Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Done and Dusted!

It was 88.85km from Bratislava to Vienna. 4 hours, 6 minutes, 14 seconds. The road was mainly flat, and I had a pretty decent tailwind for most of the journey. FY was not at her best, struggling under the weight of several days worth of camping mud, rain and road crust without me paying much attention to maintainence. By 4.30 it was dark, but I figured I must be close to the city. Soon I found myself riding through what looked like an oil refinery, then onto a long, dark empty road, with nothing resembling city lights anywhere that I could see.

Then, soon after I passed what looked like a ranch-themed restaurant and turned a corner, above the horizon (and slightly to my left) appeared the magical river Danube. Not far beyond it's gentle flowing waters were the lights of that fabled city which once marked the edge of the Roman empire, which resisted the viscious attacks of the Ottomans on not one but two occasions, that distinguished itself from the rest of Europe and indeed the world for its unmitigated class through the ages, its depth of history and culture, as the home of Mozart, Apfel Strudel and Freud (in no particular order)!


It's a little strange to think that the riding is over. The difference between riding out of 'Major's Den', the $3 a night crack in the wall in New Delhi's Paharganj district and into my Aunt and Uncles beautiful apartment in Vienna's 19th district is a little bit like the difference between a your left pinkie toe and Jupiter's 7th moon. (ie. quite different.)

There's been a multitude of people and places that have made impressions on me during the last 5 months on the road that will last for most, if not all of my life. Most of those people, and probably all of those places will not read this blog, but for those that do, thank you.

So until the next adventure, I think that's the last real entry for Tosif Trekking International Inc. I'll endeavour to put up some pictures and things in the next couple weeks to wrap it all up nicely. peace

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

So i've spent the last two days trying to figure out how to rotate this bloody film and still can't get it... I blame the system, technology in general, and this computer specifically.

Please rotate your screen now.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Hungarian Autobahns and my first real run in with the Cops

In almost 5 months of travelling, along a fair few roads and through quite a number of towns and cities, I have always maintained a fairly good relationship with the police. Usually they are pretty happy to see some dude on a bicycle in the middle of nowhere pedalling along and will do little more than wave and smile. or wave and frown. or just ignore. occasionally that stop you just to ask where you're from and what you're doing, which is ok i guess, but momentum is everything when you're pedalling 50kg of bicycle along the road, to come to a dead stop just to explain that you're from Australia ("AAaahh! KANGAROO!!") loses its appeal rather quickly.

In any case, relations with the cops were good. The first signs of possible friction appeared in the north of Serbia, when I was stopped by the cops for riding on the main highway, and told to take the smaller country road which criss-crossed it.

Now, i'm not advocating rebellion against the law keepers, but their suggestion was clearly a ridiculous one... Sure riding on the motorway is illegal, but there is a huge shoulder of beautiful smooth asphalt to ride on and hardly any cars. On the local road, which is bumpy, narrow and full of tired people driving home from work, I really felt my life to be in danger. Unsurprisingly, the cops couldn't spare much sympathy for me.

They say bad things happen in threes ("they" being my grandmother). I got stopped by the cops three time in 24hrs. The third was just after the Hungarian border, again I was riding on the Autobahn, admittedly this was wrong and illegal, but it was a) just after dark and b) I was tired and c) it was only 18kms to the next town... The cops immediately saw through this first round of stupid excuses, so I quickly made up some new ones:

d) I didn't see any alternative road,
e) the people at the border just flagged me straight through
f) i've been riding for 700km and 4 countries on this same highway with no problems
g) I'm Australian, do you like Kangaroos??!!

Again, complete failure. Thus begain half an hour of negotiation where the cops wanted me to fill out and sign a ticket for 80 euros, and I tried my best to avoid doing so. Eventually out of frustration and the impending threat of frostbite, the cops took my details without giving me a ticket, and said they would write a police report about the incident back at the station.

