And then, after my unscheduled extra rest day, I was back on the road again. After a year (and one more day) of worrying, I wasn’t able to dredge up any more anxiety about Balochistan, but I was terribly curious to find out how I’d get on. A cyclist who’d ridden through in the opposite direction a couple of months earlier had assured me that the Pakistan side would be fine, but warned me that the Iranian police were extremely intimidating, and had effectively taken her into custody, confiscated her passport and not let her cycle until she got to Bam. She added to the general consensus that Zahedan is a terrifying and lawless place, and pessimistically recommended that I just camp in the desert, and try to sneak through the town in the middle of the night. This was out of keeping with my impression of the Iranian police to date (on my way into Bam, for example, I was tailed by a cop car for a few miles, then flagged down and presented with a cup of tea and a handful of sweets), but of course there was no saying whether they’d be more paranoid – and consequently less friendly – as I neared the border.
I wondered if I’d find any decent camping spots – in my experience of the Iranian desert so far, there hadn’t been much to hide behind. And I reflected on my suspicions that, even though I’d stuck to my guns and refused to give up on Balochistan, I was likely to find it a bit of a let-down – two weeks of riding through a desert would, I imagined, be far less scintillating than the more varied landscape of Central Asia, and the satisfaction of not wasting my hard-won visa would pale very quickly. For the first few hours the road led me through Bam’s suburbs, and then a series of small towns. The roads were lined with date groves, and between the trees were well-irrigated plots of soft green grass. I cast a practised wild-camper’s eye over them, hoping that I’d find something similar at the other end of the day, because a few metres back from the road, hidden amongst the trees, with all the workmen safely at home for the night, there was no way my small green tent would be spotted.
Even among the trees the air was dusty, and my mouth became uncomfortably dry. I stopped, bought a bag of oranges, ate half of them on the spot, and carried on. Within minutes my mouth was uncomfortably dry again. In amongst the trees were large slabs of golden rock, that might also have been mud walls left over from the earthquake or some earlier cataclysm. I stopped and hid behind one of them for a pee, and then struggled to push my bike the few metres back to the road, its wheels sinking helplessly into the loose sand.
I pressed on, slowly, knowing that the only way to make the kilometres disappear was to keep going. It wasn’t fun. I hadn’t been enjoying cycling for several days now – another sure sign that I needed to take a break. Back in December, knowing that I had to get through the Turkish winter and all of Iran in the space of about six weeks, I had resolved that I would try and pace myself – to ride shorter days and take fewer rest days, rather than going to my usual extremes and risking making myself ill. I had miserably failed in this attempt at moderation, and over the past couple of weeks had ridden more 200km+ days than I probably had in the entire trip to date. And, just as you might expect, I was close to burnout.
Halfway through the morning Michael and Anna sailed past me in their Landcruiser, grinning and waving, and stopped to top up my bottles from their huge stash of water. They offered me a lift to the border, which I refused, knowing that the momentary relief of not having to cycle would be far eclipsed by the guilt I’d feel forever after, for having taken the easy way out. But I envied them, fresh-faced and happy, looking like Ralph Lauren models in their blue jeans and matching desert boots. They drove alongside me for a couple of minutes, taking photos of me in action and promising to email them to my mother in the event of my mysterious disappearance, and then accelerated off towards the border. They would probably be in Pakistan by teatime.
At about 2pm, I stopped by the side of the road and wiped my sleeve across my face. It came away smeared with white salt, and my skin felt raw and chapped, as much by the dust and sand blowing blowing against it as by the sweat trickling down it. I had done 100km, and had another 50km to go, but I was exhausted – in body and in mind. I didn’t want to go any further. This, of course, is not necessarily an obstacle. I’ve ridden many hundreds of miles when I wasn’t really in the mood. But it makes it a lot more difficult, since rather than distracting myself with happy memories, or future plans, or any of the other things that habitually run through my head as I ride along, I’m unable to think of anything beyond wanting to stop, and straining to continue.
This psychological tedium is as much of a challenge as the physical discomfort, and it often feeds off it, particularly at times like this, when my exhausted body screams out for me to stop in any way it can. For the past few weeks I had been riding along in increasing amounts of pain. For some unfathomable reason my cycling shoes (which I’d been wearing for almost a year, and ridden thousands of miles in) had shrunk – or my feet had grown, which is always a possibility – and now my toes were bent almost double inside them, pinched from all sides, and with bruises on their knuckles that felt like they went all the way down to the bone. Every pedal stroke hurt, and I was constantly shifting my weight around, trying to find a corner of my foot to push the pedal with that didn’t make me wince with pain. (If I’m honest, part of my reluctance to get on the road the previous day had been a straightforward fear of putting my shoes back on.)
I was also afflicted with terrible saddlesore (also a mystery after all these months), possibly because my shyness of the pedals was causing me to put more weight on the saddle, or possibly just because it’s high time I gave in and got a Brooks. And even my hands were starting to ache, perhaps also as a result of unequal weight distribution, or perhaps because Ryan was right all along, and I really do need a shorter stem.
