Section 9 The Hills of Anatolia, Kars to Istanbul Turkey September 18 – October 3

Section 9

 

Sept 16: Kars to Bush Camp, 108 km, 1,130 m up, 1,670 m down

We climbed steadily for 43 km (to 2,322 metres) through farmland on quiet country roads. The landscape was wide open and gently sloped, a pallet of fall colours with an array of sheep, cattle and grain farms dotted with clusters of bee hives. The one stunningly blue lake that we saw seemed to pop out of the warm gold of the harvested fields.
We delighted in the speedy 15 km downhill ride to lunch, and then a gentler 48 km descent to camp. The terrain changed rapidly; we passed through a cool, dark green alpine forest of tall pine with logging operations ( it might be the first we’ve seen since Kazakhstan!), into lush, smaller fruit farms on the hilly mountainsides and finished in a dryer canyon of picturesque rock formations, where we camped in a field. A great day for most. Unfortunately, one of our clan of 11 full tour riders had to leave the tour unexpectedly today due to health issues, and he will be sorely missed!

Leaving Kars on rolling terrain and quiet roads

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Pastoral scene, man mucking out his wagon in the river while his horse patiently waits.

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Bee hives everywhere!

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Healthy looking herd of grazing sheep

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Lake on the ascent: SO BLUE!

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The first forest and logging we e seen in a long time, maybe since Russia!

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Descending from climb through rich farmland

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and through a rocky canyon

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to this beautiful varied landscape.

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Sept 18th – Bush camp to Yusufeli 104 km 550 up, 1,160 down.

Today was a non-taxing, fun ride through gently undulating, pastoral farmland and then rugged mountain scenery. We cycled for about 25 km along a high reservoir (formed by three enormous dams) in rocky peaks of gorgeous colours reflected in the water.  The descent to camp followed a twisting river gorge with numerous colossal open pit mines on a scale I’ve never seen before. We came to a rest in the charming, busy little town of Yusufeli. It is a whitewater paddling and rafting center at the confluence of the marble green Barhal and Ipsir Rivers, where they join to form the Çoruh River. We are at a quirky hotel on the riverbank, where we will perch for our rest day tomorrow!

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The 10th century Georgian church of St Mary with its tower and beautifully tiled Dome was 5 km off our path (and a 1000’ climb).  Between the 9th and 14th centuries, a large part of the northeast corner of Turkey formed part of the Kingdom of Georgia.

Photo by Virginia, who energetically cycled up to see it in the oppressive heat.

 

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September 19 – Rest Day in Yusufeli

Mountainside town of Yusufeli, soon to be flooded by the downstream dam being constructed.

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Park with Statues of Turkish heroes; Ataturk in the middle. He was a revolutionary in the early 1900’s, the first president of the new secular Republic of Turkey in 1923 and introduced an effective programme of revolutionary social and political reform to modernize Turkey.

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View from our perch at lunch in Yusufeli.

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Praying mantis on the hotel walkway: an agile carnivore with 3-D vision.

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Sept 20 – Yusufeli to Coruh River Camp 111 km

Leaving Yusufeli following the river downstream.

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The dam being constructed 12 km downstream from Yusufeli. Note Mark cycling in his green jacket bottom right below hydroelectric setup to get a sense of the scale.

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Farming community a bit further downstream.

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Farmer tending her cows.
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One of several castle remnants we saw along the road…obviously a desirable place to live and a strategic location along the river/ trade route.

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Approaching a dam already established on the Coruh River in the distance. It’s apparently taboo to take photos of government structures (even here in Turkey), so such photos were hastily taken.

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The climb up to the dam. You can see on the right the pale grey of the highway that we followed, snaking its way up and catching the sun.

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Closer view of the dam. Man has really carved up the landscape.

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Closer view of the same dam.

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Rose hips gracing the riverbank at our lunch stop.

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The Coruh River above the dam.

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A funky house: buildings look more westernized every day.

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Flies on a cyclist’s leg before the application of DEET, just to give you an idea of the number we were dealing with.

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Sept 21 – Coruh River Camp to Soccer Field Camp  111 km

Curves, hills, sunshine, not too hot, great road surface and virtually no traffic!  Who could ask for more?

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and a great riding partner, Mark, of course!

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Serene countryside and green, something my psyche has been missing in the spectacular but dry and often barren steppes we spent so much time in.

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Internal dialogue “There is probably room to sneak by, but probably prudent to wait given the way people drive around here!”

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Sweeping up the dried ? chaff.

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Neighbours working on a garden project. They tried to get me to stop to eat something, but I’d just had lunch. 🙃

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Harvesting time in these peaceful villages.

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Lots of new construction appearing as we go west

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Hay stacks sporting colourful rain garb.

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Black area in upper right looks like a grow op!

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Just escaped the storm behind us😀

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I’m reading a greeting and farewell poem (to the cyclist who had to leave on medical grounds) while being videoed.

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Sept 22 – Soccer Camp to Sebinkarahisar  123 km

These large buildings are apparently not what one would assume them to be (apartment buildings), but are multigenerational family dwellings.

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Staff trying to stay fit at the lunch spot, waiting for the riders to arrive. They watch us head out everyday for hours of exercise and then eat copious amounts of food, while they take care of our needs all day!

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The town of Sebinkarahisar below the castle which dates from Roman times (1st century BC).

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Fresh nuts for sale on every street corner.

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Village square

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Public drinking fountain in the town square.

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Sleeping dog typical of the many we encounter daily on the roadside, few of whom are aggressive. They all seem to be large, perhaps to survive a mongrel life in a harsh climate.

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Path up to the castle.

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Still climbing!   I wouldn’t want to be doing this in attack mode in full armour on a hot day!

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View of the road in the valley from which we came here.

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Still going up but getting there!

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View below

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Almost there!

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The castle at the top!  Amazingly intact.

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The innermost tower within the keep.

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The keep from the inside.

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Village elders having a chin waggle.

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Village men gathered in the evening.

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Sunset Sebinkarahisar

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Sept 23 – Sebinkarahisar to River Camp 143 km

Leaving Sebinkarahisar

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Morning light.

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Resting by the road.

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Fish farm amidst such a colourful palate.

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Silky new pavement, smooth as a baby’s bum, in a landscape of velvet.

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More fish farming.

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Yet another damn dam.

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Honey for sale, so much honey, and it tastes so good!

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My little donkey taking a break.

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Road building in Turkey. I don’t know if you can see it but these excavators are working on a narrow ledge building a very steep road, typical in this area. You wonder how many people have lost their lives making roads and carving up this extreme terrain.

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Typical highway. Beats the roads in BC hands down.

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Yahoo!  Istanbul is on the radar screen😛

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Expensive infrastructure: there are miles and miles of reinforced walls like this or made of stone masonry lining the roadways, as the mountainsides are so steep.

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Sunset in camp.

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Sept 24 – River Camp to Amasya 120 km

Placid lake (formed by dam) in morning light.

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Brick and cement factories abound in this region.

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Roadside fruit stands also sell steaming chai.

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Fisherman statue on bridge in the gorgeous historical city of Amasya.

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View of Amasya from the Harsena Castle above.

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Harsena Castle built 2300 years ago.

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Sept 25 – Rest Day in Amasya

Amasya cobbled street.

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Amasya with its European flavour.

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Pottery in the works.

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Bath house. ( ha am) built in 1495 AD.

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Pottery jug and plates.

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More pottery ( tiles)!

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Sept 26 – Amasya to Osmancik 110 km

Selfie of me and the lovely merchant who took me by the hand to find beer 4 blocks away from her shop.

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Sept 27 – Osmancik to Bush Camp 130 km

Introducing the Europeans to roasting marshmallows, a North American institution.

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Morning chaos in camp on a cold day that looks like rain.

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Lonely toadstool near my tent.

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Sept 28 Bush Camp to Safranbolu 125 km

Arriving in Safranbolu (a world heritage city) for our rest day!  Looks a lot like Italy, but less hand gesturing during conversations.

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Our quaint and romantic room in the very old, refurbished  Karelian Konac Inn.

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Alluring aromas arise from small cafes that pepper the streets and alleys.

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September 29 – Rest Day Safranbolu

The dolmades draped in garlic and yogurt that we had for an appetizer.

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A photo insisted upon by  this family after an evening meal at their restaurant

September 30 ride no. 113 Safranbolu to Boar camp: 139 km. 1700 m up. 1700 m down.

It was a pleasant, easy morning, twisting our way downhill along  the valley floor amidst steep forested mountains. I had fun bellowing out some opera as I whizzed through the 13 tunnels, which are amazing echo chambers.

After lunch the road meandered, mostly upwards, through seemingly peaceful villages  with both churches and mosques, a tribute to Ataturk’s secular policy.  The housing is distinctly more dilapidated in this region than that which we’ve seen previously, with poorer waste management and copious amounts of roadside litter. Camp was a quiet but lumpy farmer’s field, adjacent to his hazelnut orchard.

Throughout Turkey, long stretches of highway are lined by tall retaining  walls made of beautiful stone masonry.  I could use some of this expertise at the lake!

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Village with Eastern Orthodox Church nestled in the mountains.

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Such lush forests are a treat to the eyes and soul.

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Village homes along a river.

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Typical small Christian graveyard.

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The evening gravy train.

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Our great chefs, Benedict(left) and Mitchell

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October 1 (ride #114, 3 more to go, but no one is counting, of course!) Boar Camp to Kayacik  restaurant camp: 122km. 1200 up, 1450 down.

We had several hours of light drizzle in the morning. In the previous 147 days, we had only been subjected to a couple of ten minute showers during the day, and a few downpours while dry in our tents at night. Previous Silk Route tour riders had not been nearly so lucky.

Our first glimpse of the Black Sea.

Riding in the rain along the shores of the Black Sea.

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Fishing culture.

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By noon we caught our first sight of the Black Sea, an active fishing and resort area with few tourists at this time of year. Fortunately that night, we had the option of sleeping in a large covered space above a non-functioning restaurant, and got away from the pelting rain, lightning, thunder and wind. It was great to sleep in this refuge and pack up dry gear in the morning!

Seaside mosque.

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Seaside venues for, waiting for spring.

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Mitch and our local Turkish support person Samil

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Many innocent pups like these

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Grow into big dogs like these, sometimes, but not often, very menacing. My shrill whistle and a squirt of water in the face was usually enough to deter them.

