Morale can hang by a thin thread when you’ve been bumping along a broken road at walking pace for hours, shirt soaked in sweat with thousands of metres yet to climb.
The thread snapped two days ago when we stopped, exhausted, hot and hungry, to cook some pasta for lunch.
Jack lit the stove and flames began leaping from not only the burner head, but also the fuel hose.
We were about 200km from the next town and had stocked up on rice, lentils, pasta and vegetables in preparation for a few days cooking our lunches and dinners. We’d even bought a bottle of dried fennel and cumin seeds from a man who’d gathered them from the hills.
We spent several hours trying to work out the issue, which included taking the stove apart and attempting to clear it of blockages using one of our spare gear cables, and sealing the entire fuel hose with electrical tape.
All the while two Tajik men stood over us watching curiously but offering no help – completely innocent but very irritating.
Eventually we gave up on repairs and ate lunch at the nearby restaurant.
A traditional soup of vegetables and meat and a pot of tea for only $3NZD was a silver lining, we conceded gloomily.
We also gifted them our bags of rice and lentils, which weighed 3kg and were pointless to carry when we were unable to cook.
Back on the road burdened with the new knowledge that we would not be able to cook that night, and may not be able to cook for the rest of the trip, severely dampened both our spirits.
I tried to improve my mood by gazing up at the walls of the gorge we’d entered, admiring the rock’s curvature and many shades of brown and grey, imagining the ancient Silk Road traders who’d passed under these same mountains.
But then I’d remember the nightly ritual of a cup of tea before retiring to the tent had been snatched away and a fresh wave of self-pity would wash over me.
We pinpointed a restaurant on the map and decided we’d eat dinner there, but on arrival as is common in Tajikistan the “restaurant” was in a state of disrepair and didn’t look like an establishment that had ever served food.
A little further along a man was relaxing under a tree and we asked if we could buy some “non” or fresh bread.
He shouted to a young boy who darted into a house and emerged with the characteristic gigantic circular loaf, which was traded for less than $1NZD.
Buoyed by this simple, life-giving transaction we carried on to find a campsite.
We cycled through a riverside village and came across a lovely meadow where a woman stood holding a scythe.
We greeted her and made the usual hand signals for “sleep” and “tent” and she happily obliged.
A young guy cycling past stopped to tell Jack he owned the land, before expanding that claim to owning the entire village, and told us we were welcome to stay and that there was “cold water” up the hill we could drink.
Skeptical though we were of his claim, we were grateful when he returned with a bucket of tomatoes, supplying our tomato sandwiches for dinner.
The “cold water” was indeed a frigid irrigation channel that ran crystal clear through shrubbery, lined with wild mint whose scent filled the air while we washed our clothes and scrubbed our grimy bodies.
The wild mint also reignited the self-pity as I mourned our inability to steep it in boiling water for tea.
The following morning brought a second round of tomato sandwiches and no cup of tea before climbing on the bikes.
To make matters worse I was sick again, and the day’s riding exponentially more difficult with no fuel in the tank and no prospect of a nutritious lunch.
We stopped at a typical “magazin” which stocks an array of food items, none of which provide vital nutrients except perhaps the yoghurt, of which we bought four pottles and ate dejectedly, washed down with a bottle of Fanta.
The absolute godsend in this most miserable of situations were the sachets of Pic’s peanut butter Mum had given us for “when we hit a low ebb.”
The consensus was this ebb was adequately low.
Never has the smooth, salty, fatty Nelson gold tasted so good as when smeared onto half-stale bread and wolfed down on a dusty roadside.
It even took the edge off the subsequent visit to the “tualet” behind the magazin – a wooden shed filled with open cubicles, where previous users’ disastrous aim left little space for squatting without soiling my shoes.
We managed to find a decent meal that evening, and smuggled the bread with us to eat with the rest of the peanut butter the following morning.
Unable to find any white spirits to soak the stove’s clogged up hose and jet, we used a bottle of cheap cola but unfortunately even with the blockages seemingly cleared, the hose still leaked.
We’re now in Khorog, the biggest town for the next 500 odd kilometres and awaiting the delivery of a new stove.
I’d been told that a hostel in Dushanbe delivered bike parts to cyclists up here, so I rang them and asked if they could buy us a cooker and send it down, expecting they’d source me a basic Chinese model available in Dushanbe.
The guy rang his mate in Moscow, who went to a camping store and took pictures of all the different stoves and prices and sent them to me.
As he was in the store awaiting an answer I had to make a rapid decision on the Primus Multifuel – the notoriously reliable if a little cumbersome camping stove – and I’m told it’ll be delivered here tomorrow.
When I asked the guy in Dushanbe what I owed him and his mate for this amazing service, he replied nonplussed, “for me? It is nothing. You pay only for stove and delivery.” Yet again I’m surprised and delighted by Tajiks’ willingness to help total strangers.
I figured roughly $350NZD is a small price to pay for the return of our self sufficiency, freedom and the comfort of porridge and tea in the morning.
The satisfaction derived from small comforts - taking off your shoes at the end of a day, lying down on your air mattress, the taste of honey with porridge are amplified when all the other comforts of life are eliminated.
With Moscow approximately 4400km away, we remain skeptical about the stove’s arrival tomorrow… But perhaps we should have more faith.