Archive for July, 2010

Ciao for now!……

Monday, July 26th, 2010

(James) Just a quick update as we’ve had a bit of a traumatic morning and this may be our last entry for a while as we’re about to head for Turkmenistan and it’s a bit of a technological black hole.

After the disappointment of not making it in time to the Turkmen Embassy in Baku on Friday it was with some trepidation that we went there at 9am this morning. Naturally, we were the only ones there (the country only gets/allows about 250 tourists each year!) so got seen straight away and were quickly told that our visas were not here! Major heart in the mouth time as we’d only left Tbilisi (Georgia) on the understanding that our visas were waiting for us! This was a major problem as we’d be stuck here with our bikes sitting in the customs compound and our Azerbaijan visa only has 3 days left on it ($400 fine each for overstaying plus cost of new visa all of which we’d have had to try and arrange from the no mans land of customs) and even our Uzbek visa (you can’t get a Turkmen visa without a valid on-going country visa!) is only 10 days from expiring!

Our pleas fell on deaf ears and we were told to call Istanbul when it opened at 9am (Istanbul is 2 hours behind!) So, cue 2 hours of helpless panic as we paced around waiting for Istanbul to open. When it finally did and answered the phone we were told  (in English) that nobody there spoke English and the phone was slammed down on us – Not good! Given that the Baku embassy closed at midday we now had less than an hour to resolve the problem and niether embassy seemed prepared to speak to the other! In desparation we asked the girl at the reception desk at our hotel to call Istanbul as she spoke both Turkish and Russian and having relayed our problem was informed that our visa HAD been delivered to Baku! As you can imagine we were preparing ourselves for being the pawns in a game of pass the buck. We went back to the embassy and after 15 minutes of searching the consul ’found’ our fax!! To say we were relieved is an understatement! Suddenly the previously stern consul was all smiles and even insisted on taking us to a special room (where they clearly hold diplomatic functions) where we were subjected to a hilarious promotional DVD (all in Turkmen) of some sort of 21st century development resort that has clearly been a vanity project for the dictator/president. It was hard to keep ourselves from bursting out laughing such was the ridiculousness of the DVD which featured Turkmen dancers, multi-million dollar yachts, and multiple shots of the President (and nervous looking officials/yesmen) performing ceremonial openings of the resort’s own dedicated state of the art electricity and de-salination plants plus much more that was a rival for anything in Dubai! All this whilst the country is in dire poverty – clearly the President prefers to spend his time doing jobs that keep his hand clean and not dealing with poverty, educatin or infant mortality rates or any other real  issue. Scary stuff!

Importantly,  we’ve got the fax so we’re now free to go down to the port and haggle for a place on one of the ships crossing the Caspian Sea, although given that there’s no schedule or crossing times (all will be explained in our next blog…) we can now look forward to possibly having a couple of days sitting amongst rail cars at the dock waiting for a ship in the extreme heat (it was still 33 degrees at 10:30 last night!!!) and have food for 4 days and 3 bottles of wine (thanks Paul and Dean for the advice on that one!)

See you on the other side!!!

Azerbaijan

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

(Emily) Although we’d been told the previous day that our visa hadn’t been approved yet, when we rang the Turkmen consulate in Istanbul from Tbilisi on Thursday morning, this time they informed us that our visas should already be waiting in Baku, Azerbaijan. Grrrr. This meant trying to get to Baku for Friday morning before things closed down for the weekend; 600km of unknown road surface and it was already getting towards Thursday afternoon…

Anyway, we figured that we could at least cross the border that day and try and make up the time by an early start on Friday morning. We actually reached the border sooner than expected and, opting to bypass the 2km long queue of trucks, we were heartened when we rolled up to a brand spanking new structure… however, it turns out this was still under construction and we were directed down a dirt track to the left where armed guards milled about and several local citizens stood around looking thoroughly fed up. What a s***hole!! James was immediately ushered into a small office, where somehow they conjured up enough paperwork to fill over two hours, while I stood by the bikes in the heat trying to look inconspicuous. I was saved from mind-numbing boredom by a friendly member of staff who was able to converse with me in French (and he gave me a bottle of cold water; a life-saver in the intense heat) but I don’t think James fared too well with Moody McMooderson. Three hours and $80 later we were free to go, but not before we were expressly told that if our bikes were in the country longer than 72 hours, it would result in a fine of $2000 each. Ooookay then. Oh, and they wanted a wheelie – good luck with that!!

Armed with our faded A4 printed googlemap of Azerbaijan (which only showed major cities) we got on our way. I was relieved that, once out of the cesspit of the border post, the roads were pretty good and we were able to do nearly 200km before it started to get dark. The landscape was pretty much dry scrubland as far as the eye could see, though we did pass through little townships quite regularly and people went crazy for the bikes whenever we went by. Although intending to find somewhere to camp, at one point we passed a pretty decent looking hotel and, eying up the rapidly descending dusk, gave each other a look that said ‘Sod it, let’s be wussy and go for it’! However, in trying to get back to the hotel on the one-way system we managed to get lost and found ourselves in the middle of a busy town. Still don’t know how that happened! The beeping and whooping that had seemed so charming earlier suddenly became a bit threatening in the dark and we decided to just get the hell out and find a spot out of town to bed down. Trouble was, once out of the street light zone and back on the highway, it became evident that spotting an appropriate place to camp was not very likely. In the end, we pulled into a petrol station and decided that was as good a place as any to see out the night – at least the air was warm and it was well lit. We parked up round the side and, after being given several mugs of chai by the two night shift guys, we prepared to kip down on the floor by the bikes. However, just as we were trying to make the spot a little comfier by laying out our jackets and leaning on our bags, one of the guys drove his car (a Lada, naturally) round next to us and indicated that we should sleep in there in case it rained!! How sweet is that?!

