Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Riding the Mysterious KKH

Chris Writes

Beware the Boys on the Road
Entering Pakistan, I had been warned of the children; particularly the
boys who at times enjoy throwing rocks at cyclists as they roll by.
Cycling into the village of Passu, we encountered two boys sitting
atop a wall several meters above the road. The boys waved and yelled
”Hello!” though, as we passed them, we heard the unquestionable sound of
small stones hitting the pavement behind our wheels. The both of us
immediately turned around, rode back and yelled at the boys. Once
Sage picked up a softball sized rock and asked how they would like to
be the target, the two young lads realized we ment business and
quickly left their lofty post and ran for the cover of trees.

The following day, as we cycled through a small village, four young
boys who were dilligently working beside the road sprinted ahead of us
and to our horror picked up large sticks. We quickly assumed our
positions but to our surprise, two boys started beating the trees while
the other two collected the apples mid-air as they fell. Enthusiastic
and hardly able to contain their eagerness, the boys ran to the road’s
edge, and with outstretched hands offered us more apples than we had
space for.

Several days later, while riding through the tight, stone wall lined
streets of Minapin we encountered 10 or 12 boys playing a game of
cricket. Once we were spotted, the boys came running, shouting any
English word that came to mind. We were soon besieged. With their
bright eyes transfixed on our dust covered bicycles and their questions
being asked with so much enthusiasm, we were afraid that a few of them
might explode from excitement. After a lightning round of questioning
the boys then dug deep into their pockets and pulled out handfuls of
uncracked walnuts, insisting we take every last one.

Then there was the afternoon when, as we slowly climbed a small hill
before another village, some young men in a white car sped by yelling
something inaudible out the window. Once I got to the top of the hill
and started coasting down, the same car, now parked on the side of the
road, waited for me to pass and slowly drove next to me. Not sure what
to expect, I tried to keep my distance but with a rock wall on one
side and the car on my other there was not much room to negctiate.
After a long minute, the passenger stuck his head and
offered a polite greeting followed by an enormous handful of ripe
grapes. As quickly as the car had sped by several minutes ago, it
took off and was gone again. Again several kms down the road we
encountered the car and its occupants, on the side of the road and
again more grapes were thrust in our faces. This time the passenger
needed another to help with the load of grapes. With smiles and
profuse "thank you's" we moved on.
The warnings we had received before entering Pakistan about the boys
on the roadside rang true, except we never expected to run out of
storage space for the gifts that were given so freely and with so much

Modes of Transportation
Shortly after entering Pakistan you begin to see several types of
transportation typically used. For one, the motorbikes that scream
by, blearing their horns and carrying three grown men make any tourist
look twice and wince. The mass appeal of the small motorcycle can
only be understood once one travels through the country, with its
hellacious dirt roads, narrow alleys or roads so rutted that even four
wheel drive vehicles find it hard to pass, the motorcycle fills a
special nitch. Following the motorcycle, large 10 passenger jeeps or
mini-busses dot the landscape. These vehicles almost always are jam
packed with passengers on the inside and whom ever could not fit
inside is now sitting, hanging or somehow magically attached to the
outside. At times, 4 or 5 grown men sit on top of an over loaded
jeep's roof rack while another 6 hang off its rear bumper and for the
completely desperate, the front bumper is usually free and quite
available. Moving up the scale of motor vehicles one sees the large
and always highly decorated Pakistani trucks. With intricate, hand
painted decorations costing upwards of $15,000, these truck drivers are
serious about their 6 wheeled, rolling beasts. These trucks usually
sport not only beautiful landscape and flower designs but also have
hanging reflectors high above the cab and what seems like thousands of
small bells hanging from chains below the bumpers. The drivers are
usually curteous and always proud to show off their rides. These
trucks are usually grossly overloaded with burlap sacks full of
potatoes, wheat or what ever agricultural crop is in season, heading
south for richer markets.

