This remote region offers the motorcycle traveller some of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes and the friendliest, most accommodating people.
Story by Paddy Tyson
Photos by Paddy Tyson & Brenda Cannon
I looked across at Brenda with questioning eyes. “Does she mean us?” I wondered.
A girl with beautifully chiselled Afghani features leaned over the rough stone wall toward us. “Please, please. Come and join us. Eat.”
She beseeched us to sit beneath the shade of the fruit and nut trees with all the people from her housing block. The dusty ground was covered with huge, intricately patterned rugs with cushions on which women and children were sitting cross-legged amid a vast spread of food.
“Please, you must eat. You are our guest and we are honoured.”
We clambered over the wall and settled ourselves, still half-disbelieving, amid smiling faces. My rumbling stomach was what had taken us down a few alleys and into this street in search of a restaurant. Huge bowls of plov (a rice dish with shredded vegetables and meat) arrived along with naan flatbread, fresh hot tea, sambusa and manti (meat and onion pasties and dumplings), soup, cakes, watermelon, bowls of Russian sweets… It didn’t stop.
After 10 days in Tajikistan, being welcomed by strangers with open arms and offered tea, bread and more in their homes, or to have people approach to just shake hands and wish me an enjoyable time in their country, wasn’t a total surprise. But this encounter was party time. Complete with balloons.
“Where you from?” “What you name?” the kids shouted almost in unison. “Welcome, welcome in Tajikistan! Salam alaikum!”
And then there was dancing. I’m not proud of that part.
A Worthy Celebration
We’d arrived in the southeast city of Khorog, the largest town in the Pamirs, during the third and final day of celebrations to mark the Diamond Jubilee of the 49th Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. A billionaire living in Switzerland, he is revered as much for the development fund he established in the Pamirs as for his spirituality – and rightly so. The multilingual population who surrounded Brenda and I now all had benefited from the liberally inclusive education policy he supported. And the “roads” we’d been experiencing throughout the region had been carved out of the most difficult, ever-changing and unforgiving landscape with his money. I couldn’t be more grateful for the entertainment the roads had so far provided, so I was more than happy to raise a cup of refreshing green tea. “To the Aga Khan!”
Brenda and I looked at each other and beamed. We were absolutely filthy. My Rev’it Kevlar jeans could have stood up on their own as they were so impregnated with the mud and dust of the fourth-highest mountain range in the world, but no one minded. We couldn’t have been happier. Having the opportunity to ride bikes through some of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes is as humbling as it is exhilarating, but the fact that at every stop there’s opportunity for meaningful social interaction makes exploring eastern Tajikistan magical.
A Great Honour
A week earlier, we’d settled down for the night in a mosque in the village of Kala i Hussein. Recent flash flooding had removed a large section of the “homestay” facility in the village, so why wouldn’t the imam offer some travelling motorcyclists the use of mosque’s facilities? It seemed the most natural thing in the world.
Within Islam there is no greater honour than to help travellers, and this is magnified, I’m sure, by the history of the ancient Silk Road trade that this region is steeped in. A day later, my nosy glance behind a gate led to an invitation to tea and my first taste of the region’s exquisite mince dumplings, all enjoyed while sitting in a veritable Garden of Eden. I was barely 100 metres from Afghanistan. I left with pockets full of apples.
Flash floods are a part of life here; roads change their appearance daily when water decides to choose a new route and either utilize the course of, or simply destroy, the highway. Bridges have only conceptual permanence. But inconvenience can be part of any exploration, and I was enjoying the challenge of every social and meteorological variable.
Upon entering the semi-autonomous east Tajikistan, the tarmac becomes a distant memory. The entire region is defined by soaring peaks and plunging valleys that house sediment-laden rivers that carve away the surrounding land. Much of the ground is shale, so it has no stability, and what sudden heavy rain doesn’t dislodge, the weekly seismic tremors will soon shift. In this dynamic landscape, the life of a road is a perilous one, and the life of a truck driver more so.
The roads, scoured from the sides of cliffs, are often barely a lane-and-a-half wide and the weight of trucks that grumble along in first and second gear is generally more than the roads can bear – which means they often give way, ensuring everything falls to a watery end. And, no, I won’t pretend that riding them in the knowledge of their imminent
demise doesn’t add a certain frisson of excitement to the whole endeavour. In the dry, the routes are a challenge to bike and rider; in the wet, roads can be almost impassable. When the gravel and boulders do recede, they’re replaced by sand or red laterite. The latter, when wet, becomes a slimy clay surface with the grip coefficient of ice.
Coming to terms with the pummelling my XR250 and body were taking, I felt I was beginning to master the little bucking Honda. With relaxed shoulders and a lighter grip on the handlebar, I upped the pace toward a lunch stop. But having stopped to photograph an amazing vista, I felt something wasn’t right. I took a gamble and powered past a Land Cruiser just before a downhill straight, but a couple of massive deflections from unseen rocks caused my bike’s front-end to skitter all over the place. Repeatedly over the next 15 km, I thought I was going down, or over the edge into oblivion, as I fought to control what was becoming a recalcitrant beast.
Rain began to fall and I shouted at myself to pull it together. Speed was my friend in these situations, so why wasn’t I concentrating? Why all these crazy moments? Why was I failing to control this little red menace? I knew I could do better. Then we pulled into a spot in front of a little café and I noticed the flat front tire, now partly off the rim.
