Day 126 – 129
Everything felt different. The tarmac was smooth and traffic almost non-existent. If I didn’t know what was to come, I’d be forgiven for thinking that was how the rest of Tajikistan would be.
As the foothills of the Pamir mountain range came into view, the road cut through fields and small villages. Children stood on the side of the road, put their hands out for a high-five, and inquisitively yelled: “Hello! What is your name?”.
I raced towards a cafe where Harriet and McK were waiting. Upon arrival, it was like a reunion between long-lost friends. That night, we camped on a rocky ledge near the road. Fifty metres below, a ferocious torrent of meltwater carved its way through a steep rock face. The rock towered into the sky, blocking out any warmth from the day’s dying sun.
I was unable to convince McK to join us on the Pamir Highway; kayaking was his passion and he’d secured river time in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. So, it was our last night as a three. I was sure we would meet again. However, after six weeks of travel, it would take time to adjust without him there.
Over the best instant noodles Tajikistan could offer, and a bottle of sour tasting red wine, we toasted to the end of ‘the Dream Team’, and reminisced about the last few weeks. The next morning, we cycled the last few miles before going our separate ways. McK went left, up and over a steep mountain pass, whilst Harriet and I continued straight, towards our own pass; a long 34 km climb.
We had analysed the elevation on Komoot – over and over, we carefully reviewed the gradient in the hope that it would miraculously decrease. Initially, the climb was a very gradual affair. Komoot had got the elevation gain wrong, which gave us hope that the rest of the climb would follow a similar trajectory. It didn’t. A collection of 10% switchbacks reduced our average pace to 3–5 mph. It was a tough slog. But, with a slab of perseverance, the mountainous peaks soon became distant lines carved into the terrain below.
The top of the pass was marked by the infamous ‘Tunnel of Death’. The five kilometre tunnel was built in 2006 by the Iranians, who left it incomplete. The tunnel is crucial infrastructure for Tajikistan. It connects the capital with the Fugarna region and the city of Khujand. And in doing so, has increased the transportation of goods around the country. The tunnel got its nickname due to the lack of air ventilation, drainage or lighting – with a road surface that is littered with potholes. A deadly concoction. Many years ago, there was a traffic jam in the tunnel which resulted in a number of deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s now compulsory for cyclists to hitchhike through.
Right on cue, a security guard rushed over and told us we couldn’t enter. He ordered a truck to stop and load the bikes into the vehicle. Inside, I was more than happy to be in a truck. It would have been a death sentence otherwise. The end of the tunnel brought with it a beautiful backdrop of sprawling mountains and a golden setting sun. A fitting start to the Tajikistan leg.
As we unloaded the bikes off the truck and thanked the driver, we were approached by another. “This is one of the world’s most dangerous roads. Please, be careful ”, he warned.
We spent an hour in cruise control as we let gravity work its magic. We found a small patch of land next to a stream and set up camp. Harriet confessed it was the longest she had gone without a shower. I congratulated her. With a phobia of cold water, she plucked up all the courage she could muster and headed to the stream. I, on the other hand, used my dirty palm to wipe dried sweat and dust from my face. I was feral and proud.
The morning brought with it a 41 mile descent into Dushanbe. In the capital, we stayed at the Green House Hostel where we shared our two day stay with ten other cyclists. All of whom had either returned from the Pamir Highway or were about to embark on the journey.
Harriet had read extensively about what to expect on the Pamir Highway. So, when it came to discussing our plans with those who had just returned, she was in her element.
The following days were spent stocking up on supplies, route planning, attaining GBAO permits and eating (an Italian restaurant was a particular highlight – beautiful spaghetti).
Cycling the Pamir Highway
The anticipation of what we were about to do weighed heavy on our minds. We had no idea how long it would take to complete, we didn’t know whether our 32mm tyres were up to the job, we had never had to be fully self-supported with no opt-outs for an unknown period of time, and we had two passes over 4,000m.
Out of Dushanbe there are two options: the northern, M41 route – supposedly more scenic, but made from gravel, or the southern, longer route – a newly tarmacked road that heads south to the Afghanistan border. Both routes meet in the town of Kalaikhum and turn into the Pamir Highway thereafter. Gravel-phobic, we opted for the southern route.
The first climb was long, but manageable. And the descent, incredible. The heat, however, had sapped any energy we had left from the climb, so we stopped for lunch and slept for two hours. Back on the saddle, we cycled until the sun disappeared behind a distant horizon. Hidden amongst a field of perfectly shaped spherical hills, we found a secluded place to camp. The further south we rode, the more desolate the landscape became. Our surroundings already felt starkly different from Dushanbe.
It was 39C when we started the 21 mile, 1,300m climb. The climb had an average gradient of seven to nine percent. And, there was no shade. In fact, we couldn’t have been further from shade if we tried. Harriet and I were usually quite evenly matched on the bike, but she was way out in front. When she stopped, I’d catch her just so I could rest in her shadow.
