My map of Tashkent was not detailed enough to take me onto the road I wanted to take and hostel owner was about as useful as a can of beans with no opener so I ended up having to take the longer way round to get the Tajik border. Despite the extra distance it didn’t seem like such a bad idea because the main roads I would be taking would be of much quality. From the quality of the asphalt alone it was conceivable that I could make up the time difference. I finally got round to replacing the brake pads and switched from the Triple Nano Schwalbe Supremes to the Schwalbe Extreme on the rear, and the Bufallo Duro on the front which I picked up in Tehran. The raised profile of the tyres and extra thickness made for harder work but I knew they would be necessary for the roads ahead. The trouble was, the double guard puncture protection on the Extreme was more like a double strength puncture magnet than anything else. It got very boring fixing puncture after puncture.
It was a fairly uneventful last few days in Uzbekistan. I struggled to wake up when my 6o clock alarm went off. I enjoyed many bowls of the national dish Plov – rice, a few bits of veg and horse meat. The border crossing was not where my map showed it, and the locals’ lack of local knowledge further compounded matters. After doing a loop to a border at the end of a long day to be told by an AK47 carrying border guard that this was the wrong crossing, I prepared myself to enter Tajikistan the following day.
Naturally the whole visa stamp thing (or lack thereof) was on my mind. The border guards the next morning were turning some guy’s car inside out sniffer dog n all when I arrived. They probably didn’t have anything better to do – this border pass was dead. I went and handed my declaration form in and filed out an exit one. The customs officers insisted I write down zero dollars as opposed to the couple hundred I had with me. Almost definitely some scam on the go there. None of them picked up on the missing visa stamp, but the eagle-eyed kid at the exit stamp desk clocked it. He asked me when I entered to which I replied the 23rd (thankfully the Turkmen and Uzbek visas are right next to eachother so he would be able to see this). He spent about 5minutes mulling this over in his head, then asked the customs people what my declaration form said. They fished my nearly destroyed form out of the bin and confirmed it was the 23rd. He then disappeared upstairs and I was left waiting. 20 minutes later, a woman appeared with a photocopy of my passport, and handed the guy my passport. He then said to me ‘no re-entry into Uzbekistan if I stamp this’ to which I said ‘OK’, and he stamped it and that was that. No telling-off, no interrogation, no cavity search. So much for my instant criminal status the chief office in Samarkand labeled me with. I sorted the biz on the Tajiki side, changed some nuggs, and got rolling…….
Ultra boring 30, maybe even 40 kilometer stretches of dead straight road gave me plenty of time to think about nothing. It seems towns in Central Asia have many different spellings when it comes to using the Latin alphabet; one man’s Tashkent is another man’s Toshkent. I saw at least 4 different spellings for Khujand. It’s no surprise people couldn’t understand me when I said where I was going. A toothless (literally), slightly jittery guy claimed he knew where I could change money. I followed him cautiously down some back streets which then opened up into a beautiful square. Difficult to know how much to trust people sometimes but this guy was honest enough. He then whipped out a photo of his family from his plastic bag and started raving about his Beeline Tajik simcard. It was time to leave.
The road was very boring until it finally wound up into the mountains which had been visible in the distance for miles. It soon got exciting again. Porridge with mashed in 4 bar KitKat and a good tailwind had me sailing up a relatively steep valley at an average of over 13km. Hitherto unlistened-to acid helped the cause. I would be up and over the pass in no time. Suddenly the road forked. To my left the nice smooth asphalt road I had been enjoying, to my right a steep off-road gravelly path. I asked a minivan driver ‘Ere mate, which may to Dushanbe?’ ‘That way mate’ (the off road path). I double checked with another truck driver just coming down off the path. ‘Ere mate…’ ‘That way mate’. Aw balls. The sailing was over and the hard slog was about to commence. This would be my first true pass: The Shariston pass.
