Asian Internet

12 07 2011

Iran filters it’s internet. In country, it has been dubbed the filter-net.

China does the same thing. It seems that Iran uses the Chinese technology to filter the internet. The China version is aka The Great Firewall of China.

Pakistan uses a slightly different approach. When you get online, nothing appears to be blocked. Or perhaps that should be “If you get online…”. Especially in the north, where I have just been.

I haven’t worked out just why, but Pakistan is having all sorts of problems with keeping the electricity on. I thought this was just in the north, way up in the mountains, but it is all over the country. I’m in Islamabad (the capital) now, and just now the power has gone off (Laptop + battery = power independence + I didn’t lose what I just wrote). The fan stops, and instantly it feels 10 degrees hotter. the locals tell me they are rolling blackouts, which implies it is due to a lack of generation capacity. This from a country that is proud to have nuclear weapons. Priorities?

So, when the power is on, there should be internet. Well, I found one satellite connection in Hunza… except the power was never on. And a few days later, a connection in Gilgit, and when the power was on, the internet didn’t work. At one point the stars did line up, and we had both, but it was so slow that it made dial-up look blazingly fast.

And so with no trickery at all Pakistan joins the last two countries I’ve visited as internet black spots. The problem is I could geek out and find ways to get around the filtering in Iran and China, but having the power pulled really makes things difficult…





Loss of a friend

30 06 2011

As I wrote a little while ago (yesterday if you believe the posting date), I decided to ride back up the road to the pass to the Pakistan / China border to see the road, mountains, etc. After all, that is what I came here for.

2011_07_01 08_15_28Everything was going well, the construction crews were friendly and the scenery jaw-dropping. On the second day, at almost exactly 4000m I came to a slight problem on the ‘highway’. Right where the Chinese were constructing a bridge to go over a glacial stream, the same stream had washed out the road dirt track that passes for the KKH.

So I did what cyclist do in these situations. I jumped off, took all the luggage off the bike and carried it all over. In several trips. Simple. Not so simple for the trucks and cars that were lined up the next morning.

It seems I may have not put it all back on perfectly, because when I stopped to say hello to yet another construction crew only a few kilometres later I noticed that Ojo, my little purple misnamed bear, who had been with me since day one of the trip in Spain had jumped off.

2011_06_30 12_10_13

Where’s he got to now?

I’d recently lost my ‘Oia Cycling Club Angel’ to a thief in Yazd, and was fairly cut-up about that. But at the same time, Ojo had been gathering charms – prayer beads in Esfahan, a hair tie in Yazd, and most recently a bracelet in Tehran. I wish I had a photo of him all blinged up…

2011_06_30 19_20_17I knew roughly where he’d jumped ship, so I went back to look for him. Roaming around looking for something isn’t a trivial task at over 4000m. I rode back and forth on the road where I knew he must have jumped off. I enlisted the help of the Pakistani road construction crew. They thought I was a little crazy, but searched anyway. I asked everyone who came along if they’d seen him, but no-one had (or would admit it). I stayed the night in the area, looking until dark but to no avail. Only the Chinese crew didn’t help (because we couldn’t speak to each other).

It appears that Ojo (eye) – who should have been named Osso (bear) if only I knew more Spanish – has decided to stay and help out with the construction of the KKH at 4000m altitude. 11 months and 19,000km of being together and he leaves without saying good-bye. I hope he enjoys it up there.

Later on, I saw some Yak, a family of Ibex and a tribe (?) of Golden Marmots at around 4700m. And the odd mountain. All is not lost.

yak

Marmot

2011_07_02 09_07_24





Pakistan, Day 1

29 06 2011

About 3 hours into Pakistan, I was ready to turn around and go home. I haven’t had such a disappointing entry into a country.

I had climbed out of China the last few days, with the Belgians I met in Kashgar. They finally decided to avoid any visa / monsoon hassles and stay in China and so we split at lake Karakol (which was a bit of a disappointment after 2 days cycling uphill). I know I wasn’t much company for them – day one I had some digestive problems, and day two I had had altitude problems. At around 3000m – I’m getting worse at this.

The high pass in China is only 4072m. I survived that, without even a headache, and rode hard to get into Tashkurgan in the mistaken belief that I might learn something there. I didn’t, but I did spend the last of my Chinese Yuan on an expensive (for my standards) hotel – and arrived too late to buy something to eat.

What I failed to learn, until the next morning, is the Chinese Police wont let you cycle out of China. You must take the bus. I had been expecting this, so everything went well (except I didn’t have any Chinese currency left to pay for the bus). I had also been led to believe that I could get out of the bus as soon as we hit Pakistan. The Chinese Immigration people agreed, and even helped me by asking the bus driver to let me out as soon as we’d left China (since I couldn’t talk to the driver myself).

KKH on the China side is a little dull, so driving along it didn’t stress me out too much (although I would have liked the challenge of going to almost 5000m again). What did get me stressed was just across the border the Pakistani police wouldn’t let me off the bus as I’d planned. Despite my pleading, and then begging. And the road goes from tarmac to horrendous dirt track literally on the border, so not only was I sealed in the bus, but it was bumpy as hell. Then the bus broke down (which I had to help jerry rig a fix). Then the scenery got amazing, and I was flying past in a bus. And the scenery got better, and I couldn’t even take a decent photo, we were bouncing around so much. The final insult was a check point where they demanded we pay a park entry fee. I might have lost my cool for a while there. I was seriously entertaining the idea of just bussing straight to Islamabad to get the hell out of this country.

