From Karakul to the border of Uzbekistan
Days on Cycle: 4
Days not on Cycle (resting or otherwise): 10 or so
Scariest stretch: Riding into Murghab at night
Toughest stretch: Climbing up to the Anzob tunnel
Previous parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
At the end of the last post, I had just finished my adventure through the Bartang Valley – with the help and guidance of British cyclist Jonny – and was headed to Karakul, tired and happy.
On the Bartang plateau, we had cycled an average of less than 40 km per day. When we hit the tarmac of the Pamir highway again, our speed jumped to 25 kmph, and before we knew it we were pulling in to Karakul, the last town in Tajikistan before the border with Kyrgyzstan. The next morning, Jonny went on ahead to Kyrgyzstan – whose embassy had rudely rejected my visa TWICE – and I turned back towards Dushanbe.
Just as I started cycling, I heard a scraping sound from the back wheel. A brief investigation revealed that the back mudguard screw had fallen off at some point during my adventures and was rubbing against the back wheel. I didn’t have a replacement screw, and neither did the owner of the guest house. So, off it went. I told the owner to see if any kid could use it for his bike. As I write this, the back wheel of my cycle is still naked.
Aside: All the guest houses in Karakul were either closed or without electricity, and finally, this guy said we could stay at his house for the same rate that we were going to pay in an actual guest house (about $10). The next morning, he pretended to have misunderstood us and said that we actually had to pay $10 for the each of us. We ended up paying $15 and I ended up leaving with a bad taste in my mouth. Oh, well.
Karakul to Murghab
Between Karakul and Murghab is the Ak-baital pass. At 4655 m, it is the highest point on the Pamir Highway. My plan was to get to Murghab in two days, with the first day ending at some point either just before or after the pass. I started off early in the morning, and was feeling quite frustrated and completely disconnected from my surroundings. I kept waiting for someone to give me a ride, though I didn’t ask any of the trucks that passed by.
Aside: I’ve always had trouble recognizing that I’m exhausted, and — looking back — this was one of those times. I should probably have taken a few days off at this point, but I didn’t know any better.
I managed to cycle about four hours, but then the road started getting worse — washboard — and I just didn’t feel like dealing with it. It was just after noon when I came across a restaurant just by the road. I stopped for lunch with some friendly drivers, two of whom were driving their car to Murghab. They agreed to give me a ride all the way to the city provided I paid them, and I happily agreed.
The car felt like it had altitude sickness. As we made our way higher and higher along the winding roads, we had to stop every few hundred metres. One of the two friends and I had to push the car till it started again. At 4000 m, this process was done in the snow and freezing cold. The worst part of it all was that I lost one half of my favourite glove pair in the process.
It was literally all downhill from the pass, and the car slowly returned to its full health. The guys turned on some Kyrgyzstani music, and we were soon dancing and drinking Coca Cola in the car.
To my surprise and disappointment, the guys suddenly changed their destination and dropped me off about 30 km before Murghab. I was a little irritated; the sun was setting and I really didn’t want to ride at night. They apologized to me, refused to take my money (“No bad feelings, please”), and set off leaving me alone and scared on a dark, lonely, road.
I reached Murghab about two hours later, very tired. What map.me told me was a hotel turned out to be a local Kyrgyz family’s home. They happily agreed to let me stay, and fed me copious amounts of food. The two kids brought out their English text books. We exchanged English and Russian words and laughed into the night.
The next morning, after shopping for gloves in the local bazaar, which was a cool looking collection of shipping containers converted into shops, I set off towards Khorog, the capital of the Pamir region in Tajikistan.
Murghab to Khorog
About an hour or so out of Murghab, my mind was again giving up (a lesson here: take your rest seriously, people!), so I caught a ride again. The car was driven by Umed from Khorog, and he already had as passenger an agent for the Narcotics Bureau of Tajikistan. My luck with hitchhiking continued, and this car again had altitude sickness!
The driver was constantly having to fiddle with the engine while going up. There was apparently something wrong with the radiator (a missing or loose connection) and he had to reset it every few kilometres, which became every few hundred metres as we went higher towards the next pass. Close to the pass, it was already dark and well below freezing and Umed was quite worried that we wouldn’t make it up the pass. We did, and then stopped at a roadside restaurant where the owner let us stay for the night. On the TV, Terry Crews was hosting Ultimate Beastmaster, and outside it was snowing quite heavily.
