The Authentic Tajik ‘Experience’

I realise it’s been a long time since writing my last post on here – apologies to any eager followers out there (Mum) who have been craving a fix of yet another ‘troublesome’ tale of me bumbling through central Asia. I hope this will suffice. Already, just flicking through my diary entries from the start of the month brings with it a wave of nostalgia, which is only magnified when looking through the corresponding photos. I think that’s a good sign. Although the going hasn’t always been easy, it’s certainly easy to laugh about it all now. Hopefully with added clarity of 20:20 hindsight I can begin to properly process what has been a mountainous month of sensory overload.

The assault of the senses commenced right from the ‘get-go’. Leaving the comfy confines of Dushanbe’s famous Green House Hostel, after what would become a religious morning porridge ritual, I felt uneasy. The Pamir mountains have been on my radar for a number of years now, for the very reason that they are tough to ride. It is probably the most famous highway in the community of cycle tourers, attracting a large number of riders from around the globe each year, each wanting to tackle its high altitude passes. I had spent many ‘revision’ sessions at university excitedly reading through blogs of riders passing through the region, gawping at their photos and promising myself that I would visit. As I pedalled out of the city towards the rising sun I made a very different promise to myself, ‘just be safe alright mate…’.

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I knew there would be remote sections of road ahead, high altitude and steep loose gravel descents cut into the mountain face to negotiate. I was riding a bike with relatively thin tyres, no helmet (some kids nabbed it from my bike just before Dushanbe) and a baggy shirt I’d found in second-hand shop in Baku. Compared to the immaculate German riders on their polished bikes with shiny chains and knobbly tyres, I definitely felt less prepared. Having them circle round me whilst fixing up my bike, laser eyes combing every nook and cranny of my steed for faults before commenting ‘you probably should’ve cleaned the chain a bit sooner than this’ didn’t help my cause. Although, I took somewhat an immature solace in the fact it had taken them 4 months longer to cycle less distance than me. Danke Deutschland, this baggy shirt can shift!

Well shift it did, I lapped up the last stretch of smooth tarmac as I made my way up out the baking hot farmland and into the mountains. The road wound down small canyons, following streams then larger rivers before rising up and over small hills. It made for some great riding. Towards the end of the day a bit of gravel spiced everything up, the cycling became extremely slow as I was forced to weave around the largest rocks. I guessed this is the Pamirs and this is how the next month’s riding will be… Determined to ride within my limits at this early stage, I pitched up early at a cracking camp spot on the brow of a hill, overlooking the valley ahead. So far so good.

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The first of many instant noodle and miscellaneous meat dinner variations was duly cooked, consumed and somewhat enjoyed as I watched the cars pass far below me. I began to enjoy the solitude of just sitting there, watching the moon rise over the orange fells whilst listening to Leon Vynehall’s latest musical masterpiece. It was perfect. I just sat there, letting the album run its course, just taking it all in. The view, the music, the feeling of the place it was just incredible. Pure consumption, it was nature’s hedonism, yet it was only mine. I cringley wrote in my diary that night ‘[that] days like this is what life is all about’, writing again here in Bishkek it sounds like a load of crap, but if I’m honest with myself, I know too soon I’ll dreaming of nights like that.

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A killer view combined with an equally killer gravel road awaited me in the morning. Constantly undulating, it kept the legs warm but that was still minimal exercise compared to the rate my eyes were spinning about the place! Damn these valleys were absolutely stunning. Rounding each corner, I’d gaze into the next valley and just be blown away. Quite simply, it is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. I was starting to see why this road was so famous and was glad to have opted for the more difficult scenic route. I was riding at a snails pace mind, but this was a happy snail.

I met a kid riding his bike on the road with his sister perched precariously on his back rack clutching a bag of apricots they’d just picked. He excitedly cycled next to me with a wide grin on his face before beckoning me to follow him back to his house. Why not eh? It was lunchtime after all. After meeting his even more excited parents, they told me to sit down whilst they cooked us all up three eggs a piece. Conversation had definitely run dry to say the least though. Beyond ‘living in London’, cycling the Pamirs and liking eggs, not much else was getting through. Had this been a date, it would’ve been time conjure an excuse and get the heck out of there, but I had no such liberty – I had to wait for the eggs I’d said to have liked so much. I sat awkwardly eating the eggs whilst the boy and his brother stared at me with laser eyes akin to that of the Germans.

