Sunday, 11 October 2009

Bloody Ripper - I Have Arrived!

These images provide pictorial proof that I did not spend seventeen months simply camped in Carnoustie. Updated map and my orations on Oz to follow.

Below is the thank you letter read out at a recent charity raising disco event in Aberdeen. It is a thank you to every single person who has helped me through the 14386 miles!

G'Day Disco Dwellers,

Before you all get too inebriated on nips, pints and alcopops I wanted to thank everyone for parting with their hard earned pennies to help me and M.E. on my Aberdeen2Adelaide adventure.

However, thanks barely begins to repay the debt of gratitude that I owe to family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and complete strangers who have given so generously, in everyway, throughout the whole journey.

Even although I am on a solo cycle ride I have never felt alone, due to the magnitude of love and support which has continually flowed my way helping me through some of the more challenging aspects of the trip.

Seventeen months, sixteen countries and over fourteen thousand miles pedalling have produced an amazing eclectic mix of experiences. Tooth traumas, a broken bone, freezing in minus 38 degrees in Turkey to frying in plus 48 degrees in India. Snowstorms, sandstorms, multiple bouts of Delhi Belly, countless crashes and being policed through Pakistan by six armed security guards have all added to the rich tapestry of the trip.

Nature has played its part too, as mangy aggressive mongrels snapped and growled at my heels as I headed through Greece. Whilst wolves howled and harrassed me during my time in Turkey. In Oz I am watched by curious wallabies during my nightime riding. Stupid black boulder like cows and big red kicking kangaroos clutter up the road as I ride past. Whilst sleeping rough at rest areas I have been woken up by dingoes looking for some dinner by rummaging through the rubbish bins. Then there has been the small matter of snakes, spiders and even emu's as they use the tarmac like a trampoline to bounce across the road with their poor wee chicks stumbling and stuttering behind them.

I believe many of these moments are classed as 'Character Building' but how big does a character need to be? I was reasonable happy with the size of mine before I left! After all, I am simply a tourist on a bike!

However I look at it, it has been a wonderful trip and I am now only a few days away from reaching my original destination of Adelaide. As I still having some months, muscle and money left I have decided to push on and pedal through New Zealand, across America and Ireland then cycle up from Stranraer back to Aiberdeen. This will add some symmetry to the cycle ride. So I guess I have covered two thirds of the kilometres, in two thirds of the time. I have also burned two thirds of my budget and thanks to events like tonight the trip has raised two thirds of the 12000 pounds target.

I believe many people have donated raffle prizes for tonight. Equally, others, not able to attend have still payed for a ticket, so thanks again for your more than generous contributions. It is only fair that I should donate a prize too. So one lucky winner will get a free massage, healing or yoga tuition upon my return - that gives them seven months to get suitable stressed. If none of the above appeals to the winner then I can always bore them with a ninety minute monologue on moments from my trip. Having said that, I do fear for my family and friends who undoubtedly will have to endure months of endless stories without even having to reach into their pockets to purchase a ticket - perhaps they should invest in a big box of cotton buds now!

As I write this I am literally holed up in an underground campsite in Coober Pedy, the opal mining capital of the world. Nowadays it is very rare that I sleep inside, so this seems even more surreal than usual but the whole trip has been like a big dream - Thanks to everyones effort and support I have reset my alarm for another seven months time.

See you then.

Much love...Eric xx

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Blogging In Bali!

Thailand quite rightly still reigns supreme as 'The Land Of The Smiles' but Indonesia is pressing hard for the premier position as I am constantly smothered with smiles - this is undoubtedly one of the friendliest countries I have pedalled through. Each corner brings a fresh chorus of 'Hello Mister', 'How are you?', 'Whats your name?' and 'Where do you come from?' The smiles are always stunning but the words are often wayward. I have had, 'Who are you?' 'Where are you?' and more worryingly, 'What are you?' Questions I have often asked myself! The 'Hello Mister' is never said softly but roared from the rooftops. One young girl screamed 'Hello Superman' - that is more like it! I have had 'Sexy man' and 'Strong man'. Another guy shouted 'After morning', he wasn't wrong it was four pm! Probably the most accurate term, said so softly by a sweet young girl at the side of the road was simply, 'Hello tourist'.

