I shook my head as the Irishman, one of four cyclists I ran into on the climb up from Osh, rummaged in his head bag and handed me a shred of dark-spotted paper.
‘Oh yeah, my blood got all over it’ he added, mysteriously.
I didn’t ask. The less I knew about snow leopards, or gangs of rampaging marmots, or roving warlords the better. Climbing to 4655 metres in three days invited trepidation enough.
After Osh the land was green and open, studded with yurts and clusters of shambling livestock. The temperature soared to 40 degrees. I asked for clean water but people would always point to the river ‘our river is very clean, drink! drink!’ I didn’t chip into local pride by mentioning the donkeys pissing and shitting and sometimes inconveniently dying on the banks upstream.
The scruffiness of the children grew with distance from the town, until they were a ragtag bunch with wet coughs and perennial grins, calling ‘bye bye!’ as a welcome because they liked the sound of the words more than they cared about the meaning. I climbed from 1600 to 3100 metres in a day, and spent the evening next to the scrappy caravan a herding family called home. After showing one of the boys how to click tent poles together and use the clips, he set to helping me put it up and then crouched down in the entrance and marveled at my gadgets – the inflatable sleeping mat and stove – with little ahhs and ohhhs, disappearing briefly with each shriek from his mother to help rounding up goats into the pen or collect dung to burn.
The next day I completed the switchbacks and dropped into Sary Tash while looking past the town at the more captivating backdrop: the Pamirs were a white belt chopped by peaks, taking up a great swathe of horizon, reaching high over the grassland ahead.
I crossed the Kirgiz immigration and began climbing up through the extensive No-Mans Land in a valley alive with marmots – I caught russet dashes in my peripheral vision, like shooting stars. Then I’d see one tall and still, paws-front. Or is it a rock, tinted with lichen? I’d stare until it flashed into a nearby hole, or remained where it was and 30 seconds of my life had been taken up with rock spectating.
At the pass near the border a Marco Polo sheep, in statue form for live ones are scarce, looked out indomitably over the wavy land. For the next days skulls and horns and sometimes attached vertebra would lie over the rocky ground, the gruesome echoes of a dying breed, hunted to near extinction. Just beyond the statue was the Tajik immigration, and after getting my entry stamp I was ushered into a hut where a man told me I needed a disinfection certificate, adding with a practiced nonchalance ‘400 Somme please’.
This was, I was sure, a scam: officials at this border post are notoriously corrupt. When I refused he made a cross with his forearms: no money, no passage. I stood up and strode over to an immigration official I’d noticed to be the centre of an orbit of other officers – and demanded to know why I was being taxed. I was hoping the corrupt man was working secretly and alone but the booming laugh from the boss told me they were all in this together. I realised I’d been using the wrong tack, I needed to offer him a way out, and give him the chance to look generous. It was time to bring Clive into the mix, my cap.
‘Look’ I began, using my most pathetic tone of voice, ‘I’ve been traveling for five years. I have no money. I eat stale bread.’ I showed him some from my pannier. ‘Look at me! Look at my hat!’ I showed him the tears and holes, the flailing fabric. I shrunk into the chair, covered my face in a hand and coughed a long spluttering cough. There was a moment of silent contemplation, and then ‘OK. You go’ he said, handing my passport back, and I was soon rallying through Tajikistan, my 60th nation, the dusky red ridges of Kirgizstan at my back.
I was up on the Pamir plateau now, firing along with the swift wind on my tail. Some so-called ‘washboard’ road followed, which is being generous to the world’s washboards. More like back to back speedbumps. For a couple of days I’d noticed two tyres marks in the dust, I knelt down now to inspect them and could see the direction of tread meant they were heading my way. I felt like I was tracking a wild beast. I took a couple of sniffs, mmm, Nutella, must be a cyclist. They can’t be far.
