10. Tajikistan Part 2: The Best Road I’ve Ever Ridden (Zong to Sary Tash)

From Zong onwards our jolly band of three became a band of four as we adopted our friend Nigel into the fold.

A fair dinkum 61 year old Aussie from Coffs Harbour (despite being born in New Zealand) Nigel was an inspiration to us all. After the end of his marriage he needed a change, so he did something terrifying. He wrapped up his business in Australia, rented out his home and flew himself and his bike to the USA where he rode the length of the Mississippi. He enjoyed it so much that he decided to keep going and six years later he has ridden over 60,000km through North America, South America, West Africa, the Middle East and now Central Asia. Next year he will tick off East Africa, and after that he is considering taking a break.

We and Nigel had been leapfrogging each other since Uzbekistan, meeting for a day at a time at hostels along the way and upon hearing we were going to ride through the Zorkal Nature Reserve he asked if he could join us.

We had heard tell of his famous fried garlic and chilli potatoes so naturally we agreed.

The Zorkal Nature Reserve is accessible by a stretch road around 220km long east of the Wakhan Valley, skirting the Pamir River. To be allowed to enter you must buy a special permission slip from either Khorog in the west or a yurt camp to the east. The road hovering at around 4000 meters high, Véro had warned us of difficult technical terrain, absolutely no shops, probably no other people at all for days at a time but dramatically beautiful scenery. Sounded perfect.

In Langar, our final shop for 250km, we stuffed our bags with enough food to sustain four men for seven days. Our bike frames flexing and wobbling under the weight of all our biscuits, carrots, onions and pasta, we embarked.

The road out of Langar rose sharply and abruptly, climbing out of the Wakhan Valley and up towards the Pamir Highway. This was a particularly rude surprise for me, who had misread the map and thought we had flat roads all the way to the Zorkal.

The road condition deteriorated rapidly, the lush green trees of the Wakhan being absorbed into dusty hillsides with pitchy climbs and rough descents.

The trade off was views like this around almost every bend. Even after a week with their company the Hindu Kush peaks never became less impressive.

A glimpse into the organised chaos of a cycle tourist’s campsite. With large hills to our left and a river to our right we were often forced to camp directly next to the road. 

Spying our roadside camp a battered old jeep pulled up and somehow seven men emerged from it and joined us with a few bottles of vodka and a plastic bag full of cuttings of lamb fat and liver. A single plastic cup was refilled with generous pours of vodka and made its way around the group. I took a sip from the glass, one of the men tapping me on the shoulder and shaking his head. ‘Ne!’ he said, cupping his hand to his mouth and flinging his head back. Fair enough – I skulled it as instructed and did my best not to screw up my face. Once the vodka was gone the men departed with their bag of (surprisingly tasty) lamb fat, disappearing into a plume of dust towards Langar. We drunkenly erected our tents.

Tajikistan attracts all manner of tourists, from long term cyclists to people on short guided tours, and most of them seem to come through the Wakhan Valley. Yannis from Slovenia was only in Tajikistan for a couple of weeks before having to return home to his pregnant wife and was trying to cover as much ground as possible. In his full lycra kit he was clearly going faster than us.

Sometimes it was actually a real boon to be surrounded by so many travellers. Our stoves were burning much more fuel than expected at our high altitude and we were  worried they wouldn’t last through the Zorkal. We waved down a gang of Russian motor bikers, asking if we could steal some petrol from their tanks.

As we siphoned their tanks they told us that they had left from Moscow only ten days earlier and planned to be back there in a week. In one day they had covered 1800km. That same distance had taken me about forty five days. 

Our road had turned to deep sand, with aggressive and uncomfortable corrugations caused by the traffic. Our tyres cut into the deep sand to the side, forcing us to ride along the harder packed corrugated sections. Our bikes and bones had been getting rattled all morning. It was a real challenge.

‘Is this road difficult at all for you guys?’ I asked a motorbiker, looking at his dual suspension.

‘No not really’ he smiled.

Fair enough.

The bikers hooned away.

We followed at a more leisurely pace…

Soon finding ourselves at the gate to the Zorkal.

Inside the landscape unfolded, the cars vanished and with them so too did the corrugations. The path was rocky but it was rarely sandy. There were mosquitos around but we didn’t care…

Because look where we were. We had stumbled upon the best and most beautiful road any of us had ever ridden.

That night we camped dwarfed by 6000 meter peaks next to a river teeming with fish.

We climbed the hill behind the camp and didn’t cook until dark… 

Instead watching the rugged snow capped mountains of Afghanistan turn from pink, to orange, to gold and then to black.

