Woke up to my body giving me the middle finger, everything ached, the bed was so uncomfortable, springs poked out everywhere. When I arrived at the hostel it was the last bed in the room, I hadn’t thought anything of it, but now I know why it was the last pick. Luckily the girl next to me was packing up her stuff to leave so I shoved all my stuff over, changed the sheets and stole that one instead. I grabbed a little breakfast and headed straight off to the Motorcycle club place, the mechanic said he’d be there about 10am to make start on the front fork, cleaning it up ready for the Pamir. Charlie from NZ joined me on his bike, he needed some work too, we had a great chat while we waited for the mechanic about the bikes and travel, he’s done a hell of a lot of it, on different bikes in cars and on foot (http://russelsenroute.com/dushanbe-tajikistan/).
Anton the mechanic had somehow managed to find some seals in town, or bought his own spares, I wasn’t sure. I could have hugged him when he arrived with them. I got to work removing the fork while he opened up the garage, then handed it to him for the complicated bit of taking it to pieces. I can do the basics but I’m not about to wing it repairing a fork in Tajikistan where there’s no backup if I mess it up. He got the fork cleaned up and even buffed out some chips in it, unfortunately the seals he’d found were 1mm off in height, so they didn’t fit snug and the fork wouldn’t go back together. He did give me a smaller spring to put in though so my seal would be held even tighter, hopefully stopping any leaks. While Anton was hard at work putting my fork back together I’d found a broken indicator identical to mine, except broken in the opposite way, I got to work Frankensteining them together to make one working one, though the plastic is orange unlike the other one.
Me and Oki were a little apprehensive about the Pamir, we’d both been speaking to people on the road and in the hostel about it. Anytime you meet someone around here, they’ve either done, or are on their way to the Pamir. We’d heard a lot of things, some contradictory, some lining up and it was starting to seem like we’d taken on a big challenge, but it was possible. We were in the right season for it, most of the melts had finished and the water level was dropping, though it was still very hot. The roads sounded difficult but passable with patience. Nobody was quite sure what to make of me doing it on what is a 90% road bike. Most people were too polite to say “it’s the wrong bike” but some people said you’ll make it but it won’t be easy. Fair enough, I can deal with that, I’m not in a rush, I just want to make it in one piece and enjoy it.
We were planning to leave on Day 88 but I spent most of the night on the toilet instead of sleeping. So by the time 8am rolled around I was feeling like death and had only a few hours broken sleep. I was going nowhere. Oki had stayed in a private room and very kindly donated me her bed for the day, leaving me with water, electrolytes and medicine. I got a good few hours sleep and returned to the kitchen in the late afternoon where all the bikers were sat chatting. Everyone backed away from me as I walked in but were all worried how I was doing. Partly because they’re nice people, partly because they wanted to know if it was food poisoning, since we’d all eaten the same thing the night before. I was feeling much better after some food and sleep though so we were ready to crack on in the morning.
The one day delay meant we were leaving at the same time as Peter (Dutch guy riding an AJP) and Antonin (Czech guy on a BMW GS) and we all wanted to do the same route. The north pass over Tavildara, we’d heard it was going to be the roughest part of our route so we were glad for some company over it. We had no idea what to expect from it. The roads for the first couple of hours were pretty normal, good tarmac winding through towns and villages. We had a quick stop for a bite to eat at a shop, and met a Tajik guy who was almost fluent in 4 languages, very odd out here, working in a little road side shop, we’ve no idea what his story was but we were all sure it wasn’t completely legitimate.
The roads deteriorated quite quickly after that, hitting long sections of unpaved road, I slowed a lot to get comfortable and keep Donkey safe from the biggest holes. We got to a checkpoint and jumped off to let them copy down our passport details into a huge book. Then the road got really interesting, it was off into the mountains following the river, the first section we came to had a bridge that was almost washed away, bent and crooked just staying over the gap but it was still stable.
The road wound around the valley following the river, constantly cutting back into the mountains for a hairpin then back out again, these made for our first water crossings, small streams running out of the mountains, straight across the road and off the edge. It’s very easy to see how susceptible the road is to land slides, there’s no protection and they’re mostly just hard packed dirt on rocks, easily disturbed by a rush of water from a days rain.
