Myanmar – The Other Land of Smiles

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road worker near Kawkareik, Myanmar

 

“…that’s how I rate countries – how easy it is to get a smile.”

Chris Hickman, round-the-world cyclist

It is amazing what a single smile can do – that warm, uninhibited, ear-to-ear grin that can be found all over Myanmar. I had experienced a challenging last few months and encounters with the amazing Burmese people was exacted what a needed. The country welcomed me with open arms and helped me to find my way again. While Thailand is also worthy of the title, Myanmar is, without hesitation, a land of smiles.

As a country, Myanmar has gone through serious change in recent years. Until 2010, the country was ruled by a military junta and many areas were off limits to foreigners. That same year, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy was released from house arrest.  Every year, more and more travel restrictions are being lifted and tourists are flocking to the country. The general consensus seems to be that the time to visit Myanmar is now, before it becomes essentially spoiled by tourism.

With the tourism industry still being fairly new in the country, most travellers seem to stick within the “triangle”  of Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon. With a bicycle, you can ride a mere 5km to get off of the beaten path. But my goal was to really get off of the beaten path. My biggest draw to the country was mountainous, remote and only recently opened to tourists (sort of): Chin State.

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Mandalay bicycle

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feeling like I do in the heat…

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Carving Buddha statues, Mandalay

My ride began in Mandalay, where I would head West into the hills of Chin. I spent a great few days in Mandalay with a wonderful couch surfing host Su Su who took me around the city. The first few days out of the city were flat, moderately busy and of course, quite warm – I was travelling in Myanmar at the hottest time of the year. I was greeted with never-ending smiles, waves and shouts of Min ga la ba! (hello!). At my first lunch stop I came to realize how huge the portions were. I simply said the word ta min (rice) and pointed to some vegetables and out came a table full of different dishes. When I would finish one thing, it would be refilled. All of this cost arounf $1.50.

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Lunch for 1!

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One of my favourite Burmese dishes – tea leaf salad

The countryside of Myanmar is still very traditional, with ox carts moving up and down the roads and no sign of intrusion from the Western world.

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Smart phones, however are in abundance in the country no matter where you set foot. When I would ask to take photos of locals, they  too were keen to use their Samsungs to take photos of me. I enjoyed the reciprocal nature of this. Up until recently, a sim card was only accessible for the very wealthy in Myanmar. An Australian and long time resident of Myanmar in Yangon told me that he paid $6000 for his first sim card. Now, they cost about $2.

 

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The paint on the face is called Thanaka- a paste made from wood bark. It is a traditional make up worn by most women and some men. It also doubles as sun protection.

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Nuns on the way to the monastery

In one village I was offered accommodation for the night at a restaurant. It is illegal for locals to host foreigners, but I thought that I would take the chance. About an hour later, the head of the village appeared and informed me that immigration said that I would have to cycle 20km back the way I came to a guesthouse. At first I tried to protest, saying that I was too tired and it would be too dark, but I knew that I had little choice. So I raced back and checked into Pale’s one ramshackle guesthouse.

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It had been a few months since I had cycled a proper hill and the ride to Kyaww village was a rude wake up call. About 10km from the village, completely beat and stupefied from the heat, I pulled up to a tiny village in search of a cold drink. Within minutes,  literally half the village came excitedly running over to this tiny shop to check out this stranger on a bicycle.  One very friendly and boisterous woman knew a few of words of English – “Where you come from?” “Very beautiful!” I was feeling quite out of it but got quickly infected by the huge smiles all around and laughter. When there are a lack of words, a good laugh is always a great way to connect. Drinks and snacks were thrusted into my hands and I started to come out of my stupor.

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An enthusiastic welcome

When my energy had returned I said goodbye to the enthusiastic villagers and slowly inched up the steep hill towards Kyaww.

I was relieved to finally have reached the village. I was given another warm welcome by some local guys in the military out for a few drinks at my guesthouse restaurant. They were eager to speak to me and practice their English. They said that I was the first foreigner that had ever spoken to. They treated me to some tasty Myanmar dishes and beer.

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With my new friends in Kyaww village

 

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Road workers en route to Kyaww

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Bird life near Kyaww

I was now getting closer and closer to Chin State and Gangaw was the last major town en route. It was still a bit of a mystery whether or not I was allowed to travel in the area. I had only read a report from one cyclist who had successfully travelled the area in 2014. Until 2013, foreigners required a guide to travel in Chin State. I had read that parts of the area were open, but overall it was still unclear. I decided to take the chance anyway.

I left Gangaw at sunrise the next day, taking a roundabout way out of town to avoid passing the police station in case they questioned my route. When I was clear of the town, I entered another village and hit the start of the dirt track towards Chin State – so far, so good.

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The beginning of the dirt road into Chin State

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Happy Chin children

The traffic became almost non existent, with the odd motorbike passing, clouding the air with dust. I passed through my first village in Chin State. Buddhist stupas were suddenly  replaced by crosses. The entire state is Christian as a result of missionaries entering the region and spreading the faith. Myanmar as a country is about 80 per cent Buddhist, with a mere 2 per cent practicing Christianity.  I stopped at a small shop and had several cans of my favourite super sweet lychee juice before heading off.

 

Then, a  girl on a motorbike drove slowly past me “Hello! Are you hungry?”she asked.  I was starving. I followed her to her house where she fed me rice, noodles, fish curry and coffee. She was a pastor at her local church. She tried to speak what English she knew and when she was unsure of a word it was replaced by the greatest laugh. That night, she told me that I could stay in Nabong village, about 20km away with a woman named Nitar that could speak some English.

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Village Pastor who invited me into her home for lunch

The road started to climb steadily and the views to the surrounding hills began to open up. The fading light cast a glow on the land, exaggerating its contours.  Finally, I was back in my element. With all of the kind encounters and this new hint of an exciting landscape I was feeling fully energized and back to my old self.

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Here come the hills…

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The beginning of Nabong village, Chin State

 

 

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Basket weaving in Nabong village

When I arrived in Nabong I asked for “Nitar.” When I was introduced, it took about 10 minutes of confused looks for me to figure out that I was speaking to the wrong Nitar. Eventually a boy took me to a small shop where he said I could stay the night. The very friendly other Nitar approached me and began to speak English. She had spent two years in India studying the language. I was given a sarong and taken to the back of the shop where I could wash with a bucket. I was fed well and given a place to sleep on the floor.  I eventually fell asleep to the sound Christian sermons in English belting from a CD player. Chin people are very passionate about their faith. I wish I had slept better that night to prepare for the rigours of the next day, which would, in short, kick my ass.

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Now, the hills really began to appear. The scenery grew increasingly spectacular as the rough dirt road climbed higher, clinging precariously to the mountainside. Landslides in August of 2015 had caused significant damage to the area and there was a fair amount of road construction as a result. I was often stopped with groups of motorbikes for upwards of 45 minutes while machines repaired the road. The steep grade and the rough surface eventually led to a lot of pushing.

I was starting to truly feel discouraged with my slow pace. When this happens, I  sometimes stop and look towards the mountains to remind myself what I am working for. I pay attention to my breaths, bring out a smile and then it all comes into perspective. It was a spectacular, but very tough ride. Eventually Lohtaw village appeared, cradled by the dramatic green hills.  In my state of fatigue, I knew this was the end of my day – a mere 37km.

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Lohtaw village

With a clear lack of flat ground to camp on, I decided to push my luck again to see if I could stay in the village. Because of the police regulations, I never asked outright and would only accept invitations. I went to buy a drink at a tiny shop and the owner put two hands together and made the sleeping gesture. Hoping there were no police around, I accepted. I was fed another massive meal and surrounded by smiling faces all evening. I sat with an older woman for a few moments, watching the sun set over Chin’s dramatic hills through a window. Before bedtime, the family gathered around the TV to watch a music video of a local woman singing Christian songs to the backdrop of the Chin landscape. This became a new type of lullaby that eventually put my tired body to rest.

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One of the many churches found in Chin State

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It is a common theme on my cycling tour that a tough day is often followed by a better one. While I was getting used to climbing a vertical kilometre, dropping a vertical kilometre and climbing again I had found my rhythm. In Chin State, my plan had been to camp the entire time to avoid attention from the authorities. This proved to be very difficult as finding flat ground seemed close to impossible, unless it was a village.

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Since I had been successful for 2 nights staying in towns, I wondered if I would get lucky again.  I passed many run down villages, where aid groups had set up various water pumps and facilities. Chin is the poorest state in Myanmar. Many shy faces peered out to observe this odd foreigner on a bicycle. Some looks were just of pure confusion or shock. Sometimes a slow grin emerged. I eventually rolled into Razua village just as the sun was setting. Arriving at a shop, many excited people ran over saying Min ga la ba!  Immediately I was offered a place to stay behind a shop. Many people came over to help me carry my bags inside. It wasn’t long before I was approached by two men who spoke good English. One of them was the son of the village’s pastor and the other his friend and politician doing inspections of the area. The politician said that I could spend the night with him, but he would have to inform immigration. Shit, I thought. This was probably the end of my ride in Chin State. I left my bike at the shop and put my bags into a van to bring to the pastor’s home. I was given a warm welcome by the pastor and my own room to sleep. The pastor’s son took my passport and went to immigration to inform them of my presence. When he returned, he said everything was fine. I breathed a sigh of relief.

The politician asked me if I would join them for a special dinner. Dog was on the menu. He asked if I would be OK with eating it or if he should prepare something different for me. I am not vegetarian and I didn’t want to inconvenience my kind hosts so I (half-heartedly) agreed. The taste was actually better than expected.

I had some very interesting conversation with the politican and learned about his involvement in the pro-democracy movement in his region. I also learned more about Chin State and the lack of funding from the government. Many people don’t have access to basic health care and because of the remote location there is a lack of transport to get patients to a proper facility. This was a horrible truth that I would witness first hand the following day.

The next morning I was taken out for a tasty breakfast with my hosts. I learned later that sitting at the table next to us were two police officers that wanted to know why a foreigner was in the town. The pastor’s son had offered to drive me (at a cost) to Madupi the next day, 100km away, where there was a guesthouse. After their discussion with the police, this offer now became mandatory – cycling was no longer an option and I would have no choice but to take transport. I was grateful to be in the company of these two very kind men that I believed helped get me out of a tricky situation. Technically you needed a permit to be in this area that I didn’t have.

Before loading the van to go to Madupi, my friends drove me around the town on their motorbikes. We drove and then hiked to a high point where a giant while cross loomed above the village. The views all around were amazing. The pastor’s son pointed to a valley in the distance with a village above. He said that in that area an entirely different language was spoken and in the next valley an entirely different language again. The main Chin language itself is very different from Burmese, using the roman alphabet. We headed backed down the hill and I packed up my bike into the van and we started the trip towards Madupi.

