Along with the change of country came a change of weather and as I followed the straight, smooth ribbon of tarmac along the wide valley so there was a storm brewing to the north.
On the outskirts of Khojand I bought supplies before turning SW to look for a place to camp. The storm had passed to the west of town and I was riding straight towards it. I couldn’t find a place to camp and the sun was soon hidden behind the black clouds. I kept an eye open for a derelict building but everyone I saw I saw contained animals. Eventually, just as it got dark, I found a roadside eatery where people were sitting around on charpoy’s eating dinner. No sooner had I been told that yes I could camp there, the heavens opened and everyone ran for cover as we were pelted with hailstones the size of cherries. As the hailstones turned to heavy rain so everyone paid-up and left.
I was sheltering in the ‘kitchen’ when the two guys who ran the place indicated for me to go into their living quarters. Once they’d cleared up they brought me fried eggs, hot dog sausages, bread and tea, which was of course washed down with some Russian vodka akin to white spirit.
There was only one bed in the room and the two men were absolutely insistent that I use it whilst they slept on the floor.
I awoke to thick, low cloud and after a breakfast of fried eggs, hot dog sausages, bread and tea I set off for Dushanbe. As the road began to climb and I ascended into the clouds so my speed dropped to match the visibility and I was soon down to 30km/h.
After an hour or so I stopped for a call of nature and as I did so the cloud suddenly burnt off, leaving me with a clear view of the mountains all the way to the Shahriston Pass. I had hoped to use the old road over the pass but it was still closed for snow and so I used the 5.3km tunnel. It wasn’t the only tunnel that day…
Later on I encountered the Anzob Pass was its infamous 5.2km long, un-surfaced, potholed, puddled, unlit tunnel complete with steel rebar poking out of the ground, abandoned truck tyres and broken down unlit vehicles. It was an experience!
I arrived at the Adventurers Inn in Dushanbe just as another storm broke and walked into the garden to find Griff & Lisa’s (UK) Landrover parked there.
After a few days of blog writing, photo editing, laundry and buying supplies we set off (at different times) for Khorog – 500km away over the mountains. The threat of a storm loomed large as I rode east and I wondered what the weather had in store for me. I was soon out of the city and into a wide, green river valley. The river was red and raging thanks to the recent storms.
On the map the M41 through Tavildara looks like a major road but in reality it’s a single carriageway road with little traffic that often turns to dirt.
East of Tavildara I turned south and just at the entrance to the GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province) region I found the road and bridge completely washed away. There was a 3-axle Kamaz truck stuck exiting the river crossing and an attempt was being made to haul it out with a tractor. That proved fruitless and so an army Kamaz was used. It pulled the truck out like you’d grab a small child by the wrist – impressive. The Kamaz driver offered to give me a ride across but he wanted SOM100 ($20) and wouldn’t budge on the price. I declined. After watching a Freelander and a Lada Niva make the crossing it was my turn. It wasn’t far across but It was rocky and fast flowing. I entered the water hit a boulder and suddenly found myself stopped and unable to touch the floor. I promptly fell over. I ended up pushing/driving the bike across but hit a another large submerged boulder that bounced me away from the exit ramp and I struggled to get Daisy up the bank. Just as I did so Griff & Lisa arrived. I don’t think the Landrover even noticed the crossing. Feckers’!
That night we camped together next to the road a few km’s from the GBAO checkpoint. A few cars passed by, one stopped to see that we had all that we needed but once it was dark we saw no more vehicles.
We awoke at 0500 to the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard and lightening that lit the entire valley. After that came the rain. Hard and prolonged. Neither me nor Griff & Lisa moved until 1000 and even then it was still raining. Not wanting to deal with washing a porridge pan I ate a boiled egg and brewed coffee for breakfast. It was too wet for G&L to cook outside so I boiled them a kettle for tea and they set off at 1100. I stayed in my tent in the hope the rain would stop but it didn’t. It was gone 1200 when it finally eased (but didn’t stop) and I was able to pack up. It was 1330 when I finally rode away.
The road followed the river for a short while before turning south and climbing through a stunning gorge. I couldn’t see all of it but what I could was spectacular.
The track was muddy and littered with fresh landslide debris so I didn’t want to hang around. I got covered in mud riding up the pass and didn’t stop for photo’s – momentum was everything!. I can’t remember riding in more mud on my whole trip (apart from Rohtang La on the Enfields last summer – eh Damon!?). Given the amount of rain I was surprised not to find fresh snow on the pass at 3320m and I was granted an easy decent through another beautiful narrow gorge and on down to the ‘main’ road at Qala-i-Khum. I saw just one other vehicle that morning, a Lada Niva heading up the pass in the opposite direction.
