Monday, 30 June 2014

on top of the world ma

room for 3 more
The theme tune from The Magnificent Seven is whizzing round my head as we cycle along the Pamir Highway to Alichur.  The village is a sparse and bare place of whitewashed box-like houses.  We both are reminded of the Bolivian Altiplano.  Rob has found a really nice yurtstay with a local family.  (The people living here are Kyrgyz - they look quite different to Tajiks.  The Kyrgyz are believed to have migrated from Siberia and have a lot in common with Mongols.) The yurt is lined with felt rugs and looks great. There's a deluxe pit toilet (i.e. a door catch and toilet paper) and a stream with mountain water running past the door.  Just as we finish our welcome tea and bread more cyclists arrive - it's Robert, Suzy and Dino.  They've also come, much quicker, along the same route as us and look appropiately knackered and relieved to have hit the tarmac. Well, apart from Dino, who never looks tired and who we discover never pushes his bike either.  

Setting off eastwards the next day we begin to get the sense of how high we are.  The Pamir plateau is really a series of high dry valleys between the enormous peaks that cover most of this region.  There are not many settlements - we are at about 3900m and the summer season is very short.  We pass small farms of sheep and goat herders.  A man is moving yaks across the road. 
lunch break at 4100m
 After lunch at the top of a very long pass we drop down into narrower valleys.  We are thinking we could reach Murgab today if we crack on.  Dino and Suzy seem unfazed by the headwind or the short sharp climbs which leave us breathless with effort and lack of oxygen.  Coming around a bend above a flat valley we are greeted with a view of Murgab in the distance and below us a wide river winding through flat grassland.  As the sun is still quite high and the grass looks inviting we pull off the road to camp.  It's a lovely spot.

The town of Murgab sprawls down the hillside at a junction of valleys.  It's full of single-storey square houses and only a few trees or gardens.  The Pamir plateau is a barren desert place.  Murgab is significant in our minds simply because it's a place where we might find fresh food in the container bazaar.  For a few days fresh food supplies have been low and the tiny shops we come across stock mainly just the essentials like pasta, Snickers bars, tea and flour.  Now that we're back on the main road food has become our priority.  'Bartang' Robert discovers duck shashlyk at the big hotel up the road - result.  There's also World Cup football matches to catch up on - Gayle can hardly contain herself.  Our numbers have grown - Damian and Hannah have caught us up and Hanne and Tyson are here already.  At mealtimes the courtyard of the guesthouse is full of camping stoves all struggling to boil spuds at 3600m.

The road turns northwards out of Murgab - only the big Chinese trucks continue east into China, using a border not open to foreigners.  We cycled past that border back in 2010 on the Karakoram Highway.  Now we are heading northwards towards the Big Pass on the highway - a 4655m climb that is guaranteed to leave us all breathless.  There's hardly any traffic on the road - just occasional jeeps ferrying passengers between Osh and Khorog.  One of them drives straight towards us on our side of the road before veering around us.  He has Kyrgyz plates.  Our first mad Kyrgyz driver and we're not even in the bloody country.  I arm myself with a rock for the next one, which never comes.  Later on Dino tells me the same thing happened with them and then he shows me the rock he put in his pocket.  Fools seldom differ, it seems.

taking a break from the saddle

The road takes us gradually uphill and we camp before it steepens.  Hannah and Tyson have left us a sign and an arrow to a good pitch by the river.  We put the tents up - five of them - and get down to the communal cook-in. The next day is the Big Climb over the Big Pass.  We set off in dribs and drabs and begin what turns out to be a relatively short climb (relatively - it takes an hour) that ends at a pass blasted through the rock. 
Robert tops up the tan
After a break from the peloton Gayle is out in front for the finish line when a challenger appears on her shoulder.  We sprint it out to the line - Gayle wins.  I clearly still have too much museli in my panniers.  The descent is somewhat of an anti-climax with no asphalt for quite a long stretch, so no reward for the slog uphill. There's quite a bit of washboard and gravel to negotiate - but how to cycle on washboard?  Basically you can either skirt it by riding in the sand along the edges or you bounce up and down on the unevenly spaced ridges.  Suzy favours the latter, whilst singing the circus clown's anthem.  

