Late October, I rode into Istanbul in Turkey finishing another epic journey, around 12,000k on the Silk Road from Xi’an in China making my trip total 54,300k. Having bike problems and few good experiences with the locals in Central Asia, many kindly wrote to wish me better adventures ahead. Unfortunately, the pattern continued and the challenges grew even bigger in Western Asia, and despite many great nature experiences, the biking was mentally exhausting, so I was very happy and relieved riding in to Istanbul.
Since my last newsletter in September, riding 5,600k from Tashkent in Uzbekistan to Istanbul can best characterised by the word ”survival”. Partly my own with countless incompetent and often aggressive drivers, but more so keeping the bike rolling with endless and constantly changing problems. After Turkmenistan’s bad roads, my Australian “wonder wheel” broke the first day in Iran and I had to change to my spare rear wheel. It had previously caused many problems and as they continued, the last 4,000k to Istanbul became a struggle with every day broken spokes and flat tires (besides many other problems with gear shifting, a wiggling handlebar, wobbly tires, etc.). There was no professional help or new parts to get in this part of the world, so I had to fix the problems with a mix of perseverance, ingenuity and luck. Running short on different parts biking became an emotional day-by-day roller coaster, and countless times I thought I had to give up and a jump on a bus - as one problem was solved another arose and not until the last 500k, I began believing I could make it to Istanbul.
Riding Uzbekistan was less interesting, being 35-40C through dry open landscape sometimes transformed into irrigated farmland. The interesting part was visiting ancient cities Samarqand and Bukhara - historically and culturally of huge significance, for thousands of years being the intersection between Europe, Persia, India and China. Turkmenistan and eastern Iran took me through deserts with temperatures of 40-50C where a sandstorm broke my tent zipper (leaving the whole side open for rodents, cats, a snake, mosquitoes & bugs) and thorn leaves made holes in my air mattress making me sleep on the ground unless I inflated it every 1½-2 hours.
Northeast Iran offered more hot weather and dry/irrigated countryside, but also enjoyable cooler riding over mountains – I had many days with strong headwind but other days it slowed down and changed direction. I had looked forward to riding the Caspian Sea, so the first long stretch was disappointingly very built-up and commercial with few views. Pleasantly, it became open farmland as I rode west and later north – the temperature was mid twenties and a pleasing breeze often offset the high humidity. Northwest Iran, Armenia and Georgia offered tough but beautiful riding over countless mountains, across valleys, past lakes and along rivers in narrow gorges where particularly Georgia was stunning with multi-coloured leaves everywhere. In western Georgia and northeast Turkey, I rode along The Black Sea with it’s many cities/towns/villages but also long – and more enjoyable - rural stretches. I had boring overcast days and torrential rain (flooding the tent one night) but also beautiful coastline views on the sunny days – however, the cold wind always required several layers of clothes. In Samsun, I turned inland and rode over the last mountains to Istanbul – a mix of cultivated/forestry landscape as well as a mix of sunny/overcast with a couple of freezing cold days, but luckily rain only occurred at night.
Countless travellers over the years had told me about the lovely Iranian people, so it was impossible to avoid high expectations and maybe therefore, Iran became my biggest travel disappointment ever. Especially the first week riding to the Caspian Sea, many people shouted obscenities after me and a few even threw stones. In addition, the Iranians were terrible drivers – generally not vicious, just a bad mix of curious and incredibly incompetent. The bad experiences continued the second week but fortunately, I also had some good ones, providing a little more nuanced view of the people. Many Armenian drivers were quite aggressive, but otherwise the people were neither friendly nor unfriendly – the few trying to help me finding bike stores provided useless advice. Both the Georgian and Turkish people were good experiences – most were indifferent, but those I “talked to” were almost all friendly and helpful despite the big language barrier – either letting me camp on their property or stopping to inquire if I needed help when repairing the bike by the roadside.
From Istanbul. I did a return trip to Denmark getting new equipment (not least a new tent and many bike parts incl. a new rear wheel). After returning, I biked 1,100k to Lefkada in Greece (not yet updated on website) – delightfully without bike problems but very cold (several days down to minus 10C), and I even had to take 4 straight layover days due to 55 hours of heavy rain followed by 2 days of hard frost. I’m currently staying with a Greek couchsurfing friend that I met in Oman many years ago. My initial plan was to continue biking around southern Italy until Spring allowed crossing the Alps, but I’ve had enough of cold biking and camping for a while, so I’ve postponed the next leg of my trip until February/March. I also allows for a much needed mental break with quietness and reflection – during the 4-day layover, I realised how much I’d missed this in 2016, having biked and slept just next to noisy roads and when taking breaks been in busy hostels.
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I wish you and your family a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year 2017 - may you be as happy and fortunate in life as I am.
Many greetings from Michael