Sunday, 3 February 2013


Before we left home, Istanbul - and Turkey in general - was about as far as I could imagine riding. I'm not sure why but I seemed to have some mental yardstick that made places beyond seem misty and vague, and I was unable to imagine anything about them other they how they appeared on a map. And that  was despite  the hundreds of images I had seen on the internet, in guide books or on TV. I think Istanbul was fixed in my mind because when I was a child, I had a book about capital cities of the world. It was only small, and a freebie from a cereal packet, and the page I looked at most often was the page about Istanbul because I liked the picture - a white building with funny tops that Mum told me were onion tops, and it was set against a deep blue sky. That picture fascinated me and that was the image I had in my head as we rode towards Turkey.

We had intended to drop down into Turkey from Bulgaria and head straight to Istanbul but bad weather across Europe delayed us and we had to rethink our route.  Expensive insurance requirements in Serbia and Macedonia also influenced us, so instead we headed south from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Montenegro, Albania and Greece before turning east towards the Turkish border.

The crossing from Greece to Turkey was rather longwinded, courtesy of mutual dislike on both sides, with soldiers from the respective countries guarding each end of the bridge that separates them, giving us opposing instructions. But at least there were banks and places to get food there at this border, even if the ATM was difficult to find an then reluctant to give up cash from the disliked neighbour.

But it was here that we got talking to two British blokes taking a lorry back to the UK from Istanbul. It turned out that they worked in the film industry that their cargo was motorbikes - the bikes that had been used in the recently filmed and now released James Bond film, Skyfall. And they let us have a look at them, which was great.

But five separate gates, two hours and one visa ( me only - Nadine didn't need one for some reason, much to her glee) later, we finally left Greece and entered Turkey, only to be stopped ten kilometers down the road and subjected to a full document check. Luckily we had bought insurance at the border although we later discovered that despite what the border police had told us, it was not compulsory for EU citizens, and they had made a few Euros at our expense. But in the circumstances, there was little we could do, and anyway, the piece of paper and my IPA card satisfied the two cops and we were on our way pretty quickly.

And because we had crossed the frontier further west than originally planed, we were near to the Gallipoli Peninsula, and so decided to go there first.

Gallipoli is known for a nine month campaign in the middle part of WW1, involving mostly Australian  and New Zealand troops (Anzacs), also known as the Dardanelles Campaign or the Battle of Canakkale.  The Allies needed to take the Ottoman capital of Constantinople ( now Istanbul) in order to secure a sea route to Russia.  The campaign was a disaster for the Allies but it set up modern day Turkey and its founding leader - Kamel Ataturk. Gallipoli is known as Gelibolu in Turkey and is a peninsula - Turkish Thrace - which forms the European part of the country.

The place now seems very peaceful and is covered by pine forests and very sandy soil. There had been floods just the week before which meant that many of the roads were covered with a sand wash  and the banks had been carved by water. But I still tried a bit of off roading and took a tumble, smashing a mirror. But at least I didn't park my bike on a patch of sand and have it sink up to the rear axle. It took both of us and all our strength to pull it out; thank goodness it wasn't a bigger bike or we would still be there.

We stayed in Eceabat that night, in a hotel right by the ferry terminal. This ferry enabled us to get across the water to get to Canakkale and then down to Troy.

On that ferry, we met a gang of Austrian bikers on Goldwings, who seemed very amused by our intention to ride all the way to Mongolia on our little scooters. But they were nice guys and we chatted to them for the whole crossing, and later saw them on the road to Troy.

Troy (as in Helen and the wooden horse) is an actual place and an ancient ruin. However, its not just the ruins of one city but nine consecutive civilisations, all on top of each other. But even after nine incarnations, there's not much there to see except piles of stones and various cats that have taken up residence, but it's one of those places that you have to go to, so that's what we did. And now we've ticked that one off the list.

After another night in the same hotel - an an earthquake which I slept through, we set off for Istanbul via the northern coastal road. of the Sea of Marmara. It was a bit windy which made riding difficult as the wind really rips at your head and neck. But it was still warm and sunny, and rather than take main roads, we picked our way through coastal villages and towns, and through small places dotted up on the sparse mountainsides.

The scenery was beyond spectacular and it made us realise just how lucky we were to be able to actually go places. I don't mean as rich people, but as ordinary people able to opt out for a while and not be tied to an office,  a stressy boss or skiving colleagues or whatever. We had both worked and saved to be able to do this, and were doing it as cheaply as possible, riding cheap bikes and roughing it, but the thing was that we were actually doing it, and that was pretty awesome.

