No matter what anyone tries to tell you, trust me when I say that patience is not an inherent trait, but rather a learned one. Learning it, however, is not nearly as easy as it sounds. After almost a decade of intense lessons (the most commonly found attributes the world over would have to be acute slowness, laziness and incompetence) I have yet to really master the art of being patient. I’d probably give myself a 4 for good effort though.
We’ve been standing outside the customs office at the Uzbekistan/Tajikistan border for at least an hour and a half. It’s inconceivably hot under the mid-day sun and the more I gulp gallons of water the more I need to use the public toilets, which incidentally stink as if someone suffered a slow and agonizing death in there and was left to rot for three months. Urgh…
Chris and I are covered in dust, smeared with sweat and have attracted a very healthy colony of sand-flies. As we meander about the dilapidated border compound, in search of shaded shelter, I spot a vision. She’s simply beautiful. Dressed impeccably and with nay a single hair out of place, a woman is sashaying towards the customs building (and us) dragging a Ducati-labelled trolley in one hand, and a handsome child in the other. If I didn’t know any better…I’d say she’s Italian. Italian women have this knack for being faultlessly and effortlessly stylish, even in the most ridiculous of circumstances. Like this one. The border is, quite literally, in the middle of a desert shared by both countries. Aside us, Chinese truck drivers and a handful of locals who obviously can’t afford to fly, there’s only a couple of stray dogs. Given half a chance for better options, I’m quite sure even they would love to stray elsewhere.
Oh I know what you’re thinking! If ALL Italian women have this innate effortless style going on at all times…what on earth happened to me? Australia happened to me, that’s what. I may be full-blooded Italian, technically speaking, but when I’m forced to stand for endless hours in the middle of nowhere under a scorching sun, I look more like something not even a dingo would drag out of a tent. Overlanding has a lot do with it too, I guess.
Anywho…her name is Maxina, she is in fact Tajik, but she IS married to an Italian from Genova. A-ha! Told you!
The agonizing wait for the custom dudes to take their fingers out of their rear ends and stamp our docs is alleviated for the next hour, thanks to Maxina’s lovely company. We manage to fill each other in on our lives and backgrounds impressively fast. Now THAT’s an Italian trait I seem to have retained 😉 The only reason this gorgeous woman is at this god-forsaken place is that due to the fact that these two bordering countries are in not-so-friendly terms, there are no actual flights to and fro. Maxina was just renewing her son Bruno’s Italian passport at the embassy in Uzbekistan (Tajikistan does not have an Italian Embassy), and is now making her way back to Dushanbe (the Tajik capital) where she lives with her family. So that’s at least one mystery solved, if you managed to keep up.
Chris and I fiiiiinally get our docs back, we re-pack our stuff and get ready to move on to that always exciting land of no-man’s, super thrilled at the thought of having to do this all over again on the Tajik side. Yippie. I exchange contact details with Maxina and leave her with the promise that I’ll contact her again once we get into the capital sometime between now and June 2015.
Less than 20 minutes later we are actually on Tajik soil with newly stamped passports. The swiftness of the procedure on the other side was mind-boggling. We are caught unawares and, all of a sudden, don’t know what to do with all the superfluous hours we’d planned on wasting at the border.
We bolt out of there as if on turbo-charge.
Within merely 10 kilometres the scenery changes to beyond any kind of human understanding. This is something which always catches me by surprise. Cross a tectonic plate overland and what you experience is an awe-inspiring change of topography the likes of which you could not imagine. From endless plains of uninspiring dust, rises some of the most beautiful mountains we have seen in months. With mountains come valleys, luscious plains and a breathtaking abundance of flower beds.
I am not quite sure if it’s only due to the fact that we’ve been riding in a desert for a month, or if it really is that impressive. It matters not: right now, to me, the explosion of colours is simply spectacular.
After just an hour of riding we hit the eastern fringe of the Fann Mountains. Everything here, in direct contrast to Uzbekistan, looks revitalisingly healthy. Rivers are flowing, flowers are blooming and we are in absolute heaven. As our senses awaken, our hunger heightens. We persist for at least another 30kms without spotting a single roadside eatery. Finally, I smell it! Meat!!!! Oh dear lord have mercy, we’re gonna have us some shashliq!
