Up the Susa valley to the Alps

We had a lovely time in Ireland visiting Paddy’s mum and dad. We both had to catch a flight down to Falmouth for a job interview and so quite a bit of time was spent preparing and practicing interview questions… It was all worth it though as we were both successful! This means that we will definitely be finishing the trip in Cornwall, now soon to be our new home. It wasn’t long into the start of the trip that we agreed we weren’t going to go back to London after finishing. One of the best things about the trip has been living outside for so long so the idea of going back to the concrete jungle, however wonderful it is, seems so alien now.

I will really miss climbing out of the tent every morning to somewhere different. Falling asleep to the sound of the wind in the trees and waking up to the dawn chorus. Setting up the chairs and cooking breakfast in a wooded clearing, a desert, a beach or on the edge of a mountain lake… So being close to the sea and the wide open countryside is an important life choice for us now.

We had always had Falmouth in the back of our minds as somewhere we would like to live – suitably rural but with a lot going on and beautiful countryside all near the sea. But practically it would all depend on securing jobs down there after 19 months away so it feels great to have most of it all sorted. Now we can really relax and enjoy the final 2 months of cycling. 

Robbie and Margherita had looked after tandem well and had even organised for our bags to be dropped off at the bike shop so we could pack up and get going soon after our early morning flight from Dublin. It would have been nice to spend an extra day in Bergamo but the clock was ticking away to our ferry – already booked – from Cherbourg in France! It was time for us to complete the final leg in what has been an epic ride across the Eur-Asian landmass… 


We kept on a route north of Milan – it felt like the city sprawled out for miles and miles and that we were cycling through its suburbs for most of the day. We kept to a canal route to make things easy which was good as it was super hot, the air heavy and the wind like a hot hairdryer blowing in our faces the whole time. 

They have recently cancelled all roaming charges in Europe now which means using our UK SIM cards here is the same as at home. In one way this is good as it has meant it has been easier to keep in touch with people at home – useful for negotiating job contracts, searching for rental properties and looking up car insurance. It has also means that we have both fallen back into the bad habit of being glued to our phones in the evenings however – something we were going to try and stop! 

On the second day out I received an another job interview invitation (another part-time role to potentially go with the one I’ve already secured) which slightly put a spanner in the works for our schedule. It would probably mean taking a train for some of the distance and after looking at all the flight options we chose Lyon as a good place for me to fly out and back from. We were still keen to cycle over the Alps so we headed to the nearest local station to see if we could catch a train to Turin – covering around 150km.

We weren’t sure how easy travelling with the tandem in Europe would be… We have found getting the bike on various modes of transport in Asia relatively straightforward as there is a much more relaxed approach to transport. Now we were in the ‘regulated west’ we weren’t sure how a tandem was going to go down… As it turns out – it was a piece of cake – and the Italian tickets were very cheap. €17 euros for us both and the bike. Paddy was delighted at the prospect of sitting in the air conditioned carriage for two hours away from the mid-day sun – he struggles with the humid weather! 

We reached Turin by 3:30pm and although it took us an hour to cycle out of the city, with the summer solstice only a week away we still had plenty of daylight remaining. 

From here we headed up towards the Alps starting the gentle climb up the longest valley in Italy – Susa valley. This would eventually lead to our last major mountain range and final 2000m+ pass! We slept in a disused quarry that evening and reverted back to our Cambodian practice of having a ‘litre bottle shower’ to wash away the sweat and sunscreen followed by a diorolyte because we had lost so much salt in the heat. 

Hot!!

Mountain top monastery

The next morning we were delayed because Paddy’s helmet was missing. We realised he had left it on the side of the track leading up to the quarry overnight and it seemed an early morning walker had picked it up… He would have to do without for a few days… we started to climb proper and although the road was quite busy with cars and many campervans the trucks mainly kept to the motorway tunnels and there was a decent hard shoulder. Quite some time has passed since our last big climb in Slovenia so our legs were feeling it a little bit. The scenery was very nice and we passed up through the Susa valley with spectacular views of the Fort of Exilles which sits on a spur dominating the narrowest section of the gorge. The site has played an important part in the original string of fortifications between the House of Savoy and France and the castle passed from one side to the other throughout the 16th century. Napoleon demolished the fort after he captured it in 1829 and it was then rebuilt in its current form and used by the Italian army until 1943 after which it was completely abandoned. 

Exilles


That evening we pulled the bike off the road down into the riverbed which is almost completely dry now thanks to most of the snow having melted away. Our grey tent camouflages very well on this white stoney ground so we didn’t worry too much about being completely out of sight. It was another spectacular camping spot with plenty of opportunities to sit and watch the wildlife including an adult Chamois (we think!) who made his way slowly from the river up a sheer cliff face into the safety of the alpine woods above. The night sky was incredible that night. 

Well hidden


Tomorrow we cross over the Montgenevre pass into France. Italy has been great and we definitely hope to come back here in years to come. 

