Apart from my bike Emily, my camera has been my most important companion in all those months on the road. This journey has taught me to settle into a much slower, gentler pace than what we are used to in our everyday routines. If I wanted to capture a particular scene with my camera, I took my time, sometimes hours, until I felt that I had finally managed to get the essence of this particular moment, this particular atmosphere.
Now, I am very excited to announce that a little selection of my best photographs from the saddle went into print as postcards! Five photos is not enough to do justice to the wonderful landscapes and great people of Asia and the Middle East. Still, I hope they’ll bring the same joy to you as they did to me when I first laid my eyes on these extraordinary places.
The moment the sun rises over the glacier of Rakaposhi, we forget everything else. The long hike on the day before, getting up to the base camp of the imposing mountain of Rakaposhi. The cold night in the tent, trying to find sleep at high altitude. The hour we had spent freezing outdoors at 5am, waiting for the sun to rise over the glacier. All that is forgotten in the golden rays of the sun, warming our faces and hearts. Five friends, who had met on the road and bonded instantly. And a moment that none of us will ever forget.
Welcome to Solitude
My first day in Tajikistan – and what a landscape to greet me with! Descending from my second pass of the day, I should hurry up to find a spot to camp, it is getting late after all. But I cannot take my eyes off the stark beauty of the mountains, the eternal street ahead of me, the clouds racing past, the sun bathing everything in gold. Even though I know that it will be freezing cold in an hour, I simply cannot stop. I cycle on and on and on, gorging on beauty, on quietness, on feeling one with the nature around me. Life can only be lived from moment to moment and this moment simply lasts forever.
City of Memories
The desert reaches as far as you can see, flat golden stretches of barren land. And then, at the far horizon, a fairytale skyline rises from the shallow surroundings. The first thought is that of a Fata Morgana, so improbable seems the mere idea of domes in the desert. And yet. Yet, as you get closer, you realize it is a city in itself. Not a city of the living, but a city of memories, of those who are remembered, of those whose love and dreams still hang in the air just like an afterthought.
That unbelievable sense of freedom, when you roam the wilderness and set up camp wherever you like. Nothing quite compares to this feeling, this way of living. Every movement is routine, every movement is meditation. Why would you hurry while setting up camp? At least not in the golden summer sun in Mongolia, when for once I am at peace with my surroundings. I take my time and enjoy that absolutely no thoughts are required, everything just flows. And then, at some point, my camp is ready, my diary is waiting, my heavy boots come off my feet and a herd of goats stops for a visit. Oh glorious life on the road!
The many switchbacks that lead up to Kunzum La pass, the innumerable, awful switchbacks! And yet, despite the altitude and despite the slow process, I am propelled by the thought of reaching the famous Spiti valley on the other side of the pass. Spiti, with its glorious colors and delightful rock formations. The anticipation is rising… and yet another switchback. By the time I reach the pass, it is getting late already and the wind is chilling me to the bone. But I am captivated by the sheer amount of prayer flags that cheerfully greet me in the icy wind. The colors of Spiti, I love them already.
Which ones are your favorites? Let me know if you’d like to get some and I’d be happy to send postcards your way (you can order them here)!
A captivating travelogue from this diverse country, which is oftentimes shown in such a one-dimensional way. Told from my own perspective, that of a Western woman. Unless I am cycling disguised as a man and risk my skin for that.
You want to read the book? I need YOU to make the book a reality! Via Crowdfunding, you…
contribute to turning the manuscript into a book (editing, design, print),
make sure to be among the first to receive your copy, and
chose among other wonderful give-aways beyond the book (Fine Art prints, talks, mini coaching sessions… you’re going to like it!).
Ein fesselnder Reisebericht aus diesem vielschichtigen Land, das oft so eindimensional dargestellt wird. Erzählt aus meiner Perspektive, der einer westlichen Frau. Wenn ich nicht als Mann verkleidet radele und damit Kopf und Kragen riskiere.
Ihr wollt das Buch lesen? Ich brauche EUCH, damit das Buch Realität wird! Via Crowdfunding…
tragt ihr dazu bei, dass aus dem Manuskript ein Buch wird (Lektorat, Design, Druck),
stellt ihr sicher, dass ihr unter den allerersten sein werdet, die ihre Ausgabe in den Händen halten werden und
ihr könnt euch über das Buch hinaus weitere wunderbare Give-Aways aussuchen (Kunstdrucke, Vorträge, mini-Coachings … es wird euch gefallen!).
PS: Ihr wollt einen visuellen Eindruck bekommen? Hier ist das Kampagnen-Video, mit vielen Bildern von der Reise – viel Spaß beim Anschauen! (Oder ihr schaut es euch direkt auf der Crowdfunding-Seite an.)
First things first: I have a little New Year’s surprise for you. And I am very excited about it! When I first arrived in Thailand, I realized that this is the 12th country I will be exploring solo by bicycle. This felt like a good time to look back on where this journey has taken me so far. The thousands of kilometers, the challenges, the joys, the epic landscapes, stunning culture and the many people whose kindness I will never forget.
So I went through all of my photos, selected those that I like best and created a calendar that follows my journey, country by country, one for every month of the year 2017. It was a lovely little project – such fantastic memories! If ever you got confused where on earth I have been cycling for those many months, this is for you.
The printed photo calendar that I created out of this really is more a labor of love than a scheme that will make me rich, considering that I spent multiple weeks fulltime on just this, with the support of a truly good friend. In fact, I have done little else since I arrived in Thailand. That being said, you would make me very happy if you had a look at it. After all, I have come to the end of my savings which financed this journey so far. If you enjoy the photography and would like to support me a bit, you can find all relevant infos for purchasing the calendar here. As a side note: As the calendar season is ending, we offer a huge discount for the remaining photo calendars: 25% off for the US version, 50% off for the worldwide version. Check it out – wanderlust never gets old :-)!
(The photos in the calendar do not contain my watermark, of course.)
In any case, here are the photos and a look back at this journey so far. Enjoy!
What am I doing here? This question followed me all through Kyrgyzstan, the first country I ever cycled through. In fact, this is the first bike trip of my life. I simply invested a good part of my savings into gear and a sturdy bicycle – and took a leap of faith. I only recently realized how much courage there was behind this step into the unknown. But even though I was scared a lot – figure nights having wolves around my tent (more on this here), the approaching cold of winter, … – I already realized that I absolutely loved everything about cycle touring. Being outdoors all day. Connecting with nature. Being self-sufficient. Taking my time. Reducing my belongings to the barest mininimum. Camping in the wild. The solitude. The landscapes. The wonderful people I would have never met otherwise.
At this point, though, during those first weeks in Kyrgyzstan, the challenges were different. In fact, I had not even taken a test ride on my fully-loaded bike before leaving Germany. So I considered Kyrgyzstan to be my trial ride. The test before I would decide whether I had the courage to continue alone into the Pamir Mountains. I cycled two weeks from Bishkek to Osh, through spectacular landscape, visited nomads and their herds of horses, tackled the first mountain passes of my life by bike. And I got a first taste of the incredible hospitality that I would experience throughout this journey, with locals taking utmost care of me. But I also got glimpses into the terrible domestic violence under which far too many Kyrgyz women suffer.
When I reached Osh, I stocked up my supplies at the bazaar,… and waited. Waited until I felt ready to head out into the real wilderness. Onto the Pamir Highway, onwards to Tajikistan. The stories I had heard from other cyclists gave me much to think about – the insanely cold nights, the scarcity of food, the solitude. I do not think that I ever will be as terrified ever again in my life, as in those days preparing for the Pamirs. So I waited until I felt strong enough, mentally, physically – and then cycled off into what still feels like the biggest adventure of my life.
The Pamirs. My love. Oftentimes, what you fear most is the exact spot where the biggest treasure lies for you. The Pamir Mountains were the every reason for me to set out onto this cycling expedition. I felt a draw to this region that I could not explain. And once I cycled there, I knew why. I have never felt as much in tune with the world ever before. The extraordinary beauty of the landscape touched a string in my soul that I will never forget. Kyrgyzstan had already given me a glimpse of the solitude and beauty I could expect in the Pamir Mountains and the Wakhan valley. But nothing quite prepared me. I spent days and days filled with pure joy, stunned by all this beauty (more about those incredible days in the Pamirs here). And I was speechless that I had the privilege to explore this on my own. In the Pamirs, you can easily spend days without meeting another human being, in particular in late autumn.
When I descended from the Pamir Highway into the fabled Wakhan valley (where this photo was taken), I could not believe that the landscapes could become even more fantastic. Traveling along the Tajik-Afghan border with the Hindukush in sight every day, I realized that I needed more time to savor this fairytale world. So I slowed down even more and started walking my bike instead of riding it. After the wonderful solitude on the Pamir Highway, I now walked my bike through the tiny, beautiful villages of the Wakhan valley. I will never forget the people I met there – their unbelievable kindness, their hospitality, the warmth they extended to a complete stranger like me (more on this here). In retrospect, those were among the happiest days of my life.
At the same time, this part of the expedition was extraordinarily harsh, in particular on the Pamir highway The high altitude. The thin air. The approaching snow. The insanely cold nights in my tent, with temperatures dropping below -25 degree Celsius at times. The incredibly bad roads. The scarce food. And yet, I would have not minded to die there.
Uzbekistan, the dark days. Maybe I could have expected that every high is followed by a low. And that a time as intense and gloriously beautiful as my days in Tajikistan would likely be followed by a deep fall. I had indeed made it out of the mountains two weeks before winter really fell. But it caught me in Uzbekistan, with snow flurries and a continuous wet cold, from which I could never quite warm up. In Tajikistan, I had experienced intensely cold nights, but could enjoy warm days with radiant sunshine. In Uzbekistan, however, light was elusive, day and night (there is no street lighting, really – or rather: the electricty system is too weak to power both the light in houses *and* light in the streets). Add to it the rain, the snow, the mud, the infamous bureaucratic hassles in this country, my very restricted visa. I had spent the absolute maximum of days I could in Tajikistan, so I was very short of time in Uzbekistan, forcing me to take my bike into trains often.
What I did find in Uzbekistan were cities with a long history, filled with splendid architecture. When the sun was out, these glorious masterpieces were mesmerizing and I spent hours and hours photographing architecture (see above). I needed the sun not only for the light, but also for the warmth – my hands were too frozen to hold a camera without gloves otherwise. On a positive note, Uzbekistan taught me to be utterly grateful for any sunny day, any bit of warmth. And since I so longed for beauty, it raised my appreciation for wonderful historic architecture to completely new levels (and there is much of that to explore in Uzbekistan). The long bouts of darkness also gave me some time to reflect on this journey so far. During sleepless nights, I realized that I had followed one principle so far: I would set no rules for myself during this journey (more on letting go of rules here). Instead, I would attempt only to stay healthy, alive and out of prison (and there were times during this expedition, later on, during which I struggled with all three).
After all the difficulties in Uzbekistan, with non-functioning ATMs, deep mud and slightly paranoid authorities, Kazakhstan felt like a blessing. The people had become kinder and kinder the further north I had ventured in Uzbekistan. By the time I reached Kazakhstan, I was again surrounded by an incredible friendliness that I had missed after leaving Tajikistan (Uzbekistan sometimes has a bit of a macho culture, which, as a woman, I did not enjoy).
Kazakhstan is a tremendously large country. I only had time to explore the Mangistau region in the far West of the country, with its wonderful desert landscapes, dotted with numerous necropoli (as the one in the photo). No matter where I went, the Kazakh people I met where very excited to have me there and to help me whenever it was needed. In fact, during my (many) days in the city of Aktau, I became somewhat of a local celebrity, but in a heart-warming way: it seemed half of the city knew me and I was cordially and respectfully introduced to any bystander as ‘our journalist from Germany’. I was trying to explain that I am, in fact, not a journalist. Maybe it was my poor command of Russian, maybe the people from Aktau simply liked their own story better. For them, I stayed ‘our journalist’ and nothing could curb their enthusiasm and kindness towards me.
Kazakhstan, where my journey ended. Or, at least, where my plans ended. I reached the Caspian Sea at Aktau and did not know exactly where to continue. Take a ferry to cycle through Azerbaijan and Georgia, in order to continue cycling towards Europe? That had been on my mind, but cold and snow would await me there already. Or take a flight to Iran, where I had been invited by two friends? Iran, about which I had not even thought previously and where I would have to wear Hijab. I spent long hours sitting at the shore of the Caspian Sea, looking at the water, trying to decide.
Booking a flight to Iran felt a bit like deciding to go on a cycling expedition through the high mountains of Central Asia with zero prior experience. I was excited beyond anything, filled with fear as well as curiosity of what would await me.
I have never regretted my decision to come to Iran. A rollercoaster ride it was, but an incredibly enriching one. Recently, I was asked which countries surprised me most, in a positive way. For me, those were Iran and Pakistan. I have been to few countries where the difference between the picture that is conveyed of a country in the news and the reality on the road clash so much. Iranian hospitality is beyond anything you can imagine and is extended with incredible warmth. During my seven weeks in Iran, traversing this huge country from Tehran all the way to the Persian Gulf, I only managed to camp on two nights. For bureaucratic reasons, I needed to stay in a hostel a few times. All the other nights, I was, without fail, invited into the homes and hearts of Iranians (and that of a dear German friend in Tehran). When I was on my bike, trucks and cars regularly stopped next to me, because people wanted to offer me drinks and food.
Iran was also the stage of the incredible friendship between an Iranian, a Swiss and a German. The three of us had met on the road in Tajikistan and promised to meet again in Esfahan, the hometown of our Iranian friend. The time we had together was unforgettable, filled with laughter and discussions, delightful nonsense and deep understanding at the same time. As a result, this city will always have a special place in my heart. There are few places on this planet where I felt just as welcome and at home (this is also where the photo was taken).
