Tajik Magic

After crossing the border from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan, the entry formalities on the Tajik side had to be completed.  The guys were welcomed by a border guard in combat trousers and a vest who spoke excellent English and directed them through the process.  After completing the passport control process, the guard directed them to customs where the bikes had to have fees paid to be allowed into the country.  Conveniently, the fee was 46 Som, which was exactly $10 for each bike, but a receipt was provided to each rider for this fee.  The customs man said the two travellers were then free to go.

Dan and Ed were about to leave when they were accosted by an un-uniformed gentleman who claimed to be a quarantine doctor.  The guys explained that to their knowledge they were not bringing any animals into the country and therefore did not need anything quarantined.  The man was insistant however and demanded a further ten dollars from each rider for the disinfection the bikes had received as they rode through a trough of manky looking water just before the border gates.  Both bikes had in fact been carefully piloted around said water, but now was not the time to try and point this out.  The doctor pointed to some garden-sprayer type apparatus in a cupboard and insisted “disinfection, disinfection!”.  Dan politely invited the doctor in English to wash his bike with his sprayer, but the doctor seemed to think that a splash of water from underneath was all that would be required to remove any biohazards the rest of the world may have to offer and declined the invitation.  Eventually, hearing the fuss going on down the corridor, the friendly and helpful English speaking border guard appeared to try and translate.  He reluctantly explained that yes, this was a requirement and the guys did have to pay a further fee, but that it was only 32 Som for both bikes.  This was about a third of what had originally been demanded, and under duress the guys agreed to pay ten dollars and receive 14 Som in change.

The doctor duly filled out what certainly looked to be useless paperwork confirming the bikes had definitely been ridden through some water and were therefore deemed to provide no viral or bacterial threat to the children of Tajikistan.  He then went off to fetch the change, and presented Dan with 13 Som.  Dan thrust the 13 Som back into the doctors hand and took back his $10, demanding a further 1 Som from the cheeky doctor.  Getting scammed by officials was one thing, but the officials not then keeping their side of the bargain was quite another.  The doctor smiled and went off to fetch another 15 pence worth of local currency…

Once free to leave the border plaza, the bikes made swift progress towards the city of Kojand, where the accomodation options were limited.  The guide promised a rather odd sounding hotel which had originally been built as an apartment block, but had then proved so unpopular with prospective residents it had been left vacant and eventually operated as a bizarre partially-furnished hotel.  Dan went inside to enquire about a price and was told that a room for two people could be had for 50 Som, about eleven dollars.  However his enquiries about parking for the two “motosikels” fell on deaf ears so Ed, with his rapidly improving and far superior Russian language skills was sent in for round two.  The response was that the bikes should be parked in the foyer, which was fine except there was a six-foot flight of steps to get them up to foyer level.  Dan and Ed were up for the challenge however, so the bikes were wheeled to the foot of the steps and with much revving, pushing and clutch-slipping, both bikes successfully scaled the stairs and were wheeled into the polished-marble-floored foyer and parked in the corner.  By this stage, the price of the room had gone up to 200 Som, as clearly the riders would now want the “luxe” room on the ground floor nearest their bikes.  Or perhaps just because with the bikes installed in the foyer, the riders were now a captive market.  After much discussion, it was agreed that the originally offered room could be had for 75 Som, an increase of only 50% over the originally quoted price.  This relieved Dan of any feeling of guilt regarding the imminent and inevitable drops of oil from his chainguard onto the polished-marble floor.

Luggage was stripped from the bikes and carried in the lift to the tenth floor, before being carried down the stairs to the ninth floor, where the allocated room was to be found.  The lift would not stop on the ninth floor.  As expected the room was a small apartment, with a bedsit, an unfurnished balcony-room, an electrically terrifying bathroom and a completely unfurnished building site where a kitchen may once have been intended.  As in Ashgabat, the bathroom here could have been well described as “not a highlight”.