Car or no car, we still had a pretty shoddy night’s sleep. I’d set the alarm for 5am but it when we woke up it was still nowhere near light enough so we didn’t actually get away until about 6.30am. Still, that was surely going to give us plenty of time to do the 380km to Baku by mid-morning… We were anxious to get there before 12 as embassies have notoriously short opening hours and, with only 72 hours permitted for the bikes, we needed to be on the ferry for Turkmenistan by Sunday evening. Somehow, even though the roads were for the most part decent and we kept a steady 80kmph the majority of the time, we were way off target. I blame two things: 1) A stupid 10km stretch of road re-surfacing which, in addition to reducing our speed to about 20kmph, also became treacherously slippery after some genius decided to go along in a truck spraying water all over the shop. I hardly had time to clock the change in conditions before I came off. Sodding mud has a lot to answer for!!!! Poor James; he then had to do the usual relay on both bikes while I walked. Luckily, I’d gone over on the left side this time but I was so paranoid about the bike falling on my bad ankle, I just couldn’t risk the poor surface anymore. Sorry James!!! And 2) The greedy corrupt police who stopped us no less than 8 times, the last time being when we’d pulled over to speak to a couple of French cyclists and the ‘policeman’ tried to say we’d been speeding – er, hello, we were stationary!!! Luckily James stood his ground each time and refused to pay any bribes; no mean feat when they would get quite officious. The first time was at a check point and James was ushered into the office where the guy kept banging his fist on the table, demanding dollars. By the last stop, we’d resorted to babbling away in English to bamboozle them and I had to stop myself from cracking up when James said, ‘I really don’t understand a word you’re saying but you’re obviously a bit of a dickwad’!! Ah, fun and games!

So, after all that we didn’t get into Baku until half two, and even then it was another half an hour before we found the Turkmenistan embassy. To say we were hot and tired doesn’t quite cover it… Therefore, we were not amused to be told that the embassy had closed (at 12, of course) and we had to come back Monday. Arghhhhh!!! We stuck around for while, hoping they’d take pity on us when we showed them the document saying the bikes had to be out by Sunday evening but we were consistently met with the universal sign for ‘not possible’ (arms crossed in an x in front of chest + moody grimace). Morale was low at this point. So low that the expensive hotel up the road was looking like a distinct possibility…. I know we shouldn’t have, but the thought of going back into the hellish traffic and heat was more than we (ok, I) could bear! Hence, here we are in a rather swanky room (there’s even a towelling robe!!) with aircon and wi-fi. Not quite roughing it but after a night in a gas station we figure it’s allowed, and James did haggle the price down considerably. It’s Sunday now and we’ve just dropped the bikes down at customs for the night – that was the only option to avoid the massive fine – the plan being to get our Turkmen visa first thing tomorrow morning then go and join the bikes at the port to wait for a ferry. This is going to be a whole new nightmare in itself (thanks for the heads up Dean and Paul) and we’re slightly uneasy not to have our bikes with us at the moment, but hey, needs must!

We went out in Baku the first evening we were here and were amazed by how stunning the city is (such is the Westerner’s arrogant assumption that countries like this couldn’t possibly do stylish and cosmopolitan). The town boasts beautiful buildings that Paris, London or Milan would be envious of, which are lit up tastefully in the evening and the streets are thronged with cool shops, bars and restaurants. There’s even an old town quarter, surrounded by a UNESCO protected old city wall (that said, it is a bit ramshackle) where we found more than a few scraggy kittens to keep me happy!

 So to some up, in James’ words, the best and worst thing about Azerbaijan are the people – along with the Kurds, we’ve been shown the most kindness and given the warmest welcome by locals we’ve met but when it comes to the officials… don’t get us started!!!

Georgia on our minds

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

(James) Despite the sound of growling and barking dogs charging around our tent all through the night, we slept well. Em’s euphoria at being alive ensured that she was still chirpy even as we had our gruff ‘wake-up call’ (Turkish soldier banging on our tent and shouting ‘Morning’!) at 6am. We promptly packed up, but not before the soldiers brought us over a cup of tea and complimented us on our ‘beautiful’ tent which we sadly informed them didn’t come in a camouflage option! We were slightly apprehensive as we left, not knowing what the rest of the road to the Georgian border, still some 80 mountainous km away, had in store for us. Having left, we were quickly enjoying good tarmac, although our visibility was limited by the grey cloud above and below us. However, before long the sun soon started to burn through the cloud and we were rewarded with blue skies and incredible scenery and, of course, the chance for us to dry our kit out on the move! (And I was finally able to use the ‘facilities’ provided by the natural surroundings; my attempts the previous night had been met with failure due to a motion sensitive military search light!!)

