Apart from my bike Emily, my camera has been my most important companion in all those months on the road. This journey has taught me to settle into a much slower, gentler pace than what we are used to in our everyday routines. If I wanted to capture a particular scene with my camera, I took my time, sometimes hours, until I felt that I had finally managed to get the essence of this particular moment, this particular atmosphere.
Now, I am very excited to announce that a little selection of my best photographs from the saddle went into print as postcards! Five photos is not enough to do justice to the wonderful landscapes and great people of Asia and the Middle East. Still, I hope they’ll bring the same joy to you as they did to me when I first laid my eyes on these extraordinary places.
The moment the sun rises over the glacier of Rakaposhi, we forget everything else. The long hike on the day before, getting up to the base camp of the imposing mountain of Rakaposhi. The cold night in the tent, trying to find sleep at high altitude. The hour we had spent freezing outdoors at 5am, waiting for the sun to rise over the glacier. All that is forgotten in the golden rays of the sun, warming our faces and hearts. Five friends, who had met on the road and bonded instantly. And a moment that none of us will ever forget.
Welcome to Solitude
My first day in Tajikistan – and what a landscape to greet me with! Descending from my second pass of the day, I should hurry up to find a spot to camp, it is getting late after all. But I cannot take my eyes off the stark beauty of the mountains, the eternal street ahead of me, the clouds racing past, the sun bathing everything in gold. Even though I know that it will be freezing cold in an hour, I simply cannot stop. I cycle on and on and on, gorging on beauty, on quietness, on feeling one with the nature around me. Life can only be lived from moment to moment and this moment simply lasts forever.
City of Memories
The desert reaches as far as you can see, flat golden stretches of barren land. And then, at the far horizon, a fairytale skyline rises from the shallow surroundings. The first thought is that of a Fata Morgana, so improbable seems the mere idea of domes in the desert. And yet. Yet, as you get closer, you realize it is a city in itself. Not a city of the living, but a city of memories, of those who are remembered, of those whose love and dreams still hang in the air just like an afterthought.
That unbelievable sense of freedom, when you roam the wilderness and set up camp wherever you like. Nothing quite compares to this feeling, this way of living. Every movement is routine, every movement is meditation. Why would you hurry while setting up camp? At least not in the golden summer sun in Mongolia, when for once I am at peace with my surroundings. I take my time and enjoy that absolutely no thoughts are required, everything just flows. And then, at some point, my camp is ready, my diary is waiting, my heavy boots come off my feet and a herd of goats stops for a visit. Oh glorious life on the road!
The many switchbacks that lead up to Kunzum La pass, the innumerable, awful switchbacks! And yet, despite the altitude and despite the slow process, I am propelled by the thought of reaching the famous Spiti valley on the other side of the pass. Spiti, with its glorious colors and delightful rock formations. The anticipation is rising… and yet another switchback. By the time I reach the pass, it is getting late already and the wind is chilling me to the bone. But I am captivated by the sheer amount of prayer flags that cheerfully greet me in the icy wind. The colors of Spiti, I love them already.
Which ones are your favorites? Let me know if you’d like to get some and I’d be happy to send postcards your way (you can order them here)!
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!
What am I doing here? This question followed me all through Kyrgyzstan, the first country I ever cycled through. In fact, this is the first bike trip of my life. I simply invested a good part of my savings into gear and a sturdy bicycle – and took a leap of faith. I only recently realized how much courage there was behind this step into the unknown. But even though I was scared a lot – figure nights having wolves around my tent (more on this here), the approaching cold of winter, … – I already realized that I absolutely loved everything about cycle touring. Being outdoors all day. Connecting with nature. Being self-sufficient. Taking my time. Reducing my belongings to the barest mininimum. Camping in the wild. The solitude. The landscapes. The wonderful people I would have never met otherwise.
At this point, though, during those first weeks in Kyrgyzstan, the challenges were different. In fact, I had not even taken a test ride on my fully-loaded bike before leaving Germany. So I considered Kyrgyzstan to be my trial ride. The test before I would decide whether I had the courage to continue alone into the Pamir Mountains. I cycled two weeks from Bishkek to Osh, through spectacular landscape, visited nomads and their herds of horses, tackled the first mountain passes of my life by bike. And I got a first taste of the incredible hospitality that I would experience throughout this journey, with locals taking utmost care of me. But I also got glimpses into the terrible domestic violence under which far too many Kyrgyz women suffer.