We were stopped many times by construction along the rough, narrow road. After one road block my driver stopped and went towards a crowd of people gathered by the side of the road. He informed me that there was a very sick woman that needed to be transported to Madupi. When we drove in closer I saw that she was on the back of a motorbike, slumped lifelessly onto the driver. Her feet were tied down to prevent her from falling off. We were in a van large enough to transport her,  but due to the lack of ventilation we were unable to take her. We passed her several times along the road, collapsed into someone’s arms, surrounding by a group of people with motorbikes. It was a tragic and eye opening thing to witness. As the politician had explained to me the night before, this was the reality faced by the people of Chin State. With a lack of proper transport and infrastructure for the sick, these people were essentially on their own. It took over 5 hours to cover the 100km to Madupi. The entire time I couldn’t get the image of that poor sick woman out of my head and I felt guilty that we were unable to help her.

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At 2500m

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Stretching between Madupi and Mindat, the end of my Chin state ride was a rollercoaster of a mountain road – stunning in every sense. With about 100 miles between the two, I knew I would have no choice but to camp, somehow. I didn’t want to be kicked out of a village for a second time.

The road cut through lush cloud forest that morphed into a drier landscape dotted with conifers as I gained elevation. Eventually the road topped out at 2700m.

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I passed a few tiny villages where many happy Thanaka painted faces beamed away at me. I was able to camp twice successfully and enjoyed the cooler nights in the tent.

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Beginning my ride to Mindat at sunrise

In Mindat I saw English signs again and evidence of tourism. It had been a thrill to ride through such a remote, untouched part of the country. For me, this was the absolute highlight of cycling in Myanmar. Sure, I had pushed the boundaries of the law a little bit – but I was lucky that everything worked out.

From Mindat I had a 2000m descent ahead of me into the sweltering lowlands. Chin State had given me all that I had hoped for and I knew that the road ahead wouldn’t be nearly as thrilling. While the maximum temperature in the hills reached into the high 20s, I would be riding in 35-40 degree heat for the rest of my time in the country.

The heat hung on me like a heavy coat, which made cycling hard work. I would start my rides at 6am, when the temperature had already hit 28 degrees. It would be bearable until about 11am and afterwards became overwhelming. Sugary lychee drinks helped to keep me going. I pushed myself to reached Pauk village, where a local had told me there was a guesthouse. It looked like a decent sized place on my map. When I arrived, I thought that the locals had misunderstood me when I said  “Pauk?” and they nodded. It barely looked like a village, with a few houses along the road. I said the word for “guesthouse” in Burmese and an ethusiastic girl ran to my side and started to walk with me. She took me to a home that didn’t appear to be a guesthouse – rather, just someone’s house. A smiling woman came outside and told me to bring my bike in. When I asked “dal be lout lae” (how much?) She just shook her head – no payment necessary. She was a local teacher with a heart made of pure gold. Her house was largely empty – it had once been a shop, but she had lost everything in a fire. Despite having so little, she refused to accept any type of payment. I was honoured, but slightly skeptical, expecting immigration to show up at any time and kick me out. Instead, the girl that brought me there took me by the hand and we walked over to a family home. There, I was seated at a table on the floor and food, sweets and tea were shoved in my direction. One of the women there got a boy to take down my passport details in a book. This didn’t seem very official, but it didn’t bother me one bit. Next I was taken to the girl’s house where I was able to wash and had my face painted with Thanaka.

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Then she took me back to the teacher’s home where I would stay the night. Using a translation app on their phones, the ladies asked me if I wanted to go to a “fun fair” in the town. They each took a hand and I was paraded around the town like a celebrity. We even passed by a row of police that didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that a foreigner was there. First we went to the fair, then the monastery, the local school and then to some friends’ houses. At every location a table was laid out in front of me and loaded up with food – curries, rice, chocolate, candy, fruits – it was overwhelming. Everybody was very excited to have me in their village. That night there was a concert on at the fun fair and I was invited. It was one of the most bizarre performances I have seen in a while – in a “so bad it’s good” type of way. Really, it was like something out of a David Lynch film. Three men heavily made up wearing ridiculous gaudy costumes performed a slow,  uncoordinated dance while singing out of tune. In the background were flashy lights and a row of women in fancy sarongs slowly waving fans back in forth. Some locals were getting rowdy towards the front and a bunch of police descended on them to break up the mayhem. Everytime I saw an officer I avoided eye contact in case they questioned my presence there. When my host saw me yawning, she suggested that we go back to her house. I didn’t object. As entertaining as the show was, I had reached my saturation point for the absurd.

My evening in Pauk was one of the most memorable village stays I have ever had.

My next destination was Bagan, the most famous site in all of Myanmar. I was looking forward to meeting a cyclist friend Dan, the Self Propelling Particle from the UK, whom I had met last August in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Bagan was an ancient kingdom that existed between the 9th and 13th centuries. At its height around 10,000 Buddhist temples were constructed on the plains. Now over 2000 remain. Despite the very touristy nature of the town, it is definitely a place worth seeing. The most impressive part is the sheer scale of the place. In reality, however,  the majority of the day was spent hanging out in air conditioned room, only emerging to watch the sunrise and sunsets over the temples.

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Michael, Swiss cyclist

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Dan messing around

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Sometimes I feel guilty being so lazy, but Dan and our new Swiss cyclist friend Michael were of the same mindset.

On the way out of Bagan I cycled the first 40km with Michael, who was on his way into Chin State.  I was thrilled to run into Ania and Szymon, a Polish couple I had met cycling on the Pamir highway! The cycling touring world is really a small one.

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Stopping for a massive lunch with Michael. We simply say “rice, vegetable” and this is what usually comes out…

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The shady parts of Route 2

From Bagan, my daily encounters with the wonderful people of Myanmar made up for the hot and dull cycling. Many smiles, along with “minga la ba!” “where are you go?” were the bulk of my daily conversations.  I stopped often for cold drinks and to recover in the shade. I was sometimes given a fly swatter/make shift fan to cool myself off. Sometimes, the locals would even offer to do the fanning for me! Luckily, all along the roads were clay pots filled with cold drinking water, which was a great relief on a hot day.

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These clay pots that line the road are filled with cold drinking water for the public

There was a great deal of burning for agricultural purposes taking place, saturating the sky in a thick haze. Most of Route 2 was tree lined, but some exposed sections were hellishly hot. With such a dry, charred landscape burning it had an apocalyptic feel.

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A landscape reminiscent of a wasteland…

Time was starting to run out on my visa and I would have no choice but to skip some sections by bus. With temperatures exceeding 40C and the traffic getting increasingly heavy I didn’t hesitate.

In Yangon I reunited with Philip and Victor –  two other cyclists whom I had met in Bangkok. I was also happy to meet Yoli, a solo female cyclist from Spain – only the 6th I had ever met!

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Hanging out with cycling friends at Bike World in Yangon

 

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Street eats in Yangon. Photo credit: Philip Malone

I made a trip with Philip to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house where she had been under arrest for many years. Unfortunately, no bit of persuasion could get us inside, so we took photos by the entrance.

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Outside of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house: The logo for National League for Democracy. Photo credit: Philip Malone

 

In Yangon I also visited one of the ‘must see’ sights – the 99m tall Shwedagon Pagoda. It is made with 27 metric tons of gold leaf and adorned with thousands of diamonds. I was very impressed.

After, I  decided to skip another busy section of road to the border with Thailand at Mae Sot. On the way, I was able to ride a nice, traffic – free road: the old highway from Kawkareik.


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A traffic free, hilly and hazy ride from Kawkareik

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Reflecting on my ride in the country, I realize that the biggest draw to this place is the interactions with the local people. While the stunning Chin State provided me with first rate adventure cycling, the remainder of my route offered little in terms of scenery.

I will always believe that good humans are everywhere, but there really seems to be an overabundance in Myanmar. Seeing so many smiles on a daily basis is like therapy for the soul. It was something that I really needed and to this amazing country I will be forever grateful.

What’s next?: Currently I am in Chiang Mai, Thailand and will fly to Taipei to spend three weeks cycling around Taiwan.

On Solitude

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Mongolia. A land so vast, empty and silent. Where earth joins sky in a endless horizon. Where the only sound to disturb my thoughts is the rhythm of my breathing against the crunching of my tires through forged tracks of sand. These wavering lines stretch endlessly in front of me, swerving in unknown directions towards an indefinite goal lost in the steppe.

It is a cold morning in May and I am loading the last of my panniers onto the bike before continuing towards the salt lake of Khyargas Nuur. The early morning sun starts to reveal itself, creating a play of shadows and colour across the landscape. It will be three days before I see any real human settlement. My main company are a large heard of goats and sheep strewn across the steppe. The odd time I encounter local men in traditional robes on horseback or motorbikes, who stop for a brief chat that is mainly carried out through hand gestures. Riding a bicycle through Mongolia can be a lonely existence. But this feeling of loneliness is not detrimental to my state of mind. Instead, I feel a powerful and spiritual connection to the land. With so much silence and so much space, it allows for a pure, uncluttered mind.

I am often asked why I have made the decision to cycle solo. When you are solo, I believe that travel becomes more challenging, more raw, more real. Without someone by your side to provide a sense of familiarity you are forced to give yourself 100% to the the unknown. In this way, I believe that deeper connections are made with the local people, even without a common language. But one of the biggest myths of female solo travel is that is simply isn’t safe.

In many places of the world, a solo female is often seen as vulnerable and this way more people want to be there to shelter and protect you. In Mongolia I was often invited into yurts because the locals feared that my tent and my clothing wouldn’t be warm enough. In Pakistan I was taken into a family home as a stranger and within minutes I became a “daughter.” And in Tajikistan I was fed and given endless cups of tea to comfort on a cold night. For me, safety was never a large concern with my decision to travel alone. On the road, I have encountered a much more powerful demon – loneliness. Not the elevated kind that I experienced in Mongolia. Sometimes you meet people on the road that you develop strong connections with. These encounters are fleeting, leaving you satisfied or creating a longing that you hadn’t felt before. It is then that I start to feel real, unwanted loneliness.

I can remember one beautiful, crisp day riding the rough sandy road of the Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan. I was tracing the outline of the Pyanj river and on the other side was Afghanistan and the towering, spectacular Hindu Kush. For me, this was adventure cycling at its best – it had everything that I wanted to experience. But my mind was as far away from the present as it could possibly be. I had met someone months ago, when I had least expected it. When I was reminded of the beauty and warmth of companionship, I suddenly struggled to be alone. It really started to hit me in Tajikistan – and I loved and hated him for it.

That night, in a low state of mind, I started to search for a homestay or a place to pitch my tent. I pushed my bike down a small dirt track and saw a woman standing outside a square block Tajik style home. I approached her, making the gesture for “tent”. With a warm smile, she beckoned me into her home and pointed to a room where I could stay. After unloading my stuff she took me into the main living room and sat me down on a mat in front of a table. She then took off her jacket, put it over my shoulders and propped up some pillows behind my back. Next came bread, butter and a pot of steaming hot green tea. Even though we couldn’t communicate through words, there was something deeper. This woman brought me more comfort than she will probably ever know.

