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The Great Central Asia Bicycle Trip: Part Four, Masks of Apathy

Chris Walker and Morgan Hartley spent three months cycling through central Asia as part of an 18-month bike trip. Here is part four of five, on the border of Afghanistan.

See part one, part two, part three, and part five.

We’d been on the bike for 6 hours and 15 minutes when the road turned bad again. The road was carved into the side of a cliff, the Panj River dashing downwards beneath it. Above us were a few villages, surrounded by the fruit orchards and grazing pastures that define the lower Pamirs.

Chris stopped.

“You want to get some water at one of those towns and start looking for a campsite?”

“Sure,” I responded. “Feeling tired?”

Chris smiled and sighed. “Yeah.”

Our daily goal was 7 hours of riding, but in the mountains we almost never made it. We both seemed to hit a wall somewhere after the six-hour mark. It had been a long day in the sun, and the roads had been brutal. Both of us crumbled over our handlebars as we looked at the last hill to the villages.

Crossing the river.

Crossing the river.

It was day six of what would become a three-week journey across Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway—all part of a larger, 3-month bike trip across Central Asia. Constructed by the Soviet military between 1931 and 1934, the highway is considered one of the great trophies of bicycle touring. It is rugged, trying, awe-inspiring. It first winds along the Panj River, where riders can wave to Afghan villagers on the other side of its banks. Then it hurdles the cyclist over 14,000-foot passes to the Pamir Plateau, a high desert with rugged peaks jutting out of a flat plain. Finally, exhausted cyclists are deposited in the green valleys of Kyrgyzstan. We were starting to feel the burn already, and we hadn’t even gotten to the plateau yet. But we had no idea just how long and difficult that evening would be.

We grunted and got back on our bikes and pedaled to village. But the village had no springs, and Chris cycled past it and dropped over the next hill.

I sprinted after him. “Why the hell didn’t you stop?”

“There wasn’t any water.”

“Would it have been that hard to stop and ask someone?”

Chris’ response was not unreasonable— water was everywhere in the Pamirs. It was easier to just keep going until a spring appeared on the roadside. I was still irked. I’d promised myself a campsite soon, and now I was forced to keep riding.

“Let’s just keep cycling until we find a spring.”

“Okay”

The words were colored with the steely tone of apathy.

We’ve been on the road together for 19 months, and we’ve come to depend on each other to cope with the stresses of travel. The other guy is the reason you hold it together when you’re nervous or scared, or just tired and hungry. In the tougher moments, our movements and words become slow and calculated; we do our best to be stoics. We both know how infectious frustration or pessimism or fear is, and neither of us wants to be the one who sourced it. Even if there is a breach in stoicism, and one of us has an outburst (not uncommon), we have a rule for that: the five-minute rule. We stop and breathe and let it pass. Within five minutes the conflict must be forgotten.

Chris at the lake.

Chris at the lake.

We were at the edge of that frame of mind now, the mode where a two-kilometer detour, an impassable road, or even a snapped derailleur would be treated with the same indifference—just barriers to hurdle before we found camp and got to eat.

It was less than a kilometer past the village when we hit the first barrier. The police checkpoint was a small hut of chipped concrete that stood at the base of a massive hill of switchbacks.

The guard came out arrogantly, his shirt untucked, an absurdly large green police cap running a wide halo around his head, vinyl visor shined. He motioned us in, where two of his colleagues were lounging on small chairs and playing with a cell phone. The fat officer took our passports, then reached over and fingered the two earrings that hang off my left earlobe. He made a slight thrust with his pelvis and cracked a joke in Tajik, which caused uproarious laugher in the guardroom. There had been no end to the gay jokes in Central Asia that the earrings had prompted.

All the officer had to do was write down our passport and visa numbers and send us on our way. Instead, he joined the other guards to play with their cell phone.

Chris sank his teeth into his lower lip and held back expletives. He watched the antics for a few minutes before he couldn’t take it anymore.

“You done with our passports?”

