Archive for November, 2009
Pamir Highway Day 14, Before Garm Chasma to Khorog
My last day on the Pamir Highway is a sad one. It’s one of the last days of riding of the trip and probably one of my last cycle touring for a while; it rather feels like the end of the adventure despite being a couple of hundred kilometres from Dushanbe and a flight home. I wake up camped hidden at the bottom of a small wheat field, after resisting the attempts of numerous village people to force me to stay with them. I’ve become slightly bored of the scenery of the Wakhan valley, the terrible road surface and testing food and will hitch a lift to Dushanbe. The Pamirs are beaten, broken and behind me.
As I get within sight of Khorog, the river Wakhan spreads itself out into the river Panj and Afghanistan bursts into life on the neighbouring side of the river as traditionally dressed men harvest their crops by hand and tend to their donkeys. Its colourful and alive with life. They wave and hoot across the raging river Wakhan and seem happier to see me than any of the local Tajiks. Their small villages are being connected by a road, being brutally cut into the mountain side by small men using flimsy looking hand drills. It looks like they may be drilling a while. I take great pleasure in getting off and shouting ‘Salam!’ and receiving a bombardment of shouts and waves from the Afghan people. I am fascinated by everything to do with Afghanistan. Perhaps it wasn’t that the Tajik people failed to endear themselves to me in the same way as the Afghans, by waving and whooping, but that years of war in Afghanistan, years of reading, and years of research on my part have given them a slightly mystical magic in some part of my brain. With the town spreading out below me, the road kicks itself up the valley side a little way further, just to remind and humble me to the mountains power. It’s as if the Pamir is saying “I’m not nearly beaten”. It was the end of the road, the end of my adventures for another summer. Long live adventure. Long live the adventurers.
From Khorog I decided to ride another day and rode to Kailakhum where I struggled to find onward transport to Dushanbe. Cyclists should note that at this point in the road, most transport is already full and locals advised me to hitch back to Khorog in order to pick up a 4×4 to Dushanbe. Local offers for transport to Dushanbe were nearly $200. I ended up hitching with the slowest truck in the world to Dushanbe and have some of my most testing days of the trip in the company of two of the most incompetent truckers I have ever encountered, in their less than mighty Kamaz truck . Arriving in Dushanbe, feeling battered and vibrated (from the truck! I wish I had cycled!) felt very much like being back in Europe after the Pamirs and I passed a couple of days eating Turkish food and catching up with Maxime; a Frenchman who I had ridden with for a few days in the Pamir.
Reading back through my blog and diary I must say that I feel it reads very negatively, all I seem to comment on is the wind, the lack of food and fail to hark on too enthusiastically about the scenery. I did enjoy the Pamirs intensely. It was fantastic, incredible and humbling, but don’t expect to see that much different if you’ve spent time in Ladakh or Tibet.
I must say that it is very hard to while away days in the Pamir, in a way it is not hard in the Karakorum or the Himalaya and my mental disposition to push on only added to this. There is very little shelter, nowhere really worth stopping for a full day and little to eat. The wind in the afternoon (beyond 10/11am) is also so unpleasant as to make stopping off putting. So it doesn’t make too much sense to take things easy. The only way to perhaps break it up would be to take a 4×4 tour or short trek away from the highway out of a centre like Murghab, to some springs high in the hills or to see the Petroglyphs the region has to offer. I didn’t see value in doing such a trip, with the highway itself so isolated anyway. I really kick myself for not spending more time in the Kyrgyz Tian-Shen mountains, trying to cross off road from the Torugart pass to Osh and instead trying to kill myself on the mindlessly boring, depressing Kazerman road.
The wind if you are heading from Osh towards Dushanbe is constantly in your face. If you decide to cycle from Osh to Dushanbe, bear in mind the only period of tailwind you are likely to get is from Sary Tash to Lake Karakul. Pack plenty of chap sticks, because you’re lips are going to be toast pretty soon. Bring some Tabasco for your Chinese noodles as well. You will get mixed reports from cyclists about which way the wind blows; but the most sensible direction is from Dushanbe towards the East. I lost over a stone in my short Central Asian trip and I’m someone who enjoys eating lamb fat intensely; don’t bother if you’re a vegetarian (seriously).
