A race across the desert in Turkmenistan

After the luxury of having two whole months to cross Iran our next country was a slightly more time pressured affair as we only had a five-day transit visa to cycle the 500km across Turkmenistan. Plenty of cyclists have managed this in the past but we aren’t exactly the fastest pair of cyclists in the world so we ordered a nice tailwind to help us along.

Day one started badly – I got a puncture whilst still in Iran and then snapped the crucial spanner that removes our wheels. We dashed madly around the border town looking for a replacement while the time was ticking on our five day visa. Not a single shop sold spanners, but after a stressful hour a welder gave me his as a gift and refused to accept any money. We thanked our lucky stars at this final piece of Iranian generosity and legged it to the border.

Iranian passport control was an absolute shambles – getting an exit stamp involved putting our passports into a pile with about 50 others and then competing with crowds of truck drivers trying to persuade the guard to process their passport next. My Del-boy Farsi left us at a bit of a disadvantage here. I’m not the most patient person at the best of times, but knowing that every hour wasted in here was making our task more difficult meant I was pulling my hair out.

With a precious half day wasted at the border we were finally able to start cycling, but ominously the weather was cold and a stiff wind was blowing directly into our faces. For the first day and a half we took a shortcut away from the transit route used by the lorries. The road was little more than a bumpy gravel track at times and cuts through empty sandy desert. No cars passed us for two hours before we camped in a large ditch hidden from the road. It was spectacular being so alone in such a landscape, but the poor roads and strong headwind had taken their toll on our speed and we’d only managed a paltry 50km before dark.

We woke the next morning to a manically flapping tent which instantly told us the wind was still around. Which direction was it going? I stuck my head outside – ah yes, a headwind, obviously. We started cycling but a quick bit of maths told us that we were in serious danger of not being able to reach the border in time.

Days two, three and four were much the same. The headwind persisted and we set ourselves a brutal regime in order to give it our best shot. Each day we set the alarm for 5:30am, packed the tent in the dark, cycled all day with a constant headwind through sandy desert, then pitched the tent in the dark. After the tent was up and dinner eaten it was nine hours until we had to start cycling again so it was straight into the sleeping bags; our books and diaries stayed untouched in Turkmenistan.

My morale was at an all-time low on the morning of day three; we began cycling in the dark, we were miles behind schedule and the sodding headwind was blowing sleet into my face. The thought of having to cycle all day and into the night was appalling.

We stopped at a shop as we cycled through a town. Bottles of water were spaced out to fill the the shelves along one wall and we were offered meat from a plastic carrier bag sitting on the counter. After politely refusing, Bex bought 1.1kg of cookies before we got back on the bikes. The cookies were fully consumed within 48 hours and I don’t remember getting a look in.

I had no idea what to expect from the people in Turkmenistan but they seemed every bit as friendly as the Iranians we’d just left behind. Nearly everyone we passed gave us a wave and a big friendly smile, but tragically we had to blast straight past the many offers of tea and meals as our regime didn’t allow for that… We were already stretching our days into the dark at either end, a risky business on these abysmal potholed roads, and any extra stops would’ve meant more night cycling and less sleep.

We’d been automatically turning down regular offers of lifts from kind truck drivers for months, but now their big empty trailers just invited us to throw our bikes in. Suddenly it was torture as they drove away leaving us standing in the road with a sore arse, stiff legs and a long way to go. We realised we could be in Turkmenabat by evening, sipping a beer in a hotel with a day off tomorrow. Instead, we signed up for a few more days of nothing but cycling, eating and sleeping.

We set out to cycle from England to New Zealand without using other forms of transport. Obviously we have to take a boat or plane when we reach water, but from the start we’ve had the aim of an unbroken line of cycling from France to Singapore, one of the longest landmasses on Earth.

During those tough days in Turkmenistan I often thought about why we were insisting on making ourselves suffer. After all, what difference would it make if we hitched a lift for 300km of a 25,000km journey? We’d still see exactly the same roads but we could stop this horrible toil and use our spare time to meet some more Turkmen people and explore one of the cities. Plenty of people travel by bike but without worrying about hopping to different countries by train or plane, and I’m sure they have just as much fun as us (well, considerably more fun at the moment as they’d be sipping a beer in Turkmenabat!)

