Day 91 to 94 – Khorog to Karakul

Waking up looking over to Afghanistan was a very weird experience. A lot of things on this trip are very weird and take some getting used to, but that was a big one. We all got packed away pretty quick, said our goodbyes to the German family in the truck and headed out. The roads for the first few miles were great, very nice for Donkey to stretch his legs after two days of low speed, low rev, rough roads.

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Wondering who’s hiding in that cave in Afghanistan…

We had a very slow going morning, lots of long stops for photos, and not rushing on the pot holes. We were searching for bottled water too, without much success. We passed a little cafe with two cyclists sitting outside so we stopped for a chat and to see if the place had water. They didn’t but they had Chai tea and Breakfast so we stuck around for a bit. At some point the Uzbek (I think) music in the cafe got “accidentally” turned up very loud and we ended up having a mini 9am disco, the 2 locals eating their breakfast looked like they’d just dropped into another dimension. 2 Cyclists and 4 motorcyclists in half their gear dancing around the inside of the cafe. The owner quite enjoyed himself though and we were all thoroughly awake afterwards.

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“Brake pads still there?”

Leaving the cafe the pace didn’t change much, staying around our usual 25mph average, pot holes and random gravel keeps the speed pretty low for Donkey. The road mostly passed through towns and villages, kids were always playing in the street and always waved as we passed, excited when we waved back. Some stuck out there hand for a high five, not sure they know how much a 25mph high five with a gloved hand would hurt. We were getting pretty hot and bothered by lunch time, the temperatures sat around 40 degrees, and because we were going so slow there was no wind to keep us cool. We passed a little lake on the side of the road, opposite the river, a guy had his van in the shallow end, music blasting out, shirt off, cleaning it, not a bad idea. We stopped, stripped off and jumped in. It was beautiful, cooled us right down to normal levels again, thought we did get lots of funny looks from cars passing on the road.

We rolled into Khorog in the afternoon surprised to see lines on the road and traffic lights again for the first time in a few days. Khorog is a big town right in the middle of the Pamir, a way point for travellers on the Silk Road. We headed for the Pamir Lodge, though we had no idea how to get there. Somehow we ended up winding through back streets, along a tiny road with a meter deep pit in the middle of it, threatening to swallow a bike, then up a very steep incline with another pit of death right at the top. Once we got to the gates we realised there was a real road up to it, we’d taken the back route through someones garden, forcing some adventure on ourselves.

I’m not entirely sure how to describe the “lodge”, it was part hotel, part lodge, part hostel, part camp site, it couldn’t really make up it’s mind. We camped outside, but were under the first floor overhang. There was no indoor social space, just rooms, but most people seemed to just hang around outdoors near the tents anyway. The WiFi was also limited, even though I had a great 4G connection and speed, two toilets and two showers to share between at least 20 people, and it wasn’t full. Very oddly run place. It served OK for a nights sleep though.

We had the rest of the afternoon for some bike maintenance, the first job was an improvised centre stand for Peters bike. A log, some stones and 3 tired guys fixed that. Antonin noticed my other fork was now leaking too, all over the right brake disc, not ideal for, well, stopping. It was really covered too, all down the caliper, it was not fairing well. I took the dust cover off and did my best to clean it up, not a lot else I could do there, it needs new seals, and there aren’t any. It would just have to survive until Osh, it will work fine with no oil in the fork, but there’ll be damage to components on the rough roads.

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Where there’s a will

There was more traumatic damage to discover though, after the bike work I sat down to chill out with the guitar only to find frets 4 to 7 all sounded the same. That’s not normal. The fret board had split and separated from the neck, raising at the 7th fret. Balls. The rough roads plus the heat must have rattled it to pieces. I purposely don’t tie the guitar down, it’s wrapped in an elastic net so it can’t escape, but it’s free to move so there’s no pressure on it, but even still, the head must have been bouncing so hard it pulled the fret board apart. Looks like I’m limited to only songs below the 4th fret. I was actually pretty upset, I’d gotten used to being able to just sit and chill out playing guitar again since I’d had it, now it wasn’t really playable. I had a few ideas for a fix but they’d have to wait until I was Osh at least.

Not a great start to the morning, my stomach really wasn’t happy again, it woke me up at about 5am and I didn’t sleep again. A lot like in Dushanbe, so I now had a culprit. I did the math and realised I’d drank the same brand of beer both nights before becoming ill. I don’t hate many beers, but I loath this one now, it literally screwed up my insides, Antonin had the same experience too. Ban that beer.

