This is it. The final push to Bandar Abbas. My train leaves tomorrow at noon.
In the predawn cool I hit the road east, setting a fast pace for what will be the longest day of this ride. But before long I spot a bakery churning out fresh sheets of lavash onto a cooling rack on the roadside. I stop and buy a loaf for breakfast, and the interruption makes space for me to remind myself that speed is not the essence today. Miles go by when time in the saddle is maximised, and often that means dropping the pace to sustain it. Besides that, I must remember that I’m still allowed to enjoy my final day, rather than end my ride on a miserable dash to the finish line.
There is little noteworthy about the road, its purpose to channel traffic from all over south-west Iran into Bandar Abbas. The asphalt widens to two lanes, sometimes with a generous hard shoulder, sometimes with none. I concentrate on keeping myself safe, not noticing the landscape, suddenly disoriented as I realise the sea has disappeared from view, or that I’m riding across an Africa-like savannah roamed by dromedaries.
In between traffic-dodging and wondering why every other Iranian truck has the logo of Mammut (a Swiss outdoor gear company) painted all over it, I reflect on the lessons learned from this, my sixth journey in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the third by bicycle. As usual, what floats to the surface is a mixture of tempting generalisations about a nation and ponderings on my subjective experience here.
This trip has left an interesting impression of Iran. The country’s unabated progress into modernity is impressive – even heroic – given the circumstances, but things suffer, it seems, from what is perhaps an overemphasis on discipline and control in order to keep things working properly; one of the less obvious results of decades of international sanctions.
To me, surface-skimming traveller that I am, this has been most noticeable in the repurposing of traditional ways of life to serve centrally-owned state mechanisms – individual self-reliance giving way to national survival.
Thus are age-old cultural mores bedecked with the raiments of industrialism. Even if the mountain-dwelling shepherd remains, he’ll likely be heading home on a Honda CG125 to eat traditional bread baked on a mechanised conveyor belt, sitting on the floor in front of a Western-style sofa watching a period soap-opera set in the imperial courts of the Persian empire on a Samsung flatscreen telly. The Shah’s rapid Westernisation of Iran largely fuelled the revolutionary backlash of ’79, but the mullahs who replaced him have only continued on this particular trajectory.
There’s nothing particularly unusual about these materialist features of modern life. What’s distinctive is how homogenous – even bland – this aspect of Iran looks as a result. My perspective is perhaps accentuated by two things. The first is the inevitable comparison with Armenia, a country among whose charms I count the wonderfully traditional approach to food and produce, where the windows of opportunity to enjoy the cascading banquets of seasonal fruits and vegetables are measured in mere days – days often characterised by furious bouts of pickling and preserving. It’s a place where organic, home-made cheese and yoghurt and honey is not just plentiful and cheap but almost ubiquitous, as likely to be brought over by a friend or relative as bought from a shop. It’s where big business, for all its attempts, seems unable to get its teeth into the feeding of the country.
All of this I love and value so highly that coming to Iran – a mass-produced, shrink-wrapped conveyor belt of monotony for breakfast, lunch and tea – is a shock. Sure, there are a few places you can find fantastic, memorable meals. Stay in a few villages and you might get a taste of a homemade or homegrown something-or-other. But they’re the exception that proves the rule.
The second is that before I drifted nomadically to Armenia, my frame of reference was England, a place where the soulless industrialisation of the food supply was long ago obscured beneath a camouflage of marketing, nowadays reaching ever more absurd levels of disconnection from the actual thing being put in one’s mouth, all fuelled by an institutionalised prerogative to ‘remain competitive’ in a free-market economy that has conquered life entirely. In England, food wasn’t just food any more, as made explicit by one Marks & Spencers campaign. Even the reactionary movements – slow food, farmers markets etc – have to be sold in the same language to get cash-rich, time-poor dilettante foodies buying into it.
It makes me think: at least Iran’s new-found obsession with mass production and consumption is honest. Nothing’s trying to be anything it isn’t. Just check out the names of the firms that make this stuff: ‘Kalleh Dairy Company’, ‘Behrouz Nik Food Industries’, ‘Bijan Food Products’, ‘Khoshkpak Dried Food Company’. Function over form. Pure utilitarianism. Nobody’s trying to spin it: everything is out in plain view. There is none of the West’s fabricated diversification. Everywhere in Iran, everything is the same. The same three or four makes of car, the same single model of motorbike, every loaf of bread a tasteless carbon copy of the one before it. This is a zero-choice economy; you know exactly what you’re going to get, right down to the price. If you want something different, something better; if you aren’t content with a system that serves all your basic needs but doesn’t try to convince you it’ll make you happy too – well, you can either go where the tourists and rich kids spend their money, or you can leave Iran. (And many do.)
