Bikepacking Southern Iran 2016

Bikepacking Southern Iran: Day Six

It’s half past two in the afternoon. I thank Amin profusely and ride away with an enormous sense of relief. It’s been a weird kind of fun, but now it’s time to cram in as many miles as I can before sundown, and probably a few after dark to make up for lost time. I start back towards the road at a brisk pace. I have only a couple of hours to cross into the next valley, and I’d rather not be grinding up a mountainside when the sun disappears behind the crags in a couple of hours’ time.

As I ride, I find myself contemplating all the ways in which the last 24 hours could have ended up being genuinely annoying, as opposed to just a weird kind of fun. There was the way in which the original invitation transformed into a 100km round trip to have dinner in Jam, a city down the road, which was only revealed once I was divested of my belongings and sat in the passenger seat. Then there was the trip’s magical transmutation into a 250km late-night epic as we bypassed Jam and were suddenly on the way to Asalyueh, another hour’s drive away, which I later realised had been the plan all along. I was obviously exhausted and just wanted to rest – something I mentioned frequently. That didn’t matter. Of course I was up for being dragged in the car around all night!

As the white-hot flares of Asaluyeh’s gas refineries came into view, Amin had produced a bottle of clear liquid and poured it into two cups, topping it up with a can of energy drink. I realised I was overtaking a police car with a total stranger who had his phone in one hand and a vodka Red Bull in the other and was necking it at 70mph with no hands on the wheel. At that moment, the zen concept of unconditional acceptance of the ‘now’ really came into its own.

Having spent the night on his friends’ couch, when morning came I decided to hold Amin to his word that we would head back after breakfast. His friends had gone to work, the sun long since risen. We ate some bread and cheese and I necked a coffee, at suitable intervals pestering Amin – who was grouchy and hung over – as to how long it would take to get back, and reminding him that I had a long way to ride today and needed to get going.

It transpired, of course, that Amin’s intention was not to deliver me back to my bike but to continue dragging me around on a series of errands, most of which seemed to include buying Japanese-made espresso machines from tiny backstreet shops and delivering them to friends all over Fars province, accompanied by a series of excuses and apologies. As the hours had worn on, it became clear that the novelty of having me around – whatever his original purpose – had worn off.

Hours passed, the day turning farcical. When, on the way past Jam (again), we veered off into the hills to visit a farmer with which Amin had some business to settle, I decided to exaggerate my displeasure. No, I did not want more tea; I would prefer to leave. No, I did not want to stop at a restaurant for lunch; I would prefer to get back on the road. I wasn’t particularly bothered by the delay, but I was, if anything, simply bored of being treated like a prop. And I knew that a little strategic complaining would compel Amin to deliver me back to my bike out of honour – the only card I had left to play.

It worked. I felt vaguely guilty. But there had been little consideration to his hospitality. On the contrary, it had been both disingenuous and ignorant of my wishes. Manipulating my journey back on track had been my only option.

Whatever. This had happened before and it would happen again. I would shrug it off and continue my ride, a little behind schedule. And all would fade into insignificance; just another strange encounter on the road, absorbed and miniaturised by time and miles.


Bikepacking instils you with an unequivocal sense of freedom. You live out your destiny as an impossibly insignificant speck, trundling along a dirt road, beholden to no-one. It’s beautiful.

Here, the landscapes make you feel particularly as though you have been shrunken down to the size of a flea. The plains are flat, broad and featureless, except for the patchworks of green that decorate the dust, cut through by asphalt causeways snaking along the flats. Mountain fringe the plains in parallel, separating the valley from its neighbours by narrow ridges of rock. They’re neither tall nor particularly forbidding, but the effect of their presence is to diminish one’s size yet further. You’re left feeling like an ant, crawling between furrows left by fingers dragged through thick dust and blown up to interplanetary scale. Indeed, there’s a certain Martian vibe to the place, enhanced in morning and evening by the reddish haze that descends upon the land and frames one Instagram-worthy sunset after another.

Sweating through the spurs to reach the next valley compounds this otherworldly feeling. Up close and personal, the mountains deconstruct into stratified pyramids of soft, sandy earth in red, yellow and blueish-grey hues. I’m compelled, childlike, to get a tactile sense of this place. Dumping my bike and bounding off the verge, the hillsides crumble beneath my fingertips, immense yet seemingly fragile. The side of each pyramid appears to have been sculpted by giant hands into myriad diagonal channels, fractal and self-repeating, each tributary joining with its neighbours in an intricate drainage system for some long-gone flooding event. The lay geologist in me imagines a rapidly sped-up scene of an ocean floor suddenly rising above the waves, billions of gallons of water carving these landscapes as they follow the path of least resistance back to the sea.

