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21st – 30th June – Khorog – Murgab – The Wakhan Expedition

September 18, 2011

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Leaving Khorog without enough proper rest, we didnt get out of the Pamir Lodge until after midday. The sun was scorching, the mountains were bare, but we knew the road would be relatively flat all the way to before the Khargush Pass, as well as awesomely remote and stunningly beautiful –this was The Wakhan Corridor – much read about as the frontier of The Great Game – the dividing line Between Britain and Russia, now between the safety and relative certainty of Tajiksitan and the Nomadic badlands of Afghanistan.

Upon leaving Khorog, the valley narrowed considerably, and the river slowed to an even pace. There were times when it even looked crossable, adding to our temptation to just pop over to Afghanistan and do a little dance. However in this narrow section, the prospect of merely throwing a stone to Afghanistan seemed more plausible, and the temptation overcame me at a small beach where the rock face over the river looked easily reachable. I got off the bike, ran down to the shore and proceeded to hurl rocks across the river, and all landed in the water in vain. It was desceptively far away, and try as I might I just couldnt reach the other side. During my efforts, a large splash came from the river. I looked up and saw three Afghani men, high above me, standing on a footpath that was dug out of the sheer rock face. I could barely see them, and thought they were waving. I duly waved back, but more rocks started to land in the water, bigger and louder. I soon realised what I was doing could be seen as rather offensive, and quickly made a retreat. Rocks continued to fall, hitting the cliff and sounding like gunfire. We quickly pedalled off – i suddenly fely acutely aware of the proximity of Afghanistan and was suddenly fearful of it. I won’t be throwing any more rocks in a hurry.

The road towards Ishkashim was much as it had been along the Panj river, and the novelty and excitement was beginning to fade. As was the integrity of the road surface. It quickly descended from semi decent asphalt to potholes to stone track to sand. This was the beginning of the saga.

At the end of the first day in the Wakhan, I went a bit too fast over a deep pothole and PING! Something went from behind me, followed by the painful sound of metal rubbing against a tyre. I stopped and inspected the damage, to find that the rackbolt that had been replaced by the bike shop owner on day one to make up for my ruining of the thread in the frame had worked loose and was gone. I tried in vain to search for it on the road, but to no avail. That extra long bolt was vital to securing the rack in the frame, and I had no worthy replacement. Try as I might with the bolts I did have, the thread in the frame was completley worn through – totally fucked. This did not bode well at all, not with the next bike shop being in China, some 1,500km away.

Julian came to the rescue however, and did a good job fixing a long bolt through the hole and fastnening it with a nut on the other side – this meant that i would lose the lower gear of the casette as the nut would block the chain, but seeing as we wouldnt be tearing up any downhills in the near future it was not such an issue. We hobbled on and camped in the dark, about 10 metres from the roadside, sacrificing the last light of day to find a good campspot so we could fix my injured bike.

The next day the saga erupted. Julian, out of caution from the day before, checked his rack bolts to ensure none had come loose. He tightened a front bolt and PING! It snapped in the frame. Disaster. There was no way to remove the broken piece without using a metal drill or attempting to weld it to another piece of metal and screw it out. He had to ride unloaded on the front for the next 200km, trying in vain to find someone with a metal drillbit and the knowhow to remove it. It came to a head when we arrived in Ishkashim, when an overly confident man with a drill ‘yes yes, its for metal’ went at it with a wooden drill bit and totally mauled the eyelet. Disaster on disaster. Julian now had a damaged front fork to contend with. All was not lost however. The wheels still turned, and julian fashioned a way to fix the rack to the frame so it could take some weight, at least until Kashgar where hopefully a chinese man with the knowhow can tend to it properly.

Other notable kit problems include my flywheel waring out to a smooth wheel,leaving the other half of my gears unusable, a snapped kickstand, a punctured thermarest, two broken front pannier straps, broken jacket and tent zips and numerous flat tyres. As Mathias later said, Tajikistan was ‘Viet Nam for Bikes’Our kit just couldnt stand the beating.

The beating was mainly down to the quality of the road. Most of the time it was just a track, and often descneded into being no more than sand and gravel. At some stages it dissappeared completely, turning into a river bed or being consumed by a landslide. It made for some adventurous, if rather tough, cycling.

