Miles’ Memories Part 3: The Silk Route Cycling Expedition
The original Silk Route Bicycle Expedition run by TDA Global Cycling ran from Istanbul to Beijing. I was lucky enough to work as the chef on the trip both in 2007 and 2008. While the 2007 expedition went pretty smoothly, the following year was full of surprises.
The Kackar mountains of Turkey have some of the most beautiful roads for cycling that I’ve ever experienced. It was here that our cyclists had arrived to, in the small town of Yusefelli after 3 weeks of cycling from Istanbul. A much-deserved day of rest awaited us there, some time to enjoy the local hospitality and mountain views. With the vast majority of the tour still ahead of us the cyclists were in high spirits and excited for the months ahead, by the time most people slept that first night in Yusefelli all was well with our route and schedule.
I woke early to get a head start on some of the tasks I’d be working on during the rest day, which is actually a very busy day for the expedition chef. The first thing I saw though, on the television at the office of our campsite, was that Georgia, only 200km away had been invaded by the Russian army. Fighter jets were bombing Georgian troops and tanks were within hours of the capital Tbilisi. Our route had us entering Georgia in just 3 days.
There are many factors that go into the planning and make up of a trans-continental bicycle expedition, with the primary focus being the safety of the cyclists. Of course there is always risk, but it is the duty of the organizers to assess that level of risk and decide what is acceptable.
It was not a hard decision to make that cycling in Georgia was out of the question, not only for the safety of our cyclists but that to bring tourists to a war-zone would take valuable resources away from the local population in need. Over the course of a day a plan came together. The group would continue cycling to the Turkish city of Kars, near the Armenian border. From Kars, the cyclists and most of the staff would be bussed back to the Turkish capital of Ankara, in order to fly over Georgia to Azerbaijan and continue the tour on schedule. Meanwhile my wife and I, who was working on the tour with me, would drive our tour vehicle through Iran, into Turkmenistan and wait for the cyclists, who would be taking a ferry from Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea.
Last minute plans rarely occur without risks or unknowns of their own. The first issue was I did not have an Iranian visa. Luckily I had been to Iran earlier in the year and had picked up my previous visa at the Iranian consulate in Erzurum, Turkey where I would once again go to try and get another. Though by no means were they supposed to issue a visa on such short notice, they took pity on me, and I would like to think appreciated my positive stories from my previous Iranian visit and gave me a 5-day transit visa on the spot. With this we began our journey across Iran and into Turkmenistan.
As we had not been expecting this detour we did not have a map of Iran, did not have any GPS with us at the time or even a sim card with data, essentially we would use the sun and mountains to navigate our way east! At the Iranian border, with the large photo of the Ayatollah Khomeini staring back at us, there was a moment’s hesitation, but beyond that we simply talked our way through the border post and we were off. As is always the case in Iran, the local hospitality is like nowhere else on earth. If we had not been in a rush we would have been able to sleep in people’s homes every night, have meals cooked for us and all of our needs met. Sadly we had no time for this and pressed on. Despite our uncertainty with directions we made good time, we even had a pizza delivery guy guide us all the way through Tehran on his scooter!
Arriving at the Turkmenistan border from Iran is not such a common place to be for westerners. Turkmenistan is bizarre at the best of times. Luckily after hours of dealing with the bureaucracy at the border we managed to get through, though not after giving up my copy of Che Guevara’s “Congo Diary” to the Turkmenistan border police; perhaps it was deemed literary contraband.
After a brief stop in the capital of Ashgabat, and a brutal drive through the 50 degree Celsius desert we arrived in the Caspian city of Turkmenbashi. Our reward? About a week spent in the Hazar Hotel. Imagine the dumpiest hotel in the world, but at the same time you don’t want to leave it all day because it’s 55degrees outside and it’s only 35degrees in your room. The saving grace was the freshly caught Sturgeon and ice-cold beer from a little restaurant by the Caspian Sea that opened once the sun started to set.
The cyclists had been busy riding across Azerbaijan as planned, however their ferry across the Caspian had been delayed as is often the case with this ferry. Eventually they did board, only to end up sitting anchored at sea for an extra 2 days because the dock at Turkmenbashi was full.
The boat was running out of water and food when it finally did dock and after a painful 12 hours spent getting everyone through customs and immigration all the cyclists and staff were at last back together as one group to continue the journey across Central Asia, China, and our finish in Beijing. Needless to say the list of surprises on this trip wasn’t finished!