Categories
Book Serialisation

Maybe it’s the qat that keeps the peace around here

Djibouti City is a bizarre place indeed. On first impressions, it seems to exist for two reasons – firstly because every country needs a capital and a seat of government, so this might as well be it; secondly because the landlocked nations of East Africa need a seaport for trade. Under different circumstances this might have been the recipe for a thriving city of zeal and commerce. But, as I nose my way through the dusty sprawl, this is not what the place appears to be.

It reminds me of Khartoum; a low, whitewashed colony of fenced compounds and street-sellers and a few half-hearted attempts at ‘modern’ infrastructure and superficial gloss. What’s different is the number of people in the city’s streets. It feels populated, but by the aimless and wayward. As I draw closer to the port the impression intensifies. Young men, all dressed in grubby fluorescent safety vests, wander the pavements and roads of the docklands in small groups; waifs slowly drifting, like the distant ships in the placid waters beyond them. I later find out that they’re waiting for a container ship to arrive, hoping to score a few hours of casual labour in exchange for a few francs. This might not happen for many days. At night they will simply sleep on the ground, inert bodies lining the sidewalks along the roads around the immense port gates, possessing nothing but the clothes they wear and the company of those around them. They will not be allowed inside the port without a permit which identifies them as a genuine labourer with proof of employment. Security is hard-line; any man who tries to sneak into the port is ejected gently but firmly by the plentiful security guards, and I watch this happen a dozen times in my first afternoon, unaware that this will be my life for the next five days. I, too, have no permit. I wonder how the hell I’m supposed to find a boat without one.

The atmosphere is languid, hopeless and utterly depressing, and I feel guilty and uncomfortable, however bedraggled my appearance, because simply by being here I am flaunting the fact that I’ve done so out of choice, in the face of the massed crowds of young men who have no choice at all. I start reproaching those who stare too hard, as I’ve grown used to doing in self-defence, but find myself being met by offended looks. I realise that I’m not in Ethiopia any more. These are Somalis – Muslims – and, with a distinctly genteel aura pervading even these quietly desperate streets, any rowdiness is totally out of place. I must drop my prickly defences and dig out a bit of compassion and sensitivity once again, seeing suddenly how thick-skinned and detached I’d had to become in order to traverse Ethiopia with my sanity intact.

Maybe it’s the qat that keeps the peace around here. It seems ubiquitous enough. Bunches of these shiny, plump, lime-green leaves appear around midday from flimsy plastic bags and soon take up residence in the cheek pouches of the populace, unemployed or otherwise. Despite the lack of work, there still seems to be enough money around to bargain for an awful lot of qat. I think back to the Ethiopian border town where I’d met Mike, the schoolteacher on his way to Sudan. What had he said?

‘It makes everything in the world look OK … when really, it’s not!!!’

I can see him now, glassy eyes empty but with a slightly crazed twinkle to them, slumped in the shade with his back against the wall of the hotel block, mouth mechanically chewing, flecks of green and spittle, his teeth churning like a concrete mixer. His image is duplicated a thousand times on the streets of Djibouti. Spread across the concrete all over the port’s surrounding yards and inspection bays and quaysides, in little patches of shade, are the bulging cheeks and sprawled limbs of those who’ve decided that they want everything in the world to look OK (when really, it’s not). Whether it actually does look OK I don’t know, because I still take myself too seriously to accept one of the many offers to pack my own cheek with qat and see the world differently for an afternoon.

If only everyone in the region spent their days as pacified as this. I’m well aware that the stretch of water I want to cross is the most pirated on the planet. Somalia, with its two thousand miles of coastline directly to the east and south, is what politicians call a ‘failed state’. Its people apparently haven’t had an effective central government for nearly two decades; the cause – or, maybe, the effect – of it being statistically one of the poorest and most violent nations on Earth, the real-life implications of which I don’t wish to try to imagine.

I try to put preconceptions of Somalia to one side. Such thoughts have never yielded fruit, and I’ve no reason to believe that this time should be any different. But it’s been only one week since an empty oil tanker was captured by Somali pirates just ten miles offshore from the Yemeni port of Aden, which is precisely where I aim to go. Sixty-one pirate attacks were recorded in the Gulf of Aden in the first three months of this year; ten times more than last year.

On the other hand, I notice that business still seems to be running fairly normally in this languid yet bustling port. I sit and watch from my spot of concrete outside the port security office by the main gate, just opposite an enormous mosque which serves thousands of workers and thousands more destitute hopefuls. Despite a life which would, back home, be described by stern-faced TV presenters as ‘appalling’ and ‘desperate’, there is relief on hand for the soul, and not only in the form of mild narcotics. Intellectual, scientific, rational atheism is of little value to those whose earthly lives offer no respite from hopelessness, no relevant answers to existential conundrums. What use is there in telling the hungry men sleeping on the concrete outside the port of Djibouti that there is no reason for living other than to propagate their genetic material, or that they should forget their indoctrinated superstition in favour of the wonders of scientific empiricism, or that their five daily pilgrimages to the prayer hall are futile, worthless and insulting to human intelligence? Even the most militant atheist, shouting from his Western soapbox, could not stand in this dusty square, take in all he sees around him, and then harangue these men for whom hope and meaning comes from family and faith alone. Though holding no religious beliefs myself, I am faintly embarrassed to have once counted myself amongst those very vocal militants, so scathing of the priorities that still hold for the majority of people in the world. And I give thanks (to nobody in particular) that I’ve grown a little wiser since then.

Troops of burly and disinterested sailors march from the port and disappear in SUVs, arriving back hours later. They look so ridiculous, with their starched, spotless uniforms, sunglasses and purposeful swaggers, glancing stupidly about at us.

Their white skin looks so abnormal.

Ferenj.

 

I meet Hassan, a young, unemployed Djiboutian, over a roadside lunch of the spaghetti Bolognese which appears to be the city’s staple meal. Fingers prove an interesting choice of eating utensil, but it somehow seems to work. Hassan’s English is about as bad as my French, but it’s enough to get chatting, and we quickly click. He’s interested in what drove me to undertake this journey, and I try my best to explain that in all honesty I’d simply wanted to throw myself at something massive, unknown and terrifying, just to see what happened, and that cycling alone through the Middle East and Africa without a map, guidebook, mobile phone, laptop, GPS or any real research was the most massive, unknown and terrifying thing I could think of to do at the time. And while I’m talking, I begin to laugh, because it seems so absurd now; the scale so pitifully small, the unknowns so benign, and the imagined terrors so illusory.

But Hassan seems to see where I’m coming from. I’m used to being gazed at like the whimsical, self-indulgent rich guy I undoubtedly am, so his curiosity and non-judgemental attitude are refreshing. He is younger than me and was obviously a keen school student, but his education and zeal have been undercut by an absence of opportunity to put them to use. I imagine that he’s far from alone. I offer him a sum which I think will help him without being insulting or propagating an image of rich white guys, and he agrees to help me find a ship. I don’t really believe that the odds are against me. What’s the worst that could happen? 

OK – being taken prisoner by a gang of swashbuckling Somalis would suck. And the lack of any discernible system to the chaos between here and the quaysides is going to be a tricky one to negotiate. But hell – I’ve got to give it a try.

Hassan tells me he’s found a ship leaving today, but I’m aware that it’s as likely to vanish into thin air as to depart on time. He says he needs another ten dollars’ worth of francs to put down a deposit with the captain for my passage. Goodness knows how he’s found this information, or how he’s got inside the port to talk to anyone. But he takes my money and disappears into the throng.

