On Two Wheels: Pamir Highway

We left Sary Tash, the last town in Kyrgyzstan, and headed towards the great white wall of mountains looming before us. Meeting many cyclists coming the opposite way with wind-blasted hair, peeling skin and perpetual smiles, we wondered just what was in store for our, then clean, bodies.

After a night spent in no man’s land (with probably the greatest Milky Way display I’ve ever seen) we found ourselves in the midst of the majestic mountains that had sat patiently on the horizon for a few days prior.

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We decided to take the M41 the whole way to Khorog and the road was of fair quality, save a few gravelly passes. An old friend from countries past (@thomasthebelgian) caught up with us in his van and we’d frequently meet to camp together. He was kind enough to lighten our loads over some of the highest passes bringing great relief to our sore knees. It was a great feeling to rock up to camp to find Thomas waiting with cold beer and pancakes – I can’t thank you enough!

If you are thinking of a trip to Central Asia, I must convince you visit Tajikistan and travel this road (one of only a handful in the country). Be it by motorbike, bicycle, van, hitchhiking – all are possible. You will have to regularly pick your jaw up from the floor after every turn as you gape in awe of the ever-changing, ever-beautiful Pamir mountains.

On Two Wheels: Osh to Sary Tash

The road to the Tajik boarder was a slow and steady climb. Ascending a total of 3,900m in three days this was by far the tallest climb I have done. But the road was good, steady and offered beautiful views. We made some friends including four other cyclists and a dog that stayed with us for a couple of days – covering a total of 140kms – finally leaving us as we approached the boarder. We have since heard that she is alive and well, and following some other cyclists that we met while crossing the boarder the opposite way into Kyrgyzstan.

On Two Wheels: Kyrgyzstan

We took the once-a-day 6am train from Bishkek to Balykchy to fast track out of the city. The train costs just 1$ to go nearly 200km making it by far the cheapest / longest train ride I have taken so far. With beautiful views of the mountains either side, and easy to bring your bike on-board,  I highly recommend this scenic detour.

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I was very surprised how tough our chosen route turned out to be. Perhaps because of the constant headwind or the quality of the road, I really had to battle all day just to get 40km's in. The climbs were extremely steep in some places – our comrade Charlie ended up pushing up the entire 3,000m pass from Kok-Djar.

Making it as far as Kazarman we threw in the towel due to our bowels, and an assortment of other ailments including haemorrhoids and knee issues. We hitched a ride from, Kazarman to Osh and got to enjoy some of the scenery without crying. Kyrgyzstan has definitely been one of my hardest stints to-date but oh boy did the country make up for it in its majesty. Next stop; Tajikistan!

The Song Köl Hotel

We arrived at Song Köl, a large alpine lake sitting comfortably at 3,000m, tired and beaten by three days of hail-fueled thunderstorms. There was no question about it; we were getting a yurt (a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads). It being that there are no buildings of any kind throughout the 270 km² plateau, many families make business by renting out their yurts as hotels. In all honesty, one of the reasons we were paying for accommodation was to escape from people for a while, and – driven by hunger – we approached a nice-looking yurt quite a bit of a way from the shore of the great expanse of still, fresh water. As it turned out this was not a hotel, but just a family pitching-up for the summer and enjoying the green pastures of Song Köl. When I asked "Hotel?" the man looked surprised, but then quickly gestured to follow him.

He showed in inside the yurt. It was moderately messy with kids toys peppered about the floor, looking like the den of some happy young nomad. Suitably happy with the tent, and unsuitably versed in the the Kyrgys language, I made the hand signal of money "how much?" At first the man said "No mone..." – his brain seemed to stop the words coming out and one could see the cogs turning – he quickly changed his mind and plucked a price out of thin air; 1000 SOM it was! That's just 333.33333333...(forever) each. Initially, I was a little put-off by the mans sudden change of mind, and his ability to multiply recurring decimals, but the thought of being able to just lie down in solitude swayed me. By the time we dumped all of our bags the price now seemed to have risen to an even 500 SOM each, great news for my OCD, and it now included dinner, great news for my belly. 

Just as we had finally laid-down, the call for dinner came. Entering the dining house – one of three smaller tents at the camp – the whole family was sat down with their plates loaded, looking eagerly toward us. I'm not usually such a Scrooge, but at the time I just didn't want to talk to anyone. The sound of cutlery and crockery, with the occasional slurp, prevailed at the dinner table for around five minutes when, after discovering the mother of the family spoke some English, the conversation exploded.

