Just as Tenny’s parents were readying the documents needed to issue a formal invitation for me to obtain a visa, the Iranian presidential elections took place, followed by a fortnight of diplomatic sniping which left Anglo-Iranian relations even more strained than before. I woke every morning to silence from the Iranian Foreign Ministry, and gradually my hopes of visiting Tenny’s family in Tehran began to dwindle. I cursed the idiotic squabbling of these children who are supposed to be our world’s leaders, and, like Andy a few months ago, began to look into alternative ways to get back to my girl.
One of the few rules of travel I was still left with was this: If I could travel light, in the sense of my environmental impact, I should. It was (and still is) a model not just for travel but for all aspects of life – living lightly in a time when doing so has never been more critical for the future. In concrete terms, this most obviously means low-carbon travel. You can’t do much better than cycling, and you can’t do much worse than flying. I wanted to avoid flying unless I had no other choice. And suddenly, infuriatingly, it looked like I didn’t.
The Gulf is not an easy place to get around. A menagerie of tiny, disconnected, prosperous Arab states – the U.A.E., Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait – sit like stubborn pimples on the edge of the massive Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi has some of the most restrictive immigration policies on the planet. No matter how friendly the rulers might be with their customers in the West, getting into the place is nigh-on impossible, unless a) you’re on an expensive guided package tour, b) you have a car and desperately need to drive across the country, or c) you’re on the Haj, every good Muslim’s once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca (although these days there’s little to distinguish this from an expensive guided package tour – you can even go with the same travel agents). I didn’t satisfy any of these prerequisites, so in terms of land travel, I was marooned.
The next option I considered was taking a boat to Kuwait or Iraq, but I was informed that the roads from the relevant ports to Baghdad were still unsafe for foreigners. I complained that I had quite a good tan and a commendably-bushy beard, and I was quite willing to don a dishdasha and go undercover in the name of energy-efficient travel, but unfortunately it turned out that no such boats existed any more. I guess the bike would have been a bit of give-away, too.
Out of options, defeated at the hands of Middle Eastern international relations, I went online to look at flights from the Emirates to the nearest visa-hassle-free airport on the far side of Saudi Arabia. Amman, Beirut and Damascus were all within a hundred miles of each other, so I decided to plump for Beirut, as I hadn’t visited Lebanon, and I figured I might as well if I had the opportunity. From the Levent I would travel by bus, train, and – time and circumstances permitting – bicycle through the lush green mountains of Eastern Turkey and the Caucasus, enjoying the last few long summer days, the temperatures which promised to go no higher than a refreshingly cool forty degrees Celsius, and the familiar hospitality of the rural Georgians and Armenians before settling in Yerevan. Despite meaning that I would leave the Earth’s surface for the first time in over two years, the rest of the idea suddenly began to sound rather appealing.
Returning from a day-trip to yet another hot, humid, dusty and over-constructed part of the Emirates, I opened my email inbox to be surprised by a number of capitalized messages from Tenny explaining in brief and hysterical terms that, improbably, the visa invitation had been issued! Two days later, the visa was actually implanted within the overflowing pages of my passport, and the following Sunday I was aboard one of the thrice-weekly ferries to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on the coast of the Persian Gulf.
Now I’m sitting on the top bunk of the sleeper train to Tehran, nearing the end of the 1,400km journey across the unearthly desert interior of Iran. I know that I’m fortunate to be here, and that there are many whose plans to travel here have been thwarted by recent events in the country and the subsequent tightening of entry regulations for Westerners. At the port I had a full set of fingerprints taken and the details of my itinerary taken by intelligence officers – this is what having a British passport can entail in today’s paranoid, globalised world.
But apart from the security services, only two people know I’m here – me, and Luke, my host in Dubai. I’m hoping that Tenny will be pleasantly surprised when I turn up unannounced on her doorstep later today after an absence of half a year…