Bikepacking Southern Iran: Day Zero

This new story is a simple one. I went on another cycling adventure, had some noteworthy experiences, and reckon there’s a decent yarn in there. There will be no convoluted backstory. I desperately needed a break, and ticking off a long-dreamed-of bike trip would be perfect.

The dream in question? Exploring the deep south of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in particular the Persian Gulf coast – the land of the Bandari people, of Arabic speaking, black African Iranians, of thousands of miles of empty white beaches and warm inviting water the colour of the mosaic-tiled turquoise domes for which Persia is so famous.

I would return to the bicycle to explore this whim. The mechanics of the lifestyle are etched into my being from a decade of pedalling; tens of thousands of miles. It’s a permanent part of who I am – literally, though muscle memory – and, though recently I’ve dedicated my time to exploring other adventurous pursuits, I love cycling adventures still, and suspect I will love them always, for myriad reasons.

* * *

For me, the most honest starting point of a journey is an endorphic thrill that jolts you upright and spreads a wide-eyed grin across your face, usually after movement has already begun; a loud and clear realisation, even as you turn aside in embarrassment at your own uncontrollable mirth, that – yes! – this is actually happening NOW!

Suddenly those weeks or months of planning feel distant and ludicrously irrelevant, because the actual experience you’re having right now is something no amount of planning can prepare you for. Plans – imaginary things – crumble to mind-dust while the now seems super-real. You’ve received an injection of a dangerously addictive drug, whose withdrawal symptoms are known as wanderlust, whose buzz you’ll seek again and again and again. Adventure! How good it feels to be right here, right now, poised on the brink of uncertainty, madly eager to fall!

This rush may come several times during the course of a journey, but the first is the most memorable. This time, it comes as we gain altitude and, from my window seat at the back of the plane, facing north-by-north-east, the snowy vastness of the Lesser Caucasus mountain range becomes visible in its entirety on one of the clearest winter mornings in which I could hope to be taking off from Zvartnots International Airport. Beyond them in the far distance I can see what look like clouds but I quickly realise are the peaks of the Greater Caucasus range, an orderly row of craggy pink triangles, filtered through what must have been 200 miles of Earth’s atmosphere, surreal and almost holographic in appearance.

I look upon these twin mountain ranges as we soar ever higher and feel a rush of emotion that goes beyond the simple thrill of embarking upon a brand new adventure. For more than a year, my life has been tied inextricably to these mountains. It started as an idea to create a long distance trekking and bikepacking trail the length of the Lesser Caucasus, taking form as a high-profile vehicle-supported expedition to map and explore potential routes for those trails, then spiralling beyond my control.

The months leading up to this trip were characterised by the grand idea of the Transcaucasian Trail being dragged down into the realm of petty local politics – endless bickering between factions of a newly-forming trail building community over who should be doing what and how they should be doing it – coupled with a race to secure funding for what was rapidly in danger of becoming a project dictated by bureaucrats. I’d tried to play the role of facilitator, engaging everyone and trying to shepherd disparate interests in a common direction that I believed would benefit everyone, before realising that I wanted nothing to do with it. My contribution – my expertise – was in exploring; being there on the ground, thoughtfully designing an experience, then publishing the means to have it.

The stress of all of this had taken its toll. I am neither a politician nor the leader of a movement. My place has always been on the fringes of things, and if I’ve ever had influence in any field, it has always been from behind the scenes. This year, I’d felt myself dragged into the limelight, made a figurehead, targeted, wrenched from my natural habitat. Several times I’d come close to abandoning the project entirely, but I’d avoided the tipping point by forcefully focusing my involvement back down to its roots. In the end, anxiety and exhaustion had been the worst of it, but these are not things to brush under the carpet. The stress had weighed physically as well as mentally, like a weight on my chest. I fell feverish, lost motivation, started snapped at people. When I awoke one morning to episodes of sudden deafness and vertigo that had me clinging to the kitchen table in fright, it became clear that something had to change.

And so it is overwhelmingly elating to watch it all drop away beneath me. I have spent many happy months this year on the ground the Caucasus Mountains, and I’m a little sad to note how relieved I am to leave it all behind for a while. My hope is that I will – through the cathartic hardship of a solo bicycle journey – identify and accept the aspects of the project that have caused so much stress, and regain perspective on how I can continue to be part of the Transcaucasian Trail movement in a way that will not bring me to breaking point.

Yeah. Like I said, I desperately needed a break.

My trusty touring bike is in the hold. My meagre belongings I’ve stuffed into a carry-on-sized plastic bag. I’ll be in Tehran in a hour. Then I’ll take the first bus south.

The road beckons. And it feels so incredibly good to be on it again.

