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!