Words and photos by Dan Milner
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 Darcy 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, it’s so impoverished and sparsely populated that it’s 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.
We reach the Wakhan from its Northern neighbouring country, Tajikistan. It takes two days to get to the Afghan border, by which time it feels like we have been travelling for an eon already. And then we have the Afghan road to negotiate: it’s little more than a rough track, littered with the debris of previous landslides, threading its way high above the angry, churning Wakhan river.
Our progress is slow, lurching over loose rocks and wading through bumper-deep dark-brown torrents aboard beaten-up Toyotas sporting cracked windscreens and alarmingly bald tyres, and steered by people who have clearly never taken a driving test. It takes a further two days to reach our final start point of our ride, the village of Sarhad.
In Sarhad we take a day to rest and for Tom to arrange local expedition support. He gathers a cook, a cook’s assistant, a translator and half a dozen locals whose pack animals will haul our overnight gear, food and spares throughout our ride. At this altitude we’d like to ride light, but faced with a daily temperature fluctuations of +30C to -5C, down jackets, fleeces and tights become essential daypack items.
Surrounded by inquisitive kids and men alike, we pour over old Soviet maps of the area as Tom plots our ride loop, pointing out a handful of obstacles that might shut us down –notably three high passes, and so many river crossings they are too numerous to count. With the sun setting, our newly hired cook Amin Beg, rustles up a warming bean stew, before we divvy up Clif bar rations for the ride and climb into sleeping bags for our last night’s sleep under a roof.
When it comes to leaving next morning there is wild debate between the horsemen, yak drivers and donkey owners as to whose turn it is to earn some dollars from their trade.
Tourists are scarce here –only about 100 trekkers pass through the region each year- but the trails we ride are centuries old, forming part of the ancient Silk Road. In the pack-animal lottery unravelling around us we’re hoping to score yaks –the local, hoofed equivalent of a go-anywhere 4×4- but we end up with 4 horses and 6 donkeys instead.
There are no roads here, only trails, and covering distance is only half the challenge. The rest is how well we deal with the obstacles that arise, the snowy passes, the rivers to cross. “Ok,” says Tom to our translator Yar Mahamod, “but if the donkeys can’t cross the first river, we’re sending them back.” I realise that Tom has more of an idea of some of the challenges ahead than he is really letting on. Then it strikes me that if a donkey can’t cross a river, how the hell am I expected to?
We roll out of Sarhad in good spirits, happy to be on our bikes at last. We ride straight into the first big, steep climb of the day, setting a precedent for every day to follow. Quickly the trail becomes loose and steep. Factor in the 3000m altitude and the 30 degree heat and we’re soon pushing, then shouldering our bikes for the climb up to the Dalriz pass.
Behind us sits a majestic panorama of peaks and braided river valleys, and any remnants of western comfort. From here on there is no cellphone, no Facebook updates, no toilets and no showers.
We climb alongside the towering peaks of Pakistan’s Hindu Kush just to our south, so close it feels like we could reach out and touch them. The trail is dusty and off camber, and riding it demands concentration. To take in the incredible views means stopping, but stopping becomes something we get good at very quickly.
We’re not acclimatised yet so every climb becomes a short, intense burst of lung capacity before succumbing to the oxygen deprived gasps of defeat. Fortunately every pass we summit, feeds into a fast, winding descent. Just rewards for the nausea we’re enduring
We finally pull up at our first day’s camp spot a little before dark. We have 1400m of climbing and 1000m of descent behind us, but its taken 10 hours. The pattern is set. We have 11 more days ahead.
Multi day epics are rarely easy going, but it soon becomes clear that this one is the hardest thing I have ever attempted in over 30 years of mountain biking. There is nothing easy about what we’re doing, but strangely every part of it is rewarding, or at least seems that way in retrospect.
During such adventures there is a yin and yang of emotions at play: enduring huge bursts of effort and prolonged discomfort seem to heighten the endorphin rush of a sketchy descent or the marvel of seeing a landscape that few others have ever set eyes on. As we press onwards it becomes clear that we each have our boundaries, our limits of patience and endurance, and for some those are breeched on day three.
For two days we have been slowly climbing and descending our way deeper in to the Little Pamir mountains, creeping our way up onto a rolling plateau that is hemmed in on all sides by towering snow-capped peaks.
But the long, arduous climb up a lumpy, rock strewn ribbon of singletrack on our third afternoon crushes the group and they limp into camp an hour behind our support animals and myself. Today I am on a roll, but my crushing moment will come four days later.
We camp wherever there is grazing for the animals and a close water supply. Occasional shepherd huts, empty for 10 months of the year and occupied only for the brief high pasture summer grazing season, afford shelter for our Afghan crew.