Fethiye to Bodrum – our last days in Turkey

We spent a nice day food shopping, eating and relaxing on the beach front in Fethiye with Kathy and Nigel who are both keen cycle tourers too. Before he met Kathy, Nigel had been cycling for 6 years and has been everywhere including all over Europe and South America, a long tour following the full length of the Mississippi River and the famous Cairo to Cape Town tour. Needless to say we had lots to talk about and it was good to hear about their next trip which will see them team up to cycle around New Zealand. 

In the morning we visited a local bike shop and made the unusually (for us) snap decision to have a new Shimano cassette and chain fitted to the bike. Initially everything appeared to be working well despite the fact that the shop hadn’t also been able to replace the front cogs. We cycled around Fethiye peer without a problem but as soon as we tackle a hill the new chain now starts to jump off the smallest front cog… It turns out that all the advice is right – once you need to replace the cassette, everything needs to be changed because it all wears together. After some researching on the net by Paddy, we also discover that the cassette we’ve been sold isn’t quite the quality we’d hoped for. Knowing that we had a good few climbs to tackle before getting to Bodrum we decided we were better off going back to the bike shop and having our old chain and cassette put back on – we had come this far with it and had developed some pretty good tactics to prevent it jumping in the easiest gear! We half hoped that the shop might give us a refund for the new parts in light that we had only cycled 3km on them… Unsurprisingly, the shop wouldn’t take the new parts back and so we were kicking ourselves slightly for not doing our homework before buying. 

Anyway, these things are all trial and error and we now know for next time! Back on track we start to cycle out of Fethiye when the car in front of us suddenly turns right into a parking bay without any warning or indicating. We are forced to swerve quickly to the right to avoid crashing and start to skid on the wet ground. We both go over, Paddy taking the brunt of the fall. Things escalate and we end up having crossed words with the passenger in the car who was this big mouthy Turkish women. She claimed that we should have been in the cycle lane and this was Turkey not the UK so driving habits were different. This annoyed us because the whole thing was clearly the drivers’ fault. 

Anyway, after brushing off most of the dirt we finally get going properly. Bodrum is 240km away which we hoped to complete in 3 and a half days. Despite being delayed first in the bike shop and then on the road we still hoped to get to Koycegiz Lake 77km away. 
The day was spent on the main road; not unpleasant but not particularly scenic either. Koycegiz is really beautiful and the Lakeside park offers great camping facilities for 20 Lira a night so it was a great place to stop for the night. 

Cooking up dinner on the lake side

Onwards the next day and we reach our turn off at Akyaka which will see us leave the main road and take us along the Bodrum peninsula for the next two days. It was really great to be off the main road and we stop at a very swanky harbour for lunch before spending the afternoon cycling along some beautiful small roads with gorgeous coastline to our left. 

We reached the small cove of Akbuk and manage to find a local guy to open his little shop so we can stock up on a few things before camping on the beach. 

We had two days to reach Bodrum from here before catching the 9:30am ferry to Kos on the 9th of December. It was only 88km but there were two big 500m climbs between us and the town. We spent most of the day getting over these. This would be our last major climb of 2016!! 

Quick stop and looking down to where we camped the evening before

It was a beautiful cycle up through pine forests and mountains and we enjoyed winding our way up through the small sleepy villages despite it being pretty tough in places! We stop to buy some hand pressed olive oil from this lovely chap who was also selling his own honey, olives and balsamic vinegar outside his house. I wish you could all smell the oil – it’s divine – and we buy a litre. A little taste of Turkey to last us through our time on the boat in Greece.

We dropped down to camp on a beach just around the headland from Bodrum itself. The next day would see us complete the final 16km to the town, and find the campsite situated in the western part. Suddenly it was our last night in Turkey so naturally we enjoyed a few beers overlooking the marina. Tomorrow we catch the ferry to Kos where we can then get the long ferry to Athens. 

Discovering Ancient Lycia and cycling the Turquoise Coast 

Our five days on Susanne and Orhan’s horse farm were a welcome break from the cycling. Each morning would start at 7:30am with the morning feed followed by the mucking out of the 15 stables.

Our afternoons were often spent separately, Paddy fixing the sink unit in the kitchen and me gardening in the veg patch.


We also spent a lot of time with Emre and his son Met collecting firewood and cutting down trees to fix a couple of rotten beams in the outhouse.


There was plenty of time to relax and we both got addicted to eating all the pomegranates, oranges and grapefruits from the garden.

So after a week stopped on the Workaway farm we left Susanne and Orhan and started our next leg of the Turkish coast. We were heading to Fethiye 370km away. 

Day 1 – 57.8km

We didn’t do loads of miles on our first day as we stopped in Antalya for a couple of hours to get a new screen fitted for my iPhone – having dropped and smashed it two days before… While we waited we sat in the sunshine of the main pedestrian square eating sandwiches and looking out across the old city to the sea. Antalya sits on the east side of a large bay. We dropped down to the main road which curves its way round the coast and passed a few nice beaches and coves. After just 58km we decided that a bottle of wine and an early stop was too irresistible. We stopped on the edge of what was obviously an old beach resort area still with beachside changing rooms and delapidated looking pavilions. The whole place was fenced off by barbed wire which initially confused us as there were lots of people picnicking, fishing and generally milling about on the beach. After a short search we spotted a large gap cut into the fence. If the locals were happy to break in so were we. It was lovely sitting on the sand sharing this gorgeous Sunday afternoon with the local families. Lots of people had lit barbecues. 


