intro | route notes | the murghab plateau->


Now and again we browse the Times Atlas in search of high roads. It is a fact that if you stare at a map long and hard enough you will coax it into causing some new roads to magically appear. Some years ago by staring at the maps very long and hard we created a road high up in some mountains that continued the Himalaya range to the northwest of India and Pakistan. The mountains were the Pamirs, the road the Pamir Highway but the country, Tajikistan, was inconveniently engaging in a nasty civil war at the time. This wasn’t a great improvement for us from the previous state of affairs, namely its being a Soviet Republic and therefore out of bounds to pretty well anyone. Things changed: peace was established, and the cycling community instantly wised up to the potential of the Pamir Highway.

The number of cyclists we met there was extraordinary. We’ve been to mountainous parts of the world which we think of as being ideal cycling, and we’re surprised to find nobody else there; they’re all busy flogging up and down the PanAmerican or across the Pampas. Here, we seemed to run into at least two others every day, mostly Swiss.

I’m afraid we got jeep transport to Khorog. It would have been at least a week’s ride from Dushanbe, and really, who wants to bother riding at low altitude when you could spend a whole three weeks over 3500m? Mind you the altitude business conceals what a skive it was; the Dushanbe-Khorog ride is arguably more challenging than the Pamir plateau. It starts easy enough – out of Dushanbe there’s rolling plains with hills in the distance. But it gets progressively mountainous and then there is a 3000m pass, the Khaburabot. Hard it may be but we did not find most of the scenery especially attractive though it didn’t help that the air was so hazy with dust that you couldn’t see clear views. Neither did it help that the Lada we had somehow ended up with was in such a poor state that it was dark by the time we reached the foot of the pass so we didn’t see an awful lot. The second day’s drive took us along the Afghan border, for the most part a deep gorge of great rocky cliffs.

Start of the cycling

After two days of watching scenery pass by us we were itching to engage with it properly. A relatively small amount of red tape, only about 2 hours’ worth, sat itself in our way, but in this we were on a well-trodden path and simply had to follow a chain of clues given away by touring bikes locked to railings outside the relevant offices. And we got to know some nice Swiss people.

We set off. Colin's feeling queasy. The road follows the Afghan border and goes up and down. Colin does not feel like lunch. The road continues to go up and down, and it is very hot. Colin is now vomiting. The best cure I assure Colin in my caring wifey manner is to ride 6km uphill to Garm Chasma, which is bound to be a nice place. It’s a hot-springs and there's a village; we ask if we can camp and get led up to a homestay. This is ok, but we fear we're going to mess up their nice house. Colin needs a full day to recover. I help him along by asking how he is, and when does he reckon he might be up to a gentle ride along that nice fairly flat river valley. I've found it’s best to do this every 5 minutes so that he is encouraged by the little increments in his recovery.

He has to recover because it has not taken very long to exhaust the potential for conversation with our hosts. We did not know any Russian. I had taken one look at a Russian verbs and Tajik verbs and concluded Tajik was far easier. After 3 months intense study I was now confident with the words for water, bread and please. This proved fine, as one does not really need to go to the trouble of learning the Tajik for Lobster Bisque, for instance.

Colin now having been persuaded back on the bike, we had three more days riding along the Panj river. As with the car journey out here the scenery was not really up to expectations because of the haze. We had chosen this route along the Afghan border because it runs past the Hindu Kush mountains, a formidable range of 7000m+ peaks. We could tell that there were mountains up there, but we didn’t have clear views.

The mountainsides and valley were generally bare rock, unless there was a side stream or spring, and then there would be a lush green splash of fields, and inevitably a village. This was going to make camping difficult. Anywhere nice, i.e. not rocks, there was a village, and it would be hard to escape homestay invitations. Garm Chasma had been fine but the only entertaining substitute for conversation had been the camera, and we only had one set of spare batteries. So we rode on past the villages, trying to hide at night. We camped in a sort of orchard full of thorns, and the night after, we camped among a pile of rocks, and mended the punctures in the inner tubes and thermarests.

It was boiling hot, despite being above 2000m, and we had to take long lunch breaks. Inevitably we attracted a number of curious children, generally pleasant enough kids, who were content to sit and watch us, and if they wanted anything, it was to have their photos taken.

The villages have names that seem from a different planet: Zumudg, Vrang, Pish, Vnukht. They’re as idyllic-looking as any tidy agricultural community with whitewashed homes among fields of crops can look idyllic in warm sunshine, and the people are generous and friendly. There is a wealth of archaeological sites, remains of the diversity of cultures that meet and mingle in Central Asia, pre-Zoroastrian fire-temples, a Bhuddist stupa, petroglphs, the fort at Yamchun.

The valley gained altitude very very slowly and the tarmac disappeared. The Hindu Kush lurked somewhere up in the dusty haze. We took photographs and but it wasnt until we were home that we could photoshop some views out of them.

After Langar the road leaves the Panj valley and heads into the mountains properly, crossing a pass and onto the Pamir plateau. This road was a morning sort of road and had the bright idea that it would get all its day’s climbing over in the first few km, starting with a frenzy of hairpins right out of the village. This was a lot of climbing and not all of it was ridden, even with the help of a team of small boys. We saw the unmistakeable tracks of several Schwalbe Marathon tyres, and occasionally footprints. The climb led to some grand views, haze apart. We were still on the Afghan border, and the other side of the valley was still a wedge of Afghanistan, this time the Wakhan range. The borders are really very silly here. This piece of land was only put into Afghanistan in the 19th century as a neutral buffer between Russian-controlled Central Asia and British-controlled India. There’s not an awful lot there, mostly mountains, some Bactrian camels and a few shepherds and I don’t think the camels were aware any sort of border.

Around about lunchtime the road travsered into a side valley, where a decent stream came down. And here were Schwalbe owners, Pius and Margrit, and Tobias and Daniel.

The road and valley converged again and we found a good campsite by the river. In the morning we found that we only had three matches and they were damp. Fortunately we were rescued by a shepherd couple. As well as our spare matches a number of other small items had vanished at some point, maybe pinched, though we hadn’t usually needed any help in losing things as we were well skilled enough. A precious chocolate muesli bar and the washing-up sponge were floating down the Oxus; our facecloth had been left in the first homestay and we had to make do with the bike-cleaning rag instead – not that we were going to do much washing.

We saw some Bactrian camels. We saw an Afghan shepherd and exchanged waves. The valley widened into a deserty plain with nothing but a line of telegraph poles and a derelict Soviet-era watchtower. There’s a military post and checkpoint, and beyond, a campable stream. We were visited by a shepherd boy who gave us some milk and by some soldiers who thought we should give then our camera. The haze was beginning to clear but the disappearance of the haze was a prelude to cloud and rain. We were tempted to sit it out, and over breakfast sat in the tent reading other people’s accounts to find out what they had done when faced with rain in Tajikistan. Unfortunately it seemed all of them just kept riding.

intro | route notes | the murghab plateau->