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Threatening sky this evening.

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Field at harvest time under a turbulent, electrified  sky

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October 2  – #115, Kayacik restaurant camp to Sile: 98 km 1600 m up, 1600 m  down.

Clear skies greeted us this morning!  I decided to take a 50 km detour after lunch to stay on small back roads and avoid the main road. I savoured my last peaceful afternoon on tour, before riding into our final destination tomorrow, the megalopolis of Istanbul!  I  discovered precisely why the TDA route follows the highway: it was unbelievably steep on the small roads I chose, climbing out of and plummeting into one deep ravine after another.  I enjoyed pausing to look at the cornucopia of magnificent autumn scenes with the Black Sea as a backdrop in the distance, and stopping to chat with a few locals.  Men were out chopping wood for winter and others gathering corn and the last fruit of the fall. Many houses are made of unfinished wood here in in western Turkey where forests (and logging) are abundant. It is a striking change after the relative paucity of trees and wooden structures between Beijing and the Turkish border. Some of the villages here remind me of our Russian Dukubour communities in BC. where their wood siding is left to age naturally.

I eventually wended my way back to the main road where I bumped into Alistair and Jasper having a cold drink at an outdoor cafe (scattered with foraging chickens, geese, cats and dogs).  I somehow managed to get myself stuck in the restroom there until eventually they managed to slip a pair of pliers under the door and I could pry the lock open! Excitement I could live without!

Camp near the Black Sea that night was joyful and lively, with delicious appetizers, a wonderful meal and anticipatory celebration embellished by lots of beer. Yahoo, one more ride and we will have accomplished our goal!

Elaina delighting in Turk with hooka statue.

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Men chopping wood for winter.

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Café inhabitants

Jasper (from Holland) relaxing.

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Yay! I’ve escaped the toilet!

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Typical wood siding on a traditional house.

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Jim (from Utah) at rest after a day of steep climbing.

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Oct 3  Ride #116, LAST ONE!  Sile to Istanbul: 90 km,  1040 m up 1040 m down. The End!

Many of us rode much of this tour alone, especially on the most challenging days. It is simply more efficient and less tiring over longer distances and big elevation changes to ride at your own pace. But today, many of us rode together, laughing, joking, reminiscing and just enjoying each other’s company. Three of the fourteen full tour riders had had to drop out of the tour earlier on due to illness, leaving 11 of us to complete the whole journey. We were also accompanied by several riders who had joined us for the final section(s). Tonight we would be saying goodbye and heading off tomorrow to our own corners of the world. Although our eccentric group was somewhat disparate, to say the least,  lasting friendships were forged during these five months of sharing the multitude of extraordinary experiences.

When we at last reached the outskirts of Istanbul on the Bosphorus, the whole group convened with much hugging, jumping and shrieking with joy. We had done it!

We had fresh grilled fish sandwiches for lunch at the seaside, a real treat after our long inland journey. After a brief photo session, we rode the last 30 km through the city as a convoy to our hotel.  Twenty million people now live in this colourful metropolis straddling Asia and Europe, once capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.   It is home to the Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Grand Bazaar…. to name but a few of the sites of historical importance here. It has been of great geopolitical and economic importance throughout history, and had significant influence on the development of the Christian and Muslim worlds.  It was hard to focus on staying safe in the busy traffic of this 3,000 year old city, it was so full of famous landmarks and stunning scenery. Istanbul provided a fitting end for our Silk Route tour with its pivotal role in the exchange of people, ideas and goods between Asia and Europe. In the evening, we took a boat to the Princess Tower to dine and celebrate !  THE END.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

I have been much enlightened by my travels and am grateful to have had the physical, mental and economic means to ride and experience the Silk Route. I extend a huge “Thanks” to TDA for  ushering us safely from Beijing to Istanbul and providing this opportunity.

Thanks to you for following my trip. I hope it has given you some insight into the experience, despite my erratic blog entries.

I plan to continue to support KEEF in its efforts to educate bright children in Kenya. To this end, I will be presenting slide shows of my Silk Route journey and will post dates and times on this blog and elsewhere. Unfortunately, while travelling I was unable to download the photos from my better camera, and only had those from my iPhone to post on the blog.  So, the slide show promises to have better photography as I can now download the greater selection and quality of photos from my camera.

After the Silk Route tour ended, I spent four days seeing some of Istanbul and ten days touring the Aegean / western Turkey with Alistair and Martine, a friend from France, by car.

I’ll post some photos with captions of Istanbul, Gallipoli, Troy, Ephesus, Kuşadası and Pamukkale for anyone interested. Turkey is a safe, friendly and fascinating place that is easy to get around and well worth visiting!

Our “white board” on the last day.

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Modern university along the highway.

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Mark and Kylie climbing one of the last hills.

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Last glimpse of the Black Sea as we head to the Bosporus! IMG_4539

Wood stacked for winter, not something many Asian countries produce on the Steppes.

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Reentering civilization, with large man made structures such as this overpass on the freeway. First wave of culture shock. IMG_4542

Cyclists enjoying the group ride on our last day. Better late than never. IMG_4546

Parting shot of a few farm dogs…none of us will miss them! IMG_4549

Hello Bosporus!  Can we really be here?!IMG_4550

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Kylie, Mark, me and Jasper. IMG_4563

The four ladies who rode start to finish: Virginia(Canada), Kylie (Australia) Els(Holland) and me on her lap. IMG_4585

Enjoying a lunch of grilled mackerel and calamari, fresh from the sea!IMG_4565

14 Our red TDA “lunch truck” , soon headed for the West Africa Tour which begins next week. IMG_4575

Group: a rare opportunity, like seeing a herd of cats together. IMG_0988

Me and my two buddies, Mark from Michigan and my partner Alistair from Canada who joined us in Samarkand. IMG_0993

Ed from Washington state.IMG_4613

Kylie looks happy.

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Mark,  you did it!  Happy to be heading home! IMG_4622

Istanbul harbour sunset. IMG_4626

Mark, Nelson and Kylie celebrating at dinner on Princes Island. IMG_4629

Els and Kees, two happy Dutchies! IMG_4633

Martine and Alistair

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October 4

View of Istanbul from bridgeIMG_4646

Sample of Istanbul traffic. IMG_4664

Vendor peddling hot, roasted chestnuts. Amazingly tasty!IMG_4685

Another vendor with roasted corn, also delicious!

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Section 8 Tehran, Iran to Kars, Turkey September 6 – 16

 

Section 8

Sept 6-10 : Tehran to Tabriz 476 km, with insignificant (150 to 1100 meter) elevation gains and losses.

Thursday, Sept 6: Tehran to Takestan 56 km

Bus ride out of city and then a short 55 km ride.  We thankfully rode a bus for 2.5 hours in freeway traffic out of this large, congested city. We had a glimpse from the bus of many interesting buildings enroute, including mosques and most notably the modern Azadi Tower, gracing the west entrance of  the city with its’ elegant architecture.
After leaving suburbia, we passed through industrial areas and smaller cities with car factories, metal mining and smelting, knife making, gas powered electrical energy generating plants, etc.  Traffic remained significant all the way to camp, but we had a wide shoulder on which to cycle. Not exactly the kind of riding we prefer, but sometimes you just have to get from A to B. I wore my trusty face mask to filter the fumes: hot to wear in this climate but reassuring.  It needs washing daily to get out the grime but I’m glad it’s not in my lungs!  We were treated to an unexpected night in a hotel by TDA (vs camping in a busy area in the heat) and this basic but air conditioned room was welcome indeed.

Restaurant meals here are consistently comprised of  soup, shish kababs, saffron rice and possibly veggies.  The staple flat, circular loaves of fresh baked bread is really delicious when warm, but has a shelf life of about 15 minutes before morphing into a facsimile of cardboard . Our cooks, Mitch and Ben, are creative and provide interesting, nutritious and varied meals in camp, especially now that we are in places with access to great groceries.

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The Soltaniyeh historical dome in Takestan, Iran is the largest brick dome in the world.  It was built by order of Sultan Mohammad Khodabandeh (Oljeitu) in Soltaniyeh city, the capital of the Ilkhanate dynasty from 1302 to 1312.  Bricks are the main materials used in this building.

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Catacomb under Dome foundation with tombs.

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Carved wooden “lace” over windows

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Decorative tiles in balcony ceiling

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Friday, Sept 7: Takestan to Zanjan 129 km

We made a 10 km detour to the famous Soltaniyeh Dome, the 3rd largest dome in the world, built in the early 1300’s. The exterior tile work has been damaged by earthquakes  but the size and beauty of the structure is impressive. The size of the dome is at the limit of what is physically possible to engineer and its construction set a precedent and prototype for other great domes. Iranian tourists visiting the site seemed more interested in the spectacle of us crazy foreigners travelling here by bicycle.

We stayed in a hotel again.  Early the next morning, the parking lot, which was empty when we walked by in the evening, was packed wall to wall with tents and people sleeping on mats in the open air without tents. Iranians seem to camp out anywhere and everywhere in great numbers, with no need it would seem, for campsites. We’ve seen this everywhere in Iran.

Parking beside hotel lot crammed with tents in the morning. Not much rain in these warm parts. Many seen sleeping on mats outside on the pavement.

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Alistair happy not to be camping.

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Fighter jet on display by the highway ? from the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) when Iraq tried but failed to annex Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province.

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Another rural mosque, frequently located in somewhat rundown locations like this along the road or in villages.

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Saturday, Sept 8:  Zanjan to Riverbed Camp. 118 km.

As camp tonight  promised to be hot and offer no shade or water, we took our time before leaving town this morning and made a visit to the Zanjan Laundry Museum.  This large auditorium-like structure was built in the early 1900’s to provide the village women with a warm place to do their washing in the winter. Presumably,  at that time, there was no plumbing or heating.  Given the ubiquitous, primitive outhouses with drop toilets still in use, I’m not sure how many people living here have those amenities even now!

Laundromat Museum in Zanjan displaying locally crafted steel knives.

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Many local handicrafts, old and new,  were on display and for sale at the museum, including traditional soft leather shoes and bags, steel knives, hand painted China, and silver and  copper ware.

