Across the border

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

From the little homestay in no-mans-land it was just 30km downhill to the village of Sary-Tash which sits at a junction connecting China, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The dirt road followed a deep chasm between the tall, red mountains.

Frozen hands and toes curbed my ability to appreciate the striking, rainbow-hued landscape and we stopped so I could put on a pair of Jack’s socks over my own.

At the Kyrgyzstan border a young guard inspected our passports and exclaimed with delight that he and Jack shared the same birthday.

We rolled easily over the smooth tarmac away from the Pamirs, across grassland in shades of green far from the grey hues we’d got used to and into the little town tucked against red hills.

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

After a meal of plov and manty, (rice and meat pilaf and cabbage dumplings), a welcome change from oily noodle soup, we wandered to the grocery store.

A girl no older than eight manned the shop, confirming prices in shouts to her mother as she weighed our apples and chocolate.

Jack asked a nip from the half-full bottle of whisky sitting on the counter. The child poured him one with a routine efficiency that indicated this was a standard request from grocery shoppers.

Main street, Sary Tash. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Main street, Sary Tash. PHOTO: JACK EWING

The outstanding hospitality of the preceding days stopped abruptly at Sary Tash.

Our host explained she had to leave for her grandfather’s funeral, or so we interpreted from her violent lynching motion.

We’d been looking forward to a shower and were assured her husband would gather the water.

The husband seemed uninterested in helping with any tasks, slumped at the kitchen table engrossed in his phone while his wife hurriedly showed me where the bread and coffee were so we could make our own breakfast in the morning.

So we took the large aluminum keg propped against the front of the house and wheeled it the 500m to the river.

The river was freezing and the keg an unwieldy, awkward vessel that splashed a fair bit of the water out on the trip back as we weaved through sheep and cows being herded along the main street.

Jack and our Austrian friend Wolfgang with our shower water

Jack and our Austrian friend Wolfgang with our shower water

Nonetheless, it was enough to fill the drum fitted with a showerhead in the outhouse. We flicked the switch to heat it up - a process we were told would take 30 minutes.

Effort vs reward

Effort vs reward

After about 35 minutes I turned on the shower. It was barely tepid. I relinquished plans to wash my hair and settled for a swift, shivering splash-down.

Jack went about 20 minutes later and by then the entire drum was scalding.

The following morning brought a rude surprise in the form of a steep, 700m climb out of Sary Tash that was, of course, accompanied by a headwind.

Near the top, I heard tooting behind me and ignored it because I was already cycling in the shoulder and there was plenty of space for the truck driver to pass.

It was only when Jack shouted a warning that I turned to discover the truck bearing down on me with its cargo of hay, protruding about 2m out each side, about to plough me down.

I skidded off the road in a fit of swear words.

The other side of the pass descended in a long set of switchbacks which were great fun until the headwind returned and we were pedaling hard to keep going down a 10% gradient.

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

Entering rainbow country. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Entering rainbow country. PHOTO: JACK EWING

The landscape changed dramatically into a feast of autumn hues, brick red cliffs and towering granite. In the pasture below were people on horseback herding mobs of livestock. It felt like we’d cycled into an old Western.

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

We crossed a rickety walking bridge to find somewhere to camp away from the road. A marshy patch of grass too close to the river seemed like the best option until Jack scuttled along the cliff side, following animal tracks to where he found a secluded spot hidden from the road.

Enjoying Jack’s invention - cheese and condensed milk on bread

Enjoying Jack’s invention - cheese and condensed milk on bread

In the morning the telltale clacking of a donkey signaled that we’d camped in the middle of a fairly busy thoroughfare, but the few people who weaved around our tents greeted us cordially.

Donkey highway. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Donkey highway. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, was 129km away but beers and burgers beckoned. We decided it was doable in a day.

Unfortunately there was a mountain pass we hadn’t accounted for, a small one at 2402m, but it required 600m of climbing.

That might’ve been fine had we not cretinously opted for a “shortcut” that took us off the easy tarseal switchbacks and onto a near-vertical ridgeline of slippery, exposed dirt.

It was 5km to the top of the pass following the road, while the shortcut was just 2.8km.

Logic and basic mathematics would dictate that such a discrepancy in distance to the same destination would require the difference to be made up by a steep climb. Unfortunately this only occured to us halfway up.

The gradient was too steep and the loose stony clay too unstable to even push our bikes so we resorted to carrying our panniers to the top then pushing the bikes up.

Sweating, breathless and arms and calves turned to putty we resolved never again to take “shortcuts” that must’ve been added to Maps.me by some sort of sadist.

 From the top of Chyrchyk Pass it was mostly downhill until we reached the outskirts of Osh, where erratic driving, loud tooting and exhaust fumes greeted us.

Time for a beer and, as it turned out, two steaks, two fries, one large pizza and four desserts… All gloriously guilt-free.

Plateau panic and an unexpected reunion

A view of Lake Karakul and a yak carcass. PHOTO: JACK EWING

A view of Lake Karakul and a yak carcass. PHOTO: JACK EWING

It was a couple of minutes after lunch, when we were back on the road struggling into the headwind, that I felt a trickle of panic.

We’d been riding for several hours after leaving Lake Karakul; the gradients of each climb getting progressively steeper and the wind’s chill growing harsher.

Too cold to remove the helmet. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Too cold to remove the helmet. PHOTO: JACK EWING

For lunch we scrambled into a culvert, the only shelter from the gale, and sat on the edge of a stream eating stale bread with the last of our Pic’s peanut butter.

We shared a sweet apple I’d bought back in Murghab; a fresh, precious rarity in the land of grocery stores stocked only with biscuits and tins.

It was too cold to bother with getting the stove out.

Steeper than it looks. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Steeper than it looks. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Around the corner from our lunch spot I stopped to pull on my over trousers and merino gloves, and to adjust my buff so there were no gaps between it, my helmet and my jacket hood for the biting cold to enter.

The panic crept up in a voice that whispered, “you’re already quite cold, what happens if you get more cold? There’s nowhere to go but forward, and it’s very slow-going in this headwind.”

