From Thoughts

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.

About trust

[photos were taken at my winter/spring destinations: Iran, United Arab Emirates, Oman and the Canary Islands]

‘Aren’t you afraid?’ That is one question I get quite often, from friends and family back home as well as from strangers on the road. Am I? The short answer is: No, most of the time, I am not afraid. I trust. That may sound weird at first. I feel that in most of our societies, trust is a rare commodity. We are stingy with our trust. The go-to-mode is to distrust someone first and check whether (s)he is trustworthy before buying in. Better be safe than sorry. My months of cycle-touring up to now have taught me lessons that are quite different from that. And I have started to believe that the world might be a better place, that human communication might become a lot more human indeed, if we changed our perspective on trust. Here are the three lessons I have learned so far: trusting others, trusting yourself and trusting the universe. For me, these make the world shine in a new way.

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More things that shine in a new way (light installation in Sharjah, UAE)

 

(1) Trusting others

The months on the road have shown me what can happen when you move beyond that typical stinginess with trust. When you trust others and are generous with your trust, overly generous. For a female solo cyclist, this might sound like a very bad idea. Maybe stupid, at least careless. In fact, I tend to do all those things that parents teach their kids (for good reason!) not to do. Get into cars with absolute strangers. Follow people into their house, sometimes late at night. Take food from people I never met before (I take food from anyone, really). And guess what? All of this usually works out amazingly well. I have done all of that also in regions where my guidebooks clearly stated that you should not even consider this as a female solo traveller. My first experience hitchhiking a stretch in Iran? Achmed, who became a friend for life!

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Meet Achmed (in the middle), probably the friendliest and most hospitable truck driver in all of Iran

Trust as a peaceful weapon

I usually have a few split-seconds to make up my mind: do I trust this man? (Most often, I interact with men, as I am oftentimes mistaken for being one when I am on my bike – in Iran, I played that role very much on purpose.) Almost always, my gut feeling has been right. And that gut feeling has told me to trust almost all of the time. I get the impression that actually trusting someone is a weapon in itself: it gives you an air of confidence that seems to thwart bad intentions. The way, maybe, in which a karate genius radiates confidence, knowing that (s)he will likely win a potential fight. If this person is vulnerable, how on earth can she stay this calm and trusting? Better not get into trouble with that one. During previous journeys, this has worked as a protective shield for me, time and time again. In the past, I have accidentally done things of remarkable stupidity without being aware of it (walk into a no-go area in Tanzania at night, for instance) – and oftentimes, my ignorance and trust has been mistaken for confidence and that confidence as a sign that one should better not mess with me, presumably. During my current adventure, I have encountered many similar situations. Trust is a pieceful weapon. Use it generously.

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Sometimes, there are different paths – fear is one, trust is another (climbing Pico Viejo, Tenerife)

Trust to create win-win situations

I am not advising you to take bad decisions (the no-go area surely was one, even though it was one I was not aware of). But generally, if you encounter another person in a trustful, open manner, they will oftentimes open up to you as well. Instead of sneaking around each other assuming bad intentions, I try to give another person the possibility to let his or her best self shine. In essence, this can create a win-win situation, where both sides feel pleased with themselves and with the world. It is worth giving yourself and the other that chance! You might find yourself in a much nicer world than you believed could be.

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Opening up, be it to the sunshine or to other people (spring flowers on Tenerife)

 

(2) Trusting yourself

Trusting yourself is, in a way, at the bottom of this all. How can you trust another being, if you distrust yourself? At the same time, trusting yourself is a skill that we do not teach children, or at least: we do not teach them enough. This depends quite a bit on your cultural background and your family, of course. But overall, I feel that we are left to learn this by ourselves.

For me personally, this journey is teaching me that if I can trust one person on this planet, it is probably me. Or, to put it in the way a friend has told me: Remember that, no matter what happens, you will never be alone – you will always have yourself. While it might just be a change of perspective, it makes a world of a difference for me. The following are the three most important questions where I learned to trust myself.

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Self-portraits and light installations in Sharjah (UAE)

Trust your intuition

Do you follow your inuition? I have done that before when it comes to people, but it was only really in the past months, when I realized just how much I can trust my intuition. When a truck stops next to you in a snow-storm and the driver offers you a ride, you have just split-seconds to make a decision. And I have learned that I can trust my intuition to come up with the right answer, whatever the outcome. My tendency is to trust the other person, but I have a bad feeling occasionally. I follow whatever my intuition tells me. A few times, I was wrong, but overwhelmingly, the decision was a good one. Which brings me to the next point…

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Intuition: that moment when miraculously your know the answer, even if the single pieces of information are too numerous to be processed consciously (Sharjah, UAE)

Trust your problem-solving skills.

