The first night in Tajikistan was cold. I didn’t make it far from the border before waning light and exhaustion compelled me to dash into an orchard and make a late camp. It was a bit surrounded by houses, so a cold dinner and a quiet set-up for me. I pulled all the stuff out of my soggy pannier and hung it all in a tree, but it was not going to dry this night. In the morning cows, people, and indignant donkeys stirred me from my slumber and I quickly broke camp. On the ride back to the road I froze, and changed into my boots for the first time in a long time, which was strange. I wished that my gloves and hat were not wet! I started off, found a bank and exchanged money, and rode for a while through a heavily populated area. I was in no hurry, for once, and I intended and still intend to take my time. Rushing through Uzbekistan was awful, quite against one of my goals for this trip, which is to relax amd enjoy the present moment. Eventually I found a quiet spot near atrash heap full of broken dishes and a cow casrcass, made some coffee and set out all of my stuff to dry. I ate some breakfast in spite of the cow bits, which were mostly bone anyhow, and lounged for almost two hours while my stuff dried. Overall I was lucky and didn’t feel too much bitterness about such a silly mishap. My tablet is safe, so I feel fortunate. After some more towns the valley narrowed and everything started to get beautiful. After the deserts of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan any hill or rocky outcropping was a blessing!
I didn’t mind riding alone at all, as an introvert I actually recharge for the first few days of solitude, but I was not to ride alone for long. I stopped off to have a poop and when I started off again I immediately saw another cyclist talking to a bunch of tourists pulled over on the side of the road. His bike was facing West and I assumed he was going that way. He looked interesting, so I pulled up and began chatting with the tourists, which I think were German. They left and I started to speak with the cyclist, a Swiss man called Stefan who, as it turned out, was also going East, he had just pulled a U-turn to chat with the car. “Shall we ride together a bit?” he asked, to which I of course agreed. It is interesting to meet a stranger and suddenly form a little pack. There is a period of uncertainty, there, lack of knowledge about riding style and capability, camping preferences, cooking preferences, whether they take snack breaks, when they like to wake up in the morning, whether or not your personalities are compatible. I could tell from the start that Stefan was a kind, easy-going and considerate fellow. I’m not sure what he thought of me, but we are still riding together almost two weeks later. It was funny, because I have been riding with Frederic, a 39 year old Swiss fellow who looks much younger, and now I have another Swiss fellow, who is 45, but looks to be in his mid-30’s. They have the same camera and both cook almost identically, which is a bit of good fortune for me! Of course they are quite different but the similarities were pretty funny. We had a pleasant ride into Dushanbe, which took us three more days. We had to climb 2000 meters to get there though. The muscles you use for climbing are different than the ones you use for the flats; at least, you use them differently. My knees were quite sore from overuse and my muscles were too tight, but we made it to the top. There we encountered a black tunnel of evil appearance. Soot stained the entrance and smoke was billowing out if it. We knew ahead of time that the tunnel was 5 kilometers long as well. We had been hearing about this tunnel for a while now actually, it was quite a subject among the cycling community and the general consensus was to hitch it.
The second tunnel you see there was unpaved, and I wanted to ride it, but Stefan had some quite natural reservations. The air quality was just as bad though, and it was very cold, so he stuck out his thumb. A brand new Toyota something or other pulled over and the gentleman driving it was kind enough to load Stefan’s grubby bike and gear into it. Of course, there was only room for one of us. I bade him go and looked for another one. There is a soldier stationed at the mount of the tunnel. Word on the street is that if you bribe him, he will stop a car for you. I don’t bribe. I asked him about the other tunnel and he said the air was bad, and kindly helped me to flag down a truck out of the kindness of his heart. It was a huge dump truck full of coal. By a series of gestures, he indicated to me that I was to throw the bike on tol of the coal, which was fine, but the top of the truck was a good 4 meters from the ground. With the bike in one hand, I began to climb the wrungs on the side, jumping my left hand from wrung to wrung. I got a bit nervous about the last grab, which was the lip of the bed, and I didn’t know how thick it was. The soldier steadied my bike and urged me on. I went for it and gained purchase, chucked the bike on the coal pile and ran around to the passenger door, which was a meter above my head. I chucked a few of the panniers up and clambered into the cab after which the soldier hucked the others. I thanked him, closed the door, greeted the driver, and we were off. He was a young man and he spoke no English, but we would not be acquainted for long anyhow.
