2009/07/11: Camp among Cable Spools 73 km (Anzob Tunnel, Elev: 2,720 m, Length: 5,040 m)
Our planned 4:00 a.m. departure turned into a 6:00 a.m. departure. It’s been several weeks since we’ve been on the road, and we’d lost some of our well-honed ability to pack efficiently. The ride out of Dushanbe took us up the Varzob Gorge, beside a tumbling river. This is a country retreat area for people from Dushanbe, so there are quite a few cafes. We stopped for a second breakfast on a platform right by the water, and at a cafe later on we ate an entire watermelon. You don’t just buy a serving or slice; you buy the whole melon.
We met a couple of fellow geriatric cyclists who had descended from the Anzob tunnel. They were French and had pedalled from France. We are in the relative minority travelling westward, so we meet quite a few others, whereas the eastbound cyclists don’t naturally meet others as they are all moving at roughly the same speed. We had heard the Anzob tunnel, 6 km long with poor light and ventilation, was flooded. The water is 60 cm deep in places, and conceals treacherous potholes. The French couple confirmed that we’d be foolhardy to try and cycle through the tunnel.
Did I say it was hot? It got hotter as we climbed steeply. The road was under construction, a joint Tajik/Chinese project, and seeing the Chinese road crew in action took us back to our travels in China.
Ni hao, we said. Of the vehicles passing us, very few would have had room for us and our gear, but we lucked out. About a kilometre from the tunnel entrance, a large open truck paused near us. It was transporting a Chinese road crew home from work. I mustered some rusty Mandarin to ask if they were going through, and they were. They helped us load our bikes, and we rode through the grim tunnel with 14 hard-hatted Sichuanese.
We stopped a few kilometres down from the tunnel, and had a bit of supper in a construction workers’ canteen made from an old Russian army truck. With the kindly canteen lady’s permission, we camped among some spools of steel cable.
2009/07/12: Dar Dar Garden Camp 69 km
After breakfast with our kindly canteen lady, we got an early start down the pass, but soon came to a road block. It was 7:30 a.m.. A Chinese road crew fellow held a rope across the road to stop traffic. I addressed him in my broken Mandarin; he looked very pleased, lowered the rope, and waved us through. All the while, a woman was haranguing him in Russian, while he studiously ignored her. All I caught from her was vosim – eight. Later we learned that car traffic was held at that roadblock till 8:00 p.m., more than 12 hours after we had sailed through. We whizzed down a newly paved road with not a car in sight and glorious mountain scenery. We had to stop occasionally while crews (also Chinese) upgrading the power lines above, created rockfalls, and we had to weave around a paving crew. In a cafe in Ayni, we met a Czech motorcyclist couple who had also been let through. Ayni was like a parking lot of vehicles forced to wait till 8:00 p.m. to start the ascent to the tunnel.
The motorcyclists were headed our way, but travel faster. They had more nasty news from the section of road from Khorog to Dushanbe we’d chosen to be driven through. They had heard a story about a week ago of a solo female cyclist being sexually assaulted by soldiers. I immediately thought of the Swiss woman we had met very briefly, about two weeks ago, as we were being driven through. I had feared for her at the time, as mentioned in a previous post. Unable to get the Czechs’ story out of my mind, and feeling upset with myself for not having got out of the car to grab her and say “Don’t go by yourself!” I googled a few key words, and found a post in a motorcyclists’ forum referring to the incident. The thugs – soldiers – took her camera, and tried to assault her but she fought them and got away. I’m now sightly less disturbed. But only very slightly.
We travelled along the lower valley on rough surfaces. Grain is being harvested with small scythes and dried on the road. Straw and hay is transported on donkeys. We bought apricots from kids who would have loved to sell us far more than we could carry. We met a Dutch cyclist couple resting in a roadside shelter which had a concrete tub beside it that served as the local swimming hole – and which I made use of.
The afternoon wind came, driving sand up the valley, and we turned back into a village. We were invited into a walled garden, and provided with cushions and tea. It sounds like a soft life, but we had to deal constantly with as many as eight or ten rowdy kids (our host family’s and neighbours) all afternoon as we waited for the wind to drop. I had to play pogs with the little boys, because Chris’s wrist meant he couldn’t whack the pile of collector cards. Still, if we didn’t provide enough amusement they would swing the cat by the tail or by two of its paws, and abuse a small puppy till it squealed. It wasn’t just the little boys; the teenage girls did it too. I cannot find a word for “gentle” in my mini Russian dictionary, but the concept probably would have been beyond their conception anyway. I tried to explain, but I cannot change a whole culture.
