A glimpse of Georgia, Turkey and Greece

A glimpse of Georgia, Turkey and Greece

Georgia is a fascinating country to visit: even though it was a part of the Soviet Union, Georgia is way more distancing itself from Russia than Armenia is. In Georgia, it is way easier to communicate in English with the locals than in Armenia, where people would speak Russian.

We dropped the bikes for two weeks and visited Georgia with Charlotte and Nico. We were punished for pausing our bike trip: our rental car had weak brakes, got a flat tire, and ran out of gas. Fortunately we had our bikes to fetch gas from a gas station nearby!

Apart from Tbilissi, the capital, we visited Mount Kazbeg in the North. We also camped on the beautiful coast of the Black Sea in the East. When our legs started itching too much, we biked to Chakvi and later to Batumi, towards the Turkish border. Batumi is a very fashionable and modern city, it could be the Las Vegas of Georgia. It was funny to come back to the city we first reached with the ferry from Europe in mid-april.

After two relaxing week in Georgia, we crossed the border to Turkey and discovered, what it is like to follow Ramadan in a Muslim country. As we were camping on a beach, one evening, a group of boys of our age were having a barbecue. They kindly offered us some of their dinner, which we immediately enjoyed… before the sunset. These boys however, had to wait for the sun to set before they could dig in.

Far from all the Turks follow Ramadan. One of the truck drivers who drove us to Trabzon, along the Black Sea coast, prepared a delicious picnic miraculously appearing from the little kitchen hidden under his truck!

The magic kitchen hidden in Hamza’s truck.

The funniest Couchsurfing host we had was in Samsun. Çem had a very dark sense of humor. We still had interesting talks about Turkish politics. As we were in Turkey, Erdogan had called for early elections, and his advertising was omnipresent. In the streets, on television, on loudspeakers driving around the towns, everywhere. No wonders he later won the elections.

When we reached Istanbul, the city was hysterical about the elections: fliers were distributed, flags were hanging, and there were a lot of political stands on the streets. We still had an amazing time in Istanbul, thanks to Gizem, whom Sebastian knew from before. Gizem showed us around and explained a lot. Her parents made us feel very welcome in their home, and her mom cooked delicious Turkish food.

After Istanbul, we had a couple of very nice biking days in Greece, from the Turkish border almost to Thessaloniki. It was very calm and quiet compared to Turkey. We enjoyed to bike through olive tree fields, along the Aegean Sea, passing by historical monuments from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.

Olive trees along the Aegean Sea.

As mentioned in an earlier article, we are lucky to have European passports. Entering the European Union was quick and easy for us, whereas migrants have to risk their lives to cross this same border…

Biking through the Balkans

Biking through the Balkans

For the last part of our journey together we decided to stick with the original plan – cycling. The landscapes we crossed during these two weeks were amazing. First we followed the Vjosa river in the south of Albania. It is the last untouched river in Europe, it was impressive to see the space a river occupies when it is not canalised. Second the deep blue color of the sea in Montenegro and southern Croatia was breathtaking. Last we went through the mountains in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina. A cycling route constructed on the old CIRO train tracks made it very easy to go further and gave us time to enjoy the untouched nature.

Mountainous Bosnia and Herzegovina
A view along the CIRO path in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The first day cycling in Albania Sebastian’s back rim broke. Too many kilos were attached to the bike for too many kilometers. Some improvising skills, a piece of metal found and a Swiss Army knife made it last for another 120km to the next bike store in Fier. In the end this one mishap lead us to plenty of good encounters. The bike shop is run by Tur. He is in his sixties but did not lose any of his young life spirit. He has cycled through most of the Balkans and Turky himself. He insisted that we stayed at his place for a night to share a meal and stories from the road. Chance sent Richard cycling from Greece home to Cardiff into the same bike store the same day. We ended up cooking all together that night and cycled together the following day as well. In the meantime, Sebastian’s bike also got a new rim but this will not be what we remember of this night all the four together.

