Sep. 23rd: 48k
4,000 meters (13,120 feet.)
*Note that we made only 48k on asphalt, all of which was flat.
We were feeling pretty beat up after the Walkan and reluctantly left Murghab, minus the two Spanish brothers: they were in a hurry to get through China and escape the cold. They only get a double entry 60 day visa (2 periods of 60 days) and they were feeling the heat, so they went ahead. I could have gone with them, and perhaps I should have, but ultimately they are too fast for me.
The road was mercifully flat. We were all thinking about the notoriously monster climb outside of town and were surprised at how nice this stretch of road was. It is a beautiful ride.
After about 45 kilometers we saw another rider in the distance. This was not surprising, we met four in our guesthouse, all heading West, and saw handfuls more about town. We slowly gained on him. I always get nervous when we come upon a new person. This is a bit silly, because just about every person I have met cycle touring has been interesting and enjoyable company. Nonetheless, I was a bit nervous as we closed in, hoping against all likelihood it was a girl, despite the broad shoulders and violent strokes easily discernible even at a distance. Slowly, slowly, we come level with him. “Hello! How are you?” This was a handsome man in good gear on a good bike- a Surly- and it turns out he is from Catalonia! So, we lose two of three Catalonians, gain one (He’s not from Barcelona either)! We crest the hill and wait for the rest of the group. Below us we see an abandoned building and elect to have some lunch there. We eat and get acquainted in the elittle courtyard of what turns out to be a little caravanserai built in 1899. As we prepare to leave, we see a wall of dust coming at us from the East. A powerful headwind assails us, a mixture of snow and dust. We huddle in the building, marvelling at the weather, which does not let up. We were only aiming to do 60k this day, and it was early on a good road, mostly flat. We deliberate a bit, watching the weather. It is cold. Our manliness eventually prompts us to try to brave the wind, all but Didi feeling pressured by testosterone to try it. We ride about three painful, slow kilometers. I decide to be the one to suggest turning around. We stop and talk, but no one can bring themselves to admit that the riding is too tough and we should relax the rest of the day. I suggest we toss a coin. We toss. The coin demands we retreat and we fly back to the caravanserai on the wings of the Westering wind. There we set up inside the building and enjoy the safety of its walls.
The next day we hit the pass.
Sep. 24th: 48k
Ak Baital Pass: 4,600 meters (15,088 feet)
Sleep at 4082 meters, (13,389 feet)
View from Teahouse
We ride easily over the 3 kilometers that pained us so the day before and made good progress towards the climb. We stop to speak to a nice German auto-tourist and his dog. Before he had cycled for three and a half years. While we are chatting we meet two more auto-tourists for a second time- they had given us water somewhere in the Walkan! We formed quite a pack in the middle of this deserted road. Huge headwinds kick in as we talk. After setting off again, the climbing is difficult. We stop at an estranged homestay 3 kilometers from the top for some excellent tea with bread and butter, then push onwards. It is one tough climb, but I climb all the way to the top, where I meet Teddy, a Malaysian cyclist, right as we both summit. It was a special thing, to share that moment with Teddy, as we both simultaneously summit the second highest highway pass in the world. We take some pictures in the cold wind and go our separate ways. The descent is very short, and when it levels out the road is terrible, all washboard. The climb was plenty difficult, but the mighty headwind we had to fight against pushed against us the rest of the day. We were hoping to get to Karakul that day, but it was not to be. We stop at another, much larger abandoned caravanserai and set up camp 40 kilometers from Karakul.
Sep. 25: 40k 3,960 meters (12,989 feet)
Cold night. We roust ourselves and set off, looking forward to a short day into Karakul. In a kilometer the road turns back into asphalt, right where a warm homestay sat. We were literally around the corner from good road and a warm bed, and we laugh about it. We ride into town early. There is a comically run-down military base and a small town full of guesthouses next to a beautiful blue alpine lake, expansively filling a valley beneath snow-capped peaks.
We find a reasonably priced guesthouse and est at a restaurant, where we each ended up spending four dollars because they just kept bringing us food- we asked what the menu was, sat down and they just brought everything they had. A bit deceitful.
We have a hard time finding osh, plov, pilaf. This is a dish usually consisting of meat and carrots on a bed of oily rice. Eat with bread and you have a happy cyclist. The dish is so common that the word for “restaurant” is “oshkhana.” But nobody has plov. They only eat a few items out here, rice being a staple along with bread and meat. Like I said, bread is hard to find. You can buy 50kg bags of flour though, and yeast. Everybody makes things at home. Yet no one ever has rice. We are beginning to suspect there is something devious at hand here, for we see locals before and after us eating rice at times. This particular meal we were brought out plov, which she said they did not have. It tasted strongly of sheep, gamey sheep. We are used to this by now though. Eat it with onions if they are available.
Feeling a little bit jipped, we returned to the guest house. Some of us took bucket showers. Some of us went to the store, an unmarked building in a courtyard across town whose keeper was never in. Our host took us on a long walk there with the neighbor, where we bought some candy. There was nothing but candy, socks, felt hats, and some noodles, in fact. Oh, and some thread. Typical. I bought some thread.
