This blog got about 3,800 views in 2012 and most people seem to have been interested in the post about Iran.
I am not updating this blog at the moment, but I hope everyone that looked at it found it helpful.
This blog got about 3,800 views in 2012 and most people seem to have been interested in the post about Iran.
I am not updating this blog at the moment, but I hope everyone that looked at it found it helpful.
And we’ve finally got round to uploading all our photos. There are folders for Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. From Iran onwards we couldn’t get onto Flickr or the blog, and though we were very happy to ask Andrew Estabrook and Graham Brown to help with the blog, it was too much to ask anyone to upload and caption all our pictures.
Thank you to everyone who has followed the blog. We’ve really enjoyed reading all the comments. But now it’s serious job hunting for both of us, although it will probably have to wait until the new year.
So, as they say in France, Joyeuses fetes!
And the landscape had changed. It was gently uphill to the border about 15 miles north of Tashkent and the road was built up with houses all the way. We crossed the border and were immediately in open countryside. To our right rose the snow-covered Tian Shan mountain range and to our left the vast empty rolling Khazakh steppe – a wilderness of grassland extending beyond the horizon without a single house, fence or tree. It was strangely bleak and beautiful and simply overwhelming in its scale. The Feather Grass taller than a person, a fabulous mix of yellows, oranges and browns, rolled like a sea in the constant wind. From time to time we passed herders with sheep, goats or cattle, and sometimes groups of horses grazing. We thought the horses were wild but later found out that they too were being farmed. As well as their ability to range the steppe and herd other livestock, their meat is considered a delicacy.
Almaty is almost like a western European city. Almost. It has department stores and coffee shops and pedestrianised streets. But it still has quite a few Soviet monuments and old Soviet buildings where the hammer and sickle have not been removed. More recently the president’s wife has built a park with a grand sprawling gateway, built of white marble pillars, which would not look out of place in Ashgabat. The streets are full of four-wheel drives and stretched Humvee limos are popular for ferrying freezing brides to have their photos taken in front of the monuments.
We spent much of our time in Almaty trying to work out how to get back to Europe with the bikes. We had planned to get the train, but then we learned that we would probably have to pay heavy bribes to even get onto the platform and would then have to put the bikes onto one of the bunks and share the other one. The train from, Astana to Kiev takes three days so this did not seem like a good plan. We reluctantly decided to fly to Amsterdam.
We are now back in northern Europe. The suddenness of it was a bit of a shock after our slow move across cultures over the past seven months but we re-aclimatised by going straight into Burger King and ordering a cheeseburger. There was something very reassuring about ordering food we recognised, with money we understood in a language we could speak.
And now, we are getting a lot of pleasure from small things such as being able to drink the tap water.
Once again, thanks to Graham Brown for posting this blog from Orkney. We still can’t access the blog or Flickr.
Cycling through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan the layers of history are spread out before you: from the ancient city of Merv with its 300 BC fortress and evidence of Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims we went to the very Soviet city of Turkmenabat. From there we went to Bukhara where Amir Temur (Tamerlane) created the beautiful mosques and medrassas that have been restored to such perfection. Tamerlane was if anything more vicious than Chinngis Khan with his random approach to killing and torture. But since Uzbekistan’s independence he has been promoted to hero of the Uzbeks and his statues now adorn the same plinths that once held statues of Lenin (and before that probably Russian Tsars).
There is little we can say about the beautiful city of Bukhara that has not already been said many times before by guidebooks and travelogues. The centre of the city is overwhelmingly beautiful and everywhere you look there are extraordinary examples of enamelled tile-work or intricate patterned brickwork, minarets and glinting blue domes, The only slightly sad, but inevitable, fact is that all normal life has moved out of the centre of the city to make way for hotels and souvenir shops.
From Bukhara we went to Samarkhand where the medrassas and mosques from Tamerlane’s time have been overlaid with Soviet planning, so are surrounded by huge squares and wide boulevards, where you would expect to see a muddle of streets and mud brick houses. There is an old Jewish quarter near the centre which has been walled off into a ghetto. Presumably because it is too close to the tourist area and considered to be too messy.
After Samarkhand we went to smart Tashkent, another entirely Soviet city which hardly reveals its earlier history at all. Even now older Uzbek courtyard houses are being knocked down to be replaced by modern apartment blocks. But all the new building and modernism cannot completely obliterate central Asian culture and tradition. A walk through Chorsu bazaar in Tashkent reveals noisy, colourful, almost chaotic commerce that feels much closer to the personality of the region.
Uzbek weddings also reveal a depth of tradition that is not so easily quashed. We saw several weddings as we crossed the country. In one town two – one either side of our hotel – competed for supremacy, both with traditional wedding bands beating out music and, from time to time, each sending out their bride for photographs in fairytale wedding dresses made of white nylon fru-fru.
In Tashkent we met Maya whose daughter had recently married. She told us more about the traditions and obligations on families when someone marries. Uzbek weddings are big. This one had 450 guests which is actually quite small. The groom pays for the event and the bride’s family buys the wedding dress and three traditional dresses that are worn the next day. They must also buy traditional gold jewelry for the bride and a complete set of furniture for the new house. The groom’s family provides the house, but in practice this usually means living with his parents – at least to start with. Before the wedding the bride’s mother must invite the groom’s family over for a meal to welcome them into the family and, two days after the wedding, she must visit the newly weds with gifts to celebrate the marriage. At the first Eid after the wedding the bride’s mother sends ten types of cold food and the next morning four types of hot food which her daughter will feed to her husband’s family.
There are further obligations when her daughter becomes pregnant and when she gives birth. If the child is a boy, he will be circumcised at three or four years old. Traditionally at this point the wife’s family would give a horse. Today they usually give money and rent and decorate a horse for the occasion.
