Categories
Bikepacking Southern Iran 2016

Bikepacking Southern Iran: The Journey In Pictures

I very much hope you’ve enjoyed the last couple of weeks of daily blogs from the road! While I wanted to keep the focus on the writing (and on stimulating your imagination!), it’s also nice to look at a few retospective visuals. This selection represents this best of this short but much-needed jaunt across southern Iran.

Do come and join me on Instagram for the coming year, won’t you?

Categories
Bikepacking Southern Iran 2016

Bikepacking Southern Iran: The Final Day

This is it. The final push to Bandar Abbas. My train leaves tomorrow at noon.

In the predawn cool I hit the road east, setting a fast pace for what will be the longest day of this ride. But before long I spot a bakery churning out fresh sheets of lavash onto a cooling rack on the roadside. I stop and buy a loaf for breakfast, and the interruption makes space for me to remind myself that speed is not the essence today. Miles go by when time in the saddle is maximised, and often that means dropping the pace to sustain it. Besides that, I must remember that I’m still allowed to enjoy my final day, rather than end my ride on a miserable dash to the finish line.

There is little noteworthy about the road, its purpose to channel traffic from all over south-west Iran into Bandar Abbas. The asphalt widens to two lanes, sometimes with a generous hard shoulder, sometimes with none. I concentrate on keeping myself safe, not noticing the landscape, suddenly disoriented as I realise the sea has disappeared from view, or that I’m riding across an Africa-like savannah roamed by dromedaries.

In between traffic-dodging and wondering why every other Iranian truck has the logo of Mammut (a Swiss outdoor gear company) painted all over it, I reflect on the lessons learned from this, my sixth journey in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the third by bicycle. As usual, what floats to the surface is a mixture of tempting generalisations about a nation and ponderings on my subjective experience here.

This trip has left an interesting impression of Iran. The country’s unabated progress into modernity is impressive – even heroic – given the circumstances, but things suffer, it seems, from what is perhaps an overemphasis on discipline and control in order to keep things working properly; one of the less obvious results of decades of international sanctions.

To me, surface-skimming traveller that I am, this has been most noticeable in the repurposing of traditional ways of life to serve centrally-owned state mechanisms – individual self-reliance giving way to national survival.

Thus are age-old cultural mores bedecked with the raiments of industrialism. Even if the mountain-dwelling shepherd remains, he’ll likely be heading home on a Honda CG125 to eat traditional bread baked on a mechanised conveyor belt, sitting on the floor in front of a Western-style sofa watching a period soap-opera set in the imperial courts of the Persian empire on a Samsung flatscreen telly. The Shah’s rapid Westernisation of Iran largely fuelled the revolutionary backlash of ’79, but the mullahs who replaced him have only continued on this particular trajectory.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about these materialist features of modern life. What’s distinctive is how homogenous – even bland – this aspect of Iran looks as a result. My perspective is perhaps accentuated by two things. The first is the inevitable comparison with Armenia, a country among whose charms I count the wonderfully traditional approach to food and produce, where the windows of opportunity to enjoy the cascading banquets of seasonal fruits and vegetables are measured in mere days – days often characterised by furious bouts of pickling and preserving. It’s a place where organic, home-made cheese and yoghurt and honey is not just plentiful and cheap but almost ubiquitous, as likely to be brought over by a friend or relative as bought from a shop. It’s where big business, for all its attempts, seems unable to get its teeth into the feeding of the country.

All of this I love and value so highly that coming to Iran – a mass-produced, shrink-wrapped conveyor belt of monotony for breakfast, lunch and tea – is a shock. Sure, there are a few places you can find fantastic, memorable meals. Stay in a few villages and you might get a taste of a homemade or homegrown something-or-other. But they’re the exception that proves the rule.

The second is that before I drifted nomadically to Armenia, my frame of reference was England, a place where the soulless industrialisation of the food supply was long ago obscured beneath a camouflage of marketing, nowadays reaching ever more absurd levels of disconnection from the actual thing being put in one’s mouth, all fuelled by an institutionalised prerogative to ‘remain competitive’ in a free-market economy that has conquered life entirely. In England, food wasn’t just food any more, as made explicit by one Marks & Spencers campaign. Even the reactionary movements – slow food, farmers markets etc – have to be sold in the same language to get cash-rich, time-poor dilettante foodies buying into it.

It makes me think: at least Iran’s new-found obsession with mass production and consumption is honest. Nothing’s trying to be anything it isn’t. Just check out the names of the firms that make this stuff: ‘Kalleh Dairy Company’, ‘Behrouz Nik Food Industries’, ‘Bijan Food Products’, ‘Khoshkpak Dried Food Company’. Function over form. Pure utilitarianism. Nobody’s trying to spin it: everything is out in plain view. There is none of the West’s fabricated diversification. Everywhere in Iran, everything is the same. The same three or four makes of car, the same single model of motorbike, every loaf of bread a tasteless carbon copy of the one before it. This is a zero-choice economy; you know exactly what you’re going to get, right down to the price. If you want something different, something better; if you aren’t content with a system that serves all your basic needs but doesn’t try to convince you it’ll make you happy too – well, you can either go where the tourists and rich kids spend their money, or you can leave Iran. (And many do.)

