As we approached the Tajik border we wondered if the unbearable heat was causing us to experience a mirage. Strange lumps had started to appear on the otherwise poker straight horizon. ‘Is that a hill?’ came the befuddled question through the sweat drenched helmet-comms. Confusion soon turned to elation as we drove on and more and more hills appeared. It was going to happen-we were going to escape the desert!
Three weeks of the most uncomfortable riding of our lives were behind us. We were rising in altitude, leaving the beauty and unforgettable silk road history of Uzbekistan behind us and making our way towards one of the greatest mountain ranges on Earth. Just over the border we found what had also eluded us for almost 2000km, a petrol station, with petrol in it!! We drained our tanks of dodgy Uzbek plastic bottle fuel, and filled up with pump fresh, 95 octane benzine-it smelt so good!!
Tajikistan is a country of which over 80% of the land is mountainous. Our route through the first part of the country was to take us from the fertile Ferghana valley in the North West, south and up into the Fan Mountains, then further south and down to the capital city Dushanbe. We decided to take a route along a little driven 4×4 track that ended in a climbers base camp close to the turquoise Alaudin Lake. On our arrival at the base camp, we were met by a Swiss couple and a troup of Russians and were quickly drinking French wine and Russian vodka. This set us up exceedingly well for a three day trek (not) starting early the following day.
We made it up and over the first 3700m pass by lunchtime, dehydrated and suffering from the altitude. But a quick descent over scree led us to a high jailoo (summer alpine grazing grounds), lush and green spotted with stunning turquoise lakes. Unfortunately it was also spotted with lots of other tents. At first we thought many other tourists had beaten us to the beauty spot. However, it quickly became apparent that it was Tajik shepherds residing in the fancy european-style tents. We admonished ourselves for assuming that all shepherds must of course still live in yurts-they also can move with the times! Unfortunately tents weren’t the only thing distracting us from the view. On first appearance the lakes were crystal clear, but on a closer look they were littered with rubbish, whether from the shepherds or from tourists we cannot say, only that the whole area was spoiled by pits of rubbish, mountains of glass and tin cans.
Having made our way to the head of one of the more deserted lakes we befriended a Swiss couple travelling with a guide, chef, mulleteer (donkey driver), mulleteers son and three donkeys!! Because we are SO charming we managed to get invited for dinner! Amazing lagman (noodles and meat in a tomato stew) and fresh watermelon-all for free! After dinner we sat around a campfire under a clear night sky. The Tajik chef regaled us with old mountain songs and in return we treated him to the verses we could remember of Flower of Scotland, Bohemian Rhapsody and a heartful rendition of Amazing Grace-not sure he was particularly impressed! Nonetheless, it was bliss to be in the mountains once more, and to think about all the adventure Tajikistan held in store.
Having been well fed and watered, we made light work of the second pass the following day, and set up our camp beside a remote turquoise lake. In fact we made camp just in time, a thundersorm cracked over our heads and the torrential rain started and didnt stop for three days. At first we made the most of it, swimming in the lake, already wet and cold, collecting firewood in the hope it would soon dry out. But it wasnt long before we lost our enthusiasm and were confined to the damp tent.
This meant only one thing-it was time to crack open our only TV box set- Game of Thrones. On day three we hiked back to base camp in the rain, and interspersed with drinking vodka with the Russians, we finished the entire Series 1 in two days, Lottie was hooked! Alas, with no more food, and the weather brightening, we had no excuse to be in the tent any longer and we packed up and set off down the rough track once more. It was muddy as a result of the rain and we both dropped our bikes. It felt great to complete though, and Lottie is apparently the only woman ever to have ridden it on a motorcycle!
The road south to Dushanbe has recently been upgraded by the Chinese, who are gradually exchanging schools and infrastructure for chunks of mineral rich Tajikistan. As a result it was smooth tarmac, traversing unbelievable scenery. The road wound its way over high mountian passes, before descending steep valley walls in a series of thrilling switchbacks to cross raging rivers at the bottom. On reaching Dushanbe we checked into the Green House Hostel, notorious for harbouring overlanders. We were not dissapointed, the courtyard was filled with 4x4s, motorcycles and bicycles, and we quickly realised that we were nothing special out here! In Tajikistan the overlanding community gets funnelled into Dushanbe as they prepare to cross the Pamir, and we made our first acquaintences with people we would soon call friends, seeing over and over again for the following months.
Despite the great company and good food we were keen to leave Dushanbe and the city frustrations behind us. The road out of the city was smooth tarmac, so smooth in fact we got stopped by the police for speeding. We had been warned of the corruption amongst the authorities in Tajikistan and sure enough we were soon asked for a large sum of money. Having broken the law, we were happy to pay, but at the right and reasonable price, at the police station, with a receipt. Unfortunately, driving to the police station does not make the man on the street his extra cash. After about 20 minutes of holding Ryan’s copied licence hostage, he asked the usual ‘are you married’ question. To this Ryan replied ‘Not yet but in the future, Inshallah’ (God willing). The situation immediately lightened, the policeman assuming Ryan was a good Muslim man, gave him back his licence, shook his hand and sent us on our way with two loaves of bread!
