Pamir shepherd in Wakhan corridor
Tajikistan

The Pamir Highway – Part III

Our third week on the Pamir Highway led us through the famous Wakhan corridor. A historical, remote and beautiful region, with only a river separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan. We passed old ruins, military bases and wheat fields, and everyone we met greeted us with a smile and a heartfelt invitation for chai.

After a week of recuperating from severe food poisoning and exhaustion, it was finally time to leave Khorog. Despite Robins illness we had feasted on all exciting cuisines the university town had to offer. By our normal standards we hadn’t been to impressed by MacDolands, Khorog Fried Chicken, a mediocre Indian restaurant and a simple coffee bar. But for us after a few weeks of deprivation of these luxuries, it all seemed Michelin-worthy. Except for the burger at MacDolands, that one was just as terrible as to be expected.

Whakan mindset

Khorog is also the turn-off for the Wakhan corridor. Our Belgian friend Frederik had departed a few days before us, only to return the same day after a flat. It had him completely loose his motivation to continue. James, who had taken the main road a few days earlier, had also reported that the roads on the M41 were dreamy. We however had our minds set on the Wakhan, so terrible roads or not. We were doing this.

The little topographer

Expecting the worst, we were quite surprised by the quality of the road the first few days. Also the lack of shops wasn’t at all as bad as portrayed. We passed small villages, only with more kilometers in between them as before. Locals still invited us in for tea, and served us entire feasts with fruit, cake and bread and home made kefir. Despite not being able to understand each others language we tried communicating. Once when we told a family we are from the Netherlands, we asked the kid if he knew it. Usually we get an ahaaa, which pretty much always means not a single clue. But this clever kid walked to his big map he had on a wall and pointed at our tiny little country without hesitating. Very impressive!

A stupa and Yamchun Fort

We cycled along wheat fields, where the Pamiris still harvest by hand. A labor-intensive task which seemed to involve half the town. Tucked into the mountainside was an ancient Buddhist stupa, we decided to visit. A small squad of young girls showed us to the ruins. It wasn’t much more than a pile of rocks to be honest, so we hoped for more at the next ruin site we visited.

The Yamchun Fort didn’t disappoint. Most likely because of three armed soldiers setting the tone, exiting the fort after a patrol, just before we entered. The fort is located on the modern-day border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, overlooking the Wakhan Valley, and large sections of the Afghan Hindu Kush mountains. The fort was build between 300 and 100 BC and we were impressed by its state, given the harsh environment.

Military bases

By now we seemed to pass military bases as frequent as small towns, but we never felt unsafe. The soldiers patrolled the widening river along the border and they greeted us and we greeted them. Before we entered Ishkashim we heard gun shots for the first time. It was broad day light, so it was probably just an exercise, as no one seemed to care.

Bread magic

If you ever pass by Ishkashim, buy bread. Buy heaps of bread. There’s a small bakery where they hand you the big round flat breads straight out of the oven. We had to be careful we didn’t burn our hands. We bought three big ones, and they lasted us for days. And the last piece tasted almost as fresh as it had just been baked. Bread magic. 

Our egg container had also proved to be worth while. We could easily find eggs in every little town, so it was eggs for lunch every day. We must have devoured at least a hundred eggs in this country. 

War zone

After Ishkashim we found a camp site on the bed of the river. We washed in the icy cold water and huddled in the tent after sunset. All of a sudden we noticed a strong flashlight shining in to our camp from the other side of the river. A little later, we could see the flashlight moving from time to time. We could also see bright flashes lighting up the entire sky, but obviously coming from very far away. It was rather eery, not knowing what this was. We knew the situation in Afghanistan had become more unstable, because the Afghan market in Ishkashim had been cancelled earlier that week. We decided to turn down our lights and just go to sleep.

Afghan and Pakistan mountains

The next morning the Wakhan woke up as nothing had happened. Farmers were working on their fields, kids were playing and we were cycling past it all. A few kilometeres after a town called Shitkarv the road also turned shit. The landscape became more arid between towns and it was harder to escape the unforgiving sun and strong winds. There was one particular long gradual climb on a terrible surface, but with an ever rewarding panorama on the Afghan and Pakistan mountains.

The dreadful Khargush pass

Every now and then we meet a (hitch)hiker or other cyclist coming from the other way. They all warn us for the upcoming Khargush pass. They say it will take us at least three days to push our bikes up. Cycling is out of the question, it’s impossible they say. In Langar we stay at a guesthouse with two guys we met in Khorog, Kobe and François. They cycled the Bartang Valley and were on their way back to Dushanbe. We loved Kobe’s story, how he just bought a bike in Kyrgyzstan and hand made panniers from plastic jerrycans.

The Khargush pass kept worrying us and Kobe’s and François’ report about it didn’t calm our nerves. We were both pretty exhausted and were not feeling pushing our bikes for days. So we chickened out, we got a ride instead. It actually turned out great. The views from the car were amazing, we loved just soaking it all in. The car broke down of course, but that only gave us more time to enjoy the scenery. Thirty minutes later we were on our way again, to be dropped off at the highest point of the pass.

Dreamy asphalt

We cycled for about 25 kilometers on the worst road so far and pushed our bikes through deep sand. Not having had to endure the climb of the Khargush we were both having so much fun. We literally bounced on the road, enjoying the washboard way too much. It was hilarious. When the asphalt of the M41 was back in sight, we decided it would be the perfect place to pitch our tent. Dreaming of smooth roads we fell asleep.

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