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.
By Beth Puliti. Photos by Beth Puliti and Justin Kline
Pinpointing our fears—and taking steps to address them—will help us overcome them and move in the direction of taking that first pedal stroke. Worried about getting robbed on the road? Invest in a bag set-up that will keep your valuables securely out of sight. Afraid of wild dogs taking a chunk out of your haunches? Get a preventive rabies shot before your trip and attach a small horn to your bike. Anxious about camping in a place foreign to you? Do a bit of research to find alternative, affordable accommodations.
If you can’t point to one specific fear, you just might be afraid of everything, like I was. This is more appropriately referred to as “fear of the unknown.” It’s when our mind won’t let us move forward until we know what lies ahead. This, my fellow wanderlusters, is where planning comes into play.
Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in Issue #32 of Bicycle Times. To make sure you never miss a bike review, order a subscription and you’ll be ready for the everyday cycling adventure.
While you certainly won’t ever know exactly what awaits around the next curve in the road, you can take steps before you depart on your tour to familiarize yourself with the area you wish to explore. Pour over online journals of cyclists who have ventured where you dream to. Make notes in the pages of a detailed guidebook. Order a local road map and highlight intriguing attractions and accommodations. Other practical things to consider are:
Time of year: Unless you are product testing swanky rain gear, chances are you don’t want to be cycling through Asia during monsoon season. Obviously, you can’t predict an unusually stormy summer (like we’ve been experiencing this year in Europe), but a bit of research beforehand will ensure you are pedaling in the most ideal weather possible.
Cost: If you plan on doing a fair amount of eating out and sleeping in hotels, you might consider spending time in parts of the world that are known for their affordable accommodations and tasty, inexpensive cuisine like Southeast Asia.
Culture: Each region of the world has its own beliefs and ways of life. Seeing these firsthand is part of what makes travel so fulfilling. Traveling to Albania? It might benefit you to know that cuisine is meat-oriented and society is patriarchal. Having a foundation of knowledge before you enter a country may help to ease any anxiety you may have surrounding the customs of a particular area—or steer you in a different direction completely.
Time: Don’t try to fit too much in a short amount of time. You’re not going to be able to see the world in a month, or even a year for that matter. So, it doesn’t make sense to pedal yourself silly trying. Terrain, climate, visa logistics and sightseeing are all things you should consider when planning how long it will take to get from point A to point B.
Route: Is it important to know if roads are busy with traffic? Yes. Or if they actually exist, like our recent experience in Macedonia? Of course. But don’t be set on sticking to an exact route before you roll across the border. Chances are you’ll meet locals who will suggest a quieter, flatter or more scenic road.
The very best way to begin the planning process is to set a date. Nothing will motivate you more than a looming departure date to start your dream bike tour. You’ll be pedaling before you know it!
One final thought: While planning can help get the ball rolling—or wheels turning, in this case—figuring out every last detail in advance can be restricting. Find a balance and be open to veering from the plan in the name of adventure. You may be pleasantly surprised at just how much you enjoy those “scary” unplanned parts of your journey.
Beth Puliti is a freelance writer traveling on an open-ended bike tour with her husband, working wherever there’s Wi-Fi and sleeping wherever her legs give out for the day. Visit www.bethpuliti.com.