The Wakhan

Tajikistan | Murghab - Langar - Ishkashim - Khorog | 27th October to 4th November ’15 | 15,660km

We're sat eating a warm naan and hard boiled eggs that haven’t yet totally thawed out from the night before, wondering what the contents of a labelless Tajik military issue food tin we’ve just been given might contain. In front of us is the Panj river and on the other side of that is Afghanistan. A country we’ve grown up hearing so much about is now only a stones throw away, if Flora is doing the throwing that is.

Before leaving we’d stocked up on what little we could get our hands on at Murghab’s shipping container bazaar. The biscuit shop lady didn’t bat an eyelid when we motioned of a kilogram of her chocolatiest ones each. We were now riding towards a left turn that would take us off the M41 and due south briefly, up and over a final 4000+m pass and down into the Wakhan valley. The remote dirt road is infamous in cycling circles for it’s rim shattering, fork snapping roughness as it traces the Tajik-Afghan border through to Khorog. The Wakhan corridor, a mountainous sliver of north eastern Afghanistan, we learnt, was a Great Game creation established as a buffer between British India to the south and the Russian Empire to the North.

Having inched over an icy Kargush pass from our lakeside camp spot we began a rattling descent to an abandoned village and a deserted military checkpoint. To our left we spotted a chap legging it across the valley towards us, rifle bouncing on his back. He reached us out of breath but grinning and asked expectantly if we had any cigarettes or vodka. He wasn't interested in biscuits. Reinforcements arrived (with the fresh naan and miscellaneous tin) and passports were handed over for scrutinizing. As per, we fell foul of the no picture taking rule and were motioned over to the office. ‘The light is better over here!’ the senior officer explained, pulling us into prime picture taking position. Deliriously excited at the prospect of fresh bread we stopped for second breakfast just around the corner and sat gazing across the river. The tin contained something that at one point may have been a kind of fish, we think.

We passed two cyclists the following morning, Alexi from Belarus and Julie from France, who chucked us an apple each, a sign that civilization wasn’t too far away. The rest of that day was spent trying not to fall off in the sand or from staring too long at the lines of Afghan camel caravans picking their way along precarious tracks on the other side of the river. Where are they going? As we dropped further down the valley the clouds parted to reveal the sharp snowy 8000m peaks of the formidable Hindu Kush. A couple of young lads leading firewood laden donkeys asked if we had any khleb, bread, which we did. We ratched out our last one and even put it in a Morries bag we had spare. The oldest one grabbed the package, stuffed the bread in his pants and lobbed the bag into the the most beautiful valley we’d ever seen. Fire wood is at a premium throughout the high Pamirs. The collapse of the Soviet Union lead to the fuel supply being cut off and most houses have a ripped out rusty tank close by as a reminder.

We’ll remember the hospitality across central Asia fondly, but the inhabitants of the Wakhan, passionately Pamiri as opposed to Tajik, were a level above. Even if it was little harrowing to be force fed plov and interrogated on the vital stats of the fictional children we felt the need to have, it was equally enchanting to be welcomed without question into a warm, smoky room and the smiling faces of three or four generations of one family. Sleeping space is communal and a bed will be conjured from a pile of Kurphaca, a thin colourful mattresses. More Kurphaca are laid on top, fixing you firmly in position for the night. Having camped since Murghab and reaching the limits of what a wet wipe wash can achieve we gratefully accepted the offer of a night with a fiscaltura, PE, teacher and his family in Langer. As usual, we were very much his guests, and when he wasn’t there the eldest son took over, refilling Chai bowls the second we’d drained them and passing them back, one hand to his chest. We still find it a little frustrating that the women seem to do all the cooking and serving, but rarely sit with us. The Pamiri people revere bread to the extent that they make sure to pick up every crumb after a meal and would never allow a bread to be placed upside down. Something, we’re told, to do with it being the food that kept them alive during the civil war.

Gradually losing altitude poplar trees reappeared, as did autumnal colours, with persimmon and pomegranates growing road side. Rosey cheeked kids chaperoned donkeys, turkeys and goats, waved and shouted hellos and whatisyournames. One kid took us by surprise by shouting ‘fuck you!’, with a huge smile on his face and a big wave, bless him. Tired bodies and battered bikes meant we struggled to top 50km a day through the Wakhan. After accepting another offer of a place to stay we found ourselves being marched up a steep hill to a local wedding venue. The whole village was crammed into the traditional square interior of the groom’s house and the keyboardist was warming the crowd up. Loading up on fruit juice and a third helping of plov to dance the Pamiri two step in 5 day old padded shorts constituted our biggest night out in ages.

After the volatile weather and wilderness of the previous week we found the Wakhan very peaceful, but later read reports of Taliban fighting less than 25km away on the Afghan side. We also learnt, from an admittedly slightly out of date, guide book that that border we had ridden along was where more than a ton of hash and opium was/is smuggled across every day, heading for Europe and Russia. Apart from the odd army foot patrol, you wouldn’t know.

Days without a shower: 13