Chris Walker and Morgan Hartley spent three months cycling through central Asia as part of an 18-month bike trip. Here is part one of five of their account, in which their trip is almost thwarted from the start.
“Chris and Morgan. Paris. 16 months cycling” we monotoned, introducing ourselves to the other guests at the Caspian Hostel in Baku.
The hostel owner had put all the cyclists together in a darkened den underneath the main part of the building. It was a wise call, considering the olfactory onslaught of beer, salt-caked bicycle jerseys, and musty bike shoes that greeted our noses. We smiled. We were among our people.
“Mark. Berlin. Four months cycling.”
“Wen and Simon. Stockholm. Three months cycling.”
There was a guy from Greece, one from Germany, and a pair from Belgium. Each cited their starting locations and months on the road like it was an identification number.
There were bicycles crammed into every nook and cranny of the hostel courtyard. They weren’t ordinary bikes; they sported flags, and stickers, and were drawn upon with markers with witty sayings like, “May the wind be with you.” They could only belong to bicycle tourists.
We’d joined the small, but colorful fraternity of vagabonds when we pedaled out of Paris the previous spring. The idea of the trip was born at the end of college, in a hazy evening at a Chicago bar. Neither of us felt inspired at the thought of an office—we wanted to travel—but the backpacker’s circuit held no interest. Instead, we wanted to try something so difficult we doubted we could finish. Bicycling seemed a worthy candidate. So we challenged each other to raise the money we’d need for two years of traveling and cycle 10,000 miles across Eurasia. It was a natural partnership. In the 10 years since we met running cross-country in middle school, we had been each other’s go-to buddy for outdoor adventures.
The original goal was a straight line to Shanghai, but it was not to be. By the time we’d cycled through Turkey, it was already August. The high passes of Tajikistan would be snowed over by the time we got there. To the south, Iran was closed to us as Americans. The only way forward was an airplane.
So we flew to India, to spend the year cycling the subcontinent and Southeast Asia. But as we loaded our boxed-up bicycles on the plane, we made a pact that we would come back to Central Asia next summer, to cross the Caspian and the Steppe, that we wouldn’t cheat and head straight to Shanghai from Southeast Asia.
Ten months later, with dirtier bikes and skinnier bodies, we found ourselves in Baku, the neo-futuristic oil capital of Azerbaijan.
Baku is the staging ground of the Central Asian crossing, which is considered the cardinal trophy among bicycle tourists. Looking at a map, it is easy to see why. Whether the crossing begins in Aktau, a Caspian oil port in southern Kazakhstan, or in Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan’s equivalent, cyclists face thousands of kilometers of atrocious roads across a dusty and flat expanse of nothingness before reaching Uzbekistan’s historic Silk Road cities. Bursting winds can whip up sandstorms and delay travel for days, and parts of the road do not have a town for 300 kilometers. Then travelers are faced with the mountains of Tajikistan. That’s where the real challenge begins, as the Pamir highway swerves along the Afghan border and takes one over majestic passes as high as 15,000 feet. Through snow and unpredictable weather, the road levels out over the high plateaus of Kyrgyzstan, and finally ends in Kashgar, China, where one either heads east over the Gobi desert or south to Tibet.
Summer is the best time of year to make the crossing, and, judging from our new-found hostel friends, we weren’t the only ones in Baku making a grab for the trophy.
We played a short game of luggage tetris to create free space for our bike panniers, and jumped in on the conversation about rough stretches of road, the difficulty of getting camping stoves through airport security, and the countries with the best beer.
Mostly, though, we talked about visas. The den was a sort of war room, and reports from the ground were delivered in rounds as if to a general. “What’s the latest from the Tajikistan embassy?” we asked. The situation is always changing with Central Asian visas, and we felt lucky to have troops who’d faced down the enemy just before our arrival.
“Ask for Mikheil in the Tajik embassy. He used to be a cyclist. He even gave us a visa without an LOI!”
The other topic that kept resurfacing was the ever-elusive ferry that crosses the Caspian Sea to Aktau, Kazakhstan. The ferry is legendary among bicycle tourists, having stranded countless travelers in Baku for weeks on end. The boat has no regular schedule, because they aren’t actually ferries as much as cargo ships. The travelers are forced to ask ‘the lady’ down at the harbor each morning to see if maybe (fingers crossed!) a ship will depart that day. A few of the cyclists at the hostel had been waiting twelve days already.
The cyclists had recruited the Hostel owner Elisa to be their informant. She knew someone who worked at the dock, so each morning at 10am she would call him, and the cyclists would all gather in the courtyard below, faces gazing expectantly up at her window.
“Not today he says.”
The faces dropped. Brows furrowed. Things were getting desperate…
“I don’t know if I can wait another day for this damned ferry!” someone growled.
In the war room, alternate battle plans were drawn for a way to get across the Caspian. There was rumor of a bi-weekly flight from Baku to Aktau. But how small was the plane? Would it be able to fit 7 bikes? Intelligence was meager, and orders were doled out for more reconnaissance.
Then Elisa, the hostel owner, rushed excitedly through the door. “Wait, they say the ferry may leave tonight!”
The cyclists had heard this before, and were hesitantly optimistic when we decided to go out and explore Baku for the day. We wished our compatriots luck, and promised to have a last bread and nutella dinner with them that evening before they left. When we came back a few hours later they were gone. Our bikes sat alone in the courtyard. Suddenly we were the only ones in the den.
So began our own waiting game—10 days that would fulfill all the prophesies of frustrating visits to embassies that were unexpectedly closed, bureaucratic fees that squeezed our wallets, and conflicting reports on when the next ferry would leave.
When the day finally arrived (Elisa gave us the green light), we rode like madmen across the city to the port, eight kilometers outside of the center. It was the wrong port.
“No No No. The old port! You must go to the Old Port!” the security guards told us.
Shit. We’re going to miss it!
We raced back into the center city against traffic, because it was the quickest way. Somewhere in Baku the ferry was leaving and we couldn’t seem to find it.
In typical Central Asian fashion, the ticket office turned out to be an unmarked door in a cement wall. Inside, the famous ‘ferry lady’ was sitting behind a desk topped with fat stacks of cash, scowling at us in her heavy makeup and flower-printed blouse just as immortalized in bike touring blogs across the web. We thrust our passports at her and she jerked her thumb towards the harbor like, get on the boat you idiots.
A last frantic rush through customs and we were there. A Russian crew member with a unibrow helped hoist our bikes onto the cargo deck, and showed us into our cabin. We collapsed onto the beds, relieved and exhausted. We made it!
It turned out that the boat wouldn’t actually leave for another 12 hours, until 3 am the next morning. On the other side of the Caspian, we’d spend another 60 hours anchored outside Aktau, waiting for a cargo slip to open. But we couldn’t have cared less. We were going to Kazakhstan. The war with the bureaucracy was over. Our Central Asia adventure had begun.
The Kazakh Steppe is among the world’s most remote and isolated regions. For centuries, its vast and desolate expanses offered protection of Central Asia’s khanates against the invading armies of Europe and the Far East, braved only by the few camel caravans and Turcoman slave traders who dared its ruggedness. Not until the Russians colonized the Steppe with railroads late in the 19th century was there considered safe passage through its lawless domains.
We were doing it by bicycle. After crossing the Caspian Sea in a cargo boat, the steppe was our first cycling challenge along our overland route to Kashgar. It involved passing through a particularly menacing stretch in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan known as the Karakum Desert, where we could expect intense heat, high winds, abominable roads, and only two or three towns over a distance of 1,000 kilometers. The crossing takes at least 10 days. Upon arriving in the port city of Aktau, many bicycle tourists decide to skip it, taking a train into Central Uzbekistan instead. We were determined to ride there, driven by a macho desire to conquer the blank areas on our road map.
It wasn’t without some trepidation, however. Before embarking, we had managed to connect with a few bicycle tourists who had made the trek themselves. Their words of advice were daunting.
