A deep gorge marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, it is a perfect natural barrier, the meandering gorge with its sheer sides and tight funnelling tributaries enclose a torrent of icy mountain water. My route traces the border following the course of the Pamir River. As I ride along the northern bank school kids on either side walk in the same direction they could be going to the same school if it weren’t for the ruddy great river. I sieved through an article in the telegraph saying that the Pamir Highway is one of the most dangerous roads in the world; I’ve certainly seen worse in Peru, Tanzania or even London with all its traffic. I don’t know where the author of this piece was but it certainty wasn’t here; you are more likely to drown in all the tea which people ply you with than in the frosty waters of the Pamir.
To be fair the road surface is pretty average to say the least and occasionally a bank of sand might send me into a wee wobble and between the overhanging rocks and the narrow road at times you get a good view of the drop below. There is no distinct difference between each river bank, where space allows fruit trees cluster or small fields are worked all day by people who must spend more time bent over double than up right. There are occasional foot patrols by young faced Tajik soldiers who walk between the outposts which seem to be space every 50kms or so. At one point one patrol stands to, dropping to a belt buckle and pointing their muzzles across the water, it is for my benefit rather for that of the mujahid. They were probably annoyed that they had to soil their uniforms just for the entertainment of a tourist.
I come across a tourer or two. One couple from the UK live up near Glasgow, I tell them that I’ve spent a fair bit of time up in Faslane on the base just outside of Helensburgh to the north. They laugh, they’ve spent a bit of time there them selves; they’ve spent many a night at the permanent peace camp and have done a good protest or two outside of the south gate, anti trident protesters, and vegans to boot. Together with a few other strays who they are cycling with we have a jolly old lunch before I excuse myself to continue. Who knows how long they will be kicking back. It was tough to leave as John and Cas, and the rest, were good company but as always I am on a different kind of mission.
At the town of Khorog you have to make a choice, continue along the gorge following the Wakhan valley and the Afghan border or turn east up the Pamir Highway. I’ve been trailing the border for two days now and have resisted the urge to do my first illegal border crossing and swim a length to the other side and back but I opt to climb into the mountains up the Pamir Highway thus leaving this temptation behind me. The river is swimmable in sections if you really have need, cock it up and you would be in a serious pickle as its faster than it looks and funnels into regular pretty punchy looking rapids. I know a few people who are legitimately crossing to go biking, trekking or motor biking through the north of the country, I would have liked to do this if I wasn’t pressed for time. In all honestly it is the same striking landscape that Tajikistan boasts so I don’t think I’m missing out on much.
So I ride east and start the climb, it is easy going and I am slightly disappointed, I thought this section would be truly testing, the air is thinning though and god it tastes good; I feel like I’m purging my lungs after the blackening fumes of the tunnels from a few days ago. I meet a French couple on the lead up to lunch, I suggest that we maybe find a cafe, I’m sure there will be one soon-ish. But they have a nap on the agenda. Its not even half eleven! I am beginning to think that many a cycle tourer is in fact a lazy person in disguise; with their leisurely breakfasts, coffee stops, long lazy lunch breaks, naps and just a spot of cycling.
I stop in at the local police station for a pot of tea and a meagre lunch though it beats my dinner from a few nights ago; they say hunger is the best seasoning well I must have been really hungry as I wolfed down my dinner of pasta, with a sprig of dill and a squirt of honey; it was bow tie pasta so must have been classy. I chat away to the copper but it turns into the low point of the day. With a look of delight on his face he asks if I’ve seen Tigger, I assumed I was about to see a video of the beloved, stripy, tail bouncing tiger but he showed me a video of a snow leopard that the village had caught recently. The frightened animal was huddled in a cage as hordes of on lookers video and pocked at it. He then shows me with satisfaction a photo of a wolf he had shot, they must have used a snare first as it was shot clean between the eyes that or this policemen was quite the marksman. I can understand the wolf to some extent as they steal sheep in the night but surely the snow leopard is protected and as a policeman he should not be one of the video takers huddling about the small cage. I remove myself from his company quicker than originally planned cutting the lunch break short to continue up the valley.
That afternoon I reach, slightly rasping for breath (the altitude is begin to take affect), a small hamlet with a hidden secret. You wouldn’t notice on passing save for an occasional sulphurous whiff in the air but this valley has a thermal spring. The ‘otel’ I had been recommended was closed, so to the sanatorium (thermal springs), so it appears I am not in for a hot bath or a hot dinner as I was holding out for this fine establishment. But as luck would have it a family take me in for the night and a day of one bad thing turns into one of two good things.
Once I’m settled and having a cuppa a random man walks in to the house (not the man of said house) and pours me a bowl of milk. I brace myself for a foul sour experience only to find that like a cat I’ve been given a bowl of cream, fresh from the cow no doubt. It seems the done thing is to ladle a good spoon full or two of sugar and a few lumps of bread to soak it up. Dear lord its good, like the last drops of cream after the strawberries have been eaten but an entire bowl of it. I’m then treated to a second helping, and a third if you include the cream I saved for later in the old beard. How these people stay so skinny if this is their afternoon treat I don’t know, I even feel slightly guilty and I’ve cycled a good amount today. That’s good thing number one.
And for number two, I’m walked through the collection of houses and along the river which is that pale opal turquoise that only mountains can produce, to a small hut. At its base a small steaming stream flows through a gap in the wall. This innocuous hut on the edge of the village is the bath house and within is a vast pool of near scolding water, temperature control is a small sluice gate. I’m ushered in but don’t no what the etiquette is, to dis-robe or not? Its not Scandinavia so I opt to keep the shorts on just in case. But to my embarrassment it was a faux pas the milkman (or creamman) joins me ten minutes later, he drops trou and clambers in. It just makes the naked party uncomfortable when the stiff backed Brit has kept his kit on. I have no reservations in getting my tackle out in the appropriate setting and I have been known on a rare occasion, to disrobe when some might not think its the time.