Before leaving I oiled the kids bike chain to stop the previously incessant squeaking, to which he was dead chuffed. Then he demanded money for the eggs, for Tajikistan it was a crazy amount of money and I wasn’t falling for that. I’d eaten 3-course meal with drinks in the city for less. I felt bad for bartering with people who have so much less than me, but when he settled for less than a third of the original price we shared a look of acknowledgement that he’d been trying to pull the wool over my eyes. It really soured the whole experience, putting me on a downer of an afternoon full of thought, debating whether I should’ve just coughed up what really is a tiny amount of money in western terms.

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The following day’s riding was exactly the cure I needed for the washing machine of thoughts that had been circling around my head all afternoon. This was the first pass of the Pamirs, and, I’d read, the hardest one. It was to be my first excursion over 3000m. A rocky track led upwards for 20 miles, first following a valley river before departing for the exposed mountain faces. Flanked by beautiful, yet steep green fields complete with wild flowers, it was a surprisingly rewarding five hours in the saddle. Breaching 3250m, I noticed I was just starting to struggle for breath every time I stopped riding. All the altitude effects were there, albeit acutely. It was a gentle reminder of what was to come and I was well aware the passes would soon rise to over 4650m.

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Descending down the other side was something else. Exposed rocky tracks weaving across sheer faces, then switching back on themselves before plunging into the next jaw-dropping valley. I had to keep stopping to take pictures in my strange state of nature-inspired euphoria. I was actually reduced to screaming in joy after rounding each corner, I couldn’t comprehend the beauty of the mountains revealing themselves in front of me. I just wanted someone with me to hug and shake in my excited mood at that point. I have not the literary capacity nor the photography skills to accurately capture those scene’s, they will however, always be etched into my mind. Speeding down a gravel track, rear wheel locking up as I’d youthfully skid around the switchback corners (I bet the Germans weren’t doing that…) with a setting sun illuminating the tops of the peaks – it was pure bliss. The best thing I’d ridden on a bicycle. Funnily enough one of my friends drove over the pass just an hour after me and echoed my thoughts when we spoke about it, so much so that he drove back up there the following day to see it again!

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I was losing the daylight at this point, after nine hours in the saddle I was keen to pitch up, yet the road was flanked on one side by a raging river and the other by a sheer rock wall. I carried on and on until I found myself in a small village, with still nowhere to camp. I was getting a bit desperate, even sizing up a dingy space around the back of a bus stop. I asked a local guy who seemed pretty convinced there was a place back up the way I came. Slightly intrigued that I’d discovered a vertical rock face camper or whether he believed my rain sheet could hold off the flow of the river for a single night, I followed back up the road. He signalled that we were getting close to the spot before a car pulled up, and without saying anything he jumped in, leaving me still pondering. You bastard! Back down the road for me.

I rode into the town center. I’d cocked up. I wasn’t meant to ride this far and I knew as the darkness now fell, that my only options were a hotel for the night. Not only did I know that, but all of the hotel owners would as well. It appeared every man and dog in the town that owned a hotel, house, spare room, dogs kennel was there at the junction as I rode towards it. Within seconds I was surrounded my 20 men shouting ‘homestay! Homestay!’ in my face. Brilliant. A taxi driver got out of his car to watching the feeding frenzy that was about to unfold. It was impossible to talk to anyone over the shouting. Now things were really heating up between the guys as to who I should come with. The taxi driver had clearly seen it all before everyday when this occurs and handed me a card and pointed at one of the guys. Fuck it, I haven’t a clue so I just went with the guy. I knew I was likely being mugged off but what choice did I have at that point. Still kicking myself for riding too far, I reluctantly followed the chap to his homestay, which, looked surprisingly nice.

A couple of touring motorbikes parked up outside was a good sign, it looked like I’d got lucky. After a little friendly bartering over the price I settled down in my room and treated myself to a shower. Heck, they even had Head & Shoulders shampoo in this place, it was now officially a winner. The only winner of the night mind, as I stayed up to watch a placid England lose to a lethargic Belgian side.

