News Single

25.08.09 06:15 Age: 9 yrs

Up the Zeravshan valley

By: Roger and Megan

Confuscious say, girl who pluck mulberries from strangers tree, get caught red-handed. And then chai.

Although our travels in the 4000+ m Fann mountains had been quite scenic and spectacular, our going there was not purely to have fun - rather it was part of a deal to have our visa registration signed, sealed and delivered hassle-free.  Coming back down into Penjikent, we soon discovered that all had not gone to plan as Megan's business visa had been registered but Roger's had not.  Apparently, the problem was that when issued, Roger's visa originally had "tourist" written on it, but adjacent to this was another stamp with a correction, saying that this had been changed to "business".  Whilst we had been away, the officials processing our visas had only seen "tourist" and not the correction stamp next to it, and thus presumed Roger had a tourist visa which did not require registration.  After many more days of phone calls and running around, we managed to work out a way to get Roger's visa registered without a fine, finally giving us the green light to continue on our journey through Tajikistan.

Our route plan was to head east, following the Zeravshan river toward a small town called Ayni, and then take the pass north to Khojand.  On our maps, these roads appeared to be pretty straight forward, however in Penjikent, we were warned many times about how difficult the ride from Penjikent to Ayni would be, but still we (stupidly?) decided to ride on.  The "road" consisted of boulders ranging in size from that of kiwi fruits to that of small watermelons, on a gradual but constant uphill gradient, making traction very difficult and the going very slow.  At this stage our near-balding tyres, were already being pushed to the max - what would this road hold for us?


About 20 km down the road we pulled over on the roadside as Megan had spotted a tree of very ripe mulberries and wanted to bury her face in it.  However just as she was doing this, the houseowner came back from doing her shopping and caught Megan (literally) red-handed!  But they didn't mind at all and invited us in so that Megan could wash the berry stains off her hands.  But that inevitably became a chai session, which then turned into a BIG meal.  We sat and ate sorpa, mantu, lollies, chocolates, jam, bread, and biscuits with the lady, her husband, and their grandson.  Even the neighbours joined in and brought round plates of food to add to our dinner.  We learned that her husband was a the retired village dentist, but now just did odd-jobs from home (with the occassional tooth extraction).  They had only one grandson, whose mother (their daughter) had passed away.  Within only an hour or so of meeting, it seemed that Megan had already become this lady's new adopted daughter, with us being showered with perfume (even Roger had it sprinkled all over him too), jewelry and headscarves.  In return, we gifted their grandson a redundant reflector and brand sticker off our bike and these became the most prized accessories on his already extremely over-accessorised bike, ie. he had bar-end extensions attached onto his bar-end extensions.  By departure time the next morning, we had somehow accumulated more dried mulberries, apricots, flowers, and breads in our loot bags.  Thus, again we were all filled up with full bellies and full food bags, ready for another hard day on the road.

That afternoon, after doing another slow 30 km on the deteriorating road, as we were riding past another village a man suddenly called out to us in English.  We stopped to see what the matter was, and found out he was the sole village English teacher, and quite excited to have seen some "possible" native English speakers riding past on this strange alien contraption.  He asked us, in his best English, to be his guests, and invited us up the hill to his house.  His village was very small consisting of about 20 houses, situated on the side of the mountains shooting up from the Zerafshan river.  In the region east of Penjikent, most of the Zerafshan river is not accessible for diversion for irrigation, as it is narrow and surrounded by sheer cliffs.  Here, this village was founded because the land was not so steep as in other areas, and there was a stream in a nearby gully that provided water, allowing them to grow crops there in this more arable location.   In this village, as others in the region, each family had a large vegetable garden, and an orchard in another part of town, separate from their house.  

For our visit there, the first hurdle was riding up to his house.  The "road" so far had been bad enough, but getting up to his house on the side of this steep hill was another matter - the rocks were bigger and the slope steeper.  But in time we made it, and had become quite the spectacle for all his neighbours.  Over chai he informed us that one of the traditional handicrafts that is indigenous to this area is carpet making, an old technique that had not changed throughout the centuries.  After hearing about this, we arranged to film a quick demonstration video of this craft.  The lady who was doing the carpet weaving had been taught this by her mother, and had already taught her daughter, a secret technique that had been passed down through the generations, so that she and her daughter were the only 2 people  in the whole village who still knew how to make carpets.  First of all the sheeps' wool was cut off from the sheep.  Then they spun the wool by hand (not on a wheel, and not foot powered), using a stick - they just twirled the wool round and round with one hand, and it seemed that they could probably spin only 5 m of wool per hour using this method.  In addition, the 6+ m long apparatus for weaving the carpet was made entirely from sticks and rocks from their garden, with no nails, glue, plastic or metal.  We were very lucky to be able to film this whole process, as there are very few traditional carpet weavers left, using these same techniques used thousands of years ago.


