• Cycling from Kent to Kerala to raise money for Friends of the Earth, via the world's classic crags.
  • Tom Lloyd-Smith's blog
    Kent to Kerala by bike, rope and crimp

    The end

     

    Enjoying a celebratory coconut at cape Comora, India’s most Southerly point.

    That’s it. I’m now in Sri Lanka, with a connecting flight booked back to the UK in three days time. The last day of cycling was a long one – 120k from just North of Thiruvananthapurum (Trivandrum) and as the final kilo ticked over it was, perhaps inevitably, a bit of an anti-climax; just another day in the saddle. As I counted down the kilo’s it was quite unreal to think that these were the last few pedal strokes of what has been, though I say it myself, an epic journey. I’ve ridden in 17 countries and pedalled just over 11,000 kilos. I’ve crossed six mountain ranges and along the coast of six seas and two oceans. I’ve pedalled through, forests, deserts and jungles, through fields of potatoes, wheat, rice, bananas, walnuts, apples, pears, maize and god only knows what else. I’ve pedalled plateaus, crossed high passes at over 2500m, and at 20m below sea level alongside the Caspian. I’ve cycled in temperatures ranging from minus 10 to plus 40. I’ve battled wind, rain, snow, sleet, sandstorms, dehydration, exhaustion and wild dogs. I’ve been constantly amazed by the generosity and kindness of people who i’ve encountered and, apart from the bastards who stole my bike outside Istanbul, haven’t encountered any maliciousness towards me at all. I’ve slept vacant apartments, in spare rooms, on sofas, in hotels, guest houses, hostels and boarding lodges; in campsites, at the roadside, in fields, under bridges, by railway lines (that was a mistake!), in the desert, in the woods, on wasteland, in graveyards and in peoples gardens and porches. I’ve washed in seas, oceans, rivers, lakes, ponds, irrigation channels, drainage ditches and had the occasional shower. I’ve strained my back and my hamstring, lost the feeling in my hands up to my elbows on a long descent in Turkey and the feeling in my toes on a cold night in Iran. I’ve gone for days without having a conversation with another human being and been mobbed by welcoming faces when I’ve finally pedalled into a town. I’ve encountered a rich menagerie of road kill, from rabbits, cats and dogs, to monitor lizards, snakes, sheep, goats, cows and many more besides. The range of “fuel” i’ve used has been glorious in its diversity; to miss-quote the hungry cyclist the combination of gears and gastronomy is a truly great one. I’ve thought long and hard about the country who’s food iv’e enjoyed the most, but ultimately been unable to make a judgement. Other than eliminating Iran, Turkey and Albania (kebab is all well and good – but every day it’s a bit much), it’s difficult to pick a favourite. France, Italy, Greece, Georgia and India are all strong contenders. I’m going to do some further analysis on the money I’ve spent, but I’ve managed, over the whole trip at least, if not day-by-day, to keep within my anticipated budget.

    So, that’s it. This time tomorrow i’ll be starting to head towards to airport…

     

     

    Posted in Cycling | 3 Comments

    Nearly there…

    After the England vs. India classic and another cracking game against Ireland I pedalled out of Bangalore nearly two weeks ago.

    I’ve been heading south via Mysore, Ooty, Coimbatore and Cochin, through the Bandipur and Silent Valley national parks, and a little more disconcertingly, the Mudamalai tiger reserve. Fortunately, and despite the undergrowth at the roadside seeming to provide ideal hiding for any malevolent Sheer Khan types I avoided finishing this trip as lunch for a peckish tabby. The occasional elephant clearly didn’t know what to make of me and eyed me suspiciously as I pedalled anxiously passed, but thankfully they too proved much less aggressive than the dogs of Azerbaijan.

    Suspicious Dumbo

    Disconcerting sign in the Bandipur National Park.

    I managed to “truck surf” (hang on to the back of a slow moving truck going uphill) for much of the long 1500m ascent into Ooty which took me up to 2500m and the long, steep descent down the western Ghats to Cochin felt a lot like the final descent of this trip, probably because it will be; I’m pedalling out of Cochin today, with just a few days of coastal cycling left in front of me. Covering the kilos comes quite easily now and, unlike most of the other places i’ve pedalled through, in India finding cheap accommodation and food is a breeze. It’s definitely been a pleasant change to be able to relax, and not to have to deal with the constant problem solving that I faced for much of this trip. The last few weeks have been short on incident and i’ve been cranking out the daily kilos, and taking in the sights much like an ordinary tourist, hence my lack of posting for a while. You can see some more touristy photos below.

    Cricket match in Cochin – why these guys were wearing Yorkshire strips I don’t know…

    Some fellow road users


    …and some more.


    The descent from Ooty

    After such a long time where my daily routine has revolved around covering kilometres, finding food and a place to stay I definitely have mixed emotions about my return. I am without a doubt looking forward to it hugely but I’ve enjoyed cycling in India terrifically, and i’ll be sorry to leave.

    Right, back on the road – my next post will probably be the last of this trip!

    Posted in Cycling | 4 Comments

    Bangalore

    After leaving Hampi I had a tough weeks cycling to Bangalore. Indian roads are fine if they are either very small (no traffic), or very large (lots of traffic, but a nice wide hard shoulder or sometimes even a “service road” which runs alongside.) Unfortunately to Bangalore was largely neither of these two so I diced with death for 6 days as I had to dodge lorries barrelling down the wrong side of the road and forcing me onto the verge.

