I had a real sense of anticipation as the 4 of us headed away from the city. We could happily have spent much longer with Vero and Gab but the whole reason we were in Tajikistan at all was calling us. I had first heard about the Pamir Highway from some cyclists I met when I was in Istanbul. At that point, with no cycle-touring experience under my belt it sounded incredible but, a bit of a tall order for me. However, as I edged nearer to the region I was getting more and more curious about this fabled route for cyclists: a former Soviet military road built across a desert-like plateau, a large area of which is over 4000m in altitude and surrounded by towering mountain ranges. So with this in mind we rode out of Dushanbe and started heading towards the mountains.
My bike repair session immediately backfired as I had to stop in the afternoon for a puncture (only my 2nd since Istanbul!) and to re-align some gears. By the evening, we were well clear of the city and following a vast riverbed. After a stop for dinner in a chaihanna, with a view to die for, we set up camp in some fruit fields. Unfortunately my excitement at eating real food again (and being back on the road) also backfired as just after we set up camp I projectile vomited the aforementioned chaihanas’ delicious (but clearly a bit rich for me) food. Good start!!
I had joked about how lucky I had been with punctures since leaving Istanbul – and foolishly I also joked that they were just saving themselves all up for the Pamirs. Little did I know that they were just saving themselves all up for 36hrs!! The road climbed gradually along the river, which was a thick grey colour from all the silt. We sweated in the hot sun, rested as the road was blocked by huge herds of sheep and goats, and lazed in shady spots for food and tea breaks. Then I had another puncture, rear wheel this time and the hole was on the inside of the inner tube next to the rim. Patched and re-assembled Carra made 100m before the hissing sounded again. This continued throughout the course of the day. Sometimes it would give way just as we put the wheel back on. We couldn’t find the offender on the rim, this was not the place or weather for repeat phantom punctures and I got increasingly frustrated and worried that I would have to head back to Dushanbe to solve the problem. Finally, after an exhausting 6 hours of puncture patching and process of elimination, we swapped the front and back tyres, lined the rims with gaffer tape and Carra admitted defeat and kept rolling. We managed less than 20km and it was a pretty demoralizing day. Lucky then that in the evening we found a perfect camping spot by a fresh water tributary to the river, where we could have a ‘nature’s best’ wash and crack open our supply of vodka for a bakal (the nick-name we gave to a ‘little cup of vodka’, loosely based on the local lingo!).
The next day the puncture saga seemed over, and minuscule in comparison to the task of the road worker we passed. He was clearing large rocks from the road with a shovel! Just outside another village further on, we watched from our tents in the morning as 2 boys came past us collecting the dry cow pats scattered around. They would use them for fuel for fires to cook and stay warm with in the winter. As we gained altitude there was less and less vegetation. A few more days of stunning river landscapes and idyllic wild camping and we fought our way up to the first pass, a little over 3500m.
On the descent from the pass it was Xav’s turn to suffer mechanical strife. With a crack in his rear rim the brakes were constantly causing his wheel to skid on the same section of the tyre and eventually it ripped a hole through it. Luckily he was carrying a spare tyre and somehow he managed the next 6 weeks with hardly any rear braking and his skinny emergency tyre- legend!
The road down from the pass joined the Panc river and gave us our first sight of Afghanistan. This felt like a momentous point for me, a true feeling of being a long way from home. On the other side of the river that we were now following was a country about which all my previous knowledge and understanding was based on news reports about its war. A war that my brother had twice served as a British soldier in, a war that I somehow felt some guilt and culpability for as a UK citizen. And now I was looking over a river at this country, waving to people in the villages on the opposite banks, and once – riding away from a guy who decided to fire stones at us with impressive accuracy from his slingshot. On our side the road was poor, but passable and with an occasional flow of trucks and share taxi jeeps using it. On the Afghan side it was no more than a track carved into the steep sides of the river bank and used only by donkeys, motorbikes and a couple of aid vehicles. It definitely felt like the outside looking in.
A little further on we were introduced to the Pamir proper by a guy we nicknamed Papa-Pamiri. He insisted we stay with him for the night and was one of the best vodka-fueled welcomes to a place you could ever hope for!
About 10 days after leaving Dushanbe we arrived in Khorug, the main town in the region. We stayed for a few days to try and make some repairs, have a little rest, acclimatize a little to the altitude and to stock up on supplies for the next part of the road. Here I discovered that Carra was really starting to feel the strain and had broken a spoke on the rear wheel. I had no tool to remove the cassette and replace the spoke, and after a frustrating visit to the local bazaar (where a drunk guy got every tool he could find from his mechanic friend before attempting to take my wheel apart with a hammer and pliers), it became clear I could not fix it. So I would just have to ride my luck and hope that Carra was up for the challenge.
As we headed out of town we encountered one of the many military checkpoints, at this one we were hassled by an officer who wanted to fine us for not wearing our helmets. When it became clear we were happy to sit around all day refusing to pay his bribe, one of his colleagues irritably waved us on. The scenery was still breathtaking. We had now left the Afghan border along the Panc river and were following the electric blue waters of the Gunt river. As we climbed it got colder at night but the sun still shone warmly in the day. The sky was impressively blue and the scenery wasn’t the only breath taking thing – the altitude was starting to make an impact. Luckily, just before the first pass over 4000m, there is the natural spring village of Jelondy. For a few $ we were able to stay in the sanatorium and relax in the natural thermal spring, making for a very lazy day acclimatizing to the altitude a little.
However, the next day we made the ascent to the pass onto the plateau, Koj-Tezekit pass reaches 4272m. The last 5km were a bit of an ordeal. The road broke down to winding gravel, the oxygen felt like it disappeared and we all struggled, physically and emotionally. It was just plain hard work, I was incredibly grateful to be suffering this with other people. There was no sense of achievement at the top either as it is unmarked and just opens out onto an endless expanse and a road disappearing over the horizon. I knew it was an incredible place, but my body and especially my thumping headache, were wishing it was somewhere else, probably somewhere lower! But we maintained our (very recently established) tradition of a vodka coffee at each pass soon after. And we all had a smile on our face as Julien’s friend (who had been staying in the same hostel as us in Khorug) chose exactly that point to come past us in a jeep he had hitched a lift in, and shared a swig with us!
Our first night on the plateau could have been in a hotel – but you’ll understand why it wasn’t from the photo. It was cold in the tents, the water in the river froze, but the silence, the stars and the huge nothingness was incredible. The feeling in the morning when the sun finally rose above the hill and hit you with a burst of warmth was very special. My headache was still there, my feet were still frozen and I was breathing heavily just packing my bags up, but this time I didn’t want to be anywhere else. All the people who I had met who had told me the Pamirs were special and I would only understand when I went there – I was beginning to understand them.