After three and a half weeks sitting waiting in Athens we are so ready to leave and we are really excited at moving on. The bike is packed and we are raring to go; hotel bill paid and all financial matters sorted out.
When we came down this morning we found a hundred cigarettes in the front of the fairing and a note from Gordon saying:”Use half a packet to solve a minor problem in Turkey, a full packet for something more serious and at least two packets to get you out of jail!” And so the cigarettes are consigned to the tank bag with all the other packets already stashed there, purely for political use according the Bernard!
We are travelling 776 miles to Istanbul and the bike feels like home the instant we are on it. Everything is comfortable and even the traffic is light for some reason and we have no real problem getting on the dual carriageway system leading out of Athens. The bike is running sweetly and all the sounds start to insert themselves into my head in their proper places. I recognise the change in road surfaces, the gear changes, the sound of the engine pushing us up hills and traffic noise as it rushes past us whether close or on the other side of the carriageway.
The big topic of conversation as we ride is the subject of tyres; to change them in Istanbul or not? The current set of tyres were new in England and we have completed about 4000 miles on them and there is plenty of life left in them. They will only do about 8000-9000 miles for the rear due to the weight on the bike although the front tyre will last longer but we need to make a decision as to whether we change them both at the same time? As we head north out of Athens we calculate the distances involved before the next likely change is available.
The journey through Turkey is about 1700 miles with the same mileage in Iran. There will be a further 1300 miles in Pakistan and roughly the same in India. By our calculations we estimate about 6000 miles more before a change will be available. We already know we cannot change them in Iran (or it would be difficult and we would have to get the tyres imported). You see in Iran there are no large capacity motorcycles apart from the daft people crossing it like ourselves. Therefore, the next likely available tyres would be in India and by the time we get there we will be down to the canvas of the tyre with no rubber left in terms of tread. In some ways this thinking and talking through the decision makes it an easy one in the end. At Istanbul we change tyres and these will then take us through to India without any doubt at all.
The term ‘safety first’ has become embedded in our thinking since we have no back up but our own thoughts regarding problems and ability to sort out things on the road as we need to. It is also a good piece of advice to always bare in mind:”Get things when you can as five miles down the road they may not be available!”The days pass and the miles are covered with stops for petrol when the bike coughs and splutters onto reserve after about 160 miles as we sit on the dual carriageways at 80 mph virtually the whole time; we need to cover mileage. The three-and-a-half weeks have kept us static too long and we have an overwhelming sense of needing to be further on. It was also the sense of freedom we think that pushed us onwards at higher speeds as usually we travel along at 50-60mph most of the day even if we are on good roads. On this leg of the journey to the Border with Turkey we felt the need to cover mileage and with this sort of speed we pay the price in terms of petrol consumption which loses about 25 miles per tank at 80mph. We didn’t care as it felt so good to be on the move again. We covered the 679 miles to the Turkish border over the next couple of days with the pattern settling into their familiar routines.
Four o’clock comes and we start to look for somewhere to stay for the night. We pull up, go in, negotiate prices, unpack the bike, shower, find something to eat and then fall into bed before getting up in the morning and reversing the whole process. We splashed through our first rain for weeks and it felt like we were back in England instead of Northern Greece. The weather is starting to change around us and we are conscious of these changes. So we need to push on even through the heavy rain which pelted us at times.
Soon we arrived at the border with Turkey and the whole familiar ‘Bernard Stressing’ pattern reappears. There was a cafe on the Greek side of the barrier and we pull up to ‘de-stress’ Bernard with a couple of cigarettes and a cup of coffee and as we are sitting he sees a small motorcycle pull up outside. A tall man strides towards us and so we meet Adam from London who is travelling to India on a 125cc motorcycle. We spent some time talking as you would imagine if you met somebody from home after so long! He passed his test two months ago and decided to ride to India which is pretty amazing really if you think about it.
The usual exchange of information about roads and routes goes on and we change some currency for Adam as we know the Turkish Visa costs 15 Euro and they will not accept anything but notes and they do not give change! We settle everything into place and climb onto the machines and start the whole border exit and entry process. We exit the Greek side with only a cheery wave and a cursory look at the passports and we trundle slowly past heavily armed Greek and Turkish soldiers on each end of the bridge which separates the two countries. The soldiers all wave and smile as we pass them on the bike at little more than a walking pace in case anybody waves us down “with their big guns” (Bernard).
