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Intrepid biker lays it on the line for charity

PHUKET: By the time you read this, Wissam Al Jayyoussi should be in Singapore. With a bit of luck.


Alasdair Forbes

Friday 5 October 2012, 11:40AM


On Sunday (September 30) he was stuck in Malaysia waiting for all the paperwork that will allow him to ride his battle-weary BMW bike “Aseel” into the Lion City, the finish line for his epic four-and-a-half-month journey from Dubai, all for charity.

The Jordanian started out from Dubai in mid-May, crossing through neighboring Oman, by boat across to Iran, then on to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kirgizstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. 

After that the roads, such as they are, took him up to Mongolia (“There are no roads in Mongolia. None.”), China, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and finally Singapore.

Getting into Singapore is a matter of bureaucracy, not one of life or death, like going through the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan in the middle of June. 

“The Khyber Pass had been closed to foreigners since 2007. But this pass has history. Alexander the Great passed through there – everybody [in ancient times] going to India passed through there. I would be the first foreigner in five years, which was exciting.”

It was also pretty spooky. The crossing is over a very big bridge, with people going in both directions, most on foot, some in carts pulled by other people. “It’s dusty, it’s chaotic. You can’t understand what’s going on.

“Once you get into Afghanistan the first people you meet are the Americans. They control the borders, not the Pakistanis. 

“One soldier took my papers and said, ‘What the **** are you doing here? You got a death wish?’ They wanted to stop me but I had a visa, so they had to let me go through.”

But the American officer gave him a thorough briefing on safety: “Don’t go too fast because the roads are bad and you will crash. Don’t go too slow or you will be an easy target for snipers. And you don’t stop for anything,” the soldier said.

“He explained to me how to tell a real US checkpoint from people masquerading as Americans – look at their weapons, their vehicles, their uniforms.”

So Wissam is not too stressed about the problems getting into Singapore. He’s even a little amused. He’s certainly getting used to it; immigration matters have been the hardest thing about his 22-country odyssey. 

It wasn’t the terrible food in some countries, not the falls (at least 50), the crashes (three), not the roads, not the weather that caused the greatest grief, but border crossings, with officials who rejected his visas, demanded extra paperwork that could only be obtained by backtracking hundreds of kilometres, or simply said no.

On a visit to The Phuket News office he explained, “The biggest problem was not the machine or the animals or the terrain. It was the humans. That was the only problem I had. It started with the visas. For this trip, for 22 countries I needed 23 visas. 

“When I applied I explained this was a charity trip, and I got declined, declined, declined. 

“The Tajik Consul was a very nice guy. He said, ‘I can’t give you a visa for a charity trip. You tell me you are going clubbing, for the nightlife, I can give you a visa. But charity, no.’ So I took all the papers back [from the various consulates] and applied as a tourist. So I got 19 visas before the trip. It took six months.”

The cost was enormous. “Just entering China cost me $16,000 [B480,000] non-refundable, because China is still Communist and I was coming in on a bike so I had to be monitored on the entire trip by a car following me, with a driver and a translator on board. For 53 days I had to pay for all of that.

Wissam is bearing the entire cost of the trip. His budget for the ride itself was about B3,000 a day. Luckily, he is well-off. His IT company in Dubai is successful and he has, he explains, good people working for him.

Thanks to one of the sponsors he had a satellite phone and satellite internet connection so, even in the middle of the Gobi Desert he was still connected.

Even with visas, crossing borders in some places was not easy. Some visas allowed entry only on a specific day, so there was constant stress to be on time, whatever happened. Some days he would ride 14 hours just to make the deadline.

The hardest sector for riding was through Mongolia. “Mongolia has no roads. At all. Through the Gobi Desert it took me 11 days to do 2,000 kilometres. Normally I do 2,000 in three days.

“A lot of it was mud, and I kept falling. Lifting the bike, which was 350 kilos, was very difficult. 

Other places were not so hard physically, but were just plain dangerous. “Out of Iran I went out into Pakistan through an area that is very troubled because you have Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran on the same border. This area is known as Baluchistan, which is a tribal area and frankly, scary.” 

