Lake Sevan vanished behind us as we began to climb up into hilly land, the valley sides green but bare, carved with patterns like tree roots where rivulets of water had for centuries delved. The air grew dry, the sun ever more fierce as we gained altitude. We were far from any major route through the country, and people and settlements were few. This road would weave through the highlands, summit a final high pass and then descend into the far valley where we would join the through-route to the Iranian border, two hundred miles distant.
We met a shepherd on the roadside. His flock was scattered like rice in the meadow far below. He produced a bundle of cloth containing bread, cheese and herbs, offered us lunch, and asked about our journey. Tenny told him we were heading for Iran, and that I’d cycled from England. That’s great, he said, and cast his attention back to his flock. A friendly exchange; unremarkable. Yet rarely could I have left our flat in Yerevan with my beard and shorts and sandals without the feeling that I was being eyed or mocked, insidiously if not overtly, simply for looking different. After half a year of it, this easy encounter with a quiet outdoorsman was exactly what I needed – a return to a life of simple things.
The empty mountain road emerged at the edge of a wide, silent plateau. A low ridge in the distance separated this high-altitude meadow from the indigo sky. A half-mile away, I could make out wild horses nibbling near the meandering outline of a river. Close to the road, the plain was studded with tiny houses built of stone, short and stout and with dark holes for windows. Their doorways were partly dug into the ground, and grass sprouting from their uneven roofs gave them the appearance of having been summoned from the earth by some arcane magical force. Free from power lines and telegraph cables, the place felt weirdly ancient, as if we’d accidentally stumbled into a Tolkien-esque fantasy.
Curious, we stopped and called to a figure by the closest of the houses. The woman trudged up the bank to the road and spoke to Tenny in a thick accent.
‘We use it as our summer pasture,’ she said. ‘Nobody lives up here in the winter – the weather’s too harsh. The roads get blocked by snow, and facilities are too far away.
‘Sometimes we see a few tourists up here, though,’ she continued. ‘They come for some historical thing. A caravanserai.’ Of course: the Silk Road, longtime magnet for the romantic traveller; an irresistible hook on which to hang a journey through Central Asia. I’d met plenty of backpackers who’d bragged that they were ‘doing the Silk Road’. Indeed, entire guidebooks existed on the topic of how to ‘do the Silk Road’, complete with detailed rundowns of which cities contained the most important sites, directions, opening times and entrance fees, plus all the easiest ways to travel between them – and of course which places to avoid because they had nothing to do with ‘doing the Silk Road’.
Then I stopped, catching myself looking down upon the Silk Roaders, and gave my cynical old self a mighty wallop. Because I understood perfectly well why people embarked on these fantasy journeys. I’d been there. I too had planned idealistic routes across foreign lands, dreaming of riding off-road, forgetting that it would actually mean climbing a thousand fences whilst bypassing all human contact. I’d bought the brass rabbit snares too, and packed my copy of the SAS Survival Guide – for a road trip. And I’d drawn a forty-thousand mile line round the planet because a circumnavigation was the only way my insufferable ego could make sense of its yearning to wander. I’d been so sure that I was right; that my way was the best way. And sure – some travellers on the well-worn Silk Road might have a genuine and lifelong fascination with Afro-Eurasian trade routes of antiquity. But most were just trying to make sense of their desire to travel in a vast and complex world by making things simple and easy to follow. Things might become more nuanced with time, as they had for me. It was a natural and necessary process. And what was wrong with that?
At the southern end of the plateau a steep climb loomed ahead of us – surely the final hurdle before an epic downhill into the next valley. This would be a huge victory for us, as it would represent the pay-off of having climbed into the mountains and summited the first of the five huge passes between us and Iran. What a prize for Tenny to enjoy that exhilarating descent!
She stopped at the top of the pass and dismounted to enjoy the view. I pulled up beside her.
‘Scared? Of what?’
‘This hill. I don’t like going downhill very fast.’
Below us, the asphalt spiralled and seesawed into a gigantic abyss.
‘Right … can’t you go down slowly?’
‘I don’t want to. I feel I can’t control myself properly – my speed.’
I hesitated. And then we flagged down a passing farmer, bundled our bikes into the back of his hay truck and hitched a ride to the bottom of the most incredible downhill that I would never ride.
And the next day, pedalling along the lush valley bottom to Yeghegnadzor and seeing the beginnings of an equally gigantic climb ahead, Tenny thumbed another ride for us – this time with an Azeri trucker. He was piloting his empty lorry back to Iran and was quite happy to have some company. And four breathtaking mountain passes came and went like scenes from a vaguely interesting slide-show. Before I knew what had happened we’d been deposited twenty miles shy of the border. We would reach Iran the next morning.