contemplating the washboard

Robert and Damian looking out for Hannah
After a long ride out we end up with a
 lovely camp where the valley flattens out beside another winding river.  It's a bit windy but the winds seem to drop off when the sun goes down.  We pitch on a large patch of grass and get down to the cooking.  As the sun sets the wind changes direction by 90 degrees and starts to gust strongly.  Our tunnel tent is facing the wrong way.  Rob has turned his little tent around and Suzy and Dino have just helped Robert turn his.  They peg it back down and are about to move away when the wind gets under the tent and it flies up in the air towards the river.  The pegs come clean out of the ground.  Luckily they manage to grab it and bring it to ground, but a pole is bent and Robert doesn't trust the wind.  He wraps up the tent, still with his things inside, and buries it under his panniers.  Meanwhile our tent is getting hammered and we need Damian, Dino and Suzy to help turn it around without it taking off.  As we have a 3-man tent we offer refuge to Robert for the night.  Warm Showers hosting? To be honest, we always think our tent is only big enough for two and a half adults, so it's a good test to see.  Of course, there is room for all three of us.  By the time we are all settled in the wind has reverted back to its original direction and soon dies down.

Arriving in Karakul the next day at lunchtime we are disappointed to learn that the homestay Robert stayed in on his outward journey has no food.  Or very little.  We opt to raid the village shop of bread, condensed milk, biscuits, tinned meat or fish, the ubiquitous Snickers bars.  It's a poor do.  The bread is brought from someone's house.  It's probably yesterday's.  We dip it into our tin of condensed milk, sitting on a wall.  "Vagrants" Robert had jokingly referred to us all one day.  Looking at us now, he's not far wrong.  We fill up the water bottles at the well which has been fitted with a giant pump and head off around the huge lake beside the village.  It stretches far and wide and the colour varies with the light.  At times it looks like the Caribbean, at others a grey and threatening sea.  

big country

This afternoon I bonk.  Dino and Robert hang on for me while I shovel dates into my mouth.  Meanwhile Damian, Hannah, Gayle and Suzy head off up towards the next pass.  Rob has opted for a night's rest in a homestay.  The afternoon's ride ends slowly as we all plug uphill into an appalling headwind.  Damian strikes out and finds us all a cosy spot in a ravine out of the wind - a charming little gravel pit to pitch our tents. "Bloody marvellous!" Robert grins and rubs his hands.
gritty but windless
Walking back to the tents early morning Robert spies the trowel in my hand. "Been planting bulbs?" he asks.

Dino unusually at a loss for words
Once again we awake to perfect weather - blue skies and little wind.  The landscape is glorious.  After crossing the long pass at 4100m we get a stupendous view of the Pamir Alay mountains that border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan before hitting more washboard road that marks the slow ascent to the Tajik border post.  We should be acclimatised by now, but there's still a lot of huffing and puffing.  The border post is tucked around a corner and provides a brief respite before we all continue up to the pass at 4200m which marks the real border.  Incredibly, as soon as we cross the pass the mountainsides are green.

Careering down the switchbacks on the dry dirt road we pause at a house where Robert found refuge on his way up when he came from Osh.  The woman here makes us tea, brings us the freshest bread we've had for over ten days, sweets and jam.  She indicates she can't join us - Ramadan has begun.  Greedily we munch and slurp away before continuing down the mountain, following rivers flowing red with the soil.  It's a good downhill on a dirt road with just one river crossing.  We are leaving the Pamirs behind and heading into the green lands of Kyrgyzstan.
au revoir

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

adventure push-bike touring

We stop in Langar at the last house along the switchback road heading up the hillside.  It's mid-afternoon and we're looking for a homestay recommended to us.  Having made the climb up here we do not want to have to turn around and go back down the hill.  A man comes out of a field and approaches us. Iqbal lives here with his wife and two children.  Another daughter lives in Murgab, a son in Russia.  (About 1 million Tajiks work in Russia and send money home.)  We are invited in to a traditional Tajik house of a style we last saw in Chapursan in Pakistan: a room with four raised platforms for sitting, eating and sleeping.  

There are pillars supporting the roof which has a skylight in the centre.  We are fed and watered and given the main room to sleep in whilst the family squeeze up in the kitchen.  First light is around 4am these days and we are up with the family at about 5.30 to pack up and eat breakfast - we each get great bowls of rice cooked in milk.  Perfect cycling food unless the milk is sour goats' milk.  Our stomachs turn involuntarily. 

