A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Banana Spokes

Chillin innit

-5 °C

Hi friends

I've been enjoying the warmth and comfort of being indoors over the past three weeks. Flimsy plastic tent linings and arduous camping stoves have been replaced by sturdy breeze blocks and reliable white goods. And it has to be said that cultivating a brew from the simple flick of a switch is one of the most understated privileges of the modern age! As such the knee's are redeveloping nicely.

The snow has arrived, covering Almaty with a generous layer. People busy around in puffer coats and Ugg boots, and the traffic is as insane as ever. The other day I cycled up to Almaty's highest point to enjoy a supposed panoramic view of the city; it was far from that. All I saw was a strip of a few streets below. The rest was hidden behind a thick veil of smog, the only visible city beyond being two factory chimneys, bellowing out white smoke into the sky. I knew the smog in Almaty was a problem, but I didn't realise just how much. 1 litre of petrol costs about 30p, which relative to the living standards is very cheap. So it's not really surprising that most choose to get around by car, half of which are gassy 4x4's. Alternatives come in the form of a reliable and comprehensive bus network, a single tube line running across the city, and a few bike lanes to incentivise the humble bicycle. Cleverly contrived billboards illustrate a cleaner Almaty through the use of alternative transports. There's a long way to go, but it's a good start.

With a visit to Kyrgyzstan on the cards I thought it would be a good idea to check my paper work was in order, before crossing the border. Following a visit to the police it turns out it wasn't. When I first crossed the border I was handed a registration card, with instructions telling me to register myself at any police station within 5 days. Accordingly I went to a police station, where I was told that there was no problem. Assuming I was either registered or didn't need to be, I trundled off to catch my next train. Turn's out I wasn't registered and needed to be. So now I was standing in the office of the border police, surrounded by burly looking officials, having my file prepared. Despite Yerlan's best efforts to excuse any fault of mine, my passport was detained, and I was to go to court in the morning. We arrived outside at 10am, armed with various papers of government literature to argue with. After 15 minutes of waiting the investigator turned to us, handed me my passport and told me to go and get registered. Seemed I was off the hook. Following a series of visits to various government buildings, it eventually transpired that I never needed to be registered in the first place! We took a photo of the relating article, just in case. A precious 60 pounds saved, and possible other consequences, We headed back home to prep for skiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.............

Karakol ski resort lies on the southern shores of lake Issyk Kul, and as far as I can tell provides some pretty first class riding. The highest lift tops out at 3000 meters, where you are greeted with a breath taking panorama of distant mountains, stretching right across the horizon. A good twenty minutes of flowing slopes, passing icy pine trees, maybe a collision with a hidden tree stump, and your at the bottom, ready to start again. This time we were on chair lifts, though none of the falling over at the beginning amusement that was customary at LXI.

Nick made a movie of our exploits. Enjoy!

If it doesn't work then follow this link - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yh3Qb4KReUw&feature=youtu.be

Otherwise it's changing bed sheets and listening to people talk about the Premier League. I'm working with two die hard Liverpool fans..... They're not too happy at the moment.

Merry bloomin Christmas and a riotous New Year to your all.

Posted by Banana Spokes 10:31 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

No country for old Crocs

- state warning at the border

Hi everyone

So unlike what I said in my last post, I haven't trained it to South East Asia, yet. I'm taking a couple months out in Almaty, Kazakhstan, savouring the delights of rest. From rest.

After Volgograd I took another sleeper to Astrakhan, which sits about 100K west of the Kazakh border. The train rolled in early in the morning. I quickly grabbed my many things before the train departed, and peddled into town. The streets were quiet, with leaves blowing across the morning sun. Narrow roads and low facades guided my way, and I came to a spacious park populated with silver birches. An Orthodox Church towered behind, with it's white towers and golden domes climbing into the blue sky. Having not heard back from my Warmshowers contact I stopped a young guy and asked him if he knew of a cheap place to stay. 2 Hours later we're riding together along the motorway, back to his house where I'd been offered a bed for as long as I needed. Lousie and Yuroslav were a young couple, living in a flat with their black kitten and 5 year old son. I had a 5 day wait until my Kazakh visa validated, time spent eating tasty food, playing hide and seek, and helping Louise with her English. She was kind enough to knit me a pair of socks, and after much deliberation over colours and styles, they materialised as a set of very funky footwear. As a token of friendship we traded books (Frankenstein for a book about art (in Russian)), and she sent me on my way with a pair of boots, unable to understand how anyone could cycle in Crocs in winter. I almost declined, preferring the novelty of ugly and impracticable footwear. Thankfully I didn't.


Time to catch my next train to Baikonur, and after stuffing my bike in and out of a closet elevator, we said goodbye. Louise and Yuroslav, thanks again for your generosity! When you come to England, my house, or tent, or whatever it may be, is yours.

Next stop, Baiknour. I was keen to alight at this lonely town; a few miles north lies the oldest a biggest rocket launch site in the world. Built and operated by the Russians, it is where Yuri Gagarin was the first man to be launched into space, and where Sputnik, the first satellite, was also launched. As I made my way along the road the railway for delivering the rockets ran to my left, and I scrambled clips in my mind from Youtube videos, trying to imagine the excitement of seeing a rocket being towed and launched. It was pretty much flat and featureless. A few large concrete blocks rose out from the ground, and a hill off to the right was topped with large dishes facing skyward. A few sizable complex's lay nearby, where, I assume, mission control is located, and possibly the canteen.



I came to a halt at a security gate, and to my dismay was told sternly that tourists where not allowed. I don't suppose astronauts get around on bikes either. My refusal surprised me as I'd read that there was a small museum inside. Oh well. Was still cool to see it. I rode back to the main road, contemplating the extraordinary history of this extraordinary place.

Back on the road after 2 weeks, and it felt good. I was riding the main trade road between Europe and China, which had been financed and built in partnership by China and the EU. Lorries from Europe, China, Kazakhstan and Russia rushed past, pulling me along in their wake.

