We picked up a few last bits n bobs at the bazaar in Khorog and with the help of a few locals we made our way over the bridge to the start of the Wakhan valley. As soon as we got out of Khorog and onto the valley road, it looked breath-taking. We both weren’t feeling great so we took it easy the first few days. Time was on our side too so we weren’t in a big hurry. We met a Spanish cycle tourist Climent on the first day who was travelling in the opposite direction. He had clip in Shimano sandals, but felt it was probably starting to get a bit cold for them. His set up was low-cost (home-made panniers) but it worked for him. Amazing how different people are able to pull of the same thing at a fraction of the cost as others. He told us about a hot spring about 20km up the valley. He also the next day and a half or so would be asphalt which we were grateful to learn. We had heard that we would have to push the bikes for 2km at some point during the valley…It was at this point I think that I learned that Nino called his bike Kurd in honour of the overwhelming hospitality he had received in Kurdistan. First thought: Kurd Russell. Second thought: …
The beautiful Hindukush Mountains of Afghanistan came into view. To tell the truth we weren’t able to say with certainty if we saw the peaks in the 7000s because they were tucked away behind others which were in the 5s and high 6s. But they were all enjoyably big and snow covered. The hot spring we never found, and the asphalt was, at times at least, asphalt only in the loosest sense of the word; Grade-F bitumen stuck to our wheels in parts creating significant drag.
The people of the Wakhan Valley seemed all very friendly people and welcoming. On one occasion when we stopped to try to buy some bread we were invited in for lunch and were fed copious amounts of rice and freshly picked potatoes, and then given an extra few kilos of potatoes to take with us. With two Primus stoves on the go we were able to put together some super tasty meals during our time in the Wakhan. Makes all the difference to eat well at the end of a long day. You make all the more effort when you are cooking for two too. I think I caught Nino at the perfect time in that his mum had just visited him in Uzbekistan and so he was fully stocked with Swiss chocolate powder, quality stock, soup, spices, and a few other treats.
A bridge over the river provided the only legal way of entering Afghanistan. We heard about a Kiwi couple who picked up Afghani visas in Khorog and went to do a 9 day tour around the Wakhan corridor before re-entering Tajikistan. Trouble-free and beautiful by all accounts.
We met a Swiss couple travelling by motorbike and I bumped back into a British guy doing the Mongolian rally. Funny to think you can be miles away from home on the border of Afghanistan and bump into your countrymen. Jerry the rally driver told us about an incident he had had a few nights back. Him and the two Americans he was with had pitched up for the night and were just about to turn in when they had someone shout over to them and they suddenly realised they were surrounded by Tajiki solidiers with nightvision and guns zeroed-in on them. They put their hands up, were told to turn the headlights off (‘cos it was messing with the nightvision) and were then advised to move back to the last village to find a homestay to sleep. Because of the proximity to the Afghan border this is where, supposedly, a lot of the opium enters Tajikistan. There was a group of four cyclists who started the day before us. We told Jerry to tell them we were only 5km behind them to mix them up a little bit.
The Swiss couple meanwhile had a story to tell about two guys in a black inflatable boat they had seen cross the river at one of the calmer points. Definitely a drugs boat. It’s a shame we didn’t encounter them. Perhaps we could have struck a deal: 1kg of the finest Swiss chocolate for 1kg of the finest Afghan opium. $6000 is the going rate for a kilo of opium out here apparently. ‘Yeah mate. Trust us this is really good chocolate. The best.’
