Horror end to trip of a lifetime
JAY Austin had worked in the same mundane office job for seven years when he decided there was more to life than password changes, teleconferences and timesheets.
His partner Lauren Geoghegan felt the same way, so the pair dropped everything in pursuit of a worldwide adventure in July 2017 - but it would eventually lead to them being horrifically killed for being "unbelievers".
The well-travelled couple, both 29, kept a detailed blog and Instagram posts which revealed an incredible trip reaffirming their faith in humanity and seeing them reach some of the world's most untouched paradises.
The in-depth online accounts show there were moments of tenderness, euphoric highs and difficulties for the adventurous pair from Washington DC.
Many of the tender moments were captured on their Instagram page, such as one moment last month in Kyrgyzstan when they set up camp near a little creek outside a village.
"A family living in a nearby house noticed our small settlement of tents and bikes and camp kitchens," Mr Austin wrote. "They came by - not to chase us away from their home, but rather to offer us all sweet tea and fresh homemade bread and water if we needed it.
"And, before leaving for the night, a really special and beautiful musical performance from their eldest daughter."
It was moments like this that spurred them on through the days of sickness, freezing weather, punctured tires and being chased by vicious feral dogs.
However, just over a week ago, on day 359 of their life-changing trip, it all came to a horrific end when they were cycling with a group of other tourists on a scenic stretch of road in southwestern Tajikistan.
They were travelling along the Pamir Highway, a Soviet-era road that stretches across 2000km near the border with Afghanistan and has spectacular views, when a carload of men who are believed to have recorded a video pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group spotted them.
They sped towards the group of tourists, rammed them, jumped out and attacked the cyclists with knives. The horrendous slaying was captured on grainy footage from the attackers - who also took the lives of one Dutch and one Swiss national.
Just days later, the Islamic State released a video showing five men it identified as the attackers, sitting in front of the ISIS flag. They face the camera and make a vow: to kill "disbelievers".
Their world view was fundamentally at odds with what Ms Geoghegan and Mr Austin believed - they saw the world as a warm, welcoming place where strangers would commit random acts of kindness every day.
"You get a feeling of wanting to give back, not just to this person who has welcomed a stranger into their home, but to the wider world," Mr Austin wrote on his blog. "You become someone who wants to welcome others into your home. You become a merchant in the gift economy.
"You're led to believe that the world is a big, scary place. 'People,' the narrative goes, 'are not to be trusted. People are bad. People are evil.' I don't buy it."
In his journals, Mr Austin reveals how he came to this mindset after seven years of working in the same job. He reveals what it was like to leave his job in a post from June 2017.
"Today feels like a really big day," he wrote. "I've spent almost seven years - seven years - going to the same place at the same time on the same days of the week. Those seven years have been pretty lovely, and I feel so fortunate to have had what was really a pretty great job.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity, and I'm anxious to turn my back on what was really a good thing. But getting too cosy is dangerous. Inertia is a stealthy predator.
"I've learned a lot from these seven years, and I enjoyed plenty, but with each passing year I feel I learned a little less. The days have blended into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into years.
"I've grown tired of meetings, of teleconferences, of timesheets and password changes and Monday morning elevator commiseration. I've grown tired of spending the best hours of my day in front of a glowing rectangle, of colouring the best years of my life in swathes of grey and beige."
After a scooter trip around the US, exploring Europe by rail and stints in Namibia and India, he met Ms Geoghegan, who was also a seasoned traveller. They became obsessed with cycling, quietly planned to quit their jobs and leave forever.
They did a month-long test run in Iceland, cycling across its picturesque valleys before deciding to quit their jobs and take the plunge.
They began at the southernmost tip of Africa, where their blog shows they became stranded after a miscalculation and a punctured tyre.
They headed north through Africa and eventually to Europe before flying to Kazakhstan in May.
The posts on the site and on their Instagram account broke off as they ventured into mountainous Tajikistan, the poorest of the former Soviet states.
"Tajikistan is a tough place to cycle. It is cold and windy and mountainous and, most of all, very, very high," Mr Austin wrote a week ago in the pair's final post.
"Really glad I did it. No need to ever do it again," he said of crossing a Tajik mountain pass at a height of 4655m with thin air and intermittent snow.
The attack that would claim their lives in the rugged landscape was highly unusual.
It was the first known attack of its kind against Western tourists in the country.
'BEAUTIFUL, KIND PEOPLE'
Ms Geoghegan's parents released a statement on Tuesday saying the trip that their daughter and her partner were enjoying was typical of Geoghegan's "enthusiastic embrace of life's opportunities, her openness to new people and places, and her quest for a better understanding of the world".
Dutch victim, Rene Wokke, a 56-year-old psychologist, was cycling with his partner Kim Postma, a 58-year-old hospital administrator, who was injured in the incident.
Dutch newspaper NRC said the pair were travelling from Bangkok to Tehran and chose to go through Tajikistan to avoid the dangers of Afghanistan.
Mr Wokke was a very experienced traveller and had visited more than 130 countries, according to his brother, Erik.
The pair, from Amsterdam, had left Thailand in February and planned to arrive in Tehran in September before flying back to the Netherlands.
Mr Wokke and Ms Postma described the Pamir Highway on their blog as "the ultimate challenge of this trip".
The fourth victim was Swiss national Markus Hummel, 62. The cyclist also kept an online record of the journey with another Swiss, Marie-Claire Diemand, 59, who was injured in the attack.
In a blog entry entitled "A dream comes true" they explained that they were travelling along the Silk Road from Xi'an in China to Kyrgyzstan.
"Since we are already on the road, we definitely don't want to miss the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan," the pair said.
Their last entry was on July 25, when the whole group was staying in the Tajik town of Khorugh, after adventures including their tent filling with drifts of sand.
Of the highway, they said: "We enjoy the silence, the dreamlike landscape and look at the Pamir River and the Afghan side of the valley all day long."
Friends and wellwishers posted messages of condolences on the American victims' SimplyCyling Instagram page.
One, Robert Renner, wrote: "My condolences to the family and friends of Jay and Lauren." Another, Angela Wuerth, wrote: "I'm so sad that something so tragic could happen to such beautiful, kind people."
- with wires