Tajikistan: to Qalai Khomb

22/06/19 - 28/06/19
Total distance travelled: 11,250km

Cycling along the Panj River.  Khorog to Qalai Khomb.

Our longest day of riding of the trip bridges the gap between the two parts of our adventures in Tajikistan. We set off from Jelondy with Khorog in our sights. We left later than planned due to an overindulgent breakfast and a sense of peace, calm and happiness that we didn’t want to disturb. Breakfast had been a veritable feast and had included wrapped sweets and chocolates which went down a treat with Olly! When we finally pulled ourselves away – or, indeed, up from the colourful cushions that we were sat on on the floor – our hostess escorted us across the road to the tiny shop that she also ran. She opened it up just for us and then closed it again as we left and waved goodbye, giddy and ecstatic. We had bought a Mars bar and a Bounty bar and some peach iced-tea, partly because there hadn’t been very much water available to buy and partly because it made us feel nostalgic for China. (It turned out to be very chemically and quite unpleasant. Alas.)

Ready to go outside the homestay in Jelondy

We split the Mars bar at the side of the road a few hours later as we pulled on our waterproofs. We experienced almost every season and weather condition that day as we rolled along the 130km road that weaved alongside the Ghunt river. The Bounty bar was extracted at the 100km mark. It was a quickly-devoured celebration at the bottom of a sandy hill. We were less euphoric by then. The final 30km were completed in near silence as communication became merely functional. We chased the light and lost it at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of town. I was impatient at the checkpoint as the light was fading; the officers were unhurried and another hill stood right before us.

We were aiming for the Pamir Lodge, one of the famous, travellers’ pit stops along the Pamir Highway.  I started to worry that there wouldn’t be room for us when two motorcyclists, whose machines were being admired by a couple of the unhurried officers, announced that that was where they were heading too. 

Olly emerged from the hut and I packed our papers away. In reality, little more than five minutes had passed, but time has a tricky way of warping. I cycled angrily up the hill, cursing everything. The hill, which was a paved road – something we had only recently rediscovered since the sandy hill of the Bounty break had transpired to be the start of a 15km stretch of broken, beachy road – and which was part avalanche tunnel had seemed vertical, but we reached the top of it without much struggle. I am unsure where those reserves of energy came from, but they never failed us. At the top, we both breathed a sigh of relief. Wispy clouds in the deep blue sky were peachy-pink in colour and a Marco Polo ram stood atop a stone sign that announced our arrival in Khorog. It was beautiful. We started chatting again. 

Olly, lights on.

Avalanche tunnel at the top of the hill

It was dark by the time we finally stepped off our bikes at the Lodge which was at the other end of town and up another hill. Walking felt unnatural. I had been anxious that there wouldn’t be space for us, but needn’t have worried. Not only was there plenty of space, but arrangements would have been made so that we didn’t struggle if there hadn’t been; no one would have turned their backs on us. I feel this is true of our whole cycling trip, but especially so in Central Asia and most definitely along the Pamir Highway. 

The Pamir Lodge was big and welcoming. Despite the late hour, we were greeted warmly and presented with a range of room choices. We opted for a private room, splashing out so that we could slob out! As we were shown to our room, we asked about food, recalling the fried eggs, slices of bread, plate of biscuits and steaming, hot tea from the night before. It was already 8 o’clock and we had little enthusiasm for setting up our stove. The owner’s son replied, “no” and I felt my shoulders slump and my head flop to my chest, heartbroken in an instant. “Only pizza”, he continued and I’m quite sure I fist-pumped the air with glee and squealed with joy. We ordered two and were assured there would be enough time to take a shower before they arrived. 

It had been four days since we last washed and I had been craving the feeling of hot water hitting my head and shoulders as grime pooled at my feet. But, when the time came, I couldn’t muster the energy. I opted out of the shower and instead sat on a tree stump staring absent-mindedly at a bespoke table whose glass surface revealed a map of the Pamir region. The table was just outside of our bedroom and I sat there, not even removing my helmet for a while, whilst Olly went to shower, keen to be clean. 

