It’s already bright when I wake, yet everything is coated in a thick layer of dew. I pack more quickly than ever before. Having so few belongings is a luxury in so many ways.
I ride the final couple of miles to the pass. A man-made chasm in the final wall of rock gives way to the most surreal of views: a coastal panorama from on high, but one in which a blanket of humidity renders the sea itself invisible! Below me, illuminated in fragments by an ascending sun, the road drops away in a squiggle of switchbacks, an unbroken descent from my perch at 1,200m all the way down to sea level.
I shiver as I begin the plunge, but by the time I bottom out on the valley floor I’m sweating and stripping off clothes – a mix of adrenaline and the fact that, through a 20-minute freewheeling session, I’ve flipped the climate on its head. And that’s not all that changes. Emerging onto the main coastal highway is a shock of noise, fumes, trucks and roadside detritus. I’m not going to be on it for long, but I’m determined to get off it as soon as possible. Riding along the debris-ridden shoulder for less than a mile, I’m rewarded with the first and only puncture of the trip, and I stop outside a supermarket to fix it, taking the opportunity to dry out my tent in the sun and guzzle a litre of shir kakao (chocolate milk) – the perfect fuel of the touring cyclist – while I’m getting my hands dirty.
It seems I’ve judged the route well: the highway abandons the coastline here in favour of heading inland, cutting off the corners of the meandering seashore. A minor road plies the scenic route beside the waves, and emerging from the mountains has spat me out right beside the junction. Puncture fixed, I pedal through the sleepy town of Parsian towards the approaching coast. It’s Friday and all but a couple of shops are closed. I stock up on cheap packets of synthetic-tasting banana-flavoured biscuits in case this is the last opportunity to buy food today.
As usual, I have been navigating mainly by intuition on this journey. Prior knowledge of what to expect comes from a quick glance at a map in the morning, a quick memorisation of bearings and landmarks and rough distances. I decide upon no break stops nor daily destinations in advance: I long ago learned that flexibility is the spark that ignites the volatile kind of freedom that comes with travelling by bicycle. The limiting factor on this occasion is time – but all this really means is that I am even more motivated to engage fully with each moment of this journey. As it stands, I’ll have to ride minimum 90-mile daily averages if I’m to pedal every inch of the way to Bandar Abbas and catch the train back to Tehran. But by this stage I am feeling strong, so I’m perfectly OK with a little optimism, even if it will mean super-early mornings and pedalling well into the night.
It’s at the little town of Bostanoo that I finally feel the sea spray on my face. Down by the jetty, a man on a motorbike talks loudly into a mobile phone and ignores me. Otherwise, I am alone among the fishing launches and piles of tangled netting. I dismount and clamber across the rocks, desperate to strip off and dive in, but that would be a major faux pas in a place like this. To my right, a beach of purest white stretches half a mile to the nearby headland, populated only by plastic flotsam. A small military outpost, built in the style of a colonial fortress, overlooks the empty expanse of sand. In the distance I can make out the sun-shelters and gaudy children’s play apparatus of a government-built ‘beach’ complex, where families gather to picnic fully-clothed and gaze occasionally at the sea. But nobody, it seems, is there.
It’s a quiet and predictably anticlimactic moment, a weird juxtaposition of indoctrinated notions of ‘the seaside’ – ice-cream, seagulls, working-class families on day-trips, the apparatus of institutionalised leisure – with the reality that, here, the seaside is just where the land ends. The rules don’t change when you dip your toes in the water.
The breeze… yes. It’s a westerly. It will be following me all day. I am a lucky cyclist indeed.
And before I know it I have cycled fifty miles along a gently undulating, newly-paved road, which I have entirely to myself. The sea never leaves my sight as the sun carves its low arc across the southern sky. My momentum, it seems, has not been interrupted by a mere night under canvas. I stop in a tiny fishing village and visit the mosque for a wash and toilet break. Back on the peaceful road, I wave at the occasional 4×4 full of urbanites seeking secluded beaches for a quiet weekend out of town. At one such paradisiacal sanctuary, I even spot people paddling in the sea.
Soon after Bandar-e Mogham I discover why this new road is so little used: it isn’t finished yet. In place of the smooth asphalt are the half-built foundations of the new road. The bed of crushed rock has been steamrollered flat and would be perfectly good to ride if it weren’t for the enormous trenches that slice the surface into elongated islands bounded at each end by sheer drops. Into each chasm has been placed a huge concrete drainage pipe, but these trenches – big enough to swallow me and my bike whole – have yet to be filled back in. So I do what the pickup drivers and motorbike riders do, at least judging by their tyre marks: use the new surface where it’s possible, and dive off on a detour through the desert where it isn’t. With its narrow tyres, my bike sinks into the soft sand, and I find myself pushing. The whole scene is strangely reminiscent of that time I cycled across the Afar Desert, although without the naked tribespeople, off-the-scale temperatures, and AK-47s.
It’s fun, in a strange kind of way, because it makes the cycling itself an activity worth my attention – the flipside of dirt road bikepacking, when total concentration is demanded and there’s little room left for thoughts to wander. And despite the rapid deceleration that comes with such terrain, I ride on through the sunset, enjoying having this remote patch of tropical coastline to myself, basking in the golden light that bathes the landscape and makes the already magical colours pop, almost psychedelic to the eye in those moments before the sun sinks beneath the ocean, soothing and melancholy thereafter until all has sunk into the deep blue of the night.
By the time the asphalt reappears, I’ve smashed my target and pedalled well over a hundred miles. For some reason, today has felt different, as if I’ve entered a new phase of the journey, and I suppose, by latching myself magnetically to the coastline, it has. Starscape overhead, I’m on a roll, headtorch illuminating the empty road ahead. I keep pedalling.
Passing Bandar-e Aftab – the first real town I’ve seen since the morning – I stop a car and ask the young driver if the town has a beach – yes! – and if it’ll be a problem to camp on it – of course not! It’s another of those days in which everything just clicks, the miles seem effortless, and the experience just flows. And it seems to be ending perfectly.
As it turns out, it ends even more perfectly than I’d bargained for. As I nose between the walls of village homes in search of the beach, I hear an engine gunning rapidly towards me, lights flashing in the gloom, horn honking, and I realise it’s the same lad I’d pulled over a few minutes beforehand. He’s pulled a U-turn on the highway and driven back to Bandar-e Aftab just to tell me there’s a spare room at his family home in which I can sleep! He’s gone so far out of his way to help some cyclist whose face he could barely have seen in the darkness that I accept, for his sake as much as mine. He lets me in and shows me the room.
“Your house is my house,” he says, before getting back in the car and departing again on his original journey. A few minutes later, his father brings me a tray of food, echoes the same sentiment, and I am left to my own devices – which at this late hour involves nothing more than sinking into a deep and well-earned sleep.