First Forays Above 4000m

Khorog’s Pamir lodge is an infectious place, both the ‘Tajik bug’ and a true cyclists camaraderie became epidemic through those walls over my time there. The place emanated with a true traveller’s atmosphere, tales of the Pamirs told over worn maps splayed out over table tops, leading to many a speculation of what lay ahead. Every few hours someone would ride into the courtyard, their face usually slightly dishevelled but eyes bright with adventure. Soon they’d be round the table recounting their journey, then, most likely, in bed as ‘the bug’ successfully claimed another victim.

After a few excitable (and some not so excitable, bed bound nights) at the lodge however, I was ready to strike out on my own. Rozel, my Slovenian friend had decided he’d had enough of the terrible roads or maybe me, and said he wouldn’t be joining (I assumed the former as continentals aren’t usually polite enough to come up with a diplomatic answer). Either way, I’d be on my Tod cycling down the Wakhan valley – a narrow valley split by the Panj river that separates Tajikistan from neighbouring Afghanistan. ‘The road is terrible but the scenery beautiful’ was the sentiment echoed by those in the hostel. That was enough for me. I’ve found I like to ride early in the morning, no faffing about, just get up and go whilst the world is still waking up.

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The next day I rolled out at sunrise, away before everyone else (eight other riders were due to depart that day and I was keen to avoid the madness), making my way down the rocky path. A slight apprehension once again ensued, I knew this to be a strong Opium smuggling route for the Taliban, and, although there had been no serious incidents with tourists, news of some warning shots fired from the Afghan side towards a French couple had firmly reached my ears. However, with hundreds of cyclists passing through each week and many more Tajik soldiers stationed in the area, I reckoned it was safe. It wasn’t most reassuring then once entering the valley, to have a group of young Tajik soldiers shout something incomprehensible in Russian before chucking a few rocks at me from their perch high on the rocks. As is usual, they were sitting about looking thoroughly bored before I came, so I guessed it was nothing more than a game of scare the tourist and rode onwards.

The valley was incredibly barren besides the occasional small oasis that would spring up wherever a stream makes it’s way down the mountainside. They can be traced by an artery of green that stems off into smaller veins, before inevitably being flanked by mud huts of the local village that rely on the aqueous life blood. As I rode further down the valley the scenery became more spectacular, the Afghan Hindu Kush mountains come into view – breath-taking 7000m snow-capped peaks that gleam in days sun. They encompass the slender mountainous border between Pakistan and Tajikistan known as the Wakhan corridor. It was given to Afghanistan in the 19thcentury to prevent conflict between the British and Russian empires that were stationed in the respective countries. This strange spit of land has remained in possession of the Afghans ever since, and is probably the only place in the world where you can be in one country, look over another and into a third (Pakistan).

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Riding through the valley, the road began to seriously deteriorate, loose gravel and sand were becoming commonplace, making some sections seriously tricky to ride and others just down-right impossible. After a few spills onto the rocks, frustration bubbled to the surface for the remainder of yet another scorching afternoon. An afternoon spent staring at the impending rocks as opposed to the incredible views. At one point, after falling off riding a particularly nasty section of gravel, I released a few choice words directed at my small-stoned foe. An old man slowly turned and looked at me before pointing at the floor, uttering the word ‘gravel’. Well that was enough set off a whole chain reaction of boiling thoughts. Oh, I know what it is my friend! I am more than well acquainted with this ‘gravel’ you speak of, in fact, I’m pretty sure a good proportion of it is embedded in my hands and hair!

Sometimes you can get caught up in your own world cycling, riding hard to make a self-imposed deadline or goal, all that freedom disappears inside your own head – you just push on. This was one of those afternoons. Hot and bothered, not enjoying the majesty around me.

