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11th – 19th June 2011 – Dushanbe to Khorog – If Tajikistan made roads…

September 18, 2011

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The day had come, with a mixture of excitement and nerves we began the ascent into the Pamir mountain range via the north road from Dushanbe. The Pamir’s cover a vast area in the East of Tajikistan, once up on the plateau the altitude rarely drops below 3000m with peaks of up to 7000m sitting above. This was going to push the trip into realms we’d never ventured into, push our bodies to the limit with almost 10 mountain passes above 4000m and punish any sub-standard equipment with relentless off road riding.

Mathias, the French missile, with whom we’d cycled with since Hungary decided to push on ahead of us, with a shorter visa he had the added pressure of getting through this section quicker than we had to. It was a sad day to part ways after so many months of travelling together but we vowed to catch up in the coming months.

As the humdrum of Dushanbe’s clean soviet streets faded behind us the grass covered mountains began to make an appearance, most of which were monsters compared to what we’d seen in 9 months of travelling, but compared to what was on the horizon they were midgets.

After climbing at a reasonable gradient for most of the first two days, the scenery gradually growing and shifting, noticeably becoming less inhabited, we arrived in Obigarm a small but busy town. Rolling out of the town the road hugged the side of the valley as it weaved in and out, following the contours of the river below. It was one of those sublime moments, your body fills with endorphins as the bike picks up pace down the hill and you guide it gently between the bends surrounded by stunning landscapes. At the end of the downhill we were treated to a spectacular campsite on a cliff just above the confluence of the Elok river we’d been following and the mighty clay coloured Vakhsh, to round it off a quick thunder storm left two rainbows arcing over us, picture perfect.

We followed the Vakhsh the next day passing through wide valleys, the mountains covered in a thick green fuzz, the snow in previous months now subsiding to reveal a new lease of summer life. The place had a Jurassic park-esque feel to it and I half expected to see a T-Rex emerge over the top of a hill or a pterodactyl swoop down into river. At the end of the day, we registered at the first military checkpoint, the entrance to the GBAO- an autonomous region which requires a separate permit. The road rose through an abandoned village populated by pre-fabricated houses which appeared to have never been completed, the derelict concrete blocks slowly reclaimed by nature.

Ahead the valley tightened and the scale instantly more dramatic, we became tiny dots against the backdrop of jagged rock formations reaching into the sky. We continued passing through small villages full of friendly children who’d sprint across the fields to the roadside in time for our passing, in which they’d shout “Hello!” and wave frantically. Although the Pamirs are a quiet and remote part of the earth, these tracks have been well trodden by intrepid tourists, mostly on two-wheels, seeking raw nature. As a result the children are well-versed in simple English and readily want to engage if only to escape the bore of manual labour they do in the fields.

As we slowly made our way along the rocky track (asphalt was as rare as a good meal in Tajikistan), the sound of motorbikes became louder. Two spacemen like characters with white helmets sprouting cables and electronic gadgets decked out in thick Goretex clothing, pulled up and with a cheery “Hello” we instantly knew the were from Blighty. Ed and Dan had started in England two weeks ago, two bloody weeks! And had made it here, we chatted about the differences between cycling and motorcycling and it was just a shame we couldn’t go down the pub and enjoy an ale together. We we’re left in their wake, a dust trail subsided and tranquillity returned, sometimes you feel like a motor would be a nice addition to the bicycle, but only for 5 minutes.

In the afternoon we approached a group of workers at the side of the road, they told us it was down into the river if we wanted to get to Khorog. Initially a little untrusting of this information, thinking it would be the perfect prank to send the idiot tourists on bikes into the freezing water, we then saw a stream of traffic heading down the to the rivers edge and machines moving material further up the road. We followed trying to see the possible line through the river onto a sand island in the middle, 100m away. After a few minutes of looking aimlessly, a couple of kids relishing their new responsibility, ventured into the knee high water and showed us the route. We later found out a landslide had completely enveloped the road, forcing all vehicles into the river, on some pretty sketchy paths. That night we lucked out with a fantastic campsite on a huge wooden balcony over looking the raging Vakhsh, which in the moonlight looked like it was made up of diving serpents. In front of us sat a huge sheer rock face, the Khoruabot pass (or so we thought) sat looming over us, the challenge was set and tomorrow we’d be climbing over the first of many passes bringing us closer to the Pamirs.

