First things first: I have a little New Year’s surprise for you. And I am very excited about it! When I first arrived in Thailand, I realized that this is the 12th country I will be exploring solo by bicycle. This felt like a good time to look back on where this journey has taken me so far. The thousands of kilometers, the challenges, the joys, the epic landscapes, stunning culture and the many people whose kindness I will never forget.
So I went through all of my photos, selected those that I like best and created a calendar that follows my journey, country by country, one for every month of the year 2017. It was a lovely little project – such fantastic memories! If ever you got confused where on earth I have been cycling for those many months, this is for you.
The printed photo calendar that I created out of this really is more a labor of love than a scheme that will make me rich, considering that I spent multiple weeks fulltime on just this, with the support of a truly good friend. In fact, I have done little else since I arrived in Thailand. That being said, you would make me very happy if you had a look at it. After all, I have come to the end of my savings which financed this journey so far. If you enjoy the photography and would like to support me a bit, you can find all relevant infos for purchasing the calendar here. (The photos in the calendar do not contain my watermark, of course.)
In any case, here are the photos and a look back at this journey so far. Enjoy!
What am I doing here? This question followed me all through Kyrgyzstan, the first country I ever cycled through. In fact, this is the first bike trip of my life. I simply invested a good part of my savings into gear and a sturdy bicycle – and took a leap of faith. I only recently realized how much courage there was behind this step into the unknown. But even though I was scared a lot – figure nights having wolves around my tent (more on this here), the approaching cold of winter, … – I already realized that I absolutely loved everything about cycle touring. Being outdoors all day. Connecting with nature. Being self-sufficient. Taking my time. Reducing my belongings to the barest mininimum. Camping in the wild. The solitude. The landscapes. The wonderful people I would have never met otherwise.
At this point, though, during those first weeks in Kyrgyzstan, the challenges were different. In fact, I had not even taken a test ride on my fully-loaded bike before leaving Germany. So I considered Kyrgyzstan to be my trial ride. The test before I would decide whether I had the courage to continue alone into the Pamir Mountains. I cycled two weeks from Bishkek to Osh, through spectacular landscape, visited nomads and their herds of horses, tackled the first mountain passes of my life by bike. And I got a first taste of the incredible hospitality that I would experience throughout this journey, with locals taking utmost care of me. But I also got glimpses into the terrible domestic violence under which far too many Kyrgyz women suffer.
When I reached Osh, I stocked up my supplies at the bazaar,… and waited. Waited until I felt ready to head out into the real wilderness. Onto the Pamir Highway, onwards to Tajikistan. The stories I had heard from other cyclists gave me much to think about – the insanely cold nights, the scarcity of food, the solitude. I do not think that I ever will be as terrified ever again in my life, as in those days preparing for the Pamirs. So I waited until I felt strong enough, mentally, physically – and then cycled off into what still feels like the biggest adventure of my life.
The Pamirs. My love. Oftentimes, what you fear most is the exact spot where the biggest treasure lies for you. The Pamir Mountains were the every reason for me to set out onto this cycling expedition. I felt a draw to this region that I could not explain. And once I cycled there, I knew why. I have never felt as much in tune with the world ever before. The extraordinary beauty of the landscape touched a string in my soul that I will never forget. Kyrgyzstan had already given me a glimpse of the solitude and beauty I could expect in the Pamir Mountains and the Wakhan valley. But nothing quite prepared me. I spent days and days filled with pure joy, stunned by all this beauty (more about those incredible days in the Pamirs here). And I was speechless that I had the privilege to explore this on my own. In the Pamirs, you can easily spend days without meeting another human being, in particular in late autumn.
When I descended from the Pamir Highway into the fabled Wakhan valley (where this photo was taken), I could not believe that the landscapes could become even more fantastic. Traveling along the Tajik-Afghan border with the Hindukush in sight every day, I realized that I needed more time to savor this fairytale world. So I slowed down even more and started walking my bike instead of riding it. After the wonderful solitude on the Pamir Highway, I now walked my bike through the tiny, beautiful villages of the Wakhan valley. I will never forget the people I met there – their unbelievable kindness, their hospitality, the warmth they extended to a complete stranger like me (more on this here). In retrospect, those were among the happiest days of my life.
