22 July, 2011

Turkish Delights

It took a few hours to cross the snowy mountain pass towards Turkey. This was a quiet, almost traffic-free road and it was very, very cold. The road itself was mercifully dry and clear of snow but on either side of it, deep threatening snow was banked up high where it had been shoved aside by the snowplough. The air was bitterly cold and cut quickly through each layer I had carefully encased myself under. By the time I reached the border I’m sure I must have been mildly hypothermic. At least that’s my excuse for what happened next.

The Iranians let me out through their side without any fuss or drama. It was lunchtime as I approached the Turkish border. I was looking forward to this. Somewhere deep inside I expected that a nation seeking to join the European Union would have efficient systems in place to deal with the tiresome nature of border crossings. There were still a good few miles to get to the nearest town, Kaddari, and I was keen to get these last cold miles done as quickly as possible and find warmth. I thought a four-hour run would get me to Kaddari, the next sizeable town.

Cold and tired, I carefully negotiated the bike over a deeply snow-covered car park up to Turkish Immigration Control. Young lads were running around playing in the snow, apparently without parental control and they immediately took an unhealthy interest in the bike. As I waited indoors, I kept an eye on the bike and had to come out to it a few times, asking them in the most polite sign language not to climb onto the bike. I was worried more that if it fell on them they could get seriously hurt, not to mention the damage they could do to the bike and the hassle involved in getting it back on its wheels again on such a slippery surface. Surrounding policemen and border guards showed little interest.

I thought that I had more or less perfected borders by now. Smiling and patience is the key; more patience than the most time-wasting border guard. Here I was entering a country that aspired to join the EU. There’s even a little bit of Turkey that’s physically already Europe, although this is at the other end of the country. Countries after this, I thought, should be even easier to get through, having minimised the dafter bits of their systems. Smile and have patience. Even the most surly border guard eventually gives up once he’s realised that he’s not getting to you, that you have all the time in the world and that his next piece of nonsensical idiocy is just adding to your gleeful enjoyment of the moment. Unfortunately, I hadn’t accounted for mild hypothermia and an adolescent border guard.

This curiously immature policeman took my passport and began filling out the necessary documentation to let me into his country. He stuck out his tongue dramatically to aid concentration at what appeared to be the more difficult bits. A curious tension pervaded the air, but I put this down to the officials being a little jumpy, having been posted to such a remote spot in the middle of a Kurdish uprising.

The policeman went to press the ink stamp into my passport. He stood up and leaned on it with all his weight, biting his tongue and groaning like a child might in full concentration. Having done this he then closely regarded his efforts with comical dismay. Either he hadn’t pressed hard enough or there hadn’t been enough ink. He said that he was very sorry but that I would have to wait until his boss came back to verify whether this stamp would do. How long would that be, I wondered aloud. About two hours, he suggested. I had about three hours’ more riding to do and about four hours of daylight left. This delay would leave me one hour’s riding in the dark - and in the snow.

Patience and smiling is what gets you through borders. I had learned this, I knew it, it was by now second nature and yet . . . I felt it necessary to urge the young lad to find some faster alternative. He rang someone and gave me his telephone. This person spoke English more fluently than he and told me I’d have to wait there, until he came. For some reason (or none!) I found this entirely unacceptable. I cracked. “I must get to Kaddari tonight!” I protested.
“I am verreee sorreee . . .” wailed the child-policeman.
“You’re sorry! I am sorry, but I’m not waiting around here! I have a stamp and I must go!”
“You cannot go, you must wait!” I have no idea what got into me, but I quickly swapped the policeman’s mobile for my passport lying in a basket and made to leave the building. All sorts of interesting things start to happen just then. I had stupidly thought that I could reasonably expect some sort of efficiency from Turkish border officials. I later had to put it down to the hypothermia because I know never to argue with policemen, no matter how daft they are, but . . .
The child-policeman was screaming now, “This is not UK! This is Turkey!”
“If it was UK, you wouldn’t be working here!” I roared back, soothing nothing and inflaming the situation. Now I was outside preparing to get on the bike and leave.
“You do not have visa! You cannot come into Turkey, go back to Iran!” he whined in his panic, dramatically pointing back the way I had come.
He was wrong, I decided - I had my visa. It wasn’t very well stamped but it was legible nonetheless. What I didn’t have was time. He had many, many colleagues and they began to emerge from all sorts of doors. Instead of arresting me, which I suppose they might reasonably have done in the circumstances – I was shouting at one of their colleagues, certainly breaching his peace – they sensibly began to calm us both down. They seemed to recognise this wee boy’s failings and made gestures and faces at me as if to say ‘what can we do?’ and ‘please don’t make it any worse’.
One of them at last decided he had the authority to allow me to go on this stamp, and I began to regain something of my composure. Immediately after calming back down I was surprised and disappointed with myself in equal measure for ‘losing it’ in such a potentially dangerous situation. I tried to apologise, but the youthful policeman continued to eye me sulkily from the other side of the room, claiming I had thrown his phone down in my haste to leave. I had put it down fairly heavily as I swapped it for my passport, but I hadn’t caused it any harm and certainly had not thrown it. I was still very, very cold despite the heated exchange.

