by Marcus Leach
As Max and Emily pass the 10,000km mark on their trip they begin to realise that it takes a certain type of person to be a long haul cyclist. We join the latest instalment of their journey on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan.
Tajikistan: Moving Up in The World
"It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe." (Muhammad Ali)
Dushanbe is the western start/end point for the popular ‘Pamir Highway’ cycle route. As such, there is always a handful of long haul cyclists at The Adventurers Inn during the summer, and they are a strange breed. Stepping through the perimeter wall of the compound, we emerged into a dusty yard full of weather beaten tents, and equally weather beaten men in their 20s-40s. As expected, all were European, deeply tanned, and beardy, and all had the same peculiar countenance, falling somewhere between supremely healthy and worryingly malnourished.
Unlike other breeds of traveller, the long distance cyclist (especially on rest days) is mostly concerned with practical matters. Maurice the German soil scientist was carefully cleaning his chain in a pair of latex gloves. Two spaniards sat trying to work out the quickest way to extend their visas. And Franz, the talkative Swiss language student, bemoaned the price and scarcity of his favourite brand of iced tea to anyone who would listen. Everyone swapped tips on the road ahead, and stories of the road behind.
There is nothing to do in Dushanbe: No sights, no day trips, no entertainment. This suited us perfectly. After six weeks of monk like abstinence since leaving Azerbaijan, we had only very simple – but admittedly very specific – requirements, all of which involved food. We were up early, firstly because a cat had mysteriously appeared in our room, and secondly because it was our anniversary and we had a very special meal planned. Like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan is infamous for its unfriendly stomach bugs, and the communal bathroom had seen plenty of action during the night. We took it in turns to tiptoe across the floor and clean ourselves under the dribble of cold water coming out of the shower.
Looking at least superficially respectable, we left our fellow cyclists eating their frugal homemade breakfasts and caught a bus to the nearby Hyatt Regency, – the most expensive and luxurious hotel in Tajikistan – where we eagerly coughed up £15 each for the buffet breakfast. For the other guests – NGO staff, consultants, and the odd rich tourist – it was just a hotel breakfast, but for us it was the most extraordinary meal we’d had in two months. It also worked out to be extremely good value. Over two hours we demolished plate after plate of pancakes and syrup, bacon, eggs benedict, muesli and yoghurt, cheeses, fresh fruit, croissants, pastries, cakes, and smoked salmon.
Afterwards, overwhelmed with the kind of lethargy usually reserved for huge Sunday lunches, we collapsed into the lounge like a couple of bloated pythons, where we sat for the entire rest of the day, digesting our prey. I was amused as the afternoon wore on, to see a posse of French and Italian NATO troops come in, presumably having snuck over from the nearby Afghan border. Dressed in full combat gear they looked very official but I suspected they were there for the same reason as us.
When we finally left Dushanbe after a slightly excessive five days of rest, we were aiming for Khorog, the only seizable town between us and China, roughly half way (550km) across the Pamirs. Because of the amount of climbing ahead, we decided not to carry much of our own food. We brought instant noodles for emergencies, Snickers bars for energy boosts, and a jar of delicious Italian pesto as a talisman to ward of the evils of any especially horrible chaihanas. As we cycled out of the Adventurers Inn and through the backstreets of Dushanbe, the air was still cool, and shop owners were still hosing down and sweeping the dust from the pavements in front of their shops. The city was soon replaced with fields of fruit trees and bleached straw coloured grass.
With summer threatening to disappear at any moment we were keen to make good time but on the second day out of Dushanbe we awoke in our tent to cold and cloudy skies, which soon turned into rain. Sheltering under a derelict petrol station forecourt we gazed at the sky, probing signs that the cloud would break. Rain is a nuisance at the best of times but it was particularly distressing on this occasion. With only one set of warm clothes and a potentially chilly night of upland camping ahead of us we dared not get completely soaked. Opposite the petrol station a huge bearded man in a muslim cloth cap was standing under his porch, bellowing instructions at one of the women in his household, who was running to and from an outhouse, becoming increasingly bedraggled.