All of this is very expensive. For a middle-class family it is typically $20-50,000, which is borrowed from family and friends. But of course this has to be paid back and people need to be ready to help out other family members whose daughters are about to marry. The president of Uzbekistan has advised against such big weddings because of the burden it puts on families but the tradition continues. Maya says it would bring shame on her and her daughter if she did not fulfil her obligations – in some cases couples divorce because the wife’s family does not honour all the traditions.
The majority of people in Uzbekistan are Uzbek but there is a lot of ethnic diversity which is reflected in the faces and the clothes. There are Russians and a large population of ethnic Koreans, forcibly resettled here from the Soviet far east. Traditional Uzbek dress for men is a long straight velvet coat sometimes embroidered and four-sided felt skull caps. The women wear three-quarter length dresses flared from the waist and, under that, trousers with embroidered cuffs. There is an amazing mix of pattern and colour usually overlaid with spangles, sequins and gold brocade – often all on the same dress. This can give an ordinary street scene the appearance of a party about to happen. Many people wear western clothes too and in this conservative country we have been surprised to see some (usually Russian looking) girls in very short skirts and high heels.
Outside the cities, Uzbekistan is full of cotton and it’s harvest time. We rode past endless fields full of women and children crouched over cotton plants picking cotton. We passed depots with great mountains of cotton covered in canvas sheets. Blue tractors pulling wagons piled high with cotton regularly overtook us, drifts of cotton escaping in the breeze. The roadside was littered with creamy white puff balls of cotton blown from the trucks. And we passed people collecting the littered cotton in bags, presumably to sell on. The cotton-pickers are unpaid. Every autumn women, students and children are forced by the government to go into the fields to pick cotton. This has caused international outcry and recently the government made it illegal for children under 16 to pick cotton. But riding past the fields many of the pickers looked very young to us.
Uzbekistan has a very controlling government. There is no media freedom and there is an enormous police force. Drivers are regularly pulled over to have their papers checked. As tourists we were required to get registration slips for every hotel we stayed in. The law states that you must be registered every third day and many tourists have run into trouble because of gaps in their registration. This can result in large fines or bribes. Although we had a few gaps we didn’t have any problems with the police. In fact cycling through Uzbekistan has been a real pleasure for us. The country is mostly flat and the roads are in good condition. The traffic is fairly light and the standards of driving are higher that in any country since we left Europe, but our progress was still slowed by the number of police stops. However, they haven’t been interested in our passports or registration slips. They just want to talk about Manchester United – we know nothing about football, but as the subject is so frequently raised we are learning fast.
In Tashkent we were lent a house by a friend for a few days. It was lovely to be in a local neighbourhood and to be able to cook for ourselves. As someone here told us, Uzbeks like to eat ten times a day. This was borne out on the occasions we were invited to tea with people. It was never just tea and often turned into a full-blown meal. Uzbek food is delicious but the diet relies heavily on meat and they are not afraid of fat. Shashlyk (kebab) grilled over wood embers usually alternates meat and fat chunks. It is served crisp and sizzling with finely diced onions sprinkled with fresh dill and vinegar, and eaten with hunks of bread. There are hearty soups with whole potatoes and chunks of meat. There is a noodle and meat dish called laghman. Osh or plov is made with rice – and meat. And there are samsas – a bit like a meat pasty – stuck to the inside of a tandoor oven to cook and served hot, which became our staple snack food when cycling. In the house in Tashkent we were able to cook vegetables and lots of them. It is always quite difficult to get the quantity of vegetables we are used to when travelling.
But staying in the house meant we didn’t have all the registration slips we needed. Another friend helped us solve this problem. One evening we were driven round Tashkent in the back of a car by two Russian-speaking men, going from one hotel to another trying to persuade someone to give us a registration for a small fee. We had no idea where we were being taken and at one point found ourselves waiting in the dark in the middle of a slightly dodgy looking housing estate with both men frantically making phone calls on their mobiles.
Eventually we found a hotel which agreed to register us for one night. This put us technically within the three day law but still meant we had to be ready with a story about camping in the mountains to cover the missing nights.
When we entered Uzbekistan it was still hot but on our first day there was a sandstorm. Within minutes the temperature had dropped from 28 to 18 degrees and we had to cover our faces with scarves. Even so the sand got into our eyes and throats and stung our arms and legs. By the time we reached Tashkent, it was autumn. The trees were turning red and gold and starting to drop their leaves. The markets were full of their fruits. Pomegranites, persimmons, dark red apples, pears and walnuts sat alongside melons and piles of grapes. The mornings were cold and crisp with clear blue skies. It was still warm enough during the day to wander around in short sleeves but by the evening there was rain, and by 6pm it is dark.
The border crossing out of Uzbekistan was busy and crowded. Our passports were stamped without a second glance and no-one even looked at our so carefully collected registration slips.
This blog has been published by our friend Graham Brown from deepest Orkney as we still can’t update the blog from here. Thank you very much Graham. (Graham: it’s a pleasure. Isn’t the internet wonderful?).
We were in and out of Turkmenistan in a flash, or so it seemed. After all that waiting for our visas in Iran we only got the standard five-day transit visa.
It is possible to cycle across the country in five days and we met a couple of lone fit young men who were doing just that, riding as far as far as they could in a day and camping in the desert wherever they found themselves, but we opted to take taxis some of the way so that we could look round a bit.
Northern Iran is much higher than Turkmenistan so when we crossed the border we had an amazing 30-mile downhill ride to Ashgabat. The first 15 miles was through no-man’s land where we saw a herd of spiral-horned mountain goats leaping across the hills below sheer cliffs and huge black eagles with white spots under their wings climbing the thermals above us. We also started to hear song birds. It was a welcome change from Iran where there are millions of licensed guns and they shoot anything that moves.
Ashgabat is extraordinary. The modern city is built almost entirely of white marble. It has been constructed in the last 20 years as a vanity project by Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan’s first president. As you approach it from the south it rises out of the surrounding dust of the desert looking like the fantasy creation of a science fiction writer.
Once inside the city you are surrounded by thousands of fountains, enormous gold statues of Turkmenbashi, white marble buildings with Grecian columns and gold domes, and tall white marble buildings which appear to be very grand apartment blocks. Everywhere you look there are ostentatious monuments to the great leader and the country.
An army of women keep everything clean and dust free. They sweep the streets, wipe the white marble, polish the statues and even clean the wastepaper bins. Ashgabat is in the middle of the desert but there is not a speck of dust anywhere.
After the complete lack of urban planning in Iran, and once we got over our astonishment, we were almost relieved to see the ‘perfection’ of Ashgabat. But even after the first hour it starts to feel very strange. Apart from the cleaners there are almost no people on the streets and very few cars. The total population of Turkmenistan is only six million yet this city alone could house more than that.
We took the opportunity to go to the ‘British Pub’ where we drank beer and ate fish and chips surrounded by ex-pats. Very nice, but very odd. By the time we left Ashgabat the next morning we were quite happy to go. It is without a doubt the strangest place we have ever been.
We took a taxi half way across the country to Merv which could not have provided a greater contrast. Merv and the surrounding area have been settled since the third millennia BC, but its recent history starts during the time of Alexander the Great around 300 BC and ends in the 13th century when Chinggis Khan rampaged through central Asia destroying everything in his path. It was an important centre on the silk road, and while other cities in the region such as Bukhara and Samarkhand recovered from Chinggis Khan, Merv never really did. We spent a day cycling round the huge complex looking at the sandy remains of 12th century castles, long stretches of ramparts, ice houses and the fortresses and earth works built over the centuries. The oldest section of the ruins is littered with shards of pottery and bones that are up to two thousand years old.
Along the way we were befriended by a group of female students who were visiting the ruins by coach. At lunchtime they invited us to eat with them in a refectory attached to the mosque. We sat cross-legged on the floor as an Imam recited a prayer and we joined in the ritual washing – hands cupped to symbolize holding water and then wiped down the face to symbolize washing. When the Imam had finished we started eating, meat and potato stew served with heavy flat bread and tea. For the students we were clearly the entertainment. They could not stop staring at us which was a good thing as it gave us licence to stare at them. Women and girls in Turkmenistan have a beautiful style of dress. They wear full-length fitted velvet dresses in deep blues, reds and purples, with an embroidered trim around the neckline and in a narrow band down to about waist height. They wear embroidered caps or distinctive cotton headscarves tied at the back. The pattern is usually large brightly coloured flowers on a strongly coloured background. All this colour made a welcome change from the black of Iranian women’s dress.
When the meal ended there was further praying and ritual washing followed by endless photo taking as each girl wanted a picture of herself standing between us.
The next day we took a taxi to Turkmenabat and spent an enjoyable afternoon wandering around the market. And the day after that we cycled across the Oxus and across the border to Uzbekistan.
This blog has been published by our friend Andrew Estabrook because we can’t access WordPress in Iran. Thank you very much Andrew. (The pleasure is all mine – Andrew)
The Turkish border with Iran was straightforward enough, although Graham had to explain four times why Bridget’s passport was in such a state. She had gone swimming in Lake Van fully dressed including her passport. The shore after was a picture laid out with her passport and all her euros and dollars drying in the sun.
The border crossing was a mountain pass so we had been cycling solidly uphill from Van in Turkey and now the road was downhill for 45 miles to Khoy in Iran. As soon as we crossed into Iran the scenery changed from the beautiful but bleak, dry brown Turkish hills with the occasional herder, to a lush green canyon with a river flowing and craggy rocks rising steeply above it. We spent our first night wild camping by the river in a recently harvested field, surrounded by piles of hand-baled hay. Our second night was spent in Khoy where we were given a tour of the city by a man who had learned his English with the British Council before the 1979 revolution.
Out of Khoy we joined the main East/West trunk route across the country. Once part of the ancient silk route, this is now more like a linear industrial estate. Instead of camel caravans the road is populated by large trucks belching black clouds of choking diesel and blasting super-charged air horns in our ears – usually just to say hello, but often so deafening that we were run off the road. To add to this enjoyment cars would often suddenly swerve and stop in front of us just so that they could talk to us.
Nearly every conversation includes the curiously composed question “what is your idea of Iran?” Aware of how poorly their country is portrayed abroad they are keen to counter it. They are also keen to tell us about the restrictions they live under. One young man stopped his car and got out to talk. He had a Masters in agricultural engineering (all the men seem to be some sort of engineer here). His girlfriend eventually got out of the car and joined us but she did not speak. She was wearing jeans but also the all encompassing black chador (tent) that many women here wear. The young man explained that they were on a “four-hour holiday”. He said conventions in Iran meant that for him and his girlfriend to spend time together they had to go to another city or drive out on the highway. They planned to marry in a year or so, but until they had gone through the formal process of being accepted into each others families (and thus being engaged) they should not be seen together.
On another occasion a student spoke to us about the government. He introduced the subject by saying he did not like the name Sepah Square as it was a government name and he talked about the difficulties of protesting here and what happens to those who do, but all the while he was looking around to see who else might be listening to our conversation.
