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