Feeling guilty about becoming complicit in my torture of myself, my bike computer abandoned me on the train to Samarkand. I wish it a long and happy life.
I have nothing to tell me how far I’ve come.
My speed is no longer measured and cannot be judged by ‘fast enough’ or ‘too slow’.
No man’s land
We arrive at the Uzbek-Tajik border and make our way to passport control – or face check. There’s a ‘queue’ already when we arrive but we are summoned to the front. I give the locals an apologetic smile but they don’t seem bothered.
Jamie hands over his passport and visa and is soon welcomed to the country with a new stamp in his passport.
I hand over mine.
He smiles at me
‘what is your name?’
‘Ah… Maria’ he’s almost flirting with me.
Something catches his eye, he looks serious. Checks the paperwork.
‘There’s a problem with your visa’, he tells me, not unkindly. ‘The passport number on the visa doesn’t match your passport.’
I take them from him, oh shit, he’s right. Somehow an extra digit has snuck in to the visa application, and he is the only one of us eagle-eyed enough to notice.
Someone else is being processed by now so I back out and have a little panic.
We have no mobile data.
We can’t go back to Uzbekistan, as our visa was single entry.
We are stuck in no-mans land.
Jamie and I descend briefly into outrage, it can’t have been us. We checked it, I know we checked it. But then I review my memory and admit that I triple checked my name and the dates, as these are details that have been wrong in previous applications, but the passport number, I don’t know.
Realising I was probably wrong I backtrack my outrage, there’s no use in assigning blame.
I find an official and ask him what to do. He says I need to make another application.
– I should explain here that you can apply for the tajik visa online, but that the website was incredibly buggy. Jamie got furious while making the original applications, which may partially explain the mistake. Once we’d make the application it took a couple of days to process.
Jamie and I reconvene and try to buy some local data, which we should be able to do on our international SIM. However the interface won’t load.
I go knocking on another door to ask if they have internet, but no. A kind man tries to help me by introducing me to a woman who is hanging about – I have no idea what for – she let’s me tether to her phone but the site just won’t load. Eventually she gets bored and wanders off.
I go back to the man in passport control. I explain my predicament. He tells me to wait, I’m not sure what for, but I do as I’m told.
Jamie and I start making backup plans.
We could call someone. Who? Someone who would be able to cope with the frustrating Tajik website, who reliably answers their phone, and would be up at this hour. (+5 GMT)…
Jamie could go into Tajikistan, buy a SIM card and make the application. I’m not thrilled by the prospect, but agree it’s an option.
A while later I pop back in to see the man. ‘Still no internet?’ He asks.
‘No…’ I wonder if that’s what I’m waiting for.
‘I’m just going to stay here forever’, pointing to the corner, sighing dramatically…
‘Just wait’, he tells me.
His colleague hands me a handful of Tajik sultanas. They are very good.
We go back to waiting.
Half a dozen Mongol rally cars come through. They have no data either.
One of them tries to console me by telling me he once got stuck for three days in no-man’s land. I’m not consoled.
Eventually my face-check man comes out and gives me his phone.
Obviously we’re not waiting for the unknown thing to happen anymore.
We find a browser that the website works on after a couple of tries. I fill in the application. I check the ‘I am not a robot’ checkbox and am faced with an image captcha, with the explanation in Russian.
Image captcha is a device used to weed out automated spam. Usually there is an image broken into a 4×4 grid, or a series of images. The instructions tell you to select all the images with a bus in them, or all the images with road signs. Usually images are purposefully low quality, to deter clever image recognition software. Usually solving one successful puzzle is enough, but not for the Tajik consulate.
Because it’s in Russian I’m pretty sure, but not convinced, I’m supposed to be selecting pictures of buses, but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere.
While trying to translate it the form times out…
I have to start the whole thing again.
This time I’m ready, at the captcha moment I go find the man. He looks confused, but tries to play. I don’t think he knows how it works either.
I start again.
This time I grab two teenagers. It takes them several minutes, in which time I’m pondering whether we actually we are robots, but they nail it. My humanity is restored.
Ok, now I need to upload my passport. From this guys phone. There’s no choice but to take a photo of it. I hit buttons randomly till I find the right one. Thank goodness I’m am IT professional.
I brandish the successful payment screen to my man. He makes a call.
It all seems well but then there’s a problem. There’s now an error message on the screen, I don’t know what it says because it’s in Russian again, but I assume the payment failed.
