Sunday, 27 March 2011


21st 86k's

I wake a little surprised by the cold - barely above a frost by my guess. Once outside the tent I'm greeted by sun filtering through the trees. Pack up, inhale three oranges, and hit the road.

I make good pace thanks to a tail wind. By three o'clock I'm close to Turin and looking for somewhere to camp. An unfamiliar scene catches my eye. I wheel my bike down to a wooded area. The recent heavy rains have flattened all the dead foliage onto each tree limb and stump making quite a spooky but beautiful sight. I don't camp as the farmers working in field. But explore and then move on. Spend the afternoon reading in a park. When the light fades I seek out a campspot - boat storage area on the river bank.

17th 80km

My first morning in Italy from James Rathbone on Vimeo.

I manage a disciplined start for a change – new beginnings and all that rot. Even with gear drying session I'm on the road by nine. Sunny morning, few showers in the afternoon. Not such pretty riding today - more industrious feel. I waste money on a Mcdonalds – the empty promise of free wifi. Not so.

I squeeze eighty kilometers out of the day - my biggest daily distance in a long time. Stop early before Verona. Wait for dark before pitching up. My campsite of choice tonight is a particularly uninspiring waste-ground next to a factory.

18th 60k's

The morning pases with little drama. By lunchtime I'm in Verona and make my way towards the centre for a quite poke around. It feels strange to park up in the centre and not immediately gather a crowd - faux celebrity status removed from here on in! I treat myself to an espresso and then continue on out of town.
I actually manage to catch a milestone! 8000km

Verona - no crowd!?
By late afternoon I make it to Lake Garda – a place I've been meaning to visit for a few years. I spend a few hours chilling out and enjoying the view. I ride around for a while and consider parting with my precious Euros for a campsite. After some debate I give up on the campsite and opt for a night without the tent on the beach. I wait until dark and then roll out my sleeping bag behind some seemingly empty holiday homes. I heard a few chuckles from passing walkers at various stage in the night – however I was much more concerned with the dew. Once the temperature dropped dew covered everything killing the insulation in my sleeping bag – I'll be more careful next time...

Lake Garda

19th 94k's

 I arrange all my belongings out on the pavement in the hope that the weak morning sun with rid them of the moisture. After an hour I'm bored and so get on with riding – making a plan for an extended “gear drying” lunch break.

The flat roads are a treat in my “out of shape” state and I'm able to set a good pace once again. I spend the afternoon scanning for potential camping spots but not much turns up – all the derelict buildings in Italy are disappointingly fenced off.

Lunch!...or was that breakfast?....or dinner?

I'm eager to break the one hundred kilometer mark to prove to myself that I still can. Just before I do I cross a river (which tends to throw up camping opportunities on the banks) – this time is no exception. I sit and read in the last of the days light before pitching up and sleeping well. The "ton" will have to wait.

20th 86k's

I lie in a little to let the nights rain dry off the tent - and because it's Sunday. Flat roads all day again – this is not what I expected form Italy.

I stop for water at a roadside cafe. No sooner have I parked up my bike than Vince strolls over to say “hello”. He's from Sicily (where he has an orange farm) and sells his oranges all over Italy. Having spent twenty years in Canada he speaks English as well as I. We talk for some time – I'm gutted to decline his offer of accommodation at his farm in Sicily. He treats me to a coffee, loads me up with oranges, and sends me on my way. Thanks Vince!

In the evening I find some form of reserve to camp in. I use the evening light to explore before settling on an orchard of young horse chestnut trees.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Italy - Venice and beyond

By the end of four days aboard I'm happy to once again be making food babies which would give Gillian Mckeith a lonely tear of pride. It's my own fault as the guide book does state - “Do not drink the water”. Hey ho!

At nine in the morning Richard and I are done with brief passport checks and wheel our bikes off the boat. Europe greets us in the best possible mannor – blustery winds and hard driving rain. I quickly give up on looking round Venice and duck into a bar for a coffee. Venice can wait older and richer – or at least older.

After an unsuccessful hunt for a supermarket Richard and I part company. He goes East to Slovenia while I head the opposite way for France. I'd love to join him but my budget and time frame wont quite allow. With him travelling lighter and faster there's a chance we maybe join forces once more – perhaps in France.