More local craft: brass and copper tea pots

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The ride took us through an area busy with active small scale farms producing grain, vegies, tree fruits, grapes, sunflowers, herbs etc. The small yellow grapes are the best I’ve ever eaten.  There are some sheep and goats but it seems that most of this dry steppe is irrigated for growing food. Fields were scattered with people manually harvesting their produce.  Roadside vendors repeatedly offer us produce but refuse payment.  The cool, sweet juicy honeydew melon was incredibly refreshing when I stopped to repair a flat tire in the shade of a fruit kiosk, amid an extended family of curious onlookers.  I think they were quite amazed that a woman could/would change a flat tire and asked several times if I needed assistance!  It’s no wonder, as until a few years ago, it was illegal for a woman to cycle here.

Large expanses of irrigated grain farmland. A farmer on his donkey herding the sheep with his large sheep dog.

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After seeing parched riverbeds all day, we finished our ride in a glowing red canyon with the soothing sound of a brook burbling beside our campsite. The sighting of a snake in the swimming hole was enough to satisfy me with a sponge bath on the shore.

 

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Shoe making at Zanjan Laundry Museum

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Which pair would you choose?

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Looking at these beautifully crafted shoes that one could have tailor made here at the museum, I was reminded of Freda Wolfe’s poem:

“Choosing Shoes”

New shoes, new shoes,

Red and pink and blue shoes,

Tell me what would you choose

If they’d let us buy?

Buckle shoes, bow shoes,

Pretty pointy-toe shoes,

Strappy, cappy low shoes;

Let’s have some to try.

Bright shoes, white shoes,

Dandy dance-by-night shoes, Perhaps-a-little-tight shoes; Like some? So would I.

 

BUT Flat shoes, fat shoes,

Stump-along-like-that shoes,

Wipe-them-on-the-mat shoes

O that’s the sort they’ll buy.

 

No copyright infringement is intended.

 

Men collecting the wheat and putting it in sacks. The process might account for the piece of gravel I crunched down on in my bread today.

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It’s a very long road.

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It’s hard to see, but these field workers are gathering red onions into bags.

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Sunday, Sept 9:  Riverbed Camp to Tikme Dash   106 km

It was a similar, easy ride through rolling agricultural lands. Our gradual elevation gain afforded us a cooler campsite in a shaded field, where we all slept better and then huddled around our first campfire for breakfast in the crisp morning air.  What a nice change!

Rare statue of a female, seen in a village roundabout.

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Flower farm

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Farm and homestead

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Last of the apple harvest. I sampled one of these fresh off the tree: perfectly sweet, crisp and juicy😊

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The only mosque I saw all day: a reflection on the actual state of the Muslim religion amongst the populace?

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Photo of evening sheep drive taken from my tent

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It’s sunflower harvest time. This surprisingly heavy head was presented to me by a young boy at the roadside. The seeds were deliciously tender and nutty. The detail of it, seen up close, is fantastic.

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Monday, Sept 10:   Tikme Dash to Tabriz: 68km ride and 40 km bus ride into city of 2M.

One of our female cyclists had an encounter this morning on the highway with a truck driver bent on harassing her. Fortunately she kept her cool and in the end, she was unharmed physically and her aggressor was quickly apprehended by the police. He went to jail for the night while they decided his fate. It made us all more aware of safety issues and grateful for the backup we have with our TDA group.

Water fountain in the village of Kandovan, 60 km from Tabriz, with pure water valued for its rich mineral content from natural springs fed by flow off of the Sabalan Mountains

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Distance view of a portion of the village of Kandovan, whose stone dwellings (troglodytes) house 670 people.

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Closer view of town. The cones were formed by the eruption of nearby mount Sahand. The resulting stone (lava/ash) was eroded by flowing waters into cones, which have been carved out into homes. The first inhabitants of 700 years ago are believed to have been people trying to escape the invading Mongols who carved caves for themselves here.  These have become elaborate permanent dwellings which are energy efficient; the rock keeps them cool in summer and warm in winter.

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Close up village of Kandovan

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Virginia , content with her purchase of a hand woven runner, outside of the shop in Kandovan.

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Another close up of a dwelling in Kandovan.

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Women enjoying a quiet picnic in Kandovan

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Preparing another melon smoothie!

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Glimpse at family life of a merchant and housewife in Kandovan

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The tree in the middle of the village street estimated at 1400 years old, in which  the shoe repairman had his shop.

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When the shoe repairman died recently, the  shop was closed to preserve the tree and the statue was erected.

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Kebab dinner out with Amin, our guide.

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Food courts in shopping plazas are similar worldwide, only the menus are written in different languages. Here you could choose from the Italian counter, the burger joint, Chinese food, the Lebanese food counter and on and on.

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Mosaic tiled underpass, adding a tasteful aesthetic to the mundane. Iranians are skilled at bringing beauty to their daily lives.

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We bused the last 40 km into Tabriz, a city of about 2M people, for our rest day here. It is situated in the Iranian province of Azerbaijan, close to the border with the country of Azerbaijan, and  many people of that origin live here. There are also a large number of Christian’s of Armenian origin living here, and a few churches can be spotted here and there.

A small group of us (and our obligatory appointed tour guide, Amin, who was great) spent the afternoon exploring the famous nearby village of Kandovan, where homes are carved out of the cone shaped deposits of volcanic ash. Fantastic sight. See photos.

Monday, Sept 11:  Rest Day in Tabriz.

We have a great day sightseeing with Amin, who is working at 6 jobs, saving his money to fund his passion: to climb up K2!  Our outing included :

Anthropology museum entrance with ancient stone animal carvings.

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-A stroll past the archaeological museum garden with a selection of Stone Age  headstones.  These look like  the Stone Age headstones we saw further east but no internet connection to verify.

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Statue of most famous Iranian poet Ferdowsi

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-Iron Age Museum: this area of the world is rich in iron ore. We rode past numerous mines and smelters on our travels in Iran.  This is where the Iron Age began in c.1500 BC.

-Grand Bazaar: largest covered bazaar in the world!  The Persian carpet section was endless and the carpets reasonably priced (but alas impossible to carry on a bicycle!).  I contented myself with a selection of nougat, fruit, nuts, a melon smoothie and pistachio/saffron ice cream. Mmmmm.

The Blue Mosque,  built in 680 AD but damaged in the 1700’s by an earthquake, with exquisite tile work. Under restoration.

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Tiles renowned for their colour and design which modern techniques cannot reproduce

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Tiles renowned for their colour and design which modern techniques cannot reproduce

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Blue Mosque again

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Gate of Khiyaban

The city of Tabriz has historically played an important economic, political and military role in Iran’s history. The last of the walls to defend the inner city was built in the 1190’s and had eight gates. This is one of the two gates that remain  intact.

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In the carpet section of the grand bazaar in Tabriz.

First, buy the wool and dye it with natural colours from herbs and berries and nuts.

Raw Wool

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Here’s a shop selling the spun but undyed yarn.

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Here’s the yarn ( dyed with natural colours from herbs, berries and nuts) ready for use.

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Now you’re all set.  With practice, it can take a team of weavers months to years to weave a carpet, depending on the size and density of the knots. Good carpets, made of pure wool and or silk,  have 60-100 knots per 7 cm!

Large carpet stall.

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Virginia contemplating which chador to purchase, hmmm, black or black?

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Flags flying everywhere you look today to celebrate Ashura ,the Shi’a Muslim equivalent of the Christian Easter, when Husain died( martyred in 680 AD). I’ve now learned that many  of the campers we’ve seen in tents have been on pilgrimages to various religious shrines.

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Fresh Dates for sale

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Pomegranates galore!  20 cents each.

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Patiently waiting outside meat shop. Maybe for centuries.

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Gentleman in carpet bazaar tying knots of fringe to finish carpet. His hand moved so quickly all you could see was a blur!

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Copper wares for sale.

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Brass for sale.

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Tomorrow we head out on a two day ride to the Turkish border!

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September 13th –  Steppe camp to Maku Hotel  149 km  with detour.

We are now cycling in the sparsely populated, mountainous region of Azerbaijan province in western Iran.

Haystacks in the mist leaving camp

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Village on the hillside in the morning sun.

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Shepherdess gathering the flock.

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Before lunch, we climbed 1700 meters over 80 km up a good secondary road with beautiful views. After refuelling, we made a 10 km detour to visit the ancient Kara Kilise (aka St. Thaddeus) Armenian Church, nestled high up in a tiny, remote village.

It was originally built over the Christian martyr’s burial site in 68 AD after the king ordered the death of Christ’s apostle St. Thaddeus(aka St. Jude). It is claimed by the Armenians to be the oldest Christian church known. Over the centuries, additions to the original structure and construction of an adjacent monastery make this a magnificent Unesco World Heritage Site, well worth the effort to get there!

After returning to the main road and peddling an easy flat 10 km,  I got some refreshing speed and cooled off on the steeper, twisty 20 km descent through rocky red mountains. After drinking 2 litres of fluids at the first pit stop, it was then a very gradual ascent over 30 km to Camp, yet another hotel! So great to shower and not set up a tent after this long, warm day.

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One of several gravestones on church grounds 2.

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Closeup of wall.

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Chapel 2 km south of church believed to be chapel and burial site of king’s daughter dating from 68 AD.

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Ahhh the descent at last!

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Sept 14   Maku Hotel to Kars, Turkey

It was a short, easy 20 km ride to the Turkish border, with the 5130 meter high Mount Ararat and its’ sidekick looming in front of us.  It is a snow capped, compound, dormant volcano, the highest mountain in Turkey and the Armenian Plateau.  The border crossing went smoothly for the riders, but not at all well for one of our two support vans.  We had to leave it there and get our new local support to organize  a Turkish vehicle to carry our gear forward.  Apparently the van was registered in the name of a TDA staff person who left the tour in Tehran.  The Iranian government will only allow a vehicle to leave with the driver to whom it is registered.  So, our leader Andreas will drive to Kars, Turkey, fly to Istanbul, go through the cumbersome red tape to re-register the vehicle under a Turkish driver (as Turks can cross the border without cumbersome visa processes etc), who will then fly to Iran, taxi to the border and hopefully cross it and drive our red Sprinter van to catch up with us. Bureaucracy at work again to decrease the unemployment rate!