Then we arrived in Sost. I was still fuming at the waste of coming all this way to just see the road from a bus. Immigration turned out to be fairly simple – I got a visa on arrival as I’d hoped. And it was cheaper then I’d expected. Although the Immigration guy must have caught wind of my bad mood, because he did offer to deport me. More than once. Perhaps it was something I said. But then the police / customs / immigration people allowed me to ride back up the ‘highway’ to the pass. And the Chinese bus driver offered to even take me back there and drop me off (tomorrow). And I found some good, cheap bread (a rarity in China). Suddenly I was riding around in the mountains, and everything was right with the world.

Could I be so superficial, that just forcing me to sit on a bus could turn my mood south? And it can all be repaired by letting me ride my overloaded bike up a dirt track? What is wrong here?

The people I met on the road are super friendly. Many of the Taliban-bearded, dark looking evil Pakistanis (which we could all recognise thanks to the propaganda we get fed in the West) broke into some of the biggest smiles I’ve seen when I rode past and gave them a grin.

Maybe I’ll give this place a second chance. Hopefully I get to the pass tomorrow – otherwise the immigration people might start to worry about where I’ve got to.





Hair loss

24 06 2011

I’m still in Kashgar. Mentally preparing for what’s coming. Well, no, I’m waiting for a Belgian guy to turn up so I can ride with his mate. I think a small group for the next bit is a good idea. (See? I am sensible, after all).

This seems to be a hub for travellers. Yesterday there were 9 cyclists in the youth hostel – and I know of others. And a few ‘traditional’ back packers. And they are all French. Something strange is going on here. Maybe Sarcosey has sent them all away for the elections.

So I went out to eat with some of the French. For a lot of the time, they were speaking English, just for me. In amongst all the other traveller conversation, for some reason the girls started talking about how their hair is falling out. They came to the conclusion that it was the diet and altitude that was causing it.

Eureka! I’m sure it’s not true, but I think I might have to recycle that excuse.





Massive Cheat

22 06 2011

When I started this little ridie thing, I had a crazy idea that I might be able to cycle all the way home. Except for the obvious bit that was frequently pointed out to me in Europe – the last part between about Singapore and Darwin.

I was doing pretty well until Greece. Every kilometre had been peddled. Then someone turned on winter and the plan started to get a bit wobbly. I tried pretty hard to work out a way to get out of winter without flying, but it turned out to be damn near impossible (without making some rather absurd travel arrangements, such as going all the way back to Venice to take a boat via Syria to Egypt – with accompanying visa dramas). As you probably noticed, I had to cheat to get to Egypt and start the ‘Revolution Route’ side trip. Riding though Egypt during a revolution, which, it has been pointed out to me, it took me a week to notice.

And then the problem of what to do post Iran became a reality. I like the idea of riding through Central Asia, and probably will do it one day. But I couldn’t stand the idea of making a plan, and then arranging all the visas around this. It just didn’t fit (and another reason has surfaced that will become evident in September). So I looked at going through the other options, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some crazy people are travelling in Afghanistan, but I’m not that crazy. I couldn’t get a Pakistan visa (without flying back to Australia to organise one – and that seems rather silly to me).

So I stressed and bit my nails, read lots of things on the internet and finally decided that one part of Pakistan didn’t sound too dangerous, at least relatively. And it sounds like it is possible to get a Pakistani visa at the border with China. So I crossed my fingers for the Pakistan visa, got my Chinese visa in Tehran, and tried to work out how to get to the far west of China. I failed to find any decent option on the internet, but through blind chance (while at a diplomatic function at the Norwegian Embassy) I was told about a direct flight to Urumqi on a Chinese airline (by an Italian Architect).

Long, long, long story short I got a plane ticket and enjoyed my last few days in Iran. Louis and Lysanne, a couple of Quebecois cyclists doing something similar to me, helped me out no end by arranging a (very small) bike box and a place to crash in Tehran – while I watched lunar eclipses and ate watermelon and ice cream, although not at the same time, in Yazd.

L, L & I spend the better part of a day and a half solving the puzzle that is packing three bikes into boxes that are far too small for them. Some cursing, much gnashing of teeth and at least one stupid mistake on my part when removing the pedals and the bikes were packed away. Poor Frankenbici had all manner of bits pulled off him for the packing. It’s the first time I’ve had to remove the forks (and pretty much everything that can be removed) to put a bike in a box.

I tried to send some winter clothes home but at the post office I had a change of heart, when I decided I didn’t have any confidence in the post and besides they wanted to charge me an arm and a leg to post 3kg home. So L, L & I had a final kebab and I re-packed my bags one final time.