Waiting listlessly for Hassan’s return, I make friends with an Ethiopian shipping clerk who stopped to talk to me on his way into one of the nice air-conditioned offices hidden amongst the concrete shells of disused buildings outside the port gates, and we spend a few hours chatting; his English is excellent. But there’s no sign of Hassan by the end of the day. I sigh and decide to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it’s time I found another place to sleep. My new friend Salim says he’ll think of something and to come with him. So we walk the streets after another dead-end day, tired out – me by the endless string of false leads and non-existent boat-rides, him by the constant power-cuts and Internet disconnections that leave him unable to work for hours on end every day.

‘What you have to realise,’ says Salim as we walk the darkening pavements towards the city, ‘is that nothing works. And this is “the African way”.’

It’s a long walk and almost completely dark before I find out where he’s taking me: one of the big, whitewashed compounds turns out to contain a church and community centre to serve the tiny minority of Protestants in Muslim Djibouti. Fair enough, I think; in Muslim countries where I’m perceived as a Christian, I’ve often been handed over to the local Christian communities, regardless of their creed. I think back to Egypt, where I ended up sleeping in Coptic churches for three nights in a row. Well, I think, there’s no harm in trying. After all, I’m just looking for a six-by-two-foot patch of ground to lie on for a few hours.

The doorkeeper is unconvinced that we’re worth disturbing the pastor for, but eventually tells us to head round the back of the generous compound to the other entrance. He lets us in and we walk down a footpath between nicely tended gardens in the fading light of the evening, past the church itself and towards a concrete two-storey complex which I guess is the community centre. A wide flight of stairs sweeps up to a terrace, and a row of candles burns piously in an upstairs window.

‘He is from Germany,’ whispers the church watchman, while the doorkeeper ventures up to the penthouse to fetch the pastor, and I’m wondering whether I should compose my standard explanation of myself in German, French or English when the door opens with a loud muttering and the doorkeeper appears with another figure. The pastor stops silhouetted at the top of the steps, fifty yards from where I’m standing with my friend, folds his arms, and looks down upon us. My eyesight is too bad to make out the man’s face in the darkness. I make to introduce myself. But the pastor speaks first.

‘This is not a hotel,’ begins the decree. A mocking lilt, a slight exasperation underlies the words, and the pastor – a practiced speaker, no doubt – continues. ‘It is not a campsite. It is a church. Now, clear off. Go!’

The last word is accompanied by a flick of the arm, the sort you might use to dismiss a low-ranking servant. Without waiting for a response, he spins on his heels, slamming the door behind him. Through a small window, a silhouette resumes its candle-lit supplications.

The three of us turn and walk back through the well-ordered gardens, stopping outside the church. I look at the dignified, sharply dressed shipping clerk, feeling embarrassed even to have come from the same continent as the man we’ve just encountered. Salim just gazes at the ground in confusion.

‘Why … why is this man so rude?!?’ 

He’s genuinely confused. I just shake my head. The priest hadn’t even given us a chance to explain ourselves; he’d just shooed us away.

‘You can sleep in the church,’ chips in the church warden, breaking the silence. ‘Don’t listen to what he says. He is not a good man.’

He wrinkles his nose in the direction of the building down the yard.

‘If I say you can sleep here, you can sleep here. He will never know. Just – you must leave early.’

Categories
Book Serialisation

Then I notice that she is in fact topless, and that my African stereotype has finally been fulfilled

Later I spot another group of figures in the distance: a dozen adults walking towards me along the track. Judging by the hairstyles on display they’re not road-building engineers, and since they’ve had plenty of time to see me coming, I put on my harmless passer-by act, smile nonchalantly at them as I approach, and call: ‘Hello!’ just as I pass, which gives me enough time to clear the group and recede down the track before anyone can decide whether they have anything further to contribute. I immediately curse myself for being a coward and not stopping to try having a proper chat. Whatever gripe might exist between the Afars and the Amharans, as I predicted, does not appear to extend to me. I’m a curiosity, to be investigated or ignored, just as I have been for the last two years. A solitary figure pedalling a bicycle is not a threatening image, does not carry an invasive agenda. Nevertheless, this place is so alien that it’s got my nerves up, and I’ve ridden straight past the group, intimidated by my own irrational fears.

I arrive at the promised road-workers’ camp in the early evening. Under normal circumstances I would jump at the chance to wild camp for a change, but I’ve been spooked; tales abound of lions and hyenas, people having their faces bitten off in the night. And, of course, I might well be invading someone’s tribal territory. People get jumpy when it’s dark, and I am occasionally unable to contain my snoring. Do I really want myself and my tent to be the unwitting provocateurs of a paranoid night-time ambush by people with AK-47s and very big knives?

These excuses are a convenient way to hide one simple fact: I am too afraid to sleep outside. So I trundle up to the camp gates to try my luck. My calls are answered by a man with an AK-47. He invites me to sit in the shade, alongside a group of Afars with very big knives.

I guess that the men are vaguely attached to the road-building project as a kind of multi-party delegation. It’s interesting to see that they’re a mixture of Amharans and Afars – the latter conspicuous by an absence of clothing and footwear and the presence of a true 1980s hit parade of haircuts. Nowhere else have I seen so many spectacularly coiffed Afros and mullets in one place outside a vintage Top Of The Pops re-run. They’re all affable and interested in the contents of my panniers, and I avoid bringing out any expensive camera equipment – not because I’m worried it’ll be stolen, but because it’ll help me avoid the all-too-common question of how much everything costs. I’m not convinced of my ability to decide on a plausible-but-inoffensive figure here. In any case, the camera seems unnecessary: I’m unlikely to forget this experience in a hurry.

The Chinese engineers – just three of them – are fortunate enough to have their own private compound, but they have not yet returned from surveying. Once they do, I’m told, they’ll ask if I am allowed to stay the night.

‘They’re different,’ says one Amharan. ‘They eat peeg! You know peeg?’

I probably do; I just need to figure it out. Peeg … pig. Pork!

The man makes a face of disgust. Travelling through the Islamic world, I haven’t eaten pork for almost half a year. I realise that I am salivating like a dog.

A small water-tanker roars into the little camp in a cloud of dust, and I spring up for a much-needed refill. I’ve drunk eight litres today, yet I feel drained and dehydrated. The Chinese arrive shortly after, driving their four-by-fours straight into the fenced-off compound, and there is an agonising wait while the leader of the ragtag bunch of soldiers implores the Chinese to accept a traveller for the night. While sleeping in the Ethiopians’ quarters would be perfectly comfortable, my mind has already drifted hopefully back to that Chinese doctor, those big bowls of spicy noodles, and the mind-blowing prospect of peeg.

The leader returns: the answer is yes! Overjoyed, I jog into the compound and thank the Chinese heartily; they regard me as perhaps one might a cat being sick. Nonplussed, I set about arranging my new bedroom, hanging the mosquito net above the slab of plywood on which I will sleep, writing my diary, and taking a few experimental photographs to pass the time before I am invited for dinner. This, of course, happens, and – though it would be unlikely to win any awards – turns out to be as delicious as I could possibly have dreamed, prominently featuring peeg amongst the fried and steamed meats, noodles and vegetables. The Chinese find it hilarious that I can just about handle a pair of chopsticks, despite having never been anywhere near China, and I explain at length about the popularity of Chinese food in Britain as they gaze blankly at me. I try to imagine the converse – how bizarre it would be to discover that on practically every street corner in China there were an English takeaway, selling fish n’ chips, pork pies and Cornish pasties.

