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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.