WARNING: This blog contains explicit content and an excessive amount of toilet humour.
“I FARTED!” It’s 7am on a frosty morning near Khorog when the last words you expect to hear shouted in glee boom from the tent next to us.
The shout has come from British cyclist Richard and it results in a round of applause and all of us offering our hearty congratulations. He’s grinning like a maniac in layers of dirty clothes and his face is so drawn he looks like a prisoner of war. And he’s not alone.
We’re all cold, weak and tired – Barry (the fourth member of our quartet) is huddled in a ditch after a night of explosions from both ends.
For nine days we’ve ridden crap “roads” of gravel and rock, climbed up to 3200 metres on one of the Pamir Highway’s most brutal stretches and suffered the type of terrifying stomach upset that leaves you sprinting for the nearest rock only to fall short of “making it” at the last metre.
We’ve learned what a really hard slog is all about, how little food you can actually live off while cycling for 10 hours a day and how much you can truly put your body through before quitting. But most importantly we’ve learned the golden rule of surviving the famous Pamir Highway – and that’s to celebrate the small victories, even if it means farting for the first time in days without “follow through”.
In Tajikistan’s rustic but beautiful wilderness a day feels like a week and a week feels like a month. At times it’s hard to imagine we were chugging down beers and crunching on crisps in its capital, Dushanbe, just 10 days earlier and when I look at myself on Richard’s smeared bike mirror it’s clear I’ve been through the mill. I’ve lost a couple of kilograms, there’s dirt caked under every finger nail and my lips are blistered. The night before my stomach churned like a washing machine for hours before I bolted out of the tent at midnight only to realise I hadn’t quite made it and my dreams of good food and a warm bed have become obsessive fantasies. I feel as though I’m in the trenches of a 1920s war movie but the truth is we’ve scarcely reached half way on the epic M41 route.
It was just after midday when we rolled out of Dushanbe on the less travelled but more scenic northern route towards the riverside village of Qalai Khum. The tarmac was smooth, the hills were gently rolling and there was no sign of the Pamir pain to come. Despite that the almost two weeks of eating and sloth like behaviour had left a lethargy in my legs (and a tightness in my pants) causing me to huff and puff like an obese rhinoceros.
We made it just 60km down the road before throwing our bikes off the side into a grassy lay-by and hooking into tomato pasta.Already the warm house of Vero was drifting away like a dream – along with all our new friends and the hopes I would sail through the Pamirs like an Ironman athlete.
By 9am the following morning we were back on the road and as Dushanbe disappeared the villages grew more rustic, the school children more excited and the shops more barren. In the afternoon, a long gentle descent was the reward for our morning climb but at 4pm, with just 45km under our belts, the good times came abruptly to an end. A small village seemed to mark the end of the road infrastructure and our tarmac disappeared in lieu of a washboard goat track. Bones shaking, hands jarring and flabby bellies wobbling we bumped down the track at snail pace, making it just a few more kilometres before calling “time of death”. Rolling, rocky barren hills flowed down to equally barren paddocks which in turn met the road and we camped just 20 metres in and fell reluctantly asleep to the sounds of Tajik trucks bouncing along the gravel.
For the next two days the roads worsened, the gradient increased and we began the slow and painful slug towards the first and arguably worst of the Pamir Highwway’s passes. Averaging little more than 12 kilometres per hour on the rocky, sandy tracks made the going sluggish and long days turned into a painful rhythm: cycle/push up a rocky climb (while cursing and screeching), pedal slowly down the equally rough downhill, stop for some river water and a stale biscuit and repeat.
When 5pm hit we begun the hunt for a campsite and I threw my bike to the ground with relish each time, hooking into huge servings of tomato pasta before curling up in my sleeping bag. We’d been told water wasn’t a problem on the Pamir route (especially if you’ve got a water filter) and we enjoyed not having to lug extra litres over already tough ground despite having to load up on food for sometimes days at a time.
By day three the foot of the pass came into view leaving us with almost 2000 metres to climb in about 50km through some pretty epic scenery. Already the landscapes had changed, giving way to dramatic mountain-scapes strewn with shepherds and shaggy flocks of sheep that often meandered down the only road, covering you with dust and forcing a “traffic” hold up.
