Sunday, May 31, 2009
Enjoying 4star comfort
OK, the first thing I'll say is that the internet access has not been so readily available since I last updated this blog, so thats why its been a while. But I'm alive and well. So read on and catch up with the latest from Global Cycle Ride.
Today I was rolling across rice paddy fields and long green flatlands when I caught my first sight of the Caspian Sea (or is it a lake). I was finally back at sea level. In fact I was below sea level as this body of water is at -21 M. I had just completed 130KMs and was looking out for a suitable camping ground, when I got chatting to a guy in his mid-twenties named Mohammad. He invited me to his home to meet his family, have food and stay the night. His timing was perfect and I followed him on his motorbike to their beautiful home. I got to met his father and brother and after about an hour we decided to go to another house, where I understood his mother was going to be. I only wish I had brought my camera so that I could have taken photos and shown ye the events of the evening. The house we visited had 11 people there and we all sat down on the floor to a massive feast, which included 19 bowls (I counted them) of different foods. I made a good attempt to leave that house a stone heavier but we still only ate a little more than half the food put in front of us. Afterwards Mohammad and I went to the local saloon to smoke the water pipe with a few of his mates.Next morning we had bread from the local bakery and a selection of jams (Kiwi,Peach and Orange) all homemade and grown in the back garden. Even the tea we were drinking came from the garden and was been dried out on the living room floor. After breakfast, Mohammad jumped straight into 'tour guide mode' and drove me around the city and pointed out all the worthwhile sights. We visited his former workplace, a 4* hotel. And a 4* hotel has a 4* western toilet. Its amazing the things you miss when you're away from home. After lunch it was time to load up and continue on this long journey eastwards. This was just another example of the outstanding goodness of the Iranian people. The language barrier made conversation difficult but it did not stop this family taking me in and treating me as one of their own. Its amazing. And I'm filthy dirty as I'm cycling along this dusty Caspian Sea dual carriageway. By the end of the day, there are streams of sweat, dust and sun cream running down my face, which makes the home invitations all the more incredible.
Saturday, May 30, 2009
I was cycling along when a guy named Samad drove up along side me and we had a chat. He was a schoolteacher in the next town and had good english and invited me to his home for food, lodging and a chat. Samad told me that in Iran it is believed that the traveller, especially the foreign traveller, is sent by God and we must do our best to cater for him. Personally I'm surprised at God sending one so unclean, but Samad didn't seem too bothered. He took me into town to meet the locals and we went for a drive to see the nearby sights.As we were driving around we were stopped at one of Irans' many roadside police check points. Now before I tell this story, I'd just like to point out that there are loads of roadside checks from the police but all through Iran the police have either ignored me or been welcoming to me. (In fact once I got a police escort through a town. They stopped the traffic at each roundabout and waved me through.) And that's what made tonights' proceedings all the more bizarre.So we were stopped at one of Irans' many police check points. The policeman became suspicious of my business in north eastern Iran. Samad explained I was an Irish tourist travelling through the region and that we had met on the road and that he had invited me to his home.
"But he could be a spy", replied the policeman.
"Who would he be spying for?",Samad asked.
"The Irish", replied the policeman.
And so 6 months into GCR, fears were raised that I may be an Irish spy working in Iran. We went down to the police station to answer questions about what a foreign tourist would be doing here. I explained that Ireland was a neutral country, whose small army was only involved in peace-keeping missions and that Ireland and Iran were friends. Just to make this clear. I was only been questioned, not arrested. Anyway, I was cleared to go and there was a lot of shaking of hands, but I had to return to the station the next morning with my bicycle and all my luggage to meet the police chief. This big old fellow took one look at me, said nothing and handed me back my passport. He knew I was neither sent from God nor from the espionage unit of some foreign government. I pedalled out of town quite chuffed that I could be mistaken for 007 material.