The next day I meet a teenage girl on the side of the trail.

‘Hello!’ I call. No answer.

‘How are you?’ I try. Nothing. The girl, hair carefully braided, skin of pure black, stands grinning at me. Grinning, of all things!

Then I notice that she is in fact topless, and that my African stereotype has finally been fulfilled.

‘Do you speak English?’

My conversational skills are deteriorating today. And I rattle onward, having gleaned no further insight into this mysterious, staring, grinning tribe of award-winning hairdressers and goatherds from this one teenage girl with her breasts out. Then, through the wiry bushes, I notice a man-made shape. I roll forward until I can make it out better. It’s some kind of tent; a small curved dome five or six feet high, a frame covered with panels of canvas. It looks like a sweltering place to be, but at least it’s shelter from the fierce elements. It’s a home, that’s for sure. And, like my own little green and yellow tent, it’s a home for someone on the move.

As I watch, a figure appears from the side door.. The figure is tiny; the head grossly out of proportion. Of course. It’s a child. A little boy. No more than two or three years old. He totters out and stands in the sun, looking about. He hasn’t seen me. But then someone or something summons him from within the tent, and he looks back and turns before wandering purposefully back into the structure. I watch for a little longer, but he doesn’t reappear.

The scrubby desert gives way to rising crags of sharp, multicoloured rock. And the heat seems to engulf not just my body but all my other senses too, indescribable in its oppression, as crushing as a sack of bricks. I run my tongue around the inside of my mouth. It feels cool in comparison. The rims of my eyelids burn, and I can almost hear the ground sizzling. Some point of sensitivity deep within each nostril stings sharply, as if I am inhaling flames; all moisture dragged from the creases and crevices of my face and into the ferocious void. Memories of wilting in Sudan are reduced to mere pleasant days in the sunshine. And maybe I have begun to understand what it means to live in the hottest place on Earth.

The image of the tiny child by his front door stays with me, and it takes a little time to realise why. It’s because I have travelled to what by any standard measure is one of the most remote, uncivilised, impoverished and undeveloped regions on the planet – and what have I found? A worried mother calling her toddler indoors. Communities of people living together. Tradesmen and professionals eking out a living. I will find exactly the same scenes played out in all manner of varied ways in every society on Earth. Nothing separates me from these nomads – or from anybody else alive – but for the lottery of birth.

As an asphalt road shimmers into view up ahead, I realise that I have taken more than just a shortcut across the desert. I have inadvertently made a journey to the end of the Earth, via the birthplace of man. And, somewhere between Weldyia and Millie, the romantic idea of some mysterious and fundamental stratification amongst the people of the world has been destroyed.

Given that, how much longer can I continue to roam in childish wonder?

 

Just a thought, really. Just a very very quick thought, that’s all. 

It’s technically incorrect to describe that girl as having ‘had her breasts out’, when, in all likelihood, she never ‘had her breasts in’ in the first place. So, I guess I should just say, ‘that teenage tribesgirl, with her breasts’. Maybe.

My point is that it’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

Anyway, I’m going to shut up now. Night.

Categories
Book Serialisation

As I roll onto the faint tyre tracks, I know that I am venturing into another stereotype

I look out across the dusty plain from my vantage point. Beside me is a rickety watchtower in which a soldier is slumped, dozing, wrapped in a blanket. He and the rest of his squad have been posted here to look after yet another crew of road-builders – all native Amharans this time. They’re surveying the area, hoping to lay another streak of asphalt across a landscape which looks like an artist’s rendering of some prehistoric savannah. The sun has not yet risen, and the air is a hazy grey. The headlights of a pick-up truck nose slowly through the maze of wiry trees towards the camp. I half expect a group of raptors to leap from nowhere and drag its screaming occupants into the bush.

As I roll onto the faint tyre tracks, I know that I am venturing into another stereotype. While the raw spirit that exists in Ethiopia is real, it doesn’t mean that suffering is non-existent, nor that the most basic human needs are always fulfilled, nor that some aren’t still struggling vainly towards distant future hopes. That’s the trouble with generalisations. Likewise, it’s easy to see all indigenous, tribal communities through a romantic filter of face-paint, topless women, bows and arrows and blow-darts, and to talk as if ‘Africa’ denotes a single country of chanting warriors and wildlife, or at least a group of fifty-odd nations so uniform that there’s little point distinguishing between them. I have seen not one of those ever-so-African creatures, and I have seen no landscape that resembles the continent of my childish imagination. Until today.

The thick layer of dust flows and parts like water beneath my tyres. Wrestling with the handlebars, I try to pick the best route amongst the submerged rocks. There’s no sign of human life. Camels wander in a clearing, contemplating the prospect of nibbling at the dry scrub. A dozen large, plump birds waddle out of my path and disappear into the undergrowth. One of them reappears in my mind’s eye, steaming gently on a platter next to a jug of home-made gravy and some roast potatoes. But this is not the time for admiring wildlife, nor drifting into daydreams: I have the toughest task yet in front of me, a limited supply of water, and a couple of hundred miles of burning wastes through which to pick a path. There’ll be time for reminiscing when I arrive in Djibouti.

Alert for a glimpse of the Afar tribespeople, I peer between the leafless trees that line the track and spread out across the plain in all directions, obscuring whatever life there is. But I can see only more of the same scrawny trunks. Above the screen of vegetation, a solitary volcano rises on the horizon to the north-east, low sloping sides topped by a rounded peak, the area’s sole landmark. The active volcano Erta Ale lies out of sight to the north, but it would be too far and remote to reach by bicycle without some guarantee of support.

A pair of legs appears between the low branches – and then the unmistakable shape of an AK-47 slung across the chest. I stop, flinching as the disc brakes sing. The legs have gone. Nothing moves.

I keep pedalling, unsure of whether or not I’ve been seen, and equally unsure of what might happen if I am. But several hours of cycling pass uneventfully, with only the sound of rattling baggage and loose rocks giving way beneath the tyres to break the silence.

Then, out of nowhere, I hear a low growl. 

I turn.

It’s a lion!!!

No.

A pick-up truck is bouncing across the earth a hundred yards away. It’s slowing down. My body stiffens.

‘Hey!’ shouts the driver, as the truck stops. There’s a soldier in the passenger seat, flaunting his rifle. ‘Remember me?’

‘Erm!’ I reply, trying to bring back his name. ‘Yes, I met you … at the …’

‘It’s Muraf! From the road-building camp! Yes! How are you?’

Off the hook again! It is long ago that I gave up hope of remembering everyone I met, let alone where and how I met them. Muraf is oblivious, and I tell him I’m fine, thanks, if a little on the warm side out here. He’d passed me the previous day, told me to come and find him at the camp, and when I’d arrived he’d invited me for a cup of coffee – locally grown and just this minute roasted, he’d said, handing me a tiny bowl of the strongest and most delicious coffee I had ever tasted. I’d ended up staying the night. He briefs me once again on how to act if I encounter a ‘native’.

‘You must be very strong. Very strong! You should speak strong. Loud. Tell him to go away.’ I am instructed to treat the tribesman like the animal he is. ‘If he doesn’t go – pretend to talk on your telephone. Say: “Police! Police!” Say this and he will go!’

