I let myself out and am down at the beach before dawn. The town’s name, Bandar-e Aftab, translates to ‘Sun Port’. It’s obvious why: this little south-facing stretch of coastline is bathed in its rays from sunrise to sunset. Being a mediterranean sea, isolated from the Indian Ocean by the Straits of Hormoz and just fifty metres deep on average, the Persian Gulf hosts one of the calmest coastlines I’ve ever seen.
A hundred yards away, some fishermen are dragging a boat across the sand towards the water, but aside from that, all is still and silent. I experience the kind of sunrise that travel photographers fly halfway round the world to capture.
And then, once more, I ride. The world stirs into motion even as its inhabitants sleep. The air is cool and delicious. Riding remains effortless. All is harmony.
Ancient-looking domes litter the sand flats between the seashore and the rocky rise of the coastal mountains. I stop and approach one. The conical dome, about the height of a single storey building, has four equally-spaced entrances, each framed by a rectangle of stone. I step through one of them, recoiling as the floor falls away: I am poised on the edge of a deep well. Twenty feet below me I see the reflection of my own silhouette in the water. The cistern must be have once been a source of drinking water in a land dominated by salt and sand – and indeed, a bucket attached to a frayed rope is leaning up against the opposite doorway. Continuing to ride, I see dozens more domes, so numerous they could almost be dwellings.
Approaching Bandar-e Charak, the road widens, and suddenly the remote coastal trail is transformed in a multi-lane highway. No doubt built to fulfil some national standard, it seems to have been plonked arbitrarily in the remote coastal desert to herald the final half-mile before the edge of the town.
There’s something different about Charak. I follow the promenade along the beach, empty as usual; past the boatyard. I stop to take a photo or two with my phone. I cross the road to fill up my bottles from a roadside water cooler. Nobody pays me the slightest attention. Nobody even looks at me.
A couple of hundred yards away is the reason. Bandar-e Charak is one of two ports plied by passenger ferries to the nearby island of Kish (pronounced like ‘quiche’). Though I’ve never visited, I’ve been hearing of Kish for years: it’s one of those ‘must-visit’ places Iranians like to mention in conversations about travelling in the country, like Esfahan and Shiraz. In truth, it’s more of a domestic destination, for Kish’s fame comes from its transformation from desert island to luxury holiday resort, complete with 5-star hotels, Western-style shopping malls, duty-free luxury imports from the Emirates, and a particularly liberal attitude to beach life. A novelty destination for Iranians with money to spend, and an utterly run-of-the-mill (perhaps even horrifying) prospect for a Western traveller in search of the romantic and exotic of the Orient.
I wheel up by the port gates just as ferry is unloading its payload of Persian holidaymakers. The road is soon swarming with legions of the moneyed classes, glamorous-looking women hurriedly readjusting from days of relative abandon to the mainland’s concern with dress code and propriety, husbands and fathers engaged in the serious concern of locating a parked car or negotiating with a taxi driver. It’s milling with suitcases and shouting matches and the paraphernalia of a million prodigious Persian picnics. One man appears to be shoving a full-size oven into the back of a car. Another is strapping clear plastic cases full of gaudily patterned, carefully-folded blankets to a roof rack. Drivers tout ever-falling fares to Bandar Abbas, from where many of these holidaymakers will take the same train to Tehran that I’ll be taking a couple of days from now. It’s a scene of the daily chaos that characterises a place whose sole raison d’etre is as a conduit for money-wielding outsiders, the locals’ jobs being to extract their cash in brief flurries of activity like this.
I leave just as abruptly as I’d arrived.
On my way out of town, a cavalcade of taxi drivers and truck drivers advise me to avoid the coastal road at all costs. “It’s shit,” they tell me. “Take the highway inland. Faster and easier, and not much longer. It goes all the way to Bandar Abbas.”
I take the coastal road. It’s shit. It’s a hundred times more preferable than sharing the highway with the cavalcade of taxi drivers and truck drivers who’ll never understand why I’d choose a shit road over a highway.
The disintegrating asphalt collapses into dirt and sand, ploughing south through the desert. Dromedaries roam the plains, mooching among distant cisterns. I rattle along the washboard track, spotting a pair of motorbikes coming towards me. As they draw closer, I realise they’re not motorbikes. They’re cyclists!
