Once More Unto the Breach: Bikepacking Northwest Tajikistan
Dates: October 4 – 11, 2018
Location: Dushanbe, Tajikistan to Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Distance: 401 km cycled
Activities: Cycle touring/bikepacking
Photos by Brittany
Downloadable GPS tracks and interactive maps for each day are at the bottom of the post.
If you stuck a toothpick into the Central Asian section of our bike trip, it would come out clean. After committing to a change of scenery when we bought airfare to China while in Dushanbe, we just needed to ride over the Fann Mountains and onto the flats of Uzbekistan.
Before we left Dushanbe we wanted to send a few parcels back to Canada. To that end, we walked to where the DHL office was marked on Google maps with our unpackaged souvenirs. When we arrived there was a DHL-yellow truck, but with the red logo removed, and a man wearing a DHL shirt. We asked where the office was but were told that, in fact, courier services had been outlawed in 2017 and only Tajik post could handle parcels. This was extra confusing since the (former) DHL truck was also full of packages.
We didn’t question the news and returned to the post office from which we had sent postcards the prior day (20 cents each). After two hours, multiple handwritten forms, and lots of twine and brown paper, our parcels were removed with a vague timeline promise of, “One month.” At this point, the clock is still running. If both arrive this year, I’ll be impressed. (Update: they both made it to Canada.)
From Dushanbe we started riding out of town north on the only route through the Varzob river gorge. We enjoyed wide shoulders and a short day to the town of Varzob, where a hot tip had us follow the only road away from the highway to some nice wild camping 3 km out of town. We had to cross a small tributary to reach our chosen campsite so we took off our shoes to ford the river. I tossed my shoes across first, as usual, but had neglected to tuck my socks inside. The shoes easily sailed to the other shore but the socks simply dropped into the water a few feet away before being brisked towards the city. Add one to my score for lost items.
The next day we reached the first of the tunnels built to keep this main traffic artery flowing through avalanche season and landslides. Some are passable by paralleling gravel roads, but others require you to enter with trucks roaring by. There is absolutely NO good reason to ride these tunnels. A narrow sidewalk allows you to walk off the road which is much too narrow to share with traffic. We put our lights on and duly walked through, or rode around, about a dozen tunnels on the second day. As usual, many cars think a friendly honk is a welcome greeting to tourists. On the road, the sudden noise from just behind you is terrifying; in the tunnels it’s deafening.
The last tunnel is the granddaddy of them all: The Tunnel of Death. We were told visibility in this 5 km behemoth is measured in the tens of meters simply due to pollution in the unventilated tube. There’s no way we were walking this one and hitchhiking was equally unappealing. What to do? Take the old (closed) highway over the mountain pass!
By climbing once more above 3000 meters, we could avoid the unpleasantness of tunnels, fumes, traffic, and horns since the Anzob Pass (3363 m) is impassable by car traffic as it is no longer maintained.
The climb was actually straightforward as the south side is still mostly paved and is used to service a weather station at the top of the pass. At this station we had chai with the lonely man who mans the instruments solo. We watched him fill out a logbook while we drank tea and soup before we crested the top to enjoy the descent on the north side.
The north is the reason the pass is impossible for vehicular traffic. There were at least two landslide areas that block the way for cars but were still clear enough for us to stay on our bikes for the entire descent.
Back on the highway with the trucks, the steep sides of the canyon which house this road were preventing any of our attempts to find wild camping. We looked ahead on the map and saw a road that leads off the main road next to a tributary river. With darkness closing in and few options, we headed towards it. As soon as we left the highway, there was a fork in the road. We were stopped for moments before two different people both emphatically gestured towards the right. We were confused, how could they know where we wanted to go? We dug deep into our Russian and said, “Palatka?” while looking helpless. So far that has been a surefire way to find a campsite. They said, “Da! Da! 24 километр.” while still pointing to the right.
We followed their advice and after a few kilometers pulled barely off the road to a small patch of dirt. Not the finest camping spot we’ve had. After looking at the map again, we realized “24 километр” references a lake and resort area with camping and cafeterias. Now it all made sense but it was way too dark to continue.
