Monday, October 02, 2006

The Pamirs, at last!

The day we leave Dushanbe is actually the day where the daylight and the night are each exactly 12h long. That means for us that by 17h we need to find a place to stay as we don’t ride at dusk. That also means that if we’re camping, then we need to eat before 18h and spend at least 12h in our tent waiting for the sun to come back (and the temperature to get warmer). Not as pleasant as Mongolia, where we had time to put up the tents and eat dinner, and go to sleep at sunset. Also, the nights at 4000m in October are quite a bit colder than in Gobi in August, so we’ll try to find home stays as much as possible. The downside of course is that we’ll miss some privacy and quietness in the long run.

There are two roads to go to the Pamir from Dushanbe, the traditional M41 highway, and a new road, longer but that avoids a high pass so is open all year around. We're going to face much higher passes later in Pamir so there's no reason not to take the “official” Pamir highway. We took it easy, and by the second day we hit the Panj River that marks the border with Afghanistan, and becomes later the Amu-Darya (formerly known as the Oxus). This part of Afghanistan is inhabited by ethnic Tajik people as well, and indeed they live in the same kind of Pamir houses made of clay. The only difference between the two sides of the river seems to be the infrastructure: paved road bordered by electricity poles on the Tajik side, a mere donkey trail for the Afghans.

We cross many small villages on our way, and as soon as they see us coming everybody is turning around and waving at us, so we spend our time waving back at them (when we can free a hand). Of course, the kids are running toward the road to see us drive by, as if it was a Tour de France stage. Strangely they also sometimes throw rock at us, or more probably fake to do so as I’ve never been hit by one, so I guess it’s more of a game to see if we would react by ducking.
In Khorog, the Pamir capital, we stopped to register our visa, as we were told, although not sure if we have to deal with the police or with the militaries. After asking around, we find the office.. which is closed on Saturday, not to open before Monday.
Now instead of staying in that little town that’s just boring, we decide to ride up a side valley (Shakh-Dara) which turns out to be one of the prettiest of the whole trip. The sun is shining (as it will during our whole trip in the Pamir) and the temperature is perfect, around 25 degrees. The road is very nice, paved only half-way so the upper part is good dirt track, unencumbered by remains of asphalts. The tree leaves are now turning bright yellow and the farmers are busy harvesting wheat in the fields, often by hand with just ox and donkeys to help them. As we stop in mid-morning to rest by a nice waterfall, the nearby farmer drops his work in the fields and asks us to stay there until he’s back. He returns from his house carrying bread, jam, yoghurt, dried fruits, etc.. all this with a large smile and much interest for us. With a few words of Russian we manage to tell the basics of who we are, where we come from and where we're going (besides the mandatory technical details about our bikes, needless to say).

At night we would stop by a house and ask where we can sleep, and usually the answer would be: you can stay in my house of course. Then they start by giving you some water and soap to wash your hands, before taking you inside and offering you the mandatory tea with bread and butter, often with very good apricot and cherry jam. But this is just the welcome, after comes the dinner, a simple soup with pieces of meat or a plate of fried potatoes with onions. During the day we would just eat alone as they mostly respect Ramadan, but after sunset the men would sit with us and share the meal. The women are eating in a different room with the kids, and serve us. The men don’t help to anything inside the house, it’s the woman (and girls) job. Then they would make a bed, in the same central room, by taking away the low table (or simple table cloth spread on the raised floor) and lay a mattress and cushions. These houses have almost no furniture, but many rugs and cushions to sit on. The next morning when we wake up (usually at the same time as they do, as they use the room for storing a lot of stuff) they serve us the breakfast, tea with bread and butter, and often some very good yoghurt from cow or yak milk, depending on what they have. For us Europeans it's really an extraordinary display of generosity, but so natural for them, and quite a bit embarrassing when they firmly refuse our money if we try to pay for it. We respect this and don’t argue, but try to find other ways to leave some bills.

It would have been a shame to miss that experience, but we crossed several bikers who just dashed through the well paved Pamir highway without stopping to share the Pamir lifestyle. I guess it depends on what you’re looking for.

Instead of backtracking on the same road to Khorog, we prefer to continue all the way up the valley and join the main road over a pass that is overlooked by Marx and Engels (6700 and 6500m; not yet rechristened by the Tajiks as they’ve done with Peak Communism, top of the Pamir at 7400m but out of sight). The road pretty much disappears on the top and we make our way across rivers and big round rocks that are a bit tricky to get through, but always a lot of fun, even at more than 4000m.


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