Discovering Persian Hospitality: our 2 week break

Discovering Iran by bicycle

Holiday time!

We decided to take a 2 week break off the bikes to explore a bit more of Iran, as backpackers. Discovering Persian hospitality was definitely a highlight so far, but we were keen to see some more of the culture. With that being said, we didn’t see a whole lot in Tehran, besides the traffic and main roads. To be honest, it wasn’t a city I cared much about seeing. It’s massive, busy and polluted. What should be a 30 minute cab ride or cycle could easily turn into a 2 or 3 hour trip. There are however some nice parks and good coffee shops. We had the pleasure of staying with some awesome couchsurfers, Ashkan and his sister, whom definitely made the stay a lot more pleasant.

Discovering Iran by bicycle
We made it to Tehran!

Our main reason for visiting Tehran was visas

We needed visas for Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and China! Plus we needed to make a stop in at the immigration office and the Australian embassy. After spending 5 days in Tehran, attempting to sort out all our visas, we were keen to take a break and visit some of Iran. Unfortunately, we did have to return to Tehran, to sort out the rest of our visas. This did mean we were able to leave our bikes in Tehran for the week and head south, bike free!

Discovering the power of the motor vehicle

It’s easy to forget the distance that can be travelled in just a few hours in a car or bus. It’s almost soul destroying knowing that the distance we traveled to Kashan in just a couple of hours, would have taken us 3 days. The further south we travelled, the hotter it got and some days reached the mid-40’s – definitely too hot for cycling! Aside from the heat, we also experienced the strongest sand storms of the trip. If we were cycling, I’m sure we would have been thrown from our bikes.

From Tehran we drove to Kashan with 2 Swiss guys, Alex and Flo, whom we met at one of the embassies in Tehran. They were on their way to Mongolia, but like us wanted to see some of Iran before continuing. We weren’t planning on visiting Kashan, but I’m glad we did – I loved it there, and preferred it to both Isfahan and Shiraz. We stayed in a beautiful (and cheap), traditional house, and visited some of the ancient sights in the city. Less people, less traffic, less smog – heaven!

Discovering Persian hospitality
Driving to Kashan with some new friends

Beautiful Isfahan and Discovering Persian hospitality

After Kashan we headed to Isfahan with Alex and Flo. Isfahan was nice, lots of beautiful mosques, palaces, bazaars and parks. We continued to experience Persian generosity and friendlessness, however maybe not quite as much as in the North or when we are on the bikes. One evening in Isfahan, we did get invited to eat dinner and drink tea with a local family in Imam square. Something that has happened numerous times in Iran, however this time we weren’t exhausted (or smelly) from cycling all day. Even though we had a huge language barrier, it was very enjoyable. I guess all those years of playing charades when I was a kid came in handy for something.

Shiraz and Persepolis

From Isfahan we caught the night bus to Shiraz – apparently the city of love! The only love I saw was between 2 guys, lying on the grass, playing with each others hair, stroking arms and chests and snuggling – not something you would expect to see in a country where being gay can cost you your life. I also saw a man raise a hand to his wife at a public bus station. No one did anything, not even the security. I wonder what the unofficial domestic violence rate is? Anyway, Shiraz – the City of “Love”, I remain unconvinced!!

Unless you’re into Persian poetry, the main attraction for visiting Shiraz is Persepolis (about 60km North). A city built by the guy that burnt down Athens, Alexander the Great. He then repaid the favour by burning Persepolis to the ground. It was a nice change from visiting mosques and bazaars and the carvings where very impressive.

Discovering Persian hospitality
Shiraz

The desert city, Yazd

From Shiraz we travelled to the ancient desert city, Yazd, where we had the fun chore, of renewing our Iranian visa. Luckily this turned out to be quite a simple process and only took 3 days. I loved Yazd, from the moment we arrived. We had no issues hanging around for a couple of extra days. We also were staying at another beautiful, traditional Persian house, so a great place to relax.

Discovering Persian hospitality
Zorastrian tomb near Shiraz

Then it was back to Tehran, and more visa stuff – fun!!!

Tehran is like a black hole, it just keeps sucking you in. We planned on staying only 1 day. 3 days later and we were still there. No matter how simple something may seem, Tehran makes it complicated. Even to print some documents is not an easy chore, and can end up taking several hours. To our surprise, Alex and Flo had also been sucked back into Tehran, and were also staying at Ashkan’s apartment.

Off to the Caspian Sea

We had to wait 5 days for our China visas to be processed, so to escape Tehran once again, we headed to the Caspian Sea. We decided to catch the train to Sari, then a bus to the Sea. The train ride was awesome, with awesome views of the mountains and jungle. Getting to the Sea from Sari by bus turned out to be impossible, and taxis were expensive. We did however eventually manage to reach the coast, at Balbosar, an Iranian seaside resort town. It was a bit of a disappointment; very dirty and busy, though the temperature of the water was good. I think growing up in a coastal city that has access to some of the best beaches in the world, makes you a bit of a “beach snob.”

It was extremely hot and humid around the Caspian Sea. It was made even worse by having to wear so many layers of clothes, plus a hijab! After spending only one night, camping in the unbearable humidity we decided to head back to Tehran early to wait for our visas.

Discovering Persian hospitality
Our awesome couchsurfers in Tehran

Change in plans

Due to some visa complications we didn’t have enough time to cycle from Tehran to Mashhad. The cycle would have taken 9 days, through a very harsh and barren desert, where temperatures reached the late 40s. So we weren’t to upset about missing out on the cycle. Instead we caught the VIP bus to Mashhad.

Creating a riot

The bus to Mashhad turned out to be an epic ordeal. If we could have predicted what was about to happen, we probably would have cycled/ hitchhiked our way to Mashhad. In short we caused a riot on the bus – and this is no exaggeration. The bus driver wanted 5 times the amount to store the bikes on the bus than what we were originally told. We haggled the price, and agreed on paying double. The next thing we knew another bus driver was on the bus, yelling at us in Farsi, and trying to kick us off the bus. Luckily all the passengers on the bus stood up for us. They said they knew we were being ripped off, and that the man was a bad man. This disruption lead to a riot on the bus. Everyone yelling and pushing, then the police got called on.

