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

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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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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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The Highest Highs and the Lowest Lows in Ladakh

5328m. The Taglang La pass was beckoning us out of the comforts of Leh. Even after a few days rest, all three of us still felt weakened from sickness. At the point it was hard to know which food was really safe to eat. Still, we decided to try to cycle a short day to Thikse gompa, which according to my guidebook was an “iconic image of Ladakh.”

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Thikse Gompa

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Monk, Thikse Gompa

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View from Thikse Gompa

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At the top of Thikse Gompa

In Ladakh, Tibetan culture is colourful and thriving. During the cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and ’70s,  Buddhist culture in Tibet experience a massacre – 1000 year old scriptures burned, monasteries reduced to rubble. Because the provinces of Ladakh and Spiti remained a part of the Indian union, Tibetan buddhism in this region remained protected. As a result, this extraordinary part of India has monasteries that have been untouched and preserved for up to a thousand years.

Thikse gompa was an impressive sight. We climbed to the top, from where we had amazing view of the valley and mountains in the distance. Inside of the rooms were fascinating statues including a gigantic gold Buddha.

Inside of a temple there was one terrifying statue of a god (I think?) that had many arms. Supposedly this creature represented anger and sometimes the emotion would become so intense that it would consume itself. Leaving the temple, we later camped at the base of what looked like an abandoned shrine. Barren mountains surrounded us, defined by the shadows being cast from the fading light. I slept well that night, hoping to feel more energetic the next day.

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Camping just outside of Thikse

I woke up the next morning feeling worse that the previous day. I knew from experience that it wasn’t altitude sickness, but my stomach and it continued to protest. On the way to Lato, we stopped at a small Tibetan restaurant. I asked for tsampa – a popular Tibetan breakfast of ground roasted barley. It wasn’t on the menu, but the owner dug through some cupboards, coming out with a large bag. I asked for milk, hot water and sugar to have with it. While I thought this was a safe meal, sure enough my guts paid for it again later.

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On the road to Lato

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The road carved its way along a beautiful river valley surrounded by wild, jagged rock faces and coloured rocks.  Small Tibetan style houses were spread out along the river. We reached Lato, barely a town with a few guesthouses and gorgeous areas to camp. We decided to stop here for the night and had a wonderful campsite. The stars that night were something of dreams. The three of us sat outside of our tents gazing intently at the clear streak of milky way, awestruck. The experience of a Himalayan night sky – the silence and the billion tiny balls of light against the darkness cradled by the mountains is unforgettable.

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Camping in Lato

We ended spending two extra days in Lato, which really wasn’t such a bad place to be stuck. Kirsty had a worrisome headache the first day and we had decided to play it safe. We knew that once we had crossed the Taglang La we wouldn’t be descending much below 4000m. If you got altitude sickness, the only way to get to a lower elevation would be to go back the way we had come or over another high pass in the other direction. In Lato we ate our meals at a cozy little guesthouse where we had Tibetan noodle soup called thukpa, along with the staple of dal and rice. There, we met another Scottish couple touring on a tandem, along with some Polish backpackers who had some panniers made out of cheap school backpacks to go with the bikes they had picked up in Delhi. It was their first bicycle tour and they were doing remarkably well considering the difficulty of the route.

The day we had planned to leave the guesthouse it was raining like crazy – a horrible cold rain and we could see that the Taglang la was shrouded in cloud. We decided that it wasn’t the most ideal weather for trying to climb a 5000m pass and ended up waiting one extra day.

Finally, the day came. We left Lato and headed towards the Taglang la. The weather was perfect and clear. From Lato the road continued to climb and climb. We got many thumbs up from passing motorbikes. I had seen more motorcyclists on this route than any country I had previously visited. Many were riding Royal Enfields, part of the legacy left by the British.