After getting through the border, we rode 230 km on a bus  because of the  security risks posed by the skirmishes between the Turks and the Kurds that have been going on in this region for centuries. So we will not ride these two days, but will have an opportunity to rest and see the historic town of Kars and mearby Ani.

Arrival in Kars by bus from the Iranian border to Kars on September 14th. 
The 230 km drive through rolling grasslands took us right past the highest mountain in Turkey, snow capped Greater Mount Ararat (5,137 metres high) and its side kick, Little Ararat. We rode up and down for a few hours in this hilly part of eastern Turkey (Anatolia) on our way to Kars, a town of 78,000 people, at 5,800 feet elevation. Close to the border with Armenia, it is full of visible history and character, with a 12th century castle and fortress looming above the city, three very old stone bridges, an Ottoman era bath house, an Armenian church turned Mosque… and the charming Katarina Hotel, where we stayed for three nights (due to the schedule change). We spent the afternoon just relaxing under the trees on the front lawn of the hotel watching the Kars River flow by, in the comfortable temperatures of this elevation (6,000 feet).

Stay posted!

Greater Mt. Ararat and Little Mt. Ararat from a distance through the bus window.

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Mt Ararat a bit closer up

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Hilly country, approaching the town of Kars

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Restored Turkish bath house from 16th century

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Old stone bridge spanning the Kars River

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Kars castle looming over our Hotel

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Old Bridge, New Marriage

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September 15 & 16, Rest Days in Kars

 

Sept 15  A leisurely late breakfast introduced us to some of Turkey’s scrumptious bread, baking, honey dripping from the combs, yogurt, and fresh and preserved fruits.  We sat and nibbled for a long time; guiltless gluttony is one advantage of expending so much energy everyday.

We wandered the short distance into town along the river admiring the old, solid stone buildings and bridges. As with many of the cities we’ve visited, the buildings and culture reflect the general history of Asia: Kars was once the capital of Armenia  in the 9th and 10th centuries, captured by the Seljuk Turks(Persians) in 11th century, by the Mongols in the 13th century, by Timur (whose mausoleum we visited in Samarkand, Uzbekistan) in the 14th century, by the Ottoman Turks  in the 16th century, the Russians in the late 19th century, and returned to Turkey in 1918, where it remains.  Clearly, defence of the city has historically been a critical issue, as evidenced by the (ruins of) extensive fortifications around Kars.

For lunch, we stopped at a cafe and asked for a sampling of local fare. We were presented with a mouthwatering array of herbed olives, soft and hard cheeses, breads, pickled plums and cherries, hummus etc, and more of the fantastic Turkish honey.  It seems a lot of cheese and honey is produced in this region, and many large shops sell nothing else but a variety of these two products.

Sept 16
I stretched my legs early this morning with the first run I’d had in months, following the river in the brisk fall air (Ah yes, cooler air!). Several of us then took a  45 km bus ride East to see the ruins of the abandoned medieval city of Ani, a fabled ghost town on the river gorge that forms the border with Armenia.

Ani, Main gate

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Portion of double wall of fortress

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Close up of offset inner gate.

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Plateau with view of a few of the many ruins from inside the walls

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Wall and gates.

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Wall and gates.

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A glimpse of the gorge assistants would have to cross

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One of the roads approaching the gorge

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One of the silk routes

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Section 7 – Ashgabat, Turkmenistan to Tehran, Iran – The Magic Carpet Ride August 24 – Sept 2

Section 7

Aug 24. Ashgabat to Mosque Camp
Today is our 8th (and penultimate!) border crossing of the Silk Route.
40 km of wonderfully smooth, hilly  roads. IMG_2647
We set off early by bus for the 70 km ride to the Turkmenistan/Iran border crossing. Given the lavish aesthetics of Ashgabat, the President has clearly not given the same consideration to the lasting impression people are given as they leave his country; the absolutely appalling squat toilets on the Turkmen side of the border are beyond description, the worst I’ve ever encountered!!  Enough said.
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Will turns 30. The only cake staff could find said “happy birthday Veronica”.

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The exit from Turkmenistan and entry into Iran went pleasingly efficiently and we were on our bikes by noon, in beautiful Iran. The ladies were quite the spectacle, with our biking shorts covered up with long cotton shirts to the knee, pants to the ankle and no hair on our heads visible. Quite a challenge to ride swaddled this way in 30+ degree weather!!  But we’re tough, and probably a few other choice adjectives you may be thinking.

As we didn’t know how long we’d be detained at the border, a short ride  was planned. It had lots of ups and downs and sweeping views of this scenic, arid, hilly rural terrain.  We were able to settle into camp early, across from a remote, dilapidated mosque/campsite, in a hot canyon in the desert. No water. Yes, very hot, with no hope  of shade until after dinner.

Curious spectators from the bona fida campground across the road wandered over to have a gander at (and take videos of) the crazy tourists on bikes. A few police also dropped in to be sure we were complying with code, so the head scarves stayed on until we were in our tents for the night. Despite the heat and the restrictions that this country places on women, it was nonetheless a relief to fall asleep here in Iran, having successfully navigated our way through and out of Turkmenistan.

After dinner, we met our new local guide, Yousef, who gave us a  brief overview of Iran, and Amin, our equally pleasant and competent local driver. For those interested, here is what I’ve gleaned from Yousef’s talk and other sources:
Iran (aka Persia) is a large Middle Eastern country of 82 million people, with the Caspian Sea to the north and the Persian Gulf to the south. The capital, Tehran, is the largest city. The country is best known for its warm hospitality, nature and ancient culture, but also for carpets, caviar, pistachios and saffron.

The ancient Zoastrian  religion of fire worship originated here and influenced many subsequent religions, including Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. The culture dates from the fourth millennium BC.  It reached its largest 2,500 years ago as the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus and his son, Darius. Persia was conquered by Arab Muslims in the 7th century, replacing indigenous faiths with Islam, and later fell to the Turks and Mongols. In the centuries that followed it was a series of Muslim empires and regions.

In the 1800’s, Britain won out over Russia and established a strong presence in Iran. It founded the British Petroleum Company in 1909, which remains one of the world’s 8 largest companies by revenue.
In 1919 the Paris Peace Conference established Iran’s current borders.There are greater than 30 ethnic groups and dialects here, with the common language of Farsi.  The cultural borders are three times greater than the current political borders, and the Persian language of Farsi is also spoken in Tajikistan and Northern Afghanistan. Arabic is also commonly spoken in Iran.

After WW II, the US took over Britain’s prominent role in Iran’s oil industry.  In 1960, the birth of OPEC assured that the oil producing countries had greater control over their own resources, from which Iran then flourished.
When the Iranian Shah promoted a secular government, the Iranian revolution of 1978 replaced the Shah as leader with a religious political leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini.  Since then, it has been a Muslim theocratic republic, with the current leader slightly more liberal than the last. ( Still no alcohol allowed! ) The majority of believers are Shea, with a 10 % minority being Suni. The new generation are apparently reluctant to openly show their lack of belief, but attendance at the mosques, like many western churches, has fallen off dramatically.

98% of the Iranian economy depends on oil, and is very sensitive to international sanctions. Those recently imposed by the Americans have resulted in a devastating drop in the value of their currency, with disastrous economic effects here.

Agriculture is important. Grains (especially wheat) , rice (known for its exceptional quality) , fruit ( the peaches are amazing!), all kinds of nuts and vegetables are grown for local consumption and export. The famous, colourful, handwoven carpet industry looms large in their cultural tradition and economy. Health care and education are free. Unemployment is 12%.

August 25  Mosque  Camp to Quchan  52 km.

Short ride (in rolling farm country) so we’d have time to organize our SIM cards (a time consuming experience) and exchange American cash for local ”Lira”(done at the local jewelry stores, as the official bank rates are so low! )  The people here are so hospitable and gregarious, approaching us regularly in all situations to ask if they can be of assistance!  And usually they can be, as few people speak English and we’re often searching for something or somewhere.
There’s no beer in the country but we’ve discovered a refreshing alternative, a carbonated malt and lemon dealcoholized beverage… a bit like ginger beer. Hits the spot.

We camped in a green park (novel in a place that’s 90% desert) and again, the locals turned out in droves in the evening to stroll. It must be a favorite pastime after the heat of the day has passed. This evening however there was entertainment: us! Reverse tourism.

Aug 26 : Quchan to Bojnurd. 130 km.

Hilly, great surfaces. Similar, pleasant, hot day of riding. Surprise accommodation at a hotel tonight! I explored the cool, ttranquil interior of a nearby mosque, shoes off and draped in a Habib. It was a lovely, quiet space with beautiful light as the interior was completely lined with tiny mirrored tiles. The few women inside were lounging on the carpeted floor, using on their laptops. The accompanying graveyard was devoted to several hundred shockingly young Iranian martyrs of the Iran/Iraq War (1980’s).

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The large public city parks were full of campers. The paved walkways were an obstacle course of small, colourful tents, little wood fires with sizzling shishkabobs, and carpets strewn everywhere covered with families resting in the shade. It’s a national passion to be out of doors, in nature. Yousef tells me every car trunk in Iran carries camping gear, ready for use, anywhere, anytime!

Aug 27 : Bojnurd to Golestan National Park 114 km.

Still very hot. We’re keeping the bottled beverage industry in business with our frequent roadside stops for hydration. En route we made a rewarding 10 km diversion (at Yousef’s suggestion) to visit the small village of Espaho in the nearby hills. It is the site of an 1, 800 year old  Zoastrian fire temple which has been refurbished. This religion originated in this part of the world.  I understand that there are Zoastrian sites where a fire has burned continually throughout the centuries, (from a surface gas vent ), but this was not one of them.

Fall farmlands in Iran

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Our Iranian driver Amin

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I also enjoyed exploring this timeless village with its narrow streets and old homes. I came upon some masonry pools with clear, cool water from a natural spring burbling through them. Two women were washing haystacks of freshly shorn wool, as has likely been done here for millennia.

We had a delicious chicken curry for dinner. That evning a few cyclists took a trip with the ranger to see wild deer and gazelle in the park. A full day! Great to have some culture and nature added into the cycling schedule.

Aug 28. GNP to City of Azad Shahr 120 km.

