TAJIKISTAN, 28th September – 3rd October, 2017
It was true, I was so excited (and apprehensive) about what was awaiting us out on the Pamir Highway that I found it hard to wait all nine days in Dushanbe. While we were at Greenhouse Hostel a great number of people came and went and everyone was there mainly because of the Pamirs. Most of them came from there either by bicycle, motorbike or car, and they all had stories, opinions, warnings and suggestions to the few of us who were about to go there at the very end of the season. It’s going to be so cold up there, the Giardia parasite gives you diarrhoea and fever, be careful you have enough water, stay in the Pamir Lodge, make sure you buy enough food when you find shops, the road is really bad, are you sure you have enough warm clothes, are the roads going to be open for snow and most appealing of all, the Japanese guy with his legs and arms full of big, infected wounds that was caused by bedbugs from a guesthouse in Iskeshim. Oh I just couldn’t wait till it was me and every time someone was leaving for the Pamirs I watched them with envy.
Unfortunately, a passivating fever made me retreat to bed the last two days before our departure and during the night before the reason for my high temperature proved to an infection in my stomach rather than just mere excitement. So I was rather unfit when our moment of setting out towards the adventures of the Pamirs finally had come, but I tried to ignore it the best I could. A dodgy stomach was all just a part of the fun I had heard.
Liz and Miranda were two cyclists from England that had arrived a couple of days before also up for a battle with the late season conditions up in the mountains after their journey from Europe to Dushanbe. Together with them we posed for a departure picture, pushed our packed bikes out of the hostel courtyard that had been our home the last nine days, waved goodbye to the staff who we had become very familiar with and wobbled down the street. It had been so long since I cycled that I’d almost forgot how to balance the heavy bike.
We were soon out of the city, as the hostel was located at the edge of it, and we cycled easily along on a wide main road getting the first mountains in view and the first little hills under our wheels. It felt great! When we took a break in a beautiful bus shelter completely decorated with tile mosaics I felt less great, I had no appetite, the fever was coming back and my stomach felt like a fun park full of swimming pools and water slides. Liz and Miranda very kindly gave me some pink pills they had brought all the way from England to calm down an upset stomach and they helped a little. A few kilometres later we waved goodbye to each other as Chris and I turned off the main road to take the northern route to Kalaikhum that was known as a bad gravel road going up over a big mountain, whereas the girls continued on the longer, but smoother and flatter southern route.
Now it was just Chris and me cycling together, and it was a long time since it had been like that, with Alex having been with us all the way since Nukus in Uzbekistan. I was not really able to appreciate it though, as I still felt feverish and with a water park in my stomach, while the road soon began hitting some hills. It felt almost unbearable to struggle up these and I wondered how on earth I was ever going to make it over mountains of 4,000+ metres. While I struggled Chris took care of things and found us a beautiful camp spot at the top of the rolling hills with great views of the low mountains and I forgot about my illness and just felt so incredibly happy and excited that it had all, finally, begun.
The next day I felt a lot better, and we continued the cycling that went up through wide valleys of farmland and villages. Autumn was in the air with that cool tone that turns the leaves yellow and the apples red and the roadside stalls were bursting with buckets of them. We stopped at one and sat down with our purchase next to the stall, but the owner did not think we should sit on the ground and came with blankets for us to sit on and a pillow and another blanket to put over me, when I laid down after having eaten. We both laid there almost falling asleep feeling no rush. We had more than a month left on our visas and we knew that we could not plan or control the events of our journey over the mountains. It was such a long way through very remote areas on bad roads where nature was the ruling force. We could get sick, the weather would be bad sometimes and cold for sure, the altitude would affect us and the bikes, oh yes, the bikes could very well break one way or the other. All we could do was take one day and one moment at a time, surrender to the present, and enjoy this adventurous chapter that had been waiting to be written all the way since we left Edinburgh.
We were not really aware that we were cycling up our first little pass of 1700 metres that day, but obviously we did notice that there was a lot of cycling uphill and the scenery gradually grew more dramatic with high bare cliffs rising beyond the farmed fields along the road. Chris had cycled this way the last time he was here three years ago and from time to time we would stop for him to recall what had happened back then. On some big rocks overviewing the valley he had sat feeling apprehensive and nervous about what was ahead, especially since the political situation had been uneasy then, and now we sat at the very same spot recalling his memories and making up new ones this time feeling all excited and happy.