But it was not all sunshine. The rollercoaster ride of Iran did not only include incredible hospitality, friendship and mind-blowing masterpieces of architecture. I also faced fascism, assaults and discrimination as a woman. Which, at some point, made me decide to disguise myself as a man when cycling. A decision that made my life a lot easier on the road, but also filled me with fear about being found out. And fear of the potential consequences – you may know that all women are required by law to wear hijab in Iran (which I was technically not, whenever I disguised myself as a man). At the same time, it was unbelievably eye-opening and enriching to experience this country both as a man and as a woman. I don’t think I would have understood nearly as much about the Iranian society, had I not had two perspectives on it.
All that notwithstanding, I think back to Iran with a lot of compassion for the countless friends I have there. Those I knew before. The many I made on the road. And I am grateful for all the things that my experiences there taught me, about letting go of expectations and just being (see here).
When the ferry crossed the international border between Iran and UAE, the women on board let their headscarves fall, including me. I will never forget this moment, that felt so liberating for me. I will also never forget how overwhelmed I was by the sheer amounts of goods and consumerism all around me in UAE. This is a world that will never feel good to me – the megalomania, the terrible discrimination against immigrants, the exploitation of resources … and some of most challenging traffic I have found anywhere (I found staying alive while cycling to be more difficult in Dubai than in New Delhi).
Fortunately, a good friend of mine was working in Dubai at the time, who took me in and gave me the biggest present of all: her bathtub (my first bath in six months)! She was also with me when my boyfriend announced on the phone that he had booked a last-minute flight to come and cycle with me through UAE and Oman. We had talked about the idea, but having him actually come (and in just two days) was a bit of a shock. I sure was happy to see him, but after all the months of solitude… So all of a sudden, I found myself in company while tackling the deserts of UAE by bike. The heat was rough, but waking up to the noise of a camel herd and camping in soft sand dunes are wonderful things, indeed (see photo).
Most of all, I had missed the warmth of the Iranian people when cycling in UAE. Luckily, we were headed to Oman. The Omani people are of a gentle kindness that is unforgettable. ‘If you want to camp, I am happy to show you a nice spot in the dunes. Unless, of course, you prefer to stay in my family’s beach house. It is all yours, if you like.’ And then getting never ending plates of the most delicious dishes.
And that was good. Being a touristy tourist in Oman can be mind-bogglingly expensive – in fact, we could not afford hotel rooms. Thus, we depended on being invited by locals in order to be able to wash ourselves from time to time (and fortunately, they kept inviting us). The other challenge was the insane heat. We were cycling there in full winter, the coldest time of the year. Yet, we still saw temperatures rise above 40 degree Celsius on some days. Which, combined with the crazy gradients of some of Oman’s streets, can make your life hard, to say the least. But the beauty of the barren landscapes, dotted by incredibly fertile oases in shady wadis – it all made up for it (you might agree, if you look at the photo).
At the end of my time in Oman, I realized that I needed a break from cycling. Physically, psychologically. So far, I had woken up every day with a smile, knowing that if I could chose, this would be exactly what I would opt for: another day outdoors, on the road, on my bicycle. But in Oman, there was a week when I accumulated injuries and fell sick at the same time. And I have come to trust my intuition and my body (more thoughts about trust here). I simply woke up one day and knew it was time for a break from cycling. Some time to stay put, get organized, figure out my next routes, get the next visa. In a way, I had come to the literal end of the road anyways, at the southern tip of the Arabic Peninsula: I was again facing the ocean, with no obvious next country for this journey.
… which, after all, brought me to Mongolia. This was not a decision taken lightly. Mongolia is one of the last frontiers in the cycle touring world. Sure, people do it, but challenges abound – scarce water, mosquitos, thunderstorms, terrible roads, the gigantic distances to be covered. And I was about to head out there all by myself. But then, I had chosen the Pamir Highway as my start into this cycling adventure, so I had some serious adventure experience under my belt. Or so I thought.
I actually prepare myself as well as I can, in particular for the stretches far from civilization. My life depends on it. But no matter how well you prepare, some things can take a wrong turn quite easily. I had some of these very close calls in Mongolia, among them running dangerously low on water and almost being hit by lightning (you can read about those experiences here). On top of that, I was assaulted by Mongolian men at a disturbingly high frequency. Assaulted to the point that I was afraid I would lose faith in humanity. I shared those experiences with you in one of the most personal blog posts I have ever published (here). Thanks a lot to the many people who reached out for me in response. And to the brave men and women who shared their similar experiences, many also set in Mongolia.
I have never endured challenges on so many levels, for such a long time, as in this country. The landscapes were mind-blowing, though, and in terms of camping, I was spoilt for choice. I was lucky that I was well-rested and well-nourished before I had set out from Ulaanbaatar. I am not sure how I would have managed without, on this journey to my very limits. And another aspect saved me: as much as I would not have minded to die in Tajikistan, at this extraordinary place that had called me for years, I very much minded to die in Mongolia. And will power goes a long way.
After the hard times in Mongolia, I would have been in love with ANY other country, I guess. In the case of China, a couple of factors were added to this. Some 10 years ago, I spent half a year living in China, so the culture is not completely foreign to me. And even though I have forgotten quite a bit, I can still read and speak the language in enough proficiency to get along. In addition, I was simply overwhelmed by the delicious food, Uyghur and Han, that I could get no matter where I went (the food in Mongolia is probably the worst I had in the 50+ countries I have travelled in).
The Uyghur culture of Xinjiang province in the far West of China is very distinct, with open-minded people who are genuinely friendly – unless you attempt to speak Mandarin with them (it took me a while before I understood and kept my mouth shut). In fact, much of the culture here reminded me of my months in Central Asia, the summer before, and brought back good memories. Kashgar became my hiding place for a while (where this photo was taken), to process the experiences in Mongolia, make new friends and get some much needed rest.
‘If I had not already lost my heart to Tajikistan, Pakistan would be my love.’ Statement of my dear Columbian friend Natalia, with whom I spent lovely days hiking in Pakistan. I agree with her partially, because I am in love with both (I don’t think love is mutually exclusive). I cycled along the famous Karakorum Highway (KKH), that leads through gorgeous scenery from China into the even more stunning mountains of Pakistan. The KKH is a cyclist’s dream come true: good tarmac (nowadays), passing through spectacular landscape with glaciers, peaks of more than 7,000 meters altitude, beautiful orchards and stunning lakes.
And it is not just about cycling: Pakistan is foremost a paradise for mountaineers. Some of the most beautiful mountains can be reached on comparatively easy hikes (not summiting, but getting to their base camps). I was more than happy about having carried my heavy mountaineering boots for those endless kilometers when I did not need them, just to have the chance to go hiking in Pakistan’s stunning nature. I joined forces in this endeavour with some extraordinary people I met on the road, people with whom I could connect immediately and with whom I share precious memories, such as standing in awe in front of glaciers at sunrise (see photo).
The Pakistani people, meanwhile, are en pars with the Tajiks, Iranians and Omanis when it comes to hospitality and kindness. Just wonderful! In fact, there are cultural links between all of them (to the best of my knowledge), which also meant that I recognized some words, architectural structures, bits and pieces that made my falling in love even easier. In the area of Gilgit-Baltistan, where I spent most of my time, locals are highly educated and communicating in English is very rarely a problem. Similarly to other places where only the few and hardy travel, the other travelers you meet are also extraordinary. The friendships forged during these weeks, both with Pakistanis and with foreign travelers, will surely last for a long time.
I would have stayed for months in Pakistan, had I not had someone waiting for me in Ladakh, India. My boyfriend had again packed his bicycle to join me for a month of cycling in the Himalayas. This time, I was more prepared to give up my solitude for a bit. Only that a lot of other factors happened to be out of our control. Kashmir had become off limits, due to the escalating conflict there. Snow fell a lot earlier than expected in Ladakh, stopping us on the way to the second highest pass in the world, Tanglang La (5,328m). A lot of changes of plans, adapting, figuring out alternatives. Eventually, we decided to spend the rest of our days together cycling a stretch that I had planned to do alone, from Lahaul into Spiti valley, from where I continued solo into Kinnaur.
I have a penchant for barren, starkly beautiful mountainscapes and the Indian Himalayas are a wonderland in this regard. Add to this very welcoming locals, a largely Tibetan culture (see photo) and ancient monasteries in the position of eagles’ nests. Yes, the nights were pretty cold, the road among the worst I have ever been on, the food oftentimes just Maggi noodles. But I loved it! I don’t mind to make only few kilometers a day, to struggle with altitude, to fight with mountain passes. It all just teaches you patience and modesty.
Comes New Delhi and the challenges got to a new level: incredible smog, even for Delhi’s standards, and an overnight devaluation of 80% of India’s currency (and pretty much all of my cash). Add to this a change of the law that rendered my plan of cycling from India through Myanmar to Thailand impossible. In the end, I was out of my mind happy when I managed to scrap enough money together and take a flight out of this madness.
Similarly as Iran last year, Thailand had not really been on my mind. My plans had ended in New Delhi. All of the plans I had come up with in the meantime had been turned infeasible due to the political situation. So Thailand it is. Up to now, I have largely worked on this calendar here. As soon as this blog post is out, I am headed towards the Golden Triangle and then onwards to Laos.
In a way, I feel like having come full circle: Thailand was the first Asian country I ever visited, back when I was 19. My memories are blurry and a lot of things have changed, but I do remember visiting this very city, Chiang Mai, half a lifetime ago. I don’t know what awaits me here (you never know), but the challenge is already clear: taking it easy. Being nice to myself. For me personally, taking the adventurous road is always easier than not to. To my relief, I will be in mountainous areas again. Not the Pamirs, not the Karakorum, not the Himalayas. But that does not matter. The road is waiting for me.
… and finally: the calendar!
This is where the story ends, for now. Or, depending how you see it, where it starts anew, here in South-East Asia. As I wrote before, I created a beautiful photo calendar with these 12 photos from my journey. If you enjoyed following along and would like to support me a bit on this adventure, you would make me very happy if you ordered one. Or maybe one more if you have a good friend whom you believe would enjoy this, too. You can find all relevant infos for purchasing the calendar here. Have a wonderful start into 2017!
PS: Here is a map that shows where this journey on my bike has taken me so far.
This is an ugly post. This is a post that hurt to write. This is a post that made me cry. I wished it had had no reason to be written. But it does. One reason is that I want others to be warned, in particular other women travelling solo. The other reason is that I won’t shut up in the face of perpetrators. I know that it won’t be read by those, rather by the friendly Mongolians who helped me. That is unfortunate. But this should not keep me from being honest. So, in all honesty, here are three aspects of Mongolia, that I am glad to have left behind.
(1) Forget about private sphere
‘I haven’t seen her in a while.’
– ‘What do you mean?’
‘I haven’t seen her in at least an hour! She hasn’t left her room since then.’
– ‘Well, she’s probably fine.’
‘Ha, didn’t you know that humans die without the attention of other humans? She is probably in severe danger! It’s called Sudden Death Phenomenon.’
– ‘Who, I didn’t think of that!’
‘Nobody can survive without constant social control. We should check if she’s alive.’
– ‘In fact, it’s our duty! Let’s go instantly.’
Knocking on the door of the cyclist. Nobody answers. Knocking harder. No answer. Kicking on the door with boots. A tired woman opens the door. ‘Yes? Sorry, I took a nap…’
(The two men just look around the room. Look at the woman. Leave without a word.)
‘So she WAS alive. Did we really have to threaten to break in the door? Her hearing seemed to be fine the last time we saw here…’
– ‘You never know. There is also a Sudden Deaf Phenomenon. People go deaf from one instant to another.’
‘Well, at least we know she is doing fine.’
30 minutes later.
‘Listen, I haven’t seen her in a while…’
This conversation probably never happened. But I imagine that conversations like it MUST have happened, over and over again. Otherwise, I cannot explain why on earth people would come and check my hotel room constantly. Nor have I found any explanation why people almost kick in the door in the process. If there is a door to kick in in the first place – many of the rooms cannot be locked, as they don’t have keys. Some don’t even have doors. Which, admittedly, makes checking a LOT easier. One night, the owner of one guesthouse checked my room at midnight, at 3am and then again at 6:30am. For no apparent reason. Lesson learned: When in Mongolia, forget about private sphere.
I guess this is linked to the nomadic past (and present) of the people: the whole family shares one ger, the door is oftentimes open. Add to this a strong sense of family and the fact that Mongolians do not seem to exist in singular. During the Nadaam festival (mid July), whole groups of families go on a one-week vacation together. Meaning, they travel in convoys of, no, not two or three cars – we are talking about seven to eight cars! The idea of travelling ‘ganzara’ (alone – one of the first Mongolian words I learned), is deeply foreign to Mongolians. And a little strange, it seems.
When I met Mongolians in a guanz (simple canteen), the conversation on the other tables immediately revolved around the word ganzara. I did get thumbs up for crossing Mongolia by bike. But, ganzara, really? Heads were shaken in disbelieve. How does a human surive? I have to admit that there is a point to this, indeed. There is an inherent danger in being away from civilization alone. If I get injured or just fall sick, there is nobody around to help me. I am aware of that and the risks I take. Even though I prepare as well as I can (by taking a Personal Locator Beacon with me to be able sending an SOS signal, e.g.), there are things out of my control (see this post). In the end, it is up to luck. However, it seemed that for Mongolians, the social dimension of being out there alone was considered to be a lot more severe than the physical challenges I might face.
‘Your family must be really tolerant, to let you go on a journey like this.’
– ‘Well, I am a grown-up adult. I am financing this journey with my own savings from having worked hard. I don’t need the permission of my parents.’
– ‘… they must be REALLY tolerant…’
(Said a highly educated middle-aged Mongolia woman, who was travelling in one of said convoys.)
I came to Mongolia searching for solitude. In my mind this should have been easy in a country such vast (roughly 1,500,000 km2), inhabited by only 3 million people (half of them in the capital). I knew that those 1.5 million people are spread all over the enormous land mass that is Mongolia – there is a ger in sight almost anywhere you go. You might not always spot it, but rest assured that the nomads spotted you already. And rest assured also that you’ll have a few interested visitors at your tent in the evening and morning. Actually, I camped most of the time – hotel rooms were an exception. Tents do not have doors to knock on. Mongolians find a way around that. If they arrive on a motorbike, they could count on me hearing the engine. If arriving by horse, they would start singing or whistling once they get closer to my tent, making sure I knew that they were coming.