Richard was not the only other cyclist we met. Coming closer to Europe we suddenly met other cycling companions way more often. They generally ride into the opposite direction than we do. That way we may exchange our experiences with them and have always things to look forward to.

Sunset in beautiful Croatia

The Balkans have a very moving and complex, recent history. It was very interesting to learn more about it. Albania has lived through one of the toughest communist regimes in the world. Its leaders cut the ties with the Soviet-union and China accusing them of being not consequent enough. The change in the beginning of the nineties was therefore very drastic. As there was a big shortage of most consumer goods during communism, almost nobody wishes these times back. The capital Tirana evolved to a dynamic modern western city while most of the countryside did not benefit from such a development in the last thirty years. This contrast became obvious to us with what we saw from our bikes.

Bunkers from the communist times pop up here and there in Albania

The last city we visit together is Sarajevo. Here we learn more about the horrors of the Bosnian war in the nineties during the breakup of Yugoslavia. The “Museum of crimes against humanity and genocide” touches us a lot. It is crazy what the people here had to live through not so long ago. The siege of Sarajevo, the ethnic cleansing and people living in the same area starting to fight each other are hard to imagine for us. Though through our presence here we can grab the scale of these crimes better than with the little we know from the newspaper back home.

Sarajevo is also the city of farewell for us. Miriam will continue her adventures in Sweden while Sebastian attacks the last 1500km to Switzerland by bike.

We are lucky to live in Switzerland

We are lucky to live in Switzerland

We were delighted by our trip in Iran. Never did we experience such a generosity and hospitality before. However, our two last hosts in this beautiful country gave us a different perspective…

In Rasht, Faraz explained to us that Iranians are mostly hospitable towards foreigners. He would never get invited into people’s places, would not receive plenty of gifts from strangers. He would not have been treated in the same way by his compatriots as we have been.

Faraz and his wife Masumi have plans to leave Iran with their daughter Lena. They are looking for better life perspectives. Faraz wants to teach English abroad, and to do so he has to pass a teacher’s certificate. As a non-native speaker, this is the only way for him to get hired abroad. He says that even with his years of experience and his perfect american accent, schools all over the world would rather hire a native speaker or a European than an Iranian. However, the course leading to the certificate is not taught in Iran, it is therefore very expensive for Iranian standards… Faraz and Masumi are now facing a difficult decision: is it worth quitting Faraz’s job for one semester and investing their savings into the course, not knowing if Faraz will pass the teacher certificate? Will he really get hired abroad if he passes the certificat? And what if they later do not receive a visa for the country they want to emigrate to?

In Tabriz, we stayed with Sina and his parents. Sina is a very dynamic and positive young man. He simply loves life. He is very unhappy with his home country though. He gets to feel a very different side of Iran compared to us. He struggles with all the limitations while we are lucky to encounter all the kindness of Iranian people. He never forgot to point out this fact when we were questioned about Iran in the street and responded enthusiastically. This is why Sina is learning French in order to emigrate to Canada. He imagines his future abroad, and not in Iran where he sees no life perspectives. He also does not see how the situation would change soon. He participated in protests but nothing has changed. Amongst his friends, Sina is not the only one who wants to leave Iran: one girl we met was leaving for Ankara, another one wanted to emigrate to Germany.

With Sina (on the right) and his parents in their market

Sina made us realize how lucky we are to be born in Switzerland. With our passports we are able to travel around the world rather easily. It is Sina’s dream to see the world from all its angles. But due to his passport he has only been able to visit countries in the neighborhood of Iran. He says that even if there are good education and relatively good living conditions in Iran for him, he has not the same freedom as we do.

Finally biking!

Finally biking!

Only ten days left until our visa expires?! We need to get some biking done in Iran. The coast of the Caspian Sea, North of Iran, seems like a nice itinary.