We are off up the road soon after, around another hairpin bend and another. We're huffing and puffing and thinking about pushing when an open-bed truck trundles up the road behind us.  "Stop him!" Gayle gasps."I want a ride!!" The truck driver looks at us slightly bemused.  He gets out and we ask if he's going to Kargush.  Well, we keep asking "Kargush? Kargush?"  Finally he indicates throwing rocks into the truck and pointing around the corner, before driving off.  We start pushing.  Sure enough, around the next bend we see the truck loading up rocks. And on we push.  Just another 105 km of this before we rejoin the asphalt of the Pamir Highway. Hmmm.

The ride from Khorog has been wonderful so far, even if the tarmac ran out on the second day and we have rumbled and bumbled along dirt roads ever since.  From a narrow river valley we emerged into a much wider bowl-shaped valley where the Panj river turns north.  We're going upstream and turn eastwards to be confronted by a stunning landscape.  

We still have Afghanistan across the river and at Ishkashim you can look across and up a huge valley that opens up on the Afghan side.  The geography suddenly explains why this route was one of the main Silk Road routes into China.  These are big valleys through quite daunting mountains. Marco Polo came this way.  The wild sheep with long horns that live in the mountains are named after him.  The villages are large and green with trees and well-watered fields.  So many people are out and about tending to their fields and herding their cows.  Everyone is friendly and welcoming and the little kids get so excited to see us when we ride past that it's quite embarrassing.  Especially if you're puffing up a short climb.  In between the land is dry and dusty.  Sometimes the road turns to gravel and even sand.  

On our first night we camped in hazelnut trees.  Rob, who left after us, found us in the twilight.  The next day we rode a long day with a helpful tailwind.  We could have camped early but opted to try the woods further along the road and, as these were no good, we continued on, past two more villages and finally quit at the top of a big climb as the sun set.  95km is a long distance on these roads, and pitching the tent was a bit tricky in the strong winds because the ground was sandy.  We had already heard about a couple losing their tent up in the Pamirs.

The undeniable highlight of the Wakhan Valley which we are riding up is the unbeatable views of the Hindu Kush on the other side.  And over these enormous snowy peaks is Pakistan, one of our favourite countries.  It feels strange to be so close yet not be able to visit.  There's a very thin finger of Afghanistan which pokes between Pakistan and Tajikistan and prods China - the result of a deal made between the Russian and British empires in the 1880s so that they could avoid sharing a border.  Whilst we cycle from village to village we can enjoy glimpses into the Hindu Kush of tight valleys, glaciated peaks, and large alluvial fans spilling out into the main valley.  The Afghan settlements are few and far between in contrast to the Tajik side.

Now we are at the point where the valley splits and we are pushing our bikes up and up, away from the river. It's cruel and heartless.  After about 5km we stop for a second breakfast to fortify ourselves for what will prove to be the toughest road we have ever cycled.  While we brew up two motorcyclists pull up.  A man with a Mancunian accent asks "Can you give me directions to Hebden Bridge?".  It turns out Ian and Shaun have met Suzy and Dino further back along the road.  "I bet you've been in your granny gear all morning" Ian laughs.  We look incredulous.  Granny gear?  We're bloody pushing mate!! We ask them if they've seen Rob this morning as he was also staying in Langar the night before.  "What?  Another one on a push-bike?  You lot make us feel sane!" and after a bit more chit-chat they are off with a turn of their wrists.  Eeee, that motorcycle lark looks tough. On we push.  Occasionally I pedal a bit just to rest my arms.

Continuing upwards the gradient eases off.  We tentatively get on our bikes and discover with some relief that we can actually cycle.  Now we're up we get longer views up towards where we're going.  The road is variously hard dirt, loose gravel or large embedded stones and we are gradually ascending.  When the road gets steep we push.  In the afternoon we rejoin the river, and as the sun descends and the light softens, the river changes colour.  We pause to take photos in this lonely place - there are no villages now we have climbed up, just an isolated house now and again - two men ride horses along the riverbank on the Afghan side.  It feels like the Wild West, frontier country.

Rob catches us up and the next day we set off along a flatter stretch of road, but with more washboard, sand and gravel.  It's slow going.   There's quite a bit of huffing and puffing mixed equally with a bit of effing and jeffing.  The military checkpoint marks the turn in the road up to the high pass at 4300m.  We have to take breaks more frequently and keep drinking water as the effect of the altitude hits us.  At a farmhouse we buy some bread.  There's a Landcruiser parked outside - the only car we see this day - and the occupants emerge from the house.  A young woman speaks some English, one man gives us more bread the shape and texture of a frisbee, and then a very drunk man with a red face weaves forward to embrace me, asphyxiating me with vodka fumes.  When they are ready to leave thay all pile back into the jeep.  The drunk man clambers into the driving seat, fishes out the car keys and speeds off in a cloud of dust.

