Thursday, 1 December 2011

Next Steps & an Interview with Social Hiking

 Since my last blog post my journey has taken me through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.  I am now in Kashgar in the western part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China and ready to start the next stage of my journey through the Taklamakan Desert following the southern Silk Road route. Taklamakan has been loosely translated as "the Desert Into Which He Who Enters Will Not Return" but I have no intention of returning to the desert once I've got through it so that's fine by me!

The below article is courtesy of Social Hiking a wonderful website that has enabled me to share my adventure.

A chat with Jilly Sherlock on the adventure so far and what’s next!

Feeling the heat in the Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan
On Saturday 9th April 2011 at 11.12am Jilly Sherlock set off from Felixstowe on a heavily laden bike ‘heading East’ – on 9th November, 7 months to the day since leaving, she arrived in China having cycled a whopping 9955km with at least 60000m of altitude gain – with every kilometre shared on Social Hiking. Whilst taking a break before the next leg of her journey, I caught up with Jilly for a quick email chat about the adventure so far and what her plans were for the next leg.

Photo left by Lee Hughes (via Jilly)
As the name suggests I originally had quite a limited vision of what Social Hiking could be used for, so it was a bit of a surprise when Jilly got in touch, only a few days before setting out, about using the site for her trip. Jilly has a SPOT Personal Tracker – as well as being able to send regular check in messages and emergency alerts to family and friends, the device allows you to ping your location on a regular basis. Once hooked into Social Hiking, Jilly could combine these locations (SPOT uses satellites direct so does not require a mobile phone network and have a long battery life) with any photos or tweets she was able to send on her phone when in signal.
The end result is a media rich map which her family, friends and supporters can follow live as her adventure progresses.
Personally I have found following Jilly’s remarkable adventure absolutely amazing – as the route unfolds with tweets and photos, it really gives you a chance to share in something few of us would ever attempt ourselves, and has opened up parts of the world to me that previously were just names on a map.

Whilst Jilly has a well earned break before the next leg of her journey, I caught up with her for a quick email chat about the adventure so far and what her plans were for the next leg:
What’s your favourite bit so far?
ok.. favourite bit so far has to be the people I’ve encountered. The hospitality, generosity and warmth I’ve received has been humbling and at times overwhelming.
What’s been the worst bit so far?
Worst bit so far has been the last 2 weeks: trying to sort out the fraudulent use of my bank card with Barclays bank was more exhausting than cycling up a 4655m pass on the Pamir Highway.
What was the Pamir Highway like?
The 1000km route through Tajiikistan along the Pamir Highway was exhilarating, freezing, terrifying and at times exhausting. Due to my short term memory I have thankfully forgotten already how miserable it was camping at 4100m with my visa expiry clock ticking away and pushing my bike thru snow and over unforgiving mountain passes during their worst November snow in 20 years. Fingertips are still numb! Yet what a stunning and remote part of the world and it was an experience that will remain with me for many years to come.
Tajikistan at 4300m - struggling with snow and altitude
Tajikistan at 4300m: struggling with snow and altitude (photo from via Jilly)
How did it feel to reach China?
Cycling to the Chinese border after being holed up for 2 days on the Kyrgyzstan side due to the border being closed for a week was a delight. When I reached the ornate iron gates I must admit I did have a slight lump in my throat yet this could partially be blamed on trying to swallow an overambitious bite of frozen Snicker bar.
Where next?
ha ha – well of course I’m pedalling East! Leaving tomorrow to head east on the southern silk road towards Hotan. At Xining, (some 3000km from where I am now) I will make my decision whether to head due south or – you never know – I may continue east…
Xmas will be spent in the most desolate and inhospitable landscape: almost got depressed when I looked at the satellite view but I hope to don a red nose on a Bactarian camel, hang my Merino wool stocking outside my tent and tuck into another bowl of instant noodles.
On a final note can I say a huge thanks for all the love and support I’ve received from my dear family and friends; to all the Social Hiking bods and Twitter friends who have egged me on and thanks of course to you Phil for your patience and brilliant work on Social Hiking.
Merry Xmas to you all & tailwinds….