As the evening progressed, It seemed like we were part of the family; laughing, drinking kumis (fermented horse milk – definitely an acquired taste), playing with the kids; one of whom was intent on sinking his new front teeth into anything. We sang songs and after the next hailstorm had passed, spent the evening running around outside with the two German Shepard guard dogs. Being a part of this beautiful family shifted my consciousness from longing for solitude to being like the fun uncle of the bunch.

The morning came and it was time to press-on, after the matter of settling payment. There is something different about transactional processes, and this experience felt too genuine to be just a transaction. It's not that I don't want to support local businesses In other countries but, after staying in many Couchsurfing and spontaneous home-stays, there is something magical about being invited into somebody's life with no money involved. Not that it made this experience any less wonderful but there is something extra-special about non-transactional exchanges. Often is the case that each party is just as curious as the other to meet a fellow human from the other side of the world and touch upon their culture, custom and personality.  

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Kyrgyzstrain

The cannabis plant is thought to have originated in the vast steppes of central Asia. And there is no short supply in Kyrgyzstan. Look out, along the road, for mounds of black, sandy rock and you're likely to find them growing. Dust off the dust, dry the buds in the sun (or pop them in your pot for 30 seconds) and you're good to go – a great addition to stargazing nights and campfire jams.

Bush Folk

Life on the road is as demanding as it is rewarding. No country has demonstrated this statement more to me, than Mongolia. It is a wild outback that will inevitably bring out the bushman lying dormant inside anyone who dares to venture into the steppe. It is a humbling experience to fully immerse oneself in the monotonous, unforgiving but beautiful landscape of of the East-Asian country. However, going from the pampered, clean and comfortable lives we lead in our Western cities to the harsh reality of the Mongolian Steppe is not at easy transition. Here are few tips that might help to ease into the bushman life:

1. Keep clean. Okay, yes, it may be impossible, but taking any opportunity you can to have a little scrub-down can really lift your spirits. My go-to is the Tent Shower: fill 400ml of water in your cooking-pot, get yourself a rag, get yourself naked and scrub those grubby pits. And make sure you wash your pot thoroughly before dinner 

2. Keep yourself entertained. Instruments are a great tool to keep the mind occupied and a powerful communal activity. Creation in-general is a great way to stay entertained. Get creative with the things around you. Perhaps make yourself a nice chair, a table, or even a temporary furnace out of stones.

3. Remember to laugh. A specific moment in Mongolia that has stuck with me is of our first week cycling off-road.

Pushing through sand all-day and down to our last litres of water, we were making very slow progress. Earlier on, we had scaled a hill to get a better vantage point in the hope of spotting water – and successfully so, we found a small river about three kilometres away. We spent the rest of the day getting there. Drawing closer, things took a turn for the worse... The ground became lumpy with moguls, almost impossible to cycle across. And venturing further into the bog we were hit by the first wave of midges and mosquitos. The ground became very sludgy but we dredged on in the hope of procuring some fresh H2O. As we hit ten metres the final wave of the winged beasts came upon us like a plague, completely covering my legs. The final straw was seeing a dead horse slumped on the banks of the, mostly dried-up, river bed. We ran.

We escaped only to the edge of the mosquito perimeter and set up camp. Sweaty, dirty, hungry and thirsty, and now covered in bites there was silence in the camp. I was at the end of my tether, my shit; lost, my arms; flailing to swat the midges so intent to kamikaze into my mouth or get at my eye liquid. Claudia, possibly our most responsible member who always had her shit together, stared blankly into the distance as she began the first of fifty breaths to inflate her mattress. She burst out laughing. and quickly the laughter spread. My mood lifted as I began to see the situation more objectively. I was not in danger of death and I needn't have been so het-up. Laughter helped me to realise that, if framed in the right way, the situation could have been an enjoyable one, and definitely a story to tell.

Seeking humour, even in the unlikeliest of places, is a muscle that I'm still training. I think it can be the most effective tool for getting yourself out of a funk and back into the groove.