While I didn’t speak Russian, she continued to talk to me as if I were fluent. For most of the night, she didn’t leave my side and I was warm and fed. Soon I met her husband and little boys. They put on some traditional Tajik music and started to casually dance. This was a family that had so little and was willing to give so much to a total stranger. Without a common language, it is difficult to make deep connections with someone, which leaves you longing for familiarity. But that night, in that little home in the Wakhan Valley, I was reminded of the beauty of travelling on my own. I temporarily felt like a part of that family as I gave as much of myself as I could to this new and strange world. At that moment, I no longer felt alone.

Loneliness is a being that lives inside all of us, suppressed by the noise around, waiting to be woken in the silence. When you give into this silence, immersed in your own thoughts, you really begin to discover your true self. For me, meditation is riding my bicycle along a deserted road through the mountains, through only space with not a soul in sight. I am happy, at peace. But then more serious thoughts begin to emerge – how long can I continue this life on my own? Will I ever meet another to share it with? These are questions that have no immediate answer. So I ride on, and let these thoughts temporarily escape from my mind, throwing themselves into wind that pushes my wheels forward.

Greek Highs and Lows

The sight of the Acropolis of Athens can re-ignite the wanderlust in even the most jaded of travellers. The ancient citadel dates back to the 5th Century BC and was Pericles that coordinated the construction. Perched high above the city, it exudes a powerful presence that has carried through the ages.  The sheer size of the columns of the Parthenon and the remarkable detail are a wonder to behold. Unfortunately much of it is now covered in scaffolding for restoration purposes.

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My favourite was the temple of Athena Nike – a beautiful and ornate building to honour the Greek Goddess.

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The Temple of Athena Nike

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Coliseum

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View of Athens from the Acropolis 

While in Athens, I also visited the Archaeological Museum which had some incredible sculptures. My favourite was a depiction of the Goddess Aphrodite trying to ward off some annoying advances from Pan. A late night bar scene in Greek mythology.

After I finished being a tourist in Athens, the next destination was the island of Crete, where I had planned to cycle for a few weeks.

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The classic Greek salad

I arrived in Athens by air from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to escape the winter. It was a strange feeling entering such a developed society when I had spent so much time riding the wild lands of Mongolia, the Himalaya and Central Asia. While I enjoyed the beauty of Greece, the delicious yogurt and fresh produce I somehow felt disconnected a lot of my time in the country. While the people were friendly, they lacked the openness and outgoing nature of those in the countries I had previously cycled. While I was invited daily into yurts in Mongolia, had countless offers of chai in China and Central Asia and was given enthusiastic waves and smiles I was seldom acknowledged as I rolled through the villages of Crete. I am not trying to paint a negative image of the people of Greece – it was just different. 

I was in a new world and it wasn’t something that I adapted to easily. I experienced periods of loneliness on Crete that I hadn’t felt before. My moods rose and fell with the hills that seemed to cover every inch of that island.

After nine hours, I rolled off the ferry from Piraeus and into the town of Xania, famous for it’s old Venetian style harbour.

The one advantage of cycling Crete in November is the complete lack of tourists. Areas that would normally be bursting with crowds, suddenly turned into ghost towns. One of the highlights of Xania was trying some bougatsa, a delicious phyllo pastry stuffed with soft cheese and coated in icing sugar. It was divine.

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The incredibly delicious bougatsa!

Leaving Xania, I headed inland for the mountains. I had met some travellers in Xania that told me about the Balos Lagoon on the very Northwest of the Island accessed via a dirt road. I arrived late in the day and hiked down to the lookout point. It was a gorgeous sight with its shifting palette of dark blue and turquoise.

 

As the sun started to set, I descended the bumpy dirt road in search of somewhere to camp. I would soon to discover how easy it was to wild camp on the island. My campsite that night was one of my favourites on the island. I dragged my bike off of the dirt road and pitched my tent beneath a tiny church near the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean.

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Curious neighbours

While I am not a beach person, I wanted to check out the remote Elafonissi on the Southwest of the Island, famous for its pinkish sand and stunning scenery. I basically crossed a small mountain range to get there before once again descending to the coast. Tiny churches are a common sight on Crete acting as shelter or convenient lunch stops.

 

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Elanfonissi was deserted with only a few camper vans parked near the beach. Though I didn’t particularly notice the pinkish colour, the sand was pure and compact, covered in footprints and wavering trails. With no one in sight on the beach, these seemed like the marks of ghosts. With its remote feel and colourful surroundings this place held an aura of magic.

Climbing away from the coast once again into the heavy, humid air I headed toward the mountain village of Omalos. I passed through many small villages and it felt like almost every inch that I was riding was uphill. The villages felt deserted, with only a few restaurants open to tourists.

The main life in the towns were locals sitting outside at cafes drinking coffee, staring out into an eternal afternoon. Little old ladies dressed in black from head to toe crept out from pure white doorways. I even saw a few old men riding donkeys into town. Sometimes it felt like a step back in time. But the silence and lack of acknowledgment between myself and the locals sometimes made for a lonely ride. It was just me and the hills that consumed my empty thoughts. As I gained elevation towards Omalos the air turned from heavy and humid to cool and crisp.

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I passed towering windmills and coniferous forest that reminded me a bit of home in Canada. Omalos is situated on a plateau and is the jump off point for a hike through the famous Samaria Gorge. At 18km it is one of the longest in Europe. Unfortunately the trail was closed for the season, but I cycled to the trailhead to get a glimpse.

 

And afterwards found an interesting campsite…

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I decided to get my hiking fix in the Imbros Gorge, near to the beach town of Hora Sfakion. It is about half the length of the Samaria Gorge at 8km long.

My route descended along small, quiet roads lined with orange groves. I helped myself generously along the way. Little discoveries like this are heaven for a cyclist on a hot day.

Then, once again, unsurprisingly I was going uphill. Relentlessly. This is life cycling around Crete. I crossed over the White Mountains, where the weather had started to turn foul.

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It’s not a flat island…

After spending the night in touristy Hora Sfakion, I took a bus to the trailhead of the Imbros Gorge. Like everywhere else on the island in the low season, the trail was deserted. I enjoyed a silent walk through the gorge with its vertical walls soaring up to 300m high. The Gorge is a mere 2m at its narrowest point. My only company were a couple of curious goats that stared down at me from the walls above.

After leaving Imbros, my enthusiasm on the road started to wither. The constant climbing felt like a monotonous, unwelcome challenge and one village seemed to blend into another. There was one day when I hit a particularly low point. It was hard to conceive of being in such a state of mind at the time. I found a beautiful, isolated little beach at the base of stunning cliffs in the background.

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Sometimes, this needs to happen…

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It was really such a peaceful setting, but the pangs of loneliness that I felt were blocking any sense of appreciation for the place. Was I simply feeling jaded and needed a break? or was I suddenly struggling with being alone and in need of companionship? It was hard to find the real answer. Then, that night, comfort appeared when I most needed it. I heard “meow meow” outside of my tent and I zipped open my door. In crawled my little orange friend. He made himself comfortable in my sleeping bag and stayed there the entire night. I simply called him “tent kitty.”

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Me and tent kitty – a new and welcome friend

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Tent kitty became so attached that it was even a struggle to get him out of the tent the next morning. I waved goodbye to my attention-seeking little cat – the best friend that I made on Crete.

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Now it was time to cross the mountains again, back towards the North coast of the Island to the most populous city, Heraklion, where I would take a ferry back to Piraeus.

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A brief stint of off roading

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Perfect cumulus clouds near Hora Sfakion

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Once again, heading North into the hills

On my second last day of cycling I barely escaped a rain storm with ferociously high winds. I sought shelter it a small church near the side of the road. These tiny, whitewashed places of worship covered the island and provided a good option for camping.

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Shelter for the night

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As you can see, it gets fairly windy here!

When I got to Heraklion, I was relieved. Crete is truly a beautiful island, but I was mentally and physically burnt out and ready for a rest.

When I got back to Athens, I prepared myself for the next stage of my trip – a bit of a non-cycling interlude. I headed to the tiny island of Paros to trying WWOOFing for the first time. WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) gives travelers the chance to really experience local life. In exchange for room and board you can work on an organic farm doing a variety of tasks. A couple I had met cycling on a tandem from England had worked at this particular place on Paros and raved about their experience. With their connection I decided to try it for myself. Before I left for Paros I stayed with a few Warm Showers hosts – Charlotte, a journalist from France (for the 2nd visit) and Steve, a chef from the UK that is planning on starting his own bicycle touring company in Greece.

I accompanied Steve for a Monday night ride around Athens which usually draws about 80 cyclists. The turn out was less this time because it was too “cold” (about 11 degrees).  I looked around at the sea of light weight and fancy road bikes surrounding me. My bike was a transport truck amongst race cars. It was great to be able to ride an unloaded bike at a fast past pace with a large group. It was something I hadn’t done in a long time and made me miss the long distance club rides I used to do at home in Canada.

The next day I hopped a ferry for the four hour journey to Paros, where I would meet my WWOOFing hosts.

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Sunset on Paros

I soon turned up at the stunning of house of Jim, originally from the UK and Irini from Greece, The place was surrounded by wonderful gardens with a view down to the ocean over the hills. I took on a variety of tasks from fixing a compost to digging holes for planting trees and what I became best at – destroying thorn bush.

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Hard at work on Paros

It was a great experience to work in such a tranquil and beautiful setting and to get a glimpse into the lives of locals along with their 5 cats and 3 dogs.

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Mississippi welcoming me to Paros

I was also in the company of other WWOOFers and was even given the chance to hang with fellow Canadians Jill and Matt, from the remote community of Powell River, British Columbia. It was good to hear a Canadian accent again and tell Canadian jokes and make reference to very Canadian things (like using the word ‘toque’ which is a warm winter hat, like a beanie). On our days off, we visited the beautiful mountain village of Léfkes and walked the 1000-year-old Byzantine trail and a few kilometres later ended up in the traditional village of Pródromos.

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Flowers on the Byzantine trail

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Jill and Matt walking the Byzantine Trail

For me this was the quintessential Greek village. Completely awash in blinding white it was a maze of narrow cobblestone alleys. Colourful, exotic flowers spilled over window sills and were an inviting contrast to the sea of white.

 

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A few days later, I returned to Athens once again to prepare for the next stage of my cycling journey.

In Greece, the most tame of the countries I had visited, I experienced more highs and lows than anywhere else on the trip so far. While a cycle tour is often regarded as a feat of physical endurance, it is important not to underestimate the mental struggles that can accompany it. Greece is a beautiful country, but for me, cycling wise it lacked the adventurous element that has drawn me to the more wild places of Asia. After Greece, my plan was to ride the African continent from Cairo to Cape Town, But security concerns in Egypt left me hesistant. I also hit a bump in the road, encountering sickness and unexpected heartbreak. At this point, it didn’t feel right for me to go, so I have changed my plans. I will ride Cairo to Capetown one day, but in my heart, now doesn’t feel like the right time.