As the afternoon develops the rain eases and I enjoy the riding more and more. My route inland follows the a river – quiet little riverside villages pop up with pleasing frequency.

I noticing a growing sensation of comfort and confidence – which I guess comes from the knowledge that I've done this bit before (Western Europe that is). I can't speak the lingo – but the challenge seems reduced all the same. I hope to come up with a few methods for keeping the ride interesting or maintaining some form of challenge. I'm open to ideas, so if you have any get in touch!

With the bike now point homeward I feel very much like I'm on my way. I suspect the next six weeks will disappear at a surprising rate.

The Boat

I fall back into the European world with a bump. The boat does not cater for filth like myself – that is, there's no “hobo class”. My room is very nice and I'm happy with it – but no happier than I'd be rolling out my sleeping bag on the top deck. Everything comes at an extortionate cost...or at least that's how it feels after a considerable stay in the Middle East.

I exchange pleasantries with the few other English speaking guests on board. No other traveller types and no-one remotely my age to share the bar with. Perhaps it's not bad thing – one of the few nuggets I've learned on this venture – I'm a total sucker for bad beer and good company.

My first day aboard passes quickly. The novelty of new transport and the three hundred and sixty degree view of endless blue has me transfixed for some hours. I talk with the manager about my food/money problem in the evening – not even through the first day and I'm already struggling with my empty stomach. We come a deal where by I can have some meals and pay for it by card when we dock in Egypt.

The next day we arrive in Egypt. I watch from the top deck as passengers and goods are unloaded and then loaded – its a painfully slow process. The manager mentions that there might be another cyclist staying in my cabin (my original cabin-mate was not a fan of “au de cyclist” and so asked for another room). Late afternoon comes a knock on my door. I open it and in walk Richard (from such episodes as Istanbul Take Two). In walks Richard. My brain is unable to compute this co-incidence and so my greeting comes out as a mumbled grunt.

“Thought I recognised that bike downstairs”

And then there were two...

Syria 3

My last stop in Syria is Tartus as it's from here that I'll take the ferry to Venice. I was lucky enough to arrange some Couchsurfing to my my stay in the quiet city a little more interesting.

I meet Hamza in the afternoon. The weather is crappy once again and so we head straight to his house to unpack my things. His parents have since moved away and so now the flat is only used when he wants some peace and quiet and time away from university. Not a bad deal eh? We chat away the afternoon and in the evening he takes me on a tour of the city. We snack on various dessert specialities local to the area and drink coffee until the bar closes.

Hamza has to leave the next day and so I duck into the cheapest hotel in town for a night and prepare my things for tomorrow ferry trip.

In the morning I leave the hotel early and make my way to the port – where I'm told to wait two hours before entering. I am then paraded round various crappy offices. At each one I hand over a fee that seems to be simply picked out of the air each time - I suspect it corresponds somewhat with whatever is on said officials evening shopping list.

Embarkation – Back to Europe

Syria 2

I lose track of time once more. Another good crowd evolves over the coming days. A couple from Lithuania convinced me that I need to add it to the list of future destinations – simply by their being so cool. I sink many a beer with Alex from America – he happens to be studying Arabic which comes in very handy on many occasions.

At the citadel we spend an afternoon with a group a students. We talk about life in Aleppo, the difficulties of dating and their studies. After the chit chat they offer to teach us some local dances. With tinny music pumping from a mobile phone we join hands in a circle and get groovy - actually, it's a bit more "okey cokey", but lots of fun all the same.

Daily explorations take us around the souqs and eateries. I discover Syrian food to be some of my favourite of the whole trip – their wine is not so flash! My favourite dish being fuul (tahini and humus, red beans and olive oil) served with bread, onion, tomato and radish – might sound heavy going for a breakfast but wwwoooooowwwww it's good!

Alex and I eventually move on to Latakia. We arw both attracted by its reputation for being the most progressive city in Syria with more of a Western feel. My original plan was to ride – but after realising that the train costs £1.20 first class – I reconsider. Alex and I split a bottle of Raki on the train – this becoming a habit on train journeys. It did make for a fun journey though.

