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Collateral Pleasures

(by Ana) I’m, as you well know, a rookie motorcyclist. I left Bucharest less than two months ago with less than 600 km done on a motorbike. By car I have clocked even less, perhaps a little over 150 km, driven more than a decade ago. In May I had zero traffic experience, and I struggled even on a lowered DRZ with my vertically challenged silhouette.  But while it is scary, testing myself is also lots of fun. It brings excitement to my life, smashing through the smug facade of everyday routine. As I ride out of Dushanbe to my inevitable apex of motorcycling, the mighty Pamir, I’m still having a blast trying to imagine how this geological trial will go down – the way the rocks will crumble and the waterfalls will thaw, and how my fears and weaknesses of today will be incinerated by doing, while my virtues will be spared.

John is helping me negotiate the morning rush hour. But after 10 days of rest, I feel less confident. My tongue is swallowed as if stung by a hive of wasps, my limbs are stiff, my left arm is squeezing the clutch while my right index is desperately reaching for the hand brake. Have I forgotten how to ride this thing already? And frankly, this is the worst day to doubt myself. The tarmac provides some sort of comfort only for a few hours of sweaty riding. The last friendly face is of this Austrian girl, who is at the end of her cycling tour along the Wakhan corridor.

After we say our good byes, we turn right, off the tar and into the Russian roulette of  whatever this next week will bring upon us. There is no traffic to speak of, only a few jeeps pass us, forcing us off the trail. For the rest of the time we are alone, and might I say miserable. I go slow, John goes mad. I struggle to make again the connection that I feel got lost while skype-ing and hiking in Dushanbe. Come on, girl, encourage yourself!

There have been quite a few rains lately, so we find the road mushy and damp. Most hairpins are decorated with a slush of loose gravel mixed with sand and in the apex there is usually a stream overflowing into the valley.

With every kilometer I doubt that we will make it to Tavildara today. We have chosen this route – called the summer route- because it is supposed to be more scenic and rough. And scenic it is, indeed. About the roughness of it, only my sore bum and wrists can say a lot!

We stop often. It is so hot and we are sweating so profusely that we are easily drained of energy. If only we could switch to third gear perhaps we’d find some relief in the cool air, but where there are no streams to cross…

… there are steep climbs or rocky stretches to munch.

So we must rehydrate a lot, and soon our dried fruits bags that we thought would serve for emergency food who knows where, are visibly dwindling.

As I remember from Africa, the hardest stretch of a road will be at the end of a hard day of riding.

So, in a way, when we see the river we should cross as the sun is setting down, we are little surprised. John passes first. I watch him jiggle and his feet and wheels sinking under the water. I open my helmet to hear the current. It is strong, but not scary strong. Before I could get anymore spooked, I pull the clutch, bring it into gear and slide my bike into the river. I cannot say how hyped I am to find myself on the other side, after about 15 meters of  variable depth and rockbed structure. I’ve made it! I am so excited that I continue on for another kilometers. After I cross a small village John catches up and signals that I should pull over. He tells me that Greg, the French on recumbent bike from Dushanbe and his g-friend are in the village before the river crossing and that he invited us to join them at the guesthouse they’ve found. It’s only 2 euro per person a bed, it’s a truckers’ joint, he says, and we could use some company. But that means I have to do this river again, and not only once, but twice. I gotta say that this ruins my mood.

At the guesthouse Greg and Cyrielle are nicely installed in a shabby dorm. The bed sheets must be the same since the last year and the last hundred of truck drivers, but outside it’s damp and soon quite cold, so we’d better stay. While we order a pot of tea, rain starts pouring. It’s raining cats and dogs through the night, and none is  venturing outside for a pee in the horrendous toilet. The power cut brings some relief from the equally horrendous music playing on TV: it’s the national day in Tajikistan, and they are broadcasting the festivities from Dushanbe. Nobody will miss the screechy voice and the queer dancing of the Tajik Michale Jackson impersonator.

In the morning the rain is on and off. Our group packs up our stuff and ponders the situation on the veranda. Greg is joggling with his wet socks pretending that it’s the best day of his life :) This attracts the attention of some local kids, who must think we have lost our marbles.

We decide to ride on, the cyclists decide to linger and wait for the weather to improve. Our Rukka gear is awesome. Drenched in showers from the outside, and in sweat from the inside, we stay dry and clean. In our former gear this day would be a nightmare, in this gear it is slightly inconvenient. We pass another couple of French cyclists, and then we hit the ascent. The valley narrows up into a swift mass of rock. Strange flowers dot the mountain, water is surging across the land and we start seeing the snow on top of the pass.

We cross into the first GBAO district. The road still shows no mercy and the humid weather keeps at it. But this nasty clay is just what the doctor ordered for our Dunlops.

We climb at 3252 m and as we do, the clouds assemble a hazy snow storm.

The views must be fantastic on fair weather, but even now its’ a breathtaking sight of shadows and light.

We are already wearing everything that we have: the warm layers, the wind-stoppers, the goretex gloves. And we’ve switched on the heating, but it hardly make any difference. Its surely below zero, and we are crunching our teeth and trembling with cold. We stop for a brief photo. The only way back to sanity is down, beyond the pass, so we give it gas.

As the road becomes curvier, the air temperature becomes gentler. Once we can zip off and stretch our bones, I feel alive again.

The second half of the road downhill is all rock.

And curves, and hairpins, and adrenaline.

We stop in Tavildara to refuel. We were also hoping to find a restaurant where we could have a warm meal. But all we find is this joint that sells tea in a discreet cubicles decorated as if a show-girl will pop from behind the scarlet curtains any minute now.

When finally the Pamir’s domes come in sight, I am still incredulous. It’s one of our most vivid encounters with the vastness of nature. It’s a lot for us to take in. We pass another group of cyclists. This time all dudes, who’ve done the Wakhan. If yesterday I was doubting myself that I could do it, today I am sure that I must.

In the thick summer air the distant crests beyond the river Panj appear as a hazy beige shadow, not entirely solid, but a tempting line of reference. Then we ride closer. There is no sign of humans. Looking around full circle all we can see is mountain, extending out in all directions, until it joins the sky. Then we ride even closer, and we see it.

The Afghani side of the river. A wonderland. It soon becomes dark, and the people in the village light up their mud-brick houses. We will stop here tonight.

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