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.


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.


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.


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