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Ladakh woman spinning Pashmina

Passing a small town about 8km from Lato called Rumptse I suddenly felt transported back to Tibet with the high altitude desert scenery all around and white washed houses. We passed a Ladakh women walking around spinning Pashmina by hand. As the air grew thinner, I started to adopt my high altitude breathing pattern of two quick breaths in, two quick breaths out. I had cycled over 5000m before, but this was with a support van in Tibet and I wasn’t carrying any of my own gear. With 35kg, it was a challenge. Once you get over 5000m, sometimes you can feel like you are barely holding on. And that’s how we felt.

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“almost” there! Only 24 km…

The headaches crept in and I felt so fatigued that I could barely think. There was an ultramarathon race taking place on this route (yes, seriously) and we met one of the support cars on the way up, but no runners. Since it was the end of the race the guy had all sorts of supplies to offer us – Snickers bars, peanut butter and a kilogram of sports energy drink. During this whole interaction I felt so out of it that I couldn’t even get excited over free peanut butter. I could barely get out sentences and felt like I was drunk. This is what high altitude does to you. If not taken seriously, it can be dangerous. But we would eventually descend low enough that it wouldn’t be an issue.

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The rigours of the climb taking its toll on all of us. Marcus taking a mental break…

The last 10km were hell. The last 500m felt like 500km. Then, the prayer flags! This time I didn’t get the usual excitement and surge of energy. I felt like I barely made it. Kirsty and Marcus were a bit ahead and I eventually caught up. We were all beyond wiped from the climb. We were almost too tired to appreciate the stunning scenery all around.

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“Unbelievable, is not it?”

At the top there is a sign claiming that the Taglang la is the 2nd highest motorable pass in the world. Supposedly the highest is the Khardung La Northeast of Leh at 5359m, with an incorrect sign at the summit saying it is 5602m. These are dubious claims as there are some roads in Tibet that are supposedly higher.

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View from the top of the Taglang La that I was almost too tired to appreciate…

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We took some photos, made sure to get one of the classic sign and then concluded “Let’s get off this f***ing mountain.”

One of the greatest rewards of a strenuous climb is the exhilarating descent on the other side. Well, the descent from the Taglang La was far from it – slow and rough. With all of the rattling, I wonder for a crazy moment if the climbing was less torturous. Eventually, we reached Debring –  a small “village” of parachute tents. All along the Manali to Leh highway are temporary settlements consisting solely of these parachute tents. Inside, they offer basic bedding and food. They are around usually from late June to mid October before the harsh winter arrives and the highway is closed until the following summer. In Debring, we decided to camp by a lake and had a dinner of momos (Tibetan style dumplings) noodle soup and omelettes.

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camping in Debring

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The next morning I felt so exhausted from the previous day that I could barely cover the 40 something kilometeres across the flat Morei plains to Pang. But the stark and beautiful scenery helped to ignite the senses and give me enough energy to pull through.  I was beginning to understand more and more why the Manali to Leh highway is considered one of the best rides in the world. The one drawback, however, was the amount of truck traffic on the road – more than I had expected. Also, the obsession with honking. But crossing the vast Morei plains there were barely any vehicles at all.

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Morei Plains

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Then, just before Pang, we came to a stunning river gorge lined with hoodoos.

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Descending into Pang

The town of Pang itself was quite filthy, but had a great parachute tent scene. Despite feeling terrible and low on energy, I still hadn’t lost my appetite! While Marcus and Kirsty were still battling sickness on and off themselves I was often ordering too much food and finishing theirs as well.

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Chilling out in a parachute tent in Pang

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The parachute tent scene in Pang

We spent the afternoon hanging out in a parachute tent and ran into some young British cyclists that we had met earlier. They were fast and full of pep and were sensible to be carrying half of what I was. Outside of the tents were a few bicycles and many rows of motorbikes.

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Motorcycling is immensely popular in the Indian Himalaya

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Crawling up the Lachlung La

_DSF3358  The next day, my health had a complete turnaround. I felt incredible. I can sincerely say that this day was the highlight of the India tour so far (maybe even of my entire tour). The first pass of the day was the Lachlung La at 5077m. Then. at the start of the descent, my jaw dropped at the scenery ahead and stayed like this for the rest of the day.