I’d compromised. And that had actually come as quite a surprise. It was another sign that things were moving on from the hard-headed days of plugging away at the road for no reason other than to get the distance done. There was a new priority now, and it was to find a position from which I could help Tenny learn what already came naturally to me. Surely that was my duty, as the person beside her, committed to occupying that role in her life? I should embrace that responsibility, and accept that the journey was no longer all about me. The challenges would not be found in climbing high passes, but in trying to understand how the world looked from her point of view, in overcoming my own stubbornness and learning patience and diplomacy, and in remaining one step ahead, removing barriers before they appeared in front of her. Andy, by contrast, had been perfectly capable of looking after himself. Travelling with Tenny was unexplored territory, and that made it exciting and fresh and new. It made it worth doing.
Dragons’ teeth of golden stone rose from the Iranian side of the River Arax, reaching high into the blue. Walls of jagged rock overhung the road that we followed along the gorge towards Jolfa, a small town in the Turkic province that formed the north-west corner of Iran, just a stone’s throw from Armenia’s own forbidden frontier with Turkey.
‘That was the exact opposite of what I was expecting!’ said Tenny, excitedly, as we wheeled our bicycles away from the border post and into the Islamic Republic. ‘It was the Armenians who were very serious, asking a lot of questions … but on the Iranian side, that very serious security officer just smiled to us! Oh, that was great!’
Tour buses pulled slowly up to the barriers, their occupants dragging suitcases and laundry bags full of goodness-knows-what from the luggage holds and into the building that housed the security apparatus of Iran’s solitary land-border with Armenia.
‘It was really good to be arriving in the Iranian part,’ continued Tenny, ‘because I knew the toilet was going to be much better than the Armenian one. Water and everything! So I spent maybe more than half an hour there.’
‘I know,’ I replied. ‘I thought you’d gone back to Armenia!’
We had only been on the road for a couple of hours when, without warning, the heavens opened. The two of us had been riding quite happily along, unsuspecting; within sixty seconds we were cowering under my poncho behind a pile of rocks as a freak storm blew through the gorge, drenching everything in its path. I heard a crash of metal, and then another. Lifting the lip of the poncho I saw that the wind had blown the two heavily loaded bicycles and their trailers over and into the road, shattering my rear-view mirror. I dashed out to rescue the bikes before they were flattened by an oncoming truck, and returned to the dripping wet poncho beneath which my girlfriend was shivering.
‘What will happen to us?’ she cried. ‘We can not even stay in a hotel! If I don’t have marriage certificate, they don’t even let me to stay in separate room. I’m not allowed to stay in a hotel …’
She peered out into the storm, wretched beyond tears, shrouding her face in the flapping camouflage-patterned fabric.
‘What … where … where is … where is here? … I wanna go … go home!’
Two miles along the road lay the village of Siyahrood; a tiny farming settlement that also happened to lie on the main road route between the neighbouring capitals of Yerevan and Tehran. Travellers were well catered for in Siyahrood, and we quickly discovered that one of the cafes had a room upstairs available to rent. Tenny had been shaken by the suddenness and intensity of the storm. And I knew well that feeling of helplessness in the face of the elements; the knowledge that there was nowhere to hide, just you and the weather facing off against each other. A memory snapped into focus: a roadside verge in Northamptonshire, Andy tweaking the angle of his saddle, Mark cracking jokes, the familiar limestone villages, and rain beginning to spit from the grey sky – just a few big drops, but enough to remind me that I would now be living a life outdoors, through all that the world could throw at me. And the world, of course, would always dominate. There was no real protection, no doorway to retreat to, no looking out from behind a window; only a kind of acceptance of being permanently on the outside of all those doors and windows. A steep learning curve indeed, and now Tenny was climbing it too.
‘It’s strange,’ she said, once we’d got warm and dry and settled into the little room for the evening, ‘because I lived in Iran for twenty-four years but … I still don’t quite feel safe here. Especially that I’m the one who is communicating with people, asking things of men especially, who are looking at me in a strange way … because me, and what I’m doing, is really … something new for them.’
We sat on a rug on the floor. A neat stack of bedding and mattresses inhabited one corner of the room; a gas heater was the only other furniture. The village mosque began its sunset call to prayer, the soaring minarets lit with fluorescent green light, the piercing song of the mo’azzen distorted as if through a loudhailer.
‘I’m really looking forward to … be in a place where I can have my privacy,’ Tenny continued. ‘I don’t know, maybe I’m a little bit fussy, but … I really miss living in a stable place, and knowing that it’s my home. Sometimes it’s nice to be outside, but sometimes … I’m really scared to think that I have no idea what’s going to happen the next day.’
‘It definitely takes a bit of getting used to,’ I said. ‘It took me months to really settle into a routine.’
‘I understand that,’ she said, ‘but in Iran, it’s a little … mmm … I know that you cannot feel or understand what I feel, and it’s not your fault. You’re here from a completely different country with different culture, everything different, and you’re in a place that I’m sure is very different for you. But … I – I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe here. I lived alone for five years in Armenia. But I cannot live in Iran for five years alone. Or for one week. Even in my family home, I cannot.’
