Keith Riehl rides Tajikistan

Tajikistan – Paddy Tyson (Issue 20)

I looked across at Brenda with questioning eyes. ‘Does she mean us?’

With her beautifully chiselled Afghani features, the girl leant over the rough stone wall. “Please, please. Come and join us. Eat.”

She beseeched us to sit with all the people from her housing block, beneath the shade of the fruit and nut trees. The dusty ground was covered with huge, intricately patterned rugs, where women and children were sitting cross-legged on cushions amid a vast spread of food.

“Please you must eat, you are our guest and we are honoured.”

We clambered over the wall and settled ourselves, disbelievingly, amid smiling faces. It was my rumbling stomach that had taken us down a few alleys and into this street in search of a restaurant. Huge bowls of plov arrived, (a rice dish with shredded veg and meat), ‘non’ flatbread, fresh hot tea, sambusa and manti (meat and onion pasties and dumplings), soup, cakes, watermelon, bowls of Russian sweets… It didn’t stop.
After ten days in Tajikistan it wasn’t a total surprise to be welcomed by strangers with open arms and to be offered tea, bread and more in their homes, or to have people approach to just shake hands and wish me an enjoyable time in their country. But this was party time. Complete with balloons.

“Where you from?” “What you name?” the kids shout almost in unison. “Welcome, welcome in Tajikistan!”

“Salam alaikum!” And then there was dancing…

We’d arrived in the eastern city of Khorog, the largest town in the Pamirs, during the third and final day of celebrations to mark the Diamond Jubilee of the 49th Aga Khan, or spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. A billionaire living in Switzerland, he is revered as much for the development fund he established in the Pamirs, as his spirituality and rightly so. The multi-lingual population that was surrounding me now had all benefitted from the liberal inclusive education policy he supported. And the ‘roads’ I’d been experiencing throughout the region had been carved out of the most difficult, ever-changing and unforgiving landscape, with his money. I couldn’t be more grateful for the entertainment the roads had so far provided, so was more than happy to raise a cup of refreshing green tea. “To the Aga Khan!”

Brenda and I looked at each other and beamed. We were absolutely filthy. My Rev-It kevlar jeans could have stood up on their own they were so impregnated with the mud and dust of the fourth-highest mountain range in the world, but no-one minded. We couldn’t have been happier. Having the opportunity to ride a bike through some of the world’s most breath-taking landscapes is as humbling as it is exhilarating, but the fact that at every stop there’s opportunity for meaningful social interaction, makes exploring eastern Tajikistan really magical.

A week earlier we’d settled down for the night in a Mosque in the village of Kala i Hussein. Recent flash flooding had removed a large section of the homestay facility in the village so why wouldn’t the Imam’s offer some travelling motorcyclists the use of their facilities? It seemed the most natural thing in the world. For Islam, there is no greater honour than to help travellers and this is magnified, I’m sure, by the history of ancient ‘Silk Road’ trade that this region is steeped in. A day later my nosey glance behind a gate led to an invitation to tea and my first taste of the exquisite regional mince dumplings, enjoyed in a veritable garden of Eden and barely 100m from Afghanistan. I left with pockets full of apples.

Flash floods are a part of life here; roads change their appearance daily as water decides to choose a new route and either utilise the course of, or simply destroy, the highway. Bridges have only conceptual permanence. But inconvenience can be part of any exploration and I was riding with an international group of eight riders under the stewardship of Marley Burns from Edge Expeditions who, it seemed, took every social and meteorological variable in his very professional stride.

Upon entering the semi-autonomous east of the country, tarmac becomes, in essence, a distant memory. The whole region is defined by soaring peaks and plunging valleys that house sediment-laden rivers, carving away the surrounding land. Much of the ground is shale so it has no stability and what sudden heavy rain doesn’t dislodge, the weekly seismic tremors will shift. In this dynamic landscape the life of a road is a perilous one, and the life of a truck driver more so.

Scoured from the cliff-side the roads are often barely a lane and a half wide and the weight of trucks that grumble along in first and second gear is generally more than they can bear, giving way with regular monotony and falling to a watery end. And no, I won’t pretend that riding them in the knowledge of their imminent demise doesn’t add a certain frisson of excitement to the whole endeavour. In the dry, the routes are a challenge to bike and rider, in the wet they can be almost impassable. When the gravel and boulders do recede, they’re replaced by sand or red laterite, a slimy surface when wet, with the grip coefficient of ice.

Coming to terms with the pummelling my bike and body were getting, I felt I was mastering the little bucking Honda. With relaxed shoulders and lighter grip on the ‘bars I upped the pace towards a lunch stop, having stopped to photograph the amazing vistas, but something wasn’t right. I took a gamble and powered past a Landcruiser just before a downhill straight but a couple of massive deflections from unseen rocks saw the front end skitter all over the place. Repeatedly over the next 10km I thought I was going down, or over the edge into oblivion, as I fought to control what was becoming a recalcitrant beast. It started to rain and I shouted at myself to pull it all together. Speed was my friend in these situations so why wasn’t I concentrating? Why all these crazy moments? I knew I could do better. It was only pulling in to the layby for the little café that I noticed the flat front tyre…

Pounded by corrugations and never-ending potholes and boulders, punctures were an almost daily occurrence and some of the bikes even tried to cry enough. Brenda’s TTR250 Yamaha broke its frame in a couple of places, but that was a minor inconvenience for the bush mechanics who can always salvage what seems to be the direst mechanical failure. As our Tajik guide Farkhod wryly said ‘Pamir always try to kill bike.’

