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Tajikistan Part 3: Life on the Roof of the World

Posted by on Jan 15, 09:54 PM
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The Wakhan Valley

To my dismay, my camera, which now looks as though it has seen a few battle fields, had (or so I thought) finally breathed it’s last.

We now arrive at the most challenging episode of my trip through the Wild East: the high Pamir Plateau. Joachim and I had been told that the village of Langar would be our last chance to get food before a grueling three day ascent to the plateau. We opted for a recommended homestay with a very sweet family in their cozy, warmish house. Outside the place was not much to look at, but inside the walls were covered in crimson-patterned carpets, floor to ceiling, and the woman of the house was crouched by a warm fireplace making a soup of onion and rice. Our intent was to get an early start because I wanted to attempt a two rather than three day ride to the next town, especially as my sleeping bag would likely not be sufficiently warm to allow for rest in the bitter cold of a night at 4,000 meters above sea level.

After some tweaking of our bikes the next morning we set off to the “market,” which was actually a couple of shacks not larger than childhood lemonade stands on the main road, and where the selection consisted of stale pasta and butter, canned fish and some bulk candy-covered peanuts. We bought some dense, delicious, freshly-baked bread from a plump, wrinkled, village woman and set off. Our road began at 2,800 meters (about 9,000 feet), an altitude we had remained at for the past several days, and climbed a gasping-steep, rocky and loose road that was not smoother than a jeep track. Joachim was obliged to walk and push his bike and I was only barely able to keep enough momentum to maintain balance. I stopped to wait for my German companion and take a maté break in the shade of the rusted skeleton of a bulldozer at 3,300 meters. The panorama of the Wakhan Valley far below with the backdrop of the magnificent, towering, brilliantly white Hindu Kush was incredibly lovely. To my dismay, my camera, which now looks as though it has seen a few battle fields, had (or so I thought) finally breathed it’s last. I retired it to a bag in my trailer containing odds and ends of no more use. Hence, I have not a single photo to share of the plateau, but plenty of HD film shots if only I can someday acquire a computer with guts enough to cut and clean it up.

Joachim I glimpsed at the end of my break huffing his way up a switchback. I waited so that we could part ways with a handshake and some fraternal pleasantries; I had outpaced him by a significant margin y way of my lighter weight and various equipment advantages. His Schwalbe tires, while in the same line as mine, had a less aggressive tread pattern. Also, he had a full set of heavy paniers which we determined made for a much less stable ride with their higher center of gravity after we had traded bikes to compare.

The relatively short, seventy-kilometer ride had taken nearly the whole day to accomplish!

Marco Polo had followed this very same route through the Wakhan Valley in his time. I hope that he had the good sense to do it in the summer. Snow sprinkled on me from a threatening threatening cloud for half an hour, then the intense sunlight again broke the clear, dry air. If there was snow in the atmosphere now, what was I in for above 4,000 meters? I made excellent time when the road leveled off at 3,500 meters and my goal of making the Kargush military checkpoint by nightfall seemed plausible, so I kept my effort as high as I was able in the thin air and only took breaks for food and water, the latter easily found in the form of ice-cold torrents flowing through the barren hills. Every now and then I passed a small, abandoned settlement, but the only human life I saw was a few shepherds early in the day and the passengers of two jeeps that passed me. Near the river that my road followed upward the ground was covered in a sort of high-altitude grass, gnarled and tough. I arrived at the checkpoint about 20 minutes after dark in the freezing cold. The relatively short, seventy-kilometer ride had taken nearly the whole day to accomplish! The young soldiers were friendly, and after registering me on paper by the light of a mobile phone brought me to a concrete bus stop that provided a little shelter from the wind. After I had set up camp they invited me to stay inside their little barracks but I declined, not wanting to get to bed late or answer any more intrusive questions, and also to see if I could handle a night of camping at 4,000 meters (13,000 feet). I wore every piece of clothing I had and did a session of jumping jacks before sliding into my sleeping bag. My feet didn’t thaw during the night but I did sleep a little.