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Tara India

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Climbing the Nakeela

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Descending the Lachlung la

After a brief stop in a tent dhaba in Whiskey Nallah for some of our beloved ginger lemon and honey tea, we set out to climb the next pass, the Nakee La.

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Truck on the road towards the Gata Loops

After the pass, another treat lay ahead – the famous Gata Loops, which are 21 switchbacks. We were lucky enough to be descending them. Before we reached this point, we zoomed downhill through more epic landscape. It set my heart racing and I felt so tiny and overwhelmed in its presence. I thought to myself, this is why I bike tour and this is when I feel the most alive. _DSF3416
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The Gata Loops

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End of the Gata Loops

Racing down the Gata Loops was a lot of fun and from the top we had wonderful views of the river valley in the fading light. We camped that night and it was one of the best campsites we had in India so far (this was going to be topped in Spiti). The intense stars prolonged the magic of the day and I fell asleep with a deep satisfaction of what I had just experienced.

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View from our tents

The next day had a whole other character. It did start off with an amazing 20km to Sarchu. We passed another beautiful river gorge with wonderfully textured mountains all around. Really, I think I am running out of adjectives to describe Ladakh. In Sarchu we had a second breakfast of our beloved Maggi instant noodles and an omelet. Maybe too many noodles for me. While Marcus and I felt fairly strong, Kirsty was still suffering from the sickness that I had  finally managed to shake off. She had been on and off for a about a month and it was becoming concerning. These roads were challenging enough in perfect health. Leaving Sarchu, we cycled into a terrible headwind on a road that went from bad to worse. We had plans to cross the Baralacha la pass, but with the conditions this was becoming less and less of a reality.

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Ascending on the rough stuff

Today the truck traffic was especially heavy, sometimes with barely enough room for two to get by on the perilous roads. We ran into a traffic jam that was almost comical – two trucks on each side of a blind corner high on a cliff driving almost side by side, towards one another and then trying to pass. When they came to a standstill, we said “have fun with that one guys” and snuck by with clearly the vehicle of choice in an absurd situation.

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Back of an Indian truck – as if they needed to be reminded…

The road was really terrible – lots of loose rocks. We knew there was a parachute tent village called Bharatpur just below the Baralacha la and we decided we would spend the night there. A cold and unpleasant rain began and Bharatpur still seemed so far away as we were uncertain of the exact distance. We were thrilled to arrive and spent the night in a very cozy tent dhaba. This one was larger than usual with wood beams in more of a triangular house shape. We sat around the tables and wrapped ourselves in blankets, eating chips and drinking milky coffee. We didn’t move for about a hour. We didn’t regret our decision as the weather turned frigid. We met some freezing Italian motorbikers that said it was snowing on the pass. Clearly we made the right decision to stop! We slept in the main restaurant with bedding and about 3 huge blankets each. After dinner, I dozed off with an Indian version of American Idol playing on the TV in the background.

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Morning. Time to ride the last pass on the Manali to Leh highway. The weather had improved significantly, but it was still quite cold. We loaded up on omlettes and pranthas (a tasty, thick fried Indian flatbread) and set off. The road was still in terrible condition, with lots of short steep climbs that winded us. We reached the top of the Baralacha la at 4890m and then had about 60km of descending. It was cold, so we stopped a lot for photos. As usual, the scenery was mind blowing.

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Descending from the Baralacha la

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The landscape grew greener and greener the more we descended. Suddenly it felt like a different world.

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The return of green

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We made it to Keylong that night – an 85km ride, which was the longest we had ridden in a while. We found a budget hotel, that suddenly felt way too fancy with fast wi-fi. Kirsty and I indulged that night in a delicious butter chicken dinner and Marcus with some kind of chili chicken. At this point, everyone had had their fill of dal and rice.