After organising Turkish insurance, I got to Kaddari just as the light was failing. The snowplough hadn’t climbed the hill to clear the snow in this small mountain city and I slipped off at 0mph as I turned into the hotel car park. No damage at all as the bike settled gently onto its engine in the soft snow. A challenge to get it upright again! Naturally, as in all places around the world, strangers came from every direction to help me right the bike and then, somehow sensing how fragile and cold I was, kept supporting me as I pushed the bike into the parking space. People throughout the world are fantastically kind. The feeling remained with me throughout my stay in Turkey that, while the bureaucratic uniforms might be difficult, ordinary people – just like everywhere else I’d been – were always genuinely and overwhelmingly friendly and helpful.

I spent a comfortable night in the hotel and then – fully refreshed – made my way further west along the snowy road. I was greatly looking forward to getting down and out of these frozen snowy mountains and into the heat of the Mediterranean coast. Unfortunately the Turkish Army had other ideas. They were in the middle of chasing Kurds across the Iraqi border, which this road closely paralleled. All along the way were checkpoints and a great deal of silly checking had to be done. A routine quickly established itself. I would stop; they would take my passport, get me off the bike and stick the passport through their computer (in a hut usually some way off) to see who I was and what I was doing there. All the while I was anxious about my western progress. I didn’t want to be there any more than they did. They told me there was a great threat from the PKK (the Kurdish paramilitaries) but could see no logic in my suggestion that there might be more threat to their uniforms than to my motorbike and that maybe standing next to them was more dangerous for an innocent tourist like me, than just going quietly along my way. Some saw the humour; most were surly. They did have the uniforms after all. One young officer tried out his English.

“You know the PKK are terrorists?” he asked.
“I’ve heard that Turkish authorities think of them that way,” I said, not wishing to take sides in a dispute I didn’t properly understand.
“Because some countries seem to think they are freedom fighters!” he said angrily.
“Really?” I tried to sound surprised, “Which countries are those?”
“Belgium!” he growled. I was glad not to be Belgian.
We eventually came to an understanding and I was allowed to continue.

As I was pottering along another quiet valley, I saw a cyclist just ahead and slowed to check him out. Keiron, an Irishman, was the only other European in the whole area and we decided to stop in the next village for a break. I went ahead to check it out and found a fine wee shop surrounded by older men. They were interested in the bike and one spoke good English. I knew we were close to the Iraqi border and asked about where it might be. He put his hand gently but firmly on my shoulder and pointed across the small stream to the other side of the narrow valley maybe 150m away to the south; “That is Iraq, and this,” he pointed at the ground beneath us, “is Turkey. But that is Kurdistan and this is Kurdistan,” he announced more forcefully through tightly clenched teeth, “Turkey is finished!” Okay. Immediately he smiled, relaxed his grip and bade me sit with him and his friends.

These older men wore a kef that pronounced some meaningful defiance of Turkey and support for the Kurds. They wore them, they explained, because anyone younger would be arrested for doing so, whereas the armed men patrolling through their village grudgingly left the older men alone. I was reminded of Northern Ireland at the height of their Troubles. Two lines of combat-ready soldiers, on either side of the road strode warily past.

Keiron peched up the hill into view and we settled on some fizzy drink before having our photo taken with the older men and some nearby children. Keiron was cycling home to Ireland back from India to prove to others that you don’t need to drive your car to the supermarket. Good for him – cyclists always put me to shame and make me feel very lazy!

We wished each other luck and said goodbye, but there was another checkpoint just a mile up the road and we were soon reunited. I was impressed by as well as envious of his cheery disposition and quite unhappy with my own comparative impatience, but I had a deadline again and no time for all these repetitive precautions. Turkey wasn’t impressing me so far. That night was spent in another small town only 123 miles west of Hakkari. Progress was slow.
Next morning was a bright and early start without breakfast and I felt hopeful of getting some serious miles done. There were no more time-consuming and patience-sapping checkpoints and the roads were much better surfaced. It seemed that I must have left the Kurdish region.

After a particularly steep descent round one huge corner, the mountains turned quickly into rolling hills and the road wound gently down through them. Now making for lost time, I found myself stopping only after a marathon 449mile day in Adana itself, a day early and in plenty of time to meet Sarah off her plane.

A friendly hotel let me store the bike underground in its secure car park and I went quietly to sleep. Next day I got a much needed haircut at a nearby barber’s. I had deliberately kept my hair longer for the wintry conditions I’d expected over Kurdistan. As a finale to his work, the barber produced a lengthy cigarette lighter and, shielding my now tidy hair with one hand, flashed the flame into each ear. I smelt the burning hair with some surprise before realising the practicality of this idea. I doubt Health & Safety in the UK would allow such practices.

At 1am the next morning I was waiting at the airport terminal for Sarah’s plane. The small airport had just the one terminal. Mainly used by the military, there was no one there who spoke English but I was sure I’d found the place to stand and wait. Soon enough, passengers began filing through the automatic doors to be greeted by friends and families. Then they thinned out and still there was no Sarah. I waited a little longer, assuming that some bureaucracy had delayed her. After a while, when there was still no sign, it occurred to me that I’d have to return to town to find an iCaff to check whether she might have missed her connection. Before I left, I made some final sign-language enquiries – “no Turkish?” demanded the man with some surprise, as if it was impossible that non-Turks would ever use this airport. Bizarrely it seemed that there was an entirely different exit specially organised for non-Turks. I raced around to this foreigners’ exit worrying that Sarah would be standing all alone fending off insistent taxi-drivers. And there she was, waiting in the dark, thinking she’d been stood up.

