Two Aussie blokes riding their BMW R1150GSs from Australia to Europe

Month: May 2016

Turkey – Twisting wrists and ocean dips

Turkey is our last destination before heading into Europe and it’s no surprise that our spirits have dropped over the prospect of this journey being over. 10 years of talk and 3 years of planning has lead us to this point and all of a sudden it has become reality: in two weeks I will be home with my beautiful wife and back at work. I wish I had some drama to share about Turkey but the reality is that I don’t. No breakdowns, no army checkpoints and no AK47’s here, just a very calm, peaceful country with a landscape to match.

After our massive effort crossing into Turkey we woke lazily in our border town hotel room with no plans. We changed some money and took advantage of the wifi to research a route. We were so far north we decided to head up to the Black Sea, then cut back across the country through famed Cappadocia, onto some beach time on the Mediterranean, before heading north to Istanbul. We needed to avoid South-East Turkey due to the conflict in Syria so this plan worked well for us. Our hearts sank over breakfast as we cast our eyes out to a cold and wet morning – not ideal on a motorcycle but we had confidence we would soon be up on the Black Sea and the weather would improve. Our spirits lifted 10 minutes down the road with the rain gone and the road drying out we were heading north and the countryside was breathtaking.

2,500 metres A.S.L Smiles all round

2,500 metres A.S.L Smiles all round

More snow capped mountains with exceptional roads weaving up, around and even through tunnels maintaining excellent speed to eat up the kilometres. As we worked our way closer to the coast the GPS took us up and over a range of 2,500 metres A.S.L a quick stop for a photo saw us both with wide grins exclaiming how good the road/scenery was and soon enough we were being lead down some small country lanes upon villages.

Not a bad place to be lost

Not a bad place to be lost

The asphalt turned to dirt but after a quick check of the GPS James explained that it was taking us the most direct route north and that it would remain unsealed but would eventually get us out to the coast.  Given it was only 3pm and excellent weather we pushed on but after a sketchy river crossing we decided to head back, we needed fuel and didn’t have any food.

The river crossing that broke us

The river crossing that broke us

First stop fuel and with our new currency in hand we ordered 2 full tanks whilst working out a rough conversion to AU dollar (much easier than Iran’s crazy decimal point placement!) we established that if you halve the Lira you will get the AUD amount. However it both took us by surprise when the bowser finished counting at 170 Lira! Double checking our conversion rate we quickly learnt that Turkey was our most expensive fuel thus far at $2.20 AUD per litre! Bear in mind we had just left oil rich Iran at 0.39 AUD cents per litre. Had we realised there would be such a difference I would have strapped on some jerry cans to get us a few tanks in! Alas we continued onwards to the coast finding a small town 100km’s inland that looked nice and better still seemed busy enough to obtain beer but after scouting out over 7 different restaurants that couldn’t offer us any over dinner we grabbed a six pack and retreated to our hotel room to consume a couple after a big day. A quick Google found that 83% of Turks consider themselves Teetotallers, explaining the lack of Alcohol consumption or availability.

Turkish tank

Turkish tank

Twisting Turkey

Twisting Turkey

The next day we saw the first body of water since Thailand, The Black Sea. Meeting the coast in Trabzon we continued along the coast to Giresun and decided to settle in for the day checking into our hotel with enough time to walk the town and again look for a bar to sit, admire the view and enjoy a cold one. Again to our dismay we couldn’t find one! More streets were explored and we finally found a very small quiet bar with a couple of people drinking beer, we walked straight to the bar and ordered 2 beers! That was lost in translation so we used google translate to which the bartender google translated back to us that it was a religious holiday and no alcohol would be served assuring us that everyone else consuming in the bar ‘brewed their own’. Defeated, we again bought another 6 pack and retreated to our hotel.