You can find Jilly on Twitter (@jillysherlock), read her blog of her journey ( and follow her travels live on Social Hiking (
Approaching Iran
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Jilly for her truly remarkable and fantastic journey so far, and for giving us the chance to share her adventure with her. Best of luck for the next leg and happy Christmas Jilly!
Jilly has probably done more for Social Hiking than she realises – her first map crashed as she reached Germany! Since then a lot of the performance upgrades have been added to ensure her maps continue to load as quick as possible – in fact part of the last upgrade included media caching to further speed up the loading times of all her tweets and photos (and all the necessary back-end scheduling to facilitate it) – something all users will benefit from. Jilly is also pioneering new settings and features, like her camp site icons, and has helped me further improve the experience for people following someone on their adventure.
If you want to share your adventure, whether big or small, then sign up for Social Hiking and give it a whirl.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Iran: 28 days in the Axis of ?.. you decide..

36th hour
I couldn't see! a moments panic at this sudden blindness was soon resolved with one hand grabbing the offending spinnaker of headscarf covering my eyes and tucking it deftly into the collar of my dress. Why had I listened to the helpful Hammit with the refrigeration shop from whom I'd tried to purchase an ice cream yet he'd looked earnestly across his desk at me and said "but you're a tourist, I can't let you pay. Welcome to Iran"? I'd peered over his shoulder at google maps showing the streets of Tabriz and he'd insisted the highway was the best way to reach my destination. A non-cyclist with a mercedes does not care about how many metres of ascent are involved in a 5km drive and I tried to remember this as I struggled upwards, red mountains to my left and a sprawling city to my right in an ever increasing heat. The rebellious headscarf reared up again so I stopped,  grabbed both ends and crossed them over my damp throat and tied a knot at the nape of my neck. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a swirl of black racing up a dusty bank towards me. I turned my head, resulting in near asphxiation and tried to loosen the offending headscarf while peering to see what was approaching. Hello! it shouted "Welcome to Iran" and my eyes rested on a excited face, shaded by an black baseball cap under a swathe of black material: a pair of white trainers poking out from the bottom. She grabbed my arm " I saw you when we were leaving the airport and oh it's fantastic and you are on a bicycle please do you need somewhere to stay oh yes do please come and stay with me and my husband"

the 7th Hour

106 km after crossing the Armenian/Iranian border I reached a village, weary, sweaty, dusty with headscarf askew. I needed to find somewhere to camp. A man on a motorbike with a young boy clasped to his waist saw me. He greeted me and in stumbling English asked if I was ok. I gestured "sleep" he gestured 'follow me'
and we began the slow ascent into the village of garden walls made out of mud. we bounced down an unpathed track and then he led me through one of these mud compounds into a garden full of cherry and apricot trees. A lady sat there on a wide verandah wrapped in a white scarf and a floral dress skirting her shins and quickly rearranged the scarf so her greying hair was covered. 2 children stared at the traveller then with the nonchalence of the young turned their backs and continued to play. I was led to the centre of the garden and my feet were gently washed by Iman. I rested on the blanket they'd laid for me and the old lady brought me platefuls of melon, watching me intently and with concern as I gorged on the succulent fruit. More food was brought, rice and chicken with a plateful of fresh herbs, chai was poured and her furrowed brow relaxed as she watched my face turn from a vibrant raspberry to a more delicate shade of pink. A mobile phone was handed to me and I was asked by Iman's English speaking contact if I was ok and could they do anything for me and when did I want breakfast. 2 hours passed and Iman and his mother broke their Ramazan fast: Iman inhaling deeply on a cigarette before sitting cross-legged and scooping chunks of meat into a pocket of bread.  He said his farewells as he returned to his wife and family. His mother wrapped herself in a black chador and stood praying for 45 minutes before laying her blanket next to mine on the verandah and we slept until sunrise.

1 week later
I'd been kidnapped! When I'd mentioned I was going to cycle to Iran I'd been warned about this and there I was being held hostage in Iran and being force fed. Not one full hour had passed in the 7 days where I had not been fed. Every national dish of Iran had been cooked for me. I'd been met in the streets of Tabriz by the father and a battle had ensued between my soon-to-be kidnappers and the lady in black from the 36th hour who was trying to take me to her house and was laying claim to finding me first. My current hostage takers also transported me to other family members where more food was forced upon me. I was even taken at one point to a walled garden some 60 km away where fresh walnuts were peeled for me and songs were sung and it was there, on my mother's birthday, where they made me write a message and record a video for her

 Even my bike had not escaped and had been ruthlessly strapped to the roof rack of a car and transported to a bike shop by the son and his friends where a full service had been given at no cost. It was difficult to leave and I felt the tears fall when I finally escaped this family

Day 10
I sheltered from the Tehran heat and chaotic traffic under a tree outside a toilet block while consulting my map. The female attendant was questioning me, I thought aggressively, and I tried to dismiss her attention with a wave of my hand as I returned my sleepy gaze to my map. But there she remained and a man carrying a spade joined her and the unintelligible questioning continued. They consulted each other and I moved my bag of valuables closer to me yet they turned their backs and walked away.
A few minutes later I heard their footsteps but did not look up. Warm bread scattered with sesame seeds was placed on my lap, a bowl of honey sat beside a plate of feta cheese by my feet and a cup of chai was placed on the kerb where I sat.

Days 11- 21
Days in Tehran were spent sharing conversations with an inspiring Iranian girl. I learnt more of the troubles in 2008, the peaceful demonstrations that had turned so sour. I watched on the Roof of Tehran - a viewing spot some 2000m high- as young iranians tried to live the lives they deserved, girls pushing the limits with headscarves- pushed back as far as they dared- resting upon bouffant hairdos. Long shirts crept above the acceptable thigh level and I watched in dismay as 2 women in black chadors stopped them and escorted them to police cars. I received claps and cheers when cycling to the embassies in this country where women are not meant to cycle. Lives were lived behind closed doors. Young women told me their dreams of emigrating, to study further and to leave their country and families behind.
I visited the former US embassy. The photo below is not the view of the majority of these wonderful Persian and Azeri people.

I looked in dismay at the partial mastectomies performed on the mannequins that had not followed the flat-chested criteria

I travelled south to the city of Esfahan and with another solo female traveller from Turkey we explored and absorbed the beautiful mosques and palaces.

Once again we were treated to more muslim hospitality: looking hungrily at the food an elderly couple had just received in a teahouse they promptly gave us their bowls of dizi and bread and simply ordered some more.

And we joined some young musicians who had been hiding in the arches of Esfahan's bridges to play their music

My journey took me further south to the city of Yazd one of the world's oldest living cities: a labyrinth of mudbrick houses, domed rooftops and badgirs (windcatchers - the first air-conditioning units) filling the skyline, Zoresterian fire temples and intriguing ancient qanats (undergound water channels used to supply drinking water and irrigate the crops).

Adventure playground a la Yazd.

Below: A fellow cyclist and his friends

The final days in Iran
With the longawaited Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan visas in my passport I headed east to Mashad, the holiest city in Iran where, with the help of some local ladies who giggling corrected my wearing of the black chador (it was upside down), I visited the Haram-e-Razavi where the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza is. Evenings were spent drinking copious amounts of non-alcoholic beer with other travellers and it was during one of these nights that we arranged the jailbreak of a bear called Wilson.. but that's another story for another time.

The dash through undulating desert landscape to the border with Turkmenistan began. It felt good to be back on the road and gifts of watermelon, corn on the cob, baguettes, chai and water were given by fruitsellers, bus drivers, policemen and bakers. Once again after a day of ferocious heat and headwind and searching for a camp I was welcomed into another Iranian home where melon, chai, rice and chicken was followed by a bed then breakfast. As I cycled the last few kilometres to the Iranian border town of Sarakhs I could only hope that people stop confusing governments and extremists with cultures and religion, media snippets highlighting only the bad, and start judging countries on the kindness they will encounter and receive if only they would choose to get to know the people within.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Armenia: Ups and downs

I opened the door of the dimly lit cafe and walked in: the haze of cigarette smoke a continuation of the icy fog I had left behind outside.  I felt the curious glances of people at the tables as I made my way to the counter: my attire haphazard due to being caught out at 2010m in freezing conditions and on the side of the road I'd dug from my panniers a pair of thick mountaineering socks which I wore with teva sandles. Green trousers had hurriedly been pulled over shorts and to complete the fashion faux pas they'd been tucked into the socks. A thick down jacket under a bright red waterproof with a black woollen hat perched on top of a blue bandana completed the look of an overweight santa helper. Having had only 15 minutes sleep the night before due to an eventful night of hospitality which had gone slightly awry, ascending 1000m on an empty stomach and generally feeling run down, I felt I was on the verge of becoming hypothermic with uncontrollable shaking as the cold and damp wrapped itself round and infiltrated my core.

I smiled at the girl and said 'coffee'. She beckoned me to sit down but it was then I spotted the electric bar heater on the windowsill. I made my way to it and took off my gloves to warm my frozen fingers. 'Aah!' I sighed as way of explanation to the people at the adjacent table looking curiously up at me. 'Brrr' I continued as I nodded to the outside at the thick fog while continuing to warm my hands on the heater. 'ooh, lovely' I exclaimed feeling I had to say something as they were looking at me expectantly with cocked heads, stern faces yet smiling eyes under thick black eyebrows. I heard a whisper and a chuckle from the other corner of the room and then glanced again at the people at the table next to me as I continued to rub my hands together in front of the heater that.. hold on.. the heater that was not actually giving off any heat with its 3 bluish toned bars, and wait a minute..this heater was surrounded by dead flies..

