It took a minimum of six different check points just to finally exit Uzbekistan at the southern border post closest to the city of Denau. This sort of time consuming procedure defiantly summed up our travel experience inside the country as unnecessarily difficult. While attempting to get processed out, my name flagged some sort of response from their computer system and for a few minutes I was worried that they might not grant me the exit stamp I so desperately wanted. Thankfully after some strange questioning about the amount of times I have visited Uzbekistan, (which has been only once) the customs official ignored the flashing red words attached to my name and allowed me to proceed through to the other three check points. I’m still unsure what caused my name to generate such a fuss, but now I’m under the impression that I probably won’t be able to visit Uzbekistan in the future. Maybe it was that previous blog post “Doing Our Time In Uzbekistan” that possibly upset someone inside the police state? Truthfully the way that tourists are monitored inwardly and publically, it wouldn’t surprise me that I might be flagged as a possible trouble maker. What ever the case may be, I don’t think I will be asking for entry to Uzbekistan in the near future.
Gaining entrance to Tajikistan was a completely opposite experience compared to our leaving Uzbekistan. We were welcomed into Tajikistan by friendly officials, happy to help us fill out our immigration forms and customs officers who fed us a home cooked meal instead of interrogation and bag searches. They even directed us to a spot to pitch our tent near the passport control office. I don’t believe we could have asked for a safer location to camp for the night. While not exactly private or very quite it was in fact a very secure spot to sleep.
Waking up the next morning Brian and I had the feeling of a whole new change in perspective. With the Pamir Mountains just ahead of us and a “Warm Showers” host for us in the capital city of Dushanbe, we felt as though things were finally coming together for us in Central Asia.
This feeling of well being only intensified during our time in Tajikistan’s biggest city, Dushanbe. During our first 24 hours in country we accomplished all of our pressing tasks which included finding a DHL office, obtaining our official Pamir Permits, and gathering much needed supplies for the long desolate ride that was directly in front of us. All of our normal city chores like laundry (machine washing), bicycle maintenance, obtaining bank notes were all simple as well. Anyone who has spent even a slightly less than significant time in Central Asia knows that these are no simple feats and to achieve. To accomplish them inside that sort of time frame, seemed no less then amazing to the both of us. Even our Warm Showers host’s beautiful home inside the city seemed like a little oasis away from any troubles we might encounter. There was even a bit of free time allowed for us in Dushanbe, upon which we quickly filled our open moments with our new discovery of the most fantastic restaurant in town. A little Korean place off of Rudaki Ave, which we passed multiple times a day. Central Asian cuisine not being either one of our favorites, this restaurant was a refuge for our taste buds and we took advantage of this gourmet opportunity as often as was allowed. Knowing that we would be carrying and preparing all of our own provisions for the next 10 days while we made way up into the Pamirs.
Since record time was made preparing for the road ahead, we only spent three days in Dushanbe before we felt confident enough with ourselves and the rations in our panniers to forge ahead up to the highest climbs we would encounter on the trip thus far. Finally both of us excited for the prospect of cooler weather and dramatic scenery in the mountains. Realizing that the two of us are actually much happier cycling when have something fantastic to focus the eyes on. Never minding the extra difficulty of climbing or the more technical riding as long as there are beautiful surroundings.
The first day out of Dushanbe we covered a comfortable 80 kms or so, taking our time, enjoying the cycling, and stopping frequently for water breaks and to prepare lunch. The road (M41) on the way to Horog was a bit more busier then we had been led to believe from previous research but as we pressed on, passing through suburbs and outlying towns traffic seemed to decrease with the more distance we put between us and the capitol.
That first evening we met up with two other British cyclists doing the same thing we were, heading up to the mountains. Deciding to combine forces for the night, a camp site was found right next to a fresh mountain spring that lied just outside a little village at about 1700 meters. Where we were allowed small amount of privacy to set up our tents, cook a meal, and do a little washing up before cuddling up in our sleeping bags for a good nights sleep in the cool mountain air.
Waking up the next morning to a chill in the air and wearing long-sleeved shirts was a pleasant change to the dry oppressively hot deserts climates we had been accustomed to. Brian even made oatmeal for breakfast, which even one day earlier would have seemed strangely out of touch with the season. I’m not sure the other cyclists felt the same way about of recent swing in temperature as we did. Shortly after breaking camp they decided to head on out in front of us being a faster then and a bit more pressed for time on their Tajik visas then Brian and I were. They thought it best to get moving at a more quickened pace then what we would be keeping. It was more then fine with me to separate, going into the Pamirs I was looking forward to the solitude.
Isolation from society was still going to take a few more days from this point, we hadn’t even gotten to the point where the tarmac ends. The latter point came after second breakfast about 30 more kms down the road.
Unfortunately when the pavement ended the traffic didn’t. There were still many villages on the road ahead and sometimes even bits of paved road for small stretches along the way. This mostly would happen before and into the villages themselves. We knew that the 400+ kms or so from this point to Horog would be the most difficult portion of the trip into the high mountains. There was no illusions that this was going to be easy and it was made readily apparent quickly after the road turned to a rocky dirt track.
It was gong to be slow but we soon found our mountain legs and got back into the rhythm of climbing. This strangely Zen place in your mind and body where you go beyond the pain and focus only on the tranquility of moving. I know it sounds weird but when you find this place during cycle touring everything gets easier and much more peaceful.
We were just getting into this phase in our riding when the worse possible thing that can happen during bike tourist happened right next to Brian while chugging along up hill. While coming upon a blind corner, Brian harrowingly escaped a head on collision between two vehicles speeding down the middle of the mountain road. Both cars swerved in his direction to avoid hitting each other and almost ended Brian instead.
Both of us continued to ride on up the mountain, I was unaware on how much this incident shook up Brian. At the time he didn’t let on that it affected him until we were much further on don’t the road.
After a several hour long discussion/ argument/ realization about the future, continuation of the trip, and more importantly safety, all of which coalesced under a bridge, the only scrap of shade to be found in miles, it was decided to turn back and end our tour.
The decision wasn’t made easily or lightly and at the time we both had very a different prospective on how to proceed forward. But once it was determined we would in fact be returning home every logistical detail fell right into place almost immediately, like it was meant to be.
I’m confident that we made the right decision to turn back at that moment.
Safety has always been the biggest concern for us while on tour. After the close call Brian experienced, the realization that many people in countries such as these don’t take into consideration life and the safety of themselves or others. It’s not something we didn’t know before starting this trip, it just became much more apparent after the collision Brian was nearly a part of.
Our lives are precious to us, our friends, and to our family. It will take some time for Brian to get over the shock of his near death experience. This set back won’t stop us from continuing to cycle both at home and abroad in the future. And we know that risks are real for collisions with cars and bicycles where ever you go in the world.
Time heals all wounds.