September 8th, 2016 in Osh, Kyrgystan
There is no other way to put it, Tajikistan is a very simple and poor country…Last year it was even the world's most remittance dependent economy where Tajik workers abroad were, and still are, the main source of income for the people in Tajikistan. And the fact that more than half of Tajikistan rests at an altitude above 3 000 m certainly doesn't help to make it a blossoming economy even if has given birth to the very appropriate nickname “roof of the world”.
The food in Tajikistan is also simple, usually consisting of one of four standard dishes; plov (rice, carrot and a few piece of meat), watery broth, manti (meat and onion filled dumplings) or lagman (meat soup with noodles). The meat is usually of questionable quality and the locals seem to favor the fat over the actual meat. The water quality is also not to be trusted and needs to be purified one way or another. But the Tajikis can hardly be blamed for their less than inspiring cuisine; they're making the best of what they got in the harsh mountain landscape.
Four days later, we headed out of Dushanbe on what is known as the north road towards Khorog, in the company of Andrew from London.
As we mentioned before, the hygiene in Tajikistan is by no means better than in the rest of the -Stans, so it had come as no surprise when Ida had gotten sick the day before we were to leave. This had us off to a bit of a slow start and by the second day we had been caught up by Daniel from Holland who was “just” cycling from Dushanbe to Osh. As Ida was feeling better, the four of us decided to ride together to Khorog.
On the road from Dushanbe to Khorog we quickly go to know how horrible the roads in Tajikistan can be. We climbed our first pass over 3 000 meter, which at the time felt so high. Now, a couple of weeks later, 3 000 meter feels like nothing at all.
Together with Daniel and Andrew we also learned to battle the endless stream of chasing children screaming hi, demanding high-fives and asking for us to take photos of them. We learned that the best strategy is to keep close to each other so the children doesn't have time to form a blockade. Moving as a group also helped in warning each other which kids who have something unknown and sticky on their hand and which ones has a tendency to clutch your hand and almost pulling you of the bike.
After a few days of pedaling, our route lined up with the Panj river and the border to Afghanistan that we would follow for the next week or so. It is a bit peculiar to cycle along the border to Afghanistan as it's a country so many of us primarily associate with war, 9/11, terrorism and talibans. But this isn't something you notice while cycling along. The road on the other side of the river might be even worse (or sometimes nonexistent) and the houses a bit more rough around the edges but on both sides people still smile at you and wave hello.
A week after leaving Dushanbe we arrived in Khorog, just in time for Ida's birthday. Unfortunately, the options for a birthday dinner was a bit limited and we ended up going to an Indian restaurant where we had to wait for our food for about two hours. Happy birthday Ida!
We ended up staying in Khorog for five days while Andrew and Daniel left after two as they were on a tighter schedule than us. We stayed longer in Khorog then we had intended to for two reasons. Robin was sick again (yep, same old Central Asia Stomach) and we had some problems with the application of our Chinese visa. The Chinese visa is something we still haven't solved and it has been circling at the back of our minds throughout Tajikistan. We simply don't know if we'll get the visa or not and the Chinese embassy aren't giving us any answers until earliest mid-september… Fingers crossed!
From Khorog there is several route options going forward. You can continue to follow the main road (M41), or you can take any of the alternative routes like Shokh Dara Valley, Bartang Valley (that is actually before Khorog) or Wakhan Valley. Of the alternative routes, Wakhan is clearly the most popular and (in)famous, both due to its beautiful scenery and horrible roads. We were really indecisive between Wakhan and the main road but as we had a lot of time to spare (thanks China) we figured we might as well find out what all the fuss is about in Wakhan Valley.
So from Khorog we continued to follow the Afghan border, heading into Wakhan Valley. The road that started as a decent asfalt road soon became a gravel road with long sections of sand or stone mixed with our favourite: washboard. Washboarding means that the road has periodic ripples in the road surface caused by cars bouncing on the already bad road. On a bicycle without suspension this simply translates to an almost unbearably bumpy ride where riding by the side of the road often was a better alternative. The terrible roads also means that your eyes are constantly fixed right in front of you, trying to dodge stones and potholes to avoid any damage to you or the bike. So even if the scenery around you is beautiful, and it is, you can't really appreciate it while riding you bike. Sure, you can stop by the side of the road to take it all in but it's not the same as experience it throughout the entire trip.
