I woke up early and had breakfast at 8 o clock. I wanted to be on the road early but there were 3 things I had to do before I left Dushanbe. (1) get GPRS working on my new Tajik sim card (2) get some petrol and (3) change some cash into Tajik somoni.
By 10:15 I was all done and on the road. I had two possible routes planned and I didnt know which to take. Both involved heading 25km east of Dushanbe. Both would meet up at Kalaikhum, on the Panj River that makes the Afghan border.
Perhaps out of laziness, I got to the turnoff point and went straight ahead, on the main road to Kalaikum. It was the route most travellers take, and it was a fair bit shorter than the other route. As it happens I got only 15 km down the road when the police told me the road was closed ahead. I could have stopped and chatted to find out why, and for how long, but as I had the other route planned, to the south via Kulab, hitting the Panj River 150 km earlier, Idecided just to turn around and take the alternate route.
This alternate route had been recommended to me by a Dutch guy, Pieter from Amsterdam, If I hadnt been in such a hurry to get to Khorog, I would have taken it automatically. I had a couple of reasons to press on. The 18 days off the bike had meant I would already be late getting to Siberia and I wanted to minimise my lateness, and secondly, I had only been given 5 full days in Tajikistan from the customs guy when I entered. Sure I could faff about in Dushanbe to get an extension, but that in itself would cost me a day..
As it happens I was now going the scenic route anyway. The road was an interesting steady climb and descent to Dangara, but the next 100 or so km to Kulab was down in the lowlands, all from 400 – 600 m in altitude and hot and to be honest, pretty boring. My initial plan was to lunch in Kulab and then head over the last range to the Panj River. The heat made me change plan. I would head to Shurabad up in the hills for lunch where it would be cooler.
The road immediately began to get interesting as soon as I left Kulab – climbing from around 600 metres to a pass up at 2000 metres 20 km away. It was just a huge open climb, a lot of fun and I stopped to take a foto at the top, looking all the way back to Kulab. That done it was a short ride to Shurabad and lunch, only the bike wouldnt start. Nothing. No lights, no anything. It was 1:45 pm. I checked the power, and the battery was still alive. I assumed it was a blown fuse and took off the seat and examined all the fuses … they were all fine. I checked all visible wiring. It was now 2:30pm. I came to the conclusion that something was amiss with my ignition switch… what to do.?
I made an executive decision to head back to Kulab, one of the largest towns in Tajikistan … it was pretty much all downhill … I could glide the 20 km … And I did, tho it took me 30 minutes with a few short paddling sessions in the middle. I found a service station of sorts and spoke to the guys … saying I needed an “electrical master”. A few phone calls were made and the sparky came 10 minutes later. I explained to him what I thought was the problem and while I was still justifying my logic to him in Russian, he had bypassed the ignition switch with a test wire and got the bike to fire up. So I was right for a change.
On the glide down the hill I though about what to do if it was indeed the ignition switch. I figured I had a spare switch on my ‘dashboard’ which could double as an ignition switch, tho I would have to add a second hidden switch on the same circuit for when I left the bike, like in the evenings. All the way down that huge hill I was thinking of where to hide that second secret switch.
I counted on the idea that ignition switches were untamperable, and to open one up was to break it. This time I was wrong. My Tajik sparky had opened up the ignition switch and had found the problem … a soldered connection had come unsoldered. Easy to fix if you have a soldering iron … My Tajik sparky was fast, and smart, but he had no soldering iron. He had to disappear for 10 minutes to borrow one from a friend.
While he was away I had been chatting to the assorted lads and hangers on at the mechanics shop and the lads insisted on washing the bike. Out of the kitchen (like many workshops in the former soviet union, a workshop if often a cafe as well – like Lyosha’s back in Beyneu) comes a loud 20 year old Tajik girl suggesting I take her on my bike back to England. She suggested she was a good cook. One of the lads suggested she was good at something else that I didnt catch as it was in Tajik, but it was not hard to guess the jist of the comment. I politely declined, stating the Sibirsky Extreme Project’s completion was incompatible with riding back to England with a mad Tajik cook in tow.
The sparky returned with the ignition switch all soldered up. 5 minutes later all was fixed, the sparky was 20 Tajik somoni richer (about 3.50 EUR) and I was repacking the bike. I had feared a day or so out of action when the bike died on the top of that pass, but I was back on the road 2 hours and 45 minutes after the bike died. 1 hour of that was my attempts to fix and then diagnose the problem and 30 more minutes was me gliding back to Kulab. The ride back up the big hill was twice as fast and exactly 3 hours after I broke down I was riding back past the same spot. It was now almost 5 pm and I still wanted to try and make it to Kalaikhum. Lunch now was obviously not necessary.
