Where "Great Game" strategic rivalry and conflict between the British and Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia once occurred, and where recent post Soviet era civil war tore communities apart, we went exploring. The Wakhan Valley, the starkly beautiful 'roof of the world' Pamirs, the contrasting lushness of the corridor villages and the connecting M41 Pamir Highway made Tajikistan arguably one of the most exciting destinations of the trip to-date.
Culturally it was great to interact with the diverse mix of Tajik peoples. Persians, Kazaks, Mongols, Uzbeks, Russians, the Pamiris of Badakhshan, and a sizeable minority of Ismailis all blend to form the larger group of Tajiks. The homestay families are amazingly hospitable and the lack of english made for interesting travel.
Since early in the planning phase of the trip, photos and tales of travel on the M41, and through the Wakhan Corridor, had both excited and intimidated us. We hope our story and images inspire others to adventure in this incredible part of the world ;
Osh (Kyrgyzstan) to Murghab (Tajikistan)
The leg from Osh to the border took us through the southern end of the Fergana Valley which was lush and fertile. No wonder the stone fruit in Osh was so good! It's worth mentioning that at the time SmartTraveller had the Fergana Valley flagged as a "do not travel" zone. We didn't see any sign of conflict and everybody we met was inquisitive and friendly.
Close to the border Todd and Zane scored a ride on donkeys - a trip first! Next time Toddy might need to upsize as his legs touched the ground. We stopped in Sary Tash to refuel and met a young Finnish bloke riding an old XR400R solo around the world. He was winging it. He had no armour and had crashed recently exposing bone in his leg! All good apparently. We got talking about the pending 4600m pass on route to Murghab and he mentioned that two blokes on Honda AfricaTwins had conked out due to altitude derate and had to abort.
We ascended to 4200m to cross the border and the temperature dropped significantly. At the crossing, whilst going through the usual crazy process and corruption it began to snow. We had to get our boots and wheels sprayed for 'weed and seed' and stupidly enough we then had to walk backwards into the contaminated zone to compete the next process step.
We crossed the 4655m Akbaital Pass with only slight lightheadedness and descended into Murghab. A duststorm caught us just before town and visibility was reduced to dangerously low levels. Murghab is utterly isolated, wild and windblown but the warmth, pleasant welcome and good tucker at Erali Guesthouse made for a good end to the day.
Murghab to Langar
Waking up at Erali Guesthouse was pleasant. We got up at a reasonable hour and we had a nice breakfast of eggs, and strawberry jam on bread.
We took a quick stroll into town to exchange some US dollars for Tajik somoni at the local bank. We also dropped into the bazaar to buy some water and cherries (only fruit available). In contrast to yesterday afternoon the weather was hot - all jumpers off.
Just as we were about to depart Alex discovered that his LHS forward pannier mount was broken clean off. This was the third failure of this type to date (Zane's and Todd's broke in Mongolia). One hour later, after a quick trip to the local boilermaker we set off for Bulunkul Lake. The Lake had been recommended by a fellow traveller, Claude, whom we'd met the previous night, and it was only a slight detour from our route.
The patchy asphalt disappeared just before we arrived at Bulunkul Lake (140ks) where we had a quick, and rather minimal lunch at a guest house. We then raced up to the lake and had a quick look.
The next leg was 190ks to Yamchun and all dirt with major corrugated sections, sandy runs, and rocky ascents/descents over the passes. The highest pass was 4600m and we didn't even notice it at the time.
At Khargush, after a military checkpoint, the road dipped into the Wakhan Valley. It was magic. We could see the snow covered Pamir Mountains in the distance and Afghanistan was an arms reach over the raging Pamir River. The road was super twisty with death defying drops to our left and a near vertical cliff to our right. We all agreed this was the most exhilarating riding to date.
We arrived into Langar, a green oasis where the Pamir and Wakhan Rivers join forces to form the formidable Panj River, at about 8pm. Due to fading light and concerns about travelling the treacherous roads at night we decided to bunk down at a home stay rather then press on to Yamchun. The home stay was typical Pamiri with rugs on the walls and bed rolls for sleeping on the floor. Food was limited to noodles and onion, and bread with a MOHs scale of hardness of about 10.
