A Travellerspoint blog

September 2015

Not so Turkish Delight

sunny 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!

Posted by Banana Spokes 04:22 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Turkish Delight

sunny 40 °C

Thessaloniki - salsa dancing on the seafront! What an awsome city. Waving goodbye to this and my friend Laure I set off for the Turkish border. My last few days in Greece were slow and arduous - a headwind hindered progress as I dropped the gears, dropped my head and ploughed through. Eventually a huge red flag could be seen, blowing proudly in the distance. Must be the border. There was a strong military presence from both sides, as soldiers with rifles lined the mile or so long bridge between the two countries. My visa bought and clearing customs, the immensity of Turkey opened up. The small rolling hills of Greece gave way to vast planes either side of me, and the dusty road ahead climbed up onto a plateau. Following this would have taken me to Istanbul, but with a population of over 17 million, I couldn't bring myself to crawling through it's endless suburbs, so I veered south for the alternative crossing at Eceabat. The prevailing north easterlies delivered me to the port in just over a day. I boarded the boat, headed for Asia! The channel was alive with traffic, with just about every size and type of boat vying for a pass. Rolling off my second ferry and a great satisfaction to cross a continent. I celebrated with a dripping slice of Baklava - this is one of Turkey's signature indulgences, and it beats Toblerone. Coming in many varieties, it's basically a sort of puff pastry, drenched in honey with a sort of nut based paste.....and it's ruddy fantastic! If you happen across some, try it.

The next few days was spent following the coast, freewheeling down dusty farm tracks, with the smell of the pine trees scenting the breeze. The land was carpeted with fruit and veg. Old a young where out in the midday sun picking tomatoes, and the occasional smell of apricots would send me sniffing like a dog. Surrounding hills were topped with villages, where the silhouettes of mosques would reign above.

Through the many Turkish villages I've enjoyed cycling through, there has always been one guaranteed feature - a quiet village square, bordered by old men drinking 'Chai'. They drink their tea black, usually with two sugar cubes, and unlike our buckets in comparison, in very small glasses. In the midday day heat it's surprisingly refreshing - soothing a dried throat with a bitter kick to end with. Everytime I somehow explain to them that we drink tea with milk, they laugh, followed with a gestures of disgust! - A topic or a point always becomes funny when you can predict the reaction!
Seeing me roll in, probably thinking 'who on earth and why'? They always ask me over, pulling up a chair for me and shouting an order at the top of their voice' 'CHAAAAIII'. The usual questions are asked - where am I from? Where do I go? Am I alone? Am I married? - the idea of cycling around the world solo after getting married! What is my job? After a little confusion I manage to communicate an answer, usually conveyed by some gesture. This followed by a few moments of quiet, until the next question. Sometimes it can be a little exhausting, especially after a tiring climb in the heat of the day, when all you want to do is deflate by yourself.

Choosing to take a more observational point, this time I set myself up on the side of a courtyard, surrounded by 3 tea houses. My ambling mind looking for amusement, like pieces on a board game, watching the old men to and fro from tea house to tea house provided plenty. When finished with his Chai one old man, equipped with his pipe, would get up and slowly cross the way to the 2nd tea house, greeting his newly arrived friend. Settling down with a fresh Chai, this would seem to upset the younger chap nearby, who would stand up and cross the road to the 3rd tea house, where he'd be greeted by the small crowd. Meanwhile everyone in the 1st tea house is watching this, mumbling between themselves. Then an short man with a beard would come buzzing in on his 125 to everyone's elation - he's obviously the popular one. As quickly as they'd disappear they appear, walking, on tractors or off donkeys..............
It's great to being inconspicuous.

Since arriving in Turkey I seem to have evened the playing field with my second nemesis (after thunderstorms), Dogs. They are even bigger here. The plains that comprise much of Turkey are roamed by flocks of sheep and their shepherds. Dogs are bred and employed to protect these flocks from the wolves, so they are big, very protective an can be identified by, if not the one chasing you up a hill, a collar of barbed wire - not even a joke! They are bad ass. It seems that best thing to do is to ignore your survivalist instinct by slamming on the brakes, dismounting on the opposite side of the bike and confront it by mimicking it's behavior - barking, maintaining eye contact etc.....everything but getting down on all fours. I also have a large stick which when raised adds further conviction. This stops them in their tracks, and they thankfully give up and turn around.

The southerly leg finished I turn east, now against the NE wind which I was so enjoying. One more day of coastal riding and, with the exception of the past day and a few in Croatia, it's a fond farewell to the sea. It's always busy, overcrowded, predictable, expensive, littered and generally unfriendly. It sucks basically. Now it's the Turkish mountains! I'm heading for Turkey's capital. At a much more modest size of 3 to 4 million, Ankara lies near the middle of Turkey, and as the crow flies would take me over some big passes. So I spend the next few days going up and down and up and down. I think most of us agree that one of the most annoying things about cycling is that the painful bit takes the longest and the fun bit the shortest. Well this was certainly that! But it's always worth it. There's so much more variety in the ride; the effort and the rest, the hot and the cold, the constantly changing scenery, the satisfaction of summiting a climb. The only downside is that the roads are often wide and busy. As Turkey is so mountainous the few avenues through carry most of the traffic. Occasionally a small winding road provides a peaceful escape, taking me through some sleepy villages, the only sound being the faint hum of a tractor, or the cackling of a pack of chickens.

