After a couple of days in probably the most beautiful city of Uzbekistan, Samarkand, we left for Panjekent, Tajikistan. It was a significant moment because we had just spent the best part of a month, and the last 2,000km of cycling, in a desert; soon we would be in a completely different landscape and a new country.
Trees were lining the road once more as we followed the Zeravshan River up the valley, which would take us deep into the mountains. Already the landscape was becoming three-dimensional again, and in less than 100km you travel from flat desert sand to being surrounded by 4,000m peaks. It was a great feeling seeing mountains again. We couldn’t stop looking at them. I thought a lot about the mystery that was to come, and to be honest I was a little scared at the prospect of being in the middle of some of the highest mountains in the world, which cover more than 90% of the country.
I was cycling in front, Nick’s shadow stretched out before me as the sun set directly behind us. I could see his shadow-arm waving at kids on the roadside, who were shouting “HELLO!” at the top of their lungs as we approached the border. We had heard a lot about leaving Uzbekistan. Mainly trouble. You are supposed to have a registration slip from the police for every night you stayed in the country, and we had about three. Oops.
But at the actual border gate of Uzbekistan, apart from the regular hassle from the border guards asking me to play my ukulele, it was one of the easiest crossings of late. No paperwork, no bag searches, no questions. The Tajik side went even easier. We showed our passports along with our flimsy paper e-visa and got a stamp. That was it. We were in Tajikistan. I had just crossed into my 37th country by bicycle. I was surprised how loose their border checks were actually, given that a few weeks prior four touring cyclists had been killed in the region by Islamic extremists.
It was dark so we had to find a place to camp pretty quickly. We followed a road down into the blackness, following the light of the moon, lights off so we wouldn’t attract attention. We ended up in a strange wasteland with the river at back. I’m sure we would find a place somewhere here. Nick didn’t like it. Then three dark figures appeared to our left, probably alerted by the dogs which were barking the whole time. They looked calm, but I noticed they were carrying pointy things which looked a lot like guns. “They look very army,” I said. It was hard to tell in the dark. We weren’t particularly afraid though, as we knew we were right next to the border, and this is the last place random people walk around with guns. Probably not a good idea to camp here though. They were three military guys, all young and baby faced. Only one looked like he could kill anybody. They were just wondering what we were up to, and dealing with them was as pleasant as the sunset. I asked one of them if it was an AK47 he was carrying. “Kalashnikov,” he said, swivelling it onto his other shoulder. We asked if we could camp, but we already knew the answer. Besides, the mosquitoes were eating my ankles. After some handshakes, we cycled off over the hills, with the lights on now. Just as well they caught us when they did. It would have been annoying having to pack up in the middle of the night.
It’s so much harder to find a decent place to camp when it’s dark, and we ended up pedalling for another hour. We got lucky at a petrol station in a village where the owner was more than happy to let us camp out front. His two boys came over very curious as we set up our tents, they even helped us pitch. Like so many interactions, we just speak English, they speak their own language, and we have a very pleasant conversation. Tired all round, we weren’t too excited about making dinner, but at that moment the two boys came over with a host of broken, but functional, furniture for us. Then chorba (a sort of stew), delicious bread and copious amounts of tea. They had provided us with a hearty meal and expected nothing for it. As the night continued, we all talked together around the table the best we could, including a phone conversation with the man’s 74-year old father who lived in the mountains, only interrupted by the occasional car needing fuel.
It was the first night in months that using my sleeping bag was absolutely necessary. We made breakfast, but again unexpectedly they brought us food—some bread, a plate of biscuits and hot green tea. Not long after some people across the road spotted us and brought us a huge bag of apples they had just picked from their orchard. Sometimes I wonder why people are so nice to us when they really don’t need to be.
A few moments later two French cyclists we had met in Samarkand cycled by, Benjamin and Florence. It was great to see them again but at the very least we could divide the pile of apples we now had. Since we knew we would meet them later, we continued packing up and said goodbye to the family. The kids joined us cycling for quite some way, which was at least reassuring how safe it was.