“Salaam!” I hail. “Chetorid?-khoobid?-salaamati-ghorbanet-kheyli-mamnoon!”
By the time this classic exchange of introductory etiquette is complete, I know for sure they’re Iranian. The couple straddle heavily-loaded hybrid bikes with flat handlebars and front suspension, panniers and bar bags, and the biggest tent I’ve ever seen strapped to the guy’s rear rack. It looks like an ex-issue military tent. But if that’s all you can get, so be it. With my ultralight rig, I’m already in awe of their determination to drag this mass of equipment through the desert. Good for them!
“You’re the last person we expected to meet on this road!”, the man exclaims.
“So are you!” I reply with a grin.
“But why are you here, instead of on the main road with the cars and trucks?”
“Because of the cars and trucks!”
He smiles in appreciation of the discovery that I, a foreigner, am just as comfortable off the beaten track in Iran as he is in his native country, and that ultimately we’ve both chosen this road for the same reason: it’s a blank spot on the map and our curiosity has drawn us here. He speaks English (badly) and I speak Farsi (badly), whereas his wife speaks only Farsi. Somehow we each end up using each others’ language (badly) to conduct the conversation, and somehow it works.
The couple, from Tehran, have had a similar idea to me: escape the winter by heading to the south of the country and exploring its coastline and islands. They’ve already visited Hormoz and Qeshm via the passenger ferries from Bandar Abbas and are now on their way to Charak to catch the boat to Kish. Apparently, he tells me, there’s car ferry from Bandar-e Pol to Qeshm island, crossing the narrowest point between the two coastlines several times a day.
“If they think you’re Iranian,” he says, “they won’t charge you, so say as little as possible and just ride straight onto the boat!”
I thank him for his suggestion, though I won’t have time to go to Qeshm on this trip. I wish I did – the newly designated UNESCO Geopark that occupies the western half of the island is apparently home to some of the most unique landscapes on Earth.
It’s nice to meet them. We wish each other well and ride off in opposite directions, our spirits a little higher. For one thing, it lays to rest a myth I’d seen being propagated on the internet; the crass generalisation that “cycling in Iran is illegal for women”. Ever hungry for stories to fuel anti-Iranian sentiment, the Western media had, earlier in the year, picked up on a comment from a prominent cleric about whether female cyclists risked contravening sharia law as practiced in Iran. The story was spun by tabloid headline writers – among the lowest scum on Earth, in my opinion – simply as “women banned from cycling in Iran”.
There was no appreciation of the fact that the comment was specifically about the interplay between Iran’s dress code regulations and cycling, not about the act of riding a bike. Nor did any of the reporters seem to understand that such questions flex in interpretation depending on the nuances of each individual case. So no, it wouldn’t be OK for a woman in skin-tight lycra to ride tucked through downtown Tehran. But yes, it would be perfectly OK for a modestly-dressed bicycle traveller to explore the countryside – or to commute to work, or to use the cycle lanes and bike hire facilities in any number of Iranian cities. I am not, of course, defending the theocrats here, just pointing out that – as with so many tiresome headlines about Iran – the reality is far more subtle than you’d be led to think.
The same nuances were also missed by an irate pro-cyclist who’d been to the Iranian Embassy in London to apply for a visa to cycle across Iran and been refused on the grounds that such a thing was not allowed. She’d reacted to my Tweet that I’d be cycling in Iran by telling me that I was lucky; that what I was doing was a “male-only privilege”. I sympathised with her anger, however forthright, but all that had really happened was that she’d made the mistake of mentioning cycling in the first place. Cycle travellers to Iran have long been advised to avoid doing so when applying for visas, regardless of gender. Had she applied as a regular visitor, I suspect she’d have got the visa and encountered no problems whatsoever – like all the other female cycle travellers who pass through Iran, and like the Iranian cyclist I’d just met. I’d done my best to appease her indignance and said I hoped she’d get a chance to ride in Iran in the future, because (in case you haven’t noticed) I’d made it my mission to proselytise the discovery of this nation to travellers in any way I could.
