Our route…
Journey to Dakar

Whilst we are on the road…

in Journey to Dakar by on August 14th, 2010

…we want you to know, dear esteemed readers, that we have not forgotten you.  We have left Khiva now and are heading via Kazakhstan towards Volgograd (Russia).

Along our way, we will be passing one of the biggest environmental disasters in the world – the shrunken Aral Sea.  Once the fourth-largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has now shrunk by some 90 percent following a Soviet project to divert water from the rivers that feed it to boost cotton production in the arid region.  Fishing villages now lie in barren desert wasteland and the fish stocks are gone. Frequent dust storms carry polluted, toxic dust across the region and the local climate has even shifted without the water’s moderating properties resulting in scorchingly hot summers and brutally cold winters.  We will be stopping at Moynak, a town once on the shore where there is now a “cemetery” of rusting ships and the water line 170km away from where it used to be.

We will then cross into Kazakhstan and covering almost 1,000km across the desert.  Kazakh roads are not renowned for quality and in particular the stretch we will be covering.  After all our experience with bad roads, hopefully these roads will be a piece of cake.  Now we just need to figure out how we will get petrol in the desert…

Watch out for our updates when we eventually get to Russia!

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Just to spice things up again

in Uzbekistan by on August 13th, 2010

After reading about all the conventional touristy things we have been doing and charming B&Bs we have been staying in so far in Uzbekistan, are you getting BORED???  Do you think we are getting SOFT???  Well dear reader, do not worry, we now have some Journey2Dakar-style drama specially for you.

We set off for Bukhara a day late as Sabby had been laid low by food poisoning.  Standard traveller’s ailment, we would have to succumb to it at some point along our trip.  Sabby tried her very best to get onto the bike, but she could not maintain an upright position for more than 10 secs.  Everytime MJo tried to prop her up, he would find her back with her head on the bed/couch/chair or whatever horizontal surface was nearby, like clockwork. In the end we unpacked the bike again, moved back into our old room, and stayed another night.

The next morning then at 6 am we started our journey towards Bukhara (check out our photos of the sights) and then headed westwards towards Khiva (the old slave trading center of the Silk Road).  About 80km from Khiva, we found a little roadside stall which sold petrol (or “benzin” as the locals call it), so we stopped to fill up (as there are no gas stations with Benzin the entire day).  Turns out the turnoff from the highway ahead was closed due to bridge repairs (yes, bridge repairs again!) so we had to retrace our steps a little.  Then we got to a bridge right by the Turkmenistan border, both sides of the bridge are actually Turkmen territory but the bridge is Uzbek territory.

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The Uzbek bridge

The railway line also runs on this bridge and as we got onto the bridge, the front tire got caught in the track and the bike fell over, ripping the front tire in the process.  We managed to get the bike upright fairly quickly but Sabby’s foot got pinned under the weight of the bike and luggage for a bit.  At this point, a tourist bus came along and we decided to put Sabby on the bus with them to Khiva where she could get her foot checked out.

MJo had to deal with the flat front tire.  [No photos here unfortunately as Sabby took the camera with her to Khiva]  The Uzbek guards at the bridge helped him wheel the bike to the guardpost where MJo got all his tools out and they removed the front tire.   They first tried using our tire patch spray but the hole was too big for it to work.  So MJo, accompanied by one of the guards, hopped onto a passing minivan and took the tire to the nearest village 2km away.  At the tire repair shop there, they got the inner tube replaced, but there was still a relatively big rip in the tire.  So they hopped onto an army jeep to the village junction where they then got onto a passing bus towards another further village.  The tire repair shop in this village had a bit more sophisticated (‘sophisticated’ being a relative term in these parts of the world) equipment and was able to apply some sealant to the tire.

In the meantime, Sabby got her second experience of the Uzbek healthcare system (the first when she had food poisoning).  She went to the local hospital.  Whilst she was waiting, she could hear a child’s screams of pain ringing from the treatment room.  Hmm, not exactly a comforting sound while you’re waiting for medical attention… Turns out that the child had been bitten by a dog and they were operating on her, apparently without anesthesia(??!!).  Eventually the doctor had a look at Sabby’s ankle and it was nothing serious, just a mild sprain.  Thank goodness!

