Belgium - Australia on an BMW R1100 GS motorcycle, solo.

Report #11 - September 11th to 14th, 1998...

From Cankiri I went, as I said, to the Black Sea. That sea cools the coast, and that became very clear. The more I approached the coast, the heavier it started to rain. When the clouds started to accumulate and the spots of rain became a steady rain fall, I stopped to put some watertight layers on my tank bag and myself. Incidentally that was the 60.000 kilometer point for my bike, and incidentally I was in front of a locanta. That is a kind of restaurant, where the meals are already waiting and kept warm. They served chicken livers - something I hadn't eaten for a while. It is served with rice, a salad of tomatoes, onions, cucumber and very spicy peppers on the side. The livers themselves are prepared with beans, egg-plant and some other unidentified vegetables.

After another 3 hours of riding through the rain I had enough: it was time to get myself a hotel with a warm shower and a good bed. Along the coast these things are not hard to find, and about 2 hours after checking in I was enjoying one of those strong tasting Turkish beers they call Efes. And after that I went to bed, it was 6:30 PM. I forgot to eat, and didn't wake up until 7 AM the next morning.

The road from the Black Sea to Dogubayazit led me to Nize. The weather was excellent, the road was in perfect condition. In no time I reached Nize. From there it went due south to Erzurum. In between the Black Sea and the Anatolian Highlands is a mountain range: the slopes catch the rain water from the northern air flows coming from the sea. About a month ago this even made the international news, when they had so much rain some villages were completely washed away.

Of course the rain makes for a more calmer climate, sufficient to make growing crops possible. The Turks love to drink tea - they grow it here on these hills. From the sea the landscape steadily climbs; the fields with tea plants are interspersed with tea factories. Often the typical smell of the Turkish tea dominates the air. The Turks have their tea in a different way. They have 2 pots, a large one and a small one, stacked on top of each other. The bottom (and bigger) one contains plain water, which is kept boiling. The top one contains the tea leaves and some water. This one doesn't boil, but is kept warm. A glass of tea is served by taking some of the very strong tea from the upper pot, and mix it with boiling water from the bottom pot. The tea has a strong tanine flavor, and is hardly drinkable without adding sugar.

Going up the mountains I see some of the damage of last month; they are very busy rebuilding roads and constructing new bridges. They also reinforce the slopes on certain places. The higher I come, the thicker the clouds. I stop to put on some more clothing. But the road keeps climbing, and it is getting colder and colder. At 8000 feet altitude it is 3 degrees Celsius, and I can hardly see a thing because I ended up in the cloud fog. On top of that the road is unpaved: they are redoing the top surface. Sometimes a truck or bulldozer emerges, of course without any head lights - riding now become very unpleasant. Suddenly I reach the summit. The sun is shining, the road is paved, the temperature is climbing fast towards 20 degrees Celsius. There is no indication of the harsh conditions here; almost seems like it is nice weather on the other side as well.

Then I reach a plateau. The average elevation is well above 6000 feet. The landscape is desolate. There is not much growing here, the only activity noteworthy is the keeping of sheep and goats. I cross another few passes, 8000 feet altitude is certainly not uncommon. Then at last I start to descend again; now it is between 5000 and 6000 feet. The main crop is grain, people are harvesting everywhere. And the road comes to an end as well, this time for 15 miles at a stretch. I never imagined I had to make so many off-road miles. But after a while the careful riding starts to get boring - I try how fast I can (dare to) go on this gravel path. Topping 100 mph the bike starts swerving, but it stays on a fairly straight path, like I've seen those men do on tours like Paris-Dakar. I call it quits at 110 mph.

Arriving in Ezurum I quickly find myself a hotel, and there is enough time to check the place out on foot. The village is a chaotic mess, everywhere there is garbage, people just throw away everything. The shopkeepers too throw it all in the gutters. Oh well - I don't have to live here, I just need some food. Again I enter a locanta and find a nice dish based on Kufte, some sort of spicy meatballs. The two Israelians I met this afternoon are nowhere in sight, same for the Dutch guys on bikes who were said to be in town. I phone my parents and then go to bed.


The goal for next day is the last Turkish village before entering Iran: Dogubayazit. Easy, in miles. But somehow I'm not comfortable. The road towards this town seems a lot longer than it is. When I arrive I cruise around like I always do. This is the first time I'm getting thrown at with stones by some children. They didn't expect I would turn around and chase them a bit, they didn't do it again, but this didn't lift my spirits.

I start looking for a place to sleep. There should be 2 camp sites, one above the other, near some kind of castle. The lower one should be the better one, according to a German of about 60 and his wife, whom I met in Istanbul. First I went to the top, to enjoy the view. There was a place to eat, but nothing remotely like a camp site. Going down it was the same story, apart from the fact that that very same German guy and his wife were there in their van. The proprietor however gave me a warm welcome. He gave me some tea, but he didn't push anything. The perfect way to suck me up.

In Istanbul the German guy had already told me about the corrupt Turkish customs officers, stealing Indians, and unreliable Pakistani, which all had one thing in common: they want money. His car was broken into by the police, and he had been in a fight with a customs officer. And he could know, he had been traveling to India many times since 1976. Two years ago they came here for the first time with this van. This year they had a rough start: their dog died in Bulgary, and in Istanbul they learned a good friend of theirs had passed away. The man now told me he had bad news. Iran supposed to be contemplating a war against Pakistan, or so his son told him. And in Istanbul he was attacked for demanding back his change of 200,000 Lire (about 60 cents).

I had already learned about some war from JC: Iran thinks it is entitled to revenge after the Taliban had killed 11 Iranian diplomats and many other Shi'ites. An army of about 35,000 men is told to have been gathered along the border with Afganistan, but that is a long way from the place the Germans and I will pass. A piece of our route will be near the border with Afganistan, and I gather the worst that will happen is that I will be sent back. In that case I think I will reach Pakistan some other way. With a ferry, for example. But if I will be sent back at the Turkish border things will be difficult: Saudi Arabia or a long line of Russian republics are the only possibilities. I decide, contrary to my initial plans, to travel to Iran as fast as possible.

But the German is too down already. Especially his wife has had enough. I thought I noticed he wasn't feeling well about things. He talks about bad Karma, and turns around.

Meanwhile I put up my tent in the dust. Dust is here in enough quantities. The place is gorgeous: from the terrace you have a view over the whole city, especially a feast at night.

Just when I'm ready to hit the sack 3 Germans arrive on their bikes. 3 BMW's, 2 100GS's and a 1100GS. We decide to try out the local kitchen together. We have a mixed salad I hadn't seen before (one of the men only has been in Turkey 10 times, and speaks Turkish reasonably well), followed by roasted chicken and lamb. The meal is supplemented by lots of beer.

Meanwhile a party has developed in the restaurant. In a room slightly larger than my living room all tables are occupied, and many of the local guests sing along with the live music. In one of the corners an organ is occupied by a singer / keyboard player / synthesizer programmer. Many of the guests look like they have plenty of money to throw around: expensive clothes and watches. There are no women present, and there is a fair amount of drinking: beer, raki and whisky; many order by the bottle.

The next day I spend my time writing part of journal #10. But I'm constantly interrupted and I don't get to actually write a lot. I have decided to leave the next day as well. I write the last few lines at 5 AM, and then I mail away the report. One of the guilty ones is the owner of the camp site, Saem Murat. A Krud, and according to me, a very smart one.

This son had inherited the restaurant from his father, but he bought all the ground around the restaurant as well. Now he is the owner of a real drinking water spring (half the village come to him for the water), some kind of picknick place under the trees, the restaurant itself, the place that's called the camp site, and a little hotel under construction. When he had bought all that, he applied for a tourist permit. That would give him the opportunity to choose the times his place is open, and that attracts the raki-drinking locals. The other places in the village below have very limited possibilities to build parties. These international tourists are just a bonus now.