I see a restaurant on the roadside. I know it’s a restaurant because the sign outside reads ‘Restaurant’. Fifty miles pedalled before lunch, the ten-kilometre countdown signs to Bandar Abbas down into double digits, I decide to treat myself to a hot meal. I scan the menu which contains the same dozen or so dishes served in every roadside restaurant in Iran: four varieties of kebab, three stews, and a couple of soups. The prices are exactly the same as they are everywhere else.

I order. The meal is precisely as expected: a huge pile of steaming rice, a bowl of stew, and some perfect geometric squares of bread in a plastic basket. Zero-choice economy? Sure as hell works for me.

At a police roadblock I skip the queue, weaving among idling pickups and cars full of holidaymakers and petrol tankers covered in Mammut logos. A policeman waves me over. The first thing he wants to know is where I’m from.

“Armenia,” I tell him. I find myself wondering if my shorts will prove an issue. While men aren’t generally supposed to wear shorts in Iran, a ‘sportsperson’ can usually get away with it in practice.

“Armenia!” he repeats, enthusiastically, if a little absent-mindedly. “And how is Iran?”

“Iran is great!” I reply. Standard response.

“Yes, Iran is great! See what a safe and stable place this is! Have you had any problems on the road? Has anyone done anything to disturb you here? No! Everything is provided, travelling is safe, there’s no war, by the grace of God…”

I nod profusely. He’s proud of his country. And why not? People only complain about a lack of freedom when they take stability for granted. Then, with a flippant wave, his attention is on the next driver, and I am forgotten, along with my shorts.

It is the innocuous question – “where are you from?” – that prompts the next thought spiral. Really, I am from England, not Armenia, as that’s where I was born. But what is England but a subdivision of the island of Great Britain based on some ancient tribal war? What does that have to do with me? Really, I am from Middleton, a small village in the East Midlands full of middle-class white people. That’s the place that served as the womb of my childhood worldview, not some abstract thing called ‘England’.

But until the age of five I’d lived in the schoolhouse of a Surrey village school of which my dad was the headmaster. My memories of the place are few and fleeting, but they are nonetheless my earliest memories. So was I from Middleton, or Ockley?

And from age 11 I was shipped off daily to a secondary school in a nearby town which, at the time, seemed far more exotic and dangerous and confusing than anywhere I’ve travelled as an adult. Middleton was just where I slept. My village friends went elsewhere. Later, going to university at the far end of Britain – which might as well have been another actual universe – eroded further that sense of rootedness that society tells me I should have, the one that eventually brings so many travellers – no matter how prolonged and far-ranging and mind-expanding their adventures – back ‘home’.

Finally, hitting the road a decade ago didn’t just destroy any lingering remnants of a settled life, it affirmed and made real my identity as a wanderer – which didn’t mean I would never have a ‘home’, just that I would begin to conceive of it in an entirely different way. I would take my home with me, and set it up where I felt like. It’s taken a few years to fully embrace this, but now I can truly say that my home is nowhere and everywhere. Of course visiting the place I grew up brings feelings of nostalgia, but nothing more. I spend my time where I come across cosmopolitan pockets of like-minded humans, not to where any geographical yearning drags me back.

Thus, while I have a practical standard-issue answer for the policeman on Highway 96 towards Bandar Abbas, the exchange smooths over a complex question, one I’ve always felt society wants me to have a simple answer for, but which in all honesty I do not. I’m not sure I even have the language to discuss this all properly. It seems to me that we live in an age characterised by humans pushing up against the limits of their ability to get their heads round the complexities of the world. Perhaps this has somehow always been the case. Thanks to the internet and smartphones, a fantastic increase in the availability of information has made it easier than ever to hold forth intellectually on matters of which we are actually ignorant, to let fragments of information bribe us into believing we understand universal wholes, to reduce matters of dazzling intricacy and depth to ever-more meaningless caricatures. All this is fuelled by a fundamental need to feel that we understand life, because without certainty, without belief, we feel insecure, and, ultimately, afraid. What is unknown terrifies us: knowledge makes us comfortable, even if that knowledge is flawed. I think the difference today is that – on a global scale – it’s really starting to matter.