I see a restaurant on the roadside. I know it’s a restaurant because the sign outside reads ‘Restaurant’. Fifty miles pedalled before lunch, the ten-kilometre countdown signs to Bandar Abbas down into double digits, I decide to treat myself to a hot meal. I scan the menu which contains the same dozen or so dishes served in every roadside restaurant in Iran: four varieties of kebab, three stews, and a couple of soups. The prices are exactly the same as they are everywhere else.
I order. The meal is precisely as expected: a huge pile of steaming rice, a bowl of stew, and some perfect geometric squares of bread in a plastic basket. Zero-choice economy? Sure as hell works for me.
At a police roadblock I skip the queue, weaving among idling pickups and cars full of holidaymakers and petrol tankers covered in Mammut logos. A policeman waves me over. The first thing he wants to know is where I’m from.
“Armenia,” I tell him. I find myself wondering if my shorts will prove an issue. While men aren’t generally supposed to wear shorts in Iran, a ‘sportsperson’ can usually get away with it in practice.
“Armenia!” he repeats, enthusiastically, if a little absent-mindedly. “And how is Iran?”
“Iran is great!” I reply. Standard response.
“Yes, Iran is great! See what a safe and stable place this is! Have you had any problems on the road? Has anyone done anything to disturb you here? No! Everything is provided, travelling is safe, there’s no war, by the grace of God…”
I nod profusely. He’s proud of his country. And why not? People only complain about a lack of freedom when they take stability for granted. Then, with a flippant wave, his attention is on the next driver, and I am forgotten, along with my shorts.
It is the innocuous question – “where are you from?” – that prompts the next thought spiral. Really, I am from England, not Armenia, as that’s where I was born. But what is England but a subdivision of the island of Great Britain based on some ancient tribal war? What does that have to do with me? Really, I am from Middleton, a small village in the East Midlands full of middle-class white people. That’s the place that served as the womb of my childhood worldview, not some abstract thing called ‘England’.
But until the age of five I’d lived in the schoolhouse of a Surrey village school of which my dad was the headmaster. My memories of the place are few and fleeting, but they are nonetheless my earliest memories. So was I from Middleton, or Ockley?
And from age 11 I was shipped off daily to a secondary school in a nearby town which, at the time, seemed far more exotic and dangerous and confusing than anywhere I’ve travelled as an adult. Middleton was just where I slept. My village friends went elsewhere. Later, going to university at the far end of Britain – which might as well have been another actual universe – eroded further that sense of rootedness that society tells me I should have, the one that eventually brings so many travellers – no matter how prolonged and far-ranging and mind-expanding their adventures – back ‘home’.
Finally, hitting the road a decade ago didn’t just destroy any lingering remnants of a settled life, it affirmed and made real my identity as a wanderer – which didn’t mean I would never have a ‘home’, just that I would begin to conceive of it in an entirely different way. I would take my home with me, and set it up where I felt like. It’s taken a few years to fully embrace this, but now I can truly say that my home is nowhere and everywhere. Of course visiting the place I grew up brings feelings of nostalgia, but nothing more. I spend my time where I come across cosmopolitan pockets of like-minded humans, not to where any geographical yearning drags me back.
Thus, while I have a practical standard-issue answer for the policeman on Highway 96 towards Bandar Abbas, the exchange smooths over a complex question, one I’ve always felt society wants me to have a simple answer for, but which in all honesty I do not. I’m not sure I even have the language to discuss this all properly. It seems to me that we live in an age characterised by humans pushing up against the limits of their ability to get their heads round the complexities of the world. Perhaps this has somehow always been the case. Thanks to the internet and smartphones, a fantastic increase in the availability of information has made it easier than ever to hold forth intellectually on matters of which we are actually ignorant, to let fragments of information bribe us into believing we understand universal wholes, to reduce matters of dazzling intricacy and depth to ever-more meaningless caricatures. All this is fuelled by a fundamental need to feel that we understand life, because without certainty, without belief, we feel insecure, and, ultimately, afraid. What is unknown terrifies us: knowledge makes us comfortable, even if that knowledge is flawed. I think the difference today is that – on a global scale – it’s really starting to matter.
Another thing I suspect is that the pursuit of learning and understanding as the way to solve the mysteries of the world is misguided. All we can be reasonably sure of, ever, is that the cumulative effect of our experiences have shaped our self-image and how we respond to the events of life. But that’s going to pan out differently for the other 7.5 billion of us. ‘Knowledge’ is nothing more than what we can each deduce from experience, or adopt from the deductions of others. And relying too heavily on this is intrinsically dangerous: we are susceptible to all sorts of irrationalities, flawed logic, misperception and misinterpretation – the most insidious outcome being the ‘generalisation’, such as those I’m guilty of earlier in this post. Not to mention our squishy, simplistic memories that recall things that never happened and twist things that did. Healthier, I reckon, to accept – to really accept – the enormity of what we do not and cannot ever know or understand – that every belief we hold could, given sufficient time or change of perspective, be opposed; that each new thing learned is a hint to the vastness of things we will never have the opportunity to learn – and proceed through life on that basis: more tolerant, less judgemental, aware of the enormity of what we do not and cannot know, and resultantly in a greater state of peace.
