I stood by the road. It was cold. Old, crunchy snow lingered here, at the crux of the pass that went down into one of the series of yawning valleys along the mountain road that led to Iran.
I leaned my bike against the concrete barrier at the edge of the mountain-top lay-by. Beyond the barrier, a sheer wall of ice-clad rock dropped off into an invisible gorge, hundreds of metres below. I fished my feather jacket from the enormous dry-bag that was strapped to the back of my bike, containing everything I’d need to survive the rest of the winter outdoors – a new sleeping-bag, an inflatable mattress, extra clothes procured from flea markets in pursuit of the dream of pedalling onward alone. I’d been climbing all day, and now, having stopped at the top, I was rapidly growing cold. My toes began to throb, my skin sweaty and shivering.
How ironic that – having spent over three months chasing a god-damned winter sleeping-bag – I would finally set off and discover that winter was already releasing her grip on the lands beneath these peaks! By now it would probably be warm enough to camp down there with my old gear, plus maybe a cheap fleece blanket or two that could be given away later on, and while I might shiver for a few nights, it would be getting warmer day by day. The road drew south, to Iran and Pakistan, and it was early March, almost nine months after I’d left home, which now seemed an unimaginably long time ago.
But something fundamental had changed. And in this new light, all the plans I’d laid from the comfort of my bedroom seemed so ridiculously irrelevant, formed from such idealism and inexperience, with not the slightest grasp of how it would feel to leave my life on a wealthy island in the Atlantic and convert, literally overnight, to one of wandering, permanent vagrancy in unfamiliar lands where not even life’s essentials could be taken for granted – let alone what would happen if one day I found a reason to change my mind.
‘Hope to see you again soon!’ she’d said, as we’d parted ways at the end of that evening in the Irish pub – and I’d hoped so to, though I’d feared it was relatively unlikely. But a few days later, at a leaving party my friends were throwing for me in Cheers, I’d spotted two diminutive figures sat at the bar: Serineh with her dreadlocks, Tenny with her long, thick, dark hair – the shorter two members of that Armenian-Iranian triple-act with whom I’d spent such an enjoyable Valentine’s evening.
Tenny turned to see the newcomers, and fixed her eyes on mine. This was one of those awkward moments when you are aware of having been slightly over-enthusiastic when you previously met someone. And you don’t want to appear too forward, in case the other hasn’t spent as much time as you have imagining how it might be to meet again. And you know that you’ll end up giving the exact message you don’t want to give because of this over-analysis and resultantly clunky behaviour.
My insides shrivelling into a walnut-sized ball in my stomach, I waved to her as I closed the door, feigning a carefree and confident smile. Tenny waved back, returning the smile, but I was already striding with an air of forced nonchalance towards my friends in the opposite corner of the room. Nervously, I glanced back to check whether Tenny was still looking at me, but by this point she’d turned away to say something to Serineh. I spent the next few hours re-playing our previous conversation, wondering if the thrill of the chase I remembered feeling was real, and worrying that I was attaching too much meaning to the encounter; that I’d imagined an undercurrent of flirtation that wasn’t actually there. To pass the time, I half-engaged in conversations with the people who’d organised this ‘sleeping-bag leaving party’, all the time beating myself up over the fact that the subject of my fixation was still sitting across the room, probably thinking what a fool she’d been to assume I’d be as sincere and laid-back as I’d first seemed, no doubt making a mental note to avoid bearded English men in the future. Why wasn’t I over there talking to her? I was leaving Yerevan tomorrow. And she was sitting right there!!!
A few hours and a few drinks later, I could no longer ignore the fact that my window of opportunity to speak to Tenny again was closing fast. By now she must think me two-faced or a complete wimp (or both). Out of the corner of my eye I could see that her friend Serineh was putting on a thick winter coat, ready to head out of the bar and into the snowy night. It really was now or never.
Tenny had dismounted the bar-stool and looked as if she was about to follow Serineh out of the bar, which was now almost empty. It was almost two in the morning and I was supposed to be riding out of Yerevan in a few dismally short hours.
‘Well . . . all my friends are going now . . .’
‘But I haven’t talked to you yet.’
‘I’ve been here all night!’
Which was true. She had been sitting at the bar for the entire evening, wondering why I’d asked Artur for her phone number, invited her to my leaving party, and then spent several hours completely ignoring her.