Saem also has another business: importing oil products. In Iran the fuels are scandalously low priced. Import (read: smuggle by bribing) has become a booming business. Next day will be my first one to Iran, so I ask him if he goes to Iran a lot and what it is like. "Ever since I've been in prison for a year and 7 days, I'm not very welcome in Iran anymore", he answers. "How's that?", I ask. Turned out he had smuggled a truck loaded with alcohol into Iran, and he was caught. The trade in Johnny Walker is even more lucrative than the one in diesel and gasoline: buy it in Turkey for 8 US Dollar a bottle, and sell it in Iran for 100 USD. Illegally, that is.

A bit later on Glenn and Marianne interrupt my writing coming in with their VW LT (a modern type of van) from Denmark. We eat together, this time the same salad I had the night before with the Germans (something red and very spicy, some yoghurt-cucumber-garlic, a bean salad and some strips of chicken with fresh koriander), followed by roasted lamb chops. When you're not into lambs meat you better stay clear of this place, I think.

It is the first time to Iran for Glenn and Marianne as well. It generates a pleasant kind of tension - we don't look forward to the hassle at the border, but then again the unknown draws us irresistable. Marianne, certainly 1.90 meter tall (yes, taller than myself, or Glenn), blond haired, improvised a chador this afternoon. We laugh a lot, this will attract quite some attention... Glenn and I view the results, while I help him finish a bottle of wine he cannot import into Iran.

The next morning we listen to the BBC radio, but it keeps quiet about Iran. I think we would have gone anyway. Glenn and Marianne leave a bit earlier - they want to exchange some Turkish money for Iran Rials. That's possible in Turkey, on the black market. But the exchange rate is bad, because these are Turkish Liras. They devaluate at a rate of 8% a month. I pack at my leisure, and depart at 9:30 AM.

I reach the border quickly. The German guy had warned us about a big Turkish officer with short stubby hair. He supposed to be a Mafia member. I didn't see him, anti-socially I jumped each queue, I pulled off the backdoor trick again, in short, I was done in 15 minutes with the Turkish officers. On the toilet I changed passports, so no one at the Iran side of the border could ask me smart questions about the second passport.

I start working. I receive some kind of map, and nobody speaks anything but Farsi (the official Iran language). I walk around a bit, and just when things start to become difficult a man approaches me who will help me with the process. He works at the Tourist Office, and yes, he is also willing to exchange money. That's his angle - they all want money. But I had already found out that no Iran bank would accept my Turkish money. The liras totalling about 100 US Dollars would be worthless anyway. I exchange them for 4250 Rial per Dollar (the current black market exchange rate is about 5700). He is happy, and so am I. And help with the bureaucrats as well!

Then a form emerged which I had to sign. I hereby declare to not carry a bunch of stuff, such as alcohol, indecent literature, cell phones. Ai! I had forgot that: when you unzip my tank bag the cell phone is the first thing you see. I should have hidden that thing. When the inspector is called, I open both cases and the tank bag demonstratively, and I quickly tug away the phone in between the stuff on the back of the bike. The inspector doesn't suspect a thing. He is not interested in the opened bags, and asks as a formality what is in the watertight bags on the back. I tell him, and act like I'm going to open them up, but he is satisfied. Passing all the offices on the border in about one and a half hour! When I'm ready the Danes arrive at the Iran part of the border. I'm going my way - we agree to see eachother again in three days in Esfahan.

I leave the customs area, but before I reach the exit (where the final check is made) I'm being stormed by black-money exchangers. Just for kicks I start negotiating: I manage to get the rate up to 5700 Rial. But when the man sees a piece of tape sticking to my 20 Dollar bill, he calls off the swap. I give him his money back.

My first goal is Tabriz, about 130 miles into Iran. The scenery just over the border is dominated by fuel and the transport thereof. There are many shops that repair trucks, everywhere there are trucks waiting for cargo or repairs. The age of the stuff is remarkable: I see some very old Mercedes 1928 (that's the type) trucks. Those 1928 models (there are a few different types: 1913, 1918 etcetera) have their engine in front of the cabin, not under it. The engine is covered with a nice rounded hood. I also see the brand Mack. That's an American brand - those have to be from the Shah era, although some of those look like new. They are very good in recycling: tanker trailers which aren't working anymore are used as stationary storage. The fact that the tanks are leaking, and that the ground under them is brown with pollution, is evidently not a problem in Iran.