After this we inquired after beer. Our host took us to another guesthouse where we bought 2 a-piece.
That was a good night.
Sep. 26: After a good breakfast we set off. The road wound around the lake, and then up. The air felt thin, and we had some very steep stretches of road to climb before the asphault disappeared.
We popped out in an astonishing alpine valley, with red mountains, beautiful peaks and deserts of smooth grey gravel. The road was one of the worst yet, unfortunately, the worst washboard I have ever been jolted by. Soon we were all exhausted, myself in a bit of a temper, with a sore neck and sore body in general.
We stop for lunch before climbing the last hill to the border.
This climb was more difficult than the big one. A cruel headwind set in and we creeped up to the tiny border crossing. There was evidence of a nicer set up, with a few large multiple story buildings and a garage to search cars. We pass a checkpoint, follow a dirt track around the main building, whose windows are all shot out, and pull up to passport control. Two guards are standing before a dingy gate connected to two holding tanks that had been converted into dwellings. They ushered me into a little container, roused an officer, who slowly put on his shoes, checked my visa, adjusted the date on his stamp, and smashed one into my passport as if he were trying to break the table, declaiming, “Tajikistan finished!”. From here I passed through the little gate and up to the top of the 4,200 meter (13,776 feet) peak and the 20 kilometers of no-man’s-land.
We regrouped, all successfully released (none of us need a visa, save Didi… hard travelling on an Israeli passport!) And descended down a brown, muddy dirt road towards the Kyrgyz border. We crossed with no problems and Didi took off ahead to meet us in Osh. The rest of us were exhausted again and elected to take another night inside at Saritash. Didi is more practical, still possessed of that sense of invincibility that 23-year-olds still enjoy, but the rest of us have wizened into a more sensitive, comfortable demeanor (relatively!). As we pushed across the plain into Sari Tash we kept looking behind us, astounded by the wall of mountains we had just descended from. We were riding into another, lower wall ourselves.
Sari Tash Sucks
We finally arrive. We could see the town shining at the foot of the far mountains, and we rode hard for 25 kilometers, waiting for it to get bigger, which it only did gradually. At last we arrive. We had a restaurant in mind, recommended by a French couple we met on the road, with an excellent plov. We were also excited about the prices: we were told by a Japanese chap that Tajikistan was expensive compared to Kyrgyzstan. Well, we ask about accommodation, and she wants 12 dollars a person. We ask about a discount for four people, down to ten. No deal. We ask if she has a shower. No, we have to wait until the morning. Okay, we’ll just eat dinner here, the plov. No plov. Geez. We have no Kyrgyz som, but we have dollars and Tajik somoni. This is the first town from the border, so we were sure they would take Tajik money. Well she will, but she charges us 3 dollars more if we pay in somoni. Can she change money for us? Of course, but she won’t give us a good rate: there are 69 som to a dollar and she’ll only change at a rate of 65. This lady is trying to screw us any chance she gets. We argue enough to make her angry and then pay in somoni, getting rid of our Tajik money and only losing a dollar a piece. We go to another guesthouse and pay a somewhat lower rate. The wi-fi is good, they have a hot shower, and breakfast in the morning. I sleep heavy and well. In the morning we get up for breakfast. Well, what we have is: tea without sugar, bread without butter. There is the dregs of some sort of comport, which consists of little berries with pits in them with a miniscule amount of syrup around them. She gives us each two eggs, thankfully, but we are terribly disappointed and we feel that we didn’t get our money’s worth so much. I bring out peanut butter and honey to go with the bread and make my own coffee. As we are sitting there, she informs us that we have to leave in fifteen minutes. We are a bit surprised, but after the incident in Kazakhstan I am not offended or indignant. She’s got to go to work! We gather our things and get money changed at the gas station and pay the lady. After sorting out sim cards and buying groceries, we leave Sari Tash gratefully. The place is a bit of a tourist trap, at the crossroads between the road to Tajikistan, the road to China, and the road to Mt. Lenin, the second highest mountain in the area at 7,134 meters (over 23,000 feet). So, they rake in the cash.
An Outsider’s Perspective of Tajikistan
Donkeys everywhere. Women wear beautiful clothing, They love volleyball: really really love it, mostly in the rural areas. Volleyball nets everywhere. Kids sometimes try to form a line and demand money. Some flip you off. Roads are trash. Stores are almost devoid of anything good or useful. It is nearly impossible to buy bread, you have to ask a kind citizen to bring some from home.
Kids pushed me up the steep hill outside of Langar, in two sets, for 4 somoni, (about 45 cents) some candy and a pen. Lord knows what they are doing with the pen, but I found it a strange request and gave them one of my good ones. Hopefully they practice writing their names after their probable bout of obscene graffiti.
Funny clothes- sarcastic shirt about Christianity, kids with weed leaves on their hats, a man in a Christmas sweater, shepherd wife with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers jacket. They have no idea what they are wearing. Everything is Chinese knock-off. Toyota Land Cruisers. Farmers trying to get us to work. Kids learning English, high fiving us, wearing cute little school uniforms. Kids do ask for candy a lot though. Don’t feed the children. They ask every foreigner for free stuff now.