Tales from Tajikistan. It was quite eventful!
Well, we have been chewed up and spat out by Tajikistan. The last few weeks have been beyond hard and we are all looking a little worse for wear as a result. We being, me, Chris and a good proportion of our gear. The Trolls have come into their own though and handled the terrain well which is good because we chose them with Tajikistan in mind. So was it worth it?
Thinking back, the injuries started way back on day one when a wasp flew under my sunnies and stung my face. I woke up at the Yeti Hostel in Dushanbe the next morning with my face feeling strange, so took a selfie to see what was wrong and nearly fell out of my bunk when I saw myself. It didn’t stop us getting out into Dushanbe though. I perched my sunnies lop sidedly on my face and we hit the streets in search of high energy snacks, pasta, oats, some warm clothes and a GBAO permit for Chris – we had a high altitude adventure to prepare for!
Chris is proving brilliant at getting things done, especially where officials are involved. The GBAO permit is needed to enter the Pamir region of Tajikistan. I had gotten mine with my visa but they weren’t offering them when we got Chris’ visa in London so we had to apply in Dushanbe. I waited outside with the bikes while Chris went into the office. We had paid for the permit the day before and were told to come back today to collect it. On enquiring, he was told to come back tomorrow as they weren’t doing them today and a French guy who it transpired had been sitting in the office for three days said this is what he had been told every day. Slightly annoyed, Chris sat down with the French guy. He had no intention of coming back tomorrow. I sat outside with the bikes dabbing at my weeping eye. Before long another official wandered out from the back office and hovered near the GBAO desk. Chris grabbed the French guy’s passport, walked over to the man and handed him both passports saying ‘GBAO’. The man was obviously startled by Chris’ authority because he stamped the two permits and the job was done. The poor French guy didn’t know whether to feel stupid or relieved but he was certainly grateful.
Permit secured and the food bag stuffed with goodies from the bazaar, we set off to commence our high altitude adventure on the M41. With hindsight, we should have looked at the map before we set off. If we had done so, we would have seen there are two routes to Kalaikum. One that is slightly longer but flat as it follows the river on a sealed road, and the one that we took, the M41, which goes over a relatively unused 3,257m pass on an unsealed road. We were unaware of the option though until we rode into Kalaikum three days later and saw the sign for Dushanbe pointing along the river.
So as you may have deduced, the sealed road started to disintegrate somewhere between Dushanbe and the turn off for the Pamirs. Big awkward sections of difficult to navigate rubble road started to appear made worse by the fact we were competing for road space with all the traffic headed for the Fergana Valley. By the time we reached the turn off we could see that the sealed road was gone for good and we would be doing the pass off road. I think my lowest moment was just before 9am on the day we were to do the pass. I was struggling to ride across a river bed where the bridge had been washed away. Chris seemed to be breezing across it while I was battling with my bike trying to find a line through the big river stones. My eye was still swollen so I couldn’t see properly, when my front wheel went up on a big loose stone and slid off sideways. I pitched over the top of the bike and couldn’t unclip before crashing down and giving my knee and hand a good whack and then falling over backwards and smacking the back of my helmet for good measure. I completely overreacted and sat there bawling like a two year old. I think it was the combination of the shock and the pain and that I was sitting in a bloody riverbed with a 3,200m pass in front of me and feeling very lacking in the skills department where the road was concerned. I was out of my depth and for the first time began to realise the seriousness of what we were doing.
Anyway, there isn’t much you can do in these situations except blow your nose, wipe away the tears and get back on your bike. Coach Chris gave me some tips such as tilting my head to change direction and letting the bike go where it wants to through the rocks and a few hours later I was starting to settle into the new way of riding. By 4pm, after spending the day painstakingly winding our way up the hairpins through stunning scenery we had reached the snow line at 3,000m and were only a few kilometres short of the pass. As there was no hope of getting down the other side to Kalaikum before dark we decided to pitch early and spent a very cold night tucked up in Steggy (our tent). We actually had to wait around for the sun to rise high enough the following morning to melt the ice off the tent before we could get going again.
