It started as a drunken question: "I wonder what the longest taxi ride ever was...?"
Before they knew it university friends Johno, Paul and Leigh had used their student loans to buy a 20-year-old London Black Cab from eBay and set off driving.
In their trusty steed, named Hannah, they planned to spend eight months driving from London to Sydney and break the Guinness World Record for the longest ever taxi journey.
Fifteen months and 43,000 miles later the battered taxi finally rolled back into London, having broken not one, but two World Records and, successfully made it not only to Sydney but also across America and all the way around the world.
Over the course of fifty countries, and repeated breakdowns, they were arrested in Moscow, snowed-in under the Northern Lights in Lapland and detained as suspected spies in Iran. Along the way they were helped by an unlikely cast of charcters, including the Moldovan president, a former pornstar in Arizona, an Australian mechanic who turned out to be a murderer and many other hitchhikers and wellwishers.
Read a sample chapter of journey below or check out the full book here.
Chapter 22 – Our Friends, the Secret Police
[After an interesting drive through the crazy traffic of Tehran we had narrowly avoided a multi-car pileup, dodged a massive pro-democracy protest and fried our GPS - vital to the World Record attempt. We left Iran's thronging capital behind and headed south into the pitch-black desert where we found a small track and a seemingly empty patch of sand to pitch out tents and go to sleep...]
Note: Throughout the book Johno will be writing in this font, and Paul in this font.
As I stepped out of my tent into the sun-bathed sand of the Iranian desert, I stretched the last vestiges of sleep away and surveyed our surroundings. All around us was barren featureless wasteland, broken up by the occasional scraggly bush.
Then I saw it, about 300 m away.
‘Is that… ’ I asked no one in particular, ‘artillery?’
Leigh poked his head out and confirmed that we had indeed managed to choose a camping spot on a range of anti-aircraft installations and also pointed out the half-built oil pipeline a little further away. He nonchalantly went on explain that we were about 30 miles north of the Holy City of Qom, infamous for being home to Iran’s nuclear facilities. It would have been hard to find a more sensitive area if we had tried.
Leigh, always the last to be ready, was stuffing his tent on to the roof rack when our attention was drawn to one of the ubiquitous white Chinese pickup trucks that had just pulled off the main road and was now very deliberately approaching us.
This was not looking good. We were three British kids, driving a British car fitted out with cameras and GPS trackers and surrounded by some of the most sensitive kinds of installations to the Iranian government, in the middle of nowhere.
And to make it worse, the first thing Johno and I had done was to take pictures of the guns. Why would anybody photograph military installations erected to protect Iran’s nuclear reactor from an Israeli airstrike? Well, firstly, we thought it was pretty funny before the secret police had turned up, and secondly and most importantly: we are bloody idiots.
Out of the pickup hopped two men; one of them was big, fat and sporting a pair of cube-shaped school-style shoes of the variety that your mum would dress you in on your first day back at school, and which your mates would then relentlessly mock you for. The other was short, thin, bookish and looked more like an accountant than a police officer. He would habitually remove his glasses and clean them when he spoke, revealing that his eyes actually pointed in separate directions, leaving you with the awkward worry of which eye to talk to. They each wore poorly made uniforms with hand-sewn police badges. Knowing that it’s possible to buy these uniforms in the market and that fake police is a well-known scam in Iran, I didn’t trust them.
‘Passports’ they demanded.
‘Who are you?’ demanded Paul in return. ‘Your uniform doesn’t look real, I’m not letting you take my passport!’
I groaned, ‘Paul, don’t be difficult, they’re obviously the real deal.’
They examined the passports carefully and relayed the details to an unknown accomplice on the other end of the phone then sat back to wait.
‘Is there a problem?’ we asked innocently.
‘Wait, wait,’ came the reply.
After half an hour fidgeting in the sun we found out what we were waiting for as another white SUV pulled up and two more men emerged. One was smartly dressed in black trousers and a pristine white shirt; the other sported a large beard and was wearing traditional Islamic dress. They conferred with the local police and examined our passports for a short while before approaching us.
The fat man with bad shoes had been quizzing me for what seemed like hours when he had a flash of inspiration. ‘You… are Muslim?’
