Final Chapters

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Bike death was upon us
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A fort on the Tajik side of the Panj river, in the distance are the mountains of Afghanistan
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Stopping for a drink in the Wakhan
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Bling
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Jonny: Made in Pamir
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The lunar views of the Wakhan
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Lunch in the valley, set up by guest houses en route
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The Marco Polo horns defend this house
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Langar, where we left the Wakhan valley and started to ascend on to the plateau
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View from the tent camping outside Langar
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Shepherds graze their sheep outside Langar, the last outpost of the Wakhan

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Pete is set against the Afghan Hindu Kush mountains
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Mountain roads

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Up and down we rode as the river thinned, running against us from the plateau
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Early morning camp
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Afghanistan lay so close at times, the other side of this river in this picture, that it was tempting to cross and touch its shores. The icy water and the lack of desire to treat it as a country to cross off some ‘list’ kept us at bay
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Reaching the palteau: The moonscape was upon us
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Khargush pass
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Khargush pass
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As we crested the peak snow started to fall
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Blizzard 
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Within minutes the sky cleared up

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The walking man in the distance here was wearing a full suit
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Self-timer gone wrong
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Over Khargush pass we finally could smell the great benefit of being near civilisation, and with it…tarmac
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We finally left the Wakhan valley and re-entered the Pamir highway with it’s luxurious tarmac
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Alichur

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Drunk on comfort in Alichur
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Alichur holds no prisoners
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Yurts housing the shepherds who grazed their livestock on top of these mountains

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Two boys collecting firewood on the outskirts of Murghab

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Early light in Murghab

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Leaving Murghab, shortly to find that my bike would suffer from a fatal injury: the free-hub was broken, which meant when turning the pedals the wheel would not turn
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The Boss: After visiting the Chinese border in Tajikistan, I had to use a taxi-jeep to transport myself and broken bike in to Kyrgyzstan
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Two kids push a third round in a wheelbarrow in Qarakul

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.

Free Fall

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The Internet connection I’m using can not do justice to the sheer natural beauty we’ve seen this week, photo opportunities too plentiful to count. Every turn of the road reveals another sight worthy of a few moments pause and a couple of breaths of heart-stopping awe. We are on the banks of the Panj river, Afghanistan’s steep rocky cliffs peering down upon us.

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Residential block on the outskirts of Dushanbe
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Bugsy Malone
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Life on the street
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Herding
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‘Swiss’ entrance to the mountains
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Storm above our camp
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Chai hana too good for some
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Shared pot of tea
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Lunch
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‘The Funeral March by Chopin is running through my ears’
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Puncture
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Unwanted attention for Pierre
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Dusk

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The confluence of two rivers leading in to the mountains

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Sunrise at the confluence
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Start of the first pass, time to embrace the ‘Northern Route’

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Schoolboys ask ‘what the hell are you doing?’ again
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Precipice drop
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Dave doesn’t hesitate through the river crossing

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Josh catches up after a couple of days delay in Dushanbe
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We were now something of a peloton
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Jonny

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Lunch stop
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A cup of green tea on the ascent
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When you have to camp on top of the pass due to a mistake in timing
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Breakfast on the roof

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The thumb-tearing descent

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First glimpses of the Afghan side of the river Panj
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Settlements on the Afghan shore
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The Panj cuts through the Pamirs on the left, and the Hindu Kush
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Frequent drops to the river

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A rare spot of tarmac
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View in to Afghanistan

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Laying dynamite: tunnel-building on the other side of the river

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The explosion
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Pete and Josh making ground
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Looking through the fortress gates of Afghanistan

We enter the Pamirs along the ‘Northern road’, infamous for it’s rocky track of a road and 3200m pass. If the government spent as much on the road as they do on billboards of their president they might have paved roads throughout the Pamirs. Alas, they did not and the road turned from tarmac to gravel to a bed of shingle stones. This at first seemed both frustrating and uncomfortable but in fact was a blessing in disguise, the challenge was laid out. Finally the Pamirs were here in full force and this mountain bike style terrain was both exciting and stimulating, thoughts of the straight and endless tarmac road of the desert left behind.