In a small village we were stopped by a well-dressed man who spoke good English: “Good morning” he said, “sorry, sorry , I mean ‘Good afternoon’!” Ismael was 27 years old, had a family and was the English teacher in town. “Welcome to Tajikistan. We love foreigners, you are very interesting to us”. It made me so happy that he said that, because I had begun to feel a little guilty about being one of the many, many maybe not rich, but certainly privileged, travellers that went through this country for its natural beauties, while the people here seemed so bound to the land and a life of very little option for change (and travel) and a lot of hard, manual work. Several of the Tajik I had spoken to had never been up at the Pamir themselves, and it felt kind of wrong to me that I could go and they couldn’t. Therefore I did my best to engage in the conversation with Ismael even when it turned into Chris being offered one, two or three Tajik wives. “It is just a joke” Ismael said, and I chose to just laugh along. Ismael invited us to come to his house, but as we sensed the invitation involved alcohol, we hesitated and then his brother showed up in a car to pick Ismael up, and the offer vanished with them leaving for other errands.
And it was good that we stayed on the road, because it was not long after we were caught up by two cyclists that we already knew, but didn’t expect to see here. Alex from Somerset and Henry, who had also stayed in the Greenhouse Hostel, had told us they would take the southern route to avoid the bad road and get faster to the mountains. But somehow they had both misunderstood the routes and each other, and had ended up on the northern route, as it distance wise was shorter and maybe the bad road was not so bad, they thought. They were up for the adventure of it. So now we could all go together, although we could not really, because Chris and I were like tortoises compared to the two speedy hares that had just left Dushanbe that morning. They went ahead to get to a guesthouse in the next town, Obi Garm.
Chris and I kept our slow pace to the top of the pass and then rolled down a few kilometres before camping on the ledge of deep, steep gorge while grey, heavy clouds gathered over our heads. We found it was a magnificent camp spot and went to bed happy about our choice of camping instead of staying in a guesthouse. A few hours later I was awoken by the tent flapping wildly in the strong wind that had picked up from time to time accompanied by showers that hit the tent like whips. Chris put in his ear plugs and slept through it all except from when the tent poles bent inwards into his face and he got out and fixed the pegs and guidelines. But I did not sleep most of the night and the rain was still falling when daylight came. Surely the adventure was full on already.
Yes, there’s nothing quite like waking up in the middle of the night to find a wet tent in your face. To be fair to it, our tent had held up surprisingly well since the UK, considering it only cost forty pounds, but the strong winds and rain were proving a bit much for it now, mostly because we’d lost or bent all of the original pegs. As I ran outside in the gale trying to force the few pegs we had left back in I vowed that we really must find some more before trying to camp up on the exposed Pamir plateau.
By morning things had calmed down and we descended down to Obi Garm through light drizzle and dramatic scenery. In the town we located the guesthouse that we thought Alex and Henry must have stayed in, and after a bit of gesticulating and flashing around of a photo we had of Alex, we were shown to their room. They had suggested they liked to make an early start, but the rain had put them off that idea, and they were just now getting ready. And before we started cycling we walked up into the town to buy supplies. Naturally enough none of the little shops had any tent pegs for sale, but I found a suitable substitute – one little store owner had several pairs of scissors on a back shelf. I indicated that I would like to buy them. He indicated that they didn’t really work as scissors. I indicated that this was not a problem, and the transaction was completed.
It seemed like a nice idea for us to try and cycle together as a group of four, and we set out from Obi Garm with that intention. The rain had now stopped and the scenery was amazing, as we freewheeled down through a narrow gorge. But immediately we had our problem, for Dea and I liked to stop and look and take photos, while Alex and Henry were the kind of cyclists who liked to cycle. After just a few kilometres and with the road turning uphill, we decided that it wasn’t really going to work. They both had deadlines and needed to press on faster than us, so we wished them good luck (especially when they said they would like to get up and over the 3250 metre pass in a single day) and let them go on ahead.