In Qala-i-Khum I caught up with G&L and after buying a few supplies we ate a lunch of Samsa (meat filled pastries), boiled eggs & black tea. Riding out of town along the stunning river valley I thought “Yeah…This is what its all about”. Looking across the river to Afghanistan was surreal. We soon came to another obstacle where a mountain stream had wiped out the road and had to wait for an oncoming Kamaz to negotiate the rocks before taking our turn.
Having only seen one other vehicle all the way from last nights camp to Qala-i-Khum it came as a shock to meet convoy after convoy of Tajik registered trucks with huge container like bodies and Chinese writing coming towards us. This section of the M41 is the main thoroughfare for goods coming across the Qolma Pass from China.
With two hours of daylight remaining we pitched camp in a great spot 20m from the road and directly across the river from an Afghan village. It was a good job we stopped when we did. Having spread my tent out to dry it soon began to rain and I managed to get pitched before it began pissing down. By then G&L had their awning up and we were able to drink our beers in the dry – nice one guys!
Once again we awoke to the sound of rain. Griff & Lisa packed up and left whilst yet again I waited for the rain to abate.
I finally managed to get away by 1100 and continued to follow the river. The rain came in showers but didn’t last long and so it was a mostly dry ride to Khorog. Having caught up with G&L at lunchtime (I spotted them roadside with the kettle on :)) we took rooms in the Pamir Lodge for U$7ea and hung everything out to dry on the wide, covered veranda.
When we awoke the next morning there was a ‘strange’ guy ‘washing’ Griff’s Landrover. ‘Washing’ is in captions as he was using insufficient water and so what he was really doing was grinding the dirt into the paintwork in circles! The lodges owners said he’d appeared every morning for the previous three days and hung around in a bid to help out. They had no idea who he was, other than that he came from a village in the Shokh Dara Valley. Nor did they have any idea where he slept.
Later that day I returned from the bazaar to find my guidebook and Klim riding socks had been stolen. Both had been hanging out to dry. I spoke to the owners wife who said that she had seen the ‘strange’ man changing his socks in the garden and that there was a book with a blue cover inside his carrier bag “When the police took him away”!!!
I spoke to Sayid, the owner, and asked him to call the police. If he was in custody then surely it wouldn’t be hard to get my stuff returned… would it???
Phone calls were made (and I presumed returned) but nothing came of it. Reading between the lines I don’t think the police had taken the ‘strange’ man away officially, rather Sayid had called upon friends of his in the police to remove him. The guesthouse is un-registered (no sign posts) and I suspect the owners didn’t want any ‘official’ police presence. Sayid kindly gave me another guidebook from his collection (albeit an older edition) and a pair of long socks. It was kind of him to do so, after all it wasn’t him who was the thief.
A few days passed by with us doing laundry, buying supplies and most importantly procuring visas for a little ‘detour’…
It’s all Chris Harrington’s fault! He arrived in the house I was sharing in Northampton back in 1989 with £5 in his pocket, slept on the couch, went to the pub every night, got drunk and left a week later still with £5 in his pocket. When he wasn’t in the pub he had his nose in a book; he could sit in a chair for the best part of a day and read a book from cover to cover. Having never been a big reader I wondered what a character as cool as Chris found so fascinating about reading and so I asked him. He promptly gave me a copy of Gerald Seymour’s ‘In Honour Bound’ and so began my love of books a fascination with Afghanistan.
Once I knew I’d be riding through Central Asia this year I had to fit in an excursion to Afghanistan.
In Colombia in 2011 I met Australian NGO Sharna Nolan (Chapter 25) who told me that the north of the country was making good progress and that Band-i-Amir National Park had reopened. I thought that entering from Uzbekistan and exiting to Tajikistan would make an interesting loop and so I subscribed to an online Afghan news report summary to keep an eye on the situation. A few months later a bigoted fuckwit American ‘Christian’ preacher named Terry Jones burned a Koran after claiming its scriptures guilty of “crimes against humanity.
When the news reached Afghanistan rioting in the north killed 30 people and injured 150 more. Once again the north was out of bounds.
The Wakhan Valley
The Wakhan Valley is a different story though. It has a rich history as one of the major Silk Road routes and the one that Marco Polo chose to access China. That though was a long time ago, long before political intervention.
The Wakhan Valley also goes by another name – The Wakhan Corridor – a creation of the Great Game (played out between Russian and Britain in the 18th & 19th centuries). Very briefly, as the Russian empire spread across Central Asia, British India became increasingly concerned about a Tsarist invasion. The result was a series of treaties signed between 1873 and 1893 that defined the Russian border as the Panj river (modern day Tajikistan) and the Indian border along the Durand line (pretty much the ridgeline of the Hindu Kush – modern day Pakistan). The result was a ‘buffer’ zone between the two countries. The final blow to the Wakhan though came in 1949 when Mao Zedong completed his communist takeover of China and sealed the border, turning the Wakhan corridor into a 210km long cul-de-sac. Despite requests by many (including the USA) to re-open it, the border remains closed. The valley remains safe; free from fighting and Taliban occupation and therefore on my ‘to visit’ list whilst in Central Asia.
