Sunday, 28 October 2012

part of the trip

Travel writing from home is a rum concept, but there is catharsis in recording. A distancing in narrative; writing events akin to resting them. I'm back in the UK until December 4th and already it feels a confusing hiatus. I'll need an all part of the trip approach to weather it. A rigour to keep moving, keep focussed. I'm only two days ride from Armenia...

But I enjoyed British Airways' caricatured mini-England in the sky; complimentary gin and Alan Partridge re-runs. Later, hobbling my awkward box through under and overground to Hackney for catch-up breakfast, London's markets and multiculture were a perfect decompression chamber. Cockney-patois vendors shouting their Asian fruit and Turkish agents advertising flights to all the signposts I've just ridden past. A fantastic hi-vis peloton of commuters down the Kingsland Highstreet. Bristol was a nostalgic tour of premature reunion, missed people and situations. Sociable kitchens at Banner Road and Sevier Street. The Cadbury House for James' special records and Westy's cynical white wine routine. Seb's Wednesday line-clean (my Thursday headache) in the Full Moon. Speeding a roadbike between Montpelier and Easton. It is reassuringly all still here and much the same. Damp but thankfully normal(ish) clothes out the loft. Gorging on espresso, bin-fresh croissants and free minutes. Fielding the inevitable phone teasing from old workmates. There are new things, too. Charming young Elias. My sister as Mother; myself as Uncle. A second beehive on the allotment. Proper late-Autumn, street murals and friends' news. My own altered context - mindframe - being a guest at home.

The crippled frame is in Leeds waiting its four week queue, respray colour preference in the envelope attached. I am in Manchester with friends and their friends waiting for Bradford's Pakistani Consulate to open, getting anxious and spoilt. Crowded clubs and late breakfasts. This morning there was a glimmer of frost. Tonight I'll see Anna in Preston. Friends in Leeds, cousins in Stockport. The sudden shift from near consummate autonomy to necessary dependency (I knew I should've brought the tent) leaves me petulant and alcoholic; grateful to see people but automatically a little resentful of arrangements and expectation. As ever I'm blessed with abundant good grace from my welcomers. Thank you all for the offers of sofas, sparerooms and lifts - pray forgive my shabby sociability.

Monday, 22 October 2012


On the E80 to Tbilisi there is a wonderful downhill towards the town of Gori. Stalin was born there, actually. It was raining for my descent and contrary to sound roadskills I was going full-pelt, enjoying myself. I hit a puddled pothole and the bike pretty much stopped dead with a terrible crunk. It has taken a week to appreciate the force of that impact. On reflection it must have been enormous to stop me like that when I was probably travelling well over 20 miles an hour. I wondered at the lack of damage to my wheel; flawless rims and true spokes, still. Gave thanks for intact elbows and groin. Scooting about unbaggaged in Tbilisi a few days later I noticed a lack of play in the steering, a stiffness beyond a certain degree. Removing the forks I saw the steerer tube was a little bent, emailed some snaps to the bike-builders and wondered again that I hadn't hurt myself. I'd have to find a way to straighten that tube, or endure another shipping farce to get some replacement forks.

This morning, checking the bike over before getting back on the road towards Armenia, I found worse damage beneath the mud. My downtube has become a little crumple zone. Rather than feeling bitter that my hugely expensive and reputedly 'bombproof' bicycle is so weakened, I'm trying to be thankful that it was strong enough to absorb so much of the impact. This afternoon's phonecalls to mechanics in Somerset and Google searches for mechanics in Tehran soon exposed my rusty grasp of steel working and instead became searches for cheap flights Tbilisi - Heathrow. It looks much cheaper in hassle, if not quite expense, to nip home and fix the tube properly than to ship the forks and trust my judgement on a backstreet welder in Tabriz or Tehran. I had a thought that perhaps I could get a Pakistan visa in England, too, which settled it. So there it is, I'll be in London tomorrow morning with the front half of my bicycle and a redface. I've five weeks to sort it out and meet my nephew, then back to Tbilisi... If anyone would like to catch up, or just call me to take the piss, I"ll be between London and Norwich and Bristol and my mobile number is still the same!