I’m now of the belief that the ultimate cycling adventure for those with a short amount of time is the trip from Dushanbe, along the Pamir highway across Xinjiang in China towards Kashgar (a detour I failed to make for visa problems), turning south to the fantastic Karakorum highway, winding to Gilgit, down to Islamabad, the peaceful Tourist Campsite, litres of Mango juice, samosas, pakoras and an easy colourful journey to Lahore and beyond to the expanse of the sub-continent. It must be the most beautiful, varied, fascinating, captivating and magical small area of the earth.
Pamir Highway Day 10, Khargush Pass to before Langar (58km)
Pamir Highway Day 12, nr. Vrang to Darsha, (50km)
Pamir Highway Day 13, Darshai to nr. Garm Chasma (99.5km)
Camped under the stars on top of the Khargush pass, the Afghani Wakhan (Wach-jan) range shine white under such a big moon that I feel like packing up in the middle of the night and riding towards it and over it towards Pakistan. It excites me, captivates me; my first glimpse of Afghanistan! I wake up after dreaming of bandits, opium smuggling and battle hardened mujaheeds to glorious sunshine, in a meadow which could have been taken from any Alpine postcard, beside the deepest and clearest lake I’ve ever seen. I break the morning ice for a quick bath and feel in unstoppable spirits; I have climbed the last mountain pass of the trip, and now have only to drift nearly 3000m down the course of the river to Khorog and the end of the Pamirs.
Wobbling down the sandy piste, I reach the military checkpoint at Khargush, where I get my first view of Afghanistan across the water. Large wooden Soviet watch towers stand sadly in the beastly wind looking across the stones, rocks and streams which separate the two Central-Asian republics. A sad looking conscript stands beside a red and white painted barrier and asks for ‘Passport Please’ (Please!?!?! When was the last time a policeman/solider said ‘please?!’ in Central Asia?). He raises the sad little gate, which blocks nothing more than a glorified donkey trail and waves me along my way. The valley isn’t how I imagined it. It is a wide and open boulder field, with little or no sign of life and I make painful progress along the sandy abyss, in which I regularly sink and find myself pushing plaintively cursing my decision to ride the Wakhan valley.
There is not a sign of life on either side of the valley, apart from the occasional small square stone house on the Afghan side of the river. No roads connect these ancient buildings; other civilisation would be days walk away across mountain paths. My day drifted away as my imagination ran wild; were the people killed by the Taliban? What did they look like, what did they do, what did they eat, where are they now? Maybe the houses were used by the drug barons who have made the Wakhan into the world’s opium highway? Occasionally a loan donkey stands meekly on the Afghani side of the river, grazing or standing pathetically; as asses (and most of the people) do in this part of the world. I pedal along tentatively while the road cruelly climbs up and down the valleys side, avoiding landslides and the riving which is beginning to rage sometimes hundreds of feet away from me. I see no one and meet no one for nearly two days, making do with more fucking Chinese noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner, having exhausted any of the limited fresh supplies in Murghab. I curse my decision for failing to buy more salami in Osh.
I eventually reach Langar, where the valley bursts into life on the Tajik side. Little towns usually built around a beautiful little hot spring burst (in a strictly Central Asian way) into life. Small shops appear, with an ever widening selection of onions, tomatoes and soapy tasting soft drinks and the valley becomes greener, but no less windy. I find myself struggling to find places to camp, the best places either inhabited by water, ants, mosquitoes, people or a combination of the above. I struggle to keep my mileage in check as the reward of Khorog comes into my mind and perhaps rush the valley slightly, failing to take my rest days. I pass the remains of the fabulous Buddhist Stupas at Vrang and the remains of countless castles, keeps and ancient history, ignored rather than preserved by the locals in a romantic way, which sees farmers tending small crops of wheat inside the outer walls of castles built to defend the settlements from ancient Afghan bandits and raiders.
