Mongolia – Surrender

dsc_0629dsc_0542dsc_0636In Dan Carlin’s podcast about Genghis Khan (Wrath of the Khans) he describes the Mongolian steppe and its harsh weather conditions like an ocean, in which a tsunami could blow off any minute. And why would anyone be surprised?

We are talking about the lands which shaped Genghis Khan, the Great Conqueror. The lands which shaped the little boy who killed his older brother with arrows shot from one meter’s distance into his chest (accusation being that he had stolen fish from Genghis, who back then was more known as Temüjin). The lands which shaped the man who would kill 20-50 million people in the 12th and 13th century.

The man who united the reckless Mongols and who brought order and discipline into the former lawless, wild steppe lands. Who gave no warnings or second chances and raised fear like no others in the Chinese empire. The man who would make his enemies his allies. Who taught his riders to feed on horse blood by cutting their veins open – not deep enough to actually kill the horses.

Mongolia. The lands which shaped Genghis Khan the Great Conqueror. Not great as in noble. But Great as in Merciless. 

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When I was 18 I hopped on a plane to Nice, France. From there I planned to bike to Montenegro, and I had never made such a trip on a bicycle before.

Arriving to Nice in the afternoon, I guess a sane thing would have been to have booked an accommodation already. But my mind was set on not planning anything whatsoever. Nope, I was just going to ride my bicycle and see where I’d end up each night, you know?

I met an old bearded man that very first evening of my tour. He was sitting on the street in Nice next to an extremely decayed house, consuming beer bottle after beer bottle, and he proposed I could sleep in the house’s backyard. And I thought: Why the hell not? He seems ok to me – and beyond everything you could expect from a Frenchman: He spoke English!

At first glance I thought he was homeless, but it turned out he lived a few blocks away. At first glance I also thought the house he was sitting at was abandoned, but it turned out it belonged to a man that the bearded man spoke of as “the boss”. Still in my mind I keep calling these men “the Boss and Beer Santa”. Beer Santa because he looked like Santa Claus and sure loved beer.

As we waited for the Boss to come back that evening, we had a lovely chat about beer brands all over the world and Beer Santa also told me – with a little pride in his voice – that he had a collection of more than a hundred cactuses in his home; One of which you could make tequila from.

The Boss didn’t mind me pitching my tent in the backyard, so that’s what I did. The next morning Beer Santa was sitting in the garden reading the newspaper. Not only did he hand me breakfast to bring, he also guided me out of Nice on his motorbike.

DSC_0008My idols Beer Santa and the Boss. I just won’t stop talking about them!

Another night I slept in a basement with blood stains on the floor. A third one in an apartment I had all to myself (and didn’t pay anything for), a fourth one in the home of a loving family.

Needless to say this trip gave me a new life philosophy: That everything always works out in one way or another, no matter what you may need help with.

More than two years later I am cycling the lands of Mongolia. And I’m realizing that my so long trusted philosophy has an Achilles heel. It only applies when there are people around.dsc_0443mm

dsc_0448dsc_0450dsc_0580dsc_0581dsc_0603So this is one of Mongolia’s main roads. Sometimes, it disappears completelylaladsc_0591dsc_0526I don’t know what’s worse in the sense of loneliness in Mongolia: Being a human or being a tree…

I had to face storms before Mongolia. One of the worst was in Turkey, when the lightning kept striking the lands surrounding me and the wind was so strong it took down a full-grown tree right in front of my feet just as I was planning to pitch my tent next to it. But things worked out. I found an abandoned barn in which I could sleep safely that night.

In Armenia I had to outrun thunder clouds touching the ground alarmingly close to me, and I rode through the most frightening thunder storm I have ever witnessed. But things worked out that time too. Angela, a kindhearted English teacher and her son David, took me in to their home. She spent the whole evening washing and drying my clothes and gave me so much food to bring.

East of Tehran storms seemed to be constantly present, and since the steppe wouldn’t provide any shelter I spent most nights lying awake worrying that my tent would break. Actually there was this one pole that broke open in both ends. I repaired it with a sleeve. The other end broke. I repaired that one with a sleeve too. The sleeves broke. I switched ends of the sleeves so that the none-broken ends would support the broken ends of the pole instead. One of the sleeves broke in that end too. I fixed it with one of my spoons and a lot of duct tape.

Just about a month later, in Dushanbe, I could finally have that one tent pole replaced but man I missed my sleep in Iran… Still, I always knew that if the tent would break completely people were never far away. I would never have to risk to spend a night without shelter.

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dsc_0633dsc_0707dsc_0674dsc_0609dsc_0617Wild gazelles!

Since September it has no longer been possible to apply for a visa at the Chinese embassy in Ulaanbaatar, and hence my plan was to end this trip in Ulaanbaatar and not Beijing as I initially was thinking.

But it ended sooner than that, just about 1300 km before – just in the beginning of my ride through Mongolia.

dsc_0546dsc_0643dsc_0632dsc_0627dsc_0489I am facing a furious headwind all day, but as I set camp it is all still. I feel relieved, because my tent is all exposed on the steppe. At 10 PM when I’m about to go to sleep however, it happens. A storm rolls in.

It feels like I have been thrown into a washing machine and I just cannot bring myself to fall asleep. The tent is bending from one side to the other horizontally as if a bunch of giants are using it as their wrestling arena. I can’t stand the noise. Not only the noise from the tent being shaken, but that howl coming from the distance. That howl telling me the next gust is on its way. It comes closer… and Bam! The next wrestling round is on.

At midnight I have had enough. There got to be something I could do about this whole situation, right? It’s all dark but I start carrying rocks to my camp to build a wind stopping wall. After an hour I realize it’s pointless. The wind is coming from all directions, and it would take the whole night to build a wall high enough to protect the tent from it. Repositioning the tent, seems pointless too even though I make various attempts to do so.

I decide to go back in. You’re panicking for nothing, I tell myself, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Just stay calm and try to get some sleep. Dawn will come eventually.

I listen to music next, trying to distract myself from what’s going on around me. It doesn’t help that much though. But I am afraid Eminem, man I’m so fucking afraid!

At 3 AM I am still awake, my body trembling from fear. There is sand everywhere by now. Layers of sand on my stuff, in my face. That’s when I know it. I know that if I don’t take my tent down now, it will break. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to get out there, in the sand gusts, and take the tent down. But I am too late. The tent breaks. One of the threads holding together the poles snaps, and the poles fly around everywhere as if scattered to pieces by an explosion. I can hardly stand up in the wind, but I rush to collect them all – it turns out several of them are bent but only one is literally broken in half.

14697225_1381941088501216_124452817_oI spend the rest of the night lying on the top of my tent under bare sky with sand swirling around me and getting into my eyes no matter how I try to cover my face in the sleeping bag. I let all of my other things remain inside the tent as I sleep on it to keep them from flying away. My pair of thicker pants already did as I tried to put them on – the wind pulled them from my grip and they were gone in a blink.

Dawn seems an eternity away and the ground is shaking so violently I am convinced there’s an earthquake coming for me. But it’s just the storm playing tricks.

Sometime at 5 AM I manage to get some sleep, although constantly waking up to brush away sand from my face. At 7 AM I wake up to find that my face and sleeping bag are getting wet. A snow storm is approaching, so I better pack and get moving.

dsc_0723dsc_0724dsc_0734dsc_0736dsc_0738I managed to hitch a ride here – the truck looks so misplaced…

In summers the Mongolian steppe is crowded by shepherds and nomads living in their gers. In October however, the steppe is completely desolated. People have moved into the villages over the winter already, and the villages usually seem to be about five days’ riding apart. Adding up to the fact that maximum one vehicle passed me each day, I realized there was no such thing as “everything always works out” anymore. Because there was no one around, just me. There was lucky and there was unlucky.

That night when my tent broke it was only about minus 5 °C, but later on in November temperatures could easily reach minus 25 at night. Imagine sleeping through that in a snow storm if your only shelter breaks.

Even if I repaired the tent, it had proved no reliability in storms. Not even if I would somehow obtain a brand new tent of that same model, would I have continued across Mongolia. Because there is no way I’m ever going to trust that tent in stormy weather again. And there is no way I’m taking on such vast, sparsely populated lands as Mongolia in extreme weather and temperatures without a reliable shelter. Because if things really would go wrong – if the temps would have been colder that night – there would be nobody around to help.

When I was little I was so scared of bugs I decided I had to do something about it. So I started to pick spiders up in my hand each time I spotted one. And I forced myself to keep them in my hand until I wasn’t afraid anymore. But man it’s so much easier to pick up a physical being (ok so maybe not a hippo) than it is to pick up a whole fucking country.

I wanted to keep Mongolia in my hand until I wasn’t afraid anymore. But I just couldn’t. It freaked me out way too much. My tent had broken and I was too alone, too exposed. So I decided to let go. I decided to go home and leave the last leg of my trip behind. For now.

It’s not a “hey I’ve had enough of this bike touring shit now, I’ll go home and just do charter and five star hotels from now on”.

It’s a “hey, I’m starting to like this life a plenty lot and I’d like to keep it a little longer, you know?”

Mongolia sure is one heck of a remarkable, extraordinary place and I’ll have to go back. In fact it might just be topping the list. But I’ll bring a better tent next time… and preferably some company too.

dsc_0560dsc_0667dsc_0668dsc_0521dsc_0486dsc_0474dsc_0480And there are so many other places to see as well. Wow, in fact I can’t help but feeling a little stressed about it!

The Dalton Highway, Yukon river, and “Lost Coast” of Alaska.

The Jasper National park and that new built 22 000 km long road in Canada.

The Pacific Crest Trail, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon in the USA.

The jungles of Guyana and Suriname.

The Patagonia region in Chile and Argentina.

The outback of Australia and looking for hobbits on New Zealand.

The Himalayas, the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan, and the Karakoram Highway of Pakistan and China.

The wild savannahs of Africa, and further on the mountainous deserts of Namibia and the Zambezi river.

And then of course, there are places more nearby such as Iceland and Lofoten and Svalbard and Sarek and Muddus and…

And…

OH GOD I REALLY CAN’T BE THE ONLY ONE FEELING A LITTLE STRESSED ABOUT THIS, CAN I??!

Soooo what’s your next move?

I’ll yet have to figure out mine (though a part of it will be to hike parts of the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA next summer with my sister of another mister; Saga 😉 )

In the meantime however, I’d like to thank you for following and supporting me during this little venture. Though I am not going to go all cheesy here because that’d just make my cheeks red.

Anyhow, I’ll be back.

Cheers!!

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Kazakhstan and Siberia’s Great Divide: Winter is coming

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It is the end of September and I have made it to a city named Ayagoz somewhere between Almaty and Semipalatinsk in eastern Kazakhstan. The air is raw and biting cold and I did a mistake walking to the supermarket in my flipflop sandals. I hurry on my steps as I walk back to the hotel I’m staying in for the night, drawing my hood tighter around my neck as the wind howls at me. The owner of the hotel speaks to me when I get back – those standard questions about where I’m from and where I’m heading. His son, maybe 10 years old, eagerly showed me his tricks on his new, flashy mountain bike before and even showed me the way to the nearest ATM. I had given him some pocket money for it to show my gratitude and encourage his initiative.

The hotel owner says to me, with concern in his voice: “But October in Mongolia… Winter.”

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Lars unfortunately, due to his mother being sick, has to end the tour and catch a flight home from Almaty. Thus I am once again on my own as I leave the European-looking city surrounded by high mountain peaks that could just as well have been the Alps behind. I enjoy the silence and calm which is such an inversion from the crowded city of Almaty that first day, and hit camp early. My tent is pitched in the middle of the grassy steppe and I can vaguely perceive the blue contours of a big, dreamy lake a few hundred meters ahead.

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I guess those next days are somewhat entertaining as well. The nature is still quite hilly and I take pleasure from the clear blue skies. But as the landscape flattens out and the wind keeps fighting me (no wind, you’re doing it wrong! I’m going this way, not that way!) I lack motivation more and more. Thoughts are rising in my head. Thoughts questioning what I’m doing.

dsc_0477dsc_0559I share a water melon with these guys by the roadside – guessing it’s my last water melon this yeardsc_0489

The thoughts go: Why are you wasting your time doing something that doesn’t give you anything whereas Siberia is losing its fiery autumn colors and Mongolia isn’t getting any warmer?

And then there’s the response to those daredevil, new-age thoughts.

Wasting time or not, I’m biking every single inch of this trip, those are the principles! Period!

I shove the thoughts presumptuously challenging my fundamental principles aside, and ride through another day with monstrous headwind. Wind? Nah, it’s more like a headstorm.

As the sun approaches the grass-lined horizon folding out the red carpet for dusk’s grand entry, my focus stays on finding shelter. I am a little troubled since all I see is steppe, steppe, with no hint of a hill or one of those groove of trees that I have set camp in so many times before. Then at last, I glimpse a bushy area next to a river. As soon as the road is clear from the few vehicles on it, I head off onto the steppe.

The grass is shoulder high – no kidding – and I find myself trudging around barefooted with water up to my knees in a swamp as I struggle to push the bike forward. The red plate of sun is almost gone by the horizon now, and I’m giving up as I can’t seem to find any solid ground nearby the trees providing shelter. I decide to investigate the area one last time however, and lay the bike down in the grass so that it’s barely visible from a mere meter’s distance and then circle around the trees.

dsc_0543You will think they are villages from a distance, but they are actually just graveyards in the middle of nowhere.. looked the same in Kyrgyzstandsc_0524dsc_0523

In the next moment I feel like Lucy when she stumbles into Narnia through the wardrobe that first time. Hidden in the middle of dense shrubberies and low trees with dry branches creaking hysterically in the extreme wind there is a sacred haven: A fresh-colored green patch of grass just perfectly sized for my tent. I crouch down so that I am no taller than the tent would be pitched and stay in that position as the next round shakes the trees. Just as I had hoped, the blockade of bushes is enough to stop it from reaching my haven. The ground feels moist and soft onto my palms, but I judge it solid enough and the decision is easily made. I have found my home for the night.

Kazakhstan to my left…dsc_0540And Kazakhstan to my right…dsc_0541The days dissolve into each other as the nature is all the same and the wind seems convinced I should turn the other way around. Additionally, the temperature goes below zero at night working as a reminder of what is soon to come. The thoughts keep rising in my head, and I keep shoving them away. But at some point they gain establishment so great that I can’t ignore them anymore.

Would I rather spend another week here, or would I rather be in Siberia now to enjoy those colors before they fade and save myself some time from cold temperatures in Mongolia?

By this time I have ridden about 1000 km into Kazakhstan and about 13 000 km in total and this is finally the rhetorical question that determines it. The one that makes me break my principles and hitch a ride with two different truck drivers for about 250 km and then hop on a train for about 500 km, from Semey – or more known by its old name Semipalatinsk – to Barnaul, Siberia.

And I don’t feel too bad about it as I had first expected. In fact it feels pretty damn good still when writing this from an old, rugged village in the southern Altai Republic of Russia and the principle-breaking definitely turned out to be a micro adventure on its own.

The second truck on the quite desolated road picks me up. The driver introduces himself as Islam (didn’t know one can be named that!), from Chechnya. He’s not driving all the way to Semey but we agree that he can drop me off at a smaller town halfway there. When my bicycle has been lifted onto the top of that huge pile of onions he’s transporting, I climb up to the passenger seat and we head off.

Islam sure isn’t the guy who appreciates silence. Despite the fact that we don’t speak each others’ language, he goes on and on in Russian and gestures wildly whilst at the same time maneuvering the truck sharply to the right and to the left to get around the pothole-infested Kazakh road – seriously the roads in Kazakhstan may just be the worst.

And as we make conversation I’m thinking it’s all a game. Who is the better pretender… who convinces the other part the best that one understands the other as he goes on in Russian and she goes on in English.

Kazakhstan’s roads niet harasho…dsc_0535dsc_0539When time comes for Islam and I to diverge paths, he doesn’t just drop me off at the roadside, no matter how I try to convince him that I’ll be good on my own. Nah, through a radio speaker he calls all the truck drivers passing to find one that is heading in my direction (I didn’t even know they could do that!)

It doesn’t take long until he has fixed me up with another truck driver, a Russian named Jura. Before the next drive however, we all – including Jura’s friend driving another truck – have lunch together at a little diner next to the road. It turns out both Jura and Islam order food for me separately, and I end up with way too much edible stuff on my part of the dining table…

14585576_1378322858863039_156383222_oJura to the left, his friend in the middle, and Islam to the right14610819_1378322722196386_1769602481_nThey had to lift the bike like four meters above ground to fit it in the truck…

The drive with Jura is quieter, and I get the impression he is embarrassed to speak with the few words of English he knows. He does however calls his sister to talk to me for a bit, since she – of all places – lives in Nora, a little town situated in the southern parts of Sweden! It feels odd. There I am, sitting next to a Russian truck driver who can’t speak a word I understand, talking with his sister who doesn’t only speak Swedish but got that typical dialect!

