It’s always a pleasure to talk to a fellow Yorkshireman adventurer. Imran Mughal was made redundant and went on to ride 25,000 miles round the world. We chatted about his impact on the British Pakistani community, about getting motivated after losing his job, and about cycling to the haj.
Alastair: Hi, Imran! It’s very nice to talk to you too, a fellow round-the-world cyclist. It’s nice to be able to share it.
Imran: Absolutely, absolutely [chuckles].
Alastair: Where are you?
Imran: I’m in Leeds at the moment. I know you’re a supporter of Leeds United, but that’s where I’m from. I’ve been back a couple of weeks now. So, I’m just kind of settling in to normal life.
Alastair: That was one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you, because I wanted to talk to someone who’s really fresh back from doing something massive, before it’s had time to sink in really. How long was your trip?
Imran: My intention was to go for about seven months. It was to go to China first, but that was merely a checkpoint. From there, I just said, “Okay, I’m going to go around the world.” And then it flowed. Altogether it was 15 months.
Imran: I covered in that time 25,000 cycling miles.
Alastair: That’s a lot of miles, isn’t it?
Imran: I know compared to a lot of cycle tourists, other than someone like Mark Beaumont, it does look like it’s fast. Really though, I saw what I wanted to see, and I stopped where I wanted to stop. And I didn’t feel like I rushed anything really.
Alastair: So you never felt an urge to try and do it “fast around-the-world”?
Imran: No, no, no. You know, as amazing what Mark Beaumont did, for me, there’s not many times in life you’re going to get to go around the world. And to predominantly put your head down, and not really interact with your surroundings as much as you would do if you were doing it at your own pace [doesn’t appeal]. For me it wasn’t about the race.
I said to myself, “If I’m going to do this, if I’m going to ride around the world, I’m going to see the world. I’m not going to put my head down and just go for it.”
Alastair: Would you say you’re more of a traveller than a cyclist? Was it the travel rather than the cycling that appealed?
Imran: It’s a combination of both, Alastair, because I always had the need for traveling. But I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know where to go, but then I got into cycling quite a few years ago. And it wasn’t until I met a Dutch guy who was cycle-touring Europe with his big, loaded bike, and that’s when I was like, “Ka-ching, this is it! This is what I want to do.”
And so I knew I wanted to see the world. Now I knew I wanted to take my bike with me because of how directly in contact you are with the world and your surroundings I guess.
Alastair: That’s interesting, meeting that guy. Until then, you didn’t really realise cycle-touring was an option. I think that’s, that’s quite an important thing for a lot of people. It’s just trying to make them realise the adventure options that are available.
Imran: I had no clue; I never travelled. I got talking to him. I watched him in fascination. Because here he was with all his bags, his tent, and everything. I looked in such fascination.
I just looked in fascination and I’m thinking, “My goodness, I have got to do this. I just have to do this.” So really, that day was kind of like a turnaround point, I guess from there.
Alastair: Maybe I’m putting words in your mouth here, but maybe when you see a guy like this in the flesh, you realise he’s just a normal guy. He’s got a bike like yours. He’s just stuck some panniers on it, and it’s very achievable for a normal person.
Imran: Well, this is it. Whenever I tell folks what I’ve done, they think I’m superhuman. But I say, “Listen, I’m not superhuman. You have the same properties as I have.”
Alastair: What is the difference between you and them?
Imran: It’s just mentality. It’s that need to travel. I think it’s not your physical ability that sets you apart. Because I’ve even seen people who are less able-bodied do the most amazing feats. So it’s definitely, in my opinion, it’s not the physical ability that sets you apart; it’s the mental ability. Your need, your want, that zest to get out on the road and explore. That’s the overwhelming factor, I think.
Alastair: When you look back now on the trip, what are the highlights?
Imran: Iran; without a doubt. I mean that place, right now, my mind, my heart, everything about me is still in Iran. Because that country was subliminal. Anybody who’s been through Iran always talks about how unbelievable it is. And I was quite skeptical about it at first.
Alastair: I’ve been interviewing people all year for my website. And so many have told me that Iran was their favourite place. I ask people about the safety of the world, and they say that Iran really defies preconceptions. Everyone loves it. But you’re the first British Muslim that I’ve spoken to in this series. What was your experience in Iran from that perspective?
