1864, 762…

For over six months now, since we left Armenia, our motorcycling has been handicapped by one form of restriction or other. In Iran we needed a guide to pass through. In Dubai, as non-residents, we couldn’t get bike insurance with severe penalties likely if caught riding without. In India we needed more than one pair of eyes in the back of our heads to survive the crazy driving there, where every ride involved crazy combat to survive the roads and Myanmar required what proved to be a final flurry of guides. We left Myanmar with their big Water Festival party in full flow and suddenly found ourselves at the end of an easy-going border transaction in a new land that was at once a pool of calm, order and tranquility, a place we could at last ride free of all these bindings: Thailand. They even drive on the left here, just like at home and just like they’re supposed to in India (but everyone drives where they like).

With free and painless border transactions concluded quickly, we tottered into the city of Mae Sot, greeted by a huge Tesco store, the first supermarket we’ve seen since Dubai nearly six months ago, and checked in to a small hotel to plan the next portion of our ride east… Our biggest problem lies in the fact that our arrival into South East Asia, coincides with that of the monsoon season with its potentially calamitous rains. While it will not rain everywhere all the time, there are certain places that need to be avoided at peak rainy season so we needed some time to plan accordingly. Looking at the maps a tour of North Thailand, followed by an excursion into Laos, then Vietnam (if we can access on our bikes without a guide) followed by Cambodia and then a run through southern Thailand would take us to Malaysia and from there, Indonesia…

So, with outline planning complete, first stop on this new leg of our journey; Northern Thailand. I expect you’ll be wondering what the numbers in the title of this posting are all about and I will explain all that in a minute so please bear with me. Our first port of call was a visit to the ancient ruins at Sukhothai and we checked in to the Thai, Thai, Sukhothai guesthouse, a delightful accommodation offering outstanding hospitality, where we took a couple of bicycles to explore the nearby archaeology. Whilst not so grand or extensive as those in Bagan in Mynamar, they were nonetheless glorious; a collection of ancient Wats (temples) set in luscious parkland, the whole set being devoid of any other tourists given the lateness of the season. Sukhothai was also our first real introduction to Thai night markets (it is too hot to hold these during the day) where we were blown away by the mouthwatering platters of food on offer for not a lot of money.

Our arrival in Thailand coincided with rising temperatures, a precursor to the monsoon. We have grown accustomed to living under sunny blue skies with 30°C+ showing on the mercury, more or less since leaving home last July but in Myanmar the thermometer began creeping towards the high end of the thirties. Now in Thailand it climbed into the mid-forties. In fact Sukhothai would reach 47°C making it the 10th hottest city on the planet. Factor in humidity and that is damned hot. We’ve ridden in Southern Europe and the Americas in high summer where it feels like a hair-dryer is blowing in your face. Now in Thailand the heat blast felt like we were riding into the mouth of an open furnace. This required us to modify our daily routine, to rise at 5:30 and get any riding or sightseeing over before early afternoon when a nap in a chill room is in order to escape the most vicious heat of the day followed by another foray in the early evening before a slightly later dinner.

From Sukhothai we took a short ride north to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city. Most of the highlights are contained within the old walled city making it a lovely place to wander around with some beautiful Wats, all so different again from our Myanmar experience. We took a day-trip out on a breathtaking twisty road to visit Wat Doi Suthep, set high on a forested mountain overlooking the city. Whilst the views were obscured by haze, the ride was amazing yet it was but a ‘single olive’ for an appetizer for the star motorcycling attraction in Northern Thailand; the Mae Hong Song Loop. Starting in Chiang Mai ‘the Loop’ is a series of winding, twisting roads that roll and frolic for some 375-miles through a handful of highlands circling around northwest Thailand. There are two roads; Highway 108 running from Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang and on to Mae Hong Song itself and, from that point, the 1095 that runs to the hippy-chic mountain town of Pai and on back into Chiang Mai.

We dumped a lot of our kit at our Chiang Mai hotel to lighten the bikes and set off for a five-day wonder ride that goes down as one of the top rides on the planet! 375-miles? Sounds like you could run it in a single day? Factor in that scorching heat (albeit tempered now by a little dose of altitude) and then the sheer number of curves on these roller coaster roads and it is at this point where those numbers in the title of this posting come into the equation… From Mae Hong Song to Pai alone there are 1864 bends in the road. 762? The number of bends from Pai to Chiang Mai and this is all verified, not by us counting them as we rode them, but from the T-Shirts we bought along the way proudly announcing these tremendous tallies that don’t even consider the first two days on the ride to Mai Sariang and on from there to Mae Hong Song on highways that sport similar statistics.

These numbers equally tally the number of grins experienced by a rider encountering such a nirvana. The icing on the cake was the fact that we were off-season so the roads were empty. The substrate is excellent too, a few pot holes here and there but not enough to spoil play. All of this taken amidst a world of jungle whizzing by with explosions of banana trees, monster bamboos and giant tree ferns lining the way like supporters waving and cheering you on through a mental green grand-prix. And the influx of all that green… it certainly fires happiness receptors in the brain and at the end of each day we arrived at our destinations in a state of mild euphoria, elated and sated by the ride, knowing that tomorrow would probably be even better.

Accommodations and food in Thailand are some of the best (and cheapest) we’ve had to date on this ride east and the best of the best were to be found in Chiang Rai, our next destination on our exploration of Northern Thailand. The ride out from Chiang Mai on newly serviced bikes following our jungle GP was made remarkable by the flowers we saw along the way. Now I’m not talking your humble garden flora nor indeed even a hedgerow in full bloom. I’m talking huge flowering trees the likes of which we’ve never beheld, canopies of colour resplendently forming a gorgeous topiary of tunnels along the highway. There were blushes of pinks and purples dangling from trees I haven’t yet identified and then the eye-catching drapes of yellow cascading from Cassia Fistula, also known as the ‘Golden Shower Tree’, whose blossom we learned is the national flower of Thailand. But what really stole the show (and made everything else look positively ordinary) were the many and fine examples of Delonix Regia or ‘Flame Trees’ so called from the gushy conflagration of vivid red blooms cascading from every limb that set the landscape alight with their colour.

Chiang Rai is home to the utterly spectacular Wat Rong Khun or ‘White Temple’. This is a modern temple built by a local artist called Chalermchai Kositpipat. He funded the project entirely with his own money to build a complex for learning and meditation such that all people might gain benefit from Buddhist teachings. In return he hopes that the project will grant him immortal life. It is an ongoing project that was recently hampered when a lot of the structures were damaged by an earthquake in 2014. The current estimated completion date is now 2070.

The complex is centred on a huge temple, the Ubosot, a stark-white building frosted with fragments of mirrored glass embedded in the exterior surfaces. It has a typical Thai temple roof with upswept ridgelines and it all has a somewhat Disneyesque appearance like a stage set for a live version of ‘Frozen’. The approach is no less amazing; a pool of grey outstretched hands, including animal and alien claws, that are supposed to represent the flaws of desire and appear as a sort of purgatorial holding tank that must be crossed to gain a fine crystalline bridge that leads on to the Ubosot itself, set on a small lake. Other jaw-droppingly beautiful white buildings populate the ground interspersed with several golden edifices, the largest of which is a representation of worldly desires and wealth, material possessions and property. It is in fact the most ornate toilet you are ever likely to see! In amongst all of this are images from modern sci-fi movies including a Terminator, half a Predator and a sort of Transformer robot character sat on a park bench inviting you to have your photo taken in the empty seat beside him. It might sound like it has the potential to be just so tacky if the concept wasn’t so brilliantly executed and we both ended our visit astonished that artists can still make something so beautiful in these modern times.

We parted Chiang Rai for a short ride to see the ‘Golden Triangle’, nowadays the area at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong Rivers and the place where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos all come together. Up to the end of the 20th Century the area was infamous as the place of origin for the majority of the world’s heroin. This is mostly a thing of the past as anti-drugs campaigns, especially in Thailand and Myanmar have severely reduced the opium poppy trade in the area, which is instead being cultivated as a tourist destination. From Chiang Saen, our last stop in Northern Thailand, we visited the nearby ‘Hall of Opium’ a fascinating museum dedicated to the history of Opium from its first uses as a local herbal tonic and pain-killer to the modern cash-crop basis for refined illegal products that have been the scourge of our modern society. The museum was built as part of the rejuvenation of the area and was sponsored by the king of Thailand’s late mother in an attempt to explain the biology, history and legacy of the opium trade. Opium is an unusual subject and slightly uncomfortable one for a museum but a fascinating story well told and one that needs more telling so we can understand where some of our modern problems originated.

It’s hard to contemplate how the want of a simple cup of tea could have put one of the largest nations on earth into the grip of a lethal drug habit but in a nutshell that is the story of how opium took it’s place in world history. By the mid-1800’s tea drinking had become all the rage and the demand generated a huge trade. The problem was that all of the tea at that time came from one place; China and the sources were heavily protected to maintain a monopoly on the trade. The East India Company realised that they had an abundance of a commodity that the Chinese desperately wanted; opium, grown in India and hence a lucrative trade network was established selling opium for tea. The effect on the Chinese populace was horrific. Statistics in the museum told how in this heyday one in every 30 people in China was an opium addict! In time this would lead to the famous Opium Wars with China as leaders there tried to banish the import of the drug. But the English wanted their cuppas, the East India Company wanted balanced books so gunboats were sent in to enforce the trade in a black episode of the story of British colonialism.   In the end tea plants were found in Assam and Darjeeling and buds were allegedly stolen from China to establish other plantations in places like Ceylon so the trade moved on. The museum also told the history of opium since then and the refinement of heroin and the massive impact this has had on all societies with many harrowing stories to underline this.

The clock was ticking on our first Thai visas and it was time to cross the mighty Mekong for the next installment of out travels in SE Asia… Laos; would we love it or loathe it?

For the photogallery for this post please click on the following link: Northern Thailand 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tragedy on the Road East…

Rajasthan had been the rightful jewel of India, stocked full of treasures such as Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaipur with their utterly dazzling fortresses, temples and palaces. An easy day’s ride would take us into Uttar Pradesh and Agra, a fairly grotty, charmless Indian city, a slimy oyster yet one that contained a singularly beautiful pearl; the Taj Mahal. On the appointed day, we were up early and out for a 6:30am start to get to the gates for sunrise, when the Taj opens.