‘What do you mean, exactly?’
‘I don’t know how to explain. But I want you to know that I am just being honest. I hope we will get to my home soon, and I hope that it will make my parents happy – I mean, I hope they will smile to us, not get angry that we did this without telling them.’
The following day our route was quiet and remote, and we had ridden thirty miles on the evening we reached Jolfa, which was the furthest Tenny had cycled in a day. She was adapting; working out her own way of tackling the daily duresses of riding, rather than simply reacting to them. I could see it in the subtleties of her actions. She responded to the sound of an oncoming car depending on how closely it was about to pass her. She shifted into optimal gear a split second in advance of a change in gradient. She dismounted with nary a wobble of the forty-kilogramme bike, using her hips to edge it against a wall in a position where it would stand without falling over. She corrected her steering when looking behind her, and instinctively knew when and how much water to drink during the course of a day. These were just some of the subtle marks of her graduation from novicehood, clearly visible through the lens of my own experience.
Tenny pulled out her mobile and called a number we’d been given earlier in the day. The driver of the passing car had spotted our bikes leant up on the roadside while Tenny had been crouching behind a nearby rock, and had reversed back up the road to talk to us. Mr Sabri was somewhere in his mid fifties, a kindly face resting between a neat moustache and a receding hairline, smart shirt and trousers suggesting a professional caught between meetings. He’d been so overjoyed to meet travellers that he didn’t question what Tenny had been doing as she clambered back up to the road. She spoke to him again on the phone in the musical airs and graces of polite Persian, hung up, smiled, and said that he was on his way.
We sat in the shade on the edge of a wall on the town’s high street. Traders operated out of little square retail units – a bakery, a mobile phone shop, a confectioner’s. Customers came and went, going about their day. After Armenia, this seemed somehow novel. I remembered that it was once normal for people to seem busy and purposeful. How great it must be to live in a country where one’s efforts actually contributed to society, instead of disappearing into the void; where making a living was as simple as going out and doing it!
A young man came over, dropped a couple of delicately wrapped chocolates into our hands, and asked us if we were looking for booze, because he could get us some if we wanted. ‘No, thanks!’ we smiled. Ramadan had been under way for two weeks.
Then Mr Sabri sailed past in a white Peugeot 405, spotted us, pulled a U‑turn and parked up beside us. He quickly realised that the boot of his family saloon would not fit a pair of three-wheeled touring bikes and their luggage. So he told us not to worry, brought forth a mobile phone, and magically summoned a man in a pick-up truck. And we all departed for his house, which turned out not to be in Jolfa at all but some miles away in the mountains near the town of Hadishahr, and was less of a house and more of a palace.
In Armenia, such a home would usually turn out to belong to a medium-ranking mafia family member. The Sabri family, on the other hand, received us with utmost warmth and humility. The man of the house was a successful and well-respected local vet, specialising in the artificial insemination of cattle, living with his wife and daughter in a spacious, air-conditioned home. Their son, he said, was studying in the city of Tabriz a couple of hours’ drive away on the other side of the mountains. But the place was not without its curiosities. The sofas appeared to be permanently shrink-wrapped, as did the remote control for the television, a fuzzy circle of worn plastic shrouding the red power button. The wife and daughter prepared the evening meal in the fully featured kitchen, sitting on the floor to chop vegetables, encircled by towering, unused worktops. And in the back garden, Mr Sabri proudly gave us a tour of the ornate swimming pool, which lay invitingly in the sun, surrounded by fruit trees and grapevines, completely empty of water.
I’d heard so much of the hospitality in Iran. Tales of lore spread by hippie pioneers in the ‘60s and ‘70s had built her reputation, and the foundations of these tales lay in the insistent invitations that these travellers would receive on a daily basis – invitations which would completely scupper the idea of actually getting anywhere. This was, of course, the polar opposite of the media stereotype I’d grown up with. So there seemed to be a poetry in the fact that you could call the country by two very different names – uppity Iran on one hand, dreamy Persia on the other – and still be talking about the same place.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when, having been detained after breakfast for a tour of the local area’s historical and natural wonders, including a spectacular underground lake and a fortified Armenian church, we were told that we should obviously remain a second night at the family’s pleasure. And, whilst Tenny and I were being held hostage at the hands of Persian (or perhaps Iranian) hospitality, Andy cycled past Hadishahr, alone.
It was some time later that we worked out precisely when he must have overtaken. But on that day he passed right by us, unbeknownst to all. I’d known that he was preparing to leave Tbilisi around the time that we planned to leave Yerevan. In yet another coincidental turn of events, Andy, too, had been planning a route across Iran to Pakistan and India – one of the early route options we’d looked at for Ride Earth. Indeed, the way in which his story had mirrored mine was almost poetic.
The obvious difference, of course, was that he’d left his girlfriend behind, while I had brought mine along for the ride.