Tajikistan is home to the Pamir mountains, a range sandwiched between the Tian Shan, Himalaya and Karakoram, and the site of some of the tallest and most beautiful peaks in the world. In many ways Tajikistan is the jewel of my meandering bike ride east. From the early planning stages of the trip when I had very little idea where I was going or how I was going to do it, I knew that I wanted to go through Tajikistan. It’s jagged snow capped peaks, endless views, rough winding roads and potential for absolute solitude were irresistible to me and the country has not disappointed. Over the last forty five days I have ridden some of the best roads of my life and Tajikistan has skyrocketed up to my favourite travel destination yet.
Tajikistan is most famous for being home to the well paved M41 or ‘Pamir Highway’, the second highest road in the world after the Karakoram Highway, and a trade passage used to truck huge amounts of goods (and tourists) between China and Central Asia. For the cyclist seeking a bit of adventure though there are a myriad of loops and side roads spread throughout the country. It’s when you stick your bike on some of these that things get a bit bumpy, and really bloody fun. The major deviations are the Bartang Valley, Wakhan Valley and Zorkal Nature Reserve routes. My mates and I decided to ride the latter two, promising ourselves that without enough time to do it now, one day in the future we will all be back to complete the Bartang too.
So settle in with a tea or coffee, because this is going to be a long one.
‘Card cannot be accessed’
Annoyingly, half way through my Tajikistan journey my SD card died. Although some were saved many of my favourite photos were lost, so this post has been padded out with pictures from my riding mate Jack’s camera. Cheers Jack for sharing.
Jack (left) and Elliot (right) are two jolly British riders from Sheffield who adopted me into their gang in Dushanbe and with whom I shared my journey across Tajikistan. At the time of meeting them my relationship with my girlfriend back in Australia had just recently broken down and my motivation to continue riding at all, let alone solo, was extremely low. I know that my trip across the country would have been far shorter and less joyful were it not for these two, their good humour and extremely good company. So thanks for everything guys – the next two posts are dedicated to you.
I’d love to say something about Dushanbe but the truth is I saw very little of it, spending most of my time here at the ‘Warmshowers’ home of Véro Geoffroy. Her home (now closed – as she has moved home to France) was a paradise for touring cyclists in the region where those travelling West could finally experience some luxury after the challenge of the mountains and those travelling East could pick Véro’s brain for route and planning advice.
A superbly generous person, Véro gave her lawn space and the the bottom floor of her house over to cyclists travelling through the region. During my stay there were at one time twenty five of us taking advantage of her hospitality.
With such good company and such hot weather (+40 degrees) there was little incentive to leave the home other than to grab ice creams and beers from the shops. So, we relaxed in our little oasis, cleaned our bikes and entertained ourselves by seeing who could write the neatest using their feet.
Once away from Dushanbe the tarmac surrendered to dirt and the horizon retreated behind steep jagged peaks.
We opted to ride the northern route from Dushanbe to Khorog, a challenging predominantly dirt and gravel road heading over a 3250m pass. The alternative is the better paved and flatter southern route, taken by most taxis and trucks, but we weren’t in Tajikistan to ride flat roads. Regardless, a huge landslide days before we set off had diverted the Panj river over a large section of the southern road rendering it completely impassable for nearly two weeks, much to the frustration of the many truck drivers stranded on either side.
The scenery along the way was a combination of Jurassic Park and South East Asia, but with none of the humidity. By Tajik standards we were still very much in the lowlands but the evenings were becoming cooler as we slowly rose away from Dushanbe and the oppressive warmth of Uzbekistan.
The trade off for the beautiful scenery were the hills that accompanied it. At the end of each magical dirt descent the road turned skyward and the air was filled with the sound of grinding gears and panting breaths until the next bend sent it down again.
The going was slow, due only in part to the hills. Around every corner we stopped to marvel at a new rock formation, the striking lines and soft curves of the mountains making the sheer cliff faces around us appear almost liquid.
Tajikistan is notorious as a country in which to become ill. In part this is because of general poor hygiene – a symptom of the nation’s poverty – but it is also because with nearly no bottled water available, cyclists are forced to drink from the available streams near the road which are often contaminated by animals and people further upriver. The locals here rarely drink fresh water, making it instead into tea and sterilising it during the boiling process, so nearly every cyclist travels with a water filter of some kind, and between the three of us we had all bases covered.
Jack carried a huge Sawyer gravity filter that slowly filled up a large bag with clean water overnight…
Elliot opted for a MSR Miniworks hand pump that could fill a water bottle in about a minute…
And I carried a Steripen – a device that kills microscopic bugs and sterilises up to a litre of water in 90 seconds using ultraviolet light. Nobody’s filter was perfect for all occasions, but as a group we were ready for anything.