When I reached Osh, I stocked up my supplies at the bazaar,… and waited. Waited until I felt ready to head out into the real wilderness. Onto the Pamir Highway, onwards to Tajikistan. The stories I had heard from other cyclists gave me much to think about – the insanely cold nights, the scarcity of food, the solitude. I do not think that I ever will be as terrified ever again in my life, as in those days preparing for the Pamirs. So I waited until I felt strong enough, mentally, physically – and then cycled off into what still feels like the biggest adventure of my life.
The Pamirs. My love. Oftentimes, what you fear most is the exact spot where the biggest treasure lies for you. The Pamir Mountains were the every reason for me to set out onto this cycling expedition. I felt a draw to this region that I could not explain. And once I cycled there, I knew why. I have never felt as much in tune with the world ever before. The extraordinary beauty of the landscape touched a string in my soul that I will never forget. Kyrgyzstan had already given me a glimpse of the solitude and beauty I could expect in the Pamir Mountains and the Wakhan valley. But nothing quite prepared me. I spent days and days filled with pure joy, stunned by all this beauty (more about those incredible days in the Pamirs here). And I was speechless that I had the privilege to explore this on my own. In the Pamirs, you can easily spend days without meeting another human being, in particular in late autumn.
When I descended from the Pamir Highway into the fabled Wakhan valley (where this photo was taken), I could not believe that the landscapes could become even more fantastic. Traveling along the Tajik-Afghan border with the Hindukush in sight every day, I realized that I needed more time to savor this fairytale world. So I slowed down even more and started walking my bike instead of riding it. After the wonderful solitude on the Pamir Highway, I now walked my bike through the tiny, beautiful villages of the Wakhan valley. I will never forget the people I met there – their unbelievable kindness, their hospitality, the warmth they extended to a complete stranger like me (more on this here). In retrospect, those were among the happiest days of my life.
At the same time, this part of the expedition was extraordinarily harsh, in particular on the Pamir highway The high altitude. The thin air. The approaching snow. The insanely cold nights in my tent, with temperatures dropping below -25 degree Celsius at times. The incredibly bad roads. The scarce food. And yet, I would have not minded to die there.
Uzbekistan, the dark days. Maybe I could have expected that every high is followed by a low. And that a time as intense and gloriously beautiful as my days in Tajikistan would likely be followed by a deep fall. I had indeed made it out of the mountains two weeks before winter really fell. But it caught me in Uzbekistan, with snow flurries and a continuous wet cold, from which I could never quite warm up. In Tajikistan, I had experienced intensely cold nights, but could enjoy warm days with radiant sunshine. In Uzbekistan, however, light was elusive, day and night (there is no street lighting, really – or rather: the electricty system is too weak to power both the light in houses *and* light in the streets). Add to it the rain, the snow, the mud, the infamous bureaucratic hassles in this country, my very restricted visa. I had spent the absolute maximum of days I could in Tajikistan, so I was very short of time in Uzbekistan, forcing me to take my bike into trains often.
What I did find in Uzbekistan were cities with a long history, filled with splendid architecture. When the sun was out, these glorious masterpieces were mesmerizing and I spent hours and hours photographing architecture (see above). I needed the sun not only for the light, but also for the warmth – my hands were too frozen to hold a camera without gloves otherwise. On a positive note, Uzbekistan taught me to be utterly grateful for any sunny day, any bit of warmth. And since I so longed for beauty, it raised my appreciation for wonderful historic architecture to completely new levels (and there is much of that to explore in Uzbekistan). The long bouts of darkness also gave me some time to reflect on this journey so far. During sleepless nights, I realized that I had followed one principle so far: I would set no rules for myself during this journey (more on letting go of rules here). Instead, I would attempt only to stay healthy, alive and out of prison (and there were times during this expedition, later on, during which I struggled with all three).
After all the difficulties in Uzbekistan, with non-functioning ATMs, deep mud and slightly paranoid authorities, Kazakhstan felt like a blessing. The people had become kinder and kinder the further north I had ventured in Uzbekistan. By the time I reached Kazakhstan, I was again surrounded by an incredible friendliness that I had missed after leaving Tajikistan (Uzbekistan sometimes has a bit of a macho culture, which, as a woman, I did not enjoy).