The refreshing descent through this forest, in the first and largest national park in Iran, was fantastic. There were many road signs telling us to watch for brown bear, deer,  boars, long horned sheep, mountain goats and even leopards, which obviously must live here. We did spot boars and many species of birds. The greenery of the forest was a balm for the eyes after so many shades of the dessert, steppe and savannah.

Khaled Nabi Graveyard

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Alistair enjoying the long, effortless downhill cruise in Golestan Park

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Lots of signs to watch for wildlife.

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The most abundant wildlife were the campers…Iranians love to camp and they were out in force in this beautiful national park (which had trees!).

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More wildlife signs

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Jim and the cougar

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Lots of signs, not so much in real life that we saw

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Locally grown rice, famous for its delicate texture and flavour, being transported

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Alistair savouring said rice and shashlik

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Happy couple passing through lobby

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This one we did see!

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Once settled into our hotel in Azad Sharh, I joined Yousef’s afternoon group to visit the nearby Gonbad-e-Qabus Tower, a UNESCO world heritage site.

This baked brick, 236 foot high tower is a perfect decagon, which was quite an architectural and engineering feat over a thousand years ago.

August 29 – Rest day in Azad Sharh. 

Kylie in local attire and Jim partaking in a farewell meal for Ryan whose tour ends here.

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We were out the door at 6:30 am with Yousef and Amin, who took a group of us to visit an ancient cemetery with 600 headstones, possibly 6 thousand years old.  It was located far from any present day community, high on a series of mountain ridges. Approval has just been granted for anthropologists to exhume some of the burials for further study. The grave markers were remarkably phalic, standing out on very stark, high ridges far from anywhere. We hiked for about an hour from the nearest road. See photos.

Tomorrow we begin a five day ride to Tehran.

Aug 30  Azadshahr to Kosh Yelag. 60 km. 1850 m ( 6069 feet) up

Lovely short ride on a twisty, undulating mountain road leading to a verdant valley, carpeted with terraces of brilliant green rice paddies. Along the way, there were many modest farm houses of mud brick, a few small villages, and regular pedestrian (and donkey)traffic, along with the usual cars and farming and transport vehicles. Camp was a bit cooler at this higher elevation and the more temperate climate was much appreciated.

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More lush, vibrant green rice paddies

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Friends made at roadside. Their striking colouring is quite common and uncommonly beautiful.

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Roadside stand offering an array of nuts and dried fruits and herbs, and colourful sheets of fruit leather.

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Ahhh, a rare lake, and a refreshing swim after a long, hot ride.

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Fisherman didn’t appear to be catching much but he did get a laugh out of watching the tourists swim.

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August 31 – Kosh Yelag to Damghan Lake 151 km. 900 m up

This  longer, fairly flat ride sailed by in the morning with the assistance of a good tail wind. There really is “no free ride”, however, so we paid our dues after lunch, climbing in the heat against a headwind, up to a small lake nestled at the base of a cliff . We had a refreshing swim (the ladies fully clothed) and the warm breeze  completely dried us and our clothes in fifteen minutes.

Quiet lakeside camp spot a few km off of the main road.

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A few inquisitive locals made the pilgrimage to view the strangers and have s photo op. Note all women ( including the infidel) have heads covered.

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September 1 – Damghan Lake to Semnan 137 km 1600 m  up

The gorgeous tones and textures of the surrounding mountains as the sun rose were breathtaking. They distracted me from the struggle my tired legs were having against the steady uphill grade and headwind. After lunch we had three sharp 5 km climbs, each followed by a glorious fast descent. We could then relax on the last 30 km of more gradual descent on a busier highway with generous shoulders into the town of Semnan.  I was happy to have a hotel in which to shower, eat and get a good rest.  The somewhat dated but charming hotel had been one of a line of 75 hotels of the Shaw’s built in the 1970’s to promote tourism. It was made public after the fall of his regime in 1979.

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September 2 –  Semnan to Riverside Camp 93 km 1600 up

The day started with a gradual 50 km climb in a wide, arid valley, the sides of which were peppered with dozens of limestone and gypsum mines. The road gradually steepened and we had a good hard climb to the pass, followed by a fantastic, long descent after lunch. The scenery was stunning as we passed through a tight canyon leading to the valley. We stopped for a chat with the locals and a cup of chai. Coffee is not easily procured in Iran unless you consider instant powdered brown grains palatable. Our camp was at a restaurant with a large treed garden on a riverbank with carpeted, cushioned gazebos. These provided great tent sites with the music of water burbling by. Mitch and Ben topped off this pleasant evening with a tasty Thai meal.

A pleasing blend of the old and the new.

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One of dozens of gypsum mines past which we ascended.

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Phil from Edmonton taking a minute to catch his breath at the summit after a 50 km climb.

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You’ve got to be kidding!? Ski hill?

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Alistair sleeping off the effects of the 50 km climb on our carpeted tent site.

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Our chefs Ben and Mitchel at work while our videographer, Elaina, ‘studies’ her phone.

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September 3 – Riverside camp to Tehran – 67 km, 1100 m up, then a bus ride for the last 70 km into the city.

We climbed an easy gradient for the first 26 km on a busy highway with good wide shoulders. We pushed hard on the gentle descent and rewarded ourselves at the end with  heaping bowls of ice cream. I chose 3 types I wasn’t likely to find at home: pistachio, pomegranate and saffron.  Mmmmmm. It was so good I had a second full dish!😊

Riding towards Tehran, a busy highway but with good shoulders for riding

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A village mosque illustrating their colloquial nature, located in run-down areas and often in disrepair themselves.

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A well kept Eastern Orthodox Church in the city, one of about one hundred in the country, mostly located in the North West, near the Turkish and Armenian borders.

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Just Rewards!

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September 4 , 5  Rest days in Tehran

We had two days to spend in Iran’s bustling capital city of 16 million people, nestled up against the southern slopes of the Elbrus Mountains. I felt somewhat tethered, as did my fellow Canadian, American and British cyclists. Our nationals, due to poor diplomatic relations with Iran ( recent US sanctions, the recent death in Iranian police custody of a Canadian/Iranian woman and the “Canadian Caper”, etc. ) are not allowed to leave the hotel to explore unless they are in a group with the government designated guide.

1300 yr old Tomb of the brother of the 8th Reza after Mohammed.

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We spent one day (as a herd) seeing the sights, the first stop being the former U.S.Embassy, where 60 US diplomats and staff were taken hostage in 1979  by students opposed to the US involvement in Iranian politics.  It was intriguing to get the Iranian side of the story, and to see some of the evidence of the shameful extent of American  meddling in Iran’s government and financial welfare through most of the Cold War, starting with an American organized coup in 1951. It provided a new perspective on the outrage expressed by the Americans about Russian interference in their recent elections.

Enticing nuts and dry goods at local bazaar

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Next we visited the former Shah’s palaces set in expansive park-like grounds. In 1978, Iran celebrated the 2,500th year anniversary of the Iranian monarchy dating back to  Cyrus the Great in 500 BC. The monarchy obviously came to an abrupt and unceremonious end one year later with the 1979 Iranian revolution and overthrow by a more militant, clerical order which persists today. One of  the most striking things I saw at the palace was the enormous bronze statue of the last Shah’s father. Only his impressive boots remain, as the rest was hacked off just above the knees, literally and figuratively, in  1979 by the revolutionists.

Statue of late Shaw since revolution

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Progressing along, we saw the beautifully tiled Saleh shrine glittering in the sun.  The small bazaar next to it was a maze of bustling stalls, with gleaming bins and heaping mounds of nuts, seeds, fresh and dried fruits, flowers and herbs and spices, pleasing to all of the senses. I didn’t visit the grand bazaar in Tehran with its hundreds of shops selling Iranian goods. Instead, I hope to visit the bazaar in Tabriz in a week’s time, which is  famous for its selection of carpets and fewer tourists.

We later hiked up a narrow street hugging a steep canyon on the north side of the city. This pedestrian alleyway was lined, wall to wall, with open-air restaurants, decorated with an abundance of potted flowers and trees, giving it a tropical feel. The babbling brook cascaded beside and under the walkway and the street provided shade, moist air and the perfect setting for a  stroll and a ‘cuppa’. No booze, though. We are still in Iran after all.

The city has a ‘glossy’ affluent northern section, but in the rest of this busy city one can perceive the  economic strain in the state of the roads, buildings and cars, and our dilapidated hotel. Merchants tell us time and again how their currency has devalued 3 fold since the recent sanctions, and goods are amazingly cheap for us to buy ( eg $2 for 3 one-litre bottles of pop, a bag of chips and a few pastries).  Nonetheless, these hospitable, friendly people are extremely generous and frequently  refuse payment from us for merchandise, saying “Welcome! welcome to our country!!” An excellent meal of international food in the upscale north end of town polished off a busy but satisfying day. day.

Our next rest day we took care of bikes and gear and personal admin. Even though more historically interesting  sights were calling, another day in a herd would have finished us off!

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Mitch paying the gent to have his bird choose an Iranian poem from the selection for him. Like Chinese fortune cookies with s chirp.

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Beginning of pedestrian path up canyon which leads to ridge high above the city.

The canyon is lined for kilometres with restaurants perched along the cool stream. The place comes alive st night.

The restaurants are decorated with potted flowers and trees and have a tropical ambiance. Very refreshing in a country that is 90% desert.

Azadi Tower – Tehran

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The Azadi Tower, formerly known as the Shahyad Tower, is a monument located at Azadi Square, in Tehran, Iran. It is one of the landmarks of Tehran, marking the west entrance to the city, and is part of the Azadi Cultural Complex, which also includes a museum underground.

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Section 6 Dashanbe, Tajikistan to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan 05 August – 21 August

1,510 km through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan 

13 Riding Days

4 Rest Days Section 6

August 1-4. Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Rest days
Dushanbe is Tajikistan’s capital city, with a population of 2.5 million (comprising 35% of the country’s total population of 7 million).  It was beautifully and methodically laid out by the Soviets with generous boulevards, trees, gardens, parks, fountains and statues. Many of the massive Soviet ‘dinosaur’ buildings have had facelifts and the city doesn’t have that oppressive communist era “flavour” of other towns less modernized.
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The liberal Muslim majority presence is ubiquitous, with women in long dresses and headscarves, but few wearing the hijab. People are universally open and obliging. Restaurants are clean, efficient, multi-ethnic and wonderful. I savoured great Tajik, Lebanese, Italian and Mexican meals.  The displays at the National Museum were worth the visit, with  their colourful fabric art (tapestries, carpets and cushion covers) capturing my attention.

