– The adventures of a solo round the world cyclist –

Day 924 (Turkey Day 3)

I woke up at my usual time (around 7am) and lazed in bed for a little before making a move. After a breakfast of oats, almonds, sultanas, currants, dried apricot and fresh nectarine, I set up a little work station and set about crossing things off my to-do list. My greatest priority is entering a few months’ worth of diary entries into the WordPress system, so that I don’t have to touch my blog again until mid-January. My second priority is planning the same period’s worth of Instagram photos. Thirdly, I’d like to write my next newsletter, which is long overdue. If I complete all of this in record time, then I might even be able to work on my proposal to get a travel grant being offered by Australian Geographic and North Face. Hunger encouraged me to take a break and grab some food. I returned to the same kebab shop I visited yesterday. In the evening I returned to the same restaurant at which I’d had dinner last night too. I like returning to the same places so that I can be a familiar face (and be surrounded by familiar faces) – it creates a small sense of belonging, which is an important feeling when you spend so much time by yourself in foreign places where it’s easy to feel lost sometimes.

Riding around town yesterday

Accommodation $ Backpacker hostel
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 24,662
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Day 923 (Turkey Day 2)

Despite the rain overnight, or because of it I guess, I woke up to clear blue skies. It was an easy ride into Van and with lots of time to spare I decided to stay on the bike as I explored the place before finding a place to sleep. My first stop was the Fortress of Van, a 2000 year old stone structure that formed the home of successive groups of people intent on having control over the region. I rode around both sides of it to see how close I could get. Then I decided to see Lake Van (Turkey’s largest) close up. Unfortunately, the part I saw was littered with trash. I dipped my toes in the water anyway. Finally ready to get settled, I made my way into the city and to a backpacker hostel, where I had a very welcome shower. All that was left to do was find my first genuine Turkish kebab.

Day 925

Fortress of Van

Accommodation $ Backpacker hostel
Distance ridden today 56.29km
Average cycling speed 17.5kph
Total distance ridden 24,662km
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Day 922 (Iran Day 23 / Turkey Day 1)

With the day drawing to an end – it being 6.20pm and almost dark – I feel as if I have been through a lot today. I think this feeling has come about because of how varied my experiences were. I woke up to the calming sound of flowing water interrupted by the occasional whoosh of passing traffic. The sky was clear. As I continued the climb to the border, I appreciated that the gentle incline wasn’t too challenging and the scenery beautiful. I spent the last of my Iranian money on water, biscuits, cola and canned chickpeas before negotiating the crossing. Border control felt quite disorganised but I think this was only because I didn’t pass through standard channels. Instead, I was allowed to bypass the main lines and get ahead of everyone else waiting.  The perks of being a very out of place foreigner. I ended up making friends with one of the soldiers (an English teacher who was 11 months into his 21-month military duty and feeling as if the experience was pulling him backwards in life) and he helped me pass through Iranian customs quickly. At one point he joked that his mum wears tights like the ones (cycling ones!) I was wearing.

On the other side a stern-looking guy said ‘Turkey stamp’ and I stupidly responded, ‘I’m going to Turkey’. I thought I was still in Iran and he was asking to see a departure stamp, but it turned out I had actually crossed into Turkey. The guy took my passport and disappeared into a little office. On his return he said I needed to buy some kid of document. I said I didn’t know anything about this and that I already had a visa. Looking annoyed, he announced again, a little more forcefully, that I needed to buy a pass before I could enter the country. It was at this point I realised I hadn’t given the printed piece of paper that represented my visa. He took it and the passport back into the office and after another couple of minutes I was waved in. I followed him through the office, realising I was again bypassing a long line of people. Along the way someone made a comment about my cycling tights. Passing through customs was easy, as the officer I faced only looked in one bag. Then I was free to leave.

I was surprised when I wasn’t faced with any kind of touts as I entered Turkey. No one asking me to swap money or anything. Just an empty road. The climb continued and I slowly made my way into the storms swirling around the pass. It rained a little, but not enough to soak me. The wind was horrendous though and at times it almost had me at a standstill. On the odd occasion I passed someone I tested saying hello, receiving a blank stare from an old guy and happy smile from a boy. I had thought I might be able to make it to the town of Van, but the wind killed this idea.