Kazakhstan is a tremendously large country. I only had time to explore the Mangistau region in the far West of the country, with its wonderful desert landscapes, dotted with numerous necropoli (as the one in the photo). No matter where I went, the Kazakh people I met where very excited to have me there and to help me whenever it was needed. In fact, during my (many) days in the city of Aktau, I became somewhat of a local celebrity, but in a heart-warming way: it seemed half of the city knew me and I was cordially and respectfully introduced to any bystander as ‘our journalist from Germany’. I was trying to explain that I am, in fact, not a journalist. Maybe it was my poor command of Russian, maybe the people from Aktau simply liked their own story better. For them, I stayed ‘our journalist’ and nothing could curb their enthusiasm and kindness towards me.
Kazakhstan, where my journey ended. Or, at least, where my plans ended. I reached the Caspian Sea at Aktau and did not know exactly where to continue. Take a ferry to cycle through Azerbaijan and Georgia, in order to continue cycling towards Europe? That had been on my mind, but cold and snow would await me there already. Or take a flight to Iran, where I had been invited by two friends? Iran, about which I had not even thought previously and where I would have to wear Hijab. I spent long hours sitting at the shore of the Caspian Sea, looking at the water, trying to decide.
Booking a flight to Iran felt a bit like deciding to go on a cycling expedition through the high mountains of Central Asia with zero prior experience. I was excited beyond anything, filled with fear as well as curiosity of what would await me.
I have never regretted my decision to come to Iran. A rollercoaster ride it was, but an incredibly enriching one. Recently, I was asked which countries surprised me most, in a positive way. For me, those were Iran and Pakistan. I have been to few countries where the difference between the picture that is conveyed of a country in the news and the reality on the road clash so much. Iranian hospitality is beyond anything you can imagine and is extended with incredible warmth. During my seven weeks in Iran, traversing this huge country from Tehran all the way to the Persian Gulf, I only managed to camp on two nights. For bureaucratic reasons, I needed to stay in a hostel a few times. All the other nights, I was, without fail, invited into the homes and hearts of Iranians (and that of a dear German friend in Tehran). When I was on my bike, trucks and cars regularly stopped next to me, because people wanted to offer me drinks and food.
Iran was also the stage of the incredible friendship between an Iranian, a Swiss and a German. The three of us had met on the road in Tajikistan and promised to meet again in Esfahan, the hometown of our Iranian friend. The time we had together was unforgettable, filled with laughter and discussions, delightful nonsense and deep understanding at the same time. As a result, this city will always have a special place in my heart. There are few places on this planet where I felt just as welcome and at home (this is also where the photo was taken).
But it was not all sunshine. The rollercoaster ride of Iran did not only include incredible hospitality, friendship and mind-blowing masterpieces of architecture. I also faced fascism, assaults and discrimination as a woman. Which, at some point, made me decide to disguise myself as a man when cycling. A decision that made my life a lot easier on the road, but also filled me with fear about being found out. And fear of the potential consequences – you may know that all women are required by law to wear hijab in Iran (which I was technically not, whenever I disguised myself as a man). At the same time, it was unbelievably eye-opening and enriching to experience this country both as a man and as a woman. I don’t think I would have understood nearly as much about the Iranian society, had I not had two perspectives on it.
All that notwithstanding, I think back to Iran with a lot of compassion for the countless friends I have there. Those I knew before. The many I made on the road. And I am grateful for all the things that my experiences there taught me, about letting go of expectations and just being (see here).
When the ferry crossed the international border between Iran and UAE, the women on board let their headscarves fall, including me. I will never forget this moment, that felt so liberating for me. I will also never forget how overwhelmed I was by the sheer amounts of goods and consumerism all around me in UAE. This is a world that will never feel good to me – the megalomania, the terrible discrimination against immigrants, the exploitation of resources … and some of most challenging traffic I have found anywhere (I found staying alive while cycling to be more difficult in Dubai than in New Delhi).
Fortunately, a good friend of mine was working in Dubai at the time, who took me in and gave me the biggest present of all: her bathtub (my first bath in six months)! She was also with me when my boyfriend announced on the phone that he had booked a last-minute flight to come and cycle with me through UAE and Oman. We had talked about the idea, but having him actually come (and in just two days) was a bit of a shock. I sure was happy to see him, but after all the months of solitude… So all of a sudden, I found myself in company while tackling the deserts of UAE by bike. The heat was rough, but waking up to the noise of a camel herd and camping in soft sand dunes are wonderful things, indeed (see photo).
