Cycling the Silk Road

The Kindness of Strangers
Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 16 2007 7:20 AM

Cycling the Silk Road

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The heartbreaking kindness of Tajik strangers.

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The Tajik border guards decided to let us in ahead of the Uzbek women pushing donkey carts full of vegetables. This wasn't outright kindness—they just wanted to try on our bicycle helmets. Backward, of course. They sent us off with three teacups of cherry juice.

In order to actually enter Tajikistan, we had to ride in the dirt. The single-lane road into the country was being used for more important purposes, namely, drying grain for cattle feed. I liked this country already. Once inside, the mountains grew bigger by the day. We crossed two 11,000-foot mountains, split down the middle millenniums ago, still revealing inner layers of rock.

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I started the descent of the second mountain only to be stopped dead in my tracks. Just beside the road were eight or 10 calves, munching on deep, green grass and lounging beside a river. It was too idyllic to pass up. The traffic was so sparse that I felt comfortable stripping down naked, taking a leisurely bath, washing all my clothes and air-drying my body while lounging with the cows. I continued the descent and found Mikey sitting in a natural shower in the same stream. (We weren't too worried about getting separated. There aren't a lot of spandex-wearing young Americans in Tajikistan. It was pretty easy to find each other.) After a good bath, we descended 20 miles down to the Pyanj River, the border with Afghanistan.

The natural scenery was the same, but now the mountains and roads were littered with old tanks, personnel carriers, mortars, trenches, and unambiguous signs to keep out of the minefields. The Pyanj is narrow enough that a good jump and a strong wind could've carried us into Afghanistan, where the villages lacked electricity, and there wasn't even a road. All they had was a donkey trail clinging to the steep cliffs above the river. I was riding about 200 yards behind Cam on a 15-foot-wide gravel road when I noticed three men blocking our way, one in army fatigues. Cam was beyond them. I immediately got the sense that these men weren't there to welcome us to Tajikistan.

They didn't budge, so I sped up and headed straight for them. At the last second, they parted and one swung at me with a bag. He swung downward, luckily, instead of swinging right at my chest. He missed me and hit the tent draped over a rack above my back wheel.

I stopped about 30 yards past them and waited for Mikey with Cam. Cam had pulled the exact same bull-rush move. When Mikey came around the corner and saw the three dudes blocking his way, he pedaled as hard as he could. I don't know what they wanted, but we had no plans for giving it to them.

Later in the day, I was riding behind Mikey and Cam when two kids blocked my path and started yelling "Deneg, deneg" (money, money). It had worked once, so I headed straight for them. They parted, but one of the kids reared back to hit me with a long wire. It was too late to stop, so I kept coming, but he didn't swing. Instead, he grabbed onto my bike and I dragged him for 30 yards until I was sick of it, took his wire, and chased him with it. I don't know what he was thinking. I was twice his size.

We continued warily on. I stopped to take a picture of a beautiful Afghan village built around a waterfall, but a car full of Russian soldiers stopped. (They were very white—unlike most Tajiks—and spoke Russian, whereas most Tajiks speak Tajik, which is closer to Persian. Russians dominate the upper echelon of the Tajik military and are often found along the Afghan border.) They asked what I was doing. "Looking at Afghanistan." "You can't look at Afghanistan." "OK, I won't look at Afghanistan anymore." Any other response would've been a waste of time. We slept in an apricot orchard on a cliff above the Pyanj. The next morning was Cam's birthday, so I cooked him breakfast-in-bag: fresh nan and apricots boiled down with sugar and loose tea. We packed up, and as I picked squashed apricots off my wheels, I discovered six cracks in my aluminum rim. That's a trip-ender.

Aluminum rims can't be welded, and the chance of finding a new wheel out here was slim to none. With little other choice, I decided to ride until I crashed. Knowing every pedal might be my last, I enjoyed every day that much more.

We stopped for a break in a military town and asked the kids mulling around if they knew where we could get some nan. In 10 minutes, they brought back a huge, moldy piece of bread. Good one. They sensed our disappointment and brought two loaves of fresh nan. Next, apples. Then apricots. Then cherries. Then watermelon. Then biscuits. Then candy, each time touching their hearts, as is Central Asian custom. We asked how much they wanted for the feast, but they refused any money.

Later that day, I saw a Russian man standing in the middle of the road smiling, so I stopped to chat. Within three minutes, I had exhausted my Russian, and we stood and smiled until the car he was waiting for arrived. A Niva (about the size of a Geo Metro) pulled up and out poured nine people—four adults and five kids—and a gigantic cake for my new friend's wedding. He invited us to the ceremony and reception that night as honored guests.

We bathed and washed our clothes in a lake and showed up that night. It was like coming home. They had us drunk on vodka within minutes. The traditional dance is a fantastic do-what-you-want-as-long-as-it's-fun-and-you've-got-your-hands-in-the-air number. Mikey gave a speech: "Well, I don't really know too many of you. Actually, I don't know any of you. But you are all fantastic, and I love your country" is about all I remember.

After the wedding festivities, it took two days, lots of hand gestures, a pack of preteens, and $5, but we finally located a crooked Chinese-built rim in Khorog's market. After a soft-serve feast for everybody involved, we headed back to the guesthouse to rebuild my wheels. We consulted the Internet to find out how to rebuild wheels. The advice was to take it to an expert wheel-builder. Big help.

We took everything apart and cleaned it. I saw the end of my trip lying on the ground in assorted rims, hubs, and spokes. Using Mikey's wheel as an example, we slowly wove together and trued each one of the 72 spokes. The finished product was close enough to a wheel for me to ride it.

We decided to split up. Mikey and Cam took the road through the Wakhan corridor, following Afghanistan, which was too littered with rocks for my rigged-up Chinese wheel to even attempt. I chose a road that would still destroy my fragile rims—but at least a bit more slowly.

Meanwhile, my stomach felt like there was a man inside me giving Indian burns to my intestines. I went to the hospital. They said nothing would burst within the next couple of days but wrote down the name of a medicine I should get at the pharmacy. An orderly on his lunch break showed me the way. On the walk, he told me to drink my own urine. He used to have stomach problems but then he started drinking his own urine. He drank it every night for a year, and now, he said, he could eat my bicycle, if the need arose. The medicine at the pharmacy cost 18 somani, or about $7. I had only $12 to last me the 300 miles to Kyrgyzstan, so I hesitated. My pee-drinking pal didn't. Before I even knew what he was doing, he slapped 18 somani on the counter, took the medicine, and we were back on the street. I tried to pay him back, but he wouldn't let me. A generous estimate of a Tajik's yearly income is $1,000. That means this man, who had known me for 10 minutes, dropped two days' wages to buy me medicine. He smiled, touched his heart, and wished me good luck.

Greg Grim lives in Washington, D.C., and builds bogs and does carpentry in Annapolis, Md.Mike Church lives and works in Annapolis, Md., where he builds bogs and does carpentry. The third cyclist, Campbell Moore, is serving in the Peace Corps in Gambia.