The journey into Bratislava was an easy ride. It was less then 30 kilometers into Bratislava and Slovakia was the first country that we were using the Euro, so everything just got more expensive 😦 In Bratislava we stayed at a Hostel called Downtown Hostel and it costs 15 Euro per person, but we had our Hosteling International cards so we got a little bit of reduction to 13.50 Euros 🙂 which is not much, but now that we are in Europe every cent counts 😛 and at the Hostel we were surprised that another Malaysian, Jia, had also checked into the same hostel. He is a young man doing his masters at a University in France and he has about 2-3 weeks left before he heads back to Penang. It was really good to meet up with a fellow Malaysian after so many months and be able to converse in BM. Speaking in BM was good but it was also a little odd after so many months of only conversing in English with other people whom we meet while on our journey- haha! We had quite a good time together and chatted a bit about things back home, like politics and also how much we missed the food back home. Jia also warned us that Paris is a very expensive city so maybe we will skip Paris altogether.
Bratislava is a quite a small city with some very nice old buildings and beautiful sculptures but it is not as vibrant as Budapest maybe because the people there are more laid-back and it is not a big city. I didn’t fully enjoy being in Bratislava and Vienna mainly because I was just very, very tired and lethargic. I guess my body is starting to feel the effects of not getting the right food and nutrition and also now that is is very hot and dry we get dehydrated very fast. This leg of the journey is getting a little harder due to the rising costs. As we can no longer afford the luxuries of sleeping in pension houses or hostels as often as before, we will have to depend on wild camping so that also means that we wont be able to blog or keep in touch with family and friends as often.
When we left Bratislava it was a hot and sunny day and after cycling about 12km out via the cycling lane, we stopped by a small abandoned complex, which looked like an immigration checkpoint so we asked a fellow cyclist if we had already crossed into Austria, and he told us that we were already in Austria and there is no more border checks 😦 looks like I won’t be able to collect anymore country stamps for my passport from now on. We also asked him if the bike lane leads all the way to Vienna.When he told us that it leads all the way into Vienna, I was really overjoyed to hear that. The trail that leads all the way to Vienna goes through “Donauauen” national park,which is a forest reserve, that is well maintained and also very clean. It was a really great experience to be in such a beautiful park . While enjoying the natural surrounding of the park, I even spotted a deer running around. There were also hundreds of cyclists using the trail going on their day trips to Vienna or Bratislava. Somewhere along the trail we bumped into another cycling – tourist, Daniel Jessen (from Germany), who was taking a breather by the trail, and decided to join him. He was also heading towards Vienna so we chatted for a while and told him about our plan for the day (that is to find a spot for wild/free camping). Daniel told us that he was also having the same idea and it will be his first time trying it out. So we decided to join forces and camp together. We found a hidden spot by the side of a road a few km. out of the main trail at a small village. While it wasn’t the best spot (as it was next to a road) we thought we would just try it out. It turned out to be a wonderful spot and it was a good experience camping out in the wild. We felt so relaxed just chatting and cooking while waiting for dusk to set up our tents. After we finished our dinner, we decided to call it an early night. With my tummy filled, I fell into a deep slumber 😀
The following day we broke camp and proceeded to cycle into Vienna. Once we were in Vienna we managed to find a nice hostel with the help of Daniel (Wombat’s Hostel) and so we had to part ways,which was quite sad, after Daniel received confirmation that he could couch- surf at his friend’s place (the plan was to try and wild – camp for another day in Vienna)
