I opened my eyes. The pale orange of a streetlamp filtered through the thin curtains of the flat, but the sky was still dark. Then I remembered what I had to do, and the worry flooded in, drowning any hope that I would be able to go back to sleep. I lay nervously on my side, reluctant to stir. This was it. This was the day that I had been awaiting for what seemed like forever.
I didn’t want to disturb Tenny – she needed the rest far more than I did – so I padded into the kitchen in my boxers and mumbled a few thoughts into the video camera, my face bleached beneath the light of the head-torch strapped to the unit. Though still half asleep and in no mood to dwell on my many concerns, I knew that this moment would be an important one to capture. It was always those moments when I’d rather do anything than talk to the camera that seemed to tell my story best.
It’s about five-thirty in the morning, and, um … it’s the day that we’re going to leave Yerevan. I can’t sleep … we were meant to get up at six o’clock, and leave at seven as it started to get light … but I’ve been awake for about an hour already. I’ve got too much … too many things going around in my head, so … I’ve had maybe three hours’ sleep. I had three hours’ sleep the night before I left England, as well, and I’m sure those three hours were of far worse quality, so … anyway.
So this is it. We’re going. It’s been eight months since I first arrived here in Yerevan. It’s the middle of summer now, and it’s definitely time to go. Because the last few weeks I’ve just been finding it really difficult, this city life. I don’t know … the routine, the lack of variety … I don’t know. There’s something about it that doesn’t fulfil me.
But I’m glad that I’ve waited this long to leave, because it means that I’m going to be leaving with Tenny, who is someone … very special to me. I’m sure it’s going to be completely different to how it was when I left England, but I don’t know how she’s going to cope with it at all. I really don’t.
I wrote on my website that I’m ‘cautiously hopeful’ that things are going to be OK. I’ve tried to plan things so that we take it slowly – the first thing we’re going to do today is cycle to Lake Sevan, which is quite an idyllic place. It’s a very large lake that occupies quite a large portion of Armenia. And we’re going to camp there tonight, hopefully, and spend two or three days just skirting around the edge, and camping, and … hopefully just enjoying the experience away from the city, without having to do too many long days of riding.
And after that, we’ll head south, which is where it’s going to start getting pretty mountainous. And I’m not going to understate how mountainous it’s going to be – the first pass we’ll have to climb is just under two and a half thousand metres above sea level, which makes it the highest altitude road I’ll have ridden on this trip. So … for Tenny to tackle that in her first few days of riding is an enormous challenge, which I never had to face – and she’s going to have to do it with no experience at all.
I finished up the video-diary and put a frying-pan on the stove to cook some sausages and eggs. I had no appetite, but I would force myself to make my last meal in this flat a decent one. The two bikes leaned up against the sofa, trailers and panniers heavily laden, the machines seeming to have grown during their months indoors.
Our preparations had been under way ever since I’d first met Tenny on that fateful night in the Irish pub. The dream of travel had been a driving force in our relationship from the beginning, and it had helped me stay motivated to remain in Armenia until her graduation that summer. After her final exams and degree presentation, we had pressed forward with our plans in earnest. The bike I’d had delivered to Andy in Georgia to avoid a repeat of the sleeping-bag incident had proved ideal, and by July we were fully kitted out and ready to go, with a brand new website developed and launched to tell the story of my new journey with Tenny. The last remaining hurdle was to find the courage to do what we had planned to do. Against our better judgement, Tenny and I had decided that we would make our journey under cover of secrecy.
Her parents hadn’t budged an inch, dismissing our travel plans and putting their foot down hard when Tenny’s sister, visiting Armenia and in on the secret, had accidentally let slip that we were still planning our bicycle trip. We’d hurriedly covered the mistake, saying that we just wanted to travel around Armenia by bus for a few weeks. We had a roaming contract organised for Tenny’s mobile phone in order to appear to be calling from an Armenian phone number – when in fact we would be cycling through Iran itself, drawing ever closer to Tehran as the lie festered. And one day we would surprise her parents by knocking on the door of their flat. They would see how determined she was, that she was capable of doing what she’d decided to do. And they would allow us to continue.
I thought Tenny was remarkably brave to consider doing such a thing against her family’s wishes. In fact, I thought she was incredibly courageous to be attempting this at all – a city girl of five foot one who hadn’t ridden a bike since childhood. She hadn’t slept in a tent since her days in the Scouts. She knew nothing of life on the road whatsoever, save for impressions she’d taken from my own stories and photographs. And she was about to leave behind her home of five years, her closest friends, tear herself away from all that tied her to Armenia, and dive headfirst into a life of complete uncertainty that she hadn’t known existed until I’d pushed open the door of Shamrock. Riding the yawning mountain ranges of Armenia to Iran would be difficult even for me, and I was supposed to be the ‘big strong man’, a fearless adventurer with thousands of miles of riding behind me. I had no idea how she would cope, nor whether she would enjoy it. She was making a sacrifice far greater than I had made; taking a risk that dwarfed those I had taken, and was following her heart into the wilderness so that we could be together. And for that, whatever the outcome, she had my deepest admiration and respect. It was why I loved her.