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Gloomy Soviet-style hospital corridor did not help assuage Sabby’s fear of hospitals
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Sabby’s sprained ankle where the doctor marked ‘X’ for the injury

A full 5 hours later at 7pm MJo finally reappeared, and yes riding into town. He managed to remove the tire, go to two villages for fixing, put the front tire back on and drove the 80 kms, just in time for dinner!  We are now safely in Khiva where we are taking an extra day to rest ankles, carry out bike maintenance/repairs, upload photos, update website and generally enjoy civilisation while we can as our next few days will be through the desert.  More about that in an upcoming post!

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Good morning Uzbekistan!

in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan by on August 12th, 2010

Now we become real tourist…Welcome to Uzbekistan where our journey takes on a more cultural and historical perspective.  Uzbekistan was home to Central Asia’s cradle of culture for more than two millennia and also to old Silk Road cities such as Samarkhand, Bukhara and Khiva.

How to tell you are in Uzbekistan, not Tajikistan

1)    The roads are almost all tarmac and MJo is almost bored riding on the highways at 100km/h

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Flat tarmac roads with nothing but desert on either side

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MJo is so bored on flat Uzbek roads that he drives with only one finger here!

2)    There are no mountains, just flat terrain.

3)    There are many more new buildings built within the last 10 years, including a Rodeo Drive-esque mall in the heart of Samarkhand’s historical centre

4)    There are many more historical monuments, reflecting the Uzbek cities’ relative importance in history (for example, the Tajiks were actually subjects of the emirate of Bukhara from the 15th century onwards)

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The Registan in Samarkhand

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Khiva by night

5)    It is difficult, if nearly impossible, to find petrol in Uzbekistan even though we always managed to find it in Tajikistan.  Most of the petrol stations in Uzbekistan are shut or locked up; the few with any petrol have long queues of cars outside and you are not allowed to hoard petrol by filling jerry cans. A stark reminder of the old Soviet times.

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Queue of cars outside the one gas station we have seen with petrol; other 'dry' gas stations just have abandoned cars parked outside awaiting the day when there will be petrol again

6) There are many more tourists in Uzbekistan and much better tourist infrastructure; about a fifty new hotels must have sprung up across Bukhara since the Lonely Planet was last updated whereas not much has changed in Tajikistan since.

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The courtyard of our charming B&B in Bukhara

7) There are no more propaganda pictures of Imomali Rakhmanov, the Tajik President, everywhere.

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Tajik megastar: President Imomali Rakhmanov

8) There is crazy inflation in Uzbekistan, the difference between the official and black market exchange rate is about 40%!!  And it also means that we have to carry around thick stacks of notes to pay for stuff

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Crazy stacks of money we have to carry around in Uzbekistan; this is the equivalent of 100USD

Reasons why you might still get confused

1)    There are still no motorcycles; what is up with that?!

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We did find one motorcycle in Uzbekistan, except it was in a state of rust and probably had not seen the roads for the last 50 years!

2)    Many of the names of the historical monuments are actually in Tajik and Samarkhand is Tajik-speaking

3)    There are still many fruit sellers along the side of the road, especially melon-sellers

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Roadside melon seller in Tajikistan; not much different from those in Uzbekistan

4)    Tea is still the preferred drink of choice; shaslik and a tomato/cucumber/dill salad appears on the menu all the time too

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MJo takes his beef shaslik apart

5) Famous Persian historical figures such as the ruler Ismail Samani (known in Tajikistan as Ismoili Somani) and the poet Rudaki, appear everywhere in both countries too.

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Rudaki

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Thanksgiving

in Journey to Dakar by on August 11th, 2010

Lest you think we have been shut off from the world holed up in remote parts of the Pamir, we have actually been pretty good at keeping up with the latest world news.  For example, we know all about the JetBlue steward who got fed up of passengers not listening to his instructions, and so decided to grab a beer, activate the emergency chute and head off home.