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Fishing with friends

Spending the first half of the day scaling Doi Inthanon, Thailand's tallest mountain, left me exhausted to say the least (admittedly I even hitched a lift for 10k of the journey, but the final 15k to the summit was enough!). I wanted to stay at high altitude and camp before the decent back to the city of Chiang Mai the following day. My search lead me down a dirt road to a small clearing the forest by the river Klang - at about two hours before dinner. Perhaps I was suffering from PTSD from the greweling ascent, but for some reason I felt a little empty – wandering just what I was doing sat there in the jungle on my own. I stayed for an hour or two in a trance-like state, occasionally glimpsing huge black and blue butterflies that would come and go every once in a while. I was gently sailing down the river of conciseness when suddenly my boat hit a rock - hunger - my belly rumbled as I came-to, just in time for dinner. The rice was bubbling away, when I heard a thud and a jeer, a jeep was approaching from the dirt road – uh oh!

The pickup pulled-up and out popped a dozen locals – whom I later found out to be actually from Korea. Luckily, one girl spoke English and I explained that I was intending to camp in this spot. They laughed and then started unpacking fishing equipment and whiskey – lots of whiskey. "Come catch fish?", they asked. I consulted myself for a second or two, and off I went on the path down to the river – leaving my stuff at the spot, my tent still un-pitched. 

I laughed to myself that, after I had been sitting there for nearly two hours contemplating my existence, I had suddenly found myself river fishing and drinking neat whiskey with my twelve new Korean friends. The fish were extremly hard to catch. We were after Cyprinidae – a small river fish about two inches long and nifty as a bar of slippery soap. Success – Pitak (one of the gang) had netted a fish! A Mexican wave of cheers briefly shot through the group, when suddenly the heavens opened! Having not seen rain in months I was, at first, greatly enjoying the monsoon when I came to the realisation that all my stuff was open to the elements back up in the jungle. I hastily bagged my camera on the shore of the river and ran back up to the clearing. Soaked to the bone, I made a pathetic attempt to pitch the tent as I quietly wined in dread. My inflatable mattress was going to be a lilo in there. I ran back down to retrieve my camera and met the guys coming back up the path. One of them signaled to me "You come my home?" – relief.

Everyone pitched-in in un-piching my tent, frantically bundling me and my things into the back of the pickup. My smile was perpetual as I sat there in the back of the open Jeep, not even caring about the branches that would frequently slap my face as we sped through the moonlit monsoon.

I entered Pitak's house to the background of laughter, the Korean family seemed very happy to have a foreign guest. No one in this particular house spoke english, so there was a lot of smiling and hand gesturing. Pitak cooked the fish and I was lucky enough to be chosen to eat it! The evening was concluded by a huge dinner of thick white fish curry and rice.

As always, the cockerel chimed at 5:00am sharp and breakfast was served. I ate with the whole (extended) family. After a brief tour of the village, consisting of 19 houses - all inhabitants of which seemed to be part of the same Korean family, I was promptly dropped back at at the entrance to the dirt road, now gently lit with the morning sun. And I was left thinking; "What the hell just happened?!”

Meghalayan Wildfires

It is unclear whether the wildfires we saw in Meghalaya were started on purpose. But there were always locals lingering on the fringes of the billowing flames. Whatever the case it certainly added to the atmosphere, making it a very dreamy place to cycle through.

Indian Wedding: Crashed

One of many Hindu-style weddings proceeds through the streets of Siliguri. We saw about ten per-night and that was only going past our house. It seemed as if each party would try to out-do each others pyrotechnic demonstration. Firework-by-firework they would blast their way through the city.

Catching up with the Rai's

It's the dry season in India and cycling 300km through the province of West Bengal is no walk in the park. Cycle touring can be tough in many different ways, but riding the planes of India is most challenging on the mind. Having nowhere to camp, and travelling on a budget, one is bound to check-in to one of India’s guest houses. They vary from lavish, tiled, AC rooms with hot showers to dank, bedbug-ridden sleaze-fests, where you can witness a cockroach cleaning shit of his legs while you endure a cold shower from a bucket. The price of the space seems to be totally irrespective of its quality. These rooms are situated in overcrowded villages where a foreigner quickly becomes the main focus of everyones attention nearby, which is usually bearable, but after four days the patience wears thin. Not to be totally against these places, they have a lot to offer too; delicious cheap grub, beautiful tea plantations, and enough chapattis to re-wallpaper a sleazy hotel room. But, in general, it seems to be all about making money. From my experience in India so far, peace can be found away from the flat-lands, in the mountain regions amongst the genuine hospitable people who inhabit them. There are, however, some grey areas, where the planes meet the mountains and two cultures collide. In the northern most segment of West Bengal, where the plains are abruptly thrusted skyward by the Himalayan fault line, I encountered one such area: Gorkhaland. 

