Back in Erzurum again….

4 days out on the bike, plenty of snow, a 2300m summit, and I’m back in Erzurum – but no longer alone.

A few days ago I headed out from Erzurum, heading towards the Black Sea, with a plan of catching up to a few other cyclists coming this way. I could have waited for them where I was, but I needed to get out on the bike, as I’ve had too much time off it, in Istanbul, Ankara and Erzurum.

The snowclouds had gone, leaving glorious blue skies, above a snow-covered valley. The road went down the valley for over 50km, on a good, wide, more or less flat road. I was flying along, enjoying life. Later in the day I started heading up a long climb, but realised I was had left it a little too late in the day to make it up and over, and get down with light left. Everything was snow-covered, with very few places available to camp. The locals had also been warning me about the wolves in the area.

I was grinding up the hill when I saw a grubby, unmarked chai-house, with a bunch of trucks outside. They all waved me over, and since I was hoping to try and camp there, I rolled over. One spoke some German, so we could work things out. I explained where I was going, they gave me free chai to warm me up, and then somehow my bike was loaded onto one of the trucks, and I was sitting high and pretty in the cab. The bike was between the cab and the tip part, with only a thin rubber band attached. I was worried about it, but figured that all my gear was in the cab, and so just said a prayer to Allah that the bike would make it.

It was still a long climb up the mountain, and at the top we had outstanding views of the whole ranges, everything blanketed in snow. I thought they were going to drop me at the top, but they said no, no, stay with us a bit longer. So we rolled down the other side. Then I heard “Jandarma, probleme” – the Jandarma were stopping some vehicles a little way ahead. Suddenly the driver got out of the driver’s seat, and the other guy in the cab swapped places with him. At no point did we slow down below 80km/hour. I was just grateful we were on a straight road. Never did quite get to the bottom of why they had to swap, think it was a license issue.

But so we carried on to Bayburt, where we went to a restaurant attached to a service station, that was run by a friend of one of the drivers. All the other drivers had also turned up, and we all sat down to a good meal. Photos and maps came out, and then we did some photos. At the end of the meal, I was told “nichts zu zahlen” – i.e. nothing to pay. I still didn’t have anywhere to stay, so we then sorted it out that I could put up my tent next to the service station.

I then met all the service station staff, and entertained them. Less English/German spoken amongst that group, but we got by. Gave the correct answer to the religion question – Christian. Made the mistake the other day of telling someone I was agnostic, it’s just not worth the hassle of doing that again. Also saw some of the Turks/Kurds thing – they pointed out how one of the staff was Kurdish, and they didn’t like him so much – but they weren’t being very serious. Lots more cups of tea – I don’t even like tea – and we got the tent set up. They were worried I would be cold, and blankets were brought out. As it was I was fine, but it was very touching.

Then slept soundly, knowing they were keeping an eye on me. The next day I felt I should buy something, as I had spent nothing, yet been fed and watered. Got a few chocolate bars and biscuits from the service station – and they wouldn’t let me pay for them. There is something very touching about the genuine hospitality to strangers.

Heading out that day into the drizzle, I met up with Keith, Stephen and Jan, and we turned to head back. Snow started coming down, and so we had a half day. The next day I went back up over the pass, but this time on the bike, not from the comfort of a high cab. Snow was falling, visibility was limited, and things were icing up on my bike. The Windstopper jacket I acquired performed outstandingly though – just wish the same could be said of my legs. But we got over the pass, and I was very grateful to descend out of the snow, and seek shelter in the same chai house, and warm up by the fire.

Then an easy day in the sunshine, and back to Erzurum. Looks like we’ll cross into Iran on May 2nd, which means we should have a little spare time here. Will either do an unladen day ride somewhere, or perhaps will go to the border by a less direct route. Will think about it.

And before I forget, congratulations to my brother and his wife, on the birth of Miah Michelle. The stuff I do is far easier…


Snow, hamam, visa success

I’m sitting next to a man with nail polish on his toes. This is particularly well offset by the orange plastic sandals he has on. We are only wearing small strips of material around our waists, sitting in the cool room at the local hamam. I am just dying to ask about the nail polish, if it is a local thing, or just him, but unfortunately we don’t have enough language in common.

Although I’ve been to Turkey before, and this time have been here for what seems like forever, I have never been to a hamam before, I thought it was about time to go. Especially good now, since I am not showering especially regularly these days. I have just moved to a hotel with a shower, which is a novelty, but it looks like I may have a week of camping coming up before Dogubayazit, where perhaps I will indulge in another hamam.