After Shurabad, it became clear that my hopes of further quick progress would be dashed by an old, often unpaved road that led to the Panj River and the Afghan border. The road may have been poor, but in the finest Tajik traditions, it was through spectacular mountains. The area between Dungara and Kulab had been totally flat plains. It was good to be back in the mountains and interesting scenery again. It was about 6pm when I finally reached the Panj valley and the road turned north to head upstream on the river.
This quickly became some of the most amazing scenery I have ever ridden through. The Panj cut through a tremendously deep valley with equally tremendous vigor. As far as I could see upstream, it was constant rapids, constant white water. With the main road closed this route was now the only way to get from Dushanbe to the Badakhshan region, or which Khorog is the capital. The track alongside the river was one of the most challenging I have ridden. It was narrow, steep, often with oversize gravel and boulders, many water crossings etc etc. It was a challenge and I really enjoyed it. The only downside was that progress was painfully slow. There was no way I could average 50-60 km/h on this road. At one point I even came across a waterfall covering the track. There was no way around it … it was cliff on one side and vertical drop on the other. I couldnt really see what was on the other side of the fall, but plunged in anyway with visor down. Every metre of this road was interesting and the scenery breathtaking. This road had to make it only my recommended roads list!
As darkness descended I reverted to both headlights. On the edge of darkness I passed a couple of soldiers patrolling the border and asked how far to Zigar (the first town on the road). “25 km” was the answer. At the speeds I was going, that would take almost an hour, especially with all the constant demands to stop for fotos – imposed by the jaw dropping scenery. At the speed trucks were going it would be 3 times that. There were quite a few trucks doing the route too, but they were crawling along in first gear the whole way at no more than 5 miles an hour. the only other vehicles apart from me and the trucks were the occasional Landcruiser / Nissan Patrol, which were the buses of the Badakhshan region where I was heading.
At one narrow point I got stuck behind a truck with no way to pass. As Ibegan to curse the truck, I realised his presence was a blessing. In front of us was a deep water crossing. I wanted to see how he made it across and work out how smooth the bottom was and how deep it was. The truck inched across in low gear before struggling up the steep bank on the other side. I could see two problems from the movement of the trucks wheels thru the water. The bottom was rocky, and it was about 60-70 cm deep. The depth should be ok for the bike, but I was going to have to get my feet wet. The other problem was the bank on the other side. It too was rocky, and steep, especially the bit where you emerge from the water. The truck had moved on and I was alone in the world pondering this crossing.
Damn the torpedoes … engage first gear and lets go. I was lucky, I was finding a smoother path across the bottom than the truck did and a few deep breaths later by front wheel was up on the far bank … and my boots were filled with freezing cold water. Getting the back end out of the water was tough … the bank was rocky. I tried pushing back a few times to get a foot or so of run up to the bank and on the third time I made it, back wheel spinning wildly all over the wet rocks but somehow finding enough traction at one point to launch me clear of the water and up onto dry land again.
I passed a gang of workers, working into the darkness, churning up the road into a surface really only designed for multi-wheel drive trucks with enormous ground clearance to pass. I had no choice but to take on the piles of soft earth and gravel, conscious of the sheer cliff into the Panj on my right.
After one of the most exhilerating rides of my life I made it to the police checkpoint on the outskirts of Zigar, where everyone has to register. The checkpoints in this region are not at all discriminatory. Everyone has to get out and register their presence at each checkpoint. There was no electricity here. Even this police checkpoint was illuminated by a solitary candle on the desk of the chief. All along the route by the Panj there had been no signs of life, other than the road itself and the occasional blacked out tiny village. No power lines, no telephone wires … nothing apart from the amazing road to show man was present.
Just as I was leaving the checkpoint a truck driver stopped me for a chat. He was going the same way and told me not to bother trying to stop in Zigar … there was no restaurants or places to stay, but he recommended a great place 15 km down the road.
15km !!! on these roads that was at least another half hour in the dark. I reluctantly saddled up and prepared for more intense concentration. To my shock and surprise, on entering Zigar, I found alphalt road … not just asphalt road, but immaculate asphalt road. It continued as I left Zigar … in fact it was like a proper road. Wide, guard rails, reflectors. My speed increased to 80 km/h, then 100 … I couldnt see anything but that which was illuminated by my twin xenon high beams, but that was more than enough road ahead to see the gradual curves into the distance. It this kept up, my 15 km would pass in about 9 minutes. Not being able to see the spectacular scenery had me wondering what was this amazing piece of road. How did they build a road to cruise so effortlessly through this rugged countryside? Was it the Chinese at work again.