The table top

There were two other bicycles propped up in places and lots of motorbikes, including the two we had seen at the police checkpoint. There was a band of travellers laughing and sharing stories over cold beers and warm pizzas, and usually I don’t shy away from going over and getting involved. But, that night I found I couldn't. 

I sat with my thoughts and I remember them quite clearly. I felt the difficult, crashing wave of anti-climax wash over me. I had been absolutely elated the previous evening to arrive at the homestay in Jelondy: the few, precious, twinkling electric lights of the small village that had guided us through the dusk for the final few hundred metres; the bright, silver stars that watched over our progress; the mountains that had shielded us; the babbling irrigation channels that had so reassured us that this was a place of safety and comfort. Sat in Khorog that night, stinky, surrounded by like-minded people, with access to WiFi and waiting for my pizza, I felt quite empty. I was, literally: the Bounty bar which we had shared to mark 100km was a long time ago and I had promised Olly that I wouldn’t eat all of the crisps whilst he was in the shower. 

But, it was something more than just hunger and exhaustion. Khorog is known as “the capital of the Pamirs” and, indeed, it is the largest town along the Highway and the administrative capital of the GBAO (Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Region). Even though we arrived late, Khorog was awake and buzzing; shops were open and friends mingled around, we had even pedalled past a teenage street fight. It was a huge achievement to reach the town where we knew we would be able to rest, relax and stock up on supplies, and all, very likely, in the company of numerous other travellers.

And yet, upon reaching Khorog a hugely important part of our adventure was over. When we left the Pamir Lodge in three days’ time, we also left the high Pamirs behind us: the mighty mountains, the expansive moonscapes. I had been so nervous about that section of the trip, not believing that I was capable of it: it is the real reason I had cried into my porridge in Shangri-La. Cycling the Pamir Highway was something for real adventurers, not me. But, I had done it. And now it was over. And I was gutted. 

Smiling again before too long.  Photos taken along the Panj Valley.

We stayed at the Pamir Lodge, then, for three nights. It had been our intention to stay for two, but without any discussion we both agreed that an extra day of rest would be nice. We made a couple of friends at the Lodge including Tom from Bristol and Kanji from Japan. Both were cycling east. Tom was preparing to take the road even-less-travelled along the Highway to Lake Zorkul for which he had to purchase an additional pass in town. Kanji was tempted by the challenge and the adventure. We later heard from Tom that his week off-grid to Zorkul had been the best and worst of his life! 

In Dushanbe, we met a pair of motorcyclists who had encountered Tom along the Whakan Corridor and they were happy to hear he was safe and well. The three had camped together one night and Tom had pitched his tent without the fly sheet, declaring he would like to stargaze before falling to sleep. The freezing night-time temperatures and forecast rain were far from Tom’s mind and the motorcyclists were sure that without their interception Tom wouldn’t have got much further... 

We got back in touch with Kanji some months later when we were in Austria and we realised we were staying with a Warm Showers host with whom Kanji had stayed too. The community feeling was strong along the M41. Just before we left the Lodge, British couple, Maggie and Bill, who were living out their retirement in a 4x4 known as “Mouse”, took our photo and wished us well. It wouldn’t be the last time we saw them.

Before leaving Khorog, we had to stock up with essential supplies as we anticipated being off-grid until we reached the town of Qalai-Khomb in four days’ time, thus continuing with our pattern of moving between the main towns along the Pamir Highway every three to four days. We had a found a good and big supermarket on the outskirts of town having first visited it under strange circumstances two days beforehand. 

We didn’t get up to much on our rest days in Khorog, but we had walked into town to find the supermarket. Visiting the supermarket had been the sole purpose of our excursion, though I was grateful for the opportunity it presented to buy an ice-cream and eat it under the shade of a tree in the park. As we approached the supermarket on the edge of town, we joked that we hoped it wasn’t closed for lunch… 

Immediately noticeable at the supermarket was the chain stretched across the car park. We stopped in our tracks feeling hot, exhausted and irritated that we had made this journey for nothing. We then watched as an old man and his grandson approached the front of the shop and it was only as they pressed their noses to the door that we saw movement inside of it. A worker approached the old man from the other side of the door and shook his head, standing firmly against the door and taking hold of the handle, though the old man had not tried it. We concluded that it must be the lunch hour, but found it strange that a local – we presumed – had mistaken the opening times.