After about an hour of this, we were finally off. The crazy bus driver was unfortunately still on the bus, and kept losing his temper at people. He even went to hit a few passengers. It was friggin’ nuts. To be honest, we don’t really know what happened, as it was all in Farsi, but I think the bus driver had something wrong with him, because he completely flipped out. I should also point out that this bus driver does not at all reflect on the Iranian people.

Unfortunately, there are douchebags in every country, and the fact that so many people on the bus stood up for us and helped us out, just proves even more how lovely the Iranian people are. I’m sure in most other countries, we would have just got kicked off the bus. 1 douchebag, but 30 awesome people, and in the end, we won the fight. Crazy Man: 0 vs. Cyclists and a bus full of passengers: 1.

We finally made it to Mashhad

Surprisingly we got our bikes off the bus with no more dramas and cycled off to meet our next couchsurfer, Amir and his wife, Hani. We spent 3 nights with them. They did their best to try and fatten us up, before we headed back off on the road. Another example of discovering Persian hospitality!

So the 2 week break, turned into 3.5 weeks. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was worried about getting back on the bikes after having such a long break. From here on the roads would be getting worse, and the terrain much harsher. We had about a 250km cycle to the border, which included 80km of mountain passes. It was not easy, but the scenery was beautiful and discovering Persian hospitality was definitely one of the highlights of the country.

We got to camp in the garden of a small village house, next to some sheep. I think it was a traditional Kurdish family – they were lovely. We also camped outside a military post and in another park at the border. It felt good to be back on the bikes and on the road again.

[ctt template=”8″ link=”6v583″ via=”yes” ]Life is just simpler on a bike! @CycleTrekkers[/ctt]

Unfortunately during this time we both got mild tummy bugs and colds… which little did we know would linger around for the next few weeks, making the cycling even more difficult.

The next challenge: The Turkmen Dash! Hello desert!

Discovering Iran by bicycle
Visiting a Sultanhani in Zanjan

Discovering Iran by bicycle: to Tehran

Discovering Persian hospitality

There was a sense of relief when we finally crossed into Iran from Turkey.

Technically we weren’t supposed to be entering Iran with our own transport. This included bicycles, so we were a little worried we would be turned away at the border. After the horrible cycle from Dogubayazit to the border crossing, the last thing I wanted to do was cycle back. The border crossing was however surprisingly easy. A couple of questions, followed by a passport stamp, and a friendly “Welcome to Iran.” They didn’t even check our bags – just think of all the alcohol we could have smuggled in! We were extremely happy to have made it and were able to start discovering Iran by bicycle.

Cycling through Kurdistan was stressful and not at all fun. When we entered Iran however, the cries for “money” changed to cries of “I love you” and “Thank you”. 2km after crossing the border, one car stopped to offer us food, drink and a place to stay in Tehran. This was the first of many cars and people that stopped us to offer us food, drink and even money. At one point Michael had 2 melons and a giant sunflower tied to the back of his bicycle, along with a couple of bags of peaches and apples – all gifts, mostly from farmers.

Discovering Iran by bicycle
The best present ever!

Ali Baba the friendly Persian

The most surprising and memorable meeting was with a guy from Maku, called Ali Baba (no joke). We were cycling down a busy road, hungry and thirsty. A car pulls over, and a very happy and friendly man gets out. Before we know it he’s giving us fresh bread, olives, cheese and tea. He tells us he’s on his way to Tabriz for the day. After making sure we are well fed, he’s off on his way again. But, the hospitality doesn’t end then. 80km and 8 hours later, a car pulls up, and we are surprised to see Ali. He gives us some more tea and cakes that he bought from a bakery in Tabriz, especially for us. He knew he would pass us on the way back home so thought it would treat us. Amazing!!!

A new adventure every day

Unlike Turkey, where we got into a cycle routine. Discovering Iran by bicycle offered a new, exciting experience every day. In Turkey we slept mostly at gas stations. In Iran we slept outside police stations, mosques, inside the Red Crescent (the Islamic version of the Red Cross), people’s houses and city parks. We also met so many people that wanted to stop and chat. Farmers, students, shop owners, police officers, families, children. To our surprise, most of these people were even conversational in English.

In every country I have ever visited, sleeping or camping in city parks was a big no-no, reserved only for druggies, drunks and homeless people. In Iran however, during summer, city parks are full of families camping and picnicking until the early hours of the morning. I guess making alcohol illegal and having such high penalties for drugs is the reason for this? Whenever we camped in a park we were always the center of attention. Often we had groups of children, followed by groups of adults, crowding around, watching us put up our tent, cook, read. Whatever we were doing, the people around us were intrigued. After “Kurdistan” we were a little bit wary of groups of children, however these children seemed quite innocent – how young children should be.

Discovering Iran by bicycle
Discovering Iran by bicycle

Being on show

Sometimes the attention is welcomed. It’s a great opportunity to interact with so many different people that you wouldn’t usually get the chance to speak to. Sometimes, however when you’ve been cycling all day in extreme heat, and you just want to relax and be left alone. Having people continuously staring and asking questions can get a bit tiring. The worse incident for me, was just before we were about to get in the tent for the night after a long, hot cycle day.

One older lady came up to us and started asking us questions (in Farsi), before we knew it there was 15 adults crowded around our little tent. People asking to borrow our bikes, to see inside our tent, to take photos with us, and other things we didn’t understand – it was a little too much. Often these situations make me feel a bit like celebrity and a bit like rare zoo animal. I don’t envy either!

I do try to remember that most people in these small towns have little of no interaction with Westerners and most are just curious to learn about us. It must be a funny sight seeing 2, smelly, white people rock up in a park, with nothing but bicycles, to set up camp for the night. It does sometimes make me miss France or Italy though, where we are near enough invisible and were left in peace.

