06. Tajikistan

The black hole of Dushanbe: Final daze!

WARNING: this contains swearing

Days 10-13

Saturday and Sunday passed in a foggy haze of watermelon, new faces but the same conversations. Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going? An overwhelming sense of inertia had descended on me. I could have gone away for the weekend but it was easier to do nothing. I could say I was saving my energy for the coming weeks but I wasn’t. I just didn’t feel like doing anything except waiting for the Turkmen Embassy to open on Monday. The whole trip seemed to have ground to a complete halt.

Genuine 1960’s Soviet memoriabilia in an old second-hand shop.

One day when I was feeling energetic, on one of my many trips down Rudaki, I found a fascinating second-hand shop that sold all sorts of Soviet memorabilia – paintings of Karl Marx and Lenin, old Russian cameras and a huge assortment of Soviet badges and insignia. It was a time capsule of the Soviet Union from the 60’s.

An English guy turned up on a Transalp. He needed to fit his spare rear tyre so I said I would take him to Andre’s workshop on Monday morning. At least it would give me something useful to do. Monday could not come soon enough.

Eventually the calendar ticked over to Monday and, after more of the same – endless watermelon and recurring conversations, I took the English guy to Andre’s to get his tyre problems sorted out late on Monday morning. I left them to it and returned to the Inn to waste some more time until it was time to walk the 1-2km to the Turkmen Embassy. Had the consulate official been able to get my visa back from Ashgabat a day early? Would I be able to leave in a leisurely manner on Tuesday morning? Or would I be left with a mad dash to the Uzbek border on Tuesday afternoon? I was about to find out.

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The black hole of Dushanbe: Days 7-9

Days 7-9

How does one fill in a week in Dushanbe? With great difficulty, as I found out.

Dushanbe is not a city that has a glorious history spanning many centuries like its very close neighbour, Samarqand, just over the border in Uzbekistan. Until the Soviets arrived in the 1920’s it was nothing but a dusty little market town. Dushanbe means “Monday” in Tajik, the day the weekly market was held. The Soviets decided to make Dushanbe the capital of the Tajik SSR when they carved up Central Asia into the jigsaw puzzle that it is to this day. Consequently, there are no architectural wonders like the Registan in Samarqand or the Ark in Bukhara.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Tajikistan, in general, and Dushanbe, in particular, have struggled to find their place in the world. Since independence it has effectively been a one-party state with an all-powerful president/dictator. The evidence of this is everywhere in Dushanbe. Every public building, and there are lots of them, carry huge banners of  President Emomalii Rahmon playing with children, mixing with sports stars or talking to miners. The Post Office even gives away free postcards with his picture on them!

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The black hole of Dushanbe: Days 3 – 6

Days 3 and 4

Thinking that all my problems were solved or, at least under control, I spent the whole weekend catching up on domestic chores. It had been a long time since I handwashed clothes in bucket. But I had all the time I needed. And with free WiFi at the Inn I was even able to catch up with how the Cowboys were going in the NRL. On Saturday morning I started the bike just to make sure everything was still OK.

They like their monuments big in Dushanbe! That’s me at the base of the statue.

Mex and Moni had invited me to join them on a weekend ride with Andre and some friends into the mountains just outside Dushanbe. But after the last few days, all I wanted to do was to sit back and not have to think about anything. Over the weekend I got to know some of the other guests at the Inn. And a very diverse bunch they were. There was an English cyclist, a young English paraglider, three Israeli trekkers, a Kiwi and French couple, a French cyclist from Toulouse and a number of others who came and went over the weekend.

There were several lazy trips down Rudaki to play tourist and take photos or simply to have shashliks and a few Baltikas for lunch beside the fountain. All in all in was a very pleasant weekend. I felt re-energised and ready to take on the next stage of my trip.

Come Monday morning, however, all that equanamity would be nothing but a memory.

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The black hole of Dushanbe: Days 1 and 2

The owner of the very trick BMW was an Austrian guy called Markus or Mex as he preferred to be called. His BMW was heavily modified with very few parts left in their original state. It was a work of technical genius, far beyond my level of mechanical or riding expertise. Mex, and his wife Moni, and I were to become good friends during our many days together in Dushanbe. They also had bike problems. The clutch on Moni’s bike had failed and they were waiting for a new clutch plate to arrive from Germany via DHL.