Another thing I suspect is that the pursuit of learning and understanding as the way to solve the mysteries of the world is misguided. All we can be reasonably sure of, ever, is that the cumulative effect of our experiences have shaped our self-image and how we respond to the events of life. But that’s going to pan out differently for the other 7.5 billion of us. ‘Knowledge’ is nothing more than what we can each deduce from experience, or adopt from the deductions of others. And relying too heavily on this is intrinsically dangerous: we are susceptible to all sorts of irrationalities, flawed logic, misperception and misinterpretation – the most insidious outcome being the ‘generalisation’, such as those I’m guilty of earlier in this post. Not to mention our squishy, simplistic memories that recall things that never happened and twist things that did. Healthier, I reckon, to accept – to really accept – the enormity of what we do not and cannot ever know or understand – that every belief we hold could, given sufficient time or change of perspective, be opposed; that each new thing learned is a hint to the vastness of things we will never have the opportunity to learn – and proceed through life on that basis: more tolerant, less judgemental, aware of the enormity of what we do not and cannot know, and resultantly in a greater state of peace.

But man, it’s hard.

From this perspective, many immutable truths seem to rest on shaky foundations. It’s the place all the subtexts of the question “where are you from?” come from. Literally what the hell does that even mean? The word ‘country’ is notoriously hard to define, linguistically speaking. The idea of nationhood is even more slippery. What on earth does it mean to say that I am ‘Armenian’? My second passport makes this a legal truth. But when I was born, the country didn’t even exist! More to the point, most Armenians define themselves along ethnic lines: ‘Armenian-ness’ is purely about blood and nothing to do with where one was born, in contrast to ‘Britishness’ in which outsiders have traditionally been invited to integrate. By that definition, there are far more Armenians outside Armenia than in it, far more Armenians holding the passports of other countries than that of their supposed homeland. And let’s not even get into questions of territorial heritage: today’s Republic of Armenia is but a dismal representation of lands once inhabited by the ancestors of a now globally-scattered people. All I did was get married there. And in a couple of years, I’ll be eligible to run for presidency!

Depending on how you define ‘English’, ‘Armenian’, and the concept of nationality, I am either one, both, or neither. Which calls into question the value of any such label, and makes me wonder why society remains obsessed by them.

But I suspect it’s rather simple. The vast majority of people have a strong and singular sense of home. This usually corresponds with the place where and the people among whom they grew up. And that social-geographical sense of home is a fundamental part of most people’s identity. Our current system of nation-labels helps people figure out who they think I am in this sense – what tribe I belong to; what that tribe’s relationship is with theirs; therefore how they should relate to me. That’s what most people are asking when they’re asking where I’m from. And I’ve been asked where I’m from probably tens of thousands of times.

I, however, am one of a significant minority who’ve found themselves instead drawn to the nomadic life – the frowned-upon alternative to settling which has always existed in one form or another, marginalised by mainstream society, but ultimately resulting in humans exploring and populating every inch of habitable space on Earth. At a fundamental level, our sense of home and what it means is just different – and therefore our sense of identity and what that means is different too.

Now, in the 21st century, the life of the nomad bears little resemblance to the romantic notion of the word. But the same is true for the settler. What both groups share today is the ability to participate in an economy no longer constrained by physical geography – even if many can’t see or understand this, and even if many nomadic souls haven’t found their way out of settledom yet.

And perhaps that’s why the question “where are you from?” heralds the premature death of meaningful interaction. Because before the conversation has even begun, we are already speaking different languages about the nature of self and identity; the age-old divide of the nomad versus the settler. And that is the fate of the solo bicycle traveller. Interactions, however heartfelt, are fleeting. Alone on the road, the deepest conversations are inevitably the ones you have with yourself.

 

This nomad still has fifty miles to pedal before dark, and the sun is already sinking towards the western horizon. I take a detour across the desert on a crumbling old road, cutting off a big inland loop made by the highway. A few optimistic motorists have decided to try it too, but such is the dereliction of this abandoned strip of asphalt that I easily overtake the drivers as they negotiate car-sized potholes and corrugated trails of compacted gravel in cars entirely unsuited to the task. It’s a fun hour of riding, but the trucking route reappears all too quickly, and the combination of dusk, busy highway, and approaching industrial sprawl promises a predictably unappetising arrival in Bandar Abbas.

And it is even more hostile than I imagined. As if spawned by an unseen force, the trucks begin to multiply. Darkness grows, my rear light feebly poking at the mounting onslaught of roaring lorries, and at the same time the hard shoulder begins to accumulate all the pulverised crumbs of tarmac and road filth and desert dust thrown off by these monsters as they plough towards the port. Soon the detritus is so thick that it’s like trying to ride through loose gravel, my tyres skidding and churning in the darkness. But it’s either that or share a lane with a thousand tonnes of hurtling steel.

Deafening blast after deafening blast. Pathetic head-torch. Adrenaline-fuelled dashes for solid ground as I gain a hundred yards at a time in rare breaks between cavalcades. It’s actually like being at war. All thoughts of my destination have evaporated. This is about survival. And though I hesitate to admit it as I know my mum will be reading this, I’m having the most perverse kind of fun! Because though it’s objectively horrific, I’ve been here so many times before. I know I can deal with this. Such violence inspires heroic efforts, and this is all about riding that wave through; about sticking a big fat fuck you to the world that has created such diabolisms and doing what needs to be done, preferably with a smile on your face, pushing on until the end of eternity comes.