There was a wildness about the region that I loved and even though my legs were burning and my heart felt close to explosion you couldn’t fail to be moved. The Tajiks seemed more reserved than the Iranians and more mild than the Turks while villages outside the cities were some of the poorest we’d seen. Electricity, plumbing and even regular food supplies dwindled the further we rose but the smiles on the kids faces beamed even brighter with constant screams of “hello hello hello” following us through the potholed streets.
By 5pm we’d covered just 38km up the brutal pass leaving a 12km push to the summit for the morning. Vero had told us of an abandoned restaurant at this crucial point (“there’s hardly anywhere else to camp”, she warned) and we pitched our tents on the cement floor with a water fountain nearby. The 2700m altitude camp meant the temperature had dropped and dinner was a quick affair before we retreated, exhausted, to the tent.
But then things got more complicated. Almost a day out from Dushanbe Richard begun to suffer from the well known “Tajikistan Tummy” and by the time we’d reached striking distance of the first summit any semblance of normal bowel activity had also buggered off. Scott all but exploded mere minutes before getting back on the bike and my stomach looked and sounded as though I was giving birth to a pterodactyl.
We had grand plans to “smash out” the last 12km of the pass by mid morning but only Richard managed to make the deadline while the rest of us huffed and puffed up the steep slope in granny gear, taking an extra 90 minutes to reach the cold and blistery top. Despite vehement swearing mere minutes earlier euphoria swept us up the minute we reached the top. It was the highest any of us had ever climbed and the fact I’d survived made me feel like Superwoman (albiet a bloody cold and tired one).
We’d realised the town and “official” start of the Pamir Highway was a mere 37km away from the summit and while we could have cycled further the lure of a guest house and our first shower in days was too strong. It was all the incentive I needed to fly back down the mountain in time for afternoon tea but in my excitement I forgot the same idiots who’d made the road on the way up, had also made it on the way down. With both hands on the brakes and our rims burning we skidded down 2000 metres over boulders, gravel and washboard. While the pain often outstripped the pleasure there was no doubt we were in seriously beautiful country.
The great craggy mountains seemed to fold in each other while impossibly blue rivers gushed alongside us. It was like something out of Lord of the Rings and I felt a little like bumbling Samwise Gamgee as I plodded along at Hobbit pace until the road flattened and opened up to the tiny town of Kalai Khum. Perched on the sapphire blue river and surrounded by lush trees it looked like a gift from the cycling gods. If you looked closer the river was the local rubbish dump and sewerage works while the houses were tattered and crumbling but with a home stay just off the main road and a supermarket next door it might as well have been New York.
We forked out an amount I’m embarrassed to admit for a shared room with no beds for the four of us and enjoyed a hot shower and dinner before scoffing down chocolate and sinking into our sleeping bags. Cyclists had told us the road from Kalai Khum to Khorog was in great condition and easy pedalling and so we slipped off into a deep sleep with the content feeling that the hard part was over.
It’s not the first time we were lied to.
From Qalai Khum the road ran right alongside the Afghanistan border and after a late start we pushed immediately uphill, pausing to buy gasoline from a roadside vendor and admire the view. A thin river separated the two countries and the difference in a few metres was stark. In Afghanistan a smattering of clay villages hugged the banks while woman walked briskly in full burqas, near men in traditional head ware. I felt somewhat liberated pedalling along in my shorts and t-shirt while waving madly at the excitable children on the opposite bank but soon my smiles faded and good old “foul-mouthed Sarah” came to the forefront.
The promised tarmac had disintegrated and the road rose brutally before dipping down and repeating in a hellish pattern. We were all tired, the sun was fierce and soon conversation dwindled to grunts as we pushed on with the harsh realisation our “big day of at least 100km” would scarcely reach half that.
Richard was also beginning to look like the guy from “Into the Wild” at the end of the movie (emaciated face, big beard and skeletal figure) as the hectic stomach upset took its toll. We wondered just how long he’d be able to push out the miles while losing everything he ate and more. It was the following day, during one of those unfortunate roadside stops that he hurtled back down the hill minutes later announcing: “I was just about to pull my pants down and take a huge sh*t when I saw four soldiers sitting in the bush next to me with their rifles”.
