Friday, July 31, 2009

Shave and a haircut

Just got a shave and haircut from a Turkish barber in Kilis on the Syrian border. The illusion of cleanliness (trust me it is just an illusion) is important in Turkey where the men generally keep themselves looking sharp.

It has been a long journey to get here. Suffered from stomach problems, a cold and physical exhaustion in Erzurum. When everything but the digestive problems passed I headed on through the mountains to the city of Bingol.

Since I look Turkish (or at least I don't look not Turkish) I didn't have people coming up and asking me questions once I got off the bike. A bit bored in this small town, I decided to go to the local music shop. I met some guys and jammed with my harmonica while they played guıtar and oud (spelling?). Turned out that these guys were officers out for the afternoon. They took me to the base, we gathered a few more officers and went out around town. One spoke English and two of them spoke French so I could put away my 30 words of Turkish.

Really nice guys. They all complained how small and conservative the city was (since they are all from the West) and said I was the first foreigner they had seen in the city. Shortly after this was said, we saw two other cyclists pull into town. Crazy coincidence. We went back to the base for a great meal and played more music.

The next day I realized that my problems were more serious than I had thought. I'm not going to beat around the bush or put it in vague terms: shitting blood. Passed a very cautious, relaxed day with the two cyclists. Two really sweet people ( I really needed the day to talk with them. The next day I was feeling a bit better and made for Diyabakir. If the Kurdish people had a country, Diyarbakir would be the capital.

This brings me to the issue of Kurdish separatists: the PKK. The Kurds are the world's largest ethnic group without a country. For the past few decades they have fought a bitter conflict with the Turkish government. The soldiers warned me to be incredible careful in this region.

Anyway, after two mountain passes I can see the land getting more arid and feel the heat. Technical difficulties force me to repair the bike at a stream when I am approach by some men. They invite me for bread and veggies and I chat with the one who speaks a little English. They ask me if I know about Kurds and are delighted that I know a lot about them. They start singing PKK songs and swearing to fight what they call 'Turkish facism.' Since my bike needs some repairs they refuse to let me cycle to Diyarbakir. Since they are passing the city anyway they invite me (make me) catch a ride with them. In the car it is more talks of Kurdistan and I find out that one man's father is in prison in Bingol for PKK activity guarded by the very Gendarma who I am proud to call my friends (the same people who warned me to becareful because of the PKK 'terrorists'). That was a bit of a mind job. I can get on so well with each of these groups but they hate each other.

Diyarbakir in 5: more blood, a Kurdish man that made me go the local hospital, old city walls, the Tigris River, BIM supemarket

Southeast Anatolia is hot. Really hot. I cycle out of Diyarbakir in 100+ heat and a strong headwind. But I am happy that my gut no long pains me (though it is still in bad shape). Slow and steady with warm welcomes and cold drinks from every gas station attendant on the way. A semi truck passes me and drops a few bricks from the top. The driver stops and climbs the back to fix the straps that hold down the cargo. I help him and am surprised that he speaks some English. He invites me (makes me) catch a ride close to SanlıUrfa (birthplace of Abraham). I find out he is fluent in Russian so we switch languages and (again) I am speaking Russian in Turkey. I find it fascinating how worldly most Turkish truckers are. He spoke 4 languages fluently and had travelled to 20 countries because of his occupation.

SanlıUrfa: Run into supefriendly people but I do not stay because I am making a break for the Syrian border. 50km in 110 heat. I get into the Syrian side of the border and... am promptly ejected. Damn it. Giant billboard of president Al-Assad's head staring at me as I bike back to the Turkish side. Have to either go to Gaziantep to get a visa or try a different border. Meet another trucker at the border. I want to catch a ride back to SanlıUrfa but find out he is off to Gaziantep so I go with. Get out in the outskirts late that evening and start pedaling to Kilis by the Syrian border. Come into a small town exausted in the middle of the night. There a man directs me to a place I can sleep.

Please note the preposition here: I slept UNDER a pile of melons last night. I'll leave that one up to the imagination. Cycled into Kilis this morning and have been eating constantly ever since. Honey soaked baklava, chicken kebabs, spicy lamb and pistachio ice cream so thick I could nail it to a wall.

And the blood stopped!!!

Tomorrow (inshallah) I will be in Aleppo (Halab), Syria

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


It has been a while since my last post. First here are the pictures to match the last post.