We’d read that Posof was the most remote border crossing in the Caucasus but still weren’t prepared for how isolated and backward things were up there. The alpine scenery matched that of Switzerland but here the local population live in simple stone huts with tarpaulin roofs and horses seem to be the main/only form of transport. Hard to believe that this is in the same country as cosmopolitan Istanbul and we certainly felt a degree of sympathy for the Kurdish people; we couldn’t help but think they have every right to feel a little bit forgotten/abandoned by a government that should surely be trying to win their hearts and minds and make them feel part of what is, for the most part, a dynamic and rapidly modernising country.

With the last of our Turkish currency, we put enough petrol in the bikes (no cards accepted) to get us across the border where we looked forward to enjoying fuelling up for less than £1.80 a litre! We were finally released from Turkey without too much fuss and the Georgian officials seemed to forget to charge us for anything and after only a cursory look at our luggage, sent us on our way, the whole process taking little more than 45 minutes. The first five kilometres were memorable for two reasons; firstly, the road was atrocious and took us some forty minutes to cover, and secondly we were sweltering as we were still wearing our waterproof inners and with no forward motion, were soon turning into human ‘boil-in-the-bags’! Cue us taking turns to stand guard in the middle of the road while each of us stripped down to our pants by the bike to take out our inner layers. An English backside is not normally the first thing a visitor to Georgia might expect to see!

Fortunately the road soon improved and having passed through our first Georgian town (very Soviet looking), we were soon riding through deep gorges and trying to avoid the insane Georgian drivers who clearly haven’t adapted well to having cars more powerful than Ladas. Our map (once again) had towns written on it in English which wasn’t particularly helpful as it meant stopping at road signs to try to decipher the Cyrillic when we got to junctions. That’s not to say that the road signs weren’t dual language, they were but Georgian and Russian, which on reflexion seems overly generous as generally the only Russians that come to Georgia tend to come as part of an armoured tank division! Anyway, cars passed us with inches to spare and had no qualms about doing so even on blind corners. We did stop for half an hour to chat with two Italian bikers, Marco and Paulo, who were doing a similar route to us but in the opposite direction and so were able to swap stories and provide advice for each other on the roads ahead. We had decided that we would try and get to Tbilisi that day and after a couple of hours of fairly hairy roads, were shocked to find ourselves expressing relief at being on a two-lane motorway and enjoying the safety of having our whole lane to ourselves!

Inevitably, as has been our wont, we reached Tbilisi at rush hour which, in the 100 degree heat, didn’t help Em for whom this was the first bit of big city riding we’d had since the accident. Within an hour we’d found the hostel (a specific place we’d had some packages sent to) which was located up an extremely steep and broken cobbled alley. While I just made it up, Em knew her limitations and decided that this one was not worth the risk so having ridden up and spoken to the guys at the hostel, I came back down to get her bike and give her the news that despite us having booked, there were no beds available for us. Obviously feeling bad, they tried to find a solution for us which was to stay in one of their flats down the road – no beds there either, but we were able to set up our tent in the courtyard. An additional kick in the groin was that the person with the key was currently out meaning that instead of enjoying the two things we’d been talking about all day, namely a shower and a cold beer, we had to sit in a sweaty riding gear until 9 o’clock that night. Not ideal!

By the time we’d washed and showered and pitched our tent in the yard (at a heavily reduced rate), it was gone 11pm and so we headed out to get some dinner and finally find that elusive cold beer at a place recommended by the guys at the hostel. We were looking forward to a traditional Georgian meal (the food and wine here has a good reputation, in fact Georgia is said to be the birth place of wine). We got lost, but having asked two girls for directions they very kindly drove us round town to the restaurant and dropped us off at the door. We sat down and immediately asked the waiter, who appeared to speak English, for one glass of white wine and one large beer. Thus ensued a comedy of errors. Simply ordering the drinks took a good ten minutes to get across, including us pointing at people drinking beer and gesturing to the picture of beer on the menu. In then took a further five minutes to sort the drinks (the bar was only five metres away, the place wasn’t even busy – I was tempted to go and pour it myself) but our eager anticipation turned to pure bewilderment as he placed on the table one glass of white wine for Em (perfect) and for me, one half litre stein of…. white wine!!! We couldn’t help ourselves and burst into desperate laughter. We should be clear at this stage, we this isn’t a case of some jolly foreigner coming in and ordering obnoxiously in his own language – surely no bar in the whole entire world would even consider serving wine in a pint glass?! Having asked what it was, and explaining that we never mentioned anything about a pint of wine (surely we’d have just ordered a bottle), it then took an extra few minutes to get across to him that I still actually wanted a pint of beer! Eventually I did get it, and can confirm that it went both smoothly and quickly, and we went on to order our food, which was lovely – although only half of what we ordered ever turned up!! That night we slept like babies, not even managing to undress or get in our sleeping bag.

