2009/06/19: Vrang 33 km
We should have taken a rest day in Lyangar, but we didn’t. We were guided to the petroglyphs in the morning, and later pressed on a few challenging kilometeres to Vong, where we started to push our bikes up the steep hill to where we had heard there was a small hotspring. Two teenagers took over pushing our bikes, and showed us to the tiny stone bathhouse we’d never otherwise have found. They showed us how to plug the outlet of the square stone basin with a rock, and let it slowly fill so we could soak.
We tried to wait out a strong afternoon headwind at a tiny cafe, and struggled only a bit further to a homestay. Two young men in a car tried to sell us a ride to Ishkashim. I might have been tempted to accept, but they were clearly untrustworthy louts because they told us there were no gastinitsas or homestays in Vrang when we knew there were several.
Some of the villages look fairly prosperous, and in others life looks tougher. A boy of about eight or ten quietly watched us arrange our belongings at a small bus shelter. Several girls just across the road looked happy and healthy as they helped their mother with goats, but the boy quietly watching us looked neither. I held out a small package of chocolate biscuits to him, which he snatched warily and ran off.
Except for the vegetables and a few tins of fish we’d brought from Murghab, we’d had almost no vegetables or protein for days. Suppers in homestays consist of plain macaroni, potatoes, or kasha. It’s too cold for chickens, so no eggs. Summer is late; gardens have been planted but haven’t produced. The hard green plums in Lyangar wouldn’t mature till Sintyabr, we were ruefully told. Some of the children have eyes that seem to bulge, and I wonder what vitamin deficiencies they have.
2009/06/20: Zumudg 29 km
We would have done a side jaunt 6 km uphill to a hotspring in a cave, if we had been able to secure our bikes and hitchhike, but there were no cars – so we didn’t. We met a french couple, Natalie and Michel, travelling the opposite way on recumbents. “Ahhhh c’est les Canadiens!” they said. There is a cyclists’ grapevine up and down the road. Natalie is a professional mountain guide, and they were clearly fit and well-prepared. We heard in Khorog from others who had met them in Lyangar that Natalie had been blown over three times by the force of the winds. This is a tough ride, and we are in hard core company.
We headed out of Zumudg into the jaws of a sandstorm, covering our faces with buffs and bandanas, and wearing our wrap-around sunglasses. The sand still got into every orifice and ground itself under our eyelids. When we couldn’t stay upright, we hid in a depression for a few hours waiting for the wind to drop – but it didn’t. We turned back to the village, and a family immediately waved us into their house. We accepted their invitation, having little other choice. We were served a dinner of kasha and lamb, with the father pushing the best bits of meat towards me. (I protested only very mildly.) I cannot remember all their names, but I do remember the spoiled young cat was called something that sounded like “Bareess.” During the night, I felt soft footsteps near my head and whiskers brushed my face. At first the purring was pleasant, but then the cat breath got to be a bit much, so I shoved him away. In the morning, Bareess (Boris?) was under the covers with a small niece from next door who was sleeping there.
They were a fun family, and there was a certain feeling of ease in the spacious house. Houses here have a large central room with a sleeping bench all round, and the walls hung with carpets. You sit cross-legged on mats to eat on a tablecloth or at a low table. There is always a photo of the revered (with good reason) Aga Khan on the wall. Some of the men kneel on their prayer rugs, facing Mecca, and pray before going to sleep. This house had satellite TV and a sound system, but they didn’t currently have an outhouse, and when I asked for the loo I was taken by the women to squat sociably in the carrot patch.
2009/06/21: Ishkashim 67 km (odo rolls past 10,000 km)
In the middle of the day we reached rough asphalt; we cleaned our crunchy chains in celebration! Just then, a carload of tourists stopped, including a German we’d met in Osh and who gave us an appreciated present of bottled water. Soon after, a French lady came by on foot, travelling with a donkey to carry her gear, and with a knowledgeable guide. When she said she was from La Rochelle, I sang “M’en revenant de la jolie Rochelle ….”, which any Quebecer who has ever held a paddle should know. I was feeling giddy with relief at having reached asphalt! I don’t think she thought me completely strange. She knew that many of the voyageurs had gone to Canada from her area of France.
Later, we stopped to help a local mend his much-patched inner tube. The afternoon winds came up again and we cooked lunch in a bus shelter. Entering Ishkashim a soldier/policeman hauled us very abruptly into the police station to record our arrival. With Gregg’s story in mind, we may have felt more intimidated than we needed to. He was simply a rude jerk.
2009/06/22: Sod-roofed Building Bivouac 58 km
After shopping in the bazaar, we left quite late. We met two Americans from Seattle who had just crossed from Afghanistan, walking and hitchhiking. We later met Reto, a Swiss fellow who said “You must be the Canadians”; he had met Carsten. We had lunch with Reto. We shortly met Belgian Luke, who took photos of us and we hope he forwards them to us because we have so few of us together. We pedalled till quite late, and bivouaced inside an abandoned sod-roofed building, with Chris lying awake worrying about being routed by patrolling soldiers. We’d seen a lot of them.
2009/06/23: Khorog 55 km
We were up early and moved on to Khorog. As we entered town, a small boy threw a rock and hit me. Perhaps I’m an easy target because I’m usually behind Chris. This is the fourth time this has happened: twice in Kyrgyzstan and twice in Tajikistan. The first time (Kyrg) it was a teenager passing in a truck, and there was little we could do, but when it is smaller lads I am happy to stop and strongly express my grey-haired disapproval. The second time (Kyrg) I stopped and faced the young lad, who looked terrified, and I said pozhaluysta – please – nyet nyet nyet! The third time (Taj) was very recently in Ishkashim, and as soon as the local adults saw me telling off the group of kids, they joined me in lambasting them. It’s nice to know I have community approval, and I bloody well hope the whole town was embarrassed. I had picked up a rock to show: eta-this- nyet– tapping side of head- can’t you think ?
Entering Khorog, it was a boy of eight or so who nearly took out my eye with his excellent aim. We were poised to be active anti-rock-throwing vigilantes by now, and I watched the bikes while Chris gave chase to the terrified little rotter, who had taken off at speed when we stopped. A local car stopped, and two men, one arming himself with a stick, got out to help Chris in his pursuit. Chris and his posse found the offender at his house and told his father, who meted out corporal punishment on the spot. Why is it always the boys?
The Pamir Lodge was tricky to find, but we were eventually led there by two girls about the same age as the rock thrower. They went out of their way to be helpful.
Team of women wringing water from a felt rug – from a distance we thought they were praying in the road!