The weather in Latakia is horrid – though the thunder storms out at sea entertain me briefly. We spend our days rain dodging in a multitude of coffee shops and explore the delights of Latakian street food.

Syria 1

Thanks to my Swiss friends I now have a map a north Syria and somewhere to head for – their favourite stop was Aleppo and so I make a plan to head there. I take the lazy option (habit these days) and decide the arrive tomorrow. With only 30k's for the afternoon I ride slowly returning the many waves and welcomes and accepting every cay offer - to which I have become accustomed.

I sit for a while with a mechanic in his small garage. He introduces me to his charming family and after the customary cay his mother bring me some lunch which we all share. When the meal is done the family leave us in peace, once they do so the conversation develops a sexual spin. At first he simply says "sex". Not with a questioning tone, more stating a fact. Not quite knowing how to respond I just echo his own statement. "Sex" And shrug my shoulders shoulders with a “what next” expression. I gather eventually that he wants to see pictures of sex on my camera. At this stage I haven't learnt "I'd like to see some sex pictures on my camera too pal" so opt for a flat "no". This goes on for some time until his mother comes back out to ask if I'll take one of her daughters back to England and make her my wife - again my Arabic fails me on "I think my girlfriend back home might have a problem with that".....and "rotter". Bad shout.

I find an abandoned premisses away form the road in which to pitch the tent. Despite the lack of riding distance I'm still beat and fall asleep at sundown. It seems as though the dogs of Turkey aren't quite ready to leave me be. In the early hours I wake to howls yaps and barks as a group of mutts runs around my camp. Clutching knife, torch and pepper spray I go to pick a fight in my underpants – always a good look, and guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of any opponent. Not for the first time shouting while jumping up and down is sufficient - all the saying goes. Still, I'm glad they couldn't smell the fear emanating from every pore. Not the best nights sleep.

I arrive in Aleppo and but by luck alone I land right in the hotel district. I find the one recommended to me by my new Swiss friends and get checked in.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Turkey (briefly)

We wake to a grey wet day – weather much more typical to this region that the cloudless skies of yesterday. We make the decision the today we will split – though this time it will be on a more permanent basis. I have just enough time to get out of Turkey (should Syria say no), and Stu needs a few days to sort his things before the flight back. We ride in to Hopa and treat ourselves to one last celebratory lentil soup. Our guts gurgle with satisfaction as we make our way toward the bus station. The usual carnage occurs while trying to frantically load our bikes onto the buses, a quick “see ya later”, and then we are on our way(s). As the bus points it's nose westward I realise it could be a while before I hear the familiar “Bwwwwaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrhhhhhhhh” of a eucalyptus didg' again.

On the minibus to Trabzon I meet Oguz Gokhan. We get chatting and very quickly find a common interest in religion - Jimi Hendrix is his God too. He invites me to stay at his place. Though I want to accept I hesitate – concerned about my need to get to Syria. He helps me out with the bus ticket (which it turns out leaves the following morning) and so we take the taxi back to his place. I meet his friends and we head out to a bar which had some local live music. I'm introduced to more friends and his girlfriend Serap. They treat me to dinner and even get me a belated birthday cake – which more than makes up for my solitary night in the woods. It's a really great night and beats the hell out of rolling out my sleeping bag in some windy bus station! These guys are a perfect example of the outrageous generosity shown to me on this trip. The odd situations when I have been ripped off are more than made up for (and completely outnumbered) by occasions such as this.

In the morning they take me out for breakfast and then escort me to the bus station. My friend Sara once said “Turkey seems to be your happy place” - I think she's right.

Fifteen hours later I arrive in Gaziantep. Dispite the fact that this city is home to some of the tastiest treats in all of Turkey I don't stick around and instead get myself on a minibus to the border town of Kilis. From there I ride to the border. As I see it appear in front of me my apprehension grows – having heard of some folks getting refused visas and others welcomed with open arms. I talk with the clerks for some time and am then instructed to wait. While doing just that I meet to Swiss cyclists who are heading to Turkey. Caught out by the Syrian exit fee they are stuck and unable to leave. I only have enough wedge on me to pay their fee but hand it over without a second thought – these days I find myself in a position of confidence that someone would do the same for me. While exchanging details I'm told that my application has been accepted. Small dance of joy, paperwork, pay the relevant people and jump on the bike. New country time!