“Carry nine days of food with you at all times,” cautioned Mel, over a weak Skype connection.
When she and her Canadian buddy Kate made the crossing in 2010, the winds and the heat had turned violently against them. Their crossing took twice as long as they expected.
The other cyclist we talked to was a friend of our couchsurfing host in Aktau. He didn’t speak English, but when we translated his Russian from a chat box in Facebook, we were able to make out three words. “Water.” And “mortal danger.”
We looked at each other and laughed uneasily. We certainly would get the adventure we had come for. Early the next morning, we hugged our worried host and set out for the steppe.
The desert started the moment we left Aktau’s soviet housing projects and carefully planned micro districts. There were vestiges of civilization for the first 160 kilometers: water pipes, a well paved road, even a town with a building they call a hospital. But it all dead-ended at Shepte.
After the outpost of Shepte, the steppe engulfed us. Crossing the steppe is like navigating an ocean. It is vast and disorienting. For hundreds of kilometers, there is nothing but flat horizons and ankle high shrubbery racing off in every direction. You can look down the road where you’re going, and up the road from where you came, and the views are often mirror images. You can climb a poll that puts five times more distance between you and the horizon, but again the view would not change. Even if you saw a landmark you would not know how far it was.
The steppe made each day seem the same. There were the same trucks slamming through dust and potholes, the same shrubs, the same evening campsites that looked like the morning campsites. In a featureless landscape, we pitched our tent wherever we happened to finish our rides. We talked little, and saw no one besides the few cars that passed us. Focused fatigue and dullness was broken only by the occasional crop of camels, which would make the imagination explode with romanticism, taking us into dreams of ancient Silk Road caravans until interrupted by impact with the next pothole. Muscle soreness from carrying 60 pounds of gear and kilometers marked on our odometers were the only proof of progress.
The battle started every morning when first light roused us. One of us would cook a pack of spaghetti, the other would roll and stash the tarp, on which we slept under open skies. The jobs alternated every day. The spaghetti was devoured and sunscreen slathered mostly in silence. After 17 months on the road, we hardly needed to wake up to execute this routine. We did four hours of saddle time before lunch, measured by our trip computer. Then it was a search for shade. When there was none, we’d stretch a tent fly over our bikes and huddle underneath until the hottest part of the day was over. After lunch, it was three more hours. Then it was spaghetti again and our kindles and 7 hours of sleep of the dead. We followed these times with an almost military discipline. The rules settled squabbles about who was hungry when and who got tired early.
Water came from the trucks. We stopped trucks when either one of us went under two liters. The truckers knew the desert, and carried 20-liter jugs of the good wet stuff with spigots that they wouldn’t turn off until every bottle we had was full. They never asked for payment, and we were surprised by their kindness. We must have looked pathetic to them, covered in dust and frantically waiving empty plastic bottles. For us, begging for water let us glimpse the desperation the desert feeds lost travelers. There was the buried terror that maybe a truck would not stop, and that we would be left baking and parched in the desert like thousands that had tried to cross before us. Not a single truck passed us by in Kazakhstan, but the fear never really left.
By day four traveling across the Karakum Desert, the roads and exhaustion started to get the better of us. Morgan broke off the eyelet that attached his back rack to his bicycle, and our jerry rig was a poor solution. It made the over weighted rack ride at an angle, and we figured it would probably not last through Uzbekistan. Morgan also got sick, had chills and a light fever.
It made the outlook a little bleak as we rolled into Beyneu, a city halfway through our journey, and our chance to resupply with six more days of food. We expected the second half would be as arduous as the first.
It wasn’t. A machine shop in Beyneu was able to fix Morgan’s rack. Then, when we crossed the border into Uzbekistan, we almost couldn’t believe our eyes. Smooth pavement! The highway couldn’t have been more than a year old, and we set off upon it with glee, counting down each kilometer as one we wouldn’t have to cycle on rutted dirt roads.
The bad roads would never come. For the next two days, the pavement continued. Coupled with a strong wind at our backs, we made record distances, even logging a hundred miles in a day. It was quite a turn of events, and we should have been elated. Yet we were taken with an irrational sense of disappointment. We had psyched ourselves for this adventure for weeks, wanting to bag a trophy and take ourselves to the edge. Now it almost felt too easy, like the pavement and tailwinds had cheated us.
The feeling would be short-lived. As day 7 wore into days 8 and 9, our tired bodies and strained muscles ached for rest. Moreover, the cycling gods had responded to our mockery by turning the tailwind against us. By the time we struggled over the last bridge into Nukus, the first town in Uzbekistan with a hotel, we were only filled with relief.
Like many otherwise unremarkable towns throughout our journey, Nukus was more than a place to lay our heads. There is nothing special to do or see in town, but we had repeated the name in our heads so many times throughout the long hours on the bike, and actually getting there meant we had conquered the desert. Nukus meant that the water of a shower could run black with a week’s worth of grime and sweat and whatever critters had nested in our hair. It meant a dinner that wasn’t spaghetti, and that more than a few beer mugs could be tilted vertically in celebration. Another phase of our Central Asian crossing was over.
There will be more challenges to come. That night, as we collapsed into our first cushioned beds since Aktau, we were already looking forward to what was ahead. There would be new names to repeat in our heads, like Bukhara, Samarkand, Khorog, Kashgar. The historic Silk Road cities and the Pamir Mountains awaited us.
More faces pressed in around us, so tight we couldn’t see outside the walls they created around us. They were old faces and young faces, smiling and stern faces. But all were inquisitive. They were curious as to what two Americans were doing setting up shop with a fuel bottle and camp stove in Samarkand’s Siyab Bazaar. They drew in a breath as Chris flicked the lighter.
Oh no, we thought. It wasn’t the first time our stove had malfunctioned, and meant that there was a blockage in the lines somewhere. As Chris started stripping the stove apart, Morgan assured the Uzbek crowd that they would get their Café Americanos as soon as it was fixed. But we worried we wouldn’t get it working—the stove had been acting up at camp all week. It would be such a disappointment after we’d planned this mini-adventure for over a week.
The idea to sell coffee in an Uzbek bazaar was among a list of ‘mini-adventures’ we’d brainstormed for our Central Asia bicycle crossing (along with sleeping in a mosque and playing backgammon with some old dudes). Over 17 months of travel, we’d developed the practice of assigning ourselves these escapades because it makes us interact with locals, gets us off our butts when we’re lazy, and teaches us something new—plus, it would provide great blog fodder. Above all, they’re fun. The adventures are a remedy to boredom, when searching for street food stands and exploring tourist sights no longer holds our interest.
By the time we had cycled to Samarkand, we’d kind of had it with mosques, madrassas, and mausoleums. We’d explored the great walled fortress of Khiva, the minarets and mosaics of Bokhara, the Registan and Bibi-Khanym Mosque in Samarkand. They are impressive sights to behold, testaments to the splendor of Central Asia’s Khanates and the Silk Road. But the cities’ old centers can feel like a stroll through a museum. In Khiva and Bokhara, few Uzbeks still live among their well-preserved monuments, while most vendors cater to tourists with soft-serve ice cream cones and made-in-China souvenirs. Plus there are the admission prices. As stingy bicycle tourists, we were too cheap to pay entrance to each of the sights, but managed to sneak into a number of them by pretending to be part of large European tour groups.
In a cyclists’ quest to traverse Central Asia, Uzbekistan’s fertile valleys feel like the eye of a hurricane. Squeezed between the desolation of the Kazakh Steppe, and the grandeur of Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains, the Silk Road cities are almost uncomfortably comfortable—even boring. A search for a campsite becomes a search for the best bed and breakfast, where bike tourists share the morning spreads with 60-year-old couples discussing the day’s organized tour. In the evenings, restaurants close at 10 pm, and the relatively small contingent of backpackers salvage some nightlife with beer on tap at the chaikhanas, or tea houses, where much of the time is spent resisting the advances of drunk Uzbeks trying to force rounds of vodka shots.