We start from Sari, in the East, and bike to Babolsar the first day. The region is much greener than what we have previously seen, and the climate is a bit cooler. In Babolsar, two young women come up to talk with Sebastian: quite unusual until now. For some reason, Iranian women keep their distances with Sebastian. They’re from Isfahan and spend their holidays with their family in that popular resort.

The next day, we bike from Babolsar to Royan. We both allow ourselves to go swimming in Royan, even if men and women are theoretically not allowed to swim together on Iranian beaches. Right then, Mehdi comes over to us and invites us to his home for the night. He wants us to meet his sons, so that they understand the importance of learning English. But before that, Mehdi drives us to the top of a mountain with a gorgeous view over the Caspian Sea, the mountains around and the sunset. We later meet his family, and share a delicious meal with them at home. His twins, age 5, seem not to accept we don’t understand Farsi (the language spoken in Iran) and keep chatting and chatting: they are delighted to meet strangers.

Our host, Mehdi, and his family in Royan

An even more surprising invitation comes up to us the next evening: while looking for a place to set up our tent, a family invites us to their summer house nearby. They won’t sleep there that night, so they tell us to stay there as long as we want, for free of course. They cook a delicious Iranian meal only for us, and they even buy us breakfast for the next day. Before leaving, the father teaches us how to use a gun -not because we would need it, only because he likes hunting and wants to give us this (weird) experience. We feel both surprised and honoured to have been invited by this family!

In the morning, we bike towards the next surprising invitation. We set up our tent on an empty beach. Five minutes later comes a man on his motorcycle who insists to have Sebastian speaking with his daughter, Hoda, on the phone. Hoda invites us to their home, and doesn’t understand that we prefer to camp in the nature that evening. While we start cooking, Hoda, her father and her two brothers join to convince us to come over to their home, at least to have dinner. When they finally accept that we prefer camping, they bring us home-made dinner to the beach! We are both delighted and astonished by their generosity!

Found a lonely camping spot…

…which became less lonely, with Hoda and her family!

We say farewell to the Caspian Sea and head to Rasht, where we stay with a very kind and generous family. Faraz is an English teacher, and he and his family would like to emigrate, which is not easy…

In Rasht, we are hosted together with two German bikers: Ina and Mirko. Believe it or not, they have been biking for 2.5 years. They are now on their way home to Germany, after having visited South America and Asia. Have a look on their blog: http://mina.rtwblog.de.

Some people bike for 3 months, others for 3 years. Inspiring!

In order to save time, we hitchhike to Tabriz, which will be our last stop before leaving Iran. Sina, our Warm Showers host, will leave some powerful memories…

Qom – … We’ve stopped making plans

Qom – … We’ve stopped making plans

Biking on the highway in Iran is fun, but it gets too noisy after a while. Once we reach Qom, we decide to hitchhike to the next city, Kashan.

Some things happen when you expect them the least: we meet an Iranian couple who is hitchhiking across Iran. They offer us to come along with them to Kerman, where there’s supposed to be a beautiful waterfall. We agree to join them, not knowing exactly where we are going. Behnoush and Ali live in Tehran, and Ali has been hitchhiking several times in Iran. He prefers to hitchhike with truck drivers, whom he says have an interesting life experience. Ali is a photographer, and Behnoush is an English teacher. We directly get along with them, and what we thought would be a short ride together ended up being one week of hitchhiking all together: two backpackers and two bikepackers hitchhiking in Iran, why not?

With Ali, Behnoush and our truck driver

24 hours later, we end up in the middle of nowhere in the province of Kerman, in the South-East of Iran. A family offer us to camp in their garden and offer us a delicious meal the next day. Again, we are struck by the generosity of the Iranians. We continue our trip towards the waterfall, where we settle down for another night. We become a local attraction for the dozens of Iranians picnicking nearby and are interviewed about Switzerland, our relationship and our opinion about Iran.

The next day, we decide to head to Shiraz. Our trip starts with 40km of biking, in wonderful sceneries: mountains, desert and oasis.