It is late at night when the first ‘hotel’ signboard heaves into view. It’s a little way out of town, but I couldn’t care less. I march in brandishing a 50 Toman note and ask, politely, if they’ll give me a room for all the cash I have left. Not only do they give me a room but they send up dinner too.

I collapse into bed. I have ridden 130 miles. I have made it to Bandar Abbas. And I have survived.

Categories
Bikepacking Southern Iran 2016

Bikepacking Southern Iran: Day Nine

I let myself out and am down at the beach before dawn. The town’s name, Bandar‑e Aftab, translates to ‘Sun Port’. It’s obvious why: this little south-facing stretch of coastline is bathed in its rays from sunrise to sunset. Being a mediterranean sea, isolated from the Indian Ocean by the Straits of Hormoz and just fifty metres deep on average, the Persian Gulf hosts one of the calmest coastlines I’ve ever seen.

A hundred yards away, some fishermen are dragging a boat across the sand towards the water, but aside from that, all is still and silent. I experience the kind of sunrise that travel photographers fly halfway round the world to capture.

And then, once more, I ride. The world stirs into motion even as its inhabitants sleep. The air is cool and delicious. Riding remains effortless. All is harmony.

Ancient-looking domes litter the sand flats between the seashore and the rocky rise of the coastal mountains. I stop and approach one. The conical dome, about the height of a single storey building, has four equally-spaced entrances, each framed by a rectangle of stone. I step through one of them, recoiling as the floor falls away: I am poised on the edge of a deep well. Twenty feet below me I see the reflection of my own silhouette in the water. The cistern must be have once been a source of drinking water in a land dominated by salt and sand – and indeed, a bucket attached to a frayed rope is leaning up against the opposite doorway. Continuing to ride, I see dozens more domes, so numerous they could almost be dwellings.

Approaching Bandar‑e Charak, the road widens, and suddenly the remote coastal trail is transformed in a multi-lane highway. No doubt built to fulfil some national standard, it seems to have been plonked arbitrarily in the remote coastal desert to herald the final half-mile before the edge of the town.

There’s something different about Charak. I follow the promenade along the beach, empty as usual; past the boatyard. I stop to take a photo or two with my phone. I cross the road to fill up my bottles from a roadside water cooler. Nobody pays me the slightest attention. Nobody even looks at me.

A couple of hundred yards away is the reason. Bandar‑e Charak is one of two ports plied by passenger ferries to the nearby island of Kish (pronounced like ‘quiche’). Though I’ve never visited, I’ve been hearing of Kish for years: it’s one of those ‘must-visit’ places Iranians like to mention in conversations about travelling in the country, like Esfahan and Shiraz. In truth, it’s more of a domestic destination, for Kish’s fame comes from its transformation from desert island to luxury holiday resort, complete with 5‑star hotels, Western-style shopping malls, duty-free luxury imports from the Emirates, and a particularly liberal attitude to beach life. A novelty destination for Iranians with money to spend, and an utterly run-of-the-mill (perhaps even horrifying) prospect for a Western traveller in search of the romantic and exotic of the Orient.

I wheel up by the port gates just as ferry is unloading its payload of Persian holidaymakers. The road is soon swarming with legions of the moneyed classes, glamorous-looking women hurriedly readjusting from days of relative abandon to the mainland’s concern with dress code and propriety, husbands and fathers engaged in the serious concern of locating a parked car or negotiating with a taxi driver. It’s milling with suitcases and shouting matches and the paraphernalia of a million prodigious Persian picnics. One man appears to be shoving a full-size oven into the back of a car. Another is strapping clear plastic cases full of gaudily patterned, carefully-folded blankets to a roof rack. Drivers tout ever-falling fares to Bandar Abbas, from where many of these holidaymakers will take the same train to Tehran that I’ll be taking a couple of days from now. It’s a scene of the daily chaos that characterises a place whose sole raison d’etre is as a conduit for money-wielding outsiders, the locals’ jobs being to extract their cash in brief flurries of activity like this.

I leave just as abruptly as I’d arrived.

On my way out of town, a cavalcade of taxi drivers and truck drivers advise me to avoid the coastal road at all costs. “It’s shit,” they tell me. “Take the highway inland. Faster and easier, and not much longer. It goes all the way to Bandar Abbas.”

I take the coastal road. It’s shit. It’s a hundred times more preferable than sharing the highway with the cavalcade of taxi drivers and truck drivers who’ll never understand why I’d choose a shit road over a highway.

The disintegrating asphalt collapses into dirt and sand, ploughing south through the desert. Dromedaries roam the plains, mooching among distant cisterns. I rattle along the washboard track, spotting a pair of motorbikes coming towards me. As they draw closer, I realise they’re not motorbikes. They’re cyclists!