The bath resembled an art-class sink with evidence of a failed attempt to cover the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat of assorted stains with a further coat of white gloss paint which had sadly failed to adhere.  The water heater above the bath was equipped with a breaker-switch hanging half-out of it’s pattress box nailed to the doorframe, but the terminals were all exposed and the joints in the power cable to and from the breaker-switch were simply twisted, soldered and left un-insulated. The wiring to the bulb holder had been accomplished in a similar fashion, and the hot bulb left to dangle from it’s un-insulated cables against the now-scorched plastic sheeting that had been used to provide a water-resistant cladding to the wall.

Feeling that it was unwise to spend longer than absolutely necessary in an apartment that so closely resembled the warning illustrations from an electrical safety leaflet, the guys headed out to find some food and change some money.

The following morning, after braving the bathroom for showers, carrying their luggage down to the bikes in the lobby (the lift now refusing to work at all) and then riding the bikes back down the steps to street level, the guys pointed the bikes in the direction of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.  Here they hoped they would be able to gain the two visas they had failed to get in Tashkent, Uzbekistan – those of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the next two countries on the itinerary.  The road out of town was excellent tarmac, which boded well for the journey.  Pausing on a dirt track off up to the side of the main road to eat a spot of breakfast, the guys were not surprised when a 4×4 stopped at the end of the track, to perhaps peer at the strange foreigners.  What was not expected was two people springing from the vehicle with a loud call of “G’day!”.  It was the intrepid and energetic Australian pensioners  – they’d spotted the bikes, figured it must be those crazy poms again and got their Tajik driver to pull over so they could come and have a chat.  The guys were really pleased to see the Aussies again, and related the tales of the past few days and compared plans – all four travellers were headed broadly in the direction of Dushanbe for the moment, though the antipodeans were planning to bypass the city itself in favour of some nearby sights.

With bread and chocolate spread breakfast finished, the bikes quickly caught up the 4×4 and headed up into the mountains.  Arriving at a tunnel, the riders presumed this must be the Anzob tunnel – infamous amongst Central-Asian overland travellers. The Anzob tunnel is 4 miles long, unlit, unventilated and mostly flooded.  The road surface inside is fissured and potholed, and due to the flooding each hit takes the rider completely by surprise.  There were originally two tunnels, one for each direction of traffic, but as one is completely flooded, the partially-flooded tunnel takes two-way traffic.  There is the alternative of the original dirt-road pass, and as a chinese contruction worker emerged from the tunnel wearing a respirator and motioning that they should turn round and use the pass, the guys decided this was the best way forward.

The pass was mostly reasonable dirt road, cut into the side of astonishingly steep mountains.  Here and there, the mountains had claimed some of the road back, either by partially blocking it with rock falls, or by collapsing under the outer edge.  There were no barriers of course to keep vehicles from falling into the abyss, and whilst traffic was light, when slow-moving or oncoming traffic narrowed the available path, the guys just had to grit their teeth and get on with getting past.  Arriving at the top of the pass, the guys recognised the 4×4 that had brought the Aussies and paused for another chat before continuing down the other side which provided more of the same involving riding, exceptional views and precipitous drops.