Soon I was back to tarmac which had a habit of melting under tyres and feet if you loitered for more than a few seconds on it. The azure sheen of Lake Karakol arrived earlier than I expected, and it was in the nearby village I met Nick and Romain – an Australian and a French biker I’d met before in Bishkek, who immediately invited me down to the icy lake for a swim before Romain got targeted, in what was to be a familiar scene, by the majority of the world’s mosquito population. ‘Putin! Putin!’ rang through the Pamirs as Nick and I watched on, wondering how on earth one man can be deemed so delicious to insects. ‘They love ‘im.’ said Nick. ‘He tastes like Camembert’.
The home stay in Karakol was copiously rugged – at least four rugs hung per wall, they overlapped on the floor in a literal rug-fest, typical, I would learn, of many a Central Asian home. I wondered if homeowners here had black outs and woke up in alleyways behind rug shops, slumped over a pile of new rugs with no money left for food or their children’s clothes. I half expected to find the lumpy shapes of people under rugs, making muffled cries, pinned to walls.
The next day I discovered the pounding headache of the altitude sickness I thought I’d escaped, the telltale ripple in my vision with each heartbeat, the post-night-on-tequila sense of doom.
We set out anyway, climbed through striking steel hued mountains and stopped just before the steepest climb with a Kyrgyz woman who filled us with cream and yoghurt and tea in her cosy home by the road which had a TV in the corner showing Days of Our Lives. ‘But Troy, the baby’s not yours. What will I do?’ At over 4000 metres up in the remote Pamirs, the woman’s daughter avidly pondered Maria’s predicament by Russian subtitles.
With the altitude and steep ascent on dirt, my head span and I became woozy. I was heading to the highest point on the Pamir Highway, a road whose name derives from altitude and not the volume of traffic. I’d calculated there were 4 km left to the pass, and at once I had a brilliant idea: if I weaved left and right, the climb wouldn’t be as steep and I’d ride those four kilometres in better time. For some oxygen-deprived moment I knew I could cheat physics, trick the laws of nature, and not that by weaving my way up I would just make the pass further away.
The rocks grew pink and orange in the dying daylight, an eagle roved the blue sky far above. The summit was a round of high fives, and a quick lie down before we whizzed downwards into a desert amid a starlit dusk.The next day we spotted Murgab, the not-really-beating heart of the eastern Pamiri region and one of only two towns en route. ‘We’ll get the Big Macs in first and then hit some clubs later’ offered Nick.
The Pamir Hotel is the place to be in Murgab, and alongside a Japanese tour group, an assortment of bikers, motorbikers and hitchhikers, were balding, bearded and exclusively male geologists who leaned over strange maps and chatted excitedly of ‘checking out that Jurassic section’. Nick, Romain and I looked like our room soon smelt.
’s room probably smelt of roses. These three clean-cut Frenchmen who a couple of years back had completed a three year bike ride around the world, and were now accomplished film makers, speakers, authors and professional dreamers, were making a living through the fruit of their adventures. They were in the Pamirs on bamboo fatbikes, of which there are vanishingly few in the world. Frank Denman and a host of other bikers passed through too. Some arrived with worrying regularity on bikes broken by the bad roads of the Wakan corridor, cable ties everywhere, holes in tyres.
I stocked up on supplies from the bazaar, a jostling alley between old shipping containers turned shops. I’d decided on heading on a tougher and more remote route through a different valley and then across high mountain plains and two 4400 m passes into Zorkul National Park, after which I’d join the road which runs through the Wakan corridor and borders Afghanistan.
I cycled over a dreary plain first, screwy tendrils of black cloud brought cold rain, but the next day was blue-lit and still. The din of rain and wind was replaced by the tepid gurgle of water flowing in the nearby river, and the occasional trill of passing bees. In between, the silence hummed.
Tokthamish had a real outpost feel: a desolate ensemble of mud brick and stucco homes separated by desert, where an EU funded school and a couple of water pumps and a lumbering donkey figured in the main street. The shop sold sweets and cheap packet noodles of the type that often have to be recalled for having toxic levels of lead (I bought some anyway).
