Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Dushanbe to Tashkent

My kind hearted granny, Baba Lyolya, turned out to be full of amazing stories. She gave me a family history lesson and dug out 100 year old photos from her parents' era in Petropavlovsk, in southern Siberia, where she was born. (I think it's now Kazakhstan - the distinction is vague up there, northern K. being very Russified.) Most of these were from studios with great props and Sunday best furs. She really put across how isolated Dushanbe was back in 1954, despite the railway built in the 20's. When she arrived the local Tajiks were still living in clay pot homes ('kibichki') and the girls would flock around her to stroke her ponytails in awe.
From there on her stories ranged from her involvement in organising (illegal) backyard abortions (she gave a detailed 'recipe') and stories about how she'd go to Termez (on the Afghan border, now in Uzbekistan) to catch the first supplies of household products to stories about her work as manager of the neurosurgical hospital in Dushanbe, with long gone Jewish and Russian consultants... Extraordinary living history of the Soviet Union.

The following day I went back to the Iranian embassy having decided to resort to begging. Who knows, maybe they don't take this whole reference number thing so seriously. They seemed receptive and said come back in the afternoon. By that time my number had magically appeared.

From Dushanbe my route headed north over two big passes past Khojand towards Tashkent. I'd had some horror reports of the road, with massive road and tunnel construction works going on.
So I thought I'd get a lift on a truck. 'Smokin' Granny' (my new name for her since I discovered she secretly puffed on old school 'Polyot' cigarettes) kindly decided to cook me French toast for breakfast. Very sweet of her but I soon offered to cook it for myself - not so easy when you're blind.

I rode up the road 15km or so and waited well into the stinking hot afternoon near a police checkpoint for a truck to offer a lift. I had plenty of company - due to sky high petrol prices (and roadworks) not many drivers were interested in going over and transport was scarce for everyone. Eventually I got lucky. The truck turned out to be empty- hmm, not so good, nothing to cushion the bike with! All I could use was my groundsheet. We headed up past the Tajik president's silly palace-dacha into the mountains and the road soon turned to hell. The tunnels were as bad as feared - 30cm of water over rubble! Glad I didn't ride. My Tajik drivers were in a hurry to get home and hammered over the first pass. At 2am there was a roadblock so the boys decided on shuteye till 5.30am. We slept on a tapchan (open air traditional tea house platform, with cushions) next to a mountain stream. Over the next pass helter skelter and we stopped to get my bike out. I was nervous. Climbing up into the container dust was everywhere and I found my bike right at the front- it'd obviously been tossed all over the place but was intact, thanks to the 4 panniers which had protected it. Only minor casualty was my billy - a bit of panelbeating gives it character, anyway.

I rolled down through apple trees onto the plains near the border to the first roadside stalls of watermelons and delicious long white melons. On my way I met plenty of friendly lowland Tajiks who were busting to give me apples, plov and anything else they had for the road. After one failed border crossing ('the international border is 40km up the road, this one's just for locals') at Bekabad, I got over into Uzbekistan. The border guards seemed younger and more worldwise than I remembered them - I asked one what the black market rate for Uzbek sum was and he told me (correctly)! From here it was 100km across cotton fields and piles of watermelons to Tashkent.

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