Corona over landmines

Corona over landmines

It’s an interesting time: the new corona virus – moreover the way the media covered it – shows how easy it is to inform people all over the world about something. Without going into debate about the  correctness of information, nor about the proportion, it shows how quickly ‘they’ can bring a topic to the global table. They being mainly politicians, media, global leaders on health and economics. It makes me wonder: why is it so hard to get other messages across? Why do so many topics never make it to the global table – or worse: disappear underneath the table. In a draw, or simply ‘under the carpet’. Topics like: landmines for example.

How does corona virus affect landmines?

Being involved in humanitarian mine action – currently setting up a landmine victim assistance programme in northern Afghanistan – I experience first-hand how corona virus is affecting landmine action. Just 2 days ago, the borders between Afghanistan and Tajikistan were closed. One way: you can enter Afghanistan, but can’t cross back into Tajikistan. Why? Out of fear that people will come from Iran via Afghanistan to Tajikistan and bring the virus. So … there we are: right at the border in the Pamir region where snow started to melt, giving us the ‘green light’ to get back into gear and start-up operations again after the winter stand down. The area becomes largely inaccessible during the winter months and demining is inevitably put on hold. As soon as possible, the teams are sent back into the field and do their jobs, scanning the ground for landmines and explosives – step by step, putting their lives at risk every single day. Besides land clearance, we started a project to offer help to people who’ve lost their legs, their arms, their eyes, their husbands, their children, and their livestock to explosive encounters in the past. Late last year I came to the area to do a situation analysis, prepare all the necessary documents for the organization and the government. We obtained permission for the project; I returned recently to train local staff for the job. Everything went smooth – until corona came around. The team leaders for demining, mine risk education and victim assistance were all at the Tajik side of the border doing their final preparations when the border closure news came in: just one day before they would go back into the field. They are Afghans, so they could cross over. But all the material and equipment, the cars and ambulances couldn’t return to Tajikistan once we sent them in – and the donor doesn’t allow that. Thus, all operations are suspended until further notice. Meaning: no mine clearance, no education sessions about the risks, and no prostheses anytime soon.

Once again it becomes clear who is holding the strings. The ones who hold the money, and the ones who hold the key of the border gates – altogether it’s the politicians, comfortably sitting behind their desks, far away from conditions on the ground, called ‘reality’ – who decide about life or death, or in this case: decide about the acceptability of risk. Why do ‘they’ accept and allow the risk of death and lifelong suffering due to landmines year after year after year without a blink of the eye, whilst acting so stout-hearted when the world is watching? Why is a topic like corona on the news 24/7, whilst so many other disasters remain uncovered? Are ‘we’ – humanitarians in this case – doing something wrong? What can we learn from the corona-coverage by the international media? Is it necessary for the world-leaders to feel personally ‘threatened’ or directly affected by the topic in order to acknowledge the urgency of it? Once again, I’m not contradicting the importance of contaminating a potentially deadly virus. But the sentiment around it, the fear constantly fed by predominantly ill-founded information surprises me – particularly contrasting with other global emergencies among which landmines are only ‘just’ one example.

Touching the butterfly

Not long after the conversation with one of the colleagues at FSD main office in Tajikistan, I walked into the meeting room where a collection of explosives is on display. That’s right: a collection of explosives is on display. No dummies, no fake ones. Real ones. Found, dismantled and collected by the deminers.

Here I am. Staring at a cupboard filled with anti-tank mines, small rockets, shells, granates and anti-personal mines. I’ve seen them on pictures, many times. I’ve studied their detonation mechanisms and the injuries they impose – so I could better treat the victims and train the local medics. But, in all honesty, I never saw this material in real life. I never touched one, and the hesitation to put my hands on that collection of explosives in front of me is paralysing. There’s nothing to worry about; they’ve been stripped and transported here. Another colleague who introduced me to the office earlier this week, took them from the shelves as if he grabbed a pack of sugar in the supermarket.

It feels counter-intuitive – wrong! – to pick up a butterfly. Yes, a butterfly: a highly explosive anti-infantry landmine, sometimes called a green parrat. Its shell made from plastic, hard to be found by metal detectors. Shaped like a toy – yes, like a toy – to attrackt and trap children to pick it up. Used by the Soviets – massively.

75 grams, enough to destroy a life

Standing here with a butterfly in my hand for the first time, I feel the urge to throw up. Working with mine victims – often heavily mutilated with ripped off limbs, sometimes perforated by fragments – never made me feel this way. When I treat them, a switch is turned in my internal system: I see a human being, a person, a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. I see a life damaged and I know it’s my task to do whatever I can to help restore what is left. But seeing – touching – these explosives triggers a completely different switch. What can you see in them, other than brutal weapons, silently waiting for (mostly) innocent and ignorant by-passers? What can you feel, other than pure anger?

Next time you see a butterfly in the garden, colorfully fluttering in the sunlight, think about this. Just hold on for a minute to realize what kind of world we live in, and be thankful for the safe ground you’re walking on every day.