Meeting nomads was usually a nicer experience than having visitors at your hotel room all the time (and having to fight for the right to lock the room I paid for). Many nomads seemed concerned that I was doing well and if I camped close to a ger, the family often brought tea to my tent or something to eat. I was moved by their concern and grateful for the food or tea. There was one thing I could not get over, however…
(2) Sexism and Chauvinism
I cannot remember how often I was asked this question in those two months I cycled through Mongolia. Usually, I was asked without any prior introduction, without any ‘hello’ or ‘sain bainuu’ (hello in Mongolian). At first, I believed that there must be a Mongolian word that SOUNDS like ‘sex’, but actually means something different. My doubts were unnecessary, as the question was oftentimes followed by very obvious gestures. And a facial expression that seemed to say: ‘Hell, this stupid foreign woman does not even understand the simplest question of human mankind! What else could I possibly want from her?’
The first times, I was simply speechless. These were nomads coming to my tent, sometimes late at night, to ask me for sex? Seriously? I did not and still do not understand. Beggars beg because they have experienced success with that, they begged and got money. These men? I cannot imagine a woman in this entire world who would say ‘Sure, come on in!’. I really cannot (but maybe I am just lacking imagination). I saw real disappointment in the faces of some of the men when I sent them away. They sometimes even brought a second horse for me, motioning that I didn’t have to ride my bike to get to their ger for getting laid – how considerate.
And it was not only the nomads. This phenomenon seemed to encompass Mongolian men of all ages and all living conditions. I was asked for sex by boys barely 12 years old up to men of about 60, out in the steppe as well as in villages. It doesn’t make it any better to be asked for sex in the street when you buy water from a shop. But at least, the guy then didn’t know where I was sleeping – and I didn’t have to worry about him coming back later that night to get what he wanted by force. Fortunately, that never happened, but it still made for some very uncomfortable nights. I am sure they did not understand my swearing at them in English, but I am also sure that they got the tone.
Why all the sexism? I don’t actually know. Usually, I feel safe in that regard in Asia – tall and athletic women usually don’t fit the bill for being considered attractive here. My guidebook explicitly states that women ‘have no trouble travelling the country alone.’ Well, yes, I haven’t been raped. But I find the question deeply insulting. I guess it is caused by a mixture of chauvinism and probably Russian pornography (or pornography featuring Caucasian looking women, at least). In any case, something, somewhere must have instilled the thought in the heads of Mongolian men that Caucasian women are just waiting to be laid by them. Anywhere, anytime.
The sex question seemed to be related to Central Mongolia. At least, that is where I encountered the question most often, sometimes more than once per day. Then, I spent five days cycling through no-man’s land – terrain so hostile and arid that not even nomads live there. No men, no sex question. My daily routine was grueling (see this post), with scarce water and armies of mosquitos, but at least, I was left alone. Somehow, I was starting to hope that this topic was over. That it was related to a particular region of Mongolia. That the upcoming 1000km of Mongolian roads would see no horny man.
After those five days, I finally arrived at a ger cum guanz (canteen) in Uvs province which, according to my route notes, sold water. Finally! I had made it through this hostile terrain! I was safe! I got water bottles and started refilling my dromedary bag. After you have just spent such an enormous distance where you ration your water, counting every milliliter, handling water becomes a task of utter concentration. Don’t spill precious water, don’t spill… And then, I felt a hand from behind, grabbing me hard between the legs. This is a moment I will never forget. It was not the first time this happened to me. But even though all of those incidents have left their mark, this one shattered me to the bone. All of a sudden, I was overwhelmed by a tiredness deeper than anything. I had just survived the no man’s land. I had made it through a physical and mental challenge that was unsurpassed by anything I had encountered on this journey before. I had been so much looking forward to making it to civilization, to get somewhere safe where humans can live. And the second human I meet is assaulting me. Is using, no ABusing my mental and physical exhaustion for his perverted idea of sexuality. It felt as if he had trampled out my inner fire that had kept me going through all this. Suddenly, I was all ashen inside. I had nothing left. No air for shouting, no power for slapping. I just turned my bike around and cycled over the next hill, out of sight. Once I felt a little safer, I just broke down over my handlebar and cried. Cried for the first time after the last truly horrible thing that happened to me, an attempted gang rape in Iran.
As I learned, Mongolian men in Uvs province don’t waste their time asking. They just do. And the sexual assaults continued, with men touching me against my will – thighs, breasts, .. you name it. These were no accidents. They usually waited until I was busy trying to steady my bike, filling my water, talk to a child. They waited until they knew that I could not react or at least: not react fast.
I got mad, as I did when asked for sex. I shouted. But I also realized that I was getting tired. Tired of having to fend for my private sphere and my dignity all the time. Tired of being considered an easy prey. In most cases, I was very certain that I was stronger than these guys, physically, mentally. But I was tired to the bone, tired of this bullshit.
So far, I have lived in six different countries and travelled in more than 50. I have experienced sexual assaults in many of them (and many of them actually in my home country, Germany). But frankly, never have I experienced anything like I did in Mongolia. Never this frequency. People speak about Muslim countries and how tough it supposedly is for women to travel there. They have no idea. In the seven Muslim countries through which I cycled so far (all of the countries of this trip before Mongolia), I was treated with respect, mostly. I had some really bad experience in Iran (among them the mentioned rape attempt). Yet, 99% of Iranian people I met were friendly and hospitable to me beyond belief. I knew that the truly bad experiences I had were exceptions, the few bad apples. But the wonderful majority of the people made up for it. Don’t get me wrong, women are not treated equally there, by far not. But even though I was treated as worth less than a man, I seemed still be to considered to have some worth, some dignity.
Mongolia is predominantly Buddhist. And chauvinism and sexism are prevalent beyond belief. I don’t want to suggest that to be the cause, but it seems not to reign in sexism either. I find it hard to endure sexism in my own culture, but mostly, I know that it is a minority. And I am optimistic enough to believe that those sexists mostly know that their behavior is condemned by the majority of society. This creates at least some mental barriers that might hinder some to act. Bad enough that some men think this way. But while women have to endure sexist actions way too often, at least this does not happen ALL the time.
In Mongolia, there seems to be no such barrier. Sexism is absolutely common and open. If I met a man in the steppe or in the street, I could almost flip a coin to find out if he was going to be okay. If he was going to ask me for sex, whistle, call me ‘sexy baby’ or assault me.
I cannot change this society. I cannot and will not. The only thing I have a handle on is my own reaction, how I cope with the events. I was trying to learn. To be loud, to react physically. And also, to forgive myself. To forgive myself if, after an exhausting day of cycling on challenging tracks in the summer heat, I was too tired for a notable reaction at all. On this bike journey, I have traveled through countries were women have a hard lot. However, my status as ‘foreigner’ saved me from quite a bit of the discrimination. In a way, I was oftentimes treated as ‘honorary man’ – worth less than an actual man, but more than a local woman. Now, I experienced the very bottom of the pecking order. It did not feel very comfortable there. To be more precise: I got to the absolute limit of what I could possibly bear. I might have gotten out of this stronger than before. At the same time, I kept asking myself how much more shit I would need to go through. And why.
One thing I really did learn: It is not about me. It is not my fault. It never is, in no country. Yet, in other places, sexual assaults occur less often, making you wonder whether you made a mistake (if only that you went to the wrong place). Rest assured: you did not. Mongolia was really pounding that into my head. It is not me. It is a fucked up society (excuse me) that teaches even young boys that it’s fine to assault women. Or, at least, a society that does nothing to KEEP them from assaulting women. Sexism in the culture I come from is surely prevalent, but it is, in many cases, comparable to a sickness that only breaks out occasionally. Bad enough, but somehow bearable. Mongolia is a chronic patient in comparison. In a way, this may be linked to the following…
A simple zhooshid buudal (hostel). I am sitting in the common room, eating the usual staple of Tsuivan, fried noodles with fatty meat in it. The task needs some concentrating, as I am trying to find the bits of vegetable in there and to avoid the lumps of pure fat. From the corner of my eyes, I see a man walking up to me. He seems drunk. Nothing unusual here – alcoholism is prevalent and when you cycle through a village, it is not uncommon to see one or a few passed out men lying in the street. What I don’t expect, though, is the blow I get, a blow that almost fires the fork out of my hand. Surprised, I look up, into blod-shoot eyes. A fist rammed into my arm is not quite the introduction I am used to. The guy makes a pedalling motion with his hands and then points to my bike. Sure, I’ll hand over my most beloved and precious possession to a drunk idiot who just hit me! I firmly shake my head. ‘No!’ I am about to turn around to my dish again, when the fist hits me a second time, this time on the collarbone. In pain, I jump up. If we are getting into a fist fight, I prefer to be on my feet. The drunken Mongolian seems agitated as well. He repeats the pedalling motion and the pointing at my bike, just more fervently than before. Of course! I only needed to be hit a SECOND time to allow him to ride my bike. That’s how the world works. Hitting someone TWICE work better than ONCE. How could I forget! ‘NO. AND FUCK OFF.’ I am sure he doesn’t understand a word, but the tone is hard to miss. He seems to consider hitting me a third time. Then, his face goes blank. Seconds later, he seems to have forgotten what he had wanted so badly just a moment ago. Disoriented, he looks around. I point the way to the door and he stumbles out.
My encounters with drunk Mongolians were far less frequent, fortunately, than the above-mentioned incidents with sexists (and just for the record, the sexists mostly seemed sober). Still, I have been hit by a fist three times in my two months I spent in Mongolia. Once, the blow was aimed directly at my head and I was just lucky that my instincts were fast enough to have me raise my underarms to take the blow. Apparently, getting up to my full height was always a bad idea – that was usually the very moment when drunks got aggressive. Even though I realized that, I just couldn’t bring myself to keep sitting when I was about to be attacked. The instinct of being able to flee or fight back was just too strong. So I will keep jumping up. And I will keep getting hit.
Usually, I have an easy time passing as a man if need be (pulling up a hood usually helps), as most people don’t expect a woman to be as tall. There have been many times when I feigned confidence and used my body for that. Straighten your shoulders, stand with legs wide apart. I know the game and it has worked well many times. In Mongolia, however, seeing a potentially stronger opponent seems to incite a lemming-like desire to get into a fight (among drunks, at least). I don’t understand that instinct, but I also have a hard time supressing MY instinct to do what almost always worked (outside of Mongolia): to play strong, not weak.
In combination with the sexism, I felt doubly punished. My physical strength usually gets me through most things alright. Now, this previous advantage turned against me. My body drew a LOT of (sexual) attention. And it also seemed to invite quite a bit of physical aggression.
Weirdly enough, pure physical violence does not hurt me as much as sexism.
What to make out of this?
I cannot offer bulletproof recipes to any woman venturing out into Mongolia alone. I have been trying to pass as a man here, to no avail in contrast to Iran. Not even shaving my head seemed to have helped in any way – Mongolian men recognized me as a woman even from behind when I was on my bike (wearing unisex clothes). The countless ‘hey sexy baby’s’ bear testament of this – and they were shouted at me before those guys had even passed me in their vehicles.
The one advice I can offer: spend as little time as possible in villages and stay away from drunks (as far as you can – once I was assaulted by a drunk in a hostel at night. There is not much I could have done to avoid that.). When camping, don’t try to hide – they will find you anyways and I found that the sex question is almost guaranteed if nobody else is around. Instead, after asking permission, camp close to assemblies of gers where families live (the sex question does not come as often in front of others). I should add, though, that I was once asked for sex by a man in front of his daughter. So try to be somewhere, where there are other MEN around (women don’t seem to count that much, no matter whether they are German or Mongolian).
Another piece of advice: be vigilant all the time. Literally try to have your back (or rather: your behind) covered. If possible, have a wall behind you when you bend over your bike or fill water. Never allow anyone into your hotel room, no matter what they claim, not even the hotel manager (who grabbed my breasts once he was in). If possible, try to get a room that can be locked and use that lock when you are in there yourself. Rooms shield you from view of others and some Mongolian men thought this was a perfect situation (for them, not me, obviously).
To safe (a bit of) the honor of Mongolian men: at the end of my journey, in the far Southwestern corner of Mongolia (Khovd province), I finally got away from it all. Nothing happened to me there at all. It is considered the most ethnically diverse province and the busy trade with Kazakhstan, Russia and China draws a lot of business people in. It is also predominantly Muslim, not Buddhist. I am guessing that part of this might offer an explanation, though other aspects might factor in. But then, after I had already left Mongolia, I heard from one of my dear female cyclist friends, that she was sexually assaulted in extactly this province…
Sadly, despite the inspiring landscape, I cannot honestly recommend travelling through Mongolia solo as a woman. If you do, chose the province carefully and come mentally prepared for rarely having any private sphere, for encountereing a lot of sexism and also some alcohol-fuelled violence. I have been in shitty situations before and managed to find solutions. Maybe the solution was somewhere out there. Maybe there was at least a lesson behind all that. But to be honest, I have not found it yet.
You can survive for quite a while without food. You can survive without water for a much briefer period. I realized that I, personally, cannot survive a day without believing in the good of people. Having the opposite slapped into my face over and over again was draining. Despite formidable physical challenges, I found this to be the hardest part of crossing Mongolia. I did meet Mongolians who were nice and gentle to me, some of them. When this did happen, when I was offered help, I was grateful beyond belief. Even a smile did me a world of good. It very much felt like getting to a source of water after having cycled through the desert. After all the verbal and physical assaults, I longed for human kindness as I did for a drip of water. When I found it – a source of water, human kindness – I stayed for as long as I possibly could (and as my visa allowed). My rest days were as much about resting physically, as they were about refuelling emotionally. I will forever be thankful for those Mongolians who helped me in that. Hopefully, I will learn to forgive the many others.
