As I wait in Dubai for my Iranian visa application to be processed, I’ve been watching the events portrayed in the international media of Iran’s elections and subsequent demostrations with a certain amount of frustration.
I have deeper ties than most to the country. Not only did I spent several weeks travelling in Iran last year, but I did so with a girl who spent the first twenty-four years of her life growing up in Tehran, and to whom I’m now engaged.
Having access to her very personal perspective on current events and the historical context that created them, as well as my own first-hand experience of the views and lifestyles of a wide section of Iranian society — from the rural poor to the urban intelligensia to the ethnic minorities — I have witnessed, germinating in front of my very eyes, the very epitomy of the Western propaganda machine itself.
Today marks the second anniversary of my departure from my family home in England, and my twenty-sixth birthday.
“None of us have any experience of cycle touring before, so this is really going to test our mental and physical endurance”, I wrote on this blog on the morning of departure, and a couple of hours later, Andy, Mark and I were pedalling nervously out of my village.
Shortly after, I found myself further than I’d ever been from home on a bike. I remember the feeling clearly. It was fear — dull, resigned, and energy-sapping, striking deep in the gut. It came from the sudden realisation that despite months of research and preparation, I really didn’t have the faintest idea of what was in store.
I got off the bus in Muscat and noticed immediately that the crowds assembling to watch me reconstructing my bike were not Omanis. South Asians from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka form a large underclass in Oman, working as labourers on construction sites and in date plantations, as mechanics, metalworkers and carpenters, and running cafeterias to cater for the working community. So I was delighted to find myself a Peshawari cafeteria for a delicious breakfast of vegetable curry and fresh naan bread!
My host lived in one of the many suburbs that stretched west along the coast of the Indian Ocean from the old town of Muscat itself. It took me five hours to locate his apartment building in the debilitating heat and humidity. I rode down the hard shoulder of a busy highway, as if cycling the M25 at rush hour. The city sprawled, each shiny identical suburb a mixture of shopping centres, apartment blocks, residential villas, and tidy little retail areas which always contained a supermarket, a greengrocer, a coffee shop and a barbershop.
For an English-speaking tourist, one fantastic thing about Oman is that retailers’ sign-boards always describe the shop in superbly succinct terms. “Foodstuffs And Luxuries” is the designation of every grocery in the country, with “Fruit And Vegetable Sales”, “Chicken Sales” and “Auto Electrician” also making regular appearances. It might sound obvious, but compared to a Western high street full of abstract brand-names, it was a fantastically clear and practical way to operate retail.
I was glad to finally track down Vincent and collapse on his sofa in his small flat on the edge of the coastal hills which prevented the city from crawling ever inland. He was from South Africa, teaching video editing at the Technical Institute not far away. That evening we went to an Indian restaurant where I met his British colleagues Jonty and Catherine who offered to drive me into the nearby mountain range of Jebel Akhdar to continue my ride.
My problem was simple. I had at least three or four weeks to burn until my visa application for Iran was processed. The outcome would by no means be certain — Andy had been rejected twice earlier in the year, destroying his plans to travel overland back to Georgia, and I’d heard numerous reports of British citizens’ visa applications being rejected without explanation, even when backed up with a personal invitation from an Iranian citizen. Additionally, Iran’s presidential elections were imminent, and borders are locked down to Westerners even more tightly during times of political frenzy.
I was unsure how to spend my month or so in a constructive way, because the summer heat was turning life on the road into little more than an endurance test. It would be easy enough to laze about in one city or another, flitting from one air-conditioned lozenge of existence to another, whiling away the hours until the answer came through from the Iranian Embassy. But it would dampen the spirit of what had been a monumental adventure. I did not want to return to Armenia on a low ebb.
So, after barely 48 hours in Muscat, I forced myself to call Jonty and Catherine and accept their lift to the mountains. From there, with no chance of an easy bus-ride, it would be up to me, whether I liked it or not! I felt that riding to Dubai would, in a sense, earn me the right to enjoy my reunion with Tenny. Only if I took on this last challenge would I experience the blissful gasp of relief at the end of it all. It was a struggle to make this move, but, having rationalized it in these dubious terms and finding myself in the passenger seat with Muscat receding behind me, there was no turning back.