As to be expected the land was immense and vast. I looked around and apart from the road, a railway and the dishes of Baikonur Cosmodrome disappearing behind me, there was nothing but featureless, brown, windy steppe. The clouds blanketed the sky, and golden rays beaming down in the distance teased me with their unattainable warmth. Occasionally there was a gradual turn in the road, and the sensation of riding it provided an enjoyable alternative to the straights, only to be faced with another 10 mile straight disappearing ahead. It seemed my only friends were the passing trains. We got on well, with much waving and tooting.


I managed a day. A building pain, this time in my left knee, stopped play, so I setup camp on the muddy step and watched the sun fall away. I awoke to frozen water bottles and tried another 5 miles, but it was hopeless. 'There's no point in risking potential permanent damage to my knees' I told myself. A valid excuse for the cold and monotony, I hopped on board my next train, bound for Almaty. I'd missed the train for that day, so spent the night sleeping in the waiting room. A large clock made time pass slowly, and I lapsed in and out of sleep.

By now I had three injuries. Both knees and my shoulder, which had also gone that day. Maybe I should transfer to a wheelchair...... This couldn't be coincidence. As I thought about it I realised that my diet for the past 3 months had been pretty poor. A small amount of fruit and veg, little protein and far too many carbs. I self diagnosed myself as a sufferer of mild scurvy - I've yet to find an eye patch. Of course I have no Idea if this is true, but it seems to make sense. So I'm on cabbage, (contains much zinc - apparently good for ligament and tendon health) and apples consumption overload, and have vowed to myself to make a more committed effort in future.

I'm waiting at the station in the morning fog, looking down the rails, anticipating the arrival of my train. With the sound of a faint horn I can see a set of lights slowly approaching. The ground starts to rumble, and with the brakes screeching, the towering face of the monstrous diesel burbles past. I can feel each revolution of the engine reverberate in my chest, and with a shudder of the carriages it grinds to a stop. With two engines and 14 carriages it's a very long train, and both the front and back disappear into the fog. Each carriage has a small chimney at one end, billowing out smoke from the coal fires used to provide hot water and warmth. A tractor with a trailer of coal makes it way along the platform to each carriage, filling up the supply via two coal stained men.


Looking at my extensive ticket I had no idea which carriage or seat I'm destined for; it's hidden amongst many other numbers and paragraphs of Kazakh. An attractive and smartly dressed female attendant comes to my aid and escorts me to the right carriage. A brief glance of my passport to check I'm not a thief, and I climb up the small ladder and into the warmth. Pass the toilet - this is always locked at every station, something which inconveniently seem to forget, forcing me to firmly cross my legs and wait for the all clear. The corridor runs down the right side of the carriage, with the sleeping rooms to the left. Lost in translation, I unintentionally invested in a second class ticket as opposed to a third, so this time I'm guided to my birth by a red carpet. Compared to previous trains my compartment is luxurious; fancy silkish curtains, a mirror on the back door, reflecting a bearded nomad, reading light and 220 volt power supply for electronics. Very nice.

I'm joined by a affable couple and there 6 month old baby. We say hello, I make my bed and sit down by the window, eagerly awaiting the first smidgen of motion. Rain drops begin to splatter across the window, and I wiggle down into my seat, thankful I'm not outside. It's a strange thing, that so much excitement can be pinned on a seemingly mundane moment, but what is about to commence is nothing short of the tremendous phenomenon that is, train travel (If any commuters are reading this I appreciate our circumstances are somewhat different). That hundred's, perhaps even thousands of tones of steel, plastic, people and poo can run quietly, quickly and efficiently along two steel rails, that are no wider than a few inches, I find again, amazing. And this is all the more astounding from the comfort of my seat, where the passing untamed, muddy flats stand in complete contrast. Without a sound the carriage begins to crawl forward, slowly picking up speed. We pass ribbons of rusty rolling stock, signal boxes and locomotive sheds. Soon we're cruising along at a leisurely 40 miles an hour. The train has settled into it's rhythm of squeaks and clanks, with the steel wheels thudding over the rail joints. Once the last of the houses has passed, the town gives way to steppe. I spot a distant row of electrical pylons, following it bend over the horizon. For hours the land remains flat and featureless. It feels like we're running along a giant land treadmill, with each new mile indistinguishable from the last. Packs of wild horses graze in the expanse, and herds of thickly coated camels occasionally come into view.


Many apples, chais and toilet visits later I rolled into the southern city of Almaty. This is Kazakhstan's biggest city, and it was the capital until 1997. However, the Prime minister felt it's location was not central enough for it's purpose, and that it was too close to the border if ever the Chinese felt the need to expand. So he commissioned the construction of a new city; Astana. It's more or less slap bang in the middle of the country. Along with it strategic significance, Astana was also built to demonstrate possibility and exemplify prosperity, intended to inspire the people following Kazakhstan's independence from Russia in 1991.

Walking around Almaty, with it's many parks, grand buildings, theatres, posh shops, and constantly gridlocked roads, it's hard to shift the idea that this is not the capital, especial when I've been told that the new age Astana is relatively inert. But there we go. With my knee injury throbbing away I was going to spend some rest time her and soak it up.


Via WarmShowers I had arranged a few nights staying with Nick; A fellow bike tourer who has the best set of dreads I've ever seen. I had to wait 6 hours at the station for my bike to arrive on the freight train, kicking about considering the very small possibility that I may never see it again. Hours later, to my delight, it was being carefully passed down from the carriage, with a teaming mass of locals taking a keen interest. I rode away from their requests to play my guitar. 'BROKEN' I shouted in return. Out into the vast expanse of Almaty. It took me a good hour of limp legged cycling to reach my destination in the centre. Leaves blew across the boulevards, and not so far in the distance breaks in the cloud revealed bare mountain ridges and snowy peaks.

