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  • Jamie Shannon

Dushanbe to Khorog - part 2. It's only a grenades from from Afghanistan

When I woke in the morning, the temperature was -5 but I was feeling rather toasty inside the tent and it put me in a confident mood for the journey ahead.

Camping in Tajikistan
Camping at the top of the pass

Continuing on my way - cycle touring Tajikistan

The descent was a white knuckle ride through a spectacular gorge where the road clung to the sheer cliff faces and revealed dizzying drops to the valley below on the other side. It was definitely no place to lose concentration and I carefully picked my way through the gravel, sand and rocks until I eventually came to another police checkpoint at the bottom.

Mountains of Tajikistan
Stunning views on the way the other side

The descent took me all of five hours which I hadn’t anticipated. Therefore when I at last reached the river that led through the valley and on into the town of Kalikum, I was in two minds as to whether to carry on or stop at a guesthouse.

The Pamir highway, Tajikistan
Feeling insignificant against the backdrop

Some guys waved me over at this point. I wasn’t going to stop but they put their hands out quite erratically and so I thought it would be rude to just fly past. They said ‘dengi’ which I knew was the Russian word for money and I just couldn’t be bothered replying and so sped off almost straight away. Do they really think I’ll give them money? It’s laughable.

I reached Kalikhum and I decided to stop for the night when I found a nice guesthouse that served dinner and breakfast too. I wasn’t feeling too great to be honest as I had been up most of the night tossing and turning and felt quite dizzy and nauseous at some points. I realised later on that this was probably due to the altitude I had slept at. Turns out that I probably ascended much too fast.

I stocked up on some more food and chocolate which I hadn’t come across in the last few days. I even bought some bread which seemed like a luxury too.

It seems that outside of the cities/towns, the village shops really do only stock dry food goods and drinks amongst other things and I guess this is down to the fact that almost every person has their own cow, grows their own vegetables and makes their own bread. Makes sense but for me, it becomes a bit of a problem.

I looked around in the afternoon for somewhere to eat and was directed over to a shack of a place where two old ladies were sat. I walked in and was greeted by the sight of unimaginable horror. The place was filthy, completely disgusting with flies buzzing about the place and dust floating in the air. I was really hungry though so I thought I’d give it a shot. The food wasn’t bad but I had to inspect every spoonful of soup before it entered my mouth as there would inevitably be a fly perched atop a potato on my spoon. It’s no fun eating where there are 50 flies buzzing about your head and I still don’t understand how people can live like that.

Panj valley, Tajikistan
Panj valley, Tajikistan

I left early the next morning and began the long, slow and frustrating journey to Khorog. I still had 240 km’s to go and my dreams of making it there within three days were immediately quashed when it began to dawn on me that the road ahead was, once again, just a pile of rubble. I really had hoped there would be some asphalt but this just wasn’t to be the case. It was completely horrendous. I would say that for more than 50% of the time, I was simply riding over rocks and through huge gaping holes in the roads, particularly in the villages I passed. I travelled at no more than 5 kph for most of the rest of the ride to Khorog.

Came across two French and two Swiss guys on a short trip around Central Asia as the day neared its end and we swapped some advice about the road ahead. They seemed enthusiastic even after I had told them about the state of the road for the next 250 km’s but I guess they were seeing it from a different perspective. I was beaten. I wanted all this to be over and I wanted simply to get to China now where smooth asphalt awaited.

Goat herders in Afghanistan
Goat herders in Afghanistan across the Panj river

You see things a little differently when you have been travelling on such shocking roads for the best part of 2000 km’s that’s for sure. By this point, the fun had all but disappeared and every new day became just something to endure for me.

Stealth camping near Afghanistan
Camping a mere grenades throw from Afghanistan

Having cycled a whopping 40 km’s, I decided it was time to camp and chose a great place behind some large rocks, a mere grenades throw from Afghanistan. Remarkable.

