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

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

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Approaching Murghab

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

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Murghab

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

“Are you Phoebe?” I asked.

“Yeah, how did you know?”

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

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

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Anne from Germany  www.annewestwards.com

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

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

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Inside Murghab’s strange bazaar

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

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

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

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Renata and Matjaž posing with the sweet Mama Erali

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

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

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A sure sign that winter is coming

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

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

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Angry skies on the climb up to the Ak Baital pass

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

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

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

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

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

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The home at the end of the world

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Final climb to the Ak Baital pass

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

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On top of the Ak Baital pass, 4655m

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

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

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

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Karakul Lake

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

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

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

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Homes in the village of Karakul

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

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

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Gordon on his 1941 Matchless www.overlandtovietnam.com

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

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

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Evening view of the mountains from Karakul

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

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A beautiful but clear warning sign of the difficulties to come

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

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

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

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Rescued!

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

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

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

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

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

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Starting the freezing descent from 3500m

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

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

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

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My last campsite before Osh

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

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Kyrgyz homes in the hills on the way up the pass

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

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Five minutes of fame in Kyrgyzstan

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

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

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

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

photo montage

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

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Leaving Khorog

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

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Marianne and Heidi entering the Wakhan Corridor

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

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“hello! hello!”

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

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

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

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

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

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Our generous hosts seeing us off

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

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

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

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

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Goodbye to my Danish sisters. A sad morning.

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

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

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Brilliant fall colour in the Wakhan

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Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush

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

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

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

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

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Entering a Wakhan Village

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Typical Tajik home in Zong

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

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

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On the sandy climb out of Langar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A small sign of life

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Sand track to nowhere

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

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Before everything froze over in the night…

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

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

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A sidetrip to the moon – climbing the Khargush pass

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

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

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Last stretch of rough road before the Pamir Highway

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

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Sublime scenery along the Pamir Highway

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

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Alichur

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

The Pamiri Dance: Dushanbe to Khorog (Tajikistan)

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Fall in the Pamirs

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

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

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Good times in Bishkek at the AT House

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Master French chef Timo dishing out his latest creation

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

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

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

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

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

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Véro’s equally awesome cat, Jack

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

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Walking on the hills above the river

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

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Tajik girls and their colourful outfits

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

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

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

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

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Loving the remote and traffic free road through the Western Pamir

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The only real traffic on the road

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Enjoying the silence and presence of the mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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View on the climb…

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and the descent…

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

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I think the message was pretty clear…

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

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

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

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

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Afghan homes

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

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Afghanistan across the river

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

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The mountains grow in size

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

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

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

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

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Meet the world’s kindest man.

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

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Autumn in all its glory

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Friendly children just outside of Khorog

And the mountains reached higher and higher into the sky…

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

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

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

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Patagonia 2013. We become the “hermanas del mundo”

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

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

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

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

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