When Paths Cross: A Tribute to Jay and Lauren
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In 2018, Nathan Beriot and Sophie Boyle met and spent several weeks pedaling through Central Asia with Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan, who were tragically killed in a terrorist attack in Tajikistan. When Paths Cross recounts the many experiences they shared along the road and celebrates their spirit. Read it here…
Words and photos by Nathan Beriot and Sophie Boyle (@a_bicyclette_)
We arrived at the border well into the afternoon, later than planned, but we hadn’t wanted to turn down an invitation to join a family in their yurt for bread and tea earlier in the day. A tinge of nostalgia for Kyrgyzstan, the incredible country we were about to leave, was already taking hold in our minds. At the same time, we were equally full of anticipation for the infamously wild Pamir Range of Tajikistan that awaited us. Pedalling from Sary-Tash, the snow-capped mountain chain impressed us, enticing and ominous, inching closer until it loomed directly above us at the Kyrgyz border post.
We stood underneath a large structure, rather like a French motorway toll, which seemed out of place surrounded by mountainous slopes and grassy wilderness. The border guard surveyed us: a motley crew of five foreigners on bicycles loaded every which way with supplies for the weeks ahead. He was used to it. The Pamir Highway is a legendary route for cycle tourists, and many travellers on two wheels of all sorts of nationalities pass through. The border guard pointed to the sky, indicating the rumbling black clouds above us. After exiting Kyrgyzstan, the Tajik entry point is a few kilometres away at the top of a 4,200-metre pass. It’s a gruelling ride on a heavily loaded bicycle at the best of times, let alone at the end of the day in a storm. The guard discouraged us from camping in the no man’s land and suggested we wait to stamp our passports.
Cold and a little defeated, we faffed for a bit and discussed our options. There was a decent shelter metres from the border under an abandoned slanted roof. The wind picked up and snowflakes started flurrying down. We raced to pitch up and unpack. Lauren and Jay’s dome tent just fit under the roof and was big enough for all five of us to clamber inside. We huddled together in our sleeping bags, waiting out the storm in what we decided to nickname the “party palace.”
In June of 2018, Nathan and I were a year and half into our travels by bike and were resting in the small town of Naryn, Kyrgyzstan. A message popped up on the “Cycle Around the World” WhatsApp group. It’s a group composed of hundreds of cycle travellers the world over, where people exchange tips, up-to-date border crossing info, or just where to eventually find treats along the road.
Jay and Lauren were seeking help from the bike travel community. They had been travelling for almost a year through Africa, Europe, and now Central Asia. Lauren’s Therm-a-Rest mattress had finally given up the ghost and they were unable to get a replacement sent out to Kyrgyzstan. Could anyone help? As luck would have it, Romain, a friend of ours from France, would soon be joining us in Osh and would be able to deliver a new mattress.
A couple of weeks later, we met Jay and Lauren at Cafe Brio in the town of Osh. After a month or so of some beautifully wild but tough riding and a basic traveller’s diet topped up with kumys (fermented mare’s milk), the cafe’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, cakes, and excellent coffee were a welcome dose of comfort. And the WiFi worked!
Jay and Lauren were easy to spot when we walked in. Panniers propped up against the table legs, buffs around their necks. We hit it off straight away and put the world to rights every day for over a week. Stories from travels and home often, merging into philosophy and politics. Jay and Lauren were both intellectual, curious, and humble in different ways. They were likeable and easy going. When Romain arrived, we decided to ride on together, heading towards the Pamirs.
We followed the infamous M41 from Osh to Sary-Tash, the start or final stretch of the Pamir Highway, depending on which way you’re heading. It’s hilly with high passes, but all paved and punctuated by villages along the way. Jay listened to Russian podcasts in his headphones to learn the language. Lauren listened to Taylor Swift, who motivated her to pedal the climbs. We had different bike set ups and different rhythms. We mixed it up between riding together, chatting and pointing out eagles circling overhead or a beautiful rock formation, or sometimes we’d ride at different paces and reunite for lunch and to camp. We teased each other mutually, poking fun at them for carrying heavy loads (1kg of flour and sugar, 1L of sunflower oil, and tonnes of dried fruit and chocolate!). That is, until we were treated to delicious cinnamon pancakes for breakfast—far tastier than our bland and soggy porridge oats in boiled water.
As a general rule, when camping out, we aim for discretion. We try to make sure we’re never in anyone’s way, that we leave no trace, and that we set up late and leave early, giving no reason for any sort of confrontation. Of course, in some places where the wilderness is vast, being in somebody’s way isn’t an issue. But we were cycling along a main road punctuated by villages and we didn’t want to encroach on anybody’s property uninvited. On the second night, after a long day on the saddle, we were struggling to find an inconspicuous spot to spend the night. It becomes a little harder to bivouac discreetly when travelling as a group of five people with three tents.
We passed the village of Chiy-Talaa and turned off the road to follow a river upstream. We spotted a house on the cliff top above the river and knew we were potentially in sight since it was still daylight. But fatigue and hunger made us eager to settle in for the night. We’d barely had the time to pitch up and get changed before we noticed a golden Soviet Lada 4×4 making its way over the riverbed rocks towards us. Dread. Were we going to be told to move on?
