Filling in the gaps

I woke up late this morning and decided I am not going anywhere. I drove 1400 miles from Istanbul to Kabriz in northern Iran in four days. Time to rest.
“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed—but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.

In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

(The Third Man)

Back in Mulhouse in southern France I left the Formule1 hotel I was staying at and filled up Asha at the first petrol station I came to.

It was across the road from the Schlumpf Car Museum which houses a priceless collection of prestigious cars. Maybe a special section could be opened for priceless Triumph motorcycles?

Katee the petrol station attendant insisted on taking my photograph. She kept saying “I was so real, you are so real”. I left with a smile on my face.

It took me no time at all to cross over to Switzerland. Straight through customs and into a labyrinthine maze of tunnels and underpasses below Basel. It was not what I expected very flat and not a mountain in sight.

Soon though the motorway climbed up and through a tunnel to another glorious valley and a wonderful picturesque lake. The mountains slopes were covered with grass like bowling green lawns.

I was in awe at the expense and expertise the Swiss had used to build the motorways and tunnels, and I had not paid a toll to use them.

After riding through the 17km Gottard Tunnel I stopped off at a service area where I met a guy called Wayne who had taken three months off from teaching. There seems to be a lot of that.

I noticed a sticker on the front of his BMW. What’s that for? I enquired. Oh’ that’s the Swiss road tax which you must pay at the border.

All the way to the frontier I thought a Swiss border guard was going to put an apple on my head and use me for target practice.

Scream if you want to go faster

Milan is very close to the Swiss border and it wasn’t long until I hit the Milan ring road – like the M25, but on steroids.

In the outside lane I had to ride at over 80mph and keep an eye on what was behind me as cars just came right up behind me.

If I rode in the inside lane I had to try and dodge the trucks. They have two signs on the back:

80 – very fast       90  – hold on.

I stopped and caught my breath oh and my nerve back.

As with this whole trip as soon as I have been out of the main cities the roads have been relatively clear.

I managed to get to Aidan and Bianca’s in Tuscany without any further scares. A wonderful couple of days was spent with Aidan – Thank you.

Brief Encounter

I left Aidan’s and rode down past Florence then took a turn east and started to climb up over the mountains to Ancona to catch the ferry to Greece.

The road was empty and I rode upwards round wonderful sweeping bends.

I stopped at a lay-by to drink some water and admire the view.

At the other end of the lay-by was two girls in short skirts and knee length boots. They weren’t waiting for a bus.

I showed them on Asha that I was from Scotland and was riding to Nepal. They told me they were from Bratislava.

As my Slovakian is practically nil and their English just as bad we laughed and used sign language.

I think I got it across to them that I preferred keen amateurs.

However, the younger of the two looked very fragile and looked to have been mentally, sexually, physically abused.

She looked very scared.

I rode on feeling very angry that these two women could be left in a lay-by miles away from anywhere doing what they did.

I don’t know if someone came and picked them up every evening or if they got a lift to the next lay-by.

It upset me then and it upsets me now.

Running on empty

One of the first rules of adventure motorcycling is always to fill up your petrol tank when you can as you don’t know when you will reach the next petrol station. Italy closes down between one and three in the afternoon and I was concerned about the Asha’s petrol supply.

After what had happened at the last lay-by I felt angry, sad, and lonely.

After reaching the summit I took it easy down the other side.

I came across a petrol station with no one about. I stopped and noticed a tin can on the top of the petrol pump. It had a note in it and about 180 Euros.

I filled up the tank and left 20 Euros.

Fear of flying

I caught the ferry with only 10 minutes to spare. Well everyone needs a bit of tension in their lives. I met up with Alan who was going back to live in Greece – I wish him luck.

In the bar I met up with Girt a German bus driver who was taking a group to southern Greece. He had been to the UK many times and we chatted about London, York, Edinburgh. Oh’ and football which I struggled a bit with.

I asked if him he flew to get away from the buses for awhile. He told me he had only ever been on two flights.

The first one smoke came into the cabin and the second couldn’t land because of fog, and had a terrible landing. Yea best give it up while your still ahead.

A staulky wee guy came into the bar who immediately interested me. I went over and asked if I could join him.

He was Peruvian and was going to Greece to sail his bosses yacht back to France. He had come over from South America 20 years ago.

He learnt  to speak French, how to sail,and how to do carpentry.