So I rode on, with a not so friendly police escort brightly flashing their lights behind me to the next exit, feeling just a little bit proud of myself for coming out with my wallet intact.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


From Nis,

Two days of riding and a night of muddy camping in a field by the highway,

brought me to the doorstep of Belgrade.

Belgrade is the first city i've been too where you can get your face printed on a note at the National Bank of Serbia for free! Seriously fantastic. As well as that, the two national foods of this country are pljeskavica (hamburgers) and Burek (a bit like a massive puff pastry sausage roll with cheese). Brilliant.

Two days in this town and it's a struggle to tear myself away. Especially since the roads are wet and the skies cloudy. Belgrade is the kind of town with a warm cafe on every street and plenty of people out at any time of the day or night. It's another one of those cities that's been blown to smithereens on more occasionas than anyone can remember and rebuilt again every time. More recently they've kept better records of their struggles, the military museum in Belgrade has a huge American Humvy parked out the front from the front from their last tussle with NATO in 1999.

Another thing that Serbia does well is religion. There are huge and relatively new churches sprinkled all around the city, and they are attended with a vigour and dedication that I haven't seen else where. As you walk around Belgrade, you might notice that peoples right arms are slightly larger than their lefts. This is because during each service, the participants cross themselves with great vigour about 460 times and after several years of sincere worship, you will graciously be endowed with a divinely ordained enlarged bicep.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Big ups from the Balkans!

For those authentic homeboys and homegirls out there who may be offended by my Big up-ing even though i'm clearly not black or a homie, I apologize. But it does begin with 'B' as does 'Balkans' hence making it aliteration and therefore cool.

On with the journey! The GPS is back, apparently it hadn't ran out of satellites, only batteries... i've now remedied that and have also arrived in Serbia!

Given my complete absence of knowledge of this part of the world, I partly expected to be riding through wartorn areas with shrapnel stuck in walls and minefields by the roadside. What I got was quite different. The landscapefrom the border to Nis (where I am now, Serbia's second biggest city) was rolling hills and beautiful villages with old crumbling cottages. Now for those who really crave adventure,old and crumbling could also be read as not-so old and bomb-riddled, thereby making my blog far more exciting.

Since Turkey there has been a lot more camping taking place, owing mainly to the fact that with the current state of the world economy (i've always wanted to use that phrase) its really expensive to sleep under a roof in Europe using Australian dollars. A few people have shown a bit of curiosity as to how i'm camping and where, so the photos on the blog this time are from camping spots over the last week or so.

There's a few more photos of Serbia etc in the album via the link on the right.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bulgaria! Technology! Together!

Moving up in the tech world. This episode of The Tosif Trekking International Inc. Blog will be delivered by 'video'. If you are offended by beautiful masculine facial hair, please look away now.

P.s. I apologize, but i could not figure out how to turn the clip around. I found it easiest to turn my monitor onto its side.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Officially in the West

One of the best things about travelling by bicycle is that you see all the 'ın-between' places. You know when you're driving along at 120km/h and a watermelon stand whizzes past you and you see the faint blurred outline of the young watermelon seller and his three mates?

On a bicycle you spot them a couple hundred metres away, and they spot you and for a good couple of minutes they look you up and down as you climb to the top of the hill where the stand is (watermelon stands are almost exclusively positioned at the tops of large hills...) and when you get there they usually call out to you in a language you don't understand to stop and pick up a melon. And if you choose to stop and partake in a melon (much better to eat it on the spot, melons weren't made to be carried on bicycles), you inevitably get caught up in a sign language conversation that attempts to cross cultural and linguistic barriers but usually doesn't get much further than 'where are you from, where are you goıng, how old are you, are you married'. You get to experience the interaction between the seller and his three mates the way the young watermelon man talks too loud and sprays saliva all over your melon as he talks and slices it up the way his friends make fun of him and each other the same way we would back home. Also on a bicycle you often get a discount -for being on a bicycle.

