TAJIKISTAN, 12th – 21st Ocotober 2017
Should we cycle the Wakhan Valley or not? It was a question we had left open and naturally had discussed a lot on the way to Khorog. It was here we could choose to either stay on the main road, M41, that would from then on be a smooth, tarmacked road running up to and over the Pamir plateau, or we could stick to the river and the Afghan border all the way down through the south-eastern corner of Tajikistan through the so called Wakhan Valley, before turning north over the Kargush pass of 4,344 metres to reach the M41 up on the plateau. 320 kilometres on an, amongst cyclist, famously bad road.
As we reached Khorog and the Pamir Lodge we had almost made up our minds: We wanted to go through the Wakhan Valley.
Our main concern about going through the Wakhan Valley was Chris’s welded fork and the many kilometres of washboard surface on the gravel road. It was really this kind of cycling you should only do on a bike in tip-top shape. It was very likely that it would shake and stir the weld and crack open again. If this happened, and Chris didn’t get badly hurt by crashing on a broken fork, we would be far, far away from any options of finding some kind of alternative fork or reparation. Our best chance would be to find a welder in the nearest village, but on the most remote stretch over the Kargush pass there was more than a hundred kilometres between the villages. Of course if Chris had been a normal cycle tourist he could hitch a lift with one of the few vehicles that drove this way, but as you all know, this was not an option. Alternatively I was willing to give him my bike to ride while hitching a lift myself, whereas Chris preferred the idea of just walking the distance instead, as he didn’t want to steal the experience of cycling the Wakhan Valley from me.
These were our thoughts. So why did we even consider cycling through the Wakhan Valley when there was a smooth tarmac alternative that probably also would provide a beautiful ride up to the plateau? Well, because a bit of insanity and hunger for adventure are essential ingredients in any cycle tourist’s mentality, I guess.
I had imagined cycling the Wakhan Valley ever since we began planning this trip, reading other cyclists’ blogs about cycling here with dread and excitement. They told about mechanical breakdowns, roads so bad, so steep and at such high altitude that they had to push their bikes. They told about freezing cold nights, vicious winds and sparse food resources on the most remote stretch. Definitely, some kind of mad masochism could explain part of my desire to do exactly the same.
Now to prepare myself for the challenge I returned to especially two of these blogs, our friends Martin and Susanne on Twistingspokes.com and an Irish guy called William Bennett who, similarly to Chris was undertaking an adventurous attempt to cycle all the way around the world (although he allowed himself to use other transport in between the cycling), and documenting it thoroughly on his blog.
Worryingly Bennett’s account told about how the other four cyclists he set out from Khorog with had to return to Khorog (in cars) because their bikes broke down. This could be seen as a very sensible reason not to go this way on a bike with a welded fork and a wobbly bottom bracket, like Chris’s – especially when taking a car in case of a breakdown was not an option. But knowing that Bennett’s whole trip was somehow mysteriously surrounded by an aura of bad luck, we concluded that the breakdowns were merely due to Bennett’s presence, not so much the road conditions. Luckily for us, Bennett was at the moment far, far away cycling in Ethiopia having a hell of a time with the local people along the road mocking, attacking and abusing him from morning till evening, so we felt at peace on this issue.
I was surprised that Bennett wrote that the Wakhan Valley opened up with 200 kilometres of good road. Surely that was a mistake, he must have meant 20 kilometres, we agreed, as the Wakhan Valley to us is known for being a bad, bad road. Two Swiss guys who just came from the Wakhan Valley in a jeep and on motorbike (neither of them had been able to convince the other of their preferred vehicle and so they went together each on/in their favourite) confirmed that the first 20 kilometres were a nice paved road. The rest, they said, was alright and by the way the people were nice, the scenery amazing and the whole experience definitely worth it. It is hard to compare going with motorized transport and bicycle though, the whole ride had taken them two days and they were therefore oblivious to all our concerns about having enough food, cycling at high altitude, pushing uphill and such things. But their enthusiasm was affirming. Especially since we had got other, surprisingly, less enthusiastic reviews about the route from other cyclists. We had asked every other cyclist we had met coming from the Pamirs about the Wakhan Valley and the most common answer we got was: “Nahh, I didn’t go through the Wakhan. I met so many other cyclists saying the scenery didn’t make up for the effort it was to cycle the bad roads, so I decided to stick to the main road.” When Chris had cycled the Pamirs the last time it had seemed that every cyclist was eager to go that way, and only because he didn’t have enough time on his visa, had he stayed on the M41. But now the general mood amongst the Pamir cyclists seemed to have changed, and why was that? We wondered a bit and then concluded, that this was a view presented to us from people who had had chosen not to go that way and therefore held on to the stories about the bad roads and struggle as a reason for them not to go there. But we, we wanted the struggle (yes, because we are cycle masochists) and we thought we would see the effort the Wakhan Valley demanded as a part of the rewarding experience. Or at least we wanted to find out the truth about cycling the Wakhan Valley.