We were roasting in our bike gear by this point it was still 40 something degrees with very little wind or shelter, and we weren’t going fast enough to get a breeze through. So at one of the water crossing we decided to just take a bath. It was freezing cold snow melt after all, perfect for cooling down, I had a nice sit down in all my bike gear in the water, the others lay in it or just splash themselves cool. That’s when the Muztoo guys came through, they had a good laugh and a stare at the idiot overlanders sitting in a roadside stream and lying down to cool off. Even more so when 10 minutes later as we were leaving the road filled up with cows, and one pissed in the stream I’d just been sat in.
These roads carried on for a few hours, not too challenging but still needing 100% concentration on the road instead of the scenery, and not too fast, since I was bouncing around everywhere on Donkey’s road suspension, feeling every bump and sometimes scraping the belly pan if I misjudged a rock or pot hole. Then we hit the section of Bull Dust we’d heard about from a few people usually recalled as “that fucking bull dust that had us off the bike”. It’s insanely fine dust, mixed with rock and gravel, it acts like thick mud to ride in, bashing the front wheel in different directions. Underneath this though was deep holes and a rocky surface you couldn’t see or predict. I was leading at the time and didn’t even notice it was dust until I was in it, it looks just like the rest of the road. I was going way too fast so I try to slow down this just made the front wheel tuck deeper into the dust though and hit a big rock, I got thrown to one side almost out the seat and the back wheel hit a rock, coming the same way, so I was still upright, just 1 foot to the right of where I had been. I opened the throttle to lift the front wheel a little, this helped a lot skipping the front wheel over the dust, the back wheel was still being bounced around but at least I was mostly straight. The problem with lifting the front wheel is you need to be accelerating, and now I was going too fast again. I tried to slow down and had another huge wobble, coming out the seat and nearly off the bike, then it leveled out and I was on hard ground again. I was half way through celebrating when I remembered I was riding with other people and they were behind me. Sure enough I turned around and 50 meters back was a big cloud of dust and I couldn’t see any riders.
I ran back up the road to check on everyone, 2 of them had come off basically the same way I nearly had, except they also had to contend with the big cloud of dust from my bike too. Everyone was OK though, except they had helmets filled with dust, but no real damage to the bikes. They all tentatively crawled the rest of the way through with only one more little off and we were on our way again.
After that we were knackered, it was coming to the end of the day anyway but none of us expected it to be this hard work. We pulled into to Tavildara for some supplies and set off looking for camp down the road. It was easy enough to find a nice spot, the valley is very wide here from Glaciers but the river is only small so there’s plenty of nice flat ground away from the road. We set up camp, got a little fire going and were all in bed by about 9pm when it got dark.
An early start with the sunrise in the morning and we were bouncing along in the dust and crossing a little river by 8am. A quick checkpoint stop for our details again and a couple of little rickety bridges then the road started to rise to the pass, and got much more fun. It softened a little with dust and sand padding out between the rocks, which made them much easier to ride on for me. I could speed up to about 30mph without worrying about destroying anything, and corner with a bit more confidence, knowing if I slipped it would catch again pretty easily.
At the top of the pass at around 3000m we stopped for a little break, a guy came walking over and asked where we were from, we all thought he was a local just interested but he was a French hitchhiker, which caught us all off guard. He was riding along in a big truck over the field, which we’d also assumed was local, with a German family of 5! It was a huge thing, they’d converted all of the back into a little camper, it had about 2 feet of ground clearance and they could carry 900 litres of fuel apparently. Not a bad way for the kids to spend the summer holiday, touring around Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, they park the truck in a random town here and fly out from Germany to drive it different places every year. We also bumped into the Muztoo tour group again, we had crossed their path a few times yesterday. 12 bikes on a guided tour on rented bikes being followed by a support truck. They could ride much faster than us with no luggage and more suitable bikes but they stopped more often and for longer so we passed each other a lot.