The voice continued to commentate the landscape around us – a vast plateau, desolate and speckled with some big rocks but nothing that would provide adequate shelter from the wind.

Mean-looking mountains with an icy sheen dominated the skyline.

The voice reminded me of the cautionary words from a motorbike rider we’d met earlier, that there were snow flurries in the forecast.

“We can’t be on this plateau if it snows, it’s too windy to pitch the tents, and if a gust snatches your glove or fleece as you struggle into it there’s no way you’re getting it back,” the voice carried on.

Such realisations of your own vulnerability are part of the excitement of bicycle touring in remote places.

It’s the thrill of complete self-reliance; the knowledge that the gear you’re carrying and your wits are your only defence against the wilderness.

It can be a little overwhelming when you’re cold though.

I silenced the voice and focused on each downward pedal.

By now the wind was brutally strong, keeping us at a pace of 4-5km/h on the gravelly road.

To make matters exponentially worse I’d picked up a new bug after I’d finally killed off the parasite, and it made its presence felt several times on that exposed alpine plateau.

Jack waited, hunched against the wind as I stopped, each time returning to my bike feeling weaker and more demoralised.

Compounding the mental strain was the fact we could see the last climb off the plateau for hours before we actually reached it, a constant reminder that after the marathon was a final, gruelling sprint.

Digging deep into my reserves of willpower I ground my way up the 5km of switchbacks to the border with Kyrgyzstan.

Entering the checkpoint hut we were met with a familiar face – the guy who’d stumbled drunk into our room at a guesthouse a couple of days before was the border guard stamping documents. “You were at our guesthouse,” I told him cheerily, although his sheepish expression would indicate he didn’t need reminding.

An Austrian couple we’d met in Khorog were there, and they’d been allowed to stay in the guards’ quarters that night on account of Sabrina’s nasty cold.

We asked if we could pitch our tent behind one of the buildings to avoid climbing the last stretch to the pass in the falling darkness.

But the guards’ empathy for cyclists had its limits and we were told, “it’s only 2km to the top”.

Exasperated but too tired to explain that 2km and 80m elevation would take us half an hour in the headwind, we set off again.

Kyzylart Pass, 4280m. PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

Kyzylart Pass, 4280m. PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

The stone statue of a haughty-looking Ibex marking the summit was a glorious sight.

Triumph. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Triumph. PHOTO: JACK EWING

We rode down from the pass freezing but triumphant, our tires grinding over Kyrgyzstan’s distinctive red earth.

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

A ramshackle structure at the base of the valley greeted us with the word “Homestay” scrawled across it in paint.

We wondered at how a couple barely beyond their teens ended up living in this cold valley in the no man’s land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

We wondered at how a couple barely beyond their teens ended up living in this cold valley in the no man’s land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

In one small room with a stove lived a couple who can’t have been older than 22 and their two children, while a larger room was piled with bedding for guests.

We shared the space with two Polish cyclists and a Russian couple whose car had broken down, eating noodle soup prepared by the young mother.

To our delight, one of the Poles produced a block of Dutch dark chocolate.

Resting my head on a pillow that smelled faintly of hay and cooking, cosy from the heat of the stove, the despair on that stark plateau already felt distant.

The next day’s downhill awaits. PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

The next day’s downhill awaits. PHOTO: ISOBEL EWING

A new foe

PHOTO: JACK EWING

PHOTO: JACK EWING

The town of Murghab spelled the end of our tailwind and our introduction to its evil twin.

I’m not sure it’s possible to convey the repugnance of a headwind to a non-cyclist.

A grating, constant adversary intent on making every pedal push half as efficient.

Your grip on the handlebars tightens to keep the front wheel from being tossed off course, or in a couple of cases for me, down a steep bank.

I find headwinds unearth all my irritations and meld them into an internal monologue of resentment that swirls around inside my head as I ride.

Even the joy of cycling through a spectacular landscape can be fouled by a headwind, particularly when it reaches 25km/h.

Leaving Murghab. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Leaving Murghab. PHOTO: JACK EWING

We climbed out of Murghab past mountains streaked with pigment as if drizzled with oil, through barren valleys of nothing but far-off herds mustered by lone shepherds.

The climb was barely discernible until the headwind picked up.

We ate lunch of pasta and the tinned fish we’d finally been brave enough to buy, and it surprised us with its inoffensiveness.

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As we ate a clattering sound broke the silence, growing louder until two donkeys appeared over a rise, galloping past us and down the road with the panic and urgency of two prison escapees.

A fence appeared 400m to our right, conspicuous in its artificiality, and we realised it was the border with China.

The last 15km was brutal as the thinning air made the slow climb against the wind more and more arduous.

We took turns leading a weary peloton.

A patch of grass hidden from the road and wind was a welcome sight to set up camp.

It was utterly quiet, nothing but us and the mountains, even the wind that’d plagued us was muted in the small, stony hollow where we pitched our tents.

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Toilet trips outside the tent that night were preceded by a nervous scan of the darkness with the head torch before a hasty scuttle in and out. Thankfully no wolves came to visit.

It was the coldest night we’ve camped – Jack cooked dinner in his sleeping bag while I sat in my tent inside mine and wearing every layer I have. Our water froze in our drink bottles overnight.

PHOTO: JACK EWING

PHOTO: JACK EWING

The following morning it was just 7km to the top of the M41’s highest pass - the Ak Baital.

On the way up I acquired some children, who were shuffled into a picture with us by some passing Russian tourists, who then doled out chocolates. Handing out candy to children here seems customary tourist behaviour but it doesn’t sit well with me. We’ve seen so many young kids whose baby teeth are already brown stumps.

A nice but awfully framed photo by one of the Russian tourists

A nice but awfully framed photo by one of the Russian tourists

A puff of Jack’s inhaler and a shared Snickers bar pushed us up the final, sharp incline to the 4655m summit.

Once there, a Polish man insisted on taking our picture, hopping around to provide multiple angles while his family grumbled from the car as the chilly air whistled in the open driver’s door.

The Polish man did well

The Polish man did well

A long downhill and miles of corrugation followed, my hands froze to the handlebars and the wind appeared to adjust its direction to the bends in the road so it was constantly in our faces.