On and on and on it went. It was doable but ruddy hard work. Sometimes the track turned into sand/dust and I had to push for a metre or two. I stopped for lunch on a large bend out the way of the cars. Triple 50cent noodles and bread formed the carbo gutbomb I needed to get up and over the pass. The closer to the summit I started I got, the more it started to feel like I was getting some of the symptoms of altitude sickness. It was nothing too bad. A Twix Extra suppressed the worst of it. A guy who spoke English told me the asphalt would start again in 5 or 6 kilometers time. This gave me the motivation to press on to the summit. I got onto the gravel around 11am-ish and finally got to the top of the pass around 1600ish. It was a workout and a half but it felt great to conquer my first off-road mountain.
I took in the view, collated my thoughts, and couldn’t wait to smash it down the other side. And Olga took the rugged mountain road like a dream. What a pleasure. At one point I lost my spare trainers which were just fastened underneath a bungee cord to my tent. I was grateful when the next car came waving them out the window. A puncture half way down which I was afraid was a inner tube destroyer turned out to be just a small stone/piece of glass. I used what was practically the last of my glue and was more than aware I only had two patches left, and no spare inner tube. I prayed this would be enough to get me to Dushanbe. The sun had dipped over the side of the mountain by the time I fixed the puncture and was back on the bike.
Finally the road turned back into asphalt. Amazing: a proper asphalt mountain road in Tajikistan. This was what I had been waiting for all trip. I wound around one hair pin bend and then pumped it out before the small tunnel ahead. I came out hurtling out the other side of the tunnel at 60kph and noticed something small in the middle of the road but didn’t think anything of it. I had only been back on the asphalt for maybe 500metres. I had intended to switch from my day time sunglasses to my early evening 4euro orange super shades, but hadn’t yet got round to it as there were some parts of the valley further down which I would be entering into where the sun was still shining. I impacted the thing in road and suddenly BOOM CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH… whatever just happened it knew it was serious. I was expecting to go over the handlebars but managed to keep upright on the same trajectory for about 20metres before falling over and sliding for about another 10. From the speed I was travelling at I was really expecting to break something, but incredibly I got up with only two scratches on my forearms. I looked down at my bike to inspect the damage and saw that the Mavic super strong rim had completely ripped apart at one point, and cracked in another. I had to laugh ‘cos there was absolutely no way of repairing it, and that this accident had just written off my possibility of riding possibly the only stretch of asphalt mountain road in Tajikistan – which I had been looking forward to doing something like this for months! Typical. How gutted after spending all day climbing the mountain not to be able to enjoy the descent on the other side. I had to look on the bright side: at least I was OK and I could get my bike fixed in Dushanbe. Naturally I had been wearing my helmet at the time of the fall (ahem). I went to inspect what it was which caused the accident – a sharp medium rock which had fallen from the cliff side proved to be the agent. This was one stone which Olga definitely did not crush. Quite the reverse.
An old woman who lived beside the road heard the fall and came out to see if I was OK. She said I could stay at her place if needs be. I thought it would come to this after 30minutes of trying to hitch a lift came to nothing. Finally some guy in a Landrover helped me hail down and taxi and he helped me negotiate a deal of 50 Tajiki Somoni the 150+km to Dushanbe…about 10bucks. When I went to put my seat belt on the taxi driver was like no no no don’t worry about that. After the fall I felt like I needed to use every safety feature at my disposal. That the passenger seat had an airbag was mildly reassuring.
The mountain roads were stunning and it was so frustrating not to be cycling them. Another thing which I had been looking forward to cycling was the so called ‘Tunnel of Death’ of the Anzob Pass which I mentioned in the last post. In the end I am 100% glad I didn’t cycle it. The tunnel was 5km of hell – something straight out of a horror movie. The “lights” were 100watt normal bulbs at 20 metre intervals dangling on the soaking walls. For the first 1km the majority of them worked but for the last few kilometers of the tunnel there was absolutely no lighting. There was zero ventilation which meant that all the lorry fumes remained in the tunnel making it a choking. The pot holes were ridiculous and 75% of the tunnel was waterlogged. It took us 20minutes to get through this tunnel and even in a taxi I positively couldn’t wait to get out. This thing was an abomination of 21st century engineering.
We continued onwards to the capital. A small consolation for not being able to see the mountains by day light was being able to see them in the light of full moon. Truly spectacular…