Snow blows through the mesh wall of my inner tent. Of all the challenges Afghanistan would throw at me, this wasn’t one I’d thought I’d face. Stepping on a landmine, stumbling upon a Taliban hideout or having to eat sheep ball stew are the kind of risks that might, quite understandably, rank higher on my “try to avoid” list. But here I am, high on an Afghan mountainside with a face full of snow in the middle of the night. In the big scheme of things, I guess I can’t complain.
I’m here, along with 5 other Westerners to ride bikes. Or perhaps that’s understating our intention. Along with pro rider Matt Hunter, 2 Anthill film cameramen Dary Wittenburgh and Colin Jones, a hardened travel journo Brice Minnigh and our guide Tom Bodkin, we’re attempting the first ever mountain bike expedition through Afghanistan’s remote North East Wakhan Corridor.
The Wakhan is high –our 250Km ride kicks off at 3000 metres altitude and hurls us immediately into a big climb to around 4000m at which we’ll stay for much of the next 12 days. It’s a wild place, inhabited by nomadic goat herders and roaming wolves. And it gets snow on any of 320 days of any year, meaning our trip in June is not immune from wintery weather, as I am discovering.
The snow that falls that night is just a teaser for what’s to come. Three days later we’ll be pushing bikes through a knee deep snowpack and heaving our stranded horses from its clutches high on one of the three near-5000m passes we need to cross.
But for now at least, I pull my sleeping bag over my head and hunker down, aware that this is quite possibly the quietest campground I have ever slept in.
The Wakhan is eerily quiet, or would be if not for the ever pervasive rush of another meltwater river nearby. But there is no rumble of Humvees, no explosions, no rattle of gunfire here.
Created in the 1800’s as a demilitarised buffer zone to ensure peace between the expanding British and Russian empires, the Wakhan has remained peaceful since.
Sure, a skeleton of an old tank greets us at our border crossing at Ishkashim, a remnant of the 1980’s Soviet war, but once into the Wakhan proper, there is not a whiff of conflict, past or present.
Geographically and culturally isolated from the war raging around Kabul to the south, and so impoverished and sparsely populated so as to be of little interest to the Taliban, the Wakhan Corridor might as well be a different country.
Which is great. After all, we’re adventure mountain bikers, not idiots.