As I make myself ready to hop on my bike again to pedal those last km into Semey’s city centre Jura and his friend look at me with concern, as if they believe I’m not going to make it out there. Maybe they are thinking about the great cold getting nearer – they already shuddered when I told them I usually sleep outdoors in a tent – and I apprehend those last Russian words they speak as a “take care.”

dsc_0520I think this one wants to hitch a ride too!dsc_0487

I stay in a hotel over the night and since the train to Barnaul doesn’t depart until 2.30 pm the next day, I take a cab to the station in the morning to buy my ticket and then spend another few hours in my hotel room. As I then bike to the station to catch the train however, something’s not right. The station doesn’t look the same – maybe I’m just in another part of it – and I can’t seem to find the women whom I was supposed to hand my bicycle to. I spend some time walking around the station, but then give it up and simply show my ticket to a uniformed worker, hoping he can direct me. He just laughs when he sees my ticket – and that is my confirmation that something is indeed wrong. It takes him forever to explain by google translate – with two words at a time – that I am at the wrong station and that the train had already passed this one. Well fuck, how could I have missed out on the fact that there were more than one station in the city!?

And as a matter of fact – speaking with a little shame in my voice – I break down in tears right in front of him and a few other men. Do I cry because I missed the train? Well that’s the trigger I guess, but not the cause. The cause is simply a mixture of stress and exhaustion and self-loathing and who knows what. Stress and exhaustion because I have been rushing this whole trip from start to get to Mongolia before the wrong season. Who knows what because of who knows what.

Congratulations Elvira – you finally did it. You broke down in public!

So there I am, crying publically in Kazakhstan. Yay me. But it doesn’t even end there. A man asks me if I got 1000 Tenge and before I know it my bike is in his car’s trunk and I am sitting in the passenger seat and we’re rushing to the next station. But we don’t make it in time. Sobbing like a child once again, I hand him my money but he just shakes his head; he doesn’t want it anymore. So I walk away, head low, and sit next to the entrance of the station. An elder couple walk by and ask if they can help? The man even pulls out his wallet, and I quickly reply: “No no sir, keep your money I don’t need it! Spasiba!”

It takes a while until I’m stable and can see things clear again. After all it’s no more difficult than walking up to that same woman in the ticket’s booth and buy a new ticket for tomorrow’s train. And it might have been obvious to you already three paragraphs ago. But hey, to a girl who just left her teens nothing appears easy! 😉

dsc_0537dsc_0553dsc_0556Plenty of workers help me out to get myself and my stuff onboard the train the next day and I’m directed here and there with Russian words constantly buzzing into my ears. All the passengers are by no doubt Russians as many of them are blonder than I am, and I, the foreigner, seem to be the main attraction when I do all the don’ts and don’t do all the do’s. At last, I am seated next to two older men, one older woman and a younger guy. They leave at different stations in the end, but to me it seems they all know each other from before. The phenomenon of being the outsider I guess. I get most attached to the old lady. She keeps singing Russian songs and gives me sweets.

The young guy doesn’t say a word. But it’s he and I who are the targets when the Kazakh border guards enter the carriage with their dogs searching for narcotics. It takes forever and the guards keep calling back the dogs to us. The foreigner and the guy from Chechnya – couldn’t be more obvious why we are the suspects. They don’t look through the other passengers’ stuff – just ours, item by item. I think we stand still for about two hours. The Russian border guards take their time as well, but they don’t discriminate. Ok so of course they interrogate me more than the others… but not nearly as much as I had expected. I expected to be grilled, but they were easy on me.

“Why are you going to Barnaul?” Easy one.

“I will bike, velociped, from there to Mongolia sir.”

“Do you got any books?” The uniformed man continues and I make sure to keep eye contact as I reply:

“Yes sir.”

“What kind of books?”

“Novels, sir.”

“Show me.”

And I – with everybody’s eyes upon the foreigner – climb up to my seat above the bottom one and pick up one of my books to show him. He browses through it briefly and goes on:

“Do you write books about your trips? Articles?”

“No sir.”

“It’s just a hobby?”

I repeat his words.”Just a hobby sir.”

And it’s all done and he stamps my passport without even making a comment on the fact that I am a tourist entering Russia on a business visa. Phew.

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Those first days look more like a resemblance of Skåne than Siberia in my eyes. The space is occupied by winding farmlands with shoulders of birch trees defining their frontiers. I pitch my tent in one of those. As I make my way out of Mayma however, the sceneries get more delicate by each day.

What the… flowers, in October? Siberia, are you alright!?dsc_0571So atmospheric 🙂dsc_0575I am riding the Chuysky Trakt road, by some spoken of as “Siberia’s Great Divide” and built by Gulag prisoners in the 1930s. Gulag prisoners. People who were deprived their liberty by Josef Stalin, who caused the deaths of millions of people, and who coined the infamous quote: A single death is a tradegy, a million deaths is a statistic.

These thoughts – backed up by my vision registering a mountainous pine tree landscape very similar to Svaneti – bring me back to Georgia, where there were numerous streets named “Stalin’s street”; Where there were streets named after a genocide murderer who killed more people than Adolf Hitler.

Name a street after Josef Stalin and no one bats an eye.

Do the same with Adolf Hitler and everyone loses their minds.

Just gotta love the logic of this world.

dsc_0597dsc_0609dsc_0626dsc_0009As I embark further onto the composition of those Gulag prisoners, the deep woods decrease in density and the steppe takes overhand (still doesn’t mean it looks anything like Kazakhstan though).

I am following the river, which after summer’s hard work taking care of the glaciers’ melt water rapid and vigorous is now calm and still, preparing for its winter slumber. The sunbathing trees by the waterside shimmer like golden decorations on a crib and I let my eyes scan the nearby hillsides to detect any potential movement. To my disappointment, the movement detected is always caused by a cow or a gracing horse – never do I see a wolf, an eagle or a moose. And I’m guessing the bears went to sleep already anyway. I do however spot a huge deer when descending Seminsky pass, but what puzzles me is the orange paper tag in its left ear. Domestic or wild deer? I don’t know.

So does anyone know what kind of deer this is!?dsc_0667mmdsc_0669

I’m lovin it…dsc_0918mmdsc_0822dsc_0835dsc_0903dsc_0932dsc_0975aadsc_0944I pass through another village, looking no different from the one before. The timbered logs are positioned in a quite delightful pattern to the eye; Some of which bleached from age and weather and some with light brown, stainless wood letting you know they were built just last year. The loop-holes for windows are all black and none-see through, cutting you off from what’s going on in there.

A few people add some life to the streets though; A couple of school girls all geared up in winter clothes carrying rucksacks which I assume are stuffed with books, and a woman holding onto a toddler’s hand exiting a shop. There are also the dogs frenetically barking from inside the fences as I ride by.dsc_0912dsc_0041dsc_0976dsc_0011Please come with me to Mongolia dog, guard me and keep me warm!dsc_0819Ah well, I guess my big and fluffy down jacket will have to do it instead…14672645_1377979112230747_2038025240_oThe temperature is minus 5 degrees Celsius and a light snow fall introduces itself as I leave the village of Aktash at 8 am in the morning. This means, I disappointingly state to myself, I won’t get those remarkable views of the Altai mountains that I was hoping for. And I get this confirmed a few hours later as I face my first big mountainside in Siberia – veiled in clouds and barely visible. I try to comfort myself: At least you got wonderful sights of the woods in autumn colors before. But it just won’t do it. I want to see those mountains. I have to see those mountains.dsc_0014dsc_0017dsc_0050And I do see those mountains. As I reach the first plateau, vague rays of sun pierce the clouds. Hope starting to rise in my chest, I decide to take a break and await a clearer sky. I end up staying on that same spot for more than an hour, witnessing how the clouds slowly disperse and give way to the high peaks behind. Before I know it, I am jumping around in ecstasy under a clear blue sky with the biggest grin you could possibly imagine. And that grin stays glued onto my face for the whole rest of that day.

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That fact that I am here, I am now, right in this moment makes me feel happier and more fulfilled than anything. And I really can’t believe my eyes when each time I think that I’m leaving the greatest sight behind – there is a better one waiting around the corner!

As I get nearer Kosh Agach, the landscape transforms into what I imagine Mongolia looks like. Rather than timbered brown logs, the houses are a palette of blue, green and yellow. The steppe-looking plateau in the enchanting evening light plays with my perception, making me believe it’s somehow half liquid, floating around in space.

Panorama views of pointy snow capped mountains are surrounding me in each direction and I feel like a loyal dog who reunites with her human for the first time in years. Just like a dog licking its human all over, I’m making sure to have my eyes all over those mountains; Spinning my body around until I feel dizzy and bending my neck as close as I can get to 180 degrees so that it feels like I’ve just been headbanging all evening to Kreator.

Temperature falls below minus 10 degrees that night, but I fall asleep comfortably tucked in my sleeping bag thinking that this day will be forever manifested in my mind.

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I am loving every bit of my ride in Siberia, and it seems my only “problem” is that I have troubles getting anywhere due to the fact that I’m continuously stopping for another great view. It’s that magic of the autumn that’s gotten onto me I guess. Autumn. When everything’s on fire and the air’s so fresh you feel reborn, just like the phoenix rizing from ashes. But nevertheless am I aware that autumn is soon to give away the baton to the next runner.

The freezing night by those pine trees at Seminsky Pass told me.

The light snow fall powdering the mountains white in Aktash told me.

The hotel owner in Ayagoz told me.

They all told me.

Winter is coming

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The Pamirs: The Birth and Death of the Day

Sometimes, you run when you don’t actually need to. Other times, you don’t run when in fact you have to.

I am not sure whether I am standing there, as if completely paralyzed; because I don’t understand what is happening – or because I understand all too well.

I swear time is twisted around itself. It is all taking place in slow motion, and yet rushing faster than itself.

The first sign is a murmuring sound. First vague, crawling from a distance, and then louder – as if the barren valley transforms into a highway.

A cloud of dust from high above my head. The first bird fleeing. Then another one, and then a whole bunch of birds retreating from the rocks rumbling loose the mountainside.

“RUUN! RUUUNN!!”

