Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

19 Apr 2013

‘Ride of a Lifetime’

Posted by Will

Solo, weaving steady through steep and curving valleys, crawling breathless up snowy mountain passes, pedalling one of the highest plateaus in the world and zooming weary down the other side … here’s my take on the Pamir Highway, a road widely-touted as the cyclist’s ‘ride of a lifetime’.

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Officially it starts in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan and city of the largest flag in the world (156m wide). A colourful and varied bazaar, 40 dollar-cent beer and the eccentricities of the Chinese embassy kept me busy while I waited the few days for my Pamir permit to register with the bureaucrats. Register it did and a few hours later I was off, gliding effortlessly along a silky-smooth asphalt road heading full-tilt for the Afghan border.

The people in the heart of Tajikistan remind me of the people in Iran. The language is almost identical, faces are similar-looking, the same poets are revered and the culture of hospitality is back to second-to-none. I spent my second night in luxury thanks to the generosity and attentiveness of Dilshod, a man who not only drove me to his home, fed me extravagantly and gave me my own room but also took me to the local bath-house where I could scrub the grime in shower and sauna. Locals of less substantial means have no less to offer. Countless times, people of all ages (and unlike Iran, sexes) beckoned me off the road to share their food, fire and conversation.

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Getting enough to eat presented by far the biggest problem in the Pamirs. The cold, wind and weather came a distant second to the losing-battle I fought with my stomach, constantly complaining for lack of a decent meal. On the more isolated stretches, staying with a family might mean a breakfast of hot milk with stale bread for dipping. Top this up with a wedge of Yak butter and if you’re lucky a smidge of jam and there you have it. Try to fill yourself up with tea and sugar and you’ll be peeing every five minutes along the way. Trust me, I know.

On the plateau, distances between villages range between 100 and 150km. The village shop is always hard to find and most often closed leading to a convoluted series of calls to locate the man with the key. Half-an-hour later the shopkeeper arrives only to open the door to a selection of mouldy biscuits, old tins of condensed milk, supernoodles and if you’re lucky what becomes the single-most important object in existence: a Snickers. I saw onions once or twice but other basics like bread, potatoes, eggs, anything green, fruit and dairy products had vanished off the face of the earth. It’s no one’s fault: nothing grows up here (too dry and too high) and it’s costly to transport. I found myself wondering how the Pamiris survive.

So what did I eat? Bread with hot milk carried me through a few hungry moments but the real hero-status lies with Russian-made condensed milk. At 1300 calories per 400g tin, I made it a mission to consume as many as I could manage. I’m now rather an expert at using a Swiss-Army knife to open a tin, a skill that will fly high in the lines of my CV. I bought bread from elderly women kneading dough outside their mud-lined houses and took tea with everyone who offered. Last night, I saw Tieme for the first time in 10 days and one of the first things he said: ‘wow, you’ve lost weight!’.

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Little food, no electricity or running water is the price you pay for the unparalleled isolation of the Pamirs. For the most part it was a price I was willing to pay. I saw an average of 3 vehicles a day – I could have napped undisturbed in the middle of the road for hours on end. One day, from Langar to Khargush near the Hindu Kush, I didn’t see a single car, truck and now I come to think of it, person. Towering, snow-swept mountains, yellow-brown plateau and endless track have all escaped the crushing roar of modern man. Sit by the side of the road, eat a pitiful lunch of crumbly bread dipped in sweet milk and hear the sound of silence. Perhaps it’s the first time I’ve heard it.

Other issues in the land of nowhere: the cold, oxygen levels and my lips. I felt the cold one night up above 4000m as I sheltered in the shed of a small house I found beside the road. The owners were friendly as usual: tea was brought into my freezing abode but did little to warm me. I slept in 6 layers inside my sleeping bag with my tent draped as an extra duvet. I still woke up several times for the cold. My cycle computer read -7. Not a great testament for my gear!

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I had worried slightly about my reaction to the high altitude given the few headaches that hit me a couple of years ago on the top of Mt. Cameroon (4090m). But with the attitude that there’s nothing you can do to prepare for it, I kept going undeterred and was pleasantly surprised that I felt very few symptoms indeed. On the 4000m plateau I felt nothing but a slight breathlessness when going uphill. On the 4655m pass, the highest I’ve ever been in my life, my legs struggled to keep up with the demands of the steepest parts but that just meant more frequent rests. No big problems really.