The descent should have been terrifying! Standing on the pass and looking down the other side to where the rubbly road soon wound out of view, there were definitely butterflies present so it took a while to release the brakes and start rolling forward. Surprisingly, the road seemed better on this side of the mountain though, or perhaps it was just better suited to descending. Whatever the case, it was awesome! And it was very steep and fast. To the right, the road disappeared abruptly at the edge and broke off into thin air over what appeared to be a bottomless chasm. I had mastered the head tilting trick by now and it came in very handy here. To the left there was the mountain itself. Often strewn with rock falls and flashing autumn colours as we whizzed down. There were no cars other than the odd abandoned Lada rusting away, so we had full use of the road. We stopped every few kilometres to cool the brakes and breath in the scenery, but despite this we were down and out the bottom into a new valley in no time. Lunch time saw us sitting on the steps of Kalaikum’s supermarket with a feast of bread, cheese, chocolate, ice-cream, biscuits…
We spent the night in a guesthouse where we were served a plate of chips and half a tomato each for dinner and then set off early the next day after an equally dismal breakfast for the next leg to Khorog. We were following the river now, still on a bad road but to make the journey more interesting we now had Afghanistan mere metres away on the other side of the Pyanj River – and it was fascinating! Their little track following the river opposite us went a long way to making our road look like a road. At one stage while Chris was steripen-ing some water from a stream, I was watching transfixed as an Afghan man patiently goaded two recalcitrant donkeys and a terrified cow over a landslide which had crossed the path. He had a long white beard and a turban and appeared very nimble for his age as he perched on a boulder to lean over the poor terrified cow and whack the closest donkey which had ceased all movement by now with his stick. Once they were all safely over, he leapt off the last boulder onto a donkey and gave us a big wave across the river as he trotted off along the path. It made my day to have a proper Afghan man give us such a friendly wave. I tried not to dwell on the contrast of us on our american bikes sterilising clear mountain water with this man on his track with his donkeys and cow, cloaks and turban. All a bit too surreal. But all the same, I couldn’t help but dwell on it. The difficulty of such a simple life out here, the bad roads, distances between villages not to mention major commercial centres, the disappointing variety of food available in the village shops, the lack of internet and connectivity in general…
“We have nothing!” vexed Mauluda at our guesthouse in Zhong. And it’s true. Chris and I had arrived in the tiny Wakhan Corridor village at the end of the day, hungry, freezing and tired after about eight hours and 60km of hard riding. So far I had only had eyes for the dish of apricot jam and loaf of bread on the table as she cooked our dinner in the beautifully warm room which served as kitchen, living room and bedroom for the family. We had been talking about the impending winter and asking what they do during the freezing months of November to March. As I looked around the room now I could see she was right. They had very little for a family of four. The only stick of furniture was the knee high table Chris and I were sitting cross legged at, expectantly waiting for our dinner which was being cooked on the stove. The wood/coal/peat burning stove with rusty steel chimney poking through the roof provided the only heat in the household as well as the means of cooking and heating water for washing. None the less, Mauluda kept our pot of tea full and fed us the best meal we had in Tajikistan. As we ate, she sat and spoke to us in fairly good english. She had been studying German and English at university in Dushanbe when civil war broke out in Tajikistan in 1991 following the Soviet withdrawal. As a result, she was forced to abandon her education and instead entered an arranged married and has been in Zhong ever since. Her parents live in Lyangar 6km up the “road”. She tries to visit them every second Sunday to help with making their bread and fetching water as they aren’t able to do it for themselves and her three brothers, who did complete their education, now work in various cities throughout Central Asia. Her family don’t even keep sheep or goats. They do grow apricots, hence the amazing jam which we bought a bottle of, but during the winter they basically keep the fire going and knit. By the look of it, her husband spends a lot of time on their laptop playing solitaire as well.
Mauluda was also the cause of one of our most memorable Wakhan Corridor experience when she sent us for a visit to the local hot springs! We were very excited about this as we climbed the hillside, not because we hadn’t bathed in a week but because we had the most beautiful vista of the Hindu Kush across the river. Wow, how many people get to go to hot springs with this kind of view we gloated! We found our way by asking the few random locals we came across where the ‘gariache vada’ (hot water) is. They all laughed and pointed up the hill. When we arrived at a small building which appeared to be a grotty public toilet with a stream littered with empty Decore bottles leading out of it, we stopped and asked the lady standing outside where the gariache vada was. She beckoned me over and opened the door. Inside the 2x4m room, about 15 naked ladies stopped what they were doing to look up at me. She indicated that I should go in there and Chris should go into the next door which was padlocked from the outside. Chris entered his bath to find two naked men scrubbing each others backs and decided to keep his speedos on for the experience. I shoved my way into my bath and decided it would be rude to keep my speedos on. We were there for hair washing day and as it happened I needed to wash my hair. The ladies were very friendly and obliging and I re-emerged immaculate.
