Iranian impressions.

Sarakhs -> Mashhad -> via routes 95&36 -> Bardaskan.

Ready to ride in Iran.

Ready to ride in Iran.

By the time we had been deported from Turkmenistan it was late in the afternoon. Despite the kindness and the generosity of the border staff, I must admit that I was a little disappointed in the fact that we had no armed escort, no guard to make sure we left, none of the usual bru-ha-ha associated with being kicked out of a country. But these feelings were quelled by my excitement about going to Iran and the nervousness that beholds you when entering a religiously conservative dictatorship that is super paranoid. Looking back I guess we weren’t that nervous because while we were made to wait for our entry to be approved, we snuck into the bathroom to wash our socks and undies. We passed though immigration with a minimum amount of delay and questioning, and through customs even quicker, as when the officer found out that we were from Australia he gave a cursory glance at our bags and then launched into a discussion about soccer. This love of Australians and soccer would continue throughout our trip, until a recent fateful decision by an umpire ruined such sentiments.

Our route from the Turkmenistan border to Bardaskan.

Our route from the Turkmenistan border to Bardaskan.

But you’re not here to read about soccer, you’re here to follow our journey through the ancient kingdom of Persia, now know as the Islamic Republic of Iran. We chose to forego visiting the town of Sarakhs as we had enough food to last us until Mashad and a small amount of Iranian Rial from our Aussie mate Dave who we had met in Osh (remember foreign bank cards don’t work here). We were also a day behind schedule due to our deportation delay, and we were keen to catch up with Barbara again, to plan our kick-arse women’s cyclo-tour of Iran. The afternoon sun shone warm and golden as we cycled passed fields of maize and peppers. Agriculture soon gave way to our old friend, the desert landscape. As the sun was setting we pulled off behind some trees on the side of the road to set up our first camp in a new country. Despite having worn conservative dress and hijab for a matter of hours, it was liberating taking these off and such freedom became a cherished nightly ritual.

Camping and technology - the new style cycle tourist.

Camping, technology and hair freedom.

The extent of the restrictiveness of women’s Islamic dress became apparent the next day, especially with the hill climbs. We were just thankful that we were cycling in Iran in autumn, not summer when the temperatures can reach 40 degrees C. Hijab, besides being hot and annoying, blocks your field of vision, which is dangerous as a cyclist. It’s a reminder of your status as a second-class citizen and does ‘not’ protect you from harassment, contrary to what many men in Iran loved to preach to us. We joked that if men had to wear hijab even for a week the dress code would be changed immediately. Fortunately we didn’t have to wear the chador – literally translated as ‘tent’ – which many religious Iranian women wear. It’s a black piece of cloth that covers a woman from head to toe as not to incite desire in men, as women are responsible for a man’s feelings and desires towards her. I’ll leave Jude to rage about this in a later blog.

Climbing towards Mazdavand.

The hot climb towards Mazdavand.

This day was also to be our first day of experiencing the police ‘concern’ (read harassment) that we would constantly experience in the eastern provinces. In time we would learn that the IQ of many police officers is comparable to their shirt size and we would take turns in pointing out their mistakes and failings. This would normally make them leave us alone sooner rather than later, but not before the usual “Where is the man?” question. Really?

Jude using scrubs as her women's Islamic wear.

Jude using scrubs as her women’s Islamic wear, otherwise known as her arse protector.

We had been super excited about cycling in Iran as every cyclist we had met raved about Iranian hospitality and kindness. Unfortunately our introduction to Iran was far from what we expected or imagined. After our ‘first day in a new country’ excitement passed, the poverty and desolation of the tiny villages struck us. Small brick boxes better suited to a zombie apocalypse, housed tired and wary looking people. Large black flags flapped from every telegraph pole adding to the countries oppressive funeral feeling – we were later to discover we had arrived at the beginning of Muharram and a few days before Ashura (the yearly mourning/self-flagellation festival commemorating the murder of Imam Hussein over a thousand years earlier).

Campsite at the roadside mosque in Mazdavand, before the creeper incident.

Campsite at the roadside mosque in Mazdavand, before the creeper incident.

Oddities aside, we spent our second night camped next to a roadside mosque – we had been advised that camping/sleeping at mosques was a safe and common practice. Not so in Mazdavand. The mosque’s caretaker woke us before sunrise to invite us for some morning chai. In every country ‘chai’ has meant ‘numerous cups of tea’, at the mosque in Mazdavand it means ‘dirty old man groping two women before cleansing himself at morning prayer time’. Jude and I were too bleary eyed, worried about the locked door and cautious of cultural norms to punch him in the face and knee him in the balls as we should have. It was a baptism by fire of the sexual harassment we would experience on a very regular basis in Iran.

****A big note of warning for any sister cyclists passing through Mazdavand – the creeper here is real and potentially dangerous! We are not the only women to have experienced his harassment, Barbara went through a level 10 creeper experience with him just 3 days earlier.****

Ruins in the desert.

Ruins in the desert.

Fuelled by rage against the creeper and images of what we wished we had done to him, we set off on our cycle to Mashhad, Iran’s second most holy city. The initial beautiful scenery soon warped into the industrial wasteland that surrounds this city of pilgrimage. An unrelenting headwind battered us further, discovering that we didn’t have our host’s address or phone number frustrated us, and the reckless driving of the locals left us in despair. It really wasn’t our day. We made our way to a hostel I had scribbled on the edge of our Iran map months earlier and while waiting for someone (anyone) to answer our ringing on the doorbell we burst into laughter about the absurdity of it all. It taught us that we should expect nothing of any country because the more you expect the less it gratifies.

Jude & Arne walking in front of Imam Reza's mausoleum.

Jude & Arne walking in front of Imam Reza’s mausoleum.

Our highlight of Mashhad was not the beloved and bling covered mausoleum of Imam Reza that we visited the next day. Honestly, the second largest Islamic shrine in the world left us uninspired and skeptical about the charitable work the caretakers wished us to believe they did with the millions donated to them yearly. Maybe if we had not experienced the splendour of the ancient Islamic architecture in Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva, we would have been more impressed. But gaudiness cannot be overlooked, flashiness and wanton spending for the sake of religious egotism and pride is not admirable, and there was nothing of the basic pious life that the Imam would have lived visible.

My polyester chador blowing in the wind at Imam Reza's mausoleum.

My polyester chador blowing in the wind at Imam Reza’s mausoleum.

Looking like a giant floral hippy tent (a polyester chador with an elastic strap for keeping it tight around our faces), I put our guide off side by questioning the excesses I noted. I made a quip about inferior workmanship when he explained to me that the grand doors and gold/silver shrine cover were replaced regularly as ‘they did not work any more’. My query about what he believed a devoutly religious man like the Imam would have thought about the extravagance that his shrine now portrayed, was answered with a stony look and an answer of “all the money is donated, I don’t know what he would think”. I think I do and it wasn’t appreciated. The message was clear – I was a woman and had been given a show bag full of glossy pictures of the shrine, why wasn’t I humbled and grateful?

Rocking the tent.

Rocking the tent.

Saying that, the religious fervor of the believers who made the pilgrimage here was intriguing. Uncontrolled grief, trance like prayer and requests for divine assistance, were mingled with a sense of serenity and awe. Such sentiments would increase in the next two days, as Ashura would be mourned then. It’s estimated that at least a million pilgrims will congregate here, as this is the only shrine of an Imam in Iran. We had witnessed people partaking in self- flagellation in the streets and men carrying massive wooden poles with decorations at the top as commemorations. The streets were lined with stalls giving out free tea and food to believers and non-believers alike.

The nature park and permaculture farm.

The nature park and permaculture farm.

Some of the garden beds we helped build.

Some of the garden beds we helped build.

Instead of watching the spectacle on the day, we decided to use our time productively by volunteering at a local permaculture farm and nature school for children, set up by our lovely hosts (yes we did finally meet them and Barbara). It was great to get our hands dirty by setting up garden beds, composting, moving rocks and soil, attempting to build a goat pen and petting all the stray animals that now call this little patch of land home. Nights were spent socialising and we quickly learnt the massive difference that exists between the public/outside lives of Iranians and their private/home lives. At home they are free to do what they want and live like any other person in the world, outside their lives are ruled by didactic laws that forbids anything the government (controlled by the religious elite) deems un-Islamic. After our rocky start, we now experienced the wonder of Iranian hospitality and the kindness of the people.

Our bikes getting admired at the local bike shop we went to for spare parts.

Our bikes getting admired at the local bike shop we went to for spare parts.

Our wonderful hosts.

Our wonderful hosts.

Kick-arse women's cyclo-gang ready to ride!!

Kick-arse women’s cyclo-gang ready to ride!!

Three days passed in bliss, but soon it was time to move on. Our route will take us from Mashhad, along the border between the great salt and great sand deserts of central Iran, to Yazd. It was exciting to join forces with fellow sister cyclist Barbara and to become part of a three-woman cyclo-gang (foonsonbikes meets http://caretaker.cc/barbels-blog/). As recently as two years ago, it was illegal for women to ride bicycles in Iran (I’m pretty sure the prophet did not mention women riding bikes in the Quran, as the bicycle had not been invented then) therefore it was empowering to provide an example of fit, strong, independent female cyclists wherever we went. People wanted to hear our stories and share in our adventures, as their access to the ‘real’ world outside Iran (there is satellite TV) is severely limited.

Barbara on the road out of Mashhad.

Barbara on the road out of Mashhad.

Cycling out of one of the many small villages on route 95.

Cycling out of one of the many small villages on route 95.

Rest break after some morning climbing.

Rest break after some morning climbing.

The days passed quickly as we cycled south-west, climbing over the mountains where saffron was in season and the ground was covered in their iridescent purple and yellow flowers. Snowy days slowly gave way to bright sunshine and the Iranian desert turned on all her glory. To experience the slight changes in landscape, hues and vegetation are what I love about cycling in such arid surroundings. The irrepressible Iranian hospitality continued to flow thick and fast – well wishes, cups of tea, gifts of fruit (especially promegranites) and food, invitations for meals and offers of accommodation occurred so many times I lost count. “Welcome to Iran” and “Welcome my friend” became my favourite greetings. One would be called out in jubilation or whispered when passing by, and a sense of happiness and love would surround me.

Roadside gifts of coffee and tea, got to love Iranian hospitality.

Roadside gifts of coffee and tea, got to love Iranian hospitality.

Chatting and warming up while waiting for a snow storm to pass.

Chatting and warming up while waiting for a snow storm to pass.

More gifts of food from a fellow cyclist.

More gifts of food from a fellow cyclist.

More lovely hosts.

More lovely hosts.

From route 95 we turned right on to route 36 as we had found a Warmshowers host in the little town of Bardaskan. Mina and her family sounded lovely and the prospect of a hot shower and a washing machine were exciting (yep, the little things). Not that we didn’t love our night under the railway tunnel being rocked by trains, or the luxury night in the school which we organised after an hour of police ‘concern’ and being told we couldn’t do anything ‘because we were women’, or the night with the family in the middle of nowhere drinking and dancing to the small hours of the morning. With Mina and her family in Bardaskan we experienced the full royal treatment – we were even interviewed by the local media, being the celebrities that we are. After eating our body weight in food, having girl talk with Mina and her neighbours, holding hands with her grandma and spending time with her family, we finally crawled into bed exhausted but happy. At midnight I kissed Jude and wished her a happy birthday, before the deep sleep of a content cycle tourist overtook me.

