Rebecca Lowe, a British journalist, set off in July 2015 to cycle 10,000km from London to Tehran, with the aim of shedding light on a region she felt had long been misunderstood. She shared her story with RIDE Media.
– This story was originally published in RIDE Cycling Review (issue 74, December 2016) –
I knew quickly that I was in trouble. I’d crossed from one side of the Nile to the other, expecting the same wooden shacks and drinks sellers, but nothing was to be found. Instead, the road snaked long and lonely towards the horizon, with just the occasional stone urn punctuating the bleached sands. Only one contained water, which I sucked through my filter eagerly, desperately – but it wasn’t enough.
Temperatures were touching 45 degrees and a torrid headwind scorched my skin. I became thirsty. Then parched. Then slowly, inevitably, delirious.
Al Dabbah, the nearest town, seemed unreachable. But cars were sparse, and later non-existent. So on I schlepped, throat sore, tongue swollen and raw.
I felt weak, then trembly, then numb, as ghostly shapes danced and spun before my eyes. Never before had I experienced true thirst, I realised. Never before had I panicked. The final kilometre seemed like 30, as I weaved across the road like a wino in the growing dusk. By the time I arrived, I could no longer focus. Then everything turned to black.
It was a local Nubian family who found me collapsed by the roadside and nursed me back to health.
They gave me water, juice and food; mopped my brow while I was sick; kept me cool while I slept. They were gentle and compassionate, and I shall remember their kindness forever. But they weren’t a special case. They were what I had come to expect from a region that had enveloped me in its warmth and generosity of spirit from the beginning; a region many had warned me not to travel through. Not as a woman. And certainly not alone.
* * * * *
The remarks were ill-informed and often hateful.
The Iranian Shia regime does not support ISIS, for a start, but fiercely opposes all Sunni terrorist groups. More importantly, most Iranians do not support their autocratic regime. The people, I felt strongly, should not be tarred with the same brush as their oppressors.
Western ignorance about the Middle East is widespread. Many view it as a homogeneous hub of unrest and bloodshed, because this is what the media portrays. Yet the truth is far more complex.
Islamic countries are deeply diverse, colourful and rich with contradiction. Many may be political repressive, but socially and culturally their arms are wide open. And outside the hotspots, terrorism is far from the acute threat many imagine.
I would cycle from London to Tehran via as many Islamic countries as was practical, I decided – just to show I could. I would exclude Syria, Libya and Yemen, to avoid it becoming a suicide mission, and take a knife, satellite tracker and rape alarm for security. Beyond these precautions, I felt sure I’d be safe.
My route would take me across Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Oman, the UAE and Iran: all countries with low crime rates and a reputation for hospitality. My aim was simple: tell stories about people’s everyday lives rather than politics and conflict. And, hopefully, develop an exceptional pair of steely buns as I did so.
* * * * *
I left my London flat in July 2015 deeply unprepared. I hadn’t trained. I had no sense of direction. I had never cycled with panniers. I hadn’t even cycled this particular bike, which had only arrived the day before: a brand new Kona Sutra 2016, generously donated by the brand.
The first few days were predictably tough. I swiftly discovered that riding a steel tourer with 60kg of baggage is nothing like riding a racer in London.
Hills were a nightmare, for a start. As was steering. As I veered helplessly into hedges and oncoming cars, I began wondering whether I could make it all the way to Tehran without turning any corners or plunging head-first into the Mediterranean.
I finally started getting the hang of things, however. In fact, I learnt a great deal over that first month in the saddle.
I learnt how to put up my tent, and tweak my gears and brakes. I learnt that chamois cream was my best friend, along with my emergency thermos of Chablis Premier Cru. I learnt that nectarines and nuts are a great energy source, and that Camembert should never be left in a hot pannier overnight. I learnt there’s no dignified way to ride a cobbled road, and that my beautiful Brooks saddle was never likely to ‘soften up’, as I’d been promised, short of me performing La fille mal gardée’s clog dance on it every morning.
