By 6am most of us are up, as was the sun. The ground around is mainly made of soft straw. Apple trees here and there and others bearing fruit. Some cows are being walked along by a few young kids in front of our camp site, something not unusual in this part of the world. One of the boys is standing on the roof of his mud-brick house, watching us curiously. It’s a cold morning, and I need my jumper for the first time in months. It seemed ridiculous carrying a jumper all the way across the deserts of Uzbekistan, but finally it has a use.
I really wanted a lie-in, that’s one thing I miss when cycling in a group. You have to sacrifice some freedom sharing time with others. Perhaps that’s one reason why we like those similar to ourselves, because we give up less freedom.
We cycle up the fertile valley and dead mountains until the farmland disappears completely. Like the mountains around, the river is massive and a rather dull colour, much too fast to even consider swimming. Nick and I pull away from the rest and before long we are surrounded by mountains and the planes below remain only a memory. The rocks throughout are bright red or sand coloured, and treeless. It’s quite a formidable and dramatic atmosphere, and frequently feels like we’re pedalling on another planet, conveying our insignificance to everything that surrounds us.
It’s clear when the next village is coming up…
Or when something more significant is approaching…
The landscape would often change from sand-coloured to red and back as we followed the river higher…
We also passed some interesting little villages…
Finding food—in this part of Tajikistan at least—isn’t too difficult, and we could stock up at regular intervals from markets or little shops.
Though it seemed that every time we stocked up on food we were given a huge donation of even more. This time a man stopped his car to give us a crate of apples. We tried to refuse because there were literally about 30 apples in the box, and our kind benefactors find it difficult to grasp that cycling up hills with an extra 10 kilos just isn’t very fun. And only a couple of minutes later another guy gave us a bunch of tomatoes. At least tomatoes weigh less.
We had lunch with some truckers at the corner of the road right before the big climb up to the tunnel. Their truck had snapped in two right at the corner, creating some kind of wacky-races obstacle course for the traffic, kicking up dust and adding it as unwelcome seasoning to our lunch. The traffic was a bit heavier than expected. And the speed which they climbed up the slope didn’t give us much hope of reaching the top any time soon. We left the river we’d been following for the last few days and started the climb. My lowest gear (30t front and 32t back) wasn’t low enough. I never factored in road condition or headwind in choosing my lowest gear, so I was standing nearly the whole way up.
We stopped at a chaihana to recover and get some tea near the top. We were quite sure we would get to the tunnel the next day. A trucker came in and I “forced” him to drink tea with us. We are so commonly forced to drink tea, I felt I should return the custom. In the end we had a conversation for about half an hour without speaking any language. We discovered that Tajik is very similar to Dari (an Afghani dialect of Farsi), so I was happy I could actually understand a few words from my time spent at City Plaza in Greece.
A small community lived nearby in small stone houses which they evidently had fashioned themselves, all with little windows and chimneys. They welcomed us to sleep on their land without hesitation. Just after sunset we pushed our bikes over the little hand-crafted, makeshift bridge to their hamlet next to the stream. At over 2,350m it was the highest I had camped thus far. After pitching our tents, a respectable old man named Sulyman told me to turn of my stove and he would bring us something for supper. He brought us a plate full of fried potatoes and plenty of non bread. Later came two bowls of yoghurt, and from another man, Rezarahim, who worked in the quarry nearby, a different kind of yoghurt. It was clearly made from the cows that were grazing the land around us. Despite the neighbouring road with a few cars every now and then, it was very peaceful. Kids were playing around in the stream, and birds tweeted to sleep. It was chilly though, and I slept wearing most of my clothes. It’s a strange feeling coming from sweating yourself to sleep in a desert to being freezing cold in only a few days.
Nick described the morning accurately as “fresh”. It was about 5°C and I was—without any winter gear whatsoever—freezing. At least making the porridge in the morning makes a lot more sense now. There wasn’t a stir in the morning, only the little stream trickling by like a park fountain. We could see the sunlight beaming onto the highest peak yonder, turning the colourless mass into golden cliff faces, revealing all the intricacies the shadows bury. Despite already having eaten, we were brought hot tea and fried eggs for a further breakfast. We forced down the food and forced the little kid who came to collect our plates to take our chefs a bag of fruit, offloading at least some of the previous day’s kindness. It probably meant more to them than us, being this far up the mountain and away from any market.
At around 8am we continued up in the cold, slowly unzipping all our layers as our bodies warmed. Probably an hour later we arrived at the entrance of Anzob tunnel, the Tunnel of Death.
It’s not a nice place. Apparently it got the name “The Tunnel of Death” because people have actually died inside it. The locals report that workers died building the tunnel, and people have suffocated in their cars because of the lack of ventilation in a traffic jam. It’s over five kilometres long and the only measly fan is located right in the middle which does exactly nothing to aid airflow. The traffic is slow and mainly consists of huge trucks from the nearby quarry which billow out thick diesel fumes and sprinkle coal dust into the air. And there are no lights save for an occasionally few dim dots on the ceiling obscured by thick smoke. It’s also at 2,700m above sea level, meaning there is less air to breathe even without all the smog. Just looking at the thing from the outside was quite daunting—fumes were pouring out and it made a noise like the groan of the devil. Nick and I said our goodbyes, wrapped our faces in whatever cloth we had, and began pedalling.
The first thing that hits you as you enter the tunnel is the sheer amount of stuff in the air. You can feel it on your face, and you have to blink constantly from the particles flying into your eyes. Even with the lights on, it’s extremely hard to see anything. You’re basically travelling through a cave full of smoke for five kilometres. Nothing to do but keep pedalling. I decided to make a list of the experience.
Pros and cons of cycling through the Tunnel of Death
can say “I cycled the whole way here”
can’t see anything
covered in black stuff
carbon monoxide poisoning
Celebrations were had, looking like coal miners but glad to be breathing clean air again. The whole thing was deeply unpleasant. In the end we had black teeth and black stuff up our noses. It looked like we were wearing mascara, and we couldn’t get it off until the next day. But in general it’s not as bad as people made out. If you don’t mind the cons above, you can definitely cycle it without too much difficulty. I feel that people that hitch-hike through the tunnel (it’s easy to do so) over-dramatise the situation to justify the lift. Nevertheless, they are more sensible than us.
When you come out the other side of the tunnel the whole world opens up into this amazing and beautiful landscape, which is only amplified by the dark and horrible place whence you came.
The subsequent descent, being incredibly fast, is probably more dangerous than the tunnel itself. And just when you think it’s all over, you have about 20 smaller (but still long) tunnels to contend with, most of them also unlit, and have the added danger-factor of being extremely poorly-surfaced inside. Unfortunately for people going the other way, they won’t get such a nice view, and the main Anzob tunnel will be ever so slightly uphill.
In the end I consider myself lucky to have met Nick, as going through the tunnel alone and without decent lights would have been quite crap. He’s also one of the only other cyclists I’ve met who have cycled the whole way (indeed, even have tried to cycle the whole way), something which is becoming increasingly hard given restrictions at borders and the dominance of motor vehicles (and perhaps, the ease of alternatives).
But why not try? I leave you with a short conversation I had with many a touring cyclist.
Them: “Are you a purist or something?”
Me: “Are you not?”