Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Silk Road Ridden!

Antakya, Tuesday, October 27

17,350 km from Xian

I made it!!! I rode into Antakya today at midday, outrunning a massive thunderstorm, arriving in what was once Antioch, the third-largest city in the Roman Empire and (more importantly) the western terminus of the cross-Asia caravan routes known as the Silk Road. The Silk Road has been cycled!

Now, it's true that Antioch declined from its apex after its harbour and river silted up, after a disastrous series of wars with the Sassanid Persians, and especially after a number of catastrophic earthquakes around AD 526. After that point, Antioch lost its pre-eminence and trading importance. While a bale of Chinese silk would have likely made its way overland to Antioch in the first century AD before being loaded onto a ship, by the time of Marco Polo (the 13th century) it would more likely have made its way either to Alexandretta (now called Iskenderun) or to Ayas, both ports with strong Genoese and Venetian trading presences. So, just to cover my historical bases, I am not stopping the bike ride here. Tomorrow I will ride out to the old port of Antioch (the city itself is some distance up the Orontes River from the Med), then continue up the coast to the old Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, where Ayas (modern Yumurtalik) is located. Ayas will be the last port of call for this bike odyssey.

The ride to get here, three days from Gaziantep, was almost anticlimactic. Very little climbing, kind of non-descript scenery, not too much to look at. The first day I rode south to Kilis, eulogized in the Lonely Planet as a must-see repository of historic architecture. Maybe I didn't find the interesting bits, but it was as modern and anodyne a city as you could imagine, and I stayed only as long as it took to order a take-out doner kebab. I camped in a reforested grove of pine trees that night and slept well.

Yesterday I pushed on, through a very Mediterranean landscape of olive groves that could easily have been in Spain, Greece, Tunisia or Italy. The historic interest of the day was the Hittite sculpture workshop at Yesemek, where big blocks of black basalt were shaped and roughly carved before being shipped to their final destination to be finished and polished. Lots of half-finished sphinxes, lions and mountain gods, with one enigmatic bear-man thrown in for good measure. The Hittites (1500-1150 BC) are one of the oldest civilizations whose traces I've run across on this trip. I pushed on, following a river valley downhill towards Antakya before camping in an olive grove. My sleep that evening, however, was badly interrupted by a series of spectacular thunderstorms, my tent fly leaking in the worst of the explosive downpour, and a small river flowing right under my tent and soaking me from beneath.

I awoke groggy this morning, but the prospect of making it to the end of the Silk Road got me going, as did the downhill and tailwind. I flew along into town, found a hotel, decorated its outside with my laundry and my bicycle, and set off to see more Roman mosaics at the museum. Unlike at the Gaziantep museum, these mosaics came from a variety of sites in the Antakya area rather than from one spot. Some of the workmanship and composition was spectacular, but the mosaics as a whole were far more heavily damaged than the Antep ones, making for less of a wow effect. It is still, however, one of the world's best collections of Roman and Byzantine mosaics anywhere, and I walked out pretty happy.

I strolled through the old town of Antakya, although few old buildings remain, mostly from Ottoman times. There is almost nothing of the physical fabric of the Roman or Byzantine city, or even from the Crusaders (who besieged the town for six months in 1097-98 before taking it and occupying it for over a century). The bazaar area, while extensive, is almost exclusively made of modern buildings with an unfortunate modern metal and plastic roof over the street, making it more of a modern shopping mall than an old-fashioned bazaar. Almost no hand-made goods are for sale these days; cheap plastic mass-produced junk (much of it, ironically, from China) is the order of the day. In comparison to Isfahan and Shiraz, or nearby Aleppo, it's nothing to write home about. However, the fact that this was where the bales of silk carried across Asia by countless caravans and merchants from Han Dynasty China ended up was consolation for the unremarkable architecture.

Antioch is also a major city in the history of Christianity. St. Luke is said to have come from Antioch, and Saints Paul and Peter both spent a lot of time here. Antioch had a huge Jewish population, and it was here that the new sect first prospered. I rode out to a cave that was supposedly used as the first Christian church, but was put off by the 8 TL admission charge so I looked at it from the outside, then went back to town to scarf down the scrumptious local dessert specialty, kunefe, a mixture of shredded wheat, white cheese, pistachios and honey.