Before long, the guys arrived at the mouth of another tunnel, and this one had lots of traffic outside, the drivers seemingly psyching themselves up to get involved.  After waiting for some of the queue to clear, the guys got on with it as well, and rode on into the blackness.  Aiming to maintain vital momentum over the flooded and very uneven road surface, the bikes were overtaking the other traffic where possible, and Dan had the misfortune to get completely drenched by a sudden blast of water as a vehicle he was overtaking dropped into a deep trough of water.  Momentarily taking a hand off the bars to try to wipe the muddy water from his visor, Dan shortly found his own front wheel dropping with a huge muddy splash into an enormous unseen hole that felt as though it might stop the bike in it’s tracks.  With the throttle held open however, the front of the bike was driven back up out of the hole and the DRZ continued along in the pitch blackness with it’s rider frantically trying to clear the dirty water from a now-opaque visor.  Dan was forced to give up on this quest however and opt instead to open it to squint out into the darkness for some clue of what the road surface was to serve up next.  Ahead of the glut of traffic and aware that Ed’s WR didn’t have much of a headlamp, Dan pulled over.  Ed had been fighting his own battles against the traffic, the foul polluted air, the darkness and the road surface and was also coming out on top.  It wasn’t long before before Dan could see the glimmer of an approaching dirtbike behind, and set off again in the hope that Ed could benefit from seeing some of the road by the light of the DRZ’s upgraded headlamp.  After a further couple of miles of flooded bumpy blackness with more traffic to negotiate in both directions, the riders re-emerged, blinking, muddy but unscathed back into the beautiful mountain landscape.  After more careful inspection of the map that evening, it turned out that this had been the Anzob tunnel after all, the one they’d previously “avoided” being the not-yet completed Shariston tunnel, which will no doubt be open for the business of terrifying passing overlanders in the next year or so.

On arriving in Dushanbe, Ed’s preparation the night before paid off – the waypoint transcribed from Lonely Planet guidebook map to GPS map allowed the bikes to be quickly and easily navigated straight to the gate of a homestay which was to provide accomodation for the next few nights.

The homestay was literally just round the corner from the vital Kyrgyz embassy which the guys visited the following morning, Monday 13 June.  After a lacklustre start to the process (the consul was 30 minutes late for work) things then looked up.  The consul confirmed that the letters of invitation which plague travellers to Central Asia were not required and the bank where the fees were to be paid was just down the road.  For an additional few dollars, a same-day service could be provided, which was a refreshing option.  Within two hours, the forms had been filled, the fees paid, the receipts brought back to the consul and the visas filled out and placed into the waiting passports.  That was the best visa process yet.  The Turkish visa may have actually taken less time and certainly cost less, but the overall experience here was far less frustrating.

Clearly on a roll, the guys hailed a cab and travelled across the city to the Kazakh embassy.  Here the story wasn’t so great.  The process was a fixed duration of four working days, and due to a public holiday somewhere or other, visas could not now be provided until the following Monday.  This was bad news and meant the guys had to choose between spending a week and a chunk of money staying in Dushanbe, or heading off into the stunning scenery of the Pamir mountains – which was the reason for visiting Tajikistan – and trying again for a Kazakh visa in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

No contest.  The following morning the bikes were packed up and pointed out of Dushanbe towards the start of the Pamir Highway.  The road headed first towards the river that forms the border with Afghanistan and followed the valley and river and hence the border.  Owing to the steep topography of the valley, most of the pretty views glimpsed along the road were actually Afghan.  Spotting two cyclists stopped at the side of the road, the guys stopped to chat with the two Brits, Sash and Julian, to find out where they were headed and how they were getting on.

The experience of cycling long distance across unfamiliar countries is not that dissimilar to motorcycling in the same environment, it just takes much longer.  Sash and Julian had been on the road since the previous Autumn.  There are a few notable differences however – the dogs that universally bound out and chase Dan and Ed’s bikes on sight are more of a problem for the cyclists, who don’t have the option of opening the throttle and blasting away from the persuing hounds.  The other issue is the kids – they’re fascinated by the motorcycles and often run out to the roadside to wave at them, but when they see bicycles coming they run out into the road and join hands to force them to stop, which is a fair bit more disruptive to progress.

Cyclists and motorcyclists alike however both felt more like celebrities in Tajikistan than anywhere else so far – not just the kids and young men were shouting and waving but the women and girls too.  In the rest of the world you’d have to be some kind of multi-talented singing-and-dancing-footballer to command the same demographic as a two-wheeled Tajik-tourist.  Further along the road, the guys stopped and spoke to a French cyclist who had been riding with Julian and Sash but had been forced to speed ahead by his shorter visa.

