The last few days – a long one

Bike being packed (for free) in Tehran airport

I have been writing this blog on my phone and I’m now uploading it from Amritsar, India.

29th April.

I’m at the Turkey/Iran border. There is a bit of confusion regarding my nationality because the only word they are recognising on the passport is “Ireland” as in “Northern Ireland” as in… oh nevermind.

That was earlier. Now I am in a hotel somewhere that the Iran police have taken me to…

At around seven I passed through the town where I am now staying, thinking that I would carry on for a bit. Alweays about the mileage me. About 1km out of town a car pulled in front of me, making me stop; five yound men, taking pictures with their mobiles. I cycled off after they started jeering; nobody likes being jeered at. For the next five kilometres they followed me, alongside shouting, in front or just behind., getting increasingly confrontational. I can’t speak Farsi but I can tell when someone is getting angry! I was scared and shaking a bit, completely out of my depth; I could feel my elbows wobbling but I thought that if I carried on they would get bored. It was now properly dark. They went ahead again and I saw their breaklights go on; as I got closer I could see they had got out and were standing by the road. I should’ve stopped and turned around but I didn’t know what grade of meance they represented. Luckily I was going quick quickly and managed to swerveæ out of the way as they tried to grab me off the bike..

 

There was other traffic on the road which might have made them hesitate. They were soon back alongside, gradually edging me off the road. The principle grabber had moved to the front passenger seat and was leaning out of the window shouting “passport! PASSPORT!”. I braked and crossed the highway where two teenagers were walking along. They had seen a bit of what was happening I guess and looked concerned. The car accelerated off up the hill; I had been saved by two 16 year olds! They atarted talking about police and I was trying to say I just wanted to find somewhere to sleep. A calm man on a motorcycle stopped, a friend of theirs. He suggested I went to the house of the taller of the two Hassans and sleep there. Sounded good to me but Hassan the taller rang another friend (they had reception, I didn’t on mine) who is in the Iranian army. Police was “polis”, army was indicated by a stand to attention and salute. Hassan the taller was actually a brilliant physical actor and also had some English words which he put to good use. His army friend turned up; his name was Abdullah and he explained that the peoiple in the “samand” (which I have since learned is a make of car) would at least attack me and take my bike, passport, everything. He actually ran his finger across his throat, but who knows? He made several very shouted phonecalls while Hassan acted out policemen catching the perp’s and machine gunning them; again, who knows? There was a little crowd of us now; me, the two Hassans, Abdullah the army boy and a couple of others. Abdullah called a taxi to take me to the police station, back in the town I had left earlier. We all stood around waiting; Abdullah smoked and Hassan the smaller, who had very thick glasses, kept getting his watch out of his pocket and holding it two inches from his eyes, squinting at it.

The taxi came and the bike was rammed in the back. I was and probably still am, somewhat rattled to say the least. The journey back to town was quick but it gave me a minute to think. Everyone I have come across today since the border has been so friendly and welcoming, spoiled by five men in a Samand. I remeber that it looked like we might have run over a lizard on the way back, but we might have missed it. The p[olice station, where uniforms were a mix and the men in green carried AK-47’s, was very secure. The chief came down from his house and flicked through my passport. Then everyone else had a go at flicking through my passport. There was a giant log book on the desk; the chief flicked through that as well, not writing anything but underlining some sentences. I felt like I just had to wait and not think about any of Kafka’s novels. The money I had given Abdullah for the taxi was still in his hands and went in his pocket after a nod from the chief. At the close of flicking and so on, a policeman and two soldiers escorted me to a hotel and I ate some food leftover from a wedding reception they had hosted earlier this evening.

I wanted to get this all down straightaway while its still fresh. Thats the meat of it, my first day in Iran.

30th April.

Its the morning now. I want to put this behind me and get on with cycling, so I won’t write anymore about it for now. I’m sitting here in this room feeling quite scared. Last night will probably tarnish my entire (projected) 12 days in Iran, but I’m sure it won’t all be like that.

I made it to Tabriz today. According to my new friend Attilla its an important industrial city.

This morning was not great, but I thought a bit more about last night as the day went on. I think that 5:10000 (number of people that have waved at me it seems) is a pretty good ratio, so I’m going to treat the incident exactly as I would if it happened at home – unlucky, unfortunate, but not the rule. Today was really lovely; quite a hard 100 miles or so but everytime I stopped someone would talk to me and buy me a drink or some food. I’m now camping in a municipal park with the blessing of the janitor (orchestrated by Attilla). Every single vendow I have tried to buy food from has given whatever it was for free. Attilla, who has excellent English (and looks exactly like the main character in The Inbetweeners by the way), told me that its a sort of tradition in Iran. Attilla and his friends were strolling around the park so I put the bike under guard with the janitor and joined them. It has been really interesting talking to Attilla about life in Iran from hyis point of view. What he thought about the government, all the things that are forbidden but done anyway (booze, mountain biking (huh?)), what Iranian people think about British people (Politically clever apparently and significantly “not thethe USA”) and lastly how relationships work or not in Iran. Attillla was really dismayed by how Iranian young men had “mimicked” western style dating, as he called it. He explained that if a community finds out that a yound woman has had sex, it is very difficult for her to marry, so they are being used.