The Taj Mahal; the approach through the entrance gates manages to shield all views of what lies within so that the first glimpse through the huge entry portal is all the more staggering. Shimmering in the morning sun the Taj was breathtakingly beautiful with the eye being drawn to the huge pearl-like dome at the apex of a series of magnificent gardens and mirror ponds. Three of the four corner-post minarets had been covered with scaffolding for cleaning / maintenance, marring the symmetry and beauty perhaps just a little. Emperor Shah Jahan built the mausoleum in the 17th century for his third and favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. He decided to build a vision on earth of what he imagined her heavenly abode might look like and the Taj Mahal was the result. Construction took around twenty years and involved over 20,000 builders and artisans, with specialists being brought in from as far away as Europe. The work must have placed a huge demand on the Empires resources and was opposed by Shah’s sons. His third son, Aurangzeb, eventually overthrew his father and had him imprisoned in Agra Fort. We visited the splendid fort in the afternoon and gazed back along the Yamuna River from the spot where Shah Jahan spent the remainder of his life gazing at his creation from his prison window. The view reminded me briefly of work; from a distance, the Taj looks just like a launch site with a clutter of gleaming radomes and four streamline ready-to-go rockets all hacked out of the tropical landscape.

From Agra the road to the East beckoned and the first leg of this was a relatively easy ride of 180 highway miles to reach the city of Lucknow, scene of the famous siege from the 1857 Indian Mutiny. What followed was one of the most harrowing days we ever experienced in all our travels. We left Agra at 8am to avoid the traffic and quickly found the main highway out of town. After only half an hour a combination of a GPS instruction, reinforced by a road sign for Kanpur, indicated we should leave the highway and thus we found ourselves deposited into a small but very busy town setting up for their Friday market.

Progress slowed to a wobbly crawl as we negotiated mental streets, mish-mash full of bicycles, rickshaws, small motorcycles and carts piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables, this plus the usual Indian detritus of dogs, chickens, cows and small children wandering all over the place. We were cursing the GPS for leading us into such a morass (we later reckoned there had been a by-pass) when everything ground to a halt. Up ahead a scrummage of small vehicles blasted up a cacophony of impatient horns trying to trumpet the path clear. The press moved forward slowly, a lava flow of vehicles and our clutch hands ached with overuse. Then the cause of the obstruction became apparent: a stalled brown and yellow Eicher truck with a rear end upraised on one side, like he had a puncture and jacked the truck up to remove the wheel. There was some sort of island, maybe a shrine or a lamppost, protruding out into the street creating a perfect choke point. He couldn’t have stopped at a worse place. I was leading, paddling along with my feet down, getting fairly cooked by the rising heat from my engine with Mags behind and as everyone funneled in to that dreadful bottleneck.

Now the cavalcade slowed and heads were drawn to stare silently at something under the truck. My turn to pass… Glancing down, a series of graphic snapshots registered quickly in my brain, motor-wound still-frames of something totally terrible. First frame, click: a bright red bracelet on a little wrist… Click: An orange bicycle, mangled into a banana shape, shining wheels bent skywards… Click: A young arm flung carelessly out into the road, hand and fingers relaxed in eternal rest… Click: Beneath the truck a glimpse of a young girl’s head, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, beautiful face turned away from the crowd, eyes closed in permanent slumber… Click: One final awful image; a tiny little body crushed flat into the road by the rear wheels of the truck. There was no blood or gore like you might have imagined, just her body pressed flat into the road like a discarded piece of badly done ironing, leaving that beautiful head and limbs intact.

I yelled over the intercom for Mags to look away but, following in my tracks, she saw that still little arm with the red bracelet and the awful realisation of what had happened fully struck us. We drifted on, carried along by the traffic stream until we found a space to halt about half a mile up the choked street. Both of us were badly shaken, in a state of shock, trying to reason out what the hell had happened… A young girl on her bicycle had clearly fallen in the early morning under the rear wheels of a truck. Indian truck drivers are notoriously reckless but given the confines of the busy market we couldn’t see how a truck of that size could have been speeding.   Maybe he just wasn’t looking where he was going? The bicycle looked like a big heavy adult machine and we’ve seen loads of kids riding these, wobbling along on oversize frames. Maybe she just lost control and fell under the wheels of the truck?

Turbulent emotions ran through our minds from the distress of registering this young life ended so shockingly and graphically to sheer and utter helplessness at our inability to intercede or somehow undo this terrible act. This one action brought home the ultimate consequences of the sheer idiocy that passes for life on the roads in India. We both know that riding motorcycles has inherent dangers but have always accepted the risks involved, secure in the knowledge that our riding skills and common sense would see us through. That plus the freedom and lifestyle that traveling on a motorcycle imparts has both enriched our lives whilst at the same time the resultant travel experiences have been so rewarding. Now in India it seemed that this all counted for naught and we were shaken to our core, first by the endlessly repetitive idiocy on the roads that constitutes everyday driving in India, then my collision in Jaipur and finally by witnessing the end of this young life.

Gathering ourselves, we regained the highway for an altogether slow and sober ride on to Lucknow. We both felt vulnerable and the intercom was full of warnings to each other as we called out threats as they came in: cow on the highway; truck coming down the fast lane the wrong way; speed bumps across the highway; bus coming up fast from the rear driven by a bhanged-up crazy man zig-zagging through the traffic like he just stole it; car making a U-turn across all four lanes; old man hobbling up the middle of the fast lane on a stick with his back to us and worst of all; young schoolgirl on an oversize bicycle wobbling up the hard shoulder inches from behemoth trucks.

That evening in our hotel in Lucknow we seriously considered abandoning the whole project, recognizing that to do so would pitch our lives into another unknown vacuum. We have never in all of our previous travels contemplated such an action, even when Mags crashed during our Pan-American ride in Patagonia and was nursing a broken elbow. Then we had simply realised a personal limitation (riding on gravel roads), which was something we could act against by avoiding such roads where possible and taking our time when necessary. But riding in India is something altogether far more dangerous and we’d had plenty of signs and warnings culminating in the tragedy witnessed today. As a motorcyclist, the major dangers on India’s roads are all external, utterly irrational and totally unpredictable such as folk driving the wrong way down the highway, livestock likely to appear anywhere on the road and moronic idiots deliberately pulling out of junctions or overtaking in totally blind situations. Any of these scenarios can easily have fatal consequences and we were reminded of Dr. Gheeta’s horrifying statistics of one death every four minutes on India’s roads.

Termination and extraction meant a ride back to some crazy place, like Delhi or Mumbai and then a shipment back to Europe. Beyond that we had no idea what we would do next as we had set our heart and invested all of our dreams in completing this great ride east. Looking at the maps the road east seemed altogether emptier and we convinced ourselves that it must get easier. We also dismissed any idea of a mad dash to get to Myanmar, reasoning it would be safer to continue at our measured pace and ultimately, for all of these horrors on the roads, India remains an incredible country and she still had a few more treasures to yield before we parted our ways.

Next day we took a tuk-tuk to Lucknow Residency, scene of the famous siege from the 1857 mutiny. There were actually two sieges, the first of these lasting 87 days. With so many wounded remaining the British decided to maintain the post and shortly after a second siege was underway, which lasted a further 61 days. Walking through the entrance at Bailley’s Gate the Residency today resembles a huge park yet the buildings and loop-holed walls remain as they had been when the beleaguered garrison was finally relieved. The grounds of the complex were much larger than anticipated and had been overlooked by various buildings in the surrounding town such that the open spaces we roamed today were killing fields for snipers during the siege. Certainly the walls of the various buildings within bore violent witness to many a blast and bullet from the battle.

From Lucknow our next stop on the road east was Kushinagar, the place where Buddha preached his last ceremony and announced that he would soon reach Parinirvana, the final deathless state, and abandon his earthly body. Shortly after, he died here, supposedly from eating the pork that constituted his final meal (although, it has to be said, he was in his eighties). It was an easy highway drive with no further incident that deposited us into the Buddha Marg, the highstreet of what at first looked like a sleepy little village. Then we saw the Stupas and Pagodas representing every major Buddhist state all clustered along the street leading to the final resting place of Buddha himself: the Parinirvana Stupa, with its 6 metre long reclining statue of the dying Buddha shown lying on his right side with his face towards the west. We spent a tranquil day here, enjoying a serene and peaceful experience that we relished given recent events. Beyond, the road east would lead us out of India proper and up through the narrow corridor between Nepal and Bangladesh up into the wild Northeast states of India; Assam, Nagaland and Manipur that would take us eventually into Myanmar. But first time for a nice cup of tea at our next stop… Darjeeling.

The accompanying Photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking here: East Across India

Ellora

The roads north of Hyderabad took us back into the state of Maharashtra and an overnight stop at the little city of Nanded. That day started with a mega-breakfast at Geethas, moved on to a sad farewell to a fabulous host and thereafter evolved into an easy day’s ride that by mid-afternoon led us to what looked like a relatively pleasant little hotel, the Pooja Garden. Time for a peaceful couple of hours catching up with my journal while Mags did some Yoga…

The peace lasted all of five minutes when one of the staff tried to force in the door to our room. He was only delivering some bottled water by barging in unannounced.  As this has happened before in India, we always lock the door. I guess they just want a peek at the strange arrivals on the crazy motorcycles. I went to log on. There was no Internet connection. I called reception. They’d look into it. Somebody else tried to force the door, this time with a little more ‘enthusiasm’. It was still locked. It was another hotel guy, this time to see about the Internet. He came in to the room rubbing his shoulder, had a quick scan around, then said ‘”can I see your computer?” “There it is” I replied. “Ah! It is very weak signal,” he explained. “There is no Internet connection” I retorted. At this he admitted “Ah yes! No Internet. Only at reception”. “OK so why do you advertise Wifi available in all rooms and, more so, why did you need to come up here, try to barge in just to tell me that?” He turned and left. I gave up and worked offline.

An hour later the phone rang just as I was lathered up in the shower (sorry for inflicting that ‘vision’ upon you)… “Come now! Move your bikes!” were the imperatives squawked down the phone. “Pardon?” Mags replied. “Need to move your bikes! Come now!” I finished showering and sauntered downstairs where the manager explained that the bikes were parked at the side of the hotel and were drawing a lot of attention from passers-by. He suggested we move them round the front, into the garden and directly outside reception where the staff could keep an eye on them. We already suggested this on arrival but were told to park them round the side where a rotund security guard, for what he was worth, would keep an eye on them. Now they decided it might be better to move them…

As you can imagine, with these incessant interruptions, we were not best pleased with either hotel or staff as we came down for dinner. What a bunch of twats! The manager met us. “Car is here to take you on Sikh temple trip.” “We didn’t order any car for any Sikh temple trip so would you please just go away and leave us alone.” “Yes but car. He is here…he is waiting.” Clearly this day was ending with us cast as hapless victims in India’s very own ‘Fawlty Towers’ complete with waiters speaking bad ‘Indglish’ instead of Spanish. As befitted the role, I was getting all ‘Basilled’ up and ready to swing for somebody… The hotel staff had pestered us constantly since arrival and now we were being scammed for some hotel-sponsored-temple-trip, costing god knows what, when our hearts desire was no more than a simple beer and a bite to eat. “Please come sir. Here is the driver…” At this a lovely mild mannered gentleman stepped forward and presented a card. It had the name of a doctor friend of Gheetha’s on it. She had called him the previous day asking if he could recommend a hotel for us. He was working this evening but as a welcome treat for these visitors from afar, he had laid on a driver to take us the Sikh temple in town…  Now we were the twats!

