We were camped in the grounds of some kind of restaurant. A bunch of guys nearby were trying to start a car by pushing it along the roadside, and the debacle involved lots of chanting and cheering which no doubt woke up the entire village. Etiquette is not something so prominent here it seems, except when it comes to introductions, where it is customary to shake hands with the left hand over the centre of the chest, as to give a “wholehearted” welcome. It can also be done to say “hello” or “you’re welcome,” but then with the right hand over the heart, since it is not needed for shaking.
A huge golden dog was asleep right next to my tent door, lying on the dusty ground next to a can of Baltika 9 which I struggled to finish. There was some kind of party last night, involving about 10 drunk men full of Vodka, and Nick of course. Chickens were walking around my tent, clucking and pecking invisible things on the ground, and cows are munching the grass, occasionally being chased away frantically by the owner. The light is slowly creeping over the huge mountains of Afghanistan just across the river, and shining through where a window would be of the half-constructed and now ruined building next to us.
We are also next to the main road, the Pamir Highway, which despite the name, is just a dusty, stony mess. Surprising, since this is the primary route across Tajikistan. There isn’t much traffic either, being confined mainly to either Toyota pick up trucks or 4x4s, the latter which drive much too fast, taxiing tourists and locals between Dushanbe and Khorog. There are also huge, ugly trucks shipping goods to China or Pakistan over the Khulma pass. They are enormous, often have an equally enormous trailer behind them and appear to be made solely of rusty iron. They chew up the already horrible road and leave everything in their wake covered in dust. They also don’t stop for anybody.
The road is so bad, that every item I’m carrying is on a slow and never-ending journey to the roadside. Every screw is on a mission to escape, stopped only by perpetual re-tightening and adjustment. The shocks of bumping around the whole time—aside from being uncomfortable, scrambling all the food in my tins and causing every item to bash against each other—broke the other eyelet that holds my pannier rack and my bags to my bike. Now that we are quite remote, finding someone to weld things back together is unlikely until Kashgar in China, or maybe Murghab, a tiny town at the other side of Tajikistan. I made do for the time being with a u-clip supported by a stick from a tree which acted to fill the space between it and the seatstay, adding to the weird assemblage of plasticky and unconventional parts which somehow hold my bicycle together. Tajikistan is fucking us up. Nick is sick again and Antoine hasn’t recovered, and now my bicycle is just totally shit. As you can imagine, we didn’t get anywhere particularly fast.
But it is beautiful. It feels like we’re cycling through a perfect oil painting. After a while of cycling, you actually begin to forget it’s Afghanistan just across the water. You only see huge mountains, a river and a road—the way it used to be, and perhaps the way it should be, before foreign political powers sliced this place up, dividing historically, culturally and ethnically the same people.
As we cycle along the border, kids wave and shout a friendly hello from the Afghan side, on the contrary to what we experience on the Tajik side. The kids here are beginning to resemble zombies, saying “hello” hundreds of times in a monotonous drone of repetition from the bushes or the side of the road. Sometimes you can’t even see them. It doesn’t matter if you respond once, twice, or not at all, they repeat forever until you are out of sight. It’s borderline creepy. Some are suicidal zombies as well, who scatter in front of the trundling bicycles without care for personal safety on the road, arms outstretched, eyes glazed over and only focussing on your hand in the tiny hope that it meets theirs for a high-five. The lunatic behaviour must be from the sheer volume of cycle tourers who have passed through this popular route, each echoing a hello and giving the kids some kind of new game to play. Oddly, if any kids decide to say something else, it is “what-is-your-name,” again in rapid monotonous robotic tones; a peculiarity of what must be the most asked question to them by foreigners, for they can’t say anything else. At least it makes a change from the adults, who suppose the most important thing about you is where you are from. Nobody has heard of Scotland.
After a long and slow day, we covered maybe only 35km, ending up on a raised rocky area partially hidden from the road. Despite our efforts, four soldiers with Kalashnikovs still found us in the dead of night, curious as to why we should be there. But after a chat and a radio to their commander, they assured us we could stay where we were—convenient, since we had already pitched the tents. And then just as quickly as they appeared, they vanished into the blackness where they came from. Antoine commented that he has never shaken hands with so many police and military in his life. Here it seems they are closer to civilians than representatives of the state.
The experience of cycling the Afghan border was pretty incredible. But it was also tough. Only on our last day of cycling did the road surface improve slightly to be almost like a normal road. It certainly made things much easier. After a few final climbs we hit a plateau where the river widened and seemed more like a lake: calm, still and quiet. We were averaging 15km/h for the first time since we left Dushanbe, and proudly rolled into the tiny village of Rushan, the most significant place we’d seen in three days. We did it. We had successfully made it to the middle of nowhere!
We stayed at a beautiful guest house (Rushon Inn Guesthouse), surrounded by fruit trees in the garden, and managed to haggle the price down to $8 a night with breakfast—pretty good for the quality of the place. We were pretty grubby and probably smelt awful. My face had black marks all over it, likely from the suit off my stove or my handlebars or my chain oil. Still, before a shower we decided to hit the town before the shops close and while there was still daylight. Everything closes at 5pm which seems a little unusual since everywhere prior was open until 7 or 8. As we walked around we really got a sense of how lovely this little village and community truly is.
We bought some beer to celebrate our arrival (sadly, it didn’t taste very good) and met a guy who invited us to a party. He said it was a celebration of the winning team from the football tournament, which was held in this town. Though it turns out in this small world, the final was Rushan vs. Rushan. Every village in the Bartang Valley—the remote valley we would soon be cycling up—had a team in the tournament, no doubt made up of builders and teachers like in Iceland.
After a quick stop back at the guest house, basically so Antoine could put on a pair of shorts completely stained in mud (saying “these will do”), we hit the party. It was an outdoor concert in the park across the road. They had a huge PA set up, a guitarist with plenty of effects pedals, a drummer playing a small conga between his legs and a keyboardist. The place was mobbed. Lots of kids too. But nobody dancing. That was, until we arrived. When I say “we” I really mean Antoine. For while Nick and I danced and looked like idiots for a while, Antoine didn’t stop all night. It was only drunk people dancing, and whatever other drugs they had in their system, and probably averaged about eight people at any one time on the “dancefloor”. It was also, unsurprisingly, all men. The women preferred to dance further away and out of the spotlight. The live music, with keyboard backing track, sounded somewhere between awful and tolerable, but it had little effect on Antoine and the two beers he had drunk. Eventually some kids even joined the dancefloor and were copying Antoine’s goofy style—likely they had never seen anything like it before (neither had we) and we could only hope that the style spreads through the village for eternity.
The more traditional dance of the region is quite cool, and quite difficult. It reminds me a little of the dances in Dagestan but less extreme. It certainly has a Persian influence on it, although it would be foolish to say where the influence came from, since the people here and in Afghanistan all have music and dance entwined in their lives—it could easily be that Persia was influenced by here, the mountain people of their once empire. The music and dance of all regions surely give us clues to cultures and their overlaps, and that’s something I’m happy to say I’ve witnessed during my travels. Even in spite of the internet, tradition and locale play a much more influential role.
Unfortunately for Antoine, his goal of working the crowd and having everyone doing his dance fell a few hundred people short. A huge, fat drunk tried to start a fight with, everyone, and two police with their funny-looking disc shaped hats came to watch, practically marking the end of the party, and the end of an awesome three days.