Kashgar: A Bazaar Place – 6th Jan

Kashgar blog map

We made it to Kashgar! On 29 December we arrived at our Grail – what kept us motivated through the wind, snow and trials of our final days in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. A real city, with some Western comforts and the place of our rest stop for about the next week as we recovered from our Central Asian leg.

With a name like Kashgar you may be surprised to learn that, yes, we’ve arrived in China – our twentieth and final country! Kashgar is China’s westernmost city, the country’s gateway to Central Asia. The city sits at the convergence of the North and South Silk Routes that pass through the expansive Taklamakan desert. Kashgar has been an important Silk Road stop for thousands of years, a market town oasis, and today still retains much of the hustle and bustle of traders and sees endless caravans of trucks (the modern day camel) passing through. Although Urumqi is the present capital of Xinjiang, Kashgar was once the capital of several khanates, as well as of the Emirate of Kashgaria 1867-78 (a breakaway territory from the Qing dynasty) and the East Turkestan Republic 1933-34 (a breakaway Islamic Republic from the Republic of China). Xinjiang, with a majority population of Uighurs (Muslims), has a history of striving for independence and remains a headache for the current Chinese government which cannot afford to lose control over the volatile province due to the Mandate of Heaven – their ‘right to rule’. Kashgar now has a slightly greater percentage of Han Chinese than Uighurs due to government relocation programmes, moving Han Chinese to the borders of the empire in an attempt to further colonise and stabilise such an historically and strategically important city.

Arriving in the city late at night after several hours of night riding, the statistics and reality seemed not to match: there were no Han Chinese in sight. Now that we were in China we would finally have no real language problems, everything would be easier, or so we thought. We both have degrees in Chinese and can speak the language well. “Where is the old town?” It was well past midnight and we just wanted to find the hostel. No one seemed to understand the word ‘Old Town’. We couldn’t understand why they couldn’t understand?! No one seemed to speak Mandarin Chinese, we were almost better off speaking the few words of Turkish we still remembered. Everyone was nice enough about it but couldn’t help. Maybe there would still be a language barrier, we quickly realised! We eventually found someone who knew where we were going and led the way. En route she bemoaned the current situation in the city, in a low voice she spoke of how the government was evicting people without reason, selling off public parks to property developers and demolishing huge areas in order to build new and make money. An endless stream of complaints and concerns flowed from her so that I couldn’t get a word in edgeways. She looked around nervously from time to time, for reasons that became extremely obvious later on – the city crawled with SWAT, police and probably more that we weren’t aware of.

Standing guard outside the central mosque

Standing guard outside the central mosque

Kashgar, 1 Jan 15

Kashgar

Kashgar

Kashgar

Walking down any road in Kashgar it would be a surprise not to come across a police car, a SWAT vehicle or a mobile police office. Flashing red and blue lights were ubiquitous throughout the city. At every junction, on every street corner, outside the pedestrianised zone, outside the central mosque, next to the night market, next to the dancing grannies and grandpas. Large, jet black, imposing, almost laughably over the top SWAT vehicles sat, crosses between tanks and amphibious army vehicles, lights flashing, surrounded by heavily armed men, riot shields and batons standing by. On occasion we’d come across a terminator threesome – three SWAT stood shoulder to shoulder, back to back in a tight triangle, riot helmets, plastic arm and leg guards and full bulletproof body protection, guns held close, eyes constantly searching their 120° zone (as you might imagine, no photo opp revealed itself!). These guys were serious, and it was clear that no one was going to mess with them. Even if they were just for show, they put on a good one!

In the pedestrian zone, Kashgar, 1 Jan 15

In the pedestrian zone, Kashgar

Walking past these comic bookesque characters everyday became rather laughable for us, but for the locals that live with them imposing on their lives it must be an entirely different feeling. “They are for our safety,” several Han Chinese told us. Recently there have been several violent incidents in the city: knife and bomb attacks, police cars being set on fire as well as the assassination of the chief imam outside the city’s main mosque. The central government is very worried about radicalisation and terrorism in the area. Uighurs were behind the 2013 Tiananmen Square car attack as well as last year’s Kunming train station stabbings. As a result there is a city wide, and even provincial wide, campaign to fight the ‘three forces’ of separatism, radicalism and terrorism. Banners, posters and billboards cover the city calling for ethnic harmony and social stability – the message is clear: ‘Don’t blow yourself up!’

"Why is China strong? Because of the Communist Party."

“Why is China strong? Because of the Communist Party.”

"Strengthen ethnic solidarity. Promote social harmony."

“Strengthen ethnic solidarity. Promote social harmony.”

"Upholding law and order is everyone's responsibility. Maintaining stability is the people's happiness."

“Upholding law and order is everyone’s responsibility. Maintaining stability is the people’s happiness.”

Ethnic tensions rage on. The locals see the Han Chinese as occupiers in their land. The Han see the Uighurs as barbaric, uncultured and terrorists. Han eat in Han restaurants, Uighurs eat in Uighur restaurants – we hopped between the two asking what each thought of the other. In a Uighur restaurant we were invited downstairs by the boss for coffee. He explained, “Kashgar is not a place to speak your mind, you keep yourself to yourself and certainly don’t grow a beard…”. This a government rule specifically aimed at and enforced upon young Muslims – “as foreigners you should be okay,” he said, pointing at our facial appendages. There is no tenser a place than right in the city centre. Facing out over People’s Square, only ten minutes from the central mosque, arm raised and head held high stands one of the nation’s few remaining statues of Chairman Mao. Beneath his gaze the red flag of China flutters in the breeze, and filling the square below is a small army of SWAT. Passersby tend not to cross through the square. We therefore made our way directly across it, cutting between police and military police. We exchanged friendly greetings and smiles but they were not interested in small talk.

The Chairman

The Chairman

People's Square ... but no people.

People’s Square … but no people.

As we hopped from restaurant to restaurant we started where we’d left off in Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan – pigging out! Central Asia had offered very few culinary delights, meaning the myriad flavours of Chinese cuisine sent out taste buds into orbit: a far cry from sugar bread, our own Central Asian invention of piling sugar on bread when there was nothing else on offer – sometimes there wasn’t even bread. ‘Operation Get Fat For Christmas’ had been the plan as we scoffed kilos of baklava and cheese pies. Now, standing topless in front of the hostel mirror, rib cage protruding both front and back, cheekbones more than prominent and looking like The Wild Man from the Woods, I realised that we had failed. I weighed in more than 10kg lighter than in London, a weight I had not been since my early teens. I admit that I took a little jump back when I first saw the stranger staring back at me from inside the mirror. I looked at myself as if reunited with my image after years deserted at sea. As such, to see in 2015 we started eating as much as possible, and what better place than the Radisson Blu’s New Year buffet, complete with roast turkey, steak and sushi.

Seeing in the New Year

Seeing in the New Year

Our more usual kind of dinner

Our more usual kind of dinner

Chicken tonight? Kashgar, 2 Jan 15

Chicken tonight?

Interesting food, Kashgar night market, 2 Jan 15

Interesting food, Kashgar night market

The reason we decided to stay in Kashgar for a week, apart from sleeping and eating, was to see the world famous Kashgar Sunday market – one of the ‘1000 things to see before you die’. As the tourist highlight of the city, if not the province, it should have been easy to get there. We had been informed that the livestock market had moved in order to expand, so we jumped in a taxi. We had no mutually intelligible language with the driver, so instead we started miming, then making animal noises. He let us go through cow, sheep, goat, horse and chicken before letting out a little chuckle and giving a nod. Leaving the town we joined a country road and were soon accompanied by farmers on tractors, some with empty trailers, others with horses, bulls and sheep on the back. We felt part of the throng as we waved on each overtake. Unsurprisingly the market entrance had a handful of police and a SWAT van. Fruit and veg sellers lined the road. Straw and dung carpeted the entrance, each side had sheep carcasses hanging outside restaurants being stripped down in the halal way as they were made ready to be skewered for the BBQ or mashed for dumpling filling. The basins of blood suggested the freshness of the meat, the hygiene standards were our only concern.

