Leaving Hadishahr with our hosts’ well-wishes ringing in our ears, Tenny and I trundled back towards the main road for Tabriz, where we found several lanes of traffic encased by metal barriers. Mountains rose again in our path, solemn and unflinching. Three or four days of this was hardly a pleasant prospect, and the climbs would be long and monotonous. But there was little for it but to begin.
We set off up the hard shoulder in a low gear. It was wide enough to ride double file, so we did, chatting about this and that while the landscapes drifted past; bare spurs of rock in pastel yellows and browns, streaks of vigorous green where small rivers delved between them. When we ran out of things to talk about, Tenny asked to borrow my music player. She didn’t share my taste in music – in fact, like everyone else, she actively disliked it, something that even a fairy-tale romance was unable to cure – but she wanted something to listen to. In that way, lunchtime arrived rather more quickly than usual, and along with it the town of Marand, where we realised that we had nothing to eat at midday in the middle of Ramadan.
‘Let’s go down some side-streets,’ I suggested as we followed the main road towards the town centre. ‘Maybe we’ll find a shop or two, or a bakery, or something.’ I wasn’t convinced.
Traffic increased, making it difficult to communicate over the din of cars and trucks and the mopeds and motorbikes that buzzed around every town, laden with all manner of unlikely and precariously balanced goods. Then one of the motorbikes pulled a U-turn and stopped ahead of us, two teenage boys enthusiastically flagging us down. Quick as a flash, the pillion hopped off, pulled two polystyrene takeaway containers from beneath the cargo straps of the bike, deposited them in our bewildered hands with a blessing, hopped back on and lurched back into the traffic. I looked at Tenny, laughing. Inside the containers were two freshly grilled skewers of saffron chicken, balanced upon great steaming heaps of buttery rice.
‘What the hell?!’
Tenny had recently been picking up a few of my favourite exclamations.
‘Well . . . that’s pretty good, isn’t it?’
‘But where are we going to eat it . . . ?’
Tenny had a point. Even though Ramadan didn’t seem as rigid as my schoolteachers had led me to believe, there was still the issue of potentially offending people (and breaking the law) by eating the delicious-smelling kebabs in the street. Reluctantly we got back on our bikes.
‘Tenny!’ I called after her as she rode away. ‘We might as well get food for dinner and breakfast while we’re here – do you want to ask if there’s a shop?’
A couple of enquiries brought us to a typical little convenience store, shelves stacked high with all manner of unidentifiable tins and packets, as alien to me as a Chinatown grocery. Tenny, however, knew exactly what she was looking at.
‘Mahan – this is a good brand. And Yek-O-Yek. No – I want to get Mahan. We can get a tin of ghormeh sabzi and eat with some of that rice . . .’
I already knew what ghormeh sabzi was, since Tenny and her friends, while retaining their Armenian language, had very much integrated Persian cuisine into their culture. This particular dish was a fragrant stew of diced veal, red kidney beans and prodigious quantities of minced herbs, the smell of which had a habit of seeping from one’s pores the morning after consumption. Utterly delicious, it would beat any camping food I was likely to come up with. I nodded enthusiastically.
Picking up some apples from a fruit bazaar on our way out of the far side of Marand, we also inherited a teenage boy on a bicycle. He quickly became attached to us, finding it hilarious and bizarre that an Iranian woman could be travelling in this way with her ‘husband’. As teenage boys are wont to do, he fell back on the tried and tested pastime of showing off, blasting past us one second, pulling a skittery wheelie the next, and on several occasions narrowly missing out on what would likely be an unhappy fusion of human and lorry. Cars slowed alongside us, their occupants winding down windows in order to take pictures of this unlikely entourage on their mobile phones, doubtless later posting them on Facebook via ever-evolving circumventions of government censorship.
As we left the city behind us and pedalled back up the highway towards the mountains, Tenny attempted to be diplomatic with the young lad, who showed no sign of getting bored.
‘Don’t you have anywhere else to be right now?’
‘Won’t your mum be worried?’
It was late in the afternoon before the hapless youth turned tail and began wobbling his way back to Marand on the wrong side of the road. We’d been pedalling for long enough without eating and decided to stop early, find a camping spot in the valley and have the feast of chicken kebab, ghormeh sabzi and rice that we’d been fantasising about all afternoon. Fields of diminutive tomato plants basked in the sun around us, which meant that farmers couldn’t be far away, and farmers were always a good bet when it came to finding places to sleep. Soon we were set up in a small triangle of pasture set aside for the farm’s donkey, who stood belligerently in the middle distance, attempting to stare us into submission while we dished up our ghormeh sabzi. Then Tenny’s mobile phone rang from inside her handlebar-bag. It was none other than Mr Sabri.