It feels good to ride our bikes again!
Attaching the bikes on a truck…

We then join Behnoush and Ali in a truck which takes us to Shiraz. We spend two nights in Shiraz. Shiraz hosts two memorials for important Iranian poets: Sa’adi (13th century) and Hâfez (14th century). One of Sa’adi’s poems decorates the entrance of the United Nations. Here’s an English translation of it:

Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain!

We leave Shiraz with Ali and Behnoush, with whom we really get along. We spontaneously decide to head South, to the Persian Gulf. Ali wants to visit the island of Hormuz, so we soon sit in a truck heading South. The same evening, we have miraculously reached Hormuz island without paying for any transportation -only 1.50 CHF for the boat.

Hormuz is a small island with a fascinating geology. It is terribly hot around lunchtime, but we spend three beautiful days on Hormuz. We camp on a beach, next to a “hippie camp” with people from Tehran, Georgia and Spain. No hijabs here, no pictures either, but a lot of music, camp fires and good vibes. This corner of the island seems not to belong to Iran.

Hormuz: a little piece of paradise

After Hormuz, we take farewell of Behnoush and Ali, who need to get back to Tehran. We continue alone to Isfahan, picking up our bikes that we had left at a friend’s place. (Indeed, it’s easier to hitchhike without bikes…)

In Isfahan, we have amazing Couchsurfing hosts: Ahmad and Ali are two brothers as old as we are. They live with their mother Maryam who cooks delicious Iranian food. We have very interesting discussions with them, about gender (in-)equality in Iran and in Switzerland, about stereotypes and the difficulties of having a friendship between man and woman in Iran. Ahmad has a great sense of humor, and we will definitely remember the good times we spent with these two guys!

With Ali on the Emam Khomeini Square in Isfahan

Time flies when you have fun. Realizing we only have ten days left in Iran until our visas expire, we decide to hitchhike North and bike along the Caspian Sea towards the East. In about 12 hours, we have hitchhiked the 700km between Isfahan and Sari. Hitchhiking might not be the fastest way to travel, but it’s a great human experience. All the truck drivers carried us along with our bikes for free, and were very friendly.

Thanks to Ali and Behnoush, these 10 days were nothing like we expected. Plans are good, but they become even better when you change them!

Tehran-Qom : experiencing the amazing Iranian hospitality

Tehran-Qom : experiencing the amazing Iranian hospitality

Upon arrival in Iran, we spend three days in Tehran to get acclimated to the country. We have a great Couchsurfing host who takes time to introduce us to the Iranian culture and customs.

One evening, as we are visiting the Grand Bazaar (a market where you can buy everything, from carpets and showers to ice cream and nuts), two young women come up to talk with Miriam. Fatmeh and Zahro invite us to a restaurant, take us to a beautiful viewpoint south of the city, and guide us around the very impressive holy shrine of Abdolazem. Zahro follows a strict Islam, she wears a chador (long black scarf that goes down to the feet and only leaves the face exposed). They explain enthusiastically many things to us, both about Islam and Iranian history. That same evening, Sebastian meets Ismaïl, he is very critical towards his government and the Islamic rules. He explains how the rules of the religion imposed by the state do not match with what he observes in society and what he feels is just. Ismaïl is a little older than the girls, but it’s interesting to see the opposite point of view coming from two Iranians of the same generation. All in all, what amazes us the most during that evening is their generosity and hospitality. They show us around Tehran, invite us for food, ice cream and fruit juices, without expecting anything in return. We feel so lucky to have met them.

The Grand Bazaar
Women need to wear a chador to enter the Abdolazem shrine

The Iranian hospitality is omnipresent during our first days in Iran (and is still now!). The day we leave Tehran by bike, we are invited by a man in his shop to share lunch with him and his colleague. They do not speak any English, but we understand some little things. Later that night, we sleep at Hossein’s place, south of Tehran. We found him on Warm Showers, an internet platform where bikers offer a place to stay to other bikers. Hossein and his family own a restaurant, and they host us and make us feel very welcome. After dinner, a shisha comes out, along with Iranian sweets and good laughs. In the morning, they offer us a good breakfast in their restaurant. Again, we are overwhelmed by the Iranian generosity.