Stationary Store on Wheels
While cycling through Pakistan one always encounters children, either
on their way to school, home or working in the fields. Passing by,
children usually stop what they are doing, wave, yell hello or come
running. By our third day in Pakistan we started encountering a few
children, in the small villages, that as they ran to the edge of the
road would scream "Hello, one pen, Hello, one pen". We would always
greet them and tell them we had no pens to give. By the fourth or
fifth day the greeting of many of the children changed from "Hello,
one pen" to "One Pen", "Pen please" or even "Give me pen". One
ingenious little boy started out with "One pen" and as we rolled by
the quantity of pens he was asking for increased with every meter
traveled. The last I could hear of him he was asking for "Five pen".
In the beginging, as the one pen chant was so new to us we disregarded
it as just an unusual greeting a few kids were using. But as we rode
further south the mantra of one pen became such a common sound and
nusiance, chanted over and over, with the kids running beside us
yelling at the top of their lungs that we started to devise plans on
how to divert or end the pleading early. Finally, as one over
enthusiastic boy started screaming the daily matra louder and louder,
with ever increasing intensity we decided to try and charge a few
rupies for each pen that was asked for. The starting price hovered
around 5 rupies (about $.09) and increased marginally until the
child realized that as they screamed and pleaded the price rose. Sage
continued to say under her breath "What do I look like, a traveling
stationary store?", which always offered me a bit of comic
relief in the midst of the one pen onslaught.
At times, we wished we had pens to give out, especially to the
youngsters who, so openly gave us apples, walnuts, appricots or
grapes. In the end we neither gave out any of our limited supply of
pens nor did we receive any money for a pen

Bridges to Prosperity
While in Pakistan one never knows what to expect when it comes to the
bridges. There are as many types of bridges as there are people. The
first bridge we encountered, crossing the Hunza River was probably the
most dramatic and the only one of its type. The bridge, the shorter
of two leading to a small village across the muddy, glacier fed
river, was at least 300m long, narrow enough to grab tightly onto the
two straining cables and employing so few wooden planks that at times
the distance between each step seemed to span over a meter. Before
stepping foot on the bridge, I had to inspect the anchoring systems,
the steel braided cables and slightly unsettling sight of partially
broken hardware used to hold two sets of cables together.
Attempting to cross such a bridge was truly a mental test. Hands
holding on tight to each cable, feet testing then stepping on the
remaining, and often to skinny planks and the eyes focusing not on the
planks but the fast flowing river below. My attempt to cross the
bridge was short lived and if I had lived across the river I may have
very well starved to death. But upon my the failed attempt at
crossing, an older woman from the nearby village climbed onto the
bridge and without any effort, fear and only one hand, started
traveling across the now swaying bridge, she seemed to glide, despite
the ever increasing span between wooden planks.
The second type of bridge common to many small and often remote
villages along the Karakoram Highway is the wooden basket hanging from
a small pulley that rides on one thin, well-used wire. The
approaching trail is often carved into the cliff side, so narrow at
times that two people coming from opposite directions could not pass.
The basket itself has an often torn and tattered rope attached to each
end and to the opposing banks. The basket riders, upon climbing into
the small and bouncing basket begin to pull themselves aross the
river. The first half of the ride is rather short as the wire slopes
to the center but the second half is usually slow and requires
substantial effort. Hand over hand, the individuals pull themselves
and sometimes their occupant and/or goods from the market to the
opposite side. Typically, a youngster from the village, seeing
someone crossing, will come running and join in the effort to pull the
basket and its occupants, making the progress twice as fast but
still too long to be suspended, mid-air above a raging, rock strewned
When it comes to bridges for pedestrians and motor vehicles alike
Pakistan has some of the most entertaining ones around. The country
is big on suspension bridges, often narrow, only allowing one car from
either direction to cross and only one car at a time. Our first
encounter with this type of bridge was upon entering Gilgit, late in
the afternoon and just behind a small car packed full of occupants.
As the car ahead completed its crossing, the car just in front of us
started its journey and so did we. Once the car drove onto the bridge
we could see and hear the super structure of the bridge groan and flex
along its entire length. As the steel cables lengthened, the wood planked plantform stretched and the entire bridge seemed to drop
several inches. Cycling behind a vehicle on a bridge that sways more
than than a lobster boat in winter waters proved to be an art that
neither of us had ever mastered. We wove from side to side,
stumbled when we tried to pedal as the bridge appeared to drop out
from under our tires but were having the time of our lives. With a
long bridge platform to cross and cars waiting on the other side we
had to keep close to the car ahead. Once that car drove off the
bridge, the entire mass seemed to spring skyward, ignoring the
miniscule weight we and our bikes offered.
Finally, as the traffic flow and population increases along the KKH
the construction of new bridges is inevitable. We passed four new
bridges, all in various forms of installation. Some of the bridges’
wooden platforms lay on the banks, being pre-cut while others simply
had the stone pillar uprights errected and slack cables, drapped over
the pillars, hanging in mid air. One such bridge, still in the early
stages of construction was already being used by the villagers despite
the wooden platform missing most of its decking and any guard rails. It
was so narrow it would have even given goats pause. But as the small
and now impractical bridges become replaced, the villages on the
opposite banks have the chance to grow and prosper.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


