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Tajikistan, Day 138 – 152: Cycling the Pamir Highway #2

Day 138

To avoid another military encounter, we left the bus shelter early.

We spent another beautiful day cycling along the valley until we arrived in Ishkeshan. Ishkeshan is a town which once shared a weekly market with Afghanistan. Villagers from both countries would trade goods across the border. Over the years it became a stop on the tourist trail because it’s the only place foreigners could, temporarily, cross into Afghanistan without a visa. Unfortunately, the market no longer exists.

Later that day, we found a secluded camp spot hidden behind bushes. We were within metres of the road, so spoke with hushed voices whilst cooking dinner. Without doubt, the military would have moved us on if we’d been heard.

The Wakhan Corridor is, in part, a political result of the Great Game. With the British Empire ruling over the Indian Subcontinent and the Russian Empire controlling the Stans. Afghanistan was the only buffer zone between the two empires. To guarantee their borders didn’t meet, in 1873 it was agreed that Afghanistan would extend its border to China and form the Wakhan Corridor.

Day 139

Betty succumbed to another puncture, the fourth in a matter of days. To fix it, we stopped at a barren, desolate checkpoint at the top of a lookout. We were joined by two inquisitive guards, who watched us in silence. They were probably grateful for a break from the monotony of their day.

As I was fixing the puncture, Harriet fell off her bike – a much needed mood lift. The fall was silent and graceful. Her reaction, though, brought with it belly laughs: “Thank God, I haven’t broken my leg!”, she exclaimed, with genuine concern and zero sarcasm. As we left the checkpoint, once again the valley floor opened to show the beauty of the mountain range. An incredible sight to behold.

That day’s destination was a small village called Langar. Langar was the last outpost before the route leaves the Wakhan Corridor and beelines inland. We rode across gravel and washboard, watched close-knit communities work together to harvest the fields, and high-fived a countless number children who stood patiently on the side of the road.

Despite the cold, it was a day full of warmth.

10 km from Langar, the rear wheel went flat again. It was frustrating. All out of spares – most of which Harriet had given me – I pumped up the tyre every three kilometres and crawled to the guest house. At the guest house, I put my down jacket on and sat in self-pity. A German couple, who were also cycling the Pamir Highway, arrived shortly after. “Do you know your tyre is flat?”, the German woman announced. I looked at her, took a deep breath, and replied: “Yes. Yes, I do.”

I turned to Harriet and said: “I know we haven’t spoken to anyone in days, but I really can’t be arsed to socialise.” Luckily, she felt as antisocial as I did. We spent that evening patching inner tubes in our room, using our head torches for light (there was a power-cut). Before the Pamir Highway, I’d been lucky with punctures. I’d only had three on the whole trip, so I felt deflated by the number I’d received in recent days.

Day 140

I spent the morning fixing the rear tyre, which meant we didn’t leave until 8.30am. The Germans were surprised by our lateness: “Oh, you haven’t left yet?”, the woman noted. She had a talent for pointing out the obvious.

The gravel road took an immediate upward trajectory across steep switchbacks. We gained elevation quick; within half an hour we had reached cloud level. The single track lane weaved around inlets in the rock face and hugged the mountainside. The route eventually levelled, which helped ease muscle fatigue.

During a short break, I dropped my bike. When I picked it up, the rear wheel refused to rotate. Naturally, I assumed the derailleur had bent. The temperature was well below what we were used to, the air was full of water droplets, and our position was remote. One car had driven past all day. Before I let panic ensue, I turned the bike upside down to properly inspect, but I was certain my ride was over.

Harriet took one look at it and announced: “The wheel isn’t attached properly!”.

“Ohhh… really?”, I replied.

“How the hell have you managed to ride this far without knowing the wheel isn’t attached?”, she questioned.

“Blame the altitude”, I said unconvincingly.

The rest of the day was spent battling washboard – the worst type of terrain. Washboard is made from ripples of sand or gravel – it rattles the bike, cripples speed and makes finding a rhythm impossible. From the heights of snow-capped peaks, the track descended onto a beautiful plateau. The sun had started to set, which turned the sky devilishly red and the sprawling landscape a tint of deep purple.