We had got ourselves a half bottle of some very nice Anatolian wine which we sipped on the shoreline looking out across the calm bay, the tantalising smell of kebabs wafting over from the other picnickers. Tanker ships moored in the bay peppered our view. At dusk a large puff of dark smoke rises from each of them in turn as their generators are switched on. Soon clusters of orange lights are floating on the surface and a few lonely stars appear overhead. We copy the locals and get a fire going after dinner and sit reading before climbing into the tent. 

Day 2 – 63km

The second day saw us start to cycle through the impressive mountains which run parallel to the coast. They are covered in rich green pine forests. We turn off down to the small village of Cirali planning to find a spot to camp before walking to the Eternal Burning Stones of Chimaera which are best explored at night. 

We knew that heavy rain was forecast that evening so finding somewhere undercover was desirable. Camping on the beach in prime tourist spots can be a problem around here. It’s not as bad as it would be in the height of summer though and after chatting with a lovely barman he offers us a space under his awning for that night. By 7:30 the rain is holding off so after dinner we set off on the 90minute walk up to the Chimaera stones which are pretty cool. They have been burning for over 2000 years! A big group of locals had claimed the biggest and most impressive fire toasting marshmallows on long sticks but we found a comfortable spot a few metres away and with our backs warming against the flames we sat talking about the prospect of coming home

When the rain started at 10:30pm it didn’t stop all night and unfortunately we woke in the morning to find that a puddle had formed under the awning right where our tent was… Things were in a worse state than they would have been had we just camped out in the storm – the bottom of our tent was pretty soggy and the rain was forecast to last all day and well into the next evening… so we decided to stay put, book into one of the rooms behind the bar and sit the storm out. 


Day 3 – 37km

We managed to dry everything out by the next morning and with the forecast just promising rain again that evening we set off early wanting to reach Finike. The plan was to cycle along the 1km track which connects Cirali to the famous hippy trail, ancient Lycian site of Olympus which sits on the beach just around the headland. Unfortunately, the 24 hours of rain the day before had turned the track into a raging river. We had two options – push the bike across the beach instead and reach Olympus that way or go round by cycling back up to the road 400m up. We decided to push the bike along the sandy, pebbly beach. A tough 20 minutes but it would be much easier than cycling up a steep climb for 90minutes, especially with our cassette in its current condition… 

A quick rest while watching the waves crash towards us

The problem was, was that when we reached the headland we discover that the usual path through the archaeological site was now covered by a lake… To make things worse, while we had been pushing the bike along the sand, a giant rogue wave had come crashing towards us. Paddy had managed to escape but I had been holding the bike at the time and so ended up with very wet feet – not even goretex NorthFace shoes save you if a 2ft wave washes over you…

Our only option now was to find a way with the bags and the bike through the higgledy-piggledy, rocky, overgrown paths which wind their way up through the old ruins. It meant taking the bags through first and then going back to carry, drag and push the tandem through. It took us two hours to cover 1.5km of ground! Here I am with the bike after we finally meet back up with the main path which leads to the ticket office. We had just battled our way through the old amphitheatre arch behind me. 


Back on track, we wash down the bike (and my shoes) thoroughly with a hose to make sure no sea water is left and then we get going. Its a really nice ride out of Olympus and we soon link back up to the main road and make good headway.

It stays dry all day and we do manage to reach the long stretch of beach which leads up to Finike. We camp underneath this handy picnic area which are dotted all the way along the shoreline. 

Day 4 – 75km

Having stayed dry after another overnight storm hit we wake up early and find snow has been dropped on the mountains above Finike. It’s still raining but thanks to our large roof we eat breakfast and pack down easily. We have an hour of rain on the bike but the weather soon turns pretty good with some nice patches of sunshine. It’s pretty flat for sometime and we speed along stopping to eat lunch on this pebbly beach. 


We then turn off the main road down towards Ucagiz which is where we were headed. 


When we get there it’s as beautiful as the guidebook promised – normally teeming with tourists in the summer I think we were lucky to be here on the 1st December! The whole place was idyllically sleepy and quiet. 


After walking around the harbour for a while we spot a small patch of grass just off the main path next to some old ruins. We pitch out tent and cooked dinner right on the water front over looking the gorgeous harbour. The clouds slowly part and we enjoyed an incredible sunset and then a spectacular nights sky. A couple of locals walk by with a quick glimpse and ‘merhaba’ as we sit drinking our beers and eating dinner. At sunset the Mosque lights up green and rings out with the usual call to prayer; cats flit here and there along the path. The lights from the many boats make silver ribbons across the flat calm water and we watch the last few vessels arrive back to harbour and drop anchor. It’s very sheltered and we have a very peaceful nights sleep. 