The next day, back in the lower altitudes our ride was mostly uneventful. We reached Khorog, and Umed tried to refuse to take any money for two days of long and hard driving. I was dropped off at the famous Pamir Lodge, where I spent the next few days actually resting, and even had food at a not-too-bad Indian restaurant once! I met Takuro here, a determined young man from Japan, trying to visit a lot of countries in the world.
I took a taxi from Khorog to Dushanbe, still not feeling up to riding back. Back at Green House Hostel (where I had started my trip!), I just relaxed and hardly stepped out for two or three days. I met some really nice people in the time I spent here. I had a nice time chatting with Trystan and Josephine (www.goingincircles.co.uk), a lively English couple cycling all the way from England to Australia/NZ. Trystan helped me understand my bike a bit better, and now because of him, I know how (at least I know more than I did before!) to adjust the movement of my derailleur. While waiting for their visas, they decided to go cycling to the mountains on the outskirts of Dushanbe, just so they could camp a bit and enjoy Tajikistan more. I wish I had that kind of motivation!
There was a French girl, who was on a mission to visit as many countries of the world as possible without taking a flight. When I told her what she was doing was really cool, and asked if I could follow her on Instagram, she said she doesn’t have an Instagram account, and doesn’t want to have one, because she doesn’t think she’s doing anything special. That’s really cool, I must say, because what she said resonated a lot with me.
On the last day, I met JK Basheer, an energetic traveller from Tamilnadu and/or Malaysia, who is determined to come back to Central Asia to make a positive impact on the local communities here.
Anyway, after four (or was it five?) days of relaxing in the hostel, I decided to set off. I tried adjusting my derailleur with my newfound knowledge, but immediately screwed up the gear-shifting on my cycle. So after a hurried visit to the very friendly bike mechanic in Dushanbe, I was off!
Dushanbe to Khujand
I met Trystan and Josephine again on my way out of Dushanbe, as they were on their way back to apply for their Indian visas.
Aside: I don’t see why India makes it so hard to apply for visas. I reluctantly understand why countries make it hard for Indians, but why does the cost and difficulty have to be reciprocated?
The first night out of Dushanbe, I camped only a few metres from the highway just after toll booth because it was getting too dark to find a proper campsite. There was a lot of trucks and cars passing, but noise has never been a problem for me and I slept through it all!
On the second day, I was going to have to deal with the dreaded Anzob tunnel. Nicknamed the “Death Tunnel” for cyclists, it is about six kilometres of a lightless single lane filled with potholes. Apparently, the construction project was taken up by Iran, but then because of some politicking between the two countries, the project was abandoned in an almost-but-not-quite-done state.
I was pushing my bike uphill just before the tunnel when without any effort from my part, a very nice truck driver gave me a ride through it and refused to take any money. I asked if I could buy him lunch, but he again refused and dropped me off at a restaurant. While eating, the locals chatted with me about Amitabh Bacchan and one of them – a policeman – told me I’m a “very nice boy”. I’m not a boy, man.
The next tunnel was also six kilometres long, but without the scary reputation of the Anzob Tunnel. I put on some Iron Maiden and zoomed through it, very excited and happy. After the tunnel was an extremely long and very cold descent. While cycling, your body heats up as you go uphill. Your clothes are wet with sweat, especially if you just wear normal clothes like me. Then, when you’re going downhill in the cold, the sweat and the wind together freeze you!
I stopped at a gas station and asked if I could camp behind it. The enthusiastic attendant showed me to my spot, and then brought me dinner an hour later as I settled inside my tent to watch some Doctor Who.
The next day, I rolled into Khujand, the last big town in Tajikistan before the Uzbekistan border. As I was looking for the hostel, a nice young lady led me to her English classroom, where the teacher called the owner of the hostel and asked me to chat with his students till the owner showed up. The kids were polite and shy, but also quite enthusiastic about answering my questions. All of them wanted to become doctors! Either that, or they hadn’t yet learned the words for other professions!
Khujand to border
This was it - the final stretch of cycling in Tajikistan! I was feeling a bit bored for no particular reason, so I decided to try and hitchhike. The first ride I got was from a driver who was trying to tell me there was no point taking a ride with him because he was turning away from the main road soon. He kept trying to explain and I couldn’t understand, so he gave up and let me ride with him for all of five minutes.
Almost immediately after he dropped me off, I got a ride with two cheerful young lads: Pervez and Anwar. They drove me all the way to the border laughing and singing songs.
And then, after some friendly border control, I was out of Tajikistan! Uzbekistan is coming up in the next post!