Tajik Travels

Our route out of the city took us up through the mountains before descending onto the plains. One of the main features here is the sheer number of animals being herded. It’s very much a subsistence life for many of the Tajik people where the annual income in the countryside is just $200 a year. Every other person seemed to be guarding their flock of sheep or goats, often hurriedly trying to get them off the road as our bikes came into sight. Our progress was often interrupted, and I warned the other riders about looking out for animals, one of the early signs is the scent of crushed sagebrush where the animals have trampled it, when I smell it on the air as I round a corner, it always makes me slow down, because sure enough there’s a loitering group of goats with evil intent- or at least that’s what it seems like as they start to charge across the road in a cloud of dust.

The road surface was also deteriorating, with lots of broken up tarmac and pot holes. Attempts were being made to re-surface the road in places, but as they don’t actually close off the carriageway to traffic while this is going on, it meant we were all riding through wet tar…weeks later that layer of tar was still on the bikes. Some particularly memorable roadworks (photos about to appear in the photo gallery) included one town where the main street was dug up and consisted of mud. Ever keen for a challenge, I was easily convinced by the locals that “yes, of course a motorbike can get through” the alternative being to detour around the whole town; I almost didn’t make it as the mud was deep and treacherous. Just the thought of my group finding me stuck spurred me on and  ensured I managed to keep going – imagine the indignity of it.

Our final “civilised” stop for the night was in the town of Kulyab. In the morning, the air of tension was palpable as everyone focussed on loading up their bikes, today was going to be the most demanding day we had faced so far this trip and everyone knew it. There was a distinct lack of banter, and we set off in twos and threes.

I’d forgotten how stunning that first sight of the mountains and the river valleys of southern Tajikistan can be. This time I could appreciate it a lot more than my previous ride. Two years ago I’d been on Thelma my R80GS, without knobbly tyres and with a pillion passenger and the entire luggage including camping gear for both of us. This time, on a lighter bike, minimal luggage, more rugged tyres and solo, I felt like I was playing, as I whizzed along, keeping an eye out for any of our group who might be having problems. We’d all agreed to “spot” each other at the river crossings, however we were in for a surprise, they’d had a mild winter in Tajikistan, and there was virtually no water in the rivers. We merely had to pick our way across the dry river beds with their rounded stones and pebbles. There was a distinct feeling of relief.

We were riding alongside the Panj River which forms the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. We were literally just a stone’s throw from the Afghan villages across the water – and we’re talking the distance that even I can throw a stone. Our side of the river still seemed better developed than the other, though I was amazed to see a quad bike on the opposite side at one point – yes, the Taliban have gone modern and traded in a few donkeys for an All-Terrain-Vehicle.

I re-visited the tea-house where Annie and I had stopped for a couple of hours last time, and the women had been dying their eyebrows, they’d also done mine, but I’d ended up looking more like Groucho Marx than Frida Kahlo. The family is somewhat depleted now, there’s just one daughter left and her son who was a small toddler and is now a sturdy, though shy four year old. They remembered me from my last visit- they were probably still chuckling at the memory of giving me coal-black eyebrows. I introduced my group and we enjoyed a lazy lunch in the cool shade of the trees with tea, bread, yoghurt  and plates of plov (a rice dish). My most distinct memory after the tea-house had been of the deep river crossing just down the track. To my intense relief, there is now a bridge, and we all made it to Khalaikum safely as even the waterfall we had to ride through was the barest of trickles. The route had definitely been improved since my last journey here, though most of the time it was still a narrow gravel track where lorries would suddenly appear coming the opposite way and we would have to get right over to the edge of the “road” hanging over the precipice, to enable them to get through –they don’t make any allowances for us. The temperatures along the valley are very high, adding to the discomfort of riding through such tricky terrain.

Three days after leaving Dushanbe we’d reached Khorog at the start of the Pamir Highway, we had a rest day, made the most of being in a place with running water and prepared ourselves for more demanding days of riding, following the Wakhan Valley.