Going to sleep now, well tired.

1st May

Today was very mixed. Getting through and out of Tabriz (great place as industrial cities go) took a long time. It was partly the physical aspects (my legs, lack of sleep, not knowing the place), but mostly I just didn’t want to move this morning. And its Friday, Iran’s day off, why should I go anywhere? I moaned. This is not a record breaking attitude I know. I knew that there was nothing for it but to continue, so I did. The wind was so strong at times that a gusting sidewind actually knocked me off the bike (Iæwasæalmost stationary). At other times the headwind was so persistent that I slammed the handlebars and swore! Very loud! I don’t normally do that. I was struggling with the distance and the day was disappearing. Then! Just one turn in the road took me into a narrow valley, out of the wind, with a stream running through it that gradually became a river. Protected from the wind and going slightly downhill I was able to do do 95km in just 3 hours; this is dream-like speed for me after struggling all day.

I have stopped at a roadside cafe and the tent is pitched in the adjoining mosque or prayer room. As Attilla said, there seems to be a culture in Iran that encourages people to look after travellers. I have been accomodated, fed and watered and they won’t accept payment. The people that run this place just want to help me. It is amazing!

2nd May

Tea with my hosts and a good early start. The hospitality is not forced, it feels like kindness but also a bit like duty, as though its nothing special its just what you do.

The cycling today was brilliant. Half slightly uphill, the other half more down. I did over 200km in about 12 hours, with very little discomfort (relatively speaking). Again, everybody so friendly, often waiving the bill or giving me something to drink. I still don’t speak Farsi, but I can recognise questions and answer “Zahedan”, “London”, “just me” and “Chelsea (I don’t follow a team but it helps to say something).

I have decided to carry on to Zahedan with 3 pounds per day, even with Iranian hospitality, is not feasible. Its my colossal mistake not to have checked about visa card usage in Ran. It turns out there is none; you use the cash you came in with. So I won’t be flying from Zahedan to Tehran and onto India to avoid Pakistan, but straight from Tehran. I am disappointed in many ways; the people are so friendly, food is readily available and good and the cycling terrain and smooth surface have generally been easier here. On the other hand I still haven’t managed to shake my extreme unease since that first evening and haven’t been cycling after dark much. You can probably tell from the GPS trace that I often ride into the evening to get the mileage in, so this does hindr me somewhat. I could have money wired somehow to an agent in Tehran, use up a rest day collecting it and carry on. My feelings however, tell me to stop at Tehran and move on.

If you were thinking that I am an intrepid and brave explorer, think again! To give you an idea, I am unable to watch horror films because they give me nightmares and I get Creature From The Deep syndrome whenever I swim out of my depth in the sea (made up syndrome, very real to me). In the wrong conditions, I am also scared in the dark.

I want to do three things: break the world record, raise a lot of money for What’s Driving Parkinson’s? http://www.whatsdrivingparkinsons.net and also raise awareness of the disease and the groundbreaking work that this research charity does. Bravado in some form might come into it, but only as a by-product. Going to countries that are considered dangerous, or even scaring myself unnecessarily, are not part of the plan. Trying to cycle 120 miles a day takes up enough physical and emotional energy, without adding other stresses.

OK, I’m done. Goodnight.

ps, staying in another roadside restaurant/mosque. It would be like stopping at a Little Chef on the A303, with a small chapel attached, being fed for free and then being invited to sleep in the vestry. Happens all the time.

3rd May

Heading for the airport. Pretty busy road but not too bad. The look here at the moment, for young me at least, seems to be 50’s American/70’s cowboy. Hair, clothes, to some extent the motorcycles they all ride. I’ll try and get a picture.

The plain that Tehran is on is massive! I’m on the northern extremity at the moment, with mountains rising up abruptly to my left as I head east. Somewhere in the middlke is the Rud E Shur River, surrounded by beautifully irrigated fields. I’m sorry to be leaving Iran early, but I still think this is the best course to take. Half past four, still with some way to go.

The bike went in a taxi at 20:31, so I am now officially in transit. That was an interesting taxi ride, the driver so suspicious of me that we stopped at a police station where his brother worked so he could check my passport. However, we since bonded over mobile phones and he was really perplexed and amused by the number of photos I have of meals I have eaten.

Getting a ticket with visa turned out to be easier than expected, although only because the bike helps make friends and Edwin from Emirates Airlines told me to come back at 2 in the morning and he’d help me. He was as good as his word, booking the ticket on the Emirates computer system that is outside the no Visa card rules apparently. I am now on the 05:05 to Dubai and we are taxi-ing for take off.

By James Bowthorpe

My name is James Bowthorpe. On the 29th March 2009 I set out from London to break the round the world cycling record. I am doing this to raise 1.8 million pounds for much needed research into the cause of Parkinson’s Disease. I have been preparing for this challenge for the last 6 months and now I’m on my way! You can follow my progress and see photos, on my blog.

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