Sure, I might take wrong decisions. I am human, after all, as we all are. But I trust myself that I will figure out a way to get out of this mess again. Be it that my visa extension is denied one day before my old visa expires or be it that I end up in the middle of nowhere in the mountains, at night, alone with five men who realize that no one would ever know. Sure, there might be situations where I will end up in severe trouble (the mentioned situations in Iran surely felt like that). But so far, I have always found a way to get out of the incident unharmed. No matter how bad it seems, I remind myself that everything is there already, inside of me. My mind carries the solution to anything that might happen. This calms me down enough to actually come up with a solution quickly. A self-fulfilling prophecy, sure, but sometimes that is all that is needed.

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Everything is there already, just find the right thread (mandala in Sharjah, UAE)

Trust whatever your body tells you

This is a lesson hard learned, one that I struggled with for most of my life. High-performance sports teaches you to push your limits. Pain is a normal part of this – get through it. That’s the nature of it, in a way, and it is necessary to improve your performance. Naturally, you start to ignore many signals that your body sends to you. There is a delicate balance you need to find between pushing yourself further, but stopping in time before getting hurt. I used to be exceptionally bad at finding this balance, always pushing a bit too far. Now, in my cycle-touring life, things have radically changed. When you are all alone, nobody will tell you when to stop, how far to go, on this particular day. I just listen to my body. Sometimes, the signal is to push on, although I have already crossed two 4000m passes in one go. Sometimes, it is to stop after 10km of pushing on terrible roads because I am exhausted. Whatever the signal is, I take it very seriously. Your body is talking to you for a reason. Whenever I ignored the message, the consequences were surely no fun.

In essence, this is what I realized at some point this winter: I woke up one day and realized that my body was longing for a break. Within a week, I had accumulated two injuries and one illness. In addition, I was exhausted after weeks of cycling through deserts where the temperature exceeded 40°C. It was obviously high time for a time-out. My body told me that I needed a break, to recover, to reflect the last months, to work through all those things that happened to me, before continuing my cycling adventure. So I sat down and worked on my book, the next visas and route options. And above all: I gave my body a break.

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When your body needs a break: take one (cat on Tenerife)

(3) Trust the universe

Trusting the universe is probably the single most important thing I have learned so far. I have been raised and trained too much in the academic world to be a believer in fate. Also, this should not be confused with making requests to the universe (or to the god(s) you might believe in) to do you favors. There is no point in waking up in  your tent in no-man’s land and asking for an icecream cone from the universe.

Instead, it is about trusting that the right things will happen and to accept whatever happens. About making your mind fluid, allowing it to flow around obstacles instead of trying to crush them (which usually does not work anyways). In a way, this relates to the golden rule of sports psychology: Control the controllables. And only the controllables.

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A fluid mind (Tenerife)

What not to control

The majority of things are outside of your range of influence, be it nature (the weather, the terrain, the gradient) or the realm of bureaucracy (such as the official who denies your request for a visa extension). There are different paths you can take: fight what is happening (unlikely to be sucessful when it comes to weather), avoid the obstacle by making physical changes (such as changing your route) or accept the situation (the one option that always works). One thing surely is not going to get you anywhere: being mad at the situation. Fighting also very rarely works. I have learned to either take action and get around the obstacle. Or to accept how and where I am and make the best of it.

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So you cycled hundreds of kilometers to see a particular canyon, only that an enormous storm floods it the day before you get there? Make it a study in photographing water! (Chahkooh valley, Qhezhm island, Iran)

What to focus on instead

In essence, I try to focus on what is in my control. Yes, these can be actions in the outside world, such as finding arguments to convince the official who denied your visa extension. Most promintently, however, the things in your control are those that only depend on yourself: your mindset, your attitude, your perspective. The way you handle whatever is being thrown at you, be it wonderful or terrible. You can perceive an early onset of winter as the end of the world for your cycle tour. You can also see it as a chance to consider cycling in countries you had never thought about (that is what got me to Iran and the Arabic Peninsula). Any event that happens carries a seed of something wonderful in it – it is up to you to find it, to cherish that chance and give it some water to grow and blossom.

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Sometimes, a change of perspective is all that is needed (Teide, Tenerife)

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The right things at the right time

Talking about perspective, I simply assume that the right things happen to me at the right time. That the universe (or life or the gods – you know what I mean) is confronting me with lessons to learn at the time I am ready for them. And the universe is generous: it provides me with the same lesson over and over again, until I have actually learned it. Sure, I can avoid it this time. But I am certain I will encounter that one again, at a later stage of my life. Essentially, though, I believe that I am ready for a challenge, any challenge, at the time it presents itself. Otherwise, I would not encounter it.

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Silence before the storm, shortly before learning that my visa would not get extended (Shiraz, Iran)

Hand yourself over to the universe

And then, finally, there are those situations where I just hand myself over to the universe. When I am beaten down by the circumstances, when I realize that I need some help. And here comes the part that the scientist in my really does not understand and cannot explain (but that might be my lesson in here – just to accept this): once I open up to the idea of handing myself over to the odds, wonderful things happen. People appear in the middle of nowhere to offer me some tea and takes me under their wings. I meet another cyclist who happens to carry the one spare part that I could not source anywhere else in the whole country – and win a wonderful new friend who keeps inspiring me to this day (thanks, Tara!). While fighting with a visa application for Azerbaijan, I run into people who will change my life by convincing me to cycle through Iran instead.

