It’s half past two in the afternoon. I thank Amin profusely and ride away with an enormous sense of relief. It’s been a weird kind of fun, but now it’s time to cram in as many miles as I can before sundown, and probably a few after dark to make up for lost time. I start back towards the road at a brisk pace. I have only a couple of hours to cross into the next valley, and I’d rather not be grinding up a mountainside when the sun disappears behind the crags in a couple of hours’ time.
As I ride, I find myself contemplating all the ways in which the last 24 hours could have ended up being genuinely annoying, as opposed to just a weird kind of fun. There was the way in which the original invitation transformed into a 100km round trip to have dinner in Jam, a city down the road, which was only revealed once I was divested of my belongings and sat in the passenger seat. Then there was the trip’s magical transmutation into a 250km late-night epic as we bypassed Jam and were suddenly on the way to Asalyueh, another hour’s drive away, which I later realised had been the plan all along. I was obviously exhausted and just wanted to rest – something I mentioned frequently. That didn’t matter. Of course I was up for being dragged in the car around all night!
As the white-hot flares of Asaluyeh’s gas refineries came into view, Amin had produced a bottle of clear liquid and poured it into two cups, topping it up with a can of energy drink. I realised I was overtaking a police car with a total stranger who had his phone in one hand and a vodka Red Bull in the other and was necking it at 70mph with no hands on the wheel. At that moment, the zen concept of unconditional acceptance of the ‘now’ really came into its own.
Having spent the night on his friends’ couch, when morning came I decided to hold Amin to his word that we would head back after breakfast. His friends had gone to work, the sun long since risen. We ate some bread and cheese and I necked a coffee, at suitable intervals pestering Amin – who was grouchy and hung over – as to how long it would take to get back, and reminding him that I had a long way to ride today and needed to get going.
It transpired, of course, that Amin’s intention was not to deliver me back to my bike but to continue dragging me around on a series of errands, most of which seemed to include buying Japanese-made espresso machines from tiny backstreet shops and delivering them to friends all over Fars province, accompanied by a series of excuses and apologies. As the hours had worn on, it became clear that the novelty of having me around – whatever his original purpose – had worn off.
Hours passed, the day turning farcical. When, on the way past Jam (again), we veered off into the hills to visit a farmer with which Amin had some business to settle, I decided to exaggerate my displeasure. No, I did not want more tea; I would prefer to leave. No, I did not want to stop at a restaurant for lunch; I would prefer to get back on the road. I wasn’t particularly bothered by the delay, but I was, if anything, simply bored of being treated like a prop. And I knew that a little strategic complaining would compel Amin to deliver me back to my bike out of honour – the only card I had left to play.
It worked. I felt vaguely guilty. But there had been little consideration to his hospitality. On the contrary, it had been both disingenuous and ignorant of my wishes. Manipulating my journey back on track had been my only option.
Whatever. This had happened before and it would happen again. I would shrug it off and continue my ride, a little behind schedule. And all would fade into insignificance; just another strange encounter on the road, absorbed and miniaturised by time and miles.
Bikepacking instils you with an unequivocal sense of freedom. You live out your destiny as an impossibly insignificant speck, trundling along a dirt road, beholden to no-one. It’s beautiful.
Here, the landscapes make you feel particularly as though you have been shrunken down to the size of a flea. The plains are flat, broad and featureless, except for the patchworks of green that decorate the dust, cut through by asphalt causeways snaking along the flats. Mountain fringe the plains in parallel, separating the valley from its neighbours by narrow ridges of rock. They’re neither tall nor particularly forbidding, but the effect of their presence is to diminish one’s size yet further. You’re left feeling like an ant, crawling between furrows left by fingers dragged through thick dust and blown up to interplanetary scale. Indeed, there’s a certain Martian vibe to the place, enhanced in morning and evening by the reddish haze that descends upon the land and frames one Instagram-worthy sunset after another.
Sweating through the spurs to reach the next valley compounds this otherworldly feeling. Up close and personal, the mountains deconstruct into stratified pyramids of soft, sandy earth in red, yellow and blueish-grey hues. I’m compelled, childlike, to get a tactile sense of this place. Dumping my bike and bounding off the verge, the hillsides crumble beneath my fingertips, immense yet seemingly fragile. The side of each pyramid appears to have been sculpted by giant hands into myriad diagonal channels, fractal and self-repeating, each tributary joining with its neighbours in an intricate drainage system for some long-gone flooding event. The lay geologist in me imagines a rapidly sped-up scene of an ocean floor suddenly rising above the waves, billions of gallons of water carving these landscapes as they follow the path of least resistance back to the sea.
In the next valley I spend a couple of minutes at a four-way junction, observing the traffic for patterns that will reveal the quietest route. If Amin’s kidnapping attempt had a silver lining (aside from the chicken barbecue), it was to reveal my planned route south to the Gulf via Jam and Asaluyeh as a horror story of traffic and pollution on an unimaginable scale. What I had not been aware of was Asaluyeh’s recent renaissance as a gas and petrochemical hotspot. Indeed, it was hailed proudly by Amin as “the gas capital of Iran”, and all of his friends there were employed in one way or another by the state corporations. Refineries and plants were being built at light-speed in order to exploit the Iranian-controlled portion of the biggest gas field in the world, located beneath the seabed of the Persian Gulf between Iran and Qatar. It was as recently as 1998 that sleepy little Asalyueh – until then a fishing village of a few thousand people – discovered that it had the dubious honour of being the closest onshore settlement to the site. Boom.
I’d felt like I was arriving on the set of a dystopian-futuristic science fiction movie. As we’d plummeted down from the mountains in the dead of night, the sight that greeted me had not been of my imagined expanse of ocean but instead of an endless metallic metropolis, all chrome towers and steampunk pipework and halogen floodlights and – most striking of all – the spluttering volcanoes of gas that pierced the night sky from refinery chimneys and illuminated the mountainsides with a flickering and malevolent orange. A cross between Guy Fawkes’ night and the opening sequence of Blade Runner – and not a human being to be seen.
It was spectacular enough from a car window, but I could barely have imagined a worse place to be on a bicycle. That’s why I’ve stop at this junction. From here I can bypass Asaluyeh via the valley that runs parallel to the coast. At some point tomorrow I’ll veer south once more, cross the final mountain range, and finally hit the coastline. If the map on my phone is to be believed, the industrial area should give way to wild coastal roads, away from the highways, promising another adventurous route between the remote and little-visited bandars – fishing ports – of which poor Asaluyeh once was a member.
Traffic monitoring exercise complete, I choose the most obscure-looking alternative to the highway – my tried-and-tested recipe for adventure. With that in mind, my new course is set, and I pedal on into the growing twilight.