Since May, we have witnessed the shift from Chinese culture to the nomadic people in Mongolia (resembling our Inuit  to some degree), to the introduction of northern Arian influence in Russia and Kazakhstan (with fair eyes and hair), to the more South Asian influence creeping into the faces and physiques of the Kyrgizstanis, and the distinctly more Indian and Arab influence in Tajikistan. The latter people are  particularly beautiful, with very fine features and frequently startlingly pale green, blue or hazel eyes contrasted with their dark hair.

We are headed for the Uzbekistan border tomorrow on a bus, where we can then get back in the saddle and hopefully put the recent terrorist attack on cyclists behind us.  Our next rest days will be in the famous historical capital city of Samarkand!!

August 5. Uzbekistan border to Denav, Turkmenistan

After busing 75 km to the Uzbek border, we had an easier than expected crossing!  At least, most of us did!

They detained one rider who had mistakenly applied for her Tajik visa to end on August 1st, instead of our exit date of August 5th. This meant she was in the country illegally and had to return to Dushanbe to face the consequences and to try to obtain a new visa so that she could actually leave the country.  Legally.  She spent three days mired in tedious bureaucracy and, after it was eventually granted, she was able to catch a flight to meet us in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.  However, despite the inconvenience and added travel expense, she got off easily compared to another person (we were told about)  to make the same mistake a few years ago: they spent 14 days in jail and paid a two thousand dollar fine to get out of Tajikistan.

Agricultural land in Uzbekistan as we leave the Tajik border behind us.

Aug 05-1

Large, clean, well kept schools in the larger towns. Aug 05-2

Enthusiastic produce merchants along the road.Aug 05-3

Not so lucky for the other rider in our group whose fanny pack went missing while riding the Pamir Highway on July 30th, with all of her identification, money, phone, camera and glasses.  Sadly she is still waiting  in Dushanbe for a temporary passport to be delivered so she can travel home.  She will not be allowed to cross any other borders on this temporary passport so her tour is suddenly, prematurely over.  When it arrives, she will have to leave the tour and fly home with her dreams dashed and very disappointed.  Such harsh outcomes for misdemeanors!!

I enjoyed the easy but very hot 75 km ride to camp. The much greater population of Uzbekistan (35 million people) was immediately apparent  with much more activity along the road right from the beginning: towns, farms, schools , traffic etc. We rode through green cotton fields and productive  orchards. This country is the world’s second largest producer of cotton, after the USA.

On the last tour it took so long to get through the border crossing that they didn’t have time to ride and camp, so we were thrilled with TDA’s decision to put us up in an air-conditioned hotel.  Despite the short ride, that heat had really drained me and I had muscle cramps all night.

The hotel in Denov kindly exchanged my $100 US dollars for Uzbeki currency as the banks were closed. I almost needed a wheelbarrow to carry it, as one Canadian dollar is worth 7,500 Uzbeki som.  It made me feel really rich carrying my sack of bills!

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August 6

What they find to eat is a complete mystery!

Aug 06-1

A young merchant with sweet apples. Aug 06-2

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Their stone walls would make any Italian green with envy. Even Gary!

Aug 06-5

Ah! A welcome descent brings a cooling breeze in the 40 degree weather!Aug 06-6

Very hot, very dry!Aug 06-7

With little climbing we had left the green valley and were in an arid zone. The modern homes are well built and their gardens and farm yards very tidy.

Aug 06-8

A more modest and traditional home. Aug 06-9

Farm family gathering what looks like herbs in the field. They also collect dry cakes of dung in burlap sacks for fuel. Aug 06-10

August 8 – 10 Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Samarkand. Examples of gorgeous silk and cotton hook work and embroidery

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August 9-10 Samarkand

Minaret and courtyard closer detail

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Statue of famous joker Nasreddin in Central Park in old cityAug 09 Samarqand-2 IMG_0301

Palacial buildings of the madrassa and spaces for learning in the 15th century

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Statue of the great scientist Ulug Bek, 15th century

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The Ark fortress dating back to 5th century AD

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Entrance to emperor Timur’s mausoleum 15 th century

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Minaret 48 metres high on left (from which people were executed by dropping them off!) and madras (school of learning)

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The Registan at night

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The main inner courtyard of the Registan by day. There are dozens of adjoining courtyards leading in every direction with classrooms and sleeeping quarters for the students of Islam

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Alistair at the Registan at night

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August 10

School house camp aug 10

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August 11

One of hundreds of attractive street merchants at entrance to old city in Samarkand selling equally beautiful crafts

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August 18

Merve Turkmenistan

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Caravanserai where travelling merchants overnighted with their goods dating from the 7th century

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Ancient fortress circa 500 AD with wall surrounding 200 hectares

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August 20

Waiting for the traffic to clear the bridge.

IMG_2588The road into camp. Yes, it’s definitely hot and dry here.

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En route to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan with our first glimpse of the mountains of Iran in the distance.

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Next 3 photos: Productive Farms enroute to Ashgabat

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Road crew planting a tree. There were many such projects on the go.

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Road crew taking a break

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We’ve seen few trains in Central Asia but more in Turkmenistan which is mostly flat. Even the trains in Ashgabat were sparkling clean.

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Entering the white marble city of Ashgabat. Very few cars or people in this “city”

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Last year, cars that weren’t white were pulled off the road in Ashgabat by police and spray painted white to comply with the President’s fetish. He is a trained dentist. Likes everything nice and white.

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August 21 Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

White apartment buildings (with no one in them that we could discern) as far as the eye can see. Miles of them. But they don’t have air conditioning units as the Pres doesn’t like their appearance and doesn’t like to see them as he drives through town.

Another Olympic white elephant.

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Acres of new sports complexes built for the ‘2017 Asian Olympics’ in Ashgabat, which reportedly were attended by few athletes and spectators were local school children who were bused in. Cost : 3 billion, more than is spent on World Olympic sites.

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Section 5 – July 18 to August 3, 2018 The Pamir Highway

Note from Brenda on July 30th:

Despite recent presumed terrorist attack in Tajikistan in the area we were to go through the day after tomorrow (Wednesday), which resulted in four cyclists’ deaths on the road when a motorist hit them and injured 3 others, I am well. We will bus through that area on Wednesday rather than ride, and get to the capital Dushanbe a day earlier than expected.   The police seized one of the four suspects, and two others died in a shoot out while they were attempting to capture them and the fourth is on the run.

Please don’t worry. I am safe and happy and will let you know when I get to Dushanbe.

PS: tomorrow (July 31st) is Brenda’s birthday (64) in case anyone wants to send good wishes.

 

Section 5

Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Dushanbe, Tajikistan

1,343 km, 15 Riding Days, 2 Rest Days

Here’s the week’s itinerary.  Pamir highway, the highlight of our trip!

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July 18. Osh to Gulcha 108 km 1900 m up on pavement

Here we go, the stage of this tour we have all been awaiting with great anticipation!  We were quickly free of the city, starting out on a steady gradual ascent until the steeper 10 km before  lunch. We had a second ascent after lunch. Towns are fewer and farther between. However, it is obvious that this is a tourist route, as there are often signs in English and spots to stop for tea. Most houses along the road look well constructed (of stucco with tin roofs) and maintained. Older buildings are typically of regular brick or handmade mud bricks. The steep slopes are ideal for goats, of which there are many, terracing the hillsides.

Starting the climb gradually out of Osh

Jul 18-7

Typical traffic

Jul 18-8

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The official gateway to the Pamir highway, a much travelled destination.

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Welcoming party at our lunch stop. P1080279

Friendly welcome from these three curious ladies at top of our first climb.

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Many yurts at these higher elevations.

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Small park at a crossroads.

Jul 18-10

Many newly constructed homes.

Jul 18-6

More newer, well built homes.

Jul 18-9

Many rivers in this steep terrain Jul 18-3

Village Life

Jul 18-2

A bouquet of posies from the children to grace my bike on the descent.

Jul 18-1

 

July 19 Gulcha to Sary Tas 79 km, up 2100 m

It sprinkled overnight but the breeze had dried our gear out nicely by morning. It was a similar day of riding, involving considerable elevation gain and loss on paved roads with mountain views. People strolling along the road, especially the men in their traditional tall wool hats, were gracious and friendly.

The growing scale of the landscape is impressive: huge rivers, valleys and mountains. There is ample time to admire them on the long ascents as there is rarely any traffic and the roads and drivers are accommodating. One can imagine how hard the climate is on these highways and we saw numerous road crews repairing sections of it. The roads on the passes are generally quite rough and usually gravel.

As we descended into our camp in the village of Sary Tas, we had our first breathtaking glimpse of the majestic  Zaalay mountain range ahead, which we would be making our way through, starting tomorrow!

He kindly offered me chai with his fresh mare’s milk which I gratefully declined.

Jul 19-1

Bridges of all sizes and descriptions:

Jul 19-2

Jul 19-7

Climbing back into yurt country.

Jul 19-3

Jul 19-5

Amusing to see a stroller here!

Jul 19-4

Our isolated campsite in a deep canyon beside the river was restful.Jul 19-6

Typical Housing

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Location, location, location!

Jul 19-11

Enviable ventilated roof for an outhouse!

Jul 19-12

Rural dweller, all dressed for town!

Jul 19-13

The hat’s the thing!

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It was a very sweaty climb.

Jul 19-17
Sculpture to greet us at the top.

Jul 19-18Jul 19-19

A common scene of broken down jalopies along the way.

Jul 19-20

Welcome committee at lunch.

Jul 19-21

Jul 19-23

Jul 19-24

Jul 19-25

Jul 19-26

Jul 19-27

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Many buildings and walls are constructed of mud bricks.

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This country definitely built for goats, or vice versa.

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Pavement… Such a treat!

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More fuel for winter.

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Yep, more up! I’m hoping its 700 metres and not kilometres.

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Work crews are common. Tough climate for roads.

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The view that greeted us as we descended into camp. Reminds me of Canmore.

Jul 19-0

View from camp.