She wasn’t well. I had moved into a twin room with en suite facilities and I wanted all the news of home. She had only been home for a ten days and hadn’t learned much. She hadn’t been quite ready to go home then – hence the extension to her trip via Turkey. She had kept her head down in Scotland, not venturing much past her own family. But still she had news of politics and she had salt and vinegar crisps, oatcakes and cheese. She also had the flu. I kept her awake as long as I could politely justify and then let her sleep. In the morning we decided to stay put while she recovered from her flu.

Before I’d left Scotland, Margo, a friend from home, had offered the opportunity of staying at her Turkish villa just 300miles further west along the coast. Not expecting Sarah’s arrival, I had only just confirmed that Margo was able to lend it, and I hadn’t yet told Sarah, in case Margo had lent her place to others. I kept the information as a surprise. But I thought it might be better for Sarah to recover there. It would be far less expensive and we could come and go as we pleased. We thought we might stay for four or five days. First we had to get there. Sarah’s previous motorcycling experience was limited to just 20minutes around Quito in Ecuador almost a year previously. She had borrowed a lot of motorbike kit from a friend at home and some of it even fitted. We posted the tent and other camping equipment home. I hadn’t used it since Australia, hotels being so inexpensive since then, but it had been a comfort to know it was there if I needed it. It would be far too cold to use it from now on, and Sarah would be needing the back seat.

We took our time along the road winding coastal road. It was warm and Sarah was uncomfortable in her borrowed leathers. We stopped in increasingly European style towns with supermarkets and all the trimmings. After two days we had collected the keys to Margo’s villa in Alanya. To me it seemed huge, homely and very welcoming. It had all we could possibly want. A friendly shop nearby, a great view over the sea, three bedrooms and a fridge completed all the necessary requirements for domestic bliss. Sarah went to bed and I went shopping to stock the fridge.

The domesticity was amazingly comforting for me. A cooker and a fridge were all I needed. Sarah settled herself quietly in one room and I took another. I cooked whatever we wanted for the first time in months. Previously I had eaten from cafes and, just occasionally, whatever I could cook on the camping stove – a limited menu. This was a dream. Funny how you miss things.

Slowly, Sarah began to recover. First we went for short walks but she was very weak and the streets around the villa were hilly. We went to the chemist and they recommended a doctor for a better idea of Sarah’s needs. The doctor was in the teaching hospital. Since they were learning, they made a great fuss immediately putting Sarah on a drip without any attempt at diagnosis, as if this was just standard procedure. Then they took chest X-rays, blood samples and urine samples. Sarah was asked if she smoked and more concerned head shaking and pointing at dark patches on the X-ray took place. Sarah was highly alarmed and seemed understandably on the verge of tears.

Eventually a lady Professor came in and pronounced a chest infection. Antibiotics were prescribed and a huge bill for the X-ray presented. We had been in the villa for over a week now and had visited none of the places Margo had recommended. As Sarah’s strength returned, we ventured further afield, determined to enjoy as much of this place as possible. We hired a small car for very little and had a look around at the surrounding countryside.

One night as we played scrabble, there was a very insistent knock on the back door. We didn’t know anyone and wondered who this might be. I opened the door to reveal a tired-looking Tues-Jan. It was fantastic to see him and we made a great fuss of welcoming him in. A few days earlier I had let him know by e-mail where we were in case he’d felt like getting warm after all those mountains and all that snow. I hadn’t heard anything back and we weren’t expecting him. Tues-Jan had come over many more cold Iranian mountains than me, and then over the snowy central Turkish Plateau.

He stayed with us for two whole days and together we enjoyed some interesting tourist outings and lots of good home-cooked food. He left but we promised to catch up with him soon.

Now that Sarah was fully recovered, we realised that after 17 fantastically enjoyable days, we should really be making some westerly progress. Reluctantly, we packed up and made our way slowly along the coast. I had hoped that a ride along the Mediterranean coast in April would be like a mild Scottish summer. I had envisaged crisp air but bright sunshine, warmth whenever we stopped and clear skies. Instead it was cold and windy, but there wasn’t much rain - like a very, very poor Scottish summer.

On the second day as we sought out Tues-Jan’s hotel a young lad let off an air gun whose pellet struck Sarah’s leather-clad leg. I rode the bike angrily towards him and he guiltily ran off. The leather had protected Sarah leaving her with a sting and later a deep bruise. If not for the leather the pellet would probably have penetrated her leg. Welcome to Marmaris.

Tues-Jan had done some sailing in the past and we thought we might blag a boat to sail in. There was no chance. The rental yachts were huge 30ft things and we had no documentation to prove our capabilities. My Kinghorn Sailing Club sweatshirt surprisingly cut no ice.

We all three left together next day and rode to Ephesus. This was a beautiful city with incredible insights into Roman life. The city was founded long before the Romans, perhaps as long ago as 1000BC. Add stuff here

I was glad to be slowed by the tourist thing. In India I found myself thinking I was ready to be home. I had thought that with an Iranian visa, I could be home in just a few weeks. I was grateful that Sarah and Turkey were slowing me so that I could enjoy the ride more. I had missed so much in Iran by rushing through. I will look forward to returning there one day.

