Warm from outside and within: A review on Cumulus’ gear

When reputation precedes its master, one become eager to refute or validate those claims much like how we get excited about Cumulus’ products long before we tried them on for the first time. The whispering sounds reached our ears at the Wereldfietsersbeurs two years ago, where some of the most experienced Dutch cyclists talked about this growing Polish company with the golden standard of customer satisfaction: with a content smile and undoubted recommendation.

With respect to down jackets and sleeping bags, the bottom line of our investment was clear from the start. We were preparing for winter in Europe and another one in Central Asia. And we wanted to keep the load on our bikes at mid-weight level. On top of that our savings were at low tide following graduation, turning us over night into a Internet Hawk for Optimum Price. So a certain balance between quality, weight and prices mattered above anything else. Time of our departure was pressing, so I quickly picked up my pen and approached Cumulus with a letter of partnership between their office at Gdynia and The Travelling Tales. It did not take long before I received a positive response and our wish-list was sent: a coal black S-size Incredilite Lady down jacket for Nienke, a green M-size Incredilite down jacket for me (link refers to the new edition), and two icebreaker Panayam 600 sleeping bags. The core of our gear was complete, thus we would be ready to resist nature’s might during day and night.

Incredilite down jacket

We used our down jackets almost daily, mostly during mornings or evenings. The weather conditions of late February in Germany, however, was the first real testing of our theory against practice as it was much colder than we anticipated. This continuous cold made me keep my Incredilite always at arm-lengths, inside the handlebar bag, to spare time in case I had to dress up before a short break or a frosty downhill ride. Around that time, I began to appreciate Cumulus philosophy of light weight and a compact size, which struck a very good balance between grams and filling. Of all days we spent outdoor, I remember only one moment when my insulation was not enough; when on a November day in Kyrgyzstan, I descended from 3000m to 1800m with a speed sometimes reaching 50km/h and temperature stayed below zero. However, even at this occasion, it was my hard-shell, which gave in to the snowfall first and as my jacket was soaked, so did my down jacket. Perhaps Cumulus could roll out a new generation of Incredilite with some additional protection against water at the neck and shoulders, which are trouble spots for cyclists on wet days, similar to their Incredilite Endurance. Anyone, who is planning to cycle all year round it is a point to consider.

What I believe to be Cumulus’ token for success besides an excellent weight to insulation ratio is their smart design. Although the form of Incredilite was born out of the company’s cooperation with the Polish mountaineering community, touring cyclists should be satisfied with the result too at least for three reasons. First and foremost because the jacket allows a great freedom of your movements, yet it has a body-fit shape, perfect for keeping your resistance low on the bike. Secondly because even a bigger size helmet fits under the adjustable-hoodie in case of your forehead couldn’t stand the icy wind. Lastly because Cumulus thought of protecting your lower-back from catching cold during long-stretching movements, like bending forward, by an adding extra length to the back. Perhaps the only soft spot of Incredilite is its sensitive cover material, produced of Pertex, a Japanese microfabric. Therefore cooking on bonfire or going into the shrubbery for example should follow a careful conduct, otherwise your jacket might get damaged. Be careful and you will enjoy the benefits of your down jacket for many kilometers to come.

Panayam 600 Sleeping bag

Cumulus’s sleeping bag, Panayam 600, jumps the bar with same confidence, except few drawbacks similar to the above mentioned. The sleeping bag is only 1kg and due to its friendly size it flips into the bottom of your pannier with ease. The filling is beyond satisfactory and the sleeping bag insulation could not be challenged despite some freezing nights we camped out below -15 degrees. By wearing our base layer, this heat retention could be further improved, while we did not lose comfort. Despite the sleeping bag is popular for winter camping, in warmer countries we could still use one as a blanket, which satisfied our needs. In my opinion, like in case of Incredilite, Panayam 600 also has a thorough design. The mummy shape comes with a comfortable space to move and a draft collar, which was absolutely necessary to trap our body heat inside. Furthermore, a small internal pocket is a handy feature where you can keep for example your earplugs. A big plus for couples is the possibility to zip a right-zip sleeping bag together with a left-zip one, which we did regularly during our journey, and the sturdy zippers ensured that only a few times we had zipper-snagging problems. Perhaps my only concern of the sleeping bag is the fabric that next to being sensitive could feel sweaty to skin touch in times. However, for us this did not weight up to the big advantage of light-weight and quick dryness of Pertex. As a suggestion, there could be a sturdy handle on the bottom of the stuff sack, which could make it easier to pull out the tightly rolled up sleeping bag at the end of the day.

From shore to shore

Although I don’t often listen to rumors when buying something as personal as a down jacket or sleeping bag, this time I would like to disseminate the whispering sounds. Cumulus makes excellent products at a competitive price and touring cyclist should pay attention to Incredilite’s and Panayam’s compact, smart design as well as their light weight. It is Cumulus’s team moreover, who deserves recognition too, for they have always been faithful and understanding during our journey to India. The exchange of letters has been personally encouraging and given merit to a real sense of partnership between us. This integrity of treatment is what makes me believe in Cumulus’ utmost care for their products and their goodwill to listen to their customer’s voices. A comforting feeling on the road, which keeps you warm not only from the outside, but also a little from within.

-Bálint

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Shanti Shanti?! Life and Library work in Varanasi

Already more than two months have passed since we rode our bicycles into the city of Varanasi, awaited by the drums and dances of the Ashray children. What has happened in all those moments in between? A completely new phase of this journey has started: a phase of settling down, reconnecting to a place where I once used to live, starting up a project, and digesting all those memories of the past 10 months of cycling. Maybe I was too naïve in believing that all of this would work out as fast as I hoped, or maybe I just had no idea what was awaiting me.

Settling down was a relief, after months of being on the move and not having the certainty of a roof above your head. We enjoyed making our little house into a home, gathering our tiny gifts and memories from the past months on the shelves, and pasting some pictures on the wall. The feeling of having a home was, and still is, such a comfortable certainty, that I sometimes have to remind myself of all those months in which it was utter normal to not knowing where to sleep that night. Both of us endured quite some sicknesses in the first weeks, which most likely had to do with adjusting to India’s extravagant kitchen as well as a subconscious release of what had been kept inside for months and could be released now with the certainty of a home. This mostly resulted in a very slow build-up of our lives in Varanasi, in which we learnt the hard way that listening to our bodies is crucial in getting anything done at all.

The beauty of the city, when sun rises on the horizon and forms an orange glow on the ghats, the banks of the Ganges, where people start their day with precious rituals of praying and bathing, has and continues to overwhelm me anytime I witness it. For me personally, it is a rediscovery to be back in Varanasi. Five years ago I lived here for half year, working for Ashray school as a 18 year old. It was India five years ago that led me on the path where I am now, and started off my passion and interest for this land and her people. Now I am back, carrying with me not only the memories and expectations based on five years ago and the experiences of cycling, but also a pile of knowledge on South Asia accumulated in university. Partly I see Varanasi through different eyes: when seeing the numerous temples and shrines all over the street there is more recognition of what I am seeing, and when I read articles on social problems I can place them in a bigger framework. Learning about Dalit discrimination and the deep rootedness of the caste system in Indian society in university had retrospectively made me understand my experiences and observations from five years ago. Yet, arriving here brings up new questions again and again, new puzzling contradictions that no academic theory has managed to explain to me. It gives a name, a voice, a face and a personal story to those labels. And in this way, it makes their struggle and their experiences more human, and more impactful to me. Also, working for the library and being actively involved issues concerning development, progress and empowerment, makes me more and more struggle with defining what these abstract concepts actually mean on the ground. Even more than last time, I guess, this is a great learning period for me, ascertaining that I have learnt a lot in the past years but most of all shedding light on all those issues that I still have to learn (academically or practically) about.

