Cycling from India to the UAE: One man, two wheels and a lifetime of adventure

Irish rider Tomas Mac an t-Saoir crossed Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran while on a mission to see the world from the saddle

Tomas Mac an t-Saoir started slowly travelling around the world on his bike eight years ago. Photo: Tomas Mac an t-Saoir
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In an era of air travel and short weekend breaks, Tomas Mac an t-Saoir has taken a longer and less travelled route to see the world by bicycle. For his most recent adventure, he pedalled from India to the UAE, passing alpine-like mountains, Taliban strongholds and deserts, the latter with a broken chain.

For the past eight years – on and off – the Irish rider has cycled around the world taking in parts of the United States, journeying from Egypt to South Africa and tackling the breadth of Australia and New Zealand.

In November, he flew to Hanoi to collect his bicycle then headed to New Delhi to begin his journey.

From “the madness” of the Indian capital, Tomas hopped on his bike and headed north-west, cycling to the Pakistani border. There, he headed for the Swat Valley, famed both for its alpine-like mountain peaks and for being the site of a Taliban takeover that lasted for several years.

While in northern Pakistan, he took the opportunity to cycle part of the Karakoram Highway – a road that connects the Gilgit–Baltistan region with the ancient Silk Road and was built by Pakistan and China's authorities as a symbol of the two nations's economic and political ties. It's one of the highest paved roads on the planet and Tomas bills it as “the stuff of legends”.

As it was winter, Tomas's stay in Pakistan was shorter than he originally anticipated, adding: “The reality is I picked a bad time to visit, not the time of year to visit the mountains. Nonetheless, I had a wonderful, if short, stay."

An unplanned detour

After speaking with other seasoned travellers, he decided to take an unplanned land detour through Afghanistan to reach Iran, following in the footsteps of the late Irish adventurer Dervla Murphy, who cycled solo through Afghanistan in 1961 in a trip she chronicled in Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle.

“I was told the Taliban had full control over the country and that it was safe again for travellers to visit – even on a bicycle, going across the country,” he says, although many governments continue to advise citizens against travel to the destination.

After picking up a visa at the Afghan consulate in Peshawar for $100, he travelled along the Khyber Pass with a local police escort to the Torkham land crossing in the Khyber District where he passed into Afghanistan.

Along the border, he saw scores of tents with people living in them. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have returned to the country since the Pakistani government announced that it would expel undocumented migrants in October.

Tomas's route in Afghanistan was also limited by the season, with heavy snow and the risk of road closures in the mountainous north. In Kabul, he secured travel permits for a trip to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan and to the western city of Herat, which lies near the border with Iran.

'There is no real infrastructure for tourism'

“From Kabul to Kandahar, it took five days on the bicycle – 65km the first day, then 77km, 105km, 140km and 120km,” he says. After the gruelling ride, he travelled on highway roads to reach Herat, where he saw signs of the intense earthquake that hit the land last year.

Dangerous drivers were one hazard he had to endure. “The roads, at times, can be chaotic with some dangerous driving and awful road surfaces," he says. "Buses seem to rule the roads here, they absolutely fly along and everything must move out of the way.”

On his travels, he secured accommodation in locals’ homes, restaurants and even at roadside petrol stations, which often have small rooms where staff sleep. “Due to all the conflict here, there is no real infrastructure for tourism right now,” he adds.

Even in rural villages, the local Taliban would typically question him when he arrived to stay the night. Despite that, he felt safe travelling through the country and the Afghans he encountered were “very helpful and hospitable". He did, however, avoid taking photos of any sensitive places as the Taliban checked his phone several times, returning it to him when they found nothing suspicious.

The already fragile Afghan economy has declined since the Taliban’s return in 2021, when foreign aid was dramatically cut and international sanctions were imposed, partly in response to severe repressive measures imposed on Afghan women by the Taliban.

Tomas says that while opinions vary on the Taliban, and that the country has a long way to go until it recovers both socially and economically, the Afghans he met seemed content that the war and killings had largely stopped.

“We have no economy, but we have peace,” a man from the Hazara Shia community in Ghazni told him.

Tomas adds: “I’m still wrapping my head around Afghanistan.

“If I'd listened to 99 per cent of people I wouldn't have gone … I prefer to travel with an open mind, and a willingness to accept that our views and thoughts in the West aren't always right – often the reality of places is very different to the images generated in the western world.”

A quick stop in Iran

After covering 1,300km in Afghanistan, it was onwards to Iran where he cycled through snow and desert and had to grapple with a broken bike chain.

Fortunately, a fellow cyclist from China was able to give him one and Tomas was free to connect with Iranian locals who, he says, “took me in and treated me as one of their own from day one”.

To see more of Iran’s culture and visit the historical cities of Isfahan and Shiraz, he completed part of his route by bus – he was charged a small fee to put his bike in the hold. Acknowledging that the country, like many, has its faults, Tomas came away impressed by the beauty he saw.

“The history is insane, the food is great and the people are the friendliest," he adds.

Tomas's latest cycling escapades ended with a ferry from the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas to Sharjah. Arriving in the middle of the night, he hopped in a taxi to Dubai where he has now left his trusty bicycle with a friend and returned to Ireland.

But the adventure isn't over. He plans to collect his bike next winter ahead of his next expedition – a two-wheeled journey through the Middle East taking in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan and finishing in Turkey with his hard-working bike.

Updated: March 14, 2024, 7:57 AM