Posts Tagged With: RTW

End of my World Tour!

A quick update:

END OF WORLD TOUR!!!

OK, so I’m a bit behind on my blog (as usual), but I thought you’d all like to know my ‘Round The World’ Motorbike Ride is officially finally over…

Since my last post, I rode up though Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Italy, San Marino and France.

I have mixed feelings on this ending, as I suppose most travellers do.  On the one hand, it’s great to see friends and family again, and great also to have completed such an amazing journey, but on the other I miss it! :).  But I really do realise how lucky I was to have been able to do so.

So, I arrived back in (not so sunny) England on Monday 24th November after 2 years and 2 months away (not counting a couple of quick returns for 2 of my brother’s weddings).

It was cut a little short (sorry Spain!) by a lucky job offer I received at late notice starting this Friday 28th Nov 2014, but it’s in Malaysia, so at least I can escape the British winter!

I stopped by WaterAid UK London office on the way home and met Senior Fundraising Officer Emma Blake (pictured sitting on the bike) and the team.

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WaterAid UK Offices – Senior Fundraising Officer Emma Blake practices her Round The World riding technique

 

So far my kind sponsors have donated £8,430 for this great cause, but I’m still hoping to meet my £10,000 target….  Many, many thanks to all those who’ve helped and supported me during my trip (too many to mention, but you all know who you are!), and if you haven’t sponsored me yet but would like to, it isn’t too late!

 

http://my.wateraidfundraising.org.uk/personalPage.aspx?SID=379433&LangPref=en-CA

 

I still intend to catch up with the blog soon (for anyone who may be missing it..) and the book will be out by Xmas…. 2045 at this rate!

 

Thanks for reading, safe travels and have fun! 🙂

 

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Route of The Tiger 🙂

 

Categories: UK | Tags: , | 8 Comments

Albania

Butrint National Park

There’s nothing like the feeling I get when I cross the border of a new country; being free and having an unknown road ahead of me just waiting to be explored.  I love it!  I was excited to get it once again as I crossed into Albania from northern Greece.

I had lollygagged around northern Greece before entering Albania, and so it was already getting late as I crossed the Vivari Channel on a small ferry/platform hauled across by wire ropes, guarded by old Venetian Castles.  This channel marks the joining of the Ionian Sea I had been so used to in Greece, and the Adriatic Sea that continues to the north.

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Ferry across the Vivari Channel, with Venetian Castle in the background

I was on my way to the coast and a place called Ksamil which I’d read was one of the nicest beaches in Albania.  It is situated in Butrint National Park, a large wetland area containing Butrint Lake and a host of unique landscape, archaeology and environment.  I got a great view of the area as the road climbed over a mountain.

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Butrint National Park

The weather was good and I thought I’d take the Tiger down a gravel track off-shoot, just because I could.  It was pretty steep and bumpy in places, but the re-born Tiger lapped it up.  Eventually I came to a dead-end, but there was nice views of the estuary, and was good fun to boot.

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Let’s see what’s down here!

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Nice views of the estuary

Ksamil

Shortly after I rode into Ksamil, an area dotted with picturesque, sandy bays.  If I’d thought Greek coastal towns were quiet out-of-season, then the Albanian ones were completely dead.  There was hardly anyone around, and it almost seemed spooky, as if everyone had been body-napped by space invaders.

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Ksamil – lovely, but deserted off season

The beaches though were indeed beautiful, and the water warm and crystal clear.

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Perfect water

However, I didn’t find anywhere ‘out of the way’ to pitch my tent, and didn’t fancy pitching in full view of houses and hotels, even if they were empty.  So, I rode on up the coast to continue my search.

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Exploring Ksamil’s bays

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Another closed-up bay

The Vivari Channel I had crossed earlier connects the sea to the largely freshwater Lake Butrint, and I had stunning views of the lake and the mountains reflected in its waters as the road climbed higher.  Because the connection to the sea brings brackish waters to the lake at high tide, it creates ideal conditions for mollusk farming, and I could see many of these farms from scenic viewpoints along the way.

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Lake Butrint and its mollusk farms

Beach Camping

I eventually found the perfect beach just north of Ksamil at Manastir, down along windy road that ended at a beautiful, secluded bay.  There was a beach bar and restaurant, but they were closed up for the winter, so I had the place to myself.  I imagine in the summer it would be a great place to have a meal and a few drinks.

I set up directly on the beach, had a swim, made dinner and then lit a beach fire.  The water was still lovely and clear, calm, and surprisingly warm.

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Getting dinner on

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Fire started – where did I put the steaks?

There was a nice, red sunset, and then a starry sky appeared as I lay listening to waves gently lapping against the shore.  Ii fell asleep quickly.

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Sunset – Manastir

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Night Night!

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Make a wish!

Sarande

Next morning I woke up to another calm, tranquil day, and waited for the sun to rise and burn off the slight dew covering the tent.

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Morning!

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Prefect beach camping at Manastir Bay

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And here comes the sun 🙂

Once packed, I continued heading up the coast to hunt for breakfast.

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In search of breaky

The coastal city of Sarande wasn’t hard to find, as it’s quite big, and in I dived headfirst, as I was hungry.  It was the first time I’d seen so many people and cars together in one place since arriving in Albania.

A slightly confusing one-way system took me right through the city bypassing the seafront, so around I turned and headed back in to find a café by the water.

Soon I was sitting comfortably at such a café by the marina, ordered an omelet and toast, and watched the world go by.

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Breakfast by Sarande Marina

A nice old gent came up to ask where I was from, and we had a little chat.  Turned out he was a local tour guide, and spent a few minutes answering my questions and giving me a few tips on places to go.  So far the Albanians I had met had been very nice indeed.

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Sarande

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Sarande

The Albanian Riviera

One great thing I loved about Albania, it had photos of the attraction you were about to pass on the side of the road, so you could look at it before you decided to visit or not.

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Bunec Beach sign – great idea!

I saw a sign for a beach called Bunec, and decided to take the long, twisty mountain road down as it looked quite nice.  It led to another lovely, isolated bay, and had a long cement pier I could ride the Tiger down, which is always fun.

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Bunec Pier

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… and crystal clear water

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Bunec Pier

The only other 2 people there were a couple of Czech travellers in a Volkswagen T3 Campervan, with a 10 month old baby and a dog.  They’d come down from the inland mountains to warm up, and told me it was lovely up there, but already getting very cold – down to freezing.  With this useful information I decided to keep to my original plan and stick to the coast, riding up the Albanian Riviera.  Maybe I would head into the hills later on if the forecast improved.

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Riding the Albanian Riviera

As I rode up the coast, popping into villages and exploring beaches along the way, the whole coastline remained very unpopulated and quiet.  Many of the buildings seemed to be under construction, and there were new hotels being built everywhere.

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Unpopulated beaches

The coastal road was, however, perfect.  It had everything – great views, good quality surface and no traffic.

Each time I saw a nice looking beach from the road, or on an advertising poster, I stopped by to take a look.  They were now becoming more pebbly than sandy, but were still empty and great places to relax for a break.

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Bay just south of Himare

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Pebbly beaches, but quiet and great for relaxing

Himare was a very nice beach town, very clean and quaint with nice looking hotels and restaurants.  It also had a wide, calm bay for swimming long distances.

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The lovely town of Himare

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Himare

Waves

I’d heard Dhermi was supposed to be a happening tourist spot, but again, like all the other coastal towns and villages I was passing through, it seemed like a ghost town.  The only people I saw hanging around were a few old people, the men always in jackets and pork pie hats with walking sticks, and the women always dressed in black.  They were friendly though, and it was nice to once again be waved at as I rode past.  I suppose there are just too many motorbikes in Greece for people to do this.

And so I had once again come from seeing thousands of fellow motorcyclists in Greece to being the lone biker.

Chickens

Chickens must be one of the most stupid animals on the planet, and Albanian chickens proved just as stupid as the others, as once again one flew/ran directly towards my front wheel as I passed.  I just managed to save carving chicken sashimi by an inch.

The road once again rose high into the mountains, offering more scenic views and fast twisties.

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The coastal road rose in and out of the mountains

In places the speed limit on the mountain twisties was only 30 km/h, which is really slow, so I gave this a stiff ignoring.  Needless to say, I was surprised when I saw a couple of Albanian Policemen hiding behind one sharp bend with a speed radar gun.  As it was an uphill stretch, I slowed almost instantaneously, and maybe they didn’t catch me as they let me pass, or maybe they were just nice to me.

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Some of the amazing twisties

On the way down a small, muddy track to another beach, I passed another sign for the old, abandoned Monastery of St Teodor.  As the track was getting narrower, steeper and muddier, I decided to give it up and visit the monastery instead.

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The track to Monastery of St Teodor

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Monastery of St Teodor

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View from Monastery of St Teodor

I was impressed at the number of Albanian villages built high up on steep mountain slopes.  Wasn’t it easier to build them down by the sea?  Perhaps they just hated fish and fresh seafood.

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Albanian village built high in the hills

I would like to come back to Albania just to see what it’s like in the high season.  They must get a lot of tourists, judging by the number of hotels and campsites around.  Down one (empty) coastal road they were even building a new ‘Eco-Resort’ at a place called Palase, where 2,062 years ago Julius Caesar rested his legion during his pursuit of Pompey (so I read).

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The empty road to Palase Eco-Resort

Vertigo

Then I almost got vertigo as the road climbed so high and steeply, I ended up in the clouds.

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The dizzying road up to Vlore

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… so high you soon reach the clouds

Along the summit the road passed through pine forests and by cosy mountain huts, opening up occasionally for some great views over the other side.

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Vlore Mountain Pass

It got pretty cold and I had to put on another layer.  Then the long descent into Vlore started.

Fancying a beach camp again, I started looking for suitable spots, but none were forthcoming.  I saw a potentially good place on my map, but as it was a few miles away I stopped for dinner at a kebab joint and then jumped on the (free) highway to get there faster.

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Vlore

Turning west at the unimpressive city of Fier, I rode for quite some time before I reached the spot at a place called Darzeze.  I was there just in time to catch a lovely sunset, but unfortunately the ground was a big tidal flat, and there were a few too many people hanging around to camp rough (gypsies?), so I decided to move on.

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A wooden bridge at Darzeze – nice, but no good for camping

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Darzeze Beach

Lazy

I spied another place on the map at Divjake, and started making my way towards it.  However, when I passed a cheap motel on the highway, I got lazy and decided to call it a day.

As much as I like camping, it can no way match the comfort of a lovely, warm, crisp, white bed, and a hot shower.

Strangely, the motel room had pictures of Egypt on the wall.  I wonder if there’s a hotel in Egypt with pictures of Albania on the wall?  I have seen this kind of thing quite a bit over my travels.

Divjake

Divjake looked great on the map, a green forested peninsula, so in the morning I went to take a look.  Turned out it was green and forested and had a huge, flat sandy beach.  However, you couldn’t say the beach was especially beautiful, being somewhat dark and hard, but it was good fun riding along it.

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Divjake Beach – Good fun to ride across

The tourist village there was, surprise surprise, deserted, and most of the shops, restaurants and hotels were boarded up.  However, this was somewhat different as it looked as though the place had been boarded up for years, not just for a season.

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Divjake – closed for the season/year

I rode on north up the coast towards Montenegro, my next stop.

There were loads of policemen hiding in speed traps all the way up.  Fortunately, they weren’t that good at hiding, and their yellow fluorescent yellow caps were easy to spot through the bushes.  If only all policemen wore those!

Just before crossing into Montenegro, I stopped for lunch at the sandy 3km beach at Shengjin.  As a un-and-coming tourist resort I had expected to see many hotels under construction, and although the beach was OK, it didn’t match the beauty of Albania’s southern beaches on the Riviera.

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Shengjin Beach – 3km of sand

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Nice, but not as nice as the southern beaches

By now the sunny weather had disappeared and the sky had clouded over.  I had a feeling I was going to get wet, so pressed on quickly towards the Montenegrin border.

And I was right – I did get wet.

Categories: Albania | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

North Greece

Metéora

 

With a name that means ‘In the heavens above’, one would expect such a place as Metéora to be pretty nice.

