From Cycling

Looking back: photo calendar of more than a year on the road

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. As a side note: As the calendar season is ending, we offer a huge discount for the remaining photo calendars: 25% off for the US version, 50% off for the worldwide version. Check it out – wanderlust never gets old :-)!
(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!

 

1. Kyrgyzstan

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The famous bazaar of Osh, the last place to stock up on supplies before the Pamir highway (Kyrgyzstan)

Enjoy what you see? Click here to get the photo calendar!

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.

 

2. Tajikistan

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The beautiful Panj river, separating Afghanistan and Tajikistan (Wakhan valley, Tajikistan)

Enjoy what you see? Click here to get the photo calendar!

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.

 

3. Uzbekistan

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Ancient columns at the Djuma mosque, dating back to the 10th century (Khiva, Uzbekistan)

Enjoy what you see? Click here to get the photo calendar!

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).

 

4. Kazakhstan

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The necropolis of Koshkar Ata creates a fairytale skyline in the middle of the desert (Mangistau region, Kazakhstan)

Enjoy what you see? Click here to get the photo calendar!

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.

 

5. Iran

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Detail of the famous Shah Mosque, one of the masterpieces of Iranian architecture, completed 1629 (Esfahan, Iran)

Enjoy what you see? Click here to get the photo calendar!

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

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Flowers in the desert (Grand Sand Dune, United Arab Emirates)

Enjoy what you see? Click here to get the photo calendar!

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).

 

7. Oman

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Abundance of lush plants and water, a blessing in the desert (Wadi Shab, Oman)

Enjoy what you see? Click here to get the photo calendar!

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.

 

8. Mongolia

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The world is your camp ground (Central Mongolia)

Enjoy what you see? Click here to get the photo calendar!

… 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.

 

9. China

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Uyghur musicians in one of the last remaining traditional tea houses of Kashgar (Xinjiang province, China)

Enjoy what you see? Click here to get the photo calendar!

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.

 

10. Pakistan

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Sunrise over the glacier of Rakaposhi (7,788m / 25,551ft) in the Karakorum mountain range (Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan)

Enjoy what you see? Click here to get the photo calendar!

‘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.

 

11. India

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Reaching Kunzum La pass (4,590m / 15,060ft) in the Himalayas (Himachal Pradesh, India)

Enjoy what you see? Click here to get the photo calendar!

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.

 

12. Thailand

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Traditional umbrellas in the midst of ferns (Chiang Mai, Thailand)

Enjoy what you see? Click here to get the photo calendar!

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!

Whoohoo! A rare photo of me while cycling! The benefits of being in company for some time during my route through the Indian Himalayas.

 

PS: Here is a map that shows where this journey on my bike has taken me so far.

The dark side of Mongolia

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.

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Sometimes, the sun sets and all is forgotten. Sometimes, the pain stays with you long after…

 

(1) Forget about private sphere

‘I haven’t seen her in a while.’
– ‘What do you mean?’
‘I haven’t seen her in at least an hour! She hasn’t left her room since then.’
– ‘Well, she’s probably fine.’
‘Ha, didn’t you know that humans die without the attention of other humans? She is probably in severe danger! It’s called Sudden Death Phenomenon.’
– ‘Who, I didn’t think of that!’
‘Nobody can survive without constant social control. We should check if she’s alive.’
– ‘In fact, it’s our duty! Let’s go instantly.’

Knocking on the door of the cyclist. Nobody answers. Knocking harder. No answer. Kicking on the door with boots. A tired woman opens the door. ‘Yes? Sorry, I took a nap…’
(The two men just look around the room. Look at the woman. Leave without a word.)

‘So she WAS alive. Did we really have to threaten to break in the door? Her hearing seemed to be fine the last time we saw here…’
– ‘You never know. There is also a Sudden Deaf Phenomenon. People go deaf from one instant to another.’
‘Well, at least we know she is doing fine.’

30 minutes later.
‘Listen, I haven’t seen her in a while…’

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Doors and locks – not very typical for Mongolia

This conversation probably never happened. But I imagine that conversations like it MUST have happened, over and over again. Otherwise, I cannot explain why on earth people would come and check my hotel room constantly. Nor have I found any explanation why people almost kick in the door in the process. If there is a door to kick in in the first place – many of the rooms cannot be locked, as they don’t have keys. Some don’t even have doors. Which, admittedly, makes checking a LOT easier. One night, the owner of one guesthouse checked my room at midnight, at 3am and then again at 6:30am. For no apparent reason. Lesson learned: When in Mongolia, forget about private sphere.

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Many nomads camp in stunning locations- one of the most beautiful campsites on my Mongolian journey

I guess this is linked to the nomadic past (and present) of the people: the whole family shares one ger, the door is oftentimes open. Add to this a strong sense of family and the fact that Mongolians do not seem to exist in singular. During the Nadaam festival (mid July), whole groups of families go on a one-week vacation together. Meaning, they travel in convoys of, no, not two or three cars – we are talking about seven to eight cars! The idea of travelling ‘ganzara’ (alone – one of the first Mongolian words I learned), is deeply foreign to Mongolians. And a little strange, it seems.

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Nomads on the move (with the traditional ger on top), but never alone

When I met Mongolians in a guanz (simple canteen), the conversation on the other tables immediately revolved around the word ganzara. I did get thumbs up for crossing Mongolia by bike. But, ganzara, really? Heads were shaken in disbelieve. How does a human surive? I have to admit that there is a point to this, indeed. There is an inherent danger in being away from civilization alone. If I get injured or just fall sick, there is nobody around to help me. I am aware of that and the risks I take. Even though I prepare as well as I can (by taking a Personal Locator Beacon with me to be able sending an SOS signal, e.g.), there are things out of my control (see this post). In the end, it is up to luck. However, it seemed that for Mongolians, the social dimension of being out there alone was considered to be a lot more severe than the physical challenges I might face.

‘Your family must be really tolerant, to let you go on a journey like this.’
– ‘Well, I am a grown-up adult. I am financing this journey with my own savings from having worked hard. I don’t need the permission of my parents.’
– ‘… they must be REALLY tolerant…’
(Said a highly educated middle-aged Mongolia woman, who was travelling in one of said convoys.)

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Solitude in Mongolia? Well, sometimes it rather feels crowded…

I came to Mongolia searching for solitude. In my mind this should have been easy in a country such vast (roughly 1,500,000 km2), inhabited by only 3 million people (half of them in the capital). I knew that those 1.5 million people are spread all over the enormous land mass that is Mongolia – there is a ger in sight almost anywhere you go. You might not always spot it, but rest assured that the nomads spotted you already. And rest assured also that you’ll have a few interested visitors at your tent in the evening and morning. Actually, I camped most of the time – hotel rooms were an exception. Tents do not have doors to knock on. Mongolians find a way around that. If they arrive on a motorbike, they could count on me hearing the engine. If arriving by horse, they would start singing or whistling once they get closer to my tent, making sure I knew that they were coming.

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A lovely morning greeting from my nomadic neighbors: milk tea and a delicious dairy speciality made mostly from butter and sugar (yes, it tastes as fantastic as it sounds!)

Meeting nomads was usually a nicer experience than having visitors at your hotel room all the time (and having to fight for the right to lock the room I paid for). Many nomads seemed concerned that I was doing well and if I camped close to a ger, the family often brought tea to my tent or something to eat. I was moved by their concern and grateful for the food or tea. There was one thing I could not get over, however…

 

(2) Sexism and Chauvinism

‘Sex?’

I cannot remember how often I was asked this question in those two months I cycled through Mongolia. Usually, I was asked without any prior introduction, without any ‘hello’ or ‘sain bainuu’ (hello in Mongolian). At first, I believed that there must be a Mongolian word that SOUNDS like ‘sex’, but actually means something different. My doubts were unnecessary, as the question was oftentimes followed by very obvious gestures. And a facial expression that seemed to say: ‘Hell, this stupid foreign woman does not even understand the simplest question of human mankind! What else could I possibly want from her?’

