The road out of the Wakhan continued to climb. Once again we bumped into the Swiss couple Leo and Franciska who had hired their bike in Bishkek, and we also bumped back into the German couple with whom we had shared the Landrover from Dushanbe. One way or another you get to know all the westerners who are in the vicinity at that time and get small updates about each of them from other people travelling in the opposite direction.
We met a Korean cyclist heading the opposite direction (and on to Africa). How far to the pass we asked him? I understood 8km, El Nino understood 18km, but in the end (as our map suggested) it turned out to be 80. Our plans for spending a day at a scenic lake were scuppered. It would take longer than we had planned to get out of this valley and up and over the pass. The weather was looking more and more ugly all day. Giant nimbus clouds were gathering size and density over the mountain tops. A British/Canadian couple who had had their 4×4 shipped out from Canada to South Korea ($3500) and were driving back to London informed us of a camping spot just up the road. It was getting super chilly now that we were well out of the Wakhan. We found a better place than the one they had suggested and pitched up. Chilli con carne was the proposed dish. We got to work with the food prep. Then, to my disbelief, it started to snow. They were small flakes but a heavy smattering. I sat on a rock and doubled over to keep the snow out of my face all the while madly chopping an onion. I have to be honest I hadn’t anticipated chopping onions in the snow on this trip. Can’t really recommend it. Thankfully the snow last no longer than 15minutes, by which point the con carne was coming on a goodun.
That night was particularly cold and I slept particularly badly. Nino with his expedition mattress and super goose down sleeping bag slept like a baby. A long sandy road led to a military checkpoint. We had to push our bikes along much of it. With the Schwalbe 2.25” Extremes it might have been possible but with our 2” wheels we were getting nowhere. We had definitely pushed our bikes more than the 2km we were told that’s for sure. We had heard from the couple in the 4×4 that they gave the checkpoint guards a bag of apples and a litre of petrol so we were expecting some extra requests. Two fairly haggard looking young soldiers came out to greet us, and of course they asked for some grub. Sadly we weren’t in a position to help out. We were only carrying enough just for the two of us. Just around the corner we put together a super porridge that would see us up and over the pass.
The road leading to the pass went on and on. A mysterious trail of onions lay in front of us. Perhaps the Swiss guys in front of us were attempting to lighten their load like hot air balloonists trying to avoid crashing. The road dragged on a bit and was less than good quality, but the porridge provided the fuel to finally push up and over the pass. One vehicle passed us on its way down – the only vehicle we saw all day. After 3 days of climbing out of the Wakhan it did feel like a tiny bit of an anti-climax once we finally got over the highest point. Probably ‘cos it wasn’t much of a peak. Some sort of flashing sign announcing we had reached the summit would have been nice. We dropped back down maybe 100metres and found somewhere to camp. That night, like every other night in and around the Wakhan valley, we were treated to the most spectacular nightsky. The Milkyway was out in full glory and I could see every constellation I recognise. Finally a good opportunity to put my StarWalk app to the test. That night I stuffed all my extra clothing and Nino’s Iranian rug underneath my mattress to try to gain some extra millimetres off the ground to stay a bit warmer. It worked.
The following day we knew we would return to the M41 Pamir Highway. At first we saw and heard those Chinese super trucks that thunder up and down, and then we finally saw real actual tarmac. After 7+days in the Wakhan we had forgotten what it was like to ride on asphalt. What a dream. Half a mile down the road I saw someone on the side cooking. Climent! Our old Spanish pal from day 1 in the Wakhan! What was he doing there? We caught up over chai, bread, and biscuits.
Potato soup and bread in a roadside café gave us the strength to cycle out of Alichur. A proper storm looked like it was brewing behind us. We (all three of us now) all decided to head 40km to Chatyr-Tash (a giant rock) in order to find shelter. The strong tailwind helped immensely. The evening sunshine brought out some beautiful colours in the mountains.
15km of up and down and then a 45km downhill would take us the next day all the way to Murgab. The red rocks of the mountains gave the Pamirs a Martian feel at times. We stopped once by a riverside to have lunch where we caught up with the Swiss couple once again. We arranged to stay at the same guesthouse in Murgab. Climent, who managed to secure a 45day visa for Tajikistan, carried on to tackle one of the lesser travelled paths in the Pamirs. Hero-of-the month award for his resourcefulness and attitude we reckoned.
Murgab was the second strangest place I’ve been to all trip, pipped to the post only by my old friend Ashgabat. A sign outside our guesthouse announced its features: 1/ Electricity… 4/ Telepophone [sic]…. The lights got progressively more romantic as the evening went on, to the point where they were barely on. The “shower” was welcome though – a scoop hot water out of a bucket and pour over yourself jobby. The next morning we picked up some things in the bazaar – possibly the most bizarre bazaar I have ever seen. Large shipping containers formed the housing for most stalls. A badly set tyre revealed a more serious problem on my bike – a broken spoke. I knew the wheel from Dushanbe wouldn’t last. The bike stalls in the bazaar were closed and I doubt they would have had spare spokes anyway. Nino produced a Kevlar temporary one-size-fits-all spoke replacement. Incredible – I didn’t know such a thing existed. Many hours then undertaking a crash course in truing a wheel where the spoke nipples are rounded-off, and in the late afternoon we were ready to go.
