Crossing the Bosphorus!

With only 100km to go to Istanbul, I had decided that I would sleep in and have a leisurely breakfast. That was until I discovered that the U/15 boys soccer team from Greece had decided to resume hostilities with their ancient foes and were using the hotel’s foyer and corridors for their training ground. Fortunately their coaches quickly rounded them up and the adolescent army was eventually shovelled onto a troop transporter and headed off to do battle on some distant football field.

Old meets new, East meets West.

The outskirts of Istanbul: old meets new, East meets West.

With sanity and serenity restored I enjoyed my delayed breakfast and mused on the day ahead.

When I was in Lahore, Omar from the Pakistan Bikers Club had  recommended that I get in contact with the “Istanbul Bisiklet ve Motosiklet Ihtisas Kulubu” – the Istanbul Cycling and Biking Specialty Club. Coincidentally, several times throughout my travels I had met fellow overland motorcyclists who had stayed in Istanbul during their eastward wanderings. All had been glowing in their praise of the hospitality of the friendly folk at IBMIK.

All I had was a street address and an email address of somebody going by the name of “mrcolonel50″. After sending a few emails I established that “mrcolonel50″ was indeed somebody called Mehmet and arrangements were made to meet at an address in Zeytinburnu – a district in old Istanbul not far from the Golden Horn.

With a workable plan for the day in place I saddled up for the last time in Asia and headed for the big smoke of Istanbul. The entire ride from Izmit was an anti-climax – massive traffic jams, suicidal truck and taxi drivers, and the scenery was just like any other huge city.

As I neared Istanbul I caught my first glimpse of the Sea of Marmara – the large body of water that links the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea. The Sea of Marmara has been the scene of some of the greatest naval battles in the entire history of human civilisation; Greeks against Persians, European crusaders against Byzantines, Ottoman Turks against anybody that came close for 500 years. It is a living textbook of history.

At the north-eastern end of the Sea of Marmara is the Bosphorus Strait that divides the old European part of Istanbul from the modern Asian part. The two parts were only linked for the first time in 1973 by the original Bogazici (Bosphorus) Bridge and then again in 1988 by the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge.

Bogazici Bridge over the Bosphorus - Europe on the left, Asia on the right!

Bogazici Bridge over the Bosphorus – Europe on the left, Asia on the right!

In an email my contact at IBMIK, Mehmet, had advised me against taking either bridge due to the nightmare traffic and suggested that I take one of the many ferries plying the crossing. But I decided against taking Mehmet’s advice for a couple of reasons. Firstly, ferries involve timetables (which I dislike) and waiting around (which I dislike even more). Secondly, but more importantly, this would be a defining moment in my trip – leaving Asia and entering Europe. And I was determined to do it on two wheels NOT on a ferry.

How hard could it be?

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Onward to Izmit

Next morning I took a pleasant stroll around the quiet streets of Kirikkale. It seemed like a prosperous, if not overly pretty,  little city. Maybe I had been too quick to dismiss it. Next door to Otel 71 was a small café where I stopped for breakfast. I asked the owner of the café what Kirikkale was known for. He replied, “Making steel and chemicals”. Hmmm, not a great claim to fame!

While packing the bike I began to doubt the wisdom of my plan to ride all the way to Istanbul today.  It was about 530km and would mean arriving in the middle of Istanbul’s late afternoon peak hour traffic which was reportedly worse than both Delhi’s cow-induced chaos and Tehran’s gridlock – although I failed to see how this could be humanly possible. A late arrival was something that I wanted to avoid. So I decided to stop about 100km short of Istanbul at Izmit which would leave me an easy day’s ride the following day.

And so the day’s ride was set. I would bypass the chaos of Ankara, head for Bolu by lunchtime and then be in Izmit by early afternoon.

Istanbul is not far way now!

Between Kirikkale and Ankara – the first sign to Istanbul!

The highway skirted around the outer suburbs of Ankara. And I was glad that I had decided to give the massive concrete jungle such  a wide berth. Then it was a tedious 200km ride to Bolu where I made the obligatory pitstop for lunch.

Ankara

Several people asked me why I bypassed Ankara. Wall-to-wall concrete, maybe.