The cycle network in Iran is really well developed.

Everyone knows everyone in the Iranian cycle world. Constantly throughout our time discovering Iran by bicycle we met people from different towns that, by chance knew other cyclists we had met earlier on during the trip. Some of these amazing cyclists we had the pleasure to stay with. This includes the famous, Akbar Nadi from Marand. We were searching for a campsite when Akbar found us at a gas station. Akbar was told by a truck driver that we were cycling towards Marand. He escorted us to Marand, bought us dinner and arranged for us to sleep at a school. He also gave us the contact details for our host in Zanjan, Farhad.

Farhad and his family and friend’s were absolutely lovely. They provided a haven and much needed break from our cycle trip. At their home we enjoyed some of the best meals of our entire time we were in Iran. In Tehran, we stayed with some couchsurfers, Ashkan and Elis. They also turned out to be from Zanjan, and knew some of the people we met there. We also discovered the Ashkan was also on warmshowers and apart of the cycle community. It wasn’t only the cycle community that helped us out. Hamid and his friend, came to the rescue in Miyaneh, and kindly let us stay at their apartment, after a horrible, long cycle day. The shower was greatly appreciated.

Discovering Iran by bicycle
The famous Akbar in Marand

In truth, Iranians are some of the friendliest people I have met.

We found that the majority of Iranians want tourists to visit Iran, and want nothing but good things for “their guests”. I do even worry that some tourists may end up taking advantage of the kindness of the Iranian people. I hope if there is an increase in tourism it won’t change the Persian culture for the worse, the way tourism has in many other countries.

The common misconception of Iran is that it is dangerous, and full or terrorists. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact I have felt more safe traveling in Iran than in most of Australia and Europe. I guess the government doesn’t always reflect on the people. Just look at Tony Abbott and his shit government, I’m constantly telling people that the majority of the Australian people don’t agree with the ridiculous policies of our government. Yes, I just used this as an opportunity to take a dig at the Australian government!!

Iranians: Amazing people… but terrible drivers!!!

I had more near misses during the 2 day cycle into Tehran (the capital), than I have had during the entire cycle tour. It seems like there are no rules on the road, each man, woman or child for themselves. Cars reversing down busy roads, car doors swinging open as we cycle past, car squeezing through tight gaps, almost hitting us on the way. It’s not just the cars that cause the problems, pedestrians are just as bad. They just don’t look where they are going and practically walk into you as they cross roads. I don’t know how half of them have made it through life without getting hit by a car. Pure madness. Pure hell. I feel like that 2 days of cycling aged me by about 10 years. I will never criticize an Aussie driver again – well, not any time soon!!

Discovering Iran by bicycle
Cycling on the highway in Iran

Busy roads, lots of wind and an awesome decent

Up until the cycle into Tehran, the roads had been busy, but most of the time there was a wide hard shoulder. Except for the odd car that just decided to suddenly stop in front of us, there was little we had to worry about. The roads weren’t as good as in Turkey, but they were manageable, with the odd pot-hole or gravel section. There weren’t even as many mountain passes to cross. My favourite day discovering Iran by bicycle included a 120km gradual decline, on a fairly good and mostly “pot-hole free” road.

The biggest challenge, however, was the unbelievably strong crosswinds. This is something that apparently, Iran is known for – someone just forgot to mention it to us. On one occasion it took us 3 hours to cycle 20km because of the wind. By the time we were finished for the day, I was close to tears, feeling very defeated, exhausted and extremely dehydrated. You can’t feel the heat as much in the wind, and we were stopping less for water and food.

Discovering Iran by bicycle has been amazing!

Cycling in Iran so far has been a great experience, but also an extremely challenging one. I am extremely happy to have arrived safely in Tehran, and happy to be off the bikes for the next 2 weeks!!!

Iran is a beautiful country, but it’s people are even more beautiful. If I was to include a mention of everyone that helped us in Iran, this blog post would be triple the length. To everyone that we met, thank you for making discovering Iran by bicycle an amazing experience – and of course my door is always open, if you ever decide to visit Perth!

Discovering Iran by bicycle
Dinner with the family in Zanjan

Cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey

Cycling the silk road in Eastern Turkey

I was sad to leave Cappadocia

It was a little tourist haven, with good (vegetarian) food, coffee and plenty of English speakers. Plus of course, I didn’t have to spend any time on a bicycle. It was nice to be back in the backpacking/ tourist world, if only for a short time. It was time to start cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey. We were on a tight schedule to get to Erzurum to sort out our Iranian visas, which meant a lot of kilometers in a very hot climate (35-40 degrees) and over several very high mountain passes, with no rest days.

Looking back now, the cycle to Erzurum was pretty uneventful.

We woke up at 5am each morning, cycled until midday, rested for a few hours under some shade, then continued cycling from 5pm until about 8pm, or until we found a nice, decent gas station, with a garden out the back to set up camp. We did this for 9 days straight. Over 750km cycled, including 4 mountain passes. The most eventful thing that happened was sleeping in a mosque in a small village called Surhan. All the village locals invited us for dinner, and after dinner we slept in the study room of the mosque.

By the time we got to Erzurum we were pretty knackered and very much over cycling. We had planned to stay in Erzurum a few days with a couchsurfer, Saadet. I am very glad we did. It was one of the best couchsurfing experiences I’ve had. We rested, got to eat some yummy home-cooked, Turkish food and recover. One thing I love about couchsurfing – seeing how locals live and learning about the culture. I learnt so much from Saadet! She was very open to talking about religion and politics, which can sometimes be ‘touchy’ subjects.

I was even sadder to leave Erzurum than Cappadocia – but Iran was calling, and we still had another 350km before reaching the Iranian border. It was time to continue cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey.

cycling the silk road in eastern Turkey
Cycling the silk road in Turkey

Cycling in Kurdistan

Leaving Erzurum and entering the Kurdish part of Turkey was almost like entering a new country. The roads got worse, the villages seemed poorer and the kids were little shits. Overall, there was just a negative vibe in the air. I noticed a lot of younger people staring at us with disapproving eyes. Some even gave us the finger or yelled out, “fuck you”, while others started chanting “money, money, money” before, after or whilst throwing rocks at us. Obviously, not all Kurdish people were dicks, there were still some really nice, friendly people in Kurdistan. Strangely, I found that usually the older the person, the friendlier they were.

