• Jamie Shannon

Dushanbe to Khorog - part 1. 3252 metres never felt so high

It was intimidating to say the very least - setting off from the hostel in Dushanbe. Thoughts of 4500 metre passes, freezing temperatures, snow, wind and rain had occupied my mind for some time previously. Now I finally found myself cycling off to into the unknown, hoping that everything would be all right; that I had the right equipment and that I could handle it both physically and mentally. It was the final hurdle that stood between myself and china and I found it very daunting.


Cycling so late in the season meant that I wanted to ride with somebody else and as it happened, the hostel was not short of companions in this sense. People of all ages and genders and on all types of trips were present in my two days in Dushanbe but it was a Belgium guy, Brecht that I set off with.

I had wanted to take the much easier southern route 600 km’s east to Khorog and to set off a day later as I felt I simply needed more rest but I was persuaded to set out with Brecht along the northern route with only two days rest instead of three. Only time would tell if it would prove the right decision.


Things immediately got off to a bad start. Having cycled just seven km’s to the outskirts of the city, I had a ‘moment’. Something prompted me to check my bag for my bank card and sure enough if wasn’t there. Brecht said he would wait at the next town 15 km’s ahead and so I cycled all the way back to the centre, dodging the many minibuses in the process.

Luckily for me, If there is one place to forget your bank card, it’s in the ATM of a swanky Sheraton hotel and I was soon reunited with it.


Cycle touring through Tajikistan and on towards the Pamir highway


We soon found ourselves at the junction where the road splits. Cycling south would mean a 600 km ride to Khorog on mostly paved road, with ample supplies and no huge passes. Cycling east would mean 550 km’s on mostly gravel and sand, very few supplies and one huge 3300 metre pass. We took the eastern route, naturally.

It was getting dark by six pm now and only ten km’s past the junction we decided to call it a day when we found a nice patch of grass by a stream. It looked perfect. It felt perfect. It was any anything but perfect.


I woke up at about 1pm to the sound of rain crashing down onto the canvas and it did not stop for the next ten hours. It was a complete washout. Being right at the bottom of a hill meant all the rainwater flowed down directly to our tents and I found myself waking up in a swimming pool of sorts.


By the time I woke up in the morning, the tent was flooded, my sleeping bag and pillow were soaked through and my jacket and rain pants were equally drenched. I wasn’t happy. To add to my woes, my bag of salt and coffee were both filled with water too. These went straight in the bin. I must have collected 5 lites of water from my tent with my t-shirt. It was a shitty start to the journey that’s for sure.

With no sign of the rain stopping, we decided to pack up and head on.

I just wasn’t feeling it though. I just couldn’t get myself motivated. I was soaked to the bone and my bike now weighed so much more with my soaked gear. I had a wet sleeping bag to look forward to snuggling up into come the evening, 550 km’s of terrible roads to ride and a mountain pass to climb that just wouldn’t leave my thoughts. Brecht suggested we take a stop in order to have a long rest and hopefully get this stuff dry. I agreed without hesitation.

Cycling east from Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Just as we were hanging our tents onto the railings, something wonderful happened; the sun poked its glorious head through the clouds and within one hour, everything was bone dry and my mood improved.

Once we got riding again, the day became all sunshine and wonderful heat. We cycled up and over a small pass where I began to lose sight of Brecht. He was a much stronger cyclist that’s for sure. I decided to go my own pace. I didn’t like to be rushed and I also like to take lots of little coffee breaks out of the sun and so this is exactly what I did.

Tajikistan

I began to descend into a beautiful valley and was having a wonderful time gliding down when I felt the oh so familiar wobble of my front tyre. I pulled over to fix it but decided on a mid-morning coffee too. It was nice just to sit there, watch the scenery and not have to worry about racing after someone.

After almost 20km’s of beautiful downhill on smooth asphalt, my worst fears were realised and I finally said goodbye to the tarmac and entered the world of gravel, sand and rocks. It was immediately painful, nauseating almost. Bone shattering roads. Up and down around huge cliffs and along the valley. I had 200 km’s of this to look forward to. Why do I allow myself to be persuaded?