The point is, everything happens slower by bike. So the gradual changes from area to area and country to country are a little more evident. So when I got off the plane in Istanbul, I was sudenly aware of big changes.

F.Y. and I have clearly arrived in the West. Cities are bigger and more organised, roads are better (it's not all bad!), people are a little more intraverted, prices are far more expensive and the quality of everything is better!

India Arie once wrote that 'the only thing constant in the world is change'. Clearly she must have been on a bicycle ride at the time.

Friday, November 21, 2008

My Turkish Haircut

I have always been blessed wıth a more than liberal amount of hair. Occasionally thıs has been the focus of humerous comments and rarely ıt has caused logistical problems. For example, when attempting to get a hair cut in Singapore - a country where haır is dıstrıbuted among people ın a fairly conservatıve manner - it ıs often confusing for the hairdresser to decide where the head hair stops and the back hair begins (nb. Italıans solved this problem years ago by adopting the `gold chain` approach, wherein the individual wears a big gold chain above which ıs considered 'head territory' and below which is considered 'chest/back territory') It is partly due to this history with hairdressers that I have in recent years adopted a 'do ıt yourself' approach to haircuts.

It is a well known fact that Turkish people are also well endowed in a follicular sense. I decided to take advantage of this while in Istanbul and while walking past a small barber shop in the suburbs, I threw caution into the wind and stepped inside.

What followed was beyond my wildest expectations. The young hairdresser did not skip a beat. He cut my hair in record time, then proceeded to eliminate hair I didn't even know I had! At one point he decided it was appropriate to set a oversized q-tıp on fire (literally) and practise drumming on my ears. Strange as this was for me, I completely trusted his judgement and was wooed by his proffessional attitude.

After the experience was over, and I had paid my 6 dollars (bargain.), I felt at ease. The only possible drawback of the entire experience is that with my 4 month old beard and now my smart turkish hair, I look truly, positively, Turkish.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lots of new stuff!!

So I finally put up some more photos, lots of them! You can get to them through the links on the right. heres a few i like.

Also I have adopted a different colour scheme to reflect the changing climatic conditions associated with the onset of winter. It is officially getting darker and colder...quickly.

Into the old world once again...

Israel part 2.

The israeli immigration people were very ... in releasing me from their country. There's a point in every questioning session that you know your answer wasn't the 'ideal' answer. In this case it was when I was asked "do you have relatives anywhere else in the world, anywhere? anywhere at all?"
-actually I have an aunt in Iran also...

WHAM! (not actually wham, but the change was so evident that it might as well have been)

so the sweet Israeli immigration officer dug through her pockets for the 'other' sticker which she lovingly placed on each one of my bags and documents, and my journey began. First they went through my bags and found things I never even knew I had! Then i was escorted to the 'metal detection department' and thoroughly palpated by a young israeli soldier before being allowed to repack my things once again. This time it only took 45 minutes, and at the end of it all they gave me a private escort that got me straight to the front of the check in line and past every other security check before boarding the plane.

To be totally honest, Israeli immigration is really not so bad. Just get to the airport 3 hours early.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Uzbek and Israel - FY grows wings!

Uzbek. Part 2.

Just a quick word on Samarkhand and Bukhara. Before I left Australia i had no idea where these places were. Apparently if you're a real Persian, this is embarrassing. These cities are described as heaven on earth by ancient sufi poets, have been vital centres of trade for millenia, and were instrumental in the spread of Islam through the east. Not to mention the home of the best Plov (greasy central asian rice dish) on the face of the planet.

Carlos (the spanish flight attendant- to your left.) and i spent three days roaming the streets, visting every mosque, mausoleum, maddressa we could find... (that sentence was placed there purely for aliteration sake, we also saw things that didn't start with m.)

Israel. Part 1.

FY and I took a plane from Uzbek to Istanbul. FY was 15kg overweight, together with all the other gear, she weighed in at 46kg. Luckily the good people people at Turkish airlines turned a blind eye and let us through without any troubles.

