The North Road

The North Road

After a couple of bad nights sleep in a cheap hostel in Dushanbe, we managed to find and move in with a warmshowers, Bianca. We were in fact really lucky, as Bianca was only staying in Dushanbe for two months whilst completing an internship and agreed to have us in her apartment during the very last few days that she had still in town.

Rather young in her age, we were rather impressed with her maturity and independence.Thanks to her generosity and laid-back nature, we were able to use her flat as base to finish all our necessary tasks before setting off into the remote and bumpy Pamir Highway.

Bikes cleaned, oiled and maintained and bags overfull of food supplies, we left Bianca’s appartment, early-ish in the morning, feeling ready. As we pedalled along the North road and became progressively further away from the city, the landscape was slowly becoming less and less populated and more and more promising. We were super excited to finally head into the Pamir mountains!

On the way, we stopped in a café for some chai and ended up being catered for soup and fruit juice as we played around with the owner’s two young kids. We bid them farewell, unknowing that we would see them again after not too long…

As we approached the top of the hill we had hoped to conquer that day, Sarah’s bicycle came out of a pothole making a few funny sounds. It seemed her back mudguard was hitting the tyre but we couldn’t understand why. Until we realised that the whole back rack had come loose at one of the attachment points. A screw had broken in half, one of the halves still inside the frame, unremovable, unreplaceable.

Unsuccessful attempts on our part, and in the nearby mechanic shop (whose owner would have happily butchered the frame), lead us to decide to just move the whole rack to an upper attachment point, albeit leaving Sarah’s bicycle a bit more unstable (and ungraceful).

The worst however, was still to come. The broken screw was just the beginning of the story and perhaps a warning sign for something worse, much worse. As we moved the rack up, Sarah noticed an apparent scratch in the wheel rim. But it wasn’t a scratch, it was a full crack. And worse, there were more of them, many more! Both our back wheels were covered in cracks in the rim, Pedro with 5 and Sarah totalizing in 8!!

In any ride near European or even Asian civilization, we might have just tried to swing it, but we happened to be about to embark on what was expected to be the most remote and bicycle-harsh environment of our whole trip! Being stuck, or even injured, on account of a broken back wheel was just something we couldn’t really afford to risk. Back to Dushanbe we would have to go, to get a new pair of back wheels.

Given how long the whole thing took, the sun was now about to set, so we decided to simply ask the family of whose house we had happened to stop in front of. The kids inside had being watching us and smiling at us the whole time so we thought we might as well try.

Our plan had been to camp in their garden but we were quickly upgraded to one of the rooms in the house and quickly after that presented with different sorts of food in front of us. Communication wasn’t easy as we had never mastered Tajik nor Russian, but we were impressed with their generosity and simple way of living. They seemed to live off farming and selling traditional dresses the women of the family made.

But during the night with a clench in the stomach, Pedro runs to the toilet jumping over the family sleeping on the floor of the living room, in between our room and the outsider door. We know people got sick in the Pamir but we didn’t expect that would happen to us so soon and we didn’t expect that it would hit us like this!

Sarah soon caught up to the same level of sickness with a 6 hour delay, and as we tried to make it back to Dushanbe alive, we had to stop several times along the way, to… try to empty ourselves of whatever was making us sick, let’s say it like that.

We made it past the café we had been the previous day and waved back to one of the kids, but when we were still half way from Dushanbe we realised there was no way that we would make it back by our own means. We basically literally collapsed in a gas station under construction, laying on the worker’s matresses and cardboard on the floor and entered some sort of energyless zombie state.

After a while, realising that the scorching heat we were under, even when lying in the shade, was making us feel even sicker than we already were, I mustered up my remaining levels of strength and tried to get a ride from one of the trucks passing by. Unfortunately they all seemed to go to the nearby construction place and wouldn’t get us to Dushanbe.

Realising that in this situation we might just have to take a bite from the budget, I then asked one of the gas station guys, in my best sign language, if he could call someone he knows with a truck, to take us to Dushanbe, and that we would pay him. He makes a phone call and seems to suggest someone will come, and I lay down again on the cardboard, next to the exposed electric cables, in hope that someone does come, and fast…

Eventually he does come and I still manage to find some strength to bargain a bit the price (budget! budget!) trying not to show how desperate I am for his ride. He gets us back to Dushanbe in a complete reckless drive, on the way me wondering if it would have been the food poisoning we clearly managed to get in the family’s house, the diarrhea heat stroke, the bare electric cables where I laid, or the reckless driving that would finish me off… I know it might sound overdramatic, but at the time, feeling how I was feeling, that was the state of mind…

Finally in Dushanbe, finally at the Green house hostel, we are given a bed each, where we collapsed and slept approximately 20h continuous. The continuity only broken for the very regular toilet breaks.

Let’s just say, the next day the phrase “bum geysers” was coined.

After two days our bodies were skeleton dried, all the water we had expelled from our bodies in different ways and missing the food we weren’t yet able to have. Slowly we got some appetite, and were able to upgrade from just tea, to plain rice or potatoes and then, luxury, buckwheat with some herbs. In the meanwhile we managed also to get two back rim replacements, ordered specially from Moscow, which arrived surprisingly quickly

With our bicycles back in shape, we decided not to repeat what we had already cycled and to take a ride to get back to where we had stopped, almost a week before (ok we confess, we took the ride all the way till the top of the hill…). Our bodies (or should I say our bowels) were still not fully recovered but it felt good to camp and be back in the road again. The Pamir Highway at last!!!