As soon as we arranged our home, our minds had to shift drastically. For long, just the arrival to Varanasi was how far my mind stretched, how far I was looking forward into the future. Now we had reached this turning point, and another five months of something completely new lay ahead of us. Entrusted with the responsibility of implementing a library by so many people from the Netherlands to Hungary until India, we tried to be as well prepared as possible. Our first weeks, thus, consisted of visiting existing libraries in other schools in Varanasi and literacy organizations, and in this way gathering as much as possible expert advices on reforming a primary school into library-centred education. With the teachers of Ashray, we organized brainstorm sessions, in which all of us wrote down on posters what words we associate with a library. Knowing everyone’s ideas and expectations of a library was an important starting point for our collective work to make a Ashray’s walls fill up with books, and most of all to make these books being used and enjoyed by children and teachers alike. Also with the director of Ashray, we had a series of nice meetings in which we got to know each other, and also exchanged ideas and inspirations for the library to come. We visited all possible bookstores and learned about the different publishers for children books. And most of all, we learned from the wise advices of experts in this field: directors and teachers of schools with functioning libraries and professionals working in literacy organizations.

All this gathering of information was meant to give us a broader overview of the months to come, and the phases of the implementation. It isn’t easy, and in fact very difficult, to be given a big task and a big amount of time. How to allocate time, and how to break this task down into a step by step progression is the art that we have been learning since. A lot of time I spend on just figuring out what I am supposed to do, where are we in our broader time framework and what small acts can I do in a day to move forward in the direction I want to? Breaking down big ideas into small to-do’s is the key, whilst not losing sight on the purpose of all those small to-do’s on a daily basis as part of a five month project.

The biggest aiders in this respect have been the organisations Room to Read India, and World Literacy Canada. After our first spontaneous visit to Room to Read in Kathmandu, we continued contact with their Delhi office. Room to Read is a professional NGO that has set up thousands of libraries all over the world, with the aim to promote literacy. From the first moment onwards they have been extremely supportive, answering all our questions, arranging meetings for us and even facilitating a visit to one of their libraries in Delhi. To see how their implementation is structured and guided, and to see the principles on which their libraries are built in practice during a read-aloud session in Delhi was extremely helpful and inspiring. World Literacy Canada is another experienced actor on this field. WLC manages several libraries in and around Varanasi, and could advise us on a wide range of themes: from library activities, to categorization and appropriate reading content for children coming from Nagwa basti.

Engaging the teachers in the library implementation is of course the key to any long term success, as this team of enthusiastic women are the ones who will bring the children to the library, engage them in their education by means of books, and guide them in reading. As one of the teachers, Seema, speaks excellent English, we are fortunate to have a translator who helps us to communicate to all the teachers during a meeting. In the first weeks, we had meetings with the teachers to explore our different expectations about a library. Thereafter, we visited two libraries in two smaller groups, and presented our experiences to each other. The teachers wrote down what they liked and disliked, and most of all what ideas they would like to see in the Ashray library. Currently, we have evaluated the existing stock of books in Ashray for their suitability in the library, and we are working on a list of books that we will order. Balint and I have the overview of existing publishing house and know their differences on a conceptual level, but the teachers are invaluable for their concrete feedback on the samples we have presented them, and their clear wish list of books and materials. When the first materials arrive, the next step will be a few weeks of weekly training, during which we will ask experienced librarians and teachers to help the Ashray staff in library management and incorporation of the library into the daily education.

The last group who is definitely most excited to be engaged in the process, are the Ashray children. All of them know that something is happening, and that a library is in progress, but none of them really realises what this change will bring about. We have started a small project six weeks ago with the oldest children of the school: writing a story together and making the illustrations. The story writing sessions two times per week have been highlights of the past months. Also this project was something completely new to us: How do you write a story as a collective, how do you ensure that everyone’s voice is being heard and incorporated, and how can you be a good facilitator in this creative process? We consulted friends with experiences in story writing and improvisation theatre with children on these matters, and eventually it all worked out. Through association games all senses were activated: we had games with sounds, objects for touching, and words to make associations with. Also on our part it required a great deal of creativity and flexibility: story writing cannot be planned, so often we had to improvise and change games according to the new story line. Currently, we have only one story writing session left before we will start with compiling the drawings, paintings and stories into one book. Hopefully ready by the time of the opening of the library, this book will be a tangible contribution to Ashray’s wall of stories, and something they will feel proud of.

If not the library, there are lots of other things to be occupied with. Weekly Hindi classes take up quite some time, and also the closing down of our cycling trip which mostly means communication with donors, sending postcards and working on our blog. It is hard to decide when we deserve a few hours or a day off, as there is always something to do and an endless to-do list. It can sometimes feel extremely frustrating. Why is it so hard to get things done? Why can I never feel that I am on track, and truly allow myself a well-deserved break? India surely isn’t an easy country to get things done: appointments are easily cancelled or postponed, opening hours are unreliable, and basic facilities such as water or electricity supply are irregular. I start realizing that one of the biggest lessons is to be flexible. To accept it that plans have to change day by day, that it’s more wise to accept the need to adjust a target than to forcefully strive for it no matter what.

Even though it can be difficult to really allow myself to do something else than library implementation, living and moving in Varanasi cannot but amaze me every day again. As we live just a few minutes away from the river, there is no more soothing and calming activity than to walk to the riverfront, and gaze at the city as it spreads out along the banks north of Assi Ghat. Seeing the genuine surprise and the silence of overwhelming beauty in any of our guests in the past months (my mother, brothers, two cyclists, a friend of Balint) also bring back my own memories of being enchanted by this place for the first time. Their presence have helped me to do something different, to get out there and explore the city, see the place where I live through a new pair of curious eyes.

In this hustle and bustle of to-do lists, school visits and Hindi class, time is flying as never before. As sand in my hand, sliding through my fingers no matter how tight I try to hold on to it. ‘Shanti shanti,’ they would say here, take it easy. Go with the flow, but stay present in your mind and make deliberate choices. After breaking the long silence of the past months, I feel motivated to continue writing on a more regular basis in the upcoming time. For now, I give you my warmest greetings from Varanasi.

-Nienke

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The Final Stretch: From Nepal to India

Exhaustion. Excitement. Exhilarating emotions. Arriving to Ashray School on a sunny afternoon on the 30st of December can be summed up like this. For me, feelings of excitement were slowly taking over as we cycled into the busy city during rush hour. The traffic jams, road blockades, air pollution and reluctant cows obstructing the road; nothing could annoy me as I was only feeling the energy of reviving memories, recognizing buildings and smells and feeling so familiar after five years of absence. Real emotions came when we really arrived. As soon as the big red building loomed around the corner, and the teachers caught their first glimpses from our bicycles, the doors swung open. Children ran over the street, dancing, drummers created a pounding beat which deeply resonated in my body and brought up the tears. We arrived.

The weeks before arriving had been a beautiful last chapter of our cycling journey. After a long flight from the -15 temperatures in Almaty, through Dubai, we arrived on a fresh morning in Kathmandu, and stepped out of the plane in a pleasant temperature of 20 degrees. After having experienced all the cultural transitions over land in a slow human pace, this flight felt disruptive and abnormal. In a day we flew from the coldest corners of Central Asia to the center of the Himalaya, without any time to slowly understand the changes around us. We gave ourselves some time to absorb the cultural shocks and get used to our new environment. The big soviet designed cities in Central Asia with their big empty lanes, colossal buildings and squared shapes had made place for a maze of small alleys, chaotic traffic, animals, at least ten different kinds of vehicles on the road, and an immense amount of people.

