Friday, 19 July 2013


The Bullet Points

-We have arrived in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, after a further 12 days of great adventure cycling from along the ‘Pamir Highway’ from Khorog. Included in this time was a wonderful four day side trip spent in the Bartang Valley and one of it’s tributaries, the Ravmederra Gorge.
-Tajikistan is an amazing little country. Its landscape and its people have continued to astound us and give us a rich experience.
-Today we were stoked to receive our visas for Iran. We’ll now apply for visas to Turkmenistan and beyond that we are visa free!

If you can sit down with your cup of Chai...

The term ‘Pamir’, in ancient Persian, translates as ‘rolling pastureland’. After crossing through the High Pamir we gained a little understanding, perhaps, why the name had been given to this eastern part of this region. ‘Pastureland’, however, was probably a term used pretty optimistically to describe this dry and barren alpine desert where pasture is only found during the very few summer months. Indeed the eastern region was so sparsely inhabited that we travelled through it for seven days before discovering our watches were set one hour wrong for the local time!

From Khorog we left the Gorneo region of Tajikistan (The Eastern Pamir) and entered the Badakshan region (The Western Pamir). As we dropped into a land of deep gorges and soaring peaks no longer could we find anything that might get even close to resembling ‘rolling pastureland’. This was the Pamirs, but we had entered a new land. With the new land we had also entered a new people group, the Pamiri people.

Departing Khorog our route ran alongside the great Panj River, one of Central Asia’s great watersheds. It’s a clear indication of the remarkable history of this area that this river has gone by many names from many different people groups. The Greeks and Romans called this the Oxus River. The Persians referred to the river as the Wehrod or ‘Good River’ while the medieval Arabs and Muslims used the name ‘Jayhoun’, the biblical name for one of the four rivers of the Garden of Eden. Also known as the Amu Darya river, it was a pretty amazing experience to ride beside this mass of water, sometimes seething and white, at other times sluggish and milky brown. It was special to consider those who had journeyed these ways well before us and one couldn’t help but be filled with respect for the strength of character they must have had to travel these rugged routes.

In it’s early stages (the section we would ride) the Panj acts as the border between Tajikistan on the north-eastern banks, and Afghanistan to the south and west. Just across the river we could gaze upon gorgeous and remote Afghan villages. The architectural skill and taste of these people fitted so well with their land. Their mud houses, stone walls and irrigated orchards and gardens sat so beautifully amongst the wild and barren steep hillsides on which they perched. Fortunately for us our final morning in Khorog was spent visiting the Afghan Bazaar, a weekly market where Afghanis are allowed to cross the Panj river over a footbridge, set up shop in a small courtyard, buy and sell goods and socialize with their Pamiri neighbours. After enjoying mingling with the Afghans we spent three wonderful days waving to them from a distance, enjoying their friendly shouts and hollers and watching them travel on foot and by donkey along their little track that at times clung to the cliffside high up above the river. I was surprised and really enjoyed the lack of military presence through here. We had passport checks, we saw the odd soldier, but the region had a vibe of peacefulness for the present time. The guns, soldiers, border guards and potential hostility that I’d anticipated when researching and imagining this route from far away in New Zealand were absent. After experiencing the beauty of the area and the people I so hope this peace remains and spreads far and wide.

The mighty Panj River and Afghanistan beyond. Irrigational brilliance and architectural beauty.

“Chai!Chai!” we would hear echoed around every corner as we made our way down valley. The Pamiri people have a reputation for wonderful hospitality. If we stopped to accept every offer we would overstay our visa limit for sure.
“Nyet, Spasiba!” we would often reply, “No, but thank you!” But at times we would stop, and we would be spoilt. While in these remote parts no bread could be found for sale we soon learnt that somewhere in every village bread will be baked and with perseverance, and help from a local, this bread can be found. When it appeared, often in the hands of a local kid who’d been sent off running in search, this bread was most times a gift. It was usually beautifully tasty and filling, cooked in a homemade concrete wood-fired oven, and would often be accompanied with gifts of fruit and vegies. To be offered so much from people who have so little is a very humbling thing.

This beauty bread had to first be ripped into four pieces before we could pack it into our panniers! The guys in the background are about to gift us the apricots they're picking!