Although hamams are very much a tourist thing in Istanbul, with prices to match (aside – you know things are just a tourist ripoff when they quote the price in euros, rather than YTL), here it is more of a local thing to do. Great architecture, I don’t think it has changed significantly in centuries. I was the only tourist-type there. No problem though.

After being given a small cloth to wrap around myself, and fetching rubber sandals, I head into the main room. The heat and humidity hits you straight away, and within minutes I was sweating as though I’d just been for a quick 30-minute run. I had decided to go for the “Full Monty” treatment, and after sweating it out for a while, a man vigorously tried to remove the top few layers of skin – and succeeded too. I had been worried a bit about the massage, having read some other’s accounts of encounters with “The Bear”. As it was though, the massage was pretty mild, with only a minimal amount of clicking, cracking and groaning on my part.

When I finally emerged, skin glowing and the smoothest it’s been in probably 28 years, I was then swathed in at least 7 towels. I lost count of them all somewhere along the line. I could hardly move. The last one on my head is tied on pirate style, but this one is a smaller towel, and as others have pointed out, I have, literally, a big head. Certainly bigger than the average Turk. As a result, I am deaf and half-blinded by this towel, and have to be led over to the couch where I can sit and sip my Ayran (yoghurt drink) in peace. When I think the manager’s not looking, I carefully loosen the head towel. Blood rushes back into the rest of my head, and I can think properly again.

All up a nice way to spend a couple of hours for 23YTL. Especially nice since it’s bloody freezing outside. Although it cleared a little this morning, the snow is falling heavily again, and I can’t quite muster up the courage to head out on the bike. Think I’ll give it a go though – worst case I can always come back to this place. Going to loop down to Lake Van, adds a few hundred kilometres, and it is also at altitude, so will be cold, but should be pretty nice. Just hope the ice fog – I’m not even sure exactly what that is, but it doesn’t sound good – forecast for tomorrow doesn’t hang around. At least sunrise is now at 5:30am, so if I faff about and leave late at 9:00, things should have had time to warm up a bit.

As you may have guessed from my recent posts, yes I do have quite a bit of time on my hands at the moment. Got my Iranian visa issued yesterday, on the same day. Only had to sit in the consulate office for 1 hour before someone appeared, and then on returning later in the day only had to wait another half hour. Met a couple travelling overland with their two kids. They’ve been waiting 10 days for their visas. Luckily I avoided that by using an agency, but it cost a bit. 110GBP for the agency, and 60 euros for the visa. Still, now I have the stamp, and only one more problematic visa to deal with (Turkmenistan).

I got speaking to a Turkish guy yesterday who spoke English and German – he told me winter lasts six months here, and people stay in their small villages for 3-4 months over that period. Looking at all the snow outside, I see what he means. Look at this photo I took yesterday morning at the bus station, as I sat there under some shelter, pondering my life, and trying to answer the question “How the hell am I going to ride in that?”


Moving east…and higher

Well, the two things I needed to sort out in Ankara are now done, and I’m moving again. My Uzbekistan visa was sorted no problem, passport back on the same day. Doing it in advance with Stan Tours worked out well, as it meant quick processing at the embassy. I met another couple there who looked lıke they were going to have to wait a few days for it.

Poste Restante works in Turkey – address something to Merkez Postanesı, Ankara, and it gets delivered to the main post office in Ulus, conveniently also the area with lots of cheap hotels. Going into the Post Office, you get directed downstairs to rows and rows of P.O. boxes. You’re meant to work out that you need to push the unmarked buzzer, then a lovely lady comes out and helps you. All very nice. 6 days from London to Ankara, and I am now wearing my new Gore Bikewear “Function II” jacket – very nice too, Windstopper, removable sleeves, lightweight, packs small. Think I’m going to wear it a lot.

I’m glad it turned up today too, as otherwise I was going to go on a three day loop ride to some nearby hot springs. It’s cold and drizzling though, and I didn’t really fancy it. So once I realised I could move on today, I spent the day mucking about Ankara instead. I went to Ataturk’s mausoleum, where I was told I couldn’t take the bike up to it. No problem though, I could park it in the trees near the guard house. They even stuck a little numbered tag on it, and gave me the other part, so that I could reclaim it – as if they had a lot of bikes there or something.