So what is the plan? I am currently in my hometown of Toronto, Canada where I am spending a month to get mentally and physically back on track. Then I am making my way to Myanmar where I will cycle towards Thailand and then possibly a flight to Taiwan. After exploring the island I will reunite with the world’s great tandem couple Marcus and Kirsty in Korea before heading to Japan. Following that, a break in Australia to work and ride. And after? Who knows, but the Andes are calling to me…

Home at the End of the World: Murghab to Osh (the end of Asia)

I had forgotten what it was like to cycle fast, to not hear the constant rattling of my bike beneath me. The 100km from Alichur to Murghab was effortless thanks to an intense tailwind wind that sent me flying with an icy chill at my back. The Pamir plateau has lost its colour and dry brown hills and plains dominated the landscape. After a small climb, I was racing downhill for about 35km to Murghab. On the way, I passed one small house with a Kyrgyz yurt – a year round homestay. I enjoyed the final 5km to Murghab – the piercing blue river snaked in many directions across a cream -coloured plain dotted with ruins of old homes. I loved the smooth contours of the surrounding mountains defined by the shifting shadows.

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Approaching Murghab

I came to another police checkpoint below the town. I waited a few minutes, nobody came out and I slowly started to ride past. Then, a man jumped out and told me to stop. Inside I got the usual line of questioning, kids, husband etc. and they asked why I hadn’t stopped right away. I could tell they were trying to fish for bribe. I played the stupid tourist just repeatedly saying that I didn’t speak Russian. Eventually they got bored of my company and let me go.

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Murghab

Even though Murghab was decently larger than Alichur, it felt equally desolate. I headed for the Erali Guesthouse that was recommended by my cycling friends Marianne and Heidi. As I pushed my bike up the steep hill, huffing and puffing, a very tiny older woman came out to try and help. This was the lovely “Mama Erali” one of the owners of the guesthouse. By the door there was a girl that looked around my age.

“Are you Phoebe?” I asked.

“Yeah, how did you know?”

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Phoebe, Malaysian solo cyclist  riding-cyclette.blogspot.com

I had heard about a solo Malaysian cyclist named Phoebe that left Dushanbe a few days before I did, taking the same route. Since us solo women cyclists are such a rare breed it was nice to finally meet another. I have only met five in total. Then, Phoebe informed that there was one other German cyclist named Anne staying at the Guesthouse. This was a rare and special meeting – the only guests at Erali that night were three solo women cyclists. Phoebe left Finland 15 months ago to cycle to Singapore  and Anne started her journey in Kyrgyzstan to head West along the silk routes of Central Asia .

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Anne from Germany  www.annewestwards.com

I really enjoyed their company and the chance to have some girly conversation.

I was exhausted when I arrived in Murghab and I have planned to do next to nothing in the next two days. I did get a chance to check out the town’s very strange bazaar, with shipping containers used for shops. On offer was loads of candy, cheap clothing and some of the saddest looking produce I’ve seen.

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Inside Murghab’s strange bazaar

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Anne and Phoebe both left after my first night in Murghab, but the next few nights brought more interesting visitors. First, I met a friendly vegan Swiss cyclist (apologize if you are reading this because I forgot your name!) and the following night a man from Seattle, Washington that was living his childhood dream of exploring the Pamirs for a week by car.

I encountered disaster on my planned final night in Murghab after eating a meal that made me sprint outside into the frigid night and throw up all over the steps. Cycling was off for the next day. I was warned about food poisoning in Tajikistan and I had managed to evade it until now. I really though that five weeks in India would have sufficiently toughened up my stomach.

With my extra day off I ended up meeting an energetic and hilarious Slovenian couple -Renata and Matjaž that were driving across Tajikstan in their own 4WD from home, headed towards Uzbekistan. They had done countless road trips together in some of the most remote areas of Asia and Africa.

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Renata and Matjaž posing with the sweet Mama Erali

By now, my bout of stomach sickness seemed to have passed and I was ready to hit the road again.

I was headed towards the highest point of my Pamir ride, the 4655m Ak Baital pass. With the temperatures dropping rapidly I feared that I would hit snow at that altitude. The daytime temperatures remained quite pleasant for cycling, but the nights had grown too cold for camping. At this point I would try to avoid it if possible.

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A sure sign that winter is coming

The road started to gently ascend from Murghab, taking me past rivers that were now coated in ice. I passed an army vehicle with a couple of men standing around. “Chai! chai!” they said, and I decided to stop. I guess “chai” could take on many meanings, because I was handed not a cup of tea, but a stiff drink of vodka. Why not? I figured – it could add some amusement to the climb. By the 3rd cup though, I had to decline, if I wanted to not end up in a ditch 100m down the road.

They also shared some bread and salami with me before quickly seeking shelter in the vehicle out of the cold. I asked them how far it was to the pass and they said 20km. 20km – “nothing!” I thought.

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Angry skies on the climb up to the Ak Baital pass

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For the first time since Dushanbe, about three weeks ago, I had a headwind. I was over confident that I could reach the pass in the same day without a huge amount of effort. Fatigue started to set in. Dark clouds swirled ahead and I worried about being caught in bad weather on the pass.  I was told that the stretch from Murghab was quite remote and the chances of being able to hitch a ride if necessary were very slim. About 5km from the top, the road become rougher and steeper. While I had wanted to camp on the other side, my numb fingers and toes started to persuade me otherwise. I passed a sign with Ak Baital 4655 written in cyrillic. It was an odd place to put the sign because it was still a few steep kilometres to the top!

After the sign there was a small house. I was absolutely freezing and decided to take my chances to see if the locals could provide me with shelter for the night. At first I asked about pitching my tent beside their house and to my relief, they invited me inside.

The residents were a husband and wife with three small boys. It really felt like a home at the end of the world. To live in such isolation, in a harsh landscape at 4400m takes a level of resilience that few of us could ever understand.

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My kind hosts that gave me food and shelter at 4400m

The wood stove inside turned the tiny abode into a sauna. I was happy to feel warm and protected from the harsh weather outside. I shared what I could with the family – some onions and bread that I had bought in Murghab. We had chai and dinner together, while they little boys chased one another around the room and would occasionally stop to stare at the strange foreigner. Later on, we watched a cheesy Russian action movie where the language barrier was broken for me by acts of physical comedy. In these moments we would laugh together. I was completely exhausted and fell asleep early under the heavy blankets that they laid out for me. I was awoken by the father’s morning prayers when the sun started to rise. Out the window I could see a light dusting of snow on the ground.

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The home at the end of the world

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Final climb to the Ak Baital pass

I thanked the family and started the final climb to the pass. The road was quite steep in parts, sometimes forcing me to push the bike for short stretches. The mountains were lightly dusted in snow highlighting the hues of pink and orange. Soon, I got to highest point that I would reach in the Pamirs. Then it was time for some tripod and self-timer action.

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On top of the Ak Baital pass, 4655m

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Making it seem like I was more energetic than I was…

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On the descent from the Ak Baital. I was almost too cold to stop and take this photo.

_DSF4339 _DSF4342I piled on every layer I had, feeling liked a puffed Marshmallow. Despite wearing enormous and thick lobster style mitts, my hands still froze. I was treated to about 15km of brain-numbing washboard at the bottom before hitting smooth tarmac that carried me all the way to the stunning lake Karakul. Karakul is a popular place name in Central Asia. Karakul Lake simply means “black lake.” I don’t fully understand why this particular lake was given such a name because of its brilliant blue colour.

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Karakul Lake

A sliver of bright blue appeared in the horizon and I could see that I was approaching Karakul.

Its shimmering shore reached closer and closer to the road and behind it was a backdrop of dramatic snow-capped peaks. I have been blessed to have seen many wonderful high altitude lakes on this trip and this was one of the most beautiful. If it wasn’t so cold it would have made for some wonderful camping.

I entered the tiny village of Karakul built right next to the lake.

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Homes in the village of Karakul

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I followed the first sign for “homestay” down a small dirt path. I waited around for the owners to arrive, but I was told eventually that they were away in Osh and I was taken to another homestay “Aigerim.” I was greeted by a friendly woman who could speak a little bit of English. I put my bike in their garage and carried my bags into the main guest area with cushions around a table and wood stove burning. I was feeling very tired and ended up passing out with blankets around me beside the table.

Later, my hosts came in and I heard in my groggy state that another tourist had arrived. In walked Gordon, a motorcyclist from the UK. He was surprised to see me when I suddenly woke up, still half asleep and said hello. We started chatting and didn’t really stop for the next few hours. To say Gordon was passionate about motorcycles was an understatement. He has built a career out of it – writing for various publications about his trips on vintage motorbikes and acting as a representative for brands such as India’s Royal Enfield (originally from the UK). On this trip he was riding to Vietnam on a 1941 Matchless. With the current temperatures, the motorbike required a fair bit of daily maintenance just to keep it on the road.

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Gordon on his 1941 Matchless www.overlandtovietnam.com

My plans to leave the next day were once again thwarted by some suspect buttered potatoes. It was devastating when I was served the exact same thing for dinner the following night, which I avoided at all costs.

The next day I would leave Tajikistan via the 4280m Kizil Art Pass.

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Evening view of the mountains from Karakul

The sight that greeted me the next morning was concerning. The mountains in the distance were completely covered in snow, the sky thick with grey cloud.

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A beautiful but clear warning sign of the difficulties to come

For a moment, I thought twice about leaving, but didn’t fancy spending another night in Karakul or eating more buttered potatoes. I started the climb towards the Uy Bulak pass at 4232m. Since I was already close to 4000m at Karakul, I didn’t expect it would be too much effort and it was less than 60k to the border. I had heard about a teahouse on the other side of the Kizil Art Pass where cyclists could seek shelter if they needed it. I knew that I had to reach this house to avoid a frigid night of camping at a high altitude.

The closer I got to the pass, the more the skies darkened and suddenly I saw light flurries of snow. This is when I thought about turning back. I knew that I had a very remote stretch ahead and if I got stuck in bad weather I may not see another vehicle to hitch a ride with. I decided to keep moving forward and take the risk. Once I got over the pass, the wind picked up and the snow got heavier and heavier. Wearing all of my layers, I still became numb with cold. Tapping into basic survival knowledge, I knew that the only way to attempt to stay warm was to keep moving.

The landscape was very exposed and there was no where to seek shelter. By now the visibility had greatly reduced as the strong winds whipped snow in every direction. I pedalled on at a crawl, feeling myself curl into a little frozen cocoon. Then, through squinted eyes I saw a jeep drive beside me and pull over in front. When I thought I wouldn’t see a vehicle all day, it was a surreal moment.

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Rescued!