It is an area covered in towering sandstone pinnacles formed 60 million years ago, just after the demise of the dinosaurs, shaped by weathering and earthquakes.  So dramatic are the structures, it could be called the Greek Cappadocia, although lesser known.  Well actually, just because I hadn’t heard of it didn’t mean everybody else hadn’t.  In fact I hadn’t heard of Cappadocia either, so what do I know?

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Metéora – spectacular sandstone pinnacles formed 60 million years ago, shaped by weathering and earthquakes

On six of these awesome monoliths stand six Byzantine monasteries, each perched on the top like prehistoric bird nests.

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One of the Byzantine monasteries perched on the top like prehistoric bird nests

I’d arrived in Kalambaka, a small tourist village at the foot of the mighty mountains, in the dark, so I had no clue as to the spectacular scenery that awaited me in the morning.  This is because, as usual, I’d made a late start (midday) from my hotel in Vouliagmeni, a southern beach suburb of Athens.

As I headed north I took the back streets and avoided the toll roads for two reasons:

  1. To save money (tolls in Greece soon add up to be quite expensive)
  2. To ride more scenic roads instead of the usually not-so-scenic motorways

The major drawbacks of this are:

  1. It’s much slower if you want to get somewhere
  2. It’s much slower if you want to get somewhere

When I started out it was sunny (as it was forecast), but the roads weren’t that exciting – they just followed alongside the toll road; this is where drawback 1 came into play.

Soon after that it began pelting down with rain & got colder, which is where drawback 2 came into play.  I wasn’t expecting this dramatic weather change, so I had to stop and wrap up.

Eventually the roads became more scenic, and twisted up and down Greece’s central mountainous terrain, weaving through towns and villages.  It would have been much nicer if the sun was out, of course, and I almost gave up and jumped on the toll road at one cold, wet point.

Top Tip:  Never stop for a photo in a remote Greek lay-by (like I did), particularly in the dark (which I fortunately did not do); certain people use them as toilets without having the courtesy to bury their waste, and they therefore resemble open sewers.

One nice thing about Greek drivers is that they are well used to motorcyclists and are very courteous on the roads.  For example, they always move to the side of the road to let you over-take with ease, even when there’s oncoming traffic.

Kalambaka

In the end I rolled into a dark Kalambaka at 6pm and found a restaurant with wifi so I could:

  1. Warm up
  2. Eat
  3. Search the web for somewhere cheap to sleep

I had planned to camp rough somewhere, but I hate camping in the rain (who doesn’t?).

Luckily there were loads of cheap hotels for around 20 Euros due to it being off season and there being a large number of hotels trying to get your business.  I chose one with the best reviews, as usual, and checked into a hot shower and an early night.

WOW!

In the morning I was greeted with glorious sunshine, and a big surprise when I looked out of my bedroom window to see a towering sandstone rock face right in front of me.

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View from up my street in Kalambaka

I hopped on the Tiger to explore and enjoyed riding around the mystical, heavenly place all morning, admiring the views.

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I rode around all morning admiring the views

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Metéora – means “In the heavens above”

Then I made my way up to a few of the rock-top monasteries.

The largest monastery is the Great Meteoron (or Megalon) Monastery, so I thought I’d at least better visit that one.  The ride up alone was worth the effort.

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The winding road up to Megalon Monastery

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The view half-way up

The Megalon was built around 1340 after St. Athanasios Meteorites ascended the highest pinnacle in the area.  It was quite a climb, but luckily for St. Athanasios he was ‘carried up by an eagle’, and after admiring the view at the top, he named it Megalo Meteoro (or ‘Great Place’).

After my Greek diet of Souvlaki and Mythos Beer, I was too heavy to be carried up by an eagle, and so had to walk up a long flight of stairs, but the view was definitely worth it.

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The Great Meteoron Monastery built in 1340 after St. Athanasios Meteorites ascended the highest pinnacle ‘carried up by an eagle’

On the way up there were also great views of the c, the next-door neighbour.

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Monastery of Varlaam, seen from the climb up to Megalon

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Breathtaking view from the top of the Megalon

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Some old Byzantine frescoes inside Megalon

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Monastery quota attained

Igoumenitsa

After I’d attained my quota of pillar stacked monasteries, I headed off one again on my trusty Tiger.  I fancied heading up the Albanian coast (as I’d heard it was nice), and so made my way to the Greek west coast at Igoumenitsa.

As the weather was closing in, I decided to jump on the Egnatia Highway (toll road) which went all the way to the west coast; it was still very scenic (passing snow-capped peaks along the way) but much quicker of course, and only cost a couple of Euros.

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No wonder it’s cold! Snow on the mountains along the Egnatia Highway (North Greece)

Beach Camping

Having missed out on camping in Metéora, I was determined to camp near Igoumenitsa, and when I saw good weather forecast, I headed for the beach.

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Arriving at Igoumenitsa at sunset

Just north of Igoumenitsa, which is a lovely port town full of lively bars and restaurants, I found beautifully secluded Ormos Valtou National Park, from where you could see the Greek island of Corfu a few miles offshore.

Unfortunately, there was no ‘rough’ camping allowed in the National Park, but there was an organized campsite (barely still open) that let me throw up my tent next to the beach for a couple of Euros.

The spot was perfect, and just what I needed after the rainy weather inland.

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How’s this for a perfect camping spot? – Ormos Valtou National Park

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Lovely Jubley!

Ouzo and Greek Dancing

Next door to my tent was a traveling circus called ‘Zirkus Lollypop’, run out the back of a transit van by Swiss Gentleman Hansa and performer Innes.  Hansa had been here several times before, and kindly invited me out with them into nearby Igoumenitsa for a spot of Saturday Night Entertainment.

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Turns out I was camped next to Travelling Circus ‘Zirkus Lollypop’ – and a great night of Greek dancing and lots of Ouzo was had by all 🙂

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The camp-spot

And it was a great night out indeed, where I learnt I was (in fact) a great Greek dancer (well, that’s what this Greek guy said), and particularly apt at the knee-diving foot slapping (until my knee gave way).

In the morning I also remembered why I didn’t drink Ouzo anymore.

Anyway, the Zirkus Lollypop gang do a great job helping to rehabilitate kids (among other things), so take a look if you’d like to know more, or run away with them (as I was tempted):

http://www.lollypop-galaxys.ch/zirkus-lollypop.html

Also on the campsite were a couple of poorly stray dogs.  One was so skinny I was sure it didn’t have long left.  I gave them half of my dinner and a couple of tins of tuna I had.  Poor things.

Glorious Sunshine!

The next day was glorious (except for my hangover) and the sun shone as though it were a summer’s day – not bad for November.  I didn’t waste the opportunity to explore the National Park and relax on its gorgeous beaches.

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Ormos Valtou National Park – nothing but silence…

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A shell (I think)

It was so peaceful I could literally hear nothing except for the soft lapping of the sea upon the shore.

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Ormos Valtou National Park

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Glorious day!

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It doesn’t get much calmer than this

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Exploring Ormos Valtou National Park

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I took the opportunity to top-up my tan

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Deserted…

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Ormos Valtou National Park

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Ormos Valtou National Park

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Ormos Valtou National Park

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Igoumenitsa across the bay

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Well, time to make a start towards Albania I suppose!

I just hoped the great weather would continue as I rode north into Albania.

Categories: Greece | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Greece

Chios

 

I have always loved Greece; what’s not to love about the fresh, whitewashed walls tumbling down steep, flowered steps from the mountain tops and into the crystal clear, blue sea?

I rode off the ferry from Cesme around sunset and rode 10 km south of the main city and port, Chios, to where I had booked a cheap room at a lovely quiet beach called Agias Foteinis.  There wasn’t much there (including tourists), which was perfect for me, and I loved the small, friendly feel of the place.  I had 2 days before I needed to catch the 2nd ferry to Piraeus (Athens), so I took the time to relax and explore the island.

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My beautiful, quiet beach at Agias Foteinis, Chios, Greece

I ate in the same beach front Tavernas near my hotel for 2 nights, and the owner kept giving me free liqueur and small doughnuts covered in honey and sprinkled with caster sugar and cinnamon (loukoumades).  He was big, warm, friendly and funny, and the secluded beach setting was idyllic.  I’ve been to some wonderful places, but it really is hard to best Greece, particularly being the ocean-loving person I am.

Birthday

On my birthday (23 Sep) I also celebrated 2 years on the road (this trip).  My, how time flies!  Quite scary really….

I spent the day riding around the island exploring. Mavra Volia beach was especially dramatic in the stormy seas with her black, volcanic pebbles.

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Mavra Volia beach with her black, volcanic pebbles

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Mavra Volia beach – dramatic coastline in the stormy seas

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Mavra Volia beach – voted one of the nicest on Chios

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Strong southern winds had caused a bit of flooding

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I carried on searching for calmer seas

There was a strong wind from the south, so the usually calm beaches were rough until I got to the north facing beaches on the mid-west coast.  Here it was a different story, and at last I found the crystal clear, blue waters for which Greece is famous.  One bay in particular was stunning:  it had a little island in the middle, so I stayed there all afternoon swimming and relaxing.  I called it Bowen Birthday Bay.

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Bowen Birthday Bay

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This was more like it!

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Time for a swim!

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Lots of these dotted around the wonderful coastal roads

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Beautiful old houses of Old Chios

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A view from Chios Castle walls

The ferry to Piraeus left at 23:30 as scheduled and the wind died down to make it a smooth 7 hour crossing.  I bought an economy ticket (no cabin) but the reclining chairs were so comfortable, I slept quite well.  It was, however, freezing due to them having the aircon on full blast, and in the end I had to get my sleeping bag out.

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Chios Port – waiting for the night ferry to Athens (Piraeus)

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Safely onboard

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Farewell Chios!

Athens

We arrived in Piraeus (the port of Athens) at 7am, which meant I had 2 hours to kill before the Triumph dealer opened up, so I rode around the coast and found a nice, quiet beach to relax.  The sea was very calm and there were lots of early morning swimmers getting their exercise.  I thought it must be nice to live near there and start your daily routine like that.

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Early morning swimmers, Piraeus Beach

My very good friend from university, Evangelos, lived in Athens, and we had planned to meet up when he finished work.  He lived on the 2nd floor of our block at Southampton University where we usually saw him hanging out of our fridge eating all our food and drinking our beer.  He did work hard though studying law, and I did everything other than study hard for a BSc Geography degree (can you believe I only had 6 hours of lectures a week?!)  His hard work paid off though and he has gone on to do very well, and is now a partner in a major international law firm.

Triumph Intermoto Piraeus

Just after 9am I rolled up at the Triumph dealership in Piraeus (Intermoto) to the warmest welcome I could have ever expected.  I’d contacted them a couple of week’s previously explaining the Tiger’s starting problem, and they’d told me the starter motor had a well-known problem when it got too hot.  Other Greek riders had had a lot of problems with it in the summer heat, and Triumph would replace it under warranty.  Great news!

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The Triumph Intermoto Piraeus Team – Kostas, Evilyn and Vangelis (right to left)

A short while after I arrived, Elias Chatzigeorgio, founder and ace photographer of Tracer Adventure Club, arrived to take some snaps for his magazine.  He also invited me along on an adventure ride he was organising for 4-5 October – great!

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One of Elias’ photos at Tracer Adventure Club https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tracer-adventure-club/324565054311903

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, The Chairman of Eliofil S.A (the Triumph Motorcycles Distributor for Greece), Mr Nassos Eliopoulos, made a special trip down to see me and took me out for a wonderful lunch.  Then he announced they would conduct all work on my Tiger free of charge, and only charge me cost price for any parts required.  Wow!  It was really great to be welcomed and supported like that, and I can’t thank Nassos and his team enough.  It made me very pleased I’d chosen Triumph.  It’s almost like being part of one big family, and I have received a warm welcome at all dealerships I’ve been to, but particularly here.

The Triumph Intermoto Piraeus Service Centre was run by a lovely couple, Kostas and his wife Evilyn, and together with ace mechanic Vangelis, I left the Tiger in safe hands.

