Lottie! Turn off the light!” We were broken down in the fabled Wakhan Valley, 40km from the nearest village at the top of an arid mountain pass. Behind us, mountains, in front of us the river that separates Afghanistan and Tajikistan. We would like to say that it was a raging river, alas, at this point in the valley, the river was rather sedate, and Ryan had just spotted lights on the other side. The Wakhan valley, once an ancient trade route, became the buffer zone between British India and the Russian Empire at the end of the nineteenth century, intended to put an end to Great Game encroachment. Since, it has become a notorious hotspot for Taliban fighters, and most recently has become known as the ‘opium highway’, with huge amounts of the world’s heroin being smuggled across the narrow river. Bearing this in mind, and our desperate situation, Ryan had taken up his watch in the starry night. Of course, we had nothing to fear. The following day, we were kicking ourselves, having let our imaginations run wild, we woke to a stunning view of the Hindu kush, and the offers of help from both tourists and locals.
The bike, who’s problem turned out to be dodgy wiring (cough Lottie’s fault cough),was put on top of a 4×4 for a roller coaster ride, with some casual drug dealing stops at army bases and a break to drink some fermented yaks milk (yuk). The soldiers that gave the ride were friendly enough, but both Lottie and the bike were relieved to be unloaded at Alichur, a remote Pamiri town, where some hard bargaining saw us put the bike atop a second 4×4 for a smoother ride to Murghab. At Murghab we met old friends and with help from Marley from Edge Adventures and Irbis motorcycle club we were up and running again in a day.
Of course the obvious option at this point would have been to make a run for Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan had taken its toll, with war wounds on both the bikes and us. Our faces and lips were cracked and burnt from being in the harsh sun of high altitude for so long, the bikes were missing various parts; mirrors, indicators, ignition barrels. But the allure of little explored mountain routes, dramatic valleys, or perhaps our stubbornness saw us take to the road once more, returning to the scene of our breakdown, and setting off on our adventures once again.
Encouraged by our now dear friend Hamish (a Gilly Cooper reading Etonian who we rescued from a sticky situation), we decided to tackle the Zorkul valley. Most travellers end their tour of the Wakhan area at Langar, where you rejoin the famous Pamir highway. However, a permit/bribe of the officers at a remote army camp, can see you continue along the valley into a nature reserve famous for Marco Polo Sheep and critically endangered Snow Leopards. We had discussed the route with Hamish a week or so earlier, and before the breakdown, were supposed to catch him up as he cycled it. The track begins as corrugated gravel and swiftly descends into loose boulders interspersed with river crossings. Eventually as you begin to near the isolated, turquoise lake, the track peters out almost entirely. We camped in the middle of the vast empty valley, the peaks of the Pamirs grandly surrounding us. Ryan went in search of some company to share a beer with, but the best he could find was a herd of nosy cows! The farmer and his daughter soon followed-they live in a remote hut for the summer, before returning to Khorog for the winter months.
We can only presume the noise of our bikes terrified any nearby wildlife as the following day we made our way further east, Lottie doing some impressive mud riding, but not spotting any of the famous animals, before finally reaching the remote village of Jarty Gumbez. Here we treated ourselves to a wallow in the hot springs and a delicious yurt cooked lunch of stew, dumplings, yoghurt and honey.
Leaving the village we thought the adventurous road would be over, how wrong we were. We entered a breathtaking landscape of which it is impossible to put the feelings of remoteness and beauty into words. Sandy tracks led over mountain passes, cliffs and lakes interspersed the landscape, and we even (after much searching) managed to find some neolithic cave paintings! As the track neared its end at the Pamir Highway we were able to pick up speed, tails of dust left in our wake, it felt good to be alive!
On rejoining the asphalt of the Pamir Highway, we were finally able to relax a little more and gape openmouthed at the soaring mountain peaks that the road snakes through. Arriving at Murghab and taking up residence at the Pamir Hotel for a second time, we settled down for dinner with fellow overlanders and adventurers. Murghab is described by the guidebook as a desolate ‘wild east’ town, not really worth sticking around in, but we found it utterly endearing.
