TAJIKISTAN, 22nd – 29th October 2017
4,300 metres was the highest I’d ever spent the night, but despite Dea’s headache I wasn’t too worried about the altitude. We’d come up pretty gradually from the Wakhan Valley and I was confident that we’d acclimatised fine. My main concern was the cold, but our combined six sleeping bags and multiple layers of clothes, not to mention my brilliant secret bin liner technique (it involves stuffing bin layers down your jacket, not so secret now, or brilliant really), kept us warm enough through the night. And luckily Dea’s headache didn’t get worse and she felt not too bad in the morning, which was particularly lucky for me, because I felt truly awful.
A very weird feeling came over me as I climbed out of the tent and tried to stand. My head simply wasn’t right and I couldn’t think straight. I felt a bit like I was drunk. The synapses in my brain just weren’t connecting quite right. My body felt incredibly weak; it was like I had been drained of all my energy. I celebrated by lying down in the sand.
Dea was naturally worried about me, as I explained that I almost certainly had altitude sickness and didn’t feel up to doing anything. I was aware that it was very cold. I was aware that the only real cure for altitude sickness was to descend. I was aware that not doing anything wasn’t really an option, but I really, really, really didn’t feel like moving. Then Dea’s voice cut through the haze. “Chris, you need to pack up your things. It’s important.” Those words struck a chord. It was important. I needed to descend to a lower altitude, and to do that I needed to move myself. I couldn’t rely on a car to come and help me. It would ruin my whole challenge and, in any case, there weren’t any.
I packed my things into my panniers and loaded up my bike, a task which felt monumentally more difficult than it ever had before. Every pannier felt like a lead weight and I was frequently left gasping for oxygen as I lifted them onto the frame. “I’ll pack up the tent,” Dea said, “you just getting going.” The concern in her voice confirmed what a serious situation I was in. I was so lucky to have her with me.
I left Dea to deal with the tent and began to pedal. As difficult as this was I knew I had to do it, and I felt my legs moving on autopilot, muscle memory guiding me even as my brain struggled to focus. I was aware that my fingers and toes were completely frozen but this did not bother me in the least. The only thought I had in my mind was that I needed to descend. I needed to get down to a lower altitude. Unfortunately this was not easy. We had not quite reached the summit of the pass the night before, and so before I could go down I first had to go up. With the road being bad and my body being weak this was not an easy thing to do. I struggled forwards, not wanting to stop because I did not believe I would be able to start again. Slowly, slowly I edged on up the pass.
Eventually I made it to the top and a long descent loomed in front of me. I felt a sense of relief, but also one of concern, because my companion was not at my side. As much as I needed to descend I simply could not do so without Dea. If something happened to her on this empty, frozen mountain pass I should not forgive myself for leaving her, so I took a seat on a rock and ate half a Snickers (it was all I could stomach) while I waited for her. Before too long she appeared, and we could descend together.
Initially the road dropped quickly and I felt a sense of relief that I was on my way to safety, but sadly this steep descent lasted only a few kilometres. The road flattened out and to my dismay started to go up again in places. We were still well above 4,000 metres and I didn’t feel any better. In fact I was getting worse. The climbs were steep and just incredibly, incredibly difficult for me. At times I had to walk, and even then I could walk only a few paces before needing to stop and catch my breath. Dea walked alongside me, comforting me, promising me it would be okay. This was one of the hardest days of my life. I just felt like lying down all of the time. I could not stomach any food. When I did force some down it was only a little while before it came back up again. I was getting weaker and weaker, but I still needed to get lower. Dea kept me motivated. “I think it’s the last uphill,” she said as we stood looking at another climb, which couldn’t have been based on much really, other than her sense of optimism. Ignoring every fibre of my being telling me to lie down, I walked up it, step by step, and miraculously Dea was right. There was a long descent on the other side of it. Once we got down from that and arrived at a flatter section I announced that we were low enough and I could go no further, before collapsing. Dea put up the tent and I crawled inside. We had gone 17 kilometres.
I slept all afternoon, woke up briefly to eat some dinner (pasta and beans, our Pamir favourite), then slept all evening and all night. It was, I think, the best sleep I have ever had. It was a glorious, glorious sleep. The next morning I felt wonderful. Well, I didn’t exactly feel wonderful, but it was wonderful to have my own mind back in my head again. We were in a beautiful location, and Dea told me it had been beautiful all through the previous day as well, though I can’t say as I’d noticed. We continued cycling on through the last kilometres of the bumpy, remote road that we had been struggling on for days, before finally emerging on the Pamir plateau. Our wheels hit tarmac. We had reconnected with the M41, the main road. We had made it.
The road was still very quiet and the sense of remoteness remained as we began to make much faster progress eastwards, amazed by the vastness and beauty of this high plateau. Before long we arrived in Alichur, a small town of simple square white homes that sits in the midst of all this nothingness. It felt bizarre to be back in ‘civilization’ again. Just seeing people was a tremendous novelty. We found a shop, which sold almost nothing other than sweets, and then a cafe where we ate lunch. It felt so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so good to step in out of the cold for a little while and consume warm food and tea.
Returning outside to the cold road was eased by the tremendous tailwind that blew us along for the rest of the day. We camped in the shelter of an electric pylon, then continued to be blown along the next morning. I listened to music and felt so happy. It was an almost perfect place to cycle – this great, empty road, through beautiful mountain scenery under a big blue sky, with my girl at my side. If it hadn’t felt so damn freezing cold every time that we paused to take a break, then I think it would have been perfect. But the cold of late October at almost 4,000 metres was taking a toll. Dea was sometimes finding the long, cold nights a challenge, and to cheer us both up we decided to stop at a guest house in Murghab. This town of 6,000 appeared 100 kilometres after Alichur, more simple white homes appearing out of the great nothingness. At the guest house we were able to pour hot water over ourselves from a bucket, to sleep in a heated room, and to eat lots of fried potatoes. It was a tremendous morale boost, my mood only slightly dampened by having to replace my rear Schwalbe Mondial tyre with our last spare due to an infuriating failure of the sidewall (a common fault of these tyres, so I’m told).