Almost as soon as I left the tarmac, I came across another crazy guy on a bike heading the opposite way. Rory from Scotland said this had been the worst road he had ever cycled. This wasn’t something I wanted to hear. I had asked him about the pass and he told me he came across some people on the Mongol rally whom had offered him a lift. He also told me Brecht was not far ahead and so I crawled away in the hope that we might camp together later.

Locals I met in Tajikistan

I found him not one kilometre ahead in a small village and we cycled on together. The scenery just got better and better. The mountains rose out from the valley floor creating a jagged backdrop to the wonderful scenery alongside the river. It was all so lush and green where the river flowed and reminded me how almost every town or city is built around one of these mighty flowing life support systems.


I got stuck in a couple of huge traffic jams too. This is Tajikistan however which means the traffic consisted primarily of goats and shepherds.


I bounced around constantly trying to find a smooth patch of gravel and I realised at this rate, I would have to put in about eight hours of hard cycling just to achieve something like 50 km’s. It was a sobering thought. I tried not to get frustrated but it was difficult not too.


I sat down and had a think. I decided I wasn’t going to fret anymore. I decided to put away my earphones and I decided I would just take it easy, to enjoy the magnificent scenery and not worry so much about how far I rode. If I rode 35 km’s per day then I would get to Khorog two days later. The weather won’t change so much in two days surely and with this, I cycled on, with a touch more enthusiasm.


Found a wonderful camp spot beside the river as the sun began to disappear and enjoyed a cosy night under the stars.

Wild camping in Tajikistan

I climbed some short but painfully steeps hills the next morning and decided to stop for breakfast at the top of one. Moments later, Brecht pulls up. Turns out he had slept in an abandoned house about one kilometre ahead of where I had slept. I must have passed him in the morning. Again we headed on our way together, meeting two other cyclists from Korea and Germany in the process.


Eventually we came to the turn off for our road where a police checkpoint stood. They wanted copies of our passports in order to write our names in the big book of names that they use. There was a shop there too which sold…..absolutely nothing. Well it did have some biscuits, warm soft drinks and a few snickers but that was about it. The biscuits were actually quite nice though.

Highway, Tajikistan

Well, we headed for the turnoff whilst every other vehicle carried on along the main road north. It was immediately apparent that this was little more than a track that wound its way through the mountains providing the small villages with a lifeline to the outside world.


We climbed and climbed and disappeared into the valleys cycling carefully around the side of the huge cliff faces. The mountains rose up all around us and made me feel quite small indeed. The views were just epic and I sat down in order to take them in more thoroughly letting Brecht cycle off. No doubt I would meet up with him later on in the day.

Landscape of Tajikistan
Incredible landscape of Tajikistan

I rode on and on, stopping to chat to various people in the villages. I cycled through the most gorgeous scenery and gazed triumphantly at the hills I had just climbed. I crossed a few small rivers and waved to the children whom ran out of the houses when I passed. It was a wonderful but tough, tough day.

By four, I decided it was time to camp. I had cycled perhaps forty km’s but I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wanted this to almost feel like a holiday of sorts. Another beautiful spot right next to the river.

By 12 the next day, I finally crept into the small village of Tavildara. I didn’t know this at the time but when I had gone into a ‘shop’ to buy a couple of things and asked the lady where I was, she told me it was Tavildara and I could have kissed her. This marked the next turn off and much more importantly for me, the beginning of the long road up the mountain. It was a daunting prospect but it at least meant I was making some progress.


Coming out of the shop, I had about ten children surround me all saying “hello, hello hello”. “What is your name?” The adults looked on, amusing looks brightening their faces.