The Hazur Sahib Sikh Temple was simply magnificent and one of the most memorable visits of our travels in India. The temple itself is one of five Takhats; places of primary importance to the Sikhs and is the final resting place of Guru Gobind Singh.  He arrived here with emperor Bahadur Shah towards the end of August 1708 as they journeyed south from Rajasthan into the Deccan seeking justice against the perpetrators of the murder of a group of Sikhs that included his young sons. With the emperor proving non-committal the Guru elected to leave the southern procession and remain at Nanded. Meanwhile his enemy Wazir Khan, wary of the time that Gobind Singh was spending with the emperor and to forestall any possibility of royal retribution, sent two assassins to remove the threat. The assassins managed to infiltrate the company surrounding Gobind Singh and when the moment was right they struck. The Guru fought back killing one of his assailants but was badly wounded before his supporters could dispatch the other. Although he initially recovered he re-opened his wounds a few days later while trying to string a sturdy bow, an action that proved fatal. Later the temple was erected to mark the spot where Guru Gobind Singh rose to heaven along with his unfortunately named horse, Dilbag.

A short fifteen-minute night drive through mental traffic took us into the heart of Nanded to the temple where we parked up and, at the driver’s request, removed our shoes and socks. Heads must also be covered to enter so Mags adjusted her scarf while I ducked into a nearby market with our driver to lungi up with a suitable hanky. We entered through one of the huge gateways to view the central shrine, which is sited at the heart of a large flagged pavilion. Entering, we mingled with brightly turbaned worshippers and everyone was very friendly, saying ‘hi’ or just waving a welcome as we padded around the complex. This was our first visit to a Sikh place of worship and the immediate impression was that of peaceful happiness as our eyes sated on the graceful structure of the gateways while strains of religious chanting, music and song filled the air. Nights like tonight are why we love travel; times when you are subject to such an act of kindness and suddenly exposed to new marvels that you previously had no inkling even existed.

The following morning, 26th January, was a national holiday; Republic Day. We figured on quiet roads riding to our next destination; the rock temples of Ellora, but India rarely gives you what you expect as we had experienced last night. We started the day dogfighting through maniacal traffic while trying to circumvent Nanded followed by a good fast stretch of National Highway; NH-222. GPS told us we were on this for 75-miles before the next junction so we settled in for an hour or so of easy cruising, which lasted all of about twenty minutes, when GPS announced ‘recalculating route’. The NH-222 had made a right-turn back in a grubby little village we’d just passed through. A couple of truckers who were parked up confirmed we should have made the right-turn so we rode back to return to the correct route.  Alas our nice ‘NH’ was gone, replaced by a disheveled country back-road. A few miles later and this disintegrated further into a potholed track that is now in our books as one of the worst ‘good’ roads we’ve ever ridden. It ran mostly straight across arable land and we stopped now and again to ask if this really was the route to Aurangabad, the main city near Ellora. No-one had heard of the place and the realization dawned that, with our destination over 100-miles away, we may as well be asking for directions to Timbuktu as most of these simple country folk had probably never strayed more than a few miles from home.

A drone’s eye view of that tarmac strip would probably reveal the finest piece of Scrimshaw known to man such was the tortuous intricacy of its pot-holery. Did we really have 60-odd more miles of this to go? We were crawling along at speeds rarely exceeding 20mph, trying to spare our poor suspension and running gear from the worst of the gaping holes, our minds equally tortured at the prospect of another three hours of this. Then the road really disappeared, totally ploughed up as a prelude to a big chunk of roadworks aimed at rebuilding it and we found ourselves crawling along a footpath past the rubble. Just as we contemplated turning back a trio of youngsters, all mounted on a little 125, broke the good news that there was only another 5-km of bad stuff ahead and after that we would be back on the highway.

Even so, the roads remained bad all day marred by poorly repaired potholes such that we rarely exceeded 40-mph traversing that bleak, featureless backdrop of dull-as-dishwater scenery. It all ended with a ring-road around Aurangabad and then some gravel-strewn twisty roads to the remote ‘Etranger Resort Hotel’, set in the hill country up behind Ellora. A shower and a Kingfisher beer-lube revitalized the pair of us, prelude to a tasty dinner of mouth-watering Aloo Gobi with buttery Paneer Masala, creamy dhal, roti breads, Jeera rice and a dessert of sticky little rum-baba type cakes served in syrup. We had only ordered the Paneer Masala, rice and bread; the rest was  courtesy of the owner who was having a special family meal to celebrate his little daughter’s 9th birthday. This splendid repast all finished with a piece of chocolate birthday cake, hand delivered by a smiling little angel.

In the morning we set out to explore Ellora and ‘explore’ is certainly the right word. We read in the hotel reviews that it was possible to hike to the caves cross-country from the ‘Etranger’. Armed with simple directions from the hotel, “out the back, walk to the river, cross over, turn left and follow into Ellora,” we set out across a spectacular wilderness of baked oatmeal grasslands interspersed with short scrubby trees and spiny bushes. Here we encountered something exquisitely rare in all the length and breadth of this marvelous country called India: utter peace and silence. It was one of those moments when neither of us wanted to speak, to break the silence, just to be content with our suddenly found solitude secure in the knowledge that, for a while, everything was good in the world. The magic of the occasion was heightened when a couple of beautiful Black Buck Antelope suddenly broke cover before us, sprinting away to a safe distance before stopping to turn and stare suspiciously.

The instruction ‘walk to the river’ was missing one vital piece of information, namely that ‘said river’ lay at the bottom of a vast broad valley with no apparent way down. We followed the edge the escarpment we’d been walking across and after about half an hour it started on a scree strewn scramble down into the valley. Using mobile phone GPS courtesy of ‘Maps.me’ we could see that the caves were only a mile or so away across a low saddle that proved a wonderful continuation of this wilderness hike. We saw signs of farming on the land and then a jingling carillon of little brass bells in a stand of trees announced the presence of a herd of glossy black goats. A few moments later and we stumbled upon a small homestead, a vignette revealing nothing more than a shack made of pallets and corrugated iron that lay to the side of a small ploughed field. Our approach set off a couple of farm-dogs who barked noisily at our approach.

The lady of the house was bathing a couple of grubby little children in a metal bucket and the farmer himself dropped what he was doing to silence the dogs. We waved and smiled across the field, hoping there would be no resentment of our trespass. Everyone waved back. The farmer, a short, balding man with a chin full of stubble, wandered over to chat and we asked if this was the way to Ellora. He replied with a kind smile as his eyes lit up and he said ‘come’ and beckoned us to follow as he led the way. We followed our new guide, climbing a broken fence to walk through a magical forest of barren silver trees all the while chasing goat tracks up over the saddle. After about half an hour we reached a staggering viewpoint overlooking a spread of green landscape.  Below us; the carved out rock temples of Ellora. Our guide revealed all with the sweep of his hand and then explained how we could gain access to the site. At this he turned to walk back to his farm. “Whoa!” I said, “please take this small payment for you help today…” An upraised palm expressed a simple “No thanks / not required” gesture. He was clearly a proud man and had guided us out of sheer kindness, wanting no reward for his trouble. We insisted he at least take it for the children and at this he accepted and left us to contemplate Ellora.

I’ll finish for now by directing you to the photographs in the gallery covering the rock temples of Ellora as I fear I am such an unaccomplished wordsmith to attempt to convey the wonder of that place. Suffice to say that everything you see was carved out of solid rock in the side of the mountain between the 5th and 10th centuries AD. There is no construction or fabrication, just the chasing out of each shape from the rock sub-terrain and then the fine detailing. There are thirty-four temples in dedicated groups to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain faiths in a rare example of religious harmony. Until next time, enjoy…

To access the photogallery for this page please click on the following link: Ellora

Mumbai – Gateway to India

The short two and a half hour flight from Dubai to Mumbai was nearly over. The captain had pinged ‘crew to landing positions’ as the lumbering aircraft lost height and descended upon the hazy overcast metropolis. All of a sudden we were catapulted into a scene from ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ as we overflew Mumbai’s infamous slums that surround the airport with shacks and dens right up to the end of the runway. Never before have we seen such a dense compression of humanity, this textured carpet of khaki corrugated cardboard and pallet housing occasionally set off by the odd blue tarpaulin. Yellowed electric lighting winked out here and there from cracks in the labyrinth and everywhere tiny little people were going about their business.

We took a prepaid taxi from the airport. What a fantastic idea! You tell the controller where you want to go, pay a fixed amount up front and then the driver takes you there with no extra charges for traffic hold-ups or detours, nor likelihood of any dumb-tourist taxi-scams. We hit the city at the onslaught of rush hour for an introductory taste of Indian driving. First impressions; it looked no worse than Iran but with a lot more ‘horn’. In Europe the horn is used as a last resort to warn someone suddenly that they may have not seen you. In places like Romania and Bulgaria it was used much more aggressively to signify ‘get out of the bloody way – can’t you see I’m in a hurry… MOVE IT!!! NOW!!!’ Here in India the horn is used in an altogether more polite manner; just a quick ‘mink’ to let the car in front know you are about to cut them up! Thing is, everyone does it but we didn’t see anyone get irate or lose their temper. In fact some big trucks have the words ‘Horn, Please!’ written large across their rear; they just want other road users to announce their arrival and intent to pass.

We drove past more slums. Staring out through the smudgy glass in the back of our little Hyundai taxi, the dwellings reminded me of huts and dens we made as kids in Belfast on wasteground out of old pallets and bits of wood, the gaps stuffed with plastic bags. Yet here families were actually living, wall-to-wall, in such accommodations right up to the kerb of this 6-lane highway. Later we learned that over half of the population in Mumbai live in these slums encompassing everything from beggars and street-hawkers to blue-collar workers. The word ’slum’ implies poverty and underprivilege but the view from our hour or so in the taxi showed an awful lot of industry, activity and community going on as well.