(Uncle Joe) Stalin still standing in his hometown of Gori:

A bullet scarred building a few meters away (look closely for the marks):

Cycling out from Borjomi was marvelous. The low forestclad mountains gave way to higher altitude, drier hills with smaller patches of forest. On the way, I passed the most bizarre collections of buildings ranging from imperial Russian Dachas to Soviet era apartment blocks and more recent concrete refugee housing. Before Akhaltsikhe I came across a valley absolutely filled with these curious, meter tall plants that gave off an aroma quite similar to that often found in my hometown of Santa Cruz.

Just before the border, outside a very small town, I stumbled onto this Great Patriotic War monument (The Russian name for WWII). In the moment this had a great impact on me. The dark Georgian, his face tense, gaze turned downward, shoulders wıde, fist clenched and gun in hand. 1941-1945.

I got slightly emotional when crossing the border. This crossing (Posof/Vale) is one of the more obsure in this part of the world and I had the feeling that they don't see many foreigners going through on bicycles. One obviously excited Georgian border guard who spoke a little English helped me through. As I was passing through the gate to the Turkish side I heard him call out behind me: You are always welcome in Georgia!
I think Steinbeck after his trip their in the late 1940's said something like:
Georgia is a magical place... and it becomes more mythical the moment you leave.
In the visa office at the border I was sitting with the Turkish officer and two Iranian truck drivers. They saw my passport as I handed it over and the two Iranians started smiling. I turned to them with a smile
-Pa Russky ponimaete? (do you understand Russian)
-no no yok yok
-little little
-You from Iran?
-Yes yes (they looked a little cautious, not sure if the American liked Iran)
-Oh good (They looked surprised) Which city? Isfahan, Shiraz, Tehran, Tabriz...
-Tabriz. You America?
-OOOOHHHHH California(The general response from people in the region followed by a thumbs up) America good.
-Yes. And Iran good.
-America (and usually people list things like Hollywood, Grand Canyon etc but he went off on music) Slipknot, Metallica, Slayer.
I was a bit surprised. But when they invited me out to their trucks for tea, I saw that one had written Slipknot in large letters on above his license plate.
High mountain pass up to the Turkish highlands of the Northeast. That was not fun. Once up the mountain I did not see many trees for a few days. Just smooth, grass and flower covered mountains. Every afternoon it rained which kept the landscape intensely green save for the patches of violet, blue, white or yellow flowers. Quite remote. Kind of felt like the American MidWest and equally as religious.
One evening I ran into a gas station owner who spoke Russian in a town of 100 people. He was quite excited to chat with me no matter how bad my Russian. He after dinner, he sent me over to the gendarma base (that's Turkish military/poice force). The guys were shocked and delighted for the break from the normal routine of their three year deployement in this little, middle-of-nowhere town by hosting a traveller. After a hilarious evening I left to sleep at the gas station. They pleaded with me to stay on the base for the night but I really did not want to risk getting then in trouble. I tried not to laugh as they walked me to the station with their arms around mine and then kissed me on the cheeks goodbye. For a culture so homophobic, I can't help but laugh at how intimate Turkish men get. I remember a similar thing in Georgıa when a man smiled, kissed me goodbye on the cheek, pulled away and suddenly realizing that I may have taken it the wrong way said : I'm not gay, it's just what we do here.
I'm not going to go off too much now on gender relations but I miss seeing equally numbers of men and women interacting freely in public like in Georgia (though it is very far from equal there).

Arrived in Kars (which was once part of the Russian Empire until the Turks re-captured it from Armenian fedayeen forces during the Russian revolution). My main desire was to return to the abandoned ancient Armenian capital Ani.
City walls

Sadly for the Armenians, Ani falls just on the wrong side of the border. It is on the cliffs of a river that marks the international boundry.

Turkey on the left, Armenian on the right and the remains of a bridge that connected them:

The ruins are quite spectacular aside from the Graffiti (Mehmet was here)

Okay this is a disclaimer for the next part. Any Armenians reading this, please take a deep breath, sit down and brace yourselves. In a two different small towns I saw two other churches the first was run down, shot up and turned into a hay storage.
The second was well preserved:

And also in use:

As a storage shed: comment at this second except for a frustrated sigh and an appeal for people to read the history...
On a lighter note, more up and down and up and down. There is nothing really flat in this part of the country. I am finally in Erzurum. It is the most perplexing fusion of ultra-orthodoxy and ultra-consumerism. Women in black chadors or colorful headscarves purchasing fancy new cellular phones next to stores selling sexy, see-through lingerie. I think I need to digest this for a moment.
So I will stay here another day to rest. My body is exhausted after the long haul from Tbilisi. Thankfully the food in this country is fantastic fo I am off for a meal to begin my recovery.
Seljuk Madrasa and flag of Ataturk's Republic against the mountains:

Erzurum from its castle (it is surrounded on all sides by distance mountains):


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

After a long day's ride I landed in Gori. This city was Stalin's hometown and the city occupied by Russian forces during the conflict last year. It was quite eerie entering the town square that I had visited 2 years earlier. Stalin's massive statue was still standing but now the main square was pocked with bulletholes.