‘OK – thank you,’ I smile, forgetting to inform him that I don’t have a telephone. He wishes me well, gives me a bottle of ice-cold water, and lurches off east in the direction of another road camp. They’ll take me in for the night if I insist. There are Chinese road-builders there. 

I uncap the bottle immediately and drain the unspeakably cold contents, savouring the precious seconds of pleasure. Left out, it would reach the temperature of a nice hot bath within minutes.

I continue tentatively eastwards along the faint route that has been beaten through the badlands, and the dense scrub begins to slacken off, the terrain rising and falling just enough for me to get a glimpse across a wider expanse of land. I already know that it’s widely thought that this is the precise region of Africa from which hominids emerged – the pre-human beings from whom we are all ultimately descended.

And I try to grasp the enormity of the fact; that if I were to go back through my family history, back beyond my great-grandfather who made shoes for a co-operative in Leicester, past his grandfather who was a framework knitter at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; if I traced – with some magical omniscience – whoever it was that first migrated to the British Isles with my genetic material, and even further back to whoever it was that journeyed little by little along some unknown route through the same landmasses that I’d now crossed on a bicycle … that if I did all that, then I would finish the journey right here, where I stand now, looking at my own blood ancestor as he existed five million years ago.

But I can’t. I can’t grasp it. I simply see hardy treetops and skyline – barely a hint of green in an otherwise colourless expanse of overgrown, dusty, rocky wasteland, the Amharan highlands fading away behind me and lands entirely wild and unknown in every other direction. A few hundred yards away to my right, a stray twister of spinning dust and foliage glides across the middle distance of the silent birthplace of humanity.

Minutes later I stop again, because a herd of goats has begun to trickle, single file, across my path. Curious, I whip out the video camera and grab a couple of shots. Then I notice a man, walking alongside the animals. He looks at me; stops dead in his tracks. The goatherd! Is this a real Afar nomad?

He hesitates for a second. Then, as I watch, he turns – and runs directly towards me.

Muraf’s advice is ringing in my ears as I flick through the contents of my bar-bag, searching for something that might pass as a mobile phone. I look up again, an electric shiver passing through me. But he is closer now, and it looks like his run is really more of a trot; he moves casually, as one might jog across the road to greet a friend. He slows to a stroll as he approaches, and stops on the edge of the road a few yards away, resting a goat-whacking stick on his shoulder, and assumes a posture of casual observation. He sports a whopping black hairdo that would put the Jackson Five to shame, and is otherwise naked, except for a loincloth, and a very big knife.

There is a moment’s pause. And then a huge grin spreads across his face.

I can’t help but grin back. How utterly bizarre we must appear to each other! For the first time I feel like an utter novelty, a thing entirely without precedent that has appeared in someone else’s territory. This must be wrong; I can hardly be the first foreign traveller to the Danakil Depression. There are plenty of ‘adventure tours’ to the volcanoes and salt mines further north, although my attempts to find records of independent journeys by bicycle or otherwise produced absolutely nothing. But the look on this man’s face is incredulous, as if I had turned up and performed some kind of close-up magic trick. He makes no further approach or attempt at communication.

After a long stalemate, I decide it’s time to break the silence. I can’t think of anything to say other than the name of the village at which I’m hoping to rejoin an established road. I point vaguely ahead.

‘Millie!’

‘Millie?’

‘Yes!’ I reply triumphantly. ‘I’m going to Millie!’

Ridiculous. I might as well recite Shakespeare.

We keep grinning at each other until I feel sufficiently uncomfortable to wave goodbye and resume riding. I look back after a few pedal strokes; the young man is jogging back in the direction of his goats, and I continue wrestling my bike across the blazing rocky plain, neither kidnapped nor massacred, but tickled by the little episode of mutual slack-jawed curiosity. The off-road riding is still painstakingly tricky to negotiate, and I amuse myself by wondering how the conversation will go when my interlocutor returns home this evening.

‘You know what I saw today?’

‘What?’

‘Well, I was taking the goats for a walk as usual, minding my own business, when this white guy came past on a bicycle!’

‘Say what?!?’

‘I went over to see what he was doing, and he just kind of stood there and stared. It went on for ages. You should have seen him – filthy shirt, ripped trousers, and this big sunhat with “I Love Egypt” written across it. He looked ridiculous!’

‘Ha-ha! Did you speak to him?’

‘Not really. He said something I didn’t understand – something about Millie. Then he looked uncomfortable and went off again on his bike.’

‘Weird, aren’t they, these foreign types? I mean – perfectly good asphalt road to the south, us up here with our guns and goats and crazy hair, and he still feels the need to cycle off-road across this bloody desert! Must be mad …’

Categories
Book Serialisation

Maybe I’ll look back at this and think, ‘What an idiot I was back then’

Leaving Hadishahr with our hosts’ well-wishes ringing in our ears, Tenny and I trundled back towards the main road for Tabriz, where we found several lanes of traffic encased by metal barriers. Mountains rose again in our path, solemn and unflinching. Three or four days of this was hardly a pleasant prospect, and the climbs would be long and monotonous. But there was little for it but to begin.

We set off up the hard shoulder in a low gear. It was wide enough to ride double file, so we did, chatting about this and that while the landscapes drifted past; bare spurs of rock in pastel yellows and browns, streaks of vigorous green where small rivers delved between them. When we ran out of things to talk about, Tenny asked to borrow my music player. She didn’t share my taste in music – in fact, like everyone else, she actively disliked it, something that even a fairy-tale romance was unable to cure – but she wanted something to listen to. In that way, lunchtime arrived rather more quickly than usual, and along with it the town of Marand, where we realised that we had nothing to eat at midday in the middle of Ramadan.

‘Let’s go down some side-streets,’ I suggested as we followed the main road towards the town centre. ‘Maybe we’ll find a shop or two, or a bakery, or something.’ I wasn’t convinced.

Traffic increased, making it difficult to communicate over the din of cars and trucks and the mopeds and motorbikes that buzzed around every town, laden with all manner of unlikely and precariously balanced goods. Then one of the motorbikes pulled a U‑turn and stopped ahead of us, two teenage boys enthusiastically flagging us down. Quick as a flash, the pillion hopped off, pulled two polystyrene takeaway containers from beneath the cargo straps of the bike, deposited them in our bewildered hands with a blessing, hopped back on and lurched back into the traffic. I looked at Tenny, laughing. Inside the containers were two freshly grilled skewers of saffron chicken, balanced upon great steaming heaps of buttery rice.

‘What the hell?!’ 

Tenny had recently been picking up a few of my favourite exclamations.

‘Well … that’s pretty good, isn’t it?’

‘But where are we going to eat it … ?’

Tenny had a point. Even though Ramadan didn’t seem as rigid as my schoolteachers had led me to believe, there was still the issue of potentially offending people (and breaking the law) by eating the delicious-smelling kebabs in the street. Reluctantly we got back on our bikes.

‘Tenny!’ I called after her as she rode away. ‘We might as well get food for dinner and breakfast while we’re here – do you want to ask if there’s a shop?’

A couple of enquiries brought us to a typical little convenience store, shelves stacked high with all manner of unidentifiable tins and packets, as alien to me as a Chinatown grocery. Tenny, however, knew exactly what she was looking at.