We camp early with Rob in a wonderful grassy spot by a stream just below the pass.  We know that this is the last fresh water until we reach Alichur on the main highway tomorrow and the views are terrific.  In the morning we are woken by birdsong.  The pass is not so hard from here, as the road rolls gently upwards until eventually it starts to roll downwards.  All of a sudden we are not gasping for air.  We feel a rush of euphoria and joy as we crest the pass, although Rob is doubtful of whether we've finally topped out and doesn't want to get too excited in case we haven't.  But then he too finally let's go as we speed downhill.  We just need to watch out for the gravel and sand patches that leave our back wheels fishtailing.  It takes a while to descend through the mountains and we pause to chat to a lovely German couple travelling overland in a Landcruiser.  They must be lovely - they offer us fresh coffee.

Finally the gradient flattens out and the road turns to washboard again before we emerge at the main highway, a vision of shiny black tarmac.  The road that is, not us.  And what a wonderful sight it is too. I cry with happiness.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

off yer bike

I'm mourning the fact that my museli has run out and I can't find any when Nick, another cyclist, says "Oh, I found museli in a shop in the bazaar yesterday". My heart leaps with joy and the sense of relief this news brings me relaxes my whole body.  I feel like the monkey is off my back. "Which shop was it?" I ask eagerly.  Nick shrugs. "To be honest, I can't remember.  I went in so many".  My shoulders slump forwards with the simian weight that comes with this reply.  I feel a strong urge to bash Nick's head against the door until he remembers.

There’s no sign of any trouble here in Khorog except for the burnt out shells of two buildings on the high street – police buildings.  Now everything is back to normal again.  The town is the administrative centre of the Pamir region and there’s a university built by the Aga Khan Foundation, so it’s really the big city in these parts.  The people in this region are predominantly Ismaili and the Aga Khan is their revered leader.  Sort of a pope in Shia clothing (although he’s always dressed in snazzy suits in all the photos you see of him in folks’ houses).  We are staying at the Pamir Lodge which was built to fund the local Ismaili prayer hall.  They do not have mosques, do not observe Ramadan and the women have more equality than traditional Muslims.  Infidels.  The Lodge is the best place to meet other cyclists and travellers so what it lacks in cleanliness and comforts is made up for in sociability.  In the evenings locals come to the prayer hall and the call to prayeris sung by a woman.  It's a magical sound.

staple food

Hannah is calling her mum on Skype in the garden.  She's sitting in a chair and one of the old ladies who live here is looking over her shoulder. But the connection is not that good, apparently: "No mum, it's not Damian.  This is the woman who runs the guesthouse. No, it's not Damian."
cyclists doing what's best: eating and lounging around - Dino, Suzy, Gabor, Damian and 'Bartang' Robert

Hannah and Damian arrived after us.  We met them briefly in Dushanbe while trying to get our permits for the Badakshan region.  More cyclists arrive: Robert has come from Osh in Kyrgyzstan over the very difficult Bartang Valley route and he is circling back to Osh.  Suzy and Dino arrive with him.  We heard from them through Chris, so it's great to finally meet them, although we are daunted by their speed and strength - they've come from the UK in ten months.  Hannah and Tyson turn up from Dushanbe too.  Nick is going in the opposite direction to us all and we ask him about the Wakhan Valley route.  He seems quite unimpressed by it.  Later on this amazes us.  We want to ride up the valley but the route sounds tough - talk of bad roads, sand, and a difficult pass of about 4300 metres.  In the end we take advice from James at Untamed Borders (see links) and Bill Weir, who is one of our most respected Crazy Guy On A Bike contributors.  They convince us that the Wakhan is the way to go.
now where's the bloody museli?

Meanwhile we need to get supplies from the busy little bazaar and say our farewells to Chris and Gabor who need to keep moving because of visa constrictions.  Chris departs first up the main highway that the Chinese trucks are using.  Gabor delays and delays until we finally leave before him.  We always thought he was slow to set off but he seems determined to break his own personal best at procrastination. We know that Rob is coming our way too, but no-one else has made up their minds.  So, after a few lazy days it's time to saddle up once again.

