The Pamiri Dance: Dushanbe to Khorog (Tajikistan)

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Fall in the Pamirs

Air travel is a strange adjustment when you have been used to cycling for so long. What would normally take a few tumultuous months is over in a stale few hours. I flew from Delhi to Bishkek, spending as little time in chaotic Delhi as possible. Marcus and Kirsty had told me about a small haven for cyclists in Bishkek called the AT House. The AT House is run by a Canadian/Bulgarian couple, Nathan and Angie. I heard that Nathan was an excellent bike mechanic, which was perfect considering I needed to have my two wheels rebuilt with new rims sent from the UK. My Indian steel beast of a front rim had miraculously made it through the Himalaya, but now it was time for another that weight less than half as much. I had only planned four days in Bishkek, before I would fly to Osh to meet my Danish “sisters” – my very good friends Marianne and Heidi, whom I first cycled with in Tibet in 2011 and later Patagonia in 2013. From Osh, we would start Westward on the Pamir Highway. This was the original idea, but the Central Asian bureaucratic machine had begun to thwart my plans. Before leaving Delhi, I received a photo of this notice from a fellow cyclist through Facebook:

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The original plan was to leave on the 13th from Bishkek, but now I had no choice to wait in order to get my visa. The AT House was a great place to pass the time and meet many other fellow touring cyclists.

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Good times in Bishkek at the AT House

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Master French chef Timo dishing out his latest creation

I met people from the UK, New Zealand, Italy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. We were lucky enough to have a keen French chef, Timo cook for the masses of us. Perhaps the most interesting of all the guests staying at the At House was Miss Emma Trenchard, who drove from England to Kyrgyzstan on her Vespa Grettle. I am not sure what is nuttier – cycling through Tajikistan’s rough Wakhan Valley or riding a Vespa. Emma is the kind of person that I think woke up one morning and thought “maybe I’ll drive to Kyrgyzstan today.” I loved hanging out with this crazy and awesome woman.

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Emma on her Vespa, Grettle. www.emmatrenchard.com

Soon, the 15th of September came and my friends and I crossed our fingers that the Tajik embassy would reopen so that I could get my visa. When I arrived, to my dismay, there was a new sign saying that the embassy would be closed until at least September 30th. This was terrible news for me and my friends, who had no choice but to leave Osh without me as they only had limited vacation time. It was upsetting as we had planned to meet up and cycle together almost a year ago. I immediately I had to form a plan B. I had no desire to wait in Bishkek another two weeks and winter was fast approaching. Also there was no way that I could missing cycling the Pamirs. I decided to fly to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, where I could get a visa on arrival at the airport and cycle back towards Bishkek. This would mean skipping Uzbekistan, but I would be able to cross paths with my friends. To get the visa, I ended up having to pay $50 for a letter of invitation. Once this was done, I bought my plane ticket and was off to Dushanbe on September 22nd.

In Dushanbe, I stayed with famous Warm Showers host Véronique and her son Gabriel. Many cyclists that pass through Dushanbe stay with Véro to experience her legendary hospitality. Surprisingly, I was the only cyclist there and in summer months she has hosted up to 22 people at once in her home. She is the coolest mom ever, taking her young son Gabriel on tour with her, who is now nine years old . They have done several adventurous trips together, including the Pamir Highway, that he cycled at age 8. Surely, he must be the youngest in the world to have done so and what an incredible achievement.

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The amazing Véronique and Gabriel. Seriously, how many 8-year-olds can say they have cycled up to 4655m?

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Véro’s equally awesome cat, Jack

While I greatly enjoyed staying with Véro and Gabriel (and her awesome cat Jack) I kept my time in Dushanbe brief as I only had a 30-day visa. Part of my route in Tajikistan required a GBAO (Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast) permit to travel a particular region of the country that bordered Afghanistan. The Gorno Badakhshan province encompasses 45% of the land area of the country but only 3% of its population. In the past there have been clashes with region and the Tajik government as it has tried to declare independence from the rest of the country. After one day, I obtained the permit and headed east for my next set of mountains – the Pamirs.