At the same time, this part of the expedition was extraordinarily harsh, in particular on the Pamir highway The high altitude. The thin air. The approaching snow. The insanely cold nights in my tent, with temperatures dropping below -25 degree Celsius at times. The incredibly bad roads. The scarce food. And yet, I would have not minded to die there.
Uzbekistan, the dark days. Maybe I could have expected that every high is followed by a low. And that a time as intense and gloriously beautiful as my days in Tajikistan would likely be followed by a deep fall. I had indeed made it out of the mountains two weeks before winter really fell. But it caught me in Uzbekistan, with snow flurries and a continuous wet cold, from which I could never quite warm up. In Tajikistan, I had experienced intensely cold nights, but could enjoy warm days with radiant sunshine. In Uzbekistan, however, light was elusive, day and night (there is no street lighting, really – or rather: the electricty system is too weak to power both the light in houses *and* light in the streets). Add to it the rain, the snow, the mud, the infamous bureaucratic hassles in this country, my very restricted visa. I had spent the absolute maximum of days I could in Tajikistan, so I was very short of time in Uzbekistan, forcing me to take my bike into trains often.
What I did find in Uzbekistan were cities with a long history, filled with splendid architecture. When the sun was out, these glorious masterpieces were mesmerizing and I spent hours and hours photographing architecture (see above). I needed the sun not only for the light, but also for the warmth – my hands were too frozen to hold a camera without gloves otherwise. On a positive note, Uzbekistan taught me to be utterly grateful for any sunny day, any bit of warmth. And since I so longed for beauty, it raised my appreciation for wonderful historic architecture to completely new levels (and there is much of that to explore in Uzbekistan). The long bouts of darkness also gave me some time to reflect on this journey so far. During sleepless nights, I realized that I had followed one principle so far: I would set no rules for myself during this journey (more on letting go of rules here). Instead, I would attempt only to stay healthy, alive and out of prison (and there were times during this expedition, later on, during which I struggled with all three).
After all the difficulties in Uzbekistan, with non-functioning ATMs, deep mud and slightly paranoid authorities, Kazakhstan felt like a blessing. The people had become kinder and kinder the further north I had ventured in Uzbekistan. By the time I reached Kazakhstan, I was again surrounded by an incredible friendliness that I had missed after leaving Tajikistan (Uzbekistan sometimes has a bit of a macho culture, which, as a woman, I did not enjoy).
Kazakhstan is a tremendously large country. I only had time to explore the Mangistau region in the far West of the country, with its wonderful desert landscapes, dotted with numerous necropoli (as the one in the photo). No matter where I went, the Kazakh people I met where very excited to have me there and to help me whenever it was needed. In fact, during my (many) days in the city of Aktau, I became somewhat of a local celebrity, but in a heart-warming way: it seemed half of the city knew me and I was cordially and respectfully introduced to any bystander as ‘our journalist from Germany’. I was trying to explain that I am, in fact, not a journalist. Maybe it was my poor command of Russian, maybe the people from Aktau simply liked their own story better. For them, I stayed ‘our journalist’ and nothing could curb their enthusiasm and kindness towards me.
Kazakhstan, where my journey ended. Or, at least, where my plans ended. I reached the Caspian Sea at Aktau and did not know exactly where to continue. Take a ferry to cycle through Azerbaijan and Georgia, in order to continue cycling towards Europe? That had been on my mind, but cold and snow would await me there already. Or take a flight to Iran, where I had been invited by two friends? Iran, about which I had not even thought previously and where I would have to wear Hijab. I spent long hours sitting at the shore of the Caspian Sea, looking at the water, trying to decide.