Not far now to Bardaskan and a hot shower.

Not far now to Bardaskan and a hot shower.

Dinner time Iranian style, like a big picnic on the living room floor.

Dinner time Iranian style, like a big picnic on the living room floor.

Goodbye Mina and your wonderful family.

Goodbye Mina and your wonderful family.

All my love as always,

Astrid.

Just a quick note  – not all of our stories and photos have made it on to this blog.  This is to protect the identity and safety of our Iranian friends from their government.  I’m sure you understand and I hope one day they will be able to live in a country where individual freedom and choice is cherished, not persecuted.

Saffron fields.

Saffron fields.

The stunning flowers up close.

The stunning flowers up close.

Yes I did go a little crazy taking photos of the saffron.

Yes I did go a little crazy taking photos of the saffron.

Jude loves her early birthday present of a coffee maker.

And a cheeky shot of the birthday girl with her early birthday present – a coffee maker.

A race across Turkmenistan

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 Bukhara to Saraks

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Often I find getting back on the bike hard after a long break.

Not this time. Aside from our 5 days across Uzbekistan we had barely pedaled since reaching Dushanbe. Both of us were ready for the adventures ahead, excited about Turkmenistan and more importantly, The Islamic Republic of Iran.

Our cycle out of Bukhara saw us pass many more cotton fields, and although the landscape was uninspiring, it was brilliant to be cycling again. We had planned to camp near the border as our Turkmen transit visa started the following day. Stopping at a house about 20km before the border to collect water, we were invited in for tea. We accepted and then the family insisted we stay the night. As it was getting dark and we were not really that far from the border, we agreed with the plan to leave early. There were three kids, two boys and a girl. The girl was clearly the clever one among them and we managed to communicate in very rudimentary English. It really impressed us how bright she was and we had a really lovely evening together. The mum taught us how to make Plov, I taught the daughter how to knit and Astrid played chess with the boys. When the father came home we all ate dinner together and then the kids, mum and us all slept together in the family room. A perfect last night in Uzbekistan.

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Hanging out with this cute Uzbek girl

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The family and their cows

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Astrid holds a baby chicken

We woke early, said our goodbyes to the mum and daughter who were the only ones up, and pedalled towards the Turkmenistan border.

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Tucks lining up and the Uzbek/Turkmen border

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The morning sun as we head out of Uzbekistan

Turkmenistan is an obscure country that almost every Asia to Europe cyclist must eventually face. It is rated second last after North Korea for journalistic freedom and once had a leader who banned listening to radio’s in cars and erected hundreds of gold monuments of himself (how unusual for a dictator).

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A typical Turkmen building. It’s forbidden to photograph most buildings

In the past, the Turkmen people were nomads who roamed the deserts of Central Asia with their animals, often capturing unsuspecting Russians on the edges of their Imperial Empire. These Russians were then sold on to the Khantes of Khiva and Bukhara to live out their days as slaves.

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Cycling through our last ‘Stan

The future of Turkmenistan lies in huge gas reserves. Now that the gold statue loving leader is no longer around, perhaps some of the resources will eventually find themselves into the people’s hands. It is said Turkmenistan should be as wealthy as Dubai.

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The Turkmen dessert

Anyway, for us Turkmenistan meant ‘transit visa’. A tourist visa is only granted with a guide for a phenomenal amount of money. Being from a non-Ebola country we were granted a 5 day transit visa in Dushanbe. For any cyclists reading we applied at the embassy and they emailed us a code (yep, it actually worked!) after a week which we presented at the border. These visas are date specific so one needs to be super organised. We had picked the border closest to Bukhara and had roughly 480km to cycle in 5 days. That should have been pretty simple. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way.

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More dunes

We reached the border in good time that first day and were ushered quickly though on the Uzbek side. Aside from stealing some of our Nurofen, the procedure at the Uzbek border went smoothly. They even had a working x-ray machine this time. The Turkmen border was not open when we arrived (it opens at 9am) so we watched ladies organise their piles of hideously patterned clothes to bring into Turkmenistan. Guess the fashion doesn’t get any better. Once the border opened we paid for our visa, someone helped us with some forms, there was a half hearted search of our bags, followed by some oohing and ahh-ing over Martha and then we were inside the most obscure country in Central Asia.

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Ah, the serenity..

As we had not had breakfast, we pedalled a few kilometres before sitting under some beautiful autumn trees and cooking our porridge. It was already late when we arrived (borders often take ages) and by the time we left it was a bit after midday. People were friendly and about an hour later we were invited for chay by the side of the road by some cotton workers. Like it’s Uzbek neighbor, Turkmenistan also contributes to the Aral Sea disaster by producing cotton in a dessert climate. Go figure.

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Autumn is really here

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Breakfast break

By the afternoon we reached Turkmenabat, the second largest city. We were greeted by loads of shiny buildings, statues and even a practicing parade (which we unfortunately couldn’t take a photo of as it is forbidden and the police are everywhere). Instead we stopped and looked confused until someone helped us exchange our US dollars for Turkmen Manet. I have found looking confused usually results in someone with a little bit of English stopping and assisting. It really is awesome how helpful people are. Anyway, once we had money we cycled to the outskirts of town and decided to have an early dinner, so we could continue to cycle until dark. Sadly our dinner was somewhat of a fail, pretty common for a new country. Although the cuisine is pretty similar to the rest of Central Asia, things have slightly different names. We were served a soup of doom, full of gross looking fat. The stray cats hanging around got most of it, and even they didn’t seem particularly impressed by it.

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Tea with the cotton workers

We pushed on after our soup fail until nearly dark and made camp in some sand dunes.

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Typical camping chaos

The next morning we woke to grey skies and a fierce wind. Sadly it wasn’t the fierce tailwind other cyclists had predicted we would encounter. It was at least a cross/tail but man was it cold. There was no time to waste so we knuckled down and cycled through the flat desert landscape, bracing the icy wind. The highlight that day was seeing a herd of wild camels. We ate lunch at a lonesome truck stop, a momentary shelter from the cold. It was a bleak day, we cycled until dark and just as it began to rain we crawled behind a sand dune, finding some shelter from the wind.

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A camel family, or I think technically Dromedary

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Truck stop cafe, sheltering from the cold

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The long road south

Overnight almost all our water froze. It was bitterly cold and we struggled to perform our morning tasks in the icy wind. The day was cold and long, we ate at another truck stop and pushed steadily southwards. To our delight, the weather did improve and blue skies greeted us in the afternoon. The one site in Turkmenistan we had time to visit was Merv, a UNESCO listed oasis city dating back to the 6th Century. We arrived at sunset and set up our camp on the edge of some farmland, overlooking the ruins of Merv. A truly beautiful spot.

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Camping near Merv

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View from our tent

 

In the morning we packed up and explored Merv in the early sunlight. Afterwards we pedaled hard towards Mary, which was an amazingly bizarre place, full of gold, extravagant buildings and monuments. We ate lunch there and then pushed on, making good time. I was so focused on making the kilometres that I almost didn’t hear when two cyclists shouted at me from the other side of the road. What are the chances of meeting two guys from Adelaide in the Turkmenistan desert? Not high I would have thought, but that’s where these two were from. We had a quick chat, they had cycled from Germany and were going back home. If this had been anywhere but a country that required a stupid transit visa we would have made camp together. This however was not possible, as we were all racing to opposite borders. Astrid and I pushed on until after dark, making camp on the edge of someone’s field.

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Merv

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It was fun to climb on the old walls

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Camping at the edge of someones field

We woke confident of making the border in time. A second breakfast was had at the turn off and we spent the last of our Manet. For anyone cycling this, turn left just after the bridge (google maps is slightly off). This is the road that will take you to Saraks. Many people had told us how bad the roads were in Turkmenistan. This was not true for us becuse of the route we took. We cycled the shortest route between Faraks and Saraks and the road is fine. Once you turn left, the last 80km is a lot rougher and you will find yourself sometimes pedalling along dirt tracks next to the road. However, if like us you have been through Kyrgyzstan and the Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan, this road is not so bad at all. This was probably the most picturesque part of the journey and we really wished we didn’t have to rush but could have made camp in the sand dunes.

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On a random road in Turkmenistan, two guys from Adelaide!

Just prior to 5pm we made it to the border town of Saraks. We could see Iran! Our information stated that the border shut at 6pm and we pushed on through the town to make sure we made it. A note to cyclists – as you pedal out of town, parallel with the train line don’t bother going all the way around like the cars need to. Make sure you clear the station area, then turn left down a side street and push your bike over the track. This will save you a couple of kilomtres.

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Drying/melting the still frozen tent

Full of excitement we pedaled up to the border complex, ready to see what Iran had in store for us.

Access denied.

Apparently the border had shut. Arguing with the guards did not help. Fuming, we turned away and stomped off to find somewhere to camp. Another note to cyclists – this border shuts at 4pm to outgoing traffic. Apparently if you arrive late you can cycle back into town and get an ‘exit stamp’ which will avoid deportation. Unfortunately no one was able to tell us this at the time.

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Looking around the wasteland that was this border complex, we wondered where we would put our tent. Luckily a kind man came to our aid and gave us a room that would be an office in the new border area that was being built. This was luxury for us. We made a cup of tea and considered our situation. Neither of us was particularly worried. Cyclists get deported from Turkmenistan all the time. In the dark, so that no one could see into our all glass windows room we carefully stashed our US dollars (no ATM’s for us in Iran) inside our bikes (handle bars and seat post) to avoid any potential bribes the following day. After that we watched a mocumentary about Dog Shows. A random way to spend our last night in Central Asia.

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More Merv

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The following morning it took the Turkmen authorities 5 hours to deport us. Would have been easier for them just to let us through the night before. Most of the time I read War and Peace but occasionally we were made to sign things, have our fingers photographed and look apologetic. Right at the end we had to write a statement, explaining why we had overstayed. No one really seemed to get the cycling thing or how we could possibly not have known when the border shuts. It seems the more obscure a country is, the more they think they are the centre of the world. Then we had the option of paying $50 each or being deported and not permitted back into Turkmenistan for 3 years. As tragic as not being permitted back was, we opted for deportation. They seemed to buy our story about having no cash and family meeting us in Mashad.

Finally after much pointless paperwork we were officially deported, given some food and waved into no mans land towards Iran.

And there ends our adventures in Central Asia. We made sure our Islamic attire was properly in place and pedaled towards the Middle East.

Jude

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Goodbye Central Asia, you have been swell

 

Jude

The People’s Republic of Plov.

Dushanbe -> Bukhara -> Khiva -> Nukus -> Tashkent -> Samarkand -> Bukhara.

Delicious Plov.

Delicious Plov.

