The day before I was due to ride into Balochistan, I woke up to the devastating news that a London cycle courier had been killed by a bus on Bishopsgate.
I didn’t know Henry that well – we’d nod in passing, and had had one or two brief conversations when our paths crossed in loading bays – so the grief I felt wasn’t as immediate or particular as it would have been for one of my close friends. Instead it felt nebulous and all-encompassing, trickling through my mind like a grey mist, and settling like a miasma over my morning. My brain wearily sifted through the anger I always feel when something like this happens – the outrage that cyclists are still dying on the roads in one of the world’s most developed cities; the fury that no one seems to be doing enough to stop it; the horror that somebody’s life should end so sharply and so brutally. But there was a new piquancy to these well-trodden emotions – every time a cyclist is killed in London (and this is a distressingly regular occurrence) I point out that next time it might well be someone I know. This time it was.
An unsettling layer of irony is added to Henry’s death by the fact that last year he appeared in Ed’s Up, a TV show in which Ed Robertson (from the band Barenaked Ladies) flies around the world “trying some of the toughest jobs out there – in some of the toughest places”. Robertson spent two days working as a London cycle courier, under Henry’s patient tutelage, and the episode was heavily derided by the courier community, for the fact that the job doesn’t come across as being tough at all (the footage consisting mostly of Robertson screaming “woooooaaaaaargh!” as he wobbles at low speed through near-stationary traffic), despite the producers’ best efforts to emphasize how deadly it is. “You would be talking in the region of three to four hundred a year” replies John Lambert, of Rico Logistics, when asked about the death rate among London cycle couriers, shortly before Henry appears to put Robertson through his paces. As people were quick to point out on the Moving Target forum, at that rate, the entire work force would be wiped out within a couple of years. (In actual fact, the most recent death until now was Seb Lukomski’s, in 2004. There are several couriers still on the road today who remember him as a close friend.)
But now Henry is dead, and Lambert and Robertson’s banter about the dangers of the job (“where will I die, exactly?”, asks Robertson, poring over the map) comes across as horribly cavalier and uncomfortably prescient – as does the post I wrote a couple of months ago, about the perceived dangers of solo cycle touring in comparison to couriering. I announced that I had decided to ride through Balochistan after all, since several close encounters with lorries on my way into Istanbul had reminded me that I am far more at risk of being killed by traffic than I am by Taliban, and that I was even more at risk during the three years I worked as a courier.
And now here I was, sitting in the courtyard of a comfortable and nearly deserted guesthouse in the city of Bam, on the eve of the most nervously anticipated leg of my journey, mourning someone who hadn’t even had to leave London to meet his end, and thinking anxiously about all the people I know and love who are still riding around the city day in day out. Perhaps I was mourning all of them, knowing that there is every likelihood that someone else will be killed someday, that it may well be someone I’m close to, and that there is nothing I or they can do to prevent it. It’s a brutal job, and also a brutal world.
Bam was an appropriate place for this sort of grief. In 2003 Bam was flattened by a major earthquake, which destroyed the city’s 2,000-year-old citadel, flattened 85-90% of its buildings and killed over 26,000 people. Nine years later, the disaster is still uppermost in people’s minds, and comes up in almost every conversation. Everyone in Bam lost friends, family, property, possessions and livelihoods, if they were lucky enough not to lose their lives. Akbar’s Guesthouse, a long-established landmark on the overland route between Europe and South Asia, was reduced to rubble, and re-established in a series of tents, before shifting to the newly built concrete compound where I now sat, enjoying the sight of the date palms against the bright blue sky, sipping cups of tea, and recovering from the 200km I’d ridden in one day to get there from Kerman, so as to buy myself the rest day I so desperately needed. Bam doesn’t feel like a disaster zone, even though there are still far more buildings in various states of construction and demolition than you’ll see in most other cities. Unlike the desert I’d ridden through to get there, the town is full of trees, and the streets are quiet and sunny.
A couple of hours into the morning, a smart-looking man in a down jacket and aviator shades strolled into the compound and joined me at my table. He introduced himself as Reza, and explained that he was a local engineer and tour guide, who dropped into Akbar’s from time to time, simply to meet people from the outside world. As it happens he – and everyone else here – had heard on the grapevine that a solo female cyclist was on her way east, and had been looking forward to meeting me.