I mean anyone would make the same mistake after 15 minutes sleep.. wouldn't they?
an electric fly killer
an electric fire

When they joined in with my laughter and realised I was totally insane they started asking me questions. I can now understand in any language the questions being asked. This is how they go..

"England" I reply proudly then try variations "Anglia, Ingelterre, Manchester United" until they nod with satisfaction and I then add "England to {insert current location} by "bicycle, velo, velociped"
"vdsjsglspwvnajraiu?" they ask holding up one finger accompanied with a raised eyebrow
"Yes" I reply "just me, alone" mirroring their solitary digit. This is followed usually by a shake of the hand, a slap on the back or a thumbs up. Free food follows shortly after.
I often misunderstand this.. then I remember how the questioning goes
"4 months" I reply with 4 fingers held aloft still unsure if they think I have abandoned 4 husbands or 4 children to selfishly undertake a solo journey on a bicycle.

Fluent me, I tell you.

I'd left Tbilisi, the captivating capital city of Georgia, in a hungover state one day later than expected having met wonderful 2 girls on a cycle journey from Thailand. A few beers, led to us sampling the local Georgian wine, a sheesha pipe and a 6am finish. In a comatose state I set forth to the Armenian border, a 10USD fee secured me a 21 day visa and I began the first of many ascents in this mountainous country.

Yet I had a blip. I'm not sure what happened, yet I suddenly found tears. I suppose it had to happen at some point. I missed my family and friends as I once again hid and camped behind bushes on a foreign road, wolfing down yesterday's bread, surreptitiously removing spiders with bulbous bodies of black and yellow from my tent, and staring blankly at the patterns of kevlar on the ceiling of my tent, highlighted by a cold moon, as I lay and waited for the morning to come. Overwhelming sadness despite spectacular scenery. I couldn't bear to look at messages on my iphone: father endearingly retweeting one of my tweets despite me being his only follower, emails from mother saying how proud she was, family and friends sending messages of support. These couldn't be read for fear of short-circuting my phone as the tears fell. 

The melancholy subsided within 24 hours as Armenians graced me with their smiles yet was quickly replaced with lethargy, weary limbs and an accusatory stomach that treated everything with suspicion and violently evicted anything that dared enter. Yet this was not a country to be feeble in. Skirting the Azerbaijan/Armenia border where "Danger. Landmines" signswarned me this was not a place to wild camp. Mountain passes of 2400m greeted me daily, accompanied with seering heat, strong winds, vistas of desert rock, deep gorges gouged in arid steppes, alpine meadows, stark plateaus with small villages of bee hives dotting the landscape, fertile hillsides crawling out of rivers, cave dwellings in volcanic rock.

At the top of one of these passes I rested to gaze upon the switchbacked descent outside the relic of Selim Caravanserai; a 13th Century watering hole for those who trod the Silk Road. Having been closed for business for a few centuries it was an Armenian family who proffered refreshments and invited me to share their picnic. As they piled into their car for their return to Yerevan the mother rushed over to me and thrust a bag full of roast chicken, blackened potato skins, hunks of bread and cheese, tomatoes and cucumber into my hands as she leant forward and kissed me on the cheek. Their departure was followed by the arrival of a minibus of delightful Belgian tourists who gathered round me, taking photos and ignoring the ancient relic behind them to talk to the wreck that was me in front of them.  

Another day and another staggering climb accompanied by the strongest headwind of the trip had destroyed me yet a gaggle of fruit sellers surrounded me and my bicycle as I reached the top of the pass.  A bag of grapes, plump apricots and palm sized apples was placed next to me, followed by another bag of nectarines, pears and plums from another seller. The Silk Road hospitality continuing. The first bag lady then reappeared with her husband and a bag of flat bread and cheese was handed to me as the aftermath of the London riots unfolded some 7000km away from me.

