Iranian Host-age



Since crossing from China into Central Asia the hospitality has been something else. At times it seemed impossible to make contact with a local, ask for directions, or stop for a broken russian/farsi and mime chat without being invited to take tea or a meal at their home. If we had accepted every invite proferred, I think we’d still be crossing Kyrgyzstan.

Iran definitely ranks highest in the hospitality club. The Irani feeling an unquestionable duty to house and feed foriegners- in part due to an acute embaressment of their muppet duo; Khomeini and Ahmadinejad and their government’s tarnishing of Iran’s international image. Sometimes the lengths they went to seemed crazy to a reserved European- handing bags of oranges and nuts to us from passing cars at 30kmph on a three lane round-about for example. Or the guy with the scary eyes who followed us for 5 km, stopping every kilometre and trying to flag us down, scaring the bejaysus out of us in the process, eventually catching us at a tea break, stuffing $5 for lunch into our hand and then screaming off again with wheel spin and gravel shower. Sometimes the spontaneous hospitality was over-bearing though, like the guy in Tabriz who just sidled up to us and announced lets go to my house, then wouldn’t take no for and answer until we had to politely but firmly tell him to piss off we were busy.

Central Asian hospitality is more hands on, spontaneous, and in your face than the European variety, as hosts fulfill their pre-designated duty to their guest. Though, occasionally, it seemed that  ticking the boxes of good host-age seemed more important than actually ensuring that we were content and comfortable. There were times when we wished that we’d camped instead of accepting an offer by an overbearing host who wouldn’t give us space or listen to what we really needed, instead doing his duty as a host and often subjecting us to lengthy impromptu photo shoots when we were wet, cold, hungry, tired, or all of the aforementioned, as neighbours gathered with their camera phones.

Inevitably there were crossed cultural lines at times, and I’m sure that we were bad guests also- particularly the time we were told we could sleep in a mosque, bedded down on what we later learned was the women’s side, and were woken up and kicked out at 5am by a group of irritated men, and wailing women who through the haze of sleepiness seemed like black shrouded chimeras.

I guess, a dutiful host is a lot more laissez faire in the west, though unfortunately, more scarce.

I think we crave space and privacy more, need to be left alone, and perhaps aren’t as good at communicating what we really want.  


Wearing The Fear

Eerie Clouds



Having the fear, is like a wearing a pair of glasses and strange constricting coat. It effects how you see and feel in the world. Its odourless and colourless, can’t be touched or tasted, yet can pervade our lives. It taps into our most primitive reflexes, to fly or stay and fight, echoing evolutionary eons of life or death encounters.

For the last few weeks I was wearing the fear after my incident in Mashad. I tried to fight it, consciously rationalising and theorising, but it was no use, a patch of waste ground similar to the one I was attacked on, or a couple of Iranian youths on a motorbike, and my insides would clench, pulse quicken, my grip would tighten and my eyes would start flitting for an escape route.

Despite what I told myself, I had little control. Every time a similar environment, or prop from the incident appeared, it provoked my body into responding in a similar way, this then coloured my rational perception and through narrowed eyes real dangers seemed to lurk, justifying and feeding my irrational feelings.

One, albeit quite serious, incident and the world looked different. The world hadn’t changed, but I had. I now had a body that still remembered the fight, and a mind that knew first hand my potential vulnerability. My mind I could console with logic, but my body wasn’t so easily convinced. It remembered and relived each time it was presented with reminiscent stimulus.

Wearing the vestments of fear changes one’s experience of the world dramatically. And, try as I might to be a big man and ignore it, they are difficult to shake.

As our route moved westward, skirting across the Iranian desert towards Tehran and then north-west to Tabriz, the the landscape changed, so did the people. Buildings and land ceased to echo the waste grounds of Mashad and its surrounds. In the north-east, Turkic blood shapes the faces of reluctant Iranian inhabitants, rather than the Afghan, Persian, Paki and Turkemi melange of the Mashadi. As a result my adrenal glands relaxed, and my fearful vestments grew lighter.

I’m still not as care-free as I was before the incident, and I wonder if I ever really will be. But I’m gradually managing to keep my primitive fears in check, and make sure that they don’t restrict my perception of what is still, in theory at least, the same wonderful world that I was eager to embrace prior to my encounter.

Writing this post I can’t help thinking about how much of our lives are coloured by what we’re afraid of. And, rather than spouting some easy rhetoric about hoping back on horses, and doing what scares us, I’ll say that a little bit of fear is OK. Its natural to be fearful of some things, we’re genetically programmed to be so. I think, however, its important to recognise what scares the bejaysus out of us, and to rationally at least try and understand and control it. But also to accept that we may not be able to do so.

Before leaving on this little jaunt, I wrote about fear, from the other side- the fear of the unknown that inhibits. I reasoned that I shouldn’t be afraid of what I can’t control or predict. I still stand by that, in theory. I didn’t let the unlikely spectre of getting attacked stop me from leaving home, and I don’t plan on letting the residual effects of one interfere with my journey home either.