But I digress. This blog started referring to the pain and injuries inflicted by Tajikistan. After a lengthy and troublesome three day ride from Kalaikum culminating in a 100km hitch with a convoy of Chinese trucks after rain washed out the “road”, we spent about three nights in Khorog, the capital of the Pamirs. Also the point at which you decide whether to take the safe route directly up onto the plateau to Murghab or venture into the Wakhan Corridor. You already know we chose the Wakhan – a once in a lifetime experience and all that. We stayed at the Pamir Inn, well known as a meeting place for adventurers according to our guide book. It wasn’t busy at this time of year, but we did meet two fellow cyclists and a couple of conservationists who told us all about their recent encounters with Snow Leopards in the Wakhan – home to the world’s healthiest population apparently – almost too exciting! During our stay here, Chris managed to fall down a hole by the side of the road in the dark (quite a common occurrence in Central Asia) and took a lot of skin off his knees and elbows. As we were leaving Khorog the next day, I locked up my brakes to avoid a van that pulled out in front of me and did the same to my own limbs. I also put a hole in my favourite cycling jacket. Not deterred, we continued on. Chris hit a bump on a descent and lost our bag of apples which shredded in his rear wheel. I hit some bumps and lost three out of four panniers in quick succession. Andrew, a fellow and now bewildered British cyclist offered us his emergency vodka to calm our nerves at our lunch stop. What was going on with us?
The troubles weren’t over either. We reached Ishkashim at the head of the Wakhan Corridor the next day. It’s a beautifully located town where we had our first glimpses of the Hindu Kush just before you turn into the Wakhan proper and the valley of the Oxus / Amu Darya river. The town is set on a very steep hill and as I was struggling up the hill in my lowest gear, I noticed a scuffle further up the street where some men were failing to control a bull. I must have stopped in all the excitement and as I watched the struggle I decided I should try to get to the other side of the road out of harms way. It was a bad move, and as the bull broke free from its captors and charged down the middle of the road, baling twine trailing from its thick neck, there I was standing helpless and wide eyed right in its path. I was aware of Chris and half the town screaming at me to move, but I couldn’t. I was still clipped into my pedal, in my lowest gear on a steep hill and going nowhere. The bull seemed to understand this though, because as our eyes met, it suddenly did the head tilting trick to change direction and missed me by a whisker, blundering past down the street. There were some nervous laughs and the village went back to business as usual.
Ishkashim is also located by No Man’s Island. This is an island in the middle of the Pyanj River where the Afghans and Tajiks get together every Saturday for a market. We made the effort to attend and it was well worth it! Just watching the set up was hilarious. There is full border control and there seemed to be a delay on the Afghan side. So whilst the Tajiks were making their way onto the island and leisurely selecting the best spots to set up their stalls, the Afghans were stuck in a long queue waiting for permission to enter. Once they had passed security they pegged it across to the bazaar, their wares contained in big sheets and lugged over their shoulders. When they found a spot they’d throw down the sheet and voila, they had a stall. Once it was all set up we were allowed onto the island – and we did go a little bit crazy by our standards. Chris bought himself and Afghan hat and I bought a pair of Pamiri socks which I’d seen all the ladies wearing and a pair of thick wool leggings. A couple of purple carrots from an Afghan man and a bunch of spring onions from a Tajik lady completed our shopping. Before we could leave the island though a lovely man bought us a bag of deep fried potato cakes!
So we made our way through the Wakhan Corridor as far as Lyangar and it was just beautiful. The autumn colours of the poplars and fruits trees were stunning, the Hindu Kush was majestic, the people were generous, friendly and welcoming, keeping us supplied with bread and tea from personal supplies when it wasn’t available in the small magazeens. It was easy to find good camping spots and we adapted to the “road”. On reaching Langar though, it was time to leave civilisation as we had come to know it and venture out into proper wilderness via the Khargush Pass in order to rejoin the M41 Pamir Highway. On leaving Langar there wouldn’t be another town for 116km and the “road” was going to deteriorate to a track! Through the Wakhan we had managed 50 – 60km per day. On our first day out of Lyangar we did 20km – and not for lack of trying. The altitude combined with sand, rocks, snow etc. on the road meant we had to get off and push our bikes a lot. It was really, really hard. The views and scenery were beautiful, but the wind and cold and knotted shoulders made it difficult to fully appreciate.
That first day I was so cold by the time we pitched Steggy that I couldn’t do anything more. My new socks and tights helped a lot once I was in my sleeping bag but I couldn’t contemplate going outside again. Chris was high on some kind of mad exhilaration though and cooked us some noodles which we ate in our sleeping bags. For the first time ever we were too cold to do the dishes so left them for morning. Another mistake. I was awoken by a noise at about 12:30am. I lay there listening for it, wondering what it was when sure enough it came again, from just outside the tent. Just then Chris started snoring! I elbowed him to wake him up and told him to listen. There was complete silence. We had pitched Steggy on a flat bit of land by the side of the road, the Oxus just below us and the snowy mountains towering all around. We hadn’t seen a trace of life since the morning. The noise came again and Chris froze. I could tell by the way he had stopped breathing and his whole body was rigid that he had come to the same conclusion as me. There was a Snow Leopard outside our tent and it was stalking us.
