Dear Ilona

Truly, the Maitian Hostel threw me in front of individuals who were to change the course of the journey I am undertaking. It was at this hostel, a relaxed haven from the armed guards and tanks of Urumqi, China that I met both Gonzalo and Ilona. I joined the former – a hitchhiker famous among his Argentine countrymen and women – the day after we met for six hundred kilometres of thumbing through China’s far northwest. However, my journey with Ilona wasn’t to start so quickly. We agreed to rendezvous in a few weeks time, in a different country and a different region, for a two thousand kilometre bicycle ride.

Ilona and I now rely on the communication glories of the internet. She’s returned to Belgium and I’m in Azerbaijan. Distance is new for us: Until the moment we first met we were, metaphorically, worlds apart. From there it was a sudden transition to close quarters in so many senses of the word. Day and night sharing our thinking, moods, money, food, chores, clothing, moments and a one person tent. Reflecting on our emails, peppered with funny remarks and ideas for our next ride together (Africa?) are to me indications of a resounding success, due in no small way to the efforts we both made to make the most of our time together. Here’s how it started, how it worked, and reflections on why I’m glad I started biking with a girl.

Ilona stomping down the grass for a tent-less sleep after I was grumbling about high grass and spiders.
Ilona stomping down a space for a tent-less sleep to appease my grumblings about high grass and spiders.
Oh, you.
Oh, you.
One of them is uncomfortable. Both of them are loving it.
One of them is uncomfortable. Both of them are loving it.

On An Encounter

I felt nervous in the taxi as it rolled down the dark potholed alley. Nina the Kyrgyz police officer navigated from the front seat on my behalf to the Bishkek address. Ilona materializing outside the gate was the moment it became real for me. I had not faced this degree of commitment to anybody, let alone a relative stranger, for a long time. Separation once underway was unrealistic – we’d be relying on each other, and not just because she carried the tent and I carried the stove. My concern was founded in living up to expectations I imposed on myself. Ilona didn’t concern me. The first vibe had been a good one.

I was compelled to write a note on my iPad immediately after first meeting Ilona in China. Memories can be fluid, subject to bending under subsequent interactions. A written account of my first impression was meant to remedy this. Only in hindsight did I understand that this brief conversation revealed her stance on the most central themes of bicycle travel. Extracted from this account is what immediately endeared me to her.

Sustenance: ‘Her favourite gift from drivers on the road is a Snickers bar, or five.’

Navigation: ‘On her smartphone map of China, she mistook mountain peaks for villages along the way.’

Personal Space: ‘Men in Indonesia and Cambodia asking for sex she says, they’re like children asking for candy. A nuisance, and not much more.’

Hydration: ‘She doesn’t buy water, she relies on finding it or being given it.’

Adventure: ‘You could see her face light up, almost mischeviously, when she spoke of finding good places to hide for the night.’

Sunscreen goddess.
Fixing her rear hub and restraightening the spokes, all by herself (okay, with a little help from Nathan).
Fixing her rear hub and restraightening the spokes, all by herself (okay, with a little help from Nathan).
Sharing our commute.
Sharing our commute.

Many that find themselves in the city of Urumqi are coming or going from Kyrgyzstan by way of overland transportation. I was coming – moving myself west through Xinjiang Province by train and looking to speak to those doing the same. But the few adventurous souls initially joining me at the hostel weren’t on the route I sought. A Chinese girl in town for an exam. A Czech student conducting research for his PhD. Two Norwegians still glowing from their time in Iran. An American on a whirlwind tour, just touched down from Istanbul. Gonzalo, indeed, was traveling to neighbouring Kazakhstan. I hitchhiked with him to the border, returning alone by train. Volumes were learned about writing and holding cardboard signs but nothing about the ‘Stans’ was really discussed. As it were, my initial approach to Ilona was above all a research venture. Another woman by herself, with sights set on Central Asia?

Once in a while I meet a traveller that, upon hearing that I’m cycling, shares with me the same reaction I gave Ilona that morning: ‘Wooow, cool, I would love to try that one day but I don’t know anything about it.’ The difference is that I say ‘you should’ but Ilona said ‘come with me.’ After all, this was how she herself started out on the bicycle in Australia the year previously. The briefest of crossings with an experienced pedaler, a wave on the road, a conversation, an off-the-cuff invitation. For Ilona the bicycle and the gear then came in with the tide. Once committed to the idea it was easy for her to flow with the inertia created by diving into a new adventure and her new companion’s enthusiasm. For me it was the same. All I really had to do was say yes, and let myself be helped and encouraged by her and others around me.

On Togetherness

Patterns were quick to emerge. I cooked, the dry skin on my hands absorbing daily quotas of soot from our stove. Ilona assembled the tent wherever we chose to spend the night – a topic on which she was Chief Advisor, and me pupil. I handled our expenses. She was principle water seeker, but I was principle water collection spokeswoman. Breaking for water or a cookie throughout the day, we’d exchange metrics – between us we had one odometer, and one watch. Our efforts each day lived or died by the schedule we had written together, pencil scrawled in Ilona’s notebook.