Despite the fact that the river was the border with Afghanistan, the guys opted to camp next to it for the night – given the road was trapped against it by the steep side of the valley, there really wasn’t much option.  The approach was to select a spot, stop and cook some dinner and wait to see if anyone came to disturb them during this time before committing and putting up tents.  No-one had disturbed the guys by the time the sun was down, so the tents were put up and the guys settled for some sleep when it went dark at about nine o’clock.

At nine-thirty, voices were heard outside.  It wasn’t at all clear what the voices were saying, or who to, and in each tent, a tired overlander hoped that what they could hear was just a group of friends walking along the road.  The next sound to pierce the peace was less ambiguous.  Rifles were being cocked outside the tents.  Once again there was a scramble to get dressed and explain that the camping visitors were tourists not terrorists.  The military border patrol who had discovered the apparent expeditionary force were very young – the eldest of them no more than 20 years old.  He maintained that camping here by the border was a problem and the guys would have to move to one of the villages (all of which of course were also right by the border).  After being shown two British passports however, he seemed to soften, and eventually agreed that the tents could stay for one night.  Meanwhile, a young puppy that had been brought along by the patrol had settled on Ed’s tent – finding that a comfortable place to sleep.  Once the patrol had been placated and the puppy evicted, the guys were free to return to their tents, and hope that the patrol they’d seen was the only patrol on this part of the border that night – and that having agreed with them they could stay, they would not be disturbed again.

Sure enough, Dan and Ed were in luck, and awoke the next morning to a peaceful outlook by the river having had no further disturbances.  The usual breakfast of yesterday’s bread with chocolate spread was eagerly despatched and the bikes packed up and pointed towards Khorog.  There was more of the same scenery as the previous day before heading up into the mountains, and more cyclists, too – two Canadian girls, Kate and Mel of www.cyclingsilk.com, a Swiss couple and a lone Swiss cyclist who was the only one to have flown into Dushanbe, the others had all started pedalling in Europe.

The route for 15 June would take the bikes and riders over 4000 metres for the first time. This meant jacket vents were closed for the first time to conserve riders’ heat as the temperature dropped and the wind rose. At around 4100 metres, Ed spotted a European looking couple in a 4×4 waving more vigorously than most passers by and went over to investigate.  Jonni and Steve were a retired British couple who were now exploring the world by 4×4 – it’s personalised plate making it difficult to recognise as British registered.  Steve had worked for BT all his life as an engineer, and it showed in his immaculate preparation of their vehicle.  His wife, Jonni, was talking nineteen to the dozen and instructing him to make tea for Dan and Ed, and sharpish.  After a thoroughly civilised British chat over a cup of tea, it was time for Ed and Dan to make tracks along the dusty dirt road over the pass, leading to a wide plateau at around 4000 metres.  At these altitudes, mild altitude sickness is a concern, and Dan certainly felt that it was hard to stay focussed on the riding – not what you need when the road surface is in need of some repair.  Dan came close to obliging by having a go at lodging his DRZ in a particularly large unseen hole, but it didn’t quite stick and he carried on.  Halfway across the plateau, yet more intrepid cyclists hoved into view, a French couple on a tandem towing a trailer coming the other way on their way home, and keen to know what the road held in store for them.  It’s difficult for riders of short wheelbase motorcycles with a foot of suspension travel at each end to really advise riders of 20-foot long bicycles with maybe 5 millimetres of give in their tyres on road conditions, but they seemed pleased enough with the report that the road was “pretty much OK”.

Descending down into Khorog, the guys had made good progress for the day, and went in search of a cooked lunch and some provisions for the following night in the mountains.  After a lunch of mutton stew and bread, the search for provisions had barely begun when a familiar red motorcycle approached – Alistair, the Brit the guys had met in Bukhara and spent some time with in Tashkent had caught them up.  For two days, every cyclist that Alistair stopped and spoke to told him that there were two British bikers ahead called Dan and Ed and that they were about two hours ahead of him…  After a quick catch up, the search for water was back on.  For some time, it had been impossible to buy anything but sparkling water, there clearly being no local demand for still.  Sparkling water is great when chilled and served in a glass, but when strapped to a motorcycle in the sun for a few hours to warm up, or poured into a rapidly expanding camelbak, the stuff is somewhat less desirable.  Asking at a nearby ice-cream stall for “vada, bez gaz” resulted in the lady proprietor switching off her machine, and walking off down the road with Dan’s water bottles, returning with them fully filled.  This seemed unlikely to cause problems, so Dan was happy with the result.  Ed and Alistair however settled instead for more sealed bottles of fizzy water.