In an instant he’d summed up the insanity of this tiny Central Asian nation that ranks third in the world for opium busts and borders Afghanistan for over 1000 kilometres. It’s also a country where soldiers lounge about passport stops (sometimes as frequent as every 20km) and stroll down country lanes casually swinging their enormous guns and shouting out “hello hello”.
As the days rolled by we started each morning with an enormous bowl of porridge and positive affirmations that would inevitable turn to crap.
“We’ll push out 100km today I reckon,” one of us would boldly announce with the pain of yesterday’s roads and hills already forgotten.
Just two hours and 10 kilometres later, after hauling our bikes up what can only be described as a goat track pretending to be a road we were forced to realise that today, like the others would be another 50km push and we’d still be bloody knackered at the end of it.
Despite some seriously jaw-dropping scenery night was our salvation. Campsites overlooking an Afghan village, or perched in an empty park with a private water supply, never failed to inspire and even the ritualistic “pasta a la tomato, onion and garlic” was an immeasurable comfort at the end of a hard day. Together we brewed cups of tea, laughed at the day’s tantrums (I was so far in the lead) and watched the stars and milky way light up the evening sky.
With just 150km left until Khorog and the big climbs behind us we decided to put in, ignore the roads and heat and knock it out in a couple of days. Despite some bone shattering roads we’d managed 75 by 6pm and stopped to ask a farmer if we could camp in his field. An enormous noodle dinner went down a treat, the cool temperatures promised a good night’s sleep and we all retreated to our tents with aching limbs but high hopes of reaching Khorog by early afternoon. But then it all went down hill.
My stomach, like the others, had been volatile at the best of times with panicked midnight loo dashes but this time it was worse. It gurgled and churned the minute I lay down but I resolutely ignored it in a bid to avoid leaving my cosy sleeping bag. This, it turned out, was a catastrophic mistake.
Mere minutes to midnight I realised I was about to explode and dashed out of the tent in search of a ditch.
I’d wobbled barely a stone’s throw away when it all turned to, well, sh*t and with one compromised pair of pants and the entire contents of a days food splattered everywhere else I was wrecked.
It was a bloody long night I’ll never forget but for Barry, it was even longer.
The usually vibrant and chatty Londoner emerged a mere shadow of a man after an even longer night filled with explosions from both ends. He made it just 7km down the road before calling time of death and beelining for a taxi. The truth is I could have pushed on but the lure of being in Khorog six hours ahead of schedule and enjoying a nice toilet and a warm bed won over and without so much as a moral struggle the three of us also packed it in.
To this day I still don’t know what was tougher, cycling the Pamirs or that 60km car ride with a man who drove as though he’d stolen it. Either way we reached Khorog with enormous relief and headed straight for the Pamir Lodge and the knowledge that at least tomorrow there would be no packing up of the tent and panniers and no forcing our tired legs to turn the pedals.
We had just 12 days left on our Tajikistan visa and 520km to cover including five 4000+m passes but we thrust the knowledge to the backs of our minds and gave our rapidly deteriorating illnesses the full attention they deserved.
For two days our tummies erupted and we booked another day in the lodge despite knowing we were making things harder and harder for ourselves in the long run. Scott was particularly determined to cycle every inch of the Pamirs but for me the reality of such a goal in the current circumstances seemed thin.
To make things harder Barry and Richard would part ways from us (having decided to go the longer but apparently more scenic “Walkan Valley” along the Afghan border) meaning we were on our own. Two days before we departed the impressive English couple Robbie and Lucy Jebb turned up, having smashed out the Dushanbe, Khorog leg with plans to push on to the Tajikistan border with just a day off. With bodies like top triathletes and an awesome “can do” attitude I wondered if this wild route was challenging them but the pair admitted they had struggled over the first pass and its “atrocious roads” as well.
Perhaps we were all out of our depth but with our biggest climb ahead of us (4300m) I had little choice but to suck it up. And despite the seemingly endless battle the Pamirs was already proving to be the most amazing thing I had ever done.