Cycling the Panj Valley

  • Written by  Charles Stevens
  • Published in Explorers
A view of Afghanistan over the Panj river approximately 40km north of Khorugh A view of Afghanistan over the Panj river approximately 40km north of Khorugh Charles Stevens
22 Aug
2017
Charles Stevens explores the landscape, history and peoples of the Panj Valley, straddling the Tajik-Afghan border as part of a four-month long Beijing to Tehran Expedition

‘The world is a small place’ is one of those banal, somewhat empty sayings that I am trying my hardest never to repeat again. While cycling the Silk Road from Beijing to Tehran the world seemed really quite large: large in geographical expanse; cultural diversity; linguistic variability; religious variance and stylistic divergence. Perhaps the element of mystery has diminished, the array of customs narrowed, and a greater economic coherence has emerged from a globalising world, but it is a world which still offers more than a lifetime’s worth of exploration for those who cannot resist seeing what is around the bend in the road.

Over ten thousand kilometres across some of the least visited countries on the planet offered a panoply of experience. The ‘roads’ in Mongolia were nearly as wild and treacherous as the sandstorms of the Gobi Desert. The alpine beauty of Russia’s Altai Mountains competed with the Timurid architecture in Uzbekistan. The shrill heat in the Karakum Desert contrasted with Mongolia’s ice-ridden mornings. As we travelled along our west-east axis, the stocky more robust features of the Han Chinese became replaced by the aquiline appearances of the Iranians. Yet, the kindness and hospitality on the continent was as ubiquitous as the rising minarets in Iran or the yurt speckled expanses of Mongolia.

Tajikistan was another unexpected but rewarding place; a central piece in the jigsaw puzzle of Central Asia. The land is carved by the form of the mountains and, like the equally landlocked Bhutan, it’s a very mountainous country. Myself and Will, my cycling companion, entered the country from Kyrgyzstan, traversing the region via the Pamir Highway, the second highest road in the world after Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway. The Panj Valley arrived at the end of our journey through the Pamir mountains, suitably punctuating one of the most spectacular roads I have ever travelled along.

The Panj Valley sits due west of the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow finger of land extending out from Afghanistan. It previously marked the dividing territory between the imperial powers of Britain and Russia during ‘The Great Game’. We descended into it from the heart of the Pamir range. The Panj River forms the border with Afghanistan and, by implication, the edge of the Tajikistan province, the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region.

The GBAO has had a tumultuous history, previously claimed by several empires and, more recently, declaring independence from Tajikistan when civil war broke out in the country following the collapse of Soviet rule in 1992. As we cycled along, signs of discord marked the valley – burnt out cars lay upside down like struggling beetles, spray paint declared the region’s autonomy and regular military checkpoints recorded our movement. Abandoned bunkers indicated the more militant past and the lingering frustration at their lost opportunity for independence was perceptible in many peoples’ eyes.

afghanistanAfghanistan in the foothills of the Pamirs (Image: Charles Stevens)

Before setting off along the valley we spent a rest day in Khorugh, recovering our cracked lips, freckled skin and heavy lungs from the multiple 4,000-metre plus passes we had ascended. After dinner, some locals kindly gave us a lift back to our campsite and as hashish was offered along the way the salient comment, ‘Tajik no. Pamir good’ was declared through sanguine smiles. Indeed, the Pamiris’ ethnic identity, language, facial features and specific religious practices are distinct from the Tajiks’ and this is the basis for mutual antagonism.

Leaving Khorugh – the capital of the GBAO – these woes seemed to disappear. Indeed, my most vivid memories of the Panj are better characterised by its stunning beauty and almost hermetic intimacy. The valley was rarely more than a couple of kilometres across from arête to arête and life was compressed into the few hundred metres of habitable land on the sides of the river banks. Every bend in the river shadowed a unique collection of jutting ridges and peaks and it often passed through the valley like sand moving through the neck of an hourglass. We were so close to Afghanistan, to hearing the singing of women, see the waving of children, and men cladded in their perahan tunban with pakols mushroomed on their heads.