Unfortunately the actual physical challenge of cycling across the world is as important to me (and Bex, I think!) as exploring all the different countries along the way. I kept trying to remind myself that the hardest bits will be the most memorable and make the nice bits seem even better, but it all seemed like a futile waste of time as we flogged ourselves on those bumpy roads.

We found out later that two German cyclists that we met in Iran and again afterwards in Uzbekistan had crossed Turkmenistan the week before us. They’d had hot sun and a nice tailwind and gleefully told us how they’d made it across with 6 hour cycling days and got a decent suntan too. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time!

It was make or break on day four – we had to get within striking distance of the border by night or we’d have to hitch a lift the following morning. We finally broke the back of the challenge with a colossal day and a crucial speedy two hours of night riding – the headwind died with the daylight and fuelled by adrenaline (and a bumper bottle of coke) we galloped into the dark.

We rolled to a stop at a roadside cafe, delighted with our day’s work, and asked if we could camp behind the building. Our luck was in as they had a spare room with a gas stove on full whack which they let us use for free, and then a Turkish lorry driver bought us a couple of kebabs. For the first time in Turkmenistan we could relax – barring major disasters we would make it across the border the following day.

We arrived at the border at 1pm, exactly 4 days after starting, and counted our leftover Turkmen currency ready to change. We laughed as we realised we’d spent less than £10 between us to cross Turkmenistan, the benefit of having nowhere and no time to spend money!

The border guards then decided it was time for a two hour lunch break before we could pass into Uzbekistan. I didn’t mind though as we could sit in a chair and relax…for the first time in a week we were no longer in a constant rush. I felt knackered but I also had a nice warm glow of satisfaction. We’d overcome the challenge, despite nature doing her best to make it tough for us, and we were about to start the next country and next adventure. Maybe it was worth the effort after all…

Also, thank you very much for the donations to Guide Dogs in response to our last post, our fundraising total is now steadily moving in the right direction. Our aim is to raise £1 for each mile we cycle, although that target may be harder than the actual cycling! The Turkmenistan desert was about 300 miles – if you enjoyed reading about our struggles how about donating 1p per mile for this section of the journey?

Iran part two (Tehran to Mashhad)

Arriving in Tehran and parking the bikes for three weeks felt amazing – after two months of winter cycling in plunging temperatures luxuries like a warm flat, hot shower and a coffee machine were appreciated like never before!

We made some great new friends during our time in Tehran and while we waited for visas to be issued we also took a week-long round trip to visit three famous cities by bus in central and southern Iran. It was surreal watching hundreds of kilometres of desert flash past the window whilst Bex happily shovelled chocolate into her face – the 2000km round trip would’ve meant four weeks of hard graft on the bikes! There were impressive mosques and bridges in Esfahan and ancient sites in Shiraz, but Yazd was our highlight. Sitting in the middle of a vast desert Yazd has an awesome old city, still lived in but made from clay. I had one of my more memorable birthdays as we sat on the roof of a clay building and watched the sun set over the city.

We really enjoyed our week but it reminded me that although sometimes it can be a grind, I’m pleased that we’re travelling by bike and seeing the bits in between cities as well. I felt really disconnected when we arrived in each city, and whilst looking at the map had to convince myself that, yes, we really had just hopped across half of a massive country whilst I’d been sleeping.


Once back in the capital, Tehran definitely lived up to its reputation as the most liberal city in Iran. Young women walk the streets in figure-hugging clothes with headscarves precariously perched on the back of their head, stretching the rules as far as they dare. Seemingly everyone has a way round the government’s internet filter, and house parties with alcohol and dancing seem to be commonplace, if you know the right people!

It was difficult to drag ourselves back out on the road after such a comfy rest but finally we managed it, reacquainting arse with saddle and beginning to tackle the 1,100km remaining before the border.

Less than an hour from Tehran a car pulled over and a man got out, flashed some ID at us and said ‘Police, passports please.’ His ID, written in Farsi, was probably a library card for all we knew, and it was pretty obvious this was a random guy trying his luck. We told him as much and refused to get out our passports. He seemed nervous and didn’t look that tough, but then again he had 3 mates waiting in the car whilst I had Bex… In fairness, I haven’t seen Bex in action so she might turn out to be the female Jack Bauer (officially the world’s hardest human) but I wasn’t too keen to find out. I raised my arm and flagged down a passing motorbike, and as soon as the motorbike began to pull over our imposter rather swiftly got back in his car and sped away.

