”Well this is all about my problems to get out of drugs,
cause I had enough of that,
I’ve had the college,
I’ve had the earning the money,
and the material trip,
I just decided I was going to find a new way of life
And so I took off on my bicycle…”
I was alone, one week out of Khorog, on the edge of madness through exertion and hunger, when this song came on my little portable sound system. It reminded me of university. The lyrics, the sentiment and the cheerful riff – the memory – made me smile at my immediate situation. I had indeed taken off on my bicycle; I was certainly finding a new way of life; eat, sleep, cycle, repeat. It was one of those moments that I’ll always remember. If you can, put that track on now, as you read all about the Pamir Highway Social Club.
Bad News Bertie
‘There is a Swiss couple up ahead. You’ll meet them in a few days. They are very heavy. You don’t want to be heavy up there. A heavy bike is a big problem. You’re OK, not too heavy. Don’t carry more than two days food.’ Bertole breathlessly but helpfully informed me. I was the south side of Toktogul reservoir on my way from Bishkek to Osh, the sun was high in the clear blue Central Asian sky and the unmistakable scent of wild flowers wafted by as we spoke. Bertole was the first of a great many cyclists I would meet in the next eight weeks carrying news of the cyclists heading West on the road ahead. Bertole would become an ominous harbinger where the Swiss couple were concerned and his information, like that of almost every traveler encountered on the infamous Pamir Highway, would prove to be highly subjective and consequently wildly inaccurate.
Jonas and Emma
I fell in love with Jonas and Emmanuelle the moment I saw them swimming, lounging and grazing by a popular lake a days ride from Toktogul, the day after I’d spoken with Bertole the Austrian. That night we camped together, making a feast of pasta, bread, honey and beer. We set off next day for Osh. We would spend the next two months together. No sooner had we got back on our bikes after a hearty lunch at one of the many large roadside chai-khannas just outside Jal Alabad when we ran into a older German guy named Aldo, dressed head to toe in black lycra, sweating profusely. ‘You’ll need at least a weeks food. And don’t bother with the Wakhan, the M41 is just the same. Not worth all that effort on the dirt road.’ Aldo wheezed, contradicting the view of Bertie the Bullshitter in a puff of hot breath. We thanked the fat MAMIL and cantered on our way, mulling the fact that cycle tourers seem only able to agree to disagree.
Two days later, just as we rolled into Osh on a busy Tuesday evening, Jonas pulled up by the roundabout at the main bazaar. ‘I have a problem’ Jonas grimaced, in a mixture of frustration and resignation as the heat of evening wrapped its sweaty cloak around our tired bodies. His rear rim had split. It was a very big problem. In Central Asia the only place you can buy a reasonably reliable rim is from AT House in Bishkek. 983km back along the M41. Over two 3,250m passes. We were in Osh to rest up for few days before setting out for the mighty Pamirs. Adrian would arrive in a few days with supplies and spares from the UK. We checked in to Osh Guest House and sat sipping hot chai, staring at the fractured wheel rim wondering what options were available to replace the rear wheel on Jonas’ bike.
Our evening meal was a thin soup with piece of meat and a handful of rice. It was the first week of Ramadan and we were beginning to worry about our future calorie intake in the coming month cycling over one of the worlds toughest mountain ranges. The good news was that the rim could be replaced. The second piece of luck was that the wheel could be put in a taxi and delivered directly to the Osh Guest House. The kicker was that the wheel would arrive the day after Adrian arrived. All things considered, a very good result. ‘Jonas, how old are the rims on the bike?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know. The bike is second hand’ he answered. ‘Do you think you should replace the front wheel while you have chance?’ I suggested. ‘Oh, no. The front one is fine.’ Jonas replied. We rested up, ate well and waited for Adrian and the wheel to arrive.
Adrian, my cycle wifey. My best mate.
Adrian and I rolled tentatively away from Osh main bazaar with full panniers and empty stomachs. Seeking our lunch at the earliest opportunity we struck out with nervous excitement into the heat of the midday sun, as all mad dogs and Englishmen do. Forty minutes and a dozen kilometres later, we suspected that we were going the wrong way. “I think we’re too far south mate” Ade mused as he pulled into the shade of tree. “Can we cut across this river and over the ridge?” says I. “Nah, we gotta do a U-ey” Ade frowned. Starved to the point of madness, we trundled back to the M41 and dived in to the first restaurant we could see. The upshot of our detour was that after lunch we ran into Jonas and Emma. The gang of four set forth with purpose to find a camp a few score kilometres out of the bustling city.
The next two days took us up and over the first major pass in a succession of plus 3,500m climbs to arrive in Sary Tash, a major junction between China, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan. We took a day off to acclimatise at Hotel Tatina before setting off, a day ahead of Emma and Jonas, into the Roof of the World.
Carlos Juan Popolo and Maria
The M41 is notorious for a number of reasons; its high altitude earns it the impressive title ‘Roof of the World’, the westerly headwind is enough to make your eyes water and your legs tire in minutes – something akin to riding into a metaphorical brick wall (travelling East to West as we were earned us this blessing) , and the surface of the road is hideous. In the Wakhan Valley the road is nothing more than a dusty gravel and dirt track optimistically tacked on to the lower edge of mountains that tower more than five thousand metres above. The vista of the Hindu Kush is earned with every single stroke of the pedal.
It was this sentiment that Carlos Juan Popolo shared as we stood chatting at a roadside cafe high up in Kyrgyzstan, on the cusp of entering Tajikistan. ‘Where are you from?’ I asked. ‘Germany’, answered Carlos. ‘I think we’ve met before, in a valley in Greece. You’re Carlos.’ I exclaimed with surprise and bewilderment at the recognition. ‘Yes, yes, I remember now. You look different. Taller. Thinner. James!’. Carlos and I had met almost one year to the day on a hot Greek road at the beginning of our respective trips. Chance had brought us together in a very remote place. In quite different circumstance; back then we were alone and focussed, Carlos seemed sullen, angry even. Now, having met a beautiful Spanish woman in Pondicherri, India and convnced her to join him on his trip to Uruaguay, his countenance was much lighter, brighter. He was a happy man. Maria too was happy, having survived her introduction to adventure cycle touring on one of the worlds toughest roads.
Ade had already checked us in to the Pamir Hotel in Murgab when I arrived somewhat confused by the scene outside what looked like a very real and proper hotel in the middle of the Pamir Highway. We had spent the last three hours pushing our bikes and ourselves to the limit into a savage headwind. Our first night in Tajikistan would be spent in a very comfortable bed in a very real hotel. I was a happy cyclist. Ade ducked into the shower sharpish, I was wired and hectic after the exertion, I swooped directly to the restaurant for a very large meal of kordak (lamb chops with onions) and a hefty plate of crinkle cut chips. As I walked to the back of the packed dining room, amid loud boisterous London chatter, I noticed a familiar head of wavy grey hair sat atop a very familiar maroon down jacket. I sat at the next table, patiently eavesdropping on the conversation between Blanca and her friend.
‘Hey Blanca’ I beamed with a playful smile. ‘Remember me?!’ I added for show. ‘JAMES! I don’t believe it! You’re here in Murgab. In the Pamir. Wow!’ Blanca squealed excitedly before getting up and wrapping a wonderful hug around me. ‘You gave me tea at the Cycle Touring Festival! Special green tea. You were trying to get rid of some things because you thought you had too much stuff. I remember. How fantastic. This is really amazing!’ Blanca said. ‘It really is’ I agreed, hardly able to believe it myself. Blanca and I had met more than one year before on the very weekend that I started my journey from Clitheroe, Lancashire, at the first ever Cycle Touring Festival. We were sat together now at 4,000m altitude, having crossed a continent in opposite directions to be reunited for a brief and beautiful dinner on the Roof of the World. You couldn’t make it up. ‘Did you meet Carlos and Maria?’ asked Blanca. ‘We did indeed, it’s the second time I met Carlos’ I explained. Ade joined us post shower and we regaled him with the story of our first meeting and the wonder of this fortuitous meeting in this wild place.
Emile and Lillian
Ade and I stopped for an early lunch as we often do when we’re pushing big days. Just as we began packing up our treats, a large baby blue four wheel drive pulled up next to us. ‘Hello there’ cried the driver. ‘Hullo’ said Adrian. The vehilce was a 1982 Toyota Land Cruiser, it had done over three quraters of a million kilometres, down the side were the names of 196 countries visted by the occupants. Emile and Lillian have been traveling the world in the same car since before I was born. Understandably, they are in the Guinness Book for this reason; they’ve visited every single country on the planet. They are now visiting the 50 or so remaining ‘independent states’ as a final closure on their truly epic journey. ‘How do you pay for trip like this?’ I asked. ‘In the 1970’s I was working in software, I designed an accounting program for business and it really took off.’ explained Emile. ‘You’re like the Swiss Bill Gates’ I joked. ‘Yes, something like that..’ Emile laughed as he drove slowly towards an iconic world record.
