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From Shanghai to Istanbul

And all of a sudden I’m in Istanbul! I pedaled almost 12,000 kilometers since leaving Shanghai in May, being 1 of the 5 riders who cycled every fabulous inch! From the terrace of our hotel located on the Anatolian side of the Bosporus, which separates Istanbul in two parts, I am celebrating the end of our trip with my fellow riders and Mariëlla who was waiting for me at the finish line!

I am very happy and satisfied. It’s been a beautiful tour with many incredible experiences, great people, wonderful stories, great mountains, deserted deserts and a lot of fun! Pascal, John, Ingrid, Mun Yew, Hannah, Dudley, Chris J, Martin, Bob, Nate and Candice and the others: we had such a good time! Thank you! I’m going to miss you all!

And thank you for reading my blog, writing comments and sending me e-mails!

Turkish delights

Istanbul is within sight as I saw the first road sign yesterday saying only 770 kilometers. And so far cycling through Turkey has been delightful! It’s the last ‘Silk Route country’ for me to cycle through and I enjoy it as much as I can.

Although the ‘welcome committee’ in Turkey was quite hostile, the more I cycle to the west the more relaxed the kids and dogs seem to be. The route brings me through remote parts of the country with beautiful views and small villages. Every village has a mosque and where ever there is a mosque there is a usually a place to drink tea! My Turkish is very limited but it happens quite often that I have a conversation about where I’m from and where I’m going. The older men usually understand why I’m cycling; the younger men usually ask why I’m not traveling by car… Having a cup of tea with Hannah or John, somewhere is a small village makes me perfectly happy! An old man brings us an apple and hazelnuts adding to that happy feeling. Just being there and enjoying the moment!

I can see that everyone in the group is enjoying our last few kilometers more intense. Partly because Istanbul is within reach, partly because it’s all mountains we cycle through. With days of up to 2.000 meters of climbing at the end of a four month journey, I can feel the tiredness in my legs. But at the same time I have so much energy that I can’t sit still. I’m helping Mun Yew with organizing birthdays: balloons and Bombay toast for John, wine and Turkish cookies for Hannah, beer for Dudley. Not sure if the beer helps me up the mountains, but it seems to have a positive effect for Dudley. Apparently he didn’t mind taking a bath with me on the top of a hill on a hot day… And although temperatures were in the high twenties, it was clearly getting autumn. Leafs were falling down the trees and the smell when cycling through the forest is typical for the time of the year. Fog was hanging between the trees as in a Robin Hood movie. In the evening the grass was wet and clothing and sleeping bags became clammy. But the water in the Black Sea was still warm and after the deserts in Iran and Turkmenistan, a swim was a real treatment!

Along the way we passed the towns of Amasya, Safranbolu and Şile. Great places for a good meal, a glass of wine, a walk through narrow alleys, a cup of tea or a visit to an old castle. One of the most interesting archeological sites I visited was the ancient city of Ani. It’s one of the most important Silk Road cities of the Middle Ages and there are still traces of the Silk Road visible! The photo on the left shows the ancient road into the town coming from Armenia. Camel caravans have been walking over this road centuries ago! Despite several earthquakes, a few churches and city walls have survived more or less; thousands of stones give an impression of how big this city must have been.

Traveling this ancient road not only shows me the past, it also shows me the wonderful people still living along this road. And it’s great to share this experience with my fellow riders. Istanbul is getting closer and I know already that it would be difficult to say goodbye to fellow riders and traveling. But there are still a few hundred kilometers to cycle over these small back roads in Turkey!

Meeting the people of Iran

Traveling over the ancient Silk Route by bicycle shows you this wonderful world we live in, full of beauty, charm and adventures. Iran is definitely part of this wonderful world! Full of history and friendly people! The Silk Route took us through the cities of Quchan, Bojnurd, Shahrud, Semnan, Theran, Zanjan and Tabriz with many small villages in between. Plenty of time to meet the people of Iran!