Less than one minute later in typical Iranian style we were invited in for a tea stop. That evening we stayed with a young English teacher who just 5 minutes after meeting us let us into her flat to relax whilst she went back to work. We slept well that night with the earlier incident long forgotten after the later acts of kindness that have been typical of our time in Iran.

The sprawl of factories surrounding Tehran finally gave way to desert on our second day of cycling. The road split the monotonous flat land for as far as the eye could see. If we had a headwind it was demoralising knowing that it would be hours until you reached the horizon. The landscape was so different to anything I’d seen before but grinding our way slowly across the flat yellow land grew repetitive after a few days, although the occasional sighting of a herd of camels never failed to please!

Villages were few and far between so we had to be careful to carry enough food and water. There seemed to be a truck stop or something at least once a day, but as these weren’t marked on our map it was hard to judge. Bex gets tetchy if she doesn’t have regular snacks so we erred on the side of caution. We slept wherever we could at the end of each day, including the prayer room of a mosque, a friendly villager’s clay house, with the Red Crescent, and with a couchsurfer in a bigger town near the end. We tell locals we usually sleep in our tent, but in the last 1,000km we hadn’t pitched the tent once!

The Red Crescent stays were fun – they’re the roadside rescue and recovery service and teams of four are on standby for 48 hours at a time, living in stations stuck in the desert about 100km apart. For the vast majority of their time they have nothing to do, so they drink tea, play table football (they were bloody good!) and watch TV – so I guess we were a welcome distraction. Two nights in a row different stations welcomed us in, gave us tea, dinner, a warm room and breakfast. The following day we were packed off with bread, tuna, beans and water. This was during a 300km section of desert in which we were told there was ‘nothing’. We’d stocked up with supplies beforehand, but finished the section with more food & water than we started with!

The couchsurfer we stayed with turned out to be Masoud, an awesome guy who owns an English language institute for children. Unbeknown to us, Masoud had arranged an open day at his institute, and about 80 kids on bikes met us for a ride down the street. They had even printed and framed a load of our photos for everyone to see! Parents plonked shy kids next to us for photos and a chat, and we felt like celebrities for an hour.

In Mashhad, the last big city in the north-east of Iran, we visited the Holy Shrine, the holiest site in Iran. The tomb of Imam Reza is the highlight, and tourists aren’t allowed in – Muslims only. Our host, Hamed, assured us we might get lucky if we didn’t say anything when walking past the guards, so Bex borrowed a chador (a sheet covering everything but the face, common in Mashhad and rare in Tehran, but compulsory in the shrine) and I combed my beard (knew it would come in use!) and we went for it. Success – we were in!

We walked through huge busy courtyards covered in hundreds of praying mats to the room containing the shrine. Going inside was quite amazing – hundreds of people were crowded round the rectangular metal box (men and women separated by glass), pushing and shoving trying to touch the shrine, many crying. Back in the courtyards, it’s common for funeral processions to walk around the shrine. In the 15 minutes we sat in the sunny courtyard, 4 or 5 dead bodies, wrapped in a rug in open caskets, were carried past. 20 or so men followed each one, chanting. Once outside in the streets, Bex whipped off her chador within 10 metres of the exit, which got a few funny looks from the guards on the gate!

The driving has continued to amuse us through Iran, no gap is too small for an Iranian to push his car through and traffic coming on to roundabouts appears to have right-of-way. Mopeds, battered old cars and pick-up trucks are the vehicles of choice in Iran, usually with outrageous loads. After an extensive two month survey, here are my top five loads seen on the back of a standard issue Iranian moped:

1) a family of four
2) a cage full of pigeons
3) a 5 foot high stack of cheesy wotsits
4) a dead sheep
5) an 18-inch sword, being sat on by a bandana-wearing boy

In Iran there is a concept of ‘tarof’, a kind of etiquette which involves refusing an offer from your host a number of times before performing a politician-esq u-turn and finally accepting. In Mashhad I saw Hamed refuse a banana twice before accepting it at the third offer! This was obviously very confusing for foreigners, usually if I’m hungry and someone offers me some food I’d accept it first time with thanks. The aim of tarof is to enable the host to save face if in fact they cannot afford to give what they offered. I think lots of Iranians know that foreigners are generally confused by tarof, but hopefully we didn’t cause too much offence as we munched our way across Iran!

