Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Getting Up to Speed

Since we have done a terrible job regularly updating this blog, I will now attempt to summarize the last 6 weeks of travel in brief and witty paragraphs, organized in chronological order.

A fantastic and bizzare country, indeed. There are concrete and rebar bunkers all over the country, hundreds of thousands of them, put there by their insane dictator of 1944-1985, Enver Hoxha. They are designed to withstand a full frontal tank assualt, and the designer was obliged to hunker down in one while it was assualted. He survived. We rode past dozens of these on our way to Koman. While riding across a bridge in the rain, a car pulled up next to me. It was Leo, an Albanian who lives in London who spoke great english. He gave me a beer, and said to stop by his brother's bar in Koman, where we would drink more beer. We rode on through a torrential downpour, on a road that wound through steep green mountains along the man-made Lake Koman while huge fog banks lumbered through the gaps between the mountain peaks. Finally made it to the bar, where we indeed drank more beer, then slept on the floor. We were up before 7, for a refreshig morning glass of raki with Edmond, Leo's brother, then boarded the Lake Koman ferry. Lake Koman was formed when the Albanian governement decided to dam a river that ran through a deep mountain valley, so there are huge mountains that cut straight down into the water. It's kinda like an artifical fjord. Met a lot of interesting people on the ferry, gypsies, polish diplomats, italian pacifists, then went up to Bajram Curri, a town high in the mountains, and one-time center of blood fueds and lawlessness (from about 1994-1997). We ordered lunch by going into the kitchen and pointing at things, which became the pattern here, the climbed a big hill and camped. The road quality declined drastically after this, and it was slow going, through mud and dirt roads with huge potholes and puddles, many of them actively being worked on. Good for the future, terrible to ride on right now. Contrary to popular opinion abroad, Albanians are actually quite friendly people. Multiple people offered rides when I was fixing a flat tire, we were invited for coffee, some guy gave Nate 3 liters of multivitamin fruit juice, thus fulfilling a long-overdue promise made by the flakey bum A.C. Delmer, and we generally enjoyed many a pleasant interaction, except for one pair of children who threw rocks at us just inthe last 10 km before the border. They missed though.

We really saw very litle of Kosovo. Rode into Prizren into a gnarly headwind on a busy, often dirt road filled with clouds of exhaust, stayed for 24 hours, ate grilled meat, and got my atm card eaten by an atm (then spent a few hours getting it back and calling my bank), then cut out. A huge climb amidst snow capped peaks led to one of the sweetest descent of my life. Fucking primo-ass shit, as they say... clear, rushing mountain streams, high altitude meadows, snow-dusted pine trees, rocky snow-capped mountaintops all around, no traffic...

Also a short visit. Arrived in Skopje at night and stayed for two days. It was okay, not the prettiest city out there, and then we rode for a day and a half. I had to go back to get my passport, and Nate stayed in Kriva Palanka, which you can read all about on his earlier post.

A great country with lots to see and do, but we didnt see or do any of it. We were too busy tearing the Bulgarian Central Valley a new asshole, riding across the country in three days. The first night, we ended up staying with a half-gypsy, half-bulgarian family, Desi and Ivan, and their unruly son, Alex. They were very nice, though when we didn't understand Desi's Bulgarian tongue, she would just shout the same sentence at us again. Incredibly, we still didnt understand. There was no clear divide between inside and outside in this house, no true separation between mud and cow shit and the floor. They didn't seem to notice. Very friendly people though, we had a good time. They warned us about gypsy thieves when we left.

Planned on cutting through Greece for about 50 km, but the border crossing we wanted to use turned out to no longer exist, if it ever had. So we took a very indirect and stupid route, along an empty freeway that had a fence running the entire length of it, which made camping very annoying. When we crossed from Bulgaria (a European Union member state since 2007) into Greece, a huge billboard read "Welcome to Europe." Ridiculous. The countryside wasn't too exciting, and we met few people, so there's really not much to say. The border crossing into Turkey was pretty intense, many machine guns and soldiers, and a bridge over the river that had a blue line and a red line drawn right next to eachother, right in the middle of the bridge. On the Turkish side, we were met by friendly greeting, and the border guard asked seriously if Nate was my boyfriend. Only in my dreams...

What a country. Good Lord. Istanbul was mountains of delicious food all the time, my friend's wedding, a huge hip hop diss music video, and lots of Efes and going to bed at 6 in the morning. I had a great time. Bought a guitar, played reggae with Masai warriors, hung out with Cuban dissidents, and looked at rivers, fisherman, and enormous mosques all day. I also visited the neighborhood where my Grandmother was born almost 100 years ago, though I imagine the city has changed pretty dramatically since then.
Those first white roads after Istanbul were insane. Sometimes we were climibing hills as steep as the top two blocks of Marin, then descending the same thing, then climbing more of them, all on dirt roads. For people not familiar with North Berkeley streets, that is fucking steep. Maybe 14 or 15% grade? Generally, we climbed a lot in Turkey. The altitude gets progressively higher as you go East, so it's kind of like climbing on giant hill, with lots of little hills along the way. We passed throguh many kinds of terrain, sometimes dry, Utah-esque landscapes of red rock cliffs and river valleys, other times rolling farmland and enormous plains, alpine forests and vibrant green hills, Capadoccia's otherwordly rock formations and caves (we camped inside a fairy chimney the first night)... As we went further East, things generally got more epic, bigger mountains, higher altitudes, more expansive landscapes. The land is often fairly barren, not many trees to speak of, which means the vistas can sometimes be too big to take in, you can just see so much land. The East is also markedly poorer We followed a river from Elazig to Pulumur through a dramatic canyon with sheer rock walls and waterfalls, slept on the Euphrates river the next night, then cruised through enormous green valleys surrounded by peaks for a few days. Turkey has given us many great campsites, remote locations and spectacular views. We stopped at Ani, the former Armenian capital from about 1000 years ago, just across a river from Armenian soil, ate honey and cheese in Kars, then went north into Georgia, through Posof. We hit the highest pass of the trip so far at 2550 meters, then promptly lost about 1200 meters of elevation in 10 minutes on the descent.
Turks and Kurds are the most consistently hospitable people we've met so far, and we were constantly being invited for tea or just to come kick it. We had to decline half of those offers, just so we could get out of the fucking country before winter, but it was impossible to avoid getting waylaid less than three times a day, talking to some shepard or gas station worker or group of old men just kickin it on the road somewhere. We drank roughly 800 liters of tea, and payed for maybe 5 glasses of it. Every little village has some nice, shaded tea house, with lots of old men sitting around, wearign mousatches and fiddling with prayer beads. Every gas sation has gallons of tea on hand, ready to be drunk by anyone who passes by. Every shopkeep has time to hang out for a minute. Sometimes they bust out some raki and hot peppers, apples, chives, and salad, and you get completely wasted while they tell you about Islam and Turkish politics. Sometimes you stumble upon a bunch of guys slaughtering five lambs at a mosque, and leave with a kilo of big chunks of fresh lamb. Sometimes you just hang out on some pass somewhere and eat dried apricots with a guy and his 200 cows and sheep. You point to a cow and say "kuzu," which means cow, and he nods. You point to a sheep and say, "adana kebab," and he laughs. Now you are friends. It's a great country. Fools around here know how to kick it, for definitely.
Lest anyone be confused, there are huge numbers of Kurds in Turkey, mostly in the East, who are equally friendly and welcoming. I would guess that a little less than half the people we met were Kurds. They are distinct people to be sure, Kurds having been in the area for centuries before Turkic people came, with their own language and culture, some of them practicing their own religion (they are Alevi), but to be honest, I couldn't really tell the difference just by looking. Turkey has such a mix of ethnicities, and they all have moustaches anwyay.

We are here now, in Tbilisi, in a hostel. I took my first shower in 9 days last night. My clothes, which all smelled terrible, are now clean. Georgia has been good to us so far, people are still very friendly on this side of the border. We stopped to hang out with some old guys, who offered us raki. I declined, and pointed to my stomach, which has not been feeling very well for a few days. "Problem," I said. They nodded, understanding. Five minutes later, they poured us both shot sof raki. Lo and behold! I drank it. Felt great for half an hour, then much worse. The road was awesome, down a river through thickly wooded mountains, a marked change from Turkey. There are castles everywhere. We've seen about 12 since crossing the border, some well preserved, some in ruins, on random hilllsides and riverbanks that we've passed. National boundaries are crazy. It really is like we're back in Europe again, a claim I've long read about the Caucuases and doubted, but this place is quite similar to the Balkans in many ways. Two liter plastic bottles of beer are back on the menu. Grilled pork abounds. Turkish food, mosques, muslim style of dress, tea, etc., all vanished instantly. Coffee is back, old communist cars and rows of identical block apartment buildings, hallmarks of the Balkans, are quite common here. The Georgian alphabet is a significant difference, a really cool and unique script, but there is also plenty of Roman and Cyrillic script to be seen. So far it's been great. We hope to get visas and then go into some fatty mountains.

So there it is. The big update. Now all of our devoted fans can sleep easy. We hope to upload more phtoos while we're here, but we need to create more flickr accounts, because we have a lot of photos and can only put up 90 per month on one account. And this has been quite enough computer time for me.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Canyons: Bonus!

On our map, roads are either white, yellow, red, orange, or other colors that I don't even know because those colors whatever they are mean freeway, no bikes need attempt.

We left İstanbul following a white roads. We got lost and soon were on dirt roads with signage for the small villages that these roads served that weren't on our map. We ended up on a yellow road, about 30km behind where we expected to be. Yellow roads got bigger and turned into red roads, which would in turn get bigger and turn into orange roads, back to red to yellow to orange again.

We rode through Ankara, failed to get visas; through Kapadokya, megarock formation region with ancient frescoes included; through Malatya and its oceans of apricot orchards; took a ferry across a lake with a castle; then WHOA! CANYON TIME!

After Tunceli, a small city known for its furniture stores with kitchens on the second floor cooking food for Nate and Jaco, we found ourselves in a massive canyon! Our necks were soar from looking at the eagles and the cliffs surrounding us!

A lightning storm soon hit, but we managed to stay nearly bone dry taking shelter in the ruins of a restaurant that had apparently been bombed out ten years ago. We spent a few hours there waiting out the storm with several groups of Kurds. Some were cooking and shared their tasty saç kavurma with us. Some knew mayors of nearby towns and wrote a letter for us to give to the mayor. Some were English teachers and didn't believe that we were riding our bikes to China. Everyone was happy not to be in the gale.

Which let up eventually, and Jaco and I were canyon cruising again on our way to Pülümür. The setting sun gave us enough light to land in Pülümür, and after several big welcomes we were directed to the mayor, to whom we produced our letter. He directed us to a cafe and a restaurant and a hotel, where our efforts to pay were refused. That made it our third free meal of the day, hotel accomodation, and a fine time in a fine city.

The next night we camped on the Euphrates River!