Rob's Bike Ride

Cycling around the world
Turkey

Very close to Iran

Selcuk, Aydin, Mugla, Fethiye, Kas, Antalya, Alanya, Tasuca, Mersin, Adana, Osmaniye, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Total Kms on bike 5800.  Then the bus to Dogubayazit 30 Kms from Iranian border.

Finally, tomorrow I’m crossing the border into Iran I’m a little nervous and worried that I have no onward travel visas for any country bordering Iran and no flight out of the country. My plan is to pick up visas for Pakistan and India when I arrive in Tehran, if this causes a problem when I’m asked how I intend to leave Iran I will say that after a month of traveling I will return to Turkey at this same border crossing. I’ve picked today to cross into Iran because it’s the end of a 10 day holiday, Iranian New Year, I’m hoping that it will be so busy with traffic heading back from turkey that a lone boy on a bike will not warrant too much attention, we shall see.

 It’s been almost two months since I arrived in Turkey, although five weeks of that time was spent in Selcuk. I met some great people there through Gursel the owner of a small silver shop in the town. I was looking in his shop window one evening when he came out, spoke to me and asked me in for tea, we talked for a while and I then said my goodbyes promising to call in again the next day. That next morning I dropped by to say hello, Gursel was going to meet his friend  Mustafa who had a shop near the ancient city of Effuses and asked me if I wanted to come along, I had nothing planned and was happy to go with him. I got to know Mustafa, Gursels best friend and for that five weeks we all became good friends, I was happy to sit for hours in their shops drinking tea and some evenings the three of us would go to a famous restaurant called The Seven Sleepers, it’s a couple of large Ottoman like tents fitted out with exotic carpets and rugs, you lie on these rugs propped up on cushions, we would spend the evening talking laughing and drinking (tea) They both took the time to show me around Selcuk and the local area and after weeks of waiting for the visa I was a little disappointed when it finally came because I knew that it was time to leave my two friends.

Since leaving Selcuk I’ve been slowly making my way east following the Mediterranean coast line, locals call it the Turquoise coast and it’s very hard to put into words just how beautiful it is, on my left in the distance are those snow covered mountains that greeted me when I first arrived in Turkey and on my right the waters of the Mediterranean sea. it’s been a fast few week, I’m always aware that both my Turkish and Iranian visas are running out, I have three months to get to the border which is more than enough time, the problem is I don’t want to arrive with a visa almost expired, it gives the Iranians another excuse not to let me in. so I’ve rushed along and on many of the days just riding as far as I possibly could getting the Kms under my belt. I’ve had to climb a good few mountains on this part of the trip, particularly as I was heading into Antalya, I climb about eight or nine hundred feet very quickly and just as quickly race down the other side, I sweat like crazy riding up and almost freeze to death coming down.

 My alarm call each morning at five thirty is the Muslim call to prayer; it’s called five times each day from the mosques. There are even small mosques outside service stations and factories for people to use when they are called to pray. I find it relaxing and it helps me to gather my thoughts and to have a think about my day, it’s very meditative. Lunch these past few weeks is almost always washed down with some freshly squeezed mandarin or orange juice sold at the side of the road for just a few Liras it’s the ultimate thirst quencher. Tomatoes are grown here, hundreds of acres of land given over to the juiciest tomatoes you can imagine, the only ones I’ve tasted that come close are the ones from my father’s garden. I’m often given a few for lunch by the guys who are taking them to the local market, every town has a covered area set aside for the daily market, they are always very busy and incredibly cheap selling everything from fresh vegetables, fruits, spices and anything we would normally buy from a supermarket. I’m living on fresh fish, chicken, rice and vegetables every day, all fresh food that has been grown or raised in that area.