I'd been looking forward to finding words about my week with artists in Tbilisi. And my excitement for Armenia. I haven't any, right now.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Tenby sunshine

Ending a day of almost intolerable bureaucracy involving at least three different Georgian ministries and an implacably pedantic manager at the Tbilisi Fedex depot I finally met an honest answer about the 20% tax levied on my package of my stuff that I already own and shall not pass on, hire, leave behind or sell. Its not right but you have to pay. Perfect doublethink I thought, and was so cheered by the Revenue Ministry Officer's admission that all the stupid paperwork, fees, IDs and arguments - the getting lost between agents, brokers and ministries only to fail to collect my parcel that sat throughout in the first room I'd entered in this citywide bureacratic maze - didn't upset me anymore. Now I have the correct identification, illegible certification and rubber stamps and tomorrow, provided I have enough cash dollars to pay the fees and the tricksy FedEx lady and her customs cohorts have run out of tricks, I'll be able to collect my warm winter coat and kindly replaced Thermarest (mine proved a shoddy model, since improved). My wooly hat and Pair Number Two of cycling shorts; Seb's SteriPen and the illicit, undeclared packet of spare rubber washers for my stove's piston pump.

Meanwhile all my other kit is neurotically pegged out from the seventh floor window of a Tbilisi apartment block. It was a rainy road out of Turkey and after a few days cracks appear in the keeping-stuff-dry regimen. How best to stow a sodden flysheet? What to do with damp down? Easy questions in a domestic setting but much more taxing in a woodland dawn deluge. Last December, in a bit of a stink with work having just been told definitively that I'd have to quit to make this trip because I couldn't get a career break in any predicatable timeframe (I promise to let it go, soon), I set off to cycle around the Welsh coast from Newport to Aberystwyth. If it was a test I passed with drab colours. I remember it being a hangover decision, encouraged over tardy breakfast by my friend Rachel. I got Iain to cover a shift and took a 4am train the next morning and it sleeted and blew and hailstone pelted but never quite froze. Normal Welsh December I guess. Mostly it was as a shit as it sounds but I remember the sun came out for half an hour in Tenby and it was so special for the solitary lighthouse view and the moment's scarcity that frozen fingers and bitter knowledge of another night sleeping out faded to irrelevance. At some point then, in the rain or the sunny interval, I knew I'd be off fairly soon. Now that I'm long gone and Winter begins to insinuate itself in the windchill or brief hail on my silly but effective technical layers, those four wet days have a certain resonance to recollect. 

Cycling into Georgia I was struck by the dereliction near the border. I know little about the complicated history but there is a definite Balkan air of a place long bothered by enormous empires nextdoor. Its a young country in terms of independence but the rural villages look decrepit, full of grand old crumbly buildings spalling into overgrown gardens while streets and shopfronts teem with agelessly alcoholic looking footlers. A young country gone to seed around the edge. I've been largely ignored in the villages which is both refreshing and frustrating after Turkey. Two nights ago hungry, wet and exhausted looking for a dinner and a place to sleep amongst blank stares and empty shops I was starting to resent Georgian indifference. Leaving town resigned to eating biscuits and sleeping wherever I took it all back when a man waved me down and insisted I stay with his family. Over fragrant spiced lamb and his own-brewed Raki it emerged of course that he was Turkish. In Tbilisi I'm staying with Steffi from Germany who teaches a photography class at the local art academy and is letting me rejig the wording of her second-language proposal for an installation in Venice. I have an armchair now, amenities like Tenby sunshine; 70s studio flat, dry white wine and an iMac to blog on. Tbilisi feels dead European after its provinces and Eastern Turkey. Trendy kids stalk between jammed modern traffic. Women show shoulders and smiles and the beer is Balkan prices again. It is nice just to wander about, perhaps I'll stay a week; keep dry and join the photography lessons.