Granted, the best hotel in town only has electricity for a few hours a day, and slaughters yaks in the car park for dinner. Its true that the landscape and buildings are rather desolate and depressing. It is also impossible to get cold beer or an ice cream due to the fact no one has a fridge! But its market, built from old shipping containers houses chirpy people, enterprising women’s cooperatives, and the only fruit for hundreds of miles around. Even the sight of yak innards hanging on the washing line next to the freshly laundered hotel bed sheets could not put you off the charming, hardworking hotel staff as they offered you a choice of plov or manty, made freshly from the afore mentioned yak.
After a good rest and a catch up with friends we set out again into the Pamir wilds. Ever since we started our research back in gloomy Glasgow, there has been one road Ryan has wanted to tackle-the infamous Bartang valley. Search for it on youtube-it looks terrifying. Our friends Dien and Marco (who are equally as mad as us) had tackled it earlier in the season in their 4×4 and had a horrific time attempting to cross the flooded rivers and landslides. They (Marco) encouraged us to try it. Lottie especially was not keen and the road had led to many heated discussions in the tent over the previous months. On leaving Murghab a compromise had finally been reached-we would go as far as we could.
Despite the locals doubting the feasibility of traversing the Bartang, we were flushed with confidence following our experience in Zorkul and set off with heavy panniers laden with provisions. It wasn’t long before we encountered our first obstacle, a wide but reasonably shallow river. After wading across to check the depth we easily walked the bikes through and got underway proper. The valley was like a vast moonscape to start with, but a meteor crator and ancient lunar calender served to tell us we were heading in the right direction as we blasted across the desolate sands.
Day two saw the landscape change as we shared breakfast with a lone farming family perched on top of a lush green pasture, before re-entering the rocky moonscape, dwarfed by ice topped peaks. The road turned into a steep descent of loose gravel and it was slightly unnerving when Ryan realised that he no longer had a working back brake. We stopped next to a parked 4×4 to investigate. He had overheated the caliper on descending the mountain, and as we stopped to let it cool down, the owners of the 4×4 appeared. They were park rangers working with NGO Panthera, setting camera traps for snow leopards! We spent a happy half an hour discussing their work, and learned that there were not just leopards in the area, but wolves, lynx and bears!
The rest of the day was spent negotiating slippery mud crossings of the valley floor and a narrow boulder strewn track whose broken edge plummeted into the raging river below. Arriving at Nisur exhausted, we employed the local kids to set up our tent on a wonderful grassy lawn next to the river, before they kindly tested our camp chairs for structural integrity and tried on our walking boots! The community here is really proud of where they come from-and they should be-it is stunning!
Descending the valley on day three, the canyon narrowed. We thought we had passed the hard sections, alas as we turned a sharp bend it became obvious that we had not. The road ahead was completely flooded, with the river filling the entire valley floor. Steep canyon walls prevented any move higher and by this point we did not have enough fuel to turn back. After numerous river crossings, we were used to having constantly wet feet and we waded into the fast flowing water to check the depth. The first couple of sections were no more than knee height. We walked the route through the sediment laden brown water checking for unseen boulders and obstacles, and got the bikes through without issue. Around lunch time we encountered a group of cyclists. They told us the road ahead was waist high with water! This would have been impossible for us-had it been true. A classic case of traveller over exaggeration had us worried until we reached the section-no higher than Ryan’s thigh.
And so, soaking wet from the thighs down and exhausted from the tough riding conditions, we emerged into a village. The local shop was closed, but a family kindly hosted us for tea and bread whilst our bike gear dried out in the sun. We met a local girl who was a teacher in Dushanbe. She told us how much she wished to return to her family, the valley and village-another case of how proud the Bartang people are.