The awfulness of the East/West trunk route was almost redeemed by the encounters we had along the way and the wonderful Iranian truck stops which were a joy. They bear no relation to the soulless motorway service stations of the UK. They are lively welcoming places usually serving freshly cooked food and copious quantities of black tea. The drivers and the owners are often keen to chat – albeit either in Turkish (spoken widely across western Iran) or Farsi. Outside the drivers drench their trucks in water from large fountains before setting off again. Maybe this is a hangover from watering their camels in former era? Or perhaps not.
At one point we stopped in the shade of a parked truck for a breather and within a couple of minutes the driver (a Turkmen) came and offered us tea which we gratefully accepted. He opened up a cupboard door in the side of his truck to reveal a complete camp kitchen with gas burner, larder and fridge. The cupboard door became a table and he produced some folding stools for us. He brewed up green tea, claiming in Russian that Turkmen tea is the best in the world. And then, without asking us he produced a sort of beef confit which he cooked up with some tomatoes and placed in front of us. It was utterly delicious matured beef and barely cooked tomatoes all eaten with fresh white bread. As we ate he gave us his views on Iran. It was clear that he couldn’t wait to get home. ‘Iran’ he said. ‘No beer, no vodka! What’s the point? This kind of generosity has been a hallmark of our time here. We’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve been invited to people’s homes and the gifts of food we have been given.
The sanctions here mean that foreigners cannot use credit cards or travelers cheques (they also mean that there isn’t a McDonalds on every street corner). Before we left Turkey, we spent several days withdrawing our maximum daily allowance in euros until we thought we had enough to sustain us through Iran. Here we change them into local currency and become instant millionaires, with a weekly budget of 4.2 million rials – just under 30 pounds a day. This is enough to live on staying in budget hotels and camping, eating street food – and of course – not drinking any alcohol, which is illegal here anyway.
We haven’t missed the beer as much as we have missed getting any international news reporting. Iranians have satellite TV in their homes and anti-blocking software on their computers, but cheap hotels and internet cafes do not give access to them. We tried reading the English language Tehran Times and one TV channel had rolling English language subtitles of ‘international’ news, but both were so biased as to be laughable.
Iranian cities are in the main are quite ugly and blighted by traffic. As you enter the outskirts, the lack of planning and the many half completed buildings resemble a war zone. The town centres are generally not much better. The buildings are modern and square, put together in a haphazard way and poorly maintained. Much of any town looks like an abandoned building site. Iran has a long history of artistic architecture but only occasionally do you get a glimpse of it. Behind the modern shop fronts, a wooden beam or a mud-brick wall peaks out, not quite covered. Or, tucked away in a back alley you find a beautiful, elaborately tiled mosque with graceful minarets.
The heart of every Iranian city is the bazaar and we found ourselves constantly drawn to them. Trading in the bazaars started over 1,000 years ago and the brick arches of today’s markets are often two or three hundred years old. They are busy, seemingly chaotic and fascinating to wander through, packed full of things we did recognize and many that we didn’t. It took us some time to realise that the sorry looking green fruit we had seen everywhere was actually walnuts still in their husks. A strange contraption like heavy duty scissors mounted on a wooded board turned out to be a sugar cutter. Sugar is much harder than at home here and comes in large chunks.
The bazaars are divided into sections so all the carpet sellers are in one area, spices in another and fruit in another etc. This system spills over into the surrounding streets, thus you can find your way around town by crossing Car Alarm Alley, turning down Ladies Dress Shop Lane, past Greeting Card Close, left along Pneumatic Actuator Alley and into Shoe Repair Square. Squares incidentally are never squares in Iran, but roundabouts.
Off to the sides are old caravansaries, no longer used as stops on the silk route but it is easy to imagine them still full of travelers and animals and traders. Some are now car parks, some are warehousing for the bazaar and others quiet retreats with pools of water or shaded with trees and grass.
According to the guidebook, only 16% of people are living below the poverty line, but this is hard to believe. There are many people trading very small quantities of fruit, cigarettes, watches or anything else they hope will sell from a mat on the pavement. Late one hot afternoon as the bazaar was shutting up, we saw an elderly man standing on a street corner with armfuls of cheap trousers. He looked tired and dejected and we wondered when he had last managed to sell any.
All over Iran the traffic is a problem, but in Tehran it is an infestation of cars and motorbikes growling through the city. Every second business is car-related and with petrol only costing around 20p a litre it is not surprising that Iranians are obsessed with cars. Our hotel in Tehran seemed to be on Car Alarm Avenue – Tehranis in particular delight in the horns, honks, trills, whistles, klaxons, sirens and bell sounds a vehicle can be contrived to make. Their joy at the little beeps of the central locking system is boundless. This constant cacophony was the soundtrack to our time in Tehran.
Road safety is not a concept that has entered Iranian consciousness. Traffic regulations are ignored and you need nerves of steel to cycle here. Being a pedestrian is terrifying. Motorbikes often use the pavement if there is no space on the road and although there is a nominal one-way system in Tehran; vehicles think nothing of going the wrong way up a one-way street. Reversing lights are almost unheard of and looking behind you is considered unnecessary. Indicator lights are used, but we have been unable to fathom what for – it is certainly not to indicate a turn. But we have discovered a cunning cycling ploy. A very clear hand signal completely fazes Iranian drivers and is likely to bring all traffic to a halt as they try to work out what it might mean – very useful!
Traffic signals, especially red lights seems to be advisory and don’t for a moment be fooled into thinking a zebra crossing or a green man means that traffic will stop for you. These things merely indicate that you have a slightly better chance of getting to the other side of the road without serious injury. Our guidebook suggests that the best way to cross the road is to put an Iranian between you and the traffic and follow them through the maelstrom. This is sound advice, but it still tests your nerve to do it.