In Tabriz it is time to fill up the bike. There is no high octane fuel, that'll have to wait until Teheran. Regular petrol is working fine however, as it turns out. Only when I try to accelerate when in second gear, the engine misses some strokes. I'll try to keep that in mind when I'm off the road again. But then again, the roads are immaculate. During the tank stop an Iranian guy starts talking to me in German. The usual conversation unfolds: where do I come from, where do I go to. He warns me not to ride after 8 at night over the road I've selected to reach the Caspian Sea. He has heard that some of the tourists are held up and robbed. At 7 PM I reach Sarab, and it is still more than an hour to the next large city, and on top of that it lies beyond a mountain pass. I decide to stop.

The only hotel in Sarab is full. There is no alternative than to try a Mosaferkhune. It resembles an oteli or Turkish pension in Ermenek. They take me upstairs and I'm shown the room. It smells badly of unwashed men. There are three sleeping places. My bed is an old mattress, on the floor, without sheets. I ask for a different room, but that one is even smaller, and offers space for the same amount of occupants. I decide to move over the mattress in the first room and use my own mattress and sleeping bag. We agree on the price of 10,000 Rial, about 2 US Dollar.

I expect to be able to take a shower with one of those bowls, like in the hammam in Damascus. There is no water... The toilettes have no water and no light. It smells of menure. Obviously there has been no water for a while. I'm glad I'm a boy, and in the dark I aim roughly at where I expect the sink to be.

I go outside to get myself a meal. Quite a crowd has gathered around my bike, everyone wants to have a good look at it. As it turns out, I stay near a joint where the locals hang out. Almost the complete group accompanies me to this place. For a while I answer the same questions over and over again, but just as I start getting enough of this the boss of the restaurant saves me: he chases the masses away. I enter the kitchen to see what's on the menu.

There are a dozen small aluminum pots with lids bubbling away on a hot plate. I lift one of the lids (and burn my fingers) and see some reddish boiling stuff. No one in the restaurant speaks anything other than Farsi - I gesture I want to try this. I also select some kebab made of heavily spiced minced sheep meat. The meat is shaped around a flattened pen, and subsequently roasted on a fire which is heated momentarily by a big fan. The meal is served with the same flat bread I know from Syria and Jordan. Like a native I attack my meal: I take strips of bread and use it to wrap up pieces of meat and some tomato. And that is put into your mouth.

But the pot is brought to me in a bowl, with some kind of meshing tool and an ordinary plate. I even get some plain cutlery. I look as helplessly as I can, and my host comes to my aid again. He divvies the bread up into small pieces and puts them in the bowl, with some red bouillon from the still very hot pot. I start to spoon it up: it tastes great, like soup made of sheep meat. The pot turns out to contain some of those small nuts (I don't like those), some potatoes, meat, and boiled vegetables. The mesher is to mix it all up, but I decline. I leave the nuts, the rest I eat with taste. I gave the man 10,000 Rial, thinking that wouldn't be unreasonable for a double meal. When I leave I receive some change: the final price is about one and a half dollar.

Now my room has two extra occupants: two men looking very old. They appear to be working here, and are staying the night. When we get undressed, I see the men are wearing their pyjama trousers under their clothes. They don't tire themselves with brushing teeth and those other peculiar Western habits. I use some drinking water to get the job done. At 5 AM, when Allah calls everyone to do their prayers from the minaret towers, the gentlemen get up. They didn't even bother taking off their shirts. I gather they wash their hands and feet at the mosks; how they clean the rest is obvious by the smell, which gradually became stronger during the night.

The police lifts me off my bed at 7:30 AM. I had refused to give away my passport, but now the cops wanted to see it. In fact they were just curious, with the page containing my name in front of them they ask my name. They cannot read the passport... The boy from the restaurant gives me some more change with a guilt-ridden face. Like they had robbed me and couldn't sleep last night. I have my breakfast here (flat bread, yoghurt with honey and lost of tea) and now I stay inside; I don't need to be rescued. There is another crowd gathering when I leave: it almost seems like half the street is waiving me goodbye!