However, my first impressions were not good. A seven hour ferry ride from the Indonesian Island of Batam took me to the north eastern coast of Sumatra and the dump that is known as Dumai - a typical ferry port with the added ingredient of a massive oil depot employing an international workforce. Within five minutes of disembarking in Dumai I was offered sexual favours by both sexes. The first hotel room I checked was dirtier than Benny Hill! I eventually found a reasonably priced one for fifty thousand rupiah, about three quid. Whilst gulping down some grub at a restaurant next door, a doe eyed kid asked me for some money. He looked so forlorn and famished and was absolutely filthy. He was either an astute actor or the real thing - I opted for the latter and bought him some food. He may have been malnourished but there was nothing wrong with his neck - that was made of pure brass! Half way through fingering down his food he stopped long enough to dunt his digits in the direction of the owner to request a coke - brilliant! A woman half dressed and half off her head sat down on the road next to me and simply laughed, at everything! There was a lull in her laughing but no peace for me as a motorcycle taxi arrived and offered to take me on a tour for ten thousand rupiah, about sixty pence. He was also a part time pimp and offered me anything I wanted for forty American dollars. I asked for a plate of macaroni and cheese with heaps of hp sauce and a sumptuous fresh salad with romaine lettuce, feta cheese, avocado, tomatoes on the vine, pine nuts, coriander and freshly squeezed lemon...Oh, and a pint of real ale, please! The reality was an over priced omelette and no hp (hanky panky). Although, that night I was probably the envy of many women in the world as I slept with the entire Manchester United team - I had a Man U bedspread! Of course I did not score but I did manage to fart on Ferdinand, which is a good result in itself!

Football is massive in Indonesia with kids sporting many tops from the top European teams. Manchester United are blazoned on billboards all over the country. During the last seven weeks I have probably seen more of Alex Ferguson that his wife has. The other favourite faces are Ferdinand, Giggs and Rooney as they accumulate more cash for their already bursting coffers by promoting their sponsor!

Before retiring to my room I had the misfortune to chat with the owners of the hotel and saw one of the many sad things I have seen whilst cycling. They had what they called a 'Superstar' baby. I sat and watched as their two year old boy drank beer, smoked cigarettes and simulated sex by bouncing up and down on someone's lap whilst sucking their nipple. They were fair proud of their protege! I said goodnight and sloped off upstairs to my room feeling a little uncomfortable.

On this wonderful journey I have tried hard not to judge but just observe. Judging does not change anything and wastes vasts amounts of energy. After spending so many years getting it back I am now reluctant to release it so cheaply. However, as always, some situations are more trying than others!

I was happy to head out of Dumai - not so, when I realised I was going in the wrong direction. It took five kilometres facing the sea to wise up to the fact that I should have been going west! Throughout the trip I have only used three maps - Turkey, Pakistan and India, which I bought before I left. I pop into the net and have a wee goggle at googlemaps, write down a few place names, then pedal off. I rely on road signs, individuals and instincts - often I am completely clueless as to where I am but it always seems to work out. Prior to leaving I was determined that my plan was to have as little plan as possible. Whilst this is not full proof, it has got me this far!

The next six days involved hills, heat, humidity and horrendous roads with pot holes in which a parachute would have been more appropriate but it was so satisfying. The scenery was stunning and the people warm and welcoming. One night, as daylight was deserting me I took a wee detour to a small village in the middle of nowhere. I needed somewhere to sleep but I was still unfamiliar with the terrain and did not fancy sharing my therma rest with wild monkeys. I bought a coke and sat down to wait for something to happen. I was immediately approached by Indra, who offered that I stay in his home. He apologised that I would have to walk two kilometres into the jungle to his house. So with half the village following us and my headlamp on full, I pushed my bike along the narrow muddy paths. I spent a lovely night meeting his parents, grandmother, friends and local kids. When they found out I was vegetarian, some young girls were sent back to the market to buy some eggs and fresh vegetables. I had to force money on them for the food! In Indonesia, as in many other eastern countries, 'Guest is King' but they were obviously desperately poor. A delicious meal was cooked on an open log fire and as the power had gone off we ate under candle light. Indra apologised for this too - I told him I was having the time of my life! I slept on the living room floor with five of Indra's friends. He repeatedly offered his bed but I was content where I was. The house had a big well situated inside the bathroom - it was deep as hell and I almost dropped my shorts down it. Although the house was run down and in a state of disrepair I felt completely at home. The following morning as I lay on the floor listening to the sounds whilst looking out the front door at the jungle, I simply sighed and shook my head...I guess I was just happy!

