I am writing this as we are speeding through Northern Iran, on our way from Tabriz to Tehran, in a nicely airconditioned VIP bus. The in-bus entertainment (a zany film about two blundering guys with no ‘toman’, money) has finished so all is quiet. Outside the dry desert mountains are gliding by, with the occaisional village in a pocket of green where a river still has water flowing through its bedding.
We have only been in Iran for 5 days but there is a lot to write about this weird and wonderful country. However, since we passed the three month mark and we have now well and truly left the Western world a reflection on the first part of our big trip is in order. The previous blogposts were mostly about the countries and the sights. This one is a bit more personal, about our life together on the road. More on Iran in a few weeks, when we have a faster (read: unmonitored) internet connection.
First of all, we are loving cycling the world together. We had high expectations, based on our previous cycling trips together and from what we have been reading on other world cyclists blogs. All of these dreams are now our reality, and what little fears we had are not materializing. It is a great world out there and we love having the freedom to explore it. Still, it takes some time to find your rhythms and your comfort zones with regards to sleeping, eating, physical limits, interactions with eachother and the rest of the world.
Cyril has evolved from a road racer to a bike traveler, meaning he is no longer frustrated at average speeds that are way below 20kph and days where we do no more than 50km because it is boiling hot or we are hauling 40kgs (or more? We don’t know and don’t want to know) of bike and luggage over a mountain pass. I’m no longer balking at anything that is over 6% climbing and I’ve tackled 14% bits without getting off the bike. I stil cry every now and again when it is really tough going but I will never give up or turn back. When we are not cycling we feel a bit strange and we love getting back on the road after a little break. Both our bikes are excellent work horses.
Wild camping or slumming it
Our first night of wild camping was super exciting. We found a spot next to a little river, behind a bush, close to a neat little Bavarian village. We waited for half an hour before we put up our tent, to make sure no one had spotted us. I felt sticky and missed having a hot shower. After a good nights sleep we woke up, packed up, and as we were leaving we were approached by a dog walker. We felt like we had been caught in the act but the man only wanted to know if we were happy with our camping spot. Fast forward three months, to our last camping spot in Armenia. We come sailing down our last Armenian mountain pass, find a little side road that runs around a little hill, hiding us from views and sounds from the road. Without hesitation we plonk our bags down, put up our tent, strip naked for an improvised ‘shower’ with a wash cloth and a water bottle. We then sit down to enjoy a glass of wine with our pasta dinner, the silence and the sunset. Just before midnight we are disturbed by a herdsman who guides his cows around our tent. We say hello when he shines his torch into our tent and he is on his way. Cyril spots a desert fox staring at him with glowing eyes when he steps outside for a pee. This is one of the busier nights, as usually we are completely alone and undisturbed. We’ve come to love camping in wide empty spaces, away from traffic and people. Why did we ever pay for a campsite, when you have the option to spend the night in the most beautiful places? Why plan accommodation ahead when you can have complete freedom in deciding when you are done with cycling for the day? I’m very happy we tapped into this freedom and we are enjoying it to the max. Still, sometimes it’s nice to have a room, to do laundry and tidy up a little bit. Our ideal ratio is camping for 5 or 6 days and then a room for 1 or 2 nights, but this depends on whether we are planning on visiting a city where we want to stay and look around for a bit.
Treating ourselves to a bit of civilization by booking a room every now and again also helps in keeping us fit and healthy, both physically and mentally. The cycling is getting more physically demanding as we are getting into hotter and higher regions. Sometimes we experience cultural misunderstandings and language barriers or stressful days with lots of traffic or bad weather. Then the luxury of arriving in a warm and dry place with a door that we can close behind us and a shower is something to be immensely grateful for. We feel that we are pacing ourselves well by not approaching this trip as an extreme endurance race. We still feel fresh and happy and confident we can keep this up for another year.
