Book review: The Slow Road To Teheran

The  Slow  Road  To  Teheran,  by  Rebecca  Lowe

I’ll freely admit I absolutely love books that tell the tale of daring, long-distance cycling adventures. A good book like that tells the story of a fantastic cycling adventure. A great book like that tells the story in such a way that cycling, though central to the story at all times, isn’t actually the focus of the book. A wonderful book does all that, and tells you a great deal about the lands through which the author cycled. This is a wonderful book.

Lowe is a journalist with a great interest in the Middle East. That fact forms the foundation of her entire adventure. Now, as someone who believes in the 5-P principle (Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance) I was at times frustrated by this book. Lowe approached a great adventure with almost scandalous disregard for planning, and as a result of that she nearly died in the desert. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that, overall, Lowe survived her adventure possibly more to luck than anything else. Having said that, what she lacked in planning, she more than made up for in sheer grit and tenacity. Make no mistake: Lowe is hardcore enough to be an equal to Dervla Murphy! Like Murphy, there is also no attitude with Lowe – no sense of “Oh, I’m so tough and amazing”. If anything, she comes across as a remarkably humble person.

Lowe glances over her journey through Europe, but my eyebrows certainly went up at her seemingly believing that alcohol was more essential to carry with her than a sufficient supply of inner tubes. Lowe also – due to her background as a journo, I suspect – has a habit of using high-brow words, when something more ordinary would have sufficed. I consider myself very fluent in English (remember, it’s not my mother-tongue) but once or twice got stuck on some words. I’ve no doubt the Campaign For Plain English would be quite critical of that habit of hers, and initially I found it slightly off-putting. Despite that, please, please persist with reading this book, as it is so worth your time.

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To recap the negatives: Lowe has a lazy approach to adventure planning, and a phenomenal vocabulary. In the greater scheme of things, those aren’t exactly the worst things ever, now are they?

What about the positives? They’re overwhelming! For starters, once you’ve adjusted to Lowe’s writing style, this book is very hard to put down. I don’t know any of her journalistic work, but based on the ease with which she seems to get people to open up and talk to her, I will hazard a guess that she’s a great journalist. That’s part of what makes this book so wonderful – the myriad of very human stories. Lowe is either particularly foolhardy, or particularly brave (actually, I suspect a healthy combination of both things) and she knowingly placed herself in many situations that could easily have turned nasty. The upside is huge though: adventure books should include adventure, and The Slow Road To Teheran includes bucket-loads of it!

Unlike many other cycle touring books, Lowe set out with the intention of getting the stories from all the places she cycled through, and the stories she gathered are incredible. I already mentioned she came dangerously close to dying at least once, and at one point she had to grab her pocket knife and threaten to cut off the balls of a sexual attacker, upon whom at the time she was utterly reliant. Lowe tells stories of what I can only describe as immense bravery (and that includes her own). Remember, she’s a female British journalist, and she travelled through some repressive areas where any one of those points may have been enough to get her into trouble. She became the first solo female cyclist to traverse Iran, and like most of her achievements, she treats it with a  heart-warming attitude of “It’s no big deal”. Her adventure was unusual, in that it wasn’t simply a linear path. Instead, she diverted, specifically to see different parts of the Middle East. That means, like all the best adventures, hers was never about the destination, but about the journey.

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This book reads more like adventures undertaken when the world was a much bigger, more primitive place, and I can heap no greater praise on Lowe than to say, both in adventuring and writing terms, to me she stands shoulder to shoulder with the great Dervla Murphy. The Slow Road To Teheran is a phenomenally good book. The wealth of knowledge Lowe offers is astounding, and I certainly learned a great deal about the lands she travelled through. Lowe is on Twitter, so do yourself a favour and follow her. Her book is available in all good books stores, and you should definitely buy a copy.

Just, if ever she invites you along on a cycling adventure, pack extra inner tubes! And perhaps wine glasses.

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