After 3 months cycling our way through Central Asia, we've chased herds of wild horses in Kazakhstan, been awed by the history of Uzbekistan, and sipped tea with nomads in Kyrgyzstan. Now it's time I share another 3 lessons learnt:
Mountains: They're always smaller than they look
At 3pm the daytime sun reaches its hottest point in the Kyrgyzstan lowlands. By this time we've already been cycling for 5 hours, lactic acid is building, a salty mix of sunscreen and sweat is dripping off our skin, and our minds are wandering through enticing daydreams. It's at 3pm that we hear a thundering bang, both our hearts stop and I slam on the brakes. It turns out that $4 tyre I bought in Osh is as cheap as it costs, blown to pieces after a mere 4 days and 300km on the road.
Two days later I've found another cheap Chinese tyre, this time for only $3, and we're looking at our map, ready to roll. Except our enthusiasm is slowly disappearing. It's been 8 months on the road, and 2 weeks of living on bread, noodles and pasta. All carbs and no veggies makes this one unhappy team. To top it off, we're looking at 2 days of solid uphill struggling to get over the 3200m pass ahead, our highest point of the trip.
I wanted to hitch. Tired of terrible food and blasé to the beautiful views after so many days in the wild, I wasn't in the mood for the biggest climb of our trip. Physically I knew I could do it, but mentally I wasn't sure I'd make it. Manon wasn't having any of it though, so onwards we pedalled.
We've had some tough days, and even weeks (I'm never returning to Armenia), in the saddle. But this was my biggest battle. With 5km to the pass and 500m of altitude to gain, I was stopping every hundred meters. The last 2km took me half an hour, but there's no better sight than seeing 5 cyclists cheering and clapping as we covered the final meters.
Sure it was difficult, but in the scheme of life, this once massive mountain was really just a small speed bump. What looked insurmountable at the bottom only took 2 days of sweating, swearing and struggling. The sense of achievement at the top, and the smiles on our faces after chatting to our first cyclists in months, easily outweighed any challenges along the way.
Slow down and take a break
Everybody's always rushing. But why, nobody ever really knows. Sure, we've got a destination to make, but once we're there, what happens then? Onwards to the next, and the next, and the next... And so on we go, keeping our eyes ahead, always on the move.
Travelling by bicycle is slow, but we're still moving mostly all the time. And moving can be tiring, even if you're going slowly.
In Kyrgyzstan we've been stranded. With our passports flying home for visas we're stuck within these borders, and we've had a month to cycle only 800km. So we've stopped more often than any time before. After 2 days on the road we stopped for 2 nights at Lake Toktogul, enjoying fresh fish, wiling away our afternoon with books and painting, and taking in the most sublime sunset of our trip. Once we stopped after only 3 hours on the bike, pulling into a guesthouse and enjoying 24 hours with Gida Appa, a dynamic grandma who ran the friendliest place we've stayed in. Hours were spent sipping tea in her yurt, learning about Kyrgyz culture, all without a word of common language.
Sometimes it's easy to miss the beauty of where you are, if you're always rushing onto the next big thing. So slow down and take a break, you might just find something you didn't even know you were looking for.
Follow your own path
This trip has never been about the biggest mountain, the most difficult road or the most remote town. We chose to cycle from Greece to China because we wanted to follow one of the oldest trade routes in the world. We wanted to see the exchanges between East and West. We wanted to learn about Islam. Most of all, I wanted to find the commonalities between cultures, at a time when the world is looking at our differences.
However, every traveller we meet asks one question: Are you cycling the Pamir highway? It's the second highest highway in the world, and a Mecca for cyclists, motor bikers and adventure junkies. The internet, and Instagram in particular, is covered with stories and pictures from people's trips, bragging rights all around. And each time we get asked, something ticks in my mind: maybe we're meant to be cycling the Pamir highway, everyone else is doing it.
Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn't mean you should. Cycling the Pamir Highway was never part of our plan, and after meeting motor cyclists who failed, I'm not jealous at all. Instead of cycling the biggest, baddest road in Central Asia, we've spent our time in the homes of locals and days wandering random villages along the way. We might not have the best story for the pub, but I'd say we've learnt more about the culture, and for that I'm happy we followed our own path.