So tomorrow the last 4 days of this long bike trip begin. I will write more from journey's end in Ayas.

Peace and Tailwinds


80
10/257201.0
76.5
471
496
4:29
17.2
50.9
past Kilis
81
10/267301.8
100.8
141
974
6:04
16.7
56.4
before Kizilhan
82
10/277353.1
51.3
63
189
2:32
20.3
36.6
Antakya

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Across the Euphrates

Click here for a Google map of the 2009 leg of the bike trip

Gaziantep, Saturday October 24
17,125 km from Xian

Today I passed a few important milestones. I crossed the Euphrates River and so entered the Mediterranean core of the ancient Roman and Byzantine empires. I left behind Turkish Kurdistan and its unfriendly inhabitants. And I got to within a week of the end of my Silk Road ride. After more than 8 months of riding, over 17,000 kilometres, innumerable hills and mountain passes, and 11 countries, the end is firmly in sight!

I last posted from Midyat. It has taken me 6 days of sometimes eventful riding, past lots of ancient history, to get here, across the northern part of ancient Mesopotamia, across trade routes even more ancient than the transcontinental Silk Road. The first day (Monday, October 19) took me down to the Mesopotamian plain, through a canyon carved into the limestone plateau by a rushing river, beside which dozens of tea gardens and fish restaurants had been erected in the irrigated oasis at the bottom of the valley. I eventually emerged from the canyon onto the baking Mesopotamian plain, so close to the Syrian border that I could easily have tossed rocks into Syria. The road curved around the base of the limestone plateau to Dara, an old Byzantine town founded on irrigation. Half the modern village is constructed at least partly of re-used limestone blocks from the ancient temples, aqueducts and bridges. The ruins were nothing spectacular, but did have two unusual features: a vast underground water cistern, and a series of Byzantine burial chambers carved into an old limestone quarry.

I sweated my way further around and back uphill onto the plateau, finding a campsite atop a hill just outside Mardin. I was on land being reforested, and the forestry department came to check out my intentions before deciding I was mostly harmless. I had a wonderful quiet, dark, warm night, perfect for stargazing and guitar playing. The next morning, I made my way around the hill to the Syriac Orthodox church and monastery Deir ul Zafaran, formerly the world headquarters of the religion. It was an attractive building, but had been pretty heavily restored, obscuring much of the fine ancient stonework. I also had to take a guided tour with a large group of elderly, talkative Turks from Istanbul which detracted from the historic atmosphere.

I spent a few hours wandering around Mardin. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site, full of old stone-built houses, churches and mosques, but it was very difficult to take any decent photographs. It was also full to overflowing with busloads of Turkish tourists, and after visiting a highly disappointing museum, I beat a hasty retreat back downhill and out onto the plain. I had entered a vast area being irrigated under the enormous GAP (Southeast Anatolia Project) plan, and the stony, arid plain suddenly turned into Iowa, or perhaps Mississippi, covered in huge fields of corn and cotton. This made it difficult to find a decent campsite, and I ended up behind the back wall of a gas station, hidden from casual view but not from constant traffic noise.

The third day out of Midyat was a long, hot grind, trundling along the busy truck route across the plain (called by the Turks the Ipek Yolu, or Silk Road). All those trucks I had seen queued up at the Iraqi border follow this route from western Turkey, as do a lot of the trucks headed to Iran and Central Asia. The only good part to this tidal wave of trucks is the dense distribution of truck stops, all providing water coolers and cookies for thirsty, hungry cyclists. The road was torn up for a huge resurfacing and widening project, and I was glad to get off onto a tiny road to the south after lunch. I didn't see this road on my woeful map, so I had to ask a lot of directions to find my way across an unirrigated range of limestone hills to my destination, Sogmatar. The villages I passed were tiny (most fewer than 100 inhabitants) and seemed to come from a bygone century. There was essentially no motorized transport, and little sign of life. Eventually I got to Sogmatar and had my faith in humanity (especially its youthful part) restored by a young boy of 12, Zahid. When I showed up in his hamlet, he very politely asked if I wanted to see the ancient carvings. He showed me around, gravely serious, conversing in Turkish but always quick to use sign language or simpler words if he saw I didn't understand. I checked out the ancient temple to the moon goddess Sin, the underground chamber full of Assyrian relief carvings and the hilltop statues of the moon goddess and sun god. The village was (of course) full of children but they ignored my presence, continuing with their schooling or their games. I was mystified, until I found out that the village was not Kurdish, but Arab. I camped just outside town on another hilltop, quiet and isolated beneath thousands of stars.

