Post Pamir Highway relaxation/ Visa application party
What do I know of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan? The sites, the museum, the history?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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