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Walking on the hills above the river

It was late September and Dushanbe was surprisingly hot. It was close to 30 degrees when I pedalled out of the city. I knew that I was heading into the Pamirs late in the season and I expected cold weather most of the way. Hints of autumn could be seen across the landscape. Hillsides were turning golden brown and leaves shone a vibrant yellow in the sun. As I started to climb, the air grew cooler and cooler. Fall has always been my favourite time of year to be outside. The traffic just outside of Dushanbe was minimal and gradually began to disappear.

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Tajik girls and their colourful outfits

Tajikistan is a muslim country, with many women dressed in long loose dresses of wild patterns such as tiger stripes and clashes of bright colours coated in sequins to match to match their headscarves. I got many friendly waves and “hellos!” with the odd stare of disapproval from the local men. Tajikistan is a former state of the old USSR and Russian is widely spoken, along with Tajik and Pamiri in Gorno Badakhshan. My Russian was rusty at best and used a combination of the few words I knew, my phrasebook and gestures to communicate.

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At the end of the day, I found a scenic campsite that required a considerable amount of effort to get in and out of, because it was at the bottom of a steep hill. When the sun dipped low, shadows helped to highlight the gold in the surrounding hills. I could see men on horses leading their herds of sheep along the river below. The evening was pleasantly cool. It was a peaceful scene and peering my tent door and I felt content to be on the road again.

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From Dushanbe, there are a choice of two roads to Khorog – the rougher northern route or the southern route, which most vehicles take.  The northern route suffers from rough road conditions but has the benefit of no vehicles and outstanding scenery of the Western Pamir. The remoteness gave me a thrill that I hadn’t experienced since Mongolia. It was a special feeling indeed to be alone in such a dramatic setting, devoid of people. Very occasionally a small village would appear with a dusty general store stocking over sweet fizzy drinks, Snickers bars and instant noodles. I got my first invitation for tea, “please come in, mister” a shopkeeper said. I guess my androgynous cycling look was working out.

Onwards through the desolate land, the mountains got more dramatic and copper red hues started to appear to match the sandy road.

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Loving the remote and traffic free road through the Western Pamir

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The only real traffic on the road

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Enjoying the silence and presence of the mountains

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I soon started to pass some police checkpoints. I didn’t particularly enjoy the company of the officers who would look me up and down, linger too long over my passport and immediately enquire about my husband (who was ahead in Khorog because he cycles too fast, of course) and the children that I didn’t have (tough to come up with a story for that one).

When I got to Talvidera, I went into the only restaurant in town and met a fellow from South Africa with the coolest job ever – working for an organization for the conservation of snow leopards worldwide. He was visiting some of the protected areas in Tajikistan on this trip. Unfortunately, he had never seen a snow leopard himself. Through his work in wildlife conservation he had travelled to 65 countries. When I told him of my plans to cycle from Cairo to Capetown, he said that Cairo had the worst traffic out of all 65.

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Leaving Talvidera, I soon followed the contours of the river along a rocky, copper hued road. I eventually left its curves and climbed my way into a small village just before the start of the climb to a pass at 3252m.

I passed by some small houses and I suddenly I saw a young girl run out to the road and yell “chai! chai!” Chai is the word used for tea and refers to a general offer of hospitality. She was adorable and I couldn’t say no, so I stopped and followed, pushing my bike. At first, I wasn’t sure if the young girl had informed her family of the offer she had extended to me, because they seem surprised to see me arrive. But within minutes, big smiles grew across their faces and I was ushered into a room where a group of local women sat. They were clustered around a carpet with an an absolutely enormous spread of food.

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Tajik hospitality. The little girl on the right in front invited me in to the home.

Bread, sweets and fruit were offered to me. Even without a common language, we had a lot of laughs. With smiles, funny gestures, pointing to my map, miming cycling on rough roads, using my phrasebook and writing out each others ages we had conversation for an hour.  Also my “magic letter” in Russian was used for the first time (thanks to my friend Dimitri in Canada for translating!). This letter explained who I was and talked about my trip. Of course, the “conversation” can only stretch so far and sometimes it can feel a bit awkward afterwards.

