The beginning for me was in Istanbul. Paul has already traversed England, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
He had 16 riding buddies, including the lead rider and sweep rider team from Compass Expeditions, and a converted Landcruiser back up vehicle piloted by Bayne from Canada. This carries spare parts including tyres, our luggage, camping gear and food.
They had a good time riding – with only a couple of wet days. Of course, the passes in Germany and Austria are the experiences that motorbike riders lust after, and reluctant pillions such as I, are not so keen on.
This part of the trip also saw the development of the essential relationships on a trip such as this, where you have to look after each other, and put personal preferences to one side on occasions in the interests of group dynamics.
Their trip into Istanbul proved to be one of the more challenging moments of the trip to date.
It is, at present and continuing until June 14, Ramadam.
So whilst the mornings and days are relatively quiet – and you can’t find a beer to buy anywhere, as the day progresses, things change. And in Istanbul – this means crazy mad traffic.
The guys first had a hiccup at the Bulgarian/Turkey border, where despite the best intentions of the one little guy with the stamp – the processes of buying insurance for the bikes, and all the usual palaver that goes on with crossing borders with vehicles with 16 to be processed, it all came to a crashing halt when the computer did a dummy spit with three still to get through. So they were hours behind schedule, and got stuck in the most dreadful traffic jam.
I had, in the meantime, whilst waiting their arrival, gotten to meet two of our group who were also joining the tour in Istanbul – Azar and Hermann. From Arizona ( but originally from Iran and Germany respectively). These guys are on a Honda Transalp with a side car attached – it looks amazing. How it copes with some of the off road stuff in the outer reaches of Russia, Mongolia etc is going to be interesting. They have done a lot of travel in their bike, including Iceland.
We stationed ourselves at a coffee bar near the corner to the hotel to await their grand arrival. But it all happened in dribs and drabs rather than a triumphant cavalcade of riders. So many of them got lost at the vital point where they needed to do a left hand turn, finding themselves in a tunnel heading to the Asian side of Istanbul! They were a frustrated and hot group who pulled into the hotell – and then had to play a game of motorcyle ‘Tetris’ as they squished 17 bikes into a very small Istanbul lane in front of the Hotel Deniz Houses hotel – with the added assistance of many curious locals.
But they then had 2 days of R & R in Istanbul.
I then had the task of quickly learning 19 names and faces, This started off well, but became harder once they all donned their bike gear and helmets!
We had a day of touring Istanbul the day after they arrived – but this is the stuff of tour guides – Hippodrome, Hagia Sofia, Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque etc etc.
Save to say that this is an exotic mix of east and west, and tourism and culture and industry, there is not much more I can add to the script of Istanbul. One in which I have a great respect for, and the mystic sounds of the call to prayer, and the intensity of Ramadam makes it a great time to be here, Unless you want a beer.
One major achievement was getting Paul’s IPhone repaired – as its screen had dramatically smashed on the ground about a week back. The hide and seek game to find a repairer took most of the afternoon. But the cheap repair bill of $60 was a pleasant surprise. We found most things in Turkey to be incredibly cheap.
The next morning was the big first day on the bike for me. It does take a while to get into the routine of gearing up. Making sure you have the right level of clothing, and the items you need to carry with you on the road, and getting the contact lenses in just right the first time!
But I got it all done in time.The routine for the trip is breakfast at 7 am, bags to the truck by 7.45 for loading and a briefing and on the road by 8 am.
We headed out of Istanbul, and thankfully the traffic was light. We were heading for Safranbolu – and you might gather from the name that this place is an ancient one associated with the production of saffron. But the trip there really opened our eyes to the country that is Turkey. It is holding elections on 14 June. The state of emergency that was imposed in 2016 and subsequently extended to now, has been promised to be lifted after the election. I am guessing that this will only occur if the result is the one sought by the incumbent.
In the meantime, the country is teeming with police and military. We counted about 40 police wandering about in one city just out of Istanbul, and in the city itself, around the Hippodrome there were wall to wall police. And heavily armoured military – with the riot tanks that have to be seen to be believed.
Anyway, as I was saying – this country seems to be in a state of flux. There is building and road works galore. I am personally inviting their bosses of road and bridge and tunnel making to come to VIctoria and sort the buggers out. It seems to be happening at a manic pace.
