Friday, 19 July 2013

Rhythm of Weakness

My story of riding the Panj River section of the Pamir Highway is one of managing sickness in a rather inhospitable place, as I was hit with five days of giardia and other stomach and dehydration troubles. In some ways it was a rather profound experience, and a phrase occurred to me as I slowly, gently pedaled around another bend in that great gorge: that I was tapping into a new rhythm, a ‘rhythm of weakness’.

In our stage of life and health, we usually face the world with strength. We can move quickly, strongly, do a lot, suffer little. This was new for me. As I pedaled slowly along, limited by a nausea barrier that would stop me if I got too ambitious, I didn’t feel as frustrated (most of the time!) as I would have expected, but instead felt that this was somehow, on some level, ok. 

This was a new rhythm that tied Ollie and I ever tighter together, he relying on me to keep on moving, and I relying on him to do everything else that life out here required. This rhythm where the giant pulsing river and the mighty rock peaks above, were companions that lent me some of their strength. Where prayers and trust were constant conversations. Where hopes for being healthier in the morning were deferred again, but I knew not forever. A very slow rhythm, of many small goalposts: a hill, a corner, a village. Where very simple things became very important – a flat rock to sit on, a tree to give shade, water that is cold, a boiled potato with salt, a time to rest.

We rode in the clear cool of the morning, and again as the gorge filled with shadows in the evening, but in the middle of the day we rested. Dushanbe, our goal, seemed a long long way away, but each corner brought us closer. Our rhythm was new to us, and not particularly comfortable, but somehow in our humbled slowness and newly-set limits, I felt like I had gotten in tune with some new song of the earth and the heavens, and this was our “rhythm of weakness”.



The Bullet Points

-We have arrived in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, after a further 12 days of great adventure cycling from along the ‘Pamir Highway’ from Khorog. Included in this time was a wonderful four day side trip spent in the Bartang Valley and one of it’s tributaries, the Ravmederra Gorge.
-Tajikistan is an amazing little country. Its landscape and its people have continued to astound us and give us a rich experience.
-Today we were stoked to receive our visas for Iran. We’ll now apply for visas to Turkmenistan and beyond that we are visa free!

If you can sit down with your cup of Chai...

The term ‘Pamir’, in ancient Persian, translates as ‘rolling pastureland’. After crossing through the High Pamir we gained a little understanding, perhaps, why the name had been given to this eastern part of this region. ‘Pastureland’, however, was probably a term used pretty optimistically to describe this dry and barren alpine desert where pasture is only found during the very few summer months. Indeed the eastern region was so sparsely inhabited that we travelled through it for seven days before discovering our watches were set one hour wrong for the local time!

From Khorog we left the Gorneo region of Tajikistan (The Eastern Pamir) and entered the Badakshan region (The Western Pamir). As we dropped into a land of deep gorges and soaring peaks no longer could we find anything that might get even close to resembling ‘rolling pastureland’. This was the Pamirs, but we had entered a new land. With the new land we had also entered a new people group, the Pamiri people.

Departing Khorog our route ran alongside the great Panj River, one of Central Asia’s great watersheds. It’s a clear indication of the remarkable history of this area that this river has gone by many names from many different people groups. The Greeks and Romans called this the Oxus River. The Persians referred to the river as the Wehrod or ‘Good River’ while the medieval Arabs and Muslims used the name ‘Jayhoun’, the biblical name for one of the four rivers of the Garden of Eden. Also known as the Amu Darya river, it was a pretty amazing experience to ride beside this mass of water, sometimes seething and white, at other times sluggish and milky brown. It was special to consider those who had journeyed these ways well before us and one couldn’t help but be filled with respect for the strength of character they must have had to travel these rugged routes.

