After 10,000 kilometres, through hazy surroundings Tehran creeped into view. I remember glancing at Will as a knowing smile creeped onto our lips. ‘We had made it’, as long as we could advance through the gauntlet of tunnels, causeways, motorways, ring roads and noxious levels of pollution which fortify the city from cyclists.
There was a certain joy to seeing Tehran not as an apparition as it had been for 114 days but as a real physical entity. The joy was tangible though not as overpowering as I believed it would have been before we set off. It confused me.
Would this moment not define the triumphs and trials of the past four months? Would this not be the apotheosis of our trip?
It reminded me of the book – The Art of Travel – by the contemporary polymath and philosopher, Alain de Botton. I found his discussion of the perception versus the reality of travel insightful. Indeed, your holidays on Mediterranean beaches are rarely the image rendered by Thomas Cook or which you envisage before departing; the white sand beaches; the cooling breeze gently rustling the palm trees; the tranquility as you stroll down the beach with your feet squelching in the water gently percolating through the sand.
The reality is usually a mouthful of detritus projected your way as a screaming child is pulled after his mother past your cemetery plot-sized piece of beach.
With a journey like Beijing to Tehran it is difficult to conjure up one coherent image to encapsulate the entire trip like a Mediterranean beach holiday. Whilst there were aspects I was not able to anticipate, there were facets that I remember envisaging. I imagined evenings in my tent reading a book as a breeze flew through. I imagined cold drinks as we stopped after a tough couple of hours of cycling. I pictured the satisfaction of completing a testing day and the elation of finishing after four months in the saddle. I envisaged the joy of being able to plaster my face with chocolate, trying to fulfill my average 6,000 calorie a day quota. I conjured up images of seclusion and serenity as we pedaled along smooth tarmac into the expanse of Central Asia, Bob Dylan ringing in my ear. I pictured drivers full of resentment or alcohol trying to run us off the road and an array of unique national delicacies served to us as we explored the culture.
Others I have forgotten, but this was my speckled perception on the dusk of the 15th May as we lowered ourselves into our saddles with the same care as a climber would clip on his belay.
More often than not the reality was very different. Reading in my tent rarely took place as it was too cramped. The lack of ventilation also made it a sauna during daylight hours so one would constantly perspire. When we found cold drinks in shops, if some of these institutions could be called that, they certainly were not lager tap chilled, nor did they stay cold for long.
In the hotter countries sipping your water bottle became a less than enjoyable experience as the water is heated to the temperature of a steamy bath. Smooth tarmac was as rare as finding a punnet of raspberries and some cultural delicacies had the same culinary appeal as prison food. Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind provided some distraction when I was being blown by the wind but rarely at other times; not knowing when you can next charge you iPod makes one reluctant to use it except when you really need to.
Whilst a tough days did come with satisfaction it also came with the realisation that you had countless more. The days of sandstorms, headwinds, sub zero temperatures and 45 degree heat were tough. When a strong headwind is blowing at you through the monotony of flat, arid expanses I found few things more mentally challenging. There is nothing to distract your mind from the ache in your legs, the numbing of your buttock or the tightness in your back. Having to pedal just as hard but go at half, sometimes a quarter of your normal speed is at times mildly depressing, especially when you have ninety days still to go. I cannot complain though, as this duration is still shorter than pregnancy.
I did not foresee that I would stop nibbling my finger nails due to the need for high standards of hygiene and the stress of modern society vanishing. Nor would I have imagined my adolescent spots disappearing as refined carbohydrates and grease left my diet. The thought that my body would naturally wake up at 4:15am with the first palettes of light soaking up the stars was as much a dream as those I am usually having at this time.
I could never have predicted the frequency and level of kindness that we experienced; my anthropological grasp on the customs and culture of Central Asia was too narrow. It is one of these ironies that the less one tends to have the more one gives. When people are subsisting or have little, financially speaking, the importance of caring for one another comes to the fore. Less often does financial value come into the calculation of giving or generosity as it sometimes does in the Western world. Here, it is more an act of human kindness. Perhaps this is a reason why not just to plan and perceive an adventure but to actually go on it. If not, you will never be able to weigh up yours and societies preconceptions and judgements against your experienced reality of it.
Though the demands of cycling meant I saw less popular sites than I would have liked, I would never have known what these countries really looked, smelt, tasted and felt like without visiting.
The expedition was as much a physical challenge as a psychological one. It was as much a search for greater self awareness and understanding as a realisation of your priorities in life. I found being on a bike helped to distill this. You are stripped of societal comforts. You have time to look and see and a lot of time to think. You are in a position of physical vulnerability and low social status. In contemporary society travelling by bike is a sign of a low class and therefore of humility. If you are rich you travel by car. Especially as a Westerner being on a bike, you are both physically exposed and inadvertently humble yourself. People are more likely to engage with you, even fleetingly, because you are accessible and unique and as a result will have a more authentic experience.
Whilst there is much more that could be said, being back in the UK has been like stepping onto a escalator that is not moving. It is unsettling and having been back for little over a month it has at times been difficult to readjust back to conventional life and reflect with any real sense of hindsight.
I think for both Will and I it will take a long time to digest: the experience was too substantial, visceral and vivid for the memories to dissolve. Indeed, the process of discussing the experience with friends and the media, creating photo albums and a short film pioneered by Will ‘Spielberg’ Hsu brings it blazing back into view.
Time will be needed to reorientate, recover and settle into university life but it has all been worth it in order to make this trip possible and support the fantastic work of A Child Unheard.
About the Author: Charles is currently on his gap year and enjoys cycling and racket sports. He is going to read history at Saint Andrews after his trip. If you have any questions, want to follow our trip or sponsorship enquires we would love to hear from you. Feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Twitter or visit our website beijingtotehran.com for more information. To donate go to (bit.ly/charitycheckoutdonate), 100% of all funds donated will go directly to the charity and not towards funding of the challenge.