"The most beautiful 'short cut' you will ever take"
Tajikistan is one of those countries that, ask the general Joe on the street, would prove elusive locate on a map. Let alone name the capital or even region! However, ask somebody with a thirsty appetite for adventures, mountains and distant lands and they will be able to reel off no end of facts about this small land-locked Central Asian country. It's been somewhat of a mecca for two wheeled travel for decades as the famous 'Pamir Highway' often sits well placed on peoples' destination 'Bucket List'.
Just before entering the 'Roof of the World' (what a tagline!) Warrick, James and I were joined by good friend Robbie who booked a spontaneous last minute flight to join us for two weeks riding and escape the mundanity of proper working life in London. This left us with a shortish time span to explore what was one of the most beautiful countries we have visited. So, with just a smattering of days to get from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Dushanbe, Tajikistan we opted against the classic Pamir highway route and instead took to the Bartang Valley. The valley basically splits the Pamir mountains in two along some little used 4x4 tracks. The top half being arid windswept plateau reminiscent of the Sud Lipez region of Bolivia (another great cycling haunt) and the lower half in some incredibly steep sided valleys and gorges, with any number of natural hazards at play in the hugely seismic region. One of the most beautiful reasons to choose this route however is to pass through the small villages that look like oases in an otherwise rocky dry landscape. Green fields, a wonderful network of irrigation and some beautiful old oak trees slowly swaying in the light afternoon breeze. They really are incredible places to come across and the local people there are without a doubt some of the warmest and most genuine people I have ever met. Its a fantastic and slightly more 'adventurous' route than the standard Pamir/Wakhan valley route. However, being that much shorter there was a slight sense that we were missing out on major parts of the country.
We'd reached the first settlement in a few days, marking the end of the 'high stuff' and the start of the river valley. Only 8 months previously the valley had been devastated by a 7.2 earthquake, with many of the houses collapsing but with a thankfully low fatality rate. As we descended into the town it was easy to see the impacts of the earthquake since the valley floor was a sea of emergency relief tents. In typical Tajik style we were welcomed in to one of these to escape the midday heat and enjoy some local bread and.
Th Birthplace of the middle eastern poet and philospher Rumi tajikistan and the pamier mountains in general have a deep resonance with
The Bartang valley quickly became a picture perfect location. Small green oases dotted the valley floor, crowded out by the towering cliff faces that hid the snow capped Pamir mountains beyond. Within these verdant havens there was a warren of little footpaths that criss-crossed the village, separating one small field from another. I remember reading Eric Newby's 'A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' a couple of years ago his vivid descriptions of this area, albeit it in the Nuristan mountains of neighbouring Afghanistan, and the seemingly timeless lifestyle of its inhabitant rang true 60 years on.
Perhaps the most exciting 'treat' whilst we passed through the Bartang was to be entertained by the local music. It seems that everybody here has an incredible proficiency with an instrument - we were told that music in the valley and for the Pamiri people in general is a hugely important pursuit. Perhaps more so than we had so far experienced whilst crossing Asia. And so we were whisked from house to house to listen to the ever changing troupe of musicians perform music from the valley. In darkened rooms lit only by small holes in the ceiling it created an intense atmosphere as the men who sing and strum and beat rhythmically for tens of minutes. I never quite got to the bottom of what the songs were about, but there was certainly something enchanting listening to the tunes performed with genuine emotion. Plus, their hand made instruments were beautifully crafted.
Due to the inaccessibility of these places, and the rather frequent landslide that can cut communities off for weeks at a time any land that could be used was used. Vegetables and fruits were spilling from the fields and falling from the trees, and I learnt that goats and sheep were tackling the precariously steep valley sides under the watchful gaze of young men. I was quite amazed at the volume of english spoken here, something I'd not at all anticipated despite knowing that this route was popular with cyclist and 4x4 drivers alike. As we spent the night with one family, a man told us that they had been instructed to learn english and encourage tourism to the region by their spiritual leader. Since our Tajik was in short supply we were very grateful for the conversations that could stretch beyond charades.
It was a disappointingly short ride through Tajikistan, stumped as we were by the boys having flights home from Dushanbe. However it was beautifully short and still seemed wonderfully varied - from high altitude mountains and desert to rich traditions and cultures hemmed in breath taking scenery. We reached the end of the road and the end of our time riding together, so celebrated with over priced beers and underpriced ice creams. .