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Desert Furnace to Snow and Ice
Submitted by Tiffany on 25 June, 2009 - 04:44
Korjand to Dushanbe
Annie had thought things couldn't get much worse until she woke up the next morning and I issued her with a thermal balaclava, nearly losing one pillion rider to hypothermia in Armenia I don't want to risk another one.
I'd woken feeling better though weak and felt able to move on - not in any mood to hang around mad man's hotel if we could help it.
As always when we were getting Thelma ready to leave, a small crowd gathered and asked where we were going - an incredulous look when I announced Dushanbe and the crowd said "on that bike over those mountains?" making high mountain gestures in the air - I managed to distract Annie as they did that - it's a need to know situation and I really don't think she needs to know that we have two huge mountain passes ahead of us, and anyway as she has currently mislaid her reading glasses (my now blind navigator) she has not been able to read the route description in the guidebook so is blissfully unaware. I had told her the thermal balaclava was for the dusty conditions. So far it had been almost unbearably hot, like riding in a convection oven set to full heat, but I knew this would change.
The tarmac was good to begin with, scenic mountains, dry, dusty valleys and occasional oasis towns. Roadside hawkers including blokes holding out writhing snakes, not sure what people were buying them for. 100 miles further on, a police checkpoint and they indicated a rock and gravel strewn track leading upwards as the way to Dushanbe. Now I am no hero, this was not an optional side route we were taking but the only road from the north of the country to its capital city; Tajikistan just does not have the infrastructure that many of us take for granted. And to be honest I would never have chosen this as a road for someone's second day on the bike but as I said we had no choice, we had to get to Dushanbe as quickly as possible to get our visas extended.
It got very bumpy and then the snow appeared, small amounts at first until it was banked up at the sides of the road, melting and falling onto the track in front of us. The surface got more slippery as I was faced with the unenviable choice of slippery mud or slippery slabs of ice on a narrow dirt track at 3300 metres altitude. The lack of oxygen was starting to give me a headache and I was desperately conscious of the fact that I had donated my last square meal to the customs sniffer dog yesterday and had eaten only a bit of dry bread since then - I decided to not dwell on my weakened state and just focus on the road as we lurched towards the edge of the precipice. I stopped in time, straightened Thelma and apologised to Annie as I then gunned it up the final straight - we had made it to the top, now all we had to do was get down the other side - and for those who know my feelings about downhill stuff, it was not a pretty sight. I got Annie to walk about 15 yards at one point as there was so much snow across the track, it was downright dangerous.
The only other traffic were a few lorries toiling along and lurching from side to side, they gave us grins and a wave as we passed- I left the social side of things to Annie as I tried to keep our skidding to a minimum as we descended through the slush and ice.
Finally we reached the bottom and stopped at the local equivalent of Frankley Services- with chai (tea) houses on either side of the track. They were full of truckers who stared open-mouthed as we pulled off our helmets and they realised we were women (or at least vaguely recognisable as women under the dust and gime not mention bad helmet hair). A pot of tea served by the friendly propietor who led us into the kitchen, the only choice was soup - bubbling away in a huge cauldron, ignoring the lumps of mutton fat bobbing aorund in it I said it would be fine (just don't tell the vegetarian society).
Refreshed, we set off once more, the cafe owner had refused payment which was very sweet of him. Just one more big mountain and then it will be downhill all the way and maybe we will see tarmac again I told Annie. In fact there were some great startches of tarmac- so fresh they were still hot and sticking to our tyres- as the chinese road workers made space for us to squeeze through along their foot paths whilst cars and lorries had to wait 30 minutes or more at a time. In Ayni we stopped for fuel - a bit hit and miss, no indication of octane level (there is a lot of 80 oct here) and it was served out of a 10 litre glass jar.
The next part of the route headed uphill again, getting more steep and then extremely rough, I had to get Annie to walk a short section that was particularly steep with loose sand and gravel, it was a toss up between her helping to keep the back wheel in contact with the ground and therefore giving more purchase or having Thelma a bit lighter and potentially easier to manoeuvre. We felt as if we were engaged in a titan struggle in these extreme conditions (and I don't say that lightly) so watched open-mouthed as Ladas went trundling down the hill in the opposite direction.
Eventually the tunnel of terror loomed up beofre us, I had been pre-warned about this, it's an Iranian constucted four mile pitch-black flooded tunnel with deep pothles and a delightful carbon-monoxide atmosphere. At least it meant we didn't have to go all the way to the top of the mountain in the snow again. And have I mentioned the fact that there is a veritable Niagra Falls of water pouring from the roof the whole way through?
We paused at the entrance, mentally steeling ourselves for what was to be my scariest bike experience, a cement mixer lorry came along and beckoned us to follow him through - what a gent. He even put on his light at the back to act as a small spotlight for us, the upside was that we could see the watery surface ahead though the downside was that we had to choke on his fumes all the way through and at times when it would have been safer for us to go a bit faster we were trapped behind him going slowly- Thelma is more stabele on uneven ground at faster speeds. Within 50 yards we had lurched into a vary deep pothole that soaked us and I almost dropped Thelma, I think it was only the thought of trying to pick up Thelma in 2 foot deep filthy water in the inky blackness that enabled me to desperately keep her upright. After that I watched the truck's wheels intently (a bit hard with my eyes stinging from all the fumes), looking out for that tell-tale lurching. It seemed to take forever, but finally we were out into fresh air once more and now it was definitely downhill all the way.
We reached Dushanbe at 6pm that evening, it had taken us 10 hours to get there and we were exhausted.