Sunday, August 15, 2010

Final Wrap-up

Leysin, January 2, 2011

Sitting here in my apartment in sunny Leysin, Switzerland, it's about time to draw the saga of the Silk Road Ride to a close and tie up a few loose ends. I've enjoyed just about every minute of the entire process (OK, aside from the six months spent recovering from rheumatic fever in 2002!) and I hope that this blog can help convey some of that excitement to you, my readers.

Here are a series of links that should help summarize this three-stage, eight-month, 17,750 km trip. There are maps, photo galleries, daily riding stats and a few news articles about the trip. I figured out that I rode for about 1185 hours at an average rate of 15.0 km/h, was in the saddle for 197 days (six and a half solid months), passed through 11 countries (and one semi-country, Nagorno-Karabakh), climbed an estimated 190 000 vertical metres (that's 22 times the height of Mt. Everest above sea level) and turned the pedals over 3 million times. Not bad!

These bare statistics, though, do not capture any of the essence of the trip. This trip was far more about the landscapes, the cultures, the ruins and the people along the way. Camping beside the Great Wall of China or beneath the tomb of Han Wu Di, traipsing awestruck through Bukhara, Samarkand, Esfahan and Ani, riding past emerald lakes like Sayram, Issyk Kol and Lake Van, crossing the Tien Shan and the Pamirs and the Elborz: these are what this trip was about. Staying with herders in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and townsfolk in Iran, crossing paths with fellow riders, having long conversations with people along the road, and feeling the connections between people and culture and history was what made this journey so worthwhile and helps explain why I stuck with it over the intervening years. The purely physical, while obviously integral to the trip, was really just a means to an end. I was confident that I could make it to the end of the Silk Road; what really mattered were the experiences along the way.

I hope that for some of my readers, this will inspire you to undertake your own dream voyages or projects. Life is short: play hard!!

Stay tuned to graydonstravels.blogspot.com for future trips!

Graydon


Google Maps


Daily riding summary charts
2002

Facebook photo galleries




Articles

An article by me in Verge magazine about the first two legs of the journey.

A brief article in English about my arrival in Venice in January, 2010.

Two more articles in Italian about the same thing.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The final, symbolic end of the Silk Road Ride

Carrouge, Switzerland, January 21

I'm sitting in my sister's apartment here in rural Switzerland, looking out at the freshly fallen snow and coming to terms with the fact that, after all these years, the Silk Road Ride is complete now. Although the ride really ended at the ended of October in Turkey, I had a much more symbolic closure to the trip a couple of days ago when I rode my bicycle, with its rebuilt rear wheel, from San Vito al Tagliamento into Venice, finishing at the site of Marco Polo's house in the Secondo Corte del Milion. It was a cold, cold morning, but a pleasant, flat, uneventful ride across the Veneto plain, skirting the Venetian lagoon, across the causeway and into the city that for so many centuries was Western Europe's trading window to the East. And while Marco Polo returned home from Turkey by ship, it was still nice to feel that I was crossing paths with the Silk Road's most famous Western traveller again.

My friend Manuel had set up a welcoming committee of journalists to take photos and talk to me as I pushed my bike along the streets and up and over the bridges towards my finishing point. So far, there are two stories that have come out in the Italian press:

this one (from Il Gazzetino, the main daily paper of Venice)
and this one (from Nuova Venezia)

They are in Italian but you can make amusing translations of them using online translator programs.

So the trip is over; now, after some time spent riding elsewhere (most likely Ethiopia), it will be back to Canada to start writing a book to turn this trip into an entertaining, informative read for the general public. I hope that you, my faithful readers, have enjoyed the blog, and will look for the book whenever it comes out.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Off to the Balkans

Berat, Albania, Nov. 20

The Silk Road Ride is over, sad to say. I will continue to add links and maps to this site, but for now my further cycling adventures, riding through the Balkans in November and December of 2009, can be found at

balkanblitz.blogspot.com

I hope you have enjoyed reading about my Silk Road adventures, and that you will continue to follow my cycling explorations in the future!

Peace and Tailwinds

Graydon

Monday, November 02, 2009

Silk Road Bike-u Haiku

For those of you who have actual poetic talent, İ apologize. For the rest of you, İ hope you enjoy this poetic overview of this bicycle journey expressed in the form of a series of haiku. Matsuo Basho is doubtless turning over in his grave.


