Back in the second half of September, when I started looking around on the internet for information about what to do in Tajikistan, two decisions got made very quickly:
- I was going to do this by bicycle
- I was going to cycle on the Pamir Highway
As I read more, I realized that the Pamir Highway was, in fact, a dream for many cycle tourists: a place on everyone’s bucket-list. The mountains, the people, the roads, the remoteness — this route had everything. But even more exciting was a “short cut” from Rushon near the start to Karakul, the last village in Tajikistan, through the Bartang Valley: a route that took you to a plateau at an altitude of about 4000 m where you wouldn’t have any human contact through 150 km of extremely bad road. This alternative had been taking up more and more space in my mind. When I reached Dushanbe and met cyclists who said it was the best part of the best country on their tours, I decided I really wanted to do it.
Then I got scared.
Scared because of my inexperience. I didn’t really have experience with bicycles; what if something went wrong and I couldn’t repair it? I had already seen on Instagram a cycling couple who had to hire a truck because one of their rims got bent. There was a video of them banging the rim on the ground trying to straighten it.
Scared of the terrain. The road in Bartang was extremely bad. The road from Qalai Khumb was already bumpy, gravelly, and sandy but cyclists we met told us that was nothing compared to the road in the valley and the plateau. We would encounter everything: washboard, sand, rocks, stones, water. Oh yes, and river crossings.
And most of all, scared of the weather. By the time I had started cycling in Tajikistan, mid-October, the season for cycling was already ending. People were reporting temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius at night at the higher altitudes. There was a post on Instagram by a cyclist showing their thermometer reading -25 degrees Celsius at night! I had come prepared for the cold nights with a respectable quantity and quality of winter clothes. But I didn’t know what -25 degrees Celsius even meant in terms of how my body would react. On an online forum where I posted a question, a commenter said that my trip was “ill-advised” given my lack of experience and adequate preparation.
When I met Jonny in Qalai Khumb (see previous post), the Bartang valley wasn’t on his plan, but I think he found it hard to resist the pull of fear and adventure either. He was a much, much more experienced cycle tourist than me, and that gave me confidence. I hope that having a person to cycle with gave him a little confidence too, but overall I think I was the luckier one in this partnership!
The first half of the route through the valley and the plateau was inhabited. The last village was called Gudara, and after that, there was a steep climb to the plateau, then three days of remoteness and cold. Put another way, we had till Gudara to change our minds and turn back.
Over the next three days, as we cycled through the valley, the worries were easily overshadowed by the incredible views and people. The roads were cut out of steep mountainsides, and the Bartang river gurgled pleasantly right beside us. The mountains were more well-defined than on the main Pamir Highway: sharper, rougher, and more imposing. The weather was perfect, with just enough clouds to add mood and character to the scenery. It was fall — or rather the end of it — and the leaves on the trees by the road were a bright yellow.
The people were even friendlier too, and they spoke more English. You would be cycling along and kids would run up to you with mad energy from their house, shouting “Hello!”, “What is your name?!”, and “Where are you from?” at the top of their voice. Smiles and invitations for tea were everywhere, and if you just stopped for a moment, you would get at least one of both.
Once, we were cycling and saw a woman baking Non (that’s what they call the bread here: round in shape, dense, and somehow stays fresh forever) in a Tandoor oven. She called us for tea and we went to her house which was close by. The whole family — she, her husband, their kids, her mother, her bedridden father, the neighbour’s kid, a neighbour — gathered around us. They smiled a lot, talked a little, and gave us tea and candies as I admired the peaceful wooden interiors of their house. As in all Pamiri houses that I had seen, there was one big room with a room heater (a bukhara like in Indian Himalayan villages) inside. The walls were covered with elaborate carpets, both for insulation and decoration. There were pillars supporting the roof, which had a design right in the centre with tapering wood diamonds. It was dark inside, but in a wise and confident way. The kids looked at us shyly, and laughed when I tried to talk to them.
When we left the house, the lady gave us two loaves of bread to take. While trying to squeeze it into the bag under the bungees on the back of my bike, a small piece fell to the ground. Her husband picked it up carefully and placed it on a stone. Bread was sacred to them. Not knowing what else to do, I apologized and ate it promptly, mud and all!