I want to start this blog with a big, heartfelt MERCI to Veronique, Gabe and Stephanie for the hospitality, kindness and friendship they shared with us during our time in Dushanbe. It’s hard to leave a place that feels like a home away from home. With heavy hearts and teary eyes we pedaled out that morning towards the Uzbekistan border. It was a lazy 70 kilometres along the M41, but the two and a half weeks rest (and illness for me) found us meandering slowly through the countryside. The landscape had shifted again and we now cycled through cotton plantations that would be our constant companions for the next few weeks.

Our route.

Our route.

Ready to ride!

Ready to ride!

Just before the border we stopped to spend the last of our Tajik Somoni on ice creams and chocolate, a pep me up, as we knew the border crossing process could be tricky. Leaving Tajikistan was no problem and for those cyclists who are on a 45-day visa, we did not register ourselves with OVIR after 30 days, and this was no problem at the border. Uzbek immigration was no problem, but customs was a tedious process. Being a paranoid police state many things are illegal here, especially numerous prescription drugs, and political, religious or pornographic paraphernalia. Our perfectly packed panniers were pulled apart and everything was scrutinised. Luckily our hard-drive was formatted only for Macs and my description of science fiction films bored them from investigating any further. After an hours unsuccessful search, they were disgruntled, and we suspect that they secretly keep or sell anything that they find.

Welcome to Uzbekistan.

Welcome to Uzbekistan.

Bok bok enjoys the cotton fields at sunset.

Bok bok enjoys the cotton fields at sunset.

Entering Uzbekistan late in the afternoon, we decided to push on to Denov as we had heard of a cheapish hotel there. Foreigners are required to register at a hotel within 72 hours of arrival in Uzbekistan, and technically they are meant to stay in hotels every night. We had heard mixed reports, both of people camping most of the way with no problems and others who had been deported or arrested for flaunting this law. Dad would be arriving soon in Tashkent and rumour had it that the hotel managers there are stricter than border guards about daily registration, so we chose to err on the side of caution. The sun was setting as we pedaled into Denov and our hotel room (at the Hotel Denov), like most things in Uzbekistan, was a throw back from the Soviet era.

Breakfast and maps at the Hotel Denov.

Breakfast and maps at the Hotel Denov.

Counting our cash.

Counting our cash.

Rested after a night’s sleep we were ready to hit the road early and headed to the market for a few errands. Money was exchanged freely on the black market and our single $100 bill was exchanged for about 300 Uzbek bills. Our friendly dealer then made the lady at the phone shop give us a SIM card under the false name of 10000, as foreigners are not permitted to have an Uzbek SIM. Cashed up with partial technological access to the world, we started our journey towards Bukhara.

Getting my shoes fixed at the market.  It only cost $1.50.

Getting my shoes fixed at the market. It only cost $1.50.

Street food-a-licious.

Street food-a-licious.

They start them riding young over here.

They start them riding young over here.

Fruit orchards and vineyards surrounded the city and fortunately delicious grapes were the flavour of the season. It was nice to see some greenery after so much dryness. And then the cotton plantations started again. Autumn is picking season and we were again reminded of the disparities that exist in a police state. Just a quick rundown of the problems with cotton – cotton is a water intensive crop and Uzbekistan is pretty much a dessert, farmers don’t have the right to plant another crop of their choice, the government buys all of the cotton at falsely decreased prices in exchange for providing slave labour at picking season, slave labour is provided by villagers that are forced to forgo paid employment to pick cotton for free for the government. We saw busloads of villagers picking cotton in the hot sun as we cycled passed being grateful for the freedom to do what we would with our lives and our time.

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Vineyards make a nice change from the cotton fields.

The white cotton balls look beautiful but the reality is much different.

The white cotton balls look beautiful but the reality is much different.

The cotton fields.

The cotton fields.

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Cotton in the desert landscape.

The afternoon scenery was the beautiful stark mountainous desert that we had become familiar with in this part of the world. It had been another long day and the distance and heat took it out of me, as did the hills. Six kilometres from town my energy levels disappeared and it was a hard slog as the sun set and we pedaled in the early evening darkness. My spirits were lifted when a group of workers stopped us for a chat and one cheeky man stole a kiss on Jude’s cheek. All the Uzbek men believe her to be beautiful, and I must say that I agree. After locating the only hotel in Baysun and the welcome we received revived our souls further. We were seated around a table in the kitchen of a small restaurant where the owners filled our plates with salad, rice and vegetables, and the hotel owner filled our cups with tea and then local vodka. Traditional Uzbek music sounded from the radio and we laughed at our conversation attempts in broken English and Russian. After such a day we didn’t care that the price of the hotel was ridiculously high and the quality a Soviet low.

The desert landscape we love so much.

The desert landscape we love so much.

The long road to Bukhara.

The long road to Bukhara.

The workmen who wanted to have a chat and steal a kiss.

The workmen who wanted to have a chat and steal a kiss.

An early morning walk brought me to the local market where I spent the equivalent of a dollar fifty on two loaves of fresh bread, a bottle of kefir and a mixture of apples, tomatoes and cucumbers. It was here that I received the SOS from dad and I spent a panicked hour trying to find somewhere with internet access. Eventually I was able to get into my email account to discover that he had not taken our advise about applying for his Uzbek LOI (letter of introduction) early, and as such would not be arriving in four days as planned. It would be another fortnight before the paperwork was in order, so plans had to be chopped and changed again.

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The things you see in the desert. Mirage perhaps?

Watch out for cows..

Watch out for cows..

The safe driving campaign photos here are interesting.

The safe driving campaign photos here are interesting.

There was a lot to think about that day on the road. Fortunately cycling provides the time and ability for clear thinking and meditation. The hills continued and we climbed and descended for the whole day. At one of the many police road-blocks we were asked for the registration papers for our bicycles and the ridiculous request left me laughing in the face of the poor officer who had asked it. That evening the requirement of staying at hotels left us feeling extra angry as we were charged $42 for a substandard room, the shared showers were useless and the men staying there were not able to aim properly when using the toilet – both for a wee or a shit. Additionally, all Uzbek hotels charge a foreigner price and an Uzbek price for the rooms, the difference is fourfold.

One of the kind people who gifted us lunch.

One of the kind people who gifted us lunch.

Bread anyone?

Bread anyone?

Fortunately most of the Uzbek people we met were lovely. On previous days we had been gifted our lunch at the restaurants we stopped at and such generosity continued. A man in a small village waved us down, bought us freshly baked bread, which we ate with honey, and he then provided us with walnuts from the tree in his garden. Others waved and called out greetings as we passed by and the dark mood of the evening before evaporated. The hills slowly gave way to flat riding and at lunchtime we found a restaurant in Guzar that was pumping. We feasted on six different salads, shared more freshly baked bread and drank cold kefir. Our destination for the evening was the ancient town of Qarshi. Not much remains of its 2,500 year history, but we acquired our very own Soviet era apartment for the next couple of nights.

Enjoying a drink.

Enjoying a drink.

Chilling out in our own Soviet era apartment in Qarshi.

Chilling out in our own Soviet era apartment in Qarshi.

Rejuvenated from our rest day we set off hoping to arrive in Bukhara in two days time. Unfortunately the wind had swung around and now blew strongly into our faces. Men had become super annoying as they gathered in groups to leer at us whenever we stopped. Jude’s man rage kicked in and my relaxed vibe dissipated when a male driver ran me off the road while ogling at me and his male passenger was blowing me kisses. Really, what do these men think we’re going to do when they behave like that? Act like we’re interested in them? I think not. That night after dinner in the ballroom of our hotel, the gold-toothed waitress pulled us on to the dance floor and we danced our rage away with a disco for three. It was Friday night after all.

Jude riding across one of the ancient bridges in Qarshi.

Jude riding across one of the ancient bridges in Qarshi.

Jude fist shaking at the headwind.

Jude fist shaking at the headwind.

More cotton and slavery.

More cotton and slavery.

Uzbekistan's version of identikit housing.

Uzbekistan’s version of identikit housing.

A cool change blew in that night and we woke to a crisp morning. A frigid headwind persisted all day, requiring us to find shelter for every rest break. The trees and the long grasses bent sideways in the wind and it was sometimes a struggle to stay upright. Hungry from the cycling and the cold we bunkered down with truck drivers in a makeshift restaurant and shoved spoonfuls of Plov into our mouths. Plov, the local specialty rice dish, was the staple of our mealtimes in Uzbekistan. The hundred kilometres to Bukhara dragged on yet late in the afternoon the city limits came into site. As with other cities it was the identikit housing that first greeted us. Imagine a Stan version of Roxborugh Park and you would be close. We navigated our way to the centre of the old city and were awed by the amazing Islamic architecture of mosques, medressas and minarets that are synonymous with the ancient Tamerlane kingdom. The beauty of the buildings is breathtaking and the first image of them will forever be imprinted in my memory.

Khiva's city walls.

Khiva’s city walls.

Jude in front of the Mohammed Amin Khan Medressa and the Kalta Minor Minaret.

Jude in front of the Mohammed Amin Khan Medressa and the Kalta Minor Minaret (Khiva).

Inside the Kuhna Ark.

Inside the Kuhna Ark.

View of Khiva from the city walls.

View of Khiva from the city walls.

And another.

And another.

Jude in front of the spectacular tile work of the Summer Mosque.

Jude in front of the spectacular tile work of the Summer Mosque.

The intricate tile work in the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum.

The intricate tile work in the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum.

Family photo.

Family photo in the Khan’s bedroom.

It was now confirmed that dad would not be arriving for another week, so the next morning we packed a backpack, left the bikes in Bukhara and jumped in a shared taxi to the ancient khanate of Khiva. Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are the three major attractions of Uzbekistan, and despite all of them having spectacular Islamic architecture the vibe of all three cities are as different as one can imagine. Khiva feels like a museum, Samarkand a soulless Disneyland and luckily Bukhara has retained a friendly, comfortable, lived-in feeing. Despite the differing vibes, all were worth visiting. We roamed the streets, explored the buildings, and marveled at the intricate designs and patterns that surrounded us.

Walking the street of ancient Khiva.

Walking the street of ancient Khiva.

Allakuli Khan Medressa.

Allakuli Khan Medressa.

Juma mosque.

Juma mosque.

Streetscape, Khiva.

Streetscape, Khiva.

Cat love in Khiva.

Cat love in Khiva.

Exiting through the East gate.

Exiting through the East gate.

An afternoon stroll along the city walls.

An afternoon stroll along the city walls near the North gate.

Morning light on the Kalta Minor Minaret.

Morning light on the Kalta Minor Minaret.

Moonrise over Khiva.

Moonrise over Khiva.

From Khiva we headed further west to Nukus, home of the Savitsky museum and probably the only reason to visit this town. The museum is home to the most remarkable art collection in the former Soviet Union. There are 90,000 artworks and artifacts in the collection with currently only one building displaying a rotating selection of these. Another two buildings are under construction and will hopefully open in 2016. We spent the morning admiring the numerous Karakalpak artifacts on display, which left the afternoon to wander and appreciate the hundreds of artworks Savitsky bought to the gallery for protection from destruction by the Soviets. It was inspiring and we felt elated when we left the museum just before closing. Paper and pencils were pulled out that night to loose ourselves in the creativity that continued to stay with us.

