Sunday, October 12, 2008

Day 18 Khorog - Vanj

Distance: 140kms

Cycling paradise. Unbelievable canyon scenery, good asphalt, downhill and even a slight tailwind. Seven hours in the saddle never felt so good. As planned I had a sleep in and took a decent look around town. The bazaar was a hive of activity but not particularly exciting. Also had a great breakfast of fried eggs and honey from the hive in the back garden. Bliss.

I pedalled out of Khorog completely refreshed. I'd fixed the minor mechanicals on my bike, I was clean and I had a fresh dressing on my saddle sore. The first part of the ride followed an expansive river valley. At the 80km mark the valley tightened and I was dwarfed by high rock walls on both sides of the river.

While the scenery was great, not all of the people were. I had four anxious moments today:

1. At the 70km mark I stopped at a cafe for lunch. A bear-like guy grabbed me, ordered me to his table and proceeded to manhandle me in a way that was at first friendly, and then aggressive. He was obviously on his 20th vodka and decided he'd order for me (mantes and sour cream) and pour me a vodka. When I refused he became enraged, even though I told him Russian that I didn't drink because of my religion. When he thought I was sitting too far from the table he grabbed me by the back of the neck and pulled my chair in. I started to get really concerned when he started showing off his bullet wounds `from Afghanistan' and suggested that I would be staying at his place that night and to `forget about bicycle'. I was nervous and powerless. When he went out back for a cigarette I saw my chance and sprinted to the door as soon as he was out of sight. Adrenaline propelled me for the next 20kms or so.

2. At 100kms I was riding peacefully when a massive explosion rang out. My initial reaction was that someone had blasted in the rock wall overhead, and that I had someone missed the signs in Tajiki. I winced and waited for the rocks to crush me and then noticed a puff of smoke on the other side of the river. The blast was in Afghanistan...

3. At 110kms while taking a photo a young guy pulled up in a car demanding my passport and sunglasses. He was aggressive and had me hemmed in between the rock wall and his car. I decided to call his bluff and turned on him, forcing him to back down.

4. Towards the end of the day I stopped for a drink while sitting on a rock. I glanced up to an observation tower and the army officer was pointing a rifle directly at me. When he saw the look of panic on my face he immediately lowered the gun - apparently he'd been using the sight to get a better look...

One of the things that I hadn't taken into account was the time change in Khorog, which meant it got dark an hour earlier. At 7pm I was still riding and getting edgy as there was sparse flat ground for camping, and very little to hide me from the infrequent traffic. I then came across a cafe and negotiated food and a bed for the night - for $10 - and had tasty shaslik and bread. The guys running the show are a strange crew and I hope my gut instinct that they are harmless is right.

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