The weeks after, we spent on seeing Kathmandu, cycling for 1,5 week in the “hills” to the East, and preparing the bureaucratic hassle for our desired 6-month Indian visa. Kathmandu as the capital and only big city in Nepal, is a world apart in many ways. The old Durbar Squares of the old kingdoms Bhaktapur, Patan and Kathmandu form remnants of a once ancient past, whereas the rock music, western clothes and fancy business neighbourhoods show how Kathmandu is also trying to find its interpretation of being “modern”. The country side, on the other hand, is home to Kathmandu’s diversity in ethnicities. East of Kathmandu we cycled in Tamang villages, where a different dialect is spoken, different music is being listened to, and different clothing and traditions can be found. It is very fascinating to see how in Nepal Buddhism and Hinduism are fluid categories, which co influence each other in many ways. Hindu temples contain Buddha statues, and Buddhist worshippers also perform some puja (ritual) in Hindu temples. Taking the political situation into account, we were surprised to see the apparent peacefulness in the country. Nepal has been through a rough 10 year civil war beginning of the 2000s, which was mostly fought in the “hills” by Maoist rebels. Chaos took over the country for real when the crown prince murdered his entire family, and killed himself too. In the past ten years Nepal is still recovering from the turmoil. In the country side, far away from the political center, maoist support and symbols can still be found in many places.

If you are not in a hurry, Nepal is a very cycling-friendly country. We had to accept it that 50 or 40 km is the daily maximum sometimes, given the mud roads and steep ascends. Yet we were very happy to choose for the small roads, as we list them now as one of the most beautiful routes among our entire journey. Going through small villages, rice fields, spectacular views and breathtaking descends, and anywhere the possibility to eat a simple dal bhat (rice with lentils) or chowmein (fried noodles). And people have treated us great, we have been invited to spontaneous dances on the street, a wedding and lots of chai!

When the visa was finally in our passports, we departed South to India for our last 550 kilometres. The last climb was a couple  of passes to get out of Kathmandu valley, after which we enjoyed a long descent into the great Indian plains. In the Terai, southern Nepal, we cycled through a dense jungle region where we visited an Elephant shelter and had to watch out for elephants crossing the main road. Approaching the Indian border, the landscape became drier and flatter, and we cycled into more densely populated areas. In most of Nepal, we had to share the road with colourful painted trucks and motorbikes, but close to India we started seeing more and more bicycles, auto rickshaws, horse carts, cycle rickshaws, etc. The immensely crowded border at Raxaul made us a bit scared for the days coming up: a kilometers long traffic jam with continuous blaring horns and everywhere people.

To arrive to Varanasi, we had to cycle through the states Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Bihar being the poorest state of India and virtually unvisited by foreigners, created some nervousness. How would we find a safe place to sleep? People had assured us that Bihar is safe, as long as you find a hotel by dark and you don’t have to cycle in the evening/night. When we crossed the border, we had the plan of cycling to the next small town where there would be a hotel according to people on the street. When we arrived to the small town half an hour before the darkness would set in, there was no hotel whatsoever. We could cycle another 30 kilometres on the road full of potholes to another city, but then we would certainly cycle in the dark. Close to desperacy, we approached a small boarding school which had a big empty rooftop terrace, perfect for our tent. The director of the school took our call for help serious, and started a series of phone calls while were put into two chairs and given masala chai. Eventually we could sleep in a boarding school of his friend, where we got our own room and even got a nice dinner prepared by the kitchen of the school. It was a somewhat stressful first night, yet we got confirmed our 10 months of experience that anywhere you can find people who want to help you.

The last days to our final destinations were long but exciting. Bihar and UPs countryside turned out to be beautiful green and lush, with the best asphalt roads of our journey so far. The big difference we felt compared to Nepal was the amount of people, and mostly their untamed curiosity. The biggest challenge was not the daily long distance of more than 100 kilometres, but finding hidden resting spots, to drink some water without being disturbed. Even if we would turn into a small mud path and sit down among some bushes, people would spot us after a few seconds and would gather around us to stare at us or ask questions. This required some patience and caused some annoyance now and then, but also led to wonderful meetings. We were followed for a while by a motorbike, whose driver eventually dared to start talking to us and he turned out to be a famous Bhojpuri singer (the dialect of Bihar) who just returned to his home village. He invited us over for a tea on the main square. As soon as we sat down, not less than 300 people gathered around us within a few minutes, and the Bhojpuri singer told us that his village has never been visited by foreigners. Old people were brought to the fore to see us, and some of them even wanted to have a touch of our skin. I will never forget cycling out of this village, turning around and seeing a group of 300 people waving at us.

For me it was quite a moment of reflection to be back on Indian soil. My first visit to India and surrounding countries had made me so passionate and intrigued about this region, that I had decided to devote my university studies to South Asia, and in this way pledging a professional commitment. Yet, in those five years I only learned about India through academic articles, books, an occasional movie or documentary and through analytical frameworks. How would I feel coming back to India? Would I still feel the curiosity and passion that I felt five years ago, or had I got fascinated by a imaginary country in the world of academic articles? In other words, had I lost the touch with real India in those five years?

Still I cannot full make sense of my feelings, yet I know that I am still curious, excited and  wanting to understand what is around me. Maybe also because I am not only back in India after five years, but I also just completed an immense journey that I had dreamt of since years. That this is really over, and that we really did it, is still something that I have to tell myself. Something that will take some time to digest and to reflect on.

And that’s where I find myself now. Starting to feel settled in Varanasi, yet trying to make sense of all that “just” happened to us in the past 10 months. It will take some time before I can come with big conclusions and wisdoms, if ever. For now  we are occupied with getting to know people, spending time with the teachers and pupils of Ashray, visiting other schools, and kicking off the library implementation. And amongst all of this, now and then we find some time to take a boat to float on Mother Ganga, be quiet to listen to her waves and whispers..

Namaste!

-Nienke

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The Golden Road to Samarkand: Stories from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan

There was a sudden silence on the big highway out of Samarkand as we cycled out of the city in the late afternoon. Completely desolated, we enjoyed the space available to us, when suddenly a line of police cars sped by whilst loudly shouting Uzbek commands through their megaphones. We sticked as close as possible to the side of the road, whilst behind the trees plainclothes policemen walked up to us and commanded us to stop and held our bicycles. A line of armoured black Hummers drove by in high speed, breaking the silence of the road and made the policemen tighten their grip on our bicycles. As soon as the Hummer line was over we got released, and slowly the traffic filled up the roads again. Welcome on the golden road to Samarkand..

After we got very comfortable in Iran, we started feeling nervous for the countries to come. The first coming up, Turkmenistan, is sometimes called the North Korea of Central Asia, owing to its oppressive first president Saparmyrat Niyazov. Niyazov started ruling in Turkmenistan as the leader of the communist party in 1985, was elected by his handpicked members of the parliament to Life Long President in 1999, and stayed in power until his death in 2006. He dubbed himself “Turkmenbashi”, leader of the Turkmen, and if not erecting golden statues of himself he was occupied with creating and enforcing the Turkmen identity. Examples of these policies are the ban of opera as “insufficiently Turkmen”, and the enforcement of a traditional clothingstyle for women. He even wrote a “religious text” called Ruhnama, which was given equal status to the Quran and has to be taught in mosques and schools alike. The successor of Niyazov, Berdimuhamedow, has reversed some of the policies and allowed for a bit more outwardlookingness. However, Turkmenistan continues to score very low on human rights or freedom of speech. Uzbekistan might not have the personality cult of Niyazov, but also upholds the authoritarian regime of life long president Karimov. As we would enter the country in the wake of his death in September 2016, we did not know what kind of chaos to expect.