The truck drivers here decorate the interior of their trucks with tassles and frills, and we drove through this dark, smoky tunnel in this monster of a vehicle, perched high above the ground, my view framed by swinging tassles and illuminated by the strong lights of the truck. He was blaring some sort of Central asian trance music the whole time, which made for a very memorable experience. At last we emerge into daylight. Down go my bags, I drop from the cab and hurriedly climb the truck, eager to let this kind young man get on with his job. I start climbing down the wrungs with one hand, bike in the other. The last wrung was a bit of a gap though, and my left hand lost grip and I began to fall.
I should have waited for some help, eh? I drop the bike, in no way keen to land in a tangle of steel. I land on my feet and my bike bounces off the gravel and I feel a corresponding lilt in my stomach. The bike is fine though, just a chunk taken out of my leather saddle! My poor bike. She’s a good ‘un.
The other side is beautiful. We smash down the hill as the evening draws long and find a lovely little campsite by a river running with coldm fresh water. The next day we are off, and by early afternoon we are in Dushanbe.
Dushanbe is a beautiful city. All the students have to wear suits and dresses here, so everybody looks classy. There are pictures of President Rachmon everywhere, and the city ia very green, with tall trees lining the main road through town. Word on the street is that Green House Hostel is the place to be this year, so we go there. Through a large metal gate we enter into a courtyard full of bicycles, motorcycles, and a few vans. Yes, this is the place. We get settled in and take our showers. I remember that I ordered a new tent pole to come here after two failed attempts in Uzbekistan, and I ask at the front desk. No, no packages for me. What the… I check my email and realize that Big Agnes never replied when I sent them the new address. Boy, did I send them a scathing email! Oh well, what can you do? Stefan and I enjoy a peaceful rest day. We go to the GROCERY STORE after a month of little shops that only sell rice, cookies, candy and cigarettes. We spend the evening there, investigating every aisle. I spent a heap of money there. While walking down a candy aisle I saw a product that evoked a violent physical reaction. My breathe sucked into my lungs and the shock of disbelief ran a violent course through my body: REESE’S PEANUTBUTTER CUPS!!! Never in my wildest dreams had I expected to see them here, or anywhere. I dreamt of them at times, late at night, conjuring up the heavenly taste of that thin milk chocolate coating encasing that slightly chalky, sugary peanutbutter. Few creations of humankind can compare to this divine combination, but unfortunately much of the world is still shrouded in the darkness of abject ignorance. May the Lord have mercy on their taste buds.
I should have bought more. The last pack melted pretty good en route to Korough though, they do not travel well. The next day Stefan and I went to a bike shop and explored some rumored outdoor shops in search of some supplies. We found no quality clothing, but the bike shop was excellent. I bought a new bike lock and bike pump, a kickstand and two masterlinks for my chains for about 18 dollars. Try getting all that for less than 70 dollars anywhere else. It seem to be really quality stuff too! Both of my water bottle cages were broken as was one of Stefan’s, and after examining skeptically the ones they had for sale, the young man offered to make us new ones out of steel. Oh, sure, when can we pick them up? Tomorrow? Okay.
We drank some beers with an excellent group: a German couple who had a bit of an early life crisis and decided to hitchhike across the world. Dominic and Stephanie, we love you guys. Also among us was a Polish motorcyclist named Rafoul (totally unsure of the spelling) whose outlook on life is just downright sensible. We had a long and very resounding conversation about travel together. That evebing three more cyclists rolled in, all from Barcelona: Jo-an and Jordi, brothers, and Aleix, who they met in Iran. As it turns out, these Spanish brothers rode with Zach through Georgia and met Freddie in Turkey, so I had heard a lot about them already! The next morning two more arived, Youri of France and Yedidyah of Israel, who had met at Portistan waiting for the ferry and had been together since. They rode across with a pair of Germans we met fleetingly at the port who had told them about the Camel Krew, paths were beginning to weave together it seemed! We spent that day at the bike shop until early afternoon, then I cleaned my bike, repaired my sleeping pad again, and swapped my chain. We were ready to go! I didn’t see any of the Camel Krew though, and I wa worried about them, but eventually I heard from all of them. Not sure when I will see them again, but I miss them.
We set off the next morning, loaded down with rare delicacies from the supermarket and on my part feeling a bit wobbly after riding a bike without weight for a few days. We were riding deep, seven of us! Goodbye to the Camel Krew for now, hello Pamir Pack.
The ride was incredible. Eight days to Korough, over one of the hardest climbs in Tajikistan, supposedly, another 2000 meter climb up to 3,250 meters. That one kicked our asses in various ways, except for Youri, who smashed up to the top way ahead of us. The Spaniards were having some stomach trouble right out the gate, but Jordi had it the worst. It got worse for him. Eventually we left the brothers to rest a day, Jordi to sleep for 20 hours straight and Jo-an to keep him company and take care of his brother. Pictures tell it better.
Some interesting holidays on the road: Hebrew New Year, September 9th. 27th anniversary of Tajikistan independence, September 9th. September 11th is National Day for Catalonia, which is not so much a celebration, for Catalonians, it was the day Barcelona was conquered by the Spanish armies… but it’s celebrated. Of course, an event occurred in the States on this day, known as 9/11… and I spent it a stone’s throw from Afghanistan. That was a strange thought. We celebrated the Hebrew New Year. With beer. One day we also swam in the Panch river, which designates the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It was very cold and refreshing. Panch means 5 in pharsee. Tajik is close to pharsee, and the Panch is fed from five different rivers, one of which is the Pamir river. So long Turkish, it is useless here.
We had a lot of adventures, of course. Six or seven checkpoints where they take down our information, in case anything happens. Soldiers and military outposts everywhere. Bad roads. Crazy drivers. Interesting little villages. We slept in a restaurant. We slept across from a military camp. While climbing the big hill we saw a sign advertising for Tajikistan, with one of many pictures of President Rachmon on it. Observe:
Look a little closer at the bottom right corner:
That, my friends, is a picture of Wizard Island in Crater Lake, Oregon. I was tickled and perplexed to find a picture of Oregon on a tourism poster in Tajikistan. Incredible! Why they copied this picture off the internet instead of taking one of their own beautiful country is beyond me, but I’m happy to see beautiful Oregon represented!
It just so happened that the day we arrived in Korough coincided with the President’s visit to celebrate Tajik Independence Day. In the morning 5 helicopters flew up the valley ahead of us. As we entered town we were allowed through a road block and cruised through hundreds of Tajiks in beautiful traditional clothing. We were stopped by a wall of police and waited for twenty minutes in a crowd of people, many of whom were beautiful young women in beautiful clothing, while the President christened a new bridge. It was lovely. I wished I didn’t have 8 hot, strained days of stink on me, but it didn’t make a difference. A lot of people speak English in this region so we have had some interesting conversations! Korough is funny itself, there’s a KFC (Korough Fried Chicken), a “Mac Dolland’s,” and one tiny little shop is called “Walmart.” They stole the font, logo, and phrase (save money, live better)! Pretty funny. On a side note, I think the most plagiarized Western content is “The Lion King.” Starting in the Balkans you can find Simba energy drinks, chips, ice cream, clothing, you name it. Everything is fake at some point, lots of Gucci everywhere.
It is impossible to find good gear for the cold though. In a place full of mountains, completely snowed in during the winter, it is impossible to find gloves, stocking caps, waterproof pants, waterproof shoes. How these people survive, I have no idea.
Pamir Lodge is the place to be here. It is at the top of a hill, which was a disappointing end to our day. It is also far from everything, but it is very comfortable. The internet is pretty bad too, sometimes available from 6 to 11 am and pm. My sleeping pad still has a leak, I patched it again today and it is flat, again. Really confounding me. I also got an email from Big Agnes and one from Green House Hostel announcing that my tent pole arrived in Dushanbe. I am not in Dushanbe. Even so, I apologized to Big Agnes, I thought they had abandoned me and was pretty upset about it. Hopefully I can get it somehow…
It is raining here, which means snow ahead, but I am loving this part of the trip.