The vehicle had a roof rack for the bike and an empty front seat. In the back was an old woman and a very young girl. The driver rushed to help me with my bags and put my bike on the roof. For a bit of money, the guy would take me to Sary Tash, the first town across the border in Kyrgyzstan. By now the road was completely snow covered and the wind was trying to push the vehicle sideways. The snow got deeper climbing up the pass. Luckily I never had to leave the vehicle the entire ride – the driver took care of the border formalities while I tried to get warm again. Once over the Kizil Art Pass, we descended into a winter wonderland with the 4WD van sliding all over the road. I could see an approaching truck doing the same.

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Not ideal cycling weather – even the 4WD vehicles were struggling.

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The house that I had originally planned to make it to that day.

When we arrived in Sary Tash I requested that the driver take me to the pink hotel across from the gas station that I had heard about. When I arrived, I saw Gordon again, the motorcyclists I had met in Karakul. I was certainly the last person he had expected to see!

I only had two days left to Osh and a 2200m drop in elevation to look forward to. Sary Tash was still cold when I left, the heavy cloud obscuring the mountain views to the south. Before I could begin descending to Osh, I had a double headed pass to cross out of Sary Tash that peaked at 3600m. I climbed the snow-covered pass at a decent pace as luckily the road was clear. I was rewarded with a stunning view at the top.

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Starting the freezing descent from 3500m

The descent was frigid, and I had to stop fairly often to warm my hands and run around to get the blood flowing to my feet. I found a restaurant in a small village close to the bottom of the pass and spent the next hour in a restaurant trying to warm up. After that, the road just kept going down and down and down. I descended from a frozen landscape to fall colours and sunny skies. I went from five layers of clothing to a long-sleeved shirt. I was elated and just couldn’t stop smiling. I passed some incredible coloured mountains that looked like they were straight out of a painting.

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I passed a couple from the UK just beginning their Pamir ride in the opposite direction. I warned them of the snowy conditions ahead.

I camped by the river that night, something I hadn’t done in a while now because of the freezing weather.

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My last campsite before Osh

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Now, only one big climb to go before Osh. I was sweating heading up the final pass that was just over 2500m. On the way up I met a solo cyclist from the UK. He had a unique approach to his trips. While many round-the-world cyclists would make their route in one extended trip, this guy would pedal his line in short chunks. He had started from UK some years ago, would ride eastward for a few weeks and then start exactly where he had left off the following year.

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Kyrgyz homes in the hills on the way up the pass

I eventually reached the top, where I was greeted by a group of excited locals that wanted their photo taken with me. Fun moments feeling like a minor celebrity.

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Five minutes of fame in Kyrgyzstan

The 60km downhill to Osh wasn’t as swift as I had wanted, due to a powerful sidewind. But the closer I got, the faster the ride became. It was crazy to now be below 900m above sea level when two days ago I was freezing over 3000m.

I found the Tes Guesthouse and pitched my tent in the garden. There I found Phoebe, that had her own struggles in the snow on the Kyrgyz side. A day later I met Jochen, a German cyclist that I met on the Northern route in Tajikistan just before Khorog. He had been on the road for about 3 years and has covered around 60,000km. Jochen was headed to China and Phoebe would attempt the snowy backroads to BIshkek. My original plan was to ride all the way to Bishkek, but then I got word from my Vespa travelling friend Emma that she had been robbed in Bishkek and was stuck there longer than planned. She was flying back to the UK in five days to get a new passport. I was tired, wanting to see my friend again and not into dealing with more snowbound passes. So I took a shared taxi to Bishkek. Osh was the end of the line for my 2015 Asia tour.

I spent my last few weeks in Kyrgyzstan relaxing and recovering in Bishkek. I felt so incredibly lucky to experience what I have on this journey across Asia’s silk routes. On May 7th I started my ride crossing Mongolia’s sandtracks. revelling in the country’s vastness and isolation. Then, I crossed the barren, scorching desert of Xinjiang, China. From here I chased the mountains into the paradise of Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway, the sublime and surreal Indian Himalaya and the Pamirs of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. All the way, I followed Marco Polo’s ghost. The beauty of landscapes was equalled with its incredible people. Throughout the journey, I have been continually humbled by the amount of kindness I have been shown by total strangers.

And now, what’s next? Leaving Marco Polo’s trails I will fly to Greece, for a two week ride around Crete. Next I will do some WWOOFing for the first time on the island of Paros. In mid-January I will begin the next chapter of my journey in Africa with a flight to Cairo, Egypt to begin the ride south to Capetown, South Africa.

photo montage

Sand, Smiles and Solitude: A Journey Through the Wakhan Valley

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Leaving Khorog

I was very happy to hear that my friends Marianne and Heidi had decided to join me for a day of riding before returning to Khorog to start their journey back home to Denmark. We were entering the fabled Wakhan Valley,  where I would trace the border of Afghanistan that lay on the other side on the Panj river. We pedalled along the weaving road, with dramatic brown cliffs rising on either side of us.

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Marianne and Heidi entering the Wakhan Corridor

The children were even more enthusiastic in this area – they repeated “hello! hello! what is your name?” with more fervour than usual, while laughing and chasing the bikes.

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“hello! hello!”

Early in the day we ran into a lovely Polish couple Marta and David that Marianne and Heidi had cycled with earlier. They had a unique set up with Dawid carrying most of the load at 65kg.

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Cyclist hang out: From left, Dawid, Marianne, Heidi and Marta

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I complain about my heavy load at 35kg…this guy had 65!

Marianne, Heidi and I stopped for lunch just by the river’s edge below the road eating sweet buns with spreadable cheese. A group  of school children stopped above to wave and stare at us. One little girl had a bag with her and motioned for us to come up. I went towards her and she handed me a large bag of apples with a smile. I happily took it, not knowing exactly how we would carry 10 apples with us. Further down the road we whizzed past a house and suddenly I heard “chai!” The girls did not hear the man so I called out to them “hey guys! chai! chai!” We were in no massive rush, so we decided to take up the offer of hospitality. We were led through a small gate to a sitting area near the back of the house. There sat an older woman with a very young child in her arms and a couple of men. We sat on the cushions surrounding a table and were given amazingly fresh bread, tea and tasty soup with mutton, potato and chives.

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Relaxing and enjoying hospitality in the Wakhan. In Danish it is “hygge”

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Our generous hosts seeing us off

As usual we did our best to communicate through gestures and the few words in Russian that we knew. “Harasho!” was one that was used often, meaning “very good!” We were given yet another bunch of apples to take with us. We didn’t have the heart to say no, so now we probably had about 20 between the three of us! This was just the start of the incredible Wakhan hospitality.

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At the police checkpoint. Marianne made this little boy very happy by blowing up a balloon for him.

We continued to enjoy the ride, eventually coming up to a police checkpoint. Luckily this was quicker than rest and I wasn’t pestered with questions about my missing husband and children.

We had only planned to ride about 50km that day and we soon started to look for a place to camp. We thought it might be a good idea to ask permission to camp in front of a house.  Marianne approached a woman working in her yard to ask. We were welcome. Later, the man of the house brought us out some fresh nan (bread), a big thermos of tea and another bag of apples! Humbled by their generosity, we graciously accepted. The stars were mind-blowing that night. It was great to sit outside with my friends to appreciate the beauty together. Sometimes life’s greatest moments are best shared.

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Goodbye to my Danish sisters. A sad morning.

We had a tearful goodbye the next morning as Marianne and Heidi had to return to Khorog, where they would catch a jeep  to Dushanbe and fly home to Denmark. It was unfortunate that Central Asian bureaucratic nonsense had stopped us from riding the Pamirs together. Still, I was grateful that we were able to meet one another for a few very enjoyable days.

It is always strange to suddenly be alone again after being in such good company. I don’t experience loneliness until I am occasionally reminded of the joys of being with friends and sharing the experience. My mood lifted as the narrow corridor along the river started to open up. The views revealed snow capped mountains- Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush reflected in glistening blue waters. Populars lining the road showcased their brilliant fall colours.

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Brilliant fall colour in the Wakhan

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Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush

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I had a tailwind and the air was cool and crisp – the perfect temperature. This was blissful cycling. Even though the riding was wonderful, I could really feel the fatigue setting in at the end of the day. The constant “hello! hello!” from the kids had also started to get on my nerves. I camped at a lovely homestay in Ishkashim and had a massive meal of plov, a typical Central Asian dish. This was rice cooked in fat with carrot and onion, topped by a few chunks of mutton. By now I was also drinking copious of the local green tea and it was some of the tastiest I’ve had.

I was told by other cyclists to stock up on supplies in Ishkashim as food would become more limited further down the road. As my Snickers supply was running dangerously low, I figured this would be wise.

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The ride only got more and more beautiful. Sometimes I would stop just to try and process what I was seeing, locking it into my memory. I was given many enthusiastic waves, including the Muslim greeting of “Asalemu Laykum!” and asked “akuda?” (“where are you from?”) In the small village of Darshai I was approached by a girl that spoke good English. She invited me in for chai and asked if I was looking for somewhere to stay the night. It was still fairly early in the day, but I got tempted in by the cozy home and decided to stop for the night. I enjoyed talking to the girl who had gone to University in Khorog to learn English. Then, I met her wonderful sister that had an adorable little boy named Yusuf. Even without a common language, the two of us really connected. When I met people like her, I wished that we could communicate on a deeper level.  She had an infectious smile and I loved her friendly and outgoing personality. She was my age, 29.  She ended up giving me a pretty beaded bracelet that I still wear to remind me of our meeting. In my travels, I have met so many wonderful people, but there are a certain few that stand out the most in my memory and she is one of them.

From here, the decent roads started to become a distant memory. Enormous potholes, washboard and rock became more common. It was exhausting on the roller coaster road. I was steadily climbing in elevation and the landscape drier and more barren.

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Entering a Wakhan Village

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Typical Tajik home in Zong

I had planned to stopped in Zong at a small homestay but the owners seemed pretty disinterested in my request to stay. I decided to ride the next few kilometres towards Langar, before I saw another “homestay” sign. I turned down a rocky side street and went to the first home that I saw, asking about a homestay. The woman pointed down the road, but offered that I stay with her instead. I was in a strange mood that night. I was feeling melancholy for a reason that I couldn’t really understand. Maybe it was a combination of fatigue and the lack of a common language that was suddenly making feel distant, lonely. As usual, I was shown such kindness by a total stranger and this brought me comfort. She took me into the main room covered in elaborate carpet on the walls and floor that was customary of a Tajik home. She sat me down,brought me tea and then some pillows to prop up behind my back. Later she wrapped a jacket around me to make sure that I wasn’t cold. Next came bread and the amazing homemade butter that I couldn’t get enough of. When she asked me if I spoke Russian I replied “choot choot” (very little). Despite this she spoke to me in Russian throughout the night, assuming I could understand. Even though I would give her a confused look, she would smile and continue to talk. Later I met her kind husband, who put on some Pamiri music for me to listen to. For fun he showed me some of the dance moves.  It was the same that I had seen at a birthday party in Khorog.  My strange mood was starting to lift all thanks to the company of my new Tajik family for the night.

