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.
Everybody faces her fear sooner or later in her life. The real one. The big one. Not the small ones that we believe are so important – be it being humiliated, failing in front of others, showing emotions when we are vulnerable, … These are the kinds of fear we are used to in our everyday lives. No, there is an existential fear that is a completely different matter. It is a fear that teaches you what fear really is. An instinctive fear. A primeval fear. A fear you might feel when you are running for your life. A fear that many of us are only facing when we are on our dying beds. I believed that death would not scare me and maybe it actually doesn’t. Still, leaving alone for the Pamirs, on this wind-swept day, on this empty road, towards those towering mountains, I felt as if I was jumping off a cliff. I decided to trust the universe to catch me. To accept that everything beyond this jump is beyond my control. To hand myself to these mountains and accept whatever the outcome. I had believed that I had already jumped when I started off in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), almost a month prior. On this morning, I realized that I was only really jumping now. The real decision for this journey and for whatever it would entail. And instead of death I found my paradise. The paradise that is waiting for everyone of us behind our biggest fears. Hard-earned, often on the edge of all of my limits, but maybe the best decision I have made in my life for far. Some of the deepest joy I have ever felt. Some of the most peaceful feelings of fulfillment. The kind of fulfillment you feel when you are in the exact place that has been waiting for you all your life. Doing exactly what you were born to do. There might be higher mountains in the world, more remote places. It didn’t matter. This place was and will forever be special for me. The Pamirs.
When I was about to start cycling away from Sary Tash, a Japanese tourist showed up out of nowhere. Just having returned from the Pamir the day before (by jeep), he was wondering how to continue, given that it was a Kyrgyz holiday. I had not even been aware of that holiday. Staying another day as to not be trapped in front of a closed border? No way. I had woken up with the resolution to leave, so I would. The high altitude plain lay in front of me. The first movements on my bike Emily felt unfamiliar. The headwind was stronger than ever. I left the last houses behind me in complete silence, seeing no human anywhere outside. The longer I pedalled, the more a deep quiescence overcame me. This was it. I had jumped. And despite the tough headwind, despite my weakness due to the bout of sickness I had just overcome, I was glad to be out there again. Smell the smell of snow ahead of me. Feel the intense sun on my skin. See a herd of horses walking past me in front of this gorgeous panorama. The road quickly deteriorated, from good tarmac to rough asphalt full of potholes. Once I had gotten closer to the mountains, I realized that there was indeed a way through them which was not yet covered by snow. I pedalled into a wide gorge that continuously became narrower, climbing slowly. It felt as if the mountains took care of me by taking me into their arms instead of letting me feel every bit tiny and unimportant as on those wide open plains.
When I reached the Kyrgyz border post, it was late afternoon. My first border crossing by bike, in the middle of nowhere. Despite the national holiday, the border was open and I was beckoned to the passport control. The border guards were not overly friendly- they just did their job. The one in charge looked at my papers. ‘Ah, Angela Merkel!’ – ‘Yes, yes. That’s our chancellor.’ Unsure if this would improve my chances to pass without having to pay bribes, I smiled at him broadly. I was waved through, into the 30km no-man’s-land. This piece of land stretches between the Kyrgyz and the Tajik border post. In spite of the natural beauty of this valley, none of the two countries claims it. It felt like the right place for me to be. Between countries. In a place that officially does not exist.
I had just passed the guards when a jeep showed up. The two male drivers turned out to be Swiss and Belgian. Their eyes almost fell out of their heads when they heard that I was about to head further into the mountains alone by bike. They had just taken a day trip up to the Tajik border (lacking a visa, they could not pass into Tajik territory). I felt their curious stares. ‘It is really cold up there.’ (I knew.) ‘There is a lonely house at the foot of the switchbacks, just before the pass. If you are lucky they’ll let you stay there overnight.’ (I knew that, too. The lonely house is famous among cyclists as a fallback option if you are hit by a snow storm- there is no other human habitation until you reach Tajikistan). ‘If you get going right away, you might make it there till sunset.’ I was thinking of this sentence for a long time after. While well-meant, this certainly was a statement made by people who have never cycled in the mountains themselves… It turned out that it would take me an entire day to get to that house. Certainly not the one hour I had till sunset.