In the morning we were helped by a group of young boys to pack up the tents and do the washing up and then got on our way. What we thought was the pass yesterday turned out not to be and we turned up a valley further down to begin the ascent. The first section wound up through a rocky valley after passing some small villages, which then brought you out to a relatively wide section, the road visibly wrapping around the top. Naively I thought that would be the end, but it was only the beginning, the road fed around the mountain revealing more road scaling the next set of higher mountains. It took the whole day to climb, passes are deceptive, you think the end is in sight but it rarely is, the road inevitably continues up higher around the corner.

We made it to the top of 3253m pass towards the end of the day, encouraged by some German tourists who gave us the ultimate cycle touring pick-me-up, a round of applause. We’d climbed 1500m in 30km and were tired and weary. The descent into the valley was rough and cold, but the landscapes were new and completely different from what we’d seen on the other side. The valley was tight and deep, the road clinging 200m from the river sitting at the bottom, the rock face towered above. As darkness descended, the road precariously thin and uneven, images of is careering off the edge forced a quick end to the day and we found a camp spot above the road amongst a host of fragrant wild flowers, the perfect antidote to sweaty feet.

Early morning brought great views of the valley ahead and we raced down towards the Panj river, which separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. The clear blue river we followed met the grungy looking brown mass, Afghanistan was right there 200m away, it all looked fairly normal, no bombed out villages or American troops scaling the hills. The huge explosions we heard were a little un nerving, luckily the German couple we met in Uzbekistan had forewarned us that the Afghans were using explosives to build new roads.

We followed the Panj river, ever fascinated by what was going on in Afghanistan, a full sized ant farm for giving us a small insight into this mystical country. People traversed thin mountain tracks with deft ability, defying gravity as it sharply climbed, it was easy to see how the American and British forces have had such trouble fighting the Taliban, their skills in negotiating the environment second to none. Small villages of single storey mud houses brought to life by colourful window sills, clustered around streams running down from the mountains.

Along the route we saw small white doves painted onto rocks, Tajik flags and messages we would later find out we’re pro peace slogans written in Cyrillic. These affable messages sat alongside bombed out tanks, landmine signs and gunning posts, a visual reminder of the battle between Soviet and British during the Great Game years.

Further on towards Khorog, our first resting point on the Highway, the Panj river which had raged slowly began to calm as the valley widened. The air was no longer full of aggressive water pounding rock, but had become still, we took this as the perfect opportunity to get an impromptu wash in the cool water. Afghanistan was just there possibly 300m away, the river was calm and we began to toy with the idea of paying a visit. The look on the Afghans faces as two guys in shorts emerge from the waters would have been priceless, but we decided to abstain however, as the thought of being shot by hidden border police wouldn’t have been so good.

Clean and fresh we ventured into the next village hoping to find some Baltika (Russian beers) and a good camp spot. Whilst browsing in a shop, which doesn’t take long in this remote region – each one stocks a random assortment of bric-a-brac, stale biscuits and a few dusty cans of fish, we ask the shop keeper if he knows anywhere we can put our tents for the night. He motions us around the corner and shows us a Mangar (Covered platform used for socialising) just outside his house and tells us we can stay there. Our first experience of staying with a Tajik family was fantastic. We we’re introduced to his two daughters, both speaking some English and sat outside chatting for most the evening. It was very relaxing as we didn’t feel like we were intruding or that we couldn’t be left by ourselves, we’d be left to enjoy beers whilst they went off and did their own thing. As the rain began to fall, safe under the shelter we happily slept outside, laughing to ourselves that if this was Iran we’d have been brought inside the instant the first rain drop fell to the floor.

Heavy rain delayed leaving Kamel’s house, which we got a guided tour of in the morning. A beautiful hand built structure with huge wooden beams and a traditional main room made up of a central square with three raised platforms attached, almost like little stages. Huge curled horns of the revered Marco Polo sheep adorned everything, including the TV stand and the obligatory image of Agar Khan, the religious leader and philanthropist of Tajikistan, who lives in Switzerland, sat proudly on one of the pillars.

Eventually we bit the bullet and headed off in full waterproofs looking forward to some R&R in Khorog, the largest city in the GBAO stocked with many of the mod cons the highway pulls you away from. After some help from some local bike riding children we find the Pamir Lodge and rows of bikes locked to the railings. We briefly spoke to the owners, a couple who’d come to Tajikistan just to ride the highway kitted out with fresh gear, shiny panniers, spare tyres and full lycra, I wish I’d got a picture.

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