The silence spreads over these mountains like I've never experienced before. If I did not put Moby in my headphones, there probably would not be any other sounds. Well, except for someone, Phil probably mumbled in a nearby tent that was so low that his words were imperceptible.
We have stopped for the night, and I have opened a vestibule that gives a glimpse of the brown, jagged face Mountain Peaks, a dusty, rocky plain of nothingness. As always, the sun sinks slowly behind the highest visible mountain, orange and red tones are moving across the sky.
I turn up the volume in the headphones and fall asleep in a light sleep filled with strange dreams and snippets of other people's conversations. When I wake up a few hours later, I'm cold and I have to pee. I put on more clothes. thick cotton sweatpants, fleece hat, camel wool socks, a thick sweatshirt. I walk slowly, cautiously navigating tent piles and bicycles lying on their sides or leaning against each other, holding myself upright.
The glow of cell phones is visible through the light ripstop of some tents, strange, ethereal light that softens and dissipates the green and brown and orange of the fabric, beacons that may be visible from afar, and the gods or passers-by make our location aware. Not that the latter is present here. The former perhaps, depending on what you believe.
We are at the foot of a mountain peak in a shallow valley at about 4,000 meters above sea level, deep in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. A local family shares this valley with us. A sign saying "Fast Food, Yurt Stay" marks the turnoff. There is no McDonald's, but the yurt is really real and ready to rent if you're tired of camping.
There is no real cell service here, at least no data service. We are on the so-called "roof of the world", so high are our heads almost literally in the clouds. The lack of oxygen makes that seem even more.
Here you can call sometimes but not anymore. Still, when I wake up in the morning, I find my fellow travelers on small collapsible maroon armchairs with oatmeal, about a dozen people balancing their cell phones on their lap next to breakfast, one hand holding a spoon, the other flipping on a touch screen and from.
It's July 2018, and I'm on a bike ride from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia to the Iranian border in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. I am with about 30 other cyclists from a number of countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands (after all, it was a cycling trip), Australia and Ireland. We are loosely united by a Canadian-based cycling expedition company with a focus on the "loose" section.
We rarely travel together, each of us driving at our own pace, but together we make a camp every night and stick to the same daily distance plan. The entire trip consists of five and a half months cycling on the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul. The expedition I do takes three months – through Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Most of the time we spend in a country is three weeks.
A journey like this triggers all sorts of hardships, annoyances, and sufferings – things like where to pitch your tent, how to find a private time, and where time is the next kokastopp could be. Keeping in touch with friends and family at home and with each other while crossing some of the most remote landscapes in the world is a daily challenge.
Every five to ten days we have one rest day (one day without cycling) in one City or a village. As a rule, this means electricity and Wi-Fi from the hotel. People then "catch up" on all internet. Many of us charge their electronics with solar panels between closed days. I'm especially happy with my Biolite, which also has a battery for later use. I was able to charge my phone and Garmin (GPS bike computer) every day. When exposed to direct sunlight, my devices reach 100% power within a few hours. Richard, one of my cyclists and a friend, has a battery that can charge his phone four to five times. I also use a dynamo hub on my bike, which generates electricity when pedaling. It is connected to a USB port on my handlebar stem.
The most important mobile phone among all is the iPhone – most people have an 8. The second most popular phone is mainly used by those who are traveling professionally (the guides and staff) or overly often (like me) is the international version of the Samsung Galaxy S8.
One of the best features of the Samsung Galaxy line is that international models have a dual-SIM card slot, which allows you to easily switch from one SIM card to another. (If you purchase your Galaxy from a US carrier or from Samsung USA, you will receive a single SIM version, so you must order from Amazon to receive the international dual SIM card.) With the SIM card manager -App from Samsung, users can set their preferred SIM card for calls, messages and mobile data. You can also set the phone to confirm the SIM card every time you call. I have always turned on dual SIMs so that I can accept a call on the inactive SIM card even during a telephone conversation with the active one.
If you use a dual-SIM phone, you will need to purchase a new local SIM card in each country. While there are usually not too many language barrier issues, there are some pitfalls with this approach. Buying and changing SIM cards every time you change your country can be very annoying, especially if you are only somewhere for a week or two. Depending on where you buy the SIMs, sometimes the process involves paperwork and you need to present your passport.
Opportunistic SIM card traders and money changers hang on land borders. When we cross each other, there are usually high fences, perhaps men with machine guns, a small dark hut where it is possible for you to present papers, and people who sell things they can sell. It is not uncommon for money to change hands quickly. Richard has taken over the negotiations for our group and has been working for a better exchange rate or a discount on several SIMs. Sometimes he decides that the price of the SIM card is too high and waits to buy another card into the country. A 3 GB to 5 GB SIM card usually costs between $ 6 and $ 12.
Replacing SIM cards is easy. Richard is perhaps the greatest of all (except the staff) to stay connected – he spent his days on his iPhone. He keeps his UK SIM card and the SIM slot pin tool in his cell phone pocket. I spend a lot of meals with Richard watching him switch between SIM cards, depending on what he does and whom he needs to contact. This man can change a SIM card faster than anyone else I've ever met.
As an iPhone user, I'm sure Richard was thrilled when the latest versions with dual-SIM capabilities came onto the market, even though they use an eSIM and a physical SIM card. Therefore, you usually have to put your trunk on top leave the eSIM to free the physical SIM slot. Apart from the latest iPhones and Google's Pixel 3 on Android 10, there are not many US phones with dual SIM feature. Like the Galaxy I use, you can usually find a dual-SIM version of most flagship phones if you buy the unlocked or international version of Amazon.
For all those who have not constantly exchanged SIM cards. There were some alternative ways to stay connected. My friend Lino from Spain had a Flexiroam SIM card . For a monthly fee, the Flexiroam SIM card connects to the nearby local cell network so the SIM card does not need to be replaced. Another similar option is Skyroam, a mobile hotspot that uses the local cellular network.
To access, you can purchase monthly or daily plans in various data configurations. The monthly fee for unlimited data to Skyroam is $ 99. They also offer day passes for $ 9. Flexiroam prices depend on which country you are in and how much data and time. They offer a 10-day 24-day option, ranging from $ 10- $ 39. Brunei and Cambodia are priced at $ 39. Most other countries range from 10 to 14 dollars for 10 GB. Egypt is one of the cheapest with $ 6 for 10 GB.
International data rates with your regular US carrier are also an alternative, although they are usually not the cheapest option. T-Mobile is known for its international plans that offer roaming in over 210 countries (one of the highest numbers among network operators) at discounted prices. AT & T (my US mobile service provider) also offers monthly data rates of $ 40 to $ 120.
A Random International Data Roaming Event Occurs in Mongolia and the Russian Border While waiting for the intersection, I get a text from AT & T, who draws my attention to their World Cup promotion for free international roaming in Russia. Our entry into Russia happens to coincide with the 2018 World Cup. Interestingly enough, the promotion remains partially in force in Kazakhstan. I think that's not too surprising, as many people do not know where Kazakhstan starts and ends, let alone that it is a country.
One afternoon in Kyrgyzstan, we are planning to build a warehouse in the yard of a guest house with hole-in-the-ground outbuildings. Richard, by far the strongest cyclist in the group, arrives ahead of everyone else and pays a room for us and a few other cyclists in the four-bed guest house. An inside bed, even just a futon mattress on the floor, is gold on such a trip, especially if it comes with a power outlet and a shower downstairs in the basement.
I'm stretched out on my mattress After showering, I read a science fiction novel on my Kindle. Phil, the owner of a vegetable distribution company in Canada, sits on a mattress to my left. Phil, in his 60s, has one of the driest senses I've ever encountered. He can make me laugh, if I only talk about mutton. At this point, he is the only one who has traveled every kilometer of the journey. He will finish the journey with this title. At the moment he is stretched out, barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt and is texting his girlfriend.
Goran, a compulsive Swede who likes to make a list, shuffles around in his pocket right next to me and reorganizes everything in his pockets like he usually does. Goran finally settles on his mattress. Phil is asleep, his arm stretched over the edge of his blanket, and the phone is still in his hand. We are just waiting for the dinner to be ready.
I broke deep into the dystopian future world of my book when Richard rushes through the door screaming:
"I dropped my phone in the shit!"
"Bek will help me get it out," Richard yells as he leaves the room.
Bek is our local support guide. He is younger, probably in his late 20s, and more interested in talking to the ladies than to lead or support much, but he is useful for rescuing toilet phones.
Phil can not resist watching the action. He gets up, shoves his feet into his flip-flops and goes outside. Goran and I look at each other and shrug, and no one feels compelled to wallow in a stinking, deep hole of literal dung.
About an hour later I hear Richard and Phil coming laughing through the door of the guest house. A few minutes later they are in our room, Richard triumphantly holds up his smartphone.