Still, I set out in good hope. The road still showed a few remainders of tarmac , but gravel took over soon. When I hit my first river crossing, I realized that the road had been washed away. Carrying a fully-loaded bike down to the water, across the little stream and then up the small hillside was a lot harder than I had thought. Still in a T-shirt, I quickly realized by the chill I felt on my arms that I had little time left until the cold of the evening would hit me with full force. At the end of the valley, the road turned left into the higher reaches of the mountains. I decided that this would be for the next day and searched for a good spot to camp. The grass was wild and deep, more used to the altitude than me. It took me a while to get my stuff to a place well off the road, a little bit less exposed to the wind. By the time, I was setting up my tent, I was already dangerously cold – and within a few minutes, being in a T-shirt was out of question. But the fleece, windjacket, gloves and hat I put on quickly helped less than I hoped. A lesson soon learned: have your tent up before the sun vanishes behind the mountains. Well before that. Too tired for anything else, I fell asleep just past 7pm, after nibbling on some nuts.
The next morning woke me with absolute silence. This would be the soundtrack for most of my time in the Pamirs. This unbelievably deep silence. The wind, sometimes. My own breath. My tires grinding on the gravel. Those quiet awakenings in the morning, however, were greeted by absolute silence. And nothing seemed to be missing. It was not loneliness I felt. I was where I was supposed to be. It felt like being in the center of the universe. The center of the universe had one disadvantage: it had gotten really cold at night, meaning my sleeping bag was covered by a thin layer of ice in the mornings, as was my tent and surely my poor bike Emily whom I had left outside. Thus, leaving before the sun was up was quite unpractical. The sun warmed things quickly (starting at around 9am), but it was rarely before 10am that I would have packed my camp. Neither did I on this particular morning. Dark clouds of snow formed while I was getting ready. Nervousness started to creep into my mind. I was trying to get over Kyzil Art pass today (4,280 m). I had hoped for a day without precipitation for this endeavour… In addition, the path ahead of me was really just gravel, mostly washboard and quite steep. Given my weak physical state, I decided to push on many of the steep stretches, trying to be as nice to myself as I could. Still, I could not outrun the snow. The silence around me seemed to intensify, as thick white flakes started to fall. The road seemed never-ending. Always another turn. Always another climb. And nowhere to camp, really. While the valley had seemed to embrace me mercifully yesterday, it felt as if it was strangling me today. I was getting really cold, too cold almost to open a power bar with my fingers. When, finally, the lonely house came into my view I could have cried from relief. I had only made 10km so far, but I was frozen to the bone. A little girl came running towards me. ‘Chai? Chai?’ Yes, I could have died for a hot tea! With the last bit of strength, I pushed heavy Emily up the steep hill to the house, stumbling from exhaustion.
The house was very simple, essentially just one small room for the whole family (the parents and three kids) to live, sleep and cook in. As elsewhere in Central Asia, the floor was covered with carpets. For sitting and sleeping, thin mattresses would be spread on the floor. But despite its simplicity that room contained the most beautiful thing my fantasy could have imagined: a boiling stove made from massive iron. Next to it was a giant bucket with snow to be melted. I was ushered to sit down and the father prepared some hot tea for me. He asked in Russian if I also wanted to eat, pointing out that it was already past 2pm and that I would hardly be able to cross the pass today if I ate anything. Looking outside, I realized that the swirl of snow flakes was getting darker – it almost seemed as if night was already falling already! I did not care about risking the pass for today. I was dying for warm food and human company. Yes, I wanted to eat. I did not even know whether they would allow me to stay for longer, I just followed my deepest inner wish. After a hearty portion of noodles, I could not help myself- my body just took over: I closed my eyes, curled up and fell asleep right away on the floor. Inmidst the small group of children, to the wonderful sound of boiling water. When I woke up, the darkness of the snow outside betrayed the fact it was only 4pm. The father turned to me with a concerned face. ‘You can stay here overnight, if you want.’ With deep gratitude, I sighed and went back to sleep. As became the habit during this journey, I did not care if I slept on the floor or not, I only cared about being safe and warm. And I was.
The next morning saw an early start- and sunshine. The latter seemed hard to believe given that we had been engulfed in snow the afternoon before. Above me, the awful switchbacks were waiting, the road every bit as steep as yesterday. Cycling was out of question and pushing would be hard work. I said goodbye to my generous hosts, leaving behind some items they had asked me for, and started. While it was sweaty work to get to the pass, the strong wind got me chilled to the bone. I was driven by only one wish: not to spend another day between borders, to get somewhere at lower altitude. Somewhere warm. I knew that the tiny settlement of Karakol was waiting for me on the Tajik side, but I had two passes beyond 4000m between me and the village. Would I make it?