After an awesome two months in Iran, sadly it was finally time to leave. We’ve had countless amazing experiences whilst cycling across this interesting country and I’m never going to forget the incredible generosity shown to us by complete strangers and new friends alike.

When planning this adventure we decided to use the opportunity to raise awareness and funds for charity. Those of you who know me probably also know that Ella, my youngest sister, has a guide dog, so it was an easy choice to support the charity Guide Dogs (we also chose AMOS Trust).

In 2009 Ella received Wendy, her first Guide Dog, and after seeing the subsequent improvement in Ella’s life I want to help Guide Dogs provide dogs for more people in need. All related costs of owning the dog (training, food, vet bills etc) are covered by the charity, and there is a waiting list for dogs.

At the start it didn’t feel right to ask for donations before we’d even turned a pedal and the trip was just talk, but now we’ve cycled about 9,000km I feel that we’re slightly more deserving of a few small donations. So the fund-raising drive starts here! If everyone who managed to finish reading this blog (or scrolled down looking at the photos!) donated just a couple of pounds it would help to get the fundraising total heading in the right direction.

Please click here if you’d like to donate. Thank you so much to those that have already donated!

Here’s a message from Ella:

I had been dreaming about having a guide dog for many years and a few months after my 20th birthday my long-awaited dream came true.

Having guide dog, Wendy, has opened up a whole new world of independence for me and also helped me to see my future in a different light.

It has really changed me as an individual person because I no longer have to worry about any obstacles that may have an effect on independently reaching specific destinations such as shops and restaurants.

I feel that I have also become more sociable now because people stop and chat to me because they are interested about Wendy.

Having and caring for a guide dog is a huge responsibility and not everyone would enjoy this – but for me it’s fantastic!

The link once more: http://www.justgiving.com/worldcyclingtour-guidedogs

Thank you for any donations!

A brief update from Tehran

We’re in Tehran having our first extended break since Istanbul in November. It’s been a bit of a cold, hard slog since Erzurum, so we were pretty happy to get here and put the bikes and tent away for a while!

Iran has been ace so far, the friendliest people, most spectacular scenery and our favourite country so far.

Whilst waiting for visas to be issued we left the bikes in Tehran and jumped on a bus to visit a few places in Southern Iran that aren’t on our cycling route and would’ve otherwise been missed.

We’re now back in Tehran and have picked up our reassuringly expensive Uzbekistan visas. We feel nice and refreshed after our break and on Tuesday 22nd we’ll start cycling again, heading east towards Mashhad and the Turkmenistan border.

We’ll post a proper update about our time in Iran once we’ve left and have full access to our photos etc.

Video #2 – Turkey

Ok – one last post before Iran! We realised we’d collected quite a lot of video footage during our 2 month cycle across Turkey, so we thought we’d make our second video during a day off in Erzurum. Hope you like it!

Click here to view if the embedded version above hasn’t worked, or to view the HD version.

Turkey for Christmas

We flew down a steep country lane, swerving round potholes and skidding through gravel. It was late December but the warm sun and green valleys meant it felt like an English summer. We weren’t quite sure exactly where we were as this road wasn’t on our map, but we didn’t care as we enjoyed the adrenaline rush of being nearly-but-not-quite out of control.

We’d grown bored of following the same winding coastal road for weeks, so we had turned inland down a narrow country lane in the hope of finding a more interesting road. Previous deviations from the map had backfired spectacularly, but fortunately this time our decision to ditch the main road was rewarded – our boredom instantly vanished, and we met Muhammed.

We’d stopped for a quick lunch of water and bread by the local mosque when Muhammed, the village priest, saw us and invited us back to his house for a much tastier lunch. The dinner table was rolled out and loaded with a delicious feast – Muhammed wouldn’t take no for an answer and kept refilling our plates until we could take no more. Cycling onwards with bulging bellies wasn’t an option so we chatted using the invaluable Google Translate, watched Muhammed’s children ride Bex’s bike, and before we knew it we were eating dinner and preparing to stay the night.