Most importantly, I learnt that people will always be kind to someone on a bicycle. You’re not a threat, so people trust you; and you’re not the norm, so people are intrigued by you.
You’re also often seen as a fairly desperate creature, in need of food, lodgings or a few extra marbles, so help is always at hand. Being a woman was useful too, I found. Depending on my mood, I could either choose to embrace my fully independent, gung-ho feminist side, or – when a little weary or tired of buying my own lunch – rely on a nice chivalrous man to step into the fold. (Sorry, guys, but after thousands of years of patriarchy, it’s about time we got to enjoy a little exploitation of our own.)
Over the next four months, I sluggishly worked my way across the UK, France, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Bulgaria and Turkey. I camped until Montenegro, then stayed in people’s houses and the occasional dingy motel once the weather turned.
Constant physical and mental exhaustion gradually gave way to a sense of growing health and fitness. My thighs were a constant source of concern, however. One of my fears about the trip had been developing monster-like quads that would render me unfit for civilised society, and I could feel them pulsing and expanding by the day.
Highlights of Europe included Lake Garda in northern Italy, the picturesque Zelenkovac Ecological Movement in Bosnia and the charming village of Koprivshtitsa in the Bulgarian Sredna Gora mountains. Nothing lifted my spirits quite so much, however, as the two builders who woke me in my tent at dawn behind a half-constructed church near the Croatia-Bosnia border. Assuming they planned to kick me off their land, I was surprised to find they came bearing cigarettes, biscuits and home-brewed rakija – the last of which pickled my innards like a shot of sulphuric acid, and almost certainly made me immortal.
Low points included cycling 20 miles to the Montenegro-Albania border, only to discover the crossing was yet to be built and having to cycle all the way back; and getting a puncture on a pitch-black country lane near a Bulgarian ghost-town just as the jackals began to howl.
Only one experience continues to haunt me, however: a visit to a refugee camp in Harmanli, Bulgaria. Smuggled inside by a Kurdish resident, I encountered a bleak, grey concrete block with a leaking roof and filthy, rat infested bathrooms. The refugees lived in cramped, grubby rooms in bunk beds, and desperation was palpable. Most intended to flee to Germany as quickly as they could.
I too was pleased to leave Bulgaria. Crossing into Turkey was like switching from sepia to Technicolor; everything seemed brighter, warmer, sweeter. The people could not have been kinder or the police more helpful. And the food was extraordinary. As someone with a lifelong kebab habit, being surrounded by socially acceptable doner meat felt like being in some kind of paradise.
I spent Christmas in Gaziantep, on the Turkey-Syria border, with a group of Syrian activists. The original values of the revolution – freedom, democracy, equality – were still very much alive, they told me. Many had courageous, humbling personal stories. One woman was from Zabadani, a town then under siege by the Syrian regime, where a kilo of rice cost $100 and residents were starving to death. Before she escaped with her two children, she and a few other women had helped to negotiate a ceasefire between armed groups. “We better understood the concerns of the community,” she told me. ”So we had certain advantages over the men.”
Accounts like these helped me put my trivial journey in perspective, and gave me a new-found appreciation for my freedom and good fortune. As a middle-class British woman with a strong support network, I could travel almost anywhere I wanted without undue concern. Yet even I often found arriving alone in a strange place nerve-racking. How refugees found the resilience and courage to venture into the unknown, with no safety net, continued to astonish and inspire me.
* * * * *
On the ferry from Turkey to Lebanon, I met a Sunni Muslim from Damascus who was en route to Syria to visit his elderly mother in the Atmeh refugee camp. Conditions there were desperate, he said.
Everyone lived in flimsy, tattered tents, with no electricity or running water. In winter, people were known to freeze to death. “There’s no hope left,” the man, who himself had been tortured by the Assad regime in 2011, told me. “Just a drive for survival.”
I witnessed such desolate conditions first-hand at an informal Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Yet it was the Palestinian settlements in Beirut and Jerash, Jordan, that I found the most shocking. These were little more than makeshift shanty towns, damp, dirty and overpopulated.