Langar to Ishkashim
Waking up to steady rain had us a little concerned about the condition of the road. If it was anything like yesterday then adding water could mean trouble. As it turned out we had no issues, the road flattened out as we passed through a number of small green villages that were dotted along the Panj River. Children always came running out to greet us as we passed through. Some would try and sell us pickings while most just yelled "helloo" and waved furiously. The odd cheeky one would try for a high five.
We fuelled at a station which only had drums of 92 octane and funnels. The dodgiest fuel yet.
We made it to Yamchun, yesterday's intended destination, at about 1030. We then proceeded to climb 6ks of switch banks straight up the side of the valley. The attractions justifying this detour were the 12th century Yamchun Fort, built to defend the Silk Road from Afgan and Chinese raiders, and Bibi Fatima Hot Springs. At the Springs we waited for the female session to finish and then took a good long soak in the calcite pools and washed away three days of grime.
The last leg of the day to Ishkashim was pleasant. We took our time making the 80ks and took heaps of photos of the scenery, and of the people and animals that call the small but vibrantly green villages of Darshai, Ramanit and Namadguti home. We met two Turks heading in the opposite direction on ancient BMWs and they asked if the roads improved. Laughing, we tried to be optimistic about the corrugated sections we'd covered in the last few days. We hope to meet these fellas again when we pass through Turkey.
When we landed at Ishkashim we bunked at Harin Guest House. Toddy raced off to repair another cracked pannier frame (different side to previous). We were served our first dinner in three days that included meat.
Tomorrow Zane and Toddy head into Afghanistan to explore the southern side of the Panj River and Alex elected to head straight for Khorog with a reconvene scheduled for Monday.
Squeezed between peaks and split by the Shokhdara River, likeable Khorog is the Pamirs only real town. As the regions economic and administrative centre the infrastructure in and around is well developed. Accommodation and dining options are western standard. The town is a staging point for most adventurers travelling east. We met four middleaged Austrian cyclists and two young British Couples. Both groups heading for the valley. Unfortunately one of the Austrians had a shocking crash just after departing Khorog and had to be airlifted to Dushanbe and then home. For us Khorog was mainly R&R with a little bike maintenance and planning. Memorable moments were lunch on the river, the picturesque botanical gardens, an Indian dinner and the relaxing courtyard in the Lal Hotel.
Khorog to Kulob
Today we attempted to make it to Dushanbe, which is only about 600ks, but by all reports a decent two day drive. During breakfast we met a few American Diplomats who gave us some clear advice on the route options. The southern road from Qal'al-Khum to Kulob to Dushanbe got a more positive report. Decision made.
We departed Khorg at 7am and arrived at Qal'al-Khum at 2pm. Total distance travelled 238ks. Average speed 34km/hr. It was an eventful run. Zano nearly hit a pest of a kid who deliberately ran straight into our way trying to force his wares onto us. Alex almost got run over by a car that was trying to avoid potholes and then got hit by rockfall on a very narrow stretch. The rocks luckily fell around his person. One large rock hit the side of his front tyre and then deflected onto the bash plate, deforming it badly. Alex was a little rattled by this one. On all the roads we'd travelled we'd seen lots of evidence of rockfall (sometimes massive boulders on the road) but never actually witnessed it occurring.
From Qal'al-Khum the road improved as reported. Perfect bitumen for a time and then graded dirt till Kulob. We arrived into Kulob at sunset realising Dushanbe was not a possibility. We found the only hotel in town. The standard was low. Most wouldn’t even want to house their dogs there. We blued with the manager about price, room arrangements and passports. To top off his day Alex got electrocuted having a shower. The shock nearly knocked him out of the tub.
Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and much like any other developed city with a population of 900 thousand people. Dushanbe had nothing of cultural significance to offer but did give us the opportunity to complete a few chores and to enjoy a few beers. We caught up on blogging, planned ahead for Uzbekistan, did some shopping for essentials and generally relaxed. We spotted the President (aka Dictator) one evening! All of a sudden the police positioned every kilometre along the main street clearing the road of all traffic and then a convoy of armoured cars surrounding a Mercedes passed at incredible speed.