In no time I had reached the next village, Khostav, and found the recommended restaurant / guesthouse. It was a truck parking lot out the front, clearly a truck drivers favorite. I settled down on the only spare table and ordered a bowl of lagman soup, bread and a beer. The restaurant was abuzz with the chatter of Tajik truckdrivers and two landcruisers full of local bus passengers. The only light bulb in the room flickered irritatingly and I understood why with the noise of a two stroke electricity generator howling away outside.
I got a few curious stares, but no-one interrupted my relaxation as I enjoyed every sip of the beer. 10 minutes later the truck driver I had met at thee Zigar police post walked in with his son – an apprentice truck driver I imagine – and joined me at my table.
I asked about the road. Was it the Chinese? No he said. The Chinese roads are in the North of the country. This stretch was built by the Turks. There is another road not far from here built by the Iranians. It seems with Tajikistan being the poorest country in the former soviet union, everyone is trying to gain influence by donating roads and the like. The Russians are currently building a 2 billion dollar hydro dam for the Tajiks which will generate all the power the country needs. It makes sense when you are the most mountainous country on earth, to generate power by hydro methods – but the capital costs are pretty huge. Thats where the Russians come in. So Russia, China, Irana and Turkey … are vying for influence here.
We spoke about the road ahead. He said this good road continued to Egar, halfway from Khostav to Kalaikhum, then fell back a bit, but still a load better than the road prior to Zigar. The road from Kalaikhum (where the main road joins the Panj valley) to Khorog was better again. Not as good as this good stretch, but nothing like the ‘adventure’ to Zigar.
The truck driver said he would leave at about 4am, and expect to get to Khorog about 3pm. I was hoping to be a bit quicker than that, and in any case, would not be leaving at 4am.
Above the restaurant was a dorm room. I settled into a bed for the night. The meal had cost me about 2 EUR and an extra EUR for the bed.
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I awoke early … about 5am, and decided to get up and get an early start. Half the trucks had already left. They work pretty hard these Tajiks. Road crews in the middle of nowhere working well into the darkness. Truck drivers leaving at 4 - 5 am to get to where they have to get to. I had a cup of tea, a head shower of sorts under their fresh water waterfall, packed up the baggage and was on the road soon after 6am. The road was exactly as the driver described. Fantastic to Egar and then fell back a few notches, but still good for 60 km/h.
The Panj river was still amazing me. I had joined it at 600m. By the time I reached Kalaikhum, I was up at about 1200m. The whole way it had been white water … rapids for over 150 km. I topped up with fuel in Kalaikhum and realised I had been getting excellent fuel economy on these mountain roads, despite thrashing the bike. I was getting 24-25 km/litre (4.0l/100km). That was great news as the Pamir region is not known for its abundant fuel. As was usually the case in Tajikistan (Dushanbe being the exception) fuel came in a tub … and I bought it by the jar, dipped into the tub of petrol. It still under half a eur per litre, even out here in the wilds of Badakhshan. I asked about the grade of fuel. It was a silly question. In Badakhshan there is benzin and there is benzin. 76 octane, 80 octane, 92 octane are irrelevant concepts here. Fuel is fuel. Take it or leave it.
Badakhshan is the huge autonomous region in the south east of Tajikistan, of which Khorog is the capital and only major town. The population here is mainly Ismaili, and follow the Aga Khan. The region is 100% mountains. There are no plains in Badakhshan, and you need a special endorsement on your visa to come here. I got mine with the visa in London for 50 quid, but I have heard you can get them in Dushanbe in a day for 30 USD. The Ismailis are now one of the most serene branches of Islam but that wasnt always the case. Back in the day of Genghis and co, the branch of Islam that is now the Ismailis was known as the Assassins. They had fortresses all over Persia and surrounding regions and always got what they wanted … until they picked a fight with Genghis. Destroying the Assassins was one of his main priorities after having taken over the lands of the Shah of Khwarezm.
Eventually, after refuelling, email checking and police checkpointing, I was back on the road. As promised, the road onwards to Khorog was a cakewalk compared to the pre Zigar road. I took advantage of my early start and the relaxing road to photograph locals. I had been told by everyone from Mad Max to Kazakh business friends that Tajiks were the most attractive people of all the central asians, and I found it very hard to disagree with that. There is a strong persian bloodline running thru the Tajiks and the language is very close to Farsi, the language of Iran. Quite a few of the Tajiks even looked distinctly european to me. There is two different attitudes to being photographed here, divided sharply by sex. The men and boys leap and jump in front of me as soon as I pull out a camera, while the women and girls who were previously smiling and friendly suddenly get camera shy and photographing them is quite a challenge. I have found out that if I plead a little, the smiles return and I am allowed to take the photos.
