A direct flight to Iran? According to the Iranian airline Asseman, it’s possible, if relations improve. The airline’s managing director, Abbas Rahmatian, points out that because the airline recently transported President Hassan Rouhani to the United Nations meeting, it was requested to open up flights to the United States and Canada. Apparently the airline has 33 planes in operation and are completely capable of overhauling them.
While direct flights between the United States and Iran seem a little far off, it’s not surprising that Iran’s airline industry would want to look outwards; currently more than 60 percent of Iran’s total 220 planes are grounded because of technical and logistic issues. “Iranians airlines are facing great losses due to the low price of domestic flight tickets,” Sirous Baheri, managing director of Airtour Airline, which also operates in Iran, said, as reported by the website Skift. “They are currently having difficulties competing with foreign airlines.” Things are so bad that the deputy transport minister recently called for 16 of the country’s airlines to merge because they were in bankruptcy.Open Iranian airlines up to foreign markets like the United States and Canada, maybe they will have the potential for competing again. Of course that will depend on diplomatic relations improving. There’s the usual strict U.S. State Department travel warning, and because the United States does not have diplomatic relations in Iran, you can’t expect any consular services while there (although you could go to the Swiss embassy who handles all that stuff for the United States). And of course you need a visa.
So while you wait for those direct flights to open up, you may want to consider a few other methods of travel.
Planning a trip to Tehran anytime soon? You probably aren’t, due to heavy restrictions on travel to Iran, but you can get a taste of Persian culture with a trip to your mailbox. ABoxFrom.com is a service that compiles a box of souvenirs from far-flung places (the previous box was from Seoul, South Korea) and mails them to you in beautifully-decorated boxes.
The Tehran box is 40 Euro, including tea, a paper map and a handmade basket. They may seem like ordinary objects, but each item was carefully chosen with the help of locals, and for its importance in the country’s culture and history, nostalgic and new.
In the West, randomness is a crucial, torturous pillar of border security. Those who have been to Asia know that active sadism is supplanted by bureaucracy, vanity and venality. In my opinion these are highly preferable alternatives. Once you know how land borders adopt these principals, they can be easily navigated with a bit of tact, patience and occasionally a small financial stimulus. I find these vagaries far easier to deal with than the gleaming desks and suspicious minds that protect Western countries against threats ex umbra. At least the caprices of Asia’s gatekeepers are motivated by personal incompetence, not institutional torment.
To make things easier, I’ve noticed after a long period of driving my own car around Asia, with all of the bureaucracy that entails, that there are some core motivations that drive Asia’s customs officials. These motivations result in eerily similar individuals from border to border. And so it is one of the peculiarities of driving overland for long distances that you can have a near-identical experience crossing the borders of countries so disparate as Iran and Cambodia.
I haven’t been to everywhere in Asia, so I can’t say these truths are universal. But the following four types of border official have shown up at almost every land crossing I’ve been to so far so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if these were pan-Asian characters.The Break-Taker These guys just left and won’t be back for a couple of hours, sorry.
Entering Pakistan from Iran was a long process. We signed gigantic registers with entries dating back to ’80s and traipsed from building to building over barbed-wire fences. When were finally ready to go, having been in the borderlands for hours already, we had to wait for our security detail. We stood impatiently in the rapidly warming desert waiting to get under way. And waiting. And waiting some more. Where was this guy?
“He is having tea, of course,” someone informed us. “Would you like some?”
Time has no meaning when you’re dealing with authority, so we sat down for chai and were off promptly when we finished.
Later, in India…
“And so I can go now?” I asked, having laboriously acquired half a dozen stamps and bits of paper with Hindi scrawled all over them.
“You will have to get your car inspected by the safety officer.”
“And where is he then?”
“Oh, I am sorry sir, but he is unavailable right now. He is having his lunch and should return in a couple hours. Perhaps you would like some tea?”
Even later, in Cambodia…
“You cannot go,” the customs agent told me. “You need to have your car’s documents stamped by the head of customs.”
“Is he having tea?”
“No, lunch actually.”
“And when did he leave for lunch?”
“Two hours ago, maybe. He should return soon.”