Residents had lived there for decades, yet still enjoyed very limited rights to employment, health and education. And conditions were worsening by the day due to funding cuts.
Overall, my memories of Jordan are mixed. On the one hand, the landscape was dazzling: a craggy, russet-tinted wilderness of sun-scorched wadis and breathtaking canyons. On the other, there were the men. Bedouin culture is not renowned for its feminism, and making public grabs at women seemed entirely acceptable. One truck driver, who I hitched a ride with after getting a puncture, tried to kiss me and grope my breasts with frightening persistence. At first I appealed to his religious conscience, pointing to my (fake) wedding ring and saying I had children – but ultimately a knife directed at the crotch seemed to prove a more effective deterrent.
Sex pests were sadly a problem throughout the trip.
In rural and tribal regions, attitudes to women were often misguided, based on a deep sense of chauvinism and entitlement. In Egypt, randy tuk-tuk drivers regularly tried to grab my arse, while lewd propositions by passing drivers in Iran became a daily occurrence.
Each incident made me burn with rage and indignation. Yet I soon realised that these men were not monsters, but simply ignorant and often ill-educated – not to mention sexually frustrated within a culture where physical intimacy is seen as shameful. They were not malicious aggressors to be feared, but cowardly opportunists to be shamed.
On the plus side, being a woman allowed me a rare and privileged glimpse behind the veil. In Egypt, many women wearing the niqab (full face covering) proved to be stronger and more independent than I’d imagined. “I have no interest in marriage. I want to finish my studies and be a doctor,” one young woman I stayed with in Qena told me. She, like every other Muslim I met, was deeply angered by the rise of jihadist groups. “ISIS are murderers,” she stressed. “They have nothing to do with Islam.”
* * * * *
Indeed, the greatest hazard I faced was not terrorists, robbers or rapists, I quickly learnt. It was the often suffocating hospitality of locals. In a remote Sudanese village, I had to physically wrestle a 10-year-old girl to reach freedom after being fattened like foie gras on endless supplies of mashed fava beans.
In Egypt, a farming community held me hostage until I’d modelled all the women’s clothes, ridden their donkey around the sorghum field and sung a “traditional” British song (which perplexingly turned out to be ‘Hushabye Mountain’ from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).
In Iran, so much wonderful, impractical food was given to me by passers-by – watermelons, bread, bags of cucumbers – that much had to be discarded. Persian culture as a whole pulsed with contradictions. On my first day, the police admonished me for removing my headscarf in blazing heat under a tree; minutes later the officer’s sister-in-law was serving me Khoresh Gheimeh (lamb and split pea stew) in her nearby bungalow.
This tension, between security and society, was evident throughout the trip, as stifling as the summer heat. In Egypt, ruled by a dictatorial military regime, police controlled tourists to the point of claustrophobia and escorted me 800km down the Nile, aggressively grilling everyone I met. In Iran, I was given more freedom, yet dozens of people aware of my profession as a journalist declined to meet me due to fear of repercussion.
Everywhere I went, security and oppression curbed freedom and dissent. In Turkey, pro-Kurdish human rights lawyer Tahir Elçi was killed by an unknown gunman a few days after we met, during a speech advocating peace. In Sudan, two students were killed in clashes with regime forces and supporters during my brief stay in Khartoum.
The enduring impression was a region in crisis, stretched hopelessly between tyranny and terror. Yet there was light along the way – and that light was the people. “The world shouldn’t judge us by our politics,” a Syrian activist from Gaziantep told me. “We should be judged as human beings.”
That, for me, is the crux of the matter. Middle Eastern countries can be risky places, but the risks are primarily political. Beyond the fear and selective truths of the media, there is so much to enjoy. Their tremendous warmth and openness. Their love of foreigners. Their protective community spirit. Their music, sweetmeats and spices. Their boundless capacity for tea.
And I would go back, alone, in a heartbeat.
– By Rebecca Lowe
More can be found at thebicyclediaries.co.uk