The next day and a half were spent winding up for what will surely be the highest pass of the entire trip. At 4655metres high, we knew she would be a biggun. As it turned out it was a lot more doable than I anticipated. When you are cycling at high altitude you find a nice rhythm. It’s only when you stop and do something, like opening a bag for instance, that you notice the thinner air. And so little by little we made our way to the summit, mostly cycling but with a little bit of pushing when the asphalt disappeared again. A few minutes sticking on extra layers at the summit and taking celebratory photos, and it was time to do one – proper freezing up there. That night we took shelter from the wind in some kind of derelict house.
Next morning we met four cyclists going tother way: A Belgian and Chinese couple, and an Irish guy and a kiwi guy. The first two hoped to get to Dubai before it got too cold, meanwhile the other two were hoping to find shelter from the winter in a southern European country. We traded what little scraps of info we knew about the Rugby World Cup. A giant fence, presumably erected by the Chinese ran alongside the road for approximately 100km. What its purpose was we were not sure. It must be a deterrent to stop people illegally entering China. There were regular holes in it and in places it had almost collapsed entirely. Whatever its purpose was it was a total eyesore.
The Kara-Kul lake was a beautiful deeper than deep blue. A big but rip-off lunch set us up nicely for what would be, for me at least, the hardest climb of this tour. The 4200m pass out of Kara-Kul got super steep. At times it was asphalt at others not. The high altitude didn’t help things but the killer blow was the ungodly freezing cold headwind raging in our faces. It was as if all the tailwinds we had enjoyed the previous 7days+ since Khorog had ganged up together and Aeolus himself was doing his utmost make to make our lives hell. My hands got so cold they reduced in function to less than 50%. It was getting dark. After the pass it didn’t really drop down as quickly as it went up. Indeed it pretty much plateaued for the next couple of K. We had been up around the 4000metre mark for quite some time now and were a touch acclimatised so we weren’t too fussed about sleeping at altitude. We took shelter from the wind in an abandoned building once again. Took an age to get warm that night. In fact for the first time I made myself a hot water bottle using my Ortlieb watersack. Twas all a bit of a reminder that all this mountain stuff is not to be taken lightly.
The next day we knew we would make it over the border. The road wasn’t great. As with much of the roads we had ridden, every 20cm there were small peaks and troughs which made for a bumpy ride. At the Tajik border we would finally find out why this was – caterpillar tracks of a large bulldozer proved to be the source of this annoyance. The immigration officer called us back after we rode past his caravan after we waited for two minutes and nobody came out. He then offered us some of the famous Marco Polo sheep which was simmering on a pot on the side. $25,000 hunters pay to kill one of these marvelous creatures apparently. Tasted pretty damn good. Then came the customs officials. Pair of total jokers. They went through all our bags, wallets, and pockets hoping to find something they could have off us. Nino’s official had a much more exciting time going through his stuff, but he soon got bored. Some nonsense talk about the worth of various currencies with numbers drawn in the sand, and they then gave us a souvenir Tajik coin of the lowest denomination in exchange for which they wanted, among other things, my camera. An offer of theirs of a cup of chai went some way to diffusing the bullshit. After 20minutes we could leave for the Kyrgyz side. Just as we were doing so a Jeep pulled up. The driver of this taxi got out with a 1litre bottle of beer tucked under his jacket. You should have seen the look on one of the customs official’s face when he saw it. Like a little boy at Christmas opening the super-duper-super toy he’d ask for.
That reminds me. I wanted to write something a couple of blog entries back about the bribe culture I have witnessed in Tajikistan. Taxi drivers are constantly pulled over to show their papers to police officers. From where I fell down just after the Shariston pass to when I reached Dushanbe, my taxi driver was pulled over no less than 6 times (and he himself got a blow-out because of a pothole too!). Each time he had to hand over a couple of somonis – around 20p or something. It’s a two way system. Taxi licenses are too expensive and so people operate them illegally (often I witnessed drivers remove the taxi sign from the top of the car once I was riding in it). The police officers know this, and so let them get away with it so long as they cough up a few beans. Quite entertaining though watching some officers stop every car. I wonder what percentage increase on their income they make every day/night. One funny story we heard from some Australians setting up an Australia > Tajikistan rally was that they got a ride with a driver who dressed real sharp, kept his documents in a business filer, and paid extra to have a private number plate like that of some VIP/diplomat. Fearful that they had hailed down someone well-connected, most officers on clocking all of this just said to him ‘Very well Sir, move along’…