Indra, who was twenty one and from a family of six was obviously intelligent but was as equally frustrated. He helps in his parents shop which has a daily income of one hundred thousand rupiah, about six pounds and works from seven am to six pm in a photocopy shop for fifty thousand rupiah a week! Although a high school graduate he is unlikely to get out of the village, as he has no money. His English was good but you could tell his mind wanted to say more than his language ability would allow. I felt a little frustrated over his frustration. As I left I gave him a hug and pressed some pennies into his palm - it was far less than I have given for a grotty, filthy hotel room. It is always a thin line between helping out a little and showing your appreciation or offending folk!

That day I had dreadful diarrhoea - it was my own fault as I had drank the local water the night before. Energy was low and the hills were high but I pushed on slowly, stopping frequently to lie down flat at a shaded spot at the side of the road. At one tea stop the lady offered her bed - I took it and promptly fell asleep for ninety minutes. I continued on up the hill eventually stopping at a restaurant at the summit but not before pausing at another truck stop to hose myself down whilst fully clothed. I felt a lot better after that but not when I went to the toilets at the restaurant to see a sign saying, 'Urination Only!' What! I went inside and sure enough - no where to poo, only pee. I managed to pee whilst firmly folding my buttocks! I then free wheeled downhill whilst looking for my own latrine.

A couple of days later I trundled into Tanjun and the front foyer of the local police station. I was allowed to chuck my therma rest over the waiting room chairs. In Indonesia, many women try to lighten their looks by covering their faces with whitening cream. Whilst falling asleep I stared at the posters plastered over the station walls - pictures of dead terrorists in body bags - they looked white enough!

A slow bike ride took me to Bukitinggi and my first taste of tourists. I spent a rest day with two Dutch dames, Kris and Anna. Whilst walking through underground tunnels built by Indonesian slave labour during the Japanese occupation in World War Two, Kris, innocently and spontaneously started singing, 'Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go... I don't think she realised the inappropriateness of her wee ditty. As with most Dutch people they were great company and completely laid back!

Bukitinggi to Padang was a near perfect cycling day with twenty of the fifty miles spent freewheeling downhill through picturesque villages lined with palm trees and paddy fields. I arrived in Padang as bright as a newly bloomed begonia. I braked at a bakery for a bite to eat and ended up staying the night in a wee storeroom. Liang and Suzanne, the owners had a family of five but had fully embraced the ethos, 'Living is Giving', by having a sixth child and handing it to Liang's brother and sister in law who had been trying unsuccessfully for ten years to have one of their own. I was watered and fed and as usual felt completely at home. I know you must be sick of hearing this but I only ever seem to meet nice people. Later on that evening, Dennis, their eighteen year old son took me on a drive around Padang with a few of his friends. We whizzed about in one of their parents four wheel drive vehicles. At times the speed was bordering on the Bond film, 'A License To Kill' but they did not have real a license between them having bought them from the local bobbies station for three hundred thousand rupiah a piece - about eighteen quid, with the payment going to the most senior police officer! As one friend commented, 'In Indonesia, corruption is ingrained in our nature'. I left the following morning with my panniers packed with bakery produce. My bags were so heavy that Liang felt the need to hand me a tube of vitamin c tablets, insisting that it was good for my immune system and for building strong bones, whilst at the same time expressing his irritation that I had bought Dennis a bit of dinner the night before. People are forever giving me things but when I try to redress the balance, then they go ballistic!

I do not mind admitting that the cycling in Sumatra was a real challenge with the constant hills and heat hammering me. Mind you, a lot of it is of my own making. I cycle, sleep and scoff whenever I want to, resulting in my body clock getting bashed about a bit. However, it does mean that I get to experience far more than if I simply rode routinely! I always have good intentions of reaching my destination during daytime but I am constantly distracted by people or places. Equally, some days you just munch up the miles, especially on motorways, whilst on others, you have to dig deep with each mile feeling like a marathon as you count every rotation of the cog.

After a month and almost twelve hundred miles in Sumatra, a virtual jungle, I was seduced by a city - another type of jungle and had a Jamboree in Jakarta! Again arriving late, I wandered along Jalan Jaksa, the tourist trap at one am only to find all the hotels full. So, I bought a beer and sat it out till six when I saw a tourist wrapped in a rucksack jump in a taxi. I asked where she had just come from and within five minutes I was booked into her room - the bed was still warm! After a few hours rest I went to a restaurant for breakfast and was surprised by the breaking news regarding the bombs, which had exploded whilst I was sleeping. Normally when watching world events on television the distance can often dilute the emotional impact, however when you are just a couple of miles from the situation you can almost feel the fallout.

