Remember what I was saying about how getting there might hold the key to what makes bike touring so special and addictive? Well here’s the story of a day that should shine a light on what I’m trying to say. It is one of these instances where reaching my destination after much turmoil and uncertainty, gave birth to this very special feeling I never seem to experience outside of the realm of bike touring. This feeling I keep chasing every time I get on my bike for a long ride.
Fall of 2017, in the mountains of the Pamir, a little Tajik village called Murgab. I set out in the morning uncertain of what the day will hold. I usually know where I’m going, but not this time. At less than 150km, the next village, Karakul, is too close. The one after that, on the other side of the Kyrgyz border, Sary-Tash, is too far. I’m gonna have to pick one at some point, but I figure I don’t have to do it right away. Both settlements are on the other side of Ak-baital, a pass that towers at a staggering altitude of 4655m. Progress is slow here, not only because of the lack of oxygen but also due to harsh road conditions and fierce headwinds. It is however one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
The start of the day doesn’t see much progress. It’s hard to get anything going with so little oxygen in the air. Actually, even sleeping is made difficult, and I feel I got very little rest last night. The closer I get to Ak-Baital, the stronger the wind gusts. I crawl up the top of the highest point of the second highest paved road in the world. It’s not paved anymore and the headwind claims the hat I had worn all day, everyday for 8000km. I look at it fly away, knowing I’m never gonna see it again. So long, hat. That climb was not even the worst part of the day. Beyond the summit lie some of the worst washboards I ever had to ride. With skinny 35c’s tires, I’m not really equipped for this. It’s beautiful out there, but it’s tough. I hang on, knowing nothing lasts forever. And sure enough, after a while, the road betters and I find myself pushed on a smooth tarmac by the same wind that was holding me back earlier.
Like I expected, by the time I get to Karakul, I still have a fair bit of daylight ahead of me. But definitely not enough to get to Sary-Tash. Will I be able to find food and shelter if I get there late at night? I have no idea. Life is hard in these mountain and not much after sunset, if anything at all. But I feel like I can’t stop now. It seems stupid to waste precious daylight by just sitting in a room or small eatery when I could be riding. So I keep going. Eager to see what lies beyond the next pass.
A few more climbs cause an alarming drop in my average speed and, like so many times before (and so many times after), my optimistic calculations end up down the drain. When I get to the border checkpoint it’s dark out. And it’s been for a while. In a small shack made of clay bricks, three soldiers are playing cards and drinking vodka. They invite me to join them and I politely decline. It’s warm in there thanks to the wood stove, and bitterly cold outside. But I’m a man on a mission. Once the goal is set, there’s no diverging from it. This is just how I am. I take no pride in it as it is something that is out of my control, and sometimes leads to stupid situations.
Stamping my passport doesn’t even take two minutes. It is the fastest, smoothest border crossing I’ve ever experienced and I’m so happy about it that I even give a tip to the soldier. I take off thrilled about the downhill to come. My joy is short lived as I’m welcomed to Kyrgyzstan by a rough gravel road, and any time I’ve gained thanks to very efficient border guards, I’m losing three times as much trying to navigate between boulders and potholes. But soon enough something starts to worry me a bit more. Where is the Kyrgyz border checkpoint? Did I ride past it without noticing? Given what it’s Tajik counterpart looked like, it isn’t that far-fetched. I’ve illegally entered a country only once before but at least I ended up in the safe haven of a Thai brothel. Here, it’s dark, it’s cold and there’s no one. Well actually, at some point, there’s a man with a flashlight. I feel relieved thinking it’s a Kyrgyz soldier and I’m gonna get the coveted stamp. I’m out of luck, it turns out to be a farmer who’s inviting me to stay in his barn. But there’s no stopping before Sary-Tash, even though it’s getting late and the temperature keeps dropping.
A little later I finally see three actual Kyrgyz soldiers. If I’m an illegal alien here, now is the time to do something about it. Problem is I don’t speak Kyrgyz nor Russian and they don’t speak French nor English. Google translate is of no use as I’ve lost coverage for my Tajik sim card. Well let’s ride on. They didn’t shoot me or send me back to Tajikistan so things are probably okay.
After about 30 km of no man’s land, I finally get to the Kyrgyz border checkpoint. They’ve spent way more money than the Tajik on their facility and there is actually no way to miss it. As always with borders, getting in is more time consuming than getting out. But at least they don’t check my phone for porn like the Uzbeks did. After roughly 20 minutes, I finally get the coveted stamp and get back on the bike.
I’m fairly close to my goal now but it’s late enough for me to doubt if any place will be open. There’s no 24h motels in the Pamir. There’s not even a real hotel. Just homestays, a few villagers that have a spare room and can accommodate the occasional traveler. The whole village might be asleep. There’s not much to do in these mountains. Not many visitors. No real reason to stay up late. The closer I get, the bigger the doubt. And of course there’s no plan B. Given the altitude, the temperature is gonna keep dropping, and will probably reach -15°C. Something my sleeping bag can’t handle.
It’s past 10pm when I see the first lights. I’m soon knocking at the door of a guesthouse. I get no answer. I feel the anguish growing inside me. I ride some more and spot another one. A young woman opens the door. She looks surprised to see someone outside this late. Yes she has a room for me. I enter the house. She takes me to what seems to be a kitchen with a couple beds in it. There’s also a stove where a fire is burning. I’m beside myself with joy. Then she asks me if I want food. With four walls, a roof and a fire, I thought I was the happiest man alive. I was wrong. Bread, potatoes, mutton and a whole pot of tea helped me reach an even higher level of happiness. There was no shower but I couldn’t care less. I already had so much.
It’s corny, and it’s gonna sound cliché but I’m gonna say it anyway: no night spent in the most expensive five star hotel in Paris can even come close to what I experienced that night. The combination of a long hard day in the saddle with no breaks, the hours spent riding in the cold darkness, and then the doubt, the not knowing how this day would end. These three things put together made the reward something beyond special.
You need to freeze for hours and wonder if it’s gonna stop to know how blissful a cup of hot tea in front of the fire can be. So yeah, maybe it is the getting there that holds the key to what makes bike touring the best thing one can do on this planet.