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Mark and John, two Brits we met near Gramphoo

The following day the cycling was dusty, busy and rather unpleasant. There was lots of climbing on sandy or broken roads with construction. At the end of the day we made it just past Gramphoo, leaving the Manali to Leh highway and turning off towards Spiti. We met Mark and John, two English guys that were camping near the junction. While Mark lives in Tokyo and John in Paris they make it a yearly event to meet up for a few weeks and cycle together. Here are some of the photos that they took while we were there:

India Cycling 2015 Mark (796)

Entering the Spiti Valley

India Cycling 2015 Mark (770) India Cycling 2015 Mark (782)

Next up was the Spiti Valley and the notoriously rough roads. We had met a French cyclist that said one part of the road was like “riding on a riverbed.”

The road from Leh and left me completely amazed and I had heard equally great things about Spiti (aside from the disastrous roads).  One of the highlights had also been the hilarious road signs that are an amusing characteristic of the Indian Himalaya. We would see them on a daily basis. Here are a few.

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Reaching New Heights: Amritsar and the Srinagar – Leh Highway

My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon
I will return again
Sure as the dust that floats high in June
When movin’ through Kashmir

Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”

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Climbing the Zoji la pass, Kashmir

Like the Karakoram highway in Pakistan, the Indian Himalaya had been a dream cycling destination for me for years. When India comes to mind, many people conjure up images of intense crowds and heavily polluted cities. The Himalaya of India couldn’t be more different. In fact, it can feel like an entirely different country altogether. Due to the extreme geography, much of the land isn’t suitable for human habitation. Having now cycled the Karakoram Highway, The Andes, Tibet and the Pamir highway I can say that the Indian provinces of Kashmir, Ladakh and Spiti have some of the most extraordinary mountain scenery I have ever ridden. My 1600km route through this dramatic region began in Srinagar, Kashmir through a region historically in dispute by India and Pakistan.

When I crossed the Wagah border from Pakistan to India I was a long way from the mountains. Like in Pakistan, I was still caught in sweltering August heat as I cycled to the hectic city of Amritsar. At this point I was eager to get back into the hills.

Pedalling into Amritsar I headed straight for the Golden Temple, the holiest temple in the Sikh religion. Out of the crowds and heavy traffic the temple was a peaceful refuge. Pushing my bike through the crowds, I eventually came to the temple grounds. I had heard about a free dormitory for travelers and opted to stay there. As I approached the building I noticed a bicycle with panniers, but not just any bicycle – a tandem! This was the first touring tandem I had ever seen. So, naturally I was eager to talk to the riders. A tandem bicycle is very exotic in this area of the world and many curious locals hovered around and stared at the strange “double cycle.” (the only real Hindi I learned)

Marcus and Kirsty were one year into their two year trip from England, heading eastwards towards Australia.We hung out in Amritsar for the next few days taking in the unique atmosphere of the Golden temple, while battling various stomach ailments – a welcome present from India.

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The Golden Temple, Amritsar

The ornate main temple is coated in 750kg of gold and is surrounded by holy water, where one can take a dip. Crowds of pilgrims with Sikh men in colourful turbans and thick beards glided in and out of the temple complex. When entering the temple, one must cover their head and remove their shoes. Inside of the temple are a group of musicians singing the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy scriptures). It takes two and a half days, 16 hours per day to sing the entire book – and when it is finished,  they start all over again. The tranquil music is broadcast throughout the temple complex adding to the serene atmosphere.

One of the most fascinating experiences of visiting the Golden Temple is to take part in its free meal service. With over 100,000 people eating at the temple per day, the level of organization is incredible. At the entrance, each diner is handed a metal try and joins the cue of thousands into the eating area. The line moves swiftly and I am directed into a large room with rows of people and their trays in front of them.

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Meal service for the thousands. Photo courtesy of Marcus and Kirsty http://www.shesnotpedallingontheback.com

Once I am seated people, whiz by with buckets of dahl and rice pudding swiftly dropping a ladle full onto the dishes. Next, discs of nan bread are dropped up and down the rows. They even come by for seconds. The most intriguing part is the dish washing service. Thousands of trays are washed and tossed back and forth with a rhythm that almost seems rehearsed. The loudest and most unusual orchestra.

