2009/06/28-29: Khorog to Dushanbe by Jeep 580 km
When not in bed at the Pamir Lodge, Chris had spent some time getting a dysfunctional bicycle to to work again. It was a Chinese mountain bike that a passing traveller had left for Said, who had a role in running the place ….although we weren’t quite sure of all the relationships. When we decided we were ready to move to Dushanbe by motorized transport, we spoke to the woman we had been dealing with over meals and accommodation, and she referred us to Said to make arrangements. We hadn’t realized he was her husband. The bicycle project hadn’t been undertaken with an ulterior motive, but we feel Said did well by us, and arranged a ride with a friend of his who had brought passengers from Dushanbe to Khorog, but was empty for the return.
Our driver for the 24 hour trek was Mukim. Since his vehicle had jumpseats in the back, we had to load our bikes onto the roof rack. We agreed upon a price for transport via the north road (M41, Pamir Highway) which he seemed to think was now open, and left in mid-afternoon.
The first third of the trip followed the Pyanj to Kalai-Kum. It was scenic, the road was reasonable, and it would have been a pleasant cycle if we had been rested and Chris not recently been ill. At Kalai Kum, where the southern road and the M41 diverge, a policeman waved us to the south. Mukim queried this and even went back to the last police checkpoint where we had had to stop, but it was the presence of us foreigners that meant he wasn’t allowed to go the northern route. This confirmed our theory that the M41 was closed for military/strategic reasons and not due to “avalanches.” It also tied in with Vicki’s experience of having to crouch and hide while travelling the M41 by public bus; she was the only foreigner on the bus. So we started along the section that is under construction and heavily patrolled by corrupt soldiers. Not only was this where Gregg and the Dutch couple were held up, but it was where a Swiss cyclist we’d met on Khorog had had his bags searched at gunpoint, and the young soldiers had taken all three of his Snickers chocolate bars. I know it was only a small amount of money they took from Gregg, and only chocolate from the Swiss guy, but I was still glad we were in a vehicle with Mukim, and not on our bikes. Mukim would know the ropes.
We communicated with Mukim using gestures, pidgin Russian, and the phrasebook. When I told him of the other cyclists’ experiences, he quite proudly asserted that he never gave money to soldiers, and that if they asked him for money he would call their superiors and report them. I guess the soldiers think foreigners are easier prey, however, because at one of the many passport checks, they motioned for Chris to go into the checkpoint building. When I tried to follow him, I was firmly motioned to stay in the car. Chris reported that the soldiers had asked him for money with the explicit rubbing together of thumb and forefinger, a common gesture here, which he ignored. When we told Mukim what had happened, he wasn’t surprised.
We stopped at a truck stop to eat. Mukim had offered to stop at a gastinitska, which is what most foreigners want. We offered to sleep in our palatka –tent– beside the car, while he slept in the car. A gastinitska didn’t seem worthwhile for the 3 or 4 hours rest we were going to get. We laid our sleeping bags on the one of the truck stop’s sitting and eating platforms, and hung a mosquito net from the branch above.
We left again at daybreak — 4:00 a.m.. This was the section of road that was really rough and full of washouts (see photo taken from inside car as we negotiated a washout, the road enters from bottom left and leaves top right). At one point, we drove under a waterfall that dropped onto the road. Mukim covered the bikes with a tarp (see photo), and stopped under the cascade to get a free carwash. We paused to greet a Swiss female solo cyclist, travelling the opposite way. I didn’t envy her heading into the military zone alone.
The last third of the route to Dushanbe was in better condition, but rife with policemen who pulled us over no fewer than seven times. Mukim behaved in the standard way: he would hand over his document folder with 2 somoni notes (CDN$0.50) tucked inside it, the cop in the big hat (usually with a big belly) would calmly pocket the cash, return the folder, and we’d be on our way. Apparently they can trump up almost any traffic charge they want, and the bikes on the roof made us especially easy to pull over. I offered to get out and tell the policemen off in my indignant grey-haired way, but my offer was declined by Mukim. This is just the way things work here.
We stopped at Mukim’s house half an hour outside Dushanbe, and were invited for choy – tea in Tajik. This meant that huge amounts of food were laid out on a cloth, and we were vigourously urged to eat, but weren’t actually meant to do more than nibble.
Comment by Chris:
Tajikstan has only recently changed from a police state in a state of civil war to a more modern country. Because of the war, it had an over-sized army that is now deployed along the Afghan border to keep the Afghan war contained in Afghanistan, and limit the drug and illegal gem trade. These young soldiers are bored and face the prospect of returning to civilian life where male unemployment is high. Discipline when not in the presence of superiors is not trivial.
Evidence of a previous police state with frequent checkpoints abounds. On this 600 km trip we only had 3 police/military checkpoints (I would guess we went past 15 disused police checkpoints). It seems the security police have been redeployed as traffic police, who now harass motorists. However, we have never been stopped and had a street check of our documents, and we were informed here in Dushanbe that police checks do not happen. I find random police checks very unpleasant; we suffered them in China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Personally, I feel redeploying security police as traffic police is a step forward, obviously making them less corrupt is the next step. Meanwhile all cars are clean, windshields have no cracks, roof racks are usually empty, and drivers are normally polite to pedestrians.