Outside the cities, most people try to drive on the right except when approaching a blind bend when it is usual to overtake. We saw one truck swapping drivers as it joined the freeway – without stopping. On major, fast-moving roundabouts we saw families picnicking, their rugs spread on the tarmac next to their cars, as the traffic swerved around them.
Of course it’s easy to make light of all this but tens of thousands of people are killed or maimed every year on Iranian roads. To witness this collective insanity going on around you every day on such a scale is disturbing indeed.
We had to spend a frustrating two weeks in Tehran as we waited for visas. We used the time to visit the amazing Golestan Palace, built over many years by succeeding Shahs. Modern Iranian taste is kitsch in the extreme, but one look at Golestan shows you that it has a respectable heritage: the amazing mirrored halls, covered floor to ceiling with thousands of tiny mirrors cut in floral and geometric shapes; enormous crystal chandeliers, the light reflected in the twinkling mirror mosaic; floors covered with hand painted tiles and walls with enamel tiles in relief, each depicting a different scene. Every possible surface is adorned with some form of patterning.
While we were waiting we also went to Esfahan, one of the very few attractive towns that we visited. The Old Si-O-Se Bridge (so called because it is made up of 33 arches) crosses a broad seasonally dry river. At night young men sing soulful songs and play traditional music under the flood-lit arches. Many come to listen including a high proportion of young women. The romance of the setting is not lost on them or us. In Esfahan, we also visited the grand mosque and Imam Khomeini Square. The mosques are simpler and in some ways more beautiful than the elaborate palaces. Soaring brick built tiled arches, patterned with verses from the Quran and geometric patterns are made from individually cut tiles coloured with lapis lazuli. They are often vast with grand courtyards and provide a calm space in the middle of noisy Iranian cities.
When we finally left Tehran we thought we would only be a few more days in Iran, but now we are stuck in Mashhad and appear to be at least another week away from getting our visa for Turkmenistan. By the time we leave we will have been in Iran almost seven weeks. It is definitely time to go.
We seem to be having a bit of a mid-trip dip as we’ve found the past few weeks pretty tough. The heat, the terraın, a good measure of homesickness and the effort of trying to organise basic things like food and accomodation in a foreign language day after day is quite a struggle at the moment. It is compounded by Ramadam which means we have to be discreet about eating and drinking during the day as most people are fasting. We have deliberately slowed down a bit in order to try to cope better with the heat and to allow Graham’s knee to recover. A recent altercation with a cockroach and a shower plughole caused him to bend his knee in the wrong direction and bruise hıs toe. He is now limping – and complaining bitterly (as usual).
Ramadan began on 1 August. During the day shops are open but restauants and tea houses are closed. In consideration for those who are fasting no-one eats openly in daylight hours, although there is a dispensation for travellers. One day when we stopped to fill up with water we found a group of Iranian truck drivers sitting behind their vehicles to eat. We are carrying tinned food such as dolmas and beans that can be opened and eaten quıckly without attracting too much attention.
People who are fasting have finished breakfast by 5am and then have nothing to eat or drink, not even water, until sunset at 7.30pm. With temperatures reaching 40 degrees and many people doing physically demanding jobs it is hard.
From about 6.30 in the evening, shops are pulling down their shutters and the tension starts to build as people anticipate ‘Iftar’ breaking of the fast. Restaurants and teahouses start layıng out theır tables in the street. From about 7pm the tables begın to fıll wıth expectant diners, waiting quietly, fidgeting with prayer beads, ashtrays or sugar bowls. Often the salad, bread and water are already on the tables but no-one would consider starting to eat before time. At every place setting there is a date. Traditionally this is the first thing to be eaten as this is how Mohammed broke his fast.
Just before 7.30 we hear the amplified crackle of the loud speaker. The Imam is makıng sure that it works and is checking his watch to be certain of calling on time. And then the call, on the dot of 7.30. The tension breaks as everyone starts to eat. There is a frantic but organised serving of food in the restaurants but the rest of the town is eerily quiet.
By 8 o’clock it is all over. The restaurants start to clear up and the teahouses start to fıll. For a couple of hours the men relax in the teahouses, drinking tea, chatting and playing backgammon. You never see women in the teahouses (except western women occasionlly).
This part of Turkey is almost entirely Kurdish and the people we have spoken to have strong views about creating a Kurdish state. One man told us that it was the Kurds who had shown the US where Saddam was hiding and he was sure that, in recognition of this, America and Isreal were in secret negotiations to create a Kurdish homeland. This seems unlikely as it would require Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq all to cede territory and they are barely talking to each other, let alone to America and Israel. But, the man said, ‘Kurds are brave. we will fight if necessary’.
This area has not always been majority Kurdish. Until the early 20th century there was a large Armenian population around Lake Van who were either driven out or massacred. There are few Armenians here now, but their churches remain and we visited one perched on a small rock island in the lake. The area has also been home to the Seljuks. Nestorians and earlier to the Urartıans.
We visited a beautiful Seljuk cemetary along the north shore of Lake Van. Around 700 years old. it covers and area of about two kilometres with hundreds of inticately carved stones up to three metres ın height. Most of the stones are covered in lichen and the wildness of the surrounding landscape adds to the atmosphere. It feels a little like the Carnak alignments in Brittany
We had mixed experiences riding along the shore of Lake Van. On a few occasions small boys threw stones and glass at us. The nearby adults seem to think this is normal ‘they’re kıds, what do you expect!’ But on one occasion, when Graham was in a shop, an elderly man with prayer beads spent his time chasing away the boys who were harrassing Bridget as she waited outside with the bikes. Just before we left he rushed into the shop and bought us a bottle of ice cold water. It was a gesture we felt he could probably ill afford and one which we could not possibly refuse.