Spotting us, he immediately beckoned us over, shouting something about chai and we gratefully scuttled across the road and into his house. We sat on rugs around a low table with his two children, and the bedraggled woman materialised with chai and two bowls of hot white milky stuff which we have since learned to avoid at all costs. ‘Pamir Tea’ as it is deceptively called is a soup of warm condensed milk, salted, and enriched with a generous knob of unpleasantly tangy homemade butter. I slurped mine down so as not to cause offence but Emily was physically unable and had to make excuses about being sick (which in fairness she was). After sitting through a very long hour of Koranic stories on DVD, the rain eventually abated and we pushed on, thanking our kind host and giving his son a banana.
With the bad weather, the unsurfaced roads, and Emily feeling unwell it was a slow and frustrating day. Our attempts to stay dry failed spectacularly when I got two punctures in a row, and was caught by consecutive thunder storms whilst fixing them. At the next chaihana, worn out by the day’s events, we decided to call it a day. Pitching the tent (or packing it away in the rain the next morning) was more than we could face so we slept outdoors in the chaihana’s garden, on a wooden platform under a tarpaulin shelter. I always love sleeping outside and it was a peaceful night, but at some point I was struck with severe tummy troubles (the ‘Pamir Tea’ perhaps?). I shan’t dwell on the finer details but what happened that night was the worst possible thing that can ever happen when you have diarrhoea. With only freezing river water to cleanse myself in the morning, I toyed with the idea hitching back to Dushanbe and starting again, but this wasn’t a sensible option, so on we went, and up we went.
Despite the inauspicious start, cycling in such a magnificent and intense place as the Pamirs is all consuming, and made it impossible to dwell on the relatively trivial problems we had faced so far. As we climbed out of the wide lower valleys into tighter gorges, the landscape became more brutal and elemental with every pedal stroke. In every direction rose towering, fractured walls of stone, occasionally breaking to reveal even bigger mountains behind, dusted with fresh white snow from the recent storms. The road, if you can call it that, was carved crudely into the steep black and grey rock of the gorge. Twisting and turning unpredictably along jagged contour lines, it fell away sharply on one side toward a wide fast flowing river of murky grey water. For long stretches there was no obvious human or animal life, and no other vehicles. Whenever we stopped cycling on these stretches, an eerie brooding silence seemed to ooze out from the surroundings. I thought of Sam and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, sneaking quietly into Mordor, via the Morgul Pass, over the precarious Stairs of Cirith Ungol.
Six days after leaving Dushanbe we reached the narrow Panj Valley, which we could follow all the way to Khorog. The weather had become dry and sunny, and we revelled in the stark mountain scenery as it got better and better. An added attraction in the Panj Valley is that the Panj River, which runs down the centre of the valley, marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. So, as we cycled along the Tajik side of he river, we got to watch Afghans going about their business on the other side. Essentially, they were doing the same things as the Tajiks – tending their orchards, going to school, driving their sheep up and down the road – but because they were Afghans they were for some childish reason, an endless source of fascination.
Before the formation of the Soviet Union the whole valley was part of the same community, but for almost 100 years they have been divided down the middle. Some similarities have persisted: Both sides are still Ismaili Muslims, a more liberal branch of Shia Islam; both sides are still very poor, due to their remoteness, their harsh winters, and because they have virtually no potential for agriculture or industry. But differences were also apparent: the Afghan side – at least to European eyes – looked prettier, and more traditional. There were no power lines and the road was too narrow to accommodate cars so the only vehicles were motorbikes. Villages were picturesque, consisting of a cluster of shoebox shaped mud houses, surrounded by orchards, poplar trees, and small emerald-green terraced fields. The Tajik side was more developed and hence less romantic but the people made up for it with their gentle unimposing friendliness.
When we finally rolled into Khorog at a cool-but-not-cold 2100m altitude, we were exhausted but exhilarated. By all accounts, the most physically demanding section is now behind us, but the cold high altitude section (4000m+) is still ahead. With a severe lack of cold weather gear and winter beginning to close in, we are desperately hoping that we can get through the mountains and down into China without mishap. Fingers crossed.
Days on the road: 172 (118 cycling, 54 rest days)
Average Distance per [cycling] day: 87km
Average Distance per day over total days: 60km
Highest point: 3250m on pass between Dushanbe and Khorog