It was noon when I pushed my bike Emily the last metres up to the pass. Kyzil art. The pass that separates Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. 4,280m (14,042 ft). At that moment, I heard motorbikes behind me. A German couple. We chatted briefly before they descended down the border ahead of me towards the Tajik border post. This time, the game was not quite as easy, but I was off better than the Germans on their motorbikes. While they were made to pay a hefty fee per day ‘for using the roads of Tajikistan’, the border guards seemed to see me as a mildly amusing, but harmless lunatic. Fortunately, it did not seem to cross their minds that I was also using the Tajik roads with my bike… As every so often on this journey, bikes were not seen as a ‘proper’ means of transport. And since, in their eyes, I was more or less ‘walking’ into their territory, no fee was asked for Emily. Or maybe they were just content to have gotten so much money out of the other Germans. Whatever it was, I made sure to leave the border quickly before the border guards might change their mind. The group of younger guards protested – they had just invited me to join them for a cup of hot tea – , but it felt risky to me to wait at the border too long. After all, I still had a lot of meters of altitude ahead of me until I would reach the first village.
Splendid Tajikistan lay to my feet (or rather: to the foot of the mountain from which I was descending). An immense space to all sides of me. Little did I care that the road was now bad washboard, hard to cycle both for your body and your bike. I was all eyes. Multi-colored mountains. Raw, wild, wind-swept, vast. And dry. While the Kyrgyz side had shown me how much snow the mountains can accmuluate even in September, the Tajik Pamir was bone dry at this time of the year. The beauty all around me made me feel as if I had stepped into a surreal painting. A tiny spot on the road far ahead of me turned into a Belgian cyclist half an hour later. ‘There is quite some scenery ahead of you!’ As if I was not IN quite some scenery already! I had brilliant descriptions of the road by Bill Weir, detailing how long the washboard awfulness would continue. Again, I was getting unsure whether I would make the next pass today. But, as he wrote, the mountains are gentle here – the next pass did not even feel like one, just a long, gentle incline up.
Once I was at the rim, a few hours later, Karakol lake lay ahead of me in all its spectacular beauty. In the background dark mountains with patches of snow, the glittering piece of water ahead of me, the late afternoon light just perfect to illuminate nature’s perfection all around me. I knew it would be downhill all the way until the village of Karakol. I had one hour left till sunset. I had already pushed the limits for today – crossing an international border and two 4000m+ passes in one go had been quite something. Despite that and although the shores of the lake presented themselves as beautiful camp grounds- no steep shoulder off the road, flat sandy grounds- I was determined to make it to the village. Why? I was driven by the urge to smell hot water. Hot water had never had any special meaning to me before. The Pamirs taught me how incredibly valuable it can be. Water meant the ability to wash the dust of the day off. To warm up. To feel secure. Over the weeks and months of this journey, it has become to mean the quintessential luxuary of life for me. The best thing my mind could imagine (even better than food!). Up until now, during this journey, the maximum days without a shower is at nine days (in Oman, mind you, where temperatures oftentimes exceeded 40 degree Celsisus). Water, clean water, feels incredible on your body after nine days. Now, I was only at three days, but I already felt that insane longing for hot water.
So I changed gears, mentally and physically, and tested how much I could get out of my legs after this long day. I mustered a strength from who knows where. I did not even know I had such a reserve for energy. Emily literally flew across the high altitude plain at almost 30km/h. My heart jumped with joy. I had not even imagined that I would be able to ever reach such speeds with a fully loaded bike, let alone after having crossed two passes that same day! With the last light of the day, I raced into Karakol. An old man waved to me. ‘Homestay?’ Yes, yes! We were engulfed in almost complete darkness, when we reached the house of his family. Had I arrived a few minutes later, I had not seen a hand in front of my eyes, let alone find a homestay so easily. My legs shaky from the exhaustion, I fell onto the floor of the living room next to the oven. The daughter of the grandfather brought me a simple, yet wonderfully nourishing dinner. I could barely stay awake long enough to eat it all. With kind smiles, they promised me that they would warm up water the next morning for me to wash. Heaven was real. And it was right here in Karakol.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
‘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).
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.
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.