While in Vienna, we didn’t go out at all as we arrived quite late and we were quite drained plus it was a Sunday and all the shops were closed. We decided to move out of Vienna the following morning as staying on would be costly. So we headed out towards Klosterneuberg about 25 km out of Vienna, to try out a paid camp- site that Daniel recommended. We arrived at Donaupark Camping and after enquiring we decided to try it out. The cost was 20 euro for 2 people with the fee for the tent included. At the campsite there were about 50-60 camper -vans parked. Camper-vans are very common in Europe, so most of the camp- sites cater for these campers. Most of the campers at the camp-site were elderly folks just enjoying the spring weather. These campsites provide the basic facilities such as toilets and a basic kitchen for you to cook your meals. Some also do offer Wi-Fi but you have to purchase a ticket to use it and it will cost about 10-15 euros for 10 hours of usage 😦
The following morning we headed towards Krems and we are now cycling alongside the Danube for most of the way and there are many small villages and towns by the Danube with beautiful summer houses along the river. People were also doing water- sports activities like jet- skiing and also kayaking. So the plan for that day was to cycle as far as we could and before dark we would find a place to wild- camp. So about 2-3 km out of Krems we managed to find a spot just by the side of the road. There was a path leading down to the river and there was a nice flat spot behind some small trees where we could pitch our tent. I guess it is quite safe to say we could be the first Malaysian to ever wild-camp by the Danube 🙂
Here is a little insight of our daily routine before I get on my bike and go through the rest of the day. Our day would start with a shower followed by breakfast, packing up all our gear and cooking utensils and proceed to load our bikes before leaving the hotel/apartment room and start to cycle towards the next town. While the actual cycling is tiring, but on a good day the ride can be very pleasant with just the perfect weather and clear blue skies. Now that it is spring I can hear the birds chirping away and that helps get my mind off the cycling but sometimes when there is just miles and miles of open road with no villages or towns in sight, my mind begins to wander away as I pedal along, and some of the things that go through my mind would be things like how I wish I was back home hanging out at Misai SS2(local Mamak) with friends, or how good it would be to have a plate of yummy Nasi Kandar or Chicken Rice, and how I will be missing out on all the summer movies that are coming out 😦 to silly thoughts like why in the world did I choose to do this?!
On a day with bad weather you just wish your next destination would come quickly and you just look forward to a warm shower and of course food, and we had 2 bad days in a row. Yesterday and today was just pure pain and suffering. We were met with very heavy winds. There were weather reports on the news a few days back that Europe would be hit with strong winds (in France the winds were blowing at 110kph) but we didn’t think it would be that bad, but we were caught in it. While the winds weren’t blowing at 100kph it was probably about 50-60kph which is bad especially for us and with very heavy luggage and the drag that the panniers caused, that we were really struggling. Cycling through those winds is like virtually climbing uphill and cycling for 50 kilometers against the wind which can give you the cramps. To those planning on doing a long trip like this you really have to prepare yourself mentally. The physical part of it will develop over time as you go along 😛 so don’t worry too much about that.
We are now in Mosonmagyovar it is a border town bordering Austria and Slovakia. Today we managed to find a hotel where there is a huge Tesco Hypermarket nearby, which is 24 hours, and that really lifted my spirits, I know it is odd but nowadays going supermarkets or malls are the things that I look forward to and keeping me sane at the same time 😛 So, yes, life on the bike is very challenging. You need to be a bit crazy and be ready for all the challenges ahead, be positive and tell yourself that the best countries are yet to come! So tomorrow is a brand new day and a new country, We will pedal our way to Bratislava for a few days before heading to Vienna and praying that the weather will be fine.