A few days later and Nick had a day off work, so we woke up early for a day of tramping in the snowy hills - or so I thought. After waiting by the side of the road for his friends to pick us up, and being splatted many times with muddy road sludge, we were on our way, climbing into the hills, in a car. Amazing. As the road got steeper the snow got thicker, and it wasn't long before the car refused to go any further. I stepped out into knee deep white fluff. We were at a ski station, and at a cost of only 5 pounds for both ski hire and lift pass, I couldn't refuse. My first time skiing, I spent the morning snow ploughing my way down from the 1st lift. This part came quite natural. What didn't was trying to get up after falling over. It's bloody awkward. I felt like a giraffe trying to stand on a frozen lake, perhaps with ice skates on. Once you've mustered enough strength to stand up, more often then not one ski goes one way, and the other, the other way! I was definitely token lift user entertainment, though sadly for them I persevered and eventually worked it out. By the end of the day my butt was numb, and my fingers frozen from nuggets of ice buried inside my gloves, but I was buzzing.


Following this fun I decided to stay in Almaty for the rest of my visa. This would give my knee plenty of time to heal, as long as I didn't further injure it in a sport renowned for knee injuries...... Luckily Nick's friends, Kisya and Almaz had a position going at their hostel, so I'm now working here in return for accommodation. My efforts to learn Russian have dissolved entirely, so communication with the guests is a bit a struggle, but we get by. Music's always playing and a cuppa's never far off.

The end of the week and we headed off to the same slope for a weekend of board games, and, board games! As much as I enjoyed skiing, I really wanted to give snowboarding a go, and this would seem the more logical choice for a kite surfer. As with all board sports the technique is very similar. I'd have to fight my instincts on the differences.

It was Saturday, and the slopes were far busier then the previous Monday. All types, abilities and styles were out in full confidence, ready to give it a bash. I was particularly fond of the owner; a friendly, eccentric man who was rocking a ski suit which you'd find in the back of a charity shop. This was antiquated snow sports. The surrounding huts, including ours, where knocked together with corrugated tin and chipboard, and the ski lift was simply a steel cable rotating around two cogs at each end. To hook up you'd place a plank of wood between your legs, making absolutely sure that all is where it needs to be - take a moment to discreetly adjust if needs be. A rope passed up between your legs, which had a hook on it. Placing the hook over the top of the cable, and bracing yourself for lift off, the hook would instantly grip, and you'd accelerate from 0 to 3 mph in nothing less than an instant. A few people struggled with this. Their seat would take off without them, they'd fall over at the beginning, and to the noticeable frustration of one particular individual, get half way up the slope and then simply fall over, only having to awkwardly walk down again and join the back of the queue. Still, it kept the waiters entertained! Asking Almas about it he said this mild torture device is what kept the crowds away. Bonza!

As I got to the top for the first time, board on feet, I looked down the slope and took a moment to think about what I needed to do. There are two ways to ride a snowboard. 'Regular' is with your left foot forward, and 'goofy' is with your right forward. I favoured regular. At this stage my priority was to control my speed, and to do this I needed to carve left and right across the slope. To do this you use both edges of the board - you carve on your heal side - this is the edge of the board which is closest to your heal. And your toe side - the edge that is closest to your toes. Here's a diagram to help explain.


In kitesurfing you are almost always riding on your healside. There is no need to ride toeside as you alternate between regular and goofy, if you like. Also weight distribution is more or less opposite. In kiting you weight is over your back foot. You achieve this by bending your back leg, which edges the board into the water, resisting the pull of the kite and providing forward motion. In snowboarding your weight is middle to front. When turning, this allows you to pivot on the front of the board, swivelling the back of the board to steer using the heal and toe edge. For this to happen your back legs needs to be straight, and this were I struggled. So coming round for my first toeside turn I bent my rear leg; the board slipped out in front of me and I fell into a puff of snow. With my thighs burning I just about managed to stand up again. My descent continued in this stop and go fashion, and when I eventually got to the bottom Phil remarked that I again looked like Father Christmas.

Transformation in progress....




After half an hour of watching people fall over and curse the lift - I did feel sorry for them. They'd come to learn to ski and couldn't even manage the lift! It was a ball cruncher though. As I ascended I repeatedly told myself to keep that back leg straight. Sure enough, by mid afternoon the run came. Using both heal and toeside turns I made my way down, and was buzzing from the thrill of nailing the basics of a new sport. That's the thing about kiting, snowboarding, skiing stc..... You spend time, energy and patience building up the fundamentals, until there is one left. Then BAM!! Once you've got that last one you can do it. It happens in a moment, and it's a hell of a hit. I obviously looked the part aswell - a group of onlookers shouted at me to give the nearby ramp a go. I lost my concentration and fell flat on my arse.

'Ok. 2nd station. Off piest run?' Said Almas. 'OK', I replied. The second lift was much steeper, longer and much more painful. As my hamstrings were being tenderised I turned around and took in the view. It was worth the risk of it all. We were above the cloud line. Like a blanket over the Earth, the clouds stretched off to the horizon, with the nearside hills and trees being the only visible land. Once this appreciation subsided, I realised just how high we were, and just how far I'd have to ride. We got to the top. I looked down the valley, which was covered in unridden white powder. 800 meters of off piste on my first day. This is stupid.......... But fortune sometimes favours the stupid, so I gave it a go. Almaz whizzed off ahead. I was cautious to begin with, slowly snaking my way down. But I wasn't going to learn this way, so I mustered some balls and gave it hell. It came nicely, and I picked up confidence with every successful turn. Soon I was breezing along at speed, carving up the powder as I went and leaving a trail of S's behind. The powder was soft and fast, and for the first time today I felt cool! I made it down with as much excitement as there was relief, and I only fell over about 10 times. What a buzz, and an ending bundle in the snow in celebration.


To finish it off we had a Russian Sauna. A small wooden shack heated up by a wood fire, we lazzed on the beds and felt the warm course back into our bones. As is customary with Russian Sauna's, Almaz gave me a sort of mild flogging with a bunch of branches. This brings the heat down from the top of the room, and flushes you with an intense hit of heat. Then it's outside, butt naked, and a bucket of almost frozen water over the head, and a big girly scream. Back inside and repeat again. A game of Settlers then back to the city. One of the best days of my life.

The plan now is to be here til new years, then either train it too southern china or cycle it.

Like always, we'll see!

As it's nearly Christmas I thought I'd share my latest children story.