Further along the shore, Graham’s chain broke. We stopped outside a cement works to fix it and were immediately surrouned by six or seven curious men wanting to watch or help – we weren’t sure which. It was hot, there was no shade and we were tired. We tried to move them away to get a little space but to no avail and eventually we had to let them take over. Within 20 minutes the group of helpful men had swollen to 12 plus a few boys and the chain was as good as new, minus a couple of links. Nearly everyone had oil on theır hands and Graham was led away to a tank of cold water and some frightenıng chemical cleaner which instantly returned his hands to theır usual pristine cleanliness (he now has no fingerprints).
Lake Van was formed 60 million years ago when the volcano Nemrut Dağı errupted creating a barrier to water flowing out. Rivers now only flow in and the level is maintained by evaporation. It is much saltier than the sea which gives it an astonishing turquoise blue colour. From a distance it is truly beautiful but close up the pollution becomes obvious. It is littered with plastic debris and many of the coastal towns are pumpıng raw sewage straight into the water. We found one place clean enough to swim but it was impossible in most places. There is also industrial agriculture around the shore which uses a lot of fresh water from the rivers for irrigation. Over time we think this must affect the water level of the lake.
In this area we also came across our first disabled toilet at a service station. We were impressed and went to have a look. It was a ramp leading down to the usual squat toilets. Leaving aside the question of whether someone in a wheelchair could use a squat toilet, we relaised that if they were unwise enough go go down the ramp they would not be able to get back up. There was no space to turn the chair and in any case the ramp was so steep it would have been impossible to ascend. Still, a step in th right direction we thought.
Many of the people in this part of Turkey are poor. It is common for boys over the age of eight to be working. Some of them hawk tissues or cigarettes on the street, some walk round bathroom scales and persuade people to check their weight. Others support older relatives by touting for shoe shines or working in shops. Children are often still working at nine or ten at night.
We have seen quite a few beggars and one evening, as we were eating, an old woman sat down at a just vacated table next to us and ate as much left over food as she could before she was chased away by the restaurant owner.
We took the boat across Lake Van to the cıty of Van. The boat takes trains across the lake – it isn’t that big, but it takes nine carriages which we watched being shunted onto the boat in three lines of three. We wheeled our bikes on behind. No ropes, just parked on their stands behind the trains. We were two of only four passengers, the other two traveling by car also parked behind the trains. It was a ro/ro ferry without stern doors. This would be illegal in Europe, but given that the whole boat was rusting away before our eyes, this was small concern. Upstairs a sign warned ‘to save your lıfe do not lean on the balusters’. The ‘baluster’ turned out to be the wooden rail around the boat which came away in rotting handfuls when we held on to it. Most of the lifebelts were missing and the very sorry looking lifeboats did not look as though they would hold water for long. Luckily we didn’t have to find out.
It was a beautiful crossing lasting four and a half hours. We sailed close to the sourthern shore where the mountains rise almost vertically from the surface of the water, broken only by the occasıonal small remote bay with Kurdish village houses.
We arrived in Van where we are now and found what we thought was a quiet hotel, but it turned out the builders were just taking a break. Banging started in earnest as we tried to take a snooze. Bits of plaster cascaded into our bathroom and they appear to be taking out a suporting wall above our room. We are just keeping our fingers crossed that they know what they are doing.
If you’d like to see more of our pictures you’ll find them here.
After nine days hanging about it was a relief to be on the boat to cross the Black Sea. But in typical Ukrainian fashion the process of boarding took several hours. We collected our embarkation cards and waıted. We had our embarkation cards stamped and waited. We had our passports checked and we waited. We went through customs, declared we had no guns or bombs and waited. Our bikes were too big for the scanner so they took our word for it that we had nothing dangerous or contraband with us. I would like to recommend to smugglers everywhere to travel by bicycle. Once through to the port area we waited agaıin – and then fınally after about five hours we boarded the boat. By 8pm that evenıng we were sittıng down to our dinner, only the boat didn’t leave untıl the next morning and the bar didn’t open that night so we continued to wait.
It was a very calm crossıng although not uneventful. One evening a dramatic electrical storm flashed and circled the boat for a couple of hours lighting the sky and the horizon but never coming close enough to dısturb the water near us. One afternoon heavy black clouds produced water spouts which reached down to the sea in long black needles and caused the sea to leap up to join them. On another afternoon a school of small dophıns followed the boat for a whıle.
Batumi was a surprise and a delight. For a start it is very green as are the mountains rising immediately behind it. There are green lawns and pine trees running down to the sea. It is a riot of different architectural styles shoved together in a small space. That, and the cobbled streets give it the feel of a European city, but with people who are welcoming and friendly in a decidely non-European way. We were immediately sorry that we couldn’t stay longer but we had a time limit on getting to Erzurum to collect our Iran visas.
The next morning we cycled into Turkey along a beautiful coast road with towerıng mountains to our left and the sea to our right. We passed several waterfalls cascading down hundreds of feet of near vertical rock. We stopped that afternoon at Hopa, just before turning inland, because we thought it best to tackle the big climb into the mountains early in the day.
We got about half way up the frst climb of about 700 metres. The initial fve mıiles were easy, a gentle managable climb. The next five miles were considerably steeper – often 10% or more – the heat and humidity were exhausting and we were reduced to pushing long stretches. Clearly we were not going to get very far. A pick-up truck offered us a lift and we took it to the next town, another 20 mıles of steep uphill. We decided we should take a bus to Erzurum.