Picture on the wall

After roughly 2 weeks working for the Swiss deming organization FSD it suddenly hits me. I’ve been working in mine victim assistance before; I’ve been in landmine contaminated areas before; I’ve treated countless persons who’ve lost legs, arms, eyes and their dignity. I know the different types of mines, their use and destroy methods. I’ve witnessed the results of encounters, accidents, incidents among farmers, children, women who were just going to fetch water or firewood. Landmines and unexploded ordnance are no mystery to me. Still, today the intensity of this stuff struck again.

A colleague in military uniform walks into the office where I am working on a victim assistance strategy. Once, twice. He greets me, and I press my hand to my chess to respectfully acknowledge him. He asks where I’m from, in Tajik. I answer in English. He knows where Holland is. Europe. Yes. He draws an imaginary map of Europe, then Central Asia. I explain with hand gestures and roaring sound that I’ve been traveling in all those country with my motorbike. He doesn’t seem to be too surprised. The conversation continues; a few words of Russian that I picked up along the way (coffee, milk, cheese, eggs, fuel, how much, tyre puncture, etc.) aren’t very useful in this setting but the man doesn’t seem to care. He just speaks in a clear, calm voice. He turns to the pictures on the wall – some clear, some faded into orange colors. Pictures of landmines and weapons in all sorts and sizes; pictures of explosions; pictures of people dismantling the explosives and disposing vessels containing chemicals. People dressed up in field-uniform and protective armour. I’ve walked past those pictures several times, but now I have a closer look at them, I recognize some faces: colleagues that I greet in the mornings and evenings when entering and leaving the office.

The man explains to me what’s on the pictures. The three methods used in demining: searching for explosives with dogs, sending out tank-like vehicles to dig out the land, and manual searching/ dismantling. He tells me how the controlled explosion takes place. Who planted the mines, where and when. He writes the numbers and years on the wall with his finger, then moves to the map of Tajikistan and starts to point out all the previous and remaining mine fields. He remembers the years of hostilily between Tajikistan and neighbouring Uzbekistan, which now belong to the past but the the signature of political friendship didn’t swipe away the minefields along the border. He tells me how he was forcely deployed by the army when the Russian emperium was still in place; how the weapons have been stored away for many years in Tajikistan and how the situation in Afghanistan looks less promising. His voice had grown stronger during our conversation, but now becomes softer – hesitant almost – and the silence in between hits like a rock. I don’t know what to say.

He explains to me both the difficulty of those impassible mountains for material and medical attention, as well as the protection from the fighting in more central areas of the country. Then he points again to a picture with rockets, explaining how far they can reach. His gestures and sounds expressing the action in such a precise way that it sends a shivering through my spine. Here in Dushanbe (Tajikistan’s capital) it’s safer than in Amsterdam and it’s not at all my own safety that I’m concerned about. What strikes me is to picture the men and women out there in the field, day by day, scanning the earth centimeter by centimeter, watching every step they take in order to turn home safely that night. Men and women risking their lives every day only just to clear the land and make it a safe place for children to walk to school, for women to collect water and wood, for men to let their cattle graze. My eyes drift of to the statistics: between 2003 and 2017 FSD clearded a rough 50.000 explosives. 50.000 – can you imagine? And that’s only this little piece of the world, only 1 organization.


Why? I wonder. Why do people need to put themselves out there? Only just because humankind came up with the inhuman idea of planting explosives, hiding them underneath the soil, in so-called strategic locations. No way! No way this comes anywhere near humanity – and it makes me reconsider the term humanitarian work. Why do we do this to each other? What kind of world did we create? Just the other day, the Dutch newspaper wrote about the weapon embargo from Holland to Turkey, now they’ve envaded Syria; some other countries followed the example. What? We deliver weapons to Turkey, make a great deal of money with it but as soon as they are used to their purpose – or, as soon as they world becomes aware of it – we stand up and protest! ‘No no no, Turkey, you were not supposed to shoot with the guns that we sold you’ … What? If I buy a glass, am I not supposed to drink out of it?!

Back to the pictures, which are no postcards with smiley faces, sunglasses and look-good filters but a blunt reflection of reality. I thank the man in front of me, not only for his explanation – even though I still don’t speak Tajik – but for his efforts to clear not even his own land but the neighbours’ of this horrible stuff.

A thousand books of self-management and motivational coaches can’t compete with a 10-minutes conversation like I just had. Back to work – back to the statistics of injury occurring after incidents with landmines and other explosives. I’m looking into the injury patterns among children and adults – and differences between men vs women, boys vs girls. Why? Is the question that comes to me once again. Why? Why do these data exist? Why are there enough casualties recorded (knowing that a large proportion remains unrecorded) for scientists to do research on? Why are there thousands and thousands of deaths injured and injuries leading to life-long disabilities? And why are people falling prey to these silent weapons every day?

