Armenia

SevanWe waited one more week for Sylvains visa for Iran. Every day I lost a small piece of my soul in the hostel. It was enough, time to go to Armenia.  It took us about a week to reach the capital. One of the instincts of a bicycle tourist is to ride to every possible blue spot on the map. So we went straight to lake Sevan, already imagining ourselves swimming, catching some fish, and settling down camp for some days. What we didn’t know was that it’s one of the biggest high-altitude lakes of the world, at nearly 2000 meters. No fishing rods nor swimsuits got unpacked, and we headed straight to the lower Yerevan. Cycling in Armenia is much less exhausting than in Georgia. Quiet roads, almost no people insisting to join then for vodka in the morning, …. People keep a bit more distance, but are always very helpful when you ask them something.

YerevanAfter one night in the park there, we got hosted by a group European volunteers, living in a big house, near the center. While Sylvain was making a last attempt to get his Iranian visa here, days became weeks again. Winter is coming, and we are both looking around a bit for a place to stay. So why not there? If only we had something to do.  The idea came in to start a bicycle courier company in Yerevan, something that would Bomzdefinitely work here. The city is perfect for cycling, but Armenians don’t realize that. It started as a joke, and we talked to the head of the volunteer group.  Since they were working a lot on green projects, he was very enthusiastic, and before we knew, we had an office, a free place to stay, etc. … We only needed some Armenians to work with us, and an meeting was arranged with the local bicycle group, where, surprisingly, also television showed up. There we concluded that, although there certainly was enough of enthusiasm, nothing was ever going to happen. Maybe later. I didn’t want to wast my valuable Iranian visa, so the time had come to move on.

I really enjoyed the three weeks I stayed in Yerevan. Compared to Tbilisi, there is so much going on. Really good bars there, and I met a lot of nice people. My biorhythm got shifted to night-mode again. Time for some change…

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Georgia

Six weeks I’m here, and I still don’t really know what to think of this country. After having spent more than nine months in a Muslim country, crossing the border was like entering another world. Sylvain, with whim I’ve spent last winter in Istanbul, was waiting for me in the capital, so I decided to go more or less straight there. The main road Batumi – Tbilisi is not the most safest one for cycling, but in a way it’s very entertaining. Grazing cows on the railroad, disturbed by an approaching, rusty train. Panicked they jump blindly on the road, where a bunch of overloaded Ladas, randomly scattered – paint on the road only has a decorative purpose – has to get the best out of their brakes, to avoid an interspecies massacre. Miraculously, these situations always seem to end well. I guess it’s experience.

I’d heard many good things about the Georgian hospitality. It’s true, people are very welcoming here. There is only one problem. Invitations, even if it’s nine o’clock in the morning, always, no exceptions, include alcohol. In Turkey I’d picked up the habit to accept every invitations, but if you’d like to survive the day here, that’s not a wise thing to do. In the beginning I’ve made the mistake several times, with resulting hilarity, including a football match, nearly having a set of car indicators on my bike – the fact that I had to carry a car battery made me back out – etc … . What they don’t do so easily is inviting you in their homes. Even after an irresponsible amount of chacha – a local strong drink, made of grape residue, left after making wine, and which is often replaced by pure alcohol – they just walk off, leaving you there with your bicycle, desperately looking for a place to camp. Luckily, in that state of mind, any piece of land looks like a 5 star camping ground.

Arriving in Tbilisi, it didn’t take me more than 20 minutes to find Sylvain. No phones involved. He’d already spent some months in Georgia, because he got banned for 5 years from Turkey, after having overstayed his visa without knowing. Autumn is coming, and we will go south together. He applied for his Iranian visa, which takes some weeks here. To escape the city, we cycled to Kazbegi, and the Vasholvani National Park. I’m glad we did so, because I hadn’t seen any real beauty of this country yet.

About two weeks ago we arrived in the capital again, and every day they say the visa hasn’t arrived yet. It’s been over a month now. Except for some sporadic laps in the old velodrome, the bike hasn’t seen a lot daylight lately. Neither have I. Out of boredom, I even went to the casino a few times, to look for sponsors.  The hostel isn’t a bad deal though. Free wine, diner, and laundry, for 5 euros a day. That’s just one red chip…

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About Safety

During this 16 months, I got into a lot of new situations: I’ve been invited by hundreds of strangers, slept in woods populated by boars and bears, cycled on motorways, etc… . But I’ve never really felt unsafe, and nothing bad has happened yet. And then this one night, we go out in Tbilisi, and the security guard randomly breaks my nose with his forehead. Why? Apparently there were some Iranians making trouble outside, and one of them was inside. There I was the first one crossing his path, who looked Iranian enough to beat up. Situations like this, though not so extreme, have happened numerous times back at home too. These people, literally hired to keep the place safe, are often fight happy bodybuilders, abusing their position to try out their newest moves. Nobody needs them. At least not me.