Another treat is staying with a warmshowers or couchsurfing host for one or more nights. One of the greatest pleasures from this trip is our many encounters with the nicest people who provide us with warm welcomes, good conversation and interesting cultural insights. The incredible generosity and help of random strangers has inspired us to be more active hosts when we come back to Amsterdam. We have hosted warmshowers guests before but what we have offered pales in comparison to the lovely welcomes we have received. We are often embarrassed by how much people offer us, of their time, their house, their good spirits, their food. We think of how we have often refused a request to stay because we were ‘too busy’. We love the notion of hospitality as expressed by the Armenians (but found everywhere in the sphere of influence of the former Ottoman empire): a guest is a gift from god.
We both wanted to write while traveling. I wanted to read and write architectural essays, and I also had ambitions of doing yoga every day, learn how to play the harmonica and study Russian. Cyril wanted to keep a travel diary, cook every now and again and learn Russian. We both failed miserably in most things. Traveling by bicycle is keeping us fully occupied and we are mostly too tired or too busy to do anything else. It is an effort to stop cycling for a day or so to write the blog, to do laundry and to plan ahead with visums etc. Essays are forming in my head and outlines are being made but I cannot find the space to write and do the necessary research properly. Another ambition we didn’t realize was doing the full distance by bicycle. It proved too much to cram all of the countries into the time we have set ourselves so we had to take a bus or a train every now and again. We decided not to feel bad or guilty about this as our trip is not about breaking records or being ‘pure’ cyclists but about exploring the world and the people in it. This is one ambition that is working out. We are also learning a lot by seeing how history has caused movements of people and culture, conflicts and cuisine. Names we previously only knew from news reports (for instance Nagorno Karabach) now have a much more nuanced meaning for us. We read up on (recent) history of all the places we go to try and understand the lives of the people a bit better.
We have not had any serious stomach bugs or any other discomforts yet, although we definitely feel like we are no longer 18 when we crawl out of our tent at 7am… However, overall we do feel better than ever, spending every day outside, using our bodies and resting our minds. We have both lost fat and gained muscle. We have hard tan lines on our arms and legs and brown faces with white smiling wrinkles. We eat a lot: a pasta dinner cooked by the tent, lunch of barbecued meat with ‘lavash’ bread and salad (bye bye vegetarian principles), lots of fruit. We have a big bowl of porridge with dried fruit and nuts and honey in the morning which makes for a great first breakfast. Then second breakfast with bread or whatever we can find after our first 20km or so on the bicycle. We use a steripen UV water purifier to clean the water we collect from taps, springs, waterfalls. I try to eat as much yoghurty stuff as possible to keep my gut healthy.
Mentally and emotionally we are in good shape too, although we had a small crisis recently when I realized I really didn’t like Cyrils habit of checking his phone starting early in the morning until late at night. I think a trip like this is a beautiful opportunity to disengage from our usual screen habits but instead of being less online it seemed as if it was only becoming more. We had a good talk about it and are working on building some better habits with less screentime. I guess being so close together 24/7 brings out these confrontations, but so far this is the only annoyance that came up. Apart from me wanting to stop to check the map every 10 meters when we are doing a hard climb.
Social media addiction crisis aside we love traveling together. The ‘team’ bit in Team Oufti has gotten very strong. We share the tasks fairly equally, from camping to organizing ahead. Cyril is the maintenance man and ride leader, I’m more the itinerary and accomodation organizing girl doing the producing and planning ahead, a.k.a. the Reiseführerin. We enjoy eachothers company a lot and were seriously wondering about the state of the marriage of the guy who asked us how on earth we managed to spend 3 months on the road together without going absolutely bonkers. Sometimes we cycle with other people which is nice but overall we prefer cycling with just the two of us together since we are now so in tune.
So, after three months: we have definitely lost our training wheels and we are well balanced on our way, on our bicycles. Right now we are enjoying a small break since Iran is way too hot to cycle right now. We are traveling around by bus and train and will meet two friends from Amsterdam in Esfahan next week. After Iran: the Pamir Highway. We are ready for the challenges ahead!