“His name means ‘soldier’,” says Yaar Mahahammad, our translator. Yaar is talking about Askarkhan, a thirteen year old boy who has been hefting rocks to form the foundations for a new stone hut with the kind of ease that puts my own strength to shame.
Askarkhan looks at us with piercing, curious eyes from beneath his over-sized, hand-me-down clothes. Despite his military-sounding name, his clothes have no resemblance to a uniform, and he doesn’t need one. Here, at 4,305 metres amidst the swirls of a snowstorm in the remote Wakhan Corridor, Askarkhan is far from the war and troubles that have tragically become synonymous with his home country, Afghanistan.
In these regions the best weapon for survival is resilience, not a rifle. Guns are useful against marauding wolves, but it is resilience that will see Askarkhan brave the short, eight-week summer of herding yaks and sheep high on the mountainsides. Resilience that will arm him against the cold of night, the relentless snowstorms possible on 350 days of the year, and the thin air. I have a lot to learn. All in all, this is probably the harshest place I have ever been, so why the hell are we trying to ride bikes here?
Today, the snow buries our six bikes and tents alike. Above us, enveloped in dense fog, sits the way ahead. At 4,860 metres, the Karabel Pass is the second of three high passes that we have to brave during our twelve day pioneering mountain bike traverse through the Wakhan Corridor. Navigating each pass means an early 4am start, as we must give the pack animals carrying our supplies a good chance of crossing while the snowpack is still frozen hard. Each climb requires dragging ourselves from warm sleeping bags to force on frozen bike shoes hours before any sign of breakfast. But each pass, we hope, will deliver another brake-searing singletrack descent.
As far as adventure-bike trips go, it doesn’t get more adventurous than this. The term ‘adventure’ seems to put such trips outside the normal remit for whinging. After all, if the going gets tough, then that is just part of ‘adventure’. Yet after thirty years of remote mountain biking trips, this one is stretching my resolve. If “hard-earned” is the price you pay for riding where no one has ever ridden before, then we are certainly paying the price in Afghanistan. There has been nothing easy about our ride so far, from hefting our bikes across perilous, icy river crossings in churning waters, to the massive temperature swings that deliver 30°C heat one day and snowstorms the next. It is day five when we meet Askarkhan. We have seven more to go. I am tired, my feet are wet and my hands numb.
Every year the remote and wild Wakhan Corridor welcomes a small handful of intrepid trekkers, but nobody has tried to mountain bike across it until now. A week earlier, after the drive in, I start to understand why. With the road from Kabul deemed too dangerous for travel, the only way to enter the Wakhan is from the neighbouring capital of Dushanbe, in Tajikistan. It takes us four days of navigating dry, desolate boulder-strewn roads, fording rivers swollen with summer snow melt, in jeeps with bald tyres, cracked windscreens, and leaky radiators. We took turns to ride shotgun alongside our driver, while the cassette player tried but failed to drown out the car’s rattles, its interior constantly filled with clouds of dust.
Riding shotgun in our Afghan jeep, a battered Toyota Hilux. There are few bridges in these remote regions and rivers are swollen with snowmelt.
Eventually we reach Sarhad, the village at the end of the dirt road and the starting point for our twelve day traverse of the Wakhan. Within the region’s arid landscape, such villages are an oasis of fertility. We spend two nights here, making arrangements to hire pack animals to haul the camping gear and the food we will need for the duration. For all of the assembled mountain bikers, including Canadian pro-rider Matt Hunter, the lure of this pioneering expedition is not about kudos or dubious bar-talk bravery.
It is the enticement of the unknown, of what lies beyond our usual boundaries. It is the magnetic appeal of hard-earned singletrack rewards that brings us to this unforgiving landscape.
Some might criticise venturing through such impoverished areas while flaunting our own relative wealth, but my experience suggests that such trips help break down barriers and educate both hosts and tourists alike. It is only through better understanding of different cultures that we can really do away with war.
Tom Bodkin, who runs adventure travel company Secret Compass and is the brains behind the outlandish expedition we have signed up for, lays out a patchwork of old 1980s Soviet maps on the grass. Without hacking into the US military’s drone programme, these old Soviet era maps are the only source of detail we have. The maps are a maze of tightly packed contour lines. As if adding items to a shopping list, Tom methodically points out a number of rivers swollen with snowmelt and high, snowy passes, any of which might prove un-crossable and cause our retreat.
We strike out on day one, heading straight into a climb up the 4,250 metre Dalriz Pass, our first high pass of the ride, and a stunning view across the Little Pamir valley. Acclimatisation comes slowly to us, making the first two days a serious slog as we haul our bikes over these passes. Any semblance of vehicle, toilet, or cell-phone coverage is left behind us. Our tyres roll only on ancient trails chiselled into the dusty hillsides by centuries of determined pack animal traffic. For the first two days we follow part of the ancient silk route, beating its way East towards China, shadowed by the impossibly vertical peaks of Pakistan’s Hindu Kush.