The next day was long, hot and painful. I continued along my tiny road to Suayb, another small village built on the site of a former sizeable Byzantine town. The village is full of ruined buildings, and lots of subterranean burial chambers that are now, a bit morbidly, used as houses by the modern villagers. I continued through the stony desert hills to Han al Barur, an old caravansarai. Since it might be the last of many caravansarais that have marked my route, I was keen to have a look around, but was foiled by a Turkish TV crew that had arrogated the site to themselves and wouldn't let me in. I sneaked around the back to have a peek anyway, and returned to find them moving my bike to get it out of their next shot. I smiled as I told them what I thought of them barring my entry (luckily, none of them spoke English) and rode off, past old limestone quarries and more burial chambers, and out onto the Mesopotamian plain and its irrigation again. Suddenly there were people everywhere, all picking the cotton crop, as I rode into the town of Harran.

This town is claimed to be the oldest continuously-inhabited town on earth (I don't buy this; Jericho, Damascus and Aleppo make the same claim and seem more credible). It's also famous as a place where Abraham, patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, spent a few years. Its distinctive beehive-shaped houses are its current claim to fame, as villagers made use of the vast amounts of ancient mud brick lying around the town to build high domed roofs against the heat. It also has the oldest mosque in modern Turkey, a seventh-century Abbasid creation that now lies in ruins except for its distinctive tall, square minaret, completely unlike just about every other minaret in the country. The centre of town is a huge archaeological zone, and the main mound is under active excavation, exposing levels of occupation dating back to the Neolithic Age. Standing atop the mound and looking south, I could see a number of other mounds, many unexcavated, each the location of a prehistoric settlement on the plain that had crumbled and dissolved into a tell-tale hill. Somewhere out there, in 53 BC, a Roman army led by the rich but unsoldierly triumvir Crassus was annihilated by a Parthian army waving silk flags and employing the Parthian volley, a flurry of arrows fired on horseback while apparently retreating. Luce Boulnois starts the excellent book The Silk Road with an account of this battle, said to be the first time Romans had seen the distinctive new fabric making its way west from China. On the other side of town a castle, most recently rebuilt by the Crusaders during the time of Baldwin, count of Edessa, loomed picturesquely.

Surfeited with history, I rolled out of town towards Sanliurfa, ancient Edessa. A few kilometres outside Harran, I was attacked by a dog. Unlike most dogs I've encountered here, this one did not warn me of his approach by barking. The first I knew of his existence was when his open jaws bounced off my rear pannier as he snapped at my calf. I immediately swung at him with my Kurd-beater stick, but missed. This violent swing unbalanced the bike and sent me into the soft shoulder of the road, where I promptly and painfully crashed, twisting my sore back in the process. The dog trotted back to his yard, and I got up off the ground and rode in pursuit, pelting it with rocks. The owners of the dog, a Kurdish family (naturally!) saw nothing wrong with their dog attacking passers-by and were quite put out that I pursued it around their yard, hurling curses and rocks at it. Eventually, to appease me, the mother dropped a rock on the dog's skull to its great surprise. I rode off cursing all things Kurdish: dogs, dog owners, children and parents.

I was in some pain and also quite dehydrated when I got to Urfa, so I didn't really do justice to this ancient city. I checked into a hotel, ate, did internet, and the next morning visited the small museum and the pilgrimage site to Abraham. Islamic tradition holds that Abraham was born here, rather than in Ur as Jews and Christians believe. They also believe that Job spent his seven years of hardship in Urfa (at least they believe that it was Satan, and not a cruel and capricious God, who inflicted his sufferings on him). I fixed a flat tire (only my sixth in 7000 km) and rode off, back up onto the limestone plateau, in the midday heat. I passed through a howling wilderness, and then suddenly found myself on a huge downhill to the mighty Euphrates River, where I gave my back a break by sleeping in a surprisingly good, cheap motel in the riverside town of Birecik.