In our everyday lives, most of us have a buffer between life and death, and a comfortably huge one at that. We have insurances, access to a health care system, houses that protect us from thunderstorms, access to clean drinking water and nutritiuous food, neighbors that would hopefully get alarmed if we did not leave our apartments for too long. And still, we seem to feel worried. What if I get cancer? What if there was a substance in this meal that I am allergic to? There is much to worry (and some of it for good reason), but this does not cover the main fact: the buffer between life and death tends to be much bigger than we believe.
Sometimes, however, we encounter situations when the buffer becomes paper-thin. Maybe non-existant. Life, death, and nothing between. The edge of the sword – and it is up to luck which way we fall. Seven years ago, this happened to me. A close friend of mine found a tragic death while mountaineering. Had I accompanied him, as was planned originally, these lines would not be written by me. When death knocks on your door at the age of 26, you start to think about life differently. I did not stop my life out of fear, but it did take years until I ventured into the mountains again. I began to weigh my risks. I started making decisions with more care. In essence, I became aware to the frailty of life. And that the buffer between life and death can collapse easily, even if you are far from having grandchildren yet.
So Mongolia it is…
Crossing Mongolia by bike, solo, was a hard call in that regard. This country concentrates all the fears that cyclists have: enormous distances, scarce water, bad to non-existant roads, mosquitos gallore, … you name it, it’s there. The buffer between life and death? It depends on your preparation, your physical ability, your mental strength, … and luck. Wide open landscapes, horizons that seem to stretch to eternity. For some, this already ignites fear. Fortunately, I have found out in the Pamirs that I thrive in such conditions. That my soul sings when I am absolutely alone in nature (you can find some photos of these incredible landscapes in this post).
However, the situation can easily change. When you are low on water. When a thunderstorm looms. When you are eaten alive by mosquitos. When the brutal sun burns all life out of you. When a storm almost knocks you off the bike. When you are fighting your way through ankle-deep sand. When a region is so forbidding that there are no nomads anywhere that you could ask for help. And sometimes all of that at once. What tasted like unlimited freedom before quickly becomes endless agony. You cross a pass… and the next plateau again shows none of the things that you so desperately want. No sign of human habitation, no water, no shade, no rideable path, no shelter, no passing trucks. Life starts to feel really frail, then.
It was those days that taught me an important lesson. When I started out on this bike ride, I left my fierce competitiveness behind, the overachieving, perfectionist me. And that was good. I fully embraced not caring about my mileage, being as nice to myself as possible (some might say, I failed at that by definition – cycling over 4,000m passes on terrible roads in Central Asia is not necessarily the definition of being nice to yourself). Remember that blog post about moving beyond rules that resonated with so many of you (this one)? That the only thing I care about is Staying sane, healthy and out of prison? I am still fully convinced of what I wrote. Leave all and any rules behind. There are no rules in life. You decide to make them up – or you don’t.
…. and my old self comes back
Yet, Mongolia required something else. It required me to dig deep and get out the Anne with a stopwatch in her hands. The hardcore athlete. The Anne who gets onto the track for a sprint workout late at night. The Anne who can beat her body through most anything. The Anne who is defined by discipline. Honestly, I had started to wonder, whether this part of me was still there, still breathing, or if I had lost it altogether. It had been a hard, but necessary step to gain some distance from that part of me. I know that, if the Anne-with-the-stopwatch gets too much space in my life, it ruins my health and my happiness, as I keep pushing myself too far. It is not the competitiveness – that I appreciate very much. The issue is the competitiveness that takes no prisoners, that goes way over the top. However, for crossing Mongolia by bike, through these conditions, that was exactly what I needed. Failure, here, was not an option. And with failure, I do not mean turning back. Failure, here, could easily mean the end of my life.
The last weeks restored my appreciation of the Anne-with-the-stopwatch. I had abandoned her for a reason. Not only did I push myself too far, too often. I also realized that I had been inherently afraid that if I did not perform, if I did not deliver, I would not be loved and appreciated. None of this is the case, as my bike ride has taught me so far. Yet, the Anne-with-the-stopwatch is an inherent part of me. She has a reason in my life. And she deserves to get recognition for that. After all, she has aided me in accomplishing a lot, from scholarships to sports competitions. Most recently, she helped me to survive.
Dying from dehydration is one of the most horrible ways of leaving this life that you can imagine. Pure agony. When I reached Khovd (where I am right now), I read up on the process and what happens to your body. The failing organs, the effects on the brain, the shrinking body sucking all water out of its cells in an attempt to keep the blood flowing and to stay alive. Fortunately, I was never close to death. Usually, I found a source of water every day or two. In rare cases, I asked nomads for water – their ressources are limited, so this was a last resort (also, even though you often see gers in the far distance, they are mostly rather far away from the road, so just getting there can take up to an hour one-way). A few times, I met just wonderful Mongolians, who stopped their vehicles to offer me water and food. Prior to this cycling expedition, I had no idea which level of gratefulness I am able to attain – in partiular when I am low on water. Literally, I could have kissed their feet. What was maybe even more important than their help: these people restored my faith in humanity and that alone fueled me more than any cup of tea could have. The same is true for the nomads who helped me out – and the harshness of their lives make their hospitality even more remarkable.
However, I did have a few (three) critical situations, when I had to stretch my water way beyond comfort levels. When there were no nomads anywhere, nor any passing vehicles that I could ask for help. Some of these situations were partly my fault – after all, I am human so I am bound to make mistakes. But essentially, what happened in those cases was that the odds just conspired against me.
Because the house (and water) my route notes mentioned was abandoned. Because the road was so terrible that I needed twice the time I had anticipated to get to my next water source. Because the temperatures soared sky-high (> 40 degree Celsius / 100 Fahrenheit). Because I had to cycle in my rain gear (jacket and pants) for long stretches. Which – combined with intense sun and soaring temperatures – is pure torture. I can think of few situations in my life that have felt nearly as awful. Why rain gear? There were simply long stretches where the mosquitos went completely crazy. I can tolerate a few bites per hour. I cannot possibly cope with a few bites per second. Cycling in my rain gear was the only way to keep my sanity (even though melting in it was agonizing as well). The mosquitos would bite through anything else, including thermal wear (yes, I tried).
In addition to rain gear, I was wearing two pairs of gloves to protect my hands (one layer was not sufficient). And, critically, a tropical hat that a cyclist from California had given to me as a present (Misha, I will be indebted to you for the rest of my life!). Actually, the hat only kept the mosquitos out of my face. I still needed to wear another hat underneath and my helmet on top to keep them from feasting on my skull. Lesson learned: short hair is not the best choice for a mosquito heaven… Why not DEET-based mosquito spray? First, it only helps for a very short time frame. Second, I would have had to *bathe* my entire body in it, every half hour or so (hurray for your skin!). And the issue with that is was the very limited access to water: I could not wash myself for days on end. In the last weeks, I set up a new personal record in that regard, which I intend to never *ever* break again in my life (18 days. Yes, that sounds awful. It feels even more awful). The quintessence? Cycling through intense heat wearing rain gear, gloves and multiple hats does not help with conserving the water in your body. Not at all.
Yes, I did carry a lot of water. I loaded my bike to the absolute limit it could bear (140kg, including myself). Cycling in very remote, hospitable regions means that you have to be self-sufficient beyond water and food (meaning that I carry tools and spare for anything that could possibly break on my bike – quintessential, but heavy). On top of that (and besides food for multiple days), I carried 16-18 litres of water with me on the longest arid stretches. That sounds like a lot. It is not, when it has to last for up to five days. Why not loading more? Firstly, my frame cannot carry more. Secondly, you still need to *move* your bike on difficult terrain. And finally, water transport is not that easy per se. I have four bottles on my frame (5l) plus two dromedary bags strapped on the back (12l) plus sometimes another bottle or two clipped in on the side of my green bag – I don’t know where else I could possibly put water. I even sent my stove home in order to reduce weight – and for using the bottle cage on the bottom of my frame for water as well (my fuel bottle is filled with water instead of gasoline).
Remember the fiercely competitive Anne, the one with the iron discipline? Anne-with-the-stopwatch? It was that part of me that came to my rescue. Rationing your water when your body is screaming for it: probably the hardest task I have ever accomplished in my life. You *see* that there are still bottles on your frame, that your dromedary bag is still full. You *hear* the water in it. Your senses, all of them, beg. Just a little sip more. Just one. It won’t matter much. There is still so much water left. Water. Water. Water. The word reverberates in your mind, echoing from the bone of your skull. All other thoughts are gone. One word rules your mind, your entire being. But there she is. Anne-with-the-stopwatch. With discipline. With an iron will. The part of me which knows that I can’t possibly give in.
It is that part of me which reminds me of the rule. The rule how much water I am allowed to drink. And when. On the way to critical dehydration, your mind becomes confused and dizzy. Clear thoughts and ratio become elusive. So whenever I realized that I was running into water issues, I stopped. Took stock of my water, double checked the distance to the next water source. And rationed my water, as long as my mind was still clear. Sometimes even the thought was painful. 4l per day. 1l per 20km. 100ml in 1km. Once, I had to cope with 2l for 20 hours (I don’t wish this to my worst enemy). Whatever was needed, I set up a rule. And I embraced it as if my life depended on it – because it did.
100ml in 1km sounds much. Unless you are making 3km per hour, it is 40 degrees Celsius and you are pushing a fully loaded bike uphill through sand (my last days before Khovd). Which, in essence, sends your brain to a state beyond reasoning, beyond logic thinking. So the rule is what you cling to. Nothing exists but the rule. Your mind forgets that there is a goal *behind* the rule. That you ration water because you are going to *get* somewhere. All that counts is the display of your speedometer. The distance you make. Because the distance will allow you to drink. There were times when I stumbled onwards, mumbling to myself “only 20 more meters, you can make that, you *have* to make that, I need those 100ml, I need them so badly, please,…”. The rule (whichever I set) was excruciating, but it did me a lot of good. It allowed me to function, when my mind had entered a state where it was uncapable of grasping anything beyond a short time frame. Thanks to the rule, I could let my mind go blissfully numb, allowing me to concentrate on what counted: moving onwards.
Anne-with-the-stopwatch also reminded me of the golden rule of mental strength in sports: Control the controllables. Even thinking about anything outside your realm of control is a waste of energy. There is no point in complaining about heat or the condition of the track you are on. All that counts is what you can control: Keep going. Observe the rule. Nothing else. Focusing on the controllables also allows you to ignore the buffer, the buffer between life and death. You do everything in your means to keep the buffer as thick as possible. Beyond that, even thoughts are useless. If you cannot change it, don’t waste your energy thinking about it.
It is the same with panic and fear, really. This may sound absurd to you, but there were times when I considered sitting down and just cry. But rationally thinking: what do you gain? Does it move you forward? Does it even *help* to move you forward? No? Well, then keep going. Besides, your body has no fluid for tears anyways (and there is no shade either).
In all those cases, once I got to water, I just collapsed on the ground. I just sat, dumbfounded, looking at the water. Admiring its beauty. How the sunlight is broken in it. How it sounds when you move the bottle. And then, the absolutely, undescribably wonderful taste of it (turns out that I am easily capable of drinking two liters in one go).
Dehydration is a slow process. Even though the buffer between life and death gets thinner, step by step, sip by sip, that happens incrementally. However, once during this Mongolia jaunt, the buffer vanished. Zero. Life, death, and nothing in between. Cycling through Mongolia in summer, particularly July, means that you are in full thunderstorm season. Thunderstorms are a double-edged sword – at least, they were for me. They are a photographer’s dream with their dramatic clouds, beautiful rainbows, wonderful play of light and shadow. But they are also a cyclist’s nightmare when you are out in the wild without a shelter from the elements.
As long as I still was on good roads, I was capable of outracing the clouds. Or, when seeing a storm front ahead of me, simply to wait it out. Reading the weather is a skill and you get better at it with every thunderstorm under your belt. You feel the direction of the wind, you look at your topographical maps. Which mountain ranges might serve as a weather divide? Based on that, you try to estimate where the storm is going. After a while, you also get a feeling which clouds are dangerous and which are harmless. You realize that raining is actually a good sign, while black clouds banking up without rain are not. Although I never felt completely at ease when observing thunderstorms from afar (and you can look *very* far into the distance in Mongolia), I started to get a bit calmer with increasing experience. I got an understanding how weather moves and where to be in order to minimize the risk (apart from the risk of being out in the open). When to pedal away as fast as you can. When to wait. And when to abandon my bike instead to huddle on the ground.
Then, one day, I learned that I actually had no idea about thunderstorms. Are you familiar with the term positive lightening? I was not. Sure, there is lightening between the clouds and lightening from the cloud to the ground. As I learned later, there are two types among the latter: the typical negative lightening (bottom of the clouds to the earth) and the unusual positive lightening (top of the clouds to the earth). While positive bolts are extremely rare (5%), they are also a lot more dangerous than negative bolts: 6-10 times the amount of voltage and a discharge current lasting 10 times longer. What makes them even more hazardous is that they travel horizontally over long stretches, away from the thunderstorm (up to 6 kilometers / several miles), striking in an area where the sun shines and blue sky beckons.
I was just studying my maps, standing on the ground and balancing my bike between my legs. Yes, a thunderstorm was building up North of me, but it was still far away. Then, literally out of the blue, a bolt of lightening hit the ground a few meters away from me. What saved my life, probably, was that lightening hit when a jeep approached me, heading in the other direction. It seemed that the bolt of lightening split and travelled in both directions, towards the car and me. But none of us got actually hit. The shock still shook me to the bones. I almost bit off my tongue. What happened after that is blurry in my memory, lost in the frantic attempt to get away from the thunderstorm. In essence, my body switched to survival mode, whipping itself forward driven by pure fear. I raced my bike over a terrain that I would usually never ride but push (big, sharp rocks). According to my speedometer, I achieved a surreal speed, despite going uphill. When I was finally stopped by huge amounts of sand, my entire clothing was dripping from sweat, my breathing was hard and my mind still blank.