The next few days were spent in the convivial company of a couple of other tourists as we turned night into day but still stared at the stars! - the Indonesian beer 'Bintang' means star!
There was Kate from America, a strong willed, intelligent, independant woman who will undoubtedly go far, although I hope not too soon as she has promised me a bed near New York. There was Isabelle, a sculptor from France, who in between beers kept on bolting off to The National Museum. Olivier, a fellow cyclist was biking from Jakarta to Bali but after four days of joviality in Jaksa, his bike was still boxed! During a boozy session, he slurred, 'Eric, do you really believe I have a bike?' I was beginning to wonder! There were four Czech guys who had forgotten to check their luggage and left their passports in the bar. Sam from England and her partner Pat, from Holland spent the night and the following morning wistfully planning their future trips with the projected profits from the passports. However, sobriety kicked in and Sam, the star that she was spadded off to find out where the Czech guys were garrisoned - most folk would have just placed the passports behind the bar. Sam and Pat were great company and obviously both born to be backpackers. Based in England they both took the decision that they did not want bairns, so they toil like trojans for a copule of years, save their pennies, then push off again - food for thought!

Thursday, 7 May 2009

By George - At Last!

Whilst biking north towards the Black Sea, Turkey could not let me leave without treating me to one last humongous hill - a ten mile slog in thick fog and snow but which delivered on the decent such an unexpected reward for my revolutions. As the sun regained supremacy I was greeted to green fields spotted with blue, yellow and pink houses as the road twisted and turned upon itself in a figure of eight - which would have been a more suitable mode of decent to enable me to grapple with the gradient.

I halted in Hopa, only ten miles from Georgia to marvel at the bonny, bright blue, Black Sea. I rolled my bike along a rickety pier and sat down in the sun, happy again to be able to eat outside without the risk of losing a limb - the ten degrees actually feeling like Tenerife!

As I still had a few lira left I bought one bottled beer before the border to toast my time in Turkey. I crept towards the crossing squeezing my bike between miles of stationary trucks lined up waiting to cross into Georgia - this should have alerted me to the chaos which lay ahead! I doubled back a couple hundred yards to find a quiet spot next to the shore to sit and sip my beer. As usual, I had been alone for only a few moments when four Turkish guys 'rolled up' - literally! They were evidently toasting Turkey too, their celebration being a 'joint' effort with the bazooka blazing away with each puff. Although I was offered to suck a bit of 'blow' I politely refused, happy to stick with my hops.

The experience of trying to obtain my Turkish exit stamp bordered on the ridiculous. Hundreds of people, tons of trucks and a plastic cabin with one window which was more often shut than open. No recognizable queue and no recognizable difference between my waving passport and hoards of similar coloured Georgian ones. As always though, my mouth and mode of transport made all the difference. After over an hour of hapless hovering on the bike, getting squeezed, pushed, poked and glowered at, someone hauled my passport from my hand and disappeared beneath the bodies. Five fretting moments later both my passport and the person resurfaced with the former successfully stamped! By George - another country was beckoning!

Fortunately, the first fifteen miles in Georgia were straight as I spent most of them with my eyes angled at the setting sun, whilst allowing my contented sighs to be saturated with the subtle sea breeze. I felt fabulous and after the trials of Turkey the cycling was effortless as I belted along the flat road to Batumi.

Batumi was like a little Las Vegas with gambling joints mounted at every junction, however, it was bereft of budget beds and with nowhere safe to sleep I had to bargain hard to gain a good discount at a place so posh that it still had the smell of fresh paint. The foyer was teeming with Turks filling their faces with food and their veins with vodka. The bike acts like a beacon and as I hauled it up the steps into the hotel a host of holidaymakers hovered to offer their hospitality. I must have looked malnourished as no one would accept 'no thanks' so I eventually gave up refusing and gorged myself on the freshly baked bread, orange sized olives, salty cheese and a sumptuous salad of tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage and coriander (my favourite herb). After a tankful of toasts, which was enough to give you repetitive strain injury, I excused myself and lurched along the lobby to my room. The bike remained in the foyer but I had no fear for it, convinced that bike, bags and the boozers would still be there in the morning - they were!

