She is a temptress, a seductress, and like moths to a flame we were drawn in by her beauty and splendour, only to have her, time and time again, peel off her kid leather glove and dramatically slap us around the face, before enchanting us with her spell once more, as we took one tentative step after another into her parlour. Ah, the Pamir, you wicked, wicked thing.
After leaving Uzbek, we headed into Tajikistan through the Bekobod border crossing. We found another team there who asked why we had chosen that crossing and we had to explain that we had tried two before it which were closed to us. That team had actually backtracked because they had been told this particular crossing was a particularly scenic drive. They weren’t wrong. Aside from the hundreds of coal trucks we had to pass, through long, dark tunnels, the mountain pass to Dushanbe was spectacular.
On the way, we passed the pedestrian border we’d tried to cross the day before, and once again fell foul of the law. When Peter stopped to take a photo of a beautiful river, we were promptly detained and our mobile phone (once again) confiscated. We were told to follow the soldiers to their military base up the road where a more senior military person came out with the phone. Their binoculars couldn’t have been that powerful, because Peter was actually using his camera, not the phone. We were accused of taking photos with the phone, which we could rightfully deny (on a technicality). I offered to open my locked phone and show the soldier my photos which I did. See, no photos of your border are on this phone. After a dutiful inspection, he apologized (to our agonizingly straight faces) and let us go. Another close call, but we are getting familiar with military detention. For future travelers, taking photos of top security measures (or rivers) within border zones is not recommended.
We arrived in Dushanbe looking like we’d spent a day underground mining coal, and prepared to the next stage of our journey – the Pamir Highway.
There are several ‘routes’ which are available and below is a handy map from Caravanistan.
To give you some context, we did the purple and red routes.
Our first decision was whether to do the red ‘northern’ route or the pink southern route from Dushanbe. We had heard horror stories about the state of the roads on the northern road, so of course, in true Whizzers’ style, that is the one we picked. The rumors were both correct and understated. The road was horrendous. Jeffrey’s Track, eat your heart out.
‘Gravel’ would go some way towards describing it, but picture gravel the size of small boulders. In fact, the roads were nothing more than rockslides which had been somewhat smoothed over by passing pedestrian and livestock traffic. And the odd vehicle, because not many choose this route.
Sheer drops on one side tumbling into a raging, freezing ice-melt river, towering cliffs on the other soaring into the sky. Mostly single lane but this didn’t pose much of a problem because oncoming vehicles were a rarity on this treacherous road!
Google maps estimates six hours to drive the 300km but it took us a full day and a half at about 20km/h when the going was good.
We’d already had a late start from Dushanbe after we realized that the 4 liters of motor oil in my watertight, beautifully sealed boot had broken, filling my boot with oil and drowning everything in there. It took us a good couple of hours to clean everything up (and throw a lot out) before we could get going. It was a messy business and I’m not sure how the management of the B&B felt about us using their driveway as a washing station.
After about 200km on the north road night fell, and although we tried to push on, the roads were just too bad (along with my eyesight) for it to be safe to continue. We pulled over to the side of the road and set up camp for the night. We were high up, and it was freezing. Peter warmed some water on our little stove to wash away the dust of the day, and while I’m sure the villagers had full view, we gratefully stripped off to indulge in some warmth and hygiene. It was left over chicken for dinner and an early night.
The next morning we pulled up camp, but I was feeling nauseous. Was it the left over chicken? Was it the water? I put on my Big Girl pants and off we went, back to the terrible roads.
The children along the Pamir are amazing. Like flies, in that you don’t see until you lay the table with the Sunday roast, they majestically appear on the roadside as you proceed through the villages. They shout and cheer and run into the middle of the road holding out their hands for a ‘high five’ as you go by. I need to speak to my Pilates instructor, because the first time I obliged I nearly dislocated my shoulder in the process – those kids hit hard! It became more difficult to play as the crowds grew. For instance, if there were six little kids and I only managed to slap five of them, I felt so bad for the sixth that I’d stop to ensure everyone got a slap. Especially if the last child standing was a tiny little thing who ran eagerly after the bike if they were missed. We were going so slowly as it was, I eventually made a decision: no more high fives, I will wave and say hello instead. My shoulder thanks me.
We stopped where the road meets the Afghanistan border, and had lunch at the Soup Restaurant. The owner’s son could speak good English and he looked after us splendidly. He was only about 10 but he served us lunch, asked for a sticker for their window, and when Peter was rubbing my aching shoulder, he asked hospital? hospital? We collapsed with laughter.
We set off again on our quest to conquer the Pamir.
We drove the whole day, and again we tried to push on after dark, but between potholes, loose gravel, pedestrians and livestock, we conceded defeat. We were stopped behind a broken down minibus when some young guys came over to talk to us. Hotel? Hotel? they asked us. Yes! A hot shower would be welcome! They directed us down an unlit lane that appeared to head into bushland. I was worried we were being set up for a robbery, but my fears were unfounded. We spent the night in a lovely homestay, were fed delicious food (although I didn’t eat much, as my stomach was still whoozy), and the lady even let us use her washing machine – the first automatic wash our clothes have had since London! We felt like like royalty!