In the end, the family offered that I stay with them inside after inquiring about using my “palatka” (tent). The girl that invited me in was absolutely fascinated with me and sat about a foot away watching me intently as I wrote in my diary.

It wasn’t the most restful sleep because many people moved around throughout the night. I had breakfast with the family and offered them money in the end for my stay. I am always unsure of this as I didn’t want to mean any offence or change the original intention – but they happily accepted. In this situation I always felt like I wasn’t giving enough for the amazing hospitality I was continually receiving.

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View on the climb…

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and the descent…

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The climb to the pass was challenging, but with wonderful views. The descent was even more impressive, but what a bone shaker! I can only imagine the difficulty ascending from the other direction. I passed a view signs along the way warning of unexploded ordinance/landmines in the area so I made sure not to wander off the road.

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I think the message was pretty clear…

I had another military checkpoint and more pointless lingering over all the various colourful visas in my passport. I can only imagine how bored these guy must be. After looking at my passport the soldier picked up a card and made a phone call.  “Oh god, what now?” I thought. But I had a bit of a surprise. When I arrived in Kalaikhum that night, a man waved to me saying “homestay, homestay!” and I checked into a comfortable room and had an amazing hot shower. When I entered the room, I saw a business card tucked into the door frame. I have a good photographic memory, and saw that this was the same card that the soldier had used to make the phone call. So it seemed that the guy wasn’t there to just waste my time, but to insure that I had a place to stay for the night.

The kindness of the Tajik people shone through the further I travelled, even though the repeated “hello! hello! hello!” from the children got a little bit tiring.  And then, amongst all the excited children, I heard “chai?” and stopped. A woman was inviting me into her home and I happily accepted. I had expected the customary tea with nan (bread), but then she said in English “hungry? we have…eggs!” And I was treated to more than just eggs.. a hearty egg and potato stew, fresh tomato salad, a big bowl of pomegranates and apples, fresh yogurt and loads of bread. What incredible people!

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The amazing family that fed me the world’s biggest lunch

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One of the teenage boys (not in the photos) could speak a few words of English and enjoyed practicing with me. When I would finish anything, they would just keep bringing more. I will continue to be humbled by experiences like this and as result feel the need to give back to others in the future.

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Afghan homes

Leaving Kalaikhum I was following Afghanistan, just on the other side of the Panj river. Some children would yell and wave to me, giving me a tiny taste of a country so feared by the West.

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Afghanistan across the river

I rode by a parked jeep and heard a guy yell “are you Tara?” It was Don, who was from my home town of Toronto, Canada on a short trip through Tajikistan. He had met my Danish friends, Marianne and Heidi in Murghab about a week ago. They had told him to look out for my yellow bike and blue hat. It was great to hear from them through Don and it got me excited for our brief reunion in Khorog, now only a three day ride away. I camped on some terraced land hidden behind trees and boulders that night, trying to stay out of sight from the neighbouring village. I waited until darkness to pitch my tent, working on my rear wheel that had gone slightly out of true. Two local boys found me and stared at me for about half an hour. Eventually one came down with a wrench and asked if I needed it for my bike. Then they tried to get me to come with them but I insisted that I was OK to stay where I was to keep working. It was very nice of them to offer their help. Eventually they left and I was alone.  I was somewhat cautious, because I had heard stories of cyclists camping in this area and being woken up in the middle of the night by military. This was to make sure that the cyclists were indeed just cyclist and not unwanted visitors from Afghanistan. Luckily I didn’t have any 3am wake up calls and slept soundly.

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The mountains grow in size

The following day I had a run in with two soldiers toting AK-47s. When they motioned for me to stop, I groaned to myself dreading unwanted hassle and a lengthy passport check. But the only thing they wanted was a photo. So after figuring out the most photogenic position for the gun, the other soldier took this gem.

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With two more days to Khorog, I was getting very excited to see my friends. Although I had been enjoying myself immensely, I sometimes missed having the company – especially after riding with Marcus and Kirsty in India for over a month. But with my pleasant daily encounters with the kind people of Tajikistan, it was hard to be lonely.