    Final view of Hampi

    Lord Hanuman statue in Tumkur

    Tickets for the England vs India game were at a massive premium and I knew that to queue up to get them would necessitate being at the ground the night before the tickets went on sale and sleeping outside the stadium, so instead I turned up as the ticket office opened in the hope of buying one from somebody who had queued and was willing to sell for a bit of a mark up. When I turned up at the stadium it was less of a queue and more of a riot; fights were breaking out all the time and the police were dishing out beatings left right and centre. At least two people were hospitalised, and I talked to two guys who had been queuing since 11pm the previous evening but had failed to get tickets.

    The BBC reported on the mayhem here

    I spent the rest of the day searching for a ticket and eventually bought one, for a 500% mark up, from a policeman.

    In the end it was worth every penny to watch what must surely go down as one of the greatest world cup matches, and perhaps even one of the greatest one day internationals, of all time. A game that ebbed and flowed like a classic test match with a century from the greatest of them all Sachin Tendulkar and one of the great one day innings from Andrew Strauss. Adding a list of inspired performances, a comic book finish, and an atmosphere unlike anything I have ever experienced made for a an experience that will stay with me for a long time.

    England vs Ireland tomorrow and then South for the final leg of cycling.

    Sachin 100 from Tom Lloyd-Smith on Vimeo.

    Sachin Tendulkar 100

    Matt Prior wicket from Tom Lloyd-Smith on Vimeo.

    Matt Priors wicket falls.

    Match tied from Tom Lloyd-Smith on Vimeo.

    Final ball.

    Posted in Cycling | 2 Comments

    News.

    So it’s now been a little while since my last update. I spent a nice few days in Goa sharing the beaches with a legion of tattooed European retirees while I sorted out a new wheel. In the campsites of France and Italy I honed my retiree chat to a fine point, and developed quite a soft-spot for the caravan and colostomy-bag brigade; after so long only having conversations only with local people and the occasional other traveller it was rather pleasant to be able to talk to holiday makers of a more traditional variety.

    I managed to sort out a new wheel without too much difficulty; my friends Graham and Amy happened to be getting a flight out to Chennai at the end of January so I was able to get a new wheel built back in the UK (thank you London Fields Cycles) and they kindly brought it out with them. This meant that, with a little logistical manoeuvring, some lengthy train journeys and a stop off to see Mum and Dad who happened to be on holiday in Kerala I found myself with a repaired bike, but in Chennai, which is a little off my originally planned route to say the least. After 10 days cycling im now back in the west of the country in the bouldering Mecca of Hampi.

    The Indian countryside is terrifically beautiful and pedalling across the Deccan traps appeals to the Geologist as well as the cyclist in me, but it’s the fantastically bizarre behaviour of the Indians which keeps me entertained the most. They don’t get a lot of cycle tourists here and every time I stop for any reason, even to have a quick rest, I get a huge audience and showered with questions “What is your good name? What is your ambition? What is your native place?” and so on. And on. For sure the largest audiences are when I get a puncture. Last time I got a flat there must have been 30 or 40 people jostling for position to watch me change an inner tube while simultaneously offering me advice, competing to be the one to hold my bags, and bringing me cups of tea.

    An audience of school kids for a change of inner tube

    Cycling in India is quite different to anywhere on the trip. It’s size and population mean that it’s possible to constantly stumble across the bizarre, and chat to incredulous locals without seeing another tourist for days. This means that that i’m usually staying in two horse towns, where the limited availability of accommodation means I often share my sleeping quarters with a menagerie of six legged, blood sucking companions, and jostle for position in the only canteen in town in order to get my hands on a plate food. There is a big contrast between towns like this and the hoards of young back-packers populating the hostels in places like Hampi. Lots of very serious people with silly haircuts and piercings puffing on chillums, talking new-age psychobabble in loud voices, and occasionally leaving their hostel to buy more weed. It makes me chuckle to overhear these folks boasting about their travels in India, as they set fire to a weeks worth of wages for a typical Indian, take a few puffs and pass to the guy on their left, who they just met, but who lives two streets away back home.

    On the way here to Hampi I stayed in the Priyasanthi Nilayam ashram in Puttaparthi, the hometown and abode of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the reincarnation of another Sai Baba who died in 1918, and who’s Ashram draws up to 10,000 folks a day. Or rather I tried to – the conversation when I turned up went something like this.

    I pedal up to the gate…

    Fellow at the front gate – “You cannot bring your bicycle in here sir, you must go to the back gate.”

    Me – “OK, why cant I bring my bicycle in this gate?”

    Fellow at the front gate – “You cannot bring your bicycle in here sir, you must go to the back gate.”

     

    So, off I go to find the back gate..

    Fellow at the back gate – “You cannot bring your bicycle in here sir you must go to the front gate.”

    Me – “OK, the front gate said I should come to this gate…”

    Fellow at the back gate – “You cannot bring your bicycle in here sir you must go to the front gate.”