Not surprisingly, that day I set off towards Lanchkuti at a leisurely pace stopping a couple of times for some caffeine kicks of strong black coffee. By mid day after managing to muster some momentum I was whizzing through a wee village when I spotted a couple of heads and hands waving and shouting from a wee window at the side of the road. Curious as to the commotion I stopped and wheeled the bike across the street and stuck my head into the hatch - my eyes almost exploded! Inside was a huge hall crowded with tables completely covered with food - what a feast! The colours alone would have been enough to collapse the willpower of even the most diligent dieter. Bread and biscuits, gateaux and gammon, filleted fish, cheese and chocolates, cabbage and carrot salads with large lettuce leaves and savoury snacks and sweets all battled for space and supremacy. Yet again, I found myself in a position where food was being foisted upon me. I heard myself give a half hearted refusal but with my hangover halted my eyes and my appetite had already decided for me - it was a banquet fit for a biker! For half an hour hands appeared through the hatch presenting me with parcels of food which was then followed by another flow of homemade fire water! Soon guests started to appear - it was a wedding and the men in the hatch had started eating early as they were responsible for collecting the cash given as gifts to the newly wed couple. The contributors and cash amount was meticulously written down in a wee note book - one way of ensuring people gave more than they could actually afford! After scoffing about three guests worth of grub I was not going to leave without putting forward a few pennies but as always, it was forcefully refused.

Later that evening whilst sitting outside a wee shop and picking on some provisions, the usual assortment of adults, animals and kids had crowded around. Roman, the shop owner came out to restore some order and ushered the kids and their questions away. He spoke no English and my Georgian was not great but we still chatted away for an hour. It was now late and dark and the road was busy with battered old BMW's and Turkish trucks heading to Tbilisi, so when Roman suggested that I sleep in his home it wasn't a difficult decision to make. Roman's wife, Lee Lee laid on a wonderful spread and although my earlier snack had ambushed my appetite, I still managed to do it justice. Besides, I already sensed that my stomach would require a lining for the light refreshments that lay ahead. Roman's reserves of homemade vodka would have shamed Smirnoff and the speed that he wanted to drink it suggested that some of it must have been close to its sell by date. Hardly surprising, the next day I slept through my alarm and woke to find Lee Lee waiting patiently for me to pedal off. Roman had already opened the shop but looked as rough as sandpaper. I do not think many customers would have received a cordial greeting that morning - perhaps that is what he should have stuck to the previous night!

The following two days were windier than the film 'Blazing Saddles' and although the road was flat I had to pump my pedals as if I was back trailing myself up the Turkish hills - if I stopped pedalling I was simply blown backwards! Often I was down to three miles per hour! The force of the wind was even preventing the breath from leaving my lungs! I stopped at a petrol station that was in the process of being stripped by the storm, with its roof relocating. I was allowed to pitch my tent in a semi-sheltered corner with four of the staff helping to hold it down. During the course of the night the wind slowly decimated the diesel pumps, ripped off half the roof and smashed numerous lamps. At two am staff came to tell me to come into the petrol station for shelter but the debris was not falling in my direction and I didn't fancy another night with not much sleep, so I simply pulled my bag over my head and dozed off again.

The next day the weather was still kicking up a storm so on reaching Kutasi I had only covered seventeen miles -it was hopeless trying to pedal against the power of the wind. I was very surprised to spot an Internet cafe but delighted that I now had an excuse to stop. I could not believe it - another party! It was the opening celebration of the business and although the storm had cut the electrical supply it had not dampened their spirits - everyone was busy getting boozy! So more food and firewater ensued. I had been warned by other travellers about the Great Georgian Greeting but if this continued my liver was going to be trashed before Tbilisi! The power eventually returned so I managed to check the football scores and some mail before heading off at midnight. Within fifteen minutes I had found a petrol station and bedded down in the wash bay, falling asleep whilst listening to a boozy brawl being broken up by the local bobbies - the usual Saturday night alcohol fuelled nonsense. I was awoken the next morning at seven as the workmen had arrived to start washing the cars. I resisted the urge to take out my bar of soap.

The next couple of days things returned to normal as I rode over one hundred miles to Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. Anytime I stopped to buy bread or fruit at the side of the street I was offered vodka. The men all scratched the side of their faces with a finger - I had not shaved for a while and thought they were drawing attention to this, not at all, this is the sign used to ask if you want a drink.

On reaching Gori it was now dark and I asked someone in the street if there was Internet. I had stopped twenty yards from one of only two places that had it. I always seem to have luck in these situations. I would not have found the cafe as it was not visible. A family had converted a room in their house and put in a few old computers for the kids to play games on - the noise was deafening! As I waited for my turn, Giga , the son of the owners came and spoke with me. He was eighteen and still at school. His English was excellent, much better than mine! I was introduced to his fourteen year old sister, Mariyan and eventually to their parents, Gia and Marana. With Giga and Mariyan acting as translators we spent a lovely evening eating, drinking and discussing the history of Georgia, especially how its landmass has been gobbled up by other countries through out the years. The food was washed down with smooth, sweet homemade white wine. I would have been more than happy to collapse on my thermarest next to the computers but although I protested, Mariyan was booted out of her bedroom so that I could enjoy the delights of a double duvet with a heated sleeping blanket.