“Salaam!” I hail. “Chetorid?-khoobid?-salaamati-ghorbanet-kheyli-mamnoon!”

By the time this classic exchange of introductory etiquette is complete, I know for sure they’re Iranian. The couple straddle heavily-loaded hybrid bikes with flat handlebars and front suspension, panniers and bar bags, and the biggest tent I’ve ever seen strapped to the guy’s rear rack. It looks like an ex-issue military tent. But if that’s all you can get, so be it. With my ultralight rig, I’m already in awe of their determination to drag this mass of equipment through the desert. Good for them!

“You’re the last person we expected to meet on this road!”, the man exclaims.

“So are you!” I reply with a grin.

“But why are you here, instead of on the main road with the cars and trucks?”

“Because of the cars and trucks!”

He smiles in appreciation of the discovery that I, a foreigner, am just as comfortable off the beaten track in Iran as he is in his native country, and that ultimately we’ve both chosen this road for the same reason: it’s a blank spot on the map and our curiosity has drawn us here. He speaks English (badly) and I speak Farsi (badly), whereas his wife speaks only Farsi. Somehow we each end up using each others’ language (badly) to conduct the conversation, and somehow it works.

The couple, from Tehran, have had a similar idea to me: escape the winter by heading to the south of the country and exploring its coastline and islands. They’ve already visited Hormoz and Qeshm via the passenger ferries from Bandar Abbas and are now on their way to Charak to catch the boat to Kish. Apparently, he tells me, there’s car ferry from Bandar‑e Pol to Qeshm island, crossing the narrowest point between the two coastlines several times a day.

“If they think you’re Iranian,” he says, “they won’t charge you, so say as little as possible and just ride straight onto the boat!”

I thank him for his suggestion, though I won’t have time to go to Qeshm on this trip. I wish I did – the newly designated UNESCO Geopark that occupies the western half of the island is apparently home to some of the most unique landscapes on Earth.

It’s nice to meet them. We wish each other well and ride off in opposite directions, our spirits a little higher. For one thing, it lays to rest a myth I’d seen being propagated on the internet; the crass generalisation that “cycling in Iran is illegal for women”. Ever hungry for stories to fuel anti-Iranian sentiment, the Western media had, earlier in the year, picked up on a comment from a prominent cleric about whether female cyclists risked contravening sharia law as practiced in Iran. The story was spun by tabloid headline writers – among the lowest scum on Earth, in my opinion – simply as “women banned from cycling in Iran”.

There was no appreciation of the fact that the comment was specifically about the interplay between Iran’s dress code regulations and cycling, not about the act of riding a bike. Nor did any of the reporters seem to understand that such questions flex in interpretation depending on the nuances of each individual case. So no, it wouldn’t be OK for a woman in skin-tight lycra to ride tucked through downtown Tehran. But yes, it would be perfectly OK for a modestly-dressed bicycle traveller to explore the countryside – or to commute to work, or to use the cycle lanes and bike hire facilities in any number of Iranian cities. I am not, of course, defending the theocrats here, just pointing out that – as with so many tiresome headlines about Iran – the reality is far more subtle than you’d be led to think.

The same nuances were also missed by an irate pro-cyclist who’d been to the Iranian Embassy in London to apply for a visa to cycle across Iran and been refused on the grounds that such a thing was not allowed. She’d reacted to my Tweet that I’d be cycling in Iran by telling me that I was lucky; that what I was doing was a “male-only privilege”. I sympathised with her anger, however forthright, but all that had really happened was that she’d made the mistake of mentioning cycling in the first place. Cycle travellers to Iran have long been advised to avoid doing so when applying for visas, regardless of gender. Had she applied as a regular visitor, I suspect she’d have got the visa and encountered no problems whatsoever – like all the other female cycle travellers who pass through Iran, and like the Iranian cyclist I’d just met. I’d done my best to appease her indignance and said I hoped she’d get a chance to ride in Iran in the future, because (in case you haven’t noticed) I’d made it my mission to proselytise the discovery of this nation to travellers in any way I could.

My little scenic detour is sadly short-lived. Soon I’m back at a junction with the main road to Bandar‑e Lengeh. Petrol tankers and container lorries fly past at speed in anticipation of the industrialised towns and ports that surround the south coast hub of Bandar Abbas. So far I’ve avoided piling into the fray, but it seems that time is through.

Many newcomers to global cycling adventures imagine all sorts of silly things to be the main dangers to personal safety – banditry, kidnapping, terrorism, starvation, ad infinitum. As any experienced bicycle traveller will know, however, by far the biggest threat is road traffic. When a rare story does sadly surface about the death of a cycle tourist, it is inevitably the result of a collision with a vehicle – itself an inevitability of having to share all sorts of entirely inappropriate roads with every other kind of road user.

