Southwest of Shiraz is a big green splodge on Google Maps, reportedly the ‘Maleh Galeh’ protected area. Running through its heart is a road of the smallest designation. Satellite imagery depicts rural asphalt becoming dirt, weaving along the scoured valleys of the tail end of the Zagros, a scattering of villages promising basic provisions. Though by no means the quickest route towards the coast, I have not come here to fight with trucks and buses on the highways of Iran. This road appears to fit my standard criteria of being the most obscure-looking alternative to the highway – my tried-and-tested recipe for adventure. With that in mind, my course is set.
And it does not disappoint. After the usual drudgery of extracting oneself from a city’s sprawl, a minor road peels off to the south, and I hop the central reservation and launch onto it. The goods traffic fades into the background, only the occasional car or pickup truck plying this route, and soon I have the road to myself, swooping and banking along the contours of the parched mountainsides under a brilliant blue sky.
I traverse some foothills. A shortcut on a dirt road serves to test the stability of my new luggage setup. A climb approaches, winding up into a forest of bare-looking chestnut trees, and my legs stir from slumber, remembering mountain ranges long since conquered, countries transected, continents wriggled across. It’s quiet. I am alone. I have everything I need and nothing I don’t. This is a world away from the life I’d been living this past year. This is what I needed.
While not a meditation in the commonly-understood sense, I’ve come to realise that the conditions of solo cycle touring in remote and unfamiliar places are the ideal incubator for mindfulness. I’d just known it by different language until recently. It’s rooted, I feel, in the physical, elemental nature of the lifestyle and routine. Piloting a bike across new terrain demands that you are present in the here-and-now; living the moment, to use a well-worn phrase, because otherwise you will crash, painfully. At the same time, there is nothing much to do but pedal. Under undemanding circumstances – and how hard does riding a bike really get? – this becomes second nature, leaving ample room for the mind to wander.
But because you can never be fully distracted on a bicycle, you’re much more likely to notice where your mind’s wanderings have taken you. You become conscious of the strange fact that there seems to be more than one ‘you’: the scatterbrained storyteller, the indefatigable analyst, the world-wearied worrier, and other thought-spirals you may eventually distinguish within the inner monologue, now amplified by solitude and the passing of time. And then you realise that the real ‘you’ is the silent observer who becomes conscious of all these habit-formed characters.
It may take time – days, weeks, months, depending on your starting point – but eventually you notice that paying attention to these voices – listening, as opposed to trying to fight or stifle them – diminishes their effect. Freed, your attention snaps more easily back to the here and now. The texture and composition of this particular stretch of asphalt; how your inner archivist notes the differences and similarities. The slightly sub-optimal pressure of your rear tyre, revealed by the analysing mechanic as you encounter an imperfection in the road surface. The loose wrap of bar-tape beneath the fourth finger of your right hand that the problem-solver wants to stop and fix. The fresh fingermarks in the dust of your downtube, shiny paintwork exposed by a recent attempt to extract a water bottle, grabbing the attention of the childlike inner artist. Highfalutin’ philosophy of adventure gives way to observations of extraordinary inconsequence, which rapidly become the most noteworthy elements of your life.
I no longer find it hard to slip into this state of awareness because I’ve been practicing it for years. Indeed, my real reason for making this journey was to spend time in this way. But I remember well my first long bicycle journey and the internal traumas that accompanied this process of ‘waking up’, or, in the parlance of long-term travel mythology, ‘getting to know myself’. It took months for my mind to unravel and for me to understand what was happening.
And that was just the beginning – that was just the original horrifying realisation that at no point in my life, not in my upbringing or education, had I been imparted with the tools to manage my own brain. I had been trained only how to act, to analyse, to problem-solve, to assimilate, to know, to understand – to use my mind. I had never been taught how to simply be mindful.
I’m sweating from the climb. There’s a refreshing and familiar tingle in my thigh muscles. But it’s chilly up here. Shiraz sits at 1,500m above sea level on the southern fringe of the Iranian plateau, and I’ve since climbed higher. Nighttime temperatures will likely approach zero. I stop to pull on a lightweight Polaris windshell, part of a line of clothing I’ve helped the company develop for adventure cycling. Then I release the brakes and plummet, whooping, down into the valley.
Adrenaline…! The road swerves crazily through the forest, occasionally revealing the floodplain below, green with patchwork fields of potatoes, braided through by the mineral-turquoise river, distant clusters of houses scrolling past as I gather speed. I give thanks to Iranian roadbuilding expertise, especially after a year on the wreckage of Armenia’s road network where I needed a Land Rover just to get where I needed to go…
At the bottom of the valley I pull up outside a village shop. Listless blokes fire random questions at me out of boredom: I get that familiar feeling of being a freak-show, providing temporary entertainment for the unemployed before vanishing down the road. I hasten away to eat my bread and cream cheese lunch.
The days are short. By 4pm I’m eyeing up the chestnut groves for flat patches of land, but there’s light for riding yet. By 5pm, the sun has dipped behind the mountains. In Ramaghan, stopping to provision for dinner, I ask at the grocer’s if there’s a motel nearby, knowing full well there probably isn’t. The shopkeeper confirms my suspicions and I turn to leave and ride out of town to the next pleasant chestnut grove.
“But you can sleep in the mosque. It’s a couple of hundred metres up the road.”
“Are you sure? Won’t it be a problem?”
“No, no problem at all. You’re welcome to sleep there. It’s perfectly safe.”
“Won’t people be using it this evening?”
“Probably only 5 or 6 people. Just wait ‘til they’ve finished, then you can stay there.”
I thank him and ride up the road to the mosque, but the metal gate at the entrance to the yard is locked. So I ride off, pursuing my original plan to camp. Then a teenager on a motorbike pulls alongside me.
“The shopkeeper sent me to let you into the mosque.”
“Oh… thank you!”
There’s a piece of string hanging from a hole in the door, jury-rigged to release the latch from inside. The kid shows me a small office adjoining the main prayer room, which contains a desk stacked with Persian textbooks, an electric heater with a small kettle top of it, and a washbasin in the corner. It’s small, cosy, and the perfect place for a tired cyclist to rest his head for a night.
I say my thanks.
“At your service”, he replies. “And tomorrow morning, please come over for breakfast before you leave. Our house is next door.”