Hossein and his family

We head South by bike and start experiencing another kind of generosity: on the way, people stop their car on the side of the road and offer us sweets, hot chocolate and fruits. Some simply stop to take a picture with us or to ask questions out of curiosity. The top three questions we get is : “Are you a couple? Are you married? Since when?” And if we dare answer that we are not a couple, the reactions vary, but most of the people are actually not too concerned about it. They are rather intrigued.

The first evening we wild camp, we meet an Afghan man who only speaks Pashto. He lives in an abandoned building nearby. We eventually understand that he has entered Iran illegally and does not have a passport. This reminds us about how privileged we are to be able to enter and leave almost all countries, thanks to our European passports. We are able to travel to countries which some people dream of leaving…

The next day, we manage to bike to Qom, the base of Shi’ism around the world. Here, there are almost no women walking on the streets. And the few women we see all wear a chador. When some young men come up to talk with us, they actually only talk with Sebastian. When we say goodbye to them, they only shake Sebastian’s hand. When Miriam asks why, they kindly respond to Sebastian that according to their beliefs, men and women should not shake hands if they’re not married. Miriam ends up waiving goodbye at them, and we bike to the highway to hitchhike down to Kashan, the next city. Or that’s what we were thinking, at least.

Zurich-Tehran (but without flying)

Zurich-Tehran (but without flying)

Five trains, one ship, one truck and one bus later, we finally make it to Tehran. It took us about 11 days – 11 exciting days.

Departure from Zurich. Half of the crew already asleep-not a good sign.

At 21:40 on April 9th, our night train leaves from Zurich HB to Budapest. We reach a sunny and warm Budapest in the morning. Facing troubles to store our disassembled bikes, we eventually have the brilliant idea of reassembling them and start to visit this beautiful city on our saddles. We climb up to the Citadella and admire the view across the Danube. We also bike around Margaret Island, the parliament and St Stephen’s cathedral, before heading back to the train station to disassemble our bikes and jump onto the night train to Bucharest.

We share a compartment with a very kind Romanian couple. That’s when the first (and only) discussion about our bikes start: even though they are disassembled in a bag, we need to pay an extra ticket for them. Despite our diplomatic skills, we fail to reach a compromise and end up paying 40 EUR. It’s only later we realise that we have bribed the conductor (no receipt == a bribe).

In Bucharest we have the nicest Couchsurfing host ever! Cosmin welcomes us with tea and croissants, guides us around the beautiful city of Bucharest, shows us the coolest terraces and cooks for us in the evening.

Cosmin and Sebastian in front of the tremendously huge parliament in Bucharest

The next day, we disassemble our bikes again – trying to beat our own disassembling-time record – and take the train to Ruse, the first city on the Bulgarian side. We cross the impressive Danube. There is a passport control to enter both Romania and Bulgaria, since they are not part of the Schengen zone. From Ruse, another train takes us to the coastal city of Varna. When we enter Varna, the city is covered with fog. The Bulgarian coast of the Black Sea is apparently known to be very foggy. We only have time to spend one short night in Varna and leave with the first morning train on the 13th of April. This time, we have to bribe the train conductor with only 2 Bulgarian Lev, which is about 1 euro. A reasonable bribe.

The ferry taking us across the Black Sea, sails from Burgas (Bulgaria) to Batumi (Georgia) once a week, on Fridays. We embark on Friday evening on a huge ship which that swallows 180 trucks (including 4 trucks transporting live cows from Germany to Armenia…), 2 motorcycles and… 4 bicycles! Indeed, we are not the only bikepackers on board. Gratsiela and Jan are biking from Austria to Beijing. You can follow their adventure on www.2intonew.com. We also meet a South-African couple who are motorcycling from South Africa to Iran, crossing Eastern Africa, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. They also tell their stories on www.pikipiki2.co.za. But the most challenging trip is the one Ruth is doing: Ruth started hiking from Switzerland in February 2017, aiming for Georgia and Azerbaijan. She is hiking with her two dogs.