Soon we are in the ‘entry’ side of the bridge and this consists of multiple barriers and checkpoints, each one dealing with the same, and also, different documents! We are waved to one side and have to go and get a visa at another building. We hold the whole queue up as Bernard has, again, left the Vehicle Registration locked in the bottom of the pannier. So off we get, unlock everything and then rummage through the papers to find it before getting back on to drive 50 metres to another barrier. Off we get again only to be sent to another building to get motorcycle insurance with Bernard muttering about “couldn’t they organise this so everything is done in one go?”
We wander off with Adam and pay everything people ask us, come back, then go to the same windows and checkpoints where people merrily stamp everything in sight. At one point we thought they even wanted to stamp us like happens when you go into a night club and they stamp the back of your hand! After an hour of window to window and barrier to barrier we are clear for everything and just as we are climbing onto the bikes another motorcycle turned up. Off with the helmets as we go to greet the newcomer who turns out to be another English guy who lives in Cyprus.
The whole border by this point is looking at the four lunatics on the bikes and we talk all the normal experiences, routes, places to stay, and problems we have encountered. His bike was described to me as a real homemade affair with ammunition boxes for panniers and a home made petrol tank the like of which Bernard had never seen. Whereas Bernard and Adam have been buying stickers to show where we have travelled this person scratched the name of the countries into his – homemade – windshield! Adam and he had met before in Albania and, according to them, our decision not to go through Albania seems to have been well born out as the roads were atrocious according to them. With a cheery wave he set off through the entering Turkey process as we pulled out to a final checkpoint where everything was, again, checked. Then we are truly in Turkey as we pass this final barrier.
We travelled with Adam for most of the day before separating and going our own ways and it was good to have some company even if it was for a short time. During our time together Adam showed us a Satellite Emergency Locator which his mum had bought for him. It really was a fantastic piece of kit as it allows the local emergency services to find you and we vowed to order one when we get to Erzurum and have it delivered there. We had tried to get a satellite phone prior to leaving England for emergency us but never managed to get help in terms of what precisely we should buy from the companies we approached. Time ran out waiting for the answers and so we had to leave without one.
The border area itself and the kilometres close by is full of cheap motels but these become less frequent as we travel East until eventually we see nothing at all in terms of accommodation. Our ‘start searching routine’ really kicks in between 4-5pm and there is nothing on the main routes. The plan had always been to stop West of Istanbul before dark but darkness fell and, for the first time, RULE ONE was seriously broken. Rule one states that we get off the road by dark. Rule one part two says that we never enter a strange city in the dark! Yet, before we knew it, we were in the ring-road system of Istanbul. Cars fly around and past us in the dark as we drove round the system trying to find a base for the night which was visible from the main route.
The light has gone and it is now pitch black and we have a serious decision to make. The main multi-lane road was the safest to be on but there are no hotels visible from it? We are much more vulnerable if we go off this road and head into the areas off the main routes? We agonise and decide to stay on the road for a little longer.
Kilometres are travelled and still nothing and it is getting really cold. We stop at a petrol station and are surrounded by attendants who say the nearest hotel is 14kms away. Setting eventually see the sign but cannot find a way to it and end up coming back down the motorway and frustratingly passing the hotel again. It’s very cold now and I am shivering, hungry and worried. As bad as I feel I know ‘him on the front’ is feeling just as bad and so there is not point in complaining and just have to hang on and something will turn up. It always does. You just have to wait. In the end we made the decision to come off the main route as we were getting nowhere and tiredness was really setting in. We stopped and Bernard puffed his way through the problem with the inevitable cigarette while I sat quietly waiting for him to think his way through our situation. Suddenly he leapt off the bike and rushed over to a Taxi which had appeared and, after all the usual pantomime, Anglo-French and everything else in terms of communication he could muster, Bernard convinced the driver to lead us to a hotel.
We followed the yellow taxi with its hazard flashers lighting the way and ten minutes later, we are outside the Hotel Anibal in Gebze. Never have I been so relieved in my life. I was very cold, hungry and concerned. I felt really uneasy as we went around the town as if something was going to happen; an accident as tiredness and frustration were becoming the main feature of our plight by this point.
We had such a warm welcome from the Hotel staff as we really did stumble in through the door and they were all so kind and considerate. Within a very short time we fell into bed being so relieved the day was over and the tension drifted away from me as I fell fast asleep in the warmth.