Pamir Highway Day 9
The split in the Pamir highway towards the Wakhan valley signalled a tough decision for my aching legs and adventuring heart. My choices were to take a well paved road, leading to a major regional town, with all the associated benefits of showers, cooked food and a restaurant serving the regions NGO community called ‘Delhi Darbar’ or a massive detour on what looked from the windswept junction to be a road made of only sand, straight up and over a valley which had a gale force wind blowing down it.
The Wakhan Valley is a mysterious region of Tajikistan; its people are ethnically Tajik, but the valley is shared with Afghanistan. It’s one of the most westerly valleys in which Buddhism reached and the valley which Hinduism never could. The Hindu Kush or ‘the killer of Hindus’ borders the valley floor and it has become the chosen route for cyclists wishing to test their metal on poor roads, and see greenery again in the otherwise sparse and arid Pamir valley.
I had pondered my decision for nearly two days having left Mughrab. The wind was playing a massive role in my psyche; I had imagined the Pamir to be a place of peacefulness and tranquillity. For nearly a year all I had wanted to do, in my prison like cell at the University of Manchester was experience once more the great sound of silence, while the idiots I had been billeted with wanted to experience nothing less. Yet, I had seldom experienced silence in the Pamirs due to the unrelenting gale which ripped past my ears for most of the day.
The junction though is too tantalizing. To my right a Lada passes me along the tarred road leading off along the plateau, or too my left a sandy path leading high and away into the mountains, past salt lakes and leading to a valley steeped in mystery and isolation. I pedalled off towards the Wakhan valley with the knowledge that I’d made the right decision as the rear tire snaked its self in the deep dust. I always find narrow valleys more comforting than wide ones, and I’m happy to be away from the plateau which made me feel so small and insignificant.
Pamir Highway Day 8
Day 8 needs to be told in pictures. The scenery took my breath away from the moment I pedaled slowly from my guest house at the break of dawn, as the rolling desert plateau gave way to shallow lakes, grazing herds of yaks and heavily embroidered yurts. There was a lot of traffic on the road; I am passed by nearly twenty Chinese trucks heading for the Qolma pass and border station. So much for lonely planet’s estimate that only a single vehicle travels the highway a day! I hope my pictures can paint a thousand words….
Pamir Highway Day 7
I wake up in Mughrab eager to take on the bizarre (or should that read bazaar?) and bag the best goods and the pick of any vegetables for my depleted supplies. I decide it’s a good idea to wake myself up at the crack of dawn, in order to descend on the Chinese shipping containers which have been arranged into a market for the crowds. It’s seems peculiar that this far from the sea, where even scrap cardboard seems to be a treasured resource, that people have made the effort to arrange old shipping containers into shops. They look horribly cold in winter, are horribly hot in the winter and are unattractive, dusty and noisy.
The bazaar is strangely empty though. In most parts of Asia the people wake up at the crack of sunlight, but it’s too cold in the white washed mud-brick town to wake up and the bizarre bazaar kicks off at around ten o clock. The town in the early morning orange glow is strangely captivating; maybe I’m starting to understand why people live in this part of the world.
The bazaars shops all seem to sell the same things. There are about twenty shops selling exactly the same goods. Eventually I manage to find a few onions, a top up of my tomato puree and some chocolates on one of the retailer’s gourmet shelves. It’s hardly a treasure trove, but will keep me going. What’s incredible is that nearly everything in the market comes from Osh in Kyrgyzstan, a horrific journey over some tough roads, when Chinese trucks roll thtough the town all day and the city of Khorog lies less than a day away over tarred roads! Krygyz people living here and want to buy Krygyz goods!
I spend the rest of the day trying to post a letter (failed), trying to make a phone call (failed), trying to use the internet (failed) and getting something other than soup or plov to eat (failed); it is definitely a successful day! I end up spending the remainder of the evening having a nice time with the local fire brigade who are the only ones in town who have electricity and who are happy to charge my batteries in exchange for the promise of a few snaps in the post.