When you hear the word Pamir, what comes to mind? Stark, skyscraping mountains? A remote and exotic land? I have to admit that I had no imagination about this place that we are in the midst of passing through before we got here. But still I was surprised by what I encountered.

Cresting the 4280 meter Kyzyl Art Pass, we barely rolled downhill onto the desert plateau which is the eastern Pamir. The colors were captivating- golden sands and russet rocks. The stillness and emptiness were even more so. A turquoise lake, our home for the night, turned muddy by morning with the inflow from the unseen glaciers surrounding our bed. Only horseflies stirred, and they made me mad, dashing headlong from their hungry conspiracy. Chris had to laugh as he watched my torment.

Slowly riding in the thin, high altitude air I had to wonder at this lifeless place. What was the grand appeal that drove the adventurous to hitch or cycle or hire a jeep to tour though this unpeopled land? Our constant companion was the Chinese border- delineated by a complex but tidy array of barbed and electric wire, and thick fenceposts in an unforested, unvegetated desert.

First Impressions
We entered over the high pass of Kyzzyl Art. On the other side, stark in barrenness. Dry. High. Windy. Colored sands and rocks: brick, ochre, gray- pyramids rising up and tumbling down. Dust devils reaching 300 feet high, disappearing as fast as they form. All against a brilliant blue sky, ringed with the high reaching snowy peaks of the Pamirs bordering China.
Camped by a magically turquoise lake. Woke to find the mirage faded to a silty brown pond. Three ragtag soldiers appear from the distance, two of them each carrying a small window pane. No water, no supplies. just too-small shoes and thick socks. Wrong-sized sneakers and holey jackets, they trudged four hours in thick, tattered clothes through the sand and heat to deliver these materials to the border post at the pass. Another hour to reach the post. No water or food on hand, they would turn and march back, a soldier's duty done for the day.
Rode for hours along the empty landscape. A solitary soldier emerges from the Chinese side of the 3-meter high electric border fence. He calls to another man who is following 2 yaks across a sticky mud flat while Chris filters water from the clear flowing streamlet. The yaks disturb it, turning it into yet another of the unfilterable waters.
We meet 2 and then 2 more cyclists. What we are doing is not so special, There are so many out on the circuit. But we are the only Americans- at least this year, so far. The others: German, Polish, British, Swiss, Dutch, Czech. In this sense, I'm proud to be an American.
Up the pass. Not a hard one, but still 4200 meters high. At the top I know: some things are worth it. Kara Kul Lake, 15 miles away, huge in the distance. Why is it called black lake when it is purple and turqouise, brilliant azul, a gem in the desert?
With a helmet, a modest descent of 52 kph. Chris's speedometer recorded 78.2. Some things, I don't want to know.
Past the village of Kara Kul, on the way to camp, we turn back to fill up on fresh water at the village pump. Small children take turns jumping and hanging, moving the pump arm up and down. 2 stylish teenage girls come wheeling their 2 urns on a rickety metal wagon. Chris fills one of the urns and one girl pumps the other. Friendly young men with theirs and then 2 young soldiers stop to chat. In the end we stayed at a local homestay with a Tajik guide on his way to pick up his next group. We learn a lot about Tajikistan from him and our beautiful hosts.
So far, so good. I only hope I'm up to all this physically. It is much harder than I imagined. How will I fare in Tibet?

