Qalai-Khumb to Khorog: A stone’s throw from Afghanistan

Reaching Qalai-Khumb had been an exciting moment for two reasons; firstly, I had joined up with the main road again, and I couldn't wait for the road to be paved once again. Secondly, I saw my first glimpse of the River Panj, which I would cycle beside for the next 500km. The significance of this was that the River Panj forms the boundary between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. I couldn't believe I was quite so close to this infamous country everyone knows so much (and yet so little) about.

From my vantage point across the river I was constantly cycling in and out of an ever-shifting scene of Afghanistan daily village life, as if I were invisible. Those occasions I was spotted were awesome too, as the Afghan children would interrupt their chores, or splashing in the river to shout and whistle across the river at me, accompanied by emphatic waves.

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Most of the time I went undetected. Life on the Afghanistan side was noticeably poorer; their road which paralleled ours was in much worse condition, with rock slides preventing access in some sections. Whereas many families in Tajikistan had a car, on the Afghan side I didn't see any. While a few travelled by moped, many more appeared to be travelling vast distances on donkey or foot.

One day in the late afternoon sun, I saw three young Afghan boys playfully spraying water and sand into the air, and letting the wind take it, until they were each completely soaked and covered in sand. Their laughs and screams of joy were audible above the gentle trickle of the river standing between us. I stood absolutely mesmerised watching them play, finding it uplifting to see them having so much fun. It was a strong reminder, naïve of me as it sounds, that they are just normal people. I remember playing similar games with my brothers. The same things that make boys in England laugh and smile, make boys in Afghanistan laugh and smile too. I find that a pretty powerful thought.

The journey from Qalai-Khumb to Khorog took three days. It was a rather unpleasant surprise to discover that the road quality did not improve. Having expected a smooth surface, I found this very challenging from a mental perspective at first.

If I had expected to feel like a brave pioneer on the Pamir Highway, in this far-flung part of Central Asia, that would quickly be proved a mistake, as the number of other travellers who had come to this region for the same reason was overwhelming. My first night after leaving Qalai-Khumb, I camped with 7 Romanian motorbike tourers, Rachael and Patrick who were American bike touring veterans I had bumped into by chance every day since Dushanbe, Rafael who I had met in Qalai-Khumb and cycled with for the day, and Will (Superman) who I had cycled with for the past week. The Romanians welcomed us quickly with a big bottle of beer.

Every time you meet a cyclist, you stop and have a chat, find out where they're coming from, where they're going, and most importantly (if they're coming towards you), when on earth the road is going to improve! In this way, the road becomes a network, and you will learn about who is coming towards you, and you can pass along messages for the people coming along behind you, such as where you will be camping that night. On several occasions I met a cyclist who said “Ah, you must be Jo.” This created, for a short while, a sense of community, even a sense of family maybe, between a number of individuals living a nomadic life, and was an enjoyable aspect of this part of the trip.

A pretty communal camping spot!
A pretty communal camping spot!

On the third day from Qalai-Khumb, with a fantastic host called Mona awaiting Will and I, we pushed nearly 110km to reach Khorog, the capital of the Pamir, and enjoy our first rest day in 9 days. Exhausted, we finally arrived in Khorog, only to check the address, and discover she lived 15 km before Khorog. Weary legs slowly managed to carry me back over ground for the second time, to reach her house just before it got dark, and conclude the second section of the Pamir - From here I was heading into the Wakhan, where it was about to get epic!

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9 Replies to “Qalai-Khumb to Khorog: A stone’s throw from Afghanistan”

  1. Absolutely fascinating paragraph about cycling along your side of the river and seeing the day to day life across to Afghanistan, although funnily enough, I read virtually exactly the same thing in another cyclist’s* blog a couple of years ago regarding the children interacting with you on our side of the river.

    Hope to add you to this when you get to New Zealand: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nztony/albums/72157639382077615

    * Tom Bruce: https://goo.gl/ZTu8RO Bottom of Page 72.

    1. I just read Tom Bruce’s blog – Yep – exactly the same experience as mine. It is an incredible sight to see/feel.

      And I look forward to being added to that gallery when I arrive! Where are you based?

      1. Josiah, I’m about 30km north of Wellington City, in the suburb of Pinehaven, Wellington is where you get the ferry from the South Island to the North Island or vice versa. I don’t do warmshowers as I do shiftwork, i.e. irregular hours, so most of the cyclists that have stayed at my house, I’ve just randomly met while out cycling. As soon as you mention wifi, power, shower, laundry, most touring cyclists eyes light up 😉

        1. Hahaha! Well, if you could see me, you just made my eyes light up!

          Let’s keep in touch,and see what we can arrange nearer the time!

  2. Joe, some lovely/astonishing pictures here. ( Campsite could be in Yorkshire Dales!) No mention of Susie?
    When do you expect to be in Kyrgystan? Our HG friends expect to be there this month. Bill and Margaret

    1. Hi Margaret – Glad you like the pictures! Sus has decided to fly home so I’m on my own again, which is scary and exciting in equal proportions!

      I am in Kyrgyzstan now! I am in the capital, Bishkek where I’ll be waiting patiently (off the bike) for at last two weeks for my Chinese visa. If they will be here at the same time, I would love to meet up with them! I’m free with not much to do while I await this visa!

  3. Hi jo your blogs are like a bottle of wine they get better a better as you go just amazing can’t wait for the next instalment this is s as good as it gets x
    Much love Grandma/Pa

  4. As always, humbling and inspirational in equal measures. Thank you for challenging me to be better whilst inspiring me always.

    Love you. Keep safe. Keep in touch.

    Thank you for always being you, even on the days I wash you were less amazing and here. I am very proud of you and I wouldn’t change a thing about you.

    Big love, big hugs xxxxx

  5. Can just hear time words coming out of your mother’s mouth!!

    Great blog as always x

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