And then Lars’ voice piercing the air from a distance, from that huge boulder behind which we had set camp to protect ourselves from the worst case scenario. And that’s when I do what I have to. That’s when I run.

~~~~~

Among all the countries I have been to so far Turkmenistan is definitely one of those that I have put on my “must go back to-list”. Unfortunately I am way behind in my blogging so I won’t give you much detail about neither my stay in this nation nor its neighbour Uzbekistan, but I’ll give you a short briefing with a few photos.

dsc_0338dsc_0364The women in Turkmenistan dressed a lot more colourfully than Iranian women. Most wore long, beautiful dresses but didn’t necessarily cover their arms. Some didn’t wear head scarves and the ones who did usually wore them differently from what I am used to: Like a turban tied in their forehead or like a bandana tied in their neck.

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dsc_0374The majority of Turkmen people are extremely poor and yet this is the country of grand buildings and statues. The former dictator went so far in his narcissism and hybris that he even made a golden statue of himself in Ashgabat that moves so that it synchronizes the earth’s orbit around the sun, so that the beams of light always touch the dictator’s face. Dear Mr. Dictator, there should be plenty of better things to do with that money?dsc_0394

dsc_0371My two little friends in Mary, carefully and curiously investigating every single component of my bike.dsc_0422dsc_0423dsc_041190 % of Turkmenistan is desert and I got the impression of it being a wild, yet quite unexploited country in the sense of nature. Despite the striking heat I was frequently tempted to take off from the main road and explore one of those dirt roads leading to who knows where. An adventure of such is definitely on my to do-list, if they would just be willing to grant me more than a five days visa next time…dsc_0418dsc_0488I found the Turkmen people to be as generous as the Iranian people, and what I liked even better was that their generousity and kindness never felt as forced as Iranians’; It was always genuine. You see when I was in Iran I felt like they felt obliged to be kind simply to prove all the prejudices wrong (and it’s a shame really that they have to do this at all, that we are discriminating this country so damn much) but it just made it all wrong. There were simply too many people making sure: You love Iran, yes? Iranians are all very nice to you, yes? The Turkmens were never interested in asking this. They were just so at ease, and I felt so relaxed around them.dsc_0484dsc_0485

dsc_0380mmBravo Elvira, you completely worn out your first tire...

Once crossing borders to Uzbekistan I spent some nights in Bukhara, a former Silk Road metropolis, to recover from the tough Desert Dash ride.

dsc_0521dsc_0540dsc_0584dsc_0640dsc_0641dsc_0647dsc_0665 I rode just a few hours together with a Swizz couple heading to South-East Asia, this part of Uzbekistan was in fact quite mountaneousdsc_0681I spent one night under the stars on a farmer family’s lands and it’s one of my most precious memories from this trip. They were all sleeping under the stars but the kids since their little cabin wasn’t big enough for all of them. They barely had anything but yet they were so kind and I had so much fun that evening. They could not offer me a shower or a pair of those slippers that everyone wears indoors around here. But we could push each other around in the dirt and make fun of each other and I loved it!

The girl in the photos below is 16 years old and strong as an oxe. When I hit my head in a tree branch, she simply broke it off with her bare hands and a shrug of her shoulders: “Problem solved.” I will never forget her name. Mahleyo.dsc_0683dsc_0684dsc_0687dsc_0694dsc_0696dsc_0697Don’t ever assume that you are alone in Uzbekistan. There are literally people everywhere and even the most social person will go maniac from trying to reply to all the “hello! hello! hello! hello!” greetings in the villages. This field worker’s family in the photo came running out from the bush to say hi as I paused to drink some water.

The border crossings into Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were both complicated and time-craving involving long interrogations that I had rehearsed in forehand and thorough investigations of my equipment. Crossing borders into Tajikistan felt like a bliss in comparison; they didn’t x-ray my panniers, didn’t ask me to open them to examine what was in them by hand; didn’t ask me to declare my money or show them my medicines. Nope, they were interested in nothing of that. Yet I ended up being held there for about half an hour. Reason being: They just had to know whether or not I would settle down in Tajikistan if I fell in love with a Tajik man. Well fellow solo females, I rather take another border crossing like this than nervously observing how a border guard goes through my panniers with that I am sure there’s narcotics in here-look. How about you?

The rumors about Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, turned out to be true. There were indeed a couple of real supermarkets there. (Trust me, if you have spent the past months in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran particularly (seriously I didn’t even find a real supermarket in Tehran!!) this is front-page news. In fact I still get euphoric each time I enter a big ass supermarket, letting my eyes smear upon all that wonderful edible stuff lined up on the shelves).

I met up with Lars in the city (whom I rode with in Georgia) and together we planned on taking on the supposedly toughest road one can take across the Pamirs; the Bartang Valley.

The first time I came across it back home I was in the office supposed to do work. Instead I ended up flickering my eyes upon the computer screen trying to find as much information as possible about this remote stretch of the Pamirs, spellbound by the photos a few bloggers had published. That was the most interesting thing though. There was not much information available about the Bartang Valley on the web. Not many people seemed to have done it.

Ever since it was on my highlight-list of my upcoming Eurasia-trip. I had to do it. If Lars would be on it? Dude. He is the Lost Cyclist!

We had to ride about 450 km on the Pamir Highway before taking off to our valley however, and we couldn’t help feeling a little impatient and restless as we did.

First off before we arrived into the actual Pamirs was a mountain pass of about 3200 m and we set camp just below the top as we couldn’t have enough of the views from there. It looked splendid really; The evening sun making the whole landscape appear like a painting created by an artist with a passion for contrasts; Patches of shadow and patches of highlight alternating one another.
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dsc_0732mmOnce we descended the mountain pass the next day, we reached a river. And not just any river. The river that parts Tajikistan from Afghanistan. It felt surreal, getting glimpses of Afghan people’s lives and greeting them with waves and cries as they were doing farm work or passed on a motor bike. And it felt unfair. That just because we were tourists on one side of the river, we were safe – well relatively. And just because they were villagers on the other side of the river, they had to live under constant fear of the taliban.

Riding on Tajik ground, Afghanistan to the right
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Lars and I often told each other the road looked more adventurous on the Afghan side of the river…
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Glimpses of Afghanistan: A girl collecting water by the river
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Boys playing with each other
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Farmers – I guess we did it the same way a hundred or two hundred years ago?
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We camped right next to that river once, and it is by far one of my all time favourite camp sites!

A bunch of photos from before Bartang Valley
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No wonder he was faster than me in the uphills! This just gotta be cheating!?dsc_0719
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dsc_0811The main highway in the Pamirs is quite populated with touring cyclists, and each time we told one we were going to do the Bartang Valley it seemed none didn’t actually believe we were going to make it. No, we were probably going to give up about halfway-through and have to turn around to M41 again.

“But I heard it’s the toughest road through the Pamirs!”

“There will be floods up to your waist!”

“At some stretches you will have to detach your panniers from your bikes and carry each across separately!”

Maybe we were meant to be discouraged by these comments, but they did nothing but getting us even more excited!
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img_7470The day we were to leave Rushan and take off the main road however, excited was the least thing I was. You see, my stomach sickness couldn’t have arrived with better timing than it did. One does not simply ride across Tajikistan without getting a sick stomach. And I don’t remember ever being so sick in my life before. It was pure fucking misery. But at least I was not puking anymore the day we left, and we both agreed that we had had enough of that incredibly claustrophobic and bacteria-infested guesthouse, so off we went.

“Are you going to the hospital?” The son in the guesthouse asked as we loaded our bikes.

“No, we are going to Bartang Valley!” Lars had cheerfully replied, the son looking at us as if we were crazy tourists not knowing what we were getting ourselves into. So not only was Bartang Valley infamous amongst our fellow cyclists, but also amongst the locals. Too weak to talk and nearly too weak to even stand up – my posture was like a sack of meal nearly tipping over – I just nodded, yes, Bartang Valley. Awesome.
dsc_1027The first 20 km or so as we had left the M41 was paved road, and that was all we did that first day.  An impressive distance of 20 km – that’s how much I had the strength to do haha!

On our second day, we ran into a couple of French guys walking down the road. It turned out they were cyclists too.

“But this is all we have left” one of them said and held up a pannier. They gave us no sequel or even hint of what had actually happened to their bikes. And we never asked for it either, which we regretted later. Those French guys were the only foreigners we ever saw during our nine days in Bartang Valley. We knew however that a bunch of Ukrainian cyclists had entered it just before us, so we were probably going after them the whole time.

the French guys hiking back to Rushan, they had apparently been walking for three days…
dsc_0849The first half of the valley is however populated with villages, and Lars raised the question: “How come people went this far up the valley and settled down in the first place?” What brought them here, to such a vast place? Suppression from their own? If anybody knows, please let us find out.

Seeing to how closely the road went by the river, it’s only logical it disappears into the water sometimes I guess…
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We had to make one pretty hard river crossing… the current was really strong and I thought I’d lose both myself and the bike to it at first!
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The people in Bartang Valley are poor and live off their own lands, but obviously educated. Seemingly more educated than those in the villages along the main road, in my opinion. Many spoke nearly perfect English, and I talked more to one woman specifically as we were given carrots from her garden. She wished to travel too but she didn’t have the money.

“But Tajikistan is beautiful!” I guess I wanted to cheer her up by these words, making her aware that most people would love to travel to the place where she had spent her whole life. But that was the matter. That she had spent her whole life there.

“It is beautiful to you”, she said, “but this is what I see every day. I am used to it. I want to see something else.” She was right, of course. It is inevitable not to get blind to your every day surroundings. And it is not until now for instance – when I have been on the road for months – I have realized what a beautiful capital Stockholm is, the city I spent my whole life in.

The views from going up and down a little pass in Bartang
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dsc_1006Don’t expect to find much stuff in the shops in these villages. As I said, they live off their own lands so it’s not necessary for the shops to sell much. You might find some biscuits, noodles, and lollipops. As for me it didn’t really matter at the time. I had no appetite anyway, and we had stocked up with food for ten days in Rushan.

Bridges like these brought up the discussion whether we should try them simply to see if they hold or not…
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In most villages in the valley women didn’t veil themselves or wear headscarves, but in one women dressed very differently from the others. They veiled their hair and faces but not in a hijab or burqa. Instead they had simply used pieces of clothing wrapped around their heads, leaving a narrow spring for their eyes to look through. I have seen similar clothing on both men and women in the desert to protect themselves in case of a sand storm, but in this village it seemed to be a cultural dressing code rather than a practicality, and no man did it.

We asked some of these women where we could find a “magazin” (as it’s called in Russian, though I’m not sure of the spelling) and they showed us to an old booth with mouldering wooden planks and pitch black, soiled windows. In a few minutes, some teen boys unlocked the booth for us.

It was dark in there, and a huge Marco Polo sheep scull was lying on the layers of dust covered floor! Parts of the rotting meat and blood-drained fur was still smudged onto its scull, and Lars and I later discussed whether the sheep had been illegally shot or not. Most likely, we agreed, it had indeed been illegally shot. We bought a few eggs and lollipops from the teen boys and then we moved on to find camp.

Another scull of the Marco Polo sheep, laying at the border to Kyrgyzstan
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These people below lived in a cabin in the middle of nowhere after we had left Kudara and they invited us in for tea
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We met a shepherd on the road once, who had lost several of his sheep. “Tiger” he had told Lars, which should be translated into “snow leopard”. It was indeed true that we were in a snow leopard habitat. Unfortunately, chances of spotting this extremely endangered species, are pretty much equal to zero.

Still though, just the thought of a snow leopard wandering around maybe within a 100 km radius from you makes your heart pound a little extra. By no doubt it is one of this planet’s most mythical carnivores. In fact I believe its act of hunt in the wild has only been documented by a film camera once in history. Sadly but not too surprisingly, we never saw any snow leopards. Neither did we ever see the Marco Polo sheep alive.
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On our last night before Kudara I believe, we had alarmingly steep mountain sides surrounding us in each direction with large boulders that had once fallen from the mountain scattered around everywhere, making me think of the trolls that turned into stone when trying to eat Bilbo Baggins. To make sure we’d be safe for the night, we camped behind one of these. The night was all calm but as I went to do my business in the morning however, it started.

A landslide. And I didn’t react immediately. I didn’t run when I should have. Not until I heard Lars shouting: RUUN! RUUUN!

That’s when I ran. I ran towards the cryout words going on repeat: Ruun! RUUN! I ran as if my life were on it. Because it was.

I remember continously glancing back over my shoulder as I ran. How the land slide escalated in size each time I did. How the noise from boulders thumping to the ground got louder each time. How the whole mountain seemed to decay above me. And I kept telling myself: faster faster faster

And then I was finally safe behind that huge boulder at our camp, cathing my breath like crazy and with legs aching from lactic acid.

Lars said it had looked as if taken from an Indiana Jones movie, although instead of a hat I had been holding a roll of toilet paper. “So your trademark would be a roll of toilet paper instead of a hat!” Gah fine, I’ll do it. I’ll be the toilet paper girl.

The aftermath. Believe me it was huge, I never thought I would ever witness such a thing!
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We were a little nervous riding here after what had just happened…
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This photo is taken just upright the mountain side
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The real wilderness began after we exited the last village post; Kudara. From then on, there would be no more village until Karakol, 150 km northeast. That was also when the steeper climb began up to the plateau. Before, we had been slowly ascending through a narrow canyon. Now, we were finally to enter the open surfaces of the steppe-looking plateau lined with majestical mountain peaks reaching for the sky, some of them as high as 7000 m. Unfortunately, the sky was covered in clouds on one of these days when we were supposed to get our best views. Even though this meant lesser sceneries however, it added some mystique to it.
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No doubt the plateau was our favourite part of the Bartang Valley. The sights were more epical, and the sense of being in the wild was greater. Unlike the rocky, bumpy road in the canyon this one was made of sand – unfortunately it also meant it was a washboard (corrugations). Luckily, it was okay riding next to the road as the ground was packed and solid.
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My hunger gradually came back and here I could appreciate a Snickers pause...
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So Lars was convinced this was a seal at first. Then he was sure that “ok then, it’s just a rock”. But it was neither – it was a marmot and we saw plenty more of them on the plateau!
dsc_0114nnI I really liked the looks of this other one!dsc_0274
Though the Bartang Valley never was as tough and challenging as people had told us, we were pretty relieved when we after nine days reunited with asphalt again back on M41. I guess that’s the charm about a valley as such anyway. The rumors go around… and nobody really knows for sure what happened and what did not happen to those who went there.

From this…
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To back on asphalt!
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Ahhhhh Marmot attack!! FOR NARNIAAAA (Yep, that’s right. I mean comon he’s a freaking marmot – obviously a Narnian and not a Spartan, right?)
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Lake Karakul must be one of the most beautiful and breath-taking places on earth. My eyes just couldn’t get enough of it! Sadly, the pictures don’t really make it justice.
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Outside a shop in Karakol we ran into our first other touring cyclist since we left Rushan. He was from Holland and we shared camp with him for a night. The most interesting thing about him was that he suffered from narcolepsy. For those of you who don’t know this disease decreases the ability to regulate the sleep cycle and one can for instance unwillingly fall asleep in the middle of activities and those infected can – among other things – officially not drive cars. Unlike less fortunate however, this guy had learnt to feel his urge to sleep coming and hence stop what he was doing in time for it. When we rode together, he would therefore have to stop every now and then to let himself sleep for a few minutes next to the roadside.

With the cyclist from Holland
img_7497As you may tell from the pictures the Pamirs are generally an extremely dry, desert-looking mountain range and it felt unreal to cross the mountain pass that make out the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It wasn’t a gradual change. Nah, it was like an explosion – in a blink all those brownish rocky mountains transformed into a lush, prospering green. And the valleys became occupied with the nomad people’s yurts from which puffs of smoke were rising.

The landscape just before the borders to Kyrgyzstan
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In Kyrgyzstan
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The main reason for traffic congestions
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Spot the cyclist! (Below)
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Reunion at the Kyrgyz border! Funny as it is, Lars and I had both met these Austrians motor bikers before – but not at the same time. I met them at a hostel in Cappadocia back in Turkey, and Lars met them in Osh a couple of months later…
img_7505Kyrgyzstan was the easiest border crossing I have made since Bulgaria! Just a stamp and then we were in. To save ourselves some time we followed the main road for our whole duration in the country so there’s a lot to explore still – but no worries, Kyrgyzstan is visa free!

And in my next post I will explain why saving time was so important…
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The dark has fallen and the air is just perfect; Not too hot, not too cold; not too dry, not too humid. We have set camp on a beach next to the river, which means that the lands of Afghanistan are just about 50 m away. In fact, the steep, craggy-looking mountainside in Afghanistan is piling up so high and close to us that it kind of clutches onto our faces.

And it is all still. The only sounds are those splashing ones occasionally coming from the river, and the rhythmic performance of the crickets. Not to mention the sparkling from the open fire we have made. I look into the mysteriously dancing flames upon the carbonized wooden chips and inhale the scent of smoke as I let my thoughts wander away to places where I can merely see them.

There are no mosquitos bugging us. We are sitting in the sand – that kind of sand that’s perfectly smooth and cool when it softly touches your skin –  and we are eating a water melon that we have split in half. I let my half rest on my lap as I cut a square pattern in it just the way I was taught by a water melon seller earlier on, with the Swiss army knife that I got from my sister before I left. The sensation of the finegrained sand lightly embedding my feet and the fresh-tasting water melon in my mouth give me goosebumps and I feel so at peace.