‘Hello . . . ?’
‘Hello!!! Where are you?’
Mr Sabri arrived a short time later, leaving his car on the hard shoulder, jumping the barrier and joining us on our tarpaulin for a nice cup of tea in the evening sun, while the donkey gazed on with silent but palpable displeasure. Our guardian angel had a quick chat with the farmer, checked again that there was nothing we needed, gave us his son’s phone number in Tabriz, and drove away as darkness descended upon rural Iran. And as we drew closer to the city over the next couple of days, he turned up several more times, just to make sure that we were alright, to have a quick chat, or to give us sweets and fruit.
It was never quite clear whether he was passing through for work, or whether he’d simply taken on the responsibility of making sure that we, a pair of complete strangers, arrived safely in a city a hundred miles from his home.
By the time we arrived in Tabriz, I had noticed a change in Tenny. She had really started to adjust to this strange routine. Days of riding passed without incident, without tears or arguments, and I was filled with renewed hope for the future of our journey together.
And what a fascinating journey it was turning out to be! It was so refreshing to be travelling with someone not only fluent in the local language, but also fully versed in the way things really worked here; things which would otherwise remain obscure to me. Through Tenny I learnt about the lives of those we met, their political views, their interests, their take on the local gossip. I could ask her to translate any road sign or menu or scrawl of graffiti into words that I could understand. No longer would I stand confused at some social nicety whose meaning had gone over my head, because Tenny would be there to negotiate the appropriate etiquette.
It would be exactly the same, of course, if I took Tenny to England and acted as her guide. I would explain to her why people apologised when she held the door open for them. I would help her understand why it was proper to refuse an offer of biscuits with your tea, even if you actually wanted them, but fine to accept on the second attempt. I would be there to remind her to cycle on the wrong side of the road, to tell her what was meant by ‘a fiver’ or ‘a fortnight’, and to explain that ‘in a jiffy’ was not in fact a reference to a popular brand of padded envelope. I’d show her the rectangular holes in people’s front doors through which, once a day, a man in a blue shirt would insert a bundle of material exclusively produced for the topping-up of recycling bins. I would intervene when she got confused because people said the opposite of what they actually meant, and that this quaint form of local humour was known as ‘sarcasm’. None of this would be particularly interesting to me, because I knew it all so well. And that probably explained why travelling in Iran was not particularly exciting for Tenny.
‘I know this country,’ she told me over an amber glass of tea in the common room of the Hotel Mashhad, where our cheap silver ‘wedding rings’ and an innocent smile had secured us a room together. Backpackers wandered in and out, discussing the contents of their guidebooks, making plans to visit the ancient wonders of this mythical, modern city.
‘There is not much surprising and new things for me here. Maybe if I be in a new country, completely new, where I can feel myself as a tourist – because I’m not tourist in Armenia, and I’m not tourist in Iran; I know about these places very well – maybe when I go to new country, which will be completely new for me, like Europe, or England . . . I would enjoy cycling much more.’
I could see her point, of course. But at the same time I found it slightly sad – not that she felt that way, but because her home country had not yet had the chance to surprise her. I had felt the same about England, seeing my ride to Harwich as a necessary evil. Instead, I’d been invited to finish off someone’s strawberry pavlova, had bacon sandwiches brought to my tent one morning and been invited to camp in an animal sanctuary the same evening, been handed homemade jam and freshly picked strawberries on the roadside, and given a free cabin on a ferry to Europe. Her home country could only treat Tenny thus if she allowed it to, and it would surely surprise her if we continued south and east, where Iran was by all accounts a very different place indeed. And after we crossed into Pakistan and journeyed further into India and beyond, an entirely new world would open up for this girl who’d never ventured beyond the borders of Iran and Armenia.
She was ready, I decided. Tenny had made it through the stressful adjustment to life on the road. No longer would she be cowed by the routine of finding food and places to sleep, or of cycling all those miles. No, she was ready for the next step: to leave what she knew behind, and to begin exploring anew in unknown lands.
True, it was still unclear for how long she would want to live such a life. But – at the very least – we were ready to give it a try.