 There has been a real contrast in the areas I’ve been through, sometimes I’m able to leave the main road and ride through small villages with no more than a dozen buildings, there are always children playing who call out as I ride past and chase me for a while always laughing.  Few people ride bikes here so it’s a real novelty to see me riding through their village. Every house has a huge satellite dish on its roof, no matter how poor the household might look from the outside and I imagine inside is the largest flat screen TV you could buy. Then the smaller road comes to an end I have to make my way back on to the main coastal drag and this area has been developed for the tourist trade, its busy all year with Germans, Russians, and Scandinavians who spend the winter here, in places the coastline has completely disappeared, taken over by huge hotel and golf developments with guards on each of the gates leading into the hotels, very expensive cars fly past me on the main road and yet only a few Kms off this road are those small villages who have never seen a tourist. Hotels are still being built and roads that lead nowhere are still to be finished, hundreds of unfinished developments, not only hotels but housing estates, bus stations, roads and factories, I’ve been told this is because the local politician during election time will promise the town new developments for their vote, when they reach office they start the development but soon run out of money or the will to finish the project, the next person in office will start a new development rather than finishing the old one so the country is covered in these unfinished empty buildings. Voting day for the local elections is very close, people vote on the 29 March. The local parties have been on the campaign trail and it’s taken very seriously with huge rallies in all the major towns, busses painted up in the party colors with sound systems on their roofs drive through towns and village’s everyday playing music and rallying the party faithful. The busses come past me when I’m in the middle of nowhere still playing loud music. The Ak party who are the ruling party will almost certainly win the elections, only because they have the best sound systems and play some great music, what better reason to vote for your local politician.

Getting further into eastern Turkey the hotel staff constantly reminded me about the terrorist threat from the PKK, a Kurdish Terrorist group fighting for a homeland, tourists and visitors are not usually a target but with the local elections taking place and tensions running high I have been told that it would not be safe for me to ride in this south eastern part of the country. There have been police road blocks and I’ve shown my passport a few times and that’s before I leave the coast. For a while I was carrying three weapons and only one was bought. I meet a couple of Dutch cyclists heading in the opposite direction one morning and they told me that the dogs become much more aggressive and bigger as you get further east. These are wild dogs who run in packs and  will attack, one of the guys advised me to get myself a stick and that’s just what I did in the next town, a pick axe handle sawn in half makes a good weapon against any wild dog, I won’t hit the dog with it unless it really tries to bite me but I will wield it and shout as loud as I can to scare the beast off. The other two weapons both knives have been donated to the cause by hotel staff, two very handy large sharp knives, I’m not sure what they expected me to do with weapons from the hotel kitchen but I could see that they really wanted me to carry them so I packed them in the bottom of my bags and left them in the next hotel, I would never have been able to cross into Iran with them in my packs. I met a couple of British cyclists heading for Australia via the Himalayas, Krista and Dan, we rode along the coast together for a couple of days then split up, they have to head north as they are taking the silk route towards Tibet, Good Luck with your trip it was only a short ride we had together but great fun.

Turkey is a vast country and the distances are so great that the time has come for me to make this last part of the journey by a bus that will get me to the town of Dogubeyazit about 30Kms from the Iranian border. I’m constantly aware that my Iranian visa started ticking its life away the moment it was stamped into my passport and a bomb that exploded in the city of Mardin this week just confirmed this would be the best thing to do. The explosion had something to do with the PKK and the local elections. I was happy to have managed to ride almost half the country but I was tired and starting to get fed up of chasing an expiring visa every day. I arrived at the bus station at about 4 in the afternoon after riding all day, there was a bus leaving at 6.30 and it would take about 12 hours, perfect, that ride would take me almost a week as I could see from the map that I would be climbing and the weather would get much worse as I got further north. It was a journey that turned out to be hilarious and frightening at the same time .There weren’t many people on the bus and a Turkish man came and sat in the seat behind me, he could see I was not Turkish and started a conversation about Britain I was tired and wanted to sleep but he wanted to talk and I let him just nodding my head and agreeing with him, then out of the blue he asked me if I could give him any money, I smiled and said no, he talked about being poor and desperately needing the money and even though he could see I was falling asleep he just went on and on, here is a list of some of the reasons I remember he gave as to why I should give him some money.

My brother is ill

My family is ill.

 I am ill.

 I am poor and you are my friend, rich, and a foreigner

It is nothing to you.

You should have pity on me.

 Times are hard.

 Petrol and oil have gone up.

 Everything has gone up.

 You can’t possibly know how expensive things are in Turkey.

 My shop was robbed.

 I have lost everything.