In front of the Savitsky museum - photography inside comes at a heavy price.

In front of the Savitsky museum – photography inside comes at a heavy price.

Jude enjoying our 24 hour train journey from Nukus to Tashkent.

Jude enjoying our 24 hour train journey from Nukus to Tashkent.

Train love I.

Train love I.

Train love II.

Train love II.

Cafe love.

Cafe love.

It’s a 24-hour train ride from Nukus to Tashkent, and it was one of the best train rides I have ever had. We were in the second-class sleeper cabin where all six-bedded compartments are joined. Bedding was provided, the toilets were clean and hot water was available for numerous cups of tea. We had stocked up on food at the Nukus market and everyone on board shared what they had. It was a communal atmosphere and we spent the hours chatting, eating, reading and napping. Despite the long journey we arrived in Tashkent feeling refreshed and happy. Our guesthouse was a Metro journey away and as we settled in for the night it was hard to contain my excitement, as dad would be arriving the following evening.

Khast Imam Mosque, Tashkent.

Khast Imam Mosque, Tashkent.

The dome of the Chorsu Market, Tashkent.

The dome of the Chorsu Market, Tashkent.

Inside Chorsu market.

Inside Chorsu market.

The cooks get ready for the lunchtime rush at National Food, Tashkent.

The cooks get ready for the lunchtime rush at National Food, Tashkent.

Enjoying a coffee.

Enjoying a coffee.

Enjoying the treats that Dad brought us from home.

Enjoying the treats that Dad brought us from home.

The train museum, a photography gallery, a walk around town and a funky café were good distractions until pick-up time. Waiting outside in the cold did not dampen my enthusiasm for dad’s arrival and it was a sweet site when he walked out of the airport doors. We spent the next 10 days exploring the sites, sounds and tastes of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. This time we didn’t have any strenuous activity planned for dad and I think he felt relieved about this. Instead we walked around the cities, drank coffees, ate ice-creams, looked at the sites, explored the bazaars, admired the Central Asian fashion, sampled the various Plovs of the region, tasted the beers and wines, and enjoyed each others company. Thanks again Dad for joining us, we love it when you come and can’t wait for your next cameo appearance in the foonsonbikes journey.

The Sharq train that we caught from Tashkent to Samarkand to Bukhara.

The Sharq train that we caught from Tashkent to Samarkand to Bukhara.

Dada and I in front of the Registon

Dada and I in front of the Registon

You never will forget your first view of Islamic architecture.

You never will forget your first view of Islamic architecture.

Sher Dor Medressa.

Sher Dor Medressa.

Inside Tilla-Kari Medressa.

Inside Tilla-Kari Medressa.

Tilla Kari Medressa.

Tilla Kari Medressa.

Sunset over the Registon.

Sunset over the Registon.

I’ll leave you now to peruse the photos of the amazing sites and experiences we had over those ten days – enjoy! Love Astrid.

At Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

At Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum.

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum.

It's huge - the entry to Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum

It’s huge – the entry to Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum

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Inside the Golden Mosque, Samarkand.

Inside the Golden Mosque, Samarkand.

Enjoying the view.

Enjoying the view.

Admiring the local fashion at the market in Samarkand.

Admiring the local fashion at the market in Samarkand.

Dad at Shah-i-Zinda, the Avenue of Mausoleums.

Dad at Shah-i-Zinda, the Avenue of Mausoleums.

Delicious vegetarian manty.

Delicious vegetarian manty.

Wine tasting anyone?

Wine tasting anyone?

Our wine tasting lady was hilarious.

Our wine tasting lady was hilarious.

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Kalon Mosque in the morning light.

Kalon Mosque in the morning light.

Prayer halls of Kalon Mosque.

Prayer halls of Kalon Mosque.

Dad points to the Ark, Bukhara.

Dad points to the Ark, Bukhara.

Entry to the Ark, Bukhara.

Entry to the Ark, Bukhara.

Just relaxing and looking beautiful doing it.

Just relaxing and looking beautiful doing it.

Mir-i-Arab Medressa.

Mir-i-Arab Medressa.

Jude walks through the ruins, Bukhara.

Jude walks through the ruins, Bukhara.

Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara.

Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara.

Vegetarian Kebab!!

Vegetarian Kebab!!

Tea and treats.

Tea and treats.

Mmmm, beer.

Mmmm, beer.

Bok bok at a Taki bazaar.

Bok bok at a Taki bazaar.

Jude loves the fat-bottomed sheep.

Jude loves the fat-bottomed sheep.

A cheeky beer with Barbara in Bukhara, we will meet again in Mashad, Iran.

A cheeky beer with Barbara in Bukhara, we will meet again in Mashad, Iran.

Locals travel by bike too.

Locals travel by bike too.

DUSHANBE

I don't think this needs an explanation.

I don’t think this needs an explanation.

Post Pamir Highway relaxation/ Visa application party

 What do I know of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan? The sites, the museum, the history?

Nothing really.

I know where the Uzbek, Iranian and Turkmen embassies are. I know where the cheap and expensive supermarkets are, and the ATM that disperses the most US dollars at a time. I know where the expat pub is and the café with free wifi.

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The bikes go to the pub for a pint or 3

Mostly though, I know Vero’s backyard. The high walls, garden scattered with cyclist’s tents, the porch, where at any point in the day some cyclists will be sitting, chatting, drinking coffee or beers, reading and resting.

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Best Backyard ever

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Love this porch

When we pushed our heavy bikes through Vero’s door (opened by the kindly guards whose job it is to do this and seem rather amused by the constant arrival of foreign cyclists) we stepped into another world. In fact we stepped into a home. After more than a year on the road, for the first time, we really felt at home.

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Breakfast time

Let me take a minute to explain. Vero is a legend in the cycle touring community. Not only has she cycled on a tandem with her young son, both in South America and here in Tajikistan (she cycled the Pamir Highway this summer) she is also the most wonderful WarmShowers host. Central Asia is a real bottleneck for long distance cyclists, not only is the area is plagued by complicated visa procedures but most people cycle the Pamir Highway and will find themselves in Dushanbe either before or after this epic feat. The people who come before general stay a day or two as they get their GBAO permit (unless of course they stop giving out permits, then people stay for weeks) and the people coming from the Pamir highway (like us) generally seem to stay a bit longer, recovering and applying for onward visas. As it was still warm when we arrived, some days there were up to 16 cyclists camped in Vero’s backyard!

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Dinner is served!

We had heard about the legend of Vero well before we ever arrived in Tajikistan from other cyclists, and had been looking forward to our stay. All three of us had visas to apply for and bike maintenance to attend to. Not to mention an epic amount of washing. And resting. The night we arrived there were already a handful of cyclists there and it was not long before we were sipping beers and sharing stories.

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Cyclists come and gp

 

After weeks on the road, Vero’s place was paradise. A flushing toilet (with toilet paper!) a hot shower and the most amazing thing – an oven! I don’t think I have seen an oven in over a year. We abused that oven every night.

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In the kitchen where he belongs, cooking up a storm! (-:

Our days at Vero’s began with yoga in the backyard, followed by coffee on the porch with Vero and whoever was up. After breakfast the morning was a slow meander, marked by cups of tea and coffee. We tinkered with bikes, read books, researched, emailed, skyped and chatted to whoever was around. Sometimes there were visa errands (we successfully applied for our Turkmen, Iranian and Uzbek visas) or runs to the supermarket. The vibe was really communal and in the afternoon we usually planned what to make for dinner (it usually involved the oven) and we would cycle off to purchase ingredients and cook together.

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More delicious food

The cyclists came and went. Sometimes the house was bursting, and you could hardly get to the kitchen and other times it was just 4 or 5 of us. Everyone we met was super cool. Most people were on long trips, and most were heading east. We eagerly shared our stories and swapped information. There was a lot of laughter, especially because Vero’s eccentric African Parrot had impeccable timing and would always choose the perfect moment to burst into an eerie laugh.

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This parrot has amazing comic timing! I like him so much

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There was a downside to our stay in Dushanbe, a lot of us at Vero’s got sick at some stage with ‘Tajik belly’. Neil succumbed once (after having just recovered from it on the road) and poor Astrid twice. I was one of the few lucky ones to remain immune. Astrid spent a lot of time on the couch reading Jane Austen and not writing the blog.

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Porch time

 

One night at Vero’s we went clubbing. I’m not the biggest clubber around, but I do like a dance and I must say clubbing in Dushanbe was a lot of fun, especially with a bunch of cyclists in their ‘fine attire’. I can’t remember the last time I had a good dance like that. Another night we crazy danced in the kitchen while making pizza. One Monday Vero generously poured us all champagne ‘just because it was Monday’. The longer we stayed, the more we got to know Vero and her son Gab, the harder it was to leave. Gab too is quite a legend. I don’t know many 8 year olds that have cycled the Pamir Highway, or switch so effortlessly between French and English. He was a lot of fun to hang out with.

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‘Champagne Monday’ 

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Early morning farewell

The nature of travel is that eventually one must leave and pedal off to the next destination. However, not without a party. The main reason for the party was that Stephanie, an intern at the EU (where Vero works) was to finish her Masters Degree. We had all gotten to know Stephanie as she lived at Vero’s and it seemed an excellent reason to celebrate. Plus a lot of the ‘long term’ cyclists (us included) were leaving that Sunday. Poor Neil, he had finally really been bitten by his Green Mumba passport. Despite having not lived in South Africa for years he was denied a Turkmenistan Transit Visa, possibly on the grounds of Ebola paranoia. So Neil and Courtney (an awesome Australian cycling alone) were flying to Tehran that Sunday and we were heading towards the Uzbek border.

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Barbara fitting Courtney for her ‘Iran appropriate’ wear

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One day we had a picnic in the garden

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“Eating Chocolate cake without hand’ night

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Awesome chocolate cake face from Gab

 

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How many people can fit into one 4WD…

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Afternoon beers overlooking Dushanbe

So that Friday we geared up to celebrate. Neil was on cocktail duty, Astrid, Courtney and I were the pizza makers, Anna and Nico (a cool French couple) baked amazing cakes and Barbara made an awesome salad. A quick side note on Barbara, an awesome Austrian cyclo woman who has been traveling by bike and sailboat around the world. Barbara and I have been emailing since we were in Indonesia as after 2 years cycling alone she was looking to form a woman cycling gang. However, we were too far in front initially, then behind in China and in front again through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Finally we met at Vero’s. Barbara is a really inspiring rad woman and after comparing Turkmen transit visa dates we realised we would be in Iran at the same time. Our plan is to cycle together from Mashad in Iran.

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Preparing pizza

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I think we are dancing, Astrid looks a little dangerous with that knife!

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The ladies of ‘sept 2014

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Jack eyeing off the pizza

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Cheers

 

 

Anyway, I don’t know if it’s the expat community, or the French expat community but the ability for mobilisation when there is a party was amazing. I don’t think many people would turn up if I set an email out on a Friday afternoon for a party that night. But by 9pm the house was packed, the music was pumping (Vero is also a DJ) and we were dancing like crazy. A great way to finish our time in Dushanbe.