Most of all, I had missed the warmth of the Iranian people when cycling in UAE. Luckily, we were headed to Oman. The Omani people are of a gentle kindness that is unforgettable. ‘If you want to camp, I am happy to show you a nice spot in the dunes. Unless, of course, you prefer to stay in my family’s beach house. It is all yours, if you like.’ And then getting never ending plates of the most delicious dishes.
And that was good. Being a touristy tourist in Oman can be mind-bogglingly expensive – in fact, we could not afford hotel rooms. Thus, we depended on being invited by locals in order to be able to wash ourselves from time to time (and fortunately, they kept inviting us). The other challenge was the insane heat. We were cycling there in full winter, the coldest time of the year. Yet, we still saw temperatures rise above 40 degree Celsius on some days. Which, combined with the crazy gradients of some of Oman’s streets, can make your life hard, to say the least. But the beauty of the barren landscapes, dotted by incredibly fertile oases in shady wadis – it all made up for it (you might agree, if you look at the photo).
At the end of my time in Oman, I realized that I needed a break from cycling. Physically, psychologically. So far, I had woken up every day with a smile, knowing that if I could chose, this would be exactly what I would opt for: another day outdoors, on the road, on my bicycle. But in Oman, there was a week when I accumulated injuries and fell sick at the same time. And I have come to trust my intuition and my body (more thoughts about trust here). I simply woke up one day and knew it was time for a break from cycling. Some time to stay put, get organized, figure out my next routes, get the next visa. In a way, I had come to the literal end of the road anyways, at the southern tip of the Arabic Peninsula: I was again facing the ocean, with no obvious next country for this journey.
… which, after all, brought me to Mongolia. This was not a decision taken lightly. Mongolia is one of the last frontiers in the cycle touring world. Sure, people do it, but challenges abound – scarce water, mosquitos, thunderstorms, terrible roads, the gigantic distances to be covered. And I was about to head out there all by myself. But then, I had chosen the Pamir Highway as my start into this cycling adventure, so I had some serious adventure experience under my belt. Or so I thought.
I actually prepare myself as well as I can, in particular for the stretches far from civilization. My life depends on it. But no matter how well you prepare, some things can take a wrong turn quite easily. I had some of these very close calls in Mongolia, among them running dangerously low on water and almost being hit by lightning (you can read about those experiences here). On top of that, I was assaulted by Mongolian men at a disturbingly high frequency. Assaulted to the point that I was afraid I would lose faith in humanity. I shared those experiences with you in one of the most personal blog posts I have ever published (here). Thanks a lot to the many people who reached out for me in response. And to the brave men and women who shared their similar experiences, many also set in Mongolia.
I have never endured challenges on so many levels, for such a long time, as in this country. The landscapes were mind-blowing, though, and in terms of camping, I was spoilt for choice. I was lucky that I was well-rested and well-nourished before I had set out from Ulaanbaatar. I am not sure how I would have managed without, on this journey to my very limits. And another aspect saved me: as much as I would not have minded to die in Tajikistan, at this extraordinary place that had called me for years, I very much minded to die in Mongolia. And will power goes a long way.
After the hard times in Mongolia, I would have been in love with ANY other country, I guess. In the case of China, a couple of factors were added to this. Some 10 years ago, I spent half a year living in China, so the culture is not completely foreign to me. And even though I have forgotten quite a bit, I can still read and speak the language in enough proficiency to get along. In addition, I was simply overwhelmed by the delicious food, Uyghur and Han, that I could get no matter where I went (the food in Mongolia is probably the worst I had in the 50+ countries I have travelled in).
The Uyghur culture of Xinjiang province in the far West of China is very distinct, with open-minded people who are genuinely friendly – unless you attempt to speak Mandarin with them (it took me a while before I understood and kept my mouth shut). In fact, much of the culture here reminded me of my months in Central Asia, the summer before, and brought back good memories. Kashgar became my hiding place for a while (where this photo was taken), to process the experiences in Mongolia, make new friends and get some much needed rest.