But there was one place in each of the cities that we couldn’t get enough of: the bazaar. They were wild with energy and colors and smells, and to us they seemed exotic. That’s why we were drawn to it for our coffee mini-adventure.
The bazaar in Samarkand was vast. There were metal awnings splayed down the side of a hill that could have covered a football field each, shading long rows of concrete counters, carefully marked into one-square-meter spots. There were sections for dried fruits and nuts, for bread, for fruits and vegetables, for meat. People bustled everywhere, turning their shoulders in the aisles to squeeze past each other with laden shopping bags, dodging produce and fried snack vendors on the ground who had not rented a spot on the counters. The air was thick with catcalls and spice.
We wandered the bazaar for a while, looking for an open space near a water tap with good foot traffic. The sweet spot turned out to be in the crockery section, next to a fountain of playing children. We slipped behind the concrete counter, ignored the quizzical looks of other vendors, and started moving fast to set up our coffee shop. Neither of us knew how long our business would last; we figured we’d get kicked out eventually, and we were concerned that we might get fined.
The moment the two of us started working, we attracted attention. Morgan put up a hand written sign that said Café Americano, 200 sum, written in Cyrillic and Latin letters, and a crowd started gathering. By the time the stove was assembled and our materials were carefully arranged on the counter, ready for business, the crowd was almost a mob, pressing in from all directions, standing on the counter on either side, pushing against us from behind.
It was in this carnival atmosphere of expectation that our camping stove jammed. Chris went to work on the instrument like a marine on his rifle. He stripped and cleaned the fuel line, disassembled the burner, and tested the valve. Morgan shrugged, said “problem” to the crowd, which is a more universal word than “hello.” Most of the crowd looked on in rapt fascination. Those that didn’t played with our stuff. Kids toyed with our lighter and ran away with it. A woman took our sign; we couldn’t tell who. People picked up and turned the coffee bags in their hands, despite Morgan’s admonishments. Just when things were starting to look a little out of hand, Chris had the stove reassembled, aided by some arm that had stuck out of the crowd and given him a needle to clean the nozzle. The kid that ran away with our lighter returned it. And the woman reappeared with our sign. To our amusement, she’d crossed out 200 sum and written 500 sum (about 20 cents).
Then the din died down in expectation as Chris nudged the fuel valve. The gas leaked into the stove. Chris flicked the lighter. Six inches of yellow flame burst out, and the crowd actually clapped. Chris took a bow as Morgan grandly showed him off as on a stage.
The show that followed ranks among the most anti-climactic in history. Forty or so people jostled for a better view of Americans boiling water. They had their money in their hands, waiting for a cup of this fabled Café Americano. But the show wasn’t over yet. Before they could taste it, they had to stand through act II, water seeps through coffee filter. Nobody has a good idea of how long it takes to make drip coffee until they do it with 40 people watching them. It seemed interminable. We only had two filters, and at two or three minutes a cup it would have taken us all day to serve the waiting throng of clients.
We’d sold three cups and were filtering another two when the authorities showed up. The guy who ran the bazaar was keen to exercise his power. He crossed his arms and yelled NO! many times and kept pointing his thumb behind his shoulder. Two policemen were behind him, keeping their distance and looking amused. The crowd grew sober; the fun was over, but they stayed to watch the conflict. We tried to finish filtering the last two cups of coffee, but the angry bazaar man yelled NO! again, and ripped our sign into six pieces and threw it at us. So we started cleaning up, disassembling our equipment and storing it. It wasn’t fast enough for him. He grabbed our sugar and our fuel bottle and walked away. We protested but he kept walking. Morgan vaulted the counter, ran after him, and grabbed the fuel bottle out of his hand. Then we got out of there before anyone could write us a citation.
A few minutes later, in a park underneath a madrassa, we broke down laughing and couldn’t stop hi-fiving each other. We’d thrown some excitement into the bed and breakfast phase of the central Asia crossing. We’d certainly have something to smile about until entered the next phase, the high passes of the Pamir Mountains.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“Injection” the nurse said intently.