Imran: being a Sunni Muslim, for most of my life, I’ve always heard nothing but negativity about the Shia Muslims. Because obviously there’s a big discrepancy between us…
Alastair: Not much love lost…
Imran: Yeah. So I was apprehensive. If I’m reading my prayers, they’re going to define that I’m a Sunni by just the way I’m standing because the Shia stand different to the Sunni Muslims. This was actually one of my worries. And again it was just a preconception. When I got there, there was one day when I was reading my prayers and I thought I was facing towards Mecca. And I see these two guys from the corner of my eye approaching me. I lost concentration on my prayers. I’m thinking, “What do these guys want?” They shook my hand and they said, “No, no, no. Mecca is not this way, it’s the other way.” So they were basically waiting until I finished my prayers, so they could direct me in the direction of Mecca. Everyone was wonderful there.
Alastair: It’s so interesting talking to you about Iran because many British people worry about going to Iran because Iran hates British people. Christian people might worry about going to Iran because apparently Muslims hate Christians and vice versa. And Sunni Muslims worry about going to Iran because Sunnis hate Shias and vice versa. And yet, the reality is, Iran was your favourite country. Did you find the world was much safer than you imagined?
Imran: People are scared of the world ’cause they buy into fear. In my opinion, Iran is the safest country with the most hospitable people. I can say that, after going through 33 countries, that it’s the most hospitable country I’ve ever been to in my life. The world is generally good and that’s what I got. I mean, obviously there’s heavy [bad] incidents, but I can count them on one hand. But the mad, overwhelming hospitality, love, generosity, kindness were just overwhelming.
Alastair: Indeed. Can you explain what you were doing before your adventure?
Imran: A year or more prior to the journey, I had been made redundant. I used to work for a subsidiary of the NHS. I couldn’t find work. My father had been very ill for a long time and he passed away during that time so really, I wasn’t in a frame of mind to travel at that time when I actually left my home. I remember reading one of your journals when you said you left [on your journey round the world] you were in tears.
Imran: I felt the same way. It’s so frightening when you’re starting that. So really I wasn’t doing anything other than trying to overcome the loss, trying to come to terms with the loss of my father and getting prepared for the journey at the same time. And so my whole preparation was all in turmoil for the journey, actually.
Alastair: Do you know Sarah Outen? Her initial adventures were motivated as a way of grieving for her father who passed away as well. I think your Dad would be very proud of you, watching you doing it.
Imran: Yeah man, I mean, because my father was a great traveler himself. On this journey, I got to understand my father so much better than I did in life, which is strange.
Alastair: So for your family then, obviously you had difficult times. Were they worried about you going on this journey? Did they try to stop you going?
Imran: Culturally, Alastair, this is not what we do. Ask any of my friends and they’d say you’re supposed to settle down, get married.
Alastair: What is your culture? Is it British Pakistani?
Imran: Yeah, Pakistani heritage. I was born here but my family’s from Pakistan. So really the mentality is not British mentality, it’s a back home kind of mentality, you know? So they were anxious to see me settle down, get married. Then I travelled so they curse me for doing that!
Obviously there were situations when I almost got killed, when I was held at gunpoint. Something that I had to keep to myself and not let any of the bad moments that we had in the journey get back home. Because if she had got word of that, I can hear her [my Mum] saying, “Son, are you done now?”
Alastair: I think Mums react to that, wherever culture they’re from!
Imran: Culture-wise, because of my ethnicity, it’s just unheard of. So obviously, it’s a big thing in that sense, because I think I may be the first British-Pakistani to have cycled around the world.
Alastair: I think that’s brilliant. As you will be very well aware, most round-the-world adventurers are middle class white people. So I think it’s brilliant that it’s spreading a bit to different communities.
Imran: This is one of the things I would like to also do, to get them [my community] travelling. After my journey, I’ve had so many people from my culture thinking, “I’m going to do what you do.” Asking advice on doing stuff on a small scale first, so I’m giving all this advice. One guy wants to ride to London now after seeing my journey. He has such a zest from watching my videos, that he’s going to do the same himself now. Obviously on a smaller scale, but who knows where it will take him?
Alastair: There’s something about being “first”: until someone does something, you don’t realise it’s possible to do things like that. You said to me earlier that you were just a normal person. I’m just a normal person. It will take a little while, for example, for British Pakistanis to think, “Hey, look. Here’s another guy like me who just cycled around the world. Maybe I can do that as well.” So I think you could really be a catalyst for adventure.