In the next valley I spend a couple of minutes at a four-way junction, observing the traffic for patterns that will reveal the quietest route. If Amin’s kidnapping attempt had a silver lining (aside from the chicken barbecue), it was to reveal my planned route south to the Gulf via Jam and Asaluyeh as a horror story of traffic and pollution on an unimaginable scale. What I had not been aware of was Asaluyeh’s recent renaissance as a gas and petrochemical hotspot. Indeed, it was hailed proudly by Amin as “the gas capital of Iran”, and all of his friends there were employed in one way or another by the state corporations. Refineries and plants were being built at light-speed in order to exploit the Iranian-controlled portion of the biggest gas field in the world, located beneath the seabed of the Persian Gulf between Iran and Qatar. It was as recently as 1998 that sleepy little Asalyueh – until then a fishing village of a few thousand people – discovered that it had the dubious honour of being the closest onshore settlement to the site. Boom.

I’d felt like I was arriving on the set of a dystopian-futuristic science fiction movie. As we’d plummeted down from the mountains in the dead of night, the sight that greeted me had not been of my imagined expanse of ocean but instead of an endless metallic metropolis, all chrome towers and steampunk pipework and halogen floodlights and – most striking of all – the spluttering volcanoes of gas that pierced the night sky from refinery chimneys and illuminated the mountainsides with a flickering and malevolent orange. A cross between Guy Fawkes’ night and the opening sequence of Blade Runner – and not a human being to be seen.

It was spectacular enough from a car window, but I could barely have imagined a worse place to be on a bicycle. That’s why I’ve stop at this junction. From here I can bypass Asaluyeh via the valley that runs parallel to the coast. At some point tomorrow I’ll veer south once more, cross the final mountain range, and finally hit the coastline. If the map on my phone is to be believed, the industrial area should give way to wild coastal roads, away from the highways, promising another adventurous route between the remote and little-visited bandars – fishing ports – of which poor Asaluyeh once was a member.

Traffic monitoring exercise complete, I choose the most obscure-looking alternative to the highway – my tried-and-tested recipe for adventure. With that in mind, my new course is set, and I pedal on into the growing twilight.

Bikepacking Southern Iran 2016

Bikepacking Southern Iran: Day Five

A greasy egg sits on a plate, next to a small basket of flatbread and a single-serve packet of carrot jam. This is clearly not a breakfast designed with a hungry bikepacker in mind. For my £25, I feel like raising the point with the waiter, who I have little doubt would bring more food in a flurry of apologies. But for some reason I can’t be bothered – perhaps, again, that die-hard British tendency to avoid disturbing the status quo, manifesting itself now on the tiniest of scales.

I hit the road earlier than ever, though I’ve missed the sunrise by more than an hour. At the moment, light begins to trickle into the sky around 5am, with sunrise an hour and a half later, a schedule that doesn’t quite sync with that of the hotel. I ride west, away from Firuzabad, the sun casting a long shadow on the road ahead of me.

The main road south slides into view in the middle distance. It looks quiet, just the odd car or two, and I hope it’ll stay that way, for I am obliged to take this road to make up for lost time dawdling on the mountainous backroads. As I cross the flyover to join its southbound lane, I note with gladness that it has a generous hard shoulder and looks to be newly resurfaced, setting the scene for a big day. I have become an asphalt connoisseur over the years, and while the backroads will always have the adventurous edge, this kind of generously wide provincial thoroughfare is among the happiest of compromises for a cyclist wanting to cover ground.

Just before the next set of hills there is a service station, one of many I’ll find dotted along this road, a great friend to two-wheeled travellers in Iran, for they signify toilets, coffee, and big portions of cheap hot food. I pull off the road and onto the forecourt, narrowly missing being mashed by an overtaking lorry whose driver is too desperate to take a break to bother slowing down. Dammit! I’ve been spoiled until now. Back on roads where I must share the asphalt, I need to remember where in the pecking order I sit, which, in Iran, is right at the bottom.

I buy a packet of chocolate digestives and help myself to a mugful of boiling water from the samovar outside the grocery, to which I add a double-dose of 3‑in‑1 instant coffee. Pulling out my phone, I notice a couple of new WhatsApp messages. One’s from Leo in Shiraz (that small Far Easterner on the short ride), who tells me I should be losing a lot of elevation after Firuzabad if I’m heading south. In the meantime, he’s still waiting for his visa extension. Claus (the tall German on the long ride), meanwhile, tells me he’s setting off for Bandar Abbas on the highway to catch the weekend ferry to Sharjah. A moment of nostalgia hits me: I crossed the Persian Gulf on that same ferry seven and a half years ago, albeit in the opposite direction, having spent six months pedalling from Turkey to Iran the long way round – via Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, and the UAE. How the world has changed since then! How I have changed since then…

Nostalgia, too, was one of my reasons for selecting the port of Bandar Abbas as the endpoint for this trip (the other being the direct train back to Tehran). Actually, now I think about it, the last 24 hours has been awash with bloody nostalgia. The long nights leave loads of time for reading – my favourite on-the-road pastime – and I’ve been ploughing through the third and final book by Jason Lewis* documenting his Expedition 360 project, a 14-year odyssey at the end of which he became the first person in recorded history to circumnavigate the globe by human power.