I know this only too well. The closest I have ever come to dying on a bike trip was on an ice road in Swedish Lapland. It was the dead of night, about ‑30ºC at the time, but freezing to death was the least of my concerns. Far more worrying was the truckers’ habit of blasting through the icy wilderness leaving no space between their enormous vehicles and the vertical walls of snow that lined the roadsides. The sides of these single-lane trenches were often taller than I was. And that was OK when the roads were straight enough for drivers to see my bright red rear blinker in the distance. But on one long right-hand bend – neither tight enough to necessitate slowing down, nor broad enough for me to be visible until the last second – I was unfortunate enough to hear the roar of a truck approaching, the full-beam headlights reflecting awfully off the snowdrifts on the opposite side of the road. With no change in the engine’s tone or timbre, I knew the trucker had no idea I was there. I pulled to a halt, rammed the right end of my handlebar into the wall of snow to make myself as narrow as possible, and braced myself, as the glare of the headlights and the scream of the engine engulfed me…

The truck missed me by inches. If I hadn’t stopped; if I had wobbled just slightly to the left – perhaps, even, if I hadn’t dug my handlebar into the snow at the last second… well, I suspect I would not be writing this right now.

The driver probably wouldn’t even have known he’d hit me.

You develop certain habits as a travelling cyclist; survival strategies that initially rub against such Western notions as having the same right to use the road as anyone else, that drivers should behave responsibility towards more vulnerable road users, and other such forward-thinking concepts. Trust me – when your life depends on a few hundred other drivers a day not running you over, and when most of the world’s drivers treat traffic rules and road markings as an exotic and meaningless novelty, you quickly realise you’d be better off establishing your own habits of self-preservation, because you can’t very well argue about safe overtaking distances or waiting until the lane is clear when you’ve been mashed into the tarmac.

Iran offers a slight deviation from the norm in that it is overrun with motorbikes, which occupy about the same amount of space on the road as bicycles and are usually moving slower than other traffic. Drivers are used to them, and this usually plays in the cyclist’s favour. Even so, there are still scenarios when a motorbike rider knows it’s time to dive off the road and onto the verge. One of those scenarios is when you’re on a fast, single-lane thoroughfare, just wide enough for two trucks to pass each other at full speed in opposite directions, with no hard shoulder. So whenever I see vehicles approaching from ahead on the other side of the road, my first instinct is to look behind to see if they’re likely to intersect with someone overtaking me from behind. If they are, and if both vehicles are big ones, then I get the hell off the road immediately. On this road, with the asphalt giving way to a slope of rubble down to the desert floor, the result is that I spend quite a lot of time skidding around in the dust.

Other habitual reactions become noticeable – like my tendency to ride a little further away from the verge than I really need to, most of the way towards the centre of the lane. As long as there’s no traffic approaching from up ahead, this tends to mean that overtaking drivers from behind give me a wide berth, but also – more importantly – that I have space to swerve a couple of feet closer to the road’s edge, just a split-second before they pass, so even the drivers who wouldn’t give me an inch of space find themselves passing at a comfortable margin.

Together with others techniques, like wearing brightly-coloured clothing, these survival strategies have kept me safe through the years. But the road I’m on is still up there with the most dismal I’ve encountered. Given the approaching city, I can’t help suspecting the golden days of this particular journey are over.

And tomorrow – on the last full day of riding of this trip – it’s going to get a whole lot worse.

Categories
Bikepacking Southern Iran 2016

Bikepacking Southern Iran: Day Eight

It’s already bright when I wake, yet everything is coated in a thick layer of dew. I pack more quickly than ever before. Having so few belongings is a luxury in so many ways.

I ride the final couple of miles to the pass. A man-made chasm in the final wall of rock gives way to the most surreal of views: a coastal panorama from on high, but one in which a blanket of humidity renders the sea itself invisible! Below me, illuminated in fragments by an ascending sun, the road drops away in a squiggle of switchbacks, an unbroken descent from my perch at 1,200m all the way down to sea level.

I shiver as I begin the plunge, but by the time I bottom out on the valley floor I’m sweating and stripping off clothes – a mix of adrenaline and the fact that, through a 20-minute freewheeling session, I’ve flipped the climate on its head. And that’s not all that changes. Emerging onto the main coastal highway is a shock of noise, fumes, trucks and roadside detritus. I’m not going to be on it for long, but I’m determined to get off it as soon as possible. Riding along the debris-ridden shoulder for less than a mile, I’m rewarded with the first and only puncture of the trip, and I stop outside a supermarket to fix it, taking the opportunity to dry out my tent in the sun and guzzle a litre of shir kakao (chocolate milk) – the perfect fuel of the touring cyclist – while I’m getting my hands dirty.

It seems I’ve judged the route well: the highway abandons the coastline here in favour of heading inland, cutting off the corners of the meandering seashore. A minor road plies the scenic route beside the waves, and emerging from the mountains has spat me out right beside the junction. Puncture fixed, I pedal through the sleepy town of Parsian towards the approaching coast. It’s Friday and all but a couple of shops are closed. I stock up on cheap packets of synthetic-tasting banana-flavoured biscuits in case this is the last opportunity to buy food today.