For us the peak experience of this Pamiri hospitality came from a woman by the name of Mavluda, the local English teacher in a small town called Khijez in the Bartang Valley. She showered us with treats, many from her local garden and animals. She refused to let us sleep in our tent, for her she said this would be the greatest of shame! Her greatest gift though was her gentle kindness and her wonderful ability to let us rest when we needed rest and to engage in conversation when we had the energy. In so many ways we learnt a lot from her, from Tajik history, village dynamics and seasonal living, to the finer skills of hospitality. Her village was as beautiful as any I can imagine, ringed by mountains, built around a natural spring and nestled under a forest of fruit trees. Pristine as it was, we could imagine as Mavluda spoke, the long harsh winters with masses of snow, avalanches, bitter cold and the pressure to make food supplies last until the spring time. These people rely so heavily on their own land, their own skills, and their little community. This far from the capital and in an area where the people have in the past fought for independence, little government help comes this way. Mavluda reminded me of my own Mum when our time came to leave…we just couldn’t leave!
“Just one more thing…” and off she would go to bag up some more fruit, to pull up some more veges, to find another gift for us. To travel light after departing Mavluda’s house was never a possibility, the panniers were bursting with produce that we took days to eat our way through!

Struggling to leave Mavluda as she just keeps giving and my hands, my bags and belly are laden.

After reaching the town of Kala-i-Kumb we swung away from the great river that had become our companion and away from our views of Afghanistan. The Panj would continue it’s journey without us. In the past it’s end-point would have been the Aral Sea. Sadly nowadays this great vein of Central Asia has been sucked dry and no longer reaches its rightful destination, as a result the Aral Sea is quickly disappearing. Being a great lover of mighty and free flowing rivers I found it sad to imagine the massive demands that must be placed on this river further downstream in order for it to simply run out of water! For the duration of the time we had journeyed with the Panj it had been the biggest and most powerful river I have ever seen. How could such a mighty river be so reduced to nothingness??!!

Kala-i-Kumb was also a marker point, after which we knew we were faced with a climb on rough roads with over 2000m of altitude to gain. As it turns out ‘Highway’ is a term thats definition varies dramatically depending on the wealth of a country!! After three weeks in the Pamir region this final big pass felt like our gateway through which we would leave the area, a time to farewell this incredibly special time of our journey as we inched our way closer to Dushanbe. The climb was well and truly a whole day affair to cover just 36km, and miraculously after suffering sickness for several days previously Anna was gifted good strength and we were able to forge ever upward and onward. Once over the pass in some ways we were on the homeward stretch, yet the beautiful valley riding, the undulating roads, the rocky surface, the remote campsites, the warm starry skies and the cool riding of dawn meant the journey retained it’s beauty right the way to it’s end. It was time learn some new Russian words. Words such as “holodna” (cold) and “vetreno”(windy) belonged to times and places left far behind and now high above us. We had dropped into the lowlands and found ourselves rifling through the phrasebook to learn “jarko” (hot) and “solnechnaya” (sunny). Temperatures soared towards 40degrees and we found a new rhythm of riding at dawn and dusk.

The final climb, the departure gate. Anna has truly put in a super human effort to pedal through this terrain on a crook gut!

Perhaps this Pamir Highway will be the most distinctive time of our larger journey. It is a bottle-neck for cycle tourists, many of whom are heading east and we have been lucky to meet. After completing the Pamir they will fan out all over Pakistan, China, Mongolia and Russia, while those of us heading east may journey through Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, or perhaps Kazakstan. I doubt anywhere else in our journey will have such a distinctive beginning and ending as the Pamir Highway. Certainly this area for us has been the most heavily researched and highly anticipated. As we rolled freely into Dushanbe after 27 days journeying through these parts from Osh the feeling of achievement and success was absolutely wonderful. Stronger though was the feeling that we had been given so much, that we were so fortunate to journey by bike through such incredibly beautiful, rugged and diverse country and meet such fantastic people along the way.

Stoked on arrival! Yet the six lane highway for the final 20km did make me think perhaps government spending isn't quite evenly distributed across the country!

In a final note…two of those wonderful people we met were American cyclists Eric and Tiffany. As we chatted to them on the roadside twelve days ago it turned out they live in Dushanbe and work for an NGO here. In a great act of generosity and trust they gave us the key to their apartment and told us to make ourselves at home when we arrive and that they would be returning from their own cycle journey in a couple of weeks! They had however arrived home early and by the time we turned up, dirty, smelly, hungry and tired, they had a feast and a shower all ready for us. A truly celebratory ending and yet another act of wonderfully generous hospitality!

Trust and generosity: Tiffany gives Anna the key to their Dushanbe apartment. It was just 15 minutes earlier we had met them on the roadside!


No comments:

Post a Comment