Mistakenly thinking that a 30km ascent would be rewarded with something similar of downhill I set off declining an invite to stay with them for the night and a brief descent was followed by more uphill. As the sun was sucked behind mountains and replaced by charcoal clouds I found a motel on the deserted plateau and begged to camp in their garden. They agreed and I pitched in gale force winds, changed into my thermals and within minutes was asleep. I awoke to them calling my name and I blearily undid the safety pins (broken zip) that held the entrance together. The man read from a piece of paper 'come into hotel, you no pay, wind very strong'. I insisted I was ok. They insisted I wasn't as they started unpegging my tent and pulling out my panniers. My walk of shame in threadbare thermals began as I passed a group of vodka infused male voices in an otherwise empty dining hall. An arm led me into a kitchen where Ararrat brandy was poured, a rich dish of aubergines and tomatoes prepared, a basket of bread placed before me. Full and sleepy I was shown to a room after some deliberation being shown first a room with a double bed and a pair of men's trousers on the floor. I closed the door thanking my host and lay on my bed reading the miniature BBC headlines on my iphone as the 2nd night of UK riots commenced.

A knock on my door around midnight. I opened it and there was a bottle of brandy, 2 glasses and an expectant face. I politely declined, locked the door, turned off the lights and returned to the night of violence. Unable to sleep due to footsteps that would pause outside my door I instead recoiled in horror as more mindless destruction passed. At 4am I felt comfortable to sleep yet voices at my door, my name being called, then a rapping at my door awoke me just 15 minutes later. I never did open the door, yet angrily shouted at the sound of keys, contacted a friend, lifted the days before flatscreen tv to the floor and moved the cabinet across the door as people barricaded themselves from the viral mayhem spreading through our cities.

 2 hours of gentle reassurance from a friend, daylight arrived and the hotel lay still as I cautiously moved the furniture away from the door and began my escape. Bike was still in lobby though front wheel was loose. I tried the front door. Locked. I raced to the kitchen and saw a scene from of a Apocalypse Now meets Babette's Feast with an empty vodka bottle for each seat around the table. I opened a door:  the carcass of an animal hung in front of me. Balls! I searched through the drawers of the empty reception desk and found some keys but they weren't the ones for the main door. After trying 6 windows I eventually found one unlocked, threw out my panniers and climbed out.

I'd escaped.

aah.. my bicycle..

I did escape after startling the gate keeper who must have called a hungover chap who was opening the front door just as I was balanced on a table trying to unsuccessfully navigate my bicycle through a narrow window. 

As I cycled thoughtfully away into the icy fog towards the sanctuary of the sleepy town of Goris I realised I could not condemn as the language barrier coupled with my fear had failed to enlighten me as to why they were knocking on my door.

It may simply have been to say "oh by the way, if you want to leave when the sun rises, do let us know.. as the door will be locked" and with a sheepish smile I emailed my friend with the message..

 "On the road again. All ok"

Friday, 29 July 2011

Georgia: on my mind and a public display of affection

I usually avoid public displays of affection (PDA) as they make me feel slightly uncomfortable; never really knowing which way to look and whether to smile sweetly trying to hide the 'oh I do wish I was that much in love but really should you be performing an Esophagogastroduodenoscopy in public' face or look down and find a bit of fluff on my lap the most interesting inanimate object I've ever seen. As for me performing the art of PDA? Bah! not in a million years.. until the other day..

I really don't know what came over me, maybe just the sheer challenge of being alone for so long, that gnawing frustration of when will it happen and for those last two days before 'it' happened all I had dreamt of was that moment when we would finally meet again. And it happened quickly and I wasn't expecting it. I clasped my brake levers tightly at our surprise encounter, wincing at the sound of metal on metal and, vowing to replace the brake pads, I flung my bicycle on the verge. I stood there for a while quivering, savouring the moment as there was my dream lying before me. I hoisted my shorts awkwardly and knelt down, my fingers hovering for a few seconds over the object of my desire until I could resist no longer and traced them gently over the smooth, damp surface. My hot breath was visible against this cool skin as I drew my face closer and before I knew it my lips met..


I kissed a road.

You would have done too, believe me this was not just any road, this was a road.

Road [rohd] –noun
a long, narrow stretch with a smoothed or paved surface, made for traveling by motor vehicle, carriage, etc., between two or more points; street or highway

The main road I had been on for the last 2 days while ascending a pass of 2025m (twice the height of Snowdon and a bit more) - was not a road. It may have been once, before someone obviously had a load of spare dynamite, a lot of time on their hands and thought it would be nicer if they could perhaps use a boat to travel along their road on a rainy day should they feel like it.

here is a wee sample

Step 1: take some sludge

Step 2. add a few rocks. (for a more challenging recipe add piles of rocks)

Step 3. and to improve the consistency just add more water

Final Step: take your sludge, rocks and water to 2025m and chill it for 4 hours, preferably in a hail storm. you my find this hard to swallow and it won't get any easier on the way down

My entry into Georgia had been as smooth as the road I came to dream of, a friendly smile, a stamp, surrounded by passport officials (I counted 7) coming up to say hello and ask about my trip. I veered off to the right before the seaside town of Batumi and headed east passing a few kilometres of people displaying beachball displays of watermelons on the roadside. As I left the buildings behind I soon realised my route was to be following a river (I had no proper map apart from a matchbox sized one of the country and Georgia is not mapped on Google) and it was glorious.