Every now and then a mysterious light flashes from the Afghan side of the river high up on the mountainside, and we are wondering what it is. Field workers going home carrying a torchlight to see their way in the dark? Is our guess.

Above us, there is the endless black cradling millions of stars millions of light years away, and the fuzzy white powder of the milky way is the cradle’s blanket. A star falls. The biggest one I have ever seen and for a moment I believe it will crash into the earth crust as its tail stretches across the whole sky, intensely glowing white.

And I ask myself:

Is this life?

I can’t believe this is life

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Psst! For those of you who don’t mind reading in Swedish Lars has written his version of our ride together here

Iran – Those who flee the sun

They devour on camel stomachs whilst the camels are still alive, sleeping. They actively attack humans and run in 50 km/h. Soldiers in the Middle East fear them, and you should too.

 “It’s very, very dangerous!” The man spoke as he saw it. “That’s why you should not camp in silent areas. Keep yourself to busy places, with people!”

DSC_0282DSC_0099The border crossing into Iran wasn’t too difficult, although for sure more comprehensive than those before. Once I had left the Armenian border guards, the first thing The Iranian guards asked as I entered was:

“Do you have any alcohol?” The answer was a simple and honest no. Drinking alcohol in Iran as you may know, is forbidden and may lead to prison. At the next station I had to respond to various questions which were filled into a form on the computer by another official, such as: “What’s your job? Destinations in Iran?” and “Are you married?” I was not sure what the correct answer to this last question would be, and I mumbled reluctantly as I replied “No.”

“Are you married?” The official repeated in a stricter tone as the word had barely even left my lips. I hesitated a little more, and then I raised my voice louder this time.

“NO.” He nodded and continued to fill in the form: “Father’s name? Birth place?” and so on. Once the form was completed, I had to detach all my panniers from the bicycle to be x-rayed. And then… I was in.

Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Iran the sign read.

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DSC_0896mmI found the nature sceneries in Iran to be most beautiful in the border areas of Armenia and Turkmenistan

First thing I did was to exchange 50 USD to Iranian Real at one of the money exchange booths and then I was off; Constantly adjusting my scarf in the wind and nervously tiptoeing around as if I were walking on glass, scared to break any rules and be reported to officials.

DSC_0900mmDSC_0912mmThe first few days I really was being careful. Since it was Ramadan, I didn’t eat openly at the road but always hid behind hills – which sometimes meant a whole day would pass until I actually found a convenient place to hide, or simply wouldn’t eat until I set camp.

DSC_0915mmDSC_0936mmAs the days passed however, I got more relaxed and didn’t focus so much on the rules anymore since I learnt the authorities were less strict on foreigners. Just like most Iranian girls I let my scarf show a lot of hair (a police commented on this once but that’s all), I ate openly at the roadside (although still never in the cities) and I felt more at ease in general.

On my second day in Iran, when heading into the city of Marand to buy food before setting camp, I was pulled over by a bus. Out of the bus stepped a man and without a word he handed me his phone.

“Hello?” I spoke into the phone, being all used to be given someone’s phone by now.

“Hello my name is…” I didn’t hear. “I want to meet you!” It was a girl speaking, but that’s pretty much all she said before I was supposed to hand the phone back to her father again. The man just pointed into the city center. I had no idea exactly where I would find this girl, but I trusted that if she really wanted to see me she would find me. The city wasn’t crowded by girls on bicycles after all so it shouldn’t be so hard to pick the right one…

And I was right. Just about one km from there, a girl rushed forth and stopped me. She seemed to be around my own age, and immediately shook my hand with great excitement.

“My name is Nastrine. I am so happy to see you! I love foreigners and I love to practice English!!”

Already in the city of Jolfa which I passed the first day, a lot of people – especially women – had greeted me with a cheerful: “Welcome to Iran!” And that’s one thing I really liked about Iran. I had never had so many women speaking to me before – in Europe it pretty much never happened.

DSC_0986Many people would give me melons which was awesome but… you have no idea how heavy they are!

I spoke with Nastrine for a while until I judged it was really time for me to get going and look for camp, and she had to attend her university class as well.

The traffic in Marand – which still isn’t big compared to cities like Tabriz, Mashhad, and Tehran – shocked me and I felt quite startled when maneuvering my way through it, constantly dodging another car nearly hitting me. And I didn’t get far.

I was just about to exit the city riding up a hill, when I was once again pulled over by a car. Nastrine ran out of it, with her mother by her side.

“I want to talk more to you, so I skipped my class!” She gasped between her breaths, “When I told my mother about you she asked why I didn’t invite you over for dinner!? Please stay with us tonight!”

My initial plan had been to ride further that day, but how could I say no to my first invitation in Iran?

Before I was guided back to Nastrine’s house however, Akbar found me!

DSC_0924Akbar is a legend among cyclists, and has hosted hundreds of us throughout the year. He knows many truck drivers in Marand which means that whenever one sees a cyclist, they call Akbar. He is well-known to appear out of nowhere, and in my case that was true as well.

All of a sudden, he was standing behind me and I jumped a little as he greeted me:

“Hello I am Akbar from Warmshowers, do you know me?”

And after a little chat with Akbar I took off to Nastrine’s house.

I had a great time with Nastrine’s family that evening and was served lots of delicious food and water melon. None of her relatives could speak English so she had to speak for all of them, back and forth.

DSC_0920Nastrine is the girl to the furthest left in the picture. She had no siblings, the other kids are her cousins. The adults made me guess the age of all of them… I hate that game but I managed surprisingly well!

“When I told my parents I wanted to study English at the university they didn’t understand at all, of what use would that be?” Nastrine said, “But I love it. I think English is the language of the world. I want to speak with people, I want to learn about other countries and cultures!”

DSC_0922Bonus: A big-haired, red-faced me in the photo. It’s not uncommon that the people you stay with will ask you to take off your scarf in their house to be comfortable. Before the relatives left they all learnt the one English phrase “nice to meet you” and lined up to shake my hand 😀

Nastrine really was eager to learn. Whenever I spoke a word she didn’t understand she immediately looked it up in a dictionary on her phone. When I asked Nastrine where she would like to travel she said with big, glittering eyes: “Every counry! Any country! All of the countries!” Later on that evening, when her aunts and uncles had gone home and her parents had gone to sleep and we were left alone in the living room she told me one more thing. She was holding back tears in her eyes as she said:

“You are lucky because you can travel. My parents won’t even let me go to the park with friends. I cannot go anywhere without them.”

Nastrine was a couple of years older than me and she wanted to see the world. But she wasn’t even allowed to spend time with friends outside of the house. The only way for her to be put off her parents’ leash is to marry. It saddened me so much to hear this, and I told her I wished I could kidnap her to show her Europe.

DSC_0942Mosque in Tabriz, probably the Iranian city I Iiked most. Neyshabur was really nice too though

Already in my next city, Tabriz, I befriended another girl my age. Her name was Neda and she was the only girl I met in Iran riding a bicycle (not counting those who would only bike in the park in Tehran and not on the streets). She and her fiance took me to a big mall to help me with my errands and afterwards I was invited to have lunch with Neda and her family. They were all very curious about Sweden and asked me many questions regarding politics, economics, the job situation for young people, and so on.

DSC_0937Neda and her father, a respected leather shoe-maker

DSC_0938“In Iran everybody is a doctor or engineer”, Neda’s big brother said, “but only a few have jobs!” Both Neda and her brother were civil engineers, and it is indeed true that most people in Iran are highly educated, both men and women.

After Tabriz I did a few nights of wild camping. On my fourth night however, I got a little too brave. There was no good place to hide what so ever, and when asking a few farmers for permission to camp on their land I got turned down. It was all dark by the time I judged it decent enough to pitch the tent next to the ruins of a house behind which I thought I’d be hidden from the road.

DSC_0033When picking the best spot for my tent, I suddenly detected movement on the ground. At first, I thought it was a scorpion running next to my feet. But it in fact appeared to be a huge spider. Even though it did make my spine crawl a little, I just had to run get my camera and take a few close up photos of it… As I then turned my head I realized I had another huge spider just a few inches away from my face, on the wall behind me. When pitching my tent, a third one came running at my stuff and I chased it away by stamping my feet hard to the ground; Thinking it got to look so damn funny with this big monster chasing a being a hundred times smaller than her. On one hand, I found these spiders beautiful, and on the other one, I really didn’t want them to get inside my tent, haha.

DSC_0046 The camel spiders’ nest

By the time my tent was pitched at 11 pm I still hadn’t had a single meal that day  – and yet I had ridden nearly 160 km. I was just about to organize my cooking stuff, when two men on motor bikes found my tent. I quickly unlit my head torch as I heard their voices and pretended that I was asleep, but the men just wouldn’t give up on it. They kept shouting outside my tent and circling around it with the motor bikes to lure me out. I gave in.

“What do you want?” I asked, “I need to sleep.”

“Too dangerous for you here”, they said, “you can’t stay.”

“Please sir”, I responded, “I am so tired… I need to sleep… please let me sleep.” They kept on insisting it was too dangerous for me, and I kept on pleading the opposite. At last, they left. At least that’s what I thought. But an hour later or so, one of the men came back. Through an English speaking guy in the phone, he told me I couldn’t stay there and that I had to come to his house instead. I still hadn’t had any dinner, but I realized that I better did as I was told.

DSC_0043Drinking tea at the porch at night. Note the grapes hanging from the ceiling!

By 1 am, I was finally at his house and he left me in the hands of his wife. Since it was Ramadan, the family stayed up late snacking on biscuits and tea and I joined them for a bit until I was finally excused to go to bed, all exhausted. Oh and not to mention that I had had to walk across the whole house and garden all naked wrapped in my towel since I had forgotten my clothes in the panniers (the dirty ones were taken to the washing machine already).. And the women in that house were all wearing chadors (like a burqa but showing their faces), oops!

DSC_0236It stormed a lot each night in Iran so I was desperate to seek shelter from the wind… never worked out so well haha

The next morning, I showed my photos of the spiders to some locals and they got terrified. “It’s a very dangerous spider! You cannot sleep in the wild. You must sleep in busy places with humans.” I found this logic plain stupid and I still do. But arguing against it was pointless so I shut my mouth. As I read more into this spider however, I found it was not actually a spider.

DSC_0040They are arachnids, and their Latin name is solifugae, which means those who flee from the sun. It appears they have ten legs, but in fact they only got eight since the two other ones are just sensory organs. Their main territory is the Middle Eastern deserts and the myths about them have been spread around by soldiers throughout history; They eat on humans in their sleep, grow as large as half the size of us and jump two vertical meters.

But this is not quite true. In fact they are not dangerous to humans what so ever (ok so maybe if you choke on one in your sleep I guess…), and their bite is not venomous. They feed on small lizards, birds and rodents – but certainly not on camels and humans. And they do not attack humans… although since they do seek shadow and flee the sun, it is likely that they will run after you to get to be in your shadow. What can I say, the more I read into these creatures the more fascinated I get… Anyhow let’s move on.

DSC_0984This donkey was so very curious on me and my tent one morning

Next I was heading to Tehran, the capital, to pick up my Turkmen visa and once on the road I was all of a sudden pulled over by a car. The guy stepping out of the car definitely looked Scandinavian, and I got this confirmed as he asked:

“Pratar du svenska?” (Do you speak Swedish?)

It turned out he was a cyclist too and that the Iranian man driving the car had told him and his girlfriend that “Your friend is in great danger! Really exhausted and dying, you must come help her!” and hence the guy had come with the Iranian man in the car. Well first of all, we had never seen each other before, and secondly, I wasn’t dying at all. It took us a few minutes to convince the Iranian man that I was fine however, and that I was good to go on my own. I ran into Robin and his girlfriend Ida once more when riding into the city of Qazvin in which they took a few days off, their final destination being Australia.

DSC_0249Thank you, I feel most weel com to Davarzan! 😀

“You simply don’t bike into Tehran. You take a bus, or taxi. That’s what our son did.” This is what the couple in Växjö whose son had biked to Iran had told me back in Sweden. Despite the warnings about the mad traffic, I decided to give it a shot still, telling myself that: “If it seems too bad I’ll just hop on a bus.” In other words, if I get hit by a car I guess I’ll just take an ambulance into the city centre.

I’m not sure what I disliked more about Tehran. The traffic chaos or the polluted air. I have never in my life breathed so bad air before, and that combined with the heat smudging onto my face like a heavy, smelly mask combined with constantly dodging another car nearly hitting me just made this day one of the worst.

DSC_0053Honestly the only photo I took of Tehran

In the city, I did not only pick up my Turkmen visa which I had already applied for and gotten approved by the embassy in Ankara, but also met up with two other cyclists. Michael from Australia and Jaimi from England, both riding the Pamir highway right now. Together we went to the one spot in Tehran in which the air is actually breathable: The city park. In here, you will forget all about the chaos in the city and enjoy fresh air and shadow under the tree canopies. Also, you might see a few girls riding their bicycles – you are not very likely to see this elsewhere. Whilst we enjoyed bread and fruit for lunch, an Iranian man curiously approached us and asked us where we were from. We decided to be from Iceland. After having answered a hand full of questions about Iceland (we had to play our cards well because this guy knew a lot about all countries in the world) it was our turn to ask questions about Iran. Now with this guy, we didn’t need to worry. We could ask just about anything we wanted. And we did.

DSC_0025DSC_0047“So what’s up with you and Israel and USA?”

“Most Iranian people don’t mind Israelis and Americans. But our government does to claim support to Palestina, since the government thinks we should support our brothers, muslims.”

“But you are Shia muslims and they are Sunni muslims. How is your relation with Sunni muslims? Why is there a conflict between you in the first place?”

“Yes, they are Sunni muslims,which is still better – according to my government – than people with different beliefs, such as Jews.” To us, this hardly made any sense since he also told us about the bad relationship between Iran and for instance, Saudi Arabia, due to the fact that Saudi Arabia are Sunni and not Shia. “The government supports the minority of Shia muslims in Saudi Arabia, and hence opposes the Sunni government. My government also supports Assad, president of Syria, since he is a Shia muslim – though most of the people in Syria are Sunni muslims. These two branches of Islam were caused by a conflict after prophet Mohammad’s death – who should be the new leader after him.”

Moving on to the next question.

“What happens if a woman takes off her hijab?”

“If she keeps doing it despite the officials’ warnings, she risks jail.”

“What about sports? Can women do sports and swim publically?”

“Volley Ball is really popular amongst women – in fact the Iranian team are world champions! They are also excellent at shooting. But football for instance, is not very acceptable. And no, they cannot swim publically unless they wear special swimming suits covering their whole bodies (we saw these in a shop earlier – they look like wet suits).”

“What happens if you get caught drinking alcohol or doing drugs?”

“Alcohol leads to jail. If you are caught with 20 g of drugs or more, you will be executed by hanging.”

“But people still drink and do drugs?”

“Yes, but never on the street. We brew our own alcohol and drink it in our homes or at underground parties. As for drugs however, it’s mainly common among those in the poor parts of Tehran.”

13608243_10154220243305539_313460650_nNot the most clever idea to bring our bicycles through the crowded bazaar

I found the capital to be more liberal than other cities in Iran. For instance, I was surprised to see so many people eat openly on the street even though it was still Ramadan. In addition, just like in Tabriz most women would cheat as much as possible with the dress code; Wearing their scarves so that only the hair in the neck was covered and dressing in tight tunics showing off curves. As I went east of Tehran however, it was not as commonly seen and women would not show much hair.

Also my troubles with men got worse. Before Tehran, it only happened a few times. After Tehran, it became a daily issue. Once a bunch of guys wanted selfies with me (just like any Iranian, expect to feel like a Hollywood-star if going to Iran on a bicycle) and then they blocked my path when I wanted to leave and grabbed my boobs and ass. They gave me no chance for revenge as they ran into their car next like cowardly rabbits. Another time a man gave me cherries and then out of nowhere, his hand was on my tit. I slapped his face and spit in it. And men like these kept harassing me. But the more it kept going, the better I got at detecting these bad ones; The better I got at dodging their hands, at running away before they even got the chance to stretch their hands out for me.

But one was one level worse than the others.

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DSC_0989On the whole Iranians are the most generous people you will ever meet. If you go biking here, expect to receive free food, drinks and invitations to people’s homes every day.

So one of those things I’ve learnt from this trip is that – especially if travelling alone – it’s crucial to make a first impression of someone. Of course, still keep your mind open to let that person prove you wrong – but goddamn it, prejudices or not, make a first impression of whoever you meet.

I hated this man from first sight. He hadn’t spoken a word to me, but from the moment I spotted him looking at me I hated him still.

For 15 km, he kept following me on his motor bike and the whole thing reminded me way too much of the man back in Turkey. The alarm bells in my stomach rang: Dangerous! Dangerous! Get away from him! As he was a few hundred meters ahead of me, I decided to take a break next to the road side, hoping he would continue still.

He didn’t.

DSC_0069All of a sudden he appeared next to me, asking for water. What. The.. Fuck? Dude, you’re on a motorbike and got half an hour’s ride to the next town with water – whilst I, a cyclist, got a whole day’s ride to the next town with water and you’re still begging me for it!? In the end, I gave him a bottle hoping I would get rid of him. And that might just be the biggest regret of this trip so far. As soon as the water touched his lips he spit it out. Ungrateful bitch.

“Yeah what did you expect!? Of course the water is hot, it’s fucking hot outside man!” And that’s probably when I started to provoke him.

He tried to grab my body, and I jumped aside. It kept going for a while, until I finally managed to make him leave with words I probably shouldn’t have said.

DSC_0090After a few minutes, he was back again. I was just going to push my bike up the hill to the road again, but he blocked my path.

“Out of my way”, I demanded between gritted teeth, “Out. Of. My. Way!”

That’s when he pulled a knife against me.

I acted by reflex, and did just the same as I do when dogs attack me; Shielding myself with my bike to make a distance between us as he approached me with the knife. He then tried to stab my wheel instead and I dodged. There was no doubt he was a strong man, but way too clumsy in his movements and I dodged each time as I jumped from one side to the other, dangerously dancing next to the roadside. He however managed to get hold of my solar cell charger that had been strapped onto the dry bag.

It was clear that his intention wasn’t to steal from me – he simply wanted me to follow him down the hill, where we weren’t going to be visible from the road. But I wasn’t that stupid. Since he had given me a few meters of space by now, I took my chance to drop the bike to the ground and run to the opposite.

DSC_0067And then I was standing in the middle of the road where cars go in 110 km/h and trucks in 100. I was waving frenetically with my arms in the air like a castaway on an island, but the trucks just honked furiously at me and passed. Well fuck.

I was desperate to stop someone, and I gave the next car only two options. To run over me, or to stop for me. At last, it slowed down and stopped.