The Wal-Mart Greeter Oblivious to his country’s immigration and customs protocols, he welcomes you like an old friend, often to your detriment.
Deep in leafy green forest in northern Malaysia there is a small border post with Thailand. I stopped at the Malaysian checkpoint and they stamped my car’s papers and practically pushed me out of the country. I inched my car down the lane into Thailand, expecting someone to stop me and ask for papers, passport, where I was headed… anything. Ah! A Thai guard at the end of the lane was watching me from the security lane and he beckoned me toward him. I drove up and rolled down my window. He smiled broadly at me and indicated I should just keep on driving.
I pulled away from the border and drove slowly down the road. I noted Thai people buying fruit from stalls and walking around with the evening groceries. I was in a bustling Thai market. No passport check, no vehicle registration, no searches. I parked and walked back to the customs building and proceeded to confuse everybody.
“Hey there, can you stamp my passport?” I asked the immigration desk.
“Where is your Thai entry stamp?”
“That’s what I’m after.”
“When did you enter?”
“Three minutes ago.”
“You are leaving?”
“No, I’m coming.”
“Why do you come from Thailand?” he asked, seeing how I had walked over from the Thai side.
“I’m not sure.”
“Where is your Malaysia stamp?”
Of course, I hadn’t been stamped out of Malaysia either. I trotted back across no-man’s-land to the Malaysian office where I had more or less the same conversation with the border guard, who couldn’t understand why I needed an exit stamp when I was clearly coming from Thailand.
Later, in Laos…
A few months after, I entered Laos by way of vehicle barge, sharing the boat with two gigantic cargo trucks for the 4-minute ride across the Mekong. As I drove up the ramp to the main road at Huay Xai, I stopped and asked a uniformed man where to get a visa, showing him my empty passport. He only grinned and nodded. So I drove on, and I was suddenly in a town. I sat down at a riverside bar and drank a Beerlao, enjoying my minor transgression. Eventually I found the immigration checkpoint 3 miles downstream from where the barge had dropped me off. The customs officials seemed slightly perturbed because no passenger boat had come across for an hour, so where had I come from? This required a fairly taxing explanation, which they eventually and begrudgingly accepted.
The Smuggler’s Dream His only job is to check you’re not carrying anything illicit, but he’s either too trusting, confused, or it’s too hot outside today.
I don’t officially advocate smuggling or anything. But boy, if it isn’t tempting when it’s so easy.
Entering notoriously strict Iran from Turkey, I had done the paperwork dance, and it was time for customs to inspect my car. I nervously led a gruff-looking man dressed in fatigues to where I had parked. He barked at me to open the trunk, which I did in haste. He glanced over the heap of gear from afar, his eyes lingering on the possibly suspicious-looking photography and electronic equipment, camping gear, backpacks, and food.
“What is that?” he asked, nodding at the pile. “Clothes?”
“Well, yes, among other…”
“OK!” he interrupted, signing the form. “You’re good.”
Later, in India…
As I entered India, a small moustachioed official eyed my car suspiciously.
“So you have some objectionable things then? Things from Pakistan?”
“Drugs, other things…” he trailed off, his hand moving in circles to fill in the blanks.
“Uh, no, but…” I began, because I certainly did have things from Pakistan. But I was interrupted, as in Iran.
“OK!” he exclaimed, “You’re good!”
Even later, in Thailand
In Cambodia I had picked up some fellow travelers and the trunk was packed with bags. The Thai customs officer looked through the window when we rolled up.
“What’s in there?” he asked pointing at the back.
I figured I’d keep it simple this time: “Just stuff.”
The Jailer Lonely, bored, vain or incompetent, he finds a way for you to hang around much longer than you want.
After my inadvertent entry to Thailand and the subsequent confusion about visas, I still needed to register my vehicle to drive in Thailand. In a fan-cooled room in the Thai customs house I found a fat uniformed man melting into his chair, as if squashed by gravity and the weight of his immense responsibilities. He barked orders at two demure women as he fanned himself with my car’s customs documents. He seemed in no hurry to let me go, raising objections to every one of my attempts to move things along. After stonewalling my paperwork for a while, I realized the problem: he actually had no idea what he was doing, as he never did any of the work himself. With this established, it was a simple task to organize things with the two friendly ladies, who filled everything out and then deferred dutifully to the great squinting Hutt for his precious signature.