A taxi, which had been generously arranged for me by our host, Sasan, came to pick me up to take me to the airport. The driver took one look at the bike box and the big bag holding the panniers and decided he didn’t need the job. There followed a comical few minutes while the bike was loaded into the ute, unloaded, and we stood around while the Iranians, err, discussed the situation. The bike was again loaded into the ute and we drove around town for a few minutes. I was at  loss as to what was going on, but there was much shaking of heads and it appeared I wouldn’t be getting to the airport this way. Sasan had come with me, and somehow he arranged another taxi which did take me to the airport. I’d left plenty of time, so there was no stress – at least for me, but I did end up leaving Sasan somewhat stranded. Thankfully the last few minutes in Iran didn’t go smoothly, otherwise I might have taken away a different impression of the country. Although the check-in at the airport went far too smoothly, they took my bike and allowed me my 35kg of luggage (while I was almost bent double with my carry on bag).

And then the massive cheat began. I flew from Tehran to Urumqi in far North Western China, leapfrogging 4 countries, several serious mountain ranges, and a whole bunch of cyclists who are more hardy than myself. Somehow a 4 hour flight took from 11pm until 7am – that’s what you get when China is on a single timezone.

I got to Urumqi, a new country, a new language and a new currency without a Yaun in my pocket. I tried to get some at the airport, but the money changer was closed. I couldn’t take a bus or taxi, because I had no money (there’s a hole in my bucket…). So I took the obvious option – put the bike together. I had quite an audience of Chinese taxi drivers, but I managed to get it all back in one piece (despite it being 4am in my own personal timezone, and having  slept for about an hour).

I rode into Urumqi city, blearily looked around, had breakfast and then tried to find the train station. A gazzillion people had the same idea. One of the harrowed ticket agents managed to tell me that there was no train today, the cost of the train, and indicated by a surprised expression that the bike wouldn’t be welcome. So I went off to find the bus station. Found it, and despite only really being interested in the timetable, found myself on a sleeper bus about 15minutes later.

25 hours on the bus later and I’m in Kashgar. The end of the world – at least the end of the Chinese world. To the south is Pakistan (and then a left turn to India), and a border that all reports say is open and issuing visas on arrival. All non verified, unofficial reports. But I’m here now and I’ll go ride up the ‘hill’ and check it out in a day or so. I hope they let me in, there are some big mountains to see between here and Islamabad. Some really big mountains (I can’t wait!). Karakorum Highway, here I come!

The next case of visa stress will be India before another cheat – there doesn’t appear to be any way of getting out of India without flying…

Now, aren’t you glad I didn’t have time to write a blow by blow account of Iran?





Iran

22 06 2011

Lets just forget about writing blogs about Iran, shall we? The censor-net didn’t help, and most of my censornet time was taken up trying to find an airline that would take the bike to China and then making the same airline take my credit card. It is not a trivial task when you’re trying to use a credit card in Iran. Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime.

I did met some amazing people. A few will be extremely difficult to forget in a hurry.

And I don’t want to write anything that might really upset the authorities. Who knows, I might want to go back. So I guess I could just write:

Iran: Censored





Yazd break

15 06 2011

ok I have been slack again….blame the heat. Yazd is one of the driest city in Iran. So I got stuck in a charming hotel, famous to operate as a vortex for foreign people crossing the Iranian desert, especially tired cyclists. You can find there Dutch, Canadian, French and many Australian people, lying on the couches in the pretty courtyard, chatting for hours, especially in mid-day, which here is from 10 am to 6 pm. My days are very busy, I swear. Among my main activities you can bet I am talking with people about Iranian newspapers –interesting opinions about the world-, having a watermelon, playing chess, helping other travellers with their computers, climbing on a mosque roof to watch the sunset or desperately going out for one or more ice creams. I have to taste every flavour before leaving the town. I know, my average speed has been dramatically reduced since I have been there.. and I am about to cheat, flying from Tehran to China. Bad boy, I am not a hero, I don’t have to be a hero, as a French girl told me. A few days more like this and I may decide to become a Zoroastrian worshipper and settle in Yazd forever. Fortunately the Pakistan mountains are too attractive, like a magnetic spiral, I cannot resist the temptation to go there and breathe their air, if I don’t fall in a black hole on the way…





Mt Ararat

7 05 2011

IMG_8264

This ain’t no Mt Arapilies. It’s where Noah, allegedly, crashed his overloaded ark after 5 months of floating about. And it’s big.

Tic….

What? What do you mean I can’t tick a mountain unless I climb it? Ok, well, I’ll conceded this one, but we might have to talk about a change to the rules when I finally get to the Himalayas. Soon.





East gobble gobble gobble

4 05 2011

This is a bit out of date, but to keep everyone back home up to date with what’s been going on…

2011_04_29 17_51_19I left Cappadocia and rode like crazy to meet Jurg and Rahel in Erzurum. That was where the hotel from the last post was located. I bummed about there for a few days, because I was too fast. J&R arrived, but the following day it rained and was utterly miserable, so we talked a lot and then did the only sensible thing – bought a big cake and celebrated Rahel’s birthday (which is in June). Why not? – we just needed to have an excuse to scoff a cake – and Jurg and I had already had birthday cakes in Santorini.

2011_05_01 11_11_58Jurg and Rahel had decided to go around Iran (via Georgia, Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea), since they couldn’t get an Iranian visa, so they were heading north, while I should have been continuing east. But I couldn’t let them escape that easily, so I took their route for a few days. It was good to be riding with friends again, and this makes 3 continents that we’ve ridden on together (random fact of the day). The rain let off, and came back agian, the roads were not so busy, but somehow they picked some big hills to go over. It was very pleasant riding for a few days.

