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Adventure-tour cyclists caught in Tajikistan crossfire

A building believed to be a hostel is set ablaze during fighting in the town of Khorog, capital of the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan, in this handout picture taken July 24, 2012.

Handout/Reuters

Toronto-based Tour d'Afrique bills itself as an adventure company. But this was not the sort of adventure its clients had in mind.

About 30 foreigners from 10 different countries arrived in Khorog, Tajikistan, last Monday for a rest day after crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan. They were two months into a trek by bike from Shanghai to Istanbul.

Barely 24 hours later, that rest was shattered by gunshots at 4 a.m., and the cyclists found themselves trapped for three days in the restive border town because of fighting between rebels and government forces.

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"We were caught on the edge of a conflict and there was no way out," said Ross Thomson of Victoria, B.C. "We couldn't go out of the compound. There was just a stone wall between us and them."

Confusion reigned: The riders were staying at two different hotels and found themselves cut off from their tour guides, who were sleeping outside town and found themselves barricaded out.

Back in Canada, the tour's staff learned via e-mail that their clients and employees were effectively being held hostage. But that was about all they could find out.

"Our emphasis from the beginning was to keep everyone calm and make sure people didn't do anything stupid," said owner Henry Gold.

Easier said than done: Antsy and anxious in an information vacuum, some cyclists proposed crossing the border into Afghanistan. During one ceasefire, several people made a mad dash for another hotel on the outskirts of town, hoping they'd be safer there.

Mr. Thomson's biggest concern, he said, was for his family back in Canada. "I couldn't reach them, and I didn't know what they were hearing."

After three days, the cyclists were evacuated by helicopter and diplomatic vehicles to the capital Dushanbe. But until then, "there was nothing we could have done," Mr. Gold said. "We didn't have anything to suggest that our people were in danger or threatened or a target, so I was not particularly nervous. … Anything can happen. You deal with it."

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What does concern him is the cost of those extra days, the frantic use of satellite phones and emergency measures. If the extra cost turns out to be "exorbitant," Mr. Gold said, they may try to recoup some of it.

"It all sounds spectacular, but I never felt scared or in imminent danger," Mr. Thomson said in the lobby of his Dushanbe hotel Saturday.

Getting caught in a Tajik firefight, he admits, was not on his bucket list.

"But now I can tick it off," he said. "And I don't need to do it again."

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