We learned where things were packed, strapped, stuffed and wrapped on each other’s bicycles so that we didn’t have to ask as much. She’d use my knife, or hers, to make the stale bread ready for the unrefrigerated meat product I was simultaneously preparing, daily picnics of mundane foodstuffs and breathtaking landscapes. Before my horn fell off we developed a honking system to indicate all good, a stop, or a problem. I held her weary steed upright as she fixed her chain or her pannier. I’d watch and learn as she adjusted parts on my bicycle, too. She who slept beside the door of the tent was accountable for the time at which the day was faced. The other got to remain nestled in a quiet culpability on those cold Central Asian mornings, neither of us to wanting to stir.

Surveying our first campspot in Kyrgyzstan.
Surveying our first campspot in Kyrgyzstan.
Ilona's hiding face.
Ilona’s hiding face.
Sharing. Everything.
Sharing. Everything.

Sometimes she’d sew, and I’d write. More often than not we just sat and talked, or sat and didn’t talk at morning, at lunch, at dinner. Basic needs eclipsing pursuit of hobbies, our energy completely spent.

It was such togetherness. That, in a word, was the definition of cycling with Ilona. I can count on one hand the waking moments that we weren’t in each other’s sights.

Ilona satisfied herself with drinking river and spring water in perpetuity. No occasional reward juice, staring at me from the shelves of the magazin. Coffee sliding into the morning routine was a rarity. There were moments that this frustrated me, and that it frustrated me a lot. More irksome was that I knew I could indulge and she wouldn’t really care. But the fact that she wasn’t having any and didn’t want to have any extras made me force myself into sugar-deprived silence. We were sharing finances down the cent (or local equivalent), our equal som and somoni contributions stuffed together in a change purse. Her discipline towards unessential foods spilled – spills – over into all areas of her life. Ilona, the poster girl for frugality. What I felt really wasn’t about the drinks at all. Confronted with each other’s mannerisms day in day out, this foil served to reveal traits each of us lacked in relation to the other – and it was sometimes uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable, but interesting. Uncomfortable, but inspiring. We learned to relish the contrast each brought to the experience. Above all we learned to exercise compromise and patience. Those silent mornings on the road before Ilona felt was open to talking – I learned to resist forcing the conversation. Me, still starstruck from the steady stream of curious passerby forced Ilona to be patient as my complete inability to brush off any attempt at engagement became glaringly apparent. There was a single occasion that she asked me to please stop answering the pointless questions of passing cars because we were chasing daylight. Here, too, I failed. We hitched a ride one morning over a pass on account of my stomach. I was feeling desperate and disappointed, strongly suspecting that if it was her she’d have toughed it out. We ate that gross canned fish pate for lunch on the side of the road, because we had it, Ilona pointed out when I had conveniently forgotten. There were times we paid for home stays more than she would have wanted. There were also times that we paid less than I would have wanted.

Ilona, river water expert, whether it was the only thing available or not. Here she seeks hydration from a stream after a dry, thirsty morning.
Ilona, river water expert, whether it was the only thing available or not. Here she seeks hydration from a stream after a dry, thirsty morning.
Ilona taught me lessons in thrift I didn't even know I wanted to learn. This picture says it all: Cooking at Warmshowers, in pants she found in an abandoned building in China.
Ilona taught me lessons in thrift I didn’t even know I wanted to learn. This picture says it all: Cooking at a Warmshowers house, in pants she found in an abandoned building in China. What a champ.
We generally agreed that sandwich cookies were a need, not a want, on the Pamir Highway.
We generally agreed that sandwich cookies were a need, not a want, on the Pamir Highway.
At a homestay in a desolate stretch of southern Kyrgyzstan just before our dream came true - two handsome Australians waltzed in for lunch.
At a homestay in a desolate stretch of southern Kyrgyzstan.

There occur spontaneous traveler collusions that end as easily and quickly as they began. The commitment from start to end is absolutely minimal. This too happens with cyclists crossing paths. It had happened to Ilona on a few occasions in her months alone – her ‘cycling man who didn’t let her eat from a bag of chips on the road’ story comes to mind. Neither of us entered the experience with the easy in, easy out approach. I suspected we’d have disagreements. She knew we’d have disagreements – having been through a previous cycling partnership with someone new. Entering the trip with this conscious in thought made the difficulties slight and made them feel slighter still. And you know what else? It made the good times feel even better.

Souvenirs collected became pieces of the other’s philosophies, mutually relatable because they are rooted in a mindset largely shared. When I first met Ilona I doubted we had much in common besides gender – that was part of the appeal. I’ve learned that despite different backgrounds in education, location, work, relationships and friends, we are no more than two souls adrift. We’re unsure about everything and open to almost anything. This bonds us and in this context we were able to relate to each other more than I had could have hoped for. And, that was for me one of the loveliest parts of our time together.

On The Big Picture

I’m going to talk a little about men and women.

