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The Pamir Highway continued

Now we diverted from our outward route and followed the so-called highway, as empty as ever. A day's ride took us over two 4k passes, not bad going, but some untarred, washboarded sections made it hard. To our left was a snowcapped cluster of summits, Kyzyldong. Kyzyl means red, and we could only imagine dong means "not", because it wasn’t red. We passed a deserted corral of sorts, an overturned Chinese lorry, a strange abandonded piece of machinery and a grand monumental sign announcing we were now in Shugnanski Rayon. We also met Peter again, a Swiss cyclist, doing much the same tour but in the opposite direction. He said he’d tried to come via Shakdara but had been refused entry : he had 6 out of the 7 districts on his permit and Shakdara was the missing one. We didn’t have to check our passports; we had filled in the same form as Peter. Colin thought it better not to look, so that when told the inevitable at the checkpoint, our surprise might seem more convincing. But we knew anyway.

The descent from the pass wasn't the treat we’d hoped for as, again, it was gravel; and soon after tarmac was regained we had to find the turn to Shakdara. It is clear on the map, there is just the one route. In real life there are right turns galore, all about the same quality of surface and usage. We weren’t going to get a signpost and there wasn’t anyone to ask. Having now built up the suspense, all I can say was that the turn is as obvious as it could be and is exactly as shown on the map. We camped here, Kyzyldong not far away, its snowfields lit by the moon and stars. They still didn’t look very red though.

Shakdara Valley

The appeal of the Shakdara valley isn’t just its relative inaccessibity, but above the high valley there’s a pair of mountains. They still have unreconstructed heroic Soviet names – Engels and Marx. Magnificent mountains they are too: Engels a dark and rocky dome, Karl Mark a glittering snowy pyramid. Even without them to decorate the place, the pass over to the valley was a classic ride. After a steep initial climb, you’re on a blissful rideable track high on a plateau at above 4000m, and four-thousand somehow seems just the right place to be, gloriously high. We passed a long oval lake; shepherds and their sheep far in the distance. We ate a whole bag of biscuits.

We reckoned we had enough time to do one last mad scheme. There is another pass out of the Shakdara valley, linking it with the route from the Panj valley. It’s called the Matz pass and we hadn’t seen any account of people cycling it. So once down to the valley we turned right, and up again. We had a river crossing and a tea invitation, and towards the end of the ride, an unforgiving and unpromising ride (more truthfully, push) round the shoulder of the mountainside. Unpromising because we were high on a steep slope with the river in a ravine below when a nice grassy flat meadow would have been more to our taste. All the more delicious, then, when a grassy meadow did finally materialise. And fine spot it was, with soft ground, and marmots to entertain us.

We rode on, as much as we could, slowly up the valley and then up a section of zigzags until we were high above the valley floor and on easy terrain. A very surprised shepherd. On through rocks and cairns, slowly gaining height to a wide pass. We declared victory, ate our last cake, and returned. Down past our marmot campsite, back across the river and past Engels valley and on to the first village, and homestay treasure-hunt. The guidebook says there is one with showers, but it lies. At this stage in the trip we’d take whatever came though it is quite likely we had found by some mysterious instinct the right place. Though showerless it had a grand main room with the traditonal complex interlocking-squares ceiling, carved pillars, wall carpets, fridge. The family made a sort of curd cheese, and some rich cream.

The final ride down the valley took a couple more days, but despite downhill it was not particularly easy as the surface was rough and we were tired and hungry. I had ridden myself into the ground several days ago and we had run out of nice things to eat. Actually we had run out of even acceptable things to eat, and what we were trying to concoct for breakfasts was too horrible a memory to revisit. It was funny to see trees again.

With 10km left before Khorog, we got to the checkpoint. We handed the guards our passports, smiling with cheerful and completely feigned innocence. We had started the trip knowing no Russian but over the three weeks we had managed to learn two words "piva" (beer) and "normal" (good). Neither which gave us any clue as to what

У вас нет пропусков на Рошткалу. Вам приказано заплатить штраф на 200 долларов.

meant. Perhaps fortunately. After several minutes they gave up, handed back our passports and waved us on our way.

In the three weeks we had been away Khorog bazaar had transformed itself into Fortnum and Mason. Juice, cheese, biscuits from all over the world (Iran and Afghanistan). There’s even a decent restaurant: an enterprising Indian (Delhi Darbar) chain has a branch here, with sublime naan, light as air, and aloo parantha for breakfast. We embarked upon a feeding frenzy. Our taxi ride back to Dushanbe had a wedding feast thrown in; the Tajiks are perfectly capable of nice food, if they happen to live somewhere where things grow. Back in Dushanbe we trawled around Lebanese meze and Russian champange; and Ecuadorean potato cakes; then Turkish and Georgian, and decent Gelati in Istanbul.

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