With 1kg of porridge, a spare tyre, a bag of nuts, a huge new jacket and puny new cranks, I rolled off into the more remote regions of Tajikistan. With water my bicycle now weighs close to 50kg, the heaviest it’s ever been. Nick and I have picked up a new traveller too, Antoine, from France.
The road out off Dushanbe is well surfaced, scattered with trees and roadside sellers with fresh watermelons and grapes. This would be the last of modernity we’d see until the towns of Kalaikhum and Roshan on the Afghan border. In fact, we wouldn’t see a considerable section of paved road for another 3 weeks. But hey, in Tajikistan, the worse the road, the better the views.
There are only two roads leading to Kalaikhum, and since four cyclists were tragically murdered on the south road a month or so prior, we opted for the north. It’s a lonely, rumbly and treacherous ride through 4000m (13,000ft) unnamed mountains and the start of the famous Pamir Highway, an ancient trade route. The only way is up.
There are really very few shops in the area, and all are woefully low on stock. Typically the only fresh food is onion, and the only other thing worth buying is Snickers. Every so often there are a few places to eat out though, usually simple buildings with a stove, and perhaps only one or two things on the menu. We found one with some kind of soup with stale bread. The family who came after us got fresh bread which was a bit disappointing. They say the Tajiks are so nice that they will never cheat you, but like with most countries, you get the tourist treatment and the tourist prices in many places you go. This hardly detracts, though, that the people are very heartwarming.
Bacteria and other creatures in the water mean we now need to purify everything we drink. Even water from supposed natural springs needs cleaned as it usually has floaters in it. Finding such water isn’t exactly difficult, but it is necessary to have some way of purifying water to cross this country. If you don’t, the chances are pretty high you’ll get sick. Actually you’ll probably get sick either way. Also, since all the locals—with their hardened guts—drink the water from the rivers and springs, they don’t sell any in the shops, and if they do, it’s fizzy or way overpriced.
Throughout Tajikistan there are checkpoints, either manned by the police or the military. Provisions are pretty basic: none of them have a computer, and the tracking of your movements depends solely on handwritten sheets of A4 paper. It’s all a bit of a dry formality, and seems like leftover bureaucracy from times gone by. The guards can’t even read the details on your documents; they always ask me if I’m from “Irelandia?” Presumably because this is the last word on the front of the British passport. I reckon the checkpoints are more for the local population, checking the flow of goods and such. At one point I witnessed a man with his car packed full of things, free to pass once he had given the policemen his wallet with a folded bill on top, which discretely found its way into the policeman’s pocket. Corruption is still common in Tajikistan, if it wasn’t obvious.
After a couple of days cycling, high up in the valley, we reached a tiny village called Safedoron, the last place to get supplies for another day of cycling. It became clear there wasn’t much to see, and that in all likelihood few tourists come to this place since the lead-in to the village requires a detour and involves a huge steep hill. A man who could speak very limited English took us to a shop, the shop, which was closed. A piece of paper with a telephone number on it was stuck to the shutter, and he called it for us. Within a couple of minutes, a wrinkly faced, plump woman in a floral dress and country headscarf opened the metal window for us so we could see what she had. Absolutely nothing. We ended up buying fizzy orange juice, which wasn’t even cold. But the woman offered us to eat at her house, though it was clear that this was something we would be paying for from the beginning. Since there wasn’t really any other option, we pushed our bikes up the steep hill to her home, past several other little houses and the stream, which was the town’s water supply.
A note on the stream: Slowly, as we cross Tajikistan, we are realising, and appreciating, much more where our food and water comes from. You can’t just turn a tap and something comes out. Water must be fetched from the rivers, and if there are no rivers, there are no people. Since we are also quite remote already, most of the food is grown locally in vegetable patches, or in the case of meat, from the 1 million goats we have seen. As for the shop, the sugary crap that some people call food has likely come from Dushanbe, like us, and due to the road, with difficulty at that. This feeling and understanding of where the food comes from is very powerful to me; there is something very grounding about it. You feel more a part of the environment you are in.
And that environment was pretty pleasant. Trees and plants are growing randomly around, chickens and other birds are wandering freely, pecking the ground, a few abandoned vehicles litter the place, perhaps with a wheel missing, or with no wheels at all. At the house we sat outside on a terrace overlooking the village, surrounded by mountains, sitting on one of those raised beds like the chaihanas in Uzbekistan. It wasn’t exactly spotlessly clean though, as the birds are so friendly they have shat all over the place. We were served lagman, bread, tea and a pot of yoghurt. The lagman didn’t have any meat in it, which was a first.