He then bought a 21 foot wooden fishing smack; fitted a mast and then sailed it back across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.

Not bad ah?

Pandora’s Box

After leaving the ferry I rode up and over the mountains in northern Greece not far from the Albanian border.

At the side of the road were lots of blue square boxes. I was puzzled at what they could be. I stopped to investigate and walked across to a couple of them.

Bees! They were bee hives. I quickly put my helmet back on and sped away.

Don’t stop, just don’t stop.

Outside each house and out in the countryside were numerous small Greek Orthodox shrines on top of poles. They reminded me of the spirit houses that you get in Thailand. Religious bird tables.

I only stopped off in Greece for two days. The towns had either bars full of old men watching football or young trendies hanging out in big groups.

I knew I was going east though. I saw one bike with three people on it and a scooter piled to eye level with magazines.

Making a break for the border

I rode through ferocious side-winds on the way to the Greek-Turkish border and I felt sorry for the soldiers on the border standing out in the gale.

Borders are all about getting things done in the right order.

Passport checked, buy vehicle insurance, get that checked, get another signature, ride through to the other side and do the whole thing again.

A French woman wouldn’t have it. She told the Turkish customs guy that her insurance was good for Turkey. But he wasn’t having it.

I told her that it would cost her 9 Euros and would take two minutes to get, so she stormed off to give the insurance lady a hard time. Your not going to beat these guys.

In the Levant

I rode happily along until I reached the outskirts of Istanbul. I thought all I had to do was take a right turn then follow the road and I would get to Sultanahmet. Istanbul has 25 million inhabitants – five times the size of Scotland.

I got totally lost. I stopped to think things through. The first guy I asked told me to go back the way I came so I did and rejoined the motorway.

I came off the motorway nearer to the centre. Stopped and asked a taxi driver. He told me to follow him which I did until he swerved off to pick up a fare.

Eventually I found the centre and budget traveler area of Sultanahmet. Fran who I met at the Iranian Embassy was there to meet me and it wasn’t long until we were drinking beer and exchanging our experiences.

I met to many people there to mention, but they were all good and I wish them all the best.

The next day I crossed the Bosphorous by ferry to get an oil filter for Asha. Stuart and me got on the first ferry we came across. What puzzled me was why were we getting on a car ferry when there was a bridge no bigger than Westminster Bridge just up the river. But the other side was not Asia that was round the corner. Silly me!

We finally got to the Triumph dealer who said he would send a filter over to my hotel the next morning.

So he did and I got the oil changed. The young guys who worked on Asha were wonderful especially the mentally handicapped one who constantly held my hand and laughed a lot. So did I.

The next morning I went back to the bike shop and met up with Adil who had ridden from Istanbul to Burma 10 years ago. He gave me loads of advice, lunch and rode me around Istanbul showing me the sights.

We stopped off to see a few of his friends and have tea which included Mr Levent a former fighter pilot with the Turkish air force. He was still flying Spitfires in the 1960s.

Imagine flying up the Bosphorous in your own Spitfire? Amazing.

Adil also drove me round old Istanbul and we stopped off again at another friend who owned a yogurt factory. It tasted delicious.

After four days it was time to move on. The group I was with were either going back towards Europe or east towards Iran.

Thursday morning came and I packed Asha up and said my farewells. I got back on the motorway as I wanted to cross the suspension bridge across the Bosphorous. There was numerous traffic jams, but Asha makes small work of them and soon we were across into Asia.

However, when I got to the tolls on the otherside of the bridge there was no where for me to pay. I hung around for about five minutes waving Dinar notes, but nobody came so I rode on.

Another rule of adventure motorcycling is never to ride to far. I did.

By 6 o’clock I had ridden for about 300 miles. Rather than stopping at the town I had planned to I continued on. I had petrol but there was no hotels or towns.

I came off the main highway into a little hamlet, but everything was shut up and deserted. I got back on to the highway and was starting to feel anxious.

However, I came over a rise in the road and a big motel was stood by the road.

Off the bike, more tea, and bed.

Turkish hospitality is outstanding. Everywhere I went: the bike dealer, the bike garage, hotels, petrol stations I would be given a cup of tea.

A couple of days ago I stopped off in a brand new petrol station. I filled up and got under some shade for a rest.

The attendant was busy filling the soft drink machine. He waved for me to go into the unopened cafeteria and get a cup of tea.

