Mount Ararat’s outline floated in the west, lopsided crater atop its shallow-sided volcanic body, motionless and bold against an orange late-afternoon sun, the smaller twin cone of Little Ararat to its side like a child clutching the hand of a parent. I lapped up the descent, cackling and singing at the absurd distance I’d climbed – in order to relive it in reverse. Rock and scrub blasted past on either side, interspersed with grey patches of slush, the occasional sliver of white snow still hiding in crevices and in the shadows of boulders. As cars crept past, their drivers peering with incredulity at the sight of a heavily loaded cyclist taking an uninterrupted twenty-five-mile downhill at full speed, I could feel the frigid air warming as it blasted my exposed lips and cheeks, the atmospheric thermals passing behind in clear-cut layers as the plateau loomed up below. Handfuls of desolated buildings drifted past, perched on the edge of the precipitous mountain road overlooking the flatlands of west Armenia and Turkey. The same flatlands I’d spent the entire day climbing away from.
I had made my decision. My Iranian visa would expire, unused. I was going back to Yerevan.
Nothing would be the same now. The future lay wrapped in uncertainty. After nine months of focusing on the huge and distant finishing line of cycling round the world, I could now see no further down the road than the distant cloud of smog on the horizon.
I knew that something like fifty miles of pedalling awaited me. It was already growing dusky, the days still short and bleak. But I didn’t care. An interminable traverse of the city’s suburbs would come afterwards. Past the great central landmarks with which I’d become so familiar. I wouldn’t give them a second glance. A last giant hill climb towards the northern suburbs of the city, and a metal door on the seventh floor of a post-Soviet apartment block. After that?
I didn’t care. I truly didn’t care what would happen next. At that moment I felt such an utter sense of purpose, my actions and desires in fantastical alignment, that I gave thanks to everyone and everything that had taken me away from my home, out of the world I knew, across Europe and into West Asia and to this strip of tarmac running through the overlooked post-communist nation of Armenia in which someone had taught me that I didn’t want to live in a structure any more. I didn’t need to pedal in a gigantic circle in some desperate attempt to make my life mean something. The idea of ‘going back’ was ancient history. There was nothing to go back to. Life as I’d known it had been vanquished forever. And as for ‘finishing the journey’? I might as well sit on an exercise bike in the gym and crank out another 30,000 miles while admiring myself in the mirror for all the relevance it had.
And so I plummeted earthwards with a smile on my face, because something had happened – something more remarkable than any tale of adventure – and I would be a fool not to take that giant leap and to see where I would land. At eleven-thirty that night, after ten and a half hours of pedalling, I found myself slumped in a lift as it clanked and squealed its way to the seventh floor of a crumbling apartment block in the northern suburbs of the Armenian capital. What might happen next was anyone’s guess. But I had made my peace with uncertainty, and I was going to embrace it, open-armed.
The concrete stairwell was dim and cold, and I could barely make out where I was putting my feet. But it didn’t matter, because through a tiny peephole there came a welcoming glimmer of light.
We love the idea of being in control of our own personal universe. It gives us reassurance to think that we are capable of exerting an influence over the objects and events and people around us. To help us believe this, we often attribute far more significance to our actions than they deserve. We have all walked up to a lift, seen that the call button is already illuminated, and pressed it anyway. Why? Do we believe that the effort might somehow contribute to the lift’s safe and prompt arrival at our floor? It is an entirely futile manoeuvre, and rationally we know this, but we are often not particularly rational beings.
Especially in modern society, we have a habit of creating systems to ensure predictable outcomes. Whether it is the stashing of large amounts of money in bank accounts for the future, or the forging of careers in the assumption that doing so will mean we’re able to make ends meet until retirement, we are fighting a world of immense unpredictability. But our positions are tenuous. We call it ‘planning’ when it is nothing but guesswork. And this guesswork transforms us from dreamers and artists and romantics – children – into the parts of a giant life-support machine that is dependent upon itself. And we are so tied to this machine that we’re paralysed when it breaks down; when we’re made redundant, when the bank collapses, when there’s a fuel shortage, when things don’t go as planned.
It is so difficult to accept how little can be guaranteed about life, other than its ending. We would perhaps be more motivated to question our journeys if we were each given an exact date and time at which they would all end, the precise moment at which we would cease to be here. Although I’m reluctant to borrow other people’s words, I remember an interview with the musician and humorist Tim Minchin, who put it so nicely:
‘It’s awe-inspiringly awesome … the idea that – after all this space – there’s You, and then there’s Not You … and you’re faced with the question of how you’re going to spend that time.