The first miles are easy, until I reach the tops of the mountains: this time they separate the Caspian Sea from the inlands. The pass is very high and I end up in the clouds again. It is cold, but I suspect it won't be long before I reach the sea, where it will be warmer. Just when I have become cold to the bone and put on some extra clothing I notice I'm only a few miles away. The 25 degrees Celsius at the sea are a blessing. I do need a couple of hours to warm up again.

Near the Caspian Sea

It's Thursday, and that is almost like a Saturday for the Muslem people. And that is very noticeable: the traffic is dense to and from the coast. I reach a village where a gas station supposed to be, but I get stuck in the heavy traffic. When I near the station I see the traffic is caused by a long line of cars waiting to fill up. A police officer tries to control the onflow of cars. I park my bike in front of the station to try and find out what the problem is. There is no electricity. The station owner has a disagreement and is angry; he has shut down the gas installation. When I return to my bike at least 50 men are surrounding it! Of course the bike is a welcome diversion in this situation. The police officer asks me to remove the bike, he cannot perform his duties with all these people on the street. Finally, about half an hour later a mediation attempt succeeds, and unanimously the crowd agrees I should be first in line. When my tank is filled up a fight start about who is next. I pay my debt of 80 dollarcents and split before one of those punches hit me.

Nearing the end of the afternoon the occasional showers change into a steady rain. I still have to cross a mountain pass of about 9000 feet high towards Teheran. Fortunately it is not so cold. The Iranians drive like maniacs, on this wet pass I count 7 accidents, among which 2 head-on collisions after failed overtake attempts, 2 cars driving off a cliff, and one missing a corner (the rest are fender benders, not very spectacular). When the traffic comes to a complete stop, and it also is getting dark, I stop for some kebab, hoping in vain the rain will stop falling while I try to down some roasted sheep heart.

When I resume my struggle (it is still raining) I fear for my life with these lunatics driving cars without lights on the lefthand side of the road, assuming I will notice them. Suddenly a vast luxurious hotel emerges; the room is a mere 10 dollars and there is nice hot water. A regular shower rarely felt so good.

Friday (the Sunday of the Muslems) starts off in bright sunshine. The hotel is placed just after the summit of the pass, and the clouds have retreated during the night. There is still (or again) a lot of traffic, but now mainly going in the opposite direction. The people from Teheran all travel towards the mountains or the beach. I notice the city people are not very strict when it comes to the Islam customs: I see women driving cars, women in light-colored clothes, even only wearing a head scarf instead of a full chador. Nobody wears those things which only leaves the eyes free. A T-shirt is acceptable for men. I conclude the stories about the Komite (the religious police) are a bit exagerated, or there are some changes in progress.

Iranian MC cop

I spend the day checking out Teheran (on my bike). I quickly learn the traffic rules for bikers: no rules. In Iran bikes are allowed, they have to be smaller than 250cc. I only see 125cc bikes. But my monstrous machine is put in the same category as these small bikes, although putting it in with the cars would be more logical. Those 125cc mopeds do everything that's possible: using the bus lane, riding over walkways, ignoring one-way streets, overtaking on all sides, etcetera. In the afternoon one of the streets is closed for traffic by the police (on one of those 125cc's). I want to take a right turn (northbound), but there is a oneway street sign. I ask the officer what way to go, and he gestures slightly annoyed: "And what's wrong with the road lying here ?". Oh well, if I get send going against traffic by the cops it must be alright...

I rather like Teheran, but it isn't beautiful enough to stay the night. If I say 'Internet' no one knows what I mean, that bar (if it even exists) will have to do without my company. At the end of the afternoon I leave for Esfahan. I will probably not reach that city, it is too far off. I sto in Kashan, partly on the advice of the Lonely Planet. I instantly regret it. The only hotel in Kashan is 'used' to tourists. The guy in the lobby doesn't speak much English (or any other language than Farsi) to justify his rudeness towards foreigners. When I refuse to give him my passport he threatens to kick me out of the hotel. I pay in advance - that seems to be the same as a passport. The next morning I'm refused my breakfast because it is 3 minutes past 8:30 when I get up, totally wrecked from the awful bed.