‘If I had not already lost my heart to Tajikistan, Pakistan would be my love.’ Statement of my dear Columbian friend Natalia, with whom I spent lovely days hiking in Pakistan. I agree with her partially, because I am in love with both (I don’t think love is mutually exclusive). I cycled along the famous Karakorum Highway (KKH), that leads through gorgeous scenery from China into the even more stunning mountains of Pakistan. The KKH is a cyclist’s dream come true: good tarmac (nowadays), passing through spectacular landscape with glaciers, peaks of more than 7,000 meters altitude, beautiful orchards and stunning lakes.
And it is not just about cycling: Pakistan is foremost a paradise for mountaineers. Some of the most beautiful mountains can be reached on comparatively easy hikes (not summiting, but getting to their base camps). I was more than happy about having carried my heavy mountaineering boots for those endless kilometers when I did not need them, just to have the chance to go hiking in Pakistan’s stunning nature. I joined forces in this endeavour with some extraordinary people I met on the road, people with whom I could connect immediately and with whom I share precious memories, such as standing in awe in front of glaciers at sunrise (see photo).
The Pakistani people, meanwhile, are en pars with the Tajiks, Iranians and Omanis when it comes to hospitality and kindness. Just wonderful! In fact, there are cultural links between all of them (to the best of my knowledge), which also meant that I recognized some words, architectural structures, bits and pieces that made my falling in love even easier. In the area of Gilgit-Baltistan, where I spent most of my time, locals are highly educated and communicating in English is very rarely a problem. Similarly to other places where only the few and hardy travel, the other travelers you meet are also extraordinary. The friendships forged during these weeks, both with Pakistanis and with foreign travelers, will surely last for a long time.
I would have stayed for months in Pakistan, had I not had someone waiting for me in Ladakh, India. My boyfriend had again packed his bicycle to join me for a month of cycling in the Himalayas. This time, I was more prepared to give up my solitude for a bit. Only that a lot of other factors happened to be out of our control. Kashmir had become off limits, due to the escalating conflict there. Snow fell a lot earlier than expected in Ladakh, stopping us on the way to the second highest pass in the world, Tanglang La (5,328m). A lot of changes of plans, adapting, figuring out alternatives. Eventually, we decided to spend the rest of our days together cycling a stretch that I had planned to do alone, from Lahaul into Spiti valley, from where I continued solo into Kinnaur.
I have a penchant for barren, starkly beautiful mountainscapes and the Indian Himalayas are a wonderland in this regard. Add to this very welcoming locals, a largely Tibetan culture (see photo) and ancient monasteries in the position of eagles’ nests. Yes, the nights were pretty cold, the road among the worst I have ever been on, the food oftentimes just Maggi noodles. But I loved it! I don’t mind to make only few kilometers a day, to struggle with altitude, to fight with mountain passes. It all just teaches you patience and modesty.
Comes New Delhi and the challenges got to a new level: incredible smog, even for Delhi’s standards, and an overnight devaluation of 80% of India’s currency (and pretty much all of my cash). Add to this a change of the law that rendered my plan of cycling from India through Myanmar to Thailand impossible. In the end, I was out of my mind happy when I managed to scrap enough money together and take a flight out of this madness.
Similarly as Iran last year, Thailand had not really been on my mind. My plans had ended in New Delhi. All of the plans I had come up with in the meantime had been turned infeasible due to the political situation. So Thailand it is. Up to now, I have largely worked on this calendar here. As soon as this blog post is out, I am headed towards the Golden Triangle and then onwards to Laos.
In a way, I feel like having come full circle: Thailand was the first Asian country I ever visited, back when I was 19. My memories are blurry and a lot of things have changed, but I do remember visiting this very city, Chiang Mai, half a lifetime ago. I don’t know what awaits me here (you never know), but the challenge is already clear: taking it easy. Being nice to myself. For me personally, taking the adventurous road is always easier than not to. To my relief, I will be in mountainous areas again. Not the Pamirs, not the Karakorum, not the Himalayas. But that does not matter. The road is waiting for me.
… and finally: the calendar!
This is where the story ends, for now. Or, depending how you see it, where it starts anew, here in South-East Asia. As I wrote before, I created a beautiful photo calendar with these 12 photos from my journey. If you enjoyed following along and would like to support me a bit on this adventure, you would make me very happy if you ordered one. Or maybe one more if you have a good friend whom you believe would enjoy this, too. You can find all relevant infos for purchasing the calendar here. Have a wonderful start into 2017!