The Wakhan Valley is mostly a wide valley filled with green villages and flanked with towering mountains. Along the valley the higher snow covered pinnacles and glaciers of the Hindu Kush (the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan!) decorates the sand brown landscape with patches of white.
So, is it worth it? Well…some days, yes and some days, no; the Wakhan Valley is pretty, but the road conditions appalling. Our bikes definitely took a beating and Robin's experience of the valley was colored by constant illness. As we weren't feeling all too perky we only made one detour from the main road and that was to the Bibi Fatima hot springs. As the springs were located at the top of a 8 km and 500 m steep climb we opted for a “taxi” instead of cycling. What followed was a nerve-wracking ride up in a car which stopped working thrice. We were lucky that our bikes (strapped to the roof of the car) survived with nothing worse than some scratches and a crooked handle bar. Once at the top, we were rewarded with wonderfully warm springs and a not so wonderful homestay…
Not all homestays was bad though, in Zong (one of the last villages in the valley), we stayed at a really lovely homestay, built in the traditional Pamir manner and run by a lady who's husband been away working in Russia for the last 7 years, only being home once. So she ran the homestay, worked in the fields and took care of their children (one of whom looked to be around 7 years old) all on her own; and she made a killer apricot jam.
After Zong we were faced with three days without civilisation until we joined the M41 again. We did however meet an old friend again; Daniel, who started three days before us from Khorog, had fallen ill and was forced to stay three days in a homestay. He was white as a sheet but happy to be on the road again. The three days from Wakhan Valley back to the M41 was rough as the road got even worst than before (we didn't think that was even possible) and we had to climb our first pass over 4 000 meters (4 344 meter to be exact). Cycling at over 4 000 meter above sea level we really started to notice how the high altitude was affecting us. We were suddenly unreasonable out of breath and even thinking straight was challenging. But after spending a night at 4 150 meters height, we quickly acclimatised.
Rolling down on the other side of the Khargush pass we entered the Pamir plateau and rejoined the M41. But most importantly we rejoined the asphalt! What a joy! It was almost worth the days of suffering just for that feeling of riding on the smooth surface of asphalt again.
Back on asphalt, we were flying and in one day we found ourselves in Murghab, the biggest village in eastern Tajikistan and that's not really saying a lot as it is mostly a couple of box houses and a criss cross of power lines. We had a great time anyway, thanks to the guests at the guesthouse we were staying at. Travelling in Central Asia is really wonderful in the sense that almost every other traveller is your friend and this is especially true at guesthouses in the middle of nowhere. Included with a stay in a guesthouse (and homestay) is dinner and breakfast. This means that you'll have your meals together with all of the guest, making them a great place to socialise and meet people. More than anywhere else, we have truly felt like there is a greater sense of community between travellers in Central Asia, and especially between cyclists. Meeting a fellow traveller on the road always leads to a stop, either for just a short greeting or a long discussion about anything and everything.
After Murghab the landscape turned almost moonlike in its desolation and barrenness. The temperature dropped and we went from cycling in shorts and t-shirt to almost having every layer of clothes we brought on as we were battling hail storms and waking up to a snow covered tent. The only other inhabited area before the Kyrgyz border is the the tiny and very scruffy Russian looking village of Karakul. But before arriving in Karakul we had to conquer the Ak-Baital pass at 4 655 meters height; our highest pass so far.
Rolling down the other side of the pass we were freezing so when we found a family with their yaks who invited us inside for some lunch consisting of bread, broth and yak yoghurt and butter we were more than happy to step inside and defrost. When we left we ask the lady “Skolka?” (how much in Russian) and she basically shrugged her shoulders. This is an interesting aspect of Tajikistan: paying and how much you should pay. They are much more concerned how much we think something is worth and that we should pay accordingly. This makes paying when we have no idea what something should cost a bit tricky but it's good when they do come up with a price as we normally don't need to do any haggling.
From Karakol to the Tajikistan border we had two more passes over 4 000 m to climb and even though the scenery was still beautiful we were very much ready to leave the country and get to Kyrgyzstan and Osh, the country's second biggest city for some comfort and bike-TLC.
As soon as we left Tajikistan, entering the 20 km wide no-man's-land before the Kyrgyz border, our surrounding turned green. This might have been due to an increase in vegetation, or just the copper-rich soil; either way, it was a sign of changes and promises to come. After the barren mountains of Tajikistan, we were now moving towards the green and lush Kyrgyzstan…