When I reached Langar I had hoped to buy a few supplies to last the next few days. To my disappointment I only found one tiny shop after asking around for its location. The dusty shelves were barren, only stocking cookies, candy, sugary juice and noodles. I didn’t know how I would make it through without my beloved Snickers.

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On the sandy climb out of Langar

On the climb out of Langar, I was in dire need of a sugar boost. The road climbed in steep switchbacks out of the village, turning into a rocky sandpit. An enthusiastic boy from the village found me and offered to help me push. He helped me heave the bike for about 100m. In the end he reached his hand out. I can imagine he tried to turn his services into a full time job for passing touring cyclists. I handed him a 3 somoni note (about 50 cents) and he was very happy. Then he gave me a handful of dried tamarinds and waved goodbye, jogging down the road.

I attempt to cycle up the steep road, but the sand became too deep and I was back to pushing. It was a hard, slow climb. I felt like I was now getting into true isolation.

The only vehicle I saw all day was a Romanian motorcyclist, who was just as surprised to see me.

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Romanian round-the-world motorcyclist I met on the lonely road out of Langar

It was nice to have a real conversation in English again! He told me that scenery ahead was quite something, which gave me motivation to keep pedalling in my state of exhaustion. I was climbing above 3000m now. I wasn’t having problems with altitude sickness because I was still acclimatized from my ride in the India Himalaya. Still, the lack of oxygen and the steep rough roads were completely draining my energy. The route was superbly remote. And the views – jaw-dropping.

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I camped just below the road beside a river at 3600m. The cold was starting to set in at night. I was climbing high onto the Pamir plateau, leaving the warmth of the Wakhan Valley. Even though the weather was superbly clear, fall was disappearing fast and winter was sneaking its way in.

The next day was very tough. The roads were quite sandy and I lacked the energy to move forward. The land was beige coloured and barren – a sort of rugged moonscape.

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A small sign of life

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Sand track to nowhere

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I could count on one hand the number of vehicles that I saw all day – a few jeeps and military trucks. I had plans to do an adventurous detour via Zorkul Lake from Khargush military base. This route would take four days longer to get to Murghab on more rough road. In my current state, I was unsure if I had the energy to tackle the route, even though it sounded spectacular. I camped about 10 kilometres below the military base after being fed up with riding washboard. One look at a steep hill ahead and I was finished for the day. I was at low point in the trip – all of my energy had vanished. I had hoped the next day would be better.

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Before everything froze over in the night…

It was a frigid morning – my bottles were half frozen. Winter’s icy breath had coated my tent and the ground in frost. My morning routine was taking considerably longer, while I tried to keep the blood flowing to my numb hands and feet. My energy level was at an all-time low and I feel like I barely made it to the military base, 8km away. When I arrived I was greeted by the bored soldiers and handed them a pack of cigarettes as a nice gesture (to avoid a monetary bribe). I then decided not to take the longer route Zorkul route as I didn’t have the energy for it and it would be tight anyway with the time left on my visa. I turned left instead of the planned right towards the Khargush pass at 4344m.

Now I really felt like I had made a lunar landing.

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A sidetrip to the moon – climbing the Khargush pass

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The pass was surprisingly gentle and I was happy to finally be able to descend after two days of non-stop climbing. From Langar I had ascended about 1600m.

Later in the day I saw some cyclists approaching me. It was a sight that suddenly got me very excited, because I had so little human contact in the last few days. It was a Polish couple headed the other way. We talked for quite a while. They told me that there was a Malaysian solo cyclist, Phoebe just ahead of me. I had originally heard about Phoebe in Dushanbe, who had stayed with Véro before I did. I was hoping to catch up to her. After 3 tough days, I was excited to hit the smooth tarmac of the Pamir highway.

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Last stretch of rough road before the Pamir Highway

When I did, I felt like I had suddenly switched from cycling to flying. Sweet, smooth bliss. As much as I love off road cycling, my body was tired and enjoyment had turned into a chore. I covered the 24km from the junction to Alichur in just over an hour, when this kind of distance had been taking me three hours in the last few days. The landscape was vast with smooth mountains and striking salt lakes.

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Sublime scenery along the Pamir Highway

I arrived in Alichur just as the sun was setting. I saw Marco Polo homestay painted in large letters across a small house and immediately headed towards it. Alichur was a very desolate town. A tiny, windswept community perched on the roof of the world.

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Alichur

Marco Polo was a wonderful place to stay the night, run by a friendly Kyrgyz family. It was coziness personified. I lost count of the cups of green tea I drank, sitting close to the blazing wood stove. I was given a huge meal that I consumed far too quickly. The home stay had a guestbook and I read the entries of various other cyclists I had met on the road in different parts of the world. The cycle touring world is a small one. I was also told that I was the first Canadian to stay there. That night, I had everything I could possibly need: a good meal, a bottomless pot of hot tea and a warm place to sleep. Sometimes a tough time on the road is worth it in the end – to appreciate the simplest of joys that are often taken for granted.

The Pamiri Dance: Dushanbe to Khorog (Tajikistan)

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Fall in the Pamirs

Air travel is a strange adjustment when you have been used to cycling for so long. What would normally take a few tumultuous months is over in a stale few hours. I flew from Delhi to Bishkek, spending as little time in chaotic Delhi as possible. Marcus and Kirsty had told me about a small haven for cyclists in Bishkek called the AT House. The AT House is run by a Canadian/Bulgarian couple, Nathan and Angie. I heard that Nathan was an excellent bike mechanic, which was perfect considering I needed to have my two wheels rebuilt with new rims sent from the UK. My Indian steel beast of a front rim had miraculously made it through the Himalaya, but now it was time for another that weight less than half as much. I had only planned four days in Bishkek, before I would fly to Osh to meet my Danish “sisters” – my very good friends Marianne and Heidi, whom I first cycled with in Tibet in 2011 and later Patagonia in 2013. From Osh, we would start Westward on the Pamir Highway. This was the original idea, but the Central Asian bureaucratic machine had begun to thwart my plans. Before leaving Delhi, I received a photo of this notice from a fellow cyclist through Facebook:

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The original plan was to leave on the 13th from Bishkek, but now I had no choice to wait in order to get my visa. The AT House was a great place to pass the time and meet many other fellow touring cyclists.

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Good times in Bishkek at the AT House

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Master French chef Timo dishing out his latest creation

I met people from the UK, New Zealand, Italy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. We were lucky enough to have a keen French chef, Timo cook for the masses of us. Perhaps the most interesting of all the guests staying at the At House was Miss Emma Trenchard, who drove from England to Kyrgyzstan on her Vespa Grettle. I am not sure what is nuttier – cycling through Tajikistan’s rough Wakhan Valley or riding a Vespa. Emma is the kind of person that I think woke up one morning and thought “maybe I’ll drive to Kyrgyzstan today.” I loved hanging out with this crazy and awesome woman.

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Emma on her Vespa, Grettle. www.emmatrenchard.com

Soon, the 15th of September came and my friends and I crossed our fingers that the Tajik embassy would reopen so that I could get my visa. When I arrived, to my dismay, there was a new sign saying that the embassy would be closed until at least September 30th. This was terrible news for me and my friends, who had no choice but to leave Osh without me as they only had limited vacation time. It was upsetting as we had planned to meet up and cycle together almost a year ago. I immediately I had to form a plan B. I had no desire to wait in Bishkek another two weeks and winter was fast approaching. Also there was no way that I could missing cycling the Pamirs. I decided to fly to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, where I could get a visa on arrival at the airport and cycle back towards Bishkek. This would mean skipping Uzbekistan, but I would be able to cross paths with my friends. To get the visa, I ended up having to pay $50 for a letter of invitation. Once this was done, I bought my plane ticket and was off to Dushanbe on September 22nd.

In Dushanbe, I stayed with famous Warm Showers host Véronique and her son Gabriel. Many cyclists that pass through Dushanbe stay with Véro to experience her legendary hospitality. Surprisingly, I was the only cyclist there and in summer months she has hosted up to 22 people at once in her home. She is the coolest mom ever, taking her young son Gabriel on tour with her, who is now nine years old . They have done several adventurous trips together, including the Pamir Highway, that he cycled at age 8. Surely, he must be the youngest in the world to have done so and what an incredible achievement.

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The amazing Véronique and Gabriel. Seriously, how many 8-year-olds can say they have cycled up to 4655m?

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Véro’s equally awesome cat, Jack

While I greatly enjoyed staying with Véro and Gabriel (and her awesome cat Jack) I kept my time in Dushanbe brief as I only had a 30-day visa. Part of my route in Tajikistan required a GBAO (Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast) permit to travel a particular region of the country that bordered Afghanistan. The Gorno Badakhshan province encompasses 45% of the land area of the country but only 3% of its population. In the past there have been clashes with region and the Tajik government as it has tried to declare independence from the rest of the country. After one day, I obtained the permit and headed east for my next set of mountains – the Pamirs.

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Walking on the hills above the river

It was late September and Dushanbe was surprisingly hot. It was close to 30 degrees when I pedalled out of the city. I knew that I was heading into the Pamirs late in the season and I expected cold weather most of the way. Hints of autumn could be seen across the landscape. Hillsides were turning golden brown and leaves shone a vibrant yellow in the sun. As I started to climb, the air grew cooler and cooler. Fall has always been my favourite time of year to be outside. The traffic just outside of Dushanbe was minimal and gradually began to disappear.

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Tajik girls and their colourful outfits

Tajikistan is a muslim country, with many women dressed in long loose dresses of wild patterns such as tiger stripes and clashes of bright colours coated in sequins to match to match their headscarves. I got many friendly waves and “hellos!” with the odd stare of disapproval from the local men. Tajikistan is a former state of the old USSR and Russian is widely spoken, along with Tajik and Pamiri in Gorno Badakhshan. My Russian was rusty at best and used a combination of the few words I knew, my phrasebook and gestures to communicate.

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At the end of the day, I found a scenic campsite that required a considerable amount of effort to get in and out of, because it was at the bottom of a steep hill. When the sun dipped low, shadows helped to highlight the gold in the surrounding hills. I could see men on horses leading their herds of sheep along the river below. The evening was pleasantly cool. It was a peaceful scene and peering my tent door and I felt content to be on the road again.

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From Dushanbe, there are a choice of two roads to Khorog – the rougher northern route or the southern route, which most vehicles take.  The northern route suffers from rough road conditions but has the benefit of no vehicles and outstanding scenery of the Western Pamir. The remoteness gave me a thrill that I hadn’t experienced since Mongolia. It was a special feeling indeed to be alone in such a dramatic setting, devoid of people. Very occasionally a small village would appear with a dusty general store stocking over sweet fizzy drinks, Snickers bars and instant noodles. I got my first invitation for tea, “please come in, mister” a shopkeeper said. I guess my androgynous cycling look was working out.

Onwards through the desolate land, the mountains got more dramatic and copper red hues started to appear to match the sandy road.