     

    I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. After half an hour of trying to reason with these guys I gave up and booked into a guest house. My first impression of the Ashram (other than it being impossible to enter with a bicycle, for some reason) was of a lot of lost and deluded souls, an impression formed on no small part by the large number of overweight, ridiculously attired Americans and Russians draping themselves in beads and sitting about cross legged. However, I realised that this impression wasn’t an accurate or fair one when I went to a service (or Darshan) and chatted to some of the Indian congregation, who were much the same as any other religious congregation in the world – just intelligent, working, spiritual folks with an interest in religion. This said, the devotion that Sai Baba’s followers show is quite something to behold; the 10,000 capacity auditorium is packed twice daily on the off chance that Sai Baba will appear (he appears only once every few days). He doesn’t speak to his audience (he is 86 years old and confined to a wheelchair) but the reverence, excitement and devotion his followers show when he does appear is extraordinary to witness. Unfortunately no photography is allowed in the Ashram!

    Here I Hampi I also met up with Chris to so a bit of sight-seeing and climbing. As always it was terrific to see somebody from back home. We had a great couple of days – some photos below.

    The other big news is that I’ve decided to fly back to the UK at the end of March. I’m continuing to enjoy the solitude, the physical challenge of the cycling, and spending my days pedalling through the beautiful Indian countryside so i’m definitely going to be quite disappointed when it’s all over, and not to achieve my stated goal of cycling all the way to Sydney is going to be a real shame. Nonetheless i’m confident that it’s the right thing to do. Jean-Pierre’s bike which I bought in Istanbul following the theft of my first one has held up well, but it is a little on the small side, and has some parts which are more to Jean Pierre’s taste than to mine. It has also had two fairly major failures occurring in quick succession and I worry a little bit about its ability to hold up over the rest of the trip without another major overhaul soon. *

    I also have a new nephew, Charlie Edmondson, who was born in early December who I have yet to meet, and I’m anxious to spend some time with him, my older nephew Josh and the rest of my family. A brace of my friends are getting hitched this year, and my good friends Dub and Ali, who got engaged just before I met them in Croatia have asked me to act as best man at their wedding; a huge honour and privilege, and an invitation it would be churlish of me to turn down. However, most of all I miss Ginny who has put up with me pedalling off round the world and leaving her to the British winter with the patience and grace that I don’t deserve. I miss her too much to be away from her for another six months.

    So there we have it, I should be back in the UK sometime around the end of March.

     

    An article about me in the local paper.


    Laundry time on the Deccan Plateau.

     


    A rather camp Chris and a hairy me pedalling the sights of Hampi.

     


    Cristian Pinchin on an unknown problem. Around V3.

     


    Me on another unknown problem. Around V2

     


    Lord Vishnu

     

    *It should be said that I am certainly not complaining about the quality of the bike. The failures are entirely down to wear and tear over the 5000+km I have ridden on it plus the mileage that Jean-Pierre did previously. Jean-Pierre, I continue to be eternally grateful for you agreeing to sell me the bike at all – you continue to be my first port of call for all bicycle advice!

    Posted in Cycling | 5 Comments

    The Jewel in the Crown

    After a week here it’s difficult not to put India right at the top of my list of favourite places to cycle. My warm clothes are consigned to the bottom of my panniers and have traded places with my sun cream and flip flops. I am no longer lunching on the ubiquitous kebab of Iran and instead have the glorious diversity of Indian food fuel my way up the hills of the Konkan coast. I can count on being able to have a conversation in English and I can always eat, find a room, and a basin of hot water to wash, for less than the price of a round of drinks back in London. Shovelling Indian food into my mouth with my hands (no cutlery here) has taken a little getting used to, but I think I’ve managed to master the technique such that most food ends up in my mouth rather than down my front – well perhaps no worse than my usual performance with a fork. India also gets massive bonus points for being cricket mad – If Lords is the home of cricket then the streets of Bombay are where it works, eats and plays – and it’s nice to be able to discuss the temperament of Alastair Cook as a batsman and England’s chances in the world cup (starts in India next month) than resort to the same conversation about football which I had throughout Turkey and Iran (“From England? David Beckham! Manchester United! Chelsea! Roman Abramovitch – very rich man!). If I’ve felt that the hills are a little too hard work I’ve been able jump off the bike and join in the casual cricket games taking place at the roadside, on the beach, or just about anywhere with a strip of flat ground. I fear my bowling figures over the last week would not make for enjoyable reading – being repeatedly crashed through the covers by a seven year old armed with a piece of two by four is a humbling experience.

    I am now in the touristy town of Ganpatipule after a week pedalling down the Konkan coast, described in my guidebook as…

    “A narrow strip of little explored coastline bordered by the Western Ghats to the east and the Arabian Sea to the west, it’s a remote and rural area. Accommodation is scant, the cuisine unsophisticated and monotonous and the locals unaccustomed to tour groups. Limited transport makes things more difficult.”

    …which must out quite a lot of tourists off because, outside the places in the guidebook, I haven’t seen a single western tourist over the last week. It has felt faintly ridiculous to be cycling between Mumbai and Goa, and yet be pedalling along deserted beaches like something out of a brochure for the Maldives. On the bike it’s quite striking to notice how a paragraph in a guidebook can mean a steady stream of moneyed western travellers passing through a town or village, whereas a settlement with no such mention or recommendation remains entirely devoid of any tourism impact (both beneficial and detrimental).

    It’s been since the Marmara coast in Greece and Turkey that i’ve been able to swim in the sea, but it’s been worth waiting for; I can’t imagine finer beaches than those which i’ve been pedalling next to over the last few days. The best of all were in the village of Velneshwar where the only place to stay was with a family who had a single room to rent out to the occasional traveller who passed through, and at Anjali where there was nothing more than a tiny settlement of perhaps one or two hundred people to share the almost comically beautiful strip of sand stretching for several kilometers.