We selected the ‘Dakshin Heritage Hotel’ in Navi Mumbai (New Bombay) to be close to the port for our dealings with the shipping line when the bikes arrive. We took a walk round the block, stepping over a sprawl of sleeping dogs on the pavement outside the front door. Immediately our nostrils were assailed by the pungent whiff of spicy food from the temperance of street vendors just along the way. Around the corner a couple of guys were servicing huge office photocopiers, their tangled innards of gears, springs and inky-stained rollers cluttered all over the pavement. Another shop was busy re-covering sofas with garish fabrics, while next door a tiny shop-like manufactory of stainless steel furniture clanged and banged, the tang of grinder grit and metal polish joining the nasal assault. We were enjoying a case of first-degree culture shock, a mix and mash of sights, sounds, tastes, smells and textures at once so incongruous with each other, yet an assemblage unlike anything else we’ve ever encountered on this planet.

Time then for our first culinary foray, but first an ice-cold beer ending the enforced Dubai drought! Dinner tonight was a fish sheekh-kebab followed by a voluptuous vegetable jalfrezi, mopped up with buttery nan bread, both dishes making any previous Indian food we’ve ever eaten seem like insipid imposters. The following morning another walk and agriculture was added to industry. We watched a fisherman, with his wife and kid, marking off about fifty metres of busy road with rocks and then spread out a haul of shrimp to dry them in the sun, seemingly oblivious of the risk of traffic over-running their harvest. We paid 35p for a guy to slice and chop the top off a coconut, serving it up with a straw for a quick and healthy beverage as we absorbed the magnificent tapestry that is life in India…

One of the delights of travel are the happy collisions with the strange, the new and the unexpected, be it people, sights, foodstuffs, animals, customs and so on. Travelling through most foreign places, these collisions happen now and again and can shock, stun and delight but the incident rate is somewhat measured. That is, up to now. So far in India they are happening endlessly every day; it is ‘travel on steroids’ and it is incredible. On our third day in Mumbai we rode the train for an hour into the big city. We felt like true hoboes as the sliding doors to every carriage were wide open and we could hang out the side for photographs of the passing scenes of life in Mumbai. Huge office blocks, then massive slums with mile after mile of humanity heaped on piles of garbage. Vignettes of kids playing cricket and badminton amidst the squalor, tiny patches of agriculture as people harvested crops grown along the railside and the unforgettable sight of a couple of blokes squatting and having a poo on live rail-lines where minutes before an express train had just blasted past. Mumbai’s rail network moves ten million people every day, that’s nearly three times the entire population of Ireland – every day!

Having arrived in Mumbai at the grand central station (modeled on London St Pancras) we wandered the streets down to see the famous ‘Gateway to India’. As I snapped some photographs Maggie was graciously approached by a lovely little family and invited to have her photograph taken with them. A passing gentleman approached and explained that the family were all visiting from the country and Maggie was the first foreigner they had ever set eyes on. Later, we wound up at the tip of the peninsular in Colaba where we found a busy general street market near the docks area with a lot of brightly coloured fruit and veg stands served by smiling animated people and beautiful women in shockingly vivid saris. We saw a few chickens running loose, then some untethered goats, one of which was rubbing his head on the serrated motorcycle seat cover of a little Indian built ‘Hero Honda’. Turning a corner a young lady led an enormous bullock down the footpath and we took shelter in a doorway to let them pass, incredulous that this was all happening in the midst of such a vast urban setting as Mumbai, miles away from any countryside.

The seafood market announced itself upon our nostrils by a pungent piscine perfume. A woman was gutting fish on the ground. A few feet away lay a reasonably fresh dead rat covered in flies. The same flies were on a rotational migration to her fish… Then we heard a ‘clippity-clop’ sound and turned to see a young man mounted on a striking white stallion with a beautiful gold-embroidered, red saddlecloth. He rode into the midst of the throng then stopped to chat with a couple of mates; another surreal sight in this mad and crazy wonderland…

Returning to our hotel we saw the tail end of a rat disappear down a bolthole behind a power distribution box at the corner of our street. Walking past the same site the following day, ‘Ratty’ was there on top of his mound, a splendid specimen of rodent, feasting on leftover fast-food from the street vendors down the way. Anywhere else we would be horrified, but here it somehow seems normal; we now expect to see ‘Ratty’ at the corner of the street; the shock has gone and it’s all accepted as just another part of the magnificent kaleidoscope that is India. We both feel that everything that has happened on our 5-month journey to reach here has been a mere prelude to something great, something fantastic… That ‘thing’ is India and we are chomping at the bit to see more…

The full Photogallery for this post can be accessed by clicking on this link: Mumbai – Gateway to India 

Dubai Doldrums…

This is a description of the weather in Dubai, as detailed by http://www.accuweather.com for the first few days we were here…

  • Sunday November 1st – Plenty of Sun!
  • Monday November 2nd – Sunshine!
  • Tuesday November 3rd – Sun through High Clouds!
  • Wednesday November 4th – Abundant Sunshine!
  • Thursday November 5th – Brilliant Sunshine!

By Friday we were simply back to ‘plenty of sunshine’. We were starting to wonder if the Arabs here have as many words for ‘sun’ as Eskimos have for ‘snow’. Every day saw the temperature down in the low 30°C’s and, factoring in the humidity here at sea level, it certainly feels like the hottest place we’ve ever been.

Leaving Iran was horrible. Parting with Reza, our guide and constant companion through this wonderful country, was an unbearably sad occasion.   Reza really looked after us and gave us many valuable insights into life in Iran. We were invited for dinner to his home in Shiraz, where we met his beautiful wife, Sayma and his lovely daughter, Raya, his mum and sister joining us for an evening of unsurpassable Iranian hospitality. We had hoped to spend the last day together having a farewell celebration; instead we spent all day at the port of Bandar Abbas negotiating Byzantine customs procedures required to obtain passage for the two bikes to the UAE.

We were under the impression that our ferry tickets were all booked and all we’d have to do was turn up and roll-on / roll-off, having had Carnets and passports stamped to say we were leaving the country, a simple reverse of the entry procedure. It turned out that while we had ferry tickets, booked by the tour agency, the bikes did not. Our tickets cost just under £30 each; the bikes were treated as freight and cost just over £200 each for the one-way passage! The worst part was that we had to be at the shipping office by 8am on that last morning. It then took a very tiresome 8-hours of running around various harbour offices to deal with all of the customs procedures (more smaller sums of money for clearances and photocopying), all the while fending off the advances of various customs agents who wanted $50 each to clear the bikes, all unnecessary as Reza was on the case. Finally at 4pm, with the heat starting to fade from the day and our paperwork finally in order, we bade a final, sorrowful farewell to our travel companion.

We then waited until midnight for the ferry, which should have left at 9pm, to set sail for Arabia. We spent the time chatting with some new friends, Jürgen and Ruth a German couple from Munster, currently travelling around the world in a gigantic MAN camper truck. In this travel malarkey you lose one friend only to gain two! The remainder of the passenger list consisted of a half-dozen backpackers and a number of Iranian families who were working in Dubai. The vessel was spacious so we could spread out and lie down for a kip and were fed a simple but tasty meal of chicken and rice just before leaving. There was also a light breakfast of flatbread, jam and tea in the morning.

During the approach to Sharjah, neighbouring Emirate to Dubai, the captain requested we refrain from taking photographs of the waterfront where a number of building projects were underway to add to the imposing UAE skyline. I can’t imagine anything sensitive unless some of these were naval installations. Once off the ferry we had a few hours of more customs procedures mandating the evaporation of more money (reckon on £90 per bike for ‘stevedoring and delivery’, ‘customs duty’ and ‘customs inspection’)… We started a race with Jürgen and Ruth to see who would finish first… They made a good head start when we were asked to put our soft luggage through an X-Ray machine and they drove off laughing at our misfortune. A suspected stash of illegal drugs turned out to be a bundled blisterpack of daily contact lenses, which took precious time to locate and explain. Then we went to the wrong building for the customs inspection wandering into the ‘Director of Customs’ office where a fine Arab gentleman, dressed in immaculate white kandura, sat behind a plush walnut and leather desk; the director himself. He smiled at us, bade us enter and take a seat. This time our error turned to advantage as our host ordered up some utterly delicious rosewater flavoured coffee served in the finest of china, then called in a minion to take care of the inspection.

Thanking our host, we went with our man and were ushered into the inspection office to have the necessary admin completed. Through a service window we watched Jürgen and Ruth sweating in a queue to have their paperwork stamped.   Our turn to laugh at their demise… but then we got lost, riding around the harbour buildings looking for one final office to get everything ticked off and release papers issued. When we found it there was a big MAN truck just pulling up outside… Conceding defeat I held the door open for Jürgen as he entered to collect his final stamps. To celebrate our arrival in a new land the four of us set off to a nearby Pakistani restaurant and had one of the best curries ever.

The ride into Dubai was an impressive arrival; a haggard sawtooth of mammoth skyscrapers in every shape and form imaginable from simple block to polished ovate, huge spreads to pointy pinnacles. Off in the distance we caught our first glint of sunlight off the Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world at half a mile high. We slept for most of the next two days. Iran had been a relatively exhausting schedule with a lot of miles to cover in short days that ended in busy cities. Now we had to gather ourselves to prepare for India with two more big-ticket admin tasks ahead; organising our Indian Visas and arranging shipment of the bikes to India. The bikes had taken a battering through Asia (both drive chains were badly stretched and clanked horribly as we rode along) and needed a good service.

The first shock was the visas; we were told that, as we were not applying in our country of residence, these would take 15 working days to process the applications and then a further 4 -5 days to obtain the actual visas. Possessing only 30-day tourist visas for the Emirates it was going to be tight. It also meant we had to wait for the shipping until we knew for sure what was happening with the visas to avoid incurring storage costs. The second shock was that we were unable to obtain bike insurance. It is mandatory here yet only available to residents on an annual policy basis. This meant using the bikes only when necessary and added delay in Dubai, which can be a pretty costly place to stay.

At this point we received a helping hand by fellow biker and Facebook Friend; James Draycott-Lovell. James recently moved here to take up post as chief engineer on a local super-yacht and helped us tirelessly with references for our visa application and also in getting somewhere to service the bikes. We spent a pleasant evening with James at a marina-side bar against the spectacular backdrop of yet more glittering skyscrapers having a good old natter about life in Dubai, life at sea and of course, our common passion; motorbikes. A really big thanks to you James, for all your help!

With the visa applications all sorted and submitted, we turned to servicing the bikes and the excellent team of mechanics at SRG Motorsport, as per James recommendation, who soon had the oil changed and new chain and sprocket kits fitted. Although our tyres were only half-worn we decided to replace these too and take the old tyres with us as spares to India where we learned that getting tyres for big bikes has become very difficult due to recent changes in the law. All motorcycle tyres require an Indian ‘type approval’, meaning they have to undergo safety testing before this approval is granted. Given there are no big bikes in India it is not economically viable to gain this approval for the tyres for our bikes and they can be hard to source in country.