We cooked lunch among some abandoned buildings flecked with bullet-sized holes, trying to hide from the gusts.

PHOTO: JACK EWING

PHOTO: JACK EWING

It was a relief to finally glimpse Karakul lake glinting across the brown plains.

PHOTO: JACK EWING

PHOTO: JACK EWING

Having its origin in a meteorite impact millions of years ago, Karakul translates to “black lake” but it’s actually a brilliant blue.

Although the name doesn’t fit in a literal sense, the cold, vast body of water in the parched landscape does have an unfriendly presence; a shimmering beauty to be admired from afar. No one goes near it.

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Just one species of fish, a stone loach, lives in it and is inedible.

A softly-spoken young woman welcomed us to her guesthouse and showed us into a room with brightly coloured bedspreads, made cosy by the heat of a furnace.

Our little homestay, a haven to arrive at after the cold of the mountains. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Our little homestay, a haven to arrive at after the cold of the mountains. PHOTO: JACK EWING

She prepared for us a traditional “banya” – a Russian type sauna in a mudbrick outhouse with a dirt floor. A drum of water is heated by burning animal dung and you pour steaming buckets over yourself, safely enclosed from the cold outside.

Dining room of my dreams. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Dining room of my dreams. PHOTO: JACK EWING

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Karakul is pretty in an austere way, the houses all white with window frames painted blue. But it is a harsh place. It’s no surprise the annual rainfall is 30mm, vegetation is minimal.

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We leave town along a long straight with the lake to our left and peaks rising to 6000m at our backs.

Turning to the north we are rejoined by our new foe, icy, and stronger than yesterday.

We sigh, tuck our heads down and pedal.

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Elation and terror

I’ve found it’s common with cycle touring to experience two completely opposing emotions within one day, several hours or even thirty minutes.

On this particular day it was elation and terror.

The elation began early when we hit tarmac after hundreds of kilometres of bone-juddering road surfaces in the Wakhan Valley.

Within a few kilometres back on the M41 we passed Lake Sasykkul, a brilliant sapphire in the arid landscape

Within a few kilometres back on the M41 we passed Lake Sasykkul, a brilliant sapphire in the arid landscape

It was enhanced by the tailwind that meant the 30km to Alichur sailed by effortlessly.

In Alichur we stocked up on eggs, thinking we’d boil them in advance for dinner that evening because the next town (Murghab) was still 103km away and we assumed we’d be camping.

As we huddled against the cold wind next to the town well, our eggs bubbling away, a kind woman approached and invited us for lunch.

The combined warmth of her kitchen and soup, as well as fresh bread, yoghurt and the first veggies we’d seen in days boosted our spirits for the ride ahead.

Alichur - a scattering of houses on a high plain pummeled by icy blasts that sent the dust billowing. Water is only accessible from a 50m well, the only shop stocked with eggs, sweets, noodles and some canned goods.

Alichur - a scattering of houses on a high plain pummeled by icy blasts that sent the dust billowing. Water is only accessible from a 50m well, the only shop stocked with eggs, sweets, noodles and some canned goods.

When we returned to the road the tailwind had, if anything, increased.

We headed north, our legs barely contributing to the 30km/h pace on the smooth road.

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A wave of confidence engulfed us: At this speed we could make it to Murghab! 130km in a day felt achievable, a doddle even. For comparison, we averaged about 40km a day in the Wakhan.

Over the last week our gaze had been glued to the road scanning for the best line through the rocks and corrugations, but the sealed surface freed us to take in the dramatic landscape.

Much more vigilance was required while riding in the Wakhan Valley. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Much more vigilance was required while riding in the Wakhan Valley. PHOTO: JACK EWING

No herds or rough road surfaces here to inhibit gazing at the mountains

No herds or rough road surfaces here to inhibit gazing at the mountains

Scorched plains stretched for miles to where they met the foothills of colossal mountains.

This was the famed Pamir Highway; the second highest highway in the world, the “roof of the world” - a truly harsh and unforgiving place that breathes a sort of tranquil spirituality.

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As the afternoon light shifted, casting the mountains in jagged shadow and celestial light we began to descend.

Red, brown and burnt orange spires towered above.

The solitary moon hung pale in the sky.

Our elation first began to waver with about 40km still to ride.

Darkness and cold was creeping into the valley, tingeing the landscape’s beauty with a quiet reminder of its hostility.

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We pedaled faster, past two cyclists setting up camp, past a lone dog in the middle of the road, past an abandoned village, up a sharp hill that we hadn’t noticed on the elevation profile.

The heels of my hands were beginning to ache, as were my sit bones.

We turned a corner and there - far in the distance were the flickering lights of Murghab. It was still 10km away but the sight of it was so heartening, we had almost pulled this off!

It was almost completely dark so we stopped to put our head torches on, a fairly futile exercise, as the small circle of light is enough to see the road a few metres ahead, but by the time you spot a pothole you’re on top of it.

We reached the military checkpoint 5km from town and Jack handed the guy our documents.

Given the nod to go Jack began walking back to me when the soldier called him back.

I saw the exchange but couldn’t make out the words, and when Jack came over I asked what he’d said.

“You don’t want to know,” he replied uneasily.

He’d said “wolf” holding two fingers upright behind his ears.

What a dick move to tell us that, I thought. What was he suggesting we do? We still needed to cycle to town and he didn’t invite us inside or offer us a ride.

We set off again, the darkness outside of our tiny torch beams suddenly far more menacing.

Two minutes later two noises, equally terrifying exploded from the gloom.

An awful, savage baying split the air then seconds later a scream of terror so visceral I thought Jack had been torn down off his bike.

Jack would later tell me that the scream seemed not to come from his body, an involuntary reaction to a primal threat.

I turned back and the wolf’s immense form and open jaws were metres from my bike, its silvery grey coat shining white in my torch beam.

Time slowed down then sped up as Jack yelled “GO GO GO GO GO GO” and I pedaled the hardest I ever have while both of us bellowed at the top of our lungs.