 

Our experiences in Turkmenistan confirmed our expectations of a public space centred around Turkmenbashi and full of police control, but also showed unexpected sides and beauty. As we entered the border from Iran in Sarakhs, we were not examined by suspicious  and terrifying Turkmen border control officers, as I had imagined. Instead, we bumped upon a bunch of 18-year olds, who were way more interested in Balints Hungarian Forint that he gave them, than our bags or travelplans. We were the lucky ones among cyclists who managed to get a Turkmen visa, as nowadays most of them get rejected for unclear reasons. We were only granted a five day visa, which would just be enough to race through the 500 km desert road to Uzbekistan. Intrigued by what we heard and read about Turkmenistan, we decided to rather travel by train to enable ourselves to visit the capital Asgabat and the ancient city of Merve. Our first car ride from the border to the city of Mary from where we could catch a train, confronted us with the presence of police in Turkmenistan. Our driver Yakub left us in a nervous silence before every bend in the road, afraid that there would be no policeman around the corner who would stop us and force Yakub to bribe him. The fear of policemen and their power was made clear to us, when two days later we asked the directions to the trainstation to a policeman on the street. He immediately ordered a car to stop, the poor driver was already sweating of nervousness when he rolled down the window. The policeman ordered him to guide us to the trainstation, on a speed of 15 km/h so we could follow the car on our bicycles. For twenty minutes, the man drove in bicycle speed to the city and perfectly dropped us in front of the trainstation.

Ashgabat blew our minds, what a surreal and interesting place. For two days we wandered and cycled through the big lanes, flanked by big white marble buildings and mostly empty except for policemen at every corner. Ashgabat is the masterpiece of Niyazov, where he introduced a architectural style of white marble with gold that soon changed the city’s character drastically, and now made it into the Guinness Book of Records as city with the most white marble buildings. The presidential palaces and governmental buildings are all along monumental lanes, with perfectly maintained parks, fountains, golden statues of Niyazov and guards that keep you on a distance of the buildings. Where are the actual residents of Ashgabat?, was what we were asking ourselves after our first impressions riding through this ghost town. Soon we found out that Ashgabat residents are in the places where they cannot be seen and where the police is absent. The Teke Bazar for example, was the most lively place we had seen, and also in the parks where there was no abundance of lights and guards the benches were filled with couples, giggling teenagers and debating old men. We even managed to find nice cafe’s in hidden corners, and felt more like in a European pub for the evening than in the middle of Turkmenistan. Even in a place like this, life goes on.

In the five days we spent in Turkmenistan, we were fortunate to also learn about other sides of Turkmenistan than the current political climate. We visited the ancient city of Merv, which used to be one of the metropoles along the silk road, and was called the capital of the eastern Islamic world in the eleventh and twelfth century. You need some imagination: only some city walls, small ruins and the magnificent Sultan Sanjar mausoleum are left. We cycled through the huge site in the early morning, and were mostly accompanied by herds of camels. This is also Turkmenistan: A country with an immense history of religious pluralism, economic wealth and trade. Other insights we gained came through the talks we had with people, mostly while waiting for trains on the trainstations. We met a Russian woman whose parents moved to Turkmenistan during the Soviet Union, and her only wish was to move to Russia and finally feel at home. She did not speak a word of Turkmen, although she grew up in Ashgabat, and lived a completely isolated life in the Russian community. We also spoke to a Turkmen english teacher on the train, boys from the police school, students, and all of them surprised us by their enthusiasm and curiosity towards us. In a country with such a limited mobility and isolation (Turkmen people can hardly leave the country, and there are almost not tourists), we did not expect this helpfullness and openness to us.

After four days of night trains in Turkmenistan, we cycled our last day to the Uzbek border. Uzbekistan is more open to tourists, if you are willing to pay the high price for the visa anyone can enter the country for 30 days. However, the government wants to keep a close supervision: you have to sleep in registered hostels every three days, it is illegal to sleep at Uzbek people at home, and the examination of luggage at the border control is notoriously strict. After showing every different pill in our first aid kit, we finally convinced the angry looking border officer, and we rode into Uzbekistan. Already the first night we were invited by an Uzbek man into his house, where we had dinner with him and his wife and slept for the night. Although hosting foreigners is illegal, Uzbek people have often invited us to their homes with an unexpected warmness that we could not imagine after hearing the list of regulations. We were hosted by families on the country side, slept in our tent while the father of the family slept outside to look after us, were invited by workers in the mountains for dinner and chai, slept together with a nightguard in his little room in a primary school and met his family, and this list goes on.

After the trains in Turkmenistan, we experienced the countryside in Uzbekistan from much closer on the bicycle. Very striking was the amount of cotton production, and the immense effort put by the Soviet Union to make the dry desert of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan useful, and create a role for these countries in the collective of the Soviet Union. Cotton was the chosen one, and during the Soviet period Uzbekistan accounted for 70% of the cotton production in the Soviet territory. Still it is the main crop of the country, and the collective responsibility goes as far that even school kids are obliged to spend some hours during harvest period on the fields. Supplying the thirsty crop cotton with water, however, caused an enormous ecological and human disaster in the region. The natural flow of water from the Himalaya towards the Aral Sea was completely blocked by the absorption of the water by cotton production, causing the Aral Sea to dry up after which economies around it collapsed and species dissappeared. In an area that without tapping water from the main rivers ends up as a dry sand bank, it seems for people the only possiblity to make a living.

In contrast to the empty straight roads among cotton fields and villages, the amount of tourism in the cities was quite overwhelming. Uzbekistan is most famous for the silk road cities Bukhara and Samarkand, both of them open air museums of beautiful madrassas, mosques, tombes and palaces. We met lots of other travellers, cyclists, and even two Dutch grannies (75 years old!) who were trekking around the country. Compared to the bare countryside, the splendour of these cities was almost surreal. Tashkent, the capital city, seems to be the black sheep: “just” another Soviet city without any historical sights, nothing compared to the ancient cities in the South. For us it was a surprising joy to walk on the wide green lanes, see interesting Soviet architecture and understand more about the many nationalities and minorities living in Tashkent. Very interesting is the big Korean community, who was forcefully displaced during Soviet times and by now is a flourishing part of Uzbek life. We saw countless Korean restaurants, schools, and its influence on pop music and national cuisine is unmistaken.

In terms of political climate, we did not experience anything from the expected chaos after Karimov’s death. For us it was an opportunity to talk with people about the president, and about their ideas on politics and the government. It was striking that we have not heard a single word of criticism, only genuine sadness for the death of Karimov, and even tears when people told us about him. The hub of political opposition in Uzbekistan is located in the Fergana valley, just over the mountain range east of Tashkent. One of the oldest inhabited areas of Central Asia, Fergana is a green oasis surrounded by mountains of three different countries. It is historically the stronghold of Islam in the region, and many famous madrassa’s and religious sites can be found in the cities of Kokand and Andijan. Karimov has always tried to silence their oppositional voices, and went as far as killing hundreds of protestors in Andijan in 2005, now known as the Andijan massacre. We did not see the tears and sadness in Fergana as we had seen before, but any critical note on the late president was also unheard to us, understandable when you keep the events of Andijan in your mind.

 

Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,
 When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
 Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.
We travel not for trafficking alone;
 By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
 We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

This fragment of the famous poem of James Elroy Flecker in the nineteenth century tells part of the story of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan: magical sanddunes, enchanting Silk Road cities and ancient civilizations. Nowadays, the “Golden Road to Samarkand” has much more to display for the one who is willing to see it: Remnants of Soviet times, ecological catastrophes, a multicultural and multi ethnic society, repressive political climate, and encounters with the warmest people. Understanding these places should depart from keeping all these dimensions in mind, and making a fair balance between history and actuality, myths and reality, and the people you meet or the people that represent them.