Meeting local people is easy and the first interesting discussion I had, was actually next to our camp site on the second day. Due to the end of the Ramadan and the 16th summit of the Non Aligned Movement (countries) in Tehran, most Iranians were enjoying a long weekend or short holiday. And Iranians love to camp when they have holidays, something which totally surprised me! They camp preferable in parks or next to a mosque, spent their evening on a carpet while eating and drinking, and sleep outside of in a typical Iranian tent! I have seen camp sites with hundreds of people, with kids playing and men smoking water pipes. But all is needed for an interesting discussion is a cup of tea! With more than 50% of Iranians less than 35 years old, most of them speak English pretty well. And as I am from The Netherlands, I don’t mind asking people about their government, religion or view on the world. Most Iranians don’t hesitate to express discontent about the lack of freedom in their country. Women have to wear a chador but most women don’t want to. Officially almost 100% of the Iranians are muslin, but there are just a few people going to a mosque. Partying, like going out to a bar or discotheque is also not possible in this country. The same is true for alcohol. So people find ways around that. Truck drivers smuggle alcoholic beer into the country; which tastes much better that the non-alcoholic fruit beer which is available in most mini markets. Iranian pop music is actually pretty good; one of our support vehicle drivers is enjoying loud music at lunch or in camp! In the discussions I have with Iranians, it is obvious that somewhere in the next couple of years a rebellion against the regime will happen. As one Iranian man says: “a wind of change will blow through Iran within a few years”. Many people I spoke are also saddened by the imagine that Iran, and thus Iranians, have abroad. But the people of Iran are one of the friendliest and hospitable I met in Asia!

You can notice the friendliness in many simple things. For example: riding in the mountains, a car stops and offers me some orange juice. In a way I can’t refuse! Or a real Heineken (5% alcohol, and Ingrid is my witness)! I was walking through the streets of Tabriz when a man walks towards me and asks me where I am from. Before I can say anything he continuous speaking and says he’s happy I am visiting his city and country and hope I enjoy may stay here! Hospitality is part of Iranians culture. T’aarof is a kind of ritual where the host is obliged to offer a guest anything, and the guest is equally obliged to refuse it. But I can tell you that’s difficult! I met this guy next to the highway selling sun flower pits. I had a nice chat with him, and he gave me two sunflowers. I refused kindly but he insisted and put them on top of my back rack. When I saw an Iranian pay 20.000 Reals for two, I insisted to pay him the same. He refused. I wanted to push the money into his hands, he pulled back. There was simply no way not to accept these sunflowers! He must have a simple life with not much money, but he shared what he had with a stranger, a guest. When is the last time you have seen someone doing that in the west?

There are much more similarities between Iran and the west than I thought there would be. The cities in Iran are full of life: commercial streets and shopping centers are offering western style clothing and other luxury items, lots of traffic and traffic jams, fast food restaurants serving Coca Cola or Fanta, there is a difference between rich and poor when looking at expensive jewelry, BMW’s and houses in Tehran, there are high speed cameras on the highways, people love their children and family and most of all they want to enjoy life. But there are also differences: public busses or subways have special areas for women, women have to cover their head with a scarf of chador although some show more hair than others and everywhere in the country you see pictures or the two Supreme Leaders Rouhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei. In many cities and villages you see also billboards showing pictures of the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war, which made somewhere around 750.000 Iranian deaths. Also, in many roads in cities and villages you’ll find many boxes for collecting donations, apparently for one of the five ‘pillars’ of Islam.

Iran has an ancient culture and our local support guide Ali has done a great job in showing us as much as possible. Camp sites were always special; a.o. we camped next to a mosque, an abandoned mine or inside a caravanserai. He gave us some insights in the country’s history and geographical location. In Tehran he organized a visit to the Golestan Palace. In Tabriz we went to the Azerbaijan museum, the Blue Mosque and a local festival where one of us was interviewed for the Iranian television. The bazaars in Tehran and Tabriz were impressive: many small shops for kilometers and kilometers in small alleys! I bought a real Gucci bag for Mariëlla! And also a Channel and a Louis Vuitton bag! 😉 Ali was able to persuade the tour leader to adjust the route (no highway!) so we’re able to visit the Qara Church, which is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage list!

Iran has been a great experience! Such a difference from what I read in the newspaper! There is much more to see and explore in Iran! And certainly on a bicycle!

 

 (I have too many pictures to sort out… just an impression above)

 

 

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