Wakhan again

After a fairly poor nights sleep, thanks to strong winds, we continued along the gravel road, making gradual progress eastward through the Wakhan valley. The tailwind continued to push us along. We knew that after today we would be spending a couple of days without shops so we were eager to find somewhere to buy food. In the villages we passed, though, the shops were poorly stocked or closed, as is normal or Tajikistan. One larger village had two shops which threatened to send us to an infinite loop as each shopkeeper directed us to the other for bread. We left empty handed.

We had expected there to be no more tarmac today but to our surprise several villages had paved roads. The rest of the day was gravel which was ridable with the exception of a couple patches of sand where we had to push.

The road…
This well trodden dirt path was far better than the road

We stopped at a shop in a small village and picked up some cold cokes, a frequent indulgence on these hot days. We asked the woman there if she had bread and she gave us some from her own table, refusing to take payment. Not to be outdone, a neighbour sent his daughter running to get us some bread from his house as well. While we waited he chatted away in a combination of Russian and the local Pamiri language, seemingly unconcerned that we understood not a word.

The next shop marked on our map was called “big shop” but we tempered our expectations. It was a little better than the other shops and Ignace and David stocked up on food to cook while I bought some biscuits to go with my peanut butter stash. We had to wait to pay as the local fruit truck was making a delivery. The village kids were running back and forth carrying watermelons from the truck to the shop. Once that was done we paid up and continued cycling.

Langar was the last village of the day, and indeed for the next couple of days. David got a jar of chocolate paste from a shop while a local man sold us some bread from his home. We now had all the food we were going to get and so we set off for the upcoming remote section.

Right out of Langar the climb began with a very steep and often sandy set of switchbacks. We rode up just about at our limit. I was regretting the choice of a 28-tooth small chainring: lower gears would make this a lot easier. We stopped at the top of the switchbacks for some photos.

The climb continued for quite a while. During a sandy section I lost traction and put a foot down to stabilise. Trying to start again in the sand just sent my wheel spinning and I had to push for a few metres to find somewhere stable to start from. Other than that it was sometimes challenging but ridable.

On the flat, slow, poorly surfaced road there hadn’t been too much difference in our cycling speeds. Now that we were getting to a sustained climb though the benefits of my lightweight really showed and I took a few longer breaks to let the others catch up. At one such break, at a spring, I chatted to a local shepherd, almost entirely through mime. He asked which way I was going, then indicated there would be a lot of climbing. He thought I should get a lift but I insisted I would be cycling. He jokingly suggested I take a short cut of riding directly over the mountains. I pretended to consider the almost sheer valley wall before deciding to stick to the road.

We cycled on a while further until we saw a large flat area next to the road where we could camp. David and I camped in a small hole that provided some wind shelter while Ignace opted for a more exposed spot with better views.

We agreed to meet at a river marked on our maps, 11km away from where we’d camped. This was the most challenging part of the day as there were lots of steep, poorly surfaced sections. Once I made it to the river I filtered some water and had a wash while I waited for Ignace and David.

After they’d arrived and had a break, we set off again toward another river. When I got there a group of kids came to stare at me. They did so for about ten minutes until David arrived, at which point they stated at him instead. This staring can be a bit irritating so we cycled on a little while further to have a food break.

Resting in the shade of some dilapidated machinery

From here our next target was a cafe marked on the map about 20km away. The road descended for a while then climbed gradually beside a river. One would expect this to be a fairly easy ride, then. Not so. A layer of sand coated the washboard road. As I bounced between the corrugations my wheel would slide and spin wildly. Eventually we made it there but the cafe was a little way from the road and we thought it would probably be closed, so we stopped at a nearby river instead.

Khargash was our goal for the day, another 19km or so. The road surface continued to be atrocious and we rode slowly. There was a short steep climb which then opened up to a flat desert. The road here was the worst of all, deep sand that we could barely ride in with lots of washboard. Eventually there was an alternative route where some cars had left the road and just driven through the desert. The ground here was hard and smooth and I was able to ride fast for the first time in ages. Another short climb brought me to the checkpoint.

The road got very sandy with serious washboard. Often it was better to write in the desert rather than the road.

The soldiers manning the checkpoint were a few minutes walk away at the nearby military compound. I had some food and informed the soldiers when they arrived that two more cyclists were coming. They caught up and our details were entered in yet another logbook.

We had heard there was a shelter here and asked the soldiers. They said yes but then walked away and we were left guessing. There was a sort of bus stop but it was too exposed and we decided to continue on a short distance to camp by a river. We were now at an elevation of about 3950m.

From Khargash we made our final push to the pass, heading away from the Afghan border for the first time in over a week. The road climbed reasonably consistently and with a better surface than yesterday albeit still with a layer of sand. After 7km we’d gained 350 metres of elevation and the road levelled out as we rode alongside a lake.

The weather had changed drastically during the climb. To begin with it was very sunny and I was sweating profusely. Then a cloud obscured the sun, the temperature dropped, and a brisk headwind cooled me right down. When I stopped to wait for the others I had to put on some cold weather gear. There were even some flakes of snow!

A short climb brought us to the pass though it was rather anticlimactic for a climb that we had spent so many days on. It wasn’t really clear where the actual highest point was so we took some photos from a random spot and began to descend, heading for the Pamir Highway 20km away, where we were looking forward to riding on tarmac again.

To begin the road descended steeply with a decent surface. That lasted a couple kilometres before it levelled out and the surface was back to the horrible sandy washboard we’d grown accustomed to. It took a couple hours but eventually we reached the tarmac. We were all very glad for the smooth road, and proud to have completed the challenging Wakhan valley.

There were a few hills along the next section but I was enjoying the opportunity to ride at speed again. I rode on ahead to the village of Alichur which had the first shop we’d seen in a couple of days. As usual in Tajikistan it was disappointing but we bought some biscuits and pumped some water from the village well before setting off again.

The rest of the day took place in a wide, flat valley. Despite a fairly strong headwind we were going much faster than we had for ages. There were no secluded areas to camp so we just set up the tents in the dirt a few metres from the road.

July 9: 67km

July 10: 60km

July 11: 83km

2 thoughts on “Wakhan again

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