The compulsory van was packed tight with fifteen people and fifteen persons worth of luggage. On top of the van, a teetering mound of goods bought in China swayed along with, I hoped, my bicycle still strapped down. I was sweating, the men rubbing against me were sweating, and the immovable heater was blowing directly at me. But I didn’t mind that. My legs weren’t trembling on a bicycle, and I was finally free of the Chinese police’s bizarre grip.
Somewhere, deep inside the cells of a bat, or a pangolin, or maybe some intermediary source, a virus gestates. Over time the virus spreads in its hosts, evolving, becoming more diverse and more suited for different hosts. Then, on just the right day and in just the right way, an unassuming human comes in contact with one of these animals carrying the virus with just the right mutation. The jump to humans has been made—Murphy’s Law in action.
My wheels violently rotated as I freewheeled down towards the Irkeshtam border crossing. The wind launched me forward at a speed of 78 km/hr (48.5 mi/hr) as the road grew steeper and steeper. I couldn’t help but break the peaceful silence of the freshly snowed mountainscape as I cheerfully whooped into the distance, adrenaline filling my numbing face. Rounding a corner, my elation was halted by a line of semi trucks and squealing brakes. The line followed the road and snaked for miles. Hundreds of trucks occupied the road with no sign of movement. I took advantage of my cycling privilege to weave my way through this mechanical labyrinth. Friendly Kyrgyz drivers with plenty of time on their hands waved me to join their morning cup of tea, but I sped on, eager to reach the end of Central Asia.
The border official handed me back my freshly stamped passport with a smile. “Welcome to Tajikistan!”, he gleamed. I was suspicious. A busy yet efficient border crossing with friendly and welcoming officials? Seems too good to be true. But here I was, rolling effortlessly into Tajikistan. My face lit up with a grin, and I felt relieved. The desert was behind me and the mountains ahead. I needed this change.
After a brief period of getting my sea legs on, the Caspian Sea cargo ship’s doors opened and out rolled a strange mix of overland travelers. Semi-truck drivers from all over Asia poured out alongside Westerners using all forms of transportation to traverse the landscapes to come: car, jeep, motorcycle, and hitchhike. Following closely behind were me and three other cyclists, smirking as we rolled on by the vehicle-drivers who were bound to be stuck at customs inspections for the rest of the day. This smirk was reciprocated as they sped past us hours later, waving a hearty "Good luck!". To them, this next section of the journey was only to take a few days—just a small blip on their maps. To us cyclists, this section would become our lives for the next few weeks.
I stepped outside the airplane door with a slight stumble. My eyes weighed heavy, and a peculiar odor emitted itself from my body as I raised my arms to stretch. My brain, whirring noticeably slower than usual, managed to weakly loft up a plan: immigration, bicycle, SIM card, taxi, sleep.
I slumped down the rickety hostel staircase on an early, dreary morning. My crusty, half asleep eyes were forced open, and I looked up above the reception desk to an improvised sign of nails and duct tape reading: “Wel Come your stay to Kathmandu Madhuban Guest House”.