Since about the middle of Iran, I’d been back on the main overland artery to India, following in the footsteps of generations of cyclists, motorbikers, hitch-hikers and drivers, from Tim Slessor to Moin Khan. In some ways this gave me the gratifying sense of being part of a Great Tradition. But at times I felt distinctly unadventurous and unoriginal, plodding along this very well beaten track. If you ever have the opportunity to stay at Akbar’s, you’ll be regaled with stories of all the many travellers who’ve drunk tea in his courtyard over the years, and shown the stack of notebooks (retrieved from under the rubble in 2003) in which they recorded their anecdotes and advice, before the days of the Lonely Planet forums. (I was particularly alarmed by an entry from some Dutch cyclists, whose bikes and tents ended up riddled with bullet holes after they camped in the desert between Bam and Zahedan. Thankfully this was more than ten years ago.)
But these days the torrent of overlanders has dried to a trickle. Back in the day there would often be as many as ten cyclists staying at Akbar’s at any one time. But now weeks can go by without anyone passing through, and I had the whole place to myself, having just missed a British motorcyclist called Matt, who left for the border the day before I arrived. Reza and I speculated on the reasons for this. The main one, he reckoned was the earthquake, which destroyed Bam’s main tourist attraction (the Arg-e-Bam) and made it famous for all the wrong reasons (I remember seeing the carnage on the news in 2003 – Bam certainly didn’t strike me as somewhere I’d like to spend my holidays). I told him that Balochistan’s reputation for lawlessness and kidnappings was probably also to blame (several overlanders I know have changed their routes, and are now going north of Afghanistan, through Central Asia, or catching a boat to Dubai and then flying to India), along with Pakistan’s insistence that travellers now apply for visas from their home countries – many people don’t realize this until they get to Iran, and are faced with the option of flying home to submit their application, or changing their route.
We talked about how things must have changed over the years, and I told him about the trends and contrasts I’ve observed in the recent history of overland travel. In 1963, Dervla Murphy cycled through Iran and Afghanistan on her way to India. Her journey wasn’t without its scaremongers (she had to fight tooth and nail in Tehran to acquire her Afghan visa, and was warned that an American woman (?) had been abducted and murdered there just a few weeks previously), but she fell head over heels in love with Afghanistan, and describes it as a paradise of mountains and meadows and orchards, and its people as the most beautiful she’d ever seen. Thirty-nine years later, Rory Stewart passed the same way on foot, tracing the footsteps of the Mughal emperor Babur. His book (The Places In Between) depicts Afghanistan as a hostile, nightmarish country, where Stewart, despite his Pathan appearance and fluent Dari, is frequently threatened and intimidated by the people he meets and stays with, and, by his own admission, doesn’t expect to make it out alive. The contrast with Murphy’s account is appalling.
Bam hides a similar contrast, under its placid, sleepy, sunny exterior. Although the place feels unusually peaceful, there are constant reminders that, less than a decade ago, half the population was killed in the space of a few minutes. Reza told me how he’d been summoned back from Esfahan to help coordinate the rescue efforts, and I tried in vain to find some common ground with people who had experienced such horrors – to imagine what it would be like to see my home and all its surroundings reduced to a pile of rubble. Everywhere I’ve lived – London, Cambridge, my parents’ house in Wales – has been standing for hundreds of years, and it had never seriously occurred to me that it might not always be there, and could come tumbling down in a matter of minutes. Admitting that it couldn’t possibly compare to what happened in Bam, I told Reza about riding into work past Brixton’s burnt-out shops, during last summer’s riots, and the shock of seeing a blackened cavern where the shopfront of Footlocker had always been. The difference, Reza was quick to point out, was that in London I hadn’t seen bodies lying in the street – quite possibly the bodies of people I had known and loved. The thin grey cloud of grief that had been hovering over my head all morning sank down into me once again, and I felt the sadness filtering into every corner of my mind, and tears rising in my chest, although, as I told myself, this was pointless. There was nothing I could do to understand; nor was there anything I could do to alleviate or prevent the senseless cruelty of it all.
Reza works as a civil engineer and sometimes as a tour guide, although of course, the latter career has stalled somewhat over the past few years. He offered me a free tour of the Arg-e-Bam and the old city that afternoon and, after securing his assurance that very little exertion would be required on my part (this was, after all, supposed to be a rest day), I gladly accepted and we climbed into his 4×4 and set off through the sleepy lunchtime streets, under the dappled shade of the eucalyptus trees.