I didn’t look back but Jack did several times and said the wolf chased us for between 50 and 100m before falling back into the night.

It was the first time in my life I’ve genuinely thought, “Wow, this is it”.

We cycled feverishly the final kilometres into Murghab, our breath finally slowing as houses grew denser and the safety of the town enveloped us.

Arriving at the guesthouse we pounded on the locked gate until the owner opened it with dutiful cordiality that turned to concern when he noticed our pale faces.

He fetched us water and we sipped gratefully, still shaking, but feeling the panic subside inside the safety of the gated compound.

A Belgian couple offered us beers and we relayed the story as they listened wide-eyed.

It already felt surreal, an encounter we might think was a dream if not for the each other’s corroboration.

Wolf attacks are not uncommon in rural villages in Tajikistan, but they usually happen at the end of winter when the animals are hungry.

They also tend to maul humans in packs, so we wondered if our wolf might’ve just been territorial like a dog.

Surely if it had wanted to it could have pulled us off our bikes. However I don’t like to think about what might’ve transpired if one of us had hit a pothole in the dark and fallen off.

Two nights earlier we watched a wolf lope past our campsite and felt no fear, only wonder at a lucky and chance sighting of this beautiful wild creature.

Jack just managed to capture this wolf at our Wakhan Valley campsite as it headed for the hills

There are just 1700 wolves in all of Tajikistan so I guess we’re lucky to have seen two.

The experience certainly changed the tone of stepping outside at night to pee, as I found myself scanning for the glow of eyes in the dark and scrambling back into the tent and hastily zipping the fly.

We learned our lesson – no more cycling in the dark.

Wakhan Valley - the Finale

Our experience of Tajik military has been some friendly, some surly and none very relatable so it was a delight to have our visas checked by the affable 23-year-old Mohammed on our way out of the Wakhan Valley.

We stopped at the military checkpoint to cook lunch and Mohammed invited us inside his hut, where he gestured that we put the stove in a window alcove, then he closed the door.

Very relieved to be out of the wind and mildly concerned about cooking with petrol in a confined space

Very relieved to be out of the wind and mildly concerned about cooking with petrol in a confined space

It would appear the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning aren’t taught in the Tajik army.

Jack tried to communicate the risk by clutching at his throat, to which Mohammed gave a bewildered grin but reluctantly opened the door to the biting wind.

Mohammed could not understand our bare legs

Mohammed could not understand our bare legs

He told us he likes the army “because it makes me strong” and said that girls aren’t interested unless you’ve served the country.

We suspected his chatty, buoyant mood was partly due to the fact he was 20 days away from finishing his two-year conscription – which he’d spent entirely at this godforsaken outpost.

I asked what on earth they do out here when no tourists are coming through to get their documents checked. He didn’t have much of an answer but told me there’s no Taliban around here, or anyone dangerous for that matter.

He told us he was Sunni Muslim and asked our religion, to which we sheepishly replied “Christian, kind of, non-practising…”

“We are all just people,” he shrugged.

He sent us on our way with an entire bag of fruit pastries, posted to him from a friend all the way from Dushanbe.

PHOTO: JACK EWING

PHOTO: JACK EWING

The previous day we’d camped in an island of grass surrounded by grey hills that gave way to rolling mountains. Derelict buildings crumbled nearby. Oddly, one of them had a review on Maps.me “worst café ever, I got sick for ten days.” None of the buildings looked like they’d been inhabited in 10 years, yet alone housed a café.

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There was no one around except the nomadic shepherds. One asked us for a cigarette.

The shepherds are mostly young men whose modern clothing sharply contrasts with their ancient occupation.

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Our last days in the Wakhan brought more wildlife sightings than we’ve got in the entire trip: a wolf loped past our campsite at dusk, fat orange marmots poked their heads from their burrows and a bunch of camels grazed on the Afghan river bank.

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We climbed away from Mohammed and his outpost towards the Khargush Pass, which appeared a gentle climb until we hit our first headwind.

An icy cold force that made the crawl over big rocks slower and wobblier.

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We celebrating hitting 4344m – our highest yet – briefly before descending towards a lake where we’d planned to camp.

Windburnt atop the Khargush Pass

Windburnt atop the Khargush Pass

Unfortunately we’d failed to fill our water bottles and the lake was salt.

Jack hailed a passing SUV filled with people gaping fearfully at the unshaven, arm-waving man smeared in days-old sunscreen with desperation in his eyes.

To their credit they pulled over and gave us two bottles of carbonated water.

Salty Lake Chukurkul

Salty Lake Chukurkul

We cycled a further 7km along a lumpy long straight as the stark rocky landscape was capped with gold.

This is the best time to ride as the sky turns crisp and the scenery takes on a dreamlike quality, but the conundrum is that you’re also panicking about setting up camp in the dark.

We found a vast rocky flat where our little tents felt like a campsite on the moon.

And in case you ever wondered, pasta cooked in carbonated water is just fine.

When I got up to pee in the night I marveled at the utterly inhospitable landscape; no water, no trees, nothing to support life but our tiny island of modern equipment.

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The morning brought three more kilometres of gravel and lumps to a jubilant reunion with tarmac as we rejoined the Pamir Highway.

Tarmac and a tailwind, the two magic Ts

Tarmac and a tailwind, the two magic Ts

Wakhan Valley Part III

On the third night of the Wakhan Valley I learned of a serious design flaw in my tent, which until now I could not fault.

Earlier in the evening we’d rejected a campsite because it had a bit of a yucky vibe, with an insipid waterfall dripping down a slimy cliff and empty bottles and trash lying around.

We decided instead to carry on to find somewhere nicer, which in hindsight was a critical turning point in how the night would pan out.

An hour before the pivotal decision

An hour before the pivotal decision

We arrived at a pleasant flat spot under some trees where the ground was hard-packed sand.

There were small but quite strong rivulets streaming across the ground which we initially thought would be the biggest problem for our tents.

Wrong. While this place was picturesque there was no protection from the rising wind.

The yucky spot had been sheltered.

Pitching each of the tents was a two person job in the rising gusts, and we realised the sand wasn’t actually that hard-packed.