Georgia 2

We devise a plan to travel East together for a few days. After which point Stu will continue on to Istanbul before flying home to recoup funds and I will head south to try my luck at the Syria border. We throw our bikes onto the night train, find our cabin and crack open a litre of Ukrainian vodka. At some point in the night we gain a friend. We swap smokes for shots and let our new aquaintence (and toastmaster) do his thing – the Georgians know how to toast...and apparently, after half a litre of vodka, it seems I know how to speak Russian!

We pull in to Batumi station an hour before the sun makes itself know for the day. We drag our gear piece by piece to a grassy area near the platform, roll out the sleeping bags, and crash. I wake periodically to see fuzzy human-like shapes approach to inspect the two newest additions to Batumi's “drunken bum” population.

At something like midday we get up and moving. A blissfull ride along the Batumi coastline - slight tailwind, paved promenade lined with trendy bars and an uninterrupted view of the Black Sea. Once out of town the greenness of the hilly coast has a vitalizing effect – particularly as I've spent so long in a white frozen or arid dry world.

The Georgian/Turk border is a crossing of minimal hassles. We put a few kilometres between us border – stopping momentarily to take some water cress from a snow-melt stream. As the evening glow takes hold of the day we search out a picturesque coastal camp spot. We treat ourselves to a fire and chat away the evening while supping on our Veggie Power Broth.

Georgia 1

How is it so that things always seem to work out for the best. I get ditched by my bus at the border - despite having paid for onward travel. After curb kicking and cursing I give in and ask for a taxi (which I suspect I pay a little over the odds for). The cheery old man drives me into Batumi. I explain that I want to go to Tbilisi. We pull up at a scabby boxey office with a few mini buses outside. The taxi driver bangs relentlessly on the window of one minibus until a blurry eyed fellow pops his head up. Regardless of the fact that his slumber has been disturbed he greets me with a smile and handshake. I like georgia already. We pile my gear into the van. Then, as it is 4am, the driver and I crash out on the lumpy mini bus seats until the sun makes an appearance. Tbilisi it is then!

I'm ejected from the minibus in the North of Tbilisi. From my brief foray into other forms of transport it seems common that once at ones destination, one is swarmed by taxi's drivers who are all hoping the relieve you of your dosh. I build my trusty steed amid a crowd of inquisitive and somewhat confused faces. The heckles of “Mr? Taxi?” eventually die down as the rip-off merchants settle in to watch my contraption unfold. Once complete I get the classic tyre squeeze and look of approval and then I leave to seek out the city centre. I follow the river until called over by two fishermen for a beer and some salted fish. Five beers later I wiggle off down the road much more confidant that I can find the hotel without the aid of maps or directions. Bizarrely I do indeed find it and go about getting checked in.

I spend an evening with the other inmates – one of whom happens to be Cheolo (from such episodes as Iran 2/3). I meet Yashar (from Iran) and Clara (Slovenia). Badri (the manager) Yashar and I have have many a jam session over the next few days. Yashar and I also visit a local sulphur bath – built in the style of an Iranian mosque. It was quite surreal to walk through a blue and yellow mosaic tiled entrance to find that the interior contained naked blokes getting soapy massages in eggy water. I came out feeling fresher and cleaner than I had in a long while!

Cheolo plans a day of wine tasting and factory tours – he's making a documentary for Korean TV about Armenian brandy and Georgian wine. I offer to help out as its sounds like the making of an interesting day. He pays for the whole thing and has me presenting in-front of the camera most of the day – talking about things I know next-to-nothing about.

With slightly fuzzy heads we return to Tbilisi and the hostel. We stop off at the market for some homemade grogg – and who should I see there but Stu the big pisshead. With our forces once more combined (or halved) we settle in for an almighty session that has my liver wincing every time I recall it to mind. A pattern emerges....