Big Repairs, Small Problem
With our bikes being pounded by corrugations and never-ending potholes and boulders, punctures were an almost daily occurrence. Brenda’s TTR250 Yamaha broke its frame in a couple of places, but that was a minor inconvenience for the bush mechanics who can always salvage what seems to be the direst mechanical failure. As Farkhod, our Tajik guide, wryly said, “Pamir always try to kill bike.”
The front sprocket on my XR shed most of its teeth in sympathy when we were at an altitude of almost 4,000 metres. It was a stunning place for a breakdown. Looking over the Wakhan Valley, there was a commanding view from the Yamchun Fort, which has kept a watchful eye on this important Silk Road route since the third century BC.
We booked in to the little hotel nearby. Over a glass of Tajik “Sim-Sim” beer, I reflected on a stunning day, during which we enjoyed another full day’s ride along the mighty Panj River, looking across the border with Afghanistan. In an arid, treeless environment, the peace of my surroundings was palpable and the juxtaposition of horrific media reports from Afghanistan and the scene of absolute serenity that I was witnessing a stone’s throw away was remarkable. I hoped that throwing rocks across an international boundary wouldn’t start a diplomatic incident.
Partway through that day, the view across the Panj was into both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush dwarfing the strip of Afghan land on the other side of the river, which is a mere 14 km wide at this point. I just sat and stared, trying to compute exactly what I was looking at; exactly what the social and economic differences were that existed across that river; and exactly how fortunate I was to be right here, now, witnessing such beauty.
As evening approached, a welder was delivered to the hotel so work on rebuilding my front sprocket could begin. Alex, who was travelling overland from New Zealand on a 660 Ténéré, stepped up to offer his fabrication services by recreating 13 shiny new teeth and grinding down the finished item to suit. The sprocket would still be working perfectly 1,500 km later as we rode into Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.
As the sun slipped behind the permanently snow-clad peaks surrounding us, we breathlessly walked a little farther uphill and stepped into a cave to find one of the fabled hot springs that dot the area. There wasn’t a hint of sulphurous odour, but the water was the temperature of a barely manageable hot bath: a real pore cleanser. At such altitude, and without attendant active volcanoes, sitting there in the steamy darkness just seemed weird – but even more surreal was the glacial river thundering past immediately beside us.
I was a happy and contented bunny as I climbed into my bed that night, despite the fact it listed dramatically to starboard. But, alas, the wee small hours found me hugging the only piece of porcelain in the premises. That’s so often the problem with choosing the healthy salad option.
As the days of contentment rolled by, the scenery was transformed as we headed toward the border with China. Riding along the high plateau, denuded of vegetation but for some fine-bladed grass and tiny ground-hugging shrubs near water sources, was like riding through another world.
Up here, it’s hard to comprehend that the small hill you’ve just climbed has the altimeter confirming another 4,300-metre pass. Winter temperatures lower than -50°C are common and the practicality of the warmth and comfort afforded by a yurt heated with yak dung becomes apparent. The interior decor of the one we dined and slept in at the delightfully named Jarty Gumbez far exceeded my imaginings, and the heat the central stove generated was as exceptional as the warmth of our welcome. I may be wrong, but I’m sure the family who vacated their home for us slept in their Moskovitch car.
A Town with no Purpose
And then, following a few more detours due to flooded valleys, we rolled into the town of Murghab. It’s the largest in the extreme east of the country and yet doesn’t appear to have any reason to exist. It will soon be on a crossroads when the new highway into China is opened, but for now the town resembles the set of a Mad Max movie. Low, flat-roofed, whitewashed block and dung houses with sky-blue wooden doors are scattered throughout the dust of a lunar landscape among a forest of rough-hewn wooden telegraph poles made incongruous by the fact that the closest live trees are weeks away by truck.
The bazaar keeps the concept of trade alive, but affords little permanence as it’s just a collection of old shipping containers. Fuel – as in most of Tajikistan – is dispensed from a bucket and occasionally metered, but suits the “end of the earth” ambience. People shield their faces against dust devils that spin up alleyways and past abandoned wheel-less Lada cars. Dogs bark, but often to warn of approaching wolves that survive mostly on a diet of local yellow marmots.
We called this otherworldly place home for a couple of days, riding through the surrounding valleys that weren’t closed due to localized flooding. I went to see a statue of Lenin, which this poor sidelined town was delighted to receive even though they did so long after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Up here, the ethnicity of the people is distinct. The Kyrgyz look is more Mongolian versus the Tajiks we had visited with, but the hospitality offered is the same. I was even given an opportunity to ride a prized 350 IZH, a Soviet-era two-stroke machine that’s even more crude than a tractor and unbelievably unappealing. The fact the bike had no brakes was irrelevant.
Two weeks through a country is rarely enough time to understand it, but the welcoming nature of the people makes Tajikistan a wholly immersive experience, and they get under your skin with the same ease that the nation’s dust adheres to every crevice of your kit and clothing.
But it all amounts to a riding challenge like no other in an exceptionally beautiful part of the world. And I’ll raise a glass of hot green tea to that, and to the Aga Khan!