2002

China

Buying ink brushes
Paying respects to Xuan Zang
Leaving from Xian

Chinese emperors
Lie in vast mausolea
Dead and forgotten

Buddhist cave temples
Honeycomb arid hillsides
Silk Road's eastern end

Cycling through cold mist
Tracing Gansu Corridor
Camped beside Great Wall

Homicidal bees
Pursue me across desert
Anxi oasis

Hot dry hurricanes
Dessicate a roadside corpse
Crossing the Gobi

Travel companions
Across the Taklamakan
Swift-riding Uighurs

Beziklik, Dunhuang
Frescoes adorn rock-hewn caves
Trail of spreading faith

Blazing heat hammers
Tourists in Gaochang, Turfan
Beer under grape vines

Pain spreads slowly through
Swelling joints in Urumqi
Journey suspended




2004

China

Return to deathbed
In rain-lashed grey Urumqi
Two long years later

Otherworldly blue
Propelled by gale-force tailwinds
Leaving Sayram Lake


Kazakhstan

Welcoming shepherds
As I ride across bleak steppe
Cold early springtime


Kyrgyzstan

Farcical frontier
Drawn across boggy valley
Of Scythian tombs

Warm sunshine lights up
Ancient rock-carved hunting scenes
Of Lake Issyk Kol

Mountain passes loom
Aching muscles climb all day
Cycling with Pushkin

Kebabs, beer, bread, borshcht
Filling my empty stomach
Chaikhana in Osh

Fast-moving blizzard
Freezes us on mountainside
Revived in warm yurt

Under Pamir peaks
Detained by bribe-seeking guards
Saved by football match


Tajikistan

Dead yaks mark border
High desert home to slaughtered
Marco Polo sheep

Lenin's statue stands
Above power-line fores
Rain-drenched Murghab town

Source of the Oxus
Defended by flood ramparts
We retreat, muddy

Cold rainy grasslands
Kyrgyz herders shelter us
Crossing the Pamirs

Along Afghan frontier
Hindu Kush towers above
We pedal hungry

Guest of expats
I eat, rest, eat, rest and eat
Break in Dushanbe

Alpine scenery
Crossing the Fan Mountains
Farewell dear Tajiks


Uzbekistan

Stung at border
Cheated times uncountable
Uzbeks rip me off

Floating dream-like blue
Above ancient mud brick domes
Samarkand awes me

Antique minaret
Glowers over timeless town
Gorgeous Bukhara

Ghostly empty streets
Open air museum town
Deserted Khiva


Turkmenistan

Golden statues stand
In soulless dusty towns
Damn Turkmenbashi

Heat like sledge hammers
Mongol-ruined cityscape
Camping inside Merv


Iran

Vodka and cherry
Homemade wine, date palm liqueur
Life in dry Iran

Carpets and pilgrims
Line streets beneath golden dome
Two days in Meshhad

Caravansarai
That once housed Marco Polo
My nighttime shelter

Flawless lines rise up
To a rocket-like apex
Gonbad e Kavus

Two day summit dash
Scotch on peak, hot springs after
Climbing Damavand

Endless traffic jam
Leads into smog-choked Tehran
My time has run out




2009

Iran

Smiles of real welcome
Curious conversations
Welcome to Iran

Sweating through dust haze
Battling traffic lunacy
I dream of water

Cold drinks on roadside
Picnics, dinners, veggies, fruit
Hospitality

Heineken and Scotch
Saadi's graveside poetry
Shiraz in summer

Persian capital
Tombs of long-dead emperors
Persepolis pomp

Tiles shimmer in sun
Mud brick towers, minarets
Esfahan wonder

Assassin castles
Lakeside picnics and swimming
Cycling the Elborz

Dashing cross the steppe
I spot a huge manmade shape
Soltaniyeh's dome

Torrential rainstorms
Kneedeep litter beside road
Caspian seashore


Azerbaijan

Water fountain burns
Gazelles frolic, headwinds howl
Riding to Baku

Oasis of ease
In Art Deco cityscape:
Hostess Natalya

Waves of green hills rise
Higher than the eye can see
Rainy Xinaliq

Returning from the hills
Slope and wind co-operate
Flying Baku-wards

Seki exudes charm
Kish village breathes history
Pedal self-destructs

Like a bad conscience
Huge faces loom by roadside
Cult of Iliev


Georgia

Rolling through vineyards
Past fortresses and castles
Kakheti charms me

Climbing to the sky
A sweat-soaked muddy goat track
The Abano Pass

Wine, khinkali, song
Horse-riding, mountain biking
Tusheti idyll

Good-humoured people
In historic countryside
Georgia's on my mind

Rushing stream waters
Orchards, meadows, village greens
Khevsureti jaunt

Towering ice peak
Backdrop for mountain freedom
Kazbegi sidetrip

Forty-first birthday
In Tbilisi old town
Cyclists' rendezvous


Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh

Deserted churches
Sport intricate stone carving
Armenian soul

Soviet greyness
Blights church-studded valleyscape
Debed Canyon ride

Like desert roses
Beautiful women light up
Ugly Yerevan

Dancing teenagers
Greek temple adorns bleak slopes
Geghard and Garni

Fruit and veg harvest
Ararat looms in background
Fleeing Yerevan

Roller coaster ride
Karahundj stones salute sky
Cycling through cold rain

Forested mountains
Soaked in blood of civil war
Remote Karabakh

Snow line creeps downhill
Industrial wastelands pass
Farewell Hayastan

Georgia (reprise)

