Tom Allen set off from the UK on a bicycle in 2007 and has never looked back. He likes to explore off the beaten track, usually by non-motorised means. He currently sustains his travels by writing about his journeys and making adventure films. Tom’s award-winning short film of his journey in Iran is now available to watch for free at Karunfilm.com. Here’s a week-in-the-life of Tom, traveling through Iran and filming Karun.
6:00am: The alarm goes off. I never set alarms. But I know how long it’ll take to get through Tehran to the bus station, even at this early hour.
7:30am: The coach is late. So Leon and I sit in the wintry morning sun, watching old men shelling sunflower seeds with their teeth.
3:00pm: The coach drops us at the edge of Esfahan. I’m disoriented. Oh well – time to put those Farsi lessons into practice. We quickly establish which direction downtown is. Success!
4:00pm: We alight in Naqsh-e Jahan square. The million-square-foot UNESCO-listed square is one of the most touristic spots in the entire country. There are at least three other foreigners here.
4:01pm: A teenager accosts us. He’s here to get some free English practice. He tells us it snowed last week and shows us photos on his phone. We ask about the mountainous region we’re aiming for. He looks shocked and says it’s the coldest place in all Iran, and that we will die.
5:00pm: Sun setting, we head for the hotel. Tomorrow we’re meeting two friends there. They’ll be arriving on bicycles, having pedalled 6,000 miles from England. I’m feeling nostalgic – I also once cycled from England to Iran.
6:00pm: I get a room at a rate spectacularly lower than that quoted by our friends. I make a mental note to explain haggling to them.
7:00pm: Kit explosion.
8:00pm: Normally I’d go out for a beer. But this is Iran. So I take Leon out for ice-cream instead. I suggest saffron flavour with pistachio sprinkles. I tell him we’ll get drunk if we eat enough of it.
7:00am: We awaken with an ice-cream hangover.
7:30am: Breakfast is lavash (flat bread) with butter, white cheese, carrot jam and hard-boiled eggs. We’ve avoided the backpacker hostel, so all the other residents are Iranian.
9:00am: Today is a day of chores. First job: find a kayaking helmet for our upcoming adventure.
10:00am: We get a tip-off about an outdoor shop off Nazar Street, near the Armenian quarter.
10:30am: Walking there involves crossing the Si-o-Se Pol bridge over the iconic River Zayanderud. But the river is now entirely dry. So instead we traverse the cracked riverbed, upon which local families wander in bemusement.
11:30am: The shop exists! And it’s full of top-end outdoor gear. We wonder how they get it into the country, given the sanctions. Probably on illegal dhows from Sharjah.
12:00pm: Helmet procured, we go to see the cathedral. Christian Armenians have been a respected minority here for centuries.
1:00pm: Next: find a map of the Karun, Iran’s longest river. We head to Amadegah Street where we’re told the stationers hang out.
3:00pm: There are no maps. Our only navigational aid will be the Soviet military maps on my phone. They’re 40 years old and labelled in Cyrillic.
3:15pm: Commiserative ice-cream time.
6:00pm: We go to meet Tim & Laura. Tim now has a massive ginger beard. Laura is washing clothes in the shower. Both smell of old sweat and bike grease.
7:00pm: We head to the local chelokababi (kebab house) for koobideh – mountains of buttery rice, grilled lamb skewers, blackened tomatoes, and the obligatory entire raw onion which no-one ever eats.
8:00pm: We hit the town. A giggling group of women buy us little pots of sweetcorn from a street-food vendor.
9:00pm: We order tea in a cosy little eatery. A middle-aged man welcomes us to Iran and pays our bill without telling us.
10:00am: We check out. Tonight we’ll stay at my friend Saeed’s house.
1:00pm: We decide to interview each other on the riverbed, to set the scene when we’re editing the film.
1:45pm: Five guys walk towards us. I’ve been through this before. Leon hasn’t, and is confused when they pluck the camera from his hands.
1:55pm: The plain-clothes detectives walk us to a police kiosk. I feign an inability to understand Farsi. One recounts to the officer how they’d seen us interviewing each other. I kick myself for forgetting how sensitive the whole river thing is.
2:15pm: Another detective turns up. He asks if we’re from the press. I say no. He asks why we have a video camera. I say we are just tourists who want to film our travels. He asks to see our footage. We show him. He tells us that we may not interview anyone in the country. At all. About anything.
3:00pm: A higher-ranking officer shows up, decides we’re harmless and lets us go. Leon is visibly upset by the whole incident. I’m not surprised.
6:00pm: Saeed shows up at the appointed spot. I’d met him here last year. We’d hiked up the river for a week to find out where the water had gone. (Short answer: Yazd.)
7:00pm: We go to his home and are welcomed in. His family are well-educated, middle-class, devoutly religious, and absolutely lovely.
8:00pm: Saeed’s dad arrives. He’s gregarious and cracks politically incorrect jokes. He also knows the course of the Karun well – he was once in charge of connecting riverside villages to the electricity grid. Along with the Soviet maps, we now have two out-of-date sources of information on the area!
7:00am: We’re up early for the long drive to the mountains.
11:00am: We’ve gained a lot of altitude. All is white. It looks more like Scandinavia than the Middle East.
11:30am: There’s a pile of snow blocking the road in the village of Sheikh Ali Khan. We stop and get out. This is it!
12:00pm: A local woman invites us in. We sit around the stove and eat bread and cheese of indeterminate age.