‘Mahan – this is a good brand. And Yek-O-Yek. No – I want to get Mahan. We can get a tin of ghormeh sabzi and eat with some of that rice …’

I already knew what ghormeh sabzi was, since Tenny and her friends, while retaining their Armenian language, had very much integrated Persian cuisine into their culture. This particular dish was a fragrant stew of diced veal, red kidney beans and prodigious quantities of minced herbs, the smell of which had a habit of seeping from one’s pores the morning after consumption. Utterly delicious, it would beat any camping food I was likely to come up with. I nodded enthusiastically.

Picking up some apples from a fruit bazaar on our way out of the far side of Marand, we also inherited a teenage boy on a bicycle. He quickly became attached to us, finding it hilarious and bizarre that an Iranian woman could be travelling in this way with her ‘husband’. As teenage boys are wont to do, he fell back on the tried and tested pastime of showing off, blasting past us one second, pulling a skittery wheelie the next, and on several occasions narrowly missing out on what would likely be an unhappy fusion of human and lorry. Cars slowed alongside us, their occupants winding down windows in order to take pictures of this unlikely entourage on their mobile phones, doubtless later posting them on Facebook via ever-evolving circumventions of government censorship.

As we left the city behind us and pedalled back up the highway towards the mountains, Tenny attempted to be diplomatic with the young lad, who showed no sign of getting bored.

‘Don’t you have anywhere else to be right now?’

‘Nope!’

‘Won’t your mum be worried?’

‘Nope!’

It was late in the afternoon before the hapless youth turned tail and began wobbling his way back to Marand on the wrong side of the road. We’d been pedalling for long enough without eating and decided to stop early, find a camping spot in the valley and have the feast of chicken kebab, ghormeh sabzi and rice that we’d been fantasising about all afternoon. Fields of diminutive tomato plants basked in the sun around us, which meant that farmers couldn’t be far away, and farmers were always a good bet when it came to finding places to sleep. Soon we were set up in a small triangle of pasture set aside for the farm’s donkey, who stood belligerently in the middle distance, attempting to stare us into submission while we dished up our ghormeh sabzi. Then Tenny’s mobile phone rang from inside her handlebar-bag. It was none other than Mr Sabri.

‘Hello … ?’

‘Hello!!! Where are you?’

Mr Sabri arrived a short time later, leaving his car on the hard shoulder, jumping the barrier and joining us on our tarpaulin for a nice cup of tea in the evening sun, while the donkey gazed on with silent but palpable displeasure. Our guardian angel had a quick chat with the farmer, checked again that there was nothing we needed, gave us his son’s phone number in Tabriz, and drove away as darkness descended upon rural Iran. And as we drew closer to the city over the next couple of days, he turned up several more times, just to make sure that we were alright, to have a quick chat, or to give us sweets and fruit. 

It was never quite clear whether he was passing through for work, or whether he’d simply taken on the responsibility of making sure that we, a pair of complete strangers, arrived safely in a city a hundred miles from his home.

By the time we arrived in Tabriz, I had noticed a change in Tenny. She had really started to adjust to this strange routine. Days of riding passed without incident, without tears or arguments, and I was filled with renewed hope for the future of our journey together.

And what a fascinating journey it was turning out to be! It was so refreshing to be travelling with someone not only fluent in the local language, but also fully versed in the way things really worked here; things which would otherwise remain obscure to me. Through Tenny I learnt about the lives of those we met, their political views, their interests, their take on the local gossip. I could ask her to translate any road sign or menu or scrawl of graffiti into words that I could understand. No longer would I stand confused at some social nicety whose meaning had gone over my head, because Tenny would be there to negotiate the appropriate etiquette.

It would be exactly the same, of course, if I took Tenny to England and acted as her guide. I would explain to her why people apologised when she held the door open for them. I would help her understand why it was proper to refuse an offer of biscuits with your tea, even if you actually wanted them, but fine to accept on the second attempt. I would be there to remind her to cycle on the wrong side of the road, to tell her what was meant by ‘a fiver’ or ‘a fortnight’, and to explain that ‘in a jiffy’ was not in fact a reference to a popular brand of padded envelope. I’d show her the rectangular holes in people’s front doors through which, once a day, a man in a blue shirt would insert a bundle of material exclusively produced for the topping-up of recycling bins. I would intervene when she got confused because people said the opposite of what they actually meant, and that this quaint form of local humour was known as ‘sarcasm’. None of this would be particularly interesting to me, because I knew it all so well. And that probably explained why travelling in Iran was not particularly exciting for Tenny.

‘I know this country,’ she told me over an amber glass of tea in the common room of the Hotel Mashhad, where our cheap silver ‘wedding rings’ and an innocent smile had secured us a room together. Backpackers wandered in and out, discussing the contents of their guidebooks, making plans to visit the ancient wonders of this mythical, modern city.

‘There is not much surprising and new things for me here. Maybe if I be in a new country, completely new, where I can feel myself as a tourist – because I’m not tourist in Armenia, and I’m not tourist in Iran; I know about these places very well – maybe when I go to new country, which will be completely new for me, like Europe, or England … I would enjoy cycling much more.’

I could see her point, of course. But at the same time I found it slightly sad – not that she felt that way, but because her home country had not yet had the chance to surprise her. I had felt the same about England, seeing my ride to Harwich as a necessary evil. Instead, I’d been invited to finish off someone’s strawberry pavlova, had bacon sandwiches brought to my tent one morning and been invited to camp in an animal sanctuary the same evening, been handed homemade jam and freshly picked strawberries on the roadside, and given a free cabin on a ferry to Europe. Her home country could only treat Tenny thus if she allowed it to, and it would surely surprise her if we continued south and east, where Iran was by all accounts a very different place indeed. And after we crossed into Pakistan and journeyed further into India and beyond, an entirely new world would open up for this girl who’d never ventured beyond the borders of Iran and Armenia.

She was ready, I decided. Tenny had made it through the stressful adjustment to life on the road. No longer would she be cowed by the routine of finding food and places to sleep, or of cycling all those miles. No, she was ready for the next step: to leave what she knew behind, and to begin exploring anew in unknown lands. 

True, it was still unclear for how long she would want to live such a life. But – at the very least – we were ready to give it a try.

Tenny dismounted, leaned her bike up against the metal garage door beneath the overhanging balconies of the small block of flats, and took off her helmet. She was laughing. I suppose it was, in a strange way, quite funny that we were about to do the very thing we’d planned for so long – the moment we’d lived in fear of for so many months, concealing every possible clue to the truth, to the extent of hiding Tenny’s bike in a friend’s basement when her parents were visiting, and fabricating a pedestrian-sounding itinerary of monastery visits and bus rides in safe, homely Armenia as a cover story for being on the road. But an ill-concealed nervousness floated through Tenny’s laughter.

She tapped the intercom button twice in quick succession. It was just the way her father did it, she said. His car wasn’t there, meaning he was out, so her mother would be expecting the buzzer to ring like that on his return. The outside door would be released without anyone asking who it was, and the second-floor flat’s front door left ajar to save having to answer a second time.

Tenny crossed herself.

‘That’s not going to help,’ I said, rather abruptly. I was in no mood for anything but the most rapid possible acceptance of whatever fate awaited us. God, I reasoned, probably had better things to do.

The latch clicked. Tenny pushed back the door and went inside without waiting for me. I hesitated, unsure what to do. Of all the inappropriate situations in which to arrive, unannounced, wielding a video camera, this surely ranked as a new personal best. And suddenly the moment of truth was about to occur while I was fumbling around with my bike! 

