Once upon a time…. waiting …

14 09 2010

Once upon a time, in a land far far away there waited two Princesses. The Princesses had only a shoe string and a thread bear to keep them company as they waited for the never never.  Daily they jumped from their lumpy vegetable filled mattress believing that today the magical wizard would deliver them from captivity. Daily the wizard would smile benignly, consult the mystical telex machine and shake his weary head. And thus the glass hearts of the two Princesses would crack and spill upon the floor. The tiny pieces would prick their fingers and draw their blood as they fumbled to gather all the pieces back together.  And once again they waited. They waited in motion and in rest.  They waited until they could wait no more.

Stats –

16 days waiting for Iranian visa

Three school workshops delivered

One church congregation addressed

150 laps of the boulevard

25 metro trips to the Iranian embassy

 Two articles in the local press

Approx 280 people spoken with about HIV/AIDS

£200 raised for the two charities

25 cheese sandwiches eaten

Two bouts of vomit

Three sessions of diarrhoea

One chest infection

Today is D-day. We have narrowed our options to 50/50. A) continue waiting for maybe another 10-15 days for Iranian visa B) Fly to India and make up the miles there. We have phoned a friend.  Today the magical wizard either comes through with the visa or the calling of the day will ring from the minarets of our weary hearts.





Grinding through Azerbaijan

9 09 2010




Waiting and mass debating (Baku/Iran)

6 09 2010

‘Baku is expensive!  it’s the oil… their oil… not my oil’ ranted our rough shaven taxi driver Cahil.  His (by now 20 min long) monologue was as persistent and visceral as his driving; ‘It’s a republic in name only’ he spat as he shaved the corner off another bend, throwing us rattling across the back seat like unhinged nodding dogs; ‘the oil isn’t for us! (mumble mumble) I used to be a teacher now my wife is a teacher she earns $130 a month! Imagine… how can you live when prices are higher than Paris, or London?!’ He pauses only briefly to holler across to another taxi driver, it is becoming clear that he is not quite sure how to get us to our destination… ‘Do you know about the Armenians?’ he shouts back at us as he resumes his confidently urgent trajectory; ‘the world listens to them because they are Christian, everyone is afraid of Muslim, but the truth is that they won the war… the information war! They are everywhere, be careful, where there is a stone under it you will find an Armenian. No one helps the Azeri, no one knows about Azerbaijan, do they know Azerbaijan in UK?’ Struggling to know how to answer ‘…no…’ Liz ventures gingerly; ‘SO!’ he slams on his brakes triumphantly and swivels to look at us, ‘So! That is true. But now you must learn. Do not let fear win and you will tell your family and people will know.’ Unsure of the appropriate response we both nod sombrely, he is satisfied and abruptly returns to his wheel, ‘I used to be number three in Azerbaijan judo team. We are here.’ He indicates to the International School we have come to visit. We step into the blinding morning sun, blinking.

It’s true; we don’t know much about Azerbaijan. By “we” I’m including you. And by Azerbaijan maybe I mean anywhere and everywhere. There are always stories within stories, and perspectives that are more complicated than even the BBC would have us believe.

We have been battling with choices and prejudices and preconceptions for the last few weeks as we have been engaged in what has become, affectionately known as, The Great Iranian Mass Debate. As we can’t go in to Pakistan from the north because of the floods, we are waiting to see if we can get a visa to go through Iran and into India that way… so for anyone interested in our mass debate… dive on in! (PS – thanks for the Lonely Planet Iran mum!)

WARNING!!!! Iran – Axis of EVIL!

Iran is an evil state wanting to build nuclear bombs! Yes it is true that Iran is still in a standoff with much of the rest of the world over its nuclear programme and they have actively defied a number of Security Council resolutions calling for its halt. I can’t say if Iran is secretly trying to build a nuclear bomb, I can’t say if they are really going to bomb Israel if they manage it. And I don’t know if my not knowing is a reason not to go through a country… unless there was some evidence that they wanted to build and deploy a kill-all-cyclists-called-cath-and-liz bomb in the next few months!

It is dangerous if you are BRITISH! The British Foreign Office warns that following the 2009 elections the security forces will be more suspicious of British travellers, especially of those travelling on their own and looking… suspicious. There is a general terrorism threat and a kidnapping warning. Phew! This is better than the advice for Turkey which was a HIGH terrorism threat… I wonder what it would be for London? There is no warning against visiting Iran at this time.

They repress Women! After the 1979 Islamic revolution women in Iran lost many rights. While things are not perfect in Iran (as in most counties in the world) there is a real sense that ground is being won back by local women; with an estimated 60% of university applicants being women and the nationwide literacy rate for girls aged between 15 and 24 is up to 97%! Yes, if you are a women in Iran you have to cover up. There are a billion arguments either side of the hijab debate needless to say we really don’t have an issue with adhering to a countries mores while travelling through it – hopefully it will still be September by the time we get there and thus it should be coolish!