Monday, 16 June 2014

life in the peloton

As we cycle out of Qalai Khum (check spelling) we get a great view of the other side of the Panj river.  Small villages surrounded by vivid green fields and trees sit at the feet of tall dry mountains.  It might be the mirror image of our side except that the houses are built in a different style - mostly mud brick, sometimes stone - and none appear to have glass in the windows.  These are Afghan villages.  For the next five days we cycle along the river which marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.  This river becomes the mighty Amu Darya, which we crossed by pontoon bridge back in Turkmenistan. 

Having descended from the mountain pass at Saghir Dasht we are happy to restock and continue to Khorog joining the main road from Dushanbe.  We are expecting a decent road, so we're quite surprised to find long sections of the road in very poor condition.   It's the geography - narrow gorges, snow-fed rivers washing down the mountainsides, steep climbs up to villages built on high alluvial fans - and then there's the trucks.  Large trucks bringing stuff from China.  The road is slowly being destroyed and there's no sign of any maintenance.  No wonder the people in this part of the country loathe their government and burn down the police buildings.  After riding this road I'm ready to torch the first government building I see in Khorog.

Rob drops off the back of the bunch for a day's rest in Khalai Qum leaving me and Gayle trying to outflank the yellow-shirted Chris and the unknown quantity that is the Hungarian Gabor.  We suggest that they may prefer to ride together whilst we go it alone.  They seem to take this stoically, although the twinkle in Chris' eye suggests he doesn't plan to hang about while Gabor sorts out his things.  Later on Gabor checks whether it's okay if we camp together.  Of course, we don't mind this - we haven't been able to explain properly how we feel about riding with others - the issues about responsibility, decision-making, compatibility. Oh dear.  As it happens, we camp together all the way to Khorog, whilst Chris disappears for a couple of days due to technical problems. Technical problems.  "His rear derailleur appears to be broken", reports Gabor that evening, "the last I saw of him he was walking back towards Kalai Kumb".

cherry picking
One evening we find possibly the best camp spot on the ride: a flat perch on the inside of a large bend on the river, just before we enter a long narrow canyon.  We are afforded the most wonderful views of snow capped peaks on three sides and a pretty Afghan village set in the bowl of the mountains opposite.   Sitting by our tents after dinner as the full moon rises Gabor exclaims "This is why I am here".  We are all in awe of the landscape. It is awesome.
awe·some (adj) - extremely impressive or daunting
The yellow-shirt leapfrogs back into the lead.  We find Chris the next morning at the side of the road with a big smile on his face.  He has a new derailleur for £2.50 from a small shop in Qalay Qhum.  He also has his pedal crank in one hand and a large wrench in the other.  The crank has just fallen off.  With battered panniers, well-worn shirt, sun-faded cap and his muddy bike, Chris truly is the image of a bicycle hobo.  I'm thinking Woody Guthrie here circa 1934.  
roadside repair - fortunately Chris carries enough spare parts to build another bicycle

There's something about his spirit, his humour, his restlessness, his beard.  He gets sick as we get closer to Khorog, but plugs away.  One night we camp beside the river where the valley has widened and flattened out.  Afghanistan is a 15 metre swim across a calm-looking river.  Chris is tempted - he is trying to visit 100 countries - but lacks the requisite energy.  Besides, he would have to sleep on the other side too for it to count.  In the morning we hear the calls of Afghan herders as they climb the shale in search of their wandering animals.
bound for glory?
Increasingly Gabor is looking like a pirate with his bushy beard and moustache and big hat.  He remains taciturn but we know he's enjoying the ride, despite some horribly rough sections of road.  At camp in the evening he remains methodical, despite his tiredeness, carefully pitching his tent before preparing his dinner.  I'm guessing he has a tried and tested technique for slicing his onions because he does everything with the thought and precision of a scientist.  When we all rode with Franzi and Jonah we noted that Gabor might be more German than them.  His bike is the secret envy of all cycle tourists.  Or not so secret.  He has all mod cons.  Almost.  The only thing he doesn't have but that we do, is a small light plastic trowel for digging holes.  The Shit Shovel.  And the one item of equipment he carries which we covet is his silicone spatula for cooking.  Gabor makes us laugh with his considered observations and sense of irony.  We make him laugh with our senseless observations and inconsiderate irony. 