Booking a flight to Iran felt a bit like deciding to go on a cycling expedition through the high mountains of Central Asia with zero prior experience. I was excited beyond anything, filled with fear as well as curiosity of what would await me.
I have never regretted my decision to come to Iran. A rollercoaster ride it was, but an incredibly enriching one. Recently, I was asked which countries surprised me most, in a positive way. For me, those were Iran and Pakistan. I have been to few countries where the difference between the picture that is conveyed of a country in the news and the reality on the road clash so much. Iranian hospitality is beyond anything you can imagine and is extended with incredible warmth. During my seven weeks in Iran, traversing this huge country from Tehran all the way to the Persian Gulf, I only managed to camp on two nights. For bureaucratic reasons, I needed to stay in a hostel a few times. All the other nights, I was, without fail, invited into the homes and hearts of Iranians (and that of a dear German friend in Tehran). When I was on my bike, trucks and cars regularly stopped next to me, because people wanted to offer me drinks and food.
Iran was also the stage of the incredible friendship between an Iranian, a Swiss and a German. The three of us had met on the road in Tajikistan and promised to meet again in Esfahan, the hometown of our Iranian friend. The time we had together was unforgettable, filled with laughter and discussions, delightful nonsense and deep understanding at the same time. As a result, this city will always have a special place in my heart. There are few places on this planet where I felt just as welcome and at home (this is also where the photo was taken).
But it was not all sunshine. The rollercoaster ride of Iran did not only include incredible hospitality, friendship and mind-blowing masterpieces of architecture. I also faced fascism, assaults and discrimination as a woman. Which, at some point, made me decide to disguise myself as a man when cycling. A decision that made my life a lot easier on the road, but also filled me with fear about being found out. And fear of the potential consequences – you may know that all women are required by law to wear hijab in Iran (which I was technically not, whenever I disguised myself as a man). At the same time, it was unbelievably eye-opening and enriching to experience this country both as a man and as a woman. I don’t think I would have understood nearly as much about the Iranian society, had I not had two perspectives on it.
All that notwithstanding, I think back to Iran with a lot of compassion for the countless friends I have there. Those I knew before. The many I made on the road. And I am grateful for all the things that my experiences there taught me, about letting go of expectations and just being (see here).
6. United Arab Emirates
When the ferry crossed the international border between Iran and UAE, the women on board let their headscarves fall, including me. I will never forget this moment, that felt so liberating for me. I will also never forget how overwhelmed I was by the sheer amounts of goods and consumerism all around me in UAE. This is a world that will never feel good to me – the megalomania, the terrible discrimination against immigrants, the exploitation of resources … and some of most challenging traffic I have found anywhere (I found staying alive while cycling to be more difficult in Dubai than in New Delhi).
Fortunately, a good friend of mine was working in Dubai at the time, who took me in and gave me the biggest present of all: her bathtub (my first bath in six months)! She was also with me when my boyfriend announced on the phone that he had booked a last-minute flight to come and cycle with me through UAE and Oman. We had talked about the idea, but having him actually come (and in just two days) was a bit of a shock. I sure was happy to see him, but after all the months of solitude… So all of a sudden, I found myself in company while tackling the deserts of UAE by bike. The heat was rough, but waking up to the noise of a camel herd and camping in soft sand dunes are wonderful things, indeed (see photo).
Most of all, I had missed the warmth of the Iranian people when cycling in UAE. Luckily, we were headed to Oman. The Omani people are of a gentle kindness that is unforgettable. ‘If you want to camp, I am happy to show you a nice spot in the dunes. Unless, of course, you prefer to stay in my family’s beach house. It is all yours, if you like.’ And then getting never ending plates of the most delicious dishes.