This morning I woke up refreshed and went off to the outskirts of town, where the extremely rare and endangered eastern bald ibis is being bred back from the brink of extinction. The wild breeding pairs have migrated away for the winter, but a number of juveniles are being raised in captivity, and I spent some time watching them and trying to take pictures through the wire fence (sorry about the quality of the photo!). Then it was a surprisingly easy 60 km into Gaziantep, another big modern city with a sizeable historic core. The more important features of the town, however, are baklava and the truly amazing Roman mosaic collection at the museum, rescued from the important Roman town of Zeugma when the Euphrates was dammed in the 1990s. The mosaics are very skilfully executed and are a great primer on Greek mythology, and their sheer number is astounding; I have only seen one other collection of comparable size, in the Tunis museum.

I rode into town through extensive pistachio plantations, and these go into the town's famous baklava pastry. I was skeptical that Antep baklava would be any different from the stuff I've been munching all the way through Turkey, but it really is substantially superior. I sampled the output of several different pastry shops, and was in tastebud heaven by the end.

So, now that I'm in the old Roman Empire, the end of my journey can't be far off. I should be in Antakya, ancient Antioch, where the early Silk Road trade between Han Dynasty China and the Roman Empire would have had its western terminus. Then I will turn north to its medieval endpoint, the old Cilician Armenian port of Ayas (now known as Yumurtalik) near Adana. A week of cycling and my seven-year obsession with the Silk Road will have its end!

Peace and Baklava







58
9/29
5275.4
102.6
1461
1076
7:01
14.6
35.7
Anipemza
59
9/30
5372.2
96.8
2205
1884
7:00
13.9
56.4
Bavra, Georgia
60
10/1
5450.3
78.1
1220
531
6:24
12.2
34.4
VardziaJustify Full
61
10/2
5517.3
67.0
955
744
4:12
15.9
47.1
Akhaltsikhe
62
10/3
5592.6
75.3
2090
2603
7:04
10.6
55.8
Damal, Turkey
63
10/4
5695.7
103.1
1768
1307
6:40
15.5
51.3
Kars
64
10/5
5763.0
67.3
1601
753
4:48
14.0
47.1
Kozluca (near Ani)
65
10/6
5861.7
98.7
923
991
6:20
15.6
53.9
near Igdir
66
10/7
5947.3
85.6
1706
1486
6:05
14.1
48.6
Dogubeyazit
67
10/8
6060.0
112.7
1722
1486
7:14
15.6
49.9
NE corner of Lake Van
68
10/9
6136.1
76.1
1774
770
4:33
16.7
53.4
Van
69
10/11
6237.3
101.2
1787
1072
6:20
16.0
44.7
near Tonsonlu
70
10/12
6334.4
97.1
1065
712
5:58
16.3
50.7
near Narlidere
71
10/13
6435.8
101.4
707
969
6:13
16.3
66.0
Besiri
72
10/14
6487.5
51.7
438
604
3:19
15.6
55.2
Hasankeyf
73
10/15
6567.1
79.6
891
1247
5:50
13.6
51.7
Midyat
74
10/19
6672.9
105.8
794
858
6:13
17.0
51.3
outside Mardin
75
10/20
6749.5
76.6
446
701
5:15
14.7
58.9
35 km west of Kiziltepe
76
10/21
6864.4
114.9
487
855
7:09
16.1
50.3
outside Sogmatar
77
10/22
6969.9
105.5
467
483
6:41
15.9
45.6
Sanliurfa
78
10/23
7057.0
87.1
325
1018
5:02
17.4
62.8
Birecik
79
10/24
7124.5
67.5
821
839
4:10
16.3
43.3
Gaziantep

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Into the Mesopotamian Lowlands

Midyat, Turkey, Sunday October 18

Greetings from a mid-size industrial city in SE Turkey where I have just come back from a three-day break from pedalling. More on that later, but first let me bring you up to date on the five days of riding it took to get here from Van.

I left Van early on a sunny day, although there was a definite haziness to the sky. I rode along the lakeshore all the way to the ferry dock for Akdamar Island. I waited around for the required number of tourists (all Turks, except for me) to gather and then we put-putted over to the small rocky island, looking like one of the Cyclades transported magically from the Aegean to eastern Anatolia. The entire region of Van was a major centre of Armenian culture for many centuries until 1915, and the island of Akdamar boasts the most famous single Armenian monument in Turkey, a spectacular church perched atop a ridge, visible from the mainland for many kilometres around. Restored two years ago, the church boasts even more stone carving than I had seen on churches in Armenia itself, with several bands of bas-relief showing a variety of saints and biblical stories. They looked particularly striking in the strong sunlight, and with fresh snow on the high peaks of the Taurus Mountains to the south. I sat and sketched and listened to choral music on the iPod and spent a wonderful hour and a half absorbing the historical and artistic richness of the island.