Women can’t cycle in IRAN! Iran has a women’s cycling team. Recently an Iranian cleric criticised women cyclists . Women can cycle, women do cycle, women have cycled but, yes, it is uncommon (two women trying to cycle to Thailand is relatively uncommon!) To find out more about the actual experiences of foreign women cycling in Iran we searched the internet for tales of recent experience – the first thing we came across was travellingtwo.com which has some good advice about how to hijab-up! I have already contacted my mum to send out a few spare buffs! We have spent many many hours riffling through the net, emailing people, talking to people and we came across quite a few recent stories of men travelling, mixed couples, women etc and the story of Ann Wilson, a 59 year old British women who cycled in Iran in 2009 and sums up research well – ‘The last 3 days have confirmed everything I had read about Iran from travellers who have actually been here. The beauty of the country cannot be described in mere words or pictures and the welcome and warmth that is extended to strangers like myself is greater than anywhere else I have seen on my journey.’ These testimonies, compounded by that of a middle aged French couple we recently met who were in Iran last month have really helped to ignite our curiosity about Iran and set our minds at rest about some of the fears that have been raised.

And so…..

Iran has risks. As do all the countries we are cycling through, including the one we started in. But we can’t escape divinely ordained assassination. Every day we cycle yards from insane screeching 20 tonne lorries, each night we get bitten by insects that may carry deadly diseases, two weeks ago we cycled across a new bridge because the old one got bombed by the Russians in 2008; in the past six weeks we have cycled past dead dogs, cows, cats, and sadly humans and we have been meters away from a truck tyre blow out. We fully appreciate and are in awe of the risks that we take. We do not take them lightly and we do not take them unadvisedly. We will continue to incline our ears to wisdom and our hearts to understanding, and we will work very hard to continue to stay alive and out of trouble!





A double dose of wet feet

30 08 2010

My super outdoorsy socks have been doing an excellent job of wicking sweat away from my feet and keeping them dry in the 40 degree heat… that is until the last 2 days.  Today the temperature plummeted to a wintery 18C and we cycled through a silent shroud of drizzle, mizzle, mist, fog, and rain, all day, resulting in sodden shoes, sodden spirits, and strong memories of days on the South Downs Way.

As to yesterday’s cause of wet feet…. carefully reading our map of Azerbaijan, we identified a lovely route on the ‘main road’, there’s motorway above and ‘secondary road’ below…. so think ‘A’ road; we did. Little did we know that there was, in fact an ‘old’ and a ‘new’ road… and guess what – we found ourselves on the old road.  It is apparent in Azerbaijan that once a new road has been built the old one is left to die a crumbling, dusty death. Without this prior knowledge and with a characteristically blasé hue to our decision making processes we proceeded to rattle and shake over 40 km’s of unpaved roads that would have challenged even the hardiest of mountain bikers (which we are decidedly not!).

Adjourning for lunch and to eek out our compacted spines we were soon joined by the obligatory trickle of cheery eyed old men who stood admiring our bikes and gently probing out intention.  Our plans drew sharp sucking in of breath and warns that this next section on this, now a little tiresome ‘old’ road, was ‘dangerous’ and that there was a river crossing!  … But it was only another 40K, and we had been on jumbled roads all day anyway, and hadn’t we crossed enough dry river beds today to not worry about that (scoff), and with sirens singing thoughts of staying in a converted caravanaserai (very cool!) we gamely plumped to bungle ahead. Some 20 juddering Km later we were feeling pretty confident and pretty pleased with ourselves. Then we rounded a corner and laid out in front of us was the lovely bridge (under construction) and the wide, multi channelled, fast flowing, river. ‘Better get our feet wet’ chimed Catherine as I marched in to test the depth and sunk to my knees, wobbling frantically to balance against the insistent flow. . A little deeper than comfortable… so we unhooked all the bags and like a packhorse I shuffled backwards and forwards with kit and bikes.  Safely on the other side, no slips, trips or falls in the process… everything dry (apart from our feet) we set off again… to be faced with a second river to cross.  Fortunately this one was shallower than the first and we managed to push our bikes over.  As we slumped on a pile of rubble, like two exhausted, shoe draining, sprouts ….a tractor with large empty trailer drove by… first vehicle going in our direction we’d seen for about an hour… sod’s law!

A really tough and highly satisfying 120Km day that landed us snug, smug, (if a tad shaken and stirred) in the fine old caravanserai of Seki. Pive anyone?