Having come all this way, we decided to check the front of the shop for its opening times and try to sneak a peek inside to see if it would be worth the effort of walking back down from the Pamir Lodge, which was located on the other side of town, across the river and at the top of a hill, the next day. As we approached the chain across the car park, which we had intended to duck underneath of, a man sat on a plastic chair to one end of it, lifted it and let it fall to the floor. We smiled, said thank you in Russian, spasiba, and then stepped over it in order to walk to the front door of the shop. 

As we drew closer, we saw that the original worker, who was still stood in the doorway, was facing away from us in order to talk to two or three other people inside the supermarket. There was a worker stationed behind the till, the man at the door and a couple of others all talking and laughing. There was no obvious poster displaying opening times. The man at the door suddenly turned to face us. His smile vanished and he regarded us solemnly. I smiled and pointed to my watch in a bid to communicate that I was curious to know the opening times. The man, after the briefest of pause, gave a nod of his head and then opened the door a jar and signalled to us to come in. He didn’t move and so we had to squeeze past him to gain entrance to the cool and airy store.

Olly cycling in the Panj Valley

It was strange to have been granted access to the supermarket less than five minutes after the old man had been turned away. It could be that in the eyes of the shop workers we embodied the “white walking wallets” that we were so often presumed to be on our trip.  Stranger still was that within five minutes of our being in the shop, other customers were coming and going freely. It felt like we had had some kind of run in with the mafia. 

When we returned to the supermarket on our way out of Khorog, there was no issue. We bumped into three other cyclists in the supermarket who, upon spotting our bikes, had come in to say hello. All three were heading east and were going to travel along the Whakan Corridor. Our meeting with the Austrian couple in that strange supermarket would prove to be fateful once we returned to Europe in four months’ time. 

Leaving Khorog 

Laden with supplies and treats we set off again along the M41 in the direction of Qalai Khomb. We instantly started cycling alongside the mighty Panj River which formed the natural border between us and Afghanistan for the next 600km. 

Getting ready to go that morning, I had donned all of my – now clean – winter cycling gear. Olly laughed at me as I emerged from our room, puffed up thanks to all of the layers. Olly advised that I wouldn’t be needing the thermals for the foreseeable future as we were heading down from the mountains and towards the Uzbek desert and it was going to be hot! (Despite now having passed the highest point on our trip, there was plenty more climbing still to be done and it certainly wasn’t “all downhill from here”.) Khorog itself sits at 2200m above sea level, but, I admit, the days had been sunny and pleasantly warm. 

Tom had said that the road from Qalai Khomb to Khorog had been the hardest section of his trip to date due to the unforgiving road conditions. In Central Asia, every cyclist we met along the way we questioned, constantly engaged in reconnaissance and trying to mentally prepare ourselves for what was to come. 

We hadn’t been cycling for long when we met a Dutch couple. We chatted with them for a few minutes, their English impeccable. However, the Dutch couple mostly just laughed. When we inquired about the road conditions; how far they were travelling each day; where they had camped, the pair just giggled. They were leaning over their handlebars, out of breath, laughing as they tried to answer our questions. They were hysterical! As we waved them away, our smiles disappeared and we just looked at each other, terrified: what on earth lay ahead?! 

Plenty more mountains to come!  Along the Panj River Valley.

We stopped for lunch not long afterwards. The first day back on the bikes after a day or two off always felt harder than a seventh or eighth consecutive day of pedalling. We were sluggish and it was, as Olly had foretold, so hot that our treat packet of gummy sweets had already melted and mushed together to form one floppy block of molten, sugary glue. We ate it anyway, of course, but in one sitting and not over the course of the next four days as we had envisaged. As our legs were heavy, our bodies brick-like, and our minds struggling under the weight of a new challenge. However, our panniers were packed full of delicious food. The first lunch after a stock up was always a good one: maximum choice and variety. We sat under the shade of some trees down by the banks of the Panj and watched as Afghani children splashed in shallow waters not ten metres away. 