We now settled in for a long, seemingly dry, wait for the visas… The last booze we’d had was in Armenia as Iran is totally dry.  We managed to convince ourselves that this two week furlough, saving a bit of money and giving our livers a rest, was bound to be a good thing, wasn’t it? Well no, it wasn’t. It was like crossing a desert without a sniff of water. Imagine, if you would, travelling to a place called ‘Shiraz’, with not a drop of the stuff in sight, nor to be had for hundreds of miles; well that’s just cruel! We missed it most at mealtimes when plates of delicious Iranian food were just begging a glass of decent grape to wash them down. Instead we had a glass of Doogh (pronounced Dook) a buttermilk drink that, whilst refreshing, just didn’t cut it the same as a tall glass of chilled white wine.

Dubai and the UAE are also ‘officially’ dry, however given the numbers of immigrants it is permissible to buy alcohol in bars, where it is very expensive, or in stores for personal use but only if you hold a residents permit. We met Ruth and Jürgen for a quenching of the collective thirsts at, of all places, ‘the Dubai Irish Village’. This little oasis has a bar, a replica Irish post office with phone box, a souvenir/craft shop and a huge beer garden making it the perfect spot for Germano-Celt fraternisation. In one grand and memorable evening we managed to shorten the duration of our trip by several weeks as we literally liquidised budget, converting it to some of the finest black stuff known to man, but it didn’t half put a smile on our faces!

Dubai itself, for all that it is host to the worlds tallest building, the worlds longest, driverless metro-rail, the world’s biggest shopping mall (Dubai Mall with over 1600 stores), is a bit of a soulless place lacking any sense of history or culture. Even the old city souks, the one place with a bit of character, are under threat. We wandered the slowly disappearing spice souk, whose trade has been usurped by multiple Carrefour Hypermarkets, having read that developers are already eyeing up the site for the next tower block.

I found it hard to make any sense of the place with all these mega-blocks sprouted up along this desert coastline, where people come to work and earn money; mostly it seems building more mega-buildings. And they work hard. We spoke to Indian, Nepalese, Pakistani and Filipino folk employed in hotels, restaurants and driving taxis all here to earn good money and dreaming of the day they can leave and go home to rejoin wives and children, where these wages make a big difference. Taxi drivers all work a 12-hour shift, seven days a week with no holidays. Daily targets must be attained and failures are penalised.

For all that Dubai was a pleasant sojourn; everything was orderly, clean and tidy and the people unbelievably polite and well mannered; gentlemen offered Mags their seat almost every time we rode on the crowded metro. Then some good news; the Indian Consulate requested our passports for visa processing after five working days, not fifteen… four days later we had six-month visas for India. In parallel we kicked off our shipper, ‘Aztec Logistics’, who organised packing and loading of the bikes for the boat to Mumbai. All of a sudden we were free to go, released from these doldrums of Dubai and India will be the next stop on this breathtaking journey…

Please click on the following link to the photogallery for this blog: ‘Dubai

Iran

Iran: never have we travelled to any destination with more warnings from friends at home to ‘take care’, ‘be safe’ and even ‘hope you make it OK’. Many thought we were plain crazy and someone even suggested we might be putting ourselves in a situation where we would need rescuing at some point… I guess with all the media hype on Iran it’s understandable. A country of religious fanatics led by mad Ming-bearded Mullahs and dark-browed Ayatollahs bent on developing nuclear weapons to destroy Israel and America forever. On top of that, along with US and Canadian visitors, UK nationals currently require a guide to visit Iran, which is expensive.

Against that Iran for me will always be Persia; land of ancient civilisation and empire, the place where Darius built his Persepolis and the mighty Xerxes set out to invade Greece. Tales from other overlanders we’d spoken to abounded with stories of incredulous hospitality from a warm and welcoming people. And finally, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become a lot more skeptical about the accuracy of some of our news-feeds and the way they portray events. Remember WMD? We were going in to kick Sadam Hussein’s butt over a load of fabricated nonsense that totally destroyed a country leaving an unstable melting pot that has spread to neighbouring areas and spawned unheard of levels of fanaticism and terrorism as a result. Weighing everything up and with a guide all arranged to meet us at the border we decided it was safe enough for us to go and see Iran for ourselves.

Still, it’s one thing talking about an undertaking and another actually realising it… I will admit to a certain sense of unease as we left the Armenian border town of Agarak for the ten-minute drive to the border. Lofty crags that appeared so picturesque yesterday now assumed a Mordorian aspect as we rode to our doom, a feeling enhanced by the garrison of some two-thousand Russian troops at this sole border crossing between Armenia and Iran. The border was quiet; the only sound was that of money changing hands as the Armenians fleeced us of our last remaining Drams in ‘customs handling fees’ before we left their country. Our passports were then scrutinised under a magnifying glass by two more customs agents before a final check by some Russian soldiers released us onto the bridge that spanned the border.

On the Iranian side we encountered three grim-looking, AK-toting soldiers dressed in baggy desert camo-gear. They gruffly noted our number plates and nationality in a big book and then, switching to smiles and grins, welcomed us to Iran. Customs procedures took another half hour, getting our passports stamped and using our ‘Carnets de Passage’ for the bikes for the first time. We rode on to a final barrier and there, patiently waiting for us was Reza, our guide for the next two weeks.

The guide requirement almost stopped us from visiting Iran at all; it’s just not our cup of tea. Travelling on our bikes we are masters of our own compass, ready to change direction on a whim or a fancy, able to linger or move on just as we like. Now we had a two-week schedule ahead, a man to shadow and show us where to go at every step of the way and we were paying handsomely for the ‘privilege’. Yet the alternative was to miss Iran, take a more northerly route that would entail bad roads and ultimately lead us to China where we’d need a guide anyway. So we wound up on a two-week tour, courtesy of Iran Traveling Centre based in Shiraz, with stops at Tabriz – Rasht (up on the Caspian Sea) – Tehran – Isfahan – Yazd – Shiraz (and nearby Persepolis) all finishing in Bandar Abbas where we would take the ferry to UAE.

We immediately took to Reza with his soft brown eyes and welcoming smile that flashed a very warm welcome as the guard raised that final barrier at the border. Any notion that we would be stuck with some expensive fool for a fortnight was quickly dispelled on our first day’s ride from the border to Tabriz. Reza proved to be a gentleman in every sense of the word. He drove a Rodius people-carrier that we used to mule our luggage and served as a teapot / snackery for every roadside stop.

Reza was an invaluable fixer. He was polite, courteous and very knowledgeable about the sites we visited. His first service was to advise Maggie on her attire. In Iran all women must wear the Hijab (headscarf) to cover their hair and neck. Loose flowing clothing is also recommended, such that any suggestion of female form is swaddled and obscured. We read some pretty horrendous stuff online that would have you believe that all women need to be bagged and bound from head to toe, but once in country the dress code was fairly relaxed and the Hijab was not as onerous as Maggie had anticipated.

Iran, the country, was an amazing place from end to end. The ride to Tabriz was a continuation of the great and beautiful mountain road we’d been following since we left Georgia and all the way through Armenia. Tbilisi to Tabriz is without a doubt one of the most stunning motorcycling roads on the planet and this Iranian tail as it finally leaves the mountains, which by now had gathered a dusting of snow, is simply glorious with wow,wow,wow views in every direction. Then the cities with blue-tiled mosques, tombs and shrines, backstreets and bazaars with all the hustle, bustle and tussle of highly animated and friendly people going about their daily business. The icing on the cake was a day at the ancient ruins of Persepolis and the even more impressive tombs at Naqsh-e-Rostam where we stood in awe at the last resting places of Darius the Great, Xerxes and Artaxerxes an impressive lineage if ever there was one.

Iran and food yielded surprises that were delightful and surprising; fresh carrot juice and vanilla ice-cream? Try this one at home and you’ll be surprised at what a lovely drink this makes. Khak-Shir – a delicious and refreshing suspension made from mustard seeds in rosewater sipped at Persepolis gave us fresh legs to once again wander the ruins under a stifling hot sun. Then there was ‘Dizzi’ – a real blokes dinner. A runny stew made from tender chunky meat and vegetables in a savoury tomato sauce all served up in a dedicated iron ‘Dizzi Pot’. There is even a little ritual to prepare it all for eating. First the liquid is drained off into a dish where shredded bread is added to soak up all the juice. For the rest a chunky metal pestle is used to mash up the remaining solids, which can now be woofed with a spoon before devouring the soggy bread in juice. Hit the spot every time!

And so to the highlight of Iran; it’s people. There are no large motorcycles in Iran, 250 being the maximum engine capacity permitted for locals, therefore our two, comparatively large, yellow bikes understandably drew attention everywhere we stopped. We arrived during Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar and the setting for a massive and very colourful 10-day long commemoration. In particular the final day, Ashura, is marked by Shi’a Muslims as a day of mourning of the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of Mohammed, at the Battle of Karbala (c. 680AD) in Iraq.  Husayn had refused to pledge allegiance to newly appointed caliph, Yazid I, considering the ruling Umayyad regime as unjust and religiously corrupt. To avoid confrontation, he set out on the road to Medina and it was on that road that his peaceful entourage of followers and family was intercepted by the Caliph’s army and massacred.

The moral stance taken by this giant in the pantheon of Islamic saints and heroes, whereby he demonstrated complete sacrifice for God and for others, has become a cornerstone of the Shi’a religion. Ashura is a day of grieving over Husayn’s sacrifice and it is said that “a single tear shed for Husayn washes away a hundred sins”. Everywhere buildings were festooned with flags and banners bearing the cipher of Husayn, often depicted with blood dripping from each letter. At major intersections leading out of towns, volunteers from local Mosques were stenciling the name of Husayn on the rear windows of cars in blood-red water-based paint.

We were grateful to Reza for explaining all of this to us, as the spectacle on the streets was a bizarre and slightly intimidating thing indeed for the non-initiated to contemplate. On the one hand there were all these blood dripping ciphers on black flags set against the very serious mood of the congregation on the streets, many of whom were dressed in black mourning garb with a lot of wailing and groaning. All of this was ultimately in appreciation of the sacrifice made by Husayn in his martyrdom and in the past, practices of self-suffering have been enacted ranging from spouts of chest-beating to more severe acts of flagellation.

At the little town of Naein, on the road to Yazd, we observed first-hand some of these practices, where local communities gathered for a series of processions through the town mosque. We filtered through narrow backstreets in a throng of people to witness an incredible spectacle. Suddenly a powerful clash of drums and cymbals announced the start of the next parade, the men chanting as they walked and whipping their backs with chain flails while black chador clad women looked on. As complete outsiders we were amazed at the dedication of everyone involved, but then again it was a serious occasion for a pious people at their worship. At the far side of the mosque, parade complete, the people returned to the normal smiling folk we’d grown to love in our travels through this amazing place.