Chiefly, human power meant his legs. Back at the voyage’s outset in 1994 (when I was still at primary school), he and his original partner Steve had commissioned a specially-designed pedal boat, with which the expedition crossed the Atlantic, the Pacific (where Steve had called it quits), and finally the Indian Ocean. With the exception of an ill-advised rollerblading stint across North America, he used the good old bicycle to cover ground on land, the cheapest and most practical way to travel independently by human power.

The reason for my nostalgia is that I had, last night, reached the point in the story where Lewis lands in Djibouti and begins pedalling north through Ethiopia and Sudan on the final leg of his voyage towards Europe, 12 years after setting off from the Greenwich Meridian. He takes the same route I’d taken in 2009 while I was abandoning my planned round-the-world route and veering off into Africa, but he pedals north, not south, and a couple of years earlier than me. (Strangely, he too seems to encounter insane headwinds on a daily basis when crossing the Sahara.)

Aside from the expedition being a superhuman feat of determination (and a good story well told), reading about another fish-out-of-water subsumed by the violence of life in Africa has given me comfort, for until now I have not sought to dig too deep into those memories. In fact, I realise, I have actively avoided doing so. Because of all the experiences I’ve had on the road in 58 countries, the most affecting and – dare I say it – traumatic of all were contained within that north-east corner of the African continent, and specifically in the weeks between Khartoum and Djibouti City. It is easy to look back through rose-tinted spectacles at almost any adventurous experience, no matter how hard, and to remember it fondly, or at least to laugh about it. But I cannot do that here. Indeed, recalling those times brings with it a muted sensation of dread that numbs and erases all else I might otherwise feel. I did my best to articulate why in Janapar*, but to this day, that confusing experience remains unexplored and unexplained.

Perhaps nostalgia is the wrong word in this case. Perhaps it’s a weird, selfish kind of reassurance; the comforting knowledge that someone else had to experience it, that I was not alone in suffering those traumas. Because for all the transnational perspectives on the world I’ve cultivated in the years since, I know, deep down, that a repeat of those experiences would undermine it all in an instant.

I finish my coffee and hit the road. The weather is glorious. And the road, too – it’s one of those roads on which the miles pass unnoticed, as if it’s you that is stationary and the world that is rotating beneath your wheels. Yes, this is partly because I’m losing elevation between one valley and the next, soaring ever down towards the lowlands. And yes, this is partly because my legs have now hardened to their task and pedalling seems effortless once again. But it is also partly because I am in the mood for cranking out some serious distance, spurred on by the prospect of reaching the coast, wanting a change from the stop-start bumbling around in the hills. This, I think, is where the bicycle really comes into its own.

Thoughts whirl and dissipate into the breeze, and I can almost feel my brain draining out the dregs of anxiety that have been fermenting and bubbling over the last few weeks, a product of innumerable tiny decisions to make and problems to solve, finally unplugged by the magical act of taking a bicycle and spontaneously going somewhere new: a breath of fresh air in every sense, as the rugged folds and contours of southern Iran zing past beneath the tyres and into history, even these fresh sights to be recalled only as an impressionistic blur.

By the hasty close of another day I’ve ridden almost a century. I keep riding. Momentum won’t let me stop. With a few thousand feet descended, the landscapes have changed dramatically, barren crags giving way to broad, cultivated valleys dotted with stands of trees and workers’ shelters of timber frames and palm leaves. People are still working the fields, eking out the last of the daylight at the height of the growing season, and I know I’ll find a good camping spot under cover of darkness. This is familiar territory, reminding me of a trek I made three years ago along the lower reaches of the Zayanderud river near Esfahan, one of several adventures I’ve never written about because some things are best kept for yourself.

I’m excited. With almost a hundred miles on the clock, I’m finally going to get to wild camp – my other favourite on-the-road pastime – and spend a few hours finishing Jason’s extraordinary journey before sinking into a glorious, hard-earned slumber under the stars.

But… but…

If I told you that, three hours later, I would be a hundred miles away on the coast of the Persian Gulf with a man I’d met on the roadside, who offered to let me sleep in the spare room above his shop, but who then – after I’d dumped my bike and my stuff – decided that what I would like more than anything was to be driven to the distant city of Asaluyeh in the dead of night to watch him barbecue a chicken in his friends’ back-yard, get drunk, and pass out on the sofa, before spending six hours making the return journey the following morning, resulting in me finally hitting the road at 2:30pm tomorrow – if I told you that, would you be surprised?

Yes? Then clearly you have not been listening hard enough when I’ve mentioned, repeatedly, that this what happens when you travel in Iran. When people wax lyrical about Iranian hospitality, they’re remembering nights like this.

It can be overwhelming to the point of being disruptive, which inflexible travellers find hard to deal with. I count myself lucky that I was only detained for a single night!

But if you can accept the tendency of Iran to sweep you up in itself, then… well, nights like this will end up being the ones you remember most fondly of all.

Bikepacking Southern Iran 2016

Bikepacking Southern Iran: Day Four

Today, I cock it up.

I’m woken at 5am by the mo’azzen and his call to prayer, a singular amplified wail filling the quiet valley with high-pitched tremor. I roll over and am snapped awake by the classic 3rd-day-of-riding thigh burn. As I pack my gear, I decide I am going to make today a half-day of riding and take the afternoon off. Giving my legs a rest and my body a proper feed, I reason, will pay off over the following days.