Halfway up, a local invited us to use his water hose to cool down. I jumped at the chance. Hose in hand and looking back into the valley, it was difficult to make out the zigzagged tarmac we’d cycled on. The haze and dust veiled any scenery that might have been there.
The climb took a sharp left around a ledge and into the depths of the mountain. At every corner I was met with false peaks – a killer for motivation. This continued for another hour, until I finally saw Harriet, who was waiting for me as I crawled to the top. I’ve never been so thankful to finish a climb.
The top of the pass was marked by our first military checkpoint. After we showed our permits, we sought refuge in a restaurant. Within a few minutes, a local had approached us. He quizzed me about Lizz Truss and Rishi Sunak. I was astounded at his knowledge of British politics – I also couldn’t believe I was stood on the top of a mountain pass, in Tajikistan, talking about Lizz Truss – a surreal moment. The conversation came to an end when he asked my thoughts on the “Operation in Ukraine”. A topic I steered clear of in the Stans, particularly in a country run by a pro-Russian dictator, who has Russian troops stationed in his country.
The descent was glorious. A steep, rubber burning rollercoaster through dramatic red granite. We flew down a collection of switchbacks before Afghanistan’s periphery came into view. I sat upright in the saddle, held hard on the brakes and inquisitively stared into the land opposite.
A country known for war, terrorism, strict muslim law, lack of women’s rights, and the Taliban. A country, which is so far removed from anything we know in the West, was a few hundred metres from where I rode. As I glided towards river level, I let that sink in. It was a stark reminder of how far I’d cycled. I was a very long way from home.
We followed the river upstream, until we stumbled upon a public western toilet. We took advantage of the rare luxury. An investment by the Swiss government, which isn't used by the locals, but by the occasional traveller. Money well spent.
As the sun started to set, we left the main road and found a beautiful camp spot on a grassy ledge, which looked out over Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
It was exactly one year since the Taliban took over Afghanistan. As I drank a coffee from my tent, I looked across to the other side of the river and relived the images of Kabul Airport. I wondered what life was like now for those who stayed, how far women's rights had regressed, and whether the Taliban had done what no other government could do and brought peace to the country.
After one of the best wild camps of the trip, we returned to our saddles and continued to follow the river upstream towards Kalaikhum. With Afghanistan metres to our right, I couldn’t help but stare into the country. Villagers, who were seeing to their crops, waved at us as we cycled past. Children played in the river and yelled at us from the riverbank. Tajikistan is a developing country and the poorest of all the Stans, but it has benefited greatly from Chinese investment and tourism. Afghanistan, on the other hand, hasn’t been so lucky. The wealth divide was obvious. It was eye-opening to witness how one river can act as a physical border between wealth, opportunities, and freedom. ‘Freedom’, a loosely used term.
Occasionally, we’d stop in a village and speak to the children. The joy we received from those we met was special. One child screamed at the top of her lungs and stamped her feet with excitement when she saw us. We’d start all conversations with high-fives and then tell them our names. The maturity in their faces surprised me, it was like looking at those who had lived forty years. The only exception to this was their teeth – underdeveloped or worn away – a sign of bad nutrition, hygiene and too much Fanta, I’d assume.
After a short break in Kalaikhum, we joined the Pamir Highway and were met with the inevitable, gravel. Thirty, painfully slow, kilometres brought us to a small hamlet nestled into the side of the riverbank. With nowhere obvious to camp, our predicament was solved when a man invited us to sleep in his garden. The army veteran was incredibly welcoming and helped us set up our mats on his porch.
I was unusually tired, so after a brief episode with small talk, I went to bed.
It was midnight when I woke up shivering. The sleeping mat had deflated. I tried to move to blow it up, but my stomach was in knots. I felt sick. I lied on my back and stared at the roof of the porch and weighed up my options. I then had an overwhelming need to go to the toilet. I immediately sat upright. Because I had kept the small talk to a bare minimum, I hadn’t asked about the toilet. I couldn’t go inside the three roomed house – I was certain the toilet wasn’t in one of the rooms – and I couldn’t relieve myself in their garden. I panicked.
I had one lifeline: the road.
As I quickly tip-toed, hunched over, across the garden towards the gate, my thoughts were scattered: ‘What are you doing? How has life got to a point where taking a crap on the road is OK? What if someone sees?’
Business done, and like the animal that I am, I covered it in gravel. Back in the garden I moved myself to a raised trestle bed to help retain heat. Everything ached, so I didn’t sleep for the remainder of the night. It was unusual for Harriet not to rise with the sun, so when she didn’t wake at 5am, I wondered if she was in the same boat.
From her sleeping bag, Harriet called out and said she felt ill. I told her about my activities that evening, to which she explained that she had been through a similar torment. At 3am, she had also woken up with an overpowering need to use the toilet. When she realised she didn’t know where the toilet was, panic ensued. Just like I had done, panic led her to the road. Midway through her ‘squat’, however, a car drove past and caught her in the act – a horrifying moment for all involved, I’m sure.