Later, again in Thailand…
When I left Thailand from the north, I realized the ghosts of customs past had followed me up the entire length of the country. The big man in the south had neglected to give me some obscure piece of paper that would allow my car to leave Thailand.
I insisted to the guard on duty that I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You need to get the papers where you entered the country,” he told me.
My words came to me slowly. “But… that’s 1,300 miles away…”
“Not my problem,” was his response
“So wait, wait. You will let me drive back to where I came from without any permits, but you won’t let me leave?”
About halfway through my sentence he had turned and slithered back into his freezing lair. I leaned my head into the small window and another official batted me away like a stray dog.
“What the hell am I supposed to do, then?” I called after him, a question he dutifully ignored.
So I did what a dog would do. I stood there staring forlornly into the distance for 10 minutes, whimpering softly, until he came back. He had a document in hand, and he was smiling at me.
“Just fill these out and you’re good to go,” he grinned magnanimously.
He was now my best friend. I was on my way.
Bonus Guard: The Sleeper The sleepers will do whatever it takes to get you gone so they can get back to their dreams.
I still had to get my car’s customs documents stamped first before I could leave Thailand. I didn’t expect this to go any better. I climbed the steps to the customs office and poked my head through the slightly open door. A young guy in uniform was out cold at his desk, his belly rising and falling in a peaceful rhythm. I cleared my throat and he awoke with a full body spasm. He looked mildly ashamed when he saw me, his wide eyes betraying the guilt of a lurid dream. I whipped out my form.
“You need to sign here, here, and stamp here and here.”
He shrugged and started stamping, offering me a self-satisfied grin when finished, as if there were no easier task in the world.
Later this week, Vancouver firefighter and cancer survivor Rudy Pospisil will unpack his Giant Seek bicycle on the coast of Portugal, clip in and head for the Middle East. The road ahead stretches 9,000 miles, the distance between him and his goal of circumnavigating the globe on two wheels for charity. He knows he can do it, because he already has – between 2009 and 2012, he logged 9,000 miles completing the first half of his epic quest, surviving armed bandits, eating grass and riding one brutal 100-mile slog after another.
The 51-year-old’s day isn’t over after 10 hours on the bike. When he arrives at a destination, he’s often expected at a local fundraiser, has blogs to write and letters from cancer survivors to answer. This is Pospisil’s vacation – he takes off work six to eight weeks at a time to keep climbing this personal mountain, fighting a disease that has affected nearly every member of his family, including a dog.
Before his wheels started spinning in Europe, he talked to Gadling about Guinness Book of World Records requirements, why he’s not allowed to get a new bike and the trick to surviving machete-wielding bandits.
First, how is your health?
Health is good. I lose about 20 pounds on each ride, and I’m fit and trim from training before I go. But health can change the next day after a scan or blood test. You never know.
When you say circumnavigating the globe, what do you mean?
The Guinness people have rules that qualify as a true global circumnavigation. You must use the same bike, always go the same direction (I go west to east), cross the equator twice, travel at least 18,000 miles and cross two antipodal points (exact opposite points) on the earth.
One bike for 18,000 miles?
Yes. I have to get lots of repairs after and on each leg. I ship it, trusting a bike shop to accept it and assemble it. Another cost and logistics issue. Portugal customs just seized (their translation was “arrested”) my bike and equipment early this week. Wanted 600 euros, duties, import fees, “ransom,” etc. Then possibly more to process it. They wanted me to arrive in person to release it. It was unfounded, as the declaration stated it was “personal used items leaving the country.” They would not budge. I contacted my consulate and federal government in Ottawa. They then released by stuff. No apology.
Have you figured out what your antipodal points will be?
Portugal and New Zealand.
How does one apply for a Guinness world record?
You must provide passport stamps and pictures and video with you in them. I do that, plus Google Maps plots my GPS along the way. It won’t be a world record – only a record that I accomplished the global cycle and followed all the rules to qualify.
What kind of numbers have you logged?