We’d arranged for two packages to be sent to us at the hostel in Tbilisi – one by post and one by DHL – and discovered that neither of them were actually at the hostel. Our DHL package had arrived but was being held by customs (the locals laughed when we said we only given our postal parcel three weeks to get here) so on Tuesday afternoon we went with Tater, one of the hostel guys, down to the customs office to try and retrieve our package. It proved highly difficult to get a taxi in Baku as the drivers are a moody bunch of sods, one of them wouldn’t give us a ride because ‘petrol is too expensive’!!! Anyway, cue three hours of utter mayhem, shouting and near fights at the customs office as Tater tried to get them to hand over our parcel. The sheer incompetence and obstinance of the staff at this office can’t really be described to anyone who hasn’t experienced it but suffice to say, they pretty much made up reasons why we couldn’t have what was rightfully ours and changed the reason every time we (Tater) countered their argument. Meanwhile, this same frustrating inadequacy was affecting the two dozen other people who’d been allowed through the first set of barriers (there were still more outside being held back by security guards) and were crowding round just four windows, all shouting at the same time. All in all, a bit of a bun fight!

We spent what time we had left in Tbilisi trying to see some of the old town which is really pretty with a river flowing through it and houses old churches clinging to the edge of a high gorge on one side. The rest of the town, including the area where we were staying, has tons of character and is filled with amazing but crumbling old buildings that people continue to live in despite subsidence causing huge cracks right through the middle (many such crevices were simply stuffed with paper and old clothes). We planned to leave on Wednesday but a phone call back to the Turkmenistan embassy in Istanbul revealed that our transit visa still hadn’t been approved and sent through to Baku (Azerbaijan). We didn’t want to get to Baku before it was ready as, despite the fact that we had 30 days Azer visas, our bikes were only allowed in the country for 72 hours. So in the end, we spent an extra day in Tbilisi which was actually quite handy as it allowed us to finish our make-shift storage canisters for the bikes – our package from England contained the bits needed to complete our improved storage tubes (thanks guys!)

Kurdish Delight!

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

(James) Having read Em’s account of our traumatic day last Sunday (which I’m pretty sure she wrote in our tent that night as some sort of therapy!) I thought it might be an idea to say that despite our belief that Turkey didn’t want to let us leave, we had an amazing time and are just saddened that events in Istanbul meant that we had to rush through and miss so much of what is clearly an amazing country. That’s not to say, however, that we didn’t still have some great experiences. So, Cappadocia and our trip east out of Turkey.

It would be a major understatement to say that we slept soundly on our first night after the 800km day and despite our late rising (just to catch breakfast before they started serving lunch!) we were still pretty groggy. We’d decided to have a rest day so we hopped (quite literally in Em’s case) on to one of the bikes to visit the ancient towns and landscape that give the region its fame. Best known of these is the ancient settlement of Goreme which was a settlement 2000 years ago for Christians escaping persecution in the holy lands just to the south. Some geological quirk means that the rock is highly malleable and this allows it to be carved into much like wood (something we also saw in Matera, Italy where they actually filmed the film of The Last Temptation of Christ). Wind and rain over the millennia have eroded the rock creating tall rock formations which the early Christians dug into, creating what might be described as the world’s first high rise living communities – some of the ‘blocks’ were several stories high. As you can imagine, given the reason that Goreme’s first residents decided to seek sanctuary there in the first place, there are plenty of chapels in the rocks (they didn’t seem to do much other than pray) many still displaying the original frescoes on the walls and ceilings. Without sounding too much like a savage, I’ll summarise by saying that we were quickly all ‘chapelled’ out (once you’ve seen 10 ancient chapels carved out of solid rock you’ve seen them all) and decided to ride to the ancient underground city of Kaymakli and through the stunning landscape of the area filled with dramatic naturally occurring rock columns of soft rock with harder granite stacks sitting atop. They’re known as fairy chimneys, but we couldn’t help but think that was a marketing ploy designed to turn your attention away from the fact that look exactly like giant…, well you’ll have to look at our photos and see for yourselves…

Much like Goreme, Kaymakli was ‘built’ to hide Christians fleeing persecution, except where Goreme seemed to have been a haven for monks and nuns, Kaymakli appears to have been for Christian families and so was much bigger. Not being able to find a rock big enough to accommodate them they simply dug down into the ground creating a ‘town’ that ran several stories under the surface, and contained homes, food stores, wineries, and all the facilities that a community of 5000 people might need. The entrances were hidden by giant circular rocks that were rolled into place when required. The corridors such as they were, were extremely narrow – barely shoulder width and at points little more than a couple of feet high so not a place for anyone with even the mildest claustrophobia or physical infirmity (such as that picked up, shall we say, in a motorcycle accident) but after a couple of rest stops we made it out!

The following morning we headed north-east towards the border with Georgia and through Kurdish east Turkey (or Kurdistan if you ask anyone who actually lives there). We had been warned by some that the area could be dangerous and that we should be very careful. After a few kms through barren semi-desert we made stopped outside a petrol station to re-adjust Em’s luggage which we’d not done properly in our rush to leave and were just getting ready to pull out when we saw 2 motorcycles approaching, both of which were heavily loaded. Seeing us they pulled over to say hello and introduce themselves as Axel and Vincent from Belgium who are on a tour of the Caucasus. We were both commenting on the fact that we hadn’t seen any other motorcycles since we’d left Istanbul when a Turkish motorcycle rode past, turned round and came over to say hello too! This was clearly too much for the 2 truckers sitting in the station who came over to say hello (despite the fact they couldn’t speak a word of English) and give us a big bag of fruit whilst we swapped information on the way ahead.