cyclists relaxing
On the final straight into Khorog we are surprised by the reappearance of Rob, who must have pullled out all the stops to catch us up. Or have we just been dawdling along, determined to enjoy the views and the scenery?  Rob is still worrying about things.  We think this is just a lack of experience in these wild environs, or maybe we're still being blase about everything.  Water? Food? Rain? Why worry and lose your figure!  Rob also has a habit of contradicting Gayle when he really should know better.  Now I know that Gayle thinks she's always right.  But I also know that she invariably is.  Rob has yet to learn this.  He also has a string of cracking one-liners that leave us non-plussed: pointing at my pop bottle sticking out crookedly from my bottle cage - "does that stay in then?" (evidently yes). Or coming up to our tent just after we've pitched and filled it with panniers "That doesn't look flat".  Rob isn't a happy camper - his tent is too small, his cooking pot is too small - but he muddles along just fine.
Ten days after leaving Dushanbe we arrive in Khorog tired but happy.  For some reason I thought the tough bit of the Pamir Highway was in the high mountains, but surely we've just done the hard bit, right?  Right???

Only 740km to Osh - pah!

Monday, 9 June 2014

mud, sweat and tears

before the rain
It rains.  It really rains.  The sky turns black and there's thunder and lightning.  We have reached the village of Tavildara where the last good shop is.  It's a relative term.  Rob goes in and out of the two shops and comes out empty-handed, looking a bit bewildered.  What to buy?  There are few vegetables, and those that are sitting in sacks look a little sad and sorry.  On the shelves are boring biscuits, UHT cream from Pakistan, tins of tomato puree.  On the floor sacks of flour, rice and pasta.  Under the counter Snickers and Mars Bars.  Gayle comes out with bags bursting just as the rain starts.  Chris has been chatting with Mahmoud, the local English teacher, who invites all five of us back to his uncle's house.  It's the end of the day and there's a torrential downpour outside.  We accept happily.

At the house we park our bikes in the garden and sit around the low table in the back room of the house.  Mahmoud is very talkative, opinionated, interesting and interested.  We are fed well by his aunt and although most of  us enter a vague zombie-like trance, Rob keeps up the conversation.  I only wince once when he asks Mahmoud if he has ever visited other countries on holiday. Mahmoud also makes us wince when he asks about niggers in England.  We tell him that we don't use this word - it's derogatory - a bit like Russians calling him a dirty Tajik.  Mahmoud has worked in Moscow, and nods in understanding.  "In Russia they call all of us from the Caucuses and Central Asia, tree stumps."  He and his uncle are more bemused when the subject of marriage comes up.  Whilst me and Gayle get off lightly, Chris, Rob and Gabor are quizzed incredulously as to why they are not married.  We are amused - it seems obvious to us.

how many cyclists does it take.....
The next day the skies look ominously grey.   We set off along the valley before reaching the washed-out bridge.  we have heard a lot about this river-crossing.  However, we've already crossed several so we keep asking ourselves 'is this the river-crossing?'  But this is definitely the one.  Wide and deep on the far side.  The water is the colour of Nesquik and rocks are being rolled along under the surface.  One by one we make the crossing before being held up at another police checkpoint.  We don't know what the problem is, but we are not allowed to continue.  The policeman holding our passports smirks like a naughty schoolboy before finally releasing us.  We now have the pleasure of a steep climb to a 3,000 metre pass.  This pleasure is made even greater by the dirt road that has turned to mud in the rain.  It rains on and off.  The mud is so bad we resort to pushing.  And pushing.  And pushing.  Our feet disappear in the mud. Gayle looks back at me and we burst out laughing.  This is so awful it's funny.  We finally push past the last village in the valley and come to rest at a closed tea house where we meet two more cyclists who greet us with the offer of tea.  Wonderful.  It turns out that Claudi and Bill Murray (for it is he) have only cycled 6km today.  At the tea house is covered space for tents and a water fountain - the perfect rest place.  Just before there's more rain, Gabor arrives.  

In the morning Chris and Rob arrive early from their camp near the village below.  We all start to plod up the road to the pass.  At some point it hails.  We find shelter in a ruined building.  It's a slog to the top and I'm not in the mood for cycling.  I push a long way.  Gayle cycles in her granny gear.  At the pass we pause for photos, lunch and tears of exhilaration. Bloody hell.

Bill can't stop joking around. 
He and Claudi had paid the policeman at the checkpoint
 some money to get through - which is why he held us up.......

Saturday, 7 June 2014

and they're off

All of a sudden the lethargy, the apathy, the indecision comes to an end.  I opt for the muesli with the tropical fruits. We have got our Russian visas in our passports - nyet problem - and joy of joys, permits are being issued for the Gorno Badakshan Autonomous Oblast i.e. we can cycle the Pamir Highway.  After a lot of dithering, Chris finally opts to head off along the Highway.  Franzi, Jona and Daniel have to go northwards because they don't have enough days left on their visas. Gabor has been waiting for the permit too but we tell him we don't want to cycle together.  We realised in Uzbekistan that our cycling rhythms are so different and we are looking forward to cycling on our own again.  But then Rob asks if he can join us and we feel awkward saying no.  So finally we say our farewells and set off.