The next morning we restocked at Murghab’s bazaar, a collection of small shops housed in old shipping containers. To our delight we found a lot of good things, including cheese, cakes, grapes and apples, and stocked up with enough food to get us through the last empty sections of Tajikistan. With our bikes loaded down again we wheeled back out on the empty road. Ahead of us, beyond the mountains, stood two white, cloudy peaks. “Those are in China,” Dea pointed out, looking at our map. At first I insisted that they weren’t mountains, just clouds, but after a while I gave in to the fact that Dea, as ever, was right. Then I realised what that meant. I could see China. I could f*cking see China. I put my music back on and pedalled onwards looking up at China, daydreams of reaching Mori filling my head. I remembered those streets. The hotel I’d stayed in. How difficult those days were. What would it feel like to return? More than three years had passed since I restarted on my bikes-and-boats circumnavigation from Mori. I was now so, so close to making it back.
And the next day I was back in China, sort of. A fence lined the road, which kind of marks the border between Tajikistan and China, except it doesn’t really. Just like in 2014, I found a gap in the fence and stepped into ‘China’. The only difference this time, of course, was that I didn’t do it alone. Last time I cycled this way I’d been daydreaming of finding the right person to ride with, now I continued to pinch myself that I could have been so lucky as to have actually found her.
Ahead of us was the highest point of the trip, a 4,655 metre high pass. For most of the morning the road remained well paved, but it took us a lot longer than expected to reach the start of the final steep section. Conveniently the summit sign for this pass is at the foot of this steep section, so we could get our summit-photo posed for while we still looked relatively fresh (except, of course, we had been cycling in very difficult, very cold conditions for a very long time, so we didn’t look anything of the sort). Then of course, there came the great inconvenience of still having to cycle up to the summit. And it was mightily difficult. The road became less well paved and started to climb at much steeper gradients. This might have been alright at normal altitudes, but with so little oxygen it was all we could do to cycle 50 metres at a time before having to stop and gasp for breath. With this slow technique it took an awfully long time to make our way up, with Dea remarking that this was the hardest thing she had ever done.
Eventually we did make it to the summit, and I somehow found the energy to climb up onto a rock, so that I should be the highest I had ever been (just beating the last time I was here, when I didn’t climb up into a rock). We then quickly began on the descent, as it was getting late. The road was bad and we couldn’t go fast, but we made it down the initial steep section before deciding to pitch our tent in a most beautiful location surrounded by white peaks. We were well above 4,000 metres, and Dea was concerned about the altitude. I wasn’t concerned about the altitude, because I have a very poor memory.
Luckily we had acclimatised enough, and suffered no ill-effects of the altitude, allowing us to continue on our merry way in the morning. It was very, very cold. The streams were all frozen. The road down was a bad washboard surface though, so at least we couldn’t go fast enough to get too cold and when we got to a little climb we didn’t mind too much as it allowed us to warm up. This now paved road brought us through some mountains on the other side of which we gained our first view of Karakol lake. It was very, very blue and only grew more and more magnificent the closer we got to it, encircled as it was by snowy peaks. We decided to spend another night out of the cold in Karakol, and found ourselves a homestay. It was another good decision, with the warmth and good food raising our spirits.
And my spirits were even higher the next day as we rode on again on the empty road. Though the nights were cold, every single day was clear and sunny, and the temperatures rose nicely above freezing. We had no regrets at all about coming here this time of year. When we paused to take a break I walked out a little into the sand and spun myself around and around. I was trying to see everything all at once. In every direction there were snowy mountains. On one whole side of me was this incredible blue lake. On the other was Dea and the bikes. I felt so lucky as all these wonderful things whizzed around in my vision. It was amazing, at least until I collapsed on the ground feeling dizzy and sick.
We spent our last night in Tajikistan in China. The only place we could find shelter from the wind was next to some old abandoned buildings on the other side of the border fence. We had barely seen a soul all day though, so we had no worries about where we camped (and besides, it’s not really a border fence). Another cold, cold night had us waking up to ice on the sleeping bags and hopes of getting to Sary Tash in Kyrgyzstan and finding a guest house. But it was sunny again and there was no wind, perfect conditions as we made our way towards the final 4,300 metre pass between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The conditions were in complete contrast to when I’d been here before. Then I’d had a mighty headwind and been pummelled by a blizzard. In my book I’d described it as one of the hardest climbs of my life, where I risked being blown off steep precipices. Now that visibility was a bit better I could see the steep precipices were only a couple of feet high. “Are they the steep precipices?” Dea asked, unimpressed.
It was nice to be able to see things this time, as the scenery here was certainly worth seeing. Dea made the climb look easy and while I made it look very hard, it was nowhere near as bad as I remembered. Before we knew it we were at the few nondescript border buildings that marked the end of Tajikistan, and we were quickly stamped out and on our way to Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan had been a simply amazing adventure, probably the most exciting, difficult, rewarding country of our trip so far. At the top of the pass we paused to eat lunch, to reflect on what we had achieved, and to admire the magnificent views ahead of us. From the top we looked down into Kyrgyzstan, where the mountainsides were green. It looked quite different from the yellow, rocky landscape we’d been in for so long. It looked amazing. It looked inviting. It looked like a new adventure was about to begin.
Distance cycled: 341 kilometres
For more photos, check out the Flickr album below: