At this point in time we felt about as far away from the lush green rolling hills of Scotland however we only had a week to get back there. First we had to cross 1000km of desert, five 4250m+ passes, hitch hike on one of the quietest sections of the planets second highest highway, then on top of this we had to do what no one else we met had managed – not get too sick to travel! Put simply we were running out of time and we had to hit the pedal physically and metaphorically. After years of fairly unrestricted travel, this was a new concept and it’s always sad to rush.
Our guest house up from Tuggoz near Yamchun had been superb, with good interesting conversation with the owner and his family. The father was the principal of the village school and was proud of his education at Moscow University back in the USSR days. He showed us his large headmasters office on a quick tour of the school, the very soviet styled moustached pictures of the previous headteachers and other dignitaries lined the entrance hall. We didn’t want to interrupt a class despite his offer, but it was interesting to see inside a Tajik school nonetheless.
We waved good bye after a relaxing morning eating apricots and wandering the narrow paths between small wheat fields and well stocked vegetable gardens. The area reminded me of the Mohare Dande area we explored in Nepal last year.
We freewheeled downhill back to the ‘main’ road and Tuggoz, riding along the familiar views of harvesting villagers, cows being towed to fields and kids waving. We passed huge sand dunes along the river banks at Zumudg before the happiest moment arrived at the village of Shitkharv….yes the road became paved for the first time in ages, smooth tarmac, no holes, bumps of deep gravel and sand. Oh Shitkharv it turned to deep sand again the tarmac was shortlived!
With our late start we only headed to Darshai village where the map indicated a homestay. We rolled into the centre surrounded by mudbrick houses. A chap was awkwardly pushing a heavily laden bike and was struggling but as the only inhabitant around we asked his advice about sleeping, he pointed us onwards. We passed the dramatic Darshai canyon. There’s a path here up to a high Kygygz nomad yurt camp that’s apparently a cool hike, but we didn’t have time for the 80km trip.
We saw the homestay sign, a result of the Swiss charity who had helped develop homestays in so many villages to open tourist dollars for the locals.
We called in and the place was being gutted and painted, we were pointed to the next house. An old beaten up Lada was parked outside, a chap with a limp and large staring glass eye appeared with a cigarette drooping from his lips. He gestured inside. Marion stayed with the bikes and I followed. His house was basic, made up of a large cross shaped room, one skylight and a small window cast limited light on what was a dirty fairly smelly abode. He wanted $30 to stay, it’s not oftern I refuse places but I had to say no. The guy was creeping me out and I thought the chances of food poisoning would be 110%. He pointed us next door again. Next door couldn’t have been any more different, a yellow whitewash on the walls contrast with ‘Velcome’ written in large letters. A very clean and comfortable homestay room was shown by a friendly small old lady and we had a place to rest.
Her two teenage grandsons came to help us and sat as we drank tea. Their parents were away in Moscow working, their Grandfather had been in the fields a friendly if incomprehensible man with a weather worn smiling face exposing few teeth. He shook our hands before disappearing as quickly as he arrived.
The kids uncle came round to visit us, the rare foreign tourists. He spent two hours enthusiastically talking Russian and inadvertently spitting at us. We saw his entire family photo albums including his nephews baby pics while they cringed at us, we listened to various Afghan folk songs being played by him on a traditional sitar type instrument. Then before it got dark we went outside with binoculars to look at Afghanistan. Not much was happening but we could see that nothing much was happening in Afghanistan much clearer with his binoculars.
We finally ate some food with a tasty dark rye bread and freshly made yoghurt too.
Next morning we filled up on semolina and rye bread with more tea.
I massively overexposed this shot but here is the Grandfather and his friendly grandson:
The valley narrowed but not much happened until we reached Ishkashim. We passed a few cyclists including two pairs of Frenchies asking if the patchy paved road got any worse, how can I put it….yes it does, sorry to break it too you but this is the best road we’ve seen for days I said.
We passed another ancient fort this one was apparently inhabited by a cult wearing black robes from 300BC:
On the outskirts of Eshkashim the towers of a large new military fort were being constructed, the whole town had a heavy military presence, a signal that we were near the first legal crossing into Afghanistan. We stopped and ate a 5 kilo watermelon to celebrate getting to a town. I never realised that you could feel so full to bursting from watermelon but I managed it that day. We sat in shade and finished it all off! It was a bustling town for the first time in the Wakhan and this was the signal that we were leaving the enchanting and remarkable place called the Wakhan Corridor. The world was a little less idyllic, clean and simple from here on again.
The scenery was less dramatic but still fascinating as we still followed the Panj. We reached the Afghan border point and saw our first green, red and black flags. The border wass firmly closed at that moment, just a armoured jeep patrolling no-mans land behind a huge metal locked gate. Marion wouldn’t let me take any pictures for a few kilometres!
We saw some soldiers on the Afghan side in just their pants setting out a fishing net in the river’s waters, while one armed guard crouched on the bank.
We also saw lots more friendly kids in the villages.
Several groups of Tajik soldiers were in the scrub land by the river, one was trying to tow a stuck truck another fixing a broken down jeep, this was the elite border force I thought as we rode on along the first stretch out of Ishkashim.
We stopped to buy eggs and cooked them, they were disconcertingly white and yellow, I strongly suspected they were fake eggs, yes fake eggs exist, Google it if you don’t believe me!! While cooking our lunch 8 soldiers jumped out the bushes 50m down the road, who knows what they were up to, but the were all friendly. Later we learnt this was the day of a big shooting in the capital Dushanbe so I suspect all the soldiers we saw were under orders to be on alert, despite nothing much ever happening this far away in the heart of the GBAO region.
We headed to another hot spring for the night, this one had a hotel. The hotel was horrible, simply gross. Never have I seen so many flies, but it was cheap and opposite the ‘health’ complex that housed the hot spring. We felt like we shouldn’t have been in the health complex mingling with the dressing gown and slipper clad residents. The hotspring was in a building down by the river, it was all very confusing. Marion was allowed in escorted by a gaggle of bubbly Tajik women. I wasn’t allowed in and waited for some reason. Marion was having a naked bath with 10 welcoming local women. All asking her questions through a vague translator. It was a pretty full on immersive Tajik experience. I was sat on a bench on my own getting bitten by mosquitoes. The view across the river wasn’t bad here either:
We ate meaty soup from the dirty hotel’s even dirtier kitchen, counting down the time to sickness. but we avoided trouble and rode on towards Khorog the next day. The river was still weaving through canyons and past small villages perched on fertile alluvial fans. We saw an Afghan school with boys AND girls playing outside, something I guess the Taliban wouldn’t have allowed, as was the loud music blaring from the motorbike we saw passing us just a few feet across the river.
Khorog was a large place but had shadows of industry decaying since the end of the Soviet days. We rolled into the Pamir Lodge guesthouse, the place where all overlanders stay and share stories from the road. It is a place where cyclists come to get well again with the comfort of good hygiene and hot showers. It even had WIFI between 6 and 10 at night! The first internet since we left Osh!
We had 5 days left to cover 1050km and almost all was over 4000m of altitude in order to get back to Osh. We had to find a plan B cycling was not a quick enough option, nor was reliably being able to hitch hike out of Murgharb. The next day we were offered two seats in a shared jeep with a family. The driver reluctantly tied the bikes on top of all the bags already on the roof rack and we were off. The journey home to Scotland started. We passed a new section of road where a landslide had closed the road for a few weeks. The landslide had built a dam a a huge new aquamarine coloured lake had formed flooding a village. The road was cut into the cliffs then cut across fields to avoid the deep water it was scary insight into the power of nature in this vulnerable part of the world.
We re-rode some sections from Mugharb to Kyrgyzstan and hitch hiked another bit towards Osh. We made it to Osh with a day to spare. We had time to explore and buy souvenirs from the bazaar. The trip was over but what a trip, I hope the blog does justice to such an amazing part of the world. Here’s a few pictures from the journey home: