From: (Before) Qalai Khumb to (After) Rushon
Days on the bike: 5
Kilometers cycled: 250-300 km
At the end of the last entry, I was pulling into a guest house. I had just started cycling alone after a week with a cyclist. The guest house was run by a friendly, but quiet local. The patrons were talkative and friendly, and were laughing at me as I learned how to drink Vodka the Tajik way – drink it like a shot, and then eat some pickled onion.
I hadn’t really noticed while contemplating cycling alone again, but I was already on the border with Afghanistan! Separating us was the green, and formidable Panj river. I had read in blogs that villages across the river were less developed. Where there were roads on this side, there were only donkey paths there. There was no electricity yet on the Afghan side. But I didn’t see such vast differences. Maybe the blogs were out of date, but there were electricity poles and motorcycles on the other side.
The first town, where locals had told me the Pamir region of Tajikistan officially began, was Qalai Khumb (or Kalai Khumb, depending on where on the internet you were reading). Here, I stayed in my first “expensive” ($10) guest house. Also for the first time in Tajikistan, someone tried to cheat me. A guy met me on the road and started making friendly conversation in broken English. To cut a long story short, we ended up having lunch together, and I ended up paying. Plus, he kept asking me to give him a gift, starting with shoes and finally trying to settle for a flashlight. It must have been disappointing for him that I didn’t have extra of anything to offer as a present. The next day, I waited in the morning for Jonny, a cyclist from England, to catch up. He had left Dushanbe four days after me and was reaching Qalai Khumb just twelve hours later. I had kept in touch with him, hoping I could convince him to cycle through the Bartang Valley, because there was no way I was going to attempt that stretch alone.
We met for lunch, and luckily met a driver-plus-guide who spoke English and whose brother owned a guest house in the Bartang. He told us it would be cold, but doable, so that was that. The turnoff to Bartang was still four days away, so we still had four days to change our mind.
Cycling along the Panj river was absolutely amazing. The road mostly sucked, but the views more than made up for it. The weather was clear, there were mountains on both sides. Kids were screaming their Hellos and WhatIsYourNames whenever we passed. People were smiling. Life was good.
Our first stop in the Pamirs was a shepherd’s shed by the side of the road. About two-thirds of the shed was taken up by our bicycles and luggage, and us humans squeezed into the rest. As it should be, I say.
The views continued to amaze, and the road continued to suck. We met three cyclists going the other way: Alice from Hong Kong, Daniel from Singapore, and Nathan from England. Alice and Daniel had cycled through the Bartang just two weeks before, and their excited descriptions of the views and the cold helped solidify our own plans. Daniel had cycled through Spiti Valley last year. “I loved Spiti Valley, but man, Bartang is even better!”, he exclaimed.
On the back of Alice’s bike was her co-passenger: Canton the dog. She had adopted her in China and now Canton was travelling around the world by bicycle and running (when the road was too bumpy).
That evening, we were invited to stay with a nice old man, but it was too early in the afternoon for us to stop and so we kept cycling. We ended up staying in a truck stop for the night with a very lively host. Vodka, pickled onion and laughter ensued.
The roads improved a bit through the next day, and we cycled a good distance, staying at a homestay marked on the wonderful app iOverlander. The homestay was run by an old couple and their energetic granddaughter. The food was potatoes and bread followed by Pamiri Chai – a drink very similar to the butter tea found in Ladakh. It consists of milk, tea, salt, and water. While drinking, you melt spoonfuls of butter into your cup.
The homestay was a traditional Pamiri house. There was a small room where we ate dinner, and a big room with ornate woodwork and colourful carpets, both on the floor and the walls. In other homestays I’ve stayed at, the same room is used for eating as well as sleeping, but I guess these guys were a little richer, so they could afford separate rooms. There were no chairs and no tables throughout the house. Like everywhere else in Tajikistan, a patterned plastic mat was spread out for the food and then removed once the meal was done. Beds for sleeping were obtained from a big stack in the corner, and the sitting area converted to a sleeping area within a few minutes.
After a dancing session with the kid, we set off towards our final stop before the Bartang Valley: Rushon. A review in iOverlander informed us about a guest house where the owner both spoke English and was knowledgeable about local history.
We were sitting on the porch biding our time when a young girl came over to say Hi. Before we knew it, we had been invited for tea by her mother, Sabrina. Sabrina’s brother in law spoke a little English, so as we ate freshly fried Prushky (kind of like a fluffy, empty samosa) and drank tea, we talked about life in the village. We saw photos of Sabrina’s husband and kids, and of their family in Moscow and Dushanbe. “I don’t want to go to the big cities, I like it here”, Sabrina said when I asked why she didn’t follow her sister to Moscow.
One funny — if you could call it that — thing that happened is that we were asking what her husband does, and I think the brother-in-law told us that the husband, a soldier, died while in Afghanistan. However, what Jonny took from this same conversation was that the husband was very much alive and was working as a taxi driver! There was an empty car outside, and what I understood was that since the husband had died, no one used it. But Jonny’s interpretation was that the car was abandoned and the husband used it for parts to repair the car he drove.
What is the truth? We’ll never know, mostly because, “So, is your husband (or brother, if talking to the brother-in-law) alive?” is a weird question to ask someone you’ve just met! I call this game “Lost in Translation”.
Akobirsho, the guest house owner, returned in the evening and we had a great time talking to him. He told us about the civil war in the 1990s. The Pamiri people (who make up only 3% of the population of Tajikistan) were not really involved in the war itself, but one of the effects of the fighting was that roads to the region were blocked on all sides. There were no supplies coming, and people were starving. “If not for the efforts of Aga Khan, we would have starved”, he told us. Aga Khan opened up the roads on the border with Kyrgyzstan and made sure supplies reached the region. “It was a very difficult time. Even talking about it is difficult for me”.
Aside: Most people in the Pamiri region are Ismaili Muslims, and they consider Aga Khan to be their spiritual leader. A lot of the schools and universities in the area exist thanks to the efforts and funding of the Aga Khan foundation. The feeling I got was that Aga Khan is far more respected than the president of Tajikistan, who people think has ignored the Pamir region in his plans for the development of the country.
The next morning, we set off into what would turn out to be an amazing adventure through the Bartang Valley, with a bag of walnuts gifted to us by Sabrina.