Tuffley man dodges gunfire on charity cycle VIDEO
AS gunfire rained down on Jamie McDonald’s shelter deep in the mountainous Afghanistan border, his thoughts remained firmly set on his mission to help children at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital.
Since January, the fearless Tuffley 25-year-old has dedicated his life to cycling from Bangkok to Gloucester in a bid to raise thousands for the hospital’s Pied Piper Appeal.
Snow-capped mountain passes and desolate barren landscapes have stood in his way. But the former tennis coach has brushed aside the hellish conditions and pushed on through the pain barrier to edge closer to his goal of reaching home.
Jamie was diagnosed with auto-immune deficiency at an early age and spent much of his first nine years in and out of hospital. He is desperate to repay that care to help others.
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Jamie encountered his most serious obstacle yet when he unknowingly pedalled into the middle of a war zone on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
The war-torn region was always likely to cause him problems. He had little idea of how close he would come to losing his own life, alone on the road thousands of miles from family and friends.
Heavy fighting erupted in the Tajikistan city of Khorugh after central government forces confronted local commanders, with dozens of people reported dead in some of the worst violence in the former Soviet republic since its civil war ended in 1997.
Jamie, along with fellow travellers in his hostel were pinned down by rebel gunfire, some of which hit their building.
Speaking from a safe-house in the small town of Zanjan, 200 miles from Tehran, Jamie explained the horror that unfolded before him.
“I had been told that it would be easy to get a visa for Afghanistan,” he said. “But when I arrived at the border they said it was not possible but wouldn’t tell me why.”
“There were around 18 of us in the hostel at the time. None of us had any idea of the situation that we were about to experience.
“Normally, when I arrive in a village on my bike people are very friendly and welcoming. When I went out to a restaurant in Khorugh there was a strange atmosphere. It was very tense and there were a lot of men walking around wearing camouflage uniforms.
“People were looking at me as if to say - what the hell is he doing here?
“I went back to the hostel and that is when the shooting started. The gunfire got louder and seemed to be getting closer. Everyone staying at the hostel got together and we decided to keep our heads down until the fighting stopped. No one knew what was going on.
“It was terrifying. I had cycled so far without any kind of conflict so had no idea how to react and had to trust instinct.
“The closest the bullets got were within five metres of where we were hiding out. Twelve hours later the heavy artillery moved in and that is when the situation got even more serious as the Tajikistan army began shelling the area.
“We could hear explosions nearby. We had very little food and some of the other westerners said we could be there for a week or so, we began to ration what food we had.”
Thirty hours after the shooting started, Jamie and pair of Swiss cyclists took their chance during a brief ceasefire and headed for the relative safety of the capital city, Dushanbe.
When they were 100 miles clear of the trouble zone they were stopped by a convoy of European embassy vehicles on their way to rescue the remaining tourists trapped in the hostel.
“There were Dutch, French and German officials in a convoy of Land Rovers,” he added. “When they stopped us they seemed quite calm about the situation but surprised we had decided to leave before help arrived.
“They told us to be careful as we were considered prime hostage targets. I didn’t tell the British Consulate where I was going which with hindsight could have been a mistake. When I told my parents my mum was quite upset as she is so worried about me - but that’s what mums do.”
The incident is well documented in Jamie’s nerve-wracking video diary posted on YouTube. The incident can be seen at around 40 minutes into the video:
He aims to be back at his home in Tuffley by November 18, and hopes his do-or-die attitude will be enough to see him through the remaining challenges that lie in his path.
One of the toughest challenges so far was when he was forced to cycle 246 miles in just 36 hours to reach the Chinese border to avoid overstaying his visa.
Riding through the night, Jamie was picked up by the Chinese police who demanded he put his bike in the back of their vehicle as they wanted to drive him to the border.
But his incredible spirit and doggedness led him to insist on refusing the offer and cycling the distance unaided. The bemused police left him to it but ensured he strap a three foot traffic cone to his bike warning other drivers, adding to the 70kg weight he was already carrying.
Jamie has funded the entire trip himself and has become a real inspiration to the children in the Gloucester ward where they have made posters and messages for Jamie for extra motivation.
After starting in Thailand he has cycled through Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and now has the blistering 50C+ heat in the deserts of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran to cross before the homestretch of Europe.
His next stop could also be frought with danger as he heads into Iraq. He has been warned that recent bombings in the country could jeopardise his travels. But he is determined to carry on.
On leaving Iraq, he will cycle to Turkey then Europe along the route of the River Danube to give him respite along relative flat terrain.
You can follow Jamie's progress on his Facebook page
You can also donate on Jamie's Just Giving page