A greasy egg sits on a plate, next to a small basket of flatbread and a single-serve packet of carrot jam. This is clearly not a breakfast designed with a hungry bikepacker in mind. For my £25, I feel like raising the point with the waiter, who I have little doubt would bring more food in a flurry of apologies. But for some reason I can’t be bothered – perhaps, again, that die-hard British tendency to avoid disturbing the status quo, manifesting itself now on the tiniest of scales.
I hit the road earlier than ever, though I’ve missed the sunrise by more than an hour. At the moment, light begins to trickle into the sky around 5am, with sunrise an hour and a half later, a schedule that doesn’t quite sync with that of the hotel. I ride west, away from Firuzabad, the sun casting a long shadow on the road ahead of me.
The main road south slides into view in the middle distance. It looks quiet, just the odd car or two, and I hope it’ll stay that way, for I am obliged to take this road to make up for lost time dawdling on the mountainous backroads. As I cross the flyover to join its southbound lane, I note with gladness that it has a generous hard shoulder and looks to be newly resurfaced, setting the scene for a big day. I have become an asphalt connoisseur over the years, and while the backroads will always have the adventurous edge, this kind of generously wide provincial thoroughfare is among the happiest of compromises for a cyclist wanting to cover ground.
Just before the next set of hills there is a service station, one of many I’ll find dotted along this road, a great friend to two-wheeled travellers in Iran, for they signify toilets, coffee, and big portions of cheap hot food. I pull off the road and onto the forecourt, narrowly missing being mashed by an overtaking lorry whose driver is too desperate to take a break to bother slowing down. Dammit! I’ve been spoiled until now. Back on roads where I must share the asphalt, I need to remember where in the pecking order I sit, which, in Iran, is right at the bottom.
I buy a packet of chocolate digestives and help myself to a mugful of boiling water from the samovar outside the grocery, to which I add a double-dose of 3-in-1 instant coffee. Pulling out my phone, I notice a couple of new WhatsApp messages. One’s from Leo in Shiraz (that small Far Easterner on the short ride), who tells me I should be losing a lot of elevation after Firuzabad if I’m heading south. In the meantime, he’s still waiting for his visa extension. Claus (the tall German on the long ride), meanwhile, tells me he’s setting off for Bandar Abbas on the highway to catch the weekend ferry to Sharjah. A moment of nostalgia hits me: I crossed the Persian Gulf on that same ferry seven and a half years ago, albeit in the opposite direction, having spent six months pedalling from Turkey to Iran the long way round – via Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, and the UAE. How the world has changed since then! How I have changed since then…
Nostalgia, too, was one of my reasons for selecting the port of Bandar Abbas as the endpoint for this trip (the other being the direct train back to Tehran). Actually, now I think about it, the last 24 hours has been awash with bloody nostalgia. The long nights leave loads of time for reading – my favourite on-the-road pastime – and I’ve been ploughing through the third and final book by Jason Lewis* documenting his Expedition 360 project, a 14-year odyssey at the end of which he became the first person in recorded history to circumnavigate the globe by human power.
Chiefly, human power meant his legs. Back at the voyage’s outset in 1994 (when I was still at primary school), he and his original partner Steve had commissioned a specially-designed pedal boat, with which the expedition crossed the Atlantic, the Pacific (where Steve had called it quits), and finally the Indian Ocean. With the exception of an ill-advised rollerblading stint across North America, he used the good old bicycle to cover ground on land, the cheapest and most practical way to travel independently by human power.
The reason for my nostalgia is that I had, last night, reached the point in the story where Lewis lands in Djibouti and begins pedalling north through Ethiopia and Sudan on the final leg of his voyage towards Europe, 12 years after setting off from the Greenwich Meridian. He takes the same route I’d taken in 2009 while I was abandoning my planned round-the-world route and veering off into Africa, but he pedals north, not south, and a couple of years earlier than me. (Strangely, he too seems to encounter insane headwinds on a daily basis when crossing the Sahara.)