Outside Kashgar market, 4 Jan 15

Outside Kashgar market

The livestock market, Kashgar, 4 Jan 15

The livestock market

A grisly fate, Kashgar, 4 Jan 15

A grisly fate

We pushed our way through the crowds, amongst the animals of each area. Sheep in pens, goats tied in lines, rampant bulls attempting to mount each other, sullen yak and bored camels. Donkeys eeyored and horses whinnied. Men on brightly decorated steeds charged up and down testing out the product on offer, turning sharply, before racing away, showing off. Little three-wheeler trucks ploughed through the masses bringing ever more animals. Wads of cash were exchanged over arguments and raised voices. We were offered a donkey at a reduced price but felt it might slow us down in the long run. We took selfies with the camels, tried not to be crushed by the burly bulls but refrained from attempting to pin the tail on a donkey. People had come from far and wide to buy and sell: some had come from other parts of China to source large orders of meat, others just needed a new donkey for the cart. After a few laps, and being consistently stepped on by sheep and goats (fortunately nothing bigger), as well as basking in the sights and sounds, as well as smells, of all the animals, we managed to stomach some lamb dumplings before heading back into the relative calm of the city.

Neat and tidy, Kashgar, 4 Jan 15

Neat and tidy

Chaos! Kashgar, 4 Jan 15

Chaos!

Looking out for a bargain, Kashgar market, 4 Jan 15

Looking out for a bargain

"That's a lovely ass", Kashgar, 4 Jan 15

“That’s a lovely ass”

After temporarily eating our fill, a day in the spa, a massage and a basic understanding of the cultural and political situations of the area we felt ready to take on the massive Taklamakan desert that occupies the majority of Xinjiang. It was still cold, but not Pamir cold. The landscape was going to remain fairly barren and we had some long days ahead, not to mention the Taklamakan crossing itself! But we were as ready as we were ever going to be.

Laurence

Our room in the hostel - fate?

Our room in the hostel – fate?

"What are you looking at?" Kashgar market, 4 Jan 15

“What are you looking at?”

Kashgar market, 4 Jan 15

Kashgar market

Getting a bit frisky, Kashgar, 4 Jan 15

Getting a bit frisky

Kashgar market, 4 Jan 15

Kashgar market

Kashgar market, 4 Jan 15

Kashgar market

Camel selfie!

Camel selfie!

Kashgar market, 4 Jan 15

Kashgar market

 

 

 

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Last Push – 30th Dec

It is already difficult to remember the details of our last section through the Pamirs. I think I’ve forgotten the tough times and what is left is a fantastical world of snowflakes, tinsel and Christmas merriment. Far from the truth! The scenery for our last week in the mountains was ridiculous, but unfortunately so were the conditions we faced, a long series of snowy climbs, wind and altitude. I’ve tried below to sum up our Pamir exit through Kyrgyzstan, and our entry into China on 29th December.

We left Murghab in very high spirits on December 23rd, having miraculously managed to find tinsel in the market the night before. The town is majority Kyrgyz despite still being in Tajikistan, and the market consisted of a few dozen big truck containers whose insides had been converted into small shops. Quite a desolate sight for a desolate town! Dawn on our departure day saw us attaching the glittery stuff onto the front of our handlebars, all done to Christmas music played out on our small speakers. The overwhelmingly Muslim Murghabians didn’t know what to make of this, but we smiled and waved and seemed to get away with it. Pushing off we quickly left the valley behind and headed due north.

Tinsel in Murghab, 22 Dec 14

Tinsel in Murghab

Leaving Murghab, 23 Dec 14

Riding through the plains out of Murghab

Here it is quickly worth mentioning that both of our tummies had festively decided to go on strike, and continued to do so until we reached China. We were usually given just moments’ notice before one of us had to dismount and sprint off to relieve himself. The added fun to this challenge was that we were on a plateau: as the name suggests there was very little cover to find on our sprints, so more often than not we were stuck with our trousers down in full view of the road. We called these stops ‘danger stops’, as despite the lack of traffic (maybe 2-3 cars per day), there was always that tiny chance – longed for by the person waiting with the bikes – that a truck would come over the hill and get more British backside than he had ever wished to see. However these wilderness relief stops were usually far safer than using designated loos when we did stop for the evening: the hole in the ground was more of a suggestion than a target, the centre of a urinary skating rink surrounded by frozen sculptures of human and animal waste.

Our slow climbs over the next week were punctuated by frequent breathing stops as well as Lobby’s boxing bouts to get the circulation back into his fingers. We had embarked on the toughest Central Asian section of the expedition, which had us up four high passes in six days. It’s safe to say that we struggled through it by holding up Kashgar as the Grail, where there would finally be good food, electricity, running water and generally all the things which Tajikistan lacked. China was practically within touching distance. In the mornings our beards would freeze and stay frozen all day, our faces transformed into one unhappy icicle. We both lost the feeling in our toes for large parts of the day, despite being in winter boots over our ski trousers. We still haven’t completely got the feeling back in our toes. Thankfully although the mountains were all snow-covered we had no actual snowfall to deal with yet as Pamir weather is extremely dry – instead blue skies summoned unprecedented cold which seemed to bite through our thermals. Things were quickly getting out of hand. I realised this as I tried to brush my teeth one morning and found that the bristles of my toothbrush had frozen together from two bags deep inside my pannier. Our water would freeze within short minutes of being out in the open. We made a habit of cycling with batteries taken out of all our electronics and put these next to our skin to stop them from freezing too. Temperature readings from the warmth of our panniers came to -15C, but it was -30C outside during the daytime. The expedition had definitely taken on a survival aspect, and it was all about pushing through to the Grail.

How cold is it, 23 Dec 14

How cold is it?!

Our first climb was to Akbaital Pass (4655m), which was going to be the highest point of the expedition so far. It was manageable until we both hit a wall of tiredness in the late afternoon, at an altitude of 4200m. We had only cycled 70km that day so we were surprised at this relatively early exhaustion. It was like someone had drugged the thin air and replaced it with black dots and stars which twinkled in front of our drooping eyelids. Keeping the pedals going was a supreme effort, summoning all of our willpower, as well as requiring many, many Snickers, the booster fuel which supplied us with morale and energy all through the Pamirs. The temptation to lie down in the snow for an afternoon snooze was nearly overwhelming, so we rode side by side to make sure neither of us slid off the handlebars. At several points one of us shut our eyes on the saddle to be jabbed back to attention by the other. Neither of us fell asleep at the same time so we just about remained on the road! Teamwork. Later I had to wonder how I thought I would be getting to China curled up in the foetal position on the side of the road, but unfortunately at the time our thinking wasn’t too clear. We crawled up the icy path until finally we saw a cabin on the left, which we sprinted towards at a slow walking pace until our lungs gave out and we collapsed in a heap on the doorstep.