I hope you enjoy it, thanks for reading, and tarrah for now xxx



The Tale of the Pleepos 
Down in the land of Bishrub Heights,  
All lay calm, quiet and white.  
It was that time of year for joy and glee,  
One night before, it was Christmas Eve.  
And in the window of house number three,  
There stood a big green Christmas tree.  
Down the hall and through the door,  
Sam was creeping across the floor.  
Into the room with the big Christmas tree,  
Where in the corner there he could see.  
A large brown box, wrapped up with a bow.  
Rectangular in shape, his name it showed.  
He tip toed over for a sneaky peeky,  
Making a little hole with his left pinky.  
His finger felt something strange inside,  
He quickly leapt back with a big surprise.  
Out of the hole popped a small green thing,  
It had eyes and ears and two small wings.  
'Loleh, vel morf, a raf boomba doo',  
It twisted it's ear and tied up it's shoe.  
"I've travelled afar, many days in flight,  
And hid in this box 'til the time is right.  
I am the last of the Pleepos, from the planet of Thera,  
A story I must tell you, so please, come nearer”.  
So Sam stood up, and sat on a seat,  
Pulled over a blanket and crossed his feet.  
"Ti lal nageb", he pulled on his nose,  
"It all began a long time ago.  
On the planet of Thera, there lived the Pleepos,  
For many reasons this planet they chose.  
There were fish, horses and big Oka Trees,  
Mountains and lakes and giant Mubble Bees.  
A more beautiful place, there simply was none,  
Where the birds sung away to the setting of the sun.  
All they ever wanted, and all they could need,  
They lived a happy life, in amongst the cool breeze.  
Then one day a Pleepo called Derge said,  
'This outdoor life is tiring, I'm going to live in bed'.  
'But there you can't see, the giant Mubble Bees,  
The lakes or mountains, or big Oka Trees'.  
'Oh I'll find a way, no need to ask',  
And he hurried away off, set on his task.  
For weeks he would go, to one particular spot,  
Digging a small hole, and taking away the rock.  
Sparks flew from his shed, every day and night,  
The Pleepo's circled round, hoping for a sight.  
'Huzzar' came the cry, when his work was done,  
Inviting the other Pleepos inside, in they did run.  
And before them all, at the end of Derge's bed,  
Hung a big black box on the wall of his shed.  
'Snitelevio I'll call it', he said with much pride,  
'How does it work, show us' came the cries from inside.  
He picked up the meerot and pressed number 5,  
And up flashed a picture of the world outside.  
'You see my friends, there is no need to go,  
Outside and freeze in the winter snow.  
For all that you enjoy to hear and see,  
Is shown up here of this thing called snitelevio'.  
'Aaah' came the gasps, 'wow' came the cries,  
This thing to behold, lit up their big eyes.  
They ran off home, past the birds and Oka Trees,  
Not slowing down to enjoy the cool breeze.  
News of the snitelevio spread far and wide,  
And soon one was wanted by all for inside.  
I myself decided to leave it be,  
Enjoying the Oka trees and the cooling breeze.  
At his big brown desk, Derge proudly stood,  
Writing down the orders, as quickly as he could.  
Then off to the hole to dig for some goods,  
Where he hacked away as hard as he could.  
Houses filled up with snitelevios, all around planet Thare,  
Not one Pleepo walked outside, not one, anywhere.  
They all sat inside, glued to the big green glow,  
The world outside their window, the snitelevio did show.  
And It wasn't long before the birds and Mubble Bees,  
Lived alongside trucks and big smoking factories.  
But this wasn't shown on the snitelevio screens,  
It was a way of keeping the Pleepos keen.  
One thing for sure that they did not show,  
Was the once small hole so they did not know.  
It's size grew and grew, as they dug for more,  
Clawing away towards planet Thare's core.  
And you'd think that all this would end,  
When all had a snitilevio placed in their den.  
But on the snitelevios, the Pleepos saw,  
'You need a better one, you need more more more'  
At his big brown desk, Dergre proudly sat,  
Taking down orders for exactly that.  
The snitelevious got bigger, the old ones thrown away,  
Somewhere far off, in a huge heap they lay.  
A call from the hole, 'something strange I fear,  
A flowing green slime at the bottom has appeared'  
'We cannot stop' said Derge to his crew,  
'Business is business, lets dig on through'.  
They clawed and scooped up the gloopy slime,  
Soon in every snitelevio this stuff you could find.  
And not after long, all because of this,  
The snitelvios began to shake, tremble and hiss.  
Then off the wall they'd come, falling to the floor,  
Gulping up the Pleepo's, everyone for sure.  
They had dug so deep with their spade and claw,  
That they had gone right into Thera's core.  
100 miles deep and 200 miles wide,  
Nothing was left but emptiness inside.  
Never before had there been such a hole,  
With the flowing green slime being Thera's soul.  
But it was too late to do anything about,  
The Pleepo's world was turned inside out.  
Within the snitelevious, there were all stuck inside,  
Looking at a world from which they couldn't hide.  
No longer was there birds, fish and Mubble Bees,  
Great big mountains and a cooling fresh breeze.  
All there was for them to all see,  
Was a great big hole, and not a single Oka Tree.  
And since that time many years ago,  
I have travelled afar to let you know.   
That within this world, there is this trend,  
It lead the Pleepo's to their end.  
It makes you take more then you need,  
This thing I speak of is known as greed.  
But no need to be sad, it's not too late,  
To turn it around, but we must not wait.  
You see if we learn to control our greed,   
We can live happily, amongst the Oka Trees.

Posted by Banana Spokes 05:19 Comments (0)

Chicken, vodka and Russian moustaches

overcast 4 °C

I'm writing this from the cosy corner of a sleeper train. A lot has happened in the last few weeks, least of all cycling! I'll start at the end of Tbilisi.

I met many cyclists on their way through in Tbilisi. Andrew, a middle aged Kiwi was half way through his attempt to break the round the world cycling record. He was spending a night in the city to get his bike fixed and to catch a flight to India. He was an ex speed skater, and had thighs like ............ Oak trees. They were big. He'd made his way from the west coast of Canada over a few months, and basically had a sleeping back strapped to the saddle of his carbon fibre bike, and a bank card in his pocket. To say he was travelling lightly was putting it mildly. He could probably cycle across the oceans. He's raising money for cancer research, and I should think he's in Australia by now. Anyway, God speed Andrew!

