September 11, 2009 GMT
Anticipation

No permanent address & no income. Yep, I'm really getting into my travelling skin now. I thought I'd put a half-decent blog entry up here since I've been telling people about this blog anyway, and I didn't think that the "Dog Toilet" placeholder picture (courtesy of my friend Christos) would cut it any longer... So here is a rough plan for my itinerary from the UK to India (and not Nepal as depicted, but I can't be bothered to re-create the picture and I didn't keep the original XCF format okay?)

trip-plan

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 05:01 PM GMT
September 12, 2009 GMT
One step closer

My last Saturday in London was meant to be nice and relaxing... NOT!

This is how the story unfolded: After waiting for a new WP rear shock for 2 months, I was told WP are are having problems and won't deliver. Naturally they only told me that when I started getting really pushy as "I have to be on the road next week!", before that the reason for the "delay" was "extended factory holidays" and such malarkey.

So with one week to go, I had to find an alternative, and the Ohlins Su201 (46 PRCS) seemed to be the best option. Sure, it's supposed to be for the Vstrom 1000, but suspension & Suzuki experts KAIS performance (in Manchester) said they have fitted a few of them on 650s... so I ordered the very pricey full-feature kit (preload, compression AND rebound adjustable - wow) and set my alarm for 6 o'clock this morning to drive to Manchester and have it fitted.

Left North London at 7, was there by 10. After about 5 minutes, I get a smiling Mr. Andy saying "we have a small technical issue..." - it turns out the shock is different than what they were anticipating and the particular unit did not fit my bike, since the reservoir that hosts the compression damping adjusters is fixed on the unit instead of the {anticipated I suppose) loose unit. Grand.

So a solution had to be found and it turned out that the folks at KAIS managed to change the head and use an external reservoir that did get fitted on the bike, minus the adjusters. So no compression damping for me, in the end got only rebound and preload adjusters but hey-ho. Things can never simply work, can they?

This is the result: P9130021

So after riding 700km on the lovely M1 & M6's of this country, I'm spending the remaining day trying not to smash to pieces a new Acer laptop with Windows Vista on it. It comes from the shop with so much pre-loaded useless/dangerous software that I spent hours just uninstalling stuff. Of course the Operating System itself is living up to its tradition as well - the automatic update process is already broken, there are zombie services (can't delete/restart/fix/touch them in any way)...

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I will so not miss this when I'm gone :-)

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 11:00 PM GMT
September 20, 2009 GMT
Leg 1: London to Athens

Unbelievable, but it actually takes 2 days on the road to reach Ancona, Italy from London.

I left London on Wednesday the 16th of September 2009, 07:40 in the morning. Quikcly, before I thought too much about what this meant, what I was doing etc. My plan to make a quick escapade was quickly thwarted by one wrong choice - not to use the M25 to get to M20 to Dover. Instead I took the manly option and decided to drive through London... An hour and a half later I was THIS CLOSE to turning on the GPS, which would have dealt a deadly blow to my explorer/navigator self esteem, but then I saw that lovely sign for Peckham and I knew I was on the right side of town.

After crossing to Calais, I enjoyed paying EUR20 for my first toll - a warm welcome by the French motorways, which turned out to be a bug in their automated vehicle recognition system - it turns out motorcycles are recognised as cars by the automatic system, so a word of warning for all motorcyclists out there - USE THE MANNED BOOTH or pay twice as much. Of course there is a (byzantine, user-unfriendly) system to get a refund. Whatever.

I set up my tent in a lovely Aire-de-something-or-other just after Metz (FR) with a beautiful patch of grass, tree coverage and about 50 truckers spending the night there, hence a feeling of safety. I collapsed around 21:00 after asking the GPS what time the sun would come up - the answer was 06:01. So I set my alarm for 6 and slept.

Nine hours later I woke up fresh as a rosebud (okay, poetic license [ab]used!), packed my stuff and was on the road again by 06:50. The truckers were also waking up and continuing their journey and I remembered the affinity I used to feel for these nomads of the roads in previous trips. It's good to know they're around and they're also just travellers.

Thursday 16 Sept 2009 I crossed Strasbourg, crossed into Switzerland from Basel, crosses Luzern, Lugano and entered Italy above Milano. From there I took the Autostrada till Rimini, where I exited and took the SS-16 (Via Adriatica), the coastal road south towards Ancona. I knew the boat would be the next day and I thought I'd call it a night in a seaside camping.

Indeed I camped in a place called Riccione (very posh), did a nice 6km stroll around the beach/town, maintained my high protein meditteranean diet (pizza/nutella crepe/ice cream) and went to bed.

Friday, 18th September 2009. Left Riccione around 8, heading South to Ancona. No rush, so took the busy coastal road, passing through villages, getting lost down alleys, asking for directions etc. It's all good fun. After two days on boring motorways, it was nice to be floating through truly beautiful land:

South of Rimini, Italia

Hopped on the SUperfast V for Greece which left Ancona at 13:30. Started a movie marathon (who can watch more than 7 trash movies in a row? I challenge thee!), with the sun setting sweetly on the Adriatic...

View from Superfast V

Saturday, 19th of September 2009

After sleeping for less than 4 hours (the CamelBak, for all its talents, is NOT a good pillow), had my cookies-based breakfast on the boat and waited to arrive to the port of Patra.

Breakfast @ Superfast V

Reached Greece around 12:30, hopped off the boat, weird feeling... the jukebox of my brain was stuck on "Bittersweet symphonie" (Verve). On the road back to Athens I got a good contestant for the "most scaringly idiotic diplays of nationalism" competition:

Civilised bloke

The translation for the very few of you that might have slept through ancient Greek class is roughly:
"GREECE: Anyone who is not a Greek, is a barbarian"

Lovely, eh?

Sorry it's so fuzzy, the dude was doing 110km/h and I had to fish out the camera and take the shot with my left hand in motion on the bike. But dammit, it's worth it, otherwise people just shake their heads in unbelieving scepticism when I rave about the poo for brain that some people have in this country, and the silent acceptance of such views as "harmess and graphic" by the rest of the population.

The coastal road that twists its way to Athens offers some spectacular views of the sea and sky. I had to stop to take a few snaps:

View from National Road @ Corinthos

After less than an hour, I was back in the house I grew up, with all the usual suspects (close family) there, buzzing around. It's good to be home.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 10:23 AM GMT
The road so far

This is the updated itinerary plan, with the green part already done (in 3 days nonetheless!). So the rest of it should take roughly another week, right? :-P

090920 trip route

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 10:46 AM GMT
September 26, 2009 GMT
Red tape

...with no white knuckles :-(

From dict.org:

Red tape,
(a) the tape used in public offices for tying up documents,
etc. Hence,
(b) official formality and delay; excessive bureaucratic
paperwork.

Im referring to Lois Pryces excellent "Red tape and white knuckles", which I really enjoyed reading a few months back. Unfortunately for me the experience is all red tape, because I am having to deal with copious amounts of paperwork, and no white knuckles, because Im not doing any riding, as Im not on the road yet.

In any case. This past week has been busy. Got the Iranian visa - what a lovely document, how pretty the inscriptions, how magical the script I cant make anything out of... Id very gladly post a picture here for the artistic value of it alone, but alas, its a private document and one cant broadcast such things.

Now Ive applied for the Indian visa and with that in hand Ill go for the Pakistani one. Things turned pear-shaped when the Pakistani embassy asked me for the Indian visa first, while I was hoping to issue it in Islamabad (while taking a nice break and resting my bones), but noooo, plans are to be changed, arent they?

In the meantime Im having the bike sorted (i.e. spending serious money in servicing, equipping it with stuff etc) and completely negating a maxim I heartily endorse, which goes something like "its not the bike, its the rider". But there you go.

Now that the off-road tyres have been installed the bike looks properly in overlanding mode:

Vstrom with Continental TKC80

Other than that, red tape is wearing me out. I seem to be quite tired most of the time and cant wait to get on the road. I need some fresh air; this city and all its air-conditioned boxes and slippery, traffic-jammed roads are suffocating.

Anytime now, anytime...

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 06:01 PM GMT
October 03, 2009 GMT
Leaving Europe

Finally... after a long and bizarre list of mishaps, annoyances and other temporary roadblocks that I am tempted to, but will not go through in detail, I am ready to leave Athens and start the real trip.

Staying in Athens for this long was as difficult as I expected, but through hardship come many opportunities for unique experiences. The support of friends is always valuable; receiving it is almost shocking in simplicity and power.

This is Christos and Eleni who took me in when I needed a home away from home.
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It's all a bit weird really. I feel a lot has been left undone. It rained this morning. The boat awaits. Must... go... pack.

I'll see you again in Turkey. Till then.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 06:31 AM GMT
October 07, 2009 GMT
On the road, finally!

Blimey! It's so good to be on the road... After the first freaky 48 hours or so, during which I was thinking "ohmygodohmygodohmygooooooooooooooooooooood what am I dooooooooooooooooooooiiing", I am officially relaxing and enjoying this. A lot.

Being overtaken by a camel (okay, I was in no big rush) was the drop that overflowed the glass, in a very positive way. After that I started being more conscious of all the peculiarities of Turkey and the first few days of this trip. The friendliness of the people, the openness, how everyone I meet introduces themselves, asks me about the bike, the trip, myself, smiles a lot, offers all sorts of food which seems to magically come out of nowhere...

I had the most random non-conversations (language barrier, dammit - when will Esperanto fix humanity?) on a roadside tea-shack with a cyclist who was on the road for 4 days, with a guy working in Germany, at that time in Bodrum on vacation with his family, with people who showed up while I was filling it up with petrol, with a bunch of headscarfed ladies who were selling delicious watermellons on the roadside (luckily small enough to fit in the top case)...

Everywhere I stop, be it a mountain fresh water fountain or a roadside seller, I get offered chai, fruit, whatever is on the table/bag at that time, and sometimes I try to offer back my modest foodstuff (to Ping-Yi's certain distress, I am ticking along just fine with bread, cheese, fruit, rice, pasta and tuna for the time being) to no avail...

Very happy for all choices concerning the bike's preparation so far - I've had to do a bit off-roading and, well, yes, it's not exactly a motocross beast but the tyres and suspension get the job done quite safely.

Got my first traffic ticket too today - quite pricey at around EUR50. I was doing 88km/h on an (apparently) 77km/h seaside super-straight, super-level, super-deserted highway. I pleaded a little bit but they were giving tickets left and right to anyone who dared travel at a reasonable speed, so I coughed up and left. Interesting detail at that point is that I was slightly short on Turkish Liras and another driver who had also been stopped (and fined) told the cops he would cover the difference. That would not have happened in any of the countries I've lived...

The south coast of Turkey is so far quite splendid. Beautiful coasts, beaches, the ever inviting sea and a nice temperature around 30C (well, nice when you're not on the bike anyway). Hitting the water at 7am is not like me, but I did it and it was very good fun. Might go for a night swim tonight if I miss Chimaira (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Chimaera) and find the beach instead. Who knows. While I was relaxing in the water the other day I realised I hadn't been in the sea for a good 2 years! Yikes!

Alright, gotta go grab dinner and get ready for some serious trekking. Uploading photos to flickr takes so long as to be impractical, I will have to figure out something else...

Till soon!

Almost forgot - some pictures:

Daring gravity in the ancient city of Ephesus:

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Not being amused by the heat wave, again Ephesus:

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The camel that tipped my mood:

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As I am on a budget here, I only go to modest, off-the-beaten-track beaches:

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The sea:

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I censored the quite preposterous underwater pics.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 04:04 PM GMT
October 10, 2009 GMT
Before the break

Hello hello. Not too much to report (after all it's been only a couple of days since the last blog post), but it'll be at least one full week before I have the chance to blog again, so I thought I'd make the best of these last hours of sweet anticipation in Ankara to send you some pictures.

So after leaving the south coast of Turkey a little after Antalya, I crossed the mountains towards Konya. Immediately the temperature dropped significantly - initially it was a welcome change, after the altitude hit 1800m I started thinking about stopping to wear something warmer, as I headed north things certainly didn't get much warmer... to the point of reaching Sultanhani (a few km east of Konya) and telling the guy I wanted to camp and him saying "are you sure? It's cold at night!". I couldn't be bothered to relay the feeling of smartassiness my (by my usual standards) exotic equipment gave me, so I just nodded to the effect of "You don't know who you're talking to..." (feel free to applaud or throw yoghurt).

Anyway it was fine, it went as low as 6C at night and with a -5C sleeping bag and other stuff I can afford to act cool.

After walking around the village and asking people for a 2L bottle made of tin or aluminium (for petrol) and exceeding myself each time with the charades/pantomime which produced plenty of plastic bottles, but none of the desired material, I visited Sultanhani's famous karavanserai. What is it famous for, I hear you ask? Well, wikipedia has the answer I'm sure, I wouldn't know. I just took pictures of the light as it came in the huge domed area through high and thin windows, and then got out of there quick when a group of Italian tourists started getting smart with climbing on top of a ruined tower. I mean, it was only 10-15m high, but the sight of 60 year-olds with very evident arthritis issues who could barely WALK straight, climbing that thing and then walking about the ruins at the top, with no protective rail or nothing, freaked me out. I got out of there to miss the police investigation.

Then the fun part came. I had heard something about Tuz Golu (I'm killing the accents, but you get the idea), a salt lake on the way to Ankara from where I was. I'm a sucker for natural beauty, less so for culture/art, so the lake was a must. I wasn't dissappointed. It was one of the most beautiful sights these eyes have seen. Getting there of course involved some Turkish friendliness, as I got to the end of the road where there was a checkpoint and a bar blocking the road. As I parked the bike in the shade of a truck (the sun was scortching hot) the truck driver jumped out, gestured to the checkpoint, said a few words in English, and summoned the guard who opened the gate while his commanding officer (or dad, who knows) was cracking jokes about the Suzukis going kaputt and that I should have a BMW and I was gesturing back that this Suzuki will survive WWIII and all the BMWs of this world can kiss my ass. Imagine all that with him talking in Turkish and me in Greek/English/German. A masterpiece, but we both got a good laugh out of it.

The lake.

What can I say. 7km of unpaved road goes around a small part of it, where salt excavation takes place. Mountains of salt wait to be transported for commercial use. I'm impressed they even let me in, since this is a live production/collection site, but it's so vast that corners of this rectangular shape formed by the dirt road on the salt lake are completely still and quiet.

I think I've rambled on enough and the pictures are almost done uploading:

The tree-houses at Olympos mountain where I stayed one night. Cold, noisy (first the music and then the bloody chicken and other poultry) but good fun.

Treehouses at Olympos mountain

The entrance to the big karavanserai at Sultanhani.

Sultanhani karavanserai entrance

Exploring a little bit off the roads to Tuz Golu - errr... I guess this is the wrong way.

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Tuz Golu 1

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Tuz Golu 2

Tuz Golu

Carried this magnificent Basmati rice all the way from London, but forgot the salt. ARGH!

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Tuz Golu 3

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Tuz Golu 4 - the mine workers' canteen

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On the mountains North of Tuz Golu, towards Ankara. I had some time to spare, so I thought I'd do it in style. The result was more than 100km of unsurfaced road, which was slightly unnerving to begin with, but I got into rhythm soon.

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This is how I want to remember the steppe between Konya and Ankara:

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Right. More to come in roughly 10 days - arrivederci for now!

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 03:42 PM GMT
October 18, 2009 GMT
Mistakes, tourists and kindness in Cappadocia

What a week. Back in Ankara, after seeing the good doctor off (sniff) and suffering my first (partial) data loss due to a crashed Internet cafe PC. But let's try to put things in order.

This week was meant to be spent with Ping-Yi doing some classic tourism in Cappadocia and not moving about too much as she's not stocked up on protective equipment for the bike through the years like I have, and we didn't want to take any chances.

So we spent five days in Goreme, the center of Cappadocia's tourist attractions (the ill-translated "fairy chimneys") doing some sightseeing.

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My calorie intake this week has increased dramatically, both in quantity and quality. We had a number of elaborate breakfasts/lunches/dinners on the bike, with more food than I would ever prepare in my flat's kitchen!

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We visited underground cities and also did some serious walking, like the Ihlara valley which was a good walk for 5-6 hours in a beautiful gorge.

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Dramatic rock structures:

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The gorge is full of cave houses, carved in the rock. Very impressive.

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Oh yeah. That day I made a mistake. I didn't lock the panniers, and as a result one of the lids (that has started coming loose for some time now) opened and flew off in transit. We didn't realise what happened until I had a routine look (being paranoid I always glance around the bike while riding to make sure everything is still there). Luckily, the lid was less than 10km back and nothing from my personal belongings had flown off with it. Unluckily, the lid had been ran over by a couple of trucks and was in a sorry state:

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So I just held it in place with a couple of bungee cords, wished for the best and carried on.

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Luckily it hasn't rained from that day, as I'm only now going to take the time to fix this - with sunny weather a mashed pannier lid is not enough reason to steal time from the good doctor.

So after wasting away for five days in Goreme (2 in a pansiyon and 3 in a camp site, camping was far superior as we had the whole place to ourselves) we grudgedly packed aaaaall of our stuff and moved to a campsite next to Hattusa, the ancient capital of the Hittites.

The strongest memory of that day would not be seeing the ancient remains, but meeting a guy who instantly became our best friend when he realised that Ping-Yi and his girlfriend were born in the same city! Oh my oh my, we got a ride with the taxi, a personal tour of the nicest parts of the ancient site, while the site attendant was waiting for us to lock up and go home, then got taken to the village square for chai (tea), were shown pictures (both touristy and personal), did some tech support on the guy's laptop, got tips on other things to do and see... overall, the royal treatment! Very nice indeed.

Which brings us to today, on our way to Ankara, we stopped at a petrol station to fill up and were immediately approached by the owner, offered chai (yum!) and had a short but succinct chat about where we were from, what did we do, how did we meet etc. It's fascinating how much you can share with a few words of common language. But Esperanto is still high on my to-do-when-I-become-a-deity list. Anyway. So much friendliness and hospitality from complete strangers is just breathtaking. I see the little children turn around and wave at us as we drive through villages, kids and adults pushing their faces against the car windows as they turn as much as they can to look at us on the road, I hear truck drivers honk the horn and see farmers at the end of a weary day still take the energy to tip their hats at us, and I wonder why? They don't know us, probably will never see us again. What is it about travelling on a motorcycle that gets people of all ages fired up?

I don't know the definitive answer, but dammit, I'm really enjoying getting all this love! :-)

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 03:16 PM GMT
October 21, 2009 GMT
Entering Eastern Anatolia

(warning: long and not particlarly exciting blog entry)

Spending an obscene amount of money to buy chain lubricant of questionable quality is not something I usually do. But buying two canisters? AND a chain cleaner? AND having an almost orgasmic experience doing so?

Such are the follies of fear of the unknown and the tricks of the mind. After leaving Ankara without buying chain lube or engine oil, angry with myself because I allowed my squashed pannier lid to be "fixed" to death by the Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde of exhaust pipes in Ankara...

Ankara exhaust workshop trying to fix pannier lid

... I kept thinking that my next opportunity for proper bike supplies would be Tehran. I had been checking all petrol stations I stopped for chain lube and none of them stocked it. So when I asked at a petrol station in Gaziantep for motorcycle chain lube and got the dude to draw a treasure hunt diagram on the back of my notebook and followed the instructions and actually got to the world-renown M1 Merkezi, I thought "a-ha!". On a corner of the vast supermarket that was on a corner of the vast mall, I found the dodgiest possible "chain wax" - I would normally not touch the thing with a pole, but my chain lube ran out last night and all day long I had visions of my spanking new chain disintegrating somewhere unpleasant, following the demise of my panniers, and surely to be followed by the utter destruction of the rest of my equipment. You shouldn't be in a candy shop when you're hungry, and respectively, you shouldn't be buying crap "chain wax" when fearing you're run out. But I was, and I did.

M1 Merkezi

So after leaving Goreme yesterday I got a bit lost after Mustafapasa...

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... in the mountains of Cappadocia - you know, initially thinking "I am alone now, I am an explorer, I am the Grand Navigator, I shall not get lost", but quickly turning to "mighty GPS, don't fail me now!". I mean it's all well and good finding yourself fighting to keep the 300kg beast upright in slopy sandy tracks FOR ABOUT 10'' before one starts wondering "you fool, what are you getting yourself into now?"

So anyway after getting away with it with just shaky hands and no spills, I took the mountain roads SE and followed the itinerary as shown here: http://tinyurl.com/ylfx3fy

Somewhere along the road the bloody road improvements got to me (again), this time with a huge truck that was shooting down the mountain at at least 80km/h making it impossible for me to overtake in time and building up such a cloud of dust that I had to stop, turn on the high beam and the alarm blinkers and hope nothing ran me over from any direction. After a few seconds the cloud cleared up a little bit and I was able to move again. Opening my helmet visor returned a scratching noise that indicated that soil had penetrated, well, everywhere. Later I confirmed this by finding dust IN the "good" pannier. If dust can get in with so little exposure, imagine what water can do in heavy rain... Another thing not to think about for now.

Shortly after my spirits improved dramatically when I stopped in a village somewhere on the mountain and bought some foodstuff (olives, cheese, nutella, eggs etc) and immediately got offered chai and was asked where I was from and where I was going etc etc with a lot of smiles and pats on the back and kids pushing all the colourful buttons/levers of the bike in the meantime, not realising my smile concealed the touch-this-again-and-die look (I admit being slightly protective of my bike).

Then I rode on to find a lovely shade on a lovely dirtpath that broke off the main road with lovely sturdy level ground where I put the bike on the center stand and had a lovely meal. All very lovely, really, only the butterflies were missing. With apologies to all the chefs of this world, the particular meal of plastic cheese, tomato in hand, olives from a plastic bag, stale bread and CamelBak water beats any old spiffy meal I have ever had hands down.

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It was so good it magically fixed my wounded self-esteem and overall psyche. I stopped indulging in self-pity and realised how lucky I was to be where I was and told myself "snap out of it you idiot!". And I did.

I was rewarded with miles and miles of twisty mountain roads, of questionable quality, sure, allowing me to only do 60-70km/h, sure, but dammit it was fun. Good for the digestion as well.

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The only problem is that a nagging metallic sound had started, er, some hours ago, and I thought it was the stupid cooking set clanging, but on closer inspection (and after having stuffed the cooking set so full of socks and sponges and plastic bags it wouldn't have clanged even if dropped from the moon) it turned out it was something else... guess what? The pannier base started to disintegrate as well!

Kappa pannier base snafu

So I just positioned it back into place by hand and decided to worry about it later, thinking the off-roading earlier had snapped it out of place. I'm sure it wasn't welded or screwed in originally. Sure it wasn't.

(just got served chai at the Internet cafe. Talk about service!)

After Goksun the road is shooting straight down the mountain towards Kahramanmaras (try saying that in one breath), but before I got there I stopped to refill my fresh water stock at a mountain spring, bought the most strongly smelling apples I've ever laid my hands on, and in the process got served chai and had a quick chat with plenty of nodding and gesturing (the beauty of the language gap) with the owner of the spring-shack-cum-cafereria who was a good chap and warned me that the road becomes narrower somewhere in Turkey. I promised to be careful, thanked him for the chai and moved on.

Less than 10km later I got to Tekir, where apparently there is a camping, which really is an apple orchard owned by a semi-famous guy with funny hair. But let me explain.

The orchard:

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The semi-famous guy with funny hair:

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You can see the hair runs in the family. He told me something about himself and television, I nodded appreciatively, but unfortunately could not fully grasp what he was talking about.

I got there early, before my usual settling down time, but it was good as I needed to do something about the pannier base. On advice by none other than the not-as-famous-as-he-should-be Vassilis Orfanos I have packed an epoxy glue in my toolkit, which I used to "glue" together the two metal parts.

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It seems to have worked so far, so kudos to Vassilis and hurray for my first "fix" on the road. Now I feel like a proper mechanic. Not.

So today all I did was ride. Passed Gaziantep, found the "chain wax" and then took the road East to Sanliurfa, where I now am. The hotel minder was nice enough to offer exclusive parking facilities for my Vstrom:

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...and I was lucky enough to find my way back to the centre of Sanliurfa after being "temporarily misplaced" for about an hour in the byzantine sokaks of the old town. It has some quite beautiful corners, but its main attraction for me is its role as the gateway to Eastern Anatolia.

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Here's hoping to less Coca-Cola signs and more dusty old villages, lovely gorges and tranquil lakes.

Till next time!

(for technical details of this trip and the bike, read on)

------------------------------------------
TECHNICAL DETAILS:

I ride a Suzuki DL650A (casually known as the Vstrom 650), 2007 model which I purchased brand new in Greece in the beginning of 2007.

I started this trip with 60,000 km on the clock.

Modifications of the bike:

(1) A rear shock absorber by Ohlins (PCS46) installed by KAIS Performance in Manchester, UK. Luckily I survived the experience (as the shock was found with the top bolt just about to slip out after 2000km of riding).

(2) 12V socket outlets installed in the top case - very useful for charging camera, phone, batteries for GPS and head torch

(3) Continental TKC80 tyres - very good grip and feel in the frequent gravel I've met so far in Turkey, but afraid they wear quickly and will need a new set before long. They're not cheap either.

(4) Improved X-ring DID transmission chain. I hope it will take the mistreatment I'm going to give it with a smile.

Other than that the Vstrom is as stock as possible. I'm very happy with it so far.

I travel on highways with 100km/h (4,500 rpm with 6th gear) which gives me 4,3Lt/100km consumption, or roughly 500km on a (22Lt) petrol tank.

In Athens I had the following parts installed brand new (and Suzuki originals):

1. All brake pads
2. Battery
3. Air filter
4. Engine oil
5. Engine oil filter
6. Ignition switch assembly (incl. kill switch - it was beginning to act up)
7. Front & rear transmission sprockets

Cylinders balanced, injection valves adjusted, fingers crossed and we're off!

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 05:03 PM GMT
October 24, 2009 GMT
Nemrut Dagi

Pushing on with how events unfolded: After Sanliurfa I visited Harran, famous for its beehive houses. There I got immediately attacked by a "tourist guide" which was quite probably a junkie. Of dogginess so infinite that he spoilt my entire mood and I thought "sod this" and left without seeing the beehive houses. I'm sure my life will be forever incomplete now.

But, it turned out that this was a good thing - if I hadn't left on that precise time, I wouldn't have stopped to check the epoxy fix of the broken pannier base. I wouldn't have noticed that the fix was very temporary, and needed a proper fix soon.

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And I wouldn't have met a random passer-by who approached to help and told me there was a guy 2km down the road that can fix this - "no problem".

So I went 2km down the road in a petrol station that was out of petrol, but the dude was there. The man with the golden hands. The dude. His dudeness. The duder. He took one look at the breakage, went "no problem" after slightly scoffing at me for being stressed with something so obviously trivial, and proceeded to weld the thing once and for all. While he was at it he also proceeded to adjust the tie-down clips and make the pannier that was slightly bent since Norway last year actually straight! I would have been banging for hours/days/years with questionable results, he took one look, put it down under his knee, and pressed it once at the right point with the right angle and that was that. The Duder. When asked in sign language "what do I owe you, o demigod of metal?" he shrugged, smiled and waved me goodbye. That was after I had been served tea. Dammit, I just couldn't leave like that, so I just left a fiver, shook dirty hands heartily and left with a smile.

And with that, I was super-happy and care-free. All was well. The birds were singing, the morning rain had ceased, and breakfast was as nutritious and healthy as ever.

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So I drove up Mnt Nemrut...

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...and after a bit of "exploring" (i.e. getting lost) I found Damlacik and its Garden Camping. That's where I had addressed the pannier lid to be sent from Greece... so when I got there and a man greeted me I immediately said "Ibrahim?" - he said "YES!", I said "Alex!" and it was as if good'ol buddies had met. Of course he's in his 60's and doesn't speak more than 10 words of English, but when was that a problem? When I asked how much he charged per night to pitch my tent he pointed to me and said "musafir!" (i.e, "you are my guest") and that was that. I had dinner with the rest of the family, and the next day three meals, and even when I was late for dinner they saved a portion for me. What can I say.