Expect the unexpected

Expect the unexpected

Life has taken some unexpected turns over the past few months. It already showed me that ‘There’s life after Vladivostok‘: that there’s a place for me to take off my boots and call home – a wonderful little piece of paradise in the Spanish ‘sierra de Peñamayor’. I’ve spent the past few weeks turning a secluded mountain cabin into my home, loving each and every minute of it. But now my bags are packed again…

Returning to the field

As if having a home base after more than 3 years of nomadic life on and off the road wasn’t enough, another unexpected development took place. At the exact moment when I realized that I reached the point of travel saturation (at least for a little while) a job opportunity came up. Not just a job but a great challenge, seamlessly fitting with my previous work experience and studies: I was offered and took on the opportunity to set up a landmine victim assistance program for a Swiss demining organization (FSD). First of all in one of the projects in Afghanistan, along the southern Tajik border.

Little did I know

Only a few months ago I drove my motorbike all the way along the Tajik-Afghan border, being both amazed by the natural beauty and intrigued by the remoteness of ‘the other side’. So close by, yet so inaccessible with the Panj river distinguishing one country from the other, and political situations determining the differences in life for people on both sides of the water. Little did I know, that this would be my next workplace! The Afghan Darwaz area is extremely secluded: the mountain range blocking almost all movement to and from central Afghanistan on one side, while large amounts of landmines remaining from Soviet times restricting mobility on the other side. FSD has been working for years to clear the land and restore the already scarce life opportunities for the people living in the area. But there have been many landmine accidents in the past – killing our severely injuring men, women, boys, girls and their livestock – and until the last explosives are found and destroyed, they will remain a daily threat. My task now is to investigate the needs of the existing and possible future landmine victims, and trying anything possible to facilitate restoring a life in dignity: ensuring availability of and access to rehabilitation services, prostheses and mobility devices; exploring livelihood possibilities; enabling children to go to school. Victim assistance is not an easy job, and especially in remote areas like the Badahkshan region there’ll be great obstacles to tackle. I know there’s only so little I can do – but it’s something. It’s my way of feeding back into the cycle of humanity – from which I received so much throughout the years of traveling. I’ll be working alongside people that deserve the greatest respect of all: demining teams who clearing the land step by step, bit by bit, providing ground to live life again. Ready for it – let’s go!


There’s life after Vladivostok

There’s life after Vladivostok

Be afraid and do it anyway‘ – it’s been on my Facebook page for a while. Not in any sense was I afraid of humans, animals, accidents, or anything else really. The only thing that frightened me big time was: reaching Vladivostok. Countless people asked me the ‘what if … ?’ questions: what if you get in trouble, get lost, get an accident, get robbed, raped, killed three times in a row and whatever else that’s highly unlikely to happen in my perception.

But I too had one ‘what if …?’ : what if I indeed reach Vladivostok … then what?

It’s been in my mind since years and years! Anyone who knows me a little, has heard me saying ‘I want to go to Vladivostok’.

What if I’ve been there and done that? Then what?

But I did it – despite my fear. Now there’s life before, and life after Vladivostok: there’s a great change coming up!

Coast to coast … to coast

Riding my motorbike from Vlissingen in Holland, to Vladivostok in Russia – from coast to coast – that was the idea. And nothing more than that: just an idea. In fact I just wanted to travel and live on my motorbike for as long as it’d feel right. Where and how and when were questions I refused to answer; I was traveling free and independent – from others and from a plan. ‘Whenever I come across a place where I want to stay, I’ll stay’ was my answer when people asked me how long I intended to continue.

That place – a little piece of paradise – indeed crossed my path, rather unexpected.

To cut a long story short: although Vladivostok has never been a final destination, it turned out to be a turning point. My journey will continue for approximately another 15.000 kilometers: coast to coast … to coast indeed. The Asturian coast in Northern Spain is where I’m headed next. A beautiful half hour’ drive from the Cantabrian Sea (Gulf of Biscay) up in mountains, there’s a secluded off-grid mountain cabin waiting for me (and Harry) to come home.

Almost exactly on the day that I’m turning my compass in Vladivostok – heading west instead of east from now on – I’d become the lucky owner of this pure and peaceful place in the middle of a protected nature area Sierra de Penamayor. It offers me a home base but doesn’t take away my freedom. I can live my life as I’ve always pictured it: living off my own land as much as possible, following the rhythm of nature; appreciating and taking care of the precious surroundings. This place doesn’t put me on a mortgage chain which allows me to come and go as I like – and so do others who wish to escape the hectic and pressure of nowadays’ society.

A great big THANKS to my brother Abbe for his logistic support getting it all organised!

So yes: I found Vladivostok. The city sign – with my sticker on it – may be here, but ‘my’ Vladivostok is where few of us expected it to be!

Motorbike Meditation in Siberia

Motorbike Meditation in Siberia

I heard the last 4000 km would be boring: the stretch between Baikal Lake and the end of the continent would require some stoic perseverance until reaching Vladivostok. I can confirm: it does. The road is long and monotonous. Nothing to do, nothing to see. Nothing but bugs and birch trees. Nothing to keep your mind occupied other than your own thoughts. Until there’s nothing left to think of. Then there’s only the continuous sound of the motorbike. 

Bugger off!