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Vangelis getting to work on The Tiger

Europe and The Future

Having reached Europe there was no doubt I felt the end of my World Tour approaching, but I was determined to eek it out for as long as possible, as reaching the UK meant decisions had to be made regarding dirty words like J.O.Bs.  I reckoned I could last until winter hit, and really enjoy touring Europe.  I was lucky as many of the people I’d met on my 2 years travelling had been from Europe, so I had an exciting list of people and countries to visit.

I also thought a lot about how my trip had started all those 2 years ago, and how I could and should have spent more time looking for sponsors to save financing it all myself; one if the down-sides of my laissez-faire approach to planning.  I had, however, managed to raise over £8,300 for Wateraid UK Charity, which I was very pleased with, and hoped to reach my target of £10,000 by the time I arrived home.

So with the Tiger under repair, I left to do a spot of sightseeing around the centre of Athens.  I planned to take the metro in from Piraeus, but Kostas insisted on dropping me off on his funky, very nippy moped.

As luck would have it, I was just in time to see the changing of the guards outside the Greek Parliament.  It was interesting watching their slow motion marching (almost like a cockerel mating steps), designed to protect their blood circulation after 60 min of immobility.

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Changing of the guards outside the Greek Parliament

I then wondered down to the National Gardens next door, and onto the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Acropolis & Parthenon.

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The National Gardens

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National Gardens

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Temple of Olympian Zeus

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The Arch of Hadrian

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The Acropolis’ Parthenon – under repair

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Slowly being restored

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Parthenon

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Amazing views from the top of the Acropolis

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Athens

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The Parthenon’s entrance

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Old amphitheater restored into a modern arena

That evening I met up with my mate Evangelos and enjoyed a good catch-up, as always, after far too long apart.

UK Visit

As the Tiger would take a few days to fix, this left me free to fly home to sunny Norwich, UK for my older brother’s Stag Adventure Weekend climbing Mt Snowdon & white-water rafting in Wales.  I’d originally thought I would be home with the bike by then, but all good plans are made for change!

I’d booked the flights a few days earlier, and it just so happened that the cheapest flight back was a Business Class seat on Serbian Airways (180 quid).  On the few occasions I’ve been fortunate enough to fly business, I think it’s one of the only occasions I drink wine at 5am in the morning (now I’m not at university anymore).  Somehow it just seems a waste if I don’t, being free and all.  I don’t normally like being fussed around, but again, business class flights seem to be an exception, as I love it!  So there’s me in my biker clothes that I’d been wearing for the past 2 days traveling (since the ferry to Athens) lording it up amongst smart ladies and gentlemen in business suits, supping Chardonnay in the early hours.  And guess what: the flight attendants even TALK to you in business class, and treat you like a human being – amazing!  The only downside is, it makes going back to ‘cattle class’ that much harder…

Needless to say, it was great to be back home again, and me and my 3 brothers had a great time on the long weekend.  Here are a few snaps if you’ve never been to Wales before.

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Me and my Bro’s in the (usual) Welsh rain, Snowdonia

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When amazingly, the sun came out!

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At the top – Mt Snowdon 1,085 metres (3,560 ft)

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As the route up was so easy (Miners Trail), we decided to make things interesting on the way down and go for the Crib Goch Route which followed this knife-edge arête

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Only when we got to the bottom did we find out this route is only for “expert climbers”, so I guess we are!

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Don’t look down Eddie!

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Incredible views though

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Easy! Here’s Paul, the Groom to be

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The route down

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Eddie the Mountain Goat

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In the pub for a well deserved beer (this is Paul’s normal attire, by the way)

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And a quick flight back to Greece!

Major Surgery on the Tiger

When I returned to Greece it was apparent the Tiger needed much more work than I had anticipated.  I had also been very lucky not to have lost my front wheel en-route, as my fall in Uzbekistan had slowly been opening up the weld at the seam.

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My damaged rim with the weld starting to split. Time for a new wheel!

Here again I felt lucky to be a Triumph owner, as the bulk of the work was approved by Triumph UK under warranty (that had just come to an end after 2 years).  I felt somewhat proud (and almost famous) when Triumph UK were already aware of my arrival in Greece and quickly approved all the warranty work.  I almost felt as though someone had been watching over me…. Did one of my Guardian Angels work for Triumph UK?

Here is a list of work I had done:

  • New starter motor (under warranty)
  • New clutch assembly (under warranty) – It had somehow become warped, which might have something to do with the number of clutches I’ve had (3)!
  • New pistons (under warranty) – damaged likely by the poor fuel in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and possibly particles through the air fliter (Mongolia?)
  • Cyclinder head & valve planing/repair
  • New tyres  – I went for Anakee 2’s all round as my Heidenaus were beaten up and I guessed most of my final European leg would be on road
  • New rear suspension  – Mine was occasionally bottoming out on large bumps, and turned out it was shot
  • Lots of free parts to replace broken parts (metal chain guard, new screen, hand protectors, mirror)
  • 70,000 km service – The last one was the 50,000km at Triumph (Britbike) Chiang Mai, Thailand, and since then the oil had been changed twice (Irkutsk and Almaty), as well as a new chain, sprockets, plugs, brake pads, air filter (K&N cleaned), coolant and radiator cap in Almaty, and a new clutch in Bishkek.

This was quite a list, and while I was waiting for parts I took the opportunity to do a bit of ‘bike-less’ travelling, including jumping on the ferry to beautiful Greek Island Poros.

Poros

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Lovely Poros

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Poros – only an hour away from Piraeus on a fast ferry

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The view from my cheap guest-house

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Kanali Beach

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Kanali Beach

Kiev, Ukraine

Making the most of cheap European flights and further delay waiting for more parts for my Tiger, I then jumped on a cheap flight to Kiev, Ukraine to visit the friends I had met in Batumi, Luba and Natasha.

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Kiev, Ukraine

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Luba and Natasha (sideways)

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Lovely view of the Dnieper River

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And at night

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The wonderful hospitality of Ukrainians – one of the best meals I’ve ever had – all cooked by Natasha (all washed down with copious amounts of vodka, of course) 🙂

Back in Athens

Back in Athens the Tiger was still on the operating table (this was when they discovered the damage to the pistons), so I was grateful to my old friend Evangelos for putting me up in on his couch for a large part of the ‘waiting period’, and his mate Katerina for being my selfless, expert tour-guide for a couple of days.

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New valves being prepped for The Tiger!

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Piston damage

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SO… back on another tour of Athens, down by the harbour

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Plenty of time for sunsets

 

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The Temple of Hephaestus, Athens

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The Temple of Hephaestus – one of the best preserved examples

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And again

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Caesar’s Golden Leaf Crown – National Archaeological Museum, Athens

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Did all ancient Greeks have small winkles? – National Archaeological Museum, Athens

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The battle between man and the Centaurs – Athens War Museum

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I thought about borrowing the pistons from this old Benelli

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The Panathenaic Stadium which hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896

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My selfless, expert tour-guide for a couple of days – Katerina

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The lovely Chiliadou beach on Evia

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North coast Evia

Starting Problem

Once the bike had finally been put back together, it was somewhat frustrating and mystifying that the same starting problem was still there (it wouldn’t restart when the engine was hot).

Hmm.

Kostas and Vangelis deliberated for quite some time on this mystery, and changed the relay and battery, still with no joy.  They then replaced the positive cable from the battery to the starter motor with a thicker, good quality copper cable.

Bingo!  The new cable worked a treat.  However, a day later I discovered the problem was still there, albeit much less significant than before.  When the motor was hot (after riding in hot weather), she still could not manage an immediate restart, but the problem resolved within just a few minutes rather than the 30-60 minutes I used to have to wait.  I decided to live with it (as I was already back on tour in The Peloponnese) and monitor to see if it got any worse.  My next step will be to replace the earth cable (as recommended by several helpful people).

New Bike, New Gear

 

With an almost new bike I couldn’t wait to set off again after almost a month without The Tiger.  On my visit back to the UK I had also taken the opportunity to replace my ripped jacket and dry bags for new ones, so now even I looked new as well.  I also took a lot of things home to reduce my load, as now I was in Europe I wouldn’t need to be so self-sufficient.  It felt good!

The Peloponnese

 

A few days before I set off on tour again, I was lucky to have my original riding partner Miss Jessie fly back to tour The Peloponnese with me, so it was a good job I’d got rid of much of my luggage (so I could fit her bathroom sink on the back 😉 ).  Having started the trip with me all those 2 years ago, and joining me for a bit in Thailand, it was good to get the old team back together for a couple of weeks.

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I don’t see many of these (sunrises), but I’m grateful when I do. On my way to collect Jessie from the airport

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The new load for the Tiger

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And I finally got around to adding a few more flag stickers

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Here we are in Nea Makri

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Catching the last of the sun

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It wouldn’t be Greece without harbours like this

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Catch of the day!

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Beautiful blue Autumn skies

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Crystal clear waters

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The advantage to travelling out of season – you can always get a seat!

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From Nea Makri we crossed through Athens to see the fantastic view from the top of the Mount Lycabettus (277m/ 908 ft) – the highest point in Athens

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Mount Lycabettus summit

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And here’s more of the view…

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The weather couldn’t have been any better

 

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Crossing the Corinth Canal – 6.4 km long and only 21.4 metres (70 ft) wide, separating The Peloponnesse from the Greek Mainland

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Beautiful weather!

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Straight over to the west coast and Navarino Bay for some beach camping

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It was great to get back to nature and beach camping!

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The stars are always better over the ocean

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🙂

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Morning swim – it’s a hard life indeed!

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After a stressful morning I needed to rest a bit – Gialova Lagoon

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The simply stunning Voidokilia Beach – a perfect crescent

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The southern side of Voidokilia Bay

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Our own private beach – Glossa Beach

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Heading north up the Peloponnese coast we came across the Eiffel Tower, as you do

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Even simple meals are delicious in Greece – Souvlaki and Greek Salad

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Funny, you always end up with lots of friends when you have food!

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We camped on a beach near Zacharo, but got hit by a storm during the night! However, we survived, unflooded (just)…

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The stormy seas just missed us, but made for a beautiful morning

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Nothing like a brisk morning swim to wake you up!

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It was so hot, we evaporated…

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Looks like rain – time to move on!

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Hopping on the ferry to Kefalonia

Kefalonia

 

From The Peloponnese we jumped on the 1.5 hour ferry ride to gorgeous Kefalonia, where ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ was set and filmed.

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Kefalonia! (Poros, the port)

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Every corner had another beautiful view

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The south coast has amazing views from the mountains

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It’s important to keep yourself fit when biking (and Jessie always wanted to be taller). This was at Kefalonia Airport where once again a cheap flight was taken back to the UK for a quick weekend – my Brother Paul’s wedding… It’s all go around here!

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Agostoli Lighthouse

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Argostoli

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Riding up the west coast

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Kefalonia

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The north west coast

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This must be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world! Myrtos Beach

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Yes, it’s real!

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Breathtaking – Myrtos Beach

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Myrtos Beach

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Myrtos Beach

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Myrtos Beach

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Melissani Cave – Inside the collapsed dome with crystal clear lake

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A boat was waiting at the bottom to take us into the cave – Melissani Lake

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Here we go!

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Inside Melissani Cave

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All too soon Jessie had to go, so off we went back to Athens airport. On the way we passed the The Rio–Antirrio bridge, one of the world’s longest multi-span cable-stayed bridges and the longest of the fully suspended type.

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The bridge links the Peloponnese to mainland Greece to the north.

Categories: Greece | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cirali to Çeşme – Turkey

Onwards and Upwards

From my camp in Cirali, I only had 650km to ride until I reached Çeşme and the ferry that would carry me over to Greece (Chios Island).  Therefore, I took my time and enjoyed the twisty, scenic road that ran right along the coastline; I thought I would meander for a couple of days.  The Tiger was running well, despite the ongoing starting problem when hot; she did love those Turkish roads.

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The stunning Turkish coastal road

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Every corner I had to be careful to pay attention to the road to avoid over-shooting off another cliff

It was another gorgeous, sunny day, and I was again spoilt by incredible views at every corner, so much so I had to be careful to pay attention to the road to avoid over-shooting off another cliff.  As I rounded one bend I came across a stunning birds-eye view of Kas, a beautiful town dominated by a large yachting marina.

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Kas

There were a lot of expensive yachts floating around, accompanied by expensive looking hotels, but the whole place was beautiful; I put it on my ‘must visit again’ list.