We continued on our way and at our next petrol stop were invited over by the people who worked there and a couple of customers to have chai with them – this increased friendliness, we were to find out, was customary for Kurds and was only the first of numerous examples of the generosity and kindness to strangers we would experience over the next few days. By about 5.30 that evening, Em reported that she was starting to fade (it had been nearly 100 degrees all day) so we stopped at the town of Sivas to find a supermarket, with the intention of camping somewhere suitable to the east of the city. An hour or so later, we turned off the road and up a farm track, found the farmhouse and asked the farmer if we could camp in one of the fields nearby (our Turkish not being up to much, we managed to communicate this using our ‘point-it’ book – literally a book full of pictures of different objects, something we think will become increasingly handy from this point onwards!) We were soon set up and having dinner with a bottle of red wine!

We were woken before six the next morning by the sound of a tractor pulling up by our tent and reasoned that if it was early enough for him to start his day, perhaps we should do the same! Although we’d gone to bed under an incredibly clear starry sky, the morning that greeted us was grey and hinted that today we might be getting a bit wet. Just as we were about to leave, an old woman, presumably the farmer’s mother as she must have been in her eighties, trudged the 1km down the hill from the farm house, carrying a rake and offered for us to go back to theirs for breakfast. We’d have dearly loved to, but a combination of needing to get miles under her belt and the fact that we couldn’t allow her to walk all the way back up the hill again, meant that we had to decline. As we continued riding, we found that at every single stop we were given chai and offered food. By late morning, we began to gain altitude as we rode into the mountains, reaching almost 3000 metres above sea level, directly towards the black clouds that has been threatening all day. Eventually, the rains hit us, creating pretty treacherous conditions on the roads, not helped by the fact that we were in a line of lorries travelling on what is the main road to Iran.

The weather steadily deteriorated all afternoon and in the early evening we were struck by a monster thunder storm which reduced visibility to near zero and forced us into a petrol station to take cover. No sooner had we got off the bikes than the two guys who worked there, Yacop and Sendar, brought out some chai and let us sit at a table and chairs inside. As we sat warming our hands on the tea glasses, they kept refilling our cups and eventually gestured that they were making us dinner! We were expecting maybe some bread and melon but on going into their ‘office’, were stunned to see that they’d laid out a proper cooked traditional Kurdish meal which was absolutely delicious (Em: the best food we’ve had since Italy!!) We tried to communicate through our little Turkish phrase book, which caused them much hilarity! They were quick to tell us that they were most definitely Kurdish, not Turkish, and proceeded to show us lots of videos and photos of local Kurdish guerrillas who are effectively engaged in a civil war against Turkey. All very surreal. The weather had clearly set in for the night so we went to find a hotel in the small town we’d passed through a km back and ended up staying in what was the only hotel in town and which clearly doubled as either a sanatorium or some sort of institution! (Incidentally, Kurdish hospitality came to the fore once again when a local guy hailed a taxi specifically for us to follow him when we’d stopped for directions, then he stood out in the rain until he was satisfied that we were safely checked in, demanding nothing in return.) The hotel was a bit of a toilet and had a comedy communal bath in the basement with an industrial sized valve instead of a tap that delivered salt water!

It rained through the night but in the morning, despite the dark cloud cover, the rain had stopped so we heading off but not before stopping in for breakfast with Yacop and Sendar – they had made us promise and were waiting for us with yet another tasty spread, including their own home made natural yoghurt which was better than any we’d ever tasted. After eventually dragging ourselves away, we headed north filled with hope that we could make it to the Georgian border that day but as we rode even higher onto a large, desolate plateau we could see that the weather was closing in on us. And that, dear readers, brings us nicely to the epic already covered by Emily!!

Eastern Turkey in brief

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

(Emily) We saw and experienced so many cool things on our way out of Turkey, it would be crime not to dedicate a proper blog entry to it. However, our time in Tbilisi has been taken up by various jobs (two and a half hours at customs to pick up a parcel with our name on it being one of them!) so James will get on the case once we have a bit more time. Meanwhile, the last pics are up and here’s a brief synopsis…

What’s hot:

-      Turkish, and particularly Kurdish, hospitality; we were offered tea every time we stopped and were given proper sit down meals on several occasions. So generous!

-      Cappadocia – a region of stunning landscapes formed from volcanic rock. James described it as ‘biblical’. It also had something of Stars Wars about it!

-      My cool new neck scarf – a celebratory present from James when we were about to leave Istanbul.

-      Wild camping in a farmer’s field on a beautiful evening.

-      Our little fold-away chairs bought at a fishing market in Istanbul.

-      Staying at a hotel with an actual pool courtesy of  a deal through Haci – thanks!!

What’s not:

-      Riding 780km on the first day back on the bike. Stupido.

-      Stray dogs running out and barking at the bikes.

-      The Bluetooth comms system playing up. I said ‘too quick’, James, not ‘you p****!’

-      Putting my foot down when I come to a stop – ankle says noooooo.