Seaside smiles

Seaside smiles

Cappadocia is known for its obscure natural sites including the ‘Fairy Chimney’s’ clustered around the township, Bronzed age homes can be found carved into the valley walls by cave dwellers later used by early Christian refugees. Hot Air ballooning is top of the ‘to do’ list and we had booked a flight a few days out. Luckily the weather was on our side and we spent almost an hour up in the air admiring the landscape quietly amused by our fellow crew spending more time taking ‘Selfies’ of themselves instead of looking over the edge.

Romantic selfies.

Romantic selfies.

Exceptional morning Ballooning.

Exceptional morning Ballooning.

I however spent half the flight searching for possible dirt tracks to explore on the bikes. Upon return to our hotel we stripped our bikes of panniers and weight heading off with go-pro’s in hand to capture some footage. It rained and we both fell off but I managed to jump my my 230kg bike landing with a bang and we got the photo we were after.

James should be a model

James should be a model

The things you see in Cappadocia...

The things you see in Cappadocia…

Turkey’s tourism industry is at an all time low; recent bombings have not faired well with western media painting a very grim picture and although the peak season is still yet to come operators have quoted figures as high as 70% drop in bookings. This has made a very pleasant tour of the country although at times we have literally been the only people dining in restaurants, as a business owner I know first hand how heartbreaking this can be.

The Underground City, Derinkuyu, Cappadocia

The Underground City, Derinkuyu, Cappadocia

We have been unbelievably lucky with the weather over our journey however the temperature on the Black Sea and Cappadocia had us in our sweaters and I was holding on to some small hope of some final days in the sun before returning to a Melbourne winter. I had visions of a Mediterranean villa on the beach with cocktail in hand that was slowly being crushed with cold wet mountain passes on our way south to the coast.

To our delight, once down on the coast the weather improved with a sunset over the water and a dip to wash off the daily grime. We had been surprised at the development and commercialisation of the Mediterranean coast and as we inched our way through city traffic we didn’t know what to think.

The Mediterranean Sea!

The Mediterranean Sea!

But on approach to Olympos 10 km’s off the highway we knew we were onto a good thing, dirt road leading through affordable beachside accommodation with a backpacker vibe. Keys in hand for a bungalow for the night and a couple of beers around the communal fire pit we lay our heads for the night. 

Its 5pm somewhere

Its 5pm somewhere

Waking to a spotless blue sky we struck our luck at a picture perfect Mediterranean day, we walked the 2000+ year old ruins and ended up on a banana lounge on the beach remarkably early and didn’t move for the rest of the day. Watching the traditional wooden motorsailers come and go I proposed a day long boat trip for the following day and soon had one lined up only in need of more crew for passage – luckily for us we found them around the fire pit that night. Sharing a bottle of Cappadocian red wine we met Manouk from The Netherlands on her Silk Road adventure and Rahul from Istanbul. We have met many people over our journey but only a few who we find a true connection with, the following day out on the boat was truly special with exceptional company and countless dives off the boat into a pristine blue sea.

Back on land we enjoyed some dinner and wine before venturing down the road to one of the considered ‘best 10’ hostels in the world enjoying a few more wines.  Nursing borderline hangovers we shared some breakfast the following morning before saying goodbyes, we all needed to move on. It was time for us to head north to the Gallipoli Peninsula via Kusadasi to check out the ancient city of Ephesus.

Gallipoli was high on the to do list for us, it was the location that Australia lost a nation-defining number of servicemen in World War 1 and we felt a true connection upon the visit. With tourism so slow and the natural beauty of the Peninsula it was surreal that so many lives were lost in such a beautiful place. James also spent many hours working on the Australian television miniseries  ‘Gallipoli’, which really put things into perspective exploring the area and memorials.

After a somber day we were off to Istanbul, a highlight for both of us as it is one of Europe’s biggest cities, 19 Million people reside on the banks of the Bosphorus Straight that separates Asia to Europe.

