Bulunkul to Khorog via the Wakhan Valley
We turned southwards now, away from the Pamir Highway itself and into the Wakhan corridor. The river that cuts through this narrow, dramatic valley forms the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and is home to the Pamiri people, who are both different from the Kyrgyz nomads of the Eastern Pamir’s and the lowland Tajik’s. To many cyclists, this detour is considered a must. We were no exception.
But first we had to get there. Other cyclists had told us the ride in was tough. I am never one to fully believe what I am told until I experience it. However, I can certainly say it was challenging! Not only were we ascending a 4000m plus pass, the road also alternated between horrible loose rocks and thick sand. I was often pushing (and swearing), and it took us most of the day to do 30km.
The following morning we woke to our first really cloudy day since entering Tajikistan. This moody, unseasonal weather would follow us almost all the way to Khorog, unfortunately often obscuring the mighty Hindu Kush mountain range that borders Afghanistan and Pakistan. A short cycle from our camp found us at a checkpoint and at the opening of a large river valley. Across the river lay Afghanistan, seemingly peaceful and unassuming. In fact, this part of Afghanistan is peaceful. In Khorog the Afghan embassy issues tourist visas (for $100 USD) and you can organise a tour to the Afghan Wakhan. While we did not go into Afghanistan itself, we were often camped closer to the Afghan settlements across the river, than to Tajik ones. We waved and called out ‘hellos’, watched the donkey traffic and observed how life on the Afghan side looked very similar to the Tajik side. The only real difference was that thanks to the Aga Khan foundation (the Aga Khan is the leader of Ismaili Islam), the Tajik Wakhan had electricity and a road. Well, a kind of road. Oh and also, the Afghan donkeys are a lot louder.
That first day we bumped and looped our way down into the Wakhan (sadly it wasn’t always actually down). The road was rough, and poor Neil had a few issues with his front rack. Towards the evening the weather really began to come in, a fierce wind blew and the occasional bouts of rain accompanied. We had wanted to camp, but up here on the exposed road there was very little shelter. Even when the first small settlement was reached, no choice camp spots revealed themselves. After a quick group discussion and a look at the blackening sky it was decided we would push on the Langar, the first larger village of the Wakhan. Luckily, from where we were it was downhill and we reached the first houses of Langar just as it was growing dark. While we were cycling through, looking for signs for homestays, a couple in an apricot orchard called Astrid over. After handing her a huge bag of apricots, they also invited us all in for the night.
And what a beautiful home it was. The husband had built it himself and it was in the traditional Pamiri style. Epic thick walls, white washed exterior with blue door and window frames. The interior, while open plan, had little raised sections, carpets hung on the walls and a pointed skylight (Tajik dome as he called it) let natural light in. The whole place was incredibly warm and welcoming. Pamiri houses (like Kyrgyz ones) always seem to have piles of blankets, and it was these that the couple made into amazingly comfortable beds for us in the front two rooms. We were then treated to a huge dinner, eating till we thought we might explode and using a mixture of bad Russian and charades to communicate.
It rained during the night and we were incredibly thankful for the hospitality we received. Bidding farewell to our lovely hosts we pedaled out into the Wakhan. Now we were really in the valley. The Hindu Kush, although their peaks obscured, towered above us from the other side of the river. Poplars lined the road, as did carefully crafted low brick walls and the occasional Ismaili shrine with ram horns marking the entrance. We were no longer in high altitude desert, green had come back into the landscape and farm animals moseyed about, kids shouted as we passed and men tried to push start ancient Ladas. After the solitude of the eastern Pamirs, it was a very different experience.
Our first task of the day was to find chocolate. We visited about 5 poorly stocked magazins and managed to scrape together a few snacks (it was about here that Astrid’s date obsession began, thanks to Jeff). All of us remarked on how much money the locals could be making off cyclists, if they stocked a few choice products like cheese and chocolate. Most of the tourists in the Wakhan are cyclists, and cyclists are HUNGRY almost all the time. Provide cheese and they will come.
Anyway, aside from obsessing about food we bounced along the Wakhan, trying to remember at what point Remi and Rebecca had told us the road improved. Was it 30 or 40km after Langar? Of course, being Tajikistan, we ran into a few cyclists coming the opposite way and they assured us the road did eventually improve in about 30 or 40km.. Poor Neil, he was starting to have serious issues with his racks. While his bike is pretty much indestructible, his racks were not and after weeks of rough roads they had seemingly had enough. It was about this time that Jeff, being knowledgable about most things, especially bikes, began to be referred to by us as ‘McGyver’ as he was able to fix anything with a piece of wire. Soon McGyver became simply McG.