In it’s early stages (the section we would ride) the Panj acts as the border between Tajikistan on the north-eastern banks, and Afghanistan to the south and west. Just across the river we could gaze upon gorgeous and remote Afghan villages. The architectural skill and taste of these people fitted so well with their land. Their mud houses, stone walls and irrigated orchards and gardens sat so beautifully amongst the wild and barren steep hillsides on which they perched. Fortunately for us our final morning in Khorog was spent visiting the Afghan Bazaar, a weekly market where Afghanis are allowed to cross the Panj river over a footbridge, set up shop in a small courtyard, buy and sell goods and socialize with their Pamiri neighbours. After enjoying mingling with the Afghans we spent three wonderful days waving to them from a distance, enjoying their friendly shouts and hollers and watching them travel on foot and by donkey along their little track that at times clung to the cliffside high up above the river. I was surprised and really enjoyed the lack of military presence through here. We had passport checks, we saw the odd soldier, but the region had a vibe of peacefulness for the present time. The guns, soldiers, border guards and potential hostility that I’d anticipated when researching and imagining this route from far away in New Zealand were absent. After experiencing the beauty of the area and the people I so hope this peace remains and spreads far and wide.

The mighty Panj River and Afghanistan beyond. Irrigational brilliance and architectural beauty.

“Chai!Chai!” we would hear echoed around every corner as we made our way down valley. The Pamiri people have a reputation for wonderful hospitality. If we stopped to accept every offer we would overstay our visa limit for sure.
“Nyet, Spasiba!” we would often reply, “No, but thank you!” But at times we would stop, and we would be spoilt. While in these remote parts no bread could be found for sale we soon learnt that somewhere in every village bread will be baked and with perseverance, and help from a local, this bread can be found. When it appeared, often in the hands of a local kid who’d been sent off running in search, this bread was most times a gift. It was usually beautifully tasty and filling, cooked in a homemade concrete wood-fired oven, and would often be accompanied with gifts of fruit and vegies. To be offered so much from people who have so little is a very humbling thing.

This beauty bread had to first be ripped into four pieces before we could pack it into our panniers! The guys in the background are about to gift us the apricots they're picking!

For us the peak experience of this Pamiri hospitality came from a woman by the name of Mavluda, the local English teacher in a small town called Khijez in the Bartang Valley. She showered us with treats, many from her local garden and animals. She refused to let us sleep in our tent, for her she said this would be the greatest of shame! Her greatest gift though was her gentle kindness and her wonderful ability to let us rest when we needed rest and to engage in conversation when we had the energy. In so many ways we learnt a lot from her, from Tajik history, village dynamics and seasonal living, to the finer skills of hospitality. Her village was as beautiful as any I can imagine, ringed by mountains, built around a natural spring and nestled under a forest of fruit trees. Pristine as it was, we could imagine as Mavluda spoke, the long harsh winters with masses of snow, avalanches, bitter cold and the pressure to make food supplies last until the spring time. These people rely so heavily on their own land, their own skills, and their little community. This far from the capital and in an area where the people have in the past fought for independence, little government help comes this way. Mavluda reminded me of my own Mum when our time came to leave…we just couldn’t leave!
“Just one more thing…” and off she would go to bag up some more fruit, to pull up some more veges, to find another gift for us. To travel light after departing Mavluda’s house was never a possibility, the panniers were bursting with produce that we took days to eat our way through!

Struggling to leave Mavluda as she just keeps giving and my hands, my bags and belly are laden.

After reaching the town of Kala-i-Kumb we swung away from the great river that had become our companion and away from our views of Afghanistan. The Panj would continue it’s journey without us. In the past it’s end-point would have been the Aral Sea. Sadly nowadays this great vein of Central Asia has been sucked dry and no longer reaches its rightful destination, as a result the Aral Sea is quickly disappearing. Being a great lover of mighty and free flowing rivers I found it sad to imagine the massive demands that must be placed on this river further downstream in order for it to simply run out of water! For the duration of the time we had journeyed with the Panj it had been the biggest and most powerful river I have ever seen. How could such a mighty river be so reduced to nothingness??!!

