Dushanbe, Tajikistan to Osh, Kyrgyzstan
July 17th to August 29th
Dushanbe to Osh! We were finally setting off to cycle the Pamirs. I have to confess, a couple of years ago I hadn’t even heard of the Pamirs. They’re on the north western end of a great range of mountains that sweep northwest starting with the Himalayas in Nepal. Some describe the Pamirs as the roof of the world. I think ever since Chris and I left Cumbria they have been a looming presence on our mental horizon. And now we were actually there…
We set off early on a good road out of Dushanbe but the day very quickly heated up and by lunchtime we were looking for somewhere to rest for the hottest part of the day. We found just what we were looking for – trees, fairly close together with dense foliage. Unfortunately the police were there before us. They too were sheltering in the shade and aiming their speed gun at the on-coming traffic. They were happy to share though, and before we’d settled down for our afternoon nap they handed us a lovely watermelon.
That night we again looked for a shady spot to camp. This time the clump of trees seemed to be on the edge of someone’s farm. So we knocked at the house and asked if it was alright if we camped there for the night. It was. We put up our tent and the next thing we knew a rug was brought out for us to sit on. And then bowls of lovely stew were brought. And tea. We called that campsite ‘magic carpet’.
The following day we got up at 0330 to try and get a good number of kilometres under our tyres before it got too hot. As an experiment it didn’t really work. We were both so tired that we fell asleep in a cafe, sitting up, our heads falling forward and waking us with a start.
We passed by a massive project.
It was to be the largest ‘rock filled’ dam in the world and when finished would supply hydro electric power to the whole of Tajikistan with lots to spare for export. We pushed on, stopped at cafe, breakfasted on fried eggs and bread and watched the huge pot of ‘plov’ being made for day.
We pushed on . Literally pushed. It was steep and the road surface was rough. I tried to treat it like walking with my bike… Taking my bike for a walk…Having wheels on my luggage… Being able to ride my bags downhill…However I worded it – it was still tough. But we made it to the top of that first pass- 3250 metres! We were quite pleased with ourselves. Chris took a photo of ‘ the highest bus stop in the world’ and emailed it to friends and relatives… And then we started to think about bus stops in Bogota, Columbia. I think somebody was pulling someone’s leg a little.
The drop down the other side of the pass to Kalaikhum was dramatic. (I have to be sparing with the superlatives, I don’t want to peak too soon…) Vertical rock faces, narrow gorges and a rough stony road that seemed as if it would never stop descending. We stopped on the way down to talk to a group of men and women who were clearing mines and cluster bombs. Painstakingly, metre by metre, dressed in heavy helmets and shrapnel proof jackets they were checking the ground for unexploded ordnance. The legacy of war…
Eventually the road started to level off and we soon found ourselves in the small town of Kalaikhum. We checked into a little ‘homestay’ (essentially a small hotel or hostel, run and lived in by a family) We found a supermarket, a bank, ice cream, and beer. And we rested. There were other cyclists there too. A Dutch couple who were going the opposite way to us and a lovely American couple who we plied with questions about what lay ahead for us. We discussed bikes, routes and of course, food. In our turn we told them what they had in store – a massive climb if they went our way or better roads and more gentle gradients if they took the southern route. They voted, and opted for the southern route.
Two days of rest and we pedalled out of town. We crested a hill at the edge of the town and there , across the river was Afganistan! This river was to be our companion for the next few days. It was strange looking across 50 metres of water into Afganistan.
The scenery was dramatic, the truck drivers, friendly (if we were stopped they often asked if we were alright as they passed) and cyclists coming the other way were usually up for a chat.
We met a couple of French cyclists on this road and it was from them that we learned of an accident, or possibly a deliberate act where some cyclists were killed by a car. As they were telling us of the incident Chris had a sudden realisation. It was a Dutch couple and an American couple. These were the cyclists we’d met in Kalaikhum.
On the last leg into Khorog we stopped at a hotel/cafe to drink a pot of tea. The owner would accept no payment. It was now confirmed that the cyclists, a group of six in total were targeted and murdered by terrorists and we wondered if this was a reaction by normal people to the horrors of terrorism.
It was around here that we, while chatting to another cyclist, wondered why our Chinese visa was different to everyone else’s. We knew nothing of a cut off date by which you had to enter the country. So we thought we’d better actually read the visas. We dug out our passports. And read them. Our tummies fell into our shoes. There was a ‘use by’ date… It was 4 days off… We could conceivably make it but it would mean squishing into a 4×4 taxi, our bikes strapped to the roof, and bouncing our way for 14 hours to the Chinese border. But above all it would mean missing out on the Pamirs. To make the dash, or stay and cycle the Pamirs. The decision jumped back and forth. We decided to stay. We did have duplicate passports in the UK which we thought could be used for a new visa. But nothing was certain…
Khorog was a quiet and sober sort of a break. The attack was prominent in everyone’s thoughts.
After 3 days we were ready to move on. We had spent some time deciding whether to cycle the Wakhan corridor route or the M41 (yes, it really is called the M41) . The Wakhan was a terrible road, a bit busy with overlanders but beautiful. The M41 was a slightly better road but had trucks. Right at the last minute we chose a road that ran between the two! We came out of the tourist information office, did a quick interview for local TV (fame, fame at last!) – actually they were hanging around outside the TIC office and I think we were the first people they saw… and set off.
The road was good at first and the local people very friendly. We were invited into people’s houses for tea, we were given yogurt and apricots as we set up our tent on the outskirts of a village and we were invited to a party to celebrate the arrival of a new baby.
Our road turned to track and climbed and then climbed some more. We pushed a lot and cycled a little. Our final campsite before the pass we named ‘4000 metres’. We were actually camping at 4000 metres! In the evening we watched a large herd of cows plodding purposefully past us and in the morning we saw both a herd of goats and a herd of sheep – both being driven by shepherds.
We topped the pass and slowly made our way down the other side. The track was more like a river bed in places but eventually we made it down and re-joined the M41. We met some other cyclists and all camped together on the river bank where I made a very passable imitation of a pasta carbonara!
Once again we had to select our lowest gear (well actually we pushed) and climb to another pass. This one was 4250 metres, the tarmac disintegrated into stones and it became noticeably harder to breath. The huge Chinese trucks (where were they going and what were they carrying? – we’ll never know) still rumbled passed us and a new type of vehicle started to appear. The Mongol rally cars. From Europe to Mongolia, the rally is held every two years. They used to start at Goodwood race course, the only stipulation, that the car is worth less than £1000. We’ve seen Fords and Nissan Micras, we’ve seen a Robin Reliant and heard of a Vespa scooter!
It was here the idea that we were cycling on the surface of Mars first occurred to me. The rocks were red, the sand was red, everything was desiccated although there was evidence of massive water erosion in the past. Very occasionally there were green patches where water flowed.
We pedalled through Alichur where we once again noticed that the shape of peoples faces were changing. We used the village pump to top up our water bottles, very few houses have running water. We then set off for Murghab.
I found Murghab a strange place. A ‘wild east’ sort of place. The market or bazaar was made up of ex-containers. It was dry and dusty and the houses set far apart. The town’s only proper hotel felt more like a prison cell when we were shown a room. We declined and chose a nearby homestay instead. It was here we first came across a banya. A sort of shower room connected to a sauna, heated, I think, by coal. The shower was plastic buckets and bowls which you filled with water and sloshed over yourself. The family who ran the homestay were wonderful. They had no running water, no electricity and no oven and yet made delicious breakfasts and dinners for everyone staying there and when I asked if there was any possibility of a cake for Chris’ birthday – they produced one!
We heard here that our attempts at getting a new Chinese visa had failed. The forms were returned with lots of red ink, question marks and underlining.
With Murghab behind us our biggest challenge lay ahead. A 4685 metre pass. That’s close to the height of Mont Blanc! We passed tens of kilometres of fence which marked the edge of no-mans-land between Tajikistan and China. The actual border ran along the tops of the mountains. The purpose of the fence? I’m not sure.
At one point we had to both push one bike! But metre by metre we made it! We got to the top. We didn’t linger though. It was cold and windy. A couple of quick photos and we were off down the other side.
There was one more major pass before Osh. The top of the pass was the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. I found this one the worst of the lot. It was the wind. We had to battle a 40-50 kph wind as well as climb a 3500 metre pass. Not to mention the stony road surface. I decided the scenery was now more like Venus. The sand was yellow the clouds were low and threatening and the wind howled. (Actually, I think it rains sulphuric acid in the mountains of Venus so I really shouldn’t grumble…)
Once again, though we got over the pass and almost abruptly returned to earth. There was grass on the hillsides. There were horses and herdsmen. Running rivers and yurts. The sun was shinning and the skies were blue again.
We passed through Sary Tash where the Chinese border was only a 72km drive away. But it might as well have been on another planet… We had no visa.
We had two options. Fight or flight. We could either carry on bashing away trying to get a visa or we could simply book an aeroplane and fly over China. Fight or flight.
One final pass and our road descended to Osh.
1300km of high desert. Stunning scenery, friendship on the road and welcoming local people. We’d ‘done’ the Pamirs!
Tajikistan has been the best and the worst. Pete and I both left it withmixed feelings of awe, excitement, amazement but also with sadness. In fact Tajikistan gave us the lowest point of our trip emotionally and made feelings of home very strong and also very literally the highest when we staggered up to 4600metres- 15000 feet and felt a great sense of elation (and exhaustion!) when we got to the top.
Our sadness came when we heard the terrible news of the deaths of 4 cyclists who we had met when we stayed at the same hostel in Kalaikhum. We had spent time comparing routes and hearing one anothers stories and liked these people very much. The American couple had baskets on the front of their bikes which I envied and admired and they were so helpful and unassuming, an adventurous couple just travelling the world in a gentle and friendly way. We have a lovely photo of us all on the day we left, both heading in different directions and it seems unimaginable to know that they would be killed 4 days later. We heard the news from another cyclist while we were still on the road to Khorog and knew instinctively that it must be them because of the timing and their nationalities. At first we thought it might have been a terrible accident but we then saw on the news that it had been a deliberate attack and felt so saddened by such a terrible waste of life.
Understandably this awful event created an anxiety which we hadn’t so far experienced and we did consider leaving the country. It would have had the double effect of solving our Chinese visa problem as we could have done what we began to call “the dash”, that is to get a lift to the Chinese border and still be in time to use our visa.
When we got to our hotel in Khorog it was awash with military personnel who were in discussion with a group of Italian cyclists who had been advised by their embassy to leave the country under military escort. This increased our anxiety even more and we wondered why our embassy wasn’t concerned about us! We talked to other cyclists and reflected a lot about what was going on and eventually made the decision to carry on along the Pamir Highway. All the other cyclists we met were continuing with their journey although we did hear of people cancelling their trips and the manager of our hotel told us that future bookings were being cancelled. This was not only a terrible personal tragedy for the people involved and their families but was a disaster for Tajikistan itself which is trying to promote their country and in fact we are now in their Year of Tourism. Local people were angry and saddened particularly in the area where we were where the majority are Ismaili Muslims, a Shia sect whose spiritual leader is the Aga Khan. They are tolerant and inclusive in their beliefs and not known for extremism. We stayed with one Ismaeli family and were intrigued to see a picture of Jesus on the wall. When we asked Ruslan about the picture he told us that he loved Jesus and also Muhammed and there was only one God and that the most important thing for him was to live in peace with his neighbours.
What happened in Tajikistan was so at odds with our experiences and encounters and we don’t want it to cloud our memories. We are not naive and understand that it is a country with problems: poverty, unemployment, it is a conduit for drugs passing from Afghanistan into the rest of central Asia and Russia and we hear of corruption and repression of any opposition to the government. But it still felt safe and welcoming and perhaps it is becoming the way of the world now that wherever you travel, acts of violence can and do occur, and how terribly sad if our sense of adventure and wanting to learn more about one another is stifled because of a minority of people wanting to make us frightened.
From the start being there was like being present at an extended party where you knew none of the guests but who were all intent on making you feel welcome and included. We would stop at a water source and someone would be washing their car, someone else would be having a picnic, children would be washing and splashing one another. We would be offered bread and fruit, asked our names, our ages, where we were going, all the usual questions that we now answered with ease. We were cycling along one day when a large 4×4 screeched to a halt right next to us and disgorged about 12 young lads who accompanied by some very loud Tajik beats started to dance in the road. Pete couldn’t resist joining in and after showing us a rather wilting wedding cake in the boot and offering us a slice (we refused as we felt that the bride and groom should at least see it in one piece!!) they departed in a cloud of dust and thudding beats.
The children are delightful. While we have been here they have been on school holiday. They attend school almost continuously for 9 months and then have a long three months summer holiday. It seems to us that they are expected to work during this time and are often sent off up into the mountains to stay with relatives and work on the farm. We would often see really quite young children herding large flocks of goats or cows. We would meet them on the road selling fruit – apples, apricots, water melons. I remember one young boy serving us in a small village shop. He was so efficient and tried to sell us far more than we needed! A proper little businessman and probably about 11 years old. They seem so bright, energetic and confident and we have got very used to the cries that go up as we pass through the villages.
