Ascent into madness

“Tell them we aren’t moving unless they bring us a truck” Liz said in a hushed tone. We had been warned that the Tajik military like to pounce on tourists camping along the border with Afghanistan, but we had thus far avoided them. This was our final night on the Panj River and they had their work cut out. After an hour of arguing, without a common language, that it was too dark, dusty and dangerous to move, they spoke to their superiors and eventually left. Their parting warning mentioned that we would probably get grenaded and the guard with the gun gestured that if the Afghans started shooting at us, we should probably start cycling, despite the darkness. Needless to say, we slept soundly and undisturbed until awoken by a particularly noisy magpie.

The beginning of this leg of the journey, from the Tajik border with Uzbekistan to Khorog saw us camped on the border. Our Tajik visas didn’t start until the next morning and much to the amusement of everyone else crossing over, we set up our tent in the shadow of the Uzbek border guards. The past few weeks had been tinged with mild panic about getting to Dushanbe in time and starting to cycle the Pamir Highway. For months, people had warned us that we were cutting it fine. That we should have started in early September. Undeterred, we figured as long as we left Dushanbe by the end of the month, we would probably be ok. After two days of final preparations, plenty of pizza, beer and stories from all the travellers who had just cycled the other way, from Osh, it was time to pack up. We left the Greenhouse hostel in Dushanbe with our new friends Chris and Dea. They had elected to take the north road to Qal’ai Khumb and us the south. We stopped and ate lunch and after a mere 20km of cycling together, said our goodbyes in the hope that we would see each other where the roads converged at Qal’ai Khumb.

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On our first night, we camped in the shadow of a school, just below the crest of the first big hill. Awoken sharply by the bell, we were immediately summoned by the principal for tea and bread- the first of many acts of kindness we have experienced from strangers in Tajikistan.

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The next couple of days were full of rolling hills and incredible views- we camped in some of the most isolated and beautiful places I have ever seen and then stayed in probably the world’s worst hotel in the market town of Khulob.

I had picked up a chest infection along the road and we had a long day ahead of us- and the biggest climb so far, to Shurobod, where we would join the Panj Valley and cycle along the Afghan Border until we reached Khorog. The sun was beating down on us and I was falling sharply behind. The continuous steady gradient was now getting steeper and my ability to cycle was lessening by the mile- coughing so much that I had to get off and push. Having pushed my heavy bike for 15km, I had to admit defeat and sat sadly by the side of the road until a truck came along to bring me to the hotel at the top. Liz valiantly pushed on until it fell dark and she too had to hitch a ride. While I spent the next day in bed, recovering, Liz cycled back down to the point in which she stopped and completed the ascent that afternoon.

Feeling somewhat better the next morning- we descended rapidly and found ourselves right on the Tajik border with Afghanistan- an area that would continuously mesmerise us for the next 10 days. It’s a very strange feeling being so close to another country- so close that you could swim there- that you might never get to visit.

In the days that followed, we camped right on the river bank and looked across at people in villages, going about their daily lives, occasionally getting a wave and a shout. We were incredibly lucky with our route- although the south route is 100km longer than the north, it is in much better condition and we were delighted to meet up again with Chris and Dea upon arrival in Qal’ai Khumb where we would have a well deserved rest.

On what I thought would be our final day in Qal’ai Khumb, I messaged a friend enthusiastically saying I thought we would make Khorog in 3-4 days. 8 days later, we finally arrived. It’s pretty hard to predict timescales when you travel like this. Our adventurous plans were initially foiled when I accidentally left all my drying laundry in the rain. Determined to leave the following day, we were sidetracked by a group of fantastically fun Australians. They were driving across the Pamir Highway to China, celebrating one of their 60th birthdays. All avid travellers, they had plenty of stories to tell- such as hitchhiking the hippy trail in the 60s- and to our downfall, they also had a Jeep full of Scotch and Mongolia’s finest vodka. 3 days later than planned, we finally escaped.

The road out of Qal’ai Khumb was harder than expected. We were armed with pretty comprehensive and very helpful information from those ahead, but at times it felt frustratingly slow. Although we were gaining elevation, the constant undulating nature of the river valley was exhausting. As was navigating gravelly single track roads with a sheer cliff to one side and the ever-present threat of the death defying HGVs that ply the route barrelling around the bends.