My water bottles had frozen in the night(.) and I made a little instant coffee in the morning to get started. I had a nagging headache from the altitude. But as suspected, yerba maté was the cure. I took my break at the top of the climb, my highest bicycling to date (4,300 meters), at a clean, black alpine lake. Then, I descended onto the desert plateau, past another large, untouched lake, and eventually onto the paved Pamir Highway to the lunar, wild-west-looking town of Alichur. Another 14 kilometers and I was at tiny chaikhana run by a Kyrgyz woman with two little boys. Lonely planet had recommended this little cafe for it’s “fried [river] fish that’s popular with the Chinese truckers.” The fish was so scrumptious I even ate one for breakfast, with green tea and naan bread. I slept warm and well in the tiny dining room for a small fee. All night the arctic wind hammered against my little dwelling.

I strode through the bazaar, stalls made of shipping containers, with its wild-looking characters and bought outdated Snickers bars…

Recharged, I made my way over the barren landscape to Murghab the following day, the “Wild East” outpost town near the Chinese border. Being exclusively a commercial border I would not be able to cross here but from Kyrgyzstan to the north. The town, by all appearances, is completely populated by Kyrgyz, who stared at me—a strange apparition—as I rode through town but didn’t cause a huge fanfare like the overbearing Tajiks. I strode through the bazaar, stalls made of shipping containers, with its wild-looking characters and bought outdated Snickers bars, cookies and dried fruit for the trail ahead. Not much else was available here. Not even canned fish.

I went on a few clicks on that afternoon to stay in a tiny Kyrgyz village. Most families lived in mud-brick huts with no electricity but I stayed with a family that lived in an abandoned soviet military installation with a crows’ nest, four armored tanks and razor wire around the property. Only one room was in use by the inhabitants: the one with the fireplace. After a short exchange of pleasantries and questions over sour kefir, yak’s butter, fresh Kyrgyz bread and green tea(,) we all settled down to read our books. The man of the house, Majit, pored over a book in Russian on horse husbandry. The source of light was provided by a car battery that they charged by a small solar panel every day. Ironically, their mobile phone was much nicer than mine. We all slept in the very same room by the heat of the coal-burning stove. In the morning I paid the daughter the $7 we had agreed on (it’s customary to pay a few dollars for a homestay in Tajikistan) and had the satisfaction of knowing that in this case the money would be well-used: she was saving up for college.

I was not only struggling to take in enough oxygen but also fighting the intensely cold headwind on an incline of 8-10%…

Thankfully, I had another cloudless day today. The uncertainty of the road conditions on today’s mountain pass had made me excited. Today I would ascend the to the highest point that I had yet pedaled: the 4,650 meter (15,000 feet) Ak-Baital (“White Horse”) pass to the massive, black, beautiful Lake Karakul at 4,000 meters. My road followed the Chinese border, the barbed-wire fence only 30 meters away, for most of the day. Near the top of the pass I was not only struggling to take in enough oxygen but also fighting the intensely cold headwind on an incline of 8-10% or so. For the entire day I only saw five vehicles and not one village. I had another enjoyable, warm homestay with a Kyrgyz family in the remote little village on the edge of Karakul, which confirmed me in my conclusion that the the Kyrgyz are my favorite Central Asians. Their general honesty, dignified reservedness and hearty nature sets them apart from other people of the region.

Only one more pass, this one 4,300 meters above sea level, was left to cross into the country of Kyrgyzstan. An entirely different climate awaited me on the other side of the border. I ascended back down to 3,000 meters but the air was damp and felt much colder. The wind blew snow and freezing rain on the side of my face for a while but I made it to Sary Tash a couple of hours before dark and not knowing Randall was already there (I was ahead of schedule), I passed through town to look for a hotel in which to stow my stuff so that I could make a day trip to Osh by bus. Then I heard, or thought I heard, my name called from behind. I turned around and saw a tall figure waving me to turn back. Could it be Randall? It was. Snow was falling in big, wet flakes as men herded their cattle and horses in through the mud for the night, and we slept warmly in his room at the in that night in preparation for the next morning’s ride into China. To be continued…Thankfully Randall has pictures from China!


  1. How about some up-to-date posts re: Southern India and the orphanage,orphans,sisters’ arrival etc?
    Looking forward guys!

    — Cameron Talbot · Jan 25, 07:23 PM · #

  2. Hi Cameron,
    We can’t just skip ahead like that because otherwise you would never hear our anecdotes from China and Pakistan. Please be patient, we’re almost caught up!!

    — Andrew Leese · Jan 25, 11:45 PM · #

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