Tajik Border Control

Along the way, it frequently occurs that you have to stop and show your passport yet again. Sometimes you get to sit down, sometimes you have to stand. There are easy-going guys who gently check your passport, and there are the wolves, trying to catch you without a registration stamp,which costs about 21dollars but carries a fine of $330 if you don't have it. All of the comings and goings through these checkpoints are carefully recorded in small notebooks, the kind kids use for school, decorated with Barbie or race cars or disco teens. As if all this weren't enough, we've had some outstanding checkpoint experiences.
12 kilometers out of Murgab, we descend into a narrow canyon. There's a checkpoint at the neck, just past the bridge. Full of flies. A shiny plastic mural poster of a liquid waterfall in a lush setting. Great contrast to our desert surroundings. Formalities without a hitch, and Chris goes down by the river to pump clean water. I futz with my bike and head down to join him. A soldier walks to the edge and beckons and calls out in Russian.
"Come on, Chris," I say. "We've just been invited to lunch." Bowls of potato soup, a plate of sliced onions and delicious fresh made bread are spread out before us, the commander, and the half dozen recruits assigned to spend two years without holiday leave at this remote site.
We are soon joined by Ian, a British guy who has spent the past 12 years touring by bike. In a dirty tee shirt and thin bike shorts he says that his only home is his cycle, apart from the few months he spends at a Bangkok guest house every winter. I hope I never get that extreme.

Today was so weird. First, we're battling headwinds that came on strong at 8 am and only intensified so that by 2 o'clock, we were pedaling hard to go 6 miles an hour downhill. We did a great job of keeping our complaints to ourselves and putting our mettle to the pedals. We discussed the folly of spending precious days making so little progress in a landscape that was increasingly boring. The rocks and sand that called themselves the Pamirs made us wonder why others raved so highly about this route. The place is a desert. A high (over 13,000feet, dry, barren wasteland. It's amazing that every few hours we'd see goat droppings, and then soon, detect the thinnest sliver of green where these hardy animals could drink and graze. And then we'd see the sandstone hovel that no doubt was made livable and warm, which housed the children chasing the goats and the rest of the shepherds' family. This is truly living on the edge. But seeing one or two habitats a day, hearing only the wind in our heads, and thinking about all the more ridable places in the world got us to discussing the pros and cons of trying to hitch a ride. Granted, the five vehicles we'd seen so far were jammed packed already, but we wanted to consider the possibility. After all, what is the point of spending a large percentage of the available time making little progress with full effort, meeting no one and seeing little change in the landscape? After a well-needed Snickers break, we decided to hitch- should a car come by. We hadn't seen one in hours. After five minutes though, one came by. Packed of course, but they stopped and gave us encouragement- there were two jeeps just behind. We got back in the saddles and continued our slow forward progress- I think we'd finally covered 30 kilometers, when I saw something heading towards us in the distance. It was a big Toyota Land Cruiser with just one passenger and a tire on the roof rack. Not only that, but the young man who jumped out to greet us with a big smile was the same person we met yesterday- Zaire, a guide for a Central Asian tour company carrying a Japanese couple on tour. We'd spoken for about fifteen minutes on the road the day before, because the Japanese were also cyclists back home, and were considering doing an international tour in the future. They were curious about our route and gear etc.
Zaire and the driver agreed to give us a lift to the Chinese stolovaya - cafe - where we were headed. But as the conversation got going and we were rolling, it turned out that they were driving down to the Wakhan Valley, our true Tajik destination.
The great thing about travelling with Chris is he is very flexible and open minded. So four hours later we find ourselves outside of a guesthouse with Tajik speaking people watching us as we stand around a pile of panniers and helmets and tent and all, wondering what we should do. We just spent more money than we ever planned on the ride here. We offered to pay 25 dollars but the driver thought it should be 50. As we progressed along our planned route, we began to think it would be worth twice the price not to have to ride that way- especially into a wind tunnel. The scenery deteriorated, the mountains getting lower and more rounded, the roadside even less vegetated, if that were possible. Then, we got to the turnoff which leads down to the Wakhan Valley. Clearly,we were no longer in a inhabitable part of the planet. Gravel pit is a more likely description. There were, to be fair, some goreous, small salty lakes, but surrounded but sand and stone, and not even the textured colored sandstone that we'd been traveling with for the past few days. Just chunky broken rocks haphazardly strewn about the tilted walls of the giant sandbox.
We reach the passport control point at the edge of the border zone. Our papers are all in order but they are now inaccessible. We had loaded our bikes on the Land Cruiser thinking it would be a 20 kilometer lift. Now the pannniers containing our documents were under the cycles where they were hastily loaded into the back.
"Don't worry," Zaire said with a smile, holding a paper in his hand. "I have the permit for two tourists, one man and one woman." The driver handed this to the soldiers peering in the Toyota's windows at us. A friendly conversation ensued, Chris handed up three Marlboro Lights that he pulled from the last pack that we carried to give as gifts, and we drove on.
"Let me see that paper?" I asked, curious about the details of the tourists we supposedly were. Chris was a 62 year-old Japanese guy.