We were apparently the only cyclists thinking so, though. All the other cyclists we knew of who were cycling the Pamirs in the late season opted for the main road. Alex from Guernsey, Jack and Barbara, Alex from Somerset and speedy Henry had already gone that way. Liz and Miranda (who were still behind us), and a French and a Spanish guy who arrived at the Pamir Lodge while we were there all planned to do it. None of them even seemed to consider the adventures of the Wakhan Valley.
It did make the thought, if it really was a good idea, flash through my mind, but more than that it made me want to face my worries and the hard cycling, face the adventure and go through it all. That was the full experience I had come here for.
We still had enough time left on our 45 day visa to only aim for an easy 34 kilometres per day and the weather was still clear and calm. I really just wanted to spend more time in this great place, I didn’t want it to be over too soon. Of course winter was on its way, but October and November were supposed to be the dry months and Maya, the old lady with the cow, the missing phone and Fear Factor in the tv that we had met before Khorog, had assured us that the passes would still be open until January. That was all the research into the weather we felt we needed to do – having forgotten all about the lesson we’d had detouring through the Alps due to snow in the spring.
Chris went to the supermarket and bought all the food he could carry, and that was a lot, and with 15 tins of beans, several kilos of peanuts, raisins and almonds, snickers, crisps, pasta and most preciously to me: a bag of real, nutty and fruity muesli and four cups of yogurt, we set out after two good days of resting in the Pamir Lodge. Of course I had a bad stomach again, but as before it was not something that was going to hold me back. It was all just like it should be for the beginning of a real adventure.
It was so good to be back on the bikes cycling along the Panj river and the border to Afghanistan. The road was quieter here with most of the traffic using the M41 up over the plateau, but we were still a bit bothered by a considerable number of 4x4s going between the villages and the bigger towns. They drove fast and recklessly and we found it best to just get off the road when they approached. But the river was ever so blue and the trees ever so yellow so that I thought I never wanted to go anywhere else. This was the best place in the world to be. It was warm and sunny, so that we laid sunbathing (in our clothes) on the little beaches when we took our breaks, and we still had tolerable night temperatures with our really warm winter equipment (which in Chris’s case consisted of a roll of bin liners) packed deep down in our panniers. The truth was that the first stretch of cycling in the Wakhan Valley was perfectly good cycle touring.
After 15 kilometres of fine asphalt out of Khorog we hit the first sections of washboard and I thought “It has begun”. After 40 kilometres, we met another cycle tourer, Simoné from the Italian Alps, coming the other way. He was exhausted from the headwind he had had, which promised us tailwinds, but otherwise only had good things to say about our route ahead. He even confirmed Bennett’s statement about the 200 kilometres of good road, saying that from where we were and the next 100 kilometres the road would be fairly paved. It sounded too good to be true, but it was, and we made good progress the rest of the day. Late in the afternoon we got our first view of some mountains that were bigger than what we had seen so far and completely covered in white snow in the southern horizon. It was the Hindukush mountain range that lay in Afghanistan and marked the border to Pakistan, and it was a stunning sight. We were really getting near the big mountains now.
That evening we had dinner of fried eggs and a delicious home made Pamir ketchup in a small restaurant to save our food depots for the more remote stretches of the route. The ketchup, and many other readymade products we could buy in the shops, were wretched and flavourless, a joke really, whereas the home made food was rich and tasty, although made with very few ingredients. Quite the opposite of our supermarket culture where we buy many things readymade as it is easier, cheaper and tastier, due to a worrying amount of chemicals, than making it ourselves. But here the products you could buy didn’t support such a turn over and I found that interesting.
The cashier had fallen asleep while we ate and didn’t wake up by our tentative “erhm, excuse me…” until the cook came in and woke him up. We paid and left to find a camp spot where we could place the tent so that the Hindukush lay at our feet when we unzipped the tent, because the truth was that camping in the Wakhan Valley was great.