In a gale at the top of my final Turkish mountain pass I was laden with pomegranates and encouragement by the driver of an Iranian asphalt tanker. The truckers have to stop at the tops of passes to fill their boiling radiators up at the spring fonts. He ran over extremely keen to tell me, warmingly, how his people had nothing against my people and sorry for his government. I apologised for mine and happily showed him my visa. He delighted: Yes you are welcome my brother! If I only I had Englistan visa, I love to go! It made me feel very good about visting Iran.


leaving Turkey

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

sticks and stones and spiritual puns

I camped in stone ruins beneath Mount Ararat and made friends with three shepherds. We discussed stone throwing issues in mime; they found it funny and offered little useful advice. The following morning I confiscated the stick thrown by one of their more parochial colleagues a few miles up the road. The dogs have risen to my 'and I've not had any trouble with the dogs yet' with zeal, as if I'd caught them slacking. I carried that four-foot stick a hundred miles across my handle bars, menacing canine pursuers with cavalry-esque slashing. It seems to work - the dogs blench and give up chase and I remain thankfully unbitten. Yesterday one of these cow-herder (cowherd?) kiddies tried to sick his Kangal on me. That was especially terrifying and I lost the stick in frantic defence. I'm in Kars now, not too far from the Georgian border, hoping this hostility from boys and dogs will ebb. Could it be my rainbow wardrobe? 

The rains have come and yesterday was a slog. North of Iğdır I lost almost all of my two thousand meters altitude, joylessly in the knowledge that I'd have to climb back up the plateau before Kars. I slept at the bottom to make the climb in morning strength. Ha. It took a day's weakness. And what a dismal depression! Like Turkey's drain, with all the appropriate detritus scumming around it. Wetland and dingy villages, little more than fetid swamps with a crust of hovels. That's how they seemed to me at least, in the rain and grey with nasty little children screeching for maney! maney! I think my schadenfreude when one of them slipped over in the mud while snatching at my bike was a personal low. Funny how the weather colours everything. I don't recommened the Iğdir - Kars road to cyclists: it is uphill, featureless and wet. As colourless as a landscape can be, barren in October with inevitably foul weather closing. Occasionally a string of pylons, a sinister cairn or a military checkpoint. Not having wanted to tarry stocking up in one of those forsaken villages I ran out of food and water early on. A man flagged me down with eating and drinking gestures. It was grimly amusing to realise that he was a bonafide tramp (rag-bundle on a stick variety) wanting fed rather than making the usual Turkish (and especially Kurdish) lunch invitation. He had the last of my olives and cream cheese - was unfazed by the breadlessness  (ekmek yok - problem yok!). I left him too busy fingering cheese into a toothless maw for goodbyes. A nice coincidence for one hungry beggar of food to trick another so. A little further on a great rainbow offered colour and promise so I stopped to check for an internet signal, exactly thinking wouldn't it be nice to hear from Jason or Grace, both of whom had been a while but always write encouragingly. As it happened both of them had written within the last hour and the rainbow doubled up as my camera battery died. It was G K Chesterton said that "coincidences are spiritual puns", something I came across in a novel not long ago and think of all the time now. 

Digol is a non-town but I managed to find biscuits and fizzy pop (sports nutrition this isn't) for the second half of the climb to Kars which I reached at the same time as darkness and lightning. Looking down on the city I saw it disappear as the storm delivered a massive power cut. As if all the electric had been sucked into the sky. I skulked around behind someone's stables looking for a barn or something and got the fright of my life from six chained Kangals. Somehow I 'd stumbled into the one bit of yard that their six chains couldn't quite reach. I waited amidst the barking, fairly pleading until the owner came calming with his torch, fed me cheese and olives and slept me in the summer house. This morning breakfast with the kids before school. Clouds clear and hills crest.

