Eggy burps

Tajikistan | Khorog - Kalaikhum - Kulob - Dushanbe | 5th to 28th November 2015 | 16,268km

Our bodies had held up well against the infamously nasty Tajik bad bacteria we’d been warned about. Every cyclist we met pre Pamirs had recalled, with a vacant stare, their own experiences of getting ill and in the mountain town of Khorog we too finally succumbed. A couple of days rest became a week spent quick walking between the freezing cold toilets and the little room we had at the mostly deserted Pamir Lodge. We were both suffering from a first bout of Guardia, one of the symptoms of which is undeniably eggy burps. Awesome.

On the final stretch to Dushanbe things became progressively more difficult as they have a habit of doing when we’re at our most exhausted. The stove packed up (dodgy Pamiri petrol), the road refused to improve and a westerly headwind roared. Flo fell off again after a blissfully unaware chid tricycled out in front of us and a particularly angry dog put a big gash in one of her panniers. She also made a very charitable but unintended donation to one village by losing her jacket, gloves and most devastatingly, a fresh dustbin lid sized naan we’d just been given from the back of her bike. Naturally a heavy rain came on later that day. 

We succumbed to a second breakfast stop after a record four minutes when offered chai at a military checkpoint. Two years in the army is mandatory here and we were ushered into a room full of baby faced (even by Luke’s standards) lads still in sleeping bags, Kalashnikovs on the floor next to them. We recognized the labelless tins of ‘fish’ that where knifed open and were served up alongside condensed milk and more naan, a breakfast of champions.

From Kalhaikhum, we were told that the Northern route to Dushanbe (shorter but higher) was a no go this late in the year, so weand we got stuck into the longer bit allegedly easier southern route, with the promise of some stretches of tarmac. There was some tarmac, which we had a good look at, riding head down into the driving wind and rain. Changing back into wet clothes the following morning, an opportunity presented itself in the form of 4 trucks parked outside the cafe we’d slept in. Even in the trucks 100km took over 8 hours as our trucking dream team stopped to pull comrades out of mud baths, fix endless mechanicals and sound their horns at everything. We hopped out at about 10pm just as they were breaking out tins of 8% alcohol energy drink and fumbled around in the dark pitching the tent. Camping wasn’t quite as cold and we could now bear changing out of cycling shorts before getting some kip, a victory for hygiene.

Finally on the run into the Tajik capital we experienced the most rarest of natural phenomenons, a Here Be Dragons tail wind! One of the silver linings of our delayed arrival was that we had the chance to stay with a cycle touring legend, Vero, who we had thought we would miss. She’s hosted hundreds of cyclists at her (mega swag) house for the last three years and, along with two extremely amiable Aussies Tim and Het, we were her last of this season. Probably the most shattered we’d been on the tour, we spent a week recovering, enjoying another bout of Guardia, eating crepes and enjoying the freedom of wearing less than 5 layers. Dushanbe marked a whole year of being away for us - 13 countries and over 16000km, updated map below.

We used what little energy we had to romp around the Uzbek, Turkmen and Azeri Embassies. Frustratingly, we can’t pass through Iran and so hatched a plan that would see us clear central Asia and make it to Georgia for Christmas. The Uzbek embassy was awful, seeming to relish creating panic and distress for it’s own citizens and caring very little about the fact they had lost our application. Next we had the avoid the direct stare of the Turkmen consul who would, if he was stroking a cat, have made an excellent bond villain. If the country described as the ‘North Korea of central Asia’ would grant us a 5 day transit visa, we could finally get the enormous Azeri consul man, who appeared to bathe in cologne, to give us another 5 day transit visa with which we could make it to Georgia. Easy.

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

Into the Pamirs

Kyrgyzstan + Tajikistan | Osh - Sary Tash - Karakul - Murghab | 15th to 26th October '15  | 15,146km

Neither of us are saying it, but we’re both thinking it - there’s a wolf in the tent. 