Nine countries and 160,000 vertical feet of elevation. That’s enough to get to space, and halfway around the globe. I just can’t wait to get going again. It’s so hard to stop, go back to the fire station, then train all over again for the next leg.
Where have you been so far?
In 2009, I cycled from Munich to Budapest along the Danube River, through five countries, and started annual fundraisers in Prague and Budapest. In 2010, I cycled from Vancouver to Mexico along the Pacific coast. In Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, I met police and firefighters outside the city and rode into town together to a cancer fundraiser. In San Francisco I had a full police escort. They even stopped the traffic. In 2011 I was asked to circle Oahu with the Hawaiian Bicycle League to raise funds for a safer cycle network after an 18-year-old boy was killed by a hit-and-run driver. I stopped my global ride to go, and it was worth it. In 2012 I crossed the southern U.S. from San Diego to St. Petersburg, Florida. It was a complete adventure that included a robbery, a shooting, getting struck by a car and Mexican bandits that let me live because they like Canadians.
Um, what? How did you get entangled with them? And more importantly, untangled?
It happened near a town called Guadalupe. The town was a rundown place with closed-down stores. Everyone was looking at me, like the stranger that rides into town in a Western movie. About five miles outside of town, these two guys in a lowrider-type car pulled up beside me and offered to carry my saddlebags up the forthcoming hill. I politely declined and said that three police officers riding with me, about 3 miles back, would help me. This was BS, but they weren’t sure. They turned around, likely looking for the officers. I turned it on as fast as I could but there were no side roads – nowhere to hide, just desert and scrub. The lowrider shot past me about 15 minutes later and parked on the side of the road. One guy was waving a machete. They said they would now help me with the bags. I said that I could just give them my wallet instead and save them a lot of room. I have what I call a dummy wallet with an expired credit card and some bills, just for situations like this. I was remembering the turkey vultures all along these roads I had seen, eating dead carcasses, and wondered if I would be next. They saw my small fundraiser Canadian flag with the globe and bike pictured on it. They talked together about it for some time. They looked further through my bags and drove off, just like that. I guess they figured that I was okay to go. My second chance at life after cancer.
How often are you in danger?
Many times. I was hit by a car in central Oregon. Forced off the road by rednecks in Texas. Had my front tire shot out in L.A. – either they were a bad shot and completely missed me, or a great shot and hit the front tire rim. Cramped so bad in Hungary I could not move for 12 hours. I have a small rearview mirror that sticks out a few inches from my handlebar. Three have been clipped off by passing cars. And I have met many scorpions and rattlesnakes in the desert.
What happened in Hungary?
I was in the country and really pushing, trying to make it to Budapest. I was exhausted, out of water, dehydrated and kept getting slight cramps in my calves. So I stopped to rest my legs. I started cramping in my hamstrings and was rolling around on the ground in this field. It got so severe I could not do much other than lie there. I knew I had to get water. I started chewing on grass, hoping I could get some liquid out of it, but that only cramped up my stomach. I drifted in and out of sleep, or maybe consciousness, only waking to cramp up. I must have been there at least 12 hours, until the next morning. I managed to get on my bike and get to a farmhouse. They made me scrambled eggs. I think it was the best meal in my life.
What’s your average day?
Eat, sleep, ride. Eat, sleep, ride.
Usually I am up at sunrise. I try to cook a nutritional breakfast. I try to stop every two hours to stretch and maybe eat an energy bar. I need to try to shower and clean the bacteria and salt from my skin. If there is no water I use antiseptic wipes. If you leave the salt on the skin, it will be like sandpaper and rub you raw the next day; it’s so bad it has stopped Tour de France riders as a result of infection. Then it’s time to eat. You must try to ensure the proper percentage of fat, protein and carbohydrates, as that’s your fuel. It’s very hard to do this in desolate areas. I have dehydrated meals sometimes. I eat a lot, then after an hour or two I’m always hungry again. I sleep between five and eight hours a night.
And you’re alone?
Yes. It gets extremely lonely.
How do you occupy your mind?