The next morning after a breakfast of homemade bread, jam and honey, Giga was my guide and translator as we walked around Stalin's Museum. We were the only visitors and each room had to be opened up especially for us. It was absolutely freezing and as Giga was busy translating the Russian and Georgian texts, my concentration continually crept back to the heated sleeping blanket. Leaving the museum numb due to the cold and the content we then walked around the outside of Stalin's childhood home and also the carriage of a train that he used to live in. By now it was mid day and I was ready to make tracks myself, however, I was not allowed to leave until I was packed full with a delicious potato dish which had small pieces of pork through it - after their hospitality, I had not the heart to tell them I was vegetarian. As I was saying goodbye, Manana dashed inside and came out with a litre bottle full of freshly made strawberry juice. As I freewheeled away to start the forty five miles to Tbilisi, I was full of warmth as waving hands and smiles saw me off - even Piki, the poodle, despite his diminutive size managed a few boisterous big dog barks.

Souped up on strawberry juice I flew along the road to Tbilisi, the slight tail wind and gradient helping me to average around fifteen miles per hour - it felt great! Again, with nowhere to sleep I needed the net to find a basic bed. Pushing my bike up a steep dark lane I figured I was lost so I asked Karina and her daughter Nata for directions. They took me to the cafe but also said that their house at number twenty two had a spare floor which I could lie on for a night. If I had no luck at the net then they would be back in their house in an hour. I attended to some mail and googled some beds but no joy. Inga, a beautiful blond woman sitting next to me was keen that I should share her space. As she leant across to hand me two telephone numbers, she whispered that she would be more than willing to 'accommodate' me for the evening. I could go with her now in her small car but the bike would maybe be a problem. I figured the bike would have been the least of my problems - number twenty two seemed like much less trouble! I huffed and puffed my way back up the hill and tapped on the door. Within five minutes I felt completely at home and part of the family as we chatted into the wee small hours.

I had to stay in Tbilisi until I acquired my Azerbaijan visa, perhaps two or three days,but you never really know. I was absolutely gobsmacked when I got it the next day in ten minutes. As I was on the bike they even allowed me to pay there and then, saving me a trek across town to deposit the fee in a bank.

I ended up staying in Tbilisi for four fabulous days. Karina, Nata and her brother Vladimir were great company. The space on the floor turned out to be their newly converted loft which they were about to lease out. However, I spent all of my time with them, chatting, laughing, sightseeing and giving massages and healings - they were special days! They were originally from Armenia but the last two generations had settled in Georgia - they were equally passionate about both countries! They invited friends around and we all spoke to my folks on the web cam and earphones via messenger. Vladimir, an unemployed economist - not much economic activity in Georgia at the moment, had a wonderful dry sense of humour. Whilst out sightseeing he had a cutting comment for each sight. Freedom Square but no freedom. Progress Bank but little progress. Heaps of tourist hotels but few tourists. Although I was in Tbilisi in the winter time it is a beautiful city full of green parks and great architecture but Georgia is a very poor country and many people are truly struggling to make ends meet. However, what they lack in lucre they make up with in love. The generosity of 'spirit', smiles and sheer grit and determination made a big impact on me. I have every intention of returning to Georgia and Tbilisi - number twenty two of course!

Thursday, 16 April 2009


Location: Varanasi, India
Temperature: 42 Degrees Celsius - a record for early April!
Distance Cycled: Almost 8000 miles - about half way!
Duration: 11.5 months

With this bulletin I send my sincere apologies for the recent break in the blog. Unfortunately, four bouts of food poisoning in the past six weeks ( you could say it has been an unlucky run!) has had the effect of crumpling my creativity leaving my blog bereft of entries. Equally, I now look as if I have had liposuction on my loins with my appearance now as lean and as light as my bike frame.

Hoping that no one would notice, I flirted with the idea of writing that I flew over Georgia, Azerbaijan and Pakistan so that I could start afresh with the blog in India. However, having a conscience can often be a considerable burden so further news of my prowess with the pedals shall follow A.S.A.P. ( After stools appear prominently)

Hope you enjoy the lovely smiles of kids from a school in the Punjab. They were so excited to see me on my bike - I was happy to see them too! For the record the school had 1100 pupils but only 15 teachers! A few little lads got too excited and had to get a good old fashioned clip around the ear...I smiled at this thinking of all the lawsuits that would have been filed in Britain. The headteacher informed me that he had no problems with discipline at the school - I wonder why?