After 5 flat and windy days in Turkey and a never changing view my eyes feasted on new hills, valleys, red-roofed churches and ancient bridges with each bend of the road I took.

On the second day I watched as 3 men whirled like dervishes and body-popping matadors to the joyful sounds of Georgian folk music. The bride, Teo, looked on with a glint in her eye, her face framed with kiss curls of fake hair and glanced at her new husband who shifted uncomfortably and pulled at the collar too big around his neck. I sat in awe watching these dancers and looked across at Teo whose hair was scraped into a ponytail, a real kiss curl fell across her eyes and she brushed it aside as she looked up at me while leaning over the low table that we had, only a few hours ago, shared coffee and cakes on and now was covered in a thick cloth on which she ironed colourful bed linen. I gestured approval and as the wedding video part 2 finished, the young man seated next to me opened a new file so I could watch wedding video part 3.

After wedding video part 5 my jaw ached from smiling yet I continued with the "ooh this is amazing, all these people now dancing to byran adams" gestures of approval. More people arrived in the painted wood room. oh the shy groom was here, and someone else that looked like his brother. I stood up and shook hands and was then beckoned to sit down in front of the computer again. Surely not.. Part 5 was definitely the last file in the folder, I had checked.. it was then I learnt that a Georgian Muslim wedding lasts for 2 days.. Day 2- should you ever wish to know- involves more drinking, more toasting, more dancing...

Despite the jaw ache my time spent with this family was the ribbon on the parcel that Georgia became for me. Capitan, the father, in his flowery festival hat had found me that evening drenched outside a tiny shop, scoffing a whole chocolate swiss roll as I worked my way up the treacherous road to the top of the pass not realising the distance I still had to cover. He spoke no English but had called someone who could who informed me he wanted me to stay with him. I insisted I could camp he said no and bike and me were piled into the back of a van and we began the steepest ascent up a dirt track vertical to the route I was taking.

I was greeted by Teo and Capitan's wife, wet clothing removed, slippers produced, taken by the arm and led thru the rooms of a wooden building on stilts and into a warm shower. A wood burner in the living room was stoked, my panniers emptied and clothes were soon spinning in a washing machine. Taken by the arm again I was led to the kitchen where a spread was laid out for me and I dined on beetroot with coriander, chunks of rustic bread with sour cream, chicken, hot potato washed down with glasses of thick yoghurt with Teo and her friend Patty

 I was showed to the toilet, the floor had a triangle cut out and all waste splattered some 10 foot below on to the compost pile. I leant over the balcony which housed rows of brightly coloured sheets and dresses while Teo and the mother pointed out their land and the produce they grew: the corn, the potatoes, the cherries, the herb garden.

We watched at sunset the cloud trying to claw its way out of the valley then lingering beneath us having found a resting place on the top of the fir trees. I rested in the living room with the mother while Teo swept the floor with a bundle of tightly bound twigs. She disappeared then bounded back her hands full of newly born chicks which she placed on the mother. I was led to the barn where a hen protested as it was lifted up and a bundle of chicks tried to bury themselves in the straw. I was handed a warm egg with the chick slowly tapping its way out and Teo held it to my ear so I could hear it chirping from within

We retreated for coffee and wedding albums then the videos. then all the men returned and we drank thick black coffee and made conversation yet I can't recall how as we shared no common tongue. The president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, appeared on television and they looked on with pride at this enigmatic man.

My hosts.. and my laundry

At midnight I climbed up a wooden ladder to the top floor and led to a beautiful room, a wardrobe was opened, a cornflower blue nightgown produced and I woke to bright sunshine, 2 breakfasts, sad farewells and hugs and I was driven back to where Capitan had found me the day before and I continued with my ascent to the top of the Goderozi pass.

After a few hours of slow progress I reached the 2025m marker and I joined some old men in thick woollen hats sheltering from the rain that had just began.
 A drop in temperature accompanied the ferocious hail storm pictured earlier and I was ushered into a hut by Becka, a young man who is going to become a seafarer and wearing sunglasses after an accident with a piece of wire embedded itself into his eye

 His friends struggled with sheets of corrugated iron trying to cover the paneless windows as the storm swept through the wooden building. Becka's mother kissed me on the cheek , brought me coffee and I was invited to sit down and join her son and his friends for a warming meal of melted cheese in thick salty gravy, a vegetable broth and steaming plates of rice.

