Month: July 2012 (Page 1 of 2)

Waiting in Khorog and the evacuation to Dushanbe

Waiting can be quite interesting as well. Questions, emotions, rumors, decision making, group dynamics, hope and disappointment all happen at the same time. At the end, there was an escape by embassy convoy all the way to Dushanbe.

The fighting was centered in the other end of town, a few kilometers away, and also on a bridge, just 500 meters from our hotel. Stuck inside the hotel we tried to figure out what was happening, why it was happening and what would happen. Most of us spend hours discussing all kinds of topics of which none of us had detailed information or answers. Others were listening to music, reading, or, like me, watching a couple TV episodes of Cold Case on a laptop. I played Go-Go with Bernard but we weren’t sure of the rules and made our own here and there. We listened to the full automated gun fire, the shots of Kalashnikovs and the helicopters flying over. There were sodas and water and our hotel manager arranged lunch and dinner in the Indian restaurant next to the hotel. There was a choice of Vegetarian or Lamb, and we were happy that we still could eat something.  We had no way of communicating with the outside world because both the internet and the mobile phone service were out of order. However, at around 21:00 hours we managed to contact the tour director, who was staying in another hotel 7 kilometer away from the group, and a few embassies through a satellite internet connection.

On Wednesday morning the fighting stopped suddenly somewhere around 09:00 hours. Rumors were that there was a ceasefire as a result of ongoing negotiations between the government and the opposition. Some of us went to the main street where they saw many men, women and children gathering in small groups discussing the situation. I assumed everyone knows someone who is fighting the government army. I also assumed everyone knows someone who died in this terrible fight. It’s a weird feeling: a few days ago I was shooting an AK 47 Kalashnikov for fun on my birthday. Now, that type of weapon kills people just around the corner.

With the little information we had it was difficult to assess the situation. Some locals believed the fight was over. Others assumed the army is bringing in more soldiers. One thing we did know was that the staff was not able to join the group and all roads out of the town were blocked. In town, there were many roadblocks created by the opposition (or locals) and the army set up road ‘checks’ outside town.

During the morning emotions in the group were intense. Some riders were close to panic, others were scared or just calm. At 12:00 hours, the majority of the riders decided to leave the hotel and guesthouse and walked for about one hour to a hotel, 5 kilometer at the outskirts of town. They wanted to be as far away as possible. The reason I and 7 others stayed was that at that point in time it was uncertain when the fight would start again, it was unknown if the Serena hotel would have enough space, food and water to support such a group, each person would have very limited luggage to bring, communication to the outside world was unknown, there has been fighting in the area the previous day so security was unknown as well. The hotel I was staying had a lot of concrete walls, the respected UN Food Program and Aga Khan Foundation were located in the same building, there were shops close by, we had plenty of water, sodas and food, there was an internet connection and our bicycles and bags were within reach. Most important, I felt safe among the locals and I did not want to leave our staff members behind. In the end, I believe that everyone made the right decision based on the little information available.

It turned out that fellow riders in the Serena hotel were able to communicate through the Afghan mobile network, from the other side of the river. A few riders put a lot of effort to coordinate with the German, British and Swiss embassies a quick evacuation. The ceasefire was extended many times and on Thursday afternoon the group of 8 riders still in town, moved to the Serena hotel as well since a possible evacuation might happen on Friday.

As soon as our staff and vehicles were able to travel through the town on Friday morning, we managed to reach Rushan, 40 kilometer from Khorog, by shuttling riders with a car belonging to one of the NGO’s. There, a convoy of diplomatic vehicals from the European Union, organized by the German embassy, met us. Since we were also traveling with two expat families, there was a helicopter to evacuate children and their parents, elderly and sick people to Dushanbe quickly. The others had an approximately 15 hour ride over rough roads to look forward to. During the ride, the Dutch ambassador in Astana, Kazakhstan, and responsible for Tajikistan as well, Mr. P. van Leeuwen, gave me a call and asked how the three Dutch riders were doing. I can tell you that it was a good feeling to know that somewhere someone was watching and knew that we were in danger and helped us to get out of there!

Saturday afternoon all of us, except the support vehicles which arrived hours later, were safe and sound.

According to news sources, approximately forty persons died during Tuesday’s fighting, mainly “militants”. However, most persons we spoke to in Khorog claim the number of deaths is much higher. I spoke a local who said he was in the hospital and counted more than 80 people dead. From what I heard and read, fighting in Khorog has not recommenced but the situation remains tense.

Although I want to cycle as soon as possible, a few days in Dushanbe are good to reflect on things that happened. The group has changed and I lost some faith in our tour director. This experience was intense for everyone and one participant decided to leave us early and fly back home. It will take some time for things to get back to ‘normal’. But I am sure I want to go back to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as these are two wonderful countries! Mariëlla is all in, as long as it’s a 4WD!

I’m looking forward to the two weeks cycling in Uzbekistan! And then the 18 days through Iran! There is more excitement ahead!

 

In a war zone

You might not expect a hot spring somewhere high in the mountains, there is actually one in Jelady. We stayed there for one night before we cycled 120 km downhill into Khorog. Rolling hills but still a nice decent. And although I was doing just fine my body was tired and I was looking forward to our rest day. But I never imagined having a rest day in a war zone.