The next morning we talked with the Hotel staff regarding getting tyres and lo-and-behold next door is a Michelin dealer who soon gets involved in tracking down two suitable tyres. Within two hours the tyres were delivered! Bernard set about taking the wheels off under the critical and amused eyes of the staff who were very impressed with his range of tools which appeared from all sorts of hidden locations on the bike. They really loved the two ‘torpedo tubes’ which are two stainless steel spaghetti holders! It seemed to fascinate them and nothing more so than the torque wrench which he has cable tied onto the frame under the seat! They took great delight in this one item alone and the speed with which the wheels were off.
it was very funny and they all gathered around as Mr Spanners went to work. At one point my heart was in my mouth as the front wheel was already off and the back was about to come out when two of them just lifted the whole back of the bike, standing the front on its nose with the back about five feet of the ground and the rear wheel just fell out. I thought it was going to fall off the centre stand it was so high. One went running off to get an axle stand to jam under the rear frame. It was obvious health and safety did not feature highly here as the bike was just left in the middle of the pavement with no wheels and with one axle stand holding the whole thing up. “is ok, is ok” was all I heard as I flapped about the bike falling over.
Clutching two wheels and two tyres Bernard then had to set off from Gebze in a van to Istanbul to have the tyres fitted and balanced at a motorcycle dealer. Coming back several hours later he turned up as white as a sheet (so he tells me) from the hour and a half white-knuckle drive there and back witnessing four crashes (two each way).
It was the scariest car drive I have ever had. The van hurtled along the dual carriageway like an exocet missile. The driver floored the accelerator at every opportunity. It didn’t matter what was in front, cars, buses, lorries, grannies crossing the road, this man was on a mission and he was going to complete it no matter what; even if he killed us. People leapt out of the way as he aimed for every gap, or near gap, he could see. All the time Turkish music was blasting from the stereo and he grinned enthusiastically at me as he honked and beeped everything out of his way. I swear the police could not have gone any faster and he did pass an Ambulance at one point which was hammering along with its siren wailing. To say I was gripping the seat and exercising my ‘braking’ is not an understatement. There was a hole in the floor where I sat by the time I got back from all the passenger braking I had done. I was never so relieved to get out of a car in all my life. I was scared to death for at least two hours and when we reached the bike shop I must have smoked three cigarettes before anybody got any sense from me at all. The same was true by the time I got back to my precariously balanced bike although on my return trip I must admit I feigned sleep part of the way as I could not watch anymore as every second I expected to die.
It’s funny but even with all of these events, in the space of one day we had accomplished what we set out to do. We have travelled thousands of miles and turned up in a strange city, without knowing the language, found two new Michelin tyres within a couple of hours and done everything in under eight.
Bertha is now shod in gleaming new rubber front and back for the onward journey across the Turkish Mountains and the roads we have heard so many horror stories about.
Now you cannot really come to Turkey without going to Istanbul. It would be like going to France without Paris, or Italy without Rome so we spent a whole day travelling by packed local bus routes the 50kms each way from Gebze.
Like everything else on this journey, it was slightly more complicated to get to the significant locations. Not only a bus ride was involved but then crossing Istanbul using two metro trains and a tram system as well to get to the district of Sultanahmet. All-in-all it took us about three hours to get to the Blue Mosque so named due to the 20,000 odd blue tiles which adorn the interior. Sure enough when we arrived various people tried to get us to go to their carpet shops to drink tea and they all promised fantastic prices.
Even the information about being on a motorcycle did not put them off as they all ‘ship to your home country’ but we did manage to escape carpet-less to explore the Mosque where, it seemed, thousands of tourists milled about with their freshly washed feet. We did not feel we could go in, even with washed feet, as our motorcycle boots would have led to a state of emergency being instigated and the bio-hazard team of the Turkish Army being called into action. We walked around the main courtyard and Bernard described the entrances and six minarets for which it is famously known along with its tiles.
We also walked to the Palace which is only a short distance away but it was closed due to the Holidays which occupy three days at the end of Ramadan and, unfortunately, the grand Bizarre was also closed and so I was not well pleased to have come all this way and not get an opportunity to visit them. Bernard suggested we could overcome this by staying a couple of days so I could visit these two sites but Greece and Athens has changed my mentality.
I want to move on as we actually received the Visa Authorisation Code last night and we need to get to Erzurum to pick them up. It’s nice to know the Iranians do like us – eventually!
Thus the decision was made to move on as quick as possible as our window for the weather in Eastern Turkey and Northern Iran (where the mountains fill with snow) is closing rapidly. We need to be into the lowlands of Iran by the end of October at the latest otherwise we would have serious problems with the snow and we have left our snow shoes at home!
We did have time to explore numerous stalls outside the Palace walls and I got to understand the layout of the Blue Mosque when one of the shops had a fairly detailed ornament for me to explore. We laughed at belly-dancer costumes and Turkish hats and slippers and all things from this gateway to the east. We even managed to find our pin badges showing the Turkish flag with its distinctive moon and star. As we sat drinking in the afternoon the sounds of the Mosques calling the faithful to prayer echoed around the city.
