Category Archives: Tajikistan

On the Road Again

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.

Canteen Shack made from old Russian army transport vehicle

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.

Road for cyclists to dream of: downhill, tailwind, new surface, and no other vehicles.

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 boys, or is it hooligans?

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.

Bringing in the harvest on the head
Bringing in the harvest by donkey

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.”

M

Farewell Dushanbe

2009/06/29-07/10
We’ve been in Dushanbe for the better part of two weeks now. We’ve just managed to get the required onward visas, and we plan to depart by bike for Penjikent and the Uzbek border tomorrow, aiming for a 4:00 a.m. departure in an attempt to avoid the worst of the heat. Tajikistan will have been a land of contrasts: we had snowstorms during our first days in the country, and humid mid-thirties temperatures as of late.

We stayed the first two nights in a grotty soviet-era establishment, and then treated ourselves to three nights in the high end hotel that had held the bike parts for us and received our UPS parcel. I spent most of that stay being explosively ill with something similar to what Chris had in Khorog. We now suspect both our bouts of illness can be correlated with us eating soft ice cream. It’s sold from machines on the street and is tempting stuff in this weather, but we’ve had a lecture from veteran traveller about how the machines are seldom cleaned, and that dubious water is used for cleaning. In future, we’ll resist the temptation.

For the past week, we’ve been at the Adventurer’s’ Inn, a mid-range guest house, where – when not chasing visas – we have read nearly all the available English books and magazines, relaxed with other travellers, and have slept and eaten a lot. We went to the Museum of Antiquities once, and took the No. 3 bus into town and back many many times. It’s all very civilized, because my grey hair means I’m usually offered a seat.

Barf!

By the way, did you know that in Central Asia you can wash your clothes in Barf? I guess brand names selected in one language sometimes don’t work well in other languages. This one has certainly given us a good giggle: “Give me your dirty socks. I’m going to wash them in Barf.” etc.. We must be road-weary; we are easily amused. (For those not familiar with North-American slang, see online definitions) In fact, there is a whole line of Barf cleaning products here, so you can wash your floor with Barf and even clean mirrors with it. If you want to, that is.

The Final Visa Chase
Your eyes may well glaze over reading this, but it’ll give you an idea what it’s like.

Weighing our route options in the wake of failing to get visas for Iran, we’ve decided to take the boat across the Caspian from Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, to Baku, Azerbaijan. We’ve had Uzbek visas in hand since Almaty, but they are for a fixed 30-day window which began on June 27th. The time to obtain the visas required to move forward under the post-Iran plan would further narrow our remaining Uzbek visa window. The first step was to get the Azeri visas, which required applying for a Letter of Invitation. We applied and paid for this from Khorog, after resetting the online payment account (a multi-step process) to a different credit card. (In Osh we’d found my Visa card had been mis-used and had to cancel it.) We tried to start the application for the Turkmen transit visa before getting the actual Azeri visas. We’d heard that this could be done by showing a letter or email saying the Azeroi LOIs were coming, and it would have saved us a lot of sitting-in-Dushanbe time. It took us all of last Tuesday (30 June) to locate the Turkmen Embassy, which is at neither of the addresses listed for it on the web and for which we could find no working telephone number. When we finally located it at the end of the day, and after an altercation with a rude and dishonest taxi driver, it was closing. Come back zaftra – tomorrow. So we did. Then they told us that they wouldn’t begin the process till we could show an Azeri visa stamped in our passports. Such an expedient early start, where you show the Azeri visa as you COLLECT the Turkmen transit visa, only happens in Tashkent – not here.

The LOI for Azerbaijan, expected last Thursday or Friday, arrived late Friday. We printed it at an internet cafe and raced to the Azeri embassy before closing time. We were pleased to get the flexibility of a visa which can be started any time in the next three months, rather than another “fixed window”. However, we couldn’t start the Turkmen process till Monday, and even an “urgent” application would take “five working days”, meaning we’d probably get it Monday (13 July) and leave Dushanbe only next Tuesday (14 July). With three cycling days to the Uzbek border this would leave barely any visa time to do justice to Samarquand and Bukhara, let alone get there. We very politely asked if the visas could be ready at the end of this week – Friday. Call on Thursday to see, we were told. We did, and there was no news of our visas. Suspecting no Turkmen visas on Friday – or possibly at all – we went to the Kazakh Embassy as a hedge. We wanted to see if we could get a visa quickly and assure ourselves of being able to take the Aktau, Kazakhstan, backup route where a boat runs to Baku occasionally. They don’t do visas in the afternoon. Zaftra – come back tomorrow. This morning, we positioned ourselves near the Kazakh Embassy before phoning the Turkmens at 9:00 a.m. When we called, they said to call back at noon. We got a Kazakh visa application partly done, but could not complete it because we weren’t prepared to relinquish our passports. We called the Turkmens at 11:30. Our visas were approved. Be there by 12:30! So we were. Then followed a trip back to our guest house for more US cash (after nearly fainting at the requested payment), a trip to a downtown bank with tour of several departments, and a trip back to the Turkmen embassy to show proof of payment and collect visas. So we have them now!