I was asked my religion and he explained how he was a Christian as he produced the cross on a string around his neck. His 2 friends muslim but makes no difference and so it shouldn't he added.

Despite offers of a bed for the night I was aware that my progress up this pass had been slow and donning my down jacket under a layer of waterproofs I bade them goodbye and began the slow ascent. 1 day later after a night tucked into a forest next to the fast flowing river I met the road I'd been dreaming of and 3 days later, through scenery scattered with stone fortresses and churches perched impossibly on pinnacles of rock I reached the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi.

Georgia had not just been on my mind, it had captured my soul.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Turkey: The Black Sea Coastline and the H word

"Stop being so bloody steep!" I nodded in agreement to James's frustrated cry at the unforgiving road. I was cradled over my handlebars lethargically mopping the rivulets of sweat trickling from my hairline, parting at the top of my ear and creating salty trails on my cheeks and behind my ear before meeting again to gather in the nook of my clavicule. This was tough. The melting tarmac was like cycling on a road of pillows, my tyres sinking deep as if some unknown force was drawing them into the earth, coupled with this was the fly paper consistency of the surface, the sound of a sticky bandaid being ripped from the road accompanied each slow turn of my wheel.

The top of a hill brought brief respite, a slight breeze would try to remove the cloak of humidity that clung to me. I thought back to high mountain days, trying to remember the gnawing ache of cold on the face of Alaska's Denali. How I yearned for that again, had it really been that bad? It was just cold right? How I now wanted to be wrapped in that cold. {My theory is that there is no special inner strength in people who do extreme expeditions.. it is simply that we are all blessed with a short term memory!}

The brief respite was just that, as a steep descent into another gorged valley only meant another steep ascent out of it again. It was worse in the mornings. Lactic acid build up caused immense fatigue as I faced a struggle up another steep ascent within only an hour of waking.
This graph gives you a taster of the elevation profile over a distance of 300km with max altitude of 450m just in case you wonder what the scale is!.

Yet the beauty of the coastline was enchanting. The Black Sea carressed rocky outlets, thick pine forests carpeted the undulating landscape, dusty villages with men drinking cai, elegant minarets with backdrops of milky seascapes and verdant hillsides.

The day I left Istanbul I felt I was starting my trip all over again. Could I still do this? I'd turned down a request from James, a cycle tourer following a similar route, to accompany me. I just needed a few days to adapt to the lifestyle again and I wanted to do that on my own. Within 10km I was smiling again, stopping at a bakery to buy the longest piece of bread i'd ever seen, all of 3.5 foot long (which I smothered in chocolate spread and scoffed the lot) and the bakery boys giggling at this strange woman with a loaded bicycle deserved to have their photo taken
My first night's camp was a disaster. Tucked into a forest on the edge of a clearing of felled trees I awoke to the sound of a heavy trampling over fallen branches. Grabbing my headtorch I peeped out only to see a cow weaving his way through the thick forest towards my tent. I grabbed my saucepan and banged it loudly. Is it possible for a cow to show a look of disgust in the spotlight of a bright beam? well, this one certainly seemed to show it. I drifted in and out of sleep, nervous of being trampled on, sitting bolt upright when something was sniffing at the side of my tent where my head lay. I despaired. Where had my backbone gone? This was going to be a long night as I sat still listening to the sounds of the forest and my shallow breathing. Suddenly the forest lit up. A car. What do I fear more? people or animals finding me alone. Voices. The sound of bottles clanking in a bag. A girlish giggle. Then the loud thumping sound of electronic music reverberated through the trees as these 2 young lovers had their own private rave for the next few hours. Well, at least it scared away the animals..

The next day I bandaged a tender knee, over 2 weeks of rest in Istanbul and the hills were having an impact on my slovenly body. I cycled to Agva where I had my first sighting of the Black Sea and drank cay with the locals. More hills followed yet descents were made on exhilerating switchbacks. I was back on the road and it felt good. Stopping at a picnic spot with a restaurant I asked if I could camp there for the night. Of course. A few people came to check the inside of my tent and it soon became clear why - snakes..Thankfully I'd had the zip fixed in Istanbul and they seemed content that the snakes could not enter when I was asleep so I relaxed and drank the cay and nescafe they gave me, followed by ice creams and Google translate conversations with Firdevs the university student working at the restaurant for the summer. Yet soon they decided I could not stay where I had pitched as it was dangerous after all.. not only snakes but drunken men may appear(!) so tent was taken down and all transported to the safety of the front garden of the couple who ran the restaurant. Tulli and Tarrot woke me in the morning and spoilt me with a fine breakfast before I left to head towards Karasu

It was a couple of days later in the town of Eregli that I decided to wait for James to catch up with me. I'd had an encounter the night before with a man near my tent which had resulted in me scaring the poor idiot for being too close to my tent and me then having to repitch in the dark to a safer area. Perhaps maybe I could start sleeping better if there were 2 people...