PS: Here is a map that shows where this journey on my bike has taken me so far.
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.
(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…’
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
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?’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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).
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…
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.
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.
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.
So Mongolia it is…
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).
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.
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.
…. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
First things first: the next leg of my journey is coming up really soon (hopping onto my bike Emily tomorrow)! After a long preparation phase with Kafkaesque struggles, I am finally ready to hit the road again. Well, not a road in the sense most of us know roads. The next two months will see me crossing Mongolia by bike, where the way will be unpaved for large sections, both following GPS coordinates and navigating with my paper maps. I will then continue into Northwestern China, cycle via the Karakorum highway into Pakistan and then onwards to the Indian Himalayas. At least, that is the plan. Plans are as volatile as life (in a good way), but that is the plan I have visas for, at least. To give you an idea: this is what my journey looked like so far…
… and this is where it will take me next:
The longest preparation ever
You won’t believe how excited I am. You won’t believe either how scared I was for a long time – particularly about crossing Mongolia. The two times on this journey when I was as hesitant and anxious were probably before embarking into the Pamirs and before heading into Iran with next to zero preparation. Both parts of this journey turned out to be life changing (again, in a good way), so I knew that my doubts about Mongolia were a good pointer. Unless it is about playing with bear cubs, fear is usually a great guide that shows you were to head next if you want to get out of your comfort zone and grow. And boy, Mongolia was far out of my comfort zone when the thought arose first! The help of my Canadian cyclist friend Tara (who writes a great blog also) was invaluable in terms of how to prepare and what to expect.
While I was starting to feel confident on that level, the logistic obstacles grew sky-high. The Chinese bureaucracy that required me to show a booked flight ticket from my home country into China and back. The Pakistani embassy that seemed to follow no rules whatsoever in their procedure of issueing visa (or changed those rules whenever I communicated with them). Then, when I was ready to book a flight into Mongolia, the one airline with cheap tickets cancelled their service to Mongolia altogether, on the very day I wanted to book that flight. Parcels with important spare parts for my bike disappeared in the black hole of customs. And meanwhile, the change of my blog hosting turned out to be a logistic nightmare. To make matters even more complicated, time was ticking as some of my visa were running already.
The bare essentials
After all this, I needed to give myself a sign, a symbol, that I was ready, no matter the circumstances. At the very last minute (the evening before my flight), I finally followed through with what I had planned in September last year already: shaving my head. When I had embarked in September last year, the idea had been to shave my hair in order to more easily pass as a man if needed. However, I had not quite felt ready for it. Instead, I had went for a very short haircut, which still served the same purpose. And which, while being very practical, looked rather awful on me (well, looking good is not really a priority on this journey – I only have two t-shirts to wear, if that gives you an idea). I have to admit that I was afraid of not having hair. How my head would look like. What people would think.
After all that has already happened on this journey and after all the obstacles involved in getting to Mongolia, I very much felt ready for that step the night before I left. And so my hair went. And all that was left was… me. I looked into the mirror and saw my eyes maybe for the first time. If there is no hair that takes your focus away, the eyes get a lot more attention. There is also nothing that limits your field of vision. Complete freedom. The bare essentials. A feeling that I needed some time to get accustomed to, but one that I really appreciate now.
Saying hello to Kyrgyzstan
Finally, much later than anticipated, I made it onto an airplane with the destination Mongolia. The itinerary included a one-day stopover in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where I had first started out on this cycling adventure. What a fitting coincidence! I used the one day I had in Bishkek to say hello to this country that I seemed to have left just yesterday. I must have smiled for the entire 24 hours. My brain slowly started to produce words in Russian again. I recognized streets and places I had discovered here last summer. I treated myself to a really nice Kyrgyz meal in a good restaurant (which, as usual for Kyrgyzstan, cost next to nothing). I walked through supermarkets and enjoyed recognizing products. Random things, maybe, but utterly joyful for me. It felt like connecting with the last leg of my expedition with all of my senses.
In the evening, I took a bus back to the airport, escaping a torrent of rain. Immediately, I was taken care of by Fatima, a middle-aged woman who was sitting in the bus already. After my day in Kyrgyzstan, my Russian was back to small talk level again and with Fatima’s contribution of some English words, we managed to rustle up quite a nice conversation. Fatima was excited to hear that I had already cycled through Kyrgyzstan last year. When she left, she gave me her phone number, saying: ‘Please stay with my family when you visit again next year.’ The gesture was even more meaningful to me when I realized where she lived: in the very village where a Kyrgyz familiy had taken me in so kindly on the very first day of my trip (see this blog post).
