I cross into Tajikistan, I’m expecting it to be one of the highlights of the entire endeavour but in the short term it means that I’m finally leaving the dull desert behind me. I’m in the grips of the mountains shadow now, the air is cool and lush greenery like a thick carpet covers the wide valley floor into which life is funnelled.
As I pass through the towns and villages they are teeming with people in their finery, Ramadan ended yesterday and its a national holiday. I would need a reward after the month long fasting; teenagers are wearing their best jeans and crisply ironed shirts whist the younger kids drink soft drinks and eat ice cream and the sun is even up. Stop and you are swarmed with people wanting to practice their English, when I take my ice cream break a queue almost forms and I have the same simple conversation, “where do you come from? where do you go?” on repeat.
All around me the ground is rising and so to is the road, mountains of earthy browns and pastel shades of orange form the valley, some are streaked with crimson red almost blood in colour folded into the mountain side in layers like a raspberry ripple. To reach Dushanbe and the start of the famed (in cycle circles) Pamir Highway I must first cross over into the next valley. As I reach around the 2500m mark of this long and slow accent I crest a verge and come across Tajikistan’s secret garden; for up here amongst the heights of the mountains and concealed by their peaks is a lush scene of fresh mountain streams feeding wild flower gardens, small wooden bridges lead to tracks which trail off into the distance and small homesteads work the land. Its as if the mountains of the valley below are the foundations which hold up and conceal this garden which wouldnt be out of place on a box of Swiss chocolates; apart from the odd local or cyclist not even a chocolate fanatic gets to lay their eyes on this hidden spot.
Its not all a delight, as side from blowing out trying to reach the top, to pass to the other side and the decent into the capital first you must pass through the mountains notorious tunnel. At five kilometres it is by all accounts a long one, it has a poor reputation and many people opt to hitch a lift through its dark interior. It cant be that bad surely? Nothing ever is, so in I go. Head torch shinning for the light is sporadic to say the least. Cars and trucks rumble past blinding with their headlights on full beam. The dark is not the problem, its the smog and dust which causes me concerns.
My torch seems some what useless as it penetrates a dim few metres in front; with every breath I think cancer! I breath little and not often. Its like cycling in the smokers booth at the airport where they all congregate in their droves, smoke fogging the glass behind which they are contained. When I arrive at my hostel in Dushanbe I am filthy, wearing a face mask of dirt, soot and exhaust fumes.
That was the warm up before reaching Tajikistan’s interior so the end of the next day I find my self nestled in the mountains at the base of my fist big assent. You can find few better camp spots than these, river adjacent with mountain views. As I lie on the grass taking it in I cant help but think that it would be great to roll over and have a small women walk bare feet across my back to release all the tension of the days ride, hell I would settle for a rub down by a big sweaty Turk in hamam; the roads took a turn for the worst. It was an afternoon of skidding wheels, puffing and the occasional ‘fuck my life this is shit.’ The rock strewn surface shakes you to your core, my already numb hands shake like I’m gripping a pneumatic drill, my back tenses and my neck strains, I need a good stretch at the end of the day. Funnily enough, it isn’t to crotch hammering for I am out of the saddle for the majority to prevent any sudden unwanted thumps.
To reach the first major pass its an early start, progress is slow to say the least. I find it a touch frustrating as I like to move faster than walking pace in general. Twelve hours later and some serious sun burn and I crawl across the cusp of the pass. On looking back its work it, literally the views are spectacular and across the other side I catch the first glimpses of Afghanistan.
Time is getting on at this point and I need a good spot for the night, it is a touch nippy up here at 3200m so I need to drop down a fair bit. The ravine on this decent acts like a frame capturing a truly striking view of the precarious dirt road which winds its was steeply down along side a raging river, across the valley the sun casts its last golden beams illuminating the steer cliff faces. Finding a suitable spot might not be as simple as usual. It doesn’t take a 2:2 in geography to see that a lot of these rock falls are recent and you often hear the odd clatter of some unseen head squashing rock tumbling down the mountain side, together with the multiple signs warning not to stray to far from the road finding a suitable knoll might be difficult or risky, mines.