And it was a hot day. Phew!

Georgia and Turkey issue visas at the border. After Turkey we won’t need visas!! Our full-to-bursting passports may make a nice souvenir, but we’re not sure we ever want to see a visa form or an embassy again. In fact, we are going to join Carsten’s newly-founded Society for the Abolition of Visas! We may even start our own chapter.

M

Sterilising our drinking water for tomorrow’s ride, starts us back into our routine.

85 Images Added

We have now added photos and videos to recent posts: Extreme Cycling, Murghab, Kargush Pass to Wakhan Corridor, Following the Pyanj. Minor text edits have been made as well, when photos were added.

We have started a Cycling Central Asia photo collection, which can be reached from the new link at the top right of the blog. Sets in this collection so far are Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. We noticed that we had omitted some early images in the Gansu Province, China set. We have now updated the Gansu Set.

M & C

A Lesson in Corruption and Graft

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.

M

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.

Khorog

2009/06/23-27
The Pamir Lodge has five guest rooms, each with a sleeping bench and mats, and there is a another bench outside which forms a verandah, where you can eat, read, or nap in the shade. Gregg had said it was restful place, and he was right, except for the first evening when there was the loud bleating of a black sheep tied up in the garden. The next morning was truly quiet, though, and Blackie was being butchered into chops and sausage meat. Such is life in Central Asia.

We spent time sleeping, eating, and going to the internet cafe. We were very, very tired, and realized we needed time off the bikes to truly let our bodies and psyches recover. My muscles reacted strangely; for the first few days of not cycling they were glad of the rest, and a few days later I began to get strong cramps and spasms in various parts (thighs, low back) that I guess were unused to the inactivity. I also think our bodies were a bit rundown from several weeks of travel at high altitude on a less than well-rounded diet. Riding 10,000 km in five and a half months at age 56 may have had something to do with the tiredness, too. We had already realized it was time for a break from pedalling when Chris got food poisoning and spent a day alternating sleep with running to the loo.

Gregg describes the cumulative tiredness of the long term traveller as being the result of the effort required to constantly adapt to the surrounding culture. Associating with other western travellers gave us a welcome break from that effort. We chatted with other guests as they came and went: Gunther and Cecilia, a German couple in their 60s who were travelling on motorbikes; Brits Sam and Vicki; Viviane, the French lady who had travelled with the donkey. Cecilia and I shared a similar critical view of local gender roles; Sam and Vicki made their own very English breakfasts on the verandah, and even had a toast-making gadget for their stove; Viviane described how her donkey would lie down, still fully loaded, in the middle of the road when she (the donkey, female) had had enough. It was a homey scene.

In town, we met a very talented young Vancouverite, Aliaa, who was staying in a village near Ishkashim for a year with a family that had all but adopted her. She was gathering material for her Ph.D. in anthropology. She was Ismaili, and she filled us in on bits of local culture and recent history which helped us interpret what we had seen over the past weeks. She also invited us along as she went to visit a friend of her host family, and we were invited to pepper our hostess, a librarian, with questions while Aliaa translated at speed. Aliaa had managed to learn Tajik in her first month here, already knowing English, French, Spanish and an Indian dialect.

The day after meeting Aliaa, and just as a ride to Dushanbe had been expediently arranged for us, we had the honour of meeting 86 year-old Dr. Ali Mohammad Rajput, a retired professor of mathematics from Birmingham (UK) who spends four months of the year in Khorog. Not only is he the venerable patriarch of the Pamir Lodge, but he played a key role in the recent history of Gorno Badahkshan Autonomous Oblast as we had just learned it from Aliaa. He was one of the three key people who came to GBAO to assess the situation in the early 1990s after the civil war, when president (for life?) Rahmon Imonali had blockaded both ends of the Pamir highway and was deliberately starving the dissident region. He reported to the Aga Khan (with whom he had connections having started his academic career on an AK scholarship from Pakistan) and a decade of food aid and much more began. Aga Khan projects can now be seen everywhere in GBAO, and there is an AK Foundation office in Khorog. There are cynical stories of other aid programmes that have been mismanaged, with vast sums spent and no improvement in the lives of locals, but the Aga Khan Foundation has made and continues to make a huge difference here.

If I lived here, I ‘d be proud to have his photo on my wall, too.

M