From Issue #37
By Beth Puliti
We were pedaling over “The Roof of the World,” also known as the Pamir Highway, when it happened.
The sky-high road, which winds through some of the Earth’s most barren landscapes, splits into two and we opted to take the dirt road less traveled. And that’s where I broke.
In Tajikistan’s rugged and isolated Wakhan Valley animal carcasses thrive, relentless winds whip across high desert plains, running water is non-existent, markets are several days apart, roads disintegrate under the crunch of tires and wild campsites are a shallow river’s width from Afghanistan.
Here in the high-alpine desert my lungs gasped for air above 15,000 feet, my body rejected every piece of contaminated food I consumed; my fingertips touched without feeling in sub-freezing temperatures; my throat coughed out sobs that were forcefully whisked away into unrelenting wind and my eyes shed rocks instead of tears after hours of battling vicious sandstorms.
“I left home looking for adventure—well I fucking got it here,” remarked a friend who finished pedaling the route several weeks after we did. I couldn’t agree more with his sentiment. Every day proved harder than the last and every day I thought about quitting.
I fantasized about indoor toilets, daily showers and vegetables. I vowed to never eat another Snickers or drink another RC Cola (unexpected staples in tiny Tajik markets) as long as I lived. I decided that the first thing I would do when I returned to the U.S. would be to not ride my bike. And then eat guacamole.
I may have thought about throwing in the towel—a lot and in great detail—but I didn’t.
For starters, there is no easy way to get out of the Wakhan Valley. Not a single train station, taxi queue or bus stop to speak of. Cars were so rare that during eight or so hours of pedaling that no more than a handful would pass us by, overflowing with local villagers as the number of seats in any given vehicle is merely a recommendation rather than a rule. More often, the only method of transportation we came across was of the four-hooved variety.
Leaving was never really an option, just a mental escape. And so, in the most challenging of times, I switched to tough love. If the people we met each day—shepherds, school children, mothers—could live their entire lives here, eating simple meals of potatoes and bread, living in primitive homes with no electricity or running water and traveling by donkey, I could merely pass through over the course of a couple months, I told myself.
By choice, I might add.
But perhaps the single biggest reason I didn’t quit was because for every hurdle there was salvation: a home opened up to rest our tired bones, a family offering a bottomless kettle of tea, a home-cooked meal to fill our ravenous stomachs, shepherds whistling at us from mountaintops and seemingly every child in every village running to greet us as if we were celebrities.
While touring Central Asia proved to be, without exaggeration, the most challenging experience I have ever had on a bicycle, it also proved to be the most unforgettable experience of my lifetime.
For any number of reasons, be it stretches of bad weather, challenging terrain or non-existent comforts, there will be days you lack motivation and possibly even days you feel like quitting. But you must allow yourself to mentally escape. When that doesn’t work, put your current situation into perspective. Choose to focus on all the good around you. It might feel like you can’t catch a break, but eventually you will—some days, respite is just a few more pedal strokes away.
Don’t know how to get yourself out of a slump? Here are a few things that might help:
- Treat yourself to a hotel room if you normally camp.
- Take some time off the bike and stay stationary for a bit.
- Get reconnected with friends and family through the power of the Internet.
- Change your route if things aren’t as fun as you expected.
- Say what you’re thinking out loud to your cycling partner if you have one. They might be feeling the same way or, if not, they can help you change your perspective.
- Don’t dwell. Think of what excitement lies ahead.