In pitch black, we arrived at the military checkpoint. The guards were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. They walked us to a ‘tourist hut’ – a small cottage, nestled next to a collection of abandoned buildings. Inside was a dark, cold room with a raised bed – home for the evening. As I used my head torch to light up the room, the smell of wood smoke and damp walls filled the air. A wood burning stove took up one corner of the room and a tower of thin mattresses in the other. I sorted out our bedding whilst Harriet cooked dinner – divide and conquer.

I couldn’t believe we had reached our planned destination. It was a cold, wet, 11 hour day – a tough section. Yet, the four walls and a roof was worth the struggle.

Day 141

The guards had spotted three wolves in the area and advised we stayed. We listened to their concern, and concluded that winter hadn’t arrived, so in theory, the wolves wouldn’t be hungry. We continued on.

The cycle up to the 4,300m pass was slow. As snow began to fall, we guessed the height of each peak that shadowed us. We then spotted a farmer herding cattle in the far distance; again it highlighted the solitude existence some of the Pamir people 'choose' to live. The top of the pass lacked any sign acknowledging our achievement, so we confirmed the elevation with our Garmins. It was an anti-climatic end to one of the toughest sections, but a proud moment nonetheless.

We lapped up the rocky descent for a while, until we were reunited with 10 kms of washboard. I knew the M41 wasn’t far, yet this last section was mentally one of the hardest.

“I’ve got goosebumps!” Harriet cried, as we saw tarmac for the first time. We rejoiced when we rejoined the M41. It was sheer relief. We sat on the side of the road and let the moment sink in. Not only had we reached tarmac, but the landscape had plateaued. On the horizon we could see the Tajikistan National Park, a field of 6,000m+ peaks sprawled in all directions and as far as the eye could see. On the saddle, the tarmac was the smoothest I’d ever ridden – my love affair with asphalt only grew stronger.

“Ed, did you hear that!?”, Harriet said with a tone of distress. We had stopped briefly to photograph a glistening, turquoise lake that sat in-front of a mountainscape.

“No?”, I questioned.

As soon as I’d answered, the sound of howling wolves echoed throughout the air.

“We need to go!” Harriet demanded. Before I’d had time to put my phone away, she had left me for dead.

With an incentive to move fast, we had our eyes set on Alichur in no time. I had high expectations for the village. I knew there was a hotel with western toilets and a shower; the only two luxuries I desired. Upon entering the settlement, it quickly became apparent that it was not the bustling metropolis I had imagined. Instead, we were met with a collection of randomly scattered, tiered looking houses. The person who once called Beyneu the most depressing town in the world, obviously hadn’t set foot in Alichur.

My dream hotel had closed for the season. I was gutted. I almost climbed over the fence to make sure. But, before I could, a man ran over and ushered for us to follow him. He owned a guest house across the road – deflated, I reluctantly followed. The guest house had three rooms – a kitchen, dining room and bedroom. A dung-fuelled fire burnt in the kitchen, which kept the house warm. I peeled my layers off and enjoyed a green tea whilst I checked my phone to see if it had a signal. It didn’t.

“There’s no western toilet is there?” I asked Harriet, knowing the answer. “Afraid not, Eddie”. The toilet was in fact outside and communal.

We were later joined by a local eighteen year old. He told us his plans to move to Germany to study. He was supposed to leave in October, but had just been called up for mandatory military service. He was gutted. I was gutted for him. He also confirmed that the guards we’d passed on the Wakhan Corridor were mostly mandatory service guys.

Since the food poisoning episode, we had stuck to a diet of bread, pasta, noodles and Snickers. And had cooked everything ourselves. At the guest house, they served us vegetable soup and it was delicious. The most flavoursome thing I’d eaten since Dushanbe.

Day 142

As soon as we stepped outside, the rain stopped. A miracle. Shortly into the ride, a Russian tourist stopped us and asked about the cycle. We quizzed him on the Kyrgyzstan border – he was returning from the area and confirmed it was closed. We were disappointed, yet still defiantly hopeful.