The occasional inlet would run through the spurs of the mountains feeding the Panj; a river which is the umbilical cord of Central Asia’s greatest waterway – the Amu Darya. Here it was still embryonic, thin, and fast flowing as the steep valley sides pushed its current along. One afternoon not far from Kevron – at the top of the horseshoe-shaped protrusion of Afghanistan – dusty from the loose roads and dry soil that had accumulated on my salty skin, I washed in the river. Here it was slightly wider, perhaps 50 metres across, but the current could still carry you away at the river’s centre. When I was waist deep, an armed officer sternly told me to go no further. The river’s central point is the official border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and several metres to either side was no-man’s-land. I preferred not to be shot. Closer to its source, smugglers journey across this river during the cover of night, transporting heroin in what is a drug trafficking superhighway, one of the Panj’s darker secrets.

Sadly, the residue of Afghanistan’s unsettled and meddled history occasionally still echoes around the valley. One afternoon, two days ride up from Khorugh we heard the sound of explosions. The noise was penetrating, pinballing off the rocky faces of the ravine’s steep sides. These walls and the river below left nowhere to hide as my increasingly panicky mind quickly assumed we were in the midst of a Taliban insurgency. In an instant, the valley went from providing a cathartic escape to a claustrophobic prison. I also nervously recalled a conversation I had in Khorugh with a Swiss employee of the Aga Khan Foundation about the violent clashes in the region in 2012.

Around the corner thin wedges of light arrowed their way into the valley and a 4x4 and ambulance emerged. An ‘FSD’ (Swiss Foundation for Mine Action) and US Department of Mine Removal sticker legitimised the vehicles. The discord was not caused by Taliban nor internal strife but by the controlled detonation of mines. They were deposited by the Soviets following their retreat at the end of the Soviet-Afghan War. No signs acknowledged their existence and they pose a considerable danger to herders, firewood gathers, farmers, women, and children.

After chatting to the Western-educated doctor stationed in the car, and feeling much more settled, I hopped back on my bike consumed by the irony – only 20 metres from what is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world, it is Russian mines that had the greatest potential to end my life.

hamletA typical Afghan hamlet, with men relaxing in the front while the women work (Image: Charles Stevens)

Often, the roads were nothing but terribly corrugated dirt tracks, as our ever thinning bodies shook through our suspension-less bikes. The road quality and undulating terrain meant we could often not travel faster than ten miles per hour, though this was still faster than the 16-wheeler trucks also travelling the route. I remember racing one ‘competitor’ for 30 miles, trying to stay ahead so as not to be choked by the thick concoction of fumes from its exhaust. Moreover, the roads barely accommodate these vehicles and getting too close is risky. Occasionally, they become wedged into the cliff face or dangle off the road.

Yet, when my attention regularly wondered to the Afghan side there was never a truck or car in sight but only the infrequent two-stroke motorcycle whizzing along. Herders moved their livestock along the road and when the track vanished into the hills, often no sign of human habitation remained.

Power lines, though existent, were sparser than the swinging coils snaking along the Tajik side, their wooden poles soon to be replaced by newly-erected steel lattice towers. Many houses were unpainted clay constructions with curtains covering their unglazed windows. Flat roofs interspersed the cover of poplars and a mixture of vegetation which dabbed the tan hillside. The houses never rose taller than two stories, helping to minimise the destructiveness of earthquakes which ravage the region.

As we progressed through the valley, edging away from the Pamirs, the mountains shrunk and with it their shadows softened. Rising high across the river were isolated patchworks of fields, emerging from the most impossible and seemingly inaccessible of places at the end of a hidden track. The track along the Panj is also hidden deep within the creases and folds of the mountains, yet as you move through its every serration, you cannot help but be enthralled by the feeling of stepping between two worlds.

Charles Stevens is currently studying history at Saint Andrews University. When not on an adventure, he is usually playing racket sports, reading, writing, and seeking out further challenges and entrepreneurial opportunities. For more information on the trip please visit
www.beijingtotehran.com where any donations towards the chosen charity, A Child Unheard, are hugely appreciated, or get in touch at [email protected]

 

The new great game

The 19th century ‘Great Game’ refers to the struggle between Russia and Britain for hegemony over Central Asia. Central to these attempts were the surreptitious operations of spies who mapped and colluded with the inhabitants of the regions to help gain control. Today, access to the region is thankfully not as treacherous, but securing legitimate entry can appear just as labyrinthine.

