TURCHIA (21st MAY – 16TH JUNE 2016)

In the morning, I made my way to Greece – Turkish border at Kipoi. Nearing the border, I saw lots of lorries lining up by the road side and the line was a km or so. In my mind I thought “oh god, why such a long line?”, the car/motorbike lane took a long line too. It took me 30mins to get my exit stamp. Then I rode to the next counter which was the Duane (customs). But the window was closed. There were 2 cars ahead of me and they were stuck there too, as the gate was closed. I saw the driver from the first car talking to an officer, (in a soft manner first, then arguing), but I didn’t understand what was going on. After 15mins, the line became longer and a group of restless drivers started to gather. That’s when I found out that the Greek customs were on strike. Ouch!

I waited patiently. What else could I do? Fortunately, after an hour the customs opened the gate but the officer didn’t record my bike’s exit (I guess because they didn’t want to work on that day!), even after I had asked. Surely GD will be blacklisted and never be able to exit the country. I crossed the river which separated the two countries. I first needed to register on the Turkish side at a police check point. One of them asked for the bike docs. Then I had to ride to the immigration for an entry stamp. The third stop was at customs. They asked to see my Turkish insurance which I didn’t have. I had to go to the duty free shop nearby to purchase one, and it cost me €78 for a month. That’s the minimum rate. Then I made my way to the 4th counter which was a police check point again. In total, I spent about 40mins on the Turkish side.

 

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After that I rode all the way to Istanbul via E84. It was a very windy day and pretty stressful, as I got side and headwind all the way and there were lots of rolling hills. My poor GD had a tough time beating the headwind while climbing up the hills. For the first 100kms, the road was not good as there were lots of road works and many trucks plying the route. After that it was a good dual lane road but 40kms before Istanbul, I was caught in a very heavy traffic. It was a snail ride to zip in, in between vehicles. The drivers here didn’t have any respect for motorcyclists, so they wouldn’t give way for me to zip in. It was very tiring. About 300m away from my hosts house, the road was closed as there was going to be a United Nation meeting at Grand Hyatt Hotel (which was next to my host’s house). The meeting was going to be the following Monday but they had closed the road since the previous Thursday. I really wondered why. I had to ride in circles to find another way but it was all closed. My last solution was to ask help from the police and finally, I managed to reach my hosts’ house.

In Istanbul I was hosted by a lovely couple, Avram & Fanny. Avram was a successful Turkish businessman who lived in Singapore and Malaysia in the 70s. Fanny was an Indonesian/Singaporean Chinese. They invited me to stay at their daughter’s apartment since their daughter was away for vacation. I just couldn’t believe that after a series of uncomfortable nights at dorms with mosquitoes and raining while camping, I walked into an elegant apartment with marble floors and walls, beautiful chandeliers, a glittering 5 stars hotel kinda toilet and shower, a fully equipped kitchen Fanny stocked with food. Not just that, she invited me for meals everyday and took me out to expensive restaurants for lunch. I was very lucky indeed. I felt fully charged after spending 4 nights in Istanbul.

While in Istanbul, I managed to meet other kind Malaysian souls: PK and her husband. They were Avram and Fanny’s friends. They came to meet me once they found out that I had arrived Istanbul. Both of them had been residing here for more than 20 years. They were proud of what I was doing. PK took me out for sightseeing, and even gave me souvenirs. Since this was also my 2nd time in Istanbul, we only visited the free attractions and had a drink at a restaurant in the Graand Bazaar. I want to thank them all for the nice hospitality.

Words about me and my solo ride spread fast. I was contacted by TRT World TV saying that they were interested in interviewing me for a slot in the national news. I agreed and we spent about 3 hours for the shooting.

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While in Turkey, I managed to do some touristy things such as visiting the travertine of Pamukkale. I had been meaning to see the place for quite some time. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit, some of the basins already dried up. Only a little bit was left to feast my eyes upon. However, it’s still a remarkable view. The whitish things of the travertine were hardened calcium carbonate. For conservation purposes, you need to walk bare footed on the travertine. Entry fee to visit this place was YTL35. Nearby there were also some ruins to explore.