Vast stretches of nothing; that’s what it’s all about. When I crossed Siberia it was hot, humid. The bugs were absolutely insane. As soon as I stopped for a pee-or-tea break, they attacked me as if there was no tomorrow. Unimpeded by the heavy duty fabrics of a motorbike suit, they were dedicated to get what they wanted: my blood! Only to breed on – to reproduce and have more of these aggressive creatures. Arms, legs, belly and back were not enough. They went for my face, as if finding the most uncomfortable places would be their ultimate challenge: ears, nose, lips, neck. Crazy!

First milestone: Irkutsk

Since I didn’t get a visa for Mongolia in Almaty, my radar was set to Irkutsk where I’d have a second chance. Leaving the Altai mountains for a later moment, I went straight for the big city. Harry was fitted with a new chain and sprockets: ending the increasingly disturbing sound of the last while.

Max, a local mechanic with great skills and a contagious smile, ensured that everything was back in order before heading back into the vast stretches of nothingness.

Coincidentally the Silk Way Rally participants were gathering in Irkutsk for the start of their 10-days rally raid contest crossing Russia, Mongolia and China, so I spontaneously decided to check out this world of big-boys-with-expensive-toys. The Yamaha Factory Team played their game well, but despite their attempt I’m staying loyal to my Honda. While I was pushing my 250 CC bike over the hills, some of the participants showed me their slightly advanced horse powers.

From flood to fire

A beautiful night at Lake Baikal and an unexpected delay in Tayshet due to the flooded areas around Tulun, before I’m speeding up eastwards. Heading deeper into Siberia, civilization becomes scarce. Villages are not much more than a couple of wooden huts rather than houses; gas stations become pragmatic fuel-up-and-move-on places … no more ice creams stops!

One evening, when I’m about to finish and call it a day, a strange cloud is covering the sky. The sunlight fades in a typical way; a thick smoke makes me cough. When I look back it becomes clear: there’s a huge wildfire going on. How fast will this spread? Will they get it under control? Better to move on another hour or so, just to be sure.

Lake Baikal

Heading east

Jumping the hour every few days makes me realize that I’m steadily heading east now. Vladivostok … it has been resonating in my mind for years and years. Somehow it was always there – more like the whispering of an exotic sound rather than a plan – since I saw that name in the title of a book somewhere during childhood. I can’t imagine how often my finger followed the coast-to-coast line on the world map: Vlissingen to Vladivostok. Now I’m just this one last stretch away from actually being there – with my motorbike – alone. I zoom out as far as possible on my GPS, showing me as a motorbike-figure on the map; trying to visualize me being here … it’s hard to grasp! 

My rear tire is pretty much worn down, so I ordered a new Heidenau K60 from Moscow to Ussuriysk, 100 kilometers before Vladivostok. Unfortunately the transportation didn’t go according to plan but I found a fitting Shinko at the Nika Moto shop, thanks to the great service of Japanscooter. A quick change of tires and I’m all set to roll into Vladivostok on fresh new rubber. 

Reaching Vladivostok is … unreal

I expected the ‘ok, now what?’ feeling, and was a bit surprised by the emotional impact of it. I have to tell myself a couple of times: ‘I am in Vladivostok!’ … ‘I drove my bike from Vlissingen all the way here – alone’. And I’m laughing by the thought of telling this story one day in the elderly home … perhaps admitting it was a crazy adventure.

In town I meet up with 5 Brazilians that I met a few days before. It’s great to see them back and to be welcomed in a authentically warm way. Samuel, an Israeli motorbike traveler whom I met in Kyrgyzstan joins the club and a day later I meet with Lien and Ab from Belgium and Holland, who will take the ferry to South Korea. Wow – a lot of travelers energy coming together! After everyone goes different paths again, Vladivostok disappears in thick mist: the perfect opportunity to take some time off, do some maintenance on the bike and plan the next stage.

When disaster hits

When disaster hits

Saturday afternoon, it’s warm. Hot. It hasn’t been raining for quite a while – at least not where I was. A quick glance at the headlines online: floodings in Siberia. Oh, that’s where I am. Well… Siberia is huge and it’s sizzling hot so I don’t even take the time to look up the mentioned towns and settlements – I continue my ride. Since a few days I’m heading east on the Transsiberian Highway; I’m hoping to reach Irkutsk in a few days.

About 15 minutes back on the road, and there’s water. A lot of water. An unusual, whole lot of water! Just like some others I stop to take a look, when I sense this is not normal. Only then the article in the news comes back to mind … can’t be here, right? It’s bloody hot and has been like that for as long as I can remember (that is: at least a few days). So I continue.

More water. More people. More going on. The situation turns hectic. Rubber boats are being loaded with water and cat food; then I see the flooded houses right in front of me in the distance. No way … It is here. People tell me the road is closed, but there’s traffic coming from the other direction so I decide to drive a few kilometers further to investigate and make a plan. Tayshet, a mid-size town has a guest house recommended by other overland travelers. Igor welcomes me in front of the gate; there’s a Dutch man but he’s leaving soon to hop back on the Transsiberian train. Maps on the table – where’s the affected area? Turns out that we’re in the middle of it. The road to Irkutst closed; about 5 deaths and thousands affected; more flooding to be expected. I’m glad to have found a safe and comfortable haven to wait and see how the situation develops; I can even enjoy a wonderful Banya (Russian sauna) in the backyard to relax from the previous heavy days.

