Tadjikistan

The location of a donkey with a broken leg.
Day 1: 130 km. 26-June-2008. The plane landed in Dushanbe early in the morning. It was a quick flight from Istanbul, just about 4 hours, and there was no time to take a nap. I was surprised to see so many western-looking people going to a place lost somewhere in the middle of Central Asia, until my neighbor from Jordan explained it: half of the people in the plane were attending a Water Disaster Conference to be held in Dushanbe.
The box, my bicycle was in, arrived pretty beaten up, but there was no apparent damage to the bike. I put it together, changed the money (got 3.42 Tajik somons for 1 $ US), bought a bottle of water (3 somons) and pedaled off to the town to find an internet cafe. That was not an easy task, it took me 3 hours before I sent e-mail and then headed out of town, to the east in the direction of Khorog. For the first 50 km the road is rough, the traffic busy. At midday my thermometer showed 37 degrees C. The air was misty from the heat. I had a bit of jet lag, was feeling sleepy, and stopped for one and a half hours, laying under a tree drowsing, with one eye on the bicycle. I have bad experience in Central Asia, it would be shame if I got it nicked on the first day. On another occasion I stopped by the 'ошхона' (restaurant) and ate a water melon, which was all my stomac showed interest for.
The camp on day 1: the best one of the tour.
I saw a donkey with a broken leg. The part of the leg below the elbow was dangling like a piece of rope. A car must have hit it a few moments ago; the animal was limping from one side of the road to the other, appearing totally lost and disoriented. It was a terrible sight which I couldn't forget for another couple of days.
After 50 km the quality of the road improved greatly. The good roads in Tajikistan are made by Chinese. There was a nice climb and a fantastic descent, then after Obigarm the road fell apart to rough gravel, which would stay for a long time At the end of the day I found a splendid place for a camp, on the edge of a cliff overlooking the river. I made 130 km today, but 20 of them were lost in Dushanbe searching for internet, so in fact I was already behind my schedule, 117 km/day.

The valley opens up.
Day 2: 100 km. At the end of the day I was sure it would make the toughest day of the trip. The road followed river gorge and the scenery was excellent, but the road was not. It's gravel road, sometimes so terrible that 6 km/h on flat is the maximum speed. It's going up and down every half kilometer, so there must have been about 200 little climbs this day.
I camped 8 km after the check point in Tavildara. During the night I dreamt that I returned home. The dream was so vivid that in a sleep I asked myself where actually I was. Then I woke up. The dreams like that are a sure sign that I am not enjoying the trip.

Day 3: 89 km.  A catastrophic day. By the end of the day I felt totally weak and knackered. I can't explain why, I drunk a lot of water, there must be something wrong in my system. Maybe lack of salt or something. Also, little and ring finger on my left hand became permanently numb and I knew it was going to stay that way till the end of tour. This happened to me 3 years ago in Argentina; it then took 6 months to recover.
The altimeter stopped working. The front shifter didn't work well either, sometimes after shifting up to the middle ring the lever wouldn't return to its position. Since it's combined shift/brake lever I was reluctant to shift too much, being afraid that I would loose the braking function as well. As a result I was either spinning like a rat in cage in the small ring on flat parts or grinding in the middle ring uphill.
Going up to Kaburabot pass.
I got over Kaburabot pass (30 km long and 1600 m of climbing, top at 3253 m) by 14:00. That was the best part of the day. The pass has two different sides. Going up from the west it's constant gradual climb through alpine-like pastures with wild flowers and singing buntings. On the other side, you drop through wild ravine on gravel road, where you need to stop every 10 minutes to articulate fingers from becoming numb from braking. As it turned out this first pass was the only real pass of the whole tour.
After Kalaikum the road follows the Pyanj river - the border river between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The scenery along the river is fantastic, yet I was impatient to find a proper camping space. Putting up a tent required much of my energy. I crawled in for an early night and took a couple of aspirins, hoping for a health improvement by the beginning of the next day.

Afgan footpath on the right, Tadjik road on left
and Pyanj river in between.
Day 4: 67 km.  I started the day with throwing up. Which was a very good thing, since it cleared up the reason for my weakness - it was the food poisoning from the dodgy soup and meat that I ate yesterday, just before starting the climb to Kaburabot. I was slow today, using every possible opportunity to stop and recover. Around 16:00 I stopped near the check point and took an offer for a cheap overnight in a truck stop dormitory. It was 5 somons for the bed and 4 somons for the dinner - the borscht.