They've got lovely view from the *ahem* men's bathroom:

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So after parking the bike on the lovely grass and pitching my tent, I heard a "plomp" and turned around to see the bike on the ground. Apparently the ground was not as hard as I thought and after a while on the double stand (the most secure in general), it went over. So, first drop of the trip, and of course gloriously adventurous as usual. From parked. Oh well.

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It was a gentle drop, I picked it up relatively easily, had a look over, looked fine. I mean, it fell on soft grass from being still. WTF.

After a while I tried to put the lid on the "good" pannier and realised something was wrong.

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Dammit, it's bent. Went to have another look on the other pannier:

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Bollocks. This is more serious than I thought. Now BOTH panniers are so deformed I can't close them. Crap.

On a THIRD, even more serious look, I notice that this is an EVEN BIGGER problem than I thought. What's that crack?

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Lovely. The panniers are disintegrating. That's it. Emotional low. I'm an idiot (of course, I should have analyzed the geological composition before parking). I've done it again. Both trashed. Crap (and other unprintable things).

Next morning I think "screw this" and rationalise, ask around, figure out closest master fixer is in Kahta (just 30km away), go there, find the dude, he sends me to another dude who sends me to another dude (to be more precise, the penultimate dude sends off a kid with my pannier in hand and I shoot off after him on foot, not even having the time to take the key off the ignition and I just leave the bike there).

To cut a long story short (I sincerely think you're a hero or 1st degree relative if you're reading this), the 3rd guy is also a wizard and does a lot of wonderful things, after which my panniers are better than ever.

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Poetry on aluminium, I'm sure you agree.

Ahem.

So anyway, again the birds are singing, right? Alex is happy. I get back around noon to the campsite (just in time for lunch - how convenient - and by the way they do have fantastic food!) and basically wait for the lid to arrive from Greece... it doesn't by 16:00 and I'm despairing that I lost the day, tomorrow is Saturday, next delivery chance is Monday, poo and all that, days lost, etc etc. Again emotional low. Well done me, I 've turned my emotional status to a bloody trampoline!

Oh I also forgot that my trusty mobile phone which I've used since 2006 with no hiccups whatsoever, decides to break in a funky way and doesn't like my turkish SIM any longer.

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So I buy another phone in a spur of hopelessness since I KNOW this is something with the configuration of the Turkcell network really, and not a hardware issue (since my phone works with other SIMs), but I can't afford to call them and argue in Turkish (they'll win) so I just buy the cheapest phone I find. Surprise! It's crap. Horrible. Stupid. Argh!

So I decide I'll see the sights of Mt Nemrut tonight, and leave for somewhere else tomorrow to make some use out of the weekend, and then come back on Monday if need be to grab the lid. So I frantically leave the campsite, pack a flashlight, the GPS, the earth/sea/sky super-high-tech long sleeve that Ping-Yi brought me, walking shoes, I wear the bike trousers & boots as the LonelyPlanet says the final 3km of the approach are horrilble steep dirt road with a couple of crocodiles thrown in to spice it up, and leave.

I get to the ticket office of Nemrut Dagi Milli Parki and get told I'm too late and will miss the sunset. I return a "I don't think so kiddo" look and vanish in a cloud of smoke. It's uphill alright. Initially I rush but then I remember that riding like mad is fine if you're enjoying it, NOT if you're in a rush. So I slow down, but the road is actually very good and there's no completely off-road part (never mind what the LonelyPlanet says), and especially the final 1000 meters of the approach to the tourist kiosk look like the grand ski jump thingy (the one where you jump off and either get a world record or die) and the Vstrom tears at the cement tiles of the road at 3rd gear and it must all look quite cool because when I park and turn around all the tour guides who were having their tea waiting for the tourists to take their pictures have stopped chatting and are all silently looking at me. I throw a smile in their general direction, don't bother changing to walking shoes and zoom through the tourist kiosk to the mountain path that will take me to the summit.

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At this point I must say I'm happy I got Sidi touring boots and not storm-trooper-plastic-enduro boots, because that would just have been impossible (or deadly). So I stride up the path, get thiiiiis close to a heart attack (it's quite steep and I was in a rush), and turn around and see the damn sunset and think to myself "eat your heart out, ticket office fools!".

These boots are made for walking:

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I then proceed to lie down and half suffocate / half cough for 5 minutes until I get my breath back and my heartrate goes out of the red "NUCLEAR REACTOR ABOUT TO EXPLODE" band. All good.

Pictures of a king's idea of grandeur:

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and my idea of it:

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The way down is fantastic, the sweet night falls over the mountain, and oh man, this is the time of colour, of silence, of magic. It takes me an hour to descend to Damlacik.

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When I get back, a surprise! The lid is there. Hurray! Alex happy. Wait a minute... wrong colour sticker on the inside. Check size. Bollocks. It's too small. I obviously sent the wrong measurement to Touratech Greece. Excellent. Idiot. Alex very unhappy once more.

The next day I pack up everything and by 8am I am on the road. I need to go somewhere... anywhere! I do emails etc in the morning, get an anxiety-inducing for a fellow traveller (he talks of servicing the bike before entering Iran - doing WHAT to the bike?) and then I ride over the mountain, north, in the general direction of Malatya.

The map shows there are dirt roads connecting the villages, and indeed after about 50km of dirt with lovely twisty roads on the mountain...

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... (and of course being ever so slightly lost) I get to a surfaced road that I'm sure reaches Malatya after 70km, pace up, the wind blows, all is good... and the road ends.

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There has been a landslide, I realise there is no other way than back again over the mountain and sort-of get anxious, but the dudes of the work site tell me it'll be only 5 minutes. Hrmf. Is this like the "Money Pit" (movie with Tom Hanks and a house that was broken in all possible ways) "2 weeks" thing? Let's see.

But they're fast:

Indeed after half an hour the dudes have worked wonders and the road is free.

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Get to manic, frantic, busier than Ankara Malatya just before dark. Check into the dodgiest possible hotel in town (the staircase is constantly full with people in business suits carrying huge suitcases). Strangely, my mood is very good.

What does all this jazz mean to me? That I am fighting against noone else but myself. That I only have fear itself to fear. That this trip is an exercise in Zen, in dealing with my stupid emotional ups and downs in a better way (or perish trying). A lot of small silly things are going wrong (stuff breaking, damages etc) and this is lesson number one: Stop sweating the small things.

I shall learn it one day. I'm getting a lot of practice.

End of nursing for tonight. Thank you for reading.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 04:28 PM GMT
October 26, 2009 GMT
Munzur Vadisi milli parki

After stocking up on supplies in Malatya, I covered the yawn-inspiring stretch of road to Elazig and then headed north to take the Elazig-Pertek ferry. I wanted to reach the Munzur Vadisi national park, both because my map said it was of excellent natural beauty (two blue stars - can't beat that) and because the LonelyPlanet didn't even mention it. Intriguing.

At the ferryboat I was finally properly recognised as a celebrity and wasn't allowed to pay the fare. Thank you people, it was about time!

(seriously though, the list of places I haven't been allowed to pay is getting longer - it started with the Ankara airport parking lot and is going on... very touching)

On the ferry I met multiple people, all of which took an interest in my map. I defended it with my life otherwise they would all have liked to pull it slightly more to their side - and thus shredded it to pieces. But, a dolmus (mini-van used as public trasport) driver told me he was going to Hozat and I should follow him because that's the prettiest road to reach the national park. Obviously all this in sign language, which means that this was my interpretation. He might be just having a bad case of indigestion and thus gesturing wildly for all I know. But anyway he pointed to his van, smiled at me warmly and beckoned me to follow.

After inhaling the dust & diesel fumes of the minibus for 5 minutes I politely overtook, squeezing the Vstrom's engine for all it had, as the maniac in the minibus was doing 110km/h in a narrow mountain road, with a van full of people. I then rode to Hozat following the signs, always making sure the van was at a safe distance behind me. When we got to the village, I waved and then pulled into a petrol station to fill up, and the van pulled in as well! They waited there for me to fill it up, pay, smile smugly to the question "are you a capitalist?" etc. Imagine that, a van full of people, patiently waiting there, just because the driver had taken a fancy in me. What can I say. I waved again and this time rode off quickly enough to shake the van.

And then the fun started. From Hozat the map showed a road to Gyiksuyu which would take me straight to the heart of Munzur Vadisi. So off I went:

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The road cut through a mountain range and then eventually descended to Gyiksuyu. It was lovely unsurfaced gravel road, which I'm getting quite used to by now:

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Of course I did some exploring (read: I got lost again) and at one point reached a village where the road dead-ended and there asked for directions. While trying to comprehend the giggles of the guy I was discussing with, I was watching with the corner of my eye another guy racing from the other side of the village (we're talking about 15 houses here) to our direction. The racer introduced himself as the proud owner of a fine piece of Turkish two-wheeled engineering and then proceeded to show me his bike, but complained that its sound was "pat-pat-pat" and not my Strom's nice "vrooom", hence that the bike was crap. Anyway, it was a connection point, which immediately led to a chai invitation.

How could I say no? He took me (and the giggling dude who was really beginning to annoy me by that point) to his house, introduced his wife and vanished for a bit, only to return with a steaming jug of chai, lots of sugar, two huge pieces of bread (pita-like, but not quite pita), a bowl of butter and a bown of butter dipped in honey. Need I describe the massacre that followed? Needless to say, I did not think of any national pride or self-image or anything like that - I just went for it. T'was all delicious.

So anyway I found the national park (set around a beautiful gorge), rode through it, had a nice picnic by the river that runs through it, refilled my water supplies, got a bit drenched by a quick 10-minute rain. At this point it's worth pointing out the steps in the rain-on-a-motorcycle process:

1. It starts to rain.
2. I ignore it, thinking "nah, it'll stop soon"
3. My high-tech jacket sucks in the first drops of rain and throws them on my skin.
4. I think "bollocks", but endure.
5. Rain gets heavier.
6. Cursing gods and daemons, I stop the bike right at the spot under the cloud where the rain is thickest and begin the lengthy process of putting on the rainproofs, covering the tank bag, the camelbak etc.
7. After 10 minutes fighting to put on all that crap, I am wet from sweat in addition to rain, and ride off to cool myself a little bit.
8. After 150m the rain stops.

By the time I got to Ovacik I was semi-tired and thinking what to do next, but some hills captured my attention and I thought "hmmm I wouldn't mind camping there".

I miraculously found the right dirt road and soon enough found myself riding through this lovely valley:

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I explored a bit further (always a sucker for more view, privacy and exposure to the elements) but got thwarted in my efforts to return to nature by the deteriorating road conditions.

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The message was basically "look, you may get away with it, but don't push your luck too hard", so I returned to the lovely valley and pitched my tent there.

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Lovely, ain't it? In lovely valleys it is customary to oil one's chain, and to do that I had to put the bike on the double stand. I did, and once more, off it went to the right side. Interestingly, it all happened very slowly (so slowly that I had the time to jump on it and try to save it, only to realise I wasn't strong enough to keep it upright with the earth underneath us collapsing). Damn valleys. But I did have the time to control how it went over, so I strategically positioned a stone for the handlebar to rest on, which made picking up the bike much easier after it was done dropping and I was done taking pictures.
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No real damage, as usual one of the panniers got a wee bit deformed, I managed to pull it back into shape (getting the hang of this by now...) and all was good. Exhausted, but with the bike upright and its chain adjusted, cleaned AND oiled, I prepared dinner (pasta, olives, tuna, plastic cheese, tomatos), wrote my diary, took some more pictures and around 8 went to bed. It was completely dark at 6, so going to bed this early felt completely natural.
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My first free camp experience. Quite lovely indeed.
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This is the "preparing dinner" bit - probably filling the petrol stove from the bike's tank, making a mess and then cleaning it up:
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So with a *very* full stomach I went to bed. I read another chapter of "Freedom from the Known" by J.Krishnamurti before shutting my eyes and the final words of the chapter (on fear) were really gripping. He talked about the nature of fear, understanding what it is, where it comes from, whether it's a conscious thing or not, and ended with this: "When you see that you are a part of fear, not separate from it -that you are fear- then you cannot do anything about it; then fear comes totally to an end."

I was shaken by these words, and went to bed feeling more relaxed and less afraid than ever. It was a very big coincidence (if we accept there is such a thing) that I very soon had a chance to test myself...

After midnight, I was woken up by the sound of boots on the ground, the characteristic metallic noise of guns being carried and the heavy breathing of dogs. Initially I thought a bunch of hunters would be going up the mountain to hunt, but at that hour? Then I heard someone talking to me, certainly it was directed at me, but of course it was in Turkish and I didn't know what it was. It was a question, asked in a gentle voice. I responded with a "mmwwwwfffhh?" (the international "I'm sleeping now - go away" sound), but the question was repeated. Alright, I found my torch, unzipped the tent and opened the fly-sheet. All I saw was a hand extended to me, and I heard the question "hello, where are you from?" in English. I reached out and shook the hand, still being half inside my sleeping bag, said "Yunanistan" ("Greece" in Turkish), the voice wished me good night and walked away. I re-zipped the tent and went back in the sleeping bag, now listening to the thumping of boots for minutes - this was most probably a regiment of the local army camp going out for night training or something.

I checked myself for the usual signs of fear: Quick breath? Nope. Shaky hands? Nope. Shaky feet? Nope. Thoughts about self-defence, horrible attack scenarios played out on my mind? Nope. I went back to sleep after a couple of minutes, very puzzled by my reaction. There was no fear. Freak incident? Perhaps.

The next day (today), I woke up quite early (remember I had been to bed very early as well) and, well, it was a bit chilly:
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I had breakfast (hot tea... mmmm)
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and enjoyed the lovely view once more:
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After packing up, I visited Ovacik proper (the village), used the post office and asked around about the road over the mountains that my map showed. Sure enough there was a road over the mountain straight to Erzincan, right?

Wrong. The villagers were unanimous in that there was no road. Only mountain paths. I had to take a 50km detour to get to Erzincan. But... my map still showed that road, so thinking "bah, what do these guys know - they've only lived here all their lives" I went off to find the road.

These are the mountains I wanted to cross:

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Several roads seemed to approach, but invariably they ended up in someone's back yard

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or anyway in places you didn't want to be:

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After deciding to quit multiple times but always not quite letting go and accepting defeat, I found this much promising road that didn't head straight north for the mountain, but nevertheless seemed quite well used and gave me hope:

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This road reminded me of the lyrics of "Hotel California" and, inevitably,the Dude's appraisal of the Eagles Sure, this is no desert, and it's not dark, but the mind plays tricks...

After 25km and a lot of exploring of forks, alternatives, ending up in people's back yards, talking with people who brushed their teeth, being offered chai by portly women cooking their milk in wood fires...

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I was still right next to the mountain, but wasn't going over it...

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I was told repeatedly that the connection I was looking for did not exist. The last guy also offered me these tiny (and with a wonderful strong scent) pears, which convinced me to quit.

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There was no bloody connection to where I wanted to go, and I would have to ride back through the valley. So be it.

After re-inflating my tyres to road pressure (here with the wonderful Topeak pump and gauge in hand)

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...I took the main roads back to Elazig and from there rode to Diyarbakir, getting there half an hour after dark, at 17:30!

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Good night world.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 08:02 PM GMT
October 30, 2009 GMT
It's raining ticks, halleluyah

After not-so-exciting-for-me Diyarbakir I zoomed through Mardin, really not doing the place right, as it's a Unesco world heritage site and is thus worth a visit, but it was early in the morning and really, I'm not setup to park the bike and walk around a new city in full gear... that's why a van would be nice - you walk in dressed like Clark Kent and you walk out as Superman. The Vstrom doesn't afford one this privacy. Oh well.

So I buy a Mardin load of bread (lovely, crispy, yumm) and move on to visit the famous (?) Mar Gabriel monastery. No idea why it's famous, to me it looks like a failed attempt to reach the architectural/artistic grandeur of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

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After about 20' I was done with that monastery. Very nice, but also too much religion in one place. Gotta move on.

So I headed north to Hasankeyf, a small village that sports more cave houses than Cappadocia in one place, but for some reason is not as well known. The "Castle" of Hasankeyf, an Acropolis really, a walled city on the top of a hill, is an entire ancient ruined city.

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I walked there for 2-3 hours and there was still much to see - the place is pretty much in disrepair with no clearly marked paths or anything, so it's up to the visitor to not walk off the cliff.

Hasankeyf

The castle lies on the bank of the river Tigris, another ancient source of life that has seen entire civilisations come and go...

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After a good night's sleep, I moved on NE, towards lake Van. It rained during the night and all roads were wet, and hence muddy. As if the skidding trucks were not bad enough, I got assaulted by a flock of sheep:

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The end result was that the bike (and myself) became quite muddy - here during a rest/snack break on the road to Tatvan:

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In Tatvan, I checked in a hotel and went out on foot to explore the city. I walked for a few hours, most of the route right on the lake's shore. An interesting sight: A minaret (mosque tower) construction site, with two turkish flags on the scaffolding! Flag makers in Turkey certainly have an easy life... it's difficult not to have a turkish flag in some shape/form in sight wherever one turns one's eye.

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The next morning, I thought I would visit Mount Nemrut. Not the one with the national park around it and the huge stone heads on it, but another volcanic mountain that also sports a lake and supposedly a lovely crater one can camp on! I wouldn't camp (too cold/damp) but I wanted to see it before I moved on. So I found the unmarked road that headed up the mountain and started ascending.

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First there was the mist.
Then the tarmac ended and the road became a (quite bad) dirt road.
Then came the snow.

at 2615m up Nemrut Dagi

Argh! Turn on the GPS. I'm at 2615m (300 vertical meters below the top) and I can't really carry on without taking unacceptable risk. This isn't really worth it (with a fully loaded bike? no way!), so I turn back and descend.

I take the south road that skirts the lake and heads east to Van. The landscape is beautiful...

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...but it's also mui mui cold! That's why I look like the Michellin man in this picture, I have 5 layers on! (thermal underwear, synthetic base layer, fleece, cordura & the waterproof overalls)

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So I get to Van in one (frozen) piece, look for a hotel, realise there is no secure parking, the city is a madhouse, there is no way I am parking my bike on the street there, way too noisy, way too dangerous, traffic is a nightmare, mud everywhere, people bolt out to cross the street and make me test the ABS with the Strom skidding like crazy, huge potholes filled with rainwater that the buses drive me into... not a nice experience. So I do what I do best and piss off 15km out, find a camping site (that turns out to be infested with ticks) and pitch my tent there. Slightly damp, but overall much better.

The next day (today!) I go out on a mission: change the engine oil and get a spare rear tyre, in preparation for Iran. I spot a Suzuki dealership on my way into town. I ask them for the right engine oil for my bike, the blokes make a few phone calls and within 3' have the solution. They are extremely friendly and helpful, we take a couple of pictures and they tell me exactly where to go to get the oil changed.

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On the course of the day I also find Bora on the phone, he has the right tyre, we do all the paperwork payment etc and it's already on its way, so now all I have to do is wait, and in a few days I shall be fully equipped to enter Iran.

Till then!

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 04:11 PM GMT
November 02, 2009 GMT
Turkey itinerary

In one of my initial blog posts I had a planned route picture, showing a more or less straight line running through the countries I'd visit. That line for Turkey is now almost complete - it got a few extra twists, extended to almost 7,000 km and was absolutely beautiful.

Here's what the route for Turkey has been so far.

OSM Turkey till 091101

As I plan to leave the country in a couple of days, this is probably the last route update from Turkey. Next stop, Iran!

UPDATE from Iran - this is the complete route of Turkey upto the border with Iran:

TURKEY ROUTE COMPLETE

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 02:39 PM GMT
November 08, 2009 GMT
Out of Turkey and into Iran

So where were we? Ah yes, Van. Rainy Van... so after spending 5 nights in a tent under periodic heavy rainfall (quite romantic)

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while being attacked by blood-sucking insects of all kinds (not so romantic), pushing my luck by carrying 3 eggs in rainy weather at night

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and in general living on the edge by ignoring the old adage that says that the combination motorcycle-rain-night is equivalent to that of Christian-Roman arena-lions, I decided I've had it and checked into Aslan Hotel in Van - this doubled my accommodation cost but slashed my exposure to insects/rain and the 50km a day I was doing from/to the campsite.

The next day I visited the not-so-glorious Van castle

Van Kalesi (Castle)

where I had ample time to contemplate how to deal with extremely cute and obviously poor children begging for money

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The view of Van from the castle is quite nice - remember this lake & city are at an altitude of 1600m, so the snowy mountain behind it should be no surprise

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Around the castle the landscape is quite interesting... the land around it appears to me to have been the old bottom of the lake, but what are these mosque remains doing there?

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The castle was 4km away from the hotel and that day I had decided I would walk a little bit, but including some early morning exploration (read: got lost again) around Van and the walk around the castle itself, I think I did more than 10km in a single day and, well, I'm getting too old for this.

So on the verge of collapse I dragged my feet back to the hotel, where the owner was expecting me full of smiles. THE package had arrived!

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So against my best efforts to screw this up (which included sending them the wrong dimensions for my pannier), the Touratech distributor in Greece (MAKAN) managed to send me a replacement lid for the one that had been ran over by a truck in Cappadocia. Feels strange to have something so... unspoiled on the bike - I feel like I'm riding a whole new bike now!

So I immediately started getting ready for Iran. I tried to take out some $$ to have in Iran, only to cringe at the sight of an ATM rebooting, uncovering that it's running on a very slow PC with Windows XP (!!) and being told by bank staff that it would take about 15 minutes for the ATM to be operational again...

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I took a couple of shots of my old destroyed lid, just to have something to show to the can-fix-anything smartassess
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and proceeded to leave it behind and replace it with the new sparkling lid

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Quite early next morning I left Van - it was so good to be on the road again that I started riding without gloves and of course had to stop after 2 minutes and dress properly. I took the road north to Dogubayazit, which, well, got a bit interesting as it took me through passes as high as 2660m.

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Luckily the trucks had opened a track with no snow and I used that for the 2-3km of snowy tarmac, after which the road descended to a warmer & drier level.

Dogubayazit is famous for being the last stop in Turkey before the Bazargan border crossing to Iran, but also for its quite magnificent Ishak Pasha Serayi

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This place must have been a true oasis to protect travelers from the elements. An acropolis of sorts, an independent mini-community perched high up on the mountain, just across Mnt. Ararat.

Incidentally, here is the story of the conquest of Mnt. Ararat: (click on image & select "all sizes" above the image to read the story

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After spending the night in a freezing room of Murat Camping (what do you mean "heating"?) and meeting a lovely family of 4 who has been on the road with a camper van for 5 years, I left for the border around 6:30 in the morning.

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The way to the border with what might be Ararat in the background

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After changing my Turkish Liras to Iranian Rials and being "helped" by various people at both borders, a procedure that took roughly 3 hours and involved uncovering incognito officials with stamps in their pockets that I needed to legally cross borders, I was in Iran!

First impressions: Who is that dude in the big picture that looks like Homeini but isn't him? Phew, the border people here are much more professional/organised/friendly than on the Turkish side and they make me feel at ease. Everything gets sorted out quickly and rather efficiently, to the point where I am again under the impression I'm receiving a special treatment for some reason.

Nobody searches me or the bike, they don't even look at it, just do the whole stamp/signature parade and you're done. With the exception of a "helper" who very annoyingly insisted I provide "bachtsis" (i.e. under-the-table money) to a guy who was holding one of the last stamps I needed (no big deal, as the amount was 20,000 IRR which would be 1,3 EUR, but still it's the principle of tourist fleecing that is annoying), everyone is quite efficient and polite.

The clock jumps 1,5 hours ahead to GMT +3:30 and all of a sudden it's noon and I'm hungry! Stop 2 km out of Bazargan for stuffed vine leaves & divine bread break. Oh, bliss...

Then ride to Tabriz in one go, with only a short "rest" (i.e. bathroom) break (hang on, is that why they call toilets "restrooms" in the States? hmmm) till I reach the quite frantic, somewhat chaotic city of Tabriz

I follow a GPS waypoint I have from the fantastic work of Ulrich, a fellow HU member. It's very calming to be in a city you know nothing about and to have a GPS waypoint that at least gives you something to start with. So, many thanks to Ulrich and everyone who contributed to this effort.

Following the dot on the GPS (while trying not to be ran over by the FRANTIC traffic) takes me to a hotel that charges 300,000 IRR for a room, by the time I work out how much money this really is I get told in a conspiratory whisper by the reception staff that there are hotels more appropriate for me and much cheaper around the corner, so I do go around the corner and find a room for 70,000 IRR:

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It's simply perfect - only detail that's slightly annoying to uncover the next morning is that I find some bugs on the bed, but they all seem to have been squashed by the biggest bug there (me), so the laws of nature (survival of heaviest) have applied and all's well.

Too much happens in Tabriz to write about it now. Suffice it to say I am daily stupefied by the kindness of the people here. And I do mean every word of this last sentence.

Bye for now, got to un-glue myself from the computer and see Tabriz!

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 01:54 PM GMT
December 17, 2009 GMT
Iran - Tabriz

First things first. Here is the complete Turkey itinerary:

TURKEY ROUTE COMPLETE

Now onto Iran... where to start! (I am writing/revising this more than a month after entering the country, for reasons that should become apparent soon)

The country is vast. Three times the size of France I hear. The political system is a theocracy, which basically means that Islamic rules/theories govern how everything works. The immediately noticeable change from Turkey is that all women here cover their head with a scarf - the more traditional ones cover themselves completely in plain black fabrics that make them look, as an Iranian friend suggested, like penguins. The theory here is that to guarantee decency you have to completely hide any feature of your body that can evoke sexual desire. The body's figure, hair and even the face itself (lips etc) are covered. This is the most extreme case and is referred to as the "chador" - literally, a tent.

The (luckily) by far more usual case is women that dress in jeans, have a black top that covers their behind (like a small skirt over the trousers) and a nice colourful scarf casually thrown around the head, usually covering only the half of the hair. This is the I-am-only-doing-what-you-force-me-to statement that most women choose to make, and it's not awkward in any sense.

There are a lot of shades of grey between these two extremes. Some women do not allow a man to touch them, so extending your hand for the handshake that is so typical among men evokes an uncomfortable "sorry, I can't". Others do not allow a man (outside the family) to see their hair at all. I've had this experience when I was being hosted by a lovely, very polite and considerate family in Esfahan: One day, after knocking at the door and saying "hello, it's me", I just opened and walked in, only to notice two of the women fleeing the room to go put on their scarfs. Ever since I am extra careful about giving people enough notice, since I do not intend to insult anyone's personal choice.

Shades of grey are also mixed, so in the same family it is very usual to have women who choose to be more traditional and always cover up in the presence of a stranger, while others will always take off their scarf as soon as they're home and will have no problem interacting with you (a stranger) completely uncovered and in very casual and completely western-style clothing.

Men dress very regularly for european standards, albeit sometimes in a flashy manner (e.g. shiny business suits) that would be perceived as "too much" in Europe.

Other than clothing, social segregation is also quite visible to the foreigner. I was invited to a post-wedding dinner (I wouldn't call it a "reception" - it was just a dinner, in, food, out), where the "salon" used to host the dinner had a big curtain-like parapet that divided the space in two - women were on the left, men on the right. It was amusing to be on the male side and listen to the mayhem going on on the women's side (dancing/singing apparently), while all the men around me were just picking on their food and wishing for a swift end to a boring dinner. Funny that men should create such rules (as religion is of course completely dominated by men) and then suffer from them. A strange sense of justice. Of course while trying to find the bathroom I was faced with a door and a curtain, I took the curtain, and realised that about 100 pairs of eyes instantly were on me, as I had stepped into the women's part of the salon... I quickly retreated, opened the door and jumped in the bathroom, hoping that my sins would be excused for being a foreigner. And indeed they were.