Only the next morning, when the seriousness of the situation becomes clear with online updates and live videos, I realize how lucky I have been. I’ve been camping, as usual, wherever I decided it was enough for the day … just somewhere in the woods, in a high-grass field, behind a hill … as long as I wasn’t seen by others. What if I had continued according to plan the day before, and not had stopped like I did? I would have been exactly here, where the water level raised approximately 4 meters overnight, sweeping away entire villages… I would have been taken by surprise and ended of in who-knows-what situation. Lucky me. Once again. Yet another confirmation not to push it any further if, for whatever reason, I feel like I shouldn’t.

Igor communicates through the day with other people being stuck where the road is blocked; his wife Lena spoils me with great homemade Siberian food. I use the opportunity to sort out some logistics for the stretches ahead: organizing maintenance and replacement parts for Harry and calling in to my CRF-lifeline-support Peter Scheltens – world traveler and owner of Bartang – asking his advice about a small issue on my bike. And of course, to finally update the website again, which was too long ago.

I couldn’t have wished for a better place to sit out this disaster – not for me, but for the tens of thousands of people affected by it. My trip is just a trip and will continue sooner or later; their properties and in some cases their lives have been destroyed. It’s been a while since I was in disaster areas, and I didn’t expect it to come back to me this way. Luckily I know a little bit about what happens next – about the risks that are luring around the corner after emergencies like this – so I’ll take my precautions. Plenty of water, food, fuel to get through, if it seems reasonable in the first place. If not, there’s probably another plan for me!

My next ‘Wild Camping’ talk will surely carry another warning message Lesson learnt, blessings counted!

Thank you Igor and Lena, for providing a homely getaway these days!

Bikers tools at the Animal Market

Plenty of useful stuff at the famous Animal Market in Karakol (Kyrgyzstan)!

Heavy duty manicure tools – rough biker hands could use some trimming …

A decent brush to untangle the hair after plenty of helmet-time

And some more do-it-yourself-tools … when the dentist just isn’t there when you need ’em
When Vodka is cheaper than coffee

When Vodka is cheaper than coffee

When riding a motorbike, assume that anyone on the road tries to kill you‘ – a good friend’s advice crossed in mind in Kyrgyzstan more then anywhere else before. Kyrgyz are the worst drivers ever – in my experience. That is, riding cars and trucks. Riding their horses is a very different story: it looks smooth, controlled, passionate. Men being drunk around the clock might have something to do with their performance on the road … that again, could be related to a bottle of vodka being cheaper than a cup of coffee. Never would I have thought that this central Asian country, which I imagined to be nature-pure, would become the first one where my personal boundaries were put to the test. My respect for other cultures is great, and I always keep in mind that I’m a guest, a visitor, a stranger – wherever I go. But when men almost drive me from the road, down the hill, start pushing and pulling my bike, yelling to me like crazy, disgusting me with their alcohol smelling breath when they come just a bit too close, just because they want to take a picture of me – there is a limit to my kindness.

Yes, Kyrgyzstan has beautiful – picture perfect– landscapes: green hills, snow-peaked mountains in the background, powerful horses and picturesque yurts, children in colorful clothes. But giving it a closer look, you’ll see many of those yurts being made from or covered by plastic sheets, instead of natural textiles. Children don’t only hold up their hands to greet you, but also to ask for money.

With the recently eased visa regulations, Kyrgyzstan is expected to become the place-to-be for lovers of the great outdoors. I can see why, but I regret that exactly that is already ruining the authentic beauty of the country.

Of course, I also had nice encounters! For example 4-5 women in a small road-side restaurant, looking at me and talking about me among each other. They asked about my age – got confused by me putting some fingers in the air, then imaginary writing them down on the table. If they could see my passport … no problem. Then one of the women comes to stay next to me, gesturing: you and me, where are the same age. She smiles, and I smile too. Next question: how many children I have. None (I’m still smiling). Her face turns serious. None? None. Zero? Zero. Really? Really, yes I’m absolutely sure. She has 5… I have a motorbike, I try to make up for the disapproval, but it doesn’t seem to count. The differences in life choices are not always well understood nor appreciated, yet I know that they have at least something else to talk about for the afternoon.

While women usually point out the need for offspring, men spontaneously invite me to sleep with them. The security guard at the bank, the police officer, the shop owner, the gas station attendant… a kind but firm ‘no’ from my side is usually accepted without further hassle. But I know other female travelers face more persistent (read: immodest) guys; hearing their experiences makes me more aware of my personal safety as well. That alone, shouldn’t even be necessary, should it? Why can’t people simply respect each other, and their personal boundaries? So far I haven’t felt unsafe as a solo female traveler at all, but (totally unexpected) some men in Kyrgyzstan were pushing me towards that point. A shame, and hopefully just bad luck.