The second day cycling in the Kurdish region was probably one of the worst cycle days to date. The route from Horasan to Eleskirt, unknown to us, had the highest mountain pass (2200m) of the trip so far. If we were cycling this in daylight on an autumn day, then maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad, however we started the ascent in the late evening. This was my fault, as I didn’t feel comfortable wild camping in the valley (which was our original plan), and I underestimated the steepness of the mountain. So we made the ascent at the end of an already, very long cycle day, in the pitch black of night, with crappy torches that weren’t working and on a shit road, with a narrow hard shoulder.

I got a bad vibe in the area and could hear whispers coming from the valley.

It was clear that there were people hanging around in the valley, even though there were no towns nearby. We eventually made it to the top of the pass, surprised to find the mountain pass sign, and even more surprised to be approached by a Turkish truck driver whom had parked at the top of the pass. He had been waiting for us to arrive at the top. He clearly was not happy, and started yelling out “Problem. Problem.” followed by some Turkish words I didn’t understand. Luckily, Michael speaks some Turkish, so we managed to make some sense of it all.

He told us, that the area between Erzurum and Dogubayazit was extremely dangerous. The PKK extremist Kurdish, terrorist group operated in the area. He then went on to tell us that he had once been held up at gunpoint in the area. Basically, he scared the shit out of us. After what seemed like a very long 10 minutes, he said he would follow us down the mountain pass, in his truck, to a military checkpoint, about 3km away, where he said we could camp. It was the shittest downhill cycle ever. I couldn’t even make out a meter in front of me. That on top of it being a extremely shitty road, full of pot holes and gravel. We didn’t expect these types of challenges while cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey.

Cycling the silk road in Eastern Turkey
Donkeys

Eventually we made it to the military base.

Words were exchanged between our truck driver the military soldiers. We were then escorted into the base, where we had tea and chocolates. The military told us that the area was not that bad anymore. That only the traffic is a dangerous. This was followed by being told we could camp at a gas station another 3 km down the hill. Our truck driver escort had already left by this stage, so we had to make the final descent by ourselves. Unfortunately the road didn’t improve. I have never been so happy to see a gas station. The owners were lovely, they gave us tea and let us set up camp. They seemed like genuinely nice (Kurdish) people.

I’m not sure whether the area really had PKK activity or not, but I am certain the truck driver believed we were in danger. It definitely put us on edge for the next few cycle days.

Dodging flying hubcaps

It wasn’t until we reached Agri the following day that we experienced, the infamous, ‘rock-throwing’ children (just what you want while cycling in the summer heat). So not only did we have shepherd’s dogs to worry about, we now had ‘rock-throwing’ children, aged as young as 3 years to about 15 years. The worse incident was about 10km outside of Agri. A child decided to launch a hubcap at us from the back of a moving truck. It narrowly missed our heads. By this stage I was over Kurdistan, and looking very forward to getting to Iran, where I heard the people were lovely.

Ramadan Byram

For the past 4 weeks we had been cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey during Ramadan, an Islamic religious event, where muslims fast during the day. Obviously it made it a little awkward to get food or drink, or to eat and drink in public during the day. The day we arrived in Dogubayazit was the first day of Ramadan Byram, a festive holiday following the end of Ramadan. It seemed a bit like Halloween, only kids roam the streets during the day and night, looking for lollies and sweets.

As it turned out, it was possibly the worse day of the year to cycle into a city in Kurdistan. I have never in my life thought I would have to escape mobs of kids, screaming “money, money, money,” throwing the occasional rock, or attempting to slap one of us across the face. It was not a fun experience! We quickly found a cheap hotel (Hotel Isfahan), where the staff were extremely fr

iendly, and no kids were allowed. We then got stuck in Dogubayazit for the next 4 days, as we needed to withdraw dollars and euros from the bank for Iran (as you can’t use ATM’s in Iran), and the banks were closed for holidays. I could think of better places to be trapped.

dogabayazit
dogabayazit

A run for the border

After 4 days, we finally got money and were able to make our way to the border, only 35km away. We thought by this stage we would be in the clear of the rock throwing kids. Until, I by chance read about teenagers attempting to attack cyclists crossing from Dogubayzit to the Iranian border. Not with just rocks, but with chains. The fun times keep coming. We thought it would be safest to head off early in the morning, before anyone would be awake, to avoid bumping into these teenagers. In hindsight this was stupid and it would have been safer to wait until midday when all the roads get busier.

The biggest concern for us was that we were carrying so much money. All the money to last us in Iran. I’m not sure whether the locals in this area would know that or not – I hope they don’t. We were lucky, and didn’t have any problems. Though, it could have been a different story. As we were cycling through one town, at about 7am, there was no traffic on the road, at all. I have actually never seen the roads so quiet. I spotted some teenager shepherds just off the road; as they spotted us, they got up and walked on to the road.

There were 3 of them, and they all walked with long metal polls.

There was something about them that was very suspicious. One boy walked to the other side of the road. This meant we would have to cycle through the middle of them. I started cycling further out into the road, as there was no chance I was going to let that happen. Other than that, there was nothing that we could do except cycle fast, don’t stop, and hope they don’t try anything. We cycled around them, they eyed us, and hesitated. We said “hello”, continued cycling, and luckily nothing happened. I was relieved to finally reach the border. Crossing the border into Iran was no problem, and within 30 minutes we were through passport control and customs, and safely in Iran. I could not have been happier!!

Overall we did enjoy cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey, unfortunately there were just a few incidents that made it a little difficult.