Iran 4

Check in to our Shiraz hotel early. Catch up on some much needed sleep. Explore in the afternoon, Cheolo cooks Korean for dinner which we share with the hotel owner. The next day we trip to Persepolis for some ancient ruins. When we arrive they are closed so I take a walk through the adjacent valley to some caves – which happen to still be used by shepherds.

In the afternoon we get to enter Persepolis (link). We make friends with a local and he gives us a free guided tour – result! I enjoyed the walk around the valley and hills far more than the ruins themselves. In the evening I cook Italian – didn't think my new friends would be satisfied with bread and jam... the fools!

Once again we get the night bus, this time to Yazd. As we cross the high passes deep snow retards our progress. At five in the morning I finally lay my head on my rucksack in the Yazd bus terminal.

Cheolo and I battle with taxi's for a reasonable rate but our efforts are futile and eventually we take the bus. We find our way to the Silk Road Hotel. We spend the day resting and meeting the other guests.

The next days begin to blur – I feel myself slipping into the blackhole that is the Silk Road. The broad blend of nationalities makes for great interactions. I note that it takes me a few days to get up to speed – not having spoken to native English speakers for some time. Twelve days in Yazd vanish thanks to a good crowd and all kinds of mischief. For the sake of those I met I wont go into detail but suffice to say Iran is not as restricted as my first impressions had me believe – they even having swimming pools!

Blitz back up north to pick up my bicycle. Say some last thanks and goodbyes and make my way to Turkey – again!

Monday, 7 March 2011

Iran 3

Another rip-off taxi puts me in the centre of Isfahan. I check into the hostel – the only one I know of in the entire country. I set down my back and meet Dada a traveller from Korea. She shares her dinner with me and then fires up her travel kettle – like her style.

The next day I strap on my walking boots and familiarise myself with the city. Emam Khomeini square is the second largest in the world (Tienanmen being the first). The perimeter is lined with teashops and souvenir shops – the tourist junk is broken up by some incredible mosques and palaces. Actually it's unfair to call it junk – the silverware and ceramics are some of the best in Iran...perhaps if my budget wasn't entirely occupied with bread and jam I might like to purchase some such local produce.

 I spend a day walking round the mosques and the square – accepting many cay invitations along the way. The sellers in Isfahan lack the intensity of those in Istanbul – they are very happy to chin wag over a cay and fully understand “no thank you” which never has to be repeated.

Another day is spent exploring the famous bridges with Cheolo another Korean hosteller. On the bridge we meet Big Gay Al (name changed for security purposes) – he takes us for a coffee and we talk about his life in Isfahan. He tell us that the bridge we were exploring is the secret gay hang out!!...thought I felt the “gaydar” going a bit mental! He tells us that he is gay and married and goes on explain the (fairly obvious) difficulties he has in Iran. He has to return to work so we say our goodbyes and continue walking along the river bank. Perhaps five minutes later we make two new friends Bill & Ben – a couple of cheery guys about our age keen to practice their English. We are whisked off on a walking tour . In the evening we meet up again and the take us on a drive through the city. Rather than the usual Turbo-Folk the stereo is pumping English tunes. We head out of town to a huge park area. The park is beautiful and allows us great views of the city lights down below – It's also home to the highest mountain in Isfahan We finish the day off in style at the local restaurant. Food was pretty good, but the resident magician was all we talked about on the walk back down to the car. Top day.

At various points around the city there are place to hire bicycles....but they're free!!! How cool!! Puts Isfahan ahead of many European cities on the tourist front. We take a ride along the river – chat away the hours and see a few sights along the way. In the evening we go to Bill's English class and become teaching assistants for the night. I am surprised to hear the teacher instructing them to say “gonna, wanna” etc...not on my watch!

On our final day in Isfahan Cheolo and I take another walk around the square and shoot some more pictures. Several times during the day people, keen to practice their English, stop and talk to us. Isfahan has the friendliest crowd of all so far. It's a little bit like a scene from Inception (with all eyes upon us as we walk down the street) but many people greet us as we pass.

