Friedel and Andrew Grant are Travelling Two: two Canadians who set off in 2006 to travel the world by bicycle. They have been on the road solidly since then, and have cycled through approximately 30 countries so far. Their decision to travel by bicycle is less a function of them being sports fans and more because they felt it was one of the best ways to get to know the people and contours (quite literally!) of a country. They tend to avoid tourist sites and their most memorable experiences have taken place in the “middle of nowhere”. Please enjoy a week-in-the-life of Friedel and Andrew as they bicycle from Syria to Iran.
Aleppo to Qalat Samaan (44km)
It’s departure day from Aleppo and the start of our journey north towards Turkey and Iran. We make breakfast in our hotel room (something you can do in countries where smoke detectors are a rarity) and then haul our bikes and 11 bags down three narrow flights of stairs. With everything loaded, we ride through eerily quiet city streets. It’s Friday, the traditional day of rest in the Muslim world and the absence of traffic is a joy but it also creates a slight hitch – all the bakeries are closed. We’re stocked up on carrots, onions and pasta but bread is our lunchtime staple. Finally we discover one baker at work in a small village. A few small pizzas are tucked into our bags before we sit outside on the ground, trying to translate our maps into reality.
We have 3 maps but they all disagree on which way we should go to reach a certain road. We give up and try local advice instead. “Al Tamoura?” we say, repeating the name of the next village to a few men in our best Arabic accent. It works. Fingers point through nearby lanes and soon we’re on a bumpy farm track. We have our doubts until we reach a paved road that leads exactly where we want to go: past an amazing array of archaeological sites.
Local families are out in force grilling kebabs and making tea over campfires, spreading their carpets between crumbling columns and ornate gateways. They insist on stuffing us with luscious dates and chocolates, before we’re allowed to continue on. The afternoon flies by and soon we’re looking for a place to sleep.
There are no hotels or campgrounds so we search for a place to tent. It must be hidden from the road and far from the village or anywhere people are likely to wander by. Amazingly we find the perfect spot just around the other side of the basilica and we get straight to work making supper. Our stove isn’t working well. It’s spewing soot everywhere. We struggle with it for a few minutes and manage to cook some pasta before we fall asleep inside our fluffy sleeping bags, insulated against a cold winter’s night.
Qalat Samaan to Midanki (55km)
Morning brings a stunning view: the sun is lighting up nearby ancient ruins and the olive trees are surrounded by mist. It feels like we are living inside a postcard but our illusions are soon shattered when we remember our stove is struggling. Breakfast is a trial as we set to work cleaning and replacing everything we can think of to no avail. Our pots are covered in soot and cooking is nearly impossible. This put us in a very bad mood.
We depend on our steaming cups of coffee and hot suppers to keep us going in the chilly winter temperatures but at the moment we’re in the middle of nowhere and can’t do anything so we turn our focus instead to more archaeological wonders. Soon we’re at the temple of Ain Bara, alone to explore the huge statues of lions and various winged creatures. Few tourists come to Syria and even fewer venture far beyond the main cities. They don’t know what they’re missing.
Two felafels each in the bustling market town of Afrin give us the energy we need to tackle a series of steep hills in the afternoon before we once again head into olive groves to camp for the night. We cross our fingers and by some luck the stove works just well enough to make supper before the cold drives us into our tent.
Midanki to Killis (55km)
The cold night has chilled our bones. On the bikes, our water bottles are frozen solid and covered in icicles. We never dreamed the Middle East could be so cold and although our sleeping bags have been good so far, we worry that much more of a drop in temperature will drive us out of our tent and into costly hotels.
Unwilling to test our stove, we eat jam and bread instead as an energy boost for the hills that characterize this part of northern Syria. As far as the eye can see there are peaks lining the horizon and it takes us the entire day to cover the relatively short distance to the Turkish border. We might never have made it without a trio of schoolboys who appeared out of nowhere to help us push our bikes up one particularly steep and gravelly section.
Our progress is further slowed by regular ‘traffic jams’ in the form of shepherds herding their flock and, yes, more history. Ruins are literally everywhere and our route takes us right over two original Roman bridges.
With so much to see, it’s nearly sunset when we reach the border and the first of several checkpoints. Several Turks try to push in front of us by stuffing their passports with money and shoving the documents towards a guard. The guard pushes the passports back with a chuckle and ignores them.
Daylight is quickly fading and we’re nervous because we hate cycling in the dark and we don’t yet know where we’ll sleep but the inspectors want to look through all our bags. After an intense examination of our tea bags, we’re sent on our way. Because of the late hour, we dive into the first field we see that’s a reasonable distance from the road. Tenting spots get easier to find the darker it becomes. Supper is a flop with the stove still sputtering and that night, perhaps because we have no hot meal in our stomachs, we suffer terribly from the cold. Friedel can’t sleep at all and wraps emergency foil blankets around her sleeping bag before she starts to feel comfortable. We hope for this cold snap to break soon.
