One bike, three continents, twenty countries and eleven thousand kilometres to ride. Last year, journalist Rebecca Lowe spent 12 months cycling from England to Iran - by herself. Despite not training at all for the eye-opening adventure, she meandered out into the unknown and discovered a lot along the way…
Plenty of people have travelled to Europe and the Middle East, but you cycled the entire epic journey - solo - for a year. Why did you do it?
There were a couple of reasons, I think. One was because I just wanted a colossal great adventure before I got tied down to commitments at home. The second was journalistic: professionally, I had developed a strong interest in the Middle East and become frustrated by how it was depicted in the media. There was a creeping Islamophobia in the West that I found divisive and disturbing. So I decided I needed to get out there and see the place for myself, and hopefully challenge a few preconceptions along the way. I chose a bike, as I thought this was a great way to get to know the region and really embed myself in people's communities. Plus I love Middle Eastern food, and it would mean I could eat as much as I wanted without getting horrifically obese.
With 7,000 miles ahead of you, how did you feel during those first few pedals? And how did it compare to the last stretch of road in Iran?
The first few pedals weren't too bad. It was the next million or so that got trickier! I actually cheated at the start – which was a good way to set a precedent, I felt – by giving my boyfriend my panniers and then cycling down to Brighton with just my bar bag. So the first time I'd ever cycled a bike with panniers was off the ferry in Dieppe, when I swiftly discovered I had no ability to steer and very nearly ended the trip prematurely in the Channel, along with a couple of obstructive toddlers.
I got there eventually, however – and the final straight in Tehran was exhilarating. I even made a short video about it on my GoPro, here! It was a crazy day, 160km through the desert with a hot, fierce headwind and a constant stream of punctures, and I genuinely thought at some points that I wouldn't make it. But a good friend was waiting for me at Azadi Square, egging me on, and I finally got there in the dark at 10pm, five hours late. Navigating Tehran traffic was slightly terrifying – especially as I had a flat front tyre and no lights, which had been stolen in Egypt – but it definitely made survival all the sweeter.
When you felt like giving up, and if so, what kept you motivated to keep going?
There were definitely many moments when I felt I had almost nothing left in the tank and desperately wanted more than anything to stop, curl up in the foetal position on the roadside and sleep for about a month. And there were also dark, despairing moments when I just thought 'what on earth am I doing here, this is absurd'. Those happened quite a lot, to be honest, and I'm not sure I ever really got a straight answer.
Generally, however, the highs far outweighed the lows, and the compassionate, colourful people I met along the way swiftly rescued me from my slumps. In the Middle East, you thankfully don't have much down-time for sober reflection or loneliness, as there's always another extended family member to meet or be fed by. In fact, often what I believed to be existential angst transpired just to be hunger, disappearing the instant a lamb shish appeared.
When were you happiest?
Probably arriving at Azadi Square in Tehran and falling into my friend's arms: the adrenalin and joy were extraordinary. But I also recall a wonderful feeling after crossing from Egypt to Sudan. Cycling through Egypt had been a fairly hectic, oppressive experience, with police on my tail and crowds of people everywhere – especially in the tourist hotspots of Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel. Then, suddenly: silence. The Sahara stretched endlessly in front of me, without a soul or building in sight, and I remembering feeling at peace for the first time on the trip. This feeling persisted for about seven minutes, until I began dying from the heat and obsessing over the (probably mythical) sand snakes I'd been told about on the border. But it was enjoyable while it lasted.
Which was your favourite country overall?
I was equally fascinated by both Sudan and Iran. The former is rich with history and culture, with dozens of ancient archaeological sites to rival those in Egypt – just without the throngs of tourists. Iran is simply beautiful, with stunning architecture and endless lovely lush gardens. Both countries are overwhelmingly hospitable and warmly embrace foreigners, but are shunned by the West due to their brutal, authoritarian governments. I'd love to go back to both to get to know them better.
You’ve said your aims were to survive, develop shapely calves, and shed light on a region long misunderstood by the West. Having survived, did you achieve the other two?