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My tent seemed very inviting…

The first times, I was simply speechless. These were nomads coming to my tent, sometimes late at night, to ask me for sex? Seriously? I did not and still do not understand. Beggars beg because they have experienced success with that, they begged and got money. These men? I cannot imagine a woman in this entire world who would say ‘Sure, come on in!’. I really cannot (but maybe I am just lacking imagination). I saw real disappointment in the faces of some of the men when I sent them away. They sometimes even brought a second horse for me, motioning that I didn’t have to ride my bike to get to their ger for getting laid – how considerate.

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Bringing a spare horse to my tent… really? (not this Mongolian, though)

And it was not only the nomads. This phenomenon seemed to encompass Mongolian men of all ages and all living conditions. I was asked for sex by boys barely 12 years old up to men of about 60, out in the steppe as well as in villages. It doesn’t make it any better to be asked for sex in the street when you buy water from a shop. But at least, the guy then didn’t know where I was sleeping – and I didn’t have to worry about him coming back later that night to get what he wanted by force. Fortunately, that never happened, but it still made for some very uncomfortable nights. I am sure they did not understand my swearing at them in English, but I am also sure that they got the tone.

Why all the sexism? I don’t actually know. Usually, I feel safe in that regard in Asia – tall and athletic women usually don’t fit the bill for being considered attractive here. My guidebook explicitly states that women ‘have no trouble travelling the country alone.’ Well, yes, I haven’t been raped. But I find the question deeply insulting. I guess it is caused by a mixture of chauvinism and probably Russian pornography (or pornography featuring Caucasian looking women, at least). In any case, something, somewhere must have instilled the thought in the heads of Mongolian men that Caucasian women are just waiting to be laid by them. Anywhere, anytime.

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Central Mongolia. Nice landscapes. But…

The sex question seemed to be related to Central Mongolia. At least, that is where I encountered the question most often, sometimes more than once per day. Then, I spent five days cycling through no-man’s land – terrain so hostile and arid that not even nomads live there. No men, no sex question. My daily routine was grueling (see this post), with scarce water and armies of mosquitos, but at least, I was left alone. Somehow, I was starting to hope that this topic was over. That it was related to a particular region of Mongolia. That the upcoming 1000km of Mongolian roads would see no horny man.

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Finally off to where nobody would assault me. Or so I hoped…

After those five days, I finally arrived at a ger cum guanz (canteen) in Uvs province which, according to my route notes, sold water. Finally! I had made it through this hostile terrain! I was safe! I got water bottles and started refilling my dromedary bag. After you have just spent such an enormous distance where you ration your water, counting every milliliter, handling water becomes a task of utter concentration. Don’t spill precious water, don’t spill… And then, I felt a hand from behind, grabbing me hard between the legs. This is a moment I will never forget. It was not the first time this happened to me. But even though all of those incidents have left their mark, this one shattered me to the bone. All of a sudden, I was overwhelmed by a tiredness deeper than anything. I had just survived the no man’s land. I had made it through a physical and mental challenge that was unsurpassed by anything I had encountered on this journey before. I had been so much looking forward to making it to civilization, to get somewhere safe where humans can live. And the second human I meet is assaulting me. Is using, no ABusing my mental and physical exhaustion for his perverted idea of sexuality. It felt as if he had trampled out my inner fire that had kept me going through all this. Suddenly, I was all ashen inside. I had nothing left. No air for shouting, no power for slapping. I just turned my bike around and cycled over the next hill, out of sight. Once I felt a little safer, I just broke down over my handlebar and cried. Cried for the first time after the last truly horrible thing that happened to me, an attempted gang rape in Iran.

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At the shore of Khyargas Nuur. I only realized how beautiful it was after I stopped crying.

As I learned, Mongolian men in Uvs province don’t waste their time asking. They just do. And the sexual assaults continued, with men touching me against my will – thighs, breasts, .. you name it. These were no accidents. They usually waited until I was busy trying to steady my bike, filling my water, talk to a child. They waited until they knew that I could not react or at least: not react fast.
I got mad, as I did when asked for sex. I shouted. But I also realized that I was getting tired. Tired of having to fend for my private sphere and my dignity all the time. Tired of being considered an easy prey. In most cases, I was very certain that I was stronger than these guys, physically, mentally. But I was tired to the bone, tired of this bullshit.

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There were times when I so much wished to be alone in this country, just me and the herds of animals

So far, I have lived in six different countries and travelled in more than 50. I have experienced sexual assaults in many of them (and many of them actually in my home country, Germany). But frankly, never have I experienced anything like I did in Mongolia. Never this frequency. People speak about Muslim countries and how tough it supposedly is for women to travel there. They have no idea. In the seven Muslim countries through which I cycled so far (all of the countries of this trip before Mongolia), I was treated with respect, mostly. I had some really bad experience in Iran (among them the mentioned rape attempt). Yet, 99% of Iranian people I met were friendly and hospitable to me beyond belief. I knew that the truly bad experiences I had were exceptions, the few bad apples. But the wonderful majority of the people made up for it. Don’t get me wrong, women are not treated equally there, by far not. But even though I was treated as worth less than a man, I seemed still be to considered to have some worth, some dignity.

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Erdene Zuu monastery, Kharkhorin

Mongolia is predominantly Buddhist. And chauvinism and sexism are prevalent beyond belief. I don’t want to suggest that to be the cause, but it seems not to  reign in sexism either. I find it hard to endure sexism in my own culture, but mostly, I know that it is a minority. And I am optimistic enough to believe that those sexists mostly know that their behavior is condemned by the majority of society. This creates at least some mental barriers that might hinder some to act. Bad enough that some men think this way. But while women have to endure sexist actions way too often, at least this does not happen ALL the time.
In Mongolia, there seems to be no such barrier. Sexism is absolutely common and open. If I met a man in the steppe or in the street, I could almost flip a coin to find out if he was going to be okay. If he was going to ask me for sex, whistle, call me ‘sexy baby’ or assault me.

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Some chance encounters were a lot nicer than others

I cannot change this society. I cannot and will not. The only thing I have a handle on is my own reaction, how I cope with the events. I was trying to learn. To be loud, to react physically. And also, to forgive myself. To forgive myself if, after an exhausting day of cycling on challenging tracks in the summer heat, I was too tired for a notable reaction at all. On this bike journey, I have traveled through countries were women have a hard lot. However, my status as ‘foreigner’ saved me from quite a bit of the discrimination. In a way, I was oftentimes treated as ‘honorary man’ – worth less than an actual man, but more than a local woman. Now, I experienced the very bottom of the pecking order. It did not feel very comfortable there. To be more precise: I got to the absolute limit of what I could possibly bear. I might have gotten out of this stronger than before. At the same time, I kept asking myself how much more shit I would need to go through. And why.

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This is not about me – any woman could be sitting here.

One thing I really did learn: It is not about me. It is not my fault. It never is, in no country. Yet, in other places, sexual assaults occur less often, making you wonder whether you made a mistake (if only that you went to the wrong place). Rest assured: you did not. Mongolia was really pounding that into my head. It is not me. It is a fucked up society (excuse me) that teaches even young boys that it’s fine to assault women. Or, at least, a society that does nothing to KEEP them from assaulting women. Sexism in the culture I come from is surely prevalent, but it is, in many cases, comparable to a sickness that only breaks out occasionally. Bad enough, but somehow bearable. Mongolia is a chronic patient in comparison. In a way, this may be linked to the following…

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Mongolia has some ugly sides – and this is not only about industrial ruins

(3) Alcoholism

A simple zhooshid buudal (hostel). I am sitting in the common room, eating the usual staple of Tsuivan, fried noodles with fatty meat in it. The task needs some concentrating, as I am trying to find the bits of vegetable in there and to avoid the lumps of pure fat. From the corner of my eyes, I see a man walking up to me. He seems drunk. Nothing unusual here – alcoholism is prevalent and when you cycle through a village, it is not uncommon to see one or a few passed out men lying in the street. What I don’t expect, though, is the blow I get, a blow that almost fires the fork out of my hand. Surprised, I look up, into blod-shoot eyes. A fist rammed into my arm is not quite the introduction I am used to. The guy makes a pedalling motion with his hands and then points to my bike. Sure, I’ll hand over my most beloved and precious possession to a drunk idiot who just hit me! I firmly shake my head. ‘No!’ I am about to turn around to my dish again, when the fist hits me a second time, this time on the collarbone. In pain, I jump up. If we are getting into a fist fight, I prefer to be on my feet. The drunken Mongolian seems agitated as well. He repeats the pedalling motion and the pointing at my bike, just more fervently than before. Of course! I only needed to be hit a SECOND time to allow him to ride my bike. That’s how the world works. Hitting someone TWICE work better than ONCE. How could I forget! ‘NO. AND FUCK OFF.’ I am sure he doesn’t understand a word, but the tone is hard to miss. He seems to consider hitting me a third time. Then, his face goes blank. Seconds later, he seems to have forgotten what he had wanted so badly just a moment ago. Disoriented, he looks around. I point the way to the door and he stumbles out.

