We left Dushanbe quite late in the afternoon as the majority of the morning passed by putting the bikes back together, looking for ATMs issuing USD, and running back and forth to the Tajik immigration/registration office.
We got on the road at about 4pm, and knowing we had only a few hours of sunlight left, we tried to cycle as many kms as possible. Just before the sun started setting, we began looking for a place to camp. As used as we were to the Iranian hospitality, we didn’t think it would be a problem to find a spot for the night. So we stopped at a mosque and asked if we could stay there, but… they declined. And so did a few farmers on the way, too. I was amused. “What’s going on?” I asked Ross, with half a smile on my face and half the sun already hiding on the horizon. Surprisingly, Tajik people seemed to be not at all keen on engaging with tourists, and that was news to us! With so many settlements along the road and farmers still working on their lands we started worrying about where to sleep. Backtracking to the hotel in Dushanbe would have not made sense, so we decided to adventure up a gravelled lane off the main road leading into a small village in the foothills of the Shirkent National Park.
We asked a shopkeeper if he knew of anywhere we could stay and, after much deliberation and translating, he wispered to us to wait around the shop for half an hour or so. We still wonder what the whispering was about, but after thirty minutes, a chubby lady showed up, kissed us, asked us how we were and said to follow her and her son, the shopkeeper, with the bikes. And so we did, going slightly uphill, on unpaved roads, with no street lights. Only the moon and the car taillights leading the way ahead of us while the thought of our vital organs sold on the black market was rapidly taking over.
They opened a tall red gate and parked inside. We followed, entering a spacious courtyard. Surrounding it, there was a large building, a fruit garden and plentiful grapes hanging across the roof. A couple of dogs and some kids ran towards us; in the background a younger woman was cooking, while an older one was laying the table ready for dinner.
We sat on their “day bed” admiring the food on the table consisting of plov, fresh fruit, homemade bread and tea. Our hosts had a bit of a laugh when we helped ourselves to the plov by serving it in small bowls, which were actually aimed at drinking tea. They tried to teach us how to eat with hands from the common central dish, and discovered the great skill of doing it without dropping everything on ourself – this kids were particularly good at that! We were then given a tour of the whole house to discover that at least four generations – and a cow – were all living in the same place.
We “admired” the unique neuveo style, the toilet ( a hole in the ground), the shower room with no taps and no running water, and the kitchen, with a big stone oven and an equally big plov dish. We were instructed to sit in the grand shared living room to watch the family’s latest wedding celabrations, to which Ross nearly fell asleep – it did go on for a good couple of hours. We then asked where we could pitch our tent but the ex Soviet chubby mama offered us a whole room and a bed for ourself, and we couldn’t be more grateful.
That night we couldn’t shower, nor brush our teeth. But as filthy as we were, we still were thankful to have a roof over our head. And what a roof!
Cycle touring might not be the ultimate luxury travelling experience but it definitely gives you something much more valuable than that: a true and genuine insight into the day to day life of local people and the chance to spend an incredible time in houses that hold many generations of families, memories and stories. Sharing a dinner and a laugh with complete strangers despite the language barrier. Scratching the skin of what it really means to live in Tajikistan and, finally, realising what a beautiful life we have does make me think.
Not being able to wash away the sweat and dust accumulated during the day felt a bit gross; the wet serviettes barely made any difference. We sat in bed, staring at the window in front of us, listening to the family chatting and then, finally retiring to their rooms. We had our “pensive” – or better, incredulous – expressions on. We didn’t really speak much to each other that night, yet we knew we were on the same page and contemplating the same thoughts: what an incredible and fascinating experience that was, how lucky we were!