Right now I am camped right beside the main road, but completely hidden from sight, being at the bottom of a steep embankment leading from the road to an open field. I just got my tent up when proper rain arrived and I spent some time just lying still and resting. The sun came out after a while I took the chance to prepare some food for dinner. While doing so I got a shock when I glanced up the embankment and was confronted by a shepherd boy squatting nearby, watching my every move. He asked a lot of questions but not knowing what he was saying I couldn’t give him any answers and he eventually moved off with this flock. As I ate I enjoyed watching the day come to a close. While the sky darkened, I looked out across the field towards a tiny village nestled in the crook of some hills, where lights began to twinkle. I found myself wishing I was from the same kind of quaint little village made up of a handful of buildings. A place that I could look on from afar like this and say, ‘See that little cluster of homes? That’s where I’m from.’

Welcome to Turkey

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 84.34km
Average cycling speed 16.4kph
Total distance ridden 24,606km
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Day 921 (Iran Day 22)

If I am to make good progress into Europe I need to start pacing myself. If I just go gung-ho I’ll end up exhausting myself and make less progress overall than if I take it steady. I thought I was going to cross into Turkey today but it turns out there is a bit of a mountain range in the way. After two days of pushing hard, stopping only long enough to eat and sleep, I have exhausted myself on the start of the climb and stopped early, 20km shy of the border. If I rode on, I probably would have made the border around 4.30pm and it would be dark by the time I was free to ride off into Turkey. I am lying on some lush green grass on the edge of a dense thicket of trees. To one side (other side of the thicket) is the road. To the other is a gently flowing creek within a mostly dry riverbed. Ominous grey clouds are passing overhead. It might be a wet night.

A steady climb

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 41.5km
Average cycling speed 12.7kph
Total distance ridden 24,522km
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Day 920 (Iran Day 21)

My biggest worry of the day was my left Achilles tendon, which is inflamed and painful. Still, I pushed through and made an okay distance, getting to the west side of Khoy, from which my next milestone is the Iranian/Turkish border, about 60km from where I’m spending the night. My camp spot is pretty terrible. The area around me consists of privately owned land that is well marked and protected by fences and gates. I escaped from the main road down a little track that took me to a scrappy area of shoulder-high grasses in between a few scrappy fields. I managed to find one patch of dirt the size of tent. Unfortunately the dirt patch is bumpy and lumpy. The grasses around me are pretty impressive, but for an annoying reason: they exhibit ingenious solutions to the challenge of how to best disperse their seeds, and it’s impossible to move around without becoming coated in them. I had a surprising experience about fifteen minutes before finding my camp. A car containing two young girls stopped to chat. When they got out of their car, their head scarves were around their necks. They glanced around before putting them in place. They were very nice and spoke excellent English, so we had a good chat about what I was doing there. We swapped Instagram details before saying bye and parting ways. Why was this surprising? In a country where an unmarried guy and girl can’t hang out in public together, it’s not very common that Iranian girls would approach a random guy like this. While messaging one of the girls on Instagram, a man wandered into my little area, getting a shock to find my setup. He seemed to be out enjoying a walk and smoking. I don’t feel the need to be worried that someone knows I’m here, despite the girls telling me that Khoy isn’t really a safe place. Sitting next to me is the largest sunflower head I have ever seen. I was given it by a couple of guys who were harvesting the seeds from a massive pile of sunflower heads on a new road. My day was otherwise uneventful. The weather was fantastic for riding, but again I am facing a cold night.

To the border

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 102.32km
Average cycling speed 17.8kph
Total distance ridden 24,480km
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Day 919 (Iran Day 20)

