TAJIKISTAN, 4th – 11th October 2017
“This is it” said Chris as we stood in front of a small stream running through a wide rocky river bed that disrupted the road. “This is where me and my bike almost got washed away the last time I was here. Gabor helped me pushing it but it wasn’t enough, John also had to jump in and pull from the front, he was like a superhero, like Spiderman. He saved it all, me, my bike, my trip.”
I looked at the little stream that really didn’t look like it was going to cause us much trouble to just step over. It was not that I didn’t believe Chris’s story, but more that it was so hard to imagine how different the whole scenery and climate was in another season. Chris had been here in June when the snow in the mountains was melting and the fields were lush and green. Now the landscape was a brownish yellow, the rivers and streams were small and plants stood dry end ready to give in for winter. And with the grey clouds floating low through the valley and the light, drizzling rain, it was a kind of rough and inhospitable scene. But I appreciated the look, it emphasized the challenge we had taken upon us. It also symbolized our moods as waves of sadness had rushed through us both that morning not waking up to the excited little Harry greeting us outside the tent. The way he had given himself to us with all his excited joy, curiosity and devotion had brought him right into our hearts and he would stay there always.
But both our sadness and the grey clouds dissolved gradually as we began to climb away from the river and up through valleys behind which we glimpsed high, snow-capped mountains. This was a remote high mountain stretch on a rocky and muddy road and not a place to bring a little puppy, and although Chris’s fork seemed to have held up fine under the extra weight of Harry this was the first real test for it. We crossed our fingers it would make it. Chris had warned me that this, according to his previous experience, was the hardest climb of the whole Pamir Highway section, and during our slow progress from Dushanbe, and actually all the way since Edinburgh, I had been looking forward to this challenge with anticipation and apprehension. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this. I still felt a little twinge of pain in my right knee, but some saddle adjustments had eased the stress in it and now it seemed to be slowly recovering, while I could still cycle. It had been my biggest fear that I was going to be stopped by my knee problem in the Pamirs, but it seemed like I had only just managed to avoid it. I was ready for the big day I had been waiting so long for.
We passed through the last little village out of the valley, people looked at us, smiled and waved and a little girl handed me freshly picked walnuts to send us on our way. Then the road continued up through a narrow gorge with steep cliffs rising high over our heads on both sides and big boulders scattered all over the ground. It felt like nature’s gate letting us through to the mountain world higher up. Behind it the valleys opened again and the road climbed steadily along the sides of them in long curves into and out of one valley after the other. Every time we left one valley behind I was curious to see what would be around the next corner and all the time I felt it was impossible we could move higher up. But there always seemed to be another, higher valley, it went on and on.
We climbed all day and when the sun dropped behind the mountain ridges I felt like I could not go one more metre. We were now up at around 2800 metres, I think, and on top of the exhaustion of a long day, the altitude also affected me. It was time to stop, so we made camp deep inside a long valley close to a group of shepherds with their tents, horses, donkeys, sheep and dogs. Except from the dogs coming up to us barking aggressively in the dark, until we spoke to them to show that we were humans, not wolfs or bears or any other threat to their sheep, except from this, it was such a peaceful night high up on that mountain. No more storms or rain, only the occasional sound of horses, sheep or a shepherds high call for the dogs.
The next morning we kept climbing for a few hours. All around us snowy peaks poked through the hazy clouds like poorly kept secrets giving me the feeling we were on top of the world. Around a corner we got a snowy ridge in view, it was our pass, and soon after, exactly a week after we had left Dushanbe, we reached the little bus shelter that marked the top. Although it had taken one-and-a-half days to reach the top I felt it was over so abruptly, the change from the long climb to the end of it, that had been motivating me to keep going, was too sudden to really understand. But I looked around me and could only see road below me and I knew we had done it, I was at the highest I had ever cycled, 3252 metres, and it was a great feeling.
The descent was steep and dramatic going through another narrow gorge with the road either veering between boulders and cliffs or clinging to the edge of the cliffsides that dropped down so deep that I could not see the bottom. After passing through this second of nature’s gates leaving the mountain world behind we overlooked a number of switch backs where two other cycle tourists slowly were making their way up. Chris blasted his horn (that had been used heavily already, long before the encounters with the Chinese trucks, to greet kids and other honking vehicles, warn cows or catch my attention) at them and we went down to meet Luke from the US and Janneke from Holland (with THIS blog). They were all smiles and positivity although they were in the middle of a long and demanding climb, and we enjoyed the chat we had with them very much and hoped we could meet up again as we all had plans about being in Nepal in January.
