30.09.2015 26 °C
Hi from the high hills of Erzurum. I was hoping to be writing this from Iran, but I'm not! So there we go -
I ended my last post with a doubtful view of getting an Iranian Visa; according to every online source I've checked I'd either need a guide with me or I'd have to travel as part of a group - both of these being unfeasible and naff. However, following a visit to the Iranian consulate in Ankara, It turned out I am eligible for an independent travel visa! Bonza. As I left the building buzzing from this news I bumped into a young Iranian couple. They invited me to stay with them in Iran's the capital city of Tehran, where they would take me around and show me the sights. Iran's famous hospitality, and I'm not even there! With a spring in my step I headed to the nearest travel agency to apply. I filled out a questionnaire, paid 30 pounds and was told to wait 5 to 10 days for a response - either an approval code which, taken to any embassy, will get you the visa, or a refusal, and in my case, the arduous and time consuming task of researching an alternative route. But I left Ankara in high spirits, with refreshing thoughts of new foods, new scenery and new people running through my mind.
My next waypoint was Erzurum, about a weeks ride straight east. Here would be the last place en-route where I could pick up an Iranian visa. The map showed a tough ride - a main road with a few mountain passes, offering no quieter or easier alternatives. But I am a slave to the path that I choose! So I plugged in (heavy metal usually being my choice for motorway riding), donned my helmet and joined the smoggy lorries and donkey drawn carts on their way. As the miles passed the traffic eased off, delivering their goods to the surrounding towns and villages. Now I could relax my pace a little, removing my mental blinkers to enjoy the slowly passing scenery. This was nothing special; mainly featureless farmland, with the occasional row of trees or distant passing train breaking the monotony. Having honed my sixth sense in Austria I could feel the looming threat of a thunderstorm, so I rolled into the next town for a chai stop. Always taking an interest in how the locals respond to my arrival, this time I was not encouraged over by waving and calling, rather I had to walk to my own impetus, contemplating the possibility that I may have to finance my own refreshment. The usual curiosities ensued, but I was taken by surprise when one chap made no reservations in imparting his distaste for English people, gesturing to me to basically bugger off, with a flick of his fingers. I assumed this was based on some foreign policy, or political affair, so I retorted by somehow saying that we are all just people, and more often then not, peoples ideas/views/opinions are far from represented by their politicians. Anyway the storm had passed, so down the road I went to camp.
The next day passed much like the last. Another 30 miles, another town, another snooze, another 2 pages of my book read, another dog chase. Though this time I had no stick. I left my trusty defendant somewhere behind, so it was just me and the dog. As he got closer I wobbled to an awkward stop on the loose gravel, dismounted and displayed my usual array of canine behavior. It didn't work, so I began to kick, sort of like that Russian dance, but without the crossed arms - I must have looked like a right loon to the passing traffic! In the midst of this strange display I had the misfortune of sending one of my shoes through the air. It landed a few feet away from the dog. 'Oh bollocks, I've lost a shoe. He's going to run off with it'. But luckily the sight of a Croc is highly offensive to dogs aswell, so he turned around and ran off back to his flock of sheep, leaving my shoe behind.
That evening ended with an exhausting climb. Pedaling up a narrow valley my mind flickered between anger for the wretched headwind and appreciation for the sun kissed scenery. Summiting after cycling through the town, there was nowhere obvious to camp. I saw a settlement of Turkish gypsies over the road, so I wondered over, asking them if I could join them. They all waved me, shouting words of Turkish with plenty of enthusiasm. Before I could get me sleeping bag out and set my bed a makeshift table of upturned plastic pots had been laid before me, with bread and vegetables being offered. We drank tea into the cold night, played guitar and wailed to our hearts content, my version of Turkish singing sending them into fits of laughter. They then retired to their ford transits, and I to my sleeping bag, where I enjoyed a mozzy free night of star gazing.
First day of the climbs. I stuffed a big breakfast into me. A few loafs dipped into a jar of syrup, with a brew of not so fresh coffee - this helps to kick start the heart. The first one was short and sharp, and my body clearly wasn't into it. You can do all the preparation you want - eat high energy foods, carb load the night before, make sure your fully hydrated, meditate...... But when it comes down to it, sometimes your body simply slumps in a chair and folds it arms, refusing to play ball - this being a metaphor for burning thighs and an inability to rotate the crank. So seeing a truck slowly chug up behind me I grabbed on to it's behind, and enjoying the effortless sensation for a good 5 minutes I rolled over the top, my left arm probably slightly longer than my right.
The road flattened out into a wide valley. Here I was entering the mountains of Turkey. The scenery was spectacular. A green ribbon of vegetation followed a river ahead, and ominous, cold looking mountains rose into the clear blue sky, threatening me with a cold climb and pass. A distant town provided a more welcoming prospect, marked by the tower of a mosque peeking above a row of trees.
Turkey is almost wholly Muslim, a religion that perforates into the very essence of their lives - how they dress, how they eat, their daily routine and how they behave. Men sitting down drinking chai can be seen with a beaded bracelet in their hands. Using their thumb they rotate the bracelet around their fingers, saying 'Allah' for each bead, either quietly or aloud.
Every settlement, now matter how small, has a mosque. Five times a day the sound of a man singing with the most impressive undulations invites the surrounding populace to come and pray. After a few minutes there is a sizable congregation milling about outside. Before they enter they wash their hands and feet under the outside taps, then make their way inside for prayer. They seem to come and go as they please, devoting as little or as much time as they wish to their religious duty. Sometimes this call for prayer wakes me at 4 AM! The sound of the many prayer calls clashing in the night air is somehow surreal, like some divine discourse bearing down from the heavens.
