Bikepacking Southern Iran 2016

Bikepacking Southern Iran: Day One

“Meester! Meester! Your bicycle!”

“Yes, yes!” I reply, scurrying across the forecourt to where the second driver is struggling to find handholds through the plastic sheeting. I relieve him of his duties, extracting the bicycle from the hold of the bus and hauling it over to a nearby bench in the sun. Doors swing shut, airbrakes hiss, and the now-empty bus pulls away.

Now comes the street performance every adventurous cyclist must perform: the assembly of a pile of clanking metal and multicoloured bags into a fully-loaded touring bicycle. Out come the pedal wrench, multitool, hand pump. Bored taxi drivers trickle over. Some stand silently around me, poised for the opportunity to heroically intervene with an extra pair of hands. Others watch from a shaded rest spot in front of the dispatch kiosk. I feel self-conscious, but I’ve done this so many times. Let them have their entertainment.

It doesn’t take long to reattach the pedals, realign the handlebars, and pump up the tyres. Next, I strap on my luggage. The seat pack is the most bothersome, sagging as I fiddle with the attachment; quick as lightning, hands dart in to hold it in place as I secure the buckle: the foreigner has been successfully helped! Right on cue, another long-distance bus pulls onto the forecourt and, as one, the flock of drivers migrate towards it, their calls bouncing off the walls – “Taxi! Taxi! Taxi? Taxi…?”

Despite the blue sky and sunshine, there’s a wintry nip in the air as I pedal into Shiraz. I get my second damn, it feels good to be on the road again! moment of the journey while I’m riding from the depot towards the city centre, cackling like an idiot at the sheer joy of being in motion. The bike I chose for this trip – a 2012-vintage Kona Sutra – feels nimble and eager after years of being used as a runabout in Yerevan. Its last big trip was down the Pacific Coast of North America, and another big outing has been a long time coming.

The road follows the riverbank, and I heave my rig across a footbridge to the far side from where I can head downtown more quickly. As I clamber down to the pavement, I catch the eye of a passer-by.

“Salaam alaikum!” I say in greeting.

“Salaam!” he grins. “Where are you going?”

A short conversation ensues, in which he congratulates me on coming to Iran with a bicycle, asks if I need directions, offers me his phone number in case I need help down the road, and wishes me the best of luck on my journey – then grabs my face and plants a heartfelt kiss on each of my cheeks. This, I remind myself, is what people mean when they talk about Iranian hospitality. And I continue riding into Shiraz, my cadence a fraction faster than before.

Down a cobbled backstreet in the old city, where a car barely fits between high-rising outer walls of traditional courtyard homes, I spot the banner of Taha Hostel hanging limp, pulled from its string anchors by the gusting wind. I duck beneath a doorway into a courtyard and the host, Elham, rises to greet me. Before I know what’s happening, I’m sitting at the table with a glass of fragrant black tea. Elham plucks an orange from the tree above my head, cuts it in half and squeezes the juice into the tea: a local tradition, she says. I remind her that my bicycle is still outside in the street where I’d left it, initially just wanting to enquire about beds and prices; she laughs and tells me to bring it into the courtyard, in whose cool and pleasant atmosphere I will spend the remainder of the day (and most of the evening, too).

I’m not normally one for hostels, particularly those on the backpacker circuit, but I want to ease myself into this journey rather than hitting the road straight out of the bus station. In any case, I’ve always found that Iran’s still-overwhelmingly-negative international image has a strangely positive side-effect: Iran attracts only those who are willing to elevate curiosity over convention and travel to a country their friends and family probably think them bonkers to visit (not to mention jumping through the hoops for a visa).

In other words, there’s a higher-than-usual chance that I will find some common ground with the kind of folk who show up at places like Taha Hostel, which by virtue of simply being in Iran is already way off the beaten track (even if Shiraz does have its own check-list of tourist attractions). This isn’t a statement of superiority over those who stick to tried and tested destinations; just to acknowledge that my obscure and impenetrable travel interests mean I almost never cross paths with them. But the scene here is slightly different in Iran – as things are in many other ways.