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Nomrog, the village where I had this unpleasant encounter with a drunk bike fan

My encounters with drunk Mongolians were far less frequent, fortunately, than the above-mentioned incidents with sexists (and just for the record, the sexists mostly seemed sober). Still, I have been hit by a fist three times in my two months I spent in Mongolia. Once, the blow was aimed directly at my head and I was just lucky that my instincts were fast enough to have me raise my underarms to take the blow. Apparently, getting up to my full height was always a bad idea – that was usually the very moment when drunks got aggressive. Even though I realized that, I just couldn’t bring myself to keep sitting when I was about to be attacked. The instinct of being able to flee or fight back was just too strong. So I will keep jumping up. And I will keep getting hit.

Usually, I have an easy time passing as a man if need be (pulling up a hood usually helps), as most people don’t expect a woman to be as tall. There have been many times when I feigned confidence and used my body for that. Straighten your shoulders, stand with legs wide apart. I know the game and it has worked well many times. In Mongolia, however, seeing a potentially stronger opponent seems to incite a lemming-like desire to get into a fight (among drunks, at least). I don’t understand that instinct, but I also have a hard time supressing MY instinct to do what almost always worked (outside of Mongolia): to play strong, not weak.

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Would you hit someone stronger than you?

In combination with the sexism, I felt doubly punished. My physical strength usually gets me through most things alright. Now, this previous advantage turned against me. My body drew a LOT of (sexual) attention. And it also seemed to invite quite a bit of physical aggression.

Weirdly enough, pure physical violence does not hurt me as much as sexism.

 

What to make out of this?

I cannot offer bulletproof recipes to any woman venturing out into Mongolia alone. I have been trying to pass as a man here, to no avail in contrast to Iran. Not even shaving my head seemed to have helped in any way – Mongolian men recognized me as a woman even from behind when I was on my bike (wearing unisex clothes). The countless ‘hey sexy baby’s’ bear testament of this – and they were shouted at me before those guys had even passed me in their vehicles.

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Find yourself some good neighbors- camping next to lovely French people and their dogs made for the most relaxing night I had in Mongolia

The one advice I can offer: spend as little time as possible in villages and stay away from drunks (as far as you can – once I was assaulted by a drunk in a hostel at night. There is not much I could have done to avoid that.). When camping, don’t try to hide – they will find you anyways and I found that the sex question is almost guaranteed if nobody else is around. Instead, after asking permission, camp close to assemblies of gers where families live (the sex question does not come as often in front of others). I should add, though, that I was once asked for sex by a man in front of his daughter. So try to be somewhere, where there are other MEN around (women don’t seem to count that much, no matter whether they are German or Mongolian).

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Stay where there are people around- do NOT try to hide. But be aware of the drunks at the same time

Another piece of advice: be vigilant all the time. Literally try to have your back (or rather: your behind) covered. If possible, have a wall behind you when you bend over your bike or fill water. Never allow anyone into your hotel room, no matter what they claim, not even the hotel manager (who grabbed my breasts once he was in). If possible, try to get a room that can be locked and use that lock when you are in there yourself. Rooms shield you from view of others and some Mongolian men thought this was a perfect situation (for them, not me, obviously).

To safe (a bit of) the honor of Mongolian men: at the end of my journey, in the far Southwestern corner of Mongolia (Khovd province), I finally got away from it all. Nothing happened to me there at all. It is considered the most ethnically diverse province and the busy trade with Kazakhstan, Russia and China draws a lot of business people in. It is also predominantly Muslim, not Buddhist. I am guessing that part of this might offer an explanation, though other aspects might factor in. But then, after I had already left Mongolia, I heard from one of my dear female cyclist friends, that she was sexually assaulted in extactly this province…

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Yes, the landscapes are wonderful. But…

Sadly, despite the inspiring landscape, I cannot honestly recommend travelling through Mongolia solo as a woman. If you do, chose the province carefully and come mentally prepared for rarely having any private sphere, for encountereing a lot of sexism and also some alcohol-fuelled violence. I have been in shitty situations before and managed to find solutions. Maybe the solution was somewhere out there. Maybe there was at least a lesson behind all that. But to be honest, I have not found it yet.

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I will forever be grateful for the good people I met in Mongolia- without them, I would have despaired

You can survive for quite a while without food. You can survive without water for a much briefer period. I realized that I, personally, cannot survive a day without believing in the good of people. Having the opposite slapped into my face over and over again was draining. Despite formidable physical challenges, I found this to be the hardest part of crossing Mongolia. I did meet Mongolians who were nice and gentle to me, some of them. When this did happen, when I was offered help, I was grateful beyond belief. Even a smile did me a world of good. It very much felt like getting to a source of water after having cycled through the desert. After all the verbal and physical assaults, I longed for human kindness as I did for a drip of water. When I found it – a source of water, human kindness – I stayed for as long as I possibly could (and as my visa allowed). My rest days were as much about resting physically, as they were about refuelling emotionally. I will forever be thankful for those Mongolians who helped me in that. Hopefully, I will learn to forgive the many others.

Mongolia and the frailty of life

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.

Sometimes, however, we encounter situations when the buffer becomes paper-thin. Maybe non-existant. Life, death, and nothing between. The edge of the sword – and it is up to luck which way we fall. Seven years ago, this happened to me. A close friend of mine found a tragic death while mountaineering. Had I accompanied him, as was planned originally, these lines would not be written by me. When death knocks on your door at the age of 26, you start to think about life differently. I did not stop my life out of fear, but it did take years until I ventured into the mountains again. I began to weigh my risks. I started making decisions with more care. In essence, I became aware to the frailty of life. And that the buffer between life and death can collapse easily, even if you are far from having grandchildren yet.

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Getting up a glacier in the Alps, during the last mountaineering trip with my friend Patrick before his death

So Mongolia it is…

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Roadsigns are rare in Mongolia – and they often show disheartening distances, in particular when you consider the state of some tracks

Crossing Mongolia by bike, solo, was a hard call in that regard. This country concentrates all the fears that cyclists have: enormous distances, scarce water, bad to non-existant roads, mosquitos gallore, … you name it, it’s there. The buffer between life and death? It depends on your preparation, your physical ability, your mental strength, … and luck. Wide open landscapes, horizons that seem to stretch to eternity. For some, this already ignites fear. Fortunately, I have found out in the Pamirs that I thrive in such conditions. That my soul sings when I am absolutely alone in nature (you can find some photos of these incredible landscapes in this post).

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Mongolia at its very best – limitless, beautiful, raw (and wonderful dirt tracks to ride on).
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Houses and shelter are rare (Tosontsengel)

However, the situation can easily change. When you are low on water. When a thunderstorm looms. When you are eaten alive by mosquitos. When the brutal sun burns all life out of you. When a storm almost knocks you off the bike. When you are fighting your way through ankle-deep sand. When a region is so forbidding that there are no nomads anywhere that you could ask for help. And sometimes all of that at once. What tasted like unlimited freedom before quickly becomes endless agony. You cross a pass… and the next plateau again shows none of the things that you so desperately want. No sign of human habitation, no water, no shade, no rideable path, no shelter, no passing trucks. Life starts to feel really frail, then.