While in Amritsar, we also decided that it was a good idea to check out the famous border retreat ceremony at the Wagah border with Pakistan, where I had just come from, 30km away.

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Getting ready for the border retreat ceremony on the Indian side (Pakistan was louder)

At the border, we took our seats in the bleachers, at the “foreigners gallery.” Loud, high energy Indian music blasted through speakers, amping up the crowd. It felt like I was at a sports match.

Through the border gates in the distance I could see that the Pakistani side was even louder than the Indian side. In hindsight I should have experienced it from the Pakistani side when I was there. The ceremony itself was a ridiculous show of military bravado between both sides. It was a competition of who could kick their legs the highest or march with the most authority. All of this happening with a loud drum roll in the background and crowds cheering. At the end, the flags on each side of the borders were lowered and the gates shut. While the whole thing seemed like some sort of parody,  it was completely serious. A entertaining way to symbolize the ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan. And they did this every night.

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Who can kick the highest? Photo from http://www.shesnotpedallingontheback.com

To get a better idea, here is a video from BBC of the ceremony.

The heat of Amritsar was getting to me after a few days, which didn’t compliment the assault on my stomach from a suspect Punjab Lassi (even though it was the most delicious lassi I’ve ever had). Marcus and Kirsty were also headed to Srinagar and we all had opted to take the train to Jammu in order to avoid the heat and heavy traffic of the lowlands.

We arrived at the train station around 11:30pm for our 1am departure and it was still stupidly hot. When simply sitting still and breathing makes you burst into a sweat, it is just too much.

Because the train was only stopping for a few minutes en route to Jammu, we had to sprint with our bikes towards the luggage car. We heaved my bike and tandem onto the train before anyone could tell us what to do and ran towards our air conditioned car. It wasn’t long before someone found us and demanded to talk to us about the bikes. Marcus went out to deal with the problem. Because we hadn’t officially booked the bikes, they had threatened to take them off. Really, a worthy cause to hold up a train of over 100 people for 20 minutes…

Eventually they gave up and we would simply have to pay a 1000 rupee bribe (about $15) at the other end for all the ‘inconvenience’ we had caused putting the bikes into an empty luggage car.

In Jammu, I continued to Srinagar via a shared taxi. Marcus and Kirsty had planned to cycle, but Kirsty was still suffering badly from “Delhi belly” and they decided to get a hotel for the night. The traffic was heavy all the way to Srinagar and the roads twisted and turned sometimes hugging the edges of dramatic cliffs. It really tested my tendency for motion sickness and with the insane driving I wondered if I would be safer on a bicycle, being in control of my own vehicle.

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Shikaras in Srinagar – like a water taxi.

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Sunset on Dal Lake, Srinagar

Srinagar is a unique place because of the communities that live on houseboats. Along with staying on a houseboats, you can take a shikhara ride (a small boat) to explore this watery way of life with floating markets. Like in most cities, I was a lazy tourist and instead wanted to spend my time preparing for the start of the Himalayan ride. The night before I was preparing to set off, I was adjusting my front brakes when I noticed a large crack in my front rim.

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Crack #2!

Just over a month ago, my rear rim had cracked just outside of Urumqi. “F***!” I thought. So then I had no choice by to stay another day in Srinagar to find a new rim. I went to Hero Cycles, India’s flagship brand, whose quality of bicycles made Wal-Mart bikes look like Cervélos (sorry if this reference is too North American – it means complete sh*t). I ended up having to go back the next day, because the mechanic was away. I ended up with a big hunk of Indian steel that weighed twice as much of one of my alloy rims. The best part – it only cost $10. I couldn’t take a risk with a poor quality aluminum rim, that looked like it would crack if I stepped on it. The shop only stocked 36 spoke rims and my front Dynamo hub took 32 spokes, so I had no choice but to carry my own hub and spokes and get a whole new wheel. So, armed with more weight, less braking power and the power of steel my bike was ready for the Himalaya (maybe).