I try to log in to my email for the confirmation email, but Google in its wisdom decides I need to verify it with a text to my phone number, which isn’t active. We swap SIMs but the text never comes.
We suddenly remember that we took a photo of the confirmation screen. We get it up and indeed it says the payment was successful. I show the man, he makes his phone call – I’m assuming to the place where they process the visa. We wait a little longer, and next time I pop in he smiles, ‘you have a visa!’.
Weirdly he then asks to see my visa. I’m confused. I give him my old one.
He stamps my passport.
‘Welcome to Tajikistan!’
We thank him profusely for his help. We wave goodbye to the teenagers, who have also been stuck due to their grandmother’s own visa problem. We get on our bikes and cycle off into the mountains of Tajikistan.
Days later I discover how lucky I am. Two motorcyclists, and separately another cyclist all had the same issue and had to spend the night there.
I can’t say no to apricots.
Seriously I tried.
We had decided to camp in an orchard near the road. First one, then two teenaged boys appeared shortly after we arrived and assured us in sign language it was fine to camp.
As we set up camp they ran off to chase off a goat and reappeared with a small bag of dried apricots. They were very tasty, so we snacked on a few before stashing them away aware that we are soon entering territory where it may be hard to find fruit and veg.
Much later, after dark, a light approached and we heard a man’s voice outside.
We tried, and failed, to communicate and he seemed to give up and leave. Shortly after he returned with a small bucket, which he offered to us. I realised it was brimming with dried apricots. I thanked him and took a handful. He shook his head and emptied the whole lot in the entrance to the tent.
Right. More apricots! We scooped them in to a bag and stashed them away.
The following morning as we were preparing to leave a woman wandered towards through the trees. She smiled gestured for us to stay put before running back to the house. She returned with a bowl full of dried apricots, offering them with a smile.
I tried to decline politely, I tried to gesture that we already had some. Her smile faded and I knew that she would be confused and offended if we refused. I opened up my pannier and found a spot to stash another half kilo of dried apricots.
With heartfelt thanks we jumped on our bikes and peddled away before we could meet another member of the generous apricot bearing family.
The tunnel of doom
We wake early, hoping to reach the summit of the 1100m climb we started yesterday before there’s much traffic on the road.
The afternoon before we’d ground up all but the last 6km. We’d discovered as we stopped for the evening that we were covered in a layer of coal dust; from grubby head to grimy toes. There had been a lot of trucks inching down the mountain brimming with coal, or hotfooting it back up to get refilled. Realising we couldn’t go to bed without a proper wash we braced ourselves and washed in the icy river, before climbing gratefully into bed.
The morning is cold, for the first time in a while. We dont get going till 6.30 despite our early alarm call. Sometimes waking up early defeats its purpose – too groggy to move efficiently.
The last few kilometres of the climb are lovely, and surprisingly inhabited.
We reach the peak, and come face to face with the tunnel which marks the beginning of the descent.
Dust, or fumes, are billowing out of the entrance. There’s a second tunnel being built, but not finished so traffic is two way and the tunnel isn’t very wide.
We make a makeshift face mask with a buff and a wet wipe and a few metres in I’m glad we took the precaution.
The tunnel is 5.5km long and barely lit. A single line of lights on the roof, enough to give a sense of direction but not to illuminate the road. We rely on our headlights, and that of passing cars, instead.
To begin with it’s a gentle downhill but a few kilometres in the gradient gets steeper, and the surface is rough.
The air is thick with dust and fumes. The only ventilation is occasional passages through to the second tunnel – and we’re glad enough of them. A breath of cooler, mildly fresher air.
Mercifully, at this time in the morning the traffic is light. Most of the trucks and cars are well behaved.
We both get a fright as a high vis jacket suddenly appears out of the darkness. Only as we pass do we realise it’s just hanging on something and not a human about to step in to our path.
The end of the tunnel is a welcome sight, and the view on the other side absolutely stunning. We pull off immediately.
We are filthy with grime and dust again. We spend a little time picking the dirt out of our eyes and washing our faces then continue the 75km descent to Dushanbe.
In the hostel that evening there’s a group of cyclists.
“You did what? Hey everyone, they cycled the tunnel!”
There was no need to specify which tunnel. Apparently no-one cycles that tunnel, most prefer to hitch a life from the bottom of mountain up and over to Dushanbe.
No one told us.