Thursday, July 28, 2016

Ready for the steppe- farewell Turkey.

It is with mixed feelings that I've just thrown my worldly possesions into a disposable bag for my flight to Kazakhstan. I leave early tomorrow morning having seen a lot of this currently rather troubled country.  I've cycled a greater distance here in Turkey than I covered on the UK's 'End2End' - Lands End to John O'Groats. More than crossing Uzbekistan from the west to the Ferghana. They are both tough rides too but whilst in some respects cycling in Turkey is a tourers dream:- generally good roads, fairly considerate drivers, fewer savage dogs, wonderful vistas; it's also a real challenge.  I don't mean struggling to find beer this time, but there are some serious climbs (and I've managed a few in my time) , as always though eventually rewarded by long descents. But I've also experienced everything that mother nature can conjure up weather wise. Not least the consistent 35c and higher down here on the south west coast. However, I know that I am now as prepared as one can be for a 600km slog through the Kazakh & Uzbek desert. If all goes to plan I will arrive in Nukus on August 7th ready for the flight back to Tashkent on the last day of our summer break. Talk about making the most out of the summer- really pleased with what I managed. Here's to many more- but never again alone I hope. Turkey can be a testing place to be on your own. I didn't see a tourist in weeks until I reached Goreme. The steamy plains west of there, peppered with whirling dervishes or dust devils, could have easily played on my mind and have sent me heading to the nearest airport. The sleepless night trapped in my awful hotel room following the automated advice from the UK foreign office as the cacophony of noises that was the attempted coup rang out loud.  The nerves when getting on my bike the next day- when only 11 days later did anyone from the foreign office bother to call me back.
I will remember those dramatic 24 hours for the rest of my life. I will also remember the relief I felt when I sensed that most of the population seemed happier and even more hospitable than before.
I'm not sure that I'd come back here in a hurry though. I am not sure how this will all end, but I fear that it might not be pretty. Anyway, back to the bike and the master plan again tomorrow. As ever before a new tour stage, I have that wonderful excited feeling just like I had when I got my first bike for Christmas. This feeling is worth the dead legs, sore bits and burned bald head.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Turkey is big

It is also a very confusing country full of contradiction. It is thoroughly beautiful though abused. It can be rather hot, but bitterly cold storms occur in July. The people are some of the kindest I have ever met. Turkey offers many surprises to the cycle tourist.

Just in case anyone was wondering- I am safe. Ralaxing near Antalya after a real slog through the centre of the country. Pausing to make sure that things have truly settled politically.  I have noticed and felt an ambience of celebration and pride since the failed coup attempt of only a few days ago. It certainly is an interesting time to be here. 

Over these last 11 days I've managed to cycle through some wonderful alpine valleys, dream like fairy chimney rock towns of Cappadocia, barren desert plains, vast mountain ranges, and seaside towns full of Greek ruins.

Here is a summary of the route since I last posted from Tercan. Total distance covered since Baku 2688km. As before; images of each daily route can be seen underneath.

DAY 15- Tercan to Erzincan

DAY 16- Erzincan to Refahiye

DAY 17- Refahiye to Zara

DAY 18- Zara to Sivas

DAY 19- Sivas to Gemerek

DAY 20- Gemerek to Goreme

DAY 21- Goreme to Aksaray

DAY 22- Aksaray to Konya

DAY 23- Konya to Seydesehir

DAY 24- Seydesehir to Side

DAY 25- Side to Antalya

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Halfway to somewhere- Summary

I am now in a small town called Tercan on the northern edge of Southeastern Anatolia, Turkey. 

I've covered roughly 1400km in 15 cycling days. I am a day ahead of schedule. Feeling good after a rest day yesterday in Erzurum and the ride today, which was the easiest loaded 100km ride I have ever had.

I have some time to kill in my 'hotel' room which has cost about 8 pounds (perhaps I should be thinking in dollars or euros these days though- I'd feel like it was even more of a bargain).

The only foreign tourists thay I have seen in a week have been other cyclist, heading in the opposite direction.  I've had nice chats with them whilst covertly checking out their set-ups. They had great stories to tell and were keen to get advice on Central Asia's particulars from me.

As I have the same distance again to Antalya, this seems like a good opportunity to summarize the ride thus far. However, I am thinking about pushing west as far as Pumukkale before the flight I have booked from Antalya to Aktau in Kazakhstan to re-enter Uzbekistan from the westernmost point, just east of where the caspian sea becomes desert.