Day 5 – 52km

To join back up to the main road we had a very hard 20km climb out of Uclgiz the next morning. There was a bit of a headwind but clear blue skies. It was really nice to have an extended cycle away from the main road and we had some lovely views of snowy mountains. 

Goats!
At lunch we also catch our first official site of Europe – the Greek island of Megiste

The wind picks up quite a bit in the afternoon but we manage to find a sheltered ‘shelf’ of land in between a few houses on the outskirts of Kalkan. Nobody seemed too bothered about us setting up camp.

Choppy sea

Day 6 – 90km

After stopping in Kalkan for a cash machine we got going and ate up the miles towards Fethiye where we would be staying with Kathy, a warm showers host from the UK! After the climb away from Kalkan it wasn’t too hilly and we arrived into Fethiye by 4pm. We met Kathy at her apartment and got fed delicious food and good company that night. Here we will rest up for a day as rain is due tomorrow before completing the last section towards Bodrum! 

It’s been a really nice cycle along the Lycian coast. Keen walkers should definitely check out the Lycian Way path which stretches across this stretch of coast.

Mersin to Topalli near Antalya / 427.7km

Day 1 – half day 45.5km 

We really liked staying with Kadir and his housemates. It was really interesting talking to them about the current situation here in Turkey with Erdegon’s illiberal agenda. Kadir is Kurdish so it was good to get his perspective on the PKK and Kurdish history. 

Communal meals with these lovely guys


He joined us for our first 10km out of Mersin the next afternoon. The city is actually a really big place with hundreds of new apartment blocks constructed in neat lines along the coast line. They go on for miles… and we were caught on the busy dual carriageway meaning we didn’t catch our first sight of the sea for some time. The road was completely flat so we easily completed 40km in a couple of hours before starting to scout out a potential camping spot. It was still very built up here and after reaching our first bit of beach our hopes of a sea side sleep were soon dashed when we spotted a group of guys with motorbikes drinking and wrestling each other on the sand. 

So instead we turned off the road and headed north through a big orchard and polytunnel complex. After cycling through a sleepy village we reached a road stretching through an impressive gorge. As in other parts of Europe at this time of year it gets dark here really early but just as the sun was setting we spotted a riverside grove of lemon trees reached via a rickety bridge, a perfect hidden sanctuary, and we pitched the tent and cooked up dinner in the semi-darkness. 

The moon was incredibly bright that night and at about 10:45 I stirred initially thinking it was the light that had woken me. Suddenly I heard a kind of loud snorting near the tent. A VERY large something was making its way towards us, padding its way forwards. Trying not to panic I shook Paddy awake and by the light of the super moon we lay facing each other, wide eyed and listening, as the beast drew ever closer. It circled the tent and then headed down towards the river where it went out of earshot. 

‘What do you recon it is?’ I whispered to Paddy. It sounds like a pig, or maybe a really big dog…’ After a long pause where we both strain to listen again, Paddy answers. ‘It could be a pig… or maybe it’s a bear…’ At once, an image of us fighting off a large, fierce grizzly with our inflatable mattresses and Swiss Army penknife flash through my mind… ‘I’d better put in my contact lenses’ I say defiantly.

It’s difficult to be completely rational when there is only a thin piece of canvas between you and a potential attack from an unidentified animal but we did our best, and we spent the next few minutes formulating ‘operation intimidation’ for if it came back and approached the tent. We knew it had been close and it hadn’t been too bothered about us but our biggest fear was that it would detect the food bag… We heard it again roaming through the trees but it didn’t get close and we finally concluded that it wasn’t too bothered about us. We both managed to get back to sleep.
Nonetheless, we woke up early and packed down quickly the next morning and decided it would be best to have breakfast on a beach somewhere instead. We had lived to cycle another day! 

After speaking to some locals on the beach we get told it was probably a wild boar. Feeling initially relieved I google ‘Anatolia, Turkish Wild Boar’ and get this image. 


Not a hog you might exactly call piglet in any case…

Day 2: 88.9km

Our second day saw us see much more of the coast as the string of apartment blocks gave way to more beaches and coastline. The Eastern Mediterranean with Cyprus’ mountains just visible through the ocean haze. Lovely!

Farming is big here and fruit is in abundance in this part of Turkey so we spend our breaks picking fresh oranges, lemons and pomegranates from trees. There are also loads of muzler (local banana) trees which means they are really cheap to buy. After the morning clouds were swept away it became pretty warm, although a nice off shore wind kept things a decent temperature. We cycled through a few more towns and passed our first Roman ruins and reached the island Byzantian fortress of Kizkalesi castle.


We stopped for a couple of hours at the caves of heaven and hell – two impressive sink holes which both have great mythological relevance. The 200m mammoth ‘heaven’ cave is incredible and visitors are able to walk right down into it. At its mouth is a lovely old 5th century Byzantine chapel ruin. Locals believe the underground river connects to the hellish river Styx.


