Reaching Kathmandu in enough time to finish our logistics and training for the running and rafting sections of this adventure have turned the remainder of our cycle into the type of relentless push we experienced in Turkey.
As I write this I am sitting in the dark in one of the nameless fields we have learned to call home on our journey through Southern India. We arrived as we always do about 15 minutes before dark and will be gone within 30 minutes of the sun coming up. I have enough energy to write this evening on account of us giving ourselves a half day to get over a bit of mild sun stroke the day before, usually it’s a case of getting the tents up and drinking water for 30 minutes before going to sleep.
Our journey through India probably isn’t the one you read about in the guide books. In fact if you did read a guide book it would most likely tell you this is not the best time to visit. The temperature is now hitting 40 degrees by 10 o’clock each morning and isn’t dipping below it until after 3. In short it has been a struggle but one that is necessary to prepare us for the riggers which lie ahead.
Still looking ahead is not the reason we choose this adventure and during the cooler parts of the day we can appreciate India for more than just an opportunity to train. Despite being home to 1.2 billion people it is still remarkably green and full of picture perfect campsites. The contrast in this regard to the sparse landscapes of Southern Iran was most evident as we passed through tropical forests on our first week heading north, but has continued as the palm trees have given way to green fields and roadsides covered in wild flowers.
Another major bonus for the journey cyclist is the abundance of roadside restaurants, cafes or huts which serve our daily dose of Dosa , Vegetable Masala, Pallak Panner or Biriani. The list of dishes goes on, but the quality remains constant. There are so many good choices that we have started to blindly point at menus or simply ask for local specialities. This is some leap of faith when you consider our budget only stretches to €5 per day and food is our most important purchase - we are rarely disappointed.
So what of the 1.2 Billion people? In only three weeks it feels like we have met most of them, such is the commotion of a day on the road. As soon as we begin cycling each morning the horns begin and the throngs of curious scooter, lorry and bus passengers start the daily round of questioning or most commonly give a generic what are you doing? puzzled look. Our replies depend largely on the time of the day. Between 11 and 3 is really no time for idle chit-chat and conversations are invariably brief. Its outside these hours or most commonly at lunchtime that we have had the same levels of wonderful encouragement and generosity that we have received all over the world. This is quite something when you consider the extent of poverty in the subcontinent.
However, for once it is not the people that have characterised our journey through a country. Instead the heat has stood out during the 1600km from the Southern Tip of India. As my mind drifts to tomorrow I feel a strange mixture of dread and excitement. India could be the toughest country we have ever travelled through, but if you’re ready for it there is certainly an adventure to be had.
A short video from us to say thank you to all those who took part in the Swap in the City event. The event was a great success and we want to thank all of the extended Sand2Snow Adventures Team at home in Ireland for making it happen.
As a little bonus - Maghnus gives some top fashion tips to the ladies. Essential take away - Re-vamping that wardrobe is KEY!
After a 15 week process we have received the disappointing news that our Pakistan visas have been declined. The official line is that only business or diplomatic visitors looking for short term stays are being accepted. In reality we know people who have been both accepted and declined in the last few months and are at a loss as to know how we could have improved our chances, the whole process would appear to come down to the flick of a coin.
The uncertainty has led us to pay more attention to alternative plans and the extra time set aside for anticipated Pakistan problems has given us a large enough time window to attempt something significant in India rather than merely skirting the North. We will go from the Southern tip and cycle the length of the country to the Nepalese border during the monsoon.
Cycling during the monsoon is unknown territory for us and what this will entail is anyones guess. But as someone once said; "Real adventure only begins when carefully laid plans are rendered obsolete."