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Mongolia at its most awful – fighting my way through a desert with ankle-deep sand and insane headwind

It was those days that taught me an important lesson. When I started out on this bike ride, I left my fierce competitiveness behind, the overachieving, perfectionist me. And that was good. I fully embraced not caring about my mileage, being as nice to myself as possible (some might say, I failed at that by definition – cycling over 4,000m passes on terrible roads in Central Asia is not necessarily the definition of being nice to yourself). Remember that blog post about moving beyond rules that resonated with so many of you (this one)? That the only thing I care about is Staying sane, healthy and out of prison? I am still fully convinced of what I wrote. Leave all and any rules behind. There are no rules in life. You decide to make them up – or you don’t.

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A nomad with his horse – a better choice to cross Mongolia than a bike, probably

…. and my old self comes back

Yet, Mongolia required something else. It required me to dig deep and get out the Anne with a stopwatch in her hands. The hardcore athlete. The Anne who gets onto the track for a sprint workout late at night. The Anne who can beat her body through most anything. The Anne who is defined by discipline. Honestly, I had started to wonder, whether this part of me was still there, still breathing, or if I had lost it altogether. It had been a hard, but necessary step to gain some distance from that part of me. I know that, if the Anne-with-the-stopwatch gets too much space in my life, it ruins my health and my happiness, as I keep pushing myself too far. It is not the competitiveness – that I appreciate very much. The issue is the competitiveness that takes no prisoners, that goes way over the top. However, for crossing Mongolia by bike, through these conditions, that was exactly what I needed. Failure, here, was not an option. And with failure, I do not mean turning back. Failure, here, could easily mean the end of my life.

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A storm building up behind Emily

The last weeks restored my appreciation of the Anne-with-the-stopwatch. I had abandoned her for a reason. Not only did I push myself too far, too often. I also realized that I had been inherently afraid that if I did not perform, if I did not deliver, I would not be loved and appreciated. None of this is the case, as my bike ride has taught me so far. Yet, the Anne-with-the-stopwatch is an inherent part of me. She has a reason in my life. And she deserves to get recognition for that. After all, she has aided me in accomplishing a lot, from scholarships to sports competitions. Most recently, she helped me to survive.

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Tracks in the Mongolian steppe (this is considered a highway, in case you did not realize). Wonderful scenery – but no water for the next 180km (110miles).

Thirst

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Even in the desert, you sometimes find flowers (in the rainy season)

Dying from dehydration is one of the most horrible ways of leaving this life that you can imagine. Pure agony. When I reached Khovd (where I am right now), I read up on the process and what happens to your body. The failing organs, the effects on the brain, the shrinking body sucking all water out of its cells in an attempt to keep the blood flowing and to stay alive. Fortunately, I was never close to death. Usually, I found a source of water every day or two. In rare cases, I asked nomads for water – their ressources are limited, so this was a last resort (also, even though you often see gers in the far distance, they are mostly rather far away from the road, so just getting there can take up to an hour one-way). A few times, I met just wonderful Mongolians, who stopped their vehicles to offer me water and food. Prior to this cycling expedition, I had no idea which level of gratefulness I am able to attain – in partiular when I am low on water. Literally, I could have kissed their feet. What was maybe even more important than their help: these people restored my faith in humanity and that alone fueled me more than any cup of tea could have. The same is true for the nomads who helped me out – and the harshness of their lives make their hospitality even more remarkable.

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Wonderful Mongolians offering me milk tea, biscuits, chocolate and a ride (the ride I declined, but it was still a very nice gesture)

However, I did have a few (three) critical situations, when I had to stretch my water way beyond comfort levels. When there were no nomads anywhere, nor any passing vehicles that I could ask for help. Some of these situations were partly my fault – after all, I am human so I am bound to make mistakes. But essentially, what happened in those cases was that the odds just conspired against me.

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Mongolia is not all lush green (and even a landscape that looks fertile does not mean that you’ll have access to water)

Because the house (and water) my route notes mentioned was abandoned. Because the road was so terrible that I needed twice the time I had anticipated to get to my next water source. Because the temperatures soared sky-high (> 40 degree Celsius / 100 Fahrenheit). Because I had to cycle in my rain gear (jacket and pants) for long stretches. Which – combined with intense sun and soaring temperatures – is pure torture. I can think of few situations in my life that have felt nearly as awful. Why rain gear? There were simply long stretches where the mosquitos went completely crazy. I can tolerate a few bites per hour. I cannot possibly cope with a few bites per second. Cycling in my rain gear was the only way to keep my sanity (even though melting in it was agonizing as well). The mosquitos would bite through anything else, including thermal wear (yes, I tried).

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Setting new fashion standards. And no, I did not feel victorious at all (I still had to put on a second pair of gloves…)

In addition to rain gear, I was wearing two pairs of gloves to protect my hands (one layer was not sufficient). And, critically, a tropical hat that a cyclist from California had given to me as a present (Misha, I will be indebted to you for the rest of my life!). Actually, the hat only kept the mosquitos out of my face. I still needed to wear another hat underneath and my helmet on top to keep them from feasting on my skull. Lesson learned: short hair is not the best choice for a mosquito heaven… Why not DEET-based mosquito spray? First, it only helps for a very short time frame. Second, I would have had to *bathe* my entire body in it, every half hour or so (hurray for your skin!). And the issue with that is was the very limited access to water: I could not wash myself for days on end. In the last weeks, I set up a new personal record in that regard, which I intend to never *ever* break again in my life (18 days. Yes, that sounds awful. It feels even more awful). The quintessence? Cycling through intense heat wearing rain gear, gloves and multiple hats does not help with conserving the water in your body. Not at all.

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My two dromedary bags (blue and black) strapped on the bike

Yes, I did carry a lot of water. I loaded my bike to the absolute limit it could bear (140kg, including myself). Cycling in very remote, hospitable regions means that you have to be self-sufficient beyond water and food (meaning that I carry tools and spare for anything that could possibly break on my bike – quintessential, but heavy). On top of that (and besides food for multiple days), I carried 16-18 litres of water with me on the longest arid stretches. That sounds like a lot. It is not, when it has to last for up to five days. Why not loading more? Firstly, my frame cannot carry more. Secondly, you still need to *move* your bike on difficult terrain. And finally, water transport is not that easy per se. I have four bottles on my frame (5l) plus two dromedary bags strapped on the back (12l) plus sometimes another bottle or two clipped in on the side of my green bag – I don’t know where else I could possibly put water. I even sent my stove home in order to reduce weight – and for using the bottle cage on the bottom of my frame for water as well (my fuel bottle is filled with water instead of gasoline).

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Emily turned into a rolling water tank with a capacity of 18 liters – and yet, more would have been better

Remember the fiercely competitive Anne, the one with the iron discipline? Anne-with-the-stopwatch? It was that part of me that came to my rescue. Rationing your water when your body is screaming for it: probably the hardest task I have ever accomplished in my life. You *see* that there are still bottles on your frame, that your dromedary bag is still full. You *hear* the water in it. Your senses, all of them, beg. Just a little sip more. Just one. It won’t matter much. There is still so much water left. Water. Water. Water. The word reverberates in your mind, echoing from the bone of your skull. All other thoughts are gone. One word rules your mind, your entire being. But there she is. Anne-with-the-stopwatch. With discipline. With an iron will. The part of me which knows that I can’t possibly give in.

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Water is wonderful to look at – but not that helpful if it is salty, except for washing some dirt off my body (Khyargas Nuur)

One rule

It is that part of me which reminds me of the rule. The rule how much water I am allowed to drink. And when. On the way to critical dehydration, your mind becomes confused and dizzy. Clear thoughts and ratio become elusive. So whenever I realized that I was running into water issues, I stopped. Took stock of my water, double checked the distance to the next water source. And rationed my water, as long as my mind was still clear. Sometimes even the thought was painful. 4l per day. 1l per 20km. 100ml in 1km. Once, I had to cope with 2l for 20 hours (I don’t wish this to my worst enemy). Whatever was needed, I set up a rule. And I embraced it as if my life depended on it – because it did.