To enter Tajikistan, you will have to complete an online application form, provide multiple supporting documents, and have sufficient validity and space in your passport. Once this is accepted, you will be invited for an appointment at the embassy where you will be photographed and have your fingerprints taken. Moreover, to visit the Panj Valley and Pamir Region, you will have to acquire an additional GBAO permit, which requires a further supporting letter. Only after this will your decision be processed.

Passports must be collected personally and the embassy takes no responsibility for damaged or lost documents. In addition, the embassy is only open for such enquiries on Mondays and Thursdays from 10.00am to 12.00pm and will only accept payment at their bank branch or online via bank transfer. Naturally, public holidays also result in closure. The next problem is trying to find the exact location for the embassy in London’s Hammersmith, it is neither provided online nor sign-posted in the large office complex it is located in. Thankfully, the receptionist finally pointed us in the right direction.

 

TEN OF THE BEST

Cycling 10,000km over rough terrain takes its toll, not least on your equipment. For Charles Stevens, maintaining the condition of his bike was as important as keeping his own body fit and healthy. Alongside maintenance tools and well-built cycling gear, he made sure to have adequate protection from the heat, suitable communication gear in case of emergencies, and even a crowd-funded medical and security bracelet...kit

1. Navigation

Garmin Edge Touring – £200; 98g

Navigation is an essential aspect of safety in remote regions. Providing fantastic value for money, durability, multiple data profiles and long-lasting battery life, this gadget will help to keep you on the right track.

 

2. Windproof jacket

Castelli Superleggera Jacket – £90; 91g

Having multiple layers to hand when cycling is crucial to one’s warmth and comfort. The Pertex fabric prevents windchill and its light weight and compatibility allows easy placement in a jersey pocket.

 

3. Multitool

Topeak Ratchet Rocket Lite – £20; 155g

A finely crafted maintenance toolkit in a secure package. It provides 15 functions for jobs of different shapes and sizes and has a reversible lever to make access to tight spots much easier. Be careful to keep all the bits together.

 

4. Food

Werther’s Original Classic Chewy Toffees – £1.30; 135g

Not usually first item on the packing list but this high calorie, long-lasting confectionery regularly boosted my spirits. Be sure to bring a packet of the chewy variety along as sourcing them in Central Asia is as difficult as finding a stone-baked pizza!

 

5. Bike

Condor Heritage – from £1,229; 2.5kg

The Condor Heritage is a bike that I can rely on. It provides the comfort, speed, and durability to survive even the toughest road conditions. The racing green paint-job gives this distinctive and high-quality build an even more eye-catching look.

 

6. Eye protection

Oakley Flak Jacket XLJ Sunglasses: Black Iridium Lens – £129; 30g

Excellent for the harsh UV rays you will experience at high altitudes in the Pamirs. They are subtle, not attracting unneeded attention, while providing comfort and sufficient peripheral vision during long hours in the saddle.

 

7. Tent

Vango Banshee 200 – £140; 2.35kg

A reliable tent will be one of your most important items, ensuring your safety and comfort. Surviving sandstorms, 50-knot winds, and 4am starts better than its occupant, the Banshee 200 was a best buy and can be found in any major outdoors shop.

 

8. Bike Maintenance

Muc-Off Dry Lube –from £4; 120ml

In the extremely dry conditions of the Pamir Mountains, dry lube is the wisest choice, but is near impossible to source in the region. Save yourself unneeded wear and a squeaky chain by bringing a bottle along.

 

9. Safety

Vagaband – via Kickstarter

The practically indestructible ID bracelet for the modern adventure traveller, contains all your vital travel information. It provides a level of security and a great talking point with both locals and fellow travellers.

 

10. Tyres

Schwalbe Marathon Plus –£21; 810g

Great tyres are crucial to keeping your wheels rolling and only three punctures during the entire 114 days pays testament to Schwalbe’s quality. Schwalbe caters for the needs of the racer, tourer and city cyclist. The ‘Plus’ option gives that little bit of extra resilience to cope with the most challenging off-road surfaces.

 

DON’T FORGET

...disposable shoe covers! When all others failed, these cheap, lightweight alternatives were ideal for keeping our feet dry and wriggling. They were brilliantly effective and provided many a funny glance and an interesting story to tell in hindsight.

This was published in the August 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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