Still not convinced? Then take a look at the next photo and (thinking as a motorcyclist/traveller) tell me you wouldn’t like to ride through there…
I hadn’t shared my plan with anyone. Not until I met Welshman Gareth ‘Griff’ Griffiths and his partner Lisa in Uzbekistan. Griff was the first person to ask me if I was going to Afghanistan and I told him I was. He asked if I’d be interested in ‘teaming-up’ as they’d feel a little more secure with a few of us. They’re a nice couple and I had no hesitation in agreeing.
And so it was that we stocked up on a weeks’ worth of supplies in the bazaar and set off along the Panj River to Ishkashim on the Tajik side of the border, paying a visit to the hot springs in Garam Chashma along the way.
Photo along Panj River from Khorog to Ishkashim
We arrived to find the gates to the bridge that led to the border locked and so we had to wait for the border guards to return from lunch to let us in. Two of them were the same guys we’d met the previous evening and were very friendly. They didn’t take our TIP’s from us and so we quizzed them about being issued new ones when we returned. They didn’t seem to grasp what we were asking an so in the end we left it. There was a lot of to’ing and fro’ing in the middle of which we were served tea. A few wanted to pose for photo’s with the vehicles and when they finally finished we were let through the gate to Afghanistan.
After the initial greetings and handshakes we were asked if we had vehicle documents. “Yes, of course” and we handed over our V5’s (Registration/Logbook/Title). It wasn’t what they were asking for. It transpired that there is a special vehicle entry permit called a ‘Rupos’ that we should have obtained from the Consulate in Khorog. Without it we weren’t allowed to bring our vehicles in. We tried to plead ignorance and ask if we could buy it there but it was an emphatic NO. The guy we were dealing with was very friendly and obviously realising we weren’t about to say OK and leave, he called his Captain who said he would come.
We waited an hour or so for the captain to arrive during which time the guy we were dealing with showed us the English language book he was learning from and started playing us the CD’s he was listening to. It was of course American English and we soon put him right on this being very bad and that he should learn proper English!
I asked him who one of the pictures on the wall was of and he said it was the prime minister prior to Karzai – Najibullah. He wasn’t a fan of Karzai and said that Dr Najibullah had been his favourite and a very popular president but that he’d been killed by the Taliban. He then Googled the killing and produced a very graphic photo of two men with bloated bodies and protruding tongues hanging from what appeared to be a diving platform in Kabul. He pointed out Najibullah and his brother and then to the grinning Taliban fighter calling him ‘Animal’.
The captain finally arrived in a Ford Ranger bringing with him two armed soldiers. He confirmed that we couldn’t enter without the ‘Rupos’ but did call his boss who returned an absolute NO. No Rupos, NO entry.
They kept telling us to go back to Khorog, arrange the permit and then return to them. We kept explaining that that wasn’t possible because we only had double entry Tajik visas and our return to Tajikistan would be our second entry. They said they understood but they didn’t. We started preparing to leave and saying goodbye to everyone when they said “Yes, yes. Go Khorog and return”. “No. No return. Afghanistan finish. No return”. With that one of them finally realised our predicament and suddenly the phone calls started up again.
Griff tried without success to call the consulate with his satellite phone. One of the customs guys realised what he was trying to do and dialed the number on his mobile before handing it to Griff but the guy on the end of the line just kept saying “Hello. Do you speak English”. Eventually the customs guy spoke to him to see if we could arrange the permit by fax. Again the answer was no.
The Afghans said they could arrange for a taxi to take us into Eskashim (the next village) where we could spend the night. That sounded like a reasonable idea and at first we thought it meant leaving our vehicles with the Afghan soldiers but it turns out it didn’t. One minute everyone was pointing towards Afghanistan and the next towards Tajikistan. For a time we didn’t have a clue what was going on, never mind which country we’d be spending the night in!
By that time it was 1730 and the Tajik border had closed at 1700 so we presumed there was no returning to Tajikistan that night. One phone call later and the Tajiks appeared from their barracks, walked across the bridge and climbed over the Afghan security fence. After much greeting and backslapping they decided that we could unload what baggage we wanted for a night in Afghanistan, park the vehicles in the Tajik army barracks and finally walk back to Afghanistan.
We parked the Landrover and Daisy just inside the barracks but were suddenly nervous as they wanted Griff to take his gerry cans from the roof and put them inside. They also wanted me to remove my panniers completely even though they were empty. As this discussion took place so one of the Tajik customs guys (who was somewhat hyper) grabbed the locked door handle of Griffs Landrover and managed to all but pull it off! Completely pissed off Griff, did a good job of biting his tongue.
