The Slow Road to Tehran — it’s not all about the bike

Ever since Dervla Murphy packed a pistol and pedalled from Ireland to India in 1963, recounting her adventures in Full Tilt, there has been a demand for two-wheeled adventure tales. Recently, in One More Croissant for the Road, the food writer Felicity Cloake toured France, on a bicycle named Eddy, in search of classic French dishes, while the journalist and writer Julian Sayarer biked through the disputed territories of Israel and Palestine in Fifty Miles Wide.

The latest addition to the genre is The Slow Road to Tehran by Rebecca Lowe who, embarking on a year-long, 11,000-kilometre trip, “plods” from Europe on to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Oman, and the UAE, before finally hitting the brakes in Iran.

Admitting to “zero hours of training”, Lowe confesses her shortcomings as a cyclist early on, not bothering, even, to map out “the terrain between here and Iran” before taking off on “Maud” (cyclists have a tendency to name their bikes). But as foolhardy as this sounds, she has experience of cycling in the Balkans and Mexico, is thrillingly single-minded, and is so refreshingly self-deprecating, that you cannot help but root for her from the start. She also has enough acumen to see herself how others might, cutting a peculiar figure on the roadside, red-faced and soaked in sweat, yet determined in her mission to “peel back the layers of artifice and prejudice to unearth the human stories” as she weaves through the Middle East, a region she fittingly calls a “mosaic”.

book cover

To do this, dozens of homes are visited, and a huge number of named hosts and friends of friends — aid workers, students, activists, doctors — are called upon and quizzed on their politics and personal lives, as well as the realities and delusions of their home countries, usually over shared plates of juicy kebabs. Having previously worked as chief reporter at the International Bar Association, specialising in filmed interviews on human rights issues, she has the skills necessary to grab details quickly. However, paired with a potted history of 20 or so countries, after 400 pages, it does feel an awful lot has been thrown in to get to the finishing point. And at times, the language jars a bit. I don’t think pomegranate trees could ever “litter” a garden, for example, but Lowe, so open-minded and savvy, is impossible to dislike. Her problems — murderous heat, storms, ruptures on “puncture-proof tyres”, snarling traffic and lecherous men (outside Tehran “motorcyclists whisk past crying ‘sex!’ while attempting to grab my rump”) — are always related in lively prose.

It is in Sudan, where the Nile’s power is greater “even than in Egypt” and “stars blaze in their billions”, that the writing is at its most vivid and the stories most intriguing. I knew nothing about the destruction of Wadi Halfa or North Darfur’s deadly 2012 gold rush. I do now. In the Sudanese heat, Lowe pauses where she can, indulging in the “sweet, simple pleasure of a rest hard-earned, when bean stew becomes a banquet and a patch of sand a feather bed”, thus beautifully capturing the joys of solo adventuring.

Lowe took plenty of risks, and put in the leg work, and at a time when “travel for travel’s sake” books have become somewhat unfashionable, this classic call to the road is refreshing. It is not a perfect book — much like the journey itself, it can be exhausting at times — but mostly it is highly entertaining and impressively valiant.

The Slow Road to Tehran: A Revelatory Bike Ride through Europe and the Middle East by Rebecca Lowe, September Publishing £18.99, 416 pages

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