Tadsickistan

A tad sick is an understatement. In the last post I was quite optimistic about getting back into good health and on the bicycle again, but we are both still ill and weak. I have been sick now for more than two weeks, and Cyril has been under the weather since the last two days. Luckily today we got a sound diagnosis, a bag full of medication, and it looks like we should be recovering fast.

Getting intravenous fluids in Qalaikhun
Getting intravenous fluids in Qalaikhun

We are currently in Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakshan region. After a few days of being pretty miserable and not getting any better in Qalaikhum we took a 6 hour taxi ride to Khorog. We were hoping we would meet some of our cycling friends again at the Pamir Lodge and have a better hospital at our disposal. Both of it worked out: we saw our Dushanbe cycling buddies again and we also met up with Gerrit, whose blog we read before we left. As always it’s great to meet someone who has been an online inspiration on the road.

Cyril tinkering with our cycling buddies
Cyril tinkering with our cycling buddies

Health

Tajikistan is not only famous amongst cyclists for the Pamirs, but also for it’s travelers diarrhea. So when we got it as soon as we landed in Dushanbe we shrugged our shoulders and got on with things, thinking ‘bad food’ and that it would pass. Until it didn’t. The hospital in Qalaikhun never ran any tests but nevertheless prescribed me antibiotics with severe side effects such as sun allergy and tearing tendons. Not great for a cyclist! I didn’t take them but soldiered on with probiotic pills, oral rehydration salts (ORS) and zinc supplements, hoping I could fight off whatever it was that caused it. I’ve been too weak to ride (or do anything but sleep or hang around really). There have been some days with fever and pains but mostly it’s not even been all that uncomfortable, just really annoying.

Diagnosis

So yesterday we went to the hospital of Khorog, and finally we had a stool test done, with immediate result: we are both hosting parasites. Amoebae and Ascariasis to be precise. It was quite a shock to get this disgusting diagnosis. Tip no. 1: don’t EVER google image search your parasites, it cannot be unseen. Apart from being disgusted we are at the same time greatly relieved to have found the cause and the treatment. Two weeks of guessing and trial-and-error treatment was getting me down a bit and now we can look forward to feeling good again. Anti-parasite and antibiotics should be able to kill our horrible hitch-hikers within a day or two. Turns out the Qalaikhun hospital diagnosis of a bacterial infection was all wrong and I’m glad I didn’t take their prescribed meds.

Tips for travelers

What we will do differently next time: firstly, we will definitely keep taking all the usual precautions to stay healthy. Clean all the water we drink with our Steripen (or a similarly low-hassle water cleaning method), even though many people claim you can drink straight from the streams and sources. You never know if animals have been using the same water. Peel fruit. Avoid meat, watermelon,  soft ice, and salads. Cook our own meals as much as possible. Wash our hands with water and soap (not easy to find in Tajik toilets). Secondly, should we ever feel ill again, get tested right away. It’s simple, cheap, and it avoids so many days wasted because you don’t have any energy. In these kind of countries it’s best to assume the worst. Thirdly, ask our GP to prescribe anti-parasite drugs for giardia, amoebae and worms to bring along on the trip. We brought antibiotics for bacterial gut infections but not for parasites and judging by the stories of all the cyclists we’ve met here it’s very common. Most cyclists get parasites at some point. And finally, use some easy to find local natural remedies for prevention and treatment. Eat raw crushed garlic cloves three times a day for anti-parasitic and antibacterial properties, eat kefir for probiotic strengthening of the gut and immune system. Luckily we like both but we’re going to be stinking to high heavens for the next few weeks.

Aga Khan

We noticed some modest but exceptionally neat and tidy doctors posts in regional villages. Instead of bearing yet another huge banner with a badly photoshopped picture of president Rahmon they bear an inconspicuous plaque of the Aga Khan foundation. Our doctor yesterday also directed us to the local Aga Khan founded pharmacy. I read up a little bit about what the Aga Khan foundation is and does and it really is quite remarkable. As I wrote before, the Pamiri people are culturally different from the Tajik people. They are shi’ite as compared to the sunni majority of the country. Their branch of shia islam is called Ismailism, and the Aga Khan is their spiritual leader. Apart from this he is also a major philantropist, donating 600 million dollars every year to the worldwide Ismailite society, focusing on health, education, business development and womens rights. The benefits of these programs definitely show in the Pamirs: more people speak English, less women wear headscarves, there are some good health facilities. The Aga Khan was born in Switzerland, currently lives in France, and comes from an old world glamourous noble Iranian family. His father was briefly married to Rita Hayworth and missed out on becoming Aga Khan because his own father thought him too much of a playboy and passed on the title (and responsibilities) to his grandson instead. We think he practices great vision and leadership, and his good work will be a positive and lasting legacy.

