Maria’s fingers curled once more into a perfect circle, with forefinger and thumb kissing lightly and the remaining digits fanning out delicately. She repeated with even greater Castilian clarity this time her response to our duplicated question.
She mouthed the words precisely and even more deliberately as if we were somewhat slow-witted:
“B-u-e-n-a C-a-r-r-e-t-e-r-a.” (“Good Road”)
Bless Maria. With hindsight we assume that she must simply have been trying to calm our fears about the state of the road along the Wakhan Corridor. One of the most curiously thin geographical strips of land (at times a mere 20km in width) that juts out for approximately 400km north-east within Afghanistan, with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south and a tiny border with China at its most easterly end. But it seems that Maria may also have been suffering from what can only be described as the sheer blissful ignorance that 4×4 passengers have in respect to what may constitute a decent, or even passable road for us poor old two-wheeled non-automotive voyagers.
Maria was heading in the other direction to us and her mendacious words of encouragement certainly propelled us onwards, even if it was into the valley of shifting sands (6” deep) and miles of unpedalable paths. The way, however, was glorious. And having completed what was undoubtedly the most arduous leg of our trip so far, we are so grateful that we did “plough” (oh, what an fitting word to use) onwards and upwards towards the heavens and the upper reaches of the Hindu Kush.
But again, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning and leave diminutive Spanish ladies and frantically waving Afghans until later. Given that we spent more than a month in the high altitudes of this beauteous mountain state this blog entry will not be a short one but bear with us. At least for the photos.
Four exhausted cyclists eventually rolled into and through Dushanbe’s late night revelries. The Portuguese were still in tow (or really vice-versa) and together we recharged our energy reserves, sussed out more visas and the ways of the currency in the local markets, and generally recovered from the multiple stomach baddies that had hounded us doggedly for days on end. Dushanbe remained unassuming, functional and perfectly perfunctory throughout our time there. A place to visit, but not more.
Our thoughts had already turned to a word that had long been legend in our preparatory days when on cold winter nights in our bathroom on Haberdasher Street in London we would trace out with one index finger (the other hand always occupied with the brushing of teeth) a possible route on our laminated world map through the….PAMIRS.
The stuff of yore not just for modern day cycle tourists but the upper most reaches and battle ground for dastardly secret agents during the ‘Good Ol’ Great Game’. It was here in the oft-impassable Pamirs that posh Brits and suave Ruskis got fancy-dressed in the local garb, learnt the bizillion dialects of the region (that vary entirely from one small valley to the next), and generally spied on the activities of their imperial opponents.
This is a part of the globe that is virtually shut off from the rest of the world for 8 months of the year as temperatures nose-dive to well under -30°C with the numerous mountain passes usually comfortably higher than any inhabited area in Europe. Along the notorious Pamir Highway itself, a marvel of Russian road-building, we even climbed to over 4655m, literally just inches (well, almost) lower than the very highest peak in Europe.
Our route from Dushanbe to the high peaks began by swishing this way and that through softly rising valleys until the green and brown of the grasses faded to nought and bare, gnarly rock was left in its place. The first 525km of “road” took us to Khorog and within 75km of leaving the capital, we gave the rolling-wrist-regal-wave to the tarmac as it disappeared and greeted the rock, gravel and sand that became our travel companions.
Francesca and Sam, not merely content to take up the challenge of ascending the one fabulous and grizzly pass on route (1500m up in one day!), decided that chronic tummy trouble and multiple-bee-sting-induced-fever should be added to their travails. And so it was that lessons were learnt. Sam promised not to run screaming around a bee-hive hut in an attempt to buy local honey and Francesca resolved not to eat again in Central Asia.
What had been due to be a 6-day gentle introduction to the mountains turned into what felt like an epic 9-day adventure. All the more so for our erst-while pedalling Portuguese whose bikes simply crumpled in the face of the unforgiving roads. (They have fortunately been sponsored and they presently await new bikes in China).