We pulled up at the citadel a few minutes later and I prepared myself for the worst. Until 2003, this was one of the most impressive structures in the world – and one of the oldest. Constructed around 2,500 years ago, it predated both Christianity and Islam. It was older than the English language. It was standing solidly there in the desert when Shakespeare was writing King Lear, and when Da Vinci was painting the Mona Lisa, and when the London I know and love was just a scattered collection of muddy villages beside the river. It survived wars and invasions, and outlived empires. But when the earthquake hit, early one morning, it crumbled into dust.
The sun was so bright as I stepped out of the car that the massive golden ramparts in front of me stung my eyes and I blinked and sneezed uncontrollably. It was easy to see where parts of the building had been reconstructed – their sheer, well-finished walls contrasted uncomfortably with the grey rubble that surrounded them. Reza led me into the building site, explaining that, although efforts are being made to reconstruct the citadel, with financial and technical support from countries all over the world, a lot of it will be left just as it is, to remind people that what happened in 2003 is now part of the building’s history.
Even in its ruined state, the scale of the citadel is extraordinary. Usually, when I visit an ancient building, I imagine how it would have looked centuries ago, when people were still living and working there. In this case I was also trying to picture how it would have looked a mere decade ago, with its walls still proud and immaculate. Reza tried to explain what had changed, both since the earthquake knocked the citadel down, and since the reconstruction team began to put it back together (providentially, Bam was listed by UNESCO just a year before the disaster, and as a result there has been a lot more assistance than might otherwise have been forthcoming) and I told him how heartily I wished I had passed through ten years before, and seen it in all its glory. Unsettlingly, I realised that some of the buildings I’ve seen and admired on my way through Europe and the Middle East might no longer be there next time I pass through. Which ones?, I wondered. The cathedral at Koln? The Blue Mosque in Istanbul? The mausoleum at Soltaniye? Nothing is permanent.
I was reminded of the low-key envy I feel for Dervla Murphy, that she got to see the great Buddhas at Bamiyan, before they were dynamited by the Taliban in 2001. Rory Stewart passed through soon afterwards, and describes the enormous empty niches, with many of the monks’ caves still intact behind them. Reza shared my outrage. With so much pain and destruction already existing in the world, he asked, gesturing back towards the city of Bam, why did human beings feel the need to create any more?
I got back into the car, feeling close to tears, thinking about the book I was reading, about the undeserved death of a single American soldier in Afghanistan, thinking about Bam, thinking about London, thinking about Henry. The sky was still blue, the remaining walls of the citadel still shone golden in the sun, and the road was lined with date palms as we drove north out of the city, towards the desert. There was no point in crying. None of this sadness touched my life directly, and there was nothing I could do to resolve it. Crying would have been an indulgence. But I still sat there quietly next to Reza, feeling the strong liquid sadness surging up in my chest and settling just behind my eyes.
He turned on the stereo, remarking that he had built up quite an impressive music collection, simply by copying files from Akbar’s guests over the years, and skipped through tracks until we were listening to Paul Simon. It was a familiar song, unconsciously buried in my memory from long family car journeys of years long past. I had never really listened to the lyrics before.
It was a dry wind
And it swept across the desert
And curled into the circle of birth
And the dead sand
Falling on the children
The mothers and the fathers
And the automatic earth
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in the corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby, don’t cry
There is no answer, of course, and I have have no conclusion. But perhaps this was the best that I could offer – that life’s miracles and wonders are inextricably woven into its horrors and cruelties. That I am here, though many people are not. That for me, at least on the surface, Bam was a place of peace and friendship and palm trees.
We took a long straight road out of town, and within minutes were in the desert, and I was shrieking with fear and delight as Reza put his foot on the gas and roared up near-vertical outcrops at breakneck speed, rattling over the loose stones and somehow managing to stay upright, even when the vehicle was tilted so far over that I was almost sitting in his lap. When we paused at the top of one of the hills, the air was completely still, and the palm groves of Bam spread out silently beneath us.
When we pulled up at the guesthouse a couple of hours later, my mood had lifted, and there was a bring red Landcruiser parked outside, with an ‘Austria’ sticker on the side. We had company.