Pamir HWY vol.3: Wakhan Valley & Dushanbe

Wakhan Valley

At the end of the Great Game, British Empire realized that there is a short passage of no-man land between them and Russians. Finally, in 1895, they agreed that this pass of land would belong to Afghanistan. Since then, Pakistan split from India (and Britain), Tajikistan in the north emerged after Soviet Union Collapse. However, Wakhan Valley, a 40km pass between Pakistan and Tajikistan, still belongs to Afghanistan.

Entrance to the valley

I cycled into the valley in the afternoon. The road quality dropped and it was really hard to cycle on the loose gravel deformed by cars. I met Spanish family traveling in a modified 4×4 pickup/camper and even they had experienced a lot of discomforts and were forced to drive slowly.

The road on the Tadjik side is wide and allows 2 cars to pass by. Afghans have a very narrow path suitable only for camels/horses. I could see groups of Afghans a few times per day, traveling for border markets along the valley.

The first day, I met not-friendly local farmers who were capturing some livestock. Soon later, I pitched m tent behind a big rock, covering me from the road. Sleeping 100m from Afghanistan for the first time was a unique experience.

The next day, I witnessed a neighbors’ fight over livestock. A lamb belonging to Tajiks entered the river and walked on the other side. Afghans tried to steal it, but then Tajiks started yelling at it to turn back. Finally, the lamp turned back to its owners.

Shepherding is the main human activity in this part of the world. Livestock blocked the road very often. It was the opportunity to meet shepherds, but unfortunately, they never spoke English. Russian would be much more useful.

That day I had to cross the pass at the entrance to the valley. It again reminded me of how quickly the weather can change in the mountains.

Inhabited valley

In the evening, I finally descended from the pass into the populated part of the valley. The landscape changed 100% from the V-shaped rocky valley to the wide, green U-shaped one. It got warmer.

I experienced Wakhan “homestay” for the first time when I stayed for lunch. The owner wanted me to stay for the night, dropping the price. There are almost no tourists in Wakhan in  May. After gently refusing, I pitched my tend few kilometers from the village, at the river, this time 50m for the border. I just love sleeping in a tent.

That day, I met Tajik kids for the first time. From then on, I would meet them every day in every village I passed through. They raced with me on their bikes, introduced themselves and asked a few questions in English (to practice). Sometimes they tried to encourage me to stay in their parents’ homestays.

The new element of the landscape were numerous portraits of the ruling president. Usually pictured while walking in a suit via farming fields or villages. The glorification of this president is almost satirical.

The next day in the morning, I walked to the river and spotted a group of Afghan girls on the other side. We tried to talk but due to different languages and the distance between us, I could understand nothing but laughs 😉

I also finally met another cyclists. A couple of French, with top-notch equipment, writing a blog while cycling. It was good to finally talk with other tourists and get to know what’s ahead (good news, the shitty road will turn to asphalt in ca. 50km). I stayed that day in a “homestay” with the family of a policeman. They were very happy to have the first tourist this season.

Together with a policeman, we climbed the next day to the Russian banya. Presumably, the highest located one in the world. Locals go there to take a bath. Women and men separately. Everyone is usually naked. It is hard to stay long as, at that altitude, steam from hot water contains much less oxygen than air at the bottom of the valley.

In the homestay, I first saw a Russian TV series about special agents. I would see this series in each next TV on my way. I could watch every next episode by staying in bars or homestays every day 😀

The policeman told me a bit about life in Wakhan. Most people do not have a job there. They make money either from tourism or seasonal employment in Russia. Russia for them is what Great Britain is for Polish workers.

It was late when I decided to leave and cycle to Ishkoshim. The ride turned quickly into the night ride. Soon the surface changed to asphalt and I could enjoy this warm night while cycling alongside Afghan border 😉

Ishkashim

Ishkashim is the border city. If you buy an Afghan visa, you can even go on the other side by a narrow bridge. However, you need a guide and have to stay only in Wakhan Valley. If you try to go into the mainland, there is a high likelihood that you will stay there forever. 2m below ground level…

Ishkashim looks like a big village. There are soviet-style big administration buildings, many new one-family houses and old-school cars like Lada. The town has even its airport, but it is rarely used. On the other side of the river, you can see an American army base.

I stayed in a big hotel, the only one in the city. I was almost the only quest. The other one turned to be a nice Japanese girl. Also solo traveler 😉

In the morning, I walked 3kms out of the city to see the border bridge. After making a few photos, a Tajik army officer came to me and calmly explained that I need to delete those photos because I can have problems while exiting the country. A gentle way of saying that I broke another rule!

Khorog

The following day, I cycled to Khorog. It is the capital of the GBAO (Pamir) region. On the way, I climbed up to another Russian banya, and stopped for a dinner at a hotel where I watched another episode of the series about special agents 😉

Khorog is a much bigger city than all the others on the way. It even has its own KFC- and McDonald- like brands. I stayed in the hostel very popular among tourists. I met a few cyclists, among them another French couple using a very interesting bike. It is a hybrid of a normal and a horizontal bike, so one person can rest back muscles.

I used the opportunity to eat “normal” food and spent most of the time in a pizzeria or other restaurants.

From Wakhan to Dushanbe

After leaving Khorog, the road quality dropped again and the river got narrow. As a result, I was passing very close to Afghan villages at low speed. A unique opportunity to have a look into their life.