Note for cyclists headed the same route while cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey:

*** There is a town about 10-15km from the border called Asagi Tavia, if you are planning on cycling through this town please take care. Though the teenagers didn’t try it with us, they did act very strange, and were holding big metal polls. I’m sure it’s not long before they actually try something on with cyclists, particularly if you are by yourself. I’ve also heard other reports of cyclists getting attacked in this area. ***

Cycling the silk road in Eastern Turkey
Arriving at the Iranian border

Cycling the Silk Road in Eastern Turkey stats:

Money found on the road: Michael – 108 lira ($53) vs. Me – nothing

Kilometers cycled in Turkey: 2300km

Total km: 4400km

Time spent in Turkey: 6 weeks

Total days: 104 days

Punctures: Michael – we’ve lost count, but at least 23 vs. Me – 2

Accommodation: x4 nights Couchsurfing, x1 night mosque, x4 nights hotel, x1 pension/ guesthouse, wild camping (mostly at gas stations)

Compare these stats to our cross Canada Cycle trip!

Cycling the Silk Road in Turkey: to Cappadocia

Cycling the silk road in Eastern Turkey

Cycling the Silk Road in Turkey

We have been cycling one of the ancient trade route from the 1200s, famously known as the Silk Road. This trade route runs straight through Central Anatolia, where towns are few and far between and the weather and terrain can be hot and harsh. We started in the port town of Cesme, and made our way east through Selcuk, where we started cycling the Silk Road in Turkey to Pamukkale, then continued further east to Konya, then to Goreme in Cappadocia. From there we plan on continuing on the Silk Road all the way to Erzurum in the east of Turkey.

The Silk Road diminished when traders discovered boat routes were quicker, however remnants of the ancient Silk Road can still be found along the way. Our most recent discovery was an old caravanserai in Sultanhani in the Central Anatolia. Traditional caravans (wagons and donkeys) are rarely seen anymore. BUT, the ancient route is still largely used by the modern trader – the truck!

cycling the silk road in Turkey
Hay truck

This region is largely an agricultural region.

We have cycled passed, cherry and apricot orchards, wheat, sunflower, tea and opium fields (a quarter of the world’s legal opium comes from the region), olive groves and rice and sugar paddies (just to name a few). We have also passed a few refugee camps. This was a bit of a surprise, as we are still so far from the Syrian and Iraq borders. I presume we will only see more of these camps, the further east we go. (Update: this was in 2014 before the mass movement of refugees from Syria to Europe really began).

We have been in Turkey for a few weeks now.

So far the generosity of people has been overwhelming, and at times even uncomfortable. I’m certain that if more people could be as friendly and giving as some of the people I’ve met in Turkey, then the world would be a better place. A day doesn’t go by without several offers of tea or fruit, and the occasional offer of dinner, snacks, a bed, a shower (yes, we probably do smell), coffee and even laundry – in a washing machine (a luxury for us, as we end up having to hand wash the majority of the time). This along with many waves, smiles, “hellos.” And the occasional confused/ interested stare. We are definitely getting more attention cycling through Turkey, than cycling through Italy.

cycling the silk road in Turkey
Konya

One thing I will take away from the last few weeks

If I ever see a cycle tourist in Australia, I will try and be as generous and helpful as some of the people that have helped me out on this trip. I will also not honk the horn a hundred times, scaring the shit out of the cyclist, just to say “hello”.

Gender issues?

Despite all this, there have been a few incidences where I have been bluntly ignored, and all the questions have been directed at only Michael. The most common is, “what’s your name?”, directed to Michael, with no interest in what my name is. Whether this is because I speak no Turkish, and Michael speaks a little, or whether it’s because I’m a female, I cannot say for certain, but I have my suspicions. Either way, I think most independent women will find this quite insulting and frustrating, as do I. Luckily, this isn’t the norm, and in fact, Turkey is a largely liberal Islamic country. Though, with that being said, I wouldn’t suggest walking around the rural regions wearing a mini skirt and tight top.

Truck drivers, friend not foe!

The other biggest surprise for me are the truck drivers… oddly, I’m beginning to feel a sense of connection with them. When I first started cycling, I dreaded anything bigger than a car, whizzing passed me. If I heard a truck coming, I would brace myself by gripping the handlebars and holding on for dear life. Now, I happily wave or nod at the passing truck, as they pass waving or giving a friendly honk.

So, why do I feel a sense of connection, with these truck drivers? What can cyclists and truck drivers possibly have in common? Well, we’re both on the road for days on end, spending each night in a different place, most likely without showers or a proper beds. We both tend to use garages/ gas stations/ servos as rest spots or to escape the heat of the day, or to set up camp for the night. Daily we are interacting with people from all over different regions/ countries. And, finally, we both have similar schedules for being on the road – early morning cycle, rest during the day, and late afternoon back on the road. I guess we both also go very slowly up steep hills, and are dragging a bunch of crap behind us.

caravanserai, Turkey
caravanserai

Entering a new world

Cycling the Silk Road in Turkey has so far been completely different to any other country we have cycled in during this trip. The roads tend to be crapper (a bit like Albania). The mini bus drivers are crazy, and keep you on your toes (also like the drivers in Albania). But, the most challenging difference is that the towns are so far apart. We sometimes go days without seeing a bakery or supermarket, and end up relying on market stalls or garage shops for food. Luckily, there are plenty of garages about, usually every 10-20km, and there we can fill up on water, as well as snacks. Days are long, and rest days are few. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – and we are going to come out of this as strong as an ox (especially our thighs).

Cycling the silk road in Turkey
Cappadocia

Cycling the Silk Road in Turkey Statistics:

Days spent in Turkey: 17 days

Kilometers cycled in Turkey (so far): 1000km

Total kilometers: 3300km

Punctures: Me – 2, Michael – 8

Accommodation: 2 nights in a hostel, 1 night in a guesthouse, 2 nights in a cheap hotel, 1 night as a guest in the home of the gas station owner, 11 nights wild camping (mostly outside of garages).