Back to the beauty of the country. When I was there in June, there was still a lot of rain – snow and hail at higher altitudes – but even that made up for some impressive scenery.

Horses being a center point in society, the Kyrgyz people truly show how to handle them. When I’m taking a plunge in Karakol lake, one young rider shows off with his horse: he steers the animal along the shore, picking up speed as they come closer to me. Water splashing up in the sunlight, the horse fully focused and responding to the rider’s subtle spurs. Man and horse move together almost as being one; smoothly, in sync and like an ongoing energetic explosion. Wow! To witness even only that would be reason enough to visit Kyrgyzstan. They disappear up the hill, and I turn back to my bath: an enormous lake, crystal clear water, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Yes, picture perfect.

Roadworks ahead – next 830 km

Roadworks ahead – next 830 km

There’s little in life that I wouldn’t have done, if I’d known the conditions in advance. But the road going north from Almaty to the Russian border is on the list. 830 km roadworks, dusty detours, potholes and bumpy bastards!

Just 20 km before Öskemen in northern Kazachstan, almost at the end of the seemingly endless road, I make a last pee break and notice my indicator light melted away. Somehow the rear of my bike sank about 5 cm, causing the luggage rack to touch the exhaust pipe – luckily no hole in it yet. And oh shit… my toolbox came down as well. Just a few days ago I attached an additional strap, which prevented me from losing all my tools. Those little coincidences saving my … tools 🙂 I put everything back together, head to the first town, look for some shadow to properly investigate what’s been going on. Then I become nervous… Did the suspension give up and let the rear of my bike sink down? No kidding… After all those kilometers off road on the TET, back-country detours, Pamir, Wakhan, and Kyrgyz roads it gave up on me after this bumpy-grumpy road in Kazachstan? I always considered the Hyperpro suspension to the best modification I did to my bike… It can’t let me (well, Harry) down now – right? In a rarely bad mood I look for a place to stay. It’s hot, I’m annoyed and worried that I’ll be stuck here waiting to get my suspension replaced – not the best moment for the police officer to put on sirens and alarm signals flagging me down for whatever reason. No way! My not-amused expression and repeatedly stating ‘sorry, I don’t understand ‘ makes him give up his attempt to point out my disobedience rather quickly. He made one ‘phone call’ to his superior, then let me go. Skip the crap; I’ve got more important things on my mind right now. One sleepless night until I find the guts to go and explore, finding out what’s been going on.

Never would I have imagined to be so happy to find the rear-frame of my bike broken. What a relief! Both tubes carrying the tail had given up: two ‘nice and clean fractures’ without any internal collateral damage. Yes! This is it! NOT the suspension! Hyperpro rocks – still – and Harry will soon be fine again. Sitting out the Sunday, I found some excellent craftsmen at Elite Motors in town. They did an awesome job welding and reinforcing Harry’s rear part, and reattaching the toolbox. The best of it all: they actually accepted me helping dismantle and mount things back together. No, that’s not obvious! It wouldn’t be the first time for me to be expected to NOT touch my own bike – probably just because I’m a woman and you know… bikes are no women business. Not this time! Maybe it’s because Harry starts to show that I’m actually using him… that I live on and with the bike fulltime. Maybe it’s the collection of country -flags- stickers on the front that’s revealing our little detour together?

Whatever the reason may be, it was a morning well spent at the workshop.

Thanks guys, for the great craftsmanship!

Tomorrow I’ll move on to the Russian border, and from there to Ulan-Ude for a second attempt to obtain a visa for Mongolia. Almaty wasn’t successful; the consul on holiday and nobody seemed to know when he’d be back at the consulate. The kind officer who answered my questions but kept the gate closed, understood my disappointment. It was the first time I heard an official saying: ‘yeah, it’s pretty fucked up’… I could hardly keep my face straight. At least I left the consulate with a smile 😉

Nothing and camels in Chevrolet country

Nothing and camels in Chevrolet country

The road was long. Hot. Straight. Deserted. And worth it.

The 2000 kilometers stretching between Astrakhan (Russia) and Samarkand (Uzbekistan), through Kazachstan and along the Caspian Sea were exactly that what I needed: nothing. Hours and hours, days of nothing. No people, no interesting sights, no thrilling experiences. Just nothing. After all the unsettling events over the past months, I was well up for some nothing. To digest, to switch back to traveling, to pick up my life again where I left it.

I left Harry behind in Russia with rain, wind and below-zero-temperatures; upon my return spring had arrived. The last riding days through Russian Dagestan and Chechnya had taken their toll – I needed to replace brake pads and give him a thorough cleaning once again. Waiting for a friend to arrive and join me through Kazachstan and Uzbekistan, I started off slowly.

The first night camping was a special one. As always. From my bed under the trees along the Wolga river, I watched the camp fire fade away through the rear wheel of my motorbike… What else could I wish for?

Leaving Russia for Kazachstan was like taking a deep breath of fresh air. – With the men appearing aggressive and the women arrogant (although the hand kiss from the lady where Harry spent a few weeks made up for a couple of unappealing encounters), Russia wasn’t my favorite country. In addition: very expensive. As soon as I crossed the border, the world was full of friendly, smiling faces again, and of thumbs-up out of the windows of cars passing by. 