Us tortoises made our slow and steady progress for the rest of the day. The road, which had been good tarmac, turned to rocky gravel. This put a great deal of fear into me, and I cycled slowly, cautious that the slightest bump might cause my fork to spontaneously combust. I wondered whether it might not have made more sense for us to take the southern road, the perfectly paved tarmac one, instead of this bike-breaking dirt road, but where exactly was the fun in that? We were heading for a big adventure, high up in the mountains, and to get there this road climbed steadily up a valley. It was busier than we might have liked, but the traffic was at least slowed by the poor road state and the frequent large herds of goats and sheep that would often block the way. The scenery, in what was sure to become a theme over the coming weeks, was growing ever more spectacular.
We managed only thirty-nine kilometres that day, but this didn’t seem like such a bad total after the following day, when we rode a mere twenty-two. There were reasons for such a dismal total, however, beyond the road conditions and our general relaxed attitude. First thing in the morning I found that my chocolate milk had spilt in my pannier, which took a while to clean up, and get over, and then just when I thought we were ready to go, I was stung by a wasp on my ear, and we had to delay our start a little longer for me to get the required amount of sympathy. When we did eventually do a bit of cycling it wasn’t long before we had to stop again to fix Dea’s front derailleur, which didn’t really want to shift properly on account of the fact that her bottom bracket was about two inches too wide. Then in the afternoon, just when we’d got a bit of a head of steam up, Dea’s troublesome knee started to hurt again, and we had to stop.
We decided it was better to take the rest of the afternoon off so that Dea’s knee might get a little rest. There was a lot of concern on her face. Her knee problems were something we hoped we’d left behind, and for them to be returning now, just at the start of the longest, toughest climb of the trip, seemed really quite unfair. But we made the best of it, sitting in the shade of some trees for the afternoon and playing a truly epic game of yatzy (I needed to roll a six with the last throw of the dice to win, and I did! What are the odds?! Must be a million to one!). And it was as we were sitting there in the shade of those trees that a puppy came over to see what was going on. He looked a little lost and a little hungry, so we threw him some bread and he grabbed it and ran a little way away to eat it. He was an adorable little thing, and he spent much of the afternoon with us, lounging around and looking at us with his cute puppy-dog-eyes. “What’s his name?” Dea asked. “Harry,” I said. I don’t know why exactly, it was just the first name that came into my head. He looked like he’d been left here by someone. There wasn’t much food around, and we wondered how long he’d survive here by himself.
We thought it might be nice to give Harry some more food, so we were pleased when he followed us to our campsite overlooking the river. He still seemed a little nervous about getting too close, and he didn’t want to lie in the pile of clothes we left out for him as a makeshift basket, but he ate a little bit of plain pasta. We cooked more pasta than we needed and mixed it with beans and tomato sauce, ate what we could, then gave the rest to Harry. He licked at it, then turned away. “Don’t like tomato sauce, huh?” I said. Poor Harry. He was quite thin and looked like he needed looking after. I cooked up some more plain pasta for him.
We awoke in the morning to see Harry curled up and asleep in his makeshift basket. He was pleased to see us, and seemed to be growing to trust us. Up until this point we hadn’t touched him, for that wasn’t a good thing to do with stray dogs, yet now I couldn’t resist seeing how he might react to a pat on the head and a little stroke. Well, he reacted in the best possible way. He loved it, and we were soon both stroking him and rubbing his belly and falling in love with this cute little puppy.
“You know we can’t keep him, don’t you?” Dea said, “we should probably leave him here.”
“He’s going to follow us anyway,” I said. And sure enough, he ran right along behind us as we returned to the road and started to cycle. Whether we wanted it or not, we’d got ourselves a dog. I tried to encourage Harry to run on the inside of me, away from the traffic, but this wasn’t something he was very good at, so it was a relief when we soon came to the junction where we would leave most of the traffic behind and head for the mountains. There was a checkpoint at the turn, where Dea and I had to go inside and add our names to a big book of names. When we stepped back outside, little Harry was sitting there waiting patiently beside our bikes. As we resumed cycling, he resumed running along behind, following us, trusting us that we were leading him somewhere good. A shame then, that we were leading him on a narrow, pot-holed dirt track, winding upwards into inhospitable mountains.
Harry was such a good dog. He would occasionally bark at cows or consider chasing chickens, but he stopped this and behaved himself when we told him to. There were not many cars now, and when one did come along we would stop and call Harry over and he would sit patiently beside us until the danger passed. Then one time when this happened the car stopped, and a familiar face leaned out of the passenger window. It was Henry. “I got really sick,” he said. “Almost as soon as we left you actually. I had to take a day off yesterday. Now I’m taking a lift over the mountain to Kalaikhum to recover. Alex should be along soon.” Dea and I were in shock. We’d been cycling so little, plodding along like tortoises, yet somehow we’d overtaken the hares. Well, until one of them got in a car anyway.
