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7) june 17th, Iran - is this really the axis of evil ? Tabriz.

In Iran the mosques are empty - apart from yesterday... Election Day. A fascinating country of contrasts. A religious hard-line government, and in the most part a secular, easy-going population, who have had enough of their rulers. Incredible hospitality, a manic lively city, and animated conversations about the direction of the country.

It's been a while since my last report, and as you'll read, things are getting tougher. I realise now that it isn't easy by yourself! Nobody to talk to, joke with and get lost with.

How far will I last ? We'll see...

3 June, Fri - Arrive by bus to Cappadocia: As per the plan (no time to cycle the whole of Turkey) a bus last night to Cappadocia, and arrived in Nevsehir early morning. Not wishing to go through unloading and loading my bike onto the transit bus, I decided to cycle the 15km to Goreme. Good choice - amazing landscapes, such a contrast to Istanbul! The countryside I saw down to Cappadocia (sheepishly, from the window of an evil bus..) turned a dusty green with dry rolling hills. But approaching Goreme on the bike - wow! - incredible lunar landscapes, "fairy chimneys", a massive canyon ..
Cycled around the rest of the day (but forgot the cycle computer, so not counted..) - amazing.
Distance: 19km. Overnight in Goreme, Cappadocia (Turkey).

4 June, Sat - rest day in Goreme: You can give up all hope for me - I took a tour. 25 euros for a full day inclusive of fees, lunch, etc, and it was bloody good. Of course, everyone else were young backpackers.
Panoramic views, underground city, Ihlara valley walk, fairy chimneys - a full day. This really is a beautiful area and the hostel/pension I'm staying at - the Showstring Pension - is a built into the rockface. All rooms are caves! I'd come back.

5 June, Sun - bus to Eastern Turkey: A lazy day waiting for the night-bus to Erzincan. Met a German cyclist who had just arrived, escaping from his wife for a few weeks. Then - the bus. Amazing landscapes (again) on the way to Kayseri (to change buses)... making me wish I was cycling... An ingenious carpet-selling ploy narrowly averted while waiting for the main bus, and then the nightbus arrived. No other tourists on this, alright. A jolly bloke sat next to me for a chat - miming and the like - and then off to sleep - or, try to - so that I might have some energy for the day's cycling ahead.
But it was so cold on the bus (to keep the driver awake?) and just as I'd finally found a non-hyperthermia-inducing foetal position I was shook out of my slumber - it was the stop for Erzincan, at 3am! Raining and very cold. Welcome to eastern Turkey! Shared a cigarette with a taxi-driver while warming up in his cabin,then looked for a bench inside the bus station to try and get some kip before it got light (not very successfully).

6 June, Mon: Set off into a cold grey morning. Road not too busy - mainly truck and bus traffic, few cars. Pretty green because of the rain. A wide valley floor with hills and snow-capped mountains some distance away. The valley gradually narrowed to what looked like large, steep slopes of black scree. No greenery, just a river and a black winding valley. Interesting. After a cold rain, and 70km it finally opened out into wider plains. And the first place to get food and water in 50km!
Another ferocious downpour, while I waited in a basic canteen for 2 hours while the blokes there went over my route again and again ... Staying in Tercan tonight, a small dusty town with an old crumbling, but charming, Caravanseri. This area is much more Muslim. Most people carry prayer-beads, there are no women on the streets (the few that are, are covered up) and not one sign for the ubeqious "Efes" beer which is so widespread in western Turkey.
I've a horrible sinking feeling that I may not get a drink until Azerbaijan...
Distance: 97km. Overnight in Tercan (Turkey)

7 June, Tue: A long hot and dusty climb this morning, for 26km through a narrow gorge, steep craggy slopes on either side and a river weaving it's way upward. Sometimes I'd hear calls from the distance which would turn out to be a shepherd with his sheep or cows perched precariously on a near vertical slope hundreds of feet above.
Because of roadworks, there were several stops on the way to the pass. While waiting for traffic to pass down the other way, I was "chatting" to a couple of roadworkers. One guy - ginger hair and blue eyes - was 17 years old, which was close to my guess. The other guy looked a lot older, 45 I thought. He said he was 25. It's a tough life here, alright.
Throughout the day (as with yesterday) I was constantly asked to stop for a cup of "cay" (tea). Some I accepted (again, the limited map-reading conversation), but most I had to wave and ride on by - otherwise I'd never get anywhere! In one small town I was escorted by several excited young guys to a tea-shop/pool-hall, where I was given a cup. 25 blokes gathered around staring at me while I drank it.
There were no more major passes for the rest of the day into Erzurum city - just a steady climb through a wide and arid plain, flanked by mountains (still with snow). At 2000m, it can get pretty cold here at night (another excuse for not camping?..), and I shared a room with The Only Other Tourist in the city - David, another British traveller who was wandering around on the outskirts after been let off the bus in a seemingly random location.
Distance: 91km. Overnight in Erzurum (Turkey)