The terrain flattened out briefly as we made our way through the lowlands towards the town of Tavildara,
Until soon we were climbing up the side of the 3252m Sagirdasht Pass. Véro had warned us that this was, although relatively low, one of the most difficult ascents of the Pamirs, and she wasn’t wrong. It was hot and steep at the base and as the road turned to large loose rocks my narrow road handlebars made it tough to keep my bike going in a straight line.
Rush hour up the Sagirdasht Pass.
After camping half way up the climb at 2000m we made a dash for the summit the following morning, the early morning light brilliantly illuminating the rising valley we had been following the day before.
Fuelling us for for the brilliant (but exceptionally rocky) 35km descent to Qalai Khumb.
We may have been now in a valley but the mountains remained – we just now rode between them instead of over them. The road is surprisingly remote and desolate in places but with lush green Tajik villages sprouting out of the dusty rock faces wherever a river broke through and flowed into the Panj. Don’t expect to find much in the way of food though; local shops rarely stock more than stale biscuits, cheap chocolates and sometimes onions.
Past Qalai Khumb the northern and southern roads to Khorog converge and skirt the Panj river. The river denotes the boundary between southern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan, and the novelty of having Afghanistan only meters away to our right never really wore off. It was almost like looking into another world to clearly see Afghans across from us commuting in their traditional clothes and plowing their fields with cows, their villages often connected by little more than goat tracks. You can still pretty easily visit this part of Afghanistan if you like, with visas available in Khorog. If we had known this earlier we may have considered it.
It was always a thrill to get a wave from an Afghan and we scored one at any opportunity. At a narrow part of the river we saw this gang of three strolling along a narrow walkway on the Afghan side. ‘Salam!’ we called, smiling and waving madly, and they stopped to return our waves, calling something to us in Pashto. With some gestures we worked out they were inviting us to cross the river into Afghanistan. A glance at the raging water below was enough for us to decline their polite invitation. Before parting, the man in the centre whipped out his phone and took a photo of us. It was only as they were walking away that we realised with the aid of binoculars the man at the rear had an AK-47 casually slung over his shoulder!
Elliot was lucky enough to ride through all of Tajikistan without becoming ill. Jack and I weren’t so lucky. Riding out of Qalai Khumb we treated ourselves to two bowls of yogurt from a roadside cafe (or ‘chaihana’) and by the end of the day neither of us were feeling great. The next day we had stomach aches and riding was interrupted by regular sprints off the side of the road to quell our intestinal demons. Two days after the yogurt we woke up and rolled to a shop where we collapsed on the doorstep too sick and exhausted to get back on the bike and too repulsed by food to eat anything other than bread.
We managed to get a kilometre further down the road before finding a suitable place to pitch our tents under some mulberry trees and surrender for the day. Total distance covered, 2.7km. Shortest day of the tour.
Further down the valley we were riding out of Shids when a series of large explosions erupted from the Afghan side. Four explosions in ten seconds sent huge plumes of dust into the air and large terrifying rocks shooting across the river, landing perilously close to us and our bikes. Confused and shaken we used the binoculars to see a road building exercise taking place on the Afghan side. With dynamite, pickaxes and a single jackhammer a team of men were chipping their way along a sheer rock face trying to build a path connecting two villages. We stood amazed as they walked along the newly blasted section, pushing and kicking large loose pieces of rock that cracked and tumbled before being swallowed by the river below.
Past Khorog the road along the Wakhan Valley levels out in a ribbon of blissfully smooth tarmac before returning to loose gravel after Shitkharv, magnificent views of the Hindu Kush mountain range rising into the clouds to our right.
The road runs west to east, meaning every afternoon we were treated to breathtaking sunsets as the sun streamed down the length of the valley, illuminating every granule of dust in the air and creating an almost magical scene.
The locals this way love a map. They rarely get to see maps of their own region and if the language barrier ever gets too difficult to penetrate, opening up a map can guarantee a good ten minutes of conversation.
Their houses are almost all the same; a wooden structure with hard packed mud walls painted a brilliant white, with hay on the roof. Paradoxically some people fit their mud houses with satellite dishes so that even here in the Wakhan Valley they can watch TV.
The interiors are often beautiful in their rustic simplicity. Tajiks use very little furniture, instead having large multi use areas which they fill with cushions, blankets or a plastic table cloth depending on whether they are sitting, sleeping or eating respectively. The floors are never a single height but rather are layered, each level leading to the next. In one living room I saw as many as three different levels in total – it had apparently been designed for each person to sleep on one level in an ascending style.
