Cycling the Stans, Part 3 of 3: Chattering teeth and sand pits for toilets in Tajikistan / by Rachel Banfield

Now, where was I?

Ah yes, that’s right, I was pointing out that cycling over the mountains and into Tajikistan couldn’t really be that difficult.

Ha.

Ha.

Ha.

(That is the sound of my current self sniggering at my past self’s stupidity.)  

As a reminder, these are said mountains as viewed from our guest house in Sary Tash. 

We spent most of our rest day lying horizontal, learning to stand up very slowly to avoid the altitude-induced fuzzy brain wobbly moments that hit us every time we became vertical again.

We also unpacked and repacked our copious supplies of food. 

I’m fairly sure that we may be the only people in history to cycle the Pamir Highway without even one packet of Russian two minute noodles. Instead we had four bags of gluten free oats, multiple blocks of whittakers chocolate, some delicious museli bars (you know, the ones that cost four dollars each from sports shops that you would never normally be able to justify) and an stovetop espresso maker.

The next day was border crossing day. We left our vibrantly painted accommodation behind and set off into the 'refreshing' 4 degree outside temperature. 

There are only two roads from Sary Tash. Obviously, given the rather important fact that the Pamir Highway is, as it sounds, one road the entire way from start to finish, and the added point that my GPS tells me what road I’m on, we took the right one.

Right?

Wrong!

Here’s a photo of Celia riding off towards the mountains.

The mountains of China that is...

...

Whoops!

Nothing like an extra few kilometres when you have another 80 or so ahead of you and you can’t feel your hands because it’s so freezing and you can’t breathe because you’re riding way too high for the human body. Right?

For what it's worth, doesn't Sary Tash look nice when you're coming from the direction of China? 

  Luckily, we got back on the right road without too much delay and it was, well, stunning. 

It was also very cold and that kind of gradient where your eyes are saying it's flat but your legs and lungs are telling you otherwise.

Still, we made it to the Kyrgyz border post in fairly good time. 

Where a smiley border guard told us there was a chaikhana a few kilometres ahead.

The thought of hot tea and shelter from the cold gave us a real boost for the next few kilometres.

Until it became apparent that the chaikana was a myth, or rather, the border guard's idea of a hilarious joke.

Hey border guard, you know what's really not funny? That joke. 

We rode on, tea-less, and the landscape became increasingly mountainous and moon like. 

And then, just when we were thinking how insane it must be to cycle this trip in winter given how freezing it was for us in summer, it began to snow.

With the moutains hidden by snow-distributing clouds, the pass wasn’t the picturesque ride I had hoped for.

Instead, it took a number of hours to ride up these ridiculously steep and muddy switchbacks.

But, we made it! 4280m! 

I have no idea why I am still wearing shorts at this point. I can only assume I was affected by the altitude because my GPS was reading near 0 degrees. 

 

I have only a couple of photos from the following 12 hours. For good reason. Even my memory is a bit blurred, but went something like this:

The weather turned really bad as we went down the other side of the pass. The cloud darkened, the snow continued and a strong icy wind picked up. By the time we made it to the Tajikistan border post it was late afternoon. The post is still around 4000m so my shorts were long since replaced by thermal leggings and additional trousers. Despite the layers, it was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life. My hands were shaking so much that I had to use both of them to hand over my passport. 

We hoped that the border guards, themselves bulky in countless layers, might take pity on us, and invite us in. Especially when we mentioned that we would be camping that night. The next thing we knew, the door was closed in our face. 

With no other option, we set off down the hill, knowing that the further down we went the less arctic it would become. Our well earned downhill was thwarted by deep dips formed in the road from recent rain. We rattled and crashed our way down, barely faster than if we were riding up. 

The wind continued and my teeth were chattering so badly my jaw started to go numb. We kept looking out for somewhere to pitch our tent, figuring that as long as we got out of the wind, we would be able to somewhat defrost. But the rocky moon scape turned into gently sloping sand dunes, providing zero shelter from the wind. We kept telling ourselves “just around this corner” and “yep, it’ll be just around here.” But the corner never came.To add to the drama, the rivers marked on our map, rivers confirmed by cyclists we’d spoken to the day, turned out to be completed dry. Without water for hot food or tea, camping would be far from ideal. 

After rattling along for a while longer we pulled up, de-numbed our faces enough to have a brief discussion and quickly agreed we would try to hitch with the next vehicle that came. We knew, however, that chances were slim. We had only seen a handful of cars that entire day. On the vehicle front there were only really two options: the overloaded 4x4s that hurtled along with people squished right up the windows or the convoys of enormous Chinese trucks. We knew the latter only came through twice a day. The morning lot was long gone so all we could do was stand by the side of the road, shivering and hoping desperately that they were yet to come through for the evening trip.

We were in luck. Barely a few minutes later I shrieked with excitement. Coming down the mountain pass in a storm of dust was a convoy of giant moving white boxes.