The whole day I cycled along the Gunt river which became bigger and stronger after each kilometer. The further I went downhill the more people were living along the river. It’s like an oasis: green trees, flowers and houses, next to steep mountains. After lunch, Ingrid, our chef, joined us for the last 40 kilometer. There was one last climb before we had an easy ride into Khorog.

Apparently there were not enough beds in the intended two homestay’s, so we were put in one apartment, one hotel and one homestay. All within 250 meter of each other. The TDA staff found a place to sleep in a homestay approximately 7 km up north.

There was a western restaurant just across the park where most of us had dinner. It had a great veranda overlooking the river and it was a relaxed place to eat something. I was planning to do not much on our rest day and just hang out in this place. John and I were a bit late and we ordered some food which was quite nice but not enough after 7 days of cycling. Our second order never came through and after 40 minutes waiting the restaurant closed and we gave up. Thinking about a nice meal the next day.

The rest day was more or less how a rest day is supposed to be: doing almost nothing. Just laundry, some shopping (I found Pringles potato chips!) and changing money. At 14:00 hours I went to the restaurant and ordered a meal; some meat with France fries, a salad and a real Coca Cola. At that time there were rumors that the small town would be ‘closed’ at 15:00 hours. Apparently a high ‘KGB’ officer was assassinated and the army would get in to get things under control again. Before I could finish my late lunch our local support / guide came to the restaurant asking me to go to my hotel as soon as possible. Since there were many people walking in the park I finished my lunch and the blog I was writing and went back to the hotel at 15:15 hours. It was a nice warm day, just like many others. Back in the hotel, things seem to be much worse: all shops, banks and restaurants were closed and we were strongly advised not to go out. It also was said that UN World Food Program and NGO Aga Kahn Foundation employees and other expats were evacuated out of town.

We still didn’t know what was happening. The story that a ‘KGB’ officer was killed had its question marks. First, the KGB doesn’t exist anymore. What would a high placed KGB officer do in Khagor? Why would someone assassinate a KGB officer? Why would there be such a response from the Tajik army? Over time, the story changed and the KBG officer became the head of the Tajik secret service. The assassination became an escalated fight with four locals. The dispute seemed to be something over tobacco smuggling and corruption by the officer.

Pascal and I had a room with a king size bed and a king size mattress on the floor. At 05:00 hours Candice and Emma were knocking on our door telling us that we have to pack just in case we had to leave immediately. I realized that the thunder I heard in my sleep was actually gun fire echoing in the mountains. It started two hours earlier.

I got up assuming that it would not be a bicycle day and got dressed in normal clothes. After I had packed my backs I went downstairs to see the others. And then the waiting started. The problem was that the staff and support vehicles were located in the other side of town and there was no way we could leave. Trucks or 4WD’s could not be organized.

I realized that we were located in a war zone! Grenades and machine gun echoed through the valley and amplified by the mountains. We were relatively safe since the fighting apparently took place around the main bridge in town, which was located 500 meter further along the river. There is a large park between the bridge and our hotel so we could not see anything. Our hotel is made of a lot of concrete and we were not in the line of fire. The UN World Food Program and the Aga Kahn foundation, both well respected by both sides, were located in the same building and there’s no reason why anyone would attach tourists since it’s a local dispute.

 

 

 

The only thing we could do was sit and wait…

 

 

Here are a view links to news articles:

http://www.universalnewswires.com/centralasia/tajikistan/viewstory.aspx?id=12478

http://www.newsday.com/news/world/tajikistan-army-clashes-with-rebels-dozens-killed-1.3856743

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/24/us-tajikistan-security-idUSBRE86N09Y20120724

 

The Pamir Highway

The Pamir Highway is the second highest highway in the world, after the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan. Between Sary Tas and Khorog, it has five mountain passes of more than 4.000 meter, the highest of them is 4655 meter! Cycling 550-ish km in 7 days, above 3.500 meter is quite exhausting. But so beautiful! The mountains are so impressive, unexpectedly colorful and with so many flowers along the road, there is always a reason for a quick stop.

I have to admit, it wasn’t always easy! Rough roads and step climbs in combination with the altitude makes it sometimes difficult to cycle. Some cyclist had severe headages and feel dizziness. I was lucky and never had any physical issues, except that my legs were really tired and I was exhausted by the end of the day.

And every morning I was happy to ride my bicycle again! Although some parts of the highway were like a desert, there were many different and colorful flowers to see. They all have adjusted somehow to the extreme mountain climate with: very hot and cold temperatures, hard winds, dry and sunny period and wet periods with snow, hail and rain. And in these 7 days, with ice in my water bottle (cold), a sun burned face (hot), dry lips (wind) and a few showers (snow, hail and rain) I have seen them all!

Besides the flowers, the mountains are spectacular colorful as well! Around every corner a different mountain, different shape, structure and color. So impressive!  The climb to the 4.655 meter summit was a long one. Here and there very steep but all in all just a long climb. I’m happy my bicycle has the proper mountain gear which makes it possible to keep pedaling although there is a 12% climb. There is no reason, and it’s not possible, to go fast so I enjoy every minute of these mountains. At the summit, I met Mun Yew and Ingrid and together we climb the mountain next to the road, another estimated 150 meter. From there, a 360 degree view made me even more realize what a beautiful landscape this is! I am standing on top of the world and feel so small!

The further I cycle the Pamir Highway, the more diverse this landscape is. Small rivers turn into big rivers, plants and flowers change by altitude, sometimes it’s like a desert, other times is all stones. Here are some pictures, what more do I need to write?

 

 

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