After lunch the wind really picked up and was blowing in our faces the whole time. We were heading to Ovacik where the house of another warm showers host, Bayram is. By the time we reached the town it was blowing a proper gale and we were being blown all over the place. The storm was so bad that the whole of Bayram’s neighbourhood had no power when, very wind swept, we finally arrived.

Day 3 – 62.1km 

The storm blew itself out overnight and we enjoyed a cloudless, 28 degree blue sky the next day. The flat coast road turned away inland for a while and we had a couple of hard 300m climbs. They are in the process of widening the road to form a dual carriage way which I guess will eventually span the whole coast line although the road works didn’t really affect us too much and the road wasn’t too busy. Paddy is very happy to be spending so much time on the coast and I’ve caught him on more than one occasion staring at the sea, a contented smile spreading across his face.


That night we camped right on the beach under a grove of olive trees and fell asleep to the waves gently crashing onto the shore. The wind picked up again but we were very sheltered under the trees.

Day 4 – 64.14km

We woke at 6:30am with the call to prayer blasting from a nearby minaret. Another clear sunny day and we stop at the ancient city of Anamurium for lunch. It’s an amazing complex first dating back to the Phoenician period in 400BC although most of the ruins are from the Roman and Byzantine period. It’s a sprawling site which reaches all the way down to a pebbly beach. Interestingly it’s the southern most point of Asia Minor. We would be heading Northwards from now on… 


Much of the amphitheatre, bath houses, basilica, city walls, and long aqueduct are still standing so we spent a good couple of hours walking about the site.


We had a long very steep climb at the end of the day which we managed to complete before dropping back down to sea level and into a beautiful little bay. A group of fishermen were sorting their gear out on the beach and one of them offered up his tent and little campsite set up which meant we didn’t need to bother erecting our tent and bed. This would mean a speedy pack-down the next morning, a good thing as we knew we had two big 500m climbs the next day. 

Day 5 – 93.5km 

So began our big day of climbing but we managed to set off at 8am and despite stopping to chat to Martin, another cycle tourer from Canada who was heading the other way, we managed to complete the first climb by 10:30am. There were a few stiff parts of the climb and our chain continues to jump so there were a few sections in which we had to get off and push for a bit. Although we were climbing, the sea remained on our lefthand side all day and we had great views across the Mediterranean. Another super hot day. 


A steady down hill section helped us rack up the miles in the afternoon and we took the smaller coastal detour for a while before meeting back up with the highway. We completed the last 15km to Turkey’s longest beach and here we treated ourselves to our first Turkish restaurant meal and enjoyed an overdue (albeit pricey) beer as we watched the sun set over the sea. We managed to find a hidden spot for the tent just a few metres from this beachside restaurant meaning we could sneakily access their shower and wifi the next morning. After a stint of reading the international news in bed I ran down to the shore and plunged into the sea. It helped to wash away most of the Trump madness… 

Day 6 – 51.1k

With only 153km over two days left to complete and no substantial climbs we had a couple of easy days ahead before reaching Aksu where we would be staying on a horse farm for a week. However nice it is to be clinging to the coast we both feel sad that we haven’t had a chance to cycle through some other parts of Turkey. Clinging to the south coast means we’re spending a lot of time cycling through resort towns, marvelling at some of the big hotel complexes with their Taj Mahal style towers and luxury beachside bars. The convenience of having access to beach showers and supermarkets means camping day after day is easy and we’re eating a much more varied diet; things like muesli with fresh milk which is a real luxury for us!! 

Yummy Turkish bulgar for lunch – the purple carrot gave it the pink colour. They like purple carrot here… They make a horrible fermented drink from it too…

After a while though the restaurants, bars, tattoo parlours and shops all start to look the same and although its low season and there are lots of secluded spots between the towns and plenty of ancient sites along the way we both feel a little sad that we won’t be cycling through some of the more remoter areas of the country. 

Day 7 – 103km

The last day saw us stop at Side which is a nice resort strip popular with German tourists and also home to a large Helenistic and Roman ruin complex. We spent a nice couple of hours cycling along the beach front and visiting the old amphitheatre, temples and city walls. 

Temple of Apollo – tandem received quite as much attention from our fellow tourists though!

It was slightly further to our Workaway host than we had originally thought so we ended up doing 103km on the bike that day. Here we will stay for five days helping out on the farm and in the house in exchange for free board in their cottage in the grounds.

Cyrano and Pinto – 2 of 15 horses we will be helping to look after for the next few days

  

GEORGIA! Country No.12 

We arrived into Tbilisi and the first thing we noticed was how warm it was in comparison to most of Armenia. This was good because we had five days to kill before Paddy’s brothers arrived for a few days. 