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Cold Turkey!

My only previous experience of cold turkey is in the post Christmas week, when for days every dish appears with the remnants of the roast - this was hardly sufficient preparation for the antarctic conditions I have encountered during the past month. Two weeks ago the nippy night time temperature in Erzurum, eastern Turkey was minus 38 degrees centigrade but thawed out considerably to an almost tropical day time temperature of minus 25 degrees - Brrrr! If you add the inhospitable hills, howling wolves and the wind which acts like a frozen cloth, wiping your face with each gust, then the reception from nature has been quite cool! Fortunately this has been more than balanced out by the Turkish temperament which is as warm as their wood burning stoves!

From the minute I biked over the border from Greece I was greeted with great big smiles, friendly honks of the horn, was offered copious cups of tea and frequent fags. The tea arrives in a tiny tulip shaped cup accompanied by half a field of sugar cane! If I drank all the sugary tea offered my teeth would be rotten by Tehran. Equally, I do not mınd the occasional fag (although I took exception to the Italian brand) but if I smoked each one my lungs would be lacerated by Lahore! Mind you, everything smokes in Turkey! Turkish trucks smoke as they growl and groan their way up the grave gradients. The trash at the side of the road smokes as people light formidable fires for warmth. The fully stoked wood burning stoves in restaurants smoke as you are walloped by a wall of heat and haze each time you enter them. Even the valleys appear to smoke as the mid morning sun evaporates the mist, forming floating fragments of fog. The only smoke free zone is the television, where actors, caught in the act, have the offending fag fuzzed out! Other butts are blurred out too - with any nudity being deemed unnecessary!

My first night in Turkey was spent a few miles over the border under some trees with a young German couple heading for Georgia. They had a wonderful spirit but not much else. Their budget was brutal - the ten euros per day for the two of them did not allow for any luxuries. They had a wonderful eclectic mix of equipment - most of it purchased on ebay but many things were already broken or did not work properly in the first place. I thought I was slumming it going six days without a shower but they had managed only two in about forty days. Despite this, they were fresh faced, full of fun and having the time of their lives. Before parting the next day they eventually let me treat them to a Turkish coffee. I am not exactly loaded down with lire but compared to them I felt minted!

A few days and one hundred and fifty miles took me to within touching distance of Istanbul. It was eleven pm but I still had twenty six miles to the centre of the city. Paraphrasing the petrol pump attendant, 'The traffic was tragic,' so I parked up under the petrol price column, unrolled my bag and went to sleep. What only seemed lıke minutes later my alarm informed me it was five - time to get a head start on the traffic. I had half an hour of happy cycling before the metal boxes resumed their bumper to bumper battle. At one point, marooned amidst all the motors, I stopped and ate a fume filled apple, relieved to have a few moments of respite! I spent the rest of the day cycling around Istanbul continually managing to miss the the tiny enclave of tourist hostels situated in Sultanahmet. Eventually, I was accosted by an Aussıe couple whose gregarious greeting made me wonder where I had met them before - however, they were sımply happy to see a fellow cyclist. Due to fly back to Oz they were busy cleaning and stripping their bikes so they would pass the stringent Australian custom controls. They then spent two hours squeezing their bikes into cardboard boxes which were too small. I registered in their rooftop penthouse suıte - a twenty seven bed deserted dormitory with a plastic cover to exclude the elements. Fortunately, we numbered only five as I think the solitary sink, shower and toilet would have been well troubled coping with the hıgh tide tourist trade!

I had a week to fill in before my friends, Denise and Al, arrived from Scotland. I rested, repaired my bike (new chain set and front wheel cone and bearings) and argued with the bıke shop owner who wanted to file off a little of my forks due to the ıncompetence of his workmanship. I also spent a couple of days with a great group of fellow guests at the Mavi hostel. Whilst out walking, anytime we asked for directions we were always told, 'straight ahead and right'. As we were usually too busy talking and laughing we did not know where we were, so were left with no option but to follow the directions - even though they were invariably 'Not Rıght!'

After almost seven months on the saddle I was looking forward to seeing my friends. Prior to leaving Scotland we made provisional plans to meet at the end of September but with one thing and another this was nudged back to November - but it was worth the wait! In between a boat ride up the Bosphorous, a trek around trendy Taksim, a saunter around the Spice Market and a gander at the Grand Bazaar we managed to over indulge in alcohol, under indulge in sleep but got the laughter level just about right. Throw in a couple of interesting conversations and the four days flew by and ıt was time for me to get back on the bike carrying a few more pounds - although not the kind that boosted my budget!