And that was good. Being a touristy tourist in Oman can be mind-bogglingly expensive – in fact, we could not afford hotel rooms. Thus, we depended on being invited by locals in order to be able to wash ourselves from time to time (and fortunately, they kept inviting us). The other challenge was the insane heat. We were cycling there in full winter, the coldest time of the year. Yet, we still saw temperatures rise above 40 degree Celsius on some days. Which, combined with the crazy gradients of some of Oman’s streets, can make your life hard, to say the least. But the beauty of the barren landscapes, dotted by incredibly fertile oases in shady wadis – it all made up for it (you might agree, if you look at the photo).
At the end of my time in Oman, I realized that I needed a break from cycling. Physically, psychologically. So far, I had woken up every day with a smile, knowing that if I could chose, this would be exactly what I would opt for: another day outdoors, on the road, on my bicycle. But in Oman, there was a week when I accumulated injuries and fell sick at the same time. And I have come to trust my intuition and my body (more thoughts about trust here). I simply woke up one day and knew it was time for a break from cycling. Some time to stay put, get organized, figure out my next routes, get the next visa. In a way, I had come to the literal end of the road anyways, at the southern tip of the Arabic Peninsula: I was again facing the ocean, with no obvious next country for this journey.
… which, after all, brought me to Mongolia. This was not a decision taken lightly. Mongolia is one of the last frontiers in the cycle touring world. Sure, people do it, but challenges abound – scarce water, mosquitos, thunderstorms, terrible roads, the gigantic distances to be covered. And I was about to head out there all by myself. But then, I had chosen the Pamir Highway as my start into this cycling adventure, so I had some serious adventure experience under my belt. Or so I thought.
I actually prepare myself as well as I can, in particular for the stretches far from civilization. My life depends on it. But no matter how well you prepare, some things can take a wrong turn quite easily. I had some of these very close calls in Mongolia, among them running dangerously low on water and almost being hit by lightning (you can read about those experiences here). On top of that, I was assaulted by Mongolian men at a disturbingly high frequency. Assaulted to the point that I was afraid I would lose faith in humanity. I shared those experiences with you in one of the most personal blog posts I have ever published (here). Thanks a lot to the many people who reached out for me in response. And to the brave men and women who shared their similar experiences, many also set in Mongolia.
I have never endured challenges on so many levels, for such a long time, as in this country. The landscapes were mind-blowing, though, and in terms of camping, I was spoilt for choice. I was lucky that I was well-rested and well-nourished before I had set out from Ulaanbaatar. I am not sure how I would have managed without, on this journey to my very limits. And another aspect saved me: as much as I would not have minded to die in Tajikistan, at this extraordinary place that had called me for years, I very much minded to die in Mongolia. And will power goes a long way.
After the hard times in Mongolia, I would have been in love with ANY other country, I guess. In the case of China, a couple of factors were added to this. Some 10 years ago, I spent half a year living in China, so the culture is not completely foreign to me. And even though I have forgotten quite a bit, I can still read and speak the language in enough proficiency to get along. In addition, I was simply overwhelmed by the delicious food, Uyghur and Han, that I could get no matter where I went (the food in Mongolia is probably the worst I had in the 50+ countries I have travelled in).
The Uyghur culture of Xinjiang province in the far West of China is very distinct, with open-minded people who are genuinely friendly – unless you attempt to speak Mandarin with them (it took me a while before I understood and kept my mouth shut). In fact, much of the culture here reminded me of my months in Central Asia, the summer before, and brought back good memories. Kashgar became my hiding place for a while (where this photo was taken), to process the experiences in Mongolia, make new friends and get some much needed rest.
‘If I had not already lost my heart to Tajikistan, Pakistan would be my love.’ Statement of my dear Columbian friend Natalia, with whom I spent lovely days hiking in Pakistan. I agree with her partially, because I am in love with both (I don’t think love is mutually exclusive). I cycled along the famous Karakorum Highway (KKH), that leads through gorgeous scenery from China into the even more stunning mountains of Pakistan. The KKH is a cyclist’s dream come true: good tarmac (nowadays), passing through spectacular landscape with glaciers, peaks of more than 7,000 meters altitude, beautiful orchards and stunning lakes.