Writing now from the last “Stan”, Kazakhstan, we are boarding tomorrow on our flight to Nepal. Visas for China were unfortunately not possible, so India is getting closer very soon. Our next update will be from the Himalayan mountains!

-Nienke

 

 

Thinking of Iran: Kindness and Contradictions

“What does it mean for you to have a tattoo?”, I asked when we sat down with our host on a terrace in Tehran. We had arrived just a few days before at his family, and he accompanied us on our visa hunt. After some thinking he replied thoughtfully: “For me, my tattoos mean freedom. It means that I am a person who makes his own choices.” This quote in the Netherlands or Hungary would not have been as powerful, but in the context of Iran where we had been since a month by then, it made a big impression. It was another honest, but for me puzzling answer to one of questions I had been piling up since our arrival to Iran. What does it mean to live in a “Islamic Republic”, which once has been the most liberal states of the Middle East before the Revolution? How, if possible, do people express their discontent and distinguish who is on which side? How do its citizens relate to their leader, as well as to all the countries that are presented as state enemies? And how would we, as two Europeans, be received?

Coming from Europe and being subjected to how Iran is presented in the media, we could not but be occupied with the Islamic governance of Iran. What would we experience from this religious regime as two cyclists? Apart from the formal rules that forced me to wear a hijab and covering clothing, and for Balint to wear long pants, I was mostly curious how people would relate to their government. In my heads the categories seemed pretty straight forward. Anyone who would be religious would obviously support the Ayatollah and might be suspicious towards us as Europeans, whereas any atheist or anti-religious person would most likely favour the forlorn time of the Shah before the Revolution. As you can expect, these lines turned out to be way more blurry. Also, external characteristics in for example dress code are not necessarily directly linked to a certain level of religiosity. As Islamic dress code is enforced by law, it is mostly within the confinements of the family that we could see expressions of support or rejection. In some families, hijabs were thrown into the corner as soon as we entered the house, and I was told to please feel relaxed and not worry about any Muslim dress code. Not wearing a hijab, however, does not mean that someone is not religious. On the other hand, we have also been invited to families where conservative customs were kept in place concerning dress code and man-female interaction, but this turned out to be not always a sign of religiosity. Concerning the Iranians’ relationship to their government, I was very surprised to see the, in my eyes, many contradictions. We have met people who confidently argued that the Ayatollah is a great leader, and so is Obama. Or, people who expressed their dislike of “America” and the Westernization of Iran, whilst pouring us another glass of Coca Cola..

During our travels in Iran, we also met quite a few people who told us explicitly that they disagree with their government, and wish to see a secular leader in Iran. Showing that you do not want to fit in the prototype “ideal citizen” that the government has created for you is a difficult task in Iran: any opposing voice or outspoken opinion is completely silenced and you risk severe punishment. It took some time for me to start seeing the subtle modes of resistance, ways of expressing your discontent while clearing moving to the boundaries of what is still allowed. One of our Iranian friends who had his own small restaurant along a big road, did not put a poster of the Ayatollah on the wall, but instead glued the faces of Leonardo Dicaprio and Johnny Depp above his cashier. Our host in Tehran told us how he is harassed by police and refused into café’s, simply for the tattoos on his arms that show his non-conforming to the standards. Another host in North-West Iran showed me the Facebook page “My Stealthy Freedom”, that she liked and supported, where Iranian women post pictures of themselves in public spaces without wearing a hijab.

During our more than two month stay in Iran, we have seen many parts of the diverse nature that Iran possesses. As I thought of Iran as a big desert before, I was positively surprised to encounter humid forests, wild rivers, rocky red mountains, flat rice fields, and all the different shades of desert that I could not imagine before. Iranians have an interesting relationship with the natural treasures of their country: simultaneously romanticizing and idealizing Iran’s wild forests in the north, while also causing the greatest harm to their nature on a macro- and micro level. In Iranian homes the fairy-tale like paintings on the wall often show what every Iranian is dreaming of: green, lush forests with an abundance of water. Golestan National Park in the north of Iran is one of the few places where these images of forests, mountains and rivers come to life. When we were in Golestan, we were not surprised to see so many Iranian tourists for this reason, but the amount of trash, plastics, bottles, cans that we found anywhere close to the roads and picnic places was astonishing. People clearly love being in nature, but manage to reconcile this with throwing their trash out of the car window into the most beloved green bushes. In an artificial way, this dream scenario is realized in every city in the form of beautiful well maintained parks, the favourite place for every Iranian. Parks are not only for evening strolls, but also have facilities for camping, cooking, toilets, drinking water, and are filled up with piknicking families any evening in the week. For us the perfect place for camping, and also the best place to meet people. But, to keep these parks according to the standards that are shown in the paintings in Iranian houses, there is an incredible amount of water needed to keep them green and flourishing in even the driest desert town of Iran. When crossing the famous Siosepol bridge in Isfahan, we witnessed a completely dried up river, whilst only 300 metres away parks were flooding in water.

Although environmental awareness does not reach very far in Iran yet, awareness of cultural rootedness is very strong. Maybe not surprisingly, but as residents of a country with one of the oldest civilizations of the world, Iranians are very proud and conscious of their heritage. The current regime’s attempts to strengthen the image of Iran as an Islamic country have received much criticism, from Ayatollah supporters and opponents alike. The pre-Islamic history of Iran, which involves a long period of Zoroastrianism and many other belief systems, are held in high regard by almost anyone we talked to. The tension we were expecting between Islamic beliefs and pride of pre-Islamic culture did not seem to bother anyone. Apart from a general historical awareness, this cultural rootedness is mostly apparent by the strong presence of countless stories, symbols, rituals and traditions in Iranian everyday life. Something I did not expect was the strong regional cultures we encountered, and how Iran embraces this cultural diversity. In different families we have seen Gileki, Lori, Kurd, Azeri, Farsi and Turkmen traditions, such as dance, food, songs and stories.

Hospitality in Iran seems to be indisputable among travellers: Iranians are extremely hospitable is what everyone has told us. We cannot but agree with this, at least from our experience as an European couple. We have had days, many days actually, when we did not spend a single Rial on food, as we got offered food all the time throughout the day. It was astonishing for me to see how people, five minutes after meeting us, immediately invited us to their homes for food, a warm shower and bed. This happened constantly, sometimes a car started driving next to us and as the window rolled down, the first sentence was: “Welcome to Iran, please visit our home and be our guest!” The amount of attention now and then reached its limits, and we had to withdraw ourselves in a hotel to finally find some privacy and rest, a big irony in a country where you could sleep over every night at a family if you want it.  Yet, we have had the most heartwarming stay-overs in Iran, at people who from the first second embraced us as their new family members and likewise expressed so much emotion and sadness when it was time for us to leave. Extremely concerned with the image of Iran in Europe, they kept ascertaining us that we should tell people at home how Iranian people really are.

New perspectives on Iranian hospitality were given to us when we met two female solo cyclists, and talked with Iranians about their experiences while hitch-hiking and backpacking in their own country. The two female cyclists had a more ambiguous relationship with Iran; they also received a lot of help but also a number of harassments and men shouting sexual comments to them on the street. The Iranian traveler told us how hard it was to be picked up as a hitch-hiker in his own country, and how stark the contrast is between the help that Westerners receive and Iranians or non-Westerners when travelling in Iran.