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A factory reset was needed and welcomed in the form of a beautiful sunrise over the Hindu Kush. I wake up so early these days that I get to see these times, otherwise completely vacant from my normal schedule back home. I sat there eating my porridge and Nutella, (one of my favourite times of the day) staring out down the valley and just had to pinch myself. You’re looking at sunrise on the bloody Afghan Hindu Kush Ped! Lighten up you grumpy bastard, this is incredible. And it was. I accepted that morning that I would most likely spend the next day falling off or pushing my bike, probably making very few miles in the process but who gives a crap? If it was easy it would be boring. Just to add to that sentiment, I met a couple from Belarus who were walking to Khorog with a disobedient donkey. Right, well if they can walk the whole damn route, I sure as hell can cycle it.

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Just to keep the scales balanced, a couple from Manchester warned me that the road ahead would worsen. “Be prepared to cry” was the comforting advice afforded. Cheers, guys! I, on the other hand, was hoping for a tear-free day. I had been riding hard to make sure I could reach the final town of the Wakhan valley, Langar, for the England-Sweden game. I gambled on being able to find a tv there, if there wasn’t one there, then there wasn’t one in the whole Wakhan. I found promise of a goggle-box from a hostel owner, if I stayed in his place I could come back to his house to watch the football. Deal. Before that, I decided to take up the offer of a ‘tour’ from a 10 year-old to see the ancient petroglyphs on the mountainside. With a steep 1 dollar fee, I was expecting big things from little Barusa. He didn’t disappoint, after a few miles walking up a steep dirt track, we arrived at a set of flat rocks densely covered in markings. It appears that the ancient peoples who occupied these lands must’ve had possessed an incredible foresight, predicting the advent of the motorcar and also taking time to scribble modern dates on the rocks. Interesting…

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At least the view up there was beautiful. We descended back down to the hostel, where there was now a couple of cyclists who I recognised from various points along the highway. Me and a French guy, Patrick, went to the house to watch the game. The tv was quite a sight, a frequently sparking plug had to be hand-held in place to keep it running and sound was an optional extra to which we didn’t have access. I didn’t care and could easily look past the fact that the screen struggled to produce the colour yellow, meaning the Swedish players appeared as a pair of shorts and a floating head.

In the house, it was one of the little girls, Sabrina’s, birthday. They began celebrations behind us as me and Patrick were glued to the tv. England produced a dominant display, and I produced a few episodes of loud cheering which were echoed by everyone celebrating the birthday. Seeing a random English tourist first pumping and hi-fiving everyone in the room seemed to go down well and soon everyone was supporting England. Sorry to steal your thunder Sabrina but football’s coming home!

Well that was it, England into the world cup semi-final. Where was the next tv? I had four days, a couple of hundred miles, two 4000m pass and a whole lot of gravel to negotiate. No matter, this just had to be done, I would cycle all night if I had to. The following day, I set off with Tony, a French photographer who had spent the best part of the last year riding from France. His personality brighter even than his luminous orange shirt, he turned out to be the perfect partner to battle the terrible roads with. Oh, and they were terrible – unless steep switchbacks of deep gravel is your thing? Within five minutes of leaving the hostel we were already pushing our bikes. No tears though. Not yet.

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After a few hours of pushing, I was cursing having such thin tyres on my bike, both wheels often failed to rotate completely, leaving me hopelessly dragging the whole bike through whatever terrible surface we found ourselves in. Just as I frustration boiled to the surface, Tony would come out with a howler of a comment from under his thick beard, causing me to crack up and remember this was just a bike ride. “Fuck ‘zee’ fucking flies man, and this fucking road. What idiot built ‘zis’ thing” was a particular favourite. He’d happily stop though, just looking at the mountains, which, now from this height, looked even more spectacular, commenting how we are the luckiest people in the world. We then turned to each other and repeatedly started saying, “we’re in the Pamirs man! Ahaha!” We were in the Pamirs, tackling undoubtedly the toughest road of our trips to date, but we were happy. Heck, it wasn’t raining!

