Pamir Highway cyclists find warmth on the hard journey through Tajikistan

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      From a cluster of sturdy buildings on the tundra, a woman in a bright kerchief strides towards the road through driving sleet as we approach. She beckons us into her farmhouse. We lean our bikes against the building and enter a carpeted room. Once we are seated among cushions that line the walls, we gratefully accept wooden bowls of steaming milk. We taste warm sweetness as we empty them. Offered more, we nod yes. “Chas,” says the woman in Russian—just a minute. Someone is sent to milk another yak.

      It was June, yet we’d awoken that morning to 15 centimetres of wet snow on our tent. We were a chilled pair of greying Canadians, cycling with sodden gear toward the 4,600-metre Ak-Baital pass. We were pedalling south on the Pamir Highway in eastern Tajikistan, a former Soviet Republic.

      When my husband and I announced our plan to cycle across Central Asia in 2009, friends expressed concern for our safety. Surely the area was rife with corruption and fraught with danger? But our decision to travel there rewarded us with experiences of kindness and generosity, especially in the Pamirs, a region that left a lasting impression on us. Our travels here were the highlight of our 11-month journey from Bangkok to Paris.

      We knew this yak farm was the last habitation we would encounter before the pass, and that it was a desolate 100 kilometres to the next town. With poor weather ahead, we were grateful for this Kyrgyz herding family’s invitation.

      For a day and a night they embraced us into their routine. Indoors, two matriarchs prepared food and supervised toddlers while a young mother spun wool. Men came and went tending animals. A sheep was butchered, roasted, and served with fresh bread, and we feasted seated around a cloth spread on the floor. This was only the first of countless acts of hospitality we were to receive in Tajikistan, and which came when we needed them most from people whose own next meal was an uncertainty. Although we would offer payment when we accepted this hospitality, it was usually firmly refused. Tajikistan is a Muslim area where the Islamic ethic of generosity is practised to the fullest.

      We set out the next morning—dry and well-fed—for the pass. Red mud spattered upward, freezing to our spokes, feet, and panniers. A vehicle passed only every few hours in this desert-tundra of red rock, where broad valleys rose to sharp ridges and sleek marmots bolted for their holes. We moved slowly in thin air, resting often. At the summit, we bundled up and pressed onward, knowing we risked a hefty fine if we didn’t register with the police in Murghab by that evening. A tailwind sped our descent through a wild and empty landscape.

      Our first stop in Murghab that evening was the police station, where we found we had just enough somoni (Tajik currency) to complete formalities before making our way to a homestay for rest, food, and warmth.

      We knew supplies would be scarce ahead, so the next day we wandered among converted shipping containers, which served as market stalls, to buy soup mixes, noodles, kasha, and limp root vegetables. Being able to find food is not a given in the Pamirs, which we learned were blockaded during and after Tajikistan’s recent civil war, which ended in 1997. Only through interventions by the Aga Khan, the head of the Ismaili Muslim sect, was widespread starvation averted. The area depends on imports, since the short growing season severely limits local production. Village shops sold little more than pasta and candy; vegetables and protein remained in short supply.

      A few days beyond Murghab, we turned off the Pamir Highway to follow a rough road over the Kargush Pass. On the descent, we reached a military checkpoint where teenaged soldiers checked our passports as it began to snow. My husband fumbled nervously with his collar and hood, but one of the lads set his Kalashnikov rifle aside to help him, his movements gentle and respectful.

      Camel trains picked their way along a rough trail on the Afghan side of the Pamir River as we descended into the valley. Three spirited Tajik boys greeted us as they drove loaded donkeys uphill. I noticed the whites of their eyes bulging from hollow sockets, which dawned on me were probably the effects of chronic malnutrition.

      The road dropped steeply to Lyangar, where irrigated gardens were tucked behind stone walls. At our homestay that evening, I inspected a plum tree’s hard green fruit. “Sintyabr,” said our host, nodding ruefully. The plums wouldn’t be ready till September—this was the coldest Pamir summer in 25 years.

      We continued along the broad Pyanj valley for several days, and the village life we saw looked tough. When we leaned our bikes against a bus shelter, a boy watched us quietly as we reached for snacks. His eyes were locked on our movements. I held out a package of chocolate biscuits, which he snatched like a feral animal. I wished I could have given him something more nourishing, but we were limited to the empty calories that were available. Cycling for two weeks on this incomplete diet had taken its toll on our bodies, and I could only imagine the long-term effect of such limited fare on a growing child.

      When an afternoon sandstorm forced us to turn back to an oasis village, we were immediately welcomed into a home. Our host served us from a communal platter on which a few morsels of meat crowned a mound of pasta. Ignoring our protests, he placed most of the meat firmly on our plates—we were the guests, and our hosts ate ungarnished pasta. We were overwhelmed by Pamiri generosity yet again.

      Arriving a few days later in Ishkashim, we rejoiced at finding tomatoes and cucumbers in the market. Two more days brought us to bustling Khorog, with its selection of restaurants where we looked forward to eating our fill. We had left the barren lands, and although our bodies were utterly depleted, our hearts were overflowing.

      ACCESS: Cycling in the Pamirs is for experienced and well-prepared touring cyclists. Services are virtually non-existent, so plan carefully for self-reliant travel. For the planning details of the writer’s trans-Asia bike tour, see bit.ly/gQFVw1. For a blog from her journey, see bit.ly/fXqUyd. Check Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada’s travel warnings and reports on Tajikistan at www.voyage.gc.ca/. Visa support and travel assistance information can be found at www.stantours.com/.

      Comments

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      3 Comments

      Kamilla

      Apr 20, 2011 at 4:49am

      I liked the article. Just one correction, Tajikistan is not a Ismaili Muslim country, it is majority Sunni Muslim, with the Pamirs being the Ismaili Muslim part.

      Charlie Smith

      Apr 20, 2011 at 6:35am

      Hi Kamilla,

      Thanks for your input. I adjusted the article to reflect your concerns.

      Charlie Smith

      Iqbal

      Apr 26, 2011 at 9:07pm

      Having gone for a one month adventure in the Pamirs almost a decade ago,I can attest to the generosity of the people.
      The people don't have much, but whatever they have, they will share with guests.
      It is possible to fly to Khorog from Dushanbe and then explore by jeep using Khorog as your base.
      You do need special permission to visit Badakshan which can be obtained in Dushanbe.
      A rugged place of mountains and rivers, worth a visit but not for the faint of heart.