To Nowroz 1400

Celebrating a special Persian New Year with lots and lots of riding, 1400 kilometers to be precise… almost!

First things first, the facts:

  • The Persian New Year, also known as Nowroz (Persian for “new day”) always coincides with the spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. That makes the new year also the first day of the spring. Makes more sense, right? How could it not when signs of new life are everywhere? The blossoms, that refreshing spring breeze and the scent of new grass, flowers, and moist dirt… While only half a dozen countries officially celebrate it, namely Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan, it is a universal (ahem… global) celebration of our planet’s yet another successful trip around the sun.
  • March 20th this year marked the 1400th Persian New Year.
  • Although Nowroz has roots in Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion, today it is widely a secular holiday, open for people from all faiths to participate. The Persian calendar, which predated Islam, was reset after the Muslim conquest to reflect the origins of Islam. Thus, the year 1400.

1400. Why is it a special year? For starters, the double zeros are emblematic of a new era, a reset of centennial significance so to speak (even though the new century doesn’t kick off till next year because calendars start at year 1). But it marks an end to the 1300s, which as you may know, half of those one-hundred years consumed Afghanistan with foreign occupations and internal conflicts. Against that calamitous period, 1400 is more than just a new year. It is a new beginning; an opportunity to leave behind our troubling past. The question we need to be asking is “what do we want the next 100 years to look like?

Dasht Shadyan, Afghanistan is a popular destination for Afghans during Nowroz who visit it for its wild tulips. Image: Zabi Habibi

To my surprise, in the weeks leading to 1400, despite its symbolic significance, I witnessed a lack of hype among my Afghan friends. Even TV stations back home were not drumming up excitement. So to generate some buzz, I set out to do my own celebration. In the last 7 days of 1399, I resolved I’d ride 200 kilometers a day—countdown style—to arrive at 1400 by the turn of the century. Thus, #Nawroz1400 Challenge was born.

200 kilometers (~125 miles) is a lot of distance to cover in a single day, and it can take you far, far from familiar territory. The total distance, 1400 kilometers, is long enough that had I done this challenge in Afghanistan, I would have biked across the country from the border in the West with Iran all the way to the Northeast in Badakhshan, almost touching China. As a cyclist in training, even my longest days on the saddle rarely come close to 100 miles. To bike longer than that, seven days in a row, was an immense physical challenge. But it also presented an opportunity to explore new places in Arkansas. I was excited when the wonderful nonprofit Bike Northwest Arkansas (Bike NWA) jumped on board to let me share the journey through their social media platforms with the local cycling community, and in doing so raise awareness about our much cherished Nowroz tradition.

The ride was an opportunity to explore places in Arkansas that I hadn’t seen before. This picture was taken during the challenge, showing Arkansas in full spring bloom

A Rocky Start – Seven Days to Nowroz 1400

March 13th was a quiet overcast Sunday, with thunder forecasted in the late afternoon. To avoid getting hit by lightening, I began the ride early at 8am, enough time to ride 200 kilometers before the clouds unleashed their anger. Or so I thought. But after just 10 miles, I got a flat tire. No biggie! Quick fix, and back at it. Five minutes later, while I was busy greeting cows and singing to them, the hissing sound of another flat joined the chorus. That was like power outage. It sucked the life out of what was beginning to be a pretty good morning concert. With no extra tubes and increasingly darkening clouds, whose roaring thunder had the effect of a cosmic sinister laugh at my miserable start, I phoned a friend and woke him up from his sweet Sunday sleep in.

Desperate, I must’ve missed the details on Google. The sign on the bike shop we visited said, “Sundays: Out Riding”. It was 10am and the another shop didn’t open for another hour. By the time there was a new tire on the bike, it was already midday. There were still enough hours to pedal another 180 kilometers but a soft drizzle had already begun.

Back on the bike, I pedal for two hours feeling as though the clouds are following me. Then, out of nowhere, a downpour. You see, sometimes heavy rain, the kind that causes flash floods, is more tolerable than soft rain because you quickly get passed the agitation of riding in the wet. You get soaked at once, instead of a chilly rain slowly seeping through your bones. It’s like eating half a pint of ice-cream when you intended to eat only a few spoonfuls, at which point you are like, “well I might as well eat the other half!” That’s how you feel in a rainstorm. At one moment you are dry, then, ten seconds later, you are fully soaked. You tell yourself, “Now that I am drenched, I can ride like this all day.” But the frequent flashes in the sky and the speeding cars reminded me of my mortality. So I made the wise decision to stop at 105 kilometers. That meant, in order to complete the Nawroz1400 challenge by the New Year, I now had to add an extra 20 kilometers to the coming days.

I will save you the boredom of reading a day-by-day diary of the challenge. From the dramas of that first day, you get a pretty good idea of what I was up against. When I set out to do this challenge, I had no idea how it would go. Will my body keep up, and the weather cooperate? The low point came after day 4 when my face including my eyes had swollen, and overall the body wrecked. I woke up the next day, not wanting to get out of bed. The weather was in the low twenties (Fahrenheit) with cold rain throughout the day. I took that as a welcome sign to rest. With only three days left till Nowroz, I was 600 kilometers short of the goal. A day off would put me at a 200 kilometer deficit. But there was no way I could have ridden in the terrible conditions of that day, and risked getting really sick that I would be forced to completely abandon the challenge.

Fortunately, I got approached by Neal Kraus, a fellow cyclist who wanted to join on Nowroz, the last day of the challenge. Come Nowroz, I was on pace to finish 1200 kilometers. But with him, our combined distance would get us to 1400. What a nice new year gift from Neal to help me finish the challenge. And after riding solo for the past several days, each day anywhere from 7 to 9 hours, it was very nice to share the ride with him. I have long believed that the bicycle is the most effective tool to bring together people from different backgrounds and help them experience each others’ cultures.

On March 1st, 2021, after a long day riding through some of the most beautiful countryside in Northwest Arkansas, Neal and I were climbing the last of some serious hills on the day’s 213 kilometer route that had taken us all over the region. Despite being depleted, we were filled with a renewed sense of energy from what was awaiting us after a straight descent to Lake Fort Smith. What awaited us were some Afghan friends who had, in pure Afghan fashion, thrown a Nowroz picnic by the water.

As the lake came in to view, the sun was setting down fast, shining a pink glow in the famous Ozark sky. The date was 01.01.1400. With Neal’s help, I had just ridden 1400 kilometers to welcome the new century. Our friends came to congratulate us. But they were not all Afghans. Among them were Neal’s wonderful family, other American friends, and two Fulbright Scholars at the University of Arkansas from Bangladesh and Benin. This was the most international Nowroz I had ever celebrated. As we rested our bikes, we followed the smell of chicken kebab mounted on top of Qabuli Palaw, a famous Afghan rice pilaf dish layered with raisins and shredded carrots, served with okra curry and dolma, the Turkish fermented grape leaves stuffed with rice. Our friends went back to an Afghan rug laid down on grass. Music resumed to a loud blast, and an international crowd formed a circle to do Atan, a traditional dance in Afghanistan. This was Nowroz 1400 in the Ozarks.

Friends celebrating Nowroz 1400 by Lake Fort Smith, Arkansas. Image: Khalid Ahmadzai
01.01.1400. Lake Fort Smith, Arkansas

And how do you know, after such a big effort, you might have made a difference? If I may remind you why I set out to do this challenge in the first place, it was exactly to generate excitement among my peers for a very special new year. Speaking on national TV about the ride was one way to get the conversation going and hopefully inspire a handful of people back home, especially cyclists, to do something special of their own. I say the next hundred years should be the century of cycling in Afghanistan. To that end, Nowroz 1400 hasn’t ended. It’s just the beginning.

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