The Wakhan Valley
We were happy with our decision. With every twist and turn we felt even better about not spending any time riding through 3-inch deep sandpockets on a dry, windy desolate track. But then the mountains began to appear on the horizon. Or rather, far above the horizon. The completely white faces of the Hindu Kush peaks loomed above the high mountains, touching the sky. The river we'd been following somehow got our attention as it turned from a bobbing class II to a bouncing class III to a booming class IV before it diasppeared altogether in the depths of the narrowing canyon. Our road became a track that clung to the steep sides of the rising mountains. It contoured in and out around the deep cuts made by near-vertical water, finding its way down to the torrent far below in the canyon separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan. It was a pity that we did not get the chance to ride the gorge's edge and the rollercoaster hairpins down to the little village of Langar. But missing that was the price we paid to avoid 6 days of hard labor in the sand and salt mines on the road to Ishkashim. Now we are 117 kilometers away, resting with flying insects in the indescribable Ismaili Community House.
Carpeted raised platforms surround the central floor. Walls are painted with symmetrical murals, the whole structure is made of intricately carved beams and posts. This creativity, the work of village youth. Young artisans in the community. The first of the Pamir homes we got to see.

Unparalled Pamiri
One of the main delights of traveling through this remote stretch of Tajikistan, at places just a stone's throw from the Afghani Wakhan Corridor, was the hospitality of the Pamiri people. At times it was difficult to travel more than 200 meters without being stopped by an invitation- for lunch, for dinner, for tea, for the night. We accepted one every day. We feasted at the home of Gulchekhra and her husband, Bek, who Chris befriended while I was photographing the large group sitting at the curb seeing their guests off on the mini-bus back to the central town. "Tea" turned into a 4-course meal. Their son then gave us a hour-long tour of the local millhouses. In these community stone huts, families bring their harvested and threshed wheat, grind it between hand-carved millstones by the power of the rushing flumes, load it into empty sacks, being careful to leave a large scoop of flour for the poor in the designated cubby on a shelf near the door, and then lash the full sack to the waiting donkey "taxi: for the slow trot home. Villages with a lot of water have several mills, and host families from neighboring settlements during the busy grinding season.
Another day, Roma, a part-time law student in Bishkek, snatched us by the village pump, and brought us home for a two-hour tea. We left stuffed and bewildered by this family who filled our bags with fresh apricots and boiled eggs, satisfied by our sharing of pictures and stories of home.
Chris met Marat at the Bibi Fatimah hot spring. It was worth the steep, 7-kilometer switch-back route to this unusual resort. Chilrden and young men helped me push my bike to the top, while Chris managed to peddle most of the way himself. An ancient fortress, like China's Great Wall, juts out toward Afghanistan atop a high ridge commanding a full view of enemy advance. The springs themselves were equally captivating: three hot waterfalls gently poured out from the side of the cave where old women and young girls bathed in the healing waters. In the men's pool, Chris held court with the dozen Tajiks bathing around him, and we left there with promises to visit Marat in his village the next day.
We stayed in Boybar for two whole days. Marat, a sizable Judo champion, led us up to a naturally carbonated spring in a green fold in the dry, stony mountains where we lunched and drank and filled our bottles. He and his English-speaking wife gave us their cottage, came and cooked for us each morning and generally swamped us with generosity and hospitality. In turn, we bought a sheep for the family- them and four of Marat's five uncles living in Boybar. Eight of us packed into the jeep and we drove back with the docile dinner. It was horrific and moving to watch the uncles sharpen the knives, listen to the prayers of sacrifice, and see the bleeding sheep kick and writhe until his life bled out.
It is possible to eat too much meat. We ended up spending an extra day in the district center of Ishkashim while Chris recovered. That's where we met Dr. Shirinbek and his son Olim, both surgeons, but from different eras. The younger, a laprosocpic surgeon, trained in Moscow, spoke good English and expects a better future for his wife and children. His father is a reknown thoracic surgeon who has endured a difficult past and survives in a difficult present. He lives with his wife, 2 kilometers up a steep track, withstanding the snowy, cold winters by huddling in the kitchen. The grandchildren who come in the summer to escape Dushanbe's heat and help with the milking and the washing go back to school in the capitalin the winter. Dr. Shirinbek treats patients at the hotspring sanatorium at the base of his hill where he runs a herbal apothecary. He explains that during the civil war after the break up of the Soviet Union, there was no medicine and no access to any. What he did have was books. Books on herbal treatments and how to prepare them. They were all in Russian and from them he learned. Using the surrounding plants, he built up a medicine chest and a practice, and he continued his work as a surgeon.

