Still in our little peloton, we continued to Tadjikistan. We’d all been looking forward to this country. Me in particular, because I had a visitor. Back in februari, when I was planning my onward route from Tehran, and mentioned I was going to cross the Pamir mountains, Wannes, one of my best friends, and also a bicycle enthusiast impulsively booked a plane to Dushanbe. He’d spend all his whole annual vacation, to take the challenge together. Since high school, there has been a funny kind of competition between the two of us. We’d rather drop dead in gym class, than get beaten by the other one. So I knew I had to be in good shape when he arrived, and he probably expected the same. The warm up: 2 big passes on the road to Dushanbe. Unfortunately both cut off, either by a decent Chinese, or a lethal Iranian tunnel.
Like Uzbeks are ancient Turkic people, Tadjiks are Persians. Likewise, soviet times have completely changed their traditions. This created cocktail can be found in every detail. Persian language in Cyrillic script. Persian hospitality, numerous food invitations, sporadic shots of vodka, etc… .
Wannes would land the first of April in Dushanbe. We had vaguely arranged to meet in Khorog some days later. This is where the real climbing starts, and this way we could get ourselves a few more days reach Osh, from where he’d fly out. Days to spend on side events, like hot springs. The day of his arrival was one of those days everything goes perfectly. By evening, a four wheel drive passed us, with a bike packed on top. It could only be him. This happened just when we cycled through Kaleikhum, a slightly bigger town. In our euphoria, the five of us managed to completely ignore the small policeman, who wanted to register our passports. The situation was hilarious. We bought ourselves some drinks, and celebrated. Next morning, after a quick stop at the local screw-and-bolt-shop, to replace some ball bearings, the journey could begin.
What followed was a three week dream for cycle touring. First through the Vakhan corridor, where the Panj river seperates Tadjikistan from Afghanistan. On the other side of the river, you could see how Tadjikistan would have looked like if the Russians hadn’t interfered. Instead of the asphalted, but outdated Russian road, there is an amazing walking trail, crossing cliffs. No matter how rugged the edge was, the trail was always there. Most time, crowded by Afghans, and their flocks, walking to the next village. The valley gradually took us to the first real pass, the one to the plateau at 4km altitude After this pass, there was not so much climbing to do, but the lack of oxygen made it rather tough.
Pamiri people are different from Tadjiks. Their language is similar, but, because of their isolated location, they are clearly much less influenced by the Russians. Many people don’t even speak Russian. We often got invited for a cup of shir chay – milk tea – in one of their chids – traditional houses. These houses are built when a man marries, with the poplar trees that were planted when he was born.
As usual, the bad roads couldn’t be completed without mechanical problems. A broken front axle easily got replaced in the next village, where the only shop was selling biscuits and bicycle axles. When my frame cracked again, some days later, the first man we met, appeared to be a welder. Powered by a generator, the job was done some hours later. This is why I really love my old bike. Parts are so general, that even in the most desolate places like these, replacements can be found. No Rohloff hubs, belt drives, or other features, that the more specialized bikes of my comrades contain. Those things are not supposed to break, but if they do, waiting for packaged is all you can do.
It was still a bit early in season to cycle these mountains, and much to my annoyance, my companions had been reading a lot of cycling blogs, to be aware of the conditions. Since these are often hyperbolically written, focusing on the tough days, we were expecting daily blizzards, polar temperatures, and a permanent headwind. We were probably very lucky, but nearly every day was a sunny one. Only the nights were chilly, but a stone in the tent, warmed on a cozy yak shit bonfire, could provide me some comfort.
The team spirit was strong. On a bad day, one’d be protected from the wind, and fed by the others. We arrived some days in advance in Osh, so we could finish the trip in style, with too much vodka in a ridiculous night club, and the irrelevant consequences. Wannes immediately fitted well into the group, and from the first day, it felt like we’d left Belgium together. When three weeks later, when his car drove off to the airport, likewise, it felt like he’d never been there. and it had all been just a dream.