A big problem for Tajikistan is drug smuggling from Afghanistan. Having been cycling along the Afghan border we had hoped not to encounter any of these deeds. Unfortunately, the day we left the road paralleling the border we were invited in to eat and sleep in a traditional pamiri home by a rather dodgy, but very friendly, chain smoking, tattoo-fingered man.
Over a huge a bowl of potatoes and a shot of vodka we soon discovered that this man actually made a living by smuggling opium from Afghanistan through to Kyrgyzstan. He’d been caught in Kyrgyzstan with 20kilos and spent 5 years in prison. We are pretty sure the random petrol tanker he owned played a role in this and his ‘boys’ were kicking around all night.
Oh yeah, he also had two wives and gave us a pair of socks each.
On the second night we made it to the Jelondy Hot Spring – a dark hut at the side of a mountain! With freezing cold toes and fingers we edged into the 60 degrees C, eggy-smelling water. Initially it was painful but after a while it did wonders for our aching muscles!! We can’t quite believe we were chilling in a hot tub (if you can call it that) at 3,500m altitude!
The next day was the final was the final push to the top 30km to go. It’s not going so well. Julia has altitude sickness and is overwhelmed with dizziness and low energy. We are on the last 4km and the road is mashed ice, snow and rocks. It hurts!!
It was a bit higher than we expected – 4,300m – so we actually climbed 700m in altitude today. It has taken all day, the final 4km took 2 hours! We are so tired, numb fingers and toes, it’s 5.30pm and will be getting dark in half an hour… we better get off this mountain, quick!
Upon reaching the peak we knew we needed to drop a couple of hundred metres in altitude. Fast. The road was iced over – Julia still moved slowly and without energy and Beth fell off. We were only operating on adrenaline. As soon as the sunset the temperature plummeted down to -15 degrees C and with it went our body temperatures. Frustratingly, we appeared to have reached a plateau and the road just did not go down. Just as we were starting to give up, knowing that pitching the tent would be horrendous (our hands weren’t functioning) and warming our bodies might not even happen, we rounded a corner and there stood a tiny house in the distance. It looked abandoned. We couldn’t wish more that there would be someone there with a fire, welcoming us in.
We arrived at the house, waded through snow, dumped our bikes and piled into the dark corridor yelling “Salam!!” A door opened and 2 women and a man stood aside for us to enter. Warmth, a fire! The chaos that ensued would have been hilarious had it not been excruciating. We all stripped off our layers. Beth stared transfixed at the fire silently crying, fearing her toes would never return and finally resorted to bouncing on the spot. Julia flapped around trying to warm up. Cliff moaned and yelled and rocked back and forth. Richard doubled over cursing. The old man moved between the 4 of us giving us tips (one was to rub our fingers on our scalps) and offering a bucket of room temperature water.
When things finally calmed down, we all sat, shell-shocked and exhausted, and waited for the women to cook us a huge bowl of fried potatoes and onion. I remember Julia earnestly saying to the man (who didn’t understand) “I am so glad you are here”. We really meant it, of all our hosts these guys did not even have a choice, we barged into their home demanding warmth and they did not object in the slightest. They fed us, gave us beds and time to recover. Throughout this trip we are indebted to hundreds of people and often they will never know how much. The only thing I could think to say to them was ‘my mama and papa thank you’.
The following day, the road was very icy, Cliff and Julia both fell off and there was another close miss when Beth almost collided with Julia! A few climbs involved, followed by an awesome downhill onto the plateu looking out over Yashil Kul Lake. Cliff got a puncture and despite trying to ride it out, it was still at least 15km to Alichure. This was when Julia also noticed that her bottom bracket was doing something bad! It had been making squeaking and grinding noises for a couple of days and when she back pedalled it was really stiff. Like all cycle tourists nobody seems to have a clue about bike mechanics but we had obviously neglected to service our bearings. Kashgar cannot come sooner – our bikes are falling apart.
We cycled passed the lake, Julia was having a hard time with her bike and Beth was seeing the occasional black spots. We debated going on to Alichure about 7km away, camping or turning down a track towards a house that was by the lake. It was cold and nobody felt like riding in the dark, especially as we weren’t sure how far it was.
We’ve stayed in many homes now. Here in the Pamirs there are not many houses. This lone mud ‘bungalow’ was by a lake. We approached at dusk and asked the Kyrgyz man if we could stay. He ushered us in to a small room. Designed like many others, with a fire stove in the middle and a raised platform for sleeping and eating. There were 3 children; 6 months, 2 and 5 years old. We were fed fresh homemade bread and thick Yak’s cream (so good!). They had one light, powered by a battery pack.
We played with the children. Teaching them to fist bump. Getting out the prit stick and making collages with Tajikistan postcards and Beth’s crayons. Julia and Cliff even engrossed themselves in creating a snakes and ladders board.
That night we all slept in that tiny room. Every inch of the floor was covered in human bodies and blankets. 10 people: mother, father. 3 children, grandfather and the 4 of us. Despite the horrendous night sleep disrupted by baby cries and vivid, disturbing altitude dreams, we were so humbled. This family had only yaks and one room to live out of. And they were happy to share it all with us. Once again, humbled.
We managed to leave early, later we realised that they were using Kyrgyz time, one hour ahead! We were in Alichure before 9, much to our amusement as it had been mostly downhill! Stoked up on biscuits and provisions we set off for Murgab.
Julia’s bike still being difficult but the tension seemed to ease over the course of the day. We were invited in for chai by a road worker who in the summer was a “Donkey Ass” Tour guide. It wasn’t even his house but we sat and ate Yak butter and bread with him. The final pass before Murgab was not far and we thought we would definitely make it tonight, or at least be able to camp just outside. We cycled on and at the top of a small hill we realised that Cliff and Richard had stopped at the bottom and there looked to be a problem.
Beth left her bags at the top with Julia whilst she went down to investigate. Cliff was crouched down completely tripping out! He was not feeling great and said he couldn’t ride – not sure if it was the altitude or all the yak’s cream. They said they would stay in the house at the side of the road, and we would continue on. We left with the agreement that we would all try and get in a truck and try and arrive in Murgab that night.
We cycled a few kilometers further and saw the unmistakable outline of two cyclists. It was Luke and Flora, two Brits cycling back to the UK from New Zealand. Dan and Kiri had mentioned that we might see them as they were heading this way so it was a nice surprise! We chatted for a while and sad that we couldn’t have camped with them, but a truck rolled up just as we were leaving. We hailed it down and got on. They took us the remaining 80km to Murgab. Cliff and Richard had managed to get in one just behind and we all met up at the Police Checkpoint outside of Murgab.
We stayed with the Hungarians for the next couple of days. As we didn’t have a tent we had to ask people if we could sleep in their homes. In the village 5km past KalaiKhum we stopped to ask a Lady, she was very regretful but said that her house was still being built and that we should go back down the road and find her mother. Apparently it was behind the Magazine (shop). Asking everyone we saw for “Zalina’s Mama!”. We were pointed in the direction of a building behind a shabby looking shop. At the gate Beth went in to try and find someone, whilst the rest of us waited outside. She came back with Zalina’s Mother and half a dozen children ranging from 4 to teenagers.
We were ushered inside, sat down on a carpet. Fresh bread, fig jam, biscuits, cakes, sweets and, ofcourse, a pot of Chai! We had fallen for the pre-dinner treat trap before and fell again, after eating our full, bowls of potato and lamb soup were handed out. Not ones to refuse delicious food we polished them off and went to bed having eaten like Kings and Queens.
To our surprise we kept up with Adam and Marcus the next day! That evening, as we entered a small village we found Richard and a sick Cliff. They had been camping there all day as Cliff was too sick to move. The remained in their tents whilst the Hungarians and ourselves found a house (we originally were asking to sleep in the mosque but the man we asked invited us into his house) to which we were again treated with the utmost hospitality!
We needed to address the issue of our tent poles. There is some history behind our tent. It has made this journey before. We got it off Laurence and Nick 2 weeks after they arrived in HK last April. It has done us well, a few scrapes and tears but nothing a bit of gorilla tape can’t handle. It was, therefore, a sad day when we discovered that we had lost the poles up at the top of a mountain pass, unreachable due to the 27cm of snow. So one evening we stopped early, the Hungarians had been a bit too fast but our hairy Brits camped with us! Beth stole some wire from a nearby fence and Julia used her engineering skills to tie the tent up to two trees – almost as good as new apart from we now needed to carry around two trees with us to have any hope of a standing tent!
For four days, from Kalaikhum to Khorog, we have been cycling along the Afghan border. There was a never ending chorus of “Hellos” as the children ran out to give us high fives and ask us our names. It was fascinating to glimpse a picture of the life across the river. Women washing clothes, children screaming and waving, men on motopeds and laden donkeys hobbling across landslides. We send our thoughts out to those suffering from the Afghanistan Earthquake.
The Awesome foursome set off from Dushanbe towards Kalaikhum, taking the Northern route over the … pass. Beth was still recovering from being ill in Dushanbe and Richard was having some mechanical issues, but we managed to maintain our 50km/day average which we needed to ensure we got out of the country in time.
We remained together for the first three days but then the time came for us to say goodbye to Cliff and Richard. There visa was ending before ours and they snuck off in the early morning as we slept, apparently bored of being our alarm clock. Not really, but we did get back into bed! Back to fending for ourselves then…
The road deteriorated and it was hard to believe we were cycling on an international motorway! Our bikes really took a bruising as we tried not to fly over too many rocks on the occasional downhills. The evening that we arrived at the foot of the big climb up the pass the weather began to deteriorate- it began to rain just as it was getting dark and we thought we should ask a lady in her yard dressed if we could sleep inside.
Climb day! 50km to the top. All going well until…One puncture and a snapped chain later… Fending for ourselves was not going so well. But at least Beth was on coffee morale boosting duty. In need of a Snickers!!
It took us two days to reach the summit – we thought we had it in the bag on the first day but as the sunset we realised we still had another 700m of vertical climbing to go. We camped at the edge of the roadside, making sure that the risk of mudslides was minimal and that we wouldn’t fall over the edge! That night it started to rain, and it did not stop raining! Reluctant to get out of bed we stayed where we were finishing off the 6th Harry Potter book! It was almost midday when we slowly emmerged, cold and damp. We thought there was only 5km to the top – but even now we have no idea how far it was.
3,252,8m altitude (record!). It was 5pm, getting dark. Snowing, freezing… Minor disaster ensued.
The exurberation of finally reaching the top after 3 excruciating days of climbing lasted a whole 10 minutes before we remembered the cold and imminent night time. At the top of the pass we encountered 2 Hungarian tourers: Adam and Marcus. All four of us sped down the steep mountain road, sliding in mud and rattling over rocks and debris, as the weather drew in. With everything wet and the sensation in our hands and feet lost, we strove to go 15km to the nearest village in search of warmth and food.
But alas, although we pushed as hard as we could and as long as we could (there were tears) no village appeared. We were surrounded by harsh inhospitable rock face. Finally we chose to set up camp in a small bay at the side of the road. This is where things went from bad to worse. The tent poles were missing. Our only explanation is that they slid out unnoticed from their location on Beth’s bike as she thundered down the mountain. We were so thankful to have met Adam and Marcus as they kindly lent us one of their tents for the night!
The weather was still yuck in the morning, clothes still wet and bikes were bruised! We tried to get a lift up to the top of the pass to locate the poles only to find that the pass was closed in a snowstorm. Only 20km more of ice cold pain, worse than either of us had ever experienced before, until we would arrive in the small town of Kalaikhum.
Week 27 – Update (Bukhara – Samarkand – Tajikistan)
We are here in Dushanbe, the city of Monday!! One of the places we’ve always imagined when planning the trip and can’t quite believe we are finally here!
After a couple of days rest in Bukhara we left for Samarkand. A difficult stretch. On the second day we stopped at 5.30pm and sat down to eat at a restaurant. Not only was it the best lagman we had had so far but it cost less than $3 for two salads, a non bread and a bowl of lagman each. We looked at each other across the table, there was no way we could go any further that evening and asked the boy who worked there if we could sleep in one of their rooms. Unsure what was happening he returned in 10 minutes and ushered us into a room. Heartened by the sight of a bed made up in a secluded room on top of their tea tables we fell asleep before 8!
We finally made it to Samarkand and recoupourated. We explored the medrassas and mosques and even sneaked into the Registan through an unmanned gate.
In order to make up some time we had to hitch to the Tajik border. It took a bit longer than expected but ended up in the company of a convoy of three lorry’s heading towards the last Uzbek town Denov. We were dropped off 25km from the town in the dark. We asked a lady and her son if we could sleep in their courtyard.
Beth had said earlier that all she wanted was some Plov, a toilet and a bed. She got her wish… A death-trap toilet, sloppy Plov and we got to share a bed with a crazy old lady (she was completely bonkers).
Anyway we cycled the remainder of the way to the border and spent our first night with a restaurant owner, his wife and two Tajik Policeman who in uniform drank their way through 7 pints each before driving home – glad to see the law enforcers leading by example!