The last outstanding hospitality was the most intense of all. Passing through a sleepy village east of Khorog, we saw smoke from an outdoor cooking fire and heard lively, loud music coming from a house just off the road. People waved and called and we hollered our hello's back. A few hundred meters along, we stopped at a roadside table to buy some halvah to add to our snack chest. Chatting with the seller, we understood that the music and smoke came from a wedding. We had expected to go to one while in Ishkashim, as the uncles from Boybar were planning to attend one and said we could be their guests. Alas, Chris was doubled over with meat overload and the uncles were very late as they spent several hours waiting to find enough gas for the journey, one plastic liter bottle full at a time. Tajik weddings last 2 or 3 days, so the next night, Chris and I attempted to go on our own, after the Boybar boys had already come and gone. We made it to the edge of the dark, music-laden driveway, but chickened out before crossing into the lighted festivity zone. Now that we had the chance, we decided to turn back and go. We were swamped by the two-hundred guests, the villagers who were invited to Day 2 of the wedding. The men were in one room and the women in another, sitting around an elaboraborate and symmetrical array of food. Nobody ate while they waited hours for the guests of honor to arrive. The bride and groom were more than 100 kilometers away, and in the meantime, Chris and I stole the spotlight. We were given the seats of honor and fed steaming plates of fresh meat, cool bowls of yogurt, tea and melon, and sweets and salad. The musicians came in from the courtyard where the grandmothers were intermittently cooking pilau and drumming, smiling and singing, and set up on the highest of the elevated floor levels in the open, central Pamiri house. Kolya, the one who invited us in, was hosting the party for the fatherless groom. He was a gregarious Master of Ceremonies, as he selected from the 100 seated females- marrieds on the left, singles on the right, who would dance. He himself was fluid and rhythmic on the floor, a contrast to Chris' amusing efforts when Kolya partnered him with a friend of his daughter's. We declined the vodka and the countless offers to stay the night and rode off into the twilight after three hours in the intimacy of this prototypical Pamiri family.

Living with the Mafia

Chris Writes
Just before leaving Kyrgyzstan we stayed with a family, living just 2 kms from the Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan border. After a quiet family meal that included sweet butter, fresh bread, appricot jam and boiled-in-milk goat lung, the father asked why on earth we would be interested in visiting Tajikistan. As he put it, Tajikistan is nothing but rocks, sand and vegetationless mountains. Nothing grows there, he told us sternly, as he had lived there for many years. We quickly dismissed his concerns and said it was the people we were interested in, not just the environment.

The next day, after getting our Tajik entry stamp we saw what the old man was talking about. Just over the mountain pass the grass became sparse, the sky a deep blue and the water, running straight from the nearby glaciers, so silty that even trying to use our filter would have been pointless. Looking at each other we questioned our sanity and personal reasons for pedaling forward. We reminded each other of the wonderful stories that friends had told of the Tajik people and their hospitality as well as the beauty of the Wakhan Valley, now over 500 kms to our south.

