The Stans Without a Plan – Part II
Posted on July 30, 2015
Jamie and I woke up from our lakeside campsite, high in Tajikistan’s Fann Mountains, washed the dust from our faces, and headed for Dushanbe. We were due to meet up with Mike and Rebecca there, but hadn’t heard a word as to the fate of our companions.
It was a relief to have finally reached the mountains as the desert had taken a toll – Jamie had been launching her lunch after nearly every day of riding with heat sickness. Day after day, she had soldiered on for a thousand miles. The mountain air was cool, allowing us to slumber in our tent far later that we had during the last week in the desert, where the sun would begin baking us alive shortly after sunrise. We descended from Lake IskandarKul then began the long, dusty climb up and over the pass through the surrounding peaks that would lead us to Dushanbe.
Reaching the top of the pass took far longer than we expected, with long rough sections of road and switchback turns that were filled with the finest of dust. Moving only as fast as second gear for long stretches we were happy to be up high, back into the cool air.
Jamie was still suffering from stomach sickness that now seemed as though it was a combination heat sickness, anxiety from our crash, and food poisoning. Every bump down the mountain on our suspension-challenged bike sent her stomach roiling. By the time we descended the other side she had about had it.
We were almost to Dushanbe now, where we were sure to find some comfort and good food. We took some time to enjoy the view from a meadow on the way down.
In Dushanbe we found weird, massive Soviet-era hotels that were terribly overpriced given their severely dilapidated condition. When we got access to wifi, we learned that Mike and Rebecca’s trip had become slightly more complex than they had hoped when the train took a turn into Turkmenistan. They didn’t have a visa for Turkmenistan. We’d left them at the train station in Beyneu, Kazakhstan, under the impression that they would speed across the Uzbek desert arriving in Dushanbe ahead of us. The bike was hoisted 6 feet up from the platform with pure manpower and placed into a cargo car with nothing for company but a pile of AK-47’s, and they were off. When they realized the train was approaching the Turkmenistan border, they tried twice to get off the train, but weren’t allowed to do so. The second time, someone called ahead to the border officials who assured them that there would be no problem, since no passengers are allowed on or off the train during the transit through Turkmenistan.
As soon as they crossed the border, Turkmenistan officials boarded the train and Mike and Rebecca were forced off the train along with the bike. The train workers who had assured them that they would be fine to transit through didn’t seem to be around anymore. Turkmenistan is not really a place that you want to be detained by the military with no one knowing where you are. There is no access to the internet. Turkmenistan ranks second in the world for oppressive governments (runner up to North Korea) and has a similar cult-of-personality style worship of their leader. The previous dictator up until 2006, Turkmenbashi, did things like re-name the months and days of the week after his family members and outlawed playing music in a car. He erected statues of himself and plastered his image everywhere. They were stuck in this place under the pretense that they had entered the country illegally, held in a small office and never let out of the guard’s site. The guards followed them to the bathroom, and shooed away any of the local village kids that came to see who the strange foreigners were. There was some food provided by the guards, but like me, Mike eats vegetarian, and they weren’t exactly given a menu to choose from. They burned through the stove fuel boiling water to drink every day. Over the 4 days of their captivity, they ate every bit of food that they were carrying and found every way imaginable to entertain themselves in a little room.
Things improved when Mike was finally able to get in contact with the US Embassy in Turkmenistan. They held an emergency meeting and got in touch with the Turkmenistan officials, after which Mike and Rebecca’s treatment improved markedly. Apparently, they shouldn’t have been yanked off the train at all, so the officials had either screwed up, or decided that a couple American tourists would be some good entertainment for a few days. The US Embassy finally was able to secure Mike and Rebecca emergency visas that would allow them to get back on the train towards Tajikistan. We found them at the train station in Dushanbe a day later, dirty, dehydrated, and about 10 pounds lighter. But we were glad to have ’em back.
We retrieved the CDI unit that we’d had shipped to the Hyatt Hotel in Dushanbe and spent an afternoon running around looking for some electrical connectors. When we plugged in the new CDI, she fired right up and we both breathed a sigh of relief. After all that it took to get here, we couldn’t wait to get riding into the Pamir Mountains, but first had to wait for our permits to enter the area. Unfortunately, we’d run into the end of Ramadan holiday and would have to wait three days for them to be issued. In the meantime, a landslide and flooding had closed one of the main roads into the Pamirs, and there was talk that the other road may also be shut. At a hostel filled with crazy cyclists, also keen to ride the route through the Pamirs, we waited on pins and needles for any info coming out of the Pamirs that would tell us whether we would be able to pass. By the time we all had our permits in hand, the best information was that we should be able to make it, so we stocked up on food and headed into the mountains.
Dyna Rae was still riding low with a broken shock spring, and making it the whole way through the Pamir Highway was going to be a bouncy affair. The spring was turning and wrapping in on itself, so we were getting shorter by the day. I keep having to find deeper and deeper holes to put the kickstand down.
We got a late start from Dushanbe and ended up camping in a farmer’s field as darkness fell. The road had started out as pretty good tarmac, but degraded the further we got from Dushanbe. We ate truck dust and dodged road craters all day long as we ascended higher following the path of the most chocolate flavored river I’ve ever seen. There was just truckloads of fine sediment coming down this river.
