Postcards From Dushanbe

This bit of our adventure starts in front of a closed border. 50 km off Samarkand two young soldiers are holding their AK47s in front of us. Wordless. A man comes waving: we learn that this border is not open for foreigners. So we will take a long detour across the southern provinces of Uzbekistan, peaking over into Afghanistan and enjoying a bit of peace and quiet. Because in this stretch of the country there are no tourists and no tourist buses. We can walk quietly in the shadow of splendid mosques and bask in the glitter of the mosaic that covers mausoleums just as stunning as in Samarkand. We can also marvel at the feet of a statue that honors the national hero – a guy whose hands, some say,  were dirty with the blood of no less than 17 million of his own people.

Soon loneliness starts eating our soul. We take the first chance to stock on dried food: people are selling dehydrated fruits and nuts and something else that looks like little white and pink pebbles? It’s kurut a type of cheese that is made by drying in the sun the kefir, so no salt is needed for preservation. The pink variety is rolled in some chilli dust, enough to give a pleasant tingle on the tongue.

The landscape more than makes up for the loneliness. Rolling hills are covered in a brisk payer of grasses. Only animal foot paths interrupt this vast expanse of golden green. The few villages we pass appear just as lifeless. Whenever we spot a teenager herding his cattle through the clouds of dust, we are never too sure that he is real, or just imagined.

It’s so hot. We are both covered in a sticky layer of dust and sweat. Ana stops to have a sip of water and as she is tying the bottle back on top of the tires, some kids come shouting. One of them has Ana’s plate number. We discover that she has just lost it a couple of dozens meters down the road. The bike has been enduring this hardcore corrugations for many hours and we were lucky with these kids. As I start mending the problem, a bid crowd gathers around us, just like in Africa. But here there are only men, all curious, a gazillion questions to ask… Do you sell this bike? How much is it? How many cylinders? Whats the max speed? … etc.

While I’m working Ana is entertaining our audience. Everybody requests a photo, but the camera has a strange effect. The faces that were very lively a minute ago suddenly become frozen and timid. So Ana’s portraits look rather like official photos for a socialist event, than like some pics taken on the side of the road.

I’m done, we get on our bikes, but… the DRZ battery is dead. It’s getting late and I’m tired and frustrated with one more problem to solve. A couple of drivers stop over, to check out what is going down. Nobody can serve me any good, there are no cables, no handy man, so I use my own battery to kick start Ana’s. When I’m done again and the bike starts moaning, the spectators are more ecstatic than we are!

One guy invites us over for tea. He tempts us with Internet connection, but tonight it’s not the right night for such interactions. I’d hate to spoil the special moments when we are hosted in someone’s home. We are spent, too tired, no energy to enjoy a proper visit. So we skip it, we continue riding farther. As the sun goes down, Ana makes me proud again, climbing behind me a steep hill, from where we can see the entire valley. It’s just what we need for a good night sleep.

The morning is calm: tea, a samosa. It’s just the calmness before the storm.

A couple of hairpins up, the road gets nervous and rough, the mountain rockier and the dry river beds even drier.

No tree for as far as the eye can see. But what the landscape has lost in diversity, it is gaining in color. The steppe has exploded in dozen of shades of purple, khaki, brown, gold. It’s a stunning preview of what’s to come: the Pamir and probably Mongolia.

In the last chaikhana we are greeted with free tea, a bottle of fresh cold water and hot bread taken straight from the oven.

But let’s not mistake this day for a fun day. The closer we get to the border the nastier the road  is: crumbled, potholes, covered in layers of loose gravel that makes our street tires rock and roll.

On the Tajikistan side there’s confusion. It’s difficult to park our bike to the police liking, but in the end we are rewarded with a handful of apples.

It’s the last kind gesture until Dushambe. The last hundred of Ks to the capital is a desperate fight for centimeters with mad Tadjik drivers, hoping on the horrendous road. It’s a draning task, it’s a daunting ride. Every bit of decent tarmac is claimed by cars, trucks, bikes and mopeds. Nobody gives a rat’s ass about rules here. There are no breaks in the mayhem.  Oh, no, today is not a good day. Today we’ll leave many kids unwaved, many onlookers unsmiled. We just want to make it to the capital of this 6th country alive.