As evening approached we arrived in Khijez, an unexpected delight of a village on the banks of the Bartang river. We were directed to a secluded grassy spot, a crystal clear stream flowing through it. We strung up the hammock, set up the tent and within half an hour had been visited by two local men bearing a bowlful of apricots and plums. Later in the evening two local women visited us with bread, wishing to find out where we were from and what we were doing in their remote village. Lots of the villagers were shocked we had come from the north of the valley-they thought it was impassable. The following day we woke to fresh bread outside the tent and local kids clamouring to see the motorbikes. Ryan’s offer of a motorcycle ride, one of the few ways we can show our appreciation for the kindness shown to us, soon ended up with a queue of children waiting for a turn. As a result we were decorated with strings of dry apricots and treated to a delicious dinner of Plov.
We were lucky enough to be invited for a tour around the village with the literature teacher. It is effectively a small cooperative. Each family contributes to the farming of a number of fields, the ovens are mud built and are in the street. The whole village resides in the shade of tall Cyprus trees, creating a magical effect in the dappled shade. We really did not want to leave, threatening that we would build our own house on the grassy bank! Eventually we dragged ourselves away, continuing down the valley and finally reaching a tarmac road. We had traversed from the high altitude, desolate landscape of the Pamirs into a fruitful farming landscape on the Afghan border. At the petrol station we were rewarded for our efforts by the pump attendant, who gave us each a plump pamiri tomato which we wolfed down.
We had done a loop the loop and ended up back in Khorog at the fantastic Pamir Lodge. The overland circuit in this part of the world is very small and we bumped into our travelling family once again. Legend has it amongst this small community that Khorog harbours a fantastic Indian restaurant and we seeked it out, ordering our weight in curry. It was no ‘Mother India’, but was certainly a break from the rubbish pasta and monotonous rice dishes we had been making ourselves. We took the Pamir highway back to Murghab coming across two great British trike tourers, Daz and Hels. Around a roaring fire we reminisced about watching ‘Grand Designs’ and ‘The Great British Bake Off’. It was a fantastic evening!
We had planned to reach Murghab in time for the highly anticipated national horse games festival. Being central Asia, the event kicked off about two hours late with few of the advertised events taking place. It is the same with the restaurants here. On the outside they have great advertisement with fries,delicious burgers etc etc, but in reality they have only manty (steamed dumplings with mysterious meat inside) and plov (rice with mysterious meat on top). Anyway we digress. The horse festival was the epitome of tajik events, shit but endearing. It was rather entertaining to watch half naked men wrestle on horseback, and it was especially great to see the women having chance to whip the men quite brutally in revenge for a kiss. Less great was the karaoke that saw old men crack out some thrilling moves whilst trying to reach the high notes! Again our travelling family turned up,and we were happy to see Dave and Karen, a couple on Yamaha bikes who we had first met in Dushanbe and beat them at cards!
Our last few days in Tajikistan saw us head towards the border crossing that sits at over 3500m on a desolate mountain pass. On the way there we camped at Karakol, a huge lake that is frozen for most of the year. Tackling some tricky sand we made it to a beautiful beach and Ryan even braved a swim. The road to the border got rougher and rougher and we lingered at the pass drinking in the views for one last time. Karakol lake burned blue under clear blue skies, the Pamir stretched out into the distance, and not another creature stirred for miles around.
Tajikistan is a land of soaring mountain peaks, raging rivers, bright eyed, hospital, intelligent people and adventure. It has its challenges, access to food (apart from apricots and stale biscuits) is limited, the altitude and weather take huge tolls on your body and strength, the roads rattle your bones, if the roads are there at all. But there is no place to rival its beauty, and no limit to the adventure you can have there. As Tajikistan moves forward, putting the years of Soviet rule and civil war behind it, we really hope that adventure seekers bring wealth and prosperity to its people, but we want to get back there, amongst the soaring mountain peaks, before the secret is out!!