One of our July 2016 Pamir motorcycle riders – Michael Howell – has written a short piece on his experience, and with his permission you can read it below:
What does that name convey? Only twice in my life has it come to the fore.
Once was when Wilfrid Noyce, a climbing geography teacher at my school, failed to return alive from a 1962 summer expedition to “the Pamirs”. I knew it was somewhere west of the Himalayas, and that the mountains were very high and therefore dangerous.
And second was when I read a small paragraph in the Evening Standard in 2015, advertising a proposed off-road motorcycle adventure in “the Pamirs” for 2016.
Why did this catch my eye?
First, the name always had an exotic ring. I knew the Pamirs had separated the British Empire from the Russian. It was the dangerous playing field of the “Great Game”, where gallant Victorian gentlemen disguised as Mussulmen, scouted for local allies, and were often unmasked, thereby perishing while on her (Imperial) Majesty’s Secret Service.
Second, I had ridden, 48 years ago in 1968, to Kabul from Woking (and back) on a motorbike. Afghanistan is now out of bounds, but the Pamirs are in Tajikistan, only one country north. What better way to trace what the events of half a century might have wrought on that still mysterious part of the world?
The ad had said that the age limit was 70, so this was my last chance! It would be an exciting break with the norm. So I found a slightly younger work colleague who was interested, and signed up.
I was impressed with the professionalism and attention to detail of Edge Expeditions, the organisers of this trip. The team is Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent, adventuress extraordinaire, and her partner Kerry (aka Marley) Burns. Marley was to accompany the six paying participants on a 2,200 km itinerary, first following the Afghan border south and east along the Oxus River to Khorog and the Wakhan Corridor, then driving north up to the Pamir plateau, staying with Kyrgyz yak herdsmen in their yurts, cresting the Ak-Baital pass at 4,655m (15,270 ft), and visiting the Silk Road towns of Murghab in Tajikistan and Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Then west to Khujand, once again in Tajikistan, a big city at the source of the Jaxartes, the other major river of Central Asia, and finally the dreaded Anzob Tunnel, cutting through the Zarafshan mountains back to Dushanbe.
The other five were; my German work colleague; two London Met motorcycle policemen who had signed up together; a Disney “imagineer” from Los Angeles; and a self-described IT geek (but a very level-headed one) from Georgia. All were in their 50s, so I was the outlier!
Marley had arranged for no less than four others to accompany and protect us. There was our local guide – a Tajik entrepreneur and motorbike enthusiast and owner of the bikes, the Kyrgyz owner of a well-used Toyota 4×4 Landcruiser, a Russian master motorcycle mechanic, and a Tajik retiree, 60+, who came along to ride a bike if any of the paying riders needed time off. The convoy was strictly run, with our local guide in the lead, and the mechanic in the rear, and the two others behind in the 4×4.
That is a full squad of 6+5, which left us feeling that we would be in not actually a cricket team, but certainly good company of 11. Happenstance also brought along a German woman age 29, who was motorcycling alone around the world on a British bike (a Triumph), and who got into mud trouble just as we were passing by. She stayed with us for the Pamir section. So we were a round dozen.
Space does not permit a full discourse of all that happened. It was exciting. And yes the roads were awful, and the altitude breathless. However, the people were incredibly friendly and welcoming, the food healthy and copious, the accommodation mostly basic but always gladly provided, the music unfamiliar, and yet danceable – even to aging gents fresh off their motorbikes!
The high points other than those mentioned already:
- Sleeping overnight in the village mosque on the last night of Ramadan, and being woken before dawn by every man in the village arriving for the Eid-al-Fitr service. Our motorbikes surrounded by a sea of 500 shoes.
- Throwing a ceremonial rock across the 20m wide raging Oxus river into Afghanistan – the closest we got.
- Wallowing in a delicious hot spring at the top of a mountain overlooking the Wakhan Valley with the snow-capped Hindu Kush behind.
- A Zoroastrian graveyard with rock drawings which pre-date Jesus Christ, let alone Mohammed.
- A Pamiri Saturday night in the courtyard of our host family. A graceful young girl dancing alone to the music.
- A lyrical folk concert given by a travelling Kyrgyz musician on a 100 year old stringed instrument in the yak herder’s yurt.
- Stunningly blue Karakul Lake – nearly 4,000m in altitude – and 50 km across. It’s an asteroid crater filled with meltwater and frozen for 8 months of the year.
- Snow falling on us at the top of the passes, in July!
- Riding across the horse and yak pastures of Kyrgyzstan, looking back at the Pamir range, with the highest summit – Lenin Peak, 7,138m (23,420 ft) – clearly overtopping the rest.
- Wonderful fresh food, especially roast chickens mysteriously found, prepared and consumed in Murghab.
- The endless (100’s of km) Chinese built fence, marking the border with PRC.
- The unreserved friendliness of everyone we met.
- The camaraderie of the team and the good cheer of Marley and our Tajik guides
And low points:
- Mud! [Day 1 only] Many of us got filthy. Luckily not me.
- Big rocks on the road – I hit one, and the bike was felled.
- Inevitable tummy trouble – but overcome.
- Testosterone fuelled local drivers on scary passes.
- The 5 km Anzob tunnel – once known as the tunnel of death – now, after being resurfaced, drained and lit, it’s now merely the tunnel of dread. Still, it’s a two way unmarked road with mad drivers overtaking blind into the opaque exhaust fumes ahead.
And how have things changed in nearly 50 years? Actually not much, because this time I was in orderly former Soviet territory. The Tajik people also populate northern Afghanistan. So it did feel like 70s Afghanistan, including the western pilgrims, mostly on two wheels, and mostly non-motorised. Peaceful, reflective and timeless. When we stopped, it was good to switch off our motors and listen to the silence and the susurration of the Pamiri wind. Too bad that just over the Oxus river, intertribal strife continues, and the people thus ensnared choose to leave these beautiful but barren lands for better life chances elsewhere.
Recommended – especially if you can ride a motorcycle – but, as the Edge website remarks, you get no fluffy towels! But you do get woven yak wool carpets…
MH, July 2016