There are two bicycles parked in the yard, owners nowhere to be seen. One’s a steel-framed bulldozer of a touring bike with Magura hydraulic brakes and a Rohloff Speedhub, saddle set high, continental-style trekking bars, road grime multicoloured and multitextured; I picture a tall German on a long trip. The other is a small and svelte off-the-peg Fuji roadster with a yoga mat still strapped to the rear rack, Brooks only half broken in, conspicuously clean; the image of a small Far Easterner on a short ride comes to mind. People’s touring bikes say a lot about them.

Corrina and Samira are the first other residents to arrive after a day of sightseeing. University friends from their native Switzerland, they’ve been here for a couple of days already and are happily following their noses around Shiraz’s plethora of historical sites. Bubbly, talkative and thoughtful, they’re good company.

We end up discussing the idiosyncrasies of language and geography. Corrina’s native tongue is Romansh, Switzerland’s fourth official language with some 60,000 speakers in the Graubünden region. Until today I’d never heard of it. They’re similarly intrigued to hear that the U.K.’s list of languages is longer than most people think (the most obscure, of course, being Cornish, whose revival movement has yet to raise the number of speakers out of the hundreds).

Then I see an opportunity to ask one of those questions you never remember to ask: Can the word ‘alp’ (as in ‘The Alps’) be used as a singular as well as a plural?

This ignites an explosion of national pride as Corrina and Samira wax lyrical about the ‘alp’ – a high-mountain summer pasture for cows, usually including a shelter and workplace for their keepers – and about the ceremonial journey made down from ‘the alps’ at the end of the season, cows adorned with wreathes of flowers and whatnot. When they start talking about how you can actually taste the wild mountain herbs and flowers in the milk of alp-grazed cattle, I point out how ridiculously Swiss they are, and everyone falls about laughing.

Claus walks in; the prophesied tall German on the long trip. Pedalling from his native Hamburg over the last four months, he’s a softly-spoken, late middle-age teacher, who upon hearing I’m originally from England regales me with a touching tale of hitch-hiking out of London on the M1 in the ‘70s and being invited for lunch in Market Harborough – of all places, about 7 miles from where I grew up! – before being driven back to the motorway. Such was his first impression of the country I was born in, and thus his feelings towards England are sentimental and positive.

Michael arrives, takes one look at me, says, “oh! – you’re the guy from the blog!” and retreats into quiet embarrassment. Later that evening, it transpires that he and a friend have just finished a cycling trip from Ireland to Iran, inspired, he says, by my writing. I don’t know whether to feel flattered or embarrassed, so I settle for mild awkwardness, and puzzle for a while at how those first few words I put out on the internet for the hell of it can have grown and spread so far. For this is not the first time I’ve met ‘a reader’ in the flesh and experienced this weird collision of imagined persona with the unexceptional reality that I’m just another guy being force-fed tea by overly hospitable Iranians in a hostel in Shiraz.

Awkwardness aside, I conclude that writing this blog has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done because of the number of people it’s helped, and that I’ll continue to do it for as long as it remains useful, interesting, and – ultimately – read.

More residents trickle in. We head out for dinner and I help translate the menu. After dark, an atmosphere of serenity descends over Shiraz, surrounded by low mountains, riven through with orange orchards, the old streets sighing into the night under mellow streetlamps, people padding quietly home after evening prayer. I yawn tiredly; it’s been a long journey to the start of this ride.

But there’s a lingering buzz in Shiraz, an energy that isn’t ready to sleep. Something tells me I’ll be back – though it’s more likely, perhaps, that I’ll add Shiraz to a list of places I’d happily revisit would the fleeting brevity of life not compel me to choose novelty over return.

Bikepacking Southern Iran 2016

Bikepacking Southern Iran: Day Zero

This new story is a simple one. I went on another cycling adventure, had some noteworthy experiences, and reckon there’s a decent yarn in there. There will be no convoluted backstory. I desperately needed a break, and ticking off a long-dreamed-of bike trip would be perfect.

The dream in question? Exploring the deep south of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in particular the Persian Gulf coast – the land of the Bandari people, of Arabic speaking, black African Iranians, of thousands of miles of empty white beaches and warm inviting water the colour of the mosaic-tiled turquoise domes for which Persia is so famous.