If travel was a disease then I'm riddled with it. But no country has ever exceeded my expectations as Iran has. Anyone who says 'The world is a small place' has never really travelled much. With almost 200 countries in the world, I never make a point of returning to a country, no matter how good it is. But Iran is the exception here. I'm definitely coming back to Iran. The reason - Its people. I'm not talking about Iranian politics or religion. This blog is not about that. There are plenty of other websites on that subject. This is about the people. Everyday I was approached and welcomed by the people. Although 99% of the time it was from the men. When I get home from this trip I might check out some blogs of women who travelled solo in Iran because I would be curious as to how they found it. Its easy for a bloke to travel in Iran but women are still, in my opinion, treated as second class citizens. They sit at the back of the bus, they must always have a head scarf on and I noticed they can't join a funeral procession till after the last male mourner. I know some of the areas I travelled through get zero tourists and the fact that I'm travelling on a bike and on my own, means that sometimes the over friendly locals can just get too much. Its overpowering when you are literally dragged into somewhere for tea. Then there was the guy who rode his motorbike along side me for 15KMs even though he hadn't a word of english. I generally communicate using sign language but that isn't easy when you're cyclIng and you're already using both hands to wave at everyone else. Then there was the guy who insisted on buying me new sunglasses. I have a large cracK in the frame of my glasses. I like the fact that my glasses are broken but still usable. It helps dispel the notion that tourists are walking ATMs. But one time I stopped to take some photo next to a street vendor selling shades. An overfriendly local just wouldn't accept that I wouldn't let him buy me new glasses. I had to literally pedal away from him fast. All the offers of food and water when I'm on the road are very welcome but its just the repetition of the same mind numbing pigeon english/farsi conversation that wears you down.During my 21 days in Iran I must have been offered about a dozen invitations to peoples' homes. I was given enough food and water to almost fill a shopping trolley. Not once during my entire time here did I pay for cay (tea). It was always on the house. The people of Iran just continually amazed me with their welcomes and hospitality.
So why are the people so overwhelmingly friendly. I think it can be summarised into 3 main reasons;
Firstly, its a Muslim country and one of the pillars of the Muslim faith is that every Muslim should at some stage in their life visit Mecca if they are able to. And so the people automatically welcome and help the traveller (even though I'm heading in the opposite direction to Mecca)Secondly, these people have been horribly misrepresented by western media and politian's. Its just natural to try and save your good name. And there are so few tourists, they rarely get a chance to welcome people to Iran. I remember one day I was invited into a workshop for some tea and the guy there said; 'Apart from a few tourists asleep on passing buses I was the first he had seen and he was delighted to welcome me to Iran'. These people know they have been unfairly labelled. I have been asked by Iranian people 'why did I come here. Was I not afraid of terrorism in Iran?' And I am constantly asked 'what is my opinion of the Iranian people'. The highest compliment I think I can give to an Iranian is to say that 'I love the people of this country and I'm going to recommend Iran to everyone', which just so happens to be the truth.
And thirdly, these people have a goodness and a curiosity inside them I've never come across before. It is so overpowering it can almost just be uncomfortable sometimes.But all things considered, I loved Iran and the people of Iran are the most welcoming people I have ever come across.
After 4000KMs we finally made from Istanbul across Turkey and Iran to within sight of Turkmenistan. Tomorrow is the last day of my Iranian visa and I'm presently camped in the border compound. It has been incredibly hard going. Since leaving Istanbul 46 days ago, I've only had 2 rest days; 1 in Erzurum, Turkey and 1 in Tabriz, Iran. And these rest days were spent fixing the bike, updating this blog etc. And so tomorrow we leave Iran and (hopefully) cross over into Turkmenistan. So what do we know about Turkmenistan? Lets talk about the visa situation first. Now this is where it gets complicated. Without doubt, the Turkmen Visa has been the single biggest headache of this adventure and I have been researching how to get this visa long before I left Naas. No tourist it seems can get anything more than a 5 day visa unless they join a designated tour. I don't want to join a tour. I want to pedal around the world. But my dream for many years, has been to go to the capital city, Ashgabat, and continue on the road north, directly through the centre of the Karakum desert. But there is no way I could do this in 5 days and either way the Turkmenistan embassy in Istanbul wouldn't give me a visa. The door was firmly shut here. I heard from other cyclists in Turkey that the Turkmenistan embassies in Ankara, Turkey and Mashad, Iran were giving out 5 day visas. Both these cities would add a few hundred KMs onto my bike ride and I was already so strapped for time due to my late departure from Istanbul. And either way, its back to square 1. I would never complete the dream route through Ashgabat and the desert in 5 days.So it seemed like I had 2 choices, neither of which I was happy about;OPTION 1: Strap the bike onto the roof of the bus and do a tour through Ashgabat and the desert. Getting a visa is relativity easy if you join a tour.OPTION 2: Strap the bike onto the roof of the bus and detour through either Ankara or Mashad. Hopefully get a visa here and cycle across Turkmenistan through the shorter southern route.But one thing I have always