We put a few big days in to arrive in Samsun on December 24th so we could enjoy a mini-holiday in a big city. For once when searching for somewhere to stay we considered factors other than just finding the cheapest possible price, as a stay in a hotel was to be our Christmas present. We ended up somewhere that felt like The Ritz compared with our usual standard of accommodation, it was definitely a nice treat for us to enjoy. Even better news was the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet – I was first in/last out each day, got a few strange looks from the hotel staff, and I’m pretty sure we ended up making a small profit from our stay.

On Christmas Eve we raided a newsagents for chocolate, cookies and satsumas and spent Christmas morning gorging ourselves in our room. We played games and read books over a few glasses of tea in a bustling cafe, surrounded by people oblivious to the celebrations back home. We gave the camp stove a night off as we went out for our Christmas dinner, which turned out to be a lamb stir fry with a couple of huge glasses of wine.

 

We left ourselves a long day of pedalling to reach Giresun where we hoped to have a few days off over New Year. We started nice and early, but a routine food/water/toilet stop at a petrol station in the afternoon scuppered our plans for an early arrival. We’d finished our admin and were just about to leave when the petrol station owner brought out cups of tea, swiftly followed by fresh jam, olives and cheese (like Muhamet, it seems he’d seen us munching on a plain loaf of bread and taken pity on us!) When we were finished and once again ready to be on our way the owner’s daughter appeared and could speak excellent English – a relatively rare occurrence outside of cities in Turkey. We stayed for a chat and it was nice to be able to explain our journey to her father who’d been so kind.

Unfortunately, when we finally got round to leaving we had an hour of light left, two hours still to cycle, and it had started raining. We were quickly drenched through (our new waterproofs were waiting in Giresun for us to collect that evening!) and covered in grit from the road. Cycling on the hard-shoulder of what is effectively a motorway in the dark whilst raining was pretty miserable and we were glad when we finally reached the Giresun city sign where we met Mertcan, our host from Warmshowers. A few parcels from home had arrived at Mertcan’s containing a mix of useful kit and fun treats – it felt like a second Christmas had arrived!

We ended up staying for four days to sort out some admin, relax, and let our hangovers subside after we had a great time at a student house party on New Year’s eve. People in cities are generally less conservative than in rural areas – virtually all women in the small villages we’ve cycled through wear headscarfs, whereas in the bigger towns and cities that we’ve visited many don’t. Likewise with alcohol – between Istanbul and Samsun we didn’t see any bars and weren’t offered alcohol when staying in homes or eating out. My first beer since Rob and I rocked the bar in Istanbul over a month before was consumed at Onder’s house in Samsun – thanks Onder, it tasted pretty good! Once we were back in larger cities such as Samsun and Giresun we saw bars dotted around, and the students we met certainly enjoyed a drink or two on New Year’s Eve!

After a month spent on its shores we finally left the Black Sea at Tirebolu, turning inland towards Erzurum, mountains and the Iranian border. The coastal route we’d taken until this point certainly wasn’t as we’d imagined from our extremely limited research – the road from Amasra to Sinop was hard, hilly and took us ages to cycle, but the coastline was beautiful and the weather warm and sunny for the most part. The main highway on which we’d naively envisaged racing across Turkey in a matter of days started at Samsun. Even with the benefit of hindsight I’m glad the road was full of surprises, even if they weren’t usually pleasant ones! If our research was so thorough that we knew exactly what the road ahead would look like, what would be the point in cycling it? The less planning, the greater the adventure…or so we kept telling ourselves as we were faced with yet another lung bursting climb.

Every single day in Turkey we’d been told that it was defintely impossible to cycle to Erzurum in the winter due to the mountains/snow/cold/ice. We hoped otherwise – our view was that if the road was ok for buses and lorries, then surely it could be cycled. We’d been checking temperatures on the internet and Erzurum (the highest, and therefore coldest, city en route) seemed to average daily highs of -2 degrees and night time lows of -17. England has had worse recently! We ignored the advice, turned right off the coast and hoped we’d packed enough jumpers.

The ascent from coast to Erzurum, which lies at 1900 metres above sea level, was stunning, and the highlight of the trip so far for me. We spent the first two days catching tantalising glimpses of huge mountains in the distance – we knew we were heading straight for them and would soon be more than two vertical kilometres above our current position.