Despite our leviathan efforts, and our daily saluting at the grand (6000m+) peaks we were somewhat deflated to see a sign just a few kilometres before Khorog that read, “Welcome to the Pamir Mountains”. So what had we just done then? Well, quite a lot actually. Having climbed Bee-Sting-Tummy-Trouble mountain we dropped down almost the same height to reach the southern border of Tajikistan where it greets its troubled neighbour, Afghanistan. And it was close, truly a stone’s throw away. We know because Sam chucked one.
And so it was for the next 500km and 2 weeks that we cycled along the cloudy Panj river that separates former Soviet Union from old time Mujahedeen hang-out. An area of modern-day clashed civilisations and one still peppered with unexploded land-mines. Be sure that we camped very carefully each evening.
From Khorog, the “real” Pamir Highway is said to begin and we could have taken the soft option of starting there, but that would have been too, well, soft, and in any event we were repulsed by the idea all that sweet asphalt, so instead of cutting directly eastward we continued further south into the fabled Wakhan Corridor and to its market border-village, Ishkashim, where each week the good folk of Tajikistan (and the odd bemused western tourist) are permitted to exit through Tajik immigration and cross on to an island in the river and do their Saturday morning shopping in no-man’s land (just like Sainsbury’s). This was a special experience, to finally transact up close and personal with Afghan traders and shoppers alike who for days on end had waved energetically at us as we zoomed along the opposing shore of their Panj River.
As ever a visa-clock was ticking and we cajoled each other onwards over stunning scenery with side valleys along the now Wakhan River Valley revealing titillating peep-shows of the super high-peaks of the Afghan/Pakistan Hindu Kush, as the “B-u-e-n-a C-a-r-r-e-t-e-r-a” turned once more from cracked tarmac to rubble, then gravel, then sand and finally mulch. But we pressed onwards. Poor Sam, all the while, labouring under the weight that he had valiantly volunteered to shoulder to help us across yet another 4000m+ pass.
And then there it was, the glistening black tarmac of the Pamir Highway snaking off to the east and China. We got down, prayed and fully repented for our disobedience. And we resolved to praise our new “Black Stuff” at every turn. Days of trudging through sand with 45kg bicycles were over, just sweet rolling from here on. Almost.
The days on the Highway that followed were delicious. 25°C (and dry) and we basked, particularly after the infernos of Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The nights, however, were cold and we finally found use for the long-redundant kilograms of winter clothing that we had hauled all the way from our time back on the Rhine Valley in February, when foot warmth was in some ways an issue. We were not fazed by frost on the tent in the mornings, as we Europeans seem to operate best when the mercury is resting on its haunches.
Skirting now northwards and skimming within metres of the Chinese Border fence, the Pamir Highway was carrying us fast. Fast towards mobile phone coverage. Fast towards internet. Fast towards the delights of scrumptious Chinese food. And fast towards the Tajik border crossing with Kyrgyzstan (we made it out with 2 hours of our visa remaining!), which would be our final Central Asian country before entering the Beast of the East, our “initial” final country: China.
Yes, we have been thinking that this adventure-cycle-touring is really quite fun and we might like to head on a bit further than we initially planned. But more about that later.
This has been an overly-lengthy blog entry but there was much we wanted to say. No insightful commentary, however, on regional customs and politics and barely a note on the friendly, hospitable Tajiks themselves (somewhat tourist fatigued on the Highway despite the relatively paltry numbers that pass through. On average we saw 15 vehicles per day (usually Chinese trucks) on the Highway itself and around 4-a-day in the Wakhan) who laughed heartily while listening to our Farsi, a sister language to Tajik.
Finally, please click here for a look at all the most recent photos we have lovingly uploaded onto our blog. Truly, we have learnt the zen art of patience getting these things up and available. And click here to see (drum roll please, or a slow clap) our finally updated “route so far”, after numerous requests.