It soon became clear that cooking any kind of dinner that required a degree of preparation (chopping onions for example) was out of the question as sand swirled around us.

We chewed a stale loaf of bread a man had tossed to us from his car, spread with Nutella.

Cooking the rice was a wrestle between lifting the lid enough to stir it while preventing sand from flying into the pot.

When the rice had cooked we both retired to our tents.

To my utter dismay, despite the whole thing being zipped up, the wind had whipped the sand up and under the fly and straight through the tent’s fine mesh windows.

The floor of my tent was coated in fine dusty sand.

I took a mouthful of my sad white rice. Crunch. It was full of sand too.

I gave up on the rice and climbed into my sleeping bag, telling myself it was only one night and I could cope.

But while you’re camping your tent is your home; a safe, comfortable cocoon where you’re warm and protected from the elements.

My sand-filled tent felt like a betrayal. It was my sanctuary and it had let me down.

Particles drifted through my torch beam and I wondered if there was enough air inside the tent or that I’d suffocate on the sand in my sleep.

I fished out some chafing cream to rub into my dry, cracked skin but instead succeeded in coating myself in a thick, gritty slurry.

The morning after

The morning after

It was a long night.

The morning was a slow one as we painstakingly shook sand from everything. Thankfully the electronics that I’d bundled in layers of clothing and stuffing inside panniers appeared unharmed.

In hindsight we were mad to choose this sandpit of a campsite

In hindsight we were mad to choose this sandpit of a campsite

Finally on the road I felt feeble and lethargic, in part from the lack of sleep and in part from the mouthfuls of sandy rice for dinner the night before.

We stopped in a tiny village with a shop and stepped inside to a veritable oasis.

There was yoghurt, piles of chocolate bars, trays of eggs and miraculously, a large block of hard cheese – an object we’d never yet laid eyes on in Tajikistan.

The shop owner kindly let us set up our stove on his porch and we set about making pasta with cheese and hard-boiling the eggs for later.

We were grateful for the protein later as we made the slow and maddening ascent up to the pass behind the village of Langar.

The push

The push

In some sections the steepness caused our tires to skid and we resorted to pushing; my weak arms screaming while my leg repeatedly whacked my rear pannier.

It felt like we cycled through more herds in that afternoon than on the whole trip, mismatched collections of goats, sheep, cows and donkeys accompanied by a couple of shepherds and dogs to protect from roaming wolves.

Thought this was the top, it was not

Thought this was the top, it was not

The road claims a victim

The road claims a victim

When it became clear we wouldn’t make it the 6km to our planned campsite - an abandoned building where we hoped to pitch our tents - we began to scan the roadside for sheltered flat spots with a degree of panic as the light faded.

Jack grunted and swore at his bike as it flailed through the sand and loose stones, and I slipped and whacked my pubic bone on the top tube. We needed to find somewhere to sleep.

As we turned a corner I spotted a valley of soft grass, flat and protected from the wind by a rounded hillside.

The absolute joy brought by a sand-free alpine meadow. PHOTO: JACK EWING

The absolute joy brought by a sand-free alpine meadow. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Joyfully we began to pitch our tents, delighting at the ease the pegs went in and the absence of sand.

Two shepherds wandered down the slope to watch us in curious silence, likely a welcome entertainment to their mundane nightly routine.

Never has curry powdered rice, boiled eggs and raw carrots tasted so good

Never has curry powdered rice, boiled eggs and raw carrots tasted so good

As we cooked dinner, one shepherd approached me, clutching in his fist a bunch of fuzzy lilac buds and leaves he must’ve picked nearby.

“Chai”, he explained as I inhaled the sweet smell of wild mint.

It felt as though the previous day had been a bad dream, or this was somehow a reward for our trials.

The fortuitous reveal of this meadow, right at the point when we agreed we were too buggered to go any further, felt like divine providence.

We’d resigned ourselves to a night of limited water when one of the shepherds pointed to an irrigation channel hidden in the grass above us.

The soaring Hindu Kush mountains were tinted pink by the sunset as the moon floated above.

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There was absolute silence but for the odd shepherd’s call.

As we sipped mint tea with a drop of honey, sharing a block of remarkably tasty dark Russian chocolate we gazed at the inky sky strewn with stars.

“This is why we did this trip,” Jack said.

“Definitely”, I replied.

More mint from a different shepherd for our morning chai

More mint from a different shepherd for our morning chai

Rolled from my tent at 6am to this view

Rolled from my tent at 6am to this view

Wakhan Valley - Part II - "The Grunt"

I have always loved hot springs.

There is just something about bathing in the wilderness.

Perhaps it’s enjoying a luxury that is normally confined within four walls, or the simple beauty of nature providing warmth and comfort for free.

So when I heard about a secret locals-only hot spring hidden in a gorge in the Wakhan Valley there was no way I was missing out.

Realistic needs such as lunch and rest breaks were dispensed of in the pursuit of the day’s ultimate goal: Reach the hot springs before dark.

We left Ishkashim and stopped for a quick second breakfast of oats and chopped apples before hightailing it as best we could on a road that had turned into a sandpit crossed with a riverbed.

Where the road turned to sand. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Where the road turned to sand. PHOTO: JACK EWING

We battled up a gradual incline of rattling stones; ours tires skidding with each pedal stroke.

At some point we met a Polish cyclist who grimly informed us that the hot springs were in fact “8km up a very steep road, about 460m of climbing”.

But it was early in the day and our naïve optimism prevailed, dismissing his warning as the scaremongering typical of certain male cyclists.

We met a Japanese guy who’d been cycling for five years, a worn stick tied to his rear rack “for beating dogs”.

He told us of another Japanese guy he’d met who’d been riding a tandem alone for ten years, in search of a wife to fill the empty seat that has to date, been fruitless.

Gradually we moved away from the river and through small villages that provided short respites of smooth tarmac, before bumping back onto the infuriating corrugations.

We passed people crouched in fields of crops who straightened up to wave at us and kids raced with our bikes, their school bags bouncing.

With about two hours until sundown we reached the base of the road to the hot springs.