It was only another 150km to Izmit so I took my time and stopped at Uzunkum near Lake Sapanca. If you discount the disappointing heat-haze blur of the Caspian Sea, this was the biggest body of water I had seen since Lake Attabad on the KKH all those months ago. Just to see those cool clear blue water again was enough to lift the spirits. I had grown up on the beaches of SE Queensland and have always lived within 20km of the coast so being away from the sea for so long was a strange sensation.

P1010928 (2000x1500)

Lake Sapanca – a beautiful place to stop and take in the view.

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Not much fun in Kirikkale

I had my first real Turkish coffee in Sivas.

I had my first real Turkish coffee in Sivas.

Next morning I woke up  far too early for some inexplicable reason. So it was straight to the beer garden for breakfast with a view. I took my time over a lazy breakfast which included my first real Turkish coffee. I was surprised to find that the most common drink for Turkish people wasn’t coffee at all but chai - green tea invariably sweetened with two sugar cubes. Like just about every other country I had visited so far.

With only 350km to Kirikkale I was in no hurry to leave so I chatted to Orhan, my Red Bull-fuelled friend from yesterday, as I packed the bike. He begged me for a ride of my bike. As a general rule I don’t let anybody ride my bike and certainly not an adolescent male who seemed to have a can of Red Bull permanently grafted to his hand. As grateful as I was for his help in finding another hotel yesterday, there was no way I was going to let Orhan ride my bike. I could just see him trying to do a X-Fighters FMX stunt on my bike, which weighed over 300kg when fully loaded, in the main street of Sivas and only managing to smear it and himself along the bitumen.

I had thoroughly enjoyed my brief overnight stop in Sivas, but it was now time to move on. I had a self-imposed schedule to be in Istanbul in 2-3 days. I waved goodbye to Orhan, still standing disappointedly on the footpath.

9°C! As if! But it was a nice balmy 29°C!

9°C! As if! But it was a nice balmy 29°C!

The road to Kirikkale was perfect but not of any great interest. I stopped every 100km or so to break up the monotony. Just after noon I pulled into a roadside café which had a digital thermometer telling me it was 9°C. Based on how much I was sweating inside my helmet and jacket, I was pretty sure it was hotter than 9°C. It turned out to be 29°C of course, as the “2″ kept flickering on and off.

Still, it was first time in months that the midday temperature had been less than 30°C. A sign that the long, hot summer was finally coming to an end? I could only hope!

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To Sivas

Packed and ready to go outside the Hotel Dilaver in Erzurum.

Packed and ready to go outside the Hotel Dilaver in downtown Erzurum.

I took my leave of the friendly but still-disbelieving staff of the Hotel Dilaver and started the long 1300km haul to Istanbul.

But for today, it was only about 450km from Erzurum to Sivas – a relatively easy day’s ride thanks to the excellent highway, even at my dawdling pace. My new route to Istanbul would take me through parts of Turkey I hadn’t originally planned to visit so I didn’t know what lay ahead of me.

About 60km out of Erzurum the bike clicked over exactly 10,000km since I had left Kathmandu. I pulled off the highway to take a photo to mark the occasion. Some friendly Turkish policemen pulled up beside me to check if everything was OK. They were very interested in the map of the world on my RHS pannier that charted my progress across Asia. They too were amazed that I had been able to travel freely in Iran. They firmly believed it was a police state worse was than Russia (I assumed they meant the old USSR).

My pleasant chat with the curious constables over, I resumed my trip to Sivas, all the while looking out for something interesting to look at.

Exactly 10,000km since I left Kathmandu. And the engine is stilling idling away nicely.

Exactly 10,000km since I left Kathmandu. And the engine is still idling away nicely.

Halfway between Erzurum and Erzincan the road started to follow a small creek for many kilometres. The numerous signs simply said “Firat 1″. I became very curious about what “Firat 1″ meant. The only detailed map of Eastern Anatolia I had was an old one in Farsi that I had been given in Mashhad. So that was worse than useless. Eventually it clicked that this small creek was actually the head waters of the Euphrates River - one of the most important rivers in the history of human civilisation as it waters the ancient lands of Mesopotamia downstream in Iraq.

The not-so-mighty Euphrates river.

This non-descript stormwater drain is the not-yet-mighty Euphrates river.

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On the road to Erzurum

As I rode the 35km from the border at Bazargan to Dogubayazit a snow-covered peak appeared out of the heat haze to the north. Eventually I realised that it must be Mt. Ararat, of Old Testament fame. I couldn’t see any sign of Noah or his Ark though.