Kala-i-Kumb was also a marker point, after which we knew we were faced with a climb on rough roads with over 2000m of altitude to gain. As it turns out ‘Highway’ is a term thats definition varies dramatically depending on the wealth of a country!! After three weeks in the Pamir region this final big pass felt like our gateway through which we would leave the area, a time to farewell this incredibly special time of our journey as we inched our way closer to Dushanbe. The climb was well and truly a whole day affair to cover just 36km, and miraculously after suffering sickness for several days previously Anna was gifted good strength and we were able to forge ever upward and onward. Once over the pass in some ways we were on the homeward stretch, yet the beautiful valley riding, the undulating roads, the rocky surface, the remote campsites, the warm starry skies and the cool riding of dawn meant the journey retained it’s beauty right the way to it’s end. It was time learn some new Russian words. Words such as “holodna” (cold) and “vetreno”(windy) belonged to times and places left far behind and now high above us. We had dropped into the lowlands and found ourselves rifling through the phrasebook to learn “jarko” (hot) and “solnechnaya” (sunny). Temperatures soared towards 40degrees and we found a new rhythm of riding at dawn and dusk.

The final climb, the departure gate. Anna has truly put in a super human effort to pedal through this terrain on a crook gut!

Perhaps this Pamir Highway will be the most distinctive time of our larger journey. It is a bottle-neck for cycle tourists, many of whom are heading east and we have been lucky to meet. After completing the Pamir they will fan out all over Pakistan, China, Mongolia and Russia, while those of us heading east may journey through Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, or perhaps Kazakstan. I doubt anywhere else in our journey will have such a distinctive beginning and ending as the Pamir Highway. Certainly this area for us has been the most heavily researched and highly anticipated. As we rolled freely into Dushanbe after 27 days journeying through these parts from Osh the feeling of achievement and success was absolutely wonderful. Stronger though was the feeling that we had been given so much, that we were so fortunate to journey by bike through such incredibly beautiful, rugged and diverse country and meet such fantastic people along the way.

Stoked on arrival! Yet the six lane highway for the final 20km did make me think perhaps government spending isn't quite evenly distributed across the country!

In a final note…two of those wonderful people we met were American cyclists Eric and Tiffany. As we chatted to them on the roadside twelve days ago it turned out they live in Dushanbe and work for an NGO here. In a great act of generosity and trust they gave us the key to their apartment and told us to make ourselves at home when we arrive and that they would be returning from their own cycle journey in a couple of weeks! They had however arrived home early and by the time we turned up, dirty, smelly, hungry and tired, they had a feast and a shower all ready for us. A truly celebratory ending and yet another act of wonderfully generous hospitality!

Trust and generosity: Tiffany gives Anna the key to their Dushanbe apartment. It was just 15 minutes earlier we had met them on the roadside!


"Routines Along The Road". A film update!

Above is a link to a short film I've uploaded to Vimeo. Youtube is currently blocked in Tajikistan due to a video being posted which showed the president dancing drunk at a party. He objected to this and subsequently had all of Youtube blocked. Once we have access again and I've got this blog sorted you'll be able to watch it directly from here but for now just click on the link. Hope you enjoy!


Friday, 5 July 2013

Further Ramblings

                  “Upon the upland road
                              Ride easy, stranger:
                   Surrender to the sky
                             Your heart of anger.”

                                                James K. Baxter

This is the second half of the poem “High Country Weather” by James K. Baxter. Along with other poems, this was gifted to us by my mum as we left NZ.

Little did I know at the time of departing NZ that the words of this poem would become so valuable as we cycle.

As well as simply exploring some new countries we hoped that this year of travelling slowly would allow us to enjoy some new rhythms, to take some time out from normality in the hope of having time to reflect and grow our inner selves.

After three months I can see it takes quite a while to learn to properly slow down and enjoy the chance to live with new routines and opportunities. Time and time again there is the temptation to rush, an inner pressure to squeeze in more experiences, to get somewhere quicker, to keep moving. I am slowly learning to ‘ride easy’. Slowly learning. A work in progress.

Amongst the cycle touring community the commonly spoken of enemies are headwinds and rough roads. We’ve several times met with these two so-called enemies. To begin with they drove me crazy, they slowed me and frustrated me, it was easy to fear them. Over time I’ve begun to make a greater peace with the head-winds and the rough roads, in an almost cliché remedy I’ve discovered that the best way to overcome them is to make friends with them. If they force us to ride slow, then we simply ride slow. It really is that simple. Nothing is wrong, things just take longer! To fight against these things becomes painful, to find a new rhythm and surrender to the slowness has been a wonderful discovery.

On occasions other things, like illness, become the slowing factor. Again my first reaction is frustration, I want to move on but can’t, or shouldn’t! Yet in this too, pleasant surprises have repeatedly arisen. This week in Khorog has been a classic case where we planned to depart after two days rest but sickness prevented such plans from eventuating. As a result we’ve enjoyed four wonderful days of relaxing sunshine, shared meals with new friends, games of chess, reading books, writing, darning socks and gloves, making movies and even the promise of the annual Khorog Arts Festival opening tonight! (mmm…that all sounds busy rather than slow doesn’t it?? I assure you it’s been slow time!!) Had we had our way how much we would have missed!

How richly we are blessed by the slowness, even if it’s often not of our own choosing. I suspect and hope that the surface has just been scratched and many more good lessons of life will come to us as we make our way through this land.


Roadside Ramblings: Our Generous Land

The generally slow speed of cycle touring seems to lend itself to becoming more observant. The roadside world goes by slowly and the senses are all so richly engaged. The simplicity of riding day after day also lends itself to plenty of day-dreaming and mind-wandering, when not dodging potholes or oncoming cars or cows!

Over the past weeks of riding I’ve loved observing the way that the land generously allows life to be sustained. I was first struck by this nearly three months ago as our train rolled it’s way west through the sprawling mass of civilization that is Shanghai. While the earth is struggling and groaning and in need of great care, I found it miraculous that it has even managed to provide for the enormous demands humanity has placed on it thus far.

More recently these thoughts returned to me. As we’ve ridden from Bishkek (Kyrgystan) to Korog (Tajikistan) the diversity of the land and how that land provides life has been fascinating. In the green pastures in the northern Kyrgystan hill country we rode past long lines of tables balanced precariously in the wind on the roadside, stacked with Kumyss and little white ‘kurd balls’. Over the Ala-Bel pass we dropped into river valleys and lakes famous for their Salmon. Interspersed amongst the Salmon stalls were shelves stacked high with pottles of honey and hives buzzing with busy bees. Further south as we rolled through the busy and fertile grounds of the Fergana Valley great loads of juicy melons were beautifully stacked in identical stalls, lining the road one after another. Often we ride early in the morning, the sound of roosters crowing serves as a constant reminder of the origins of the masses of eggs that are stacked artistically in every bazaar. While these lands were overflowing in obvious abundance, as we entered Tajikistan the high altitudes of the Pamir region didn’t boast such richness. Yet here, one of the driest and harshest places on the planet, the earth still provides. The goats provide milk, yoghurt and butter, and delicious breads are still cooked. That life goes on here in these barren lands is quite astounding.

And of course collecting water is a regular routine for us. Water has an incredible ability to bring life, often even in the most unexpected places. Unlike the turn of the tap that we're more familiar with, having to travel to a central point to collect water has the special knack of bringing people together. I don't want to over-romanticise the hard work that locals have to do to get their water, but it does have some nice social benefits!

As we move from here I’m looking forward to observing the ongoing changes in the way that the land provides life and seeing how people interact with their land in order to meet their daily needs.


Kumyss and Kurd Balls and Yurts

Bees, Hives and Honey

Melons are serious business.

Egg Art in the Osh Bazaar

Hot bread, chai, yoghurt, butter, cream and shelter from the wild winds.

The hard working old girl that gaves us these treats!