My heart felt ready to burst through my ribcage as I dashed upstairs after Tenny, fiddling furiously with the focus ring of the stupid camera while trying to come to terms with the possibility that I might be about to film the demise of everything I lived for. But as I approached the second floor, I heard more laughter – the laughter of another voice.

‘Hello! Hello!’ came the voice of Tenny’s mother, who couldn’t quite figure out what she was looking at, laughing in a faintly confused way, waving us inside.

She had been on the phone to a friend when her daughter had walked into her home, out of breath and dressed for the outdoors, with her foreign boyfriend in tow, still wearing his cycling gloves.

The next morning, Tenny and I rose early, ate breakfast in the kitchen, and left the house quietly. We walked together through the streets of central Tehran as the city roused into life, and soon the roads were filled with honking cars, the pavements crowded with people going about their business – and, of course, swarms of buzzing little motorbikes, whose riders didn’t seem to find it necessary to distinguish between the road and the pavement at all.

We were headed for somewhere far quieter than the streets of downtown, however, because we had something important to do. And to get there we would use Tehran’s underground metro system, which far outshone London’s cramped and grubby Tube. Shiny, spacious platforms awaited the arrival of modern, well-lit locomotives which glided to a halt amid science-fiction sound-effects, and before long we were back above ground and queuing up for admittance to the visa section of the Embassy of India. We would lodge our Indian visa applications here before heading back downtown to the British Embassy to collect a ‘letter of recommendation’, where I would pay £65 for a letter of haughty prose to the effect that the British Embassy didn’t issue ‘letters of recommendation’, which the Embassy of Pakistan would then accept as a letter of recommendation and give me a visa for Pakistan. Our chores in Tehran would be done. And it would give the bureaucrats something to do.

There was another reason we’d come to the Indian Embassy so early. Taller than anyone else in the crowded waiting room by a head’s height, Andy’s unruly bush of curly hair, unkempt beard and incongruously smart ‘off-bike’ shirt meant we could pick him out instantly.

‘Wahey!!!’ beamed my old mate in a trademark greeting, and we gave each other an awkward man-hug in the crowded waiting room. Then he hugged Tenny – equally awkwardly, as it meant almost folding himself in half to make up their difference in height.

We left the Embassy and used the long walk as an opportunity to catch up and exchange anecdotes. The usual tales of hi-jinx involving random invitations, bizarre sleeping spots and run-ins with bored policemen were banded about. But behind all of this, Andy seemed driven by some invisible momentum. His stories were entertaining but they told of a man on a mission, making decisions in order to cover distance. He was filled with purpose and direction: staying still was not part of the programme. It was a curious opposite to the downshift in pace that I’d felt in myself over these few weeks of travel with Tenny. I couldn’t quite fathom out whether Andy’s impetus came from behind or ahead; whether he was driven more by the need to put distance between himself and his life in Georgia or by the desire to explore the lands that still lay beyond the horizon. I guessed it was probably a mixture of the two. Travelling alone for the first time would surely involve riding out a challenging period of adaptation. In any case, he seemed at ease with whatever came his way, and I felt happy for him – and a tiny bit envious too.

Dealings with the stiff officials in the enormous British Embassy compound were completed with typical efficiency, and we invited Andy round to Tenny’s flat for tea. It was shortly after he departed, all set to continue his journey towards distant Pakistan, that all hell broke loose in the Adamian family home.

Looking back, it seems quite amusing that we’d continued to act on our plans, spending a whole day getting our visas arranged, as if having the stickers in our passports would make the slightest bit of difference. What was Tenny going to do – wave them madly around the living room: ‘But look, we’ve got permission!!!’

It was like I imagined a really bad comedown might feel; an awful moment where you find yourself glued to an armchair, looking around at a room full of people and feeling your insides shrivel up in horror as you realise that you have no idea who these people are. You can’t remember what was happening ten seconds ago, and you want to run away. But you can’t. Some force glues you, mute, to your chair. You have no choice but to watch the melodrama raging in front of your eyes, not understanding a single word. You contemplate how purgatory might feel. And something within you dies.

Well … here I am, on the roof of Tenny’s flat.

Don’t know where to start, really … 

Well.

I dunno …

Ugh – I can’t do these video diaries any more, it’s just … 

Let me try again.

We arrived in Tehran, at Tenny’s flat, as, we knew, we hadn’t … er … 

No, it’s just crap, isn’t it? It’s just complete and utter bollocks.

OK. I’ll make it as simple as possible.

Before we got here, we knew that one of two things was going to happen. Number One: Tenny’s parents would see that we’d cycled here. They’d see the photos and videos, hear our stories, and understand that we’d done it anyway, and that it wasn’t actually all that dangerous, and it was actually quite good fun, and it led to a lot of good experiences. Which it did.

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, what happened was Number Two. 

On the second night we were here, we came home, Tenny and I, and … we had an evening of shouting, crying, and … being told in no uncertain terms that there was no way on this planet we were going to continue.

So. Either we disregard Tenny’s parents’ wishes entirely and continue travelling by bike. Or, we basically do what they want. Which is pretty much as follows:

Forget about travelling.

Forget about living together.

Forget about having any kind of freedom to make choices together.

Until the day we get married.

I’m not trying to make out that Tenny’s parents are bad people. They come from an extremely conservative culture, and it’s not going to suddenly drop away overnight. And who am I to say it should?!

And I spent – predictably – I spent one entire sleepless night with all of this kind of stuff churning around in my head, and … an incredibly heavy weight on my shoulders, because everything we’d hoped for when we arrived here had just been blown away, erm … mercilessly, basically.

(There appears to be a man playing an accordion in the street below this building. Maybe you can hear him.)

I don’t really want to spend my life on the wrong side of my wife’s family. And I don’t want to drag Tenny with me because I’m too stubborn to let go of my travelling plans.

(By the way, these musicians don’t go away until you’ve given them money, which is a bit annoying as I don’t have any money. And it’s getting dark. Well – I’m going to continue regardless, because I have no choice, apart from to wait until tomorrow, or until his lungs burst.)

And I know that this might sound a bit … like a bit of a shitter, but I … if I didn’t carry on travelling by bike, then … I would spend the – I know that I would spend the rest of my life wondering what would have happened if I had. So I really can’t just forget about it.

Tenny and I both know that I still have these stupid, ridiculous, selfish dreams for learning about the world and travelling. At the same time, I’ve found the girl I want to spend the rest of my life with! That’s … seriously epic, and awesome. It really is!

But before that … there’s something I’ve got to do. I don’t know what it is, but I think if I just … go … maybe one day I’ll realise that I’ve ‘done it’, or that I never actually needed to ‘do it’, or something like that. 

It’s a very confusing bit of life, right now. 

And maybe I’ll look back at this and think, ‘What an idiot I was back then – what a complete fool.’

Because I’m going get on my bike, and leave Tenny here, with her family. And I’m going to disappear.

Basically.

Yeah. I’m going to go. I’m going to throw away everything that I can’t live without – I’m going to get rid of absolutely everything, every scrap of stuff that’s not necessary. 

And I’m going to head south, towards Africa, on my own.

And I’ve no idea what’s going to happen … where I’m going to go … how long it’s going to take … 

And it’s like – I dunno … I’ve no idea if it’s the right thing to do or not. 