The day we parted I was sorry to see them go. So I put on an audiobook, and put some energy into going a fair way. Over a pass and through the biggest town in the area. I probably should have stopped there for the night, but I kept on and as I climbed over the next pass I was watching several storms raging all around me (lots of lightning). One 2011_05_03 13_17_15of them came my way and drenched me just on sunset so I pulled in at the next small town (Dağpinar). I asked a soldier if there was a place to stay. There always seems to be a soldier around, the number of army seems to be increasing the further east I go. He didn’t speak any English, but indicated there was not. He pointed me to the bus station and townships council offices, which were closed for the day. This brought me to a very small shop, where I met the owner who spoke a few words of English. Somehow, with the help of Google Translate (which I’ve used a few times, with varying degrees of success, to have conversations), we established that there was a place I could put my tent out the back, with the cows, horses, mud, rain and cold. Or I could come to stay in his house.

Well… what could I do? I accepted and Hakan and I drank tea and chatted using the computer until 11pm (still raining). By then I was dead tired and didn’t have much energy to have a conversation with the rest of the family when I got to his (as it turned out) parents house. I was put up in the ‘spare’, ‘guest’ bedroom, which also happened to accommodate Hakan’s brother. We agreed to go back to the shop at about 7am (early for me with such a late night).

2011_05_04 08_03_37So at 6am I woke to Hakan pulling away my blankets, and about 60 seconds later we were walking back to the shop. I hung around the shop for a while, being a celebrity and (I’m sure) earning Hakan some kudos by being the one who put this strange foreigner and his bike up for the night. We ate some breakfast, had tea, took photos and the morning rush happened. It could be that most of the sales from this shop are sweets and chips for the children. The school was right next door. I talked and messed about with the kids until they cleared off for lessons. The day had finally warmed up and I was thinking about making tracks when a group of girls came out of the school, approached me and asked me to come in and teach them English. The teacher had asked them to come and get me.

2011_05_04 11_01_48But I can’t teach English! I was eventually convinced and was brought in to find the teacher. I realised that I haven’t been inside a school for many, many years – and this was a primary school – apparently the secondary school was down the hill in the city. I’m not sure if the teacher really did send for me, but she brought me in and I spent the next 2 hours being displayed to several of the classes of older, hyperactive, kids. I’m not sure I taught them any English, but it was fun to talk about what I’ve been up to and at least they now know where Australia is!





Finally a foto

28 04 2011

I blame Windows 7 for the dearth of fotos. It started BSODing on me a week or so ago, and it took me a day with a good internet connection to work out what was going on. It turns out Win 7 isn’t entirely to blame, but that won’t stop me.

Anyway, I have rarely stayed in hotels on this trip. Hostels in the Middle East, and a few in Europe, but mostly camping or when I get an invite, in someone’s home. In fact, I had made it until Erzurum before staying in a hotel in Turkey. After such a long stay in Cappadocia, I was more than happy to spend a few nights in the tent.

Kible

So I was a little surprised when I looked up to find this on the ceiling.

A green arrow with something written on it.

I still know less than a dozen words in Turkish, so it could have been anything. Could it be “Emergency Exit”? I did entertain this idea for a few seconds, until I worked out that if it was, it could only be for cats. The arrow appeared to point to a storage area of blankets, on top of a wardrobe. Even I couldn’t crawl through there.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me in the tent.kible in the cupboard

I scratched my head for a further few seconds until the metaphoric light bulb came on. It’s roughly south… Which means it must be pointing to Mecca. Ah ha! another word to add to my vocabulary, although I suggest I won’t be using this one all that often.





New High Score

23 04 2011

Well! After 5 days of hanging around in Cappadocia, I must have recharged or something. Yesterday everything seemed to work well, and I pulled off a new high score. 220km in a day. That beats my previous best in South America of 209km (which was the first day in Argentina, where you come down several thousand meters from the altiplano of Bolivia), or 190km in Egypt. I must admit I had a tail wind for some of the day, but I was climbing overall (1,500 high meters).

You don’t have to be impressed, but you should be. It took me almost 11 hours riding time, 7 chocolate bars, and 2 packets of muesli bars (that I was given by Abdullah when I left his place). I left in 6°C, it dropped to 4C and the high was about 15C. It rained twice, but by then I was on a mission and didn’t bother with the rain coat.

I listened to most of an audio book. The scenery is quite nice, but even though it’s almost 1500m altitude it’s surprisingly flat. Almost like the Bolivian altiplano (although it’s much easier to breathe at only 1500m). Needless to say I was quite tired after a day like that, and couldn’t find a great place to camp, so I stayed in a small clump of trees by the road. Too tired to cook, I ate a can of beans and passed out. And only woke up when it started to rain (always fun having a wet tent…), and then again quite late (09:30). I managed to get away by 10:00, but because of the late start, and more rain today I could only back up with 110km. But tonight I’ve found a great campsite. Right next to a rather large river, just outside a small farming village well off the main road. If only it would stop raining!

I have a bit of a target to achieve – Jurg and Rahel will be back in Erzurum in a few days and I’d like to meet them there. They are threatening to bring chocolate back from Norway. I’m sure I can help them eat it as a belated Easter.