A complicated start in Mongolia
Despite my usual ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime, sleep was elusive during the long journey into Mongolia. I had not found time to sleep before the flight and when I arrived in Mongolia three flights later (spending two nights at airports), my level of sleep was down to about eight hours in total for those three days.
To make matters worse, my bike Emily was in a really poor condition. She might have never been packed as carefully (in a box, this time), but never been treated as badly by airport personnel, either. The box was torn open in some crucial places and the cushioning of the bike ripped off in parts. In any case, she was not rideable, with a dysfunctional rear mech and a ripped-off saddle clamp. Fortunately, I was given a ride into town by the driver of a guesthouse – where I immediately fell onto bed and slept some 12 hours.
During the next days, I caught up on sleep and worked on getting ready: fixing my bike, organizing good topographical paper maps, extending my visa. Things had not fallen into place easily during the preparation phase and neither did they in Mongolia. Ulaanbaator has lots of resources, but they are pricey and not always easy to find.
But somehow, despite the difficulties, I enjoyed those days in Ulaanbaatar. After exploring the shops mentioned in my guidebook, I found the hidden markets where only locals go, and then the small shops that you find by chance and recommendations. I started getting to know all the girls who work at the guesthouse I am staying at. I met very inspirational travellers and very ignorant ones. I practised my Mongolian with the cashiers at the small supermarket next door. I discovered – in Mongolia, out of all countries! – that I very much enjoy vegan food (Ulaanbaatar has a thriving scene). I started to randomly run into people that I know. In other words, I simply spent some time living a rather normal life in this city.
Ulaanbaatar is not a pretty city, with a jumble of architectural styles, none of them very aesthetic. Different from the newer highrises and Soviet style living quarters is the Ger district (a Ger is similar to a Yurt), which consists of, well, Gers and mostly wooden houses. Many visitors say that you have to leave Ulaanbaator to actually see Mongolia. I am tempted to disagree. The city may not be in line with our _image_ of Mongolia, but this is an essential part of the country. More than one third of the Mongolian population (1,3 million) live here. Sure, this does not correspond to our romantized image of life in the Mongolian steppe, but a significant portion of the Mongolian people spends their life here nowadays.
My days here were not touristy at all, rather focused on getting things done. But at the same time, I have the impression that I got a feeling for this city, maybe more than I would have by visiting sights. The one sight I did visit was the Buddhist Gandan monastery, one of the largest in the country. In fact, Ulaanbaator itself was once founded as a Buddhist monastic center. Buddhism (and religions as such) were almost wiped out in Mongolia when the country came under Soviet control. 1937 was a black year in that regard, with 700 monasteries destroyed and 30,000 monks killed or sent off to labor camps. Religious freedom was only established again in 1990, after the Soviet Empire finally fell appart.
Gandan Khiid was the only monastery to escape destruction during Soviet times, but was reduced to a bare minimum of staff. Nowadays, the number of monks is back at 150 and the daily morning prayers attract tourists and believers alike. While the bus loads of tour groups came and went, I stayed for a bit longer to listen to the monks chanting. While I am not a religious myself, it was beautiful and soothing to listen to their voices, letting myself get entranced by the peaceful atmosphere of the place.
Knowing when you’re ready
It has become a pattern during this journey that I take my time before embarking on my bike for a new leg of this journey. I remember what felt like long days getting ready in Bishkek when I first started out (which really was not long at all, in retrospect). I also remember many days spent on the shore of the Caspian Sea (Aktau, Kazakhstan), pondering over the question whether I should take a ferry across to Azerbaijan or a flight to Iran (deciding for the latter). And in the upcoming months, I will remember those days in Ulaanbaatar getting ready to cross the steppe.
There are two souls residing in me. One is the curious child, hardly reigned in, who cannot wait to finally be out there again. I imagine that this is how Huskeys must feel like when they are consumed by the thought of running. Go, go, go! The other soul is the zen part of me, that reclines in a comfortable position, knowing that I will be ready when I will be ready. And that I will know when I am ready.
The doubts and fears are gone. I am ready now. Leaving for the wide steppe tomorrow. Wish me luck!