Once again I am typing in my nylon fortress, lying on my stomach with my upper body propped up on my elbows, putting a much-needed bend in my back that is opposite from the one I have all day while cycling. Regular traffic is rushing by on the main road, which is about 250m away, hidden by the foliage of the apple tree orchard in which I have made my home. My knees and Achilles tendons are hurting and I am putting it down to the fact that my bike is nearly the most heavily laden it’s been. Why? Because in addition to the food that I bought for myself to cover a couple of days, I am carrying a couple of days’ worth of food that was given my by the lovely family I’ve staying with – all home-cooked packages: vegetable rissoles, dolmada-like parcels, bread, rice, vegetable curries, sweet rice pudding, baklava, almonds… And on top of this I am carrying a couple of books gifted to me, including the holy Quran, and a book about Tabriz….and two scarves. And of course I was gifted a couple of goodies by people on the road too, including an apple and bag of raisins. Despite the load, the riding felt easy enough, taking me on a relatively flat route north and west to the top of Lake Urmia. The sky was clear and the sun was warm, but the air was cool, making or a perfect day for cycling. It’s really starting to get cold right now though. I am snug in my thermals but really need to get my feet inside my sleeping bag. As I ate dinner I checked my messages and was surprised to read a message from Mohammad Mahdi, who felt the need to apologise for the way I was treated, being ‘made’ to sleep on a mattress on the floor and being hammered with questions every moment. If only they truly knew how incredibly amazing it was to have spent such time with them. I did my best to assure him that he and his family couldn’t have been more loving and generous!

Lunchtime

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 106.91km
Average cycling speed 18.8kph
Total distance ridden 24,378km
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Day 918 (Iran Day 19)

I woke up at 7.30am and had a shower before the planned breakfast at 8am. I knew ‘mum’ was going to prepare a bunch of food for me to take away, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the mountain of food that slowly piled up. I reorganised my luggage and slowly packed everything, leaving nearly a whole front pannier free to squeeze in the food gifts. As I did so, I realised I was facing a major problem with my phone. It failed to charge yesterday and it failed to charge overnight. My phone was not working and I suspected the battery was at fault. As I rely on my phone for navigation, I very much prefer not going without it. Sure it would be possible, but it would be hell of a lot easier if it was working. Amir raced into town to find a new battery. Being a Friday, he had to wait a while before the shops opened, but he managed to find a genuine Samsung battery replacement. Unfortunately, I faced the same issue: my phone was not transferring charge into the battery. I knew my day was about to fall apart and worked hard to stay relaxed. Amir and I returned to town to hunt down a repair shop. We received immediate service and I watched my phone get dismantled and the charging port removed. It was handed to a guy in charge of a microscope who inspected it closely before saying there was nothing wrong with it. He gave it a quick clean before handing it back to the original guy, who put my phone back together We then tested it with a couple of batteries and lo and behold they began to charge normally. It seems as if my problem was a bit of dirt in the charging port. By this time it was after 1pm and I made the decision to stay another night. So began a lazy afternoon at home. At lunchtime, like all other meals, I faced another enjoyable inquisition about life, allowing all parties to compare out lot. In the evening Mohammad Mahdi and I enjoyed cracking and snacking on walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. At around 7pm we were picked up by Shahin. We ventured into the ‘happening’ part of the city, where young and old were enjoying a night out, wandering the pedestrian malls. We enjoyed a snack of brown beans before being joined by Amir. We continued to wander around for a while before having dinner at a pizza bar and returning home or further discussion about our opportunities and goals for the future.

Home-cooking

Accommodation Home of lovely family
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 24,271km
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Day 917 (Iran Day 18)

In the morning, I joined Amir on his journey to work so I could pick up my bike and ride it back home, ready for my departure from Tabriz tomorrow. I got a shock when I saw snow on the hills surrounding the city. Winter is coming early.

As I rode home, I grew increasingly bold as I negotiated my way through the unpredictable traffic. I ended up having an accident, thankfully not involving anyone else. I was careening down a bus lane and was swinging my leg over the top bar in preparation for a smooth dismount as I left the bus lane and entered the sidewalk. In the process the front wheel slipped out from under me and I tumbled into the drain running down the side of the road. I hit my head pretty hard and if I wasn’t wearing a helmet I would probably have ended in a bloody, unconscious, mess. It all happened in a flash. Not wanting to attract a scene, I jumped up quickly, collected my bicycle, parked it on the sidewalk, and sat down to recover. A few people came to my side and a nearby shop owner brought me a glass of water. My hand shook as I drank. I downed the glass, then grabbed my bike and wheeled it down the street and around the corner, out of sight of the onlookers. I continued my ride home a little more carefully. I have a bruised and grazed hip and cut to my hand, but am otherwise fine.