Day 5:  152 km.  I slept in a dormitory together wit about 10 Tajik big-boys. One of them was praying before going to bed - it took him at least 15 minutes. I really envied his dedication.
Few more km along the river.
At last one good day. In the morning I felt fine. I took a tea and chocolate for breakfast and started cycling before 7:00. The road is smooth and the shifter miraculously started working again, so I could make a full use of it. The road is still a roller-coaster following the river valley up and down, but the river is wider and more peaceful, and so is the road.
Nevertheless, I felt my stomach is not totally recovered (too much unripe apricots maybe?), so around noon I lay down for a half an hour. Later, I came across the Chinese petrol station featuring real beer, so I drink a couple of them, which gives me unexpected burst of energy. It seems I'll reach Khorog today before dark. Yes that's right. I'm in Khorog around 20:00 and failing to find a hotel, I get accomodation in a separate dining room in one restaurant. I take a shower, have borscht and yoghurt and another beer (a nice combination) for dinner and go over to my séparé for a good night sleep.

Day 6:  53 km.  In the morning I went to the OVIR office, to get registered with the police. What I expected to be a swift process, took half of the day. I made a couple of photocopies from my passport, went over to the post to get some forms filled (a lady with a patience of an elephant spent half an hour filling two copies of the forms for me), paid the fee (73 somons), went over to OVIR office to apply for the registration and there an unfriendly official stored my passport in a cabinet and told me to come 5 hours later.
I used one hour to clean and oil the chain, and then I laid down in my room thinking how the trip was going so far. Not particularly good. I was behind schedule, my left hand was numb, my back was aching, my arse was in blisters, Tajiks appeared to be not so much hospitable as curious and their dogs quite annoying. I canceled the planned Wakhan valley loop and decided to go the fastest way through Tajikistan.
The Pamir highway starts.
At 15:00 I got the little piece of paper from OVIR, jumped on a bike eager to leave this unfriendly town. 5 kilometers further there was a police check point. The policeman examined the OVIR certificate and decided that it was no good - some stamp was missing. I should go back, he said. I gave him 20 somons which transformed him into a friendly, smiling person, wishing me a very good luck on my way. So, the OVIR pulled a little scam on me. The seed of anxiety sneaked into me. I don't suppose they did this little game just for 20 somons. There will be more check points ahead, and some of them might insist that I turn back, all the way to Khorog.
These thoughts occupied my mind for the next 50 km, so I don't remember much of the road. I made an early camp at the first appropriate location, well hidden from the road, in case the police was coming after me.

A harvester preparing for the job.
Day 7: 102 km. I used yesterday's early camp to fix the altimeter: the battery was dead, so I took a battery from the flash light (bike's taillight) of which I don't expect much use.
I was socializing a bit today. In the morning a group of harvesters invited me to join them for a tea and bread, before they started working: cutting the grass with sickles. In Jelandi I tried to find a restaurant. There was a 'sanatorium' before that village with a smart and probably expensive restaurant to which I didn't belong. Instead I found a store in the village selling only raw food like uncooked pasta, rice, flour and sugar. Since my lightweight religion prohibits the possession of cooking utensils and bans self-cooking, I bought half a kilo of pasta and asked the owner of the store to cook it for me and prepare it with butter. She added a bit of 'каимак' and green onion leaves, and made the most delicious variety of 'carbonara' I have ever eaten.
Kyrgyz jurt.
The road form Khorog on is paved and quite good. Today's start was also exceptional. The ride was up the river valley, but fast, on excellent smooth road. That continued almost to Jelandi when the gradient became steeper and ended with steep gravel 4 km climb to the top of Koy-Tezek pass (top at 4272 m). The pass surprised me; it was not marked on my distance card. I hoped it was because of the altitude and not because of lack of fitness that I crawled the last bit to the top, stopping every 100 m and panting like a bulldog. The road doesn't drop after this pass, it leads gently undulating toward another pass, so I decided to stop and camp shortly after the top.
This was a good day.

Easily moving through high plateau.
Day 8: 123 km. We can call this a very good day. We are still waiting for an 'overwhelming day'.
Last night was the coldest night of the tour, the temperature was -1 degrees C in the morning, and probably few degrees lower during the night. I was comfortably warm in my sleeping bag; the only evidence of a cold night was a layer of ice that formed inside the tent. I scrapped it off with my distance card, wiped the moisture with a dish washing cloth and refreshed my face with it. Good examples of multiple use of things.
In Alichur's home.
From the Koy-Tezek pass the road is unpaved at the beginning, it leads gently undulating toward another pass. Then there is a mix of paved/unpaved parts which lasts to crossroad with the Wakhan valley road. From there on it's good asphalt road. I had a good wind too, there was a lot of coasting. The scenery is dry high plateau, just the way I like it, and yet I am somewhat reserved. I must have become highly finical.
I stopped in Alichur today, where a woman invited me to her home for a meal. Then I moved on, anxiously awaiting the climb to Nayzatash pass (4314 m). The road did climb a bit, but there was no sign of a pass. Then it suddenly started to drop. After 8 km of downhill I realized that I went over the pass not even noticing it. I made a camp near a stone encirclement made for cattle.