I met the world’s kindest man. Even if there are others kinder than this one, he definitely had the world’s kindest face. He had a smile that radiated deep into his eyes and the creases of his face when he spoke.

He invited me to sit outside his home with him, bringing out several different types of bread, tea and unbelievably delicious homemade butter. He told me about the many cyclists that he had met – mainly from Germany and France (I was often asked first if I was from either of these countries). He had a daughter in Dushanbe and was also a grandfather. Once he had lived there, but instead preferred the natural beauty and peace of living in this part of the country.  We gazed across the river while sipping tea. “Afghanistan.” he said, in a tone of fascination. Sitting and watching life unfold slowly across the river in a strange land was a sight that I don’t think he tired of. I really enjoyed my time with this man – his calm and welcoming presence brought me great joy. His is a face I will never forget.

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Meet the world’s kindest man.

By now, autumn was at its most dramatic, revealing spectacular colours on the trees lining the road.

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Autumn in all its glory

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Friendly children just outside of Khorog

And the mountains reached higher and higher into the sky…

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I covered the final 66km to Khorog at a quick pace, excited to see Marianne and Heidi and take a day of rest. I was lucky to have an intense tailwind pushing me along. This was definitely a big benefit of travelling east from Dushanbe – so far I had tailwinds the whole way! Khorog is a highly educated city in Tajikistan and I could tell because instead of just constantly shouting “hello!!!” they kids now said “hello, how are you? What is your name? What is your name?!” And no matter what answer you gave them, they would just keep shouting the same questions over and over.

Getting into town, traffic suddenly appeared, which was something I had forgotten about altogether in the past week. I started towards the famous Pamir Lodge, where I would meet my friends. Going up a hill in that direction I suddenly heard Marianne yelling “Taaaarraaaaaaaa!” I quickly stopped and saw the two of them coming up the hill towards me. I cruised down and gave them both a massive hug. Marianne, the crazy camera woman had the Go Pro out, documenting our reunion. It was so great to finally see them.  I originally met these two on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum while trying to form a group to cycle Tibet in 2011. We joined again in 2013 to cycle from Puerto Montt, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina via the Carretera Austral.

Flashback to Tibet in 2011 – from left, me, Heidi, Marianne and Gigi, our Italian companion

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Patagonia 2013. We become the “hermanas del mundo”

At the Pamir Lodge, I met Australian cyclist Adam and Michael from the USA. Both were on long trips. I knew about Adam because he was the “go nowhere champion” of the At House in Bishkek, remaining there for 34 days. Just for fun, Angie and Nathan had a list going on a whiteboard of the cyclists that had remained in Bishkek the longest – usually waiting on visas or mail. After hanging out and chatting, it was time to explore Khorog.

I had read about an Indian restaurant in Khorog – the last place I would expect to find an Indian restaurant. The three of us decided to go there for dinner. When we entered the restaurant, we said a large group of women around several tables pushed together. It seemed like there was some kind of event going on, but we were seated anyway. We ordered food and all of a sudden, without warning, some Tajik dance music started blasting through the speakers. Most of the women got up from the table, yelling out loud “wooo wooo!” and started clapping and dancing. It was a birthday party. They were having a great time. The music was quite fun and very catchy. Marianne and I started moving in our seats with Heidi sitting and laughing us. The women noticed our rhythm and invited us up to dance. How could we say no?

So Marianne and I went up and made a fool of ourselves with Heidi documenting the whole thing (The embarrassing video is being edited as I write this). As ridiculous as I may have looked, I had great time. The ladies particularly enjoyed mimicking my dance moves (I’m that good). Then, we were invited to join the feast.

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The party! Marianne on the left looking very happy with what’s in front of her

This spread of food was like something out of a Hollywood movie (I talk about food a lot, don’t I?). It looked like enough to feed 50 people. Later, we left the restaurant grinning from ear to ear, laughing and dancing around like the music was still following us. It was the perfect reunion.

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