I headed off to Shaimak, the last village for days at the end of the valley which sat under 5265 metre Attash, a humpy snow-dashed mountain rising out of the heat shimmer, it was hard to imagine it could be this hot at 4000 metres above sea level. The mountain collected light long after the valley fell into shade and loomed over at least a quarter of the sky. Insects were on my tail, and I aimed for the winging dust devils in hopes of losing my congregation.
It was here I thought of how fucked I would be if my bike broke, there were no cars at all now, and with this thought came the memory of Nathan building my rear wheel in Bishkek, and the beer I now recall he’d been chugging at the time, and the words ‘Fuck the Rohloff manual, I’ll just do it my way’ and later ‘tell me if I get anything wrong, OK?’ Luckily, through luck, or Nathan’s practiced skill at building wheels whilst inebriated, the wheel held strong.
In Shaimak, population 60, I quickly gained a twittering string of children, the older ones wearing traditional Kalpak hats which pointed to their Kirgiz roots. Women stood in fenced off meadows and made cheese. The shop was predictably bare, but a young round-faced student, home from studies in Dushanbe, gave me bread and cheese. The gift meant a lot in this poor village, where there was no power, a fog of mosquitoes in the summer dusks and long, brutally cold winters. As is usual, I tried to pay, I failed. ‘We have so little here’ she said. ‘Well Shaimack is a very beautiful village’ I managed, pathetically, quickly realising this was like saying to a patient ‘Mr Jones you have end-stage pancreatic cancer. But on the up side… nice knees!’
After reaching a ring of snow topped peaks at the valley’s end I crossed the river, no longer the grubby snake of the lower valley but an appealing grey-blue gush bordered by banks of smooth pebbles spotted with tussocks. I rounded a reddish fist of rock, the colour of an old bruise, to my left the land became spiked with a type of high altitude grass and the earth grew salt stained, stretching away to the mountains until the white of salt met and blended with the white of perennial snow.
The junction I came to didn’t exist on my map because the road straight ahead led close to the Afghan border the authorities didn’t need advertised. I turned right to climb a pass, leaving a note under a rock for Solidream if they were to follow to show which direction I had travelled, marked by an arrow I made in stones.
The meat of the climb was on a smooth trail cutting through a sandscape studded with low shrubs, but the last kilometres were grueling, steep and rocky ones. At each false summit, another loomed, each more disastrous to my mettle. Up ahead I could see the silhouettes of people standing stock still, and then falling to their bellies and scampering off and chirruping as they went… marmots. By dusk the track crested the hill and I received the vista of a nameless lake and its silvered tributaries, where I set up camp. The pass almost killed me. I left another note for Solidream: ‘Je Suis Desole’.
My map suggested it would take five days, probably, until I reached another village and so I began to ration my food and devour the stale bread knocking around my panniers. There were no vehicles at all, the road ranged through green valleys where even herders were out of sight. I had that gorgeous, delectable way-in-over-my-head feeling. There was no one for miles.
I arrived at a spot intriguingly marked Jarty Gumbez on my map, where I found a small cluster of buildings around the river. I dropped down, expecting to find a deserted hunting camp, but there were builders milling about, preparing camp for the season which begins in October. The boss, a short bearded man in a camouflage cap, the epitome of a hunter, who’s used to escorting rich Americans on hunting trips to shoot Oryx or Marco Polo sheep for around 30,000 dollars a pop, ordered a lady to fill me with rice and meat and melon and tea, and I left with calories to burn.
I cut through a narrow valley and found a few yurts near the entrance to Zorkul National Park where I stayed for free with a kind family content to feed me and show their hospitality. They lassoed yaks to cut the wool of the adults and tag the young, a frenzied exercise of horn and leg grabbing. I slept in my own yurt bedecked in stitching of wing-spread birds and insulated with sheep wool. The daughter showed me her phone ‘This is I!’ she whispered and showed me a selfie, but one in which she was wearing lipstick and jeans, and not the headscarf she had on now, and then snatched it away, suddenly embarrassed.