Another feature of Muharram is the provision of free food and gifts from local mosques and communities. On our way out of Isfahan we were accosted by smiling volunteers at some red traffic lights and loaded up with scrummy cake bars and a delicious beverage of cinnamon-flavoured, hot chocolate milk. Reza was on hand to collect everything and load it into the car and we stopped just up the road to savour these delicious offerings. But this was just another aspect of the kindness and hospitality of the Iranian people and it was bestowed upon us at every opportunity. Getting ready for the road in early morning Tehran a guy came up with a tray of hot apple-stuffed pastries from a local bakery and insisted we take some. Others stopped with offerings of apples, pomegranate, oranges, each offering accompanied by salvoes of smiles and handshakes. Then there was Darab, a small town visited on our last day on the road to Bandar Abbas. Darab will forever go down in our travelogues as simply the friendliest place on the planet, a place where we almost blocked the road with a gathering crowd of well-wishers and the simply curious.

We had stopped to meet with Hossein, one of Reza’s cousins and the plan was to have lunch there. Iran travels on the little Honda CG 125 and it’s various Iranian / Chinese / Indian copies. Suddenly we had dozens of them around us and a sea of smiling faces, all curious as to where we came from and asking ‘what did we think of Iran?’. Maggie was soon off her bike having her photograph taken with people’s children. An old guy on a dilapidated silver CG arrived with a huge flatbread balanced across the petrol tank. Chunks were broken off as we broke bread with our smiling beneficiary. A car stopped and a hand emerged from the dark interior with the gift of a pomegranate. A local shop-owner appeared with a rice dinner! It was slightly daunting to be the centre of so much attention and, in the end, Reza collected up all of the offerings and we made our way to his uncle’s restaurant where we had the best kebabs in Iran for lunch.

If there was a down side to Iran it was the traffic. Driving on the open road was fairly easy with none of the suicidal overtakes encountered in Georgia but town driving was the most manic free-for-all you can imagine. Lanes meant nothing. A major high street with two lanes in each direction yielded at least four cars going each way with a colloid of CG 125’s filling the gaps. When we followed Reza into Tabriz on our first night I looked under his car at the hotel to see if I could see the Scalextric brushes, as I was convinced that the Iranians had discovered some way to power their cars off the white lines as they drive along. I finally figured the logic of it; if you drive along the white line then you have a choice to continue in the left or right lane as appropriate. This is quite fine if there are no other road users around but when everyone does it, chaos ensues.

To spice it all up, it was now late October, getting dark around 5:30pm and we had a few night arrivals. Rasht on our first full days ride was especially horrific in the dark and our intercom was alive with incoming combat reports as we battled our individual dogfights with these crazy drivers. Through it all, Reza was brilliant. He quickly understood our riding abilities and matched his driving to suit, shielding us from the odd lunatic and taking care through especially busy junctions. Then we’d arrive at the hotel for the night, the crazy drivers all dispersed for the day and we were once again be surrounded by smiling, lovely people…

So that was Iran, a great country that has certainly left an indelible impression upon us. At the mention any country, you will have two impressions of that place. One is determined by the actions of its government in the world at large and the other by the actions of the people you meet from that place. The more we travel the more we realize that the government is very definitely not the people, who are basically the same wherever you go regardless of race or colour, creed or religion. We all strive for similar needs and aspirations. This is all becoming more apparent in the modern world where media and mass communication are now firmly in the public domain and ever more remote from governmental control.

This was so apparent in Iran where we could sense a huge undercurrent of change. Following the revolution in the 1970’s the country entered a dark age of puritanical intolerance that isolated it from most of the world though sanctions and censure. Recent moves to retire their nuclear capability are moving in the right direction and it was clear from everyone we spoke to, from old folk who remembered the era of the Shah to the younger generation in touch with the outside world through modern media, that this is the real wish of the Iranian people; to once again be a respected and tolerant partner on the world stage. We wish them well on this journey, which is only just beginning…

Iran was an immensely colourful place. Consequently there are four photogalleries associated with this blog. Please click on the following links for access:

Georgia and the Ginger Cows

Crossing the border into Georgia was a quick formality; 10 minutes to exit Turkey and thank the smiling customs officers for their lovely country, then a short queue where we were questioned by two Georgian uniforms; when we explained our purpose they moved us to the top of the queue. Five minutes later we had a one-year tourist visa for Georgia and were waved on our way by more smiling officials. I hope all future borders are like this one!

Given that we’d only decided to visit Georgia last week it was a place we knew very little about and consequently had almost zero expectations, which we have found, in the past, to be a good thing. It was our first ever visit to a former USSR Socialist Republic and the only famous Georgian we knew of was Josef Stalin who was born (we learned) in the appropriately named town of Gori. We weren’t even sure if the country is in Asia or were we going back into Europe? According to a BBC article “One definition of Europe marks the Caucasus Mountains as its border, putting Georgia firmly in Asia. Other definitions place the whole Caucasus region, including Georgia, in Europe, which is where most Georgians feel it belongs.” Indeed the EU flag is prominently displayed at many public buildings and this is probably more of a statement that they never want to go back to the Soviet times. My favourite description of Georgia is that it is like a little balcony of Europe, overhanging into Asia.

The change in the country beyond the new frontier was immediate. Gone were the mosque and the minaret, the glittering red flags and (thankfully) no more trash and landfills. Georgia welcomed us first with huge flashy billboard ads for casinos in Batumi, our first stop and then proceeded to try and kill us with multiple attempts on our lives by the most maniac drivers we’ve come across anywhere. Okay, okay, we knew the driving would get worse as we progressed east and I’m sure this is not a patch on what we’ll encounter in India but it’s still a shock. We were not required to purchase bike insurance at the border because there isn’t any. While we’re on the subject, Georgia has only recently introduced a driving test; prior to this anyone could ‘have a go’ and boy does it show.

The result is mayhem on the roads. Everyone just goes for it, full throttle, taking advantage of each and every opportunity to make progress as fast as possible. There are no rules on the roundabouts where ‘who dares wins’. Most of the time it sort of works but impatience is deadly and we’ve had ringside seats to a number of breath-sucking, suicide overtakes; flash cars overtaking at high speed approaching the brow of a hill or a blind bend. You just know if anything is coming the other way, then there is absolutely nowhere to go and a horrific accident will result. After a few days we saw our first ‘aftermath’ on the road to Gori; a Toyota Landcruiser that had been in a head-on, police everywhere trying to clear up the mess. The car looked brand new and it had been folded in half such that the front wheels were tucked under the belly pan, touching the rear wheels. Everyone slowed down to have a look but then a few miles up the road they’re all at it again and obviously the sight of the recent carnage has given no cause for any moderation of driving habits.

Georgia we also discovered is the land of the Ginger Cow. There are thousands of them and they are everywhere. Now I like my cows; big bright-eyed bovine things with pretty lashes, giving us all that lovely dairy product, beef and leather. And who doesn’t like the sound of a Moo? But here in Georgia these rusty moos are free to roam, turned out onto every street, road and major carriageway. As if the nutters in the cars aren’t enough to contend with we’ve also got these dandering cows adding to the list of road hazards. Occasionally they will be tethered outside a property so they can graze the grass frontage. Unfortunately this means they can wander just about half way across the road, tether now taut, ready for the unwary…

If I had to sum up Georgia and our time here in one word, that word would be ‘incongruous’. Everywhere we have travelled we have met the unexpected and seen sights that have baffled and bewildered, which all makes for a fantastic travel experience. The first incongruity was Batumi; sizeable city on the Black Sea coast and our first stop in from Turkey. Former Soviet republic, casinos? We were expecting something slightly run-down and seedy, possibly rendered in concrete and block. We were met by a monstrous skyline of impressive modern skyscrapers and towers and there has clearly been a lot of investment here with all the major chains present; Hilton, Radisson, Crown Plaza etc. The architecture is certainly love-it-or-hate-it but it is an impressive sprawl. The culture shock on arriving from Turkey was a giant leap from bygone biblical to the latest Las Vegas.

We decided to spend an extra day or two meandering the high-rises and enjoying walks along the newly built ocean boulevard. Batumi also has a beautiful old town; once again that incongruity with the rest of place. Within a few blocks we’d parted Vegas and were now wandering downtown New Orleans or possibly even Havana with a neat grid of balconied ancient housing running down to the sea in sun-scorched streets, a bit run down but so full of character. Finally down by the harbour a modern art installation; ‘The Lovers’. A huge pair of statues of a man and a woman rendered in slices of stainless steel and mounted on two gear wheels such that both slowly rotate. At times they were moving away from each other until they stood remote, facing apart, irreconcilable and looking in opposite directions. But then they would gradually come together again and when they did their bodies met, at first in a kiss, then merged until they became one. It was at once a very graceful and clever piece of sculpture.

Leaving Batumi we said farewell to the Black Sea and rode east across the country. Our next planned stop was Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, but in the absence of clear street signs we couldn’t locate our intended accommodation. A foray into the manic traffic of the city centre failed to yield a suitable alternative so we set GPS to take us to a nearby town called Tskaltubo, purely on the grounds that there seemed to be a lot of hotels there and on the map it looked like a gateway to the mountains.

Once again Tskaltubo would prove to be totally different to anywhere we’ve ever been. The town seemed to be laid out in a vast parkland with fantastically wide meandering avenues, the sort you could maybe drive a May-Day parade down. GPS led us up one of the tree-lined avenues to a hotel, which turned out to be a derelict villa. We rode in through the broken gateway to find a paved courtyard whose sole occupant was an ancient rusting car laid up on blocks with wheels missing and open bonnet. The windows of some of the rooms were broken but it was clear that people were squatting here. We did a quick U-turn and left. The next ‘hotel’ was the same; another derelict villa with bed-linen airing from weed encrusted balconies like so many grey flags flapping in the wind.

On our next lap of the town we discovered a spick and span 50’s-style spa-sanatorium that wasn’t derelict but had us now wondering if we’d travelled down some time-hole. We finally found a small hotel (the Argos) with a friendly receptionist and booked in for the night as it was getting late in the afternoon. In its heyday, Tskaltubo was a famous spa resort and one of Stalin’s favourite holiday spots. In fact a lot of the senior party members and military leaders had villas here and the place was frequented by over 100,000 visitors every year; last year it had 700. Since the demise of Stalin the place has fallen out of favour and the villas gone to ruin. The ‘squatters’ we’d seen turned out to be former refugees as the place was used to re-house thousands following the genocide that took place in the war with the north-western province of Abkhazia in 1993.