Pottering along was also a good way to see the countryside, and we stopped for lunch in an olive grove by the side of the road.I can't remember what we ate but I think it was probably stale bread and a bit of cheese that had seen better days, washed down with some warm bottled water but it really didn't matter.
On this day, there was some sort of celebration going on, which seemed to be the focal point of every town and village that we passed through. Bans, flags, soldiers and parties. It might have been a national day or something but whatever it was, we had many cheery waves thrown our way.

We eventually arrived in Istanbul at rush hour on a Friday evening, into the most insane traffic ever, both in volume and driving style. Yet the little scoots coped very well, winding through the jams and sneaking up hard shoulders. far from annoying people, occupants of cars seemed to love it, especially when they saw we were foreign. People hung out of moving windows shouting to us, asking us where we had come from, taking pictures of us and making way for us to cut across lanes of traffic. It was totally bonkers and a real rush to ride, yet not once did we feel unsafe or overwhelmed, either by the driving standards or the woeful capacity of our bikes. I think that ride through Istanbul's mega congestion will be one of the highlights of both of our lives.

And to our surprise, we found the Istanbul Bike Clubhouse very easily and met up with some UK friends who had arrived the day before. Mehmet and the Istanbul guys were great - very welcoming and helpful, and they allowed us to use their garage, tools and expertise for several days for some serious bike farkling.

They also helped us with some mods and repairs - they drilled out a broken exhaust studs and also showed us how to mend broken spokes, of which I had several,  and made a bit of a rack to secure the spare fuel cans. The spoke lesson proved invaluable when we reached Kazakhstan, the land of no mechanics, no help and lots of punctures.

We then spent three days wandering around the city on foot, being guided by Mehmet and seeing the sights, the back streets and being told the history of the place, as well as interesting little snippets as we went. It was an excellent tour and well worth the sore feet that we had at the end of it.

On thing that troubled us both was the behaviour of some tourists at the Blue Mosque. Turkey is a Moslem country but it also welcomes non Moslems and is very open and accommodating when it comes to visiting places. We both had scarves to cover our heads and wore long trousers to ensure our legs and ankles were covered, although the leg thing did not seem to be necessary. However, head covering was a must, yet women were removing their scarves once they had passed the entrance people. Not very respectful nor a great way to promote understanding etc. If it's that much of a problem, then don't go to such places. Not cool and as it's their country, they make the rules.

Mehmet also made a few phonecalls on our behalf and discovered that the Georgia/  Russia border was now open to non Georgian or Russian citizens. That meant we could ride the whole way to Mongolia and not take a ropey old ferry across the Black Sea to Russia, at a cost of £400.00.

We left Istanbul  to ride east and made good time, despite rain and dust.  As we had also crossed the Bosphoros, we were officially in Asia. People continued to be nice to us,  they all seemed to be called Mustapha, and everybody wanted to make us chai, which was lovely but we would never have got anywhere had we accepted their offers, so most of the time we declined, albeit after a brief but friendly chat.

Things went well for a day or so, despite more bad weather, but then my bike started to drop oil badly. It seemed to be dripping out of the head and into the exhaust pipe, and the engine loosing compression, suggesting a leak somewhere, so we tightened everything but it made no difference. Eventually we called Mehmet who directed us to Kastamanou, a town to the north of our intended route, where he said he would send an English speaking mechanic to help us. He turned out to be a non English speaking artist with no idea at all about anything faintly mechanical, but he was very nice and bought us food. He also found us accommodation and took us there - albeit he was on the bus which we had to follow on our bikes, mine smoking badly,backfiring, and limping pathetically. The following day he took us - via the same bus/bike method - to town and found us a mechanic.

The mechanics were great blokes and really helped us out. They also bought us lunch and generally chatted to us while instructing the junior mechanics. They tidied up writes, fixed the clutch, changed the oil and replaced the head seals. But the weather turned really bad with heavy rain. Apparently this is a daily occurrence in the summer, and something to do with the nearby mountains, their cooling effect, and convection. It was enough to keep us there for three nights and we realised that we needed to get on the road early in order to get the best part of the day.