The road swept down the pass, back down to around 1500m, over some very dodgy sections, very rocky with sheer drops of at least 500m and switchbacks. We all got down safe with only a few butt pucker moments between us. It was utterly stunning scenery though, sheer rock faces around a little valley, the path was just the least steep way to even descend, cutting back under itself many times in no logical way at all. It was obviously not really maintained and regularly got washed away down the side of the mountain, only to be re-dug out again. It was hard work too, going down hill puts a lot of weight on your arms, which are already working hard keeping control on the bumpy ground, let alone actually working the clutch and throttle. First world problems, it was an incredible part of the ride.
At the bottom of the valley was yet another checkpoint, this one slightly more exciting though. It was being used as a firing range, pickup trucks with huge guns mounted on the back were being test fired up into the mountain side, every 30 seconds there was an ear splitting boom as they fired. At one end of the line of 4 pickups was a huge armoured vehicle, not quite a tank, but close enough, that thing shook the ground when it fired. Luckily we weren’t stuck there too long with our ears ringing, after processing the Muztoo guys the guard was sick of paperwork and just waved us on with a grunt.
20Km passed the checkpoint was the first big town, Kalai-kum, we searched for fuel and found some at the other end of town with help from some locals. We weren’t sure if someone was taking the piss a bit at first. It was a small petrol tanker at the side of the road, with an awning out of it and 4 kids sat around. When we pulled up they all jumped up and said hello and offered the fuel in the barrel. We all just looked at each other and around at the tanker. There was nobody else around and these kids were offering, we asked the price and it was reasonable so we said sure. The biggest kid ran over to the barrel of fuel and dipped his bucket in, came over with a giant funnel and a stool, got up and with the help of 2 other kids and one of us, filled each bike in turn. Once one of our bikes were filled we’d pay the smallest kid, who couldn’t have been older than 5 or 6, but he counted and checked the cash. It was weird. We half expected to find a man bound and gagged behind the petrol tanker trying to scream about kids stealing his fuel.
After a quick break in some shade outside a little supermarket with plentiful coke and snickers we set off on the new section of road. It promised to be much better here since we were now off the “detour” route, and onto the main M41 Pamir Highway. Wrong. It wasn’t quite as wild but the surface was still very bad, and very slow going, unpaved in places and huge potholes when it was paved. At some point Peter suddenly doubled back on us, he’d just seen his front brake pads fly out of his wheel, not a good sign. He couldn’t find them anywhere or the pin that’s supposed to hold them in. There was no shade so we ended up stopped in the boiling sun for a long break trying to cobble together a road side fix using aluminium wire and spare brake pads so he’d at least have something. No joy though, the pads had got caught up in the spoke on the way out and bent the caliper. He somehow managed to ride for the rest of the day with no front brake on these roads, a mix of his off-road skills, the lower than normal speeds and ginormous balls.
The road we were riding followed the river all the way south, the river was also the border to Afghanistan. It was so surreal knowing when you look across the river it was Afghanistan villages, roads and mountains looking back at you.
We rode for a few more hours, realising we weren’t going to make it to Khorog like we planned, the roads were slower than we expected so we started searching for a camp spot. Not as easy as yesterday since this valley was really steep, no much flat ground at all. We found a lovely spot though, just off the road, by the river, looking out at an Afghan village. We were all a little worried by the odd old traveller report of people firing guns over the river from either side, but there were no worries from the locals hanging around, and no active conflict anywhere. Just as were starting up some food the German family came along the road in their truck, we flagged them down and they joined us in our little spot for the night too. We were a little embarrassed, we laughed when they told us that morning that they average about 18kmh all day, which is very slow. But here they were with us, that’s how slow we’d been.
Just as we were all dropping off to sleep I heard something outside my tent. I didn’t have the cover on it so I could see straight out and there was a big black dog staring back. A tiny heart attack later and I realised he wasn’t wild, just sniffing around and there were people talking. I got out and it was some armed Military Police checking Antonin’s paperwork with a torch, they checked over us too and wished us goodnight, not a great sign. Apparently they came back in the night poking around the camp, I slept through this one though thankfully.
25/07/2017 to 28/07/2017