Despite my attempts, the thunderstorm had caught up with me. In fact, lightening hit the ground repeatedly at the pass ahead of me. The pass that lay between me and a lonely house, which – according to my route notes – had given shelter to cyclists in the past. I stood and waited. Stood and observed. The pass was hit by lightening about every 15 minutes. I had just survived one bolt of lightening. I would not risk another, even if that meant camping in a thunderstorm instead of sleeping in a safe house. A tent is not a safe place in a thunderstorm (actually, it makes no difference if you are out there or in a tent, despite the admittedly *huge* psychological difference). But I had no choice. So I got off the road, put up camp and sat in there, waiting for the thunder to roll away from me. Which it did, eventually, allowing me to lie down. I fell asleep the very instant my head hit my sleeping pad.
The next morning, the world looked completely different. I woke up to the whickering of a heard of horses passing by. The sun was shining, warming up the fresh air. And I realized that I had put up camp in a meadow full of edelweiss. Yes, this is also Mongolia, the quaint, idyllic face.
I consider myself to have been given a third chance in life. Once, I was born. Then, seven years ago, I did not go on a mountaineering trip that proved fatal. Now, I escaped being electrocuted by a bolt of lightening, by pure chance. The long bouts of extreme thirst that I survived after that felt a lot different. In those cases, I was still in control, at least partly. I still could swing the odds by pulling out my old companion, self-discipline. Anne-with-the-stopwatch. The bolt of positive lightening, however, was absolutely beyond my control.
If I am learning one thing, it is that the buffer between life and death is almost always beyond control. It can be the forces of nature, it can be a car accident: control is just an illusion. It is just a matter of accepting that. Life is frail. There is nothing we can really do to change that, except living our lives as fully as we can.
Each country so far has had its challenges. Each of them has made me learn and grow. Mongolia, so far, has driven me to my utmost limits. This is not about leaving my comfort zone, this is about survival. And this is how far I can possibly go. Actually, I have been pushed a *lot* further than I believed I could possibly be pushed. And I accept that whatever I have not learned in Mongolia I will probably never learn. If there is a lesson that requires more than Mongolia has thrown at me (or rather: that *I* have thrown at myself by chosing to cross it by bike), I am fine with missing out on that.
I am taking a break for a few days in Khovd, trying to recover from the challenges of the last weeks, mentally and physically. It took me multiple times of showering to even *start* getting the many layers of sunscreen – mixed with sweat and dust – off my skin. 1200km in the books (plus 300km of hitchhiking). 500km more to the border to China. Be gentle with me, Mongolia, be gentle. Please.
First things first: the next leg of my journey is coming up really soon (hopping onto my bike Emily tomorrow)! After a long preparation phase with Kafkaesque struggles, I am finally ready to hit the road again. Well, not a road in the sense most of us know roads. The next two months will see me crossing Mongolia by bike, where the way will be unpaved for large sections, both following GPS coordinates and navigating with my paper maps. I will then continue into Northwestern China, cycle via the Karakorum highway into Pakistan and then onwards to the Indian Himalayas. At least, that is the plan. Plans are as volatile as life (in a good way), but that is the plan I have visas for, at least. To give you an idea: this is what my journey looked like so far…
… and this is where it will take me next:
The longest preparation ever
You won’t believe how excited I am. You won’t believe either how scared I was for a long time – particularly about crossing Mongolia. The two times on this journey when I was as hesitant and anxious were probably before embarking into the Pamirs and before heading into Iran with next to zero preparation. Both parts of this journey turned out to be life changing (again, in a good way), so I knew that my doubts about Mongolia were a good pointer. Unless it is about playing with bear cubs, fear is usually a great guide that shows you were to head next if you want to get out of your comfort zone and grow. And boy, Mongolia was far out of my comfort zone when the thought arose first! The help of my Canadian cyclist friend Tara (who writes a great blog also) was invaluable in terms of how to prepare and what to expect.
While I was starting to feel confident on that level, the logistic obstacles grew sky-high. The Chinese bureaucracy that required me to show a booked flight ticket from my home country into China and back. The Pakistani embassy that seemed to follow no rules whatsoever in their procedure of issueing visa (or changed those rules whenever I communicated with them). Then, when I was ready to book a flight into Mongolia, the one airline with cheap tickets cancelled their service to Mongolia altogether, on the very day I wanted to book that flight. Parcels with important spare parts for my bike disappeared in the black hole of customs. And meanwhile, the change of my blog hosting turned out to be a logistic nightmare. To make matters even more complicated, time was ticking as some of my visa were running already.
The bare essentials
After all this, I needed to give myself a sign, a symbol, that I was ready, no matter the circumstances. At the very last minute (the evening before my flight), I finally followed through with what I had planned in September last year already: shaving my head. When I had embarked in September last year, the idea had been to shave my hair in order to more easily pass as a man if needed. However, I had not quite felt ready for it. Instead, I had went for a very short haircut, which still served the same purpose. And which, while being very practical, looked rather awful on me (well, looking good is not really a priority on this journey – I only have two t-shirts to wear, if that gives you an idea). I have to admit that I was afraid of not having hair. How my head would look like. What people would think.
After all that has already happened on this journey and after all the obstacles involved in getting to Mongolia, I very much felt ready for that step the night before I left. And so my hair went. And all that was left was… me. I looked into the mirror and saw my eyes maybe for the first time. If there is no hair that takes your focus away, the eyes get a lot more attention. There is also nothing that limits your field of vision. Complete freedom. The bare essentials. A feeling that I needed some time to get accustomed to, but one that I really appreciate now.
Saying hello to Kyrgyzstan
Finally, much later than anticipated, I made it onto an airplane with the destination Mongolia. The itinerary included a one-day stopover in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where I had first started out on this cycling adventure. What a fitting coincidence! I used the one day I had in Bishkek to say hello to this country that I seemed to have left just yesterday. I must have smiled for the entire 24 hours. My brain slowly started to produce words in Russian again. I recognized streets and places I had discovered here last summer. I treated myself to a really nice Kyrgyz meal in a good restaurant (which, as usual for Kyrgyzstan, cost next to nothing). I walked through supermarkets and enjoyed recognizing products. Random things, maybe, but utterly joyful for me. It felt like connecting with the last leg of my expedition with all of my senses.
In the evening, I took a bus back to the airport, escaping a torrent of rain. Immediately, I was taken care of by Fatima, a middle-aged woman who was sitting in the bus already. After my day in Kyrgyzstan, my Russian was back to small talk level again and with Fatima’s contribution of some English words, we managed to rustle up quite a nice conversation. Fatima was excited to hear that I had already cycled through Kyrgyzstan last year. When she left, she gave me her phone number, saying: ‘Please stay with my family when you visit again next year.’ The gesture was even more meaningful to me when I realized where she lived: in the very village where a Kyrgyz familiy had taken me in so kindly on the very first day of my trip (see this blog post).
A complicated start in Mongolia
Despite my usual ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime, sleep was elusive during the long journey into Mongolia. I had not found time to sleep before the flight and when I arrived in Mongolia three flights later (spending two nights at airports), my level of sleep was down to about eight hours in total for those three days.
To make matters worse, my bike Emily was in a really poor condition. She might have never been packed as carefully (in a box, this time), but never been treated as badly by airport personnel, either. The box was torn open in some crucial places and the cushioning of the bike ripped off in parts. In any case, she was not rideable, with a dysfunctional rear mech and a ripped-off saddle clamp. Fortunately, I was given a ride into town by the driver of a guesthouse – where I immediately fell onto bed and slept some 12 hours.
During the next days, I caught up on sleep and worked on getting ready: fixing my bike, organizing good topographical paper maps, extending my visa. Things had not fallen into place easily during the preparation phase and neither did they in Mongolia. Ulaanbaator has lots of resources, but they are pricey and not always easy to find.
But somehow, despite the difficulties, I enjoyed those days in Ulaanbaatar. After exploring the shops mentioned in my guidebook, I found the hidden markets where only locals go, and then the small shops that you find by chance and recommendations. I started getting to know all the girls who work at the guesthouse I am staying at. I met very inspirational travellers and very ignorant ones. I practised my Mongolian with the cashiers at the small supermarket next door. I discovered – in Mongolia, out of all countries! – that I very much enjoy vegan food (Ulaanbaatar has a thriving scene). I started to randomly run into people that I know. In other words, I simply spent some time living a rather normal life in this city.
Ulaanbaatar is not a pretty city, with a jumble of architectural styles, none of them very aesthetic. Different from the newer highrises and Soviet style living quarters is the Ger district (a Ger is similar to a Yurt), which consists of, well, Gers and mostly wooden houses. Many visitors say that you have to leave Ulaanbaator to actually see Mongolia. I am tempted to disagree. The city may not be in line with our _image_ of Mongolia, but this is an essential part of the country. More than one third of the Mongolian population (1,3 million) live here. Sure, this does not correspond to our romantized image of life in the Mongolian steppe, but a significant portion of the Mongolian people spends their life here nowadays.
My days here were not touristy at all, rather focused on getting things done. But at the same time, I have the impression that I got a feeling for this city, maybe more than I would have by visiting sights. The one sight I did visit was the Buddhist Gandan monastery, one of the largest in the country. In fact, Ulaanbaator itself was once founded as a Buddhist monastic center. Buddhism (and religions as such) were almost wiped out in Mongolia when the country came under Soviet control. 1937 was a black year in that regard, with 700 monasteries destroyed and 30,000 monks killed or sent off to labor camps. Religious freedom was only established again in 1990, after the Soviet Empire finally fell appart.
Gandan Khiid was the only monastery to escape destruction during Soviet times, but was reduced to a bare minimum of staff. Nowadays, the number of monks is back at 150 and the daily morning prayers attract tourists and believers alike. While the bus loads of tour groups came and went, I stayed for a bit longer to listen to the monks chanting. While I am not a religious myself, it was beautiful and soothing to listen to their voices, letting myself get entranced by the peaceful atmosphere of the place.
Knowing when you’re ready
It has become a pattern during this journey that I take my time before embarking on my bike for a new leg of this journey. I remember what felt like long days getting ready in Bishkek when I first started out (which really was not long at all, in retrospect). I also remember many days spent on the shore of the Caspian Sea (Aktau, Kazakhstan), pondering over the question whether I should take a ferry across to Azerbaijan or a flight to Iran (deciding for the latter). And in the upcoming months, I will remember those days in Ulaanbaatar getting ready to cross the steppe.
There are two souls residing in me. One is the curious child, hardly reigned in, who cannot wait to finally be out there again. I imagine that this is how Huskeys must feel like when they are consumed by the thought of running. Go, go, go! The other soul is the zen part of me, that reclines in a comfortable position, knowing that I will be ready when I will be ready. And that I will know when I am ready.
The doubts and fears are gone. I am ready now. Leaving for the wide steppe tomorrow. Wish me luck!
Everybody faces her fear sooner or later in her life. The real one. The big one. Not the small ones that we believe are so important – be it being humiliated, failing in front of others, showing emotions when we are vulnerable, … These are the kinds of fear we are used to in our everyday lives. No, there is an existential fear that is a completely different matter. It is a fear that teaches you what fear really is. An instinctive fear. A primeval fear. A fear you might feel when you are running for your life. A fear that many of us are only facing when we are on our dying beds. I believed that death would not scare me and maybe it actually doesn’t. Still, leaving alone for the Pamirs, on this wind-swept day, on this empty road, towards those towering mountains, I felt as if I was jumping off a cliff. I decided to trust the universe to catch me. To accept that everything beyond this jump is beyond my control. To hand myself to these mountains and accept whatever the outcome. I had believed that I had already jumped when I started off in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), almost a month prior. On this morning, I realized that I was only really jumping now. The real decision for this journey and for whatever it would entail. And instead of death I found my paradise. The paradise that is waiting for everyone of us behind our biggest fears. Hard-earned, often on the edge of all of my limits, but maybe the best decision I have made in my life for far. Some of the deepest joy I have ever felt. Some of the most peaceful feelings of fulfillment. The kind of fulfillment you feel when you are in the exact place that has been waiting for you all your life. Doing exactly what you were born to do. There might be higher mountains in the world, more remote places. It didn’t matter. This place was and will forever be special for me. The Pamirs.
When I was about to start cycling away from Sary Tash, a Japanese tourist showed up out of nowhere. Just having returned from the Pamir the day before (by jeep), he was wondering how to continue, given that it was a Kyrgyz holiday. I had not even been aware of that holiday. Staying another day as to not be trapped in front of a closed border? No way. I had woken up with the resolution to leave, so I would. The high altitude plain lay in front of me. The first movements on my bike Emily felt unfamiliar. The headwind was stronger than ever. I left the last houses behind me in complete silence, seeing no human anywhere outside. The longer I pedalled, the more a deep quiescence overcame me. This was it. I had jumped. And despite the tough headwind, despite my weakness due to the bout of sickness I had just overcome, I was glad to be out there again. Smell the smell of snow ahead of me. Feel the intense sun on my skin. See a herd of horses walking past me in front of this gorgeous panorama. The road quickly deteriorated, from good tarmac to rough asphalt full of potholes. Once I had gotten closer to the mountains, I realized that there was indeed a way through them which was not yet covered by snow. I pedalled into a wide gorge that continuously became narrower, climbing slowly. It felt as if the mountains took care of me by taking me into their arms instead of letting me feel every bit tiny and unimportant as on those wide open plains.
When I reached the Kyrgyz border post, it was late afternoon. My first border crossing by bike, in the middle of nowhere. Despite the national holiday, the border was open and I was beckoned to the passport control. The border guards were not overly friendly- they just did their job. The one in charge looked at my papers. ‘Ah, Angela Merkel!’ – ‘Yes, yes. That’s our chancellor.’ Unsure if this would improve my chances to pass without having to pay bribes, I smiled at him broadly. I was waved through, into the 30km no-man’s-land. This piece of land stretches between the Kyrgyz and the Tajik border post. In spite of the natural beauty of this valley, none of the two countries claims it. It felt like the right place for me to be. Between countries. In a place that officially does not exist.