I scan the maps I’ve downloaded. The nearest decent-sized settlement is Firuzabad, big enough to have a university and therefore, I guess, a mosaferkhane or two; a cheap motel in which a room can usually be found for £10 or so. It’s about 40 miles away. I suspect the worst of the climbs are over and that I can knock out this distance by lunchtime. Thanking Karim, and waving goodbye to the three kids peeping shyly round the door, I make my way back to the road and set off into the dawn.

Karim had been an agricultural engineer, designing, making and installing irrigation systems for farmers in and around his village. I find myself riding alongside the results of his work. With 80 million mouths to feed, agriculture is an enormous industry. Down here in the south, winter is the growing season as the summers are simply too hot.

On previous adventures in Iran I’ve seen other pieces of the puzzle that come together to make these barren-looking lands fertile – in short, to allow Iranians to grow tomatoes in the desert. Indeed, on a journey through Iran, one can experience millennia of agricultural innovation in the space of a single day.

Up in the high mountains, passing among the most arid and lifeless of rocky slopes, you may hear a tinny, off-kilter clanking of bells on the breeze, bringing a flashback of grainy old films set in colonial-era Middle East in which scarved and weathered goatherds traipse the hillsides with their animals. Then you’ll notice that there is indeed a scarved and weathered goatherd traipsing the hillside, the herd scouring the rockscape for meagre forage in a scene that has remained unchanged for thousands of years.

As you descend, you’ll notice what look like attempts at ploughing, irregular squares of furrowed land planted with potatoes or hardy herbs. If you’re lucky, you might notice figures tilling these fields by hand, men and women together. As you move among the fields, you’ll notice shallow, hand-dug irrigation channels feeding the furrows with life-giving water. If you’re particularly eagle-eyed, you’ll spot deeper ditches diverting water from a nearby river via a meticulous network of sluice gates into the irrigation network, where a farmer will be shovelling heaps of dirt around to temporarily block and open different channels to direct the flow.

Before long, the fields will grow bigger, closer-packed, more regular in shape and size, settlements and roads more obvious among them. You’ll hear the slow put-put-put of an internal combustion engine. Peering around for an idling truck or tractor, your gaze will instead land on the flywheels and cranks of an old-fashioned diesel engine powering a water pump, making agriculture possible further from the water’s source. Closer inspection may even reveal it to have been manufactured in England – of all places! – back when the countries were friends and allies and before the British manufacturing base collapsed. Workers will be harvesting ripe produce into plastic crates stacked near a pickup truck in a vision of fast-industrialising modern agriculture.

Continued curious wanderings will unveil fields now ploughed with heavy machinery, irrigated using complex networks of plastic pipework, protected from the elements by polytunnels, and fertilised and pest-controlled using fancy new imported chemicals. And then – the pièce de résistance – you’ll hit one of the dams, perhaps even one the mega-dams (such as Leon and I found while trying to descend the Karun back in 2014), built during the recent craze for large-scale civil engineering, one of hundreds of projects designed to harness the dwindling water resources of Iran to feed its fast-growing, fast-modernising population.

Honestly, it’s impressive. Were the global economy to suffer meltdown, I have little doubt that Iran would remain standing as one of the few truly self-reliant nations of the world, while those in the West would suffer the sudden halting of the global import-export network in innumerable hard-hitting ways.

Perhaps, in a weird and counterintuitive way – and I am not at all comfortable trying to articulate this – a return to self-reliance could prove one of the few positive upshots of Brexit, a political turning point for the nation of my birth that might in other ways prove catastrophic. Perhaps, isolated from the rest of the world and hamstrung by voluntarily-instituted trade sanctions, the inhabitants of Britain would be forced to come together, pool their resources, revive long-dead institutions, and rediscover their ability to look after themselves and each other; now an island in both the geographical and economic senses. And perhaps, in a time where the dismantling of global industry seems to be a precondition for human survival, this would be a good thing – at least for one little island in the North Atlantic.


Anyway, today’s cockup has nothing to do with ruminations on the economic trajectory of Iran and everything to do with assuming that Firuzabad will have a mosaferkhane. Because when I arrive in the city and start asking taxi drivers for the nearest motel, the unanimous reply is that there isn’t one.

What there is, however, is a government-run tourist hotel, the good old mid-range travellers’ favourite: Hotel Jahangardi. I roll up and ask for the price of a single room, knowing from the way the receptionist recoils from my appearance that it’ll be out of my budget, and yes: it’s 180,000 Tomans a night. That’s about £45 – a quarter of my budget for this whole trip.

Contemplating 13 hours in a tent on the side of a main road, I mutter my thanks and that I unfortunately can’t afford it, then turn to leave. It isn’t intended as a haggling ruse, but it works astonishingly well, perhaps because it’s genuine: the price immediately drops to just a hundred Tomans, more like £25, with breakfast thrown in. It’s still a massive chunk of my budget, of course. Accommodation in Iran outside the main hotspots feels disproportionately expensive. But then my legs chime in, reminding my brain that it’ll pay its dividends tomorrow and in the days that follow. Resisting the urge cultivated by years of shoestring vagabonding to never spend any money on anything, I hand over my passport and a wad of banknotes – though as I cart my belongings up to the room, I still can’t avoid the feeling that I’ve somehow cocked up.