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Güle Güle, Türkiye!

The only way to avoid the main from Trabzon to Batumi was going through the mountains again. The warm-up was a beautiful climb from sea level to 2600 meters. What followed was a stretch, that was probably a cycling paradise some years ago. A small road next to a river for 150 km to Artvin. But unfortunately it was one of those places that got completely ruined by the booming Turkish economy. It became a long battle against dust, huge trucks and new unlighted tunnels, because they were building a dozen of new dams. Luckily there were the angry villagers, gladly offering me tea, so we could complain a bit together about the building projects.

damn dams

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To the Black Sea

After postponing the departure for another day or two, me and Alkım left Nevşehir together. We camped some days at a lake near Kayseri, where I learned how to fish in Turkey. I’ve made a small tutorial:

  1. Find a good spot where you are visible, this is very important.
  2. Start fishing. Do not focus on catching the fish, you are probably not qualified to do that. Instead, focus on catching the eye of the villagers. Do this by exaggerating your movements while throwing out your line, making big gestures of disappointment when taking in your line, etc.
  3. Wait till one of the villagers brings you an overload of fish
  4. Afiyet olsun!

The euphoria of being on the road again quickly got bombed by another broken axle, for which I found a replacement in Kayseri. This happened during the last week of Ramadan, and I really thought the mechanic was going to collapse while he was replacing the part. The axle itself took his example and snapped the very next day. Apparently my hub was deformed. Apart from that, cycling during the Ramadan was not that much different. People still offered me food, although I didn’t really feel comfortable eating, while a bunch of hungry wolves were watching every movement I made.

The road itself was very nice. I’d planned to avoid the main road, but when I noticed it was paved with the smoothest asphalt I’d rode on since Cyprus, I got hooked to it. In Turkey the roads, even the newly constructed ones, normally have a rough surface, which slows you down a lot.  It looks like they’ve finally learned it. Only when the mountains began to rise, I started looking for alternatives. These small roads served me a daily 2000m pass. I hadn’t climbed for some months, and it took me some days to find my rhythm again. It was nice to see the landscapes changing very suddenly, from the dry Anatolian plateau, to the Black Sea coast, where the grass is green and there’s a small current behind every corner, which I’d really missed.

Sleeping was another thing. My first evening in the mountains several people stopped me to ask what I was doing. They told me not to sleep in the mountains due to the high bear population. People often warned me for animals before, and I’d never had a big problem, so I ignored the advice. This time it was not different, but during the night I started to get paranoid, I made a big fire, and whenever I heard a sound, I was sure it was a bear. Needless to say I didn’t catch a lot of sleep that night, so from then on I stayed in villages.  A good choice, daily bed and breakfast.

A few days later days, after a quick visit to the Sümela Monastery, I finally arrived in Trabzon. Some minutes later I was already drinking çay with some other Iran-visa hunters, and Cüneyt, my couchsurf host, who owns a tattoo shop in the hearth of the city. Cüneyt is an excellent host, and opens his house to everyone, making it a very lively place.  Then I thought back about the winter, when me and Sylvain flipped a coin on whether we would put a specific tattoo or not. The time had come to listen to the outcome of that event, and it was there before I realised it…

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Cappadocia Crime Solvers

After three weeks in Mersin, I finally managed to sneak out and continue. I headed straight north to gain some altitude as quick as possible, because the heat had started to be unbearable. A bit later, in Tarsus, I got ripped of for the first time. I stopped to eat something in what later appeared to be a shady suburb of the town. There was a big enthusiastic crowd, asking me the regular questions, and I got guided into a restaurant where they gave me a free meal. When I was outside again, the atmosphere had changed drastically: there was silence, and an older man advised me to move on. At first glance, nothing seemed to be missing, so I followed his advice. A few hundred meters further, I quickly scanned my bags, a bit more attentively this time, and noticed my camera had been stolen. While shouting some curse words, I turned back and noticed a man had been following me. He told me that some children had taken it, and he would get it back for me. I thanked him, but soon it became clear that he wanted money for his actions, because ‘chasing children in this weather is a hard job’. It also became clear that he was already in possession of the camera, so very likely there were no children involved. Our hero overpriced his imaginary services ridiculously, and some of his assistants arrived at the scene, to increase the pressure a bit.  Luckily the bunch of them weren’t highly skilled negotiators, and I managed to buy my camera back for the equivalent of 8 euro. But that terrible feeling of being ripped off kept following me for the rest of the day.