We cycled along the plateau and headed for Murghab – a large town in the corner of the GBAO region. I sat upright, let gravity work its magic, and enjoyed the descent through a field of orange granite peaks. We watched shepherds herd their cattle, more farmers harvest their land, and mountains tower into the grey, moody abyss.

A few miles from Murghab, the heavens opened. I could see the settlement in the distance, so I pushed down on the pedals and raced towards the finish line. In Murghab, I went straight to the only hotel I knew that had a western toilet and shower. It was expensive, but I hadn’t showered for six days. Expensive was a price I was willing to pay.

Day 143

It was 5C (in August), so we layered up and went on a self-guided tour of Murghab. The town was small, so it didn’t take us long to see everything it had to offer. Most of our rest day was spent at the Bazaar, a collection of shipping containers turned shops.

Day 144

We had blue skies for the first time in days. It was glorious. We stopped at an abandoned Caravanistan, a rest house for traders on the Old Silk Road. A river and barbed wire fence lay between us and the Land of the Red Dragon – quite the milestone. We sat for a moment and celebrated the furthest east Harriet would cycle on her trip, and to one of the remotest regions I’d ever travelled to.

“That is China… China!”, we repeated to ourselves, in disbelief.

The route continued to follow the fence. At its closest point, I could have walked two paces and entered China. Mind blown.

Just before we finished the 4,600m pass, I got a flat. It was the second one of the day! Incredibly frustrated, I pumped air into the tyre and prayed it would hold. The climb itself wasn’t bad, we had done worse. It was steep, but short. Climbing to 4,600m by bicycle was not a bad achievement, so I tried to forget about the puncture temporarily, and enjoy the moment.

On the way down, I found a sheltered spot to fix the rear tyre. I couldn’t understand why it kept going flat. It was infuriating. Sometime after the descent, we were back on a plateau. The sun was setting fast, and with its disappearance, the temperature dropped. We found a place to camp and quickly cooked dinner. We were both exhausted and cold. The thermostat was well on its way to –4C, so we ate in our sleeping bags and went to bed.

I was woken at 11pm, when I had an urgent need to go to the toilet. My dear friend, Diarrhoea, had returned. It took half an hour to muster up the strength to get out of my sleeping bag, layer up and head outside. The only positive to come out of this experience was the night’s sky; the stars were unlike anything I’d seen before.

Day 145

Sleep deprived, I rustled out of the tent. I was completely starved of any energy, so my mood was low. Not only did I have poisoning again, but the lack of food from the past 16 days had caught up on me. I had lost a huge amount of weight, and didn’t have much motivation left in the tank.

I spent a large chunk of each day daydreaming about food. I knew there was a KFC in Dushanbe, so I’d spend an endless amount of time idolising a chicken burger. I’d also torture myself with an English Breakfast and a Sunday Roast. I had never thought about food that much before. I also found myself thinking about home. I mostly thought about sitting on the sofa, watching Netflix and ordering Deliveroo. And drinking Guinness. I’ve had many dreams about Guinness.

To finish the ride, we rode over one last section of washboard. I was relieved when I saw Karakul come into view. Karakul is a small fishing village, which sits on the edges of Karakul Lake and within a few miles of the Kyrgyzstan border. The last settlement on the Tajikistan side of the Pamir Highway was no more than a collection of weathered houses, and our planned end destination. We parked outside a guest house and enquired about the border. The owner said the border was closed. Two cyclists had ridden there the day before, only to be turned around. Admittedly, I was happy with the news. It would have been incredible to cycle through Kyrgyzstan, but I was in desperate need of a good meal.

We were told the taxi back to Murghab would cost $100, an extortionate sum of money. Most of the villagers were harvesting crops in the hills, which meant there were no other passengers to fill the car. We would have to pay for all the seats and the return journey. We couldn’t believe it.

Fast forward two hours.

The shock of the price had worn off. We had gone from house to house to see if anyone would drive us. We had no luck, only a handful of people owned cars. In a bid to hitchhike, we sat on the road and waited for trucks. There were no trucks. In the end, we offered to pay $80 for the taxi, but agreed on $90.

After a three hour drive, we returned to where we had started the day before. I’d never been happier to see ‘civilisation’. Murghab was more attractive than my last visit and the owner of the hotel was even happy to see us. She smiled.

