Few riders sitting down to plan an adventure of a lifetime would actively seek to hurtle headlong into a war zone. But as Renzo Colombo mapped out his route, he knew full well the dangers of venturing into a Middle East tinderbox scarred by snipers and terrorism.
But as Renzo Colombo mapped out his route, he knew full well the dangers of venturing into a Middle East tinderbox scarred by snipers and terrorism.
A ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy was the inspiration behind the trip with friends Antonio De Maglie and Marina Trusch from the benign beauty of Italy into the unknown of a region blighted by violence and mass migration. Their trip took them within the eyeline of snipers, close to the scene of a fatal ambush and within touching distance of the so-called Islamic State fighters.
But the blind faith in human kindness and spirit that drove his group on was rewarded when the party arrived at a small Armenian border village called Paruyr Sevak, which is named after one of Armenia’s greatest poets.
“We needed somewhere to pitch our tents, so asked a passer-by who insisted we go to his home. It was very basic and he had little, but he showed us great hospitality,” said Renzo.
“We later found that four Armenian soldiers had been killed that morning in a firefight with Azerbaijan militia in the place where we originally intended to sleep.”
“Television gives you false information and makes you see only the bad people, but we saw kindness, hospitality and friendliness beyond belief from people far less fortunate than us.”
Just before they settled down for a recuperative sleep, the man’s wife hobbled towards them to ask if they needed anything, struggling with the pain of a knee condition.
“I gave her 20 drops of painkillers I had brought from home and in the morning the expression in her eyes was unforgettable. The pain had gone and she didn’t know how to thank me,” said Renzo.
“I offered the family 50€ – a small thing for me but so much for them – as gratitude for their hospitality, but their incredible dignity would not allow them to accept.
We gave them some packets of pre-cooked soups, part of our emergency food supply, and my last two apricot snacks for their two youngest children. Their expression as the snacks were tasted will stay with me forever.” For Renzo that exchange captured the essence of the entire trip: “Television gives you false information and makes you see only the bad people, but we saw kindness, hospitality and friendliness beyond belief from people far less fortunate than us.”
Tempted by the lure of the unknown and never before seen places that look unreachable at first sight, Renzo was carried 14,000km and hundreds of years into the past by his Thunderbird Storm.
“The roads of Armenia are poor, and the absence of traffic and sheep grazing on the Silk Road makes it feel like you are back in the Middle Ages. But the Thunderbird made light work of the craters and the scenery distracted us all the time,” he said. “The road climbs from the foot of snow-capped mountains up cool plateaus for long stretches and then down into narrow valleys where deep gorges carved by rivers into the rock attract the eye and soothe the soul.”
The stunning magnificence of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and Saint Sophia seemed years ago – not a week – as the travellers powered onwards towards their Persian Gulf destination.
A lifetime of memories would be gathered in a fortnight.
In Samsun, Northern Turkey we camp under a shed used for small parties and to our amazement, two dolphins drift lazily in the Black Sea less than 30 metres from us. We swim with them and they are completely unfazed by our presence.
We head for Tbilisi, with a good stretch along the Black Sea and stop in Gori, the birthplace of Iosif Dzhugashvili – better known as Stalin.
In Tbilisi we visit the golden-roofed Cathedral Sameba visible from almost anywhere in the city and a successful combination of old and new.
The view from the old castle overlooking the city gives you a view of the different historical, cultural and political history of this city.
We move in the late afternoon to Azerbaijan and spend the night in our tents near the border with intense rain hammering on our tents.
Baku and a route of 150km under a deluge comes next, but we stop for lunch at a petrol station where we’re welcomed with a charm of yesteryear that makes us feel like royalty. Motorcyclists are so rare everyone wants our pictures.
In the afternoon we reach the Caspian Sea just south of Baku, where all roads to the capital are flanked by walls for tens of kilometres until you reach the famous glass Flame Towers at the centre.
We’d book a hotel in the town of Novxani. It’s by the sea and we run into the open water that is covered in floating sea grass and pick some up, only to find it is huge lumps of floating oil!
After about 200km of high wind through Georgia we take a road towards the snow-capped mountains on the Russian border.
We are now less than 10km from the border with Georgia and moving cautiously because of the presence of wild animals. Antonio sees a silhouette with a white spot and begins to slow but the figure is in the middle of the road.
The ABS kicks in and a crash seems inevitable, but at the last moment he misses the ass by inches and we travel on pondering how perilous life can be.
Next stop is Armenia and we are well aware of the state of war between it and Azerbaijan. We stop for lunch on the shore of Lake Sevan, about 1,900m up.