By the time Dan and Ed were leaving Khorog, it was already half past four in the afternoon, and they were keen to make progress through the mountains towards Murghab.  Unusually for Tajikistan, they were stopped at a police check point and ushered up into the office to show their passports.  What followed was not the usual pointless writing down of details in an enormous ledger, but instead a scam.  For visitors to the Pamir mountain region, it is necessary to have a passport containing a “GBAO” permit in addition to the Tajik visa.  The permit costs an additional $40 US and covers the entire region, listing the names of the regions, seemingly corresponding to their major city.  The scam dreamt up by these resourceful police officers was to diligently check the permit, exclaim in surprise, and then point out that the name of their little village on the outskirts of the city of Khorog (which is specified on the permit) is not listed, and therefore an additional fee is required.  The alternative proposed by the wily officers is to re-route through the Wakhan Valley, where the scenery is also excellent but the longer route on much worse road didn’t match up with the guys’ eagerness to make progress towards Kyrgyzstan.  To save time, the “additional fee” was negotiated down to 25 Somon per bike (the equivalent of $5), and the guys were back on their way.  This was an annoying departure from policy for Dan and Ed, who normally spend as much time as necessary to not pay fictional fees, charges, taxes or fines demanded by crooked policemen, but on this occasion, it was too late in the day to waste time arguing over it and the evening was drawing close with no camping spot in sight.

Heading up into the clear colder air of the mountains again, it was obvious that it would be worth finding somewhere to stop and camp before getting much higher or colder.  Stopping at the side of the road at 3100 metres altitude to ask a local woman if there was anywhere they could camp, the response came back that the pair of British bikers could camp “There” in her garden, and park their bikes out of sight up the steep dirt driveway.  After checking out the proposed camping spot and finding it excellent, the bikes were duly ridden up the driveway and the tents put up in the garden.  Within minutes, a bowl of “milk, cow milk” had been produced, evidently fresh from said cow as it was still warm, and had the odd floaty bit in it.

After a while, the men of the family returned from work and were keen to meet their unexpected guests, and offer them tea.  Eventually, Dan and Ed relented and accepted the offer of tea, which the women brought out to the tents for the men and visitors, followed by a full cooked dinner.  The conversation was difficult with the hosts not speaking any English, and only Ed speaking any Russian of any great use, but the atmosphere was relaxed and comfortable, and when Dan gestured that they wanted to get some sleep, the dinner things were packed away swiftly and the guys left to their respective tents to sleep in peace.

On Thursday 16 June, the guys packed up, bade their farewells and were on the road before 8am.  The town on the route was Murghab, but rumour had it there was nothing much to see there and it would be nicer to pass straight through and out the other side.  Murghab was the other side of another 4km high pass, and was itself at 3600 metres above sea level.  Sure enough, the place doesn’t have many merits besides being the last fuel stop before Kyrgyzstan.  Whilst that sounds more dramatic than the relatively short distance actually is, both bikes filled up with the 80-RON fuel offered (it’s not great, but it’s all there is in Murghab and detonation isn’t generally an issue at high altitude).  Whilst at the fuel station, they were approached by a couple of British bikers who had arrived in Murghab the previous day and made the surprising decision to stay an extra day.  They were able to point the newcomers in the direction of the bazaar – a container village along a dusty gravel street – to get the provisions they wanted for the evening and the following morning.  The bazaar provided some bread, some water and some entertainment in the form of the traditional hats.  It seems the men of Murghab have a competition on to see who will break first and burst out laughing.  Everywhere you look, men are wearing hilarious hats with an absolutely dead-pan straight face, like they’re the most normal thing in the world.  Despite the efforts of the Murghab Milliners, it seems likely that no one has laughed in in the town for some time, and the guys were pleased to pack the provisions onto the bikes and leave the place behind.