Tenny dismounted, leaned her bike up against the metal garage door beneath the overhanging balconies of the small block of flats, and took off her helmet. She was laughing. I suppose it was, in a strange way, quite funny that we were about to do the very thing we’d planned for so long – the moment we’d lived in fear of for so many months, concealing every possible clue to the truth, to the extent of hiding Tenny’s bike in a friend’s basement when her parents were visiting, and fabricating a pedestrian-sounding itinerary of monastery visits and bus rides in safe, homely Armenia as a cover story for being on the road. But an ill-concealed nervousness floated through Tenny’s laughter.
She tapped the intercom button twice in quick succession. It was just the way her father did it, she said. His car wasn’t there, meaning he was out, so her mother would be expecting the buzzer to ring like that on his return. The outside door would be released without anyone asking who it was, and the second-floor flat’s front door left ajar to save having to answer a second time.
Tenny crossed herself.
‘That’s not going to help,’ I said, rather abruptly. I was in no mood for anything but the most rapid possible acceptance of whatever fate awaited us. God, I reasoned, probably had better things to do.
The latch clicked. Tenny pushed back the door and went inside without waiting for me. I hesitated, unsure what to do. Of all the inappropriate situations in which to arrive, unannounced, wielding a video camera, this surely ranked as a new personal best. And suddenly the moment of truth was about to occur while I was fumbling around with my bike!
My heart felt ready to burst through my ribcage as I dashed upstairs after Tenny, fiddling furiously with the focus ring of the stupid camera while trying to come to terms with the possibility that I might be about to film the demise of everything I lived for. But as I approached the second floor, I heard more laughter – the laughter of another voice.
‘Hello! Hello!’ came the voice of Tenny’s mother, who couldn’t quite figure out what she was looking at, laughing in a faintly confused way, waving us inside.
She had been on the phone to a friend when her daughter had walked into her home, out of breath and dressed for the outdoors, with her foreign boyfriend in tow, still wearing his cycling gloves.
The next morning, Tenny and I rose early, ate breakfast in the kitchen, and left the house quietly. We walked together through the streets of central Tehran as the city roused into life, and soon the roads were filled with honking cars, the pavements crowded with people going about their business – and, of course, swarms of buzzing little motorbikes, whose riders didn’t seem to find it necessary to distinguish between the road and the pavement at all.
We were headed for somewhere far quieter than the streets of downtown, however, because we had something important to do. And to get there we would use Tehran’s underground metro system, which far outshone London’s cramped and grubby Tube. Shiny, spacious platforms awaited the arrival of modern, well-lit locomotives which glided to a halt amid science-fiction sound-effects, and before long we were back above ground and queuing up for admittance to the visa section of the Embassy of India. We would lodge our Indian visa applications here before heading back downtown to the British Embassy to collect a ‘letter of recommendation’, where I would pay £65 for a letter of haughty prose to the effect that the British Embassy didn’t issue ‘letters of recommendation’, which the Embassy of Pakistan would then accept as a letter of recommendation and give me a visa for Pakistan. Our chores in Tehran would be done. And it would give the bureaucrats something to do.
There was another reason we’d come to the Indian Embassy so early. Taller than anyone else in the crowded waiting room by a head’s height, Andy’s unruly bush of curly hair, unkempt beard and incongruously smart ‘off-bike’ shirt meant we could pick him out instantly.
‘Wahey!!!’ beamed my old mate in a trademark greeting, and we gave each other an awkward man-hug in the crowded waiting room. Then he hugged Tenny – equally awkwardly, as it meant almost folding himself in half to make up their difference in height.
We left the Embassy and used the long walk as an opportunity to catch up and exchange anecdotes. The usual tales of hi-jinx involving random invitations, bizarre sleeping spots and run-ins with bored policemen were banded about. But behind all of this, Andy seemed driven by some invisible momentum. His stories were entertaining but they told of a man on a mission, making decisions in order to cover distance. He was filled with purpose and direction: staying still was not part of the programme. It was a curious opposite to the downshift in pace that I’d felt in myself over these few weeks of travel with Tenny. I couldn’t quite fathom out whether Andy’s impetus came from behind or ahead; whether he was driven more by the need to put distance between himself and his life in Georgia or by the desire to explore the lands that still lay beyond the horizon. I guessed it was probably a mixture of the two. Travelling alone for the first time would surely involve riding out a challenging period of adaptation. In any case, he seemed at ease with whatever came his way, and I felt happy for him – and a tiny bit envious too.