In Ishkeshim, the only bigger town that we reached after 100 kilometres, we stocked up some more. Not so much because our depots had sunken, but just to be sure we would have enough food. The unfortunate William Bennett had not stocked up for the last 100 kilometre push over the Kargush pass until the very last village of Langar and here he had only found some biscuits and a few old swiss rolls that would have to do him for three days. We would not end up like that, so we stuffed another couple of kilos of nuts, raisins, chocolate, yogurt and cookies into our already very full panniers plus a very interesting purchase of frozen, mashed potato, or so we thought.
There were some big hills in and around Ishkeshim and as it was midday the road was busy with school kids that were on their way home for their lunch break. They screamed and waved excitedly when they saw us, and a group of boys made me stop and one found his English school book and had me practising the alphabet with him. When we cycled on they walked with us most of the way up a steep hill giggling and probably wondering why on earth we would trouble ourselves so much pedalling our heavy bikes up into these mountains. But around us the trees were yellow and red, above us the sky was a formidable blue and ahead of us rose a snowy peak and it was a perfect place to sweat and pant and struggle.
On the top of the hill we sat down for a break, now left alone by the kids, and as we sat there three other cyclists arrived coming the other way up the hill one after the other. The first one was a light, French bikepacker, the second a French tourer with two panniers and last was the Australian Tim with four panniers and some extra luggage on top, nearly as much as we had on our bikes. It was a pretty obvious example of how weight made a difference to the effort it took to cycle, and I looked a little worried on our bikes that were heavier than ever. Maybe we were carrying a bit too much making the ride unnecessarily hard? On the other hand, as I didn’t mind so much about weight I had without concerns accepted a kilo of apples a woman back in Ishkeshim had offered me, and now I could offer as many juicy apples as the guys would like, and it was much appreciated after their days on sparse resources through the valley. They were nice guys and it was good to see that we were not the only ones opting for the struggle and remote Wakhan Valley. They would be the last we would meet over the Pamirs. They talked positively about the ride although they said: “You will have decent tarmac until Shitkharv 50 kilometres away and after then… well, good luck!”
The real struggles were still awaiting us.
Again a great view of snowy mountains met us in the late afternoon as we turned east into the next section of the valley where the two socialists, Karl Marx Peak at 6723 metres and Engels Peak at 6507 metres rose high over the other mountains, like to white haired granddaddies overlooking it all and waiting for us, still almost 100 kilometres away. The landscape had changed, so that the valley now was wider, the river too and the Afghan banks so far away that we could no longer follow the life over there. However, there didn’t seem to be more villages over there, only the mountain masses of the Hindukush that from time to time let us glimpse the snowy peaks behind the first row of grey walls. The landscape felt more rough and barren, exposed to the wind that from time to time picked up and thundered through the valley, fortunately in our favour.
There were still villages spread out along the road like little pearls of life and yellow trees on a string. Here we were always met with dozens of waves and shouts of “hello”, “bye, bye” or “tourist” from the many kids that would sprint up to the road when they saw us. Sometimes they had innocent, genuine excitement shining in their eyes which was so charming, but sometimes cheeky ideas had grown in them and they tried to hold on to our hands if we accepted their high fives, push or kick the bikes or they tried half-heartedly to block the road. It could be uncomfortable and annoying, but all we had to do was to remember the hardships of William Bennett in Ethiopia as this was nothing in comparison.
Also the animal life in the villages caught our attention as it seemed to be the season for mating. Again and again we heard the loud “EHH-OHH” of a donkey stallion before he sprang after a reluctant mare and chased her around for many minutes, often he got tired before he had any luck. In one place, two bulls were having a real fight to see who was the biggest and strongest (and therefore the candidate for fathership of the next generation of Wakhan calves) and with their heads down and horns locked into each other they pushed and struggled. It took place in the middle of the road so a group of men had to jump and run off the road to get out of their way. The goats seemed not so concerned about reproduction, but instead presented some incredible skills in how to find food as we passed a tree with two goats eating the leaves – standing up in the tree.
After the village Darshai the tarmac disappeared, only to return again in the next village Shitkharv. Here we had a long, mild climb out of the town where the tarmac again was replaced by gravel made of loose, big rocks just as the road rose steep up into a curve. This was where we were told the bad road really began, and what a beginning. It took all our strength and balance to pedal the bikes the few hundred metres up and I think we both thought: “This is worse than I thought it would be”.