    The roads have been steep, of variable quality, and the few road signs are in Hindi or Maharathi. The map I have has served as nothing more than I very broad guideline as to whether there might be a road. Bridges are marked which do no exist, villages are in the wrong place and roads which are marked as straight are far from it. The river estuaries largely do not have bridges over them which means that, rather romantically, i’ve had to jump on the local ferry or persuade locals to take my bike across to the other side in exchange for a few rupees. Because of all this i’ve only covered 50k or less per day, but I haven’t minded; it would feel wrong to power through this part of India at 100k per day.

    So, after enjoying myself terrifically for the last week, yesterday disaster struck twice. First I got horribly lost and managed to turn what should have been a gentle 30k roll into Ganpatipule into a gruelling 70k marathon on steep, poor roads. Then, as I was finally drawing close my rear hub failed, rendering my bicycle unridable. Fortunately I was able to persuade a local with a 4×4 to give me a ride for the last few kilos, but the bike needs a new rear wheel before I can get back on the road. I fear that tracking down a 26 inch MTB wheel with a seven speed cassette here in India is going to be quite a challenge, so I may have to get a new one shipped from the UK to Goa. Ah well, there are worse places in the world to be stuck for a few days…

    Some youngsters enjoy a game of cricket at Velneshwar. Shortly after this my bowling was subject to the most horrific assault.

     

     


    Bicycle touring sub-continent style

     

     

        

    Some Indian ladies enjoy a backie.     

     

     


    The deserted beach at Anjali.

     

     


    Sunset at the Jamjera fort – Murud.

     

     


    Indian roads – less than silken asphalt

     

     


    Half a dozen samosas please.

    Posted in Cycling | 1 Comment

    Dubai and Mumbai

    After spending the three months from Istanbul largely camping in the wilderness and then crossing the Arabian gulf on an ancient ferry, watching the pinnacle of the worlds tallest building the Burj Kalifa appear over the horizon was just weird. In fact the whole of my time in Dubai was a little surreal. I was staying with Nadia and Tanny (friends from university) and on my first day in Dubai joined Nadia’s family for Christmas lunch at her Dad’s “club”. Embarrassingly the whole thing proved just a little bit too “weird” for my digestive system. I’ll spare you the details.

    On boxing day Nadia and Tanny flew off for a holiday in Sri Lanka leaving me alone in their apartment, but I wasn’t alone for long – Ginny arrived on a flight from the UK later that same day and we had a terrific week relaxing in the sunshine. I can reliably inform readers of this blog that the Emirates know how to do a water park – I don’t think i’ve been to a water park since I was about 15 but, following an afternoon at the “wild wadi water park” i’m wondering why.

    To be frank Dubai is not a great place for cycling – Wolfi’s bike shop provided me with a good service and some new parts for the bike, and there are a few other bike shops and cycling clubs in the city, but information about cycling in Dubai was surprisingly hard to track down. The Dubai government have committed to providing 900km of cycling routes in the city but it’s not clear where these routes will be or when they will be built. The city would be ripe for a popular and profitable “bike blog” of the kind that there are any number of in London, as a source of information both for passing cyclists and for folks living in the city.

    Spending a few days sitting on Nadia and Tanny’s sofa watching DVDs and putting some weight back on was nice, but my plan was to try and hitch a ride on a boat to India so I duly tramped off down to the docks to try and arrange a lift. In two days I managed to track down two boats that were heading across the Arabian sea, but neither of them had any interest in having me aboard, even when I made it clear that i’d be happy to pay for their services; in two afternoons making a spectacle of myself i didn’t even get a sniff that getting on a boat would be a possibility. The language barrier was the biggest problem, it was difficult to explain why I would want to spend six days in an open top boat crossing a stretch of water, in storm season, with the threat of Somalian pirates to the south* rather than jump on an aeroplane for two hours. The default assumption was clearly that I was up to something illegal and so without being able to convey the reasons behind not wanting to get a flight I was ultimately too big a risk for these captains to take on for any price. On New Years Eve, at a friend of a friends party I met Richard, a radio presenter on the local “Dubaieye” radio station and who invited me onto his program to talk about my trip. I took the opportunity to appeal to anyone who could think of a way of getting across the water by boat, but even that came to no avail. Added to this I never managed to work out how I would get an exit stamp on my passport, if that would have been a problem when I tried to enter India, or indeed if I would be able to enter India through a sea port on a tourist visa…

    So, after all this it was with a heavy heart that I logged on and within half an hour had booked a flight at a fraction of the cost, and which would take a fraction of the time it would have taken to cross the Arabian sea by boat. After some careful reviewing of airlines excess baggage policies, some even more careful packing, and strategic use of hand luggage for heavy items I even managed not to pay any excess baggage charges for the flight, so the cost of getting across to Mumbai was really quite minimal but I had forgotten how miserable flying is. Ginny has flown out to see me four times now and i’m not sure which is the greater challenge – spending all those hours on aeroplanes or cycling 9000km.

    So here I am in Mumbai, i’ve identified a small coast road south from here to Goa and after that I’ll see what happens.

    Tourist in Dubai



    The Burj Kalifa

    Sunset from Nadia and Tanny’s apartment

    Hello India.