With my wrists getting sore from pushing the brakes all the way down we called it a day when we reached a beautiful little grassy spot next to the river at the bottom of the descent. Chris and his group of cyclists had camped here three years earlier and now we were here together admiring the high walls of mountains rising above us to all sides while the sun set and the moon rose.
It was only 14 kilometres down to Kalaikhum the next morning and due to the rain and grey skies that again hung heavy over our heads we decided to spend the rest of the day in a guesthouse in the town. Over the last few months I had been in contact with a Danish couple, Marianne and Heidi, who were cycling from New Zealand back to Denmark (find their blog HERE). We knew we were crossing the Pamirs at the same time, but due to the lack of wifi out in the mountains, we had not been in contact the last three weeks. So it was a great coincidence that Chris and I checked into the guesthouse where the two women and their Malaysian travel companion, How, were spending a few days to recover from the classic Tajik stomach problems. Although I never met them before we greeted each other with hugs, it just felt so familiar to be once again together with Danish people. And as if it wasn’t enough it soon appeared that Marianne had grown up in the same town as me with her dad running the little zoo outside town I had gone to each summer. How strangely small the world suddenly felt out there in the Tajik mountains.
Liz and Miranda, our companions on the first stretch out of Dushanbe, also arrived in Kalaikhum from their southern route. It was great to see they too had made it through the first section of the journey and we enjoyed a great evening in the company of the many cyclists.
Ahead of us lay 240 kilometres ride along the Panj river to the bigger town, Khorog, where we would take a few rest days before the next section of challenges of the Pamir Highway. There were no big mountain climbs on the way, just a gradual ascent along the river and the road was supposed to be paved – or at least better than what we had had so far. So we set out with the ambition to raise our daily average of 30 kilometres and try to get there in five days. We soon experienced that the road was harder than what we had thought with many short climbs, gravel sections and trucks and cars that made us stop at the roadside while they passed. It was not exactly an easy ride, but it was ever so beautiful and it absorbed me completely. The Panj river was a pale petrol blue line that snaked through the valley that sometimes was a narrow, rocky corridor with the road hugging the cliffsides over the river rapids, at other times it opened up to let little villages cuddle in the arms of the mountains and farmers cultivate the flat river banks. Here grew trees that were turning yellow in the autumn cool and they stood in a sharp contrast to the deep, blue sky we now were blessed with. Every so often snowy peaks of 4 and 5,000 metres would appear above the nearest mountains as a majestic reminder of the heights we were reaching for. In such incredible scenery we didn’t need any more action than just the cycling, it was such a full experience in itself (and even this row of pictures will not nearly do it justice).
But there was even more to it than that. The river Panj was also the border to Afghanistan, so that when we camped by the river the first evening we could observe the ways of life in an Afghan village in the furthest corner of the country that had been drawing such attention to it in the Western medias for many years. That in itself was quite fascinating. On the far bank the houses were mainly grey, made of rock and clay, not like the concrete houses of Tajik villages, and they camouflaged with the mountain sides, some of them situated high up on the steep slopes. Some kids were playing football, some women were sitting in a field harvesting crops and a cow walked around close to them. I heard a call for prayer from the mosque, something I had not heard since we were in Turkey, although we had travelled through several Muslim countries, and after that the streets became busy with people walking away from the village. There were no cars, everyone was walking or riding motorbikes, very unlike the traffic on the Tajik side.
As interested in the life of the Afghan village as we were seemed a black stallion that suddenly appeared to be. It seemingly roamed free along the road with nowhere or no one to belong to and it circled around on the banks for a long time as if it was considering to swim across. Possibly it was the Afghan donkeys it was so interested in. It never did cross the river, which I reckon is as illegal for horses as it is for humans, but instead came up to our camp to sniff around and say ‘hello’ before it continued along the road.
Over the next days we curiously kept an eye on life on the other side of the river. Between the villages ran a road that was frequented by motorbikes and people walking, often with a load of wood or heavy bags on their head or loaded on a donkey. It could be a long way between the villages, but there was no other transport, no cars, buses or trucks. At one quiet section we suddenly heard a vague sound of singing and after looking closely we spotted a boy in a yellow t-shirt who was the singer seemingly entertaining himself on his long and lonely walk. He had spotted us too and now seemed to make a performance for us gesturing to his singing on this huge natural scene for the smallest audience of two. We applauded when he finished and exchanged a few words shouted over the river.
At another point the road was still being made and we saw camps of road workers located out on the cliffsides drilling out the road in the raw cliff. One of them saw me looking and waved and waved and waved and I waved back to the Afghan road worker.