It takes quite some sense of self-importance to feel let down by a country. Winston Churchill spoke of Britain’s admirable restrain in respecting Irish neutrality whilst contending with the advance of national socialism. A frustrated restrain clothed in disappointment. George Bush ruefully accepted France’s abstention from the axis of the willing, scorned and bitter. Had they forgotten Normandy? Ireland it seemed had let down W.B Yeats in the autumn of 1913; “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”
Four months before we were to leave home I too felt the tangible deflation borne of a nations actions. Iran, it seemed to me had let me down. I had defended our decision to choose a route crossing Iran against all comers. Instinct and past experience convinced me that a nation cannot be judged on the perceived mis-deeds of its leaders, that often such perceptions were subjectively created and propagated. I went as far as to argue, in a normative sense, the questionable moral equivalency of the nuclear non-proliferation demands. When I read of the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran my assuredness vanished in an instant. The fundamental principle on which peace between states rests and indeed is fostered is that of diplomatic respect and safety. It is not an important ingredient or a helpful tool, it is a basic necessity and pre-requisite for any dialogue, mediation or reconciliation. I felt angry. Writing this I am aware of how self-involved such a reaction was but it was how I felt and no doubt hugely impacting on my state of mind entering Iran.
I knew then as I know now as I try and sum up my experience of a country in a few short words that my opinion, reaction or feelings are largely inconsequential. What I personally feel and try to articulate is at best a source of mild curiosity to family, friends and the few who may have stumbled upon our site. Yet I am truly anxious in expressing it. The picture I paint and how it is perceived matters to me in a way I have not felt for anywhere else we have been. I want to get it right not just to increase wider understanding but to elucidate for myself what my own convictions are.
It has now been three weeks since we crossed the border between Turkey and Iran at Bazargan. That time can be summed up in a word; people. I could tell you about Mahdi Milani, his sister Homa, brother Hahdi and parents Achmed and Fatima. I could tell you how they took us into their home for two days and treated us as if two returning siblings. No, I should write about a night in a gym owned by the Kazim, the mixed martial arts Iranian and Central Asian Heavyweight Champion. Or the following day when he unexpectedly turned up at the door of our guest house in Tehran having driven for an hour with his friend Sepihr simply to show us the city. But then I couldn’t fully explain how two paramedics cooked us dinner in a prefabricated hut having offered us refuge from a storm. You’d also never know of how a small village seemed to collectively organise a loft on which we could sleep.
Perhaps, it was in the chance and brief meetings that the magic is best expressed. The countless pieces of fruit handed through car windows or offers of homes in which to stay, too many to feasibly accept. Maybe you would understand if you saw the faces. The indescribable but unwavering openness and welcome. When you couldn’t see the faces you still heard the shouts; ‘welcome to Tabriz’, ‘welcome Yazd’, ‘welcome in Iran’. It never felt forced or feigned. The welcome has substance and it’s consistency has been overwhelming.
Still, this is no utopia. The warmth of the people cannot prevent the chill of censorship and propaganda. The kindness cannot disguise the anti-semitism and bigotry of the state sponsored media. Crucially, a public who seem to crave peace are steeped in a climate where war is celebrated and propagated. All this to say nothing of the status of women. Better than the despotic regimes of Saudi Arabia and Sudan but still, as dictated by the Koran, inferior in every practical sense.
It is difficult to reconcile this dichotomy in my mind, even now. I keep returning to a single thought. Lions led by lambs. The petulance and bravado of Iran’s leaders, to me, is borne of fear. In light of past action, current rhetoric and a long history of Western self-interest the fear is not without basis. It’s manifestations, though indisputably crude and contemptible, are hysterical. All bleating and bluster, yet hollow and terrified. The people, however, who’s sons and husbands died in their thousands less than a generation ago fighting an American funded Saddam Hussein display a resilience and pride that cannot be taught or pretended.
Iranians know how they are perceived. They have told us, again and again. Yet those we have met are determined to refute it. The generosity and happiness with which we have been met was not based on our nationality. It was displayed before we spoke. The people of Iran have encountered mistrust, defamation, and accusations of malevolence. Rather than react with bitterness and hate they wish simply to be seen as they perceive themselves. Peace-loving, welcoming and proud of their heritage.
I am not naively suggesting that anecdotal evidence of this kind is authoritative, but nor should we naively accept the single all encompassing narrative we are fed. Accept or reject what I have expressed but do so with open eyes and treat the western media accounts with the same skepticism and distrust.
In a small town about 100km from Tabriz an English teacher named Eric invited us to stay in his small school. He asked us to sit in on one of his classes as his students discussed humanism, Nietzsche and the relative merits of melon juice as against the actual whole fruit. Leaving the next morning I went to thank him. He would not hear of it. He simply asked that we told people what we have seen.