Mt Ararat - at over 500m it still had snow in the middle of summer.

Mt Ararat – at over 5000m it still had snow in the middle of summer.

A perfect day for riding.

A perfect day for riding.

It was a perfect day for riding – good roads, blazing blue skies, spectacular scenery and surprisingly little traffic. Dogubayazit came and went without a second thought as I headed for Agri and the Tahir Pass on the way to Horasan.

It was in Horasan I came back down to earth with a thud.

After months in Central Asia and Iran I had become accustomed to paying less than US$1/L for fuel. In fact, in Iran and Turkmenistan it was only US$0.35/L. But in Turkey it was about US$2.40/L – almost 8 times the price in Iran that I had left just a few hours ago. This was going to have a big impact on the budget!

Rejoining the main highway I dawdled the last 85km to Erzurum – relishing the fact I could at least read the road signs even if I couldn’t understand them. I found a decent hotel right in the centre of Erzurum without too much trouble. The staff were very friendly but were aghast when I told them I had just spent 2-3 weeks in Iran. They would not believe that a Western tourist could travel independently on a motorcycle in Iran. I assured them that the Iranian people had been unfailingly friendly. They remained unconvinced. As I had discovered throughout my travels, it was very common for the people of one country to believe that the neighbouring country was inhabited solely by thieves, murderers and sundry ne’er-do-wells.

Nevertheless, I decided that Erzurum also seemed like a friendly place and was worth more than the planned overnight stop, so the Hotel Dilaver became my home for a couple of days as I set about exploring the city and its history.

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To Maku and the Turkish border

Due to Sam’s enthusiasm it seemed like I had been in Tabriz for a week but in fact it had been only three days. It was now time to pack the bike again and continue my journey across northern Iran to Maku – the last stop before the Turkish border. Tabriz to Maku was only 250km so it would be a relatively easy day’s ride. I could have made it to the border post at Bazargan as it was only another 30km up the road but I had learned that, wherever possible, it was usually better to approach border crossings in the morning rather than the afternoon.

Stark country side

The often stark terrain of the Azarbayjan-e Gharbi region

After thanking Sam and Agdaz for their wonderful hospitality I said my good-byes. When I went out to the bike I found it was spotlessly clean. Sam had washed the bike for me! It was no longer covered in its patina of dirt and grime that it had acquired after three months of travelling through Asia.  And Sam continued his generosity by loading me up with food and drink for the journey.

I jumped straight onto the freeway that would take me out of town. It was felt good to get away from the mayhem of the Tabriz traffic. The countryside was quite desolate in parts. Often it was difficult to discern the mud-brick homes of the villages from their rugged, rocky surroundings.

A very friendly Iranian family invited me to join them for lunch.

A very friendly Iranian family invited me to join them for lunch.

It was another hot day but it was always a great feeling to be on the open road again and by early afternoon I was in Maku. I stopped in the main street at a local cafe to escape the heat and have some lunch. Immediately I was asked to join an Iranian family for lunch. Only one of the family spoke any English and that was fairly limited. But that was no problem. The father asked about my travels and he translated for the rest of his family. I asked the family for directions to a hotel but as they were not locals but travelling through to Orumiyeh they could not help me. Eventually I found the hotel I was looking for where the hotel staff even let me park the bike in their very grand, marble-floored foyer.

That evening, as I sat eating dinner in a local restaurant, it struck me that tomorrow I would be leaving Iran. More surprisingly, I realised I had only been in Iran for a total of two weeks. Was it really only two weeks since I had escaped the absurdity that is Turkmenistan? It seemed more like a lifetime ago.

I had entered Iran with a broad plan to visit many of the ancient historical sites. One was the most famous archeological site in the world – Persepolis, home to two of the great Achaemenid kings, Darius and Xerxes. My trip was also to take me to the fabled cities of Shiraz and Esfahan. Alas, it was not to be. Instead of being a trip through “Ancient Persia”, my travels had somehow morphed into a journey through “Modern Iran”.

From the manic outpourings of modern Shi’ite Islam in Mashhad to the relatively modern, but soulless, cities of Bognurd and Gorgan to the megacity of Tehran  to the ordinary suburban life of Tabriz, I had seen 21st century Iran in a way that I could not have anticipated when I crossed the rarely-used border at Sarahs.