Imran: You know Alastair, in my culture, in the UK, there’s so much Type II diabetes. If you see our diet and our lifestyle generally – I’m not speaking about everybody – but generally it’s appalling. It really, really is. And obviously I can say this now. So to be a first gives you credibility. Also, you have a voice. People want to listen to you and hear what you’ve done and try and take something good from that and perhaps try something similar themselves.
Alastair: So are you going to be getting into schools around Leeds, Bradford, Keighley?
Imran: I’m certainly going into schools. My real message of my journey is not so much of me cycling around the world, but using that as a base and encouraging people to follow their dream is in life. Whatever that is. If you want to open a business, if you want to climb a mountain, if you want to do to a walk. If you ever want to do any challenge, then you can. My message is, “You can do it.” You can do it from belief alone. Once you truly believe it from the heart and the mind, then the body will follow.
Alastair: I think also the fact that you were made redundant and struggling for work – that’s a really inspiring story as well. Because to do an adventure you do not necessarily have to be rich, or if you somehow win the lottery. People often say to me that they’d like to do an adventure if they win the lottery. But, cycling round the world after being made redundant is brilliant. I love that.
Imran: Well it’s interesting you say that. Because the probability dictates you’re never going to win the lottery. So does that mean you’re never going to think outside of the box? One of my drives to really get out on the journey was after hearing conversations like, “If I win the lottery, I will do XYZ.” I said, “No, no. You can do it anyway.”
Alastair: So how then, given you didn’t win the lottery, how did you fund your trip?
Imran: Well I got made redundant, obviously. They paid me the minimum they could make for the redundancy. I knew I wanted to do a journey. I didn’t know at that time whether I’d get around world, although that was a dream. I just started putting all my money away in the last year, really. Obviously, you got to buy your necessities. But when you save every month, by the end of the year, you’ve got quite a lot actually.
Alastair: If you want something enough, you can make it happen.
Imran: I can certainly vouch for that. You can certainly make it happen. I didn’t believe I could do this. But, sometimes you’re more capable than what you give yourself credit for.
Alastair: Yeah, absolutely. You originally planned to cycle to Singapore, but then the idea just grew beyond that. It’s interesting you say that. Because when I was planning my trip, I had a world map up on my wall and my first plan was I’d to cycle to India. That’s what I wanted to do. Then I looked at the map and thought, “Man, if I get to India, why don’t I just keep going?” Exactly the same as you.
Imran: Exactly. Even when I got to India, I almost quit. I wanted to go home and then I thought to myself, “How many times in life am I going to do this?” Then when I got to Singapore, I thought “I’m not nowhere near done yet. There’s so much more.” And you gave me so much encouragement, Alastair, reading your stuff when I was stuck working in a boring call centre.
Alastair: Oh wow. That’s very lovely of you to say. But I’m sure now that you yourself have cycled around the world, you know that any old idiot can do it, don’t you? Now people will be reading your book and be inspired to do that as well.
Imran: I think you’ve become complacent by thinking anybody can do that. I don’t believe anybody can do that. Certainly, it’s not the ability that matters, that hinders people, it’s the mental ability, the determination. I don’t think it is for everyone.
Alastair: Interesting. Well, we’re a select band of brothers then: Yorkshiremen who’ve cycled around the world. You, me, Jason Lewis…
Imran: Certainly, I believe so.
Alastair: You’re so fresh from your trip now. But right now, what sort of impact do you think this trip is going to have on your future life?
Imran: I think it will just have the impact of making me humble and modest for the rest of my life. I will never have this drive to just want materialistic things like I used to. I think what I’ll always take with me for the rest of my life from this journey is the kindness and hospitality of people in general and how little we need in life as well. I think the simplicity of life is one of the biggest things I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.
Alastair: That’s a very good answer. My final question to you is if I was to give you £1000 to go do some sort of grand adventure, what would you do?
Imran: I really loved Southeast Asia. I’d fly there then cycle around Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. I’d recommend it to anybody because your money goes a long way there as well.
Alastair: You know what I would do if I was you?
Imran: Go on.
Alastair: I’d cycle to Mecca. The haj. I would just love to go to Mecca. I love the whole concept of the haj, the journey, the pilgrimage, but they won’t let me in.
Imran: Actually for my next adventure, I’m actually cycling to haj. Because a Muslim, as you know Alastair, if you have the resources, you have to do it once in your life. And if you get there with your blood, sweat, and tears, with your effort, then you’re going to value that more.
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