And it is not just about cycling: Pakistan is foremost a paradise for mountaineers. Some of the most beautiful mountains can be reached on comparatively easy hikes (not summiting, but getting to their base camps). I was more than happy about having carried my heavy mountaineering boots for those endless kilometers when I did not need them, just to have the chance to go hiking in Pakistan’s stunning nature. I joined forces in this endeavour with some extraordinary people I met on the road, people with whom I could connect immediately and with whom I share precious memories, such as standing in awe in front of glaciers at sunrise (see photo).
The Pakistani people, meanwhile, are en pars with the Tajiks, Iranians and Omanis when it comes to hospitality and kindness. Just wonderful! In fact, there are cultural links between all of them (to the best of my knowledge), which also meant that I recognized some words, architectural structures, bits and pieces that made my falling in love even easier. In the area of Gilgit-Baltistan, where I spent most of my time, locals are highly educated and communicating in English is very rarely a problem. Similarly to other places where only the few and hardy travel, the other travelers you meet are also extraordinary. The friendships forged during these weeks, both with Pakistanis and with foreign travelers, will surely last for a long time.
I would have stayed for months in Pakistan, had I not had someone waiting for me in Ladakh, India. My boyfriend had again packed his bicycle to join me for a month of cycling in the Himalayas. This time, I was more prepared to give up my solitude for a bit. Only that a lot of other factors happened to be out of our control. Kashmir had become off limits, due to the escalating conflict there. Snow fell a lot earlier than expected in Ladakh, stopping us on the way to the second highest pass in the world, Tanglang La (5,328m). A lot of changes of plans, adapting, figuring out alternatives. Eventually, we decided to spend the rest of our days together cycling a stretch that I had planned to do alone, from Lahaul into Spiti valley, from where I continued solo into Kinnaur.
I have a penchant for barren, starkly beautiful mountainscapes and the Indian Himalayas are a wonderland in this regard. Add to this very welcoming locals, a largely Tibetan culture (see photo) and ancient monasteries in the position of eagles’ nests. Yes, the nights were pretty cold, the road among the worst I have ever been on, the food oftentimes just Maggi noodles. But I loved it! I don’t mind to make only few kilometers a day, to struggle with altitude, to fight with mountain passes. It all just teaches you patience and modesty.
Comes New Delhi and the challenges got to a new level: incredible smog, even for Delhi’s standards, and an overnight devaluation of 80% of India’s currency (and pretty much all of my cash). Add to this a change of the law that rendered my plan of cycling from India through Myanmar to Thailand impossible. In the end, I was out of my mind happy when I managed to scrap enough money together and take a flight out of this madness.
Similarly as Iran last year, Thailand had not really been on my mind. My plans had ended in New Delhi. All of the plans I had come up with in the meantime had been turned infeasible due to the political situation. So Thailand it is. Up to now, I have largely worked on this calendar here. As soon as this blog post is out, I am headed towards the Golden Triangle and then onwards to Laos.
In a way, I feel like having come full circle: Thailand was the first Asian country I ever visited, back when I was 19. My memories are blurry and a lot of things have changed, but I do remember visiting this very city, Chiang Mai, half a lifetime ago. I don’t know what awaits me here (you never know), but the challenge is already clear: taking it easy. Being nice to myself. For me personally, taking the adventurous road is always easier than not to. To my relief, I will be in mountainous areas again. Not the Pamirs, not the Karakorum, not the Himalayas. But that does not matter. The road is waiting for me.
… and finally: the calendar!
This is where the story ends, for now. Or, depending how you see it, where it starts anew, here in South-East Asia. As I wrote before, I created a beautiful photo calendar with these 12 photos from my journey. If you enjoyed following along and would like to support me a bit on this adventure, you would make me very happy if you ordered one. Or maybe one more if you have a good friend whom you believe would enjoy this, too. You can find all relevant infos for purchasing the calendar here. Have a wonderful start into 2017!
PS: Here is a map that shows where this journey on my bike has taken me so far.