I was relieved to see a woman and her baby in the passenger seat, but by the time they stepped out of the car my attacker had of course already slipped down the knife into his pocket again. The couple didn’t speak English, and began talking to the man instead. I have no idea what they told each other, but I can imagine the man said: “There is no problem at all. It’s all a mistake, this girl got upset for nothing”, and it angered me even more. At least, the man gave me my solar cell charger back and I was on my bike again. The man passed me on his motorbike waving me goodbye with a grin and I gave him my middle finger even though of course, that’s just what he wanted: To provoke me. Luckily, I never saw him again. It simply ended as quickly as it had started.

DSC_0260DSC_0263DSC_0265Mashhad is regarded as Iran’s “capital of religion” – thousands of people come here to see the holy shrine of emam Reza which is supposed to bring luck and success. As a woman you will have to wear the chador if visiting it, I regret not to.

The next day, I was once again surrounded by a bunch of guys on motor bikes.

“Sex with Irani? Sex with Irani?” They said as they stretched their hands out.

“Sex with Swede? 1000 USD please.” I replied but those dumbasses didn’t get it. They vanished quite quickly however, and in the next moment I was pulled over by another police car. Damn, what now?

DSC_0102DSC_0104“I am a police officer. There has been a report that you were troubled by men”, the police man explained and continued, “you cannot bike further. It’s dangerous for you. You’ll have to come with us in the car.”

“I want to bike sir”, was my single reply. In fact it wasn’t quite the truth. I was tired by the time. Tired of battling extreme headwind day after day making me go 8 km/h on the flats, tired of keeping my guards up and constantly watching my back. But it wasn’t only my childish principles to bike every inch of this trip that kept me insisting to ride, it was also that one thing that the police officer said.

“You cannot bike”, he repeated, “It is not normal for women to bike in this country. You have to come with us.”

“That’s why I have to bike, sir. If I and more women bike we can make it normal.”

DSC_0139DSC_0153“I will bike today, sir.” I repeated and at last they let me go. Still though, I didn’t quite get the logic. Oh, so women get harassed in Iran if riding bicycles? That means we gotta stop women from biking!! Errr, hold on. Doesn’t that mean we should support women riding bicycles even further and go after those who harass them? And I wonder: Did the police men try at all to find those guys who harassed me? Or did they go straight after the girl who did nothing wrong to tell her she can’t ride her bicycle? I MEAN DID IT EVER OCCUR TO YOU THAT MAYBE YOU NEED TO CHANGE YOUR FUCKING SYSTEM. Damn I got frustrated by this strange mentality.

And it obviously wasn’t the first time I got frustrated by the police. Once they caught me riding in the dark, and stopped me immediately:

“Forbidden to drive in the dark.” So why are you not stopping the cars? I resisted the urge to speak it out loud. I told them I was going to camp but you see wild camping doesn’t quite exist in Iran. If you tell a person you’re going to camp, they will immediately assume you’re going to one of those crowded parks in the city center pitching your tent on tarmac. I tried this once and it definitely wasn’t for me – I had families keeping me awake until 2 am with shouts and laughter and the kids of other families waking me up at 4 am running around my tent. And the police was no different.

“Camping in the city, 25 km away.”

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DSC_0062To most Iranians this seems to be the only reasonable way to do camping. Well at least I had a cute visitor in my tent when I tried it…

At last I managed to convince the police that it was indeed safe for me to camp on the ground of a resting place (there are various “resting places” next to the roads in Iran, varying widely in quality). At least that’s what I thought.

DSC_0017Beautiful views – camping in a gravel pit once after getting my fourth flat of the day and just telling myself: “That’s it. I’m setting camp, right here on spot.”

I was finally preparing dinner at 11 pm, when I heard voices outside and spotted the blue light from a police car… Sigh, what now? I walked straight out to the police men and began questioning them.

DSC_0248A typical resting place next to the roadside. If you’re lucky you can obtain water and food here. If you’re less lucky there is nothing but an empty building

“What are you doing? Why don’t you leave me alone? I am perfectly safe here!” And they kept going on how dangerous it was with all the snakes and spiders and that they had changed their minds, I couldn’t sleep there after all. I was on the urge of exploding.

“You are wrong. It is not dangerous and if you excuse me… sir, I will go to bed now. Good night!” And I turned my back to the police men and went back to my tent. They kept calling on me and I didn’t respond, pretending to sleep. At last when it had been silent for more than an hour, I finally dared to come out and pee (I had held it the whole day!!) before getting a few hours of sleep. Luckily they had given up on the Swede, and didn’t come back. Ironically Iran is the country I have wild camped in the most (oh except for Tajikistan maybe). I guess the reason may be that I had to be so social in the day, that I just wanted some peace in the evening and maybe get lucky enough to spot the camel spider – which I did more than once.

DSC_0316DSC_0306DSC_0319DSC_0311Needless to say I grew tired of the police and some men in Iran but still I spent my last days in the country heading to the Turkmen border feeling quite happy. I kept receiving food and greetings from nice people and the nature was beautiful with reddish rock formations similar to those in Cappadocia. And I enjoyed one last night in my sanctuary; The steppe.

By the time my tent was pitched on the steppe far away from any road I knew I was safe. For I was in the lands of those who flee the sun, where dangerous beings dare not go.

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Armenia: Breakdowns and Dopamine

I am flying, hovering on clouds of happiness and ecstasy
I am flying, feeling so powerful, immortal and unbeatable
I am flying      flying                     flying…

… And I am falling.
I am falling, raging, breaking apart
I am falling, fading, giving in…

And I am flying…      

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The first lady Lars and I met in Armenia was a tad bit… crazy. Needless to say, Armenia is a quite religious Christian country and this one was a little over the top. Just like all people of her country, she had big, Bambi-brown eyes though her long, bushy hair was pitch-white like chalk. We had been looking for a market in order to buy something cool to drink, and she had enthusiastically waved us over to her tiny booth. It seemed most of the wooden shelves in there were occupied by photos of Jesus rather than things to eat, but we managed to spot some pirate copies of Coca Cola.

                       I camped next to this somewhat creepy God-worshipping nest one night…

The old woman kept kissing the cross she held in her hands as we pointed to the bottles on one of the shelves, and frenetically repeated “Jesus Christ Jesus Christ!!” over and over like some kind of Duracell rabbit. In the next moment she handed us a bunch of spooky photos of herself in a gloomy, godlike light to make her look like Jesus himself. Lars and I exchanged quick eye contact saying “we gotta get out of here as soon as possible!” and as soon as we had paid for the drinks we fled the field. The bottles of coke tasted rather plastic however – just like the Georgian lemonade – and we poured away most of it.

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Luckily, even though many Armenians seemed very religious, none was as fanatic as this first one. After a bit of an up and down ride we descended to Armenia’s second largest city after Yerevan; Gyumri. It was quite an atmospheric city with – unlike Georgia – various big supermarkets, cozy cafés and nice restaurants and we agreed with each other that Armenia seemed a lot warmer and friendlier than Georgia (particularly than Svaneti). This was however the ending of our ride together, since Lars was heading back to Russia, and as for me… I had to rush across Armenia in order to get to Iran in time.

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I had to rush across the country that is infamous among world tourers for hosting the hardest, most exhausting mountain passes in the world.

Here we go, I thought to myself as I left Gyumri, once again riding solo. That first day actually turned out to be easy. Though it seems to me now like the only easy day I have had in ages… The first 15 km I made a short climb for about 500 m if I remember correctly, and then I enjoyed a nice, steady descent all the way to Vanadzor, which must have been for as much as 50 km! Besides, the Armenians were indeed friendlier than the Georgians and rather than bitter stares I was constantly greeted by cheers and smiles and many gave me food as they passed in their cars.

 

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As I treated myself a huge vanilla- Ice cream with strawberry sauce topping, the Spanish couple whom I had met in Cappadocia one month earlier ran into me again! They were coming from the opposite direction and had already been to Iran, now heading to Svaneti and then to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Just like the tradition when you meet a cyclist coming from the opposite direction, we exchanged as much information as possible. I told them about the tough routes of Svaneti, and they told me about the friendliness and hospitality of Iranian people.

“As a female I think I would feel a lot safer in Iran on my own than for instance, Armenia”, the woman said.

“But you will have to wear all those clothes you know”, the man said, “I use hers to wipe my bike with now!” He added with a grin. I knew all too well, and I didn’t quite look forward to that part of Iran.

I also met a bunch of Polish cyclist in Vanadzor, which – just like any sane person would – warned me about all the devastating mountain passes that waited for me… “You got some huuuge climbs and deep slopes ahead of you!!”

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So let’s get it started with, I thought to myself as I made another climb of about 500 m before descending to Dilijan. It was at that small city, the real climbs would begin. “After Dilijan it will go up for all eternity” the Polish cyclists had told me.

The highest mountain pass of the classical, paved route across Armenia is only a little higher than 2500 m – yet cyclists who have been to the Andes and Tibet are willing to entitle Armenia’s mountain passes “the hardest and most exhausting ones in the world”.

How come? I had kept asking myself, and I was soon to find out.

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I loved climbing the mountain passes of Armenia, but nevertheless did I hate it as much.
I loved the fact that the climbs were steep – I much rather do the steep climbs of Armenia than the seemingly everlasting, slowly ascents that I would find later on in Iran. When I get to climb 100 vertical meters in 1 km or more – that’s when my dopamine gets on. That’s when my veins open up and the blood in my body flows faster, when my skin gets goose bumps and my brains feel all ecstatic, enjoying the “living-in-the-moment” so much.

DSC_0835Bear statue in the mountains

But the deep slopes took on me. Don’t expect to ever get to keep the elevation you have gained in Armenia – as soon as you have made it over one pass, you will descend to your last starting point again, doing that same climb all over again the very next day. And then again, and again, and again.

It however wasn’t the slopes that killed me. It was the storms. The monstrous thunder and head winds.

As I reached the top of my first mountain pass the thick, grey clouds came nearer from all directions. I witnessed how they were literally hunting me and I felt as if I were in combat with the wind; I had to outrun it to flee the thunder clouds. Once I had made it down to Lake Sevan at 2000 m altitude, the sky opened up in a roaring rain fall and I quickly put on not only rain clothes but also two pairs of extra pants and shirts, two buffs, one hat, and my winter leather gloves. The reason why I hated rain in Turkey, Georgia and Armenia wasn’t mainly the fact that I got wet – but that I got so unbelievably cold, and that’s why I put on so much clothes.

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Riding along Lake Sevan turned out to be quite the disappointment. I had been looking forward to its beauty for so long, but all I saw was grey, grey grey and despite wearing more than I did when biking in winter conditions back in Sweden I struggled to keep myself warm. I could just laugh at the irony of all those advertisement banners next to the road side, showing a jolly family or group of friends in swimming suits enjoying the beach and water in the beaming sun; “Spend your holidays at lake Sevan”. Yeah, sure thing…

What’s more, the thunder drew closer and closer. Just shortly after it lit up the sky the big boom pierced the air and it terrified me as much each time.

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There were not many trees around and as evening approached I realized I’d rather not wild camp but would try to reach the city of Gavar to find somewhere to sleep indoors. I was so soaked that every time I lifted an arm too high the ice-cold pool of water in the sleeve ran down to my chest, stomach and back. The thunder bolts stretched across the whole sky looking like intensely glowing spider web and the loud booms went on repeat. I am not sure what caused me to hyper ventilate that evening. The fact that I was riding an uphill, that I was freezing cold, or that I was scared.

Then finally, I reached Gavar. To my disappointment however, it looked like nothing but a ghost town. There was not a single person in sight, all shops seemed closed and barricaded and there was not even an inch of light coming from any of the windows of the apartment buildings – they were all black.

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At last, I found what seemed to be a bar in which I sneaked into. There were two women in maybe their 40s or 50s there, both with heavy makeup on organizing the glasses and bottles at the bar desk.

“Excuse me, do you know anywhere I can sleep in this city?” I asked them.

“Ruski?” They asked in return, and I shook my head and tried body language to make them understand instead. “Njet”, was their next reply, “no hotel, nowhere to sleep.” And then they started giggling like teenage girls, and they just kept on and on as they repeated “Njet njet njet”. I just stood there, with my clothes so soaked they made a pool of water on the floor, with my body so cold it was shaking uncontrollably, with these middle-age women laughing at my face like school girls. It seemed I had no choice but to face the storm outdoors again, and with feet heavy like rocks I pushed my bicycle forward.

I felt as devastated as this dog in the photo. Poor thing looked like she had just had pups and her whole body was trembling. I gave her some food before continuing my climb in the mountains

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I found a little market next, and the woman working there soon called her friend, who was an English teacher, to speak with me. It turned out there actually was one hotel in the city center of Gavar, but Angela – the English teacher – invited me to stay in her home instead.
Despite the fact that both I and my bicycle and panniers were all muddy, she took us all in without complaints. My bicycle was lifted across the whole apartment to the balcony, whilst the rest of my stuff stayed inside. In a sense Angela reminded me of Liliana, the mother and lone caretaker of two daughters that I had stayed with in Romania. Angela too took care of her five year old son David alone, and they seemed to share the same strength. She was so nice and did not only cook a delicious meal for me but also spent so much time washing and drying my clothes, and I was given a big package of food before leaving.

Angela and her five year old son David. At breakfast in the morning David asked: “wil sister play chess with me?” It’s mandatory for all kids in Armenia to learn how to play Chess in school. My dad and brother would love that!

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The storm kept on the next day, and Angela asked me to stay one night more. I told her I would have loved to, but that my visas to Iran and Turkmenistan didn’t allow me to.
Fortunately the storm wasn’t quite as heavy anymore and after I reached Martuni it faded.

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And as I started the climb up Selim pass of 2400 m the dopamine was on to 150 %. It steadily rushed through my body as I made my way up to the plateau, and the clouds dispersed simultaneously. Once I had made it across the pass I in fact got to enjoy beams of sunlight, and the valley bellow looked strikingly beautiful! I had one of my nicest descents so far, and set camp in a field of high grass teeming with huge grasshoppers and other big bugs.

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                                                    Eyyyyoo amiga! Mind if I join the party!???

My next pass; Vorotan Pass, wasn’t going to be as delightful. I was plagued by a brutal headwind for all those nearly eight hours that I actively rode my bike. I was literally raging as I made the climb, and each time the wind grew so strong that I nearly fell off I screamed. I shouted out loud in fury, over and over. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH not caring whether the drivers in the cars heard me or not.

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Then finally, I had made it up this one too. Only to find out that there was not any nice descent waiting for me on the other side – just a continuous up and down as far as my sight stretched. I met and greeted a cyclist coming from the other direction, and I couldn’t help wanting to stab him in the eye. He looked so cheerful and at ease, pretty much flying up the hill… Whilst I was doing my best to push my bike down the hill.

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I found a little market next to the road in which I could buy some snacks for the evening, and the woman working there immediately poured hundreds of questions over me as she stared at me with those big Bambi-eyes.

” Why are you alone? Are you not married? Does your country pay for this trip? Why are you doing this?” I had to resist the urge to punch her in the face and then instead patiently answer her questions, although with short, quick replies.

“Why not? No, I am not married. No, I provide for this trip with my own money. Because… WHY NOT!??” She then said that “this boy” next to her would love me to have dinner with him, but I had to neglect “this boy” in his 30s since I wanted to descend further before the dark.

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And then my mood went from raging to being devastated. I felt like someone had punched me hard in the stomach; as if I lost my ability to breath, to walk, to stand. I had given it all when climbing that pass, I had no energy left to continue those hills battling the wind. I wanted to give up, I wanted to lie down next to the roadside and cry my heart out. I can’t do this, I told myself in my mind, I am too tired… I can’t, I can’t… But I didn’t lie down and cry. For I wasn’t ready to show those passing drivers, those “why are you doing this alone? why are you not married?”-questionnaires my weakness. Instead, I bit my lip and kept pushing.

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Then I spotted a couple of tents in the distance off from the road – I could even make out the shimmering steel of three bicycles laying next to them! I was sure these cyclists were heading the same direction as me – because if they had had the tailwind they wouldn’t have set camp before ascending the top of the pass. The fact that I wasn’t alone out there; that I hadn’t been the only one fighting the vicious winds, comforted me a little. And I told myself: It’s ok. You don’t need to go further today, it’s ok. You can set camp too, as soon as you find somewhere suitable.

A few hills later, my tent was pitched in the middle of a fairytale, in a sea of wild-growing flowers in the mountains at about 2200 m altitude.

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DSC_0801                          Cooking noodles with homemade vego-beef that I got from Angela

My leg muscles were aching the next morning, but I had had a nice sleep and felt somewhat recovered – my mind was set on the fact that “today is a new day, new experiences”.

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I ran into the other cyclists already in the morning and we were indeed going in the same direction but they however stopped pretty quickly at a roadside café whilst I, as usual, felt rushed to continue. They were making a tour of Armenia and after Tatev they would go back to Yerevan and fly home.

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I descended all the way down to 700 m altitude that day, then the dopamine was on again as I rushed up to 1700 m altitude… Only to find that it wasn’t the real mountain pass, and I would have to descend a few hundred meters only to climb up to that altitude again… Only to realize that I would once more descend to 700 m altitude, and then climb up my last mountain pass of 2500 m. Damn.

Preferably I would have made the second descent to 700 m and then started the next climb already that same day to give myself some advantage the day after, but I was too tired. I had already ridden 100 km and actively biked for nearly eight hours again, and thus decided to set camp at the 1700 m pass instead – well aware that the next day I would first have to descend to 700 m altitude and then make a climb of more than 1800 vertical m.

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DSC_0824Traffic on the road – further up they blocked the way completely!

But it was no match compared to that devastating day with brutal headwind. In fact I enjoyed it quite a lot. By 3 pm I had made it to Kajaran, from which I would climb 1100 m more. The dopamine was on.

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About halfway up, a man stopped his car: “Sex? Sex, please?” I hadn´t had anybody asking me this since those first weeks in Turkey, so I got a bit surprised. Anyhow, it’s amazing how a man like this can magically make you double your speed up the hairpin… And little did I know how much I would have to experience this all over again in Iran later.

Refilling my water bottles at the top with some of the best-tasting, ice cold water I’ve ever had