"It still works!" he says. He explains how he and Bek used a long pole with a spoon at the end to retrieve it.
"That's a deep hole," he says. "The only reason we could even see it," he continues, "was that it was jammed into a pile of … something … and it was lighted when I accidentally brushed the screen with the rod."
He complains about the foul odor emanating from the phone, a smell that, although the phone was working properly, had never quite faded.
The next morning we set off to climb another 500 meters into the mountains. We only have about 30 kilometers to get to the next campsite. Richard, Goran and I stop in a small cafe on the way out of town. The place has decent coffee and is even more desirable – reliable and fast Wi-Fi. Most of the villages and towns we pass through have at least one café with excellent Wi-Fi. They are easy to spot as there are always a few people hanging on their phones near the entrance.
We do not talk to each other, but drink a coffee and "talk" with our phones. We will be out of signal for at least a week when we leave this place as we cross Tajikistan and some of the highest mountain passes in the world.
We all have a few apps on our phones that we use regularly. WhatsApp keeps everyone in touch. Google Translate is another popular app from us. Just download the language you want to translate without Wi-Fi connection. One of Google Translate 'coolest features is to "read" text in a foreign language. With the app camera, you can hold your phone from a menu, and the app automatically translates the words as you move the phone. These features are now also integrated with Google Lens and Google Assistant if you have an Android phone. On the iPhone, you can get it by downloading Google Assistant.
Google is really and really everywhere. They have been able to reproduce pretty much the whole world. Even this remote Kyrgyz village was mapped by Google. We use Google Maps to travel through cities and towns on closed days. Google Maps offers the ability to download directions and maps for offline use. The GPS connection of your smartphone also allows you to view your location on a map when you are not connected to the Internet. You can not navigate if you did not download the card before you went offline. You can, however, see where you are and the roads around you. We even used Booking.com to arrange private rooms for rest days.
For directions and maps, we use a GPS device from Garmin. These work without Wi-Fi or cellular networks and instead connect to satellites. You load a route into your device in advance, then follow it as you pedal (usually a purple line). There was no time when satellite coverage was not available.
Another cyclist-driven tool is the RidewithGPS app ( Android | iOS), which lets you plan and create routes. With RidewithGPS, you can save your routes and transfer them to many different file types compatible with versions of Garmin and other GPS navigation computers. Our guides have mapped our daily itineraries for RidewithGPS. The app works without service on your phone as long as your device has GPS. You can also pair most Garmin versions with mobile phones via Bluetooth.
We continue climbing through the Pamir Mountains and cross the border into Tajikistan Murghab is the only village in the eastern half of the Autonomous Region Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan. At 3,650 meters, it is also the highest in the country. The Pamirs generally have no cell service. The land is largely undeveloped and we go three to five days at a time, without passing through houses and settlements. The day before we arrive in Murghab, our tour guide Andreas tells us that he now hears that the city now has a 3G tower – a big step from their previous edge connection. At this time we were good for seven to ten days unconnected. We all look forward to a rest day in the hotel and a solid service to check with our loved ones.
Richard, Goran and I are excited about 3G to buy Tajik SIM cards. The market is a few rows of these large shipping containers that have been converted into stores, the handy store near the entrance. We can easily buy SIM cards, but as soon as we turn our phones on we come across bad connections.
We return to the mobile phone shop. They say, "Yes, there is a 3G tower that is broken at the moment."
In such times, I realize that the total absence of a connection is better than a weak or spotty one. There is something strangely comforting in this circle, crossed out with a cross that means no service. If there is a weak or fluctuating service, human nature tends to try in vain to load an app or send a photo – creating all sorts of anxiety and frustration if your connection does not let you get anywhere.
We have difficulty with this Edge connection for one and a half days. One of the tasks I'm trying to do is book a better room in Dushanbe. I try for hours in vain. Then I finally realize that I can make an old-fashioned phone call and talk to a manager in the hotel.
On our last night there, we all gather at tables and eat the hotel chicken, which turns out to be over half of us is sick, miraculously sending all our emails and uploading pictures.
The 3G tower is being repaired just in time for our departure.
The day we climb out of the mountains is one of the best days, mainly because I can breathe completely again. Helen, our travel specialist from the UK, calls her "Oxygen Appreciation Day". After this rest day, we continue our drive from the mountains towards Dushanbe and the border with Uzbekistan.