I had just passed the guards when a jeep showed up. The two male drivers turned out to be Swiss and Belgian. Their eyes almost fell out of their heads when they heard that I was about to head further into the mountains alone by bike. They had just taken a day trip up to the Tajik border (lacking a visa, they could not pass into Tajik territory). I felt their curious stares. ‘It is really cold up there.’ (I knew.) ‘There is a lonely house at the foot of the switchbacks, just before the pass. If you are lucky they’ll let you stay there overnight.’ (I knew that, too. The lonely house is famous among cyclists as a fallback option if you are hit by a snow storm- there is no other human habitation until you reach Tajikistan). ‘If you get going right away, you might make it there till sunset.’ I was thinking of this sentence for a long time after. While well-meant, this certainly was a statement made by people who have never cycled in the mountains themselves… It turned out that it would take me an entire day to get to that house. Certainly not the one hour I had till sunset.
Still, I set out in good hope. The road still showed a few remainders of tarmac , but gravel took over soon. When I hit my first river crossing, I realized that the road had been washed away. Carrying a fully-loaded bike down to the water, across the little stream and then up the small hillside was a lot harder than I had thought. Still in a T-shirt, I quickly realized by the chill I felt on my arms that I had little time left until the cold of the evening would hit me with full force. At the end of the valley, the road turned left into the higher reaches of the mountains. I decided that this would be for the next day and searched for a good spot to camp. The grass was wild and deep, more used to the altitude than me. It took me a while to get my stuff to a place well off the road, a little bit less exposed to the wind. By the time, I was setting up my tent, I was already dangerously cold – and within a few minutes, being in a T-shirt was out of question. But the fleece, windjacket, gloves and hat I put on quickly helped less than I hoped. A lesson soon learned: have your tent up before the sun vanishes behind the mountains. Well before that. Too tired for anything else, I fell asleep just past 7pm, after nibbling on some nuts.
The next morning woke me with absolute silence. This would be the soundtrack for most of my time in the Pamirs. This unbelievably deep silence. The wind, sometimes. My own breath. My tires grinding on the gravel. Those quiet awakenings in the morning, however, were greeted by absolute silence. And nothing seemed to be missing. It was not loneliness I felt. I was where I was supposed to be. It felt like being in the center of the universe. The center of the universe had one disadvantage: it had gotten really cold at night, meaning my sleeping bag was covered by a thin layer of ice in the mornings, as was my tent and surely my poor bike Emily whom I had left outside. Thus, leaving before the sun was up was quite unpractical. The sun warmed things quickly (starting at around 9am), but it was rarely before 10am that I would have packed my camp. Neither did I on this particular morning. Dark clouds of snow formed while I was getting ready. Nervousness started to creep into my mind. I was trying to get over Kyzil Art pass today (4,280 m). I had hoped for a day without precipitation for this endeavour… In addition, the path ahead of me was really just gravel, mostly washboard and quite steep. Given my weak physical state, I decided to push on many of the steep stretches, trying to be as nice to myself as I could. Still, I could not outrun the snow. The silence around me seemed to intensify, as thick white flakes started to fall. The road seemed never-ending. Always another turn. Always another climb. And nowhere to camp, really. While the valley had seemed to embrace me mercifully yesterday, it felt as if it was strangling me today. I was getting really cold, too cold almost to open a power bar with my fingers. When, finally, the lonely house came into my view I could have cried from relief. I had only made 10km so far, but I was frozen to the bone. A little girl came running towards me. ‘Chai? Chai?’ Yes, I could have died for a hot tea! With the last bit of strength, I pushed heavy Emily up the steep hill to the house, stumbling from exhaustion.
The house was very simple, essentially just one small room for the whole family (the parents and three kids) to live, sleep and cook in. As elsewhere in Central Asia, the floor was covered with carpets. For sitting and sleeping, thin mattresses would be spread on the floor. But despite its simplicity that room contained the most beautiful thing my fantasy could have imagined: a boiling stove made from massive iron. Next to it was a giant bucket with snow to be melted. I was ushered to sit down and the father prepared some hot tea for me. He asked in Russian if I also wanted to eat, pointing out that it was already past 2pm and that I would hardly be able to cross the pass today if I ate anything. Looking outside, I realized that the swirl of snow flakes was getting darker – it almost seemed as if night was already falling already! I did not care about risking the pass for today. I was dying for warm food and human company. Yes, I wanted to eat. I did not even know whether they would allow me to stay for longer, I just followed my deepest inner wish. After a hearty portion of noodles, I could not help myself- my body just took over: I closed my eyes, curled up and fell asleep right away on the floor. Inmidst the small group of children, to the wonderful sound of boiling water. When I woke up, the darkness of the snow outside betrayed the fact it was only 4pm. The father turned to me with a concerned face. ‘You can stay here overnight, if you want.’ With deep gratitude, I sighed and went back to sleep. As became the habit during this journey, I did not care if I slept on the floor or not, I only cared about being safe and warm. And I was.
The next morning saw an early start- and sunshine. The latter seemed hard to believe given that we had been engulfed in snow the afternoon before. Above me, the awful switchbacks were waiting, the road every bit as steep as yesterday. Cycling was out of question and pushing would be hard work. I said goodbye to my generous hosts, leaving behind some items they had asked me for, and started. While it was sweaty work to get to the pass, the strong wind got me chilled to the bone. I was driven by only one wish: not to spend another day between borders, to get somewhere at lower altitude. Somewhere warm. I knew that the tiny settlement of Karakol was waiting for me on the Tajik side, but I had two passes beyond 4000m between me and the village. Would I make it?
It was noon when I pushed my bike Emily the last metres up to the pass. Kyzil art. The pass that separates Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. 4,280m (14,042 ft). At that moment, I heard motorbikes behind me. A German couple. We chatted briefly before they descended down the border ahead of me towards the Tajik border post. This time, the game was not quite as easy, but I was off better than the Germans on their motorbikes. While they were made to pay a hefty fee per day ‘for using the roads of Tajikistan’, the border guards seemed to see me as a mildly amusing, but harmless lunatic. Fortunately, it did not seem to cross their minds that I was also using the Tajik roads with my bike… As every so often on this journey, bikes were not seen as a ‘proper’ means of transport. And since, in their eyes, I was more or less ‘walking’ into their territory, no fee was asked for Emily. Or maybe they were just content to have gotten so much money out of the other Germans. Whatever it was, I made sure to leave the border quickly before the border guards might change their mind. The group of younger guards protested – they had just invited me to join them for a cup of hot tea – , but it felt risky to me to wait at the border too long. After all, I still had a lot of meters of altitude ahead of me until I would reach the first village.
Splendid Tajikistan lay to my feet (or rather: to the foot of the mountain from which I was descending). An immense space to all sides of me. Little did I care that the road was now bad washboard, hard to cycle both for your body and your bike. I was all eyes. Multi-colored mountains. Raw, wild, wind-swept, vast. And dry. While the Kyrgyz side had shown me how much snow the mountains can accmuluate even in September, the Tajik Pamir was bone dry at this time of the year. The beauty all around me made me feel as if I had stepped into a surreal painting. A tiny spot on the road far ahead of me turned into a Belgian cyclist half an hour later. ‘There is quite some scenery ahead of you!’ As if I was not IN quite some scenery already! I had brilliant descriptions of the road by Bill Weir, detailing how long the washboard awfulness would continue. Again, I was getting unsure whether I would make the next pass today. But, as he wrote, the mountains are gentle here – the next pass did not even feel like one, just a long, gentle incline up.
Once I was at the rim, a few hours later, Karakol lake lay ahead of me in all its spectacular beauty. In the background dark mountains with patches of snow, the glittering piece of water ahead of me, the late afternoon light just perfect to illuminate nature’s perfection all around me. I knew it would be downhill all the way until the village of Karakol. I had one hour left till sunset. I had already pushed the limits for today – crossing an international border and two 4000m+ passes in one go had been quite something. Despite that and although the shores of the lake presented themselves as beautiful camp grounds- no steep shoulder off the road, flat sandy grounds- I was determined to make it to the village. Why? I was driven by the urge to smell hot water. Hot water had never had any special meaning to me before. The Pamirs taught me how incredibly valuable it can be. Water meant the ability to wash the dust of the day off. To warm up. To feel secure. Over the weeks and months of this journey, it has become to mean the quintessential luxuary of life for me. The best thing my mind could imagine (even better than food!). Up until now, during this journey, the maximum days without a shower is at nine days (in Oman, mind you, where temperatures oftentimes exceeded 40 degree Celsisus). Water, clean water, feels incredible on your body after nine days. Now, I was only at three days, but I already felt that insane longing for hot water.
So I changed gears, mentally and physically, and tested how much I could get out of my legs after this long day. I mustered a strength from who knows where. I did not even know I had such a reserve for energy. Emily literally flew across the high altitude plain at almost 30km/h. My heart jumped with joy. I had not even imagined that I would be able to ever reach such speeds with a fully loaded bike, let alone after having crossed two passes that same day! With the last light of the day, I raced into Karakol. An old man waved to me. ‘Homestay?’ Yes, yes! We were engulfed in almost complete darkness, when we reached the house of his family. Had I arrived a few minutes later, I had not seen a hand in front of my eyes, let alone find a homestay so easily. My legs shaky from the exhaustion, I fell onto the floor of the living room next to the oven. The daughter of the grandfather brought me a simple, yet wonderfully nourishing dinner. I could barely stay awake long enough to eat it all. With kind smiles, they promised me that they would warm up water the next morning for me to wash. Heaven was real. And it was right here in Karakol.
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).
So how do you prepare? In essence, you just accept that you cannot prepare. You have to jump at some point. It is just a matter of listening to your gut feeling when you feel ready to jump. Being alone in all this means that nobody is going to tell you when to go, when to wait. I had to find a balance between actual preparation that needed to be done (finding a spare tyre, repairing my failing chain, etc) and the fact that temperatures in the mountains were dropping day by day (I talked to everyone who came down the mountains and were told stories about nights in the tent at -10C, then -15C and finally -20C – that is when I left Osh).
Sometimes, people say a sentence to you that they might have forgotten a day or two later. But the sentence stays with you, it reverberates. It strikes a chord inside of you because it carries exactly the message you need, at that exact time of your life. There were two sentences by two women that had this kind of importance for me. A good old friend of mine from my time at U Michigan had written to me: ‘You have incredible mental and physical stamina’. And a Swiss cyclist who had just finished the Pamir highway with her boyfriend told me: ‘Take the time you need to prepare for this.’ So this was about believing in myself, in my abilities to make it. And to listen to myself as to how much mental run-up I needed.
And I needed a lot more mental run-up than I thought. The first half was in Osh, the second in Sary Tash (shortly before the Kyrgyz-Tajik border).
Osh was my first milestone on this journey, the finale of my first leg through Kyrgyzstan. My first two weeks on a bike. I had gotten used to being outdoors all day long, discovering landscapes in slow motion, conquering mountains under my own steam, finding my rhythm. Osh had been on my mind for a long time – the last town, the last bazaar for a long time. The Pamirs would have none of this, really, at least none of the abundance found in Osh – certainly no fresh fruit, no dried fruit either, …
My Osh days were wonderful, pure bliss, a sunny refuge from the mountains, my first break from being on the road. A hot shower. Decent food. Great people. Warmth. Once you get into your routine on the road (break camp in the morning, pack your bike, cycle all day, search for a camp spot in the evening, put up your tent, get ready for a cold night), you stop realizing that this actually takes energy. It takes less and less the more you get used to it, but it is only when you stop for a few days, that you realize how relaxing life can be. No decisions to be made. No searching for campsites. No need for calculating how much water and food you will need the next days. No worries about parts of your bike that are close to breaking. If something fails, you can simply go and find a replacement.
Those days at Osh became the epitome of the rest days on this trip. They made me realize how much I need these breaks. And it was there that I started to accept that I could not tell beforehand how long of a break I would need, or, for that matter, how long of a mental run-up for the next leg. If you are on the road for just a few weeks, even by bike, a rest day or two might suffice. However, this does not work for long-distance cycling, at least not for me. You need a place to recharge your batteries, mentally as well as physically.
My base at TES guesthouse was close to ideal for this, with affordable accomodation, among others in yurts. This is the place where pretty much every long-distance cyclist stays who comes from China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or simply from Kyrgzstan. It is also popular with overlanders travelling by jeep or with public transport. All people whose journeys were measured in months and years, not weeks. In other words: lots of great people, plenty of good advice and interesting stories to be shared. And simply a place where like-minded people meet. This sounds as if it was about huge groups. Really, there were rarely more than five cyclists there at the same time (including myself).
There was Fredrika, the female solo cyclist from Sweden, about to head to China, but waiting for a parcel with her passport and a visa. There was the Swiss couple who had just finished the Pamir highway and were a fountain of helpful information about the road ahead. There were two Belgians who had just come from Uzbekistan and debated if they would tackle the Pamirs as well (they eventually decided against it due to the approaching winter). And there were two German couples (travelling overland, but not by bike) with whom I shared a yurt and with whom I bonded instantly as well. It was with one of those couples that I did the only touristic thing while in Osh: visiting the furkat, the weekly animal market, held every Sunday.
The mental run-up is a thing that just happens. You slowly ease into the thought of heading out into the mountains by yourself. Every day you wake up with this thought, that fills you with pure fear at first. Then, you start to get accustomed to the idea. It starts to become normal to talk to people about the road ahead, to gather information, and an idea forms in your mind of what might await you.
In parallel, you prepare physically, which gives you an excuse to linger a bit longer. The physical preparation is important in the sense that it also gives you the feeling that you are in control, you do whatever needs doing for getting ready. I tried hard to source some of the spare parts I so urgently needed and some of the additional clothing the Pamirs would require.