The front sprocket on my XR250 shed most of its teeth in sympathy while we were at almost 4,000m. It was a stunning place for a breakdown. Looking over the Wakhan Valley, there was a commanding view from the Yamchun Fort which has kept a watchful eye on this important Silk Road route since the third Century BC.

We booked in to the little hotel nearby. Over a glass of Tajik ‘Sim-Sim’ beer I reflected on a stunning day, which had seen us enjoy another full day’s ride along the mighty Panj River, looking across the Afghan border. In an effectively treeless desert environment, the peace of my surroundings was palpable and the juxtaposition of horrific media reports from Afghanistan and the scene of absolute serenity that I was witnessing a stone’s throw away, was remarkable. I hoped that throwing rocks across an international boundary wouldn’t start a diplomatic incident.

Part-way through the day the view across the Panj was into both Afghanistan and Pakistan, as the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush dwarfed the Afghan foreground, a mere 14km wide. I just sat and stared, trying to compute exactly what I was looking at; exactly what the social and economic differences were that existed across that river, and exactly how fortunate I was to be right here, now, witnessing such beauty.

As the evening encroached, and a locally sourced welder was delivered to the hotel, work on rebuilding my front sprocket could begin. Alex, travelling from New Zealand on a 660 Ténéré, stepped up to offer his fabrication services, recreating 13 shiny new teeth and grinding down the finished item to suit. 1,500km later it would still be working perfectly as I rode into the capital city Dushanbe.

With sprocket back in situ and the sun finally slipping behind the permanently snow-clad peaks surrounding us, we breathlessly walked a little further uphill and stepped into a cave to find the fabled hot springs that dot the area. There wasn’t a hint of sulphurous odour but the water was the temperature of a barely manageable hot bath; a real pore cleanser. At such altitude, and without attendant volcanoes it just seemed weird sitting there in the steamy darkness, but even more surreal was the glacial river thundering past immediately beside us.

I was a happy and contented bunny as I climbed into my bed that night, despite the fact it listed dramatically to starboard, but alas the wee small hours saw me hugging the only piece of porcelain in the premises. That’s so often the problem with choosing the healthy salad option!

As the days of contentment rolled by so the scenery transformed itself as we headed towards the Chinese border. The high plateau, denuded of vegetation but for some fine-bladed grass and tiny ground hugging shrubs near water sources, was like riding through another world. Up here it’s hard to comprehend that the small hill you’ve just climbed has the altimeter confirming another 4,300m pass. Winter temperatures lower than -50°C are common and the practical warmth and comfort afforded by a yurt heated with yak dung becomes apparent. The interior décor of the one we dined and slept in at the delightfully named Jarty Gumbez, far exceeded my imaginings, and the heat the central stove could generate was as exceptional as the warmth of our welcome. I may be wrong, but I’m sure the family who vacated their home for us slept in their Moskovitch car.

And then, following a few more detours due to flooded valleys, we rolled into the town of Murghab. It’s the largest in the extreme east of the country and yet doesn’t appear to have any reason to exist. It will soon be on a crossroads when the new highway into China is opened, but for now it resembles the set of a Mad Max movie. Low, flat-roofed, whitewashed block and dung houses with sky blue wooden doors, are scattered in the dust of the lunar landscape, between a forest of rough-hewn wooden telegraph poles, made incongruous by the fact that the nearest live trees are weeks away by truck. The bazaar keeps the concept of trade alive, but affords little permanence as it’s just a collection of old shipping containers. Fuel – as in most of Tajikistan – is dispensed from a bucket and occasionally metered, but here it suits the ‘end of the earth’ ambience. People shield their faces against dust devils that spin up alleyways and past abandoned wheel-less Ladas. Dogs bark, but often to warn of approaching wolves that generally survive on a diet of local yellow marmots.

We called this other worldly place home for a couple of days, and rode the surrounding valleys that weren’t closed due to localised flooding. I went to see Lenin, a statue that this poor side-lined town was delighted to receive, even though it was long after the collapse of the Soviet Union when they finally did.

Up here the ethnicity of the people is distinctly different. The Kyrgyz look is more Mongolian, but the hospitality offered is the same. I was even gifted the opportunity to ride a prized 350 IZH, a Soviet era two-stroke machine that’s even more crude than a tractor and surprisingly unappealing. The fact it had no brakes was an irrelevance.

Two weeks in a country is rarely enough time to understand it, but the welcoming nature of the people makes Tajikistan a wholly immersive experience, and they get under your skin with the same ease that the nation’s dust adheres to every crevice of your kit and clothing.

But it all amounts to a riding challenge like no other in an exceptionally beautiful part of the world and I’ll raise a glass of hot green tea to that, and the Aga Khan!

This article first appeared in Issue 20 of Overland Magazine (now sold out).