not Ararat


shepherd mates

Kars road


summer house situation this morning

a Kangal

Kars this morning

Friday, 5 October 2012

gratitude and logistics

The Erzurum impasse lasted two weeks becoming my longest stoppage. On returning from the hitchhiked sojourn in Dıyabakir my sickness resurged, setting the scene for another few days of soup and movies. I lost a couple of kilos and eventually Laura who ran out of time to wait for me. I was lucky, as ever, to have found such generously accomodating hosts in Zey and her family. Monday brought health and Tuesday at last the Iranian visa. I left on Wednesday. The accepted cycle touring wisdom is that few riding partnerships (excepting those between the closest of friends or the intimately invested) survive long at all. The good-going of our five weeks - our eleven hundred miles - was quite an achievement and thanks in no small way to Laura's interminable patience and gracious restraint in the face of my moods and self-absorbtion. If company is comfort though, it is also of course compromise. Three days alone and my solitude is still fresh enough to relish the complete conviction afforded the completely alone; this way I'm going, here I'm resting, this I'm eating, here I'm sleeping, etcetera. But thank you, Laura, for making a simple companionship; indulging me in food and enduring my one-sided conversation. Gratitude is also due friends and family far away. It was only a stomach bug and only a couple of weeks but far from home it is easy to despair. There were so many perfectly timed emails and thoughts, texts, mixtapes, cheery photos, videos, ebooks and prayers as to make me feel perfectly silly in my self-pity. I'm on holiday afterall. But it means a lot, so thank you all.

It is expensive for British citizens to enter Iran. My month pass cost 180 pounds; 230 after the agent's fee and charges to pay her Malaysian bank. There are two more countries, Georgia and Armenia, which are easy and cheap for me to visit. I can enter Iran any time before December 31st. Pakistan isn't currently issuing visas to anybody who applies from outside their home country. There are no boats between Iran and India. The average winter low in Uzbekistan is minus 23 celsius (a foolish test of my new sleeping bag). The long and short is that I can't leave Iran overland except by heading North into Central Asia via the 5 day race of Turkmenistan's transit visa (all you can get), and that to do so too soon would commit me to that freezing Winter. Best then that I enter Iran as late as possible to get the most from my 30 day get-out-of-Winter-expensively card. Try and hit central Asia for an optimistic early Spring... Ideas on a postcard, please, for how to spend three months in or around the Caucuses! (I had considered an early Winter expedition North around the Caspian but apparently Russian visas are also difficult, if not impossible, from without one's home country... anybody know any different?)

I'd love to report that yesterday I got stoned with several sets of shepherd boys in the mountains. Alas in truth I can only recount that yesterday I got stoned by several sets of shepherd boys in the mountains; an experience with (presumably) quite the opposite effect on my nerves. This part of Turkey is famous (amongst cycle tourists) for its intimidating dogs and these rock-happy chappies; cautionary tales make all the blogs. Remembering my own boyhood delight in missles (peg-guns; crabapple pockets on the way to school) it's hard to ascribe them any particular malice. Still I found myself, for the first time, wishing I'd brought a helmet. But none of them managed to hit me, and I've not had any trouble with the dogs yet. The landscape is spectacular, great peaks and great plains, here and there a shock of birches crisp white and green. White wash little villages with shabby hay-ricks and indurated dung-brick pyramids mimicking the backdrop mountains. Hillside streaks of Autumn blaze. I'm in Ağrı, city amongst villages, perhaps a full day's ride from Doğubayazit. I detour, as usual, to see the twin peaks of the Ararat massif. Noah's Ark stopped there.


I think they were Starlings, anyway. A great chattering as I made first camp two nights ago. In my ignorance of ornithology it was impossible not to believe that they were somehow engaging with my presence, alone and yellow-jacketed in the plateau dusk. Three or four swarms, shoal-like murmurations merging and parting, repeatedly wheeling and banking around me close enough to breeze my face. Thousands upon thousands. Sentimental, it felt a welcome-back from the Outdoors; enough to make me shout and cry.

road to Dıyabakir

Dıyabakir old town
Dıyabakir old town

cultivation around the Tigris

friends in Dıyabakir


beachball cabbages


standard lunch invitation