Still, some things are easier said than done.

One Last Push (for 2009)

The Road to Yerevan


I must admit that Armenia is not a country I knew much about until a few months ago, and if asked I may have said it was somewhere in the Balkans. But for the last month its been our destination and every day we’d count the kilometers left until Yerevan where we were to spend Christmas.

When we arrived at the border of Armenia we had done 16 days of cycling with only 1 day off, though most of that was spent searching Tabriz for a hearty feed then gorging ourselves on cream cakes (I think we had about 30 cakes each that day!). So it was with heavy tired legs full of lactic acid and knots like a knarled old oak tree that we began the first ascent into the Armenian mountains. We naively thought that 4 days to do the 380km to Yerevan would be plenty, and at one stage figured that we could do it in 3 days, though we hadn’t counted on the steepness of the Soviet era roads and sheer number of climbs we’d need to do.

We began our first ascent by winding up a narrow valley lined with leafless deciduous trees and shabby houses made of scrap metal sheets. After a short while we got to the head of the valley where the road pointed skywards and we changed down the gears and began climbing up the winding road to the Meghri Pass. Most of the final 20km was a slope of 12% (or 1 in 8), which I reckon is unmatched in Ireland. Even in the easiest gear, we had to push really hard on the pedals and not spin as you should normally do in such a low gear. With a speed of only 6km/hr, it was a long gruelling slog, made more difficult by our inadequate food provisions and wheezing lungs caused by the pollution in Iran. By early afternoon though, we made it to the pass at 2535m altitude – well above both the snow and tree lines – and donned our thermals for the long downhill which undid our mornings climbing effort. We coasted downhill, enjoying our increased speed as we glided around the hairpin bends that were carved into the precipitious cliffs. My disc brakes became so hot that water would steam and sizzle as it splashed on the scorching metal. We eventually made it to the small town of Kadzharan where the gloomy tower blocks, dirty streets and aged rusting cars fitted my idea of what Chernobyl would be like.

The following day was much more frustrating as we didn’t even get to a high pass, or get the feeling that we were getting anywhere. We’d just climb for 2 hours, descend, cross a river then go back up the other side. By sunset on the second evening, after a whole days slogging, we had only done 50km and needed to cycle into the night in order to give us a chance of getting to Yerevan on time. The next day was not much better and we were digging really deep in order to keep going, guzzling on chocolate and biscuits and cycling on the sugar buzz. We were contemplating getting a truck to Yerevan as neither of us had any strength left and were completely shagged and dejected, but the thought of having to come back during the Christmas break to fill in the gap kept us going. Our efforts were finally rewarded by a lovely long fast downhill along a river bank which raised our spirits and we were then too close to Yerevan to give up so we just pushed on.

At dusk on Christmas Eve, we rolled into the Yerevan outskirts, knackered, filthy and smelly (sorry Tom), but got into the festive spirit by singing many a Christmas tune. We were met by Tom in his Santas hat and once back at his gaff, were fed lovely home made mince pies (he even rendered his own lard and suet!), washed down by mulled wine followed by home made burgers and crunchy chips. For that fantastic yummy feed alone, the push across the mountains was well worth it!

Festive Beard Blog

Fearghal and Simon, Salar de Uyuni

“There are two kinds of people in this world that go around beardless—boys and women—and I am neither one.” -Greek saying

Beard’s are synonymous with adventure. Nothing says hard and rugged like a bristled chin.
A few day’s growth says you’ve left the city, and its bourgeois concerns about daily shaving
and other such civilised conventions behind. That you’re out doing manly things; triumphing
over nature and beast like you’ve evolved to do.

Shackleton knew it, Darwin knew it, and Genghis Khan knew it (though his mongol gene’s didn’t
make for the most impressive bush). Facial topiary is essential kit for a long arduous journey.

The adventurers penchant for a full face is partly due to the undeniable heroic aesthetic of
strained face covered in a tangled hedge – the iconic Hero Picture; pursed lips, worn
weathered features eyes squinted against the wind/snow/dust just wouldn’t have the same effect with a
clean cut naked chin.

Beards are also surprisingly practical when out in the wilds. Below, are six reasons that
any adventure loving red blooded male shouldn’t leave home without that essential piece of kit-
the venerable beard;

1.Thrifty: It saves money on suncream. Crossing the deserts of Western China we found our beards
invaluable for keeping the sun off our faces. Just don’t forget you still need to cover your nose or
you’ll look like a baboon’s arse with your big red hooter peeping out of a tangled mass of hair.

2.Repellent: After a few months’ growth you’ll start to look like a vagrant, add this to a few days riding in the same sweaty clothes and you quickly become someone that people cross the streets to avoid.
This is a very god look in places like Bolivia or Ecuador where security levels are not great.