loved about Asia it that "Where there is a will, there is a way" and a way can be greatly powered by dollars. I got in touch with http://www.stantours.com/. This company is highly regarded in sorting out Central Asian visa problems. I learned that a 'tour' doesn't technically need to involve getting on a 'tour bus'. It just means that you are in the company of a 'tour guide'. So with that in mind, all you need to find is a tour guide willing to cycle through the heart of the Karakum desert. And guess what, Stantours found one. Its the first time this company has done a bicycle tour and most important to me is that the tour continues on my preferred route without any planes, trains or tour buses. I just hope some ambitious young lad in a Raleigh chopper with a flat back tyre doesn't greet me at the border tomorrow.So that's the story with the visa. Now what about the country itself. To be honest I don't know too much about the country but what I do know both fascinates yet confuses me. The country is 7 times bigger than Ireland, yet it has roughly the same population number. The reason for this is because Turkmenistan is 95% desert (but yet it has the worlds biggest fountain). Much of the eccentricity of this country is due to its former president , Turkmenbashi. This chap has a 12M high golden revolving statute of himself in central Ashgabat. His face is on every banknote and every central square and public building is named after him. According to him, if you read his book 7 times in a row, you're guaranteed a place in heaven. He had his own soap opera, 'Turkmanbashi, My leader'. He once sacked one of his ministers on live TV. Although most Turkmen live well below the poverty line, he has spent billions on his palace and yet the country sits on the world's fourth largest natural gas reserves after the U.S, Canada and Russia. Even when a meteor hit Turkmenistan a decade ago, it was called the 'Turkmenbashi meteor'. More than anyone else, this man has made Turkmenistan what it is today. And so tonight I say goodbye to Iran and tomorrow we'll get to face into Turkmenistan.
What a bizarre place this is. Its like Central Asias' answer to Las Vegas. The first thing you notice is the heat and then its probably the marble sky-scrapers everywhere. Considering its 32C in the city its going to hit the forties when we get into the desert. Today I wandered around the city, checked out the revolving statute of Mr Turkmenbashi, the Arch of Neutrality, the Earthquake Memorial, the Turkmenbashi Palace and so on. Its a 'one of a kind' city. White marble building and policemen everywhere. And all the construction that's going on. Its unreal. The 12 metre golden statute of Turkmenbashi is probably the single biggest tourist attraction in Turkmenistan, yet the 2 times I visited it today, there was not 1 other tourist in the area. I couldn't even find someone to say "Excuse me, would you mind taking my picture in front of the shiny dictator?". There was only police, gardeners and some children playing.One policeman came up to me and asked,"Tourist-you?". He then followed me around for a bit,more likely amused rather than suspicious,(I think) at the way tourists just wander around staring up at things and taking photos.Today I met my cycling guide, Vitaly. I dont know how Stantours managed to find this guy. This man seems just perfect for the job at hand. He has a very interesting CV. He started off as a bicycle mechanic for 5 years and worked his way to become a profession cyclist with the former Soviet Union. He has raced throughout Europe and Asia and is now Vice President of the cycling federation of Turkmenistan. For many years he has worked with the Red Cross, which gave him the opportunity to travel extensively. He even worked for a while in Northern Ireland. He generally likes to cycle 40KMs a day just to keep fit and he talks passionately about the sport and about bicycles in general. He a likeable guy who speaks perfect English, loves cycling and is well up for the adventure of biking across the Karakum desert. We met up this afternoon, discussed the plan for the coming week and then went to a supermarket to stock up on food for the journey ahead. Tomorrow we set off at 6am.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
I was biking down the road and I noticed some people setting up a picnic. They signalled me to stop and join them. I waved and said hello and thanks but kept pedalling as I would get nowhere if I was to stop at every invitation. Well they must have packed up the picnic and drove by me, because 10KMs down the road, here they were setting up the picnic and waving at me to join them. I could hardly say no twice. We had a lovely BBQ by the side of the road. Communication was sign language and smiles. Earlier that day and Iranian cyclist welcomed me to Iran and gave me a bag of walnuts. At least (after many attempts), this Iranian family accepts my gift of walnuts. As the day continues I began to enter the emptiness of the arid steppe landscape. Its just fascinating. Apart from the hoots from the passing vehicles and the waves from the people on the road, there's very little else around you. ItS the fact that there is nothing that makes it so special. I've been passing through mostly small dusty villages. All shop fronts look the same and most shop signs are in Farsi and written in Arabic script. This makes it very difficult to tell the difference between a car repair joint that has a few lads sitting outside and a restaurant. I generally increase speed as I'm going through the villages, because if I slow down or stop, I find the attention from the locals almost overpowering. It truly is a country of 100,000 welcomes.Its a pity I'm so pushed for time in Iran. Iran is twice the size of Turkey and more than 20 times the size of Ireland. I'm constantly trying to make up time due to my late departure of Istanbul. I'm just so determined to bike around the world and not take a bus or train or whatever. My Iranian visa runs out on 22-5-09 and I have a plan for Turkmenistan that is coming together slowly but surely.