We have also been reading closely the news about flooding in Kashmir, Pakistan and northwestern China, areas which we passed through earlier on our journey.  We have been so lucky with the weather.  Plus various incidents along our trip, such as missing the avalanche after Sost by a mere five mins and making it through the washed away road in no man’s land before the water levels got too high.  Our guardian angels have clearly been working overtime!  Not to mention, in spite of our Indian custom woes, that our bike was not part of the cargo on this container ship which was tipped over outside of the Bombay port, where our bike arrived at as well.

So thank you, our dear guardian angels, for watching over us and keeping us safe!

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Special road conditions report: Manali-Leh, KKH and Pamir Highway

in Road conditions by on August 10th, 2010

As we couldn’t find any real up to date road condition reports prior to our departure for the above 3 high altitude routes, here a brief summary of their conditions as of July 2010 (it goes without saying that one massive rain can alter the landscape and conditions of these roads over night, so the below is only what we experienced). Please feel free to email us for specific questions.

Manali-Leh

We did it in two days, Manali to Sarchu, and then Sarchu to Leh; most do it in three days, Manali to Keylong, Keylong to Sarchu then Sarchu to Leh. Both days were long days with 10-12 hours on the bike each day as the road doesn’t allow for faster speeds. The first pass right out of Manali, Rohtang La, was particularly bad as it had just seen a massive landslide. The downhill part was equally slow with endless potholes and little rivers crossing the road at most turns. This is followed by an ok section of tarmac for a while before the gravel and potholes begin again. The many curves (and oncoming trucks) requires constant braking, slow turning and much honking as the trucks don’t really care what comes around the next corner.

Rohtang La pass when it was closed by a landslide

The other three passes were ok, with intermittent gravel, dirt and tarmac. Several deep water sections had to be crossed as well. Don’t forget we did this part of our trip on an old Enfield (as the AT was stuck in Indian customs) which was definitely not suited for this type of terrain. I would strongly recommend an enduro type bike. The suspension on an Enfield was not up to par and so our backs and the bike rack took the brunt of the thousands of potholes and gravel road punches.

The conditions would certainly get worse if you were riding after a couple of days of rain or snow fall.

Karakoram Highway

Please refer to our earlier post about this section.

Pamir Highway

Leaving Sary-Tash the road is gravel and some tarmac to the Kyrgyz border post. No problems, about 65kmh average is possible.  After the border post, one enters “no man’s land” for about 25km. It is mostly tarmac with potholes throughout but good riding. Unless of course, a section of the road gets washed away as was the case with us (see report here). Coming over the pass the road becomes dirt but as long as there wasn’t a a major downpour earlier should be straightforward.

Beautiful tarmac on the Pamir

After entering Tajikistan, more gravel and potholes and the occasional stretch of tarmac. The last bit to Karakul is mostly tarmac and flat, we managed this in the dark with only our headlights. From Karakul towards Murgab, it is mostly tarmac with some great stretches (100km/h) as there is hardly any oncoming traffic (and if a truck comes you can see him well in advance). Usually about 10km before and after a pass the road is gravel or very stoney, prior and after it is mostly tarmac and good riding. Overall the Pamir is about 75% tarmac and 25% gravel/stones. Of all the three highways, certainly the best in terms of road conditions.

For the road from Khorog to Dushanbe, we took the shorter (and more challenging) route via Tavildara. Click here for our account.

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Filling up petrol in Tajikistan

in Tajikistan by on August 9th, 2010

From the Krygyz border to Khorog, we did not see a single petrol station.  Instead, we got petrol from local stores and roadside stalls which had a few large containers of petrol which they would then measure out by hand in 5l and 10l containers.  The petrol was claimed to be 92 octane and the ride certainly felt like it.  MJo got very excited every time he saw a “gas station” in the same way he gets excited about motorcycle spare parts shops these days.  So here are some snapshots of our various petrol-filling experiences in Tajikistan.

At Karakul Lake, we bought petrol from the village shop which also sold detergent and Snickers bars.

At Murgab, we were directed to this container at the end of the bazaar.

At Khorog, we found our first actual gas station!

About 1km before Khailakum, we came across this roadside “gas station”.

And about 75km from Khailakum, we found a gas station with a different method of measurement.