    *This was more a threat in my mind, in fact the majority of the captains I talked to were headed for Somalia so the threat of piracy can’t be that bad.

    Posted in Cycling | 1 Comment

    Qom to Dubai

    Apologies for not posting anything for a while, and for removing my last post briefly. After my last post from Qom, this website was blocked by the Iranian authorities, possibly as a result of my less than gushing account of the border crossing at Astara. I also heard some rather disturbing stories about Iranian security police turning up at travellers’ hotels and escorting them to the border after they had published similar articles so I thought it prudent to remove the previous post until I got out of the country. Now that I’m in Dubai (wahey) it’s time for an extended update on my time in Iran.

    My route south of Qom took me to the towns of Kashan, Esphahan, Shiraz and Bandar Abbas, but as I think I have mentioned before, Iran is a big country, and as I headed south the distances between towns got larger. I was spending two, three or sometimes four nights camping between large towns with guest houses where I could get a shower and a bed for the night. Moreover central Iran is largely over 1000m in altitude which meant that the nights got very cold. Often I would wake up in the morning to find my water frozen, and I would have to wait for my toothpaste to thaw out before I could brush my teeth. The highest point at which I camped was over 2000m on the road from Esphahan to Shiraz (for reference the height of Ben Nevis is 1344m) where the mercury dipped as low as -5*. I found that this made it quite difficult to motivate myself to get out of my sleeping tent at 6am. Over the course of this trip I have tried not been overly concerned about the daily kilometres covered; to “race” and focus on covering kilos is to invite pain and injury unnecessarily, but would also mean covering ground much faster and might deny me of the chance to spend a little time trying to get an understanding of the places I have pedalled through. However, in Iran it was getting dark at 5:30pm, and I took the view that cycling after sundown in the country which has the highest road deaths per capital anywhere on the planet would be a manifestly bad idea, so I was obliged to get up early and take minimal breaks during the day in order to cover enough kilos to get me across the country in time. This did mean that on the nights I camped I was typically rushing to cover as many kilos as possible while I had daylight on my side and then a comic Mr Bean-esqe, 20 minute rush to pitch the tent and put on my warm clothes before the temperature plummeted post sundown. However this race against the sun completed I was left alone to enjoy the silence of the desert and the Persian night sky for the whole evening until I went to bed, usually at the less than late-night 8:30pm.

    Frozen water one morning

    I was reliant on small villages and the occasional service station for supplies of food, water and occasionally where I couldn’t find somewhere quiet to pitch the tent, or I felt that perhaps I was spending too long without having a conversation with another person, somewhere to sleep. On pedalling into these rural communities I was treated more like a lost son returning from the wilderness than a dirty cyclist pitching up uninvited and asking for assistance. Despite having nothing to offer in return and failing to have picked up more than the most rudimentary Farsi I was always swamped with invitations to drink tea, eat food and offers of places to sleep and enquiries about my trip. My favourite of these was in a small village about 80k to the South of Esphahan where I was sitting on the floor of an Iranian chap called Iraj’s home drinking tea and eating slices of lemon (which were, weirdly, sweet) with his family. They had a cage with a few canaries and I commented on how pretty they were. My new friend Iraj twinkled at me and reached into a cardboard box which sat in the corner of the room. Out of the box he pulled a hawk which met my gaze and whose talons drew blood as it sat on my finger. Why Iraj had a box with a hawk in it in the corner of his living room I failed to ascertain…


    An enormous family I stayed with in an Iranian village

    It wasn’t just the rural communities which were welcoming – Mohammed and his wife spent two days with me showing me around their home town of Kashan. It was a little bizarre, but quite entertaining to spend time with Mo’ who had a thick American accent and littered his language with folksy American slang – somewhat incongruous in the setting of an Iranian Mosque. Ali – an Iranian cyclist who I’d been emailing and who had already proved to be a total goldmine of information before I reached his hometown of Esphahan entertained me and bought me food and drinks throughout my stay, without any suggestion that I should offer any kind of reciprocation. It was great to be able to draw on the friendliness, knowledge and national pride of the Iranians to make the most of my time, and not a little frustrating for me not to be able to spend more time in the Iranian towns which have quite a cultural Heritage. Highlights were Esphahan, the capital of the empire of Shah-Abbas, and home to the Jameh Mosque, one of the oldest functioning mosques in the world, and Imam square which is the second largest “square” in the world, second only to Tiananmen Square. Places like Persepolis, the former ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid civilisation which was overseen by Darius the great, Xerxes the great and assorted other bigwigs of old situated somewhere other than Iran would have been mobbed, but here I more or less had them to myself.

    Mo’ and his wife

     

    Persepolis at Sunset

    There is a certain sadness amongst Persians that Iran is viewed in the West as a dangerous place, and I many Iranians I spoke to wasted no time in doing everything they could to convince me of how good Iranian people are; “Iranian people not terrorists” was a phrase which was offered up, without prompt, quite regularly. The perceptions that Iranians have about their countrymen are heavy on stereotype (folk from the Azeri north are obsessed with money, Baluchistanis are crazy and wild, people from the religious centres of Qom and Marshad are overly conservative) but I was constantly told how good and kind the Iranian people are, even in the next town down the road. I found it difficult to imagine British townspeople being so charitable about their neighbours. The Iranian people are proud of their reputation for kindness and hospitality, and keen to live up to the hype, but thanks to their government Iran as a country has a bit of an image problem in the West. People I spoke to talked of disproportionate government scrutiny and levies on small businesses and inflation running at about 25% making things very tough. I often heard of the hope that people had placed in the elections of 2008, but whose credibility was tainted which when opposition candidates were disqualified on the flimsiest of pretexts. Ahmedinajad and his gang have been in power since the Iranian revolution in 1979, but with growing international pressure and increasingly restrictive policy making and the declining patience amongst the Iranian population perhaps mean that its days are numbered…

     

    Me at the mighty Imam Square, Esphahan

     

    The Bazar, Kashan.