As we head out of town we realise that Gabor is with us.  There's a horrible moment when we ask him not to cycle with us.  It is nothing personal but because Rob is with us it seems very personal.  Oh well. The road very soon becomes hilly and surrounded by farmland.  We are pootling along after lunch when we notice that Rob is chatting to someone on the side of the road.  Could it be Chris? It is. Did he wake up this morning and set off in the wrong direction? Did he forget his laundry?  Did he leave his heart in Dushanbe?  It turns out that after setting off the day before he seems to have suffered some sort of existentialist crisis not uncommon in solo cyclists and has decided to come and look for us.  So in one way we're happy he has found us. While we are chatting Gabor arrives.  

Now two's company but five's a pain in the arse.  Wild camping with four tents?  The notion of hiding out of sight seems improbable, but in the end it's not a big deal.  After cycling through Uzbekistan where all the main roads are lined with houses, the camping along the road here is much easier.  Our first night is on the edge of a fruit orchard,  and the second is on a grassy ledge overlooking the big river gorge we pass through.  The landscape gets better each day.  Although we want to cycle and camp on our own we don't want to say anything to the others and anyway the conversation has picked up with Chris in the group.  He is full of philosophical questions to amuse and trouble us in equal measure over the cooking stoves.  Gabor is his usual lugubrious self - carefully setting up camp and preparing his dinner to the quiet accompaniment of the occasional "ho ha" or "oh fuck".  Rob meanwhile worries about things that I might worry about but never vocalise.  Well, no, even I don't worry as much as Rob.  In fact his worrying makes me feel quite relaxed and blase.  At the end of the second day we arrive at a village in a narrow gorge.  Gayle and I don't want to camp near the village but we're all feeling a bit knackered and Rob looks tempted to camp on the edge of the fields on the outskirts.  What would Chris do in such a situation? He grins "Ride for another two hours until it gets dark."  It's exactly this kind of situation we've been trying to avoid - the negotiation and decision-making. It's hard enough with just the two of us.  We turn to ask Gabor what he thinks.  He's got off his bike in search of something in a shop.  So we ride off.  Up a steep climb and round the corner is the grassy ledge where we find camping, thus proving Gayle's claim that there's always somewhere to camp......

stopped bus

The tarmac on the road has virtually disappeared but the scenery continues to unbelievably get better.  How can it get better?  Well, snow-capped mountains peak up in the distance, there are more climbs and as all good cyclists know, the hillier it is the better the views.  Group morale is good, especially when we pass the first police checkpoint and don't get turned back. The Pamir Highway is open and we're on our way.  It's a great feeling.  The only thing that could ruin this would be bad weather. 

mobile petrol station

Sunday, 1 June 2014

seven more days in Monday

There are three countries that we definitely wanted to visit by bicycle: Norway, Japan and Tajikistan.  And having made it here to Dushanbe we feel slightly dazed to discover that we can't get the permits to cycle the Pamir Highway.  But while we are waiting, ever hopeful, there are others who are even unluckier than us.  Veronique knows several cyclists who have set off on the tough road to Khorog and they may not be allowed to continue.  While out getting more spare bike parts for his collection, Chris spots two exhausted cyclists in a cafe.  They are Simon and Basile who have just returned by truck after being stopped at a police checkpoint.
Dinner with two tired Frenchmen and a rejuvenated Chris
After a quick phone call to Veronique they are soon recovering in her peaceful garden.  Vero is such a cool woman - over dinner she recalls previous visitors and remembers that last August she had thirteen visitors at one time. She looks around the table and does a quick headcount.  The French boys look exhausted - Simon is sick.  Vero had already told us that the cyclists who turn up from Uzbekistan are usually ill and the ones that arrive from the Pamir Highway are completely zonked out.  It seems Simon and Basile have trumped them all.

no rest - Gayle researches the onward journey
We are delighted to be reunited with Franzi and Jona, who knock on the door one evening.  They are returning after waiting at a checkpoint with Fast Daniel for a couple of days.  Daniel, committed to cycling to Vladivostok, has tried another route to a border with Kyrgyzstan that is usually closed to foreigners.  It's a desperate bid that fails.  He completes a marathon ride to get back to Dushanbe while he still has enough time on his visa to go northwards.  Tyson and Hanne also return after a week away, perhaps lucky that they had not got too far before being stopped.  Rob, who we last saw in Samarkand, arrives from Uzbekistan.  Meanwhile Vero returns each evening to a house and garden that has become increasingly chaotic - bikes and panniers strewn everywhere. Tents lined up on the lawn. Cooking the dinner has become a major event.  At the peak there are ten cyclists plus Vero and Gabriel.  We are all so lucky to be able to stay here.