Lotta and Lady Princess
The rumour of Lotta and Lady Princess preceded the actual meeting by some weeks. Since Osh, Emma had talked about a Finnish girl in the company of the mysterious ‘Lady Princess’ and of three English doctors heading our way. I think Emma was hoping to set me up with one of these women. I had the feeling that Emma felt a little sorry for me being alone for so long. Like all rumours on the 2016 Pamir season, I took it with a pinch of salt, whilst secretly hoping for it to be true. ‘It’s so beautiful. I had to stop three times to cry.’ Lotta near shouted in her heavily accented lilt of Finnish English. We knew what she meant. The Wakhan was stunning.
It transpired that Lotta and I had carved a similar path across South East Asia, up through Myanmar and India to arrive in Central Asia at roughly the same time. We shared a few highlights and agreed that although it was weird cycling as part of a large group after such a long solo journey, that indeed the group did have some benefits. We also learned that Lady Princess is the name of Lottas beloved bicycle.
Women On Wheels
We finally met Women On Wheels in the middle of the Wakhan Valley, at a small homestay next to the BiBi Fatima hot spring. The group had just returned from the hot spring and were about to leave, so our meeting was short. Lucky Pete, Amandas boyfriend, had flown out for this section, so it was important for the gang to keep moving. After a half hour chat, Women On Wheels, Lucky Pete, Lotta and Lady Princess disappeared into the dust of the Wakhan Valley. Taking a tip from the gang, Ade and I took a hearty meal, a long nap then set out for the famous Bibi Fatima hotspring. Our evening was a mini adventure; after a relaxing hour in the hot sulphuric waters in the company of a few dozen naked Tajik blokes we found ourselves a small table in the adjoing restaurant with a view looking out across the Hindu Kush. We ordered a beer and reflected on the journey so far. Then with the help of our driver; visited the local sanatorium, had a lock in at the local shop and were very late for supper.
It was a week later when we met up again with the gang, at a hostel cum high school in the town of Ishkashim. The president had been in the town that very day so police presence was at fever pitch. Huge posters of El Presidente adorened every available large surface – the man literally everywhere – picking tiny flowers by a river, walking through poppy fields, beaming a sinister smile at every opportunity from three metres up. It was insane. But clearly the visit was a big deal for the GBAO region. The people seemed quite happy about it. There was talk of investment and new infrastruture, which was desperately needed in many areas of the Gorno-Badshan autonomous region.
We shared a few beers and stories and decided that the next day we would leave together and cycle for a day or two. Our first night under the stars as a group brought us to a spot just big enough for four tents and seven bikes. We pitched up on the banks of the Panj, just metres away from Afghanistan. It was a fucking beautiful setting. Just as we were putting in the last peg, across the river, an armoured pick up truck with a machine gun tower in the back drove silently by with its blue light flashing. We all looked up, exchanged glances and silently hoped it was nothing more than a routine patrol.
We prepared a delicious meal of pasta and chicken tikka (the ration packs Ade had picked up in UK were a real treat) followed by a dessert of white chocolate brownie, which was the envy of the camp, as were our Thremarest chairs – Ade and I reclined in relative luxury feastng on the finest fare in the Pamir. Soon after bedtime, we heard the scurry of some large, clawed spiders scuttiling up and over the tops of the tent. Jenny had got out for a wee when the scorpion like creatures made their attack. ‘Fuck, fuck fuck, they’re really fast! Quick – let me in!’ cried Jen. ‘The zips stuck!’ wailed Louise.
The next day took us to another hot spring. Lucky Pete was feeling a bit unlucky – the heat, the terrain and keeping up with Women On Wheels had taken its toll – he decided that the 6km journey up to the spring would be better taken by car, so we all took the opportunity to throw our bags into the marshutka and race like demons up the rocky track to a tasty meal (one of the best in Tajikistan) a good bed for the night and a long soak in the rejuvenating waters of the spring.