1:00pm: Saeed needs to return home. He films our first steps. I fall through the snow, land on my face and snap one of my trekking poles in half. Everyone thinks it’s hilarious.
4:00pm: We have made approximately one mile of progress up the riverbank. Ominous-looking clouds are coming in.
4:30pm: We need shelter. We spot a small structure perhaps two hundred yards up the mountainside.
5:30pm: It takes us an hour to get to the structure. The snow is waist deep. I am wearing trainers. The structure, an open-sided tomb, offers no shelter whatsoever. It’s now a total white-out – snowing, nearly dark, and the wind is picking up.
6:00pm: We realise this is going to be a night to remember. So we get the video camera out. The last thing we want to be doing is filming. That’s a good rule of thumb for when we should be filming.
8:30pm: It’s totally dark. The wind howls. Spindrift blows in through the mesh of the ultralight tent. We cower in our sleeping bags on the marble floor and prepare for 12 hours of hell.
1:00am: We realise it’s not just the wind that’s howling.
1:05am: Leon decides to investigate. I stay in my sleeping bag.
1:20am: After 15 minutes of faffing, Leon exits the tent, brandishing my remaining trekking pole. He says he can hear wolves howling. I ask how close they are. He says they sound closer than he’d like, and that he should get back in the tent and “stop arsing around outside”.
1:30am: I ask Leon what the wolves sounded like. He says they sounded “kind of howly and barky”. I note his inventive use of language. He’d always been resourceful.
~3:00am: I decide to stop worrying about wolves and get some sleep.
7:00am: There are tracks in the snow outside our tent. It’s still a complete white-out.
9:00am: We set off into the Arctic wastes. From here on, it’s all downhill. One month from now, after escapades innumerable, we will arrive at the mouth of the Karun near the Persian Gulf.
12:00pm: We arrive at the road to find it blocked with fresh snow.
3:00pm: After slogging uphill for 3 hours and reaching the pass, we stop to let a snowplough by. Thanks, buddy. Nice timing.
5:00pm: We arrive in the town of Chelgerd. It’s got one ski-slope and three mehman-khanes (hotels), of which two are closed and the other is in the keep of an Afghan caretaker who tries to convince me that the empty hotel is, in fact, fully booked.
5:45pm: There’s a cellphone number spray-painted on the wall. The hotel owner answers. He’ll be there in 10 minutes.
6:15pm: I call again. He apologises and says he’ll be there in 10 minutes.
7:15pm: The owner finally shows up. This is ‘Persian time’. It’s a bit like ‘Spanish time’ but with more saffron. He’s impressed I speak Farsi and gives us the biggest and most luxurious room in the hotel.
7:00pm: Kit explosion.
8:00pm: We descend to the dining room and order dinner. The Afghan caretaker cooks it. It’s bloody rank.
8:00am: The air is crisp and the sun is out. Following the riverbank is going to be impractical in the snow, so we’ll stick to the road and rejoin the river in a couple of days’ time.
10:00am: We take a turn-off into the mountains. As far as we know, there’s no habitation for a good day’s walking.
4:00pm: A pickup stops. The occupants ask what we’re doing in the middle of a wolf-and-bear-infested wilderness. One of them saw a whole bear just five minutes ago. And there are wolves everywhere. We have seen no wildlife whatsoever.
5:00pm: We contemplate camping in the snow. It’s criss-crossed by a number of suspicious-looking animal tracks. We decide not to.
5:30pm: Another pickup stops. A young man inside says we must come to his family home.
6:00pm: We get dropped off by a bridge over a small river. It is a short walk to his village. He tells us the British built the bridge in more agreeable times.
8:00pm: The short walk is actually another two-hour hike. The village could barely be more isolated. In an upstairs room, we sit on the floor and are given tea, stew and a stove.
9:00pm: Our host digs out a VHS tape upon which has been recorded a documentary about the Bakhtiari nomads of the area. Judging by the stuffy English voiceover, it must be at least 30 years old.
10:00pm: The recording finishes. Following it is a live performance by the legendary Iranian singer Leila Forouhar. The young man prepares more tea, unaware of the great dramas of history that led to her being forever exiled from Iran. The tragedy of poor Leila, wailing in vain from the TV set, now relegated to background noise in a forgotten mountain village, is poignant. I really want to go to sleep.
6:30am: We’re awoken by ducks being fed.
9:00am: There’s another long slog to the next valley, in which we should rejoin the Karun. The road is disintegrating, a combination of cruel weather, careless snowploughing and cheap workmanship.
4:00pm: Our legs ache. Our hips ache. Our feet are in agony. We wonder when we’ll be able to inflate our kayaks and start paddling already.
5:30pm: We reach a village and ask about guesthouses. There are none. We’re ushered into the home of a man who, once we’re inside, gives us the impression he doesn’t really want us there at all.
6:00pm: The man serves the obligatory tea and goes out, leaving us alone in his home. We cook noodles on the paraffin stove, feeling awkward.
7:30pm: After consulting the map we deduce that we’ve walked an entire day in the wrong direction. The river in the previous valley was, in fact, the Karun!
9:00pm: The man still hasn’t returned. We’re not sure what to do. Oh well – adventures wouldn’t be adventures if they were predictable. We get out the video camera and start filming…
Tom is spending the spring in London to work on two adventure films. Then he’s off to walk the Camino de Santiago – a beaten track, for a change – before heading to the States in the summer. After that, who knows!