My delay in Srinagar ended up putting me on the same schedule as Marcus and Kirsty, who had also decided last minute to take transport from Jammu. On a lucky meeting online, we decided to rendezvous the next day to start the ride together. The next morning, after getting a good laugh at my new steel rim we started out on the road to Leh.

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It was a very hot and humid day up to Sonamarg. For me it was one of the toughest I’ve had so far. The valley of Kashmir was lush and green and so far, fairly populated. This region of India is mainly muslim, with Urdu as the main language (also the official language of Pakistan). This area had a very heavy military presence and we could see many soldiers with AK-47s hanging out on the hills above the road.  It was nice travelling with a tandem, because for once the attention was being taken away from me! We would hear indecipherable words being spoken and all of a sudden “ohhhhhh – double cycle!” Whenever we stopped, a crowd of locals immediately formed.

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“Double cycle!!!”

I was completely exhausted when we arrived in Sonamarg and I guess in a heat inflicted stupor I failed to notice that my front brake had been rubbing on my new rim the whole time (doh! thanks Marcus!).

We had climbed over 1000m that day and would continue to ascend another 800m to the Zoji La pass at 3528m before dropping down to Drass.

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Marcus and Kirsty taking a break on the climb up the Zoji La

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Soft greens morphed into more barren rock as we ascended higher and higher. Today, I was relieved to be temporarily escaping the heat and really felt the lure of the Himalaya. There were still many army vehicles about and soldiers on patrol. We were never bothered, only for photographs.

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Military guys on the Zoji La, armed with their smart phones.

It was also becoming common practice for vehicles to stop in front us and having passengers run out for “just one selfie!” We met more touring cyclists this day than elsewhere in the himalaya. Amongst them were several men and women from Poland along with guys from Ireland, USA and the UK.

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A meeting of touring cyclists

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Polish riders

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Descending from the Zoji La

After summiting the rough but beautiful climb up the Zoji La, we came to a small tent dhaba (parachute tent restaurant) and had some Maggi instant noodles. This would become a staple of our Indian Himalaya diet along with dal (curried lentils) and rice. We descended to Drass and found a friendly little dive hotel, sharing a room for about $1.50 USD each. Drass claims to be the second coldest inhabited place in the world, where a temperature of -60C was recorded in 1995. Hard to imagine when it was in 30s when we arrived. There, we met a Russian cyclist with an enviable, ultra light set up of two tiny panniers. It was only a matter of time before I realized how tough hauling 40kg up in the Himalayas would be.

After the climb up the Zoji La, the road to Leh was in excellent condition. We enjoyed many long, swooping descents to Kargil. En route, we met Zaver from the South of India doing a 5400km ride through the country. At 30 years older than me, he could still ride faster than all of us.

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Having lunch with Zaver on his 5400km ride around India

The heat came back full force again and reached 35 degrees, even at 2700m. Kargil reminded me of Pakistan, with men running about between the fly invested shops in Salwar Kameez and girls in tiny hijabs.

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Girls in Kargil

We decided to take a break from the heat and indulged in several bags of chips and ice cream. We had opted to camp that night, but it was proving to be tricky in this area. Any area that was flat was populated. Also, my invaluable guidebook, Laura Stone’s amazing Himalaya by Bike had advised against camping from Srinagar to Kargil due to the military presence. We eventually found a place barely tucked away off of the road – not ideal and more like a last resort,  but not the worst I had seen. It was nice to camp at night with friends – something I often miss while cycling solo. I was also grateful for Marcus’s mechanical skills to help prevent my steel piece-of-junk front wheel from falling apart. While the rim itself seemed bomb proof, the hub was already rattling loose after a few days. Along the way I also enjoyed learning some British.

Me, preparing dinner: “Do you guys have any or-reg-enno?”

“Any wawt?”

“or-reg-enno?”

“Oh you mean or-ig-ah-no!”

“Uh..yeah!”