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At the top of the pass I realized the following descent would stretch all the way to Meghri, a city close to the Iranian border. Why not go all the way there to sooner cross the border to Iran tomorrow? I asked myself, and hence ended up doing another 100 km day in the Armenian mountains. I didn’t quite like the city of Meghri as much as the other cities of Armenia however, and the 10 euro “hotel” I checked into was a big regret.

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DSC_0877mmVictory-selfies at the top of my last Armenian mountain pass – I was happy happy!!

First of all, it definitely wasn’t a hotel in any way. It was more like a way to make some extra money out of a man’s dungeon. Unfortunately, I paid way too soon… only to later find that the yellow-stained sheets in the bed in the prison cell-looking room was teeming with little flies – hundreds of them! So a few spiders is one thing, but hundreds of bugs in my bed is more than I can tolerate.

DSC_0884The mountainscapes got more barren and craggy-looking as I got nearer the border to Iran

‘I walked up to the guys drinking beer in the kitchen, telling them “there’s no way I’m sleeping in there, I will pitch my tent in the garden” and they went to pick up the manager. Of course I wasn’t going to get any money back for refusing the room, and they seemed indeed troubled by the fact that I wanted to sleep in the garden.

“Too dangerous” they said, “snakes, many snakes.” I let out a huge sigh as I rolled my eyes and asked the guy who spoke a little English:

“Have you ever camped in your life?” He bluntly remained silent. “Well I camp nearly every night. And snakes isn’t a problem what so ever. So, I will camp in your garden tonight.” They gave in, and as I pitched my tent the manager tried to help me… he held up one of the poles, staring at it all puzzled and then lowering it to the ground… What now? I had to take the pole away from him, saying “No no, this is how you do it” and then repeatedly take things away from him again as he wanted to make a new try.

DSC_0889At least the “hotel’s” garden in which I camped looked nice with the sunflowers

I felt at ease when going to bed in my tent that night, where neither flies nor snakes would bother me. My time in Armenia had come to an end and it sure had been tough – but amazingly rewarding as well and I would definitely love to come back one day.

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The next morning, it was time to enter the country most different from my homeland so far: Iran.

And in my next post, I will tell you more about it…

Cheers!

Georgia: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

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Why do you cry dear

                                Why do you cry

Because of that dog?

It’s just a dog                                                                                                                  just a dog

Just a dog

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I didn’t linger long at the Black Sea coast. It sure was nice to see the dreamy blue horizon for a bit, but Svaneti was calling. Svaneti. A mythical mountain province in the north of Georgia, inhabited by the Svans and infamous for kidnapping and robbing western travelers in the past. Svaneti. Where dog fights are traditionally arranged for entertainment, where people drive carelessly and every single vehicle seems damaged from an accident. Svaneti. Where rustic villages and ancient watch towers in stone cope with snow capped mountain peaks and rivers in the valleys; Putting together a delicate scenery for the eye.

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Let me tell you more about Svaneti. Let me tell you about the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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Just as we were to leave Ushguli to take on our next mountain pass a dog came running towards us, with his tail hanging low letting out little whimpers. We tried to ignore the dog at first to make him tire off us and go back to the village; But in the end we concluded there was no point. He was not going back. We were his humans now.

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I met up with another Swedish cyclist, Lars (also known as The Lost Cyclist, just check out his website) in the city of Zugdidi and we decided to make the ride across Georgia together. We had barely gotten out of the city however, when we realized we were being followed by the police. There seemed to be two different vehicles taking turns in following us, as it kept on for hours. At first we thought they simply wanted to shield us from the bad traffic. Then we discussed whether it could be because of Abkhazia; A closed republic and war zone not far away from the road we were taking. In either case, we wanted to get rid of them to be able to camp peacefully in the forest. As the police car lingered behind, we took the opportunity to sneak off into the woods. We stood silent hiding behind some pine trees as the vehicle passed, and then we fled off-road… But we knew we were screwed the moment blockades of briers surrounded us and clung onto our feet and ankles.

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We made sure to give Benji his share in each food pause and he always ate gratefully. But he was a really behaved dog and would never try to steal food from us unless we gave it to him, and he would never jump and never bark… unless he saw a car. If he saw a car he went complete nuts (which luckily didn’t happen often on the bad roads we were taking) and would chase after them with intense wows. “I’ll protect you humans, I know cars are bad to you, aye? I’ll save you!!”

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The two police men stepped out of the car and after a pretty heated discussion (from our side, the police men remained calm although stubborn) and various phone calls between me and a woman who spoke a little English we gave up and followed voluntarily to the police station.

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Reason being: It was “too dangerous” to camp in the woods, and hence we were demanded to go somewhere safer. Which meant we ended up pitching our tents in front of a soviet monument, right next to the police station! Our bikes were locked up inside the gates and in the morning we were free to go. Well what can I say, the Georgian police seems a little… over protective.

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Benji was a smart dog. He knew even before we did ourselves that it would take us some time to figure out a decent way across the river, and hence he lied down on the ground all relaxed, taking a rest in the meantime. Once we had made it across the river we asked ourselves if we should go back to carry Benji over too, but there was no need to. As soon as Benji saw we were ready to go again he swam across the river with no hesitation what so ever. Though Lars helped him a little to get up from the last part…

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We were then headed to Mestia and thus the climb up the mountains of the Svaneti range officially begun. Unfortunately we didn’t see any of the high mountain peaks due to grey clouds sporadically letting out showers, but at least we got to enjoy the mystique of the melt water running down the steep mountain sides partly hidden by fog to connect with the roaring river. Below us we passed the village Pari; in the past it was known as the “robbers’ village”, until the Cossacks drove them out.

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Mestia turned out to be quite a touristic little town, with various minimarkets, souvenir shops, cafés and guest houses. Other than the watch towers witnessing of Svaneti’s past, Mestia looked more like an alp resort with the classical wooden balconies lined with flower pots. Indeed, it was a popular skiing resort in winter. We spent two days in Mestia hoping to await better weather, only to realize that the weather just wasn’t going to improve… So we had no choice really but to face it in the end.

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When we had descended the pass we had to go through several villages. Rather than cheers and smiles we were greeted by nothing but bitterly staring bunches of men… and more terrifyingly several aggressive dogs. Each time it happened Lars and I knew what to do. We had to shield our little dog and be ready with a handful of stones to throw at the attacking beasts.

Twice we failed. Twice I failed my little dog and he was pressed to the muddy ground by a monster. Twice he was bitten by the four times larger dog. Both times it happened there were men present, doing nothing but staring and enjoying the show. Once I heard one of the boys in the bunch laughing from behind. He laughed as my dog was taken to the ground and bitten by his dog. I wanted to press his eye globes deeply into his sockets and further into his brains and then squeeze the juice out. But I just gave him and the men a distasteful glare and turned my back. Benji was little, but he was a fighter and he wouldn’t be taken down so easily. He got away each time with only mere stripes of blood in his fur.

Rather than going to Ushguli according to our initial plan however, we decided to try out a shortcut; To cross the Latpari pass.

“The pass is about 2850 m high. Only 200 m higher than Zagar pass (the pass we were initially planning to take), no biggie!” Sure, no biggie… 200 m difference of altitude can’t matter so much, can it?

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The climb up the pass was so steep we had to push our bicycles rather than biking. But it was damn fun, and I tell you Lars specifically was like a child on Christmas eve! Every finished hairpin meant another boost, another greater view of the mountains than the one before. In the evening, the sky was so clear we didn’t want to stop. We just wanted to climb and climb and climb. Not until the last beams of reddish sunlight touched the pointy, cragged mountain massive in the west did we set camp at 2400 m altitude. Our tents were pitched right next to the road but we didn’t worry that anyone would see us for the road was impassable by car; A few hundred meters below it had collapsed completely.

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The sky dotted with millions of stars was amazing that night and I tell ya this: I really enjoyed my nightly pee!

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Benji was a loyal dog. Whenever Lars or I got behind, he stopped and waited for that person – or even ran back to escort us! No mud and no rain was too great to him, and he was our little mood-lifter as the bad weather laid heavy upon our shoulders. At the beginning Benji was shy and wouldn’t look into our eyes. But as time passed he appreciated the intimacy we gave him more and more, and you could see how he got happier and happier, his tail wagging more often.

The next morning we would only have to climb 400 vertical m more and thus we were eager and excited to get to and across the pass. At 2500 m altitude little fields of snow were lining up next to the road side and at 2600 m altitude we had to literally lift our bicycles to get across on several occasions. At 2700 m we seemed to be confronted with a dead end. Not wanting to give up that easily though, we left our bikes laying on the ground and continued a little further by foot to see to our chances: We found that the road ahead of us disappeared in the large snow masses and the steep drops were simply not worth the risk taking. After having pushed our bikes up a steep climb of a thousand vertical meters, we were hence forced to make the decision to turn around.

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As you could tell, our intended shortcut ended up being a detour and we lost a full day in the saddle (we were both a little stressed; Me to get in time to Iran for my visa and Lars to get to Kazakhstan). But it was all worth it really, it definitely is one of my most memorable days of this trip so far!

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When going down again, it was so steep we had to make several stops only to rest our cramping hands from pressing the brakes so hard (and in several pins we couldn’t ride at all but had to carefully push our bikes down).

Benji knew directly that when we stopped at that spot of grass next to the river we weren’t just making a short pause, but making a pause over the night and he fell asleep even before our tents were pitched. The next morning, we were all good to go again and we promised Benji that as soon as we got to Lentekhi we would buy him delicious sausage.

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By the time we were down at 1700 m we were completely soaked in showers, and those remaining 10 km to Ushguli (including a 500 m climb) felt like an eternity. The wheels would constantly slip into pockets of mud making me nearly fall over and I remember checking my bike computer every 500th m; “Only 7 km left… only 6.5 km left…”

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I remember the face of Benji as we took into another guest house in Lentekhi. He looked so sad when we left him outside the gates; But he never even tried to follow inside for he knew he could not. The people owning the guest house disliked animals greatly and the man in the house kicked a cat. We later heard a dog whimper from pain as someone hit him and found that Benji had gotten a new wound on his back leg; limping gravely.

Ushguli is a listed UNESCO world heritage (and also claimed to be the highest located village in Europe with permanent inhabitants) but to us it looked like nothing but a shit hole. Sure thing, the watch towers were fascinating as always – but those you can find anywhere in Svaneti – and the views would probably have been stunning – if it weren’t for the thick grey clouds… But the village itself? Nah. The streets were solemnly made of mud and cow shit and the only place to get food such as bread, noodles and peas was from a tiny magazine up the hill.

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We took into a guest house in which we met a French cyclist coming from the opposite direction, which meant we could exchange some valuable information with each other. He also told us about a stray dog who had followed him all the way from Lentekhi (a 72 km ride including a climb over a mountain pass of 2600 m). That same dog would follow us for the next three days, and I’m not sure whose heart broke more after those three days. Benji’s or mine.

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I had been looking for Benji in the whole village, when I at last found him right outside the shop connected to the guest house. I bought him a sausage and picked up Lars to go feed him – his tail started wagging immediately. That’s when we discovered that Benji knew “sit”. I could hold a delicious sausage in my hand, tell him to sit, and he would do so until I told him differently.

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The sky kindly showed us a bit of blue as we climbed up Zagar pass. The road on the top of the pass was framed by two meter high walls of snow on each side, since a truck had been there to clean up the day before.

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When descending we were once again confronted with rain – but we still felt luckier than the three Polish cyclists coming from the other way who yet had to ascend. Thinking that the descent meant a pleasant, effortless ride at 40 km/h would be fooling yourself. We had to cross a large field of snow, force our bicycles across a wade, and didn’t go faster than 10 km/h maximum due to the bad road conditions and the mud that constantly glued onto our wheels. We were in fact riding that downhill on our lightest gears, and it took us nearly 6 hours to make the distance of 35 km that day! We set camp on a flat spot of grass next to the river, and the next day we made it to Lentheki – which meant we were finally done with Svaneti.

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We tried putting Benji in one of my panniers. But he was slightly too big and as the bike started moving he hopped out. That’s when we had to face the fact that this was going to be it. It was time to leave Benji, our dog, behind. For there was no chance he was going to keep up with us on paved asphalt down to Kutaisi, and the traffic was going to be too dangerous as well.

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We took on one more mountain pass before crossing borders to Armenia; and this time we got to enjoy a clear sky with sun shining upon our faces. It was beautiful really; With intensely green-nuanced mountains nearest to us and the vague contours of higher, more aggressive peaks in the horizon; With thick carpets of colorful flowers decorating the roadside and a comfortable-looking dark green bed of pine trees below us. We also met a bunch of Israelis traveling in cars that handed us loads of sweets!

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Our last night in Georgia we spent on a plateau at about 2000 m altitude. The landscape reminded me surprisingly much of the Swedish Lapland and if I were to guess where I was I would never have said Georgia.

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I hugged my dog one more time and then we took off. But I couldn’t leave him in my thoughts. I kept asking myself in my mind: How could such an incredible dog like Benji not have a home? He could serve as a rescue dog or police dog for sure, because he was so disciplined and endurable, and nearly never got distracted by his surroundings. I also asked myself: Who had been Benji’s owner in the past? He couldn’t possibly have been born on the street since he was obviously trained by someone. Someone who seemed to care more about animals than most people in these areas. But what happened? Why was Benji homeless now?

How do I sum up Georgia to you? The landscapes are stunning really and the roads make an awesome challenge, and I might just come back for them one day (I yet would like to take on Abano pass, for instance). But that might be the one reason I think. In other senses such as people and the country as a whole, didn’t impress me much. The great hospitality I had encountered in Turkey seemed nearly none-existent here, and rather than being greeted with smiles people (well, a bunch of ten men) would most often just stare bitterly at us. Plus, I had a great distaste for how they treated their pets.

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I looked in the mirror to see that little brown dot in the distance doing his best to catch up with us descending the mountain at 40 km/h. Despite our speed Benji  managed to keep up with us for a good 20 km that day.

But this time, he didn’t.

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My first Arrest

When the police men waved me over from the other side of the street I expected the usual small talk. Whenever a police saw me, he’d demand me to stop (no matter the downhill I was enjoyng) simply to get to talk to me. “Where are you from? Where are you going?” He’d curiously ask as he’d let out a “wow, brave girl!” But this time was different. The police men weren’t stopping me to make small talk.

They were arresting me.

Two little shepherds: “I solemnly swear I am up to no good…”

“Are you really from Sweden?” The man asked me as he had heard me telling the ticket sales man so. I nodded to confirm and his face shone up in gratitude. “I am from Syria. Your people help my people so much. I thank you on the behalf of my people.” I honestly didn’t know what to reply to this, and exhausted and starving from the day’s 160 km ride I think I just replied: “Err… no problem.” (Really?Ugh, yes…)

Karim, Zafar and their two year old daughter Aisha. Karim was an engineer and Zafar had a PHD in Arabic (and was pregnant with their second daughter!)

Karim was eager to help me as a return favor for Sweden accepting so many Syrian refugees. The ticket sales men however, were eager to get as much money out of me as possible for my ticket to Ankara. Not only did Karim help me negotiate a reasonable price for me and the bike, he also invited me to meet his wife and little daughter before the night bus was to depart. I had a really nice time that evening, discussing the politics and economy of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Sweden in one moment only to admire little two year old Aisha’s dance moves in the next.

At midnight, my night bus from Sivas took off. I had finally received the authorization code needed to apply for my Iranian visa and the letter of invitation needed to apply for my Uzbek visa which meant I was ready to go to Ankara to get started with my visa business for real. I chose to take the bus rather than bike there since going to Ankara meant I would have to backtrack (Sivas is about 500 km east of Ankara). After about two weeks in Ankara (yep that’s how much time it took to collect my visas) I took another night bus back to Sivas and continued my tour.

Ankara – one day it rained so intensely the streets got flooded…

Ankara is Turkey’s capital but it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey. My general impression was that if you mentioned Ankara to a Turk (or a tourist) he or she would be quick to compare it to Istanbul and how much better Istanbul was.

I had a fox at camp one evening!

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Neither did I like Ankara particularly much in the beginning. I was in too much stress with the visas to do any touristic stuff and every day looked pretty much the same. I woke up early, went to Guvenpark (the central station for buses) to catch the bus to whatever embassy was on the list that day, went back, prepared the paper work for my next embassy stop, and repeated the process. I will tell you more details about the processes of obtaining the visas later in my visa section (whenever I get time for that…)

Trying on the hijab for the first time of my life and then proudly posing with my Iranian visa. Now when I am in Iran, I wear the hijab every day

When going to the Uzbek embassy I didn’t actually go by bus. Instead I hitched a ride with a police man. He put his machine gun aside, gave me a walkie talkie and we were off. It was quite an experience: He smoked a cigarette and chatted on facebook whilst driving and all sorts of other things!

I spent so much time frustratingly thinking to myself: “I just got to leave Ankara soon, I’m getting CRAZY here!” Only to end up feeling sad about it in the end. You see, I stayed long enough in Ankara to get my favorite street food places, my favorite breakfast bakeries, and my favorite bench in the park where I would sit sketching every day. An old man would frequently come by to check out the progress of my drawings and I felt so at peace, once again sinking into deep trance forgetting about everything else as the pencil danced upon the sheet of paper. I also found a bicycle shop owned by an awesome woman who toured herself and whom I had a nice chat with, and what’s more… I found myself a second home in Ankara.

