Before setting off on our month-long expedition across the Pamirs we spent a few days in Dushanbe to restock supplies and plan our route, staying with a French cycling legend called Veronique. Her home became our refuge in which to recover from the Uzbek desert: in just a few days we were transformed from physical wrecks, to semi-functional guests, to being expedition ready, all the while meeting the Who’s Who of expats in Dushanbe! We owe both her and her eight year old son Gabriel a huge debt of gratitude, Gabriel for not letting us lose our sense of humour while we waded through hours of Tajik officialdom. By complete coincidence (December not being Dushanbe’s peak cycling season), a Japanese cyclist called Jimbo was also staying at Veronique’s. He had clocked 74,000km (and counting!) in five years’ solo cycling through Africa, Europe and India and aimed to continue for another eight years into the Americas – a true legend!
The city itself, dubiously called The Big Dushe by expats, is set against spectacular mountains and is apparently becoming a hiking destination. However, knowing what lay before us we chose not to partake on this occasion. It is the small capital of the poorest and smallest country in Central Asia: by the way traffic wardens stopped and fined every other car down the main street, the Tajik police force was the most blatantly corrupt we’d seen so far. The Chinese had a huge presence in the city, mostly evidenced in road construction. Every new rubbish bin, bus stop and bollard had Chinese writing on it alongside the Tajik. The capital was also home to a large number of international aid organisations: big white jeeps with darkened glass, protruding satellite phone aerials and shiny emblazoned logos whizzed alongside local traffic, which in contrast was patched together higgledy-piggledy to remain roadworthy. It is very improbable that Tajikistan could function as a country without the massive amounts of foreign aid that keeps it afloat, and their presence was very evident in Dushanbe. We spent our time there enjoying a series of 12 hour sleeps and eating food which wasn’t warmed-up plov or lagman (a huge personal highlight). Once the police agreed to give us the onward travel permits we needed, we were ready to take on the Pamirs – or as ready as we were ever going to get.
We had been told confidently not to expect snow before our first rest stop in Khorog, the capital of the Pamir region, in ten days’ time. (For background about our planned route to China, see our Welcome blog). So it was with rising apprehension that we rode out of Dushanbe on 27 November as the heavens opened, rain turning to snow, to heavy snow, to a complete whiteout. This was an opportunity for us to learn the important difference between waterproof and water-resistant (our gloves are in the second category), and an opportunity for passing cars and donkey carts to voice loudly just how crazy they thought we were as they overtook us on our first section of steep uphill. Our reward at the top was a newly-built Chinese tunnel through which we glided nervously downhill for four kilometres. Momentarily out of the snow, instead we now faced the real danger of being knocked sideways by overtaking lorries, their angry horns reminding us that bicycles were at the bottom of the tunnel food chain. Amazingly the first part of our route across the Pamirs is still the main trucking route into China, and although the lorries thinned out later on, our first few days out of Dushanbe were very much a game of how many oncoming lorries you could dodge, minus the European luxuries of headlights, tarmac or road rules. So it wasn’t a very happy start! Luckily at this early point we were still in the heart of Tajik civilisation, so had a cheap hotel to regroup in and a heater to dry our soaked gloves on.
Our next target was to join up with the Panj river, which forms the Tajik border with Afghanistan, and then follow the river valley upstream all the way into Khorog. To do this we had to divert south 150km off the main route, as the northern route was already closed due to snow. Slightly unfortunately, this meant we had another Tajik mountain in the way. I was beginning to see how we could clock up the totally improbable ascent figure of 11,000m before Khorog, and also why cyclists called the Pamirs ‘the pinnacle’. We had barely begun and were already taking on our second big mountain climb! Over the next ten days we climbed an average of more than 1,000m per day on roads of degrading quality. The Approach really should be renamed The Endless Climb because that’s what it felt like at times. On this particular mountain we spiralled slowly upwards past two tank bases, one Tajik and one Russian (presumably for backup), legs spinning wildly in our bikes’ lowest gears but still only managing 6kph. We were then gifted with heavy fog around the snow line.
This was actually great news, as it meant that we had absolutely no idea where the summit was. If I’d had known just how much higher we needed to climb beyond the snow line I would have chucked the towel in at the tank bases! Instead visibility was reduced to hand-in-front-of-face distance so we danced in very slow motion around the oncoming trucks, navigating by the sound of their engines: their low invisible rumble was pretty eerie in our second whiteout. Our speed further reduced as the incline became more brutal and I began to wonder if we shouldn’t dismount and push. After what felt like years we reached a military checkpoint and the road – now dirt track – flattened out. We’d made it! Initially serious military protocol was quickly replaced by broad grins, high-fives and plenty of photos to celebrate our successful ascent. These guys were legends! My particular favourite was a bloke who emerged in tracksuit bottoms and sandals with a khaki military coat on top and rifle slung over the shoulder. Definitely rocking the casual soldier look, perhaps worrying so close to Afghanistan and on one of the biggest drug highways in the world!! We naturally gave them our namecard, and they gave us bread and sweets to eat for our descent. I stopped short at asking to play with their guns. That was probably one tiptoe too far over the do’s and don’t’s at military checkpoints.