The road maintenance hut at Ak-baital Pass, 23 Dec 14

The Ak-baital road maintenance hut

We spent the first hour of our evening lying side by side on the floor next to the fire, trying to work out what had just happened. Being in a horizontal position somehow seemed to keep the brain ticking over, which threatened to shut down if it was forced vertically too abruptly. We were completely shattered. This greatly amused our host family who were used to living with basically no oxygen in the air and snickered at us, big foreign semi-corpses which now littered their central room. Our hut was a road maintenance post, part of a tiny network of workmen who kept the roads clear from snow, and were therefore forced to stay high in the mountains during the winter. We stayed in a number of these kinds of places during our last stretch of the Pamirs, as their huts had been pinpointed on our map as the only inhabited buildings left in the area. In practice the workmen didn’t seem to do much actual roadwork unless it snowed heavily (which was rare) so they lived out their winter days in the one heated room of their small hut. Small kids played around them and I wondered what it must be like for a four year old to be cooped up in one room for six months of the year. Our family in Akbaital was very kind, and our drugged state clearly seemed to provide intense amusement, so it was a good situation for both parties. The husband told us that it would get down to -45C overnight, and that we shouldn’t stray from the entrance after dark because of the wolves. He added the second bit as an afterthought, as if he knew looking down on us on the floor that we wouldn’t be straying far that evening.

We summited the next day, a slow three hour push as the gradient steepened and the path had turned to treacherous ice overnight. It was cold enough that the LCD screens on our odometers would stop working now and again, freezing at a certain display. It was then that I found out my odo’s minimum speed to register the wheel turning, which was 1.8kph. If we pushed more slowly than that, the display would read 0kph, which I can tell you is quite depressing when you’re dragging a laden bike up to your highest point. I reckon I crawled faster than 1.8kph as a baby. These were the sort of things going through our heads as we trudged onwards in the cold.

Walking up Ak-baital Pass, 24 Dec 14

Slow progress up the pass

Summiting Ak-baital Pass (4655m), 24 Dec 14

Summiting

The feeling of finally reaching the top was amazing but short-lived, because the pass tunnelled some very strong winds through from the north. We descended as soon as we could only to find that the wind intensified as we approached a huge frozen lake, called Karakul. The scenery was jaw-dropping, giant snowy mountains against blue skies, a landscape that was far too wide to take in all at once. But all this was seen through one tiny slit of our hoods: after the pass, any skin which we left uncovered rapidly went numb, so we wrapped ourselves in balaclavas, facemasks, hats and hoods which made it that little bit harder to breathe. We stopped once by an abandoned building on our way down, which had for all appearances been bombed. Lobby ran off without a word to crouch down behind the wall and get out of the gale. I joined him. We squatted there in silence as there wasn’t much to say, psyching ourselves up to face the next gusty section. A combination of shoving hands down trousers and boxing had got our fingers responding again, enough to hold the metal brakes anyway. Lobby said that the pain as his fingers regained circulation and thawed out was intense, his yelps testifying to this fact. Our low point of the week. Ten minutes later we were back in the wind corridor, tiny dots in an overwhelmingly white landscape.

All covered up, 27 Dec 14

No skin left uncovered

We found a place to stay by the lake that evening and woke up early on Christmas morning knowing it would be our last day in Tajikistan, unless there was a blizzard on our final Tajik pass (a festive and very real possibility). The family we stayed with was Kyrgyz, and we had a lovely Christmas Eve dinner of potato soup and bread as we gathered round the fire and played chess with the kids. A bit unfortunately the heating in our room wasn’t working, so we slept in all the clothes we had, cocooned in our heavy duty sleeping bags. As we left on Christmas morning I managed to rig up the speakers to play carols from the back of my bike, which filled us with enough Christmas cheer to fend off the wind from across the lake. Unfortunately the iPod froze after only a few tunes, which also marked a slight freezing in festivities as we began to be bounced and bumped around on a long icy road leading to the Kyrgyz border. It was slow progress, and particularly worrying for me as my bike had already suffered a broken rim just before Khorog. Any serious bike issues here and we were days from any help – a painful thought as my bike thudded metallically into the ground again and again!

Windy path up to the Kyrgyz border, 25 Dec 14

The windy path up to the border post

The pass separating Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also marks an important boundary between dry and wet weather systems. In summer this means the Kyrgyz side is lush with green grass, yurts and (presumably) prancing ponies, but in winter this wetness means heavy snow, whiteouts and blizzards. I would definitely have gone for the ponies option if there had been a choice. As we cycled up the bumpy track the physical border was practically visible, where the white sky engulfed the mountains about halfway up. This was a pretty daunting scene to be cycling towards! Neither the Tajiks nor the Kyrgyz choose to place their border posts on the pass itself, which is a sensible idea as the combination of horizontal wind and driving snow there would make the process awkward, perhaps impossible. Instead there is about 20km of no-man’s land to cross after the Tajik border post, for the climb up to the pass and down the other side, before the Kyrgyz post. This no-man’s land is where we spent Christmas.

Start of no-man's land between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, 25 Dec 14

The start of no-man’s land

Again we found ourselves inching up a mountain pass, but this time with snow and nearly a complete whiteout. It had been our quickest border crossing in Central Asia, a Tajik bloke in vest and tracksuit bottoms giving us the thumbs-up, advising us not to continue, and suggesting a Christmas Day no-man’s land rescue mission was not going to happen. We paced out 100m stretches to take the breathing breaks we soon desperately needed. It was slow progress, and the cold once again seemed to cut straight to our skin. A metal statue greeted us at the top with more snow as we entered our final Central Asian country before China: Kyrgyzstan. Our way down was more or less blind, a windy track which we could just make out from the snow banks around it. Snow had fallen on ice, and at some points covered big ruts in the road, into which our bicycles fell and got stuck. The weather was closing in further and our feet going numb again – but luckily there was a road maintenance hut at the bottom of the windy track to the pass. We dragged ourselves towards it just as the snowfall became horizontal. The man in charge was decidedly lacking in Christmas cheer (understandable in a blizzard) but he let us stay with an awkward insistence on paying our way. It was a depressing place: the young kids stared out of the snowed-up windows with toy guns in hand, and the wife refused to speak with us. Instead she would leave the fireplace regularly with huge bags in which to gather snow, and returned to the stove to melt it in about a dozen different copper kettles. Not much was said at all in fact. Nevertheless inside it was warm, and there were no wolves. We tentatively played more Christmas carols on the now unfrozen iPod, which slowly thawed the atmosphere too. For Christmas dinner we tucked into two packs of instant noodles (the festive beef variety), then tried to explain the concept of Christmas to the family, failed, so compromised by watching some terrible Kyrgyz stand-up comedy show on a black and white TV. We both dashed into the snowstorm to make a one-minute ‘Merry Christmas!’ call home on the satellite phone. Then early bed praying the weather would shift.

Taking a breather, 25 Dec 14

Breathing breaks in no-man’s land

At the pass, 25 Dec 14

At the pass

Christmas Day refuge in Kyrgyzstan

Christmas Day out of the wind

Magically, the weather did clear up for Boxing Day, blue skies and bright sunshine replacing the white fog of the previous day. The path which led one thousand metres down the mountain was now basically a blue run on a ski slope, except that we had thin bicycle tyres and 50kg of luggage to skid with. This actually proved hilarious as the landings were soft and we were generally far too excited at having snow in the ground form rather than the flying-in-your-face form. As we descended we were greeted with some monster mountains over more frozen lakes to our left, rising up to 7000m in the distance.

A loo with a view, 26 Dec 14

A loo with a view

Skidding down the mountain, 26 Dec 14

Skidding our way off the mountain

Soon enough we were in Sary Tash, the only Kyrgyz town we would be staying in before taking a sharp right turn towards our last pass and the Chinese border. The final push. Sary Tash was a truck-stop town at the foot of (guess what!) more snowy mountains. For us it was the end of the Pamir Highway, which continued north further into Kyrgyzstan. We had one final pass to cross before descending into China – our twentieth country of the expedition – and this one was only at 3600m. Sary Tash was where bad weather could apparently delay us for many days, so we jumped at the forecast of clear blue skies, cut a rest day and aimed to set off very early the next morning. Locals warned us several times that conditions were now very harsh on the pass. They spoke quick Russian and then mimed a knife running across their throat, we assumed being the sign language for death. They seemed extremely concerned. This was quite unnerving, but we laughed them off. We had been up Akbaital. How hard could this one be?!