Hello, hello, what is your name? Two young boys on a donkey “kidnapped” us one day and wanted us to go to their house for a meal. It was lunch time, we were hungry so we agreed and followed them home. We were led into a carpeted, cool room where we sat on the floor on cushions and were served a beautiful meal of plov, a local dish of rice and carrots usually topped with meat or eggs. It was delicious and we had it with bread, tea and water melon. The boys sat with us as we ate and shared the meal. It seemed obvious that this was a commercial arrangement and that part of their job was to waylay hungry tourists and bring them home to mother who had the food ready prepared. We were very happy to pay what they asked and admired their entrepreneurial nature!
Things changed a bit with the children when we passed through an area which had a higher concentration of tourists. Here we were besieged, high fives exchanged which always made me nervous on the bumpy roads, cries of stop,stop, give me chocolate, give me money. It seemed a shame and less friendly but who can blame them for trying!
Food has been a bit of an issue in Tajikistan. Quantity, variety, quality, availability have left us sometimes quite hungry and I have actually started to dream about food. I woke up one morning attempting to put an imaginary spoon of apricot crumble into my mouth and since then we have both discussed this crumble and it’s become a bit of an obsession. When we finally get to eat it Pete wants his with cream and I want lashings of Birds custard.
We were very thrilled one day when we went to a shop and found tins of baked beans. We have never really missed stuff like this and aren’t the sort of people who would take pg tips and marmite on holiday with us but the sight of these beans really did cause our hearts to race. We hurried back to our hostel with them, got two spoons and ate them straight from the tin. After sitting back burping happily we decided to go back and buy three more tins to take with us on our onward stretch. Baked beans have never tasted so good.
We have had some other memorable food, mainly lovely fruit. Water melon, apricots and mulberries. We have had delicious, creamy yoghurt made from yak milk while sat in a yurt. I decided that when I was describing this yoghurt to another traveller and directing them to it I used a sentence that I probably wouldn’t use again in my lifetime. “Turn right at the second yurt and you can get some very yummy, yak yoghurt”.
Another yurt that we stopped at which described itself as a tea room produced what was exactly a cream tea. Home made strawberry jam with clotted cream on a lovely soft bread with a big pot of tea. Heaven has never seemed so near.
We have eaten a lot of biscuits because there was nothing else in the shop and had one very strange meal in a cafe of chips and rice. We met a group of Italian tourists who had stopped for a break by the side of the road. All 20 of them were eating bananas which looked a rather strange sight but one which made us both salivate and be filled with a determination not to pass them without sharing in their banana fest. It had been a long time since we had eaten a banana and we stopped to look at them and must have looked rather sad and pathetic because within a few seconds we were given bananas and began ciao-ing and buonjourno-ing happily.
Not always being able to buy bread led us eventually to buy flour and oil and to start making our own pourries or chapattis which when spread with jam or chocolate spread are rather delicious. We shared time and a campsite with the lovely Matt and Pheng from New Zealand who in exchange for a lesson in making pan fried bread, taught us how to make a very excellent camp fire with dried horse pooh. As we piled up the pooh next to the fire we did wonder what the food hygiene inspectors at home would think of our efforts and whether we would be awarded a smiley or a frowning face. We didn’t care as burning pooh definitely added a unique taste to our already unique bread.
People of the road.
There are many cyclists on the Pamir Highway. Sometimes there seemed to be more cyclists than cars. It is always a joy to meet others, compare notes, receive and give recomendations of places to stay, where to eat, what to expect from the road surface and other exciting information.
Sometimes we would cycle together for a while and we would often camp together. We have met people from all over the world and I hope made some lasting friendships. We have leap frogged (or saute mouton, jumping sheep as it is called in France) with Charlene and Damien from France meeting up every so often. They are on a very impressive tandem and are a sight to behold with their trailer.
They shared my birthday party and my wonderful cake when we stayed at a Homestay in Murghab and thought it very strange when Pete and I started singing the Beatles song, “when I’m 64” !!
They are both on a mission to find us an alternative wall should we not get into China and sent us this very exciting photograph of what they thought might be a good substitute in Bishkek.
Other people of the road are the lorry drivers for whom we developed a real respect. They travel along this unpredictable road which in the winter months is prone to landslides, flooding and bridges being washed away. They were invariably friendly and always ready with a wave and a hoot. We also got the feeling that if we ever were stuck or in a difficult situation they would help us.