My next destination in Turkey is Ankara. It’s Friday and Fanny had warned me that the weather was gonna be shitty and advised me to stay few more days but unfortunately I had a schedule to follow. Fanny was right. It continuously rained for 4 hours and I was soaked because I didn’t put my Givi rain coat on. Served me well. However, the view along the way was very beautiful.

I reached Ankara after riding 500kms in 8 hours. The good thing was that, unlike Istanbul, there was no traffic jam when I entered the capital. What was not so good was that, before reaching my hosts house, I had to ride on extremely steep and narrow switchbacks. Not one or two, but lots of switchbacks along the 4kms to reach her apartment. Few times when taking the crazy sharp inclines, I almost dropped GD because the corners were too tight and the road was too narrow. GD couldn’t afford to climb up even with first gear. Turkish drivers’ impatience didn’t help at all. They were angry at me. Luckily, I finally found my host’s house but I was so exhausted by then. Fortunately, I was going to stay there for quite a while as I needed to sort out Turkmen and Uzbek visas.

During my GDR, I was very blessed to have very kind hosts during my journey. In Ankara, I was hosted by Colonel Zakaria (Msian Defense Attaché in Turkey) and his wife, Fida. They were truly kind to me. They took me everywhere they went, including to the agro market in Ulus doing their weekly marketing. What caught my eye at the market was that sheeps’ feet are sold here. I asked Fida if it tasted good, but she told me she hadn’t tried it yet. Mushrooms were cheap too, only TL5 per kg.

After that, we wanted to visit Ankara Castle, a medieval citadel up the hill which was built more than a millennium ago. Unfortunately, the road to the castle was closed. We then visited Haci Bayram open mosque. Haci Bayram was a pious man who lived in the 14th century and his tomb was located nearby the mosque.

There were many visitors at this place and I took the opportunity to talk to some of them. It was a nice experience. In my opinion, Turks are friendly people and they didn’t mind to be photographed (unlike people in some countries), but some requested me not to put their pics on FB, which I fully respected. After Ulus, I was taken to a shopping mall to enjoy the weekend.

I loved Ankara. Despite being very hilly, it’s a very clean and organized city with not so bad traffic, and never looked congested, unlike other world’s capital cities. Before we went home, we stopped at a place where Col Zakaria feeds some stray cats everyday. It was fascinating to see how the cats came running upon seeing Col’s car as if they knew that it was eating time. The strays here were beautiful and I wished I could have taken one with me for GDR, but obviously I couldn’t do it.

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On Monday, my hosts took me to report to the Ambassador at Malaysian Embassy in Ankara. I chatted with the Ambassador for a while and had to excuse myself because I needed to sort out my visas.

Getting visa is one of the trickiest part in any travel. Different country have different procedures and sometimes the procedures can change overnight. For my GDR, I need visas for US, Canada, Bolivia, Iran (VOA), Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia. I have had difficulties when applying for the first 3 visas, and I had set my mind that it was going to be tough for the remaining.

Fida and I went to Turkmen Embassy to apply for the visa. Knowing that it’s always difficult to deal with the Turkmens, I brought along a support letter from Malaysian Embassy in Ankara. To my surprise, the handsome young officer told me that processing will take 5 working days (instead of 2 weeks when I had asked by phone). I’m applying for a transit visa and the rule is you must already have both country visas in your passport, only then can you apply for Turkmen transit visa. Maybe because of the officers’ confusion in seeing so many stamps and previous visas in my passport, and because of the support letter that I brought along, they didn’t want to see Iran and Uzbek visas (before and after Turkmen, which I had not get as yet). The officer didn’t even want to take the USD10 visa processing fee (visa fee was USD35). He didn’t ask for hotel booking whatsoever, and the application form was very simple. As for Uzbek visa, the embassy only deals with visa application on Wednesday, so I had to wait two more days before applying.