A free lift up the hill, then I spent a while looking around. All kind of big and sterile, and slightly disturbing in the way that personality cults are. I’ve always wondered a bit about just what the Turks do think of him, and just how revered he is. A few nights ago, I got an answer. I was invited to join a group of middle-aged men eating a meal, and drinking raki. One spoke some German and English, another some French. If you’ve seen a group of old men sitting around eating and drinking in one part of the world, you’ve seen it everywhere, and language barrier was not really a problem.

Although you couldn’t understand everything that was said, you could work most of it out by tone and expression. Even the songs they were singing had a familiar tune to them. But anyway, somehow the subject of Ataturk came up, and one had his hand on his heart, the other was showing me the lapel pin of Ataturk he has, and they all burst into what I think was the national anthem. So yes, I think the love is there – perhaps not in all parts of the country though – e.g. the Kurds may think differently.

But anyway, I wandered around the extensive museum associated with the mausoleum, looking at Ataturk’s effects, etc. At the same time, a group of 11-12 year old school children came in. I actually wanted to look at the displays, but they started crowding around, following me, pretending to look at the same paintings, until the first brave one talked to me.

They have all been learning English, and want to practise it. So one asks me “What is your name?”, and I respond, and then another asks, and another, and another…then we try things like “Where are you from?” and “How old are you?” I got a new one today, “What time is it?” Think I made it difficult on the girl though, I said quarter to eleven, she was expecting “10:45”. So I ask them basic questions too, and they all like to respond, and shake my hand. They all get a great kick out of practising their English with a native English speaker, as opposed to amongst themselves.

The teacher sees me surrounded, and starts trying to herd some of them away – but as soon as one group gets moved, some break away and run back over to ask me something. I don’t mind though, it’s nice to interact with them, help them with a little English, and just have some company. Not at all threatening, and it’s definitely not like some parts of the world where you know that a group of children surrounding you will start trying to pinch things.

The hotel I’ve been staying at was only 10YTL per night (around $10NZ, or 3-4GBP), for my own room, which is pretty good, especially since they also changed the sheets every day. However I could never locate the showers, and since today is 3-4 days since I last showered, I was wondering a bit about the poor person I might have to sit next to on the overnight bus tonight…but luckily the Ankara bus station is much like an airport, and they have a shower available. Hamam and massage too, if you wanted that. Just a shower will do though, nice to be clean again. Lots of towels and hot water too, even if you do have to pay a bit for it. You never know when the next chance for a hot shower will come…

So now off to Erzurum, which is close to 2,000m, and looks like it’s going to be pretty cold – minus 7 tonight I think. Should be fun when I go out camping on a loop ride then…


Weather, visas, buses

Ankara’s bus station, for those who have not been there, is enormous. Multiple levels, hundreds of people and buses coming and going in all directions. Just after figuring out which direction I needed to go, and rolling out, it started to snow on me. Me still wearing sandals and fingerless gloves. Get out to the main road. It’s really getting cold now. The Altura trousers can handle a little bit of weather, but I can feel melting snow coming through them now. Nothing underneath them, it’s getting colder. Which way to Ulus? People point in the other direction, on the other side of the dual carriageway. It’s choked with traffic, no chance of crossing it. Pedestrian over-bridge, way too many steps to carry my bike up, but no choice. Chock full of people, how to get through? But as I start struggling up, hands reach out, and help me haul up the stairs. It’s covered, and I’m starting to think this won’t be so bad after all.

Stop and put on more clothes, waterproof socks and sandals, a great looking combination. Head along the busy road into town, only vaguely know where I’m going. It’s Sunday, but the road is choked with traffic. Don’t know what it is about Turks, but they are just not capable of driving in cities. They’re not too bad on the open road, but they go doggo in town. Five lines of traffic squeezed into the three lanes. Because they do that, and always stop across intersections, it chokes things up even worse, but they can’t see that. Dodging trucks, going on and off the footpath, splashed by the slush, I head into town.

Somewhere along the way the sun comes out, and things pick up – traffic drops away, I’m now sweating, and there’s lots of cheap-looking hotels around. Find a room for 10YTL. Could maybe have gotten it cheaper, but 10YTL is OK for what I get. Nothing fancy, but it is my own room, and considering I ended up paying 5YTL for a campsite the other night, it’s fine.

With my crap Turkish, and a bit of German, I manage to find out what I need for today – where the main Post Office is, and how to get to the embassies district. Tried at the main post office for a package I’m expecting, no joy, but we think it may be at the customs office. Turns out that the Uzbekistan embassy has moved, but the taxi driver radioed into HQ, who gave us the new address. Found that, gave them the form and passport, should be good to go and pick up the visa at 15:00 today. Fingers crossed. Cost me US$90 for a 1 month, double-entry visa, plus around $45 for the LOI. Bastards. I can’t go to the customs office yet, as I need my passport for that, and the Uzbeks are holding on to it right now.

