Khorog to Dushanbe, Tadjikistan
Whilst the first half of the Pamir route took us over the big passes and through rather isolated terrain, the latter half was dominated by being within a stone’s throw of the forbidden fruit. From Khorogh we followed the Panj River for 400km with Afghanistan on the opposite bank. The rather precipitous, bumpy gravel road on the Tajik side nevertheless allowed 4×4 vehicles and large Chinese lorries to go back and forth to the capital Dushanbe. This, along with people dressed in jeans and T-shirts made for a stark contrast to the headscarfs and traditional dressed traders hauling their donkeys along the path that seemed carved into the cliff face just 20m away on the other side of the river. It is not as though Afghanistan seemed less developed, as most villages seemed extremely well cultivated in a very ordered fashion and often with some quite plush houses looking back at us, it just seemed entirely uninfluenced by the western world.
Like for most chaps there is a certain desire to go where you are not allowed though in this particular case we wisely only allowed our minds to wander over the border and not our feet. Nevertheless there was a strange feeling of excitement as we set up camp for the first night next to the river. Within an hour of falling asleep we woke up to slurred shouting very close to our tent, not good given there were no known settlements for a decent radius around us. We could not make out who it was or what they wanted, though our first thoughts were not reassured when Oli turned on his torch to see a Kalashnikov next to Matthieu’s head (sorry, didn’t think of getting a photo). Strangely, despite being so close to a country at war with the western world, all we felt was relief when we saw the five guys surrounding our tent were wearing camouflage – at least they looked official rather than being drunken locals. We quickly established that they were Tajik troops doing the rounds (80% of the world’s opium is smuggled over this border and across this stretch in particular). After a number of panic-stricken “English, English, camping, camping, ok? Ok?”, the now friendly soldiers carried on with their patrol, no doubt amused by the fact we had delivered our defense at a pitch that a pre-pubescent choir boy would struggle to reach. Not a fine moment for the reputation of Anglo-French masculinity but we were alive so were happy.
It would not be the last time we were forced to change our underwear in the middle of the night. Two nights later we were again sound asleep on a patch of sand next to the riverbank when a loud explosion made both of us jump out of our silk cocoons. We’ve not heard many explosions before but this was undoubtedly something that caused serious damage. The ground we were sleeping on shook beneath us and the echo reverberated off the cliffs to break the the silence of the night for what seemed like an entire minute. There was no rational explanation for this as there is supposedly no active combat in the area we were in. It was a bit of a shock but after two more in the next 30 minutes we managed to get back to sleep. It was weird that despite all this we felt more at ease camping now than in China, where we can’t recall one night that we slept well in the tent. In any case the morning revealed that the Afghans were in fact blowing up the donkey track opposite to clear a rock slide. Why this was happening in the middle of the night we will never know.
After 19 straight days on the Pamir Highway we reached Dushanbe. Tired but proud, bruised but with heads held high, battered bikes but only really with aesthetic damage. Tajikistan is the poorest country in this region by quite some distance. We met three cyclists who had come down with Typhoid whilst in the capital and it is among only a handful of countries in the world where Tuberculosis is still a major killer. Despite all this though the people along the way have been even more beautiful than the landscapes we have been traveling through, showing more genuine kindness and care than we could possibly have asked for. The Tajiks like the Afghans are Persian by decent, whereas the other Stan countries derive from the Turks. We are told that we will notice distinct differences in culture and character as we next head to Uzbekistan. If this has been Persian hospitality though we are even more excited than before about getting to Iran. After two frustrating weeks in Dushanbe waiting for our onward three visas we are finally back on the road.