The conditions and landscape did not change much for the next 3 days. I was wild camping every day at road/valley corners. In those places, the valley is wider so there is a bit of greenery next to the road.

I once slept outside of a restaurant on a bench. In the morning, the owner tried to give an exorbitant price for this super uncomfortable night. I managed to negotiate down. It was the only time I was truly disappointed with Tajik people.

On the fourth day, the road changed to perfect asphalt and I finally said goodbye to the Afghan border, entering the Tajik Khatlon region. One week earlier I was freezing, now I was again in full heat. I prefer freezing…

Before leaving the valley, I decided to filter water in the stream. At that moment, I lost my camera. It dropped to the water and I switched it back only one week later in Dushanbe, after drying it off.

On that day, I met a lot of cyclists going in the opposite direction.

To get out of the valley, I had to cycle up the high pass, over 1km altitude gain, with a gradient reaching 12% from time to time. In full heat, it was a big challenge. At the top, I have spent the last money on fuel to my coking stow. After cycling down, I entered Kulob, one of the biggest Tajik cities. After an hour-long search for an ATM accepting foreign cards, I resigned and realized that I have only $3 in local currency. I decided to cook something and cycled out of the city.

I still had 190kms to Dushanbe and almost no money. Fortunately, the policemen who I met out of Kulob offered me a big piece of bread. At the right time! 20kms later, I decided to pitch a tent. While pitching, a mother with a son came to me and invited me for the night to their home. Again, perfect timing! Except for the fact that they made some long Muslim prayers in the evening which I did not understand, I enjoyed that stay. It was the first day of Ramadan. The next day, I woke up after sunrise, so they prepared breakfast just for me (they have already eaten before sunrise). I greatly enjoyed the Tajik hospitality. If only I knew Russian and could speak with them!

The final day was a big challenge. Cycling in an open area with no cover from the sun, and without money. I filtered water from the rivers, once stopped to cook food at the edge of the road. But most of the time, I was hungry and thirsty.

A day earlier, I thought that this section would be flat. In reality, It was full of steep climbs. I stopped counting after 3. At the end of the day, it started raining. Such a relief! I passed by a long tunnel at the top of the mountain. Ahead I had a final, almost 10kms long descent to Dushanbe. What a prize for dying in the sun on all those climbs.

I entered the capital in the night and headed directly to the famous backpackers’ hostel. Here, for the first time, I met a really big group of cyclists, backpackers, and car tourists.

Dushanbe

If you ever wanted to see a Soviet-style city outside of Russia, Dushanbe is a good choice. Wide roads, huge administration buildings, big parks, countless monuments. In the center, a big national museum, in which one floor is dedicated to glorifying a ruling president. He has been the president since the 90s, when, with the Russian help, he managed to win the civil war with Muslim opposition (92-97), and achieve independence. He is glorified for bringing peace to the country, but in reality, he is currently not doing any good for the country. Extractive economic and political institutions prevail, the ability to gain wealth is very limited, unemployment reaching 40% among young, and almost 50% of GDP is created by illegal smuggling of heroin from Afghanistan.

The most common car brand in Tajiksitan is Open. 90% of cars are 15-20 years old Opel Astra and Vectra from Germany. They were shipped here as they no longer fulfil emission limits for Europe.

I stayed in the city for 5 days, waiting for my Uzbek visa and resting after mountains and before deserts. After one month spent in Karakorum and Pamir mountains, I had Kyzył-Kum and Kara-Kum deserts ahead. Every day I greeted new travelers coming to the hostel. 90% of them were heading in the opposite direction. The end of May is the start of the tourist season in Pamir. It was great to exchange the latest news from the route on both sides of Dushanbe. Many warned of boredom and headwind on the desert. In the evenings, we gathered together outside for dinner and board games. It was a really fun time!

In Dushanbe, I met Zewara, a Tajik girl who spent a semester studying in Trójmieście in Poland and learned Polish. She is very proud of her country and wants to spend it there for the rest of life. As she said, the piece is of utmost importance for Tajiks. She also told me about the first Auchan hypermarket in the whole of Asia managed by Polish people (really well stocked!). She took me with her friend to the local restaurant. After sunset, a lot of locals came for dinner. Given the price, it was the best quality and volume for the money dish I had on this trip. Not sure what was inside – a mix of meat, vegetables, bread, and sour cream. It was delicious.

To the border

After five days, I said goodbye to my companions at the hostel and headed out of the city. Shortly after, I replaced my rear tire. After 8kkm it was worn.

It took me two days and one high mountain pass with a tunnel to get to the border. The tunnel is famous. So-called “tunnel of death” it is the only way connecting two parts of Tajikistan land. The alternative is the route through Uzbekistan, which had been frequently closed to Tajiks when both countries had some disputes. As a result, the tunnel was open 7 years before the end of construction. No ventilation, no lights, water inside. The result was many crashes which caused traffic jams. People inside suffocated to death.

Currently, the tunnel is fully constructed. It has dime lights, a good surface, and still no ventilation. Easy. I heard a lot of stories about it, so when I passed I stopped to make sure that this is THIS tunnel. I could not believe how easy to pass it was.

The last night, I pitched a tent in the garden of the restaurant. A local boy helped me with setting the camp. Yes, again I could experience Tajik hospitality.

At the border the officers could not believe that I am the guy on the passport photo 😉 They also performed a short interview, curious why I am cycling across the world. For them, a young guy should work and feed his family. Well… 😉