We had thought our difficulties were finally over. We knew that the way ahead wouldn’t be easy with still plenty of high mountains before Tajikistan. Now as well as the summits, there is a man-made regulation confining us to Kirgizstan roads.
Right now we could do without this particular road
The road has been our “home, sweet home” for almost 3 years. Rivers like bathtubs and even, occasionally, just rubble to pedal through. Sometimes at home, we suffocate: the house stops being our favourite cocoon and we don’t want its shelter any more. The only thing we look forward to is playing outside. Here the exhaust pipes suffocate us and the traffic is like a bad Sunday when we hang out doing nothing. The advantage of this mode of travelling is that we can speed up the process when we want to. So, after our epic in the mountains, we moved a leap ahead by taking a truck to reach quieter roads and get to Osh city.
After waking up at the edge of a field outside the city, we start our steady climb towards the first pass at 2339 metres. We have just 320 kilometres left to Tajikistan. We only come across a few trucks that are careful to leave us enough space to allow us to pass riding abreast. The going seems less hard when we ride together chatting, as if the enthusiasm of an interesting conversation among friends propels our bikes along. Ah, the joy of companionship in the remote countryside!
Hooray for the wind!
Helped by a following wind, but somewhat less by an epidemic of punctures since leaving Kazakhstan, we catch up with a couple Belgian cyclists, Thomas and Lydie, who are also heading for Tajikistan. They are going by way of the beautiful Pamir highway towards the south but we are going west, a shorter route to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital. Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to ride the extra 1000km to take in the detour ourselves. Too bad, but all the more reason to come back to the region. That evening, we decide to camp together in the valley between two passes. After eating, Thomas takes out a bottle of vodka that he says he keeps for special occasions. In a perfect camping spot next to the river we go to bed following the custom in these parts, with a big smile on our faces stretched wider by alcohol…
We hate rain when we are bicycling, but the following wind is blowing strongly. We get going early next morning before an extra heavy shower can drive us back into our tent to wait with our books for it to pass. All the way up, the sky ahead as well as behind is menacing, but we stay dry as we press on. The gods are with us. Gravity plays its part and we burn up calories at a great rate. By mid afternoon it is already chilly at around 3000 metres and we decide to carry on to the end of the climb. The last part is tough going: the winding road seems interminable, the wind has dropped and the gradient is seriously steep. Above the snowline the cold adds an extra hazard to an already long day. A few minutes later, we see the road snaking up towards the summit ahead, 3,620 metres high. Despite the wind and the temperature, just above zero and dipping further with the sinking sun, we stay there for a good 20 minutes.
Brian [expresses his feelings]: « For me, it was a moment of high emotion. Reaching the top of a mountain is always a source of deep satisfaction. Yet I can’t avoid reflecting that it will soon fade, within the next three months. This only serves to intensify its impact, engraving the memory more deeply: of our conversations during the climb, of the collective energy that speeds the bikes all the way to the top, of the view, and of contemplating the cloud shadows moving over snow on the mountain tip, of shouting stupid things, clowning in front of the camera, filling up my bottle with pure spring water, of feet cold from walking in wet snow, feeling the wind increasing the cold in the same way that oxygen feeds fire. »
We spent the night at around 3,100 metres near Sary-Tash having warmed ourselves up in a little restaurant with chicken and vegetables after the day’s 2350 metre climb. We fall asleep under a sparkling sky made even more magical by the clarity prevailing at this altitude. The crescent moon lights the Tian Shan Mountains that form the natural frontier with Tajikistan. We still have to pass down a long valley before crossing the frontier. The next day we admire the Lenine peak that tops 7,134 metres. The day is hard going with a strong head wind that takes the warm air from the valley up to the heights. We can’t win all the time… Add to this a fevered Siphay, tendinitis of the knee for Brian and more punctures; our long descent towards the Tajik paradise looks more like the path to hell, despite the wonderful landscape.
We stop 30km before the border, hoping for better conditions the next day. In a small restaurant, a group of women, some of them on the oldies side, are evidently celebrating something with a hearty meal. We sit at our table, feeling a little shy. A few minutes are all it takes for them to be sharing their fare of bread and candied cherries with us. Then the smiling ladies put on some music and invite us to dance! A bit exhausted by our day we hesitate, but eventually we relent and join in. And there we are, looking tired, dancing Gangnam style in the remotest depths of Kirgizstan! After thirty minutes spent laughing and exchanging comments the ladies depart in their veils and traditional outfits.
Ten minutes later, we start again with a younger group. Then, to round off this extraordinary evening, the restaurant manager invites us to spend the night with him, his wife and his kids in the only bedroom in the house. It’s difficult not to appreciate the pleasure it gives these people to invite us, and so we accept the offer with a smile. Once again an example of conviviality and hospitality in this country that we will never forget.
Back to square one
Kirgizstan does not want to let us leave. We were supposed to cross the border the day before. Now next morning a storm is raging. We wait a few hours for it to pass. During a lull we set off but we can see a mighty mass of fresh rain approaching. We seek shelter in the next village where we are invited to play volleyball with some young Kirgiz boys. Eventually, despite a few drops of rain, we get moving again, until we see a barrier across the road with a soldier in uniform calling out from a distance.
- Atkou da? (Where are you from?)
- Franssouz. (He adds something and all we can understand is Niet franssouz ! No foreigners!)