The journey back to Gebze, once we arrived at the bus station after two trains and a tram, involved the biggest bus queue ever experienced!
The buses hold about 30-35 people and there must have been 200 in the queue and they run every 20 minutes! I’ll leave you to do the maths! We shuffled forward inch by inch in the time honoured fashion of foot shuffling and several buses later we find the staff have even reserved a seat for us which we had not anticipated as people stand on each other’s shoulders on these buses.
The journey back through the darkness shows congested roads as people have been visiting families and friends at the end of Ramadan. It is a bit like Christmas so it appeared to us as people brought gifts and children rode new bicycles much like everywhere in the world. We see friends hugging and families greeting each other in universal shows of affection on the side of the road as we pass by. The bus makes it progress with sudden stops on the motorway to pick up, and drop off, passengers from under bridges on the hard-shoulder all along the route. Eventually we arrived back at the hotel with a sense of achievement as we have travelled all over Istanbul using local transport and only vaguely got lost once trying to find the tram!
Leaving the hotel the following morning for the onward ride took us some time as all the staff wanted to say farewell and we left quite late really – nearly lunch time when we had planned to go much, much earlier.
We now wanted to get to Erzurum to pick up our Visas as quick as possible. After many, many farewells we pull out onto the road and, for the first time, Bernard ends up pulling the wrong way onto a dual carriageway! He instantly knew and stopped facing all the oncoming traffic in the hard shoulder. It took some time turning the bike inch by inch on the hard shoulder before merrily he set off whistling a happy tune! He exchanged cheery waves with all the beeping cars as we blasted off the hard shoulder like some object fired from a child’s catapult.
Our first petrol stop and all the urgent signals tell me it is time to brave the toilets which I have come to dread in many ways. It is more complicated now however, as we have entered Islam and Bernard worries more so than previously. This time we met a very nice Islamic lady attendant in the toilets who guided me from the cubicle to the washbasin, guiding my hand to the soap and then passed me paper towels to dry my hands with. She then took me back to Bernard whom she had thrown out of the toilet minutes earlier when he marched in in his usual way only to be harangued, we assume, about his presence! He retired diplomatically – and very quickly – when it was made really clear he was not needed and should get out!
I’m really not sure how disabled people manage this process in Greece and Turkey as there have been no separate facilities outside of the ladies and the gents. The disabled facilities always seems to be INSIDE the men’s or the women’s? Not a lot of use if you are blind really! There have also been some very ‘interesting’ (Bernard calls them ‘traditional’) toilets along the way which are also very difficult to manage as a blind person. They consist of a hole in the floor with places to put your feet and then you squat to perform your ablutions; needless to say there are no handrails. While I dread the visits Bernard cheers me up no end by telling me there is worse to come as we travel further East on our route. Thank you Bernard!
We spent two nights in one stunning location in the mountains north of Ankara and Bernard (as he was fiddling the bike once again) met a member of staff from the Iranian Embassy in Ankara who offers any assistance we require. Little did he know when he thanked the person and explained the saga of the Visa how he was to rue turning down this assistance. The embassy official explained with an Authorisation code from Tehran the whole process should only take one day when we get to Erzurum. This response reassured the both of us.
We spent the rest of the day relaxing in preparation for the onward mountain sections of the road to Erzurum and we walked and talked our way through the forests, around lakes and swam in the pool of the hotel. Bernard performed his famous ‘dive from the edge’ which nearly emptied the pool and nearly drowned me in the process before surfacing and announcing “Hardly a ripple, a perfect 10” and he couldn’t understand what I was laughing at as I spluttered and coughed water out of my lungs.
Leaving this idyllic site was complicated by the fact the satellite navigation system – on the morning we were leaving – decided to go on strike! Buttons were pressed, anglo-saxon expressed before eventually a large map was spread out on the floor, held down with bricks and directions written onto scraps of paper. These were then stuck into the dashboard. We did resolve this problem over the coming day when we discovered what had happened.
The unit had, somehow, got locked in the ‘off’ mode which Bernard didn’t even know existed. We can only assume somebody must have been pressing buttons outside the hotel as Bernard denies any culpability in this event. This ‘off mode’ was not discovered until after he had emailed the maker shouting ‘help’ from the middle of Turkey. By the time they responded he had solved the problem anyway purely by accident and after a leap of faith in combination button pressing and only shortly before he took the unit to pieces to see if it had an internal fuse (it would never have worked again if he had done this!) Sometimes he can be very impulsive and I have to restrain him! So the only thing we are missing from our record of the journey so far is the 200 mile or so section from North of Ankara to Yozgat.
