The North Road

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It took a while for me to repack my bags after a week off the bike, so I had a relatively late start and set off from Dushanbe at 8.30. Pretty soon I left the main road, heading north. From Dushanbe there are two options: the north route or the south route. The south route is a little longer but is faster as it is mostly tarmac. The north route starts off with tarmac but later turns to dirt and gravel, with a 3200 metre pass along the way. The north route is considered the harder one, so of course that is the way I was going.

It started off easy. After leaving the city I cycled through green valleys on a nice smooth road. When I stopped for breaks, I was able to eat – my appetite was back! The road made a gradual climb up to an elevation of about 1800m. Traffic police at the pass made a big show of jokingly checking me with their radar gun.

There were a series of sharp turns during the descent as I cycled alongside a river through a narrow canyon. After a time it opened out at a confluence with a new river. One of the river was blue, the other brown, and so their mixing produced a pretty sight.

Later on I reached a point where there were two road options on my map. One took in a couple of sharp climbs over some hills, while the older road stuck closer to the river and had a couple of landslides. I’d heard it was passable though, and rode along what was now a dirt road in order to find out. I reached a wide river crossing which, while probably technically passable, didn’t seem worth the risk when there was an alternative route.

I turned back to take the high road. This was a challenging one with two climbs each gaining about 200m of elevation at a steep gradient on a poor surface. At the end of the diversion the road returned to tarmac and I continued riding at a faster pace.

I was running low on water and couldn’t find a shop. I therefore decided to set up camp near a river, filling up my bottles with water which I later filtered.

Rolling hills the next morning brought me to a military checkpoint after a couple of hours. This was the first of many such places, where my passport details were studiously logged in a big book that was presumably never checked. This was also the point where the tarmac ended as I turned off onto a dirt road.

Traffic was now almost entirely gone as I followed the narrow road that hugged the valley wall. I spent an enjoyable few hours riding up and down steep hills, across small streams and through the occasional village.

I reached the day’s second checkpoint at the village of Tavildara. Here I was able to check the logs and see the records of other cyclists. Victor, Pierre, Adam, Tom, Ross and Pax had all set off together three days before me and I hoped to catch them up. The logbook had records of the French and British but not the Americans, which was strange as they were cycling together!

Shortly the road crossed the river and began climbing a narrower river valley. The short steep climbs and descents were replaced with a more consistent climb. I reached Langaro, the last village with a shop for a day or so. Like the other shops I’d seen, it was poorly stocked. It seemed I was just going to have to subsist on biscuits!

Some kids who handed me some crab apples

I continued riding upwards for another hour or so before setting up camp at an elevation of about 2100m, in a small grassy area next to the river.

Not long after starting riding the next morning I reached a few obstacles that I worried would set the tone for the day. First was a patch of deep mud that was difficult to even walk through. When I tried to pull my bike all that happened was my feet would sink deeper! Eventually I made it through, to be greeted soon after by a landslide that had destroyed the road and covered it with large rocks. I picked up my bike and carried it over. Right after this the road crossed the deep river. That should not be taken to mean there was a bridge!

There were several sand banks between sections of water moving fairly fast and slightly deeper than my knee. I crossed first without the bike in order to try and find the easiest route. What I found was that snowmelt water at 7am is bloody cold! And now that I’d crossed once I had to do so twice more to get the bike over!

Thankfully that was the end of my tribulations and from now on the road was ridable, if challenging. I gained more than a thousand more metres of elevation, on dirt/gravel at an average gradient of 6-7%. I was now getting quite warm in the sun and took a break every hour or so to avoid overheating, and to wring out the sweat from my bandana.

A few hours climbing saw me to the top of the pass, where I stopped to take the obligatory photos before beginning the descent.

The descent wasn’t that much faster than the climb as the road surface was now quite deep gravel. Not wanting to lose control and go flying off a cliff, I rode slowly and chose my path cautiously.

Toward the end of the descent I met a pair of Australian cyclists, Johnno and Jake. I chatted to them briefly, and they said I was only an hour or so behind a group of four British cyclists. I guessed this was Adam and Tom, and probably Pax and Ross had been confused for Brits too.

Tarmac returned for the last few kilometres into the town of Kulai Qhumb. I contacted the others through WhatsApp and met up at the guesthouse. I was quite pleased to have covered the distance in less than half their time, and decided to call it a short day and stay at the guesthouse with them. Victor and Pierre were heading off but Adam, Tom, Pax and Ross were staying. Loretta was there too, having covered several 40km days with her cart, managing to keep up with the cyclists!

The town had a well-stocked supermarket, which was very welcome after the biscuits that were all I’d eaten that morning. I got myself some bread and cheese and had a nice big sandwich before spending the afternoon and evening hanging out with the others.

The next morning I was feeling sick again. It was nowhere near as bad as before but I decided to stay another day at the guesthouse. Pax had someone bad bites so she and Ross decided to take a rest day to avoid her bites turning out like mine. Ignace and David also showed up that day, having ridden the south route from Dushanbe.

When the internet made a rare appearance, I did some research into my illness and came up with a few possible explanations.

1: This was a coincidence, possibly caused by the dinner at the guesthouse last night. There wasn’t much I could do about that but I decided to avoid eating locally cooked food for a while.

2: Giardia can potentially cause temporary lactose intolerance. I gave away my cheese and chocolate, and decided to wait a few weeks before trying dairy again.

3: A study of a Giardia outbreak in Bergen showed that over a third of patients saw a second course of symptoms, usually about a week after the first course of antibiotics. Most of these were resolved by a second course of antibiotics, which I decided to take.

4: I had been pushing my body too hard. I had decided to ride with a group of cyclists for the next few days, which would mean easier and shorter days.

As you can see, I was sick of being sick and intended to avoid it happening again! I’d paid about 60 somoni in Dushanbe for the antibiotics and expected to do the same here. The pharmacy was closed but a local, Ibrahim, called the chemist and he came to open up. He sold me a course of antibiotics, holding up four fingers to show the price. I assumed this meant 40 somoni, but he corrected me. The price was 4 somoni – ¬£0.35 for twenty pills. I bought two courses just in case.

On the way back to the hostel I saw a somber monument. A terrorist attack in the region killed four cycle tourists the previous year, injuring two others.

June 29: 128km

June 30: 110km

July 1: 56km

2 thoughts on “The North Road

  1. Sorry to hear about your Giardia. A friend of mine recently came back from Nepal with it and has been feeling pretty wiped out since. Don’t over-do it – you’ll probably be feeling fatigued for a while.

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    1. Yeah, it definitely wasn’t my favourite. I took a lot of rest and then when I started riding again I was with others which made for a less tiring ride. I’m feeling much better now – hope your friend improves too.
      Sam.

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