We cycled along a deep gorge for two days, the road winding gradually ever higher up the steep sides. The temperature began to drop noticeably compared with the coast as we inched our way upwards towards the snow line. The road was a rare combination of smooth surface but little traffic and the views were incredible – it was impossible to get bored on this road whilst gazing at endless peaks, lakes and houses pearched crazily on the sides of hills. We ate lunch sat on a wall overlooking the gorge, legs swinging over the edge, occasionally holding our breath to appreciate the absolute silence.

One night we slept in a teacher’s hostel – they finish school early and spend the evening drinking tea and playing cards in the communal area. I challenged one teacher to a game of backgammon – Turkish people play in a completely different way to anyone I’ve played before. After playing a number of Turks over the last month or so, I think I’ve worked out their rules (apologies if you’ve no interest in backgammon!):

1) If it’s possible to take an opponents piece, do so at all costs.
2) When deciding between two moves, always choose the highest risk and most aggressive option.
3) Leave as many of your own pieces uncovered as possible.
4) Whatever the move, always slam your pieces down as hard as you can
.

At least it makes for an entertaining game!

The following day we arrived in a town just before dark looking for somewhere to sleep. We couldn’t find a place to camp and the two hotels were both full, but luckily Servet, a jewellery shop owner with excellent English had spotted us. After phoning half of the town, we were handed the keys to his friend’s empty apartment. We lit the wood stove and rolled out our camping mats in the living room (the bedroom was freezing as houses with stoves tend not to have central heating).

So far we’ve crossed two mountain passes (of 1875 metres and 2409 metres – for reference, Ben Nevis is 1344 metres, and the highest mountain in last year’s Tour de France, the Col du Tourmalet, is 2115 metres) which came complete with summit signs for celebratory photos. These were much more fun than the short but steep climbs on the coast. On the coast the hills were short but incredibly steep, requiring every last ounce of our effort as we stood on the pedals to battle gravity, and as we began and ended each day at sea level our efforts felt wasted. In the mountains however, the climbs generally involve around forty kilometres of relatively gentle ascent (proven by the fact that Bex’s panting remains in earshot behind me), which takes a half a day of more measured effort. The road crawls between huge hills, the entire landscape white with snow with the exception of a strip of black tarmac ahead and behind. When we reach the summit we’re rewarded with a real sense of achievement – we’re standing on top of a mountain pass, with a photo to prove it!

 


The temperature is considerably colder at the top and although we’re warm on the way up the descents are extremely cold. Bex teased me for putting on every last piece of cold weather clothing I was carrying, but less than two minutes into the descent I heard a muffled squeak from behind as Bex was forced to stop and wrap up. The wind chill of a fast descent plus the fact our bodies are no longer working means the sub zero temperatures feel much colder and the feeling was lost from hands, feet and faces within minutes. My brain felt like a frozen pea by the time we reached the bottom.  Once over the pass we dropped down on to a flat but high plateau, surrounded by 3000 metre peaks.

Our tent hasn’t had much use in Turkey as whenever we ask for permission to camp people usually say it’s much too cold to sleep outside and find us somewhere indoors to sleep. However we really wanted to camp for a night up high in the snow for a bit of fun so we snuck off the road just after crossing the final pass about 70km before Erzurum, found a flat spot of land and set up camp. The thermometer read -5 as we cooked up dinner and a hot drink, but the temperature soon began to drop as the light fell so we got into our sleeping bags at 5.30pm (rock and roll) and read our books by torch light. This was by far the coldest place we’ve stayed (because it was the highest), but we were nice and warm wrapped up inside the tent. It’s impossible to explain that to any locals though, given our extremely limited Turkish – they think we’re slightly insane just for cycling in the winter, let alone chosing to sleep outside in the snow.

We’re now in Erzurum giving our legs a well deserved rest after 4000m of climbing in the last week. The Student Winter Olympics begin here in two weeks – we saw the massive ski jump on our way in and there are hundreds of flags decorating the city.

We hope to enter Iran next week, after we’ve tackled the final two 2000+ metre passes that lie on the road between Erzurum and the border. We’ve heard that WordPress may be blocked in Iran – we’ll try and post a quick update to the website by email, but our next proper blog update will probably be from Turkmenistan in early March. Enjoy February!