We left the hostel/lodge/camp site and headed for a shop we’d seen on the map. We needed water and a little stock up on food. The “market” was huge, a ton of stalls in a warehouse, but only two tiny ones at the front were actually open, no matter we got everything we needed, strapped it all in and set off for the south end of town; stopped to fuel up on the way (from a real pump too!) and headed off down the Wakhan. The road turned to crap straight away, big pot holes, thick gravel and small stretches of mud. I had to take it pretty easy, to keep Donkey healthy. About 30 minutes in we stopped for a quick photo and I saw the right fork was still spewing Oil, my cleaning hadn’t done a great deal to help. Peter cleaned it up a little, using a card to get down between the seal and fork and push all the crap out of it. It did help a little, the flow slowed a lot for the rest of the day.

One of the parts of the Wakhan I was really looking forward too when I read about it was the Afghan market. A bridge each side connects both countries to a little island on the river where a market is held. You don’t need a visa to enter so it’s an easy way to get a very quick glimpse of Afghan life. Unfortunately it’s closed up now, but we had a mill around the entrance and spoke to the military guys who came up to see us. We rolled on to the next town, the biggest on the Wakhan, Ishkashim and stopped for some lunch, but it was Sunday and almost everywhere was closed and empty so we ended up buying some little snacks from a 12 year old girl running a tiny shop.

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So close but so far

We all sat outside in the shade near the bikes resting and chatting, making a plan for the rest of the day. Peter was getting a little worried about his schedule, we’d all been travelling together for over 3 days now and he could have been going almost twice as fast as the rest of us for most of it, his bike was much better suited to the terrain and he has plenty of off road skills to tackle it. He decided to split with us and go on ahead to make up time, we said our goodbyes and he shot off. We would all miss him, it was only 3 days, but it was all 72 hours together, good and bad, falling off, camping, all the challenges of the heat and terrain, everything. With all that thrown at you get pretty close pretty quickly.

The three of us remaining sat around for a while before getting back on the road, we travelled a lot slower without Peter, since he was the fastest of us, it always pushed us on a little bit; now we were stopping a lot more and for a lot longer. It was in part because the road got a lot worse, but not the fun kind, more corrugations and deep gravel, which I found very difficult to ride on. You have to keep the speed up somewhere between 50 and 70kmh at the point where you skip over the corrugations instead of hitting them, it smooths it out a lot, but then hitting deep gravel at that speed is treacherous. We needed lots of breaks to recover from the constant vibrations. Some small stretches of sand gave us a little trouble but I was very chuffed not to fall at all, though I came very close a few times, squirming almost sideways in the deeper patches.

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It’s this stunning all the way on the Wakhan, if you can look up from the road to see it

The scenery was incredible though, the valley had widened out a lot and the river bed was such a deep green against the sandy look of the dry landscape around. Towering snow capped mountains on either side and little villages every 50km or so. Looking up from the road wasn’t easy when riding, it’s too easy to miss a pot hole or lump of gravel, but it was worth a try; looking over at Afghanistan and the villages was still very strange, even after 2 days of it. We were hoping to stay at some hot springs we’d heard about from several people, though we must have ridden straight passed it because we made itT all the way to the last village without seeing them. It was getting late so we found a guesthouse and bargained the price down for us to camp in the garden since they were out of rooms.

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Where’s there’s water, there’s green

The road from Langar back up to the M41 was going to be the most remote part so far, but we weren’t very well prepared for it. We were running low on fuel and there was non in Langer, we had food but not a great deal of water. We decided to wing it, it was 10km of corrugations back to a village that might have fuel, and our water would last, as long as nothing went wrong, but with 3 people there’s a little more flexibility if something does. The road got interesting immediately with a bunch of steep uphill very rocky hairpins, luckily it wasn’t that challenging all day. I ended up having a blast, really enjoying the roads like I hadn’t been able too yet. There was a little of everything thrown at us, some sand, gravel, hairpins and dusty corrugations, but they were all tamer than sections we’d already done, so we were used to them. I was really enjoying tackling them, they were challenging but nothing I hadn’t seen before and knew me and the bike were capable of dealing with. It felt like we’d already beaten the worst the Pamir could throw at us and now we were just eating it up.

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We stopped for a lot of breaks, the scenery was still incredible, changing all the time and still bordering Afghanistan for a lot of the day. Chatting, snacking and resting made for even easier riding when we got going again. We finally said goodbye to Afghanistan as we started to climb into a mountain pass that lead back to the M41, moving away from the border and back into Tajikistan, through a little military checkpoint in the middle of nowhere.

