Tajikistan and the road to Khorog
From Denau it was a short ride of just under 40km to the Tajik border. I changed the remaining wad of som and headed all prepared to the customs house. I had expected the worst and hoped for the best and it was the latter which was the reality. In under an hour I had left Uzbekistan and was legally stamped into Tajikistan. Some cheesy smiles and lavish praise of their country had certainly helped.
The M41 road immediately became much smoother with even a proper verge to ride on. There were no longer the numerous Ladas which had been so present in Uzbekistan and there was marginally less shouting. The shops here also seemed to be better equipped and it was now possible to even find cold drinks.
Dushanbe is a fairly compact capital with some grand statues, greenery and a flagpole which was at one time the tallest in the world. This is where the interest ended however and a day later I was back on the road again.
At the Greenhouse hostel, I hooked up with Dan and Ritzo and we spent the next 5 days on the road together. From Dushanbe there is a good asphalt road out to a small mountain town towards Obigarm. It was good cycling and exciting to watch the mountains getting closer and closer. The children here are greeting the foreign passer by with a genuine excitement and their vocabulary stretches to `hello’ and `goodbye’ which they have to shout very quickly depending on the speed you are cycling!
The next destination was Kalaikhum which is a town on the Aghanistan border where 2 roads meet. From Dushanbe there is what is known as the northern and southern routes to this town. The southern route is now the main road and although nearly 100km longer, has a better surface and is less hilly. We therefore took the northern route to challenge ourselves and mainly to enjoy the better scenery with the highlight being the 3252m pass.
On paper it was a 3 day ride to Kalaikhum but with cycle touring, km don’t tell the whole story. After the first day we had only broken roads and stones to contend with and one day, we actually managed less than 40km. We also came across plenty of chewing gum roads as we called them. These are roads that have got some kind of cheap asphalt that actually seems to melt in the sun. When you ride on these roads it feels as though your bike is being sucked into the ground! Food was also a challenge, and it became clear that if we did not find any place to eat lunch we would have to cook ourselves. To cycle the whole day and live on snickers for lunch was not sustainable.
The rewards for the strain however were generous. We met lovely people, had quiet roads and enjoyed spectacular lush alpine like scenery.
Camping was fun and we always found a good spot where in some cases the local children would appear from nowhere and help us clear a space and set up camp. They would then sit around mesmerised by us cooking and just before dark politely bid farewell.
Overall cycling was great here and there were always good stops for a break, especially good at the top of a 3200m pass.
We made the 1600m descent of the pass and rolled into Kalaikhum an hour before dark. We were all tired and hungry. After sorting a homestay we went to eat with some other foreigners at the only place in town which seemed to be serving food. After a long wait we were presented with some chicken, greasy chips and some salad. Normally I would avoid meat and salad in such places. If you are to witnesss kitchens here you would know why! However tonight, I was so hungry, that I broke the rule – greasy chips alone were not going to do it for me and some protein was needed for recovery.
The next morning Dan and myself awoke feeling quite ill. It was the feeling that something was in my stomach that shouldn’t be there and had to come out. And it did not want to come out the normal route. To cut the gory details, we spent a further 2 days in this small town, mainly sleeping and making regular visits to the toilet. It wasn’t ideal and left our already tired bodies feeling even weaker.
From Kalaikhum it was another few days on the road to Khorog. It is unbelievable that this is the main road through the country, but it is undisputably attractive. Afghanistan was now just a stone throw away across the river and tensions were clear by the large military presence on the Tajik side.
Khorog is a medium side town with a pleasant park in the city, a university and the first people wearing western style clothes for some time. Seeing women walking around in jeans was quite a culture shock now. The town is spectacularly surrounded my mountains and although at over 2000m, daytime temperatures were still getting into the 30s.
From speaking to travellers coming the other way, we learnt that july had been a nasty month in the Pamirs. High temperatures combined with lots of rain had caused a lot of flooding. The most tragic had been just 20km from here where a lake had burst its banks and wiped away half a village. Fortunately due to an early warning system, the residents could escape in time, but around 200 were left homeless. We visited the site and an entire 2km stretch of the M41 Pamir highway had simply disappeared. In its place was now a lake. It will be months until this is repaired and for now all the heavy trucks from China are having to take the very technical route along the Wachan Valley which we would later be also travelling.
Khorog was a great spot for meeting a host of interesting overlanders. There were cyclists, motorbikers and jeeps from all over the world meeting here to exchange route information and tales from the road. The Swiss motorbike group we had met in Khalaikum had also left their bikes here and we were later to learn one of the guys had crashed and been expatriated back on the road here.
After a few days of rest however it was time to continue and head up the Wachan Valley.