I enjoy the evening: I'm lookign for a place to eat and find myself a sandwich joint. I buy a sandwich (yep, sheep meat) while my bike is waiting outside for me. Again there is a crowd gathering around the bike. The neighbor enters to talk to me, he reminds me of Halil: speaks little English, but we have no trouble understanding each other. I seem to have that thing with some people. The man is a photographer / printer / advertisement designer / painter and a few other creative professions. We have lots of fun, take pictures with my tiny camera in a professional studio (the additional flashes surely have overexposed the pictures) and drink the inevitable tea. APS (advanced photo system) isn't even announced here. Then I have myself a 'real' meal in a quality restaurant. They leave me be, even when I take out my palmtop. Great!

Ignoring the protests I rid the hotel of a liter of ice water for my thermosflask. En route I quickly found the possibly unpaved road from my map. If I'm allowed to ride my bike in the mountains an empty stomach is the least of my worries. I wouldn't realize until 3 PM I had forgotten to eat something again. The road by the way wasn't unpaved at all - on the contrary: it is in perfect state! And high: the GPS thinks it is 8,500 feet high. My day is made, but it even gets better.

The Iran officials are very picky when it comes to visa. With lots of trouble and a week (!) of waiting you get a transit visum for 5 days. This means you get to tour Iran for 4 days, and on day 5 you have to reach Pakistan. This should be possible, but you'll be broken when arriving in Pakistan, and you haven't seen a thing. The remedy: extend your visum. They say this will take half a day of wrestling with the bureaucrats. In Esfahan (my goal for the day) this should be fairly easy. After arriving in Esfahan I stop to try and find out where I can extend my visum. But before I had a chance of getting the tour guide a moped stops and the passenger asks me in good English where I want to go. They lead me to the Imam Khomeini square, where the office for the extensions would be, according to the Iran guy living in Canada.

At 11:50 we reach the beautifully designed square through very heavy traffic. The helpful man had been mistaken: my travel guide talks about the ministry of foreign affairs, near the university. Half an hour later we cruise through Esfahan again. We say our goodbyes and I approach the counter. There is a paper in English: "No visa extensions. Do not ask questions.". This is a fine start. I don't ask questions, but give the sturdy looking man my passport. He returns it immediately, adding 2 forms. I walk to a table where 2 other travelers are sitting and writing.

It's an Australian couple. They bought an Audi 100 in England, and have plans to travel over land to Australia (like me). They just had been stuck at the border for 3 days, which I had cleared in an hour and a half. "A carnet de passage? What's that?" They are not very well prepared, they don't have a carnet. I expect them to run into lots of other problems, but I keep quiet. I do show them my carnet, explain to them the value of this document, and where to get one of those. The about 55 year old man seeks revenge for their troubles in Egypt - very recognizable for me.

I hand in my forms, I have to make a Xerox of a paper written in Farsi which I have to sign first. Furthermore I have to give them one of my 20 remaining passport photos and a photocopy of my passport. Then I have to wait. The travel guide had told me about having to go to the bank, a form which I had to fill out myself in Farsi, 2 color passport photos and a copy of my visum. This will come later, I think. Ten minutes later I'm called to the desk: my 10 days extension is ready! 20 minutes! I start to love this country!

After this lucky break it is time to find myself a hotel. I locate a few of them, among which the only 5-star hotel in Esfahan. But that one is way too expensive for me, and on top of that it is loaded with middle-aged tourists conducting a world tour. I end up in the Pol & Park hotel - directly next to the river that flows through the center of Esfahan. The perfect place to use as a base from which to explore the mosk of Esfahan and the Imam Khomeiny square.

Imam Khomeiny square

In the early evening I go to this square: it is a huge space surrounded by a wall, occupied by traffic, pedestrians and people seeking rest. The walls are not just walls, but the walls of a bazar. I buy some food at the open shops and start walking around. The fast food stuff seems to be inspired by hamburgers: most of the time it is something fleshy in between pieces of bread. I choose soem roasted chicken with tomato, onion and cilantro.