Leaving the island, I could have taken a long detour out onto a mountainous peninsula to see a second Armenian church at Altintas, but with the afternoon drawing on, I chose instead to have a pleasant lakeside lunch and then cut across the isthmus of the peninsula on the main road. Little did I suspect that there was a 550-metre climb ahead, over a spur of the Taurus Mountains. As I descended from the pass, the stream I was following suddenly turned south and I realized that it was flowing towards the Tigris river and ancient Mesopotamia; the watershed between Lake Van and the Tigris basin is only a few kilometres inland from Lake Van. I camped at dusk in a dusty field, not far from an encampment of horse-breeding nomads.

The next day I rode, largely inland and out of sight of the lake, to the city of Tatvan, the western terminus of the lake ferries from Van. I climbed up onto the volcanic dam that created Lake Van, had a relaxed lunch and then started a steep drop down the Bitlis River canyon. I passed through Bitlis, a historic old city founded by one of Alexander the Great's officers and dominated by an ancient castle. I admired a few pieces of fine Seljuk architecture, and then escaped the crowded chaos of the city centre. I had a wonderful moment as I left town. I had chatted briefly with a mailman before I left the kebab shop where I had bought a takeaway doner kebab for dinner. As I pushed my way through the thronged street, a young man came up to me, grabbed my handlebars and demanded money for the privilege of being allowed to go on my way. I had picked up a handy stick beside the road on the way out of Van, and so I pulled it out to convince the lout of the wisdom of letting me proceed unhindered. The youth turned away and started walking quickly back up the street I had descended. Unknown to him, his path led him right past the mail delivery truck in which my mailman friend was sitting, stuck in traffic. As my would-be extortionist came level with the truck, the mailman hopped out of the cab, grabbed the guy in a headlock and delivered a couple of stinging slaps to the head. A few passersby, who had seen the entire episode, cheered as the young man ran away, his ears, and head, presumably ringing. I flashed my rescuer a grateful smile and a thumbs up.

Leaving Bitlis, the road continued its steep descent of the canyon, but the pleasure of the downhill was cancelled by the enormous road construction project that blighted the valley for the next 50 kilometres. It also made it hard to find a campsite. Eventually I spotted something on the other side of the river, and ended up pitching my tent next to a centuries-old caravansaray that is now used as a horse stable by the family whose house sits atop the roof. It was much warmer at this low altitude, and I sat outside the tent gazing at the stars, refreshing my knowledge of the constellations, before retreating to the tent for some guitar. It had been a good day.

On October 13th, I sped downhill along the river, turned away from the main road to Diyarbakir, and made my way to the small junction city of Kurtalan, from where I hoped to make my way by back roads to the historic town of Hasankeyf. I changed my mind after being advised that the bridge shown on Google Maps didn't really exist and that the Turkish military police, the jandarma, probably wouldn't let me go along this route anyway. The jandarma and the army were particularly thick on the ground in this area, and I have the impression that the area south-east of Bitlis was (and maybe still is) a hotbed of PKK militancy. Certainly the Bitlis River canyon would be a perfect spot to ambush Turkish military convoys. At any rate, I turned east towards the town of Batman (really, that's the name!) and camped about 20 km short of the city, in a landscape utterly transformed since leaving Lake Van. At an elevation of only 700 metres above sea level, I had left the volcanic highlands of eastern Turkey and Armenia definitively behind me and entered Mesopotamia, the once-fertile but now parched lands drained by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The sky was hazy with desert dust, and the temperature rose to levels I hadn't felt since Iran. The terrain was now a brown, rolling plateau, bereft of high mountains and less interesting to look at, although easier for cycling. İ was excited, though, as İ really was entering one of the great cradles of ancient civilization, a place even older than the Silk Road itself.