When we got to Istanbul, I booked her into storage. For the record, for the same price as one night of bicycle accomodation in a Turkish airport, you can pay for 4 days worth of food, accomodation and travel expenses in Pakistan. Welcome to Europe! (kind of)

This stop marked a clear change in conditions on this journey. I had my first real coffee in over 3 months, at a cost of 3 Pakistan days (from now on prices will be described as Pakistan Days - PD)

After a brief stop at the airport, i flew on to Israel, for a 3 day visit to the Bahai shrines in Haifa and Akka. I had the privellege of attending a 2 hour welcoming ceremony at the immigration department of Ben Gurion Airport. This unique cultural experience began with a brief conversation that went a little bit like this:

"What is your name?"
-Shervin Tosif
"You were in Pakistan"
"How long?"
-One month
"Please stand over there."

The end. Or rather, the beginning of a one hour interrogation session, Shalom!

The Bahai gardens and shrines in Haifa are exceedingly beautiful, i'll let the pictures do the explaining. (unfortunately I haven't uploaded any pictures yet, but when i do, they will explain.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Uzbekistan, FY rides again!

So, after finally tearing myself away from Bishkek, a separation almost as bad as a worn bandaid coming off a weary toe, I headed south back to Osh and back onto the bike for the ride to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Lately the blog has had more references to the idea of cycling as a general concept, rather than describing my cycling trip, possibly because i haven't done much cycling lately. But I assure you, the 4 day trip to Tashkent put me firmly back in the saddle and brought the dream of cross continental cycling back to the forefront... for a while.

The Uzbek border is about 4 km from the centre of Osh, so when my bus arrived at 5am and the people I was meant to stay with weren't answering the phone, i decided to hit the road. Running on 3 hours sleep and a pot of sweet hot tea I hit the border mid morning and without too many troubles (not even a baggage check this time!) I was well on my way to Andijon, the first Uzbek town on my way.

My policy these days is as soon as you enter a town, head for the biggest bazaar you can find, for 2 reasons; generally thats where all the action is, and also its one of the few things i can now comfortable communicate in Russian. Upon my arrival at the Andijon bazaar, i was immediately surrounded by a horde of beautiful young (and a few oldies...) Uzbek women, most of which had had at least the front half of their dentition replaced with blindingly bright gold teeth. After the initial questioning of where are you from, what are you doing etc etc. I was handed a cup of nice hot coffee (still standing in the middle of the street) and offered my choice of prescription drugs which they were selling on the black market out of their handbags. My love for Uzbekistan was borne

The roads were pretty fantastic, and for the first time on this trip i had a noticeable tailwind helping me along, all of which made the 450km trip a lot more comfortable. The police were also surprisingly friendly or at least suitably uninterested that they didn't give me a rough time.
The only problem came at the top of the one big mountain pass i had to cross, where the military guys wanted to check my passport and visa and ask me every possible question about myself, Australia, kangaroos and my thoughts on Uzbekistan, while i stood in the snow and ice, with a bloody gale blowing around us. Thankfully i left with all my toes attached, although it was another 3 hours before i could feel them again.

Unfortunately my time in central asia is rapidly coming to an end, and soon i'll have to make a bit of a jump by plane to Turkey and get back on the bike from there. So in order to fit in a few sights on the way, my trusty bike FY is once again resting while I parade around the country by train for a few days.

Uzbekistan is another one of those silk road countries whos history reads like a who's who of ancient conquerers. The greeks, turks, persians, russians, muslims and all their cousins, uncles, pets and siblings paraded through here at one point or another, leaving a multitude of amazing mosques, madrissas and mausoleums. Also as another byproduct of Soviet 'planning' the borders of Uzbekistan managed to include both Samarkhand and Bukhara, two predominantly Tajik cities packed with ancient architectural and historical jewels. Sucks for the Tajiks, but works pretty well for me, because most of the people here speak Farsi, which makes ordering my daily kebab much easier.

