When A Plan Goes Badly Wrong
The Tour d’Afrique 2008 Silk Route Bicycle Expedition, from Istanbul to Beijing, was full of surprises. After three weeks of cycling from Istanbul, we arrived to the town of Yusefelli for a much-deserved rest day. There I switched on the television to see that Georgia - 200km away - had been invaded by the Russian army. Fighter jets were bombing Georgian troops, and tanks were on their way to the capital Tblisi. We were entering Georgia in just three days.
The Show Must Go On
It wasn’t a hard decision to make. Cycling in a war zone was out of the question so a new plan was made. The group would continue cycling to the Turkish city of Kars, be bussed back to the capital Ankara, fly over Georgia to Azerbaijan and continue the tour on schedule. Meanwhile I would drive our tour vehicle through Iran, into Turkmenistan to wait for the cyclists while they took a ferry from Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea.
The first issue was I didn’t have an Iranian visa. Luckily I’d been to Iran earlier in the year and had picked up my previous visa at the Iranian consulate in Erzurum, where I would go again to try and get another. They took pity on me, and my positive stories from my previous Iranian visit persuaded them to give me a five-day visa on the spot. With this my wife - who was working with me on the tour - and I began our journey across Iran and into Turkmenistan.
There’s No Place Like Iran
We didn’t have a map of Iran, GPS or even a SIM card with data, meaning we would have to use the sun and mountains to navigate east! At the Iranian border with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s portrait staring back at us there was a moment’s hesitation, but we talked our way through and were off.
In Iran, local hospitality is like nowhere else on earth. If we hadn’t been in a rush we would have been able to sleep in people’s homes every night, have meals cooked for us and all our needs met. Sadly we had to press on and made good time, thanks to pizza delivery guy guiding us all the way through Tehran on his scooter.
Back Together At Last
Arriving at the Turkmeni border from Iran is not easy for westerners. Following hours of bureaucracy and having to surrender a copy of Che Guevara’s ‘Congo Diary’, we got through and arrived in the Caspian city of Turkmenbashi after a brutal drive through the 50 degree Celsius desert. Our reward? A week in the Hazar Hotel, a real dive you can’t leave because it’s 55 degrees outside and only 35 degrees in your room. The saving grace was freshly caught Sturgeon and ice-cold beer from a nearby restaurant by the sea.
Meanwhile the cyclists rode across Azerbaijan as planned, however their ferry across the Caspian had been delayed. Eventually they boarded, only to end up out at sea for an extra two days because the Turkmenbashi dock was full. The boat was running out of water and food when it finally docked and after a painful 12 hours getting everyone through customs and immigration, all cyclists and staff were back together at last to continue their journey across Central Asia and China, which is another story...