From Samarkand, Uzbekistan to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. July 6th – July 17th
This is a sort of interim blog describing our journey from Samarkand in Uzbekistan to Dushanbe in Tajikistan as it may be a while before we can blog again. We hope to be writing again in Osh on the other side of the Pamir mountains.
It was getting time for Pete and I to leave Samarkand but we were strangely reluctant. It could have been due to the 45c temperatures. It could have been the beauty and magic of the city itself. It could have been the fact that we were eating good food. We had 2 days left on our visa, we had seen all the sights that we wanted to see, we had enjoyed Uzbekistan very much but the mountains were calling.
However there was the small fact of a reasonably priced hotel not far from where we were staying that had a swimming pool. We went to have a look and yes, they had room, in fact it seemed there were no other guests so we packed our bags and moved. When we arrived the manager/caretaker said that as it was Sunday he would like to go and see his family and would we mind locking the gate if we went out. We found ourselves alone in the hotel with free run of the whole place including the kitchen and of course the wonderful swimming pool. That night we locked up, switched off all the lights and wondered what we would do if other guests turned up. The next morning a lady was there to make our breakfast but then she disappeared. The manager came back and said he was off to a wedding and would we mind making our own breakfast the next day. Of course not and that night we invited two other travellers George and Annabella from Portugal to come and have supper and a pool party.
This made it all the more difficult to leave and we wondered whether to risk arrest and overstay our visa but good sense prevailed and the bikes were piled up once more and the pool became a distant dream as we sweated our way to the border. It really was unbelievably hot and at every watering hole we soaked our hats and tee shirts in an effort to stay cool.
The border post was quiet and friendly and we made a relaxed and hassle free entry into Tajikistan. Our visa here gives us 45 days which I am already mildly panicking about as our progress is slow and the road ahead daunting . These feelings weren’t helped by what suddenly lay before us. I know that we always say that when you cross a border everything changes but here it was more dramatic than ever and where there had been desert stretching to the horizon we now had jagged, snow covered peaks suddenly appearing as if from nowhere.
We arrived in Panjikent the first large town at about 2pm and ready to call it a day and find somewhere to stay. We called into the bank for some Tajikistan money-this time somoni and small denominational notes unlike Uzbekistan where we needed a carrier bag everytime we went to the bank.
While we were waiting for the bank to re-open after lunch, Mansour introduced himself as the manager and after having organised exchanging our money , invited us to his home to stay the night. This was our first encounter with amazing Tajikistan hospitality. We had a lovely time with Mansour and his extended family and lovely children and Pete enjoyed teaching the kids how to play “what’s the time Mr Wolf!!”
Following our stay with Mansour and after about 20 kms we found ourselves invited to second breakfast with a lovely family and the grandmother told me she loved me. I told her that I loved her too which seemed a bit far fetched as we had only just met but it was very friendly.
20 kms later we were called in to have lunch with some men working in the fields and then second lunch with a family in a village.
By this time we were having to refuse when people called us over but cars have pulled up and given us water, apricots, bread and one man wanted to put us and our bikes into his small car alongside his family.
Over five days we huffed and puffed our way up steep hills enjoying amazing scenery always following a rushing, swollen river that was almost visibly eroding the bank.
When we stopped to soak our feet and heads in the water it was incredibly cold but so refreshing.
We occasionally met other cyclists who for some strange reason don’t seem to sweat, never get off their bikes to push and are all about 20 years old.
We encountered the famous Tunnel of Doom which is 5 km long and for some a challenge to cycle through but for us an experience to be avoided. We had bets as to how long it would take us to get a lift through. I said 20 minutes and Pete bet 14 . It took 4 minutes before a petrol tanker drew up and the lovely driver hauled our bikes onto the top of the tank.
We threw all our panniers into the cabin and set off through the truly horrible tunnel, thick with fumes, dark, potholed and scary. Our friend Frances who we call “she who has gone before” cycled through this tunnel from hell and came out the other end looking as if she had been down a coal mine with blackened and tear streaked face, totally frightened by the experience. Our driver took us on and we passed through a few other smaller tunnels and eventually we told him that we really should get back on the bikes and ride or we would be tempted just to fall asleep in his cab and go all the way to Dushanbe with him. He was so kind and went to a lot of trouble to ensure that our bikes were safe. People here are so kind, it is very humbling.
We had a great downhill all the way into Dushanbe, the Tajikistan capital, marred only by a strong headwind which felt as if it was coming from a blast furnace. We followed the Varzob river all the way down and stopped at a lovely riverside cafe for lunch and sprawled on the tapchans in an attempt to cool off.
Tomorrow we will set off on the M41 towards the Pamir mountains. When one says M41, one has a vision of smooth tarmac, busy road, service stations every few miles. Ha ha.This particular M41 was built by the Russians to connect Dushanbe with Osh in Kyrgyzstan. It is an old silk road route crossed by Marco Polo on his way to China and passes through isolated villages on poorly maintained roads, through spectacular high altitude scenery.
We have read so many stories and accounts and now it is time to experience it for ourselves. There may be little in the way of wifi and possibly not much time or energy to write our next blog so if anyone is actually reading this then please don’t worry if we “disappear” until about the end of August when we hope to be in Osh not too battered by the experience and maybe having a bit more knowledge of what our bodies and minds are capable of coping with.
We have looked forward to this part of our journey for a long time and it was one of the main reasons that we chose to do this particular route. I have a strong memory of sitting in our front room in Hallbankgate with Jude and Astrid who had cycled the road a year previously and just being totally inspired by their enthusiasm and excitement. I remember saying “but we couldn’t do that ” and Astrid saying “of course you could” and me then thinking well maybe. Perhaps a bottle of wine was involved somewhere in the conversation but there is no doubt that the seed was sown and now here we are about to set off. Amazing.
I remember Chris and I going to the post office in Samarkand and feeling I’d travelled back in time as I watched the staff efficiently re- wrapping our parcel with brown paper, string and then sealing wax. There wasn’t a computer in the building. STOP PRESS. We’ve just heard the parcel has arrived in Carlisle – about two weeks!
I remember negotiating the cost of four t-shirts and the elderly lady in the shop used an abacus!
I remember the slightly surreal experience of staying in a large-ish hotel utterly alone. It felt as if we’d gone through a portal into another dimension…
I remember the squeals of glee from the children when we played ‘what’s the time Mr Wolf’ after I shouted dinner time and chased them all around the garden.
I remember stopping at a shop for some food. The neighbours invited us in for a cup of tea. How could we refuse! When we went in, grandma gave Chris a huge hug. We were welcomed with open arms…
I remember soaking my t-shirt under a water spout, giving it a brief wring out, putting it back on and it being totally dry after about 10 minutes of cycling.
I remember first hearing of Dushanbe in Hallbankgate, Cumbria. I imagined a hot, dry, dusty village… It’s a capital city! It has shopping malls and an Opera House. It has smart 5 star hotels and an international airport. It is hot though… We’re now heading for the hills and I suspect, very soon the shopping malls and supermarkets will be a distant memory.