Thank you

All our well-wishers, friends, family and followers, who sent us sweet messages in the last couple of weeks. Thank you all, we are so grateful for your love and support.

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Pamir prelude

We stay way too long in lovely Dushanbe, but finally we leave. We are excited to be on the bike again and to start on the M41, the famous Pamir Highway. Two things are different from before: we are no longer cycling with just the two of us, and for the first time since we set off I’m having stomach problems.

Starting the M41

Together with Steffi and Adriano (aka Team BimBom), Jean and Verena we set off on the North route from Dushanbe towards Khorog. The North route is the famed M41. It has a road surface that varies between almost-ok and horrendous, doable gradients, just enough villages with food supplies and it includes conquering the 3252m Khaburabot pass. There is an alternative route as well. The South route doesn’t cross any mountains and has good road surface but it also has the most traffic. Since we haven’t cycled for more than a month and we can’t wait to get away from traffic and into the wild we pick the North route. We figure we need all the climbing training we can get before we start the steady climb from Khorog to the Pamirs proper. This is our Pamir prelude.

Team Pamir hits the M41
Team Pamir hits the M41

The first day is hard. The road out of Dushanbe is busy but with good surface. Our legs and the rest of our bodies are having a really hard time but we are excited and happy to be back on the bike again. It is difficult to keep up with the ambitions of the rest of the (much fitter) group. This creates some tension so after a few days we let them go and we are all free to ride at our own pace again. After the first day the traffic mostly disappears but the road gets much worse. Dusty gravel, loose round riverstones, or packed earth with big rocks sticking out of the surface. Despite the ongoing and ever worsening stomach trouble we keep going for 4 days, gradually climbing towards the pass. When cars come by they kick up a big cloud of dust and I start wearing a kerchief around my face to avoid breathing in the dust.

Pamir Prelude
Pamir Prelude

The beauty of the surrounding mountain peaks and valleys is very rewarding though, and we are glad we picked the North route. We find good camping spots and enjoy the warm days and cool nights. Riding through the villages we feel like rock stars, high fiving with all the kids who run out to meet us. They give us candy and apples. On the 5th day however my energy level suddenly drops to zero and I can no longer go on.

A ride over the Khaburabot

We decide to turn back to Qalaihusain, the last village we passed, and check our options. Stay in Qalaihusain to rest up or find a taxi to Qalaichum where there is a doctors post? Ibrohim is our (expensive) knight in shining armour. He will drive us with his fancy Jeep to Qalaichum for 100USD, which we bargain down to 50USD in the end. He doesn’t speak English and we don’t speak Russian but we manage. He takes us to his house, a beautifully maintained little farm, and we spend the night with his family. We have our own room with traditional futon mattresses on the floor, there is chai and snacks and I’m grateful for the chance to rest up. I’m in a deep sleep by 4pm.

Ibrohims house
Ibrohims house

At 5am we leave for Qalaichum. It’s a great ride and I’m sad we are missing out on cycling the Khaburabot pass. The gradients seem doable even if the road is in really bad condition. We pass the tents of Verena, Adriano and Steffi who made it to about 3000m. Ibrohim plays mesmerizing traditional Tajik music and we are only slowly waking as the sun comes up. He is a very good driver with a good car so we feel safe and secure. Apart from one incident where he chases a hare with his Jeep, zigzagging over the narrow gravel road. He laughs heartily at our shocked faces. He stops the car to check if he will have hare for dinner but he missed it. On the other side of the pass he amuses himself by chasing little flocks of small partridges over the edge of the cliff. Just before Qalaichum he drops us off. Despite a last ‘misunderstanding’ about the agreed price we are happy with Ibrohim who took very good care of us.

Qalaichum has everything we need: a hospital, a pharmacy, supermarkets and a relaxed little homestay where we check in for 2 nights. I manage to sleep almost 36 hours straight, only waking to eat a little bit and take my medication. On the other side of the river that runs through Qalaichum is Afghanistan, and just like in Armenia it feels weird to look across at a country that we only know from bad news on tv. Everything feels peaceful here, but the Pamir region is culturally quite different from Tajikistan, has separatist tendencies and we need the special GBAO (Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast) permit to travel through. We catch up with Jean, Verena, Adriano and Steffi as they pass through the village. I’m getting better fast so we will leave for Khorog tomorrow.

M41 traffic jam
M41 traffic jam

I remember when we said to eachother ‘now when will the real adventure start?’. Tajikistan is definitely real adventure. The highest mountains, the remotest villages, the most bureaucratic procedures. Getting sick, keep going, trust strangers to help us when we are not well. We have to show our passports to bored (but armed) soldiers at checkpoints who don’t have a clue as to where The Netherlands is. The highway is a winding dusty gravel trail with a towering cliff face on our left and a sheer drop on our right. The views are never less than breathtaking.