 

I eventually fell asleep as he was talking and woke up when the bus came to a stop at a military check point, everyone in Turkey is required by law to carry an identity card and these along with my passport were handed to a soldier who took them along with the driver into the guard house, we waited for about five minutes and then the driver got back on the bus handed out all the identity cards and when he got to me told me that there was a problem and the soldier wanted to speak to me, oh no I thought what’s this about, I  spoke to a young soldier who was looking at my passport, you are an Iranian citizen traveling on a British passport, no I’m not, I’m a British citizen traveling on a British passport with an Iranian visa stamp, he asked if I could prove that I was British, I said it was a difficult thing to prove but if he asked me a question about Britain I could probably answer it, I also said that I was talking to him in English and not Farsi. Just then the driver started sounding the horn and revving the engine, oh no he’s going to leave me here, he wants to go and on that that bus is my bike, luggage, money credit cards, everything,  I can’t just run out and try to get on the bus because this soldier has my passport and he might wonder what I’m doing, every soldier at the check points have machine guns, then in a  moment of calm I thought about work, how many times have drivers said to me, if you can’t find those passengers Robert I’m off with or without you, but they never leave , they can’t leave you in the middle of nowhere no matter how much they would like to, so I called his bluff and ignored him and his revving engine and asked the soldier for my passport, I showed him the page that said I was a British citizen and my photograph and the page that said Islamic Republic of Iran visa, he looked at both pages, smiled at me and said ok, go, the driver wasn’t happy but he was there with the engine running. I walked up the bus to my seat and as I did  the driver got out from behind the wheel and followed me and as I sat down he offered me a bottle of water, not whisky, gin, vodka or anything that would have been of any use to me but water, I had been very scared in that office with the soldier, he thought I was carrying a false passport, he could have arrested me and then what would have happened and all the revving driver had to offer was a bottle of water, and my friend sitting behind me said, if you had given me money I would have helped you.

A quick update

Over three weeks in Selcuk and still nothing from the Iranian Embassy in Istanbul, I spoke to the Iranian authorities in London just before I left and was told that holding a British passport would mean it would not be a problem for them to grant me a visa but as I was traveling through the country on a bicycle I would need a local guide and possibly a police escort to accompany me, I had said no, a police escort would not only draw unwanted attention but it would also make my trip less interesting, would I be allowed to travel wherever I wanted, would I have to follow their itinerary, they had offered to give me a thirty day visa that could be extended at any police station once I was in Iran, however I would have to give an exact date for entering and leaving the country, which at the time before I had even left London would have been impossible, the embassy then advised me to apply through a visa agency when I arrived in turkey. The agency I used told me not to mention that I was traveling on a bicycle but to say that I was just traveling in Iran and visiting different ancient sites, that was nearly a month ago and still no word.

 The old silk road traces its way east from turkey through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan towards china and the Himalayas, it has been well traveled for thousands of years and its the route I will take from turkey should the Iranian embassy decline my visa application. I had originally planned on riding this road but decided Iran would be better. I haven’t given up on Iran but I have to start thinking about moving on within the next week with or without a visa, spring is in the air and if I’m taking either Iran or the old silk route I have to be through them before august because of the summer heat.

 If you should ever have to wait anywhere in the turkey for a visa then I can recommend selcuk, it’s a small town, quiet now but comes alive in the next couple of months as the tourist season starts. The days are pretty lazy, I’ve exhausted Ephesus and the town’s two museums, so my days are spent in total idleness drinking gallons of Turkish tea and really just waiting for the call to go to the embassy to get my passport stamped. I’m embarrassed to say that the bike has been moved twice in three weeks and that was only for the two newspapers that had heard about my ride and did an article about me.

 My computer died on me about a week ago but not before taking with it all my photographs and journals, a computer shop managed to download a new version of windows XP professional for me, much better than the XP home edition that I had been using and retrieve my documents and photos, he charged twenty pounds, unbelievable, a photograph from the local paper will let you see that I’m a relaxed and very well. I hope that you are all well; I will let you know as soon as I get any visa news.

 Fantastic news..see below.

Iranian code‏

 Dear Robert,

Sorry for the delay!

Your Iran reference number was released on 1 March – you will need to quote
ref # 802534 when applying for the visa. You will obtain the visa at the
Embassy in Ankara. The inviting organization is "Pars Tourism Agency".

Please confirm receipt!