Tues-Jan decided he should go and find a friend he knew in Greece. He could take a ferry from here. We delayed our departure for an extra day to say a proper goodbye to him. An enjoyable lunch on the roof of the hostel and then dinner in a posh restaurant completed the formalities of this. We’ll see him again soon.

Sarah and I made our way north up the Turkish coast. In petrol stations hot water was available and we used this to fill a hot-water bottle and then put that down Sarah’s jacket. Having watched BBC 24 in one hotel, observing that the temperature in London was 17degrees Celsius, we were amazed to see an electronic thermometer here in Turkey registering only 7. But we could believe it. Someone had turned Europe upside down, and my dreams of wooing Sarah via a romantic motorbike ride through a magical Mediterranean spring were fading into the constant fog.

The great highlight of this part of the journey for me was Troy. This was a fascinating clue into so many layers of history. Years ago as a teenager I’d read The Iliad and the Odyssey. I had always looked forward to seeing this place. There were few buses in the massive car park and I could only imagine what it must be like at the height of summer. At one point a notice board pointed across a stretch of water to what it called ‘Europe’. I had no idea that Europe was visible from Troy. I looked up and perhaps it was the cold wind but my eye glistened as I saw Europe again for the first time in 19months. It would, I knew, be a few more days till I’d get there, and what I was looking at was a part of Europe with which I had no affinity but still I felt some sense of achievement at the sight of it. There would be more of this sort of thing soon, I knew, and I’d have to control myself.

After perhaps our longest day, we approached Istanbul in a thin, all-permeating Scottish drizzle. Traffic became thicker as we approached the city. I pulled off the motorway onto a sliproad so that I could consult the map. A tall wall restricted the view on this sliproad, like a tunnel without a roof. It was a single carriageway and one-way, of course. As I rounded the bend I was shocked to see a man suddenly in the road in front of us. My thought was that there was no way of avoiding this man. This was going to be horribly messy and my only option was to hit him as slowly as possible. We were moving fast and leant over as we were cornering but I braked as hard and swerved as much as I could. At the last minute he saw me and dived back towards the wall right hand wall. I felt a sickening crunch as the bike’s wheels went over his ankle. The bike jumped a little and I continued to brake as we were still miraculously upright and on the road.

Heart pounding, I stopped as soon as I was sure no other traffic would hit us from behind. I couldn’t see the man in the roofless tunnel, and there was no way we could go back down this fast-moving, one-way. We’d seem another man on the wall, presumably a friend, and decided they would help each other out of their situation. Gathering our wits, we moved on slowly. Eventually, Sarah noticed that the right hand pannier was hanging loose just on its lock, unsecured at the front. I stopped and wandered at the force it must have taken to detach this. A fully laden bike must surely have broken this man’s ankle and perhaps his hand, as we must have hit him at 50mph. Where he had come from and where he thought he was going to was a complete mystery. There was no pavement, no expectation of pedestrians. I had thought this road was overhanging, like a bridge as it had also gone steeply uphill. There was nothing more we could do without retracing back down a one-way slip road from which more traffic continued to emerge at a respectable speed. This moving traffic reassured us that the man and his friend were unlikely still to be on the road. They must have been on drugs, we told ourselves. Another reason not to return.

It felt a little odd when we crossed the bridge taking us from Asia into Europe. I was, by then, too cold and shaken by our recent experience to feel particularly good about it. It was busy in the city centre and there was a lot of traffic as we crossed what may as well have been any city bridge across any river. Although this was not a river, it didn’t feel much like anything else.

Cold to the bone, chittering with the cold, tired out and fed up, Sarah and I found a swanky hotel on the shore of the Bospherus. It cost us a fortune but, while I might have been able to get myself into a cheap hostel, it was getting late and something in me dictated that I should show my pillion some hospitality at such times. Some luxury was clearly in order. The room had a bath and I waited, shivering patiently in the room as Sarah warmed herself through in the bath.

Being tolerant of bedraggled wringing wet waifs is never very easy for posh hotels. There was a big conference of very expensive suits going on and we could see they would rather we left. We could hardly afford their prices anyway and, after a magnificent breakfast, we set off to find somewhere more friendly. There are some excellent places right in the centre of Istanbul and within easy walking distance of all the major sights. We found a very comfortable wee place where they let me bring the bike into their garden.

Whether it was the cold or what I’m not sure but I was weakened by a chill and felt better staying close to the lavatorial facilities for the next day or two. Sarah wandered in the streets nearby and read some books while I read and dozed, and ran to the loo. The guest house was warm and welcoming. Large breakfasts were served on the top floor.

Soon however, I was fit enough to have a good look around and I was impressed by much of what was available in Istanbul. We decided to be tourists again for a few days.

Unfinished -
The Mosquemarket loose camera. Tourist police Olympic flag, food,

03 March, 2008

I ran through Iran

The only fly in the otherwise smooth and creamy ointment of our Iranian Border crossing was that we were to be issued with an unarmed Army bodyguard. The reason for this was that in the previous weeks, a Notorious Bandit’s brother had been arrested, tried and sentenced to death. In retaliation, the Notorious Bandit had kidnapped some western tourists and threatened them with the same fate as his brother unless the authorities released his errant sibling. The brother was, nevertheless, put directly to death and the Notorious Bandit let his captives go. We were to be protected in case he’d had some second thoughts on the matter. But I still had a bit of bother understanding what exactly a single unarmed Army bodyguard might reasonably do in the face of such a desperate criminal as a Notorious Bandit.