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While waiting for my visa to be processed, Fida took me to many events. Being a Defense Attaché’s wife, Fida’s schedule is always packed with formal and informal activities with AMAC Ladies (an organization for foreign Defense Attaché’s wives based in Ankara). I was brought to a Ramadan Coffee Morning event, hosted by Mrs Mayada, Egypt Defence Attaché’s spouse. This event gave me the opportunity to join and mix with classy ladies from all over the world. The wife of Sudanese Ambassador was there too. Some of the guests were very beautiful. I also got to taste Egyptian and Turkish delicacies served during the event.

It impressed me to see how well Fida brought herself and it was even more amazing to see how highly she was respected by the AMAC ladies. She was the source of advice and approval whenever they discussed about their programs. She represented herself (and Malaysia) very well and I am so proud of her.

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Everyday in Ankara was a busy day for Fida, and for me too. In a way, it made the waiting for the visa less stressful. Fida brought me to a potluck picnic party she organized at Lozan Park. Some of her AMAC Ladies friends were there. We had a really great time. Eating, playing games, chatting and laughing. Besides us, there were many other locals having their picnic here too. The park was very lively. Each of us brought food from own countries. I got to taste a variety of food and they were all delicious.

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Fida also took me for a vist to Anitkabir, a must visit grand museum dedicated to Mustafa Kamal Ataturk in Ankara. The museum not only housed the Turkish first President’s belongings, but his tomb was here too. There were lots of exhibitions about his life’s history including his involvement in the military and his contributions to the country. It was very obvious that Turkish people loved him. Here, his body was preserved and kept in a coffin. The coffin was not buried but was placed in an underground chamber in the museum.

On the last day before Ramadan, my hosts took me to an AMAC picnic party which was held at a military recreation centre. It was a nice event, where I met lots of people from all around the globe. Some of them were bikers too and we had a very interesting conversation. The food was really good and I really had a feast.

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One the first day of Ramadan, my hosts took me to an Iftar event, hosted by the Mayor. It was a Turkish style iftar. The starter was bread with lentil soup. The second course was rice and meat. The best was the dessert, which was baklava with goat milk’s ice cream. It was very delicious and indeed to die for.

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On the 3rd day of Ramadan, my hosts organized iftar for Msian students who studied in Ankara. About 20 students turned up and lots of menus were served. Fida was a great cook. Whatever she cooked surely tasted good. I had been putting on weight since I stayed here and I knew that I was going to miss her cooking very much.

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It had been 15 days in Ankara. I had received my Uzbek visa, but the Turkmen one seemed to be taking a while. They had promised that processing time was going to be 5 days but I still didn’t get the invitation letter. I was already behind schedule. On day 17, I couldn’t wait no more. I made a move after Turkmen Embassy ensured me I would get the invitation letter emailed to me, I was going to collect the visa from their embassy in Tehran. It was really hard to say goodbye to Fida after staying more than 2 weeks at her house. We had already become best of friends and Fida asked me to stay longer, but the ride must go on. I felt really heart broken when I bade her good bye and viewed the last glimpse of her through my side mirror. Without realizing, tears started to roll down my cheeks. Thank you very much Fida and Col Zek for the wonderful hospitality during my stay in Ankara. I will cherish this until my last breath.

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The wind was a bit strong as I made my way to Goreme via D260 – D765. The weather was fine and the view was spectacular with golden and greenish wheat fields and rocky mountains. The road was sometimes good and sometimes not so. It took me 4.15 hours and 302kms to reach the small town of Goreme. The rugged barren rocky view was a clear sign that I had reached this place which was famed for its cave houses and hot air balloon.

Its not difficult to find Red River Tours office, the meeting point for me to meet my Air BnB host, Cave. He brought me to the hostel cave and I got my first experience staying in a cave house. It was cold inside my cave room. Before iftar, Cave brought me to Love Valley for sightseeing and sunset viewing. This place was name as such due to the many phallic rock structures around the area. It was very unique.