Jul 19-28

July 20 SaryTas to Zaalay mountain camp 22 km 300 m up

This short day with little elevation gain was to allow for altitude acclimatization as we are now sleeping at 3,350 meters. We travelled at a leisurely pace and appreciated the views and opportunity to accommodate our already increased heart and respiratory rates. Tomorrow we enter Tajikistan!

A cold rain storm in the evening has us worried about climbing a high pass tomorrow on muddy gravel roads, especially as the riders on the last Silk Road tour battled snow on this section.

Our next task lies right there!

Jul 20-1

Friendly ambassadors.

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The pass is just above camp. Looks rather ambitious.

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July 21. Zaalay mountain camp to Karakul village camp.  78 km 1250 m up gravel.

Sunny, clear skies and panoramic views of brilliant white peaks greeted us in the morning. A perfect day!

In the afternoon we cycled in the more arid terrain of this side of the range and had a long descent into the village of Karakul, on the shores of a large crater lake, Lake Karakul.  The water is mildly saline and strikingly blue against the light gold of the surrounding desert.  The town was virtually empty as most villagers are away for the summer tending their flocks grazing higher up. Jovid tells me that they are virtually housebound in the village for over a month in winter as temperatures dip and stay consistently below -50 degrees. These people are resilient.

We had a home stay with a congenial family, sleeping several to a room in their many rooms, all with colourfully carpeted walls and floors.  It’s always a bit of a relief not to have to pitch and ‘unpitch’  a tent, and not to worry about weather. That being said, we continue to be blessed with clear days, cool (5-10 degrees) in the mornings and hot (20-30) by afternoon.

The “Road”

Jul 21-1

Our support vehicle picking its way up.

Jul 21-2Jul 21-3

The trek begins in earnest.

Jul 21-4

Maybe not such a bad thing that the pavement ended and gravel began!

Jul 21-5

Jul 21-6

Statue at the summit.

Jul 21-7

The border crossing from Kyrgizstan into Tajikistan early in the day went smoothly but was quite odd.  Crossing through the 25 km no man’s land  between the two countries entailed a tough, very steep  24 km climb/grind on a horrific, washed out gravel track up to Kyzyl-Art Pass at 4280 metres elevation and then a 1 km descent to the Tajik border. The few hundred meters between the two successive Tajik entry check points was a virtual rollercoaster ride of deep dips and rolls  in an ocean of dried mud: fun on a bike but difficult without four wheel drive in a car and likely an impossible quagmire when wet. I dared not take a photo of this or the coal heated “office”. Suffice it to say it was rudimentary and the washroom facilities nonexistent, but  the welcome was very warm. We were met there by our knowledgeable new local support person Jovid, and van driver Mumin.

First sight of Tajikistan. Isn’t it beautiful?!

Jul 21-8

The descent to Karakul.

Jul 21-9

Yes, lake Karakul really is this blue.

Jul 21-10

Fence delineating the border with China.

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Beware of bridge caving in

Jul 21-14

YAY! Another summit.

Jul 21-15

Alkali, not snow, along these salty dried up river beds.

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The town of Karakul which is practically deserted in summer when the inhabitants move up higher into the mountains with their livestock.

Jul 21-17

Flaked out rider enjoying the amenities of our Home stay at Karakul

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Saying goodbye to Andre and Bek, ourKyrgyzstani local support.

Jul 21-16

July 22. Karakul to Bush camp. 47 km 400 m up

We virtually strolled the easy 37 km to lunch and then another 10 km to camp on this acclimatization day. Tonight we will sleep at the highest sleeping elevation of the tour at 4100 metres,  and cross the highest pass of the tour, at 4664 m (15,300 feet!) tomorrow morning.

We pitched our tents early in the afternoon near a local family’s “Fast Food Yurt Stay”, interacted with them and met their newborn (3 week old) yak. Otherwise we ate or slept much of the day away. I was slightly breathless just walking around camp. Several people were under the weather with the altitude or with the ugly gastrointestinal bug that is making its way through the group. Fortunately , I feel great, so far!

Since entering Tajikistan, we’ve virtually seen only a handful of people outside of the rare, tiny villages. 95% of the land in Tajikistan is mountainous and largely uninhabitable. For this reason, it has far fewer people and relatively fewer nomads than the other countries we have just visited. Tajikistan is the least populated and poorest country in Central Asia, with a population of 7.5 million.  1 million of these citizens actually work in Russia to support their families and send their earnings home, and many others in China, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. 35% of the people live in the capital city of Dushanbe, which we will visit next week.

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July 22 Another day of sunshine.

Jul 22-2

 

July 22 Camp before we cross the highest point of our journey tomorrow.

Jul 22-3

Locals who live at this site.

Jul 22-4

Jul 22-5

Camp July 22.

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July 23. Bush camp to Murghab, 87 km 550 m up over the Ak-Baytal Pass

It was cold with clear skies when I went to bed, but it warmed up considerably during the night. Without looking outside my tent, I suspected heavy cloud cover and that we might have to climb to the pass in wet weather on muddy/snowy roads and miss the views. I was disappointed to be right about the dark, stormy looking clouds when I emerged. However, they obligingly parted as we ate breakfast and we had a stellar, chilly but crystal clear day for crossing the pass after all!

It was only a 12 km, 550 meter climb up to the Ak-Baytal Pass but it was on washboard gravel, with a few defying steeper sections at an elevation I’d never cycled before.  My thighs and lungs were screaming for oxygen.  There was jubilant, breathless celebration and a sense of accomplishment as each of us reached the top, with rampant picture taking. We had a 360 degree view of the beautiful Pamirs in the rarified air and it was truly great to be here!!  I am full of gratitude and humbled by these amazing peoples and their lands.

 

My heart and respiratory rate fell only partially over the ensuing 74 km of lilting descent. In fact, they are still noticeably high as I write this in bed the next morning at the Pamir Guest House. Fortunately it’s another rest day. We have seen many solo and small groups of fully loaded, self-supported cyclists on the road, going in both directions. They too are doing the Pamir Highway, but totally on their own steam. 🎩 Hats off to them!! The effort required boggles the mind!

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July 24  Rest day in Murghab, Tajikistan 

This is a very simple village with equally basic “facilities”.  I briefly wandered around town getting a Tajik SIM card, somewhat listlessly in the heat and unaccustomed elevation. The toppled 3G tower on the cliff side has been down for some days and I was informed that the SIM card I had just purchased may or may not work!  Fortunately it did, somewhat infrequently though.

Jul 24-1

Everyone here is welcoming and friendly. They tend to bend over backwards to be of help, as seems to be generally the case in the poorest countries, in my experience. The town and its people appear to be in basic survival mode, judging from the meagre state of the village infrastructure  and housing.  I spent much of this day cleaning my gravel worn bike and tending to a few ‘fallen comrades’, sick with gut issues that plague many of the group.  (But not me!!😊😊😊).

The other guest house in town, where we didn’t stay.

Jul 24-2

It’s a chore to breathe just walking around. I’m retaining fluid and my ankles are like stove pipes, so I think I’ve overdone the rehydration salts!  Time for a diuretic as I can’t lie down without gasping. Hopefully I can pee it off before I have to cycle again!

A view of town.

Jul 24-3

A few shots around the village of Khorog.

Jul 24-4

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Jul 24-6

 

July 25  Murghab to Alichur, Tajikistan.  105 km 800 m climb, Pass at 4128 m,  550 m descent on rough pavement to riverside camp on Gunt River at 3900 m.  

I revelled in a great,  bumpy 51 km climb to the pass in great scenery. I’m becoming more skilled and confident on the bumpy gravel, and travel faster now as long as it’s uphill. Even on the descent, the effort was considerable at this elevation, especially with a strong headwind. We tented along the Gunt River, amongst the inquisitive yak and cattle wandering through our midst. Everyone is beat, with several riders still sick. Some are planning to skip ahead tomorrow to Khorog on the bus,  to give themselves a few extra days to rest and recover.

The wind has a very chilly nip at this elevation, making early mornings and evenings outright cold! I’m feeling tired but physically well and exhilarated by the landscapes, people and culture.

Leaving Khorog.

Jul 25-1

We humans are so small in this vast landscape, and everywhere really.

Jul 25-2

Jul 25-3

En route to the summit (next 3 photos).

Jul 25-4

Jul 25-5

Jul 25-6

Time to get home for evening milking!

Jul 25-7

Campsite

Jul 25-8

On the descent.

Jul 25-9

Yaks crossing the river at our feet…

Jul 25-10

and then nervously crossing the road.

Jul 25-11

July 26 Alichur to Jelonoy Hot Springs/ Sanitarium. 84 km, 900 m climb to Pass at 4175  m, 1250 m down into Gunt Valley. Rough surface. 

It was biting cold at dawn and windy with a dappled grey sky. Hmmm, perhaps snow or sleet on the passes ahead?  I headed out,  loaded with all the gear for a potentially cold, wet ride in my back panier, still feeling like I had lead in my veins from yesterday’s exertion.  I survived the long, steady climb and descent on rough gravel. Paul, a Dutch cyclist, caught up to me on the way down, and we puffed into lunch.  A second hard climb, this time behind Paul, brought me to a virtual crawl. The rocky, hairpin descent was a thrill for him and others with mountain bikes but arduous for me. The weather cleared and I arrived hot, dry and tired at camp which was a converted previous Soviet sanatorium (yep) come hotel/hot springs.  Most of us camped on the grounds as there were no  rooms left, but I was graciously invited (and accepted) to join 3 lady school teachers in a 4 bed room. They were attending a teachers’ conference there and were likely motivated by curiosity to have me share their room. We managed some basic communication, with lots of laughing and mutual photo sharing. I lounged at length  in the luxury of the ladies-only side of the hot springs  and was rejuvenated!!

Shockingly, the only other hygiene facilities shared between the 75 guests plus staff were the two unsavoury squat toilets, located some 50 yards from the sanitarium by  stumbling outside in the dark through filth and over rubble!  The entire hotel did not offer one water source for washing hands or teeth, despite having a restaurant.  Our group happily consumed the tasty meals prepared outside by our TDA cooks, with our own sanitary hand washing barrel!  Strolling after dinner, I noted women in this tiny village cleaning their dinner dishes in the surface water trickling along the dirt roads/animal tracks.