I also met Rory, a Scotsman, from Scotland. My last night we thought we try the city baths, so we made our way down in the rain. They were inside an ancient complex of bricked tunnels. We walked into the changing room, where about 7 or 8 men of all shapes and sizes were stripping down to bareness. Rory intended to keep his pants on, but was told this wasn't possible. He looked at me and said swiftly, 'I can't do this', turned around and left. I stripped off and jumped into the steaming pools with all the vigour of a 5 year old. The small, steamy white tiled room had pipes and taps running all over the place, and men laid out on marble tables, stretching, washing, or simply relaxing. I was definitely the hairiest. I walked into the cool air with that soothing tingling feeling you get when stepping out of a hot bath into a cold room.

All things checked and packed the night before I made an early start the next morning. As I slowly cycled out of Tbilisi my mind was filled with thoughts of the next few months. With a Russian, a Kazakh, and a Chinese visa in my passport, this would possible be my last stop until I reach Vietnam - about 4000 miles of winter cycling. The city development slowly gave way to open countryside. I was making my way up through the Caucasus mountains, where I would summit Jura pass and freewheel into Russia. The Autumnal colours where in full bloom, and rusty mountains contrasted to the deep blue lakes which lay in the valley bellow. The clouds where heavy and it was only a few degrees over. Ocassionally a break in the cloud would give way to sun, providing a brief blessing of blissful warmth.

I rolled into the next village, looking for somewhere to camp. Waving me over to join him, an old local sat on a bench, and offered me a bowl of fruit and a glass of vodka. From the smell of his breath he'd obviously been at it for a while. Following a friendly, but slightly over zealous exchange my initial instinct was to decline, but with an offer of dinner and a bed, I couldn't refuse. We spent the evening sitting by a small fire in his bedroom, and he continued to knock back the shots. The walls and ceiling were charred black, and the only light was from a single lamp sitting in the middle of the large room. His wife busied around with chores, providing us with various pleasantries, and after some food, marginal conversation, and Russian TV, I sank into a bed and what seemed a deep sleep. At 2 in the morning the old man woke me, wobbling at the door in his superbly white briefs. Pointing, He shouted at me to go and sleep on the sofa in their room. 'Should of camped', I thought to myself. I settled into my new abode, with the old man and his wife sleeping in the bed behind me. With a pillow over my head to subdue the old mans snoring, I was upon the fringe of sleep when 'Splaaaaaaashhhhh'. The old man was leaning over the side and wretching up the evenings intake all over the floor. Anticipating the smell I wiggled into the sofa, feeling sorry for his poor wife who had to clear it up, and I assume deal with this situation frequently. The next morning I made a hasty retreat, thanking the lady at the gate and continuing on my way.

Today to Russia. The road wound it's way up into the mountains, and the temperature dropped with every foot I gained. Thinking I wasn't far from the top I turned a corner to behold a view of the road, climbing away in the distance. 'Balls'. Gloves on, buff over my face and toes curled within my heavily socked Crocs, I continued on, boldly taking Crocs to a new frontier. Bonza! Falling snow welcomed me at the top of the pass, and stripped off to allow my sweat to escape. The view of the mountains was spectacular, evoking scenes and quotes of Lord Of The Rings in my mind. 'I SHALLLLL PAASSSSSS'............... I declared to the world as I rolled over the top, with a clenched fist in the air.

2 hours later I was at the border. Following the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 relations between the two countries wasn't great, so I wasn't suprised to find at least 5 kilometers of no mans land between the two border posts. Border guards dressed in long green coats and big fluffy Russian hats waved me in. To my surprise I was out the other side within 5 minutes, greated by a chilling headwind blowing up the valley and through my layers.

Cycling into the first Russian city was a delight. A long, leafy boulevard paved the way. Antiquated, Art Deco like trams rolled along to my right, and various statues lined my path to the left, each representing a virtue, from what I could deduce. Towns and cities in Russia are vast. They have so much flat land that I suppose they see no need to build upwards, and this one seemed to go on forever. I finally managed a camp on the other side, in a fruit plantation.

Now It was cold, every camping process - unloading my panniers, setting up the tent, cooking dinner etc.... would need to carried out quickly and efficiently. Small things like packing my panniers in the order they will be unpacked, or warming the stove whilst laying out my bed, would mean the difference between a good sleep and a bad one. Rehearsing every next step in my mind my learning curve was interrupted by the realisation that I'd left my diary in the market.

Next morning I back tracked 10 kilometers through cold morning fog, praying that my diary was where I thought it was. To my relief it was. The old ladies asked what I was doing, and after explaining to them that I was from 'Englisky', and that I was cycling to Vietnam they sat me down, boiled me up some noodles and brewed me chai. A man handed me a packet of sausages for my way. Throughout the day fog slowly lifted, and by the afternoon the sun was shining down. It was glorious. I cycled along long straight roads, with farmland stretching in every direction towards the horizon. The sheer size of the fields was amazing, and I wonder how any farmer, beginning at the entrance of a field in his tractor, could ever comprehend the seemingly endless task of ploughing it. But there where great stretches of corn, wheat and other crops, so they obviously manage.

The road narrowed into a valley, and a headwind picked up. I dropped my head, dropped my gears and cursed the wind with my usual rhetoric of profanities. 10 minutes and I could feel a pain building behind my right knee, a pain that steadily worsened through the day. I knew what is was. I'd pulled a bloody hamstring ligament. Shit. There's no silver bullet for this one. It's just rest and time off the road. Whilst setting up camp I considered the idea of catching a train. I only had about 8 days to make 500 miles, with an injury, and I wanted to make the border in good time - getting mixed up with the Russian authorities didn't appeal. So I decided to see how I felt the next morning. No surprise, no improvement. Hitchhike to the next town for a train. A Russian made campervan pulled over, and 6 old boys ushered me into the smoky vehicle. 7 men and a bike was a squeeze, but a fun one. They where donned in black leather jackets, and they smiled at me, some with golden teeth. 9 am and I was eating chicken, drinking beer and sharing some laughs. 'A romantic', one of them replied to my description of my adventure. They dropped me off in the next town, waving me off with smiles and a big box of yummy biscuits. After an hour of searching I gave up on finding any forms of transportation, and I decided to cycle for the day. The Injury seemed to hold, and I made a good 80 miles.