I lent him some gloves and Teus-Jan re-organised his luggage to accommodate our bodyguard. After a quick refill, we were off into Iran, carefully remembering to ride on the right hand side of the road, the first time for me since the US. Soon we stopped and the guard was replaced by another. We began to wonder whether this was just some ruse to get us to give each man a wee lift. Arriving in Zahedan we were quickly picked up by the local police and asked to follow them around for a while. This became boring, especially as we were so tired and still fairly unwell. Eventually, having followed them around for miles, our convoy stopped and we demanded to know whether we could go to our hotel now, or were being arrested. This was all in sign language. They seemed a little bit shame-faced when they realised how fed up we were. They led us directly to the nearby “Tourist Hotel”. I think maybe they had just been ‘showing us off’ to the locals.

In the Tourist Hotel we were shown a very comfortable room with all the usual channels on TV, we ate a hearty meal and went swiftly off to sleep.

After a wonderful breakfast of olives, carrot jam (yes, carrot jam), feta cheese, eggs and some delicious bread, we made to leave. “Ah, so you are leaving?” asked the man at reception.
“Yes, thank you, we’ll be down to pay our bill once we’ve packed,” we smiled happily.
“Then I shall just telephone the police for you,” the man smiled conspiratorially.
“No!!” we begged him, but he’d have got into more trouble if he hadn’t phoned them.

It seemed that having followed these policemen around all the previous evening, this morning they would be escorting us out of their city.

First we needed to buy fuel cards. Fuel in Iran is probably the least expensive in the world at 5p a litre, but it still needs to be carefully rationed because of the West’s sanctions. The Government’s way of doing this is to see that fuel is unavailable unless you have a card. These are readily available to locals but foreigners such as we have to apply to a special office. This was fine but we were very low on fuel. The first thing we had to do was to find the office but even before doing that we had to explain this need to these policemen who wanted us to follow them and spoke no English while we had no Farsi.

Morning following followed and it was found that the office was probably closed. Following this revelation, more following followed. Then, in an understandable bout of uncharacteristic frustration, Teus-Jan overtook the police car. I followed him and now they were behind us, but less than pleased with that idea. We gestured for them to keep up, anxious for them not to think we were trying to escape from them. We were also secure in the knowledge that we knew from the local map where to find the office we needed. They tried to overtake us again, gesturing angrily. They tooted and sirened but we were so fed up of uselessly following by then, that we refused to be overtaken and manoeuvred accordingly, preventing them from getting in front. After a while another police car appeared in front of us at a roundabout, the one behind waved dejectedly and drove off back towards the town. We were sure we knew where to go and set off in the appropriate direction. The new police car waved furiously but didn’t follow us as went off in a different direction. We were becoming dangerously short of fuel.

At last we found ourselves back at the office the police had previously said was closed. Of course it was wide open, and the lovely ladies inside could not have been more helpful. I got to sit still in a lovely cool office while Teus-Jan went off with some executive who, embarrassed, was busily apologising for everything being so complicated. But he had immediately made it uncomplicated since he jumped on his pushbike and cycled off, leading Teus-Jan to the bank. Here we could get the pay-in slip to the government’s bank account so that he could issue the cards. Top man, within just a few minutes we were looking for a fuel station.

Having found one and filled up, we were a little anxious that the police might be lurking in wait for us on the edge of town. We had already told them in which direction we had intended to go. There are only three roads out of the place anyway. But there were no policemen, we were free at last, and enjoyed a fantastically scenic run through the otherwise deserted desert countryside.

We made excellent progress on wonderful roads with very little traffic. By evening we were in Kerman, where a fine gent named Paul had left a Turkish Lonely Planet for me in one of the hostels. He had been riding East on a Honda VFR800 and I had found his website during a particularly hot evening in South East Asia. We had tentatively arranged to meet for Christmas somewhere on the Indo-Pakistani Border but, given the political situation in Pakistan, he had decided to head off to the South and take a ferry to Oman, so we had never met. We were at odds about which of us was the dafter – me taking such an elderly bike round or he riding such a modern road bike with all the plastic bits to smash up.

We were tired and hungry and it was getting dark on our arrival. Outside of towns Iranians seem to be far, far better at driving. We just wanted to eat something and get our heads down. Some helpful people arrived eventually and showed us to a very good hotel. The hotelier knew the hostel where Paul had left the Lonely Planet book and called its owner in the morning. He duly appeared, having driven home from his hostel to collect our present. We expressed our sincere thanks, apologised for not having found his place the night before and were off on our way. Fantastically helpful, the Iranians. Like everywhere else, it’s really only those in uniforms or who have some other petty ‘power’ that can be difficult. Often though, thankfully, even they are quite friendly. And I still haven’t paid any bribes since Mexico. It also seems to me that those countries about which we hear the most scary stories in the Western media are populated by the kindest, most helpful and embarrassingly generous people.