We covered the 240km to Qalai Khomb in four days, averaging, then, 60km a day. We couldn’t have managed more. It was intensely hot and the road conditions were poor. We bumped along, crying out with delight whenever we hit a small stretch of tarmac. Sometimes such a stretch lasted for a kilometre, other times a matter of centimetres! Before long, Khorog, the bustling, lively town, was behind us and we entered into the Panj Valley. Mountains rose dramatically to our right and the river grew fuller, louder, and more aggressive to our left. As big, old, heaving, Chinese trucks groaned past us, we pulled over to the side of the road to cover our faces and protect our lungs. Artem had texted us told us that breathing would be difficult! 

Dotted along the dusty, broken road were idyllic, oasis villages. The tiny villages were lush and green and often housed a shop, a water pump, a camp spot and some curious children. The hope of such a village materialising around the next bend or the next one kept us moving forwards. 

Those four days were like an adventure in a snow globe. The steep, sheer dusty-brown rocks enclosed us on either side. The river to our left was our constant guide. The sparse settlements on both sides of the river captured our attention and gave us reason to pause and wonder. Tom had said he had felt quite claustrophobic cycling here and I could understand why as there was never a horizon or a vantage point from which to gauge your surroundings. Yet, the bubble-like experience was so special, a real moment in time. When we left the Panj river valley and progressed towards the Tajik capital, we really felt it. 

A small, lush settlement in Afghanistan

After having stopped at the supermarket, our meeting with the Dutch couple and lunch by the river banks, the day was starting to draw to a close and so began the quest to find a camp spot. We used an app called Maps.me as a guide as many users before us had ‘dropped a pin’ to indicate where they had stopped to rest. More often than not, Maps.me came up trumps and allowed us to pitch up for the night in the knowledge that someone had been here before and thus everything would probably be OK. Although wild camping is widely accepted, even welcomed, in Central Asia, it can still be a bit daunting trying to nod off in the middle of nowhere knowing that a good sleep is pivotal for a strong day of riding the next day. The landscapes were harsh along the Panj river valley: it was rock and river. The best chance of finding a camp spot was in or just outside of one of the little oasis villages, but often they were just a couple of buildings alongside the road.

We had managed to extract some information from the Dutch couple about their camp spot and they advised that it had been near a police checkpoint. We passed an observation post and then saw a flat semi-circle of grass jutting out from the road and towards the river. A steep cliff of Afghanistan rose dramatically ahead of us, what seemed within touching distance. A lorry was parked in a passing place which bordered the grassy bank and the two drivers were leaning up against it, resting before continuing their journey to China. I attempted to communicate that we had come from China, pedalling my arms frantically and pointing off in the direction from which we had. Although these men had no claim to the land we wanted to camp on, and would surely be moving off soon anyway, I felt we had to make an effort. 

A sort-of barbed wire fence, made in part from wire and in part from thorny branches, had been sort-of erected around the grass. It wasn’t the sturdiest of structures and by walking back a few metres, we were able to bump down onto the grass without problem. Olly then scoured the ground for the perfect spot. Throughout the trip, we spent an inordinate amount of time scouring the ground for the perfect spot, often disagreeing considerably and then refusing to pitch up in the spot we each had recommended, instead insisting on using the spot the other had found. Tonight, we did need to be careful on account of the thorny fence which was made from thorny sticks which were scattered all around. Olly was prepared to go to extreme lengths to protect his Therm-a-Rest and so we hunched around on our hands and knees for a while before pitching up. 

It was a tranquil spot. There was little traffic and those who did pass waved if they saw us. The river provided a natural and peaceful white noise. The stars started to blink awake in the sky and so we packed away our pots and pans before it fell completely dark. We were snug in our tent, an old friend by this point whose nooks and crannies we knew well; whose thin walls we knew how to organise all of our belongings underneath of in the most practical of arrangements. We read, angling our devices just beneath our sleeping bags for Olly was also prepared to go to extreme lengths to avoid exposing our location as a result of using light at night. But then, the inevitable happened. I needed to pee. 

