Tuesday, 20 May 2014

the ups and downs of cycle-touring

We're figuring on about seven days' cycling to Dushanbe which will take us southwards along the mountains separating Uzbekistan and Tajikistan until the road turns south-eastwards and crosses these mountains. At the risk of repeating myself, it's hot.  It's hot. Happily our first day takes us up into hills that still have some snow on their northern faces.  From the top we can look south across the flat desert plains that sweep across to the foot of the mountains on the eastern horizon.  On our descent we stop at a green grassy spot where fruit trees are planted on the hillside.  We are lured up a ridiculously-steep track to a thin ridge where we camp.  It's windy, it's fresh, it's wonderful.  Our next night's camp is completely different - a dry dusty dip in the desert landscape - just far enough away from a herd of sheep and their herders.  Oh, and the sheepdogs.  A full moon floodlights the night.
Lionel Messi and his mum
As we approach the mountains the temperature rises.  An overland truck with British plates passes us by.  "They're British!" Gayle shouts. "And the buggers didn't even stop."  But at the top of the very first climb they have. "Are you brewing up?" we ask.  Ed and Ros have hurtled over here in six weeks.  So there you go, Mum, we're not that far away really.  They offer us chilled bananas and Yorkshire tea. Fantastic.  After about two hours of gabbling about each other's journeys we finally move on...and up. In the heat of the mid-afternoon we stop in a bus shelter for lunch.  Six Turkish lorries pull up opposite.  They cook kebabs while we munch on bread and choco-cream.  Just before they leave, one of the Turkish drivers brings us over a plate of kebab and salad.  We like Turkish truck drivers.

We descend the other side into a high valley, past pretty villages set away from the highway.  Just when we're ready to stop we enter a small town strung out along the road.  It seems to last forever.  On the outskirts we find a grassy pitch behind a petrol station that has closed.  Next morning we take a road without tarmac that climbs to a high pass.  It's a slow and sometimes steep crawl to the top, with an almost equally slow descent through the dust and dirt of road-building.  

Cars hoot at us as they cast billowing clouds over us in passing.  Finally we reach the point when we leave the main highway and thankfully come to quiet and better roads through rolling countryside being farmed.  Lots of fruit trees.  Much more greenery around.  We stop on the roadside when we spot an orchard to camp in.  Behind us is a man and woman and boy waiting for a ride. We wait until a car comes and then dive into the trees.  Just as we are settling in a quiet spot the boy appears.  And then the man.  They want to see what we're doing.  We show them the picture of our tent.  The man tells us it's too cold to camp and indicates us to come with him to his house.  We follow them to a mud-brick house where they are living with extended family - three women and kids.  We are shown the guest room and invited to sit down in the garden to share dinner with them under the stars.  We try to talk with Ukdam and resort to pulling out the phrasebook which is generally useless for this kind of situation but helps a little. We are served bread and green tea.  A bowl of thick yoghurt/sour cream is brought as a dip for the bread, followed by a plate of fried eggs.  They obviously do not have much, but are happy to share what they have with us.  Once again the hospitality we are receiving is humbling.  They seem genuinely happy to have us here.  The world seems a wonderful place.

the workers
Rolling on the next day we are both feeling tired.  After a slow climb we have a good downhill and then start dropping down to a big valley. We stop to ask about a shop from two men sat in a car.  One speaks perfect English. He gives us directions.  We ask what he does.  He's a road construction engineer.  We smile knowingly.  Of course - that's why they are doing nothing.  The day ends in a low wide valley full of farms.  We've been told by another traveller, Laura, who speaks Russian, that most farmers rent their land from the government.  The government decides the crop and takes 50% of the produce.  We end up sleeping at a 24-hour petrol station with full amenities.  Well, not quite.  There's a well-built drop-toilet (concrete floor - much sounder than a few rotten boards and mud).  That's about it. And there's no petrol.  Only propane gas.  Most vehicles here have converted to gas.   We're invited in as we cycle past by one of the nightstaff whose just had his 5 o'clock vodka shot.  He's friendly and very helpful and he gives us the spare room to sleep in.

pimp my ride

In Denau it's market day.  We push our bikes through the bazaar melee and attract more than the normal amount of stares.  Some young women approach to ask for a photo with Gayle.  Then when we park up a small crowd gathers.  Gayle is happy to deal with the questions (England. Manchester. No,City) wile I shop.  On the way out of the town I catch a nail in my tyre.  It's long enough to come out of the tyre sidewall and takes pliers to extract it.  Out on the road we start to see the big mountains of Tajikistan.  Snow still skirts the ridges.  By late afternoon we're close to the border and looking for a place to camp.  Pushing intoa field with apple trees we meet the farmer who is collecting fodder for his cows.  We ask if we can camp and he agrees, pointing all around saying it's his land, but while we search for some flat ground in the ploughed field he returns with his wife and they invite us back to their house.  Following with our bikes we head away from the road along a dirt track which leads to a large village of courtyard houses.  It's that time of day when everyone is outside enjoying the cooler air.  We end up in their garden and while Salamat sets to cooking us up a huge feast Kurban Ali joins us on the raised bed under vines to talk.  And mime.  

It's a struggle but we do okay, using the phrasebook and the map.  After green tea and chunks of bread, nuts and sweets appear.  Then a small bottle of vodka.  Toasts are made.  Then it all gets hazy.  Jimmy Tarbuck (for it is he) tells us that they have four children, three of whom are working in Moscow.  They look after one grandson.  Salamat commences to cook plov over an open wood fire - it is the best way to cook it, Jimmy assures us, even though there's a gass cooker in the kitchen. Some more toasts. Followed by salted cucumber slices. A red-eyed Salamat presents a mound of plov topped with three chunks of mutton.  More toasts.  We chew on the meat for quite a while, longer enough for another toast, before trying to do justice to the rice.  It's getting harder now.  

One more toast and I'm ready to lie down for good.  Thankfully, so is Jimmy.  It's been a long day, and this last night in Uzbekistan has been fabulous.  We will not forget the generous hospitality of the Uzbek families who have opened their doors for us and kindly fed us.  As we lay down on the bed, under the canopy of vines we can see the stars up above.  But why are they moving so fast???

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