I would return to the bicycle to explore this whim. The mechanics of the lifestyle are etched into my being from a decade of pedalling; tens of thousands of miles. It’s a permanent part of who I am – literally, though muscle memory – and, though recently I’ve dedicated my time to exploring other adventurous pursuits, I love cycling adventures still, and suspect I will love them always, for myriad reasons.

* * *

For me, the most honest starting point of a journey is an endorphic thrill that jolts you upright and spreads a wide-eyed grin across your face, usually after movement has already begun; a loud and clear realisation, even as you turn aside in embarrassment at your own uncontrollable mirth, that – yes! – this is actually happening NOW!

Suddenly those weeks or months of planning feel distant and ludicrously irrelevant, because the actual experience you’re having right now is something no amount of planning can prepare you for. Plans – imaginary things – crumble to mind-dust while the now seems super-real. You’ve received an injection of a dangerously addictive drug, whose withdrawal symptoms are known as wanderlust, whose buzz you’ll seek again and again and again. Adventure! How good it feels to be right here, right now, poised on the brink of uncertainty, madly eager to fall!

This rush may come several times during the course of a journey, but the first is the most memorable. This time, it comes as we gain altitude and, from my window seat at the back of the plane, facing north-by-north-east, the snowy vastness of the Lesser Caucasus mountain range becomes visible in its entirety on one of the clearest winter mornings in which I could hope to be taking off from Zvartnots International Airport. Beyond them in the far distance I can see what look like clouds but I quickly realise are the peaks of the Greater Caucasus range, an orderly row of craggy pink triangles, filtered through what must have been 200 miles of Earth’s atmosphere, surreal and almost holographic in appearance.

I look upon these twin mountain ranges as we soar ever higher and feel a rush of emotion that goes beyond the simple thrill of embarking upon a brand new adventure. For more than a year, my life has been tied inextricably to these mountains. It started as an idea to create a long distance trekking and bikepacking trail the length of the Lesser Caucasus, taking form as a high-profile vehicle-supported expedition to map and explore potential routes for those trails, then spiralling beyond my control.

The months leading up to this trip were characterised by the grand idea of the Transcaucasian Trail being dragged down into the realm of petty local politics – endless bickering between factions of a newly-forming trail building community over who should be doing what and how they should be doing it – coupled with a race to secure funding for what was rapidly in danger of becoming a project dictated by bureaucrats. I’d tried to play the role of facilitator, engaging everyone and trying to shepherd disparate interests in a common direction that I believed would benefit everyone, before realising that I wanted nothing to do with it. My contribution – my expertise – was in exploring; being there on the ground, thoughtfully designing an experience, then publishing the means to have it.

The stress of all of this had taken its toll. I am neither a politician nor the leader of a movement. My place has always been on the fringes of things, and if I’ve ever had influence in any field, it has always been from behind the scenes. This year, I’d felt myself dragged into the limelight, made a figurehead, targeted, wrenched from my natural habitat. Several times I’d come close to abandoning the project entirely, but I’d avoided the tipping point by forcefully focusing my involvement back down to its roots. In the end, anxiety and exhaustion had been the worst of it, but these are not things to brush under the carpet. The stress had weighed physically as well as mentally, like a weight on my chest. I fell feverish, lost motivation, started snapped at people. When I awoke one morning to episodes of sudden deafness and vertigo that had me clinging to the kitchen table in fright, it became clear that something had to change.

And so it is overwhelmingly elating to watch it all drop away beneath me. I have spent many happy months this year on the ground the Caucasus Mountains, and I’m a little sad to note how relieved I am to leave it all behind for a while. My hope is that I will – through the cathartic hardship of a solo bicycle journey – identify and accept the aspects of the project that have caused so much stress, and regain perspective on how I can continue to be part of the Transcaucasian Trail movement in a way that will not bring me to breaking point.

Yeah. Like I said, I desperately needed a break.

My trusty touring bike is in the hold. My meagre belongings I’ve stuffed into a carry-on-sized plastic bag. I’ll be in Tehran in a hour. Then I’ll take the first bus south.

The road beckons. And it feels so incredibly good to be on it again.