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Yep, I could stay here!

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Kas’ coastal road

Further along the coast I came across the small but perfect Kaputas Beach.  It made a change to actually see quite a few people milling around, enjoying the sun under their beach umbrellas.

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Idyllic Kaputas Beach

Patara

One of the best beaches in Turkey is supposed to be the turtle sanctuary of Patara Beach.  I pushed on and arrived around 6pm, and hadn’t realised the beach closed at 7pm to allow the nesting turtles to lay in peace.  But that was fine, as one hour was enough to soak up the remaining sun and watch it set over the horizon.

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Patara Beach – one of the best in The World??

The 12 km-long Patara Beach is indeed beautiful, and it was actually voted one of the top beaches in the world by Times Online ‘Best of 2005’; strange how it could be ‘one of the best beaches in the world’ in 2005, but not since then.  Did it sink into a black hole from 2006-14?

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Just in time for sunset

Next to the beach are the ruins of ancient Patara, the old major naval and trading port of Lycia over 2,500 years ago.  I had a quick wander around but the light was fading, so I headed on up into the nearby village to look for somewhere to camp (unfortunately I couldn’t camp on or near the beach as it is a National Park and forbidden).

I spotted a camping sign and homed in to take a closer look.  Strangely, but not altogether disappointingly, it ended at a bar.  The friendly ‘Camel Bar’ manager came out to meet me and explained how he offered free camping in the small lot opposite his bar in a bid to boost custom.  Well, being a budget long-term traveller, I couldn’t really turn down a free camping spot with hot showers, so I happily took him up on his kind offer, even though I was slightly concerned I might be letting myself in for a sleepless, noisy night.

As it turned out, the bar wasn’t noisy at all, and as I was also the last one left in there, falling asleep was no problem at all.

In the morning I stopped by another old Lycian city called Xanthos.  Once the largest of all Lycian cities, the Persian Army invaded the city around 540BC.  Before the city was captured, the Lycians famously destroyed their own acropolis, killed their wives, children, and slaves, and then proceeded on a suicidal attack against the superior Persian troops.

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The ruins of Xanthos

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The old amphitheater

I had lunch while I was there and was immediately befriended by 2 stray dogs.  Of course I couldn’t resist feeding them a little, and wished I could do more for them.  I hate it when they looked at me ‘like that’!

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Oh, don’t look at me like that!

Ölüdeniz

Ölüdeniz was a place I was really looking forward to visiting.  I’d seen pictures of the Blue Lagoon there, and it looked like the most beautiful place in the world!  Unfortunately, when I arrived, I was 50 years too late, as it is now an endless conveyor belt of sun loungers and packed with tourists.  Shame!

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Ölüdeniz – One of the most beautiful places in the world spoiled by too many tourists!

However, the surrounding coastline was pretty much devoid of tourists, which suited me better, particularly the ride down to the beach adjacent to Gemiler Island.

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Exploring the coastline around Oludeniz

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Anyone fancy a ride on a Pirate Ship?

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The peninsula south of Fethiye

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Another beautiful day in paradise!

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The view from the other side of the peninsula towards Gemiler Island

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The beach at the bottom, with Gemiler Island in the background

Ölüdeniz is famous for paragliding, and if I did another one (I’ve already crossed a parachute jump off My List), then here would be a great place.  The views of the lagoon from above must be just amazing.

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Ölüdeniz beach

With the whole place rammed, there was no chance of remote, secluded camping, so I wandered into a beach resort to ask if I could camp there, only to be told there was ‘no camping anywhere along this coast’.  Oh well, I thought, but gave one last resort a try next door.

Bingo!  The friendly manager of The Paradise Beach Club offered me a quiet place for a fiver (including breakfast), tucked under a fig tree just in front of the beach, so I jumped at it.

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The only private camping spot in Blue Lagoon, Ölüdeniz

I’d arrived early, and so took a wander down the road into the small tourist beach town.  There was almost an endless stream of paragliders landing on the beach, which was fun to watch.

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One of the paragliders (top right) coming in to land

The club is a great little place to spend a day on the lagoon side of the beach, with a great bar, restaurant and fun, friendly staff.  Even better, before sunset all the tourists go back to their hotels leaving the beach empty and all mine!

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The morning view at my camp before the hordes of tourists arrived

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And when they went home, I was left with this (and a beer, of course)

I went for a run in the hills and afterwards enjoyed a quiet swim with the whole Blue Lagoon to myself.

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The Blue Lagoon – my own private swimming pool

Planning (for a change)

I’d had to book a cheap (Ryan Air) flight back to my home in England (Norwich) from Athens for the 25th September in order to attend my older brother Paul’s ‘Adventure Stag Weekend’, or else he’d kill me.  That only left me a few days to get to Athens and drop my bike off at the local Triumph dealer (to fix the starting problem), so I thought I’d better take no chances and arrive earlier rather than later.

So I rode the 400km from Ölüdeniz to Çeşme in one day, missing out a lot of beautiful coastline that needed exploring.  But I was quite happy with that, because now I have another reason to come back to Turkey in the future; I’m only a young whippersnapper after all!

Turkish Tolls

On the way to Çeşme I did my usual routine and stopped for lunch at a fuel station restaurant while my bike cooled down, and this one had excellent lamb kebabs.  Along the way, the coastline views had remained breathtaking.

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Nice to wake up to

Just as I was getting ready to go, a Turkish biker from Istanbul called Umit turned up on his KTM 1190.

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Umit on his KTM 1190

Umit was a friendly chap, so I decided to stay for another tea and have a chat.  And good for him, as he’d just packed it all in to ride his bike around the world as well, next stop Australia.  We swapped info & and a few stories, and then I followed him on the toll motorway (toll road) to Izmir, where he turned off and I carried on to Çeşme.

I hadn’t used the motorway up until then as there was a ‘no motorcycles’ sign at the entrance.  Apparently this was there to be ignored.

The toll booths weren’t manned, which meant (according to Umit) that I didn’t need to pay, and instead we just rode through the automated booths together.  It was funny though when the last toll booth alarmed with a racket and flashing lights as I exited to Çeşme!  I had visions of a police roadblock being formed ahead to stop me, but was somewhat relieved when nothing happened.   Phew!

Çeşme

Çeşme is a maze of tiny medieval cobbled back streets through which most locals ride their mopeds at breakneck speed.  I didn’t have a clue where I could or couldn’t ride, as some of the streets weren’t even wide enough for my Tiger!

After riding around in circles for a good while, I was totally lost, and so stopped to ask a couple of policemen if they knew where my hotel was.  As it happened, they did, and the nice policemen started directing me down a tiny lane.  However, even better, a local on a moped overheard us and told me to follow him; that’s how friendly the Turks are!

So off we sped through Çeşme’s crowded, tiny streets (me being very careful not to knee-cap anyone with my panniers) until we came to my hotel.  I thanked the guy profusely, who just waved and shot off, for had it not been for him I’d probably still be there looking.

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The Tiger parked outside the hotel in the tiny streets of Cesme

Lovely

Çeşme is lovely; really lovely.  It really is a place I would have no hesitation in returning to one day.

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Cesme street art

Full of yachts and swanky wine bars on the end of a scenic peninsula, there is certainly a lot of money around this city.  I had a quick look around for a rich wife, but couldn’t find anyone under 60, so I joined the normal people in a sports bar watching football.

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Expensive yachts and swanky wine bars

Poor Planning

Sometimes my poor (or non-existent) planning makes things difficult, as you might expect.  Entering Greece was one of those times, because I suddenly realised the day before arriving that I needed to get minimum 3rd party insurance for Europe, called a Green Card.

I called Umit and asked him if he knew where I could get one.  There was nowhere in tiny, touristy Cesme, but Umit found a place for me to try in the large city of Izmir, one hour away.

I hate riding into the centre of busy cities, but it had to be done.  The traffic was horrible.  To save anyone else the hassle of trying, a foreigner cannot get Green Card Insurance in Izmir.

I tried 2 different places and each said they could not issue Green Cards for non-Turkish drivers.  The second place also tried 10 other places for me, and the answer was the same.  So, I had lunch by the seafront and then fought my way back through the heavy city traffic to lovely, sleepy Çeşme.

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Izmir Waterfront – no Green Card here!

To cut a long story short, I eventually found Green Card Insurance online from an Italian company called Mototouring for a good price.  The nice guy at my hotel printed and scanned some docs for me, and I got it all sorted with minutes to spare before the ferry left.  Phew!  I won’t leave things like that to the last minute again – honest!  😉

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Phew! Just made the ferry – Next stop Europe and Greece!!!!! I feel like I’m almost home…

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Goodbye Turkey – it’s been a pleasure 🙂

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Georgia – Batumi

Heading for the Seaside!

Tbilisi to the Georgian coastal retreat of Batumi was an easy 5 hour, 400km ride through the picturesque Georgian countryside.

I reached the coast just south of Poti, Georgia’s largest port city, and headed south.  I passed through several coastal tourist towns and stopped off to peek at the beach where I could.  The coast was lined with trees for much of its length, and the beaches were generally sandy.

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Back at the seaside!

In many places you could ride right up onto the beach itself.

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I thought about camping here, but it was forecast to rain

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It was nice to be on the beach again

As evening approached the sky grew overcast, so I raced to Batumi before it started raining.  I checked into TJ Hostel, a short ride outside Batumi, just before the sun set and watched it with a beer from the lovely view I had from a shared balcony.

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A good day’s work – arrived in Batumi alive and in time for the sunset and a beer 🙂

One of the things I love about Georgia is the great food, and that night I treated myself to a 3 course dinner at an excellent restaurant down the road – delicious Ostri (beef stew), Lobiani (bean filled bread), chicken salad and local beer – Yum!  I was pretty stuffed on completion, but successfully completed the mission.

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I could easily get fat in Georgia (but happy)

In the morning the clouds had gone and now I could see the full beauty of Batumi laid out before me from the height of our balcony.  I couldn’t wait to take a dip in the Black Sea which looked so beautifully calm and inviting.

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The stunning view of the Black Sea and Batumi from the hostel balcony

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The magic shared balcony where I spent so many a memorable hour relaxing, chatting and drinking Lemoncini (try it, it’s nice!)

I jumped into a taxi for the short ride into town to explore and walked along the coast.  Of course there was a Ferris Wheel – obligatory in any seaside town – and plenty of tourist boats offering booze-cruises and fishing trips.  I really fancied a booze-cruise, and set my mind on finding someone to do it with me.

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Batumi harbour, with giant Ferris Wheel and Booze Cruise Boats (I wanna do one!)

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Batumi’s giant Ferris Wheel

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Super smooth water down at the docks

The beach was nice, especially if you like pebble beaches, and the Black Sea crystal clear, warm and irresistible.

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Batumi Pebbly Beach on the Black Sea coast

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And again (not your typical Georgian woman bottom left, by the way!)

I liked the fresh, wide-open feel of Batumi.  There was plenty of space to do whatever you wanted; there were cycle lanes, tennis courts, table-tennis tables, giant chess boards and even snooker tables lined up all along the promenade.

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Sports galore!

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Batumi promenade is the place to get fit!

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I picked up a bit of work on the Pirate Ship 😉

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Batumi Pier

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Anyone for fishing?

Adoption

Just when I thought Batumi couldn’t get any better, I was adopted by two wonderful women from Ukraine – Luba and Natalia.

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Luba and Natalia – if I run off to Ukraine, this is why 😉

Luba was into motorbikes and one evening I found out she had been secretly posing for photos with The Tiger.  Lucky Tiger!

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Luba and her new boyfriend

I took her for a ride and she fell in love with the bike immediately.  From then on she would hardly let it out of her sight!

The Good Life

Over the next few days the three of us had a memorable time exploring Batumi and the surrounding area together, enjoying more wine and excellent food.

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Going out in Georgia is all about eating and drinking too much – my kind of night out!

You cannot come to Georgia and not try the national dish – Khachapuri.  Also called ‘heart attack on a plate’, it is a delicious (but heavy) meal of bread filled with cheese, egg and lots of butter.  Another famous national dish is Khinkali – steamed dumplings filled with anything and everything you can imagine.  Some Georgians have competitions to see how many they can eat (I was pathetic and only managed half a dozen).