The bottom line: If you have no idea how on earth to solve this, just hand yourself over to the universe and it will all work out. Differently from what you expected, sure. But the result might be more beautiful than any solution you might have come up with.

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If you let the universe take over, it can create quite magical things (Star Valley, Qhezhm Island, Iran)

I have been thinking about this post for quite a while. Why am I writing it now? Two things happened. One of the visa applications that are crucial for the next leg of my journey was not accepted. And then, the one airline that offered low-fare flights into Mongolia cancelled their service to this country altogether. This happened on the very day I wanted to book a flight. I take it as a sign. I trust myself to come up with a great idea. And I trust the universe that something beautiful will come out of it. We will see – stay tuned.

Just being

This is my first (and likely only) post for which I deliberately use next to none of my photos. I have gigabytes over gigabytes of them, no worries. But they might distract from what I want to say. (plus my internet connection is awfully slow, so I would not be able to post many photos anyways…)

It is Dec 31, the last day of the old year. I am lying in my bed in Bandar Abbas at the Persian Golf, trying to get over an upset stomach, pretty tired and pretty exhausted. But before I vanish to Qezhm island and will likely not have internet access for a while, I wanted to write down some thoughts about being. Just being.

Validation

One of the crucial moments I encountered in the last months, an eye-opening one, was when a friend of mine was offered a new job. That’s when I realized that I was jealous. Jealous of the thought of having regular days, structure, but mainly: jealous of getting appreciation. A job does that for you. Even if your boss does not realize the genius that is inside everyone of us, even if you do not get cudos for your work, you still get a salary. Money is a compensation for the time we spent at work, but it is also some sort of validation. Someone, at some point, thought that you deserve that amount of money for the work you do. And unless that someone or someone else is utterly dissatisfied with what you are doing, you will keep receiving that money. Your bank account will show that form of validation every month (unless, of course, you are a freelancer and people expect you to work for free, because ‘you love what you do, don’t you? It must be so much fun designing things!’, e.g.). Don’t get me wrong, this is not about me wanting to earn money right now (even though I wouldn’t mind getting some). The job offer my friend got simply made me realize that there is a part of me that yearns for validation. That part of me has a hard time accepting one of the most crucial lessons I am learning at the moment: That I can just be. That I will still be loved if I just am. That I am still a valuable human being. That this journey needs no outcome, no social media, no blog posts, no nothing. That is hard to grasp (speaking for me personally).

Expectations

We are trained – by society, by our bosses, … – to fulfill expectations. We do our job (as good citizens, good children, good employees) and are then given a reward: social acceptance, love, appreciation. Somehow, at some point in our lives, we start confusing things. We start believing that we will get social acceptance, love, appreciation BECAUSE we are doing things (and do them properly, mind you!). That we get those rewards ONLY when we deliver. Our ‘system’ (the environment we live in) will surely not stand in the way of this ‘learning process’ – after all, this turns us into such formidable expectation-fullfillers. Since we rarely (or never) step out of this system, we don’t realize that this might not be true. That we might still be loved and appreciated when we decide to just be and not do.

The inner judge

Our heads are filled with a cacophony of voices (see the ‘system’ above: the voices of teachers, bosses, etc etc), voices we have heard so often that we have accomplished the amazing feat of internalizing them. In fact, we don’t need the outer ‘system’ anymore to tell us that we should deliver (and keep delivering). We are our own judges. And very effective judges at that. We might even manage to judge ourselves more harshly than anyone from the outside might (think of ‘I am not good enough for this job’, ‘I don’t deserve such a great significant other’, …). So we ‘happily’ accept jobs that are below our qualification, significant others that are not at eye level, … and live a life that is not up to our potential. My point is: we deserve all of that. And more. For doing… NOTHING. For just being. I am not encouraging you to stop being a good friend /employee / child / … Just to make the step from separating these aspects from the fact that you deserve appreciation, love, acceptance. You deserve that great job, that wonderful partner, you name it. Unconditionally. Because you are a great human being. You are BORN to be a great human being.

Solitude

In retrospect, this might have been one of the subconscious reasons for me to seek solitude so often on this journey. I am, by no means, a very sociable traveller (or cyclist). I enjoy getting to know people on this journey – locals, travellers -, but I very much enjoy to be alone. When you are alone, you can listen to the cacophony of voices in your head. Or, more to the point: you realize that those voices exist. That ‘bad gut feeling’ you have when spending a day doing nothing is not your natural intuition. It is what you inner judge tells you. But before you argue back to that judge, you have to be aware of it. Solitude also takes away all and any outer validation. There was a time when I even asked the people closest to my heart to not contact me. When I ignored all attempts of communicating with the outer world. When I just cycled in the mountains, alone with myself and my thoughts. Meeting nobody, talking to no one. I wanted to see what happens when nobody tells me I was doing a good job, that I was attempting something brave, that I was doing something inspiring. And guess what: the world didn’t stop turning. All that happened was that I was alone with myself. And I was fulfilled by that. It is just that we rarely take this chance of being by ourselves because we are trained not to be.

