The next section of our Pamir attempt took us from the banks of the Panj River up to the Pamir plateau at 3600m, a base altitude we remained at until we left Tajikistan two weeks later. I had successfully replaced my whole back wheel on a 30hr round trip to Dushanbe over a crazy weekend. Huge thanks are again owed to Véronique, without whom the expedition would certainly have been delayed for weeks! There were backseat vomiters on both legs of the journey because of the terrible road, but I somehow managed to avoid getting splattered – a great festive success. After I got back to Khorog we then dipped into Afghanistan for a short week, since there were apparently no Taliban in the area. We were quite relieved to cross the border back into Tajikistan on 15th, having not been shot, abducted or eaten by wolves. After all, when we entered the Afghan border guards had suggested we would not be leaving their country in one piece!
Before beginning our next big series of climbs we had a few days of blissful flat riding following the northern edge of the Wakhan Valley, the thin strip of Afghanistan which separates Pakistan (where all the Afghans insisted the terrorists came from) and Tajikistan. We did this on the Tajik side this time as on the Afghan side we were closing in on areas which had seen recent fighting, and there were no further border crossings out of the country. Seemed the sensible option. On our first day we had the brief taunt of tarmac before the road became deep gravel and dirt track for the length of the valley we followed east – if we hadn’t experienced the Afghan hills and sand I would have said this was the worst road of the Pamirs. Fortunately for us we knew things were far worse on the other side of the valley, so we put on our British stiff upper lips, dismounted and walked a good half of the distance, dragging our bikes through the gravel. Thorn bushes lined the track which made riding even more unfriendly, as we had to be on the lookout constantly for little black thorns amongst the grey gravel. Inevitably one of us caught a puncture, this time Lobby, so we sacrificed a few fingers together in the cold to replace the inner tube and be back on the road again.
During our week out of Tajikistan it had got noticeably colder. Nights routinely dipped to -15C and it was no longer possible to begin our day’s riding before the sun and still maintain feeling in our fingers and toes. In fact the shifters on our bikes would often freeze overnight, which made changing gears difficult the next morning until they defrosted with the sun – so we made sure that our bikes were in low gears before putting them away for the night! During the day our cold weather kit stood up to the test, though if we braked for too long the persistent contact of hands on cold metal brake levers would make our first few fingers go numb. On the rarer downhill stretches we had to stop every few hundred metres and box the air for a while to get the feeling back into our fingers. If we mistimed it and rode for too long without stopping then the boxing drill would be accompanied by little yelps of pain from Lobby, cursed with poor circulation, as his fingers thawed inside his gloves.
Luckily though, having passed through Khorog we were now very much in Pamir territory, home to some of the most hospitable people in Tajikistan: we were invited in for tea and bread on countless occasions and were never left out in the cold after dark. It was too cold to be put in annex rooms by now, so we were usually bunked down in the main room of wooden Pamiri houses, huddled around a central wood burner with the whole family (and many small children it is worth adding). The wood burners made overnight temperatures bearable, though we still slept with our water bottles and batteries inside our sleeping bags to stop them from freezing. We paid our way each time, which after initial polite refusals always seemed to go down well. It was very humbling to be allowed right into the heart of the lives of these Pamiri families for our brief stays. Evenings would involve talking about the glory days of the Soviet empire with the father over continuous refills of cay (or nodding vigorously in agreement anyway), while the mother knitted away in the corner and the grandmother rocked the youngest kid in its crib, the whole scene in front of an old black and white TV which would play strange Tajik pop music videos. Certainly memorable.
By this point our bowel movements had become a whole conversation topic by themselves, as we were fascinated with how badly our tummies seemed to be coping with Central Asia. I had had a pretty unfortunate bout the previous week, so now it was Lobby’s turn to be incapacitated. That was how it worked: despite eating all the same food, our immune systems had reached the odd agreement that we couldn’t be ill at the same time. This meant that while I was vomiting into the Afghan hills, Lobby was able to look after my bike; and when Lobby got struck down this week, I was able to play nurse and stop the Pamiris from feeding him dubious vodka-laced home remedies. This system ensured that the expedition never went totally off the rails as there was always one of us who could make decent clear-headed decisions. But for the other, the week was spent focussing on staying vertical, periodically sprinting for shelter when necessary, and generally having a very grim time. It was during these weeks that Hong Kong felt every kilometre of the 15,000 we had to cycle!
Unfortunately Lobby’s condition deteriorated just as we left the Panj for our big climb up to the plateau. We had 1.5 vertical kilometres to climb in two days, as well as our first pass to cross at 4250m – once we climbed up we would not be below 3600m until we reached China. But after an hour of pushing the bikes up icy dirt track it was clear that Lobby wasn’t going to make it that day. Doubled over on the bike against a daunting backdrop of white snowy mountains, he was the picture of all things miserable. So we decided to call off our attempt for the day, chancing upon the only hut within several hours’ ride where two men lived during the winter to look after the roads. We then started the proven medicinal combo course of rehydration sachets and instant noodles, Lobby avoiding the vodka thrusted at him by the younger man in military uniform. By our second day in the hut he was looking much better, though sitting on a saddle was clearly still not at the top of his Christmas wishlist. After talking it over we decided I should go on alone, and he would grab a jeep to catch up with me at the end of the day: that way at least one of the team would have cycled the whole Pamirs and our winter crossing attempt was kept alive. First aid kit and satellite phone were exchanged and I was off on the early morning of the 19th.