I mumbled a no.
‘Are you a Christian?’
Now, this is where one should nod one’s head vigorously, saying yes in as many languages as one knows and dropping to one’s knees and reciting passages from the Bible. This is because, to Muslims, Christians are men ‘of the book’ and are generally respected.
I considered diving into an in-depth rhetoric about my Catholic upbringing, its lapsed status (once a Catholic, always a Catholic?) and what this means in the theological landscape of modern Britain. However, this just ended up congealing into a simple, ‘No’.
At exactly the same time the skinny guy started to get in his pick-up with our passports. He needed to photocopy them back at the base but I was not allowed there for security reasons. A Benny-Hill-like farce then unfolded as he tried to leave, and I refused to let him go.
He would get in the pick-up, so would I.
He would step out, so would I.
He would get back in, closely followed by me playing dumb.
He would try to tell me, again and again, that I couldn’t come. Each time I would hedge my bets by addressing a different eye, telling him in no uncertain terms that I was not leaving our passports. Eventually, after much deliberation, it was established that they could photocopy the passports at a service station and that I could come too.
I climbed into the blissfully air-conditioned pickup with him and the two of us made off across the desert, leaving the lads to sweat in the now fully risen sun with the remaining secret police.
This left Leigh and me with a confused pair of secret policemen and a whole new raft of questions. If Paul was not Christian then surely he must be Jewish, they reasoned. And if he was Jewish then surely he must be Israeli. And if he was Israeli then surely he must be a spy.
For the next fifteen minutes we tried to explain that Paul was not Jewish or Israeli or a spy. In the end the subject was changed by the discovery of our Carnet de Passage document, which had the words ‘Ex: Israel – Kenya – Iraq – Lebanon’ in large letters on the back, to show the four countries our car passport excluded. The secret policeman’s English was a little weak, but even to a good English speaker, the subtle ‘Ex:’ on the top of the Carnet could have been easily be missed.
‘Ah-hah, so you have been to Israel, yes?’
Cue an hour of arguments under the beating sun assuring the police that no, Paul was still not Jewish, and no, we had not been to Israel, and, most importantly, no, we were most definitely not Israeli spies.
While this was going on, I sat in a service station drying off in air-conditioning, drinking an apple-flavoured non-alcoholic German beer and eating dates with a pretty Iranian girl. My would-be-accountant guardian proved that there is a desk job somewhere in Tehran that is wasted on someone else, as he diligently photocopied every single page of all of our passports.
By the time we returned, the secret policemen had given up interrogating the boys and were now thoroughly searching the car.
I hoped they didn’t notice my obvious nerves as I tried to imagine the consequences of being caught with an SLR camera with photographs of Iranian military installations on it. Only a few days before, Leigh had been talking about a British tourist who had been arrested and jailed for months for taking pictures of a landscape with pylons in the background. At the time I had questioned how anyone could be so stupid, but now the situation I was facing was even worse.
A God (Muslim, Jewish, Catholic or whatever) must have been smiling on us that day, and they somehow managed to miss Johno’s huge camera with the incriminating pictures and the GPS equipment we had picked up the day before. Well, maybe the search just wasn’t that thorough, but to their credit the taxi was a characteristic shit-tip.
Fortunately the only camera they did find was Leigh’s, with his almost-dead batteries. The screen flickered on for just long enough for them to see that the last picture taken was of a Turkish Bazaar in Istanbul over a month before, and not at all incriminating.
The head officer turned his attention back to me, ‘What electrical items do you have with you?’
I emptied my pockets, ‘Just an iPod and phone.’
‘Nothing else,’ I lied, praying to my non-existent god he wouldn’t search the bag in the car by his side.
He studied my face for a moment.
‘Okay, you are free to leave.’
We had managed to get away with it, but we were clearly marked as suspicious. I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if some poor junior intelligence officer had to trail us for the next two weeks writing detailed descriptions of how many cups of tea we drank as we wandered around ancient mosques, toured car bazaars buying spare parts and relaxed in the country’s many leafy parks.
