Published: November 27th 2009November 27th 2009
Leaking water pumps, motorbike crashes. hospitals and dental surgery behind me (I hope!), I finally set off from Nicosia on Sunday 22nd November for a short first leg over to Northern Cyprus, planning to stay with friends and try and chill out a bit before catching the ferry to Turkey on Monday morning. I wasn't only leaving all that negative, trip delaying crap behind either... 5 years of living in Cyprus has built up some fantastic friendships and it was all pretty emotional packing the last little bits on the bike and saying goodbyes. All I can say is I'll be back guys, I'll be back.
That first night was just what I needed though. Cenk and Yasmin laid out an absolute feast of garlic soup, baked camembert and perfect steaks. Plus plenty of red wine and chat. Perfect. At some point in the haze of wine and smoke Cenk was suddenly going with me to Turkey and it felt good to have the company. Nice one mate!
An earlyish start on Monday got us down to the port where there was a moment of panic when the officials, with much sad faces and shaking of heads determined that I did not have the required 'yellow' form and so could not take the bike on the ferry. A bit of frantic rummaging produced my bike ownership documents - queue instant smiles all round and we were good to go. I'm not sure why they didn't just ask for them in the first place! Anyway, it's about 100 euro for the ticket (me + bike, 1-way) for anyone interested.
As it happens the ferry/port workers were striking about something or other but it seems to have been an amicable sort of thing with everyone agreed that they were only going to sit about until 12 and then get things moving again. The ferry was a couple of hours late departing as a result, but it was a perfect sunny winter's day and Cenk and I sat on the deck drinking beer and relaxing, enjoying the view as Cyprus - very very slowly - drifted away to the horizon.
We arrived in Tasucu sometime around 9 that night. Customs wasn't too stressful, but there were 9 separate windows to visit and the usual stamps and checks to complete. Very glad to have Cenk with me. Not sure how long it all lasted, but it was maybe an hour or a little more, before Cenk and I made it into town to get some food and find a hotel. The thing that struck me immediately about Turkey was how friendly eveyone seemed to be. At first I wasn't sure whether it was mostly to do with having Cenk there, speaking the lingo, but it continued throughout my few days in the country. Even the border control guys, never a profession usually known for their geniality, were happy enough and recommend some places in town to eat/stay. Good recommendations too! The food at, er, "Baba's" (I think that was the name) was excellent. Red mullet and calamari. And most of a bottle of raki later had me passed out on the table (shame it was a long day for me) with Cenk ranting happily away with the owners about politics and so on. The hotel was basic but fine for the night. No hot water though (which was to become a bit of a theme in Turkey) but so it goes, and by lunch Cenk was on a bus and I was thumping it down the coast on my first 100km to Mersin.
Not much to report on the ride. There is something about running concrete all the way up to the sea that tends to ruin a coast line. It was all pretty bleak really, but the road was clear and the bike was purring so onward to Mersin.
I arrived in Mersin a little before Cenk and found a tea place on the sea in what seemed to be the swanky part of town. A couple sitting outside noted the bike and called me over for a chat and some tea. Again the, what was becoming usual, friendliness. And a first for me: At least as far as I can remember he must be the first professional Opera singer I have met. He had the lungs for it too ;) Sound guy though, and when Cenk arrived we chatted a bit and got some tips on hotels before they left, paying the bill without our knowing on the way out.
After some wandering around, and in the end Cenk getting a cab which I followed on the bike, we found a nice simple hotel right in the centre of town, above the market area, and (my luck was in!) with an underground car park about a block away which safely stored my bike overnight for 5 TYL. Again no hot water, even after (sorry Dad) running the hot tap for ...(blush) 20 mins as instructed by the hotel manager. Ah well, nobody can smell you when you're buzzing by at 100kph anyway.
Impressions of Mersin? For a big city - around 1 million we were told - it's strangely quiet. Everyone seems to talk softy and even people clearly laughing about something at the tabbles next to us where we ate seemed muted, like maybe my hearing was still adjusting from the ride. After Cyprus, where friends and family in the street like to shout at each other from 2 feet distance, it felt very odd. But in a good way.
Cenk left early the next morning (Wednesday) and I hit the road at 8am for my first really long day in the saddle, aiming to make the Syrian border before dark. A bit of a rush I know, but I was still shaking off the restlessness of being delayed for 7 weeks and was keen to get some k's under the wheels. I guess I would have been happy to stop en route if anywhere had taken my fancy, but as it happens that part of Turkey was not somewhere I wanted to stay longer than I had to. Bad roads, trucks EVERYWHERE, industrial complexes and fumes and smoke and chaos. I gunned it through, stropping only for lunch at a truckstop beyond the worst of the industrial zone where I had an excellent kebab, and again the smiles and sign-languaged, laughing chat that seems the norm.