8 June, Wed - rest day in Erzurum: Worth a half-day looking around - quite impressive with the mountains all around, and no tourists (though we did meet a couple of German cyclists!). This city is a bit of an aberation in this region - having such a large student population (50,000), there are quite a few women dressed in Western clothes and without a headscarf.
David, after spending the last few months in Iran and Pakistan, was frothing at the bit.

9 June, Thu: Said goodbye to David, and headed east. Passed what seemed to be dozens of military bases and after an initial climb, led to a long straight flat road. Great views of the mountains to either side, but the road was in the middle of construction, wet tar in the middle, gravel at the sides. Tyres became spikey and heavy. And it was soooo dusty; every passing bus and truck would leave me spluttering in a cloud of it. And it was rough - as well as the stones, there were unavoidable potholes... nasty. Reaching Horasan around 15:30, I still felt full of energy, so foolishly decided to press on towards the pass, thinking I could stop and camp somewhere along the way. Passing through some stunning gorges, cliffs and valleys, I thought to myself that this is really beautiful - only wish I had a bit more time to enjoy it. The sun was getting quite low now, and it seemed I was still no nearer the top. I was also getting tired of kids shouting "'allo, 'allo" and expecting the same response, again & again. These kids were everywhere - in the villages I passed through, but especially from the hills. It seemed on every turn there was a kid with his flock of sheep perched on a cliff face, shouting "'allo, 'allo". Some chased after the bike - one kid tried to pinch my raincoat from the rear-rack. Horrible kids. Bring Back The Birch, that's what I say.
Well, I didn't fancy camping with all this, so incredibly I pushed on. The pass - 2300m - was at last breached, and another smaller one was thrown in my way. Finally, painfully, in semi-darkness, I made it into Elshirt. It was dark by the time I reached the "hotel" - accompanied first by a few excited kids on bicycles, announcing my arrival down the high-street by shouting "tourist! tourist!", and then by an armed police escort...
One guy spoke pretty decent English. while the other (the one with the sub-machine gun) was a little more intense, staring at me while I drank my tea. But he was also pleasant, though I did jump a bit when he dropped his gun getting into the car -
Distance: 147km. Overnight in Elskirt (Turkey)

10 June, Fri: I had definitely overdone it yesterday, with large red welts appearing you-know-where. And when I looked at the map a little closer I saw that there was another bloody big pass to climb before my destination, Dogbayazit. Infact, it looked exactly liked yesterday's route!
A foul mood, tired, a sore arse, and an incredible unrelenting headwind. Every yard was a struggle. The friendliness of a middle-of-nowhere roadside restaurant cheered me up a bit, and I was loath to pass on. I did, and got to the small village of Taslicay, feeling unusually tired and really out-of-sorts. I could go no further.
Another roadside restaurant - they saw the state of me and invited me in for a complimentary coke. After much miming and initial mis-understandings, the owner - a really nice fella - let me camp in the garden. A really nice place, with a little steam and pond (it was a fish restaurant). They called me in that evening for a sumptuous meal and a bit of "Trabzon" (the hometown of the owner) dancing. Again, refusing all payment. Things don't get much better than this, I thought... What's the catch ?
Distance: 63km. Overnight in Taslicay (Turkey)

11 June, Sat - rest day in Taslicay:
What started with a few rushed visits to the toilet last night turned into severe stomach cramps, and then from 4am I was throwing up. This continued all day. What a diabolical state I was in - when I wasn't in the toilet, I was trying to get some sleep in the tent. The restaurant owner & his sons tried to cheer me up by inviting me in for cups of cay, and food (which I couldn't eat). Despite them not speaking any English and me not speaking any Turkish, we got through a surprizing number of topics. One thing I learnt is that most kids in this area leave school at 11 years old. Also the question of Turkey joining the EU, and the atrocious policies of Bush & Blair in Iraq, as always, came up in the conversation.