I ended up staying with a family and being constantly checked on by a little old lady from next door. She was about the height of an Ewok from Star Wars and made the same noises.

I was very lucky to run into a Halo Trust worker when he was attempting to figure out which colored box in the market was milk (Halo is a demining NGO). He is one of the four foreigners working on Halo Trust's project to clean up cluster munitions left over from the Russian/Ossetian/Georgian conflict in August 2008. He gave me a run though of Halo operations which gave me a little more insight into the realities of a conflict when no one really seems to know what actually happened.

Another long ride today and I am in the former-Soviet mountain resort town of Borjomi staying with a family that is hosting peacecorps workers. Well actually they are ex-peacecorps because their project was disbanded with the conflict but they decided to stay. Lovely couple.

The drivers here are crazy and the roads are bad but the people are friendly. Going through the countryside I seem to keep aquiring massive quantites for fruit from locals willing to share.

Friday, July 10, 2009



The last 10 days have felt quite unreal. I met a German (Simon) and a Serbian (Dragan) in Tbilisi and we headed off to Tusheti. The road is supposed to be the most difficult in Georgia as we quickly learned. The vehicle didn't make it. In fact we actually damaged it and after a night camping in the mountains, we retreated to the safety of Kakheti (the wine region) to repair the car. 


In Telavi (not to be confused with Tel Aviv) our new english-speaking Georgian friend Giorgi helped us find a welder, a mechanic and a wine maker. Driving in his car I asked Giorgi about the global economic crisis.

"Global economic crisis... pshh, we Georgians have 18 years of practice!"

So Giorgi what do you do for work now?

"What any educated man in Telavi does." He reached under his seat, pulled up a plastic taxi sign and laughed as we arrived at the winemaker's home.

Unfortunately in Georgia, when you are trying wine it is not like in California. You do not take a sip, taste it and spit it out. You are given a large glass for each variety that you are expected to finish. Since Dragan was driving, Simon and I shouldered the burden. I spent the next hour as the drunk navigator in the car, professing my love for Georgia the same way a drunk UC kid tells his friend "I love you man."

We sobered up as the landscape changed. It is quite powerful seeing how quickly the high snowcapped mountains of the Caucasus give way to lush forested hills, rich agricultural valleys and finally dry rolling plains. We hit the famous monastery of Davit Gareja on the Azerbaijani border (accidently adding Azerbaijan to the list of countries set foot in during the trip).

After getting a little lost in what appeared to be an abandoned Soviet-era military base (where we spotted quite a unique bullet-riddled sign of the "great communists") we made it back to Tbilisi. 

 Long story short, in Tbilisi I met two awesome Swiss guys and one agreed to attempt to climb Mount Kazbek with me.  Up the Georgian Military Highway!

Kazbek: Obsured by cloud from a church above town

The afternoon before the ascent I was attacked by Georgian hospitality. After long Georgian toasts to friends, family, hating Russia and loving Russian women I was forced to consume massive quanities of food and vodka.

Day 1: 2000 meter elevation change to sleep at the old Soviet weather station above Gergeti Glacier at 3700 meters.

 We met a French climbing team and two Czechs and decided to skip the acclimitization day because we were worried that we would miss the window of good weather and the saftey of a climbing team. So after our long day up to the station, we slept 5 hours, woke up at 2:00 AM and began the ascent the the freezing darkness. The mountains were so stunning in the moonlight. I really can't express how I felt at the time so I won't attempt it.

At 4400 meters we crossed into  Russian territory (the mountain stradles the border so I again accidently added another country to the trip). Unfortunately at 4500 I started getting altitude sickness and was forced to descend.

Of the 12 of us who attempted to  reach the peak, no one succeeded.

Me looking quite ridiculous in front of Russia

 So close to the peak!

My partner suffering from snow blindness the next day:

Now it is time for me to leave Georgia. Tomorrow the two month bike ride begins!

PS: It seems that they place an EU flag next to almost every Georgian one. Many Europeans I meet find it comical