A night in Afghanistan
Back at the Afghan border a taxi was waiting for us along with a guide. It was a battered old Toyota Corolla driven by a pale-skinned, freckled, ginger haired Afgha man of about 30. The road was like driving along a pebbled riverbed that all the sand had been blown away from and I wondered what the life expectancy of a car was in these parts. A few hundred metres from the border we passed two rusting shells of Russian APC’s. A reminder of just how long Afghanistan has been at war.
After 9km we reached the guesthouse where we were shocked to learn the taxi driver wanted U$20! We tried to barter him down but he was having none of it. Then we asked the price of the guesthouse – U$25 each! WTF! It was a new country and none of us had any idea what prices to expect. I’d read somewhere that the average income for an Afghan was U$580 per annum and so what we were being asked for seemed outrageous. I’d experienced similar in Dili, East Timor where the presence of the UN and various NGO’s had artificially inflated prices to an exorbitant level and wondered if that was the case here?
The guesthouse was a flat roofed adobe structure occupying the top of a hill and offering a view across agricultural land to the village. Rooms were spartan with unfeasibly uncomfortable beds that disguised the occupants groans with noises of their own. The sink in the bathroom remained un-plumbed either wifresh water or waste and a 50 gallon drum of cold water stood in the corner.
When dinner was served it was clear that the guys who ran the place had gone to a lot of effort. A huge bowl of noodle soup, a pile of fried rice, freshly baked bread, soft drinks and endless tea. Chatting over dinner we learned about the difficulty of getting supplies to the region because the Taliban did what they could to prevent it. The restricted supply had also forced prices up though how locals could pay I had no idea. There was no industry.
Having heard that there had been recent fighting with the Taliban in Faizabad I asked how far away it was. “About 11 hours walking” was the reply. Walking….how many countries quote distances based on walking time?
The sun woke me at 0430 and thanks to the uncomfortable bed I struggled to return to sleep. Breakfast was at 0700 and once again our host had made a real effort. Fresh bread, boiled eggs, butter, honey, a variety of jams including carrot and endless tea and coffee. A taxi was called to take us to the village where our guide Azim took us to the registration office. One of us was called to represent us and so in I went. I sat in a room of 10 men all of whom didn’t seem to understand why we were leaving. They spoke Persian so I didn’t understand anything but I did get the jist that they wanted us to visit the Wakhan and were suggesting arranging transport for us. Azim tried his best to translate but struggled. He’d only been learning English for 6 months and did well considering. When I finally said “no motorcycle, no Wakhan” they understood and we were ‘allowed’ to leave.
The next job was to get photos for registration and so we went to a shop on the main street where we had them taken and printed. Griff also printed some nice photos of two older guys he’d photographed at the office. Returning to the registration office we then discovered that 5 copies of each passport and visa were required! Lisa gave Griff’s photo’s to the two older men who were delighted. I took photo’s of them holding their photos.
Azim took us to his internet club and made the copies whilst we had a cold drink. We returned to the registration office for a final time where our details (inc photos) were entered into a large ledger and registration cards (also complete with photos,) were issued to us to hand in at the border.
The border area was busy with traders travelling to and from the market. The taxi driver seemed to want more than the U$20 we’d paid the previous night because of all the hanging around he’d done but he wasn’t going to get another fare that day and U$20 was already an outrageous price – in our opinions.
We had our passports stamped, said our final goodbye’s to all the soldiers and customs officers we’d met the previous day and walked back across the border to Tajikistan.
Once our passports had been stamped we went to customs to try to get new 15 day TIP’s for the vehicles. At first they acted as though they didn’t know what we were asking for and just stared blankly at our Tajik TIP’s (it didn’t help that both mine and Griffs were different). After going over the same old explanations numerous times they eventual said that the guy who did them was in hospital in Iskashim and nobody else could issue them. We’d have to go to Khorog.
As we left the building so we could see across the bridge to the barracks where we’d parked our vehicles – only they were outside. How the hell were they outside? Although padlocked my bike could be moved fairly easily but Griff’s Landrover weighs a tonne! The story goes that 20 soldiers had carried it 30m to where it was now parked!
We raced back to Khorog and found the customs building only to be told they couldn’t renew/extend our TIP’s. We’d have to go down the road to the border (with Afghanistan). The (very) young soldier slowly closed the gates when we arrived and peering through a spy hole didn’t understand what we were asking for. We guessed he was probably too young to speak Russian. It took us ages before we could get him to contact a superior and when he finally did we were allowed to send in one representative. We chose Lisa as she spoke/understood the best Russian. Ten minutes later she reappeared with TIP extensions in the form of hand written dates overstamped with the official seal. Great! We were free to explore Tajikistan…
We had a weeks’ worth of supplies, we all wanted to see the Hindu Kush (though it conjured up memories of mine and Danny’s arduous trek in 2006! – see Chapter 7) and most importantly we enjoyed one anothers company.
