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.
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.
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!