We are approaching the Roof of the World, the Pamir plateau. It makes us nervous and exciting and we are a little bit worried. At the same time other people have cycled here as well so it will be okay… Won’t it? We only know that our preparation ride from Dushanbe to Khorog was tough, very tough. Spending 9 days roughing it on the M41 to Khorog instead of our planned 7 cycling over rough roads and going slow. At the same time we are experiencing real Tajik life on the road traveling through small villages and we have come very close to Afghanistan cycling just on the other side of the border river. We have been treated to amazing scenery and are now preparing ourselves for the next leg of the trip.
Cycling in this part of the world you can really feel the strength of history and what influence it has had on this region. From the great Silk Road in early times to the influences of the Soviet Union far more recent. Nowadays Tajikistan is a country not many people know a lot about. We were amazed by the size and bustle of the capital Dushanbe which is in shrill contrast with conditions in the rest of the country. Apparently there is a lot of aid work going on. We wonder if this aid work is bringing what it should. We have seen multiple signs along the way of European initiatives to install e.g. water systems and emergency stockpiles. Often the water systems already do not work anymore. One example was financed by the Dutch government and there was no water coming from the water point while it was installed in 2013.
The M41, or more commonly known Pamir highway, was built by Soviet military engineers between 1931 and 1934, in order to facilitate troops, transport and provisioning to one of the remotest outposts of the Soviet empire. The road from Dushanbe to Khorog can be split in three parts. The first part of the M41 out of Dushanbe was a slow climb, we were together with Trikeiteasy, we were feeling okay and looking forward to what was to come. We were camping together, learning from each other habits and techniques and having fun. The contrast here was very strong. Leaving in the morning and cycling in between large buildings and on good tarmac roads. Within 60 kilometers we were in the countryside and the mountains were starting to dominate our view. Also the road was becoming less kept with patches and gravel. We have been treated to experience the migration of herds from their summer stay in the mountains back to their villages. Especially the first few days we encountered three or four groups with many sheep, goats, donkeys, cows, horses and dogs. You could feel it was really a party for the men to undertake this mission home. Their yurt was packed on the donkeys and they were very energetic. The cars were not very patient but the herds reacted well to us and we could get by smoothly. The road was getting more tough, rougher roads with sometimes big cobbles which were hard to cycle on. And then the worst thing happened. Trikeiteasy had mechanical problems and were going to hitchhike further. So we were all by ourselves again just before the steep ascent to the pass.
In part two the road was the roughest of the whole section because there is not much traffic that takes the Khaburabot pass, because of a better maintained road going south of Dushanbe. We made it a few hundred meters up the pass and luckily found a camping spot across a small river we waded through. We slept and Martin was really feeling bad all night. The next morning he was still feeling like crap and we had to climb from 2100 meters to 3200 meters. He was feverish and the only way was up. When we made it to the top we quickly descended down to find a warm place so Martin could sleep and then a camping spot for the night. Luckily Martin was feeling better the next day, so we descended all the way down to 1300 meters, did some shopping in Kaleikhum and were on our way again. In the villages we come across the children are very active. In Tajikistan 35% of the population is under 14 years old and that is very visible in the small streets. Small children line up for high fives, shouting hello, hello, hello, hello, hello and running after us. Tourism has had an influence here. In some villages they ask for balloons, photos, for things we have on our bike. Alas we are not a gift store… We have been trying to avoid the high fives because, although they seem innocent, the children might carry bacteria that we are not used to. So we smile, wave and say hello and cycle on.
The final few days were again up and down along the river. Very frustrating because a lot of effort and not so much elevation but the scenery gave a lot of good motivation. We hadn’t realized that already now we would be following the Afghan border. It has been very interesting to see another world on the other side that we mainly know from news reports. Many times we have been watching with our monocular to the other side and seeing men on motorbikes or just walking along this amazing mountain road. They often wear typical Afghan clothing. The houses are very traditional and here you can see the influence of the Soviet in a Tajikistan. Here there are mainly concrete square houses in the small villages. On the other side it is all mud brick and it looks very pretty. Also technology is far away and some parts of Afghanistan are connected with Tajikistan for the energy supply.
At this section there were more trucks because the south road had joined our road. It is amazing his these trucks often with trailer maneuver themselves over these small gravel roads, meeting each other and passing each other around steep corner just next to a cliff face. The trucks ride fairly careful though. The cars really to look out for our the 4×4’s. They really drive like crazy and have no mercy, really not nice on these roads. We had contemplated hitch hiking and every time we said: okay we cycle on and let’s see how it goes. Mentally this is very straining. We cycled on and Martin got sick again, throwing up just outside of the tent, also Susanne was not feeling well with bad stomach and the fatigue of the days wearing on her. She was getting emotional and feeling the weight of the days on her shoulders (we only have a 30 day Tajik visa and still have quite some cycling to do). The road was slowly getting a bit better and because the river Panj was getting wider there was less altitude to cover. The cycling was a little bit easier so we pushed on. The river Panj is very beautiful and fast flowing. Very rough at some sections and very smooth closer to Khorog and especially near Rushan. There were more small villages and slowly we were getting closer to Khorog. 20 km before Khorog we met up with Jules and Mark (julesandmark.wordpress.com), who we met before in Dushanbe and had hitchhiked because of bicycle problems and we cycled into Khorog together. There we learned that other cyclists behind us also had been quite sick on this section so apparently it’s going round…
Finally we made it to Khorog where we could rest up at the Pamir Lodge (which has definitely seen better days). This was very necessary because we both haven’t been retaining enough energy in our bodies from the food. So time to eat and sleep and get ready for the next leg.