For cycling, Iran can be challenging in summertime, as I had to dress up in covering clothing in the extreme heat, but you get used to it soon enough. Our daily rhythm changed a lot: waking up earlier, taking long lunch breaks and powernaps, and starting cycling again when the biggest heat wave was over around 4pm. Partly to avoid cycling for weeks in this desert, we went over the northern mountain range to the Caspian sea, and back again to Tehran. Also during our travel from Tehran to the most eastern city Mashhad, we crossed the same mountain range back to the Caspian Sea and cycled to the appraised Golestan National Park, before returning to the desert towards Mashhad. In this way we managed to see a great amount of diversity in Iran’s nature, and kept ourselves engaged with the changing landscapes around us.

Whilst all the contradictions described above might leave you puzzled about what to think of Iran, my experiences and memories are warm and positive. It took me a while to accept that this blog post might not have a clear story to tell, as this is exactly how I feel about Iran. It is so extremely diverse, and there are so many puzzling aspects that still confuse me, but for sure it gave me the chance to meet one of the warmest and kindest people I know.

Greetings from Tashkent, soon we will follow up with an update on our Central Asian experiences!

-Nienke

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Half Full or Half empty? Reflections from Tehran

Waking up in Tehran, the sun already burning and the traffic as noisy as any other time of the day.  Looking at the date made me realize that this was not just a day, but exactly half year later than the rainy grey February morning when we embarked on our first cycling day on the Dutch dikes. This hot and dry Sunday in August could not be any more different.

We just came back from 10 days travelling in the South of Iran with my brother Wessel and three of his friends. It was a small holiday within this big trip, something we have been looking forward to for very long. Apart from seeing Wessel again, also to leaving our bikes alone for a week or two and relax, recharge and enjoying the comforts of busses and hostels. The fact that Tehran is roughly halfway to India, and that our 10 day trip marked the milestone of 6 months on the road, made us, with the help of our travel companions, reflect on what has happened to us and what is still ahead. Although our experiences in the past month in Iran are enough material for a long blog post, we have been advised to wait with that until we are out of the country. So for now, we would like to take this opportunity to write about our reflections on this past half year, in the form of questions we have asked to ourselves, or that have been asked by others to us. As we have written these answers independently from each other, it also gives an insight in how different or similar we perceive the past 6 months.

What experience in the past six months was contrary to your expectations before cycling?

N: If I would have to pick one, it would be the experience of very meaningful and deep interaction with people. Of course I knew that during the cycling trip we would most likely encounter many people, and have many interesting evenings, dinners and sleep-overs with complete strangers. I imagined this, however, with a sense of temporality. These people would constitute to my experience of cycling, but it would not lead any further, was what I expected. Especially in the past weeks in Iran I have experienced the opposite. People who would be complete strangers at first, have become friends for me two days later. As friendship back home is something that you need to develop over months or years, here I experienced that the openness and warmness of people made me get close to them in such a short time. I can truly say that I made friends already, people that I want to stay in contact with and who are not just something temporary during this journey.

B: Before we left from the Netherlands, I always thought, I need to know as much as possible about the countries we are about to see. I was reading history books and blog posts of other touring cyclists, judging retrospective, too much. Underlying an idea, that time not clear to me, that one big benefit of our trip will be a stock of knowledge about anything between Tricht and Varanasi. It is the “knowledge economy”, they say, from where we would depart anyways. Soon I came to learn however that knowledge as such was neither important nor the “big benefit” of cycling. Instead, to understand became our most precious occupation. I don’t care anymore when the Revolution in Iran exactly happened but rather I am trying to understand what place it has in their relationship with each other or to contemporary matters.

Looking back at the past 6 months, what phases can you distinguish and in what stage are you now?

N: Although we picked the exact half-year milestone as a reason to write this blog post, my own perception of this journey is not so much aligned with time. The first four weeks cycling from the Netherlands to Hungary are just one month of the total six, but in my perception it was a big and intense phase of the journey. I cannot really point out distinct phases afterwards, as I can think of so many factors in distinguishing them, such as cultures, climates, personal motivation etcetera. The big two phases I can identify are therefore from the Netherlands to Hungary and from Hungary to here. In the first phase, everything was new and we were going through a lot of difficulties in finding our rhythm and creating a new lifestyle. Since Hungary, I feel that cycling has gradually become a lifestyle that feels so natural to me, that I am not so concerned with time or distance.

B: The part between the Netherlands and Budapest stands out clearly, as it was in many ways very difficult and more intense. Everything was new and we had to learn how to adopt to cycling and most importantly to each other. My narratives of myself and of Nienke were changing day by day, new experience by new experience, and I was probably overtly demanding rather than giving as I tried to find myself a place in this new life on wheels. But by the time we pedalled into Budapest, some core stones started to be laid down, forming the bedrocks for the time thereafter and a new phase began. Ever since there has been a relaxed exploration of myself, of the cultures around me; with the accumulation of experiences I have become more proactive instead of reactive; my claims towards Nienke now are coupled with responsibilities, listening and giving; and despite always having in mind a healthy limit, my ambitions have not been thrown back anymore by my physical abilities. I guess what I am describing now can be summed up as cycling made the transition into new lifestyle. Turkey and Iran only added a new colour to this as the cultural context around us changed drastically, so learning and adaptation are requiring a fresh look. Speaking of the phase I am at the moment in Teheran can be described as sobering. Six months is long enough to start feeling the time, the length of our travel behind and ahead of me alike. If nothing else, my worn out sandals, broken tent and the length of my beard remind me; it was not yesterday when we left from the Netherlands and it will not be tomorrow that we arrive to India. At the same time, this process of grasping time makes the formation of memories began. Cycling in a snowstorm close to Brilon in Germany or crossing the river Maritsa at the Greek-Turkish border is not a recent experience anymore but memories and I even feel bit nostalgic. The realisation of “what have I done” is put on hold until India nevertheless

What element of your personality is still an obstacle during cycling?

N: Lettings things go beyond my control and trusting that it will be fine, is something I am constantly working on. Although cycling so far has taught me an immense amount of improvisation and living moment by moment, it still happens to me that my worries and fears overrule the experience of where I am. An example is that climbing a high pass can occupy my mind already days before. I can have the false idea that objective measurements can tell me how tough or easy the ride will be, such as how much elevation I would have to climb in a day, how steep the road is, how many kilometers it will take etcetera. Experience has taught me by now that every pass is a subjective experience which is not framed by all these numbers and facts, but mostly by my state of mind. This tendency to want to control everything and worry about what is coming up, is something that can still be an obstacle.

B: Well, first of all is my annoyance with the ways how people express their emotions. Too often I caught myself yelling at a passing car “Why?!” at the moment they horned right next to me, only to let out my anger induced by them. By now, I understand it is not how people express their emotions about us which matters (trust me I saw a lot of very very weird ones) but the emotion itself; curiosity, excitement, playfulness, caring and so on. Though cultural difference does not make this step easier, I should always remind myself to one question: what is this person feeling right now. Then, though a noisy one, a world becomes a more peaceful place.
Another character of mine I have trouble letting it go is my sense of authority at any decision involving me. Countless times, especially in Turkey and Iran, ended up in a situation to which we were pushed rather than invited, which sometimes I cannot effectively deal with. It is not about that things go unplanned, but before they go, please ask me a simple question “would you like it?” I am ready to choose for the unexpected.

Can you recall a difficult moment during the trip so far, and what did you learn from this?

N: Very much related to the previous question: my difficult moments often happen when I wake up on a day when we have to climb a pass. One of the last days of Armenia was one of them. We had to climb one more pass of around 2400 meters before we would descend into the desert of Iran, but the fact that we would elevate more than ever before made it seem an impossible task for me. Any small steep hill felt like a mountain on its own, and I could not help to think of how many kilometers we had cycled, and how far it still would be. These worries and fears for what was coming up completely paralyzed me. Bálints optimism, stories and thoughts helped me, as well as that he took away my counter for my own good. The complete relief when we reached the peak and the realization that it was definitely not the hardest climb we had done, made me see how difficult I can make it for myself.