Next stop, 250 km and 5 hours down the road from Kalaikhum was Khorog. I stoped here for lunch and a fuel top up. Again, plesantly surprised that I needed less than 10 litres to top me up for the past 250 km. By Khorog I had now climbed to 2100 metres. I had followed the Panj river all the way from 600 metres. The white water had continued to about 75 km before Khorog, at 1900 metres. The last 75 km was characterised by a much calmer Panj, and a wider river valley. There were a few slower sections, including some cool overhangs above the road, but in general, the road was good for 70-80 km/h on a motorcycle the whole way.
After lunch I left the standard pamir highway which heads north east out of Khorog towards Murgab, and instead continued on south, to follow a lesser road (and the Panj / Afghan border) to Ishkashim and round to the east after that. Safran had told me this was one of his favorite regions on the motosyberia trip 2 years ago so I was enthused as to what this would bring for my bike and my camera.
35km south of Khorog I was asked to stop by a young girl who wanted me to meet her father. I was making good time so I decided to take her up on it. The village was Khaskhorog and her father was Yusuf, a professional tour guide and fluent english speaker. Yusuf showed me his lovely Ismaili house, explaining its traditional design and said he would like to start taking in guests as well, since the crisis had affected the amount of tourists that needed guiding.
A neighbour’s kid came in to see what was going on and to my surprise the 12 year girl was blonde – naturally. Yusuf joked that the locals called her a russian, but in fact she was pure Tajik. Yusuf’s own daughter had honey green eyes … and it kinds reminded me a little of that legendary fotograph taken during the Soviet Afghan war of the Afghan village girl with the piecing green eyes staring straight into the camera lens. Yusuf invited me to stay the night, but it was still only 4pm and I am ever conscious of my time limit in Tajikistan.
He is a lovely guy, and as a professional tour guide, knows everything worth seeing and how to get there in the whole Badakhshan province. He is totally fluent in English and if you were coming to this area, you might want to stay at his place for the night – a traditional Badakhshan home, and get the full take on what to see, how to get there and have the culture of the local Ismailis explained. He has a mobile phone and if anyone needs his contact details, let me know. Ah yes, he also told me that I had the wrong sim card. I picked up a ‘Beeline’ sim card and in the remote areas, ‘Indigo’ is the best brand … so theres a tip from Yusuf for anyone coming to Tajikistan … get an ‘Indigo’ sim card.
As I departed Khaskhorog, I thought to myself I must return to Tajikistan, with more time. Safran said that he too would like to come back here. Perhaps I can convince him to return in summer 2011 for a whole month and really tear this place apart … because its very quickly become one of my favorite countries in the whole world. Like Switzerland, with really bad roads and about 5% of the price – and much higher mountains, steeper valleys, and people who wave at you as you ride down the main streets of the villages. My left arm is about to fall off from all the waving so far in Tajikistan.
The road south was not as eventful or dramatic as I had anticipated. Still every scene was a postcard, but I have to say that nothing compares with what I saw of the Panj valley between Shurabad and Zigar. That was the most dramatic scenery and road I have ever seen. (thanks Pieter)
I passed thru Ishkashim, where I saw a bridge across the Panj to Afghanistan. T was told there are 3 crossings in Badakhshan to Afghanistan. One just outside Khorog, one just outside Ishkashim and one near Langar, a bit further on. If I had more time, I would have tried to pick up a visa in Khorog at the Afghan consulate and try to pop over on the bikes, if just for an hour or so. Maybe another idea for 2011.
I passed a old fort on the right off the road. Yusuf had told me to keep an eye out for it. It predates the great game in which the Russian and British jockeyed for control of this region. The British got Afghanistan and the Russians got Tajikistan … but all things come to pass and now neither of them have either of those territories. Prior to the great game, this region (and northern Afghanistan across the river) belonged to the Emir of Bukhara … and it was his mud brick fort that now is slowly eroding away.
I stopped for the night at Vamg, a small village about 5km before the larger town of vrang. I saw a sign on the road pointing to a “homestay” here and popped in. I had been following the Panj River and the Afghan border now for over 24 hours. I started at 600 metres and now I was at 2900 metres, 650 kilometres later. I still have 30-40 km to go beside the river before turning north into the Pamir proper. The river valley is very wide here, several miles across. At various points earlier in the day it was no more than 50 metres wide, and an Afghan on the opposite bank could have thrown a stone and hit me.
Now I am in the Wakhan valley. Across the valley to the South is the Hindu Kush mountains and the thin Wakhan corridor – 25km south of me is Pakistan. North of me is the High Pamir. Its an amazing place to be. I have two days left in Tajikistan … I should make it to Murghab tomorrow, and Kirgizia the following day.