Unfortuntately, we were in the Wakhan in the season of sandstorms, so the view down the valley was often Hazy. When the haze cleared however, you could make out the backs of The Hindu Khush – mountains that resided in Pakistan, a mere 40km away on the other side of the Afghan Corridor. Despite reports of the valley being remote and villages being scarce, we saw quite the contrary, with many villages in green pastures, catering quite extensively for tourists in the form of guest hosues and small shops. The supplies in the shops got thinner and thinner as we moved down the valley – inthe end they only stocked dry pasta, old chocolate and shoes, but it was enough to keep us going.

A fortunate stop in the middle of The Wakhan, not far from Ishkashim, was Bibi Fatima hot springs. This was a perfect opportunity to rest and recuperate half way through the valley, and the perfect time to prepare for the relentless Khargush pass that was nearly upon us. Unfrotunately for our tired limbs and our wounded bicycles, the hot springs were way up high on the valley wall, and the road to them was sharp and unrideable. We attempted to climb it, and after 45 minutes of pushing we slumped in an exhausted stupor on the roadside, rather conveniently next to a guest house. The cheery owners daughter came to see us, and we agreed with her that we can leave all our gear in her garage free of charge, and we can take the bikes and pack for one night and cycle to the springs. Before long we were off, enjoying the weightless feeling of super light travel. The climb was a breeze – and thoughts went through our minds of how easy this life would be without all that excess baggage. Half way up Julian was stopped by a Swiss girl – another tourist on her way to the springs. She was staying in another guest house further up the road, and invited us in for tea. We duly obliged, and before we knew it the family of the house was inviting us to stay for the night, with dinner all laid out before us. It was a hard offer to refuse. The family were warm and friendly, and served up loads of food, with the somewhat strange (and quite comforting, after the intensity of homestays in Iran) custom of serving food to guests and then leaving them in peace to eat. Like waiters in a restaurant, they came in and served food, then leftand closed the door behind them, leaving us to chat. Not that socialising with the owners was a problem, it was more that the language barrier made it quite difficult and often quite tiriing to communicate, for both parties. We had a great night, and a good sleep, ready to hit the hot springs early the next morning and get back on the road.

The springs were a fair old walk away, and by the time we got there we were sweating in the morning heat – the wash was needed more than ever. There were two rooms, one for men and one for women, and every half an hour they were swapped. We went to the mens room as was allocated at that time, and were greeted by three compltely nude frail old Tajiks sitting in a pool of water, inviting us in to join them. We rather suspiciously got down to our birthday suits and got in the roasting hot water. It came gushing out of the exposed rock face, and pooled in a rather crudely made concrete room that had been fashioned to create the pool. The younger of the three men routinely stood up and walked around, the water level low enough for him to knowingly bare all at our eye level.

The other room was far more appealing, and when the time came for the room s to swap round we were eager to check it out. This one was less concrete and more of a crevice in the rock – nestled just above the raging river below. They had poured concrete into the crevice to create a floor, which pooled the water. The space was tall and narrow, and steaming hot water fell from everywhere. The rock was covered in green minerals and slime, and you could feel the muscles in your legs relaxing. There was a tiny cave in the rock that contained the hottest water, and the old men clambered in as dextrous as they were when they were 12. I tried and failed.

Feeling refreshed and clean, we tried to get on the road but the need for a little rest after a hot bath was too strong a force to resist. We managed to get back down to the rest of our gear in the lower guest house around 4 oclock, only to find that someone had been through our bags. Much to our shock and surprise, nothing had been taken, except for three pieces of Julian’s nicorette gum. We tried to explain to the girl what had happened but she had no english – though im sure she got what we said. We decided not to chase the matter but looked upon the father with a great deal of suspicion – his breath heavy with alcohol and his smile somewhat crude and untrustworthy. Why the gum? Why not take something of value? It didnt make sense, but no real harm, no real foul, and we got on.

We had some great campspots in the valley, and some not so great, often trying to hide from the strond wind that whistled down and blew up all the sand. As we reached Langar, the wind settled, and the real climb begun. We were short on supplies, and were certain there would be a decent shop in the village for us to stock up for the barren road up to the pass and onto the Plateau, but there was none. What shop we did find only had pasta, and there was no bread anywhere. We had little food, but just enough to get us through the next few days. We pushed on and started to climb out the valley.

And climb we did! The road switchbacked about 12 times, each time barely rideable. Kids would run after us and help us by piushing the bikes, but often shouted SOMONI in response. In the heat, in the tough condiditons, i was less than favourable, and often ended up shouting at them to go away.