The stance Jodi of Legal Nomads takes on discussing travelling as a solo woman is twofold: That the discussion should instead centre on violence against women – not the women who travel – and that she can only travel in the body she’s been given. This resonates with me and I will never be fully qualified to compare my experiences to that of a man. But, it’s something that has come up in my head and in conversations many times, much more so since I transitioned from backpacking to bicycling in April, 2015.

There are many elements to travel: eating, seeing, learning, spending, sleeping. Meeting people is but one, but it’s one that mystifies, terrifies, delights and humbles. Whether stated or not, these inqueries are generally asking what it’s like to travel as a woman in the context of interactions with men along the way. Travelling on a bicycle you meet women, but you meet many more men. They comprise the lion’s share of taxi, truck and car drivers, of gas station attendants, border guards, police and shepards in many places. You are on the road all day. Dudes galore. Here are a few thoughts on my experiences to date. It’s worth stating that with minor exceptions they have been positive.

Recently I met a cycling couple in Azerbaijan and was overcome with the joy of speaking English and trading stories with fellow travellers. And, getting hugs. Robbie and Lucy, they’re the kind of people that can make your surroundings feel like home, even when you’re far from it. They shared advice, stories and encouragement with enthusiasm and humility. One comment in particular stayed with me. As I remarked about the attention recently received from certain men here in Azerbaijan, they assured me that in Georgia and Turkey, Lucy was greeted with not much male attention among those encountered. They were quiet towards Lucy, or largely ignored her. This implied that I could expect the same. I am skeptical.

If my time cycling had commenced with a man it might have been wonderful. It might have even been romantic, it might have not been at all. Notably, it might have resulted in certain responsibilities and interactions being assigned by gender, consciously or not. Ilona and I joined forces with Christoph, a French cyclist, for a few days in Kyrgyzstan. Near midnight one Friday a car full of men came across us and made it clear they wanted to know what was going on. Christoph was the one that left his tent to engage them. Ilona and I voiced no objection as we lay silent and rapt, straining to hear the conversations. I was scared.

My belief held is that in much of the world, women are treated differently when they travel without a male companion. To their (enormous) benefit they are given more chances to engage – the door is wide open for them to meet, connect with, and accept hospitality from both men and women. For those seeking to learn about the world, this is such a gift. When I am asked about travelling alone, I try to bring this up as quickly as possible.

Our cheer squads were numerous.
Our cheer squads were numerous.
Meeting lots of new people gives you practice using your intuition. Drinking homemade vodka with these gentlemen felt as problem-free as the picnic they interrupted us eating.
Meeting lots of new people gives you practice using your intuition and putting a situation into context. Drinking homemade vodka with these gentlemen felt as problem-free and benign as the picnic they interrupted us eating.
This guy turned out to be a creep, but we didn't know it at picture time.
This guy turned out to be a creep, but we didn’t know it at picture time.

I have not yet been joined in my road pursuits by a gentleman, excepting the few days Christoph joined us. From the couples who have commented on the topic, however, I am given the impression that the women half of the cycling pair can sometimes fade into the background whether they want to or not. Meaning at stores, while camping, in houses, on the road – the questions and conversation are more man to man than anything. Of course this is a nuanced topic. Other times women paired or in groups find themselves fully in the limelight, usually for the better but sometimes for the worse.

My perspective is this. Starting out with Ilona was exceptional preparation for cycling alone as a woman, without first being a woman cycling alone. Her stories from pedaling from Indonesia to China by herself were hilarious, amazing, and chilling. Hearing them uncut equipped me with knowledge of both the good and the bad. This was a decisive motivating force in my decision to continue alone.

Putting aside certain pleasures specific to Ilona – her humour, her stubbornness, her stories – there are two main reasons I appreciate having started out this way. The first is that I got to have the best of both worlds. We were there to help and support each other; companionship. Meeting and connecting with local people, as motivating as it can be, is also taxing after a saturation point. Ilona and I were able to share equally the beauty and challenge of communicating in a different language and culture. Seeing how I am now treated by myself has coloured my time with her this way: As a pair of women we experienced a taste of all the same delights and detriments that are encountered alone, but they were watered down, milder. Nothing I have yet heard or experienced alone is new to me, but the frequency and intensity is. In that, cycling with another woman armed me with some practical experience, but left ample surprise and adventure in store for me when we separated.

The second reason is less weighty and more practical. I spent no small amount of my first weeks fearing of or suffering through unhappy nether regions. Men, they are certainly burdened by this too. But having a lady to learn from and laugh with, and share all sorts of private details with was a catharsis like no other.

As Ilona did I too hope to pass the ‘bicycling baton’ one day – to whoever it feels right to do so with – man or woman. That time may come or it may not, but certainly here to stay is the gratitude I feel towards the chance she took on me. See you in Belgium, Ilona.

Showing our shared enthusiasm for the cold river we've just been driven to.
Showing our shared enthusiasm for the cold river we’ve just been driven to.

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