Mud road to nowhere
Frozen forgotten highlands
Vardzia appears


Turkey

Fall colours glowing
Highlight volcanic landscape
On the road to Kars

Earthquake-shattered scene
Half-standing churches teeter
By Ani's chasm

Sneering begging brats
Hurl stones and bid dogs attack
True Kurdish welcome

Urartu fortress
Ancient temple hieroglyphs
Dust of history

Magic citadel
Old bridge, graceful minaret
Poor doomed Hasankeyf

Byzantine steeples
Where now few Christians live
Scenic Tur Abdin


Iraq

Comfortingly dull
Smiles of genuine welcome
Iraqi detour


Turkey (reprise)

Desert blooms cotton
Trucks thunder across lowlands
I near journey's end

Temples of the moon
Harran's eternal story
Lost limestone hamlets

Modern city growls
Around baklava cafes
Antep's mosaics

Ancient Antioch
Leaves little to be seen now
But Roman tilework

Armenian ruins
Hgih-perching castles look down
Cilician plain

Lightning and hailstorm
Herald my victory lap
Venetian Ayas

Watching rain pour down
Remembering journey highlights
Melancholic joy

The Victory Lap

Ayas, November 2

I am sitting in an internet cafe, watching recurrent gusts of rain blow in off the Mediterranean. It has been apocalyptic weather for the past 48 hours, ever since I got to within 10 kilometres of the end of my Silk Road Ride. My victory lap was done in blinding sheets of rain mixed with large hailstones, enormous and disturbingly close bolts of lightning and zero visibility. The hail has gone, but the rest of the weather has remained, foiling my plans for triumphant photos with my bike on the beach. Instead I have been lying in bed drinking copious quantities of tea and reading Shakespeare, letting my poor leg muscles relax.

My four-day final stage from Antakya was somewhat anticlimactic, at least partly because of the grey weather. The first day was actually sunny, and I rode southeast towards the Mediterranean through the coastal hills. On the way, I stopped to see the hilltop ruins of the Church of St. Simeon Stylites the Younger. This involved a steep climb of 400 vertical metres, past families engrossed in the olive harvest. There was nobody at the ruins, and I enjoyed having the place to myself. Ten years ago, Joanne and I had visited another Church of St. Simeon not far away, on the Syrian side of the border, and had been mightily impressed by the beautiful cluster of four churches meeting at the sad stump of the saint's rock pillar, chipped away by generations of larcenous pilgrims. This complex follows exactly the same plan, but the four basilicas lie in complete ruined disarray, covered by modern football fan graffiti. From these location, exposed to the cooling mountain breezes, the ascetic saint could look down on Antioch, the city which he viewed as a sink of iniquity. He spent many years living atop a metre-square platform atop a high stone pillar, performing various painful exercises in faith and having his meals passed up to him on a pole. I climbed up the truncated pillar and contemplated the stillness and simplicity of the world and had my photo snapped by a Turkish mother and daughter who had just arrived. It amazed me that two people would choose exactly the same sort of eccentric austerities near the same city, have the same name and end up with the same design of religious complex built around the site of their pillar-dwelling existences. On the other hand, a recent exercise in pillar-standing in Trafalgar Square in London was wildly popular with the public, so maybe there's a Stylite hidden inside all of us.

I dropped back down to the Orontes valley and rode to the Mediterranean, the first time I had seen the ocean since leaving Bushehr two and a half months earlier. The limestone hills backing onto the sea were dotted with ancient tombs and a feat of Roman engineering, the Tunnel of Titus and Vespasian, which saved the port of Seleucia in Pieria from recurrent floods in heavy rain. The city itself was the original capital of the Seleucid province before it moved to Antioch, but it remained as the deep-water port for the area. A lot of Chinese silk must have moved through this port over the centuries before it silted up. I had a delicious lunch of bread and hummus and then went for a swim; while the locals may have found it cold, it was similar to summertime swimming in Lake Superior and I enjoyed the sensation of having arrived at the end of a continent.

From Seleucia I rode along a tiny dirt road along a wild cliff-lined coast, where the only humans in sight were sport fishermen on the rocky beaches. After 30 kilometres I re-entered an area of dense settlement and, just as I was despairing of finding a place to camp, I found a tiny commercial campground, Orient Camping, in Kovacik. Run by an energetic Turkish-born hang-gliding aficionado and autodidact who had recently returned from 28 years in the Netherlands, the only other guest was Mike, another veteran traveller with a love of organic farming and escaping from the industrialized farming that rules so much of the world. We three spent an enjoyable evening of conversation before I took to my tent.