The road had started off as a reasonable tarmac, but then quickly switched to a combination of many bad bicycling dreams. My bike is not equipped with the best wheels for bad roads (they’re 28mm hybrid tires, meant at most for gravel). I vibrated like a broken massage chair on the unavoidable washboard sections. Stones shook the bicycle and me till my shoulders hurt. We cycled through clear streams, where I quickly gave up, got off the bike, and got my feet wet and cold. The shoes were supposed to be waterproof, but there’s little you can do when the water level is above them. We slid on the stretches of sand, which was actually a little fun: when you saw sand, you never knew how deep it was. All you could do is switch to the lowest gear, pedal hard, and keep pedaling till you couldn’t pedal any more. Then, you stopped, and pushed.
There was also gravel, but compared to the rest of the terrain, the gravel treated us quite nicely. I guess it’s like the one prison guard who gives you cigarettes while the rest of them are torturing you.
But the views, and the feeling of adventure, had me riding with a natural high. I remember on one night, when we were camping by the river, I got out to pee, and kept staring at the stars and the milky way till it got too cold. And then I stared a little more, and shivered back into my tent gleaming.
We rode after dark twice, and that was terrifying. The first time, I couldn’t find my bicycle light, and had to depend on Jonny who skillfully lit up the road for the both of us. The second time, I had a reasonable amount of light, but was still scared. The road was bad even without the potholes. There was no protection from falling right off a cliff, and complete darkness except for our poor weak lights trying hard, and mostly failing, to illuminate the dangers on our path.
Looking back, I think these two rides were a mistake. Both times, we had invitations to stay with locals: once a nice girl who even spoke English, and the next by a shepherd whose face shone with calm and wisdom. But the invitations came a little early in the day, and we mistakenly thought we would find a suitable camping spot. Lesson learned!
We camped once and otherwise stayed in homestays. At the homestay in Savnob, we stayed an extra day debating our plans for the next few days. It was raining in the village, which meant it would be snowing at the higher altitudes. The friend of the owner of our homestay, a young and handsome Engligh-speaking man called Daler kept telling us that biking on to the plateau was not possible. The pass just before the plateau would be covered with more than a foot of snow, he said, snow too deep for your bicycles.
We spent a lot of time talking with him, and he spent a lot of that time complaining about the lack of opportunities for youth in Tajikistan. “Every family sends someone to Moscow”, he said, “half of Tajikistan’s economy comes from Russia”.
“There is nothing for us to do here”, he said one night. He would wake up in the morning, drink tea, eat, and chat all day, and then sleep. Some days, he would go on his donkey or in the car to the forest to get wood, but that was about it. Later, thinking about it, I understood his frustration, but something felt off while talking to him. Of course what he said about Tajikistan resonated with what I had heard in other places, but his complete hopelessness about his circumstances did not.
I do think this distrust of Daler came not from his complaints, about which I was convinced at the time, but from his insistence on us taking a car (“my friend is a driver”) to the pass to see if there was enough snow. It sounded like he just wanted our money, and that sowed the seed of unease in his company for me.
At the other extreme, in the same village, was Mulk, the owner of the homestay we were originally going to stay at. He was the brother of the driver we had met in Qalai Khumb and he had been told we were coming. We had reached Savnob when it was already dark, so we just took the first homestay we found instead of looking for his house. But while walking around the next day, he recognized us.
And then for no reason, he walked with us for more more than two hours showing us the sights in the village. He took us to his home, fed us large quantities of delicious food cooked with vegetables from his garden and chatted cheerily about all the guests who had stayed with him. He left us feeling buoyant and cheerful, with our faith in humanity restored. The next day, we came again to say Goodbye and exchange gifts for a hug.
In the last village, Gudara, we were almost cheated by a guy who practically ambushed — if such a thing as a polite ambush is possible — us on the road and tried to get us to stay with him. Before we knew it, we were following him and negotiating rates while he seemed to understand us only when it was convenient for him.
With some effort, like you were separating two pieces of paper that you had mistakenly glued together, we walked away and found another homestay with a lovely family. The couple in the house were both teachers, and the man played music for us with a traditional Pamiri stringed instrument that I now don’t remember the name of. What I do remember is the lovely syncopated strumming pattern — I just couldn’t keep up and it was so wonderfully frustrating!
Throughout these five days, we debated over and over whether to actually go on to the plateau. It was about a 1000 m climb from Gudara, and it was already very cold here. Daler and his friends had kept warning us of the snow. Both of us were very afraid of how cold it would get (forecasts were saying it would get to -25C at night) and whether our equipment would be enough to cope. At one point, I even said that I wouldn’t mind burning my clothes for warmth!
But in Gudara, we made up our minds, and decided to forge on ahead. We would see for ourselves how high the snow was, and whether we could deal with the cold. If not, there was always the ride back with our tails between our legs!
How did we do? You’ll find out in the next post!