Day 146 – 147

We shared a taxi to Khorog with half of Murghab. We drove along the section of road parallel to the Wakhan Corridor. It was nice to see the route from the comforts of a 4x4 – and it confirmed to us that we had taken the right route. The Wakhan was way more interesting.

We arrived in Khorog at 8.30pm. At the hotel, they said it was too late to organise a taxi from Khorog to Dushanbe for the following day. Children were returning to school in the capital, so they were booked up. They did say, however, that we could go to the taxi rank at 5am and try our luck there.

Sat in a restaurant, we scoured the internet for flights. Harriet was flying back to London and I was going to Islamabad. Before we embarked on the Pamir Highway, flights were plentiful and cheap. But, due to the uncertainty in knowing how long it would take us to complete the trip, we didn’t book. Now, tickets were either booked or expensive. However, we both found heavily inflated flights from Tashkent in Uzbekistan, leaving a couple days apart. That's why I have a credit card.

Up at 4.30am, we cycled to the taxi rank and found a 4x4 that could take us. It took 16 hours to reach the capital city.

“Harriet, I don’t fancy another six hour cab ride tomorrow.”

We had planned to get a cab from Dushanbe to the Uzbekistan border the next day (a route we had mostly cycled already, so we didn't class it as cheating.)

“Me neither, we’ll just cycle the distance in two days instead of three.” she replied.

Roger that.

Back at the Green House Hostel, I had a brief encounter with Jo, a French cyclist I met in Tbilisi. He said I looked like I was in a bad way and that nobody was home. I took that as a cue to eat. Unashamedly, we got a cab to KFC. After 16 days in a calorie deficit, I finally turned my endless daydreaming into a reality.

Day 148

The day was spent on a self-guided restaurant tour of Dushanbe. An endless feast of delicious cuisine. Back at the hostel, we caught up with Jo and shared our lessons from the road. Although I’d only spent a few days with him in Georgia, it was nice to see a familiar face.

Day 149 – 152

The Fergana Valley was noticeably hotter than the Pamirs, a toasty 40C. The border official asked if I was a sportsman. I should have said yes, but I’m too honest.

With only 100 kms to go until Tashkent, the next morning we left early. It was also our last day cycling together and we wanted to reach the capital in good time. However, in true Central Asia fashion, I got three punctures in one day. A new record for me. Usually, this would throw me into a bad mood, but given the circumstances I stayed positive. It was nice to be back in Uzbekistan, everything felt simpler than its neighbour. The route was smooth and flat, which helped us roll into Tashkent at lunchtime, despite the punctures.

That evening, we met with a group of tourers who were also in the city. It quickly became apparent that Harriet and I had not socialised for a long time. We were tired, very tired. And unable to add any real value to the conversation. Although, it was great to be around other like-minded people, who could relate and share stories from the road.

The following day was spent organising and packing the bikes. I couldn’t believe Central Asia was over. It was the best part of the trip, by a country mile. The landscapes were unlike anywhere I had been before, the people we met were the most welcoming and generous I had come across, and the camaraderie and friendship I’d gained with those I’d shared the journey with was unique.

In total, I had spent two months cycling with Harriet, a huge chunk out of a 12 month trip. Riding through harsh, unforgiving environments for a prolonged period of time will push anyone to their limits. When put into a state of vulnerability, we saw the best and worst of each other; we learnt each others’ strengths and weaknesses, made decisions together and, by the end, became a solid team. The Pamir Highway was a whole lot easier with Harriet pedalling beside me (I mean, most of the time I tailed her, because she’s a beast) – and it made the experience.

The Pamir Highway was one of the main goals of the trip, and it exceeded expectations. Cycling past the feet of 6,000m+ peaks every day was spectacular – and the beauty of the wilderness was all encompassing. It felt like we were in another world for months, not weeks. The ‘Roof of the World’ was a proper adventure – and one I won’t be forgetting.

To celebrate to end of Harriet’s journey and the end of this leg, we went for a couple mojitos. I had a flight at 6am the following day, however, so we kept it low key.


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