From Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital, there are two ways to get to the Pamirs. Most of the traffic takes the newer, southern road which, although slightly longer is well-paved and significantly flatter. The older northern route is now little used by traffic being virtually entirely off-road, complete with river crossings and a mountain pass of 3,250 metres to tackle.
I thought back to Albania, where I had faced a similar decision; choosing the 'road less travelled' there had made that a memorable and exciting highlight of the entire trip. My choice was immediately clear – I pedalled north out of Dushanbe. Susanna had decided not to cycle this part, but thankfully I had met up with Will, who was 1 year into a 5 year trip cycling around the world dressed as Superman – this was going to be fun!
Shortly after a downhill near the town of Obigarm, (losing all the height we had gained the previous day from Dushanbe) the road suddenly ran out, and a gravel track took its place. THIS was the M41, the Pamir Highway! It didn't look much like an M-road or a highway much at all! As we battled along the broken road, making slow progress, and being shaken around we met two other people who gave us information about what lay ahead. The first was a British motorbike tourer, who had fallen in love with Tajikistan several years ago and now led a tour company guiding people around Tajikistan on motorbikes. He had foam antlers on his helmet 'to remind himself not to take life too seriously'. Despite having ridden this road innumerable times, his passion was contagious. “Your journey is about to get pretty special” he professed, his love for this road tangible from every single word, “It's about to get a little bit epic”. We cycled off, eagerly anticipating what lay ahead.
Soon after we met a Japanese cyclist, Tom, who brought us back down to earth slightly. We inquired about the road quality ahead, convinced it couldn't stay this terrible for much longer. “Ah, this road, very good. Very good road. Further on, road very bad,” he informed us, nowhere near as gently as it could have been. He cycled off, exclaiming one final time, for emphasis, that this was a very good road. We headed off, wondering how it could get worse; Would there be sporadically placed landmines to avoid? Or maybe barbed wire tied across the road?
Despite the slow progress, I felt like finally I had found the adventure I left England in search of. The road was scarcely trafficked with only a handful of cars navigating past us each day. The wild road, slowly being reclaimed by nature, was full of challenges; at one point a car was stuck in a river crossing, water lapping just below the engine. Maybe feeling slightly empowered after a few days cycling with Superman, I immediately offered to help push the car out. We managed, and it felt good to give something back to the locals for a change.
We timed it well to cycle this section, coinciding our journey with the end of Ramadan and a period in which everyone is feasting. Several times each day we would be forcefully dragged into a room, with more food laid out than I had ever seen before. After we had gorged ourselves all we could eat, we were generally invited to stay the night (which was just as well as I probably couldn't have moved had I wanted to!).
At one particular stay, the meat was not quite cooked. I woke early after a sleepless night, leapt out my sleeping bag and made a sudden dash for the door. I managed to take two steps outside before violently throwing up, narrowly missing a donkey. I stood there in my underwear feeling ready to be sick again when out of the corner of my eye I spotted the rather conservative Muslim mother hosting us, draped in a headscarf, somehow managing to look more startled than the donkey. I darted back inside the house and curled up in my sleeping bag pretending I hadn't been seen. This wasn't the first time I had been sick in the past few weeks, and it definitely wouldn't be the last; I was quickly learning that one of Central Asia's biggest challenges was surviving their cuisine.
Before joining the main road again in Qalai-Khumb, we had one further obstacle in our way in the form of a 3,252 metre mountain pass, nearly 700 metres higher than I had cycled before! The climb was gradual, taking most of the day, providing some fantastic views looking back down the valley we had climbed up. Every 100 metres higher seemed to unveil a new range of mountains beyond those we could already see. From the top, the mountains were endless, stretching on forever, the setting sun granting each a slightly different golden hue.
We camped in an abandoned and ramshackle Soviet military building on the top, content in the knowledge that in the morning it was downhill all the way back to the main road. As I fell asleep, I whispered across to Will, “Can you hear that?”
“I can't hear anything.” he replied.
“Exactly” I muttered before the deafening silence of the mountains returned and lulled me to sleep.
The first section of this trip had been awesome enough to reassure me that the next few weeks in the Pamir might actually be able to live up to my high expectations!