Friday, November 28, 2008

South to Cappadocia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cave security!

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

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

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

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

On towards İstanbul, probably skipping Konya...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Past Trabzon

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

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

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

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

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

From here further west to Samsun.

Friday, November 14, 2008

From Batumi into Turkey

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Out of Iran - up to the Caucasus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the New Zealand section!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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