Along the Afghan Border

Posted on 2019-07-21

Arriving at the Panj river, we had hoped that the worst of the heat would be over for now, with the valley being cooled by the river and with us slowly gaining altitude. It stayed hot though, and although the road surface at the beginning was perfectly smooth, the road itself was very undulating, and we soon realised that we couldn't keep up with our original itinerary. Nevertheless, the ever-changing views of the impressive, steep mountains on both sides of the valley and the low traffic on the road made up for it. The landscape was suddenly dramatically different from all that we had seen before on this trip, and we realised that we had arrived in the Pamirs.

Mountainous landscape along the Panj River on the way to Qalai Khumb

Mountainous landscape along the Panj River on the way to Qalai Khumb

It was very interesting to watch the people on the other side of the river, in Afghanistan. Their villages were noticeably poorer than those on the Tajik side, often without electricity, and people were mostly walking, riding on donkeys or on motorbikes, or tending to their fields. Some of them waved at us when they spotted us across the river, and we waved back at them. We were not worried about the Taliban swimming across the whitewater at night to get us.

Football field in a village on the Afghan side of the Panj River

Football field in a village on the Afghan side of the Panj River

The only "terrorists" we encountered, though, were the children in the Tajik villages we passed through. Once they spotted us, they would come running towards us in groups shouting greetings and questions incessantly, or carefully position themselves in the middle of the road sticking their hands out for high-5s (too often dangerously clinging on to the passing hand). If they found us when we were having a break, some of them would sit next to us and watch us eat, or start poking all around our bicycles, or worse, throw stones at us. While we realise that other people may find most of these behaviours (except the stone throwing) harmless and even endearing, we honestly found them inexplicably annoying. As we tried and failed to avoid any children (it's the school holidays and they are out everywhere), we began to feel terrorised by them - our guards would go up once we realised that we had been spotted, and we began to have really violent thoughts about how to get rid of them (we will spare you these thoughts - as long as you don't ask if we plan to have children). Thankfully, this problem slowly subsided the further we went into the Pamirs.

As we looked for a place to camp on our first night along the Panj, we were slightly alarmed when two soldiers came out from the bushes near where we had stopped to fill our bottles from a small stream. This section of the Tajik-Afghan border is heavily patrolled, and we had read several reports of travellers who had been chased away from their campsites by the military. Luckily, we managed to find a hidden place to camp that night. Over the next few days all the way to Khorog, we would regularly meet soldiers patrolling the road, always walking in groups of three, sometimes with a dog. We would pass them with a friendly nod or greeting, and there was never any trouble.

Mountainous landscape along the Panj River on the way to Qalai Khumb

Mountainous landscape along the Panj River on the way to Qalai Khumb

The next day, we found a restaurant that also had two dorm-style rooms and a shower, that seemed to be mostly targeted at long-distance truck drivers who have to stop somewhere for the night. At about 1.5€ per person to sleep there, it was unbelievably cheap, and we were happy to take a shower after two nights of camping in a row (and cycling in the heat). We also ate two good portions of food each at the restaurant before calling it a night.

By the time we reached Qalai Khumb, the first major village in the Pamirs, we were already two days behind our original schedule from Dushanbe - after one sick-day in Vose, and one extra cycling day along the Panj. About 25km before Qalai Khumb, the perfectly smooth road also abruptly turned into a bumpy gravel road, and we had heard from two cyclists passing us in the other direction that it would stay like this for a while. This caused us to reevaluate our route. At our actual, slower speed, we would need all of our visa days if we were to continue on our original plan through the Wakhan valley, where the roads are reportedly even worse, with many sandy stretches where cyclists have to push. The lack of buffer days for potential delays felt both stressful and risky, and after all the (sometimes painful) bumps on the road, we were really not so keen on off-roading any more than necessary. It was thus at this point that we decided to skip the Wakhan valley, and instead take the main Pamir Highway from Khorog to Murghab.

Mountainous landscape along the Panj River on the way to Qalai Khumb

Mountainous landscape along the Panj River on the way to Qalai Khumb

Our hostel in Qalai Khumb was nicely situated right next to (with a terrace partly above) the Khumb river, that converges with the Panj river in the village. The river was fast and raging, and had a nice cooling effect on the hostel, though the constant noise from it made it hard to talk to anyone. We met a loose group of four cyclists there, all going our way, but they were going faster than us and we didn't see them again. Having read reports from previous years of cyclists outnumbering other vehicles in the Pamirs, we were surprised at how few cyclists we had met so far. It was even more surprising that we did not meet even a single cyclist on the subsequent stretch between Qalai Khumb and Rushon, as this is a stretch that all cyclists have to take regardless of which route they are taking. It seems like the terrorist attacks last year really have had quite an impact on the number of cyclists here this year, although in reality it is probably much safer to travel here now than before.