Over the top of the last climb and a thousand feet of vertical bliss winds it's way down before me. The surface is smooth, the road is straight and there is a fair tale wind - this is going to be fast. Anticipating this I check that everything is securely tied down, ensuring my drying underwear isn't going to fly off and land on someone's windscreen. I take my hands off the brakes and let the tailwind slowly push me over the threshold. Almost instantly the road falls away into a steep decent, and as my wheels pick up the pace I watch the speedo on my Garmin go up and up. 'Lets break the record'! I think to myself. Soon I'm whizzing down a steep straight, my head ducked down and my crank flat to the road. I'm overtaking lorries. My eyes begin to water from the hot air streaming pass. A teary glance at the GPS and I've hit a wopping 47 MPH! The dividing dashes zip by, with the immediacy of the tarmac adding to the thrill. Blasting down I've soon left the lorries behind, leaving me with the whole road to weave across. Cycling heaven.......... 2 minutes later I'm crawling along at 5 miles an hour - a sodding headwind!
Wake to my Birthday! And 3 months of being on the road, my beards bushy and much of my skin color comprises of grime from the road - fantastic! You don't need a n expensive holiday or some skin damaging treatment - just don't shower! An all day steady climb made harder by a headwind soon deminishes any joy. An exhaustive end to the day, I pig out on a large packet of Turkish wagon wheels to celebrate, washed down with chai. They didn't have any caterpillar cake. Tomorrow, Erzurum!
Having spent the night camping in the grounds of the hospital I made an early push for Erzurum. Wheeling into the town was a joy. In contrast to most of the Turkish towns I'd been to it was pleasantly laid out. Green parks, water features, a large town square and many historical buildings provided a relaxing, perhaps more familiar European feel. In winter the surrounding planes are covered in snow, and Erzurum becomes a snow sport destination, I'd imagine at a fraction of the price of more popular European destinations.
Now to the Visa - Frustrating delays, rising expenses and the constant threat of being rejected are all par the course, so I wasn't wholly surprised to find I hadn't yet received my code. Thinking it would be in my inbox in a few days I decided to head out on a mini adventure, extending my birthday celebrations by treating myself to a cheap train ride. As we pulled out of the station the sensation of smooth, fast and effortless travel was a joy, and with my face pushed up against the window, I was clearly the most excited person in my carriage. I took a ride 5 hours north east to a town called Kars. We chugged our way up a narrow valley, with small villages passing slowly by, and dramatic rock formations shooting from the ground. The line topped out on to an immense plateau; there was nothing to be seen but miles and miles of arid flat land. Arriving at night, the streets of Kars where alive with traffic and people, and I grabbed a cheap kebab at one of the many outlets. Jewellery stalls, travel agents and tailors suggested a population with money to spare, and blocks of flats where rising all around. Thankfully I was allowed to sleep in the station foyer. Outside a couple of guards where on patrol, their machine guns held firmly against their chest.
You may know that Turkey, particularly in the east is on a heightened state of alert due to terrorism threats. A few days early I happened to glance across a map on the front of a newspaper. It showed the location of the most recent car bomb attack, about 10 miles away from where I want to cross the border! 'Some chocolate bars and a few banana's for that ride' I thought to myself. But these attacks are rare and sparse. If needs be I'll jump on a bus (mum and dad).
Leaving this the next day I followed the railway across the planes and back down the valley, with a light tailwind pushing me along. I put me feet up on the crossbar, breathed easy and enjoyed the warmth of the sun. After a few days of cycling and train rides I was back in Erzurum. The stated 10 days waiting time for my visa code was now up. My renewed optimism was dashed with no response. A call to the travel agency to inquire and I was told to call tomorrow. This is all the more frustrating when your a low budget camper; it's another night in a hard to find camp spot with money spent on going nowhere. Despite this I went to a cheap restaurant to appease my pissed offness, and luckily too. I got talking to 3 Azerbaijanian students who invited me back to their flat - they even payed for my meal! It had been over a month since my last shower, sleeping in a bed and my clothes being washed. I was treated to all. Looking out across the night lights from their balcony, I asked them why people here are so generous. They replied with 'Islam', further explaining that it teaches that all are equal, regardless of gender, race and religion, and all should be treated with respect and care. 'A blueprint for a near perfect world' I thought to myself, if only their environmental practices where as considerate.
Next day Still nothing. Calling again to inquire why after 2 weeks it hadn't arrived the lady told me that my application had been rejected. I didn't believe here. I asked her to send me the email confirming this, which didn't arrive either. So I set off to the embassy to ask for myself. The location on my GPS was wrong, and I was left to the mercy of the locals. After 2 hours of being directed downhill, then uphill, then across hill, then up hill, then down hill, and up hill - like they were playing the game 'let's have some fun with this crazy tourist', I was walked to the embassy by a young student. After waiting for an hour in a room that was surrounded by magazine like photo's of Iran, I was told to come back tomorrow. All the while the road is getting colder, and there are mountain passes which may snow over.
That was a weak ago. I'm still waiting for a visa that I don't even know that I'll get. The plus side of this is that it slows you down. You get off the bike and open up to other possibilities and alternatives. Now I'm spending a few days with an Argentinian family. Gisher and Rosana are traveling around the world with their two children, Canteen and Alma. We've headed north in their camper van and set up by a big lake. Swimming, fishing and good company have provided a refreshing change to day after day of cycling and waiting. I've also finished writing another children's story, so if anyone has any friends or contacts in the childrens publishing industry then please hook me up. It's a great read and I'm really pleased with it.
Fingers crossed for this week. If you are partial to praying, please spare me a few syllables.
I'll hopefully will be reporting from Iran in a few weeks
And try my new tan technique!