Calais to Beyond, not your usual A to B

From the outset the discrepancies between Jon’s and Imran’s characters are striking. One is clearly white and the other Asian, one northern and the other southern, one is a Muslim and the other an atheist. However, the pair are the closest of friends and despite their differences, they share a unified belief in the kindness of the human spirit, a thirst to explore the world and a dream to be able to bridge the divides between all people.

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Our latest offering comes from the picturesque wilderness of Kyrgyzstan as Jon made his way into China

Our Iranian Hero

The C2B journey almost entirely vanished from the radar of social media for over a month as we disappeared into the mysterious depths of Iran. The reason for our absence lay with the country’s strict internet restrictions and the vast open spaces we were covering, which were void of telecommunications networks. In fact, we were enjoying the undisputed highlight of our journey to date, crossing a vast and incredibly varied ancient land, which is steeped in culture, history and populated by some of the kindest and most generous people we have ever encountered.

Cycling across Iran

Our northerly transit across Iran was unexpectedly interrupted at half distance, when problems were encountered trying to obtain appropriate onward visas from the country’s capital, Tehran. A two week stalemate with various embassies left us at the pleasure of the Ghazbanpour family; Vida, a mother with the heart of an angel, her two delightful daughters, Layla and Rana, both in their early twenties, and her husband Jassem, one of Iran’s most famous architectural photographers and a former war photographer.

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We had been lucky enough to meet Vida two weeks previously at the Armenian border, where, from the moment we met, she took us under her wing, insisting that we needed friends in Iran. Vida was always at the other end of the phone, always able to provide advice and very excited to host us at her home in Tehran, where we were lucky enough to savour the delights of her wonderful cooking. When we arrived she became our translator at the embassies and tour guide and would never allow us to pay for a thing whilst we were in her company. We almost felt like we had become her adopted sons by the time we left.

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It was during our residence with the Ghazbanpours that we were introduced to Jamal Salehi, an old family friend, a former apprentice and colleague to Jassem and his photographic work. Jamal spoke very little English when we first met him, but it was clear that he was someone who brimmed with enthusiasm and who we learned from the extensive photographs on his laptop, has a real passion for riding and building bicycles. Jamal was a regular presence at the Ghazbanpour household during our time there and, unbelievably, we learned he had until very recently been President Ahmadinejad’s personal photographer! Not only this, but he was also very keen to join us for the remainder of our journey across his country. What followed were two of the most memorable weeks of my life as we tackled the 1600 kilometre leg from Tehran south to the United Arab Emirates on our newly decided route.

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Jamal is a humble and very modest man, but also someone who has lived an extraordinary life, a little of which I will briefly share in the hope that this will inspire others to never feel beaten and always persevere when life is tough.

At the time of our encounter Jamal Salehi was 45 years of age, having been born on 23rd March 1968. Jamal is the oldest of eight surviving siblings and must have surely lived one of the most colourful lives of any men his age.

At only 14, Jamal, under age but with falsified documents, took upon himself the burden of men when he joined the Iranian militia to fight the Iraqis at the start of the infamous eight year war. Shortly after entering the conflict, during the exchange of gun fire he simultaneously delivered a fatal bullet to his enemy’s chest whilst losing his index finger and his thumb, as his gun was shot from his hand. Jamal returned to his family in Tehran to recover, but with the absence of all of his friends who were also at war, and a sense of pride and responsibility as the oldest child, he was quick to return to the defence of his country.
Four years later at the age of 18 he was a victim to an Iraqi gas attack near the village of Shykh Saleh. Jamal and his peers were stranded on the precipice of a mountain for days as they waited for the airborne toxins to dissipate. Although lucky to have survived, Jamal still experiences lasting breathing problems.

The conflict continued to rage as Jamal grew through his teenage years and at the age of 19, when selflessly leaving cover and attempting to help a fallen comrade, he was hit by the shrapnel of an exploding mortar which tore a 30cm laceration clean through his right leg.

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Less than six years later, Jamal was captured as he fought to protect retreating Iranian troops in Shalamshei and subsequently spent 26 months as an Iraqi prisoner of war. During his detention he was severely mistreated and starved, only receiving a sandwich and a mug of tea (which he had to share) every two days. Jamal was eventually released when the conflict ended in 1990 and returned to his family who had been unaware of his fate during this time. Jamal was so emaciated that he was unable to eat solid foods and so mentally traumatised that it took him ten years to recover from the psychological damage. Jamal was entitled to benefit pay as compensation for his suffered during the war, but he is a proud man and refused to sit idly by for the rest of his life and not earn his keep.

As a child, Jamal exhibited a great deal of practical ability with his hands, amongst other things working as a self-taught welder from the age of ten during his school holidays. Whilst recuperating, Jamal revisited this passion, finding therapy in using lathes and learning how to intricately CNC blocks of metal. A friend suggested to Jamal that he could perhaps use the skills he had been honing to produce a replacement for one of the very costly components in his broken speed boat engine. Jamal made such a success of the job that he jumped into mass scale production, producing thousands of these aftermarket components for Iran’s fishing industry. Despite his success and the profitability of what he was doing, Yamaha’s old engine components were redesigned, making Jamal’s product redundant only a year later. Not to be deterred and refusing to acknowledge his injuries as a handicap, Jamal found work as a plumber. It was during this time and perhaps due to the hand of fate, that Jamal was assigned to a job working at Josem Ghazbanpour’s office. It wasn’t long before the pair became friends and Jamal began to follow a new career path, working as an assistant and later an apprentice in the photographic industry. A naturally intelligent man with a talented eye, Jamal spent ten years learning from his friend before enrolling on a photography course at Tehran University as a mature student, something that is particularly unusual in the Islamic republic and even more remarkable when you consider that he forfeited his school education at such a young age.

Graduation was followed by an illustrious job working as an official photographer for the Iranian News Agency. Two years as a professional in this field was all it took for Jamal to make a name for himself and, accordingly, become head hunted by the government for the position of official photographer to President Ahmadinejad. In this new role, Jamal travelled all over the world, from Copenhagen in Denmark to Denpasar in Bali, to capture the working life of his country’s leader. Jamal eventually became disillusioned with this job and wanted more time to spend with his family and, more importantly, to ride his bicycle! He returned to the Iranian News Agency with whom he now has the freedom to work to his own schedule.

Our personal adventure with Jamal is a story in itself and is perhaps best saved for the book I am writing, but his insight into Iranian politics, the people and the land were invaluable and, most strikingly, his energy and his character were unforgettable. We will always feel privileged to have spent time with this great man and I really hope that sharing his story is as humbling to others as it was to us.

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Video list:

(*- must see videos)

15. Turkey part 2*- coming soon

14. Turkey part 1- (new!) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciK6SeV4okE

13. Europe summary*- (new)/strong> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQHYKXqWuPk

12. Istanbul riots documentary*- http://youtu.be/dXYM4IsGXUc

11. Macedonia & Greece- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IoAaW-_cKYo</

10. Serbia & Kosovo*- http://youtu.be/1uC6n2zDkek

9. Bosnia and Herzegovena – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N17eQkyphU

8. Bosnia documentary*- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynTUe2hb4H0

6. Slovenia & Croatia*- http://youtu.be/o9d2iUQ9buQ

5. Italy- http://youtu.be/sIsZ5rYFJOk

4. Austria*- http://youtu.be/f0fSP2gKHog

3. Switzerland- http://youtu.be/NXhht0P9GVk

2. France- http://youtu.be/b2GCRXOgw-8

1. The beginning- http://youtu.be/7mIRo78RDnc