‘People don’t even know how to spend their Saturday afternoons.’
‘Barev dzes? Duk ek hayt’ararutyun t’vel Gindum? … Duk ek Gindum hayt’ar … er, da der azad e? Isk concrete k’asek Brusovi poghots vordegh e linum? … Komitas e, che, Komitas? … Ayo …’
Right … so I’m going to have to learn this?
‘ … che, che, yes yerevi shpotel em indz tvum er Komi – vortev Komitasi verevn e … Inchits? … Sirkits minchev nerkev … Eghav.’
I sat listening as Tenny talked on the phone to a prospective landlord in her native Armenian, a language with its roots in no other tongue still spoken. I’d had no idea that my decision to return to Yerevan would lead to spending the next half-year living in the city, renting my own apartment for the first time, watching through my very own post-Soviet window-frame as someone flicked a switch and the city transformed from a cold bleak monochrome dump into a warm and lively hub of culture and sunshine and life. I could never have known that I would one day find myself above the Arctic Circle, pedalling alone along a road of solid ice in the dead of a midwinter’s night, or on another occasion crying into a vodka glass at a funeral wake in the wild and empty plains of Northern Mongolia. I could never have allowed for the possibility that I would one day become a citizen of another country and carry a little blue booklet alongside my little burgundy one – all because of a single decision I’d made on a mountain top. How could I possibly have known that these things would happen, and how could they have happened at all had I not taken off the stabilisers I’d attached to my bicycle journey, allowing it to roll freely and naturally into the unknown?
Maybe it was the simplicity of the itinerant lifestyle that had done this. I wasn’t sure. Reducing existence to its barest material and emotional demands had stripped away all of the layers of abstraction that I’d always been taught came with modern adult life. Seen at that level, maybe it was obvious why I’d chosen a simple human relationship over my globally proportioned ego trip.
For the time being, then, I was staying put in Yerevan. And with staying put came the fantastic luxury of being able to reminisce and digest. I suddenly had so much time! Living costs in Armenia were hardly a great strain on my wallet; the monthly rent payment was my biggest single expense. After the frugality of my journey to Armenia, I never enjoyed the moment that the friendly old landlord would knock on the door to say hello, tut noisily at the state of the wiring and collect his handful of banknotes. But by living on a diet almost exclusively composed of bread, red lentil soup and borscht, which was far more exciting than what I’d been eating on the road, I was able to subsist on practically nothing, and a good thing, too, as I had no source of income and no idea how much longer it might be before I did. My expenditure each month struggled to top £100. And so I had the great privilege of almost limitless time to dedicate to working through the collected photographs, video footage and diary entries of the previous year’s adventures, which proved extremely satisfying. It seemed bizarre that such freedom, such a feeling of completeness and wanting for nothing, was a direct result of embracing a poor, unemployed and itinerant way of life, while those I’d known at home were striving for precisely the same feeling by working themselves to the bone and becoming wealthy, career-driven and settled.
Life in one place also featured a host of fantastic novelties such as taking off my clothes before going to bed, preparing meals that required more than one pot, not permanently stinking like a PE lost-property box, having taps, not beginning diary entries with ‘Day X’, putting my padded shorts away in a drawer, definitely having toilet paper, condiments, being able to refrigerate things, removing the metal plates screwed into the bottoms of my shoes, shaving, having clean fingernails, and collecting names that I would remember and phone numbers that I would call. I enjoyed going out on foot and not having to squeal to a halt several times a day and explain where I was going (to the next town), where I was from (England / Anglia / Inglestan / Britannia), why I was riding a bicycle (because I couldn’t afford petrol), whether I was married (no) or had children (no), why I wasn’t married (erm … ), if I was sure my tyres were quite firm enough (yes), really (yes), if it wasn’t very difficult to travel like this (sometimes), how much my bicycle had cost (one hundred dollar), what I did for work (photography / writing / programming / nothing), whether I was crazy (yes), and any number of other far too frequently asked questions I received whenever I turned up somewhere with a bike and a load of bags of stuff (all day, every day).
There were so many things about life that I had never imagined I would appreciate so much, and it all had come from cycling across a dozen countries on a journey that had changed my life. Yes, I was content to remain in Yerevan for now, but there were still so many places still left unvisited. How much more there must still be to explore and learn!
And what better way to experience more of those life-changing lessons than alongside someone who, although completely new to the idea, was ready to give the traveller’s lifestyle her very best shot?