees onto the plains near the border to the first roadside stalls of watermelons and delicious long white melons. On my way I met plenty of friendly lowland Tajiks who were busting to give me apples, plov and anything else they had for the road. After one failed border crossing ('the international border is 40km up the road, this one's just for locals') at Bekabad, I got over into Uzbekistan. The border guards seemed younger and more worldwise than I remembered them - I asked one what the black market rate for Uzbek sum was and he told me (correctly)! From here it was 100km across cotton fields and piles of watermelons to Tashkent.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Down to Dushanbe

Got to Dushanbe yesterday after 6 days of pretty heavy riding, despite the altitude drop from 2100m to 700m. Plenty of ups and downs and the roads were worse than I'd expected. At least the last 100km were perfect tarmac and a pleasant cruise down into the heat of the lowlands.
I had a dip in the last hot spring (in Obigarm) before heading down.

Touchwood, my bike frame weld has been very well behaved so far...

Dushanbe is very Soviet, with broad leafy boulevards = excellent shade! It's much quieter and more pleasant, if more boring, than Almaty.

Last night I stayed with an 81 year old Russian babushka who came here from Siberia 54 years ago. It was in fact her son (a truck driver) who had invited me, but he hadn't turned up yet. She insisted that I stay anyway. She is amazingly healthy and robust but feels her way around the house - she's blind from glaucoma and whatever else.

My Iran visa invitation letter hasn't turned up at the embassy. It was closed yesterday (Wednesday) due to a public holiday in Iran. Now I hear that Thursday and Friday are the WEEKEND in Iran (??? what is that all about? first time I've heard that) though apparently the Iranian visa/travel agency and the embassy work on Saturday.

The agency I went through in Almaty (Stantours) tells me now that 1 in 5 invitations go missing, and that they can't contact Key2Persia (the Iranian agency that issued the visa) until Saturday. Great.

In a park I tried some draft beer and met an Iranian tourist, who said that the agency should be open today anyway. That's a thought - why not ring them? Sure enough, I got onto the manager, who had the reassuring news that they never actually get hold of the invitations - that they are sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Iranian embassies, which commonly lose them.

My Tajik visa finishes on Sunday, and theoretically I can extend it, but it sounds like a real hassle. I'll try to avoid this at all costs.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Pamirs - to Khorog

Heading out of Osh and gradually uphill towards the Irkeshtam Pass and China, the highway was being rebuilt - everything was trucks, cars, dust and fist sized rocks. Hot, dry, late afternoon. Not the very worst, but relatively awful. Xavier's voice back in Osh (he had just ridden in the opposite direction) was ringing in my ears: 'Over zose last 80 kilometres I was askeeng myself: Why do I bozer?'

Next thing I knew, I was riding past a Kamaz truck with a Kyrgyz standing in the back of the open container beckoning to me to put my bike inside. 50 metres on I stopped and thought, 'That's GOT to be a good idea.' Sure enough, they were going to Irkeshtam to China and were very happy to give me a lift across the worst of the highway repairs to Sary Tash.

The workings of the Kyrgyz GAI (traffic police) were soon revealed. Our 3 truck convoy was stopped and my driver pulled out roadworthy (out of date), driver's licence (valid) and permission from truck owner to drive this particular truck (in somebody else's name).
As it happened, each of the 3 drivers was missing at least one of these three.
Soon I was watching one of the other drivers trying to force 20 som ($0.60) into the cop's hand, with him pushing it away. There was a brief detente and my driver told me a bit anxiously, 'He won't take the bribe.' 20 som is the going rate, which you pay 3-4 times before Irkeshtam.

I couldn't believe it. Surely not an honourable traffic cop?

In the end it turned out he wanted 200 som for each truck but the guys bargained him down to 150! The cop hadn't noticed the owner's permit for my driver being in the wrong name - would it have made any difference?

We stopped frequently for the driver to do his regular Kamaz brake checks (no complaints there) and tinkerings, and from 11pm-1am stopped in a roadhouse for a relaxed feast of mutton, noodles, tea and flat bread. I dozed propped up on the wall. Then we headed on till 2.30am, when the driver decided on a nap. I rolled my sleeping bag out in the back. At 5.30am he woke me and we headed on (they prefer driving at night as the engines overheat less.) By 9 we were over a second pass and in Sary Tash. I jumped out.

From Sary Tash I went south across a sparsely grassed plateau towards Tajikistan. Virtually zero traffic. Yurts were dotted across the landscape still, with plenty of kymyz. Up over a barren, rocky pass, and down past the Tajik border post with lots of young Tajik boys strutting around in cammo gear, sun hats or balaclavas, and AK 47s. They delighted in making me wait at three separate checkpoints and didn't even look at my GBAO permit.

