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: