It’s a long way to Kulyob

The day had started out with such promise.

I had asked the advice of the manager of the MSDSP guesthouse about the best road to Dushanbe. He and another visitor both confirmed that the southern route was longer but in better condition (once you got past Kulyob) than the shorter northern route over the pass. The time would be about the same, 6-7 hours. They both assured me it could be done in one long day. Given my previous experience with other peoples’ estimates of travelling time, I neither had the need nor the desire to try to get to Dushanbe in one day. Even if I did make it in “6-7 hours” it would be late in the afternoon before I started the search for the guesthouse – something I always tried to avoid. My aim has always been to be in my accommodation (no matter what it was) before the sun set.

So the new plan involved a short ride (168km) on “jeep track” to Kulyob, a large town approximately halfway to Dushanbe. My estimate was about 4-5 hours depending on how bad the “jeep track” was. As well as that, I knew that about 45km from Kala-i-Khum, there was about 30km of perfect bitumen between between Zohag and Zigar that the Italian government had built for some bizarre reason. Once in Kulyob, I could then rest overnight before covering the last 200km of supposedly smooth bitumen to Dushanbe.

Everything seemed set for an easy day. It was not to be.

Riding in the Alps – in Central Asia.

Bidding a fond farewell to the family at the MSDSP guesthouse I covered the first section of jeep track in just over an hour. At Zohag I met the 30km of perfect bitumen and proceeded to enjoy some perfect riding conditions. I have never ridden in the Alps but I imagine this is what it must be like – millimetre perfect roads and stunning scenery.

I knew this wouldn’t last long and sometimes, perversely, I would slow down just to make it last longer.

Another random photo opportunity in the middle of nowhere.

Inevitably the 30km gift from the Italians passed all too quickly and it was back to the “jeep track”. I stopped at a pleasant waterfall for a break and I was immediately set upon by four locals travelling the other way. After the photo shoot, one of them decided that what I really needed on my ride to Kulyob was a bag of over-ripe tomatoes. I tried to explain that I had no way of carrying them and they would turn to mush within 10min. But he insisted, so I gratefully accepted his generosity. As soon as they left though, the tomatoes were hoiked into the scrub.

About 10km further on, I encountered two elderly cyclists from the Netherlands. They were stopped in the middle of the road – one in each wheel track – effectively blocking the road. I stopped to ask if they needed help. They seemed to have problems with their navigation skills as they kept turning their map round and round in circles – which was a bit hard to fathom as there was only one road in this neck of the woods. They asked me about the road to Kala-i-Khum and I told them that they could easily make it to Kala-i-Khum in one day (it was only about 90km away and 30km were perfect).

As they struggled to fold up their map I went to restart the bike and that’s when I heard the sound that all motorcyclists hate – nothing, except the click-clack of the starter relay doing nothing. With the exception of the horn giving up the ghost in Lahore from overuse, the bike had performed flawlessly. Given the punishment it had received coming up the Karakoram Highway and across the Pamir and Wakhan Highways, this was a testament to the durability of old air-cooled BMW’s before they went all hi-tech.

But now – nothing! As we all do in these situations we keep trying the starter button in the vain hope that it will miraculously “fix itself”. Of course, it never does “fix itself”.

But it was what happened next that truly stunned me. The Dutch gentleman asked me if I had a problem, and after explaining  that the bike wouldn’t start for some reason, he promptly apologised and rode off – without making any polite, but effectively meaningless, offer to help! In my entire trip so far I had not encountered any traveller who would not make, at least, a token offer to help.

Once I was over the shock of their abrupt departure, I turned my attention to the problem at hand. The first thing to do was to push the bike about 200m back up the road where there was the shade of a large tree. By now it was late morning and the temperature was well into the 30’s. I quickly unpacked the bike and removed the seat to get access to the battery and the wiring – hoping it was something simple like a wire that had shaken loose over the bad roads. It wasn’t.