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When are you allowed to drink? And how much? (water taps at a fresh water source, Khyargas Nuur lake)

100ml in 1km sounds much. Unless you are making 3km per hour, it is 40 degrees Celsius and you are pushing a fully loaded bike uphill through sand (my last days before Khovd). Which, in essence, sends your brain to a state beyond reasoning, beyond logic thinking. So the rule is what you cling to. Nothing exists but the rule. Your mind forgets that there is a goal *behind* the rule. That you ration water because you are going to *get* somewhere. All that counts is the display of your speedometer. The distance you make. Because the distance will allow you to drink. There were times when I stumbled onwards, mumbling to myself “only 20 more meters, you can make that, you *have* to make that, I need those 100ml, I need them so badly, please,…”. The rule (whichever I set) was excruciating, but it did me a lot of good. It allowed me to function, when my mind had entered a state where it was uncapable of grasping anything beyond a short time frame. Thanks to the rule, I could let my mind go blissfully numb, allowing me to concentrate on what counted: moving onwards.

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Desert cycling

Anne-with-the-stopwatch also reminded me of the golden rule of mental strength in sports: Control the controllables. Even thinking about anything outside your realm of control is a waste of energy. There is no point in complaining about heat or the condition of the track you are on. All that counts is what you can control: Keep going. Observe the rule. Nothing else. Focusing on the controllables also allows you to ignore the buffer, the buffer between life and death. You do  everything in your means to keep the buffer as thick as possible. Beyond that, even thoughts are useless. If you cannot change it, don’t waste your energy thinking about it.

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Camels on the wayside – surely better suited to the arid conditions than cyclists

It is the same with panic and fear, really. This may sound absurd to you, but there were times when I considered sitting down and just cry. But rationally thinking: what do you gain? Does it move you forward? Does it even *help* to move you forward? No? Well, then keep going. Besides, your body has no fluid for tears anyways (and there is no shade either).

In all those cases, once I got to water, I just collapsed on the ground. I just sat, dumbfounded, looking at the water. Admiring its beauty. How the sunlight is broken in it. How it sounds when you move the bottle. And then, the absolutely, undescribably wonderful taste of it (turns out that I am easily capable of drinking two liters in one go).

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A nomad fetching water from a stream – my daydream a thousand times over…

Thunderstruck

Dehydration is a slow process. Even though the buffer between life and death gets thinner, step by step, sip by sip, that happens incrementally. However, once during this Mongolia jaunt, the buffer vanished. Zero. Life, death, and nothing in between. Cycling through Mongolia in summer, particularly July, means that you are in full thunderstorm season. Thunderstorms are a double-edged sword – at least, they were for me. They are a photographer’s dream with their dramatic clouds, beautiful rainbows, wonderful play of light and shadow. But they are also a cyclist’s nightmare when you are out in the wild without a shelter from the elements.

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Thunderstorms often reward you with spectacularly beautiful rainbows

As long as I still was on good roads, I was capable of outracing the clouds. Or, when seeing a storm front ahead of me, simply to wait it out. Reading the weather is a skill and you get better at it with every thunderstorm under your belt. You feel the direction of the wind, you look at your topographical maps. Which mountain ranges might serve as a weather divide? Based on that, you try to estimate where the storm is going. After a while, you also get a feeling which clouds are dangerous and which are harmless. You realize that raining is actually a good sign, while black clouds banking up without rain are not. Although I never felt completely at ease when observing thunderstorms from afar (and you can look *very* far into the distance in Mongolia), I started to get a bit calmer with increasing experience. I got an understanding how weather moves and where to be in order to minimize the risk (apart from the risk of being out in the open). When to pedal away as fast as you can. When to wait. And when to abandon my bike instead to huddle on the ground.

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Race ahead or stay put? (Race ahead, as a) the wind came from the left so the rain on the right would move away from me, and b) the dark clouds ahead of me would not climb over the mountains)

Then, one day, I learned that I actually had no idea about thunderstorms. Are you familiar with the term positive lightening? I was not. Sure, there is lightening between the clouds and lightening from the cloud to the ground. As I learned later, there are two types among the latter: the typical negative lightening (bottom of the clouds to the earth) and the unusual positive lightening (top of the clouds to the earth). While positive bolts are extremely rare (5%), they are also a lot more dangerous than negative bolts: 6-10 times the amount of voltage and a discharge current lasting 10 times longer. What makes them even more hazardous is that they travel horizontally over long stretches, away from the thunderstorm (up to 6 kilometers / several miles), striking in an area where the sun shines and blue sky beckons.

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Shortly before the incident

I was just studying my maps, standing on the ground and balancing my bike between my legs. Yes, a thunderstorm was building up North of me, but it was still far away. Then, literally out of the blue, a bolt of lightening hit the ground a few meters away from me. What saved my life, probably, was that lightening hit when a jeep approached me, heading in the other direction. It seemed that the bolt of lightening split and travelled in both directions, towards the car and me. But none of us got actually hit. The shock still shook me to the bones. I almost bit off my tongue. What happened after that is blurry in my memory, lost in the frantic attempt to get away from the thunderstorm. In essence, my body switched to survival mode, whipping itself forward driven by pure fear. I raced my bike over a terrain that I would usually never ride but push (big, sharp rocks). According to my speedometer, I achieved a surreal speed, despite going uphill. When I was finally stopped by huge amounts of sand, my entire clothing was dripping from sweat, my breathing was hard and my mind still blank.

Despite my attempts, the thunderstorm had caught up with me. In fact, lightening hit the ground repeatedly at the pass ahead of me. The pass that lay between me and a lonely house, which – according to my route notes – had given shelter to cyclists in the past. I stood and waited. Stood and observed. The pass was hit by lightening about every 15 minutes. I had just survived one bolt of lightening. I would not risk another, even if that meant camping in a thunderstorm instead of sleeping in a safe house. A tent is not a safe place in a thunderstorm (actually, it makes no difference if you are out there or in a tent, despite the admittedly *huge* psychological difference). But I had no choice. So I got off the road, put up camp and sat in there, waiting for the thunder to roll away from me. Which it did, eventually, allowing me to lie down. I fell asleep the very instant my head hit my sleeping pad.

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My lovely neighbors during breakfast

The next morning, the world looked completely different. I woke up to the whickering of a heard of horses passing by. The sun was shining, warming up the fresh air. And I realized that I had put up camp in a meadow full of edelweiss. Yes, this is also Mongolia, the quaint, idyllic face.

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My campsite abounding with edelweiss (and with horses in the background)

 

 

Beyond control

I consider myself to have been given a third chance in life. Once, I was born. Then, seven years ago, I did not go on a mountaineering trip that proved fatal. Now, I escaped being electrocuted by a bolt of lightening, by pure chance. The long bouts of extreme thirst that I survived after that felt a lot different. In those cases, I was still in control, at least partly. I still could swing the odds by pulling out my old companion, self-discipline. Anne-with-the-stopwatch. The bolt of positive lightening, however, was absolutely beyond my control.

If I am learning one thing, it is that the buffer between life and death is almost always beyond control. It can be the forces of nature, it can be a car accident: control is just an illusion. It is just a matter of accepting that. Life is frail. There is nothing we can really do to change that, except living our lives as fully as we can.

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Lonely truck at Telmen Nuur lake – kudos to all the courageous Mongolians who brave the elements and vast distances, time and time again

Each country so far has had its challenges. Each of them has made me learn and grow. Mongolia, so far, has driven me to my utmost limits. This is not about leaving my comfort zone, this is about survival. And this is how far I can possibly go. Actually, I have been pushed a *lot* further than I believed I could possibly be pushed. And I accept that whatever I have not learned in Mongolia I will probably never learn. If there is a lesson that requires more than Mongolia has thrown at me (or rather: that *I* have thrown at myself by chosing to cross it by bike), I am fine with missing out on that.

I am taking a break for a few days in Khovd, trying to recover from the challenges of the last weeks, mentally and physically. It took me multiple times of showering to even *start* getting the many layers of sunscreen – mixed with sweat and dust – off my skin. 1200km in the books (plus 300km of hitchhiking). 500km more to the border to China. Be gentle with me, Mongolia, be gentle. Please.

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This is how Mongolia can also look like: nomads’ gers, clear streams, wonderful evening light. Let’s hope that this is what is awaiting me in the upcoming days

 

Through no-man’s-land into the Pamirs

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. I had believed that I had already jumped when I started off in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), almost a month prior. On this morning, I realized that I was only really jumping now. The real decision for this journey and for whatever it would entail. And instead of death I found my paradise. The paradise that is waiting for everyone of us behind our biggest fears. Hard-earned, often on the edge of all of my limits, but maybe the best decision I have made in my life for far. Some of the deepest joy I have ever felt. Some of the most peaceful feelings of fulfillment. The kind of fulfillment you feel when you are in the exact place that has been waiting for you all your life. Doing exactly what you were born to do. There might be higher mountains in the world, more remote places. It didn’t matter. This place was and will forever be special for me. The Pamirs.