The definition of vulnerable really could be laying prone inside your tent in the wilderness while a ferocious predator stalks you. I don’t know how long we lay there for, completely paralysed by fear. The noises continued on the other side of tent, slowly moving from one side to the other. At one point it was crunching a water bottle, then it had a plastic bag. I had to do something and under my breath, asked Chris where the knife was. He hadn’t used it for the noodles so it was still in my pannier, about a meter behind our heads. As quietly as I could I unzipped the door to the outer section a tiny bit and peered through. I couldn’t see anything so unzipped it further and reached for my pannier. I was feeling around trying to find the knife but couldn’t locate it. Chris had me by the hips and was trying to pull me back in. Finally I felt the knife and retreated back into my sleeping bag, arms still out in the cold with the hunting knife (a tenth birthday present from my parents) clutched at my chest. I figured the leopard would probably come through the side of the tent to eat us so this was the best position for defence. The stalking continued. Moving gradually from side to side. Then it was Chris’ turn for action. Frustrated with the suspense he donned his head torch, wriggled onto his stomach and began to unzip the door again. I leaned on my freshly grazed elbow and hip ignoring the pain (I’d fallen off again today), my knife poised right behind Chris in full support. Suddenly he gasped almost choking on his own breath, before leaning further forward and peering into the dark, “hello little mouse” he said… It was a little white mouse with red eyes beaming up at him from inside one of my panniers. We went back to sleep, slightly ashamed of ourselves, but more relieved than anything.
The next two days over the pass were relentless hard work. It was quite demoralising. Even if we managed to stay on our bikes to scramble through a loose section, we’d have to get off and walk to recover our breath. At over 4,000m the going was tough, water bottles, bread and honey were frozen, tempers were fragile. One amazing reward though was seeing a proper Afghan Camel Caravan swaying along the path across the river. It was an amazing sight to behold and to be honest, unexpected. I didn’t realised they still traded this way. Chris thought they were drug runners but I prefer to think they were taking woolly socks and sausages to the remote villages of the Hindu Kush in preparation for winter. We camped a couple of hundred metres up the river from them for our second night, them in a mud hut with smoke rising from it, camels and horses gathered outside, us in Steggy with noodles again.
We made it over the pass. This one was 4,344m and other than a spectacular high speed crash from Chris on the descent which brought his injury total in line with mine, our departure from the Wakhan was a relief and we almost cried when we rejoined the tarmac of the M41 up on the plateau among the Pamir Mountains.
Two more days of spectacular but unbelievably freezing riding, with not a single Marco Polo sheep to be seen, took us to the eastern most reaches of Tajikistan in Murghab and a well earned two night rest. We stayed in a lovely Kyrgyz style guest house, Erali’s, with good food and felt warm and well looked after by the elderly couple who ran it. We managed to find internet during our rest day at a US funded school and were asked to attend the English class and speak to the students to reciprocate. They asked me how old I was and whether I liked animals and I asked them where all the Marco Polo sheep were.
We dragged ourselves away from Murghab with the biggest pass, a 4,600m job in our sights. Unfortunately Chris was sick again. This was the fourth time in as many weeks. He was actually vomiting while he was riding – an inspiring example of Rule No. 5. We made it over the pass. Just. Nobody would have been impressed to see our limping forms struggling through the snow over the top on the once again unsealed road. The descent wasn’t fun either. My rear rack broke on the corrugations and we had to stop in the freezing wind to tie it all together. Shaking with cold we waved down a passing 4WD. The second car we had seen in two days and asked for a lift. That’s optimistic they said, looking at their cluttered vehicle. I left them behind and wobbled further down the road putting my foot down like an amateur as I slid around in the loose rocks. The 4WD re-approached Chris and handed him a bag of petrol permeated fruit and nuts. If you like, we’ll take your wife, they offered, then you might be able to make it to Karakul because you’ll be able to go faster. Chris put them in their place and explained that I’m much faster than him so they left us to it.
We huddled by the road eating biscuits, our only non frozen food, when almost like a mirage, a van came along that had an empty boot and only one passenger in the back. This is unheard of in Tajikistan where they prefer to get at least six people into four seats. The van stopped and the driver got out, surveying our pitiful selves and asked if we’d like a lift to Osh. We glanced at each other before both blurting at the same time – yes please!!! It was 300km, it took 11 hours to drive it, the roads were beyond diabolical, snow and ice covered, unsealed, I would have had to walk it. At some point we handed our passports to the driver who got out into the snow and arranged for us to leave Tajikistan and enter Kyrgyzstan. Our final Central Asian destination!