At the border I’m welcomed by the president of Tajikistan and new asphalt. The latter is more pleasant. The president has an elegant suit and a benevolent smile. He accompanies me to the capital. Billboards with his photographs stand by the road every ten kilometres. President Rahmon watches surrounding area, opens factories, pats school kids on their heads, cuts streamers and even gets on a tractor.
A car stops on an overpass and five guys get off it. One of them, with a panorama of gold teeth, takes off his hat and bows down. They ask if I’m fine and if nobody bothers me and they invite me for lunch. I refuse kindly as it’s early and I’d like to arrive to the capital today. Before leaving, they make sure I have enough water and don’t need anything.
Dushanbe is a nice surprise, maybe because I didn’t have any expectations. There are plenty of trees by the streets and many parks. School kids and university students wear smart uniforms. Boys in elegant suits look as if they just came from a fashion catwalk in Milan or Paris.
When I leave the capital, there comes a storm. I hide in a car wash next to a petrol station and wait for it to pass. After a while a lady from the petrol station comes with a chair for me. Then she returns with hot tea. It keeps raining heavily and I keep waiting. A guy from the car wash goes to a nearby restaurant to get me warm somsas. I’ve never spent a storm so nicely.
I wonder what I’ll find on top of the hill because there’s always something interesting on top of hills. If the area is not deserted, there are stalls with local products, dried fruit and who knows what. That’s what it was like in Uzbekistan. If there are no people, there are at least great views. Here on top of the hill there are guys selling amazing bouquets of field flowers. Surreal.
From afar it looks as if stagecoaches were spread on the hill. I strain my eyes, trying to understand what it means. Only when I get closer, I realize that it the coolest roadside restaurant I’ve ever seen. Stagecoaches turn out to be tahts (do you remember Iranian bed-tables?) with semicircular sunshades. They are scattered all over the slope, one climbed to the very top. It all looks like taken straight from a fairy tale, although I do feel sorry for those who have to deliver food there.
Masha lives in a block of flats in a town of medium size. The block of flats is old and rundown. There’s no running water although there’s a bathroom with a bath, remembering better times. Masha carries water in a bucket to her fourth floor.
On the fields between two mountain ranges where I cycle, the grass is lavish and there are carpets of red poppies. Under the blue sky there are single horses grazing. Only Monet is missing to paint it.
On the table in front of me I have a map of the Pamirs. Outside the window there’s a mountain range that separates me form the Afghan border. Far away I can see rugged and snowcapped mountains. I wonder what it will be like. Will the road be as bad as everyone says? Will I have to cross streams? Will the uphills be steep? Will it be cold? Will there be snow on the passes? Will I make it? Will my bike make it? I fall asleep looking forward to the next morning. The Pamirs are the most exciting challenge of my trip!
I spy on Afghanistan. I’m only separated from it by the rapid but not wide Panj river. Beyond the river there’s a gravel road, parallel to the Tajik one, connecting villages spread along the border. In villages there are stone or mudbrick houses. Cows, goats and sheep graze. People walk around houses, kids play football, motorbikes pass. Women wash carpets in the river. They don’t wear blue burkas but colourful, flowery clothes similar to the Tajik ones. Normal life takes place. It’s not very different from what I experience on my side of the river. But I observe it with curiosity because it tastes like forbidden fruit.
It’s Dowlan, the chief of border guards, who tells me that Real Madrid won 3:0 against Athletico in the first semi-final of the Champions League. The news isn’t that nice, contrary to the chief. We talk much about football because Dowlan is keen on this sport. He can even name at least five Polish football players. Before my departure, we swap: he gives me canned food, I leave him Altacet because he sprained his ankle and limps.
At night it rained heavily and where before there was a road with a stream crossing, now there’s a mudslide. Trucks are stuck, jeeps are stuck, everybody waits for a bulldozer to make to road practicable again. But a bicycle? A bike is a bike. Immediately four guys willing to carry my luggage over the rocks appear. I don’t even have to ask around. For the whole day I’m the only person on the road, blessing my mean of transport.
Azan, Muslim call to prayer, goes around the valley. There are no loudspeakers, it’s just a voice in the mountains. Sounds magical.
Alex’s family creates a picturesque scene at dinner. Men sit on the floor by one table cloth, women by another. Between them there’s a beautifully carved wooden cradle. They eat with their fingers from one plate. For breakfast there’s shirchai: salty tea with milk and a bit of butter. They dip old bread in it.
Bread is baked in a tandoor stove but first you need to bring firewood. It is collected in the valley. You need to heat the stove and then, when the fire dies down, you stick the dough inside. Local bread has the shape of pizza. You bake it once in a while. Freshly baked, it’s delicious. Old is hard like a stone. That’s why you eat it dipping it in a soup or shirchai.