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The awe-inspiring Pamirs, not always showing their friendly face

When I was about to start cycling away from Sary Tash, a Japanese tourist showed up out of nowhere. Just having returned from the Pamir the day before (by jeep), he was wondering how to continue, given that it was a Kyrgyz holiday. I had not even been aware of that holiday. Staying another day as to not be trapped in front of a closed border? No way. I had woken up with the resolution to leave, so I would. The high altitude plain lay in front of me. The first movements on my bike Emily felt unfamiliar. The headwind was stronger than ever. I left the last houses behind me in complete silence, seeing no human anywhere outside. The longer I pedalled, the more a deep quiescence overcame me. This was it. I had jumped. And despite the tough headwind, despite my weakness due to the bout of sickness I had just overcome, I was glad to be out there again. Smell the smell of snow ahead of me. Feel the intense sun on my skin. See a herd of horses walking past me in front of this gorgeous panorama. The road quickly deteriorated, from good tarmac to rough asphalt full of potholes. Once I had gotten closer to the mountains, I realized that there was indeed a way through them which was not yet covered by snow. I pedalled into a wide gorge that continuously became narrower, climbing slowly. It felt as if the mountains took care of me by taking me into their arms instead of letting me feel every bit tiny and unimportant as on those wide open plains.

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The last herds of Kyrgyz horses before the border to Tajikistan

When I reached the Kyrgyz border post, it was late afternoon. My first border crossing by bike, in the middle of nowhere. Despite the national holiday, the border was open and I was beckoned to the passport control. The border guards were not overly friendly- they just did their job. The one in charge looked at my papers. ‘Ah, Angela Merkel!’ – ‘Yes, yes. That’s our chancellor.’ Unsure if this would improve my chances to pass without having to pay bribes, I smiled at him broadly. I was waved through, into the 30km no-man’s-land. This piece of land stretches between the Kyrgyz and the Tajik border post. In spite of the natural beauty of this valley, none of the two countries claims it. It felt like the right place for me to be. Between countries. In a place that officially does not exist.

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My bike Emily and me on our way…

I had just passed the guards when a jeep showed up. The two male drivers turned out to be Swiss and Belgian. Their eyes almost fell out of their heads when they heard that I was about to head further into the mountains alone by bike. They had just taken a day trip up to the Tajik border (lacking a visa, they could not pass into Tajik territory). I felt their curious stares. ‘It is really cold up there.’ (I knew.) ‘There is a lonely house at the foot of the switchbacks, just before the pass. If you are lucky they’ll let you stay there overnight.’ (I knew that, too. The lonely house is famous among cyclists as a fallback option if you are hit by a snow storm- there is no other human habitation until you reach Tajikistan).  ‘If you get going right away, you might make it there till sunset.’ I was thinking of this sentence for a long time after. While well-meant, this certainly was a statement made by people who have never cycled in the mountains themselves… It turned out that it would take me an entire day to get to that house. Certainly not the one hour I had till sunset.

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Splendid no-man’s land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Still, I set out in good hope. The road still showed a few remainders of tarmac , but gravel took over soon. When I hit my first river crossing, I realized that the road had been washed away. Carrying a fully-loaded bike down to the water, across the little stream and then up the small hillside was a lot harder than I had thought. Still in a T-shirt, I quickly realized by the chill I felt on my arms that I had little time left until the cold of the evening would hit me with full force. At the end of the valley, the road turned left into the higher reaches of the mountains. I decided that this would be for the next day and searched for a good spot to camp. The grass was wild and deep, more used to the altitude than me. It took me a while to get my stuff to a place well off the road, a little bit less exposed to the wind. By the time, I was setting up my tent, I was already dangerously cold – and within a few minutes, being in a T-shirt was out of question. But the fleece, windjacket, gloves and hat I put on quickly helped less than I hoped. A lesson soon learned: have your tent up before the sun vanishes behind the mountains. Well before that. Too tired for anything else, I fell asleep just past 7pm, after nibbling on some nuts.

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Snow on the horizon…

The next morning woke me with absolute silence. This would be the soundtrack for most of my time in the Pamirs. This unbelievably deep silence. The wind, sometimes. My own breath. My tires grinding on the gravel. Those quiet awakenings in the morning, however, were greeted by absolute silence. And nothing seemed to be missing. It was not loneliness I felt. I was where I was supposed to be. It felt like being in the center of the universe. The center of the universe had one disadvantage: it had gotten really cold at night, meaning my sleeping bag was covered by a thin layer of ice in the mornings, as was my tent and surely my poor bike Emily whom I had left outside. Thus, leaving before the sun was up was quite unpractical. The sun warmed things quickly (starting at around 9am), but it was rarely before 10am that I would have packed my camp. Neither did I on this particular morning. Dark clouds of snow formed while I was getting ready. Nervousness started to creep into my mind. I was trying to get over Kyzil Art pass today (4,280 m). I had hoped for a day without precipitation for this endeavour… In addition, the path ahead of me was really just gravel, mostly washboard and quite steep. Given my weak physical state, I decided to push on many of the steep stretches, trying to be as nice to myself as I could. Still, I could not outrun the snow. The silence around me seemed to intensify, as thick white flakes started to fall. The road seemed never-ending. Always another turn. Always another climb. And nowhere to camp, really. While the valley had seemed to embrace me mercifully yesterday, it felt as if it was strangling me today. I was getting really cold, too cold almost to open a power bar with my fingers. When, finally, the lonely house came into my view I could have cried from relief. I had only made 10km so far, but I was frozen to the bone. A little girl came running towards me. ‘Chai? Chai?’ Yes, I could have died for a hot tea! With the last bit of strength, I pushed heavy Emily up the steep hill to the house, stumbling from exhaustion.

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Not alone! Remains of human habitation in no-man’s-land

oven, 1600x1067The house was very simple, essentially just one small room for the whole family (the parents and three kids) to live, sleep and cook in. As elsewhere in Central Asia, the floor was covered with carpets. For sitting and sleeping, thin mattresses would be spread on the floor. But despite its simplicity that room contained the most beautiful thing my fantasy could have imagined: a boiling stove made from massive iron. Next to it was a giant bucket with snow to be melted. I was ushered to sit down and the father prepared some hot tea for me. He asked in Russian if I also wanted to eat, pointing out that it was already past 2pm and that I would hardly be able to cross the pass today if I ate anything. Looking outside, I realized that the swirl of snow flakes was getting darker – it almost seemed as if night was already falling already! I did not care about risking the pass for today. I was dying for warm food and human company. Yes, I wanted to eat. I did not even know whether they would allow me to stay for longer, I just followed my deepest inner wish. After a hearty portion of noodles, I could not help myself- my body just took over: I closed my eyes, curled up and fell asleep right away on the floor. Inmidst the small group of children, to the wonderful sound of boiling water. When I woke up, the darkness of the snow outside betrayed the fact it was only 4pm. The father turned to me with a concerned face. ‘You can stay here overnight, if you want.’ With deep gratitude, I sighed and went back to sleep. As became the habit during this journey, I did not care if I slept on the floor or not, I only cared about being safe and warm. And I was.

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My little savior, the daughter of my host family, in front of their simple house the next morning

The next morning saw an early start- and sunshine. The latter seemed hard to believe given that we had been engulfed in snow the afternoon before. Above me, the awful switchbacks were waiting, the road every bit as steep as yesterday. Cycling was out of question and pushing would be hard work. I said goodbye to my generous hosts, leaving behind some items they had asked me for, and started. While it was sweaty work to get to the pass, the strong wind got me chilled to the bone. I was driven by only one wish: not to spend another day between borders, to get somewhere at lower altitude. Somewhere warm. I knew that the tiny settlement of Karakol was waiting for me on the Tajik side, but I had two passes beyond 4000m between me and the village. Would I make it?