Just after nine o’clock in the morning, we crossed the city limits and began to edge between the sleazy-looking casinos that lined the highway. This highway would climb three thousand feet up the Hrazdan River valley to the basin of Lake Sevan, a huge freshwater lake that sat amongst the mountains of central Armenia. Dogs leapt barking from their resting spots amongst the scatter of blacked-out SUVs outside the casinos, and chased us up the hill, yapping at our trailers. Clapped-out Ford Transit vans and their Soviet-era imitations spluttered past, belching fumes and road chippings in protest at being forced into service long after retirement age, suspension sagging with the combined weight of a couple of dozen passengers. These faces glared at us from behind filthy windows: outsiders, riding bicycles – of all things. There were many things about life as a foreigner in Armenia that I wouldn’t miss. These suspicious stares were chief amongst them.
The minor detour of Lake Sevan, I thought, would surely beat the dreary flatlands that I’d crossed after leaving Yerevan on the direct route to Iran during my first attempt to leave Armenia by bicycle, which now seemed so long ago. And Tenny and I pedalled in first gear up the long and gradual incline which linked the capital city with the popular summertime destination of Lake Sevan, as well as its wintertime counterpart Tsaghkadzor, the alpine ‘Valley of Flowers’. Familiar to both of us, Lake Sevan would be a natural milestone, a place of quiet, natural beauty. The holiday season had recently finished and the beaches and campgrounds would now be empty. Then, a couple of days of easy riding to the south end of the lake would be ample warm-up for the far greater challenges that would await us when we rejoined the mountain road to Iran. But there would be plenty of climbs on the road to Lake Sevan, too.
The first real hills I’d encountered on a fully loaded bike had been in eastern France, riding south towards Lake Geneva and the Alps, the ridges of the Jura emerging high above the farmlands of Alsace-Lorraine. Taking steep back-roads through the increasingly alpine landscape, I’d attacked those hills head on, pumping at the pedals in a rhythmic frenzy, sweat drenching my face and torso, my gasping and panting drowned out by the heavy soundtrack in my headphones. An onlooker would have observed a spectacularly pointless waste of energy by an angry and slightly masochistic young man. And such an assessment would have been accurate.
I’d since learnt that hills were the reason that gears were invented. The main function of gears on a bike is to keep the rider’s level of exertion more or less continuous on a route encompassing a variety of gradients. There had been no reason to push myself until my vision swam and I felt physically sick – except to appease my bloody-mindedness and my testosterone-fuelled need to prove my own strength. I could have pottered up those hills with ease if I’d wished, though it’d have taken a little longer. I had obviously learnt some patience since those days, since I now found myself ambling along at a couple of miles per hour. And a good thing too, or Tenny would have found herself alone within the first few minutes of the climb.
It refused to end, that climb, each bend revealing another, each hint of a summit proving false, time after time after time. Traffic flew blindly past, drivers fixated on the asphalt runway before them, their vehicles screaming, gobbling the trail of chippings set in hard black tar. We stopped after an hour of unbearably slow progress up the incline, collapsing beneath gaudily painted metal parasols on the roadside. Yerevan still lay beneath us, wrapped in her cloak of smog, still so frustratingly near. It seemed that we hadn’t even made a dent in the distance. And now would come more switchbacks, more endless bends that hugged the hillsides, landslide barriers erected to prevent nature from retaking the earth that had been blasted away to make way for this purgatorial road.
Tenny pedalled on, pulling in front of me with what I thought was impressive determination. I resumed my routine of empty-headed spinning, my thoughts straying far from the gruelling task at hand. I had little concept of how long we’d been pedalling for when Tenny suddenly stopped, and I pulled over to the barrier where she’d dismounted. The shoulder was strewn with litter, blown-out tyres, discarded snack-food packaging and loose gravel and glass, with the midday sun beating down through a hazy sky and the dark surface seeming to radiate the same heat back up from beneath my feet. Tin boxes on wheels continued to belt past us towards a place I could now barely envisage.
Leaning my bike against the barrier, I walked over to Tenny, who was struggling to rest her bike upright. The front wheel kept swinging sideways, wheeling itself back into the road under force of gravity. A small basket of apples sat on an upturned plastic crate, with a scrawl of Armenian script on a torn-off cardboard box flap sticking up behind the little pile of fruit. Down the bank from the highway was a small orchard, where an old man had spotted her. Now he invited us to climb the barrier and sit in the shade under his apple trees. Yes – a break right now would be just the ticket.
We sat down on a gentle slope under a tree, feeling the welcoming softness of the thick grass and the delightful respite from the sun’s rays in this shady spot, hidden from view below the road’s edge. The man and his wife brought us two little cups of strong black coffee as the muffled din of passing trucks continued. Then Tenny buried her face in her hands and softly began to cry.
And I saw before me a girl completely out of her depth, trapped between a fading romantic hallucination and the awful realisation that this life would be nothing like she’d imagined. I saw a girl who had been waiting half a year for an experience that had so far turned out to be utter hell from the word go, and showed no sign of becoming anything else. And I saw myself in her; the force of my idealistic dreams changing the course of her life to match mine, and I realised my idiocy with a horrible clarity: I would never truly share my dream with anyone. I would always be alone – alone in this desire to wander in pursuit of something I still didn’t understand.
And I reached over to Tenny, to the girl who had walked out of her front door, handed back the keys, and dragged her own body-weight in machinery and luggage up the most revolting highway I’d ever ridden because I’d blithely told her it would be the adventure of a lifetime, without a moment’s thought for the realities of life on the road. I touched her on the shoulder. Put the palm of my hand on her back, against her pretty blue and white checked shirt. Felt the heat of her tired body, the weak shudder of uncontained tears.
There was no response. I withdrew my hand. And I sat back on the grass, helpless, looking up at the edge of the endless road.