Into the Wakhan, camping on an IED

We had a late start from Khorog. I was going to be cycling the Wakhan with Ignace and David, who were taking their time getting ready. While I waited I spoke with James, a motorcyclist, who gave us lots of information on the road ahead, which would turn out to be largely inaccurate.

After we left the Pamir lodge we first had to cycle the wrong way, into town to go to a shop and so Ignace and David could send postcards. It was almost midday when we left the town, cycling along a pretty good tarmac road. We were stopped at yet another checkpoint. After writing down our details the soldier checked our nationalities. “Belgia?” he asked Ignace, who was indeed from Belgium. “Italia?” he asked David, who confirmed it. “Belgia?” He asked me. I’m not from Belgium, so he had to have my passport back to write down the correct answer. To be fair, “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” is quite a complicated name. I told him I was from “Anglia,” England, which he wrote down. Close enough.

We continued to ride along the Afghan border, making the occasional unsuccessful attempt to throw stones to the other side of the river.

The kids here were still greeting us but they seemed to be more aggressive, trying to get us to stop. Some of them hit David’s bike with water bottles as he passed without high-fiving them.

Not long out of Khorog the road deteriorated to be mostly dirt and gravel. It was perfectly ridable, but not the tarmac we’d been assured of by James. At a second checkpoint, the soldier looked confused by my passport. “Germania?” he asked. The UK really could do with a simpler name.

We looked for a shop to stock up on water for camp, but the one marked on our map didn’t seem to exist. I asked a group of kids and a young girl took off at a run, showing us to a shop down a side street and fetching her sister to open up. The only drinks they had were cartons of cherry juice. We bought one each – it seemed rude not to after all that effort.

The whole village gathered round to watch

For camp, we stopped at a spring in a village before setting up our tents in a grassy area among some fields. We filtered the water but it tasted very metallic and had quite a fizz to it. In small amounts it wouldn’t be harmful but we resolved to replace it as soon as possible.

A farmer walked past our tents the next morning but didn’t seem to care in the slightest that we were there. We set off on a road that, apart from a small patch of sand through which we had to push, was mostly decent tarmac. We rolled along quickly towards Ishkashim, with reports of fresh bread spurring us on. Near the town we passed an Afghan border crossing, and the island in the river that used to house a weekly cross-border market.

Ignace returns to the road
Looking over to the island between Tajikistan and Afghanistan

We did indeed find fresh bread in Ishkashim and bought two huge pieces each. With the bread and some supplies from a shop, we continued on.

On the way into the town it was much greener with more trees than the often barren countryside

We passed a sign for an old fort which David and I went to explore. After walking a steep rocky path we could jus about see the foundations of what could once have been a fort. More impressive, though, were the views out over this fertile section of the Wakhan valley.

I was riding ahead when I saw that the river was the narrowest we had seen it. I clambered down some rocks to reach the river edge, collected some stones, and tried to reach the Afghan side. I was never a good throw and three years of cycling has done nothing for my upper body strength. It took many, many attempts but I finally hit the other shore, and followed it up with a couple more successful throws. I can now officially say I was a stone’s throw away from Afghanistan! When David and Ignace arrived they wanted to try too. Both managed it on the first attempt.

The photo makes it look easier than it is!

We visited an unusually well-stocked shop in the village of Shitkharv (they had crisps!). On the way out of town the tarmac ended, for what we thought would be the last time for a couple hundred kilometres. We rode along for a few more kilometres on a road that was now gravel.

When we saw what looked like a decent spot to camp, Ignace went to check it out. He said it was a good flat area, that had clearly been well-trodden by goats. We went over and set up camp. It was very windy and the ground soft so after setting up my own tent I fetched some big stones to prevent the others’ tents from flying away, which they were trying to do.

When clearing the ground under my tent, I found an interesting metal item. It was originally in a tubular shape but had been ripped apart by an explosion. My first thought was that it was part of a landmine. After doing some research it seems most likely these are casings from a 30mm shell. These would usually be fired by devices such as an autocannon. However, this would not lead to them being torn apart as they were here. Apparently, these shells are sometimes reconfigured, surrounded by shrapnel, and can then be detonated remotely, serving as an improvised explosive device. So, not to worry, it wasn’t a landmine under my tent – just an IED.

The item under my tent
We found several more in the area. Shoe for scale

July 7: 75km

July 8: 91km

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