Sary Tash, 26 Dec 14

Sary Tash

Snowscape, 27 Dec 14

Abandoned house on the white plains

Hard. Very hard, actually. We have since agreed that our lowest pass of the Pamirs was also our toughest, and I can easily see how bad weather would make the whole thing impossible. It also turned out to be one of the most beautiful sections of the expedition: mountains everywhere we looked, the Pamirs to the south, Tian Shan to the north and east. Dazzling white plains were surrounded by towering peaks on all sides, which made me wonder nervously which path our route to China would take! The climbing started straight away: we followed an icy road on an uphill section which far outlasted our good humour, heads bowed low into the wind which had picked up. Snow was initially blown across the track and then upward at us as we climbed higher, and it became impossible to hear each other over the rising gale. It was getting stronger too, battering us practically to a standstill. Bellowing soundless swear words we both spun our bikes forward, slipped, fell, swore. Spun, slipped, fell, swore. Walked. It was relentless. As I walked the belt on my ski trousers began to cut the circulation from my lower half, but I wasn’t about to lift up any of my layers to check it out. Time seemed to stand still as we trudged upwards looking carefully down at our boots so as not to get blinded. After an eternity we reached the ridge, which had looked like the top, but then the path snaked tauntingly upwards in four further bends which had me screaming abuse at the mountain. It was now very cold. I allowed myself to think that we may not reach China at all, images of us frozen to death on our last hurdle flashing through my mind, which was in no way helpful for morale. We stopped at each bend and used our bikes as wind buffers, huddled behind them close to the frozen ground. Lobby coughed and spluttered and I retched into the snow bank. Why were we feeling so bad?! I couldn’t work it out. We had been at much higher altitude before this past week. The scenery was stunning as we spluttered and retched, and added our own colour to the surroundings. I tried to stand up fully but then was practically blown over. That was the point when my body finally ordered me to give up, and I let the wind take me gently to the snowy ground, and sat down. It felt so nice. I lay down. My feet were numb, my lower body tingly and wind and snow battered my face. I closed my eyes.

Before we started walking, 27 Dec 14

Before we started walking

Endless ascent, 27 Dec 14

Endless snowy ascent

The last Pamir pass, 27 Dec 14

“My precious”

Giving up, 27 Dec 14

Finally giving up

It took a lot of cajoling from Lobby to get me off the ground again and back to the bike, as well as two large Snickers for back-up. At the time I was annoyed at being forced up, but I had broken one of our important rules, which was never to sit down on the snow. Crouching was fine, sitting was not, as Lobby reminded me. This was precisely because it would be very hard to get back up, something I had just proved. I unclipped my belt, freezing my midriff in the process, and felt a new lease of life in my legs. We could do this. Onwards.

Then, as if on cue, just as quickly as the nightmare had descended the top came into view. We crawled up to it and yelled out in celebration, relief, exhaustion. We were through. It was difficult to control the bikes on the long way down, partly due to the ice on the road but mostly because our whole bodies were shaking with elation at having survived our latest ordeal. I was at my limit. This one had come literally out of the blue and we had very nearly not been up to the task.

To recover we spent the next day in a Kyrgyz border town called Nura, waiting for the Chinese border to open after the weekend. Nura lay dangerously at the foot of a glacier. In 2008 an earthquake had triggered an avalanche which had tragically killed 75 people and wiped out most of the town’s buildings, so the place was now a mixture of emergency relief housing and truck containers. However, far from letting the world crumble around them, the Kyrgyz townspeople had got on with their lives and daily routine had now taken over once more. Men rode around town in groups on horseback, kids played hockey with bent sticks on the frozen pond. People were very friendly and laughed often. We were taken in by a family and ‘helped’ them prepare for their New Year’s celebrations, which ostensibly involved eating a lot and playing games with the kids – suited us perfectly! That evening we babysat while the parents went off clubbing at the police post nearby (not joking). On our last morning in Central Asia we were given gigantic pieces of ‘New Year’s’ cake and wished well on our way, a great final show of the amazing Central Asian hospitality we had gotten used to on our way, perhaps with the exception of the desert brothels of Uzbekistan.

Relief housing in Nura, 28 Dec 14

Relief housing in Nura

Way to travel in Nura, 28 Dec 14

The way to get around

Ice hockey in Nura, 28 Dec 14

Hockey on the frozen lake

Change of transport, Nura 28 Dec 14

Trying the horse thing

New Year games, Nura 28 Dec 14

New Year’s duties

New Year's cake, Nura, 28 Dec 14

New Year’s cake

Our Kyrgyz family, 29 Dec 14

Our family as we said goodbye – they were smiling before!

To say we were excited to reach the Chinese border is an understatement. We breezed past Kyrgyz security by shaking our heads to answer the soldier’s mime of sniffing coke, and were practically jumping from our saddles as we pulled up to the Chinese border post. A full bag scan and body search, revealing the anti-wolf hunting knife I had handy in my fleece pocket which was slightly awkward. Thankfully we were finally in a country where we could speak the language properly, so managed to laugh the situation off in a way that we certainly wouldn’t have been able to in Russian! “The uncivilised Central Asians!”, we explained, playing on the ancient Chinese belief – which is still alive and well – that anything beyond their borders was barbarian and unsafe. The border guards nodded vigorously. The trick now was to find transport to China’s second border post, 100km east but still 100km from Kashgar. China’s westernmost territory was apparently a very sensitive area due to incoming drugs from Central Asia, so nobody but those living there is allowed to travel independently within it. This was ‘for our safety’, a catchphrase we would hear again and again in China. The fact that we had Afghan stamps in our passports did not help matters. It was generally agreed after some time that we couldn’t hitch in a truck, which was frustrating as they lined up for miles behind us. Our passports were confiscated until we found a jeep heading the right way, and then these were given directly to the driver. Having battled with snow and mountains moments ago we now felt like unaccompanied minors. The faff of waiting for transport and strapping bikes to the roof, the military checkpoints along the way and a second round of body and bag searches meant that we were only ready to cycle on at around sunset. 100km needed to be pedalled to reach Kashgar that evening: we set off into the night to finish off Stage Two.

Fortunately we were still on our descent from the Kyrgyz-Chinese border pass, so a lot of this riding was freewheeling downhill. Even lower down there was still ice and snow on the road, which made the night-time downhills more exciting. It was about halfway into our night session that we hit the magic number: 10,000 kms since London! This was a beautiful moment. I was so excited that I managed to veer my bike off the road into the ice bank and nearly stacked it, as I’m sure you can tell in the video. The last 50km of Stage Two cycled themselves, as our weary frames urged the pedals forward, towards bed and our first decent rest stop since Dushanbe now over a month ago. During the last few months we had crossed the Uzbek desert and the Pamir mountains, been held at gunpoint in Turkey, deported from Azerbaijan, done a loop through Afghanistan and found wolves in Tajikistan. Now we just wanted bed. We rolled into Kashgar at 3 a.m., running on fumes, to find police cars everywhere and Chinese SWAT patrolling the streets.

This was certainly going to be interesting.

Nick x

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Reaching the Plateau: Illness, snow and wolves – 22nd Dec

From Khorog to Murghab, along Afghanistan

From Khorog to Murghab, along Afghanistan

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.

Panj by the Wakhan Valley

Panj by the Wakhan Valley

An unfriendly cycling environment

An unfriendly cycling environment

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.

More amazing hospitality

More amazing hospitality

Hot springs, 17 Dec 14

Warming up in a hot spring in the valley – our first wash in a while!

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.