After leaving our first big Tajik city, Murghab, we understood why Tajik people are reknowned for their hospitality and good natured personalities. While filtering water at a nearby stream, next to the second military checkpoint of the day, Sage, my ever trustworthy cycling partner was invited in for lunch. Not just any old lunch but a full course meal consisting of fresh baked bread, delicious potato and onion soup and endless cupfuls of chai. The half dozen soldiers were so happy to have company as they are required to serve a full two years military service, without holidays or time off. Shortly after lunch the soldiers decided it was time to check out our bicycles and were more than eager to pose for pictures, cradling their AK-47's tightly in their arms and broad smiles on their faces. As our travels took us deeper into Tajikistan we found that soldiers were the ones most interested in having their pictures taken, armed or not, and offered us words of advice about the roads ahead.

Several days later and hours of arduous pedaling into ever increasing headwinds, we started talking about hitchhiking. The scenery was resembling that of many desert scenes I had viewed in foreign movies and the quantity of water that was required to be carried evey day was starting to wear on us. After several failed atempts at obtaining some motorized transportation we finally got what we were looking for, a completely empty Toyota Land Cruiser. The driver and translator were two men we had met the day before, escorting tourists around and now were heading in the direction we needed to go. We gladly accepted the ride and took pleasure in the guided tour as we rocketed down the potholed road. The car ride took us from the dreary, dusty and seemingly lifeless area of east central Tajikistan to the south, our intended goal, the Wakhan Valley, also known as the Pamirs.

Shortly after entering the Wakhan Valley, an area that shares a common border with Afghanistan, we understood why this trip, up to now was worth the hard effort. The tree-lined streets, miles of hand-dug irrigation canals and beaming smiles of the Pamiri people. Not only was there water, but fresh fruit hanging from the trees and more invitations for chai or pleas to stay the night at their homes. At times we had a hard time getting more than 5 kms down the road before countless invitations were offered.

Near the small village of Ptyup, 7 arduous kms and three hours of cycling up steep dirt roads, we arrive to our first natural hot springs. The Bibi. Fatima hotsprings were our intended evening stay for that day and the hard work needed to reach the springs were well worth the price for admission. Unfortunately the hotel at the top was full with tourists from surounding cities so we sullenly turned back and decided to knock on the gates of homes near by, hoping for an invitation to stay the night. Within minutes we had two offers and the offering parties started to debate who should have the honor of hosting us for the evening. Suddenly a neighbor boy arrive with word that the man of the house we were heading towards had just invited 6 strangers to stay the night. With that news the boy immediately took Sage's bike out of her hands and started leading us down the narrow winding path that lead to his house. After storing our bikes in their makeshift garage we were led, in the dark, down a slippry and narrow path to the family's house below. We were the center of attention for the evening and it was not long before supper of chai, fresh bread and butter arrived on the table in front of us. While talking to the father and showing him the photos and postcards from home he informed us that he worked in the hospital several kms below us. That he made the walk to work daily, six days a week and that his pay for the month was $25 (US). He had worked there for several years, acting as a administrator of sorts, helping to keep the plethora of files in some order. His two eldest sons worked at the hotsprings during their summer recess from school to help support their family.

The next day, the youngest son, about 7, lead us proudly to the hotsprings and with pantomimes, described what we should do and where we should go. With a separate bathing area for both men and women we had plenty of time to enjoy the healing waters the surrounding mountains spewed forth. Not sure what to do or expect, I followed the lead of our little guide, undressing and climbing into the hot water. Within minutes there were 12 other men, of all ages soaking around me and talking in a language I was slow to learn. Then a young man, named Marat joined the naked group and asked in perfect English where I was from and what my name was. That was all that was needed to get the party going. Within minutes I learned that Marat was living in Russia, a theater performer and opera singer, there with his three uncles to enjoy the healing waters the spring offered. Once they learned that I was with my "wife" as my cycling partner and I assume the role to help explain why we share a tent, they wanted to know why we did not have any children. Suddenly the bath house errupted in pantomimes and advice spoken in foreign tongues, about how we should go about to conceive our first child. The general consensus was that I must visit the hotsprings for three days, taking care to soak my private parts and on the third day, as everyone demonstrated with overly active hands, lay with my wife for the evening.