Okay, so the scenery was simply outstanding and had been since leaving Dushanbe really. The 240 km’s from Kalikum to Khorog were simply stunning. The ‘road’ was constantly undulating as it wound its way alongside the Panji river. The mountains on either side rose up to unprecedented heights and made me feel quite insignificant. Words and pictures simply cannot do justice to the awesome majesty of these peaks. It was intense. Add to this the fact that for most of the time, Afghanistan lay not 50 metres away across the river and it was an amazing few days. I spent many a long break just sat by the side of the road watching them go about their business. The villages were mostly made up of mud brick houses. The people were dressed in very simple attire and I saw many a Shepheard herding his goats along the most perilous of paths cut through the rock face. It really was like looking into another world and I’m thankful to have witnessed it.

Cycling through Tajikistan
Cycling through the Panj valley

But here comes the cruncher: As beautiful and as awesome as the scenery was and as awestruck as it left me, the road just left me feeling numb, depressed, angry and frustrated. When I became annoyed and upset, I really tried to stop and take some time out and to look around and remember where I was but my mind just couldn’t escape from the fact that there never seemed to be an end in sight. I simply cannot get across the unbelievable frustration of having to nurse a bicycle with eleven bags around obstacle after obstacle for4km/h eight hours per day, day after day after day. I lost sight of what I was doing. I couldn’t enjoy where I was and I simply wanted to leave Tajikistan. This was far too difficult and I refuse to look back on the hard times through rose tinted glasses as some people would do. I really got to the point where I truly believe no scenery in the world could possibly be worth this much headache. No way.

Tajikistan and the river Panj

It was however quite wonderful to meet the people of the villages along the road. I was stopped and offered chay more times than I can remember and this often included bread, soup and fruit. It still amazes me how the people whom have so little are often the ones that are more willing to share what little they have. The children of course were the most inquisitive of all the people I met. They would run out of their houses, often out of their schools too in order just to shout a simple hello at me or to slap my hand as I rode past.

Well by some miracle and after ten days, I managed to find my way to the turn off for Khorog some 60 km’s north of the city and my final police checkpoint where I witnessed something I shall not forget in a hurry.

Locals in Tajikistan
Some people with big beards I met along the way

Whilst I was having my Pamir permit checked, the other officer asked me if he could ride my bike. Now normally I refuse these requests as the locals usually do fall off when it’s time to turn the handlebars but since this man was in uniform and carried a quite hefty piece of weaponry slung over his shoulder, I decided not to oppose. He actually managed it far better than anyone I have seen and the sight of a policeman cycling around on my bicycle with his machine-gun slung over his shoulder was something.

I had been told time and time again that the last sixty km’s were on asphalt. Why do I get my hopes up? Why do I believe people? I was heartbroken. This was something I had been looking forward to now for eight days and it simply wasn’t to be. I bounced through the first village whilst curious onlookers watched me with grins as I let out long and loud groans of irritation and discomfort. I hope they enjoyed the sight.

I consoled myself by camping in the most wonderful of places though; overlooking the river, on a nice patch of freshly cut grass with a beautiful view of a village on the afghan side although my good mood was to be short lived.

Camping beside the Panj river, Tajikistan

I woke up several times during the night feeling queasy and lightheaded and required several trips to the toilet where the results were far from what I would call a perfect. I felt dire come the morning and it took me forever to pack up and continue on my way. It was a horrible way to end a horrible ten day’s and I limped along the valley, my stomach in knots and my head in disarray. I couldn’t even muster the energy to say hello to the hundreds of children I passed. My body was drained of energy and the lethargy grew worse as the morning elapsed but inching towards a hotel I was and it was only this that kept the pedals turning.

Arriving in Khorog, Tajikistan after ten hard days on the bicycle

About ten km’s out, I noticed the familiar shape of a cyclist riding uphill towards me. Cam, an Australian had just set off on his way to Dushanbe following my route in reverse. I wished him a sincere and heartfelt good luck and must say I have never ever been so thankful not to be in a particular person’s situation if that makes sense.

Around half an hour later and with the last of the rubble behind me, I finally began to roll along super smooth asphalt. I could almost hear my wheels humming along in unison. Homes began to dot the roadside and the area began to take on a more habituated feel. I felt like my head and body were in pieces but I had arrived. I had made it and I didn’t want to step onto another bicycle for a very long time indeed.

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