“Ummmm…I don’t know” answered Morgan uneasily. We had no idea what was in the syringe.
But the nurse wouldn’t have any of it. She waved him off and started digging through a plastic shopping bag, spilling unmarked bags of pills and wads of gauze across the floor. Thankfully, the needle she produced was in factory-sealed plastic, so it looked safe enough, but it was huge. The mean glint of steel made me and the Navrishorev family lean in closer. In rural Tajikistan, no one was going to look away while a grown man got a shot in the butt—especially an American. For a small dairy farming family in the Pamir Mountains, the moment amounted to primetime entertainment.
The Navrishorev parents suppressed their smiles, then gingerly left the bedside so Morgan could rest. They were a wonderful family. We met them quite by accident.
Two days earlier, after cycling the first 30 miles of the Pamir Highway out of Khorog, we realized we were too sick to continue. Morgan was hit with a flu I had battled briefly in Khorog, and both of us felt a rude resurgence of dysentery that had plagued us off and on since Dushanbe. A haughty practice of not filtering mountain stream water had gotten the better of us. We were cycling through Central Asia, and had been on the road for 18 months.
We were also mentally exhausted. In Khorog, we’d been slammed with the unexpected news that Chinese embassies across Central Asia are no longer issuing tourist visas to foreigners. Our Paris to Shanghai journey faced a serious roadblock: China wasn’t going to let us in. The anticipated ‘rest days’ in Khorog were spent scouring the internet for cheap flights and stressing over which options least hemorrhaged our bank account. We went back and forth for days before finally deciding to join a number of other stranded backpackers in a risky gambit: we’d express mail our passports home. Once family members in Los Angeles had obtained the Chinese visa for us, they’d send it back to Krygyzstan and we’d be on our way to Kashgar.
By the time we reached the small town outside Khorog, however, China seemed a long way off. Morgan was pale and vomiting off the side of his bicycle. We stopped and asked some goat herders along the highway where we might find a pansion, a local homestay. When we came across the bright red and yellow striped tent in the Navrishorev’s yard, we thought it was for tourists. It turned out to be nothing of the sort—just a tea canopy—but it belonged to the charming family who would take us in for nothing.
The Navrishorevs live along the M41 highway in a simple, mud-walled dwelling set deep in a canyon of craggy peaks. The parents live with two of their grown-up children, George and Sabrina, who help raise the family’s three cows and sell herbs for 75 cents a bundle at the Khorog bazaar. Money is tight; the majority of the family’s income comes from remittances from their two eldest children who work in Moscow. The youngest son, George, was moving to join them soon.
Our interactions with the family were modest, limited to 30 words we knew from our ‘Easy Russian Phrase Book,’ published in 1958. But the parents took care of us like sons—they filled us up at every opportunity with bowls of hot milk and freshly churned butter from their cows; they made our beds; they soothed our stomachs with herbal concoctions of local mountain flowers. For two days, they nursed us back to health.
We desperately wanted to repay them somehow but they refused our money. So we did our best to add to the cultural exchange, showing them pictures of our trip and families back home. It still didn’t feel like enough. Finally, we realized something they might remember us by. On the day of our departure, we gifted our fold-out map of Central Asia, a personalized message of thanks scrawled on top. The Navrishorevs were delighted, pointing to different city names and reading them aloud. It was a unique item to have in the village; clearly there weren’t many maps around. We had to show them where their home was located.
Of course, the only drawback of our gift was that we were map-less ourselves for the rest of the Pamirs. The night before departing the Navrishorevs, we studied it intently, memorizing distances and names and elevations. We noted that the first major pass, a grueling, unpaved 12% incline to the Pamir Plateau would begin about 50 miles past the Navrishorev’s home.
Yet somehow, distances and names and elevations never quite live up to the real thing.
“Morgan, can we rest up a moment?” I asked, gasping for air.
The pass was difficult, taking us over 14,000 feet on a road so loose with rocks that our wheels slipped each time we stood on our bicycles, or applied too much torque on the pedals. After the tentative recovery at the Navrishorevs, our bodies struggled with the steep bends, willed forward mainly by belief that each blind turn might be the top.