It got much, much warmer as we approached the ancient city of Yazd on the old Silk Route. Tues-Jan had been here before and led us to the excellent hostel where we ate well and relaxed in the cool of the perfectly designed yard. I was getting unpleasantly affected by the heat that day, and foolishly declined Tues-Jan’s kind invitation to look at the beautiful blue Mosque nearby. I went to the internet café instead and later got very lost on the way home. We were still neither of us fully fit. Next day we would split, as Tues-Jan went north towards Tehran, while I went west towards Esfahan, a place I’d been told not to miss, before turning north into the Kurdistani mountains.

We swapped bikes for a spell in the morning so that we could look our own bikes over on the move, as well as have a wee go on the other’s trusty steed. My bike looked all right, apart from all the oil leaks, while Tues-Jan’s TransAlp held real appeal. Honda make few bikes with anything remotely approaching ‘character’, however, and this was no exception. A firm, reliable, no nonsense bike, I could see how it would so easily get you wherever you wanted to go with the minimum of fuss. It was a good choice of bike, and just a little bit different with that massive tank.

The inevitable fork in the road duly appeared and I rode off to the West while Tues-Jan went North in another blaze of horns and waves. The usual immediate feeling of deep and stark alone-ness was gradually replaced by the independent sense of adventure I was more used to when riding alone. I had first felt this curious change most strongly on leaving Khartoum and Rachel behind. But 50 or so miles further into the run, it gets replaced by the deeper understanding that “this is what it’s all about, this is what I was looking for – just the bike, the road and me”. Daft, but one has to justify a lack of mates somehow!

Esfahan was big, but the drivers here seemed more murderous than in most Iranian cities. After being laughed at by the third very near miss and locking up the front end four too many times, I decided enough was enough. Not being able to take my eyes off the traffic, I hadn’t found much beauty in the place, although I’d ridden straight through the centre of the city. Separate people had insisted I went there, but I was tired, had seen nothing of interest from the back of the bike and risked life and limb at every turn. It was time to head further out of town.

I wanted to find a place where I could camp wild – I hadn’t camped since Australia, and maybe wanted to over-emphasise my new alone status. The first such strong feeling since before arriving in Pokhara at Christmas. I couldn’t find anywhere suitably private and so I continued up and up into the snow. I had seen Daran on the map and felt it was achievable. It was high in the mountains, and I arrived chilled to the bone in a quickening dusk. I stopped on the outskirts of town to get my bearings and was immediately approached by a police car. They were surprised to see me and led me immediately to another ‘Tourist Hotel’ with no one else in it but me. An interpreter was found to explain to the staff my every requirement from hot shower to morning breakfast. That done, I was left to the peace and quiet of my room, book and sleep.

It snowed in the night and I prayed that would be all the snow for today, that soon I’d be low in sunlit valleys with white mountains all around. No such luck! I left it as long as I could before setting off, hoping for the maximum possible warmth. As I left town, the snow began. For the remainder of the day it alternated between heavy and light snow, accumulating on the windscreen and freezing my knees. It doesn’t seem to matter how many layers you have on, it is only a matter of time before extreme cold seeps down to the bones. It is a slow, accumulative procedure which you don’t really notice until you stop and begin to shiver. While on the bike, the concentration on not falling off seems to prevent shivering. When stopped, the shivering seems to prevent any sort of concentration. Funny thing the human body. Fortunately the snow never seemed to lie too thickly on the road and the tyres still worked. I had been told that these roads had only been opened four days ago, so the delay in India waiting for the visa had been well worth it.

Mildly (or maybe a bit more than ‘mildly’!) hypothermic, I had no time or desire to be seeking cheap accommodation and just had to get warm. I went straight for the 4star hotel in Kermanshah. It was expensive, but excellent, warm and even had under-hotel parking. The Visa card could cope with this – clearly an emergency!

The staff at this hotel was particularly helpful, escorting me both to the iCaff and the pizza shop, after willingly conceding their own restaurant prices were a bit mad. It is sometimes difficult to be sure whether all this escorting is protective, restrictive or just friendly. But they managed to make it look quite friendly. In the morning, as I went to repack the bike, ready for the day’s arctic survival exercise, the kitchen staff were soon around me. Again, lack of language did not prevent communication. One young lady introduced me to her husband and as I started up the bike to leave, she ran off while the others prevented me from leaving in the friendliest way. She quickly returned with a glass of water which I would have shown gratitude for, but she splashed some of it in front of the bike as she beckoned me to move on. I was quite touched by this obvious 'blessing' on the remainder of my journey, and she ran in front of the bike for a while, splashing little bits more as I left the hotel amid the friendliest smiles and waves.

More powerful emotion quickly came as I got confused about how best to leave this friendliest of cities. I stopped an elderly gent who spoke excellent English which he had learned during the Shah’s dictatorship. With eyes brimming over, he told me he had not heard or spoken my language in 20 years. He was overwhelmingly impressed by the nature of my trip and I felt he’d have willingly adopted me if I hadn’t been on my way. A genuinely helpful and excellent human being, he urged me not to believe ugly Western rumours of Iranian nastiness. I happily assured him I had long since suspected these were nonsense, even before I’d left Scotland, and that it was a privilege to have my suspicions confirmed.

I would really love to return to Iran some summertime, maybe in a camper van. The roads and infrastructure are excellent and the scenery truly fantastic. History seeps from every brick and hillside and the locals are especially warm and welcoming. True independent freedom in a camper van – where I wasn’t committed to any overly organised accommodation – would be properly liberating.