The most level part of the road happens to be that strip lining the precipice drop to the crashing waters below, your heart races as the smaller rocks your speeding tyres push aside tumble over the edge. “I have Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ playing in my head” Jonny exclaims as he rounds another bend in the road.
Josh, my riding partner since Istanbul, had stayed in Dushanbe to collect his Indian visa and I was now riding with another good friend, Pete, who had flown out to meet us in Dushanbe. The three of us had gone on our first tour together and had kept that tradition since. We were joined by Dave and Jonny, cyclists we met in Dushanbe.
Riding in to the mountains gave way instantly to lush green alpine valleys reminiscent of Switzerland; nighttime storms passing over our flimsy metal shelter at the side of the road and the gradual emergence of the red rock corridor lining the river, gorges cut by waterfalls, the road yielding to the occasional mountain stream.
After a couple of tough days in pursuit Josh joined us in time to throw ourselves over the pass. Rocky terrain dented our perseverance as well as our tyres and we made a sharp unplanned camp at the top of the pass as the sun dipped below the jagged horizon of white peaks, darkness fell, the few dots of light an imperceptible distance below in the valley were the only specks of civilisation made known to us. The only utterance upon this empty roof of silence the feral howling of gales swivelling through the ridges and slopes of the surrounding hills.
The morning delivered a steep rockfall-strewn descent of this pass, a feeling of free fall, plummeting through the crevasses and gorges trying to slow, to resist the pull of fun in the name of self-preservation. Blisters form on the hands as you cling to the brakes and handlebars, pulling your body back from the cascading drop of a waterfall at the track’s edge. This pass finally lead to the Panj, a river we follow until we met a village in the evening light.
From one near-death experience to the next, the villagers were in commotion as we stopped for some biscuits and kept motioning that there will be an explosion on the Afghan side of the river, they were building a road. They motioned to us to move further up their road, I am told that a tree will be sufficient cover and wait there.
With all the villagers seeking refuge 100m up the road the explosions start, bigger clouds of dust propelled in to the air, louder booms echoing from the valley walls and greater masses of rocks erupting from the dynamite base until they are raining upon us. I jump under said tree and then run up the road with a panicked Pete and Josh who also stayed behind to take photos. All the village laugh through shocked Russian statements then continue on their way, brushing the fallen smashed rocks aside.
Boy shepherds wave on the Afghan side of the river, they are closer than my own riding partners, but sadly more than a river separates us, recent conflicts provoked Russian and other Stan countries to send troops to Tajikistan, we passed a tank with it’s gun aimed over the river.

The distant feeling for those we saw on that side of the river was palpable: this diverse and fascinating country, eternally a natural fortress to history’s great empires, only metres away and yet it’s wonders obscured by the reputation of the Taliban and closed borders along the river. People raced the dirt track on motorbikes and played football by the river, clearly vibrant, if less developed than it’s Tajik counterparts. Afghanistan’s castellated majesty clear,  the opposite shore of the river lined by sheer bouldered walls interspersed with villages made of stone-lined animal pens and stone huts, dwellings that merge with the great shards of rock behind them.

I’ve been on the road nearly five months, and the trip is starting to take it’s toll. The miles tick by. The constant transience of places and people; the feeling of a need to work (in the traditional sense); spending ten hours per day among the sounds of traffic on the roadside; the repetitive questions that are answered sometimes twenty times per day. But small things make up for it. Waking to the sound of the fierce rushing of the river you swam in the night before, falling asleep to the stars shining brightly above; the birds wake with you and sing in to the morning from their perches below the shelves of rock soaring above us, and no matter how many times you’re asked where you’re from those features don’t change.