As usual, I have been navigating mainly by intuition on this journey. Prior knowledge of what to expect comes from a quick glance at a map in the morning, a quick memorisation of bearings and landmarks and rough distances. I decide upon no break stops nor daily destinations in advance: I long ago learned that flexibility is the spark that ignites the volatile kind of freedom that comes with travelling by bicycle. The limiting factor on this occasion is time – but all this really means is that I am even more motivated to engage fully with each moment of this journey. As it stands, I’ll have to ride minimum 90-mile daily averages if I’m to pedal every inch of the way to Bandar Abbas and catch the train back to Tehran. But by this stage I am feeling strong, so I’m perfectly OK with a little optimism, even if it will mean super-early mornings and pedalling well into the night.

It’s at the little town of Bostanoo that I finally feel the sea spray on my face. Down by the jetty, a man on a motorbike talks loudly into a mobile phone and ignores me. Otherwise, I am alone among the fishing launches and piles of tangled netting. I dismount and clamber across the rocks, desperate to strip off and dive in, but that would be a major faux pas in a place like this. To my right, a beach of purest white stretches half a mile to the nearby headland, populated only by plastic flotsam. A small military outpost, built in the style of a colonial fortress, overlooks the empty expanse of sand. In the distance I can make out the sun-shelters and gaudy children’s play apparatus of a government-built ‘beach’ complex, where families gather to picnic fully-clothed and gaze occasionally at the sea. But nobody, it seems, is there.

It’s a quiet and predictably anticlimactic moment, a weird juxtaposition of indoctrinated notions of ‘the seaside’ – ice-cream, seagulls, working-class families on day-trips, the apparatus of institutionalised leisure – with the reality that, here, the seaside is just where the land ends. The rules don’t change when you dip your toes in the water.

The breeze… yes. It’s a westerly. It will be following me all day. I am a lucky cyclist indeed.

And before I know it I have cycled fifty miles along a gently undulating, newly-paved road, which I have entirely to myself. The sea never leaves my sight as the sun carves its low arc across the southern sky. My momentum, it seems, has not been interrupted by a mere night under canvas. I stop in a tiny fishing village and visit the mosque for a wash and toilet break. Back on the peaceful road, I wave at the occasional 4x4 full of urbanites seeking secluded beaches for a quiet weekend out of town. At one such paradisiacal sanctuary, I even spot people paddling in the sea.

Soon after Bandar‑e Mogham I discover why this new road is so little used: it isn’t finished yet. In place of the smooth asphalt are the half-built foundations of the new road. The bed of crushed rock has been steamrollered flat and would be perfectly good to ride if it weren’t for the enormous trenches that slice the surface into elongated islands bounded at each end by sheer drops. Into each chasm has been placed a huge concrete drainage pipe, but these trenches – big enough to swallow me and my bike whole – have yet to be filled back in. So I do what the pickup drivers and motorbike riders do, at least judging by their tyre marks: use the new surface where it’s possible, and dive off on a detour through the desert where it isn’t. With its narrow tyres, my bike sinks into the soft sand, and I find myself pushing. The whole scene is strangely reminiscent of that time I cycled across the Afar Desert, although without the naked tribespeople, off-the-scale temperatures, and AK-47s.

It’s fun, in a strange kind of way, because it makes the cycling itself an activity worth my attention – the flipside of dirt road bikepacking, when total concentration is demanded and there’s little room left for thoughts to wander. And despite the rapid deceleration that comes with such terrain, I ride on through the sunset, enjoying having this remote patch of tropical coastline to myself, basking in the golden light that bathes the landscape and makes the already magical colours pop, almost psychedelic to the eye in those moments before the sun sinks beneath the ocean, soothing and melancholy thereafter until all has sunk into the deep blue of the night.

By the time the asphalt reappears, I’ve smashed my target and pedalled well over a hundred miles. For some reason, today has felt different, as if I’ve entered a new phase of the journey, and I suppose, by latching myself magnetically to the coastline, it has. Starscape overhead, I’m on a roll, headtorch illuminating the empty road ahead. I keep pedalling.

Passing Bandar‑e Aftab – the first real town I’ve seen since the morning – I stop a car and ask the young driver if the town has a beach – yes! – and if it’ll be a problem to camp on it – of course not! It’s another of those days in which everything just clicks, the miles seem effortless, and the experience just flows. And it seems to be ending perfectly.

As it turns out, it ends even more perfectly than I’d bargained for. As I nose between the walls of village homes in search of the beach, I hear an engine gunning rapidly towards me, lights flashing in the gloom, horn honking, and I realise it’s the same lad I’d pulled over a few minutes beforehand. He’s pulled a U‑turn on the highway and driven back to Bandar‑e Aftab just to tell me there’s a spare room at his family home in which I can sleep! He’s gone so far out of his way to help some cyclist whose face he could barely have seen in the darkness that I accept, for his sake as much as mine. He lets me in and shows me the room.