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Tajik fashion and dancing

 

Needless to say, Saturday was a mellow day full of packing, coffee and ‘hair of the dog’ beers. It was sad to say goodbye to everyone. Our time in Dushanbe has been very special. Meeting so many other cyclists was inspiring and getting to know Vero, Gabriel and Stephanie was wonderful. Thank you.We miss you and hope our paths will cross again one day

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The ‘end of september’ group. Thanks Vero, we had the best time!

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Off to the Uzbek border

 

 

The other side of the Pamirs.

Khorog -> Kalai Khumb -> Dushanbe (via the new road).

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Khorog is a lovely place to relax.

We do apologise for the long delay between blogs and thank everyone who wrote to us to check if we are okay. Yes we are! We have been in the Central Asian internet blackhole and as daylight hours are getting shorter cycling and everyday living is taking up our time. So after a long hiatus, the stories of cycling and food are back. Our rest days in Khorog were truly relaxing. Time was spent tinkering with our bikes, people watching in the park, exploring the bazaar and stuffing ourselves with food. After weeks of bland, meat heavy central Asian cuisine, the local Indian restaurant was a vegetarian cycle tourist’s wet dream. Plates of curries were ordered and devoured with relish. We ate to celebrate and we ate to commiserate. After setting off from Japan a year earlier, MacG’s current cycle tour was coming to an end and our little pedal through the Wakhan together was his last cycling leg. MacG, you rock! Thanks for the awesome times and we hope our wheels cross paths again.

Thanks for the great times MacG!!

Thanks for the great times MacG!!

Back to being our family of three for the last time, the road would now take us 900 kilometres to the capital Dushanbe. It was a relaxing first day back on the bikes, the road meandering alongside the Panj River. The warm afternoon sun persuaded us to stop early and we found a lovely campsite under some trees at the junction of two rivers. As I lifted my leg over the bike an all too familiar feeling filled me with dread. I had been experiencing niggles in my back since pushing the Dirty Salmon up the hill of doom to Bibi Fatima, and now she let me know she’d had enough. I have learnt that movement rather than rest is what my back injury requires, so a yoga session was followed up by some pre-dinner Frisbee. I’m not the best player in the world and this coupled with me running about like I was sitting on a horse was a hilarious sight I’m sure.

Back to camping.

Back to camping.

The road hugs the Panj River.

The road hugs the Panj River.

The following morning we met up with Christine, a French woman who has been working with an NGO in Tajikistan for the last 4 years. She was a fountain of information and we spent the morning cycling together chatting about Pamiri and Tajik life, history and culture. What Christine shared was fascinating and at times frustrating and sad, especially with regards to health, education and equality. At my request she also pointed out the road leading to the Bartang Valley which is on my list of must do cycle routes for the future (Kev, Pabski and Rich – booking you in for this now). At 10am we arrived in a bigger village and the smell of shashlik lured Neil and Jude into a kebab-based morning tea. Neil amused the owner by doing a chicken dance and he confirmed that it was indeed chicken on the skewers. My back continued to give me grief so I decided to stop often to stretch and by the late afternoon I needed to get off the bike altogether. Our campsite was set up, perched on the edge of a cliff with a steep rocky scramble down to the water below. I interchanged yoga and walking exercises, while Jude and Neil cooked up a storm and brewed our mandatory cups of tea.

Calm waters of the Panj.

Calm waters of the Panj.

Looking up the Bartang Valley, a future cycle tour for sure.

Looking up the Bartang Valley, a future cycle tour for sure.

Camping on the edge.

Camping on the edge.

The road continued to follow the Panj River, but the wide valleys soon gave way to rocky canyons and little villages were located on the only flat land amongst these. The undulations along the canyon walls and the poor road surface provided a challenge for my back and I commenced a regime of cycling for 40 minutes followed by 20 minutes of yoga. In addition to these extra breaks we continued to be stopped regularly by locals offering us chai (tea). We learnt only to accept an offer when we were hungry, as chai is never just chai and today was no exception. We were provided with tea, fried eggs, bread, fresh tomato and cucumber, biscuits, confectionary and peaches picked from the tree we sat under. Such kindness and hospitality is the norm in the Pamirs

The valleys narrow into canyons.

The valleys narrow into canyons.

The valleys become canyons and the waters become choppy.

And the waters become choppy.

Afghanistan's mountains continue to impress.

Afghanistan’s mountains continue to impress.

Chai never means just chai.  Invites all round on the side of the road.

Chai never means just chai. Invites all round on the side of the road.

Late in the afternoon we crossed the dodgiest looking bridge thus far and proceeded to our final check point. While waiting, three boys came by and asked to have their photo taken. Little tough guy poses ceased when their (?extra) undies came out to be worn like hats. Once the photo shoot was over they asked to try riding our bikes. We told them it was not a good idea as they were heavy but they chose to give it a go anyway. Needless to say there was some falling and bruises, but they were super happy and they pushed us on our bikes through the sand track which the road became. Camp was set up in a sandy basin and we fell asleep to the roaring of the river (and the occasional truck).

The stunning scenery continues.

The stunning scenery continues.

Tough guy poses become funny with underwear.

Tough guy poses become funny with underwear.

Sand bank next to the Panj makes a lovely camp spot.

Sand bank next to the Panj makes a lovely camp spot.

Relaxing after a day of cycling.

Relaxing after a day of cycling.

Pedaling off in the morning I knew it was going to be a slow day. I chose to continue my cycle/yoga regime, and the road continued to undulate through the canyon. I was so slow that Neil was able to finish an entire book while waiting for me to catch up. At lunchtime a roadside restaurant appeared and the advertising signs were promising. As usual, reality did not match the picture. The only food available was fried eggs and frankfurters. And Cornetto ice cream – yes two of them did accidently fall into our mouths. Somehow during a yoga session Neil failed to see us as he cycled by and he spent the next hour and a half trying to catch up to the two of us who were now behind him. Not being sure where we were comparatively, we decided to spend the night separately. Jude and I pitched our tent on a beach with an Afghani village overlooking our campsite. The lights of the houses on the mountainside joined the stars in the sky and a deep feeling of peace settled on the night.

Canyon riding, the road on the right side is ours.

Canyon riding, the road on the right side is ours.

Sometimes the Afghan side looked more agriculturally developed that the Tajik side.

Sometimes the Afghan side looked more agriculturally developed that the Tajik side.

Yoga after cycling heals a sore back.

Yoga after cycling heals a sore back.

Late the next morning we met Neil at the township of Kalai Khumb. The size of a town here can be judged by the presence or absence of aisles in the supermarket – this one had many. Staples and many treats were purchased and eaten. Kalai Khumb is located at the intersection of the new and old roads to Dushanbe. Most cyclists take the old dirt road – which is 100km shorter and supposedly more scenic. Despite being longer I had chosen to take the new road as I thought it would be better for my back if I pedaled a road that was mostly tarmac. Neil’s bike continued to have rack issues so he made the decision to join us on the new road. Our decision to stay together was celebrated with a large bowl of plov and an afternoon beer. Afternoon beers are not so conducive with cycling, so after about 20 kilometres we pulled over and set up our tent in a food forest. It was an incredibly magical place. An old man from the village discovered us and used every excuse under the sun to convince us that we needed to come and stay at his house. Wolves would eat us, an avalanche would bury us, or the Afghanis across the river would shoot us. Realising that all his protestations were in vain, he then took pleasure in showing me all the edible fruits that were to be enjoyed around us. I’m so planting a food forest when we buy a property on our return!!

The children continue to request to have their photos taken.

The children continue to request to have their photos taken.

Our food forest, everything grown here is edible.

Our food forest, everything grown here is edible.

None of the aforementioned incidents occurred during the night and we pedaled into the morning well rested and happy. The canyon narrowed even further and I felt as if I could reach over and touch the mountainsides of Afghanistan. Being so close provided a different kind of problem for us though. The police along this stretch of road were hyper paranoid about us getting shot by Afghani’s. I stopped to do my usual yoga, to have 3 police officers materialize out of nowhere to try and inform me that I couldn’t stop there as I was in danger. I did my best ‘dumb tourist’ look and continued on with my stretching much to the officer’s chagrin. The same officers received the one finger salute from Jude when the last one blew her a kiss as she cycled passed. Our tolerance for sexist and overt attention from men continues to decline. Lunch was then interrupted by another group of police who again warned us of our imminent danger. Luckily for our paranoid police friends, we spent that night camped among giant trees next to a natural spring at a local families property. They found my yoga extremely amusing, especially the sun salutations. I wondered if they knew it was for stretching or if they thought it was some kind of weird religious ritual.

Lush greenery surrounds us.

Lush greenery surrounds us.

Looking back down to the canyons we had just cycled out of.

Looking back down to the canyons we had just cycled out of.

Knowing that we would have a climb, we woke earlier than usual and set off in the cool morning air. The road became super smooth tarmac after a few minutes and we flew along enjoying the lack of bone shaking corrugations and potentially bike breaking potholes. The canyon soon opened into a valley and rolling hills, the first difference in landscape for a couple of weeks. The tarmac soon disappeared as quickly as it appeared. Being more exposed to the elements the heat soon became oppressive and we stopped at the first Magazin for a cold drink, an ice cream and some treats. After sampling a selection of chocolate bars imported from Turkey, we are aware that we will be chocolate free for our time there. As the temperature climbed, so did we. The road now turned away from the border and up the pass that we were expecting. Finding some shade at lunchtime proved difficult, but not impossible. It was hard to get back on the bikes and start climbing again, but we were soon able to rest again. Road works were being carried out and as we waited, giant boulders were being dropped over the edge of the switchback above us. Ah the switchbacks and the false summits, not a good combination as the day comes to an end. The top of the pass remained elusive and we set up camp in a quarry as twilight set in.

The land opened up from the canyons we had been in.

The land opened up from the canyons we had been in.

Turkey fails to produce good chocolate.

Turkey fails to produce good chocolate.

Parking for lunch.

Parking for lunch.

The top of the pass was reached the next morning and soon the wind was rushing through our hair as we descended into the next valley. On the way down I noticed an apiary and stopped to see if I could buy some honey. Next thing I knew we were seated in their tent drinking tea, eating melons and enjoying freshly gathered honey on homemade bread. In true Tajik style we were gifted more honey on our departure and made to promise to visit again when we were next in the area. You would think that after stuffing ourselves with such good food and not expending much energy due to cycling downhill, lunch would have been the last thing we wanted. Sure enough it wasn’t and soon we were sitting in a shaded restaurant garden eating more. This was followed by a couple of ice creams, as we bought our own and then were gifted others. The valley we were in was fertile and the townships well developed. It came as no surprise to find out that the president was from the area and that most governmental funding is spent here. Our good luck did not last into the evening – we had been offered a place to stay but the guy didn’t return, therefore we made camp in an orchard next to the freeway and the roar of trucks and cars didn’t abate all night.

Chai again does not mean just tea. Our feast with the honey man and his family.

Chai again does not mean just tea. Our feast with the honey man and his family.

A farewell salute from our lovely honey host.

A farewell salute from our lovely honey host.

Descending into the next valley after the never ending climb.

Descending into the next valley after the never ending climb.