Cappadocia

23 04 2011

Some one in Damascus recommended I should go to Cappadocia. Jurg & Rahel  rode through a few weeks ago and also recommended a visit. I looked at the map, determined where I was, where Iran is and thought that going west a few hundred kilometers to see more rocks would be a silly idea. So I went.

I rode through the land of Petrol stations, which was handy as they gave me plenty of places to sleep. Then I turned north and rode up into the heartland of Turkey. Up. It was great to be back in the mountains, but it is cold up here, and apparently unseasonably, it’s raining quite a lot.

So, in the rain, I passed many towns, set on reaching the region of Cappadocia. I was so intent that I very nearly rode straight past one of the attractions, the underground city at Derinkuyu. But I was intrigued by all the tour buses, and pulled in to have a gander and discovered the caves. I went down, and was amazed by the amount of digging that had gone on down there. It is not an underground house, it really is an underground city. I followed the tourist trail down (8 levels, 45m or so) and then started looking around. I found a half closed ‘door’, the original inhabitants used to roll huge millstones across the passageways to seal them in case of invasion. Someone had pried one open just enough, so I crawled around in a part of the city not so many people see (lucky I always seem to have my head torch with me). I found a few other blocked tunnels that clearly went somewhere. All I needed was a shovel…

Eventually I dug myself out of the hole, and rode on (in the rain) to Cappadocia. I got there toward the end of the day and looked up Abdullah. Jurg and Rahel had met this Hotel owner in front of his hotel a few weeks previous and suggested I stop by to say hello. So I did, and although I didn’t expect it, he invited me to stay. Not in the hotel, but in his house! Great! So I left my bike in the hotel and I stayed at his place.

I then had a few day working holiday away from the bike. There is always something to do around a hotel, so I tried to help (although I may have got in the way more than helping) by doing some painting, went on a few trips into town with the hotel manager, Emel, and got in the way in the kitchen. I initially hung around the hotel (which I must say is a far classier place than I would normally be allowed to hang around) because that was where Abdullah brought me for breakfast and I was avoiding the bike (after having ridden 600km and 5000+ high meters in 5 days from Aleppo). The next few days I was avoiding the weather. Finally I was pried away from the place and had a look around Cappadocia.

Very interesting. Not piles of rock, but big rocks with holes in them. Holes that people lived in. Some phenomenon (which I understand but can’t be bothered explaining) caused these chimneys to form in the valleys all over the region, and people came and carved houses in them. Some of the caves have been turned into hotels (like the one Abdullah owns http://www.kalekonak.com) but many (most?) have been left abandoned as they’re a touch unstable. Strange, and well worth a few hundred kilometer detour.

I hung around as long as I was welcome (hopefully I didn’t push it too far and Abdullah takes in another cyclist – he’s done this before for some other travellers, notably Biciclown who he talked about a few times). I was going to make my exit on a day when it was forecast for rain, so I allowed myself to be convinced to stay another day. I took advantage of a nice, dry place to sit, and did all sorts of internet things (except update the blog or photos), and then went for a short ride in the arvo. Of course it started raining when I was as far away form the house as I had planned to go. All the photos I’ve seen of Cappadocia show lovely blue cloudless skies. Why can’t I see it like that?





Some things change

23 04 2011

I’ve found myself eating eggs. And sometimes cheese. I started because that was the only option if I wanted breakfast in Damascus. I reasoned that since I’d paid for it, I should at least try it, and it turns out I can stomach eggs, a little cheese (although the texture of that stuff is still off-putting). I’ve now gone so far as to (once mind you) buy 4 eggs in the evening to hard boil – two for dinner and two for breakfast. And tea – I started to tentatively have the odd cup of chai in South America, because it was the only drink that I could be sure the water was boiled. Or at least slightly heated up, for what ever good it did. I seem to be swimming in the stuff here, and all of the Middle East. I don’t mind to stop and have a chat (when I can find someone who has a common language), but I’m still getting used to all this (sickly sweet) tea.
Yes, this is the same Stephen. (for anyone who doesn’t know me that well: my diet is a little strange. Low fat, and most complain that it’s low on taste.)
But I still won’t eat the olives that seem to be everywhere, or the Turkish coffee. I did bump into some Turkish Delight the other day – I think it’s best I steer clear of that stuff, or I might end up staying…





The land of Petrol

14 04 2011

I’m not sure how the economics works out, but Turkey seems to be the land of petrol stations. They’re everywhere! Petrol is more than 4 Turkish Lira per liter (nearly 2 euro per liter!), but I can’t imagine all that much profit goes to the retailer. Anyway, they’re everywhere and the people are still friendly, and so I’ve camped out the back of two so far, and this one advertises it has WiFi. How could I pass that up? Pity it’s not dark, or I might be tempted to camp here also.

I’ve just turned away from the coast. Toward Capadocia. There are some scary big mountains in front of me. Covered in clouds. I’ve been told it’s raining in the mountains. Great.





Syria. West side

10 04 2011

I think I’ve just about seen enough of Syria. But it’s quite pleasant here, so I’m a little reluctant to leave. Also the latest round of news reporting / troubles in Dar’a has scared away most of the tourists, so in peak season the tourist spots are all but deserted. It really appears that the Syrian government is being given a hard time by the Western press. I’m not normally all that interested in world politics, but it is inescapable here. And it’s getting more difficult for me to be impartial. Perhaps I should stop there.