The locals here are among the hardiest and most resourceful people I have ever encountered. They have little choice to be otherwise. Surviving in this wild and unforgiving landscape is a constant challenge. There are few trees in the Wakhan, so yak dung is the default fuel for warmth and for cooking. Smoking fiercely when burnt, it fills the occasional stone huts our support team sometimes use for cooking duties with thick, eye-watering smoke.
We follow precarious trails perched high above the thundering Wakhan river, brown with meltwater silt. There is no shortage of off-camber, loose, narrow singletrack, making for challenging and nerve-racking riding, where a fall could spell calamity. For the first few days, getting the trail surface dialled proves to be a steep learning curve. Each of us deals with the exposure factor differently, but in the end it is the turbulent river crossings that become the single great leveller.
In twelve days of riding, we only cross four bridges. For the remainder, we have no choice but to wade, often thigh deep, in icy cold, churning waters. At each river we stop, regroup and collectively plan a way across. A slip or fall here would mean a battering at best, and at worst losing a bike or even a life into the heaving mass of the Wakhan River below.
Every tributary we encounter is a raging torrent of ice-cold meltwater, formidably dark with silt. Carrying bikes becomes a game of nerves and balance. Numb feet become the targets for bowling-ball rocks, rolled along the riverbed by an angry current.
Meanwhile our enthusiastically grabbing, wildly shouting Afghan support team beckons from the far bank, adding to the drama. And then we have to get the donkeys across. It is a process we must repeat many times.
In truth, though, we would be going nowhere without the local support and hardy pack animals. In this forgotten land, where winter lasts eight months of the year, we are a valuable source of income for six locals, including our cook Amin Beg, his helper Amin Ali, and our translator Yaar Mahammad. Yaar’s English is basic, and he struggles to understand much of what Tom tries to convey to our horsemen. But without him we would be felled. Finding an English speaker in this remote corner of the world is nigh on impossible. When Tom put the word out, only three candidates showed up at the Tajik-Afghan border crossing at the town of Ishkashim. One of them had travelled for two days to pitch his service.
For the first three days we work our way up the side of the thundering Wakhan river, crossing its tributaries and making the most of every dusty section of trail we can ride. We reach the magnificent rolling hills of Little Pamir, and follow a solitary horse trail up valleys and over passes. Spirits are high and group camaraderie is building, but the physical and mental challenges will take their toll before long. As the days pass, each of us suffers a low point, when energy and morale is lacking.
Where we stop to camp each night is dictated by water and the grazing needs of the pack animals, rather than by our own abilities. The distances we cover each day are not big by any standards, but I am thankful for that. We rapidly climb to over 4,200 metres, and then remain above 4,000 metres for much of the trip. Only time will allow us to acclimatise.
The vast emptiness of the Wakhan means that we are assured a permanent feeling of solitude. It is probably the most remote-feeling and wild place that I have ever journeyed through.
Sometimes we pitch our tents in open, exposed meadows surrounded by boulders etched with petroglyphs, sometimes we are squeezed into steep-sided river gorges. The people of the Wakhan are semi-nomadic, and there are are no permanent villages, so we camp wherever a shepherd’s outpost or hut can be found as shelter for our support team. On other nights, they hastily erect ad-hoc stone walls behind which they will sleep in freezing temperatures. None of us have met such a hardy, tough people, and resourceful too. The night before our first high mountain pass crossing, the Afghans sit melting the rubber soles of their shoes on the campfire to stick on patches of fabric. They tell us that these makeshift crampons will help them during the snowy hike ahead.
The high passes become our biggest obstacle. Higher than any peak in Europe they are a challenge for fitness and lung capacity alike. With a 4am, sub-zero start each pass is a race against time, as we attempt to cross before the snow softens. After waiting out the blizzard on day five, with young Askarkhan and his fellow shepherds, it is the 4,860 metre Karabel Pass that finally defeats us. Without the previous night’s clear sky and sub-zero temperatures to freeze the snowpack, our horses flounder in the deep, soft snow. Although we have crested the pass, further progress is impossible without risking injuring an animal. We reluctantly beat a retreat knowing that tomorrow we will have to take a 45 kilometre detour to reach our staging post for the next pass.
This is the nature of pioneering expeditions: facing whatever challenge arises.
Back at Karabel camp, we laugh with our Afghan support team and the shepherds as they try riding our bikes, their first bike experience ever, and we try riding their horses in return. Inevitably, it is humour that most easily slices through the cultural and language barriers between us.
Preparing to cross the 4,860 metre Karabel pass, this was one of the few times we strapped a bike onto a horse to try and make the climb easier for us.
Riding bikes into uncharted territory like this is fraught with challenges that demand dogged resilience and a willingness to simply take what comes. At some point on this ride, we all hit ‘the wall’.
Now day seven, this detour up valley, in bleak weather of frequent snow storms, is the longest and most brutal we have endured. It is on this afternoon, in a swirl of freezing sleet, while pushing my bike across a half-frozen peat bog, I experience my moment of personal defeat. It is understandable. My feet are numb again, the weather is stacked against us, and we are eight hours into a gruelling day of physical duress. When we stop for a rest, I question our sanity. The group is silent. I get the feeling that others share my doubts, but no one wants to spoil the party. We press on, and of course later I will be glad that we did, but by the time we collapse at our camp at dusk, we will have been on the trail for fourteen gruelling hours.