On the last 90km on the M-41 towards Dushanbe, all of a sudden, there were proper gas stations galore!   You could not drive more than 1km without encountering one.  A sure sign we had reached civilisation!

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Goodbye Tajikistan!

in Border crossings, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan by on August 8th, 2010

After our grueling 15 hour day, we decided to take it easy and take a rest day in Dushanbe. Rest days are good for catching up on stuff and that is exactly what we did. Uploaded photos, updated website, did laundry, did some bike maintenance and most importantly caught up on sleep!

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Our gloves really needed a wash it seemed

We waited for it to cool down and then went out exploring the city in the afternoon.  Dushanbe is often described as the most charming capital city in Central Asia and we could see why!  Wide boulevards and a beautifully colourfully-lit park in the city centre where many local families came out at night.  The city was very different from the Tajikistan we had experienced so far – paved roads, expensive foreign cars (we saw a couple of Cayennes in contrast to the beat-up Soviet relics we saw elsewhere), actual shops and proper gas stations.  We almost experienced a culture shock to be in Dushanbe.

One thing though: we still did not see any locals riding motorcycles on the road.  In our week or so in Tajikistan, we only saw one motorcycle.  And that belonged to an Italian rider who was taking his Harley 40,000km around the world in one year.  Did the Soviets ban motorcycles?  A Google search turned up no answers to this mystery, so please leave a comment if you have any clues.

The next day, the highlight of our ride out of Dushanbe was the Anzob Tunnel, otherwise nicknamed the “tunnel of death”.  Our prior research
indicated that this was a 5km long tunnel with no ventilation or lighting and large puddles of knee deep water. It was quite a ride indeed, though someone had since put a couple of light bulbs in, so we could see a bit while trying to avoid the biggest water puddles.  Overall we enjoyed the ride but were also happy seeing the literal light at the end of the tunnel.

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The “Tunnel of Death” is 5km long and has no ventilation but a lot of ground water

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The Space Monkey says “A” is for Anzob, hope no truck is coming the other way

When we got to the Tajik border, first we were told that the customs form and the US$10 we paid for it at the border on the way in, were invalid.  We got scammed!  Despite our best efforts to explain this, we ended up having to pay the fee again.  But not without making friends with the supervisor who spoke German and enjoying some watermelon with him.

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Sabby finally found her Tajik melon with the border supervisor

Next up at immigration, we were told that we needed registration documents as we had a private visit visa rather than a tourist visa.  In Tajikistan, foreigners remaining for more than 72 hours have to register at the OVIR (another relic from Soviet days), although foreigners with a tourist visa had up to 30 days before the registration requirement.  Argh, we had spent a lot of time before this trying to figure out if we needed to register as the tourist registration exemption seems to be fairly recent and had just convinced ourselves that we would be OK.  To register, we would have to spend another US$30 each plus 3 more days in Tajikistan.  No way!  With some luck, we managed to get away without having pay a single cent.

Next stop: Samarkhand

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15 hours and 536km later…

in Tajikistan by on August 6th, 2010

As we took our daytrip (and hence a day off our original schedule), we decided to try to do the whole 600ish km from Khorog to Dushanbe in a day.  Most people do it in two days, but then again, this trip has not been like most trips either.  However, having grown used to the relatively good road conditions in Tajikistan so far, we underestimated the amount of time we would take to do this journey.

We started early and had an easy and uneventful 240km ride to Khailakum, the town which most Khorog-Dushanbe travellers break their journey for a night.  From Khailakum, there are two routes to Dushanbe: the shorter (284km) route via Tavildara crossing the Khaburabot Pass (3252m) which was described as “being in very bad condition with no prospect of improvement” or the longer (370km) southern route via Kulob which has just been reopened following repairs by Chinese crews.  If you have been following our blog so far, can you guess which one we went for?