Our waitress tries on Neil's glasses.  I wanted to capture her gold teeth but she wouldn't smile.

Our waitress tries on Neil’s glasses. I wanted to capture her gold teeth but she wouldn’t smile.

French toast and coffee cured our fatigue and feeling rejuvenated we continued to cycle through fertile fields. The greenery gave way to golden grass as we climbed and then undulated our way through hills as far as the eye could see. Being gifted melons and grapes was a welcome treat as the heat of the day came on rapidly and shade was scarce. A post lunchtime break was enjoyed in the shade of the petrol station where we spent two hours reading books and drinking cold drinks. The road again improved but the attitude of the drivers didn’t. A plastic bottle was launched at me and luckily missed its target. Needing a good nights sleep we pulled off the main road and asked an old man if we could camp on the land there. He was obliging and very much wanting to converse with us. Despite his knowledge of seven languages and the combined five that the three of us knew, we unfortunately had none in common. After a quick chat in Russian he left us to set up camp and enjoy our evening of peace and quiet.

Camping in the orchard.

Camping in the orchard.

French toast of awesome.

French toast of awesome.

Golden hills rolling as far as the eye can see.

Golden hills rolling as far as the eye can see.

More donkey love.

Donkey love.

With cups of tea in hand we watched as the sun rose over the valley. It was another hot day and we had two big climbs to really make us feel the heat. After the first ascent lunch was eaten at a roadside rest stop where every stall sold the same two dishes. The next climb, some tunnels and a lovely downhill placed us further along the road than we expected. Finding ourselves only 30 kilometres out of Dushanbe with at least three more hours of daylight we decided to make a push for the hospitality and warm shower at Veronique’s home in Dushanbe. Fortune was with us as the road was flat and we sped along with happy hearts. The last gift of hospitality on our Tajik crossing came from an old man who presented me with a pear and some sweets. He had cycled his grandson into Dushanbe and back that day for medical treatment, but still had the time and inclination to welcome a guest to his country. Such acts of kindness continue to remind me of the inherent good that is found in the world.

Donkeys feeling as hot as we were.

Donkeys feeling as hot as we were.

The iridescent blue of the dam near Dushanbe.

The iridescent blue of the dam near Dushanbe.

Entry gate to Dushanbe, a welcome site.

Entry gate to Dushanbe, a welcome site.

Our family of three cycled into Dushanbe, the last leg of the road together since we joined forces in Turpan.  The feeling was bitter sweet, but this didn’t last too long.  The haven of Veronique’s awaited us, as did a cold beer to celebrate achieving our dream of cycling the Pamirs.

Love, Astrid.

I don't think this needs an explanation.

I don’t think this needs an explanation.

Note: I’m sorry for the less than usual amount and diversity of photos, I don’t take as many if I’m unwell.  Oh yes, and my back did fully heal with my cycling and yoga regime. Yay for freedom of movement!

I can see Afghanistan from my tent

Bulunkul to Khorog via the Wakhan Valley

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Heading towards the pass that would take us into the Wakhan valley

We turned southwards now, away from the Pamir Highway itself and into the Wakhan corridor. The river that cuts through this narrow, dramatic valley forms the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and is home to the Pamiri people, who are both different from the Kyrgyz nomads of the Eastern Pamir’s and the lowland Tajik’s. To many cyclists, this detour is considered a must. We were no exception.

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Lake, part way up the pass

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Stunning but it kept going up and up!

But first we had to get there. Other cyclists had told us the ride in was tough. I am never one to fully believe what I am told until I experience it. However, I can certainly say it was challenging! Not only were we ascending a 4000m plus pass, the road also alternated between horrible loose rocks and thick sand. I was often pushing (and swearing), and it took us most of the day to do 30km.

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Beautiful cycling, near the top

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The moody weather starts in the afternoon

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Dwarfed by the landscape

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The following morning we woke to our first really cloudy day since entering Tajikistan. This moody, unseasonal weather would follow us almost all the way to Khorog, unfortunately often obscuring the mighty Hindu Kush mountain range that borders Afghanistan and Pakistan. A short cycle from our camp found us at a checkpoint and at the opening of a large river valley. Across the river lay Afghanistan, seemingly peaceful and unassuming. In fact, this part of Afghanistan is peaceful. In Khorog the Afghan embassy issues tourist visas (for $100 USD) and you can organise a tour to the Afghan Wakhan. While we did not go into Afghanistan itself, we were often camped closer to the Afghan settlements across the river, than to Tajik ones. We waved and called out ‘hellos’, watched the donkey traffic and observed how life on the Afghan side looked very similar to the Tajik side. The only real difference was that thanks to the Aga Khan foundation (the Aga Khan is the leader of Ismaili Islam), the Tajik Wakhan had electricity and a road. Well, a kind of road. Oh and also, the Afghan donkeys are a lot louder.

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Sheep and goats on the other side of the pass

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Our tents form a line for wind protection

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Double checking our route. That’s Afghanistan in front of us

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The stark beautiful valley as we head down into the Wakhan

That first day we bumped and looped our way down into the Wakhan (sadly it wasn’t always actually down). The road was rough, and poor Neil had a few issues with his front rack. Towards the evening the weather really began to come in, a fierce wind blew and the occasional bouts of rain accompanied. We had wanted to camp, but up here on the exposed road there was very little shelter. Even when the first small settlement was reached, no choice camp spots revealed themselves. After a quick group discussion and a look at the blackening sky it was decided we would push on the Langar, the first larger village of the Wakhan. Luckily, from where we were it was downhill and we reached the first houses of Langar just as it was growing dark. While we were cycling through, looking for signs for homestays, a couple in an apricot orchard called Astrid over. After handing her a huge bag of apricots, they also invited us all in for the night.

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Looking out towards Afghanistan

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Heading down

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It’s dry and exposed up here

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Afghan camels

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The weather starts to come in during the afternoon

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The peaks are obscured

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It gets colder

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Snack stop

And what a beautiful home it was. The husband had built it himself and it was in the traditional Pamiri style. Epic thick walls, white washed exterior with blue door and window frames. The interior, while open plan, had little raised sections, carpets hung on the walls and a pointed skylight (Tajik dome as he called it) let natural light in. The whole place was incredibly warm and welcoming. Pamiri houses (like Kyrgyz ones) always seem to have piles of blankets, and it was these that the couple made into amazingly comfortable beds for us in the front two rooms. We were then treated to a huge dinner, eating till we thought we might explode and using a mixture of bad Russian and charades to communicate.

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Our wonderful Pamiri hosts

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The outside of their home

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Inside their home

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Sharing a meal

It rained during the night and we were incredibly thankful for the hospitality we received. Bidding farewell to our lovely hosts we pedaled out into the Wakhan. Now we were really in the valley. The Hindu Kush, although their peaks obscured, towered above us from the other side of the river. Poplars lined the road, as did carefully crafted low brick walls and the occasional Ismaili shrine with ram horns marking the entrance. We were no longer in high altitude desert, green had come back into the landscape and farm animals moseyed about, kids shouted as we passed and men tried to push start ancient Ladas. After the solitude of the eastern Pamirs, it was a very different experience.

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The Wakhan Valley

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An Ismaili Shrine

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A Mosque, opposite the shrine

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A Pamiri home

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Edge of a village

Our first task of the day was to find chocolate. We visited about 5 poorly stocked magazins and managed to scrape together a few snacks (it was about here that Astrid’s date obsession began, thanks to Jeff). All of us remarked on how much money the locals could be making off cyclists, if they stocked a few choice products like cheese and chocolate. Most of the tourists in the Wakhan are cyclists, and cyclists are HUNGRY almost all the time. Provide cheese and they will come.

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Searching for chocolate, a typical Wakhan shop

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Cute donkey 1

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Cute donkey 2

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A rare section of paved road

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View across the valley

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Moody clouds over Afghanistan

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Can you see the corrugations?

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Lunch by a natural spring

Anyway, aside from obsessing about food we bounced along the Wakhan, trying to remember at what point Remi and Rebecca had told us the road improved. Was it 30 or 40km after Langar? Of course, being Tajikistan, we ran into a few cyclists coming the opposite way and they assured us the road did eventually improve in about 30 or 40km.. Poor Neil, he was starting to have serious issues with his racks. While his bike is pretty much indestructible, his racks were not and after weeks of rough roads they had seemingly had enough. It was about this time that Jeff, being knowledgable about most things, especially bikes, began to be referred to by us as ‘McGyver’ as he was able to fix anything with a piece of wire. Soon McGyver became simply McG.

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Back into the elements

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You can almost see the Hindu Kush…

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A slight view of the snow caps..

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Beautiful cycling through the sheltered valley

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McG, protected from the wind and sun

So after more than a few McGyver stops we reached the turn off to Bibi Fatima. At the top of this 7km climb lay some castle ruins and hot springs, which Astrid and I had managed to convince the guys was worth seeing, not the mention the amazing view we would have if the weather cleared. We began the climb and it was epic. The gradient was insane, and being the Wakhan the surface was terrible. Poor Neil was already beginning to feel a little unwell, then his chain snapped only about 4km in. While he and McG were McGyvering it back into place in the fading light, Astrid and I hiked further up to see if we could find a homestay. We were in luck. The four of us gathered up our bikes and pedalled the 600m to warmth and shelter just as it began to rain.

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Wheat fields and wind

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Buddhist caves in the distance

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Another beautiful Pamiri home

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Pretty happy about cycling the Wakhan

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Moody clouds over the Hindu Kush

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The fairy has a fall climbing up to Bibi Fatima

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View from part way up

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looking cute

Again we were in a thick walled, warm Pamiri house, full of blankets and carpets. After an awesome feast we decided to embrace the sleepover vibe and watch a movie. Yep, being total dorks, we decided to watch a cycle touring film.

We woke to rain and delayed our departure till the weather had somewhat cleared. By now poor Neil had a full blown case of what would become the infamous and way to familiar ‘Tajik belly.’ It was decided we would cycle the remaining km’s to the top and then have a rest day. Once at the top we found ourselves a hotel to call home, met some other cycle tourists and all had lunch together. After lunch Astrid and I went and had a very relaxing bath in the hot springs and were taught by all the local women how to check how many children we would have (the springs are supposed to enhance fertility). Apparently Astrid and I are supposed to have 6 kids each (!). While we were relaxing, sadly, McG and Neil were not. Having decided to fix one thing on Neil’s bike, they inadvertently opened a can of worms and spent the better part of the day working on the racks.

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View off the Wakhan from near the top

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12th Century ruins, high above the valley floor

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A bit more fort action

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Looks like it may clear..

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No, more weather comes in from Afghanistan

We rolled down the hill the next morning with Neil’s racks firmly McGyver’ed into place. Unfortunately the same could not be said for Neil’s stomach. The weather kept teasing us, it looked like it was clearing but then another front of inclement weather would come rolling in. We were however, afforded some beautiful views of the Hindu Kush between the clouds that day and felt like we hadn’t all together missed out. After not many kilometres we called it a day and crawled into the undergrowth, having found a very sheltered camp thanks to McG.