With Zolt in Gyor. He is a classic motorcycle enthusiast and he advised us not to stay in Gyor as it was an expensive town as there were no cheap accommodation, so we headed out to a small village (Abda) where we found a cheap place to stay. He was also amazed that we had come all the way from Malaysia with our Bikes 🙂
It was a bright and sunny day with clear skies which was a welcome change from the gloomy and rainy conditions from the previous day. We left Haskovo feeling very relaxed as the next town (Stara Zagora) was just 65km away, so there was no rush for us. While cycling out of Haskovo we bumped into a local cyclist, Lazar. He stopped us to take some photographs. He was really happy to see us, even though we could not communicate well, as he spoke very little English, so we just had to use sign language. Only after a few kilometres we realised that he was going in the same direction to visit his friends in the next town (Dimitrovgrad), 15km away. On the way he also noticed that my father’s rear wheel was warped and he signaled for us to follow him into Dimitrovgrad to have it fixed. About 3 km from Dimitrovgrad, we were greeted by Lazar’s friend, Nikolai,who is an expert in wheel repairs. We rode into town and stopped outside Nikolai’s apartment, where he did the repairs. While waiting for the repairs to be finished two more cyclists came to join us. Once the repairs were done they invited us for tea at a local tea/coffee joint. Although none of them could speak English very well, we did manage to understand what they were saying. Lazar and Nikolai are also cycling – enthusiasts who have so far toured Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Maybe there are not many cycling- tourists who pass through Bulgaria, that is why they were amazed and happy that we were in their town. After taking some pictures and exchanging Facebook and E-mail addresses we said our goodbyes . We pedalled on and by that time the sun was at its full strength. It was about 20c and for the first time in 3 months I was cycling in my T-shirt. Very soon I would be able to ride using my shorts again 🙂
Before I embarked on this journey, I had always dreamed of visiting Turkey, so I was very excited when I knew that we would be passing through Turkey. But it was just unfortunate that we entered Turkey while it was still winter. It would have been great to cycle most of the way but as we went further the conditions were really bad in a lot of places of the Anatolian region, as it was covered in snow. So after Agri we had no choice but to take a coach towards Ankara as we thought it would be better there and that we could cycle towards Istanbul. But when we got to Ankara it was still snowing heavily, that we couldn’t even get out of the bus terminal. We then had to make a tough decision to just take another coach to Istanbul.
I am truly blessed to be here in Istanbul. It is a really magnificent city with a lot of beautiful historical buildings from the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. You really have to be here to fully appreciate the beauty of Istanbul. We only visited the Blue Mosque as the entry was free. We just can’t afford to pay to enter museums and the other places of interest, but there are still many interesting relics and things to look at and take pictures of. Most of the tourist sites are located in the Sultanahmet area and are just jam- packed with tourists, even in winter! As with all tourist sites, there will be people trying to sell you something from Turkish carpets to locally made porcelain products, small trinkets and also guide books. Sometimes the sellers can be pushy, which can be quite annoying. Looking for affordable food can be quite a challenge, too. You will have to venture out from the Sultanahmet area and in to some quiet alley to look for a Lokantasi (restaurant) or a shack like cafe which sells ‘Doner kebab’.
While we were travelling from Dogubeyazit, towards Ankara, I received some very sad and shocking news. 2 of my friends Kathrine and Suleman whom we had befriended while in Pakistan(Lahore Backpakers) were shot dead in Peshawar, while they were out shopping at the local bazaar. The motive was unclear at first but after a few days, a local Taliban outfit admitted to the shooting and it was a revenge killing to what was going on in China with the killing of Uighur Muslims. I was truly shocked as she had left a comment on my facebook album the day we left for Ankara and that was the day they were shot. It just sent chills down my spine. It was just unfortunate as they were very nice people and we had good times together while in Lahore. May they R.I.P. Thinking back, we were really lucky that nothing untoward happened to us while we were in Peshawar. There are bombings and killings going on there everyday.
Today is the last day we are going to be in Istanbul. Since it is no longer snowing we will start cycling towards Edirne and the Bulgarian border, and just hope and pray that the weather will be fine.
When we were done with the Iranian customs they assigned us a policeman to escort us to the bus terminal in Zahedan. Once we exited the immigration complex we were swarmed by taxi drivers wanting to take us to the bus terminal. Since there was only one guy who spoke English, he told us that we could not cycle as we were still in Balochistan (Iran side) and it is very dangerous for tourists as there are also kidnappings and the policeman will ensure that we get safely onto the bus to where ever we wanted to go. At the Zahedan terminal the police officer even escorted us to the loo and even paid for it. He wouldn’t let us out of his sight until he handed us over to the police personnel at the bus terminal. People in Zahedan were not so friendly and just gave us odd stares and communication really was a problem as they only speak Farsi. Even the sign-boards and menus are in Farsi so when ordering food we just used hand signals to show what we wanted to eat.