That evening and the next day we explored the various sites around town, with a tour of the local mosque (the size of a small room in a house), the village orchards, and the Zerafshan river.  We were also shown how they make their style of bread, which weighs between 6-8 kg.  They say that one of these breads will feed one man for a week.  We were also told of a man in town who had been to Mecca and was now a teacher of Islam (a Mufti).  At school, he had been a pupil of our host, but now our host was his student (of Islam).  The Mufti's daugher invited us to her father's house to have a look, since he was away in Dushanbe.  The house was packed full of religious icons and decorations, and we really wanted to interview him about the religious practices in the town.  However, from what we could gather, he was actually quite sick in hospital in Dushanbe and kept promising his family he'd be back "tomorrow", but was never well enough to return home.  Understanding this, we made the decision to continue on the road instead of waiting for him to return home to interview him.  On our departure day, we were loaded up with more gifts, including a bag of yummy dried apricots, a pair of socks, and the ever obligatory non (bread).  Thus with and early start (to beat the heat) it was on to Ayni, following the river (albeit 100 metres above it) all the way in. 

The days of riding were quite tiring as it was hot, the road had an uneven surface and was getting worse, and the road was also quite narrow, meaning we had to be very wary of trucks (those big huge ex-soviet Kamaz types, with tyres the size of small tractors, and enough clearance to drive over most rivers) coming the opposite direction.  Also, since some sections of road were too narrow and had to be one-way only at a time, the trucks would come in spurts.  If it so happened we were going downhill and they were coming uphill, this was very bad for us because the engine exhaust outlet was at head-height.  They'd ALWAYS do a big burrrrrrrr as they went past us, releasing heavy black dirt fumes in our faces, and to top it off, sometimes they'd include a big loud (friendly) "TOOOOT!!" as they went past, leaving us blinded, deaf, and gasping for clean air as the line of trucks past us!  But at least they meant well...

In the evening we were really quite desperate to rest and we tried to find a place for our tent, with a steep rock wall on one side, a 300 m drop on the other, and a 3 m wide "road" we were quickly running out of options.  By sheer desperation we decided to ride up this "track" leading up the hillside, a VERY VERY steep boulder garden, made up of jagged pointy rocks on a 30% slope (we were scared we would do a wheelie and peel over backwards!), leading us to travel at about 240 revolutions per 100 m.  However this didn't measure the actual distance we travelled since it was two pedal strokes forward, and sliding back the equivalent of one pedal stroke due to loss of traction, so it was probably more like 480 revolutions per 100 m.  At the top of the hill a family was sitting outside resting, and they invited us over to their house to rest for the night (instead of using our tent). 

This family had recently had a big party and so were still very well stocked with lollies, biscuits and other desserts (which was good for us!).  The celebration had been for the young boy's circumcision ceremony held at the house.  In Central Asian muslim teaching, the boy is circumised somewhere between 3 to 7 years of age, and it seems to depend on when the family has enough money to host the celebration.  The boy at the house was now officially a proud Muslim, wearing his skull cap and trying very hard to be a good host to us.  He brought out the chai for us to drink (but had forgotten to also bring out the cups) and broke the bread for us to eat (while at the same time hiding lollies under the cushions for him to retrieve at a later date when no one was watching).

In the morning we awoke to the news that during the night, another of our tyres had spontaneously erupted, leaving a big 15cm long tear right along the centrewall of the tyre - blow-out no. 2.  This was EXTREMEly disappointing for us, and instead of riding on we had to set down for the morning doing our repairs. Luckily we had the help of the truck driver and his spare tyre parts.

While we were sitting around waiting for the glue to dry, we were taking a look at the surrounding mountains and noted that like most of the mountains out of the Zerafshan valley, they had a very definite treeline.  However, these are reverse tree-lines as below it there are no trees at all.  We learned that this is a man-made feature - deforestation by local villages in order to gain wood fuel for the winter.  It is only the very tops of the mountains which are still forested, being too far away for people to cut down the trees for firewood from.  Nowadays, Tajikistan's roads and villages are regularly damaged or destroyed by landslide of the rapidly eroding mountainsides, which is exacerbated by deforestation.  We understand that some 80% of Tajikistan does not have electricity during winter, and it is not completely reliable during summer either, and since many towns learned to rely on electricity during the Soviet era, they are now turning to the local forests to maintain this lifestyle.  There has yet to be agreement between Tajikistan and the other ex-Soviet Central Asian states regarding the mutual sharing of basic necessities, including gas, electricity and water.  These vastly different (geologically and geographically) states are still trying to work out how to share and trade their natural resources, and much further behind is the infrastructure to implement any agreement.

By the time we had finished our repairs (using a beer bottle and a fat man and his bum....) we of course had to stay for the obligatory lunch before being allowed to leave. From here it wasnt far till Ayni, so we werent too worried about the time. On our approach to Ayni however, we were accosted by a group of kids, who continually tried to take things from our quike, pull on it to stop it from moving.  When it started to get abit more serious/physical with them and our quike, we managed to escape, by a combination of pedalling quickly downhill, and squirting them with water (we didnt realise how afraid of bottled water kids could be!).  Now it was only 2 more kilometres to Ayni, where we could eat apricots, rest, and do some much needed repairs to our quike.