The same evening my mood got boosted by a friendly Osmanold man, called Osman, who invited me in his shack, that he’d built himself. The heat kept me there for another day, almost entirely spent in the kitchen. Osman liked cycling himself, and after preparing me an amazing breakfast at 5 in the morning, he wanted to join me for a while. We slowly climbed together for 20 kilometres, me carrying my load, him carrying his age. It was impressive to see a 69 years old man riding a bicycle like that.

The rest of the week I spent limping my way to Göreme,  unable to find a replacement for my broken 28 inch tyre. Finally arriving there I got stopped by Soha and Somaye, an Iranian couple on their 2 year bicycle-honeymoon, who were waiting for their Shengen-Visa, which they unforLimping my way to Goremetunately didn’t get, as I heard later. The same evening the three of us got invited by a waiter and his father, to spend the night at their place. We accepted, and they drove us to a small house somewhere in a valley. We had a nice evening, including some great Cappadocian wine, but the next day I found out that all my money had been stolen by our friendly host. Arriving at the restaurant where he worked, he immediately confessed. He looked very nervous and assured me Kapadokyathat the money would be there the next day. I didn’t expect that someone would ever quit his job to run away with more or less 50 euro, but I was wrong: the next day one of his colleagues told me that was exactly what he’d done, and they had no further information on him. I only had a name, and some vague memories of the directions to his house, one hour by car from Göreme.

investigationI Cycled around for 3 days, looking for the house, stopping in every village to drink a tea. I couldn’t find the house, but the oldies in the tea houses provided me with a lot of information about the man. I wasn’t chasing the money any more, this was a battle for justice. I can imagine that most people would give up chasing 50 euro quickly, if that would cost them half of their days in Cappadocia. But he tricked the wrong tourist, one with a bottomless amount of free time.

I damaged his reputation during those days, and when I had just enough information to go to the police I went back to Göreme. I was surprised to see him working in the restaurant again, apparently the colleague had lied to me – for his share of the big catch? When I told him I would go to the police, he said me he’d get the money, but he escaped once again. Finally his boss gave me the money and would keep it from his wage later.

cig kofteAfter the case was closed, I spent another week exploring Kapadokya, including a free but irresponsible visit to one of the famous underground cities – they were restoring the site, and one of the workers gave me a flashlight and showed me the entrance. This thing was huge! Later I got hosted by Alkım in Nevşehir, who’d hosted some of the cyclists I’d met in Istanbul during this cold winter. Days became weeks, and weeks became a month. Apart from a few small expeditions we made, I have to admit that I’ve been very lazy last month. At least my bike has some new parts now, and I’m about to continue cycling. I decided to leave some stuff here, but that is probably compensated by the weight I gained, consuming all the delicious food we prepared together.

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Days In Mersin

Residence permitThere I’ve got it, six more months of Turkey. My last post had a bit of a negative atmosphere. This negativity was partly fake: while I wrote it, I tried to get in that mood again, in which I was when I got refused on the boat etc. But in reality I was living the good life in Mersin thanks to all the lovely people I met there.

First of all there was Emre, of Couchsurfing, who opened his door although I called him late in the evening, and we’d never met before. I stayed there for some days. Then there was Levent, a policeman who loves bike touring. He took me to several bike shops for repairs, and insisted on paying for them. Also, thanks to his connections, the people of the foreign police department became very friendly, with the easy residence permit procedure as result.

days in the çay eviAnd finally there were Mehmet, Gürkan, and all the other students I spent my days with while waiting for the permit to be finished. Before I realised, I’d spend three weeks, playing football, learning to play Tavla like a man, and eating a truckload of tantuni, a local kebap variation. During these weeks, communication was done almost entirely in Turkish. I learned so much and I’m glad I could teach a bit of English.

It amazed me how they deal with money, it seemed to be some kind of common property. Some days there was plenty of it, resulting in decadence, while the other day there was not a single lira around. I, being the ‘misafir’, obviously wasn’t allowed to spend anything.