Even the occasional look out of the bus window would have confirmed the impossibility of riding this route. The road wound up through a spectacular gorge, sometimes climbing above it and sometimes dropping down to the level of the river. The surrounding mountain peaks reach almost 4000 metres. The climate and landscape changed as we gained height. We had started our bus journey in a hot, humid, green, tea growing area but by the time we reached Erzurum at around 2,000 metres we were in an alpine zone wıth dry brown rock and much less dence flora. Stıll hot, but dry so much more comfortable.
That evening we met some Australian cyclists who had ridden an alternative slightly gentler route up from the Black Sea coast. One of them had collapsed and fallen off his bike en-route from heat exhaustion and dehydration. He had made a complete recovery but as they were 30 years younger than us we felt slightly better about our decisıion to get the bus.
Erzurum is an interesting city wıth surprisingly few toursts. In 1919 ıt was the scene of a conference where Ataturk paved the way for the formation of modern Turkey. Today it is modern, buzzing and affluent, but it is also home to an important Madrasa fırst constructed at the end of the 13th century and several beautiful old mosques. The mix of Eastern and western cultures ıs apparent walking through the city. Women here dress ın a range of styles which include everything from being completely covered with a net over the eyes through to strappy tops and shorts. Many women opt for a ‘manteau’, a kınd of long trench coat over normal clothes and a headscarf. In the restaurants ıt is usual for women and familes to sit upstairs or outsde, but not generally insıde on the ground floor where only the men eat.
The food (a subject always close to our hearts) is very good: thick lentil soups at any time of the day, grilled meat and salad, bread, yoghurt, salty black olives, cream cheese and honey as well as a huge selection of fresh and dried fruit. And of course, as many glasses of hot sweet black tea as you can drink.
In Erzurum we have collected the maps and guıde books for the rest of our trıp from the poste restante and our Iranian visas. The visas have trebled in price in the past few weeks and we had to pay three times as much as a French couple who got theirs at the same time. We can only assume that this is because of the worsening relations between Britain and Iran. Thank you David Cameron!
We have another two and a half weeks in Turkey visitıng the palace at Dogubayazit and Lake Van before crossıng the border ınto Iran. Bridget has bought a headscarf and voluminous top which we are hoping will pass muster at immigration. Fingers crossed.
We crossed the border from Poland on the main Krakow/Lviv road, but almost immediately turned south into the Carpathian mountains. We were rewarded with terrible raods and beautiful scenery. Initially there were some similarities with the neighbouring part of Poland: beautiful roadside shrines and grand churches, some Catholic, some Orthodox; cemetries where the graves are garlanded with plastic flowers and improbable looking haystacks. Ukrainian haystacks are a work of art. Of varying heights up to about fifteen feet, they are built around a single pole and resemble mushrooms. Some are propped from the outside and others sway precariously in the breeze. They look as though a strong gust of wind would topple them, but presumably it doesn’t.
There are many hangovers from the Soviet era including some of the hotels. Our first night was fine. We found a very nice ensuite room with hot water for about eight pounds. The next night we asked a taxi driver if he knew of somewhere we could stay. He took us to an apparently derelict building with goats grazing in the yard. We gathered from him that it was originally an Austrian army barracks (which would date it late 19th century we think) converted by the Soviets to a workers hostel and not improved since. Long drab echoing, high ceilinged corridors leading to bleak rooms. Ours was shabby but reasonably clean, but the squat communal toilets you would not want to linger in and the dimly lit washroom had a growling wood burning boiler with rusty pipes leading to open shower cubicles and two ancient, equally rusty bath tubs side by side.
That night we had a very good meal at a restaurant next to the central bus station. Outside a bus was slowly filling with people while the bus driver, taking his break at the next table to us, downed two large tumblers of vodka. When the bus was full he took his position at the front of the bus and drove off. Clearly his passengers were used to this.
We entered Ukraine with a certain amount of apprehension, mainly thanks to Ivan the paranoid Hungarian who we met in Krakow. He was concerned about all our plans for Ukraine. On the subject of wild camping, he advised an unused track deep in the forest hiding our bike reflectors lest they be seen “by those you don’t want to meet”. Roaming the land like zombies – presumably! Well Ivan we didn’t encounter and zombies. The only people we met in the forest were impoverished old women gathering a gourmet selection of wild mushrooms, sour cherries, raspberries and tiny, intensely flavoured wild strawberries, which they sold from wooden stools beside the road. We wanted to buy more, especially the mushrooms, but with nowhere to cook we had to be satisfied with forest berry jam, so good we ate a whole jar in on e opening.
The lowest demonimation banknote in Ukraine is one Hryvnia, worth about 8p. This is divided into 100 Kopeks so each Kopek is worth 0.08p. There is a shortage of this very small change and if a shop has no change, the cash draw sometimes has a compartment containing a selection of boiled sweets which are given instead. Presumably these sweets have some monetary value equivalent to the unavailable change. Maybe this has something to do with the splendid sets of gold and silver teeth in the mouths of people – especially the older generation.
As we moved further east and came out of the mountains the landscape and culture changed. Small scale strip farming made way for enormous agri-business fields of wheat, maize and and sunflowers. Gone were the elaborate roadside shrines, replaced by austere revolutionary monuments. At some point around Vinnitsia (one of the centres of the Orange revolution) we crossed an invisible line where people stopped speaking Ukrainian and started speaking Russian. Not that it makes a huge difference to us as our grasp of either language is frustratingly limited. When we tell people we are cycling to Odessa they reply “Ah Od-es-sa” stringing out the central syllable in a way that makes it sound like a location in a 1960s cold war spy film. In rural Ukraine very few people speak any English.