Lobby struggling onward

Lobby struggling onward

Epic scenery surrounding us, 18 Dec 14

Epic scenery surrounding us

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.

Dawn over the frozen Pamir River

Dawn over the frozen Pamir River

Frozen Snickers after a difficult morning

Frozen Snickers after a difficult morning

Deep sand to Khargush, 19 Dec 14

Deep sand to Khargush

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.

The track up to the pass, 19 Dec 14

The track up to the pass

Over the first Tajik pass! 19 Dec 14

Over the first Tajik pass!

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.

As the weather started to close in, 19 Dec 14

As the weather started to close in

White blanket after my fall, 19 Dec 14

White blanket after my fall

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.

Where I rested up in Alichur, 19 Dec 14

Where I rested up in Alichur

Alichur, a small outpost in the mountains, 20 Dec 14

Alichur, a small outpost in the mountains

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.

Leaving Alichur, 21 Dec 14

Leaving Alichur

Our first yaks

Our first yaks

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.

Nick

Struggling with altitude, 21 Dec 14

Struggling with altitude

Conquering our second pass, 21 Dec 14

Conquering our second pass

Into the plain: Murghab, 21 Dec 14

Into the plain: Murghab

Reaching Murghab, 22 Dec 14

Reaching Murghab

Murghab town

Murghab town

Murghab market - shopping from containers

Murghab market – shopping from containers

 

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Into Afghanistan – 16th Dec

Welcome to Afghanistan

Welcome to Afghanistan

The midday sun beat down on the little iron bridge leading to an unknown land. A heat haze shimmered, masking the soldiers opposite. Below, ice floated down the river. Above, snow capped mountains flanked the border on both sides. The heavy thud of boots signified the commander’s arrival, a three star general, with the evidence shimmering on his epaulette. “Are you sure you want to go to Afghanistan?” It sounded more like a warning than a question. We nodded. The rubber stamp slammed down on our passports. And so on 10 December we began our walk across the rickety bridge, each footstep ringing out loud and clear. It was the longest walk of our lives, like something from a film, as if part of a prisoner exchange, except no one was coming from their side. Half way across we turned our heads. Nerves and worries combined in a vicious concoction, but there was no going back now. We continued. AK47s greeted us, leading us to their border post. Ushered into a side room we were faced with the commander, in traditional dress and Afghan cap, sat, crossed legged, on throw pillows. “Why do you come to my country?” More aggressive than pure small talk. Our nervous answer about the culture and people seemed to please him and we were beckoned to sit and drink tea with him. An offer we could not refuse! With a Tajik as the Farsi-Russian translator we discussed our proposed route much to the commander’s surprise. “Tourists don’t come here,” he told us, “if they do it’s by 4×4!” He went on to reassure us that there was no Taliban presence in the area, but that on bicycles we should be more seriously worried about the wolves. Hopefully we wouldn’t get eaten, he joked, as we left – not overly reassuring! This was it, we were in Afghanistan.

02 Afgh

Snow caps looming

Snow caps looming

Our first few kilometres in the country gave us an unappetising taste of the road to come. Our route through Afghanistan along the Panj river is an old donkey trail that has been turned into a semi-functional road with help from the World Bank and Germany. The path, for it cannot really be called a road, is a sandy track that winds its way up and down the hills next to the river. The inclines we faced, both up and down, were steeper than anything we’d yet come across. Even cycling along the flat was pretty much impossible due to the deep sand. Pushing the bikes up the steep ascents and attempting to hold onto them down the even steeper descents was a nightmare. Cars were having to be pushed up the hills too, so we were in good company. Freezing cold streams crossing our path, ice sheets and rubble only added to the obstacles in our way. Teetering on the edge of thin ice that we could hear splintering beneath us we edged across these hazards. If there were people around, they would often run to help us out, wading through in wellies, saving the day, and more importantly our feet from freezing! Cycling more than 20km per day was a challenge that we often failed. More demoralising was seeing the flat tarmac road opposite us on the Tajikistan side: what was meant to be two easy days on the Tajik side turned into five very tough days on the Afghan side. We had chosen this road, however, and we certainly hadn’t come to Afghanistan for its roads.

Even those 5km were abysmal! 11 Dec 14

Even those 5km were abysmal!

Sand trap

Sand trap

A helping hand on the icerink

A helping hand on the icerink

Not far to push now!

Not far to push now!

A more suitable mode of transport

A more suitable mode of transport

It was the kindness and hospitality of local people that shone through more than anything else during our stay in the country. A people who are too often viewed negatively in the West due to the Taliban, they opened their doors to us and looked after us spectacularly. Everywhere we passed we were presented with tea and bread, and warmly welcomed as guests in their country. In the evenings we were invited in to stay the night, given large plates of rice and had blankets piled upon us to keep us warm. On our first night in Afghanistan Nick was suffering from bad food poisoning. We struggled to the only house within sight and upon entering Nick promptly collapsed in a heap. Our host wrapped him in blankets and looked after the both of us. He slept by our sides rather than with his family and even accompanied Nick outside in the night to the loo off the cliff to protect him from the wolves in his vulnerable state.

Feeling a little worse for wear

Feeling a little worse for wear

Back on his feet, 12 Dec 14

Back on his feet

As we dragged our bikes through sand and mud we got less of the Tajik whistling and shouts of “hello!”, but instead met with stares and stunned silence. Men would greet us in response as we passed, women would often look away. Inquisitive children drew near while others ran and hid. If we wanted to take photos we asked first – men would agree, but women covered their faces and turned away. It was clear that very few foreigners took this road. Villages were few and far between, often just a couple of mud houses with tin roofs. Furnishings were simple, a few padded mats to sit on, which doubled as mattresses and blankets. Electricity was almost non-existent, occasionally a single light bulb dimly lit the main room. Bread, rice and tea seemed to be about the extent of the diet, which they shared with us generously as guests. Invariably there would be a gun leaning against the wall or on a windowsill, so at first we opted to introduce ourselves as Swiss, the global neutrals. But after lots of sign language questions about where Switzerland was, we soon reverted to being tea-loving Brits, which was viewed much more positively. Before departing in the mornings, we paid our way slightly awkwardly in American dollars, which was accompanied with a lot of bowing and big smiles on both sides.

12 Afgh

13 Afgh

14 Afgh

Don’t ride in Afghanistan at night we had told ourselves from the start. Wolves, the abundance of guns in people’s houses and in passing cars, the sub-zero temperatures and awful road conditions were enough to reinforce this idea. So there we were, no house or building in sight, the sun setting behind the tall mountains, an unknown number of kilometres to go that day. $#&@! As usual, it was too difficult to cycle so we pushed our bikes, both of us on the inside, bikes on the outside. Before the last light of day had faded we prepared the deodorant can and lighter – the anti-wolf flamethrower, and the stick, petrol and rag – the anti-wolf flaming stick. And the knives of course. We plodded on, ears pricked and on full alert – a very tiring state of mind. Any sound, any noise attracted our attention. Head torches were on as well as bike lights to warn any armed man that we weren’t sneaking around. This route is apparently one of the biggest drug highways in the world, moving the stuff into Tajikistan before it ends up in Europe. We didn’t want to be misidentified as either traffickers or law enforcers! With no electricity in most houses how would we find a place to stay in the dark we wondered? We certainly couldn’t walk all night… Then there it was, a singular light away from the road. We ditched the bikes and set off towards the light, sliding over ice, climbing between trees and jumping streams. Eventually we made it and found the owner, a quick flash of the torches revealing he was unarmed – a huge relief. Fortunately the kindest man we could have hoped for. He invited us in and gave us food and a room. We call him ‘the Miller’ because he had made a small water-driven mill to grind grain (a man came in the morning with a bag of USAid wheat to grind). He also made use of the stream to produce electricity – the light we had seen from the road. In the morning he was wading in the stream when we woke up, smashing the ice from the night before to keep his mill clear. He was always smiling and cheerful, despite the terribly cold job he was doing. He waved us on our way after breakfast. We couldn’t thank him enough for being our light in the dark.