Istanbul is amazing! With our route taking us through large Asian cities it was refreshing to be back such a liberal environment. To our amazement we found 2 other foreign bikes parked on our one way cul-de-sac we were staying and soon met up for a chat with Brad (South African) and Bruce (Australian) agreeing to meet for a beer at 6pm.

Our mates from trailing the horizons Bruce and Brad

Our mates from trailing the horizons Bruce and Brad

We were taken back that neither of the two had ridden a motorcycle before embarking on their world tour starting from Scotland; a credit to them for making the 8,000km journey to Istanbul safely. With three Australians and a South African the beers were flowing and we talked the night away with tales of adventure. Nursing a quiet hangover it was out and about to check out the famed Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern.

James had a friend from China living in Istanbul, Jean-Marie who very kindly invited us for dinner and drinks in his district on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and we appreciated being away from the tourist centre and to feel the soul of the city.

Back at our guesthouse yet another foreign motorcycle had appeared in our street, 5 BMW’s with foreign plates! Martin from Germany, a photojournalist was on his way to Iran only to be denied a visa on journalist grounds, with new plans of heading through ‘the Stans’. More war stories over more beers took us into the night before retreating in our haze of drunkenness to prepare for our early departure for Bulgaria the following morning  – the best way to reinvigorate after a night on the beers was to take ourselves off for a Turkish bath. Next stop, Eastern Europe…

Hammam- yes it hurt!

Hammam- yes it hurt!

Iran – shattering our expectations – 20,111kms

Iran: it emerged like a verdant oasis in the middle of a desolate desert wasteland. At first, it was hard to tell if our opinion of Iran was neutral; if you’ve read our earlier posts you’ll appreciate that our journey through the sub-continent was a real test for us, and this warped our sense of normality. But it seems that we’ve passed the test with flying colours to be rewarded in this fantastic, vibrant country.

We love Iran!

We love Iran!

Iran defied nearly all of our preconceptions. We expected intense heat in arid desert, religious and cultural conservatism, and a lack of modern development; all under the watchful eye of the military. How wonderful it was to have our expectations shattered. Iran is arid but high in altitude, which made it surprisingly temperate – the jagged mountains making spectacular vistas as we journeyed across the countryside.

Every kilometre in Iran has been simply breathtaking

Every kilometre in Iran has been simply breathtaking

It is an Islamic state, where religious dress code is enforceable by law, but we were surprised to see how relaxed women are about wearing their hijabs. Often they only just cover their tied up hair and wear heavy make up on their faces – a stark contrast to Pakistan (an interesting article about women in Iran was recently published on The Guardian). Daily calls to prayer are almost unnoticeable in the background, and few people talk about religion in normal conversation. The people are liberal, relaxed, friendly, and compared to where we’ve traveled, they’re also wealthy. Modern amenities and consumables are found everywhere – the only obvious exclusions are American chains like McDonalds, Starbucks and the like (and as Eddy from Darwin to Douglas would point out, sit-down toilets). The country is spotlessly clean, which was a very welcome change – immaculate gardens can be found almost everywhere which make the cities refreshingly picturesque.

Stopped on the roadside after crossing the border. Note the smile

Stopped on the roadside after crossing the border. Note the smile

Our first two days in the country were an intense push to make it 1300kms from the border to Isfahan to meet Monica and Lucy, who were flying in to meet us for a week of sightseeing. We had been put so far behind schedule in Pakistan that we feared we might not make it time. We were given another military escort from the border town of Mirjaveh and were then handed over to a government representative from the tourism department 100kms down the road in Zahedan. With memories of being a football kicked from escort to escort haunting us we were ready to tell the girls that they’d be sightseeing on their own. It soon became clear however that this far eastern province of Iran is starved of tourists, and all that was wanted of us was to spend some time being tourists. We firmly explained we had another 1200kms to travel by the following nightfall (by this stage it was 3pm!), and we were reluctantly given back our passports along with some souvenir keyrings and allowed to continue on our way.