In Jebel Akhdar, disorientated and trepidatious, I stopped for supplies at a “Foodstuffs And Luxuries” store and met Nabiel, a 23-year-old tour guide. I’d spent little time amongst rural people recently, and I promised myself I would try to enjoy my time amongst them now, as my journey’s end was fast approaching. Nabiel’s father owned a small apartment block, renting flats to tourists from all over the world, and he welcomed me to sit in his hotel reception while he talked about his birthplace with enthusiasm and pride.
At more than two thousand metres above sea level, the Jebel Akhdar plateau and range is a national attraction of Oman for it’s pleasant summer climate and sumptuously deep and expansive wadis (seasonal river valleys). At the height of summer, mountain springs would nourish steeply terraced hillside farms and fresh fruit would spring forth in abundance — I was sad to discover that I’d visited this beautiful place a few weeks too early for that. With only four-wheel-drive vehicles allowed in the area, traffic was light and the high valleys basked in the clear air and tranquility.
Nabiel had a group of Emirati men staying at his hotel. They were old friends on the last day of a holiday away from their cities and families in the U.A.E., and they invited me to join them for dinner. We sat on the floor in their hotel room, scooping up handfuls of rice and munching through an entire pot-roasted goat which had been bought and slaughtered by them the previous day. There was enough for for twenty, but the seven of us managed to make a respectable dent in the enourmous platter on which the food had been served. One of the men tried to test my queasiness me by eating the squashed brain and eyeballs of the unfortunate beast. “Nice”, I said with a forced smile.
I camped near the small town and set off the following morning for a thorough exploration of the deliciously cool mountains, but really this was just the backdrop for a thorough exploration of my frustrated state of mind. Under normal circumstances this place would be paradise for the cycle traveller — jaw-dropping scenery, gentle and helpful local people, all the modern facilities one would ever need, peaceful little roads winding throughout the self-contained natural park, wild camping opportunities round every corner. But the motivation to enjoy it simply was not there. I was dragged in the direction of the finish line — Dubai, the boat to Iran, the sleeper train to Tehran, the door of a cosy flat in the back streets of the north-east city centre and a long, warm embrace. And my bike suddenly seemed a feeble, pointless means of getting there.
But some buried spark of determination chose that moment to make itself felt. I pointed my front wheel down the valley and let go of the brakes.
As I blasted ever closer to the infernal desert below, I knew that I desperately needed to relocate that altered state of consciousness which allows athletes to endure extended periods of exertion in unchanging environments. Some call it ‘getting into the zone’, others call it meditation or hypnosis, but the result is a disconnection from the normal flow of time and from the normal stream of sensory input. The brain strips its faculties of perception down to the bare minimum needed to perform the repetitive activity. The mind becomes at once highly focused and dreamily distracted, and superficially great achievements of endurance come within reach. It’s the essence of the phrase ‘mind over matter’.
To begin with, this luxurious psychological expressway eluded me. Each living second dragged on forever as I fixed my eyes on the narrow yellow line in front of me, trying to switch off my thoughts. The line stretched far into the distance and curved to the right behind one of the foothills’ spurs. I was pedalling along the single carriageway, slightly uphill. I had no idea how much further there was to go until I found civilization. I tried to take a one-handed swig from my water bottle but I wobbled at the slow pace, with my drybags piled high on the rack behind me and the wind gusting unpredictably, so I stopped, but I knew I couldn’t stop for long, or my legs would refuse to resume the pace I needed to keep if I was going to find a place to fill up with water before I ran out.
What water I did have was growing uncomfortably hot and didn’t seem to quench my thirst, no matter how much I drank. My shadow hit the road at about forty-five degrees, telling me that it was around nine o’clock in the morning. As I moved onto the lumpy hard shoulder that would be my personal highway for the next few miles, I calculated that I must have been cycling for at least three hours without a break; I was on the road at dawn that morning. A passing truck driver tooted his horn at me as he groaned past up the hill; I waved back with the briefest flick of my left hand, and he flashed his indicators in the international trucking signal of appreciation.