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You cannot come to Georgia and not try this ‘heart attack on a plate’ – Khachapuri

One restaurant I definitely recommend is ‘Shemoikhede Genatsvale’, where we had the most delicious local food and wine in a great atmosphere; they even rolled out the Ukrainian flag for Luba and Natalia.

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The girls under their Ukrainian Flag, tucking into Khinkali, Ostri and beautiful Georgian wine

Early Morning Swims

Early every morning the girls would go swimming in the sea at the quiet beach at the bottom of our road, and every morning they insisted I accompany them.  This was great for me, because I’m rubbish at getting out of bed in the morning, and this gave me no alternative but to do so.

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Wakey Wakey! Time for your early morning swim!

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“OK!”

Luba always made a pot of fresh coffee to take down with us (along with their essential, life-saving Snickers Bars), which added an extra nice touch to the morning routine.

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Ukrainian Coffee on a Georgian Beach – lovely!

Soon I found myself almost a kept man, with breakfast and lunch being made for me daily (Ukrainian style), and great company for fun evenings out.  I must admit, I found it very hard to find a reason to leave, and ended up staying a week in blissful harmony.  I would certainly recommend two attractive Ukrainian women for any physical or mental ailment you may be suffering from 😉

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Getting ready to tackle another huge plate of Khinkali

Like the hostel in Tbilisi, TJ Hostel had a wealth of fresh fruit growing everywhere, particularly fresh figs and grapes.  Everyday Luba would run up the fig tree and throw down handfuls of delicious fresh figs to accompany our meals.  It seemed that everything was easy to grow in Georgia, and all down the road to the beach we passed kiwi, grapes, oranges, lemons, limes, walnuts, pomegranates and cornelian cherries (or dogwood, which I’d never tried before, and took some getting used to!)

Every night we would invariably watch the sun set over the Black Sea from our balcony, and they just kept getting better.

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Sunset over the Black Sea

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And then moon rise

Fearless Exploration

Because Batumi enjoys a humid sub-tropical climate – warm with lots of rain – they have one of the best and most varied Botanical Gardens I have ever visited.  Thinking I was not really a flower kind of guy, my Ukrainian minders dragged me along one day, and in the end I was really pleased I went!

If you’re ever in the area, don’t miss it.  The gardens consists of plants & flowers from all over the world and has them arranged in 9 different sectors, including Caucasian, East Asia, Australia, North & South America, the Himalayas and Mediterranean (tip: it’s easy to get lost!).

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Batumi Botanical Gardens

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Lovely views of the sea to boot!

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An Australian Pond (I think)

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Are you sure this is the right way?

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A Flower (of some sort)

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And another

Mtirala National Park

Another trip well worth doing is Mtirala National Park, which lies 25km outside Batumi in the Adjara Mountains.  Natalia caught a taxi with some other hostel guests, and Luba bravely perched on the back of her beloved Tiger.  The last 10km or so was over a very rocky (and steep in places) track, but both Luba and The Tiger coped well and survived to live another day (just) 😉

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The Tiger did a good job getting us there on the rocky roads, so we left her with some cows as a reward

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Exploring Mtirala National Park

As well as a very pleasant place to amble around, Mtirala National Park had a couple of nice surprises, the first of which was an incredibly beautiful waterfall with a large plunge pool at the bottom perfect for swimming (which we needed after the hot climb up to see it).

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A spectacular waterfall in Mtirala National Park – perfect for swimming!

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Mtirala National Park

The second surprise was the delicious pan-fried fresh trout, straight from the river, that the local park restaurant cooked up for us, along with several other delicious dishes (and a touch of wine, of course).

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Delicious dinner of pan-fried river trout, et al

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These lads had the right idea!

Booze Cruise

Not forgetting about the booze cruise, one evening I dragged the girls down into town and onto a boat for a cruise up and down the coast.  We managed to grab the sunset cruise, and so had the added bonus of watching the sun go down.

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One of the Booze Cruise Boats

The boat had a bar onboard, and somehow I ended up with a bottle of Georgian Champagne, which always goes down well.

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Champagne anyone?

Then we relaxed and watched the colourful array of dazzling lights switch on up and down the Batumi seafront as the ship slowly cruised back into port.  What else could you wish for?

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Cruising back under the lights of Batumi

Well, I actually wished for one more thing – a ride on the giant Ferris Wheel!

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All aboard the giant Ferris Wheel!

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Batumi under the full moon

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And more dancing fountains!

As usual, all too soon the time came to move on; the girls moved onto Armenia and I was going south into Turkey.  But that’s part of the wonder of traveling – good friendships made all over the world and shared memories that create a special bond.

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Georgia – Tbilisi

Welcome to Georgia!

I loved Georgia the minute I reached the border and 2 custom officials waved me straight through with “Enjoy your visit!”  If only they’d handed me a glass of wine it would have been No.1 on my list.

The ride from Sheki, Azerbaijan had been an enjoyable one on good roads, skirting the base of the Caucasus Mountains with great views over the plains below.

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Georgian wine plains below the Caucasus Mountains

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Sunny, hot and wet – ideal for wine

I even managed to find a nice piece of gravel track to play on when I diverted north of the M5 in favour of a more direct minor road.  I crossed the border into Lagodekhi with no problems whatsoever, and followed the main road south away from the mountains and into Georgia’s wine country and endless vineyards.

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Heading south into Georgia

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Caucasus Mountains

Wine

Archaeologists have found proof that Georgians have been making wine for around 10,000 years (longer than any other nation), and anyone that’s been making wine for that long has to be OK in my book.  I can’t think of anything better than a Sunday ‘Sabre-Toothed Tiger’ Roast washed down with vast quantities of Georgian wine followed by a Mammoth hunt for next week’s dinner.

Although I’m not into religion, I would happily place a Georgian cross around my neck, mainly because theirs is made from grape vines and brings you good luck in choosing the right wine.  Having said that, you’d be unlucky to find a terrible wine, because all the Georgian wines I tasted were delicious.  And strangely, the more you taste, the more delicious they become; Halleluiah!

Wine is such an integral part of the Georgian lifestyle, they even have a famous hymn called ‘Thou Art a Vineyard’.  I agree totally, and if I had to convert, their wine religion would certainly be favourite.

Guide

I don’t usually go out of my way to find a guide in new places, but when I arrived in the capital of Tbilisi I thought I needed one for 2 reasons:

  1. I quite happily sup beer on my own, but Georgia has a huge variety of delicious wines that must be sampled, and drinking wine is a sport for two.
  2. I’d need someone to guide me back to my guesthouse after all the wine supping in part 1) above.

This is where the wonders of social media come to the fore, and in Tbilisi I was lucky on two counts: I found a great, cheap hostel with fantastic staff, and I also found an amazing guide.

Tbilisi Classic Hotel

Tbilisi Classic Hotel was a good find.  It was cheap, clean, well located and flawlessly run by Shiad from Pakistan with the help of young Mr James from India.  Both were fantastic people and couldn’t do enough for their guests to make them feel at home and comfortable.  James even helped me by filming the ‘ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’ I’d been nominated for by 3 people – all done in the best possible taste for a great cause, of course.

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Mr James and I

The hotel was situated a short walk from the city centre, surrounded by fresh fig trees (I love figs!), apple trees, grape vines and an assortment of other fruit and vegetables.  It was like living in the ‘fruit n veg’ section at Tescos, and was a great place to spend 4 days relaxing and exploring the sights.

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Shaid and James at the fantastic Tbilisi Classic Hotel

Tbilisi

Tbilisi is a beautiful capital city.  It was founded on the Mtkvari River in the 5th century when it was part of the ancient Kingdom of Iberia, and it now has a population of roughly 1.5 million (almost a third of Georgia’s entire population).

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The Mtkvari River running through Tbilisi

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A random street in Tbilisi, just to show you what a random street looks like here

Fate had matched me up with Mari, a fun, friendly and knowledgeable local to show me around this picturesque, scenic and lively city.  Mari wanted someone to practice her English with, and I wanted a guide, so it worked out to be a perfect partnership (except now she speaks with a rooomantic Naarwich accent).

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The bestest guide in Tbilisi – Mari – and great fun to boot! (taking me up in a cable car)

Mari took me just about everywhere, including a trip up in a cable car up to see the city’s symbol – the Kartlis Deda, a 23m high aluminium woman symbolising the Georgian national character: wine in her left hand to welcome visitors, and a sword in her right hand in case they don’t like the wine.

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The Kartlis Deda – The city’s symbol: wine in her left hand to welcome visitors, and a sword in her right hand in case they don’t like the wine

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Tbilisi

After a morning walking around the city, it was time for lunch and my first foray into the magical world of Georgian wine, under the watchful eye of my chaperon.

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Lunchtime! And time for my favourite wine – Kindzmarauli

A bit more about Georgian Wine, in case you’re interested

Georgia has an ideal climate for producing fine wines, namely plenty of sun, heat and water.  Many of the best Georgian wines are produced in an area called Kakheti in the east, which I had ridden through on my bike.

If you think you’ve tasted most types of wine, but haven’t tried Georgian wine, then you are in for a shock.  For thousands of years Georgian wines have been uniquely buried in the ground inside double-walled clay jugs called Kvevri to undergo fermentation at ground temperature.  Sometimes wines are left buried for decades (when people forgot where they buried them?), but also wines can be produced much quicker in a number of months.  I liked most of the wines I tried, but my favourite was one Mari introduced me to – a delicious bottle of Kindzmarauli from Teliani Valley.

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Georgian wines have been uniquely buried in the ground inside these Kvevri for 1,000’s of years

Although the second largest wine producer in the former Soviet Union (after Moldova), Georgian wine is pretty scarce in the UK, as most of it is exported to Eastern Europe and Central Asia.  However, it is well worth seeking out.  I found it to be incredibly fruity and tangy (in my expert wine-speak), I assume the result of burying it in the ground and also commonly keeping the grape skins on.  Keeping the skins on after the crush also imparts a unique colour into Georgian wines, and often the whites almost appear orange or rose, which went well with the shirt I was wearing.

Back on Tour

Mari was fun to be with, and also liked laughing at my strange accent, so we both got on well and she didn’t have to run away after the first 10 minutes with some excuse (as she said she’d had to do on several previous occasions post-meeting tourists she’d offered to show around).

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Back on tour!

Mari even took me on a bus ride several miles outside the city to a small 3,000 year old city called Mtskheta, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The walls of 3,000 year old city Mtskheta, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world

While we were there, we thought we’d venture back through the years and took a horse and carriage ride through the old city and around the 11th century impressive Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.

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Going back in time….

Then we thought we’d better get some more wine in.

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Nothing better at the end of a hard day’s sightseeing than a bottle of wine or 2

The evening is a great time to take a wonder around old Tbilisi town.  The array of colourful lights is mesmerizing, and there is a lively buzz from the crowds of locals and tourists wondering around the bars and restaurants enjoying the good food and good wine.  What more could you ask for?

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Tbilisi at night

There was even a musical dancing fountain.

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Tbilisi’s dancing, musical fountain – every city should have one!

Summary, if you need one

Before I came to Georgia I knew very little about it.  What I have discovered is a little known treasure, certainly amongst many people in the UK.  In summary, if you are into your wine, then put Georgia near the top of your list – immediately.  It is a beautiful country full of beautiful people, cheap, cheerful and just waiting to be discovered.

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Cheers from Tbilisi! 🙂

Categories: Georgia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Caspian Sea and Azerbaijan

Mercuri-1

If there was a world record for the number of stamps required on a Bill of Lading (the authority to load & disembark cargo), Port Aktau would win hands down.  In the end I had to get eight stamps over a period of several hours before my bike was allowed onto the ferry to cross The Caspian Sea from Aktau, Kazakhstan to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

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The 8 stamps required on a Kazakh Bill of Lading – easy!

‘Mercuri-1’ is a 30 year old Croatian-built ferry, 150m (500ft) long with a tiny 4m (13ft) draught when loaded.  Luckily the sea was dead flat, or else it would have been an interesting (as in rocky) journey.  I’d read that in 2002 her sister ship, ‘Mercuri-2’, had sunk in rough Caspian seas taking 43 lives with her.  With their small draughts these ships weren’t really designed to cope with the high seas the Caspian can occasionally whip up.