Dealings with the stiff officials in the enormous British Embassy compound were completed with typical efficiency, and we invited Andy round to Tenny’s flat for tea. It was shortly after he departed, all set to continue his journey towards distant Pakistan, that all hell broke loose in the Adamian family home.
Looking back, it seems quite amusing that we’d continued to act on our plans, spending a whole day getting our visas arranged, as if having the stickers in our passports would make the slightest bit of difference. What was Tenny going to do – wave them madly around the living room: ‘But look, we’ve got permission!!!’
It was like I imagined a really bad comedown might feel; an awful moment where you find yourself glued to an armchair, looking around at a room full of people and feeling your insides shrivel up in horror as you realise that you have no idea who these people are. You can’t remember what was happening ten seconds ago, and you want to run away. But you can’t. Some force glues you, mute, to your chair. You have no choice but to watch the melodrama raging in front of your eyes, not understanding a single word. You contemplate how purgatory might feel. And something within you dies.
Well . . . here I am, on the roof of Tenny’s flat.
Don’t know where to start, really . . .
I dunno . . .
Ugh – I can’t do these video diaries any more, it’s just . . .
Let me try again.
We arrived in Tehran, at Tenny’s flat, as, we knew, we hadn’t . . . er . . .
No, it’s just crap, isn’t it? It’s just complete and utter bollocks.
OK. I’ll make it as simple as possible.
Before we got here, we knew that one of two things was going to happen. Number One: Tenny’s parents would see that we’d cycled here. They’d see the photos and videos, hear our stories, and understand that we’d done it anyway, and that it wasn’t actually all that dangerous, and it was actually quite good fun, and it led to a lot of good experiences. Which it did.
Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, what happened was Number Two.
On the second night we were here, we came home, Tenny and I, and . . . we had an evening of shouting, crying, and . . . being told in no uncertain terms that there was no way on this planet we were going to continue.
So. Either we disregard Tenny’s parents’ wishes entirely and continue travelling by bike. Or, we basically do what they want. Which is pretty much as follows:
Forget about travelling.
Forget about living together.
Forget about having any kind of freedom to make choices together.
Until the day we get married.
I’m not trying to make out that Tenny’s parents are bad people. They come from an extremely conservative culture, and it’s not going to suddenly drop away overnight. And who am I to say it should?!
And I spent – predictably – I spent one entire sleepless night with all of this kind of stuff churning around in my head, and . . . an incredibly heavy weight on my shoulders, because everything we’d hoped for when we arrived here had just been blown away, erm . . . mercilessly, basically.
(There appears to be a man playing an accordion in the street below this building. Maybe you can hear him.)
I don’t really want to spend my life on the wrong side of my wife’s family. And I don’t want to drag Tenny with me because I’m too stubborn to let go of my travelling plans.
(By the way, these musicians don’t go away until you’ve given them money, which is a bit annoying as I don’t have any money. And it’s getting dark. Well – I’m going to continue regardless, because I have no choice, apart from to wait until tomorrow, or until his lungs burst.)
And I know that this might sound a bit . . . like a bit of a shitter, but I . . . if I didn’t carry on travelling by bike, then . . . I would spend the – I know that I would spend the rest of my life wondering what would have happened if I had. So I really can’t just forget about it.
Tenny and I both know that I still have these stupid, ridiculous, selfish dreams for learning about the world and travelling. At the same time, I’ve found the girl I want to spend the rest of my life with! That’s . . . seriously epic, and awesome. It really is!
But before that . . . there’s something I’ve got to do. I don’t know what it is, but I think if I just . . . go . . . maybe one day I’ll realise that I’ve ‘done it’, or that I never actually needed to ‘do it’, or something like that.
It’s a very confusing bit of life, right now.
And maybe I’ll look back at this and think, ‘What an idiot I was back then – what a complete fool.’
Because I’m going get on my bike, and leave Tenny here, with her family. And I’m going to disappear.
Yeah. I’m going to go. I’m going to throw away everything that I can’t live without – I’m going to get rid of absolutely everything, every scrap of stuff that’s not necessary.
And I’m going to head south, towards Africa, on my own.
And I’ve no idea what’s going to happen . . . where I’m going to go . . . how long it’s going to take . . .
And it’s like – I dunno . . . I’ve no idea if it’s the right thing to do or not.
I just feel like I haven’t found what I’m looking for yet.