15 Afgh - the miller

The Miller (centre)

16 Afghanistan

In Ishkashim, the largest settlement we passed through, our arrival was no less subtle. The whole town seemed to know about us within the hour. We were invited into the border guard’s house for dinner, where he warned us not to go further into Afghanistan as Taliban were present only a hundred kilometres down the road. We made our way into the town centre as we were guided through the streets by a young man, through the bazaar, to a place to stay the night. The bustling activity in the marketplace ground to a halt as we pushed our bikes between loaded stalls. Men smiled, women stared and children ran away – a fitting end to our time in Afghanistan. In the morning we would cross the bridge back into Tajikistan. The adventure was over, we were physically exhausted but extremely happy to have managed what few other people have done before. The Afghanistan we saw was a far cry from the Afghanistan of the evening news back home. We are indebted to the local people for their kindness, generosity and help. Without them our journey would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Laurence

Border guard had the best house on the river, 13 Dec 14

Border guard had the best house on the river

Ishkashim bazaar, 15 Dec 14

Ishkashim bazaar

How many afghani to the dollar?

How many afghani to the dollar?

19 Afgh

Coming to market, 15 Dec 14

Coming to market

Police patrol, 15 Dec 14

Police patrol

22 Afgh

Farewell Afghanistan, 15 Dec 14

Farewell Afghanistan

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The Tricky Stuff Begins: to Khorog, 6th Dec

From Dushanbe to Khorog (middle dot)

From Dushanbe to Khorog (middle dot)

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!

Laurence and Jimbo, Dushanbe, 21 Nov 14

With Jimbo, enjoying an upgrade on lagman

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.

Starting out from Dushanbe, 27 Nov 14

And so off to the mountains

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.

Snowy weather

Day One begins with a flurry

Better places to be, 27 Nov 14

Better places you could be

Brake repairs, Nurek, 27 Nov 14

Necessary repairs after a rough first day

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.

Laurence on a tough climb towards Khirmanjo, 30 Nov 14

A tough climb

Laurence in heavy fog, 30 Nov 14

Towards the top (we think!)

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.

With a relaxed border guard, 30 Nov 14

Trackies and flip flops, the relaxed border guard

Namecards for our latest fans, 30 Nov 14

Namecards for our newest Tajik fans

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.

Our first Chinese numberplate, 29 Nov 14

The first Chinese number plate of the expedition

Lorries throw up plenty of dust on the road, 30 Nov 14

Novelty wearing off as dust is once again kicked up

The modern Silk Road, 1 Dec 14

The modern Silk Road

The brown mudline of our descent, 30 Nov 14

The brown mud of our descent line

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.

Kid racing Lobby, 1 Dec 14

Tajik kid racing Lobby

Laurence looking across the border to an Afghan village, 3 Dec 14

An Afghan village metres away

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.

By the Panj river, 1 Dec 14

By the Panj River

Cycling towards the white caps, Dec 2014

Epic road

Laurence in the Panj River valley, Dec 2014

The Panj River valley

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.

Military patrol in the mountains, Dec 2014

Military patrol in the mountains

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!

Cheap hotel in civilisation, Dangara, 28 Nov 14

Cheap hotel in civilisation

Pamir hospitality in Khirmanjo, 30 Nov 14

Pamir hospitality

Buried in quilts, 2 Dec 14

Buried in duvets

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.

Start of a morning session, 5 Dec 14

Start of a morning session

Laurence pushing by the Panj, Dec 2014

Moments after Lobby’s first fall

Laurence appreciating the track turning into sand

Lobby appreciates the track disappearing into the sand

An evening session begins, 2 Dec 14

Our evening session begins

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 host Davlat at breakfast, 3 Dec 14

Our rescuer Davlat at breakfast

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.

Laurence on the road towards Khorog, 5 Dec 14

A bright dawn

Epic road, 5 Dec 14

Epic road continues

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.

Discovering the split rim, 30 kms from Khorog, 5 Dec 14

The moment of realisation

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!!

The man of the hour, 5 Dec 14

Man of the moment

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!

Nick

Hitching a ride back to the capital again! 6 Dec 14

Hitching a ride back to the capital!

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Welcome to the Pamirs – 24th Nov

We are finally through and beyond the Kyzyl Kum desert. If it’s felt like you’ve been reading about our desert crossings for a while, I can safely say that cycling them will have felt longer. 1600km ended up being about 120 hours on the saddle within two weeks, grim stats which are made to look more bearable thanks to a quick final passage out of Uzbekistan. Completing this challenge was a big physical thrill, but it was also an amazing feeling to ride into the oasis towns of Khiva and Bukhara having retraced the steps of so many Silk Road caravans before us – and probably sharing their feelings of exhausted elation. We are now resting up in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe preparing ourselves for the next challenge of the expedition, which will surely eclipse any hardship we ever felt in Uzbekistan. Desert has been replaced by mountains. These stand between us and the Chinese border, and will need to be crossed if we are going to make it to Hong Kong.

The mountain range we plan to cross is called the Pamir. This was the setting of the Great Game in the 19th century, the world’s first cold war between Great Britain and the Russian empire, as each country tried to carve out spheres of influence in Central Asia. British-led expeditions expanded north from India and the Russians moved south from the motherland, meeting awkwardly in the middle above Afghanistan: in the Pamirs. It was high in these snowy mountains that the British played a dangerous game of hide-and-seek with the Russians, and through them that they eventually succeeded in marching on Lhasa, Tibet in 1904. There are some spy stories from that era which are little known – epic is an understatement.

One of the routes which the British and the Russians mapped out in the 19th century has since become the Pamir Highway, linking Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan to China across dizzyingly high mountain passes. It is the second highest highway in the world (after the Karakorum Highway just to the south), the ‘roof of the world’ which joins up with the Tibetan plateau further east. The Chinese have built more direct roads to their border so haven’t yet bothered paving the Pamir Highway: much of it therefore remains dirt track, subject to rock slides in the summer and avalanches in the winter which can effectively close it for weeks. Because of the area’s remoteness, the lifestyle of the Pamiri people who live up there hasn’t changed much in a century. For us there will be no food nor water available for days on end and we will be relying on a satellite phone to check in with people back home when we can. The Highway plateau is at a height of 3500m and the mountain passes we have to cross climb up beyond 4000m. Here lack of oxygen and altitude sickness will both be new challenges. Being so high and surrounded by mountains, the weather can be very harsh too: water freezes overnight in July and powerful winds can literally knock you over. To top things off nicely, the British Embassy officially discourages travel in the region, partly due to the difficulty of staging would-be rescue missions if people get lost in the snow.

Most people who choose to visit the Pamirs do it from the inside of a comfortable 4WD, but there are still a number of die-hard cyclists who attempt to cross into China via the Pamir Highway during the summer months. Despite the challenging conditions, it is not hard to see the attraction: these 1500km of mountain road have been dubbed the adventure cycling ‘holy grail’ – the pinnacle of proper preparation and physical fitness – and the stunning views of the Pamir and Hindu Kush mountain ranges that you get on the plateau make the strenuous climbs well worth it.

