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