Another day of extreme cold snow, but breathtaking scenery brought me to Mahabad, within easy(ish) reach of the Turkish border. I had wanted to get as far as Orumiyeh but the cold was too much for me again that day and I had to stop.

Kurdistan is not a country (yet?) but the mountainous Kurdish nation straddles three other countries: Iran, Iraq and Turkey. These are themselves products of the mandated system which broke up the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the Great War. These snowy mountains were in Iranian Kurdistan. In neighbouring Turkish Kurdistan it would be just as mountainous and, for a little extra drama, the majority Turkish Turks were having something of a dispute with the indigenous Turkish-Kurds. The third group of Iraqi-Kurds were offering safety to their Turkish-Kurd cousins and the Turks were chasing them across the Iraqi border. Of course I wasn’t going into Iraq but the road through Turkish Kurdistan skimmed along Iraq’s northern border with Turkey. Should be interesting. Iranian-Kurds were quietly having nothing to do with any of this silliness.

I set off next morning through cold snow and bright sunshine towards the most eventful border crossing of the trip so far.

20 February, 2008

Riding Around Afghanistan

The border crossing wasn't nearly as time consuming as I had been led to believe. The Indians and the Pakistanis are not usually the greatest of friends, so I had expected a few difficulties. This is the border post where they have the most huffy and petulant Border Closing Ceremony in the world each and every evening. The border can close without warning at almost any time, but the Ceremony always takes place at the same time each day, regardless of that. During this bizarre show (there are seats for an audience to watch it) grown up men in spotless army dress uniforms and the shiniest of shiny boots stomp about like John Cleese and shout unfriendly nonsense at one another before slamming big gates and stomping off. My experience of the Indian side was efficient and trouble-free. On the Pakistani side, a new building had recently opened with air-conditioning and other mod-cons. The border guards there were helpful and friendly. Neither border post was overly busy.

After being treated, as traveller and guest in Pakistan, to some free internet access at the first iCaff I came to, I found Teus-Jan in exactly the same Lahore hostel he said he'd be in. We quickly renewed our acquaintance. Scary stories of snow, closed roads and suicide bombers from the other backpackers in the hostel (mainly freelance journalists and photographers hoping for a 'story' - by which they undoubtedly meant some photogenic but chaotic violence) made us immediately explore the possibilities of train travel. This, we were told at the massive railway station, would be difficult presently as everyone had to go home to vote in the upcoming elections and there were no bookable seats on any of the trains. We decided to take our chances with the local population and the weather and see just how far we could get on the bikes.It was funny though, I had received several e-mails from home asking; "are you mad? What are you doing planning to ride through Afghanistan?" These made me grin quite a bit because, well, no, I am not quite so insane as to ride an unprotected motorbike with UK number plates on a UK passport through a land where the UK powers-that-be have decided to send in troops and have a proper shooting war. So, without very much at all in the way of any sort of thought, Teus-Jan and I planned to ride around Afghanistan, south from Lahore through Multan. Turn right at Sukkur to Quetta and then west through the chilly Baluchistani desert, over the next border into the stable safety of Iran. This, of course, being the only practical option.

But first we had to get our Iranian visas sorted out. Teus-Jan had applied for his weeks before me, but had heard nothing. I had been told that mine was waiting at the Iranian Consulate in Quetta.

The road south from Lahore was good, if a wee bit slippery. Drivers were no less mad here than in India but they were far fewer and so a little more easily evaded and dealt with. Everyone was excited about the elections but there was not the slightest hint of any trouble for us, quite the opposite. There had been some few bombs in the North West Frontier Province which borders Afghanistan and isn't really ruled by anyone properly, least of all the Pakistani government. But we weren't going anywhere near there.

The land here was far greener than in India, although I was only riding down the western, Pakistani side of the border I'd just ridden up the eastern, Indian side of. Were the Pakistanis more fortunate in the land they had gained, or were they more skillful in irrigating it? Our first night was spent in a fairly scummy roadside hotel. I was in no mood to eat the food, much less listen to the unpleasant stories of the two owning brothers who said they had previously studied in Russia, where (they said) they had wooed many ladies. In the squat toilet of the room we were offered lay a fairly fresh, unflushed human poo. It smelled quite badly but was just laughed at by our 'hosts'. They turned the water on and flushed it away. There was no hot water and so, no shower. Tired, I crawled into my sleeping bag and sought sleep.

Before we left in the morning, after having no breakfast, I managed to smash my right mirror while wiggling the bike trying to sort out my luggage. Still, I'd only need it till I reached Iran, the first country where they drive on the right since the US. This was Election Day and there was some mild tension in the air as we rode through town after town of smiling policemen politely ushering us through. None of this was directed at us. Whenever we stopped for directions, or to ask about the road ahead we were treated with utmost courtesy and always given accurate, reliable information. At lunchtime we were pleasantly surprised to find that the cafe owner would only have Teus-Jan pay for his cup of tea. The food we had eaten (a spicy rice dish that tasted a lot like haggis) was on the house for intrepid travellers and guests to Pakistan such as we! Teus-Jan and I smiled contentedly at one another as, with full tummies, we climbed back aboard the bikes for the last leg, into the mountains towards Quetta, where we had been assured all along the way that there was no snow. You can be sure of Shell (to pollute nearby ponds!)

