Long time no see, long time no say! It’s been quite a while since we’ve had internet access the last time and there is a whole country lying in our wake since our last update! We’ve discovered awesomely dramatic highland landscapes, the marvels of the Wakhan Valley, steaming hot springs, breathtaking lakes and pinnacles and the starkly beautiful “Roof of the World” mountain ranges. But let’s start from the beginning on…
Right after the border crossing we were directly heading to Dushanbe, formerly known as Stalinabad. And the city really lives up to its former name. Tajikistan’s capital has not much to offer except the world’s tallest flag pole (although North Korea is claiming this achievement for itself since some years), a precisely manicured central park and a long, three-lined central avenue that still possesses a collection of pastel-hued, neoclassical buildings from its original Soviet incarnation. But the city’s image has transitioned in the last decade into one of calm, and apparently prosperous, confidence with barely a bullet hole to remind visitors of the bad old days during the civil war in the 90s when armed gangs where controlling the roads and shoot-outs between rival clans were not uncommon. Probably this is not unrelated to the fact that nowadays the majority of the male population is away working in the Russian construction industry, sending back home half of Tajikistan’s official GDP. In general people here seem to be well educated and English is more widely spoken than in Uzbekistan, while the laid-back Ismali form of Islam means that Muslim strictures are generally less widely observed.
Anyway, we had some great days in Dushanbe thanks the famous and cozy Greenhouse hostel (already since hundreds of kilometers cyclists coming in the opposite direction were telling us about this biker meeting point). Together with more than a dozen fellow cyclists, coming or heading to the Pamir Highway, we spent our time enjoying the – coming from Uzbekistan’s dessert like southeast – nearly overwhelming range of groceries, getting our bikes prepared for the most challenging road and weather conditions (bottle cages made out of hand-knitted Pamiri socks included :)) and searching non-existent bike shops in whole Dushanbe. Our days were filled with common – and thanks to Paul and Leiset – delicious intercultural meals, squeezing as much information as possible about every little creek and every pothole out of “Kiwi” Graham (www.grumgoesglobal.com), as well as exchanging one or two horror stories about the road lying ahead of us.
But all good things must come to an end and armed with tons of canned food, instant noodles and lot of chocolate we started our Pamir adventure in Qualai-Khumb. The road was leading through a narrow gorge, on your left hand side steep cliffs, the dusty, rocky road in front of you, and to your left the raging current of the Panj river, that represents the border to Afghanistan. The dreaded road conditions weren’t long in coming and after the first enthusiasm we were heavily doubting our choice of taking recumbent bikes for the very first time in our trip (and without spoiling to much: not for the last time in the following weeks). Unswervingly we were battling our way through, receiving several blue marks from losing balance on sandy gravel 25% climbs (record of our first day: 4 falls for Gui, 2 for Martina).
Therefor the scenery along the way was more than rewarding. The surrounding mountains are like drawn by an aquarelle master, a mix of multiple colors ranging from red, to yellow, to green and blue, with occasional white and black bands, forming surreal patterns on the naked scarps.
Scattered icy streams coming from the glacier covered peaks counterpoint the rocky landscape with lush oasis of green and timelessly photogenic rural villages hosted by gold-toothed, white bearded patriarchs in iridescent “jorma” robes.
In these rare fertile areas the people use every square meter for farming and you see people harvesting hay on fields so steep that every Tyrolean mountain farmer would be open-mouthed with amazement. Unfortunately most of these crystal clear streams that are such a refreshing temptation in the heat of the midday are contaminated by outsized sheep herds so that we had to take a day off lying sick in our sleeping bags more than once (even Gui’s Indian approved digestive system was unable to breast that). Fortunately masses of carbon tablets, a spoon of cumin seeds every morning and disgusting bioflorin shots made us fit again to fight the sandy and stony road at 13.6 km/h average speed…
After a couple of hard first days we reached Khorog, the GBAO’s administrative center and the Pamir’s one real town. Cowering beneath arid, bare-rock peaks, Khorog is not a charming city but it’s the actual starting point for the M41, better known as the Pamir Highway, the world’s second highest altitude international highway, originally built by the Soviet army in the 11930s to facilitate troop transport and provisioning. And for somebody who lived from instant noodles since days, Khorog’s bazar offers a bristling richness on half bad fruits and wizened vegetables – not too forget the live saving oatmeal!