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Projecting

At some point, however, you meet people again. After all, humans are sociable beings and we need to talk to others from time to time. That makes you realize another aspect: even if we have accepted something inwardly, we still project our doubts to the outside. We get nasty questions from others, because, deep inside, we ask these questions to ourselves. By now, I have come to, well, not enjoy those nasty questions, but to take them as a sign that I am not done with this learning step (and, truth be told, I am very much not done with this step).

One of my ‘favorite’ questions is ‘so, how many kilometers have you cycled so far?’. My honest answer is ‘I don’t know and I don’t care.’ For me, the eternal fulfiller of expectation, the athlete-from-childhood-on, the over-achiever-no-matter-the-topic, this is a huge step. This journey is not about ticking off sights, countries or kilometers. I don’t exactly know what it is about, but this does not matter, either. That, however, is never accepted by the questioner. ‘But you MUST know how far you cycled, don’t you?’ It is so much easier to categorize people by quantifiying them. How many countries, how many years, how much did your bike cost. I don’t care. I couldn’t care less when others tell me the quantifying details of their lives. But I am stuck with this question. ‘How many kilometers?’ And I hate it. I hate it because the athlete in me, somewhere, deep inside, WANTS to fulfill expectations, to be able to tell a grand number. But during this journey, I developped away from that athlete, far away. My priorities vastly changed. I spent an entire week just walking through the Wakhan valley in Tajikistan (pushing my bike the entire way), because I wanted to have time to take in the landscape and talk to people. I spent two weeks living in Esfahan (Iran), because I had the chance to live with two great friends (Iranian and Swiss) and utterly enjoyed getting to know everyday life in Iran a bit better. The small mileage of this journey is the result (see, I am still avoiding answering the question…). And yes, the road conditions were awful at times, the altitude and gradient made cyling a challenge, my visa were sometimes too short to manage cycling an entire country. Everything I wrote above is a rational explanation (and there are reasons), but I would enjoy getting beyond that. I don’t want to justify anything. Neither justify it in front of other people, nor in front of me.

Accepting

And even if you move beyond the quantifyable details (I might be on the way, but clearly have not accomplished that), there is still the meta level: what did you learn? And – surprise, surprise – we still expect to see results. If we leave everyday life behind (whatever this means for you personally) for an extended period of time, we expect to learn things that we cannot grasp while we are inside our very own ‘everyday’ bubble. There is a learning effect somewhere out there, and we are somewhat waiting for wisdom to fall from the heavens. Fact is: maybe wisdom comes. Maybe it doesn’t. Fact is also: it does not matter. And accepting this, REALLY accepting, is a lot harder than it sounds. I remember vividly how I complained to a friend two weeks ago that I still don’t understand what lesson is waiting for me to be learned in Iran. There has always been a lesson so far, for every stretch of this journey. Sometimes, it was obvious. Sometimes, I didn’t realize until later what I had learned.

So what IS the lesson to be learned here in Iran? The lesson is that there is no lesson to be learned (even though, if you move one meta level higher, you can argue against that, of course: that the lesson is that there is no lesson). The point is that I just accept to exist. If any learning happens, great. But I stop waiting for it or expecting it. I am actually quite sure that I am learning things here, lots of things. But I am also moving further away from quantifyable details than ever before. No, I did not visit many cities. No, I did not cycle many kilometers. No, I did not write much. I tried to understand how people think here, how they live. And I tried to just be. Nothing harder than that. Nothing more liberating. Give it a try.

PS: 1,634km as of Dec 31st. Feel free to judge me. I will try to not care.

We are no extremists

I had thought of other things to share, but after the terrible events in Beirut and Paris, this would feel off to me. What I do want to share with you, though, is a statement that occured over and over again during my journey, in particular during the many days that I spent cycling and walking along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border: ‘We are no extremists.’

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The mountains can be rough…

Imagine a rainy day, when a lonely cyclist pedals into a tiny village in the Wakhan valley, miserably cold in the wind. She stops to gaze at the enormous rain clouds in the valley ahead of her, sighs and gets ready to face those clouds. At that moment, a man opens the door of a lonely house and gestures that she should come in. Utterly grateful, I tell him in Russian that it is very cold outside. ‘Too cold’, he agrees, ‘you should be inside’. I ended up staying with this family for more than a day, treated with the warmest spot in the house (next to the oven), plenty of food and a sleeping place next to the daughters.

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The warmest and most enthusiastic welcome I have received anywhere was by these two sisters, Madina and Odina, and their family

During the last months, I was fortunate to experience hospitality that is unknown of in many other parts of the world. People whom I had never met before and with whom I had barely exchanged a few words invited me into their houses, they gave me food, shelter and human warmth. I was welcomed in as a human among humans, treated not like a clueless foreigner, but almost as a family member.

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Oftentimes, my bike Emily was invited in as well – sometimes even into the main living room!

Rare was the case that I had to ask for help. Most often, people approached me in the street, offering tea and a warm, dry spot at least. Those people were far from rich, many of them downright poor. Life in the mountains is harsh, living conditions as well – no running water, oftentimes no electricity, an outhouse somewhere in the fields or none at all. The food I was offered was simple – sometimes only rice for lunch, and then bread and butter for dinner. But it was not out of stingyness of these people – this simply is their daily staple. The luxuary of vegetables or fruit is a rare one, and if they had any, they would offer it to their guest. I was almost coerced to eat more, mostly by the elderly, who remarked that I would need energy to keep going by bike.

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Traditional wooden ceiling, ubiquitious in the Pamirs

Most of these people were used to do hard physical work every day and they knew that getting through the mountains on your own steam is a tough task. Still, here I was, the tourist with the option to get back to her old, comfortable life at (almost) any time, while these people will stay – enduring the harshness of the Pamir winter, facing the deprivations of life in the mountains. And yet they shared with me what they could.

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This lady and her family saved me from cycling a day in heavy rain – ‘just stay with us’

These people were all Muslim, and I was introduced to some of their rites and traditional ways of doing things. It became second nature to me to make a face-washing gesture and thank Allah after a meal, for instance. They never asked me to follow suit with any of their doings, but were pleasantly surprised when I did. In fact, I did not think at all about the fact that we did not share the same religion (I don’t even have a religion as an atheist). In contrast to other places I have travelled, I was also never asked about my religion (or the absence of which). Here, it simply did not matter.

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Yes, there are mosques, but religion never mattered – surely nothing that divides people

What did matter to these kind people, however, was one thing. One thing that many of them pointed out, repeatedly, and with great fervor. ‘We are no extremists.’ It would have never crossed my mind that they might and I really hope (and am quite certain) that I did not give the impression that I might think that. Still, this was on their minds. ‘We are Muslims, but we are no extremists.’

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Tajik boys and their donkey in the Wakhan valley (the mountains in the back are already in Afghanistan)

To put this into perspective, one has to think about the geostrategical situation of much of Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan. The latter shares a border with Afghanistan over the stunning distance of 1344km, the Western part of it being very mountaneous terrain and extraordinarily hard to control. A very long part of this border (1135km) is along the course of the Pyanj river, which I followed for some weeks. Sometimes, the river bed is so narrow, that you can wave to Afghan kids on the other side of the border. In other places, the river was so shallow that you could have simply waded through and entered the other counry – no fences, no guards, no check points.

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The Pyanj river, aka the border to Afghanistan (right riverside is Tajikistan, left is Afghanistan)

There actually are a few official border crossings in the area and some villages (such as Ishkashim or Khorog) actually have joint Tajik-Afghan markets in a ‘neutral’ area (e.g. an island in the river), which can be entered by both nationalities without requiring a permit. However, these are closed these days. Some border crossings as well as the markets. What happened? In their advance North, the Taliban came crucially close to the Wakhan. They were 20km from Ishkashim, when I passed through. I did not sleep particularly well that night.

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On the road to Ishkashim, the only place where I ever saw a fence towards Afghanistan (the green line on the left)

‘We are no extremists.’ This statement can be seen in the light of the terrible attacks in Paris and Beirut, stating the obvious (Islam is not an extremist religion). It can also be seen in the light of the Taliban advancing towards the Tajik border. The people of the Tajik Wakhan are in danger themselves of being attacked by those extremists (I use the word rarely, but with regard to the Taliban, I think this attribute is fitting). In fact, the Tajiks already are under attack of the Taliban – the Tajik form the biggest minority in Afghanistan with more Tajiks living within the borders of Afghanistan (8.2 million, or 27 percent of Afghanistan’s total population) than in Tajikistan itself (6.2 million).

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Life on either side of the Tajik-Afghan border is very similar – herding lifestock, tending fields, making a living

There have been absolutely disgusting bouts of hatred in Europe against refugees from Syria, following the attacks in Paris and Beirut. This reminded me of the Tajiks in the Wakhan. Threatened by the actual extremists, those who are already suffering are accused of being extremists themselves, feeling the need to state: ‘We are no extremists.’ No, you are not. You are humans and you welcomed me as another human. Another human, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or whatever else one might come up as a reason to divide humans into small, artificial entities.

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Two old men with whom I had a lovely conversation without us knowing many words in either language
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A little boy who came running after me to invite me in for a tea in his home

I wish we would live in a world, where this statement would not be needed. Still, this was important to the people I met – having this message out there, in the world. I comply. And would like to add: you are not extremists. You are among the kindest people I have ever met. I was humbled by your hospitality. Your heart-felt welcome has forever changed the way I think about how to approach complete strangers. Give them a smile and invite them for a cup of tea. Don’t think about what separates you, but what you share. Such as being humans.

 

Beyond rules

When you are travelling alone, nobody sets any rules for you. Still, some travellers decide to set rules for themselves, in particular when they are on the road for longer. One rule I encountered among cyclists is to cycle every inch of the way, for example. Others set out with the aim to only hitchhike. And really, it is totally up to you which flavor you want to give to your journey. Or maybe which challenge you want to tackle. Maybe even more so when you are travelling solo. Upon encountering other people’s rules, I started to think if I wanted to have any. The inner debate did not take long.

My main rule is: there are no rules.

And this, for me, is a lot harder than any other rule I could think of. Most of my life (and I guess this is true for other people as well), I have tried to fulfill expectations. Mostly my own, but also those of what you may call ‘the outer system’. Get good grades. Be disciplined in your sport. You name it. There was an inate desire for me to do so. I enjoy taking on challenges and getting through them – it is just part of my personality. Learning something and getting really good at it, maybe even excelling. Still, there were rules and there were goals. This part I know. This feels utterly familiar. It would have been in my second nature, an integral part of who I was before setting out for this trip, to say: ‘alright, I will cycle every single meter.’ Or maybe: ‘I will cycle to Europe in xx days.’ Set your goal, focus, discipline yourself. Easy. I recognize that this way of thinking, this attitude, is not easy for everyone – everyone functions differently (and what is easy for others can be insanely hard for me, of course). Also, those challenges would have still been challenges, also for me. Yet, it would have been the same, old way of thinking. Also, a way of thinking that embodies a thought that I am struggling to get rid of: that my life, I, as a person, only has value when I accomplish things. That it is quintessential for you to accomplish things, since that grants you the right to live, be loved and appreciated. At my core, I know that this is totally off – but it is still hard to rid myself of these thoughts.

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Conquering Kyzyl Art Pass (4280m) – not to prove anything; it is simply on the way from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan

So instead of giving myself a challenge, of setting rules, I made the decision: there are no rules.

All of a sudden, you are confronted with insecurity. Absurdly enough, the question arose in my head: ‘Am I allowed to do this? Take a time-out from life and not even try to accomplish something specific?’ And then I realized that this is really at the core of things. Facing these kinds of questions, doubts, fears. If your mind is busy following rules, also your own, it is easy to deafen yourself against the voice in your head that asks these questions. And I am glad that I do not deafen that voice anymore. I listen. And I realize how the voice in my head is slowly changing its text.

Don’t get me wrong: there is absolutely nothing wrong with setting challenges for yourself. It may be life-changing for someone to set a challenge or rule, for a journey or a certain period of life, and succeeding. This experience may actually be novel for that person, changing his or her perspective on being able to rely on oneself, on being able to carry through, even when times are rough.

It is just that for me things are the opposite. My change of perspective is to move away from concrete goals, to move away from rules of ‘how to do things right’.

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One of the things the road teaches you: there is no right or wrong



So when you are facing a difficult stretch to cycle, a steep pass maybe or a road with heavy traffic, there is nobody and no rule that helps you decide. Should you skip or keep cycling? When you decide to skip a stretch, do you try to hitchhike? Do you actually pay for transport? When you wake up to the sound of rain, do you stay and wait it out? Do you get on the road? If you are really tired in the evening, but have not written your diary in a couple of days, do you stay up to write? Do you give in to the desire to sleep?

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A stretch I did not hitchhike

I have done these and other things both ways and other ways as well. And I realize that rules would have not made sense. Every situation is different, every situation requires a fresh perspective. I have caught myself a couple of times, saying to myself: ‘Nah, that is not the way I do things.’ For example, I had not paid for transport for almost two months. I either cycled or hitchhiked. But then, I encountered a situation (my Tajik visa expiring and next to no truck traffic on the road), where I actually made sense to pay for transport. And I realized that the challenge, for me, was to actually pay for it. Against my first intuition of ‘that is not how I do things’. The more accurate thought would have been ‘This is not how I have done things UP TO NOW.’ And then move beyond it.

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So yes,I have paid for transport

I thought a bit more and realized that I do have one principle, a very basic one.
‘Stay sane, healthy and out of prison.’

That pretty much sums up my priorities. But it is more a reminder than anything else to take care of myself. Because, as I am travelling solo, nobody else will.

Staying sane:
If I realize that I do need company, I might stay an extra night just because I have met people with whom I bonded instantly. If I feel that I need a break from the road, I will take it, even if my visa is about to expire. If my desire is to do nothing at all for an entire day, in a village where there is nothing to do or see, this is what is going to happen. I just follow my intuition what I need on any given day, to stay sane and well. I have acted against this intuition a few times, and instantly got the feedback from myself that those were not good, sustainable choices.

