Calum MacKintosh recounts a journey of incredible highs and crushing lows on an unlikely bike.
Dear Mum and Dad,
I know you are both busy with your lives so I’ll save you some time. The start of this article is pretty boring, and I’m almost positive that you’ll be asleep after the first couple of sentences. I suggest you scroll straight on down to the heading Why?, which is the start of the interesting stuff. Love you both.
Your only son.
Oh shit, where am I? I wasn’t in the safety of my bed in the hostel I had just checked into. I certainly wasn’t in my tent out on the side of the road. What the hell are those bars for? A wave of fear rippled through my body. I’m in jail.
My heart didn’t just sink – it exploded in a panic. Before I even patted down my pockets to check to see if their contents were still there, I knew they were empty. I jumped up and grabbed the steel bars of the door I was locked behind. “Hey! Hey!” I yelled out into the corridor to anyone that would hear my distress. I swore as loud as I could.
I had foolishly been carrying all the cash I had in the world, enough for the next three months. A zip-up pocket on my cargo pants had seemed like the safest hiding place. I was wrong.
When a police officer finally appeared he seemed unfazed by my distress. I was removed from the cell and taken to a small office where my belongings lay out on a table. The cash was probably the least of my worries – I was more concerned about my camera and the thousands of irreplaceable photos I had taken across the previous months and countries I had visited.
My camera was there on the table, along with my wallet and phone. A small plastic bag, once holding a small fortune, was now empty. My watch was missing, too. I banged my fist on the table and shouted at the police. I had no doubt they’d helped themselves – Tajikistan police have a notorious reputation for corruption. They remained steadfast and unemotional at my attitude; guilt was keeping them sedate.
I was put back into the cell to calm down. All I could do was sit and wait, still with no idea how I ended up in this situation. One minute I was having a cold beer in a local nightspot, followed by the odd vodka shared among new friends. The next minute …
I tried to tell myself that someone must have spiked my drink. They must have. I didn’t want to accept my own poor decision making had brought me here – a more likely reality. At the tender age of 34, I remain my own worst enemy.
I was finally allowed to leave with my belongings in a small black plastic bag. I signed whatever document had been put in front of me with a big black X, snatched back my passport out of the sergeant’s hand and made for the bright day outside.
My head was a mess, aching from whatever super powerful hangover had been thrust upon me. When I reached the street outside, I still had no idea exactly where I was. I had been in Dushanbe for less than 24 hours and was completely lost. I wandered back and forth looking for any recognisable landmark. I stumbled upon an ATM, drew the last drops from my bank account, hailed a taxi and made my way back to the relative safety of the hostel.
This was it, finally, a spectacular failure to end my journey. No stolen bike, no broken leg from a speeding Lada. I was robbed, a result of my own poor choices.
But even after all that, I refused to let this experience spoil Tajikistan for me. I’d fallen in love with this place on the first day. The mountains, the people – everything except the corruption and greed – made for one of the most pleasant travelling experiences you could ask for. I wasn’t even too agitated at the ones who stole from me, as it’s not hard to remind myself that this is a large portion of their yearly wage. I couldn’t blame them for taking the carrot dangling in front of them. I could always return home and recoup any loss far quicker than they could ever imagine. There was an unfair gap in our existence – something I’d learned and seen over and again since I’d left Australia’s golden shores.
I just wanted to call my mum. I mean, who else are you supposed to call? “Mum, I have to come home. It’s over”. She listened, and listened well. I made sure as to keep it together, fighting the lump in my throat. “No,” she replied. “Sleep on it, I’ll transfer you some money”. She knew I was on the edge of a part of the world I had talked about the most since before I had even planned a route, Iran. And it was only around the corner. “Go to Iran,” she said. Just like that, before I even had a chance to sleep on it, my mother had shone a light through the gloom.
I immediately felt better and more motivated than ever. The final message came after the phone call – “don’t let the bastards win”. Thanks mum. I managed to leave the past in the past and get on with it. If nothing else, I now had a story to tell.
For almost two years now, the road has been my home as I’ve ridden my BMX around the world – a journey with some incredible highs and crushing lows. I left Sydney on November 1st, 2014 and pointed towards the Blue Mountains, leaving behind my girlfriend, family and friends and slowly making my way further from the comforts of home.