With the promise of a string of sunny days ahead we agreed it would be good to get out on the bike and explore some of rural Georgia. Depending on the weather, it may be the one chance we get to do some cycling in the whole of the country… In the end we chose a 250km loop which would take us initially north east to Telavi and then west to Tianeti. Here is the profile of the cycle:

It would be a leisurely cycle with us only needing to cover 50km a day. We were lucky to be staying with Murat a Turkish Warm Showers host who is seeing out the winter here before continuing his journey south. It was cool staying with Murat, he was a really nice guy who likes to make social statements through live protest art; such as sitting in front of large advertising screens eating popcorn for hours and organising group candlelit dinners on pedestrian crossings. It was really interesting talking to him about the current situation in Turkey especially as it is our next stop after Georgia. 

Murat, Paddy and tandem

The next morning we set off and it took us a long time to find our way out of Tbilisi. Our first impression is that it is a city made for cars not pedestrians and certainly not for bikes! Even the smaller street roads still have 4 or 5 lanes and there are very few crossings and no taxi or bus lanes. Consequently the city has very high pollution levels. Other than the traffic the city seems really really nice with lots of new architectural projects which have been tastefully mixed in with the neoclassical style boulevards and charming old city which is full of wooden balconies and cobbled streets. It kind of reminds me a bit of London in this way. 


We had an unpleasant hour on a busy dual carriageway for an hour but once we had turned off up to Telavi the cycle was much nicer although a killer headwind developed later in the day. We managed to shelter in a secluded wood that night and lit a good fire to stay warm. 

The next day was spent getting over the first climb. It was a really lovely cycle through a number of villages where lots of makeshift stalls were set up selling wild mushrooms and nuts and fruit from the surrounding orchards.

Almost all the trees are covered in huge bunches of mistletoe which made us feel very Christmassy!

Pears and mistletoe
Orchard lunch stop
Reached the top late afternoon. Sprinkling of snow up here
Amazing castle ruins on a faraway cliff top

After a fast chilly 15km descent we pulled into a roadside restaurant which had a big outdoor picnic area. We asked if we could camp there and set up the tent while we waited for our big feast of traditional Gerogian food to arrive.

The next day we spent leisurely cycling down into the Alazani basin visiting a couple of 10th century churches on our way. The snow capped Caucusus came into view and the weather was a roasting 19 degrees! It was a really lovely day of cycling through golden forests and small villages. We found a Stella camping spot that evening.

Autumn colours!
Ikalto church and old monastery.
Caucuses in view the whole day
Lake side camping spot
Sunset mountain glow
Fire worshipper at work…

The next day we left the paved road behind us as we climbed up over the second major climb of the loop. It was a lovely climb (not too steep) but the road was a little bumpy and muddy in places so it was quite slow going. We weren’t in any rush though and on the way up we stopped to walk up to a remote 10th century castle ruin and church. Again we had great weather all day. 

 

Irish damsel in distress…
The small but very beautiful 10th century Kvetera church

We rolled into Tianeti and decided to get a room in the only hotel in the town. The owner Giorgi and his lovely wife Eteri invited us to sit in front of the wood burner in their village store where they plied us with bread, cheese, tea and cha cha – Georgian vodka like liquor. Hilariously, Giorgi called up his mate who lived down the road as he had spent 14 years living in Cork city so we also had a nice chat with him.

Our last day was overcast and a little misty but we had an easy 15km climb before a very long descent back to Tbilisi and the asphalt soon returned. Apart from a back wheel puncture on the way down it was a very easy day. On the way into the city a mountain biker cycled up behind us and enjoyed cycling in our slipstream for 20 minutes before pulling in to chat. He and his friends who were a few km behind had been out for a Sunday ride and so we ended up going for dinner with them which was really nice.

Back on the road: Shiraz to Isfahan 

After leaving Azhang and Bita we continued to cycle out of Shiraz. Traffic was heavy due to it being a weekend, with lots of people heading out of the city to spend a day in the surrounding countryside. 

After a few too many close over-takers we decided to try our first hitch in Iran. Iranian drivers really are the worst we’ve ever encountered, even worse that Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan.

Hitchhiking isn’t that common in Iran we’re told and the road we were on was pretty fast moving but eventually a truck did stop and a lovely chap dropped us 25km down the road where the traffic was beginning to thin.  

Very soon we turned off the main road leading to Isfahan and took a rural detour via Sepeydan. When we reached the town we stopped for an ice cream and got chatting to a local who eagerly showed us pictures of his mountain bike. He had it in the back of his car along with all his gear so he ended up cycling with us up the hill for an hour. 


Half way up we stopped in a lay by and 3 minutes later along came his wife, parents and children piled into an old landrover. 

In true Iranian style, a carpet was laid over two large slabs of styrofoam and a pot of tea, complete with silver tray, and a huge bowl of fruit is produced. It was a lovely way to end the day before we found a secluded spot to pitch our tent. 



Day 2

The next day promised a mix of climbing and long downhill sections. The landscape was pretty brown after the long summer. 


We stop in a small village where some police keep us a while to check our passports. We also meet this lovely lady who is dressed in this amazing outfit complete with think black eyeliner.


We finish the day with a pretty big climb and camp just off the road.

Day 3

A long downhill section awaited us the next morning which would take us towards the town of Yasuj. We needed to spend some time there changing money and food shopping. 