And finally after nearly 3 weeks of following somebody else’s agenda we were free! Free to travel where we wanted, when we wanted, at the speed we wanted. The road infrastructure in Iran is incredible – double lane dual carriage ways ply through the desert. They are free of pot holes, cows, goats, horse pulled carts and overloaded tractors traveling in the wrong direction. With a speed limit of 120 we quickly realised that we might be able to make it to Isfahan in time after all.

Every corner we turn there are more stunning mountains

Every corner we turn there are more stunning mountains

And make it we did. The intense agenda we’d been following instantly became a holiday, with time off the bikes for sightseeing and soaking up Iran’s incredible culture. Through Moni’s father we were put in touch with Amir, an Iranian who’d lived in Vienna for 6 years. He took us under his wing during our time in Isfahan, he showed us the sights, fed us the food, explained Iranian culture and even took Drew to the dentist.

A fantastic home cooked meal with Amir and his parents

A fantastic home cooked meal with Amir and his parents

Iran’s cultural history is about as rich as they come, given people have been living in the area since 3000BC – it’s one of the oldest civilisations on the planet. There was no shortage of things to see and do. Isfahan was the capital for over a century, from 1600AD and was our base whilst the girls were in town.

After soaking up all that Isfahan had to offer, we got on the bikes with girls and ventured to Shiraz. Shiraz was also once Iran’s capital, and on it’s outskirts the ruins of Persepolis can be found; an ancient city dating back to 550BC

From Shiraz it was the desert city of Yazd we were destined. Unfortunately leaving Shiraz I picked up some dirty fuel which ruined my fuel pump. When emptying fuel from the filter, it came out black with chunks of debris! My last pump gave up 3 weeks earlier in Pakistan, and at $500 a pop it’s not been a cheap exercise. Thankfully we were cautious enough to get Moni to order a new one and bring it from Austria, otherwise we’d still be on the roadside.

Another busted fuel pump enroute from Shiraz to Yazd

Another busted fuel pump enroute from Shiraz to Yazd

With Drew’s skills at play, we were only stuck on the roadside for an hour or so before pushing onwards. Moni had organised a stay in a spectacular family run guesthouse in the desert outside of the city, called Farvardinn – I’d recommend anybody in the area to stay here. Our host, Masoud, told us we should head 1km into the desert to appreciate the sunset over some ruins.

The following day we headed into the centre of the city, famed for it’s mud bricked old town with a labyrinth of traditional laneways zigzagging in all directions.

After dropping the girls back in Isfahan (and another trip to the dentist) we decided to push onwards towards Turkey. The road infrastructure is so good we thought we’d be fools not to make the most of the opportunity to buy a little time for later on in our journey – Drew booked his flight back to Australia, so we now have a very finite schedule to make it to Vienna. Given how safe, clean and sparsely populated Iran is, we decided to camp enroute – the first time since Australia.

Chasing the sun to find a suitable place to camp for the night

Chasing the sun to find a suitable place to camp for the night

A roadside camp outside Qom. This is the first time we've camped since Australia!

A roadside camp outside Qom. This is the first time we’ve camped since Australia!

The landscape changed strikingly as we neared Turkey, the temperature dropping quickly as arid planes turned into rich green pastures. On our final day we road over 1,000kms and managed to cross the border before nightfall – our biggest distance yet. It was the same day we clocked 20,000kms since departing from Melbourne, so we thought it was cause for celebration. We were excited to stay in a country where alcohol is legal again, but sadly for us we couldn’t find any beer in the Turkish border town that we stayed in for the night. The search continues.

We’ve absolutely loved our time in Iran – we didn’t really know what to expect, but our expectations weren’t high. Low expectations are a fantastic springboard for great experiences and Iran’s been one of the best countries that we’ve visited so far. If you’re at a loss for where to go on your next holiday I’d suggest you make it Iran. You won’t be disappointed.

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