The day didn’t start particularly well, as the younger man from the hut tried to physically restrain me from leaving on my own. He said a lone rider at night would almost certainly be taken down by wolves, and stared out at me like I was a man walking the line as I cycled off into the dark. Disregarding these persistent warnings may sound like pretty stupid behaviour from back home, but the truth is that we had been warned of our imminent deaths about twice daily, either at the hands of drug mafia, wolves or the intense cold. After about a dozen Pamiris predict your demise by the end of the day and still consistently making it through to the next, you begin to get slightly more casual with these death threats. Wolves had become this mythical threat which had never materialised, and I had begun to wonder if they existed at all – unfortunately today I would discover they were no myth. In fact, today was going to be one of the hardest days of the expedition.
For the morning session until the sun rose, I rode with the second item of yesterday’s dinner on the back of my bike (half a piece of bread) as I figured if the wolf demons should appear then I could lob them the frozen bread which would be less hassle for them than killing a man. The demons didn’t appear so I had the stale bread for breakfast, conclusion being that if I was a wolf I would definitely have a go at the human as the bread wasn’t worth the time it took to defrost in the mouth. I began following a new river, the Pamir, which trickled gently through big blocks of ice covered in snow until it froze over completely when I started climbing. This was the last decent-sized running water source we saw until we descended from the plateau in Kyrgyzstan weeks later: from now on it was all about melting the snow for drinking water. I climbed and climbed through deep sand with the sun rising, and it quickly became clear that I had bitten off more than I could proverbially chew. The water froze solid in my two outside water bottles despite the sun – luckily I had four extra small bottles hovering at just above 0C in the warmth of my panniers I could decant, until they froze too. The track was terrible, big jangling ruts or more deep sand (I thought we were in the mountains?!) which sent the bike skidding into the ground as I put pressure on the pedals. The wilderness was pretty absolute so I began talking to myself (well, swearing at the top of my voice mostly) for company by midday. I had been on my bike for 6 hours and had covered a measly 30km. 60 to go! Things were not looking great.
During the day I was never off my bike for longer than a few minutes, worried that I would still be high on the mountain when darkness closed in again. My longest stop of the day was the twenty minute lunch break I gave myself right after my first military checkpoint. The wind had picked up and three blokes emerged from a little shack to greet me, my first real conversation of the day, though these guys were not the sort of people you would want to spend more than one conversation with. They were annoyed to have been summoned out of the warmth of their shack, though having faced my morning treat of sand mixed with headwind I found it difficult to empathise with their situation today. Instead I pressed on until I was out of sight, then played a game with myself which involved cramming as many biscuits and wafers into my mouth as possible within my twenty minute time limit. Quite a painful game it turned out, as the wafers consistently cut the inside of my mouth in my rush to get them down and move on!
I now faced the hardest part of my day, climbing the last 10km to the pass called Khargush. The snow had magically disappeared and the track had improved so I foolishly tried to cycle the first part, a big mistake as I was gasping for breath after only a few wheel turns. My first encounter with altitude, now over 4000m – it felt a bit like what cycling through treacle just before bedtime must feel like. Half a dozen pedal turns felt like a 100m sprint and I was left bent over the bike with my heart pounding. Feeling dizzy and starting to see stars I figured it was best to walk the remainder. Those 10km took 3 hours to ascend, which sounds pathetic but my chest was heaving the whole way. No one officially marks the tops of passes in Tajikistan, but I figured the horns and skull of an ibex on top of a pile of rocks was good enough signage for my purposes. Sure enough the track flattened and descended and the burning in my lungs started to subside. 9hrs on the bike.
As you can probably tell, this day (Day 23 of the Pamirs as I will always remember it) turned into a long one. It was fitting therefore that just after I had conquered my first Tajik pass the weather decided to close in. I had one hour of light left, was still at 4200m, and within about five minutes could only see my hand in front of my face. Things really weren’t looking great! Before the horizontal snow arrived I grabbed a snickers, my waterproof and my overshoes (in that order) so I was ready when it hit. I could still just about make out the road ahead so I tried to cycle along it to get off the mountain faster, another mistake as the road was still deep sand – except that now I couldn’t see the ruts in the sand because of the layer of snow on top. Soon enough I skidded off the path and landed hard onto the snow – the landing would have been softer had I not broken the fall with my face. As it was, I spat out blood onto the snow from my lunchtime wafer challenge and contemplated where I could otherwise be from my horizontal position on the ground. It was actually quite a beautiful moment, I remember thinking dully as I lay there, watching the red sinking into the white before it all disappeared under the next layer of snowflakes. There was nobody around. I wasn’t hurt, but feeling the fall was enough to snap me out of the daydreaming state I had gotten into, and gave me an opportunity to refocus.