We continue along the road, which was pretty well-surfaced (and would be all the way to the capital, Dushanbe) on to Panjekent, our first town in Tajikistan. It was surprisingly more modern than I had expected. Many buildings were new, not more than twenty years old. There were still a few soviet artefacts around though. There is an assortment of old and new cars on the street, providing much more variety than the ubiquitous Chevrolets of Uzbekistan. Instead of Chevvy vans, they have Daewoo, Opel, Toyota and a few unrecognisable Chinese things. The drivers, mercifully, beep their horns much less here. But what the drivers lack the kids more than make up for by shouting persistently “HELLO!” Sometimes we are saying “hello” twenty times a minute (for there are few things worse than not replying to a “hello”). The kids run out and stick their hands out for high-fives too everywhere we go…
We soon caught up with Benjamin and Florence, who had met some Croatians also on bikes, Ivana and Robert. He was fixing the 5th puncture of the day on Ivana’s bike. Reminding me I’m lucky to have only had two punctures (ever) at this point (granted, China happily ruined that for me). We were a big group again: six people! Not quite the Mercury 7 though. By now the scenery was a mix of quite dramatic sandy mountains and lush greenery along the valley floor. You can really feel the desert landscape morphing into something different.
The temperature is perfect for cycling, and it’s great to be able to buy a chocolate bar and not have it instantly melt between your fingers. Soon enough we were at a little roadside shop, and as the shopkeeper was studying to be an interpreter, he could speak reasonably good English. In fact, it turns out he tries to speak to all the touring cyclists that come by. “Do you know Eliot?” He asked.
He began showing us pictures of all the people that had passed through, and right there, on his computer, was Adam’s face!
Forgive me if I haven’t explained well enough who these people are. Nick and I met Adam and Tim (who are touring the world and writing music: Total Bike Forever) whilst waiting for the boat to Kazakhstan (two thousand kilometres ago, I should add), and he also had pictures of Ruth and Ollie (In Tandem Stories) who I’d met in the middle of Turkey about three months ago! The people in this valley must be getting a shock, as the border only opened in 2018, allegedly for Tajikistan’s “Year of the Tourist” campaign. If it proves anything, it’s not that the people are kind to us because we are the only foreign people passing by. Rather they are kind to us because they are kind. Down to their bones. The shop worker said he gets around fifty cycle tourers passing by every month.
We camped shortly afterwards just before the road descended into the valley, beside huge towering cliff faces lit by the low orange sun. There were tons of kids around, and some helped us pitch our tents. They were all so sweet.
I’ve never seen so many young kids in a big group—maybe fifteen total—who don’t cause any trouble whatsoever. They didn’t even touch anything. Just looked and smiled, occasionally whispering things to each other as we cooked. One kid, by order of a parent, brought us out some tasty bread and a big bowl of cream cheese. It turned out the mud brick house which supplied the food gift didn’t even have electricity, and at night the family were simply sitting chatting in the dark. How can they be so generous? And what can we give back knowing that we have so little space for things in our bags? Money wouldn’t seem appropriate. And what of all the kids watching us? Should we give them some sweets? We know they haven’t had much interaction with tourists, so they are still relatively innocent to the kids we’ve heard stories about on the Pamir: who demand Snickers bars and then throw stones at you if you don’t have any (which, from my experience, turned out to be bullshit). Still, how many times must tourists give sweets before the nice gesture becomes expectation? How long would it take for these clearly unspoilt children to be corrupted? Or will their upbringing and innocence persevere? And what do they think of our “fancy” gear like petrol stoves, and smartphones—do they desire such items? Do they think us impossibly rich to a standard they will never achieve? Or are they content with their outdoors life? I pondered all this as I slept (I apologise for not shedding any light on the matter here). The happiest people I’ve met are children, and at that often children with nothing. I slept well that night; the roar of the mighty river was like a whisper echoing off the mountain walls, the same as the quiet calls of donkeys into the night.