That night, we sleep at 4,400 metres beneath an enormous hanging glacier. It is possibly the most spectacular camp spot I have ever seen, but I am too exhausted to truly appreciate it. Six hours after crawling into a cold sleeping bag, we are up and hiking icy scree again, attempting to crest our third high pass, the 4,850 metre Showr Pass. When we finally cross it, the achievement is as much mental as physical. Representing a significant milestone, this pass divides the Wakhi-populated Little Pamir from the culturally distinct Kyrgyz-controlled Great Pamir. The descent is an eclectic mix of snow, mud and rocky singletrack, weaving between boulders and around bogs. The riding is as wild as our surroundings.
While the Wakhan is isolated from the dangers associated with the rest of war-torn Afghanistan, its unruly, changeable weather and formidable terrain devoid of natural shelter make it a place to not come unstuck, and the locals know this. As we descend from the Showr Pass, we pause too long to photograph the late-afternoon scene, bathed in glowing light. Realising our support team are no longer in sight, we are faced with multiple junctions in the trail. The very real possibility of being lost hits us. Fortunately, the Afghans we are with have our backs. Before long, in the distance, we spot Amin Beg, our cook, running back on foot. When he finds us, his look of relief mirrors our own.
Eventually escorted safely to our camp for the night, we reach the Kyrgyz village of Rabot, the first permanent settlement we have encountered on our ride. Later that evening, through the limited English of our translator Yaar and our own efforts at sign language, we realise that our safety is of genuine concern to our support team. They may be surprised to find us trying to ride bikes through this unforgiving and wild land, but they will do everything in their power to help us succeed.
The landscape opens up into a wide glaciated valley, and we roll through it, dwarfed by the scale our surroundings. The Kyrgyz are masters of horsemanship, and here, horses and yaks are the only practical modes of transport. Bikes have never made an appearance. As we descend further into the valleys, our bikes become the objects of intense interest. We realise none of kids here have ever handled anything like this before, let alone tried to ride a bike. The marvel that is the wheel is something that lights up dozens of faces as Matt hands one around to an eager cluster of children. They hold them up and spin, and spin, laughing.
To me, bikes will always be a great way to break down social awkwardness in remote places and regularly create smiles all round.
We experience a dramatic change in culture in these valleys. Leaning our bikes up outside, we are welcomed into yurts to drink sour chai and consume fermented yak yoghurt, a staple of afternoon tea. The chief of the settlement welcomes us warmly, and a dusty rug is unrolled on which to share our meal. We are all as captivated by yurt life as the Kyrgyz are by our bikes. They laugh when we struggle to down the rancid yoghurt.
Tonight, we are invited to sleep alongside our six-strong Afghan team in the shelter of the settlement’s guest yurt. It is our first chance to escape the frenzied flapping of tent flysheets pitched at the mercy of the Pamir’s relentless wind. We learn that Kyrgyz villages often have a guest yurt, something that seems unlikely in such a remote place, but given the harsh environment and changeable weather, it is customary to offer such hospitality to passing travellers. We accept gratefully, united in our appreciation of this incredibly beautiful, untamed landscape, and in our wonder and disbelief at the arduous lives of the inhabitants here.
We are served tea and rancid yak-milk yoghurt, along with traditional flat breads. That evening, we are six westerners, and six Afghans, in one yurt.
Eleven days into our ride, and it is nearly time for us to leave these mountains to face the four-day drive back to the lives that we know. For now, the routine of ride, wade, eat, sleep has become normal. We are weather-beaten and at our physical and mental limits, but every day has brought incredibly rewarding experiences. Yes, hygiene has gone by the wayside, and the rivers are too cold for anything more than a token dip, but despite the daily challenge of covering distance, of climbing snowy passes or riding rocky, technical singletrack, life has become simple.
At times, the sight of bikes in this area has raised eyebrows and concerns from locals, and from us too. Faced with testing conditions this trip has become a learning experience for all involved, but also one full of rewards and rich experiences. It has to be one of the most beautiful and peaceful areas I have ever had the honour of visiting and photographing, and the people here some of the most welcoming I have ever met.
As I push my bike across another traverse too cluttered with fist-sized rocks to ride, I remind myself of this. The frustration of pushing a bike is something to which I am now accustomed. Before I know it, I will be boarding a plane bound for the comfort and luxuries of Europe. It is hard to pretend that I am not excited about the prospect of a real bed, or being able to turn on a tap to have drinkable water run freely from it. But at the same time I know I will never repeat what we are doing now. I will never have these same exact experiences again. And so for now I smile, revelling in the experiences that are clogging my senses in this moment.
It is the hardest thing I have ever done, but I love it. In this wild, harsh corner of the world I realise that I am between a rock and a hard place. Literally.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.
Dan Milner is a British adventure travel photographer bent on shooting masochistic bike, snow or just-for-the-hell-of-it expeditions.