However, the state of my lips did rate highly on the list of Pamir problems. A combination of the sun, high winds and a general lack of care left my lips horribly cracked pretty much all the way. I woke up each morning to partially sealed cuts which would then break open painfully at my first bite of breakfast. On the plus side it certainly gave me more of an explorer’s look. Among those who claim to be adventurers a visible sign of pain is a symbol of pride.

The quality of the road varies dramatically. A 200km stretch is truly abysmal on the detour down into the Wakhan Corridor but correspondingly gives an off-the-beaten-track feel that asphalt can never truly conjure up. Catapillar-style tracks across the way make for an experience equivalent to riding continuously on a deep rumble-strip and plant doubt that the bicycle may not be up to the task. Mechanical failure on some of these roads would be a serious problem. One day I had a puncture on top of a 4300m pass with an impending cloud of snowy doom coming my way fast. With no time to fix it properly, I pumped the tyre back up as high as it would go and sped wobbly down the other side out of the clouds.

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Perhaps the most stunning part of the road was the section along the Panj river between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Crystal clear water flows free and fast through beauty carved over millions of years and somehow I was lucky enough to cycle right through the middle. A few metres of water was all that divided me from one of the most dangerous places on earth. I couldn’t have felt more comfortable though. Waving villagers shouted friendly salutations across the canyon, groups of school-children in uniform ran along the dirt track opposite to keep up and donkeys whined and chewed the grass much like they do on the Tajik side.

One night I camped on the cliffs for lack of a better place to sleep. Darkness fell and just as my eyes closed I heard voices near the tent. Not a good sign in this part of the world; putting the war aside there’s a huge amount of drug-smuggling along the river as desperate people do desperate things to pay their way. Closer and closer came the voices until I heard the clear sound of a gun being cocked. Knowing that tent canvas wouldn’t bounce a bullet I quickly got out into the open and found myself staring into the flashlights of five soldiers. Of course, they wanted me to move on – they claimed there were snipers in the mountains on the Afghan side. Of course, I knew this was rubbish and the option of moving on the rocky road along the cliff-edge wasn’t practical at night. A brief argument in a mix of Tajik, Russian and English yielded a compromise: leave at 5am. I slept right through that deadline with the not-understanding excuse tight up my sleeve.

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Now resting peacefully in the Kyrgyz city of Osh I have the well-stocked bazaars and 40 dollar-cent beers once again (bureaucrats have disappeared for now). I relax on my bed in the safe haven of a 6 dollar hostel with a kitchen and wifi. Oh, how I longed for the moment I’d be able to buy whatever food I wanted! How I wanted a hot shower, a power socket, a like-minded soul! Comfort is relative and I’ve just come off the edge of bearable. But after 3 days here eating meals and singing in the shower comfort has become as unbearable as scorched lips and a rumbling stomach.

Time to get going again.

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7 Comments already on “‘Ride of a Lifetime’”
  1. 12:55 pmpermalink
    19 Apr 2013

    Charlie Turner

    Will, your messages cheer up a grumpy fat man who has no trouble eating to many snickers, maybe i need to spend a few days on the Pamir Highway. Happy peddling from a jealous desk bound man.

  2. 4:59 pmpermalink
    19 Apr 2013

    Mumsy

    I will never get to see the places you have been so looking at all the amazing photos is just brilliant, loved the post too. xxx

  3. 8:14 pmpermalink
    19 Apr 2013

    Fran

    Truly amazing and awe inspiring. I just hope you have put that weight back on – you didn’t have a lot to lose!
    Lots of luck with the next stretch and so enjoying your writing,
    Fran xx

  4. 7:59 ampermalink
    20 Apr 2013

    Andrew

    Will
    Yet again, an amazing and inspirational blog. V and I are in Seville about to go to a bullfight but our adventures pale in comparison.
    Ax

  5. 7:14 ampermalink
    22 Apr 2013

    Marion

    Fantastic! You are doing amazing things – and I am glad you got through this last bit, especially the gun incident. Hope this next bit is not quite so exciting…
    Much love Marion

  6. 11:06 ampermalink
    22 Apr 2013

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    Amazing! What experiences you are having – you’ve so got to write a book one day! Lots of love and keep safe.

  7. 10:47 pmpermalink
    23 Apr 2013

    Luke Newham

    #MountCameroon – Loving the mention