All going smoothly, I’ll be able to jump on a bus tomorrow night, and do an overnight haul to Erzurum, to pick up my Iranian visa. Bit worried about the snow though, we came through a lot of it on the way from Zonguldak to Ankara, and Erzurum is another 1000m higher than here. Will just have to tough it out.

You may notice that I have been taking some buses, and will be taking another one to catch up some with some other cyclists for going into Iran and Central Asia. You may even say that it is cheating. Well, it turns out that there’s only one rule to this trip – Lindsay does as Lindsay pleases. And right now it fits my needs to use some buses to sort out visa issues. So that’s what I’m doing.

If the weather works out not too bad – the forecast shows it improving later in the week in Erzurum – then I will probably do a loop ride from Erzurum, to fill in some time, and see more of eastern Turkey. There is a long weekend coming up this weekend, but I think it should be OK in the east – there’s not so many people anyway, nor is it much of a tourist area.

Time to go and see how my visa application has worked out…


Lovely coast, pity about the hills

Well, it seems that eating kebaps and simits for a week in Istanbul has not done any favours for my legs. As others have pointed out, the hills on the Black Sea coast are murderous. Fantastic scenery, but very tough going on the hills. Got a ferry to Anadolu Kavagı, then went via Sile, Kaynarca, and now in Akcakoca.

Have been wild camping for the last few nights, today at a camping ground that is closed, but the owner was around, and is from Germany, so we chatted in German for a while, and I’m staying there. Not actually sure if I’ll have to pay anything or not. Starting to smell a bit though, so a shower would be nice…

The people are all great – was hauled into a tea shop today, and given some cay. Of course offers of payment were refused. Am getting into the fantastic fresh loaves of bread that are available everywhere, cheaply. The water supplies are great too, only a few kilometers between each tap. Makes camping easy.

Was sitting on the beach today, eating lunch, no-one else for miles, when I realised a pod of dolphins was playing around not 100m from the shore. Shutter lag made it pretty tough to try and get a shot of it, which is a shame – it was a great scene.

Have just gotten word that my authorization numbers have come through for my Uzbek and Iran visas – so I should be sorted for those. Still need to pick them up, one in Ankara, the other in Erzurum. Just trying to work out how to do the buses, and how to catch up with Keith and co. Shouldn’t be a problem though.


Rolling again!

I’m leaving Istanbul today – Widex promptly repaired my hearing aid (defective receiver, replaced under guarantee), I’ve laid in provisions, and I’m all ready to go. Will be getting the ferry up the Bosphorus a bit, taking a one-way trip on the “Scenic Cruise.” Doesn’t leave until 10:30, and then gets there at noon, so it will be a bit of a late start. From there, I’ll head along the Black Sea coast for a while, until I make a bus detour to Ankara for visas. Don’t think I’ll be able to catch up with Keith for a few weeks, but we’ll see what happens.

Had a slightly odd experience yesterday – was sitting in Taksim park, reading my book – “The Travels of Marco Polo” – when I first had an American sit next to me, ask some random questions, obviously checking me out, followed by 4 plain-clothes policemen. The police asked me if I spoke Turkish, and where I was from, to which I gave some glib answer. I thought they were trying to sell me a carpet. Then they pulled out the ID, and asked for my passport. After flicking through it a while, I think slightly confused by the multiple Turkish entry stamps I have, they let me go about my business, and went back to harrassing the locals. Must be something to do with the location, lots of embassies around. No doubt will be asked many times in some of the other countries I am going to. Hasn’t happened before in Turkey though.

I also got offered something different to the usual carpets yesterday – women – $10 for a room for an hour and a massage, $30 for full service. Russian women, 20-21 years old apparently. When I declined that, I was offered marijuana instead. Well, it makes a change to the usual carpet patter. If I bother talking to the carpet sellers, I explain I have no home, and that usually slows them down…a little.

When I was first in Romania, I was asked what I thought of the taste of the Coca-Cola. I thought it was a slightly odd question, but now I have found out why. An advertisement in The Economist talked about Romania, and how Coca-Cola is a huge investor, and first went into Romania in 1991 – prior to that, people had never had Coke. Obviously it is a source of pride, I feel a little bad that I said it tasted the same as everywhere. Oh well, I wouldn’t know the difference anyway.