The next morning, I woke up early for the hot air balloon experience. I had always wanted to experience this and I got a good price from Cave since I’m staying at his place. The experience and excitement were hard to describe. It was so beautiful viewing the rock formations and cave houses from above. It made me feel so small compared to God’s power. The sunrise added colours to the magical view below me and I felt in a fairy land.

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Once done with the tour, I checked out and make a move towards Erzincan. It was a long 545kms ride which I did in 7.15hrs, with no break except for quick stop for pics. The ride for the first half was ok with good road condition, but the 2nd half was quite taxing as the road after Sivas was bad, sunken and very bumpy. I had to fight side wind as well. My lips were peeling due to the dryness and the wind. However the view was spectacular. I love Turkey’s landscape, it’s so beautiful.

My last destination in Turkey is Dogubeyazit, a town not far from the Turkish – Iranian border. I took D100/E80 route passing by Erzurum and Agri. The weather was good and less windy today. I must say that Erzincan to Agri was one of my best routes in GDR. Even though I rode 500km in 7.30 hrs while fasting, but the amazing ‘carpet’ view of wild flowers of red, pink, white, purple and yellow made me forget the thirst and hunger.

 

IRAN (16TH – 24TH JUNE 2016)

Before leaving for the border, I stopped at a place which I’d been wanting to see for a long time, which is ‘The Landing of Noah’s Ark’. It was a 5kms off road and there was some badly broken asphalt with 4kms steep climb on the narrow winding road to reach the visitors centre of this attraction. The stoned ark was located on top of the hill (up left in the pic below). I had to walk up to reach the ark to get a closer look. There’s no one here except me and a village boy looking after his goats.

I didn’t spend long time here because it started to drizzle. The steep loose gravel road would be slippery when wet so I hurriedly left the place. Thank god I managed to get down safely. I left Dogubeyazit and rode to the border. There were too many people at the Turkish immigration. People were shouting and police was trying to control the situation. I didn’t know what was going on. Some touts approached me but I told them I was ok, and I could manage myself. I cued up at the long line. A nice guy asked me to follow him if I didn’t want to wait 4 hrs to get my exit stamp. He assured me he’s not a tout. He brought me straight to the counter and said something to the officer. I was lucky that the officer entertained me straight away. The officer said something in Turkish which the guy translated to me, asking about Iranian visa. I told them that Malaysians can get a VOA for Iran. The guy asked if I was sure about it, I said that was what Iranian Embassy in Ankara told me. He said ok then, but if I was going to have problems, he told me to reach him there. I thanked him and registered GD’s exit at the customs. It was very easy. Thirty mins and I was done on the Turkish side.

Then I rode to the Iranian side. I had to wait 10mins for the guard to open the gate. And after that, Iranian hospitality began. The guard brought me straight to the immigration office. The officer asked about visa and I told him the same thing. The officer made a call and 2mins later he stamped my passport. Then the guard brought me to the customs. My Carnet was stamped for the 1st time. Later, another officer inspected GD and then he said I’m good to go. Woweee…so quick! It only took 30mins and I was done. I couldn’t believe it. I had mentally prepared myself that it would take 2 – 3hrs, because that’s what I always heard from my over-land friends. There was no fees or insurance to pay. I’m so loving Iran 🙂

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However, the Iranians’ driving attitude was reckless. They drove like maniacs, switching lanes as they liked and not following the road rules. I had to show my middle finger (excuse me) to a car driver who almost ran into me. To make matters worse, rain started to fall as soon as I entered the country. A storm and heavy wind came soon after when I was crossing the desert. It was a very torturing ride. However, there were some very unique landscapes which I managed to see on the way. Finally, I arrived at chaotic Tabriz after riding approximately 350kms in 8.30hrs.