After five kilometres, that I can’t recall, I told Harriet I couldn’t cycle anymore. We found a tree on the side of the road and slept for five hours. Occasionally, we’d wake and find privacy behind a rock, before returning to the tree. Food poisoning is miserable.
We ran out of water so forced ourselves to cycle 14 km to the next village. It was a tortuous 1.5 hours. At the village, we were taken in by a family and allowed to stay in their garden. We spent the rest of the day talking to Sabrina, a 22 year old medical student, who was visiting from Dushanbe for a wedding. She told us that most women in Tajikistan are brides before the age of 24. She also spoke about the importance of family, tradition and how travel for Tajik nationals is very difficult*.
It was a nice, relaxing way to end a tiresome day.
*In the 21 countries I've traveled to on this trip, I've needed three visas. All other countries have been visa free. Many citizens outside the Western block cannot travel as freely due to difficulties attaining visas. For example, a Tajikistan passport holder can only enter 24 countries without a visa. Whereas, a British citizen can travel to 189 countries without a visa. Before this trip I had never thought about the power of a British passport. Or, about how the need for a visa can make travel very difficult for the majority of the world's population. Our privilege, in the West, knows no bounds.
The perfect way to settle upset stomachs is with a climb... The climb took us through a valley where the rock faces grew tall and the river's width became small. With the unforgiving heat, and 40 kms of gravel, we stopped at a restaurant to rest. Harriet slept whilst I tried to fix an infuriating squeal that had wreaked havoc with my front brake.
The novelty of cycling alongside Afghanistan had started to wear off, until we saw the Taliban. A white pickup truck sped along the gravel track opposite. It had an automatic machine gun attached to the inside of the trunk and the Taliban flag erected on the roof of the vehicle. I slowed down and followed the truck with my eyes. It was travelling at speed; a mud orange dust cloud tailed the vehicle. They were headed for the villages we had just cycled past. I was surprised to see the Taliban’s presence in one of the country’s remotest regions. What could they gain from control in an area where villagers simply live off the land?
That evening we found a restaurant and slept in its garden on raised trestle beds. The restaurant had a horse-like-dog called Boss, who kept us entertained for a while. The garden was nestled under an overhanging rock, next to a waterfall. A beautiful setting to rest our heads.
A new day and another large climb to warm the legs. Shortly afterwards, the road opened up to a vast, sprawling lake with small fishing villages at its edges – a welcomed change. The next 19 kms to Rishon were smooth and fast. The town was large enough, so we stopped on a bench to snack. I still hadn’t eaten anything significant since I had food poisoning, so I was low on energy. If it wasn’t for the old man sitting next to me, who explained his fascinating life story, I would have fallen asleep. Along the Pamir Highway we had seen hundreds of jeeps with unique licence plates. The old man confirmed that these were, in fact, non-profit organisations, like the UN, carrying out humanitarian work.
Reluctantly, we pushed forward to Khorog. To our surprise, the tarmac was perfectly laid, which lifted spirits. After 60 kms, we made it to the capital of the GBAO region. To say I was relieved would be an understatement. We dropped our bags off at the hotel and went to the most western eatery we could find, and binged.
We had a well overdue rest day. I called a mechanic to help fix my brake pads – I was convinced the pistons weren’t working properly. The mechanic assured me that wasn’t the case. And after a couple hours of readjustments, the squealing stopped. We celebrated by eating at Khorog's famous Delhi Darbar restaurant.
In a bid to extend our time off and to make the most of the hotel, we slept in.
After a six day stock up of supplies and another military checkpoint, we started our journey along the Wakhan Corridor. On our way, we had heard a rumour that the Tajikistan/ Kyrgyzstan border might be open. If true, it meant we might be able to cycle the entire length of the Pamir Highway. We were hopeful.
The valley was beautiful. The river we had followed upstream for several days, streamlined into a small trickle. Afghanistan was now within touching distance; if it wasn’t for the large military presence, it would have been possible to cross into the country. The further we rode from Khorog, the further we travelled back in time. We cycled through hamlets where mud huts lined the streets and communities worked together to harvest crops. Harriet and I barely spoke as we absorbed the beauty and simplicity of life that lay before us.
75 kms in and we found a bus shelter just off the main road. We had read forums that said the military refuse to allow tourists to wild camp. Not only is its proximity with Afghanistan a concern, which has been heightened since the Taliban takeover, but in 2016 four bike tourers were murdered by ISIS along the route. The military heavily patrolled the Wakhan Corridor, all of whom carried AK-47s – on two separate occasions we also saw two army officers holding hand held rocket launchers...
With that in mind, we chose to sleep in the bus shelter. We felt safe. Instead of unpacking our sleeping kit straight away, however, we cooked. Whilst cooking, we were approached by two groups of army officers. We told them that after we had eaten, we’d continue on to a guest house. Both times they radioed our position through to their seniors and left.
We weren’t going to a guesthouse. After we ate, we got into our sleeping bags and tried to sleep. At about midnight, the military came back and flashed lights over our burritoed bodies. But, we pretended to be asleep.
Luckily, after some time, they lost interest and left.