If the mood started in a jubilant fashion, it slowly deteriorated as the war of attrition against the road waged strong. I’m not going to sugarcoat the experience, it was tough. I genuinely hope I don’t have to experience a road surface in that state again. The precious time spent actually riding the bike was spent engaged in a constant battle preventing the rear wheel spinning out and you staying on the bike. Eight hours of that begins to take it out of you. At altitude, even more so. Consequently I started feeling pretty desperate as I began recognising the symptoms of the Tajik bug rearing its ugly head again. With my stomach now all over the place, I was feeling weak, unable to eat much or push the bike far through the sand. To my delight, Tony suggested camping up early on a flat ledge with a lovely view of the Kush. Not that I cared at this point, I just knew I needed to get horizontal.

I was already feeling the heat, this was the most remote section of the Pamir highway with very few cars passing through. If I felt like this tomorrow, there was no way I could make it over the pass (4300m) or even back the way I came. I had a lot of food though, I told myself I could wait it out if need be. Either way, I was very grateful to have Tony there that night.

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He amused me further by producing a metal teapot, a fold up chair and a three-person tent for just himself. From the depths of my sleeping bag I could hear him cursing a fly that had infiltrated his palace. I remember thinking ‘Tony mate, your tent is so large that you and the fly will probably not bump into each other over the eight hours tonight.’ Still very much under the weather, I resorted to taking the mysterious Russian pills I’d bought from a pharmacy in Dushanbe. They came recommended from another cyclist under the advice, ‘these will save you’. I definitely felt like I needed saving right then. Of course everything on the packaging was written in Cyrillic, I had no idea what they were or how many to take, so I popped three and hoped for the best.

The following morning I woke up feeling normal, I thanked my lucky stars for those damn pills and opened my tent door to receive an offer of organic French tea fresh from Tony’s pot. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better morning just a few hours ago. Tony had got a big shipment of the tea delivered to him so he wouldn’t have to go without the good stuff. The guy even had a spare mug for sharing a cuppa. I tell you what, that man has life just sorted out, I need to take a leaf or two out his book.

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We spent the morning chatting away, ploughing on through the crap road until we reached the only turnoff of the whole track. Tony had bought a permit for the beautiful Zorkul nature reserve, whilst I was intending on going over the pass towards a town called Murghab, where, you guessed it, there would be football. We said our goodbyes and soon went our separate ways. I started what was to be two hours riding at a moderate crawling pace. If there happened to be any particularly quick babies about making the same journey as me, no doubt I would’ve been left far behind. No matter, I continued making my way up the dirt track. This was to be my first foray above 4000m.

After 4200m, stopping riding resulted in a real shortage of breath, that would take me a good while to recover. It felt like someone was standing on my stomach. Wary the road may get worse, I was keen to press on, giving myself plenty of time to get over the top and sleep at a lower altitude. The pass itself was nothing of note, I actually took a load of photos of where I thought the top was, which turned out was completely the wrong place. You don’t usually envisaged a long flat road at the top of a pass eh! No matter, this was more of a mental barrier than anything else. I was at 4348m, a height I only dreamt of back in the UK back when I decided to ride the Pamirs and it felt great.

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The road down resembled a downhill mountain bike trail, complete with river crossings and some significant boulder avoiding but it was all good fun. I spent the afternoon carefully negotiating the track, and of course, pushing my bike through more sand… Eventually I re-joined the main Pamir Highway. A sight so damn beautiful – tarmac. I got down on my knees and kissed the rough black tar, never had it looked so beautiful and welcoming. I swore never to take it for granted again before gleefully riding off in a setting sun.

I found a beautiful camp spot looking down over a blue lake surrounded by mountain peaks. The evening was quiet, especially considering that I was close to what is known as a ‘highway’. It’s laughable, I hadn’t seen a car drive by in hours, so that evening was just for myself. I knew I was now close to a town and probably within reach of 3G with my Tajik SIM, but I decided not to turn it on. I wanted to remain disconnected from the world at least one night longer, choosing instead to reflect on what had been a crazy few days cycling.