No photos this time, but will try and get them up soon!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Back in Bishkek, once again.

So if you could get points for the number of days you stayed in a place longer than you expected, and there was a worldwide competition, I'm pretty sure i'd win hands down... About a month and ago I planned to spend a few days in Bishkek, mainly to organise a few visas and then move on down the road.

It is now a day away from November, I have one visa (which I got my second day in Bishkek), and i'm still here. Granted I have almost iron-clad intentions of leaving this city in the next 3 hours, but who knows what might happen in the enigma that is Bishkek.

In the last two weeks I've been to a eagle and dog hunting festival in the middle of nowwhere, the biggest animal market this side of Kashgar, also in the middle of nowhere, been held up in a blizzard by a farmer with a pitchfork (he chickened out in the end) and had my worst bicycle accident yet (the bike was in the boot of a car at the time)

For the last week, me and Chris (the American Lada driver/photographer) have been travelling around lake Issy Kul in the East and down into the central South of Kyrgyzstan, taking pictures and eating almost continuously. Our triumphant return to Bishkek was delayed by a day when our host woke us up in the morning with "why don't you guys stay another day and we'll cook up a sheep tonight?" (my translation of the russian...)

This set the course of the day, we drove the lada (a beautiful feat of soviet engineering) cross paddock, picked up a nice juicy 'baran' (sheep) and hauled him home in the boot. After a swift execution in the middle of the driveway, all the tasty looking meaty bits were swiftly removed, and placed somewhere far away... and the real work began. Every piece of stomach, hoof, head, bladder and bowel on the other hand were prepared with love; braided, stuffed, roasted over an open flame. In the evening we sat down to a large plate of what would be considered off-cuts back home, and everyone (...bar two slightly nautious foreigners) loved it!

So, i'm not promising anything, but if all goes to plan, this may in fact be the last message from Biskek...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bishkek baby!

So they say that when Kyrgyz men go over to Russia for work, they cram as many guys as possible into a tiny little apartment, to save cash to send back home. Apparently, there's two different rates for accomodation in these flats. You can pay 50 roubles and sleep on your back, or 25 and sleep on your side.

In keeping with this fine Kyrgyz tradition, my accomodation in Bishkek for the past week and a half has been the delightful strip of floor between the foot of Chris and Grisha (the rentpayers) beds, and the wall. With the only remaining section of useable floor in our one bedroom ex-soviet flat taken up by Marcus the Finnish Hitchhiker, extreme caution must be exercised when waking to use the bathroom at night.

Bishkek is a brillliantthis time food is not the number one reason for my opinion on the subject. Somehow the last week and a half have vanished into a vortex of good times and great people that have made the town feel like home, even though I don't speak the language, can't read most street signs, and have developed the ability to get lost on a regular basis in the streets.

My main reason for hanging about Bishkek was to collect visas. Visa collection is not like collecting stamps or records or butterflies. Those things are fun, at least for some people. Visa collection is like a little bit like stubbing your toe on the edge of a chair, then taking a step back and slamming your toe into the chair again, and again, and again. If you continue to slam your toe effectively, sometimes you get a sticker in your passport that lets you into the next country. I ended up scraping through with 50% of the visas I wanted, no thanks the the lazy bloody Tajik travel agent who never sent through my paperwork...

My relatively unsuccessful visa escapade more than compensated by the copious amount of fun times and good people. In two weeks I was introduced to the worlds of (in no particular order); Dutch street art, American wit (or lack thereof), Lomography, Finnish eccentricity, Turkmen activism, Russian Beatles tribute bands, US pro street skating, Kyrgyz drum n bass, Jam making, Dairy production and the feline reincarnation of Buddha. Not bad for a small central asian city!

