central asia

Left my dignity in a cotton field in Tajikistan

It was during the fourth roadside squat, this time in a fetid ditch next to a donkey paddock, as the sun scorched the back of my neck that I thought “this was not what I had in mind.”

Of course I anticipated gastric illness, a staple of travel in developing countries, but I failed to imagine the horror of sudden, urgent bowel movements while cycling through an arid valley in 43 degrees.

The saving grace was a truckie who, at the moment I emerged from the ditch, hurled us an ice cold bottle of cola from his window without even slowing down.

We spent three days with writhing guts in Dushanbe, the gardened capital of Tajikistan, which I will now associate with the certain smell a toilet acquires when half the guesthouse is sick.

When the illness abated we cycled north an easy 40km to a secluded campsite off the road. It was such a relief to be back under the stars.


We stopped the following day at the sight of buckets of fresh figs, where we learnt the trick whereby the vendor takes your money, and instead of giving you change gives you twice the amount you wanted. And thus a kilogram of figs are squeezed into the oven-like interior of my panniers.

The crafty fig vendor

The crafty fig vendor

A man also insisted on buying us four bags of assorted chickpeas, seeds and nuts. We tried to protest but he told us “you’ll find space.” As we discreetly and guiltily poured them out about 4km down the road, we agreed we should’ve got him to lift our bikes so he could understand there really is no “space”.

The next day – that of the four roadside squats - we managed 84km from our campsite to Vose thanks to the powerful lure of a basic hotel with a shower.

Between our campsite and Vose we stopped for water in a town called Danghara where these kind boys gifted me a watermelon. When we finally hacked into it 70km later, it was so worth lugging the extra 3kg.

Between our campsite and Vose we stopped for water in a town called Danghara where these kind boys gifted me a watermelon. When we finally hacked into it 70km later, it was so worth lugging the extra 3kg.

The hotel concierge had recently graduated from university and wanted to practise his English, so like a polite guest I took the opportunity to talk about religion and politics.

I asked his thoughts on the president, Emomali Rahmon, a man whose intolerance of dissent has helped him stay in power since 1992. I got nothing but a sheepish smile and shake of the head.

In response to my question of whether it was offensive for a foreign woman to cycle in shorts, he unwrapped a sweet and presented it to me alongside one still wrapped, asking, “which one would you choose?”

He said a Muslim man is permitted to look at a woman once, because Allah can understand that might’ve been an accident, but the second look is sin.

Later I asked Jack if I should still wear the shorts and he replied yeah, as long as we only cycle past once.

Lake Nurek, blissfully unaware of the roadside squatting horrors to come

Lake Nurek, blissfully unaware of the roadside squatting horrors to come

Route below including camping spots - August 17 - 20

The "Tunnel of Death"

Unrelated to the Tunnel of Death but this was our campsite that evening, and the high speed donkey-riding locals

In hindsight, the friendly man’s warning could not have been clearer.

He made an arch with his hands then covered his eyes.

He pointed to a floodlight overhead then made a cross with his arms.

He even drew us a picture in the dust – an arch, with a line snaking up to it.

But despite his efforts we pushed off from his shady spot under a tree, thanking him for what we thought was his message - that it was only 5km to the top of the pass.

He actually meant we were approaching a 5km-long damp, dark, unventilated tunnel that’s classed as one of the most dangerous in the world.

About halfway to the top of Anzob Pass, which sits at 2700m. Approx. nine oreos consumed each.

About halfway to the top of Anzob Pass, which sits at 2700m. Approx. nine oreos consumed each.

Ominously dubbed the “tunnel of death”, the Anzob Tunnel was built to help travellers reach the capital without crossing the perilous Anzob Pass, which is prone to year-round avalanches. Warnings online read “good luck getting out alive” and call it a “hellish underworld.”

A soldier stationed near the entrance asked us if we had lights.

We looked at each other and nodded slowly… We did… But surely he didn’t mean we should ride through there?

The tunnel’s mouth belched menacing black fumes.

I figured we’d either suffocate or be flattened by one of the lorries carrying gravel that took the tunnel at full speed.

We knew it was common for cyclists to hitch a ride so we waited for someone to help us, and it came in the form of a guy in a 4WD with roof racks.

Our saviour

Our saviour

Within minutes our panniers were off and in the back, our bikes lashed to the roof and we were heading into the darkness.

Once inside it was clear this was no place for cyclists, and not really much of a place for any vehicle. The tunnel is narrow with unmarked drainage channels creating an obstacle course for drivers who were barely adhering to the two-lane system in their efforts to dodge them.

It was a great relief to emerge to a panoramic view of the Fan mountain range, where an old man with one tooth held my bike for me as a I reattached my panniers. We tried to pay our driver but he wouldn’t accept anything, while the toothless man hooted, “this is Tajikistan!" - implying that in this country people don’t need payment to do nice things for others.



What followed was an incredibly heart-in-mouth downhill of about 20km, dodging loose gravel and roadworks, erratic driving and at least 20 more tunnels of varying lengths. Jack shot into the first one ahead of me and I blindly followed, realising once inside that its bend meant utter darkness for about 200m - akin to cycling with a blindfold. Fortunately we didn’t hit any potholes and all the other tunnels were short enough to cope with a headtorch.

Upon arrival at our campsite our faces were coated in grime - a combination of dust and exhaust fumes.


After a week’s riding on Tajik roads I’ve decided the tolerance for cyclists is much higher than at home in New Zealand.