Dea and I soon stopped to take a break, admire the views, and wait for Alex. And sure enough, it wasn’t too long before he pedalled up the hill towards us. It was good to see him again, and to introduce him to our new little friend. Alex was keen to try and get to Tavildara that evening, the last small town before the real climb up the pass began. It was some fifty kilometres away and, while Dea and I had no real chance of cycling that far, even without a poor little dog running along behind us, we thought we might give it a go too.
For the next couple of hours we went along together as a group of four, through scenery that was so spectacular that it was difficult to make any progress at all without stopping every few moments to take pictures. Harry seemed quite pleased about this, and took to lying down and resting every time that we stopped. We started to think that maybe he wasn’t up for running behind us all of the way to China, and a plan began to formulate in my mind. The last time that I’d cycled this way I’d been invited to stay with a family in Tavildara, including a man who could speak good English. If we could find him again we could hopefully convince him to look after Harry, or at least to help us find someone in the town who would do so. We knew deep down that it wasn’t right for us to keep Harry, and our mission now was to find him a good home.
We all stopped for lunch at a rare cafe and ordered the soup. For once I was delighted to see that it came with a large chunk of mysterious meat in it. When the owner of the cafe wasn’t looking I dropped the meat on the floor for Harry to eat. But Harry was lying exhausted over by the bikes. I called out to him but he didn’t come. I whistled. Still nothing. “Quick, Harry, the owner is coming back!” I ran over and scooped Harry up and plonked him down by the meat, which, once he realised was there, he gobbled up. Dea then gave him her piece of meat as well. Alex looked at us a bit strange, with a ‘he’s not getting my meat’ expression on his face. We hadn’t made very fast progress, and it was by now quite obvious that Dea and I weren’t going to be in Tavildara that evening. “I think I’m going to press on ahead,” Alex said, in what was fast becoming his catchphrase.
“We’ll see you in a couple of days then,” I joked.
It was obvious enough that Harry was getting tired, so as we prepared to go on I lifted him up and put him in my basket. He only just fitted in, but he seemed quite happy sitting there, and it was there that he spent much of the afternoon, bobbing along, watching the world go by. It really must have been quite an adventure for the dear little puppy. Whatever else happened, I was quite sure he was going to remember this experience for the rest of his life.
We made camp, having made thirty-two kilometres for the day, and Harry spent the night curled up in the porch area of the tent. In the morning he was so happy to see us when we woke up, and we were so happy to see him. He jumped up and tried to get in the tent with us. We got up and ran around playing with him as his tail wagged and his eyes shone with joy. He was such a lovely little thing and he had won such a special place within our hearts in such a short time. We loved him so, and we wished we could keep him, fast forward somehow a couple of years to a time when we would be more settled, more able to care for a dog. But the truth was we couldn’t look after him properly on our bikes, and this was most likely going to be the day we would have to say goodbye.
It was twenty-five kilometres to Tavildara. The road was still bad, but Harry had his energy back and ran along behind us again, at least for a while. We passed through a few small villages, where Harry was picked up and stroked by some kids, offering us hope of finding him a good home somewhere. Dogs are not kept as pets in the Islamic world like they are in the West, and we had our doubts as to whether we were going to really find Harry a good home, or if we would be leaving him to survive on the streets of Tavildara. We were filled with such sadness and anxiousness throughout the day, worried at what fate we were going to be leaving little Harry to.
At the junction with Tavildara there was another checkpoint, and as we rode up to it two puppies ran out from behind it. “Ah, look Harry, new friends for you! Maybe you can live just here!” I was about to say happily, but my words were drowned out by the vicious, angry barks being directed at him by these mean little dogs. “Okay, let’s try going a bit further.”