The next morning was Nigel’s 61st birthday and being unable to find any vodka we surprised him with some handmade birthday cards… 

Before having him brew us all some tea in the kettle(!!) he carries with him.

The road towards the reserve meandered blissfully along the banks of the Pamir. Our riding days were short, only about 35km a day. We had plenty of food and we were here alone. There was no rush to get to the border.

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That afternoon was a turning point in my trip. I had been struggling since the end of my relationship weeks earlier and in spite of good company the days were hard. There were moments of joy in every day but more often than not I wasn’t present. I was in my head, my thoughts at home. I felt lonely, very far from my friends and family, and genuinely unsure whether I wanted to continue riding the bike. Every day I was really only getting onto Suzie and riding further east because Jack and Elliot were doing it too.

But on this undulating stretch of hard packed dirt, with the setting sun on my back, the tailwind brushing against my neck and in the company of good mates I realised suddenly that I was exactly where I wanted to be. It was on this stretch that I resolved to keep riding to the end of my trip.

To celebrate Nigel’s birthday we took a rest day by the river

We slept in late, drank all our hot chocolate and went swimming in the briskly cold waters.

Then, for the first time in three days, we encountered a person along the Zorkal route. This sole building is the town of Bash Gumbez, on the western border of the Zorkal Reserve. A woman was boiling a huge bowl of milk inside and the air was so dense with smoke that I could barely breath or see and made a hasty exit. It is amazing that she persists in living out here, the rest of her town little more than abandoned shells of buildings filled with hay and trash.

The rest of Bash Gumbez.

The road rolled east. The rocks were now gone and ahead lay smooth hard packed gravel… 

The atmospheric Lake Zorkal off to our right…

And the roadside lined with a delicious smelling plant called ‘Tabousk’. When you rub its leaves it releases its oil and bathes you in scents of rosemary, lavender and perfume. It grows throughout the whole Zorkal and Nigel was rarely seen without a piece of it in his hand. He left the reserve with a zip lock bag filled with leaves for safe keeping.

We were surprised to come across another home – this one within the actual grounds of the reserve and home to a grandmother and her grandchildren. 

Animal shit is a valuable and plentiful commodity up here. As no trees grow this high most families dry it in the sun then burn it to stay warm in the winter and bake their bread. It is often also used as a building material – this family’s flock of goats being penned in behind walls of stacked yak poo.

Signs of everyday life.

We were treated to a welcome meal of hot tea, bread, butter and sugar… 

Our chef and host allowing me only one shot to take a portrait of her, and only once nobody else was around.

The weather at elevation can be temperamental and for the first time since Georgia the air grew thick, thunder cracked through the valley and I was caught in a rainstorm. 

When the result is this striking though, damp feet is a small price to pay.

Despite being a nature reserve we saw very little nature when inside. Aside from the prolific marmots and occasional eagle all animals we saw were domesticated and using the grasslands for grazing. Apparently Marco Polo sheep, an endangered species native to this area, are still found here. Sadly these impressive but macabre roadside skulls were as close as we got to the famous creature.

Progress was deliberately slow as we sought to soak up every inch of the road… 

Enjoying the fact that we had no pressing time limits, no obligations and nowhere else to be.

So when we spied a yurt camp a kilometre or so off the road there was nothing stopping us from deviating to it.

The camp was made up of five or six yurts, one of which seemed empty and was presumably for tourists to pay to sleep in. Each of the other yurts housed a family of Kyrgyz herders. 

They live up here in the summer months from June to September, grazing their goats and yaks on the long grass of the high plains. In the bitter winter they retreat to the town of Murghab. I never got to the bottom of what they do with their animals.

Their yurts were constructed of wood, rope and various animal hides, but despite their traditional way of life these people were not stuck in the past. Each yurt had a solar panel for charging small electronics like mobile phones, running electric lights and in one yurt even a TV. I was briefly taken aback too when one of the young women began speaking to me in perfect English, telling me she was only visiting her family for a few weeks before returning to university in Kyrgyzstan where she was studying physics.

After we eagerly accepted a lunch invitation our host unwrapped a case of her homemade cheese called ‘khorout’ – a salty, crumbly delicious thing. It was so tasty we bought an extra bag to eat later, enjoying khorout and honey sandwiches for the next two days.

Our spread, as with all in this part of the world, was heavy with bread and dairy. Homemade ayran (yogurt mixed with water), khorout, heavy cream, sugar, butter, bread and tea.

