So when you order a taxi and accentuate the point that you have two expensive bicycles and a lot of luggage, therefore we'll need straps and padding, or a large enough vehicle to throw everything inside, the answer will ultimately be "sure, no problem".. because these guys will find a way, no matter what is available!
At 8.00am taxi arrives at our hostel. We have teamed up with Will and Scott who also want to travel to Osh and Tajikistan and if there is room, we'll all share the cab. Scott is the American photographer that we mentioned in the last post and Will Ladson is a fellow Aussie from Alice Springs, northern territory and as Australian as they come. The first evening at the hostel, as David and Will fell into an in-comprehensible slur of Aussie speech, the other backpackers were bewildered as to why they were suddenly unable to understand any of the conversation and unable to follow the 'hilarious' Aussie related jokes. They seemed relieved when I told them that I too struggled to keep up a lot of the time and that you had to master the 'tune-in, tune-out' technique. I wandered then how it would be when I reached Australia!
Anyway, Will left Australia in April 2014, flew to Turkey and intends to travel back to the homeland by any means, except flights. Will's route has encompassed countries that most people consider out of bounds, such as Iraq, Iran, Syria and at this time, he was heading to Afghanistan, proving that there really is much more to these majestic countries than just war and bad politics.
As the driver of the taxi would not allow us to put the bicycles in the Mercedes estate, we passed the next hour trying to fathom a suitable configuration for securing our bikes to the roof without any bike racks, padding or blankets. We had two short lengths of rope, the roof rails as attachment points and the added bonus of my knot tying skills from my sailing days. It wasn't totally straightforward, but we did get there eventually and finally set off on the hair-raising journey to Osh..
And then my pulse really skipped a beat. There before us, a moody valley opened up, the land so barren, but strikingly majestic. Nomadic horsemen drove their flocks of sheep and goats, whilst smoke billowed from the chimneys of the yurts. Along the roadside, tables were piled with balls of mare's cheese and milk products for sell and the handful of businesses here had utilised old train carriages or recycled containers as their workshops. This is what we had come to see.
The ferocious driving had already caused us a flat, so we thankfully pulled up for a breather whilst the driver saw to the tyre. We walked away from the vehicle, stood in the middle of the road, in the middle of nowhere. The long grasses arched over in the stiff wind that governed this vast, enigmatic landscape. The solitude and emptiness wasn't empty at all. The skies constantly changing, casting dark shadows that at one moment engulf everything in its path and the next, spilling its light and saturating the earth with its warmth. Overwhelmed by the mystery and depth of this place, David and I seriously doubted our decision to not ride this road and contemplated pulling the bikes from the roof right there and then. But, it was then that the driver ushered us back to the car and we just had to trust our initial indistinct to stick with the plan and head for the Pamir's.
Dining in Central Asia;
A few hours later we pulled up for lunch. The driver ordered himself a big plate of fatty mutton, whilst the rest of us settled on the homemade bread and cay. Traditionally, meals are served either on a picnic style mat, or cloth called a Dostorkon which is laid out on the floor, or on a low wooden table, seated on cushions. It is important to observe the customs of dining in Central Asia, which means removing your shoes before joining the table and keeping your feet away from the Dostorkon. There are also rituals like only using your right hand for handling food and at the end of the meal, it is respectful to bring your hands to your face and pull them down as if 'washing your face' whilst reciting "omen", the Muslim equivalent of "Amen". Seen as my cycling shoes were positively offensive, I thought it best to pass on lunch at the table and paid a visit to the girls in the kitchen instead..
A plateau at over 2000m in Kyrgyzstan..
..and the reason why we will be back.
We hadn't anticipated the stark contrast in culture as soon as we crossed the border, but were immediately enlightened when we arrived in the first town. The market place was bustling with ladies covered from head to toe, fashioning a wonderful array of colours and absolutely immaculately dressed with matching trouser, kaftan and hijab. Although there is a large muslim following in Kyrgyzstan too, the culture seemed much more liberal. There are also distinct Mongol, Russian and Chinese influences in Kyrgyzstan, of whom all bring strong cultural values and beliefs. In Tajikistan, however, their routes stem firmly from Persia with a prominent and strict following of Islam.
Will and I were keen to get in amongst the market and I thought I would take the opportunity to look for some fleecy bottoms to wear over the top of my cycling shorts in the mountains. With anything from Playboy to Man-United jogging bottoms to choose from, stacked in piles on the outdoor tables, I slipped my shoes off and began pulling pair after pair, up and down over my fitted and now very see-through cycling shorts. You can only imagine the horrified looks aimed at my indecency! However, I was clearly keen to find the right pair and the sellers were eager to make a sell and so it was, that I became the centre of attention. Tracksuit pants come at me from every corner of the market and the price seemed to get lower and lower. Trying to keep up with who owned what, I finally settled on a stylish pair of Porsche 'go-fast pants', as David likes to call them!
Our third and final taxi of the trip would be a 4x4 that we bartered from outside the market, with stiff competition from countless other taxi drivers all touting for our business. To squeeze the price down we agreed to wait until we could take some extra passengers and then set off for yet another hair-raising ride to Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe. As the mountains engulfed our narrow, twisting road, adrenalin began to flood our veins. We were on our way to some of the most magnificent and formidable landscapes on this planet!
We survived it and inhaled a big breath of clean air as we emerged into daylight. And then we held that breath and swallowed. Just moments out of the tunnel, on a tight bend, a lorry had tipped over and split it's container, spilling the cargo across the road. It wasn't clear if the lorry had lost control and mounted the bank before spilling over, or if it had in fact fallen from the mountain road above us. We of course swerved around the truck, taking the blind corner on the wrong side of the road and praying that our driver had some sixth sense when it came to oncoming traffic.
Talking of contrast, this adventurous journey couldn't have ended more peacefully, with thanks to a particularly legendary member of the Warm Showers community, Veronique Geoffroy. Living and working in Dushanbe with her fabulous son, Gabriel, Véronique has invited countless cyclists to their beautiful home to give them the chance to either prepare or recuperate from the epic Pamir adventure.
With so many people coming through at any one time, Veronique's garden paradise has literally been blossoming with tents as her extraordinary hospitality has gained more and more recognition.
We arrived just in time also. The little garden door swung open and we were warmly welcomed into Véronique's garden of Eden. Immediately, we were enthusiastically ambushed by an excited rabble of cyclists who were going for a record of how many people could fit in to Veronique's car! Told to hurry up and jump in, we quickly off-loaded the bikes and piled into the back seats. We were heading to a bar, situated on the hills overlooking the capital city. Here we would watch the sun set over Dushanbe, share stories and get to know some of the coolest people we have ever met, a few of whom we would go on to share some of the most challenging and rewarding moments of our entire journey with.
I know it's easy words to use, but what Véronique contributes to Warmshowers and all the people they welcome through their doors, is nothing short of inspirational and truly makes you consider how much we all do for one another. Besides from the hospitality and wonderful atmosphere of the house, you also can't fail to be super impressed by the fact that Véro and Gabs, who is 8 years old by the way, have already nailed the Pamir's on a tandem together - Yes, 8 years old!!! Thank you Véro, we will cherish these times for a long time to come!