Thursday, 20 August 2015 06:22

In Khorog I met up with Andreas from Switzerland and we headed up the Wachan together for the next few days. The road is amazingly good (partly asphalt) and continues to follow the Afghan border and the River Panj. It was interesting to see life on the Afghan side and the small villages and people walking along the donkey tracks in seemingly totally out of the way places. The Wachan has a good network of homestays where for 10-15 USD you can stay with the family in their house. The tourism authorities here have given them a basic training in hygiene, food preparation and english so although very basic, you can be guaranteed something to eat and a floor to sleep on. All had some kind of shower ranging from cold water in a bucket to the more advanced double bucket system where one of the buckets had heated water from a wood fired stove.

The small town of Iskashim is the capital of the Wachan and hosts on Saturdays a cross border market with Afghanistan. Here wares can be exchanged between the countries on a neutral bit of land in the middle of the river. This market however has now been cancelled for several weeks and it was no differeent when we arrived. The reason why is probably more complicated than most people know and we only heard it was due to "issues on the Afghan side". Apparantly the Taliban is also now only 50km away from here.

From the Wachan the road climbs up to the main Pamir Highway M41 which has the luxury of being mainly asphalted. The first town is Alichur which sits at 3800m and is a random collection of single story homes on the plain. The elevation has the advantage of being able to buy snickers without them melting and indeed Alichur boasted the first shop since Khorog where the snickers were not horribly out of date!
Alichur is also the start of the Kyrgyz part of Tajikistan and the people were notably different looking and the land was dotted with yurts. Unofficially everything from here also runs on Kyrgyz time (an hour ahead). The hospitality was just the same and this partly made up for the struggles on the road with the altitude and headwinds. Yak meat and jogurt became a staple part of the menu here too.

 

The town of Murghab is the capital of the Eastern Pamir and has a proper hotel and a bazar which is run out of truck containers. As in all towns through C.Asia, this is the place to go to find anything you need from food and clothes to money changers.

From here the highway continues past a scneic lake to the Kyrgyzstan border which is a quiet collection of buildings near the top of the pass. Seemingly only a few overlanders come through here but the formalities were simple and to enter Kyrgyzstan we didn't even need a visa. On descending to Sary Tash, the first town in Kyrgyzstan, there are spectacular views of some 7000m mountains including the Lenon which is the tallest in Kyrgyzstan and attracts many climbers as it is a fairly non technical mountain to summit.

Thursday, 20 August 2015 06:10

From Denau it was a short ride of just under 40km to the Tajik border. I changed the remaining wad of som and headed all prepared to the customs house. I had expected the worst and hoped for the best and it was the latter which was the reality. In under an hour I had left Uzbekistan and was legally stamped into Tajikistan. Some cheesy smiles and lavish praise of their country had certainly helped.

The M41 road immediately became much smoother with even a proper verge to ride on. There were no longer the numerous Ladas which had been so present in Uzbekistan and there was marginally less shouting. The shops here also seemed to be better equipped and it was now possible to even find cold drinks.

Dushanbe is a fairly compact capital with some grand statues, greenery and a flagpole which was at one time the tallest in the world. This is where the interest ended however and a day later I was back on the road again.Leaving Dushanbe

At the Greenhouse hostel, I hooked up with Dan and Ritzo and we spent the next 5 days on the road together. From Dushanbe there is a good asphalt road out to a small mountain town towards Obigarm. It was good cycling and exciting to watch the mountains getting closer and closer. The children here are greeting the foreign passer by with a genuine ecitement and their vocabulary stretches to `hello' and `goodbye' which they have to shout very quickly depending on the speed you are cycling!

The next destination was Kalaikhum which is a town on the Aghanistan border where 2 roads meet. From Dushanbe there is what is known as the northern and southern routes to this town. The southern route is now the main road and although nearly 100km longer, has a better surface and is less hilly. We therefore took the northern route to challenge ourselves and mainly to enjoy the better scenery with the highlight being the 3252m pass.

On paper it was a 3 day ride to Kalaikhum but with cycle touring, km don't tell the whole story. After the first day we had only broken roads and stones to contend with and one day, we actually managed less than 40km. We also came across plenty of chewing gum roads as we called them. These are roads that have got some kind of cheap asphalt that actually seems to melt in the sun. When you ride on these roads it feels as though your bike is being sucked into the ground! Food was also a challenge, and it became clear that if we did not find any place to eat lunch we would have to cook ourselves. To cycle the whole day and live on snickers for lunch was not sustainable.


The rewards for the strain however were generous. We met lovely people, had quiet roads and enjoyed spectacular lush alpine like scenery.

Camping was fun and we always found a good spot where in some cases the local children would appear from nowhere and help us clear a space and set up camp. They would then sit around mesmerised by us cooking and just before dark politely bid farewell.

We made the 1600m descent of the pass and rolled into Kalaikhum an hour before dark. We were all tired and hungry. After sorting a homestay we went to eat with some other foreigners at the only place in town which seemed to be serving food. After a long wait we were presented with some chicken, greasy chips and some salad. Normally I would avoid meat and salad in such places. If you are to witnesss kitchens here you would know why! However tonight, I was so hungry, that I broke the rule - greasy chips alone were not going to do it for me and some protein was needed for recovery.

The next morning Dan and myself awoke feeling quite ill. It was the feeling that something was in my stomach that shouldn't be there and had to come out. And it did not want to come out the normal route. To cut the gory details, we spent a further 2 days in this small town, mainly sleeping and making regular visits to the toilet. It wasn't ideal and left our already tired bodies feeling even weaker.

From Kalaikhum it was another few days on the road to Khorog. It is unbelievable that this is the main road through the country, but it is undisputably attractive. Afghanistan was now just a stone throw away across the river and tensions were clear by the large military presence on the Tajik side.
Khorog is a medium side town with a pleasant park in the city, a university and the first people wearing western style clothes for some time. Seeing women walking around in jeans was quite a culture shock now. The town is spectacularly surrounded my mountains and although at over 2000m, daytime temperatures were still getting into the 30s.
From speaking to travellers coming the other way, we learnt that july had been a nasty month in the Pamirs. High temperatures combined with lots of rain had caused a lot of flooding. The most tragic had been just 20km from here where a lake had burst its banks and wiped away half a village. Fortunately due to an early warning system, the residents could escape in time, but around 200 were left homeless. We visited the site and an entire 2km stretch of the M41 Pamir highway had simply disappeared. In its place was now a lake. It will be months until this is repaired and for now all the heavy trucks from China are having to take the very technical route along the Wachan Valley which we would later be also travelling.

Pamir Highway has gone
Khorog was a great spot for meeting a host of interesting overlanders. There were cyclists, motorbikers and jeeps from all over the world meeting here to exchange route information and tales from the road. The Swiss motorbike group we had met in Khalaikum had also left their bikes here and we were later to learn one of the guys had crashed and been expatriated back on the road here.
After a few days of rest however it was time to continue and head up the Wachan Valley.

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