After the multitudes of advice we were invited to visit Marat and his wife, who lived just two days from the springs in the town of Boybar. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity we quickly cycled to the village and were amazed as countless relatives poured out onto the small village street to greet us and take our bikes from us as we were lead to Marat's summer house. There he and his wife made us a late lunch and then wisked us off the meet even more of his relatives. As it turned out, the village was originally named after his family and most of the village had family relations to his. His 4 uncles all insisted we visit each of their homes and meet their families. One of the uncles rushed off to open his store and retrieve several bottles of vodka, beer and wine for the evening festivities. His eldest uncle had a striking resemblence to the "Godfather" himself, Marlon Brando. It was like shmoozing with the Mafia, if we needed something it appeared within minutes, no questions asked. What was intended as an evening of festivities turned into two days of flurried activity as we were taken high into the surrounding mountains for fresh mineral water and watched as the family fished in the heavily silted river with long nets stretched from bank to bank. On the final day, we bought the family a sizeable sheep. Marat and his uncles tried to convince me I should do the honors and kill the animal but in the end I chickened our and was simply a by-stander, watching in awe as two of the uncles sharpened their knives, prayed and held the animal down. Most of the family was there to witness the event and within one hour the goat was fully dressed and on its way to the boiling pot of water waiting above the roaring fire.

Most of the family was there to witness the event and within one hour the goat was fully dressed and on its way to the boiling pot of water waiting above the roaring fire. That evening the family, in all seriousness, suggested we buy some land and build a house. For as little as $500 (US) and three goats the family and all the village neighbors would show up, and for three days build us a summer house. The suggestion was passed from uncle to uncle with additional suggestions made on what size of home we would need, especially in relation to how many children we would be having. In the end we politely declined but the dream of owning a home of my own in the Wakhan Valley still shines bright.

Further down the valley, bellies full of fresh meat, we passed from friendly village to friendlier village. Never sure what to expect or how the people would surprise us next. We visited two additional hotsprings and I received similar advice from the bathers in each, pantomimes and all. The days in the Wakhan valley were short, never more than 30kms and the lunch breaks lasting several hours as we usually spent them in the homes of local families, adopted for an afternoon. As we progressed to the big city of Khorog, past the bridge leading to Afghanistan, the road went from decent asphalt to patches of desert sand and potholes large enough to swallow a small child. We cycled slowly, often carrying a watermelon, strapped to our rear rack, waiting to enjoy its ripeness at the next stop. The evenings were usually spent in the homes of friendly families and often the neighbors and their neighbors showed up to view the pictures and postcards of home we brought along.

After three and a half weeks in Tajikistan we decided we needed to move on, our visa was almost expired and China, Pakistan and Nepal where waiting to be explored.

Leaving Tajikistan and reentering Kyrgyzstan proved to be entertaining, at the very least. While cycling up to the Kyrgyz border, already late in the evening, Sage was greeted by one of the two military border dogs, running straight at her, intending to have her for dinner. She managed to defend herself with the bike between here and the vicious K-9 while the border guards, wearing bullet proof vests and holding AK-47's stood by and watched. After our hearts slowed to that of marathon runners, we handed over our passports for viewing and proceeded on to the next building for our customs inspection. There we were greeted by an 8 yr old and his 6 yr old brother who informed us that the commander and the others were having dinner and we would have to wait for them to finish. With daylight dwindling and our butts aching, Sage informed them that they better get someone out here now or we would be going on our way, customs or no customs official. We waited two minutes then proceeded to the gate. Immediately the youngest boy ran ahead and with outstreched hands yelled "No Go" but it was too late. Sage already had her bike on its side, pulling it under the gate. Once the boys saw our determination they simply opened the gate and let me pass. It was nice to know the Kyrgyzstan border was guarded by two young children and no officials.

We are now in Kashgar, China, getting ready to leave for Pakistan. The ride here consisted of long days through scenery that never seemed to change, and headwinds likewise. At the Chinese border, we had to wait for 4 hours as the Chinese officials had their lunch, practiced drills and cleaned the border house. Once in China we did not know what to expect as our first encounter with the Chinese officials was less than pleasant. Only kms down the road though a large truck slowed in front of us and a man and woman jumped to the ground, smiling and waving us to the other side of the road. They proceeded to share their ownly melon with us the only shade available, next to their truck.. The young couple, having been married only 3 months were more than happy to have us as visitors and as a parting gift, gave us 20 yuan and would not accept anything in return, only saying, "Welcome to China".