Today was the Day of the Pass, the first time Nico and I had ever cycled above 4000 metres. First though, we had to get there! Aware that we had a tough day ahead, we rose before sunrise in numbing cold. My tyre is still inflated though, so the torchlight labour of the night before had not been in vain. We aimed to get to the bottom of the pass, about 35k away, as quickly as possible. It turned out not to be quick at all. It was a truly abominable road (so bad that it made me consider stripping Aktau -Beyneu of its title of Worst Road in the World). A steep climb out of the valley onto a spur, then along the spur to the bottom of the pass followed, and we made the military checkpoint at the bottom of the pass in time for lunch. By this point I was already exhausted, as close to hitting a wall as I have ever been. I was exhausted from manhandling my heavy bike through kilometre after kilometre of sand and shale. So it was lucky that when I caught up with Nick and James, they were waiting with coffee, porridge and noodles. We took a deep breath, and pushed on up the pass, another slow sandy struggle, making the summit around 4, where we met Gillian, a Scottish lady headed in the opposite direction. Warned by Kyrgyz border guards about wolves, she was carrying a bunch of the Pamiri shrub teresken, in case she needed to light a fire to ward them off! The satisfaction of having made the pass, at 4344 metres, was succeeded by the adrenalin rush of heading down an equally precipitous road on the other side of the pass. The surface was equally appalling, rocky and sandy in equal measure (at one point we have to push our bikes -downhill- through the sand!), before giving way to washboard, the bane of cyclists. Determined to join up with the (paved) Pamir Highway before the end of the day, we pushed on until last light. James and I kissed the asphalt, while Nico scouted out the only house in the valley. As night fell, we were welcomed into the warmth of the home of a couple of road workers, served ‘pamiri macaroni’, and given a couple of pillows. Having made a phone call home (it was the first time in days we had signal), I fell fast asleep.
So, the Wakhan. Was it worth it? It was certainly beautiful, with an astounding history to accompany it (it was the route taken by Marco Polo, through medieval Kingdom of Badakhshan, which straddled a valley which is today divided between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It was entirely different from the rest of the Pamirs, as you will see from the posts that follow. I’m glad to have seen it, but it was bloody tough, both mentally and physically. Would I recommend it to other cycle tourists? To a mountain biker carrying a light load, for sure. For fully loaded tourers…maybe take a jeep!
*** Altitude depicted with fingers due to lack of formal signage ***