This is an ugly post. This is a post that hurt to write. This is a post that made me cry. I wished it had had no reason to be written. But it does. One reason is that I want others to be warned, in particular other women travelling solo. The other reason is that I won’t shut up in the face of perpetrators. I know that it won’t be read by those, rather by the friendly Mongolians who helped me. That is unfortunate. But this should not keep me from being honest. So, in all honesty, here are three aspects of Mongolia, that I am glad to have left behind.
In our everyday lives, most of us have a buffer between life and death, and a comfortably huge one at that. We have insurances, access to a health care system, houses that protect us from thunderstorms, access to clean drinking water and nutritiuous food, neighbors that would hopefully get alarmed if we did not leave our apartments for too long. And still, we seem to feel worried. What if I get cancer? What if there was a substance in this meal that I am allergic to? There is much to worry (and some of it for good reason), but this does not cover the main fact: the buffer between life and death tends to be much bigger than we believe.
(Or: knowing when you’re ready)
First things first: the next leg of my journey is coming up really soon (hopping onto my bike Emily tomorrow)! After a long preparation phase with Kafkaesque struggles, I am finally ready to hit the road again. Well, not a road in the sense most of us know roads. The next two months will see me crossing Mongolia by bike, where the way will be unpaved for large sections, both following GPS coordinates and navigating with my paper maps. I will then continue into Northwestern China, cycle via the Karakorum highway into Pakistan and then onwards to the Indian Himalayas. At least, that is the plan. Plans are as volatile as life (in a good way), but that is the plan I have visas for, at least.
Everybody faces her fear sooner or later in her life. The real one. The big one. Not the small ones that we believe are so important – be it being humiliated, failing in front of others, showing emotions when we are vulnerable, … These are the kinds of fear we are used to in our everyday lives. No, there is an existential fear that is a completely different matter. It is a fear that teaches you what fear really is. An instinctive fear. A primeval fear. A fear you might feel when you are running for your life. A fear that many of us are only facing when we are on our dying beds. I believed that death would not scare me and maybe it actually doesn’t. Still, leaving alone for the Pamirs, on this wind-swept day, on this empty road, towards those towering mountains, I felt as if I was jumping off a cliff. I decided to trust the universe to catch me. To accept that everything beyond this jump is beyond my control. To hand myself to these mountains and accept whatever the outcome.
How do you prepare for the biggest challenge of your life? In retrospect, I would say that the Pamir highway was exactly this. Maybe this whole journey, but this stretch was where all my fears where concentrated. The second highest international highway of the world. Compared to nothing I have ever attempted before. It was borderline insane for a number of reasons: my start very late into the season, with snow on my heals. My cycling there solo. And the fact that I had pretty much zero experience with cycling and camping at high altitude (the first mountain passes I ever tackled in my life had been the ones of the two weeks prior when I crossed Kyrgzystan).
I had thought of other things to share, but after the terrible events in Beirut and Paris, this would feel off to me. What I do want to share with you, though, is a statement that occured over and over again during my journey, in particular during the many days that I spent cycling and walking along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border: ‘We are no extremists.’
When you are travelling alone, nobody sets any rules for you. Still, some travellers decide to set rules for themselves, in particular when they are on the road for longer. One rule I encountered among cyclists is to cycle every inch of the way, for example. Others set out with the aim to only hitchhike. And really, it is totally up to you which flavor you want to give to your journey. Or maybe which challenge you want to tackle. Maybe even more so when you are travelling solo. Upon encountering other people’s rules, I started to think if I wanted to have any. The inner debate did not take long.
My main rule is: there are no rules.
Wrapping up those first two weeks is a tough job. My fear at the beginning was justified and not. A very boring, rainy first day got me to Kara Balta, a small city with a remarkably run-down gastinitza (hotel) from Soviet times, but also with a (similarly run down, but wonderfully hot) banya next door. A banya is a Russian style sauna, featuring not only hot water (hot AND water, both really precious), but also a hot surrounding for washing yourself. The last weeks have seen me become addicted to them – there is nothing quite like the smell of hot water in a metal container! Sometimes, I just stick my head inside the bucket and enjoy this particular smell…
When deciding what I should post first, I was tempted. Tempted to start with the wonderful landscape vistas, the photos of smiling people who helped me on the way, of the dog that chased the wolf away from my tent at night. About how my leap of faith into the world of cycle touring worked out rather well.
Leaving Berlin was as awful as it could get. A flight postponed twice due to sickness and issues with gear deliveries. The most stressful 60min of my life checking in at the airport (had I not had help by Christian who bravely tackled the challenge of packing my bike Emily, there would habe been no chance for me to make that flight). A night spent in flight and in airports. Arrival in Kyrgyzstan totally sleep-deprived and with sinking heart: would my bike Emily have made it? And if so: in how many pieces?