By evening, I was feeling even worse. The head-cook had prepared a massive meal, and was really disappointed when I couldn't eat anything. Just looking at the food got me in a cold sweat. There was - conveniently (the only one for miles around!) - a hospital down the road, and the restaurant owner took me down there.
Pretty basic, and certainly not up to Western hygiene standards. But I didn't care at this point. No English spoken, but the restaurant owner apparently described my symptons. A few handshakes, two large bruising injections in the arse, a long prescription, and a ride back in a truck from a guy with an axe-wound to the head. I was already feeling better.

12 June, Sun - bus to Dogbayazit: The visits to the toilet slowed down and I got a decent night's sleep. Packed up the tent, and although my appetite wasn't back yet I felt a whole lot healthier. But I really wanted to get to a town, a bed, a shower and, ermm... especially a washing machine.
Three hours waiting on the main road - no buses stopped for me (didn't like the look of my bike.. or me?)., so trudged to the dusty main street and found a bus ticket office. Very friendly, welcoming and had a good laugh with the three blokes who worked there (or at least hung around there..). 2 hours later the bus arrived, and 45mins later (60km) I was in Dogbayazit.
People around here - the Kurdish - are noticeably so much more genuinely friendly. The bus workers thought it was a great laugh trying to fit my bike into the bus - in contrast to the swearing it provoked in western Turkey.
Chatted on the bus to a student (Tourism) and another older man with good English. The older man showed me where my hotel was once we arrived in Dogbayazit and we talked a little. He had been in jail - from age 14 - for 10 years, a political prisoner. The repression of Kurds still continues, he told me, and mentioned how he and his family had been tortured. All they want is to be allowed to teach in Kurdish in schools, have Kurdish language newspapers, radio and TV stations... it was a theme that I was to hear many times in this impoverished area. He pointed out the police station where he was first taken as child to be tortured (there is a heavy police and military presence here). Unbelievable. He wished me well, and went on his way.

13 June, Mon - recovery day in Dogbayazit: This dusty, well-worn frontier town is, I think, my favourite town in Turkey. The friendliness is unbelievable. Waiting for the bus to leave to Ishak Pasa palace (3 hours!) people passed by, greeting me, joking with me. Had a very knowledgable conversation with a 15 year old schoolboy and a shopkeeper (who kept running in and out of his shop when customers came along). Offers of "cay" (and no carpets to sell!), invites to sit down and chat, an hour spent having a great laugh with some teachers gathered in a stationary store... what a fantasic impression to leave me with of Turkey (or should I say Kurdistan) as I move on to Iran.
This is an area deserving of a lot more time. There are 40 million Turks and 40 million Kurds in this country - with little or no representation for the latter. Despite the injustices inflicted on this people, it's amazing how they rise above it.

14 June, Tue, IRAN!: Bhoyed by the fact that it was only 60km to Maku (my first stop in Iran) I got up late and despite still feeling a little queasy, felt pretty positive once on the open road. And what a road. Wide, dusty, Mt Ararat looming over me to the left, cliffs and dusty plains to the right. Very little traffic and no villages on the 35km to the border, only the occasional shepherd with his sheep and goats. Through customs and... Iran! A chat with a friendly bloke in an electronic store, immigration, and set my clock forward one and a half (!) hours. Stunning scenery - the mountains practically touching the road. Stopped by the police - for a chat about football - and onward to Maku.
Lots of "Welcome to Iran"s, a glass of orange, handshakes whenever I stopped... and a superb road winding through a gorge, a narrow strip of shops and homes on either side. I was enjoying this. Found a cheap hotel (thanks to advice from the friendly staff at a more expensive one!) and settled in Maku for the night.
The people are so warm here - but of course all women are fully covered, generally in the full "chadour". Talked to lots of people, all complaining about the government and how they want the clerics out of power (and even out of Iran!). A couple of guys were very eloquant in their condemnation of the government, willing to take to arms, if need be to remove the current "regime" (!). Like eastern Turkey, whenever you go into a shop or anywhere, you spend ages just chatting - whether you buy anything or not. This is a pace of life I could get to like
Distance: 56km. Overnight in Maku (IRAN).