After summiting we stopped in the first village we’d seen all day to have lunch, and as if by magic when we emerged the fog had disappeared, replaced by an amazing panorama of snowcapped mountains on either side of the road. This was more like it! I still held onto the German idea that the downhill on the other side would be smooth and paved, down which we could zoom in a couple of hours. In hindsight I really ought to abandon these kinds of ideas, since their likelihood these days is approaching zero and when realisation hits it does nothing for morale. Instead we followed a pebbly muddy road at a ridiculous angle with our brakes on full, but stayed cheerful because we could now actually see the trucks coming at us – and they were having a very bad time of it, which was grimly satisfying. We stopped a few times to talk to the drivers, invariably from Xinjiang, which was where we were heading. Our first Chinese truckers!!! This was far more exciting for us than it sounds at home. For nearly ten thousand kilometres we had been following traffic with number plates from all kinds of places, and these were the first we’d seen from our eventual destination: China. It also made an unbelievable difference finally to be able to communicate properly, rather than using rusty Russian and sign language. The Chinese shared the common Tajik view that we were nuts and would properly perish in our attempt to reach their fatherland, something we hear so often now that the words have lost a lot of their punch. As we dipped into the valley with a setting sun behind us the view only got more impressive, and tiny Afghan villages grew bigger on the other side of the river. We had reached the valley.
For the next week we followed a road which clung very improbably to the side of a cliff, rising above the Panj river in the valley and falling again to meet it below snowy mountains. To our left was Tajikistan, in the middle was the swirling turquoise of the Panj, and to our right – sometimes only a stone’s throw away – was Afghanistan. There was no border fence, very few patrols, and about one circling military helicopter per day. The Afghan road which ran parallel was even worse than ours, a goat’s trail which fell away into the river in several places, and along which many motorbikes got stuck in the mud. During the day we passed shepherds with their big flocks of sheep or mountain goats, wood-collectors who would gently be adding twigs to string to the back of their donkeys, and horsemen who seemed happy to gallop cheerfully around on the hills without much obvious purpose. Once in a while an eagle would circle majestically overhead, framed beautifully against the snowy peaks. As we passed through little villages on the Tajik side, we would get the ubiquitous offer of cay and a chat, and the kids would run after our bikes shouting and waving as we set off again.
Passing very close to Afghan villages on the other side of the river – which were mostly mud huts – we would hear loud whistles, exchange waves, and often had laughing Afghan kids sprinting along the riverbank trying to keep up with our bikes. No tea offers though. We had been told by patrols that the Afghan border was landmined (very unlikely) so crossing it for a cuppa seemed like one hazard too much, even for us tea-loving Englishmen.
Once or twice we were stopped by groups of Tajik soldiers who asked to search our cameras, which of course had hundreds of pictures of the Panj and Afghanistan. This did not fly very well with them, and we were reminded sternly that this was a border area and that no photos were allowed. I attempted to reason that pretty much any picture we took would include the border, unless I aimed the camera directly at the Tajik cliff to my left, and demonstrated. This wouldn’t be a great picture, I said, and he eventually nodded in agreement. The soldiers then usually hung around awkwardly, presumably expecting a bribe, and when this clearly wasn’t coming they waved us off and wished us well. Lobby became very quick at pocketing the GoPro when we saw patrols from far off, to avoid these lengthy theatrics.
Generally the villages were frequent enough that we were able to spend the night in a cayhana’s private room, and avoid having to camp in the freezing temperatures overnight. The cayhanas varied hugely in quality: from being provided with electricity, heater and duvets to essentially trucker dumps whose standard was near rock-bottom. Once we were forced to stay in a depressing hole which called itself a hotel in a valley where some Chinese were repairing a bridge. The old bridge across which we pushed our bikes had big gaps in it, so we could see straight down into the river below. Building a new one before the old one collapsed seemed like a race against time, hence the sensible idea to employ the Chinese. The only building for miles was a rat-infested quad around a disused swimming pool, whose rooms were left untouched after each unlikely occupant: stale bread, teapots and cigarette butts littered the stained mattresses. No electricity, lights, windows, heaters, locks. I think the management (well, the one bearded bloke forced to stay there over winter) was quite taken aback when we chose the room without bed frames, stacked the mattresses against the cracked wall and set up camp on the floor! Otherwise, when we timed our approach to a village around sunset, we were invited by Tajik families to eat and sleep at their homes, which always turned out to be extremely memorable evenings. By now most families only keep one central room heated, in which everyone eats, drinks and sleeps. They would always apologise very sweetly for the coldness of the annex room we were usually given to sleep in. The lady of the household would be determined to make up for the relative coldness of the room by burying us in mountains of thick duvets and quilts, so we ended up far too hot at night!