But after the steep little climb it got more gentle and I felt I got the hang of it, although the going was very bumpy and slow from then on. Sometimes the tarmac came back when we went through a village, sometimes the surface was so loose of sand and rocks that we had to push. It was what we had expected, and except when the lose surface had me lose my balance, sometimes hitting my legs on the frame and pedals as I quickly jumped off and I instead had to push the heavy bike slowly forward until it got grip again, except from a few of these moment I found it somehow good to be slowed down by the road. It forced more time into our experience of being in the valley and it was a place I really enjoyed to be. We were not in a rush, and it was a great feeling that sometimes had been missing on our journey so far. We enjoyed some great matches of volleyball as it seemed to be a popular sport here with many open courts with decent nets along the road. We played another game of the Spotting Things Game (which I won 9-8) and at a little waterfall we had a natural shower with views of the snowy peaks of Afghanistan.
In the morning on the sixth day after we left Khorog we passed through the last villages of the Wakhan Valley. We had stocked up in the previous village shops in Vrang and Zong, but it was not possible to buy bread here, as it was something every household would produce themselves. Instead we had to ask in a home and we followed a sign to a home stay to try our luck here. We didn’t find the home stay, I think, but a very old man with a walking stick and cool, black sunglasses. Chris asked him where we could buy bread, and the word quickly spread, so that it was not long before a woman, also wearing cool, black sunglasses, came out with a big, round bread for us. The money Chris tried to pay was refused and as if this was not generous enough another woman came out with yet another big, round bread for us. This time I thought I’d try and give her the two red peppers I still had in my panniers from Khorog, maybe they didn’t get many of them out here. We had cooked some nice meals with our fresh vegetable (and the frozen mashed potato that turned out to be margarine), and I would have loved to use the peppers myself higher up in the mountains where fresh food was harder to get, but I also really wanted to show my appreciation of these people’s generosity and thankfully she accepted the vegetables.
We now had everything we needed to set out on the 100 kilometre stretch of remote climbing up over the Khargush pass and onto the Pamir plateau where we would reach the paved M41 again. Still being in the village of Langar the climbing began, so we had quite a few local people watching us silently as we, forced by the loose gravel, steep decent and altitude of about 2,800 metres, had to push our bikes most of the way up through a series of switchbacks. They must have seen it so many times wondering why we cyclists voluntarily would put ourselves through such a struggle and I’m not sure I can explain why. A few 4x4s were taking off from the village the same time as us to go up to the plateau, but we proudly declined the lifts we were naturally offered. We wanted to do this ourselves, we wanted the struggle. Or would we? It was devastatingly hard and after we had passed the village the road flattened a little, but only to reveal how it continued to crawl up along the mountain slopes. In that moment the truth about cycling the Wakhan Valley was that it was really, really tough, that it made me doubt it. For a second or maybe a little bit more I thought, this was more than we could do, especially if it continued like this for the next 100 kilometres. I hid my anxiety behind the struggle, and pushed and pedalled, 50 or 100 metres at a time, then I had to stop for a minute or more to catch my breath. We moved forwards painfully slow and the thought of the long way still ahead of us weighed in our heads and the 12 tins of beans weighed in our panniers.
We had come up to a different scenery, now cycling high up on the barren mountain slopes with the river running down in a gorge we could not even see and new, snowy mountains rising on the other side. For the first time clouds were blocking the sun and covering us and the whole scene in a misty haze, so that it felt like we not really there. Or that we were not really anywhere, the landscape only stood out vaguely and pale. All there really was, was that tough road under our wheels. It really felt like we had reached the end of the world, but somehow there was still further to go.
In the end we only managed to cycle 23 kilometres that day, ending up camping in the shelter of an empty house at the bottom of a gorge where another river rushed down the mountain sides. Deep inside me I am anxious about being in mountains, they can make me feel so small and vulnerable exposed to the power and mighty dimensions of nature. And that was how I felt that evening curling up in our little shelter while the wind whizzed down between the cliffs that rose high around us to all sides. I was glad I was not all by myself.