But I didn't feel right. The injury, the distance to the border and the cold led to me feeling dispirited and alone. I sat in my tent feeling hopeless, trying to contemplate what the hell I was doing out here, in Russia, in the cold. 'Bugga this, lets train it to South East Asia'. Warmth, good food and the prospect of some kitesurfing raised my spirits, and I fell asleep to warming thoughts of my new resolution.

That morning a snapping tent pole reinforced my change of plane, and the realisation that I'd again left my diary behind, this time for good (it has home address in it do fingers crossed). After a 5K ride to the next station, I arrived and promptly sorted out railway tickets, destination Astrakhan. A huge map on the wall showed just how massive Russia is. It's southern border runs alongside the huge countries of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China, and continues still, ending at the Bering Straits, about 80 kilometers short of Alaska. It's railway network is equally as impressive. It's possible to take a train from Moscow, right accross the country to Vladivostok, taking a leasurely 146 hours to get there! Aaaah...... the romance of train travel. My journey consisted of 2 sleeper trains, with a 6 hour stop over in Volgograd.

I sat in the park eating bread and Jam, contemplating the prospect of warmth and a comfy bed. The golden domes of a Russian Orthodox church shone brilliantly in the morning sun, and a flock of gold finches wirld there way from shrub to shrub. A young looking chap swiftly walked his way towards me. 'Hello, I would like to help you'. With my dirty waterproof on, my Crocs and my black plastic bags laid around I clearly looked like someone who needed to be helped. Mr I've forgotten his name led me to his house. We walked our way over a railway and down a dusty track. He welcomed me into his house, where a breakfast of chicken, vegetables and bread was laid out for me. A shower and my washing done, I was trusted to enjoy the comfort of their house whilst they where out for the day. They took me to the station in the evening, loaded up with half a roast dinner, a jar of honey and many other things.

I put all my 573920 panniers through the security scanner and reloaded them onto the bike. Making our way to the platform, I managed to break a door off it's hinges on the way out. This attracted much attention from the staff, and a relay of boistrous looking officials ensued, each one with a larger Moustache than the last. I fretted with the prospect of a fine or imprisonment, and was thanfully waved on after 5 minutes of silent scrutinisation. Next drama. The Train rolled in, and we made our way to my carriage where a smartly dressed stuardess stood at the door. Having been told that the bike would be no problem when I bought the tickets, I wasn't really suprised when she approved all but my bike. Fortunatly superman Mr I've forgotten his name spent the next 15 minutes running around the station to reslove the problem. 'I asked the ticket lady if it was ok', I said to him as we ran down the platform. 'This is Russia' he exclaimed. 20 minutes later, passing the respective slip to the stewardess she explained that I had to take the bike appart and take it on board with me. This was all the more amazing when you see the size of Russian trains. They are wide gauge, very long, 'and they don't have a compartment for cycles'? Right. Farewell to my friends and I lumbered on board. Each compartment, or room, has 6 beds. I found mine, and spent the next 10 minutes carting in my wares. The two elderly ladies sitting there where aghast at the extent of my luggage, and stared at me in disbelief when I wondered though with my oily bike. Fearing an uproar, I was assured by the resiliance of my fellow passangers, who were suprisingly accepting to this mechanical invasion. Finally settled with a bike sitting precariously above our heads we rolled out of Mineralnye Vody, with the clicking of the rail joints slowly increasing in occurance.

The delight of night time train travel was a comfortable contrast to my previous night in the tent. I tucked into my tasty dinner, watching the lights of suburbs pass my window. The samovar at the end of the carriage provided tea through the night, and I awkwardly climbed into my bunk, dozing off as the cold emptiness outside slipped on by.

We pulled into Volgodrad the next afternoon, and Mr I forgotten his name had arranged for me to meet a friend at the station. Miss I forgotten her name had lived in Volgagrad all her life, and had started up a language teaching business with her ex-husband. I was really looking forward to seeing this city, and she gave me a tour of the sights. First stop was the huge concrete structure called 'Mother Russia'. A huge statue of a skantly clad women bearing a sword, it was commisioned by Stalin to incite strength and unity. The approach is a sort of external museum. Statues, writing, and scenes of war are crafted into walls on either side, and sounds of battlefields are played out through loud speakers. Then you are directed into a huge dome. As you walk around the path corkscrews up, rotating around an enormous eternal flame, burning in the middle. The names of those who died in the conflict are written on the inside wall, taking up most of the space. Finally you're led out at the top, and at the foot of the towering Mother Russia. She is the largest statue in the world. From the scenes of war and honouring the dead, to inspiring the future, it was an evocative journey of war and it's context.

Following a talk about my trip at her school, we drove back to the station. As we made our way the size of the infrastructure struck me. Everything was up a size. We crossed over the cold and fast flowing waters of the river Volga. A power station was bulilt across the entire span of the bridge. Giant concrete statures housed the mechanics, and steel towers supported the many cables which splayed off in every direction. Collections of pipes of all sizes ran alongside the roads, with the insulation tearing off in patches, and high rises, factories and chimneys punctuated the skyline.

Time for one last stop, and something I had been itching to see; the famous bread factory. Volgagrad was the furthest extent of the Nazi's invasion into Russia. It culminated into what is revered as the bloodiest battle in history; a 6 month occupation of Volgagrad which saw the advantage slowly tip from the Nazi's to the Russians. The Bread Factory was bitterly fought over due to it's strategic advantage, and has since been preserved as an emblem for the bitter struggle which gripped this city. It is proudly preserved alonside a museum, and a collection of tanks, guns and planes sourrounds the outside.

I would have loved to spend more time discovering the cities rich and famous history. But a train was to be caught! A farewell to my kind guide, I boarded, this time with my bike in a purpose made carriage. And here I am!