Fortunately, this was the main “road” between Kulyob and Kala-i-Khum so I knew there would be plenty of traffic on it. Whether anybody would be able to help was another question. My next plan was try to jumpstart the bike with jumper leads. Unfortunately I had lent my jumper leads to a fellow motorcyclist in Nepal and that was the last I saw of them. After 5 minutes I waved down the first car.  The occupants of the car were keen to help but they seemed to have trouble interpreting my impression of Marcel Marceau using a set of jumper leads. I can’t understand  why –  personally, I thought it was very good. Eventually, I thanked them and waved them on. Next came two heavy trucks heading for China. Both stopped but it was obvious they were keen to keep moving.

I gave up on my Marcel Marceau career and changed tack. I would try to push start the bike to see if I could at least get mobile again and make it to Kulyob where I would reconsider my options. It was at this point that I rued the day that I bought an American model of my bike. All European and Australian models came standard with kick-starters, but the American models came without kick-starters because they saw no need for them. Wisdom in hindsight!

Just as I was getting ready to give my 250kg behemoth an almighty shove down the almost flat, dirt road a local taxi pulled up to ask if I needed help. I gladly accepted their offer and with two ethusiastic pushers the bike fired backed into life at the first attempt. All I had to do now was pack the last of my gear without letting the bike stall. I thanked my good samaritans and waved them on their way. I couldn’t help but wonder at the willingness of the locals to help another stupid tourist yet two of my fellow travellers were quite happy to abandon me to my fate without a second thought.

Just as I finished packing two motorcycles pulled up. Again they were the R1200GS Starship Enterprise model BMWs. One was flying a Norwegian flag at the back. I asked if they were from Norway. The reply was an abrupt “No, Italia”. By now, my little electrical problem had cost me about an hour and I was not in the mood for idle chit-chat with rude people. Again, as I was about to leave three American Barbies pulled up on bicycles effectively hemming me in. They could have walked straight off the set of Survivor or Amazing Race. I had barely seen any western tourists for weeks and weeks, and now I was literally surrounded by them. As the Barbies chatted with the rude Italians I had to push my way through the logjam of two-wheeled vehicles, all the while making sure the bike didn’t stall.

Free from the mob that had materialised out of nowhere, I tried to work out what the problem with the bike was. It ran OK when started and the charge light indicated that the alternator was OK. Maybe if I rode it for an hour the battery would be recharged and my problem would be over.

It wasn’t.

Even though I only had about 100km to go to Kulyob, about 60km were on jeep track making it likely that I would need at least one break. After an hour, I searched for an appropriate spot to stop – shady, but more importantly, on a downhill slope with a good bitumen road surface. Surprisingly I found such a spot and nervously turned the ignition off. Even more nervously I turned the ignition back on. Absolutely nothing! Now there were no dash lights at all and the starter relay didn’t even click-clack, it just made a pathetic buzzing noise. Not only had the problem not fixed itself, it apparently had got worse.

Oh well, there was nothing I could do here in the middle of nowhere and probably not even in Kulyob. I would just have to get to Dushanbe the best way I could and try to sort out the problem there. It would mean having to pushstart the bike every time, but fortunately, that had proven relatively easy to do.

I got going again with the help of some passing locals and rode almost non-stop to Kulyob. But I just had to stop to take a photo of a bridge that had some dodgy makeshift repairs. The metal sheets had started to “lift and separate” so the solution was to fill in the cracks with dirt!

Some innovative bridge repairs!

In Kulyob I eventually found a room in the Hotel Khatlon. While the building was relatively new, the staff at the Khatlon wouldn’t have been out of place in the Soviet era. With a surly doorman/gardener/reception clerk doing his utmost to avoid helping the guests and a cleaning lady that mopped the same piece of floor repeatedly, the Hotel Khatlon overtook the Hotel Faran in Murree, Pakistan for the Basil Fawlty Award for Spectacularly Atrocious Hospitality, Service and Facilities. Most of the light fittings in the room didn’t even have bulbs, there was no water pressure at all until after 8:30pm, you only got hot water if you remembered to turn the hot water system on two hours before you wanted it and the fountain out the front was used by the public as a giant rubbish bin. Its only saving grace was the carpark had a slight slope which, hopefully, would make the bike easier to start in the morning.

It had been a very long way to Kulyob but tomorrow would be a brand new day. Hopefully the ride to Dushanbe would be trouble-free and allow me to focus on solving the bike’s electrical problem when I got there.

Fingers crossed!

Categories: 06. Tajikistan | Tags: | Leave a comment

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