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Taking my time to acclimatize (Sary Tash)

Stay healthy:
My original rule was ‘stay alive’, but I realized that I want more than that. I want to take care of myself such that I am actually well physically, not only alive. This may sound really easy – it really is not for me. I have absolutely no problem with pushing myself to my physical limits and beyond (I have been in high performance sports for long enough). But if you are cycling by yourself in remote mountain regions, this is really not what you want. There is nobody to catch you and take care of you if your health deteriorates because you overexerted yourself. Staying healthy, taking care of getting good, fresh food (if it is available), resting my body – definitely high priorities for me.

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Cycling very lonely stretches means being extra nice to yourself

Staying out of prison:

An obvious one, but also one that is a bit more crucial in some parts of the world than others, simply because the rules in some regions are a bit stricter than elsewhere. It just means that I am not trying to bend any laws. I am the most friendly and obliging person when I am get to a military checkpoint. And I will tell people in uniforms a lot of nice words, even if I innerly disagree. That simple.

Beside this one, basic principle, I realized that there is another that I am trying to follow:
Don’t be a hero.

In a way, this is just another aspect of all of the above. And again, it would be easy for me to take the ‘hero lane’. Accomplish some athletic feat. Pushing yourself beyond 100km on that tough day. So I am forcing myself to go in the opposite direction. Take it easy. Slap myself on the shoulder at the end of the day, even though I only cycled 10km in the rain and then gave up (and gave in to the invitation of a Tajik grandmother to come into her house for tea). Actually, slapping myself on the shoulder BECAUSE I made that decision. Because I was tired and about to catch a cold. In a way, not being a hero also relates to my other principle, of staying sane, healthy and out of prison. Trying something heroic oftentimes leads to actions that are not particularly healthy, get you to the border of sanity and potentially close to a prison cell or at least a fine. Actually, I make it a point to congratulate myself on taking non-heroic decisions. Taking a rest day instead of pushing through. Giving myself time to mentally prepare for a tough mountain pass. Paying someone to get me closer to the border when my visa is about to run out.

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One of my host families in the Wakhan valley

And then, also tying into all the above, one could also phrase things this way:
Be pragmatic, not dogmatic.

Again, this is not as easy for me. But I am getting used to making purely pragmatic decisions. If it is early evening and I have not cycled as far as I had planned, but meet nice cyclists who are setting up their camp, I will surely join them. If I got taken in by a family and it rains the next day, I will surely use that chance and just stay, no matter my original goals for that day. Being pragmatic means, for me, that I leave judgements out of my thinking and try to only consider the facts. And some logic. ‘Rain outside’ + ‘I have a dry spot inside’ > ‘stay where I am ‘. Not that hard, it seems, but again, I sometimes catch myself diverting my thoughts into non-pragmatic ways. ‘Shouldn’t I be doing … instead?’. Life on the road is a good teacher, though. You are instantly rewarded for pragmatic decisions. Such as ‘if someone gives you food, take up that offer’. Even when it is tomatoes. Tomatoes are the only food item I utterly despise, but if tomatoes are the only fresh item to be had (as in: all the Pamirs), I will eat tomatoes.

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A rainy day when I just stayed with my hosts

All that being said, the main rules still holds: there are no rules. And my perspective of life has changed in mind-boggling ways since I accepted this. It still is a challenge for me, to leave old patterns of thinking and also to not let myself get into routines (‘I have always done things this way’ is, by how, reason enough for me to try things in a different way). Looking forward to what happens to me over time with this different view of thinking!

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Catching a ride over a rough stretch with one of the nicestt truck drivers I have ever met

Bishkek doubts

When deciding what I should post first, I was tempted. Tempted to start with the wonderful landscape vistas, the photos of smiling people who helped me on the way, of the dog that chased the wolf away from my tent at night. About how my leap of faith into the world of cycle touring worked out rather well.

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But that would only be half of the truth. The truth is that I was torn by doubt during that last night I spent in Bishkek, the night before actually departing (by bike) towards Osh in Southern Kyrgyzstan. This is also part of this journey, and even though I could play it cool now, pretend that this was a piece of cake, I would rather be honest. It was not. It was terrifying, scary and felt like jumping off a skyscraper. Thus, here are my “Bishkek doubts”, accompanied by some photos of Bishkek, a capital with a small-town atmoshpere, crumbling Soviet architecture, kind-hearted people and busy markets.

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Phone call with Christian. This feels so god-damn awful there are no words. Really, no words. I have never, ever felt as vulnerable in my life. My Polish roommate who travelled a similar route but in the opposite direction and who is now about to fly home, told me a couple of things I would rather not have known. “Wow, you are going to freeze to death up there in Tajikistan!” is one of them. “You really are going in the wrong season” is another statement. “The bacteria in Tajikistan are crazy – they get everyone’s stomach sooner or later”. How nice!