MersinMersin is the kind of city where no guidebook sends you. There is almost nothing to see, and most tourists just pass by to hop on a boat to Cyprus or Lebanon. The city itself consists of concrete buildings and big avenues, crowded with chaotic dolmuş traffic. But these ugly buildings are populated by friendly folks, with whom I was pleased to spend some weeks with.

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Battle Against Bureaucracy

The next morning I arrived in Turkey, but I soon realised that the odds for getting in again were rather low, because the same two policemen were doing the passport control. I told them I had no passport and wanted to enter Turkey with my ID-card. They gave me a strange look and sent me to the visa office. Five minutes later I returned with a big smile and a new 3 month visa, ready for an entry stamp. Unfortunately there was one flaw in the plan: they asked for my exit stamp of Cyprus, which had been put in my passport. The only option I had was acting like I miraculously found my passport again and hand it to the police. Since I’m far from being a good actor it didn’t take them too long to figure out what I was trying. They gave me eight days to leave turkey.

So there I was standing, with an almost expired visa, and a worthless bike, in Taşucu , a town that I already started hating some weeks before. After weighting my options for a while I concluded that three months in Cyprus was the best way to go. I even started liking that idea: make some money, find a new bike and go go go! The same evening I hopped on a bus to Istanbul, to pick up some stuff and spend my last week in my second home.

It was a bit strange to arrive in that metropolis again: two months of cycling, quickly undone by a 15 hour bus ride. Spring had arrived and the city had changed. There was an enjoyable atmosphere on the streets, but it was very crowded, causing too many impulses for my poor brain that had adapted to the rural life again during those two months…

But, back to bureaucracy. One week later I was in Taşucu again, ready to take the ferry. I had overstayed my visa for one day because there was no boat on Saturday, that couldn’t be that big of a problem, could it? To make it short: I was denied boarding the ship by those same two idiots because you need a Turkish visa to enter Northern Cyprus – which is a lie. Needless to say I was furious, but discussing it was a waste of time. All they could say was it was my problem and I should stop bothering them. And there I was standing again, without a plan. And yet another road had been blocked…

Since I had to leave the country as soon as possible I cycled overnight to Mersin, the next town with ferry connection to Cyprus. There, the border police told me that I’d overstayed my visa for 10 days, and I had to pay a 335 YTL fine – they said that the police of Taşucu had made a mistake by giving me 8 more days. I told them that I didn’t plan to pay anything and went to the foreign police office. There they calculated a 82 YTL fine but they were not able to persuade the stubborn border police. After some days I decided that I had no options – the clock was ticking – and went to the port to let them recalculate the fine with the extra days included. When they told me that I wasn’t allowed to go to Cyprus I couldn’t believe what I heard. It was obvious that they had called the Taşucu police, who were putting a lot of effort in stopping me from entering Cyprus – or am I being paranoid?

Another road blocked, and I was told that the only way to leave Turkey was flying back to Belgium, after paying a high fine. No option! I called the embassy and they said I could start a resident permit procedure instead, which I did soon after. I didn’t expect it but tomorrow I can pick up that piece of paper, good for another 6 months in Turkey. I didn’t even have to pay anything for the days I overstayed! Life is good again, now all I have to do is find a solution for the bike problem.

I’ve barely cycled last month, and spent more time waiting in offices and standing in queues. What frustrates me the most is that all those people behind their desks just quickly tell you what you want to hear, so you move on, and they can continue watching the clock till they can go home. Special thanks to:

  • the lady in the Fergün Shipping office, who assured me that I could get a new Turkish visa in Cyprus. I didn’t get one.
  • the guy in the office, who guaranteed me that I could enter Turkey with my identity card again. I couldn’t get in.
  • the border police in Taşucu, who told me I had to leave Turkey in 8 days. Cyprus was an option. The following week they didn’t let me board the ship. Expect a postcard!
  • the border policeman in Mersin, who promised me that if I paid the fine, going to Cyprus and staying there for 3 months would be no problem at all. After that time I could buy a new visa for Turkey. The very next day that man didn’t let me board the ship.

Do those people sleep at night?

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Moody Days

Since I’ve left Turkey everything started going wrong. The border police assured me me that the days of island hopping to renew your visa are over, and that I have to stay out of Turkey for three months. This got me in a terrible mood and the following chain of punctures didn’t make it any better. Yesterday I cycled back from Karpaz, the peninsula in the east of  Cyprus, to Girne, with the additional blocked pedal, and I couldn’t think of a more annoying problem at that time.