The Russian temporary import paper (TIP) for the bike is accepted in Kazachstan, speeding up the border crossing. The first 300 km to Atyrau however, are a different story. Its like riding a big Emmentaler cheese: navigating between potholes, while avoiding clashes with cars and trucks abruptly changing direction attempting to save their cars’ suspension. Temperatures started to rise until 35 degrees, forcing me to reconsider my water intake and carriage. I’m playing cat and mouse with Peter, who’s trying to catch up with me from Austria but it’s taking too long for me to sit around and wait. So I drive slowly ahead, and he speeds up until we meet in Beyneu. By that time, I’ve come across a vast amount of camels, horses and … nothing. Plain, barren landscape as far as the eye can reach – not a single tree within a few hundred kilometers – but an increasing number of oil and gas drilling stations. I have to continue driving until just before sunset else it’s way too hot, then set up camp in the absolute middle of nowhere and be sparingly with the water I need to wash myself. Yes, it’s important to spend water on personal hygiene, when living like this for an extended periode of time. The cleaner I jump into my sleeping bag, the longer I can procrastinate washing it; in addition it decreases the number of mosquitoes nibbling on me. And, not less important, this brief refreshment at the end of the day mentally cleanses as well. The same goes for cooking: I try to cook a decent meal every day, regardless the extra effort and weight of carrying food. It’s a priority. There’s still a long way to go, and I’d like to achieve it in good health. The sun sets quickly. Hitting the ground in the middle of a deserted land, gazing at the immensely starred sky at night, is as humbling an experience as empowering. The breeze on my skin in the morning, before the heat kicks in, is a wonderful feeling.

In Beyneu, just before entering Uzbekistan, I wait another day for Peter and use the time to adjust some minor things on my luggage. Upon his arrival we change the oil on his bike, and prepare for joint take off in the morning.

Our bikes are thoroughly checked at the the Kazach-Uzbek-border, more out of curiosity than for security reasons; after the usual paperwork and insurance hurdle we’re good to go. Into Qaraqalpakstan, where 2 full days of long sweaty hours driving (we’re almost hitting 40 degrees in the shadow now) bring us to the first city: Nukus. Seeing back an Uzbek course mate after 8 years put a big smile on my face. Alpamis provides us great background information about his country and we share a karaoke-dinner together with his lovely family. Chevrolet holds a monopoly position in the car industry – since he told me that, indeed I saw hardly see any other car than Chevrolet. The (few) different models represent the differences in social status. Off course there are still some Sovjet-times-relics like Lada’s, but other cars require a 100% import taks. Another remarkable thing is the explosion of new neighborhoods being built. With the weak currency (1 euro = 10.000 Som), banks are willing to lend mortgages. People shop on instant loans: one call to the bank is enough for a purchase you can’t afford … many people are living on borrowed money while jobs are not widely available and not well paid … Since the current president was installed, many positive changes are noticeable, mostly improving political transparency. Uzbekistan is changing; it’s opening up. For travelers from several countries it’s a great advantage not needing a visa anymore (since early 2019).

Passing by Bukhara and Samarkand, 2 cities in the southeast, finally brings me to the realization that I’m actually on the Silk Road. Impressed like a little girl, I walk around the madrases as if I’d stepped into a fairy tale book. Everywhere I look there’s just one word in my mind: wow. Wow, wow, wow! The massive yet subtle buildings, beautiful ornaments, and the daily life that seems to take place around the historical and cultural monuments.

After an extensive chain cleaning session we are too late to make it to Samarkand and decide to set up camp in a field along the road. Within minutes, we’re discovered by a boy, who invites us to his house. A dynamic evening with children playing around, men and women coming and going, food being brought to the table and eaten bit by bit; plates are shared and tea cups endlessly refilled. A lovely time we had.

Women are cutting off the leafs from collected mulberry branches; they are then placed in a room. ‘What’s there?’ I ask. One of the women takes me inside … an enormous number of silkworms spread out over mulberry branches all around the large room. The air is damp; you can hear them eating. Wow, once again! After breakfast we saddle up one last great picture arises: two of the boys reach out to me with a cheeky smile on their beautiful faces, both holding a rose in their hand for me. I thank them by putting my right hand to the left side of my chest, and place the flowers at my handle bar.

Thank you for taking us in and be part of your family for a little while!

Time constraints of my temporary companion required me to skip visiting a lot of interesting places. But the expected highlights of my journey – Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia are just around the corner now. Funny enough a fellow traveler whom I met a few times during his preparation phase last winter heard from 2 Germans that I’d spoken to on the road in Kazachstan, that I was making my way down to Samarkand where he just arrived before me. And so we met up, had a nice lunch together, and concluded once more: what a small world this is! Carlo is ridingforhappiness from Rome to Bhutan, on his Royal Enfield. Great to meet him ‘in the field’ – who knows we’ll be crossing roads again in Tajikistan?!