-      Monumental thunder storms.

-      Turkey’s seeming refusal to allow us to leave without a fight.

-      Not seeming to see the need for diversions when the roads are being resurfaced (see below!)

Sunday – not such a fun day.

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

(Emily) Mum, before you read this, don’t worry – we’re fine and have reached Tbilisi in Georgia! Hostel has wi-fi so should be able to add more later; our last few days in Turkey were generally great and there’s lots to tell. However, I wrote this last night at the end of a bit of a nightmare day…

Currently shivering in our tent, on a grass verge by the side of a main road, next to a military outpost and ten metres from a machine gun nest (the bikes are parked next to it, we weren’t allowed to stay). These guys mean business; this is Kurdistan territory and the locals are not big fans of the Turks. It’s raining, our gear is covered in mud and the barracks spot lights keep sweeping past us. WTF?!

Basically, we’ve had a bit of a day. All going well(ish – relentless rain and late start meant we weren’t sure we’d make the Georgian border as planned). We pulled into a petrol station at about half past two this afternoon, narrowly missing the latest in a long line of torrential downpours. Pretty soon all signs of the surrounding mountains had disappeared into a wall of dark grey in every direction. We were high up on an exposed plateau (too high for trees – think Brecon Beacons on a bigger scale) and so we decided to wait it out; it was easy to monitor the weather system from our position. Also, the two lovely guys manning the station took upon themselves to ply us with chai and, when it was clear we were in for the long haul, brought out a delicious lunch of fresh bread, tomato and watermelon. The hours rolled by and, although it started to clear, the one place it still looked ominous was exactly the direction we were headed for. We had two options – head 10km back to the city of Kars where we could be sure of a hotel, or press on the 50km to Ardaham. No one likes going back on themselves, right, so as James has now reminded me several times at opportune moments, I said we should ‘risk it for a biscuit’… Fool!

It was about 5pm when we left. Only 50kms? We’d be there by six, giving us time to shop around for a cheap place to stay. Error. After about 10km, the tarmac ended and the gravel and shingle extravaganza ensued; bad enough at the best of times but just short of lethal after several days of heavy rain. The road had been further rutted up by the trucks and diggers going back and forth but with my ankle still playing up, this was not a good time for me to be introduced to ‘standing on the pegs’ as a way to minimise jolting. God knows how, but I managed to struggle on for a good 15km (which took well over half an hour – when were these ‘road works’ going to end anyway?) Then we suddenly found ourselves riding in thick, oozing clay. A new experience for me. Not a good one. I could feel both tyres veering from side to side as the treads quickly filled with mud, and worse, I could see James slipping about in front of me too. In my mind, it was a question of when, not if, we would fall off (James: me too). Bear in mind we were also on a slope and in the middle of harsh, barren wilderness.

We were only going about 3mph but I had to stop (how I did this without slipping over I don’t know). James, my absolute hero, got himself onto harder ground then came back for my bike, muttering that it was a wonder neither of us had come off. Alas, our miracle was short lived – James had no sooner got on my bike than his front wheel starting going to the left, his rear wheel to the right… he managed to keep going for another 5 metres, practically riding sideways, before the front wheel gave up and he went down. Our problems, however, were only just beginning, as so thick and gooey was the wet clay, that even standing was an issue – we both tried to pick the bike up but it, and us, were just sliding about. Meanwhile, a kilometre back up the hill, two articulated lorries we edging their way down towards us. At first I was reassured when I saw the hazard lights flashing – phew, the truck has seen us and would perhaps even be able to help – but then I saw the driver’s panicked face and frantic gesturing: despite the fact he had started to brake a good 500m away, his wheels too had lost all traction and he was literally sliding straight for us. At this point, we abandoned our fruitless attempts to get the bike upright and just started desperately to push and drag the bike across the mud out of the truck’s path. This was seriously one of the scariest moments of my entire life; we were properly freaking out, not sure whether we should keep trying or just get the hell out of the way ourselves. It was like a slow motion scene in a disaster movie.

I kid you not, the truck came to a stop about 5 metres from my fallen bike. The driver, clearly shaken, jumped out of his cab and with his help we managed to get the bike up. Not ideal that my right foot had to be used a wedge to stop the rear wheel from sliding again. Together, we managed to get it out of the danger zone, but even with two of us pushing on foot, the rear wheel was still all over the place. Needless to say, I was somewhat traumatised and couldn’t get back on the bike. James, covered in mud from the fall and no doubt pretty shaken up himself, took control of the situation and after a big hug for me, he rode his bike, then mine, a kilometre up the road to where the surface was more compact, while I slowly trudged up on foot.