Looking up at the mountain face that sprawled skyward, a rough track zig zagging its way out of view, the immensity of the task ahead dawned on me.

We’d cycled 70km on porridge, dried apricots, chocolate and a couple of apples. And now we had eight more steep kilometres to climb as darkness crept up the mountains.

I asked a man if he could give us a ride for 100 somoni, what I deemed a fair deal given it’s almost the cost of a homestay. He sneered and countered with 150.

In a sudden fit of tired rage I told him to shove it.

We began to push our bikes.

The internal battle over whether pushing or cycling is easier. PHOTO: JACK EWING

The internal battle over whether pushing or cycling is easier. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Some children helped push but sadly for us only as far as their front doors, a mere 150m into the climb.

We alternated riding and pushing the steep bits.

As though sensing my weakness, the giardia returned to force me into the bushes.

We despaired as the kilometres seemed to crawl by and 4WDs full of earnest tourists gave us encouraging, and incredulous, thumbs ups.

I thought to myself, this is what Dad would call “massively overdoing it”.

It was an hour and a half before we reached the Yamchun Fort, an ancient and striking archeological site perched on the mountain’s edge and still 2.5km from the hot springs.

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A gold tint illuminated the surrounding peaks and far below the Panj River snaked away in the fading light.

But there was no time to soak in the surrounds as the altitude we’d gained was apparent in the dropping temperature so we searched for a place to camp.

A grassy promontory presented the perfect spot and we ditched our panniers to climb the final stretch unencumbered.

We arrived just on dusk and realised there was no way we were finding the secret springs in the dark and on our wobbling legs.

The public springs were still open so we paid a dollar and parted ways into the men and women’s.

The Spartan concrete complex was built into the rock of the gorge, providing privacy for naked bathers but completely obscuring the dramatic view down the valley.

I stripped naked in the steamy changing room in front of a couple of Tajik ladies and walked down the slippery concrete steps into a dark grotto filled with the sound of hot water cascading out of the rock.

Looking up I could glimpse a sliver of night sky between the concrete wall and the natural overhang, while all around me piping hot water gushed from deep inside the mountain.

It was utter bliss for my tired muscles.

Meeting Jack afterwards I heard that he’d shared the men’s pool, which sounded much more like a dungeon than my magic grotto, with a collection of large naked men and it hadn’t been such a tranquil experience.

We ate dinner at the small hotel nearby, shamelessly chewing the fat off the solitary chunk of grisly meat floating in the soup.

Then it was a dark ride back to our camping spot where we spent the last scraps of energy pitching our tents before collapsing into our sleeping bags.

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When I emerged in the morning a farmer had shifted his cows onto the paddock, closing the gap we’d snuck through with a makeshift gate of thorny branches.

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Determined to find these elusive secret springs after the previous day’s mammoth effort we loaded up the bikes and headed back up the hill.

Our request of a family to store our panniers spiraled into a morning tea invitation, with a group of about eight people quietly watching as we sipped a salty tea.

We weren’t entirely sure what it was – by way of explanation our host pointed at the two goats milling around and said “Wakhanski Coffee” with a chuckle.

Jack and our chai host with his bread-loving goats

Jack and our chai host with his bread-loving goats

We located a track behind the public hot springs complex that followed the gorge up about 500m, across a rickety wooden bridge to a stone cubicle next to the river.

Unfortunately it was occupied so I waited in the sun while Jack went in and sat in the small bath while an elderly man did his ablutions.

He eventually emerged and we chatted before he ambled off up the cliff path and it was my turn for a dip.

As I undressed I happened to glance up over the stone walls and spotted the same man, who’d managed to take 20 minutes to cover about 10m and was copping an eyeful of my completely naked body.

Despite the old perve I had a lovely soak in the crystal clear hot water, soothed by the sound of river and the view down the valley to the snow-capped peaks beyond.

Secret hot spring

Secret hot spring

The magnitude of yesterday’s climb was emphasised by the half hour it took us to ride back down.

A colossal exertion and test of our resolve and proof you can always dig deeper, especially when there’s a hot mountain bath at the end.

Wakhan Valley – Part I

Bike tourers are a diverse bunch but there’s one thing on which everyone can agree – a tailwind is a blessing and when you have one you should ride it all day.

We got our first taste of the infamous Wakhan Valley wind – whose prevailing direction, thank God – is at our backs.

We left the town of Khorog propelled not only by the gale but also with a diagnosis and treatment for our seemingly interminable gut problems: Giardia.

Not a pleasant diagnosis but a huge relief to solve the mystery and begin taking the appropriate medication.

The Wakhan Valley is a rugged canyon that lies between the Pamir and the Hindu Kush mountain ranges – “Hindu Killers” apparently named for the slaves brought up from the subcontinent who couldn’t survive the harsh winters under the Afghan mountains.

It has a kind of infamy among cyclists, known as one of the more rugged alternatives to the M41 highway - hundreds of kilometres of bike-jiggling washboard track alternating with deep sand that swallows the tyres.

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We planned to ride to the Garm Chashma hot springs, another 8km, but the tailwind had inexplicably switched around and when a man working in the fields called out an offer to stay, we gratefully accepted.

A 36km day was quite enough for my poor body, weakened by how little I’d eaten/how little my body had managed to absorb in the preceding days.

It’s common here for families to invite weary travellers in for a bed and simple meal. Although these people would never demand payment, it seems decent to subtly slip some money to the homeowner when the strain of life out here is so plain to see.

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Abror is 44 with five kids and spends 12 hours a day working in the fields. He tells us winter brings two metres of snow – it’s hard to imagine how the small stove provides enough heat to keep the family warm.

His wife produced hot soup and bread with the usual array of Tajik sweets and mint tea. There was no complaint from any of the kids, whose dinner presumably had been held up by these unexpected guests.

Me looking unusually nice in the beaded top Safia (third from right) gifted me and her husband insisted I put on immediately

Me looking unusually nice in the beaded top Safia (third from right) gifted me and her husband insisted I put on immediately

We pitched our tents in the long grass between the house and the Panj River, next to the outhouse built with dung bricks and the impressive vegetable garden bursting with carrots, spring onions, potatoes and capsicum.