So after 2 weeks of kicking back and relaxing, it's back on the road with F.Y. for more adventures. The weather is getting very cold very quick, which promises to make things a little more exciting.

There's new photos up in the gallery, and more stories coming soon.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Crossing into Real Stan #1

After waiting for a week in Kashgar for my Kyrgyz visa to begin (central asian visa's require you to nominate an entry and exit date in advance... something i did with terrible inaccuracy), I left and cycled the 250 kms to the border.

Those who know me know that I have at certain times in the past had trouble with travel related dates - arriving 24hrs late for my Bangkok-Singapore flight, more recently arriving 7 days early for my Broome-Perth flight.

This time i managed to arrive a day before my Kyrgyz visa began, a fact which was politely pointed out to my be the Chinese immigration officer before they whisked my passport away and told me to sit in the corner. As i was sitting contemplating spending the night at the tiny little border 'town', (about 4 buildings and 400 truck drivers... not good odds), they called me to see the senior officer, who was a very nice man, and told me i could either try my chances on the Kyrgyz side, or wait 3 days till Monday, (the border was closed on the weekends, something i hadn't realised) when the border reopened and cross then.

One day of communal truck driver good times I could handle, but three was definately pushing it! I decided to try my luck on the other side.

As I crossed the 7kms of no-mans land to the kyrgyz side, the beautiful chinese asphalt deteriorated into dirt and gravel and the solid Chinese immigration complex was instead matched by a shed and tin roof combo that would be better placed on an outback road in the Northern Territory.

As I got to the front gate trying to work out in my head which of three possible tacticts to take:
1- Idiot tourist "oh, i didn't realise it wasn't valid yet"
2- Tough guy "come on buddy, just stamp it, its no biggie"
3- Friendly but firm "you won't believe what happened... hahaha... no, but i REALLY need to get through."

I saw the first border security guards, a big soviet looking dude in camouflage gear, and decided that tactic 2 was out.

Luckily, guard #1 was just excited to see a bicycle, and after letting him ride it down to the immigration shed, i figured i had positioned myself well for a combo of tactics 1 and 3. Another guard took my passport and went into the office, i was told to stay out, where i underwent a 'customs check'

'Customs' involved a bigger, angrier looking ex-soviet camouflage guard pointing casually at my bags and then poking around with more curiosity than purposefulness at the contents. (There was an awkward moment as i tried to explain in sign language what the flashing yellow yellow plastic thing was, evidently "GPS" doesn't translate directly to russian). After 10 minutes of this (So far i hadn't used any of my super tactics...) they brought out my passport, stamped and ready for action, and politely told me to bugger off, which i was more than happy to do!!!

So began Kyrgyzstan.

The next two days were spent riding very slowly over huge stones and dusty roads along the worst road i've had so far, into the worst headwind i've had so far, to arrive at Sary Tash. A village with two streets (one paved), a small guesthouse, and about 17 shops selling biscuits and Vodka. I spent the afternoon trying to wash myself in a plastic dish with the radius of a small hoola hoop, with a small bucket of luke warm water, but the experience was made much better by meeting two german motorbikers on vintage east German motorbikes, and we had a great dinner together.

Kyrgyzstan is one of those countries where there's not much around, but its bloody beautiful. Outside the city, there's beautiful rolling green hills and amazing mountains. Streams and rivers flowing with crystal clear water, and sheep, cows and horses roaming freely. As you ride along, sheppherds ride up on their horses every now and again and plod along beside you, and i'm sure if I could speak any russian, they'd be up for a nice chat too!

Another two days has gotten me to Osh, the second biggest city in Kyrgyzstan, with 300,000 people. The town has a very ex soviet vibe to it, lots of 'cafes' (no coffee) selling kebabs and Plovv (rice with carrots and meat soaked in oil), and a great bazaar. Also a great place to meet travellers, a great crew was here when i arrived, and I even finally met a couple Aussies on bikes.

The internet is mighty slow, so no pictures yet, but will keep on trying.