The fat guard looked up with surprise as if he’d forgotten we were there. He handed us back our passports, without even having opened mine, and imperiously waved us out. He’d written nothing down.

One barrier down. Now for the hill.

After filling our bottles with water from a container near the guardhouse, we remounted and began the tough kilometer of switchbacks at an eight percent grade. We were well past the physical wall. Left leg then right leg, left leg then right leg, eyes glued no more than five feet in front of the bike. When at last we crested the hill, we descended on the Panj’s southern fork, where we met a vista that reminded us of why we had come.

On the other side of the river was a towering set of peaks, capped in glaciers that shimmered as the last rays of sun grazed them at 20,000 feet. A course of waterfalls and canyons led brooks down the peaks to the Panj, and cascading down the mountain with them was an Afghan city. Mud dwellings (with satellite TV dishes) were spread at the base, and as the cliffs grew steeper the houses seemed to be carved into the rock.

Things looked good on our side too—we spotted a small dirt path that led off the road to the top of a cliff, where it looked as if there might be places hidden from the road. We’d even get to keep the view; breakfast at sunrise would be beautiful. We smiled at our fortune, the apathy melting away.

We were so tired that it took us fifteen minutes to find the energy to change into camp clothes. Longer to set up a stove and start boiling water; rice and salt were the delicacies of the evening. I sat watching the rice cook, stirring it occasionally, impatiently taking bites to see how it was doing. Chris was up the hill reading his kindle. We sat and soaked in our fatigue, and occasionally turned our heads to look at the brightening stars of the moonless night, blissful at the rest we were going to get.

That’s when two German Shepherds appeared out of the ink. Chris yelled “Shit! Dogs!” and picked up the tent poles to beat them off. I started running through the campsite looking for rocks. But the German Shepherds stayed on the perimeter. It was then we saw the silhouettes of three soldiers sprinting up the hill towards us, spread out in attack formation.

Chris dropped the tent poles, fast, and before we knew it they were in our campsite. The soldiers were breathing heavily, wild-eyed and surprised as they skidded to a halt. A brief stare-off ensued before they finally lowered their Kalashnikovs and clicked them back into safety.

The first thing they did was ask us for cigarettes; they were still pumped full of adrenaline. We chuckled nervously and apologized for being non-smokers, but offered them some of our still-cooking rice. They broke into smiles and shook our hands, asking us where we were from.

“America?! Ooooooooohhhh!!!”

Radios crackled. Word was out that the attack objective was two stupid Americans. We were then told, with some kindness, to leave. We begged them for twenty minutes to pack up our stuff. They looked at each other hesitantly, and then they nodded.

As soon as they left, we sat there miserably. We thanked the stars it was the army, and not the police, because they had better things to do then to deal with two bike tourists. Then we ate the rice as fast as we could and broke camp. The soldiers came back in 15 minutes to check on us, just as we were leaving.

It turns out that we had camped less than 1 kilometer from an Afghan border crossing; the soldiers may have thought our lights were signaling drug traffickers on the other side of the river. As we passed the bridge slowly, eking out the road with our lights, the soldiers waved cheerfully, and we did our best to wave back. They were just doing their jobs.

We had our masks of apathy firmly fixed back on, and we navigated slowly around the rocks with stone faces. I had the only bike light worth anything. Chris stayed right on his tail as I talked him through the rough patches, but we couldn’t find a suitable camp spot anywhere. Eventually the road carved straight into a cliff without a spare meter to put up a tent. Icalled a stop on the last scrap of bank, which jutted less than thirty feet away from the road. “Let’s just get out of headlight range.”

“Okay.”

We set up the tent just off the side of the road, rolling around to try and flatten out the lumps. We hoped no passing trucks would be too observant. Then we curled up to go to sleep.

“Well, this isn’t so bad.” Chris said.

“Guess not.”

Next: the end of the road.

Previous: making coffee for the locals in Samarkand.

Read more about Chris and Morgan at Postulate One.