In public transportation the same story goes on: women at the back of the bus, men in the front. Reminds me of Rosa Parks and the idiocy she had to deal with for her entire life, until one day she said "you know what? I'm not taking this crap any longer", which kickstarted the American civil rights movement against institutionalised racism and pretty much changed the world for the better. So I was particularly proud when a young girl I met in Esfahan had the courage to very naturally sit beside me on the bus, after I asked her why she was standing there. It's a simple action for most of us, but against the rules of this totalitarian state. It takes brave people to stand up to the idiocy of such archaic rules and I feel privileged to have met a number of them.

The Iranians are fantastic people. Helpful to a fault, cultured and never giving up the fight. I met poets, musicians, sculptors, authors, nature lovers, people who enjoyed singing traditional songs on top of 3000m mountain peaks, people who would break into an amazingly skillful dance given the support of only a voice and a tambourine, people who would bring entire bookcases down to find a dictionary so that they could continue that chat on philosophy/religion/society/family affairs/spirituality that was treading a slow but fascinating path with the help of phrasebooks, sign language, all the foreign languages everybody knew on the table, English learning books and dictionaries...

People who have not lost the will to live - quite the contrary, people here oppose oppression by building strong friendships, keeping the family strong as a support network, having plenty of interests, hobbies, activities, associations, clubs, traditions, being very interested in meeting new people and foreigners and talking about everything with them. I've met very little superstition against me, even from people who got to meet me without choosing to (e.g. relatives of people who chose to host me).

Iran gave me the impression that one can be very easily accused of doing something wrong and getting jailed for it. So, to protect the innocent and just have a clear conscience, I will not show pictures of any of the people I got to know in Iran. It was a tough decision, as I feel very close to some of them, and some of the pictures capture very warm feelings and memories, but I think I'll sleep better at night knowing that I'm not exposing them to any danger, as I consider myself already blacklisted in Iran (again, read on for my reasons to believe this).

A note on religion in Iran: Interestingly there are less and more discreet calls to prayers compared to the muezins of Turkey, who broadcast their chanting prayers at such a volume that I almost fell off the bike close to Van when I happened to be riding past a mosque the second the prayer started. Having said that, government buildings in major cities are littered with verses from the Quran with English translations attached to them, which sometimes make for awe-inspiring doublespeak It's funny (if you're a cynic) or sad depending on which side of the fence you're at. If I was an Iranian I think I would find it very sad.

As the story unwinds I will post pictures of such propaganda Quran signs.

The funny part here is that most people in Europe think that Iran is a nation of religious extremists. This couldn't be further from the truth. The overwhelming majority of people is secular to the bone and couldn't care less about a religion that has been twisted into an excuse for a totalitarian state. The ideals of the Muslim religion are so removed from the reality of how this theocracy operates that people are just fed up with it all.

There are those who say this is ok - there are those who say having censored TV/radio/Internet/newspapers is alright, since we can always get (illegal) satellite TV/radio and always find a way around Internet restrictions. They portray the existing situation as a mere nuisance on paper and not a veil of real restrictions, but I am not convinced. It's all fine and well that satellite dishes are everywhere, completely obvious to anyone, and the government is doing little to tear them down, but the filtering/censorship veil is everywhere. It stops people from publishing their work. It stops people having concerts that are not approved by the government. Did you know that it's forbidden to show musical instruments in Iranian television? Yep, they've been judged too un-religious to be shown to the public...

But enough with the treatise on Iran. The trip has evolved as follows: After entering from Bazargan (Turkish border) I headed south to Tabriz. After spending the first night in a hotel, receiving my initial shock at the friendliness of people and rummaging around Tabriz's vibrant bazaar, I spent most of the next day marveling at the Orumieh/Urmia salt lake:

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The plays of the water with the salt and the sky were beautiful:

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Salt formations on rocks around the lake's bank:

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In Tabriz I spent one week... finding a home away from home, spending time with an amazing family of really special people. We saw Tabriz together, went mountain biking, for walks in the park, rummaged through their bilingual library, had long chats about everything and anything, climbed mountains together...

Exhibits from the Azerbaijan Museum of Tabriz:
The superman of peace: (he looks rather defeated)
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Human misery:
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The cycle of life:
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Creation of a sculptor friend of a friend, in Tabriz... I have never met so down-to-earth, sensitive people who are true creative artists:
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All that hanging around in the house (where no shoes are used) is taking the toll on my socks:
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Monument to the fallen of the Iran-Iraq war on a hilltop just out of the city. Beautifully illuminated.

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Two girls on the hike on Micho, about an hour's drive north of Tabriz:

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A mountaineer enjoying the view from the peak, at 2800m:
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Grass on Micho:

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Yours truly during a lunch break on the mountain. I am happier than I look.
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It was very difficult to leave Tabriz, and the (very real) prospect of never seeing my family again made me cry my eyes out like a complete fool. Bizarre, considering we had known each other only for one week... but I had to move on so after greeting everyone and having a last supper and last breakfast together, I took the road via Ardabil to the Caspian Sea.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 03:55 PM GMT
December 27, 2009 GMT
Iran - Tehran & Semnan

The day I left Tabriz I spent the night in a sleepy beach community called Gisum.

I woke up early in the morning to take some snaps of the Caspian:

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Fishing still appears to be of consequence to the local economy, as a few small vessels were taking to sea at 6 in the morning:

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I then skirted the Caspian until Chaloos, where I left the sea and took my life in my hands as I tried not to be hit by the maniac drivers over a couple hundred mountainous kilometers till Tehran.

Tehran was crazy, I got there after dark and I reckon a good 10% of the drivers didn't bother turning their lights on... the traffic was appalling, no rules were being followed and in general I was afraid for my life every single minute on the road. I didn't know where I was going so I called the friend of a friend of a friend who happened to be there and eager to come and meet me - the problem was that his English was quite basic, my Farsi non-existent and I couldn't explain to him where I was (as I didn't know, really). So I stopped at a police station and asked for help - immediately the best English speaker was summoned (a young conscript who turned out to be studying computer programming) and he explained to the distant friend in Farsi where we were... so I waited for more than an hour till he got there, during which the entire police station came out to meet me, offer me food/drink, I used their bathroom, they were all extremely friendly blokes etc.

A notable exception was one fellow who turned up rather late in this whole show, approached me very slowly looking at me intently with a crooked eye and introduced himself with the charming opening line of "I suspect you". I think he tried to make me scared or something, but I was already surrounded by 10 of his buddies who were dying to take pictures of the bike and to know everything about me and were laughing their heads off, so the suspicious dude got carried away and by the time he left he wished me good health and every success and even passed a couple of very big compliments my way. Quite charming transformation.

Tehran at night:

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Driving around Tehran is a quite colourful experience - the LED/lights industry must be thriving in Iran, not too sure about the stylists/professionals who are supposed to have any sense of visual taste and training on decoration...

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Needless to say throwing all colours of the rainbow at drivers is NOT enough - they also set them up so that they blink and change colours all the time. Extremely distracting. I mean, Tehran is an ugly city as it is, this colour thing really finished it off.

Traffic is manic, rules are there to be ignored, and everyone seems to be pushing physical space boundaries to the limit... the prevailing rule is: if it's physically possible, it will be done:

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Please someone shoot the decorators of the airport (after you're done with the road people). Again, coloured fluorescent lights that change from one horrible colour to another... geez!

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Another sample of Tehran traffic at night - not too bad, since these blokes at least have working brake lights! But do consider that this shot has been taken while ALL cars move... not a lot of respect for peoples' personal space on the road eyh?

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Trying to figure out where the bloody leak of my practically brand new Exped DownMat 7 DLX is... if there's one thing that pushes my button is when ridiculously priced kit (I paid GBP 100+ for this inflatable mattress) simply break after a little while. This mat lasted less than a month of use and then gave up the ghost - apparently it's slowly leaking from everywhere. Fab.

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The whole "copyright" deal in Iran is slightly ridiculous. People know that the government will not bother enforcing the rights of multinational corporations, and hence rip off anything they can mercilessly... here is a fine example: a full MacDonald's menu used in a fast food restaurant that, err... is not a MacD.

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The problem in Iran is that this way of thinking applies to software as well. Hence, everyone uses non-original versions of software (Microsoft, Adobe, Symantec, McAfee, ESET, AutoDesk etc), which invariably does not work properly and leaves people at the mercy of all sorts of nasty viruses (virii for the pedantic?). The result is that each and every PC I used was infected with multiple worms/backdoors/trojans of all sorts, which resulted in a less than smooth computing experience.

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That crappy situation, coupled with the filtering/blocking by the government of any and all Internet activity, results in a less than dandy computing experience in Iran... Internet cafes have network outages and usually dial-up grade connection speeds, which are just maddening. This is why I'm writing this from Islamabad and not Tehran. It was simply a nightmare even to get to my email there...

The proxy they're using: (JetApp)

iran jetapp

This is what you get when visiting something that's blacklisted (youtube, flickr, facebook, twitter etc):

iran internet filter

Since it's a given that the government is relaying every single bit of data, it's trivial (just a bit computationally expensive) to filter for keywords. So I have been urging everyone in Iran to ONLY USE ENCRYPTED CONNECTIONS, especially for stuff like email. Here's how to do it in gmail (this is not mine, but I don't remember where I got it from - hope the original author is not offended I'm re-publishing his good work)

gmail-https

Anyway. After frolicking (not) in an after-wedding party in which men and women had to be separated (by law), which resulted in the women having a ball and the men silently playing with their food, we took some snaps...

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...and hit the madness of the road once again.

A quick'n'dirty solution had to be found for the mattress problem, so until the whole warranty thing could kick in, I had to buy another inflatable mattress... $35 from Tehran, significantly bulkier, no down, but hey, it's simple and it works.

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To cut a very long story slightly shorter, I spent 5 days in Tehran with a family that was bereaved by a recent death and wasn't in the best of shapes - I was trying to cheer them up in my usual goofy way and it seemed to be working on the mother, but the son was not having it. Soon enough I felt I was becoming a nuisance and even though I hadn't seen anything of Tehran (but had managed to get a nice 20-day visa extension - yay!) I left for Esfahan.

Now, there is the regular way of getting to Esfahan (highway, takes a few hours), but there is another, infinitely more interesting way, that skirts the Kavir desert SE of Tehran and then cuts right through it, from Semnan to Naein and then to Esfahan. It would take a couple of days, but I wanted to see my first ever desert - the concept itself is extremely fascinating, even though all Iranians I talked to found the desert the least appealing place to be on the planet.

On the 20th of November I left Tehran (Friday, Islamic rest day, hence less frantic traffic on the street, hence increased chances of survival for me) and headed east, towards Mashhad. My plan was to leave the highway at Semnan and take a road that my map showed to be secondary/unsurfaced to Mo'alleman and from there south through the desert via Jandaq , Anarak and Nain to Esfahan. it would take a couple of days, but I was certain I would find somewhere to stay in one of the villages en route.

After taking the fork SE off Semnan that notionally headed towards Mo'alleman and the desert and riding for about 30km it turned out that the road was closed - I got to a dead end filled with "Military area - do not enter" signs. Crap, let's try another fork in the road. That one took me to a salt mine after less than 5k. The army conscripts that were there were extremely friendly, invited me over for tea and laughed their head off while taking Rambo-type pictures with the bike.

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After that pleasant intermission...

(this section is copied/pasted from an email I sent to friends right after the incident, feeling I had a chance to let the world know what was happening before I disappeared for good)

... I sighed in disappointment at having to turn back and take a 200km detour to reach my destination and started riding back to Semnan and the highway.

A few minutes later I was clumsily flagged down by an unmarked (civilian) car - a tiny Kia that could barely cope with carrying the 3 people that were in it. The driver stopped right in the middle of the road and even though I was already in the process of stopping, I almost bumped into them. He was clearly not amused and demanded to see my passport. I asked what the problem was, was told he is "military police" (even though he was in plain clothes) and that I was in a military area. I explained to him that he was mistaken as I had not trespassed the area marked by the signs. He regardless took my passport, entered the car, beckoned me to follow him and drove off, ignoring my demand to have my passport back.

So I followed the car for 30km back to Semnan and back to a police station / military barracks of some sort. On entering the town I noticed that I had a tail - an army enduro (off-road) bike with a soldier carrying an automatic weapon on it! I gestured to him "what's up dude?" and he gestured back "Just following orders mate". It was quite ludicrous, as his bike couldn't have been more than a 200cc,
15bhp relic of the 80's and I rode a 650cc, 66bhp bike. I could shake him (and the car) at any time, so having him tail me was quite comic...

We got to the army post/barracks/station where my passport was photocopied and I was asked some bureaucratic questions (name, registration number, date of birth etc), I was offered tea and cheese-filled bread by the soldiers doing their service (who were as usual very polite and friendly and wanted to know everything about the trip and the bike etc). After spending about an hour in there, having one of my panniers very unprofessionally searched by someone who seemed to be in charge there (who was bewildered at the bicycle pump I carry to inflate the tyres), I started asking what gives and have they checked my passport already and may I be excused, it's lovely talking to you but you know, we also have places to go...? The answer was that I had to wait there.

Then the elite team arrived - 3 dudes in plain clothes that filled the doughnut-munching police-officer description perfectly. They didn't salute me, smile or talk to me. They spent about half an hour talking with the idiot who had picked me up in the first place, who then proceeded to wave goodbye, smile at me and leave. One of his buddies that were in the car shook my hand, said "I'm sorry" and left.

At that point I started to worry.

After some more commotion, filling in papers etc, the 3 elite dudes waved me to their car (again civilian unmarked vehicle). On my way there I was told to start my bike. Thinking this would be one of those airport type turn-on-your-laptop-to-ensure-it's-not-a-bomb checks, I complied. To my utter surprise one of them jumped on, kicked it down from the stand and rode off, on MY motorcycle. Extremely pissed off I had no chance but to enter their car and hope that the idiot riding my bike would just follow us. I was telling myself this is another way to
ensure I wouldn't head off (leaving my passport with them - obviously!) but no... to my detriment the idiot riding my bike took a fork in the road and disappeared, obviously taking her for a spin, since, well, I was his bitch, right? What could I do?

A few minutes of reckless driving later we got to another police station, this one completely concealed behind a high brick wall, again completely unmarked from the outside. They honked the horn and the gate opened. My bike was nowhere to be seen, obviously the bastard riding it was still enjoying raping the engine, and could do nothing but silently hope the safeguard mechanism that stops the engine
working at too high (damaging) revs worked well.

I was led to a room with very bright fluorescent lighting, six chairs around a low table and an iron desk. There was a barred high "window" that looked to a completely dark room. I thought "they can't even afford a see-through mirror - amateurs!" and tried to amuse myself with that thought. After a few minutes I heard my bike's engine and the idiot riding it came to me and handed over the ignition key, trying hard not to smile too smugly.

I waited. They left me alone in that room for a good hour. They had taken my mobile phone and camera before entering the building and now there was nothing to do but wait.

After some time a soldier showed up. Friendly, talkative, but with no English knowledge, he made various obscene gestures to the expense of the police (hoping that I would eagerly agree? I wondered) and then noticed my very nice enduro gloves and started asking me how much they cost. I gave him a price, after which he asked how much he could buy them off me from. I was rather disturbed at this, as thoughts of "well you're not going anywhere anyway, you might as well have some cash" sprung to mind. Regardless, I fetched the phrasebook and uttered the phrase "all necessary" to indicate that my personal equipment was not for sale. After this he started asking me what I would give to him as a gift, you know, as a Greek to an Iranian, as a reminder of our
acquaintance... I repeated "all necessary" and tried to appear sad that I had nothing to give him, while I was getting even more uncomfortable with all this bargaining over my stuff.

Finally, something happened. A woman showed up that turned out to be the interpreter that they would use to question me. I offered my hand, she said "sorry I can't" and took a seat. Then the two doughnut-munching cops showed up, followed by a third one who looked like a geek (he had his collar shirt buttoned all the way up, but with no tie) and shortly after an older cop showed up. Everyone but me stood up on his entry, so I gathered he was their senior officer. He
greeted everyone in the room but me and took a seat.

So there we were, all 6 of us, cozily sat down for a little chat. It was already dark outside and I had already spent 3 hours under police custody, and I still wasn't quite clear about what was going on.

The interpreter used very typical fake politeness ("could you please tell me" etc) and asked me for all the stuff they knew all over again - my name, the bike's type, registration number, my passport details, where I entered the country from, when, etc... It soon got so obviously ridiculous that I stopped her and said something like "look, everything you're asking me, you already have in your hands - what is the true purpose of this?", to which she replied "oh no no there is no problem, the officers just want to make sure you are not a spy". Now, I realise it's not the best of ideas to laugh in the face of 5 people who are holding your passport, mobile phone, camera, vehicle and all other earthly belongings and have already demonstrated that you're their bitch as far as "civil rights" and all that malarkey is
concerned, but being accused of being a spy was a tad too much. I laughed heartily, thought "yeah, that's the way to do this spying business: wear reflective clothing, hop on a bike exotic for the standards of the country to ensure you attract the full attention of every single person within seeing distance and go off on your own in broad daylight to take pictures of your opponent's military
installations! That's IT!", then laughed some more with the ridiculosity (I know, I know...) of this thought, and then decided NOT to share this thought with them - I somehow thought the entertainment value of it would fall on deaf ears.

To cut a long story short, for about an hour in there, they made me write stuff in English (handwriting sample?), asked me to name who had hosted me in Tehran, had a look through my pictures in the camera and my memory stick backup (but were polite enough to accept NOT looking at anything that was in folders marked as being out of their country) and then agreed to let me go.

The ending was very interesting... I was asked to sign a piece of paper the interpreter had been scribbling on, IN FARSI. I explained it's preposterous to ask me to sign something I cannot read, to which she replied "no problem, it's just what you have told us". After arguing some more, getting nowhere and realising this piece of paper cannot possibly have any legal standing in any court of law, I signed it. What was I to do? I had to get out of there at some point.

Then I requested a copy of the paper I signed, which was denied with a lot of amusement (laughter etc), and in a very Orwellian way the interpreter said "don't worry, we'll all take pictures together", which made me feel slightly better, as if this whole thing was a misunderstanding that had been resolved, but not so... they took me back to the room, set me up against the wall alone, and took very close (biometric-grade?) pictures of my face (and then full-body and the bike as well). Of course I protested, of course they ignored me and did what they wanted with me anyway.

After that they escorted me (this time I was riding my bike) to the dreadful Ghods Hotel in Semnan (as it was 8 at night at that point and I wasn't going to do any more traveling that day), checked me in and said goodbye.

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The next morning after checking out of the hotel and changing some dollars to rials at a local bank (finding which involved elaborate diagrams of the town by an extremely friendly and helpful bank manager - too bad he couldn't draw, let alone give proper directions...)

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...I was stopped by an unmarked car AGAIN on my way out of Semnan... Two plainclothes dudes with snide smiles again. Asked for my passport again. Passport not given back AGAIN. "Follow us" and they get into the car AGAIN and force me to follow and I'm thinking "this cannot be happening - are they ready for round two and they were following me and just waited till I reach the city border to pick me up again?" I had the feeling they were playing mind games with me...

It would appear it was none of that. After going to the unmarked hidden building once more, the idiots from last night were still there (in slippers, obviously working hard at keeping their country spy-free), took one look at me and said something like "what is HE doing here? We already checked him last night you idiots!" to their
colleagues who had picked me up, gave me back my passport, made the idiot who had taken my passport apologise and shake my hand, and with that, I was free to go.

I protested, raised my voice, knowing that they would pretend they don't understand, repeatedly asked "WHY?" and "WHAT"S THE PROBLEM?", got no reply but amused faces, thought I better make my leave while the gate is still open, dressed up and left.

And that was my encounter with the paranoid police state that modern Iran is.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 12:41 PM GMT
Iran - Kavir desert & Esfahan

As I mentioned in the previous post, due to the slight misunderstanding with the police, I was forced to spend the night in Semnan (the birthplace of none other than Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad I hear). At this point let me note that the President in a theocracy doesn't matter that much, the Supreme Leader is calling the shots while being conveniently shielded from international publicity/exposure. He's the numero uno of the country, he is appointed FOR LIFE and is NOT elected by the public. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Ali Khamenei, the guy who after Khomeini and his "revolution" is running the show in this country since 1989!

Back to the trip. After being let go for the second time by the "foreigners' police" I left Semnan as fast as I could. It was a cold morning, and I soon felt weak and had to stop for breakfast. Last night at the hotel I hadn't left my room - heck, I had even put a chair under the doorknob. Talk about paranoia. I was being haunted by thoughts of being taken in the night and getting a filing in - so much for Mr Krishnamurti's teachings on fear. So I had consumed the chicken my extremely attentive and just plain nice hosting mom had given me for the road as it was, cold, with the fat solidified and stuck to it. With my fingers.

Now it was time for breakfast, but as I was out in the open and out of that godforsaken place and nicely warmed by the sun, I felt less vulnerable and I allowed myself the luxury of stopping by the roadside for some proper breakfast. The butter was kept frozen cold even though it hadn't been in a fridge for 24 hours, and I had to thaw it a bit to enjoy it. The solution was funny but elegant:

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Eating was very good for my psychology, as was finally entering the desert. I stopped to gaze at the camels - what a bunch of funny animals. They seem not to have a care in the world.

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Desert tranquillity:

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This camel is certainly a size 47:

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The desert was beautiful, but not as I expected it. It looks more like a vast plowed field, not a sea of sand as I thought.

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The rock and soil formations change in color from place to place, with some being truly beautiful, with an extra-terrestrial quality to them...

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A river of salt, still as death, running over the dry soil.

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This is one of those signs that just magically make your day and you find yourself roaring with laughter on your own, in the middle - oh, let's say of a desert, with nobody but the sky to listen.

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Mo'alleman did not have any sleepover facilities (I enquired and got told "mosque" and I thought "not tonight mate"), so I rode on till the next human settlement. I reached Jandaq after sun down.

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Luckily the road running through the desert is excellent - as most of the Iranian road network, so I wasn't too worried about riding in the dusk. For my sleepover I asked around at Jandaq, a sleepy desert town, the guy I was talking to rung a friend of his who appeared within 4 minutes with a friend of his on a motorcycle, and off we went...

I followed them for 5km into the desert, over twisting dirt paths with no signs whatsoever, apparently random, cursing myself every second for not taking the time to turn on the GPS before we left civilisation, so that if anything happened I could find my way back... but it was too late, we were already in the proverbial middle of nowhere, I could sometimes barely see the distant lights of Jandaq but nothing else - it really is pitch black at night in the desert.

I decided to take a couple of snaps as evidence for whoever found my body. This is how far away we were from Jandaq:

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Luckily my paranoia was just that, paranoia, and when the diesel kicked in and the light came on...

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... I found myself in the courtyard of the prettiest ancient desert house... a fire was lighted instantly, over which I warmed my fingers and had some simple food I was carrying with me.

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Then hot wood was taken from the fire and positioned underneath a special table covered with a thick blanket and I was shown hot to sit with my back on a pillow and my legs under the blanket, my naked feet hanging over the hot wood and that was niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice. Simply divine after a cold day on the bike, with whatever had happened with the police and whatnot.

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Out came the dry dates (which I found out I absolutely adore), the chai, the fruit, the biscuits... from "oh boy, we're being jumped out here" Hollywood-fueled fear to "This is life!" and smiley faces and a lot of much needed relaxation. The proprietor was very friendly but with limited vocabulary, so we enlisted the help of all books we had handy to communicate:

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These books sometimes provide a keyhole to the local society... would you find this in a language learning book (presumably for children) in your country?

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The next day I greeted my hosts, admired their (simple but undoubtedly more reliable than mine) panniers

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and headed for Esfahan. I got there in the early afternoon, ran straight into a guy beating the living lights out of a poor car driver (punches in the face in broad daylight in the middle of the road - sensational stuff) and marveled at the continuing extreme resourcefulness of fast food restaurants to wet their clients' appetite:

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Luckily another very kind couple was available to host me and they stopped whatever they were doing and came out near the river to pick me up and take me to their home... I spent a week in Esfahan, meeting lots of people, drinking a lot of tea, walking as I haven't walked in years, trying to take in the magnificence of its buildings...

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... mostly lingering around the impressive Naghsh-i Jahan Square...

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... (renamed Emam Square after the "revolution" that appears to have parallels to Mao Zedong's "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" that erased thousands of years of Chinese history & culture), indulging in local delicacies under the auspices of my splendid hosts:

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A pigeon tower - used in old times to collect pigeon droppings (poo) to use as fertiliser.

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I was quite annoyed at the seemingly random places motorcycles could NOT be used... why, I wonder?

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We also visited the Birds Garden of the city, which was to my surprise really nice!

Flamingos:

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(I couldn't help thinking of the while observing these guys...)

More interesting inmates:

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A younger version:

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Flirting or itching?

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The royal version of what the good doctor would call "Rats of the Skiessss!":

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A ponderous old gentleman:

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An interestingly decorated cock:

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A black swan taking his/her morning stroll:

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The message here is "I can see you looking at me"

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A hunter, trying to preserve his/her decency by looking far away into the horizon...

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More excellent English - thank you, all your base are belong to us:

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By that time I had realised that my phone was not receiving any international SMS messages, and had significant trouble sending them too. I read the SIM instructions and realised the Chinese company that operated this Iranian network had put support issues in the hands of fantastic personas, so I wasn't likely to get much help anytime soon:

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Dates. Awesome. Bought a whole kilo of 'em out of the bazaar around the main square, and am still munching on them here in Pakistan, after having given some away to people...

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Taken to a nice restaurant by my polite hosts, I once more marveled at the cluelessness of the people composing & printing the English menus:

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The music room of the Shah's palace on the main square. Fascinating.

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Esfahan stretches one's ability to take in one more building, one more mirror-adorned living room, one more narrow bazaar alley, while trying to stay out of the way of small motorcycles buzzing around (on what's left of the sidewalk)...

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... braking for nobody, honking at anyone who dares claim the pedestrian sidewalk from them.

Decoration of the Masjid Mosque, which is still under heavy construction:

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Almost gothic halls, where light plays its own games...

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On the way back from the mosque, we bumped against an old mansion being restored and begged our way into one of its mirror rooms. This is the ceiling:

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More beauty and attention to detail around the main square:

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Can you imagine how much work decorating this dome was?

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Souls wandering the corridors of old palaces:

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More places around town that motorcycles are not welcome. Grrrrr...

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Time for some religious propaganda (come on, you could see that coming...)

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Well, that's good to know. Do whatever you want, pray, sorted.

The police would have a kick with this one:

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Oh, that's also good to know. We take credit only for the good - the bad is all YOUR STUPID FAULT:

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I looooooove religion. Especially when messages like these are plastered all over buildings around major cities. So... discreet.

Another message about the police and an interesting new word for my vocabulary:

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So, in Iran motorcycles larger than 200cc are not allowed (genius!), so mine naturally drew a lot of love... here I'm giving a ride to a family member of my hosts:

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Street shops in Esfahan at night:

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The main square at night:

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Esfahani art - splendid displays at the bazaar:

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Details of the above display. Looooots of work has gone into this...

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More lovely displays in the bazaar - this time metal work:

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Esfahani sweets - apparently some of the best in the country:

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Night in downtown Esfahan:

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It was once more a wonderful feeling to be taken in so kindly by a family, even though I sensed that (at least initially) some of its members had severe reservations about "hosting the tourist".

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Some of these concerns I understand (potential trouble by the government, who appears to have instructed people not to mingle too much with foreigners for fear of being charged with something surely involving spying/treason). some not so much (a sense of "doing something wrong" according to Islamic rules when the husband is not around and the women are forced to interact on their own with the stranger.) I have to admit that in Tabriz I never felt like a tourist, and was never labeled as one. I was heartily greeted by everyone I met, who was genuinely interested in knowing about me and other cultures I might be able to provide a window to. But in Esfahan, I was a tourist. Repeatedly labeled as one, I thought about what bothers me so much about being called "a tourist"... I'm not sure, but something about not having caught a plane from London to meet an organised group to do sightseeing and then piss off out of the country makes me feel that being called the same as such people is unfair. This is more than mere tourism, although it's a fine line and the language barrier doesn't make it easy to get such details across.