Killis to Gaziantep (40km)
Today’s adventure begins at the bank. We’re trying to get money out of a Turkish ATM – something we’ve done many times before. As we insert our only bank card, a man on the other side of the machine turns off the power for maintenance work. Our card has just been eaten by the system.
This should be easy, we think, as we line up in the bank with business men in all our unshowered glory to get our card back. Unfortunately it’s not quite so straightforward. At first the teller refuses to help find our card. We persist. He insists it can’t be there. Eventually he looks and our card is retrieved. We breathe a sigh of relief but it’s too soon. The next words are devastating: “We’ll mail this back to your bank in England.”
Sheer panic descends on our end. Doesn’t he understand that we have no money, it’s New Year’s Eve, we’re far from any major capital and – to make matters worse – we’re going to Iran and must withdraw our next 3 months worth of spending money. Iran is not connected to the international banking system.
The teller is unsympathetic. “Turkish bank rules forbid me from giving this back,” he says. Tears are forming in our eyes. We try a desperate plea. “Can we please come home with you then?” we cry. “Or maybe we can sleep on the bank floor? It’s New Year’s Eve and we have no other option.” We say it with such desperation that he gives us a long look and then slides the card our way. “Sign this piece of paper and go,” he says.
We do as we’re told, grab the card and run before he can change his mind. Disaster averted.
Rest Day in Gaziantep
Happy New Year! The first day of 2008 is no big affair in Turkey. The banks are open and we spend most of the day changing money into U.S. Dollars for our time in Iran. Late in the afternoon we go to buy our bus tickets for the trip to the Iranian border. Any other time of year and we’d cycle the distance but this is the middle of winter and the mountainous route is firmly off limits to us.
Thankfully Turkish buses are a dream for the long-distance cyclist. Bicycles are no problem at all and the ticket sellers fight over us for the honour of selling us a fare on their coach. It takes several cups of tea and sugary cubes of Turkish Delight in 3 different offices for us to decide on the best deal. We spend the rest of the day seeking out the best chorba soup in the city. This time it’s down a back alley and the creamy soup comes drizzled with spicy oil. A meal for two comes to less than $5 – well within our tight budget.
On the bus to Iran
We get on our bikes for the ride to the bus station. We’re several hours early but you can never have too much time when riding through a strange city. Happily Andrew has a nose for navigation and we get there without any trouble, leaving lots of time to see about that stove.
We’ve checked it over a million times before but we must be missing something. As we go over all the parts of the stove one more time, a light bulb goes off. There’s a filter in the gas bottle that we’d forgotten all about. Could that be it? Sure enough, we unscrew the top and there’s the filter, bobbing up and down in the gas instead of attached to the system and doing its job. We fire up the stove just to be sure – attracting a large crowd of onlookers in the process – and it works perfectly. We’re happy to have fixed the problem but frustrated that we didn’t think of it earlier.
The call goes out to join the bus and soon we’re on the move, listening to Turkish music videos and opening up the little snack boxes that come with every bus trip in this country. Soon they’ll serve coffee and every few hours an attendant comes along with a strongly perfumed hand sanitizer. The bus stops throughout the night at every little town and even at 3am, almost everyone piles off to sip a cup of tea or buy a souvenir from the all-night service areas. Sleep is nearly impossible.
Dogubayzit to Bazargan
We stumble off the night bus groggy and in dire need of a toilet. Our old friend the traveller’s bug is back for a visit and we spend the next few hours close to the facilities in a local restaurant. When we’re feeling better, we negotiate a rate for a tour of the area and a lift to the border. We find out later that we negotiate very badly. Not only do we pay over the odds for our ride to the stunning İshak Paşa Palace, carved in gleaming pink rock on the side of a mountain, but we’re also suckered into believing that because it’s Friday, there will be no money changers operating in Iran and we swap lira for rials at an exceptionally bad rate. These are the lessons you learn on the road.
We forget all of this soon enough though as we’re overwhelmed with excitement at being in Iran. The border crossing goes smoothly and we take a moment to linger in the duty free shop: a bizarre collection of blankets, saucepans and vacuum cleaners. By early afternoon we’re cruising down our first hill in Iran to the frontier town of Bazargan. Tears collect in our eyes from the icy wind as we navigate the slippery roads.
Before long we’re resting in a well heated hotel room, trying to prepare ourselves for the adventures that lie ahead. In this cold, there’s little enjoyable cycling to be done so more bus rides await us down to the south, where we can truly start exploring the next country on our journey.
This autumn, Friedel and Andrew will complete their loop of the globe and will begin the daunting task of reintegration – a whole new adventure! Their website Travelling Two is a beautiful log of their journey. They also write a travel guide to their home province of Nova Scotia, which can be found here.