Now riding a smooth road, I bombed along. The second pass was dead easy and I could begin a beautiful descent down to Murghab. Music turned up to max volume, it was blissful riding. Just me singing my heart out and cutting some serious shapes to the tunes as the first album became the second, and the road continued downwards. My hands now allergic to the bars, I had been successfully reduced back to primitive pleasures. Why are you cycling fast with your hands off the bars? Because it’s fun. And right now, riding my bike around the world, that’s enough.

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Deep into the second album, weaving between strikingly stark mountains, the valley’s were my own. Such is the beauty of the Tajiks hyperbole use of the word ‘highway’, I hadn’t seen a car in over an hour. There’s a time for solitude on this trip. You don’t have to been pitched high on a mountain face for it, pure absorption in road and music sometimes is enough. Yet, as I rounded a long right-hander, I was excited to see a ‘chain-gang’ of five cyclists riding towards me. We stopped at the side of the road for a proper chin-wag. They were full of life and we began talking about where everyone had come from/was heading, plus some advice for the road ahead on the best camp spots and homestays. I remember thinking there was something really vibrant about them but also strangely familiar. It was only later that I realised I had been following the American couple’s trip for months on Instagram. Lauren and Jay had cycled across Africa before flying to Kazakhstan to start riding the Pamir highway. Jay messaged me on Instagram and we laughed about it later on.

I arrived at the police checkpoint outside the high-altitude town of Murghab. This region is part of a semi-autonomous region known in short as GBAO and I had been through this checkpoint charade many times before. This time, the police couldn’t be bothered to write my incredibly long surname down at right this minute, so I was invited into a cramped room with ‘the boys’, tucking into a hearty meal of ‘plov’ whilst discussing Anglia’s (England’s) chances of eternal World Cup glory. After being coerced into eating far too much greasy rice for my uneasy stomach to handle, I eventually rolled into the centre of this strange town.

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In the spirit of England’s captain, I’d ‘Kaned’ it riding the past six days, arriving a day earlier than anticipated. I was all ready for the game the next night, but this now looked in jeopardy as I found out the town doesn’t have electricity after 10 pm. The game started at 11… Or, as the locals incredibly confusingly refer to ‘local time’ as Kyrgyz time despite being in Tajikistan – one hour ahead – 12 pm. After a good amount of persuasion, the hotel manager called about for a generator to run the tv off of. You sir, are a hero.

The next evening soon swung round, with me explaining my pace over the Pamirs due to the football to a lovely Swiss couple – it turned out I’d cycled past their house on Lake Zug five odd months ago when I started this trip. As soon as I mentioned the word football they briefly smiled and looked over at each other before turning to me “oh, so you’re the crazy English football guy? We heard about you from some motorbikers, you’re San Pelligrino right? You wear a cap or something.” So there it was, I had become a name on the cycle tourist circuit. Officially famous as ‘the crazy English football guy’ or ‘ San Pelligrino’. Before the football had even started, I was happy knowing I’d go down in this weeks cycle touring history book, hopefully somewhere next to the legendary ‘hammock man’.

I was happy to find myself in the company of four Brits for the game. All recent grads from Cambridge, strangely from the year I was there and one of them, Cameron, was head of the radio station I bagged a show on and had been the guy sending me emails all year. What a small world… We sat down with a couple of beers, fully engrossed in the beautiful game. The proceeding two hours had us out of our seats, screaming the place down in joy, before the inevitable decline led to a deathly silence at the final whistle. Leaving our dreams lying in a crushed heap on floor before us, it was finally time to get some rest. Tomorrow I was to ride up over 4650m – without the world cup dream to push me over the top.

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[Note: For those of haven’t read my ‘Terror in Tajikistan’ post, the American couple I talked about meeting in this article (Lauren and Jay) were those two unfortunate souls caught up in the horrific terror attack. My deepest thoughts and condolences are with their families and loved ones at this time]

 

 

 

 

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