Kevser owns her own bike shop in central Ankara. She is such a cool person and has taken on countless high mountain passes of Turkey on tough mtb roads. “Turkish parents are very protective. I try to tell them: Please let your daughters do things. Let them explore the world!” She had the sweetest father, too, and I was given both tea and food in the shop.

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I had met the father of the family, Ugur, at the metro station already a few days earlier since I needed help to find my way. Fascinated by my trip, he had given me the address to his house since he wanted me to meet his family. I didn’t manage to find his block however, and had given up the thought of finding it when… I ran into him again!

I stayed two nights in the house of Ugur and his wife Arife and their three adorable little kids. Both Ugur and Arife are highly educated and in one night I learnt more about Turkey’s history and culture than I had done altogether in the past four weeks spent in the country. I also discovered that I love date plums which was a main dish for Prophet Muhammad and learnt a few other interesting things about Islam, as well as having lots of fun with the kids!

They were the most wonderful and welcoming family really, and made delicious food! 😉

When I once again was on the saddle riding my way from Sivas the grade of difficulty leveled up a little bit. Day after day I was confronted with rain and thunderstorms; One storm so extreme the wind took a fully grown tree to the ground right on the spot where I was planning to pitch my tent (it was the only groove around). It looked so unreal to see such a large object being taken to the ground with roots and all by an invisible force. And all at the same time, the thunder bolt kept lighting up the sky with terrifyingly loud booming.

Fortunately I was lucky enough to find an abandoned barn in which I spent the night to be safe from falling trees. The bricked roof was supported by hollow metal pipes and as the wind flew in them it sounded like the barn was haunted by ghost howls.

To the left: My cozy home a stormy night. To the right: A rodent actually made this huge hole in the floor fabric of my tent one night! Its little head popped up from the hole as I was investigating it and then disappeared quickly again… never expected that to happen! (Fixed with thread and needle)

Nevertheless did I have a really cozy, dry night and woke up to beams of sunshine finding their way inside from one of the window openings. I took the opportunity to dry my soaking wet clothes a little and then I took off.

But the sun didn’t stand by my side for long and soon I was once again freezing and all soaked, telling myself to just push a little further. As I thought things couldn’t get worse, I was all of a sudden arrested by the police.

“You cannot seriously arrest me for ‘stealing flowers'”? I asked the police men once again as I was taken to the police station.

I wish I could tell you I was arrested for something cool, such as stealing cows with a lasso or something.

But no. For the first time of my life I got arrested, and the accusation just had to be as silly as “someone called and said you stole flowers from their garden.” (Ok so I later found out “flowers” was just another word for drugs, but still… I had biked in the mountains all day, and not passed a single garden!)

Funny thing is, all at the same time as the police man told me I had to follow to  the police station to sort out this “crime”, he shook my hand, asked; “Do you mind if I call you Eva? Your name is so difficult for me. You’re biking to China? You are a courageous girl!” Which made the whole situation so confusing, and I kept asking myself; Is this just a prank? Are the police men pranking me?

Once at the police station I was told to leave my bike outside of the gates. I refused.

“No.” I said and stopped at the entrance. “I am not leaving my bike outside. This bike is going to take me to China and if it gets stolen I got nothing. You will have to let me bring it inside.” The police men looked at each other, made a phone call, and let me bring my bicycle inside.

I was taken to the police officer and had my passport taken away from me, and then they searched my equipment for “stolen flowers”. They didn’t find a single trace of flowers – neither the normal kind or the drug kind – and hence concluded I wasn’t no flower thief after all.

My body shivering from cold, I was given hot Çay to warm up. My passport was given back to me and I was no longer arrested but free to go. They however offered to drive me to a municipality in which I could sleep for free, and I accepted. On the way there the police man who had arrested me made a quick visit to the supermarket and bought me a bag full of snacks to bring to my room.

Sleeping in a municipality

The next morning he picked me up in the police car again, since I had left my bicycle inside the police station to keep it safe. Not surprisingly the morning started off with a heavy rain, and rather than taking off directly I spent a few hours at the police station chatting with him, the police officer, and the rest of the staff whilst drinking more Çay. After having finished off the standard questions about my trip; “Why are you doing this? Why alone? What does your mother say? Does your father provide you with money? Are you not scared?” we entered the subject of religion instead. I think we were both equally fascinated by each other’s lives.

“So what religion do you have? Do you still believe in the Viking Gods in Sweden?” I found it so funny that they used to watch the series Vikings at the police station, and I answered him:

“No. My people are Godless, we come from the north, and we live in the woods. We are Wildlings!” Not disappointedly, he watched Game of Thrones too and got the reference. Nevertheless were the police men puzzled by the lack of religion present in the majority of Swedish people’s lives, and curiously kept asking questions; “You never pray? Never go to church? Your parents don’t tell you about heaven and hell when raising you up, Eva?” By now I was responding to him calling me Eva every single time.

I had a really enjoyable time chatting with the police staff and would not have minded to stay longer – but it was time to take on those last mountain passes before the Black Sea coast.

I had entered the police station as a person arrested for holding drugs, and I left it as a friend of the Turkish police with two interests in common: Vikings and Game of Thrones.

The black sea coast – the rest of my stay in Georgia wouldn’t be quite as sunny and holiday-looking as the right picture…

A few days later, the mountain passes were done and I had reached the Black Sea coast, which would take me to my next country: Georgia. But I will tell you more about this little Caucasian nation later (and boy do I got a lot to tell about it!)

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Cheers!

 

 

 

A Turkish love story; Part III: Redemption

There I was once again a few days later, a 20 year old girl from Sweden trying to stand up against these five big armed Turkish men.

“I don’t care! I’m going into the woods, you CAN’T stop me!”

You kidding me girl? Sure they could stop you. And they would…

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I was really frustrated by then, that I just never seemed to get to decide anything for myself. There was always someone else doing it for me and I wanted to scream and bite and kick and stamp and explode. People wouldn’t just warn me, they would literally forbid me from leaving the bigger roads. The main reason given was always “wolves, dangerous!” or just generally “wild animals”.

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As for this time, I wanted to set camp in a little forest next to a village. Just as I thought I had found a good enough spot, I was confronted by a shepherd. Oh those damn shepherds being everywhere and anywhere, I cursed to myself. He didn’t speak English but I could tell still that he obviously wasn’t going to let me stay there. No, he kept grabbing my arms pointing towards the village I had just left.

“No, I’m going this way”, I insisted. And he insisted the opposite just as much. Since we couldn’t understand each other very well, I decided to call my Turkish friend Mert, and let him do the talking for me.

“He says it’s dangerous to camp in the forest because of wild animals. He wants you to go back to the village, there’s a park there watched by guards all night were you could camp in.”

                                           The park entrance to which the shepherd took me

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There was no way the shepherd would let me go, and thus I followed him back to the village and the park. But the manager wouldn’t let me sleep in the park. Instead I was directed to the city I had passed a few hours earlier, “in which you can find a hotel”.

I got furious. There was no way I was going back to Eskisehir, and instead I tried to sneak off to the forest again. Mission failed – the guards all armed with guns in their holsters came after me immediately. Fine, I thought to myself, if I can’t go to the forest, I won’t go the opposite direction to the city either. I will simply refuse to move. And I did; I stayed there right on spot putting on my grumpiest, most disappointed face possible. And… The guards gave into my nearly bursting into tears-eyes (wow, I’ll try that more often!) pointing at a perfect spot of grass right outside of the park; “Ok you can sleep there. We’ll guard you the whole night.”

                                      My camp right next to the park

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They did, and I slept safely.

Not only was finding camp troublesome, my motivation was also sinking as I kept riding the big roads; each day was the same as the one before. I rode simply to make a distance; not to gain any new experiences, not to enjoy the views, not to play on bumpy, fun terrain. Was this what I had been working so hard for? To simply make the days pass by as fast and pain free as possible?

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No, it was not. So what to do when you are not satisfied with how things are? You make a change, obviously. And that’s what I did; I had a close look at the map and picked out some small dirt roads going through more remote areas rather than continuing on the asphalted roads. No man is going to stop me now, I thought. And no one even tried to.

The only ones bothering me were in fact the sheep dogs. I’m not sure if it were their spiked metal head-collars or their huge size that made them more frightening than the Romanian sheep dogs. Like seriously dog, who do you like more: Slayer or Mayhem?

A sheep dog spotted from the distance – unfortunately it’s hard to see the collar in this photo

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Most often their shepherd was nearby and unlike the Romanian shepherds, these actually had somewhat control over their dogs. They told the dogs to stay off from me and normally they would listen (although not immediately). Once there was no shepherd to be seen however, as the five huge dogs had come running after me from the opposite mountain side (!)

As they surrounded me with growls coming deep from their throats like a pack of wolves surrounding pray I realized these were no “back-to-your-sheep”-dogs. It simply was not in my power to tell them what to do, and I judged it better to keep my mouth shut. Instead I remained on my spot and kept yawning to show the dogs that I was not afraid.

No doubt, the sheep dogs’ pups are adorable! Not yet wearing the metalhead collars, not yet growling at me. Just being… pups.

Four of them would eventually tire off and run back to their shepherd, but the fifth – the most aggressive one – wasn’t as easily fooled. At last, after a mental battle between the two of us – I got rid of him too. By that time I had yawned so much I just couldn’t stop – I kept yawning all day feeling so tired!

Despite the various encounters with the sheep dogs and despite my low average speed up the mountain I couldn’t enjoy myself more. I am slow, so what? I got the time! I shouted out to the hilly, desert-like surroundings as I enjoyed another pause in the beaming sun. The seemingly endless road went up and down the barren mountainscapes and I had it all to myself, no single vehicle in sight. Every now and then one of those colourful little lizards would cross my path and I even saw a turtle sunbathing next to the roadside. This is what I have been working for. Turkey, I might just take you back! Yep – that’s how pleased I was with my choice. My love for this country was already on the rise again..

You do know by now that even though I have seen hundreds I still get thrilled by the sight of a deer, and when seeing cockroaches in Bursa I jumped by excitement, too. Just imagine then how over the moon I was when I saw this cutie – my first live, wild turtle!!

                                     A wild flamingo and a wild turtle in the same day – I felt lucky!!

In the afternoon I stopped in one of the few villages around to fill my bottles and buy some food before setting camp. The woman working in the minimarket immediately invited me in for Çay, and before I knew it the whole village had gathered to see me. Some just to say hi, others to stay and chat for hours.

My tent ended up being pitched in the woman’s and her husband’s backyard, although I didn’t end up in the tent… No, I ended up on a bed inside. Despite the fact that Nazli and I didn’t speak the same language, we talked all evening. I found out she had two children – one daughter and one son – both studying at the university in Ankara. As we ate dinner on the floor of the common room (like many here do) she pointed at the various dishes and I repeated after her: “Pilav” Rice, “Patates” potatoes, “Su” water, “zeytin” olive..  

The food was cooked on a gas-stove and showering meant pouring a bucket of hot water over yourself. In the morning, one of the sheep was slaughtered in the backyard. It sure put some perspective on my own life

Every now and then the language lesson was interrupted by a glance at the tv in the corner of the room. There were two main news: Football and terrorism. There’s no doubt that  IS has gained greater establishment in Turkey the past year; The bomb threats are particularly present in Ankara and Istanbul, but even when I was in Bursa a woman detonated herself just one km away from where I was at the moment. It however was just a small bomb – I didn’t even find out about it until afterwards – and luckily it killed noone but her. Needless to say though, many Turks are on the tense, waiting for things to get worse…

Just as I was going to leave the next morning a few more women came to see me again. You leaving? No way, it’s time for Turkish coffee! They also happily suggested that they could take turns hosting me in their homes. I surely was deeply touched by these women’s hospitality, but I had to kindly say no since I wanted to keep moving forward. Still though I let them take me on a tour through the village and one of them proudly showed me her garden flourishing with countless fruit trees from which I could pick as much as I wanted.

To the left: The classical Turkish tea pot; the bottom one is filled with hot water and the top one with tea. You then pour them together in a glass, and voila – you got Çay! To the right: The classical coffee pottery

Two nights later I ended up sleeping indoors again, on the floor of a monitory room inside of a restaurant. It had been raining heavily that afternoon and thus I had taken shelter at a gas station; immediately being invited to drink Çay with the worker in his office. Later on the manager knocked on the door, shook my hand and showed me to the restaurant where he served me free food and of course… more Çay.

                     Sleeping on the floor in a room connected to the restaurant

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“Seriously how many cups of Çay do you drink in a day!?” I asked him, startled.

“Maybe 20…”

“Really? You gotta have some sort of Çay super power!” I think I had closer to 15 cups that day – that’s how far my super powers stretched before I felt as if I were to explode.

Ugur, the manager to the left, and Yunus, the office worker to the  right – both from Kurdistan. In July Ugur will visit Stockholm and I trust all of you fellow Swedes to take as good care of him as he did of me

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The manager was from Kurdistan, and just like Asis – the pizzeria owner I met back in Sweden – he told me: “Kurdistan always been crushed, in the middle of everything. But we like our freedom.” And he smiled – in fact he smiled all the time. You see, Ugur was that kind of person who seemed to love everything and everybody, and he had been to Sweden specifically several times to visit his relatives.

“I love Sweden!” He said smiling even wider, “Swedish people are so nice, I love Stockholm.” I even got to speak Swedish that night, as he made calls to various relatives and Kurdish friends all over my country and handed me the phone. They all told me the same thing:

“Just call me if you are ever in trouble, ok? We can help, we want to help! And please come visit us when you are back, we want to get to know more Swedes!”

Two members from the friendly staff of the restaurant, one from Afghanistan, one from Kyrgyzstan – the whole staff was like one big, multicultural family and I loved it

Every now and then the attention was once again on the tv; more terrorism news. Ugur showed me photos from his hometown, Mardin. He showed me photos he had taken himself of beautiful architecture; of mosques and of churches. “Christians and Muslims here like each other, want to live in peace. But too many radicals”, and he then showed me photos of ruins; of houses shattered to pieces by bombs and missiles. The news also showed a fight from the senate which made me literally stare at the screen with big eyes and my mouth opened. I had never seen anything like it – just youtube it if you haven’t watched it already. “They don’t want us in the senate, that’s why”, Ugur laughingly explained.

                            Good day duck family! Enjoying the lovely weather today, aren’t we?

The next night there were – just like most times in Turkey – no trees around and I hence thought I’d ask another restaurant by the roadside for permission to camp on their ground. The answer was a straight no, and I was just about to leave when the manager of the restaurant grabbed my bike and brought it inside, and directed me to a table next. He then had me served the best kebab I have ever eaten and showed me to a room in which I could sleep on the floor. I didn’t end up sleeping on the floor however – the manager changed his mind and wouldn’t let me anymore.

Grilled kebab and chicken and then a dessert (I have forgotten the name) – I was served this without paying anything twice, both the first evening and the next day

Instead I spent the night in a real bed in his home, chatting all evening with him and his wife and 16 year old daughter as we snacked on lokum and various fruits and berries.

There I was once again a few days later, a 20 year old girl from Sweden enjoying myself to the fullest in Turkey. I was munching on sweet-tasting strawberries on a beach next to a beautiful salt lake. Its surface reflected the sky above clearer than any HD-screen and it was all still until… a thunder bolt struck. The past days had indeed been rainy and the obscure storm clouds were once agan heavily lumbering onto the ground, but I couldn’t really care less.

                                                    For life was pretty damn amazing still.

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A Turkish love story; Part II: Crushed Crush

Just as I thought I had finally gotten myself out of trouble, I was pulled over by a car. And out of the car stepped three men, all armed with machine guns. They remained silent as they approached me, and I asked myself: What the hell is going on? Are they on my side or not? Please be nice guys, please please please…

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If you had asked me these first days: “How’s Turkey?” I would have cheerfully replied: “I love Turkey!” But as the days passed I would just more and more bitterly reply: “Turkey is full of men.”

Turkey is full of men grabbing my arms on the street shamelessly asking for sex. Turkey is full of men knocking on my hotel door at night asking to sleep with me. Turkey is full of men stopping me on the road asking to go out with me – and not just once but twice and thrice, simply not giving up. If I got tired of it? You could say…

In addition to that, wild camping was not an easy task. Not even going on dirt roads to avoid the E90 was easy – as soon as I did people would stop me and ask me what the heck I was doing there and tell me to go back to the main road – and even block the path for me!

        Something nice: I finally reached (Marmara) sea for the first time of my trip!

Second night turned out to be more difficult than the first one. I spotted a grove next to an abandoned house and decided to give it a shot. It turned out not to be abandoned however, as two men parked their vehicle right next to it and started carrying boxes into it. When I tried to ask for permission to camp there, they ignored me and as I kept trying to catch their attention they shoved me off – obviously not wanting me there getting involved in whatever business they were doing. On my second attempt my path on the dirt road was blocked by another man telling me not to be there and on my third one I was ambushed by stray dogs.

I entered a city next and just gave up, thinking I’d just look for a hotel – but they all seemed very expensive. Then a car stopped and a man talked to me throughout the window – he barely spoke any English but it turned out he and his maybe ten year old son in the passenger seat were going to a hotel and could take me there too. I accepted, and as soon as the bike was lifted into the trunk we headed off. The standards weren’t that high, but still the hotel Murat and his son Mustafa took me to was perfect since it was really cheap and the staff incredibly friendly. Success! (Oh and I didn’t cheat when hitching that ride, since I didn’t actually make any distance forward but simply stayed within the city!)

                                                      The view from one of my better camps

