There was one road in this aimless jaunt around the world was unmissable. On either side of this road lie endless possibilities, but this route, one that would cross Tajikistan at 4000 meters above sea level, was one of the few things that was planned form the beginning. This was road was the Pamir Highway.
Our hostel in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, was full of cyclists heading both East and West and we were able to share stories about our respective journeys ahead. Those going east were keen and eager to see some mountains after a long time crossing the flat deserts of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Those going West, by contrast, looked worn out. They were thinned out after too long a stretch of the instant noodle and porridge diet and, more often than not, a case of food poisoning. Their eyes, that were locked into thousand yard stares, seemed a little deeper in their sockets as they told their war veteran-like stories of Guarda and other delightful stomach bugs that were afflicting many of the guests. From this, we learned one handy tip for getting safe drinking water up in the mountains: “if you see anything near the water, be it a yak or a person, it’s probably taken a shit in it.”We set off from Dushanbe and it wasn’t long before the mountains appeared and the ‘wow’ moments began where the hills and mountains that surrounded us veered off the high end of the epic scale. The road became narrower and eventually degenerated into a dirt road as we ambled over the first mountain pass at 3100 meters. Down on the other side we reached the Panj river and on the other bank was Afghanistan.
We cycled along the road following the river that somehow clung to the side of the almost vertical cliffside while the roar of the raging water below drowned out most other sounds. The people on the other side of the river, in that country that had dominated the headlines for the last decade, never lost their appeal to the curious eye. We would often spy the remarkably exotic things they did over in that inaccessible country, such as…going to school or waving across the river at two foreigners on bikes. The clothing was different, but the lives of the people on both sides of the river seemed remarkably similar in this isolated mountainous corner of the world.Each day we slept a few hundred meters higher and after the Wakham Valley (a tiny bit of Afghanistan drawn up in the 19th Century to separate the British and Russian Empires) and one breathless climb on what can be only described as a sand pit, we made it to the plateau. It was like landing on the moon. There were no trees, no villages or firms, and no birdsong. It was silent on the dry, grey rocky surface; only when the wind blew was there a sound and, when it did, was deafeningly loud. The horizon was dominated by intimidatingly jagged, snow-capped mountains that, on the map, had numbers going well up to the 8000m level. It was epic, desolate and beautiful.
Occasionally, every 3rd day or so, a village would pop up, it’s inhabitants covered head to toe to escape the sun’s rays that has a catalytic effect on the ageing process at this height. The biggest towns in the area had constructed markets out of abandoned shipping containers and these provided us with everything we wanted needed to keep going: snickers bars and instant noodles.Human interaction was minimal, this was the place for pure unadulterated cycling, where you zone out, soak up the scenery and enjoy being on a bike (as long as the wind was blowing in the right direction). You had no choice but to ride slowly, as the low oxygen at 4000 meters’ altitude meant you couldn’t do any more than a gentle amble. Steep hills on unpaved roads often meant getting off and pushing, which took your breath away as much as the scenery did.Slow and steady. Enjoy the view. Make sure you’re in a sleeping bag by sunset as it gets cold at night. That was life for a month.
The whole experience was the opposite to Uzbekistan: it was all about the natural beauty rather than the cities. It was about feeling small in the shadow of the Hindu Kush. This was where adventurers of the Great Game came and, before that, Marco Polo.
On our final day in Tajikistan we had to push through dust storms, headwinds, blizzards, and two mountain passes, but none of this left a bitter taste in my memory of the place. I left Tajikistan without the feeling of wanting to move on to another country and, with a blizzard settling in we took shelter in a roadside hut in no mans land, hoping the Kyrgyz guards at the border 20km away wouldn’t notice the wrong dates on our exit stamps. Shortly after descending from the frontier the next morning, we found ourselves in a wide valley floor, now officially in Kyrgyzstan. Behind us lay the Pamir Mountains, intimidatingly high and covered in snow from the previous night’s blizzard, while in front of us were the lower, green, rolling hills of Kyrgyzstan. It couldn’t have been a clearer indication that, as much as we’d wanted to stay, the season to explore this spectacular part of the world was coming to an end and that, as the days begin to get shorter, we’d better keep moving.