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Looking back into Kyrgyzstan at Kyzil Art Pass (4,280m)

It was noon when I pushed my bike Emily the last metres up to the pass. Kyzil art. The pass that separates Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. 4,280m (14,042 ft). At that moment, I heard motorbikes behind me. A German couple. We chatted briefly before they descended down the border ahead of me towards the Tajik border post. This time, the game was not quite as easy, but I was off better than the Germans on their motorbikes. While they were made to pay a hefty fee per day ‘for using the roads of Tajikistan’, the border guards seemed to see me as a mildly amusing, but harmless lunatic. Fortunately, it did not seem to cross their minds that I was also using the Tajik roads with my bike… As every so often on this journey, bikes were not seen as a ‘proper’ means of transport. And since, in their eyes, I was more or less ‘walking’ into their territory, no fee was asked for Emily. Or maybe they were just content to have gotten so much money out of the other Germans. Whatever it was, I made sure to leave the border quickly before the border guards might change their mind. The group of younger guards protested – they had just invited me to join them for a cup of hot tea – , but it felt risky to me to wait at the border too long. After all, I still had a lot of meters of altitude ahead of me until I would reach the first village.

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Barren and wild… the carcass of the cow was not really reassuring

Splendid Tajikistan lay to my feet (or rather: to the foot of the mountain from which I was descending). An immense space to all sides of me. Little did I care that the road was now bad washboard, hard to cycle both for your body and your bike. I was all eyes. Multi-colored mountains. Raw, wild, wind-swept, vast. And dry. While the Kyrgyz side had shown me how much snow the mountains can accmuluate even in September, the Tajik Pamir was bone dry at this time of the year. The beauty all around me made me feel as if I had stepped into a surreal painting. A tiny spot on the road far ahead of me turned into a Belgian cyclist half an hour later. ‘There is quite some scenery ahead of you!’ As if I was not IN quite some scenery already! I had brilliant descriptions of the road by Bill Weir, detailing how long the washboard awfulness would continue. Again, I was getting unsure whether I would make the next pass today. But, as he wrote, the mountains are gentle here – the next pass did not even feel like one, just a long, gentle incline up.

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Multi-coloured mountains and the fence towards China
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Grass on the wayside, Pamirs

Once I was at the rim, a few hours later, Karakol lake lay ahead of me in all its spectacular beauty. In the background dark mountains with patches of snow, the glittering piece of water ahead of me, the late afternoon light just perfect to illuminate nature’s perfection all around me. I knew it would be downhill all the way until the village of Karakol. I had one hour left till sunset. I had already pushed the limits for today – crossing an international border and two 4000m+ passes in one go had been quite something. Despite that and although the shores of the lake presented themselves as beautiful camp grounds- no steep shoulder off the road, flat sandy grounds- I was determined to make it to the village. Why? I was driven by the urge to smell hot water. Hot water had never had any special meaning to me before. The Pamirs taught me how incredibly valuable it can be. Water meant the ability to wash the dust of the day off. To warm up. To feel secure. Over the weeks and months of this journey, it has become to mean the quintessential luxuary of life for me. The best thing my mind could imagine (even better than food!). Up until now, during this journey, the maximum days without a shower is at nine days (in Oman, mind you, where temperatures oftentimes exceeded 40 degree Celsisus). Water, clean water, feels incredible on your body after nine days. Now, I was only at three days, but I already felt that insane longing for hot water.

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Descent towards beautiful Karakol lake

So I changed gears, mentally and physically, and tested how much I could get out of my legs after this long day. I mustered a strength from who knows where. I did not even know I had such a reserve for energy. Emily literally flew across the high altitude plain at almost 30km/h. My heart jumped with joy. I had not even imagined that I would be able to ever reach such speeds with a fully loaded bike, let alone after having crossed two passes that same day! With the last light of the day, I raced into Karakol. An old man waved to me. ‘Homestay?’ Yes, yes! We were engulfed in almost complete darkness, when we reached the house of his family. Had I arrived a few minutes later, I had not seen a hand in front of my eyes, let alone find a homestay so easily. My legs shaky from the exhaustion, I fell onto the floor of the living room next to the oven. The daughter of the grandfather brought me a simple, yet wonderfully nourishing dinner. I could barely stay awake long enough to eat it all. With kind smiles, they promised me that they would warm up water the next morning for me to wash. Heaven was real. And it was right here in Karakol.

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Karakol village bathed in the last rays of sunlight (next evening)

Wolves and yurts

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… Some homestays have those same banyas, in a tinier version, but essentially my version of heaven. It gets you clean after days upon days on the road without washing. AND it gets you warm. PLUS, you can usually use the remaining hot water to wash your cycling clothes (the smell of which is pretty impressive after having cycled in them for a week or so). The dead cockroaches on the walls were not quite my version of heaven, so I was happy to leave Kara Balta behind to cycle into the mountains.

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Up at Ala Bel pass

My stretch from Bishkek to Osh was a trial run of sorts. Other people take trial tours, shorter trips where they test their gear and see if long distance is actually something they might enjoy. For me, those first two weeks in Kyrgyzstan were my trial tour. Already quite remote with stretches when I would not pass a town or village for an entire day, there were still people around every now and then to whom I could turn for help if I needed it. The route took me from Bishkek via Kara Balta up into the mountains to the Tor Ashuu pass.

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Stunning descend into the Suusamyr valley

From there, the road ascends into the wonderful Suusamyr valley – warm herding space for the nomads whose yurts dot the valley ground, surrounded by treeless mountains. Ala Bel, an easy pass at the junction to Kazachstan, brought me into the rocky red sandstone canyon of Chichkanon that leads to the Toktogul reservoir. The hills around the reservoir are psychologically taxing – no passes, no mountain road, but still a quite substantial up and down that wears you out. Even though it had been just few days in the middle of nowhere, I was absolutely fascinated to cycle through villages again – tiny shops, cars, people, houses! Toktogul reservoir is really huge, so it took some time to get to the other side. I spent a wonderful evening there camping with four other cyclists (who went the other direction) at a perfect camp spot next to a lonely house.

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Camping with great company and this view of Toktogul – how much better can it get?

The views of the lake were quite stunning – and our early morning bath in the lake as well! The following food poisoning I could have done without… I still made it over the next pass into the charming little village of Karakoel, where I was taken in by a lovely family before my body broke down. Once I could stand up again two days later, I hitchhiked to Osh, skipping the heavily trafficked Fergana valley.

 

So much about the route as such. What happened in between?

 

snapseed-04-1200x1386My first night alone in the tent, in the middle of nowhere…  I would likely have slept better, had I not met a local Kyrgyz before who was very worried about me camping in the gorge, as the wolves would come down from the mountains at night. Not the best story for falling asleep… Wolves were haunting me all the way from Bishkek to Osh. That first night, I could hear them from afar. The next night, I had one nosing around my tent. At least, that is what I believe, as the dogs from the yurt close-by went crazy about the animal that was obviously interested in my tent.

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The great dog who chased the wolf away

In hindsight, your bodily reaction to hearing wolves around you at night is absolutely fascinating. This is the pure essence of fear. Instinctive. It might have been the first time for me to understand what it means to have your blood freeze. None of what I have experienced in my life so far that I called “fear” compares to that. These are all cheap knock-offs to that instinctive, primal fear. It feels as if your heart and your breath stopped. Your body tries to play dead. The upside of cycling long hours is that, despite your fear and despite the cold, you do fall asleep at some point.

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Rare trees

The cold got me for the first time right after my first pass (Tor Ashuu). Kyrgyzstan had been nice with me during the days, sometimes reaching 20C even in the mountains. Still, I had some freezing nights, where the thermometer dropped below -5C. Somewhat of a preparation for the icy Pamirs in Tajikistan. Usually, I tried to stay close to humans at night (the wolves, you know…), which oftentimes meant close to a yurt, the summer habitats of the Kyrgyz nomads, who roam the mountains with their herds of horses and sheep.

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Their most prized produce is Kymyz, fermented horse milk. While it tastes quite nice when it is fresh, the fermented version made my stomach want to empty itself… The Kyrgyz love this drink, however, and all visitors to high altitude terrain enthusiastically buy litres upon litres of if from the nomads, filled into empty soda bottles.