I just feel like I haven’t found what I’m looking for yet.

Categories
Book Serialisation

Dragons’ teeth of golden stone rose from the Iranian side of the River Arax

Lake Sevan vanished behind us as we began to climb up into hilly land, the valley sides green but bare, carved with patterns like tree roots where rivulets of water had for centuries delved. The air grew dry, the sun ever more fierce as we gained altitude. We were far from any major route through the country, and people and settlements were few. This road would weave through the highlands, summit a final high pass and then descend into the far valley where we would join the through-route to the Iranian border, two hundred miles distant.

We met a shepherd on the roadside. His flock was scattered like rice in the meadow far below. He produced a bundle of cloth containing bread, cheese and herbs, offered us lunch, and asked about our journey. Tenny told him we were heading for Iran, and that I’d cycled from England. That’s great, he said, and cast his attention back to his flock. A friendly exchange; unremarkable. Yet rarely could I have left our flat in Yerevan with my beard and shorts and sandals without the feeling that I was being eyed or mocked, insidiously if not overtly, simply for looking different. After half a year of it, this easy encounter with a quiet outdoorsman was exactly what I needed – a return to a life of simple things.

The empty mountain road emerged at the edge of a wide, silent plateau. A low ridge in the distance separated this high-altitude meadow from the indigo sky. A half-mile away, I could make out wild horses nibbling near the meandering outline of a river. Close to the road, the plain was studded with tiny houses built of stone, short and stout and with dark holes for windows. Their doorways were partly dug into the ground, and grass sprouting from their uneven roofs gave them the appearance of having been summoned from the earth by some arcane magical force. Free from power lines and telegraph cables, the place felt weirdly ancient, as if we’d accidentally stumbled into a Tolkien-esque fantasy.

Curious, we stopped and called to a figure by the closest of the houses. The woman trudged up the bank to the road and spoke to Tenny in a thick accent.

‘We use it as our summer pasture,’ she said. ‘Nobody lives up here in the winter – the weather’s too harsh. The roads get blocked by snow, and facilities are too far away.

‘Sometimes we see a few tourists up here, though,’ she continued. ‘They come for some historical thing. A caravanserai.’ Of course: the Silk Road, longtime magnet for the romantic traveller; an irresistible hook on which to hang a journey through Central Asia. I’d met plenty of backpackers who’d bragged that they were ‘doing the Silk Road’. Indeed, entire guidebooks existed on the topic of how to ‘do the Silk Road’, complete with detailed rundowns of which cities contained the most important sites, directions, opening times and entrance fees, plus all the easiest ways to travel between them – and of course which places to avoid because they had nothing to do with ‘doing the Silk Road’.

Then I stopped, catching myself looking down upon the Silk Roaders, and gave my cynical old self a mighty wallop. Because I understood perfectly well why people embarked on these fantasy journeys. I’d been there. I too had planned idealistic routes across foreign lands, dreaming of riding off-road, forgetting that it would actually mean climbing a thousand fences whilst bypassing all human contact. I’d bought the brass rabbit snares too, and packed my copy of the SAS Survival Guide – for a road trip. And I’d drawn a forty-thousand mile line round the planet because a circumnavigation was the only way my insufferable ego could make sense of its yearning to wander. I’d been so sure that I was right; that my way was the best way. And sure – some travellers on the well-worn Silk Road might have a genuine and lifelong fascination with Afro-Eurasian trade routes of antiquity. But most were just trying to make sense of their desire to travel in a vast and complex world by making things simple and easy to follow. Things might become more nuanced with time, as they had for me. It was a natural and necessary process. And what was wrong with that?

At the southern end of the plateau a steep climb loomed ahead of us – surely the final hurdle before an epic downhill into the next valley. This would be a huge victory for us, as it would represent the pay-off of having climbed into the mountains and summited the first of the five huge passes between us and Iran. What a prize for Tenny to enjoy that exhilarating descent!

She stopped at the top of the pass and dismounted to enjoy the view. I pulled up beside her.

‘I’m scared.’

‘Scared? Of what?’

‘This hill. I don’t like going downhill very fast.’

Below us, the asphalt spiralled and seesawed into a gigantic abyss.

‘Right … can’t you go down slowly?’

‘I don’t want to. I feel I can’t control myself properly – my speed.’

I hesitated. And then we flagged down a passing farmer, bundled our bikes into the back of his hay truck and hitched a ride to the bottom of the most incredible downhill that I would never ride. 

And the next day, pedalling along the lush valley bottom to Yeghegnadzor and seeing the beginnings of an equally gigantic climb ahead, Tenny thumbed another ride for us – this time with an Azeri trucker. He was piloting his empty lorry back to Iran and was quite happy to have some company. And four breathtaking mountain passes came and went like scenes from a vaguely interesting slide-show. Before I knew what had happened we’d been deposited twenty miles shy of the border. We would reach Iran the next morning.

I’d compromised. And that had actually come as quite a surprise. It was another sign that things were moving on from the hard-headed days of plugging away at the road for no reason other than to get the distance done. There was a new priority now, and it was to find a position from which I could help Tenny learn what already came naturally to me. Surely that was my duty, as the person beside her, committed to occupying that role in her life? I should embrace that responsibility, and accept that the journey was no longer all about me. The challenges would not be found in climbing high passes, but in trying to understand how the world looked from her point of view, in overcoming my own stubbornness and learning patience and diplomacy, and in remaining one step ahead, removing barriers before they appeared in front of her. Andy, by contrast, had been perfectly capable of looking after himself. Travelling with Tenny was unexplored territory, and that made it exciting and fresh and new. It made it worth doing.

 

Dragons’ teeth of golden stone rose from the Iranian side of the River Arax, reaching high into the blue. Walls of jagged rock overhung the road that we followed along the gorge towards Jolfa, a small town in the Turkic province that formed the north-west corner of Iran, just a stone’s throw from Armenia’s own forbidden frontier with Turkey.

‘That was the exact opposite of what I was expecting!’ said Tenny, excitedly, as we wheeled our bicycles away from the border post and into the Islamic Republic. ‘It was the Armenians who were very serious, asking a lot of questions … but on the Iranian side, that very serious security officer just smiled to us! Oh, that was great!’

Tour buses pulled slowly up to the barriers, their occupants dragging suitcases and laundry bags full of goodness-knows-what from the luggage holds and into the building that housed the security apparatus of Iran’s solitary land-border with Armenia.

‘It was really good to be arriving in the Iranian part,’ continued Tenny, ‘because I knew the toilet was going to be much better than the Armenian one. Water and everything! So I spent maybe more than half an hour there.’

‘I know,’ I replied. ‘I thought you’d gone back to Armenia!’

We had only been on the road for a couple of hours when, without warning, the heavens opened. The two of us had been riding quite happily along, unsuspecting; within sixty seconds we were cowering under my poncho behind a pile of rocks as a freak storm blew through the gorge, drenching everything in its path. I heard a crash of metal, and then another. Lifting the lip of the poncho I saw that the wind had blown the two heavily loaded bicycles and their trailers over and into the road, shattering my rear-view mirror. I dashed out to rescue the bikes before they were flattened by an oncoming truck, and returned to the dripping wet poncho beneath which my girlfriend was shivering.