Buying things in Osh is equivalent to searching the giant bazaar, a maze of tiny lanes and slightly bigger alleys, a wonderland of food (in particular, if you come from the mountains), of any item you could think of… EXCEPT if you have a 10drive chain. I had one and mine had a failing link. I did have a spare chain, but I did not want it use it just yet, as I did not dare getting into remote mountains without a spare chain. Fortunately, the bazaar is also home to a magician, called Master Toluk. Fredrika, the Swedish cyclist, told me about him – he was the only one who could fix an issue on her bike that none that she had met for the last couple of thousand kilometers could.
So I went. The bike area of the bazaar is tiny, at the far Northern end of the bazaar, hidden away behind metal goods. I just asked around for Master Toluk and was instantly brought to an elderly man who radiated warmth and knowledge.
“Problem? No problem!” That was the way he greeted me. Well, I needed to fix a 10drive chain. There ARE no 10drive chains in all of Central Asia. Master Toluk looked at my chain, immediately realized that and sent someone away to search for what was needed. Somehow, somewhere, they managed to find a single link that could fix my half-broken chain. How? Did they talk to the mafia? Did they bribe someone? I still have no idea. But Master Toluk smiled, took the link, fixed the chain and confirmed: “No problem!” It was hard to convince him to take any money from me. He just waved it off explaining (I think, my Russian is quite poor) that it had only taken him 2 minutes. In the end, he had some notes more in his pocket and I had a bike with a fixed chain. There are no words to describe how happy I was!
I added a poor quality spare tyre made in China to my gear and started feeling prepared. I would have prefered a tyre of high quality, of course, but there simply are none in Osh. I had left my folding tyre in Germany, thinking I could not afford carrying the extra weight. Now, I realized that I could not afford, mentally, to leave what felt like the civilized world without the security of a spare tyre. My thoughts revolved around it. The thought that my good Schwalbe tyres might get shredded on the terrible roads in the Pamirs, in the middle of nowhere. The thought that this would be the temporary end of my journey. The cheap Chinese tyre I bought had no resemblance whatsoever with the quality tyres I have on my bike. It would, at best, carry me a day before cracking under the weight of my bike and gear. But a day might be enough to get to a village, to safety.
Sourcing additional clothing was a bit tricky, as there is no high-quality outdoor gear that would be sold in Osh. Actually, there is just NO outdoor gear, not even bad one. The one advice that really helped me was to search the second-hand shop smack in the bazaar. Obviously, there had been cyclists here before me and some of them had sold their fleece pullovers at the bazaar. I got one that I really liked (and wear up until today) for a mere 1,20 US Dollar. What a bargain! That extra fleece allowed me to use one more of my layers to be worn during the day in the Pamirs, while I could wear the fleece at night.
The one item I had not been able to find anywhere in Kyrgyzstan was power tape. Actually, nowhere else in Central Asia either. The one item that allows you to fix next to anything – and the one item I had forgotten in Germany (or rather, packing my bike had required the entire roll I had had with me and I had not thought of bringing a second one). I had packed plenty of spare parts, tools, whatever you could think of for fixing things. But there ARE things which can only be fixed with power tape… at some point, I just accepted that I would not have any, even though this made my stomach cramp.
I don’t believe in destiny, but sometimes I feel there is a sign, a signal. Something happens that makes you realize what you should obviously do. In my case, I went to my bike Emily to check something one morning, when a man approached me: “So you are the owner of this gorgeous bike – what a beauty!” He looked at Emily with the eyes of a connoisseur. “I agree with all the gear decisions you have made on this bike”, he continued. “Except maybe the disc brakes. Other than that, this is one of the most perfect touring bikes I have seen so far.” He then waved to his wife to come and take a photo of Emily. Part of me felt the pride that a parent might feel for their child. Emily is my brain child, the result of a learning process on ‘how to build the perfect touring bike for Anne’. Hearing from a bike expert that I got some of these things right was reassuring.
It turned out that this man was an Italian aerospace engineer, an experienced cyclist who had just cycled the Pamir highway himself and was about to fly out from Osh, back home to Europe. Encouraged by the fact that he liked my bike, I asked him if he had power tape that he could spare. And he had! I would have paid anything for this, but he just said “this is among cyclists – take it as a present”. I could have kissed his feet! Power tape, in this part of the world, is invaluable. I forgot his name (actually, I believe I never knew it in the first place), but I will never forget how much his power tape helped me. I never used a single bit of it, up until today. But having this tiny roll with me gives me a feeling of security that no insurance could possibly ever achieve. In the very moment that I put my hands on the power tape, I knew I was ready to head out to the mountains. I left that same day.
I was headed for Sary Tash, the last settlement in Kyrgystan, a last stop before the Pamirs proper, but already at above 3000m. I had not only waited for a long time in Osh to get mentally ready for the Pamir highway, but also since my stomach would not take any food. Ever since my food poisoning in Karakul, I had not been able to keep anything other than dry bread and coke inside of me. I was tempted to join the other cyclists for the wonderful dishes that they had cooked and offered to me, but whenever I did my stomach didn’t appreciated that. In retrospect, a week without real food should have made me think about seeing a doctor, but my body coped somehow. Yet, I was still pretty weak when leaving Osh, so I hitchhiked most of the way to Sary Tash, through pretty valleys and over snow-covered mountain passes.
When I left the truck in Sary Tash, I could barely breath. In fact, I could barely stand on my two feet. The wind was fierce and icy, a sign of what would await me in the Pamirs. Or so I thought. While the weather instantly took my breath away (not even speaking of the altitude), what impressed me beyond anything was the wall of ice and snow on the horizon. The Pamirs. The high altitude mountain range that was my calling. Glaciers and snow piled up high into the sky, filling the horizon in its entire length. The thought that there might be a road finding its way through this massive walls seemed impossible, yet I knew that it existed. The Pamir highway.
People had told me that the panorama from Sary Tash would be impressive, but this was beyond anything I can really describe. Innerly, I bowed my head in respect. I also bowed physically to cope with the wind. This was nature at its most powerful. As a human you really are nothing but a tiny spot on the surface of this gorgeous planet, in existence for just the tiniest fraction of time. So here I was, facing one of the most spectacularly beautiful mountain ranges of the world, feeling as small as I never felt before in my life. I had known for years that this is where I should head, this is where something waited to be learned for me. I still did not know what it would be that I would learn. What I did know, instantly, was that I would hand my life over to these enormous mountains, to their ancient souls, their primal forces. It would be up to them if they would let me pass unharmed.
Once I had gotten over the sight of the Pamirs (it took a while), I assembled my stuff, loaded my bike and cycled to a small guesthouse that other cyclists had recommended to me (“If you are lucky, they warm up water for you, so you can wash yourself.”). When I entered the house, I met a Czech family – parents of about my age (Mira and Jana) and Marek, their four year old son. They were exploring Kyrgyzstan with a rental car and had just warmed up in the little restaurant. We chatted for a bit and when they mentioned that they were about to head out to see majestic peak Lenin, I was all in to join them for a day. Straddling the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, peak Lenin is – at 7,134 metres (23,406 ft) – the second highest summit of Tajikistan.
My new Czech friends and me drove to Sary Mogol, the village next to the famous peak which is said to afford great views. Only that the wind-swept village seemed to be almost deserted. No wonder, given the cold temperatures – but those drop to -40 Celsius in winter, after all! After some searching, we did find someone who recommended us to take a guide to get towards peak Lenin, but for a steep price. We looked at each other. “I have a GPS and good mapping material”, I said. “We have a 4WD.” the Czech couple said. The three of us looked at each other again. “Alright, let’s head out there by ourselves.”
We first encountered a little river without bridges, where we had to spent a bit of time finding the best way of crossing the water. After having mastered that, we followed a network of barely visible tracks through the steppe, approaching the splendid peaks ahead of us, shrouded in clouds. This was new for me. During my bike trip so far, I had come to utterly enjoy exploring wind-swept, majestic landscapes by myself. Just the vastness, the emptiness and you. Now, I learned that doing so with other people is very different, but can be really enjoyable as well. We had great conversations about our travels (they had traversed all of the Americas in a one-year road trip), our lives between the USA and Europe (they had also lived and worked in both), our experiences in Kyrgyzstan.
I was seriously impressed and very inspired to hear how they had just kept travelling once their child was born, including them into their semi-nomadic life, showing him different cultures and country right from his birth on. Little Marek was just a lovely child to be around with. As he is the only child, his parents made it a point to teach him to share. He kept sharing his favorite snacks with me, with a little boy we met on his horse, essentially with anyone he met. At the end of a wonderful day together, he asked his parents if I couldn’t simply keep traveling with them. I would have loved to!
We drove towards the Pamirs as far as we could without needing a special permit. At a small lake at the foot of the mountains, spent some time climbing up some hills, throwing snow balls and just letting the impressive landscape do its magic. Peak Lenin, however, kept hiding itself in heavy clouds.
After sunset, temperatures dropped quickly and we had to start heading back towards Sary Mogol. It was not until then, already in the car driving away from the mountains, that Peak Lenin showed its face for a brief moment. We instantly hoped out of the car, Mira shouting: “Thanks for the brief visit, Lenin! We really appreciate it – what a pleasure to meet you!”. Moments later, the peak was gone again.
It was already dark when Mira, Jana and Marek dropped me in my guesthouse in Sary Tash to continue their ride towards Osh. So here I was, literally at the foot of the Pamirs. Alone. My ‘guesthouse’ literally was just an unused room in the house of the small family that was running the tiny restaurant next door. So yes, I was with a family. But when I retreated into my cold room that night, buried under a high pile of heavy blankets, trying to warm up, I felt utterly alone.
Honestly, for much of my preparation days in Osh, I had also been half-waiting for other cyclists to arrive who would head for the Pamirs as well. Any cyclist would have stayed in TES guesthouse as well, there had been no chance to miss each other. But nobody had come. And I realized that, as the days passed, I stopped waiting for others. That really, my calling would be to head out to the mountains by myself. That there would be things I could only learn if I was cycling solo. This was an encounter between the Pamirs and me, a rendez-vous where anyone else would be disturbing. And the rendez-vous was getting closer.
By the time I had reached Sary Tash, I fully embraced that I could not possibly cycle with anyone else there, but this did not mean that my fears were gone. In fact, the mere sight of these majestic mountains had instilled a fear in me that was beyond anything I have ever experienced. No wolf, no ill-meaning person outside of my tent had created a fear in me greater than this and I doubt that I will encounter a situation again in my life that will instill this fear again, with this force. Heading out into the unknown, being able to rely on nothing but me and my gear. I have had serious close calls on a couple of my journeys, but those had been situations which had just overwhelmed me. I had never headed into something that might cost my life with eyes wide-open, fully aware of what I was doing.
Again, I took my time for getting ready. Walking around the village, thinking. I needed a day at least for acclimtization to the altitude anyways. On the evening of that day, I ate in the little restaurauant again when I started to feel really unwell. I returned to my room, spending a few hours feeling terrible before I had to run out into the icy night and the snow to throw up. Again, again, again. I am not sure if it was some kind of food poisoning again (my host family insisted it was because of the cold). Maybe it was just fear turned physical. Whatever it was, it sent me back to bed (or rather: to my blankets on the floor) for another two days during which I was again too weak to even walk straight.
After this bout of sickness, there was nothing left to be done, physically, to prepare for the Pamirs. I waited until I could eat food for the first time again and made sure that it was not snowing on my first pass the day I would head out. And then I left. I jumped into the unknown, counting on the universe to catch me. I still vividly remember that last night in Sary Tash. A night like no night I have ever had before. I was about to head out into the unknown. I took the time to make my peace with all I might leave behind. I wrote two farewell letters. And I would like to finish this post with a few lines from one of those letters:
“This is a weird night… a lot of it feels like a farewell. Rite of passage? Passage through the (mountainous) desert? Jumping into nothingness? I hope that my feeling is right that sometimes, a part of you has to die for you to truly live. The closer I get to the mountains – physically, mentally- the more of me dies. I hope that a phoenix will rise from the ashes. If not, I gave it a try at least. This place has been calling me for years – I will find out what it is I am supposed to learn here.
I just want you to know that I am with you in thoughts, in this world or another.”
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.’
Imagine a rainy day, when a lonely cyclist pedals into a tiny village in the Wakhan valley, miserably cold in the wind. She stops to gaze at the enormous rain clouds in the valley ahead of her, sighs and gets ready to face those clouds. At that moment, a man opens the door of a lonely house and gestures that she should come in. Utterly grateful, I tell him in Russian that it is very cold outside. ‘Too cold’, he agrees, ‘you should be inside’. I ended up staying with this family for more than a day, treated with the warmest spot in the house (next to the oven), plenty of food and a sleeping place next to the daughters.
During the last months, I was fortunate to experience hospitality that is unknown of in many other parts of the world. People whom I had never met before and with whom I had barely exchanged a few words invited me into their houses, they gave me food, shelter and human warmth. I was welcomed in as a human among humans, treated not like a clueless foreigner, but almost as a family member.
Rare was the case that I had to ask for help. Most often, people approached me in the street, offering tea and a warm, dry spot at least. Those people were far from rich, many of them downright poor. Life in the mountains is harsh, living conditions as well – no running water, oftentimes no electricity, an outhouse somewhere in the fields or none at all. The food I was offered was simple – sometimes only rice for lunch, and then bread and butter for dinner. But it was not out of stingyness of these people – this simply is their daily staple. The luxuary of vegetables or fruit is a rare one, and if they had any, they would offer it to their guest. I was almost coerced to eat more, mostly by the elderly, who remarked that I would need energy to keep going by bike.
Most of these people were used to do hard physical work every day and they knew that getting through the mountains on your own steam is a tough task. Still, here I was, the tourist with the option to get back to her old, comfortable life at (almost) any time, while these people will stay – enduring the harshness of the Pamir winter, facing the deprivations of life in the mountains. And yet they shared with me what they could.
These people were all Muslim, and I was introduced to some of their rites and traditional ways of doing things. It became second nature to me to make a face-washing gesture and thank Allah after a meal, for instance. They never asked me to follow suit with any of their doings, but were pleasantly surprised when I did. In fact, I did not think at all about the fact that we did not share the same religion (I don’t even have a religion as an atheist). In contrast to other places I have travelled, I was also never asked about my religion (or the absence of which). Here, it simply did not matter.