I cycled on ahead over some splendidly terrible roads and sat down after perhaps 4 km’s to enjoy my reward for the days effort – a bottle of warm coke. It was then I noticed I didn’t have my money belt. Fuck. I must have left it back in the shop. Not again! Jamie you have to stop doing this! I don’t believe I have ever cycled with such energy. The only thing I was focused on was the recovery of my passport.

Shepherd I met in Tajikistan

But of course it was there. I always knew it would be. Now if this would have been a city, then things would be very different. I offered the lady some money but she wouldn’t take it and with my heart back in my chest, I was able to say goodbye to the masses of children once again.

Camping in Tajikistan

When I arrived at the point where the road turned away from the roaring river and headed into the mountains beyond, I decided to call it a day; the spot where I was, too beautiful to pass up.


I hadn’t been getting a good night’s sleep for some day’s now. I would constantly toss and turn unable to get back to sleep and I’d always be awake by 04:40. I do usually sleep by 20:30 but to wake up at so early surely means something isn’t right. I hope it isn’t something too serious.


I found a shop in the last small village at the foot of the valley where I was ushered round the back and where I was given a litre of benzene from a huge drum. I sat outside the shop making myself another pump cup seal for my petrol canister whilst a hundred children watched on.


The road consisted mostly of compacted gravel and sand with only a few really rocky sections and I was making slow but reassuring progress. I was actually finding it all comparatively easy, slowly edging my way up and around cliff face after cliff face and I was enjoying the thought that I was ascending towards the snowline. I felt strong and I was sure I could do this in one day.

Pamir valley, Tajikistan
The view deeper into the Pamirs

Beginning a mammoth climb to the top of a 3250 metre pass


After I had passed the last of the houses I decided to have a break and rest my weary legs but then it started to rain. This I didn’t need. If it continued to rain, the road would become a sticky mess and it would become even more difficult to get down. The thought of spending the night on a mountain wasn’t appealing in the slightest and so I pushed on, and on and on and on.

Mountains in Tajikistan
On the way up

I had been cycling now since 06:30 and I was a full eight hours into the climb. My legs began to tire, the wind began to pick up and it became decidedly chiller. As I edged higher and higher towards the summit, I prayed that the next turning would reveal a flag or something but it just never seemed to materialise. I was becoming exhausted now and my legs began to give up on me. I had to will myself forward and push down on every single pedal stroke with some force in order to keep myself moving.


Having come around the last bend only to reveal another huge cliff face to climb up and around, my heart sank and I cried out some terrible expletives. I tried to put on some music to motivate myself but even this had no effect.

Collapsing through effort in Tajikistan
Flat out exhausted by late afternoon

By now I was pushing the bike, ever so slowly across the sand and rocks. It was horrendous. I wanted this to be over and over quick as I still had to get down and it was approaching 4 pm.

Cresting the pass in Tajikistan
Nearly there!

As I rounded the last bend, I saw the road flatten out somewhat and spied some derelict building at the next crest and so willed myself to get there. It must be the summit! That last kilometre was the hardest. I don’t know how I managed it but I got back on my bike and crawled at a snail’s pace towards the finishing line and I finally found the world’s loneliest bus stop. It was a joyous and momentous moment.


At 3250 metre’s It was the highest I had ever been and the highest I’ll ever be at least until I reached the Pamirs. I simply couldn’t believe I had done it. It was a truly remarkable feeling and I did what any right minded person would do. I ate a snickers and smoked a cigarette.

Reaching the top of the pass in Tajikistan
I'm Batman

I had envisioned myself descending almost immediately as I still had a couple of hours of sunlight left but I thought that by perhaps camping at the very top, I would be able to test my equipment out to see if it would protect me against the elements at more than 3000 metres.


With this thought, I pushed my bike behind some abandoned building just off the side of the road and began to set up. No sooner had I finished cooking than the sun withdrew to behind the mountains and the temperature immediately plummeted. It would be a cold night for sure.


Thunder erupted overhead and hail began to fall as I was tucked up inside and I began to wonder if this was such a good idea after all. I tucked myself in for the long night ahead and left my thermometer outside too.