A small point of interest along the way down was what is known as the Persian Gate. It’s a steep valley where the Achaemenid army took its final stand against Alexander the Great’s oncoming Macedonian forces. The battle that took place here is as historic as the famous Persian-Spartan battle of Thermopile because it’s outcome really decided the fate of the war and the numbers of each side were heavily uneven. Unlike Thermopile it was the Persians who were the underdogs at the Persian Gate (10,000 v 700) but by using the terrain to their advantage they managed to wipe out huge swathes of Alexander’s men forcing them to retreat and regroup. Unfortunately for the Persians, their victory was short-lived, and Alexander managed to find an alternative route up the mountain, ambushing the Persians and slaughtering most of them. He then marched onwards, unchallenged, to Persepolis. 

The valley also offered up a rare opportunity for us to wash our clothes. Iran seriously lacks water at this time of year as it has no major rivers running through any of the country. 


We spent a long morning in Yasuj hunting for a money exchange. Eventually we got taken to a local jewellers by a very kind bank manager. 

We were very worried that the next stretch of road would be really busy but the cycle ended up being incredibly scenic and the road had a descent hard shoulder and wasn’t too crowded. 


Day 4 

Day 4 promised a lot of climbing but with it the scenery got better and better.

We also had to navigate through a lot of tunnels.


Our destination that evening was Ab Malakh waterfall which Azhang and Bita had told us about. It sounded amazing and wasn’t in the guidebook which made us want to go there even more! 

After a particularly long climb we free wheeled down into this beautiful valley where this picturesque town overlooked tiered rice fields, mountains completing the picture behind. 


Another long ascent awaited us after but a recording of Billie Connolly live entertained us as while we climbed. 

Ab Malakh waterfall is situated 10km off the main road. Visitors need to get down the very steep dirt track to the river and climb up the other side to the tiny village beyond which acts as a base to walk the 2km to the falls. We were certain we’d be able to get down to the village but had no inclination to, or conviction that we’d be able to, cycle back up the next morning. This meant we needed to try and organise a lift. 

The thing about travelling with a tandem for nine months is that you end up thinking that anything is possible and that everything will be OK in the end. So we descended the steep track confident that we’d be able to communicate what we needed to someone in the village. Of course we were happy to pay any costs. 


The track was very steep… And on the way up to the village on the other side we got a puncture… 

However it was all good. We reached the village and met two young lads called Ibrahim and Hassan who had a very small amount of English. With a our limited Farsi and lots of hand signals we managed to communicate that we needed a truck or car to pick us up at 11:30 the next morning, they said no problem, they could arrange it. Experience has learnt that 99.9% of time you can completely trust people. Sorted! 

To top it off a local family in the village offered to host us that night and we spent a lovely evening eating barbecued fresh fish caught from the waterfall and sleeping on their porch.

Family breakfast
Fish kebabs
 

The village mosque glowing at dusk

Day 5
One of the sons (I’m afraid we’ve forgotten his name!!) offered to take us to the waterfall the next morning so at 8:30 the three of us set off.


It was a stunning walk through a steep gorge and we were the only people around. This meant I didn’t need to bother too much with hijab.

Then we caught sight of the waterfall which looks like it’s just pouring down from the middle of the mountainside through a rich green arch of vegetation to the river below. 


This natural phenomenon was made when a huge landslide fell and blocked the river. 


Over the years the river has carved out a new path through the rock creating a short tunnel. At the same time, an underground spring inside the mountain found an opening where the landslide had occurred; hence the water cascading down over the tunnel made by the river. 


Because we had a local with us we were able to find our way down to both sides of the waterfall and see exactly what was going on. It was very cool!


After exploring for an hour Paddy and I both took a deep breath and had a quick dip in the pools. It was freezing but we hadn’t had a wash in five day so we really needed it!


When we got back, to our relief Ibrahim was there early ready to take us back to the road but there was a slight problem… He only had his motorcycle with him!!!

After a while we realised he had a plan to tow us and the tandem up the slope… ‘Ummm… I’m not sure that’s going to work’ we said. 

We’ve managed to get tandem on every kind of transport imaginable… Trains, buses, trucks, tiny cars… we even got it on this canoe boat once in Myanmar… 

But we had never got it on a motorcycle before… Until now. 

Our lovely guide went to fetch his other motorbike and together we took the bags, wheels and seat posts off and strapped tandem across the first bike with Paddy perched on top. Unfortunately we have no photos of this… 

The second bike took me and most of the luggage. Somehow we managed to get everything up in just three trips. The guys were absolute heroes. Here they are at the top looking pretty pleased with themselves! 


It was 1:30 before we got back to the road and we had some serious climbing to do. We were heading to the town of Semirom where we planned to catch a bus to Isfahan. It didn’t really matter if we arrived that night or tomorrow morning so we didn’t push it. 

On the way up we were given gifts of water, cakes, apples, a bag of walnuts and a huge box of dates. Iranians really are the friendliest people ever.