So after more than a few McGyver stops we reached the turn off to Bibi Fatima. At the top of this 7km climb lay some castle ruins and hot springs, which Astrid and I had managed to convince the guys was worth seeing, not the mention the amazing view we would have if the weather cleared. We began the climb and it was epic. The gradient was insane, and being the Wakhan the surface was terrible. Poor Neil was already beginning to feel a little unwell, then his chain snapped only about 4km in. While he and McG were McGyvering it back into place in the fading light, Astrid and I hiked further up to see if we could find a homestay. We were in luck. The four of us gathered up our bikes and pedalled the 600m to warmth and shelter just as it began to rain.
Again we were in a thick walled, warm Pamiri house, full of blankets and carpets. After an awesome feast we decided to embrace the sleepover vibe and watch a movie. Yep, being total dorks, we decided to watch a cycle touring film.
We woke to rain and delayed our departure till the weather had somewhat cleared. By now poor Neil had a full blown case of what would become the infamous and way too familiar ‘Tajik belly.’ It was decided we would cycle the remaining km’s to the top and then have a rest day. Once at the top we found ourselves a hotel to call home, met some other cycle tourists and all had lunch together. After lunch Astrid and I went and had a very relaxing bath in the hot springs and were taught by all the local women how to check how many children we would have (the springs are supposed to enhance fertility). Apparently Astrid and I are supposed to have 6 kids each (!). While we were relaxing, sadly, McG and Neil were not. Having decided to fix one thing on Neil’s bike, they inadvertently opened a can of worms and spent the better part of the day working on the racks.
We rolled down the hill the next morning with Neil’s racks firmly McGyver’ed into place. Unfortunately the same could not be said for Neil’s stomach. The weather kept teasing us, it looked like it was clearing but then another front of inclement weather would come rolling in. We were however, afforded some beautiful views of the Hindu Kush between the clouds that day and felt like we hadn’t all together missed out. After not many kilometres we called it a day and crawled into the undergrowth, having found a very sheltered camp thanks to McG.
By now we were running low on food, well not really food, just snacks. We reached Ishkashim, the main Wakhan town before Khorog with grand expectations. This seems to happen with Neil and I a lot. We start imagining all the food we might find (snickers perhaps, maybe cheese?) and are inevitably disappointed. Instead we had yet another bowl of soup with cabbage and meat and rolled out of town with a few wilting carrots, some weird Russian chocolate and a bottle of vodka. That night we found another prime camp spot, McG built a fire and we all enjoyed a bottle of vodka together. Ah, life on the road.
Our last full day before Khorog and we could see that we would soon be in the regional capital. The road for one had improved a lot, and we soon began seeing well stocked Magazins as well as finding a restaurant that had actual salad on the menu. The four of us rejoiced at being able to eat something other than soup. We spent the rest of the afternoon out cycling a storm (finally, a tailwind) and made camp on a beach, right next to the river.
Let me now describe a typical evening. It goes something like this. The front cyclists (usually Astrid and McG) will stop and wait while Neil and then I catch up at a spot that could have some good camping. Two or three of us will then scout around, looking at things like shelter, access to water and how hidden we are. A discussion will ensue about the merits of each spot, or perhaps pushing on. Sometimes this can take a while. A spot will then be decided and we will haul our bikes over (usually our spots have difficult access). Teabitch (aka Neil) will then get ‘Betty’ (my front, ‘kitchen’ panier) and will start making tea for all of us. After initial hesitation, McG succumbed to tea as well. We will then set up our tents, put water up to filter and dig food out from various parts of our panniers. Once the tea is ready we generally sloth around chatting and drinking tea until someone has the initiative to start chopping vegetables. Dinner is prepared and eaten together and is generally followed by a second cup of tea.
Our camp on our last night was however neither hidden, nor sheltered, as the land was becoming more heavily cultivated and the valley narrow. Just as dinner was ready the storm front caught up with us. So the four of us somehow managed to squeeze into our tent until the front passed. Then we climbed out, built a fire and had a few beers (thank you well stocked magazins). This would be our last night all together in the Wakhan. It had been truly great sharing this experience with McG and Neil (who wouldn’t be leaving for a while yet).
We woke to brilliant sunshine but the Hindu Kush were now too far to our east to see. After a slow pack up we hit the road and reached Khorog by lunchtime. Here we navigated our way to the Pamir Lodge where we immediately met more cycle tourists. For a couple of dollars we threw our tents up on the balcony and began the tasks of washing ourselves and our filthy clothes. Arriving somewhere after a hard stretch of cycling is always a little bittersweet. I will miss the tranquility and beauty of the high mountains and the Wakhan, as well as the friendship and camaraderie of our little group of four. At the same time, I am excited about having now cycled through such amazing scenery and for all the adventures that lie ahead.
That evening we celebrated our epic Pamir highway/Wakhan Valley cycle with way too much beer and vodka.
Till next time