I dump my panniers, I leave the bike, I ignore the sunset by the river and I run to make a salad. A few kilometres before, in Rushan, I bought fresh vegetables and even canned peas from Poland and I can’t wait for this feast. I normally eat old bread, rice, pasta, Chinese instant noodle soups, curd, candies and halva, but vegetables and fruit are not easily available.
She works in a roadside restaurant and that’s where she will sleep tonight. He is a police officer and has a night shift. But they open their house for me and invite me to stay in. I’m alone at night in their empty house. And we think that we are hospitable in Poland.
On a small field two harnessed oxen walk strenuously. What people are able to grow here (which are mainly potatoes), is the basis of their diet for the whole year.
At the exit of another valley there are small stone walls. They are suppose to block mudslides coming down in spring with melting snow. They protect village houses and were built by Agha Khan Foundation. Agha Khan is a religious leader of Ismailism. The results of the foundation’s work are visible everywhere. They protect villages from mudslides, provide drinking water, build bridges between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, enabling the latter to trade with its neighbour, they facilitate the access to education and medical care.
I don’t know if I should take all my clothes off or stay in my underwear. It turns out that local women go in the water completely naked. I’m in Jelondy in one of the houses called sanatoriums here. Jelondy is famous for its hot springs. Inside the house there’s a pool where you can bathe in hot water as long as you wish. It’s very enjoyable, especially that outside strong wind blows.
Before the Koitezek pass I see my first yaks and marmots. They will accompany me for the rest of the Pamir road. Local marmots are red. They play by the river and they are very funny. I push the bike on my first over 4000m high pass. There’s snow on the top.
There’s snow on the top of the pass but I put up my tent in the desert. I’m in a wide valley and all I can see is the yellowness of dry soil and sand. The surrounding mountains don’t even seem that high here. Only when a car passes it all takes scale and I realize how monumental they are. The starlit sky is so low here.
In Alichur, as in the whole Murghab region, there’s no electricity. There isn’t any, but there is. People have Chinese solar panels and generators. They get water from a pump in the middle of the village and need to carry it home. They cook on stoves using dry animal dung. The smoke has choking smell. They have outside toilets. They wash in banyas. In a banya there’s a stove (that they need to light first) warming the water (that they need to carry there). They wash their clothes is bowls (don’t forget that they need to light the stove first and carry the water). In Alichur they raise cows, goats and sheep. It’s too cold for chickens. There is a school, a mosque and a medical point. In the local shop you can buy basic food products, soap, shampoo and toothpaste. The petrol has just finished. All year round it’s windy, in winter temperatures drop to -45 degrees Celsius. On bumpy streets there are matted dogs and unbelievably dirty children. One of them pees in the middle of the street. But we live in the 21st century so there are phone aerials and you can easily connect to the Internet.
Around a bend of the road the view of a town appears. Murghab lies in front of me in a distance. I feel like a pilgrim who reached its destination. Who would ever say that I would actually get here?
It looks as if the sky wanted to fall on my head. The morning was warm and sunny, then the sky suddenly grew cloudy and a hailstorm started. Luckily, exactly in that moment I notice a house that was not supposed to be here at all. At first sight it looks abandoned but I can see a small solar panel on the roof so I go to knock on the door. I’m welcomed by a shepherd who lives here. There are also border guards who dropped by. Just beyond the river there’s a fence separating Tajikistan from China. The fence is many kilometres long and it’s not where the border is drawn on the maps. Part of Tajik territory was ceded to China to end the border dispute. I wonder why the Chinese wanted one range of rough mountains with no roads and no people so much.
I cycle up to 4400 m above the sea level and stop to watch the steep ascent to the Akbaital pass. In this moment a jeep arrives. The driver stops the car, looks at me with compassion and offers a ride to the top. He appears here like a sign from above because there’s almost no traffic on this road. I don’t ignore providence. I ride 3km and 255 vertical metres in a car with a bit of regret and a bit of relief.
In Karakul Ramadan preparations take place. In the afternoon local women meet bringing homemade dainties. They sit on a carpet, eating slowly and exchanging gossip. The next day a month long fasting begins and they are not supposed to eat or drink from dawn to sunset.
I cycle my ten thousandth kilometre among which this last, special thousand in the Pamirs. The road wasn’t that bad. There were some streams to cross but I was able to cross them. The uphills weren’t that steep and it wasn’t too cold. I made it and my bike made it too. I can’t believe I didn’t have any flat tyre. It’s been an amazing experience although I miss hot showers, regular power outlets, WI-FI and vegetables. Not to mention strawberries. But it was all worth it!