Tuesday, 24 June 2014

adventure push-bike touring

We stop in Langar at the last house along the switchback road heading up the hillside.  It's mid-afternoon and we're looking for a homestay recommended to us.  Having made the climb up here we do not want to have to turn around and go back down the hill.  A man comes out of a field and approaches us. Iqbal lives here with his wife and two children.  Another daughter lives in Murgab, a son in Russia.  (About 1 million Tajiks work in Russia and send money home.)  We are invited in to a traditional Tajik house of a style we last saw in Chapursan in Pakistan: a room with four raised platforms for sitting, eating and sleeping.  

There are pillars supporting the roof which has a skylight in the centre.  We are fed and watered and given the main room to sleep in whilst the family squeeze up in the kitchen.  First light is around 4am these days and we are up with the family at about 5.30 to pack up and eat breakfast - we each get great bowls of rice cooked in milk.  Perfect cycling food unless the milk is sour goats' milk.  Our stomachs turn involuntarily. 

We are off up the road soon after, around another hairpin bend and another. We're huffing and puffing and thinking about pushing when an open-bed truck trundles up the road behind us.  "Stop him!" Gayle gasps."I want a ride!!" The truck driver looks at us slightly bemused.  He gets out and we ask if he's going to Kargush.  Well, we keep asking "Kargush? Kargush?"  Finally he indicates throwing rocks into the truck and pointing around the corner, before driving off.  We start pushing.  Sure enough, around the next bend we see the truck loading up rocks. And on we push.  Just another 105 km of this before we rejoin the asphalt of the Pamir Highway. Hmmm.

The ride from Khorog has been wonderful so far, even if the tarmac ran out on the second day and we have rumbled and bumbled along dirt roads ever since.  From a narrow river valley we emerged into a much wider bowl-shaped valley where the Panj river turns north.  We're going upstream and turn eastwards to be confronted by a stunning landscape.  

We still have Afghanistan across the river and at Ishkashim you can look across and up a huge valley that opens up on the Afghan side.  The geography suddenly explains why this route was one of the main Silk Road routes into China.  These are big valleys through quite daunting mountains. Marco Polo came this way.  The wild sheep with long horns that live in the mountains are named after him.  The villages are large and green with trees and well-watered fields.  So many people are out and about tending to their fields and herding their cows.  Everyone is friendly and welcoming and the little kids get so excited to see us when we ride past that it's quite embarrassing.  Especially if you're puffing up a short climb.  In between the land is dry and dusty.  Sometimes the road turns to gravel and even sand.  

On our first night we camped in hazelnut trees.  Rob, who left after us, found us in the twilight.  The next day we rode a long day with a helpful tailwind.  We could have camped early but opted to try the woods further along the road and, as these were no good, we continued on, past two more villages and finally quit at the top of a big climb as the sun set.  95km is a long distance on these roads, and pitching the tent was a bit tricky in the strong winds because the ground was sandy.  We had already heard about a couple losing their tent up in the Pamirs.

The undeniable highlight of the Wakhan Valley which we are riding up is the unbeatable views of the Hindu Kush on the other side.  And over these enormous snowy peaks is Pakistan, one of our favourite countries.  It feels strange to be so close yet not be able to visit.  There's a very thin finger of Afghanistan which pokes between Pakistan and Tajikistan and prods China - the result of a deal made between the Russian and British empires in the 1880s so that they could avoid sharing a border.  Whilst we cycle from village to village we can enjoy glimpses into the Hindu Kush of tight valleys, glaciated peaks, and large alluvial fans spilling out into the main valley.  The Afghan settlements are few and far between in contrast to the Tajik side.

Now we are at the point where the valley splits and we are pushing our bikes up and up, away from the river. It's cruel and heartless.  After about 5km we stop for a second breakfast to fortify ourselves for what will prove to be the toughest road we have ever cycled.  While we brew up two motorcyclists pull up.  A man with a Mancunian accent asks "Can you give me directions to Hebden Bridge?".  It turns out Ian and Shaun have met Suzy and Dino further back along the road.  "I bet you've been in your granny gear all morning" Ian laughs.  We look incredulous.  Granny gear?  We're bloody pushing mate!! We ask them if they've seen Rob this morning as he was also staying in Langar the night before.  "What?  Another one on a push-bike?  You lot make us feel sane!" and after a bit more chit-chat they are off with a turn of their wrists.  Eeee, that motorcycle lark looks tough. On we push.  Occasionally I pedal a bit just to rest my arms.

Continuing upwards the gradient eases off.  We tentatively get on our bikes and discover with some relief that we can actually cycle.  Now we're up we get longer views up towards where we're going.  The road is variously hard dirt, loose gravel or large embedded stones and we are gradually ascending.  When the road gets steep we push.  In the afternoon we rejoin the river, and as the sun descends and the light softens, the river changes colour.  We pause to take photos in this lonely place - there are no villages now we have climbed up, just an isolated house now and again - two men ride horses along the riverbank on the Afghan side.  It feels like the Wild West, frontier country.

Rob catches us up and the next day we set off along a flatter stretch of road, but with more washboard, sand and gravel.  It's slow going.   There's quite a bit of huffing and puffing mixed equally with a bit of effing and jeffing.  The military checkpoint marks the turn in the road up to the high pass at 4300m.  We have to take breaks more frequently and keep drinking water as the effect of the altitude hits us.  At a farmhouse we buy some bread.  There's a Landcruiser parked outside - the only car we see this day - and the occupants emerge from the house.  A young woman speaks some English, one man gives us more bread the shape and texture of a frisbee, and then a very drunk man with a red face weaves forward to embrace me, asphyxiating me with vodka fumes.  When they are ready to leave thay all pile back into the jeep.  The drunk man clambers into the driving seat, fishes out the car keys and speeds off in a cloud of dust.

We camp early with Rob in a wonderful grassy spot by a stream just below the pass.  We know that this is the last fresh water until we reach Alichur on the main highway tomorrow and the views are terrific.  In the morning we are woken by birdsong.  The pass is not so hard from here, as the road rolls gently upwards until eventually it starts to roll downwards.  All of a sudden we are not gasping for air.  We feel a rush of euphoria and joy as we crest the pass, although Rob is doubtful of whether we've finally topped out and doesn't want to get too excited in case we haven't.  But then he too finally let's go as we speed downhill.  We just need to watch out for the gravel and sand patches that leave our back wheels fishtailing.  It takes a while to descend through the mountains and we pause to chat to a lovely German couple travelling overland in a Landcruiser.  They must be lovely - they offer us fresh coffee.

Finally the gradient flattens out and the road turns to washboard again before we emerge at the main highway, a vision of shiny black tarmac.  The road that is, not us.  And what a wonderful sight it is too. I cry with happiness.

1 comment:

  1. It's wonderfull, so beautifull places. Those no man's land are stunning !!!
    We fell jalous and relief at the same, it's sounds so hard and so magic at the same.

    Good job friends.