‘Look,’ I said, desperately trying to claw back the fragments of my utterly ruined reputation, ‘I’m not going anywhere right now. I’d really like it if you stayed a bit longer for another drink.’
She looked at Serineh, who said something I didn’t understand, waved goodbye to us both, and left. Then she looked at the barman, who was behind his laptop lining up a playlist of music for the last vestiges of the night. He was clearly a friend, and shot her a look that I could not interpret. A few more seconds passed while she weighed up her options.
‘OK,’ she finally said, and smiled. ‘OK. I will stay.’
We sat at the bar and talked, undisturbed. She attempted to teach me to dance the tango, and failed. We laughed. I told her I was meant to be leaving the following morning, and she wrote out a poem in my notebook. It was four lines long and it was beautiful. We shared a taxi home.
I looked down the road. The cold air stung my nostrils. Frozen snot formed mini icicles that hung from my moustache, salty-tasting and revolting. A truck grumbled up the incline, passed slowly with an annoyingly friendly honk, and rounded the bend that would take it down the far side of the range and onward to the Iranian border, a hundred and fifty miles away. It would take three days to ride there. Three days of solid, solitary pedalling through the furrows of the South Caucasus in order to get a rubber stamp in a little burgundy booklet that told disinterested men in uniforms where I’d been born. And then I’d be spat out into a place where people used a different set of unintelligible noises to communicate, went to work in a slightly different setting, raised families in slightly different-looking houses and drank a slightly different version of tea, on my mission to cycle round the world.
I thought I’d allowed for flexibility. I’d been fairly sure that the plan would need adjustment, that I’d need extra equipment sometimes, that timescales would vary out of necessity. But I’d been too short-sighted to consider that I might one day come across an idea more desirable than pedalling practically non-stop round the planet. Nine months of riding – all the thousands of miles I’d come since then – had given me time for reflection. And now a clear alternative lay before me.
I had delayed my departure for several days in order to spend more time getting to know Tenny. She’d had no idea what she was doing, but the contentment of her life as a student in Yerevan had forced me to ask myself one simple question: did I really, honestly, still want to cycle round the world? Was that neat-sounding phrase to be the sole determining factor in where I would take my life from this point onward? Exactly whose dream was I trying to live up to – my own, or that of somebody else, some figure, no doubt real, who had already made a longer, harder, better, more adventurous, more worthwhile round-the-world bicycle journey than I ever would?
Following the truck down into the next valley would seal my fate. Yerevan would become another old chapter in my story, my promises to Tenny that we’d see each other again would be quietly forgotten, her memory fading in the face of new adventures and encounters. Descending the far side of the mountain would be a commitment to an open-ended, unknown future, cycling endlessly onward in pursuit of that impossibly faraway goal.
The alternative lay back the way I’d come, back down the six-hour climb, back across the dreary flatlands beneath the shadow of Mount Ararat and into the peculiar, charming, frustrating stew of existence that was Yerevan, to the top floor of an unremarkable Soviet-era apartment block where lived a girl – a girl who had single-handedly delayed my departure for ten days after the leaving party, showing me a glimpse of a very different life that could be mine. It might not be quite as action-packed or unpredictable or dynamic – which didn’t mean it would be any less meaningful or satisfying, as I had by now grown up enough to realise. But it would require such an indelible compromise: I would have to proclaim to the world that I had failed; that I had other priorities now; that I would end this mission here and strike a new and better path. Was this the truth? And, if it was, was I strong enough to do it?
It seemed that I had come to this mountain top, halfway between Yerevan and the Iranian border, to find the answer to these questions. Only now, faced with two tangible and opposite roads, would I be able to choose the right one.
The western sky was decked with cloud and the hint of orange that announces the end of another day. I paced up and down the narrow lay-by, reeling at the disconnect between the dilemma in my head and the obliviousness of the traffic trundling past. Tenny would be coming home from a university lecture, buying supplies for a dinner alone in her lonely little seventh-floor apartment on Aram Khachatrian Street, wondering where I was, what I was doing, whether she’d see me again. My future pivoted upon this moment; yet I was still just a guy on a bicycle, somewhere, with the stuff in his bags and the thoughts in his head.
OK. This is difficult. I am really, really, suffering. My knee is absolutely killing me. And . . . it’s freezing cold again. I’ve got no water left. I’m running out of food. And . . . I’ve just . . . . . . I dunno . . .
I think I’ve just made some big mistakes. I’ve trusted far too much in other people to do my legwork for me. So now I’ve got this winter sleeping-bag, which I’m going to absolutely roast in – I’m never going to bloody use it until next winter! And it’s . . .
And I’m in so much pain about this girl Tenny. Because . . . I’ve basically left her. I’ve left someone who . . . was the most . . . Who I felt so fucking close to after such a short amount of time, and all because I’ve got this fucking visa, which cost me a hundred euros, and I’m too . . . I’m too fucking set in my ways to say, ‘Well, OK, fuck the visa, let’s wait with this girl for a few months, ‘til she’s finished her studies, and then she can come with me.’ Why don’t I just do that? Why am I killing myself?
I’ve got . . . I could go back there – I could be happy, with this girl – I could jettison all this pointless shit that I’m carrying with me. And I could set off again in two or three months’ time, and . . . and I would be so happy to do that. And there’s always this nagging doubt that if I go back there I’ll never leave, but I have to. I – I – I’m . . . I have no doubt that I will continue travelling by bicycle. But right now, I don’t see what I’m doing, I don’t understand why I’m here . . .
I’ve got nobody to talk to apart from this fucking camera . . . there’s absolutely no friendly people on this road; nobody’s stopped, usually, like, people stop every five or ten minutes but absolutely no-one’s stopped to even say hello . . .
(OK, that’s the first car that’s actually had people in who’ve waved at me, so I take that back completely.)
I’m at the top of this hill. I’m at the top of this hill now – I can either. . . I can either go down the other side, and that’ll be that, carry on like I am, or I can go back down this way and cycle back to Yerevan, which will probably completely and utterly kill me, but then at least I’ll be able to . . . think about . . . what I’m doing . . . I’ll be able to . . . I’ll be able to make the most of this fucking opportunity that I’ve got!
I’ll be able to . . . I’ll be able to do something about this girl that I’ve fucking met that I’m just throwing away, and I don’t know if I’m going to see her again if I keep going! Why the fuck am I doing it?
I mean, OK, I can do it with people who I just make friends with, because there’s no element of love there but . . . I actually love this girl, and . . .
Oh my god.
Exhausted, I dropped the still-rolling camera into my lap and took a deep breath. I’d been in the dismal little mountain-top lay-by for almost an hour. The pale late winter sun was descending fast towards the orange horizon; the colourless plains of what was once known as Western Armenia stretching a hundred miles into the distance of modern-day Turkey, infinite and empty from my vantage point at the top of this pass, dominated by the unmistakable outline of Mount Ararat, Armenia’s most enduring icon. A few plumes of smoke rose from points on the plateau; farmers burning scrub, I guessed, though it was impossible to be sure.
Trying to play out the consequences of a return to Yerevan in my mind, I saw that the biggest obstacle would be my ego. Though I’d relinquished the notion that my journey would be earth-shattering in its significance, I still despaired about the consequences of pulling a U-turn. It wasn’t just my friends and family who’d lined the village streets to see me off, nor the followers who read my occasional website articles and said nice things about my photographs; but the project’s sponsors, too. I would have to write to all of them, explaining that I’d put Ride Earth on hold until I’d figured out where things were going next. But so what if a few people didn’t understand what I’d been through, how I felt after nine months of self-inflicted vagrancy? Had I begun all of this just to ignore the only set of standards to which I was truly accountable – my own?
I was sick of endless goal-chasing – the next milestone, the next city, border, calendar month – of always striving for a distant point that never came closer. I craved something more rooted, I craved involvement and sharing and a respite from all the goodbyes; and above all I craved Tenny, the kind-eyed, dark-haired Iranian-Armenian girl with whom I was falling helplessly in love.
Yet the wanderlust was impossible to ignore. I knew – I knew – that if I turned back now, I would spend the rest of my life wondering what would have happened if I’d carried on.
Why did I always take myself so seriously?
I knew what I needed to do. Of course. It was obvious.
I marched over to my bike.
Do what’s right, you idiot.
I swung my leg over the top-tube. I took a deep breath, poised on a knife edge between two opposite futures – and steered onto the ice-smeared asphalt. The wheels began to roll, and the bike quickly began to pick up speed.