Das Geheimnis der Kartoffelwerfer
Going by what we had heard from cyclists who had done the Wakhan 5 years ago, it seemed to us that this valley had developed significantly to cater for tourists passing through. In most if not every village you would find homestays with people offering lunch dinner bed and breakfast for about $12. On one occasion it was getting late in the day. We decided to take a small detour to visit an 11th century anticlimactic solar observatory. Village rush hour then held up our exit. For the next 10-15km we tried, unsuccessfully, to find a place to camp. In that twilight hour we must have been offered half a dozen homestays. The wind was up and it looked as though the weather could deteriorate. It felt all a bit like that Christian story with the floods and the family being made rescue offers but rejecting them saying ‘No, it’s OK. Jesus will save us’. And then they died. It was the final 5 minutes of being able to cycle with no headtorch. One more offer of a homestay came to us but we decided to press on around the corner and then if nothing appeared then we would take the subsequent offer (assuming there would be one). The corner led to a hill taking us out of the village. We descended cautiously about 500m and Nino clocked a potential pitch on a patch of grass down the bank. I scoped it out and it was a goer. We pitched our tents. Car headlights could be seen from miles off slowly working their way down the windy roads of the valley. As they approached us we switched off our headtorches to avoid revealing our position. We were happy to have finally found a place to camp and the dinner preparation was going swimmingly when without warning something large landed next to us. Thud! Nino: ‘What was that?’ Me with hat on and hood up: ‘What was what? I didn’t really hear anything’. THUD! THUD! Me: ‘Shit I definitely heard that!’. Nino: ‘Look up there on the road. Someone is throwing stones at us’. We could see a weak headlight up the rocky bank on the roadside about 30metres away. We immediately killed our lights and kept still. Two more rounds of rocks came our way. His/Her light then went out too. For the next 5minutes we didn’t move and barely made a sound. A car which we had seen in the distance was now nearly on us and we hoped the headlights would reveal the identity of the mystery stone thrower. Alas, he/she/it had disappeared. Nino: ‘Scheiss darauf. They know we are here, we know they are there. Let’s carry on cooking’. And so we did. Delicious freshly picked new potatoes in a tomato sauce and onion sauce was on the menu. It was all coming together nicely when suddenly voices and footsteps came from behind us. I stood up and shone my headtorch over to see what the dizzle was. Two locals with wooden sticks were marching over to us. They must have been a tiny bit dazzled by the headtorch. ‘Salam’ I said as they approached and again with the offer of a handshake as they arrived on the other side of the fence from us. This salutation would not be reciprocated. Suddenly a third dude comes running down the bank with a four foot stick in hand. The guy opposite me asks ‘Po Russki?’ ‘Er, nah, no Russki’ ‘Ah. Tourist?’ ‘Da. Tourist’ He yells over to the other guy that we are tourists and gets on his mobile to inform some other villager. ‘Ah. OK OK, no problem. Good night tourist.’ Nino then caught that other guy had said he thrown potatoes at us, not rocks. Panic over all round. We weren’t Afghan drug smugglers/crop thieves, they weren’t gonna beat us. We could now relax and eat dinner: Potato, sauce, and extra potato.
It seemed that the people of the valley were all mucking-in doing their part to bring in the last of the summer harvest before the colder weather/snow sets in. Everyone was out doing something. Loads of donkeys and horses, but very few tractors or machines were put to use in the fields. Lots of friendly waves and hellos greeted us as we cycled through each village and piece of farmland.
For the most part in the Wakhan we were blessed with a strong tailwind. This really helped the first few days when we were still feeling groggy. By day four my grogginess had miraculously cleared up. Just in the nick of time for the road was about to climb. Hard. We started peddling up a steep hill out of Langar when one kiddie ran out and started giving us an extra push up the hill. What a little hero. Then another joined him. 1 each. And then still higher up the hill another joined. And then another, and another! Before we knew we had 6 kids (3each) helping us push our bikes up the hill. It was too steep to pedal up the stony sandy road even with the kids. This must be those two kilometres we you gotta push the bike we thought to ourselves. Amazingly the kids carried on pushing for over half a K, and then the inevitable: one kid stuck his foot in front of Nino’s wheel…’Money money’. We never saw that one coming. This was clearly a tried and tested technique for supplementing their pocket money. To be honest they had put in a lot of effort and so a few som wouldn’t have been totally unfair, but we didn’t want to set a bad precedent for other impoverished cyclists coming through, and so we tried to offload some rancid bonbons we picked up a few villages back. Cheers yea lads! At first they rejected them and asked for money again, but we said ‘sorry, no money’, and carried on pushing. After a quick group consultation at this roadside agora, they then backtracked and said ‘OK the bonbons!!’ Yippee! – half a kilo less of out-of-date sweets to lug around!
Finally the road resumed a cyclable condition. We wound our way out of the valley. This would be our last night in/near the Wakhan. We found a reasonable place to camp on the side of the road. Things were noticeably colder at this higher altitude. Someone on the other side of the valley in the far distance on the Afghan side seemed to be trying to communicate with us with a light. We duly said hello back and then thought wiser, cautious not to request via Morse code that they dispatch the drugs boat.. ‘..Yeah..Extra guns!’
I would rate the Wakhan wow, but I wouldn’t rate it wow-wee. I much prefer gorge like scenery with everything bunched up – massive mountain on the left, massive drop into a valley below on the right etc. The Wakhan was a very splayed out and tranquil valley. I’d love to see what it looks like in January/February. A real pleasure spending a week taking in the mountain scenery and not worrying about cars..