“Whether you think you’re ready or not, just start right now. There is magic in action”
My myriad band of cycling crusaders continued their march through the badlands of Central Asia. Next stop – Tajikistan and the infamous Pamir Highway. One of the most revered roads in the world and a genuine number 1 highlight of anyone cycling around the world. Suffice to say we could not wait.
We spent a few days recovering in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, seeking out any food options that didn’t actually hail from this gastronomical disaster of a region. Pizza. Indian. Kebabs. Anything but cow knuckle broth.
We also spent time stocking up on supplies for the expedition ahead. Soon enough it was time to hit the road and embark into the unknown. The true adventure of the trip awaited us.
Dushanbe – Khorog via the North Road (522km – 10 days)
The sedate nature of the ride out of Dushanbe on the first afternoon belied the epic scenery we were about to encounter. After a night spent camping in an apple orchard we set off further into the mountains and immediately the scenery transformed into the most epic views I have ever seen on a cycle trip.
We had opted for the north road which is shorter in distance than its southern cousin, but takes a few days longer due to the terrible road conditions. However it was supposed to be more beautiful and rugged, and we figured if you’re going to do the pamirs you should at least do them properly.
The second night we camped on a small section of flat grass next to a small descent into an incredible valley. The children from the nearby village spotted us as we made our way to the conspicuous camp ground and so inevitably decided to join us. Nonetheless Mr Cadence Bro is not one to sniff up an opportunity and so I quickly got them to work, erecting my tent and inflating my mattress. They departed back to their unconcerned parents as the sun set in this incredible mountainous canyon and left us to enjoy a meal of pasta, sauce and any other riches we had picked up in the Tajik capital city. The night sky was incredible and we managed to take some awesome shots with our expensive cameras we were still working out how to use.
In the morning the kids (nicknamed ‘the rats’ by us) decided to return and that’s when things got a bit weird. They brought two dogs with them and while we were eating breakfast and talking amongst ourselves they forced the dogs to have a vicious fight until one was pinned by the other with its jaws round the helpless pup’s neck, yelping with pain and finally running back up the hill, followed closely by this savage, canine Terminator. Not a pleasant sight to enjoy over your cornflakes.
The days were usually dominated by where the next shop would be – and failing that – the next stream for water. It was a constant battle to stay hydrated at these altitudes and you’d have to fill up on water wherever you could. You would then perform a collective taste, look and smell test to decide whether it needed to be filtered. You may think – why not always filter it. Well there was only one filter out of the whole group (my one) so if we were filtering then it’s a long slow process. Some of the ultras in the group always decided to risk it – and though some of them did get ill – you’ve got to admire that sort of foolhardy courage given we were in the ass end of nowhere by this point.
Shops only appeared about once a day and there was no guarantee that they would actually be stocked with anything useful when you did find one. There would always be random items like ironing boards and barbie dolls – absolutely guaranteed – but never ‘still’ water. Sometimes sparkling water ( I hate sparkling water). And then it was a rummage through the mayhem to try and spot some of the golden nuggets of this region (chocolate spread, snickers, something – anything to go with our pasta and tomato sauce nightly meals). Fun though. Definitely a unique experience for me and one we became to really enjoy.
A few days later it was my birthday. One of the group kindly woke up early and made me a sweet porridge-like local delicacy and decorated it with raisins to spell my not inconsiderable age (the big 3-1). The previous day we had climbed 700m of a 1,500m climb (waylaid by the atrocious road conditions and one of the group being taken ill). So birthday morning – we finished the climb in the morning and reached the peak of 3,300m at around lunchtime – the highest point I have ever been on a bicycle. Quite the birthday present.
The way up had been pleasant but nothing prepared us for the absolutely incredible 40km descent. It was dicey, single laned, loose gravelled, incredible view laden, cycling heaven. So after cycling the highest peak of my cycling career I then enjoyed the most incredible descent. Not a bad birthday after all. To cap things off we finished the day rolling into a proper town (well, proper for these parts…) which actually had a guesthouse with beds for all of us. And a shower. And dinner. And, OMG, beers!!! It may be hard for readers to imagine the joy of such luxuries – but we had just spent 6 days cycling on the worst roads I’ve ever ridden, living on our wits and very very occasional shops, filtering water from rivers and generally making it through the route as a group. This was proper adventure cycling and to be presented with beers and a bed at the end of it was just the most incredible feeling. One of my best birthdays to date.
We were excited despite the crunching hangovers the next day (3 beers and some vodka shots at this altitude and this level of exhaustion soon turned us into an 18-30’s British holiday package tour). On this day we were due to join back up with the southern route which we had been told is immaculately tarmaced. Should arrive in khorog in 2 days they told us. Unfortunately not. Just as the road met ours the route unfortunately succumbed to the will of the northern road and maintained its horrendous potholed surface. Still, the views were captivating so we didn’t mind taking things a bit slower.
We spent the next 4 days cycling along the river that separates Tajikistan from its more famous neighbour Afghanistan. One night’s camp spot gave us front row tickets to watch some Afghanistan road builders hacking away at the cliff on the other side of the river with pickaxes and then attempting, usually in vein, to blow up sections using explosives. When an explosive charge failed to blow, which happened 4 times in a row, some short-strawed hapless victim was sent into the danger zone to set even more on top of the previous unexploded charges. When finally the dynamite let rip on attempt # 5 the culmination of explosives almost made our hearts stop.
We finally rolled into Khorog on our 10th day and set about booking ourselves into the nicest guesthouse we could find, eating some Italian / Indian / any other food and of course smashing back a few jars of lager for our troubles…
You can watch an English language video made by some of the people I was travelling through Tajikistan with, below.