While we made do with our poor location, locals kids starting gathering around and insisting we come camp in their yard. We refused at first, but the father walked over and also invited us in so we relented. We pitched our tent inside an unfinished building on the family’s property which had a balcony overhanging the river. We had a roof, walls to block wind, and electricity for a small light.
Since we were already a few kilometers towards the resort lake, we decided to take two days to make a side trip and camp up high once more. Iskander-Kul is an alpine lake above 2000 meters that has a small resort area where the road meets the lake. We ate lunch at a small, ridiculously expensive cafe but decided we would try to wild camp on the far shore. Most of the lakeshore is bare but there are still three or four houses, including the president’s summer home complete with helipad. We rode 3/4s of the way around the lake (10 km) to find private wild camping next to an unfinished home.
The glacial-fed water is brilliant blue like Garibaldi Lake at home but the sunlight needed to truly appreciate the colour was absent as a storm rolled into the area. It rained on us overnight and we packed up in the morning in drizzle. As we climbed the road up and over the small pass that guards the lake, the rain turned to snow and we began to get very cold. The long descent back to the highway in snow and cold rain left us frigid. Instead of making more progress to Samarkand, we asked the family we had met two days earlier to camp in their yard again.
The request was granted with enthusiasm and this time we were treated to tea, dinner, and breakfast and were joined by two similarly drenched and cold French cyclists who were also returning from the lake. Dinner included multiple rounds of mystery spirits with the Grandpa which left me red-faced and hot in time for bed.
Over three more days we rode rolling hills and major headwinds as we gradually lost elevation to the Uzbek border. When we reached the border, we got in a long line for customs with all the locals. We waited only a few minutes (which was enough time for a couple pushy people who arrived after us to squeeze ahead in line) before a border guard came out and led us to the front of the line. I felt guilty for the privilege but also a bit smug when I looked back at the line jumpers. Like other places in Asia, if you’re not pressed up against the person in front of you in the lineup, someone WILL elbow their way into the space.
The border crossing was smooth and 40 km later we were in Samarkand. The Opel Astras of Tajikistan were immediately replaced by Chevrolets in Uzbekistan (mostly white Cobalts) and traffic ramped up immediately but the wind had abated so the pain was fairly short.
When we arrived at the hostel, we knew the cycling in Central Asia was finished but we hardly felt any emotion. Now, three days later, we feel the same. Since we are continuing to cycle soon I think it doesn’t feel too bittersweet. We do wish we had spent more time in the Pamirs. Ideally we would have completed the Bartang Valley from N to S, headed east on the M41 to the eastern terminus of the Wakhan Valley, then taken that valley on a return trip to Dushanbe. This would have added about two weeks to our trip and it was a mistake not to take the opportunity while we were here.
In terms of bikes and bodies, both are showing a bit of wear. We both have sore backs often, a tendon in my right knee clicks when I walk (not painful, but strange), and our small bread bellies and shrunken arms will keep us from showing off on the beach for at least a little while. No major problems with the bikes but some parts need replacing to get them back in top shape. I’ve been sticking to my resolution to do 10 pushups a day in penance. A small number, I know, but in Dushanbe I did 30 and had a sore elbow for the rest of the week.
I’ve also gotten very irritable in the past week. Multiple times a day I get irrationally angry with things like wind, slow internet, pushy queuers etc. In addition to the pushups, I’ve resolved to increase my Zen. So far this has not progressed as well as my pushup resolution.
In Samarkand we had a funny exchange with some local teenagers about some of the potted plants around the city. We started noticing that one of the most common plants decorating the streets are just regular basil. Yesterday, two kids witnessed us smelling the plants and laughed while saying, “No smell! Not a flower!” Brittany then shocked them by ripping off a leaf and eating it. They were astonished and said something along the lines of, “What if it’s poison!?” We assured them that in a lot of places, this was just regular food but they looked unconvinced. I wrote the name down so they could read about it later but, in that moment, we were still just crazy tourists in their eyes.
For some stats on our cycling trip in Central Asia, click this link.