A few nights later I found myself in the same situation again, trial and error and… failure. I was going on another dirt road looking for camp when a man and his two sons about my age stopped me. Asking for permission to camp was pointless – it wasn’t that they wouldn’t let me since it was their land, it was that it according to them wasn’t safe enough. Don’t follow this road, it’s dangerous. They told me and all I could do was pretending to go back to the main road once again… when in fact I kept looking for camp spots along that road. I found another grove of woods that would keep me hidden from the road – but not from the farm next to it however and the signs clearly said “no entrance allowed” so I thought I’d better ask the farmer for permission. A few minutes later I found myself joining one heck of a mud party with the frogs…

At last, my only obstacle before reaching the farm was stepping through grass as high as my shoulders and piles of empty beer and booze cans. Only to find that there was no one there – and I had a hard time believing anybody lived there at all, since there didn’t seem to be any furniture inside the buildings. In fact there only seemed to be one thing inside as I glanced through the window when knocking on the door… a gun. Well what can I say… a gun, loads of booze and a girl camping on forbidden area just didn’t seem like the best combination. Hence I decided to leave and re-join the party with the frogs again. My hopes about the third grove of trees were quickly eliminated too, as it was already occupied by maybe twenty men, women and children walking and climbing around piles of trash. Needless to say, I didn’t pitch my tent there, either.

And I had no more tries before entering another city. What to do when your phone is dead, the dark has fallen and you’re alone in a city you’ve never been to before? You ask for help, of course. And that’s what I did – I stopped the first man I spotted on the street. He quickly made a call and handed me over his phone and in the other end of it someone spoke to me: “Hello, what can I help you with?” I’ve gotten really used to it by now – that people call someone that speaks English and then hand me their phone. Sometimes, as in this case, I really do need help, and some other times I have to tell the person in the other end: “Err… I actually don’t really need any help but, thank you!”

I told the guy – who apparently was the man’s son – that I was looking for the cheapest hotel in the city. His father guided me there, and insisted on pushing my bike for me. In every uphill however, he had to stop to breath heavily and I feared he was going to have a heart attack or something.

“No.” I had to tell him strictly, “thank you but I can push my bike myself.” And I had to constantly repeat it to him since he kept trying to take the bike from me. As we crossed what seemed to be the main square a guy greeted me before disappearing into the crowd – his son, I assumed. The mud was dripping from my limbs and from the rims of my bike as we entered the reception, and the receptionist looked at me as if he wanted to ask: “Girl what have you been up to!?” I was too tired to explain, but happy however that he would let me and my bike in without protests.

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I was so tired when I got to the hotel I probably spent more than an hour on the floor before actually taking a shower…

When I woke up the next morning the room was teeming with bugs. They were crawling all over my body and zapping through the air and I tried to shove them off with my hands. It turned out I was just hallucinating and I shoved them off with my mind as I entered the bathroom to look myself in the mirror.

“Is every day going to be like this?” I asked my reflection. Oh, it was going to get worse…

Later on I entered a minimarket to buy breakfast and snacks for the day’s ride, and before I knew it the same guy that had greeted me last night handed me a warm loaf of freshly baked bread. I stood there with my arms stretched out and my mouth half open about to say “thank you” when he was already gone, without a word.

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It happened once in Bulgaria already – but that man had annoyed me rather than scared me, and after a couple of hours I had managed to get rid of him when hiding at a gas station. This one was different.

Turkey is full of men. And more dangerous than those straightforwardly asking for sex, there are men denying their intentions.

At first I thought he was a nature lover, as he’d sit down next to the river in the woods with his motorbike parked next to him. It wasn’t until later, I realized what he was actually doing. He was stalking me. Like a ghost of the mind, his actions were not obvious to anybody but me. Only he was real, too real. He usually kept a distance to me – either going a bit behind, or ahead. But imagine – I was biking uphill all day not averaging more than 8-10 km/h and he kept the same low speed on his motorbike! Well, he was patient – I give him that. He obviously knew the area as he continuously disappeared into the woods only to appear again later on, seemingly out of nowhere.

I felt so frustrated about it – for once when I was riding next to the woods and would find camp easily I couldn’t set camp for I had a man following me. I had to get rid of him, that was for sure. But how? There was no village or even a gas station at the road and every time I hopped off my bike and walked straight up to him to confront him he just denied what he was doing, putting on that creepy smile of his… and then as I hopped onto my bike again he did the same. Telling him face to face to “Fuck off, go to hell and stay away from me”, just didn’t help. I could stop a car and tell them I was being stalked – but that only meant he would hide in the woods until the car drove off again. I could call the police… but would they think I was wasting their time?

I realized I’d rather have a thousand men asking to sleep with me than this man. Those men didn’t scare me, but this one did. He made me feel helpless, like a rabbit in its hole with the wolf lingering outside only that I was a girl on my bike with a man lingering around waiting for me to seek camp… DSC_0564

And then we were both standing on the ground, no longer riding. There was nobody else to be seen, and he walked up close to me. Bite kick beat I thought to myself as every single muscle in my body tensed. Just as things began to feel threatening for real, a car passed. And then another one, and then another one. And I took the opportunity to pick up my phone.

“That’s it”, I said with the most confident voice I could muster, “I’m calling the police.” I didn’t even know the number to the police. I pretended to enter the emergency number, and then I pretended to talk to someone in the other end. It actually seemed to work. The man rushed onto his motorbike and rode forth… but then he came back for me. Fuck, it didn’t work!? But he didn’t stop for me. Instead he increased his speed, passed me and disappeared around the corner. Is that it? Is he gone for real? Or is he just hiding again?

It seemed I had no option but getting on my bike again. Before I knew it however, I was pulled over by a car. I thought it was another one “of those men” and I was just about to shout to him to fuck off when I realized that… maybe it’s not so clever to tell a man with a machine gun to fuck off. And there wasn’t just one – but three men with machine guns stepping out of the car. Well fuck, what now?

They wore uniforms, but not the standard police uniforms and that made me nervous. I could not tell who they were, whose side they were on. At last I judged it safe to open my mouth and break the silence.

“Is there any problem?” They barely spoke English, but they asked me where the man on the motorbike went, and then they escorted me to make sure I wasn’t being followed anymore.

There I was, a Swedish girl riding my bicycle in Turkey, being guarded by three armed men from behind driving their vehicle. And I still had no idea who they were.

I made sure to hide really well in the woods that night, and pushed my bike across flooded dirt roads as well as tumbling down steep hills with briers completely off-road. I pushed until the woods were pitch black and still being a bit alarmed I kept seeing figures in the dark, although I knew there was nobody there. When pitching the tent I let my head torch stay unlit, and it wasn’t until I entered it I realized how many thorns were penetrated through my skin on my feet, legs and arms. I pulled as many as I could out and then I wrapped the sleeping bag tightly around me and closed my eyes. The forest was too silent. There was no deer barking, no owl hooting.

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And then the silence broke by the sound I didn’t want to hear. An alarmingly loud crack from branches breaking. And then another one. And then footsteps.

My heart beat like crazy and once again every single muscle in my body tensed as I laid completely still holding my breath. Calm down, I tried telling myself, you are hidden. Nobody knows you’re here. It’s an animal, not a human. Animal animal animal.

I laid still like that for what felt like eternity, until I finally judged it safe to let myself fall asleep as the noise was long gone. It must just have been an animal after all, for I was not disturbed that night.

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The next morning I found out it had been Jandarma escorting me – the Turkish military Police – as I met them again, although different men this time. The elder one of them shook my hand with a steady handshake as he said: “Nice bike. You crazy girl! Have an amazing journey, see you!” And then he shook my hand once more before they took off.

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They sure were nice guys Jandarma, but the question remains who called them. Who had seen us and called the police for me? Maybe a man, maybe a woman. I guess I’ll never find out.

But to whoever did, I am grateful.

Despite people continuously helping me however, I couldn’t help but feeling like my love for Turkey had cooled…

There I was once again a few days later, a 20 year old girl from Sweden trying to stand up against these five big armed Turkish men…

“I don’t care, ok!? I’m going into the woods, you CAN’T stop me!” You kidding me girl? Sure they could stop you. And they would…

And that’s the end of part II,

Cheers!

 

A Turkish love story Part I: Love at first sight

Crossing borders to Turkey didn’t only mean entering a new country; It meant entering the country that would take me to a whole new continent. It meant entering the metropolis where two worlds collide; Where West meets East.

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Needless to say, my excitement was just about to overload. And I fell, I fell so hard…

But first I had to cross borders to another country; Bulgaria. Although I wasn’t actually planning to cross borders since I was going to take the 15 minutes ferry ride across the Danube river separating it from Romania. The area on the map looking a lot greener on the Bulgarian side of the Danube, I really wanted to catch the last ferry of the day, departing at 8.30 pm. But I was struggling against time, and rather than my normal “oh oh baby snake, oh oh deer deer!!”-thoughts I had to go all racer snob and tell myself: “Cadence cadence! Push push push!” and ignore the beautiful sunset putting the fields in a reddish shimmer behind me.

AAAHH COME BACK SPIDER!! DON’T RUN FROM ME, I LOVE YOU PLEASE LOVE ME BACK!! “For fucks sake, stop harassing me girl!! I got a spgider girlfriend already, K? I am not interested!” And that’s how it goes every time I try to catch a spider with my hands for a few photos…

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As I kept telling myself to go faster, I got distracted by a white van slowing down next to me. When I saw the faces through the window I knew who they were: The men who had given me sweets at the gas station earlier, being all curious and impressed by the trip I was making. They were holding up sweets again  and I tried yelling to them through the glass;

“No thank you! Ferry, gotta get to the ferry!”

They obviously didn’t hear, and stopped the vehicle right in front of me so that I had to hop off my bike. In the next moment they were pouring sweets all over me as they asked: “Water, do you need water?!” and pointed at two big bottles in the front seat.

“No no! I got water, thank you. I need to… catch the last ferry… to Bulgaria!” I gasped between my breaths as I shoved the candy down my handlebar bag. The two bottles in the frame’s bottle holders were full since I hadn’t given myself time to make even the shortest water break the past hours. “Please, let me go now… ferry, ferry!” I kept repeating, still trying to catch my breath. They waved me off with more enjoy-your-trip-wishes and then the ride was on again.

As I reached the streets of Zimnicea my heart broke into a million pieces. Two pups on the road, nearly newborns. One of them was lying lifeless in a pool of blood, and the other one was trying to wake it up with little whimpers. And then another car. Run pup, run! Luckily, the pup ran – leaving her sibling behind to be crushed by a monstrous vehicle once more. The sight of road kills brings tears to my eyes every time, and the number has been devastatingly high ever since I got to Romania – not being any lower in Turkey.

I made it to the dock right on time, on the minute to be exact. But there was no ferry to be seen. It turned out I had missed the turning a few km earlier, and I was told to leave by a uniformed guard since I had apparently entered a forbidden area. There was no way I was going to get in time for the ferry now, so I disappointedly gave up. Which meant I had to find camp in the dark right in the middle of the city. And there is one major problem with seeking yourself to the bushed areas of a city in a country like Romania.

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I knew I had done it even before I heard them. In an attempt to get away from the crowded areas into the bush, I had entered stray dog territory. Their barks penetrated the woods and a few seconds later they came running at me. I made myself ready, shielding myself with the bike as I told them to fuck off, jokingly thinking to myself that “soon it’s going to be men and not dogs that I tell to fuck off”. Little did I know how right I was. The dogs did as they were told and fucked off, retreating into the woods again (if men were so easy). In case they’d come back however, I picked up two sticks from the ground – arming myself with one in each hand. I stated to myself that I had two options; I could stay in the stray dog territory or I could stay closer to the road. Usually I’d pick the woods, but for this time I picked the road. Not wanting to attract any attention from passing drivers though, I let my head torch stay in the pannier and pitched the tent in the dark.

I woke up to the sound of a rooster the next morning, intensely cock-a-doodle-dooing for two hours straight (seriously that’s what the English say?). As I finally decided to exit my tent and brush my teeth, I found that my camp was right next to a farm, with the rooster just around the corner! The farmer came by and greeted me.

“Bulgaria?” He asked without seeming mad about me camping on his lands.

“Da da, Bulgaria, ferry boat”, I replied, and then continued; “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize I was camping on your land!” The farmer didn’t seem to understand a word of my apologize but simply pointed at the bucket he was holding. It was filled with snails and I could tell from his body gestures and pleased smile that unlike Swedes that would pick snails simply to get them out of their garden he was going to eat them. A lot of people in the Romanian countryside seemed to do so.

The Danube river separating Romania and Bulgaria from each other, once on the Bulgarian side I replaced my brake pads for the first time. Already in Czech Republic the mechanic had told me to replace them since “it will be dangerous to keep biking with them”

It turned out the ferry wasn’t very punctual after all and it took off one hour later than scheduled that morning. In the meantime I was trying to make conversation with three truck drivers who were boarding the ferry too, of whom two were going to Tehran and one to Ashgabat. The one going to Turkmenistan was the only one who knew a few words of English (the others kept babbling on in Turkish with me).

“Iran bad” he said, “but Turkmenistan, fine. Liberal.” Sure it might be but they won’t give me more than a five days’ visa, I wanted to tell him but that was too much for his English.

My days in Bulgaria were pretty plain and eventless, and the nature too. The road was frustratingly boring going into straight slopes up and down that made me feel like I wasn’t making any distance at all. It sure isn’t a justified image of Bulgaria though, since I by own choice took the straightforward, fast path rather than the beautiful one going across the mountains. The simple explanation is that I was eager to leave Europe, to finally get to explore more exotic places. I was told by a woman once that it was not safe to wild camp and I heard gun shots from my tent the same night, but I assumed it was hunters and fell asleep thinking that “hopefully they won’t mistake me for a deer”.

I didn’t even spend three full days in Bulgaria, before crossing borders to my greatest waypoint so far; The country that would be my portal to Asia.

I had not ever in my life been outside of Europe before, so you could imagine I was excited. The border crossing itself wasn’t too complicated. Sure it meant various passport controls and also a quick scan of my panniers but I had honestly expected it to take more time, to be more painful. One of the border guards asked why on earth I was making this trip alone, and the one reply I could think of was: Why not? I have repeated it so many times by now. Tell me, why not?

And then I was in. I was as far away from home as I had ever been before and I loved it.

Finally got my first stamp when crossing borders to Turkey!

“I love Turkey!” I told Nina not for the first time as we sat down on the wooden chairs in the timbered bar looking like it could have been imported right from the Swedish Fjällen, with people’s “I was here”-scribbles carved into the furniture and walls. Nina was a French girl and despite only being one year older than me I felt like a child next to her. She had spent one year in Turkey (Izmir) doing her Erasmus already, so nothing was really new to her anymore. As for me however, it was like rebirthing again… Like getting to explore the world for the first time all over and just about anything would fascinate me.

“Nina are you sure we don’t need to pay for these snacks they serve us!? Really, they always serve free snacks in bars?? And they… THEY REFILL THE BOWLS AS SOON AS WE EMPTY THEM!? Wow, I’m totally gonna bring this tradition home to Swedish bars!!” Even the mechanism for opening the beer bottle was new to me, and would almost make me fall over my chair. The busy streets crowded with bazaars and street food I had never seen before fascinated me too and the five times a day call to prayers from the minarets of the mosques were spellbinding. I had only heard them once before; At night-time when drinking beer with a Serb in the city of Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina.

Nina had traveled quite a lot and would mainly get around by hitch-hiking and using couch-surfing. Most interestingly for me she had together with a female friend traveled across Iran.

“We always felt safe in Iran”, she told me, “Our biggest problem was people being too nice to us, they would never let us be. And since my friend isn’t that social… I had to do all the talking!” she continued with a laugh. “It was mind-blowing really. People would invite us to their homes and then call their relatives who spoke English, and then the relatives would cross the whole country simply to come talk to us… how weird is that?!”

I asked Nina what her parents thought of her travels and hitch-hiking. “They have learnt to accept it I guess” – just like mine, I thought  “At first they’d never ever let me go to Iran. But then when I stayed in Turkey, they got used to the thought. And when I told my mom I’m probably doing my internship in Ankara next year…” She laughed again, “She just replied: ‘Oh you’re going to move to Ankara with all the suicide bombings? Very well then. Have fun!'”

I also asked her what her dream destination would be. After all, her reply wasn’t very surprising to me – I could tell she had fallen in love with the Middle East: “Syria and Iraq. But this is not the time I guess.” I hope there will be a time for Nina to go to Syria and Iraq – that she will get to witness the great historical treasures dwelling there and that she will tell us all about it.

We diverged paths the next morning as she was catching the bus to Istanbul and I was riding my bike to Gelibolu. Before I left however, I had to say goodbye to a restaurant owner in whose restaurant I ate the night before I met Nina. He hadn’t let me pay for the food I’d had; the rice, the bean soup, the dessert and the beers were all on him after he heard about my trip. We had chatted all evening and he truly gave me the warmest welcome I could have ever received on my first night in Turkey.

The typical shot-looking glass that the Cay is served in…. and finally I found out who were occupying those giant nests I saw everywhere!

When leaving Edirne I was convinced that the rest of my stay would be just as amazing as these first few days. And sure thing, I was invited in for Cay (Turkish tea) by a lovely couple already in the first village I passed through… I almost didn’t think they’d let me leave! They didn’t speak a single word of English but they would both look up words in their old dictionaries as the glasses with cay were refilled and then refilled again. When they found out I was only 20 years old, they pointed at me exclaiming: “Baby! You are baby!” … and then they put a spoon of Turkish, homemade yoghurt in my mouth, just like that. I protested wildly; “What the… I aint no baby… ok?!” Another spoon in my mouth. Oddly enough, throughout my first weeks in Turkey people would either call me a baby or ask to sleep with me. Does that make any sense to you?!

The couple gave me a flower and I strapped it onto my bike with the flag… sadly I lost both later on 😦 (And as you could see my handlebar tape was in a terrible condition back then)

As I were to set camp that evening I realized Turkey didn’t really offer that many good accommodation opportunities for a cyclist but I got lucky and found a meadow hidden from the road by wild growing bushes and with a beautiful “balcony view” of the fields and hills below; The dark was dotted with little lagoons of lights from the villages and the calls from the mosques were echoing throughout the valley as I went to sleep, once again thinking that I loved Turkey.