23 Responses to “Bikepacking Southern Iran: Day Zero”

  1. TOM RENNIE

    Great stuff Tom, I will be with you on the trip in spirit at least!

    Reply
  2. James

    Great read, Tom. Forget the bureaucrats. Thanks also for providing inspo and info that led me on my first self-supported bike tour last year.

    Reply
  3. David

    Lovely post, Tom. Came onto the site to look up touring frames, only for this post to remind me why I love cycling so much. I hope this trip gives you the respite you clearly need.

    Reply
  4. Spence

    Thanks for the updates! I look forward to more pictures of your trip. I’m getting my passport this month and then lookout world! So many people do so many wonderful things behind the scenes, its good to take a break and realize you are one of them.

    Reply
  5. Chris Rock

    The most enjoyable and rewarding aspect to your writing has always been your honesty. It comes as such a welcome that I find it hard to put specific words to this, as many blogs, books, and films seem solely focused on creating an appearance where self doubt, mental fatigue, and hardship are not shown for what they are…an important aspect to our lives. Thank you Tom and please continue to write, film and exist on the fringe.

    Reply
  6. Barry Davidson

    All the best Tom! A good bike tour sorts one out and relieves stress. Kinda like a walk about as they say in Oz.

    Reply
  7. David STYS

    You summed up what we feel when we first hit the open road. After all that time of trying to make this plan fool-proof you realize that none of it’s going to save you from the unexpected problems bound to come along. Really enjoy reading your stuff, Tom!

    Reply
  8. Matt Newton

    May I ask how you arranged a visa for NV Iran.
    I have a UK passport.
    Thanks

    Matt

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      I travelled here on my Armenian passport (visa-free for 90 days). I believe UK citizens still need to be accompanied by a guide. A visa agent like The Visa Machine or Stantours will have the most up to date info.

      Reply
    • Jamie reynolds

      interested to hear your research regards visas…I fancy somewhere like this later this year…
      Jamie
      jamie @ plascoffi.co. uk

      Reply
  9. Harry Badaud

    Meticulously organised routes and races kind of remove the best part of adventure cycling – actual adventure, ad hoc, priceless and insponsored.

    I think the folks organising divide routes, etc. are absolutely lovely but honestly the only thing you really need is a bike and time to ride it.

    I have been dying to get to Iran and your accounts are inspired as always.

    Reply
  10. Jerry Aylmer

    Great read Tom. Inspiring…and perfect description of that just starting a trip buzz 🙂
    Good luck!

    Reply
  11. Shirin Shabestari

    Great update Tom. I totally understand how something you love and put a lot of passion and energy into, sometimes turns into a pain and source of anxiety. Hard to introduce any constructive change into our societies (I am assuming Armenia is similar). Anyway, glad you are out doing what you love. What you have started is a great project and I hope you come back tackling it head on. You deserve the break. خوش بگذره

    Reply
  12. Theo Ford-Sagers

    Eesh… your honesty is as compelling as ever. Great to read fresh posts on this blog at last 🙂

    Reply
  13. Bernice

    Wondered what happened to you out there exploring the hopefully soon to be Transcaucasion Trail. Glad to see you’re back and on the bike again. Look forward to hearing about your exploits. Love your honesty!

    Reply
  14. Paul

    As I sit here at my Government desk dreaming of my own “next ride” is as though you were describing my own thoughts and dislike of overbearing empire builders that try to restrict accomplishments unless they themselves are seen as the instigators. Enjoy the escape from the ordinary; I am about to embark on your Day One recount.

    Reply
  15. Adam

    It can be seen Tom, behind the lines it can be seen, what kind of person you are.
    I am glad to know that you are on bicycle again and I am sure that you will find your balance, and yourself again. Fingers crossed !
    And take care of your romantic marriage…

    Reply
  16. paul

    Great read. You echo my feelings exactly. What do you use to pack the bike in a plane and what do you do with container at the airport? . Good Travelling.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      I went to a hardware store, bought some double-ply transparent plastic sheeting and made my own DIY version of this. When I arrived I recycled it. Repeated the process on return.

      Reply
  17. nigel

    I wish you well but not sure about southern Iran, or Iran in general as a cycling option though – visa issues being the most likely hurdle never mind the pollotics. But an experience no doubt if you happen to like deserts and lots of sand. However, never having been there myself maybe that’s a misconception. Nevertheless, I do find all the hype about what is now called ‘bike packing’ rather irritating. What is it other than another sales hype and rearaging your gear in what I would consider a messy and meaningless manner. Ok, go get big fat tyres if you need then but hanging your gear like it’s on a clothes-line doesn’t strike me as being very practical or aesthetically appealing.

    Reply

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