My last two days into Midyat were easier cycling than usual, and richer in historical and cultural interest than I had become used to. The first day was a short 50-kilometre jaunt into Hasankeyf, a gorgeous old village on the banks of the mighty Tigris River. The ride there was pretty, particularly the last 10 kilometres as I dropped into the Tigris valley, lined on the far bank by steep cliffs pitted with man-made caves; the entire area is rich in troglodyte dwellings.

Hasankeyf itself was spectacular, a somewhat modern village near the waterline, below a huge ruined upper city which constitutes one of southeast Turkey's premier attractions. The citadel and upper city are completely uninhabited now, but must have housed a far larger population centuries ago than currently reside in the new town. There are extensive graveyards and mosques (a couple of which must have been Byzantine churches a millenium ago), and many hundreds of stone-built houses. Most of the houses have excavated underground sections, visible now that the soft limestone has weathered away to expose them. I sat atop the highest part of the citadel, watching the afternoon shadows lengthen across this deserted Escher-esque city, photographing and sketching and feeling much happier about being in eastern Turkey. The combination of huge abandoned cityscape and troglodytic houses was like a happy cross between Monemvasia or Mystras (both of which I was lucky enough to visit in Greece last summer) and Turkey's Cappadocia. If you ever find yourself in Turkey, you should make room in your itinerary for Hasankeyf before a planned irrigation dam completely submerges the new town and much of the old town, a fate already inflicted on many historic sites in the Euphrates valley further west. That evening I chatted with a Kurdish film-maker now based in the Netherlands about the situation of Kurds in Turkey and in his native Syria. He felt that the Kurds in Syria were far worse off than their ethnic brethren in Turkey, Iraq or Iran.

The next morning I was away from my cheap motel by 7:30, an almost unheard-of early departure, and rode back out of the Tigris valley and up onto a picturesque limestone plateau, the Tur Abdin, a historic hotbed of Syriac Orthodox Christianity. I got most of the way to Midyat, and then turned east to explore a few of the historic villages and churches that dot the plateau. I was glad that I did, as I loved the atmosphere of the area. It felt very timeless and Levantine, with old vineyards and olive groves carved painstakingly out of the rocky landscape, the removed chunks of limestone piled into ancient stone walls between fields. There was essentially no motorized transport, with donkeys and horses filling the gap picturesquely. The grape harvest was in full swing, and I was given bunches of grapes to munch on.

Atop the limestone ridges were ancient villages, full of fine stonework, some of which must have been Ottoman and others older, definitely Byzantine and maybe even Roman. I visited three Syrian Orthodox churches: Mor Yakob, Mor Kyriakos and Mor Izozoal. The first was founded in 419, and parts of the stonework in the early basilica-style church seem to date back to that time. I loved the atmosphere of tranquility in the surrounding monastery, and the Aramaic (the language used by Jesus, as well as by the Achaemenid Persian empire as its official language and by Parthian Silk Road traders as a lingua franca during the Roman period) inscriptions. The Aramaic script is interesting, a sort of pointy Arabic strangely similar to Manchu and ancient Mongol. The surrounding village of Baristepe is partly Christian and partly Muslim, with a priest still in residence at the church. Mor Kyriakos, in contrast, is locked up and guarded with a high wall topped with barbed wire. Almost no Christian families still live in the surrounding village of Baglarbasi, most having fled during the Kurdish-Turkish conflict in the 1990s. Mor Izozoal was locked too, but a local Christian family act as caretakers and opened the doors for me. The church has been extensively, and expensively, restored recently, and not as much original architecture is left as at Mor Yakob. I pedalled into Midyat in late afternoon happy with my church-architecture detour, and noted a number of church steeples poking out of the crowded old part of town. The Lonely Planet says that another monastery, Mor Hananyo, south of nearby Mardin, which İ will be visiting in a couple of days, was for many centuries the headquarters of the Syriac Orthodox church, and it seems that the church still puts a fair amount of resources into preserving these historic outposts.

I rather liked Midyat at first; nobody threw stones at me, and for the first time in Turkey, I had the feeling of being in a modernizing country connected to the rest of the world. Lots of locals chatted with me in a variety of European languages (German, French, Dutch) picked up while working abroad. The whole city had a more relaxed, civilized air than I had encountered further east, with less of an edge of tension, volatility and wildness.