I appear to have lived through my pneumonia, if pneumonia it was. I was a bit of a wreck for a few days, and then had a few more days coughing up some interesting colours. But it’s all gone away now, thank goodness. I might need my lungs for the climbing that’s coming up in Turkey.

I got the visa! The Iran visa that is. Hurrah! I visited the Iran Consulate every day for over a week. Somehow, someone (I’m pretty sure it was the travel agency that ‘helped’ me get the visa) messed up, and the approval for my visa got sent to the wrong consulate. After 7 visits to the consulate, someone felt sorry for me, talked to someone else and I’ve no idea how many rules were bent, but I left with the visa in my passport. A week to get a visa, that had already been approved, stamped in the passport may seem like a long time, but I was pretty happy with how helpful the consulate staff were – the Iranian New Year had just passed and from the sound of it, the whole of the Iranian government took a couple of weeks off. So I count myself lucky to get a positive result in the circumstances.

With or without the visa I was going to leave Damascus the day after it was finally approved. I had a complicated back-up plan to get the visa that I am very glad I don’t have to try out. But I had been in the hostel long enough to make a few friends, including some other long time travellers from Aus. I was somewhat torn between leaving them and staying for the company, but they sorted that out for me – they decided to move on anyway.

I hadn’t really recovered, but I was keen to get out of town. So I left, got a flat going up a hill and procrastinated by fixing a few minor things on the bike that I had been putting off for weeks. Yeah, I wasn’t really well enough to be cycling. But I persisted, and after 6.5 hours I found a monastery to sleep out the front of. I remember having enough energy to put up the tent, but not enough to eat. Lucky I’d been fattening up in Damascus on that ice cream. The next day I spent all morning in the monastery (procrastinating again), talking politics with whomever would listen. This was the first Friday after the Presidents long awaited speech, and the general consensus was if ‘something’ was going to happen, it would happen today. It didn’t.

I was heading back to Aleppo (for some more of those macaroons), but decided to take the less easy route. So I went out to the Syrian Mediterranean coast, over a small mountain range. This also means I got a full dose of crusader era castles. If I had a decent internet connection I could upload some photos. Think impregnable.

Between castles, I stopped at a bakery to buy some breakfast. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. The baker happened to be crazy about bikes. That surprised me. He offered to ride with me to Lattakia (60km away). How could I say no? So he rushed off to get changed and get his bike (the boss didn’t seem to mind him skipping work for the day). He came back on what turned out to be his training bike – the race bike was too good to just ride on the highway with a crazy foreigner. The police took a bit of an interest in this strange couple, but eventually we got away and rode nearly all the way to Lattakia. A thunderstorm came and chased us under a bridge for a while, but it was pleasant and slightly unusual to ride with a local for a while. It also coincidentally avoided a major disaster – the whole way was on the highway, and my MP3 player had died the day before. Highway riding with no podcasts or audio books? Boring! (It’s ok, I managed to find the loose wire and get it soldered back in place).

To be honest I wasn’t all that enamoured with the costal cities, perhaps partly because it rained most of the time I was in Lattakia (a city planner in Lattakia at some point decided that a great place for a port was right in front of the city, so the city now has a superb view of a large wall, containers, and ships instead of the Mediterranean). I won’t go on about the demonstrations that have recently happened in Lattakia, only to point out that when I was there, there was a very heavy army presence but a remarkable absence of guns. Some tourists I met got scared away by the army, but I couldn’t see any reason for concern. I was concerned by the traffic though, on my way out of town I had to take a breather to calm down at one point. There are many positive attributes one can talk about with the Syrians, but the standard of driving in the cities is not one of them.

The costal hills are quite pretty and very green, at least at this time of year. The wild flowers are out, mostly in the olive groves. I think I’m lucky to see the flowers – they must have a very limited life span, the olive farmers rush to plough the delicate plants back into the soil, using everything from hand tools, to ploughs pulled by oxen or tractors.

I must have been spending to long gazing at the flowers (or trusted the GPS just a little too much), because I managed to take a rather large detour in hilly terrain along the Turkish border. I had to make a strange shaped loop to see some abandoned cities. I’m still not sure why I went out of my way to see another pile of rocks, but perhaps that shows that I’m reluctant to leave the country. But eventually I got here; to Aleppo. Back in the city. I’m going to spend (err, waste) a few days here, then move on.

Turkey, and it’s mountains, is just around the corner, or rather, just past the castle.





Damascus

26 03 2011

In most of the Middle East, but more often in Egypt, one of the first questions I might get asked is: “What book are you?”. I’ve tried explaining that religion is becoming less important in the West, and that being an Atheist is now an (almost) generally acceptable option. Along with my other answers to questions: “I’m older than thirty”; “I’m not married”; and “No, I have no children” and the quite obvious fact that I’m cycling when I, as a westerner, should be able to afford a car, or at the very least a bus, I’m sure I’m often summed up as simply insane. I’m learning to give answers that are expected and avoid the massive follow-up explanations in sign language.

Maybe I should start saying I’m Catholic. I seem to be feeling guilty.

