TAJIKISTAN, 19th – 27th September 2017
We arrived in Tajikistan late one afternoon to be greeted by a billboard with the face of a suited man bearing down upon us. We assumed him to be an important man, for he was standing in front of a very grand building, and also quite an unconscientious one, for he was trampling on some flowers.
Beyond this billboard of this important unconscientious man we found another billboard of the same man, and then another one, and another, and then somewhere beyond that we found Tajikistan. But it was worth waiting for, as it was a lovely place for an evening ride. People were out working hard in the fields, picking cotton as they had been in much of the last of Uzbekistan, but with time for a wave and a hello for us. Mountains were suddenly on the horizons in all directions and there was a lovely atmosphere as the temperatures dropped with the sun. It felt good to be in Tajikistan at last, beyond the deserts, and looking ahead to the challenges of the high mountains.
We camped on a rare strip of unused land behind a graveyard, and then rode on towards Dushanbe the next morning. It was a good ride. Three years ago this whole road had been a horrific bumpy muddy mess, now it was a brand new modern dual carriageway. Along the way we stopped to buy fruit from many of the roadside stalls, but more often than not we paid nothing. People also stopped their cars to give us handfuls of fruits, and at one point workers came out of their field to hand me their freshly picked cucumbers. My basket was soon overflowing with goodies. The people of Tajikistan could hardly have been more generous and welcoming, yet there was one thing we loved more than anything about this country. “Listen,” Alex said, “No one is beeping their horns!”
There was one extraordinary thing about this ride, and that was the ridiculous number of billboards with that important unconscientious man’s face upon them. We assumed he must be some sort of god to these people, or at the very least he must be a leader they love dearly very much. Because according to the billboards he was responsible for the abundance of fruit, and flowers, and for the mountains and the waterfalls, and just about everything in Tajikistan, including judo lessons. I decided I should count how many times I saw his face beaming down on us, and this was a task that took some paying attention, for he was literally everywhere. It took just 32 kilometres of Tajikistan for me to reach 100 sightings.
The capital Dushanbe was much bigger than I remembered. No Veronique to stay with this time either, sadly, for she’d just moved back to France. That had us heading for the new cyclist hangout, the Green House Hostel, and we arrived a little tired from the city traffic and ready for a good break. Dushanbe makes for a good resting point before taking on the Pamir Highway, but we were going to need an extra long stop, for we had a to-do list as big as, well, the small piece of paper Dea wrote it on, but she does have very small writing. I needed a new fork and new tyres, Dea needed a new front hub and a new bottom bracket, and we both needed new shoes and warm clothes, with us arriving a little late in the season to rumours of minus twenty at night on the 4000 metre high Pamir plateau we were planning to camp on.
Jack and Barbara, who we met in the Uzbek desert a month earlier, were at the Green House too, as well as a French cyclist named Marion. She’d had some real bad luck, having cycled from Europe only to suffer a bad foot injury as she started the Pamirs, and she’d had to take a ride back here to try and recover. Alex from Somerset hadn’t got the memo, and was staying at another hostel around the corner, but he came over and joined us all for some games of table tennis. Alex from Guernsey was ever so good.
Dea and I cycled all the way back across town to meet with Dilshod, the local man who had the new fork that I so badly needed, as well as an array of tyres, hubs and bottom brackets. He was just a young guy who sourced these parts somehow from Almaty and traded in the courtyard outside of his apartment. I was really excited to see the fork that he’d sent me a photo of, so I was a bit surprised when he pulled out a different one. I could see right away that the steerer tube was too short to fit my frame. “This isn’t the one you sent me the photo of,” I said.
“No. I sold that one to another touring cyclist a few days ago.”
This was terrible, terrifying news. The idea of trusting my cracked, welded-up fork on the rough roads of the Pamirs was close to madness, yet I’d missed out on my best chance of a replacement by a few days. And there was more bad news – Dilshod’s tyres weren’t very good, the hubs were worse, and the bottom bracket was too wide. We fitted it to Dea’s bike anyway, mostly I think because we didn’t want this all to be for nothing, and she’d just have to make do without her big chainring, which we reckoned she wouldn’t be needing for a while anyway.
Back at the Green House there was worse news for the unfortunate Marion. She’d been to see a doctor and her foot was now in a cast. She was going to have to fly home, her trip over for the time being. It was a terrible blow for the poor girl, and I sympathised with her by asking for her tyres. I think I said something like, “ Oh, that’s awful bad luck, are they Schwalbe Mondials, they are, aren’t they? They look so perfect for the Pamirs! Can I have them? Please? I’ll give you lots of money.”