Before I forget, something quite funny one sees in all major Iranian towns: Open-air "gyms", for the population to get its exercise. Unbearably funny to watch old people exercising away in public:

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One cold and wet morning I attempted to leave Esfahan, simply because I had set my mind to it. Must-leave-today. I was late to start, and the weather was really atrocious... I was following the road south to Shiraz and planned to cut through the mountains east to Yazd. By the time I reached Shahreza, a mere 70km south of Esfahan, I had to stop by the side of the road, take my gloves off and without turning off the engine attempt to thaw my frozen fingers in the hot exhaust fumes. If you've done this, you will know it's painful. Something about tissue and nerves shutting down to protect themselves from extreme cold, and then loudly complaining with intense pain when they get re-activated.

So anyway there I was, on the side of the highway having fun with my exhaust, when a truck stopped right beside me, the door opened, and the driver beckoned to me to jump in the cabin. My initial reaction was (of course, as a European!) "no no thank you I'm fine" thinking "I'm not out of my mind to jump into this stranger's truck!" - and there were two of them in the cabin... but a few seconds later and after the driver and his friend insisted and gestured "it's cold out there, in here we have heating!" I said "oh, sod it" and jumped in.

It was Paradise. The good man put the heating at full blast, surely to their discomfort but also surely to my great comfort... they served me hot tea from a thermos and sunflower seeds to munch on. We spent a good quarter of an hour in that truck, introducing each other, our families, our jobs, our daily lives, our habits, our countries, religions... the driver told me he was recently married, what job his father did, and I shared with him my side of the story... they advised me not to take the road I was planning to, as it had no petrol stations, restaurants, mechanics, nothing, and it would be cold and wet and dark. Instead he begged me to return to Esfahan, get a good night's kip and the next morning take the direct route to Yazd through Naein. He knew what he was talking about, and I took his advice. Other than a stockpile of sunflower seeds they gave me a tiny donkey doll (one of those soft decorative cloth animals), laughing, pointing at the donkey and saying "police!", which only resulted in all the three of us cracking up... it was such a basic scene, in the cabin of a truck, shielded from the cold, refreshed for life by the hot tea and the discussion, that I had no hesitation to follow his advice.

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After heartily greeting them and sharing a few of my dry dates and pieces of chocolate with them, I swallowed my pride and called my host family in Esfahan. Two hours later I was sitting in their living room again, eating delicious hot food, while my clothes were drying next to the gas water boiler.

I spent the afternoon walking around Esfahan for one last time and getting drenched with rain (too much optimism when it comes to the choice of clothing...), met a friend for another installment of a good chat, had dinner with her family and then returned home for a magnificent sleep. I was exhausted.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 12:49 PM GMT
December 28, 2009 GMT
Iran - Yazd

After my first (ever) failed attempt to leave a city, and recharging my batteries in Esfahan, the next morning I took the easy way to Yazd. 7am start, no (intentional) mountains, no bravado and luckily no rain. Having said that, part of the journey was spent going over a mountain pass that was "a bit nippy"... I had to stop every 10km, dismount, take off my gloves and thaw my frozen fingers with the hot exhaust fumes. It was hard going with no serious winter equipment, but for such rare occasions I rather put up with a little discomfort than kit out the bike with heated grips and thus add weight/complexity. So I just suffered a bit. I reached Yazd in good time (around noon), pondered over another helpful SMS sent by IranCell

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... pondered some more over religious/nationalistic propaganda on the roadside:

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... met a CouchSurfing friend who helped me locate a simple (basic, really) hotel close to the old city of Yazd

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... had a meal and a quick wander around the old city and collapsed.

Yazd has a unique collection of boutique hotels - like traditional mansions, with internal courtyards and the raised bed/sofas on which people just lie on carpets and eat/read/chat/doze off... very relaxing indeed. The only problem was that my hotel was expensive ($20) and empty. Being frustrated at my Brandt guide book (the perspective of which can be summarised by the jaw-dropping - and I quote "Most foreign visitors will wish to stay at the 5-star XYZ hotel...") I coughed up and during my stroll around the old city

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... with its rather strange artifacts

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... and its exquisitely colourful mausoleums

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... I bought a LonelyPlanet book for Iran. Lo and behold, I immediately spotted the Silk Road Hotel and moved there - $8 a night, excellent breakfast and lots and lots of travellers creating a strange ambiance... I felt almost too comfortable, which was a strange feeling. As if I was not traveling any longer. Perhaps the amounts of high-tech electronic gizmos and the heaps of technical clothing got to me.

My efforts to change hotels were temporarily thwarted by the Vstrom's ignition switch getting stuck. The damn key would simply not turn. At that point I remembered Alaric's motto: "If it moves and it shouldn't, duct-tape it. If it doesn't move and it should, WD-40 it!" Luckily I had already spotted a fellow biker at the Silk Road Hotel so I walked over, found Ove and he gave me some of his miraculous WD-40 which fixed the issue instantly.

This allowed me to get lost in Yazd's magnificent ancient alleys with the bike, while trying to locate the entrance of the hotel Orient's parking:

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Alleys continued, this time in the foot-only version:

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The following days we hanged around the Silk Road, visited a traditional wrestler's training session (with lots of music and lots of skill involved), which was taking place in an underground water reservoir - here is the massive reservoir that was used to store water for the neighborhood before modern piping systems came about:

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Here is the dude (couldn't possibly be more than 15) leading the chanting and the music. He was firing away for two hours on that thing...

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The training commotion and an old man watching:

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The training/ceremony is extremely demanding of those taking part:

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We (as in, the group of foreign travelers that formed for the few days I was in Yazd) also took an organised tour to some classic sightseeing places to the north of Yazd, on the outskirts of the desert. I can't say I was very impressed.

Here is Matthias, an excellent & unusually environmentally sensitive chap who is traveling the world on his bicycle.

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A girls school (all dressed in pink) visiting an old fortress in Ardakan:

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An ancient air-conditioning unit (also potentially called a "wind tower") - air is trapped by the intakes and led through the looooong structure in a motion that cools it - hence it keeps the water of the reservoir underneath it also cool.

Cool!

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This is the water reservoir itself, for a change containing only a Canadian instead of water! This is Marco, and the credit for the picture goes to him, as he was the one to observe how light works there:

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The tourist bus stopped at a very suspect sandwich place (that served spaghetti sandwich which, to Zoe's detriment, was actually that - spaghetti in a bun), where we had a uniting experience - Pink Panther came on telly, and all of us - Iranians, Canadians, the Norwegian, the Brit, the German and the Greek - roared in laughter.

(sorry I have no picture of the laughing bit, but the way I laugh it's impossible to hold a camera at the same time)

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Then we went to Chak-chak (which means - in a pleading way - "drip, drip!"). Nothing much to see here, some bizarre legend about a princess who was thirsty and asked for water and suddenly the taps turned on. Suuuuure. Hardly worth the drive.

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The best part of the Chak chak experience was that we were forced to wear these silly caps and remove our shoes, so at least we got a funny picture out of it:

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Then we visited the loveliest of all tourist attractions of the day - an old, half-collapsed mud village. It was fascinating to walk through its dilapidated buildings and climb on roofs of suspect structural integrity. As Ove noted "We would never be allowed to do this in Europe".

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If there is a Batman of goats, this is the Joker he's after:

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This is what happens when one doesn't promptly answer a pissed-off Canadian:

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One of the more intact buildings of the village:

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Our guide, probably quizzing Zoe on the punishment a double homicide plus rape get in the UK. He was a highly entertaining chap, sharing many juicy details about Islamic law as it is implemented in Iran. (the bit that got me and Matthias rolling on the proverbial floor in a fit of laughter - otherwise known as ROFLing - was the description of the punishment for adultery: They bury the woman waist-deep in the earth and stone her to death - BUT! if she manages to dig herself out, people have to leave her alone and not touch her. For the man, he is taken on a mountain and thrown off the edge - if he survives... (*drumroll*) he is taken back up and thrown off a second time. If this doesn't demonstrate that women are favoured in this life, I don't know what does.)


We then got back to Yazd which has been significantly cleaned up from all that cabling that had been lying around and getting tourists tangled up by switching to cordless taxis.

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For the rest of our days in Yazd I had plenty of fun hanging out with the other travelers, milking the town for all it had - including a completely inappropriate private party at another hotel involving booze and women (both in minuscule quantities, but still...)

This is how the "party" started, with Zoe thankfully being prudent enough to bring her own music player and a portable mini-speaker (you rooooock!) and Marc dancing (with his fingers) ON the speaker. We had to cuddle up to listen, but yep, the beat was there.

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This was more like the real party... about 10 people, some almost dancing, most just taking pictures.

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...and this is the SERIOUS booze that ensued.

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It was a strange feeling - we were doing nothing wrong, just having a little bit of harmless fun, but it was quite evident that a potential raid by the police was on everyone's minds... Last time I felt guilty about something as silly as this must've been in highschool, when we used to sit on a ledge we weren't supposed to. Woo hoo - striking the system where it hurts. Riiiight.

The next morning we got up with a hangover from all that alcohol, but still somehow managed to do a nice day ride with Ove to visit some fascinating Towers of Silence (Zoroastrian cemeteries where human bodies were left to be picked clean by vultures, to protect Earth's purity) & the desert with the bikes.

This is Ove contemplating whether riding up right to the entrance of a Tower of Silence was really a good idea...

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Well, I couldn't be stopped - running around off-road with someone to catch me in case I fell (for a change) was just too good an opportunity to pass.

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After that Ove was swiftly revving the Beemer up the slope:

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That's Ove with the bikes on the nice (albeit tiny) vantage point that we used to park right in front of the ancient cemetery...

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Another old water storage/cooling building, with the cemetery in the background:

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View from one Tower of Silence to another:

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Then we rode out to a town called I-don't-remember-how (but it was due SE from Yazd for a good 100K), did some funny local shopping and then had a kick-ass picnic in a field we nearly got stuck in. It was a lovely afternoon, really.

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And that was that for me and Yazd. The next day I packed my bags, greeted my fellow travelers slightly annoyed that I might never see them again and moved on. Next stop, Shiraz!

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 10:49 AM GMT
December 29, 2009 GMT
Iran - Shiraz

Leaving Yazd behind was a bit iffy because I thought I would never see all the lovely people I met there - Ove, Matthias, Zoe, Marc etc, but it turned out I was quite wrong. After doing the day ride from Yazd to Shiraz (most of the route is at an altitude of over 2000m - thank Allah the sun was out), I found the "camping" I had so been looking forward to... I was unfortunately right to be sceptical about the quality of a campsite in an Iranian city - it was basically a concrete square (you know, the one for cars to drive around), with lawn in the middle. Ta-daaa! We have a camping! At $8 a night it was grossly overpriced too. (what do you mean "breakfast"?)

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Its list of follies included being a part of a "tourist complex" which meant people with many complexes would supposedly randomly walk around the "camping square", all the while their eyes just happening to be fixed on you. Very discreet. Oh, and the bloody PA announcements... you think you've conjured enough Zen to get over the $8 for a grassy patch and then all of a sudden 100dB announce to your brain "PERSON XYZ IN RECEPTION NOW!" It was seriously loud. Loud enough to wake ME up (and I do sleep heavily). Very annoying.

To top it all off it was bitterly cold at night (remember the whole altitude thing, the whole December thing also doesn't help - what sort of an idiot would be camping in Iran in December in between freezing his butt off on a bike for days?), which resulted in a fitful sleep.

So I woke up EARLY, packed up, provided sincere feedback at the reception when they asked me how I liked it ("Your camping sucks, Sir." - sniff of the nose, 180 degree fast turn and walk out - THAT taught them!) and got the hell out of there. I drove around Shiraz a bit to have a look at 2-3 hotels (okay, one of them was a military barracks, but it didn't take outsiders for lack of running water - so I'm cheap), got utterly stuck in the permanent traffic jam amplified by a poor sod who had hugged the wall with his car in a very central tunnel/underpass, and after a few hours of effort I managed to check-in to a decent hotel with decent parking for the bike and a very matter-of-factly approach to solving practical problems.

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I then proceeded to go out to walk the centre of Shiraz a little bit. Perchance I found myself outside Pars Tourist Agency (which LP says are the next best thing since sliced bread) and walked in to ask whether Persepolis would be open tomorrow (as it was Friday, Muslim rest day). On entering, I was faced with two beaming travelers saying "oh hi, we met you in Turkey!". I was so surprised that I couldn't remember who these people were, until further hints were dropped into the mix... Cappadocia... bicycles... ah, but of course! It was Battista & Morgane, the Swiss couple who travel the world by bicycle!

My only excuse for not remembering instantly was that I met them very briefly in a dark campsite, we exchanged perhaps 50 words, and it was the day I had seen the good doctor off from Ankara, so I had been considerably upset and disoriented.

Meeting these lovely chaps again in Shiraz made me realise that they covered the same distance with me in the same time, with me having a motorised vehicle and them only their leg power. Slightly concerning, that.

So we quickly arranged a guided tour to Persepolis for the next day, I had dinner and went to bed (what? it was almost 7 o'clock!) and the next day lo and behold! the minibus that was taking us to Persepolis stopped in front of Marc from Yazd! In Persepolis itself we met Matthias (on the road to Shiraz), and by the end of the day Ove had ridden in too! So the gang had re-assembled in Shiraz. As the good doctor would say "quite amusing, actually".

At this point let me make a note to digress from the ravings of the LP guide about Pars Travel Agency - perhaps they are the best, I never tried the others, but the guide allotted to us for Persepolis sucked. The guy was bored out of his brain, making stuff up as he went along (obviously thinking tourists will believe anything, including the theory that the Persian empire was a democratic welfare state - honestly!) and in general quite annoying. Certainly not worth his money.

So we visited the Necropolis with the majestic tombs of kings in mind-boggling sizes:

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...and mysterious buildings the use of which noone supposedly knows:

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Next was Persepolis proper:

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with its trademark angry birds:

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Getting back from Persepolis we all scrambled for food. Here is the gang having a meal at one of the few recognisable restaurants of Shiraz, which sported a "tourist menu" which had 10 items which basically boiled down to "rice with meat or chicken". All the while, people around us were having kebabs, daals, salads etc... Feels nice to get the tourist treatment...

Anna, Morgane, Battista, Marc & my arm

After a couple of hours Matthias reached Yazd as well - we had met him on the road back from Persepolis on his bicycle. I helped him check into a decent hotel...

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...and fooled around with the camera while he got ready to go:

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That evening we also checked out the local cinema scene and watched an Iranian film at a movie theatre:

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(of which of course we understood zilch)

Luckily our cultural balance was promptly restored by a small concert by Matthias and his guitar, who did not waver under the constant flashes of people taking snaps/video footage and did very well indeed. You can listen to his music online at Matthias' website.

The next day we walked around a bit with Ove, checked out the castle (a tower of which partly collapsed when some genius built the road underpass and dug through the castle's foundations)

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...and then visited mosques with lovely floral-inspired decoration:

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...which as you can see I was extremely happy about:

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Ove was having a blast snapping away:

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What rocked my boat more than the mosques and whathaveyou was this old house, ex-restaurant and current modest carpet museum. It's worth a visit just for the exquisite internal architecture of the building.

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...and some of the specimens:

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(click on an image if you'd like to see a larger version - then look for the button "all sizes" above the image)

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That night we went to another "proper" restaurant, which had the most annoying live music in the world (thankfully at some point the guy ran out of breath and just HAD to shut up). I was taking pictures to keep sane.

Ove:

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Battista & Matthias:

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Morgane & Battista:

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We then returned to our hotel which was OK because thankfully we knew which direction to pray towards. Obviously, if you're more than 2 degrees off your bearing, the prayer doesn't hit the right god and it's never heard (unlike all well-directed prayers which as we all know are dealt with instantly).

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The next morning we took a stroll around the many bazaars of Shiraz... they are quite spectacular when it comes to colors and smells...

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...but let us not forget that they have their un-spectacular side as well:

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This is a choice I've been struggling with, actually. Showing only the beauties of a country/land portrays it in a false light. Truth be told, there are plenty of slums/shantytowns/dilapidated neighbourhoods in Iranian cities.

Leaving the bazaars behind we pondered at some more religious/war propaganda (which is to be found in ample quantities in Iran)

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...and visited the tomb of Havez, who I must obligatory quote as "one of the most loved poets of Iran"

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The gardens were quite nice, although again didn't live up to my expectations from hearing/reading raving descriptions about how sublime the gardens are etc.

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On the way back, Matthias spotted a concert hall and we walked in, only to be pleasantly surprised by a traditional music festival! I can't tell you how delighted I was to sit there, watching this lovely tribute to music under (o, the irony) the clouded faces of the current and past Supreme Leaders. (who basically persecute music in Iran as un-islamic, banning the display of musical instruments in TV, banning music schools altogether etc)

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All in all Shiraz did not meet my (high) expectations - the bitterly cold weather didn't help either. After a few days the gang was ready to move on and we spread in the four winds... Me East to Kerman, Matthias, Battista & Morgane South to Bandar-Abbas and Ove West to Bushehr. It was lovely to hang out while it lasted. Safe journeys dear travelers!

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Next stop, Kerman. Slowly making my way to the border...

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 02:22 PM GMT
Iran - Lut desert

Leaving Shiraz I took the road SE to Kerman, which was a good full day's ride through some nice landscapes, mostly mountains and some barren plains. It was good to ride for a few hours - too much city life and too much socialising was getting to me. Riding through a barren landscape for the better part of the day cleared my head and made me feel that I'm traveling again. I was on the road, and the road is good.

I got to buzzing but relatively uninteresting Kerman by the end of the day, found a quasi-decent "inn", dumped my stuff, changed into regular clothing and went out to explore.

Kerman by night: (notice interesting pedestrian overpass circling the square)

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It was already dark, but I did manage to stumble upon a lovely museum of contemporary art, with an intriguing collection of "resistance" compositions by young artists who were basically passing anti-war messages, albeit peppered with anti-Israel propaganda. The exhibition was funded by the government, so the selection of works was not surprising. Some of the pieces of art were quite interesting, but it was not allowed to take pictures. So no dice for you, dear reader.

I then spent a couple of hours walking around town - plenty of traffic (human & mechanised), noise, dust... all the loveliness of a modern city. I had something like a hot-dog from a bakery in which people were queuing (always a good sign), checked my email (in between power cuts) and went to bed.

My next stop was the desert - a CS friend had tipped me as to the existence of "something very beautiful" near the village of Mashdad, SE of Kerman. The ride there was excellent in its own right, bringing me close to snowy mountains:

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Mercifully there was a nice tunnel that saved me climbing above 3000m - then led me to an "adventurous area" (whatever that is)

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and finally delivering me to the Lut desert. My first proper sandy desert. 300m of elevation all in all, dilapidated caravansarais scattered all over the landscape...

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...palm trees everywhere, me taking off two layers of clothes... ooohhh it's SO nice to not be cold for a change.

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So the Kavir-e Lut was my first sandy desert. I had to try, hadn't I? I stepped down and checked the hardness of the ground on foot. It didn't look too soft... so I descended from the road with the Vstrom, frolicked on the sand for about 10''... and 80 meters later I was stuck and already agonising about how to get out of there.

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Luckily with a bit of unloading and a bit of pushing it took less than 15' to get the bike back on nice, safe, hard tarmac.

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And that was pretty much the end of my sand expedition... until I realised (after meeting more beautiful ancient caravanserais in the proverbial middle of nowhere)

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...that there is a really hard trail skirting the Kaluts, like a dried mud lake of sorts:

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I rode that for a few minutes until I lost visual of the tarmac and began to feel that not even the GPS is making this safe enough...

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So I turned back, leaving all this for another time, another life maybe...

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A true adventurer on all counts, I wussed out and got back on the tarmac.

Reaching the Kaluts was an experience... gigantic sand formations for tens of kilometres, beautiful, majestic, errie in their inexplicable steady orientation. As if a flock of whales has frozen in time, migrating across the globe, being caught under the desert, in endless waves that go on and on... truly beautiful.

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By late afternoon the road...

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...took me to a "desert camping" I had spotted earlier, a big project to build a really nice campsite with structures like mini bungalows.

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There were 3-4 workers there, building stuff, and noone else. I asked them whether it was OK for me to stay, the guy who could speak a bit of English said "no problem", I asked for the price, he said "no money" (wooohoo!) and I was sorted.

I had noticed some worrying splashes of oil around the engine and I decided to have a look (I needed to at least unscrew something on the bike to get my monthly Alex-the-mighty-mechanic dose). Luckily I had what I needed with me, try catching THAT nut without the proper tool...

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The "interior" of the bike (under the saddle) where all the tools, spares etc reside:

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I chose a hut, made my bed, did some washing, cooked dinner, read a little bit, pondered the loneliness, quiet, loveliness of the desert, and around 8 went to sleep...

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...which was to be interrupted pretty soon by three busloads of juvenile Iranians who apparently raided the desert camping just to find a place to be able to scream their heads off without being arrested... you think I'm exaggerating, aren't you? If only... it was the teenage-girls-rip-off-and-throw-their-underwear-at-rock-star kind of screaming. It was the ohmygod-I-cannot-believe-I-am-watching-Elvis-on-stage kind of screaming. It came and went in waves, from multiple sources. I spent the night twisting around in my sleeping bag and making pleasant thoughts like "my kingdom for a loaded machine gun..." Around 5 or 6 in the morning they got tired (or lost their voices - wouldn't be surprised), so I managed to catch a couple of hours of sleep.

Around 8 they started pissing off, being noisy in the process, so I got up and ran about 500m out of the camp to see the early morning light on the Kaluts.

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Lovely, innit?

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Yep, proper sandy-type sand. Walking on this stuff is surprisingly difficult, so next time you find yourself stranded in the middle of the desert think about it twice before "just walking over them sand dunes"...

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This is where I (nearly) slept. Pretty charming place, really. And warm. Oh, bliss!

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I was giving the the noisy teenagers deadly looks as they were parading in front of my kitchen (the VStrom with the tea brewing on the petrol stove) and some of them might even have been remotely embarrassed. A man-and-woman team approached me, all smiles, the girl spoke in the most royal British accent and asked me how I was. Luckily I swallowed my default reaction which would be to "verbally abuse" them and it quickly turned out that they were not part of the group of juveniles - they also had had a rough night, so I guess we were on the same boat.

We ended up sharing our breakfast (with me the clear benefactor as they were way more organised food-wise) and had a mini-feast in their hut.

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It turned out that they were a group of people who work for an NGO that takes care of children whose families were devastated by the terrible earthquake that flattened Bam a few years back. Some of the children would come out to see the Kaluts and play in the sand, would I like to join them?

I politely declined (the default "no" that negative people like me use when they just need more time to think about it), we greeted each other and went our separate ways. After a few kilometers I realised I really DID want to join them, so I turned back and drove the 30km to the Kaluts to join them.

It was a wonderful feeling seeing the children frolic around in the sand.

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They were genuinely having a great time.

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We then drove back to the campsite for lunch

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This is my command centre. You can't get lost with all this stuff (famous last words?):

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Lunch presented a few practical difficulties for me - try eating your sandwich without making a mess while having 2 kids jumping on you and another 10 talking, singing, striving for attention. Beautiful, smart, witty creatures. They wanted to know everything about me and the trip, they sang a song and wanted me to reciprocate with a Greek song (to my utter embarrassment I was so overwhelmed that I couldn't come up with anything), they told me every word they knew of English and taught me some Farsi too...

When it was getting time to leave I asked if we could take a group picture, which created a little commotion between the elders. A few minutes later, after I had dressed up and was ready to go, I was told that it was not a good idea because if the picture fell in the wrong hands, the government would give trouble to the NGO for allowing sheltered children's pictures to be taken. And so it is in Iran. The underlying threat that one might do something, anything, that one day may be used against them. The constant fear of standing out in any way, which results in self-censorship and an omnipresent stiffness in human relations. A sad state of affairs...

After asking for permission which was happily granted, I took this photo of this little guy who took a fancy to my tank bag. He was part of a visiting family, nothing to do with the NGO, so there it is - the secret sauce - the critical piece of information that the theocracy needs to control - what I could not show you using the lovely kids taken care of by the NGO as example - an Iranian CHILD!

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After doing two rounds of the roundabout and blasting off towards the horizon standing up on the pegs (hey, if it's a request from the kids it doesn't count as showing off!) (suuure) I took the mountainous road to Bam.

On the map the road looked like a nice, smooth stretch of tarmac. But the map is just a piece of paper. It cannot portray the dramatic twists and bends, the gorgeous scenery surrounding you as the cylinders do their job and carry you and everything you did & will need for 6 months up and down mountain passes, crossing unmaintained, unsurfaced connections between pieces of road that are still under construction...

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Finding yourself riding on the pegs to safely get over a watery puddle, while following the main road to anywhere, is a relatively unnerving experience. One can't help thinking "can this really be it?", "did I miss something", "am I lost?" etc etc. This is where a GPS and good maps make a big difference. I've exclusively used maps from the OpenStreetMap.org project and am very happy with them for having the most obscure roads of these countries mapped. A big "thank you!" to all contributors who created and continue to improve these maps - I upload GPS tracks as often as I can to do my bit and further improve these freely available maps.

I followed the beautiful road over the mountains heading in the general direction of Bam.

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Corrosion has worked wonders here:

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And just like that, the mountains were over and I was on the horrible main "highway"to Bam.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 02:53 PM GMT
December 31, 2009 GMT
Iran - Bam & race to the border

Approaching Bam was a scary experience - long gone was the superb engineering of Iranian roads and the trouble-free road connections between major cities... the road that connects Kerman to Bam had some horrific stretches of single-lane traffic bouncing over potholes, with trucks bombing it to the border as if their life depended on it. You know things are getting dangerous when you have to accelerate to 140kmh to keep a relatively hassle-free pace that allows you to overtake the major troublemakers. Way faster than my comfy traveling speed of 100kmh.

But anyway. Got to Bam late, went straight to Akbar's guesthouse (the usual stop of overlanders) and had an early night.

I spent most of the next day fighting with the nasty Sality virus, trying to get it off Mr Akbar's PC, but without my toolkit, a fast internet connection, or even a CD-ROM drive on the machine, it was a struggle...

0wned by sality

While the computer was doing things I would read, reflect or just chill out.

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I visited the ex-magnificent, now-demolished and under re-construction Bam Arg (Citadel/Castle)

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of which very little is left

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from the 2003 earthquake that claimed more than 20,000 lives and left Bam in ruins and devastation.

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On the way to the castle, a typical Iranian family on a motorcycle:

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(What do you mean "helmet"?) I've seen families of 4 riding bikes like this, while eating and carrying a small animal (goat?) with them. One wonders what the value of human life is in the minds of these parents, or how dire the lack of alternatives really is.

After visiting the castle I did some simple shopping for foodstuff and generally got myself ready to enter Pakistan. I knew that the police escorts overlanders from Bam all the way to the border, so as far as I was concerned Bam was my last stop in Iran.

So on the day I wanted to get to the border I let Mr Akbar know, he let the police know, and at 06:30 I was ready to go. The police car led me to the local police station, where I waited for the next team that would escort me out of Bam... and hence the waiting game started. It was all fine and well until a little further from Zahedan (it was already noon by then, as I was constantly waiting on the police to changeover, do their paperwork etc), when something that *really* pisses me off happened - the police took my passport, gave it to an 18-year old conscript (soldier) who jumped in a passer-by's car and left for the border, asking me to follow the car.

The reason I was so pissed off is that this happened after the dude had tried to persuade me to ride pillion on my bike, apparently holding the spare TKC80 tyre that was occupying the second seat. After I refused (obvious safety reasons), the soldier flagged down a passer-by and jumped in, with MY PASSPORT. Goddamnit, it's mine and they have no right to keep it from me. We had already been through this. But they just ignored me and the guy left. I took off my helmet and commenced shouting down the guy who was in charge. I told him I'm going nowhere on a leash, that this is illegal, that I DEMAND my bloody passport HERE NOW. I threatened and I hollered and I played angry (I was almost really angry, actually) and I made him give me his name and number and acted very you-just-see-what-will-happen-to-you.