Most of the guilt comes from wasting precious time: I’ve been in Damascus, on my second visit this trip, for four full days and I’ve barely left the hostel. The day I arrived I visited the Iran Embassy to find out that they couldn’t issue me a visa (come back Sunday), and then yesterday I went out and sedately watched some of the protests / pro-government celebrations (which are being very strangely reported in the world media compared with what I have seen). And that’s pretty much all. I guess it hasn’t helped that the “cold” I developed in Aleppo has migrated into my lungs and I’m gasping for breath after climbing a flight of stairs. I’ve met a few travellers who’ve developed pneumonia in Syria and Lebanon. I hope that’s not what I’ve got, or it eventually goes away by itself, and I’ll be right to ride off when I get this visa!

And I guess I aught to feel guilty about my dinner tonight. Chicken Shwarma followed by an ice cream from Bakdash, an ice cream shop somewhat famous in the region for it’s pistachio covered vanilla ice cream. The ice cream was good, so I wandered back to the hostel, gathered some support, and went back for another. I might even go again tomorrow (although I’m not quite as keen as my room mate who was serious about going for an ice cream breakfast until he found that they opened at 11am).

In Aleppo I was unstoppable. They have many, many different types of sweets,and for some reason I had a large sweet tooth when I was there. The best was a sugary, pistachio filled roll thingy (which was divine although you wouldn’t want to have too much of it, lest your teeth fall out on the spot). But the most consumed was some largish coconut flavoured soft biscuits, which I’ve been calling macaroons, incredibly sweet, reasonably cheap, available everywhere and stupidly addictive. If I go back, I know what I’ll be eating. Damascus: Ice cream. Aleppo: Macaroons. And there is much more of this to experiment with in the next few thousand kilometres…

 

Sorry, no photos. Internet too slow for that.





Aleppo Traffic

22 03 2011

It had to happen. I was riding around Aleppo this evening, because I don’t have a room in the city tonight. I have decided to catch the train to Damascus to see if the Iran Embassy is open tomorrow (I suspect it will be closed for the New Year Holidays). Happy New Year Iran, 1390.

That’s not all that interesting, although cheating is always worthy of note.

When I rode into Aleppo, I was very nearly knocked off by a crazy minibus driver and black sedan working together to remove that gap I did have and turn it into a very small space. So I was cautious riding in the city. Of course.

As is quite common in the region, almost everyone suffers from Neckus Rubberius when something unusual is sharing the road with them. On the highway this is not usually an issue – they go flying past, and I can wave at them staring at me through the rear window. In the city, it can cause grief. Two pedestrians very nearly got cleaned up by cars today because they were watching me and not the traffic (which is chaotic, to say the least). And I noticed two close calls by drivers with the same ailment. And then it did happen, a pick-up cut off a taxi and smashed up the front quarter. No one was injured, but I feel slightly guilty. But if they want to watch me, and not the road, surely I can’t be held responsible for that? Can I? I’m spending nearly all my riding skills just to make sure they don’t clean me up!





Man vs Wind

20 03 2011

I don’t think I’ll have any more votes. I thought I’d put the “come home” option exclusively for my mother and, unless she has found a way around the IP filtering, it seems there are others are not giving their full support. Well, despite that option being equally in the lead as I write, I’m not going to. If only because I’ve had my visa for Iran approved (but it’s not yet in my passport).

I think I left the story last time in Damascus. I had, I thought, arranged to collect the Iran visa in Damascus but I got there too quickly, before Iran had a chance to think about my application. So I visited a few embassies mostly to pass the time between showers and established that the next lot of visas can’t be got in Damascus. Where ever I end up going. I was a bit indecisive, do I wait here, or go for a bit of a look around Syria? Lebanon? I decided that so long as it rained, I would stay, but a break in the weather came too quickly (my legs were enjoying the break and I was enjoying the food). The weather report said nasty things about Lebanon (and I could see the snow on the closer mountains), and less nasty, but not terribly nice things about western Syria. I figured it would be warmer and dryer in the desert.

So I rode for a day with a beautiful tail wind, along a desert road that had an alarming amount of heavy transport and conspicuous signs to Iraq and Baghdad. I (wisely I would suggest) turned off the Baghdad road before my options were too limited. To cut a long whinge short, I then battled a headwind for the next week, even though I changed direction several times. I’ve spent a long time in the company of that wind, but I can’t work it out. When I stop moving, I can barely notice the air moving, but as soon as I start, it feels like a strong wind. I know, I know, rain drops keep falling… At least it wasn’t raining as well.