We are going to attempt to cross the Pamirs during winter. By the time you read this blog we will already be up there. Not quite the conventional holiday period, but unfortunately we weren’t given much choice! Our expedition timings decided things for us: leaving London in July meant reaching the Tajik mountains in December, unless we wanted to wait out the winter somewhere more sunny and sensible. Both Tajiks and Uzbeks who asked us about our onward journey reacted in mixed ways when we told them where we were headed. The general consensus is that we’re crazy foreigners and have got the seasons horribly wrong. Otherwise reactions have ranged from polite incredulity (“you must be joking”) and being laughed off, to serious concern (“you will certainly die”). One Tajik man sat us down to list the reasons why he thought we wouldn’t emerge alive, from wolf attacks, to freezing to death, to Taliban raids.

It is true that wolves are quite regularly spotted up on the plateau, a great safari opportunity for summertime tourists from their 4WD but perhaps more of an issue for us on our exposed bicycles. In winter, finding food in the snow is difficult. So we have followed advice in Dushanbe and bought large knives (probably more comforting than useful) and also have a big pointed stick, the end of which we can set alight with a cloth soaked in petrol if we find trouble. Wolves are apparently only a serious concern if we find a pack of them, or if we are jumped by a hungry few at night. The Tajik man was certainly right about the cold: overnight temperatures up there are currently ranging from -30C on a good day to -40C on a grim one, at which point you can get frostbite reasonably quickly. The cold along with the potential fierce winds will be our two biggest challenges, having now had plenty of headwind experience crossing the Kyzyl Kum (that part wasn’t fun). As for the Taliban, they are quite low on our list of things to worry about. Our route runs along the Afghan border for some distance, which is heavily garrisoned as it’s the main drugs conduit into Europe. The military probably aren’t there to stop the drugs, but rather to control their passage for a fee. There have been Taliban raids on border posts on the Afghan side, but the Taliban have not yet once crossed the river to the Tajik side. If they do we have our trusted pointed stick as previously mentioned.

Our route outline 

From Dushanbe to Khorog, Murghab and Kashgar

The Pamir Highway from Dushanbe to Khorog, Murghab and Kashgar

Here is a very brief outline of our route. It should take us about a month to reach the Chinese border from Dushanbe, a route which can be split very basically into three legs of increasing difficulty:

Dushanbe to Khorog – The Approach: 10 days, 600km

The Pamir Highway doesn’t technically close for winter, but there is enough snow on parts of it to make some sections impassable. By the time we arrived in Dushanbe it had already snowed heavily on the first leg of the Highway, the road now covered with about a foot of the stuff which effectively unofficially closed it. The road won’t be passable again until spring, but luckily there is another route which dips further south and remains open all winter: this is the one we’ll be taking.

This first section out of Dushanbe – The Approach – will be the most straightforward compared to the next two. The road is paved half of the way, there is still some traffic and there are villages to sleep in too. We will be below 2000m altitude until Khorog (2070m), so snow should not be a problem yet. What will make it difficult is the total ascent: we will start climbing straight out of the Tajik capital and do a series of ups and downs over small passes to get to Khorog, the capital and gateway of the Pamirs. Our southern route follows the Panj River along the border with Afghanistan until joining up with the Highway again a few days before Khorog. Although this is the main trucking route into China, the road is apparently narrow and rocky. In total we will pedal 11,000 vertical metres in about 10 days – to put it into perspective, Mount Everest is just under 9,000 metres high.

Khorog to Murghab: 10 days, 450km

Having cycled the Highway for a short stretch we then divert south from Khorog to the Wakhan Valley, where tarmac definitively stops to be replaced by bumpy dirt road. We will continue to follow the Panj River which contours the Afghan border before taking on our first serious mountain pass (4344m) where we will climb up to rejoin the Highway plateau. Here civilisation disappears to be replaced by heavy snow and wind until Murghab, which lies at 3630m. This will be the toughest test of the whole expedition for our bikes, as well as for our warm kit. Taliban watch followed by wolf watch – an excellent 10 days.

Murghab to Kashgar: 5-10 days, 550km

The hardest section of the Highway. To reach Kashgar we will have to strike north from Murghab towards Kyrgyzstan by crossing the Akbaital Pass at 4655m. There will be no settlements at all anymore except for a few abandoned huts, as the conditions in winter are too harsh for anyone to choose to stay up there. We will descend briefly from the pass before climbing another one (4336m) into Kyrgyzstan where the climate will get wetter and more unfriendly. We have no idea of when we’ll have a long enough weather window to then dash east for the Chinese border. It is possible to be delayed for days by blizzards in Sary Tash, the Kyrgyz outpost where we hope to spend Christmas (but not New Year!!). The likelihood is that we’ll be pushing the bikes at this stage as there will be too much snow on the ground to cycle.

Once through the Chinese border it is not possible to cycle all the way to Kashgar, because apparently the Chinese border guards view cyclists as a security threat. I don’t know what they’ll make of us two in winter then! Around this border is where most drugs cross into China from Afghanistan, so police there apparently lack a sense of humour. Our passports will be confiscated and we will probably be bundled into a lorry to be driven a long downhill stretch most of the way. After over 20,000m of total ascent it seems a bit cruel to be denied the epic freewheel down the other side. But by that stage we may be too tired to care.

So that’s what’s coming up! As always, thank you very much for your continuing support as we get towards the deep end of our expedition! It really is a huge morale boost as we take on these endless snowy mountain climbs and is a large part of what keeps us pedalling. If you’re thinking about making a Christmas donation to Prostate Cancer UK and supporting us up the Pamirs, please follow this link. Thanks again from both of us in wintry Tajikistan! X

Nick

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Out of Uzbekistan – 21st Nov

 

Leaving Bukhara for the Tajikistan border and the capital Dushanbe

Leaving Bukhara for the Tajikistan border and the capital Dushanbe

Having spent a very enjoyable couple of days in Bukhara, we were back on our bikes at sunrise again on 15 November for our third and final Uzbek leg: out of Uzbekistan and into Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. This was going to be our longest crossing – about 600km – but it was much easier to get pumped up for it. We knew we’d have a proper rest stop in Dushanbe at the end of it, and more importantly, we knew that after a couple of days we would finally be out of the Kyzyl Kum desert and into the mountains separating Uzbekistan from Tajikistan. This thought was enough to send us racing away on our saddles across the nearly brand-new road connecting Bukhara to the south of Uzbekistan, and towards Afghanistan. Here we encountered our first Iranian truckers, a very likeable bunch who had presumably come through the route barred to us across Turkmenistan. It was fun to see a new nationality join our modern Silk Road, and reminded us that we had rejoined the main trunk road east which leads to China. Very soon we will have crossed the length of Uzbekistan by bicycle, completing a challenge which had looked so totally impossible on the approach from Kazakhstan. I can tell you, this was a very good feeling – enough to make the last two hundred kilometres of desert slip past like a victory lap.

Back in the desert, 15 Nov 14

Back in the desert

Only 100 kms of desert left!

Only 100 kms of desert left!

The wind gods who had tried their best to thwart our passage now conceded defeat, overwhelmed by our good mood, and let us through without so much as a breeze. In fact they even had a word with the sun god, who gave us clear blue skies and a blazing sun as we approached the mountains: suddenly we were down to only fleeces, then thermals, then shorts and T-shirts – in the middle of November. Amazing! This couldn’t have been a bigger contrast to the grim section we’d pedalled from the Kazakh border, and buoyed our spirits even higher. We flew up the mountain, peaking at 1500m, and down the other side on clean tarmac built by the Chinese.

You wouldn't do this on a bad day - 16 Nov 14

You wouldn’t do this on a bad day

Excited to be repping again!

Excited to be repping again!