But my time in Iran had been all too brief. I made a mental note to myself that Iran was the one country that I would love to visit again. Had I gained any new meaningful insight into Iran – one of the most-maligned countries in Western media? Not really, other than that the Iranian people were no different to any other people. They just wanted a home for their family, enough food on the table and hope for the future – the same as people all over the world. I strolled back to my hotel in the cool of the evening realising that I was going to miss Iran.

Tomorrow I would have to make the short 30km dash to the border at Bazargan and Turkey.

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At home in Tabriz: Part II

When I awoke next morning Sam had already prepared an elaborate breakfast for me – none of your nancy-boy continental breakfasts here. It consisted of vast quantities of different meats and cheeses along with freshly baked breads and fresh fruit. It was an enormous challenge to the appetite but delicious.

As expected, Sam had planned a full morning’s sightseeing for me, to be followed by lunch back at home before venturing out again in the late afternoon for more visiting. But today would be different. Sam decided that it would be easier to use public transport rather than the bike so we walked up to a nearby bus stop and caught a local bus into the city. The bus ride took about 20min during which time I was the cause of much curiosity for locals. Apart from salaam aleikum and aleikum as-salaam I couldn’t converse with the locals but Sam was very enthusiastic in introducing me to as many people as possible on the bus.

Our first stop was another, but more in-depth, visit to the famous Tabriz  bazaar. The scale of the bazaar was mind-boggling. One could easily get lost in the intricate web of darkened alleyways and secretive caravanserai.

The elegant Sa'at Qabagi or Tabriz Municipality Building

The elegant Sa’at Qabagi or Tabriz Municipality Building

From the bazaar we made our way to the elegant, Tabriz Municipality Building. It was built in the early 20th century by the Germans and now boasts many separate small museums including the Tabriz Municipal Museum and the Tabriz Carpet Museum.

The Municipal Museum housed an eclectic collection of quaint bibs and bobs from 19th and 20th century Tabriz. The outside exhibits included odd things like a collection of early 20th century fire engines and the first taxi in Tabriz (an old W120 Mercedes Benz). Inside, the museum seemed to be dedicated to famous Tabrizi citizens. Important no doubt, but not very rivetting for an outsider.

The small gardens surrounding the building were beautiful, spoilt only by the huge fountain which had been drained for repairs.

Now that's a carpet! This priceless antique carpet measures 25m by 17m. That's Sam in the upper left corner.

Now that’s a carpet! This priceless antique carpet measures 16m by 7m. That’s Sam in the far upper left corner.

In a different wing of the Municipal Building was the Tabriz Carpet Museum.

The highlight of the Carpet Museum was a massive hand-woven carpet measuring 16m by 7m. I asked the museum attendant about the history of the huge carpet but she was only able to tell me that it was “rescued from a wealthy person’s house”. Not really sure what that meant.

Next on Sam’s seemingly endless list of museums was the modest-looking Azarbayjan Museum. It was only mid/late morning but the day was already starting to get uncomfortably hot and, with all the tramping around the streets of Tabriz, I was quickly approaching museum overload.

I waited outside while Sam haggled with the guard about something, all the time fearing the Azarbayjan Museum would turn out to be nothing more than another local council museum.

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At home in Tabriz

Sam, my geneous host and new-found friend in Tabriz

Sam, my very generous host and new-found friend in Tabriz

As I sat on the footpath trying to cool down an elderly, yet surprisingly spritely, gentleman on a modern mountain bike stopped to ask, in very good English, if I was OK. I replied that everything was fine, I just needed a break. After the usual chit-chat I told him I was looking for the Kosar Hotel.  Semsary, or Sam as he preferred to be called, gave me some simple directions to the hotel and began to pedal away.

After riding about 50 metres Sam returned and said he was heading home for lunch, and then asked if I would like to join him. With nothing better to do I gratefully accepted his offer. We headed off in the direction of Baghmisheh, a modest residential district on the eastern outskirts of Tabriz several kilometres away. As we wound our way through the chaotic traffic Sam would occasionally catch a tow from my panniers when we rode up some of the steeper hills.  Sam’s wife, Agdaz, had prepared an enormous lunch – enough for six people not just the three present. After lunch, Sam and I swapped life stories – his far more dramatic than mine.

Sam was in his sixties and a retired officer from the Iranian Air Force. But in his youth, he had served his National Service in the Iranian Army during the Iran/Iraq War where he had seen several of his closest friends killed in action. This was to affect him deeply.