Purring happily towards the mountains I passed a cyclist, coasting along a bit of a downhill stretch. I pulled up a few hundred meters ahead and waited for him. These guys always amaze me. Words fail to be honest, but hey he seemed to be loving it. A turkish guy from Istanbul, heading to Syria for a month or so and then back home. Seemed a really sound guy and I was glad I stopped. As I write this he has already emailed me all his lonely planet PDFs for Syria and the Middle East. Thanks mate! :)
Horrible riding conditions followed though. Heading down through Iskunderen and over the Bellen pass was a nightmare. Galeforce crosswinds hammering me from left to right and moving the bike sideways across the road. Not fun with massive trucks around I can assure you. When I stopped at some point I could barely keep the bike upright with my legs on the ground and I was seriously considering just stopping where I was and waiting for the wind to drop. But it was a shitty area and I took a chance that once I was up over the pass the conditions would change. They did. Cresting the pass, the wind almost immediately dropped and tucking in behind a massive truck I coasted down the mountain just resting and taking it easy after 2 hours of wind wrestling.
And it was nice to coast downhill out of the wind and gun the engine a bit around some of the banking turns. The scenery at last became something worth looking at with vast, flat farmland opening up below in the afternoon sun. At the bottom of the pass I fueled up the bike (404 km on that frst tank and no fuel light in sight!) and accepted the offer of directions and tea at the first petrol station I saw. My new gass-man friend recommended the 'Hamamat' Hotel and on I went.
The Hamamat turned out to be a great recommendation. Not exactly budget, compared to my previous few nights, but definitely good value at 75 YTL including dinner, breakfast, free wifi and use of facilities. These included their sulpher spring indoor bath, which I didn't try in the end after dunking my fingers and finding that yet again 'hot' in Turkey may mean something else in summer, but this was very much winter as far as I could tell and if that was my bath it would be time to get out, not in. Otherwise the Hamamat was perfect after a long hard ride. Got my bags carried up to my room, bike parked safely out in front of the main door and, again you gotta love bikes (especially big orange ones) for starting conversations, before long I was having tea with the manager and showing him my route on Google Earth. Lovely.
And so on to Syria. An early start and I was at the border at 9:30am. I was a bit worried about this border in particular because I'd read that some people had been turned back and had major hassles. Also it was the first border to tackle on my own and it would suck to fail for some beaurocratic reason at the first hurdle. In the end it was all smiles again and although it took 3 hours before I cleared it into Syria itself, everything went smoothly and without major hassle. I think it would have been a very different story if it wasn't for the very helpful Syrian tourist desk where I got perfect, friendly instructions on what to do, in what order, at which window, with which documents and how much it was all going to cost. Most windows were scrums, but in a more or less fair and orderly way and considering it was the day before Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) and 100's of Turks were crossing the border to visit shrines, family and religious leaders, I think it all went as smoothly as I could have hoped for. It helped to have the visa and carnet in advance though. The tourist guide had a big smile when he saw those and I got the impression that without them life could have been a lot more painful.
Into Syria! Well I was kind of expecting immediate desert or something. I dunno. Ignorance on my part I guess. In the end it was more rolling flatlands, covered with various fruit and nut trees and not much else to look at. I like mountains myself. Flat, agricultural/industrial land like this does not really do it for me. But the road was good enough, the bike was humming and I was finally on my way South. Really South. As the bike flies.
Aiming for the acient city of Hama I made good time, turning off onto more interesting secondary roads and then back onto the highway as I neared the end. My one stop was to find a 'WC' and stretch my legs half way. Had some fun with some friendly kids who liked my shades and, I presume, their father who owned the small dark shop were I stopped refused to take any money for the oranges I tried to buy. Good oranges. More friendly people.
I had a hotel in mind in Hama which I had pre-programmed into my GPS back in Cyprus. Seems I got the co-ordinates a bit wrong and after half an hour of driving round muddy back streets I pulled over in a quiet spot just off the centre of town to see what I could find. Again my luck was in. As I pulled up, a shop owner was pulling down his metal shutter for the night and smiled at me as I rubbed my freezing hands together. I walked up and was pleased to find he spoke a little English and even more pleased when he offered to walk me to the hotel, which turned out to be just around the corner. Nice!