The heat of the day was becoming intense and I briefly considered swerving in front of the next passing truck to escape from the escalating level of discomfort that accompanied every movement. A hundred empty pickup-trucks careered past. None of them stopped. I summitted the climb and discovered that the road levelled out, but the headwind still incessantly battled against my efforts to move forward. I’d been pedalling for hours. I stared at the rocky peaks that fringed the dry brown desert of northern Oman. The nothingness stared silently back. Then a strong gust of wind whipped past, swirling sand behind my scratched sunglasses and stinging my eyes and nostrils. I wanted to breathe through my mouth but I knew it would become bone-dry in seconds. I suffered a surprising series of nosebleeds from the dry air. I never got nosebleeds.
I wondered if my remaining three litres of hot water would last until the next settlement. I hated soft drinks, but I dreamed of a plastic chair in the shade with a two-litre bottle of ice-cold Fanta. “I want to drink all the cold water in the world”, I said to myself. I passed a drainage tunnel under the road and I considered rolling down the embankment to escape the sun in its cold, comfortable concrete refuge, but I knew I wouldn’t move for the rest of the day if that happened. I tried to rationalize what I was doing. On some peculiar level I told myself my reunion would be all the sweeter for doing this, and I guessed that this would probably be true. But it was hell. I wanted nothing more than to be in an air-conditioned flat in Dubai.
The next day, something different happened. Hours of hard pedalling would evaporate while I travelled a parallel road in my mind. Being ‘in the zone’ is a great way to travel through highly inhospitable and mundane environments and impress (or frighten) passing motorists in the process. One Omani driver pulled over to ask what the hell I was doing cycling into a sand-infused headwind at a temperature of fifty-six degrees Celsius, practically threw a bottle of water at me, insisted that he give me a lift and could not understand why on earth I would choose to be doing this. But somehow I rode, day after day, in the dry, dusty heat approaching sixty degrees Celsius, from before sunrise until sunset 14 hours later, with only the briefest of breaks.
Thinking back, from the comfort of an air-conditioned high-rise sofa in Dubai, it almost feels like somebody else did it for me. I don’t consider it a remotely remarkable physical achievement. Anyone could have done it with sufficient determination. I’m unable to take myself back there and remember exactly what it was like, but I do know I never want to do it again. The human mind is a curious thing.
The temperature peaked and began to decrease as I entered the Emirates. If first impressions were anything to go by, it was obvious why the beauty and softly-spoken modernity of Oman is overlooked. It is quite simply upstaged by its Gulf neighbours, who do everything that little bit bigger and better. After the retina scan at the border I was served a cup of tea while I waited for my passport stamp, and soon I was pedalling off into the grid of suburbs and giant shopping malls that marked the way north through Al Ain to Dubai. It was like cycling through Milton Keynes, only bigger, shinier, and a damn sight hotter.
Nothing was going to stop me riding to Dubai now, short of a freak accident. One more night in the desert; one more day of grimace and strain. With a hundred and thirty kilometres to go across the red dunes of the Emirates, I steeled myself for the final push…
From the southern city of Salalah I planned to ride through Oman towards the UAE. Arriving late at night in a new city is never fun when you’re travelling with a pushbike, and I had the added hindrance of being entirely unfamiliar with what made Oman tick.
The streets were surprisingly busy with pedestrians at this late hour, even though traffic was light, and I realised that it was Friday night. Groups of friends and families strolled peacefully along attractive boulevards and through magnanimous public gardens. The buildings were modern yet traditionally styled, and carefully designed and built to create a pleasant, homogenous, spacious environment. This was complemented by all the superficial gloss you would expect to find in a wealthy Western country.
Aden turned out to be an interesting place to spend a few days. What the city lacked in architectural grace it made up for with its laid-back, low-key atmosphere and friendly people. In fact, it felt more like a collection of quaint seaside towns strung around a small volcanic island than a former national capital.
Over dinner one night, I discussed with my host and his Yemeni friends the intricacies of wooing girls down at Aden mall. While pre-marital relations of any kind are illegal in Yemen, they are by no means non-existent — it’s just that no-one talks about it. An innocuous question such as “What time is it?” or “Can you show me the way to Pizza Hut?”, and the subsequent reply, might actually be a coded message. And discreet glances flashing between distant shoppers may carry more meaning than you’d think!