“Your house is my house,” he says, before getting back in the car and departing again on his original journey. A few minutes later, his father brings me a tray of food, echoes the same sentiment, and I am left to my own devices – which at this late hour involves nothing more than sinking into a deep and well-earned sleep.

Categories
Bikepacking Southern Iran 2016

Bikepacking Southern Iran: Day Seven

The wind is low, the road quiet, the shoulder generous. I pedal through the bottleneck of the valley, over the hump at which the river starts flowing east, rather than west. It could technically be called a ‘pass’, but it’s so insignificant I barely notice it.

Roadbuilders have been hard at work here, transforming an old thoroughfare between farming villages into a dual carriageway for yet more goods traffic. For the time being, though, it’s quiet. I’m flying now, my body and mind back in the riding groove, odometer ticking ever upwards. Flow. Bliss.

The air has warmed noticeably since yesterday morning, and is developing into a steady headwind. When I stop for a break, I find the dry heat has caused my nose to start bleeding. Goodness – if this is what it’s like in December, what must it be like in the summer?

I know what it must be like, of course, having once cycled across the Omani desert in June, when the thermometers of passing cars were reading 56ºC and the water in my bottles was too hot to drink. The heat was so extreme, so violent, I could almost hear it bellowing as it attacked my eyes, my ears, my throat. In motion, it was like being caught in the path of a flamethower. And the wind… my god, that wind!

Why on Earth would anyone put themselves through such a diabolical experience? It’s an easy question to ask, but a complex one to answer. Needless to say, I am far from alone in having sought out challenge and hardship on two wheels. Indeed, my exploits pale into insignificance when lined up next to those of many others I could name.

But drawing objective comparisons between subjective experiences is, I feel, to fundamentally miss the point. Nobody need know why I do this. Truly, nobody need know why anyone does this. The solo cycling journey is a deeply personal thing; a gateway to the simple life of the wanderer, an ancient collective memory that beckons to so many of us yet which the settled, civilized world does all it can to quash. It is a life whose setting is so uncommonly tangible that it can’t help but test our thoughts and actions against their real-world consequences. The sights, sounds and smells that pass us by are merely the colourings of a multi-dimensional picture of life on Earth that emerges with each pedal stroke. And it’s a process to which, after ten years of practising the art of bicycle travel, I return over and again, each time for reasons that may differ in their details but which all ultimately boil down to immersing myself in that sense of just existing as a wanderer, the passage of the world beneath my wheels a reflection of the passage of time, my journeys a metaphor for life as it gradually unfolds, moment by moment.

I spend today in a state of absolute serenity. What could be easier than bathing in the glory of effortless motion? Nothing happens all day, yet at the same time, something’s always happening. Moments blend into a smooth flow of sensation attached to no notion of good or bad, comfort or displeasure, just the rhythmic rotations of the machine with which I have become symbiotic. Rest stops, too, are zen-like, free of the baggage of emotion and desire; purely functional occasions. I dimly remember pulling up outside a bakery and being handed two loaves of piping hot bread, smiling bakers refusing payment. By the time I reach the turnoff that will take me across the mountains and down to the Persian Gulf, I have ridden almost a hundred glorious kilometres, and it feels I have done so through nothing more than existing! One of those days, I grin to myself.

The route across the mountains looks tough but doable before dark – an 8‑mile climb at a 7% average grade. That’ll be a first-gear grind of a couple of hours; a nice way to end a good day, and I’m hoping to find a cracking campsite in the mountains to round things off.

I launch into the climb. The riding becomes intense, even more corporeal than before, inviting a different kind of flow, one rooted in pain’s embrace. It seems a soundtrack would enhance things, so I wedge my phone into my cockpit bag, speaker protruding, and spend the next three hours working my way through Underworld’s 1992–2012 anthology as the valley drops away behind me. By the time I’ve hoisted myself up to the secret plateau hidden away above the crags, I’ve climbed almost back up to the altitude of Shiraz, from where I began my ride a week ago. The discovery that my body is still capable of this, after so long off the bike, is powerfully life-affirming, and I swoop down onto the darkening plateau in an insane cacophony of whooping and screaming at the pure joy of being alive!

There’s not a soul to be seen. A few signboards and dirt tracks wriggling off into the hills betray some kind of low-key industrial or military presence up here, and I can see the twinkling of lights in the distance, far away from the road; a tiny mountain village or two, perhaps. But to all intents and purposes I have the place to myself, and as soon as I see a spinney a hundred yards off the road with an inviting-looking clearing between the trees, I know I’ve found my home for the night.

In an echo of my six-week jaunt along the Karun, this will end up being the sole night I spend under the stars on this trip. And the glare of the full moon that rises an hour after sunset will keep me awake much of the night. But my god, is it worth it to be sleeping outside again!