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

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