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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Lebanese graduate cycles from Brussels to Dubai in 7,000km gruelling journey

Bilal Ghomraoui spent the past two months cycling through ten countries to meet up with his parents in Dubai for Christmas

Bilal Ghomraoui cycled over 7,000 km over two months, starting in Belgium and ending in Paris. He arrived back in Dubai two days ago. Antonie Robertson / The National.
Bilal Ghomraoui cycled over 7,000 km over two months, starting in Belgium and ending in Paris. He arrived back in Dubai two days ago. Antonie Robertson / The National.

Travelling from Brussels to Dubai is a breeze with the wonders of modern aviation. By bike, less so, as Bilal Ghomraoui found out in a gruelling 7,000kilometre thigh-busting challenge.

Over the past two months, Mr Ghomraoui, 24, spent up to seven hours a day cycling to navigate through ten countries to arrive in Dubai this week.

“I finished my studies this summer and I’ve always wanted to do some kind of trip when I finished at the end,” said the electromechanical engineering graduate. “I’ve lived most of my life in Dubai, from when I was three to 17, before moving on to Belgium for my studies and I’ve always loved cycling. So it occurred to me something meaningful like this trip on my bike between two cities that I love.”

His plan was to meet his parents in Dubai, where they live, to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Eve together.

Mr Ghomraoui set off on October 15 and cycled between five to seven hours every day, covering around 120 to 150 km. “The biggest challenge I found was being alone for that amount of time and also being far from your relatives and friends in unknown land,” he said.

“Being on a bicycle, you cover some distance but it’s not that fast so you need a long time to get somewhere so there’s that perspective that it will take a while before I see a familiar face. But then on the other hand, almost every day I got to meet great people that hosted me, invited me into their homes and gave me food, especially in Turkey and Iran, and I got to see lots of magnificent landscape.”

His journey took him through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran before flying to the UAE.

“The plan was to get on a boat but once there, the sea was very rough so I took a plane,” he said. “Eighty per cent of the nights I stayed in people’s homes and just a few in hotels and a few in tents. I was surprised to see how hospitable most people were because it’s really on short notice that these people would so spontaneously accept me in their house, give me food and shelter even though most of the time they didn’t have huge houses or apartments.”

He said mental fatigue was a greater challenge than the physical one.

“I have a lot of background in endurance sport because I’m a triathlete and I’ve been training 10 hours a week for two years every week, day in day out,” he said. “Being alone was harder and tough. I would do it again but not alone. It’s a mix of not being able to share the landscape and people I met with my relatives or friends, I was far away from everybody, in time and in distance. That combination really was tough to absorb.”

His Lebanese and Belgian passports allowed for smooth travel throughout. “You don’t have any borders in Europe and I don’t need a visa with my Lebanese passport in Turkey,” he said. “I’d prepared a visa for Iran prior to the travel so that was sorted out already. People look at you weirdly but as long as your papers are in order, it’s fine.”

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Mr Ghomraoui said he felt completely safe. “You hear from some media that Turkey and Iran are dangerous but on the contrary, people were so friendly, kind and helpful whenever I’d stop at a petrol station,” he said. “They would invite me for tea or lunch just to have a little chat when they spoke English.”

His original route plan changed every day. “I wanted a route that was as flat and as easy to follow as possible,” he said. “I was meant to follow the Black Sea in Turkey and a central road in Iran but it changed in Turkey because that road is far more hilly than I thought and with lots of rain and a big highway so it wasn’t very interesting. Instead, I went through Cappadocia through the centre of the country and other interesting places where roads were much less busy.”

Different sim cards allowed him to stay in touch with his family and send pictures with a brief descriptive text every day, with only a few moments of having no network connectivity.

“The landscape in Europe was mainly flat because I followed the Danube river but near the end of Europe, it starts to get hilly, even more in Turkey and the most in Iran so it was a smooth transition,” he said just a few of days after his return to the UAE.

“When I reached Dubai, I felt relieved but honestly I still don’t really realise it, it’s been a couple of days but it’s sinking in not having to think about tomorrow, where I’ll sleep or what I’ll eat and what will happen,” he said.

“But I still have some dreams about how to find a place to sleep and I still get woken up. The idea now is to spend time with my parents for a month then go back to Belgium and find a job there.”