As another mechanical problem renders your bike temporarily unusable, as the wheel needs truing or the pannier falls off and is left somewhere in your trail: short of breath, you must walk back hoping it hasn’t fallen in the river, listening to your own expletives echoed back to you from the valley walls. The road goes from potholed tarmac to a shingle beach; from corrugated gravel to deep sand, it grips your wheels as you try to clock a lethargic 2.5 km/hour. And with each level of diminishing road quality you reluctantly pray for the previous obstacle to progress instead of the current. We are pushing the bikes on the flat, witnessing the inability of the speedometer to register motion, this proof of our sluggish progress a far greater disturbance than any physical pain.
Broken spokes, ripped panniers, days of fifteen punctures, hub cracks and rim dents. We were cycling through the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, the most remote part of our journey so far. As a group of five we had tenfold more mechanical failures than a combined 22 months cycling through Europe and Central Asia. The stretch from Langar to Khargush made Paris-Roubaix look like a trip to Disneyland. At points only cycling on the grass to the side of the road made for a faster pace than walking.
Anyway, rant fully expunged. The upshot was that finally bike-death had arrived, and my relic on two wheels had something terminal. The free hub was broken: if I pushed the pedals the wheel would not rotate. Some components were in need of an appreciative toss on to a rubbish heap. It did, however, work intermittently; enough to get me over a 4344m pass and in to Alichur, the only sign of life in three days.
Alichur, a small collection of concrete blocks on the plateau, was seen as the great metropolis hub to our civilisation-starved eyes. Its dank and dim shop a bustling market selling foreign treasures (Snickers and CocaCola); its silent guest house a towering palace, offering warm tea and a fire.
My wheel had been working again for a further day, up until Murghab, the next and only big town in the Pamirs. As we left town it failed once more, and this time it seemed for good. I left my riding partners and returned to Murghab.
My aim had been Stockholm to China by bike. China was only 91km away from Murghab; a mere few pedal strokes away. My goal for the trip being the Chinese border I was unwilling to take a taxi any of the distance between start and finish and being so close I could walk that distance. After a brief attempt to borrow the mountain bike of a young local boy (hindered by my saying ‘500’ instead of ’50’ dollars in Russian), I set out on my own bike with a temporary fix hoping it wouldn’t break again, packed with enough food to walk the distance if needed. Murghab to the Chinese border and back, and I would have completed my goal.
The next two days were to be a mystery. No cycle tourists travelled this route as the border was only open to Tajiks or Chinese, and there were more than a few ill-conceived rumours that the road was of perfect quality. It was not. And what’s more the border post was closed for three days, so through traffic would be of no help. What followed was two days riding through the most remote landscape of my trip. An empty high altitude desert valley was going to lead me to the Chinese border with only a couple of scraps evidence of habitation: a lorry on its side and a lonesome yurt out in the valley floor, each of which I earmarked for potential wind-blocked camping spots on my return.
As I left Murghab the atmosphere changed. There was now nothing. Previously in the Pamirs there had been traffic every now and then to have some link to the town or village nearby, often stopping for some remarkably ordinary conversation. One jeep stopped us during a snowy descent, a white woman leaned out of the window, “Have you seen a metal panel?” she asked, and then drove on.
As I looked back a storm was following me: a wall of charcoal-grey, the wind picking up. But I was in luck, despite my disbelief I could see a building on the horizon. Entering these chai hanas (tea houses) in the distant desertlands you feel an instant affinity with whoever is running them. This brave humanoid living out here on the barren plateau has just saved you from riding through the storm or the discomfort of erecting your tent behind a big rock to see out the tempest that has been following you. I offer his son some raisins and order a pot of tea.
What joy erupts within me to see other people out here, where I have seen nothing for two hours. An absent map had become an absent landscape. Objects within this sphere can be seen 50km away as there is nothing until the eye meets the mountains on the landscape’s edge and being alone out here provoked those raw feelings so rarely felt in a densely populated modern world. For hours I pedalled on, expecting my bike to break, through the silence. I was saving my water for this three day expedition, the time it would take to walk the distance if my bike died and my lips were like crusting lava.
This emptiness was lunar, rocky and sparse, and I thought constantly about the food and water I had and whether it would last me three days. The bike held up though and I made good time. Just prior to the border was a large warehouse, prison-like in appearance and assumed to have nobody inside, so unused did it look. As I huddled down behind a verge and reheated some pasta I was shocked, and once again nourished, to see someone emerge from this building, the first human I had seen in little over four hours. A quick conversation told me he wanted me to sleep at their place, the prison. I gratefully accepted and was off again for the border to return before the next storm came in. I now had somewhere to sleep.
Another strange interaction awaited me at the Tajik side of the border, closed, which fenced a no man’s land between China and Tajikistan. Two soldiers waited outside a tiny border post brandishing their weapons behind the barbed fence. This fence stretched over the sand to two opposing bleak horizons. As I approached the border on foot (further bike trouble) the soldiers came out through the fence. Quite frankly they could have only been thinking ‘who is this lunatic?’ out here in this mountainous desert as a storm approaches walking his bicycle to a border that isn’t open and even if it were wouldn’t allow a non-local to pass through it. Needless to say I felt it was worth getting a wave in pretty sharpish and a ‘Salaam Alaikum’ (peace be with you) out in to the cold air. But I had made it, Stockholm to China by bike.
I slept in the building mentioned and was greeted with the local tradition of salty tea with butter melting in it. The inside was homely and the road-workers living there spent hours poring over my map, looking up their home village and seeing how far away the capital city was, somewhere they had never been. The next morning a goat turned up in the sidecar of a motorbike and soon met its maker while a tractor was being repaired. This area of Tajikistan is home to mostly Kirghiz people and three of them set about repairing the tractor’s engine while the men I had stayed with saw to the goat. This was life at the landscape’s edge.