    I hadn’t seen any other bicycle travellers since Turkey, but I met quite a few in Iran. Martin and Susie from Manchester and Germans Kai, Thomas and Klaus were all on hugely impressive journeys, but Mike and Marion, a French couple I saw in Esphahan had come about 9000km from Cambodia, on their way home to France. They were on cheap bicycles, had only very basic equipment come across the lawless Pakistan – Iran border, and had only bought a camping stove in Pakistan. Up until that point they had been cooking on open fires, but were forced to invest in a stove once they reached the desert and the supply of wood to light a campfire dried up. Respect.

    In the end I spent 28 days in Iran, cycled about 1500km, took up the offer of two lifts and got one bus into Bandar Abbas (my visa was running low, and I was due in Dubai for Christmas) but I was sorry to leave. The paperwork and cost of getting a visa make it a pain actually getting to Iran, but once there I really enjoyed myself. I can’t say I would recommend crossing the Persian gulf by boat (all in all the ferry crossing took me about 18 hours). It was a quite a culture shock coming into Dubai, but it’s great to be here and I’m very much enjoying the rather more comfortable surroundings than I have for the last few months!

    *That said, important to keep things in perspective – I understand that the UK is currently enjoying the coldest December since records began

    Posted in Cycling | 4 Comments

    The Islamic Republic of Iran

    My last couple of days in Azerbaijan were a gentle roll down the Western flank of the Caspian Sea. The Caspian conjures images of C.S. Lewisian fantasy worlds, but I’m afraid it’s rather more hum-drum. Rolling roads through forests, and fields of cotton and vegetables and small, pleasant Azeri towns, and the occasional overflowing truck load of cotton bearing down upon me on the wrong side of the road.

    The real highlight of my last few days in Azerbaijan was my stay with Ramil, who I got talking to in the small Azeri town of Lenkoran and who offered me a place to lay my head for the night, scoured the town for the very freshest, local recipe, baked chicken and generally treated me like royalty. Ramil’s hospitality was quite humbling and it was a real shame to have to push on so abruptly the following day, but my visa was running low on days, and I’m due in Dubai for Christmas. Ramil, thanks again for your quite heroic hospitality.

    Ramil and I

    After I left Ramil I had a short 40k ride to the Iranian border during which time I managed to change all my Azeri Manats, to Iranian Rials (and was invited to share lunch with the money changers family in the process – a little bizarre).

    The border at Astara is a busy one, but clearly they don’t get a lot of tourists making the crossing into Iran here. There were a lot of special forms to fill in, which it took the Iranian officials some time to merely locate let alone translate my answers to Farsi. It would seem that trying to convert “Ashford” (my place of birth) into Farsi script is a particular challenge. Some hours later, with several forests worth of forms filled out in triplicate, numerous photographs snapped and even my fingerprints taken (why I’m not sure) I was through.

    Frustratingly, I was plagued by a series of punctures in my first few days in Iran, despite my brand new tyres, and my progress was slowed quite a bit by this. Both pumps which I bought in Turkey are less than brilliant, and it takes me a long time to get enough pressure back in the tyres if I get a flat, and even then I have to go in search of a top up in a petrol station or mechanics shop. I don’t really mind this because tracking down a man with a pump is always a bit of an adventure.

    The mechanics in Rasht enjoy a well earned cup of tea and a sit down after a job well done. I’m not sure it needed all 7 of them to pump up a type, but that’s how they roll here in Iran.

    After cycling down the Caspian coast for a few days, from Rasht I turned inland. Crossing the Abhorz was some of the most physically arduous cycling of this trip; I went from 25m below sea level to over 1500m all the time battling a headwind that constantly threatened to blow me off the bike, but after three tiring days I was up and over. In the one-time Iranian capital of Qazvin, about 100k to the west of Tehran I plotted my assault on the desert to the south…

    Water bottles with water, rice and pasta. Hello carbohydrate.

    I am now in Qom, the cultural hometown of the current Iranian administration, with 220km of desert behind me, which was (as you might expect) very flat and very dry. The distances are vast it’s not uncommon to go 50km between villages, and hence opportunities to get water, so I have to plan ahead a bit more than I have been. What I hadn’t realised is that central Iran is largely over 1000m in altitude which, in December at least, makes for short hot days and long, cold nights. In fact that’s not quite accurate, it makes for warmish windy afternoons, long cold nights and mornings which are a gentle transition between the two. For the last 6 days I have been getting up, putting warm clothes on, and watching the sunrise while eating leftovers from the previous evenings dinner and drinking “3 in one” (instant coffee, powdered milk and sugar). Following this on the bike I jump and pedal until the sun goes down again at about half 5. The desert is very dramatic, but the above routine would be a little repetitive, (i hesitate to use the word boring) if it wasn’t for the incredulous Persians who, perhaps with reasonable cause, stop to enquire why I am alone in the middle of the desert on a bicycle. At least once or twice an hour a motorbike, car or truck pulls alongside for a chat, and these conversations are always quite entertaining. My favourite of these was when a couple of guys in an ambulance pulled over, and invited me to stop for a cup of tea at their emergency centre a couple of kilos down the road. I ended up stopping for a few hours for lunch and playing chess, table tennis and cards with the staff of this medical outpost in the desert. It was just as well they didn’t have any emergencies to deal with.