If the first stretch out of Dushanbe wasn’t that impressive, soon we realised the why the North road has a reputation for being harsh but beautifully amazing. After what turned out to be perhaps the hardest/steepest zigzag stretch of the whole Pamir, we were rewarded with views over an amazing yellow plateau dotted with green trees, where the land simply ends and there was a shear drop to the river below.

As we crossed the bridge to where the Pamir (or the GBAO region at least) really begins, we were both beyond ourselves with the idea that we were at about to cycle the Pamir, this place we had read and heard so much about, well before we had even left for the trip.

Now, if the North road lived up to its reputation of beauty, it also lived up to its reputation of roughness… We cycled on all types big surface possible: gravel, rocks, big stones, small stones, compacted pebbles, melted chewing gum like tarmac, sand, washboard and broken roads.

Besides experiencing all these amazing types of surface we were also about to experience our highest pass to date. After overcoming a landslide and crossing, barefooted, a rather wide river, we met up again with Dara and Sam who we had met in Dushanbe in the Green house hostel.

As we camped together before reaching the pass, we wondered why our millet hadn’t cooked as it usually did. Only a few days later did we had the realisation that it was because we were nearly at 3000m! Our minds might not had the realisation at the time, but our bodies certainly did. As we aimed for the pass at 3300m the next day, we struggled with lack of breath and it seemed to take forever to reach the top, although the road wasn’t even that bad on this side.

Finally reaching the top, more than an hour later than Dara and Sam that cycled at a much faster pace, they quickly overtook us and disappeared, we embraced the descent which proved as tiring as climbing up. We had dreamt of quickly sliding down to Khalai Khum and filling our bellies of delicious food. We took in fact, as much to go down as we did to go up. Calling it road might be an overstatement. Large blocks of stones on a super steep descent, that murdered our brake pads, ached our fingers pressing the brakes and made quick progression impossible. The landscape was however, nothing short of amazing….

When we finally reached Khalai Khum we couldn’t think of anything more than showering, eating and sleeping. And so we did! In the hostel we were staying we found the Dutch girls half of us had also already met in Dushanbe.

Mari and Eva left the Netherlands at a similar time as Tom and Sabine and were probably at similar times in the same places as we were. We were very happy to find at last cyclists that seemed to share our slower more relaxed pace and we paired up with them after leaving Khalai Khum

They turned out to be the perfect pair to team up with, as not only we shared the same relaxed rhythm, but also the same appetite for fancy delicious camping dinners! Unfortunately Eva became sick and couldn’t continue cycling for a while, so they decided to get a ride further as we continued to cycle along the horrible gravel road.

This was especially true after Khalai Khum, where the North and South road merged, and where perhaps the road was at it’s worst. Countless times we struggled with balance and energy levels and countless times we cursed at the ground in despair and rage. And countless times we feared for the bicycles integrity, with a few apologies to it here and there.

To be honest, after this part of the trip, we had had enough with gravel pavel, and were prepared to cycle the rest of our whole trip on nothing more than perfect tarmac. Of course, that was nothing more than us venting out frustration and it soon passed… But it did influence our decision on which road to take next…

Ever since Dushanbe, and in fact, even quite a lot before that, there was an ongoing “discussion” on which route we would take. The original M41 Pamir Highway, meaning we would have been faithful to it since we had taken originally the North road? The most discussed Wakhan valley, known to have very rough stretches of washboard and even sand but beautiful views over the 7000m mountains of the Hindu Kush? The Bartang valley, known to be incredibly remote but also incredibly scenic, but that would also shortcut most of the Pamirs?

Constantly wondering about this, as we struggled with the road again and again, we were very eager to reach Khorog… Feeling a little bit that we were cycling just to reach it, nothing more than that. Besides the bad state of the road, it didn’t help that it wasn’t easy to find a place to camp, since we were constantly cycling along the Panj river separating Tajakistan from Afghanistan.

One day, physically and mentally tired of the harshness of the gravel, we decided to stop a bit earlier and have a bit of leasurie time. We made a small smoky fire, since there was quite a few mosquitoes around, and lay on the picnic blanket listening to Harry Potter audiobook narrated by Stephen Fry, as you know, one does.

Suddenly we were surprised by a group of three military coming out of the bushes, and immediately thought they were going to say we couldn’t camp there. However, they didn’t say a single word, even avoiding to look into us as they passed. We shrugged our shoulders and continued our leisure.

Harry Potter chapter finished, we proceeded to make dinner and after that, as it began to become dark, set up the tent. As we were about to climb (crawl) into our beds and call it a night, the same bunch of three military appeared and between gestures, google translate and even a phone call to an acquaintance of one of the military that spoke some English, we understood we were being told that we shouldn’t camp there, that there was danger of Taliban snipers from the other side, and that we should move. Move 5m behind a nearby bush that was. Which they very helpfully helped us achieve. Why were the snipers not an issue when they first met us, when we still hadn’t unpacked all our bags and setup a tent, we never understood. Apparently they do not shoot during daylight….

Ready for a stop and rest days at last, the next day we finally reached Khorug, where we would have to take our final decision of which road to take next.

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