‘What will happen to us?’ she cried. ‘We can not even stay in a hotel! If I don’t have marriage certificate, they don’t even let me to stay in separate room. I’m not allowed to stay in a hotel …’

She peered out into the storm, wretched beyond tears, shrouding her face in the flapping camouflage-patterned fabric.

‘What … where … where is … where is here? … I wanna go … go home!’

Two miles along the road lay the village of Siyahrood; a tiny farming settlement that also happened to lie on the main road route between the neighbouring capitals of Yerevan and Tehran. Travellers were well catered for in Siyahrood, and we quickly discovered that one of the cafes had a room upstairs available to rent. Tenny had been shaken by the suddenness and intensity of the storm. And I knew well that feeling of helplessness in the face of the elements; the knowledge that there was nowhere to hide, just you and the weather facing off against each other. A memory snapped into focus: a roadside verge in Northamptonshire, Andy tweaking the angle of his saddle, Mark cracking jokes, the familiar limestone villages, and rain beginning to spit from the grey sky – just a few big drops, but enough to remind me that I would now be living a life outdoors, through all that the world could throw at me. And the world, of course, would always dominate. There was no real protection, no doorway to retreat to, no looking out from behind a window; only a kind of acceptance of being permanently on the outside of all those doors and windows. A steep learning curve indeed, and now Tenny was climbing it too.

‘It’s strange,’ she said, once we’d got warm and dry and settled into the little room for the evening, ‘because I lived in Iran for twenty-four years but … I still don’t quite feel safe here. Especially that I’m the one who is communicating with people, asking things of men especially, who are looking at me in a strange way … because me, and what I’m doing, is really … something new for them.’

We sat on a rug on the floor. A neat stack of bedding and mattresses inhabited one corner of the room; a gas heater was the only other furniture. The village mosque began its sunset call to prayer, the soaring minarets lit with fluorescent green light, the piercing song of the mo’azzen distorted as if through a loudhailer.

‘I’m really looking forward to … be in a place where I can have my privacy,’ Tenny continued. ‘I don’t know, maybe I’m a little bit fussy, but … I really miss living in a stable place, and knowing that it’s my home. Sometimes it’s nice to be outside, but sometimes … I’m really scared to think that I have no idea what’s going to happen the next day.’

‘It definitely takes a bit of getting used to,’ I said. ‘It took me months to really settle into a routine.’

‘I understand that,’ she said, ‘but in Iran, it’s a little … mmm … I know that you cannot feel or understand what I feel, and it’s not your fault. You’re here from a completely different country with different culture, everything different, and you’re in a place that I’m sure is very different for you. But … I – I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe here. I lived alone for five years in Armenia. But I cannot live in Iran for five years alone. Or for one week. Even in my family home, I cannot.’

‘What do you mean, exactly?’

‘I don’t know how to explain. But I want you to know that I am just being honest. I hope we will get to my home soon, and I hope that it will make my parents happy – I mean, I hope they will smile to us, not get angry that we did this without telling them.’

 

The following day our route was quiet and remote, and we had ridden thirty miles on the evening we reached Jolfa, which was the furthest Tenny had cycled in a day. She was adapting; working out her own way of tackling the daily duresses of riding, rather than simply reacting to them. I could see it in the subtleties of her actions. She responded to the sound of an oncoming car depending on how closely it was about to pass her. She shifted into optimal gear a split second in advance of a change in gradient. She dismounted with nary a wobble of the forty-kilogramme bike, using her hips to edge it against a wall in a position where it would stand without falling over. She corrected her steering when looking behind her, and instinctively knew when and how much water to drink during the course of a day. These were just some of the subtle marks of her graduation from novicehood, clearly visible through the lens of my own experience.

Tenny pulled out her mobile and called a number we’d been given earlier in the day. The driver of the passing car had spotted our bikes leant up on the roadside while Tenny had been crouching behind a nearby rock, and had reversed back up the road to talk to us. Mr Sabri was somewhere in his mid fifties, a kindly face resting between a neat moustache and a receding hairline, smart shirt and trousers suggesting a professional caught between meetings. He’d been so overjoyed to meet travellers that he didn’t question what Tenny had been doing as she clambered back up to the road. She spoke to him again on the phone in the musical airs and graces of polite Persian, hung up, smiled, and said that he was on his way.

We sat in the shade on the edge of a wall on the town’s high street. Traders operated out of little square retail units – a bakery, a mobile phone shop, a confectioner’s. Customers came and went, going about their day. After Armenia, this seemed somehow novel. I remembered that it was once normal for people to seem busy and purposeful. How great it must be to live in a country where one’s efforts actually contributed to society, instead of disappearing into the void; where making a living was as simple as going out and doing it!

A young man came over, dropped a couple of delicately wrapped chocolates into our hands, and asked us if we were looking for booze, because he could get us some if we wanted. ‘No, thanks!’ we smiled. Ramadan had been under way for two weeks.

Then Mr Sabri sailed past in a white Peugeot 405, spotted us, pulled a U‑turn and parked up beside us. He quickly realised that the boot of his family saloon would not fit a pair of three-wheeled touring bikes and their luggage. So he told us not to worry, brought forth a mobile phone, and magically summoned a man in a pick-up truck. And we all departed for his house, which turned out not to be in Jolfa at all but some miles away in the mountains near the town of Hadishahr, and was less of a house and more of a palace.

In Armenia, such a home would usually turn out to belong to a medium-ranking mafia family member. The Sabri family, on the other hand, received us with utmost warmth and humility. The man of the house was a successful and well-respected local vet, specialising in the artificial insemination of cattle, living with his wife and daughter in a spacious, air-conditioned home. Their son, he said, was studying in the city of Tabriz a couple of hours’ drive away on the other side of the mountains. But the place was not without its curiosities. The sofas appeared to be permanently shrink-wrapped, as did the remote control for the television, a fuzzy circle of worn plastic shrouding the red power button. The wife and daughter prepared the evening meal in the fully featured kitchen, sitting on the floor to chop vegetables, encircled by towering, unused worktops. And in the back garden, Mr Sabri proudly gave us a tour of the ornate swimming pool, which lay invitingly in the sun, surrounded by fruit trees and grapevines, completely empty of water.

I’d heard so much of the hospitality in Iran. Tales of lore spread by hippie pioneers in the ‘60s and ‘70s had built her reputation, and the foundations of these tales lay in the insistent invitations that these travellers would receive on a daily basis – invitations which would completely scupper the idea of actually getting anywhere. This was, of course, the polar opposite of the media stereotype I’d grown up with. So there seemed to be a poetry in the fact that you could call the country by two very different names – uppity Iran on one hand, dreamy Persia on the other – and still be talking about the same place.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when, having been detained after breakfast for a tour of the local area’s historical and natural wonders, including a spectacular underground lake and a fortified Armenian church, we were told that we should obviously remain a second night at the family’s pleasure. And, whilst Tenny and I were being held hostage at the hands of Persian (or perhaps Iranian) hospitality, Andy cycled past Hadishahr, alone.

It was some time later that we worked out precisely when he must have overtaken. But on that day he passed right by us, unbeknownst to all. I’d known that he was preparing to leave Tbilisi around the time that we planned to leave Yerevan. In yet another coincidental turn of events, Andy, too, had been planning a route across Iran to Pakistan and India – one of the early route options we’d looked at for Ride Earth. Indeed, the way in which his story had mirrored mine was almost poetic.

The obvious difference, of course, was that he’d left his girlfriend behind, while I had brought mine along for the ride.