We spent the first night nestled in a side valley, outside an abandoned house next to a fresh water stream. Day one of the climb was tough, but we had made a good stab, and could be at the pass within the next two days. The road was barren – nothing lived up here, and there were no people anywhere in sight. The road climbed high up the valley wall, then flattened off allowing the now trickling Panj to catch up with our altitude. At the point where the road met the water, two men lived in a small shack, and sold us some dry stale bread. It was enough to keep us going, but barely. It felt like we were on the edge of the earth – the high altitude, the loneliness, it was quite a place to be. It was hot though, and the road was so bad we could barely do more than 10km an hour. The climbing never ceased, and the sand meant we had to routinely get off and push, which was hard work at this altitude. Frequently short of breath, i felt weaker and weaker as we got closer to the pass. The morning of the pass itself, we passed the lonely police checkpoint and i really didn’t feel good at all. The road dissappeared up towards the sky, you could see the pass was immanent. I had to push the bike for 20km, feeling weak and light headed – undernourished, exhausted and feeling the effects of the lack of oxygen made this pass one the hardest physical things I’ve had to endure.

The cure for altitude sickness is to get down to a safe level, but going back the safe level wasn’t for about 100km – and there was no way i was going back. I pushed on, slowly slowly, and made the pass at 4,365m, still concious! The road quickly descended down the other side, past a serenely quiet lake at the source of The Panj. I was in too much of a hurry to get down the other side to stop and see Julian there waiting for me. He caught me up as I navigated my way down the corrugated sand track, and we cycled out of the valley over what looked like the surface of another planet towards the Pamir Highway.

What a relieft to see asphalt again! The Pamir highway appeared out of the abyss, a long grey line meandering over the plateau of the Pamirs, dotted with huge Chinese trucks slowly making their way to and from Khorog and Murgab, where we were headed. We camped that first night on the plain, off the road, and you could have blinked and thought you were on the moon.

The Pamir highway was nectar under my wheels – a smooth undulating surface that rolled neatly all the way to Murgab. It traversed the plain neatly in a straight line almost all the way to Alichur, the first and only habitation between Langar and Murgab 300km away. We stopped at the first (and only) sign for food and gorged on deep fried fish, yak butter, soup and far far too many biscuits. It was a great feast, but was shortlived, as the fish started to do things in my stomach that weren’t too happy. We had to lie down and rest for most of the day, partly down to the fish but also and more likely due to the exhaustion we had from getting out of the Wakhan.

Fortunately the wind was strong behind us all the way to Murgab, and we had one of the best two days in Tajikistan following the Pamir highway up overa small pass (even though it was 4,000m now we’re on the plateau theyre a doddle) and down hill all the way to Murgab.

We met some other people on this road – most notably Athena from New Zealand who had been travelling solo for over a year. We didnt envy her cycling in this ferocious headwind, but she was high spirited and didnt seem to mind. She warned us of the ‘Han Toad’ in China – namely the Han Chinese who dress badly, have no manners, and are destrying whats left of the culture of Western China. We made notes.

Another character we met on the road was Xavier, the nomadic walking frenchman with a donkey. I couldnt quite believe what I was seeing. He had arrived in Tajikistan, bought a doney from a farmer, and gone off hiking for several weeks. It seemed he had been ripped off however, as his donkey was not in as good a health as he had hoped for. It looked on the verge of death – weak limbs and extensive hair loss. It would routinely sit and not budge, causing Xavier to have to kick it into shape again to get moving. He had no tent, choosing rather to sleep outside in a Bivvy bag, and had to tie the donkey down hard every night to stop it from escaping, which it often did. He told us of one time where it had ran away for 10km, where he found it hiding among a pack of donkeys. I thought cycling was tough!

We left Xavier heading for Murgab as we were, but at 20km a day average he was sure not to be there for quite a while. We enjoyed the tailwind that pushed us all the way to Murgab, with a great downhill that was just rewards for the hard work we had put in the previous week. We arrived in Murgab shattered but triumphant, and found a great cheap guest house to rest up and watch countless movies from our new movie collection courtesy of Jens and Zouska.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Gaspard permalink
    December 23, 2011 11:04 am

    Two lessons learnt hear: don’t go throwing rocks fella and don’t buy a donkey in Tadjikistan!

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