I reached for my head torch which Olly said I wouldn’t need. Olly’s precautions are sensible and advisable, but I had launched thorny sticks away from where the tent was now pitched and didn’t fancy scrabbling around in the dark to find a private spot to pee only to be poked in the bottom! I did try not to use my head torch, but then had walked a certain distance towards the river and feared I might end up in it if I wasn’t careful as I dodged thorns, rocks and tufts of grass that are easily tripped over. Just for a second, I switched on my light. I immediately turned it down to the lowest setting and then off completely as I set about my business. 

I plodded back to the tent as Olly emerged from it; it is near impossible not to need to pee when camping when your partner goes! I turned my light back on to avoid bringing the neatly stacked panniers tumbling to the ground as I crawled back into the inner of the tent via the smallest possible gap so as not to also welcome bugs into our sleeping quarters. Then, I turned off the light and, once Olly was back – no light used – went to sleep. 

I am sure I had just drifted off when a strong, beam of light washed over our tent, illuminating everything. A few seconds passed and then it happened again. I realised I had been holding my breath when I then whispered to Olly to ask, “did you see that?” Olly was lying very still, staring straight ahead. Another minute or so passed and the beam of light swept across us again. There was no sound, bar the river and our pulses pounding in our ears, our whole bodies alert. 

For a long time, Tajikistan has been a transit hub for Afghan drugs thanks to the long, porous borders that divide the two countries. It is believed that at least 15-20 tons of opium and between 75 and 80 metric tons of heroin are smuggled into Tajikistan each year from Afghanistan, either for local consumption or for transfer to Russia, Europe and China. Tajikistan is the poorest nation in Central Asia and it is estimated that the volume of drug transit through Tajikistan is now equivalent to 30% of the country’s GDP. For many young Tajiks, the drugs trade is the only alternative to migrant work. 

Camped as we were, next to the water’s edge, within sight of a police observation post and, it would transpire the next day, a half hour cycle from the police checkpoint mentioned by the hysterical, Dutch couple, we had become suspect smugglers. We had seen, smiled, waved and talked to many officers already during our time in Central Asia and they were almost always carrying automatic firearms. 

We continued to lie very still. Olly managed not to scream, “I told you so” in my face, though when I just told him what I was writing he did say he was still harbouring anger and resentment! Eventually the panic subsided and we fell to sleep. 

View from the tent

In the morning, in the sunshine, we shrugged off our fear from the night before and set about making breakfast. Buoyed by Tom’s enthusiasm for “posh porridge”, we had bought all sorts of tasty extras to adorn our oats at the supermarket in Khorog, but even so I found my breakfast more unmanageable than normal. I did not feel well. Tom had complained of a stomach upset which we believe to be giardia whilst at the Pamir Lodge, and I am sure it is giardia that had had me bent double in pain in Luang Prabang for 24 hours. Crouching was the only position I found comfortable. I perched on a rock and then moved slowly through our morning routine fearing disastrous consequences should I move too hastily: coughing and sneezing were out of the question. 

We continued on, for the only alternatives were to stay where we were or to retrace our steps. Cycling helped ease the pain a little, but when we stopped at the police checkpoint in 10km time, I schlepped off my bike to crouch on the ground in the shade. Fortunately this didn’t seem to cause too much consternation from the guards. 

Neither did it trouble the small crowds outside of the two shops we came to on the outskirts of Rushan. A lively and happy morning buzz hummed in the air as Olly went to buy a couple of supplies including a bottle of Coca Cola which we believed would be key to my recovery – it really did help! Whilst Olly shopped, I watched ladies in colourful, patterned clothes gather together to talk. A dirty, litter-strewn brook ran alongside the edge of the road and a donkey clip-clopped down it. A brave, little boy approached me and asked a few questions in English, nudged forwards by his mother who beamed as we conversed. I too was impressed and moved for I spoke very little Russian and even less Tajik. 

We stopped again in the centre of Rushan as we passed a bakery and Olly was craving a salty and greasy samsa.  We bought some bread too and stopped after a short while for second breakfast. I was pleased to be able to enjoy a few bites of the samsa too. 