Finding refuge with an Azeri ping pong champion

Finding refuge with an Azeri ping pong champion

It was late, it was cold, it started to rain, that night in Azerbaijan. I’d been driving a lot, and was tired. I couldn’t find a decent place to spend the night. Too mountainous, too little shelter from the wind. It was getting dark – I ran out of options. But there was a little group of young men hanging out on the street, so I asked if there was a hotel, pension, whatever would do for a night. No, nothing. 60 km further – maybe. Buying time to think, I put on my rain gear when one guy tells me I should follow him in his car. He guides me to a dodgy building and invites me to stay at his place. I’m not sure. But I need to decide – one way or another. I think I can trust him, but Harry being out on the street doesn’t make me feel good about it. He makes a quick phone call and a second car arrives. Another guy. And a child in the back, which adds a plus to the situation. The men are cousins and I should follow them. Where to? I have no idea. Soon we arrive at a big house, where they are already awaiting us. I’m welcomed by the parents of the inviting man; toys and a laundry basket on the stairs make me feel completely at ease now.

Within no-time the table is filled with sweets, bread and tea. Cousins and their wives appear from I don’t know where; children are standing in front of me – staring and pointing at whatever I brought inside with me. We’re communicating with a few words in a shared language, Google translate, hands, feet and smiles. Phone calls are made to spread the news about a stranger on a motorbike whom they provided refuge. After the obvious family, country, spoken languages, number of brothers and sisters questions, a not-so-common one arises: if I can play ping-pong. Yes I can. We’re moving upstairs – everyone. A ping pong table in a big room. Yeah – I like playing table tennis, and I love being allowed to join in on an activity rather than always being seated and treated like a queen by hosts. They’re fairly good players and fanatical even more so. Counting in a mix of languages, the family championship evolves. Grandpa can’t stand watching his son – who drank a vodka or two already – losing. And so he takes over, as soon as he gets the chance. The atmosphere is relaxed, enjoyable. The women are chatting with the youngest ones being rocked in their arms or laps; the other kids are chasing each other in between collecting the ping pong balls for the players. Nice – really nice to be here.

Meanwhile the parental bed is being prepared for me; father sleeps on the couch and mother moves in with the daughter-in-law next door. In the morning they ask me to stay another day. We’re driving up the mountain by car, because there’s still too much snow on the road. Father and 2 sons take the chance of this little outing – we’re ending up at a local amusement area where first of all we eat. Then, bowling’s on the program. Grandpa and I battle for the bowling champion title, while both brothers play table tennis again. Upon return home, the neighbor’s boy asks me to play chess. It’s been ages, but I try to remember all the rules. He’s not shy to correct me when I make a false move – nor to whip me off the board on the first possible occasion. I thank him for the opportunity to play with Azerbaijan’s chess master-to-be and he shines with pride.

I am very thankful for this experience of being invited once again into the home of people who didn’t know me at all but trusted me like I trusted them.

Taking a beating

If someone hits you in the face, show your other cheek and prepare for another beating. It’s a proverb that I got to understand over the last few months. My father passed away early January, and before I could even catch my breath, an uncle whom I regarded as an ‘inspirational father’ to me, left this world. Only one week after his own brother. Although our contact had sadly cooled off over the recent years, he has been greatly influential for how I live my life today. He was a free soul – the wild one in the family. During my childhood we spent unforgettable times with him and his partner who lived in France. There I learned where scorpions hide … there the seeds were planted to live… to experience the freedom to sleep under the stars – to bath in the river – to appreciate the taste of good ice cream. There I rode pillion on a motorbike for the first time… wearing swimming pants and flip flops. I still love that combination 🙂

2 bruised cheeks! But life decided that wasn’t enough.

3 months after closing my father’s coffin, I found myself closing the next one – side by side with both my brothers, my sister and mother. My stepfather passed away as 4th in a row – all within 3 months. Leo was his name, which fitted him much better than ‘stepfather’. He was a character… Use your imagination – be creative – explore the world around you and afar – be happy with little – appreciate the small things in life – see opportunities in everything – play! – be who you are, regardless of what others may think, no matter how crazy it may seem …

Leo put all this and much more into the chart that symbolizes our family… And to which I denied him putting in his jacket, when he first joined us walking in the forest – I was only 4 years old. I wasn’t immediately accepting this stranger into our home – but I can’t put in words how grateful I am today that he persisted and stayed!

He passed away a few hours before I arrived in Holland. I would have wanted to thank him one last time for his existence, but it was too late. The only thing left for me to do is to honor him by living my dream: travel along the Silk Road –  which he was deeply knowledgeable about, but never traveled himself. Leo followed me on the map, day by day. Not anymore… But he’ll be guiding me on the back of my bike: by means of the luggage he provided me in life.

All these events caused me being more determined than ever before, to continue this journey – not only this trip.

We don’t live only once, as some might say.

We die only once – but we live every day.

Forever Famous

Published in Dutch motorbike magazine Promotor

Sorry, only available in Dutch – but the pictures amazingly stand out, don’t you think?!

April 2019 edition: go and get it, before it sells out 😉