It feels good to smash another thousand mile marker. Arriving in Trabzon in many ways marks one third of the trip as being complete. I’m exactly 3,000 miles into a roughly 9,000 mile trip and I’ve ridden through 40 of the 121 degrees of longitude that are the namesake of this blog. This is also where the real bureaucracy starts but I’ve hit the ground running by successfully getting an Iran visa, an application process more akin to a lottery.
I’ve just spent three fairly uneventful days riding from Samsun to Trabzon along the Black Sea coastal highway. The highway runs along the base of the cliffs and hills where towns have spread and merged together for nearly the whole 340km. This results in having the sea on your left and big hills on the right with nowhere decent to camp for days so I’ve ended up hopping between cheap hotels. These big hills also seem to trap clouds making it noticeably colder and damper here than it was west of Samsun.
Just after leaving Samsun I got the very first true puncture of the trip! I was almost happy about this. All the other problems I’ve had before have been due to a tyre blowout or valves leaking, never an actually proper puncture. I had the tube out, patched and bike in the tyre pumped up in ten minutes after removing the bit of metal wire from the tyre.
I had a couple of weird experiences on the first day riding to Unye. I stopped in a cafe, in the town of Carsamba, to get some lunch and asked for a tea and a chicken sandwich. I started having a broken english chat with the owner but after two cups of tea he still hadn’t started making my sandwich but in the mean time had made them for many people who had come and gone. I kept asking him to make one pointing to the chicken and he kept smiling and gesturing to “wait a minute”. Confused, and due to hunger, getting a bit agitated I left a lira on the table for the tea and walked out. As I go to get on my bike the guy comes out to wave me off!? I once again point to the chicken and ask for a chicken sandwich (Tavuk ekmek) and he just shrugged. Really weird.
I rode on for about 10 minutes aware of the ache in my stomach when I spotted another cafe. I pulled in and asked for a Tost (grilled cheese sandwich). Whilst I was eating 3 guys came out in the uniform of the cafe and started asking me how much my bike was worth in dollars. One also began asking if my water bottles were filled with Whiskey? They may have just been curious but their tone and facial expressions came across as rather aggressive so I finished up, paid (being blatantly over-charged in the process) and left.
After about 85km or so I reached Unye and found my way to a cheap hotel on the seafront and cooked some spaghetti in my room to save some cash.
The next day I had my sights set on Giresun, about 100km away, as the town was big enough to have a choice of accommodation. The road deviates in from the coast here due to the people of Ordu managing to protest the construction of the coastal highway (which has destroyed much of the beaches on this coast). This detour was full of tunnels, and thankfully so otherwise I would have been climbing and descending all day…
I had a nice conversation with a couple of local guys about my trip whilst stopped for a break in Ordu but apart from that it was another uneventful days riding and another night in a fairly unremarkable town.
Being quite fed up of the monotony I decided to try and ride the remaining 134km to Trabzon in a single day. I figured that the only way I could travel this far in a day was to take it really easy, stop regularly and to keep stretching my legs. I left the hotel at about 7am to give myself plenty of time for these stops.
I noticed almost immediately that travelling just a few kilometres per hour slower than I normally do seems to use about half the energy. Once I got used to the slower pace I realised that this may not be so impossible.
On one of my breaks I stopped for tea in a Chai Salonu (Tea room) and after a couple of cups the owner refused my money giving me a pat on the back! A lovely experience after the weird cafes in Carsamba
Once the road signs indicated I had ridden over 100km I realised that I was still feeling fresh and not worn out at all. Normally at 100km I am desperate to stop, this slower pace is a fair more sensible idea, I can’t believe it’s taken me 3,000 miles to figure this out.
After the full 134km I checked into a cheap hotel in Trabzon, treated myself to a kebab and a beer, and began to compile the information I needed for the next days Iranian Visa application.
I was nervous about this application even though I potentially shouldn’t have been. As a British person, I first had to apply for authorisation to visit Iran from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran (I did this months ago through a company I highly recommend, Lupine Travel). If you are going to be rejected it is this authorisation that will be rejected, once you have this it is very unlikely for you to be actually be refused a visa at the consulate/embassy. However, it is still a possibility and quite a concerning one as you do not get a refund of you 270 euro fee if this does happen.