The Cairo hotel is a nice enough place. Reminds me of India, in face the whole town does with what seems like its entire population out on the street at one time, street vendors shouting (no Mersin whispering here!), horns, bustle, traffic jams of people. Of course this was the day before a major festival and the last day of the working week so perhaps it's not always like this. I like it though and I like the hotel with its reception 2 floors up and old fittings and carpets, and the body building gym downstairs. (You should see the advertising poster). With my bike parked up on the pavement outside, under the watchful CCTV camera screened up at reception, I headed out to get some food.
Where's a good place to get local stuff I asked. "Ali Baba" I was told. So off to Ali Baba I went, and for a little over a euro I got a wad of flat bread, 'humus with meat', falafel, salad and pickles. Very tasty, very quick and very busy. Right by the bus stop near the centre of town, the place seems to do a pumping trade. I wolfed my food and hit the street. Madness. After about an hour of wall to wall people in the twisting alleys of the central market I gave up. I was exhausted. It was all I could do to stumble back home, stopping only briefly at some of the famous "Norias" - the ancient and huge water wheels built to lift the Orontes river up into the aqueduct canals to provide water to the gardens of the city. I took a few snaps and went to bed.
Damn I was tired. I was planning to get up this morning and make an early start of it, but I didn't realise how much the last few days of riding had taken out of me. Eventually I stumbled out of bed at 10am (aftr going to bed at 10pm!) and, (woohoo!), was immediately happy to find hot hot water and lots of pressure. Thumbs up to the Cairo hotel!
After a breakfast which included the biggest tub of jam I have ever seen, I loaded up just the top box with basic tools and essentials and went down to check out the bike. Panic! She won't start! Power on, lights on, all good, but no response at all on the starter switch. A happy little group of kids (no more than 8 or 9 years old) walked past and offered me a ciggie. I accepted and between us we give the bike a good looking over as I tried and figure out what was wrong or perhaps if someone had tampered with something overnight... Kill switch is not on. Check. Hmm... was that a slice on my oil line? No just a bit of tar or gunk from the road. It rubbed off with no damage underneath. And then I remembered I've had this before. When the engine stops at some odd cylinder position it sometimes won't turn over with the power from the electric start. A half crank through on the kick-start lever, and with the kids chattering around me, she starts first time and everything is alright again. :) With the streets empty - everyone but the kids apparently indoors preparing or enjoying their feast day - I headed off in the direction of the Crac des Chevalliers.
What a great day's riding! Shunning the highway I set my GPS with the general direction of travel and zigged and zagged my way across the plains. Well no so much zig or zag on the plains themselves. Those were lovely straight roads which the bike ate up, sounding very very happy to be free of the extra weight and loving the cold air and slight altitude. Into the mountains the roads got more fun. Small villages and picturesque meadows. Winding down out of the mountains and up another smaller peak the 'Crac' appeared, commanding an awsome view over the surrounding area. "Ja'mila" (er, I think - my apologies to any Arabic speakers out there), meaning beautiful. And it was. I love old forts and castles and this was one of the best I have seen. Not so much for the outter walls and battlements, but the scale and degree of preservation on the inner rooms was very impressive. For 6 euro I was convinced to hire a cheerful guide at the gate to show me around. I'm glad I did. He pointed out loads of interesting things I would have missed on my own, in particular the ottoman bath system which I climbed down into (at his direction) and saw the enterance to one of the old secret tunnels that led out of the castle for provisioning the garrison in times of siege. The outer walls could support 1000 men and horses, with the inner keep holding up to 4000 more. That takes a lot of provisioning, and quite an impressive army for its day! More on wikipedia if you're interested.
With the light fading and me in danger of breaking my own rule of never riding at night, I rushed the last bit of the tour, grabbed a quick and fabulous meal of chicken, chips, the usual mezze dips and as much garlic sauce (well raw garlic in lemon and oil - fantastic!) as I might usually eat in a year, and jumped back on the bike. No time for exploring now, this is where the GPS comes in handy. "Track-back" enabled and I followed my route back to Hama in the fading light stopping only briefly to tank up again near the city. Only 13 euro a tank here, compared with 30 in Turkey. Happy days :)
So that's that for my mammoth first blog. Met a fellow biker as I pulled up to the hotel and have arranged breakfast or lunch for tomorrow. He's a veteran with an 8 year 'round the world' trip under his belt so I'm sure he'll have some stories. Otherwise I think I'll stay here a bit longer. Seems a good base to explore the surrounding area. More to follow, and pictures, when I find decent internet connection. Uploading them from here would take hours!
Time to sleep.