The women in the villages all wear traditional dress. Some girls’ hands are died orange with henna, the adults all have gold teeth and old men wear long white beards and little black square hats. We are in awe of how clean, well-groomed and dignified the people are in these remote, poor and dusty surroundings.

Tajik village ladies
Tajik village ladies

We are so scruffy by comparison, it’s almost embarrassing. Sometimes we have to wait for big herds of sheep and goats to pass us before we can get back on the road. The herdsman here are real cowboys on horses, with a couple of donkeys who carry their stuff and a pack of dogs to guard the herd. They wear long, thick padded velvet coats. At one lunch spot we share the shade with a young herdsman who is skyping with his buddies, showing two little squealing lambs to them with his smartphone. A funny clash of modernity with tradition.

Tajik cowboys
Tajik cowboys

Camping in Tajikstan is great. There is so much space around, an almost full moon, so many stars. Washing in the river. Trying to keep a hungry fox away from our supply of Snickers. For the first time we make a campfire and we sip cheap Tajik cognac to keep us warm in the cool night. It is still hot during the day, but autumn is coming fast so we enjoy the warmth while we still can.

Asalom Tojikiston

The Tajiks speak a form of Farsi but it sounds a bit different from what we heard in Iran: Tajikistan becomes Tojikiston. Another difference from the Iranian Farsi is the fact that they use the cyrillic script, which is nice because now we can read the street signs. Russian is widely spoken but outside Dushanbe there are many local dialects.

When we were thinking or dreaming about Tajikistan we would always imagine the Pamirs, our skin crawling with fear and excitement. Pictures on blogs and instagram accounts of other cyclists showed desolate mountain peaks in crystal clear thin air, cyclists camping on endless high plains of barren earth, villagers in remote valleys. The Pamir Highway is not really a highway. It is a potholed gravel road which runs from Khorog on the Tajik-Afghan border to Osh in Kyrgystan, scaling several passes and reaching 4562m at its highest point on the Pamir plateau. It is the second highest road in the world, after the Karakoram Highway which runs from China into Northern Pakistan (not an option at the moment due to political unrest and kidnappings). I had never heard of the Pamir highway until we hosted Taneli through Warmshowers, and he put the idea of cycling this route East into our head.

Dushanbe

I don’t think we ever thought of Tajikstans capital Dushanbe when were dreaming about the Pamirs. That is, any thoughts beyond the need to do our food shopping and some other practical errands there before heading into the Pamirs. As we have found out before, discovering a place that we had zero expectations about is a really nice experience. The weather is lovely, warm and sunny during the day and cool at night but not yet cold. There are shops and bazaars that sell everything we could possibly need. There is beer! Very nice after our dry month in Iran. Dushanbe is small for a capital city and not too busy traffic-wise, with wide tree-lined avenues. The main drag Rudaki Avenue is lined with pretty and mostly well-maintained buildings, an eclectic mix of Asian, Soviet and Muslim influences. An airy open summer chaykhana (teahouse) overlooking a Persian style garden with a small pond in the middle, with a colourful cassette ceiling and almost muqarna-like capitals topping the high pillars. A modernist Soviet theatre that wouldn’t be out of place on Berlins Karl Marx Allee. A few Brutalist Soviet housing blocks, small enough to be actually quite charming. There is a cluster of neo-classicist university buildings plastered in the most brilliant shade of swimming pool blue with white hammer and sickle reliefs. There are also modern buildings going up, but fortunately they are well proportioned, not too outrageously kitsch and even despite the use of the ubiquitous horrible dark blue glass not too much of an eyesore. Because of the upcoming 25th indepence day celebrations there are Tajik flags and banners everywhere, depicting president Rahmon who appears to be (somewhat constipatedly) contemplating grain fields, stroking kids’ heads, inspecting the industry… you get the picture.

The Tajik people look decidedly different from the Iranians. Finer and slightly more Asian features, slender people with thick black or dark brown hair. The man mostly sport lego style bowl cuts, the women have long hair. Some still have uni-brows, once considered a sign of beauty. The school boys wear smart black trousers and slim black ties on pristine white shirts (prohibited in Iran!). Many women wear traditional garb: loose trousers, tight at the ankles, under a long loose tunic in the same fabric, with short puffy sleeves. The womens garments have very colourful prints, either in traditional ikat weaving or new synthetic designs embroidered with little pearls. They wear equally colourful headscarves tied around their hair but leaving the neck free. To me they look more decorative than restricting. We meet up with our friends Steven and Saule from Caravanistan, and from Saule I understand that not long ago modern Western dress was more prevalent on the streets of Dushanbe. But as many educated people leave the country more traditional (village) people are left to dominate the dresscode in the city. Traditional dress is further encouraged by the government in an effort to forge a strong and clear national Tajik identity. Not an easy task in such an ethnically mixed country and I don’t really like the idea of an imposed reactionary traditionalist nationalist dresscode. However I do like the clothes, so I have a set made by a tailor in the bazar.