As we ate, a very well behaved baby lay in its cot next to us. The infants here are tied into their cots with a large strap so they can’t move or crawl about. In the cot, we noticed, a hole is cut with a small bucket underneath. With some crude and embarrassing sign language we deduced this was so the baby could go to the toilet while tied in bed.

Despite being tied down the slightest whimper was all it took for the room’s attention to be on the infant. As in all houses with a baby, it was clear the baby was in charge.

The yurt camp signalled our final stop in the Zorkal. From there the road turned north and over a 4300m pass from which began a long gradual descent to the city of Murghab – the summit a perfect place for a group snap.

We descended through scenery so pristine and picturesque it looked like a desktop wallpaper…

Spending the night camping next to the extremely hospitable Mahmat and his family, who invited us into their yurt for unlimited tea, bread, warm milk and pasta. Through his binoculars he tried pointing out to me some Marco Polo sheep high in the valley above his yurt. After minutes of failing to see them, I just pretended that I had and Mahmat seemed satisfied.

Once past the strange frontier town of Jarty Gumbez the scenery changed again, morphing into a huge sandy valley reminiscent of Utah, with grand impressive rock formations rising abruptly out of the earth.

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We cut through what our map said was at other times of the year a ‘seasonal lake’… 

Towards a thrillingly beautiful descent into a mountain-lined valley stretching 25km all the way to the M41 highway.

Descending through a dreamscape.

The scenery making it difficult to look at the road.

Unable to take our eyes of the setting sun, we again didn’t cook until dark.

At long last we rolled into Murghab, the capital of the Badakshan region despite only having a population of 4000. It is an odd town run on electricity generators, its water drawn from hand pumps in the street (the result of an aid organisation project) and with a bazaar made up of repurposed trailers and shipping containers. Here the population is strongly Kyrgyz and the streets are filled with men wearing these tall traditional felt hats. I tried one on but couldn’t pull it off. 

After weeks of deprivation along the Wakhan and Zorkal we jumped at the sight of fruit in the bazaar. Money was no object as I gorged on succulent peaches and crunchy apples, fruit juice dripping onto my shoes as I walked.

Struck down with a mystery stomach bug I spent a day running to and from the bathroom in our hotel while the guys checked out the horse festival just out of town.

One of the favourite events was the traditional Kyrgyz ‘kissing game’, a game of equine evasion in which a man tries to catch a galloping woman and plant a kiss on her cheek. If he fails to reach her before the finish line she can chase him all the way back down the length of the course, slapping him with her horse whip as she goes. Brilliant stuff! 

This part of Tajikistan is only a stone’s throw from China and for the next few days the Pamir Highway hugged the fence delineating the China/Tajik ‘no man’s land’. The fence, Chinese made, was vast and impressive but not without large gaping holes in parts. The going theory is that given the scarcity of wood up here, Tajiks are stealing the strong wooden posts of the fence to use in construction or as firewood. 

Our second last peak of Tajikistan – the famed and feared Ak-Baital (or, White Horse) Pass. At 4655m it is the highest point on the M41, and in the afternoon it is windy as hell. We rode it slowly, lungs gasping and cheeks red from a freezing headwind. Stopping often to catch our breath we made it up and over the unceremonious summit (no signage at the peak, only some piles of rocks and a few broken bottles)… 

Before descending to our campsite in the plains below.

On our final day in Tajikistan strong winds swept down the valleys leading to the Kyrgyz border, whipping up thick localised dust clouds that swept over the road reducing visibility to only a few meters ahead.

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I spied a cloud of dust shooting down a valley but tried to make the dash across. Minutes later with sand in my eyes and up my nose, I conceded that I was not faster than the wind.

As a gang together we climbed our final pass up past the Tajik border post to 4300m and into their sprawling 25km ‘no mans land’ with Kyrgyzstan. High fives all round, a group hug at the summit, and with that it was done. Tajikistan had been ridden.

41 days of tremendous riding, lovely locals, unforgettable memories… 

And exceptional company.

Tajikistan is fkn ace!

3 thoughts on “10. Tajikistan Part 2: The Best Road I’ve Ever Ridden (Zong to Sary Tash)

  1. The pictures of the inhabitants in the yurts, the interior of the yurts, the food they prepare , the kids, the older people and especially the picture of the baby in the crib with the potty underneath is truly captivating. What a rare insight into an exotic, traditional culture. Sharing this experience in your blog is greatly appreciated. I guess you guys didn’t happen to ask the woman if she gave birth in the yurt? (I am just trying to imagine the creative and dramatic body language you might need to ask that question without being thrown out of the yurt!)

    Liked by 1 person

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