While eating in a fast food restaurant I'm accosted by a Crazy. While munching away on my burger he leans in close enough to lick my ear'ole and whispers “Tony Blair is my enemy”. “Good for you fella, he's mine too”. (A glance towards Cheolo) “China is my enemy, Russia is my enemy”. This continues for five minutes or so until the restaurant staff intervene. Upon leaving the burger joint the limping Crazy follows me down the street. He once more gives my a run down of his list of enemies and then invites me to stay in his hotel in Tehran. Once I pry my hand out of his (clearly this chap is not up to speed with “hand-shake etiquette”) Cheole and I make a dash an lose him in the crowds.

Back as the hotel Dada treats us to tea and biscuits and then the pair of us collect our bags and head to the bus terminal. Crap bus ride to Shiraz – small seats, excessive heating. We arrive at 5.30 and I steal an uncomfortable hour of sleep on another set of cold metal seats.

Iran 2

I remain a crap tourist. While the bicycle collects dust with my friends in Qarazyaadin I go out to explore Iran. I feel more like I'm doing the proper tourist thing now – I guess I am. Even though I chose to do it this way...I don't think it suits me. I've mentioned before how bad I am at sightseeing – little seems to have changed. I'm now in Tabriz for a couple of nights. Booked myself into the cheapest hotel I could find – it's in a good location allowing me to explore. After some directionless wandering and a quick peruse of the Bazaar I'm getting bored - bored enough to spend the evening in my room watching films on the laptop.

You wouldn't know it - but even I preen on occasion...

I have come to the conclusion that cities are not the place for solo travelling (for me at least). If I must visit cities alone then CouchSurfing would be a smart move. The kind of things one does in cities – hanging out in cafes, drinking, museums and shopping etc are, in my opinion, better done with company. I will persist with this lifestyle for the remainder of Iran – only fair I give it a good try before I poopoo it. And perhaps with cities better equipped for tourism it might be more fun. I certainly feel like the outsider here – I'm able to count on one hand the people who don't stare at me in the street. Turkey is still winning in the smile game...

Eight hour bus to Tehran. When I arrive I'm not “feeling it” and so decide to continue onwards. I get a very expensive taxi to the southern bus terminal and jump on the next bus to Isfahan. I thought I'd feel worse than I did after fifteen hours couped up in a rolling metal box. The uncomfortable restless sleep on the metal chairs in the bus station allow me to reach a suitable level of zombification.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Iran 1

My first week disappeared almost without my noticing. When I wasn't teaching English I was being paraded around various friends and families. I always recieved the famous Iranian hospitality (not to mention epic home cooking). There were also nightly trips to the swimming pool - one of which stands out particularly... After a few lengths we dropped into the hot pool to natter (I'm coming to realise that conversations frequently revolve around politics). Iwas swiftly introduced to the local wrestling instructor (and ex national champion at that). He asks if I would like to join him in the steam room for a massage - and while "yes" is far from the first thought that comes to my mind... I don't see a way out. With a hearty slap on my shoulder he jumps out of the pool, revealing a splendidly opaque pair of Tighty Whities, and ushers me into the steamy abyss. For the next ten minutes I lie face down in a puddle of man sweat while Hulk Hogan works his magic - the grand massage finale being me, up in the air, stretched across his back...a move that was more WWF than physiotherapy. I must add - it wasn't an entirely unpleasant experience.

Other inbetween lesson activities included: football, hiking, copious amounts of eating and hanging out with my hosts friend - who was a vet. Through him I learned much about life in this particular town and also went of field visits to various farms in the area.

Most days in Iran were filled with some form of adventure. On the odd days that were a little lacking on the thrill front I had to improvise.

One such creation was "extreme film watching" - the idea being very simple. Pick a film with taboo subject matter and view most blatantly on a public bus. My choice film was 8mm (the main theme being snuff porn) - light blue touch paper, stand well back.

Random Note

As my plans change with more frequency than the weather I'll take a moment to enlighten y'all as to my travelling intentions form here onwards.

With a thirty day visa I've decided to travel by bus around the majority of Iran. The main reason being that I'll be able to cover more of the sights I want to see. This is also the point at which my travel East stops. I can't afford the train back and I'm still not prepared to commit my ultimate sin of air-born travel.

So. From here I'll nip up to Georgia (with/without the bike) to meet Stu – and abuse my liver. I then hope to try my luck at the Syrian border as I figure it to be a more interesting route home.