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A sobering reminder of the family’s frugality was the toilet paper next to the pit toilet. It was pages from the eldest daughter’s biology exercise book.

I awoke at 6am and having forgotten to close my tent fly, found Abror curiously peering in at me. I think he was expecting us up a bit earlier to say goodbye before he headed to the fields for the day.

Once a few kilometres down the road we stopped for porridge – the Tajik breakfast of bread and tea doesn’t quite cut it for cyclists – and watched two little girls on the Afghan side traverse a treacherous cliff path on their way to school.

Walking to school for Afghans in the Wakhan Valley

Walking to school for Afghans in the Wakhan Valley

Later on a little spring below the road caught our eye and we decided to stop for lunch and a soak. It was only tepid but actually the perfect temperature for our grimy hot bodies. It smelled a little pastoral and it soon became clear why – as we left a clatter of hoofs and bleats heralded the arrival of a throng of goats who descended on the spring to drink and wade.

The valley widened and the Panj River diverged into braids across a sandy bed that the fierce wind whipped along the basin’s floor.

Dust storms aplenty

Dust storms aplenty

With the wind’s help we managed 69km to the last settlement resembling a town in the Wakhan Valley – Ishkashim.

We camped in the garden of a kind man who fed us soup and soft homemade bread – a treat from the usual tough loaves you have to gnaw into.

He even had a Western toilet and a hot shower, amenities we made sure to avail ourselves of knowing that ahead lay hundreds of kilometres of dirty, dusty dishevelment.

The Hindu Kush or “Hindu Killer” mountains

The Hindu Kush or “Hindu Killer” mountains


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despair, redemption and peanut butter

Morale can hang by a thin thread when you’ve been bumping along a broken road at walking pace for hours, shirt soaked in sweat with thousands of metres yet to climb.

The thread snapped two days ago when we stopped, exhausted, hot and hungry, to cook some pasta for lunch.

Jack lit the stove and flames began leaping from not only the burner head, but also the fuel hose.

Oblivious to the immiment stove disaster, we crossed a gigantic valley

Oblivious to the immiment stove disaster, we crossed a gigantic valley

We were about 200km from the next town and had stocked up on rice, lentils, pasta and vegetables in preparation for a few days cooking our lunches and dinners. We’d even bought a bottle of dried fennel and cumin seeds from a man who’d gathered them from the hills.

We’ve grown used to observing rural life in Afghanistan from across the river

We’ve grown used to observing rural life in Afghanistan from across the river

We spent several hours trying to work out the issue, which included taking the stove apart and attempting to clear it of blockages using one of our spare gear cables, and sealing the entire fuel hose with electrical tape.

All the while two Tajik men stood over us watching curiously but offering no help – completely innocent but very irritating.

Eventually we gave up on repairs and ate lunch at the nearby restaurant.

A traditional soup of vegetables and meat and a pot of tea for only $3NZD was a silver lining, we conceded gloomily.

We also gifted them our bags of rice and lentils, which weighed 3kg and were pointless to carry when we were unable to cook.

Back on the road burdened with the new knowledge that we would not be able to cook that night, and may not be able to cook for the rest of the trip, severely dampened both our spirits.

I tried to improve my mood by gazing up at the walls of the gorge we’d entered, admiring the rock’s curvature and many shades of brown and grey, imagining the ancient Silk Road traders who’d passed under these same mountains.

A few kilometres after the stove disaster we entered a beautiful gorge

A few kilometres after the stove disaster we entered a beautiful gorge

But then I’d remember the nightly ritual of a cup of tea before retiring to the tent had been snatched away and a fresh wave of self-pity would wash over me.

We pinpointed a restaurant on the map and decided we’d eat dinner there, but on arrival as is common in Tajikistan the “restaurant” was in a state of disrepair and didn’t look like an establishment that had ever served food.

A little further along a man was relaxing under a tree and we asked if we could buy some “non” or fresh bread.

He shouted to a young boy who darted into a house and emerged with the characteristic gigantic circular loaf, which was traded for less than $1NZD.

The triumph of a successful non transaction

The triumph of a successful non transaction

Buoyed by this simple, life-giving transaction we carried on to find a campsite.

We cycled through a riverside village and came across a lovely meadow where a woman stood holding a scythe.

We greeted her and made the usual hand signals for “sleep” and “tent” and she happily obliged.

Camping riverside where that evening the mountains framed a phenomenal starry sky

Camping riverside where that evening the mountains framed a phenomenal starry sky

A young guy cycling past stopped to tell Jack he owned the land, before expanding that claim to owning the entire village, and told us we were welcome to stay and that there was “cold water” up the hill we could drink.

Skeptical though we were of his claim, we were grateful when he returned with a bucket of tomatoes, supplying our tomato sandwiches for dinner.

The “cold water” was indeed a frigid irrigation channel that ran crystal clear through shrubbery, lined with wild mint whose scent filled the air while we washed our clothes and scrubbed our grimy bodies.

Central Asian Ophelia

Central Asian Ophelia

The wild mint also reignited the self-pity as I mourned our inability to steep it in boiling water for tea.

The following morning brought a second round of tomato sandwiches and no cup of tea before climbing on the bikes.

A stunning morning after we set off without a cuppa

A stunning morning after we set off without a cuppa

To make matters worse I was sick again, and the day’s riding exponentially more difficult with no fuel in the tank and no prospect of a nutritious lunch.

We stopped at a typical “magazin” which stocks an array of food items, none of which provide vital nutrients except perhaps the yoghurt, of which we bought four pottles and ate dejectedly, washed down with a bottle of Fanta.

The absolute godsend in this most miserable of situations were the sachets of Pic’s peanut butter Mum had given us for “when we hit a low ebb.”

The consensus was this ebb was adequately low.

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Never has the smooth, salty, fatty Nelson gold tasted so good as when smeared onto half-stale bread and wolfed down on a dusty roadside.

It even took the edge off the subsequent visit to the “tualet” behind the magazin – a wooden shed filled with open cubicles, where previous users’ disastrous aim left little space for squatting without soiling my shoes.

