This new story is a simple one. I went on another cycling adventure, had some noteworthy experiences, and reckon there’s a decent yarn in there. There will be no convoluted backstory. I desperately needed a break, and ticking off a long-dreamed-of bike trip would be perfect.
The dream in question? Exploring the deep south of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in particular the Persian Gulf coast – the land of the Bandari people, of Arabic speaking, black African Iranians, of thousands of miles of empty white beaches and warm inviting water the colour of the mosaic-tiled turquoise domes for which Persia is so famous.
I would return to the bicycle to explore this whim. The mechanics of the lifestyle are etched into my being from a decade of pedalling; tens of thousands of miles. It’s a permanent part of who I am – literally, though muscle memory – and, though recently I’ve dedicated my time to exploring other adventurous pursuits, I love cycling adventures still, and suspect I will love them always, for myriad reasons.
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For me, the most honest starting point of a journey is an endorphic thrill that jolts you upright and spreads a wide-eyed grin across your face, usually after movement has already begun; a loud and clear realisation, even as you turn aside in embarrassment at your own uncontrollable mirth, that – yes! – this is actually happening NOW!
Suddenly those weeks or months of planning feel distant and ludicrously irrelevant, because the actual experience you’re having right now is something no amount of planning can prepare you for. Plans – imaginary things – crumble to mind-dust while the now seems super-real. You’ve received an injection of a dangerously addictive drug, whose withdrawal symptoms are known as wanderlust, whose buzz you’ll seek again and again and again. Adventure! How good it feels to be right here, right now, poised on the brink of uncertainty, madly eager to fall!
This rush may come several times during the course of a journey, but the first is the most memorable. This time, it comes as we gain altitude and, from my window seat at the back of the plane, facing north-by-north-east, the snowy vastness of the Lesser Caucasus mountain range becomes visible in its entirety on one of the clearest winter mornings in which I could hope to be taking off from Zvartnots International Airport. Beyond them in the far distance I can see what look like clouds but I quickly realise are the peaks of the Greater Caucasus range, an orderly row of craggy pink triangles, filtered through what must have been 200 miles of Earth’s atmosphere, surreal and almost holographic in appearance.
I look upon these twin mountain ranges as we soar ever higher and feel a rush of emotion that goes beyond the simple thrill of embarking upon a brand new adventure. For more than a year, my life has been tied inextricably to these mountains. It started as an idea to create a long distance trekking and bikepacking trail the length of the Lesser Caucasus, taking form as a high-profile vehicle-supported expedition to map and explore potential routes for those trails, then spiralling beyond my control.
The months leading up to this trip were characterised by the grand idea of the Transcaucasian Trail being dragged down into the realm of petty local politics – endless bickering between factions of a newly-forming trail building community over who should be doing what and how they should be doing it – coupled with a race to secure funding for what was rapidly in danger of becoming a project dictated by bureaucrats. I’d tried to play the role of facilitator, engaging everyone and trying to shepherd disparate interests in a common direction that I believed would benefit everyone, before realising that I wanted nothing to do with it. My contribution – my expertise – was in exploring; being there on the ground, thoughtfully designing an experience, then publishing the means to have it.
The stress of all of this had taken its toll. I am neither a politician nor the leader of a movement. My place has always been on the fringes of things, and if I’ve ever had influence in any field, it has always been from behind the scenes. This year, I’d felt myself dragged into the limelight, made a figurehead, targeted, wrenched from my natural habitat. Several times I’d come close to abandoning the project entirely, but I’d avoided the tipping point by forcefully focusing my involvement back down to its roots. In the end, anxiety and exhaustion had been the worst of it, but these are not things to brush under the carpet. The stress had weighed physically as well as mentally, like a weight on my chest. I fell feverish, lost motivation, started snapped at people. When I awoke one morning to episodes of sudden deafness and vertigo that had me clinging to the kitchen table in fright, it became clear that something had to change.
And so it is overwhelmingly elating to watch it all drop away beneath me. I have spent many happy months this year on the ground the Caucasus Mountains, and I’m a little sad to note how relieved I am to leave it all behind for a while. My hope is that I will – through the cathartic hardship of a solo bicycle journey – identify and accept the aspects of the project that have caused so much stress, and regain perspective on how I can continue to be part of the Transcaucasian Trail movement in a way that will not bring me to breaking point.
Yeah. Like I said, I desperately needed a break.
My trusty touring bike is in the hold. My meagre belongings I’ve stuffed into a carry-on-sized plastic bag. I’ll be in Tehran in a hour. Then I’ll take the first bus south.
The road beckons. And it feels so incredibly good to be on it again.