As we entered the village of Dipdara, groundhog day was grinding on. We set-up camp on the right wing of a football pitch after another long day’s ride. We were under the watchful eyes of an ever-increasing group of kids, awkwardly loitering just too far away enough to exchange conversation. Flat spaces as large as this are rare in the mountains, so Elliot and I decided to take full advantage of the situation via our frisbee. One by one the kids joined in until we made a solid circle. It made me think of the quote by Plato –

 “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation”

Instantly, we could see the colourful personalities of the kids shinning through. Play was halted when a scooter pulled up, it was driven by an army official – this usually means trouble when camping. The man, introducing himself as Kailash Rai, firmly insisted that we acquired consent form the headmaster of the the school. Apparently he lived 10km back down the mountain. We were coming to terms with this daunting prospect, when the awkward silence was broken by a boy running though a nearby tea plantation with a volleyball – game on! At first Kailash didn’t join in – but, much to my surprise, acted as a referee. He shifted closer and closer, and before long he was pretty much captain of my team. The above quote held true and I quickly learned that he’s not a serious army dude – he’s just a serious dude. 

The florescent-pink beams of morning sun hit my tent as I was awoken by a fluttering that would come-and-go every few minutes. At first I thought it was a bird, but when I emerged from the comfort of my tent I realised it was Kailash running laps of the pitch – much to the delight of a small assemblage of little’uns. After several laps, he started teaching martial arts to the kids, and after they all crashed he had them captivated in some fruitful fantasy story about an evil king who had a huge castle built overnight using 'devil power'. When the story was told he came to us and asked if we’d join him for breakfast at his house.

Once the huge meal was consumed, Kailash extended the invite to stay another night with them. I looked to Elliot then over to Mayu and back to Elliot. One of the best things about cycle touring are the rest days. And you never know when they will crop-up and treat you. With a flash Kailash called his commander and was somehow allowed to take the day off. He mentioned something about an old fort on the hill and returned minutes later with a huge jungle knife. We set off through the tea fields and Kailash began to tell me about his ancestry and the Gorkah (or Gurkha) warriors.

"Better to die than be a coward"...

... is the motto of the world-famous Nepalese Gorkha soldiers. Originating from the hill-town region of Gorkha, the army have a well-known reputation for fearless military prowess – they still carry into battle their traditional weapon; an 18-inch long forward-curving knife known as the kukri. Some 200,000 soldiers were recruited by the British to join the fight against Germany in WWII, and apparently Hitler once said “ If I had Gurkhas, no armies in the world will defeat me ”. Post-independence, many Gorkhas settled in northern states across India, including Sikkim and as far south as West Bengal. Today, the Indian Gorkhas are faced with a unique identity crisis with regard to their Indian citizenship because of the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship that permits "on a reciprocal basis, the nationals of one country in the territories of the other the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature". Thus, there are also many Nepalese citizens of Nepal living in India. Therefore, the Nepali speaking Indian Citizens are mistakenly identified as Nepali people. The Gorkha people of West Bengal are now rallying, against an opposed India, to be declared their own state.

After scaling the mountain and passing through the remains of Dalim Castle, we arrived at Kialash's grandfathers' house. There were loads of people around and everyone I met bore the surname Rai. On the way up there was talk of rice wine that they produce, and we were encouraged to have a taste. It quickly became clear it was not just a tasing session – we were dinking! We met Kailash's grandad – an ex-Gurkha warrior who has served in numerous battles from 1965–1971. He had wisdom in his eyes, it was hard to imagine him marching in to battle with his (still bloodstained) Kukri swords. We then went on to Kaliash’s other brothers house and had rice beer! It was a little weaker but definitely added fuel to the fire. 

Bleary eyed, we arrived home and there was a feast awaiting. The kids now called me uncle and were endlessly tugging at my leg in a plea to carry on teaching them to juggle, and also answer questions about England. I felt part of the family. We drank into the night followed by dancing in a tiny side-room, just next to our bedroom. It's incredible how, when travelling, these kind of experiences can come out of nowhere, surprise you and remind you just how welcoming, kind, curious and full of love most people really are.