Trees don’t endure this high, so dried yak dung provides fuel for the cooking fires, which then fill the shepherd huts with thick, sweet, acrid smoke. When the first snow flurries arrive, we are all forced to seek shelter in the huts and take our chances with the smoke. Slowly but surely, we are all beginning to smell the same at least.
To cross each of the three 4800 plus metre high passes on our route means a 4.30am wake up call each time to reach the summits while the snowpack is still frozen solid enough for the horses to cross. We heave ourselves out of sleeping bags and into frozen bike shoes, blowing into our hands to ward off the cold.
We stuff gear into bags and load them onto the horses before setting off upwards in a bleary-eyed, pre-breakfast state of semi-consciousness.
Bike shoe cleats skit across frozen streams, and slip on hard packed snow as we shoulder our bikes for the solid three-hour climbs ahead. My gamble of bringing mesh-panelled shoes with the idea that they dry quickly after river crossings, is now seeming stupid. I cover panels with Duct-tape in a futile attempt to keep my feet drier and warmer in the snow.
The 4937m Garumdee pass on day three comes and goes without incident, but not so for the 4998m Karabel pass on day six. As soon as we reach the 4305m Karabel camp, our staging post for attacking the pass early next morning we are blighted by snow.
It arrives out of nowhere, but lasts for hours. It buries our tents and bikes alike, forcing us to take shelter in another smoke-choked stone hut.
Shielded from the wind and snow, but far from warm, the hut becomes our social area, where we sip tea and chat about escapades past and present, for as long as we can endure the smoke. It also becomes the negotiating room for Tom and the assembled horsemen, deep in debate as to how it’s best to attack the pass.
Next morning it is still snowing and the horsemen decide to wait out the storm. It’s clear to us that the snow up high will be soft, but we press on anyway, pushing and carrying our bikes for two hours to the summit. We’re only meters from the top when our horses become stuck haunch deep and floundering in the soft snow.
We drop bikes and race to hold them up, to stop them from falling over, something that could easily result in a broken leg, and inevitably death, for a horse.
It’s a wild scene: shouting Afghans and panicking westerners trying to physically haul our horses from the deep snow, turn them about and lead them back to the safety of the scree nearby.
The pass has beaten us. We retreat.
The U-turn on the Karabel forces us to take the long way around next day instead, first riding a perfect ribbon of singletrack down valley before pitching into a long, slow climb up the next. We’re trying to reach our staging post for the next day’s crossing of the 4895m Garumdee pass. It’s a long slog across boggy ground that keeps feet wet all day, battling snow flurries that blow down the valley and coat our jackets.
It’s half way up this climb that I hit my wall and truly question what we are doing. We regroup for a strategy meeting and I air my concerns, suggesting we are beaten and that finally we should look at an alternative route.
I can sense others share my feelings, but ahead, over the Garumdee pass lies the lure of the Big Pamir range, a geographically distinct region inhabited by yurt-dwelling Kyrgyz nomads. Few trekkers make it that far. I go with the group decision: we press on. Finally after 14 hours on the trail that day we reach our camp spot. It is dusk and I am too tired to eat.
At sunrise next day I find new energy. As with everyone else, I’ve now hit my wall, climbed it and it’s now shelved behind me.
We clear the giddy heights of the Garumdee, and rail a thousand meter descent into new experiences. Around us now sits the rolling hills and vast open steppe of the Big Pamir.
We ride alongside a crystal clear river on braided horse trails that offer a hundred fun lines to follow. We climb through hillsides adorned with bus-sized boulders, scattered by unimaginable geological forces past. And we are invited to overnight in the incredible yurts of the Kyrgyz.
Inside these vast but cosy dwellings we share flat bread and try to hold down its rancid Yak-milk yoghurt accompaniment. We get a glimpse of lives that are so divorced from our own we struggle to find common ground. We find it –in laughter. Laughing at Tom’s attempt to bareback ride one of their horses, at the Kyrgyz’ attempts to ride our bikes.
We are ten days into a twelve-day odyssey. Behind us are more struggles than we care to count, and more lie ahead. What we have taken on is the most ambitious ride any of us has ever attempted, but it’s showered us with more mind-blowing experiences than a thousand days riding on my local trails.
This is what adventure mountain biking is about, and I remind myself of that as I gag once more on the rancid yoghurt and catch a whiff of how bad I smell.
Tomorrow I might take a bath in a freezing river, but for now, I’m going to sit and try to absorb my surroundings, the friendships that are building in our group and the mind-bending accomplishments of our trip.
It feels like we’ve ridden to the ends of the Earth, and somehow come out on the other side.
INFO: The team’s 12 day expedition climbed 8355m and descended 8855m, starting at Sarhad and finishing at Gaz Khan villages. The route covered 250Km and took the team 97 hours out on the trail. The logistics were organised by www.secretcompass.com.