3.Prop: A nice long beard is great for bidding time when negotiating your way out of tough situations,
stroking your three inch goatee philosophically can be a handy way of covering up the fact that
you are scared shitless of the toothless agitated guy with the hand gun tucked into his belt..

4.Image: As mentioned before, nothing says heroic endeavour than a picture of a bearded wethered face
This is even better if the beard is partially or fully frozen.

5. Wind Vein : your beard grows past two or three inches lenght you can feel a tug on it in a cross wind, this can be an invaluable meteorological tool helping you predict advancing storms with accuracy

Whether you’ve a Craig David or a Ronnie Drew don’t leave home without that essential piece of kit- the beard.

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Tabriz – Iran

We’re sitting in a superheated internet cafe in Tabriz, it’s raining outside and the temperature is dropping as winter sets in. As we’re trying to get to Armenia for Christmas, been pushing hard since Mashad, covering about 1600km in the last 12 days and climbing over a few snowy 2500m high passes. The thought of sharing mince pies and whiskey with fellow cyclist Tom has spurred us to cycle into the night on many occasions and we managed to do a decent 190km day despite the dwindling daylight hours and our ever hungrier stomachs.

Since the festive season is upon us, we’ve been singing (badly) many a Christmas carol, with lots of humming of the bits we’ve forgotten, and being punctuated with deep intakes of breath as we lug our laden sleds (quite like Santa’s, except we’re the reindeer) across Iran.  

This time last year we were in Uruguay, in 30 degree sunshine eating the incredible parillas (mixed meat BBQ) and munching down many loaves of Panatone (Uruguayan Christmas mixed fruit bread). We also sang a very bad version of Merry Christmas and in the spirit of giving, I though I’d dig out this old video for your amusement. And from Fearghal and myself, we wish all our followers a very MERRY CHRISTMAS!!  

Like a Bullet from a Gun


The last few months has been quite a start – stop affair for us. Really, since Shanghai, we’ve been running on various Asian governments’ schedules, obtaining various extensions for our Chinese visas, and even acquiring them for countries such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran was a major hassle. Having to sort out visas has meant we’ve been hanging around some pretty bland, boring cities for days on end, waiting to get the official piece of paper from the guy behind the desk. Working on someone else’s timetable is the exact antithesis of what cycle touring is meant to be about, being free to do your own thing, in your own time.

But now we’ve got all the stamps and passed through this blockade of countries that have been holding us back as if we’ve been cycling through thick treacle. To demonstrate how sticky this bureaucrat treacle is, I’ll state the fact that the first, embassy laden half of Central Asia (from Almaty to Tashkent) took around two months, while the second half from Tashkent to Iran took less than 2 weeks!

It feels fantastic to be given free reign at the controls of our adventure and to cycle when we want and visit the places we want, not just the capital cities. A huge weight has been lifted off our shoulders and we can now just concentrate on cycling rather than spending much of our time queuing outside embassies. When I got on my bike in Samarquand, having obtained the last of my visas, I felt as if I was released; like a bullet from a gun.

Christmas Itinerary



A quick update on our plans for the next few weeks.

Myself and Si have been staying with our kind hosts Mohamed and Atefeh in their lovely apartment in Mashhad for the last few days.  They’ve been truly spoiling us, and we’ve been sampling the heights of Iranian cuisine and hospitality as guest of them and their friends and family. We met through . If you’ve never couch surfed, you should.

Tomorrow we leave for Tehran, hoping to make a beeline for Tehran, about 850km west, where we’ll stay for a day, then head to Tabriz 600km North of Tehran. We’re burning through Iran with Yerevan in Armenia, another 500km from Tabriz, as our destination because we’ve been invited to spend Christmas with Tom.

Once again our schedule is tight, we’ve about 20 days to cover about 2,000km but the prospect of good food and company is a big spur. Its going to be another three weeks like the last three from Tashkent I’m afraid, and apologies in advance if the blogging isn’t up to the usual standards.

To get to Tom’s for Christmas will require a big, big push, with several snowy passes between here and there. Also, we’ll have a postal address if santa’s reading and fancies popping some Christmas cheer in the post for two Irish boyos- a bottle of Powers 12 year old and a couple of packets of kimberlies would be gratefully received ; ) Get in touch and we’ll send you our details.

Unfortunately, Flickr is blocked in Iran for some reason, hence we haven’t been able to upload photos from Turkmenistan yet, and won’t be able to pop any more up till Christmas. So this it will be all about the text for the next few weeks.

Both myself and Si are really looking forward to getting back on the road as a twosome again. And I’ll be honest and say after my little incident I’ll be glad of the company. The pulse still quickens a bit at the sound of a two stroke engine. Though I’m sure a few days and I’ll back to my usual self.

Tonight our hosts are taking us to their friend Said’s birthday party… cool!