We crossed a bridge into Tavildara and some boys greeted us, asking if we needed a hotel, and showing some interest in Harry. We were not looking for a hotel, but in fact a row of shops that I remembered from before. It was here that I’d three years ago met Muhammed, the English-speaking man, and his uncle, the shop-keeper, who had invited us to stay the night at his house. And sure enough there were the shops, and inside one there was this uncle. I approached him and showed him a photo of him and Muhammed that I’d taken three years earlier so as to help explain who I was. It was a bit awkward, because his hair was grey in the photo, and black now, but luckily he understood that I was trying not to say “you dye your hair, I see,” but in fact, “I slept in your house once.” He remembered, and shook my hand. I asked if Muhammed was around, with his English skills he was key to finding Harry a good home. But the uncle shook his head. He was not here. He lives in Dushanbe now, and the uncle was unable to reach him by phone.
Unable to explain myself I went outside and sat with Dea on the steps of the shop. We’d left Harry to run around, hoping he might find his way to a new home by himself. He certainly seemed excited at being in a town, full of people and life and interesting smells, but there was an atmosphere here that we found unsettling. People did not seem very friendly, a group of boys were teasing Harry in a not very nice way and one man appeared to aim a kick at him. Were we really going to leave him to live on these streets? Would he like it here? Would he survive?
I felt terribly sad and I did not know what to do. I didn’t feel comfortable to leave Harry here. I also didn’t know how we would stop him from following us when we left unless there was someone else to give him an alternative. Then Muhammed’s sister came out of the shop. I showed her Harry, and tried to ask if she would like to look after him. She shook her head and indicated that dogs belonged on the street, not in the house.
Oh how sad this was, that we had failed Harry. We had brought him to this place, we had led him on this journey, with promises of giving him a better life, and now we saw this place and it was mean and unfriendly and no place for such a good dog. But there was nothing else to do. We could not lead him up a 3250 metre mountain pass and there were no other towns around. It was here or it was nothing.
We stocked up on some food. I bought some things from the uncle, and then Dea said she wanted to go in another shop and see what they had. While she was in there, I stood in the street and watched as one of the boys we’d met when we first crossed the bridge into Tavildara came along. He picked up Harry, looked at me, and pointed at himself, as if asking me permission to keep the dog. I was unsure of the boy’s exact intentions, but we had so few options I decided on taking a chance. So I nodded my approval. The boy smiled, delighted, and began to walk up the street with Harry in his arms. Another boy ran alongside him, poking him. He was one of the boys who had been teasing Harry before. What exactly were they planning to do with little Harry? Were they going to look after him? Were they going to torture him? Were they going to love him until they got bored and then start kicking him? It felt wrong. I wanted to run after them and grab Harry back. Where was Dea? I needed her to come outside. I needed her opinion. I needed her to tell me to get Harry back from those evil kids. But she wasn’t there. She was still in the shop. I felt so sad. The boys rounded the corner, and Harry was gone.
Finally Dea came out of the shop. She had a beaming smile on her face. “Chris, I’ve found a nice man. He can speak English, and he has a dog already, and he says he will take Harry! Isn’t it amazing?”
“Oh crap, I’ve just given him away to some kids.”
I began running up the street as fast as I could, desperate to get Harry back now. I rounded the corner and saw the boy up ahead, Harry still cradled in his arms. “Sorry, there has been a mistake,” I said, taking the cute little puppy out of the stunned boy’s hands.
I walked back down to the shop and showed Harry to the man, whose name was Tohir. He looked at Harry and said “You want to give this dog to me as a gift? I accept!” and he said it in a way that made it obvious that he was a good and kind man who would take good care of Harry. It was a miracle. He brought out a biscuit for the puppy and asked what his name was, and Dea and I felt such an overwhelming sense of relief to have found a good owner for Harry. Then I looked up and saw the boy standing nearby, the boy who thought he’d been given a puppy, who now looked a bit sad. “Do you know this boy?” I asked Tohir, and he looked up at him and he smiled, and he said, “Yes, that is my brother, he likes dogs too, he has two dogs. He loves dogs.” And the miracle was complete.
I felt such a happy emotion in me. It was relief and joy and love and happiness at this miracle that had occurred. Tohir and Tohir’s little brother were both going to look after Harry, love him, play with him, give him the good home that he deserved. As Tohir’s brother picked Harry up again and carried him once again up the street (moving a little more quickly this time, by the way) we knew that we had done the right thing. Harry was a great, great dog, who had, for just a little while brought us so much joy. He’d been on one hell of an adventure, had this little puppy, and now at last he’d found his happy ending.
Dushanbe – Obigarm – Tavildara
Distance cycled: 210 kilometres