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia (and also South Ossetia, another province within Georgia) saw an opportunity to once again stake a regional claim for independence. It led to open war and ethnic cleansing on an unimaginable scale for these recent times. In one city alone, Sukhami, 10 – 15,000 Georgians were brutally murdered in a two-week killing spree and the net effect of the war has seen the displacement of some 200,000 Georgians forced to flee the province. The recent history of Georgia is a sad story indeed and today the country appears to have lost both Abkhazia and South Ossetia to separatists backed by Russia.

From Tskaltubo we took a short day trip into the nearby mountains to visit ‘Prometheus Cave’. In Greek mythology Prometheus was a Titan who, feeling sorry for the newly created naked and vulnerable human beings, bestowed upon them the gifts of fire and metalwork to help them in their struggle through life. His action angered Zeus who had Prometheus chained to rock in the High Caucasus Mountains to be tormented each day by an eagle that tore out and ate his liver. The liver grew back in the night but the eagle always returned to devour it afresh in the morning. Legend has it that the place where Prometheus was chained is on the high peak of nearby Khvamli Mountain so from this local association, the name has been bestowed on the cave, which was only discovered in 1984.

On entering the cave we followed a path for over a kilometer that led us through an underworld of every size and form of stalagmites and stalactites imaginable. In places they have melded to create vast cascades of stone curtains and tapered organ pipes, gracing the rock with fluidity in its form. Narrow corridors and channels linked a series of some sixteen larger caverns and a guide led our small visitor party through, explaining each form and feature in a muted voice appropriate for this reverend place. The exit route was more magic as it involved an underground boat trip that led us once again into the daylight.

Prometheus Cave was one of those places where you emerge a lot calmer and refreshed than when you went in. There is something special about entering these vast dark spaces, your mind processing the vision of the alien speleology on display, the pin-drop silence interrupted only by the sound of your own breath as you take in lungs full of chill pure air and stand open mouthed in awe at the majesty all around. In fact, road chaos aside, this is probably a good summary that would fit the whole country of Georgia itself. It really is a magical land and certainly ranks as one of the best diversions in all our travels (and we’re only half way through…!)

The corresponding photo-gallery for this blog is Georgia Part 1

Cappadocia

Returning to Turkey, we flew all day starting with an 11am flight from Dublin to Istanbul and then on in the early evening to Kayseri, the minibus dropping us off at the Özsoy Apartment at 1:20am the following morning. Fikret had stayed up all night to warmly greet us and had our room ready and waiting. We spent a somewhat jet-lagged day re-packing everything, having taken advantage of the return home to abandon the last of our camping gear and lighten our load (the tent was left at Motocamp in Bulgaria as we simply were not using it).

For the next week we marveled at the breathtaking otherworld that is Cappadocia. Its name is a derivative of the Persian “Katpatukya – Land of Beautiful Horses” but as noted in the previous blog, the most striking features are the geography and geology of this alien landscape. The terra-forming is utterly bewildering, leaving one wondering if this is a view of an ancient landscape sculpted by weather and time or is it some hole-in-time glimpse into a future fusion based landscape molded for a post-apocalyptic world.

The landscape was created eons ago when three huge volcanoes surrounding the region slathered and smeared deposits of volcanic ash, lava and basalt and generally made a right untidy mess of the place. Earthquakes, wind and rain have rearranged this such that today it looks like a crazy artists palette splattered across hundreds of square miles with whippy meringue points and peaks in a profusion of pastel colours from pinks and purples through sulphurous oranges and yellows to warm and cold blues and greys. The net effect is a creation unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else on this planet.

The area has been settled by man way back as far as the Paleolithic era. It has been a jewel for several empires, a kingdom in its own right, is mentioned several times in the bible and as with the rest of Turkey was fought over and conquered by invader upon invader, sometimes coming from the west at other times from the east. And this is where history and geology combine; the soft substrates that make up the labyrinth of the Cappadocian landscape have lent themselves to caving and tunneling even to the extent of creating underground cities for those in need of a good hidey-hole.

Like early Christians who hid and worshipped here, converting some of the caves into exquisitely decorated churches and the best examples of these were on show at Göreme, the Grand Central of the attractions with its Open-Air Museum. We tried getting there early in the morning to avoid the crowds but it was useless as busloads of Japanese and Spanish tourists soon thronged the pathways making it feel more like a trip to the sales than a visit to a national park. All of the churches we visited had been vandalized, especially any depictions of saints, prophets or other holy people, where the faces have been savagely hacked. Here, at least in the Open Air Museum, many of these are undergoing restoration.

Abandoning the museum after an hour, we wandered down into the little town of Göreme itself, straying off the road to investigate interesting looking features along the way; cave houses, holes in the rocks and a natural arrangement of rock and stone that looked huge bunny rabbit, all of it bewilderingly beautiful. In the town many caves are still used as dwellings and some of the bigger complexes have been turned into very trendy boutique hotels.

A day later and we are wandering amongst even more marvelous rock in Red Valley. Leaving the bikes in the car-park, we got pleasantly lost in the myriad of pathways through the enormous pink pointy cones, remnants of what are known in the area as ‘Fairy-Chimneys’. Later this blended to a landscape of dove-grey and snow-white mushroom headed features, all of it so easy on the eye and calming on the soul. It was one of those places where we didn’t speak much but just wandered along lost in the beauty of the place.

In the afternoon we rode to Pigeon Valley, so called because many of the caves here had been used as dovecotes and this led us to the fabulous castle of Uçhisar. The castle itself is another monstrous Mad-Max rock formation, this time a huge block arising and dominating the area for miles, all cut through with weird chambers and windows. The reward for the strenuous hike to the top was unparalleled ‘King of the Castle’ panoramic views over Cappadocia in every direction.

From Uçhisar we rode back through Göreme and took another little breathtaking backroad that dumped us in the midst of a phallic phalanx of ‘Fairy Chimneys’ leaving every guy there in a depressive state of penis envy. These impressive rock formations are formed when there is a hard material thinly deposited over a thick softer underlying substrate. Over time, cracks in the upper layer allow the much softer rock beneath to be eroded and washed away to leave some fairly impressive columns, in some cases up to 45-metres tall. ‘Fairy Chimneys’ are created when a small cap of the upper hard layer remains, protecting what eventually becomes a stem of the underlying softer layer from erosion. With their capped heads they look like mushrooms, but here in Cappadocia they are so long and slender they look like something else and we both agreed that ‘Fairy Chimney was probably a Turkish euphemism… Ultimately, further erosion of the soft layer causes the cap to eventually fall off, and the stem is then quickly eroded into the cone shapes abundant across the rest of Cappadocia.

We caught the Fairy Chimneys at that magical hour of dusk as the sun was settling low in the sky, its light diffused by dust in the atmosphere, the horizon orange and red and flaring the grey rocks of the stone columns to peachy pinks. The crowds had gone home and we had the place mostly to ourselves for peaceful contemplation over recent events.

Cappadocia held one last surprise in the form of a longer ride out to visit Ihlara Valley, a superb walk along a canyon cut deep by the Melendiz river that runs for 10-miles in south west Cappadocia. The valley, with its obvious and natural water supply, was a natural hide-away for early Christians and contains more than four thousand cave-dwellings and around one hundred cave churches decorated with frescoes. It is thought that up to eighty thousand people once lived here, mostly Greeks who indeed populated most of Cappadocia up until 1923 when they were forcibly evicted in the fore-mentioned population exchange between Greece and Turkey (see previous blog).

Before leaving Cappadocia I must also mention Ürgüp, our base throughout our stay here. It is another ‘cave-town’ overlooked by another Mad-Max citadel and a place where we felt quite at home and so well looked after by our host, Fikret, at the Özsoy Apartment. But it was time to leave Cappadocia and take the road north to the Black Sea and from there continue ever east.

The related photogallery for his blog is at Cappadocia

Dark Days in Cappadocia

From Pamukkale we followed roads east with our eye set on what would eventually prove to be the jewel in the Turkish crown of dreamy destinations, Cappadocia: that unique place where geography, geology and history all collide to create what must surely be one of the most stunning travel locales on the entire planet. Along the way, we stumbled upon another little treasure in the form of the Turkish Lake District. Up until Pamukkale, Turkey had seemed relatively cluttered, the coast road a mish-mash of tourist resorts and industrial cities interspersed with the fabulous ruins as previously related. Now the country was opening up to us with sweeping vistas over sun-scorched grasslands as we penetrated the Anatolian hinterlands.

Our destination was the beautiful town of Eğirdir, resting peacefully at the foot of Mount Sivri on the shores of a crystal clear lake the size of a small ocean. Both town and lake were formerly called Eğridir, a Turkish take on the town’s old Greek name ‘Akrotiri’  meaning simply the peninsula. As we were finding all over Turkey, delving back into the local history was like peeling back the layers of an onion of ancient empires and civilizations. Founded by the Hittites, the town was conquered by Phrygians in around 1200 BC, then by a succession of Lydians, Persians, Macedonians (Alexander the Great), Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks and finally the Ottomans in 1417. Since then the population had remained essentially Orthodox Greek up until the 1920’s, when they were forcibly repatriated to Greece as a dark consequence of the recent Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922). Through this compulsory population exchange, 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks moved West while around half a million Greek Muslims moved East, all ratified under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. To give the exchange some idea of proportion, in 1906, nearly 20 percent of the population of present-day Turkey was non-Muslim; by 1927 this had reduced to a mere 2.6 percent.

Under the new regime, Greek Akrotiri became corrupted to Turkish Eğridir. Unfortunately the new name means “it is crooked” in Turkish. To dispel such negative connotations, in the 1980s the “i” and the “r” were transposed to create Eğirdir meaning ‘she who spins’.  And the town does indeed spin a magical serene beauty. The famous 14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta described it as “a great and populous city with fine bazaars and running streams, fruit trees and orchards”… situated beside “a lake of sweet water”.

A small peninsula does indeed strike out into the lake from the town and here the Romans built a Kale (fortress). We passed its ruins on our way out to the tip of the peninsula, where the delightful Hotel Merci furnished us with a cozy bed for a few days. The beauty and tranquility of the place was enhanced by the fact that it was almost deserted. Whilst the lakes are shunned by many tourists, due to their reputation for being rainy, we were starting to notice the disastrous impact of the current events on Turkeys borders on the tourist trade. Outside the major attractions there is no one here, even though the terrible events are happening hundreds of miles away. It has heightened our own visit to Turkey yet we feel sorry for those engaged in the tourist trade as their customers are staying away, hotels remain nearly empty and sightseeing tours are unfilled.

Replenished from a few peaceful, sunny days on the lake we rode on taking terrific empty roads, straight as a rifle barrel, across vast expanses of grass extending way beyond impossibly blue-skied horizons.   All of a sudden the flat ended and the landscape crumbled and crumpled, the road now jinking through a sci-fi landscape of salmon serrations, canyons and gorges. A magical place of rocky outcrops and fairy chimneys revealed itself, all cut through by some race of Flintstones to create sometimes primitive, sometimes majestic cave dwellings… We had arrived in Cappadocia.