So it was that we traveled along the road to Ishkashim for the third time in less than a week. Along the way I was stopped by the ‘Drug Squad’ who were involved in a joint Tajik/Afghan/Uzbek narcotics/terrorist operation that would last for six months. Once the captain had seen my passport and asked me numerous times if I was carrying drugs or guns he wanted to have his photo taken on my bike and was happy to pose with me for a photo.
The weather had deteriorated somewhat and was overcast for much of the time. The wind made bushcamping hard as there was nowhere to escape what became a daily late afternoon sand/dust storm. As a result we enjoyed homestays in both Yamchun and Langar.
A few photos from our drive through the Tajik Wakhan…
Wakhan Valley to the Pamir Highway
From Langar the road climbs away from the valley in a North Easterly direction to cross the Khargush Pass (4350m) and eventually join the Pamir Highway near Bulun Kul and Yashi Kul (lakes).
There’s no story to tell. We were just riding/driving along, taking in the scenery, slowing down to negotiate the numerous flocks of sheep and goats been herded along the road.
Here’s what it looked like…
We only travelled about a kilometre on tarmac before turning off the ‘highway’ to find a place to camp by the lake…
After picking up some bread in the tiny village of Bulun Kul we rode around the east side of the lake of the same name looking for a place to camp. Nowhere was completely out of the wind but the location was beautiful so we put up with it.
In the morning I was packed and ready to go before G&L got up. As I laid in the sun waiting for them so a van carrying a dinghy and five (real) fisherman arrived and parked right next to G&L and opened their doors to reveal blaring music. It was akin to parking next to the only car in a 5000 space car park. They were a friendly bunch though and gave us four fresh fish from that mornings catch.
After breakfast we rode around to the adjacent Yashi Kul (lake)…
Yashi Kul to Alichur via Ak Jar
It took a bit of finding as it wasn’t where our OSM GPS maps said it was but eventually we found the track we wanted that would take us back to the Pamir Highway at Alichur. It was a cracking ride that on occasion had us wondering whether the route really still existed, so faint was it in places.
Just a few kilometre’s from Tuz Kul the track seemed to disappear into some adobe farm buildings. I stopped at the first one as a woman walked out and I tried to confirm the route with her. Somehow, amidst the confusion of what I was asking I was invited inside for chai. I entered a large square room with a central wood burning stove and a small south facing window. As I sat drinking tea so she if I wanted to eat. Not sure what local custom dictated (and not wanting to be rude) I said yes. A small, bundled tablecloth was retrieved from atop the rooms only piece of furniture and unfolded to reveal fresh bread. That was served with thick, lumpy Ayran which I really like. Only once I’d started eating did I notice the husband asleep in the corner! He didn’t move a muscle the whole time.
Ten minutes or so later Griff and Lisa arrived. Lisa speaks the most Russian of the three of us (not difficult!) and so I was hoping that together we could communicate better with our host. As it was she was very shy when it came to speaking. The family were Kirgiz so perhaps she didn’t speak Russian.
She had a young son, perhaps a year old judging by his walking ability and together they were happy to have their photo’s taken. The little boy was fascinated by seeing his picture on the camera’s LCD and Griif took it a step further by printing some photos for the family with his portable printer in the Landrover. A really nice touch.
Eventually it was time to leave. We said our goodbye’s and set off alongside the farm buildings – where two donkey’s were engaged in an act scarred Lisa for life – and continued east.
It was early afternoon when we eventually hit tarmac at Alichur, a windswept town on the Roof of the World.
The Pamir Highway
The M41 ‘Pamir Highway’ was built by Soviet Military Engineers between 1931 and 1934 but where does it go? Although it begins in Osh, Kyrgyzstan nobody can agree on where it ends, with Dushanbe and Khorog (Tajikistan), Mazari Sharif (Afghanistan) and Termiz (Uzbekistan) all being touted as nominees.
Whatever the answer, it remained closed to outsiders until shortly after the turn of the millennium. When it did open however, it became a mecca for cyclists the world over. Never have I seen so many cycle tourists as in Tajikistan.
We followed the road to Murghab where we quickly bought a few supplies, filled up with fuel and set off to find a place to camp – out of the wind.
We were pushing our luck to get to the adjacent lakes of Shor Kul and Rang Kul, approx 35km along a graded gravel road towards the Chinese border but we made it before sunset. Not only that but Griff spotted a great camping spot out of the wind.
Lisa prepared the fish, Griff fired up their portable wood burning stove (I kid you not!) and I….I….I stayed warm whilst I waited to be served 🙂 I did take care of washing-up duties though! (Service is the price paid for all the ‘old man’ jokes)
Thanks to our great bushcamp the sun neither woke me too early nor burnt me out of my tent and as a result I didn’t get up until 0730.
We had a very lazy start with Griff grinding coffee and Lisa making porridge and so didn’t leave camp until almost 1100.