For 7 days we cycled together, sharing the mental and physical torture of the heat and hills, receiving the overwhelming hospitality from the Turkish people we met.
Berk who stumbled through the darkness to bring us cay and stuffed peppers from his bigmother (grandmother :)Onur and his mother who stuffed our panniers full of cakes and pastries, Bulenta and his wife Kezban who provided us with showers, beds and a feast, Mustava who did not mind when he stumbled upon us camped behind his cafe and brought us coffee and apologised for not having switched on the lights.

Daily the scenery became more spectacular, the hills more torturous, the heat more intense. I experimented with clothing set up. A thin white shirt resulted in me having a sunburnt back, a gingham dress while airy made me look like an extra for Little House on the Prairie, headscarves were made into turbans. On the 7th day I had found the right mix of clothing to wear and had also realised I wanted to go it alone again so I made my excuses and left James at Inebelou.

That evening while camped in the safety of a beach resort-  thanks to the owner who'd kindly let me pitch my tent for free on an ants' nest between 2 chalets- I contemplated my decision.  It had been so much easier with 2 people but I'd felt I had lost my journey and I desperately wanted it back.

The next morning I felt invigorated. The hills were no longer obstacles in the way of my progress east but part of the journey and my eyes opened again to the vibrancy of turquoise sea and lush vegetation.

I cycled into valleys to the atmospheric yet haunting sound of the muzzein call to prayer and took the hill out of villages with my belly full of cay from more kind people. Arriving in Ayancik after a day of 100km and 1300m of ascent I rested in the shade of a hotel cafe and after a couple of hours asked if anyone could recommend a safe place for me to camp. Within seconds a discussion was taking place, a phone was handed to me and a man in perfect American English told me that they knew a place a few km away and I should follow the man in the car. so another man appeared and I followed him on my bike as he drove up the unpaved coastal road, patiently waiting while I covered the distance at 5kmph. My escort led me to the home of Betir and Beysa: a stunning setting on the shoreline of the KaraDeniz.

Tent was pitched in their garden and I was invited onto their balcony, dishes of spicy aubergine, a minty soup, blackened fish, salad and a glass of chilled red wine were put before me and we communicated via a turkish/english dictionary. In the end I slept on the sofa bed opposite Beysa that night so heartened to be welcomed into this lovely family's home.

It hadn't all been rosy though..on my glorious 45kmph descent towards the town of Ajancik a large insect hit me on the side of my nose. This happens a lot when on the bike. What happened this time though was the damn thing didn't bounce off and I felt it clamp itself on to my nose. I braked, skidded then battled with my attacker. I wrenched the body off but the pain continued so grabbing my mirror and a pair of tweezers I extracted a large sting. Fastforward to a day later: I rested on a beach and was looked after by another lovely family and their friends who fed me both lunch and dinner of a 100 kebabs and roasted crab claws, invited me on holiday and gave me cream for my rapidly swelling face

3 days later with right eye shrinking in size at an alarming rate I saw a doctor and got some medicine. I am sure I saw a faint smirk appear when I explained to him with hand gestures and noises how it happened.

Just before the city of Samsun I ascended the final big climb of the Black Sea coastline yet on my descent I took my first tumble of the trip from my bike. Wiping the sludge that had caused my fall from my leg and reattaching 2 of my panniers I set off again. Now for some flatness!

So now I sit in my hostel room in Trabzon thinking back over the last few weeks of the H word. Hills, heat and the outstanding hospitality of the Turkish people
Even in the last few days before reaching here I had Baris, his parents and pet budgie let me use their holiday 'home' (tent) while they returned to the city, the young man from the beach cafe who carried my bags and bike down the steep steps to the shoreline, made me dinner and came rushing to check I was ok in the middle of the night when I screamed out during a nightmare in which someone was trying to get into my tent (incidentally I screamed even more when he appeared as thought he was trying to get into my tent..)

The route has been challenging but that's what I love and now it's onwards and eastwards to another unknown: the country of Georgia.