The pass facing Dan and Ed was the highest of the trip – 4632m recorded on the GPS units at the summit – and came complete with a reasonable dirt surface at the top and and an impressive blizzard.  Both riders are equipped with home-made heated jacket liners that can be plugged into the bikes to provide 50W of warmth just where it’s needed, but neither had his liner installed as the weather so far that day had not justified it.  Faced with the choice of carrying on or stopping to take jackets off to install central heating, both riders battled on through the horizontal snow towards Karakul.  Neither rider wanted to stop up here for anything.  In pleasant weather the views are probably stunning, but with it all hidden behind cloud and falling snow there was nothing to take photographs of.  One sorry-looking feature of the road was yet another cyclist – a seasoned British traveller by the name of Chris who is currently travelling mostly by bicycle, but the previous trips that have taken him all over the world have been in overland trucks and/or using any public transport that comes to hand.  Chris had been told there was a homestay in Karakul which was clearly signposted – and given the village by the lake was still 4km above sea level and therefore likely to be pretty cold, the guys had a new target for the day.  Sure enough, the homestay was easily located, the bikes parked in the courtyard and dinner, bed and breakfast purchased for $12 each.  The evening was spent chatting with a swiss tour group, a couple of french hikers and Chris, the intrepid cyclist who arrived a good 90 minutes behind Dan and Ed but had thankfully missed the worst of the snow on the pass.

17 June saw the guys leave Karakul bound for the border with Kyrgyzstan.  The border is at the top of another high pass, and again it was snowing at the top.  Dan failed to recognise the start of the border formalities as the customs office was in a converted shipping container at the side of the road.  Ed did his best to create drama for the cameras by temporarily misplacing the customs entry slip for his bike, but eventually relented and found it scrunched up into a little ball at the bottom of his document pouch.  Evidence of the $10 paid for each bike at the entry point pacified the exit customs officer and after a tense few minutes the riders were allowed to continue.  The narcotics control stop was similarly difficult to recognise, also being housed in a shipping container.  The officer inside was keen to search Ed’s rucksack, but faced with the sheer amount of luggage on each bike and the increasing snowfall, couldn’t face searching the rest.  The guys waited in the snow outside the passport control hut whilst the officer inside who hadn’t seen them stamped their passports to confirm they had left the country.  Meanwhile, the passport control Alsation marked the rear wheel of Dan’s bike as his territory.

With passports back in hand, it was time to put documents away to protect them from the weather for the few kilometres of slippery muddy mountain track that would deliver them to the entry formalities of Kyrgyzstan.

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6 Responses to Tajik Magic

  1. zebb says:

    hi lads , i have pic`s of you at the petrol station in Mugrab if you want copies


  2. joao ribeiro says:

    dear dan (& ed) still in oasis, your photos and stories are really cool, keep on ma man, maybe you already in the bam, anxious to see your stories and pics from there….good luck with your lovely and original motorbikes!!!

    • dan says:

      Hey Joao,
      We’ve survived the BAM road and are now in Tynda, will be heading north to Yakutsk tomorrow to head on from there towards Magadan – we’ll probably be there in a couple of weeks… There are lots of stories from the BAM, and quite a few pictures of some pretty scary bridges… We’ll upload them when we can!
      Hope all’s well with you and the rest of your trip is going well. Take care dude,

  3. James Eastwood says:

    Great reports. Loved the bit about the children joining hands to stop the cyclists, children can be so resourceful!


    • dan says:

      Hi James, thanks for the feedback! Resourceful – yes, I think that’s what the cyclists called them… :)

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