Treats: Me – coconut chocolate bars, ice cream. Michael – still helva (gross). Both of us – any cold drink we can get our hands on (our fave is lemon and mint juice).

Record number of invitations for tea (cay) in one day: about 8 (yep, we really are that popular).

Cycling Greece: conquering mountains, winds, storms, sun and the ‘feta and olives’ combo

cycling greece

6 weeks and we finally crossed into Greece

I was excited to eat my weight in feta, olives and stuffed vine leaves, though it turned out that cycling Greece was more expensive than anticipated. So unfortunately we didn’t eat out as much as we planned, though with the “Lidl-supermarket-take-over” – a new Lidl store on the outskirts of pretty much every town or city we cycled through. We were able to still eat most of Greece’s delights, at a more affordable price. We could tell we were going to enjoy cycling Greece!

Greece turned out not to be the easiest country for wild-camping. The first night we spent outside a BP station, the second in a bush behind a “kantina.” Most of the time we had to resort to finding an official campsite or hotel as there was too much exposed farm land, shepherds and stray dogs. We also spotted “bear warning” signs, though with all the farmland I’m not sure where the bears would actually hide.

cycling greece
Camping out our first gas station

Meteora

At the beginning of the trip, I had planned to fly to the UK from Thessaloniki on 13th June, to surprise my Nan for her 80th. Michael was going to stay in Greece to “fine tune” the bikes. We were ahead of schedule, and actually needed to slow down a bit. If we kept going the rate we were going, we would have to spend a week hanging around Thessaloniki or the “three fingers”. So, we decided to take a 300km detour to Meteroa, as a few people told us it was worth seeing. To our discoverer the road to Meteora was extremely hilly and challenging. When we finally arrived, it was well worth the detour and heartache. Meteora is made up of strange rock formation, jutting out of the ground. Some of these rock formations had ancient monasteries located on top.

cycling greece
Meteora

Summer is here!

From Meteora we headed further east towards the coast – and what turns out to be a tourist hotspot for Serbians, Romanians and Hungarians. There were still the odd thunderstorm, but it was mostly was sunny. We finally got some hot, sunny days to go for a swim at the beach. We hit the coast near Platamous, then made our way, slowly up the coast, passing Mount Olympus and the ancient ruins of Dion. Finally we arrived in the Greek port town, Thessaloniki – where we had a much needed break from cycling.

Cycle touring definitely takes it’s toll

While cycling Greece, we were headed up a hill on a busy highway, battling the winds, rain or occasionally hot sun, I often question why I’m doing this. Why am I putting myself through all of the pain and suffering? I’m definitely aware that I bitch and moan more than Michael, he seems to love it all. I do however like the odd luxury. I often have days where I completely hate cycling, while other days I find it quite enjoyable. I’m sure if I could record the thoughts I have while cycling, then play them for you now, you will think I’m nuts. A mixture of exhaustion, dehydration, boredom, and excitement can do funny things to your mind.

One thing I have come to realise is that the side of the road is usually the crappest part of the road – broken glass, blown tyres, road kill (so many hedgehogs), stones. People also honk for every reason you can think of, and somehow we are just supposed to know what the honk means.

A week off the bike… I was excited!

This was my holiday! No more cycling Greece for me. I was in the UK for a week, and the time flew by. It seems like a dream now. My Nan had no idea I was coming, and was quite surprised to see me walk through the door. I was greeted with shock, confusion and many questions. “Aren’t you supposed to be cycling in the Amazon, or one of those ‘funny countries’?” “Where is your bike?” “Where is your boyfriend?” “So, who knew about this? I don’t know who to trust anymore, no one tells me anything.”

My mum was also over from Australia, so I got to catch up with her as well as the rest of the family. I’m glad I took the opportunity, even though it took a week out of a cycle tour, which means we are now cycling like crazy to make up the time. It was worth it – plus it got me out of fixing and cleaning the bikes. Thanks Michael.

cycling greece
Thessaloniki road sign

Another change in plans

After a week off the bike, spent in a comfortable bed, eating and drinking my weight in food and drink, picking up and few things from Go Outdoors. I headed back to Thessaloniki. Our original plan was to cycle North along the coast and cross into Turkey, and then on to Istanbul. Here we planned to sort out our visas for Iran. After reading a bunch of cycle touring blogs and threads that told of the horrors of cycling into Istanbul we decided against. We’ve both been to the city before – it’s beautiful, but it’s huge, in size and population and it’s just plain crazy, especially in the summer season.

Greek Island Hopping

We decided to take a ferry from Thessaloniki to the Greek Island, Chios. Here we spent Michael’s birthday. Unfortunately, there is only one ferry per week, with Nel Lines, which meant we had a couple more days in Thessaloniki. It wasn’t too bad. I got to explore the city, we changed/added/cleaned a few things on the bikes, and even went to a Bob Dylan concert – such a hard life. We only spent one night on Chios, as we discovered, the Iranian visa agency (Touran Zamin), messed up our application, and we only had 21 days to cycle 1600km across Central Turkey. Fun times ahead! So, from Chios we caught the ferry to Cesme in Turkey. Turkey you better be ready for us!

cycling greece
The ferry to Turkey

Europe leg – completed!!!

Cycling Greece was awesome, but we were ready for the next leg, Asia! Hotter, longer, harder. I think it’s safe to say, our training is now over, and the real cycle tour is about to begin. Who knows whether we’ll make it, but there is only one way to find out. Bring on Asia!!!

Cycling Greece Stats

Accommodation: 3 nights wild camping, 6 nights in a cheap hotel, 5 nights in an official campsite, 1 night with a couchsurfer, 6 nights at Nan’s house (in England – while Michael stayed with a CSer), 1 night on a ferry

Total days spent in Greece: 18 days in Greece and 7 days in England

Spendings: Too much – lost count – no more than 20 euro per day

Bicycle maintenance: New cassette, new front brake pads and new chain for me; new cassette, new chain, new clogs, new tyre, new front brake pads, new inner tubes (probably more stuff I don’t know about), for Michael. We also had both the wheels on both bikes, trued as they were a bit out-of-line

Punctures: Me: 0 – Michael: 7

Our little treats: Michael – ouzo and coke and helva; Me – chocolate milk and stuffed vine leaves

Cycling Macedonia

Cycling Macedonia

What can I say about cycling Macedonia? Well, Macedonia is probably is my favourite country that we’ve cycled through, so far. The roads are good, the drivers are courteous, the scenery is amazing and it’s super cheap.

