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.
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.
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.
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!
I feel it is a important addition to my previous post on this subject. This landmark shelter formed part of the vague instructions we had for finding our night’s accommodation in Jalal-Abad. Where we are now in Tajikstan, you just wave the bus down anywhere – bus stops do not exist, nor does this type of hat. So this is probably my last post on this subject!