When we did reach that turn, however, the pain evaporated in the face of the spectacle before us. Over the crest, we saw the most beautiful vistas of our lives.
In what Marco Polo once dubbed the “Roof of the World,” we witnessed the majesty of Tajikistan’s high deserts. It was a surreal environment, with peaks rising only a couple thousand feet above the valley floors, like foothills, but appearing jagged and snow-capped. It looked like the tops of the Himalayas or Alps had been chopped off and placed flat upon the sand.
The desert wasn’t completely lifeless, though. On the second day we reached the Alichur Valley, a wide grass speckled basin where Kyrgyz goat herders sat perched above flocks and temporary yurt dwellings they’d moved to the higher elevations for the summer. They waved to us with the familiarity of having seen many bicycle tourists before. Indeed, up on the plateau, other cyclists were among the little traffic we encountered along the highway until we reached Murghab.
Murghab (population 8,000) was the largest ‘city’ marked upon our road map, but it more closely resembled a post-apocalyptic colony. Its downtrodden buildings straddled the highway with crumbling walls fighting a losing battle against the desert sands. They underscored how unforgiving the area is most of the year—many leave the plateau during the harsh winter months, and the region isn’t developed for tourism beyond a few modest homestays in three or four villages along hundreds of miles of road.
Lack of infrastructure meant we had to be careful about supplies. We carried multiple days of food with us at a time, bags of rice and instant coffee and crackers we scavenged from the meager village stores. They still felt like luxuries when we were camping.
“Chris, you’re on pot duty tonight,” said Morgan with a wink. He quickly retreated into the warmth of the tent.
Because it was so cold, we alternated who sat out in the wind and cooked dinner each night. Above 14,000 feet, the temperature dropped below freezing as soon as the sun died. The ends of our rides became races to don every layer of warm clothing we had, and in the mornings we awoke to a tent covered in frost. Morning coffee was the only thing that could entice us out of our sleeping bags. It got colder each night as we got higher.
On the fifth day after leaving the Navrishorev’s, we reached the top. At 15,270 feet, the Ak-Baital Pass is the highest point on the M41 Highway (and the second tallest international highway crossing in the world behind the Karakorum). When the road leveled out, we found ourselves perched above the clouds, surrounded by a vast glacier.
We were elated, punctuating the thin air with a celebration of fist-pounding and victory photos. We’d been daydreaming about the moment for months. It was highest I had ever been.
Then something curious happened. As we were riding down the other side, a change came over us. Having conquered the top, we stopped noticing the vistas as much. Even though there were still a few hundred kilometers and tough passes to ride until Osh, our final days on the Pamir Highway passed by in a blur. The truth is we were mentally done. Months of riding from the Caspian shores in Kazakhstan weighed upon us. On the last stretch of the Pamir Highway, we fixated on just reaching the end.
The night of our arrival, we snapped out of the daze. After our first shower in weeks, we collapsed into a booth at a restaurant and ordered the biggest plate of shashlik—meat kebabs—listed on the menu. As meat filled our shrunken abdomens and beer floated to our heads, we started rattling off memories from the previous two and a half months. It seemed like ages since we’d been hunting down visas in neo-futuristic Baku, or huddled under our tent for shade in the scorching Kazakh Steppe, or sneaking into monuments in Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities by posing with European tour groups. In that time, we’d come a long way; in mileage, our journey through Central Asia was the equivalent to bicycling across the United States. Through bad roads and language barriers, we had encountered unforgettable landscapes and fascinating cultures; we had survived each other’s constant company, and had learned why crossing Central Asia is considered such a trophy among the world’s bicycle tourists.
But as the evening wore down, we became more contemplative. What did it all mean? Now that we know what’s in Central Asia, what are our takeaways? What could we impart to our readers and our friends back home?
We fell silent and stared down at the floor for a few moments, thinking.
“Well…” Morgan said finally.
“It was hard.”
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