The ‘Stans Roof of the World

Article by João Pedro Fernandes

The ‘Stans is a series of articles about one man’s journey through Central Asia by motorbike

When I first started planning this trip, Tajikistan was top of the list. Most people have never heard of it and, admittedly, I’d have struggled to place it on a map. But with the high altitude Pamir Highway, the Wakhan valley that skirts the border of Afghanistan, and lesser-known Fann Mountains, which would be a top attraction in any other country, it’s truly a biker’s paradise.

1Riding out of the final flatness of Uzbekistan, I was a little apprehensive that I’d put it on too high of a pedestal. Within 5 minutes of leaving the bonkers bureaucracy of Uzbekistan behind, when I saw the smiling faces of the border guards and customs officials all welcoming me to Tajikistan and the young officer giving me a couple of fresh green apples straight out of the gardens surrounding the border building, I knew my fears were unprecedented.

First stop on the road to Dushanbe were the Fann Mountains, where I’d heard of a beautiful camp spot next to Iskanderkul Lake. Little did I know that on a weekend it becomes the al fresco party spot for people wanting to get out of the city. With a full-on sound system set up five meters from my tent, I had little chance of sleeping and, as they say, if you can’t beat them join them. The only problem was they insisted that the foreigner dance; after a few vodkas to loosen the limbs, I reluctantly obliged. Fortunately for me, their dancing was terrible, so when I pulled out the ‘Vira’ special and danced like I was in the Portuguese countryside they were mesmerised; by now I expect the dance floors of Dushanbe will be awash with this move. A trio of Dutch climbers were also staying nearby and invited me for light hike the following day. Their definition of light varied from mine, they were straight up the mountain side like goats. After 6 months sitting on a bike with little exercise they left me wheezing in their wake, but the scenery was epic.

Between Iskanderkul and Dushanbe sits what’s marked on the map as a “dangerous tunnel,” but goes by more evocative names like “tunnel of terror” or “tunnel of death.” Fortunately it has gotten so terrifying that the authorities had seen fit to close it, kicking all the traffic up and over the 40-km Azob pass. Compared to the pass’s precarious drops, snow melt washouts, pebble strewn climbs and ankle deep dust thrown into the air by the stream of crawling lorries, the tunnel must have been truly horrendous for this to be the safe option.

This part of the world is not only a mecca for motorbikers, but also for masochistic cyclists to pit their bikes and bodies against the baking deserts and mountain passes. At the Greenhouse Hostel in Dushanbe there were maybe twenty heading east and west in equal numbers. Those coming from the Pamirs gave the first reports of what lay ahead: unseasonable rainfall, high winter snow fall combined with high summer temperatures and a landslide had taken out forty houses and closed the Pamir Highway east of Khorog indefinitely, diverting all traffic into the Wakhan valley. My intention was always to take the Wakhan, but with further reports of landslides, washed out bridges and river crossings meant it wasn’t going to be an easy ride.

The road to Khorog is less road and more track and beautiful in a stark, brown and dusty kind of way. From Qal’ai Khumb it follows the Panj River Gorge, which marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the dirty brown water boiling like hot chocolate. By the time I reached Baravin-Tar and the military check point my stomach was feeling decidedly dodgy and when a couple of bikers coming the other way said there was little in the way of flat camping ground further ahead, I pitched up with the soldiers and their tank, its barrel pointed straight across the river to Afghanistan. Grateful for a bit of company at their isolated post, they were great fun, taking me out on the tank before cooking dinner. During the night my stomach went nuclear, and I was frequently darting out into the darkness like a chicken that’s about to explode, fearful of using the torch in case the Taliban decided to take a pop shot at the squatting white man across the river. I’m sure it was unfounded worry, but the fact the soldiers had their tent pitched safely in the shadow of the tank and they’d put a young recruit with an AK-47 outside ours didn’t fill me with confidence.

When I rode into Rushon the usual crown gathered around the bike, as if a spaceman had dropped from the skies, and I proceeded to wretch the content of my stomach at the roadside. By the time I reached Khorog it took all my effort to climb off the bike and collapse into a bed, where I spent the majority of the next four days.

Feeling rejuvenated and ready to ride again I entered the Wakhan, filled with vast scenery, fertile valleys with views across to glacial capped mountains in Pakistan and kids running out from their adobe houses to wave and high five.

The next morning, the road climbed and deteriorated as quickly as the scenery became more dramatic. Rounding one sandy turn, like a white line drawn across the mountain side were a string of Chinese lorries held back by a landslide; behind that several more were stuck in the mud, another pushed into the ravine to clear the path for the ones behind. The sunset ignited the mountain scenery in gold as I crossed the Kharagush pass and rejoined the Pamir Highway.

2Once over the pass everything changed, the culture, the faces, the landscape. Although still in Tajikistan the people were distinctly Kyrgy, yurts pitched against mountain backdrops and yaks grazing on high altitude plains. By the time I reached the pass, both the bike and I were struggling to breathe. I chugged over the top and descended to Karakul before making the final climb, Ayzyl-Art Pass, under the gaze of Peak Lenin and through no-man’s-land into Kyrgyzstan.

Tajikistan is the most remarkable country and is much higher than the pedestal I’d dare to put it on, it is the roof of the world. After six months on the road, the initial excitement and enthusiasm had started to wane, but this place has reignited it. With this bike and these roads I enjoyed the riding more than ever. I was ready to turn around and do Tajikistan again but there were other countries waiting to be discovered.

João Pedro Fernandes is a traveler whose journeys have taken him to Xi’an but are not yet finished