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I decided it was a choice moment to drain and replace my Rohloff oil while the others enjoy the view

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Heading back down

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Our lunch spot, sheltered from the ever present wind

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Cultivated fields

By now we were running low on food, well not really food, just snacks. We reached Ishkashim, the main Wakhan town before Khorog with grand expectations. This seems to happen with Neil and I a lot. We start imagining all the food we might find (snickers perhaps, maybe cheese?) and are inevitably disappointed. Instead we had yet another bowl of soup with cabbage and meat and rolled out of town with a few wilting carrots, some weird Russian chocolate and a bottle of vodka. That night we found another prime camp spot, McG built a fire and we all enjoyed a bottle of vodka together. Ah, life on the road.

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The Hindu Kush reveal their beauty

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Epic snow caps of awesome

 

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Astro and the Samon out in front looking cool

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Tarmac!

Our last full day before Khorog and we could see that we would soon be in the regional capital. The road for one had improved a lot, and we soon began seeing well stocked Magazins as well as finding a restaurant that had actual salad on the menu. The four of us rejoiced at being able to eat something other than soup. We spent the rest of the afternoon out cycling a storm (finally, a tailwind) and made camp on a beach, right next to the river.

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The kids love to be photographed! We got so many requests.

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The river must be immense in the spring with the snow melt..

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Afghan settlement

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Gah! Clouds.

Let me now describe a typical evening. It goes something like this. The front cyclists (usually Astrid and McG) will stop and wait while Neil and then I catch up at a spot that could have some good camping. Two or three of us will then scout around, looking at things like shelter, access to water and how hidden we are. A discussion will ensue about the merits of each spot, or perhaps pushing on. Sometimes this can take a while. A spot will then be decided and we will haul our bikes over (usually our spots have difficult access). Teabitch (aka Neil) will then get ‘Betty’ (my front, ‘kitchen’ panier) and will start making tea for all of us. After initial hesitation, McG succumbed to tea as well. We will then set up our tents, put water up to filter and dig food out from various parts of our panniers. Once the tea is ready we generally sloth around chatting and drinking tea until someone has the initiative to start chopping vegetables. Dinner is prepared and eaten together and is generally followed by a second cup of tea.

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Breakfast in one of our great camp spots

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Afghan waterfall

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More cute village kids

Our camp on our last night was however neither hidden, nor sheltered, as the land was becoming more heavily cultivated and the valley narrow. Just as dinner was ready the storm front caught up with us. So the four of us somehow managed to squeeze into our tent until the front passed. Then we climbed out, built a fire and had a few beers (thank you well stocked magazins). This would be our last night all together in the Wakhan. It had been truly great sharing this experience with McG and Neil (who wouldn’t be leaving for a while yet).

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Our last camp before Khorog

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Camp fire on the ‘beach’

We woke to brilliant sunshine but the Hindu Kush were now too far to our east to see. After a slow pack up we hit the road and reached Khorog by lunchtime. Here we navigated our way to the Pamir Lodge where we immediately met more cycle tourists. For a couple of dollars we threw our tents up on the balcony and began the tasks of washing ourselves and our filthy clothes. Arriving somewhere after a hard stretch of cycling is always a little bittersweet. I will miss the tranquility and beauty of the high mountains and the Wakhan, as well as the friendship and camaraderie of our little group of four. At the same time, I am excited about having now cycled through such amazing scenery and for all the adventures that lie ahead.

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Perfect weather as we head into Khorog

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Khorog

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More Khorog and importantly Indian food!!

That evening we celebrated our epic Pamir highway/Wakhan Valley cycle with way too much beer and vodka.

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Made it! Beers of celebration

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Neil tries a new hair style..

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And riding the Samon on a beer run..

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Cheers

Till next time

Jude

Into the Pamirs.

Osh -> Sary-Tash -> Tajikistan border -> Murghab -> Alichur -> Lake Bulunkul.

Quintessential Pamirs.

The lady didn’t blink an eye when I asked for 6 kilograms of oats. She just piled them into two large shopping bags and we were left to wander the rest of the Osh bazaar to buy the last necessities for our time in the Pamirs. We had been warned that food was scarce in this high altitude dessert and being hungry cyclists we didn’t want to be caught out. Our bikes were significantly heavier but being well fed is worth the extra weight. Our plan was to hitch a ride back to Sary-Tash and from there our estimated 28 day journey along the second highest highway in the world would begin.

Our fantastic companions on the way to Sary Tash (plus the drunk local on the right).

Our fantastic companions on the way to Sary Tash (plus the drunk local on the right).

Relaxing in the warmth our homestay.

Camping was abandoned for the warmth of our homestay.

The sound of rain pounding on the tent woke us early and mud soon covered everything. Not dissuaded by this abnormal weather, we were ready by mid morning to hit the road and try the luck of the thumb. I spent the first ride sleeping in the back of a pick-up surrounded by milk pails, while Jude and Neil fretted in the front as the farmer continually fell asleep and hit himself to remain awake. The second ride was a little more favourable, despite Neil’s truck catching on fire and smoking out the cabin, Jude being proposed to again and again by our driver, and the weather getting colder and colder the higher we climbed.

A white wonderland.

A white wonderland.

The way to the toilet.

The way to the toilet.

Cattle in snow.

Cattle in snow.

Sary-Tash was hidden by cloud and a cold sleet began to fall on our arrival. Our idea of camping was quickly abandoned when we were offered a room and full board for the equivalent of $4 each. A heater as old as the ancient house was supplied to us and we were glad of its warmth as the sleet turned to snow overnight. A white wonderland captivated us in the morning and I walked around in awe at the transformation that a bit of frozen water can bring to an already stunning landscape. Dark clouds closed in and with heavy hearts we chose to spend another day in Sary-Tash. Cycling the Pamirs has been a long-term dream, and being held back when we were so close was irksome. The disappointment and cold were driven away by our attendance at the local banyan (sauna and washing house) with the ladies of the house. Tomorrow we resolved, would be the day of our departure.

Sheltering from the snow during lunch.

Sheltering from the snow during lunch.

Leaving Kyrgyzstan behind.

Leaving Kyrgyzstan behind.

Excited selfie.

Excited selfie.

No mans land.

No mans land.

Finding shelter from the wind and snow.

Finding shelter from the wind and snow.

Yes it was freezing!!!!

Yes it was freezing!!!!

Snow had fallen again during the night, but the low hanging clouds remained only on the higher mountains. The sun peaked her rays through to us and we knew it was time to go. We had a last coffee at our favourite little restaurant and were slightly delayed by making the acquaintance of many other cycle tourists. They had just come from the Pamirs the night before and were eager to share their experiences and to ask if we knew a place to get some good food. This question would be asked of us time and again by cyclists coming from the opposite direction and we were glad that we had packed all the extra food. The Tajikistan border was a days cycle away and we set off across the valley that we had first entered Kyrgyzstan along.

Delicious tea, bread and homemade Jam is far superior to my Russian language skills.

Delicious tea, bread and homemade Jam is far superior to my Russian language skills.

Looking back at the warm cosy house.

Looking back at the warm cosy house.

Having a rest on the switchbacks.

Having a rest on the switchbacks.

Reaching the top of our first 4000 plus metre pass.

Reaching the top of our first 4000 plus metre pass.

The border!! Country number 10...

The border!! Country number 10…

It was a steady ride, marked by the occasional drunken shepherd on his horse and one lying in the middle of the road. As we approached the far side of the valley, the storm clouds were blown eastward and the view of the road and surrounding 6000m peaks opened before us. It was time to climb. The ascent was gradual and as we ate lunch snow began to sporadically fall again. We crossed the Kyrgyzstan border without incident and returned to climbing through no-mans land. The Tajikistan border was still quite far away, on the other side of our first pass of 4336m, not a distance or height we would be able to reach that day. We collected water from the river we had been following and sought shelter from the constant wind behind the remnants of an old mud brick house. The snow set in as we cooked dinner and I must admit going for a pee that night was one of the coldest experiences ever.

Glacial rivers and snow capped peaks will be our constant companions.

Glacial rivers and snow capped peaks will be our constant companions.

High altitude desert of fun.

High altitude desert of fun.

The change is immediate.

The change is immediate.

Riding the rough roads.

Riding the rough roads.

Collecting water from the freezing cold lakes, lucky we have a filter.

Collecting water from the freezing cold lakes, lucky we have a filter.

"Neutral" territory between China and Tajikistan, despite it being officially Tajikistan.

“Neutral” territory between China and Tajikistan, despite it being officially Tajikistan.

Ten centimetres of snow covered our tents and the landscape when we woke. We estimated that it had been approximately -8 to -10 degrees overnight and the frigid temperatures continued that morning. Our fingers and feet froze no matter what we did and getting ready that morning took us almost 3 hours. The sun provided welcome relief and we were eventually on the road warming ourselves by the energy required for cycling. At the base of some crazy looking switchbacks we came across a house where the family entertained us with tea, bread and homemade apricot jam, and I entertained them with my faltering Russian language skills. I had no idea that people were allowed to reside in no-mans land, but their house was comfortable and warm and it was a pleasure to rest there for a while.

Salt lakes and marshes are can be found throughout the region.

Salt lakes and marshes are can be found throughout the region.

Windswept landscape.

Windswept landscape.

Red marmots.

Red marmots.

Alpine hares.

Alpine hares.

12 cyclists and 4 cars seen that day, a great ratio.

12 cyclists and 4 cars seen that day, a great ratio.

The top of the switchbacks marked the top of the pass and the Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan border. I was breathless but excited to have made it, being country number ten on our journey and the gateway to the Pamirs. We snapped the mandatory photographs and were super excited to have made it to the top of the first 4000 plus metre pass. Tajikistan’s border post was a kilometer down the other side and could easily have been mistaken for a couple of derelict buildings of insignificance. Friendly guards completed the mandatory paperwork (no computers here) and we were soon on our way to explore the wonders that awaited us. The difference between the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan landscapes was immediate. The lush green of the Kyrgyz plains, was replaced by the barren beauty of a high altitude desert. Blue glacial rivers cut through the brownish red rocky valleys, backed by the ever-present snow capped peaks.

Cycling down to the lake.

Cycling down to the lake.

Yes it's really that blue.

Yes it’s really that blue.

Sand and lake.

Sand and lake.

The lake used to be this high at some stage.

The lake used to be this high at some stage.

Collecting the grasses that grow in the marshes.

Collecting the grasses that grow in the marshes.

Our road now undulated through valleys at approximately 4000m and the wind storms created dust towers taller than buildings. Finding shelter that night was a little difficult and the tents were tightly secured with guy-ropes and stones. This was the first night that I would experience the displeasure of altitude induced sleeplessness, my brain behaved like a crazy monkey and for two hours (from midnight until 2am) it ran riot. This phenomenon was to continue nightly until we again slept below 3800m, numerous days later.

Ghost town.

Ghost town.

Karakol mosque.

Karakol mosque.

The living is easy.

The living is easy.

If it wasn't for the mozzies I would have gone swimming.

If it wasn’t for the mozzies I would have gone swimming.

Heading away from Lake Karakol.

Heading away from Lake Karakol.