Come lunchtime, all I wanted to do was lie down and sleep and so we stopped in a shady orchard and I did just that. Initially, I tried to nod off in my camping chair, but it was impossible not to tip backwards out of it as my heavy head lolled. Whilst Olly sat feasting, for we were still only a day into our supermarket supplies and we had fresh bread, and listening to a podcast, I lay down on the ground and was feasted upon… As we got back on the bikes, I started to itch and then in an instant my back was on fire! An entire colony of ants, it seemed, had enjoyed taking bites out of my back for their lunch and for a good hour I bemoaned my misfortune that day. 

And then it was once again time to seek out a spot to sleep. Olly checked the map and saw that there was a village about 5km away and we agreed to look there. Although, fortunately, there was a shop where we could buy water, there wasn’t any space suitable for camping. We hoped the village another 5km along would be better. A steely silence fell between us as it often did at this stage in the day. 

We reached the next village quickly as thankfully it had been mostly downhill from where we had bought two bottles of water. We definitely consumed far more plastic bottles during the Asian leg of our adventure than I think we might have done in the entirety of the rest of our lives. It is an uncomfortable truth. We had a water filter that we used as often as possible, but sometimes we just couldn’t guarantee that there would be a water source for us to use. Other times we needed to “trust the process”. This was once such occasion. 

The village, again, seemed tiny. A couple of cars were parked up outside of a larger building and to our right, guarded by a low, stone wall, was a small orchard full of trees just beginning to fruit - cherries and apricots - and a cow. We knew, without communicating, that this was our best opportunity to camp and, as was becoming a running theme, the light was beginning to fade and cycling another 5km to the next small village felt out of the question. As we started to look around for someone to ask, a lady emerged from the larger building, waving her arms at us. For just a moment, we weren’t sure whether she was trying to welcome us or shoo us away. It was absolutely the former. 

Relief. The pressure of finding a safe spot to sleep eased from our shoulders and we experienced the unique lightness of being that comes from knowing you are pitching up with permission: a good night’s sleep would be possible; peace; rest. We were quickly joined by an inquisitive band of children, two young boys and a girl plus a big puppy with ginormous paws. All three were polite and curious, especially the puppy! The boys crouched down and watched with wide eyes – sometimes, I’m sure, expressing wonder and others disbelief – as we withdrew bits and pieces from our panniers and set up our mobile home. 

It was with some relief that the children were soon called away for their dinner as it meant we could steal away and find a place to pee! The sound of trickling water had been both a blessing and a curse when pulled our bikes into the orchard. On the plus side, it meant that there was a water source and so we wouldn’t need to use our bottled water to freshen up. I remember hearing that Cameron Diaz uses Evian water to wash her face, whether or not that is true I don’t know. We certainly did not feel good about pouring pricey bottled water into our collapsible sink to purify our pits. 

It started to rain as we ate our tea, but the leaves of the trees in the orchard sheltered us and so we were splattered and not soaked. Our go-to meal along the Pamir Highway was spaghetti with vegetables and tomato sauce. The vegetables were whatever we could get our hands on. Onions were readily available and we found small aubergines and green peppers too. 

I still wasn’t feeling 100% as we zipped up our sleeping bags, though had managed to eat a bit of dinner. We had fallen to sleep quickly, but I woke suddenly and knew at once that I was going to be sick. My mouth was dry as I swallowed repeatedly. I knew I needed to get out of the tent. I hadn’t wanted to wake Olly – especially after my escapades with the head torch the night before – but, panicking now, not knowing how much time I had, limbs and kit went flying as I tried to unzip my sleeping bag, the inner tent, find some clothes, find some shoes, move the water carrier, find my waterproof, unzip the outer without getting the inside of the tent wet from the rain drops on the door… Safe to say I caused a bit of a stir. Olly rolled over to face the other way and mumbled, “OK?”. 

I crouched by the stone wall, concealing myself as much as possible as I hadn’t managed to find quite enough clothes to be acceptable in an orchard in Tajikistan - or perhaps anywhere! I gulped at the cold air and then looked up at the sky. It took my breath away - and I wasn’t sick. I had been moved by the night-time display in Jelondy, but here, there were even more stars. There was not a speck of sky that didn’t twinkle silver and I saw a couple of shooting stars flash across the mountain tops. There was no light pollution here, wherever ‘here’ was. It was absolutely spectacular. I crawled back into the tent, more gracefully this time, and went to sleep. Olly didn’t stir. 