The appalling surface then carried on, though thankfully never again turning into a clay quagmire; either way we had to stay in first or second gear and never got above 15 mph. Occasionally, we came onto tarmac again and thought we’d reached the end but all too soon it would deteriorate once more. To add insult to injury, it was by now starting to rain again and to get dark. We were in the middle of nowhere – the only signs of life being small dwellings constructed from stones and tarpaulin perched up in the exposed rocky outcrops – and the thought of camping in the wet surrounded by stray dogs did not appeal. Surely the town of Ardaham had to appear soon, we’d been going like this for nearly 40km and it had taken almost three hours. We finally came over the top of another mountain and we could see lights blinking in the distance. Surely this would be our target town, with the promise of a hot shower and, more importantly, a stiff drink. But no, northern Turkey was not going to relinquish its hold on us that easily. After tackling a steep downhill, still without proper road surface, a sign cheerfully told us that Ardaham was 12km away. Crap. It was now actual night-time and, upon inspecting the road that would take us to salvation and finding it to be loose shingle and steep, we decided that enough was enough. Tempting as it was to do those last few km (so close but yet so far…) we weren’t going to be that stupid. We’d just have to find somewhere here for the night.

And so that brings us to our current situation. A group of passing locals laughed and shook their heads when we gestured sleep and pointed to the village here.  James asked about a police station and they directed us up the road. No sooner had we approached the front entrance of the base when a search light swung road and whistles were sounded. I think they take security pretty seriously here, and it doesn’t help that our engines sound like gunfire… Our plea for a place to stay at first fell on deaf ears and we were repeatedly told there was a hotel in Ardahan – it didn’t seem to compute that it was simply not possible for us to travel any further on the treacherous roads in the now total darkness. However, perseverance is key (James didn’t even need to resort to football chat) and they eventually acquiesced that we could park our bikes in the barracks and set up camp outside the front.  So here we are, sitting soggy in our tent on a steep slope, ‘reassured’ by our hosts that despite it being ‘dangerous’ here (bear in mind there’s effectively a civil war going on here between Kurdish militants and Turkey), we are safe (cue a jaunty wave of the gun, just to reiterate). They even brought a sandwich and a pot of hot water for some tea. Admittedly a hotel would have been nice but I was feeling frankly euphoric to be alive. James, on the other hand, had been banking on using the hotel ‘facilities’. Enough said!….

I’m going to stop now and try to get some sleep. Am sure everything will be right with the world once more when we wake up to glorious sunshine and head for Georgia. Right now, however, I’m feeling pretty petrified of the dog that is barking its head off what seems to be a couple of yards from our tent. ‘It’s alright’, says James, ‘they’re probably dogs that they have here on the base, not strays.’ Er, yeah, in which case they’d be trained to kill. Goodnight!

The Longest Day!

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

(James) The last month has been hard work with Em hostel bound and getting increasingly frustrated and me constantly having to run to a dozen different police stations and other government offices to ensure our paperwork was in order. On the plus side I have become something of a dab hand at dealing with officialdom, almost daily I would be standing in a police station or an embassy trying to get things done but hitting a wall as Emily was |not there in person. This was, I would be told time and time again, impossible without her despite my protests that she was in hospital (for dramatic effect!) but always, a bit of persistence, keeping positive and smiling would get them chatting and almost every time they’d ask where I was from. The answer ‘London’ would be greeted with grins of recognition followed by them naming their favourite football teams and English players! I’d then be able to talk to them about Turkish football and Istanbul’s 3 big teams where upon I’d be asked what my favourite Turkish team was. I’d learnt early on that 2 of them (Galatasary and Fenerbache) hate each other whereas the third team (Besiktas) seemed to be inoffensive to everyone, so I’d say ‘Besiktas’ and wait for them to name their teams before making a joke about one of them having to fight the other. This joshing would, everytime without fail, see a thawing of their previously immovable rules and they would give me a nod to say they were going to ‘sort it’ for me and then invite me in for chai! Note: this also works at border crossings!

It’s fair to say that both of us had become sick of Istanbul, that’s not to say it isn’t a great city or that we hadn’t met lovely people, just simply that our initial 10 day stay (which we thought was a long time) had stretched to a month. What this meant in practical terms for us was that our ‘schedule’ had gone to pot – we generally tend to ride when and where we want but our one deadline has always been our crossing of China. The reason for this is that the Chinese government really don’t like the idea of tourists being in their country with their own transport (who knows where we might go?!) and so we have to have an official guide (observer) with us the entire time as well as having the endless bureaucracy to deal with that requires us to have Chinese licenses, registration plates and the approval of a dozen departments and directorates. Needless to say, all this costs quickly add up (we also have to cover accommodation and transport for the ‘guide’) so many months before our departure we arranged with several other like-minded souls from around the world to meet and cross together to share the financial burden.