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Still convinced that football is coming home, I eeked out the most of my ‘luxurious’ accommodation with a lie in and a morning shower. Damn it’s crazy how fast your standards drop… I was to ride along a nasty gravel road for the next three days towards Khorog, Tajikistan’s highest city. No mountains passes lurked around the corner but large trucks polishing the sides of your panniers as they barrel along the single track gravel road was enough to keep me on edge. Even the calm voice of Michael Vaughn in my ear, commenting on the woes of English Test cricket wasn’t enough to calm me in the midst of the intense riding.

What was intriguing though, was I was now only separated from Afghanistan by a few meters of river. I was close enough to chat to the Afghan people had I wanted and just looking over at this mysterious land was interesting. Growing up in the UK, Afghanistan has always been associated with terrorism and danger in my mind. Now it’s nice to put a few first-hand adjectives before those in the shape of beautiful, rugged and mountainous. Gleaming snow-capped 5000m+ peaks towered above us from the Afghan side, just beckoning to be climbed and explored. The perceived danger of the country only adds to the allure for me and I found myself really wanting to cross the river to see what it is really like.

The poverty in country is immediately obvious, the Tajik side boasts a semi-decent road, whilst the Afghan equivalent is in terrible shape and frequently peters out where the land becomes particularly rocky. It was especially poignant at one point on the road, where two sets of friends I’d met in an Uzbek hostel bumped into me on the road and we found ourselves having a little reunion with coffee and cake from their camper. It was a particular coincidence to have three completely separate groups bump into each other in one go so we were all pretty jubilant. I remarked how crazy it all was, even more that of all places we are now facing Afghanistan. We looked over the river, where a whole family were building a house out of mud. Five meters of water separated five Europeans who are lucky enough to leave work behind, travel the world as they wish, experiencing the quirky cultures of far-away lands whilst those people are struggling to even build the most basic shelter. Those five meters were really a world away. That hit home.

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That night I was camped up facing over the river, mulling it all over whilst being kept awake by the sound of distressed donkeys – honestly, those bloody animals make a hell of a noise! Sleep was clearly not happening for a while so I just sat outside, watching as the stars came out, providing a beautiful backdrop to the Afghan mountains. Again I turned to my trusty music, just having another moment of reflection on this trip. How far I’d come, how lucky I was to experience this and just generally growing up in the UK. Across the river was Afghanistan, a place not many from back home will ever lay eyes upon, yet will have a very strong opinion about. I was still processing everything I’d seen, the kids riding donkeys on the other side, bailing hay by hand and the people walking up these precarious mountain tracks. This trip was really starting to get adventurous.

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I was now riding with Rozel, a Slovenian student who I’d met 3 months ago as we crossed from the Greek border into Turkey and then bumped into at a party in Istanbul by complete coincidence. We both struggled along the bad roads in the heat. There were few places to stop, so when we found a cafe we were sure to grab some shade and food to relive us from the road. Despite it being much better off than Afghanistan, Tajikistan is not a rich country. They don’t have access to water filter or purifiers so whatever runs off the fells is duly drank and used for washing. Their stomachs are used to the water and consequently they have no real issues with it but foreigners are a different kettle of fish. I read 9/10 people travelling to the region get ill (from what I’ve seen I’d say that’s about right). That afternoon was to be my turn.

Cycling that road was hard, but now even the flats were becoming seriously strenuous. Something was up. Rozel used his Russian to explain the situation to an elderly guy who was more than happy to let us camp in his garden. Like almost everyone in central Asia, they wanted to know what we were doing and where’d we’d come from. At this point I was resembling a lifeless mannequin lying on the grass, grateful that Rozel could field the questions. Not for long though, as the neighbours began to gather in the garden to probe the dirty looking Europeans with more questions. Nasim, a Tajik student of English came over and wanted to know all about London and the UK. She spoke perfect English and was a real lovely girl but all I could think about was ‘don’t be sick, don’t be sick, don’t be sick’. Thankfully Rozel picked up my conversational slack in his perfect English as I decided to try pitch my tent.