We managed to find a decent meal that evening, and smuggled the bread with us to eat with the rest of the peanut butter the following morning.

Wistfully thinking of my pantry at home, where Pic’s peanut butter is in luxurious abundance. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Wistfully thinking of my pantry at home, where Pic’s peanut butter is in luxurious abundance. PHOTO: JACK EWING

Unable to find any white spirits to soak the stove’s clogged up hose and jet, we used a bottle of cheap cola but unfortunately even with the blockages seemingly cleared, the hose still leaked.

We’re now in Khorog, the biggest town for the next 500 odd kilometres and awaiting the delivery of a new stove.

I’d been told that a hostel in Dushanbe delivered bike parts to cyclists up here, so I rang them and asked if they could buy us a cooker and send it down, expecting they’d source me a basic Chinese model available in Dushanbe.

The guy rang his mate in Moscow, who went to a camping store and took pictures of all the different stoves and prices and sent them to me.

As he was in the store awaiting an answer I had to make a rapid decision on the Primus Multifuel – the notoriously reliable if a little cumbersome camping stove – and I’m told it’ll be delivered here tomorrow.

When I asked the guy in Dushanbe what I owed him and his mate for this amazing service, he replied nonplussed, “for me? It is nothing. You pay only for stove and delivery.” Yet again I’m surprised and delighted by Tajiks’ willingness to help total strangers.

The hunger, the broken stove and the tummy rumblings can only detract so much from landscapes like this

The hunger, the broken stove and the tummy rumblings can only detract so much from landscapes like this

I figured roughly $350NZD is a small price to pay for the return of our self sufficiency, freedom and the comfort of porridge and tea in the morning.

The satisfaction derived from small comforts - taking off your shoes at the end of a day, lying down on your air mattress, the taste of honey with porridge are amplified when all the other comforts of life are eliminated.

With Moscow approximately 4400km away, we remain skeptical about the stove’s arrival tomorrow… But perhaps we should have more faith.

Will report back on whether the magician delivers

Will report back on whether the magician delivers

Afghanistan

Dusk was just falling when we first laid eyes on Afghanistan.

My eyes desperately tried to drink in the gargantuan landscape, the road we were flying down felt like a shelf leaning over into a kilometres-wide valley threaded with the wild Panj River.

We’d weaved through several herds of goats before entering what felt like a dreamscape, either side of the road flanked by towers of red rock, a landscape so unlike anything I’ve seen in geological formation and size.

Doesn’t do the magic of the landscape justice but these mountains will stay in my memory forever

Doesn’t do the magic of the landscape justice but these mountains will stay in my memory forever

The red towers became vast mountains which you’ll have to imagine because I couldn’t stop to retrieve my camera, we had less than 20 minutes of light left to find our campsite.

The brand new sealed road - it must have been a terrifying ordeal previously - zig zagged down the face of the mountain to a grassy bluff where we planned to camp.

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The lights of villages in Afghanistan glittered on the mountainsides in the distance, and I felt surprised at how much civilisation there is in this far-flung corner of the wartorn country.

Earlier that day we’d left the town of Kulob and ground our way up 1350m of rutted, gravelly road.

Temperatures were again pushing 40 degrees and the climb was arduous.

Something that’s perplexed me is how other bike tourers carry enough water to prevent themselves from shriveling up in this heat.

Even after guzzling half a bottle my mouth is sandpapery within 500m.

Our solution has been to carry four 1.5L bottles each, perilously tied on with bungy cords which are wont to come hurtling off the back when descending a hill at speed.

Cooling down is impossible when our water is the temperature of a nice hot cup of tea.

A truck carrying a tall stack of hay passed us with wave, and five minutes later we saw it pulled over, wisps of smoke curling from its cargo.

In minutes the hay was fully engulfed in flames and everyone standing around helplessly. There is no water around.

I felt somewhat justified in my perpetual thirst that the heat is enough to make hay spontaneously combust.

We spent the night camped with a French solo cyclist who bought her bike in Invercargill for $200NZD, then rode it to Cape Reinga. Since then she’s done 30,000km of solo bicycle touring.

She tells of unwanted attention from men despite covering her entire body. She’s had men ask her outright for sex in both Mongolia and the US - sexual harassment is not confined to any culture.

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The subsequent days were spent hugging the Panj River, a ferocious grey torrent that acts as a border with Afghanistan. So high are the gorges that we can barely see the mountaintops above when craning our heads back.

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Villages with lush green gardens are scattered along the Afghanistan riverbank, and we spy tiny tracks that weave their way up high into the mountains and wonder where they lead. Cultivating opium poppies is the only real source of income for people in this area, so we ponder whether these paths lead to hidden crops.

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We camped again on a grassy bank next to the river, waving distance from the Afghans who rode past on motorbikes, responding with a slight nod or touch of the hand to their chest.

There’s a strong military presence on the Tajik side of the river, each day we pass groups of three soldiers on patrol, 100m apart and with AK47s slung over their shoulders.

We pause to fill our water bottles at a stream and a soldier approaches, holding up his arms in a cross and pointing to the other side of the bridge. We understand - it’s safe to gather water on this side but on the other there are landmines. Despite this, and the proximity to the country ravaged by conflict since the 1970s and synonymous with danger, we feel safe, our campsites peaceful.

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The only tangible danger are the rocky cliffs we’re cycling beneath. Signs of recent landslides are frequent and the mountains, despite their enormity, seem to be constantly crumbling.

A man stopped us in a village called Jak - delighted that Jack shares the name of his home - and brings a bag of enormous, fresh juicy figs whose bright green skin gives way to sweet, red flesh.

The roads are lined with pomegranate trees dangling not-quite-ripe fruit, as well as heavily laden apple and walnut trees.

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The novelty of high fiving kids has begun to wear thin, particularly when we hit our high speed of 61km/h and a gaggle of young people scattered across the road extending their hands - a 61km/h high five hurts!

We arrived in the alpine hamlet of Kalaikhum and the last remnants of internet before Khorog - the capital of the Pamirs.

With 3500m elevation we expect to arrive there in five days. See you then!

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