But man, it’s hard.
From this perspective, many immutable truths seem to rest on shaky foundations. It’s the place all the subtexts of the question “where are you from?” come from. Literally what the hell does that even mean? The word ‘country’ is notoriously hard to define, linguistically speaking. The idea of nationhood is even more slippery. What on earth does it mean to say that I am ‘Armenian’? My second passport makes this a legal truth. But when I was born, the country didn’t even exist! More to the point, most Armenians define themselves along ethnic lines: ‘Armenian-ness’ is purely about blood and nothing to do with where one was born, in contrast to ‘Britishness’ in which outsiders have traditionally been invited to integrate. By that definition, there are far more Armenians outside Armenia than in it, far more Armenians holding the passports of other countries than that of their supposed homeland. And let’s not even get into questions of territorial heritage: today’s Republic of Armenia is but a dismal representation of lands once inhabited by the ancestors of a now globally-scattered people. All I did was get married there. And in a couple of years, I’ll be eligible to run for presidency!
Depending on how you define ‘English’, ‘Armenian’, and the concept of nationality, I am either one, both, or neither. Which calls into question the value of any such label, and makes me wonder why society remains obsessed by them.
But I suspect it’s rather simple. The vast majority of people have a strong and singular sense of home. This usually corresponds with the place where and the people among whom they grew up. And that social-geographical sense of home is a fundamental part of most people’s identity. Our current system of nation-labels helps people figure out who they think I am in this sense – what tribe I belong to; what that tribe’s relationship is with theirs; therefore how they should relate to me. That’s what most people are asking when they’re asking where I’m from. And I’ve been asked where I’m from probably tens of thousands of times.
I, however, am one of a significant minority who’ve found themselves instead drawn to the nomadic life – the frowned-upon alternative to settling which has always existed in one form or another, marginalised by mainstream society, but ultimately resulting in humans exploring and populating every inch of habitable space on Earth. At a fundamental level, our sense of home and what it means is just different – and therefore our sense of identity and what that means is different too.
Now, in the 21st century, the life of the nomad bears little resemblance to the romantic notion of the word. But the same is true for the settler. What both groups share today is the ability to participate in an economy no longer constrained by physical geography – even if many can’t see or understand this, and even if many nomadic souls haven’t found their way out of settledom yet.
And perhaps that’s why the question “where are you from?” heralds the premature death of meaningful interaction. Because before the conversation has even begun, we are already speaking different languages about the nature of self and identity; the age-old divide of the nomad versus the settler. And that is the fate of the solo bicycle traveller. Interactions, however heartfelt, are fleeting. Alone on the road, the deepest conversations are inevitably the ones you have with yourself.
This nomad still has fifty miles to pedal before dark, and the sun is already sinking towards the western horizon. I take a detour across the desert on a crumbling old road, cutting off a big inland loop made by the highway. A few optimistic motorists have decided to try it too, but such is the dereliction of this abandoned strip of asphalt that I easily overtake the drivers as they negotiate car-sized potholes and corrugated trails of compacted gravel in cars entirely unsuited to the task. It’s a fun hour of riding, but the trucking route reappears all too quickly, and the combination of dusk, busy highway, and approaching industrial sprawl promises a predictably unappetising arrival in Bandar Abbas.
And it is even more hostile than I imagined. As if spawned by an unseen force, the trucks begin to multiply. Darkness grows, my rear light feebly poking at the mounting onslaught of roaring lorries, and at the same time the hard shoulder begins to accumulate all the pulverised crumbs of tarmac and road filth and desert dust thrown off by these monsters as they plough towards the port. Soon the detritus is so thick that it’s like trying to ride through loose gravel, my tyres skidding and churning in the darkness. But it’s either that or share a lane with a thousand tonnes of hurtling steel.
Deafening blast after deafening blast. Pathetic head-torch. Adrenaline-fuelled dashes for solid ground as I gain a hundred yards at a time in rare breaks between cavalcades. It’s actually like being at war. All thoughts of my destination have evaporated. This is about survival. And though I hesitate to admit it as I know my mum will be reading this, I’m having the most perverse kind of fun! Because though it’s objectively horrific, I’ve been here so many times before. I know I can deal with this. Such violence inspires heroic efforts, and this is all about riding that wave through; about sticking a big fat fuck you to the world that has created such diabolisms and doing what needs to be done, preferably with a smile on your face, pushing on until the end of eternity comes.
It is late at night when the first ‘hotel’ signboard heaves into view. It’s a little way out of town, but I couldn’t care less. I march in brandishing a 50 Toman note and ask, politely, if they’ll give me a room for all the cash I have left. Not only do they give me a room but they send up dinner too.
I collapse into bed. I have ridden 130 miles. I have made it to Bandar Abbas. And I have survived.