The waters are crystal clear and the scenery is lovely. We are moving towards the capital Yerevan and pay a quick visit to the old town and then it’s off to the Iranian border. By now night is near and we are worried because the road passes close to the main theatre of hostilities, about 20km from our path. We take a detour and suddenly Antonio yells;plateau ‘lower your head’ when he sees a battery of snipers located along the road – it’s like that for 10km.
It’s getting dark and thoughts of a hotel are impossible, so we look for somewhere to pitch our tent. We head into town and that’s where our Armenian guardian angels comes to our rescue, allowing us to pitch our tents in their garden in the shadow of Mount Ararat.
Next morning we head towards the Iranian border, about 350km, riding fast as we skirt the border of war. We find plateaux interspersed with deep wounds in the earth consisting of large canyons and small twisty country lanes.
Late afternoon we reach the border with Iran and the scenery becomes more arid. Marina must now wear a veil whenever she removes her helmet.
On the road to Tabriz the scenery is majestic – high mountains guard the road, while deep canyons expose the geological changes over millions of years. In none of our previous trips have we been embraced for so long by a continuous succession of mountains changing colours, beautiful sunrises or sunsets – it’s like the reconstruction of a film set.
Once in Tabriz we visit the bazaar to buy magnets for my collection. After endless tunnels, galleries and squares, Antonio returns with stories of an entire wing of the bazaar devoted to ladies’ lingerie and corsetry that you’d struggle to find in the West.
“Gentle people, whose stunning hospitality and kindness we should all learn from and pass on to our children. The father talks about their customs, their desires and their hopes, which are all very similar to ours.”
We head to Tehran and meet Reza, who Antonio met on the internet looking for information on Iran. He follows in his car as we look for a hotel, but his wife insists we stay with them. We shower, eat on the floor and sleep well.
We take the highway past signs refusing access to motorcycles because Iran has banned the sale of bikes above 200cc. The police and toll staff don’t bat an eyelid though.
Around noon we arrive at the central mosque in Isfahan, a huge structure which gives no hint of the breathtaking vision that awaits us inside. After a stop in Persepolis, a magnificent ancient Persian city in the middle of semi-desert, we aim for Shiraz.
As we drop to sea level the temperature climbs to 48 degrees, so when we see a river in the desert and guys swimming in their underwear, we stop and Antonio and I are in the water in seconds.
The wonder is printed on our faces. We’re in the middle of the desert taking a bath in a river.
We leave for the city of Bushehr, crossing date plantations as the temperature continues to rise to 49 degrees. Antonio takes a shower under a builders’ hosepipe and returns to Marina and I, riding his motorcycle in his underwear without shoes. The builders are laughing and one offers him his slippers to reach the bike without getting dirty feet. Another small reminder of the wonders of these people.
On the way to Ahwaz the temperature continues to rise and it’s now consistently between 50 and 51 degrees. We drop our speed to 70km/h so we don’t get burned by hot air and to avoid mechanically stressing the bikes.
At the entrance to the city we are stopped by a man and his daughter who invite us to their home, but I am on the edge of dehydration and the service station nearby is tempting.
But we go with them and it’s paradise: air conditioning, carpets to lie on, fresh water and gentle people, whose stunning hospitality and kindness we should all learn from and pass on to our children. The father talks about their customs, their desires and their hopes, which are all very similar to ours. We leave at 4am to beat the heat. Mostafa is our guide to the Turkish border and Antonio wants to give him 50€ but he refuses saying he will be richer if he can count on our friendship.
Today we travel 600km to the border of Iraq. In many places the road is less than a stone’s throw from the border and we see many military outposts dotting the tops of the mountains. We wanted to find our friend who works in Iraq in the city of Sulaymaniyya.
We are less than 40km away, but the news from Mosul tells of hundreds of deaths at the hands of the fundamentalists Işil, so unfortunately have to give up on that idea.
In Saqqez Bukan we stay in one of the worst rooms ever. As we eat in the room we witness a scene that shows one of the many contradictions of this country – a driver peers cautiously around him, and satisfied he is alone, pulls out a can of beer and drinks greedily.
After the Turkish border, skirting the Kurdish freedom fighters, we set up camp. But as word spreads, the locals arrive followed by an armoured fleet and machine gun-wielding soldiers. They tell us we have camped in a most dangerous place.
Ankara, Istanbul, Sofia and Belgrade await and with our last bit of energy we head for the Italian border.
I open the gate of my house and go into the garden where the smiles of my wife and daughter greet me. Renzo what more do you want from life?
Nothing, I’m so happy. I’m a lucky man who has learned that the greatness of a journey lies not in its size but in a thousand details of daily life that can be grasped within it.
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