Having just shaken my chest infection, climbing even minor hills left me gasping for air. On day three, we both hit a wall. We had planned to do about 70km that day-pretty conservative under normal conditions- but when neither of us had gotten close to our planned meeting spot for lunch by 3pm, we knew we were defeated. Liz was about about 5km ahead of me and at that point, I didn’t know if my legs could even pedal that far. I sat in the road and peered at the final hill ahead of me. I suddenly remembered a message a friend had sent me when I joked about getting lost on this trip. “Direction: forward. On the bike.” Despite how hard it was, that is all I had to do. And even though I was so exhausted, I could barely walk, I looked around and realised just how lucky I was to be surrounded by these incredible mountains and what a privilege it is to be able to travel like this.

I pushed on, slowly, and eventually found Liz curled up on a rock by the side of the road. I immediately curled up on my own rock and had a nap. Spurred on by the promise of a hotel in 1.3km, we ambled on, only to find an abandoned shed. 10km further down the road, we pitched our tents by the side of the road and having almost run out of food, had a very sorry dinner of congealed spaghetti and grated garlic, and retreated to our tents. All of our devices had simultaneously run out of battery, so we strung out the long evening by alternating the two novels I had brought with me.

The next morning, we awoke feeling glum and tired. We set off feeling stiff and sore and wondering what the hell we were doing cycling in Tajikistan, dreaming of trains to sunnier, flatter climes. After an hour on the road, something magical happened, I turned a corner, and suddenly the valley opened out in front of me. The road had become smooth and the river completely still and silent. I stopped for a break to take it all in and immediately my bad mood lifted, I felt less homesick, I no longer wanted to hitch a ride to the nearest airport and transport myself to anywhere else. I wanted to stay here forever. I wouldn’t swap this moment for anything.

Having agreed to meet Liz for lunch 15km down the road, I took in as much of the beautiful stillness as possible and pedalled on with a massive smile on my face. The easier roads continued through the next day, and we finally reached Khorog- a bit limpy, a bit exhausted, but happy in the knowledge that we have completed almost half of our adventure from Dushanbe to Osh.

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12 thoughts on “Ascent into madness

    1. Thank you for your kind words Adrian- it is a very beautiful part of the world and I feel very lucky to have this experience.

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  1. I enjoy your blog and photos, but there’s some white entitlement going on in this. The country you’ll “never get to visit” is embroiled in armed conflict and people are dying on the other side. The Tajik guards were trying to avoid an attack that would not have only put your lives in danger, but possibly theirs. Your kidnapping or killing could have exacerbated conflict. Glad this experience is changing your life. Perhaps consider how your travel plans affect other lives in the region. I’m curious how the Tajik guards would have responded to your stubbornness if you were dark skinned.

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    1. An unkind and unnecessary comment. Even if you think it, and I’m not necessarily disagreeing with all the content, it’s aimed at the wrong target. Have you ever cycled a mountain range? I think not…

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    2. Thank you for your comment- I do see your point. This is of course a light-hearted piece and I am sorry if it caused offence. We have carried out a lot of research into the safety of this part of Tajikistan and based on this information, plus the experience of many people who have travelled here, found it to be very safe. The demonisation of Afghanis by the military (who accosted us, two lone female travellers, after dark, heavily armed) seemed inappropriate in an area where there are so many cross border initiatives underway. The military seem to have been responding to propaganda and misinformation rather than reality. In this scenario- we did a risk assessment- the guards wanted us to pack up, in pitch black and cycle to the nearest town. The nearest town was 10km away and the unpaved, unlit road has heavy HGV traffic at night. We asked them for support in doing this and as they could not provide, we elected to stay there. In reality, they would not have allowed us to spend the night if it were a truly dangerous situation.

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  2. Thank you for sharing – my thoughts and prayers and with you, brave adventurers! What an amazing and mysterious part of the world.
    And take care of yourself Miranda: chest infections can linger 😦 Can you get hold of any peppermint / eucalyptus / bergamot / rosemary / lavender and a bowl of hot water to breathe some steam in? or some lemon to drink in hot water?

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  3. Thoroughly fabulous reporting on your epic journey. Photographs worthy of National Geographic!!! Slainte from Simon & Rosie back in old Cloonee by the sea.

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