15 June, Wed: This morning, I tortured myself with words like "lush", "green" and even "damp". It was a harsh, arid landscape, first with some interesting rock-formations lining the road, widening out to dry plains. It was, funnily enough, just how I'd imagined Iran to look like. I'd been complaining that I couldn't get a map with more detail than 1:2,500,000 (1cm=25km). However, given the number of villages I passed, I now realise that this is more than adequate. In 100km there was only one place to get food and water - bread, cheese, and an Iranian copy of "Fanta". Me and around 10 village boys sat in relative quietness while I ate.
The road rose 500m to a pass, and on the other side the barren mountainous scenery continued, but the clear blazing sky gave way - thankfully - to thin clouds. There was a strip of oasis - strange. On the right where the stream flowed there were deep green fields, trees, grass.. but on the left of the road the same bare yellow- orange rock.

Arrived late afternoon in a village called Ev Oglu or something. Could have gone further if my bum wasn't hurting so much. Now I'm in a rough Iranian truck stop with a bunch of friendly rough & ready Turkish truckers. The owner said I could sleep inside the restaurant once it's closed up for the night.
Two Czech motorcyclists stopped here for a few minutes. Told me a lot of things about Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. A lot of bad things...

Distance: 113km. Overnight in truckstop, somewhere in Iran.

16 June, Thu: Kipped down in the corner of the prayer room in the truckstop for a few hours sleep last night. Today, starting to really understand the expression "the sun beating down on you", oh yes. Met various friendly people along the way and various annoying kids (yeah, bring back the birch), climbed a long hot barren pass and finally started seeing signs of a large city - petrochemical works, cement factories, traffic, dusty roadside shops. I stopped to fill up on water from a gushing pipe on the side of the road - it tasted of petrol and burned my lips. A number of dogs lay dead by the roadside, legs pointing skywards with rigamortis.
Tabriz is BIG. Heavy smog blocked my view until I was already on the outskirts. Mad traffic, which worryingly, I'm starting to enjoy... it's a bit of a thrill aiming the bike at a throng of cars and buses passing across my path and somehow come out the other side. Greeted ("Welcome to my country!") by scores of people.
I just couldn't find a hotel - the streets are so packed with people, cars, motobikes, countless small shops, etc that it was impossible to get my bearings and identify something that looked like a hotel. Dark by now, stopped to ask another traffic policeman, and as luck would have it (oh?! it's back), I'd stopped outside an English teaching school - invited up for cay and a chat by the teachers. A great laugh, time was knocking on, and I got invited to stay by one of the senior teachers, Mr Ahmimi, at his house.
Wonderful - a spacious appartment in the old part of town, thick, comfortable Persian carpets, and a superb meal prepared at short notice by his wife, interrupted several times by his rather, er, over-energetic 2 year-old boy.
Learnt that this part of Iran, called "Azerbaijan" (ie. the country to the north) has it's roots in Turkish culture. Infact, the main language spoken here is Azari, not Farsi (thank Goodness I didn't study any, then). And there is some apparent rivalry between the two...
Distance: 141km. Overnight in Tabriz.

17 June, Fri - Rest day in Tabriz: Today is election day. After a stroll around the neighbourhood, I left the bike at the Ahminis and got picked up by a couple of his friends - Mahdi and Mohamed - for a trip to Egoli park. I was promised that in this area of the city, not every woman is wearing a chadour, and a rebellious few may even be seen with a headscarf! Very eloquant and informed, they taught me a lot about the state of affairs in modern Iran.
A lazy day - some interesting (soft) drinks, lovely food and a visit to Mahdi's house for some delicious "Dolma" from his mother, and a couple hours watching BBC TV!..

18 June, Sat - Another rest day in Tabriz: How I'd love to stay here a little longer! Voted: my favourite city. People here are so warm and so interested in talking - whether it be fluent English or a few broken sentences. And not just small talk, but some searching questions. Iranians are so inquisitive and eloquent in their views. I was stopped by several young people in the street, dying to know my opinion on the election result (Rafsanjani had won, while the great hope of the young and the educated, Moin, had narrowly lost).

The covered bazaar was facinating - miles and miles of covered walkways, selling everything from jewelry, shoes, carpets... even picked up a new compass with the help of one of the guys from the tourist office who came along with me to look for it!
I could go on and on about the city and the incredible hospitality - but I won't. Come here and see for yourselves!

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