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There was now a small crowd of neighbours and friends watching me erect the tent painfully slowly. Clearly too slowly, as Nasim came over and gave me a hand sorting it out. Definitely doing a better job than me! The family brought me some sugar water (hmm more impure water) and a bitter yogurt to help my stomach out. They sat around, waiting for me to eat it. My body wasn’t up for this but I forced a few spoonful’s down, which I immediately felt returning back the same way as I quickly bolted behind the nearest tree out of sight. This was to be the reoccurring theme of the evening. If it had to happen at some point, I was thankful it was with nice people about.

The following morning I knew I couldn’t ride, I still had 60 miles of crap road until the nearest city and that just wasn’t happening on a diet of sugared water. I waved goodbye to Rozel and got busy doing a whole lot of nothing lying about this guy’s garden. I was determined to try sleep it off in the shade, which start with, was going well. Around the mid-afternoon I felt a bit of water when I moved my feet. It was 40 degrees in the sun with no sign of cloud so I assumed the worst, putting it down to one of the goats or cows wandering about pissing on the floor. A bit grim, although in my current state, I could deal with it. Best to move my feet I thought. Within a couple of minutes, I felt water again, ‘what is going on?’ I sat up to find most of the garden was now under half an inch of water; lying on a slightly raised section, I had been spared from the worst of it by chance.

I was just bewildered to what the hell was going on? It’s boiling hot, there’s been no rain for the past week and now the garden has mysteriously flooded leaving me nowhere to go. What the hell! Still holding out trying not to throw up, I really wasn’t in the mood to deal with this situation. Of all things to happen to you when you’re ill, being flooded out of a random Tajik bloke’s garden is definitely high on that list. Bloody hell, right my tent was now soaked, luckily my camera, phone and passport had all survived. I moved everything including myself over to a raised area to dry out in the sun.

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Later on the old man came out and saw the flooding to his dismay. He was beside himself, apologising again and again. What had happened is that a neighbour had diverted a small stream that runs along the houses into his garden (I assume to water plants, although I can’t imagine they appreciate being flooded!) which, in turn had run off his land, flooding my area too. Right. I’m glad that one was cleared up. Everything soon dried out, no damage was done and I could get back to listening to Vaughny blabber on about cricket in the sun. That evening I was the amusement of neighbours, once they’d heard about the flooding. I had to admit it was quite funny, although at the time I struggled to see that side of it.

I was now on the mend, spending the evening chatting to Nasim about life here. It turns out that she considers herself Pamiri first and foremost, not Tajik. The Pamir mountain people have their own distinct languages, (often each valley has a language so unique it can not be understood by those living a few miles away) harbouring strong cultural ties with the area and surprisingly, much more liberal views than those in the city. She explained that Pamiri girls can have a boyfriend without marrying him, whereas this just wouldn’t be possible for a girl brought up in the city. Feeling enlightened by our chat, I then nestled up in my newly dry sleeping bag and quickly conked out.

I felt good the next morning. More than anything I was determined to just reach Khorog, where I knew there was a nice guesthouse where I could properly rest up for a day or two – getting over this bug – whilst hanging out with other cyclists. I started out great and deteriorated quickly. I was unable to eat and the mid-day heat just took everything out of me. It was just a case of getting the head down and plodding on. I made up the 60 miles by the afternoon, rolled into the Pamir lodge where Rozel and a group of cyclists were hanging out. I said hello before immediately throwing up behind another tree. Now that’s an entrance.

DSC03120Over the next few days I spent at the lodge, pretty much everyone I met came down with something, had come down something, or was certain they were coming down with something. There was no escaping the Pamiri bugs even for me. Two days after recovering, I spent another day bed bound with round 2. There was to be one cure better than Rozels mysterious Russian pills – football. England vs Columbia. What a game! I was on the edge of my seat, screaming at the tv as we missed a penalty in the shootout and then again even louder when we won. Right that was it, I was convinced, football’s coming home. From now on, I will cycle to a tv in the mountains, no matter how far away that may be, I will cycle all night if I have to. I’m going to follow England’s campaign across the Pamirs. The gauntlet had been set.

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