Bishkek, womenWhat is this? Should I cancel everything and simply fly back? Try an easier route, a shorter one, a less demanding one? Actually, I would – if I was not even more scared of packing my bike alone. This is all that is holding me back right now. Avoiding the bike-packing tomorrow in exchange against terrors of snow in Tajikistan in two weeks. Terror-postponing and avoiding. I do not remember ever having been that scared in my life. This is potentially life-threatening. While I knew this before, it becomes very real and palpable right now.

IMG_0023-01-965x1546 The additional information from my Polish acquaintance just pushes me over the edge. My body reacts as if it was in an actual critical situation. Cold sweat, faster breathing, racing heart. Yes, I wanted to push my limits, but this feels AWFUL. Already. Even though nothing has happened so far! I don’t care about the question if returning early is a form of failure. Who cares about failure? I would like to keep being among the living. Or at least, not die a very lonely death up in the mountains. All afternoon long, the Ala-Too mountain range provided a beautiful backdrop for Bishkeks buildings. Only that the 5000m peaks, snow-capped and looming, make me shudder each time I look at them. I do NOT want to go up there. Who cares about the mind-blowing scenery?

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Late night talk with my Japanese roommate, who is also travelling by bike. He decided against Tajikistan. “Too much snow, too cold”. Well, but he still wants to spend a month roaming Kyrgyzstan, while I want to leave as soon as possible for Tajikistan. We look at his route as a potential fall-back plan for me (via Kazachstan and then to Tashkent). Also, I use the chance to ask him whether he could show me how my stove works (he has the same). Being the friendly guy he is, he shows me, in awe with the fact how clean a stove can be *before* being put to use for some months. The Israeli guy on the next bed just raises his eyebrows: “You left for such a trip without ever having tried your stove?”. On the outside, I justify myself, explaining how the stove did not arrive on time because the order was delayed (true staetment). Innerly, I completely agree. And feel even more awful now.

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One phone call later, I make the decision to try to get to Osh. If this takes too long, or if I realize that the Tajik mountains are actually drenched in snow by then, I will backtrack and travel via the Fergana valley to Uzbekistan directly. Also, I need this time to come to terms with being alone at what feels like the end of the world. With a bike. And more luggage than I can even carry. What have I gotten myself into?

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Time is running

It has been a rough couple of days… Essentially, I am getting into that part of the preparation phase, when you realize that you do not have many fallback plans anymore. Things work out in time. Or they don’t. For some journeys, it is actually quite doable and not a big deal if you forgot an item – simply get it at your country of destination. For this particular journey, this is not an option – once I am on my bike in the middle of nowhere in Central Asia, I will have few possiblities to make up for anything I forgot. This is particularly true for the Pamir mountains, where I will rely heavily on everything I brought. No chance to get anything beyond that. If I forgot something, I won’t have it. If it fails, it fails.

This morning was ruled by panic mode. The kind of ‘why on earth did I not take care of this and that a month earlier? why does this have to be such a close call? what if…?’. Not helpful, in particular when time is scarce. But then, a friend of mine reminded me that this is part of my trip. I am mentally already on my way. If I panick now, this is a good excercise. Right now, I still have resources at hand, friends who help me out, shops and fast internet around that can help me solve things. I will certainly have those break-down moments up in the mountains, when I will have to rely on my self to sort things out. In rational. non-panic mode. And I will.

Another aspect of panic phases: they have to happen. I have rarely had a long journey, when this did not occur at some point. There is no point in ignoring it, as it will just pop up again. I usually give myself a time limit. 12 hours of self-pity or drama. Usually, I am sick of that a lot earlier and can move on. It worked this time as well, fortunately. Back into working mode. Keep your fingers crossed for me – still an awful lot to do!

 

PS:  I took the photo in winter 2014 during my last visit of Prague, Czech Republic

‘So… what do your parents say?’

I am sure all of you had had situations with parents or loved ones who were concerned about what you were doing at some point of your life [If not, maybe they were good in concealing their feelings, or maybe you have not dared greatly enough. In the latter case, you could think about which project you always deemed to crazy to try – and then go ahead and realize them :-).]

In any case, telling my parents about this trip was an important milestone. It was a long process (6 years!) for me to step into my fears and dreams, to dare making this real. So who am I to expect my parents to fully play along from the first moment I told them? My mother’s first reaction in April was to question my sanity. She told me that she had always thought I was joking when I had mentioned the idea of this trip earlier. I had not gotten such a reaction ever since my first journey to India when I was 20 (i.e., quite some time back)… well, this adventure now is also quite a step ahead from all the previous adventures I have taken.

Last week, I was visiting my parents. And my mother handed me some bungee cords she had bought, telling me that I might need those for my bike ride. That was a really emotional moment for me, the manifestation that she had accepted that this is going to happen. In a way, also a manifestation of how my family works together: a lot of personal freedom, but even more mutual support, no matter whether we fully dendorse every one of our projects or not.