We arrived in Macedonia on the beautiful Lake Ohrid.

Exhausted, wet and dehydrated. It was quite late in the evening and it was still raining. So we decided to treat ourselves to a hostel, instead of camping. We stayed not too far from Ohrid Town, which is a bit of a tourist trap, but still beautiful. It is also cheap and yummy ice cream can be bought everywhere. Since starting this cycle tour my life has started to revolve even more around food, so the ice cream point is very important. As is discovering yummy cheap bureks for 50c each and the cheapest supermarket I’ve entered since Latin America. Michael is struggling to keep on weight (I’m unfortunately not having the same problem). So I’ve been trying to fatten Michael up again – on a small budget. So Macedonia is perfect!

In total we spent 4 nights on Lake Ohrid. It wasn’t quite hot enough to get in the water. We’ve been followed by shitty, wet, stormy weather since we left the Alps, and this continued into Macedonia. Fortunately, there were a couple of clear, blue-sky days, and got to witness an amazing sunset from Ohrid’s Old Town.

Michael treated me to a spa package at a hotel on the lake, for my birthday. So, after relaxing for the day/night, we woke up early, made the most of the breakfast buffet, and hit the road again.

Cycling Macedonia
Lake Ohrid from the pass

Taking the road less traveled

Most people would try and take the most direct route to the next destination – not us. We decided, very last minute (even though it was forecasted to rain, again), to take the longer and more mountainous route, through Galichica National Park. The route included a 2000m pass from Lake Ohrid to Lake Prespa. It was going to be a tough day.

The roads were quiet and the views were amazing. For once, we were also blessed with perfect weather, and managed to make it to our “official” wild camping spot before the rain started. The detour added about 30km and 2000m onto the trip, but it was well worth. We arrived into Bitola the following day, knackered but feeling accomplished.

Cycling Macedonia
Loving the hills on the way up the pass

Onwards to Greece

Bitola was our last stop in Macedonia before crossing the border into Greece. We checked into a hostel, as it’s usually difficult to find wild camping spots in cities. Then chilled out for the rest of the day. Just as the rain caught up with us.

The following day we attempted to get an early start. We had decided to take an 300km detour to visit Meteora, because we were told by a few people that it was cool. Our early start, turned into a late start. Sometimes things just don’t go the way you plan! We did however, eventually make it out of Macedonia and into our 7th country, Greece.

Cycling Macedonia
Switch back (just part of the climb)

A few stats from cycling Macedonia:

Accommodation: 4 nights in a hostel, 1 night in a hotel (for my birthday), 1 night wild camping in the National Park

Kilometers cycled in Macedonia: 140km

Total kilometers: 1800km

Days in Macedonia: 7 days (6 nights)

Total days cycling: 42 days

Average spendings per day: 10 Euros

Beautiful Sunsets: 3

Puncture tally: 4 (Michael) – 0 (Kelly)

Cycling Albania: Great people, shit roads and killer mountains

Cycling Albania

We were excited to be cycling Albania – we entered the country from Montenegro, near Lake Shkoder in the North of the country. Enjoying the sunshine, we were taking the day at a relatively slow pace. Just taking in the scenery, stopping for coffee and snack breaks, and enjoying the day and the good weather. Then we decided it was a good night for an all-nighter. This is something we have both wanted to attempt at some point (though I probably shouldn’t let my Dad know this, as he will likely freak out).

Albania sign, cycling Albania
Albania sign

Attempting to do our first all-nighter

All nighter, all the way to Tirana (a total of 160km). Luckily the reality of this crazy idea hit home at about 100km, when we realized it was a stupid idea and we were too young to die. The road into Tirana was horrible and the drivers were crazy. Dusk was already upon us, and we began to feel a bit desperate. I read that wild camping at a gas station with the permission of the owner was the “done thing” in almost every country. So we asked at a station, they said “no” and pointed us in the direction of a campsite.

The campsite was only 5km away so we decided to head for it. 10km later, after pushing our bikes along a dirty beach, we arrived at the campsite. Just as the sun disappeared over the horizon. It turned out the campsite was still closed for the season. After about 10 minutes of hanging around, trying to decide what to do (I didn’t want to sleep at the campsite as there were a bunch of drunk guys hanging around). A guy appeared who was looking after the campsite while it was closed. He took us to a restaurant, introduced us to the owner, and before we knew it we had our own (rather smelly and old) hut. This is where we ended up spending the night – for free! This was just our introduction to the great Albanian hospitality.

[ctt template=”8″ link=”6yaXe” via=”yes” ]The friendliest people in the Balkans! #cyclingalbania @CycleTrekkers[/ctt]

The following day we said our goodbyes and hit the road again.

It was a long day cycling Albania, in hot sunny weather (a rarity of the trip so far). We decided to head off the main highway, which turned out to make the trip into Tirana significantly longer. The locals were so inquisitive. We got plenty of waves, a few high-fives, we even got given free bottles of water at a gas station we stopped at to shelter from the sun. I think most other  (sensible) cycle tourists took the more direct route to Tirana and stuck to the main road. This meant many of the locals we met hadn’t seen cycle tourists before.

I was also told by an Irish expat that local Albanians believe that only poor people cycle, so seeing foreigners traveling on bicycles is a very strange thing for them. The only negative run in we had, was with a teenage boy who tried to stop me cycling by throwing a bamboo stick in my path. I moved it out the way. He then hit Michael on the head with the stick. The boy then started throwing rocks at us. I guess there are douchbags in every country; luckily he is the minority.