The next day the father cried ‘Marco Polo! On the hills!’ Knowing this was unlikely to be the reincarnation of the Venetian explorer, I ran over, borrowed his binoculars and made out the shapes of the famous sheep grazing on the higher slopes. The sad fact is that in Marco Polo’s time, there would have been no need of binoculars – the sheep now number less than 10,000.
I lugged by bike over the grassland between the mountains and the lake, bridging streams and maneuvering around the 4×4 trail when it became flooded with river water. The track faded and finally disappeared. I stood on boulders and used my camera’s zoom to check for trails but found none. I left my bike and hiked from the lake backdropped by Afghanistan’s Great Pamir range, to the peaks of the southern Alchur range, but seeing no track I began riding off-road. For forty kilometres I walked with my bike, dragging it over rocks and tall grass, following the line of broken telegraph poles that led west. Streams became harder to cross, deeper in gullies and churning with melt water. I worried constantly about rain, for if it came the entire area would be whipped into thick mud.
At the western end of the lake a vast swarm of black flies found me. They coated every pannier, swarmed around my head, disappeared into my ears and nose. My suncream was a sticky variety and this turned my exposed arms into something resembling fly paper, a mausoleum for insects, hundreds died on my forearms alone, I didn’t want to know what was occurring on my shoulders. The monstrous storm of flies stayed with me for a couple of hours, and it was worse when I moved.
The telegraph masts went over a ridge, and knowing that eventually the road was depicted on my map aside the river, I walked my bike down to the shore of the Panj just after it left Lake Zorkul and pushed along. By the end of the day I hit a net of thrashing tributaries too large to hoist my bike over, and the bridges of soviet times were two rusted piles of long ago collapsed scrap metal languishing in the white water, like much infrastructure post-independence, they hadn’t been replaced. Two herding boys arrived and together we carried my bike over each river. I ate pasta and sauce in my tent for the thousandth time, but the first in which the view was of Afghanistan, a mere 20 metres away across the clear waters of the upper Panj. It was an unpeopled place of grassy slopes and peeping snowy peaks, but an exotic vision nonetheless.
Khargush is a Tajik military base of strategic importance on the Afghan border, and border patrols wander to and fro, scouting Afghanistan with binoculars. I’d arrived on the Wakan corridor at a point most cyclists dread for the road is in a bad state – but for me, fresh from a roadless hunk of fly-infested land and uncountable river crossings, it was brilliant. Glorious washboard!
Cyclists brought news of Nick and Romain. ‘Australian guy? Yeah, he’s good. Drinking beer in Iskashim’ ‘How about the French guy with a trailer?’ ‘Oh Him. Shit. That guy looked terrible’. Soon after Romain would fly to Malaysia to be with his fiancé.
The valley was a desert – the parched, dun-coloured shoulders tall over a river trimmed by green. From somewhere a voice rang out and looking up I saw a military watchtower, ahead the road was gated. Two soldiers made their way towards me.
‘You! Where did you come from?’
‘From Zorkul’ I said.
The captain, ethnically Russian, in wrap-around sunglasses, a cap and army fatigues, got close and stuck a finger in my face.
‘Border area. Terrorists’ he said slow and loud, as a parent might a disobedient child. ‘You’ve been to Afghanistan’
‘No no!’ I appealed. ‘Just Tajikistan’.
‘Documents!’ My bad feeling was growing.
I gave him my passport, the letter I’d received from the hotel in Murgab and the permit I’d bought from the father of the family in the yurts. He seized on this immediately ‘Conterfeit!’ he yelled. Actually I’d guessed that much, but I bought it anyway. The family were kind and had fed me, and the fake permit only cost 5 dollars. ‘Search him’ he ordered a junior soldier, scowling.