The road got a lot more interesting too, the ground was harder packed but deeper rutted, so you really had to pay attention not to lose a wheel down one of them, or bottom out on a particularly big bump. Some very fun water crossings too, one of them much deeper than it first looked, I plowed through and my front wheel was almost completely submerged, I got soaked, but that was welcome in the heat. We overtook a party of mountain bikers that had been in the guesthouse that night and gave them a wave, their support trucks overtook a little later when we were having a break and the guides stopped for a chat. We asked about the next available fuel and they said about 150km, not good when I only had about 50km left in the tank. Luckily they had spare fuel they were happy to get rid of at a good price so we took 20 litres between us and poured them in. That would easily get us to the fuel, it was a good idea to take so much too as the next fuel was actually about 250km away, they’d ran out in the next village.

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Looking back at the Wakhan route, the tarmac ends

We reached the end of the Wakhan valley road and almost cried when we saw the M41 road: smooth, black, flat tarmac. We stopped for a break and to kiss the ground. We had planned to stay at the lake a little ways back toward Khorog, but we were running low on supplies and energy so headed the other way to Alichur first. We found a little cafe with, and stopped for a lunch with two Danish guys there, they were taking part in the Mongol Rally, in an Ambulance! Driving it from Denmark to Mongolia to donate it. They’d converted the back for sleeping and that was about it, crazy guys.

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If this makes it, I’ve got no excuses

After a very long break and food we changed our minds and decided to head for the hotel in Murghab instead. It was getting a little late but the roads here were great so we didn’t think we’d have a problem. Turns out we misjudged quite how slow we ride and we ended up rolling into Murghab 3 hours later in the dark, made even more fun by Oki’s headlight not working, we had to sandwich her between our two bikes so she could even see the road. I also somehow managed to tear my MSR water bag to pieces, it slipped from it’s restraint and got caught under the rear wheel, 4 litres of water flew out the new holes in it and I had to leave it behind, there’s no fixing that.

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Being good tourists and taking up as much room as possible

The hotel was packed with people, they were completely full, and mostly with people we already knew. Like a little Pamir reunion, the Danish guys in the Ambulance were there, the Muztoo guys we’d kept running in to, the Bike Club in Dushanbe that helped fix my forks had a tour group there, and even Peter (he got stuck in Langar without fuel after he left us, he wasn’t far ahead of us all day after all). The hotel said they’d somehow find us room and dragged us in to sit down for dinner. After we ate they showed us to our “room” they’d made. They’d taken a Dining room, removed the table and put down some mats for sleeping, the three of us would be shoulder to shoulder but we’d fit, cosily.

The next morning was a very slow one. We planned to camp on the lake that night and it was only around 200km riding, easy in an afternoon on these good roads. We hung around the hotel, finding an empty Yurt outside once everyone had left and chatting in there. There was no electricity until 11am when they switch the diesel generator on, so certainly no internet and not much to do around town. We didn’t want much though, resting after a few hard days riding, reading books and writing would suit. We ate lunch with a couple, Lotte from England and Ryan from Northern Ireland, they were travelling super cheap, on beat up old bikes, perfect for very rough roads as long as they held together. They were heading off to some of the toughest passes in the Pamir and trying to do all the routes through it too.

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Reading in Yurt, a weird morning

We set off at around 3pm for the lake, the roads were great and progress pretty easy. They got a little rough climbing the largest pass of the Pamir though, up to 4600m the second highest paved road in the world, though the word “paved” is a bit misleading. Donkey was definitely down on power at this altitude, but it was so worth it. It doesn’t look that high when you’re surrounded by peaks and high valleys but you can feel it, walking around puts you out of breath and we didn’t hang around too long.

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4600m is pretty exhausting for celebrating

Some more long stretches of corrugations toward the lake left us vibrating for the rest of the night but they weren’t a problem. We saw the lake well before we got there, over a huge plain with a dead straight road running for miles passed it. We rode along until we found a good spot to veer off the road and to the water side, found a nice flat spot and set up camp. It was pretty cold, up at nearly 4000m with the wind blowing, it was going to be a very cold night. The other 2 really wanted to go for a swim in the lake. I thought this was a terrible idea, and it was. I realised there weren’t many times I’d get to swim in a glacial lake at 4000m though so I stripped off and went in. 2 minutes later we were back out and running across the swampy ground bare foot back to clothing and warmth. Some beer helped warm us back up, but the fire didn’t, at this altitude there’s not much oxygen to burn and I could nearly touch the flames trying to boil water. We ate some very stiff noodles and snacks as it got dark and the wind picked up, it was getting pretty cold so we knew it was going be a very chilly night. I did play some guitar, despite it being quite broken, it is one of the weirdest places I’ve ever played at, and it felt fantastic, watching the lake, surrounded by mountains at 4000m with a beer and good company.

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Playing guitar here felt like a dream

29/07/2017 to 01/08/2017

Day 91 to 94

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