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Loving the remote and traffic free road through the Western Pamir

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The only real traffic on the road

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Enjoying the silence and presence of the mountains

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I soon started to pass some police checkpoints. I didn’t particularly enjoy the company of the officers who would look me up and down, linger too long over my passport and immediately enquire about my husband (who was ahead in Khorog because he cycles too fast, of course) and the children that I didn’t have (tough to come up with a story for that one).

When I got to Talvidera, I went into the only restaurant in town and met a fellow from South Africa with the coolest job ever – working for an organization for the conservation of snow leopards worldwide. He was visiting some of the protected areas in Tajikistan on this trip. Unfortunately, he had never seen a snow leopard himself. Through his work in wildlife conservation he had travelled to 65 countries. When I told him of my plans to cycle from Cairo to Capetown, he said that Cairo had the worst traffic out of all 65.

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Leaving Talvidera, I soon followed the contours of the river along a rocky, copper hued road. I eventually left its curves and climbed my way into a small village just before the start of the climb to a pass at 3252m.

I passed by some small houses and I suddenly I saw a young girl run out to the road and yell “chai! chai!” Chai is the word used for tea and refers to a general offer of hospitality. She was adorable and I couldn’t say no, so I stopped and followed, pushing my bike. At first, I wasn’t sure if the young girl had informed her family of the offer she had extended to me, because they seem surprised to see me arrive. But within minutes, big smiles grew across their faces and I was ushered into a room where a group of local women sat. They were clustered around a carpet with an an absolutely enormous spread of food.

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Tajik hospitality. The little girl on the right in front invited me in to the home.

Bread, sweets and fruit were offered to me. Even without a common language, we had a lot of laughs. With smiles, funny gestures, pointing to my map, miming cycling on rough roads, using my phrasebook and writing out each others ages we had conversation for an hour.  Also my “magic letter” in Russian was used for the first time (thanks to my friend Dimitri in Canada for translating!). This letter explained who I was and talked about my trip. Of course, the “conversation” can only stretch so far and sometimes it can feel a bit awkward afterwards.

In the end, the family offered that I stay with them inside after inquiring about using my “palatka” (tent). The girl that invited me in was absolutely fascinated with me and sat about a foot away watching me intently as I wrote in my diary.

It wasn’t the most restful sleep because many people moved around throughout the night. I had breakfast with the family and offered them money in the end for my stay. I am always unsure of this as I didn’t want to mean any offence or change the original intention – but they happily accepted. In this situation I always felt like I wasn’t giving enough for the amazing hospitality I was continually receiving.

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View on the climb…

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and the descent…

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The climb to the pass was challenging, but with wonderful views. The descent was even more impressive, but what a bone shaker! I can only imagine the difficulty ascending from the other direction. I passed a view signs along the way warning of unexploded ordinance/landmines in the area so I made sure not to wander off the road.

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I think the message was pretty clear…

I had another military checkpoint and more pointless lingering over all the various colourful visas in my passport. I can only imagine how bored these guy must be. After looking at my passport the soldier picked up a card and made a phone call.  “Oh god, what now?” I thought. But I had a bit of a surprise. When I arrived in Kalaikhum that night, a man waved to me saying “homestay, homestay!” and I checked into a comfortable room and had an amazing hot shower. When I entered the room, I saw a business card tucked into the door frame. I have a good photographic memory, and saw that this was the same card that the soldier had used to make the phone call. So it seemed that the guy wasn’t there to just waste my time, but to insure that I had a place to stay for the night.

The kindness of the Tajik people shone through the further I travelled, even though the repeated “hello! hello! hello!” from the children got a little bit tiring.  And then, amongst all the excited children, I heard “chai?” and stopped. A woman was inviting me into her home and I happily accepted. I had expected the customary tea with nan (bread), but then she said in English “hungry? we have…eggs!” And I was treated to more than just eggs.. a hearty egg and potato stew, fresh tomato salad, a big bowl of pomegranates and apples, fresh yogurt and loads of bread. What incredible people!

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The amazing family that fed me the world’s biggest lunch

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One of the teenage boys (not in the photos) could speak a few words of English and enjoyed practicing with me. When I would finish anything, they would just keep bringing more. I will continue to be humbled by experiences like this and as result feel the need to give back to others in the future.

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Afghan homes

Leaving Kalaikhum I was following Afghanistan, just on the other side of the Panj river. Some children would yell and wave to me, giving me a tiny taste of a country so feared by the West.

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Afghanistan across the river

I rode by a parked jeep and heard a guy yell “are you Tara?” It was Don, who was from my home town of Toronto, Canada on a short trip through Tajikistan. He had met my Danish friends, Marianne and Heidi in Murghab about a week ago. They had told him to look out for my yellow bike and blue hat. It was great to hear from them through Don and it got me excited for our brief reunion in Khorog, now only a three day ride away. I camped on some terraced land hidden behind trees and boulders that night, trying to stay out of sight from the neighbouring village. I waited until darkness to pitch my tent, working on my rear wheel that had gone slightly out of true. Two local boys found me and stared at me for about half an hour. Eventually one came down with a wrench and asked if I needed it for my bike. Then they tried to get me to come with them but I insisted that I was OK to stay where I was to keep working. It was very nice of them to offer their help. Eventually they left and I was alone.  I was somewhat cautious, because I had heard stories of cyclists camping in this area and being woken up in the middle of the night by military. This was to make sure that the cyclists were indeed just cyclist and not unwanted visitors from Afghanistan. Luckily I didn’t have any 3am wake up calls and slept soundly.

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The mountains grow in size

The following day I had a run in with two soldiers toting AK-47s. When they motioned for me to stop, I groaned to myself dreading unwanted hassle and a lengthy passport check. But the only thing they wanted was a photo. So after figuring out the most photogenic position for the gun, the other soldier took this gem.

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With two more days to Khorog, I was getting very excited to see my friends. Although I had been enjoying myself immensely, I sometimes missed having the company – especially after riding with Marcus and Kirsty in India for over a month. But with my pleasant daily encounters with the kind people of Tajikistan, it was hard to be lonely.

I met the world’s kindest man. Even if there are others kinder than this one, he definitely had the world’s kindest face. He had a smile that radiated deep into his eyes and the creases of his face when he spoke.

He invited me to sit outside his home with him, bringing out several different types of bread, tea and unbelievably delicious homemade butter. He told me about the many cyclists that he had met – mainly from Germany and France (I was often asked first if I was from either of these countries). He had a daughter in Dushanbe and was also a grandfather. Once he had lived there, but instead preferred the natural beauty and peace of living in this part of the country.  We gazed across the river while sipping tea. “Afghanistan.” he said, in a tone of fascination. Sitting and watching life unfold slowly across the river in a strange land was a sight that I don’t think he tired of. I really enjoyed my time with this man – his calm and welcoming presence brought me great joy. His is a face I will never forget.

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Meet the world’s kindest man.

By now, autumn was at its most dramatic, revealing spectacular colours on the trees lining the road.

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Autumn in all its glory

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Friendly children just outside of Khorog

And the mountains reached higher and higher into the sky…

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I covered the final 66km to Khorog at a quick pace, excited to see Marianne and Heidi and take a day of rest. I was lucky to have an intense tailwind pushing me along. This was definitely a big benefit of travelling east from Dushanbe – so far I had tailwinds the whole way! Khorog is a highly educated city in Tajikistan and I could tell because instead of just constantly shouting “hello!!!” they kids now said “hello, how are you? What is your name? What is your name?!” And no matter what answer you gave them, they would just keep shouting the same questions over and over.

Getting into town, traffic suddenly appeared, which was something I had forgotten about altogether in the past week. I started towards the famous Pamir Lodge, where I would meet my friends. Going up a hill in that direction I suddenly heard Marianne yelling “Taaaarraaaaaaaa!” I quickly stopped and saw the two of them coming up the hill towards me. I cruised down and gave them both a massive hug. Marianne, the crazy camera woman had the Go Pro out, documenting our reunion. It was so great to finally see them.  I originally met these two on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum while trying to form a group to cycle Tibet in 2011. We joined again in 2013 to cycle from Puerto Montt, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina via the Carretera Austral.

Flashback to Tibet in 2011 – from left, me, Heidi, Marianne and Gigi, our Italian companion

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Patagonia 2013. We become the “hermanas del mundo”

At the Pamir Lodge, I met Australian cyclist Adam and Michael from the USA. Both were on long trips. I knew about Adam because he was the “go nowhere champion” of the At House in Bishkek, remaining there for 34 days. Just for fun, Angie and Nathan had a list going on a whiteboard of the cyclists that had remained in Bishkek the longest – usually waiting on visas or mail. After hanging out and chatting, it was time to explore Khorog.

I had read about an Indian restaurant in Khorog – the last place I would expect to find an Indian restaurant. The three of us decided to go there for dinner. When we entered the restaurant, we said a large group of women around several tables pushed together. It seemed like there was some kind of event going on, but we were seated anyway. We ordered food and all of a sudden, without warning, some Tajik dance music started blasting through the speakers. Most of the women got up from the table, yelling out loud “wooo wooo!” and started clapping and dancing. It was a birthday party. They were having a great time. The music was quite fun and very catchy. Marianne and I started moving in our seats with Heidi sitting and laughing us. The women noticed our rhythm and invited us up to dance. How could we say no?

So Marianne and I went up and made a fool of ourselves with Heidi documenting the whole thing (The embarrassing video is being edited as I write this). As ridiculous as I may have looked, I had great time. The ladies particularly enjoyed mimicking my dance moves (I’m that good). Then, we were invited to join the feast.

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The party! Marianne on the left looking very happy with what’s in front of her

This spread of food was like something out of a Hollywood movie (I talk about food a lot, don’t I?). It looked like enough to feed 50 people. Later, we left the restaurant grinning from ear to ear, laughing and dancing around like the music was still following us. It was the perfect reunion.

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Ain’t No Road Rocky Enough… : A Voyage Through Spiti and Kinnaur, India

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The reality of the roads in the Spiti Valley

“A road so bad even goats avoid walking on it” is the description given for the 30km section between Chattru and Batal in the Spiti Valley. It was our first full day of cycling in this region – so at least it couldn’t possibly get any worse. It didn’t and I can’t remember many roads in my cycle touring ‘career’ that have been equally as bad. Even with my travels in Mongolia, it made its way into the top three.

The road from our camp to Chattru was quite rocky and steep in sections, with the odd riverbed to push across. It was strenuous cycling, and with Kirsty’s health worsening, she concluded that it was too much for her to ride. Also, I have learned that on rough roads, the difficulty of riding is increased considerably with a tandem. She decided to take a lift to Batal while we continued to ride. She definitely chose the right section to do it.

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The Spiti highway

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We passed tiny houses and locals on the roads with their herds of goats. A few motorcycles passed us on the road and we could see that they were struggling themselves to stay balanced on the rocky terrain. We stop for a lunch of watery paneer curry and dal and rice, before starting the notoriously bad road to Batal.