In a small town in central Ukraine we came across the Ivana Kupala festival. The origins of this festival seem to be a mid-summer celebration corrupted by Christianity and thus moved from the summer solstice to 7 July, the birthday of John the Baptist. It was a bit like a village fete starting with folk singing and dancing, followed by a huge bonfire and accompanied by balloon sellers, a candyfloss stall and a beer stand. The whole town turned out for it, most in their best clothes, especially the young girls who were wearing an astonishing assortment of frocks and preposterous heels. Apparently as the evening wears on, young couples jump over fires holding hands. If they can maintain their hold it is proof that their love will last. We didn’t see that. In fact most of the young people seemed to be in the bar/disco downstairs from our hotel more interested in eating and drinking in preparation for a night on the subterranean dance floor than jumping over hot coals.
Odessa which we have now reached is a massive contrast to rural Ukraine. It’s smart and cosmopolitan and is, in many ways, like a western European city. People are well dressed and we don’t feel we have the right clothes. But scratch beneath the surface as we did today when we sent a package back to the UK and echoes of the Soviet past are loud. It took nearly two hours, several forms and a minute examination of the contents as well as a mailbag cut to size and sewn on a treddle sewing machine while we waited. The package was finally tied with string and closed with a lead customs seal before we were directed to another counter to pay. Let’s hope it actually arrives.
Our three weeks traveling across Ukraine has been a mixed and surprising experience. Until Odessa we saw no other tourists. Even for the hardiest cyclist, the roads are difficult. The surfaces indicated by the maps have been unreliable. We have encountered some steep cobbled climbs and sections of unridable road. One road shown on the map became a tractor track and then a field – we had to turn back. Some hotels have been awful and some OK, the food has generally been excellent, the landscape beautiful and made more interesting by the constant reminders of the Soviet past. But shining through all of this is the people who are everywhere warm and welcoming. Everyday we fell into long incomprehensible conversations, no-one really understanding what was said but it never really mattered. We rode away feeling we had made some contact. There were many little acts of kindness such as the man who gave us home-grown tomatoes, bread and salt at a roadside tea stall and the woman who gave us some of her shashlik when she realised we were foreign. She insisted hers was the best shashlik as she too was a foreigner from Armenia.
We cannot recommend rural Ukraine to the casual traveler. You would have to really want to see a rapidly disappearing eastern European history to come here, but the difference in the major cities such as Odessa is proof that it is changing fast.
If Ukraine deserves anything it is better people running the country than have in the past and probably better than those they have now. (Guess we’d better leave quickly now).
We’d like to say a special thanks to Thomas Drane for being a fantastic source of up-to-the-minute information on the countries we are traveling through. It has made the trip so much easier having someone at home sending us useful stuff. Thanks Thomas.
Leaving Dresden we headed north and then north east to take advantage of the relatively flat terrain to try to make up some lost time. We made good pregress now, regularly hitting our 50 mile a day target and sometimes exceeding it up to 80 miles. To be fair the wind helped us, a stiff follwoing wind produced the state of Nirvana rarely achieved by mortal cyclists, bombing along in top gear whilst seemingly travelling in still air.
Crossing the border from Germany at Guben, within the 50 yards it took to cross the bridge, we immediately noticed that Poland had a more lived-in feel to it. Our first night camping by a lake, the owner shrugged when asked how much “I dunno, 20 Zloty OK?” (about a fiver). He then showed us how to fire up the calor gas burner for a hot shower and his wife arrived with tea, coffee, sugar and a pan of hot water and gave us the key to her husband’s private fishing caravan so that we could use the stove to cook and sit under the veranda as a thunder storm passed. Instead of the high-tech showers of Germany where you need a pin number for a pee and a swipe card for a shower which gets you precisely 4 minutes of hot water, we only had to balance the hot and cold taps lest the boiler overheat and cut out, while swallows dipped and dived between the beams of the converted barn that served as the wash-house.
On cycling in Poland, our guidebook tells us the roads are good and the traffic is light. The author is clearly not a cyclist and we began to doubt if he had actaully been to Poland at all. The roads we have experienced are wrist breakers. The traffic may be light by British standardsbut what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in appalling driving standards. We’ve been run off the roads and seen several accidents – but as we go further east and standeards deteriorate we may look back on this fondly.
Poland apparently has about 500 campsites, which may be so but finding the blighters is a problem. The maps are innacurate and there is no definitive list. Once on a campsite, we come across the usual international brigades of motorhomes. The Dutch are the universal travellers of all ages – great outdoorsy people with famously liberal habits, which is OK apart from our middle-aged, slightly slack-bellied, neighbour wearing nothing but tight red speedos verging on a mock thong. A little distracting as we tucked into our dinner of smoked sausage and sourkraut.
We spent a day in Czestochowa, site of Catholic pigrimage to about 5 million people a year who come to see the Black Madonna. This portrait is known as the Miraculous Image because legend has it that it became heavier and heavier as theives tried to steal it. In frustration they slashed her face with knives. Mass is said almost contiuously in the chapel and hundreds of girls and dozens of boys were dressed to take their first Holy communion.
From here east, then looping south, to Krakow. Krakow is the jewel of Poland and we have spent 4 days here. Its galleries and museums far too numerous and what we crammed in, far too numerous to go into here.
We don’t have much opportunity to try local food while we are on the move, but in Krakow we have discovered how delicious Polish food is. We have also tried the Bison vodka flavoured with grass which only grows in one particular forest in Poland.
An unexpected find was a bridge of locks across the Wisla, where thousands of lovers express their devotion to each other with a padlock inscribed with their names attached to the bridge. They then throw the key into the river, although a couple of combination locks suggest slightly less confidence in the eternal nature of love.
From here we go east again into the Carpathian mountains in the Ukraine. With only 3 days left in Poland we will be sorry to leave. So now we are genning up on the Russian alphabet in an attempt to make sense of the Ukraine.