In the morning, I felt much better. We waved goodbye to the kind lady who had let us sleep in her orchard and continued along the valley. The road was rough and dusty, whenever a truck went past us we pulled over and covered our mouths and noses in a bid to avoid inhaling too much dust. We followed the river, sometimes it flowed gently along beside us and at others it crashed and roared. We could see settlements, villages, people and donkeys on the other side of the river in Afghanistan, a country which to so many of us is synonymous with terror and war. 

There was certainly a lot less traffic on the road running parallel to ours and it seemed a lot more treacherous than the road in Tajikistan too. This was especially apparent when we set up camp the night following our orchard stay. 

At the evening descended upon us again, the wind started to howl. As we crossed a bridge, we were blown sideways and had to lean in to the increasingly strong gusts. Besides from the small, oasis villages every five kilometres or so, which often featured a small shop and a water source, the road, the M41, was rugged and remote. We were enclosed in the valley which had steep, sand-coloured, rocky walls and a treacherous river carving its way through the middle of it. For three nights in a row now, we had opted not to play it safe and camp before it got dark, instead choosing to push on just a little further and so cycle into the night. 

I was silently starting to despair that evening because there was no village on our horizon, which was obscured anyway by the winding road and the jagged rocks. It really felt miraculous when a small road appeared to our right. We got off our bikes and pushed them up the bumpy track hoping that it would lead to a camping spot. We were optimistic due to the small stream trickling down over the stones. 

Olly searching for apricots just before we stopped for lunch

The track wound up further than we went for we found small tended patches and then a bigger square of grass bordered on three sides by a dry-stone wall. I kept pushing to the fourth and open side, having decided this was absolutely where we were going to camp although Olly was still looking around and checking we wouldn’t be doing any harm. There was a big tree in the field close to the crumbling fourth wall. We pushed our bikes through a big, disintegrating gap and in the darkness started our evening routine: Olly started to prepare the meal as I set up the tent. Spaghetti and vegetables again, it was quick, easy and good. 

Tended fields of Afghanistan

As we sat eating our dinner, impressed with how efficiently we had set up camp that evening, we suddenly gawped in awe, quickly replaced by dread, as we watched a beam of light jolting up and down on the other side of the river. A scooter was winding its way along the narrow track etched into the rock on the Afghani side of the valley. Everything else was darkness. 

Pictures taken the following morning

We woke early the following morning to the sound of a dog barking. Hearts racing, we tentatively unzipped the tent and saw a man watering plants in one of the small, tended patches. He simply smiled and waved when he saw us. He had switched on the irrigation system and so we packed up to the happy sound of bubbling water. We bumped back down the steep, rocky road and planned to stop for supplies at the next available opportunity. 

It was always enjoyable to pass through the small, oasis villages dotted along the road through the Panj river valley. The bursts of life along this bumpy and dusty road were astounding, and always made me wonder: how and why were there people there, in these small settlements? Were they happy? What is happy? What do they do? Do they travel? Do they have mobile phones? Are they increasingly addicted to them like we are? Why are we so addicted to our mobile phones?

We crossed over a bridge with thundering water rushing beneath it. There were two shops in the first little village we came to on the other side. We were looking for bread, but there was none in the first shop and so we walked next door to the second. No bread there either. Both shops boasted a fine range of biscuits, chocolate bars and fizzy drinks and so we bought a Twix for breakfast pudding and hoped we would come across another shop before lunchtime. 

The two shops, side by side.

But then, we plucked up the courage to put into practice the tiny amount of Russian we had learned and so I said, "hvelb" to the two guys, we think brothers, working in the shop. Although, at first, they looked a little confused, the younger of the two ran out of the shop, we think shouting for his mum. Huh. 

A way of keeping drinks cool.

He came back just a minute later carrying a huge, round, roti-type bread - it was as big as one of our bicycle wheels! We couldn't take it all - we didn't need it all - and we also a little worried about how much that much bread would cost. The boys were holding out the bread to us and gestured to ask if we wanted the whole thing or half of it. Relieved, we nodded and said that half would be perfect. The younger boy ran off again and came back with half-a-bike-wheel of bread wrapped up in a bag for us. The older boy got to work on the calculator, and we held our breaths. 