    The “emergency station” staff in the desert.

    The empty spaces make for relatively quiet cycling, but the Iranian towns are total mayhem. As I entered Qom this afternoon I watched a guy on a motorcycle, wearing no helmet, go full tilt the wrong way around a roundabout, thick with high speed traffic, while chatting on his mobile phone. If anything it makes me glad I’m on a bicycle rather than having to compete with these crazy drivers on their own terms.

    After a rest day in Qom it’s back out to the desert I go. 1400k to Bandar Abbas…

    Sunrise, and breakfast in the desert.

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    Bilasuvar, Azerbaijan.

    I feel that I owe Azerbaijan a little bit of an apology. I have had my sights firmly focussed on Iran and overlooked the charms of the fantastic country of Azerbaijan a bit. To be honest I was expecting more of the same kind of experience as I had in Georgia, but I couldn’t see how it could be topped. I knew the route was flat so I was ready for some less than inspirational desert riding, and just to crank out the kilos to the Iranian border. Besides, my Azeri visa is only ten days long and, i’m a little behind schedule after having to wait around in T’bilisi a little longer than expected.

    Dismissing Azerbaijan like this was, with the benefit of hindsight, a big error. The country is completely different to Georgia in any number of ways. For a start it’s flat, not mountainous. It’s people look different and it feels a lot more “Russian” than Georgia, just to illustrate a few. I’m now feeling a bit sad that I have to rush through this fantastic country.

    Out of T’bilisi I was cycling into a bit of a headwind for a few days which reduced my daily kilometre count to a hard fought 70 per day, for the first three days. The first night I spent camped behind a petrol station, the second hidden behind a stack of straw in a field and I was looking forward to a shower and a bed by the time I hit the vaguely comically named town of Ganja. The winds on the ride to Ganja were, comparatively speaking not that bad, but headwinds are always pretty demoralising and these were no exception. By the time I made it, I was totally knackered and behind schedule. I was even wondering if i’d made it to the Iranian border before my visa expired. To make matters worse and despite spending a lot of time asking around about cheap places to stay I paid 30 Manat (the equivalent of about 30 euros) for a crumbling soviet era hotel with no lock on the door and a bucket for a toilet. Not a great advert for cycling in Azerbaijan so far.

    Since then things have looked up. I caught a nice tailwind east of Ganja which made for an easy day to Qavlax, and found a lovely little hostel where I got chatting to some folks from Oxfam doing a project to facilitate Azeri famers supply of onion powder to the likes of Unilever. From Qavlax it was great to turn South. For nearly all of this trip i’ve been heading due East, but from now until I hit Dubai, South is the name of the game. Its been a little cold and rainy for the last two months and heading South is great because it means every day will be warmer, and longer than the last. The road I took South of Qavlax skirted along the Azeri – Armenian conflict zone of Nagorno –Karabakh which it has seemed, simply from talking to people in the region, and doing some reading on the net, is a bit more “lively” than the South-Ossetia in Georgia which got quite a lot of press coverage in the UK a couple of years ago. Around South Ossetia there were a few UN 4x4s and quite a lot of Georgian troop carriers barrelling about so I was expecting more of the same, or perhaps a little more hassle from soldiers at checkpoints. Nothing of the sort. Besides a few bored and curious (but ultimately friendly) Azeri cops stopping me and asking questions about where I was from, the road from Qavlax to here has been splendid. A lot of Azerbaijan seems to be dead flat, which is good for cycling and the landscape alternates between pasture, Norfolk broads type marshes (except on a larger scale), and desert. Certainly enough to keep things interesting.

    The people of Azerbaijan have not been shy. As soon as I stop for water, food or anything else I am inevitably surrounded by a group of beefy Azeri chaps who crowd in shouting “At koo da?” (where are you from?) or any number of other questions in Azeri dialect or Russian which i’m less able to translate, and have to guess at the answers to. Last night I had a quite extraordinary experience when I went out to find some food. I’m staying in a lovely little hotel (bizarrely only 10 Manat – about 10 euros) but my reputation as a bicycle tourist had preceded me in this small town and on entering the restaurant everybody smiled and repeated “velocipede” (bicycle) together with the associated hand motion. My, now well honed, farmyard animal impressions caused great hilarity and enabled me to get my hands on a tasty plate of chicken. Once i’d finished eating I was instructed (this was more than an invitation) to join the proprietor at his table with him and his friends and the inevitable vodka was brought out. Repeat performances of my farmyard animals went down a storm and I was ushered into an anti chamber where it became clear that the local cotton magnate, dining in private with his barber, required an audience. Osman the barber spoke a little English and we chatted about Azerbaijan and the UK. I’m afraid I may have given the impression that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a similar relationship to the UK as Azerbaijan has to mother Russia, but what could I do.