Best regards,

Alena
Stan Tours Almaty / Ashgabat

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Asia is calling

 

Athens, Ayacik, Izmir, Selcuk.  Total Kms3987.  

 After a very rough 31 hour crossing of the Aegean Sea on what was an old unstable ferry I finally reached Turkey and felt the weight and challenge of this vast continent of Asia ahead of me. I have to admit that it was with some joy that I had left Europe, not because I found it unpleasant or boring but because it was secure and predictable and a lot less dramatic than I had wanted this journey to be. All the countries I’ve visited so far I’ve enjoyed, France, Italy and Greece but if it hadn’t been for the wonderful people I wouldn’t have been sure what country I was in, the same currency in all three countries (what’s that nonsense all about) the same stores in all of the major cities. I had started the trip because I wanted some adventure in my life and stepping off the ferry in turkey I felt something in the air that made me think this is it, nothing is recognizable, now my journey will really begin.

Ayvacik is a town on the coast and a favorite with day trippers from the Greek island of Lesvos. Tourists staying on the island and Greeks who want a taste of Turkey come here for the day. I waited at the back of the line at customs because I could see they were very efficient in dealing with the day trippers, taking their passports and giving them a receipt so that they could get their passports back when they returned for the last ferry back to Lesvos. I needed a three month visa stamp and had to pay twenty Euros so it would take a bit more time for me to get through. Once out of the customs hall I desperately looked for a sign saying welcome to turkey as I thought it would make a great photo, looking around the port area I couldn’t find one, I will have to wait until I leave Syria and come back into turkey.

 

 I made my way to the hotel district pushing the bike through crowds of people, most of the smaller hotels and pensions had closed up for the winter, even a very expensive looking hotel had closed for a refurbishment. For the first time on the trip I had a feeling that I was going to have a problem finding somewhere to stay, so I decided to ride to the next town, it was only about 50Kms away and as it was still early in the afternoon it would be no problem getting there before dark. Heading out of town with the centre still in sight I saw a small pension at the side of the road, 20 Turkish Lira, about £10.00 for the smallest coldest room I’ve stayed in yet but at least I could walk back to the market and explore the town. The pension was home to about five refugee families from Iraq and Afghanistan, really lovely children, they shouted Mr. eng—lish, I speak eng—-lish, Mr. eng—lish, happy children but with very sad eyes, they know that they are here in turkey with their parents because they have been forced from their homes and have lost everything because of a stupid war, they have walked thousands of miles to get here and now live like ghosts just waiting. I had seen so many of these families in Greece, the men wait at the ports all day in the hope of stowing away on a ferry to a better life. Many of the younger people leave Turkey on small dinghy’s to make the crossing to Greece, it’s incredibly dangerous and not surprising that many drown, the Turkish government is happy to let them go, with the political tension between turkey and Greece always about to boil the Turks are happy to see the refugees making their way towards Greece.

The local bazaar had about 500 shops, banks, a mosque and a police station it’s almost like a small town in itself and it has all the best and worst of Turkeys shopping. Shops selling fake Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Louis Vitton, I’m sure there where even fakes of fakes, you would have to be an expert to tell the difference. I walked a couple of these streets but got fed up with it very quickly and made my way to the food and spice market, much more interesting and filled myself on Turkish sweets all dripping in honey. For dinner I had fresh fish sandwiches at the harbor watching the sun setting and feeling very excited to finally be in Asia. Mr. Eng—lish then returned to a very cold and uncomfortable room.

The next morning it was south to the city of Izmir. I had a route planned for the next couple of months, the area in the centre of the country is very mountainous so the weather will be bad and the route I will follow will take me slightly inland from the coast but still following the Aegean and the Mediterranean to Syria, then after a ride through Syria I will come back into Turkey and make my way East to Iran (visa permitting.) I had heard about Turkish hospitality and was to experience it for myself only a few Kms out of the town. I had stopped at a road junction and the sign showed Izmir to the right, it looked as if the road went into the middle of a huge housing estate and I didn’t want to waste time going in there only to have to come back out again. A young guy stopped in his car, spoke to me in Turkish, then seeing I didn’t understand spoke in English and set me on the right road. About 15 minutes later as I was about to ride past a tea shop the guy who had given me directions called out and invited me to stop for tea. Every book that I had read on turkey had said this was an important part of Turkish hospitality and not to be refused. I ended up sitting for over an hour drinking tea and eating cakes, he left me with his phone and email details saying that should I find myself with any problems to give him a call, I said that I hoped not to call him with a problem but would call just to say hello. I put his offer to the test a few days later when I emailed him and asked him if it would be possible to have my India guide book sent to his address, no problem he said, have it posted to me and when I get the book I will then get my company to deliver it to wherever you are in turkey the next day so that you don’t have to wait around for it. All this from someone who happened to stop in the road to offer me directions. 