My best mate, Adrian Redfern
With a heavy heart and tired legs, Adrian had to make a very tough decision. We’d arrived at the Pamir Lodge in Khorog at the Western end of the Wakhan Valley in good time. Not enough time though for Ade to continue by bike. The route via the North Road ahead was as tough as the previous two weeks; rough track, strong headwind and high passes – so tough that cars took a longer more managable south road. These considerations combined with Ade having only ten days to make his flight home from Dushanbe meant that this was the end of the road for the brotherly bikers. We said good bye on a hot Monday lunchtime, and as Ade rolled away in the air conditioned sanctuary of a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser, I felt at a loss for words, so just smiled and waved.
The updside was that because we’d planned the food to last the two of us to Dushanbe, I could eat like a king for the next two weeks. Easy come, easy go. I left next day with Lotta and Lady Princess. At noon, opposite the turn for the Barthang Valley we met Hubert The Spy, we took a leisurely lunch with this handsome Polish agent, under the influence of strong green chai we confessed all we knew about the road to Khorog, afterwards, we shook hands and went on our merry ways into another crushing headwind and surprisingly, a light drizzle.
Lotta and I parted company after just a day and a half. I had a visa to collect in Dushanbe, Lotta had no such commitments, so had the luxury of a slower pace into the city. Shortly after the town of Khali Khum is the final really big climb of the Pamirs. It’s a whisker under four thousand metres. It’s dirt track, rutted and gravelly. An obscenity to cycle. On the other side of this precipice I sailed right into the path of my friends Rachel and Patrick – RACPAT. We’d met a few months earlier cycling across the Terai in Nepal and here we were again, on the side of a huge mountain, in the middle of absolute nowhere. Genius.
Rachel and Patrick have been cycling together for more than 20 years, having met at the side of the road in New Zealand and never looked back. This trip was their anniversary ride. It was a truly wonderful thing for us to meet again. ‘Did you pass cycling superman?’ asked Patrick. ‘Haven’t seen abody today, Pat’ I mused, I knew from my Twitter account that a ‘zaney’ English guy was attempting all seven continents by bike – I was certain that this must be what Patrick was talking about. ‘Well, if you see him, let him know we’re just here. We’ll make camp for the night. Why don’t you join us?’ asked Pat. ‘I really should keep moving, I’ve got a visa waiting for me in Dushanbe, but thanks. If I see superman, I’ll tell him where you are’ I agreed.
Two kilometres down the mountainside, cape flapping in the wind, stood cycling superman, sweating out of every single orifice, worryingly red in the face and looking at his bike anxiously. ‘Hello Superman!’ I bawled. ‘Everything alright?’ I enquired. ‘The rack has snapped from the frame.’ whimpered Superman. ‘I see. Is it steel, like your muscles?’ I asked. ‘Aluminium’ bleated Superman, like the substance was his new Kryptonite. ‘Oh dear. Well, good luck with those seven continents n all that’ I offered. ‘By the way, Rachel and Patrick are just up the road, you’ll catch them in time for tea’
Indiana Jonas and Lady Panza
At the entrance to the Wakhan Valley, many miles from anywhere or anything, Jonas’ front wheel finally split. In the same spot where Ade and I joked about the Swiss Bill Gates setting a world record, Jonas pulled up at the side of the road to repair his terminally fractured front rim with whatever he could find; gaffa tape, super glue and a bit of string is what he came up with. And so, for the next three weeks, Indiana Jonas with the beautiful, steadfast Emma riding alongside on the recenty crowned ‘Lady Panza’ (for the sheer ruggedness, toughness and of course crippling weight), edged their way slowly across one of the most revered roads in adventure travel.
Happily, the whole group were reunited at the Green House Hostel, jam packed with cyclists from far and wide, heading in numerous directions, the class of 2016 shared beers and diahrrea stories. Women On Wheels, Lucky Pete, Hubert The Spy, Aussie Ben, Lotta and Lady Princess, and last but not least, Indiana Jonas and Lady Panza spent a few days recuperanting and reflecting on the adventure of a lifetime. Three days later, after a fun filled group visit to Tajikistan’s fabulous water park with the plucky Irish couple, Nick and Steph, it was time to leave. Jonas Emma and your humble narrator stepped out into the blistering heat of another Central Asian day, Jonas having repaired his front wheel with my spare hub and a new rim, to the only appropriate tune – One Step Beyond, by Madness. Madness, we call it Madness.
Major thanks to my main man, Adrian Redfern, for coming out for the ride. To all those starring in this epic – nice one! To all the great many not mentioned in this post, thanks and good luck – may your journeys be fruitful.