The wind is low, the road quiet, the shoulder generous. I pedal through the bottleneck of the valley, over the hump at which the river starts flowing east, rather than west. It could technically be called a ‘pass’, but it’s so insignificant I barely notice it.
Roadbuilders have been hard at work here, transforming an old thoroughfare between farming villages into a dual carriageway for yet more goods traffic. For the time being, though, it’s quiet. I’m flying now, my body and mind back in the riding groove, odometer ticking ever upwards. Flow. Bliss.
The air has warmed noticeably since yesterday morning, and is developing into a steady headwind. When I stop for a break, I find the dry heat has caused my nose to start bleeding. Goodness – if this is what it’s like in December, what must it be like in the summer?
I know what it must be like, of course, having once cycled across the Omani desert in June, when the thermometers of passing cars were reading 56ºC and the water in my bottles was too hot to drink. The heat was so extreme, so violent, I could almost hear it bellowing as it attacked my eyes, my ears, my throat. In motion, it was like being caught in the path of a flamethower. And the wind… my god, that wind!
Why on Earth would anyone put themselves through such a diabolical experience? It’s an easy question to ask, but a complex one to answer. Needless to say, I am far from alone in having sought out challenge and hardship on two wheels. Indeed, my exploits pale into insignificance when lined up next to those of many others I could name.
But drawing objective comparisons between subjective experiences is, I feel, to fundamentally miss the point. Nobody need know why I do this. Truly, nobody need know why anyone does this. The solo cycling journey is a deeply personal thing; a gateway to the simple life of the wanderer, an ancient collective memory that beckons to so many of us yet which the settled, civilized world does all it can to quash. It is a life whose setting is so uncommonly tangible that it can’t help but test our thoughts and actions against their real-world consequences. The sights, sounds and smells that pass us by are merely the colourings of a multi-dimensional picture of life on Earth that emerges with each pedal stroke. And it’s a process to which, after ten years of practising the art of bicycle travel, I return over and again, each time for reasons that may differ in their details but which all ultimately boil down to immersing myself in that sense of just existing as a wanderer, the passage of the world beneath my wheels a reflection of the passage of time, my journeys a metaphor for life as it gradually unfolds, moment by moment.
I spend today in a state of absolute serenity. What could be easier than bathing in the glory of effortless motion? Nothing happens all day, yet at the same time, something’s always happening. Moments blend into a smooth flow of sensation attached to no notion of good or bad, comfort or displeasure, just the rhythmic rotations of the machine with which I have become symbiotic. Rest stops, too, are zen-like, free of the baggage of emotion and desire; purely functional occasions. I dimly remember pulling up outside a bakery and being handed two loaves of piping hot bread, smiling bakers refusing payment. By the time I reach the turnoff that will take me across the mountains and down to the Persian Gulf, I have ridden almost a hundred glorious kilometres, and it feels I have done so through nothing more than existing! One of those days, I grin to myself.
The route across the mountains looks tough but doable before dark – an 8-mile climb at a 7% average grade. That’ll be a first-gear grind of a couple of hours; a nice way to end a good day, and I’m hoping to find a cracking campsite in the mountains to round things off.
I launch into the climb. The riding becomes intense, even more corporeal than before, inviting a different kind of flow, one rooted in pain’s embrace. It seems a soundtrack would enhance things, so I wedge my phone into my cockpit bag, speaker protruding, and spend the next three hours working my way through Underworld’s 1992-2012 anthology as the valley drops away behind me. By the time I’ve hoisted myself up to the secret plateau hidden away above the crags, I’ve climbed almost back up to the altitude of Shiraz, from where I began my ride a week ago. The discovery that my body is still capable of this, after so long off the bike, is powerfully life-affirming, and I swoop down onto the darkening plateau in an insane cacophony of whooping and screaming at the pure joy of being alive!
There’s not a soul to be seen. A few signboards and dirt tracks wriggling off into the hills betray some kind of low-key industrial or military presence up here, and I can see the twinkling of lights in the distance, far away from the road; a tiny mountain village or two, perhaps. But to all intents and purposes I have the place to myself, and as soon as I see a spinney a hundred yards off the road with an inviting-looking clearing between the trees, I know I’ve found my home for the night.
In an echo of my six-week jaunt along the Karun, this will end up being the sole night I spend under the stars on this trip. And the glare of the full moon that rises an hour after sunset will keep me awake much of the night. But my god, is it worth it to be sleeping outside again!