Finally, thanks to another soldiers able to manage a few words of English, we understand that the border is closed to foreigners. Now we had made careful inquiries about this border crossing at the Tajik consulate in Alma Ata, and had been assured that it was open. It turns out that it is possible to cross from the Tajik side but impossible from the Kirgiz side. A total non-sense that the Tajiks don’t clarify to anyone… Despite our attempts to negotiate, we are offered no choice but to go back to Osh in order to get into Tajikistan through another crossing point at Isfara, about 600 kilometres away! There is no question in our minds of slogging the whole way back on our bikes! We thought about crossing illegally through the mountains but the terrain is very difficult and we have some handicaps: too little food, Siphay and Brian weakened by fever and tendinitis, and taking a risk that may well go sour … We stay wise and go hitchhiking.
Siphay says: « Personally, I am all for going in clandestinely!” At the same moment, Morgan declares he is for an illegal entry. “[But] I am trying to calculate the time it would take, allowing for a first unsuccessful try. We would have to go by night across the mountains, travel ten kilometres though unknown trails, without a map. If we are turned back on the Tajik side, we will have to follow the same route back so as not to be spotted! The whole operation would mean two nights of intensive effort. We would need to have food, put up with the rain, move in the dark and guide ourselves by guesswork. Right now all I can think about is my fever, the nausea making my head spin and nothing getting any better these past few days. I don’t fell up to the trip in these conditions and besides there is no guarantee that we will be accepted in the neighbouring country without a Kirgiz exit stamp in our passports! My anarchist’s dream is over. »
A little over twenty-four hours and some 15 truck rides later, we finally manage to reach the border again. We are in an unsafe region and we know it. There are enclaves, kinds of islands of Uzbek territory right in the middle of the Kirgiz territory… We are not allowed to cross these areas and sometimes have to hide ourselves inside the trucks so as not to be seen by the army… Then, the traffic thins out and we advance by slower degrees. When the last van willing to take us turns out to be a taxi heading for Isfara on the Tajik side of the border, we are only too happy to pay the modest sum of 10 € to reach Tajikistan at last.
We fall asleep during this final lift and wake up on a side road pitted with potholes. We look at each other: Where are we? The taxi finally stops to let off another passenger.
The driver: “Here we are. We’ve arrived. Isfara is only two kilometres on from here.”
Us : “Ok, but Isfara, it’s on Tajik’s side, isn’t it ?”
Him : “Yes, yes, it’s ok. You are in Tajikistan.”
Us : “But we never went through a border post?!”
We look at each other in disbelief. This guy, used as he is to transporting local people who do not look the type to spend their lives crossing frontiers, had driven us to Isfara as agreed, by a route with no frontier posts at all! So we came into Tajikistan illegally after al!!! Luckily the man drives us back when we make him understand that we must go through the Kirgiz border to get our Kirgizstan exit stamps!! Eventually, everything is fine; we enter Tajikistan officially, get our entry stamps and carry on till Isfara. Phew!
That same morning, Brian has trouble walking because of the pain, and it is impossible for him to cycle. Our exertions over the summits these last ten days have taken their toll. For the rest of our journey, we will go by truck to Dushanbe where we have a friend to welcome us, and to rest. Arriving in the first big city, our hope is of finding a truck to take us to the capital, 500 kilometres away. Night is falling, we hitchhike for lifts at the roadside and a four-by-four draws ups beside us. On board, Kamol, a young man, makes countless phone calls to help us. He gives us his phone to talk to one of his friends who speaks English and explains to us that Kamol is inviting us to stay the night in his house. We are assured that this is the way to Tajikistan is; it’s an honour and a pleasure to welcome foreigners! And what an invitation! We follow Kamol to his place: all we hope for is water to wash in and he takes us to the local Turkish baths! Hunger is not even mentioned; he has already planned to take us to try some “chachliks”, those skewers of fresh meat found all over Central Asia. Succulent! And why all this? Because we stuck out a thumb at the side of the road… Tajik hospitality has made a promising start on this our very first day!
The day after, we are back on the roadside and the first truck takes us 40 kilometres, the next one for the same distance and another one to the main highway. Since leaving the border we have had no time to change our US dollars into local currency. We have absolutely no money! In each truck, we are given bread; yogurt or tea with a smile and it’s difficult to say no. The saying is that in Tajikistan you have to refuse three times to really say no… The last truck to pick us up is the property of Abdul Karim, a big adorable guy weighing about 100 kilos who is driving to the Afghan border. We have been waiting less than two and a half minutes before he stops! His impulsiveness on seeing us and the great good mood he is in as he puts our bikes in his container create an immediate atmosphere of good cheer for this trip that promised to be a long one. In all we spend 14 hours in Abdul-Karim’s truck crossing the mountains leading to Dushanbe. We explain to him that we have no money, and he insists on inviting us twice to eat with him. Enough to make us feel ill at ease over his generosity, along with the smile that goes with it…
Morgan : « We take the opportunity offered by a few stops and the slanting sunlight to sketch some portraits of Abdul-Karim. As the day ends, we come to a small photographic shop and I notice that he is in a state of excitement as he pulls up outside. We quickly realise why and we get a few portraits printed for him. It is our only chance to give a present to our guardian angel. We are delighted!”
We arrive in Dushanbe around 2am, constantly slowed down by so called police checks that seem more like racketeering by truckers and drivers who go around the country… We say a quick but warm goodbye to our new friend before knocking at the door of our hostess. Vero offers us something rare and precious during this trip: a roof over our heads and the smile of a friend wishing us well!