And you know how it is with pain – when it gets really bad, you can’t think of anything else. It’s possible to ride through it, of course, because it’s possible to ride through almost anything. But pain is like one of those annoying pop-ups you get when you try to access certain websites. It has an annoying way of jumping insistently to the front of your conscience, obscuring whatever else it was you were trying to think about. It’s impossible to ignore. On a good day, when I’m not tired or in pain, I can distract myself for hours with long, meandering trains of thought, and cover miles and miles without really noticing, but if something’s hurting, I find I can’t concentrate for longer than a few seconds, no matter how hard I try, meaning that the inside of my head most closely resembles a TV set whose remote control is in the hands of an attention deficit toddler. I desperately grasp any anything I can think of to take my mind off my suffering, but nothing will stick for longer than a few seconds.
So I stood by the side of the road, dusting the dried sweat off my arm, longing to take my shoes off and despondently resigning myself to another few hours of riding before I could allow myself to sleep. The trees and villages of a few miles ago had thinned out, and now all I could see was greyish monotonous sand, stretching out towards distant mountain ranges in all directions. The road had thinned out too, so that the occasional convoys of trucks that sped past me were so close that I could feel their air currents sucking me in towards the wheels. On more than one occasion I had had to veer off into the sand to avoid lorries overtaking in the opposite direction, maniacally flashing their lights to warn me that they weren’t going to give way. In case it’s not yet abundantly obvious, I was fed up with the whole sorry business.
So when a jeep full of policemen stopped and they informed me I wasn’t allowed to cycle any more, I put up only a token amount of resistance. I pretended not to understand, then I refused to get off the bike, then I insisted that I had cycled all the way from Wales, and that I’d be perfectly capable of continuing to Zahedan on my own. The senior officer patiently explained the situation to me, talking loudly and slowly, as if I were stupid. I didn’t care. I felt stupid. And I didn’t understand a word he was saying so, in effect, I was.
In the end I gave in and helped them lift my bicycle into the back of the jeep, where it was watched over by two babyfaced young policemen with guns. Their boss sat in the front next to me, examined my passport, and then tucked it into his pocket and offered me a handful of sunflower seeds. I watched the landscape (what there was of it) go by, feeling strangely emotionless, and trying halfheartedly to impress upon myself that I had finally fractured the unbroken line I’d cycled all the way from Mid Wales. I reassured myself that I had really had no option but to accept a lift – the police wouldn’t have taken no for an answer, and there was no way I could have hidden from them – but I found I didn’t actually care very much.
After an hour or so we pulled over in a lay-by, and the bicycle and I were transferred into another police jeep. This happened four or five times over the remainder of the afternoon, and each time my passport was carefully handed over into the custody of the senior officer. I had effectively given up control of my journey, but I couldn’t have cared less. I was exhausted, and also by now starving hungry, and it was a relief to hand the reins to someone else. It didn’t really occur to me to wonder whether or not I was safe. In fact, I assumed I was, since these policemen clearly weren’t going to let me out of their sight. I didn’t need to worry about where I’d be spending the night – there was obviously no way they’d let me stay anywhere that wasn’t safe. And even if I ended up spending the night in the cells, I wasn’t particularly bothered. It would be a roof over my head, after all. For a moment I felt very much like I was on some kind of eccentric package tour.
Late in the afternoon, I was picked up by my final escort before Zahedan. There wasn’t room for me in the front of the jeep, so this time I sat in the back, along with my bike, my bags, and two tall, gentle young men with large guns and chequered cloths wrapped around their heads. As we sped along the highway, watching the sun sinking behind the mountains and the sky fading through pink and gold as night fell, they kept earnestly asking whether I was warm enough, and I tried with all my might to remember how alarmed people back at home would be if they could see me now. I didn’t feel alarmed in the slightest. I couldn’t have felt more peaceful and comfortable if I were sitting in the back of a car with my own brothers.
In Zahedan I was escorted to two different police stations, where I sat around and listened patiently while they decided my fate. A couple of attempts to regain possession of my passport were rebuffed, as I knew they would be. The kind man who was meant to be hosting me turned up to collect me and was eventually sent away, as it was deemed ‘too dangerous’ to let me stay anywhere other than a closely guarded hotel. And then, ignoring my would-be host’s budget recommendations, they put me back on my bike and two motorbikes escorted me round to the Zahedan Tourist Inn – a luxurious joint a long way beyond my budget.
By now it was almost 9pm and I was dizzy with hunger and exhaustion, and desperate to get to whatever overpriced room they were going to put me in, wash off the sweat and sand, eat the contents of my food bag, and fall asleep. The gentleman at reception didn’t seem to appreciate this urgency, and decided to save me for last, patiently dealing with the queue that had built up behind me as I grew more and more irritable and snappish. Michael (one half of the Austrian couple) unexpectedly walked in, explained that they had also been accosted by the police and escorted to this hotel, and warned me that the receptionist would try to charge me $50 for the room, but that I could bargain him down if I tried. It was just as well he did – I was so out-of-it by then that I’d probably just have handed him whatever he asked for. Mustering the last of my energy and snappishness, I managed to knock a small percentage off the price, finally bade farewell to the police (who made sure I handed my passport over to the receptionist once I’d copied out the details for the relevant forms) wheeled my bike across the carpark to the small cabin that would be mine for the night, and gladly shut the door on them all.