On weathered, rippled pavement…

Jul 26-1

along rushing streams and rivers…

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Then back into the valley with signs of civilization…

Jul 27-24

Jul 26-2

Then another long slog up on gravel to another pass ….

Jul 26-3

Down again on gravel…

Jul 26-4

It was a long and desolate road to the top…

Jul 26-5

On a skittish surface

Jul 26-6

Then a steep twisty down on a rocky road to lunch.

Jul 26-7

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The sign is not kidding.

Jul 19-29

My room in the sanitarium shared with the teachers who were all out at their conference.

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July 27 Hot Springs to Khorog Botanical Gardens Camp 127 km 500 m up 1900 m down.  Whoopy! Rough pavement.

Waving farewell to one of our full tour riders who had to leave due to ongoing illness.

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Municipal pool in the park

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Jul 27-25Jul 27-26

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I started the day with a flat tire as I left camp ( my seventh in 2 days😠) but then enjoyed an effortless ride downhill to lunch. During the course of the day’s ride, the high, uninhabitable, arid mountains slowly gave way to green, arable, populated valleys with people living in permanent structures. My memorable day was full of stopping for pleasant interactions with these outgoing people along the road….farmers, children, Jul 27-11and two young men trying to get their car going.

Can’t get it to start, again. A repeating theme. These guys got a shock and a charge out of me putting my bike down to help them out. Obviously not something most ladies would do in their culture.

Jul 27-4

Many speak rudimentary English which they study as a third language in school, after Tajik and Russian. Every turn provided amazing views of the mountains, roaring  rivers, endless small and large bridges, farms and rich valleys. We detoured around the construction site of an enormous new dam, a joint effort between the Germans, the Tajik government and the Aga Kahn.

Flooding at the construction site of the new dam

Jul 27-6

Our destination that night was perched at the top of a 2.5 km steep switchback climb, above the thriving town of Khorog (pop 35,000).  We tented on the lovely  grounds of the hotel and it’s botanical garden, and helped harvest the fantastic crop of ripe apricots!  That evening some of us basked in the civility of an East Indian meal in town and then meandered  through the central park on the River.  A lively cultural/ music festival was taking place, but we were too tired to take in much of it.

There’s nothing he wouldn’t do to keep his cow well fed!

Jul 27-5

More large homes half-built.

Jul 27-7

Washing up after dinner in village where we stayed at the sanitarium.

Jul 27-23

Road signs at their best!Jul 27-9

Elaborate Bus Shelters

Jul 27-12

Working on his mud and straw home.

Jul 27-15

A harsh environment in which to survive.

Jul 27-21

A little attitude, way out here in the middle of nowhere!

Jul 27-16
Mom washing the carpets on the “highway”.

Jul 27-17

Jul 27-19

Peaceful Domains

Jul 27-20

Islamic influence becoming more apparent.

Jul 27-22
The only corner store for hours!

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The forces of nature apparent everywhere you look.

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Such rickety bridges!

Jul 27-14

Dare to cross?

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Mosaic decoration of bus stop.

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Ladies waiting for Godot.

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Strangely large numbers of partially completed, large, newish homes. Apparently they finish them when the money avails itself.

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Amongst the steeper dry rocky sections of highway. The tunnels leading into Dushanbe.P1080861

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July 28 Rest Day in Khorog

My rest day was gobbled up with personal admin and getting rid of the rest of my retained fluid.  I tried to go to the Afghan market which happens once a week when the Afghanis are allowed to bring their wares , arts and crafts across the river to Khorog to sell. However, the Taliban had not let anyone across that morning due to some political gripe so … no Afghani market.  I was looking forward to this rare opportunity.

Festival in the park

Jul 27-1

July 29  Khorog to School camp, 134 km, 900 m up, 1100 m down.

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This day stands out as a day of gentle cycling along an undulating, shady dirt road, tracing the bank of the growing river separating us from Afghanistan. Yes! For this day and the next two, we would be looking directly across these fast flowing, muddy  waters to the steep slopes of Afghanistan. This area proved as spectacular as the higher Pamir Highway.

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Today, we passed through tiny, pastoral Tajik communities where the pace of life was slow and easy and seemed like a fairytale. In the dappled sunlight, amongst the gingerbread houses, children were laughing contentedly and playing games on the road, women chatted as they walked the cows to milk or picked fruit from their orchards, men took time to wave and greet us as they scythed the long grass by hand to feed their livestock. Many times I was offered freshly picked fruit… apricots, plums, apples, figs, mulberries and blackberries.

Unfortunately, one rider was bitten on the leg (quite superficially) by a not so fairytale nice dog, and had to take a 16 hour cab ride ahead to a clinic in Dushanbe for “ better safe then sorry “rabies shots.

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The remainder of us tented in the quiet, shady woods of a school yard by the roaring creek next to the river. The decreasing elevation allowed our appetites and ability to breathe and sleep to get back on track.

July 30 School camp to River camp, 84 km, 100 m up, 1300 m down, very rough road.

Although the river gorge scenery was captivating and we were dropping more than climbing, most people were shattered by this short 84 km ride due to the exceedingly rough road and the heat. We camped on the river by a village where the mayor spontaneously arranged for a band to play Tajik music for us that evening.  We hated to disappoint him, but most of us were fast asleep by 8:30  or 9:00 for our 4:30 am wale up!

We were informed that night that 4 cyclists (in another tour group) had tragically been violently killed and 3 more injured the day before during a terrorist attack in Tajikistan. Such lunacy! This occurred on the very road we planned to be on in 2 days time on our way to the capital city of Dushanbe.   Saddened and in shock, we went to bed to await a decision by TDA re the plan going forward.

 

July 31.   my 64th birthday! 

Today did not turn out as planned. Not at all. 

I had a 3 am start (to pack up and leave by 4 am) to help a friend search again for her lost waist pack. It went missing while she was riding on a section of this remote mountainous road yesterday,  complete with passport, visas, phone, money, credit cards, camera and prescription glasses.  We taxied back 32 km and searched a 12 km stretch between where she had a gentle fall off her bike and thought she’d lost it, and where she stopped to buy a drink and discovered it was no longer around her waist. It was nowhere to be seen. There are few tourist cars, cyclists and transport trucks on this route, and likely someone had picked it up off the road. She later filed a police report.

On return to camp at 7 am, we were informed that TDA had decided that we would not be riding our bikes in Tajikistan for the next four days.

Instead, we boarded several hired vans to drive the 13 hot, cramped hours to Dushanbe. The rides on this section would have involved significant  elevation changes (eg up to 9000 feet gain in one day!) so many riders were somewhat relieved not to have to do these huge climbs in the growing heat (40 degrees C). We eventually landed at dusk at the modern, clean, well run Atlas Hotel, an oasis for our weary minds and bodies. We will be here for four nights and then bus the 70 km to the Uzbekistan border, where we will start cycling again on Sunday, August 5th. We will then be heading for the city of Samarkand, steeped in the history of the Silk Road.

July 31

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August 02 – Rest day in Dushanbe, Capital of Tajikistan

Several images from a gallery in Dushanbe

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Section 4 – Almaty, Kazakhstan to Osh, Kyrgystan (July 6 – July 16)

1,221 km, 10 Riding Days, 1 Rest Day

Section 4

July 6 – Almaty to Malybai, Kazakhstan  135 km

Getting ready to depart Almaty with our new set of sectional riders from Holland, Canada and the US

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We convoyed for 9 km out of the busy traffic of the city and then followed  a quiet country road for most of the remainder of the day.  This road was flanked on one side by a large aqueduct bringing water from the surrounding mountains to the city and on the other side by irrigation canals supplying the numerous apple orchards and veggie and livestock farms.  It’s a beautiful area and feels a bit  like Europe. I haven’t seen any yurts here  yet and most homes are of wood or stone construction.

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At camp, I had a lovely soak in the bracing waters of the river rushing  by our tents which brought my core temperature down considerably.  It’s in the 30s here, and as I rode hard and arrived at camp by 1 PM, I spent the afternoon in and out of the river. The looming peaks to the southwest are snow capped and in a few days, we will be climbing them. Tomorrow is a 1700 metre climb so I’m heading to bed early.

July 7 – Malybai to Kerben, Kazakhstan  117 km

Great day heading into the mountains.  The 4 climbs were longish but there were no prolonged steep ascents.  We lunched on the edge of an enormous (one of the world’s largest) canyons, refuelling  for the next 30 km ascent. It was a thrilling 15 km ‘flight’ down to camp by the river in the valley. The campsite has no shade but is comfortable with the cooler breeze at this elevation.

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Irrigation channels and aqueducts all along the road today in this rich farming area.

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Cattle patiently awaiting the bus in the shade of the bus stop

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Kylie, so proud of her brand new Hilleberg tent to replace her old monster

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July 8 Kerben to Karakol 134 km, border crossing from Kazakhstan into Kyrgyzstan!

We headed out of camp after dawn for the Kyrgyzstan border under moody skies, excited to begin this next stage of our adventure.  We persevered 30 slow km on a gravel road undergoing construction, but it was thankfully 10 km less than predicted due to paving at the far end! Stunning vistas compensated for the miserable road surface as we rode along river valleys with abundant alpine wild flowers in bloom, flanked by mountains and even higher ones looming in the approaching distance. The border crossing into friendly Kyrgyzstan was a refreshing snap with little delay!

Beautiful new pavement with scant traffic in the middle of the day’s ride allowed us to take our eyes off the road and to take in the scenery.  This we luxuriated in until the road surface deteriorated and simultaneously, traffic increased dramatically.  It became a dangerous,  hair raising, white knuckle experience cycling into Karakol on this terrible, narrow highway with frantic traffic, oncoming cars often passing and occupying  both lanes coming at us with only a rugged shoulder to escape onto. We ended up riding off-road in the dirt for what seemed like hours.  It was indeed a relief to shower and relax over a cold drink in our hotel at the end of this day of extremes.

July 9  Rest day in Karakol, Kyrgystan

The day was spent at the lovely boutique Hotel Amir,  Swiss owned and very well run.  I took time to visit the ornate wooden Russian orthodox cathedral,  rebuilt in 1890 after the Bolsheviks destroyed the original stone one. It is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen. I also found time and energy for the tiny art gallery, craft guild (many well-made, embroidered  felted-wool items) and of course to obtain my Kyrgyzstan SIM card!