While we waited for the results of our thirteenth and final attempt at getting Pakistan visas, we had some time to kill in Iran. Luckily, Esfahan is scattered with various palaces, bazaars, antique bridges and mirror-filled mosques; you can wander and wander and always find something interesting and new. I met a couple of nutty Dutch fellas who had cycled from Istanbul, and after hanging out for a while, we decided to spend the evening sampling Iran’s favourite pastime – picnicking.
In a country where you can’t drink, watch movies, dance, talk to girls, talk freely, wear necklaces, sport a mullet (true story), swim in the same area of sea as the opposite sex, wear shorts, eat pork, get tattoos, own a pet, wear a tie, watch news, or (worst of all) use Facebook, you have to find other ways of filling your time. It appears the only option left is to sit, eat and chat, and when you don’t want to do this at home, you picnic. The Iranians are master picnickers. They can and do picnic anywhere.
One of the favoured locations, I noticed, was the central reservation of a motorway. It’s easy enough to do: just park up halfway on the reservation, half blocking the fast lane, whip out a Persian rug, snacks and shisha, turn up the car radio to deafening levels, and eat and talk (as long as it’s not about politics, of course).
Meanwhile I was also wandering the tree-lined streets thinking about what it would be like to live in a state where extra-marital sex, even having a girlfriend apparently, is illegal. How did teenage bundles of hormones manage to live their lives within the confines of such strict rules? Surely you can’t legislate against biology?
As I was musing this all over I saw one particularly pretty girl. Actually, I think I stared at her with my mouth agape because next thing I knew she smiled and said, ‘Hello,’ in a sweet singsong accent.
I was taken aback and managed only a grin and a ‘Hi’ as I carried on walking down the street.
But the encounter must have left me receptive to strangers because when a shortish guy walked up to the side of me and introduced himself I smiled and shook his hand, telling him my name was Johnathan and that I came from England.
So far the Iranians had been the friendliest and most outgoing people we had met. It wasn’t uncommon for us to be approached every time we went out in public by local people inviting us for a coffee or asking what we thought of their country, so I didn’t think too much of it as we walked along together.
‘Can I… your friend?’ he asked haltingly. I looked blank so he repeated, ‘Can I, your friend?’
‘Yeah, why not?’ I said, assuming he was asking if we could be friends.
‘Are you from Esfa—?’ I started, but he cut me off.
‘You are beautiful Yonatan!’ he blurted out.
‘Oh, er… thank you.’
‘Can we,’ he ventured, ‘sex?’
‘No.’ I spluttered out in surprise. ‘I, er… have, um… I’m married!’ I said, grasping for the first polite excuse I could think of.
‘But we can go get a taxi, come to room, we sex?’ he protested.
‘No, no… NO!’ I told him, attempting to be firm. ‘Goodbye.’
And with that I strode off with a spring in my step, feeling strangely flattered but confused.
After all, Ahmadinejad had assured us there were no gay men in Iran.
Our next destination was Persepolis, home to one of the greatest collections of ancient ruins in the world.
The day was spent wandering around the impressive ruins, which are amazingly well preserved and well worth the 18 pence entrance cost. The entrance gates are scarred with 200-year-old graffiti from British officers passing by, and rumour has it that the great explorer, Stanley, has even desecrated the monument (although I looked very hard and couldn’t see his name carved with the others). The ruins are situated in the middle of the desert and present little or no cover from the 45°C sun. The Iranian heat is a dry heat that cracks your lips, evaporates sweat instantly and makes the car constantly run on the brink of overheating. The pedals and gearstick got too hot to touch, scalding air pumped in from holes in the bodywork and even with every windows down, the desert wind provided little respite as we pulled over every hour to buy another two litres of cool water and the seventh bottle of Zamzam Cola that day.
The city of Shiraz (ironic, in a dry country) was our next stop, home to the best mosques in Iran and, apparently, a major crystal meth problem (it’s cheaper than opium and when you don’t have pubs… ). We saw the sights and decided to sort out the car as it had started to really smell. The culprit was soon found: a rotisserie chicken had been festering in the desert heat for over a week and was well on its way to decomposition.
But the chicken was to be the least of our worries. We were headed to the mud city of Yazd where we would soon have to finally make a decision on the Pakistan problem.