Initially when we left Khailakum, the locals had given us mixed reactions when we pointed to the Tavildara route and asked if that was the right way to Dushanbe.  Eventually, we guessed that they meant that the road was not pass-able by cars but could be done by motorbike.  About 10km in, we met some Russian cyclists who had come from the other direction and provided some clarification on the situation.  There was apparently a bridge under repair after the pass, with only a narrow strip for pedestrians, bicycles and “maybe” motorcycles to get through.  That was somewhat reassuring! Last thing we wanted to do was to ride up to find our way blocked and have to ride back down again. Little did we know how all this would pan out in the end.

It was a fairly steep aescent – 2000m in 30km – over some pretty challenging dirt and gravel “roads”.  It seemed as though no road repairs have been done since the Soviets built the road in the 1930s.  And evidence of their work was visible in the abandoned machinery in various states of rust that appeared in the middle of nowhere along the way.  And the LP was right that there was “no prospects for the road improving”, especially now that the new all-weather tarmac road via Kulob had been completed.  Still, the ride was one of the best passes we have ridden so far.  The scenery was beautiful, especially near the pass where it could have been in the Alps in Switzerland.  We stopped for lunch at the top of the pass,with Sabby especially savouring the knowledge that this would be the last pass to cross on our journey.

Russian machinery which had probably been left to rust for the last 80 years

Swiss Alps? Think again, it is actually the Khaburabot Pass in Tajikistan

Picnic lunch at the top of the pass

The way down took us 1350m down over 40km on a challenging dirt path.  And then, we got to THE bridge.  Again, it was built by the Soviets in the 1930’s and has not been repaired since.

The challenge:  getting 500kg (the AT, us and all our luggage) over this narrow strip of steel.  Any slightest slip and we would end up in the raging river below.

The precariously NARROW strip of steel

But of course, there has to be a complication.  On the other side was parked a crane which held up a section of the bridge to provide support while the workmen were working on it.  This crane would not be moved for another two hours, when their workday ended.  Two hours lost, and we still had another 200km to Dushanbe.  But not much could be done, so we made the best of our wait.

MJo displays his ever-amazing ability to create opportunities in all situations, including finding a good shady spot for power napping under the crane

In the meantime, Sabby took the opportunity to learn about the finer art of bridge repair by observing the workmen at work

Finally, the crane was moved.  Then it took MJo and a crew of workmen to get the AT across, being extra careful in maintaining a precarious balance.

They actually moved the crane about half an hour ahead of schedule  – we were a great excuse for the workmen to knock off early.  It was 5pm when we were ready to move off, still light and not too late, or so we thought.  We had not counted on the road continuing to be very rough for the next 60km.  All in all, the road was consistently rough for a whole stretch of about 130km!!  Even MJo had to admit that it was one of the toughest rides on our trip so far.

We finally got to end of the Valley around 730pm.  The guards at the checkpoint there told us that the road ahead was going to be “10km asphalt, 50km non-asphalt and the final 90km asphalt” again.  After the road we had been through that day, the thought of that 50km of non-asphalt road made us consider not going to Dushanbe the same night.  So we rode on with the intention of finding a place nearby to stay the night.  We passed one village 10km later but no luck there, it was definitely not one on the tourist track.  We continued riding and then miraculously, the road became sweet beautiful tarmac from Obi-garm.  Miss Tarmac (i.e. Sabby) was overjoyed!  We put on some good music and enjoyed the smooth ride to Dushanbe.

We got to Dushanbe around 930pm, 15 hours after we set off from Khorog!  Rest times aside, it was still a good 13 hours of riding, including some rough roads, just like the Dakar.  Now imagine two consecutive weeks of this…MJo is certainly getting some good training for Dakar 2012.

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Afghanistan-almost

in Tajikistan by on August 5th, 2010

We had read on the internet about a Saturday bazaar at the Tajik-Afghan border at Ishkashim, where there was also a town by the same name across the river in Afghanistan.  There wasn’t a great deal of information in the Lonely Planet about this, but apparently, you leave your passport at the border and you can walk across the bridge to a weekly bazaar where Tajiks and Afghans from both sides of the river bring their “wares” once a week for trade.  “Wares” being at times, a euphemism for drugs that get declared as “hay” or other innocuous trade items.  This sounded intriguing so we decided to check it out.

