Possibly my best day cycle touring ever, despite 9 and a half hours in the saddle on some of the toughest roads I’ve come across. The scenery and cycling was sublime.
After a quick breakfast of creamed rice I left $20 for the family (I usually pay $10 but these guys really did it tough in the middle of nowhere) and hit the road at 8.30am. The first 30 kilometres were paved – the last I would see of it for the day. At the turn off to the remote Wakhan Valley a truck crew were boiling tea on the side of the road. I couldn’t resist when they invited me over, partly because the tea looked good and partly because I thought I could gain some update information on the road conditions in the valley.
The major pass of the day rose to 4350m with the road climbing in line with the temperature. Deep sand, loose rock and boulders punctuated the track which carried a car every few hours. The climb took two hours but the legs and stomach were great. From the summit I descended down to a military checkpoint. There had been big problems at this checkpoint, I’d been warned, with extortion and robbery. Cyclists had been relieved of batteries, bike computers and cash by bored and desperately poor militia manning the checkpoint. Knowing this I had bought several packets of cigarettes in Murgab which I handed over as a gesture. My theory was that these guys wanted to feel like they’d gotten something out of me, and cigarettes weren’t that easy to come by on a remote hilltop near the Afghanistan border. It worked and I was allowed safe passage.
The next stretch of road took me to the raging Pamir River. My side of the river was Tajikistan – the other side was Afghanistan. At one point a herd of wild camels were seen grazing on the Afghan side. I also watched a couple of Afghanis leading their donkey caravans along the river bank not 50 metres from where I cycled.
The road conditions were challenging but today was one where nothing could wipe the smile off my face. Even when I hit the second major pass of the day, and with temperatures still in the 40s, I was euphoric about finally being on the Afghanistan border that I’d craved for so long. In the late afternoon the low cloud dissipated to reveal great views of the fabled Hindu Kush mountain range which weave through Afghanistan and Pakistan. The river created lots of oases along its banks, and some of the best camping spots I have ever seen. Perfect patches of green grass among rocky outcrops, with the only drawback being the fact that these river banks had been land mined so camping was a treacherous pursuit.
Five kilometres from my destination I hit the town of Ratm, a small collection of houses near the confluence of the Pamir and Panj rivers. A young boy on a steel Chinese bike saw me from a distance and immediately prepared himself for a burst. As I drew up alongside him his pace quickened and it was clear that a sprint was in the offing. The speed increased gradually and he launched ahead. The finish line, it appeared, was the top of the hill we were approaching. Despite being on the bike for 9 hours I took the bait. We were neck and neck 100 metres from the top of the hill when he threw a hook (sudden movement across the track) that would have made the famed Uzbek Djomadin Abdujaparov proud. He almost put me into the trees but I recovered to pip him at the line. At the top we were both slumped over our handlebars laughing hysterically. Cycling, like chess, had provided me with a way to overcome the language barrier. We shook hands and I was off again.
As I descended into Langar I was absorbed by the lush vegetation. The river had created an oasis in stark contrast to the surrounding hillsides. The village was built into the side of a mountain and I found a family to stay with on the outskirts of town. The spokesperson from the house was Manovar, an English teacher who had spent time in Khorog and wanted to move to Dushanbe for decent opportunity. It was great to finally have someone that I could ask questions of.
Dinner consisted of boiling water poured over pieces of mutton, and bread that was (miraculously) less than two days old. After one of my longest days in the saddle ever I drifted off to sleep tired but content. The whole trip had been worth it for today alone. Tomorrow I can’t wait to watch Tajik and Afghan life unfold on either side of the Panj River.