Three continents. Twenty countries. Eleven thousand kilometres.
One 30-something who deeply regrets not doing any training.
“A ‘bummel’, I explained, I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end … We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when it’s over.”
— Jerome K. Jerome, ‘Three Men on the Bummel’ —
On July 29th 2015, I set off on an ill-advised solo bummel from London to Tehran. My aim was to challenge people’s preconceptions by showing that a woman could cycle through the Middle East safely. At a time of increasing prejudice and division, my hope was to humanise the region by moving away from the usual stories about terrorists and conflict to those about everyday people (and develop some truly indomitable buns in the meantime).
The year-long journey took me 11,000km through 20 countries, including Europe, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Oman, the UAE and Iran. For the most part, I stayed in private homes and developed a far richer understanding of local people and culture. I lived with rich and poor, mullahs and atheists, refugees and activists, niqab-clad women and qabaa-robed men.
Along the way, I was stalked by police in Egypt, whisked out on the party circuit in Iran and collapsed from thirst in Sudan. I visited refugee camps in Bulgaria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and impoverished farmsteads in Egypt and Sudan. Though being a woman had its disadvantages (namely, randy tuk tuk drivers), it also allowed me a rare and privileged glimpse ‘behind the veil’ into women’s cloistered private lives.
In addition to meeting people on the road, I also stayed for several weeks in each capital city to meet human rights experts, activists, lawyers, politicians, diplomats and reporters. This made for a somewhat nerve-wracking time in more authoritarian states, where foreign journalists are far from welcome, but was invaluable in helping me improve my knowledge of the region.