Tajik ladies in traditional atlas garb
Tajik ladies in traditional atlas garb

One of the people of Dushanbe is Vero, a French woman who works for the EU. She has a wonderful house, surrounded by a large walled garden. We arrive here after dark, emotionally and physically exhausted after a long an stressful day. Completely drained from the effort to get our enormous pile of luggage from Tehran to Tajikistan. We did make it, but not without the generous help of two cycling Iranian brothers and the lovely staff of Tajik Air. When Vero’s night guard opens the gate for us we think we have arrived in cyclist heaven. A small collection of rose bushes and fruit trees on a grass field, a hammock, a house with a kitchen and bathroom generously offered to the cyclists who are welcome to camp in the garden. There are some Koreans, a Catalan couple and two French guys who show us around. Two turtles and a speaking parrot live in the garden. In the next few days we share beers and nerdy bike travel conversation with more cyclists who arrive. Some have done the Pamirs already and they give us useful tips about hot springs and road conditions. Verena and Jean we have met before, Steffi and Adriano are a Swiss couple we meet a day later, and we make plans to cycle the Pamirs together. Crossing the high peaks we have dreamed about for so long seem a little bit less scary at the prospect of doing them together with friends.

Independence day

We end up spending almost a week in Dushanbe. Not because we have things to do, but because we want to see the parades for the 25th independence day celebrations. The parade is a deception. No one knows when it will happen and in the end it transpires there are two parades; one military and one civilian. Rumours abound: the parade is delayed because Putin couldn’t make it on the actual indepence date! Putin never shows up, we would have known if he had as the presidents dacha is around the corner from our ‘home’ and there are no snipers on the roof. We find out when the parades are on because they are shown live on tv. We rush out to try and catch the second parade after we miss out on the 7am military parade. We miss the civilian as well and see its tail end disappear into the distance of Rudaki avenue. Later we find out that we wouldn’t have been able to get close to the parade despite several security checks we passed. Only a small number of vetted Tajik loyal supporters of the president got a certificate that allowed them to line the route of the parade. The whole operation (16.000 soldiers, 25.000 civilians) is put on to please president Rahmon and to look good on tv, and not an actual celebration for the people of Dushanbe. In fact, the involuntary participants of the parade have to fork out quite a bit of their own money to pay for their compulsory costumes.

 

Soviet spa

After having missed out on the chance of seeing a totalitarian dictator display his charade we go on an interesting excursion. Khodja obi Garm is a former Soviet sanatorium some 50km North of Dushanbe, in use since 1935. The spa is a stunning Brutalist complex nestled in a gorge almost 2000m above sea level. The spring waters are hot and naturally suffused with the radioactive radon gas. This is supposedly curative, but radon is in fact poisonous in large doses and a fairly common health risk as it is everywhere around us. We go with our new Swiss friends and check in. First we get served lunch in a big communal dining hall by traditionally dressed Tajik women. Veggie soup with lots of fat floating on top, dumplings in sour cream, even the menu here is vintage. I then start with a rough Russian massage. Kneading, slapping, knuckle grinding, scalp scratching, hair pulling and some really good vertebrae cracking. Then, into the hot radon pool.

Cyclists by the pool
Cyclists by the pool

It is quiet in the resort so we have the pool to ourselves, apart from Moheddin. He is a jolly Pamiri mountain man who used to sail the big seas and proudly shows us his sailor tattoo. The treatments are very relaxing and in the afternoon we get lulled to sleep by president Rahmon who on tv, endlessly droning on in front of an audience that manages to stay awake.

Rahmon the Jowly One
Rahmon the Jowly One

We are greatly enjoying ourselves in the sanatorium, especially when we discover a basement bar with beer and a pingpong table. After a good nights sleep in the spartan little room and a simple breakfast of baby porridge, bread and tea we do one more treatment. Steffi and I pick the ‘tsirkulyarniy dush’. This is a circular shower contraption spouting needle sharp jets of water from all around and apparently good for the circulation. As a bonus there is a chair with a hole in the middle and a jet underneath, so all our bits get the circulatory treatment. Cyril and Adriano disappear into another room and get to torture eachother with a superstrong jet stream, managed with a cool looking 60’s control panel. According to Cyril it’s the weirdest thing he has ever done with another guy. There are more interesting looking rooms where for instance you can have your head pulled back by a torturous looking helmet and leather strap contraption, but we have to head back to Dushanbe. I can definitely recommend this place to cyclists who come back from the Pamirs and need some regeneration.

Dushanbe, a small capital city of a small and remote country. What a nice surprise.