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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.