Nearly every day of that week we got up before the sun rose at around 6am, since days were getting very short in winter. The cold wasn’t yet a massive issue (thanks to the Endless Climbs and a relatively low altitude), so we made the most of morning daylight when we could. The riding was by no means as intense in length as it had been in the Uzbek desert, but because our speeds were kept as low as our expectations for a good meal at the end of the day (read ‘very low’, now even our standard lagman was a rarity), progress was slow. We each took a tumble along the rocky path which usually had a layer of ice on it overnight, ending up in a 1-1 draw as we entered Khorog. But our speeds were so tame that these were more embarrassing than painful! Similar to our experience in Uzbekistan, no one seemed to have the slightest clue about distances between villages. People literally plucked numbers out of the air, many of them off by at least 30km. Understandable if you are on a German autobahn but odd, you might think, for people who herded sheep and collected wood by foot in the mountains all day. Anyway it was only a matter of time before the combination of early sunsets and distance-plucking had us riding in the dark. Not fun on roads which in places were on par in quality with the Demolition Derby in Kazakhstan.
On this particular occasion, we had been assured that a cayhana was around the corner when it turned out to be 15km away, and more crucially, shut down for winter. We found ourselves shattered after two hours of bumpy night riding through eerie woods and with nowhere now to spend the night. It was quickly getting below freezing again. I got off my bike and walked up to the nearest house with my torch to plead for shelter, which was a little way back from the road. There was a light on upstairs but it was otherwise entirely blacked out. Tired after a long day I stumbled to what looked like the front door, only to find it padlocked from the outside. Odd. I called out and heard no reply, though thought I could pick out the sound of a girl screaming from the inside of the house. It was very faint and I was absolutely exhausted, so I dismissed the sound as my brain playing tricks on me. Instead I walked round the back, now completely invisible from the road, and found a second door. Also padlocked from the outside. Then I heard the scream again, much louder and coming from the front of the house – it sounded urgent. I ran round and shone my torch up at the lit window. What we both saw was enough to send us pedalling off on our bicycles as quickly as our tired legs could manage. A dark shape of a girl now stood deathly silent at the window, her face a shadow silhouetted in the upstairs light. It was like a scene from a horror film. Lobby quickly shone his torch straight at her, and she retreated back into the room. Then the screaming started again. With shivers crawling down our spines we saddled up and bolted into the darkness without looking back, adrenalin pumping through us as if the girl was giving chase. Less than a kilometre further on I ran up to a second house and was greeted by a family having dinner. They looked at me curiously as I tried to describe our Ring Girl experience down the road, still looking stricken and gasping for air after our sprint. Fortunately the father invited us in, despite what must have looked to them like a very strange scene. We ate with the family and then slept in a private room – the father even suggested we sleep with the light on in case we were afraid of the dark. Our image of brave British explorers shattered to pieces!
Our last day into Khorog, a rapid nine days after leaving The Big Dushe, was marked with drama and marred by huge disappointment for me. The day began with beating sunshine and clear blue skies, a cold calm morning which became one of our best. We had a big push to do on our last day, 90km to cycle to give us a much-needed extra rest day in the Pamir capital. Fortunately the road suddenly dramatically improved to something approaching below-average tarmac, so we managed to knock off all but 30km by late lunch, a huge achievement for a track we would usually crawl along. Clearly things were going well, too well. My bike had started making an odd clicking sound just before lunch, so I decided to investigate what might be wrong, with our extra time in hand. Unloading the bags and turning the bike upside down, a seemingly innocuous click turned into a cyclist’s worst nightmare. The rim on my back wheel had cracked and twisted out of shape. The click was the sound of the rim knocking against my brake pads at each revolution.
Rim breakages are one of the most critical technical problems a touring bike can develop. They compromise the whole integrity of the wheel, which would normally be taking the combined weight of bags and rider – which for me is about 150kg! You can’t twist them back into shape or superglue them. If they crack they need to be replaced. Only two places were likely to sell bike rims within about a 2000km radius: Dushanbe and Kashgar. With a rising sense of helplessness it began to dawn on me that I would have to hitch my way back to the Tajik capital, along the dirt tracks we had cycled during the last ten days. Breaking my rim was the most serious bicycle issue we had been dealt all expedition, and it had happened right at the foot of our most challenging section.
So after such an amazing week, our ride into Khorog, which signalled the end of our first Pamiri leg, was a particularly subdued moment for the expedition. We dragged ourselves in after dark having spent a long time over lunch jerry-rigging my bike to make it cyclable. This had involved unclipping my back brakes to allow my wheel to turn (making downhill even more exciting) and unloading everything we could off the back of my bike. Even with these adjustments the rent in my back wheel got audibly worse and I wondered at times if I wouldn’t need to hitch the last 10km into Khorog. The hero of the hour without a doubt was Lobby, who without a moment’s hesitation stacked up the back of his bike to a crazy angle with my kit, and carried my rucksack on his back all the way into Khorog. He carried so many bags up the final hills that it looked like he was ready to resettle permanently in the Pamirs!!
So a new challenge awaits us at the end of our first Pamiri leg. I will leave Lobby to rest up and take my rim back to Dushanbe at sunrise tomorrow on whatever transport is available. This delay will only make the mountains colder, if we are ever going to reach them. Wish us luck!