The Pass to Kala-I-Khum

Day three out of Dushanbe was always going to be pretty tricky. Having chosen to take the route with almost no traffic to Kala-i-Khum, the reasons why the abundance of traffic that do cross Tajikistan do not take this road were about to become clear. By far the highest climb that I have ever done (though admittedly the Pyrenees are not known for their gret height) was just around the corner and I woke up ready to affront it. It took me nearly two hours to ride the 20km to the bottom which I had told myself I should reach before breakfast with the road most easily likened to a river bed most of the way. No longer even dotted with small remains of asphalt, large and small rocks team up to create a slippery obstacle course along most of the way!

As I sat enjoying more bread and honey contemplating the rise to come, a toothless old man surprised me from his house and ushered me in to a breakfast of every item of food they could possibly offer me. The generosity of the welcome was overwhelming as I realised he was really happy to see me eating some food and drinking some tea in his house. I was forced to eat all of the tough salted meat, no doubt as it was the most expensive item there which they wanted to treat me to but also, as he gestured, because it is pretty complicated to chew meat without teeth…

The orchard outside showed signs of how intensively they use every resource they have; fresh fruit filled the trees, drying fruit lined the floor and boiling pots were busy creating jam and compote while piles of apricot stones were being collected to later be roasted and enjoyed as appetisers. The winter here gets rough, I have been told up to four metres of snow, and intensive preparations are the only way for these locals to bear it in any sort of comfort.

As I affronted the climb, a helpful though ultimately demoralising soldier advised me I had 30km to the top. The extra 5km he forgot to tell me about nearly depressed me a few hours later! I started in the valley and slowly made my way up into the upper reaches of the mountains. The slippery road, along with the average gradient of 7%, made it incredibly hard work. When a 45kg bike is not travelling any faster than 6 or 7 km/hr, it is very hard to get grip on sandy surfaces and steer around larger rocks, resulting in many trips and subsequent loss of confidence. I tried to push myself on by reaching the next kilometre marker within ten minutes, not so often accomplished, rising ever higher until the streams stopped flowing in the valleys.

The views and satisfaction of climbing greatly opposed the difficulty of it and for every bend I reached, I would be rewarded with a new picture to take and a different angle on the scenery below. A kind collection of Tajiks driving up kindly stopped to give me a kilo of apples and a wheel sized loaf of bread which cheered me up a lot, until I finished it. Even going this slowly, my bike was suffering too: a link in my chain snapped, my flagpole holder broke and my handlebar grips loosened from gripping them so hard!

Finally, nine hours after I had started, with French rap blaring in my ears to get me through the last kilometres of blind switchbacks, I made it to the windy pass at 3253m and took a deep breath before getting out of the cold and heading down the other side. The descent was incredibly dramatic, and with less grip problems at high speed (and the sun setting quickly) I was able to get down as fast as the cars weaving down an incredible snaking road and working my brakes to their limit! My descent was only slowed by a police checkpoint and a 20m wide, 50cm deep river crossing, where it seems the Tajiks just forgot to build a bridge…

I reached Kala-I-Khum and other than a shrunken tent which was very difficult to put up (altitude? Cold? I don’t know…), fell into bed to recover from a difficult though beautiful 12 hour day of riding.

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