The road was rougher than we’d expected so far, but our slow progress wasn’t the worst thing in the world given the incredible vistas across the valley. We were blown away by the landscape and had only just begun to ascend into the Pamir Mountains. The road wound high above the valley floor and barely clung to the cliff side. This is the only road in and out of this region and so many sections look as though a small rock fall could make the way totally impassable.
Nature wasn’t gentle this summer in the Pamirs. Before we reached the town of Khorog, we came to a dead stop with a line of trucks and a huge pile of debris in front of us. Two days before, a debris flow had come barreling down from the valley opposite from where we stood and made its way all the way up the valley wall on our side. In total, the violent slurry of mud and boulders killed 10 people. Our timing was good, both because we missed the carnage of the debris flow and because a crew had been busy constructing a culvert and makeshift roadway for the last two days. We had only to wait a couple hours before we were underway again.
The main Pamir Highway (m41) was closed about 15 km outside of Khorog due to a landslide-induced flood that had obliterated an entire kilometer of road, so we knew that we weren’t going that way. There were two options left to us – via the Wakhan Valley, or a lesser traveled, higher elevation route between the main highway and the Wakhan Valley. With time on our Tajik visas running out, we chose the shorter, less traveled path through the middle.
We were riding through an autonomous region of Tajikistan and our path traced the border with Afghanistan, which lay just on the opposite side of the valley. Across the river, we watched people go about their days tending their fields and their cattle, very much the same as they did on our side of the river. I would imagine that the people were as friendly to strangers as those we met on this side of the river. Looking across the river it was strange to think that our two countries have been at war for nearly 14 years now.
As darkness neared one night, we found a camp for the night just before a unit of Tajik soldiers found us. They seemed slightly confused at why we wanted to camp there and got on their walkie-talkies to find out if we were OK to camp there. We had no idea if they were worried about who we were or our safety given who may be on the other side of that river. After 20 minutes or so of waiting the answer came back over the radios that we were good to pitch our tents and cook up a storm.
The following morning brought a continuation of cliff side riding with epic vistas and creek bashing.
The road eventually turned into a smooth two track that we could just flow along in second gear, crisscrossing the turquoise stream periodically and railing through a turn here and there. There was no other traffic at all other than two cyclists that we saw going the other direction. Even with our broken spring, it was a super fun road to ride – pretty much the perfect sort of terrain for a dual-sport bike. We found an epic camp spot for the night in a patch of lush grass right beside a crystal clear stream. By the time we’d made camp, a light rain had started, but Mike and I stood outside anyway, cooking dinner and drinking whiskey. This was what we’d come for.
The next morning, the two-track riding continued and the spot of rain had swelled the mud puddles somewhat. While I took the easy option around, Mike opted for a glorious blaze through the puddle. I should mention that two days prior he did manage a solid wheelie on the Tenere, fully loaded with Rebecca on the back when he rolled on the throttle to escape a pursuing dog. So such a blast through a puddle should be no problem, really.
There were no rocks below the surface, only slippy mud that sent Mike spinning and then down. The whole village turned out to see the subsequent yard sale once we extracted the bike from the brown water. As always, they were very friendly and we felt bad turning down their invitation to stay in the village for the night. This soggy business was all good practice, as we knew that a difficult creek crossing was coming up.
It wasn’t so much as the depth of the water or swiftness of the flow that provided the difficulty, but the huge cobbles that made up the stream bed, perhaps half a meter in diameter on average. My ride across was about the least graceful feat on a motorbike you could imagine, which convinced Mike to walk the Tenere across. We’d both made it safely across without another dunking and we were stoked. The cows on the far bank gave no acknowledgement of congratulations whatsoever.
We found a spot for lunch and Mike put the Tenere down for an afternoon nap.
We rode through a few smaller creeks en-route to rejoin the Pamir Highway. There was still no tarmac, but the rocky road we ascended was now graded. Both our bikes had been running like total crap due to the altitude, which generally stayed above 3000m (about 10,000 ft). We also hadn’t cleaned our air filters since we’d spent hours eating truck dust riding away from Dushanbe.
At the next steep ascent, which began above 3800m (12,500 ft), the Tenere killed and wouldn’t restart. We found that the plugs were carboned up like the inside of a chimney from running rich at such high altitude and the air filter was caked through with dust, so we were pretty hopeful we’d be able to get the problem sorted out. Sure enough, when we cleaned the plugs and the air filter the bike started right up. Hoorah Tenere! She didn’t make it very far though before she killed again. We feared that another electrical gremlin might have crawled into the Tenere. It seemed as though the normal stuff we’d done had gotten the bike going again. Could it just be that she’d reached her altitude limit for the way the carburetor was set up?
We were running out of things to try and we were in the middle of the mountains on a ‘highway’ that we’d seen only 1 truck pass in three hours. The closure at Khorog meant that there there was very little traffic coming our way and the clock was ticking -we only had two days left on our Tajik visas. Team Tenere had already endured an odyssey to continue the journey from Kazakhstan and we were resolved that it wouldn’t end here, but first we had to find a way somewhere else.