Another favourite of mine – Marcus pointing to his bike:

“If the bike was broken I would say, ‘that’s bollocks!’ But otherwise, I would say it’s the dog’s bollocks.”

Me: “Oh, like saying something is the cat’s ass…”

Leaving Kashmir

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We had now entered Buddhist Ladakh and monasteries began to replace mosques. In Mulbekh, we saw the impressive 30 foot tall limestone structure of the Maitreya Buddha. Scholars date it back to the 8th Century.

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8th Century Buddha

Today, unfortunately, it was Marcus’s turn for feeling under the weather. Since we had started cycling together, there wasn’t a single day where the entire group was feeling 100%. The food in India was just not agreeing with us. Still, we decided to push on and climb the Namika La  pass at 3700m. The landscape made me feel like I was on the moon. The descent was incredible – fast and smooth. Tucked low in the valley floor were villages surrounded in bright green – a contrast to the stark beige mountains rising above.

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On top of the Namika la

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On the descent from the Namika La

The scenery got more and more dramatic and hit its peak the following day.

We climbed to the highest pass on the Leh-Srinagar highway, the Fotu La pass at 4108m. As I neared the top, I could see the Tibetan prayer flags. With a rare burst of energy, I surged towards the top. Since I had the privilege of cycling in Tibet in 2011, the sight of prayer flags on the passes always stirs up something inside of me. For me it is reminder of imminent victory after struggle and the spiritual experience of cycling in the Himalaya.

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Iconic image of riding in the Himalaya – prayer flags whipping in the wind

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At the summit we met several cyclists in a group who had climbed up the other way. We met a few people on their first supported bicycle trip from the South of India that had never been at altitude before. They were absolutely thrilled to reach the top. An amazing accomplishment.

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Descending from the Fotu La

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Lamayuru Monastery

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The descent was exhilarating and from there it only got more impressive. In Himalaya by Bike we had read about an alternate route that went high above the valley through Lamayuru, known for its famous monastery. Along this road we would be descending down 17 hairpins called the Jalebi bends – through “the most extraordinary landscape you can imagine” as the book had claimed. With that description, we knew we had to take the road.

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On the high road above Lamayuru

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If you click on the photo and look closely, the tiny speck on the road is Marcus and Kirsty…

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And extraordinary it was. An incredible palette of of oranges, red and purple covered the surfaces of the rock faces. Watching Marcus and Kirsty’s tiny tandem from a distance glide along the road really gave me a sense of the scale of the land we were travelling through. With the road teetering at the edge of cliffs it sometimes tested my fear of heights. We passed some strange cream coloured rock formations that looked like a coral reef. Marcus and Kirsty described it better comparing it to a “giant brain.”

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Me overlooking the “brain”

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This place was a geologist’s paradise. Next were the Jalebi Bends – a truly awesome descent.

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Racing down the 17 Jalebi Bends

At the bottom, we couldn’t stopping talking about what we had just ridden through. For me, it was easily one of the top five stretches of road that I have ever cycled.

With only 100km left until Leh and the lure of good food and much needed recovery, we had ideas of completing the ride in one day. But with our continued stomach problems, we felt too weak and decided to split the ride into two days.

The amount and variety of food in Leh was overwhelming. Pizzas, pastas, shakes, smoothies, Israeli food, Indian food, Tibetan food, German bakeries, muesli and yogurt… it was paradise.

Leh was a good place to recover, even though none of us were able to feel 100 per cent. The battle was never-ending and it was taking its toll. My once large stock of Ciprofloxacin and Imodium pills for diarrhea was quickly disappearing. People weren’t kidding when they said that India was rough on the stomach. We had planned celebratory beer for reaching Leh, but in our weakened states, we lacked the energy. Instead, we ate and ate and ate. From Leh at 3500m we had about 120km to climb to reach the Taglang la at 5330m, the highest pass I would ever cycle (my previous record was the Gyatso La in Tibet at 5200m). With our current health issues, we hoped that we could regain enough strength for the challenge.

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A wise saying on the road…