So that is what we did on the day that we left, and we  rode about 60kms before my bike broke again, with exactly the same problem that had marooned us in Kastamanou. Unfortunately, this time we were miles from anywhere and high in the mountains.

Poor old mehmet got another call as we knew we could not fix this by the side of the road and despite what the mechanics in Kastamanou had said, neither of us believed it was as simple as another failed oil seal. And even if it was, what was causing them to fail?

An hour later, two men in a pickup truck arrived, heaved both bikes on the back and drove us to Sinop, the most northerly town in Turkey. One of the men turned out to be co owner of a bike shop, the other just a driver. Again, they thought it was a failed oil seal, and indeed when the head was removed, the seal was distorted. But why? I had already decided that if it was not a quick fix, then I would buy another engine and get them to fit it into the frame. However, they insisted it was the seal, and replaced it the following day after we had been hosted by them and their family. Again, really lovely genuine people, who made us very welcome.

But the seal failed yet again and after just 50 kms, so it looked like a new engine was the best option. However, that is when we encountered a touch of the 'we are men and men know best' mantra that seems to prevail in that part of the world, especially when it comes to anything mechanical. They were very nice about it but there was no way that they would concede, insisting instead that the head be sent by overnight bus to Istanbul for welding, and then returned, where it would all magically work. So we had to agree, albeit with the proviso that if a good repair could not be made, a new head was to be sent back. That turned out to be a good call as it could not be repaired, and had we not instructed them, we would have been marooned for longer. People meant well and were exceptionally kind but a straightforward engine swap would have been cheaper and quicker, but it was clear that it was just not going to happen.

So whilst we waited, the mechanics - Kadir,  brother Atilla  and several of their biking friends took us sightseeing and showed us around Sinop.

Again, they were very kind to us, and we even ended up having tea with the Police Commissioner who gave us perfume and chocolate.

Eventually, we got underway again but our Russian visas had started and we were still a country and a half away from that huge place, which we needed to enter and exit twice within thirty days. Time was becoming a real pressure and we knew we would have to rethink our route. We rode steadily eastwards along the Black Sea coast and my bike was good, with no sign of dripping oil. However, Nadine's clutch was slipping badly despite the Sinop mechanic replacing it with a new unit we had bought in Kastamanou. We tried to fix it, and took it to pieces on a garage forecourt but the inner screws had been tightened with an impact gun and were just too tight, so we we had to reassemble it and hope for the best. Luckily we later spotted a motorcycle mechanic shop which was open ( on a Sunday) and the owner helped us. We also had a tremendous stoke of luck when the man living next door wandered over to see what the two foreign women were up too, and revealed that he spoke fluent English - which he'd learned in Norway. So he translated for us, in a Norwegian accent, and it all worked out just fine.

By now it was already 1800 hrs but fortunately for us, we were closer to the Georgian border that we thought, so we decided to try and cross that night. Several hundred other people had clearly thought the same thing too, but again, fortunately for us, they were all in four wheeled vehicles - cars, vans and lorries, and were all arguing about who should be first in the queue. But being on small bikes, we were able to ride around them and get to the front while they carried on shouting at each other and insulting each other's driving. Then just as we got to the front of the queue, a heard of Alpine cows wandered through - and nobody batted an eyelid. They were really pretty cows too - all long lashes and brown/black faces and they walked right through the formalities. Bizarre.

Despite the cow distraction, we crossed the border very quickly, providing a source of amusement for the assorted police, customs men and still arguing drivers. Stamped out of Turkey, quizzed at the Georgian line, stamped in to Georgia, requizzed and then sent on our way with waves and shouts of ' 'Foreigner womens! Welcome to Georgia', we were just one smallish country away from Russia, and so far, the scoots were still behaving.

However, we were about to break a real no no as far as bike riding goes; riding in the dark. But we had no choice. Batumi town where we crossed was several kilometres further on,  but after a few kilometres, we were diverted off the main road onto a track in pitch black. Actually, the track was more crater than track and we had no idea where it was leading us. So there we were, fully loaded, dodging craters by feel and people by luck, unable to see, and not having any idea of local road rules. Then just as we'd been flung into it, we popped out again, right next to a garage were there was a truckies motel.  The owner not only gave us a room, but told us to ride the bikes straight into the lobby which we did, and he cooked us dinner. Neither of us had any idea of what it was, nor did we care, and we even found some dollars with which to pay the bill because he couldn't remember the exchange rate for Euros. But we had survived another day.