We paid the sum total of £1 for our Twix bar, a tomato, a bag of crisps and our bread, which we are sure had been freshly baked. We handed over the Tajik Somoni and told the boys to keep the really small amount of change. They vehemently refused and fished around in a small plastic tub of coins and other bits and pieces (namely elastic bands and paper clips) until they could return to us our pennies. 

We cycled off with the bread strapped to the back of my bike. We feared for the Twix in the rising heat and so stopped shortly after our shopping to eat it. We also took the opportunity to wash our faces and feet thanks to some water tumbling over a rock and into small channels which ran alongside the road. Olly was reflective that morning having been whipped up into a bit of a frenzy by the wind the night before. It had been tough going: the wind causing the sand to swirl around us and into our faces, knocking us around on our bikes – which was especially hairy as we crossed over a rope bridge – and it was almost dark again before we had found somewhere to camp. “Perhaps we should just go to France”, Olly mused. As he looked down at his melting Twix finger, I was reminded of the way I had looked longingly into my porridge in Shangri-La. 

And so we continued to bump along. Acknowledging and accepting that you’re feeling quite low can sometimes be cathartic, and our moods lifted as we pedaled on. The road conditions were poor, but we stopped at every oasis village we passed through, enjoying the shady spots to rest, relax and perhaps pay more attention to the incredible journey we were on. 

At lunchtime we found a bench – a plank of wood propped up between two trees – by a river, a water pump and a shop. We took advantage of all three! Every car that passed stopped at the pump and watched local after local tip their mouths straight underneath the tap. The water was crystal clear, but we filled our platypus regardless, hanging it perfectly from a tree. We then bought ice-creams from the shop, which was such a treat and a just reward for my having to empty the food pannier and clean it out due to an oil spillage. 

Our next stop was for Fanta and wafer biscuits at the top of a hill where miraculously there was a shop. The heat was intense and it made the roads so dry and dusty. Our throats too, we were parched. The shop belonged to a lady whose two children had bounced alongside Olly up the tortuous 12% gradient, chatting away happily to him, uninterested in the fact he was gritting his teeth and not replying. They had just been dropped off from the school bus and made light work of the climb. I inexpertly bargained for cold Fanta – warm would not do – paying twice as much for a small, cold bottle than a big, warm one. Something got lost in translation as I mimed “brr” for “cold” and then fanned my face to mean “because I’m hot”. We consumed so much fluorescent, orange-flavoured, fizzy fuel during this leg of our adventure. It was the only thing that quenched our thirst. We sat dripping in the shade opposite the shop as the lady told her two girls to leave us alone! 

The Fanta got us to Qalai Khomb. The final few hundred metres of the day were so blissful that I almost felt like I wanted to do them again and again. Smooth tarmac appeared suddenly and we free-wheeled into town. It was quite bizarre to suddenly see big, modern buildings; traffic lights; a hotel; an air-conditioned supermarket… 

We passed a memorial to the four fallen cyclists of the year, pausing for a moment, before turning left and onto a smaller street on which there were two homestays. We picked the first and were not disappointed. The owners at Homestay Sangakov Bahrom helped us to carry our panniers up to a small room with two single beds in it and decorated with colourful, patterned material. Just opposite us, we were told, was another cyclist. We later met Moritz, cycling from Germany to Nepal, and chatted with him over an incredible, feast of a dinner, having to shout a little on account of the ferocious Pyandzh River which rushed by. The river was aquamarine blue and made the air cool and fresh, which was welcome after our dusty days. 

We had our first shower in a few days, which my matted hair was certainly grateful for. Olly also wanted me to note that this was our first experience of a flushing toilet in a while too. We ate so much plov, bread, salad, biscuits and jam, and sipped so many delicious cups of tea that we rolled into bed that night and fell asleep to the pounding pulse of the Pyandzh. We had chatted cycling-touring with Moritz all night and thanks to a WiFi connection had touched-base with home too. We had agreed to have a lie-in and a late breakfast the next morning and looked forward to both immensely. We had reached another little checkpoint along our journey and we felt good.