Sadly the calves are as spindly as when I started – and in fact seem even spindlier in contrast to my now-leviathan thighs. So that part of the trip was a great disappointment. I think the jury is still out on the other part, but I very much hope I can play some small role to help improve knowledge and awareness about the region.
What would you say to encourage women to embrace experiences usually seen as unsafe?
I don't want to encourage people to take foolhardy risks, but I do strongly believe that most places are safer than many people believe. The media inevitably paints a far darker picture of the world because of its tendency to focus on the worst things that happen – the 'if it bleeds, it leads' strategy – and therefore gives a skewed sense of the danger. I know dozens of women who have travelled solo for years and have had very few bad experiences.
Having said this, it is all about measured risk-taking and there are definitely sensible ways to mitigate the risk. I generally avoid being out alone after dark, and try to stay in fairly public places. I won't go back to someone's house unless I'm certain they are trustworthy – either through online references or meeting their family/friends – and, for this trip, had a rape alarm clipped to my belt at all times (until it fell into the loo and broke in Turkey). I also had a satellite device, a YB Tracker, which informed my parents and boyfriend where I was twice a day. And a knife, for emergencies.
I think often, however, you simply need to trust your instinct. If something feels 'off', then don't do it. The gut can be surprisingly reliable – even when over-burdened with delicious doner kebab (see below).
Now you’re back in London, what do you plan to do next?
I'm slowly being re-domesticated by my long-suffering boyfriend, who lives with me in north London and who heroically manned the barracks while I was off gallivanting. Professionally, I am working as a freelance journalist, and I've also just signed up with a literary agent to write a book about the trip. So watch this space!
What did you want to be growing up?
A writer! I wanted to do this since I was five years old, and ridiculously never wavered.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
To find what you're passionate about and spend your life focusing on it. Otherwise what are you living for?
What would you tell your 18 year old self?
To learn Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin. I could have ruled the world.
We think female friendships are something that should be treasured and celebrated. What quality do all your friends share?
I am fortunate to have some brilliant, inspiring female friends. They are strong, funny, clever, hard-working and fiercely independent. Many earn more than their partners and are juggling motherhood with part- or full-time jobs. I'm constantly bowled over by them.
Fantasy Girls’ Night Out. You get to choose six women – dead or alive – to spend the evening with. Who? And where do you go?
Gosh, I hate questions like this. There are so many and I'm chronically indecisive! But a dinner party (probably some kind of kebab grill) with these ladies would be a real humdinger for me: Joan of Arc; Elizabeth I; Emily Pankhurst; Malala Yousafzai; the Virgin Mary; and Khadija bint Khuwaylid, the first wife of Muhammad. Perhaps we'd go clubbing afterwards.
Book you wish you’d written?
Three Men on the Bummel. One of my favourite books, which I read at the start of my trip, and is still hilarious more than a century after it was written. I've actually been trying hard to introduce the brilliant German word 'bummel' ('a journey, long or short, without end') into the modern English lexicon for years now, with limited success.
What are you listening to at the moment?
Tom Waits, The Early Years Vol II. It's my favourite album, which I listen to constantly, and which helped me calm down in many a stressful situation during the trip.
Best holiday destination?
Turkey for food; Iran for hospitality; Montenegro for nature.
Over or under dressed?
Sunrise or sunset?
Owl or lark?
Owl (should be lark, as I'm a morning person, but who doesn't love owls?).
Word you over-use?
Matey. I hate it, yet use it all the time. It's perplexing.
Doner kebabs. It's an illness, and there's really very little I can do about it.
Last time you laughed out loud?
This morning, at a Facebook video about capybaras. Yes, I work from home.
One thing you couldn’t live without?
Red wine. I don't mean to imply I'm some kind of old soak, but it does make life so much better.
Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. I don't know who said it, but I believe it to be true.
What is the one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
I can't go in any body of water alone as I'm scared of monsters – even a deep swimming pool. It's ludicrous. I really need to get my act together.
Rebecca is a journalist and solo adventurer, to read more about her trip visit her website The Bicycle Diaries here!