TURKESTAN MOUNTAINS: More switchbacks than I cared to count. This range was very visible from the Uzbekistan border.
SHARISTON PASS: 3378 metres high, nearish the top I was passed by Renaud from France driving the land cruiser and Pedro from Spain on motorbike. Renaud produced lunch from his fridge. HIS FRIDGE!!! I don’t have a fridge.
ISKANDER KUL: ‘Alexander Lake’ in English. Twenty kilometers off-route up and down broken mountain roads. I went there mainly because of the name.
TAJIKISTAN WEDDING: A short ceremony and a simple reception. I believe the dowry was her gold front teeth. Christ I only went in for a Plov. That’s a rice dish, not a … forget it.
ANZOB TUNNEL: These guys were staying at the Tajik version of Butlins by the shore of Iskander Kul when I first bumped into them. The second time we met was just before Anzob tunnel where they put my bike and gear into the back of their car, thank god. The tunnel was like the entrance to hell, but with overtaking.
ADVENTURER’S INN, DUSHANBE: My friends from Iskender Kul dropped me off at the Hotel Poytaht, a run down Soviet hotel in the centre of the capital. I shared a room with a German traveller. We were trapped in our room one night when the lock fell out the door. We had to wrap a blanket over the snapped door handle to escape. I moved to a backpackers haunt in the north as news of fighting in the Pamir region reached Dushanbe. The first morning I was there the owner returned ‘from the jeep tour’, and gave the audience of backpackers and cyclists heading for the Pamirs an account of the fighting between government and rebel forces. “I was told: ‘for God’s sake! Don’t speak Tajik: speak Russian or you will get yourself killed.’” A Canadian traveller, who missed his flight to Istanbul, produced a handful of bullet shells from the fighting in Khorog. Along with most travellers I decided to wait in Dushanbe until the situation improved or deteriorated beyond rescue. To pass the time we made cat hammocks. Will, an English paraglider trying to meet up with a documentary team in Afghanistan, displays the winning entry.
ON THE ROAD TO THE PAMIRS: I decided to head to the semi-autonomous region, avoiding Khorog of course, hoping the situation had stabilised enough for the police and military to let me through the many checkpoints controlling access to the region. The road followed a narrow river valley; steep rocky mountains either side with the occasional small village dotted with poplar trees. As soon as the children of one village saw my tent in the morning they came a runnin’. I let them take turns on my bike, assuming it would be too tall for them to ride it. I was wrong.
FOOD: Tea houses along the road provided food of a variable standard. Mutton soup, yoghurt and bread – washed down with tea – is the standard fare.
SAGIRDASH PASS: Over 3,000 metres high, I climbed this pass twice when I was denied further access into the Pamirs and had to return the way I came. Shepherds graze their herds of cow, goat and sheep right up to the top. I camped nearby and was treated to the spectacular sight of the sun setting behind the mountains, bathing the whole panorama in golden light. Why didn’t I take a picture of that? Good question.
AFGHANISTAN: Across the river from the Kalai-khum checkpoint, as far as the military would let me go. Well, that is almost the truth. Once I had descended the mountain pass I cycled to the checkpoint and was turned back. I then returned to Kalai-Khum and checked into a lovely family run guesthouse right next to the fast flowing river that divides the town and promptly fell asleep. The next day I got a phone call from Tim a Belgium cycling with his girlfriend Claire who were a days ride behind me. I said I would check to see if the checkpoint was open. Arriving on bike without equipment and passport etc, the soldiers now said the road was open. I quickly cycled back to the guesthouse with the intention of packing quickly and heading on. Returning to the guesthouse the owner’s daughter told me to wash my hands for lunch. A huge wooden bowl of Qurutob was presented; the heavy dish of fried bread mixed with yogurt onion and tomatoes incapacitated me. Surely the border would be open tomorrow? The next day the border was closed. Whatever. I took a picture of an Afghanistan village and turned back.
THE WAY BACK: Amazing mountain, the warped layers of different rock forming a beautiful pattern. The locals call this mountain ‘The Rose’.
RAINFALL: It had rained for two nights, turning the only road to and from the Pamirs into a mud bath. I passed several diggers clearing the road of avalanche debris. Occasionally I would hear the the patter of soil and tiny rocks tumbling down the mountainside towards me.
RASHT VALLEY: I got a text from Remo, a Swiss cyclist, informing me the crossing into Kyrgyzstan from the town of Jirgatol was now open to tourists. Along the way I bumped into an American in a Range Rover who invited me to stay at her house in Garm. Staying with her was Julie a Yoga teacher from California teaching at ‘The American Corner’ in Garm. After a few drinks I agreed to give a talk to her English class about my trip. After two nights of splendid food and hospitality I headed on to the border. Janice had phoned ahead to two Tajik friends who put me up for the last two nights I spent in Tajikistan. Bad luck/good luck balance restored.