I’d been robbed by police in Mexico on the pretense of a search, and so I was resistant now. In a foreign city I’d sometimes ask police for ID if they demanded to search me or tried to get a bribe, mainly to put them on the back foot, to hint I wouldn’t be a pushover. Out of habit I did this now, and instantly realised my mistake. This was a military post, not a police stop, plus I was in the middle of nowhere. The captain came up close again. ‘You want my ID – here’s my fucking ID’ he pulled a gun from his belt and there was a moment where I wondered if he’d aim it at me, but he lost courage, returned it to his belt and then made a gun with his index finger and thumb and put it to my temple. Had I been a Tajik, no doubt he’d have used the real gun.
During the search the younger soldier distributed my gear in the dust and I scrabbled to collect it all and return it to my panniers. Did they think I was stupid enough to smuggle Afghan hash or opium in a pannier? (I would have stashed it in the frame – much safer). I watched closely when he came to an envelope of money in my computer case, but didn’t open it. Finally the younger soldier took my passport and disappeared with it, leaving me with the captain who started at me through his sunglasses in silence. After a minute or two he began idly kicking the back wheel of my bike, over and over, whistling as he did so.
Eventually I was told I could go and the younger soldier returned with my passport and some freshly baked bread. This was becoming a recurring theme of my journey: being detained, threatened, interrogated, searched, fed great food and released with a smile.
The landscape remained arid and bare save a few lolloping camels and whistling goat herds on the far bank – it was the Afghanistan of my imagination: mountainous, wild and dry. Small hardy narrow leaved shrubs reluctant to take root higher up the mountains scattered the lower valley. The blue sky and gush of water were constants, the river now mucky and thrashing. Snow appeared on the spines of the Hindu Kush, which spoke of their epic reach, as it was 33 degrees here, at almost 4000 metres above sea level.
The road climbed from the river to scar the mountainsides, gracefully swerving through smaller valleys, and the river’s voice fell to a whisper. The road fell at last to Langar – the first village I’d come to in five days. It was a comforting rug of green sitting in the now wide and flat valley base. Trees followed streams making verdant veins of the land, and I descended through a blizzard of dancing poplar fluff.
I stayed in a homestay in the most garish room I’d ever seen, and the sign of an entirely new culture. These were Pamiri people, who speak a language similar to Farsi, and the same as the Afghans on other side of the river. The women wore colourful gowns, the men topped Argentina football team tracksuits with traditional hats.
The road in the Wakan was of the type that threatens all hope of future paternity. In a break from the bumps of the corregated surface, I only hit one traffic jam. A donkey carrying a huge cooking pot and a load of firewood trotted into me and pushed me into the side of a bridge whilst his embarrassed owner, a small boy, jabbed at him with a stick.
I met Claude, a giant of the cycling world, literally and figuratively. A Swiss man who’d previously toured the world for seven years and published seven books about his adventures, translated into 3 languages. I’d drawn a map of my route through Zorkul and he was heading that way, but I realised it was something Tolkien might of created – marked places included: Ruins of fghisn, swarm of black flies, treacherous river crossing number 8. I decided not to give it to him, but described the route instead.
Violent gales wracked the Wakan, and I had to stop by 4 pm. On a nearby road near Khorog the high temperature and wind had led to a massive landslide which decimated 77 homes and left a mass of displaced people, more were evacuated. Nine died on another landslide when a bridge collapse on main road to Dushanbe.
In Hanis guesthouse in Iskashim, I met Nick again and we pedaled off together to Khorog, marveling at green segments of Afghanistan. It was ace.
|A grandfather and his grand daughter, who smiled constantly, until I readied my camera|
|The green of Afghanistan|
Next up: I’ve spent the last few days visiting the cross border health service, the camp for displaced people and the medical facilities in this part of Tajikistan. When I leave I’ll ride to Dushanbe, the capital, from where I’ll post a new kit review piece. And then I’ll cross into a steamy Uzbekistan, and stop by the Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
Thank yous – Romain for some of the photography included in this post, Dr Umed, Nizoroma, Dr Mahbut from The Aga Khan Foundation, Vero for the introductions.