Okay, just when I thought Iran couldn't get any crazier and things are surely going to calm down now soon, it moves up a gear and goes even madder. The new hotel was super. Western toilets, hot water and an elevator with elevator music. I went out to get some late breakfast and 20 minutes on the street it all began. Amer from Tabriz spotted the tourist looking into his guidebook. We chatted for about 10 minutes as we strolled about the city. He was a very interesting guy with just perfect english. It was his day off work as a teacher and he invited me to a nearby cafe for some tea and a smoke of the waterpipe. We were there for about a hour,then we moved to a restaurant he recommended and had this fantastic dish called 'dizi'. There was quite a lot of skill needed to eat it (its hard to explain), then he took me for a drive around town. We went for another waterpipe in a different cafe, went to the Bazaar (a 1000 year old market with 5000 shops in it). Went to an amazing monument structure that was also a museum to Iran's greatest poet (his name escapes me now). Meet a wonderful old man who ran a shop in the bazaar, went for another waterpipe in a different cafe. The old guy recited poetry in Farsi, then we went to the Blue mosque. And it was about 8pm when Amer drove me back the hotel. This guy just gave up his entire day off to guide me around the city, introduce me to his friends and show me the best places to eat and visit. Apart from the lunch, he paid for everything. And at the end of the day he was so disappointed that I could not stay a few more days so he could take me more places and introduce me to his girlfriend and other people. His final words were "this has been a great day and I will always remember it". Anyone who knows me, knows its not too often I am stuck for words. But this particular evening I was thoroughly stuck for words. Its just so overwhelming. Really overwhelming......... OVERWHELMING IRAN.
Why, why, why do people feel obliged to point you in any random direction so as to be 'helpful' when you ask for directions. If you don't know where a particular place is there's really no problem whatsoever. Considering the population of Iran is 70 million I should be able to find someone else and I'll hold nothing against you. On main roads we have signs in Farsi and English, but once you step away from them its mainly Farsi. When I spot a sign in English and Farsi, I take photos of them to help me locate where I want to go when I only have signs in Farsi.
The day before yesterday, a lovely bunch of people invited me in to their workplace to have lunch with them. Over an hour was spent there and we had great food and interesting chat. It was a great afternoon and many times I mentioned where I was off to next in Iran. After lunch 3 of them walked me out to the door and pointed the exact road to continue on. I was very excited. It would only have been 35KMs to the Caspian Sea and I was steadily dropping altitude. Although mountains filled the horizon, I wasn't worried. Its often the case where you come around a bend and the expected view opens to you. 25KMs later I arrived in a town and asked a man to put an 'X' on my map of where we are. And then it all became apparent. I took the road I was directed and did not miss any turns, but I was sent down into a cul de sac in a deep valley. There was more than 20 people around me, surprised at the sight of this tourist in this remote village. With 3 separate hand written maps I was directed across a 50KM track suitable for 4X4s and motorbikes. I knew if I backtracked to the previous town, I would certainly lose a day, but if I was to continue on this track I might possibly lose a day. I loaded up the bike with 2 days worth of food and 6 litres of water, stuffed myself with food from the village diner and decided to make a go for the mountain pass.To make a long story short, it was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. In the day and a half it took me to get through it, I only met 12 other vehicles. There was tyre splitting pyramid shaped rocks everywhere. When we reached sand we just had to get off the bike and push it and the downhill run was so steep, I tied a log to the back to the bike for over 2 hours to help keep my speed down. Thankfully we got through it without cracking a wheel rim or even breaking a spoke. I climbed from 1400M to 2325M and back down to 800M with an average speed of 7.9 KM/Hr. On the positive side the scenery was amazing and it felt to be on a road that most likely no other Irish person had been on before me. I ended up losing a day anyway but I would recommend the Kolur to Masuleh pass (as long as you are sitting behind the wheel of a Land Rover Defender)