I woke up at dawn to the first drops of rain, and spent the entire next day cycling in various degrees of downpour. I passed through Iskenderun, ancient Alexandretta (Alexander the Great, like his general and successor Seleucus, established an amazing number of new cities named after himself throughout his domains, of which this was one of the first). It was a thoroughly modern industrial port that didn't detain me at all. To the north, somewhere along the blighted industrial landscape, I passed the site of the decisive Battle of Issos in which Alexander inflicted a heavy defeat on the Achaemenid emperor Darius III, opening up the Syrian coast to the Macedonian conqueror. In the downpour, I can't say I saw much all day until I camped in a pause in the rain in an olive grove outside Osmaniye. My tent and sleeping bag were both pretty moist from the night before and it was not a wonderful night of sleep.

The third day out of Antakya I rode all day under grey skies threatening further rain. I visited the deserted Roman city of Hierapolis Castanaba and had the place to myself. The ruins weren't spectacular but they had a melancholy air that suited the weather. I then put my head down and rode steadily across the fat, flat plain of Cukurova, covered with corn and cotton. This was the site of the medieval Armenian state of Cilicia, allied to the Crusaders. I stopped just short of their old capital of Sis, now renamed Kozan, and slept in the final campsite of the trip, an overgrown pomegranate plantation that was too close to a mosque's loudspeaker.

My final day of cycling dawned without rain for once, and I set off early for Sis. I was quite close to the town before the castle loomed out of the mist high above me. It was a stiff 250-metre grunt up a cobblestone road to get there, but it was well worth the sweat expended. Sis castle is one of those perfect fairy-tale castles that you picture in your mind but rarely see. Atop a steep ridge, it is a jumble of curtain walls, circular bastions and hidden underground vaults, sprawled picturesquely among overgrown shrubs and rocky cliffs. I wandered around taking photos, then sat down and sketched the upper citadel. Until 1921 this castle was also home to the second most important archbishopric in the Armenian church (after Echmiadzin), but that, along with all the Armenians who once lived in the area, is now just a historic memory. I had the entire castle to myself, aside from a plethora of lizards and a friendly cafe owner with whom I sat and drank tea.

The ride here took longer than I had expected; my lame map of Turkey didn't show distances to Ayas and guesstimating by eye I came up with a total that was some 30 km too short. I ground south across the plain, passing under the Roman hilltop fortress of Anavarza (I longed to go inside but the tyrant clock was against it). As I neared Ayas, passing a couple of minor Armenian castles, the sky darkened over the Mediterranean and the last 10 kilometres into town was, as mentioned above, a nightmare of monsoon rain and some very painful hail. My visions of drinking wine on the beach and taking photos of the bike and me vanished into the annoyance of trying to find a pension in the hurricane. Once İ had found a place out of the rain, İ did drink a few toasts of wine (one of the foods that travelled west to east along the Silk Road, from its invention somewhere in the Caucasus) and have a celebratory lamb kebab at a restaurant whose owner was so drunk he could barely stand. And that, suddenly, was that.
Ayas is an interesting city, at least what little İ have seen of it so far through the rain. Lots of old Venetian buildings, including a nice offshore castle. Not only did Marco Polo begin his epic 3-year overland trek to China here; some historians believe that shortly after he returned to Europe in 1295, he may have been captured by the Genoans at a naval battle off Ayas. It is certain that during his captivity, wherever he was captured, he recounted his stories to his prison cell-mate Rustichello, a professional story-teller from Pisa, who subsequently published them and elevated Marco Polo from an obscure but prosperous merchant into the most famous European traveller of all time. So Ayas may have launched his fame not once but twice.

I can't believe that it's over, but after 17,725 kilometres of cycling, some 3 million pedal strokes, two bicycles, 11 countries, eight and a half months and too many adventures to recall, I have finally succeeded in following perhaps the most famous and important trade route in history from one end of Asia to the other. I started the trip as a 33-year-old who thought he was immortal, and I finish as a 41-year-old all too aware of the frailties and limitations of my mortal frame. I am very happy, very tired and ready for the next cycling adventure: blitzing through the Balkans.

Riding Day No.

Date

Distance

From Bushehr

Daily

Distance


Final Elevation

Vertical

Metres

Cycling

Time


Average

Speed

Maximum

Speed

Daily Destination
8310/287440.487.31213776:3613.257.5Konacik
8410/297533.192.7638175:3316.832.2outside Osmaniye

85

10/30

7622.6

89.5

27

233

4:57

18.1

53.4

15 km from Kozan
8610/317725.7103.1106066:1816.438.7Ayas

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