Before I moved on I visited the British Consulate to request an official letter that stated who I was and the purpose of my trip. I met a round the world motorcyclist from Serbia who said that the assurances from his Government had helped to speed up the usual snail paced process of visa procurement. I was very surprised to be introduced to the Consular General, Jessica Hand, in person. After a wee chat she said the support letter would be no problem. What was a problem was the price, ıt cost forty five pounds - the standard charge for an official letter. I could probably bribe border guards for less! Besides, when I proudly presented it to the Iranian Consulate in Erzurum, they looked at it with such contempt, it could just as easily have been toilet paper. Once the letter regains some confidence then I am sure it will play its part and prove to be a profitable investment.

During the following week the night time temperature dropped dramatically with the result that each morning my tent was damp and had to be dried out when I stopped for breakfast or a late lunch. Most places thought that I wanted to pitch my tent right in front of their restaurants. It took some time to explain that I was only airing it whilst I ate. Once this was established then a host of waiters wanted to help - pushing, pulling and flapping at my fragile tent until it was as taut as a trampoline, causing the droplets of dew to career off the canvas - I had already returned to my seat to eat my soup!

The roadside restaurants cuisine is constantly bovine based with little variation for the vegetarian. On some occasions I have had to eat meat or not eat at all! The lentil soup is invariably laced with a lamb stock and a simple bean casserole causes concern when minuscule bits of meat mix happily the haricots. I have been a vegetarian for fifteen years and I knew before embarking on my wee bike rıde that there was every chance that I would have to temporarily veer away from the veggies - I was prepared to be pragmatic. However, I was slightly surprised by how much my saliva, stomach and soul refused to muddle in with my logical mind and locked my jaw when the texture touched my mouth, preventing me from swallowing.

It took me almost one month and eight hundred and fifty miles to huff, puff and pedal from Istanbul to Erzurum (the coldest place in Turkey!). The time was both beautiful and brutal. I did not realise how harsh it had been until I reached Georgia and saw the Black Sea, flew along the flat roads and allowed my eyes to gorge at the green fields. Even although I slowed down and respected the rutted icy roads I still arrived on my arse many times. In order to keep warm my clothing had as many layers as a tunnocks wafer but this caused me to sweat more than a boxer training for a bout. Which in turn did not help to counter the cough I had caught in Istanbul. Despite all the challenges it was a wonderful experience with the fatigue, frost and infection only adding to the adventure!

Spending three weeks being messed about trying to arranged the Iranian visa was not so satisfying. I was tired and grumpy and had allowed myself to get too attached to the outcome, believing that it was the only way ahead. Erzurum, no pun intended is not a place to 'chill out' in. It has a ski resort, a large university and a military base. These people choose to settle in such a severe site for specific reasons - God knows why the rest live here! It is severely polluted, colder than an ex partners cuddle, whilst the streets, for weeks on end, are simply strips of ice which large lorries and dumper trucks trundle over whilst carrying away their cargo of snow. Occasionally you slide upon a fellow surly tourist waiting to hear about their Iranian visa application.

I managed to escape Erzurum when a member of staff in my regular soup shop called his English speaking friend Egemen who is the Tourist Project Manager for the area north of Erzurum. So for eleven delightful days I followed Egemen about like a wee puppy dog fortunately enough being invited to many of his business meetings and trips to visit the locals who live deep in the Choruh Valley. Egemen was advising and assisting them with grants so as to convert part of their houses to accommodate the increasing tourist trade.

The package is very appealing. Trekking, walking, rafting and cycling routes take you through areas of stunning unspoilt natural beauty. After a hard days exertion you then allow yourself to be spoilt rotten with homemade food, a fabulous view and a welcome so warm you do not even feel the early evening chill. Have a peep at the web page before the area becomes too popular. and/or For more information or a personalised programme then you can contact Egeman directly via the datur web page.

Arriving back in Erzurum I entered the Iranian Consulate to hear the decision regarding my second application for a visa. Despite giving them everything they had asked for - including an invitation letter from someone living in Tehran they still refused my visa stating that there was something wrong with my contacts address. By now I was beyond caring and jumped on the bike and headed north to Georgia, happy to be heading to a visa free zone. In Tbilisi it took ten minutes to acquire my Azerbaijan visa but I am now barracked in Baku about to re endure more visa vexations for the the route ahead. Wish me luck!