Veronique looking quite relaxed with ten cyclists crowding her house

The official news is sparse.  There's been no further disturbances in Khorog, yet the government is not issuing permits to foreigners.  Chris scans the internet each morning for the latest news or blogs from travellers.  Rumour, hearsay, gossip.  There's hope that permits will be issued after the weekend.  Meanwhile Chris keeps spirits up by organising a ping-pong tournament and games or cards in the evening or turning up with a bag of ice-creams.  After a day or two of being in a vaguely catatonic state he has recovered and livened up.  We had pegged him as another young solo male cyclist hammering out the kilometres non-stop.  In fact, this is what he has done - a staggering 70,000 in four years.  He evidently needs a break from the bicycle.  And over the days we discover a great person, no longer the stereotype.  While most of us glumly peruse the internet, sorting photos, fixing bicycles, Chris engages even the least loquacious of us in conversation.  He's quick with the gags too, even if it is quantity not quality.

spot the ball - Chris is dazzled by my trademark 'shovel' shot
Saturday night is party night.  Vero is DJing at a party organised by an Italian NGO and she is able to invite us all along.  In our shabby travel clothes and a bottle of beer each, we turn up to shamelessly finish off the buffet and enjoy some real cheese, salami and proscuitto.  Mojitos? Why not.  While the music gets the groovy ones grooving, the rest mingle with the other partygoers - an odd blend of ngo workers, embassy staff, Tajiks and foreigners.  I meet a young Israeli man who is here on a teaching exchange programme at the university.  So there are Tajiks teaching in Tel Aviv? I ask naively.  He laughs nervously/drunkenly, shaking his head no.  I wander off wondering if I have met my first spy of the evening.  Later on Chris comes over to ask a favour.  He has been chatting to a young woman for quite a while only to be shouldered aside by a strapping young handsome American in tight black t-shirt.  Would I divert his attention by perhaps starting a fight with him? We head towards them and the young woman introduces me to Dave from the Windy City.  I shake hands with him and notice the muscle bulging through his tee, the square jaw, the steely eyes, the fake smile.  Start a fight?  I decide not to throw my glass of wine over him, but opt for the technique of not letting go of the hand I am shaking.  Dave tells me he is working at the US Embassy "in humanitarian aid".  "So, you're a spy?"  We both laugh at this ridiculous suggestion.  We both know it is true.  I keep shaking his hand.  I envision him crushing my hand in a technique taught by the CIA.  Dave has just finished in the army and travels between Bishkek and Dushanbe.  He is certainly not working in humanitarian aid.  Tajikistan suddenly seems like more than an impoverished beautiful country.  After quite a lot of boring questions which he politely answers, Dave finally disengages his hand and stumbles off to another group of spies.  Chris is entertaining the young woman with another one of his erudite jokes.  I leave him to it.
Rob counts his wheels

All this delay and bad luck for everyone turns out to have one piece of good fortune for us.  Over breakfast Daniel mentions that he built his bike for his epic journey. Did you build the wheels? He laughs and winks his trademark wink.  He builds wheels for meditation in the winter.  Could he build Gayle's rear wheel with the new rim we have? Yes he can and he does, generously giving us two hours of his time and expertise.  The Wheelbuilding Workshop is a masterclass, as Daniel casually takes apart Gayle's rear wheel and begins lacing the new rim.  Tyson (who would be played by Mike Farrell, B.J., from M*A*S*H in Chris's movie of his bike trip) had already noticed that the wheel built in Tehran had an unusual 4-cross pattern, so Daniel can't just transfer the spokes across. He begins the classic 3-cross pattern with just a quick reference to his own wheel.  I watch in awe because Daniel is awesome.  After a lot of adjustments the wheel is laced and trued.  Gayle has a new back wheel and is ready to ride the Pamir Highway.  But will we ever get a permit????
Bike Master Daniel begins the wheel-building masterclass

that's more like it