But never escaping.....................

People of the UK, take a moment to consider how immensely lucky you are that you don't have to endure the pain of pestilent mosquitoes. Almost every night since I've left, just after sunset they seem to descend, or ascend from god knows where, filling the air with their droning hums. Forcing me to scoff down my pasta and ruining any possibility of star gazing I curse the little blighters. All preparations made for this moment (everything packed, bed laid, tent unzipped just enough to accommodate a flying human), I literally dive into the tent (nearly taking it down with me), zip up the hatches and observe them buzz and bounce on the outside of the mesh, just able to make out their blood sucking probes. Despite this military precision there's always a wretched few that have somehow infiltrated my inner sanctum, mocking me by buzzing in my ear. ARRRRGGGHHHH! So I get out the torch and spend the next 5 minutes spot lighting the inside, like some anti-air gun placement. Once I've found the little bastard I wait for it to settle. Have you ever tried to squat a mosquito against the flimsy inner lining of a tent? It's more like giving it a firm pat on the back, then it just buzzes off into obscurity. No. The technique is to prime your index finger for a quick flick, sneak up behind it once it's settled................... and BAM!! If there's a spec of blood then 10 points! Half an hour of this and the tent is finally cleansed - now I need the toilet...........

After two or three days of cycling through the mountains I descend back down to the plains and the heat. The remainder of the leg to Ankara is more or less flat, with a few undulations here and there. Spending the afternoon relaxing in....., I push out to find somewhere to camp. This is always the best time to cycle. The sun provides a warm glow and the temperature is just right. I'm cycling up a shallow valley, following a river up stream - the deep green vegetation contrasting sharply to the surrounding desert brown, starting a few hundred meters away. I came into a small village. Some boys where having a kick about, and despite my exhaustion I summoned the energy to have a game with them. Being a fit cyclist doesn't necessarily make a fit footballer! The sun disappeared over dinner, and afterwards I was climbing in the dark, enjoying looking at the stars above. I guessed a good spot in the middle of the field. Neglecting my tent I slept out in my sleeping bag. After some time passed I awoke to two men approaching me, one flashing a torch. Still half asleep I managed to say hello in Turkish, introduced myself and seeing their uniform, offered over my passport. He glanced through it, and friendly but firmly asked me to pack up my things. I did so, and walked myself and the bike over to the vehicle. They told me to get in the back of the car. With no explanation as to what was going on I felt reluctant, but clearly didn't have a choice. With my bike shoved in the back they jump in the front and we drove off, the driver removing a machine gun that was under my feet. 'WTF is going on' I thought to myself. It was dark, remote, I didn't know who they where and they were both armed.
My mind began to run with possible scenario's. I managed to calm my thoughts with the idea that this or that would be very unlikely, and maybe they just want to give me bed : ). Passing through some gates we enter a large complex. We spend the next two hours in a small room, and my fears allayed, courtesy of Google Translate, it transpires that they are the Gardamine, and they took me in because of the wild pigs and wolves. Relieved, my small cell like room starts to look like a bad hostel room with a bed, and I fall asleep with hopes of a good breakfast in my mind. In the morning I'm invited to enjoy a breakfast of omelet, bread and olives with the senior officers! Score. I'm then taken on a tour, via a self propelling vehicle known as a car, of local historical sights. The officer then drops me off on the main road, where I resume my journey towards the capital.

The hospitality in Turkey has been like none I've experienced. Kindness and generosity is everywhere. I've been bought countless Chais, been handed whole bags of fruit and veg, with the owner refusing to take any money. I've been invited into peoples homes for meals, offered beds for the night, even spending an evening in a workers camp. Slowly grinding up a busy hill I approached a vegetable stall. The owner waved me in and pointed to the couch. Before long I was tucking into a spread of cheese, olives, bread and tomatoes, washed down with never ending offerings of Chai. Asking him where he gets his vegetables from he pointed to the field behind him.................. simple and totally logical.

I've finally arrived in Ankara, for the main reason of sorting out visas for onward travel. On the first day of this trip, an hour or so off the ferry I met two English cyclists returning from a 3 year round the world trip! In my then nervous state I felt a little envious. They met many cyclists on there way, but none who where going all the way round. Uncanny. It was like they were passing on the baton! Anyway, asking them what was their favorite country they both said Iran, and this is a fondness shared by others I've met who have had the privilege. So fingers crossed I can do the same. Last time I checked it was a no go as British citizens need a tour guide with them. My hopes are pinned on the recent opening of the British embassy in Tehran, though I remain doubtful. If not then plan B is Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea, into Uzbekistan, then Turkmenistan and then not sure. Though this could bee expensive and time consuming. Letters of invitation, itineraries an pre booked accommodation are required by some, which simply isn't feasible for me. So plan C is Russia then Kazakhstan. I'll be buzzing around like a blue arsed fly between embassy's over the next few days.

Thanks for reading everyone. Pass it on and Fred get it in your magazine!

Btw I discovered a cool song on my Ipod. It's called 'Wine Wine Wine' by Jimmy Binkley. Check it out.

Tara if your reading I know you'll like it.
Bella, thanks for the Grange Hill theme tune.
Mike, enjoying my 80's Saxon.

Posted by Banana Spokes 07:48 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

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