Being in Iran was a bit odd at first. With the country being an Islamic republic, I had imagined that Iran would be like Pakistan where there were no women on the streets, but it was completely the opposite. The women were doing their shopping, walking around hand in hand with their husbands or boyfriends and everyone was so fashionable with their winter wear/ overcoats and the women in their knee-high boots. After a few days in Tehran I began to understand that most Iranians are very liberal especially the younger generation. After speaking to a few people, a lot of Iranians have a strong dislike for the government, but they can’t express or say it aloud. They even showed me the hand gesture that they would be slaughtered like chickens if anyone from the government found out. In Tehran looking for a WiFi connection was impossible. Internet cafes are also hard to find. The internet is controlled and monitored. Most US websites and social networking services are blocked such as Facebook, Gmail, Blogger and WordPress but most people can get around it by using VPN. We were disconnected from the outside world for a week in Tehran.
After getting a bit bored, we decided to visit Karaj, a town about 45km from Tehran, where we met up with my friend Milad. I met Milad while he was on holiday in KL. We actually met by chance on the busy street of Bukit Bintang. My friends and I were on our bicycles when Milad approached us, asking where he could buy cross -country mountain bikes and if there were any races that he could join in Malaysia. We exchanged phone numbers and kept in touch through sms. Two weeks before I was to depart on this journey, he came back to KL again to take part in a DH (downhill race) in Kuantan and he got 3rd place. When he came to KL I told him about the journey that I was going to do and told him I would be passing by Karaj and he told me to just give him a call once I was in Tehran.
In Karaj, Milad introduced us to this Manager & friend, Afshin, and told us we would be staying with him. Afshin is a multi- talented sportsman. He does a lot of outdoor and extreme sports such as skiing, mountain climbing, cross country mountain biking and also big wall climbing. He also manages his own MTB club called Ofogh mountain bike club, Afshin also gets many tourists who come to ‘couch surf’ at his place and he brings them on skiing or mountain trekking trips.
We also had the opportunity to tag along with Milad to watch him train. He took us to his usual training ground. The mountain was quite high and it took us about 30 minutes to climb up to his starting point. From up there we could get a bird’s eye- view of Karaj, but the view wasn’t so clear as the town was covered in smog. On weekends the mountain can get quite busy with many people enjoying the multiple- treks to the summit. Milad also introduced us to his family and hosted a dinner for us at his home. His family was very happy to see us. I guess most Iranian families do not get the opportunity to meet up with foreigners as they are mostly disconnected from the rest of the world.
While we were having a real good time in Karaj, we had to leave for Turkey as our visa was expiring, so we headed for the border town of Maku in Iran. From there on, the landscape began to change with snow everywhere. There were huge snow-capped mountains. It was such an eye opener for me, as this was my first time seeing snow up close 🙂 Crossing into Turkey was no hassle as the police/immigration officers were very friendly and happy to know that we were from Malaysia. We then proceeded to cycle to the town of Dogubeyazit which was 45 km away. We got a taste of cycling in sub zero temperatures which was really torturous and to top it off there was a headwind of at least 20-25kph which really slowed us down. We cycled for 15 km before we decided that it was too cold and maybe dangerous to continue.It must have been at least -5 degrees. We tried to flag down a few vehicles but none of them would stop but finally a mini van with 3 people in it decided to stop and we loaded our bikes into the van. None of them could speak English, but one of them gestured to us that we were crazy to try and cycle in this weather :p lesson learned!
Dogubeyazit is a small town with mainly Kurdish people and most of them are very friendly. People on the streets would greet us with a smile. As it is winter now, there are not many tourists in town. The main attraction in Dogubeyazit is Mount Ararat (5,137m). The mountain is said to be where ‘Noah’s Ark’ landed and it really is quite a sight. Many tourists come here to climb the mountain during the summer. Another attraction is the Ishak Pasha Palace which was built during the Ottoman empire.