They were doing something illegal to me, you see. And it's especially annoying when they're ignoring your requests for an explanation on top.

After half an hour my passport was returned by another soldier in another car. I took it and left, thinking I just might have time to make it to the border before it closed for the day... but it wasn't meant to be.

At the next police checkpoint I was stopped again, my passport was taken again (all the while being reassured they would just take down the information and hand it back) and then... you guessed it! They wouldn't give it back and they thus forced me to wait there, less than 50K before the border, for ONE HOUR. Once more I started a shouting match and was nasty to the guy in charge which was a shame because he was very polite (but still ignoring me and doing something grossly illegal dammit!), who in the end gave me my passport back. But then I had to wait for the escort... by the time it arrived, it just took me to another checkpoint 10K down the road where I was handed over to the next guys who (surprise!) announced that it was too late to cross the border today, and I had to check into a hotel they would take me to (how attentive!) to spend the night there.

It wasn't even 16:00 by then, and I was very soon to find out that they had played the same scam on Simon and Lisa, two Brit travelers I had met in Bam, and Nico, a German biker who was tagging along.

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The group of 3 had started from Zahedan (a *really* short ride to the border) and had been stalled by the police and led to the hotel... it was preposterous. The police had actually lied to them about the border closing at 14:00 (which is patently false), to convince them, after hours and hours of delays, to go to the hotel.

Is it a surprise that the hotel was expensive and crappy? I was happy to meet them, because in my blind fury I needed someone to share my frustration with, and they were only too happy to spill our venoms together against the business that the Iranian police make by stalling people, forcing them to waste a day, trampling over their right to hold their passport, not providing any real security (the soldiers weren't even armed for crying out loud!) and finally delivering us to a "safe" crappy hotel that surely split the money with the police.

A corrupt, disgusting state of affairs. But that's what every traveler approaching Pakistan from Iran has to get through.

After this whole ordeal we obviously didn't want to leave any more money to the hotel, so we cooked in the room using all of our cookers - it was a nice little live portable stove comparison gig, which was actually good fun. Lisa cooked deliciously and after all those hours of frustration had us licking our plates and putting on extra portions of pasta... and then some more.

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This is how you get petrol in Zahedan... all of it is apparently smuggled to Pakistan (where it's sold for a multiple of its value in Iran), so petrol stations are "empty" (at least for us foreigners).

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The next day we left for the border at 7, Simon carried our "security" guy (who was protecting whom I wonder?)

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... and of course were at the border by 07:10, pictures and all...

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...and out of Iran, cursing and muttering all along, pretty soon.

This was my itinerary through Iran, for the 5 weeks I spent there.

OSM Iran complete

It was a sour ending for a country that meant a lot for me. So many places, so many people, so many strong warm feelings... the coppers were the only stone in my boot. Unfortunately not a freak occurrence, but rather the symptom of a faulty system (a theocratic police state), it made us all very happy indeed to leave Iran behind.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 05:09 PM GMT
January 03, 2010 GMT
Pakistan - Taftan to Lahore

Entering Pakistan was a strong experience. Immediately there was something different in the air... facilities were more basic, people (especially officials) were more friendly, everything had a to-be-figured-out feel about it. We went through customs and immigration with no problems whatsoever - quite the contrary, we enjoyed preferential treatment (i.e. were instructed to jump queues like crazy, something I'm not too comfortable with) and were given specific instructions about the route we were going to take in a most official way:

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A word about the current situation in Pakistan. There is an omnipresent threat for everyone (foreigners included) from acts of violence (kidnapping, bombs etc), so the government is being very nice to travelers and instead of denying us entry, is instead giving us armed escorts that guide us and keep us safe through any potentially troubled areas. Which means, from Taftan (border with Iran) to Lahore (border with India), when you sneeze, a few machinegun-armed guys are there to wipe your nose.

First impression from Pakistan?

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Wow. They don't have that in Iran! :-)

Now, when I talk about preferential treatment, I ain't kiddin' around... the official who was sorting out our Carnets offered us tea (lovely, delicious, sweet milky tea) and then said "would you like something to eat"? Now, regularly one says "oh no thank you" and plays all cool etc, but we had no idea when the next opportunity for food would be and it was already lunchtime (somewhere in the world), so we gladly accepted. What followed was difficult to believe. He instructed the cook of the customs office to prepare a full sit-down meal for us, with a meat dish, a nice daal, salad, excellent rice, some naan and drinks! Needless to say, we were impressed.

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After wolving it all down we learned how to say "thank you!" in Urdu ("sukria") and left. I carried the security guard on the Strom for the first 50K when... I ran out of petrol. At 210K after my last refueling in Zahedan, this surely is the V's negative range record (less than 50% of normal range). I wonder what *was* in that plastic tank I filled from... anyway, at least the engine seemed to have survived it.

So I got some petrol from one of Lisa's spare tanks - the beauty of traveling with really organised people:

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The timing was also impeccable - we were really, truly, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Balochistan's desert. I was promptly congratulated by my fellow travelers for having the prudence to run out of petrol just there and then. Anytime, people. Any-time.

So we quickly found another refilling station of sorts, and everybody got nervous and got some petrol, even if the quality had already proved questionable:

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The security guard I was carrying on the V, with the rest of the group following:

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The end of the day found us roughly 30K west of Dalbandin, admiring the sunset in the desert and haggling for an hour over the price of our (extremely overpriced) dinner:

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Colors of the desert at night:

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We camped through the night (as the "guesthouse" itself was filthy) and the next morning after all of us were done with breakfast and Simon had taken really nice pictures of our security guards (and their friends/relatives) who had visited us the previous night with a 4x4 mounted machine-gun that looked like it could take down a tank

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...we hit the road again.

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We took a lunch break at a seemingly popular "rest area" - err... how should I put this... no electric escalators, you know? Just some rugs on the floor and ONE dish - meat with some juice and bread. It was delicious.

Also, we had a chance to marvel at all the funky trucks/buses that had also stopped there for a break:

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...including a bus that had the most unlikely passengers:

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That night we reached Quetta - unfortunately too late for some of us who have night-vision issues and can't drive at night. The last 50K were a struggle, with the chaos of a dusty big city like Quetta adding to the tiredness of 8 hours on the road. But we made it to the quite unimpressive Bloom Star hotel, got overcharged (600Rs for camping?!) by the reception guy for whom everything was a "facility" (when people know fancy words they tend to over-use them) and had a nice pirate reunion at the hotel garden: (from left to right Simon, me, Nico) growling "AARG!"

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No, this was not intended to be a pirate shot, but we were all cold and hence were wearing our buffs on our heads... which Lisa took proper advantage of.

The next day we took a very short ride with a rickshaw (which was dubbed "the prickshaw" by a certain dirty-minded English bloke who thus commented on the fact that we stuffed 4 people in a 2-seater: he had his wife on his knees, but I had Nico, and we both looked quite happy)

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...to get to a quite posh hotel, the facilities of which we would use for the remainder of the day. Observe the fortress-like fortification of the main gate - there are 3 physical barriers before one gets in, not to mention the airport-type scanners, guards, searches etc:

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After spending a lazy day at the hotel (mostly catching up on our online lives - I managed to upload photos to flickr for the first time in 5 weeks!), we spent another chilly night in our tents and the next morning left Quetta taking the road south to Sukkur (as we were not allowed to cross the mountains that would take us to Lahore faster, for safety reasons).

This is what the road looked like south-east of Quetta:

It soon got better, and since the police escort (in their own vehicle thankfully!) was slowing us down, we started leapfrogging and taking videos and pictures of the convoy, to fill an otherwise rather boring ride. Don't get me wrong, the landscape was dramatic in its beauty, but having a pace of 80-90K/h is just plain slow.

Another problem we had was that the police (being very rational from a logistics point of view) had teamed us up with another English bloke, this one on a truck, going round the world with an engine that runs on vegetable oil...

The problem is that vegetable oil engines appear not to be exactly turbo-charged, so the truck was going slow. Really slow. The fact that the guy was taking breakfast breaks and photo breaks and lunch breaks whenever he felt like it did not exactly help. At each escort changeover we would be asked to "wait for 10 minutes" for the truck, which would be hours behind us, every time adding a little bit more on the pile of frustration at just sitting around waiting for someone who didn't care that we were traveling in a convoy and was just doing his own thing.

Riding the dusty road southeast of Quetta:

...and then waiting some more:

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Waiting some more - I'm making the most of our idle time by putting out my freshly washed socks to dry... (too bad they flew off the bike later in the day)

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At another rest stop - at that point we've had it and Lisa put everyone's frustration to words by saying "dammit, WE're stopping now and we're having tea and CAKE!" (and indeed we did - the place happened to stock the nicest cake I've had in months!)

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Further along the road, we had stopped for errr.. some reason when these pickup trucks drove by. The camels looked rather amused:

Camels on the move

A reminded on the road about what happens when you aren't careful around here:

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Nico looking rather relaxed on the Africa:

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Going through a small town, the situation resembles a video game... you never know what's going to hit you and from where. This is an action shot (i.e. drive with one hand, handle camera with the other), so please excuse the glove in the frame:

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Entering Punjab, we get picked up by a team of "Elite forces" - an anti-terrorism squad kitted out with jackets that stated "NO FEAR" on them. We're talking serious business here. They were vigilant enough to escort us even to the proverbial toiled. Here is Simon relieving himself in a secure manner:

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Overloaded trucks/tractors all over the place. "Quite amusing, really" - except when you need to overtake and are secretly praying "let it not roll over just yet..."

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Some footage of the group on the road to Sukkur:

...and some more footage of the bikes and escort pickup behind them:

After an uneventful night in Sukkur we rode out on a lovely early morning, headed towards Multan:

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This escort was overly enthusiastic about paving the way for us - this day we were all too happy to have broken the link with the biotruck, so we were traveling at a reasonable pace. Sometimes the police were practically driving trucks off the road to open our way:

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More funny loading, against a landscape that is plain nice. Pakistan is giving us only the best of impressions, making us all feel sorry we're being ushered through like this.

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An exotic touch that I expected to find in India is seeping through Pakistan... quite lovely, a pleasure to ride through this beautiful land:

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Simon making it clear why us foreigners will never blend in...

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...and capturing everyone's attention when he displays the goods (photos):

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Another manic police escort - this guy would wave his hands wildly, shout, threaten, anything to get the trucks off the right lane and free our way. Unfortunately we were going too fast for single-hand riding, thus no video footage:

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A Pakistani KitKat. Good to know it's "fit for human consumption":

Pakistani KitKat

Reaching Multan, we were denied accommodation in the hotel the police took us to and waited for a good hour for a "local team" to show up and take us to another hotel. When we realised we were attracting a crowd of more than 100 people, we thought "well that's not good, is it?" and took the situation in our hands - luckily we had a GPS waypoint for another hotel, so we drove to the overpriced-but-oh-well Sindbad Hotel. We had dinner in the hotel, watched a movie, and went to bed.

Watching "Full Metal Jacket" in Sindbad Hotel, Multan

It turns out that the food didn't agree with me - to be precise I think I got a mild case of food poisoning, as I spent the night vomiting and... the other thing. The morning found me exhausted and shaky, still unable to support my own weight without getting nauseous with the effort. I was quite touched by Simon & Lisa's decision to stay put and wait for me to get better, so that we could ride together to Lahore the next day. They got me medicine, plenty of water, Coke and periodically checked up on me. It's just great to have someone around when you're ill and powerless, this would have been tough had I been on my own.

But, as things happen, it all went well and by the next morning I was stable and strong enough to ride. We left Multan late-ish and covered the very reasonable distance to Lahore without any major dramas.

A bike called "Cash Deposit"?

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At Cookers restaurant, Lahore. Having some plain rice and soup, first solid food after 48 hours. I'm still rather weak.

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To be continued...

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 02:03 PM GMT
January 04, 2010 GMT
Pakistan part deux - Islamabad and getting to the border

Leaving Lahore, the next day we pushed on to Islamabad. It would be our first day in Pakistan without a police escort. Independence, finally! Islamabad wasn't very far away - less than 350K - so we got cocky with the whole "nah, piece of cake for us" and left late. Divine providence meant that it took us an hour to find the right way out of the city and a lot of improvisation to actually get on the M2 motorway:

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...from which we were promptly kicked out, because it turns out that "motorcycles are not allowed on the M2". Why? No answer, but the police car that flagged us down was adamant that we get our wheels off the nice tarmac and back onto the Grant Trunk road, the old way of reaching Islamabad from Lahore. The way that passes through many inhabited places, is narrow and full of potholes and truck traffic.

Everybody was too pissed off with this to act like an adult, so I muttered "screw this", opened the throttle and took the lead, forcing everyone to follow me. We hit the GT road and then turned north for Islamabad.

But I wasn't meant to have a quiet ride. No siree. Some idiot in a car became a bit too pushy when trying to overtake Lisa (almost pushing her off the road) which, to my horror, had an equally violent response from the other 3... they practically pushed the car off the road, forcing its surely terrified driver to stop cold. They then started a shoving/threatening match with the poor guy, which I only joined after I realised we had:

1) blocked an entire direction of the GT road
2) blocked an ambulance that was behind us and now stuck in the newly created traffic jam
3) picked up another fight (first was with the police on the M2) in a single day and
4) were not really being discreet and making good public relations on our first day of freedom in Pakistan...

Sure, the car driver was a dangerous idiot who treated us as pests on the road, but I was appalled at the immediate (and dangerous) violent response by everyone else. We're in his country, we don't know what is considered usual here, we have no right to behave like this just to make a point. And of course, risking your life and that of others just to "not let it pass" does not make sense to me. Some things, especially when traveling to distant lands, one must be prepared to let pass.

The GT road blocked by a bunch of foreigners on bikes. Great PR for the next travelers I'm sure... *sigh*

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With this and that we got to Islamabad late. It was already dark. We got to the quite eerie and completely deserted "foreigners' camping" at the Rose Garden and set up camp:

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Islamabad is a fortified city - paranoia about violent attacks has led the entire city to be littered with roadblocks, police checkpoints, "red zones"... every single properly in the posh areas is protected with high walls and barbed wire...

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...but I was thankfully spared all that. I found refuge in the hospitality of my friend's Seema's family. I washed my clothes, slightly caught up on my online obligations (to you, dear reader!) and rested when I needed it most, suffering from an inexplicable nasty back pain.

This is my jacket pre-wash:

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(no post-wash picture as the difference wasn't as sensational as I hoped)

Seema's family was kind enough to let me use some of their traditional clothes while all of my stuff was drying. I *love* the salwar (trousers) and kameez (long shirt) combo! It's just too comfortable:

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During my days in Islamabad we visited the mountains next to the city (where to my surprise there are many exotic, by European standards, animals freely roaming about)

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We took silly pictures on Rawal dam...

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...and crashed a birthday party to check out how modern Pakistanis celebrate:

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(surprisingly to some, in exactly the same way as most people do!)

I got my first flat on this trip... no, wait. The first flat of the Vstrom... no hang on... my first flat in a few years actually, as I never had a flat with my previous bike as well... talk about luck, this happening NOW and HERE, with all the help in the world at hand, right outside the house of the only person I knew since I left London that I would meet during the trip. Truly bizarre.

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The cause:

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...and the patch.

TKC80 after 17,000km & a nail

I'm not too happy about this, as it's nowhere near as reliable as an internal patch you'd get in other places, but this is what the tyre shop does to all punctures, including car tyres, so I will just hope for the best.

On another occasion we visited Rawalpindi for some wedding shopping:

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The colors and fabrics created a fascinating jigsaw:

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Finally, the big day arrived, and Raazi & Seema were officially married!

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I was honoured to be invited to the wedding reception (which I thoroughly enjoyed - I mean, socialising with cool people while having great food, what more can I ask for?), part of which I spent hanging out with my new best friend Harry and his white baloon:

Harry & me

Alas, after the wedding was over and done with, I had no more excuses to linger around Islamabad... I heartily thanked Seema and her family for their excellent hospitality, far above and beyond what would have been just "polite", greeted Simon, Lisa and Nico who were still waiting for their Indian visas to be approved, and headed off back to Lahore and the Indian border.

On my way there, and being alone and free to explore on a whim (such a great feeling... man did I miss that!) I left the GT road to visit the impressive Rohtas Fort:

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I got to Lahore in time, checked into the Regale Internet Inn (not very regal, Internet was a struggle due to power cuts, but the price was right and the staff friendly if slightly bizarre) and went out to explore nightly Lahore on foot:

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The next day I took a rickshaw (tuk-tuk?) to the Lahore Fortress

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...which was actually a rather scary ride:

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Lahore Fort is quite nice but not that spectacular. Most parts of it are in shambles and in dire need of restoration.

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An audience hall decorated with mirrors.

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This picture is being posted not to admire my (admittedly exuberant) beauty, but to demonstrate the staircase that was built wide enough for the regal dignitaries to ride it up on their elephants! Quite a funny design principle if you ask me.

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One of the world's largest mosques, just opposite the main entrance to the fortress:

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...which unfortunately means that one must walk around with no shoes, which I find very annoying and quite un-hygienic. It's an open space, with bird droppings and whathaveyou and then everyone walks around barefoot... Not my cup of tea.

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I then walked through the old city of Lahore with my new self-appointed guide, one of those people who just force themselves to be your "friends" expecting money at the end.

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Radioactive current flowing next to the streets of the old city:

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Now, the Lahore museum, *that* was something really worth visiting. Excellent specimens from all sorts of periods and civilisations:

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The "Starving Buddha", an intriguing representation of the oft-plumper-than-life prophet:

Starving Buddha

Another excellent marble specimen. I mused over whether I should post this, for fear of appearing like Steve Martin's shallower-than-life character in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels who famously said (and I quote) "Now, the statue of a naked woman, I can appreciate that". But, truth be told, it's simply a beautiful piece:

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I found this one very touching:

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Another beautiful piece (the extent of my cultural education on these things is reflected by the detailed descriptions I'm giving here)

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It was new year's eve that night (and a Thursday, which reputedly helps around here) so the musicians visited the roof of the Regale Internet Inn and gave a nice performance - unfortunately I did not capture any of the good parts because I got bored after a while and just went to my room to read.

The next morning I packed my bags, dusted my seat and rode to the border. And with that, I was out of Pakistan!

This was my complete itinerary for Pakistan:

OSM Pakistan COMPLETE

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 02:03 PM GMT
February 03, 2010 GMT
India - First day in Amritsar

One thing led to another and I'm now in the ridiculous position of having to catch up on a whole month of events in India... how am I ever going to do that?

Last time I had to do this (in Pakistan, catching up on the events of Iran and Pakistan in one go) I resorted to letting the pictures tell the story. I think this is the only way to remain sane and actually get the job done, so here goes.

I entered India on the 1st of January 2010, three and a half months into the journey. As usual, I had not researched the country I was about to visit, to have the purest, most spontaneous experience. I wanted to be as little preoccupied as possible about the countries I visited.

Right after crossing the land border between Pakistan and India I had a strong sense of accomplishment. I was there. The UK2India trip had reached its final destination, I had done it, there were to be no difficulties now. I was out of theocratic police states and spontaneous violence-ridden areas. No censorship, no machine guns, no mandatory routes. This was India, I was standing on the very tip of the iceberg and I couldn't wait to dig deeper.

But border crossing takes time and by the time I was in India proper it was noon. Lunchtime! I stopped at the first roadside restaurant I noticed, parked the bike and took a seat, savouring the moment and smiling to myself for just being there on that lovely, sunny day.

The bike attracted a lot of attention as usual (I have come to terms with the fact it's the bike, and not me, people are fascinated about) and a small crowd started gathering around it...

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The difference with the usual treatment in the other countries I visited (silent awe) is that people here were all too ready to jump on the bike for some pictures. Thankfully, they asked for permission before doing so, which I happily granted. I was in such a good mood at that point, with a little bit of diplomacy I might have even taken the lads for a spin.

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I had a tasty platter of rice with vegetables which looked the simplest thing on the menu but still had many spices and was very yummy indeed.

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A conversation ensued with one of the more daring patrons and I was told that "I must" go see the border ceremony later on that evening. I must have been in really good spirits because I would not usually backtrack without a very good reason and the border was already 20K behind me, but I thought "what the heck, when will I ever be here again?" - so I went.

The ceremony itself is like a football match, but instead of sheer hooliganism you get a healthy (over)dose of nationalism, showing off, flag-waving, our-penises-are-longer-than-yours routines etc. All very adult and civilised stuff that I really enjoyed. After being pushed, squashed and trod on on our way to the "stage" right next to the border line

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I chose a spot, trying to optimise for least possible constant pressure (read: shoving) from all directions.

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Don't you love it when the young generation is corrupted into nationalism from early on?

Anyway, to stay sane I focused on this guy that looked so much like Eddie Murphy it was actually funny seeing him play the all-too-serious border guard.

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At this point, I had a blatant demonstration of the difference between a "tourist" and a "traveler". I feel vaguely insulted when people call me a "tourist" in this trip, and here is why.

This is how the tourists experience the ceremony:

tourists

Removed from the real event, treated specially, standing out like sore thumbs, just quickly showing up, taking plenty of pictures with camera equipment worth ridiculous amounts of money and then disappearing in a minivan driven by a local.

On the other hand the traveler (yes, I am blatantly beating my own drum here) is *IN* the events. Tries to become part of the real deal, to experience this brave new world to the fullest, truest extent.

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The traveler also knows how to act diplomatically because he/she inevitably has to deal with all social/cultural differences. Being blatantly shoved around by people for more than an hour is a challenge for someone who does not enjoy sardinisation. One must learn to adapt quickly to the utter lack of any respect for your personal space. After having people use me as a platform to just jump higher to see the ceremony better, I noticed this and realised it was good to be stoically diplomatic and just smile about the whole thing.

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Not my cup of tea by any stretch of this imagination, but luckily entering India had automatically given me an excellent mood and I was able to deal with the boneheadedness blended with blind nationalism and hooliganism I was witnessing all around me.

Some more lunacy:

Does wonders for love and understanding between people of different cultures, that!

After this madness was over I was very relieved to get the hell out of there... and onto Amritsar, which would be my first stop in India and is also the main pilgrimage site for the Sikhs. When I got to the Golden Temple it was already dark and quite chaotic - I had heard one can stay in the temple grounds but it took me more than an hour to locate the exact spot (which is right opposite the rear walkway to the temple, very close to an Internet cafe)

This is the closest I got to the temple itself.

Golden Temple, holy site of Sikhs, Amritsar, India

Lovely, innit? That was a safe distance. I'm not too keen on temples, especially when one has to walk barefoot on dirty marble on a cold evening along with a few thousands kneeling and praying along the way. That's a bit too much religion, lack of hygiene and inconvenience at the same time. Sorry, but no.

So interestingly the people running the show there appear to be offering free meals to everyone (even though I did not try - I couldn't find where anything was and it was very chaotic and overcrowded around the temple, no signs in English etc), which meant that this impressively fast, massive and noisy washing gig was going on all the time:

After being beckoned by a long-bearded fellow, asking "are you sure?" and being beckoned again, I rode the bike along with a sea of people through a narrow passageway that led me to a large atrium where people were sleeping on blankets on the floor, while others were talking, eating, going to the communal bathrooms (very posh, quite clean, very impressive) and there was generally a lot of hustle and bustle. Turns out the bearded fellow was some sort of temple guard and he commanded some authority around there, so when he pointed at a corner of the atrium where I could park my bike and started gently kicking people to get them to stand up so that I could ride over their sleeping grounds, all I had to do was feel guilty, apologise to them in a foreign language and comply as quickly and discreetly as possible. I parked the bike, got a couple of basics I would need for the dorm and went in.

The foreigners dormitory had beds (good, not sleeping on the ground), lockers (good, no need to leave your stuff lying around) and pretty much nothing else. Everyone was using their own sleeping bags on the beds and we had to walk over the atrium to go to the loo or wash. But it was free of charge and it was a sanctuary of peace and quiet in a sea of people "out there". There was a temple guard by the door to the foreigners dorm that didn't allow anyone not looking foreign/rich enough to enter.

So I dumped my stuff, earmarked a bed for later and went out to explore Amritsar on foot. No change of clothes of course - I was still wearing riding boots, trousers etc. It was too much of a hassle to take out my "civilian" clothing (as it would attract only more attention to the bike) and anyway it was cold enough to make walking around in bike gear comfortable. Walking past a parking lot with the world's supply of motorcycles (all pretty much identical 125-200cc models) I noticed this funny piece of advice on the wall (which, surprisingly, was also in English):

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Then, being the hardened adventurer that I am, I spotted this shop and completely descended upon it... chocolate ice-cream with hot chocolate and then some Ritter Sport chocolates for the way home.

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I was very hungry as I hadn't had anything to eat since that rice for lunch and Amritsar was too chaotic for me to muster the strength to find food. So I just dosed up on chocolate, grabbed a couple of biscuit packs from a shop in the back streets around the temple (that were impressively marked on my GPS map - wow!) and went back to the temple compound.

This is the atrium where most people slept. Can you spot the bike?

where pilgrims sleep

...and this is the vigilant guard that held the foreigners' fortress:

guarding the foreigners

I read a few pages of Eat, Pray, Love before we agreed with everyone else in the dorm to switch the lights off.

A bit too many people for my first day in India. If this is the norm around here, I'm going to be in trouble. Tomorrow I'll make my way to Delhi. Goodnight!

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 06:27 AM GMT
India - Delhi and the road south

I woke up in Amritsar all too eager to leave. This was too wild, too blindly religious, too crowded, too noisy, too chaotic for me. So I took the road to Delhi... (you at the back sniggering, I know who you are!)

The fog made finding the National Highway a wee difficult, but the GPS and a bit of asking around did the job. The going was tough, visibility was less than 30 meters and everyone and their dog had their hazard lights on. I was riding in a cloud and noticed my clothes getting gradually wet, even though there was no rain. It was also cold enough to force me to change back to winter gloves.

fog on the way to Delhi

With this and that I got to Delhi around 17:00. I had no guidebook of India, as Ping-Yi was bringing that with her in a few days - I had left the book behind as I didn't want to deal with its weight and volume for 4 months before I got the chance to use it for the first time.

This made finding a place to stay, well, interesting... Let's see: Chaotic huge city - check. In India - check. Dangerous traffic coming at you from all directions - check. Fog that makes reading signs nigh impossible - check. Dirt in the air that engulfs your eyes, ears, mouth, creates a dirty film on your helmet visor, reducing visibility even further - check. Total lack of a grid system or any discernible city or road structure - check. Bitter cold - check. The night coming in - check. Tiredness from being on the road for the entire day - check.

Under these lovely conditions I resorted to the solace of my GPS and the information I had pre-loaded to it - a file with campsites and hotels around the world provided by an excellent chap called Ulrich at the HorizonsUnlimited.com bulletin board.

Luckily, there was a camping icon somewhere nearby, so I spent only an hour finding it - it was outside Delhi, somewhere in the bush, and it was already dark, and there were no signs, and the people I asked didn't speak English, and the campsite itself had no lights and no guests and no signs and it was deserted and hidden behind a huge solid gate (and actually it wasn't a campsite per se - rather a plantation of sorts where the owner allowed people to camp), so finding it was a challenge.

But anyway, I got there, the minders rang their boss (who could speak English) on the phone, I had a look around, established there was no convenient parking, no shower and no hot water, was told that the price was 500 Rupees (which is pure extortion based on the assumption that the tourist, having reached that godforsaken place has no way out), tried to negotiate for a better price, got told "To camp on my land, this is what you pay. You can camp anywhere else for free", decided I was not desperate enough to take this kind of an attitude and left.

