On the second day in Iran we were taken hostage.
By an incredibly friendly family of Azeri-Iranians. (Got you!)
We were taking a roadside breather through a dramatic red stone gorge from the Armenian-Iranian border crossing to the town of Jolfa, when I noticed that one of the ubiquitous Peugeot 405s that regularly passed us was reversing back down the narrow, quiet road in my general direction. I hollered at Tenny, who was crouching behind a nearby boulder, and she dived for cover as Mr. Sabri got out of the car and smiled broadly.
“Man farsi balad nistam” I said, beaming. On hearing that I didn’t speak any Persian, he whipped out his mobile phone and the next moment I was speaking to an unidentified English-speaking voice about what exactly I was doing standing alone with two fully-loaded bicycles on a forgotten border-road, looking across the river to the equally desolate and craggy mountains of Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s disconnected territory west of Armenia.
Tenny emerged, and Mr. Sabri laughed and asked if there was anything he could do to help us, as many Iranian drivers do on a daily basis. He then gave us his phone number and told us to call him when we arrived in Jolfa, about 45km away at the Nakhchivan-Iran border where our road would turn south to the city of Tabriz, another 110km distant. It was a beautiful and quiet day, and the road was gently winding its way along the side of the gorge. But getting this far, I remembered, had been such a huge challenge for me and Tenny.
We had left Yerevan a day later than planned. We’d spent a number of stressful and busy days getting together and packing everything we’d need for the days ahead. I was full of uncertainty. Doubts gnawed at my mind – sometimes I despaired when I thought back to the heady days of March, when we had thrown romantic ideas around without a second thought… yes, we’d cycle round the world together… of course Tenny could do it, anyone could…!
But suddenly it wasn’t quite so clear. What if she simply couldn’t? Was she really capable of tearing herself away from all the comfort and routine of city life? What if she was too weak to crank the pedals that I’d gone to great lengths to find for her? What if our idealistic dreams collapsed entirely?
You can probably guess now that we made it through those immensely trying times, as we’re now enjoying a well-earned day off in the aforementioned city of Tabriz. But words cannot describe that first day, nor many other equally distressing experiences since.
I remembered a substantial downhill on the way into Yerevan from Lake Sevan back in January. But I didn’t remember that on the other side of the road was a continuous uphill – from the pavement outside Tenny’s flat to the eventual crest of the highway to Sevan, 35km later. It was a leg-busting climb for me, and an unforgiving road thanks to Armenia’s astonishingly aggressive and dangerous drivers. Imagine how Tenny felt, a complete newcomer to the world of bike travel, after pedalling and pushing a fully-loaded bicycle up that road for the duration of a hot, late-summer Sunday in Armenia.
We made our first roadside camp in nearly 9 months, and Tenny disappeared into the tent to eat her mug of cheap Russian noodles alone. I stayed a while talking to our good friend Arthur, who had helped to keep our spirits up by riding his entirely unloaded bike up the hill out of sight and then bombing back down to tell us how it was at the lake (hot, cold, and finally gone). He joined us for the first three days of our adventure.
When I went to the tent, I found a very small and miserable girl curled up in the arctic sleeping bag that regular readers probably remember from my first days in Armenia. What on earth she thought of this splendid new life we’d spent so long planning for I do not know. To my great delight, however, the morning brought smiles and jovial reminiscing of the previous day’s abominable feat of physical and mental endurance. We’d climbed from Yerevan, at around 700 metres elevation, to the level of Lake Sevan, one of the biggest high-altitude lakes in the world at around 1900 metres above sea level. To put that into perspective, it’s approximately equivalent to cycling from Fort William to the summit of Ben Nevis.
No longer did I have any doubts about Tenny’s physical ability to cycle. If she could do that, I knew she could pretty much push herself through anything. But I found out very quickly that this life was a challenge for the mind, and now it was Tenny’s turn to face it. The second day was one of mood swings – anger at headwinds, bad driving, and the cold wind that whipped up late on that September afternoon in the mountains. The unpredictable nature of bike travel requires a rapid psychological readjustment, and it was this shock to Tenny’s system that would be at the root of the difficult times we faced on our way to Iran, not the act of cycling itself. This rapid swinging from elation to misery and back was something I remembered myself from my first tentative days on the bike.
I decided that it would be prudent not to push Tenny too far too soon, so we headed for the Sevan peninsular, where weekend resorts would be winding down for autumn as children went back to school and the days grew colder and shorter. We found a suitably quiet spot in a wooded picnic site, pitched our tent and spent three days relaxing on the beach, making ourselves khorovadz (Armenian barbecue) and winding down after the stress of the previous weeks in the city. It was great to have these few days together in a quiet and beautiful place. We needed this time-out, not from the cycling, but to get used to being out of the city after spending so long living there.
We hit the road again on the Sunday, one week after we left Yerevan. Tenny was eager to move again, and we began to circumnavigate the lakeside road, heading south for the town of Martuni. After this, we had heard accounts of an impossibly bad road leading over the mountains to Yeghegnadzor, completely abandoned, with wild animals and cliff-hugging switchbacks. I tried to take this with a pinch of salt, as I have learnt that the average driver rarely has any idea what a road is like for a cyclist. Piloting a metal box with an engine is a very efficient way to distort your perception of gradient, distance and surface quality.
We camped in some delightful woods in Sevan National park just outside Martuni before hitching a ride the first 10km up the hill. We got back into the saddles and realised that this road bore no resemblance to the picture we’d had described to us previously. It was deserted by cars, which is great for a cyclist, but the landscape through which it wound was impressively wide and empty, with a distant river carving its way down to the lake, and scattered flocks of sheep and herds of cattle being driven across the bare hillsides.
A shepherd stopped to share his lunch with us and give a little of the local lore of the area. Being with Tenny, who is fluent in Armenian and Farsi (Persian) as well as English, really deepened my understanding of the places through the people we met, as no longer was I restricted only to basic smatterings of language, miming and badly-drawn pictures in my diary.
One and a half kilometers before the summit of the pass, we threw our bikes into the back of a hay cart, as the weather was closing in and it was getting late. To my dismay, the most amazing valley of cliff-hugging switchbacks unfolded in front of my eyes as I hung on for dear life to the front of the cart as it thundered down forty of the most incredible kilometers I’ve never cycled. I was more than a little tearful as the blissful hour or so of uninterrupted freewheeling flew past from the back of the truck.
The following day we hitched a ride to the border. It was about 200km distant and I had realised that Armenia was probably one of the worst countries in which you could wish to begin your first cycle tour. The mountains were relentless, the poverty even more so, and I reflected on the lessons learnt from my time in this troubled little pocket of overlooked post-Soviet weirdness as we trundled up, down, up down on the road to a country which would amaze and bewilder me – Iran.
And you can read about what happened in Iran in the next installment of this blog – come back soon!