Some points of clarification first:

-An average cycling day has involved slowly packing both belongings and carbs in the morning. I am on holiday after all and I don't want to do myself a mischief.

-The screenshots below correspond to days 1 through 15 although I chose slightly longer, calmer route from Oltu south and then West on Day 14.

-I normally leave at 8-9am, stopping after 50km for whatever I have or can find for lunch and some shade.

-Rock up to a town at about 4-5pm and ask around for accommodation. Paying about 15 pound. 

-As one Belgian cyclist I met in Georgia said, "I am not a camper". But we both have gear accounting for about half our load of luggage 'just in case'.

-I'm carrying about 20kilos in front and rear panniers with an easily detachable handlbar bag, plus extras on the rear rack top, all on a heavy steel bike. It feels great though; I highly recommend the VSF TX-400, which I call Farhod.

DAY 1- Baku (Azerbaijan) to Qobustan. Sea level through yellow ocher plains and steady winding climbs.

DAY 2- Qobustan to Lahic. The high Caucausus reveal themselves. Valley ups and downs,  through fertile farm land.

DAY 3- Lahic to Oguz.
Forests and fairly flat. Small villages, all the way tracking mountains to the north.

DAY 4- Oguz to Kis.
Farmers display their produce at roadside.  Gradual climbs then suddenly up into Sheki.

DAY 5- Kis to Zaqatala.
Rivers plunge from the mountains. The route is flat and pleasant on good roads.

DAY 6- Zaqatala to Signhaghi (Georgia).
Rolling farmland, tractors at the quiet border. Nasty dogs. 50km across a plain before the tough climb.

DAY 7- Signhaghi to Tbilisi.
Beautiful old town and then down, on a busy and dangerous road right in to the capitals centre.

DAY 8- Tbilisi to Ayrum (Armenia).
Steady but busy climb up and out. Change of scenery to rock formations at a gorges northern head.

DAY 9- Ayrum to Vanazdor.
Following the Debed canyon and river the wrong way. Tough climbs and thin road.

DAY 10- Vanazdor to Gyumri.
A wonderful ride through stunning valleys, over pristine passes with views of Mount Ararat.

DAY 11- Vardzia to Posof (Turkey).
From a cliff face ancient city down to the garrisoned town of Akhaltsikhe. Into Turkey the hilly way.

DAY 12- Posof to Ardahan.
Major climbs. Roadworks. Rewarding riding from one high town to the next.

DAY 13- Ardahan to Oltu.
Steady climbing to Gole and then down, for 25km, back in to more stark surroundings.

DAY 14- Oltu to Erzurum.
A 2400m pass midway vua the quiter D road south and then west across a plain before a fair bump to the city.

DAY 15- Erzurum to Tercan.
Easy riding with a nice tailwind. One big climb but tge descent was longer and satisfying.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


What do I have my mind on as I ride all day? 

Surely I must be thinking about something during my new 9-5 shift.

I do love the open road; moving at my own steam, in control of stcking to a plan whilst still immersed in an adventure. Touring provides me with space and time to sift through memories of life. It's like all that happens during the working year occurs at such a pace that I don't really get time to take stock or digest it. I wouldn't say that riding clears the mind but it certainly provides some breathing room to think back and to gather thoughts and build feelings.

The last few weeks have been spent cycling from the Caspian sea to the high mountain ranges of northeastern Anatolia. A journey through four countries as they are commonly known today.

However, Turkey doesn't recognize Armenia, Georgia has disputed and autonomous regions with Russia, and Azerbaijan doesn't let you in if you've been to Armenia due to another disagreement about the country Nagorno Karabach.

So four countries haven'treally been four for long.
However, each of those that I have experienced has been distinct. Soviet influence,  persian culture, Christianity and Islamic (in no particular order).

These dichotomies of religion, occupation, politics and history have all been pushing and pulling at this region for millennia.

From ancient Vardia's cliff face cave monasteries, derelict soviet copper work towns through to the deadly border battles today.

Despite all this- present day humanity itself provides the greatest insight of how things were and will be. The people I have met, the inquisitive nature of discussions I have had, perhaps in part due to my chosen method of arriving into their world.

It is pertinent in today's climate to remember that we are all just a little part of history, we are the same in this respect. Empires come and go, borders move or disappear, but people carry on looking after their herds and caring for their families.

With all this change around us- why must there be hatred and fear of others? The world is always evolving, let's put things into perspective.