Aside from the expedition being a superhuman feat of determination (and a good story well told), reading about another fish-out-of-water subsumed by the violence of life in Africa has given me comfort, for until now I have not sought to dig too deep into those memories. In fact, I realise, I have actively avoided doing so. Because of all the experiences I’ve had on the road in 58 countries, the most affecting and – dare I say it – traumatic of all were contained within that north-east corner of the African continent, and specifically in the weeks between Khartoum and Djibouti City. It is easy to look back through rose-tinted spectacles at almost any adventurous experience, no matter how hard, and to remember it fondly, or at least to laugh about it. But I cannot do that here. Indeed, recalling those times brings with it a muted sensation of dread that numbs and erases all else I might otherwise feel. I did my best to articulate why in Janapar*, but to this day, that confusing experience remains unexplored and unexplained.
Perhaps nostalgia is the wrong word in this case. Perhaps it’s a weird, selfish kind of reassurance; the comforting knowledge that someone else had to experience it, that I was not alone in suffering those traumas. Because for all the transnational perspectives on the world I’ve cultivated in the years since, I know, deep down, that a repeat of those experiences would undermine it all in an instant.
I finish my coffee and hit the road. The weather is glorious. And the road, too – it’s one of those roads on which the miles pass unnoticed, as if it’s you that is stationary and the world that is rotating beneath your wheels. Yes, this is partly because I’m losing elevation between one valley and the next, soaring ever down towards the lowlands. And yes, this is partly because my legs have now hardened to their task and pedalling seems effortless once again. But it is also partly because I am in the mood for cranking out some serious distance, spurred on by the prospect of reaching the coast, wanting a change from the stop-start bumbling around in the hills. This, I think, is where the bicycle really comes into its own.
Thoughts whirl and dissipate into the breeze, and I can almost feel my brain draining out the dregs of anxiety that have been fermenting and bubbling over the last few weeks, a product of innumerable tiny decisions to make and problems to solve, finally unplugged by the magical act of taking a bicycle and spontaneously going somewhere new: a breath of fresh air in every sense, as the rugged folds and contours of southern Iran zing past beneath the tyres and into history, even these fresh sights to be recalled only as an impressionistic blur.
By the hasty close of another day I’ve ridden almost a century. I keep riding. Momentum won’t let me stop. With a few thousand feet descended, the landscapes have changed dramatically, barren crags giving way to broad, cultivated valleys dotted with stands of trees and workers’ shelters of timber frames and palm leaves. People are still working the fields, eking out the last of the daylight at the height of the growing season, and I know I’ll find a good camping spot under cover of darkness. This is familiar territory, reminding me of a trek I made three years ago along the lower reaches of the Zayanderud river near Esfahan, one of several adventures I’ve never written about because some things are best kept for yourself.
I’m excited. With almost a hundred miles on the clock, I’m finally going to get to wild camp – my other favourite on-the-road pastime – and spend a few hours finishing Jason’s extraordinary journey before sinking into a glorious, hard-earned slumber under the stars.
If I told you that, three hours later, I would be a hundred miles away on the coast of the Persian Gulf with a man I’d met on the roadside, who offered to let me sleep in the spare room above his shop, but who then – after I’d dumped my bike and my stuff – decided that what I would like more than anything was to be driven to the distant city of Asaluyeh in the dead of night to watch him barbecue a chicken in his friends’ back-yard, get drunk, and pass out on the sofa, before spending six hours making the return journey the following morning, resulting in me finally hitting the road at 2:30pm tomorrow – if I told you that, would you be surprised?
Yes? Then clearly you have not been listening hard enough when I’ve mentioned, repeatedly, that this what happens when you travel in Iran. When people wax lyrical about Iranian hospitality, they’re remembering nights like this.
It can be overwhelming to the point of being disruptive, which inflexible travellers find hard to deal with. I count myself lucky that I was only detained for a single night!
But if you can accept the tendency of Iran to sweep you up in itself, then… well, nights like this will end up being the ones you remember most fondly of all.