In haste, I have misread the map. Far from being an easy detour down from the central Iranian plateau to the coast, the scenic route I’ve chosen is a rollercoaster of mountains and valleys at altitude. When the asphalt peters out and I hit the dirt, I peer again at the satellite imagery and realise my mistake: while the river canyon I’ve been following meanders off to the west, whereas my route strikes out south east, crossing several watersheds before rejoining a bigger artery heading directly south for the coast.
It’s a stunning ride, but my body complains at the assault. I ignore it and push on through. There’s something cathartic about a first-gear grind up hours of switchbacks, and I can’t quite put my finger on what makes such a climb simultaneously so daunting and yet so inspiring.
The dirt road also serves as a test of my new rig. I have chosen to push ultralight touring as far as I can on this trip, and with a brand new luggage setup and a few modifications to the basic spec of my Sutra, I’ve been hoping the result will be versatile and fun to ride.
At some level, I guess, I also want to make a study of this stripped-back and minimal approach to cycle touring known as ‘bikepacking’. Does the loss of perhaps three-quarters of your carrying capacity affect your practical options, your routine, and ultimately your enjoyment of your trip?
The first and most conspicuous difference had been noticeable even as I’d ridden out of the bus station in Shiraz. I’d felt like I was riding a bicycle, as opposed to the tank-like contraption of a fully-loaded touring bike. Crossing the footbridge over the river, I’d simply picked the bike up and carried the whole rig on my shoulder, much as I would have a mountain bike to negotiate a gate or stile. And yesterday, whizzing up and down the valleys, I had again noted the nimble sprightliness of the bike, the unladen ease of the climbs, the gymnastically responsive handling on the downhills.
Today, on the dirt roads, bouncing off rocks and rolling through ruts, the bike feels similarly reassuring. I stop to cinch up the seat pack a little tighter and let the upgraded Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tyres down to their lowest rated pressure; traction and comfort increase noticeably. The Sutra, stripped of its pannier racks, seems to be enjoying itself on the gravel. Some touring bikes feel awkward and reserved when ridden without luggage; the Sutra seems to have simply been tolerating the panniers and is now quietly rejoicing at their disappearance.
Before departing Yerevan I’d done away with the Sutra’s original bar tape and re-wrapped the handlebars with a set of Fat Wraps, sent from Canada by Kent MacWilliam, a long-time tourer who started Tasis Bikes to make touring-specific accessories. His extra-thick handlebar tape was designed to alleviate to the numb fingers and sore wrists from which many long-haul riders find themselves suffering. He’d got in touch before this trip and I’d agreed to road-test the Fat Wraps and report back on my experiences. While it seems I haven’t done the most professional job of installing the tape, the additional padding and girth is immediately noticeable, the tape grippy yet pliable over the rough terrain.
I break for lunch at the top of the pass. A solitary motorbike rider trundles in my direction, head wrapped in a scarf, clothes dusty, bike even dustier. He waves as I perch on a rock on the roadside, scoffing down the bread and cream cheese I’d bought in the village the previous night. It was originally intended to be my breakfast, but Iranian hospitality had put paid to that – lucky for me, as I haven’t seen a shop or settlement for many hours. Then the rider is gone, the muffled buzz of the little engine dwindling into nothingness.
Iran is crammed with knock-off Honda CG125s – one for every man, woman, and child, it sometimes seems. The only variation is in the brand name emblazoned across the fuel tank (Kavir, Ehsan, Tizpar) and the level of decrepitude. In the big cities, these motorbikes rule the streets (and sometimes the pavements, too), often ferrying entire families around, proud father at the helm, cloaked wife behind him, one or two children tucked in behind her, and the smallest child perched on the fuel tank. Others cart the most unlikely and unwieldy loads around. Flat-screen TV deliveries are a common sight. Rolled up carpets. Stacks of fruit and vegetable crates seemingly held together with a single bungee cord. Heaps of giant builders’ sacks containing who-knows-what. There’s seemingly nothing the humble CG125 can’t handle. And, of course, every street features at least one dingy repair shop in which broken-down bikes are stripped, fixed, and put back together in minutes by MacGuyver-style mechanics. Without question, it would be the perfect motorbike on which to explore the vastness of Iran – a trip I’ve often contemplated doing myself – not to mention that petrol costs less than 20p a litre.