Later, refreshed by an afternoon nap, I head out on foot. Like so much of Iran, one of the original cradles of civilization, the modern-day homogeneity of Firuzabad belies its ancient history. With origins in the Chalcolithic period, Firuzabad (originally named Gōr) can claim at least 5,000 years of inhabitation, as well as the dubious honour of being destroyed by Alexander The Great in the 4th century BC. Revived and rebuilt a few hundred years later by Ardashir I (whose ruined palace I’d explored earlier that day), Gōr was eventually renamed Firuzabad – “City of Victory” – in the 10th century AD by an emir of Fars, the province through which I’ve been riding.

The ruins of Gōr still stand on the western edge of modern-day Firuzabad, open for exploration by all. In the city centre, of course, you’re more likely to find pizzerias, ice-cream parlours, downtown parks and four-way traffic intersections than Zoroastrian fire temples. It is here that I cock up for a second time when I try in a local pharmacy to procure a bottle of medical alcohol to fuel my stove.

Though my rusting Farsi is coming back to me, I can’t find the word for ‘alcohol’ (perhaps unsurprisingly in a dry country). The giggling young women behind the counter profess not to speak a word of English, finding the presence of a random Brit hilarious. I fall back on ‘determined babbling foreigner’ mode to see what happens. Eventually one of them beckons me out of the shop and drags me down an adjoining alleyway to what I discover is a doctor’s surgery. Barging through a crowd of women and children waiting outside his door, I burst in on the doctor mid-consultation, apologising profusely to him and his bemused patient, and escaping quickly with the colloquial word for alcohol. (In case you’re wondering, it’s “alcool”. Of course.)

The cock-up is that it turns out to cost 30,000 Tomans – about £7 – for the tiniest and most pathetic little bottle out of which I’ll be lucky to get 4 or 5 brews. But I’m way too far into the process to back out now. I hand over yet more precious cash. D’oh.

Opposite the pharmacy is Valiasr Park, and at its entrance is a street food vendor. I cross the road and ask him what he’s selling. “Ash‑e doogh”, he tells me – translated literally, something like ‘yoghurt soup’. Besides the vat of creamy pale-green stew is a stack of plastic bowls. I ask for a small portion.

“What’s in it?” I ask as he ladles the stew into the bowl. It looks like rice pudding with herbs in it.

“Yoghurt, kashk, rice, and wild mountain herbs. It’s a local thing,” he replies, handing it to me. I get a strong whiff of tarragon. Like most Persian stews, there’s no obscure secret behind its preparation – what you see is what you get. Also like most Persian stews, the weird-sounding combination turns out to be pretty good.

“Where are you coming from?” he asks, striking up conversation with the Farsi-speaking foreigner. Perhaps because of the wording of the question, and perhaps because I used my adoptive homeland’s passport both to enter the country and check into the hotel, I reply: “Armenia.”

“Armenia…” he ponders. “A friend of mine visited Armenia last year. He said it was a beautiful country.”

“It is,” I reply, nodding in agreement, recalling powerful visions from the year just gone.

“But how’s the weather? Isn’t it very cold right now?”

“That’s true,” I say. Friends in Yerevan have been reporting daytime temperatures approaching ‑20°C. “That’s also why I’m here!” I add.

We continue discussing the weather and other such small talk. Like most Iranians, he’s well aware of the Armenians. These two next-door neighbours share centuries of history as their people have befriended, invaded, assimilated, subjectified, fought and assisted each other – mostly on Persian imperial terms, as has so often been the case in Armenian history, but largely favourable to Armenians nonetheless. The result is a fully assimilated Armenian community in Iran with hundreds of years of lineage – even having permanent representation in Parliament. Iranian Armenians define and distinguish themselves through the preservation of their language, religion, certain cultural traditions, and above all a sense of Armenian ethno-nationalistic identity ranging from the moderate to the extreme – though in a brief encounter with an Iranian Armenian on the streets of Tehran or Esfahan, you’d never know the difference.

As I leave, the vendor offers his phone number in case I need any help during my time in Iran. I politely decline, telling him I’ll be fine, and start to head back to the hotel. It’s a heart-warming gesture and one of the quirks of Iranian social etiquette that resonates with some deep-seated British sense of helpful politeness to all as the way things should be – a memory of a fairy-tale homeland that probably never was.

Bikepacking Southern Iran 2016

Bikepacking Southern Iran: Day Three

In haste, I have misread the map. Far from being an easy detour down from the central Iranian plateau to the coast, the scenic route I’ve chosen is a rollercoaster of mountains and valleys at altitude. When the asphalt peters out and I hit the dirt, I peer again at the satellite imagery and realise my mistake: while the river canyon I’ve been following meanders off to the west, whereas my route strikes out south east, crossing several watersheds before rejoining a bigger artery heading directly south for the coast.