So I trudged along the path keeping my head low, presumably still flanked by mountains which were now invisible to me. By nightfall the snow had abated and the road improved enough that I could ride again, though much of the path was still iced-over. The waves of bumps on the track as I descended rattled my bike, panniers and brain, driving me to loud swearing again in the dark. Again, this was actually extremely therapeutic. I was getting off the mountain finally, and soon I would be joining up with tarmac as the road connected with the Pamir Highway again coming from the east: after the sand and gravel of the Wakhan Valley this prospect was enticing enough to keep me awake! Finally – finally – the gentle whir of my wheels told me I had reached decent road, so after a brief stop to fist-pump the air wildly in celebration (lost on the world as I was still all alone) I got the bike going along the final much faster 25km towards the day’s destination and bed. The town of Alichur awaited. 12hrs on the bike.
Having glorious tarmac stretch out in the dark in front of me I finally allowed myself to switch off after the bumpy ride down from the mountain – this turned out to be the third mistake of my day. As I cycled I began seeing a number of moving shadows to the right of the road, close to the frozen ground. Were they following me, or was I just getting tired? The day had been so long, and bed was just around the corner… it was an uphill section so my speed was presumably easy to match though, I thought. Suddenly two animals bolted out in front of my bike light across the road. When they realised I wasn’t a car they stopped – quite unafraid – and faced me. I stopped too. This was probably my mistake. My light shone on two of the creatures I had been warned about daily for the last few weeks, the mythical killers of the Pamirs. The two wolves didn’t look like what I had been expecting, more like very large foxes with long bushy tails than the Arctic kind you see on TV. Still, as my torch flitted over their faces they bared their teeth and if wolves can narrow their eyes, they did just that. Between them they effectively blocked off the two-lane road, which was a little problematic for me as bed, warmth and safety lay in the town some kilometres behind them. My knife was in my fleece pocket, which at this point was three layers deep, and I had mitts on. Gulp.
I wish I could say I was macho in my next few moments but I don’t think too many people would be convinced! Instead I waved my torch meekly into each wolf’s eyes in turn, which seemed to piss them off, so my next move was to make a hissing ‘pshhht’ the kind you’d give to a misbehaving cat. Neither of these did much to scare my attackers (I’m not sure a cat would be put off either), instead we remained stock-still staring at each other through the night. Now what, I thought?! In my tired state I somehow saw myself hooking my shoe over the bike pedal again, and I pushed off firmly towards them. This seemed to be the right thing to do at the time, though I hoped I looked more confident than I felt. Trying to look bigger than I was after three weeks of only bread and noodles, I steered my bike towards them whilst combining torch-flashing and cat noises in what was fast becoming a bizarre night-time scene. Just as I drew close and it dawned on me that my calves and feet were juicily exposed, the wolves turned tail and bounded off the road to my left.
Not daring to look back I whirred onward, heart racing, until I heard an animal cry a safe distance behind me. Wolves don’t bark, they howl. The sound of a howl in the dark being answered by seemingly dozens more wolves dotted around me was my cue to get pedalling again fast!!! In my split-second pause I had the time to grab the knife from my fleece, which I held over the handlebars for the remaining kilometres to Alichur – completing my longest cycling day in a way I wouldn’t wish the expedition to continue. Two more wolves crossed the road one by one before I was within the town limits, but buoyed by my knife I wasn’t stupid enough to stop again. Then a frozen bridge, houses around me, dog barks, a knock on a door, friendly Pamiri faces and I collapsed under many blankets in a heated kitchen. 14hrs on the bike.
Lobby, for his part, had managed to hail down a passing jeep, which turned out to be from the Wildlife Conservation Department. He rolled into town late the next evening, having been allowed to join an ibex spotting expedition in the local area with a bunch of Kyrgyz men, a surreal experience. He got the low-down about wildlife in the Pamirs, which included ibex, Marco Polo sheep, two types of wolf (I could now vouch for this) and even some snow leopards. Now feeling much better, he agreed we should push on to Murghab as soon as possible to try still to make the Chinese border by New Year. Alichur was a small cluster of single storey houses arranged in a neat grid along a frozen river. I had found a surrogate Tajik family with small kids while I recovered and waited, and spent the time entertaining the kids and even helping to decorate their tiny ‘New Year’s’ tree. The Pamiri people were once again amazingly welcoming – but Alichur was not somewhere to spend Christmas if we could help it. So early the next morning we pushed off under blue skies, in boots and ski trousers as the ground was carpeted with snow and temperatures had taken another dip.
We only had two days’ riding until Murghab which (thankfully!) were not nearly as eventful as the previous two. However it was a difficult reintegration to cycling for Lobby, since he had zoomed up to altitude by jeep and not had the benefit of Khargush pass to send his lungs into premature overdrive. Breathing was becoming increasingly difficult, a lot of the time. So we ascended up our second pass (4300m) slowly and carefully, stopping every five or ten minutes to banish the stars from our eyes and get our breathing back into shape. A gentle freewheel along good road followed, surrounded by imposing tall white mountains, until out of nowhere we descended into an open plain. Yak grazed around another frozen river and dots of houses in the distance told us that we had reached our next pit stop: Murghab.