On the Tajik side of the river we also had some memorable encounters with people. One day out of Khorog we met another Danish girl, Sara, whom I also via Facebook knew was in the area. It was great and a bit strange to suddenly meet these people I knew of, but had never met, out on this spectacular road so far from our home. It was a shame we met Sara late in the afternoon, so that we didn’t have time to talk for long before pressing on to find places to camp for the night. Hopefully we get another chance to meet back in Denmark one day.
It happened several times every day that someone would invite us for tea, and most times we declined, due to our ambitions of making it over the mountains this year. But we didn’t want to rush through it all, and when some men who were building a new house shouted “Choy, choy” we accepted the offer. We were taken into the old house next to the building site by some young women, and I was very pleased to see such a house from the inside. It was all one room and there was one piece of furniture, a cupboard for kitchenware. The rest of the room was made up of a raised floor with blankets on that served as dining room, living room and bedroom all in one. Some extra blankets and a plastic table cloth were laid out on the raised floor for a table, here we sat crossed legged with our shoes off and were served green tea, apples and homemade kefir (yoghurt). The people of the house all left again for their daily tasks while we sat there and sipped our tea and looked curiously around.
We dug deeper into the experience of the domestic culture of Tajikistan when we in the evening stayed in a home stay where we again were taken to the main room, here with raised floors in two levels and a beautiful timber construction under the roof. We were served an array of delicious homemade food all under the gentle and helpful watch of our hostess, who did all she could to make it worth the 100 somoni we were asked to pay in the end.
The traditional way of living was strong here preserved, I think, by the isolated location and a political history that with the Soviet occupation had brought some modernization which had then been brought to a halt when the Union collapsed and left the country in a civil war. But the first few steps towards a more modern way of life was surely underway, and we had some brief conversations with young girls who had learned a very decent English in school and were hoping to continue their life not as householders and farmers, but at university in Dushanbe or abroad. It was good to sense such dreams in them.
Despite this we were quite surprised when on the morning on our last day to Khorog an old woman with worn gold teeth and a cow on a line approached us with: “Aren’t you cold?”. The question revealed that she spoke more than a little English and that she had an eye for our way of living (which maybe shouldn’t come as a surprise due to the many hundreds of cyclists that pass by her village every year). Her name was Maya and we happily accepted her invitation for tea, seeing the chance for getting some more insight in the Tajik way of life from this experienced, English speaking woman. Again we were taking into a main room with carpeted floors in several levels, but in the corner was installed a modern, western kitchen with rows of cupboards, a sink and an oven, and on the wall was a flat screen television playing an episode of the American reality show Fear Factor dubbed with Russian voices. Maya shook her head and said “It’s a terrible program” and we all agreed and yet could not resist looking at it. Maya served us not only green tea, but also salty milk tea that we were supposed to melt a chunk of butter in, that would keep us strong and healthy, she said and we went for the experience. She asked interested about our lives back in Europe. “Do you also have villages in England?” and we explained the best we could. She told us about the problems people had here getting enough to eat and clean water, and how it was so difficult and expensive to go anywhere. “Here people just wait for tomorrow” Maya said, indicating a restless monotony. We sensed a strong desire in her to travel and were therefore very pleased when she told us, that once she had travelled. Three years ago she had been to Torino in Italy on a conference for Slow Food representing Tajikistan together with five other people bringing their home made food. I was fantastic to think about and I wondered how she had managed to learn English and get to that conference, it seemed so far, far away from her life here. She rose and started looking around for something. “My phone, I can’t find my phone” and we witnessed that everyday issue that Maya shared with every other person in the western world. When she found it she even found she had run out of credit, and I began to realise that her life was both bound in traditions and poverty, but at the same time influenced and gradually changed by the modernization that radiated from the west. It was a fascinating mixture.
At the tv an advert for a program about man pregnancy came up and that made Maya think about how she had heard that the Spanish government recently had approved gay marriage. She obviously found this was wrong due to her Islamic belief. “What do you think about it?” she asked and I wanted to be honest and said, I found it was okay for two men or women to marry. The disagreement hung in the air for a few seconds and I was worried it would ruin our good time together, but it wasn’t long before we could agree that the world was changing, even here far out in the Tajik valley. It was a precious little moment of exchange of both different and common views with this old Tajik lady.
Warm and full of tea and wonder we left Maya, who was laughing heartedly when Chris wanted to take a picture of her with her cow outside the house. The world was crazy!
Refreshed by this special encounter we cycled the rest of the way to Khorog where we checked into the infamous Pamir Lodge that all summer is bustling with road travellers. But the yellow leaves on the trees in the courtyard and the empty row of rooms spoke its clear language. Summer was over, autumn was here, winter was near, and we were some of the last people heading for the Pamirs this year.
Khaburabad pass (3252 metres) – Kalaikhum – Khorog
316 kilometres cycled