Our hostel in Qalai Khumb, right next to the fast flowing Khumb river, a tributary of the Panj river

Our hostel in Qalai Khumb, right next to the fast flowing Khumb river, a tributary of the Panj river

Another memorial in Qalai Khumb for the cyclists who were murdered near Danghara last year

Another memorial in Qalai Khumb for the cyclists who were murdered near Danghara last year

We were quite shocked when we saw the hostel family simply empty their garbage bins (including all their guests' waste) straight into the river. Unfortunately, this seems to be the norm in villages, with only the region's capital, Khorog, having some sort of waste management. Toilets, if they exist at all, also often seem to discharge into the river instead of being safely managed in pits or septic tanks. Once we realised this, we were quite troubled for some time, but with no viable alternative to manage our own waste (let alone that of all the villages we pass), all we can do is to try to reduce the amount of waste we produce (easier said than done), and to accept that what we do throw away may just end up in Uzbekistan, where the Panj river dries up on its way to the Aral (former) Sea.

After a much needed day of rest in Qalai Khumb, we continued south, still following the Panj, on the bumpy road to Khorog. The road was patchy at best, with some smooth stretches in between rough gravel or badly patched asphalt, and we could barely look at the surrounding landscape as we had to watch the road constantly. Some of the areas we passed through were also quite sparsely populated, and it was sometimes hard to find food. Once, the bread we bought for lunch turned out to be mouldy, and there was no other shop for such a long time that we ended up being quite hungry, cranky, and stressed by the time we finally found a rather basic restaurant where we could eat. At least, we found nice camping spots for the first two nights, high above the river and hidden from the road, overlooking Afghan villages where we could watch life go on and take some spy photos of the Afghan people.

The mountainous landscape along the Panj river between Qalai Khumb and Khorog

The mountainous landscape along the Panj river between Qalai Khumb and Khorog

Afghan village life in the mountains along the Panj river between Qalai Khumb and Khorog

Afghan village life in the mountains along the Panj river between Qalai Khumb and Khorog

Desperate for a shower again, we were looking for accommodation the following day, but the "guesthouse" marked on our map turned out to be the home of a friendly family running a popular roadside restaurant. Their house had neither a shower nor a toilet, but we stayed anyway, washing ourselves as the locals do - outside with a bucket, more or less in public. We then ate three portions of food at the restaurant before retiring into the comfortable guestroom of their traditional Pamiri house.

The traditional Pamiri house where we stayed in for a night in Qalot, a village between Qalai Khumb and Khorog

The traditional Pamiri house where we stayed in for a night in Qalot, a village between Qalai Khumb and Khorog

With Halima and her mother, whose home we stayed in for a night in Qalot, a village between Qalai Khumb and Khorog. Halima is studying geography in a university in Khorog (what an awesome subject to be studying in the Pamirs!) and was home for the summer holidays, helping at her family's restaurant where we enquired for a place to stay.

With Halima and her mother, whose home we stayed in for a night in Qalot, a village between Qalai Khumb and Khorog. Halima is studying geography in a university in Khorog (what an awesome subject to be studying in the Pamirs!) and was home for the summer holidays, helping at her family's restaurant where we enquired for a place to stay.

Two days later, we finally arrived in Khorog, yet another day behind our original schedule, thankfully now revised. If you think long-term travel is easy and relaxing, it is not (not always). There is often some bigger problem to deal with - bicycle repairs, illnesses - but it is the small everyday things that have been slowly wearing us down. On a bicycle, we are not only exposed to the elements, we are also more exposed to people, as we are going so slowly that they have more time to interact with us, whether we like it or not (if you are on any vehicle with an engine, it is basically impossible for anyone on the road to talk to you when you are moving - and this is where 90% of our interactions occur). While meeting the locals can be interesting, we are both introverts, and the sheer number of interactions every day (since entering Iran) has been far beyond our social limits. Add to that the cycling itself, and the daily challenge of finding enough food and a good place to sleep, leaves us both physically and mentally exhausted and in desperate need for a break every few days.

The mountains of the Bartang valley, one of the valleys branching off from the Panj river between Qalai Khumb and Khorog leading to the high Pamirs, reflected in a small pond just after the turn-off

The mountains of the Bartang valley, one of the valleys branching off from the Panj river between Qalai Khumb and Khorog leading to the high Pamirs, reflected in a small pond just after the turn-off

People swimming in some natural pools on the outskirts of Khorog, cooling off from the afternoon heat

People swimming in some natural pools on the outskirts of Khorog, cooling off from the afternoon heat

Sometimes, the exhaustion catches up with us and we fall sick when we finally take a rest - exactly what happened in Khorog, where Heiko came down with a long bout of diarrhoea, and we had to extend our stay from 2 nights to 6. Thankfully, the guesthouse we had booked was conducive for a longer stay, with a comfortable room (with mosquito nets on the windows and dark window shades against early sunrises - two things we had missed in many of our previous accommodations), and a fully equipped kitchen where we could prepare our own meals. At 2100m asl, Khorog was also a kind of base camp before we ascended into the high Pamirs, where we would feel the effects of altitude, so we were determined to wait out the illness and be fit before ascending further. As the last big town for a while, we also stocked up on food items that would be hard to procure further up the mountains.

Vegetable vendor in the Khorog bazaar, wearing a cabbage leaf on her head to stay cool in the heat

Vegetable vendor in the Khorog bazaar, wearing a cabbage leaf on her head to stay cool in the heat

Locals spending a warm Saturday afternoon at the swimming pool in the Khorog City Park

Locals spending a warm Saturday afternoon at the swimming pool in the Khorog City Park

Well rested and well stocked, we turned away from the Panj river and the Afghan border, and followed the main M41 along the Gunt river into the high Pamirs.