Turkey is vast, it feels much bigger than any of the other three countries I’ve been through, there are snow covered mountains on both sides of the road and mountains and road go on for miles into the distance. This can be very soul destroying, the perfect road has hills and bends so that I don’t know what’s around the corner and makes for a good ride but to see the road laid out in front of me is a nightmare. I talk to the bike and say we will slowly chip away at this road and we can do it. The roads although perfectly flat are not always in the best condition, the surface isn’t very smooth and after a few hours riding it starts to vibrate your mind to pieces. The road begins to melt in the heat of the summer and the weight of the trucks forms a ridge between the road and shoulder, if I ride on the right of the ridge I’m in all the stones, glass and junk that is thrown from passing cars, to the left of the ridge and I’m too close to passing traffic. Everyone here waves and calls out as I pass, people working in the fields, farmers picking the last of the olives, shepherds with goats and sheep, and anyone who happens to be on the road, I get the feeling that every truck and car that passes sounds their horn, it isn’t everyone but so many of them do it’s a constant noise on the road. Turkey is notorious for its wild dogs, they run in packs but fortunately don’t get to close because of the fast traffic, they run alongside the bike at a safe distance barking like crazy and finally give up, some run out from behind buildings or from gardens, I’ve become expert at stopping the bike quickly and getting off, once your off the bike and become a pedestrian they are no longer interested and give up the chase.

 Izmir was a laugh a minute. All roads in turkey eventually funnel you onto a main highway and then straight into the middle of a city, twice trying to get into the city the road suddenly became a main highway and I had to ride through suburbs and housing estates following my compass because I have no idea where I was on the map. Even the traffic cop who I asked for directions said 10Kms to the centre, impossible on that and pointed at the bike, not much point in telling him that I had come all the way from London “on that”. The only road I could take that would get me south went through the middle of the city and after a couple of nights in a hotel I was ready to resume the fight. You wouldn’t believe the amount of traffic. Izmir is turkeys third largest city so I’m happy to have missed out Istanbul the largest, everyone drives like a person possessed, I don’t know why but some would be happy to knock me off the bike, what’s wrong with giving me just a little bit of room, I never pass by a car with inches to spare, turn in front of them because I want that turning, get so close behind them that they can feel my front wheel on their bumper, ring my bell as I quietly come up behind them but car drivers do this to me every day. I’m happy to say that I made it, right through the middle and out the other side of the city in one piece.

 From the madness of Izmir to the peace and quiet of the southern Aegean coast with its small fishing towns and beach escapes for wealthy Turks but very quiet at this time of year. I’m in Selcuk, it’s the closet town to the ruins of Ephesus, once the capital of Roman Asia and one of the most important archaeological sites in turkey. I walked along marble covered roadways and columned avenues; it was a fantastic impression of an ancient gateway to the eastern world.

I will spend a little time here sorting out my Iranian visa before moving on, life on the road is slowly changing me, for the better I feel, in what I know call my former life if the clothes didn’t have a Ralph Lauren label then I wouldn’t wear them, I now have two sets of clothes one for on and one for off the bike. I wore a different watch every day of the week, now other than the bike computer I have no watch; I don’t need to know the time. I wore expensive aftershave every day, now I wear Yves saint lasweat, I spend the same amount of pennies on lunch as I would have spent in pounds on a CD every day, yet this is a much better life, the experiences I’m having with people and places is amazing. I’m relaxed, happy and always looking forward to the next day, not every day is thrilling, some can be bloody awful, I received an email from a tour operator who asked if I would be able to take one of his groups on a Britain and Ireland tour next year, I emailed back after a very long wet cold day and told him about the bike ride and that I had been wet all day and wondered if I would ever be dry again and that I was not feeling particularly inspired by the journey.