Out of the green rolling hills and into the real mountains....Tajikistan here I come. The Pamir Highway also known as the Roof of the World attracts cyclists from around the world with it's seemingly untouched and uninhabited landscape, high altitude mountain lakes, breath taking views of surrounding mountains and the charming and hospitable Pamiri people. The Pamir Highway, running from Osh to Dushanbe, is the second highest international road in the world, second to the Karakoram Highway connecting China and Pakistan.
Once again, the Kyrgyz immigration was not much more than a few trailers and a gate in the mountains. 'No drugs or weapons?" - Kyrgyz immigration/customs, this was a ridiculous question, it would be the equivalent of smuggling hash into Amsterdam. I read in the 'Lonely Looser' (my 52 yr old German friend termed the popular travel guide) that 50% of the Tajik economy was thought to be somehow involved with the opium/heroin drug trade from their Afghan neighbors. 50% ! So I kind of looked at the customs officer with a 'seriously?' look and I was stamped out of Kyrgyzstan..then came my first introduction to the roads of Tajikistan. It was tortuous, the road was super steep and sandy, the going was extremely slow and I was beginning to wonder if I would make it 20 km to the Tajik immigration. Luckily at some point, I topped out on a mountain pass and cruised the remaining distance downhill to immigration. When I arrived at the gate the guard, a kid who couldn't have been over 18 holding an AK 47, took a quick look at me and turned his head away from me. I passed a Swiss cyclist a few hours earlier who said that the Tajik border guards demanded money from him or else they would pull everything from his bags in search for drugs; corruption runs deep here. The Swiss guy also gave me a map of the Pamir's in exchange for some Kyrgyz som. So I sat at the Tajik border for some 15 minutes waiting for this guard to acknowledge my presence, I started to go under the gate until I realized he was pointing his AK 47 at me. I retracted my steps...he walked over and demanded I give him cigarettes, dingy or vodka. I reached in my bag and handed him my passport, he ended up folding in the end and opening the gate but a firm stance and a 30 minute wait was required.
So I'm in Tajikistan, one of the poorest of the ex-Soviet countries. The Lonely Looser says that their GDP is less than a Hollywood movie and I also read in a Time article that 50% of Tajik's economy is based on remittances, immigrant workers sending money back to the country. So needless to say, Tajikistan doesn't exactly have a lot of money to spare.
So I started cycling through the Eastern Pamirs, which was extremely dry, deserty and remote. There were no signs of life, except for one village located in the middle of nowhere that I passed on the way to Karakul Lake. Maybe 1 or 2 cars would pass me each day along with a handful of motorcyclists and the feeling of remoteness and utter detachment from life was liberating. I pitched my tent on the roof of the world, playing Bob Dylan on my IPOD speakers, cooking spaghetti, all without encountering a soul....it was a beautiful experience.
So I cycled to Kara-Kul Lake, a beautiful crater lake at 13,000 ft. The majority of people from the Tajik border to this point were Kyrgyz people trapped by the crazy borders established from the Soviet madness, so I could still speak some elementary Kyrgyz with most of the people. I ended up spending the night in a yurt with a local family. The family had nothing more than shear chai (bitter milk tea) and naan (bread) to eat, which I later came to find out that most Pamiri people somehow live on nothing but bread, butter, milk and tea. I wrote in my journal later that night, 'Man cannot live on bread alone.....unless your Tajik'. Seriously, that is all they exist on.....and they don't look extremely malnourished. However I've been cycling some 8 hours and my body was beginning to eat itself from the inside, so I was desperate to get something a little more substantial in my body. So I had to escape the family for a few hours and cook a big pot of spaghetti to calm my growling stomach, I felt selfish.
The next day I climbed over the largest pass on the Pamir highway, 4600 m (15,090 ft), and breezed down the backside of the pass into an even more desolate landscape. I arrived in the first real 'town', Murghab, the next afternoon and quickly realized that there was nothing in this crap town for me save some snicker bars from 2005 and some Russian pasta. I hit the road after a quick food resupply, an exchange of money and a quick meal of shishlek (minced meat on a stick) and samsa (oven baked mutton pastries, basically the same as indians samosas). I was desperate for a rest day as I had been cycling strong for almost 14 days over some steep and terrible roads and my body was begging for a break. So I cycled about 20 km outside of town and found a beautiful campsite alongside a meandering stream (once again in the middle of nowhere). I immediately got naked and submerged myself into this frigid stream, my first cleaning in almost 2 weeks. Once again it was just me and Dylan, singing songs and smiling. No cars, no people, no animals, just me and the mountains. I took the rest of the afternoon to wash clothes, read, relax and soak in the beauty of this barren landscape.
So I awoke refreshed with some clean clothes and started to cycle towards Alichur. That must have been the cue for the headwind because it blew and blew and blew until I was sick, tired and burnt from the wind. I was only able to cycle some 80 brutal km per day and when I finally reached Alichur, my body was glowing red and I felt like I had been skiing all day, I slept for some 12 hours that night and most of my dreams involved me floating or flying around....I was beat.