We held out our arms as they drew closer, almost hopping with a ‘please, please, please stop for us’ desperation. The front one stopped right next to us and Celia hoisted herself up to the passenger window. A few moments later she dropped back down to the road, a big smile on her face. The drivers of each truck all got out, helped us throw our bikes and bags into the back and then jumped back into their vehicles. We were off! Celia and I settled in on the soft platform situated just behind the front seats. The inside of the truck was warm, the driver super friendly and the Russian pop music loud. We looked at each other and grinned.

I can’t even begin to describe the sense of relief that we felt at that point.

After half an hour through more moon scape, we were dropped off in the lake side village of Karukol.

Here is a shot of the glorious beasts as our rescuers drove off into the sunset. 

Aren't they beautiful?! 

We prompty found this place,

Complete with piles of blankets, with a stove in the centre of our room and endless amounts of hot tea.

Also known as heaven.

It also had an outdoor toilet with the most incredible view of the stars. Unfortunately, due to fear of falling down the pit, I have no photographic evidence of the sky but this is it from the outside: 

The following day began with this conversation:

“You know what’s great?” - Celia

“That we’re still alive?” - me

“Yep."

 

Ahhh, the small joys in life. 

 

With what will forever be know as ‘the near death day’ behind us, we set off again.

The next few days were spent cycling past lakes, 

 (photo by Celia) 

(photo by Celia) 

towards more mountains, 

under amazing skies, 

and eating more watermelons in the middle of nowhere, thanks to more kind drivers.

We also spent an entire afternoon inching painfully slowly (downhill!) into the worst headwind imaginable (and yes, I can make that claim – I live in Wellingon),

before finally reaching the much heard of Murghab just before dark. 

Murghab is a strange place (quite famous as a centre for drug trading apparently). But it had food. And we ate lots of it. Just ask the people who shared our table that night and staring in astonishment at our meal as plate after plate came out.

We spent the next day exploring all the weird and wonderful sights of Murghab… 

Including the market, which is made up of old train cars. 

The next day started off well. We rode up out of Murghab and towards the next pass. 

But it didn’t take long before my familiar old friend ‘Pamir belly’ reared its ugly head again. We were still riding at about 3600m and it was pretty tough going. I really felt like this power pole and I understood each other. 

I think this might be me contemplating which spot of dirt to throw up on…

 (photo by Celia) 

(photo by Celia) 

In the afternoon my heart lurched when we saw a white dot in the distance. I almost cried with relief when the dot grew into a yurt, complete with smoking chimney. An old lady showed us in while her husband, who I have to say had the best confuscious style beard I’ve ever seen, entertained their adorable grandchildren.

The next few hours were spent in between the wonderfully cosy yurt,

and the less wonderful (but still quite pituresque) long drop toilet 100m away. 

But mainly, while Celia sat reading her kindle like a dignified human being, I spent it like this: 

 (photo by Celia)

(photo by Celia)

It was an amazing experience to stay in a yurt. They really are incredible structures. 

We cycled for the first half of the next day and then hitched a ride on a 70 tonne truck to Khorog, where we were planning to do some hiking. This truck ride needs it’s own blog post to adequately go into detail of the time when both Celia and I were too polite to ask to get out of the truck despite being absolutely petrified as we inched around another truck with about 2cm between us and a 500m drop, or why the bruises on our backs took a month to fade, or why at one point it took us over 2 hours for the truck to travel 21km. All I will say is that I was very moved by the Tajik humour, hospitality and generosity which were yet again demonstrated in bucket loads.

In Khorog we parked our bikes and set out for the Wahkan valley, a lush area where Tajikistan is separated from Afghanistan by this river: 

 (that's Afghanistan with the mud houses)

(that's Afghanistan with the mud houses)

It's a place where the apricots are delicious, 

 (especially for this particular cyclist)

(especially for this particular cyclist)

the trees enormous, 

and the toilets, well, how would you react to the experience of someone pointing to a patch of (clearly already used) sand and then standing watching while you use the patch like a litter box. 

This is how we felt about it... 

But really, who cares about the toilets (or lack thereof) when you have views like this: 

and you start to question whether it can actually be a real place... 

And you have to do things like dunking your head in a raging river or eating Whittakers chocolate to bring yourself back to reality. 

 (photo by Celia) 

(photo by Celia) 

 (photo by Celia)

(photo by Celia)

Here's us having breakfast while watching donkeys pick their way along little paths in Afghanistan. 

You know, as one does. 

Our last few days were spent in Khorog at the cutest little guest house 

Before finally heading to Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital city, where we checked out the market,

 Outside the main market

Outside the main market

 Tea galore!

Tea galore!

 Yum yoghurty cheese stuff

Yum yoghurty cheese stuff

 Marketplace full of delicious goods

Marketplace full of delicious goods

before I got distracted by this beautiful mosque,

and promptly fell off the pavement, saving my camera with my hands but shredding my knees (see below). 

We celebrated the end of a truly epic adventure with an espresso martini at the Sheraton. Here is us in our gross cycling gear trying to look posh... 

To this adventure, and many more to come, CHEERS!