The next day the cycling went easier as we were no longer climbing up but actually had a bit of downhill until we reached the river banks again and from then on followed its curves and bends. The landscape was somehow friendlier now with the river being more like a little stream and with soft, curvy, reddish mountains on the Afghan side. It was another valley, but there were no more trees, no more villages, no more “hello”s and no more horny donkeys and there were only a few cars passing us all day. We were all by ourselves out here and it was a special feeling. The night and mornings were cold now, below freezing, but the sun was out again and around noon it had warmed the world up so we could pack away gloves, scarfs and jackets, at least for a few hours until it dropped behind the mountains again around 4pm. We took our time on the road that still was full of steep little climbs where we had to stop to catch our breath or get off and push. But we had enough food and enough time, we didn’t need to hurry. The Afghan side was so close now that we literally could throw a stone there (and did it), but like on our side, there was no one there, or almost no one. On our side we were passed by a fast driving 4×4 6-7 times a day transporting goods and people from the valley to the plateau. On the Afghan side there were no cars and no cyclists, but there were caravans. Little groups of 6-7 horses or 3-4 camels ridden by a couple of men seemed to be undertaking the same job as the cars, transporting goods along the river.
After a cold night where we finally had to crawl into all our sleeping bags (and bin liners) and woke up to a frozen stream outside the tent, we warmed up by another steep little climb away from the river and up onto another slope above it. Here we could see the military camp that marked the beginning of the real and final climb over the pass. The road was flat now, but so sandy that we often had to give up cycling and push the bikes through the sand. For those of you who have never pushed a heavy loaded touring bike I can tell you it is much heavier than cycling it, and doing so through deep sand is a frustrating task. But I felt motivated by the sight of the military camp, and when we finally stood there, waiting for the armed guard to write down our details in yet another big book that no one would ever look in again, I already felt a sense of relief and reward. We had made it through the Wakhan Valley. Now there was only another 10 kilometres climbing up from 4,000 to the 4,344 metres pass and we would be at the climax of the challenge we had filled our minds and days with the last week and more.
The truth about cycling the Wakhan Valley is that in the end it is the struggle that makes it worth it.
I think these feelings helped me up the climb. It was quite steep again, the road a little better, so we didn’t have to push so much and whenever we stopped to catch our breath we could turn around and admire the peaks of Afghanistan that we now finally bid farewell. It was as if they grew bigger and whiter the longer we moved away from them and got their full size into perspective. It had been a great time alongside Afghanistan. After a couple of hours we reached the little lake that lay just a couple of kilometres from the top of the pass and here we had planned to camp. The sun had been dropping behind the mountains leaving us in the freezing cool shade, but in that moment it came through a gap in the mountains again and poured a last warm light over the peaceful scenery and Chris cycling in front of me. In his orange jumper he was shining bright like another little sun in my eyes.
A few minutes later the sun was gone, it quickly got very cold, and down by the lake we wanted to get the tent up quickly, so we could get into the warm sleeping bags. But the wind was picking up and there was not much shelter to find, and things got more problematic when one of the little tubes that connects the poles (which are usually held together by an elastic string running through them, but they had broken in both poles many months ago so they are all separate and loose like a Mikado game) was missing, so that we could not get a pole in the full length. But unlike me Chris doesn’t panic in such a situation and somehow repaired it with some plastic tube he had picked up by the road exactly for such an occasion. Then he made sure I was warm in the tent while he quickly cooked us some baked beans for dinner. Was I a lucky girl or what?
I lied there wrapped up like a sausage in several layers of clothes, a down vest and my jacket, three sleeping bags, scarfs, hat and hoodie and I felt so happy. Happy that we had made it to the top of the pass and (almost) the end of the bad road, happy about the time we had spent here exactly because of the bad road, happy that nothing had gone wrong and the bikes had not broken, happy that tomorrow it would be going downhill until we reached the tarmac on the M41, happy that we had chosen to cycle the Wakhan Valley in October.
The truth about cycling the Wakhan Valley is of course that there are many truths, each cyclist has their experience of it. Yes, it was a struggle and a lot of effort compared to cycling a nicely paved road, but on the top of it all, literally, the struggle was a part of what made me so happy in that moment. Cycling the Wakhan Valley in October made me happy.
I just had a slight headache as I was falling asleep in this happy state of mind, it was probably because of the altitude and probably not anything to worry about… Nothing to worry about… Probably… Nothing…
Khorog – Iskeshim – Langar – Kargush Pass 4,344 metres
291 kilometres cycled