After a ride along to Rangkul (lake) we returned to the main road to commence the ascent to Akbaital Pass, at 4655m the highest on the Pamir highway. It got pretty cold from about 4000m up but we were soon parked up eating lunch and drinking tea in the sun on the west side.
25km up the road we stopped to say our goodbyes. G&L were heading to Kyrgyzstan whilst I wanted to ride the Bartang Valley back to Khorog.
We’d spent 16 days together since meeting in the hostel in Dushanbe and I’d thoroughly enjoyed our time together. We wished each other well and I set off in search of the track that would lead me into the Bartang Valley. Griff took this photo as I rode away…
The Bartang Valley
The riding was sublime. Undulating two-track followed by wide open stony desert that led to a river crossing. The track then followed the river into an ever deepening valley sometimes narrow with steep sides. Eventually I climbed away from the river and onto a plateau where the valley split. The view east to the Muzkol Range with its 6000m peaks was spectacular in the late afternoon sun.
The track turned NW along a wide valley and passed through what resembled a natural wall where it turned sharp right then left to a narrow but fast flowing and reasonably deep river crossing. The current tried to take my front wheel but I made it through, surprised by its depth.
Soon after I began a descent into a narrow valley and spotted a great place to camp. It was tricky to access but worth the effort (you saw the video clip of me exiting this camp in the trailer to this chapter – HERE)
Dinner didn’t work out as planned when I discovered that my tin of tomatoes was in fact tomato paste! Feck.
It was -1°C in my tent when I awoke so I stayed in bed until the sun appeared. After washing my breakfast dishes in the river I turned around and was startled to see a man in army fatigues walking towards me. Lalbek I soon learned was camped about a kilometre down stream where he spent May – September each year tending his flock of goats & donkeys. He told me the road ahead was closed but to come for chai.
I passed by Lalbek on my way to see the blockage for myself. In a ravine, the road (or what was left of it) was buried under a sheet of ice that was over 1.5m thick in places. In other places the thaw had created crevaces up to 60cm deep and the same across. It was indeed impassable.
I rode back to Lalbek and accepted his offer of tea and followed him down to his Iranian Red Crescent aid tent adjacent to the river at the bottom of an embankment. Next to this were pens for his animals.
Inside was 50% sitting/sleeping space with the remaining 50% dominated by a woodburning stove that vented via a stack through the roof.
I was given ayran (an unsweetened yoghurt), freshly baked bread and chai. Whilst eating we were joined by his wife, son and daughter as well as another man. As usual they were keen to have their photos taken but struck very stern expressions as soon as the camera was raised.
Lalbek said that they would help me get my bike across but that there was another obstacle 3km away and 25km away there was a water crossing that would be thigh deep at 1500 so I would have to sleep there and cross the following morning.
My only other option was to retrace my steps and head for Kyrgyzstan but I really wanted to see the Bartang Valley and so I agreed to accept their help. (Remember – I speak no Russian and Lalbek speaks no English).
The first job was to unload and carry all of my gear across. Once I’d done that we could tackle the first obstacle which was a block of ice that we had to push Daisy to the top of before we could lower her into a thawed gulley. Lalbek attached a webbing strap to the pannier frame brace and as I walked Daisy over the edge so the three shepherds held her weight on the strap. Once in the gulley we then had to push/pull/drag her 20m up it to the shallowest point at which we could exit 90° onto the ice-flow. It was of much harder than it sounds; it all took place at 3765m with everyone slipping around struggling to keep their foot. Eventually, after a huge effort on everyone’s part we got Daisy onto the ice-flow only for her front wheel to slide into another gulley. The only way out of that was to fill the gulley with stones then pull the front wheel onto them. With the front wheel level with the ice-flow we slid the rear around and pushed her across the ice-flow to where I could ride across the rocks and melt water to the opposite side.
It was with some relief that we reached the opposite side and once we’d gathered our breath Lalbek said there was another obstacle 3km away but that he would help me across if I gave him a lift. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t use his donkey but I agreed. There wasn’t enough room for the pair of us to sit on Daisy properly so I stood with my heels on the footrests. About 3km along the track Lalbek dismounted and indicated for me to descend the switchbacks whilst he ran off across the valley side.
I descended 400m and rounded a turn to find him waiting for me. A few hundred metres further on was the obstacle he was talking about; a minor landslide. I rode it cautiously but needed no extra help. We said goodbye and Lalbek told me to visit the next shepherds hut, a little further along the valley.
At the the next hut I found three generations of the same family sharing a stone sided dwelling with a straw roof. The younger girls clamoured to look in Daisy’s mirrors so I dug out my shaving mirror and gave it to them. (not like it sees a lot of use). The old lady then promptly fetched me two loaves of freshly baked bread.