What did matter to these kind people, however, was one thing. One thing that many of them pointed out, repeatedly, and with great fervor. ‘We are no extremists.’ It would have never crossed my mind that they might and I really hope (and am quite certain) that I did not give the impression that I might think that. Still, this was on their minds. ‘We are Muslims, but we are no extremists.’
To put this into perspective, one has to think about the geostrategical situation of much of Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan. The latter shares a border with Afghanistan over the stunning distance of 1344km, the Western part of it being very mountaneous terrain and extraordinarily hard to control. A very long part of this border (1135km) is along the course of the Pyanj river, which I followed for some weeks. Sometimes, the river bed is so narrow, that you can wave to Afghan kids on the other side of the border. In other places, the river was so shallow that you could have simply waded through and entered the other counry – no fences, no guards, no check points.
There actually are a few official border crossings in the area and some villages (such as Ishkashim or Khorog) actually have joint Tajik-Afghan markets in a ‘neutral’ area (e.g. an island in the river), which can be entered by both nationalities without requiring a permit. However, these are closed these days. Some border crossings as well as the markets. What happened? In their advance North, the Taliban came crucially close to the Wakhan. They were 20km from Ishkashim, when I passed through. I did not sleep particularly well that night.
‘We are no extremists.’ This statement can be seen in the light of the terrible attacks in Paris and Beirut, stating the obvious (Islam is not an extremist religion). It can also be seen in the light of the Taliban advancing towards the Tajik border. The people of the Tajik Wakhan are in danger themselves of being attacked by those extremists (I use the word rarely, but with regard to the Taliban, I think this attribute is fitting). In fact, the Tajiks already are under attack of the Taliban – the Tajik form the biggest minority in Afghanistan with more Tajiks living within the borders of Afghanistan (8.2 million, or 27 percent of Afghanistan’s total population) than in Tajikistan itself (6.2 million).
There have been absolutely disgusting bouts of hatred in Europe against refugees from Syria, following the attacks in Paris and Beirut. This reminded me of the Tajiks in the Wakhan. Threatened by the actual extremists, those who are already suffering are accused of being extremists themselves, feeling the need to state: ‘We are no extremists.’ No, you are not. You are humans and you welcomed me as another human. Another human, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or whatever else one might come up as a reason to divide humans into small, artificial entities.
I wish we would live in a world, where this statement would not be needed. Still, this was important to the people I met – having this message out there, in the world. I comply. And would like to add: you are not extremists. You are among the kindest people I have ever met. I was humbled by your hospitality. Your heart-felt welcome has forever changed the way I think about how to approach complete strangers. Give them a smile and invite them for a cup of tea. Don’t think about what separates you, but what you share. Such as being humans.
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… Some homestays have those same banyas, in a tinier version, but essentially my version of heaven. It gets you clean after days upon days on the road without washing. AND it gets you warm. PLUS, you can usually use the remaining hot water to wash your cycling clothes (the smell of which is pretty impressive after having cycled in them for a week or so). The dead cockroaches on the walls were not quite my version of heaven, so I was happy to leave Kara Balta behind to cycle into the mountains.
My stretch from Bishkek to Osh was a trial run of sorts. Other people take trial tours, shorter trips where they test their gear and see if long distance is actually something they might enjoy. For me, those first two weeks in Kyrgyzstan were my trial tour. Already quite remote with stretches when I would not pass a town or village for an entire day, there were still people around every now and then to whom I could turn for help if I needed it. The route took me from Bishkek via Kara Balta up into the mountains to the Tor Ashuu pass.
From there, the road ascends into the wonderful Suusamyr valley – warm herding space for the nomads whose yurts dot the valley ground, surrounded by treeless mountains. Ala Bel, an easy pass at the junction to Kazachstan, brought me into the rocky red sandstone canyon of Chichkanon that leads to the Toktogul reservoir. The hills around the reservoir are psychologically taxing – no passes, no mountain road, but still a quite substantial up and down that wears you out. Even though it had been just few days in the middle of nowhere, I was absolutely fascinated to cycle through villages again – tiny shops, cars, people, houses! Toktogul reservoir is really huge, so it took some time to get to the other side. I spent a wonderful evening there camping with four other cyclists (who went the other direction) at a perfect camp spot next to a lonely house.
The views of the lake were quite stunning – and our early morning bath in the lake as well! The following food poisoning I could have done without… I still made it over the next pass into the charming little village of Karakoel, where I was taken in by a lovely family before my body broke down. Once I could stand up again two days later, I hitchhiked to Osh, skipping the heavily trafficked Fergana valley.
So much about the route as such. What happened in between?
My first night alone in the tent, in the middle of nowhere… I would likely have slept better, had I not met a local Kyrgyz before who was very worried about me camping in the gorge, as the wolves would come down from the mountains at night. Not the best story for falling asleep… Wolves were haunting me all the way from Bishkek to Osh. That first night, I could hear them from afar. The next night, I had one nosing around my tent. At least, that is what I believe, as the dogs from the yurt close-by went crazy about the animal that was obviously interested in my tent.
In hindsight, your bodily reaction to hearing wolves around you at night is absolutely fascinating. This is the pure essence of fear. Instinctive. It might have been the first time for me to understand what it means to have your blood freeze. None of what I have experienced in my life so far that I called “fear” compares to that. These are all cheap knock-offs to that instinctive, primal fear. It feels as if your heart and your breath stopped. Your body tries to play dead. The upside of cycling long hours is that, despite your fear and despite the cold, you do fall asleep at some point.
The cold got me for the first time right after my first pass (Tor Ashuu). Kyrgyzstan had been nice with me during the days, sometimes reaching 20C even in the mountains. Still, I had some freezing nights, where the thermometer dropped below -5C. Somewhat of a preparation for the icy Pamirs in Tajikistan. Usually, I tried to stay close to humans at night (the wolves, you know…), which oftentimes meant close to a yurt, the summer habitats of the Kyrgyz nomads, who roam the mountains with their herds of horses and sheep.
Their most prized produce is Kymyz, fermented horse milk. While it tastes quite nice when it is fresh, the fermented version made my stomach want to empty itself… The Kyrgyz love this drink, however, and all visitors to high altitude terrain enthusiastically buy litres upon litres of if from the nomads, filled into empty soda bottles.
The milk is obtained from mares with fouls, who are kept away from their mothers in the evening, such that the nomad’s can get their milk. Once let lose, the fouls storm to their mothers and try to get whatever milk remains. Horses here are highly priced animals and it is not unlikely that you see a tiny boy or girl sit on a huge beautiful horse, walking over the steppe. Whenever I met nomads, the running gag for them was to point first at my bike, then at their horse and then to say something along the lines of “look, my horse runs by itself”. Well, they had a point…
While the nomadic life may sound romantic, this is a society dominated by men. Men who tend to stick to alcohol a bit too much, a bit too often. Women don’t count much here. Domestic violence against women is not uncommon, and it seems no disgrace to beat your wife in front of the female visitor (me). I will never forget the look in the eyes of the woman who fled to me during the night as she as afraid of the beatings of her violent husband (I saw him beat her on the head, high above from horseback, with a stick, the next morning). In the dim light of my flashlight, she counted and recounted the money she had earned that day selling Kymyz. She stashed away a certain percentage in her sock, counting the days until she would have enough to run away. I added some to the money in her sock. The next morning, she played the upbeat wife again, telling her husband whenever she disagreed. Still, I could not forget her eyes at night – the eyes of an animal fleeing from a predator. I also won’t forget how she kissed me on the cheek when I gave her money, telling me that women can only count on other women.
I had one instance where I was afraid for myself. After a tough day of cycling, including Ala Bel pass, I was racing down into Chichkanon valley while the sun was already setting and temperatures dropped rapidly.
It was one of those times when you realize that steering a bike while your teeth are clattering is really hard. Hands almost frozen, I was desperate to find a space to camp. Only that the canyon was so narrow and steep that there seemed to be no space. Finally, I saw a couple of yurts on pristine camp ground – flat, grassy, next to a river. Perfect!
A guy about my age came out and I asked if I could camp there. It did not occur to me that he might be the only person at camp. In fact, we were the two only people within the next couple of kilometers. Out of an instinctive reaction, I decided to take a yurt, as I saw that it had a wooden door that could be locked from the inside with the padlock I carry with me. A good decision. While my Russian is not great, it became very obvious what the guy was interested in. It did not help to pretend not to understand him, to make up imaginary wedding rings. He made it very clear that the night would be cold and that he wanted a woman next to him. I joined him for milking the horses (actually, quite interesting), only that this led to further sexual comments… At some point, it became simply unbearable and I left brusquely, ignoring all invitations to come to his yurt for a beer (well, I am not insane). Locking my yurt from the inside, I still felt very vulnerable and passed a night that was not all that relaxing, knowing that he would get drunk alone now (the combination of drunk and frustrated is not the best…). Nothing happened, though, and I cycled away the next morning promising myself to choose my sleeping spots wiser the next time. Or at least a bit earlier- if it is already dark, you have no choice but to stay (cycling downhill a steep canyon at night is something I fear more than having a horny, drunken guy outside of my yurt).
More often, however, I experienced fantastic hospitality from random people. Asking if I could camp in the yard, I was oftentimes invited into the house, at least for dinner, but more often, a bed was prepared for me as well. Houses here are mostly devoid of furniture. Maybe a wardrobe on one side. Other than that, families here possess an impressive amount of blankets, some of which are spread on the floor for either sitting (eating from a blanket on the floor or on a slightly higher table is quite common) or for sleeping. Thus, when a visitor comes, the family simply spreads a few blankets more on the floor.
The children are usually a door-opener, as they are the ones who invite you in with broad smiles and big eyes. In return, I help them with their English homework or play with them. Once, I stayed for almost two days as it was raining cats and dogs outside – not my version of cycling heaven. Over the course of the two days, quite a few people showed up: neighbors came for tea, friends stopped by to bring water melons, the local retired German teacher paid a visit. Being in the center of attention can be exhausting (and even as a cyclist, it is quite taxing to eat that much food all the time!), but I usually enjoyed all the interaction. And when the children bring their English books, I usually learn some more words of Russian as well (the translation is usually English-Russian). Plus, you find some amusing remnants from Soviet times (“when I grow up, I want to be a farmer on a collective farm”).
The typical diet here is chai and chleb (tea and bread) all day long. The variation for breakfast may include milk in the tea (or, in official homestays, two scambled eggs on the side), lunch will have some meat as well, dinner likely some potatoes. Sometimes, a soup is added (a piece of meat or bones plus a potato is typical in there). If you are really lucky, you get manti (steamed dumplings) filled with meat. My stomach can usually handle anything down to street food in developping countries (I never had issues even in India!).
But the bacteria here get everyone, it seems. I had some sort of food poisoning twice, giving me stomach cramps as I have never have them before, plus a really annoying diarrhea for a week. Not ideal for cycling, when you need to find ways to get your energy. Luckily, during the worst phases, I had been taken in by families in both cases – the first day, I was too weak to even stand up without shaking.
Cycling is wonderful and exhausting at the same time. The landscapes here are fantastic, ever changing, but they do involve high passes and simply long stretches of no-man’s land. At some point, I started wondering if I ever would make it past 50km per day. I did, but on days where the road is only ascending, it can also be quite a bit less. Depending on the circumstances, I do not ask twice when it comes to hitchhiking. My first time was actually at my first pass (during my third day of cycling). After a long day of cycling only uphill for more than 1000m of altitude, I was quite tired when the clock showed 5pm. I knew that it was another 1000m of altitude to the pass – I would surely not accomplish that on the same day. However, the canyon had already gotten pretty narrow, as the street was starting to take hairpins up to the pass. No space for camping at all. Thus, I tried to push on, hoping I would find some space further up the pass. Instead, my eyesight went blank for a moment and I could feel I had nothing left in my legs. Almost blind, I stopped, turned around and stuck my thumb out. When I opened my eyes again, a truck driver made an apologetic gestures when he approached me. Damn! When he passed, I felt like the last person on earth, utterly exhausted. Then, brakes squealed. The truck driver had stopped at the next hairpin, gesturing to me that I should come up. I have rarely been that grateful! Since then, I have hitchhiked another few times, when I was physically exhausted or sick, or when I knew the stretch would have heavy traffic. The truck drivers here are incredibly nice and never accept any money. The price you pay, though, is that inevitably, something on your gear or bike will get broken. Well, so far, I could fix most things again (it also makes it feel that bringing so much repair stuff was a good idea).
So far, I have met at least one cyclist per day – most of them have started in Europe in spring and now cycle through Kyrgyzstan before descending into China. Meeting other cyclists is always a joyful occurance. You always stop, no matter your schedule, to chat about your destinations and the road ahead. Once, I passed two cyclists when I was climbing a mountain and they were racing down. They did not stop, which creates a disappointment in you which is hard to describe. Not only is this against the unwritten code of conduct, you feel deprived, utterly deprived.
Cyclists really are the best source of information when you are doing something that no guidebook covers. Water sources, terrain, good spots to camp – you exchange information on all of that and more. Plus, it is just nice to meet people who understand. Understand the pain, the joy, the hunger, the fascination. Everybody has their own story, some have been on the road for years already. You could easily spend days just talking, but some 10/20 min later, the road calls you again. “Safe travels!” Rarely has this had more meaning than during this trip.
Cycling gives you a lot of freedom, but it also leaves you quite a bit more vulnerable. One of the important pieces of information is also, where crazy dogs await you. Kyrgyzstan features dogs that seem closer to wolves than what we call dog. Plus, they are semi-wild and not really trained other than in herding. When they see a cyclist from the corner of their eye, they will surely jump up and try to chase. So far, I have been spared any bites, but that was more luck than anything else… I have seen impressive holes in the the panniers of some less lucky cyclists, where to the dog did not quite make it to the calves. Sometimes, I feel way more like a cat person than a dog person.