So what about Syria? I figured I might be here for a while waiting for the Iran visa, so I took a loop that went way out into the desert, toward the Iraq border, and joined the Euphates River. I’ve followed the Euphates, upstream, to the huge Al Assad Lake, and then cut across a large expanse of flat, irrigated, ex-desert to Aleppo. So I’ve ticked a lot of sights:
Palmyra; Smack in the middle of no-where, desert-ville, an ancient city.
Syrian Desert; Flat and warm and surprisingly green with even some flowers. I imagine this is just good luck, there must have been some rain recently, a few days gave me the impression that this stretch could be like a furnace later in the year.
Euphates; One of the cradles of civilisation, damned and tamed nowadays, but I found it more pleasant that the other biggie I’ve seen recently (the Nile). Possibly that was the influence of the people.
Halabiyeh; A thumping great castle, that was clearly greater in the past (the Euphrates has covered the lower part of it with mud over the years).
Qal’aat Ja’abar; Another castle
Rasafeh; I had to back track to see this one, but it was worth it. More ruins in the desert. I still don’t understand why they built this one 30km from the river. I know it was at the intersection of the trade routes, but couldn’t they just move the trade route? Surprisingly well preserved ruin with (so I’m told by those who should know) some interesting architecture.
Syrians; quite simply the nicest people, as a group, I’ve met. I was slightly concerned after the first few days of being in Syria that I wouldn’t get anywhere – Day 1 I stopped to buy something and couldn’t pay for it until I’d eaten beans (lunch) and drunk tea with the shop staff. Bakers were giving me bread (is this heaven?). Luckily the overt friendliness has reduced, and I’ve learnt how to ride past with a wave, but quite often I will be called over to have ‘chi’ (tea) at three or four places in one village. Needless to say if you accepted all the offers, you’d never get anywhere (and I tend not to accept many because I feel rather ridiculous when I can’t say much more than my name and where I come from in Arabic, still). Everyone is curious about the biker. I can get the whole village worth of children following me to buy oranges (wether I want to or not).

So that brings me, around a 1000km later to Aleppo. It has a castle, and souqs. And other things I’ll find out about tomorrow. And it had an email waiting for me that talked about my Iran visa being ready for collection in Turkey. The agency should be able to get it sent to Damascus, so that means I can head back south again soon and then untangle my route toward Turkey. I’m glad I didn’t try to see Lebanon now – I’ve bumped into some other travellers who were just there and say lots of bad things about rain and snow in the mountains.

Desert and headwind beats mountains and rain (in this case – mountains + snow would normally trump desert, but not when there’s a bike involved).





Rain rain go away, you’re making me think ahead

10 03 2011

I left Jordan with it’s 25C sun-shining goodness in my haste to see Damascus, and I’ve been rewarded by below freezing at night. It’s raining and windy, and just plain unpleasant for exploring a city or riding. Luckily I have internet and the Felafel and Shwarma are both cheap and good.

It’s raining left of me, right of me and in front. It’s raining in Lebanon. For goodness sake, the internet tells me it’s even raining in the desert (which is probably where I’ll head next to get out of this cold and rain)! Looks like I’m marooned until Spring comes. Hopefully tomorrow.

Not to completely waste time, I’ve got an agency working on my Iran Visa (at least they tell me they are…), and I’ve visited the Indian and Pakistan Embassies to get more visas. The good news is the Pakistan Embassy won’t give me a visa – they tell me I can only get a visa in Australia. So that removes any temptation to cycle across Pakistan. The other good news is the Indian Embassy wont give me one here either – they say I’m too far away (in time) from entering India, but it should be easy to get in Iran. So now I have to wait until the Agency / Iran grant me a visa and I should come back to Damascus to collect it. In a week, or two. Or maybe three. Inshallah (god willing).

So to back up a bit – since spending time with Jurg and Rahel in Santorini (that mysterious 2.5 months of the bike trip where the bike didn’t actually go anywhere), I’ve been infected by Jurg’s enthusiasm for riding across Central Asia – “The Stans”. And I think it would be a great way to go – in fact it appears to be the only way if you don’t want to fly or otherwise skip countries. Some of the scenery, especially the Pamir Highway, would be amazing. The only real problem (apart from the travel advice not to go to Kyrgyzstan due to recent unrest) is the pile of visas you need to collect. And it probably all could be arranged in Turkey, as Jurg and Rahel plan to do it. And I could, in theory, still visit India by cutting back from China and through Pakistan on the Karakorum Highway – more awesome scenery (although I’m not convinced I’d be able to get a Pakistan visa at the China border). But I have been thinking that a better plan, and one that allows me the flexibility that I need when I travel (only this stretch from Egypt to Syria I’m already 2 weeks late from the plan I made… in Greece). I’ll try to spend a month in Syria and get the Iran visa. Then ride through Eastern Turkey and enter Iran. Hopefully in Tehran I can get a longer visa so I can see most of the highlights in Iran, and then I’ll probably fly across Pakistan (from where I don’t know yet) into India. This way I:

  • will get to see a large chunk of Iran (instead of just a bit in the north)
  • will get to see India
  • will be able to see Nepal (if that part of the plan can be made to work)
  • will miss months of riding across desert in China
  • will, maybe, be able to ambush Stefan and Sabine’s holiday in Ladakh 🙂
  • and will have a couple of major attractions in the region as a good excuse to go that way – one day.

The only negative that I can see is that I’ll have to fly at some point to jump Pakistan, and then again to get out of India into SE Asia. It would be better if I didn’t have to. But I’m not really sure yet, both routes seem like a good choice. I’ll be changing my mind a few times a day for the next month or so.

I found this poll thing in WordPress when looking for the dot point button. Let me know what you think! Or leave a comment.





McD’s

6 03 2011

I wandered into the McDonalds in Irbid, Jordan to steal some free WiFi and found myself to be a minor celebrity – if I wait long enough, they’ll probably feed me!
I’ll probably be in Syria in a few hours – if the border guards will let me in!

Update: Stinky and dishevelled as I am, with the appropriate (and perfectly legal) visa payment, they let me in with no problems at all. Already I love Syria… Now to find a hotel