It’s a stunning ride, but my body complains at the assault. I ignore it and push on through. There’s something cathartic about a first-gear grind up hours of switchbacks, and I can’t quite put my finger on what makes such a climb simultaneously so daunting and yet so inspiring.

The dirt road also serves as a test of my new rig. I have chosen to push ultralight touring as far as I can on this trip, and with a brand new luggage setup and a few modifications to the basic spec of my Sutra, I’ve been hoping the result will be versatile and fun to ride.

At some level, I guess, I also want to make a study of this stripped-back and minimal approach to cycle touring known as ‘bikepacking’. Does the loss of perhaps three-quarters of your carrying capacity affect your practical options, your routine, and ultimately your enjoyment of your trip?

The first and most conspicuous difference had been noticeable even as I’d ridden out of the bus station in Shiraz. I’d felt like I was riding a bicycle, as opposed to the tank-like contraption of a fully-loaded touring bike. Crossing the footbridge over the river, I’d simply picked the bike up and carried the whole rig on my shoulder, much as I would have a mountain bike to negotiate a gate or stile. And yesterday, whizzing up and down the valleys, I had again noted the nimble sprightliness of the bike, the unladen ease of the climbs, the gymnastically responsive handling on the downhills.

Today, on the dirt roads, bouncing off rocks and rolling through ruts, the bike feels similarly reassuring. I stop to cinch up the seat pack a little tighter and let the upgraded Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tyres down to their lowest rated pressure; traction and comfort increase noticeably. The Sutra, stripped of its pannier racks, seems to be enjoying itself on the gravel. Some touring bikes feel awkward and reserved when ridden without luggage; the Sutra seems to have simply been tolerating the panniers and is now quietly rejoicing at their disappearance.

Before departing Yerevan I’d done away with the Sutra’s original bar tape and re-wrapped the handlebars with a set of Fat Wraps, sent from Canada by Kent MacWilliam, a long-time tourer who started Tasis Bikes to make touring-specific accessories. His extra-thick handlebar tape was designed to alleviate to the numb fingers and sore wrists from which many long-haul riders find themselves suffering. He’d got in touch before this trip and I’d agreed to road-test the Fat Wraps and report back on my experiences. While it seems I haven’t done the most professional job of installing the tape, the additional padding and girth is immediately noticeable, the tape grippy yet pliable over the rough terrain.

I break for lunch at the top of the pass. A solitary motorbike rider trundles in my direction, head wrapped in a scarf, clothes dusty, bike even dustier. He waves as I perch on a rock on the roadside, scoffing down the bread and cream cheese I’d bought in the village the previous night. It was originally intended to be my breakfast, but Iranian hospitality had put paid to that – lucky for me, as I haven’t seen a shop or settlement for many hours. Then the rider is gone, the muffled buzz of the little engine dwindling into nothingness.

Iran is crammed with knock-off Honda CG125s – one for every man, woman, and child, it sometimes seems. The only variation is in the brand name emblazoned across the fuel tank (Kavir, Ehsan, Tizpar) and the level of decrepitude. In the big cities, these motorbikes rule the streets (and sometimes the pavements, too), often ferrying entire families around, proud father at the helm, cloaked wife behind him, one or two children tucked in behind her, and the smallest child perched on the fuel tank. Others cart the most unlikely and unwieldy loads around. Flat-screen TV deliveries are a common sight. Rolled up carpets. Stacks of fruit and vegetable crates seemingly held together with a single bungee cord. Heaps of giant builders’ sacks containing who-knows-what. There’s seemingly nothing the humble CG125 can’t handle. And, of course, every street features at least one dingy repair shop in which broken-down bikes are stripped, fixed, and put back together in minutes by MacGuyver-style mechanics. Without question, it would be the perfect motorbike on which to explore the vastness of Iran – a trip I’ve often contemplated doing myself – not to mention that petrol costs less than 20p a litre.

I stuff the last of the bread and cheese into my mouth, and follow it with a handful of salt-and-lemon-roasted almonds, an Iranian trail-food staple. Between Alpkit’s slimline ‘Possum’ frame bag and top-tube-mounted ‘Fuel Pod’, I’ve got space for 24 hours’ worth of food and snacks: flatbread and cream cheese for breakfast, dried fruit and nuts to keep me going, and instant noodles for dinner (pre-crushed to fit, packet punctured to let the air out). If I chose denser calories, I could probably extend the range of my provisions by another day or so, but village groceries are commonplace enough – and my route ‘civilised’ enough – that I don’t need to.

In my handlebar bag – a classic Ortlieb that’s still going strong after nearly a decade – I’ve packed my documents, valuables, gadgets and chargers, a spare USB power pack, Kindle, diary, sunglasses case, and toothbrush. I’ve also stowed a few 3‑in‑1 coffee sachets inside an Alpkit MyTiMug, alongside the good old beer-can stove, for whenever I feel like making a brew.