I was then invited in for endless amounts of bread, ayran and tea. They all wanted their photos taken and after shooting them all the old man wanted to give me an address to send them to. Unfortunately he couldn’t write and instead dictated to me in toothless Russian. I wrote what I heard but had no idea whether or not I was writing the right thing.
I’d already been there quite a while when Lalbek arrived. When I stood up to leave he said there was no point as I couldn’t ride much further before encountering a thigh deep water crossing where I would need to camp overnight and await the mornings lower water level. I ended up staying for another few hours during which I consumed so much tea it was ridiculous. When it finally came time to leave Lalbek wanted to come with me to help me across the next obstacle. I wasn’t sure how he intended that to work; after all, where would he sleep? We said goodbye to the family and I gave him a lift approx 5km to where a torrent of meltwater crossed the road. It wasn’t far across and only about knee deep but Lalbek was absolutely insistent that I didn’t attempt it on my own. Instead he removed his shoes, socks, trousers, waded across and set off down the track. He returned half an hour later with a second guy who did the same and together they helped me push Daisy across. I’m sure I could have managed it on my own.
I wasn’t sure if this was or rather had been the deep crossing Lalbek had referred to when we first met. Either way he was still on about something either 25 or 35km further along the track. Foolishly I agreed to take him and we set off along a track that was as rough as anything I’ve ridden on my RTW trip. Rocks, gullies, and water were a constant. Huge swathes of shale that had been carried out of the side valleys and spread hundreds of metres across the main valley floor had to be crossed; complete with their own water carved gullies.The sun was by then behind the ridge line making the valley too dark for decent photos. Not that I could really stop with Lalbek on the bike. I was pretty pissed off. We came to what looked like deep water in the track and I stopped for Lalbek to get off whilst I negotiated it. He indicated that it was no problem and that I should keep going so I did. The first puddle led to a second and that one was a good 50cm deep. I lost all my speed, Lalbek lost balance and we toppled over. Fortunately I quickly got the bike upright before any water entered my camera bag. Before starting the engine I gave Lalbek my pocket camera, turned it on, showed him the shutter button and sent him to the end of the puddle. I rode out and parked the bike whilst Lalbek emptied his boots and wrung out his socks; all the time gesticulating at the dry route around the puddle. All very well if you knew it was there but standing with just my heels on the footrests and looking at where I was going I hadn’t seen it.
We rode on and eventually came to a viewpoint overlooking a village. I stopped for a photo before descending into what turned out to be Lalbek’s home village.
Had I been duped? Was his whole ploy just to get a ride back? I wasn’t sure. We entered his friends house (a traditional Pamiri style) where I was introduced to everybody and we drank tea. Any chance of finding a place to camp that night had evaporated and so I was hoping I’d be asked to stay – I was. Or should I say it was just taken that I would. There was a wedding in the village the following day (Sunday) and a guy that seemed to be a big-wig in the village was almost insistent that I attend. He summonsed the ‘English Teacher’ who turned out to be a guy from another village that happened to be in town for a volleyball match. He arrived in time for dinner (a shared plate of fried noodles), translated for everyone and said the not only were people from several villages further down the valley coming tomorrow but that tonight there would be a pre wedding party with music and dancing. I said I was happy to stay but wanted to leave by the early afternoon.
After dinner several of us walked across the village to another traditional Pamiri house, only this one was much bigger. Inside the women were seated on one side and the men on the other. An organist played and a singer sang. If I were to be polite I’d say it wasn’t my kind of music; let’s leave it at that. Only four people could fit on the dance floor at any one time – two men and two women. Some were incredibly enthusiastic, others reluctant. I was in the latter but by late evening found myself goaded onto the dance floor where I felt like a fish out of water.
It was gone midnight when I returned to where I was staying and a bedroll was layed out for me to sleep on. Lalbek obviously knew of the wedding and I went to sleep wondering if I’d been used to get to it or whether it was a fair trade for the help he’d given me in crossing the ice flow.
Should I stay or should I go…
Everyone was up by 0530 but I managed to stay in bed until just before 0700. It was a long morning. I was hoping the ‘English Teacher’ would arrive to tell me about the days timings for the wedding but he didn’t show up. For 5.5hrs I alternated between drinking tea and sitting outside in the shade reading ‘Stones for Schools’ on my Kindle. I was also treated to the use of one of the communal latrines; 1m high corrugated steel sheeting arranged in a 3m square with an opening for a door (there was no door), neither was there a roof. You got wet if it rained – you got wet if you missed.
Come 1230 there was no sign of anything happening on the wedding front and no sign of Lalbek either so I decided to pack up and leave. There was still no sign of Lalbek by the time I was ready to leave and so I said goodbye to my host and asked him to say goodbye to Lalbek.