I left my bicycle and most of my luggage in the hotel on October 16th and headed off on a little excursion to the south and east of town. Being an incurable country-bagger, I saw the opportunity to add an interesting entry stamp to my passport: Iraq. Now, before you, gentle readers, start hyperventilating or writing me off as a deranged lunatic, I should add that I only visited the relatively stable, calm and safe Kurdish autonomous area in the north. Backpackers have been making their way here for several years now, and Tony Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet, made a much-publicized visit a few years ago.

It was remarkably easy and straightforward to get from Midyat to the town of Dohuk: a couple of minibuses to the town of Cizre in Turkey, then a shared taxi to the border post, where I got stamped out of Turkey and into Iraq within an hour, unlike the trucks (laden with bags of concrete and other construction supplies) stuck in a ten-kilometre-long queue on both sides of the border. I spent a tedious while both at the border and in the nearby town of Zakho waiting for other passengers to share the cost of a taxi to Dohuk, but I was still in Dohuk before two o'clock, six hours after leaving Midyat.

So what is this corner of Iraq, only 65 km northwest of violent, volatile Mosul, like? The answer is....kind of dull, strangely enough. The main street and the bazaar are crowded with (predominantly male) shoppers, and the town itself is an overgrown village that has grown explosively since the end of the first Iraq war in 1991, and so is lacking in historic buildings although it is in the Tigris valley. I spent my time eating (much tastier, cheaper food than in Turkey), wandering the streets watching the older men, clad in traditional Kurdish overalls, cummerbund and kefiyeh headscarf, about their shopping, and relaxing at my hotel, catching up on rest and sleep after a long stretch of cycling since Yerevan with few rest days.

Quite a few people speak English or German from time spent abroad, or from working with American forces, and I have had some interesting discussions. I spent an hour drinking tea on a street famous for the trade in birds (ptarmigans, according to an older gentleman with impeccable English, although I suspect they may be another species) and guns (I saw a lot of pistols changing hands for a hundred dollars or so a pop). I watched lots of tennis on TV, and read lots of Shakespeare. Iraq may seem a strange place to come to unwind, but it did the trick for me. I would love to go back to Iraq someday when it's possible to visit the historic monuments further south, but that day looks pretty far in the future at the moment. İronically, on my way back through Turkey to Midyat, İ passed the site of a PKK bombing earlier in the day. Makes me wonder which side of the border is actually more secure!

My initial liking for Midyat has been dimmed; when İ got back from İraq, İ took a stroll through the old part of town, full of pretty stonework, but had to abandon it as İ was followed by a mob of feral children baying for money and throwing stones (for once, the girls were worse behaved than the boys). One thing that puzzles me about Turkey is that Turks are supposedly crazy about family and children, but then so many parents let their children run wild in Dickensian street mobs without any supervision or discipline. Out here in the east of Turkey, there are an awful lot of kids not going to school from a very young age, hanging around on the street begging for money and cigarettes. It strikes me that by allowing parents not to send 7-year-olds to school, the Turkish government is storing up problems for the future. A large group of uneducated, undisciplined young people with no prospects of employment in a modern economy would be a perfect recruiting ground for the next generation of PKK fighters.

So now the final leg of the bicycle journey begins; after spending a lot of time getting to the southern border of Turkey, I will now head more or less directly west along the border, diverting to see historic sites along the way, to Gaziantep, before diverting south to Antakya (ancient Antioch, the third-largest city in the Roman Empire and an endpoint of the early Silk Road) and north to Cilician Armenia and Marco Polo's starting point at Ayas. Within two weeks or so, my eight-month-long traverse of the Silk Road should be over!

Peace and (Iraqi) tailwinds.

Riding Day No.

Date

Distance

From Bushehr

Daily

Distance


Final Elevation

Vertical

Metres

Cycling

Time


Average

Speed

Maximum

Speed

Daily Destination
69
10/11
6237.3
101.2
1787
1072
6:20
16.0
44.7
near Tonsonlu
70
10/12
6334.4
97.1
1065
712
5:58
16.3
50.7
near Narlidere
71
10/13
6435.8
101.4
707
969
6:13
16.3
66.0
Besiri
72
10/14
6487.5
51.7
438
604
3:19
15.6
55.2
Hasankeyf
73
10/15
6567.1
79.6
891
1247
5:50
13.6
51.7
Midyat