The slender frame bag leaves space for two full-size water bottles and one half-size one. I’m not going to be going thirsty while the weather remains this mild. In any case, government-maintained water coolers adorn the streets of Iran, even in villages. These state-sponsored refills are so regular that not once during this trip do I have to knock on a door. Indeed, the Iranian state invests much in providing for its citizenry. Clean, free drinking water for all goes hand in hand with a high-quality road network, subsidised public transport (a Metro ticket in Tehran, for example, costs the equivalent of 20p), and, of course, subsidised fuel. In some gas-rich regions the gas supply is provided free of charge to residents – with the unintended side effect of them leaving their stoves burning round the clock rather than wasting money on matches.

Like the trope of the prisoner turning his cell into a gym and coming out stronger, the so-called punishment of international sanctions has resulted in Iran becoming astonishingly self-reliant, producing all of its own basic commodities, from food and fuel to cars and motorbikes, household supplies, furniture, and so on. Luxury goods are shipped over from the UAE in spite of the trade embargo. With the majority of Iranian manufacturing being state-owned and cost of goods set by the government (everything on sale in an Iranian grocery comes stamped not just with its expiry date but with its price), day-to-day life under the Iranian government has a distinctly socialistic – verging on communistic – vibe of top-down design and predictability to it.

Back on asphalt, tyres and legs pumped, the final climb of the day is the killer. I munch through all my trail mix on the way up the switchbacks, motorbikes and pickups tooting encouragement in the dusk as they growl past. At the top of the pass, I check my handlebar-mounted GPS unit to find that I’ve climbed a vertical mile today. No bloody wonder I’m exhausted.

There’s little daylight left, and so, as a welcome tailwind pushes my flagging form across the plateau, illuminated by a golden setting sun, I peer off the road for camping spots. The outdoor industry moves quickly; the ultralight gear I bought for this year’s big project has allowed me to pack a complete camping setup into a single seat pack. Alpkit’s minimalist Pipedream 250 sleeping bag provides ample warmth in this climate; the Exped Synmat Hyperlite M is possibly the lightest and most packable full-length inflatable mattress on the market; a compressible drybag contains a change of underwear, a long-sleeve shirt, a pair of baggy shorts for when the climate hots up, and a fleece. Then there’s a basic first-aid kit: dressings, antiseptic wipes, painkillers, antibiotics. And half a loo roll for emergencies.

I am still amazed that all this fits into a bag less than half the size of a single rear pannier. On top, I’ve strapped the skeleton of a MSR Hubba 1‑berth tent, doing away with the rainfly, footprint and pegs, bringing only the mesh inner and the poles. I’ve anticipated a dry ride, and so far I’ve been correct. As for cold nights like tonight – well, I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve for that.

Except that I don’t need them, because this is Iran. Half an hour later, I’ll be pulled over by a guy in a pickup who wants to know why a foreigner is cycling past his village in the fading twilight. He’ll invite me to his house, I’ll politely decline once, twice, three times; enough to know the invitation earnest. And while his village is a detour from my route, I’ll find myself unable to say no.

I’ll dump my bike at his family home. Then I’ll spend a couple of hours hanging out with my new friend Karim in a village shop with an espresso machine, while the men of the village wander in, ask me where I’m from / where I’m going / whether I’m married, etc., knock back shots of coffee, and wander home. Then, after dinner, I’ll help my host’s 9‑year-old daughter with her English homework before curling up to sleep in front of a large and very welcoming radiator. Wild camping could wait.

After all, I did come here to hang out with the people as much as travel through the place.

(Full disclosure: Kona sponsored me with the Sutra in 2012; Alpkit with the MyTiMug in 2015. Exped sent me the SynMat Hyperlite M for road-testing and feedback, as did Bag4Bike with their seat pack, and Kent with his FatWraps. All other equipment mentioned in this piece was purchased. I never enter into any pre-agreement to write favourably about a sponsor’s product.)

Bikepacking Southern Iran 2016

Bikepacking Southern Iran: Day Two

Southwest of Shiraz is a big green splodge on Google Maps, reportedly the ‘Maleh Galeh’ protected area. Running through its heart is a road of the smallest designation. Satellite imagery depicts rural asphalt becoming dirt, weaving along the scoured valleys of the tail end of the Zagros, a scattering of villages promising basic provisions. Though by no means the quickest route towards the coast, I have not come here to fight with trucks and buses on the highways of Iran. This road appears to fit my standard criteria of being the most obscure-looking alternative to the highway – my tried-and-tested recipe for adventure. With that in mind, my course is set.

And it does not disappoint. After the usual drudgery of extracting oneself from a city’s sprawl, a minor road peels off to the south, and I hop the central reservation and launch onto it. The goods traffic fades into the background, only the occasional car or pickup truck plying this route, and soon I have the road to myself, swooping and banking along the contours of the parched mountainsides under a brilliant blue sky.

I traverse some foothills. A shortcut on a dirt road serves to test the stability of my new luggage setup. A climb approaches, winding up into a forest of bare-looking chestnut trees, and my legs stir from slumber, remembering mountain ranges long since conquered, countries transected, continents wriggled across. It’s quiet. I am alone. I have everything I need and nothing I don’t. This is a world away from the life I’d been living this past year. This is what I needed.