It’s a brutal area. Terrorists come in from Afghanistan and kill tribespeople, and tribespeople kill each other. They also kill NGO workers and tourists to embarrass the government.

In Pakistan there are police inside the cities, he explains. Outside there are tribal police, then between the provinces there are Frontier Police and then there are border patrols. None have communication devices and in any case they don’t talk to each other.

At one point in Baluchistan the bike broke down. A truck full of armed men insisted that he allow himself to be towed to the nearest town, about three kilometres. “On the way, they dropped me and I broke three ribs. I was screaming from the pain and all these people were standing there looking down at me and laughing.”

British International School, Phuket

The police arrived and found that Wissam did not have a special permit to go through Baluchistan, so they heaved him into jail. Friends worked successfully to free him but the bike was still not working. So he took out his tent and camped with his broken ribs in the prison yard while the same friends worked to get the necessary parts to him from Lahore.

A truck arrived and they drove three days to the border to get out of Baluchistan into Pakistan proper. But at the frontier he was told that because he had no a pass to enter Baluchistan he would have to go back to Quetta to get one before he could leave.

Wissam went on hunger strike. News organisations got hold of the story and the government relented. “I stopped eating for four days, and I was close to collapse. They started to get nervous.” 

Eventually he and the bike were rescued by fellow bikers. He’d never met any of them, but they passed him along from friend to friend until he reached Lahore, with the bike, and the trip was on again. Next stop the Khyber Pass. That was the scariest time, but the adventures did not stop there. 

In Nepal he twice nearly ran over people lying in dark roads, apparently the favoured form of suicide. 

He crossed most of Vietnam with no suspension or brakes because there was no one who could fix them.

In Tajikistan all the food seemed to be horse – “horse meat, horse milk, horse cheese”. In Vietnam he got into a fist fight with dog meat traders (he loves dogs). There is really no justice: on the Pamir Highway in Central Asia he was attacked by wild dogs. 

Why does he do it? It is, he says, all about charity. The aim was to raise money and awareness for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund [see facing page].

“This is about children, to raise awareness about children in Palestine. Children are always the ones who get hit the worst in a war.

“For me there is no point in this trip without this. If it were not for this I would not do this trip.”

He has paid for the entire journey himself – fuel, food, visas – “because I don’t want anyone to say that I am having fun with the sponsors’ money. So all the money from the sponsors will go the PCRF.

“I ride 14 hours a day. I don’t do any sightseeing. If I did, this trip would take at least three years.” 

Why does he really do it? After all, this is not his first mega-trip. He already rode from Dubai to London to raise money for the PCRF. Is he addicted to huge and difficult road trips? 

There’s a silence while Wissam considers this. “Probably. I’ve never really thought about it this way. At this point I just want to go home. You miss your family, your friends. You just want to wake up in the morning and say, ‘I don’t have to ride today. I can stay in bed.’

“But after five or six months you forget about the bad parts and you want to do it again.”

He is already planning is next trip, from the tip of South America to Alaska. For charity, of course.

For more on Wissam Al Jayyoussi’s journey visit goodwilljourney.org or facebook.com/GoodwillJourney

Where the money is going

The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF) is a non-religious, non-political charity based in Ohio in the US. It was founded in 1991 by freelance writer Steve Sosebee, who was brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, though he now regards himself as “agnostic”.

The PCRF’s stated mission is to help Palestinian children suffering from injuries or medical disorders, either by flying them out for treatment in Europe or Dubai, or by funding visits by volunteer doctors to refugee camps in and around Palestine, along with medical equipment and supplies.

Although some right-wing groups in the US have attempted to link the PCRF to groups funding terrorism, the US government regards it as innocent. 

The PCRF website points out, “The PCRF was one of the first organisations working in Palestine to be given a license by the US Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, to continue our humanitarian work there after new restrictions were put in place for all US charities working in Palestine.”

It has received endorsement for its activities from former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein of Jordan.

To learn more, visit pcrf.net/get-involved/donate/

 

 

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