I try to think that I am never alone. My nephew, who died at 15, and my dad, who died last year of cancer, are with me a lot of the time. I look for animals in the fields and hills. I think about my blog and what I will write that night. How I will answer emails I got from sick people who had some hard questions. Sometimes I think a long time about what I might eat that night. Sometimes I get really lonely and sad and just want to go home, especially if it’s my birthday or Thanksgiving. So I spend a lot of time on positive, happy thoughts, as sadness and negativity are very draining and defeating.
When you plot your route, what do you consider and what do you avoid?
You might not think this, but one of the biggest challenges is water. It’s heavy, and you can’t carry too much or not enough. You must know for sure where you can get more. If you make a mistake, you might get dehydrated, delirious and possibly die. Where I go there are usually no cellphones, cars or people for long stretches. In the deserts, I have encountered temperatures up to 120 degrees. I have been in sandstorms, thunderstorms, the edge of a hurricane and freezing temperatures. I find the desert the hardest, as I’m from Vancouver and we have streams and shade. Here, I could survive easily.
I don’t avoid hills or mountains. I avoid cities. A big city you’ve never been to is a real minefield. Texas was pretty bad with 85 mph speed limits and very aggressive drivers. In sections I had to go on the interstate. Blown tires and steel belt wires from tires caused numerous flats.
Tell me about your charity work on the road.
My goal was $50,000. I have raised just under $20,000 in Canada. I’m not sure how much has been raised in the other countries. I contact firefighters in cities ahead, or the area’s cancer agency. For example, in Switzerland I will cycle from Basel to Zurich with the Swiss Cancer Association and firefighters from Zurich. We will have an event in town where the mayor comes out, media, etc. I raise funds for their charity, The Race Against Cancer. I try to write a blog each day on firefightercycle.com. People follow me, as I have a GPS. I go on Vancouver radio shows each week, and sometimes newspaper reporters track me down. It’s very draining, writing each day after riding, answering letters (sometimes sad ones from cancer patients) or attending an event when all you want is a shower, a meal and to sleep.
Logistically, how do you arrange something like this?
Logistics is a huge job. I have to try to avoid cities but yet get to cities for fundraisers. I have to arrange fundraisers, try to find a deal on gear, flights, food, etc. It’s extremely expensive to do this, so I do what I can to economize. I wish I had a major sponsor. I have filmed the entire journey and have over 25 hours, some amazing footage. I’m hoping a producer might contact me to make a documentary. That would be huge for awareness and fundraising.
What were some places you’d bike again, and some places you hope to never see again – at least on a bike?
Cycling the Danube from Munich to Budapest was great. It was all on a trail, and there was plenty of food and water. The people were great. Mexico and the Texas border were terrible. There were people crossing into the U.S., border patrol chasing them day and night, and everyone seemed to carry a gun there. The heat was extreme, and west Texas was as barren as the moon.
What are some of the most cycling-friendly places you’ve been?
Western Europe, likely Hungary. There is a great cycling infrastructure in Europe. Cycle paths are built alongside roads to make it safe and get bikes away from cars. Also, there are not a lot of fences at the side of the roads, so you can go into a field and rest or camp and feel safe. The food is quite good and easy to come by.
How does a leg end? Do you have a traditional celebration?
The last leg ended at the Atlantic Ocean. I dumped in water and sand from the Pacific, then I jumped in and swam. I had an inflatable globe, added my website and sent it out to sea. Finishing a leg is usually quite emotional, as I have gone so far and had so many experiences and close calls. It all comes out. Sometimes I cry.
It’s one thing to start something epic with good intentions and some resources, but it’s quite another to finish it. Life tends to get in the way.What keeps you going?
I think of Terry Fox, who ran halfway across Canada, a marathon each day, on one leg. He died from cancer halfway through the journey. He grew up in my city and was my age. Rick Hansen pushed himself in a wheelchair around the world. But mostly it’s the letters from people telling me to keep going and the donations. Sometimes I find the poorest people give the most. A girl working at the counter in McDonald’s in Washington state donated $50 to the Cancer Society when I stopped there. That really inspires me.
A lot of people want to have an adventure, but they don’t know where to begin. How can someone take that first step?