For the first 10km, I think we felt overconfident, because we concluded that the road was rough, but no where near as bad as people had made it out to be. We had quite a few river crossings that were shallow enough to put the bikes in their lowest gears and charge across, while fighting to steer over the large rocks. I found this section quite fun. But I spoke too soon, because it got worse – A LOT worse.

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“the road is basically a riverbed” – an accurate description by a French cyclist we had met in Ladakh

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Marcus getting it done

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me navigating the river/road

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…and then it became a boulder field

The smaller rocks on the road eventually grew into boulders and across these boulders were rushing rivers. We would attempt to ride against the current uphill before it no longer become possible and I was almost dumped sideways, soaking my feet in the freezing waters. These road conditions quickly went from amusing to exhausting and aggravating. A truck drove by us and took pity, handing over a bag of dried fruit and nuts to help fuel us. The last 8km to Batal was like riding over a rock beach. As Marcus exclaimed “they really saved the best for last.” A few kilometres from town we passed some road workers and when I stopped, I didn’t unclip from my pedals fast enough and fell sideways. I am sure the sight was quite comical – that’s how tired I was. One guy took pity and pushed my bike for me through the construction site. Luckily, Marcus was ahead and missed my embarrassing fall.

It Batal, we were happy to see Kirsty and heard that she had an adventurous ride of her own. At one point their vehicle got stuck in a river and they were there for a while trying to haul it out. Not an easy road for anyone. We were exhausted and slept in the basic guest quarters at the only dhaba in Batal. The turquoise lake of Chandra Tal was on the agenda for the next day.

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View from the road to Chandra Tal

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The journey was as inspiring as the destination

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Chandra Tal (Moon Lake)

Even though it was only 16km to Chandra Tal, it was a tiring ride with my legs heavy from the previous day. This lake is a detour off of the main road that came highly recommended in my bible, Himalaya by Bike. I loved the unusual pink hues of the mountains to compliment wavering strands of silver on the dried riverbed. The lake itself was a lovely turquoise, but the real attraction here was the backdrop. After some pushing up and over a steep hill, I found possibly the world’s greatest camp site. I can’t really remember any (and I’ve had many) that were quite that beautiful. When the sun began to set, it cast a heavenly ray that framed one side of the mountains.  This single, extraordinary beam of light reaching out and illuminating the valley floor is a sight that will stay with me forever.

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heaven on Earth really exists…

Along with the many highs we were experiencing riding in the Himalaya were the ongoing battles with illness. I had to keep a certain pace for India because I had a flight booked out of Delhi to meet some friends to cycle the Pamir Highway. Although we didn’t feel too rushed, it wasn’t enough time to stay anywhere for a week and fully recover. I didn’t want Marcus and Kirsty to feel rushed to accommodate my schedule. While Marcus and I had mainly recovered, Kirsty was still suffering from bad amoebic dysentry. She decided to catch a jeep to Manali and recover because riding the strenuous roads of Spiti would be unwise in such poor health. We made a plan to rendezvous in Shimla at the end. We were both very sad to see her go.

Backtracking on the Chandra Tal road we eventually reconnected with the switchbacks headed up towards the Kunzum La at 4590m. This would be the highest pass we would cross in the Spiti Valley.

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Marcus scaling the Kunzum la

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…and me behind…

The road was unsurprisingly rough with some steep sections. Pressing down hard on the pedals while trying to coordinate my short breaths, I sometimes went slower than walking pace. But when I got to the top that view was worth every forced pedal stroke.

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View from the top

The extraordinary colour palette of Spiti revealed itself on the descent. I haven’t seen so much pink in a landscape before. It was so unusual it looked like a setting in a surrealist painting.

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Pink rocks on the riverbed

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The rocky descent rattled our brains and were relieved to finally reach Losar, check into cheap accommodation and eat a massive meal. As usual, I ordered too much, but finished it all – french fries, momos and Tibetan noodles (thenthuk).

From Losar, the average quality road suddenly felt like a highway compared to what had ridden the past few days. We passed one village with one tiny restaurant where I saw the cutest rosy-cheeked children.

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Children just outside of Losar

We were treated to more wonderful mountain views and passed Tibetan style villages.

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Tibetan style homes in the Spiti Valley

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Monasteries could be seen perched high in the cliffs above.

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There were a view short sections with road construction. One of the workers had an excellent work ethic, blasting Indian dance music from his machine. We nicknamed it the “disco tractor” and it drove slowly in front of us for about a kilometre, giving us both a good laugh. It had surprisingly good bass. We needed to reach Kaza that day in order to obtain an Inner Line Permit before the weekend to travel onward as the road would pass very close to the Tibetan Autonomous Region in China. We took a day off in Kaza catching a lift the next day to Ki Gompa, one of the most famous monasteries in Spiti. On the drive up we passed some road workers fixing a small section. Our young driver told us that these people are only paid about 300-400Rs per day ($5-7). No one wonder none of them ever seem to be working very hard.

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An Iconic image of Spiti – Ki Gompa

We are lucky to catch the mid afternoon prayers at the monastery. My first experiences at Buddhist monasteries were in Tibet in 2011 and I always found the deep, raspy chanting to be hypnotic. Most of the prayer sessions I have seen used similar patterns in the sound of the chanting and use of percussion instruments at various points. This one was more elaborate – at one stage the monks put on strange conical hats and golden tiaras. When this happened we noticed that some of them were unable to keep a straight face.

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Morning prayers – Ki Gompa. Photo by Marcus. http://www.shesnotpedallingontheback.com

On our monastic tour, the next was Tabo gompa. En route we passed some very small villages, one with the world’s tiniest shop.

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Through that door is a tiny shop

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Marcus can barely fit inside the world’s tiniest shop

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The monastery in Tabo is noted for being the oldest continuously operating Buddhist enclave in both India and the Himalayas, founded in 996 AD. We stayed in the traveler’s dormitory. Morning prayer or puja, began at 6am. Although there were no funny black and gold hats this time, it was still enjoyable to sit and listen to the voices interlocking in their chanting. I think we were having a better time than the young monks that were yawning and barely staying awake in the back. Some of the older ones yawned mid chant as well.

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Stupa at Tabo Gompa. Photo by Marcus.

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Ancient frescoes inside Tabo Gompa. Photo by Marcus.

Afterwards, we entered the temples. The dark rooms only became slightly illuminated by cracks of light through the doors or the flickering of a butter lamp. In the partial darkness, you could still make out the elaborate centuries old frescoes of buddhist imagery on the ancient mud walls.

We rode a surprisingly smooth road to Sumdo, the first checkpoint for the Inner Line Permit. We passed a tiny army canteen where a friendly soldier brought us delicious samosas and some tasty bright orange pretzel shaped sweets. Here we are about 2km from China, the Tibetan Autonomous Region. “That is Tibet, captured,” he said. During the Chinese takeover, some families were divided – some relatives in Tibet and others in India. Now, separated by a closed border it is unlikely that they will see each other again.

We ride onward to Nako village past through more areas of road damaged by landslides.

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pushing through the mess

These are an ongoing threat in the Spiti and Kinnaur valleys, with unstable scree slopes threatening to wipe out roads and bury traffic at any moment. We eventually pass through a tiny “one horse” town called Chango with local women in the colourful Kinnauri dress.

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After a tough climb we reach Nako, a town in an extraordinary location.

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Nako

On the way up we meet Karl, a 68-year-old Swiss cyclist that had first cycle toured in India in the 1970s. We would cross paths several times over the next few days, enjoying lots of good conversation. His love for cycling was inspiring and I hope to be doing the same when I reach his age.

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Village clinging to the green springing out of sheer rock

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On the descent from Nako – green life fighting outward from the rock

We drop down from Nako and pass a friendly army post that is set up to provide travellers with chai (a little too sugary) and snacks. It is run by a very well dressed man that greets passing travellers by the road. The day ends in a small village called Spillow after a dusty ride through many sections of road construction.

From Spillow, the plan was to push on towards Sarahan to visit the Bhimikali Hindu temple. The road from Spillow is pristine and paved, but we know too well that this will not last. Sure enough, the familiar rocks and sand reappear 20km later. Our plan to reach Sarahan is thwarted when we come across an unexpected detour. A new power plant was being built in the area and the drilling for the pipelines last summer caused a landslide that destroyed the main road below. As result the diversion took us up 600m in elevation and an extra 15km out of the way.

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Quite the detour…

The steep switchbacks are lined with ditches of marijuana and curious monkeys gawk at us before quickly disappearing when we notice them.

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local greenery

When we finally get back to the main road, I think we maybe moved 7km since the start of the detour. With our original plan thwarted, we settle in the village of Tapri for the night. Now, the area has started to feel more “Indian” – colourful saris become a more common sight and the fly population has increased, along with the traffic.

The Kinnauri roads are a massive feat of engineering. It boggles my mind that someone could just look at a vertical cliff face and decide “let’s blast a road through it.”

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Insane roads in Kinnaur

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kinnaur road

The heat and humidity is starting to feel more oppressive and I already miss the cool air in the high altitude. In Jeori, we hitch a lift up to Sarahan, not in the mood for another 800m of climbing. The Bhimikali Hindu temple was tranquil place to relax with its nearly empty grounds and peaceful setting.

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Bhimikali Temple

We wanted to get a early start the next day for the climb up to alpine Narkanda. Ahead of us was a 37km climb that would take us from 900m back to 2800m.

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The green of Kinnaur

While Marcus suffered from a poor night’s sleep due to a backpacker snoring in the temple dormitory, I must have been tired enough that I heard nothing whatsoever.

The air grew heavy in the heat and was tiring but we were making good progress. The climb to Narkanda was unrelenting for the entire 37km, but we both felt strong and were reaping the benefits of cycling at extreme altitude on rough terrain for so long. 110km and 12 hours later we hit the India ski town of Narkanda -surely the Whistler of India? We got a room that was more “posh” than usual and had a massive dinner – a little treat for all the effort!

It was an easy ride on a busy road to Shimla, the end of the Indian Himalaya ride. In 1864, Shimla was officially designated the summer capital of British India. The town is ruled by monkeys and they see people as a major inconvenience. At our guesthouse I was told not to leave my laundry outside because the monkeys would take it.

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“This is our town”

I only had one night in the town and was taking the famous ‘toy train’ down the mountain from Shimla to Kalka and then another onwards to Delhi to catch my flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

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Shimla’s famous toy train

This was the end of the Himalayas. We cycled over 1500km and climbed somewhere in the realm of 30,000m. We celebrate with pizza, beer and various baked goods along the street. I was very disappointed that Kirsty was not with us. She would take a bus from Manali to meet Marcus the next day when she felt more up to the long journey as she was still trying to beat the sickness. I was really lucky to have such awesome riding companions on this epic journey full of so many highs and lows (mainly highs). But I’m not finished with these hills yet. The Himalayas still have their hold on me and I hope that my two wheels will travel its roads once again.

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“Heroes” of the Himalayas

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