And the local news has stories of the various incursions and spats with the terrorist cells in Iraq near the border. Further, the purchase of Surface to Air Missiles from Russia,
The streets are squeaky clean ! Nary a rubbish wrapper or plastic bottle to be seen. The entrance ways and freeways and boulevards have beautiful landscaping and flowers. Gorgeous.
And as we head into the countryside – we see horse and carts, donkeys pulling a plough, women and men hand working the soil, and various images of an older and more traditional culture.
We arrived in the ancient town of Safranbolu – to find cobblestone streets winding through old buildings. A few Chinese tourists – but otherwise only ourselves. This has been true of most places we have visted after leaving Istanbul – we are definitely off the beaten track.
The hotel we stayed in was a beauty. Timber ceilings – and reminiscent of Cersei’s digs in Game of Thrones – at Casterley Rock. For those of you who don’t partake of Game of Thrones – much of my posts over the next few weeks will make no sense – but the scenery and the ancient buildings do seem like they have come from the set of the series. Our room was huge – and, as fortune would have it – our window faced on to the loudspeaker from the minaret across the road. Hence, our evening rest was punctuated with calls to prayer.
Side note = I have just had to roll a blanket at the base of the door to our hotel room = SMOKERS!!! Cigarettes cost $3 a pack -and I reckon that 75% of people smoke in Turkey.
Now where was I – oh, just boring you with travelogue stuff – I will fast forward to the next day when we did a long trek of 450 kmw south east to Goreme. We had a relatively easy ride out of the city of Istanbul – which is a massive city. And crossing the bridge we entered Asia (hello squat toilets!).
We had great scenery along the way as we reached the Cappadocia. The crazy sculpture like landscapes, looking like fairy chimneys and, on some occasions, phalluses. This is where the troglodytes lived in the caves in the rocks. And later those same caves were used as refuges by early Christians
We stayed, naturally, in Goreme in a hotel built and carved out of the rocks. High above the town – and, as luck and fortune would have it – directly in the line of the speaker from the minaret across the way. Now, I have tried to work it out, and I will have to do some serious Google research. But the calls come at sunset – for the break of the fast, and then again overnight around 1 and 3 and 5. But just to really up the ante – in Goreme we had a drummer or two. And on the first night at 1.32 am (yep – I remember the exact time) I could hear someone drumming. And when I peeped out the window – there was this dude with a huge kettle like drum slung around his neck – belting away. WHAAAT!!?
And another guy doing the same thing on the other side of town.
Now the import of this was – we were due to get up at 4 in the morning to go out for our highlight for this section of the trip- hot air ballooning. So sleep was precious.
Just to backtrack a little. When the guy from the ballooning company turned up to accept our payments, some of the more financially astute amongst us took umbrage a the 10% credit card surcharge, and those of us who are less financially astute were rewarded when the surcharge was waived,
But I have a sneaking suspicion that the ballooning guy may have had a contact with the drummer guy, and may have encouraged him to pay close attention to his drumming duties in the close vicinity of the the hotel occupied by some tightwad Aussies.
Anyway – we did get up in time – and the experience was indescribably beautiful. A fresh morning – but not a breath of wind – we were handed when we crawled into our mini bus – a bagel, a fruit juice box, and a piece of paper. Which was our emergency and safety information leaflet. Which we couldn’t read as it was dark. Never mind.
We clambered aboard (16 to a basket) and soon we were floating above this ancient and moonscape like scene – with 80 other balloons (they can have up to 150 apparently).
We commenced our flight from a higher level than most of the others – and were guided breathtakingly close along a narrow chasm – almost touching the tops of some of the ‘fairy chimneys’ (as the rock formations are known). Our pilot – and I was pretty impressed by this guy – had precision touch skills. At one stage he brought the balloon down so that it drifted just above the field of wheat, gently touching the heads of the wheat before rising up again.
We floated for almost an hour, looking out over the dramatic scene of the colourful balloons massed in the sky. He then brought us down and precisely and gently landed the rig exactly on the trailer attached to the Defender vehicle that would tow it back to base. Not even a bump. When we did get the chance to read the information brochure – I think we were supposed to land on the side – with us lying on our backs or something like that! Not on your life!
We then drank some form of bubbles mixed with fruit juice and ate cake before heading back to our hotel for a kip!
We had plenty of time to recover and look around the rather touristy town, as we had another night there. And guess who was back? This time at 2.30 am. Mr Drummer Man. And his mate. What tha??!!