But there it came. My bike started wobbling like it had never done before. Broken frame HURRAY! I wanted to take my wallet and passport out of the panniers, toss the 60kg of rubbish in the ocean, and book the first flight home. But luckily I didn’t do so and one hour later the wound was already welded by a friendly car mechanic. It didn’t look too strong, but at least I could move. Some minutes later my freshly gained smile disappeared again together with the air in my tire, and I was so fed up with it that I walked the remaining distance to Girne. The sun had already set and I thought I deserved a night in a hostel, but the only affordable place in town was fully booked, so I bought some rakı and slept on a construction site instead…

Tonight there is a ship to Turkey which I’ll board. I will tell them I don’t have a passport and get in with my identity card, which should be possible for Shengen citizens. So there is a slight chance that I can continue. Otherwise there’s a big mess to sort out.

Oh and I almost forgot to mention, Northern Cyprus is a pretty nice place to be, I enjoyed my days here and had good company. I haven’t been in the south yet but possibly I have another three months to explore the rest of the island…

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Yavaş Yavaş

It took me about ten days to cycle from Fethiye to – the not so far away – Antalya. Between those towns stretches the Lycian way, Turkey’s most famous long distance hiking path, wich leads through the mountains, and crosses an overload of archeological sites. Unfortunately the rough track is undoable by bike, but as long as you avoid the main road, the roads are rather free of traffic and enjoyable to ride. I took some time off to visit places like the ‘Butterfly valley’, where the steep path down along the cliffs is quiet a challenge for someone who is afraid of heights.

Some days later, in Üçağız, I stumbled upon what looked like a nice place, wandered around a bit, and met Ahmet, who inherited the piece of land from his father, who died recently. He and his friend Erhan started to buid a self-sustainable ecofarm there, and I could certainly stay there as long as I wanted to. After two days of helping them a bit and exploring the area, I moved on, although it was tempting to stay longer.

But doing some distance here is harder than you would think. the same day I got invited to join some students, who knew a perfect camping/fishing spot, an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was weekend and the place was crowded with locals, stuffing me full of food and rakı. There I met Moritz, a German guy riding his motorbike around the world, who was guided there by some fellow bikers.

We met again the next day in Olympos where we camped together with a Swiss couple driving their old Volkswagen van to Mongolia. I could only smile when they were talking about the high gas prices and the amount of paperwork that needs to be done to get a motorized vehicle into some countries.

Olympos itself was a big dissapointment. It’s described in every guidebook as a paradise, but under the skin of artificial relaxedness hides capitalism in his purest form: overpriced drinks and rooms, smiles and helpfullness that disappear as soon as it’s clear that you’re not going to spend any money, and so on.

Rahman and UmutThe first day in Antalya my couchsurf-host was unreachable, so I joined Rahman and Umut, a hilarious duo, who were sleeping on the beach. As far as I understood, they started a bicycle trip some time ago, sold there bikes, and continued hitchhiking to I-dont-know-where, and I don’t think they knew either. The next day I got hosted by Hande in Kaleiçi, the historical centre. Four days passed by quickly and I moved on, since I didn’t want to end up like this guy, who got stuck in the city after his bike had been stolen – or the other way around.

On what appeared to be my birthday, I made it to Alanya. It had been a lonely, big cycling day so the joy was great when 5 minutes later I stumbled upon Rahman and Umut again. We celebrated with some Rakı, and stayed two nights on the beach, disturbed by security and rain.

Being fed up with the heavy traffic coast road, full of holiday resorts that look like prisons, I dived into the mountains. Time for some training, and I definitely need it. The price was high: a steep climb to 1500 metres altitude. Suffering I did: because of the lack of traction on the wet surface I had to walk some stretches. But the reward was big as well: after some kilometres I stopped for a çay and got offered a complete meal. When the same thing happened not much later I felt I was in Turkey again. It surprised me that the same day I left the steaming hot Alanya, I was camping between piles of snow again. This feast continued for five days and meanwhile my wallet sunk to the dark bottom of my pannier again, accompanying stuff a bike traveler always carries, but seldomly uses, like soap and a toothbrush.

I’m now in Taşucu, where I have to wait two days for a boat to Cyprus. Nothing to see here and I’m slightly bored…

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