Down in the first valley, the only visible human life was a Swiss cyclist, Martin, who had just camped, so I joined him. He was going the other way.

Up onto the vast arid high Pamiri plateau, over the 4500m Ak-Baital Pass, and a long - 70 km - descent to Murghab, the very low key regional centre of Eastern Pamir, with a mixed Kyrgyz/Tajik population. By now there were no more horses - and no more kymyz. Not enough pasture, I was told. Damn. I went to OVIR to register (compulsory within 72 hours of arrival) and was sent to the bank to pay $15 plus 20 somoni. The friendly Pamiri boys at the bank immediately invited me back to their place.

It was fascinating running into the first Pamiris. Physically, you'd think you were somewhere in southeastern Europe. They are often fair, with blue eyes, generally dark haired but sometimes red/blonde. Sometimes they have strikingly aquiline (or just huge!) noses. They're also extremely warm and friendly, and tend to greet you with a hand on the heart, indicating respect.
Along with this, Pamiri people are generally the most hospitable I've ever moved amongst, despite being very poor. They'd share their last crust with you. On most days I am offered tea and a place to stay about 3-4 times from mid afternoon. Their staple is bread, which they bake themselves in little electric ovens, or in fuel- stoked ovens, if there's fuel. In the mornings everybody drinks 'shir chai', slightly salted milk tea, into which you break bread. This is good for old stale bread, none of which gets thrown out. They like meat, but eat very little, as it's too expensive. People have little garden plots but can't grow enough to be completely self sufficient.

Looking south into Afghanistan.

See the foot (or goat?) tracks on the Afghan side?

I also found out that Pamiris are proud of their individuality and keen to distinguish themselves from Tajiks. I found out that they are very poor. And I found out that they universally revere 'their Aga Khan', the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, whom I didn't know much about. This was soon to be corrected. The Aga Khan Foundation is very active in Tajikistan and does all kinds of good deeds, from building basic hydroelectric setups to bigger projects - which might be why they love him so much.

From Murghab I headed south. I met my last (the southernmost) Kyrgyz in Alichur, and got to try airan (tasty yak kefir). Off the Pamir highway and over a pass to the Wakhan valley, where the Pamir, and then the Pyanj rivers form the border with Afghanistan. Over a few hundred km, through Langar and Ishkashim, I was looking across 20-30m of grey glacial river at Afghanistan. Everything seems very peaceful over there.

Amongst other things there were two excellent hot springs to bathe in and also lots of good roadside mineral water springs, including the famous Narzan spring. Delicious apricots were just ripening in the Wakhan so I got to gorge on them in most villages! You can also split the seeds open to get to the delicious kernels.

You can't catch vitiligo or psoriasis, can you? This spring is famous over the former Soviet union for its curative properties...

Here in Khorog I'm staying with a Pamiri friend my age whom I met in Murghab. He makes a living - amongst other things - from smuggling rubies to Afghanistan (which, of course, is illegal.)

I went over my bike and found a snapped steel bracket which attaches to my front pack rack - luckily my host had a reasonable replacement. Everything else seemed fine. But looking again I found a crack 2cm long at the bottom of my seat tube (the near vertical one in which the seat post sits), across a dent caused by kids in Alice Springs who stole my bike and damaged the frame. BUGGER. (I only got to keep the bike cos they'd wrecked the rear wheel and weren't able to ride off on it.) It seemed to be holding up fine, so I had decided to just keep an eye on it. Clever Rob. If only I had got through the hassle of replacing the frame.

The ideal repair would be to replace the tube but it's the hardest one to get at - it'd have to be a professional job, and amongst other things I'd have to get the right diameter so that the seat post fits.

After quite a bit of hanging around I got my frame electric arc welded at the Pamir hydroelectric power station but it's one of the more primitive, dodgy jobs you can imagine - just have to pray that it holds up. No TIG welding (or whatever is best) here. I'm not sure that I'd find much better in Dushanbe or Tashkent. Bikes here tend to be very disposable Chinese or extremely rough Soviet single speeds, nothing any Western bike mechanic would want to go near. The nearest 'professional' bike mechanic? I might be looking at heading back to Sasha's in Almaty!
Anyway, rather a crack in the frame than a schmack in the cranium. Plus, 3700km so far touch wood and NO PUNCTURE!

Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all... where will I find another frame? India maybe?

Above the friendly Pamiri welder ('best in town') who refused payment and gifts for the repair.
525km left to Dushanbe.

Pamirs - the roof of the world