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Mercuri-1, my ferry across The Caspian Sea. I hoped she would do better than Mercuri-2

After a long 9 hour wait for an immigration stamp, I eventually embarked the ferry around 3pm.  My bike slotted nicely up alongside a lorry, and a crew member asked me for 20 dollars ‘security money’.  I asked him if he accepted visa, which he didn’t of course, so shrugged and carried my bags up to the passenger deck.

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The Tiger sat next to her big brother

Near the gangway I was met by the rest of the friendly all-Azeri crew and introduced to Savir, the Chief Communications Officer, who (was the only one who) spoke good English and looked after me during the trip.

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Meeting the friendly all-Azeri crew

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My charismatic host & guide, Savir (on the right)

I decided to ‘splash out’ on a single cabin for 20 US dollars for some comfort, peace and privacy on the 30 hour passage, rather than rough it on the filthy deck which was covered in a thin layer of black oil and grime.  My cabin was on the top deck where all the other officers lived and it was surprisingly clean and tidy; it even had a double bed.   I’d noticed the other passengers were crammed in 4-berth cabins below decks, and as they cost 10 dollars anyway, I thought I’d got a good deal.

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My ‘first-class’ cabin

By this time I was starving, as I’d not eaten all day and been up since 2am getting my 8 export stamps.  Then I remembered the packed lunch Anna had made me, and was extremely grateful for it as I wolfed it down.

I wasn’t sure what the deal was with food onboard, as there didn’t seem to be anyone about to ask.  For a large ship, it was virtually a ghost ship with only 32 crew and 8 passengers (mostly truck drivers from Georgia).  The rest of the cargo consisted of around 20 brand new lorries.

However, soon the situation resolved itself, as they quite often do.  One advantage of having an arm wrapped in bandages is that some people, mostly women, take pity on you.  One of these was the female chef, affectionately called ‘Jaynar Bebe’ (or Auntie Gazelle), who grabbed me as I wondered around the ship and led me down to the galley, where she fed me a delicious hot meal of chicken and potato casserole.  I ate it all despite having just eaten Anna’s lunch – the advantage of having a huge appetite!  It did feel a little strange though, as I was the only one eating in the huge dining room made to seat hundreds.  It was funny when Auntie Gazelle rushed in half-way through to hide me behind a curtain, as the Kazakh customs inspection squad was doing their rounds and apparently I wasn’t supposed to be in there yet!

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My lovely chef – Auntie Gazelle

The Caspian Sea

The ship finally sailed at 5pm, and I suddenly became excited to think about the next phase of my trip that lay ahead.

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Farewell Aktau!

Mr Savir turned out to be a very good host and guide, and made sure I had endless quantities of Azeri tea, got fed when I needed to, and gave me a good tour of the ship.  Being an old Navy lad, I couldn’t help noticing the lifeboats had practically seized solid, there were no test dates on the life saving equipment and there were no life jackets to be seen.  I couldn’t help but wonder if these contributed towards the loss of 43 lives on her sister ship.  If they did, it didn’t look as though many lessons had been learnt by the company.  Just in case, I had my own escape plan all worked out, which basically involved swimming out of the large port-hole in my cabin and into open water, grabbing whatever I could find that was still floating.  My dry bags would have been useful, except that they were full of holes!  At least the water was reasonably warm at 25 degrees C (77 F).

That evening, as we slipped through the calm sea, I felt a familiar, comforting feeling creep over me; after 8 years in the navy, this is where I felt at home.

There are few sunsets better than those at sea, and that evening was no exception.

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Few sunsets are better than those at sea

More Tea Vicar?

The next morning Savir invited me onto the bridge, plied me with more tea, and asked me if I knew how to work their new ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display & Information System).  It had been installed only 2 weeks before, but no-one had been trained how to use it!  Well it just so happened I did, so I showed them and won myself more tea and crumpets in the process.

Then Savir took me down into the engine room where I was given more tea by the lads.  Good job I like tea!  It is reassuring that no matter what ship you go on, you can always be sure the lads in the engine room will be hard working, good old boys.

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The Engine Room Crew. More tea?

They took pride in showing in showing me the ship’s engines, which you can now also have the honour of witnessing:

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So clean, you could drink your tea off them – well, almost!

Despite its misgivings, I would go so far as to say the 30 hour crossing on Mercuri-1 was wonderful.  The sea was calm, the wind blew a nice cooling breeze, the crew were friendly and hospitable, the cabin clean and the food excellent.  Sure, it was a dirty old rust bucket with minimal life-saving equipment and poor maintenance schedules (if any), but it had character and I’ve been on much worse.  It was well worth the hassle and wait getting on it, and I would do it again.  This pleasantly surprised me, because I had read on web reviews that the cabins were filthy, crew deceitful, and food poor and overpriced (at 5 dollars a meal I thought it was good value and delicious).

One of my few disappointments was, yet again, seeing the crew throw all their garbage into the sea.  The number of times I have seen this in Asia I’m surprised the continent isn’t one huge rubbish tip.  I really do hope one day people will learn not to…

Baku

We arrived off Baku around 11pm, 30 hours after sailing, and anchored in the bay waiting for a berth, as there was a queue of several ships ahead of us.  Sitting a mile offshore, the lights of Baku dazzled brightly over the black water.  I could see Azerbaijan’s famous huge flag illuminated as it majestically waved in the light wind.  It was once the tallest flag in the world (standing 162m/ 531ft) until it was quickly beaten by Tajikistan’s flag in their capital Dushanbe (both made by the same American designer, who I imagine isn’t too welcome in Azerbaijan anymore).

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The lights of Baku at 11pm

I could also see a huge Ferris wheel (every city seems to have one of these nowadays) and 3 huge LED displays mounted to the sides of 3 buildings, each showing people waving the national flag, just in case anyone forgot what it looked like.

Not knowing how long we would wait for (waits of several hours is common), I dozed off in my cabin and was awoken by one of the crew at 2am just as we secured alongside.

Expecting a long delay with paperwork, I was pleasantly surprised when I was off the ferry and through customs and immigration within 2 hours.  I wasn’t even asked to pay a bribe, as I had read happens commonly (allegedly).  From the experience I’d had with Azerbaijani’s so far, I did not have a bad word to say about any of them.  However, the customs officer did only give me 3 days to transit through the country on my motorbike, even though the immigration transit visa in my passport was for 5 days.

After customs clearance, I paid the shipping company for the bike’s transport in their office; I was surprised at how cheap it was (110 US dollars).  I was then free to ride onto the streets of Baku, and hit the town at around 4am.

I stopped at an ATM just outside the port and resupplied with local money.  After that, I wasn’t sure what to do.  I didn’t want to pay 20 US dollars for a hostel room for only a couple of hours’ sleep, and I wasn’t even tired, so I rode around looking for somewhere to eat.

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Looking for food in Baku at 4am. Nope!

The only good thing about arriving in a city at 4am is the lack of traffic.  I rode all over the city for an hour and didn’t find anywhere serving food except for a small newspaper stand selling drinks and snacks.  Then I found a building where I could pick up free wifi and started looking for hotels for the next night.  The only reasonably priced accommodation was a hostel but it had no parking, and all the other hotels seemed to be very expensive.  I sat and deliberated for a while and then, at 5.30am, I decided I’d had enough and left for Sheki, a small town in the Greater Caucasus mountain range 300km away.  I’d already seen most of Baku anyway (albeit at night) and this way I could complete the journey before it got too hot and my starter motor started playing up again.

Off to Sheki

Baku and its surrounding area are pretty flat and semi-arid.  By the time the sun rose I had escaped the large city, and watched the burning ball as it slowly enflamed the dry, dusty vista in a beautiful yellow-orange haze.

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Sunrise over Baku outskirts

I had half a tank of fuel and would need to fill up to get to Sheki, so I started looking for a gas station on a hill where I could easily push-start the bike again rather than wait around for it to cool down.  I found one, but was very happily surprised when the bike started first time.  This proved the starting problem must be a heat issue, as the cold morning air passing at speed over the engine had kept it cool, whereas in the city I had not been going fast enough for this cooling to take place and had had to wait an hour before it started again.

 

Sheki

Gradually the countryside became less dry and trees started to appear.  Then I caught sight of the distant Caucasus mountains and rode towards them.

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As I rode on the semi-arid desert changed into less semi-arid desert

Sheki was hot, in the high 30’s, despite being 500m up in the cooler mountains.  I liked it much better than Baku as soon as I arrived; small, clean and quaint with medieval cobbled streets and ancient buildings, once an important centre for silkworm-breeding, now selling Turkish sweats and pottery.

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Medieval streets of Sheki

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Once a famous centre for silk-worm breeding

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Now full of quaint shops and minarets

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Sheki

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More tea vicar?

I found a charming old 18th Century Caravanserai, used to accommodate silk road traders, and moved into a low-ceilinged, stone arched single room for 15 quid.

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My 18th Century Caravanserai

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Inside the courtyard

By now I was pretty wacked, and enjoyed a long, cool shower.  Changing the dressings on my arm I noticed the skin had almost healed over with delicate, bright pink new skin.  It was now 17 days since the accident, and because I’d not done much with that arm and the right side of my chest, they were both feeling pretty weak.  So, I immediately enrolled myself on an intensive Bowen Get Fit programme.

I started with a lot of stretching, and then managed 10 half-push-ups, which was all my repairing ribs could manage.  However, I wasn’t happy with that and tried again a few minutes later and managed 10 slow, proper press-ups.  Much better!  I was on the road to full recovery, and it felt good.

I celebrated with a huge plate of chicken, chips and beer at the on-site restaurant and planned my route into Georgia.  It was a shame I only had 3 days in Azerbaijan, which wasn’t really enough to explore, but I was looking forward to sampling Georgia’s famous wine and hospitality.

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Azeri dinner for Champions!

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Sleep tight!

Categories: Azerbaijan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Uzbekistan

Tashkent

I was a bit more prepared in Uzbekistan than I had been in Tajikistan, and had pre-booked cheap hostels with good reviews ahead along my intended route of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.  I hoped by the time I got to Khiva (in 6 days) my Turkmenistan visa would have arrived, allowing me to transit on through via the Darvaza Fire Crater and Ashgabat before catching the ferry to Azerbaijan from Turkmenbashi.  It all seemed like a good plan!

I was expecting a lot of hassle and delay at the border crossing from Tajikistan into Uzbekistan, after having read (and heard from other travellers) that Uzbek customs are particularly brutal and insist on searching everything.  I’d even heard stories of laptops and hard-drives being searched for ‘illegal content’, and private photos being searched on media-phones.  As it was, I passed through with just a cursory glance into a couple of my bags.  I’m certain that a positive attitude and lots of smiling at border crossings definitely helps speed things up.  The motorbike helps too, as most people are interested in it, and some officials even ask for their photos to be taken with it.  I’m also sure being alone helps too – maybe they just feel sorry for me!

I passed down the other side of the mountain range separating the two countries, into a flat, fertile plain packed-full of fruit & vegetables.  The area seems particularly good for growing melons, judging by the millions and millions (at least a trillion) I past piled up high in stalls along the road.

It was hot and getting hotter, so when I passed a huge lake, I pulled off to see if I could take a quick dip.

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Swim?

I found a small local tourist resort and lots of people having fun on pedalo boats.

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The Uzbek Butlins

 I was dying for a cold water and approached a lady by a drinks stall to buy one.  As I reached for my wallet, I suddenly remembered I hadn’t yet obtained any local money.  Oops!  I asked if she’d take Tajik somoni, or US dollars, but she didn’t.  “Oh well – never mind”, I thought.

Just as I apologised and walked away, the lovely lady ran up to me and handed me a large, cold bottle of water – for free!  Wow!  I thanked her profusely and got her and the other lady stall owner together for a photo.  The younger of the two seemed to take a liking to me and insisted on a couple more photos of just us two; I did notice she wasn’t made of wood 😉

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Two non-wooden Uzbeks

I’d heard Uzbeks were friendly people, and I couldn’t wait to meet more of them.  Yes, I thought it was going to be a good stay.