The date of our crossing is the 20th August. As the weeks rolled by in Istanbul, we both had started to nervously count the dwindling number of days so on Monday we made the decision that given that Em was now able to walk (though not very far!) with just the one crutch we’d have to hit the road. Wednesday was picked as departure day, allowing us to sort out our admin and get ourselves together. As you may have already read Tuesday was a bit hectic as we finally found someone who could make the metal brackets I wanted so the evening was spent fitting them (they fit perfectly!), saying our goodbyes and repacking as we intended to leave before the morning rush hour. Em was understandably nervous (not just because it was her first time back on the bike but because heavy traffic would mean lots of stopping and putting down of feet). As per our last night in England, we were up until gone 2am but true to our plan we were up at 6am and an hour later, having confirmed that Em could actually get her boot on, we were riding across the Bosphorus. Our plan was to try to get to Ankara and then spend the night somewhere between there and Cappadocia – our ultimate destination and sadly, the only place on our original list of places to visit that time would allow us to see. We knew that the day was going to be long and boring as it was going to be all motorway as we wanted to at least try and make up some time. Our progress was way better than expected and we passed Ankara at 2pm, and headed south towards Askaray. The roads at this point deteriorated considerably (as did the driving which hadn’t exactly been stellar before!) and we were kept on our toes, hard when we had already passed the 500km mark for the day (already our longest day by a distance). As we headed further south towards the Syrian border we noticed that the dress, people and landscape became more ‘arabic’ which really gave us a taste of the distance we had covered that day. We were lucky not to get stopped in our tracks at one point as we passed right by a huge fire raging in a wheat field next to the road, with locals trying to stop it reaching the petrol station by the road (just 40 metres away). Another 5 minutes and the road would have probably have been closed. We reached Askaray at about 6:30 and turned east towards Cappadocia and although we were so close we were both aware that we were exhausted and that we were now chasing the setting sun. In the end we arrived at our destination, the small town of Urgup at approximately 9pm, after dark which violated our self imposed rule about riding at night on the trip, both utterly shattered and Em a little traumatised! We’d ridden a frankly ridiculous 790km, and although we made up 2-3 days at our normal pace we won’t be doing it again! We slept well.

The road is calling…

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

(Emily) We’re amid a sudden flurry of activity as we prepare to leave Istanbul early tomorrow morning. James has been a star, spending yet another day riding and tramming all over town getting last minute bits and pieces. After spending the last few weeks searching the whole of Istanbul (I do not exaggerate here) for bits of drainage pipe and exhaust brackets, he’s finally assembled the wear-with-all to put together a makeshift storage canister on each bike where the second exhaust used to be. This has been no easy mission and has culminated in him having some custom steel clamps made (thanks Adnan for your invaluable help on this!) and getting the folks back home to send some soil pipe access plugs (don’t ask!) on to Georgia ahead of us. See new pics on the photo gallery to get an idea of what we’re talking about…

I am still using one crutch to hobble about but am confident (ish) that with a support bandage and my boot on, I’ll be able to master the bike tomorrow. We’re aiming to leave at 7am to avoid the crazy traffic but only time will tell whether we actually achieve this…

We’re both on a bit of a high with the thought of finally getting our adventure underway once more, but at the same time it’s going to be with sadness that we leave our new friends here. We’ve been overwhelmed by how kind people have been, especially since the accident, and want to say thank you to everyone who has gone out of their way to help us with translations, incident forms, finding random parts etc. Poor Emre at the hostel came to anticipate (dread?!) James’ daily random requests! So, hello and thank you to: the guys at the bar – the Hacis (big and little), Sasha and Farid; our lovely hostel family – Emre, Murat, happy Shaheen, Janine, Gillian and Alma (who so many times brought me breakfast to my room when James was still asleep at cut off time!); the wonderful strangers who have offered us kindness when we’ve been out and about, particularly Furkan and Irem; Adnan from next door who has gone out of his way for us on several occasions; Bener at Daytona who came to our rescue after the accident; and lovely fellow travellers who we’ve shared some great times with – Paul & Dean (overland heroes), Albert & Daniel, Angi & Aric, Rick, Francesca, David, Matt & Flora and Patrick & Peggy. And Claudia, thanks for the physio advice and for getting me the ‘support stocking’, I owe you one!

Right, it’s 9pm. James is still tinkering with the bikes, we haven’t eaten yet (or repacked) and we still need to print off insurance forms, photocopy receipts, pay our rent for yet another week (gulp) and go and say a few goodbyes. Will we really leave at 7am tomorrow morning? Watch this space!

Family fortunes

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

(Emily) My life has become a bit too ‘bloke-ified’ over the last couple of weeks (beer, football, kebabs, more beer, more football… you get the picture) so when Mum and Martha came over for a few days it not only delivered me from boredom but also injected a stab of good old-fashioned girlieness, hurrah! We were soon sitting on the patio of their rather fancy hotel drinking rosé and having a good natter – James didn’t know what had hit him! Luckily, on the first evening Rick from Melbourne, who we’d already met a few days ago, joined us for dinner so James had an ally at his end of the table (Rick still got subjected to full family history from Mum though – chin up!)

The crutches that Mum and Martha brought over made all the difference and I was able to go back and forth between our hostel, the bar and their hotel. We even ventured as far as the Grand Bazaar – I was no going to miss out on a girlie shopping trip – though admittedly progress was slow and it did reduce me to a shaking, sweaty mess! No one told me using crutches was so hard! However, it was well worth it to see M&M try a spot of haggling and Martha unwittingly yet inevitably picking out the most expensive scarf in the whole market – luxury just seeks her out!

I had a fantastic few days so thank you so much, Mum and Marth. James and I felt thoroughly spoiled and it was great to catch up with what’s going on at home; of course, most of all it was just lovely to see you and spend some time with you. The ankle seems to be progressing quite nicely now and I can finally put it flat on the floor when standing. Will tentatively start putting weight on it the next few days so watch this space…

Lots of love to those back home, and Hi to Matt and Flora – the beach sounds good and hope the onward journey’s going well!

xxx (more pics added today too)