We got only occasional help with discipline from mother, who was busy cooking, bringing us tea, and nursing offspring number five. The wind didn’t drop, and we agreed to spend the night camped in their garden. We were sent to the shop with some of the kids to buy dinner ingredients, partly so the whole village would know that the family had foreign guests, which I think is good for their status. After dinner, we went to bed, explaining that we would try to leave at 4:00 a.m. to avoid heat and wind.
2009/07/13: Panjikent 95 km
We got up at 4:00 and left by 4:30, supervised by two of the kids who had risen early to see us off. The road was still pretty rough, but improved as we approached Panjikent. Chris had a flat, and we had an audience of about fifteen as we repaired it. One small boy was kind enough to race away on his tiny bike and return with a pump, in case we should need it.
We arrived in a village at lunchtime, but it wasn’t obvious to us where we could eat. A gang of young boys competed to help us find food. Each of two boys proposed to lead us somewhere different. One boy led us to a place that clearly served good food but was up an outside staircase, and it wouldn’t be possible to keep an eye on the bikes. When we explained the problem, he offered to watch our bikes, but we were nervous with so many kids around and after a number of experiences we’ve had with feral children in recent days.
We followed the second lad to a simpler cafe where we were allowed to wheel our bikes right inside. The boy, about twelve, ordered himself two somsas, and sat down at our table with us while his friends bobbed in and out and watched the proceedings. He played the perfect host, pouring our green tea for us with the correct etiquette: Pour it once into the tea bowl, swirl it round, pour it back into the pot; do this a second time; then pour it a third time to serve. There must be reasons for the ritual, but I don’t know what they are. He also made sure we did the correct things with our soup: remove the meat and vegetables to the provided saucer to cool, and drink the broth from the bowl separately. When I asked for the bill, his somsas were carefully excluded; he would pay himself. I insisted we pay.
We met (yet!) another Dutch cycling couple. Yvonne & Valentijn are involved with the organization called Right to Play , who had helped provide them with equipment. They were travelling with Koga Miyata bikes and fiberglass trailers, heavily loaded. We chatted for quite while. As we chatted, some local lads wanted to discuss what was (or wasn’t) wrong with their bikes. One of them addressed me as babushka – grandmother. I guess that’s fair enough as I’m a decade older than many grandmothers I’ve met in these parts.
In Panjikent we stayed in an old Intourist Hotel. The hotel complex – once a Soviet painted concrete glory – was like a ghost town, but a bed with sheets, a clean loo, and peace and quiet was what we needed.
2009/07/14: Samarkand 61 km (cross to Uzbekistan)
The Intourist man knocked on our door at 4:00, and were off by 4:30. We were back into the road routine, and could pack quickly. It was about 20 km to the Uzbek border, slightly downhill among sunflower fields, and with a following breeze. The border crossing was relatively uneventful, but involved more bureaucracy than we’ve had yet. (A warm up for Turkmenistan?) At the Tajikistan exit, we had to list all the currency we were carrying on a form that was only in Russian, and the fellows made it clear they didn’t care much about accuracy. On the Uzbek side we had to list currency, any electronics, and document the bicycles. We were prepared, however, and had listed everything the night before. We filled in the documents in duplicate, and then did it all over again when we were told it wasn’t quite right.
A few kilometres across the border we changed a little money so we could get some breakfast. At the market, a very useful bastion-of-the-community gentleman, helped us find a money changer and supervised the transaction. This was a good thing, because we had neglected to do our homework on this one and had no clue what we were doing. Then he led us to a cafe, and when I mentioned mante (dumpling/ravioli things) he made certain they were made for us, and came back several times to make sure we’d had enough tea and salad and that all was to our liking.
It was another 40 kilometres or so to Samarkand, and it got hotter and hotter. I’ve never been good in the heat, and I still struggle even though I’m a little better now that I’m (ahem) a mere shadow of my former self. We’d managed to delete some of our scanned guidebooks, and had no idea where to stay in Samarkand. The first hotel we saw had air conditioning, swimming pool, and internet, so we decided to treat ourselves for our first night. Actually, it was 1:00 p.m. when we checked in, and we slept for the next five hours, so I should say “our first afternoon.”