I entered home to find an extravagant lunch was ready. I am getting treated like a king here. After eating a silly amount of food, I had a lie down for an hour or so before working on my bike. I gave it a hose down, adjusted the seat, tightened the pedal strap bolts, checked the front rack bolts, reattached part of the front mud guard and adjusted the brakes.

It was dark by the time I was finished and it wasn’t long before Amir came home. A charcoal grill was set up outside and kebabs trapped within wire mesh were laid on top for roasting. Together with roasted kebab and tomatoes, dinner consisted of a delicious soup, salad, rice and potato. After dinner we moved to the sitting area and I was presented with a beautiful gift: a copy of the Quran with an English translation.

Tabriz

Accommodation Home of lovely family
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 24,271km
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Day 916 (Iran Day 17)

After another incredibly long sleep in (11.30am), Mohammad Mahdi and I ventured out again into the city for more learning and adventuring. On our agenda today was Constitution House (at one time the meeting place for revolutionaries who contributed to Constitutional Revolution of Iran, which was to shape the course of Persia through much of the 1900s), and the Mausoleum of Poets (the resting place of famous poets to whom Iran owes much of its cultural heritage), among some other sites. The day felt dreary and at one point we had to shelter from a hail storm. In the mid-afternoon, we returned home for lunch, enjoying a huge feast left by ‘mum’. After eating I was hit with extreme fatigue and slept through the rest of the afternoon and into the evening.

Museum art

Accommodation Home of lovely family
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 24,271km
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Day 915 (Iran Day 16)

I spent the day with Mohammad Mahdi exploring Tabriz. Mohammad Mahdi has studied civil engineering, but is in limbo while he waits to start his military service. In his spare time he translates books.

Among the various sites we visited as we made our way through the city was a very random attraction called the Betooni Museum. It contained cabinets full of food items and meals made from clay/resin. Some guy had spent much of his life reproducing food items. Perhaps the highlight of the day was exploring the old bazaar, which felt like an abandoned maze of ancient corridors. Normally full of life, the continuation of the holiday in the name of Iman Hossein meant that market life had stalled. As we wandered through, we stopped off at multiple tea rooms where free tea was on offer. In one such room we enjoyed a free meal of egg and potato, on offer as part of the religious celebration. At one point we stopped to witness a long procession of men walking through the bazaar, swinging chains over their shoulders in imitation of a masochistic act.

The evening was spent at home with Amir, Mohammad Mahdi, their mother and their friend Shahin. We enjoyed a pleasant question and answer session, learning as much as would about each other and our different lives.

As with other countries, I have done no previous reading about Iran before coming here, so all my insights come from interactions within the country. I didn’t know before tonight, for example, that Iran is governed from two angles, a democratically elected government (that is not so democratic depending on how you look at it) and a self-appointed religious ‘organisation’. Thus, Iran has both a president and an Islamic leader. This is why it is the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’ and not the ‘Republic of Iran’. The Islamic leader exerts strong influence over who is the president of Iran (thus the loose application of the word ‘democracy’). The Islamic ‘organisation’ and its leader are not elected into power. Instead, it maintains and controls itself independently from public opinion. Thus, the country is largely controlled by a group of very religious men. Many people in the country do not like the way the country is governed and the rules they place on its people. For a simple example, I learned tonight that a boy and girl cannot walk down the street together unless they are married. How can the people make the changes they want in their country when they have limited say in who is in charge of it? I see two answers; either by waiting for many generations of small changes to move towards a way of life they want, or by a dramatic revolution. I have the impression that the people are not ready for a revolution as they are too fearful of the consequences. Yet at the same time so many people in Iran want change. For the young people, desired change seems to revolve around relationships. They want to be able to love openly. At the moment, relationships are kept secret. Many girls also want to be free of the requirement to wear headscarves. The people I spoke with tonight got emotional when talking about the state of affairs in the country. Especially when they develop an increased understanding about how life is in other countries, such as Australia. Simmering under the surface of what I see as a beautiful country is discontentment about the relative lack of freedom, independence, self-expression and opportunity.

Exploring Tabriz with Mohammad Mahdi

Accommodation Home of lovely family
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 24,271km
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