All was well until we came to pay, when the daughter took the hundred note and didn’t give us any change even though it was only fifty. She took advantage of the language barrier and social awkwardness to keep the money. I tried not to be bothered by it too much. Here we are with all our cameras and smartphones, things they likely could never afford. But still, the lack of honesty wasn’t nice.
We carried on up to around 2,800m where we stopped to make camp, since there was a lack of other places. The view from our spot was spectacular. Spiky peaks tower in the distance like a saw, and smaller and smaller peaks in front until finally, our valley. This high you can feel the affects of altitude already: being lightheaded and out of breath.
Antoine was violently sick in the night. Puking and shitting at the same time until nothing was left—he called it “The Double Dragon.” (With capital letters.) We don’t know what it was, but it could have been the food or water at Safedoron. Nick and I were lucky to be spared given what we had been through in Uzbekistan. The problem now was how Antoine would continue given our current situation.
The sun was splitting the sky yet again. Antoine felt just about well enough to carry on and so we pushed for the top. It was surprising how long it took as actually. Climbing a little hill is not the same at 3000m as it is at sea level: you get tired much more easily. At midday we reached the top: 3,252m, the highest I’d ever been standing on Earth. It was a good feeling, especially since we knew it’s downhill all the way to Kalaikhum. I thought about what my hometown, which is only 10m above sea level, would look like from 3 kilometres in the sky above.
The police checkpoint at the top has been abandoned, and nothing remains except some old power lines. We were just about to take our obligatory photo when two land rovers—the first cars we’d seen—pulled up next to us. They were a team aiming to clear the unexploded mines and bombs in the area, presumably from Soviet times, funded by an NGO in Canada. For some arbitrary reason the women’s team removes the mines, and the men’s team removes the bombs.
They were very friendly people and helped us take our picture. I told one of the men I liked his scarf and I was surprised that he immediately offered it to me. It’s from Afghanistan, bought from the cross-border market. I still have it. I think the people in this part of Tajikistan are close to those in Afghanistan, since historically there wasn’t really any border. They look the same and speak the same language.
The descent was both wonderful and awful. The road continued to be so bad that I was holding the brakes most of the way down, some 2000m of descent across 20km. The views were incredible though, much different from the other side. Trees and shrubs clung to enormous jagged cliffs—evilly-shaped rocks like something from Lord of the Rings. With these massive sharp drops a brake failure or some other error would surely lead to your death. The river far and deep below was young and fresh. Some rocks clung precariously overhead too, ready to fall in a landslide, which probably happened more often than one would care to think. It was remarkably peaceful, especially given there was no traffic. But we were solely confined to the road, since it was the only place you could stand. It’s a wonder how they even built it. The only thing on the way down, apart from two houses, was a military checkpoint, where they again scribbled our details onto a piece of paper. The guard holding the rifle looked so baby faced he couldn’t have been more than 16, and it was hard to take them seriously. This marked the end of the descent, and the rest of the way we followed the river to the town of Kalaikhum.
Kalaikhum is a strange town. Obviously it played an important role historically, given it’s position where two valleys and rivers meet at the border with Afghanistan. Though little of that ancient presence remains save for a few ruined houses scattered higher up the cliffs. The town now is made up of strange modern buildings in a grand style—seemingly a sort of mix between Austro-Hungarian and Soviet architecture. Many are still under construction too, and have huge pictures of the president plastered to their facades, reminding everyone of how great he his.
We spent a while slumbering outside the main supermarket there, “Europa”, which did have plenty of luxuries you might find in Europe, though nothing we particularly wanted (namely porridge and jam). We did buy some bread, however, that wasn’t stale; so soft and new to our lips that we just ate it plain. Antoine lay motionless, practically dead, on the pavement, much to the amusement of the local children who had gathered around the strange foreigner who had arrived to their town. The kids would all ask us very bland and repetitive questions to practice their English which they were keen to learn. It can be hard to stop in bigger places for a rest since so many people are interested in what you’re doing. Something I found particularly difficult in Turkey.
We continued to follow the river we had now joined at the border. Afghanistan was only thirty metres across from us. It was interesting to hear the mosques (which are less prominent in Tajikistan) echoing prayer calls through the massive valley, as kids played football and some waved to us across the roar of the water. Surely a time I will never forget.