We camped off the side of the road 40km from Semiron and tucked into the dates… Iranian dates are like little droplets of heaven, I can’t eat enough of them and they are particularly nice spread over a digestive biscuit. 🙂 


We easily reached Semiron the next day and by 12:30 we were on a bus zooming along the last 180km to Isfahan.  

Shiraz

A young law graduate called Hamid had offered to host us in Shiraz. It was really nice sharing his super central flat with his aunt, sister and younger brother. Hamid was busy looking after his mother’s tailors shop while she was away visiting family so we only got to hangout with him in the evenings.
His 22 year old sister Fahima who is studying tourism at the local college however was still on her summer break so she offered to show us around one day. 


We started at the late 18th century Vakil bazaar and wondered through its many domed brick streets and visited it’s two green courtyards. 


After a coffee together we headed over to the Arg-e Karim Khan – the fortress-like royal court of Karim Khan who, the 18th century ruler who is responsible for most of Shiraz’s historic buildings. 


There wasn’t much to see here to be honest but we did enjoy the actors who were walking around in period costume… 🙂


After lunch, Paddy and I headed down to Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh shrine complex. In 835 AD Sayyed Mir Ahmed, brother to Imam Reza’s (who’s own pilgrimage site is in Mashhad), was hunted down and murdered by the Caliphate.

We have had to overcome a minor frustration while sightseeing in Iranian cities. The very high entrance fees for all the attractions are prohibitive for those on a budget. If our guide book (published in 2012) is anything to go by, admission fees were nowhere near as extortionate a few years ago and it seems the government recently introduced a blanket tourist fee of 200 rials ($5) for most ‘attractions’. Even the smaller mosques now charge this fee and needless to say Iranians pay a fraction of the price or go free. 

We don’t mind paying to see historic buildings but it’s hard to part with $10 each time when you end up walking aimlessly around a semi renovated building with no explanations or guides in English.

The exceptions have been when visiting the major shrine sites. Both the Harem-e-Rezavi and Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh complexes were completely free to enter and we got a free English speaking guide to take us around.


Eating out isn’t dirt cheap either and there is a distinct lack of decent restaurants, with fast food joints and kebab shops making up the short fall.

Thanks to our amazing warm showers hosts however we’ve been able to avoid paying any hotel costs so far and we’ve enjoyed some tasty nutritious home cooked meals. 

Fahima cooked Ash one morning which is a thick vegetable soup found all over Iran. Shirazi’s typically eat it for breakfast.

That evening we went to the tomb of the famous Iranian poet Hafez. Iranians are very proud of their literary history and many of their great poets have been honoured with spectacular mausoleums. Iranians will make almost pilgrimage like journeys to visit these sites, touching or kissing the tombs while reciting some of their favourite verses. 

It was nice visiting after dark as the spectacular dome covering the tomb was all lit up and it was pleasant to walk around the surrounding gardens. 


We come across a small band of people sitting in one dark corner listening to one man who is reciting a whole chunk of Hafez’s works by heart. 


After spending some time near the tomb Fahima took us to the cafe to have our first taste of falooduh an alternative to ice cream but made of short strings of frozen starch. I think we’ll both stick to ice cream next time! 

The next day we had a relaxing morning at the flat and then spent some time food shopping before 
rounding off the afternoon with a traditional Shirazi pastime – a picnic in the UNESCO Bagh-e Eram gardens.

Not wanting to disturb Hamid and his family too much by overstaying our welcome we decided to spend a night with Azhang (civil engineer) and Bita (architectural consultant), another warm showers host who live in the west of the city for our last night before heading north to Isfahan. Actually they had only been signed up to the site for a week so we happened to be their first guests!! 


They were a super couple with a lovely apartment and we had a great evening with them and needless to say, we were VERY well looked after! 

They cooked us a delicious meal of Dizzie which is a very traditional Iranian dish.

A large watery stew of chickpeas, potatoes, lamb, tomatoes and carrots gets cooked on a low heat for a good few hours.

The liquid is drained into a large bowl and the meat and veg then pounded into a thick paste. 


Ladles of the liquid are placed in your bowl and then you tear pieces of bread into it. Some people like to mix the paste into their soup but others eat it separately with bread, salad, pickled veg and olives. It’s very tasty!

After dinner we took a stroll together in the local park. People stay up late here including young families so the park is a hive of activity. Azhang treated us to an amazing ice cream – another thing the Iranians do very well. 

In fact the average Iranian has a very sweet tooth and cakes, sweets, ice cream and pastries are eaten at all times of day. They love cake so much they even eat it for breakfast! 


The next morning happened to be a Friday, the weekend in Iran, so Bita and Azhang were able to have a long breakfast and then cycle some of the way with us on their own bikes. They are both very fond of the outdoors and have a dream to plan their own cycle tour across Russia in the next few years. 


After 15km of cycling together we stopped to say goodbye. But not before we let them have a go at riding the tandem! They coped pretty well considering we were heavily loaded!

So we find ourselves heading north up to Isfahan which we hope will take around 5 days on the bike. We might end up taking a bus from a town called Semirom.