Thanks to his regimen of daily cycling, swimming laps three times a week and light gym work at home, Sam was incredibly fit for his age.  He had little interest in motorcycling but his enduring passion was mountain climbing. Sam had climbed all of the major peaks in Iran - most of them well over 4500m. But the one climb that he was most proud of was scaling Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Not because of its difficulty but because he had led an expedition of disabled Iranian war veterans, sadly both young and old, including several amputees with prosthetic limbs and one who was completely blind. In his retirement, Sam had made it his own personal mission to provide some form of rehabilitation for disabled war veterans.

It made my able-bodied travel seem quite unremarkable.

As lunchtime meandered into late afternoon I made to bid my new-found friend a fond farewell but Sam would have nothing of it. He insisted that the traffic to the hotel in the city centre would be very dangerous at that time of day and that I should stay the night. I began to politely decline his offer but was really very relieved when Sam became more insistent and I didn’t have to go searching for the Kosar in peak hour traffic.

Sam and Agdaz’s home was quite roomy and split over three floors. They had three adult children who were all away with either work or study. The entire second floor was unoccupied and given over for my personal use including the ensuite. I don’t know what the Kosar Hotel was like but I doubt it could offer the same hospitality.

Unbeknownst to me, as well as becoming my host, Sam had immediately appointed himself my personal tour guide, interpreter and historian. In the time it took me to have a shower and put on some clean clothes Sam had come up with a plan for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening as well.

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Zanjan to Tabriz

After escaping Tehran, I headed for Qazvin, the halfway point on the road to Zanjan. Qazvin is one of Iran’s most historic cities. It was first founded during the Sassanian kingdom in the 3rd century AD but rose to fame as the Persian capital  under the Saffavid shahs in the 16th century, before eventually losing out to Esfahan. Originally I was going to spend a couple of days in Qazvin as it is also the main gateway for visiting the famous 12th century castles of the Assassins in the Alamut valley. But like so much of my time in Iran so far, my plans changed on a daily basis. The only thing I knew for sure was I was still heading west. Apart from that, each day was something of a lucky dip.

Hiding in the shade of a pedestrian overpass. The only shade around.

Hiding in the shade of a pedestrian overpass. The only shade from the blistering blue skies.

According to the BBC World Service weather forecast it was going to be yet another 35-40C day. The road I took was the M2 freeway, Iran’s number one 6-lane monstrosity. It was as boring as all hell. So Qazvin came and went with nothing more than a pitstop. An insult to history for sure but I was starting to run low on interest in Iran. My eyes were firmly fixed on the Turkish border.

I persevered with the monotony of the M2 and eventually Zanjan appeared out of the heat haze. It was still only early afternoon and I briefly considered riding all the way to Tabriz. But only briefly. I decided to call it a day and began the search for  some accommodation.  I found the Park Hotel, a modest little place with friendly staff, right on Azadi Square. It was nothing special but it was inexpensive and had secure parking for the bike – something the Ferdowsi International Grand in Tehran didn’t have! I spent the cool of the late afternoon and early evening wandering around Zanjan. It was a  modern city but pleasant in a way that Bognurd and Gorgan weren’t.

But my stay in Zanjan was necessarily brief as my mind wandered further afield.

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Heading for Zanjan

 But not all!

But not all!

Eid al-Fitr, the feast held to celebrate the breaking of the fast of the holy month of Ramadan, had started at sunset on Saturday which explained why the Ferdowsi’s restaurant had been completely packed. The tables groaned under the weight of a month’s worth of unsated appetites. It was party time. But without the  Bacardi Breezers and Jaeger bombs!

Which was great for the locals who had been hanging out for a decent feed. But it wasn’t so great for me. The next day everything was closed. I tried to visit several museums. All were closed. I tried to visit Golestan Palace. Closed.  I wandered around the backstreets of the bazaar. Even most of these stalls were closed. It seemed everything was closed except for the occasional street vendors.

After a couple of hours of walking for little reward I decided to return to the Ferdowsi. At the reception I asked the staff if the museums and the Golestan Palace would be open tomorrow. I was out of luck. Again. Apparently, the Ayatollah had proclaimed Monday as an extra public holiday. Good one, Tazza!

I decided it was time to escape from my gilded cage at the Ferdowsi.

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