Status Update:

Current location: Bochum / Germany

50 countries, 1226 days, trip mileage: 124200 km

22 Aug 2008

Tajikistan – Pamir Highway (1)

35_The road's dead straight - it's not that hard!(Aug2008)

The western gateway to the Pamir Mountains, Khorog is a small & relaxed mountain-town and capital of the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakshan (‘GBAO’). People here descend from Persia, and follow the religion of ‘Ismailism’, a certain form of Shiite Islam but without formal structure. During Russian times, the area depended very much on Moscow, and since the fall of the Soviet Union it’s been trying to be independent. In order to get here as a visitor, one needs a special GBAO Permit from the Tajik government (usually straight-forward to obtain).

On the way to Khorog, we see an endless number of enormous Chinese trucks going West – certainly enough trucks every day to supply the whole of Central Asia with cheap mobile phones and plastic toys for the next year. Without doubt: China is an exporting country. (Although I do wonder how these lorries will make it to Dushanbe… there’s only two roads, and we’d just about managed to get through the better one of them on our off-road/enduro bikes).

Although Khorog has a nice feel to it, there’s not really much to see and we don’t want to spend too much time here. We are planning to go south towards the Afghan border and follow the Wakhan Corridor back up to the Pamir Highway into Kyrgyzstan.

29_Our hosts at the Pamir Lodge in Khorog(Aug2008)

We stay at the cosy ‘Pamir Lodge’ for a few days, and just as I’m about to prepare the bike for the next stage of the trip, disaster strikes for the first time: The bike’s been extraordinarily reliable so far. But now, as I put the bike on the centre stand so I could oil the chain, I suddenly see oil rapidly dripping down just in front of the rear wheel. ‘Oil’ means either something engine-related or ‘rear shock absorber’. I have a better look at the mess, and after consulting Len we both agree that it’s got to be the rear shock. I put the bike on the side stand, and the dripping stops… maybe one of the seals inside the shock has disintegrated after all those miles on corrugated & potholed roads? Time to consult some F650 bike forums on the internet.

As it turns out, the problem really IS the rear shock absorber. Although the bike rides fine and without any suspicious ‘pogo-stick’ behaviour, I’m not confident to take on the Wakhan corridor (we had heard various reports about some tough off-road riding there).
To make things worse, we just heard rumours that China has closed the border to Kyrgyzstan recently, after some bomb attacks in Kashgar. We consult our agent in China, and he confirms that it is currently impossible to enter China via Torugart Pass/Kyrgyzstan. (Why we had to actually prompt our agent to tell us these rather important news is beyond my imagination – surely, this is essential information for our onwards journey). Seems like the real adventure has just started: Stranded in Tajikistan with a broken shock absorber, and with no onwards journey into China.

That evening, it turns our we’re not the only ones who are stranded: two other motorcyclists had their bike ‘serviced’ locally, and some brainiac of a mechanic managed to pour water into a gel-battery, rendering the whole bike useless with (due to the lack of motorcycles here) no bike-batteries available. Another traveller tells us about his experience of being stuck for one night inside a mini-bus in the middle of nowhere: one of those long Chinese lorries had a broken axle, blocking the whole road, and it was too dark to do the repair that evening.

Anyway… back to our own problems: If China is closed – how can we get from Tajikistan to Pakistan? Some of the travellers here are planning to cross through Afghanistan – an option we’re considering as well. But after some research and looking at the current safety situation in Afghanistan, we decide against it. I order a new rear shock absorber from the UK, to be delivered to Kyrgyzstan within the next 7 days, and around mid-day we finally set out for the Pamir Highway.

34_Lots of Chinese trucks coming our way... so the border to China seems to be open again.(Aug2008)

The Pamir Highway was built by the Russians between 1931 and 1934, mainly to supply troops and provisions into this remote border area of the former Soviet Union. For 700km, it stretches across one of the highest and least inhabited mountain regions in the world, which the locals call ‘roof of the world’ (although I thought they might want to discuss this with their Tibetan neighbours ;).

As we ride through the villages in the Gunt Valley towards the first pass, the scenery is still relatively green, with a fair bit of agriculture, bushes and trees along the road. Only in the distance can we see the enormous mountain ranges with snow-capped peaks. But the higher we get, the more barren, uninhibited and moon-like the landscape becomes.
Approaching the 4200m Koi-Tezek Pass, the nice tarmac we had so far soon turns into a seemingly neverending section of loose gravel. The sun’s already gone down, but we can’t quite pitch our tents yet as we’re not acclimatised to the altitude. In the dim evening light we just about make it back onto tarmac, before we finally descend to around 3200m near Lake Sassyk-Kul to set up our camp in the dark.