B: It happened on our last day in Turkey that we had to cycle through a number of tunnels during rush hour, packed with heavy trucks, when my sense of primary security completely fell apart. We were cycling on a two-lane highway towards Georgia, the only road possible, and inside the dim tunnels there were technically no shoulders resulting in us being squeezed between the wall and a constant traffic at 90 km/h speed. Long story short, mentally I broke down and felt that if I cycle into the next tunnel, I might die. This has never happened to me before, in my entire life. Needless to say, we did not cycle into any more tunnels that day. What I learn from this situation is invaluable nevertheless. To date, it teaches me to be aware of panicking at an early stage, how to intervene or at least alert Nienke to do so, and restore my mental strength. In other words, based on this experience I am learning how not to lose myself.

Can you recall a moment of accomplishment from the past half year?

N: Every new milestone makes the previous ones feel insignificant, so Tehran would be the top accomplishment by now. In my personal experience, however, reaching Bálints home in Őrbottyán felt as a much bigger accomplishment than reaching Tehran. We had cycled through the German, Czech and Austrian winter, and had been through more hardships than I could have imagined before. Despite all of this, we arrived on a sunny Spring afternoon, cycled into the street while loudly ringing our bells and being welcomed with warm hugs of loved ones. The fact that Őrbottyán is a place where I have been times before, made it even more surreal but also powerful to arrive by bicycle. Also symbolically speaking, cycling from home to home felt as a great accomplishment.

B: Of course to cycle from the Netherlands to Teheran is itself the biggest accomplishment of the past half year. I often joke on the bike, “Nienke we came from Tricht to here”, which is supposed to be a moment of reflection on the macro picture, on the 8352kms we cycled so far. Yet, 8352kms is pretty abstract to grasp and my daily satisfaction comes from much smaller things. Like how to fix our broken tent at the Armenian-Iranian border, win over an arrogant policeman, stay focused while climbing a mountain or breaking a new speed record downhill (73km/h at the moment!). These are the daily accomplishments, which keeping my ship afloat until India.

How do you complement each other during travelling, and which habits have evolved out of this?

N: Of course differences between our characters have existed before, and complementing aspects alike. Specifically during cycling, Bálint complements me by living in the moment, and pulling me out my worries. His constant flow of observations, stories and sharp questions help me to reflect on what is around me, and entice me to get more and more curious. As Bálint is best in living in the moment, I complement him by keeping track on the macro picture of the trip. Managing the money, time planning and route is what I naturally like to do, and these evolved into my tasks during the trip.

B: To begin with, there are many ways how we mutually complement each other, some of them probably unknown to me. But to name a few, I guess what I help Nienke a lot is to remind her of successes we achieved together at critical moments in the past. For example, when climbing is difficult for her, we stop and we talk, and my role is to make her remember that “we are one team climbing together”, and that last time she did not believe in herself neither, yet she nailed it! I never lie that it will be easy. Meanwhile, I can get stuck in my head too, especially when at the end of the day we must make some decisions. I am often indecisive. Then she comes on stage and with the inborn Dutch capacity of rough directness she gives me directions, knocks on doors, calls the host, does the groceries for dinner – she acts when I cannot. And I am really really happy for her to do it. Another thing, we got to know each other at the travel committee of our student organisation, SIB, almost 4 years ago where Nienke was the “penningmeester”, someone responsible for spending the money. This role has not changed as she is the one controlling money now too, something we often laugh about.

In what way does cycling impact your relationship?

N: Being 24/7 together for six months definitely impacts our relationship, as well as going through all these experiences on the road together. I got to know Bálint in so many new ways, often positive but sometimes also negative, which all deepened our relationship. The dangers of being together all the time, are first of all that you can start taking the presence of the other for granted, and his positivity and love as well. Moreover, that there is no possibility to take distance if necessary makes conflict solving a more challenging task. This is even further hindered by the lack of reference points to your relationship from others around you. All of these have caused some difficulty now and then in the past months, but we managed to overcome them. Cycling together requires constant work, as we are juggling the different identities of travel buddies, lovers, partners, and friends. Being a good team on the road but also maintaining a sense of intimacy is a fine balance to uphold.

B: That is a question that everybody would like to ask, rightfully. Being together 24/7 makes ideas of each other increasingly rigid and fixed, which I would highlight as one of the biggest enemy to any relationship, on and off the bikes. So counterbalancing this process on my part requires an active effort to re-define, re-fresh who Nienke is constantly. Otherwise, the danger I would be harbouring is to miss out on learning about her various faces, skills, emotions..etc, and it that way miss out on deepening my relationship with her, only to conserve.  In this respect, touring cycling provides to any couple a unique opportunity as well as obstacle for their relationship. But this practice can be lengthy; it is easier said than done!

What trait of Iranian people would you like to bring back home?

N: Most Iranians that we have met so far have an instant willingness to help us, without any hesitation. Although we are complete strangers to them, coming from a different continent and a different culture, their curiosity and helpfulness is always the upper hand in their approach to us. It makes me very sad to realize what fear, xenophobia and distrust these people would encounter when they would walk on the streets in my own country. I wish I could bring their genuine helpfulness, trust, and curiosity back to the Netherlands.

B: Iranian people travel a lot across Iran, therefore they know their country well. In addition to this, their sense of pride and nationhood is intrinsically connected to and nurtured by their land. Partly due to this phenomenon, Iranian people we talked to have a solid, firm confidence in their past, in their cultures unknown in Central Europe and Hungary. I can only hope that one day the hysteria about our sense of pride and nationhood prevalent in Hungary will reach a level of maturity and confidence seen here in Iran.

In what way is the library project for Ashray school part of your daily cycling routine?

N: As most project work was done before we embarked on our journey, it might seem that the project has moved to the background. To some extent that is true, as we are mostly absorbed by all the things we see around us. Telling people about our project, explaining what Untouchability in India means, and answering their questions, however, regularly helps me to keep this greater goal in mind. Because India has become my passion, and the work for Ashray and the Benares School Fund Foundation a serious preoccupation, I feel extremely excited about going back to the place where all these seeds have been planted. For me personally, this is a great motivation. Daily encounters with curious people, or updates about fundraising activities back home always incite this feeling of excitement.

B: Of course we often have to explain our library project to people, which keeps me committed and motivated. Even more frequently, I talk with Nienke about Ashray because of the stark cultural differences surrounding us recently makes me think on what grounds we have founded the idea of the library. This in turn raises my commitment to an even more inclusive planning of the library, which, in few months from now, must begin with a lot of exchanges of views and opinions. I cannot wait to start!

What would you like to work on in the upcoming 6 months?

N: If I could diminish certain worries and fears, I could use this valuable mental capacity to have more meaningful contact with people around me and improve my understanding of the societies I am in. This is something I would like to work on.

B: Perhaps one of the most bothering aspects of cycling, on which I would like to reflect on (for the sake of improvement) is the way I connect with people. More than not, I have found myself in a situation when complete strangers, who came on our way, transpired to become one of the most caring persons about me and Nienke within a short time. Their exhibition of deep concern, kindness and genuine love often left me in doubt about myself, questioning how they came to commit to me so rapidly and why I am not able to share, let alone to return, their emotions as they do?  While thinking about these bitter-sweet moments and dislike about myself, I came to believe that my emotional obstacle is time, or my idea about the amount of it needed to experience relationships at a deeper level. Often I hear travellers from Europe reasoning why they feel indifference towards locals they encounter because “they only meet one person like me, but I meet many like them”. I disagree. It is not the numbers, which block us from connecting on a short note but rather our pre-existing idea that this random encounter won’t last long therefore it cannot be more than a pleasant talk or a fun night. The reason why I feel unease connecting with strangers is my sense of temporariness, ingrained in me from contemporary Western culture, about the relationship I am about to have. If I would become able to forget time as precondition to meaningful relationships, I could touch and get touched by some of the most sensitive, loving strangers on the road despite of the limited time available to us.

