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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We celebrating hitting 4344m – our highest yet – briefly before descending towards a lake where we’d planned to camp.
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.
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.
The morning brought three more kilometres of gravel and lumps to a jubilant reunion with tarmac as we rejoined the Pamir Highway.