Between the day we leave Murghab and the day we reach Dushanbe, a terrorist attack in Tajikistan kills four cyclists. The attack is about 100 kilometers further on the road from where we are. Because of the lack of cell signals, we hear about the attack after all our friends and families at home have been worried for hours.
After a tense night at the camp, where all the locals came outside to look The tour operator decides that the group will drive to Dushanbe, where we will stay for five days. From there we take the bus to the border with Uzbekistan. Then we start again.
Uzbekistan is hot, much of it is desert. We stop for the night in a hot, overwhelming hotel with air conditioning just in the hallways. Richard, Goron and I buy SIM cards in a shop opposite the hotel. We sleep at night in dormitories with open doors to lure the air conditioning in the hallway into the rooms. Whenever possible, I buy cold plastic bottles of water to sleep on.
After a blur of hot days, which I have searched in vain for shadows and always elusive cold drinks, we set off. Finally we reach Samarkand, a wonderful, big, old city with a lot of history, where Lino's girlfriend in the hotel surprised him. The only thing is: she does not seem to be his only friend. She thinks she does, and post some photos Instagram with the hashtag of the tour, #tdasilkroute. Needless to say, Lino has two fewer friends after the visit.
Do not Miss: The 4 Best VPN Apps for iPhone & Android
Turkmenistan, the last country for me, is more desert and even fewer people. Everything is blocked here, including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. We try to use different VPNs (the VPNs include Open VPN, Hotspot Shield and Express VPN) to mask our location, none of which works consistently. Anyone responsible for the blocked Internet in Turkmenistan is completely up to date. We get a VPN for about five minutes. Hotspot Shield is most successful.
Strangely, Google Voice and Hangouts are not blocked. The best thing I've discovered is that Google Voice allows you to make free phone calls anywhere in the world if you have a US-based phone number. I phone 25 minutes from a hotel room in Turkmenistan.
Another big secret of Ashgabat (capital of Turkmenistan) is one of the restaurants in the mall with excellent Wi-Fi, and the VPNs always seem to work there. We all camp outside for hours. The waitresses love us.
Turkmenistan is by far the most restrictive country we pass through. Our local support tells us that buying a local SIM card in Turkmenistan is illegal. I'm not sure if it's really illegal, but it was a bit complicated to get one.
Richard, Goron and I are in a bodega buying Coke, Peanut Butter and Ice Cream. Richard chats with a local man while Goran and I pay for our stuff. Somehow Richard convinces his new friend to take us to a mobile phone shop. I'm a bit worried, but I'm getting into the backseat of the young man's Toyota with Goron. He drives us to a concrete building whose interior resembles an old bank or an American post office and the salesmen sit behind a wall and bars.
After long discussions in Turkmenistan, he tells us that the ladies will actually sell us three SIM cards as long as we show our passports. I happen to be the only one who has a documentary about me, so I push him through the opening to the woman.
Next we start with a fairly long discussion about how much data we want. I do not remember the number we accept, but I remember the women looking at each other and shrugging and laughing.
Only later in the hotel in the midst of another, quiet VPN fight we realize there was no way to use the amount of data we bought. If the government firewall has blocked all social media and photo sharing sites, there's not much data that you can actually send.
A few days later I fly out of Ashgabat's shiny, new and empty airport. My stay is in Istanbul, where the internet is free and strong again. Turkey is often referred to as the gateway between East and West, and now it feels that way to me.
I can not remember what I do first when I'm back in the countries of the Unblocked Internet. I'll probably open Instagram and find that the feed is loading now. I mean, I do not think so. "Oh hey, there's the internet now, I'll check Instagram." I'm back in the data stream.
I am in airport travel mode, which is a familiar mode for me. Even now, more than half a year later, I am still working on how I feel about my journey. I hate to throw away a cliché, but that experience has literally changed my life, and I still have no words for it.
I have no quick, easy, acceptable answer to what I had. Drive Central Asia for three months. I'm not looking for myself or the meaning of life or something. I run from nothing. I am not trying to overcome a trauma. It's so similar, why I even cycle everywhere – it's just who I am and how I want to live my life.
I think it's often difficult to figure out where you belong and where you do not belong, at least not always for me. The only thing I know for sure is that I do not belong to the same place day after day, month after year. Not me. That's the best explanation I have and just the desire to enjoy the fresh air, silence and sunsets.
This article was created during the individual coverage of gadget hacks about traveling with your smartphone. Take a look at the entire travel series.
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