How do you prepare for the biggest challenge of your life? In retrospect, I would say that the Pamir highway was exactly this. Maybe this whole journey, but this stretch was where all my fears where concentrated. The second highest international highway of the world. Compared to nothing I have ever attempted before. It was borderline insane for a number of reasons: my start very late into the season, with snow on my heals. My cycling there solo. And the fact that I had pretty much zero experience with cycling and camping at high altitude (the first mountain passes I ever tackled in my life had been the ones of the two weeks prior when I crossed Kyrgzystan).
I had thought of other things to share, but after the terrible events in Beirut and Paris, this would feel off to me. What I do want to share with you, though, is a statement that occured over and over again during my journey, in particular during the many days that I spent cycling and walking along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border: ‘We are no extremists.’
When you are travelling alone, nobody sets any rules for you. Still, some travellers decide to set rules for themselves, in particular when they are on the road for longer. One rule I encountered among cyclists is to cycle every inch of the way, for example. Others set out with the aim to only hitchhike. And really, it is totally up to you which flavor you want to give to your journey. Or maybe which challenge you want to tackle. Maybe even more so when you are travelling solo. Upon encountering other people’s rules, I started to think if I wanted to have any. The inner debate did not take long.
My main rule is: there are no rules.
Wrapping up those first two weeks is a tough job. My fear at the beginning was justified and not. A very boring, rainy first day got me to Kara Balta, a small city with a remarkably run-down gastinitza (hotel) from Soviet times, but also with a (similarly run down, but wonderfully hot) banya next door. A banya is a Russian style sauna, featuring not only hot water (hot AND water, both really precious), but also a hot surrounding for washing yourself. The last weeks have seen me become addicted to them – there is nothing quite like the smell of hot water in a metal container! Sometimes, I just stick my head inside the bucket and enjoy this particular smell…
When deciding what I should post first, I was tempted. Tempted to start with the wonderful landscape vistas, the photos of smiling people who helped me on the way, of the dog that chased the wolf away from my tent at night. About how my leap of faith into the world of cycle touring worked out rather well.
Leaving Berlin was as awful as it could get. A flight postponed twice due to sickness and issues with gear deliveries. The most stressful 60min of my life checking in at the airport (had I not had help by Christian who bravely tackled the challenge of packing my bike Emily, there would habe been no chance for me to make that flight). A night spent in flight and in airports. Arrival in Kyrgyzstan totally sleep-deprived and with sinking heart: would my bike Emily have made it? And if so: in how many pieces?
I am still in the process of assembling gear and while this can be fun, it is also quite exhausting. And expensive, at least when looking at the sum total. Based on recommendations by other long-distance cyclist, I am trying to set priorities of which things I need in excellent quality (many parts of my bike), which can be ok quality and which ones can be cheap knock-offs.
Bike shoes were in my middle to last category. Yes, I want to be able to pedal well and have shoes that are comfortable for walking stretches inbetween. But not at any price. After a long search all over Berlin, I finally slipped into a pair that fit really well. And was really not in the price range I wanted them to be in. There was another pair at a reduced price which fit well, but not as remarkably well. The vendor had peppered me for quite while with questions about my trip (most of them in utter disbelief about why on earth I would do this). When I mentioned that these shoes were actually not in my price range, he looked at me sternly: ‘Listen, if you are crazy enough to go for this trip and do so alone, I want you to have the best-fitting shoes that can be found’. Said this and handed me a voucher for a discount. There are some very kind and helping people out there. Thanks so much! My feet already love you for this!
It has been a rough couple of days… Essentially, I am getting into that part of the preparation phase, when you realize that you do not have many fallback plans anymore. Things work out in time. Or they don’t. For some journeys, it is actually quite doable and not a big deal if you forgot an item – simply get it at your country of destination. For this particular journey, this is not an option – once I am on my bike in the middle of nowhere in Central Asia, I will have few possiblities to make up for anything I forgot. This is particularly true for the Pamir mountains, where I will rely heavily on everything I brought. No chance to get anything beyond that. If I forgot something, I won’t have it. If it fails, it fails.
This morning was ruled by panic mode. The kind of ‘why on earth did I not take care of this and that a month earlier? why does this have to be such a close call? what if…?’. Not helpful, in particular when time is scarce. But then, a friend of mine reminded me that this is part of my trip. I am mentally already on my way. If I panick now, this is a good excercise. Right now, I still have resources at hand, friends who help me out, shops and fast internet around that can help me solve things. I will certainly have those break-down moments up in the mountains, when I will have to rely on my self to sort things out. In rational. non-panic mode. And I will.
Another aspect of panic phases: they have to happen. I have rarely had a long journey, when this did not occur at some point. There is no point in ignoring it, as it will just pop up again. I usually give myself a time limit. 12 hours of self-pity or drama. Usually, I am sick of that a lot earlier and can move on. It worked this time as well, fortunately. Back into working mode. Keep your fingers crossed for me – still an awful lot to do!
PS: I took the photo in winter 2014 during my last visit of Prague, Czech Republic
Holy cow – I just booked my flight! A decision long postponed, long debated (which airlines transports bikes? where to fly to?), and then delayed by more than an hour due to the complications of the booking service of the airline. BUT: I now have a flight for starting my expedition! Hurray! This already feels a gazillion times more real than anything else I have done so far (except getting my bike).
In the end, I decided not start in China, but in Kyrgyzstan – still an important silk road country, a lot easier and cheaper to reach and a lot less restrictive in terms of visa. Plus, I do not have to start my expedition crossing one of the most hostile deserts of this planet. Learning from experiences – be nice to yourself :-). In particular, be nice to yourself when you are getting yourself into an adventure which is a complete novelty for you. So I will start my trip in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and not the deserts of China.
Leaving for Central Asia on September 2nd. Unbelievably excited!
Where will I cycle EXACTLY? Route planning – something, I believed I could put off until late. Until I realized that quite a few gear questions depend on factors that are determined by the roads/paths I take: At which altitudes will I be? Which temperature range? Which chance of snow in the mountains? Is rain more likely or dust?
- On the upside: I learned a lot of quite critical facts in the last days, saving me from making wrong gear decisions. On the downside: Going throughthese questions made me feel slightly stupid and naiv. Some of the lessons I learned:
- Some electronic hardware will be prone to fail at these altitude.
- I will face more 4,000m (13,000ft) passes than I ever thought I would tackle by bike.
- I am likely to face snow at some point (and also potentially some wolves, if I cannot avoid it)
- Getting any internet connection in Central Kyrgyzstan and through most of Tajikistan will prove… interesting ;-).
If any of you has advice on how gear copes with altitudes above 4,000m (kindle, smartphone, camera, etc), do let me know.
PS: I took the photo on a journey from Dunhuang to Golmud (China) a few years back. Yes, the roads I will face now won’t be as nicely paved most of the time…