I'll be in Astrakhan tomorrow, where I will have to spend a few days until my Kazakh visa validates.

Russia has been an absolute gem, and I'll be sad to see it go. The people are the friendliest I've met yet, extending there generosity at every turn. I can't recommend it enough.

Right off to pee.

Kazakhstan next!

Posted by Banana Spokes 13:53 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Leaves be fallin across ma path

To quote the beginning of my last entry 'I was hoping to be writing this from Iran', but I have tempted fate again, and after two and a half weeks of hanging around eastern Turkey, the final full stop on Iran came, courtesy of another travel agency. Realising that the one I used in Ankara was pretty useless I decided to apply through another one, this one recommended to me and based in Iran. Within a day I received a reply saying in very certain terms that there was absolutely no hope of me obtaining an independent travel visa. My heart sank out of my bum and into the sofa. After being told in plain English by the Iranian embassy in Ankara that this wouldn't be a problem, now I was convinced of the opposite. So Iran another time. Pop up google maps, alternative route. Traveling through Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is expensive (I heard the ferry across the Caspian sea, for a family of four and a car cost 700 - 800 US Dollars!!) and loaded with Bureaucracy. Sorry if I've already mentioned all this, it's just I spend much of my time thinking about it! One option left - Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Kazakhstan. Looking up visa requirements it should be the cheapest and easiest. British passport holders don't need a visa fro Georgia, Russia looks OK-ish and Kazakhstan shouldn't be a problem. Decision made, I applied for a Russian visa online, said a second farewell to my Azerbaijanian buddies and finally hit the road again. 'Ramble on' by Led Zeppelin was an appropriate choice for my busy road tune. 'The leaves are falling all around, time I was on my way. Thanks to you I'm much obliged, such a pleasant stay. But now it's time for me to go, the autumn moon lights my way. And now I smell the rain, and with it pain, and it's heading my way.......'

However, rather then rambling away from the rain and pain I was rambling towards It. Heading north in Autumn is not exactly intuitive, and I looked upon the south bound traffic with a tinge of envy, regardless of their destinations. Thoughts of a cycling through a cold winter with short days have left my feeling hesitant, especially as my route will take me through the immense expanse of Kazakhstan; a huge, sparsely populated country that I know nothing about. But I have no choice. So preparation is the key. So far I've bought some winter clothing. It was cheap, and I've already had to stitch up the crotch of my tracky bottoms - this being particularly important for warmth of course. But I'm sure it'll do the job. Secondly, researching my route. Roads will need to be well travelled in case I need assistance or a ride for whatever reason, with a town every few days or so for food supplies. Availability of clean water shouldn't be a problem as I have a water filter, so any stream or river will do. I could be overreacting. For all I know there could be a Starbucks or a Tescos every 50 miles - these being imperative for the survival of a traveller of course - but since this is the unknown I'll go by the doctrine 'fortune favours the prepared'.

So all considerations in check I trundled my way north towards Georgia, with the planes slowly giving way to more rugged mountains. Fortunately the road tended to wind it's way between them, as opposed to over the top.

As I rolled into the next town I happened to notice a row of tents lining a playing field. This was all the more unusual as the Turkish don't really do outdoors. They drink Chai instead. I acknowledged my kind with a ring of my bell and they waved me over, greeting me with a cup of Chai and offerings of food. I can never decide which I enjoy more - the company or the food. It turns out this gathering was about a 200 hundred strong group of students, heading out from the their university in Ankara to enjoy a few days of activities, and general fun about the campfire. Intending to stay only one night I ended up being there for three! The next day everyone petered off into their respective activity groups, myself choosing to go and catch a glimpse of the Snake Eagle as it migrates over the mountains, traveling from Europe to Africa. We wound our way up a tight gorge on a dusty track, and again, I relished the effortless sensation. When you've cycled for a few months it's hard to take for granted just what a marvel, whether for good or bad, the motorcar is. I sometimes feel like a Victorian who's jumped ahead a 100 years or so. This thing was taking 20 people up about a 1000 meters of steep dirt track, and the only physical exertion required? The pushing down of a few pedals and the rotation of a wheel. Doesn't exactly get the heart rate up. It's no exaggeration to say that that it is absolutely astounding! It's no excuse for wearing lycra though.

We topped out on a huge saddle, and the vista of the mountains was immense. Thunderstorms where firing away in the distance and a strong cold wind was a reminder of how high we were. The last part was a small hike to the very top. Camera's and binoculars where primed and ready. At first there was nothing, but after about half an hour a faint column of birds could be seen circling in the distance. Confirmed by our guide to be the Snake Eagle, we watched them as they rose effortlessly in the thermals, banking steeply and rising surprisingly fast. Once they'd reached a suitable height they'd break off one by one, gliding towards us and clearing the pass by a few hundred feet or so. Amazing. More impressive than a minibus even. We must have seen a dozen or so flocks pass over, each one using the same techniques in almost the same location. It was fantastic to see, and I felt a tinge of inspiration for my journey, though again, they were going in the right way.

Back at base the evening rolled in with more Chai, basketball and food. The PA system was hooked up to a laptop, and inevitably with this combination it wasn't long before the Karaoke was a-rollin. Of course I couldn't resist, and as I was token European guest I was obliged to fulfil expectations. They weren't very high it would seem. With the choice of Rock DJ, Robbie Williams, I sung my way to glory, the crowds roaring whenever I went off key. My effort was immortalized in the Iphones of many, though no ladies underwear was thrown at me sadly.

Time to push on and hit the road. After more Facebook requests then I should think the average person experiences in their life, I said farewell after a few group photo's had been taken. It was nice to spend a good amount of time with a some people my age, and I shall never forget their friendliness and generosity.

Now my mind was focused on Georgia. I had the final episode of Turkish mountains between me and it's capital, Tbilisi. The road descended down a spectacular gorge, the bare rock surfaces rising a couple 100 meters either side of me. Following a river, flowing with crystal clear water, I freewheeled passed landslides and crevasses, with a few small villages nestled between the walls. I stopped to take a picture. It's always a little disappointing when you press the play button, and the photo you just took looks nothing like the subject. But there you go. The rain started to fall, and the feeling of riding alone, below a leadened sky, amongst these giants was pretty cool.