Of course there are motorists who’ll buzz past with centimetres to spare leaving you shouting profanities at their exhaust, but from my experience there is much more of that behaviour at home.

Here, the majority of drivers bellow a greeting out the window or honk at us joyfully - a habit which can get tiresome after a long day but is at least well-intentioned.

We may not have tunnels of death at home but we do have a pattern of behaviour from motorists which can feel very death-inducing, and that needs to change.

The Fan Mountains north of Dushanbe

The Fan Mountains north of Dushanbe

Tajikistan, the best place on earth for freedom camping?

Like most journalists working in New Zealand in the past few years, I’ve covered my share of stories about freedom campers.

Mostly what a nuisance they are, how the Government plans to crack down on them and whose property they’ve most recently taken a squat on.

So I was a little nervous about freedom camping (also called wild camping) in a foreign country. The concept of turning up and pitching a tent on someone’s land does feel a little brazen.

On our first night, 80 kilometres east of Samarkand, our camping app iOverlander told us of a site overlooking a river valley.


We arrived to find a cliff top that dropped away to the rushing grey river below - a beautiful but exposed spot - the apricot orchard over the road looked far more appealing.

But we were apprehensive about setting up camp on someone’s land without asking.

Just then an old ute came spluttering along the road and pulled over.

Through a few hand gestures we were able to ascertain this was the farmer, and we motioned sleeping while pointing under the trees.

He nodded vigorously, but motioned that we should avoid the small stream that ran across the field.


The next morning he came over and mimed sleeping then questioned us with a thumbs up, which we returned with big grins.

He seemed chuffed and pointed towards his house, indicating we should come for food and tea.

Pointing to the road ahead, we tapped our wrists to explain we needed to go.

This scene would play out countless times – a generous invitation into a home, the offer of food and a bed, and the apologetic decline.

The following night we slept in a wheat field overlooking a dramatic ravine.


A fantastic spot, but a lesson learnt about sharp, freshly harvested wheat stalks and blow-up sleeping mats. Thankfully we have repair patches.

Soon after we arrived small children materialised from the grass, peering at us from a distance, waving shyly and gathering bunches of a fragrant herb that smelled like a sweeter maanuka.*

As we were falling asleep at about 9pm, I heard hushed voices approaching the tent and the polite clearing of a throat.


My immediate thought was that we were about to get turfed off. I’m sure that’d be the outcome at home.

A confused Jack, seeing torchlight and the lights from a faraway car, thought we’d been surrounded by insurgents.

When we opened the tent fly, our assumptions were put to shame.

A kind face smiled down, and in an extended hand was a plate of watermelon slices and fresh cream cheese.

It was the landowner, her daughter had informed her of our presence.

They’d walked about 400m from their home in the dark to deliver two strangers dessert.

Blown away by the kind gesture, we thanked her profusely and managed to work out the origin of the cheese thanks to my well-honed impression of a goat.


Two nights later we found a secluded spot by a river 40km from Dushanbe.

As we pitched our tents, a man walked past and gave us a friendly wave.

Two pairs of kids clattered by on donkeys, shouting “Hello! Hello!

And a young boy sold us half his big handpicked bucket of blackberries which we ate on the riverbank as the sun set.


New Zealanders are meant to be a friendly bunch, but I reckon we’ve been beaten by the Tajiks.


*The kids said a word to me that sounded like '“joroob” - if anyone has botanical knowledge of Central Asia please do get in touch!

Two bikes, a Daewoo Nexia and one tiedown strap

As if the two hours spent crammed around a tiny luggage conveyor belt with 200 other passengers at 4.30am hadn’t frayed our nerves enough, this was the bike transportation arrangement from Samarkand Airport:

Jack wonders when the second tiedown strap will emerge.

Jack wonders when the second tiedown strap will emerge.

The price of this dicey trip was $25USD, a total fleecing we would later discover, but you have to admire their enterprise.

They produced a single tie down strap and we watched with skepticism as they lashed our precious Surlys to the homemade roof rack of a beaten-up Daewoo Nexia. Jack travelled with the bikes while I went with the other guy, who asked if Jack was my husband. The first of many times that mistake is made, no doubt.

Pre dawn in the ancient city

Pre dawn in the ancient city

We later learned the $25 should have been $15 max, but the bikes arrived intact and all we cared about at that point was getting horizontal.

Furkat Guesthouse is a ramshackle building facing a courtyard, with nooks and crannies at its edges filled with rugs and cushions. We found one to sleep in for the five hours before our room was ready. At about 10am we were marinating as temperatures pushed 37 celsius.

Our host invited us to eat the breakfast he’d prepared. Fresh melon, fresh-squeezed plum juice, a hard-boiled egg, some baked pasties with veggies and meat inside and what we think was the sour milk soup that’s popular here.

We biked to a little restaurant about a k and a half from the guesthouse for dinner where two pints, fries, salad, freshly-baked bread, a delicious grain that was similar to barley and grilled chicken set us back $6USD. Not bad given we ordered with the help of the waitress whose minimal English put our total lack of Russian to shame, and we weren’t entirely sure what we were getting and of what quantity.

We’re also considering starting a tally for the number of times I have to subtly withdraw my hand after a Russian man denies me for a handshake, instead snaking past to shake Jack’s.*

* I should explain here that these were Russian tourist men staying at our guesthouse. I realise local Muslim men may not want to shake my hand for cultural reasons. This was just funny because I was standing directly in front of them but they made an effort to go for Jack, who was standing a little behind me.