We had such a good time in Pakistan. We made so many new friends and ate so much good food that we were getting too comfortable, but all good things must come an end especially while travelling like this. It was really hard saying goodbye to all of our friends, but time was running out as our visas were about to expire. We were advised by a lot of people to take the train to Quetta instead of taking a bus, for fear of it being attacked by rebels at the tribal areas. Following their advice we took the train from Lahore to Quetta. I really enjoy riding on trains, but this journey will be remembered for the rest of my life! A journey that was supposed to take 24 hours was delayed up to 38 hours. At Jacobabad the train stopped for about 6 hours, after the previous train was attacked by rebels. Soldiers boarded the train at Jacobabad all the way to Quetta to ensure the safety of passengers. After spending 2 nights on the train we arrived at Quetta in sub zero temperatures. We then rode to town in search for accommodation. In town there were many police and military check posts complete with sandbags and barbed wires. Quetta is notorious for killings and kidnappings. There have been many stories of tourists/aid workers getting kidnapped, so we were told not to wander the streets during the night. Luckily for us, there was a tikka shop opposite our hotel or we would have no dinner that night. Even during dinner or walking on the streets we got a few angry stares by the Balochis. We didn’t even bother to take pictures of the town as we did not want to attract unnecessary attention.
The following day we boarded a bus for the final stretch of Pakistan. The journey from Quetta to Taftan was about 600km and took 12 hours. We had to register ourselves at various police/army check-posts and once the police were alerted of our presence they assigned an armed escort for the rest of the journey. All throughout the night I was thinking to myself whether this one policeman was enough to protect 30 passengers. If a party of 6 armed bandits were to ambush our bus we would be sitting ducks, for sure. We reached Taftan town at about 4am in total darkness and the only place opened was a restaurant where we had a quick bite (pratha) and ‘chai’ while we waited for sunrise and for the border to open. According to my Macau friend, Gordon, Lonely Planet described Taftan as ‘hell on earth’ and that description was not far off with just a few buildings and mostly barren wasteland. It really was a depressing place to be in. Checking out of Pakistan was easy, and after an hour we were done with Iranian immigrations and customs. After confirming that we only have 14 days on our visa, we decided to board a bus to Tehran.
So a short summary of our cycling in Pakistan. It is a bit more relaxed than India (trunk roads). On the trunk roads it was quite safe to cycle on the shoulder, but can be very bumpy, and also with hundreds of miles of farmland there is not much scenery. Bus drivers drive like they own the road, but they will honk to alert you. In the city, it is chaotic with the auto rickshaws and motorbikes. It can be dangerous when the auto-rickshaws just cut in without giving signal and just grind to a halt.
More on Iran in my next post.
Peshawar is my favorite city so far in Pakistan, known as the oldest living city in Asia. It is the capital of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, land of the Pashtuns. It is a vibrant city with a rich history. For centuries it has been a trading centre between Afghanistan and Central Asia. Back in the old days, traders from all over Central Asia would pass through and stop to park their beasts (camels) at the caravan sarai (highway motel) for the night and they would have a meal and also share stories with other traders from distant lands. Peshawar is well known for its bazaars. They have huge separate bazaars for spices, dry fruits, crockery, meat and fish, and also vegetables.
Another thing that Peshawar is known for is their green tea (kawa). They are served in little rustic teapots. These tea shops were very popular, centuries ago, with the traders. One particular tea- shop that we visited has been operating for 300 years.
While in Peshawar, we were lucky to be guided by Prince and Kausar, who are truly amazing people. They are certified tour guides and they are also very active with their charity work. Prince runs his own NGO which is called ‘World Welfare’. We had a rare opportunity to visit an Afghan refugee camp which was under their care. While our time there was short, we were warmly greeted by the elders and children of the camp. The settlement was recently rebuilt as it was all washed away during the floods in August 2010.The houses are mostly built with bricks and mud. It was quite sad as they were really living with the bare necessities. Prince has done a lot of work in the settlement. He has helped them rebuild their houses and also install water- pumps. He also runs learning centres for the children, by teaching them English and having Computer classes and for the girls it’s mostly handicraft work. The sad reality is that the children have to work in the brick factories for 10-12 hours to support their families, so the learning centers are always empty. In order to get the kids to come for classes, Prince sometimes has to fork out money for the families so that the kids can go to school.
Peshawar is also a city with the most gun shops around. I must have seen at least 25-30 gun shops. A long time ago people used to walk around town with their guns & rifles but are now forbidden.
It was too bad we didn’t have time to visit the tribal areas where they have a gun factory producing Kalashnikov (AK-47) rifles 😦