It took me 3 days to ride and (toilet stop) my way to the border. Once there it was easy enough to leave Uzbekistan – a little irritatingly the officials did not even glance at the precious registration slips and proceeded to tip-ex out all the details I had painstakingly filled in on 3 separate customs forms. (For a moment I thought I was about to lose all my valuables and then have to pay some bribe to get them back but the form was just put in a card board box next to a notebook.) A short walk across no-mans land where some soldiers were putting more barbed wire on the fence, more stamps and forms and confused looks from uniforms at desks. But eventually another set of gold teeth opened the gate and welcomed me into Tajikistan. I cycled for an hour past more smiles and waves, round the first town after the border and stopped by a water pipe at the edge of a field. Here I had my first wash in 5 days, as did my clothes and I lounged in the shade for a couple of hours in the mid-day heat. The afternoon was spent pedaling up a frustratingly long and gradual hill, into a head wind, before the road dropped down for a cruising descent to Khujand. It is the second largest city in Tajikistan and capital of the fertile north. More importantly for me it had cash points – which were a welcome sight after the hassles of money in Uzbekistan.
After a few days relaxing in the city and trying to fight off the last of the SSS I set off on the road to Dushanbe. The route took me up into the Fan mountains, my first proper mountains since Georgia, thankfully the road was kind and it was not too much of a shock to the system. But as soon as I entered the mountains I was given a stark warning of how dangerous these roads could be for its’ users, rounding a bend I saw a mangled wreckage of a truck cab and it’s cargo of onions being winched up a hillside and onto a recovery truck. (There were several more truck wrecks clinging to the sheer slopes further along the road to Dushanbe.) I was able to avoid the first big climb by using the newly built Shariston tunnel – marked as ‘under construction’ on my map, I was not sure if it was open and what state it would be in. At the entrance a truck offered me a lift explaining it was cold and dark inside, but I fancied my chances. I put on all the lights I could find and an extra layer and set off. It really wasn’t that bad – the only problem being that I did not know the tunnel length so I had no idea when the end was. It was slightly uphill so I soon had to stop and take off the jumper, it was a little worrying as the air got hazier with fumes in the middle but after about 4.5km I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and emerged in a cloud of fumes. On the other side the 30km downhill on smooth tarmac and with stunning mountain views was a real treat. And I was cheered and beeped as I cruised past the truck driver who had offered me a lift. He was smiling and laughing at me as he edged his way along the switchbacks followed by the smell of his overworked brakes and gear box.
The gentle re-introduction to mountain terrain only lasted until I decided to take a detour 50km up to Iskanderkul Lake, a stunning blue lake at the end of a winding road that turned to sand and gravel just as the switchbacks started 10km from the summit. My legs were out of shape and the wheels were slipping all over the place on the loose surface. It was a mental screaming fit inside my head as I struggled physically, pushing Carra for several kms through a hot afternoon, knowing I would be coming back along the same road the next day. But the reward was a dip in the ice cold water and a makeshift luxury waterside camp for the night. Unfortunately the paradise was broken by a park ranger who thought that offering me dinner (dog food has looked more appealing than this meal) and vodka meant he would not be sleeping alone that night. Some swearing and a shove down the wooden ramp set him straight but left me dozing for the night with one eye half open. Retracing my tyre tracks (and footprints) the next day a kid ran alongside me for several kms in a village, speaking pretty good English and insisting I come and meet his family. So I enjoyed lunch with him, his neighbors and his grandfather (who was the English teacher for the village).
Back on the main road again I was approaching the 2nd major tunnel on this route. Known locally as the tunnel of death, the Anzob tunnels’ reputation precedes it and I had had a message from Alex cycling ahead of me saying ‘Do Not cycle it’.The alternatives were a 2 day ride up and down the pass (which itself is frequently closed due to landslides or bad weather) or hitching a lift on a truck (not my favorite activity after experiences in Turkey). The road began to climb steeply several kms before the tunnel and the traffic started to thin out too. I decided to try hitching. However, the first truck that came past was already full – having gone our seperate ways in Samarkand, I was amazed to see Xav and Camille hanging out of the truck window shouting and waving at me!! I got a lift in the next truck, only to catch up with them a few kms later as they were unloading from their truck which had some mechanical problems. We rode a few more kms together until we were within sight of the tunnel mouth and pulled over to find a truck for the 3 of us.
It took an hour and a guy trying to charge us $50 petrol but eventually we go our lift. And the Anzob tunnel (of death) was everything I had heard about it. Black smoke billowed out of the entrance, the driver shut all the windows and closed all the air-vents. There are hardly any lights other than those of the traffic, the air-vents that should be moving the fumes through the tunnel on the ceiling sat on the ground, forcing the traffic to work its’ way round them. The concrete road surface is cracked and broken leaving metal rods sticking up several inches and huge puddles of water to collect everywhere, at one point it flows down to who-knows-where through a hole in the ground. Along the wall are broken electric cables sparking in the dark when they make contact. We watched in amazement as our driver picked his way through the gloom, (incredibly thankful we were not on our bikes) taking 45 minutes to cover the 5km. Our reward for surviving the tunnel of death was the phone number of the driver if we needed anything in Dushanbe and 80km of downhill to the city. The rewards continued in the city with the hospitality and welcome of a warm shower host above all others. Having been given directions on the phone and the magic words that ‘the beer is fresh’ we made our way through the evening traffic to Vero’s gate; and were welcomed into a little piece of paradise in the city.
Vero and her son Gab were sharing their house and garden with tents, bikes, cyclists and back packers. Behind their gates was a little travellers peace haven, away from the busy city. We took the time to prepare for our onward journey into the Pamirs, getting GBAO permits, repairing bikes but more importantly enjoying lazy home cooked dinners and talking about our travels past and ahead. As I was still struggling with the SSS I took the opportunity to try and put a stop to them by taking a course of anti-biotics. Unfortunately my body didn’t understand I was trying to help it and reacted with more stomach pains and diarrhea. More annoyingly this meant that despite having access to a fully stocked kitchen (for the first time since Baku) and being surrounded by food loving frenchies – I was limited to a diet of plain rice and buckwheat as everyone else tucked into delicious looking food. But eventually I felt good enough to embark on the next part of the journey. The plan was to ride through the Pamir mountains with Xav, Camille and Julien (who we met chez Vero). After a false start (when Xav & Julien had drunk all the vodka we had brought for the journey and were unable to do anything the next day – let alone start riding up to the mountains!) the dream team was ready to go the Pamirs. 3 french musketeers (although we had given Julien the nick name of the “Kazak” due to his love of vodka) and the apologetic English one (me – always apologising for the english language and it’s nonsensical rules).