Away from the main Pamir Highway (M41), a myriad of smaller and less-travelled tracks await those cyclists looking for even more adventure and don't mind riding on some pretty rough stuff! Among these, the most popular is the Wakhan Valley, which is raved about wildly by those cyclists who rise to the challenge. I pedalled out of Khorog and into the Wakhan, keen to see what the hype was all about.
110km south of Khorog lies one of the larger towns of the Wakhan, Ishkoshim. This offered a unique opportunity to leave Tajikistan and cross into Afghanistan (kinda). On Saturday mornings a border market located on an island in the River Panj, opens to both Afghanistan and Tajikistan. I was excited; it would be a fantastic opportunity to meet some of these people from Afghanistan I had been gawping at from across the river for the last week, and would give me the slightest of tastes into their lifestyle. I had heard that the border market is closed at the slightest sign of unrest. I rolled into town at 9am on Saturday, having timed it perfectly, only to discover the gates firmly boarded and guarded; that didn't bode well!
My disappointment was short-lived; after Ishkoshim, the scenery became more mountainous, gradually beginning to resemble the fabled beauty of the Wakhan I had read about. The Afghan mountains jutted into the sky, dusty rugged and harsh, a powerful spectacle to witness. The real highlights came however, whenever the valley opened up slightly and I could catch a glimpse beyond the Afghan mountains and through to a chain of enormous, snow-covered hulks rearing defiantly skywards, ensnared in a crown of cloud. These monsters were the Hindu Kush, which formed the Afghan border with Pakistan. It felt like an exciting place to be.
The landscape was dry and dusty; despite its elevation well over 2,000 metres, temperatures remain high. And yet, villages were abundant, always surrounded by the verdant green of trees and grasses, which heavily contrasted the surrounding landscape, and highlighted that water, and indeed life, was to be found here.
The Wakhi (yep, pronounced the same as 'wacky') people were very poor by Western standards, lacking many of the things we take for granted; going to the toilet meant squatting over a smelly long drop, and showers and running water were entirely non-existent. Houses were small, made of wood and mud, and mostly empty inside – eating and sleeping on the floor is customary, removing the need for furniture. Most families kept a few cows and the milk from these, alongside bread, formed most of the diet.
However, I soon discovered that what little they had, they were quick to share. For the first three nights cycling through the Wakhan Valley, I was invited in by locals to stay for the night. Amazingly this even happened while I was cycling in a group of 4 cyclists! This was always accompanied with a non-negotiable offer of dinner and breakfast. As you probably know, I've experienced much generosity around the world, but for the first time I began to feel uneasy about it. On occasion, it even felt like I was being giving food they had prepared for themselves; the thought of them missing a meal because I had eaten it made me feel very uncomfortable even though they had initiated the interactions. I soon decided that I would camp for the remainder of my time in the Wakhan – this decision was also made easier by my 7th bout of food poisoning in 6 weeks; food hygiene is perhaps lacking somewhat...
What surprised me most about the hospitality and welcome I always received was that I was cycling along an established bike touring route. Bike tourers cycle along this road, through these towns and past these houses on an almost daily basis over summer. Some days I would meet 7 or 8 other cyclists. Unlike elsewhere on this trip, I was not a novelty here. But, everyone always seemed so excited whenever they saw me. The children especially would drop whatever they were doing and sprint across the fields to the road, shrieking 'hello, hello' or 'bye bye, bye bye' depending on what they had learnt at school. I have never felt more like a celebrity than the week I cycled through the Wakhan. How they can possibly sustain the enthusiasm they have for an entire summer, I have no idea.
The final part of the Wakhan (when heading east) is by far the most challenging and intrepid. All the cyclists I had met in the other direction had warned me about it. After Langar, I would pass no civilisation for 3 days, which meant I had lots of food to buy. Like everywhere in the Wakhan, shops are exceedingly basic, and the tiny bus-cum-shop I found managed to provide me with a rather unexciting diet of noodles and biscuits. Shops in the Wakhan don't sell bread as everyone bakes their own, so instead you must ask to buy from people you meet. Rarely is this bread fresh, normally recognisable by the hard, hollow noise emitted when tapped. I expect Wakhi bread would make a remarkably effective weapon.
After Langar, the small amount of traffic that had passed, dropped off almost entirely, and just a few crammed taxis passed each day; if anything were to go wrong, hitching a lift was not an option. I felt very much on my own. The road, thick with sand, made for agonisingly slow progress as some sections rendered cycling impossible. Dragging the bike and its 40+kg of weight through the sandy beach required a heroic effort, both physically and mentally. One particular day, I slaved away, only to finish the day less than 18 miles from where I had started. Soon after, the road topped out at 4,300 metres before bursting abruptly back onto the Pamir Highway and its beautiful tarmac just before Alichur.
I was proud to reach Alichur. I had read the tales and pictures of other people who had cycled the Wakhan and imagined them to be superhuman, always wondering if I could do the same. And yet, somehow I had just completed it! I could now look forward to some easier paved cycling on the Pamir Highway. Little did I know the hardest part was still to come, and I would soon be wondering if I could continue! The final chapter from my adventure on the Pamir Highway will be out soon; stay tuned!