The car rolled up beside our camp and a whole family climbed out. A man, woman, and two children carrying a basket, a thermos and a komuz, a traditional lute instrument similar to a mandolin. We had been in Kyrgyzstan for nearly two months and had experienced unbelievable hospitality throughout, often being invited into yurts and houses to drink tea or kumys, so perhaps we needn’t have been so wary. But this instance went above and beyond. They had seen us from their house above the river and had immediately gathered up provisions to bring down to us. They had come not to chase us from the land, but to welcome us. They indicated that we shouldn’t drink the salty river water and brought with them a 20L jerry can of fresh water to fill up our bottles, fresh homemade bread and butter, and tea with porcelain mugs.
Still sitting around with the family we overcame the language barrier by pointing and miming, and occasionally using terribly pronounced Russian and local words we’d picked up along the way. Smiles, enthusiastic nods, and sharing food were enough to understand and create a bond.
The daughter started singing traditional Kyrgyz songs whilst strumming on her lute. By now we had attracted a crowd of children. They appeared from nowhere, keeping their distance at first, but eventually the music brought everyone together.
In his blog post “Bike Touring Bingo,” Jay outlined how, “Unpredictability is the defining feature of an adventure.” As bike travellers, we are often drawn to great expanses of wilderness. We rejoice in remoteness and revel at vistas without a soul in sight. But it’s often those souls who we do cross paths with—whether they be fellow travellers or locals—that bring the unpredictability and enrich an experience.
Travelling by bike offers a return to simplicity, of whole days spent finding one’s bearings. As Sylvain Tesson says, “Having a light conversation with nature.” There’s something about being out in open spaces that allows us to feel liberated internally. There’s time to go through all those thoughts in our head. There’s a notion of vulnerability. These qualities allow for so many resonant encounters. You can’t plan for these encounters, but when they happen, they can make an afternoon, a day, or even a trip. Bonds that are shaped by kindness and reciprocity can feel intense and unforgettable even in the knowledge that your paths may never cross again.
Until We Meet Again
A stamp on our passports and we were out of Kyrgyzstan. The road quickly transformed into rocky terrain, and finally a rusty red earth track led us up to the Tajik border post. Impressive sceneries of a vast ochre and silver plateau, crystalline lake, and 7,000-metre snowy mountains stretched before us. The grassy expanses of Kyrgyzstan seemed tame in comparison to this savage, dry wilderness. A descent into Tajikistan, up again to Uy-Buloq Pass, and down to Karakul Lake. A windstorm battered us from the side whilst we were chased by tall whirlwinds that gathered speed across the lake. We were grateful to finally reach the dusty settlement of Karakul.
Homestay Aigerim, a small white rectangular building painted white, was the first guesthouse we came across at the entrance to the village. Inside, a long low table encircled by three walls of cushions was host to groups of travellers relaxing and playing chess and card games.
Aigerim housed around 15 cyclists and a couple of motorcyclists of various nationalities and generations. For some of us it was the start of our adventure through the Pamirs, others coming from the opposite direction were nearing the end and relished telling tales of exhausting riding, barren landscapes, and meagre diets. Kim and Rene, a Dutch couple, Tucker and Della, another American couple, and Aleksandra from Poland were all heading West along the Silk Road like us. Jay, Lauren, Romain, and the two of us shared a room decorated with carpets, sleeping on rugs and fold-away cushioned mattresses on the ground.
Storms rattled through the plateau, and for three days we were hostage to the elements, with no choice but to shelter from the bad weather in the homestay. We rested, read, played games, and ate boiled sweets and potatoes in an herby broth around the table like family. We gossiped, talked about relationships and life plans, and played with the household’s baby daughter. We played guitar and planned our upcoming route, wondering whether we had enough provisions. Jay selflessly shared his vegan chocolate.
We set off from Aigerim on the third morning. Jay and Lauren would be riding the M41 Pamir Highway and the Wakhan Corridor, whereas we had decided to follow a gravel route through the Bartang Valley with Romain. Lauren was sick with the altitude and didn’t feel up to cycling the high pass ahead, so got a lift to the next town. Jay cycled with us until we stopped at the turn off to the Bartang Valley. We opened our old Soviet regional map and checked both routes to see where we would cross paths again. Perhaps in Khorog. Most likely Dushanbe. We lingered. Warm hugs, goodbyes, and see you soons. Eventually, Jay set off toward Ak-Baital Pass. We watched until he turned to a green dot on the horizon.
A Terrorist Attack
Not long after, on July 29th of 2018, Jay and Lauren were killed along with two other cyclists in a terrorist attack. Two other cyclists were injured. Jay, Lauren, Rene, Markus, Marie-Claire, and Kim were on their way to Dushanbe. The attack was widely reported in the media and generated a tumult of ignorance and horror that was readily shared all over the internet. After such a horrific attack we witnessed a second wave of violence through the spreading of hate in mainstream and social media. Ideas of safety became blurred in politics and racism.
In this article, we choose to give space to the spirit of community and the boundless generosity we witnessed together in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. We choose to remember Jay and Lauren not by their untimely deaths but by their insatiable appetites for life and all its nuances. They listened, engaged, respected, and learnt whilst staying true to their strong values. We continue to be inspired by their boundless open mindedness and kindness.
To Jay and Lauren: Bon vent, may the wind carry you. To the people we met along the way, to you, to us. May we continue to reach out to others, open our doors, open our hearts, and open our minds. Ride on.
About Nathan Beriot and Sophie Boyle
Nathan Beriot and Sophie Boyle set off on their bikes from Colombia in 2016, not really knowing where they would end up. They roamed around South America, New Zealand, Nepal, Central Asia, and Europe. Now back in Europe for work and studies, they continue to enjoy a night or few bivouacking or under the stars and get out exploring in their home countries, France and the UK, as much as possible! Find them on Instagram @a_bicyclette_.