I then began to cycle towards the Wakhan Corridor, an extremely isolated region on the southern border of Tajikistan separated from Afghanistan only by a river. I cycled for 2 days in the middle of absolutely nowhere, turning away from the main Pamir Highway, crossing the Kargush Pass and dropping into the Wakhan Corridor. This was possible the highlight of my Tajikistan travels....the first views of the Hindu Kush mountain range came into view and stole my breath. I was once again in the middle of nowhere, with maybe 2 cars passing me each day. I pitched my tent in yet another picture perfect location.
The next morning I cycled the remaining high and remote stretch before dropping into the Wakhan Valley, at this point the terrain drastically changed from uninhabited dry, crunchy, sandy, remote, prickly landscape to inhabited, irrigated, green, lush, beautiful, full of trees landscape. After about 25 switchbacks, I dropped directly into the first village, Langar. There was some sort of Muslim holiday and subsequent celebration going on and I was waved into a large feast and party full of Karaoke and dancing.
After a few plates of pilof and chai, I thanked my kind hosts and jumped back on my bicycle. Soaking in the new lush oasis environment full of tall trees, green gardens and Afghanistan only about 100 feet across the river, I was mesmerized. When I arrived in Zong, only about 5 km from Langar, I was easily lured off my bike by a group of kids playing soccer on one of the most beautiful soccer pitches I've ever witnessed, even though it was only made of sand and trees. Tired of cycling and ready for some human interaction, I threw my bike down and joined in on the game. The players slowly increased in number as each kid returned home from their work in the fields and by 6 o'clock we had a proper game, keeper and all. It was an awesome experience and extremely well needed after such a long time cycling in the middle of nowhere. I pitched my tent on the far end of the soccer field and was invited inside by every family in the village, I stuck to my picturesque tent spot. This was my first day in the Wakhan Valley and what a first impression.
I continued along the Wakhan Valley for the next few days, jaw dropped and eyes indulging in the candy of mountains that surrounded the area. The Hindu Kush mountain range was gigantic, steep and powder coated. I slowed down my cycling and only logged some 40 km each day. The scenery was just so beautiful and almost every person that I passed invited me inside for chai. So in between stopping for pictures and drinking chai with all the locals, I only had a few hours to cycle each day. I was still learning Tajik words as I cycled so I was slowly able to communicate a little more each day.
Being alone, I was invited into many houses for chai, a place to sleep or sometimes just a break from the heat....some were wonderful and positive experiences, some absolute nightmares.
Example 1: One family invited me inside for chai and the father must have passed away only a few years earlier. The son, sporting two thumbs on one hand, poured me a cup of shear chai, half in my cup half on the carpet. The cat immediately started licking the moist carpet and the kid football punted the cat across the room. He then opened the closet (the closet!) and pulled out a carcass/skeleton of a sheep....'Ghoust!' he yelled, then with a butter knife in hand proceeded to whack and pull each bone/rib from the carcase, there was no meat remaining on this thing....when the plate was full of meatless bones, the mother took the plate into a back room and 5 minutes later returned with a plate of deep fried bones with a few flakes of skin . I was trying my best to be respectful and thankful for their kindness so I grabbed a bone and started to gnaw on the marrow. It was like something out of a Hitchcock film and the next day my stomach was torn to shreds.
My hospitable yet terrifying hosts (kid on left sporting two thumbs and licking my snickers wrapper)
Example 2: I was sitting on a bridge after filtering some water from a river when a girl and some kids approached me. The girl spoke good enough english and invited me inside for chai. I sat with the family of 6, showed them pictures of my travels, pointed out where I was from on a map of the world, even carried on a somewhat decent conversation about my profession, my travels, and my marital status. Once the father found out I was single and from America, he grabbed his two daughters, 16 and 18 yrs old, put one under each arm and sort of symbolically offered each of them to me for marriage, both of the girls were smiling in approval. I smiled, finished my chai and told them I'd think about it.....
These Pamiri people mostly follow Islam but not they're not the traditional Muslim's that you would encounter elsewhere in the world. They are mostly Ismali's which means that they don't follow the traditional Islamic world of mosques and prayer 5 times a day. Instead of mosques, they have a community prayer building and a community leader who leads everyone in prayer. They are much less conservative in regards to dress and tradition, and as a result are much more appealing to me (and the rest of the world) than the super serious Islamic world that surrounds them. Prince Agha Khan is their giver of bread and consequently their religious leader.
From my initial marriage proposition with sweet 16 and 'legal in America' 18, it was like the entire Tajik community got on the telephone and informed the girls that a single American cyclist was on his way to their town. I had girls practically hanging on my bicycle, begging me to rescue them from a future life of housekeeping and take them to the promise land of greener pastures. It was an interesting predicament, I could only imagine my parents reaction if I arrived in Hartsfield Airport with a Tajik bride...and best of all, she speaks absolutely no English!
More to come but for now, you know the drill....pictures