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!

No comments:

Post a Comment