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The milk is obtained from mares with fouls, who are kept away from their mothers in the evening, such that the nomad’s can get their milk. Once let lose, the fouls storm to their mothers and try to get whatever milk remains. Horses here are highly priced animals and it is not unlikely that you see a tiny boy or girl sit on a huge beautiful horse, walking over the steppe. Whenever I met nomads, the running gag for them was to point first at my bike, then at their horse and then to say something along the lines of “look, my horse runs by itself”. Well, they had a point…

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Sharing the road with horses

While the nomadic life may sound romantic, this is a society dominated by men. Men who tend to stick to alcohol a bit too much, a bit too often. Women don’t count much here. Domestic violence against women is not uncommon, and it seems no disgrace to beat your wife in front of the female visitor (me). I will never forget the look in the eyes of the woman who fled to me during the night as she as afraid of the beatings of her violent husband (I saw him beat her on the head, high above from horseback, with a stick, the next morning). In the dim light of my flashlight, she counted and recounted the money she had earned that day selling Kymyz. She stashed away a certain percentage in her sock, counting the days until she would have enough to run away. I added some to the money in her sock. The next morning, she played the upbeat wife again, telling her husband whenever she disagreed. Still, I could not forget her eyes at night – the eyes of an animal fleeing from a predator. I also won’t forget how she kissed me on the cheek when I gave her money, telling me that women can only count on other women.

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One of the places of domestic violence I encountered

I had one instance where I was afraid for myself. After a tough day of cycling, including Ala Bel pass, I was racing down into Chichkanon valley while the sun was already setting and temperatures dropped rapidly.

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A long way down…

It was one of those times when you realize that steering a bike while your teeth are clattering is really hard. Hands almost frozen, I was desperate to find a space to camp. Only that the canyon was so narrow and steep that there seemed to be no space. Finally, I saw a couple of yurts on pristine camp ground – flat, grassy, next to a river. Perfect!

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Next morning… still a perfect camping spot!

A guy about my age came out and I asked if I could camp there. It did not occur to me that he might be the only person at camp. In fact, we were the two only people within the next couple of kilometers. Out of an instinctive reaction, I decided to take a yurt, as I saw that it had a wooden door that could be locked from the inside with the padlock I carry with me. A good decision. While my Russian is not great, it became very obvious what the guy was interested in. It did not help to pretend not to understand him, to make up imaginary wedding rings. He made it very clear that the night would be cold and that he wanted a woman next to him. I joined him for milking the horses (actually, quite interesting), only that this led to further sexual comments… At some point, it became simply unbearable and I left brusquely, ignoring all invitations to come to his yurt for a beer (well, I am not insane). Locking my yurt from the inside, I still felt very vulnerable and passed a night that was not all that relaxing, knowing that he would get drunk alone now (the combination of drunk and frustrated is not the best…). Nothing happened, though, and I cycled away the next morning promising myself to choose my sleeping spots wiser the next time. Or at least a bit earlier- if it is already dark, you have no choice but to stay (cycling downhill a steep canyon at night is something I fear more than having a horny, drunken guy outside of my yurt).

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The outdoor kitchen of one of my host families

More often, however, I experienced fantastic hospitality from random people. Asking if I could camp in the yard, I was oftentimes invited into the house, at least for dinner, but more often, a bed was prepared for me as well. Houses here are mostly devoid of furniture. Maybe a wardrobe on one side. Other than that, families here possess an impressive amount of blankets, some of which are spread on the floor for either sitting (eating from a blanket on the floor or on a slightly higher table is quite common) or for sleeping. Thus, when a visitor comes, the family simply spreads a few blankets more on the floor.
snapseed-34-1600x1365The children are usually a door-opener, as they are the ones who invite you in with broad smiles and big eyes. In return, I help them with their English homework or play with them. Once, I stayed for almost two days as it was raining cats and dogs outside – not my version of cycling heaven. Over the course of the two days, quite a few people showed up: neighbors came for tea, friends stopped by to bring water melons, the local retired German teacher paid a visit.  Being in the center of attention can be exhausting (and even as a cyclist, it is quite taxing to eat that much food all the time!), but I usually enjoyed all the interaction. And when the children bring their English books, I usually learn some more words of Russian as well (the translation is usually English-Russian). Plus, you find some amusing remnants from Soviet times (“when I grow up, I want to be a farmer on a collective farm”).

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The typical diet here is chai and chleb (tea and bread) all day long. The variation for breakfast may include milk in the tea (or, in official homestays, two scambled eggs on the side), lunch will have some meat as well, dinner likely some potatoes. Sometimes, a soup is added (a piece of meat or bones plus a potato is typical in there). If you are really lucky, you get manti (steamed dumplings) filled with meat. My stomach can usually handle anything down to street food in developping countries (I never had issues even in India!).

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I spent many hours at this lovely outhouse…

But the bacteria here get everyone, it seems. I had some sort of food poisoning twice, giving me stomach cramps as I have never have them before, plus a really annoying diarrhea for a week. Not ideal for cycling, when you need to find ways to get your energy. Luckily, during the worst phases, I had been taken in by families in both cases – the first day, I was too weak to even stand up without shaking.

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Cycling is wonderful and exhausting at the same time. The landscapes here are fantastic, ever changing, but they do involve high passes and simply long stretches of no-man’s land. At some point, I started wondering if I ever would make it past 50km per day. I did, but on days where the road is only ascending, it can also be quite a bit less. Depending on the circumstances, I do not ask twice when it comes to hitchhiking. My first time was actually at my first pass (during my third day of cycling). After a long day of cycling only uphill for more than 1000m of altitude, I was quite tired when the clock showed 5pm. I knew that it was another 1000m of altitude to the pass – I would surely not accomplish that on the same day. However,  the canyon had already gotten pretty narrow, as the street was starting to take hairpins up to the pass. No space for camping at all. Thus, I tried to push on, hoping I would find some space further up the pass. Instead, my eyesight went blank for a moment and I could feel I had nothing left in my legs. Almost blind, I stopped, turned around and stuck my thumb out. When I opened my eyes again, a truck driver made an apologetic gestures when he approached me. Damn! When he passed, I felt like the last person on earth, utterly exhausted. Then, brakes squealed. The truck driver had stopped at the next hairpin, gesturing to me that I should come up. I have rarely been that grateful! Since then, I have hitchhiked another few times, when I was physically exhausted or sick, or when I knew the stretch would have heavy traffic. The truck drivers here are incredibly nice and never accept any money. The price you pay, though, is that inevitably, something on your gear or bike will get broken. Well, so far, I could fix most things again (it also makes it feel that bringing so much repair stuff was a good idea).

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Other people you meet on the way… herding sheep or horses

So far, I have met at least one cyclist per day – most of them have started in Europe in spring and now cycle through Kyrgyzstan before descending into China. Meeting other cyclists is always a joyful occurance. You always stop, no matter your schedule, to chat about your destinations and the road ahead. Once, I passed two cyclists when I was climbing a mountain and they were racing down. They did not stop, which creates a disappointment in you which is hard to describe. Not only is this against the unwritten code of conduct, you feel deprived, utterly deprived.

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Cyclists really are the best source of information when you are doing something that no guidebook covers. Water sources, terrain, good spots to camp – you exchange information on all of that and more. Plus, it is just nice to meet people who understand. Understand the pain, the joy, the hunger, the fascination. Everybody has their own story, some have been on the road for years already. You could easily spend days just talking, but some 10/20 min later, the road calls you again. “Safe travels!” Rarely has this had more meaning than during this trip.

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Cycling gives you a lot of freedom, but it also leaves you quite a bit more vulnerable. One of the important pieces of information is also, where crazy dogs await you. Kyrgyzstan features dogs that seem closer to wolves than what we call dog. Plus, they are semi-wild and not really trained other than in herding. When they see a cyclist from the corner of their eye, they will surely jump up and try to chase. So far, I have been spared any bites, but that was more luck than anything else… I have seen impressive holes in the the panniers of some less lucky cyclists, where to the dog did not quite make it to the calves. Sometimes, I feel way more like a cat person than a dog person.

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Wonderful views, crazy dogs around the corner…