After our delay, the road quickly deteriorated. Now bar the afore mentioned roads around Dushanbe, nearly all of the roads in Tajikistan are shocking. Surrey thinks its got pothole problems, but they have nothing on the M41 that runs 1800km from Dushanbe to Kyrgyzstan, with holes that could swallow a bus randomly appearing and then further deteriorating until there was no tarmac left at all. We were traversing the Northern route, which earlier in the seson had been victim to many landslides and broken bridges. We came upon our first bridge, it was clinging (just) to the sides of the canyon and we crossed, perilously balancing in the one tyre track with fewer gaping holes in it. As we gained altitude the road got worse and worse until it was a rough gravel track in the mountains. Here we encoutnered a few crazy cycle tourers who for some reason think it is fun to cycle up such a road.
After the pass we descended a rocky canyon, which spat us out on the banks of the Panj river that forms the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, eventually flowing all the way down to the remnants of the Aral Sea. The scenery was spectacular. Huge cliffs bordered each side of the narrow, rushing river and our track was hanging precariously off of them. On the other side, we watched amazed as Afghan workers drilled and blasted through the cliff face, creating their own cliff hewn road to mirror our own. Gradually the valley opened out, the river (historically known as the famous Oxus) widened and we came accross grassy fields. Pitching our tent overlooking Afghanistan, we could not believe the beauty that surorunded us.
After a few days we arrived in Khorog, the capital of the Pamirs to stock up and have a shower. We sought all the necessary permits for our travels in the border region and managed, with much difficulty to extend our customs permit for our motorcycles (originally we had been given only 15 days). We entered the Wakhan corridor with the sun on our backs, and historical tales of trade, espionage, and war running through our heads. A wide valley, the Wakhan historically served as a Silk Road route for caravans of exotic trade. As a result, ancient forts litter the valley sides. We visited a few, most notably the formidable Yamchun fortress next to the Bibi Fatima hot springs. The views from the fort, seemingly overlooking the whole length of the valley, were breathtaking. The hot spings, famed for their fertility giving powers, certainly took our breath away even further with the amount of naked ladies happily wallowing in them!
The Wakhan valley, surrounded by soaring peaks is also a premier trekking destination. We had been told of a hike up to ‘Engels Meadow’, a jailoo at over 4000m in the shadow of the awesome Engels Pik. The meadow is most notable for its beauty and easy access to 5000m+ hikes. Leaving our bikes at a guest house we tackled the hike up one hot afternoon, stopping to search for mysterious petroglyphs that reportedly dotted the rocks in the region. The petroglyphs dissapointed, with recent rude graffiti obscuring the ancient markings, but the meadow certainly did not. We had the place to ourselves bar one other couple and a few shepherds. The views of Engels Pik were stunning and the following day Ryan breathlessly tackled his first 5000m peak, suffering from the altitude, while Lottie had a day off lazing in the sun!
Our first impressions of Tajikistan had been mixed. The scenery was undoubtedly stunning, and the roads the most enjoyable and challenging yet. However, since reaching Tajikistan we had encountered a huge range of Tajik people. From friendly hotel owners, to stand-offish kids in the cities, we had been taken in one hot night by a generous family on their beautiful farm, met hardworking women in the fields and less hardworking men lingering on street corners, and we were not impressed by a guesthouse owner constantly asking for freebies and petrol. Regardless of who they were we could guarantee they would ask us the same questions: “Akuda?!” (where are you from?), “Skolko motocycle!?” (how much is your motorcycle worth), “Skolko kilometres!? (How many kilometres can you drive on a tank)” , “zhenat?? (Married)” “bebe (babies)?”, and regardless of how nice they were, the fact we never got past these few questions was frustrating. It was also frustrating that men thought our bikes to be leaning posts, and after poking and prodding them for fifteen minutes or so would laze over them as they shouted the afore mentioned questions at us!
Despite the frustrations however, we found the Pamiri people to be some of the most intelligent and curious people so far on our travels. During the 1990s Tajikistan suffered a civil war in which the Pamir region was cut off from Dushanbe and the more fertile plains in the west of the country. The people here, majoritively Ismaili Muslim, endured famine until they were given help from swiss born Aga Khan. Apparently related to the Prophet Mohammed, many Pamiri people believe it is thanks to Aga Khan that they survived the war, as he organised aid, food drops and built schools across the region. The result of his work is a highly educated, proud people keen to bring prosperity to the region.
But our time in the Wakhan had to come to an end. As we descended from Engels Meadow into Langar, the last village in the valley, over 120km of desolate dirt road lay before us and the next civilisation. As we set out on the rough track, rattling our bikes and our bones, we were excited at the prospect of even higher mountain passes, of even tougher roads and of even more remote valleys. Adventure was in the air and driving us ever onwards.
Only 40km in, Lotties bike ground to a halt and with that our steady progress was brought to a spluttering end. Although not a common occurrence, this had happened before and we were confident of being back on the road shortly. With the number of onlookers growing, we systematically worked through each potential problem, at one point even having the carburetor in bits on the desert floor.
Minutes turned to hours and soon our morale support crew dwindled along with our ideas, dispersing in various directions for their comfortable, safe accommodation. We were alone, thousands of kilometres from the nearest breakdown recovery with a dead bike. Under a starry night sky we agonized over just how and when we would get out of the valley. And as the night darkened ever still, flickering lights began to appear on the other side of the river in Afghanistan. A creeping feeling settled in our bones, were we being watched?