The journey across the middle of Turkey took us three days in all (seven days in total from Athens). We met many, many lovely people along the way who all wanted to talk to us. People expressed kindness in a hundred little ways wherever we stopped and it was these experiences which has made this country Bernard’s favourite.
The roads themselves which we had heard so many bad stories about were variable in nature. It was nowhere near as bad as we had anticipated due to the enormous road building exercise currently being performed by the Turkish people and the Government. It really is a fantastic, huge, and impressive undertaking.
It is true there were sections of very bad, gravel and dust surfaces where we cautiously made our way. On these sections Bernard took to riding the bike standing up on the foot pegs to keep the whole thing balanced on a part of the mountain roads which led us to our current location at Erzurum. We got stuck in very deep gravel at a petrol station and the smell of burnt clutch permeated the air. We sat and waited for the bike to cool down to before playing leap-frog through the deep stony gravel back to the highway with an attendant clearing large stones and rocks out of the path of our wheels as they churned the gravel in all directions.
We entered Erzurum like some form of Holy Grail of a destination after all the troubles of the VIsa and felt we had arrived at a significant location, congratulating ourselves as we entered the town. Dense traffic was all around baring the Turkish flag across car roofs and on bonnets. Every window in the town was adorned with the flag with roads blocked off and armed police and soldiers on every corner.
We later found out there had been clashes between the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK) – The Kurdistan Workers Party and the Turkish forces in the south of the country; 17 young soldiers had lost their lives. A feeling of Nationalism is sweeping the town as some of the soldiers were local and feelings are running very high and there is a significant Kurdish population in the area.
Driving round-and-round looking for a hotel we eventually bumped into three Germans and one Swedish man who walked past and then came back to find out where we were from as all the stickers on the bike confused our nationality. They too were in Erzurum to pick up their Iranian visas and they kindly gave us the layout of the town and directed us towards Palendoken where many of the hotels exist. They were staying in town themselves in a backpackers hostel but there was nowhere secure as far as they could tell for the bike. This consideration is the single most important thing we have to ponder when we stop anywhere. The bike is our sole means of transport and we have to protect it wherever possible. We all knew we would meet up at the Embassy and so we bade them farewell and followed their directions to the Hotel Oygulama in Palendoken which is the winter ski resort of Erzurum. It fills with Russians and Polish all bashing their way down the white slopes but we hope we are long gone before even the slightest flicker of snow appears otherwise we are in trouble being on two wheels.
The Hotel is, shall we say, cool and we have an electric fire in our rooms as the height of luxury. It is something like a small apartment but it is fine and the staff are lovely and so helpful. We wonder about their ages as they all seem to be so young but later find out that they are attached to the school next door and are on work placement and so are very eager to please; nothing is too much trouble for them.
So begins the twice daily visit to the Iranian consulate which frustrated us beyond anything we have ever experienced. We have a code which authorises us to enter Iran in terms of issuing an entry visa but cannot get the Visa. After hours and hours of trying to understand what is happening – including expensive phone calls to Tehran and Athens we find out.
An email appears from the Infamous Tehran Company who have taken 135 Euro from us, telling us that the code is ONLY VALID for Athens and that we would have to reapply for a VIsa if we wanted to pick up from Erzurum. This is despite them assuring us they had changed the pick-up consulate to Erzurum BEFORE we even contemplated leaving Athens; otherwise we would never have left. In fact, it was they who suggested we could pick the VISA up at either Istanbul, Ankara OR Erzurum. To say we are floored is an understatement. We are truly, truly flattened and we ponder our options.
We can return to Athens (flight to Istanbul, stay overnight, flight to Athens), stay there for up to three days and then travel back to Erzurum. We would have to leave the bike and everything here while still paying for the accommodation or we can start again by applying direct to the Consulate in Erzurum for our Visa. After many cigarettes (Bernard) and a few tears (me) we decide to start again and apply through the consulate here and wait the seven-ten days it will take. Costs are the major factor in this decision but we have no choice and we pray the weather will hold through t
his process. Forms are duly completed, photographs handed over. The first photograph Bernard handed over was of me without a headscarf and the staff were obviously uncomfortable with it but Bernard did it deliberately, and very naughtily, to see what would happen.
In the end he took pity on them and gave them a very fetching one of me in a headscarf which brought smiles out all around. They were pleased with it. Now we wait. There is nothing else we can do.