I rolled into my first major city in Iran full of wonder, happy beyond words to finally be in a country I’d dreamt of visiting for many years. On the eve of my visit I’d spoken to my dad on Skype, who described Iran as “possibly the jewel in the crown of your trip.” After reading the blogs of countless other cyclists over the years I’d come to the same conclusion. This was, universally, a land of joyous hospitality, strangers that became friends and a society that couldn’t be more welcoming.
The day I crossed the border I’d woken at 4AM like a child on Christmas morning, my present at the bottom of a hill was to be a whole new country to wander, with its foods ready to be devoured, landscapes gawped at and people to meet. It was only a matter of rolling downhill for a few miles to leave Armenia behind. After picking up giardiasis in the country I’d spent more days resting in guesthouses than tackling mountains, and those that had involved cycling were characterised by swearing and pushing up hills I didn’t have enough power to pedal and not the usual sense of accomplishment that comes from getting to the top of a hill. But things were improving as I got closer to Iran, my appetite had returned and some renewed energy had flowed into my legs. I crossed the border under a cloudless sky with a restored sense of optimism. This was what I’d dreamed of. This was Iran!
I’d arrived into Tabriz, Iran’s fifth largest city, to spend a few days with someone from the Warm Showers website and get an introduction to the culture I was anticipating so keenly. As the heat of the day subsided I rode with my host Yassar and two of his friends to the edge of the city, to a busy park, where Iranians go to partake in one of their favourite pastimes: having a bloody good picnic. We intended to join some friends doing the same, watching the sun set with enough tea to make a grown man wet himself.
But things didn’t quite work out that way. Within two minutes of arriving I’d collapsed off my bike to the ground. My memory of the next four days consists simply of the noise of an ambulance’s gearbox shifting through its gears and Yassar repeating “You’ll be fine dude, you’ll be fine.” I woke after three days of unconsciousness tied to a bed in intensive care, thrust into a confusing world of delusion and distress. I couldn’t work out where I was, what I was doing in this gloomy room and why my limbs were immobile. The doctors and nurses looking after me later said I had spent many hours shouting at the top of my voice to be let go, including offering extensive threats to beat up the staff unless they released me. While being so charmingly polite I squirmed around to such an extent that the bedheets tying me down wore away the skin from my lower legs.
Unbeknown to me during my extended naptime moves had been made to get in touch with my family back in England. The new friends I’d made in Tabriz had found my profile on the CouchSurfing website, then sent a message to a friend I went to university with, he had then passed the message to another friend, who had passed on the message to a third friend of my family I’ve known since I was a child. Thus my brother received a call at 1AM saying “James is a bit sleepy in hospital.” Or something like that. From then my insurer became involved (more on them later) and the Foreign Office. The rumour mill cranked up and, sadly, some of this filtered back to my family in England forcing them to consider getting out to Iran as I was “not speaking” “not allowed to cycle for six months” and “getting worse and worse.” Thankfully none of this was true.
In the absence of blood relatives I acquired a surrogate Iranian family, a group mainly made up of men in their twenties who had heard about my illness and spoke of a “sense of duty” in looking after people in need. Most of the time these remarkable people were not introduced to me, they simply surrounded my bed and stayed out of sheer kindness. They offered constant advice, reassurance, places to stay and recuperate once I was discharged, gifts and even went as far as paying my £700 hospital bill when my useless insurance company refused to pay and I didn’t have the cash to cover it (I paid them back after a midnight drive to Azerbaijan with my bank card as there aren’t any ATMs on the international network in Iran due to economic sanctions). Even more remarkably these men refused to accept my thanks for their help, they “needed no thanks for something that is a duty.”
Slowly I started to accept I was in hospital and not orbiting in outer space as I had originally thought. I moved from total confusion to a determination to get out of the door as quickly as possible, and after a few more days and various tests I was allowed to leave hospital, clear to cycle on as long as I took a few drugs and rested for a while. So with my new group of friends I strode out of hospital sporting a lovely pair of blue pyjamas and felt the soothing sun on my face. Freedom!
Several people, however, had told me my ride was now over, a period of convalescence was essential and I’d have to have a break from cycling. I was having none of that, I was determined to crack on as soon as possible and continue my trip. This seemed even more important as I’d lost valuable travelling days asleep rather than in the saddle. I tersely dismissed any suggestion of not cycling. It wasn’t going to happen. I’m a stubborn bastard and was going to pedal on whatever.
But in truth there are some hangovers from my accident that are still affecting me and would have an effect on ability to continue. The next few thousand miles of my route don’t exactly lend themselves well to a gentle re-introduction to cycling after a month off either. First I’d be crossing arid Turkmenistan in five days due to visa restrictions followed by the heat of Uzbekistan and a rather remote road through Tajikistan. These geographic conditions coupled with the lack of available healthcare, and the poor quality of what is available, are certainly not ideal. The remoteness of the Pamir Highway through Tajikistan in particular is a worry. A relapse there offers serious problems, both for my health and finances if my insurer decide they don’t want to pay out on any further claims.
Speaking to my family I was urged to consider these issues but chose to ignore them instead, I was determined to carry on with my original plan. Then over a period of days I began to think more about my situation. I feel I’ve got a good gut instinct, and that’s something that shouldn’t be ignored. Back in Greece someone told me I was going to be robbed but my gut said the opposite and I was correct. Something, at present, doesn’t feel quite right in my body.
So a period of rest is called for back home in Durham. I believe it is the right decision to take considering all of the potential outcomes. Even continuing and being perfectly fine isn’t without problems as the lack of communication in the ‘stans may mean my family won’t hear from me for a long time, forcing them into an interminable situation of constantly worrying if no news is good news. Additionally, as I’m lucky enough to have been born in a country with progressive social policies that provide free health care I can be sure whatever problems remain will be sorted out without having to worry about writing a big cheque and wiping out my entire savings. I fly home from Tehran on Friday 13th…
My first priority is seeing a doctor on returning, but apart from that I’m not really sure what’s in store. There are the obvious things of course, the exciting things; hugs with family and friends, a new niece and a nephew to meet for the first time, pints of India Pale Ale, slabs of Stilton, Taylor’s of Darlington pork pies and a visit to Durham miners’ gala on the day of my return where I’ll drunkenly ramble on about my time cycling while reflecting that nothing at all has changed in England. Depending on how long I’m back home there may also be the need to use my time constructively in some capacity, whether this involves a very brief association with a sensible paying job or something more exciting through the superb HelpX website I don’t yet know.
And although I may be forced into keeping a routine for a short while, with The Ride Round temporarily stopped, it will be back as soon as is possible. This trip means far too much to me and much like a bloated bank in the credit crunch it is too big to fail. To get only ten months in to the trip and have to stop, just when I was entering a part of the world that intrigued me so much, is beyond frustrating. I don’t want to stop this wonderful life I’m lucky enough to be living, where I wake each day and do whatever I like when I like, with nobody able to stop me. Long may it continue.
Since I started pedalling last August I’ve had such great support from readers, through donations and messages, that I thought a full explanation was deserved about why I’m getting on an aeroplane and flying back to England, hence this long blog post. Please keep checking back for updates here and on Twitter about when I will be back on the road.
Finally, to my new Iranian friends: I’ll never forget how you helped me in Tabriz. You all represent the very best of Iran, of selflessness, warmth and kindness. Thanks also to the superb doctors and nurses of Emam Reza Hospital. Apologies if I tried to hit you.