    I didn’t really want to have my hair cut or a shave, least of all by a barber who I had just watched put away the best part of a litre of vodka, but somehow, last night I ended up in the barber’s chair. I suppose I did need both a haircut and a shave, and to be fair to him he’s done a good job. I’m just pleased that I managed to get him to stop before he administered a wet shave.

    The big downside to this road has been the dogs. In Turkey and Georgia the dogs were pretty fearsome, but in Azerbaijan the canine population is of a different class. Generally speaking I like dogs and don’t really mind it when they run alongside barking and trying to appear fierce, so through Turkey and Georgia I tended to just keep cycling and ignore them until they got bored or I got out of their territory and they went back to the den feeling proud of themselves and that that they scared off the threatening cyclist. The first time I realised that things were going to be different in Azerbaijan was shortly after I turned south from Qevlax. The usual pantomime played out when I was spotted by a dog and it came barrelling towards me, all bark and snarling teeth, except this time it just kept on coming. The bloody thing just charged, full tilt, and teeth first into my rear pannier. I almost fell off the bike, more out of shock than anything. Fortunately this was as bad as it got and cujo backed off when I shouted at him, but it was really quite frightening. If he had connected with my leg, it would definitely have been curtains for this trip – a bus to Baku to get inoculated against Rabies (if I could get some serum) and then a flight somewhere, to get out of the country before my visa expired. Scary stuff, but fortunately he went for my pannier so no harm done. A few kilometres later however a similar thing happened, expect that this time it was a pack of them. I was pedalling along when, I was set upon by a group of about 6 big dogs. One of them weaved in front of me to slow me down, while the others bit at my back wheel and panniers. There is a truly primal fear which is awakened when being hunted (and “prey” is definitely what I was to these guys) by a pack of dogs. My “dog dazer” seemed to be having no effect so I was left with little choice but to stand on the pedals and, aided no small part by the adrenaline hit, outrun them. Happily I managed to do this, and maybe I’m being a bit soft, but it was really quite terrifying. Moreover, dog attacks had happened twice in just a few kilometres, so I could be sure that, at least for the next 200k along this remote road through the south of Azerbaijan it was going to be a recurring Issue. That night however I managed to resolve the dog problem. As dusk fell that evening I pulled off the road into a field and asked a shepherd if he minded if I make camp, which of course he didn’t. He in fact invited me to share dinner with him and his brother who too were camping out, and tending to their flock. The two of them had three enormous mastiffs who dutifully sat guard outside their hut but I noticed that Hussien and Camile were far from relaxed around their own dogs. They always made sure that they had a hefty stick to hand and the dogs recognised that, simply having this stick gave the shepherds the upper hand. I too now have a sturdy stick which is wedged in my rear pannier and which I can pull out and wave at overzealous canines. The dogs in this part of the world seem to be conditioned to be afraid of people wielding sticks and, touch wood, waving a stick has worked like a charm so far. To further reassure me the inquisitive Azeris who enquire about the stick when I stop for a cup of tea nod sagely when I say “Eth” (Dog) in response.

    Friendly, but slightly disconcerting road sign at the Azeri border. You mean I’ll need it?

    Video of me in the Azeri desert


    Their hut, Hussien with dog, Camile, my tent and some sheep.


    Camile (right),his sheep, and one of his enourmous dogs.


    The vodkas start, and continue to, flow.


    Pre shave…


    … and the new look me this morning.

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    T’bilisi

    I now, finally, have both my Azeri, and Iranian visas stamped in my passport, so tomorrow morning i’ll head towards Azerbaijan. The Georgian-Azeri border is only 50k outside T’bilisi, so this time tomorrow I will (touch wood) be cycling across my 14th country*. I always feel loneliest and most nervous prior to setting off following a hiatus and I’ve now been here for 12 days, the longest stay in one place for the whole of this trip. For me it’s these moments prior to departure which are the hardest and once i’m off and rolling things get a lot easier, because there’s always more kilometres to crank out, or a problem to solve (mainly finding food, or somewhere to sleep.)  I’m going to attempt cycling 2000km across Iran, alone, which on paper seems like a ridiculous thing to do. I try to remind myself that I have already come nearly 7000 kilometres, and overcome all the problems and obstacles that this journey has thrown at me so far.

    Turkey and Georgia have been harder work than the previous European leg, but have definitely been equally, if not more enjoyable. The journeys I’ve read and heard about from others who’ve done similar trips are universally impassioned in their enthusiasm for cycling both in Azerbaijan and Iran, so I have every confidence that the roads my freshly fitted new tyres will roll over in the next weeks will be just as rewarding and much fun as the ground that the worn ones saw.    

    Besides the new tyres the bike is freshly oiled and tuned, bolts which were working loose have been tightened or replaced, and brakes and derailleurs have been adjusted. I have stockpiled dollars for the Iran leg (it’s apparently impossible to withdraw currency from foreign accounts within the country). I have planned my route, and have lined up a few places to stay along the way. So, no more procrastination. Here I go.

    Some photos of the last couple of weeks here in T’bilisi, when Ginny and my folks were out for a holiday, below. Georgia is a beautiful, and splendidly interesting country, but the real highlight has been the friendliness and kindness of it’s people. I’ll be sorry to leave, and it was a real pleasure to be able to share my time here with my nearest and dearest.


    Dad exits Stalin’s train.


    The David Gareja Monastary complex


    Another fine Georgian panorama


    1200k to Tehran…

    *UK, France, Monaco, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan.

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