(PS. Now bear with me here, I’m not normally this carnivorous, but if you travel through these parts for months you may also succumb to what is commonly referred to as plov-overdose-syndrome. Plov, the national dish of Central Asia, is none other than a somewhat blander version of pilaf. So, basically, a mound of rice topped with two pieces of boiled meat. Now this is a lovely, simple meal which would certainly suffice in times of starvation, drought, natural disaster or if you lived in a refugee camp for a decade…yet if it’s the ONLY dish you EVER find ANYWHERE when you’re travelling…you’re going to get a tad OVER.IT.)
Anyway, as I start salivating inside my helmet I spot a plume of smoke emanating from a roadside homestead. The front lawn is huge and I see that it’s brimming with people. There are tables outside and I spot a man cooking shish kebabs (that would be shashliq) on a coal grill. Finally, a restaurant!
Chris is sceptical
“Are you sure it’s a restaurant?? They don’t normally have such high fences around them”
My insistent hunger pangs have obviously affected my eyesight because I had not even noticed the fence. Once I do, I genially dismiss it. I am really THAT hungry.
“Yeah sure, it’ll be fine. C’mon let’s ride in, I’m starving!!” I insist and proceed to ride ahead of Chris, go up the driveway, dismount, shake hands with a man who comes up to greet me and then, without undue delay, proceed to order two serves of shashliq and two coffees.
You have probably figured, by now, that sometimes I can be a complete and absolute retard. What I have just managed to do, is gate-crash a local family’s private Labour Day luncheon.
My level of embarrassment shoots through the roof and, as much as I try to backtrack once I discover my colossal cock-up, I know that it’s futile. Tajiks are renowned for their intense hospitality and if you think we’re going to be allowed to simply ride away without first being fed ad burstum you’d be painfully mistaken.
Chris and I are introduced to the entire family clan and shown to a food-laden table on the front veranda. Within minutes we have piping hot shashliqs, salads, breads and yoghurt sauces on our plates. As we start tucking into our divine apparition (trying desperately to not look like we haven’t seen food for a month) the owner of the house starts asking us 101 questions about our journey and our lives. His English is faultless and he continues to refill our plates so, as you can imagine, I am more than happy to let Chris answer all the questions. 🙂 Meanwhile…I gorge…
Mum-of-the-house keeps looking at me expectantly. I know what’s coming. It’s that ubiquitous question I keep encountering time and again. I can almost feel my ovaries nodding in agreement…
“So…how many children do you have?” She asks and allows her husband time to translate
Travel here alone or with a partner and you can expect to receive this question about 20 times a day. Even when locals can clearly see that we travel long-term by motorbike they still can’t help themselves. My response is well-rehearsed:
“Oh, we have no children. We travel by motorbikes…so we have no place to put them”
Sometimes I swear I can see people looking at our side boxes quizzically. Perhaps they would more readily accept us shoving a baby in a box, rather than having none at all!
“Inshallah…later on” I usually add, in a desperate attempt to remind them that if we have no babies it’s obviously because Allah does not wish it upon us. They usually nod in sympathy after that.
After ‘only’ three hours (??) we are sent off on our merry way with a bag of left-overs and about a week’s worth of home-made bread. It’s local custom, apparently, to never let guests leave without a healthy doggy bag. It brings prosperity and ensures a safe ride.
I love this country already.
As we zoom down the valley, towards the turn-off to Iskanderkul Lake (our intended stop for the next few days) I contemplate how wonderful our first day in the country has been. Never have any of my stuff ups had such delicious consequences. Considering this is the first day in six weeks we did not eat plov…I’d say it’s been an overwhelming success.
Lake Iskanderkul is as breathtaking in real life as it looked on google images. But more so. A popular week-end retreat for locals in summer, it is blissfully deserted now, and we end up spending a total of three days bush-camping on the lake shore with a super friendly pooch as company. If we hadn’t shared our food supplies with her we probably could’ve stretched our stay for a whole week. But hey…they don’t call it doggy bag for nothing 🙂
I’ll leave you now with images of our most relaxing travel days of 2014.
Welcome to Tajikistan. We hope you enjoy your stay.