I had three major tasks to complete in Dushanbe. Despite the urgency of fixing the bike’s electrical problem I had to give priority to getting my visas for Iran and Turkmenistan. I could work on the bike while I was waiting for the visas. In direct contradiction to what I had read on many websites, it was NOT possible to get my Turkmen transit visa without getting the Iran visa first. So my first port of call on Day 1 was the Iranian Embassy. With a bit of Tajiklish I managed to get a taxi down Rudaki for what was to be the first of many, many trips. At the embassy I was relieved of US$185 and told to come back on Tuesday (it was now Thursday). This meant I now had several days to concentrate on fixing the bike. Continue reading

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On the road to Dushanbe

For the first time in two months, and over 5600km, I approached the new day with a degree of trepidation. Until now my bike had been 100% reliable. But today I had the constant doubt about whether the bike would start. Without my bike I wasn’t going anywhere.

I couldn’t even be bothered enquiring about breakfast. I just wanted to pack the bike and see how the day would unfold. With some help from a couple of other inmates from Gulag Khatlon, we pushed the bike down the gently sloping path in front of the hotel. The bike started on the second attempt and I was on the road to Dushanbe. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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The Pamir Highway Part IV: Khorug to Kala-i-Khum

There’s a BMW growing in the tomato patch!

It turned out that Hajbi wasn’t the owner of the Chorbogh Inn. The house was actually the home of Hajbi’s brother who was working overseas for 12 months. While he was away the family had decided to put his home to good use and turn it into a guesthouse to earn some much needed money – preferably US dollars!

I was the only foreign guest at the Inn. All of the other guests were Afghanis. Khorog, like Ishkashim, was one of the common border crossing for Afghanis to enter Tajikistan and as it was the weekend of the annual festival there were many Afghanis in town. Hajbi spoke very good English and was very “westernised”. He was very happy to have an English-speaking guest to practise his English. He also commented that he was happy that he had a guest “who knew how to behave”. He also commented that the Afghanis “didn’t know how to behave” and he had taken it upon himself to teach them “proper manners”. I suspect his efforts would be in vain. Continue reading

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The Wakhan Highway: Langar to Khorug

The plan for the day was to ride about 110km along the Wakhan Highway from Langar to Ishkashim and visit the large market held every Saturday. From Ishkashim it was only another 100km to Khorug. The Wakhan Highway is no more a highway than the Pamir Highway is. Most of it is rough “jeep track” with the added bonus of the return of landslide rubble. However the views across the Pyanj River to Afghanistan were often breathtaking. 

Crossing the Khargush pass yesterday also meant crossing another ethnic divide. Since entering Tajikistan from Sary Tash, the majority of the locals had been Kyrgyz. However, once over the Khargush Pass, I had left the Kyrgyz to their high altitude pastures. Now, the locals were mainly Pamiris who had more in common with their Wakhi neighbours across the valley in Afghanistan. 

After a good night’s sleep, I wondered what sort of breakfast awaited me. Thankfully, breakfast was much more recognisable (and nourishing) than yesterday’s disaster – black coffee, eggs, naan and, of course, a bowl of lollies. As I was packing the bike after breakfast Ëdgar’s young son decided he wanted to “help”. Continue reading

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The Pamir Highway Part III: Alichur to Langar

The daily ritual of collecting water from the local well by donkey

The daily ritual of collecting water from the local well by donkey

I woke early to pack the bike and witnessed the centuries-old daily ritual of collecting water from the local well using a donkey. Most of the people in this part of the Pamirs are ethnically Kyrgyz not Tajik and their simple lifestyle doesn’t appear to have changed for centuries. How they survive under such harsh conditions is truly amazing.

The start to the day was cool but with crystal clear blue skies – a vast improvement over yesterday’s Arctic winds. I wasn’t the slightest bit hungry but I knew I should eat something, anything, to combat the effects of the gruel from last night. To my horror, the leftovers from the previous night were served up again for breakfast. The goat’s milk had been left on the stove overnight and globules of fat and oil were floating on the top. I drank as much of it as I could stomach before excusing myself from the table. I felt sure I would pay for my good manners later in the day. Continue reading

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The Pamir Highway Part II: Murghab to Alichur

With a relatively modest itinerary for the day, I enjoyed a leisurely homestay breakfast of eggs, naan, chai and lollies. Lollies were served at every meal at every hotel/guesthouse/homestay I stayed at in Central Asia. Good for a quick hit of energy and does wonders for the demand for gold false teeth. Initially, I was taken aback by people flashing 24ct smiles – something which I found oddly reminiscent of an old James Bond movie. Continue reading

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