The ride from Khorog to Ishkashim took us into the Wakhan Valley, where a river separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan for the entire 110km distance.  At times, we were only 50m away from Afghanistan.   We could see all the Afghan villages and the people going about their daily lives, which we found especially fascinating given most of what we know about Afghanistan comes from reports of wars and conflicts in the country.  The mental picture we have of the country is from TV images of soldiers, gunfire and explosions, it is easy to forget that there are also normal folks trying to go about their everyday lives in the same country.

MJo points to the Afghan village across the river
A closer look at the Afghan village

About 25km from Ishkashim, we hit yet another section where the road had been washed away.  The river at this point was not as fast or deep as the ones we had faced before, but there were sections where it was all soft mud.

Another washed away road, another challenge to be met!
Soft mud where a person, or for that matter the AT, would have sunk into easily

MJo in his usual determination to find a way, took an hour to investigate various options. About 200m downstream he finally saw some tracks used by other vehicles before and decided to give those a try (on an unloaded AT this time). With some skill and luck, we found our way through it and were soon again on our way towards the Tajik-Afghan border.

More about this bazaar, the river splits into two at this point, leaving a island in no man’s land connected by bridge to either side.  The bazaar is held every Saturday on this no man’s land in the middle of the river.  When we got there, we were first told that we would not be allowed across since it was not a Saturday and there was no bazaar taking place that day.  It took a little negotiating as we had come all this way.  In the end we were allowed across the bridge and onto the island where the bazaar usually takes place.

The bridge from Tajikistan to Afghanistan and the no man’s land bazaar section in the middle
A local who spoke a little English helping us to translate and negotiate at the border
The walled compound where the bazaar takes place every Saturday
Us within the bazaar

Unfortunately we had to leave our baby behind at the Tajik side of the border where we later walked back to. The border guards were friendly and still astonished at the size of the AT which to them must have seemed like a truck. We are glad we did the side trip as the Wakhan Valley is truly beautiful. Ishkashim is about 110km from Khorog (about 2 hours on an enduro motorcycle over a bumpy gravel road).  It can also be accessed as a stop on the Southern route between Murgab and Khorog.  Highly recmmended!

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Additional notes on Murgab and Khorog

in Tajikistan by on August 5th, 2010

We stopped in Murgab for lunch on our way from Karakul Lake to Khorog.  It is the first town after the Qolma Pass border crossing between China and Tajikistan and this was obvious from the number of Chinese trucks around town.  The people in this area are Krygyz and we saw many cars with Krygyz license plates. We grabbed a tasty lunch of soup and fresh salad at a local cafe, where MJ ordered our food in German! turns out the owner’s son had learnt German in Osh.

The bazaar in Murgab where the shops were all operated out of old shipping containers

Our tasty lunch in Murgab

In Murgab we also had our first experience of the corrupt Tajik cops we had read about before.  Whilst waiting for Sabby to scout food options, MJo was approached by a cop and who asked to “see our papers”.  Sensing an irregularity, MJo asked the cop to go to the META (Murgab Ecotourism Association) office together and sure enough, the cop slinked away!  What the cop didn’t know was that there was no longer a META office in Murgab.  The next time we ran into an official asking for payments, we cited the “Aga Khan Foundation” and that seemed to do the trick as well.

We spent two nights in Khorog.  We had initially planned to treat ourselves to the Serena Hotel, having had a great experience at the one in Gilgit.  Unfortunately, all its six rooms were filled.  So we ended up at a hotel that claims to be the first Indian hotel in Khorog!  They are probably right on that one since 1) there are not many hotels in Khorog to begin with, especially ones with private bathrooms and 2) there are even less Indians in Khorog!  So our hotel and the Indian restaurant downstairs are part of a conglomerate of businesses owned by an Indian businessman in countries with tough geopolitical situations such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

The full Delhi Darbar story

Our hotel was located in the same building as the Aga Khan Foundation in Khorog.  And it turned out that there was a German lady, Beate, who worked for them.  MJo worked his Deutsche connections and persuaded Beate to come for drinks with us.  Beate had been working in development in Tajikistan for the last ten years or so and shared with us some very interesting insights about development work, Tajikistan and Central Asia generally.

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