The wind continued in our favour and by mid morning we crested our second pass and were rewarded with views of the iridescent blue Lake Karakol. While waiting for the others I was offered a glimpse into rodent life with red marmots and white hares dashing about. I laughed at the antics of two marmots having a punch-on, as it reminded me of men in pubs. During our descent to the lake we came across many cyclists heading the other way – 12 in all and only 4 cars, a good ratio I believe. Karakol town was located on the far side of the lake and we cycled through sand beds that had once been the lake floor. The fence that had started from the border continued, and Jude let us know that the Chinese had built it (surprise, surprise). The area is now considered neutral territory despite officially being part of Tajikistan and entry is not permitted. I think the locals disagree as holes have been cut in the fence and many of the wooden poles have been removed for use as firewood. In 2011 China claimed 1% of Tajikistan’s land mass in that area as it’s own and I continue to be convinced that water will be the next commodity that wars will be fought over in this region due to climate change and the large amount of glacier fed rivers in the region.

Just cruising with wings of roadside brush.

Just cruising with wings of roadside brush.

The Chinese fence in the Tajikistan desert.

The Chinese fence in the Tajikistan desert.

Heading down into the valley.

Heading down into the valley.

Collecting water is a constant job.

Collecting water is a constant job.

Don't be fooled, it's freezing.

Don’t be fooled, it’s freezing.

A nice afternoon cycle.

A nice afternoon cycle.

Riding into Karakol felt like riding into a ghost town, I could almost hear the banjos playing in the background. We wound our way through the deserted streets and white washed buildings until we reached the lakeside. We spread our goodies on the salt-crusted earth between clumps of grass and as we ate, the mosquitos noticed our arrival and we were soon covered in bites. I had hoped to spend the night camped by the beautiful water but our intruders convinced me otherwise. After a fruitless search for a magazin to replenish our biscuit and chocolate supplies we hit the road again for a few more hours of riding. Exiting a narrow valley we came across a big river and found a derelict building nearby where we set up camp for the night. Neil had collected some dead bushes on the way and Jude collected some old dung so that we could have a campfire. After the initial smoke-out we settled by the fire and enjoyed our view of the stars and the Milky Way.

Collecting scrub and poo for the campfire.

Collecting scrub and poo for the campfire.

Sheltered from the elements.

Sheltered from the elements.

Tea and shoe fixing, all in a nights work.

Tea and shoe fixing, all in a nights work.

Great pastoral land.

Great pastoral land.

The caravanserai of old.

The caravanserai of old.

Yaks!!!

Yaks!!!

The valley we followed was good pastoral land for the area and as such we saw numerous yak herds as we cycled along the riverbank. The path we followed had been an old trade route and caravanserais from centuries past still dot the landscape. Except for the section of dirt road from the switchbacks to the top of the first pass, the road conditions thus far had been reasonable – until now. The corrugations and loose gravel began, bad enough to bring back memories of our time along the Savannah Way. A chance encounter with our friend Dave provided a respite for our shaken bodies and a chance to carb load before the next climb.

The crazy corrugated roads.

The crazy corrugated roads.

More corrugations.

More corrugations.

Looking towards our next challenge.

Looking towards our next challenge.

Having a break with our mate Dave.

Having a break with our mate Dave.

The start of the Ak-Baital Pass.

The start of the Ak-Baital Pass.

Ak Baital Pass was our next challenge, the highest pass on the Pamir Highway at 4655m. It was tough going and I must admit that during the steeper sections I probably spent more time gasping for air than I did cycling. Snow capped peaks looked close enough to touch and they provided welcome distraction from the reality of pedaling a 40kg bike up a gravel road at altitude. Despite the lack of oxygen my inner lesbian had me belting out Melissa Etheridge at the top of my voice and I received a standing ovation from the Austrian motorcyclist who greeted me at the top of the pass. It was more likely for having made it rather than my singing abilities…

Flat is good at altitude.

Flat is good at altitude.

The flatter section of our big climb.

The flatter section of our big climb.

Jude continues to climb.

Jude continues to climb.

The top is further than it looks, especially breathless at altitude.

The top is further than it looks, especially breathless at altitude.

Looking back down from the pass.

Looking back down from the pass.

Neil takes a break at the summit.

Neil takes a break at the summit.

We made it!! Top of Ak-Baital Pass at 4655m.

We made it!! Top of Ak-Baital Pass at 4655m.

Now it was time to enjoy some chocolate, followed by some sweet downhill. As we freewheeled amongst orange, red and brown peaks, I dubbed the area ‘the multi-coloured pyramid valley’. Thinking that we would again be camping that night, Jude and I went for a wash in the river while the sun was still hot. An (un)fortunate German cycle tourist arrived just as we both jumped out and stated that we were the best scenery he had seen all day. Hmm. He also said that he believed the town of Murghab was only 40kilometres away and that he would be cycling there that evening. Inspired by the news, we took a vote and it was decided that we too would push on to Murghab. As the sun began to kiss the horizon, I saw a fox running along a hill and the length of the day unraveled. I was tired. 40km had turned into 55, and we had cycled almost 100kilometres that day including a 4655m pass. Luckily Erali guesthouse was a true home away from home, and after a massive vegetarian feast and many cups of tea, we fell into bed content with the world.

Coming down the mountain.

Coming down the mountain.

Cycling pyramid valley.

Cycling pyramid valley.

Multi-coloured pyramid valley.

Multi-coloured pyramid valley.

The river we were busted swimming naked in.

The river we were busted swimming naked in.

Good roads, great scenery, what more could you want?

Good roads, great scenery, what more could you want?

Reminded me a bit of home.

Reminded me a bit of home.

Looking hot.

Looking hot.

A welcome sight to a tired traveller.

A welcome sight to a tired traveller.

Erali sits at the top of a hill overlooking the town. In the early morning hours I watched the town come to life. People walked or cycled to work, fresh cow’s milk was collected and then boiled in huge pots, a goat was butchered by neighbours, and dogs roamed and scuffled in packs guarding their territory. After a lazy breakfast, supplies for the next leg of our journey were bought at the local bazaar and we eventually commenced cycling at midday. A climb took us out of the valley we were in and after a couple of hours we met up with a group of other cyclists heading in the same direction. Our group of three was now a party of six – our own bike touring gang. That evening we set up camp together in a dry riverbed and as dusk turned to darkness the galaxy opened before us in a spectacular show of stars.

Murghab town.

Murghab town.

The lovely owner of Erali Guesthouse.

The lovely owner of Erali Guesthouse.

Cycling through the back streets of Murghab.

Cycling through the back streets of Murghab.

Out of Murghab.

Out of Murghab.

Back to barren.

Back to barren.

The six meet and cycle.

The six meet and cycle.

New family home group.

New family home group.

What's for dinner?

What’s for dinner?

Under the Milky Way tonight.

Under the Milky Way tonight.

Cycling the next morning took us over a handful of undulations and into a wide valley that cradled the Alichur River. Men and women used scythes to hand cut the grasses that grow in the marshes. It is collected and dried to feed their livestock in the coming winter months when this area is numerous feet under snow. Reports had reached us that a fish lunch could be had somewhere in Alichur, so we searched out the local restaurants but no fish could be found. Instead we had the usual soup, tea and bread (we later found out that the fish is found about 10km earlier at the restaurant next to the sacred blue spring). Just outside of town we spotted a beautiful patch of grass next to the river and an afternoon of fun in the sun commenced. We all splashed about in the freezing water, Didier threw in his fishing line hoping to catch us some dinner, Jude & Jeff went to town and bought some beer to share and we spent a pleasant afternoon and evening relaxing.

The valley opened up as we followed the Alichur River.

The valley opened up as we followed the Alichur River.

Men and women hand cut the grass with scythes.

Men and women hand cut the grass with scythes.

The blue spring where fish can be caught.

The blue spring where fish can be caught.

Collecting water from the local well.

Collecting water from the local well.

Splish splash...

Splish splash…

Camping site luxury, grass and all.

Camping site luxury, grass and all.

Lake Bulunkul had been suggested as a detour from the Pamir Highway and we were all keen to explore off the beaten track. Yet beaten track it was, a mixture of old 4WD paths that had us wishing for mountain bikes to explore with, as it was awesome! Sparse rocky terrain surrounded the undulating tracks, the occasional salt lake, ramshackle village and river valley added stunning diversity to the scenery. A geyser was marked on the map and it turned out to be a trickle of cold water coming out of a metal pipe in the ground. Cresting to a plateau our maps didn’t match what was in front of us so we headed straight into a gale that blew half of our group over with its strength. 3kms of windstorm and dust tested our endurance to the limit and we sought refuge at some deserted buildings not far in the distance.

Wishing we had mountain bikes to go off trail and explore.

Wishing we had mountain bikes to go off trail and explore.

Into nowhere.

Into nowhere.

Making sure we are going the right way.

Making sure we are going the right way.

Desolate villages, people actually live here.

Desolate villages, people actually live here.

4WD tracks of awesome.

4WD tracks of awesome.

Green and red breaks the rocky monotony.

Green and red breaks the rocky monotony.

Salt lakes of beauty.

Salt lakes of beauty.

Can you spot the cyclists?

Can you spot the cyclists?

Valentina dwarfed by the surrounds.

Valentina dwarfed by the surrounds.

When the dust and wind had settled we walked to the edge of the plateau and were rewarded with views of the glittering Lake Yssykul framed by the rugged mountains of the Tajikistan National Park. Following another track we meandered along the river that joined this larger lake to the smaller Lake Bulunkul. At the lake’s edge we watched as birds skirted and dived into the water hunting for the fish that would be theirs to eat. It was here that we waved goodbye to our new friends Valentina and Didier who were continuing their journey along the Pamir Highway and therefore stopping for the night at Bulunkul town. Thanks for the awesome days together guys and we hope to see you in Switzerland. Jeff decided to join us on our detour to the Wakhan Valley and our threesome became a foursome of fun as we headed south towards the river valley that divides Tajikistan and Afghanistan. A new road and a new chapter in our journey through the Pamirs, and one that Jude will share shortly.

Having a group rest.

Having a group rest.

It's like being on another planet sometimes.

It’s like being on another planet sometimes.

Cycle touring gang on the move.

Cycle touring gang on the move.

Exploring the not so exciting geyser.

Exploring the not so exciting geyser.

Neil filming the dust and windstorm that blew him and Jeff off their bikes in front of me.

Neil filming the dust and windstorm that blew him and Jeff off their bikes in front of me.

The green fairy finds shelter from the wind.

The green fairy finds shelter from the wind.

Prepared for the dust storm.

Prepared for the dust storm.

Until next time,
All my love, Astrid.

The river that joins Yssykul and Bulunkul Lakes.

The river that joins Yssykul and Bulunkul Lakes.

Cycling down off the plateau to Bulunkul.

Cycling down off the plateau to Bulunkul.

Jude and Neil walking to Lake Bulunkul to collect water for the night.

Jude and Neil walking to Lake Bulunkul to collect water for the night.

Neil, Jeff, Jude and I about to leave Lake Bulunkul for our adventure to the Wakhan Valley.

Neil, Jeff, Jude and I about to leave Lake Bulunkul for our adventure to the Wakhan Valley.