Cycling Albania
Cycling with locals

It was at this point the road turned to shit

Some sections of the road we had to get off the bike and push them through knee high muddy puddles. We were happy when we finally made our way back to the main highway. Once on the highway we followed it the rest of the way to Tirana.

We were warned about the road into Tirana, and the warnings were true. The cycle was not fun. We had to battle with pot holes, gravel, mud, rocks, dirt, road kill, cargo trucks, loads of traffic, no hard shoulder and plenty of pollution. It was hard to believe this was the main road into the capital. The condition of some of the roads in the villages we cycled through were in much better condition. Eventually we did make it to Tirana, where we decided to set up camp in the garden of a hostel for a few nights.

Tirana has a bike bazaar (basically just a street with cheap bike shops on), which we wanted to check out. So we decided to hang around the city for a few days to fix up and clean the bikes.

Cycling Albania
One of the crap roads we cycled on

3 nights rest and feeling fully recovered.

We were ready to take on the next challenge on cycling Albania, the Albanian Alps. Stupidly we headed off at the hottest part of the day (yes, the sun was out again), and we started climbing straight away. Our aim was to hit Elbasan, which we surprisingly did, and even cycled through. About 10km outside Elbasan we asked a gas station whether we could camp out the back, and surprise, surprise, he said yes. Happy Days!!! Great view, free campsite and he sold beer on tap – score!

The next day we continued the climb up the Alps. Blue-sky day, no cloud cover, no breeze, just sun. We spent most of the day climbing over the Albanian Alps, it was a tiring day, but we eventually made it to Lake Ohrid (on the Albanian side), just as the weather changed. We then cycled down hill towards in the Macedonian border in the wind, rain and a thunderstorm.

Conquering the Albanian Alps, we made it to Macedonia. Soaked, tired and sun burnt! What is with this crazy weather?!? So, instead of camping, we decided to find a cheap hostel on the Macedonian side of the lake, have a shower and warm up.

A few cycling Albania stats

Accommodation: 1 night staying in a hut out the back of a restaurant, 3 nights camping at a hostel, 1 night wild camping out the back of a garage

Kilometers cycled in Albania: 314km

Total kilometers: 1750km (or there-a-bouts)

Days in Albania: 7 days (5 nights)

Total days cycling: 35 days

Average spendings per day: 12 Euros

Crash tally: 1* (Michael) – 1** (Kelly)

  • I left Michael for 30 minutes, and he crashed into a car – ok, the car pulled out on him, but luckily he was ok… Tirana drivers – CRAZY!!!

** My tyre got stuck in a tramline and I went flying off my bike (this was in Italy)

Puncture tally: 4 (Michael) – 0 (Kelly)

Zdravo! Cycling Montenegro

Kotor Bay, cycling Montenegro

We left Dubrovnik with the aim to reach Herceg Novi in Montenegro. We were excited to be cycling Montenegro, assuming we would be leaving the tourists and their buses behind. It turns out that Montenegro is just as touristy as Croatia. So we still had to share the roads with a hundred tour buses.

Once arriving in Herceg Novi, we decided it was time to find a wild camping spot. Unfortunately the bay area was a lot more developed than we anticipated and the further we got towards Kotor Bay, the less likely it seemed we were going to find a suitable wild camping spot. We asked to camp at one gas station, they neither agreed or disagreed. We decided they didn’t seem to happy about our presence, and ventured on. Eventurally we came across a camping site, and decided, with the dark stormy clouds closing in,  instead of pushing on, it was best to stop for the night.

cycling Montenegro kotor bay

Kotor Bay and the Old City

The following day was supposed to be an easy day of cycling around the breathtaking, Kotor Bay to the Old City of Kotor. It was something we had both being looking forward to. We wanted to take it slow and enjoy the scenry. After about 5km we got the first puncture of the trip… or rather the first 3 punctures of the trip.

1 hour 20 minutes later we had fixed the puncture, the sun had gone, the rain had started, and we were soaked, but we were back on the road… for about 30 minutes, then the tyre started to deflate again! Wet and frustrated, we stopped at a very souviet looking café bar for a coffee, to rethink a new plan. There was a particularly cheap guesthouse only 10km away, we decided to reinflate the tyre and head there for the night…. making the day the shortest cycle day of the trip so far, covering a total of about 25km.

The guesthouse didn’t have the most central location, with no nearby supermarkets or restaurants, but it did have an amazing view of the Bay.

The following day was sunny

We continued around the bay, and finally made it to the old town in Kotor (along with the hundred tourist buses with hundreds of tourists). Kotor is probably one of my favorite ancient towns of the trip so far, unfortunately we had our bikes and all our gear with us, so we couldn’t walk the old town walls, but we did push our bikes around the town, and enjoyed some cheap coffee.

We had a few hours in the town before it was time to set off for Budva, where we were staying with the first couchsurfer of the trip, Justine. We spent a few days chilling out in beautiful Budva, with beautiful weather, yummy pizza and great company, before continuing on cycling Montenegro.

From Budva we headed further south along the coast to Bar.

It was unexpectedly hilly, and very hot compared to our other cycle days (late 20’s – I’m sure my Aussie friends will laugh at that). We heard about a “short-cut” inland to the Albania border crossing from Bar, and though the road was a bit narrower, and started off with a steep incline, the cycle along the road was amazing. Minimal traffic, good views, relatively good road. After a couple of days cycling Montenegro on good roads, we eventually made it to the Albanian border. From then onwards, “hello roads with  pot holes and mud“.

budva, cycling montenegro
Budva

Cycling Montenegro stats:

Accommodation: 1 night in an “official” campsite, 1 night in a guesthouse, 2 nights couchsurfing, 1 night wild-camping

Kilometers cycled in Montenegro: 130km (“mas o menos”)

Total kilometers: will have to double check… around 1500km (maybe)

Total days in Montenegro: 7 days (5 nights)

Total days cycling: 30 days

Average spendings per day: 14 euros (“mas or menos”)

Puncture tally: 3 (Michael) – 0 (Kelly)