Water: Brings life and brings people together.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Pamir Highway, Osh to Khorog

Supporters accompany me as I near the top of Taldyk Pass (3700m), one of the mountain barriers we must cross as we slowly climb towards the Pamir Plateau.

Route Summary:
- We rode from Osh, Kyrgyzstan up the Gulcha Valley, over two passes to Sary Tash, the final outpost village in the south east corner of Kyrgyzstan.
- In Sary Tash we stocked up on food to ride over Kyzyl Art Pass which doubles as the Tajikistan border and the gateway to the High Pamirs.
- Six days after leaving Osh we crossed our highest point in the Pamir Highway (Ak-Baital Pass at 4650m), and rolled down to the town of Murghab. We had climbed 5,500m in 5.5 days.
- Three more days saw us gaining our final pass (Koizetek Pass 4370m), before we dropped down towards Khorog on the Panj River.
- We will now continue on the Pamir Highway from Khorog to Dushanbe.

As we ride out of Sary Tash towards the Pamir and the Tajik border a dramatic sunset graces our last night in Kyrgyzstan.

Riding into the Pamir, an impressive Lenin Peak (7000m) guarding our entrance. Our pass onto the plateau (Kyzyl Art Pass) is hidden somewhere up ahead.

Having gained the plateau, we roll down from Kyzl Art Pass to Lake Karakul.

Our camp in the salt desert valley below Ak-Baital Pass

The High Pamir

It is the light that is different up there. The vast plateau scapes glow with a shimmering clarity; the plain browns and ochres take on an incredible richness. In the arching bowl of sky above us, the cloudscapes against the deep blue have an intense 3D quality.  And when it is quiet, and the daytime winds die away, you feel the stillness reach away from you right to the distant horizons of this roof of the world. 

Morning riding, still and bright.

On Ak-Baital Pass, our highpoint at 4650m

Murghab, the regional centre of the Eastern Pamir.

A welcome break from some windy riding, in the form of a lovely family who feed us fresh bread, tangy yoghurt, cream and chai in their stunning yurt.

Getting a little afternoon nap in the peacefulness of the yurt.

A facinating array of hardy and well adapted plants still survive the challenging conditions up on the High Pamir.
 We were fascinated by how desert like the Pamir Plateau is. The white streaks on the dry soil turned out to be salt, and many little lakes contained salty water. We were captivated by the number of plants that live here, and animal life of marmots, Marco Polo sheep, ibex, snow leopard, eagles, griffins and wolves (sadly most of these are very rare, and marmots, hoofprints and some unidentifiable large birds were all we glimpsed).

We were also fascinated by altitude related phenomena. The tarseal on the roads was in many places very soft and spongy. Is melting temperature reduced at altitude, as well as boiling temperature?? After noticing our hearts were beating extra fast, we took our resting pulses at a high camp. They were about 80 up at 4100m, and dropped to 48 when we dropped to 2500m. No wonder we got a bit tired!

Enjoying a calm evening above our campsite. If you went 50km up the valley to the right, you would drop into the Wakhan Corridor and the border with Afghanistan.

I bought these beautiful Pamir socks from this lady in Pish Village, Ghund Valley. She bargained hard, but once the purchase was made I was her best buddy!!

As we dropped off the Plateau to the east, we revelled in the lushness, growth and warmth of the lower lands on the Ghund Valley.

The beautiful Ghund Valley.

Shitam Village is nestled at the mouth of this rough side valley. Their irrigation channels allow them to grow trees for shade, snippets of pasture, and a few vegetables like potatoes and onions.

We were overwhelmed by the sharp peaks of the Western Pamir that towered over us as we rolled down the Ghund.

A delicious lunch of watermelon,a massive flat bread and a delicious pasta dish was offered by this kind group of workers. They are building the stone walls around these new houses, one of the many Aid funded programmes we saw in the valley.

What incredible greeness after the barreness of the Eastern high Pamir. We are nearing Khorog, a town on the Panj River (the Upper Oxus)  in the Western Pamir.