Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan; Did you know that Central Asia is a heaven for nature and adventure lovers?
Do countries that end with a ‘stan’ sound too scary for you?
I am Marsha Jean, a solo traveller from Hong Kong. This is my story.
It was summer 2018. I had just quit my casino job in London and bought a one-way ticket to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. I was a 21-year–old, with the dream of adventuring through the mountainous ancient silk road.
My plan was to hitchhike through the Pamir Highway, a road that traverses through the Pamir Mountains. I already had two months experience of hitchhiking alone through Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan when I was 19. I knew very well the kindness and generosity of the people in those regions. Countries I have been told to be afraid of the most, had always turned out to be where I met the nicest people.
Within one hour of arriving in Bishkek, I met a French-Indian woman in the hostel I stayed.
She just walked 13 days through the most remote part of the Pamir Highway.
“Why did you do that?” I was baffled by her courage – and mostly by how rough she looked.
“I was traveling by shared taxis, like most people do. I was missing out on all the villages. We drove right through them without stopping! I was in the most beautiful part of the world, yet I was seeing all the sceneries inside a box.” She explained. She had no camping equipment nor a plan. At one point, she ran out of water and drank out of a puddle contaminated with petrol.
“Please don’t walk it. Get a bicycle.” She suggested.
Although the Pamir Highway is called a “highway”. It is not always paved, and usually had just two lanes.
It passes through one of the wildest and most remote mountain ranges in the world. The highest point on the road is as high as 4655 meters above sea level – making it the second highest highway in the world. In combination with the countless high passes, it is perhaps one of the toughest roads to cycle in the world.
After working so hard to save money to see this paradise, there was no way I’d just pass through it by hitchhiking. So, I bought a $350 Chinese bicycle and started paddling. Although I had barely any experience riding bicycles, I had a lot of time. Enough time to take as many breaks as I needed.
This, is how one of the best adventures of my life began.
I vividly remember the night before. I could not sleep. What if a driver suddenly pulls over and attack me? What if people attack me while I camped alone?
The first day of riding began, and I looked for a place to camp as the sun began to set. A guest house owner propositioned me in exchange for camping on his land. I was disgusted. What was I doing? In the end, I found a family who let me camp in the safety of their back yard.
I did not let one bad guy stop me from continuing. In the next two months of riding, I did not encounter any dangerous situations.
Violence against women happens everywhere in the world.
I refuse to let this reality stop me from living my life.
Day by day, the more I rode, the more confident and fearless I became. I got used to the rhythm of being on the road.
I was dumbfounded by the level of friendliness and generosity of the locals. Kindness is written across everyone’s face. Unless I was in a big town, I always camped or stayed with locals who invited me. In rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, many people lived in yurts. It is a portable traditional home that is covered with felt or skins.
It was a daily ritual that people invited me for tea or meals. Children ran out of their homes to come give me high-fives while I paddled past their villages. Even if people were hundreds of meters away, they’d shout out their invitations for “chai”. Their enthusiasms made it impossible to refuse! Those were all genuine acts of hospitality. They were not trying to sell me tea. In fact, they get quite offended when I offered money.
I was told, that in their religion of Islam, “Guests are gifts from God.”
It is always a great idea to carry souvenirs from your home while traveling. I carried accessories from Morocco, as well as large quantities of fruits and nuts with me to give back. In cases where I stayed overnight, I’d go to the local market to purchase groceries such as meat and eggs for giving back.
Upon entering Tajikistan, the people and culture gradually transitioned from Kyrgyz to Tajik and Wakhi. The language, cultures and ethnicities are very different. However, the customs of hospitality were almost identical! I was often invited for food or to stay overnight.
Interactions with people are the best rewards of traveling by bicycle. You miss out on everything if you travel too fast!
I was even spontaneously invited for a wedding that lasted three days!
I took a detour from the Pamir Highway to visit the Wakhan Valley. Villages are abundant in this area due to the fertile land. Afghanistan is just across the river. It is quite extraordinary knowing that the people across the river shared the same language and ethnicity. Yet, just a river apart, their worlds are completely different.
To take a pause on my bike trip, I crossed the river and spent one month in Afghanistan. After that, I flew to Pakistan and rode 2 months through the northern areas.
Until now, my bike is still in Pakistan, waiting for me to continue.
Cycling truly is the perfect way to enjoy the world. It is faster than walking, and slower than driving. Your entire body is engaged in your surroundings. You get to greet everyone that you ride past. Most importantly, you get to notice details others miss out on.