Visa hunting had admittedly left us dazed and confused. For those with knowledge of Futurama, “confused and aroused” may be more apposite, given the heady anticipation that began to swell as our goodly bikes shuttled us along the Anatolian pastures towards the towering and brooding mounts of south eastern Turkey.
A plane ride from Amman had dropped us (and our excruciatingly beautifully bandaged bikes) in the broad sweep of a swaying green valley 60+km long, cradled on both sides by the aforementioned peaks. Although officially we had landed at Muş airport, the word “airy-strip” might even have been generous on our parts. As our mini plane trotted to a standstill, blustered airport staff stood by in flapping uniforms bemused at the Dead Sea tourists who were equally bemused, and anxious to know whether their babies had survived the flight. For more than two hours, smiling Kurds gathered in the limited shade and gawped at our flat-pack boxes that gradually unfolded and once more took the form of lean touring machines. We smiled back. The air was fresh, the valley floor carpeted green, green, green and not a stone-hurling little runt in sight.
Heading through the would-be secessionist region of Kurdistan, we were confronted by not only the ever-rising mountains that have semi-shielded the locals from rogue government intervention for centuries but also the notorious hospitality of a “people” who have weighty footholds in SE Turkey, NE Syria, Northern Iraq and Western Iran (and a whole litany of other places if you believe the locals’ tall claims about the extent of the Kurdish diaspora). By conservative estimates there are around 40m Kurds residing in the aforementioned areas.
Historically, and persistently, squeezed and marginalised by the various regional powers, the numerous Kurds we met – supped chay with, ate mounds of food with, and upon whose beds, sofas, carpets and couches we slept – exhibited towards us unfathomable kindness and curiosity. Wishing us well and encouraging us up their mountainous climbs with every turn of the crank.
Our limited (read “crap”) conversational farsi, learnt years ago in Iran, was a bonus, however, as apparently a crap farsi-speaker sounds very much like a passable Kurmanji polyglot. We got on famously with the Kurds and felt humbled by the extent to which they continually subjugated their own needs to allow for the needy needs of the cyclists. Whether it was the last egg in the box, the only bed in the house or the willingness to lay down their tools and lead us to the right road, it was always done and with a gentle nodding grace that spoke of the mindset: “this is just what we do for guests to our lands.”
With such warmth along the road, the progress to Tatvan (with its gentle lake) and remarkably liberal Van – with the best bicyclists breakfast on earth, tell me how you can beat clotted cream, local lavender honey and ground walnuts – was joyful, if not entirely a doddle.
Bullets from above. A vengeful deity, of course, could not allow for such benign free-flowing passage through rugged terrain. No, there has been at least one reminder that all these smiles, baffling (and usually hilarious) conversations over chay about the size of the Kurdish diaspora, and bottomless hospitality, comes at a price. A painful price from above. Not truly bullets but cousins thereof, surely. As we reached to within 50m of the Kurubaş pass, a lively 3-hour trot uphill, the heavens went sooty (not the childrens’ program) black. And angry too.
The first hail-stones to fall upon us were frozen peas, sailing down from god’s kitchen counter. There was no harm at this stage, just a couple of girly squeals from Sam’s blue lips, as ping-ping the peas bounced ever more energetically off gore-tex threads. What followed, however, was nigh-on sadistic. 3 layers of tech clothing melted away in the face of a barrage of now ice-rocks crashing down from above. No more ping-ping. Hail stones the size of a small child’s head (limited hyperbole) brought bruises rushing to our skins’ surfaces. Pain, yes. Memorable, yes. Will definitely try to avoid such freaky weather again. Er, yes.
But we survived to write this blog. Clouds parted and multi-kilometre descents re-kindled our love of the road, and particularly our love for the road that hugs the Iranian border for miles and miles southward before ducking eastward through a gap (please read “another high pass”) in the mountains. Eventually, we arrived at a dust-bowl of congested truck-jam, assorted competitively fluttering flags, and numerous audible chatted dialects being tossed about, and it all meant the obvious….another border crossing and one we had been very much looking forward to.
The over-sized and placarded beneficent faces of Messrs Khomeini and Khameini stared down suspiciously from high up on a barb-wired hill over-looking all things humdrum below, including the two cyclists tucked behind a disused tea-house, preparing themselves for the next 2500km. Trousers for the boy; and trousers, long monteau, long shirt and head scarf for the girl. Not the most ideal cycle-wear but the four-eyes that gazed steadily downwards appeared mostly untroubled by the unordorthodox nature of our new garb. All the battling in Amman for an Iranian visa had boiled down to this crossing into the Islamic Republic: “Khosh Amadid”. Stamp Stamp. And on we went through jostling money changers, attempting to pull various fast-ones, and into the open spaces of Azerbijan province and Iran’s northwest.