Pamir Highway Day 6
I had camped up in an ancient caravanserai which a fellow cyclist had directed me towards and looked forward to reaching it for most of the previous day. How romantic I’d thought; a small hostel on the great silk road, having provided shelter for travellers for thousands of years and would now shelter little me. I had slept in great caravanserais in Turkey, Syria and Iran and always felt safe in their stout stone walls. Yet, when I finally reached the caravanserai, all I could find were small mounds of mud which had been used as a toilet and dump. I was left mortally disappointed. I had imagined a palace fit for the medieval trader, complete with somewhere safe to store my camels (my bicycle?) The rubbish also confused me; why would you drive all these kilometres to dump your rubbish at this particular point? I had just cycled through hundreds of kilometres of potential rubbish tip, but the local riff-raf had chosen to dump their rubbish in a site of such historic importance!
I pack up camp in the morning, wade bare footed through the same cold stream I was forced to cross the previous evening, bicycle above my head away from the site. It’s only when I cycle another five kilometres down the road which I encounter the real Caravanserai. It’s grand and welcoming and built of stout stone. I had camped in a landfill site. Shit.
I arrive in Mughrab by late morning and claim the last stick of Shasklik in what passes for the bazaar; it’s served luke warm as the kebabi struggles to cook it by burning bits of cardboard covered in Chinese writing. There aren’t any chunks of scolding-white burning coals, to be had here. In fact i havn’t seen a single tree in a few days and cooking one’s shaskliks over the normal Pamiri fuel; a freshly dried cow pat is never going to draw the punters to your kebab stall!
Pamir Highway Day 5
I wake up not in my tent, but in a small mud outbuilding beside Lake Karakul. The occupants are out already. They are gathering grass for the winter to feed their animals around the deep blue, crystal clear lagoon. They cut away at patchy inch high grass with large scythes and seem to be making little or no progress in collecting it. It is the only vegetation for miles, and hardly noticeable on the desert floor. This is a tough existence and to my untrained eye looks like a waste of time. Despite a brilliant blue sky and the lack of a single cloud, the temperature hovers around four degrees.
I set off in the shadow of Mt Muztagh Ata, one of the several 7 000m-plus peaks that make up the Pamir range surrounding the lake. My diary for day five lacks any articulation and the constant headwind is to blame. When Marco Polo visited Lake Karakul in the 13th century he also complained bitterly about the wind, and nearly eight hundred years later, I find myself in the same situation. The painful truth is that I’m likely to be at the mercy of the horrible headwind until the end of the highway at Khorog. I am sometimes limited to 8kmh on the flat plateau by the sheer power of the wind. The road also returned to corrugations for a longish stretch which didn’t help my moral. It depresses me that for another thousand kilometres or so, i might have nothing but the wind roaring past my ears for company.
I pass a number of abandoned collective farms sitting in isolated parts of the plateau; farming was never going to work well in this part of the world, they sit desolate and part occupied. Most of the buildings seem to have been filled with cow pats for burning through the winter, while the occupants have reverted to their felt yurts. The other amazing legacy of the USSR is the power lines and pylons which haul themselves over the mountains and over the passes. You can go a whole day without seeing another sole, but are kept company by the never ending wooden sticks poking out of the ground at regular intervals. At the height of Soviet Power, not only were there working collective farms in this part of the world, but working electricity and telephones; it all seems a long way away, as the cables sit slack and damaged on the desert floor.
I spend the afternoon climbing the Ak Baital Pass to the highest point of the journey; a 4600m summit. I sit at the top of the climb, in a small cut out in the rock and eat the last of my snickers bars. I wonder if I’ll ever be back at this height by bicycle. I feel quite head achy with the altitude, but I really feel I am crossing a line in the journey and so force myself to sit and enjoy the altitude for a few more minutes. From this point onwards it is more down than up; I’m on top of the world and in punching distance of Mughrab.
The only thing I have hastily scrawled in my diary on day 5 was ‘Hard day’. I fall asleep tired and dusty, elated and alive.