I made my way to the embassy at about 9am when they opened, had my authorisation checked, filled in some forms as well as having my fingerprints taken. Despite my authorisation being for 30 days the consulate said I could only have 14 days which is something I haven’t heard of happening before. This means I’ll have to extend my visa in Iran but this is a fairly quick and easy process that costs about $10.
There was a lot of waiting around in the embassy, I was there for two hours in total, during which time I was chastised for reading a book on my Kindle. Strangely the Japanese tourists applying at the same time received no reprimand for using their iPad.
The fingerprint taking also thew up a problem. On one side of the from it requested “4 finger knuckles here”. This seemed weird but I continued and went to dab my knuckles on the ink sponge. The woman assisting me began shouting at me saying “CAN YOU NOT READ ENGLISH!” and managed to explain that this was requesting a full palm print including fingers. Surely this part of the form must cause a lot of trouble and I’m not the only person to be tripped up by it?
I headed back into the centre of Trabzon with instructions to pay 270 eur into the Iranian governments account at the local bank and to the bring the receipt of this deposit back to the embassy at 16:30.
For anyone who has reached this post looking for help with getting this visa, there is a street running west of the main square which is lined with banks. Many of the ATM’s at these banks have signs saying they dispense euros, although I had to try 3 machines before getting one that actually gave the option. The bank you need to deposit into is called “Turkiye Is Bankasi”, the ‘Is’ in the middle is stylised into a logo. There are several branches of this bank in town, one on the square itself and another on the road of banks. Enter the bank, show them the invoice from the Iranian consulate and the guy by the door will give you a number. The staff are helpful, they must see a stream of tourists paying into this account, and will will do everything once you give them the invoice.
I spent the day relaxing, eating Baklava and watching a stream of political marches through the main square. I also picked up a cheap mouse for my laptop as the trackpad seems to have failed.
My relaxation was also a bit spoiled by the fact the minaret of Trabzons central mosque is right outside my window…
I walked back up to the embassy just before 16:30 and met the Japanese tourists I’d met earlier in the day. They’d just tried to go in but had been told to come back at 5. It’s worth nothing that they only had to pay 70 eur for their visa, it’s only British and Americans who have to pay the high fees. They’d also been allowed to apply for 30 days no questions asked.
We stood about chatting for 30 minutes, mostly full of me explaining why I was so nervous about this visa, for them there was an absolutely minuscule chance of rejection. Another worry I had was the visas are usually valid for entry within 3 months but sometimes only 2 weeks. If I was given two week to enter Iran I would either have to rush through Georgia and Armenia to get to the border in time or skip them altogether and head through the icy high Turkish mountains towards Iran directly. Not an appealing option.
Five o’clock rolled around and we were let in. I sat down and one of the Japanese tourists was called up first, presented his receipt and was shown his visa. My name was next. He checked my receipt and, with my heart thumping, he flicked through my passport to my shiny Iranian Visa!!! I was initially concerned that the flamboyant signature was the visa being voided until I saw the Japanese peoples visas were the same.
With a spring in my step I headed back to my hotel to arrange visiting the nearby Sumela monastery the following day and to begin the process of arranging my Uzbekistan visa now that I know I will definitely be going to Iran.
The Sumela monastery, which is built into a cliff 1,200m up 50km from Trabzon, can be visited on a fairly cheap day tour (25Lira, About £6.50). The route up to it is beautiful and would have been lovely to cycle but I’d recommend leaving your luggage at the bottom, it is quite a climb!
The monastery is Greek Orthodox and under Ottoman rule was protected by each of the Sultans. It was eventually abandoned in 1923 when Greek and Turkish nationals were forcibly repatriated to their home nations. It currently serves as a tourist attraction but is also become a popular pilgrimage destination.
It was fascinating to see how the original frescoes had been so meticulously vandalised with evenly spaced pick marks, then plastered over and re painted as can be seen in this photo…
Below is the only shot I managed to get that conveyed the cliff face location of the monastery. The mist really wasn’t appreciated.
The glorious road to from and from the monastery, a big part of me wishes I had cycled to it.
Tomorrow I depart Trabzon and spend two days riding to the coastal city of Batumi in Georgia. Then it is onto Gori (The hometown of Joseph Stalin) and Tbilisi, the nations capital. I’m really looking forward to the novelty of being in a new country, not that Turkey has been anything but kind to me!
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I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.