On Solitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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17 thoughts on “On Solitude

  1. Your words make me smile; you’re a wonderful writer Tara. Be safe and know that we are with you in spirit on the lonely nights. xo

    R. Ronda Pegnam Creator/Fearless Leader The Walltalk Company Inc Phone 1.800.390.4577 Website-www.walltalksales.ca “The harder you work, the luckier you get”

    Date: Mon, 8 Feb 2016 19:24:01 +0000 To: walltalk@sympatico.ca

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    • First I want to thank you for having accepted me, and I am very happy to exchange impressions with a person who has courage and decision. I’m porr while storing information from people who can even with the language difficulty, communicate with people so different, and you clearly shows this achievement. I’m getting ready to make this journey, and you spoke of a country that I only know by youtube and Mongolia, but I would rather go through China and Africa and make a cover, I’m only waiting for the response of a sponsorship, I hope to leave before July, because I want to travel motohome. What do you think of this means of transport?

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      • Hey Ricardo, thanks for writing. Unfortunately as a non-driver I don’t have any experience traveling by motorhome. I know that it would definitely be a problem in China because drivers must be accompanied by a guide at all times, who may even have to do the driving! The only way around this is to have a Chinese driver’s licence. And with Africa I am sure the rules and regulations vary by country. If you can swing it, I think it could be a lot of fun.

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    • I really felt your raw feelings and appreciate your honesty as I know it will be the same for all solo cyclists at time. I am prepared for this and hope I can take comfort in knowing it is not everyday and the gif

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  2. Totally recognizable. Good to read we ‘struggle’ with the same mindset. And the gigantic happiness flows! The welcome of total strangers. It’s incredible beautiful. Your writing clear and crisp.

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  3. Hi Tara,

    You really struck a note with me. Even being a male and making a much shorter journey than yours, I have experienced many of the same feelings cycling solo through Mongolia. It would have been fun to cross paths with you in Mongolia. I guess we actually did cross paths but were both unaware of this 🙂 Solo gives a different dimension to travel. I find myself longing to go back to Mongolia. Maybe solo maybe not. Maybe by bicycle, maybe not. But surely to experience the vastness and friendliness of Mongolia and its people. Both have made and everlasting impression on me that I want to experience again.

    Safe travels. Do let me know if your journey veers to North America or Northern Europe.

    Best, Peter

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    • Hey, great to hear from you Peter! I do find it odd and funny that in a place like Mongolia with barely any people we managed to miss each other 🙂 I have cycled in quite a few amazing places now, but the “spiritual solitude” that I felt in Mongolia has been unmatched anywhere else. It was definitely the most unspoiled, raw, real and adventurous country I have cycled in. And of course, the incredible people. I also want to go back!

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  4. so beautiful margo / thank you / i will share it with a freind who is cycling solo thru mexico on her way to brasil / i think she will appreciate it / i send you love

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  5. I really enjoyed reading this. I have met lots of wonderful people as I’ve completed my cycle-journies and it was good to meet you very briefly in passing through Kyrgyzstan last October. I hope – and I’m sure – you’ll continue to have spuritually fulfilling encounters with people, places and yourself as you slowly cycle towards home..

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  6. I totally hear you on this one. I’ve been on the road for 6 months now and this sentiment resonates with me as well. Props to you for choosing such a challenging and remote areas to go solo!
    I’m taking a 4 month break for a work contract. If you’re gonna be on the road at that time and still interested in a travelling companion, I’m open to the idea, as my itinerary is not set yet.

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