My little scenic detour is sadly short-lived. Soon I’m back at a junction with the main road to Bandar-e Lengeh. Petrol tankers and container lorries fly past at speed in anticipation of the industrialised towns and ports that surround the south coast hub of Bandar Abbas. So far I’ve avoided piling into the fray, but it seems that time is through.
Many newcomers to global cycling adventures imagine all sorts of silly things to be the main dangers to personal safety – banditry, kidnapping, terrorism, starvation, ad infinitum. As any experienced bicycle traveller will know, however, by far the biggest threat is road traffic. When a rare story does sadly surface about the death of a cycle tourist, it is inevitably the result of a collision with a vehicle – itself an inevitability of having to share all sorts of entirely inappropriate roads with every other kind of road user.
I know this only too well. The closest I have ever come to dying on a bike trip was on an ice road in Swedish Lapland. It was the dead of night, about -30ºC at the time, but freezing to death was the least of my concerns. Far more worrying was the truckers’ habit of blasting through the icy wilderness leaving no space between their enormous vehicles and the vertical walls of snow that lined the roadsides. The sides of these single-lane trenches were often taller than I was. And that was OK when the roads were straight enough for drivers to see my bright red rear blinker in the distance. But on one long right-hand bend – neither tight enough to necessitate slowing down, nor broad enough for me to be visible until the last second – I was unfortunate enough to hear the roar of a truck approaching, the full-beam headlights reflecting awfully off the snowdrifts on the opposite side of the road. With no change in the engine’s tone or timbre, I knew the trucker had no idea I was there. I pulled to a halt, rammed the right end of my handlebar into the wall of snow to make myself as narrow as possible, and braced myself, as the glare of the headlights and the scream of the engine engulfed me…
The truck missed me by inches. If I hadn’t stopped; if I had wobbled just slightly to the left – perhaps, even, if I hadn’t dug my handlebar into the snow at the last second… well, I suspect I would not be writing this right now.
The driver probably wouldn’t even have known he’d hit me.
You develop certain habits as a travelling cyclist; survival strategies that initially rub against such Western notions as having the same right to use the road as anyone else, that drivers should behave responsibility towards more vulnerable road users, and other such forward-thinking concepts. Trust me – when your life depends on a few hundred other drivers a day not running you over, and when most of the world’s drivers treat traffic rules and road markings as an exotic and meaningless novelty, you quickly realise you’d be better off establishing your own habits of self-preservation, because you can’t very well argue about safe overtaking distances or waiting until the lane is clear when you’ve been mashed into the tarmac.
Iran offers a slight deviation from the norm in that it is overrun with motorbikes, which occupy about the same amount of space on the road as bicycles and are usually moving slower than other traffic. Drivers are used to them, and this usually plays in the cyclist’s favour. Even so, there are still scenarios when a motorbike rider knows it’s time to dive off the road and onto the verge. One of those scenarios is when you’re on a fast, single-lane thoroughfare, just wide enough for two trucks to pass each other at full speed in opposite directions, with no hard shoulder. So whenever I see vehicles approaching from ahead on the other side of the road, my first instinct is to look behind to see if they’re likely to intersect with someone overtaking me from behind. If they are, and if both vehicles are big ones, then I get the hell off the road immediately. On this road, with the asphalt giving way to a slope of rubble down to the desert floor, the result is that I spend quite a lot of time skidding around in the dust.
Other habitual reactions become noticeable – like my tendency to ride a little further away from the verge than I really need to, most of the way towards the centre of the lane. As long as there’s no traffic approaching from up ahead, this tends to mean that overtaking drivers from behind give me a wide berth, but also – more importantly – that I have space to swerve a couple of feet closer to the road’s edge, just a split-second before they pass, so even the drivers who wouldn’t give me an inch of space find themselves passing at a comfortable margin.
Together with others techniques, like wearing brightly-coloured clothing, these survival strategies have kept me safe through the years. But the road I’m on is still up there with the most dismal I’ve encountered. Given the approaching city, I can’t help suspecting the golden days of this particular journey are over.
And tomorrow – on the last full day of riding of this trip – it’s going to get a whole lot worse.