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A long ride home
By Peter Gostelow - (contact)

The worst day: Iskanderkul - Penjikent

Friday August 31, 2007, 160 km (99 miles) - Total so far: 33,344 km (20,719 miles)

         There have been days on this trip that I'd rather never happened. The one where my wallet was stolen from my room in Thailand whilst sleeping, or the day when an expensive cycling computer was ripped off the bike whilst visiting a cave in Laos. And then there was being caught by the military for camping close to the Chinese/Indian border, which led to a lengthly interrogation and fine, not to forget the bicycle being temporarily stolen by a butcher in Nepal. I attributed them to foolishness on my part, plus the usual back luck one experiences every so often whilst travelling. Deciding to climb over the landslide in Tajikistan may well have been the foolish part on this occasion. Here is the story of one of the worst days on this trip.

         When I returned to what was left of the landslide, (see previous entry) the Chinese driver had turned off the engine of his caterpillar machine (is there a specific name for this? - the one with a large bucket to scoop material) and taken a lunch break. This was an opportunity for the twenty or so locals to scramble the short distance across a steep scree slope to continue with their journey. I was as impatient as them, although they weren't taking a bicycle with 30kg of luggage.
         There was no rush, so I decided to relay back and forth over the 20m stretch of rocks and scree that had fallen on the road from above, each time taking a few bags. It wasn't a place to hang around in long though; with every gust of wind clouds of dust blew up from the gorge below, and small stones fell down to the turquoise river at the bottom.
         After ten minutes all the bags except one had been successfully moved to the other side of the landslide, and now there was just my bike and one remaining red pannier bag to take across. I put the bike on my shoulder and left the bag, and despite my insistence that I could manage alone, I realised the red pannier was being taken by another local. It was saving me another trip, so I smiled and was grateful. But why this man didn't walk with the bag and place it with the rest 15m ahead of him I don't know. Perhaps he wanted to turn back to help me with the bicycle. Instead he attempted to roll the bag to where the others lay. It was a grave mistake, for no sooner had it left his hands did I watch it change direction and begin bumping down the gorge to my left.
"Noooooooo, you fucking idiot!", were the words that passed from my lips before I passed the bike back to the locals behind me and shot down onto the road, leaving the other bags behind me as I ran full speed downstream. The turquoise river was 200ft below, and floating in the middle was my red pannier. I have two, which are identical, and one of which was holding $600 in cash, my credit card and passport. Which one had fallen into the river I didn't know. Was leaving all the others and my bike back at the landslide a good thing to do as I gave chase? At moments like this I really wished I wasn't alone. But with the red bag appearing in sight within the narrow but fast flowing waters of the turquoise river way below, I hadn't given up hope of rescuing it.
         The problem was there was no way to get down to the river bank. And so I just ran, flying past the locals who were continuing their journey on foot, whilst pointing to the river below and calling out "passport, passport". I had no time to stop and try to explain; no-one spoke English and there was little they could do anyhow.
         After some 3 kms the road retreated from the cliff face and offered a chance of reaching the river over a boulder-strewn arid scrub-land. I picked out a rocky ledge above the river and headed for it, waiting for the sight of a red object coming towards me.
         A group of people had gathered on the road above, watching the river for signs of the bag, which had been floating several minutes before when I last saw it.
         There wasn't enough time for me to really consider the danger of jumping into this fast current of turquoise eddies and whirlpools. The shouts came from above and there it was, partly submerged but unmistakedly the red ortlieb pannier. Off came the t-shirt and sandles as I perched on the rock edge ready to jump.

         My mistake was jumping in just before the bag passed the rock ledge, for the moment I landed I was being rapidly swept downstream whilst powerful currents were tugging me down from below.
         I've always considered myself a strong swimmer , but I had no chance here. I swam as hard against the current as I could, knowing the pannier was some 1 metre or so in front of me, but invisible now that I wasn't looking down on it from above. Behind me the river was turning around a corner, and there was no way I could see what lay that way - possibly rocks and rapids as I'd passed whilst running downstream. I was disappearing quickly from where I'd jumped in, so swam towards the cliff face at the river's edge. Using the rocks I pulled myself back upstream to where I could climb out, then made my way back up to the road - my chance to be a hero and rescue the bag having failed. And I'd been so agonisingly close to it.
         But there was a glimmer of hope as a 4x4 came past, aware of the situation and stopping to let me in before it rapidly sped along the bumpy road another 3-4 kms towards the town of Aini. But there was no easy way to reach the river - it was 200ft below me again, and despite a frantic and dangerous attempt to scramble down a steep mountainside as my red bag once again appeared, I ended up stopping to watch it disappear into a grey torrent, as the turquoise river now joined with another more powerful body of water flowing from the valley beside Aini.

         I wanted to sit down on the rocky earth and cry, but I'd been gone over 1 hour now and left all my remaining luggage and bike some 7km back at the landslide. Despite the exhaustion in my legs and lungs I ran back as much as I could, stopped by a group of men, who despite my refusal reached into their pockets to give me money when I told them my bag with my money and passport had disappeared in the river.

         Back at the landslide I was met by a cloud of dust. The machines were working again and the Chinese driver seemed oblivious to the fact that 2 metres from the tracks of his caterpillar machine lay my remaining bags. But there was no sign of the bike - the ground upon which I'd left it having already been pulled away by the machines. I opened the remaining red pannier and breathed a large sigh of relief at the sight of my money belt (the reason I'd been carrying so much cash was because of the difficulty of getting hold of it in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and particularly Iran). But I would have to wait another 2 hours before the machines stopped working (one from either side of the landslide). So I sat huddled with the bags in the blinding sun, listing the things I'd now lost forever - my journal for the last 8 months, 1GB of photos on DVD from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, first aid kit, shoes, fleece jacket, books, maps, electronic recharger for camera battery, and of course the red pannier. The latter things could be replaced - it was really the journal and photos I was upset about.
         The fool who'd let it fall had now disappeared, but that was no surprise. At least he nor anyone else had decided to make off with my bike, which I eventually recovered, finding it covered in dust and lying on the roadside some 20m back from the landslide. It was impossible to explain the course of events over the last few hours to the new group of people waiting at the landslide, but through the cloud of dust whilst I still waited to retrieve my bike I spotted another foreign cyclist. We'd met in Dushanbe a week before and I explained all to Erez, an Israeli, what had happened as we peddled away from the scene an hour later.

         For the next day and a half as we slowly left the mountains behind and headed to Penjikent I continued to look down to the Zerashan river (the grey torrent that had swallowed my bags), my stiff legs from all the hard running acting as a painful reminder from that day. I somehow held on to a flicker of hope that I'd see a red object within its course, but I accepted that it had probably sunk by now, and most of what I really wanted to retrieve would have been ruined by the water anyhow.
         I'd been cycling through mountainous terrain for the past 4 months, and now right at the end, where flat desert lay in front for the next stage of the trip, it seemed that the mountains and the rivers that flowed between them were taking something back - stealing something from all the joy I'd stolen from them. But I realised as with all bad days on this trip, which have thankfully been rare, that it could have been worse. The other red bag, the bike, or even I could have suffered at the fate of the landslide and from jumping into a powerful river. It was best that I tried to forget about it as I left behind Tajikistan and headed to Uzbekistan.

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Scene of the failed pannier rescue.

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Erez the Israeli: Welcome company on the road after losing the pannier


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"A long ride home" Copyright © 2005-2014 By Peter Gostelow - (contact). All rights reserved.
Page was created on September 4, 2007 02:07 PDT, last updated on September 23, 2007 04:38 PDT
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