I stuff the last of the bread and cheese into my mouth, and follow it with a handful of salt-and-lemon-roasted almonds, an Iranian trail-food staple. Between Alpkit’s slimline ‘Possum’ frame bag and top-tube-mounted ‘Fuel Pod’, I’ve got space for 24 hours’ worth of food and snacks: flatbread and cream cheese for breakfast, dried fruit and nuts to keep me going, and instant noodles for dinner (pre-crushed to fit, packet punctured to let the air out). If I chose denser calories, I could probably extend the range of my provisions by another day or so, but village groceries are commonplace enough – and my route ‘civilised’ enough – that I don’t need to.
In my handlebar bag – a classic Ortlieb that’s still going strong after nearly a decade – I’ve packed my documents, valuables, gadgets and chargers, a spare USB power pack, Kindle, diary, sunglasses case, and toothbrush. I’ve also stowed a few 3-in-1 coffee sachets inside an Alpkit MyTiMug, alongside the good old beer-can stove, for whenever I feel like making a brew.
The slender frame bag leaves space for two full-size water bottles and one half-size one. I’m not going to be going thirsty while the weather remains this mild. In any case, government-maintained water coolers adorn the streets of Iran, even in villages. These state-sponsored refills are so regular that not once during this trip do I have to knock on a door. Indeed, the Iranian state invests much in providing for its citizenry. Clean, free drinking water for all goes hand in hand with a high-quality road network, subsidised public transport (a Metro ticket in Tehran, for example, costs the equivalent of 20p), and, of course, subsidised fuel. In some gas-rich regions the gas supply is provided free of charge to residents – with the unintended side effect of them leaving their stoves burning round the clock rather than wasting money on matches.
Like the trope of the prisoner turning his cell into a gym and coming out stronger, the so-called punishment of international sanctions has resulted in Iran becoming astonishingly self-reliant, producing all of its own basic commodities, from food and fuel to cars and motorbikes, household supplies, furniture, and so on. Luxury goods are shipped over from the UAE in spite of the trade embargo. With the majority of Iranian manufacturing being state-owned and cost of goods set by the government (everything on sale in an Iranian grocery comes stamped not just with its expiry date but with its price), day-to-day life under the Iranian government has a distinctly socialistic – verging on communistic – vibe of top-down design and predictability to it.
Back on asphalt, tyres and legs pumped, the final climb of the day is the killer. I munch through all my trail mix on the way up the switchbacks, motorbikes and pickups tooting encouragement in the dusk as they growl past. At the top of the pass, I check my handlebar-mounted GPS unit to find that I’ve climbed a vertical mile today. No bloody wonder I’m exhausted.
There’s little daylight left, and so, as a welcome tailwind pushes my flagging form across the plateau, illuminated by a golden setting sun, I peer off the road for camping spots. The outdoor industry moves quickly; the ultralight gear I bought for this year’s big project has allowed me to pack a complete camping setup into a single seat pack. Alpkit’s minimalist Pipedream 250 sleeping bag provides ample warmth in this climate; the Exped Synmat Hyperlite M is possibly the lightest and most packable full-length inflatable mattress on the market; a compressible drybag contains a change of underwear, a long-sleeve shirt, a pair of baggy shorts for when the climate hots up, and a fleece. Then there’s a basic first-aid kit: dressings, antiseptic wipes, painkillers, antibiotics. And half a loo roll for emergencies.
I am still amazed that all this fits into a bag less than half the size of a single rear pannier. On top, I’ve strapped the skeleton of a MSR Hubba 1-berth tent, doing away with the rainfly, footprint and pegs, bringing only the mesh inner and the poles. I’ve anticipated a dry ride, and so far I’ve been correct. As for cold nights like tonight – well, I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve for that.
Except that I don’t need them, because this is Iran. Half an hour later, I’ll be pulled over by a guy in a pickup who wants to know why a foreigner is cycling past his village in the fading twilight. He’ll invite me to his house, I’ll politely decline once, twice, three times; enough to know the invitation earnest. And while his village is a detour from my route, I’ll find myself unable to say no.
I’ll dump my bike at his family home. Then I’ll spend a couple of hours hanging out with my new friend Karim in a village shop with an espresso machine, while the men of the village wander in, ask me where I’m from / where I’m going / whether I’m married, etc., knock back shots of coffee, and wander home. Then, after dinner, I’ll help my host’s 9-year-old daughter with her English homework before curling up to sleep in front of a large and very welcoming radiator. Wild camping could wait.
After all, I did come here to hang out with the people as much as travel through the place.
(Full disclosure: Kona sponsored me with the Sutra in 2012; Alpkit with the MyTiMug in 2015. Exped sent me the SynMat Hyperlite M for road-testing and feedback, as did Bag4Bike with their seat pack, and Kent with his FatWraps. All other equipment mentioned in this piece was purchased. I never enter into any pre-agreement to write favourably about a sponsor’s product.)