30K and a lot of dirty traffic, dangerous fog and darkness later, I returned to downtown Delhi, found the main bazaar area and located another GPS waypoint for a hotel. That was a "proper" hotel which was expensive (double of the camping cost) and would require me to park the bike on a busy road, with no protection whatsoever. The area was as dodgy as they come and there was no way I was leaving the Strom there... To cut a long story short, I negotiated with 4 different hotels around that area before I found one that was half-decent, on a side-street (i.e. not too many people fiddling with the bike), at least had a sidewalk I could park on (improving the chances the bike wouldn't be hit by another vehicle), and was willing to negotiate on the price. By now I had been in Delhi and going around in circles nonstop for five hours. I was tired. In a fluke of negotiation the hotel manager told me to piss off and he would only do a better price if I pre-paid for 4 nights, while for one night the price was 1200Rs. This was after we were discussing 800Rs per night... I couldn't take it any longer, cursed (silently), coughed up, parked the bike as best as I could and collapsed in one of the rooms of the ripoff USA Hotel.

The luxury of having a little bit of sidewalk to park on: (for the purists among us, no, it was not usable by pedestrians anyway)

outside the ripoff USA hotel, Delhi

It's disgusting how some people will take advantage of you when you're in need. Last night it was after 10 and I was visibly tired, so they managed to rip me off. In the morning the day-shift manager was all smiles and offered me "a better price" for an "extended stay" and said that he "didn't want to lose the customer". As insulted as it gets before I open my mouth and start being real unpleasant to people who probably don't deserve it, I packed up as fast as possible and left.

After a good night's kip, with daylight and no fog, I located a far better hotel for A THIRD of the price I paid last night within the hour. But the damage had been done and I already felt appalled by last night's experience. I don't want to be the tourist that is antagonistic with everyone, and takes for granted that everyone is out to take advantage of him/her as much as possible. I like to travel with optimism and a smile. But the first night in Delhi killed that and made me count the days until Ping-Yi would fly in and I would be able to get out of that city.

I spent the next couple of days exploring the central bazaar area, writing the blog posts for Pakistan and reading my book.

Central bazaar of Delhi, India

Finally the day came for Ping-Yi to fly in. Tellingly, on my way to the airport I was hit from behind by an ancient cab. Not bothering with a proper intersection, the traffic police had created a U-turn that most traffic going to the domestic airport had to take. As I was turning, I committed the sin of stopping to LOOK before entering a new highway lane, and BANG - the cab behind me hit me. After I checked there was no serious damage (the rear fender is plastic & thus flexible and the pannier that was hit was magically not damaged), I told off the idiot in the taxi who proceeded to shower me with unintelligible curses of the "move out of my way you little insect" kind.

Luckily Ping-Yi got there safely and was still willing to speak to me after waiting for an hour and a half to be picked up from the airport (even the Grand Navigator gets temporarily misplaced occasionally). We spent a couple of days in Delhi, visited the Red Fort where funnily enough people are not allowed to spit, unlike everywhere else in India.

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In case you think the artist is being a little too generous with the size of the spit depiction, allow me to inform you that this is not the case. Indians seem to enjoy chewing coloured tobacco (or something like that) and spitting it all over the place. It appears to be a very macho gesture because people do it with pride. Every day I see people open their car doors and spit, pull up their helmets and spit, walk on the road and spit, talk on the phone and spit, and it's always a disgustingly impressive quantity of stuff that comes out. There seems to be a campaign to educate people that this spitting business is not the best public health habit (especially factoring in that many people walk barefoot on the streets and most in homes and some offices). All I can say is good luck to the campaign.

We also visited a famous (for some reason) mosque close to the Red Fort, but by the time we got there it was dark and the representative of the inferior species (female) accompanying me was not welcome, so we just left.

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I came to India thinking that this is the country of religious freedom and tolerance. It bothered me that in cases like the above religious freedom translates to discrimination against women. I can't see the place for such backward customs in a modern free society.

We also used the quite young Delhi metro system, which is impressive in its cleanliness, efficiency and organisation. I mean... people queuing like that? In India?

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That, I did not expect. Of course it all breaks down when it comes to reason about how many human bodies can physically fit in the train itself, with the conductors pushing bodies like lifeless sacks in the already jampacked train. When you can feel the lung movement on every breath of your co-travelers, you know it's tight.

We pondered a bit more on the whole issue of sex/beauty symbols (Q: Why use a white man to sell underwear to Indians? A: because the target market is tourists, silly) and the next day got out of dirty, noisy Delhi.

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We hit highway 8, riding south towards Jaipur. The first 30K out of Delhi were a nightmare. Trucks everywhere, jammed, suicidal overtaking, works on the road, muddy diversions, lawless traffic, lots of anxiety, lots of tiredness, cold... I remember thinking "If this doesn't change soon, we're never getting anywhere". After an hour of that travesty we needed a rest break.

Luckily after a couple more hours the situation improved dramatically and riding on the highway became relatively sane. Because of the endless trucks and intersections (and animals crossing the road and people and and and...) our pace was as slow as 50K/hour, but at least we were not afraid for our lives all the time.

This has now been burned into my brain. On the back of every truck in India, one sees this All-Your-Base-Are-Belong-To-Us-type message:

Horn OK Please truck

By sunset we got to Pushkar. We were exhausted. We had ridden about 350K that day. Turns out it's unrealistic to aim for anything more for a single day, even when using National Highways.

Cow in Pushkar ruthlessly going shopping:

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Pushkar might have been nice once, with the lake and without the tourist sprawl, but now it's just filled with annoying touts and the lake is dry.

The next morning we spent a few hours relaxing on the lovely, deserted terrace of our hotel. The original plan was to just have breakfast and go, but somehow we started chatting, and we were alone, and the sounds of Pushkar could hardly reach us, and the monkeys were jumping all over the place from building to building...

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...occasionally posing for pictures as well...

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...so we got out of Pushkar late. Really late. So late in fact that on our way out of town we stopped for lunch in Ajmer, and had the mother of all garlic breads:

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Taking the National Highway 8 south towards Udaipur turned out to be a challenge. Roadworks cut the obvious entry to the highway and there were no signs. Within 5'' of our confusing encounter with what was effectively a dead-end, two guys on a motorcycle beckoned us to follow them. Turns out the dirt track breaking to the left was the official "diversion" - it's just that nobody had bothered putting up a sign.

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The situation got a bit low and a bit sandy, which freaks me out on such a heavy bike. Luckily the TKCs did their job and kept the rubber side down:

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With a little bit of ducking we managed to squeeze through.

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Taking the NH8, we were inundated by trucks, trucks and more trucks. With no extra room on the road to overtake, it took all of the Strom's torque to make a little bit of progress, grudgingly overtaking one truck after the other, turning the ride to a constant fight with seconds and a nerve-wrecking, way too long game of "Chicken".

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At least there was some entertainment value in all this - the types of vehicles one meets on an Indian highway are not to be found anywhere in Europe (anywhere I've been at least) - like this completely cabriolet truck:

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(click on the image & then use the "All sizes" button above the image to see a larger size version)

After fending off an attempt to rip us off at a roadside hotel, we resigned to the fact we would not find any decent hotel that night. We were lucky enough to locate a nice camping spot instead, a couple of Ks away from the NH8 on a dirt road, which worked wonders. We lied in the tent looking through the mosquito net at the stars of a crystal-clear sky and enjoyed the blissful peace & quiet. Every five minutes I was thinking "now they'll come". "OK, now". "OK, can't be long now..." - for the inevitable visitors who would have heard/spotted us riding there. But no, the only transient visit we got was by a lad next morning who appeared to be going to work. Amazing!

The only annoyance was that something we had had, had (*) began upsetting our stomachs, so we too became cases of "Delhi belly" - albeit after leaving Delhi.

(*) 3 "had"s in a row - you saw this here first!

The next day we did some serious riding, following NH8, going through many towns...

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...until, in the afternoon, we finally reached Udaipur.

Udaipur, Rajasthan

The city, lake, buildings and location are all quite pretty, but too touristy for me. I begin getting annoyed by the touts, courting us with a loud "hello my friend" everywhere we went or even as we walked down the street. This whole "tourism development" business is getting on my nerves. I don't feel we see true India, but rather that we fall from one tourist trap to another. This is not how I want to travel and I remember despairing over the possibility that all significant tourist attractions will be like that.

We spent the next day exploring Udaipur and (unsuccessfully) trying to give our stomachs a break.

Woman doing her washing in one of Udaipur's lakes.

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The lake & the palace. The main attractions of Udaipur.

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These guys can do just about anything... (and I'm sure they have hundreds of swimming pool maintenance contracts in Udaipur). All I can say is WTF...

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Leaving Udaipur, we pondered once more about the poor vehicles that are being constantly abused, safety regulations, the value of human life and the things necessity forces people to do in India.

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With that, we were out of the state of Rajasthan and into Gujarat.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 09:16 AM GMT
February 05, 2010 GMT
India - Gujarat

Entering Gujarat from the NE one tends to hit its biggest city, Ahmedabad. We didn't want to stay in a city, so we looked in the guide book for alternatives. It mentioned a Bird Sanctuary not too far from there. Now that was a good idea indeed, so we headed to Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary on the spot.

Very friendly villagers on the way to Nal Sarovar - some people just love having their picture taken:

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It doesn't take much to be happy on a trip like this... just a shortage of immediate annoyances. This photo would be titled "Happiness on the way to Nal Sarovar" and simply captures a moment of lovely weather, riding through tiny villages on a back road with no traffic, surrounded by farming fields and beautiful nature. We're healthy, we're together, what more can we ask for?

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The sun setting over Nal Sarovar.
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We located the hotel right next to the Bird Sanctuary and noticing there was plenty of space around the bungalows, we asked if it was ok to camp. Turns out it was, so we started pitching our tent. Easier said than done... for some reason the tent attracted even more amazement and bewilderment than the bike itself. We pitched it with 10 people standing right next to us, being in the way, looking at our every movement... we had to politely get back our poles and pegs from their examining hands to actually pitch the thing. When we did, we reached an impasse: We needed to start putting stuff in the tent and to take out all the bike gear (as it was quite hot). But with everyone there just waiting around, staring at us, waiting in mild amusement for our next move, how was this going to happen?

The penny dropped when a young woman from the audience built up the audacity to unzip the tent's flier WITHOUT ASKING US and putting her head to take a good look inside. What do you mean "private space"? I was extremely offended by this, uttered a barely controlled "excuse ME!" while grabbing the zip from her hand and doing it back up, and then realised one of us would need to stand guard while the other would be in the tent sorting the stuff out. Unbelievable, isn't it?

Our tent in its most spaceship-y shot, trying to explain why it attracted so much attention from the hotel patrons.

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After sorting everything out (and ensuring there were no other assaults on our tent), we went for a short walk through some fields around the tourist complex, cooked some dinner and collapsed in our sleeping bags.

The next morning it became evident that it was way too hot to spend the day comfortably in the tent. So we packed up and moved into one of the bungalows. Because our stomachs still weren't settled, we continued the ritual of cooking on the petrol stove. Opening our last can of tuna was a disappointment - I didn't carry it all the way from Pakistan to figure out NOW in a time of need that I was being ripped off! Argh!

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We had to remain vigilant throughout because our bungalow door sported a special cat hole, which meant the minute you relaxed and looked out the window the cat would bolt in and rummage through the foodstuff.

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The quick and dirty solution was to put my boots right there, so that the cat would at least have to make some noise which would alert us to the perimeter breach.

Next day I was feeling healthy enough to hazard a much needed oil change for the bike. Let's see, last time I changed engine oil would have been in er... Van, Turkey, which meant this batch had been used for... oh about 9,000K. Just 50% more of what the manufacturer suggests. Oh well, what do those Japanese know about motorcycles anyway?

So I had bought some half-decent (non synthetic) oil in Pakistan and had been carrying it around in typical Alex fashion for about 3 weeks now. Not as bad as the back tyre that I carried from Van, Turkey all the way to Islamabad, Pakistan to end up selling it to Simon, two months and a few thousand kilometers later. Oh well.

I knew I needed to remove the engine guard to get to the bolt that allows the engine oil to drain, so this is what I did first. I took out my tools and in the most manly imaginable fashion undid the 4 screws that held the engine guard and just like that, removed it. I was surprised at how easy it was, since I take for granted that I'm useless when it comes to doing anything with my hands.

vstrom engine guard at nal sarovar highlighted

Next question was "where do we dump the used oil?". Engine oil is extremely pollutant and hazardous to the underground waterways etc - a single drop of this thing pollutes a silly quantity of fresh water. Asking around resulted in blank stares. I tried the local petrol station, no oil changing facility there. People's attitude was "well, we just dump it in that field there".

On my trip out of the hotel complex my mission was two-fold: Besides finding a non-hazardous way of disposing of the old oil, we were also running out of supplies, so I had to find some rice and any vegetables I could get my hands on. On my way back from the petrol station I asked some people that appeared to be just chatting, half-blocking the road, about where I could find food. Their English was limited (and my Gujarati is notoriously poor), so one of them rang someone on the phone, who said "follow the man with the phone, he will guide you to a food shop". Turns out the man with the phone was the local chief, something like a super-mayor for the municipality. His son, who could speak English, soon joined us on his motorcycle. He took me to a stall by the lake that had cauliflower, tomatoes, onion, rice, nuts and even some chocolate, all of which I snatched. He then took me to an old man with a wreck of a stall on the side of another intersection next to the hotel who was willing to collect my engine oil and reuse it (sell it, perhaps). I did the oil change on the spot under the watchful stares of about 20 people and felt a little bit (I suppose) like Bob the Builder.

After this ultra-successful trip I got back to the hotel, picked up Ping-Yi and met Kayaam again (the leader's son who had helped me) and a friend of his. All four of us went to the lake and took the standard tour on a small raft that was being pushed with a stick (sorry for generic terms) by our trusty guide.

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Even though the afternoon is not the best time to see birds, it was still lovely.

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This was a procession of cows apparently going for a swim... no idea what they were doing in there. Crazy moos!

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After a while we reached terra firma once more, on a different shore of the lake:

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There we walked a little bit, stretched our legs, saw huge flocks of birds resting and respectfully did not approach them in order not to upset them. Unfortunately my camera's zoom capabilities are quite limited, so no pictures worth posting from that distance... (unless you enjoy pictures of vast plains with many tiny black dots on them)

Our guide, whom I quite liked.

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On our way back the peacefulness of the lake took us over and we barely talked, just allowing ourselves to take in all this peace and quiet...

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The beach community next to the lake, and some impressive birds.

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Now THIS would be useful all over the country... but it was only to be found in the very well built and organised information centre of the sanctuary. Highly recommended to visit if you're ever in the area. Kayaam kindly arranged for it to be unlocked so that we could have a look (the Information Centre, not the "spitoon"), since on weekdays it's usually shut.

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Local women going about their chores in colourful outfits.

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One thing led to another and soon enough we received a dinner invitation by Kayaam to join his family for dinner that evening. We gladly accepted and indeed had a lovely time. This is a memento right before we left their place, after having had a good dinner and a chat, seen family pictures, talked about our lives and laughed a lot. Good people!

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Kayaam had also tipped us about the nation-wide kite festival that was apparently climaxing the following day. He said it would be worth going to Ahmedabad to see it, as there would be thousands of kites in the air.

We complied! That's the beauty of tramping around on a bike, one can go wherever, whenever. So we zipped over to Ahmedabad the next day, where we were repeatedly harassed by overenthusiastic youngsters approaching us and wishing to speak to us IN TRANSIT or (even better) were trying to cut us off, to force us to stop so we could have a chat.

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Disappointed with the kite festival (nothing impressive to see, really), we flipped through the guide book and spotted a "Deer Park" a few Ks out of the city. The book also said it had a campsite! Now that sounded promising!

So we made our way out of Ahmedabad north towards Gandhinagar. A shot on the way there that depicts the harsh reality of Indian roads. Anything can be found in your path...

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As soon as we entered the park we were at a loss about what to do, as of course there were no signs in English, and the guy at the ticket counter also couldn't speak much English and couldn't give any useful information.

So I approached a group of people that seemed to be there with some sort of an exhibition stand, figuring they would have information about the park... ten minutes later we were being fed by what turned out to be a group of nature lovers who were running a bird rescue rally on the very day most people were busy flying kites that (with their strings) injured tens of birds around the city.

I tried to get them to sit down and have their meal (by example), but blatantly failed.

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After meeting the Bird Rescue team we had a stroll around the park. It was a really well done place. It started with a funny mirror hall to get people laughing and thus relaxed...

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...then offered a few interesting crocodile pits:

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(note - this was the first time I see live crocs!)

It further offers an endless supply of OK bricks, whatever these are. Regardless, they make great conversation killers when one is tempted to hold up a brick instead of verbally saying "OK".

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By the time we were done exploring the park, the bird rescue team got another phone call about an injured bird that had been collected somewhere nearby, so we jumped in the car with two rescuers and hit the road.

This is what most trees looked like in the villages those days. With all those strings tearing through the skies, one can imagine how many birds were injured/killed mid-air.

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Alok and Ping-Yi, after having picked up a patient with the BirdRescueMobile (okay okay it's not as crisp as "Batmobile", but there you have it)

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Back at the makeshift clinic in the park, providing first aid to the injured bird.

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After a couple of hours of hanging around while everyone else was doing some real work, we were lucky enough to get a special sighting of one of the leopards of the park.

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Again, a first for me. A leopard! Whoa. What a majestic animal. Note that this particular one has been in captivity since birth, doesn't get enough exercise and is much fatter than the wild ones. Which gave people a good chuckle when I asked "is she pregnant?", only to get the retort "well, that would make it the first pregnant MALE leopard..."

That evening we were invited to stay over at Chaitanya and Anjana's place (the organisers of the Bird Rescue day), which we very gladly did. We had some food and plenty of good discussion, even though we were all exhausted. It had been a very full day!

Next morning it was time to say goodbye. After some farewell shots we hit the road again.

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On our way out of Ahmedabad Ping-Yi noticed a "hyper-market" and we thought "could it be?". Well, it could, and it was. It was a proper huge grocery store with any *vegetarian* foodstuff we could want. Fruit, vegetables, bread (unheard of!), rice, pasta... oh bliss! We had been forced to do our shopping from off-the-road stalls and street vendors that usually had 3 cabbages, all looking battered and miserably small, and now we were back in foodland! Our shopping frenzy was only moderated by how much we could carry on the bike. But we were happy. Oh, so happy to finally have proper supplies to cook with!

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Leaving that food market was the first (and so far only) time on the trip that I extended the tank bag to its full-open configuration, simply because there was no other space on the bike. We had even stuffed (egg-free) cookies in our pockets!

Our destination for the day was Jamnagar, since our rough idea was to reach the coast, Jamnagar was on the way and at the right distance, and Chaitanya had a friend there who would be willing to show us around. He had called in advance and given us his friend's phone number, to be contacted when we were approaching. The royal treatment I tell you!

So we followed the highway which took us through various towns with the usual anarchic traffic...

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On the way to Jamnagar, good shot of the typical use of a motorcycle in India. As always, overloaded and completely unprotected...

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On reaching Jamnagar we met Anil, Chaitanya's friend, who kindly located us with his motorcycle and led us to a hotel near his home. He checked us in, we made dinner arrangements and met later in the evening.

During dinner with Anil's family I mentioned something Chaitanya had told me, that one of his friends in Jamnagar was a keen star-gazer, and I asked Anil if he was the one. He said no, but he could arrange something for later. Not thinking too much about it, I said "sure, would love to" and carried on with the meal.

Turns out Anil is not a star-gazer. He isn't even a friend of Chaitanya in Gandhinagar. But because Chaitanya's friend had not been in town to help us, he had passed us along to Anil, who was basically receiving, helping and entertaining the whims of two complete strangers! Talk about hospitality...

He nevertheless made a few phonecalls and sure enough, a star-gazer with a portable telescope was found, and even though the man had the flu, he packed his telescope and came over so that we could see the stars.

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When this whole thing became clear to me, I was rather embarrassed I had even mentioned the star-gazer. But this is how things happen on this trip. I'm constantly surprised by the kindness of people and the lengths they will go to make me (us) feel at home. Truly impressive.

When we were done star-gazing (which I was doing for the first time ever) Anil took us for a drive with his car around the city. The lake was beautiful at night:

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For the next day we had arranged to go for yoga and then a walk around the lake, where birds gather in the early morning. But I had a rough night, my stomach giving me grief, so I didn't feel like going anywhere at 6am. I had to sleep. Ping-Yi did go and capture some beautiful pictures of the birds:

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This is a shot outside the hotel. An idea of the commotion the simple act of parking the bike created in Jamnagar. Anil (foreground) seems to be enjoying it!

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Anil also thought local media would be interested in this trip, so he made a few phonecalls and sure enough, a reporter was there within the hour. He took some footage of the bike and us two talking to the camera, answering the very important questions that people like us are born to answer.

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Making sure we weren't picking our noses in front of the camera:

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Leaving Jamnagar the next day, we realised we hadn't been online in ages, and sort of needed to check on a few things... so we tried to locate an Internet cafe of sorts in the small towns west of Jamnagar, on the way to the coast, but after being sent from one hotel to another and one non-working "Internet point" to the next, all we had managed to find was some sort of (funeral?) procession:

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We also met the cow with the most intimidating look in India. I stopped the bike to take a look at it, because even from a distance that animal looked eeeeveeel! (the fact that it was taking our lane and not budging was completely normal by that point)

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This is a quite representative clip of what riding a National Highway in India really is like. As you're watching it, imagine riding 300km of this (sure, with many isolated stretches) in a day.

We then reached Dwarka and the coast. I realised I could see the sea for the first time since Antalya, Turkey, 3 months back!

We visited (rather perchance) a beautiful temple dedicated to the wife of Krishna. It was a peaceful place slightly out of Dwarka's centre. We removed our shoes and walked around the temple, taking pictures, only to be told very politely after a few minutes that pictures were not allowed. Good thing we didn't even try stepping into the temple.

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We left Dwarka swiftly and headed south. An Indian biker we had met in Nal Sarovar had tipped us to the existence of a nice beach close to Bhogat (south of Dwarka) and that was exactly what we were looking for now... There was no obvious entry, and the highway was far from the sea (we couldn't even see it!), but we took a turn in a sandy dirt road and after more than 2K of slow and bumpy riding (that sometimes forced us both to stand on the pegs), we hit the beach!

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Exuberant that we actually found the beach, we enjoyed the lovely sunset for a few minutes before starting to unpack, pitch the tent etc.

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This is one of those moments that I look at the bike and just slowly shake my head with a content smile on my face, doing a Charlie Randall impression. I like my bike. It's a good bike. It takes me places. Even when they're unmapped sandy tracks in India, with two of us and a full load on it. It's a damn good bike.

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After dinner and some amateur star-gazing (with minimal light pollution nearby, the sky was a joy to behold) we hit the sleeping bags. It was a totally silent night... no road or village nearby, no wind, no animals. Bliss.

The next morning I woke up early, rejoiced once more at how lucky I was to be there, took a couple of shots of our improvised camping site and then proceeded to drag Ping-Yi out of the tent.

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The early morning beach was just too good to miss.

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Clean, unspoiled sand, packed with little treasures.

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Our spirits were really high, so we shot this photo to send to all of our friends in Gujarat who had made this possible. Without you, we wouldn't have been there. Thank you!

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The sun was seriously out now and the temperature was climbing rapidly. We had lunch, packed and took the coastal road south.

Art of the road...

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As we were slowly making our way south, the landscape changed,becoming more tropical. I expected to see something like this in South India, not in Gujarat! A very welcome surprise.

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Camel-powered carts used for local transportation. These must be the Mercedes of carts, considering others are powered by oxen (or, in Pakistan, small donkeys and horses).

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Another sample of road safety and value of human life versus necessity and/or practicality. Can you imagine what will happen if a tyre of that pickup truck blows out?

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Turning away from the coast, taking the road to the mountain and to Sasan Gir National Park.

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Reaching Sasan, we spent the night in a home-stay: Basically someone who was renting out rooms of his house to visitors. I was reluctant at first, but it worked out just fine. Much better facilities than a hotel and a much warmer environment, since we got to hang out with the family.

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The next day we went on a "safari" in the national park, hoping to spot some of the last remaining Asiatic lions ("and annoy them a bit more...", I kept thinking to myself). We got up at 05:30, hopped in a 4x4 and bobbled along for more than 6 hours around the park and the villages in and around it.

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We visited some free-range crocodiles:

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...and held conversations to the effect of:

ME: Why don't we go closer?
REASONABLE GUY: Because crocodiles can run as fast as 30km/h.
ME: (thinking hard) Well that's not THAT fast!
R.G: Six times your normal walking pace... wanna have a go?
ME: *grumble*

The ride in the 4x4 was an experience excruciating to such a degree that when our guide got a phonecall with the whereabouts of some lions and we did go and briefly see them, we were too tired to be impressed:

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To see the lions we had to walk on a railway bridge. I love this stuff:

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Back at the house, we caught a few Z's (i.e. slept like logs) and then got up for the strenuous task of... cooking dinner under observation!

Blatantly, these people gathered only when we started cooking. It had been a peaceful yard before we emerged.

One of the guys we met in the village told us in a conspiratory voice that he could take us leopard spotting that night. We had no idea what that entailed, but he seemed reasonably reliable and we agreed. No money involved, this would be on a friendly basis. So around midnight we met, walked across the village, descended into the riverbed and sat there, waiting for the leopards to come. I remember thinking at the time "this isn't such a brilliant idea, is it?", realising that we were completely vulnerable to an animal that could smell us from hundreds of meters away, while for us to see it in pitch black, the leopard would need to be brushing its whiskers against our face. I somehow didn't look forward to that happening, and was relieved to go, without seeing anything, an hour later. Instead of leopards we visited the cows in the dude's yard. Peaceful animals, they were even slightly frightened at our arrival in the dead of the night. I love moos.

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Next morning, it was time to leave Sasan and head back towards Ahmedabad. Ping-Yi's flight was leaving in less than 48 hours and we had some 400Ks to cover.

We shot an educational video on ways to solve pipe blockage problems once and for all:

...and were off!

The road back NE took us through Junagadh, where during a rest stop we made the acquaintance of an interesting chap who was looking at us as if we dropped from the sky:

Looking at spaceman in Junagadh

While others were staring, we admired what seemed to be a mosque: (now I know it's part of a mausoleum):

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We saw even more dangerously loaded vehicles on the road, but remained unimpressed, by that time used to the sightings of Indian roads:

Overloaded Enfield

Reaching Rajkot by noon, we had a quick cup of chai with Anil, had a chat with some friends of his about the trip etc, went to the bathroom and (a mere whole hour later) were on our way.

This is when it all went down. Leaving Rajkot on the NH8. Right mellow bend of a dual carriageway, the road relatively empty, us on the fast lane doing 70km/h, when I saw him. An idiot having just squeezed his bike through an opening in the curb that allowed him to come into our direction of traffic. He was holding the bike perfectly perpendicular to our axis of movement, blocking our entire lane, and seemed to be pondering how and if he should get on it or just push it to the side of the street. He was cutting through the entire width of the NH8 by pushing his bike. We were at the wrong spot at the wrong time. After a moment's hesitation (enough to defeat my own "Surely, he'll get out of there" optimism) I blasted the horn and hit the brakes. I still thought it was only a nuisance and the idiot just needed a good telling off. I hadn't realised we were in real danger.

Seeing us come right at him, lights blaring and all (which is unheard of in India - riding with your headlights on), he panicked. Instead of staying put or pulling back, he hopped on the bike. Seeing this, I thought "bollocks" and broke left, rapidly changing lanes. We would have avoided him if he hadn't managed to start his bike and move it just enough to crash into our right side as we were passing him from the left. Then the Strom shaked. Next think I know I'm on the road and I can see the Strom skidding behind me. Everything stopped pretty soon.

I take a moment, feel no pain, and try to get up. What happened? We spilled on the left side. Ah, grand. The bike is on my foot and I can't dislodge it. Fab! I try to look around for Ping-Yi but I can hardly move my body with my leg stuck like this. I shout out at her and get a response - in fact she's over my head quick enough and trying to pick up the bike along with a passer-by. Once they do, I get up. Foot feels a wee sore but works fine. We look over ourselves. Ping-Yi could have just walked out of a motorcycle store with brand new kit for all I know - her Hein Gericke suit doesn't have a single visible scratch! I look at the bike and see one pannier sheared off and on the road, another hanging from the strap cord I use to keep Ping-Yi's Ortlieb sack on the bike. Broken footpeg. Bent brake lever. Broken indicator light. Broken exhaust protector. Bumped exhaust pipe and engine guard. Broken pannier base.