During these 2.5 days on board, we have a great time exchanging our respective plans and experiences, but also sympathize (and drink) with the many truck drivers. Most of them are Bulgarians, some are Georgian, Armenian, Turkish or Polish. They transport furniture, second-hand cars or trucks, or even cows across Eastern Europe and over the Black Sea. We also meet Nikola, he takes care of all the passengers. Nikola takes especially well care of us: apart from bringing us fresh fruits and croissants in the morning, he takes us up to the bridge for the sunset amd he cooks pancakes in the middle of the night as an after party!

All the non truck-drivers on board

On the ferry, we also meet Artak, an Armenian truck driver who moved to Germany after the fall of the Soviet Union. As soon as we told him about our plan to go to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, he offered us a place in his (empty) Cognac truck. On Monday morning, we reach a sunny Georgia. We are all very excited to arrive to Batumi, after having seen nothing but water for two days. Dolphins are welcoming us when we enter the harbour. The city seems to be quite rich, with some high and very modern buildings. Unfortunately, we won’t have time to visit the city of Batumi this time, we will do it on our way home in a couple of months.

On Monday evening, we climb onto Artack’s truck and head to Yerevan, via Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia). We get a glimpse of what Georgia looks like, while Artack tells us about the Caucasus: politics and difficulties, the 1915 genocide, food and people, we are briefed by a local. This is precious, and we are already looking forward to biking through Armenia and Georgia. At 4 AM, we wake up to cross the boarder between Georgia and Armenia. There is no need for a visa for Europeans in these countries, we simply get a stamp in our passport. On our way to Yerevan, our amazing truck driver invites us for a huge Armenian meal, with meat, cheese, bread, salad, yogurt and more meat. We then realize how seriously Armenians take hospitality! On Tuesday the 17th in the afternoon, we reach eventually reach Yerevan.

Artack’s truck seems to be made for carrying our bikes

During the two days we spend in Yerevan, there are pacific protests going on against the very unpopular Armenian prime minister, who has been the president for 10 years. Streets are blocked and anti-government rallies are organised, but we still manage to visit parts of the city. And realise how lucky we are to live in a well functioning democracy.

On Thursday the 19th, we leave Yerevan by bus to Tehran. A 24 hours long bus ride is scheduled. The South West of Armenia is not densely populated, and the few towns we drive through seem rather poor. Armenia has a population of only 2.9 millions, but has a large diaspora (around 8 millions according to Wikipedia). Many Armenians emigrated when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Even for our Swiss scale we are impressed by high mountains and steep roads between Armenia and Iran. We start thinking whether we really want to bike over all these mountain passes on our way back…

We reach the border to Iran after sunset. Until then, no woman in the bus wears a scarf. But slowly, women start to put on a scarf and wear longer clothes. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran applies the Shariah law. Hence, women have to wear a hijab that covers their hair, long pants and long sleeves. So does Miriam, reluctantly. Before crossing the official line over to Iran an Armenian taekwondo coach pours his precious vodka emotionally into a trashcan with tears in his eyes. He can not finish before another guy steps in and drinks the last drops of the bottle, the last drops for quite some time.

We arrive to the huge city of Tehran on Saturday morning. We pack our bikes on top of a taxi and head to the North East of the city, to our Couchsurfing host. Couchsurfing is theoretically illegal in Iran, and the website is blocked, as well as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. However, you can easily access these websites by using a VPN connection.

We are happy to have accomplished this challenge: yes, it is possible to go all the way to Iran without flying. And we promise you that it’s way more exciting and enriching than taking a plane.

More adventures to come!