The Kyrgyz border guard was less interested in passport checking and much keener on telling us that the Pamirs were riddled with wolves, ‘much bigger than European ones’. We both tried to give appeasing nods, as though we were familiar with the European variety, and pointed determinedly at the dog bashing/bike propping stick Luke was now carrying. He was not impressed. Back in the tent, rigid with the irrational dread that noises you can’t see the origin of induces, we’re recalling the sizable paw prints we’d seen in the snow earlier that day. Mummified in every item of clothing we have we’re feeling particularly vulnerable and given our tent boasts the world's smallest awning, a quick calculation suggests we have approximately 30cm between our very cold heads and whatever is snuffling around out there. Self defense wise, our dog bashing stick is regrettably deployed on bike propping duty. If we were able to sneak past the intruder, who has now realized the food bag is veggie, really pissing him off, we might be able to acquire the dog bashing stick, switch it to wolf bashing mode, and fend him off, dressed like the Michelin man.

The laughable scene snaps us out of our half asleep state. Back in reality we realize firstly, how numb our toes have gone, and secondly that the wind has picked up - the rustling in the awning is much more likely to be the Morrison's bag we left out, catching the breeze. Still silent and unwilling to get out and actually check, but 95% sure that a wolf isn’t about to invade our personal space, we sinche up our sleeping bags even tighter try to get back to a more dreamless sleep. The next morning we’re passed by a Anglo American couple in a snazzy 4x4 who say is was -20° in Sary Tash last night, several hundred meters lower than where we’d pitching our tent, between the Kyrgyz and Tajik borders. We had been escorted for a good 15mins into no mans lands by an enormous anti wolf guard dog, the more likely owner of the footprints we’d seen no we come to think about it. As the 4x4 grinds up the switchbacks ahead of us, Luke gets a flat tyre. Bollocks. Tyre removal with hands that cold was not an option, so we push the last km up to the Tajik border post. ‘Not my problem’, was the first guards response. Mercifully, a second guard allowed us inside and talked loudly at us whilst we fixed the puncture, mainly on the topic of wolves.

Osh was hot. Men ate kebabs, played chess and drank chai. Young ‘uns kept the aging soviet amusement park in business and women seemed to do everything else. Unable to bare any more forewarning on how cold/windy/remote/rough the next few weeks would be we filled all available space with fresh things and then squashed them all by cramming in extra Snickers. Likely to be two of the last cyclists to do so this season, we finally began our assault on the Pamir Highway. Referred to as the roof of the world, the road was built by the Soviets to link up the most remote parts of their empire.

We made it an emphatic 32km before noticing we were being chased by some ominous clouds and were ushered inside by a man aggressively selling apples. His grand daughters restyled Flora’s hair, Luke was given apple peeling lessons and overnight, the pressure dropped. Having sweated out of Osh we woke up to a thick mist and the first snow of the season - we were going nowhere and weren’t arguing. 24hrs later we did leave, full winter riding spec donned and apples spilling from our pockets. After two days climbing up through the valley, practicing our inability to layer correctly, we were offered a yurt to sleep in. There was a bit of a family do on and three sheep had been slaughtered to celebrate, the entrails of which we would spend the night extremely close to. We learnt that once boiled, sheep ear can be generously sliced and forced upon new guests, and is best washed down with vodka. Up some significant switchbacks to the double headed 3615m Taldyk pass, we battled into a headwind before flying down into Sary Tash. We spent Flo’s birthday snowed into a spectacularly be-carpeted room along with another British cyclist called Dave. Together a dash to the local store was braved, for wine we could have used as toilet cleaner and a Morrison's bag full of chocolate. We inched out of town the following morning towards a wall of white and into the most camera battery draining scenery of the tour. We passed through Kyrgyz border control and entered no mans land under the escort of an enormous anti-wolf guard dog.

Arriving at Karakul in the dark we opted to try out a homestay. Our first full riding at high altitude and getting very well aquatinted with a Pamiri headwind meant the tri-carb dinner of bread with potato and noodle soup was just the ticket. In the flickering light of the one working bulb we double checked we still had all our toes and readied ourselves for an assault on Akbaital. At 4655m the following afternoon we were feeling smug at having made it along some of the most heinous corrugations known to man and up to the highest point of the tour with no pushing. The smugness was tempering quickly however as developing headaches and an increasingly overwhelming cold was taking over. As many cyclists have done before us, we knocked on the door of the only known (only existing), abandoned looking building a few hundred metres down the other side and, after a pause that felt much longer than it was, were ushered in. Flo curled up close to the stove and Luke read Black Beauty. Snapped a picture by the summit sign the next morning, all downhill to Penners from here, technically.

Number of wolf sightings: 0