I finally found the kitchen where a pot was simmering on the stove. I poured two tulip shaped glasses of tea and gave one to the attendant. We smiled and he put it down and carried on with his work.

From Adeer you climb up onto the eastern plateau of Turkey. Wide arid valleys with green and red tinged mountains. I would wave at the lorry drivers as I overtook them and they would wave back when I had stopped for a rest further on. The Iranian drivers would not only wave but beep their horns too.

Another rule of adventure motorcycling keep those guys on your side.

I got to Erzurum where I stayed with Bernie and Cathy. They have been waiting there for over two weeks to get their Iranian visas. I hope they get them soon.

They had not found the liquor store. Took me ten minutes. Well, needs must.

I haven’t met a bad guy yet

I stayed the night before last in Dogubayazit at the foot of the twin peaked Mount Ararat. It looked wonderful with its peaks covered in snow.

I should have stopped at the first hotel I saw on the main highway, but I was worried about exchanging money at the border – another 34km further on.

So I rode around town until I found a cashpoint, but everytime I stopped I got pestered by street children. The region has a strong Kurdish population, but there doesn’t seem to be many schools, lots of tanks though.

I finally went back to the first hotel I spotted. And of course they could change money; had a bar, and cable TV.

So I got up at 4.30 this morning and at first light rode in to get some money. After breakfast I changed the money and rode on to the border.

Borders can be very daunting. Am I going to get stripped searched? Will they refuse to let me in? Will I be able to change money?

I met a money changer on the Turkish side who took me around five different offices for as many stamps and signatures then it was into Iran.

I waited, and I waited, and I waited. Finally a guy from the office came out.

The Turkish gate was opened then the Iranian one and Asha and I squeezed through. The border guard then chatted away to the Turkish guy.

He was sure I was from Ireland. Well it does say so on the front of the passport.

I was then sent into the immigration hall where everyone was so helpful.
I was sent to the front of the queue and had my passport stamped in no time at all. I apologised profusely to the people waiting. But they just smiled and so did I.

I then had to go and see about six different people to get the Carnet for Asha signed stamped then signed again.

Finally I had to get a chit signed to be let out of the border area at the bottom of the hill. In all it took about 45 minutes and was good fun!

I am now in Tabriz. I found a hotel in the Lonely Planet Guide which allows bikes in the foyer. So Asha is safe and sound.

The hotel owner is an old kind looking gentleman.

A family stopped on the road into the city and told me how to get to the hotel. Oh’ and everyone waves to you as they drive by.

I left my bags in my room had a quick wash

 and went out to find something to eat. The first place I spotted was a hamburger bar.

I tried ordering a Tak Tak and Aras – a beefburger and a coke.

However, the owner was praying and I felt terrible. I waited outside and a guy came up and asked me what had happened. I explained the situation and he just laughed. He told me he would be finished in a minute.

I asked him if he was a Muslim, but he said only at home and he sold cosmetics.

The burger was wonderful! The children were so polite after they had finished giggling and mocking the burger bar owner.

We chatted for about five minutes. Bright enthusiastic youngstgers. The future of Iran.

The city is about 1.6 million – a sign told me when I rode in.

The centre is full of shops straight out of the 1970s with cars to match – Hillman Hunters.

Nobody takes a second look at me and I feel very safe.

The young women all wear head scarfs and make up. The scarfs are pushed back to about the middle of the head and the hair brushed up and sometimes dyed.

A confident prosperous town. It reminds me of Bangalore in southern India with its broad tree lined avenues and fashion shops.

I like it here.

3 Responses to “Filling in the gaps”

  1. Sig Says:

    Hey Sig! Great to read of you trip, and glad you are making such good progress – with no mishaps! I have to say I am truly envious of you on this one, and of course it does not help as I look out of my office window in Huddersfield onto a grey, wet and miserable day – still, my time will come!

    All the best for now, take care, and we will have a pint or two when you get back!

    Sig and Sue x

  2. Tapas Says:

    Hi Fergus,
    So you are back to Asia again!
    If you meet the President of Nepal, make sure to correct yourself – our Medical College is going to celebrate 175th anniversary next year!
    See you soon – Christmas party is on 17th December at the Distillers.

  3. sultanahmet Says:

    Blue Mosque is great. Topkapi, too!! Take a boat up the Bosporus to the Black Sea… It is all wonderful and incredible – Istanbul is such an amazing place. Love the pictures, and the memories they bring of a great city.

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