I had wondered whether to fill up with fuel but we decided I'd probably make it and anyway Teus-Jan had this massive fuel tank he'd never been able to justify since leaving the Netherlands nine months previously. He had originally intended to go as far as Australia, but having reached India, taken his time and enjoyed the journey, he was ready to retrace his route home. He rode a 600cc Honda TransAlp onto which he had managed to organise the 750cc Africa Twin's far larger fuel tank.

There were fuel stations nearer to Quetta - tens of them - all next door to one another, all without customers, all open, all selling nothing but diesel, none able to explain why there were so many or why none sold petrol. I stopped in a few to ask, wasting valuable fuel and eventually rolled to an undignified halt about 6miles short of Quetta. Getting fuel out of Teus-Jan's tank was only a little hassle, and we stood for a while in the silence of the desert watching birds flocking together over the mountains to the west as the sun set colourfully behind them.

We had neither of us been particularly well since Lahore, but on arrival in Quetta we both fell under some greater lurgy which led to frequent and unpleasant lavatorial visits, extreme lethargy and general physical unwellness. We were very sick.

We dragged ourselves around Quetta, chasing visas and changing money. The desert winds had covered the roads in a light dusting of Baluchistani talcum powder. Any little tug on the front brake lever would lead to an alarming skittering of the wheel. Luckily, we were never too far from the luxuries of our lavatory!

Teus-Jan had still not received the necessary code number that would allow the Iranian Consulate to issue his tourist visa. We were both concerned to learn, however, that this Consulate could very easily issue a ten-day Transit Visa in just one day. We’d both waited over a month for these Tourist Visas!! And paid a fortune for them. Also, since the government of the Netherlands has much better relations with Iran than the UK government currently enjoys, his visa was much cheaper than mine! The irony was that I had no intention of spending the 30 tourist days I had available in Iran, whereas Teus-Jan had made some good friends on the way through and was keen to spend some time with them going back.

Some better news came for me in the confirmation that one of those Sarahs - of Cusco and Quito memory so long ago - had decided she might have had enough of South America now, and felt much more like flying to Turkey and joining me on the homeward leg. This was the Sarah whose entire previous motorcycling experience had been 20minutes around Quito on the back of my bike. This was bravery far beyond the call of any duty! She had been teaching English in Cusco (something I'd done years ago in Portugal) and we had kept in fairly regular contact since Quito and had more recently been playing Scrabble on-line. I had been occasionally teasing her about coming to join me, never once thinking she'd take me up on the offer. I was tickled pink at the prospect of company, especially as it looked like Teus-Jan and I would split in Iran - at least for a while - he heading north towards Tehran leaving me to tackle the snowy mountains of conflict-torn Kurdistan alone. There were just eleven days to reach Adana in Turkey, in order to meet Sarah off the plane.

Teus-Jan and I spent one extra day of recuperating illness in the forlorn hope that we might get better. During this, I explored the scrappy, looking for electrical bits and hoping for a new mirror. A jovial gent almost grabbed the old bashed-in mirror (no glass, folded glass-holder), battered it back into shape and replaced the glass. It was better than new, and far less expensive! I also had the pannier racks welded (for the 5th time) free of charge ("you are our guest here in Pakistan") but all the relays I found were faulty. When it became clear to both of us that we could easily wait here another month before we might feel any better, we decided to go. Teus-Jan’s TransAlp needed 20 minutes in the sunshine to warm itself up before it would start, and then reluctantly, slowly and carefully we made our way out onto the desert road, heading west into the vast Baluchistani Desert.

This road was not so good. The air and wind were very cold and progress was slow. Every so often surly policemen would stop us. Clearly unhappy at being posted so coldly and remotely, they made us dismount, enter their wee huts and fill in lots of details into huge ledgers. This was "for our own safety" but if that was really true, they'd have taken only our number plates and not delayed us so long. Everything they needed to know was on the Pakistani Customs' computer system. There are only a very few places where we could safely and reasonably sleep in that desert and we needed to make miles. We were headed for Dalbandin, the only town of any size along the way that had a hotel. At some points we were less than 50kms from the Afghan border, and plenty of Taleban fighters are reputed to spend their leave here. We calculated that it was not worth their while to kidnap two daft motorcyclists and risk the wrath of the Pakistani government, thereby potentially alienating themselves from the locals and having nowhere else to go on leave. Also we guessed they were resting from the war, and so it would be unlikely they'd be looking for any trouble.

We arrived in Dalbandin tired, dusty and far later than we'd planned having covered only 200miles. The hotel was damp, dank and fairly unpleasant, especially given our increasingly delicate health situations. The only hotel for 200miles in any direction doesn't have to worry overly about attracting customers. After an expensive and limited meal, I lay awake most of the night, fitfully dozing in the clammy dampness. Alternately shivering and sweating, I listened to great trucksroaring past, rattling the windows which struggled to keep out the chilly desert wind.

Happily the following day presented us with warm sunshine and a fantastic road, the only difficulty was crossing the occasional deep sand drift. There was even a highly jovial gent at the Pakistani border post, and crossing into Iran was relatively simple and straightforward. There was a bit of banter necessary to move things along but we chuckled and giggled our way through the formalities without offending anyone. Soon we were welcomed and permitted entry into The Islamic Republic of Iran.