So many people tell me that at events, “I wish I could do what you do.” Fact is you can. You don’t have to ride around the world. Join a charity and help them. It will grow on you, and you will meet the best people of society in these organizations and will just want to do more.
What is your ultimate goal?
That my global ride will inspire many other people to start fundraising efforts around the world. To get pharmaceutical companies to all try to work together and share information to find a cure rather than a profit. I am sure that within 10 years almost all cancers could be a treatable chronic illness, not a deadly disease with limited survival rates.
When do you expect to wrap up?
I may finish the global circumnavigation within 24 months, but I will never wrap up. I will still continue either by riding, giving talks or joining other ongoing efforts worldwide.
You can follow Pospisil’s progress through Europe to Iran and find his scheduled fundraisers on his website, firefightercycle.com.
The earthquake that shook Iran and Pakistan last week has already been overshadowed by fatal tremors in Sichuan, China, a few days ago. Perhaps not surprising given that both places are in seismically active areas, but both of these disasters are repeats of far more deadly earthquakes that occurred in the last decade. In 2008, the Great Sichuan Earthquake killed almost 70,000 people, while a 2003 earthquake in the Balochistan area in Iran killed over 26,000.
That the death toll of such strong earthquakes this year is much lower (188 so far in China and 36 in Balochistan) is partly due to luck and partly due to building changes made in the wake of the last disasters. Iran was lucky that this year’s earthquake struck a less inhabited area, while China was lucky that the magnitude of the earthquake, though great, was still far less than in 2008 (6.6 vs. 7.9 is a huge difference on the logarithmic quake-measuring scale). In Iran, it’s certain that upgrades to buildings would have helped in this year’s disaster. Part of the reason the earthquake in 2003 was so devastating was due to mud brick buildings that didn’t comply with 1989 earthquake building codes. Two years ago when I visited Bam, the city devastated in 2003, almost all of the buildings were girded with steel support beams. It remains to be seen whether Chinese building integrity, which was lacking in 2008’s earthquake, will be to thank for the lower death toll this time around, but it seems likely.
The Iranian earthquake last week was actually almost directly on the border of Iran and Pakistan, in a murky and little-visited area known as Balochistan. Where Iranians and Chinese have enjoyed an immediate and effective response to the crises of the past week, the Pakistanis have not been so lucky. China has literally had to turn away volunteers from Sichuan. And Iran, which in case you’re not paying attention was just hit with its own 7.8 M earthquake, has offered earthquake aid to China. Meanwhile, Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province is suffering something of a humanitarian crisis.
Few people ever travel to Balochistan. It’s bleak and desolate and basically on the way to nowhere. Even the hippies, self-medicating their way to India along the hippie trail in the ’60s and ’70s, would divert through Afghanistan rather than going through the dusty deserts of Balochistan.
I traveled there in 2011, on my way overland to Southeast Asia. We (a convoy of travelers) were assigned armed guards along the way, who took regular naps as we trundled across the desert. The Baloch people, with their sun-beaten faces and piercing stares, often seemed sinister, but it turned out curiosity was simply mistaken for menace. Few Baloch see any Westerners except on TV, though the elder of them will remember a time pre-Partition when British were still garrisoned in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital.
I’m not naive. Balochistan is a dangerous place. Kidnappings perpetrated by al-Qaeda radicals are not uncommon (though they rarely target foreigners). Sectarian violence is a big problem. And there’s always the chance one might get in the crossfire between the Pakistan military and the stout and very armed advocates of an independent Balochistan.
But the regular Baloch, like everyone else on the planet, is just on his hustle, trying to eke out a living for himself and his family. He is abiding by ancient customs of hospitality in his native land. He is offering tea to the strange foreigner who wandered into his shop dressed in a moose toque and suede shoes in the middle of the desert. He is napping in the passenger seat of some foreigner’s car so they can safely transit his homeland. He is yelling at an idiot foreigner to turn off the bloody radio during the call to prayer, but then smiling to show he wasn’t being hostile or anything. And he is helping said sartorially inept foreigner navigate the hectic markets of Quetta to buy local dress that won’t make him stand out so damn much. So spare a thought for the Baloch and their homeland of Balochistan, a small, unlucky corner of the globe where you will probably never go.