I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the ultimate question: “why?” It’s a question profound and mundane, the philosophical core to any subject, and if one is left alone for too long to ponder surely has the capacity to send a bloke mad. But the answer is simple: “you can’t do that”. Never has a more motivating phrase fallen upon my ears. Those who sent my motivation into an unstoppable spiral still gasp in disbelief – “I can’t believe you’ve made it this far”. Maybe it’s time to start believing?
Everything familiar slipped into my metaphorical rear-view mirror, and life took on a pace not that unlike a snail. The whirl of preparation and planning was gone – the dream I’d been carrying with me was, and has, turned into my bizarre and extraordinary existence.
Over my time on the road, I’ve learnt some things. Perhaps the most important of these is that no matter whether you’re in China or Queensland or an unpronounceable Central Asian country, people are mostly good. If you’re hungry, someone will feed you. If you’re tired, someone will give you a safe place to sleep. It’s natural to dismiss these experiences with cynicism as just words on a page; I’d have done the same. But the kindness I’ve seen with my own eyes leaves nothing to be denied.
After my brush with the law in Tajikistan, and yet another ‘is this the end?’ moment, I went for a 500km loop towards Afghanistan – enjoying stunning days ascending crisp green hills, on the last of Tajikistan’s remaining good asphalt. My nights were spent camped in ditches away from the road, and I was periodically roused by unnerving shrieks in the night from shepherds attending to their flocks, echoing from high in the surrounding mountains. But I trusted the Tajik people would keep me safe, and refused to let these strange sounds bouncing around in the dark unsettle me.
Finally the good roads gave out, narrowing as I passed through a village. The asphalt slowly transitioned to rocks and dirt, and the power lines that usually followed the road were thinning out. I had never been so happy to be pushing my bike through deep river rock, my front wheel unable to hold its own line, skidding sideways through the pebbles. It’s the sort of place I always thought I would end up – it just took 12,000km of tar to get here. Stopping to check the map was taking me in the right direction, a local villager – in fact the teacher – asked if I was OK. He explained that my destination, Panj, was 8km along the river following the road. We chatted for a while as others gathered, mostly children, and then the local police officer. A short man, he stood over his own bicycle next to me, dripping sweat from his forehead, his eyes as white and as wide open as could be, with a huge grin on his face. He looked like a child at Christmas who thought he was getting nothing and had received the world. Here on the Afghan border in southern Tajikistan, interacting with a few beautiful souls, I was having a revelation. I thought I had been to places far away … I hadn’t.
This makes the rare encounters with less kind souls a little rattling. In Kyrgyzstan, suffering through a wretched period of sickness, I was woken by a herd of sheep passing my open tent and the sounds of a shepherd whistling and calling out to keep them moving. I fought the urge to stay inside, and rose to see who was there – I had nothing to do and nowhere to be, so why not wave and force a smile to the horseman mustering his sheep? He waved back, and then turned his horse towards me and charged at my tent. It was a short 20 metre gallop, and he pulled up his steed in a cloud of dirt just before my tent, coating it in dust. The whites of the horse’s eyes rolled at me, the breath from its nostrils steaming in the evening air. It was obvious he was trying to give me a fright; instead, I laughed.
The horseman with all but three teeth in his mouth and mangled broken fingers dismounted and wrestled to keep his horse under control. A perfect match of man and beast.
I was offered a drink of cold tea, which I felt I had no choice to accept. The ominous character crouching in front of me and now asking for a cigarette. I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head as he asked over and over again.
Poor health had not impaired my judgment of such a character. His demeanour reminded me of the sort of bully you may, at times, meet in a pub back home.
Instinctively, I had kept my tent closed, camera and such things hidden. I didn’t feel like I was going to be robbed at all; rather, more subtly encouraged to give something up.
I wanted nothing more than for him to piss off and leave me alone. I reached into my tent to grab a bag of dried fruit to share, passed him some dried banana and ate some too. He signalled for me to place the bag on the ground and we both ate another piece before he grabbed the whole bag, tied the end and put it into his saddlebag. I didn’t care, he had what he wanted and I was just glad he was leaving. He asked me to take a photo of him before he left in a somewhat guilty gesture to compensate for his rudeness. I again shrugged to say “no camera”; he must have thought I was born yesterday.
It’s entertaining to continually see people being, well … people. Regardless of age, race or religion, all sorts can be found. Kindness clearly reigns supreme but occasionally, even on a remote Kyrgyzstan mountain pass, a douchebag can be found.