Before the climb we had stopped off at the intersection town of Guzar, where the road splits between continuing to Afghanistan and turning left to Tajikistan. There we caused quite a scene at the morning market when a bloke emerged from his stall brandishing a full vodka bottle, and demanding we finish it together in the name of friendship. It would have been very rude to refuse, though it was still 9 in the morning. A crowd quickly gathered to watch us see off the bottle with our host, everyone extremely impressed at tales of our journey so far. By now it usually just takes a flick of the odometer to our total mileage (at this point hovering around the 8,000km mark) to provoke a gasp, a big double thumbs-up and the offer of a tea stop with a congratulatory slap on the back. Conversation then somehow moved on to whether we were married, and when the group found out that we weren’t – it was odd not to be married for an Uzbek man of our age – there was an excited chatter about who we should be introduced to from the market. I pictured having to tell extended family that I had eloped with a girl from Guzar in southern Uzbekistan. There was a nice ring to it, but this suggestion signalled it was time to get going, we thought. In style reminiscent of the Georgian cowherder, our bloke passed out and was then carried off by his wife. We were left to zigzag up the mountain feeling extremely merry ourselves! Just before the top we stopped again to drink vodka with a couple of guys on the side of the road, one of them declaring that he would slaughter a lamb in our honour if we chose to stay the night at his place. His timing was a bit unfortunate: on most other days we would have gratefully accepted his offer, but this day we had seen a lamb getting hallaled over lunch, which had plucked a few of our more delicate heartstrings. The deliberately slow way in which it had been done was enough to put you off meat for a while – I’ll leave that one to your imagination.

Causing a scene in Guzar, 17 Nov 14

Causing a scene in Guzar

One bottle down by 9.30am

One bottle down by 9.30am

More friends and more roadside vodka, 17 Nov 14

More friends and more roadside vodka

As we continued south beyond the desert the people began to change. The Uzbek men – who had been so totally against our beards from the outset – began to sport little tufts of goatee, the older men growing longer white variations which made them look very wise. More and more people wore long robes, usually purple, a single piece of insulated material like a dressing gown which extended to the knees. Desert had been turning into mountains behind them, and the combination of robe, goatee (often with staff) and moonscape gave everything a Star Wars look!! Many older men claimed they were from Afghanistan and the difference in ethnicity was striking. Starting from Istanbul our touring bikes had commanded the centre of attention pretty much wherever we’d gone, and here was no different – except the way people got your attention in southern Uzbekistan was by shrill whistling, from a high pitch down to a low one. Often we would hear these whistles and not see the whistlers until we were well past them, little dots waving frantically at us amongst the fields.

The wave-whistle combo, 18 Nov 14

The wave-whistle combo

The desert look

The desert look

Beard was apparently 8 years in the making, 17 Nov 14

Beard was apparently 8 years in the making

Obi Wan

Obi Wan?

Star Wars? 18 Nov 14

Star Wars?

Definitely Star Wars, 18 Nov 14

Definitely Star Wars

Having had plenty of time to think on the saddle recently, we reckoned we hit the halfway mark of the expedition – Day 132 since Buckingham Palace – at around the middle of this section. The mountain climb was a glorious way of celebrating it, under a hot sun and with a panorama of snowcaps around us. We were even lucky enough to be hosted that evening by an Uzbek couple whose door we’d knocked on at sunset to ask for directions. The wife had a daughter our age and was delighted to be able to show off Uzbek food and hospitality to two young foreigners. The husband was a school headmaster and therefore one of the few people who understood that he needed to speak Russian slowly to be understood. We had a great evening talking about our journey from Europe (assumed to be a big country at this stage) and the dangers we would apparently face in Tajikistan. We were told that Tajiks were all thieves and liars, and advised to buy a gun as soon as we could so we could fend them off at the border. Little love for your eastern neighbour again then…

A good Halfway Day

A good Halfway Day

Racing each other up the mountain, 18 Nov 14

Racing each other up the mountain

Uzbek starter, 16 Nov 14

Uzbek starter

This was a very memorable evening and we were once again struck by the unbelievable kindness and hospitality of complete strangers – certainly a recurring theme for our expedition. It is amazing how readily people have eaten and drunk with us, or invited us into their home having only met us for a matter of minutes. It was also an amazing night’s sleep. This sounds like a mundane detail, but it was a huge contrast with the little rest we got when we overnighted in teahouses. This had made all three passages in Uzbekistan more challenging, as we would be on the bikes all day and then usually wake up feeling like we hadn’t slept. The previous evening, for instance, I had been practically dragged out the door in my sleeping bag by an aggressive Uzbek who thought I was part of the teahouse’s serving staff. Despite the place clearly being dark and closed, he took it upon himself to find a bloke (me) and tell him exactly how many samosas he wanted cooked, at 4am. I told him exactly where he should put his samosas and he stormed off, but that didn’t help me get back to sleep.

Before our night-time visitor

Before our night-time visitor

The morning after our Halfway Day – about 160km from the border town with Tajikistan – we woke up to a full breakfast spread, including warm cow’s milk from the next door stable. It turned out that we would need all the energy we could get. By lunchtime we had finished what was left of the climb and were happily freewheeling down the other side, just as the sun dipped behind us in the afternoon. As we crossed yet another military checkpoint we realised we were in trouble: we needed to register that evening and the soldier on duty gleefully informed us there were no hotels at all until the border.

The way to travel

The way to travel

18 Nov 14

A sweet descent

According to Uzbek law tourists are obliged to register every three days whilst in the country. Registration can only happen at hotels and not at police checkpoints despite the frankly ridiculous number of these along the route. The penalty for not registering is an equally ridiculous fine at the border, to the tune of several thousand US dollars. Many tourists have been caught out and raged about it online. Presumably this fine would ‘go away’ if enough cash was presented between handshakes to the right people, but owing to our time constraints to reach Dushanbe this wasn’t an option we were prepared to risk. Bribing our way through a border on a bad day could be an excellent opportunity to visit the inside of an Uzbek prison for about a week, which would render our hard desert sprint entirely pointless. We needed to register, and register that evening.

Tiredness sets in knowing what's ahead

Tiredness sets in knowing what’s ahead

I suppose it was quite fitting that we completed the last 60km of our Uzbekistan dash by the light of our headtorches then. We were firmly in the Green Zone, which made night riding much more taxing than in the desert: we pedalled single-file along roads which suddenly disintegrated completely, getting blinded by full-beam headlights and intermittently chased by wild dogs. This was not fun. Zigzagging around on a potholed road to evade a hound which is snapping at your heels while also being blinded by oncoming trucks (aka death) is not fun at all. We took rest and chocolate stops every 15km to stay sane, which extended our nocturnal ride time to 5 hours. By the time we arrived at midnight we had been on the saddles for 14 hours straight. We had crossed 1600km of desert in 14 days’ riding, redefining our physical limits right when they needed stretching – because the next stage of our expedition was to cross the Pamir mountain range.

Classic pothole appearance just before sunset, 18 Nov 14

Classic pothole appearance just before sunset

Five more hours to go, 18 Nov 14

Five more hours to go

The ride into Dushanbe was very straightforward, on brand-new tarmac again built by the Chinese. All part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan to rejuvenate the old Silk Road with a $50 billion investment in Central Asian road-building. We did, of course, have to wait a bit at the Uzbek-Tajik border: there was a power cut which meant the border guards’ computers couldn’t be switched on. We sat on the benches in no-man’s land as policemen took it in turns to play with our bikes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen grown men so excited at the mechanics of a bicycle bell. Three hours later we were allowed through (despite the power remaining off), walked our bikes over to Tajikistan and gleefully got our entry stamps, which signalled the end of our Uzbekistan adventure. It had been tough but extremely rewarding. The Tajik customs officials were on their lunch break, so we ducked underneath the barrier and carried on walking. Nobody called us back – so we mounted up, hit the road and were in Dushanbe by nightfall.

Nick

Arrival in Dushanbe, 20 Nov 14

Arrival in the Tajik capital

Resting up for the Pamirs

Resting up for the Pamirs

 

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