Despite the roads, the drive along the M41 was magical. With Afghanistan on our right, and only a river separating us, it was truly a unique and memorable experience. It was interesting to see the villagers on the other side going about their usual business, kids swimming in the river, cattle being herded, crops being cultivated. The exact same activities taking place on the Tajik side but these communities live lives a world apart simply because of politics. Quite thought provoking.
We finally reached the town of Korog where we went in search of a soldering iron. My microphone had broken again, and Macguyver was determined to fix it. We were leaving the gravel parking lot of one hardware store when a woman walked right in front of me. My bike angled for a turn, and although moving slowly, I slammed on brakes and the bike slid out from under me. I was down. (Sorry Steve, get out that Visa card!). By now Peter had sped off up the road, his soldering quest front of mind, and I had no way of letting him know that I was trapped beneath my bike. Luckily, horrified locals rushed up and pulled the bike off me so I could escape. I dusted myself off and determined a cut knee and elbow were on the injury list, thanked the locals, and red-faced, got out of there as quickly as possible! I cannot confirm or deny that I may have had a little tantrum when I finally caught up with Peter, for whizzing off without me. In his defense, it is somewhat inconceivable that having survived the Pamir’s northern route, I would have any problems negotiating a parking lot.
Once the microphone was fixed, we headed back on the Pamir.
As we rode along, we were like two kids at Christmas when we came across our first Yaks! Delighted, we asked the family living in the nearby Yurt whether we could take some pictures, and they were only too excited. They gathered them up for us, and afterwards we gave all the kids stickers and let them sit on our bikes – junior Whizzers in training!
I had intended – before the Rally and our (now two) military detentions- to try and swim the river at some point and ‘touch’ Afghan soil. Well, that didn’t happen. Firstly, the river is huge, and the water is freezing cold ice melt. Secondly, the river ‘border’ is guarded and patrolled – there are soldiers everywhere and they are heavily armed. I was not keen to try yet another intervention by the armed forces, so it was look and see instead, and I don’t feel like I missed a thing.
The highest road point on the Pamir Highway is 4,755m (15,500′) above sea level – as Peter explained to me you are limited, generally by legislation, to not exceed around 3,000m (10,000′) in an unpressurized airplane. We set forth over the hills and made it to the summit. By then I was feeling awful – we put it down to altitude sickness – and it was freezing, freezing cold. We had to push on and find somewhere to stay – the roads were terrible still and I was fading fast, along with the sunlight. But none of that mattered because we were surrounded by the most beautiful mountain ranges with rolling fields in the valleys, and snow covered peaks, albeit the end of summer.
As we came down the summit, we happened upon a Yurt hotel. For about US$8.00 we were invited to stay the night with the Yurt family. They only spoke Russian so it was a bit tricky, but their Yak-dung fire was toasty, and I was in warming my frost bitten hands before you could say ‘deal’. We were fed a feast of warmed yak milk, yak yogurt, yak cream and bread. It was all delicious.
after dinner Peter showed our hosts (a mother and daughter) some photos from the trip which they loved. Then it was bed time and the four of us snuggled down into our beds.
My only ‘complaint’ was that the ‘beds’ (rugs on floor) and pillows were rock hard and very uncomfortable. Halfway through the night Peter went and fetched our inflatable camping pillows, which were much better!
The next day we were destined to finish the Pamir, and cross into Kyrgyzstan. We set out exhausted, suffering from altitude sickness (by this stage Peter was suffering too), and freezing cold. The road from the Yurt Hotel to the border was frozen corrugated gravel, and we were forced to ride at the very edges, bordering sticky mud and river-pebble gravel. It was here that I came off twice in quick succession, because I wasn’t able to stay on the tightrope line of decent road. Sorry Steve, but if it’s any consolation we can count these two unscheduled dismounts as one, as I cannot honestly say which one, or both, caused my new injuries.
For most of the last 70km or so, we rode along the border with China. When we spotted a hole in the fence, we couldn’t resist stepping over the line for a quick pic. No passport stamp, but we can say we’ve been there!
By the time we reached the Kyrgyzstan border my knee was the size of a melon. It has, at the time of writing, reduced to a bruised melting pot of yellows and greens, along with my bruised thigh, arm and foot (who knew a foot could bruise?). I am on the mend and will live to see another day.
Tajikistan has certainly stolen a place in my heart. It’s people, culture and country are endearing and most memorable. I know it’s not just us who feel this way. Another rally team met a man in Tajik who needs an operation, and they have started a GoFundMe campaign to try and help him. Read their story here:
Stay tuned for the next update on Kazak and Russia, as we make our way into Mongolia towards the finish line!