The Pamirs – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan – Part 1:
Sary-Tash (Kyrgyzstan) to Khorogh (Tajikistan)
This is without doubt the most difficult set of posts we have had to write. Not for lack of stories, certainly not for lack of adventure. 17 days of riding the Pamir Highway has left a profound and everlasting impact on both of us. Words, pictures, video cannot do justice to the pain, the wonder, the frustration, the elation of getting through one of the most remote and eerily beautiful mountain ranges in the world. This is part one.
Many people have asked why we are doing this expedition by bicycle. Why not by car, by hitch hiking, some even asking why not by plane (the latter do not even get a response). The Pamirs have given us the real answer, one that we could not have known before. The road from Sary-Tash climbs up to the border with Tajikistan at around 4,250m. From there we stayed above 4,000m for the next six days and were battling headwinds for 16 out of the 17 days cycling, sometimes only allowing us to peddle at 4km per hour, slower than a normal walking speed. Our water bottles froze at night from the icy winds that beat down on our tent. We tied everything down with rocks to prevent it from being taken from us by sudden gusts. It took 20 minutes to boil the water compared to the usual four. The air was thin, making for burning legs and aching heads, yet each pass we climbed brought a high that cannot be brought by an ordinary experience. At 4,680m the Ak-Baital pass was and will be the highest point of the Road of Smiles expedition.
That evening our discussion was different from our usual debates based around political science, the state of Africa and the precise moment in which stale bread is too stale to consume. Were the apricots we ate along the way the sweetest, juiciest, most incredible apricots ever grown anywhere in the world? Or was it that they were just regular apricots transformed by bodies starved of calories, taste buds dried out from lack of drinking water and the incredible gestures of kindness from the Tajik people who would insist we ate as many of their produce as our bodies (and bags) could take without expecting anything in return. Were the mountains we passed through the most incredible, awe-inspiring, gargantuan natural miracles that very few people have ever even heard of? Or were they the same as any other, the Alps, the Himalayas or the Andes just seen through strained, dust-filled eyes and bodies pulsating with the frantic rush of tired blood. The debate raged well beyond our usual bed time of 9.30pm. At 9.43pm we had reached a conclusion:
Only through effort will you appreciate in its entirety the benefits of what you have achieved; only through pain will you feel the sublimity of relief; only through discomfort will you appreciate the simple things in life that we take for granted everyday; and only through experiencing difficulty can real friendship be created.
Traveling by bicycle is no better, no more righteous than traveling by other means, each to their own. For us though, our bicycles offer far more than a means of getting from one destination to another. Destinations in their own right become simply a place to rest. The experiences between destinations are what makes our two wheeled companions special. Powered by our own bodies, providing total self sufficiency and the opportunity for our perspective of seemingly normal experiences to shift entirely sideways.
Furthermore, whilst adventure cycling represents the ultimate individual pursuit, as man pits himself against mountain, the Pamirs have shown us that our expedition is most definitely a collective endeavor. To have made it through without any blood spilt between the two of us is in itself a small miracle we both feel proud of. But we realise it is not only us on the road now. What may only appear on the surface as a two-man wolf pack is in fact a much larger body – the Road of Smiles is made up of all of you. The words of encouragement and donations to our cause (Operation Smile) we have received from the people we know and others we don’t has been truly inspiring an keeps us going everyday.