Tajikistan remains the poorest in the former Soviet sphere, with one of the lowest per capita GDPs among the 15 ex-republics.. It came under Russian rule in the 1860s and 1870s, but Russia’s hold on Central Asia weakened following the Revolution of 1917. Bolshevik control of the area was fiercely contested and not fully reestablished until 1925. Much of present-day Sughd province was transferred from the Uzbek SSR to the newly formed Tajik SSR in 1929. Ethnic Uzbeks still form a substantial minority in Tajikistan, a country that became independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and experienced a civil war between regional factions in the 90s, and more recently an armed conflict between government forces and criminal groups in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast.

Less than 7% of the land area is arable. Actually, drug trafficking is the major illegal source of income in Tajikistan, as it is an important transit country for Afghan narcotics bound for Russian and, to a lesser extent, Western European markets. Because there are no jobs in Tajikistan, more than one million Tajik citizens look for employment opportunities abroad, almost all of them in Russia. We meet them crowding in at the Russian embassy, where we queue on for hours, in no less than 49 degrees Celsius!

Most of these things we learn them from our couchsurfing hosts. And man, we were lucky to find them! A charming, multi-talented family of globetrotters and artists.  Helene is French, Ervin was born in Romania, in Transylvania’s  Gheorgheni, where our African Tenere got sold. Thanks to Ervin we are introduced to a spicy concoction brought by him from Romania only a couple of days ago :)

Their adorable Adele, who will soon turn 2, is also about to welcome a baby brother.

We feel again like home: cooking together, browsing the stunning fresh produce market, experimenting with fruit sorbet (hint: apricot and mint are a great match!). We are not alone: we share our hosts generosity first with a young French couple on recumbent bikes.

And a few days later we meet a very brave couple, also from France. Caroline and Cedric are determined to walk around the world in 10 years. We have so many stories to share over dinner at Ervin’s…

…or over a big serving of  khourtob. This dish is made of layers of bread, yoghurt, hot melted butter, onion, tomatoes and fresh coriander. The best thing to enjoy while sipping on sour cherry compote!

While we deal with visas and socialize with our fellow travelers, we explore Dushanbe. The city is calm and easy, with wide boulevards cutting across a dense texture of residential neighborhoods that make this feel like a village, rather than an urban area. of course the big monuments, the opulent fountains and some kitschy architecture could not be missing!

The portrait of the president is scattered around town: the propaganda is aimed at introducing this dude as the best athlete, best scientist and in general the best of its people…

Check out this poster that suggests the president and Putin are good buddies :)

Dushambe has a few lovely buildings, but the most charming is the old chaikhana downtown

In the meantime we are striving to update the blog and tend to the bikes fort the upcoming ride in the Pamir.

I meet Andrei, who has a small bike garage in Dushanbe. Noah has been here, and Andrei helps me switch from road tires to knobblies in a snap.

After we finish working, Andrei invites us to join him and Dimitri for a trek up on the mountain. After 50  kilometers thru Varzob canyon, we leave the KTM and the  mopeds of the guys with a local family:

The kids are eager to try on Ana’s helmet. Dabilsar, Fezet and Aliser are all smiles as we start hiking away.

At the start of the trail, a crystalline water from thawing snows is mixed with the cloudy river that flows south.

It is very hot, but we are happy to move our limbs and the landscape makes us think of our home mountains.

The exotic detail are the donkeys that carry bags of salt up into the mountain :)

Before the climb becomes really steep, there is a lovely tapshan to chillax on top of the cool stream …

Sadly we cannot stay the entire weekend up here. We must say good bye to the guys.

We have a meeting back in town with another Romanian expatriate. We also have a lot of work to do: both in the garage and online, as our blog is still stuck in… Georgia. Finally, at the end of ten days in Dushanbe, we start rolling towards the Pamir. Where we are about to experience drought, snow and generosity.


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