This is unlike the 4×4’s who scream along this road at break-neck speed intent on getting their passengers to the next town in a time that will impress them and make the fare worthwhile. They are really the local buses and are loaded up with as much luggage and passengers as possible and we learnt not to mess with them and whenever we heard them coming we just got out of their way fast.
The Pamir Highway
“Travelling by bicycle is a life of simple things taken seriously: hunger, thirst, friendship, the weather, the stutter of the world beneath you “.
This is a quote from a book I am reading at the moment called Lands of Lost Borders, by Kate Harris. I often wish I could sum things up as concisely as that and she did strike a chord particularly in relation to the Pamir Highway which has been one of the most challenging and demanding things we have ever done.
It was a journey that made one very aware of your own vulnerability and relationship to everything around you. At one point (luckily there was no one around) I found myself remonstrating and talking to the road. Road, what do you think you are playing at? Call yourself a road? You are an apology for a road and don’t deserve the title. You entice cyclists to come and travel along you and then you treat them like this. You should be ashamed. This was a 20 km stretch of “road” that was corrugated or washboard as some people call it. If you try and cycle on it you are in danger of your head falling off your shoulders or at the very least all of your internal organs being rearranged and ending up in the wrong place. It was awful and seemed to go on forever. When we eventually reached some asphalt our joy knew no bounds proving that joy is a very relative concept. Show me a stretch of asphalt on the way to Carlisle and I will remain unmoved, here it took on the role of a gift from the gods, second only to apricot crumble.
We met a South African couple one day, cycling the other way with a very strong headwind which was pushing us along but hard work for them. We commiserated with them but were impressed when they said that they had made friends with the wind and it wasn’t a problem. I loved this attitude and vowed that next time we had a headwind I would give it a try. I did and it didn’t work as I decided that particular wind was not the sort if friend I wanted and we didn’t hit it off at all.
The views on the Pamir astounded at every turn. Jagged peaks meeting deep blue sky, intricate shapes as if the mountains had been made from toffee poured over a mould and allowed to do whatever it wanted. Canyons that hemmed us in so that when you looked ahead we couldn’t imagine where the road would take us.
Roads that stretched ahead until you thought, I can’t possibly go that far and up a hill as steep as that. I must admit to sometimes gritting my teeth and thinking I just have to suffer and get on with this. Both of us were affected by altitude. Not in a serious, life threatening way , but breathlessness even sometimes, while just sitting. One does take being able to breath for granted. But it was all rather marvellous and awe inspiring and we were astounded when we saw Karl Marx and Engels standing tall together and glowering over the landscape.
We didn’t get to see Lenin Peak but marvelled over the names. In Uzbekistan the highest peak is Khazret Sultan but it used to be called Peak of the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party until somebody saw sense. It would be a bit of a mouthful as you were off on your Sunday afternoon hike. Similarly when we were in the Dushanbe area we were passing through The Region of Republican Subordination and in the eastern Pamirs the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast.Why use only 5 or 6 syllables when you can use 100?
If we don’t manage to get into China we can at least say that for miles and miles we were within metres of that horrible fence. Every time I looked at it I thought what a waste of money it represented.
We had passed through towns and villages that had no running water, an intermittent and unreliable electricity supply, scant sewage and rubbish disposal and yet this fence must have cost a fortune to erect and even more to maintain.
Yet with a good pair of wire cutters you could easily have got through it. What was the point of it anyway other than two countries disagreeing over who owned which bit of what? You would imagine that China had enough land to keep it going for a wee while yet without worrying about an arid stretch of mountainside in Tajikistan.
It is easy to spot someone who has just finished the Pamir Highway by bicycle even if they are not sitting on a bike at the time. They are usually very thin and have sunken eyes. Their clothes are faded and dirty and if you talk to them they may fall asleep mid sentence. If they do stay awake they will be talking about food and asking where they can find the nearest cake. This description certainly fits Pete and he puts the phrase “bag of bones” onto a completely different level. Giving him a hug is quite dangerous. However we have found the cake shop and an ice cream parlour so are hoping that those alarmingly obvious ribs might go back to where they came from soon.
We are now in Osh. We’ve got a lovely room in a hostel where there are grapes ripening in the garden, travellers of all nationalities and on all forms of transport coming and going, friendly staff and a relaxing atmosphere. And we’ve decided to ‘fight’. We’re going to have one more go at getting our Chinese visas. So we are going to head northeast to Bishkek where we will either turn east for China and the great wall, or go to the airport…And find another wall??? There are other walls…