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Basically, the panniers seem to have had it, but everything else is pretty damn minor! We're quite lucky, but at that moment don't realise it. I'm angry with myself for letting this happen. The guy who hit us has of course already fled the scene and there are about 100 people around us, making it impossible to locate all the bits and pieces that have broken off the bike.

Then I noticed I had landed on my left elbow, tearing the jacket. Strangely, I was more upset that after 13 years I tore my trusty jacket, than for all the bike's injuries combined.

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We ring Anil on the spot. We were with him 10 minutes ago... this is ridiculous. He gets there in what seems like less than five minutes. Helps us pick up the panniers and any bits and pieces of the bike lying on the road. He brings along a friend of his, who guides me with the bike (which is still rideable - engine, fuel system, transmission and front brake seem to work fine) back to his shop, while Anil loads all the debris and our luggage in his car, takes Ping-Yi with him and follows us.

At the shop, we stop for a breather. I'm still running on adrenaline, which must be very obvious because everyone is telling me to relax. Anil takes Ping-Yi to a friend's house to calm down, and myself and the two gentlemen who get on the case do damage assessment.

The panniers are in a bad way, but the advantage of metal is that it can be bashed back into shape, patched, welded, fixed an endless number of times (I'm now at "4" and would like to stop counting if I may).

The left pannier:

Left Zega pannier

...and the right one:

Right Zega pannier

The irony of it all is that when I opened the top case, the batteries were still charging. The same charger that has been disconnecting seemingly on every bump, has survived the crash and is happily charging away. Go figure.

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For my sheared off right footpeg the dudes get creative. They procure a footpeg from another bike (don't ask...) and then proceed to weld some metal pieces to it to make it fit the Vstrom:

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In the meantime Anil is back with supplies - he has brought food for me and chai for everyone!

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Himanshu Vadesa, owner of Ruby Auto Services, with the final work of art:

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Using simple tools and good thinking to straighten the pannier base:

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Once everything was done Himanshu said "let me take it for a test ride". My foot hurt quite a bit by that time so I nodded "sure", right after which he miscalculated the width of the bike and proceeded to rip out the rear fender of Anil's car with my right pannier. Ping-Yi and I were speechless, but everyone else just laughed about it. A-ma-zing...

Less than five hours later, we were ready to go. We had a plane to catch and didn't want to be defeatists and take the bus or something like that, so we hopped on the bike and (cautiously) left Rajkot for good.

This is the team of people that worked nonstop to make this happen, without accepting anything in return (well, I just had to talk to Himanshu's wife on the phone for a bit to get him off the hook for missing lunch that day). I don't know what we would have done without them.

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The road back to Gandhinagar was a long 250K stretch. It was the first time we were riding in the dark (not advisable at all on Indian highways - horrible glare, vehicles with no lights, no street lighting, unmarked obstacles etc etc), and especially after the accident it was a rather scary experience... the highlights of the route included the friendly petrol pump attendants who scrambled to bring us chairs to sit on, when we simply pulled over in front of their petrol station for a quick stretch of our legs, and bizarre signs like this:

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By 22:00 we were in Gandhinagar, taking refuge in Chaitanya's place, benefiting from his calming and healing powers. We hadn't broken anything, but the bruises were bad from the side the idiot with the bike hit us (our right side) and we hadn't given ourselves any rest that day. We went to bed late, slept for 3 hours and then woke up to take Ping-Yi to the airport.

She flew out at 6 in the morning. And with that, this bizarre, powerful, unexpected, beautiful chapter of the trip was closed.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 04:48 PM GMT
February 10, 2010 GMT
India - The Gandhinagar days

The day after Ping-Yi left, the day after the accident.

I decide it's time to slow down a little bit and recuperate. Not wanting to waste time I decide to clean the air filter of the bike, something I've been thinking about doing... oh since Turkey. I've always been chickening out because getting to the air filter on a Vstrom means removing the fuel tank and that to my mind was always major drama just waiting to happen (useless with my hands, remember?).

But, (a) my foot is sore so I can't move about or ride too much and (b) I have Chaitanya's family and friends to help if anything goes wrong. Better conditions could hardly be asked for. So I take out my mighty toolkit, open the manual and start unscrewing.

Soon enough the sun catches us and it gets very hot - remedial actions are spontaneous, shift and extremely effective:

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We continued our work in the shade. Bike parts were being simultaneously unscrewed by 3 overly enthusiastic helpers, which freaked me out at the time but turned out fine in the end. After a while (and diverting from the manual's procedures in favour of a more... creative way of doing things), the petrol tank was out!

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Now we had access to the air filter compartment, which in this photo can be seen shining because we cleaned it before opening:

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To properly clean the filter we had to blow-dry it, so Alok dropped in with his Bullet and gave me a lift to the nearest auto/moto cleaner:

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(I have to say I was surprised at how relatively clean the filter was after 20,000K without cleaning - other than a small colony of dead bees and some dust, it was fine)

In this photo I am answering the questions of a reporter friend of Alok about the trip etc, while one of my trusty helpers is transfusing the petrol back into the tank - we had had to remove some of it before, because some genious (me) had filled up with petrol after dropping off Ping-Yi at the airport. Try lifting a 22-litre petrol tank filled with fuel and you'll know what I mean.

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After all this was done, we thought "Right, clean air filter. Let's get it a bit dirty now." So Alok mischievously showed me to some off-road tracks nearby where he shot the following photos:

Profile Interview

Luckily it's dark enough so you can't tell I'm in walking trousers and hiking shoes... A disgrace!

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All this media give and take seems to have done something, because the next morning I woke up with this newspaper next to my head:

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I was assured by my friends that the text is all good stuff... it's in Gujarati, the native language of Gujarat. This means that even most Indians will be unable to read this. There goes my stab at world fame...

That day we visited the National Institute of Design with Alok. It was a Friday, so students were showcasing their creations.

NID display

After spending the day at the NID, I was taken out by my kind hosts for a "western type" meal - so we went to a pizza place! This is Anjana and Mahavir trying to convince me they're enjoying their pizza.

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The foot was still sore and bruising got interestingly worse - even though initially I had it on the small toe (would calling it "pinky" make this a less hardcore adventure blog?) only, by now I was getting a full set of purple toes - another first for me!

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Our next trip out of the house was to get some supplies and somehow fix the right footpeg - the custom-built creation from Rajkot needed a bit of reinforcing, and I needed a 24 key to re-tighten my left mirror that had been dangling since the spill. Mahavir led me to the right people and to my utter surprise and delight, both issues were sorted within minutes. To this day I suspect that Mahavir slipped the guy who fixed the peg something, but the person who had a 22/24 key for sale was very official about and did not accept my money. The least I could do was take a group picture. Look at those smiles!

Guy in yellow shirt donated a 22/24 key

(for the record, the official price of the tool was 30 Rupees, which would be less than 50 Euro-cents. If you've ever bought tools in Europe, you may now cry.)

Of course, there is something to be said about availability of quality equipment in India... one sees motorcycle helmets being sold on the corner of the street, no doubt for prices close to $5. This is why the difference in protective qualities screams out when you put even a low-end Arai and a typical Indian helmet side by side:

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I still don't think that makes the 100-fold price difference reasonable, but I'd rather be ripped off and have my head, than have more money for my funeral. Unfortunately, such good quality gear appears to be hard to find in India.

In the evening I was lucky enough to be invited to an excellent cultural event that introduced me to traditional Indian dancing. My small camera is not good enough to capture the sound of the percussionist leggings of the dancers, but you still get an idea...

The days rolled off easily in Gandhinagar...

Next morning we went to a Bird Race - a competition to observe and record the most bird species around town. I don't know the first thing about birds, so I learned a lot. What caught my eye more than any bird was this composition:

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I found these tree trunks quite amazing. The whole thing looks like plastic near the top - it's so smooth and shiny! But it's 100% natural.

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This documents a small feast we had with Alok and Mahavir on our way to some chores around town. It was a hot day and we had been in the car for an hour, and entering an air-conditioned bakery/patisserie was just paradise on Earth...

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This, on the other hand, is a fraudulent shot by Alok who would have you believe I had 4 chocolate cakes with ice-cream. You wouldn't believe such rubbish, dear reader, would you?

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Finally the bike ride day arrived. We had been talking about it ever since we met, two weeks ago, but something was always wrong. For this day we planned nothing else, hopped on the V and the Bullet and rode off, tracing a route Chaitanya had designed for us. Optimising for twisting roads and no traffic, we cruised through quiet villages, along grassy fields and refreshing rivers. It was a blast!

Mahavir and Alok during our first rest break next to a dam:

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Alok's object of desire: The Bullet.

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I wouldn't want to do that crossing in full monsoon period...

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Our first waypoint, a beautiful Hindu temple:

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Dizzying architecture to get to the water...

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View from inside the temple:

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Bats (!) inside the dome of the temple.

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For lunch we thought we'd stop at a decent-looking restaurant of a small nearby village. We parked the bikes, got immediately told by the restaurant manager to bring my bike right in front of the entrance where he could keep an eye on it, and this is what happened within minutes:

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I was fantasizing about a quiet, refreshing meal. It was not to be...

Villaggers swarming to check out the stranger

The situation got slightly out of hand when the local media appeared. They never even asked me if I minded, was in the mood, or anything like that. They just started firing away questions. I was not impressed with all this attention. At that point it occurred to me that I wouldn't find it surprising at all if famous people hated humanity. This being stared at, being harassed, having no private time or space, being looked at like a wild animal in a cage, is just not my cup of tea. And in India this phenomenon is much stronger than in any of the other countries I've been to.

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After making a successful getaway (I remember Alok shouting "Don't stop! Just go!" - jeez) we visited the beautiful Vadtal Vav (stepwell).

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The walls were magnificently decorated with stories from Hindu mythology:

Detail from Vadtal Vav, Gujarat

Deep in the earth, the place was cool so we spent some time there hiding from the burning sun.

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The whole trip turned out to be slightly longer than we had anticipated, incorporating some downtown shopping in Ahmedabad and visiting family members on our way back, but by 9pm we were off the saddle, with 350K on the clock and plenty of smiles. It was a good day.

Next day was India's Republic Day and Chaitanya and Anjana had a little surprise for me - they took me to a nearby village school they supported and we enjoyed all the celebrations of that special day with many special kids - kids whose lifeline and probably only chance to a better future was this very school.

I was asked to say a couple of words about the trip to the kids and their families that had gathered there to celebrate. I found it quite intimidating to stand before these people - what would a soft-foot like me have to say to them? I spurted out some words and Chaitanya translated. It would be easier to have a presentation in front of 15 grumpy CEOs.

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Students dancing in traditional dress.

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These are all the students of that village. Classes have to cater for the needs of different ages and levels simultaneously and the two teachers posted there are very creative. They also have a few computers, which I found surprising given the apparent poorness of the village. I was trying to come up with a meaningful way to contribute, so I've now sent them a few copies of Edubuntu, free educational software that I'm sure the teachers will make the best out of.

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Refuelling Chaitanya's LPG-powered car. The more environment-friendly alternative to petrol/diesel.

LPG refuelling

The next day it was so hot that camels dropped to the ground for a breather.

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...so I was very happy that we made a quick getaway (with Alok) from the horribly crowded award ceremony the local government was throwing that some friends had to go to, and took a drive in the quiet nearby villages instead.

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I was also exuberant about having a proper meal of pizza (in contrast to, err... NOTHING that the others had) in the aptly named USA Pizza. The funniest part was their bathroom which I had the joy of visiting only on our way out. This "toilet checklist" looks very professional, right?

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Time of check, signature of checker, everything is ticked... Too bad the floor was dirty, there was no light bulb, the toilet roll was nowhere to be found, I had to ask for some soap (which took 3 minutes to procure), and there was no waste bin.

It was time for me to move on. Gandhinagar had been relaxing, I had recuperated from the accident, relaxed with the daily midnight conversations we would have with Chaitanya and Mahavir, been delighted with the delicacies prepared by Anjana, done all work that had to be done on the bike, been involved as much as possible in the local community. My heart was warm from the love of a family and a community of friends that had taken me in and had allowed me to live with them, fully, the entire day, every day, right next to them.

Chaitanya & Anjana. May all travelers meet people of such quality wherever they go.

Chaitanya & Anjana

With a feeling of numbness and the-show-must-go-on determination, I packed my bags and left the safe haven of Gandhinagar. I was headed south, out of the state of Gujarat for good.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 06:13 AM GMT
February 12, 2010 GMT
India - The road to Mumbai

Leaving Gandhinagar for the south was frustrating. To begin with, I had not ridden in a few days and my face-your-death-around-every-corner skills were a bit rusty. I was too wound up and could not relax for a single moment on the bike. I was also not allowed to use the expressway that leaves Ahmedabad for Mumbai, being stopped at the toll booths and told "no two wheelers". I got pretty angry with this system, because nobody could give me a better "reason" than "government rules". As a consequence of these stupid rules I was being thrown into the lion pit, the busy national highway connecting Ahmedabad with the towns south. This reminded me of a presentation about Simon Milward I attended before starting this trip. I remember how he fought for the right of people to travel with motorcycles on all roads and remember thinking "what an odd thing to do - surely motorcycles, like all vehicles, can travel anywhere!" Well, not so. On this trip I had already been in three places (expressway connecting Tehran with the Caspian in Iran, M2 connecting Lahore and Islamabad in Pakistan, and this expressway leaving Ahmedabad south towards Mumbai) where my bike was not welcome.

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My only (partial) relief (although this is not the word I want to use, there must be a word for "that which makes swallowing a bitter pill slightly easier") was that this travesty lasted for 35Ks only. Then the expressway was over and we were all dumped in the same jungle that is NH8.

I had a very close call with an idiot in a car who decided to take a U-turn from the left-most lane, cutting through my path, to get to the opposite direction of the highway. (Remember India is a left-side driving country, like the UK) I barely missed him after braking, honking the horn and swerving and all, which left me with shaky legs and a very, very nasty mood.

On that very day I tweeted something to the effect of "I've had it with India". I can now understand why many travelers would exclaim "never again" or "I need to get out of here" when I would ask them about India. For all its beauties (and India does have a lot of them), traveling on the road by motorcycle is just too dangerous. Nobody respects road rules. Conventions on the road are different than in the West, optimising for throughput rather than protection of human life.

After that near-death event I was too afraid to enjoy anything. The rest of the ride was just cautious, anxious, with me thinking "why dammit, why does it have to be this way?" all the time. It's a shame, you know? I was looking forward to coming to India, it was to be the crown jewel of this trip, and now there I was, not even comfortable being on the bike for fear of my life. A sad state of affairs.

Anyway. A few Ks south of Surat I left the highway (to my utter relief) and took the road up the mountain that would lead me to Vansda National Park.

On that secondary road to Vansda there were many street vendors selling fruit, so I stopped at one and tried to do business with sign language and the mobile phone in hand. This is how it usually goes:

Step 1: Point to fruit, ask "rupees?", get a response.
Step 2: Punch in that response (say, "18") on the phone.
Step 3: Show the number on the screen to the vendor. He nods in agreement.
Step 4: Say "kg?"
Step 5: Vendor nods "of course"
Step 6: Get about a kilo of said fruit, have them weighed, put in a bag, hand over the money.
Step 7: Get asked for more money because it's EIGHTY rupees per fruit all of a sudden and not 18/kg
Step 8: Get your money back, remove all the children/teenagers from your bike, and hit the road again while silently cursing in your helmet.

Pepper this with the prior events of the day (road rage) and 50 people gathering around you, pointing at you, giggling while they're at it, staring at you like a wild animal, and you can imagine what a lovely experience shopping on the street sometimes is. To the cynic who will say "well then just use a shop you whiner!" I would like to point out that out of large cities there are no fruit & veg shops.

Further along the road I was delighted to find another street vendor, all alone in a village, with no other vendors around him, who had some vegetables - carrots, cucumbers, brocoli, tomatoes... his prices immediately sounded right. He was giving me the real price and not the "let's fleece the rich tourist price". Almost in tears from this dignified treatment, I stopped there for a few minutes, had a piece of sweet that Anjana had given me in the morning before I left, and gave him the last piece. He thanked me and proceeded to share it with two of his mates who were nearby, all senior gentlemen, very discreet and polite. It was the only positive note in an otherwise disappointing day.

Stocked up on vegetables, I had my meals for the next two days secure, so I relax a little. Getting out of the village I noticed a motorcycle repair shop and, just for the heck of it, stopped to see what engine oil they had available. It didn't look good at all, so I thanked them and made a move to leave, which was met with an invitation to the table of three gentlemen having dinner at the restaurant next door. They offered me a refreshing glass of lassi and proceeded to quiz me on the trip and the bike. When we were ready to leave I asked them about an Internet Cafe, they said I would not find one before Mumbai, but offered to let me use the private Internet connection of one of them.

It turns out that the guy was a petrol station owner, had an Internet connection that needed some convincing to activate (thank Allah for default router passwords...) and was quite pushy. After logging in to my webmail and noting in my phone the number and address of Punit's parents in Mumbai, I thanked them and started putting on jacket/gloves etc, only to realise that they had moved my bike, put it on the centre stand and had conjured a professional photographer who was taking pictures of it. I was then asked to stand like this, stand like that, look this way, smile more, etc etc which really got to my nerves. All the goodness of an act of helping someone was gone, and this had turned into a PR opportunity for the industrious pump owner who was taking advantage of my exotic status as much as he could. Without ever having asked me, of course. I could see that even one of his friends was visibly embarrassed by what was going on...

Anyway. One of the first pictures, when I could still smile.

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Getting out of there as soon as possible (do I sense a pattern here?) I took refuge in the national park. But it was not meant to be... I asked if I could camp and was told that free camping was prohibited, but there was "a campsite". I thought "great!" and tried to find it. Unmarked, of course, at the end of an obscure dirt/broken tarmac road, of course, nobody could provide accurate instructions to get there, of course... It's simple really. Don't take the bridge, don't fall into the gorge where the broken road leads you, just take a right before you fall to your death:

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At the campsite I met the usual assortment of scruffy layabouts and a guy in a uniform who I tried to communicate with. I asked for the price, he said 200 Rs. TWO HUNDRED RUPEES! To camp. For one person. One night. Preposterous! This is how much we were paying in touristy towns for a double room!

It took me about an hour (and some phone calls to officials of the forest department) to get to the bottom of this, but here is the explanation:

(a) Using your own tent is not allowed.
(b) Ergo, you need to use one of the 8-person, permanently pegged, filthy tents of the campsite.
(c) The price for each such tent per night is 200Rs.
(d) Since I was alone in my tent, I would pay the full amount.

The layabouts were right next to me, staring at me, talking among themselves, giggling, pointing, laughing out loud at times while doing all of the above, and generally being extremely pleasant and helpful. When I resigned myself to extortion and agreed to pay the full price, I asked about facilities like a toilet, shower etc... I was shown a single hole-in-the-ground toilet and nothing else.

After all the annoying layabouts got tired of annoying me and pissed off, I managed to prepare my dinner in peace. This is the Vstrom in night cooking mode:

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I was then approached by what turned out to be an overly enthusiastic college student who was part of a botanist studies college dispatch in the national park to study the flora, and he just wanted to know everything about everything. I was exhausted, had barely finished dinner, not done the washing, not packed up everything for the night etc, but still the guy was there, firing away questions, interspersed with short comments about how I must be very tired and he's sorry and all but "just one other thing..."

About an hour later I managed to hit my sleeping bag, filthy from a full day's hard riding, as there was no shower to be found...

The next morning, with rejuvenated strength and therefore faith in the human race, I greeted my harassers when they circled me as I was preparing breakfast on the bike and asked them again about showering. Daylight made gestures more successful, so they got the picture now. They pointed to the water pump:

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Thinking "you have got to be kidding me..." I let it pass. The overly enthusiastic student from last night returned, true to his promise, and told me I had to meet his professor who was a renown scientist and a great man etc etc. After packing up I went to their corner of the campsite to meet them, but they were busy with something so I just spent a few minutes there talking to some students and then got ready to leave. After greeting everyone within a shouting radius, I hopped on the bike and turned the ignition key to "ON", getting ready to fire the Vstrom up...

In an unfathomable move of audacity, the enthusiastic student reached out and turned MY ignition key to "OFF".

Think about it for a moment. You're on that extension of yourself one calls a "bike", you've spent the fullest, most original, last 5 months being with it, caring for it, looking at it, cooking on it, resting against it... it has taken you places you would otherwise never seen, it has enabled so many things to happen, it is so dear to you, and then some random guy just extends his arm and DARES to grab the key and turn off the ignition switch?

Outrageous.

Suppressing my instinctive reaction (physical violence), I took a couple of seconds to recover. The owner of the offending fingers was beaming at his professor who had just arrived on the scene. He had wanted me to not go, so I could meet him. I turned to the guy who dared turn the key and with voice cracked from the effort to keep it low said something like "You know, most people where I come from would find what you just did extremely offensive..."

The glorious scientist apologised on behalf of his student (who just needed a lesson in manners, really), then I told him sorry but I've got to run, and got the hell out of there. (the "getting out of there" pattern emerged only as late in this trip as India... and unfortunately it's still there)

With this and that it was already 9 in the morning. I.e. late. But anyway, I thought I went through all this to see the national park, and see it I shall! So I went to the gate where there was a Forestry Department checkpoint and I had been told the previous day I could get a guide for the park. I asked for a guide, which resulted in giggles, a lot of pointing and some commotion. I waited patiently for about five minutes. Nothing happened. I asked the dude at the gate: "Is there anyone here who speaks English?" He said "No."

"Not even a guide who speaks English?"
"No."
"Then what the hell am I waiting here for?!"

Raging furious I rode off. I cannot deal with this behaviour. This sloth, this seeming indifference to anything. We've had discussions with people about tourism development in India. As a landscape, flora and fauna, it's got everything it needs. It is the people and the organisation that need to change. Or, all visitors should be given free pot to smoke to "relaaax maaan". Or perhaps it's only me and I should start smoking. I'll think about that...

To reinforce the above point (regarding the beauty of India), the road from Waghai to Vani was a wonderful ride. Broken tarmac galore, making me at times wonder whether some part of the much-broken-and-welded pannier system would just break off, making riding on the pegs more comfortable than sitting, making the sunglasses slip off my nose all the time... BUT all this was on a curvy, twisty mountain road that took me through a beautiful forest, small bridges over rocky landscapes torn by rapid clear waters, the curves hitting me one after another, constantly challenging me, daring me to take my eyes just one moment off the road to enjoy the gorgeous surroundings.

The OSM map for this area depicts just how curvy this route is:

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After Vani one approaches Nashik which is, well... urban. All the fun stops as soon as one approaches Mumbai. Trucks, trucks and more trucks litter the road. It was around 1 in the afternoon and it was getting seriously hot. So I stopped about 100K before Mumbai, found a field with a nice tree to provide shade next to the NH3 and lied down for a couple of hours.

Not having spent so much time lying next to my bike (we're close, but not *that* close), I was surprised to discover my engine number! Whoohoo! Very useful to know where it is, that one. Only on entering India had I ever been asked to show customs where the engine number is and I couldn't, so after a while they just waved me through. But now I knew.

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I also noticed that my tyres were taking the beating surprisingly well. This is the front Continental TKC80 after 19300K. Notice the funky uneven wear pattern, which results in a bumpy feeling on smooth tarmac. Which, I should add, is not much of a problem here, because in India you don't really get a lot of perfectly smooth tarmac, like you do in Iran, say.

TKC80 front after 19300km

The bike to provide some privacy from the highway, the tree over me to provide shade, the jacket and back protector for a flat, smooth surface to lie on. One doesn't need more.

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After a couple of hours, and with renewed strength, I plunged into the mother of all Indian cities: Mumbai!

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 11:59 AM GMT
February 16, 2010 GMT
Indian shipping agents

This is the gripe post.

Let me try to describe the frustration of dealing with customs clearing agents in Mumbai. This post chronicles the events of a single day.

After two weeks of talking with people who were completely clueless and excruciatingly slow in their responses, I got a tip from a friend about this guy Mr. Ramdas who ships Royal Enfield bikes abroad. So he must know what he's doing, right? Last Thursday (5 days ago) I had visited his office and we've had a long chat. I had asked for his help to send my bike from Mumbai to Athens by air cargo. He had said "no problem", we had gone over all the details (rates of airlines, size of the bike, crating method, insurance, timings, total cost) and had fixed an appointment for Monday (yesterday, which was 4 days after that discussion was taking place) to crate the bike. We had agreed on a total cost of 1100 EUR, which was slightly higher than the (arbitrary) 1000 EUR that I had decided was the maximum I would spend to return the bike to Europe. But, the man seemed to know what he was talking about, he seemingly had the experience, so I thought I was in good hands. 100 EUR extra would not be the end of the world, and I had already spent almost two weeks unable to find anyone decent to handle this!

Monday arrived. We hadn't fixed a time to do the crating, so I call Mr Ramdas in the morning. He has news for me: "Only Turkish Airlines will accept your bike, ON THE CONDITION that the gross (total) weight of the box is less than 250kg. All others are charging too much, and your bike is already 250kg without the crate, so it seems we're going for sea freight. Also the packers need to buy the material for the crate, so they can do the crating tomorrow."

All this in one breath. So everything we had agreed and shaken hands on last Thursday was already out of the window. Pack Monday - nope. Airfreight - nope. 1100 EUR for bike to be in Athens by end of week - nope.

Extremely pissed off with this, I resumed my search for other customs clearing agents who could handle this. How could I trust this man when EVERYTHING we had agreed on 4 days ago turned out to be impossible?

I got an expensive quote from another company, and arranged a meeting with ANOTHER company (Eastern Cargo) for the next day (that is, today, Tuesday the 16th of February 2010).

Ramdas was pushing me to agree on a new deal (we crate the bike the next day - today - and THEN we weigh it and see whether it leaves by Turkish Airlines (improbable) or by some sea shipment to be figured out...), so I told him "OK, let's do the packing tomorrow and we'll see", so that even if everything else fell through, at least one step would have been done.

Monday night I went to bed extremely pissed off and with no hope of ever getting out of Mumbai.

Today!

I go to Eastern Cargo late the morning, expecting the usual let-down, but I am received and treated very professionally. They look good. I've told them my budget (1000 EUR) and they still talk to me about air shipment. There appears to be hope! Packagers come to their premises, measure the bike, give quotes. We discuss packing, insurance, loading, costs, DGR regulations etc etc etc and they seem very aware of it all. Good. They feed me two chais and two glasses of water in the 3 hours I'm there. Good. They only get slightly irritated and patronising when I repeatedly ask for an explanation about why is the airline charging me for 1,000kg when my bike is only 250kg heavy and all volumetric calculations I've heard so far (for other travelers and agents alike) resulted in circa 450kg chargeable. Good.

In the end they give me a quote of 149,000 Rs (Indian Rupees). Forty five days ago, when I entered India, I had looked up the exchange rate between Rupees and the Euro. Back then it was roughly 67 Rupees to the Euro, so I had told my mobile phone's currency convertor that this was the exchange rate to be used. It's not accurate, but gives me a ballpark to get a feel of the money we're talking about. So when I punched in 149,000 Rs I got the answer that it was 2,223 EUR.

I told the big boss of Eastern Cargo (now remember this, it will matter later in our story) "Excuse me, but **this is two thousand two hundred Euros!** It's more than double the budget I gave you!", after which he scolded his assistants for wasting everybody's time and wished me farewell. Fair enough, I expected such prices from such a boutique-looking place, so I left in peace. Not surprised, not depressed. Just a bit tired from another effort that didn't bear fruit.