Life on the road can be incredibly hard, and illness makes it worse. On my way through China to the border with Kyrgyzstan, my body became host to a particularly virulent dose of flu, which got progressively worse. At the border crossing, looking across a desolate mountainous wasteland on the millennia-old Irkeshtam pass, the small buildings all but reduced to rubble twisted in barbed wire, I realised that I was in serious trouble.
I’d been looking forward to crossing the relatively seldom-travelled ‘stans, but my health was deteriorating rapidly and I still had 250km of mountainous terrain to cover before I could get to the nearest city, Osh. I was surrounded by a stunning landscape, the likes of which I’d never seen – rocky desert mountains, stained with layers of red rock shadowed by snow covered peaks. Gasps of awe were disappointingly short lived; all I wanted to do was close my eyes and sleep.
The temperature plummeted as the sun dropped behind a mountain and an icy wind blew through the valley. With no energy to cook I climbed into my warm tent, thinking that surely I would feel better soon.
I didn’t. My health had nowhere near improved but I didn’t want to remain static if I could help it. Breaking up camp in the morning was slow and painful. Each part of the pack-up puzzle required a break in-between. Simply shoving my sleeping gear back into its bag reduced me to a frowning mess, sitting in the sand with my head in my hands. I tried riding; no good. I resigned myself to walk as far as I could, just so I could keep some sort of forward progress. I must have only gone about 3 or 4km for the day before reaching, and passing, the limits of determination. By 2pm, I had been floored yet again. Hidden from the road I set up my little green tent and fell asleep.
I moved in fits and starts over the next couple of days, on a road that wound up and down through incredibly rugged terrain. The asphalt was pretty smooth and at times I was actually making a little ground, but this never lasted long. I felt a bitter disappointment that I wasn’t enjoying what could have been an incredible ride across the country. And then I felt a sharp discomfort rattling through my entire body, my head pounded and I was coughing up vital organs, and knew that I needed to stop.
I negotiated a lift to Osh (“Kyrgyzstan’s most boring city”, according to the enticing tourism slogan I just made up) and spent a fortnight there, trying to recover. Finally, with the visa clock ticking ever onwards and hoping my exhausted body would be able to hold it together, I felt ready to continue my journey.
Of highs and lows
The highs of my journey have, often, been quite literal; I achieved a dream of riding my BMX across the Tibetan plateau, topping out at over 4,700m and camping in -20 degree temperatures. The acute altitude sickness I felt made it hard to eat, so I was running on a deficit of energy, and there’s only so much you can do to keep yourself warm when the ceiling of your tent turns to ice during the night. But looking at the high mountains around me, the vast grassy plains and the road winding through it all, I was on top of the world in more ways than one.
On a BMX, you are resigned to slow progress uphill and treasure every centimetre of the descents. Between Istiravshan and Ayni, Tajikistan, cut into the side of the steep mountainside, an endless downhill channeled me directly into the basin of the Fann Mountains. Grasping the brake lever hard, my hand cramped quickly as I raced down the side of the mountain with great speed. I was fixated on the bumps and dips in the road launching my bike off the ground, or bashing it into large potholes; I had to keep my eyes on the road and off the spectacular scenery around me. Green mountainsides, snowy peaks and red rock, glowing out of the monstrous shadows cast from the dwindling daylight. My favourite part of the day, and immediate satisfaction.
The clouds parted, allowing a full sun to brighten the day. A fast-flowing brown river cut the mountain range in two to form a deep gorge, with sheer cliffs perpetually crumbling onto the narrow road suspended over the moving water. Clefts in the gorge rose into dramatic earthen structures, rocks jutting high into the sky in every direction, layered in various ochre shades. Behind them loomed a backdrop of rolling green mountains, themselves dwarfed by an eternity of snow laden summits. With a road even a BMX can traverse, this was truly a cyclist’s heaven on earth.
But heaven and hell always lie closer than you might think; just when you think everything’s going smoothly it is possible to rise from a camp in the middle of an Uzbekistan desert, only to find your bike has been stolen. I got it back in the end, but man, don’t you hate it when that happens?
Now I’m halfway across Iran – country number ten – and no doubt further by the time you read this, and adventure is not likely to cease anytime soon. What else can I do, besides keep on riding through and beyond the extremes of our tiny, vast planet? The heat, the cold, mountains and deserts, all with the wind rarely on my back.
My mind labours to imagine what could possibly be around the next corner. Usually though, it’s just another corner.
Calum MacKintosh has been riding his BMX around the world since November 2014. You can read more about his journey at rideabmxaroundtheworld.blogspot.com.au
Photography Calum MacKintosh
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