Luckily for me Marion was a nice girl, and she agreed to sell me her tyres. This solved another of our problems, but our most pressing concerns – my cracked fork and Dea’s wobbly hub – remained. Over the next few days we tried other leads in the search for these elusive parts. There was a bike repair man who was building a wheel with a mallet, but he didn’t have the parts, there was a shop in the bazaar where the man tried to rip us off for some reflective stickers, but he didn’t have the parts, then there was an actual bike shop, some distance away, but the man there didn’t have the parts either. The problem we had was that all the bikes we saw in the whole of Dushanbe were mountain bikes with disc brakes. I looked at literally every bicycle I saw, and they all had forks for disc brakes, with steerer tubes far too short for my frame.
Things weren’t looking good, but then I came up with an elaborate solution. Alex from Somerset was flying to Dubai for a few days to meet with his girlfriend for a little holiday, and then flying back to Dushanbe to continue cycling. A little research showed that there was a decent bike shop in Dubai, so I asked Alex if he wouldn’t mind picking up some bike parts while he was there. Alex from Somerset is a very friendly and nice man, and he said he was more than happy to help.
So I spent the next few days emailing back and forth with a man from Wolfi’s Bike Shop in Dubai about a fork. At first he thought he’d have one that would fit, but with the cycling scene in Dubai being very much about expensive road bicycles, in the end there wasn’t anything that would work with my touring bike. Oh, this wasn’t good news for me at all, but at least Alex from Somerset would be able to bring back a hub for Dea. As for me, it was now painfully obvious that I was going to have to cycle the rough, remote, 1500 kilometre Pamir Highway on a cracked fork that had been welded back together in five minutes by an Uzbek man in a flat cap who may or may not have known what he was doing. I decided that if I was going to do that I better have a back-up plan in case of a catastrophic failure of the weld. This involved a bit of metal that had once held Dea’s mirror, and a lot of electrical tape. I hoped that, in the case of a catastrophic failure, this might at least hold the fork together enough for me to not die. I also bought the bazaar’s entire stock of electrical tape to take in reserve, to patch things up if need be, because in my experience you can fix anything with electrical tape.
By this stage Jack and Barbara were long gone, Marion had flown home, and even Alex from Guernsey got bored of waiting around for us and left too. Other cyclists arrived though. There was, briefly, a Frenchman named Sofiane who was cycling 200+ kilometres per day. He’d left France 40 days earlier and planned to cycle the Pamirs in about a week. Others were taking it a bit slower. A few cyclists were going the other way, arriving looking sick and exhausted, which was a bit worrying. There were others going our way too. A young Brit named Henry, and two women also from the UK, Liz and Miranda. All of this made for a nice atmosphere at the Green House, which was a truly splendid place to rest up for all us. It was a big house, green of course, with lots of rooms and a nice courtyard. There was the table tennis and even a pizza delivery service which we made use of often. Such was the atmosphere that the pizza delivery guy would almost always stay for a game of table tennis.
There were many other things for us to get done as well. I did my best to fix our broken tent, and ordered a new fork to be shipped to Almaty, Kazakhstan. We managed to locate an outdoor/hunting store with brand name quality gear to set us up for the cold nights ahead. Dea got a down vest and a down sleeping bag and a new pair of Goretex Merrell shoes. The plan was for me to get some good new shoes here as a birthday present, but unfortunately there was nothing that would fit my big feet, and I ended up making do with a pair of fake Adidas from the bazaar. But I did get a couple of amazing birthday gifts from my lovely girlfriend Dea. She got me a bright orange t-shirt, which would have been fantastic enough anyway, but on the back she’d drawn a big ‘No horn honking’ sign, with ‘No honking please’ written above it in Chinese. It was something I’d long dreamed of having, and I hoped it would be enough to see me through the final stretch in China. And, in case the t-shirt didn’t work, she’d also got me a horn for my bike, a means of fighting back. This was a gift she’d bought in Bukhara and she’d not done the best job of keeping it a secret, for at the border out of Uzbekistan we’d had our bags searched, and the lady doing it couldn’t resist giving it a honk.
Just as we thought we were getting on top of things, more things went wrong. Our crank tool broke, I noticed my own bottom bracket was broken, then I broke my brakes. Our bikes were kind of now in a worse state than when we arrived. But by some miracle the bike shop selling only disc brake mountain bikes had some Shimano v-brakes, and Alex from Somerset returned from Dubai, carrying with him a bag of bicycle parts, including Dea’s new hub. Her old one was ridiculously wonky and it would have made sense to change it before we left, but Dea was going a bit crazy with all the waiting. The Pamirs was something she’d been looking forward to, I think more than anything about the trip, and the long delay in Dushanbe was a bit much. She declared that her wonky hub could make it to Khorog where she would put on the new one, and there was suddenly nothing left for us to do but start cycling. Dea had her new hub, which wasn’t on her bike, and a bottom bracket which was too big. My own bottom bracket was broken, my new shoes caused me blisters, and my fork was held together with electrical tape. We were finally ready to take on the Pamir Highway.
Distance cycled: 67 kilometres