I met Mr Ramdas at 3 as agreed. He takes me to the packer's premises as agreed. Predictably, it's in a shantytown of sorts and I don't feel comfortable even taking off my jacket with all my papers and valuables in there. There are way too many layabouts and in typical Indian fashion they're too close, too intrusive, are messing with the bike, checking out my panniers, stick their heads over the bike when I take off the seat to disconnect the battery etc.

Uneasy as I am, I also want to get this damn thing over with, so I take off the panniers, ride the bike on a wooden pallet base (which presumably would become the base of the crate), disconnect the 12V sockets from the battery and take off the top case from the bike... in the meantime a heated discussion ensues, in which Ramdas is merely repeating to me what the packers tell him: "Bike on centre stand..." "wood plies under tyres..." "no straps..." "bubble wrap..." Once more I realise that the guys think they're packaging a bloody sofa. Every time the packer says something in Hindi (or Maharashtri, can't really be sure as I understand neither), Mr Ramdas translates and I despair more and more, every single time repeating to him "No, AS WE DISCUSSED, this has to happen like THIS for XYZ reasons." I was describing a bike free-standing on its tyres, with straps holding it from both sides, the rear suspension fully compressed, no stand or hard surface used to stabilise it. This is what conventional biker wisdom seems to suggest via the HU community and other shipping/crating websites.

The packers were having none of that. They wanted to stabilise the bike on its stand, with wooden planks under the tyres, and then one plank somehow pushing down on the seat... which they told me would not hurt the seat because they'd use bubble-wrap! ARGH!

At that point I was desperate enough to seriously entertain the crap they were feeding me. It was contrary to everything I had learned through research and talking to experienced bikers. Contrary to everything we had discussed and agreed on with Ramdas in advance. Contrary to my understanding of the laws of nature. But I was desperate, so I told Ramdas "OK, I am willing to go ahead with this ONLY if I'm confident the bike will be insured against any damages. Can I see the insurance documents please?"

Of course, he had no insurance documents. Of course, he told me not to worry about it, we had insurance. Mind you, all this is now taking place in a tiny "office", a room in which I cannot stand up (too low ceiling) which is accessed only from a semi-fixed metal ladder from the warehouse level...

So I insist and they look at me like a spoiled child. "I want to know about the insurance!" Mr Ramdas throws up the proverbial arms and says "OK, here, talk to the insurance agent directly, he will explain everything to you." and rings the insurers. I tell him "I don't care what some agent tells me on the phone, I want to see a signed document", but the agent is already on the phone and Mr. Ramdas passed him on.

It turns out to be a woman. It also turns out that they can't insure me, because the bike is not registered in India.

This is surreal.

Didn't the customs clearing agent (Mr Ramdas) that I was willing to trust to orchestrate the sending of my bike from Mumbai to Athens just give me the phone to dispel my doubts, triumphantly shutting me up once and for all?

Didn't the insurance agent that this very person put me in touch with, just tell me that they cannot insure me? Didn't the agent actually have THE NERVE to say "We do all this for procedure purposes. If anything breaks with your bike, we don't pay you" ?

Are these people for real?

I was tired. Real tired. Sick of it all actually. It's the details that get you. The insurance agent on the phone who was bored and abusive and couldn't be bothered to speak clearly and was telling me off for asking such stupid questions like "what will happen if the shipment is damaged?". The packagers who were frantically pointing at the computer screen which displayed a bike with a German number plate just having ridden onto a pallet. In their view, this proved their worldview about crating my bike beyond any reasonable doubt. Mr Ramdas who was staring at me with a blank expression in his face, like the parent of a kid that will never be good at anything, silently thinking "what am I gonna do with you...?" in despair.

I told them I was sorry but without insurance I was not willing to go any further, and made a move to leave (I can't say "got up to leave" because it was physically impossible to "get up" with that damn ceiling at 1,50m...). Mr Ramdas said "Well Alex I need you to tell me if you're going to use these people because you understand they have purchased the material for your crate already, and I need to pay them!" Unfathomable, but he was asking me for money. For that sorry-ass pallet they had built (or just had lying around) BEFORE even seeing my bike. From wooden planks that seemed reused at best...

I was too tired to get angry. I just ignored them and their insistent stares. I muttered something to get out of there peacefully (to the effect of "let's sort out the insurance first and then we'll see"), and got the hell out of there.

Right after I had gotten off the phone with the insurance agent I had sent a text (SMS) to Eastern Cargo, saying I'm willing to double my budget to 2,000 EUR if they can come down to that. By the time I was out of the "office" of the packers I got a phonecall from Eastern Cargo saying "the boss agrees, please come by our office to do this".

So I went straight back to Eastern Cargo. It was after 4 in the afternoon and I was tired. I had given in. I would pay the damn 2,000 EUR just to get it over with. It was a ridiculous amount - I felt I was being penalised for having a bike, as all the DGR (Dangerous Goods Regulations) and volumetric formulas were working against me. But I had spent two weeks idling in a big dirty city and my best hope so far (Mr Ramdas) had just gone down in a huge fireball...

So I go back into the nice air-conditioned office, with the smiley polite educated people who seem to be trustworthy and efficient... they offer me tea (the 3rd of the day), and even get me sandwitches, which makes me worry about my external appearance. When the clearing agent is getting you food without asking, you know you don't look too hot...

They crunch the numbers again and it all comes down to 140,000 Rs. I check with xe.com and say "wait a minute, this is 2,200 EUR! I thought we agreed on 2,000 EUR!"

The manager managing my case explains that the boss told her to give me a 9,000 Rs discount and the previous quote was 149,000 Rs so there you have it. I insisted, politely of course, that in the goddamn written TEXT I had sent her I wrote with very little room for interpretation 2,000 EUR. And you called me to say you agreed. So what gives?

We go back to the boss' office. He gives me the "now what my child?" look. I say this is not what I offered to pay. He takes me through his reasoning:

"You told me earlier that we were quoting you 2,200 EUR, correct?"
"That was 149,000 Rs. Making the calculation that works as 67,7 Rs to the Euro."
"Now multiply that by 2,000 EUR that you want to pay: ta-da! 135,000 Rs"

...and with that, he looked at me as if to say "satisfied?"

Am I mental?

So, why were they charging 5,000 Rs more? And why did I need to explain to the boss of such a large and seemingly successful company that his method of currency conversion is not exactly scientific, and he could not POSSIBLY base the bloody quote on a comment I made about the ROUGH amount I was being quoted earlier in the day? Checking it on the spot with xe.com revealed that I was now in fact being quoted 2,130 EUR, and not the 2,000 EUR that I had written in the SMS. But the boss was adamant. "This is what you told me. This is what I offered you." And then the "you trying to get more discount you greedy little child?" look.

Did I mention I was exhausted?

I agreed. I agreed to this ridiculous treatment, to this theatre of the absurd, to this blatant ripoff, to this "oh we didn't realise we reeled you in by lying" behaviour because once more, someone gave me the hope that they can actually pull this off and load my bike on a plane and get me out of this country. And that, after having spent two weeks littered with days like today, is worth 2,130 EUR to me.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 06:54 PM GMT
February 18, 2010 GMT
India - Mumbai & the end

Getting into Mumbai was not a shock at all. It was pretty much like any other Indian city of any decent size: Dirty, chaotic, noisy and dangerous to be on the road. Even with the GPS, phone and the help of a kind guy who asked me to follow him, as he happened to be going in the same direction with me, it took me about two hours to cross the city from east (where I approached) to the northwest, where the parents of my good friend Punit live. They had kindly invited me to stay with them in Mumbai, in their home in Malad.

It was the weekend, so I took more than 24 hours to relax, sort myself out, wash clothes, sleep etc. I was done travelling in India. Now I only had to ship the bike back. This has been my route in the one month I spent riding around India.


OSM India COMPLETE

Doesn't look like much, does it?

The quest for all necessary documentation to ship my bike to Europe would commence on Monday morning, so until then I could do a wee bit of tourism.

To save me from riding for hours in the city, Punit's parents very kindly arranged for a driver for the day, and let us use their car. So I was chauffeured downtown, in an air conditioned car, while listening to music. This made the Western Express Highway and everything else we had to drive through almost tolerable. We also drove over the Sea link, a bridge that skirts a large chunk of the city and makes access to the south of Mumbai easier.

Typical (ancient) Mumbai cab:

Mumbai cab (taxi)

On my first visit of Mumbai's centre I visited the ex "Prince of Wales" museum, currently "something unpronounceable" museum. (in typical Indian fashion the museum's webpage is "under Re-construction and Upgradation" and has a couple of spelling errors to boot. The abuse of English is impressive in India... even in huge printed banners, in shows, festivals, newspapers, in television - everywhere one sees blatant spelling & grammatical errors which make me forget proper English. Further, for the website of the museum they have taken a shortcut by puting up an IMAGE instead of a proper text webpage, sadistically making copying and pasting the ridiculously long name of the museum impossible. But hey, this is India.

One of the exhibits:

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Ganesha, son of Shiva. One of the most beloved gods of Hindus:

Ganesha

Other exhibits for which I unfortunately don't remember any decent description.

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Chinese snuff bottles:

Chinese snuff bottles II

The breastplate of emperor Akbar:

Emperor Akbar's breastplate

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This is the museum from the outside.

Outer view of (ex) Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai

Leaving the excellent museum behind, it's a 5-minute walk to the Gateway of India, in South Mumbai:

Gateway of India, South Mumbai

Many boats leave from Gateway of India for the Elephanta Caves:

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Character selling boat tours:

Character at Gateway of India, South Mumbai

Getting back to Malad one has to cross the entire city... Here, Mumbaians strolling the coast, with the city skyline in the background:

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The ride also provides ample opportunity to check out the ads all over the city.

Something one sees surprisingly often is bad use of English, like in this ad:

More global

Whaddya mean "more global"? It's like saying "more dead". You either are, or you aren't.

Another annoying hyperbole that stands out: This beauty prototype... as removed from Indian reality as possible:

Beauty prototype

One also gets to observe the wonderful taste of people when it comes to decorating their bikes. Check out the LEDs on the rear... groovy, man!

Bike LEDs

First working day in Mumbai, and I was out of the door early on to get a Non Objection Certificate from the Police Commissioner's Office downtown. The chaos one has to deal with to get a signed piece of paper is phenomenal... the cops themselves appeared to have never heard of such a certificate, even though other travellers have been asked for one from customs officers. Anyway, after 7 hours of banging on doors and explaining to bureaucrats what I need, why I need it and what I am doing there, I got a piece of paper that sort of said what I needed it to say - namely, that Mumbai police wasn't after me.

NOC public

I got the paper after 19:00 - most of the cops had gone home by then. I started to make my way with the bike back to Malad, which turned out to be a two and a half hour ride, sporting bonus features like getting banged from the back by another bike on the Western Express Highway. Of course the idiot who hit me didn't even bat an eyelid and just carried on... usual phenomenon of a city in which people leave aside their humanity or sensitivities in order to deal with daily reality.

Hit from behind by bike, returning from downtown Mumbai

Luckily nothing significant was broken or bent - the plastics took the hit well and the number plate was easy to bend back in shape.

On another day we drove around the 'hood a little bit with Punit's parents to visit some relatives. On the way there I saw a quite amazing spectacle - a manually operated amusement park wheel!

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At the relatives' home I was given an old bike magazine (I guess the impression being that such a lunatic would only be willing to read biking magazines - which I never do), from which I picked up this old Royal Enfield ad, which might give people good ideas about places to visit in India. It's designed to inspire Indians, so I hope these are not places already overrun by the horrible tourism sprawl I witnessed in the more mainstream places.

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This is a typical auto rickshaw. Millions of these little buggers swarm all over Mumbai - only recently they were banned from the city centre. Most of them (all?) use two-stroke engines, so you can imagine the clouds of burnt oil-with-petrol they leave behind...

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Having said that, they are cheap and practical. Not safe at all though - if anything happens, the best the passenger can hope for is to NOT be thrown out of the vehicle (as there are no doors) and to NOT crack one's head on the metal rod that divides the driver's compartment from the passengers.

On another day we visited the Sanjay Gandhi National Park with my friend Alok from Gandhinagar. I was lucky enough to be in Mumbai now that Alok was also here on business, so we got to hang out a few times, which made my time in Mumbai infinitely more enjoyable. Otherwise I would have already gone insane with the frustration of dealing with shipping agents.

We visited the Kanheri Caves, where Alok at one point exclaimed ooh, a scaled viper:

Echis (scaled viper)

Alok in front of one of the caves' entrance:

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A well camouflaged mantis:

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Just to give you an idea of the size of those caves... those Buddhists sure had patience!

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On another day, we met with Alok and his friend Mauli and strolled around Gorai beach. The easiest access is by ferry boat, which is as anarchic as one would expect. People and bikes getting on and off the boat at the same time, pushing each other etc.

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"Be Indian, buy Indian." Proudly nationalist for profit since... long. There is more nationalism in India than I care for, but then again that's true of any country, regardless of the shambles it may be in.

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A kid selling candy for a living in Gorai beach.

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This, one sees a lot of... idiots showing off by taking their cars in the water.

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Of course nobody thinks they're polluting the water or anything like that... perhaps it's already so polluted it's not worth protecting. But many people seem to just think the sea is there for them to flex their muscles with their cars - luckily, the water gets back at some, like this idiot who got stuck until the police came over and pulled him out. Unbelievable, what stupid behaviour grown-ups will get away with in this country.

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The dogs of Gorai were a much more pleasant guest of the beach than the obnoxious homo sapiens infecting the place.

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There seemed to be a lot of strays, but then again there are a lot of animals pretty much anywhere in India.

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The sun started descending and most people left, as apparently the law says you're not supposed to be on the beach after sunset. Surprising restrictions for a free country, don't you think?

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Young men playing games I've only seen played in Europe by 10-year olds...

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There seems to be a schizophrenic split in the modern Indian psyche. On the one hand, they have to deal with the modern world, technology, big cities, professional competition... on the other, they are forced by their culture to remain sexually "pure" to a fault, disallowing affectionate relationships with women, creating a strange bond between men who grow up pretty much shielded from the fair sex. The result is that it's perfectly alright for men to walk through town holding hands or hugging (which one sees often), but public displays of affection between men and women are severely punished. On the beach that very day the police showed up and proceeded to rough up and then arrest a poor bloke who was just enjoying the sunset snuggled up next to his girl.

In Muslim countries such backward rules are encoded in religion and enforced as the law of Allah. In India such rules are encoded in culture and it's just considered criminally inappropriate to be even a little bit publicly affectionate to your girl. Surprising puritanism and brutal enforcement of it (people being beaten in public view), in a country I didn't expect things to be this way.

After the police car harassed any criminally affectionate youngsters off the beach, it parked outside a restaurant. A tray that was undoubtedly "on the house" was sent to the cops immediately. The bullies were in town, and everyone needed to pay tribute to be left alone. In other places it would be called "corruption", but it seems to be the norm here. Everything is resolved with the proper under-the-table money to the cops. People know that, hence don't really care about the rules. If a cop stops you, it's to get some money. Not to enforce the law. So any laws that would actually make this a more liveable society (no spitting, no talking on the phone while driving, all and any traffic rules, no peeing/defecating in public etc etc) are simply ignored.

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A little beauty, bored while waiting for her parents to finish their meal.

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Mauli taking photos of the photographer (Alok) in action, in the restaurant where we dined. Alok is a professional photographer and Mauli is the apprentice, so when it came to successfully shooting a sunset there was a lot to be explained...

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On the way back to Malad from the beach, traffic was unsurprisingly horrible.

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On another day, we were meeting downtown to check out the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (a cultural/art event with photo exhibitions, and a live music, dancing and singing stage), so I entered Mumbai by train. I was terrified of the roads and would not have ridden the bike for any significant distance unless there was a very good reason for it, and it was off-peak hours.

I was impressed by the quantity of metal... there seems to be no other material in this Indian suburban train that connects Mumbai with its suburbs to the north-west.

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A London Tube ripoff? Signs in train stations on the western line:

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Reinforcing the point of safety, value of human life, adherence to rules etc of Indians... on every train there would be people hanging out like this:

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...even though the cart was half-empty! They don't do it because there is no space inside. They just enjoy hanging out in the same way that dogs enjoy sticking their heads out of the windows of moving cars. The trains have no doors, so everybody does this.

The main stage of the festival, with splendid traditional dances by many groups. I thoroughly enjoyed that, especially after a big ice-cream to temporarily sooth me from Mumbai's heat...

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Unfortunately my camera doesn't capture quality sound... but you can just about make out the discussion between the singers, using only traditional Indian musical notes as "words". Fascinating stuff.

This cab drove right next to the dance stage - I noticed it had 4 different headlights, undoubtedly giving a very confusing spectacle on the road at night. Safety regulations? What's that? At least it did have lights, unlike many other vehicles in India...

Cab with 4 different headlights

This was an interior wall decoration scheme at an exhibition stall, part of the festival. The exhibitors hadn't bothered providing any printed material, so the poor girl holding the stall had to explain the same story (of what this thing was) over and over, to every curious group that was visiting the stall, one by one, throughout the day... I felt really sorry for her.

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A message that rings very true, especially in Mumbai:

Sad but true - environmental message

(the sticker reads: "Natives who beat drums to drive off evil spirits are objects of scorn to smart city dwellers who blow horns to break up traffic jams")

Indeed. In the city, one witnesses many people seemingly driving with the hand on the horn all the time. It's devoid of purpose, as a traffic jam is a traffic jam and all you can do is wait, but still many people horn like crazy all the time. It's one of those things that were driving me crazy as soon as I hit my first big Indian city (Delhi), but I sort of got used to it... one has to, to survive. The police doesn't do anything about it of course, and the people... well, this is India. People seem to do whatever they fancy on the road, even if it's annoying, unhealthy or dangerous for everybody else.

After the festival we visited a fabulous patisserie/cafe where Alok ordered a dessert named "In memory of risky rider". We massacred it so fast that I didn't get a chance to get a picture...

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Hot, soft chocolate cake, brownies all around and vanilla ice-cream on top. Simple and tasty as hell.

The days passed and I was finding it increasingly difficult to locate any decent shipping agents for my bike. It was extremely frustrating... just as I would trust someone enough to give them a thumbs-up to get the procedure rolling, inevitably there would be disclosures that made it plain they didn't know what they were talking about, and/or they were blatantly lying to me. People promising to have the bike out of the country in less than a week would turn up, 5 days later, and say "unfortunately the next available boat leaves in two weeks"... that kind of stuff. Such idiotically poor excuses that became offensive pretty soon. Fantastic coincidences that led to delays. New regulations, all of the sudden there, never mentioned before, suddenly introducing further costs and delays.

Luckily the people I met on a personal basis in Mumbai made it all bearable. One of these friends who would listen to my frustrations and shake their heads with a smile was Daniel, a young lad who happened to bump across this blog on the 'net and contacted me while I was in Mumbai. We arranged to meet the very next day downtown - I would be there to look for a silicone spray for the bike, and he had to go to roughly the same area to service his bike.

I naturally took the train - wasn't out of mind to drive for an hour in that mayhem... and on the train I had another first, a very unique experience. I fainted.

It wasn't particularly hot or crowded or anything. Conditions were fine. I had had my breakfast as always, was well rested, felt fine. I had been on the train for about ten minutes when all of a sudden I started feeling my stomach get real upset, at an alarmingly increasing pace... I remember thinking "if this doesn't stop pretty soon I'm gonna throw up". It's a panic-inducing feeling, sensing your body work up to a frenzy all of a sudden, and I shut my eyes to calm myself down. Next thing I know, I feel the skin of my face tingling, as if too much hot blood is pumped into it. Then I see a couple dreams. And then I wake up on the floor of a moving train.

I must've fallen on the guy next to me who gently laid me on the floor, as I couldn't find any bruises, scratches or other indication that I had hurt myself falling. I sat on the floor until the next station and then stood up. Was very surprised this had happened, but had no discernible after-effects. I was feeling quite well. The people around me were quite courteous and helpful, asking me if I needed anything, if I was alright etc.

After this bizarre incident I reached the Opera House district, where I marvelled at the business acumen of this hair saloon owner, who has the audacity to name his place "Good Luck"... as in "if you're coming here to have your hair cut, all I can say is good luck to you!"

P2130156

With the help of Daniel I found the silicone spray immediately, which left ample time for snacks, chocolate desserts etc. After a few hours I took the train back home, for some more waiting, some more telephone calls, and inevitably some more TV. A note at this point - international movies are heavily censored in India. Entire scenes are cut out, and any cursing or "inappropriate" language is silenced. The subtitles show an orthodox version of what the actors are really saying... annoying at the very least.

Indian censorship

In between chasing shipping agents to do their job, I spent the rest of my days in Mumbai mostly in front of the TV, which only added to my accumulating despair and feeling of decadence.

Waiting in decadence

A sample of Indian comic strips in the newspaper:

Indian comic strips

(as a techie, I really like the top strip!)

Those days in Mumbai a big debate was going on... one of the most famous Bollywood actors, Sharukh Khan, had commented unfavourably on the raging preachings of a far right political party that was fishing for votes by adopting a line of the "Maharashtra for Maharashtrans" type - i.e. all Indians of other states are not welcome here, let alone foreigners... The party hard-liners responded with a call for banning the actor's latest film, with demonstrations and acts of violence taking place in the city.

Leaving aside the fact that the film banner looks as if the thought on the protagonist's mind is "hm, you haven't washed your hair recently, have you my dear?", if it was in English I would go to the cinema just to support the ballsy decision of cinema owners to not take bullying by nationalists and to screen the film.

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Another sample of how the English language is constantly raped in India. Whaddya mean "felicitation nite"? It's a banner. An official event. Check before you print dammit!

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One good thing about India is the cost of life. Not for the tourist, mind you. Hotels, restaurants etc are more expensive than other countries I visited. But for Indians, life is reasonable, like this mainstream newspaper that costs 0,07 EUR (!) while newspapers in Greece cost more than 1.5 EUR!

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Well, at least there is no doubt about where the Indian Times stands when it comes to privacy issues... here is a story about something serious that's at stake, being reported with a "oh just get on with in" attitude.

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After two weeks in Mumbai I thought I finally spotted a decent shipping professional by the name of Mr. Ramdas. I visited his office close to the airport, where while we were discussing the details of the bike's shipment some idiot nicked my broken indicator's light bulb!

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Think about it. A broken indicator, with the bulb still working, parked right outside someone's office in broad daylight for about an hour... and someone steals the light bulb! I mean... such a bulb must cost about 2Rs in India, what's the point in that?

After a(nother) horrible experience with Mr. Ramdas and realising I would be taken for the proverbial ride, I decided to bite the bullet and pay for one of the most expensive shipping agents, who appeared to be more professional than everybody else I had been talking to for the past 20 days... I agreed on an extortionate price (upwards of 2000 EUR) to airfreight the bike from Mumbai to Athens and the next day rode the bike to the professional packers' premises to have it crated.

On the way there, I witnessed a very interesting scene. A class of schoolchildren being taught right next to the street, on the pavement, protected from traffic only by a metal railing...

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So the packing commenced. I took out the petrol tank to drain it fully...

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...muttered my way through draining the engine oil too (I still find it difficult to believe that IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations are so anal, but there you have it...)

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...and was then SHOCKED to realise that the packers were unable to properly strap the bike on the pallet because they simply had no straps. When I asked for "straps" and showed them one that I have with me to tie Ping-Yi's bag on the panniers, they produced this sorry piece of string that I wouldn't even trust to fly a kite, let alone hold a 250kg bike in place while wiggled in an aeroplane...

P2170042

(proper strap on the back, you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me "professional packers" version of straps in the foreground)

So, instead of doing this the proper, secure and quick way, the packers did it the Indian way: with plenty of unskilled labour, plenty of time and plenty of cheap material. And to put numbers to these claims of mine: 10 people labouring for a total of 7 hours (not all of them full time), using 110kg of wood and hundreds of nails... they practically built a small structure around the bike, using the most basic of mechanics to somehow stabilise it on the pallet. (even then, I was the one to suggest putting planks over the wheel rims, the "professional packers" hadn't even thought of that...)

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This whole process was supposed to take "a couple of hours"... of course it took them 7 full hours. I started emptying tanks/engine oil/disconnecting batteries around 10 and was done by 12. The packers had measured the bike and started building the base of the crate by 11, and were done loading the bike onto the truck that would take it to the cargo terminal by 18:15...

This is the crate just before it was nailed shut.

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And this is how they loaded the crate into the truck... by lifting the crate and then having the truck reverse to "eat it up".

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As I mentioned earlier, this whole thing was costing me a fortune, and I was told by Eastern Cargo that paying with plastic (even if it was a debit card!) would increase the price by 2,5%. So I did frequent trips to the ATMs and withdrew my daily limit for a couple of days, and then changed most foreign currency I had on me to Rupees, to get the necessary amount in cash. This is only a small part of it - it was an impressive stack of cash:

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Next day we were supposed to take the bike through customs. I certainly had to be there, to ensure everything was in order, if the crate had to be opened that nothing would "disappear" from inside, I could provide any information about the bike and other stuff in the crate to the customs people etc etc... so that's why Eastern had prepared this piece of paper to get me entry to the Cargo complex of Mumbai international airport.

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It wasn't meant to be. With characteristic indifference, we were told at the gate of the cargo complex that foreigners are not allowed entry anywhere in the complex. When I asked "why?" the reason was "security threat". Gee. Does that qualify as racism or what? Thanks dudes. Feels good to be so welcome in this country.

So I was turned back at the gate, was assured "the boys" would take care of my shipment (now THAT made me feel much better...) and was shooed off. Bollocks.

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All I could do was get back to the offices of Eastern Cargo and wait. For the entire day. While other people were fiddling with my bike. I was not impressed.

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So I bummed around the office for (as it turns out) the entire day. These things (like clearing a bike through customs) take time, and regardless of the drone-like reassurances of Eastern people that "it's just a matter of a couple of hours" I was not surprised when I got back my stamped Carnet at 19:00, one hour after the official office close time.

To kill my idle time at the office I marvelled at the UPS system of Eastern

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...and pondered what cooking sets sent by the Austrian Red Cross for the Haiti earthquake relief were doing in Mumbai.

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Not surprisingly at all, the idiots who had loaded the trucks had not given much thought to the whole movement/inertia/vibration business, so as soon as the truck moved, tens of boxes crashed to the ground.

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In typical Indian fashion, people just grinned in mild amusement and then slowly got over there and started picking up the smashed boxes. If this is what happens to humanitarian aid... I feel even more sorry for the people of Haiti.

After getting my Carnet back, I could get out of there. I took a leap of faith to actually believe what Eastern told me - that the bike had been cleared off customs (the Carnet was a good indication, but nothing more), and that it had already been delivered to Emirates airlines which would load it on a flight to Athens the following day. But I was too tired of this game already, and I wanted out.

On my way back to Punit's parents, the auto rickshaw broke down in the middle of the Western Express Highway. The dude fixed it by taking out the spark plug and roughing up its pin against the pavement. Seemed to work.

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After a few hours, on that very night, I took a cab to Mumbai international and caught a flight to Athens via Abu Dhabi with the luxurious (and by far cheapest of all) Etihad airlines.

Flying over the Arabian Peninsula I noticed these weird formations:

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Had a closer look, but still no clue as to what these things are:

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When the plane reached Greece I looked down at my country and thought "what a beautiful place"... it was a clear sunny day, the sea was as blue as ever, the islands were beckoning with their beaches... ahh I've missed this type of beauty.

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And with that, the UK2India trip was mostly over.

This is the final (rough) itinerary of the past 5 months.

UK2India map till Mumbai small with names

Now all I have to do is service the bike in Athens and ride it back to London. Should be a doddle, but I will of course let you know if anything worthwhile happens by the time I reach London.

For now, I'd just like to thank you all for reading, commenting, keeping me company in faraway places. It wouldn't have been the same without you.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 02:58 AM GMT
August 13, 2011 GMT
A new trip!

Dear all

We are starting a 6-month bicycle tour around Chile. Would you like to follow the new blog?

If so, please send me a short message and I'll subscribe you.

Thanks

Alex

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 06:45 PM GMT
 



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