For the next 5km or so I passed people walking in the opposite direction and it was clear then that the wedding would be an evening affair. Daisy was handling oddly and it took me a while to realise that the problem was a lack of damping in the rear shock. I would flatten the suspension in the dips then get my feet thrown off the footrest on the rises. I cursed my decision to give a ride to Lalbek and wondered where the hell I could get it rebuilt in Central Asia? The valley itself was stunning. Rough, but stunning.
Along the way I passed by vibrant green village oasis’, all set away from the main route. Outside one such oasis I met a Polish couple cycling. They had planned on 10 days from Kara Kul to Rushon. That’s a lot of food to be carrying.
The temperature rocketed and I ran out of water. The river ran reasonably clear in the mornings but by lunchtime it was the colour of mud and raging. It would have clogged my water filter in no time and so I rode on. Eventually I came to a village with a shop and bought a bottle of water. It wasn’t until I opened it that I realised it was sparkling. Bugger, I must learn some Russian!
Just a few kilometre’s from the village it all went wrong. The track was decent, I was a little refreshed and cruising along at 50-60km/h when suddenly I was stopped dead in my tracks; all but flung over the handlebars, spun around and dumped on the floor.
It took me a few seconds to gather my senses and understand what had happened. I turned the fuel off and checked myself for injuries but I was ok.
A closer look revealed 5mm steel cables strung across the road from a telegraph/electrical pole. I’d hit it with my headlight and as it tightened so it spun me around, getting snagged in my rear wheel, chain guard and suspension in the process.
Daisy was so wrapped up in the cable that I couldn’t pick her up until I unwrapped it. When I did I found the chain guard almost ripped off, the handlebars pushed forwards and the forks slightly twisted in the clamps.
Before and after picking her up I made a quick video.
I didn’t bother straightening anything out as I was going to run out of daylight. Instead I rode the 70km or so to Khorog with everything out of shape. By the time I arrived I was really looking forward to a visit to the Indian restaurant but being Sunday it was closed and so I ended up in the only place open – in the park, overlooking the river. At least I got a cold beer!
More photos from my ride through the Bartang Valley HERE
Khorog – ‘Take III’
I had a lousy nights sleep and awoke knackered. I’d either been bitten by something or had had an allergic reaction to something. Either way my hands and upper arms had a multitude of huge, itchy lumps (like I’d got in Chile and French Guiana).
I had a few days off in Khorog; straightened Daisy out, cleared my cameras memory cards and gave my chest a rest (I’d slammed it pretty hard on the top of my GPS/screen in the crash), re-visited the Indian restaurant (a few times :)) and hung out with the Italian, French and Spanish cyclists who were also staying in the Pamir Lodge.
I finally left town on an overcast morning and so without stopping for many photos I made swift progress east across the M41 Pamir Highway all the way to Murgab where I topped up with fuel and set off in search of a place to camp.
A storm was approaching from the east and heading straight towards the area I was planning to camp in so I rode on in the hope that I could outrun it. I couldn’t.
As the road swung west so I rode straight into it on the approach to the Akbaital Pass: At 4655m the highest in the region. Rain turned to freezing rain and then sleet as I gained altitude and the temperature plummeted. My hope was that I would pass through the storm into better weather in the opposite valley but as I wiped the sleet from my goggles and cranked-up m heated grips I was doubtful.
Luck was on my side however and I emerged from the storm before reaching the top of the pass whereupon I was treated to a clear view of the peaks sprinkled with a light dusting of fresh snow, like icing sugar.
Here’s a comparison with the photo’s I took when I crossed with G&L a week earlier…
After snapping a few photos I pushed on for Karakul where I found homestay for U$15 (inc evening meal and breakfast) and dried my wet boots in front of the wood burner.
When I awoke the storm looked like it had cleared and I set off towards the Kyrgyz border with a clear view of Kara Kul (the highest lake in Central Asia) to my left and the Chinese border fence often just 20m away to my right. As I climbed towards the pass so I could see clouds in the mountain tops but I was still surprised to encounter a wet track less than a kilometre from the border.
A cyclist wrapped up like a mountaineer raced by in the opposite direction without waving. I suspect he daren’t take a hand off the bars. The border was a mud bath and I was told to wait outside whilst my passport info was recorded. The barrier was lifted and I rode another 20m before stopping outside a shipping container that had been converted into an office.
Again I handed over my passport and waited outside. During the 100m ride to the final ‘office’ I got cross rutted and fell down. Slipping around in the mud as I picked my bike up I managed to pull some muscles in my back before remounting and riding to the next office. For the third time I waited outside, only this time in the doorway whilst the customs guy copied my details into a book on a small table adjacent to his bed. After all the hassle G&L and I had gone through to get our TIP’s extended I wasn’t even asked for it!!! The final barrier gate was opened and I climbed slowly through the cloud on the muddy track, unable to see far ahead.
At the top of the Kyzyl-Art Pass I took the above photo before I descended towards the Kyrgyz border along what is the longest stretch of ‘No-mans land’ I can remember. But that’s a story for next time…