A few days later I was finally near the border of Turkey. I was now about 2000 meters high, and this morning I woke to my first frost. I wasn't expecting it as my tent was as warm as always, so it was quite a surprise when I zipped back the 'door' to a dense fog and a field carpeted in frost.
The last descent of Turkey, and it was a good one. The road snaked away below with 6 or 7 hairpin bends, and the road was butter smooth. As I made my way down I could feel the satisfaction of having cycled across a very big country build inside, and the excitement and anticipation of entering a new one. The last few hundred meters I was grinning, and the last 20 or so practically laughing, a little insanely perhaps. I rolled to a stop at the gate, caught my breath and exhaled with satisfaction - like Neo when he's just exploded Agent Smith. There was a fair crowd staring at me and my crocs, sniggering at themselves. 'Please come over here' said a man, so I did. 'This border post is closed'.................. Incapable of reacting from sheer disbelief I looked around. It was a massive, new, airport like complex, devoid of any officials or staff. A few of the builders laughed quietly to each other. Enraged, I told them sternly it wasn't funny - though I guess it was. 'Why don't you put up signs along the road' I said sharply. He just stared at me. I asked him where the next open border crossing was, placing particular emphasis on the word 'open'. '100 kilometers away'. I was so pissed off! Visions of cooking a nice tasty victory meal in Georgia where dashed. I absolutely refused to cycle another mile, though I wanted to make the border by the very latest tomorrow evening, so I hitchhiked. This isn't easy with a bicycle, but to my surprise about half the vehicles stopped, most having to refuse me a lift because of the bike. I met a guy from Taiwan who was spending a year hitchhiking around Turkey. He was couchsurfing and offered me a place to stay. Thanking him I declined, preferring to make my way to the border. My last ride was in a huge articulated lorry, taking a digger into Georgia. 'Cool. I've never been in one of these before', I thought to myself as I climbed into the cab. The bike was rather precariously stashed under the digger. We Hissed and Wheezed our way up and down and up and down through the night, eventually pulling into a petrol station for some sleep. Despite an offer to sleep in the cab I chose to keep my bike company and sleep out on the trailer deck.

Next day we made it to the border. A super easy pass. Georgia has a no visa agreement with the UK, so no lengthy visa procedures or bureaucracy to worry about. Good thing to as I didn't have any money with me. Crossing the border was more like stepping off a plane. It was like I was a thousand miles from Turkey. The air was cool and moist. Forests covered the surrounding hills, and children, men and women busied around in seemingly equal measure. I was back in Christian country, and mosques were replaced by churches and hilltop monasteries. I felt a little sad to be leaving the exoticism of Turkey behind, but was reassured by Georgia's more homely feel.

ATM, then bread. I went into a grocery store, and there was the most impressive array of sweet goods on offer. 'They obviously cater well for their cyclists' I thought. Biscuit's, cakes, sweets, chocolate coated marshmellows....... every possible sweet thing conceivable to man was on display. This took up a good 80% of the shop, and I filled a bag with them, choosing to eat my bread afterwards. Georgian cousin consists of a lot of breaded products, and my favourite so far is a sort of large bread sock filled with kidney bean paste. It's tasty, big and cheap - about 30p.

Next day, In the midst of a downfall I again found myself sitting inside a warm bakery, watching the show. The Dough was mixed in a huge stainless steel bowl, and I was watching the man scoop the dough off the sides and back into the mix, his arm perilously close to being caught up in the mechanics. Then it would be sliced up and weighed into equally quantities. These smaller balls where thrown across the room to an area where another man would work them into the desired shape, rolling and turning them with impressive dexterity. Final they where placed into a giant wood burning oven, the amount of dough being exactly right to fill every space. I was on my way again with a complimentary loaf in hand and mouth.

Next day it was cold, really cold. The combination of the rain and lack of sun had bought the temperature down to about 10 degrees. I was now in Gori. In 2008, bully boy Russia invaded Georgia over this town. Partly due to an inexperienced and demoralised Russian army, it was an invasion which Georgia managed to see off, but the losses were heavy, and as to be expected much disdain for the Russians remains. Pondering the insanity of the world I made my way round the sights, then I came across something odd. A small, very old and crooked house was sitting in the middle of an elaborate square. A huge marbled structure with columns and a glass ceiling had been built around it. So I took a photo. It later turned out that this was the birth place of Joseph Stalin. Evident from the way the house had been preserved, in this sort of ornate sarcophagus, I was amazed that such a monster of a man was conserved with such privileges. Perhaps as a reminder.

Ok this one's going on a bit so I'll wrap it up.

That night I was invited to spend with Ticush and her super friendly family. They were amazed that a tourist had rolled into their neck of the woods! A plethora of all sorts was laid out before us all, and we gobbled our way into the late hours, with many vodka toasts and laughs. Sadly I'd eaten just before I was discovered, but I made a good effort out of it nonetheless.

Finally rolling into Tbilisi the next day I booked myself into a cheap hostel. Russian embassy the next day. Off with my paper work I arrived at the embassy with a sizable crowd of Georgians milling about outside, some patient and some making no reservations. As I was a none Georgian I was prioritised, and I could sense some enviable stares as I made my way through the crowd. Into the consulates office for an inspection. A few questions about my trip and brief glance at the paperwork to see that it matched up. He shook my hand and granted my the visa, saying he was impressed with my trip and that I looked more Russian than English! Better be careful. At last, visa success! I popped out of the building intending to hi 5 the security guard, but he was occupied.

That was a week ago and I'm still here. There is a 10 day wait for the visa, and I may be here longer to get both Kazakhstan and China sorted. Though the winter is closing in. I've been helping Lardo decorate his bike shop in return for free accommodation. Trying to get in with the mechanics posse so I can go MTB riding with them.

So, until another time, it would seem.....

Thanks for reading everyone.

Again sorry for the mistakes. I hope they amuse you as they do me! The 1000ft vertical drop in my last post being a particular favourite

Posted by Banana Spokes 11:02 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

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)

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