 

– Nienke & Bálint

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Crossing the Caucasus: A love story

“And I was wondering, which neighbouring country do you like the most?”
The conversation at the table falls flat as I ask this question, and while taking another Georgian khinkali (dumpling), I already wonder whether this was the right question to ask. Our WarmShower host and his two friends eventually explain in plain language that for Georgia there is no favourite neighbour, as all of relations with bordering nations are somewhat troubled. A few jokes on the rocky Armenian-Georgian affair and typical Turkish cultural habits break the ice again, and the conversation moves into the beauty of Georgian nature and our upcoming days towards Tbilisi. The opposition towards the big neighbours, as well as the hefty national pride, would become central themes in the following days in Georgia and Armenia.

Having exited Turkey and entering Georgia, I felt very unprepared. The countries Georgia and Armenia that we would cross on our way to the next big brother of Iran, I realised, had never caught my attention somehow and even the basics, such as the demographic build-up or dominant religion, were missing in my starting package. Not having any idea what to expect and being completely unprepared, however, can result in being positively surprised and truly enraptured. And that is what exactly happened.

Being cramped in between the big brothers of Iran, Russia and Turkey, the small countries Georgia and Armenia are eager to define themselves in clear opposition to all what is surrounding them. This has resulted in a big nationwide historical awareness and sense of unicity, which makes Georgians and Armenians one of the proudest peoples I have met during our trip. Refusing to be melted together with Russian culture (“No, we speak Armenian, NOT Russian!”), mainstream currents of Christianity (“We are happy to see the Pope here, but we are NOT catholic! Did you know that?”) and their Muslim neighbours (“Don’t worry, here you can dress how you want and we don’t celebrate Ramazan!”) is a negative way of constructing your identity, to define yourself on the basis of what you are not. As we have been cycling in Georgia and Armenia since two weeks now, however, I clearly see the many ways in which their cultures are strongly autonomous and our experiences have sparked great curiosity inside me for these two small countries often trampled underfoot by all the loud voices around them.

For its very modest size, both Armenia and Georgia are extremely diverse in almost all possible ways. When entering Georgia at the Black Sea coastline, our first impressions were framed by the city of Batumi, the Las Vegas of the Caucasus. A greater contrast with Turkey in Ramazan period is unthinkable: Batumi is infamous for its gambling, alcohol and sex, and mostly attracts Turkish tourists wanting to eat from the forbidden fruit. An almost unlimited freedom for estate development has resulted in freestyle architecture, not particularly beautiful but definitely very interesting. After Batumi, we left the Black Sea and its dolphins (!) behind and started cycling into the mountains towards the Goderdzi Pass (2025 meters). The first fifty kilometres already carry you to a different world: small alpine villages where families sustain themselves with a small cattle and vegetable gardens, and where life is more about surviving than anything else. The ride down from the pass brought us in a completely different environment: from the alpine mountains we moved into rocky, red-stone gorges formed by former volcanic mountains in the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Moving up to the high plateau towards the Armenian border rewarded us with the first view on Mt Aragats, the highest peak of Armenia. The subsequent days cycling towards Yerevan we entered a valley with on the left side Mt Aragats and on the right side Mt Ararat, the beloved and holy mountain of the Armenian people which is now within the Turkish borders. Mt Ararat is where Noah’s Ark is believed to have landed after the flood, and Noah’s great-great-great-grandson Hayk is seen as Armenia’s founding father. The painful truth that this national pride is on Turkish territory still puts tension on Turkish-Armenian relations. For me, cycling in between these giants and knowing their cultural history made this stretch a special one.

Culturally speaking, cycling through Armenia and Georgia is as if indulging in a treasury. Both are one of the first countries reached by Christianity, and therefore one of the oldest monasteries and churches can be found in the Caucasus region. Christianity, however, was built upon the pre-existing cultures and symbols which give the architecture of monasteries and churches a very distinct flavour. Examples are the use of pre-christian symbols, such as the pomegranate and grapes, and the use of the beautiful red terracotta stone. These centuries old christian heritage is interestingly mixed with communist Soviet buildings, often remnants of a forlorn era in the case of collapsing industrial buildings. Nevertheless, the presence of the many Lada’s, Volga’s, UAZ’s and KAZ’s on the road reminds me to how recent this transition has taken place. Although the expression of religion was completely denied during the communist era, we have heard from several people that life was better in these times as they could have better jobs than now.

The people of the Caucasus are unbelievably friendly, although in a different way than Turkish people. The extreme enthusiasm of Turkish people was sometimes a bit overwhelming, as every stop resulted in a big crowd formed around us to ask questions and to invite us for cay or food. In Georgia and Armenia, we can manage to be alone, it still requires some effort but it is possible. When finding a sleeping place in villages, we have had unforgettable experiences and been introduced to the real Caucasus hospitality.  Setting up our tent turned out to be an impossible task; when even mentioning the word to villagers they already furiously shake their head and point to their house. Thinking back of the last weeks, I think of Madonna and Otara, a sweet old couple in a village close to the Goderdzi pass who invited us over in their house to sleep in the most beautiful room, the guestroom, and spoiled us with food and grandmother-like love. Also, I think of Tuchik, the sweet woman who lived with her ill sister in a small farmhouse in the valley between Mt Ararat and Mt Aragats. When we cycled by around sunset, Tuchik waved and yelled at us from the balcony, insisting that we would come by for some food. Eventually, we slept at her balcony with a beautiful view on Mt Ararat and the stars above. Tuchik did not speak any English, but our non-verbal communication worked surprisingly well. When she explained us with raising one finger that she is alone as she does not have a partner or family, Balint showed her three fingers and made clear that for tonight we are with the three of us. A wide smile appeared on her face, which I will never forget.

Our past weeks did not always go as planned, something inherent to bicycle travelling.. The rocky rides up and down from the mountains took its toll upon our bicycles, which now and then slowed us down a bit. We have stopped counting the punches in Balint’s tyres, which happened almost daily in the past weeks. Another slow-down was the food poisoning I contracted in Georgia, which threw another spanner in the works. I had to recover a few days and take it easy with cycling, and therefore we could not visit Tbilisi and went straight to the Armenian border. The most serious problem occurred when we cycled down from our camping spot at the foot of Mt Aragats, and Balint’s wheel bursted open. As Balint was already injured from a fall at the mountain, and we were seriously attacked by big groups of shepherd dogs, this day would not be written into history as our lucky shot. I took Balint’s bike to Yerevan in a classic blue Lada taxi, whilst Balint continued the ride to Yerevan on my bicycle.

As I am writing now from Yerevan, all the bicycle problems have been solved, and our bodies recovered. We have spent two days in this pleasant city, and I am very happy I got to know this place. With lots of art on the street (sculptures, street-art), famous jazz bars, warm terracotta buildings, and a creative and friendly vibe, it has shown a different face of the Caucasus complementing our experiences in the rural parts. Today we are moving on to the southern regions of Armenia, on our way to Iran. These little but pride nations in the Caucasus have definitely stolen my heart, and I am determined to visit this region again. For now, time to cycle on, there are lots of mountain passes and beautiful monasteries awaiting!

Hajoghutyun! 

– Nienke

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