We found a fine apartment at the Özsoy Apart Hotel located in the cave-town of Ürgüp and looked forward to a spell of making, mending and cooking our own food. We had just unpacked when a dreaded email to call home arrived; my younger sister Jackie’s six-year struggle against Breast Cancer was about to end.

Departing on this trip had been a tough call. We had been considering it for several years, all the while with cancer casting its dark shadow over this and everything else that happened in our family. In the end, factoring in commitments with work, our own age, health and condition, we decided to simply go and deal with events as they transpired. It mattered little if we were at home and work in England or Europe or on the road some place; at some time we would have to return to Belfast for all the wrong reasons.

Fikret, the manager at the Özsoy, was simply brilliant. We broke the news to him and he agreed to take care of the two bikes and our luggage while we were away. He even returned with some soup to our room to cheer us up and then organised a mini-bus pick up for the flights back to Ireland.

We landed in Dublin about 5pm and a few hours later were at the hospice with Jackie. She passed away peacefully that night. Once again life had shown us how quickly one can be cast from very high to very low. The funeral, black clothes, grey skies, deep and dark grief… always questioning why? The few weeks at home passed in a blur of sadness made easier simply by being with and around family… My little sister has passed on, her struggle has ended. Her smile and cheery disposition will remain with us always and is a real comfort as we once again return to the road.

Turkey in Ruins!

There is something special about roaming around old graveyards and contemplating the who’s, why’s and wherefores of the interred. Not so much the war graves like Gallipoli with their cargo of mown-down youth, a stark reminder of lives unlived, potentials unfulfilled; so tragic and wrong. A few weeks later and we are roaming a blasted necropolis that has been turned over by Mother Earth through successions of earthquakes over the centuries. Hefty tombs stand at odd angles all broken and collapsed, strewn across acres of landscape like a carelessly tossed box of granite Lego blocks…

Whilst our visit to Gallipoli gave us pause for sad reflection, our next few locations in Turkey left us totally awestruck… Leaving Çanakkale, we plodded along the coast on a road that would deliver us in turn to Pergamon, on to Altincum for a family reunion, then back to Selçuk and nearby Ephesus and finally a ride inland to Pamukkale with its world famous calcite travertines. These sites all lie within Anatolia in the lower southwest corner of Turkey and gateway to the Asia Minor coastline, facing off against Greece and Europe. The area has been a conduit for colonists and invaders with Ancient Greeks building cities along the coast and opening trade with the interior, in turn inviting eastern invaders such as Persians and Seljuk Turks to go the other way. The Romans too used Anatolia as a staging point for further eastern escapades and conquests and ultimately it would host the capital of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire right on its doorstep at Constantinople that would finally fall to the rising power of the Ottoman Empire.

The first record of Pergamon was by Xenophon around 400 BC. The Romans later enlarged the city to a thriving metropolis of around 200,000 souls and by the second century AD it had become a major Christian city. Earthquake and invasion reduced it to the ruins we see today, with the modern city of Bergama sprung up at its feet. Pergamon delighted from the start as we rode up a meandering draw that delivered us to a most beautiful accommodation in the form of the Akropolis Hotel with its shady rooms up on a veranda overlooking a little courtyard complete with swimming pool. With the bikes cooling off inside the gates we wandered off for what turned out to be a gourmet lunch of local Mezze at the Aristonicus Boutique Hotel in their garden full of art and sculpture; beautiful food in beautiful surroundings, probably the best accolade for any eatery. All of this was within an easy walk of the cable car that would take us to the Acropolis (upper city).

On exiting the cable car we ran the gauntlet of souvenir hawkers to pay the entry fee (25TL) that gave us access to the site. Initially it seemed unimpressive, a large football-field sized area full of tumbled blocks and scattered columns, with the odd outline of a ruined dwelling here and there. We wandered over to the far side of the ruins where the land dropped away to reveal a stunning Hellenistic Amphitheatre carved straight out of the hillside. Arriving rather late in the day, the ruins seemed empty as we further explored the interior delights of the Sanctuary of Trajan with polo-mint white marble columns, a photographer’s delight against cornflower blue skies.

Treading the marble paving downhill, we imagined Pergamon as it would have been in ancient times with its commanding views over the River Caicus until disturbed from our daydreams by the three-foot form of a lithe black viper darting across the path before us. It stopped for a split second to look at us, offering a glimpse of a scarily human visage on its olive green head, before turning to disappear under some tumbled blocks. Visits to subsequent ruins now have us treading carefully and watching where we put our hands and feet.

Pergamon was beautiful but our next halt, Altincum, was certainly not. A sprawling resort aimed at ‘Brits-Abroad’, we were suddenly dumped out of Turkey into an ersatz Blackpool only this one had real sunshine. In spite of the location, we had a lovely time with my sister Gina and celebrated her husband Robert’s 50th in fine style. It was great too to spend a little time with Ryan and Becky, leaving off our motorcycling mantle to become plain aunty and uncle for a few days. We would dearly loved to have brought them with us for what came next…

When researching our trip through Turkey the big three seemed to be: the ruins at Ephesus, the calcite pools at Pamukkale and the fairytale landscape of Cappadocia. A short hop took us to the little town of Selçuk, our base for exploring the first of the big three: Ephesus. Selçuk itself proved to be a little jewel of a town where we spent an afternoon wandering more ruins, Christian this time.

One of the things I love about travel is when you suddenly find yourself stood at a location where historical characters actually roamed. We have crossed paths with characters as diverse as Caesar, Napoleon and Churchill. Here, at Selçuk, for the first time we were literally treading biblical footsteps, the town having provided refuge for both the apostle John and the Virgin Mary as they fled persecution following the death of Christ. John is alleged to have settled here, indeed written his Gospel and then died of old age in his nineties. The Emperor Justinian built a huge Basilica over the tomb of St John and, like many ancient sites in Turkey, this was later tumbled by an earthquake.   The Basilica would actually be the 7th largest cathedral in the world were it reconstructed today and remains an impressive site, especially against the backdrop of the Ayasuluk Fortress that dominates the whole town.

Of course the star attraction was a day in Ephesus, reached by a 10-minute Dolmus (little mini-bus) from the town centre. Our day started under a haze of cloud that initially made Ephesus seem a dull shambles of grey and off-white slabs, just so much rubble against a drear backdrop of khaki foliage. We climbed the vast amphitheatre to gain views over the ancient paved highway that led to the harbour. It was our first glimpse of the scale of Ephesus, the largest classical site in Turkey. Built at the mouth of a river this once thriving seaport, one of the largest on the Anatolian coast, was doomed when the harbour silted up and the trade moved on to easier access ports. Like Pergamon, earthquakes and invaders did the rest and the walls came tumbling down.

The sun came out, the sky turned blue and the morning cloud collected into little flak-ball puffs carpeting the canopy above for an hour before transforming into thin wisps that drifted off towards the distant mountains. This all led to some fantastic illumination for Ephesus, now revealed in all its grandeur and a delightful day for us exploring the ancient city and fantastic marvels such as the reconstructed Library of Celsus.

You could spend months exploring the multitude of ancient sites in this area so steeped in history but we had to be moving on. A short Sunday hop took us to Pamukkale, which on approach looked like a huge white spoil heap in the midst of the rolling hill country. The small town itself was a cluster of tacky tourist shops and mostly mediocre restaurants nestled up close to the foot of this natural wonder.   The centrepiece was ‘Aqualand’, an incongruous piece of town planning with crappy multi-coloured water shutes that offended the eye and blaring Turkish pop music relayed over a tannoy-system that was even more offensive to the ear. Unsurprisingly, there was hardly anyone in it. We wandered up to the south (lower) gate to obtain information for our visit tomorrow and were horrified to see what looked like a queue of zombies trudging along the trail up the side of the white mountain, relayed here in droves by the packs of air-conditioned buses from near and far. Maybe it was just like this at the weekend?

Next morning we were at the lower entrance gate at 8am sharp, paid our way in and, with only a few others, had the place to ourselves. Pamukkale means ‘Cotton-Castle’ in Turkish, a reference to the stacked terraces that cascade down the mountain in ‘travertines’, large shallow bowls that fill up with mineral rich water from underground thermal springs. As the water first cools, calcium carbonate is precipitated and then, as the water evaporates under the hot sun, the pools shrink leaving a hard rim. Over the eons these rims have built up to create a series of natural cascades that then overrun with calcite organ pipes to create a natural wonderland.

A short gravel path deposited us at the start of the trail. From here on all footwear must be removed to avoid damaging the calcite underfoot. The main path is mostly underwater and looked like slippery marble but it is crisscrossed by millions of little channels that give surprisingly good grip. We hobbled like constipated penguins, slowly up the mountain, alternating between huge smiles and slack-jawed awe at these most serene surroundings. We found one of the bigger travertines and had it all to ourselves for a while, plunging into the cool waters and scrubbing down with the soft loam. Peering over the rim of our infinite perspective spa-pool we took in the view of distant mountains and all was well in the world… at least for a while.

By 10:30 more penguins had arrived, busloads of day-trippers, dropped off at the top-gate so they could waddle downhill a bit and dip their feet. By lunchtime it was mayhem and the upper courses were literally jam-packed with people waiving selfie-sticks, all vying to get to the edge for a partially unobstructed photo-shot. Having gained the top, we retreated under the shade of some trees and became voyeurs of the throng. I found it strange that folk would bring a camera to this place of unique natural beauty and then decide that the most important image is not their surroundings, but to capture themselves with a smart-phone selfie-stick; the wand of hedonism. The Japanese seemed particularly afflicted but this offered some great photo opportunities to ‘shoot the vain’. Some women had even dolled up… This left us even more bewildered; why would you don make-up, party dress and glitzy high-heels to visit a national park?

The entrance ticket to Pamukkale also permits access to the ruins of Hieropolis, another ancient city at the top of the travertines. We’d initially dismissed this as just another ruin but in the afternoon it offered welcome refuge from the crowds. It proved to be quite spectacular in its own right, especially the reconstructed theatre. Hieropolis grew around the travertines (which are of course ancient in their own right) as a health spa town for wealthy Romans. They claimed that the treatments here would heal all ailments and success was maintained by screening prospective clients; anyone who looked too ill was turned away to maintain the 100% record.

It was here at Hieropolis that we found ourselves wandering that quake-scattered necropolis all alone in an ancient landscape amidst the ruins of a city from another time. Turkey is proving to be a fantastic travel experience and now we must leave these ruins to continue our journey across the Anatolian plateau to wonders anew…

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