I arrived in the big, busy Uzbek capital of Tashkent mid-afternoon.  Traffic was heavy, but it seemed to flow OK.  Although much smaller than Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia with some 30 million people, almost 3 million of these in Tashkent.

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My bike riding itself in Tashkent

On the way to my hostel, I pulled up alongside an interesting building to take a photo, and was left stranded when my bike wouldn’t start.  It had done this a couple of times before when it had been really hot (it started in Mongolia), and I guessed the battery may be slowly dying.  I waited 15 minutes for the bike to cool, which usually works, and it did, and raced off to find my guesthouse.

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This photo cost me 15 minutes

Young lad Oybek and his father ran a clean, tidy guesthouse near the bazaar (market) in the city centre.  It was there I met my first Mongol Ralliers, two Brit lads that had flown ahead of their team who were in 2 Nissan Micras because their Azerbaijan visas hadn’t come through in time.  They told some good stories, but even before I had met them I had already made up my mind to do the rally in a year or two, and try and get my mechanic brothers out of Norwich (Andy and Eddie take note! 😉 ).

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Tashkent Bazaar

Nathan, the Californian I had met in Dushanbe, arrived about an hour after me in his shared taxi, and we ventured down to the bazaar at the end of the road to find some food and a beer.  I changed 100 US dollars for 300,000 som on the black-market from a man with a large black bin-bag full of money.  There were loads of these guys wondering around, so it wasn’t too difficult to find one.  I got given a large pile of 300 notes, as the most commonly used denomination is the 1,000 som note.  I also got 70,000 more som than the official exchange rate, which is a well-known fact in Uzbekistan, and an indicator of the level of corruption (it gives certain people access to cheap currency).  Rampant inflation since independence from the Soviets in 1991, and slack fiscal policy, has meant huge piles of money are required even for the weekly shopping.  At least it made me feel rich, with all my pockets bulging with cash (until I quickly spent it)!

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Nathan buying us what we thought was beer, but turned out to be root-beer – doh!

After a bit of searching (for wifi), we found a decent British Pub called ‘The Chelsea’, except for the name (‘The Norwich’ had been relegated), and there we met another guy on the Mongol Rally called Gary, who had managed to break his foot riding a motocross bike in Turkey.  He too had flown ahead to meet his team again as they passed through Uzbekistan.

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Doing ‘a deal’ in The Chelsea

The Chelsea was owned by a local Chelsea football fan and got busy quickly as the night progressed.  They also had their own brewery attached and made, without doubt, the worst beer I have ever had;  it tasted like kumis, or sour horse milk, which isn’t good at the best of times, particularly in a beer (just believe me).

As I planned to leave for Samarkand the next day, I got up early next morning and wondered down to see some of the sights.  The hostel was conveniently only a 15 minute walk from the Khazrati Iman Architectural Complex, a collection of several Mosques, Madrasahs (educational centres) and Mausoleums (tombs).  The early buildings date back to the 16th century, but they were marvelously restored in 2007 and now stand as a breathtaking collection of 500 year old architecture.

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The stunning Khazrati Iman Architectural Complex

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And again

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I tried to climb this, but got told off 🙂

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Once more for luck

The Muyi Muborak Madrasah (‘sacred hair madrasah’) is said to have some hair from the Prophet Muhammad.  I searched around for a bit to see if another madrasah had any of my hair, but they didn’t.  The Muyi also houses what is believed to be the world’s oldest Quran – the 8th century Uthman Koran.

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Inside a Madrasah courtyard

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And inside another one

Many of the buildings are adorned by the trademark blue-glazed tiled domes of this era – some of the most architectural striking sights I have ever seen.  I must admit I was surprised and felt somewhat ignorant after seeing such beautiful buildings; I never even knew they existed.

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Beautiful blue-glazed tiled domes covered most buildings

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Lots of green in this desert

Quick observation:  Everyone I’ve met in Uzbekistan so far has gold teeth – probably easier than carrying around bags of worthless money.

Samarkand

The journey from Tashkent to Samarkand was only just over 300km, a mere hop compared to my recent daily mileage, and I completed it easily on one tank of fuel.  For some reason I seemed to be getting more miles to the gallon recently – superior fuel?  I doubt it!

The journey was flat and passed though the same fertile plains that surround Tashkent, with lots of fruit and veg for sale by the side of the road, which I stopped to buy for lunch.

It was around 40 degrees C (104 F) and I was melting.  For the final hour of the journey I took my jacket off; there just wasn’t enough airflow through it to cool me down.  I slowed down, of course, but I thought it was worth the risk of horrible gravel rash over heat stroke.  That’s the trouble with ‘Round the World’ trips: there’s just not enough space to bring clothing for all weathers.  What I really needed was a summer biker’s jacket as my Kilimanjaro was just too hot for this semi-arid climate in summer.

All along the road were fuel stations, most of them looking brand new, but their only disadvantage was they had no fuel.

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One of Uzbekistan’s many new fuel stations, with no fuel!

I’d managed to get petrol (benzene) OK in the capital, but outside Tashkent I had heard it was very hard to come by.  It seems Uzbekistan has plenty of oil & gas reserves, but not the means or expertise to extract it (yet).  This meant I had to buy petrol on the black market, which was easy enough (if you asked around for a while), but meant I was getting fuel of dubious quality out of old plastic water bottles.  I found my supply in Samarkand along a main road inside a clandestine garage.

Uzbekistan was at least very friendly; I was getting more attention on the road than anywhere else I’ve been on this world trip.  Everywhere I went people and other car drivers would wave and give me the ‘thumbs up’.  Cars would also pull up to me at lights for a chat, or to wave and say ‘Hi!’  It was nice.

I found my Samarkand guesthouse easily, thanks to my iPhone map, and it was another old, beautiful complex in the centre of the old city.

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Beautiful Samarkand

I met more Mongol Rally teams there, including one in an old Fiat Panda which had been broken for longer than it had been running – fair play to its drivers for keeping it going!

During the past few days, the repair that the kind chef had done to my biker trousers’ crotch in Mongolia had unraveled, and I was now dangerously close to being arrested for indecent exposure.  Luckily, there happened to be a tailor’s down the road, and the lovely girls in there fixed them for me for free.  That was the second thing I’ve had given to me free in Uzbekistan; it was quickly becoming one of the friendliest and prettiest places I’ve visited.

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The lovely ladies of ‘Samarkand Tailors’ who fixed me britches for free 🙂

I’m not usually a city person, preferring the open landscape of the countryside to city architecture, but Samarkand may be an exception.  It is filled with exceptionally pretty architecture, mosques, fountains and greenery.  It was the first time I could remember smelling the fresh aroma of green grass, plants and trees for a while.

I liked the relaxed, open feel of the city and was glad I’d planned to stay a couple of days.  It had everything I needed – a cheap room, good food, interesting history and friendly people (OK, it was just missing the free beer).

Conveniently, the largest tourist attraction in Samarkand just happened to be 10 minutes’ walk from my hostel (again): The Registan.

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One of the three Madrasahs in The Registan, Samarkand

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And again

The Registan (meaning ‘sandy place’) was built as a public square way back in the 15th century (when I assume it used to be sandy), and was where people gathered to hear speeches, witness executions and see the latest Hollywood Blockbusters.  It is framed on 3 sides by three Madrasahs, each one strikingly beautiful with amazingly intricate blue-glazed tile patterns, domed roofs and towering minarets.

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Amazing (not just the photo)

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Not bad for 500 years old

Inside are courtyards, lecture rooms and the old dormitories the students used to live in, now used to sell local handicraft, snacks and house interesting museums.

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Inside one of the Madrasahs. Small gift shops hugged the internal archways

The first Madrasah (Ulugh Beg Madrasah) was completed by the ruler at the time, Ulugh Beg, in 1420. He also built one in the city of Bukhara, transforming the cities into cultural centers of learning in Central Asia.  Ulugh Beg was quite a remarkable man – a mathematics genius, astronomer and ruler of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, southern Kazakhstan and most of Afghanistan for almost half a century (1411 to 1449).

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The gold roof inside one of the mosques

Bukhara

Samarkand to Bukhara was an even shorter journey of 280km.  The landscape was again flat, but the fertile plains slowly disappeared and were replaced by semi-arid scrub with the occasional empty fuel station.

It was getting hotter, and I took my jacket off again for part of the journey.

I was looking for some shade to stop for lunch, but I had as much chance of finding some as I had a drive-in McDonalds (and I really fancied a Big Mac!)

I passed three or four police checkpoints along the way, but only once was I directed to pull over for a routine document check.  I was pulled over a second time for cutting into a long line of traffic and slapped on the wrist.

Once again, my advance planning paid off, and I rode straight up to another wonderfully pretty guesthouse in the centre of the old city, along with half the teams from the London-Mongol Rally.  Why didn’t I do this ‘planning’ thing more often?

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Teams from the ‘London to Mongolia Rally’

This time I was in a dormitory, as the single rooms were a bit more expensive, and shared it with three top lads on the Rally from Australia and New Zealand in a Subaru Forrester.  I liked this guesthouse most of all.  It was in a great location, had a great social courtyard where everyone gathered, and they even put on 3 hot, cheap and delicious meals a day for 5 US dollars each.

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My fab guesthouse ‘Rustam and Zukhra’

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and inside…

Bukhara is an easy city to explore, and all the main sights are within walking distance; more beautiful 14th and 15th century architecture than you can shake two sticks at.

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More of the same – this time in Bukhara

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Inside a Madrasah in Bukhara – trees, flowers and beer; my 3 favourite things (except for sausages)

Highlights for me were the charming Char-Minar (‘four minarets’), with its unique, Indian-style design and four minarets with sky blue cupolas (built in 1807), and the much earlier 48m (160ft) high Kalyan Minaret (built in 1127), where criminals used to be hurled off the top to their deaths right up until 1920.

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The Char-Minar (‘four minarets’) – built in 1807

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And again, in case you missed it

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The 48m (160ft) high Kalyan Minaret (built in 1127). People were pushed off here up until 1920

The next day I bumped into Nathan again as he arrived from Samarkand, and went off to grab a beer and a catch-up by the picturesque pond in the old town centre.  Later we tried to find something that resembled ‘nightlife’, but the closest we came was an almost empty cabaret-style club, where the police came in and told the owner to turn the music down.  The only other people in there were a group of local men sat around drinking fruit juice.  When we went to go home, they all turned out to be taxi drivers waiting for us to finish!  Why can’t clubs be like that in Norwich?

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Pre-Bukhara nightlife

Categories: Uzbekistan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pamir Highway #3

The Pamir Highway – Day 4 – Khorog to Dushanbe

I had a relaxing night in Khorog and woke early to a good free breakfast at my wonderful guesthouse, Lalmo Homestay.  I considered staying another day because the leafy, sleepy town had a traditional music festival on.  However, I could hear it in the distance from my homestay and, nothing against Tajik traditional music, but I thought the best place to listen was as far away as possible.

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Back on the road north of Khorog

Back on the road north of Khorog I was back on the surfaced M41 Pamir Highway, and the road was good for a while up to a town called Rushan, sporting the usual Russian style ‘welcome arch’.

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The typical Russian-style welcome sign at Rushan

The road then turned west, still following the Panj River and Afghan border, and cut rather impressively into towering walls of solid rock.

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The road still followed the Panj River and Afghan border, and cut rather impressively into towering walls of solid rock

All of a sudden, when descending a hill, my front brake lever went rock hard and my front brakes seized on.  It had happened once before in Bishkek but I assumed it was because I’d left the bike standing for a week while I was waiting for my new clutch to arrive.  I pulled over by the side of the road, took the caliper and brake pads off and pushed back the pistons.  I spayed the pistons with a bit of WD40 to dislodge any dirt that had more than likely caused the seizure.

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Halfway down a hill my front brakes seized…

Before I set off, I noticed the plastic oil container I was carrying my spare fuel in had developed a small hole in the bottom and was leaking, so I chucked it.  Fuel stops looked far more regular from here on, so I was sure I wouldn’t need it anyway.

Several other sizeable rivers flow into the Panj along its route, and at one of these crossings I came up against a long line of lorries waiting to cross a bridge while some kind of repairs were underway.  They had made camp and had been there for days, I guessed.  Luckily the workmen let me ride across or else I could have been there for days as well.