Sometimes the houses are built with a fireplace under the floor of a raised platform so that in the winter (where it can get as low as minus 20 degrees, even in the Wakhan) they can sleep above the warmth of the flames.
Here ‘Sourigoul’ sits in her kitchen, chopping up some lamb to boil for us. She invited us into her home after we asked for bread with the promise of ‘çay’, instead surprising us with a whole meal!
The official name of this region of eastern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan is the Badakshan region, the main religion here being a sect of Shia Islam called Ismaili Islam. Although there are various sects within Ismailism, they all share a recognition of Aga Khan IV as the 49th hereditary descendant of the prophet Muhammad, through Muhammad’s cousin. Each Aga Khan chooses the next in a selection process similar to that of the Dalai Llama, the current Aga Khan having been selected by the previous (his grandfather) in his will.
The current Aga Khan IV is a Swiss-born businessman living near Paris and is chairman of the Aga Khan Foundation which runs environmental, microfinance, health and education initiatives in the underdeveloped and often overlooked regions populated by Ismaili Muslims.
As the Ismaili’s spiritual leader, the Aga Khan is vital in their interpretation of Islam and in the guiding principles by which they live their lives. It is rare and fascinating for such an ancient religion to have such a modern spiritual leader, one who attended Harvard and owns racehorses. It is probably a good thing, as it helps their ideals and religious interpretations progress and remain current with more influence from other modern ideologies and streams of political thought.
They adore him too – we didn’t enter a single home without a prominently displayed image of Aga Khan IV in the doorway or living room.
Upon reaching the town of Zong we found a quiet guesthouse in which to store our bikes and prepared to embark on a side-adventure. We were told by some travellers in Khorog that there was a 6000 meter unnamed peak accessible from Zong that could be hiked with no specialised equipment. Entrusting our gear with the cute kids in our guesthouse, we set off.
(NB. Notice the blurry framed image of Aga Khan IV on the bookshelf to the right)
We were cycling and had no hiking equipment so instead filled our large bike bags with food, clothes and sleeping gear, lashing them to our bodies in a way that was often a two person job. It was uncomfortable and sometimes painful so we padded our shoulders with socks and gloves to lessen the strain.
A stove and fuel was too heavy to carry so we could cook no food on the mountain. To fuel our adventure we packed five big pieces of bread, various packets of dehydrated noodles to be eaten raw, a packet of tomato paste to be used as a spread, 1.5 kilos of sultanas, 1 kilo of peanuts, 700 grams of cheap biscuits. This was to be our diet for two and a half days. It would get the job done, but it has kind of ruined sultanas for me.
The path to the mountain began behind the town of Zong. It’s hard to find and we asked directions from everyone we saw. Much chai was offered, much of it accepted, and we found ourselves running very behind schedule.
The rays of a slowly setting sun softly lit our way as we trudged slowly upward, camping that night at 3800m, 900 meters above where we had begun.
The path led through valleys and along rivers towards a small settlement at 4250m, apparently inhabited by only one family. They live up here on the mountain between June and September each year to graze their goats, living off their milk and the land and occasionally riding a donkey into town to collect supplies. Before the winter snow arrives they retreat back down into the relative warmth of the valley.
After the settlement the well trodden path vanished and continuing on meant scrambling up loose rock and gravel to the ridge line above at 5000m. The air was now noticeably thinner and we were beginning to feel the beginnings of altitude sickness by 4500m. Up here a few steps upward was all it took to be completely out of breath. Stops were regular and prolonged, due in equal parts to the altitude and the view.
With throbbing headaches and mild nausea from the altitude, we arrived at the ridge line and one of the most brilliant views we collectively have ever seen. Before us stretched the Hindu Kush mountain range in Afghanistan, an ocean of 6000 and 7000 meter peaks glazed year round with a thick layer of snow. Between them sat sprawling valleys with massive glaciers gradually melting in the summer sun, their streams trickling down thousands of meters of rock face and into the Panj river below where they would flow all the way to Dushanbe and onward to Uzbekistan. We decided not to attempt the final 1000m ascent to the unnamed summit, but with this view for company nobody seemed disappointed.
We soaked up the scale and majesty of the place for as long as we could before descending back into oxygen below, and the next day back to our bikes in Zong where we had agreed to meet our mate and fellow cyclist Nigel.
For a sense of scale, try to find me sitting atop a rock in the bottom left.
Back with our hosts we removed our terrible backpacks for the final time, shared stories of our adventure and relished eating a meal that wasn’t sultanas. We put our feet up for an afternoon and got some rest for the road ahead – coming soon in part 2.