Good road through Pamir.
Day 9: 115 km.  An old man woke me up in the morning. He said he had walked over from Murgab during the night. I was wondering what he really wanted, we exhausted the little communication abilities we had quite fast and he was still standing there. I offered him water and it seemed he was waiting for that; he drank the water hastily, than said good-bye.
I descended to Murgab. There was a check point before the village. To my relief they didn't address the question of the missing stamp on the OVIR registration. They said I should report to the police in the town. I certainly had no intention of doing it. I went to the bazaar to buy some food, then stopped for a lunch in a jurt. It was so cozy inside that I just couldn't leave. I must have spent two hours there.
Mountains near Akbaytal.
In the bazaar I saw a westerner with a bike, probably a German that I knew was ahead of me. He was talking to another man, so I didn't stop for a chat. At the end of the village there is a road sign - the only road sign I have seen since Dushanbe. It says: 415 km ahead to Osh, 90 km to the right to Kulma pass. Kulma pass leads to China and would be a big shortcut on my itinerary, but it's not open to foreigners, and besides, I don't care for shortcuts.
From Murgab the road gently and steadily ascended and became steep at the last 5 km to the top of Akbaytal pass (the highest cycle-able point of the trip at 4655m). The road downhill was bad and the wind started to blow, so as soon as I found a place sheltered from the wind I put out a tent.
All in all, today was a good adventure.

Karakol Lake.
Day 10: 76 km.  Another cold night, below zero, but again, I was happily warm in my sleeping bag. Just after the start I met the first cyclist on the road. He was a German whose plans were drastically altered by new Chinese policy with visas - he couldn't get one. I got mine at home. As usual, he was surprised how little I was carrying. 'Unbelievable', he said. It was unbelievable to me what stuff he had in his 4 big panniers, one big waterproof sack atop of panniers and a big handlebar bag. At least he arranged everything very neatly. He and his bags looked so clean and fresh as if he had started the trip just around the corner. Cleanliness, that's one thing I'm starting to miss.
After 13 km the gravel road is replaced by asphalt. The headwind started to blow, and lasted to the end of the day. I stoped twice for a meal, last time at a guesthouse in Karakol. There I got something a bit different then just bread and tea. I was so fed up with such food that even a bit of ketchup came as a delicacy.
I walked towards the shore of the Karakul Lake, hoping to get an opportunity to take a bath. 200 m short of it I waded into ankle-deep mud and turned back. The whole Karakul area is infested with mosquitoes. The only sure way to avoid them is never to stop cycling.
Pamir.
I thought: 'If, by any chance, I now meet my friend Zlato, who is cycling in opposite direction, I won't stop at all. Because if I do, the mosquitoes will kill me.' Half an hour later, coming out of the mosquito zone and starting a gentle climb, I see an unmistakable silhouette of a cyclist, coming down the opposite side. As he approaches, I recognize him: yes, it is Zlato. We both don't seem too excited about the encounter; 14 days ago we were sitting at one of Ljubljana's cafes discussing our oncoming trips. He tells me the terrible news: from 1st of July Kyrgyzstan introduced obligatory visas for Slovenian citizens. I started my trip on 26th June when Slovenians still didn't need the visa. Jesus! It's just what I needed! So what was I to do? There is a 17 km stretch of 'no-man's-land' between Tajik and Kyrgyz immigration points. Should I go through the Tajik immigration, get an exit stamp and try to enter Kyrgyzstan without visa? If they don't let me in Kyrgyzstan, I'm stuck in between, as I have only single entry visa to Tajikistan. Should I try it anyway and in the worst case forge my Tajik visa so it reads 'double-entry'? Should I bribe the Tajiks not to put an exit stamp in my passport? Should I turn back and make a shortcut to China by somehow crossing the Kulma pass? Or should I just drop it all, go back to Dushanbe and end this trip, which is already giving me too much headaches?
Those were my thoughts as I continued toward the border. The headwind was considerable now, so 25 km from the border I stopped and put up a tent. Maybe I'll think of something by the morning.

1 comment:

S. Gamboa said...

I had seen the country 2 years ago. I never thought that there are so many places that need to explore in Tajikistan. shitifujon.blogspot.com