While not a meditation in the commonly-understood sense, I’ve come to realise that the conditions of solo cycle touring in remote and unfamiliar places are the ideal incubator for mindfulness. I’d just known it by different language until recently. It’s rooted, I feel, in the physical, elemental nature of the lifestyle and routine. Piloting a bike across new terrain demands that you are present in the here-and-now; living the moment, to use a well-worn phrase, because otherwise you will crash, painfully. At the same time, there is nothing much to do but pedal. Under undemanding circumstances – and how hard does riding a bike really get? – this becomes second nature, leaving ample room for the mind to wander.

But because you can never be fully distracted on a bicycle, you’re much more likely to notice where your mind’s wanderings have taken you. You become conscious of the strange fact that there seems to be more than one ‘you’: the scatterbrained storyteller, the indefatigable analyst, the world-wearied worrier, and other thought-spirals you may eventually distinguish within the inner monologue, now amplified by solitude and the passing of time. And then you realise that the real ‘you’ is the silent observer who becomes conscious of all these habit-formed characters.

It may take time – days, weeks, months, depending on your starting point – but eventually you notice that paying attention to these voices – listening, as opposed to trying to fight or stifle them – diminishes their effect. Freed, your attention snaps more easily back to the here and now. The texture and composition of this particular stretch of asphalt; how your inner archivist notes the differences and similarities. The slightly sub-optimal pressure of your rear tyre, revealed by the analysing mechanic as you encounter an imperfection in the road surface. The loose wrap of bar-tape beneath the fourth finger of your right hand that the problem-solver wants to stop and fix. The fresh fingermarks in the dust of your downtube, shiny paintwork exposed by a recent attempt to extract a water bottle, grabbing the attention of the childlike inner artist. Highfalutin’ philosophy of adventure gives way to observations of extraordinary inconsequence, which rapidly become the most noteworthy elements of your life.

I no longer find it hard to slip into this state of awareness because I’ve been practicing it for years. Indeed, my real reason for making this journey was to spend time in this way. But I remember well my first long bicycle journey and the internal traumas that accompanied this process of ‘waking up’, or, in the parlance of long-term travel mythology, ‘getting to know myself’. It took months for my mind to unravel and for me to understand what was happening.

And that was just the beginning – that was just the original horrifying realisation that at no point in my life, not in my upbringing or education, had I been imparted with the tools to manage my own brain. I had been trained only how to act, to analyse, to problem-solve, to assimilate, to know, to understand – to use my mind. I had never been taught how to simply be mindful.

I’m sweating from the climb. There’s a refreshing and familiar tingle in my thigh muscles. But it’s chilly up here. Shiraz sits at 1,500m above sea level on the southern fringe of the Iranian plateau, and I’ve since climbed higher. Nighttime temperatures will likely approach zero. I stop to pull on a lightweight Polaris windshell, part of a line of clothing I’ve helped the company develop for adventure cycling. Then I release the brakes and plummet, whooping, down into the valley.

Adrenaline…! The road swerves crazily through the forest, occasionally revealing the floodplain below, green with patchwork fields of potatoes, braided through by the mineral-turquoise river, distant clusters of houses scrolling past as I gather speed. I give thanks to Iranian roadbuilding expertise, especially after a year on the wreckage of Armenia’s road network where I needed a Land Rover just to get where I needed to go…

At the bottom of the valley I pull up outside a village shop. Listless blokes fire random questions at me out of boredom: I get that familiar feeling of being a freak-show, providing temporary entertainment for the unemployed before vanishing down the road. I hasten away to eat my bread and cream cheese lunch.

The days are short. By 4pm I’m eyeing up the chestnut groves for flat patches of land, but there’s light for riding yet. By 5pm, the sun has dipped behind the mountains. In Ramaghan, stopping to provision for dinner, I ask at the grocer’s if there’s a motel nearby, knowing full well there probably isn’t. The shopkeeper confirms my suspicions and I turn to leave and ride out of town to the next pleasant chestnut grove.

“But you can sleep in the mosque. It’s a couple of hundred metres up the road.”

“Are you sure? Won’t it be a problem?”

“No, no problem at all. You’re welcome to sleep there. It’s perfectly safe.”

“Won’t people be using it this evening?”

“Probably only 5 or 6 people. Just wait ‘til they’ve finished, then you can stay there.”

I thank him and ride up the road to the mosque, but the metal gate at the entrance to the yard is locked. So I ride off, pursuing my original plan to camp. Then a teenager on a motorbike pulls alongside me.



“The shopkeeper sent me to let you into the mosque.”

“Oh… thank you!”

There’s a piece of string hanging from a hole in the door, jury-rigged to release the latch from inside. The kid shows me a small office adjoining the main prayer room, which contains a desk stacked with Persian textbooks, an electric heater with a small kettle top of it, and a washbasin in the corner. It’s small, cosy, and the perfect place for a tired cyclist to rest his head for a night.

I say my thanks.

“At your service”, he replies. “And tomorrow morning, please come over for breakfast before you leave. Our house is next door.”