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The next day, I rode to Zanjan via route 32. It was raining a bit in the morning and the road was quiet. After a while, I realized that it was Friday, which is a rest day for Iranians. No wonder the road was deserted. The road was sometimes 2 lanes and sometimes 3 lanes but the surface was not very smooth. There was strong wind but the view of the sandy and rocky hills was spectacular. I made it to Zanjan in 5 hours.

After being back on the road for the past 6 days, riding approximately 2300kms from Ankara, I was exhausted. Riding, fasting and fighting the wind took so much of my energy. The ride into the capital city, Tehran where 13 million people live was quite hectic. Again, there was strong wind all the way from Zanjan to Qazvin, and the presence of wind turbines were the indicator. There was nothing to see except empty desert.

One funny thing which also pissed me off was the Iranians’ friendly attitude. They waved at me, took pictures and even tried to have conversations with me on the busy road from their moving vehicle! I didn’t mind that, but I did mind when struggling to keep my bike upright and to my lane, being pushed by the side wind, and having to deal with drivers who drove side by side and very close to me, exactly to the direction where the wind was pushing me, just to ask me where I was from, where I was going and welcome to Iran. Crazy. I knew they were not aware that they could endanger me by doing that. If there are Iranians reading this note, please, tell your people, don’t do that. I know you are the friendliest people on earth but this attitude is very dangerous.

I made my way to Sarah’s house. Sarah was a dear friend who I’ve known since 2008. We had lost contact since Iranian government banned FB, but I managed to find her through the internet few months before I arrived Tehran. It was so good to meet her again. She was only 18 when I met her the first time, and she’s so pretty now. We hugged for a very long time but I couldn’t stay long as I needed to send my bike for servicing. I had contacted Mr Vaziri who once worked for Yamaha Iran (but the business had stopped since 10 years back due to some problems). Mr Vaziri arrived and I followed him to TVS Motor. GD had its EO and oil filter changed, brake pad changed, air filter and spark plug cleaned, chain tightened and lubed, radiator and battery power checked, all screws tightened, air tires filled, coolant topped up, and side mirror fixed. The mechanics even washed the bike. When I asked Mr Vaziri how much was the total cost, he said, “It’s very expensive. You have to rob a bank to make the payment.” I’m puzzled. With a pat on my back he continued, “It’s our complimentary. You are our guest.” OMG. Iranian hospitality. TQVM sir…

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I stayed 3 nights at Sarah’s house in Tehran and I managed to get my Turkmenistan visa (finally). It cost me USD55 and about 1.30hrs of waiting at the embassy. After that Sarah drove me to Malaysian Embassy in Tehran and I reported to H.E. Raja Nurshirwan Zainal Abidin.

I was also being interviewed for Jamejam newspaper and CHAMEDAN magazine on my last day in Tehran. I didn’t do any sightseeing in Tehran as it was fasting month and very hot during day time. Besides I had visited Tehran before and had seen all the attractions.

After 3 days, I left Tehran with a sad feeling. Sarah and her parents were like family to me. It was hard to let go, however the journey must go on. For 2 days, I rode 1000kms on E44 Imam Reza Expressway and reached Mashhad, the holy city for the shi’ite. The ride had been quite taxing with temperature of 40°C, especially when crossing Dasht-e-Kavir, a sand stone and salty desert plateau, which in the heat of summer is said to be one of the hottest places on earth. The wind was strong as well, as the vast desert enabled the wind to blow without any disturbance. From a distance, I saw sandstorms and twisters of sands spiralling in the air. I had to fight side and head wind again which at times, I could only move at 50kmh. My arms and neck were so sore but I still kept my fast. There’s nothing in the desert except sand. I also noticed GD consumed more gas due to this. Normally, a full 12 litre tank can last 400kms, but these 2 days, it didn’t even cover 300kms per tank. Luckily gas here was sold at IRR10000 (USD0.35) per litre.

I stayed two nights in Mashhad and managed to visit the holy shrine of Imam Reza. It was very impressive and beautiful.

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