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Traffic jam!

It was a really hot day and I stopped frequently to apply more sun-cream to my face; it had got burnt a couple of days ago and my lips were still peeling.

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Bridge across to Afghanistan

I passed a picnic shelter (one of the only ones I’d seen) and used the rare opportunity to escape the relentless sun and stop for lunch by the river.  A nice family in a car pulled up for a chat and asked me if I needed anything. They were from the capital Dushanbe.  I was also headed there, but wasn’t sure if I would make it in one day (being 600km away from Khorog on roads of varying quality).

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Another hot day!

The valley here was narrow, and the Panj River cascaded down rapids violently; I thought it would be a great place to come white-water rafting, although in places I thought it may be even too violent for that.

As the valley was narrow, I could clearly see the traditional Afghan squat, rectangular, mud houses across the river/border, and their occasional beautifully farmed terraces covering the steep Afghan mountainsides.

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Traditional Afghan squat, rectangular, mud houses across the river

Shortly after lunch my right pannier decided to fall off.  A dip in the road had caught me out and I took off as I jumped it, leaving the pannier behind on the road when I landed with a bump.

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This time it was the right pannier that decided to fall off

The pannier frame I’d had welded on in Almaty had snapped, so I pulled it off and hoped the pannier would remain on with only the 2 metal clasps holding it at the top (luckily they hadn’t broken off).  I would have to take it easy.

I’m not too sure why, but this section of the Pamir was really dragging; it was probably something to do with my pannier falling off and brakes seizing.  I also expected the road to be surfaced all the way, but I was surprised to find frequent long stretches of rough, gravelly and occasionally sandy road again.  After a while it became quite tedious and I couldn’t wait to get back on the black stuff and make some ground up.

Even the kids were now annoying me; instead of waving, as the kids back east did, for some reason they all wanted to make contact with ‘High Fives’.  Whenever I approached them, they would run out into the road, dangerously close, holding out their hands to try and make contact.  This was extremely dangerous, as they could have easily slipped on the gravel and went into me, or hit my pannier, and I ended up taking a wide berth to avoid them as much as possible.  Whoever started that stupid craze?

I thought I might stay in Kalai-Khumb, a town 240km up from Khorog, but when I arrived there 6 hours after setting off (after what seemed like forever) and didn’t spot anything I thought worth staying for, I decided to push on to Dushanbe.  Yes, it was another 340km, but I hoped the road would quickly improve and I could make up some time.  It was also a bit cooler riding in the evening, so I didn’t mind.

From Kalai-Khumb there are two possible routes taking you to Dushanbe; a northern route and a slightly longer southern route.  I decided to take the southern route, as although slightly longer, it was the main route favoured by most traffic and hence more likely populated by fuel stations (I would need one).  The roads were also supposedly better on the southern route, and I had had enough of rubbish roads for the time being.

As it turned out, the road did improve just west of Kalai-Khumb, and I was delighted to open up the Tiger (for the first time in 4 days) and have fun on an immaculate new road, still twisting alongside the river.

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At last – a perfect, new road to open up on!

Although the road was generally good, there was a horribly, sticky, red clay section under construction which cut through a mountain up towards Kulob.

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View of the valleys below headng up the Kulob embankment

By sunset I had arrived at Nurek Reservoir, the (disputed) tallest dam in the world at 310m high.  There are nine hydroelectric turbines in the dam which meets an incredible 98% of the nation’s electricity needs (as quoted on a Tajik website).

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I was pleased to see Nurek Reservoir as it meant I was almost at Dushanbe!

Lost in Dushanbe

I eventually rolled into Dushanbe hot, tired and completely lost after almost 12 hours on the road (600km on a wide variety of roads – some good, some very bad).  The local SIM card I had been given by kind travellers in Bishkek was not working (properly out of credit) and I had done no previous research on cheap places to stay.

Dying for a beer and a bed, I rode into the centre of town, hoping something would turn up.  And it did, as it happens, as things usually do if you ride around for long enough.

I passed a flash looking restaurant and saw a couple of motorbikes parked outside (a Suzuki Boulevard and a customised Honda Shadow), so I thought I’d park next to them, as three’s always better than two.

As soon as I rolled up (after driving up a couple of curbs and down a pedestrian path to get there) the owners of the two bikes had walked outside to meet me and welcomed me with open arms.  Indeed, I had hoped this would be the case, as usually wherever I’ve been in the world, bikers always treat other bikers as though they’re part of an extended family.

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Mr Gafur and his Honda Shadow

The Honda rider, Gafur, and his mate immediately led me to their table and ordered me a large beer; they could tell from my face, and head to toe covering of mud and dust, that I needed one desperately.  And, boy, did it taste good!

I never found out what either of them did, as their English (and my Russian/Tajik) was limited, but it didn’t matter because it was a perfect night.  My beer glass was never empty, and food magically appeared in front of me at various intervals; neither food nor beer touched the sides at any time.

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A great first evening in Dushanbe, thanks to my new biker friends

Over the course of the evening, I used the restaurant’s wifi to find what appeared to be the only cheap accommodation in Dushanbe.  It was a hostel called ‘Yeti’ and Gafur kindly offered to take me there.  As I didn’t want to put him out, I told him I’d be fine, but he insisted, and so at around midnight, a Triumph Tiger and a Honda Shadow were out cruising Dushanbe’s leafy streets looking for an elusive hostel.  OK, I’d had a couple of beers, but I knew I was OK to ride (not condonable, I know); Gafur, on the other hand, was all over the show and I’m surprised he didn’t get pulled over.  Perhaps he was the Dushanbe Godfather?  I had a feeling he was certainly a man of influence, judging by the number of people who approached him to say ‘hi’ over the course of the evening.

In any case, Gafur got us there (by calling the hostel in the end), and I once again thanked my lucky stars I was part of the biker fraternity.

The Yeti Hostel

The Yeti Hostel was a clean & tidy place on the 6th floor of a drab, grey tower block, in what looked like a part of town you shouldn’t wonder back to after dark.  In actual fact, it was perfectly safe, as me and an American backpacker I went for a few beers with the next night (Nathan) made it back alive in the early hours the next day.  Yes, if ever you find yourself at a loose end in Dushanbe, I can heartily recommend the Irish Pub and ‘Peoples’ nightclub.

Anyway, before the all-day drinking shenanigans began, Nathan and I had found the Turkmenistan Embassy early in the morning and handed in our applications (after a little excitement trying to find a colour photocopier).  I’d read you could apply in one city and collect the visa at the border a week later, and the nice Mr Turkmenistan Consul confirmed this, so I crossed my fingers that it would work.  My rough plan was to enter Turkmenistan at Dashoguz (from Khiva) and ride down to the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi to catch the ferry cross to Azerbaijan.

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Dushanbe Botanical Gardens provided a nice place for a kebab lunch (whilst getting attacked by the biggest wasps I’ve ever seen)

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Dushanbe is pretty green, with lots of water/fountains and a HUGE flag

The Embassy was in the north of town, and afterwards Nathan and I walked a couple of miles south into the centre.  Nathan wanted to go to a museum he’d read about, and I wanted a beer, as for some reason it seemed like a Saturday (it was Monday, but isn’t every day a Saturday when you’re riding a motorbike around The World?)

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Dushanbe high street, looking for a pub or museum

Fortunately we passed a pub first (which happened to be an Irish Pub), before the museum.  It was one of those days when a lunchtime pint turned into another one, and another one, and before we knew it, it was almost midnight.

During the course if the evening we met many colourful characters including a flamboyant Brit teacher, a group of European NGOs, local Kyrgyzs and a love-struck Turk; expat pubs are always good for a laugh.

On an aside, if you want one, I suddenly realised today that almost all backpackers I’ve met in the past few months have been sporting raggedy beards; it must be the new backpacker fashion, and I’m pleased to say I’m glad I’m miles behind, as usual (mainly because I can’t grow a decent one). 

 

In the end I stayed for 3 nights in Dushanbe, the third night mainly to recover from the night out on the sauce on the second night.  On the last night, Nathan and I had a junk food night and consumed a bucket of Tajik ‘Southern Fried Chicken’ and a large pizza; it’s nice to do that every once in a while.

We were both heading for Tashkent the next day, the capital of Uzbekistan, but Nathan was going via shared taxis as I (unfortunately) didn’t have any room to take him and his luggage on the Tiger.

 

Anzob Tunnel

The route north of Dushanbe towards the Tajik/Uzbek border takes you up twisty mountain roads with great views to the infamous Anzob Tunnel.  I’d read and heard a lot about it – 5.5 miles of terrible road in the pitch darkness – but I thought it couldn’t be as bad as everyone made out.

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Great views up to the infamous Anzob Tunnel

In fact, it was worse; not because of the road condition, but because of the horrendous traffic jam I encountered when I went through.

About a third of the way in, the tunnel went down to one lane while road works were being completed in the other lane.  As usual, a couple of idiots had tried to jump the queue and were now blocking the oncoming traffic.  It was gridlock, pitch black and hell, and I was choking in the middle of it all.

The worst thing about the tunnel is the lack of ventilation, and there is reportedly only one fan in the middle of the tunnel doing very little to clear the horrendous traffic fumes.  It was hard enough to see in the dark with my poor headlights (the backing plates had vibrated off at some point in Mongolia), but with the carbon monoxide smog, it was impossible in places.  My bike’s problem of cutting out when it got too hot (not moving) was also getting worse, and it was a pain having to keep starting her up.

I was stuck behind a car and couldn’t get past because there was a huge cement block in the way.  I tried to ask the driver to pull forward, but he wasn’t there!  Goodness knows why you’d get out of your car in that poisonous atmosphere (maybe he had done a Reggie Perrin?).  It was so noisy with traffic, car horns and people shouting, I could barely hear the Tigers engine running above it all.

I sat there, stuck in the gridlock for a few minutes, choking on the gases; apparently people have died before in the tunnel of carbon monoxide poisoning.  Then I got fed up and tried to squeeze the bike through the gap between the car and the block.  I only had millimeters to spare, and had to lean the bike away from the car a fraction to avoid denting it, but I just made it.

Then I entered an aggressive riding ‘self-survival mode’ and started weaving in-between the gridlocked traffic until I finally made it out the other side.  It wasn’t fun, at all, and I almost got squashed up against the tunnel wall by cars and trucks several times.  I didn’t find the poor road condition and water-filled potholes hard to deal with at all, but that was mostly down to the superb Tiger.

Having survived the Anzob Tunnel, there were several other shorter tunnels on the route north, but they were in perfect condition.  I’m sure the Chinese builders will soon have the Anzob completed as well, although they seem to be taking their time.  I’m amazed at how the workmen actually survive working in those conditions (it can’t be good for their life expectancy)!

Soon enough I was at the Tajik/Uzbek border, but you’ll have to wait for the next post to see what I got up to in Uzbekistan (here’s a clue – stacks of money, shite beer, shite fuel (if you can find it), very friendly people, amazing architecture, blood and guts on the road and a short undercover mission to a local hospital… not to be missed!)

 

Here’s my summary of the Pamir Highway (for people who like summaries, and others who don’t want to read all my waffle):

 

A remote, often spectacular, snow-capped mountainous region with gushing rivers and a couple of lakes (more spectacular for me towards the eastern end).  The road is mostly decent and surfaced except for excursions into valleys, such as the Wakhan Valley route.  Petrol (92 or 80 Octane ‘Benzene’) is regularly available if you ask around in small villages (I did not need to carry any extra, and my range is 300km).  I did need to carry extra 5 litres of drinking water, as I did not have a water filter (bottled water & groceries are rare).  The people are very friendly and hospitable.  The Wakhan Valley was nice but not as spectacular as I’d heard (which probably increased my expectations); if you don’t like riding on gravel/sand/washboard, stay on the surfaced M41 instead.  I completed the highway from Osh to Dushanbe in 4 days, 3 nights (I camped at Lake Karakol, homestay at Langar and guesthouse at Khorog), which was just right for me.  The Tiger ate the rough roads for breakfast (on Heidenau K60 Scout tyres) and had no problems with the fuel or altitude. 

Categories: Tajikistan | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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