106 days, 10 000 miles, multiple landslides, and a fair few floods later, Grettle and I have made it to Bishkek in one piece, and live to tell the tale!
I apologize to any interested readers for the lack of communication over the past month or so. Having escaped the heat waves of the Uzbek desert; a horrific 65% Celsius in stretches, I disappeared into the depths of the Pamir mountains, where it seemed one of the worst years to date, saw the catastrophic collapse of the Pamir highway, otherwise known as the M41, as the mountains crumbled before my eyes, the rivers engulfed the roads, entire valleys were flooded, many people were killed, and power cuts plunged the region into darkness.
With a boat only strong enough to take pedestrians across the flood blocking the M41, and a 2 mile climb over the washed up remnants of the landslide, it was impossible for any vehicles to cross. Despite the grave warnings in regards to the impossibilities, of attempting the alternative route by Vespa, with only 5 days remaining on my Tajik Visa, Grettle and I had no choice, but to tackle what is known as the Wahkan Corridor. This panhandled strip of land, lies in the far north eastern corner of Afghanistan, it’s northern border separating Afghanistan from Tajikistan, is marked by the raging and wild Indus river, alongside which a bone rattling road, winds its way over the high mountain valley, wedged in between the giants, of the Pamir mountains, the Karakorum, and the Hindu Cush.
This nail biting, and dramatic dirt track, is a challenging addition to the Pamir highway, and in this case, the only alternative to the flooded section of M41. It later rejoins the highway in Murgab, after which the road continues into Kyrgyzstan, terminating officially in Osh. The Pamir’s, rather romantically named ‘Bam’iDunya’ by the locals, translating as ‘the roof of the world’, holds host to some of the world’s most remote and awe inspiring scenery; with a special permit required to travel there, and an entirely different language spoken in the region, it is almost a totally different country to the rest of Tajikistan, of which it takes up 43%, yet only holds host to a tiny 3% of the population. Thehighway itself is known as the second highest altitude pass on the planet, one of the world greatest mountain road trips, and in stretches, reaches heights of over 4650 meters.
Aside from the obvious problems of attempting such a route by Vespa, there lingered the problem of my current battery…
Inside the battery, lies a type of sulphuric acid; an essential ingredient in order for any bike to run. After one particularly challenging mountain pass, on route from Dushanbe, to a beautiful village called Kalaichum, in the high ground of the Pamir’s, Grettle gave up the ghost, and the following morning, simply wouldn’t start. I peered down into her battery, to find with horror, that the acid had exploded through a broken seem in it’s lid, had corroded the plastic covering the fuse, and lay in a pool around the empty electrical box.
In hind sight, I suppose her defiant attempts at playing dead, were understandable; the previous day, she had rescued from a river, pulled from a mud pit, and bumped about something rotten, amidst the potholes and boulders, which made up the mountain pass. We had gone for it like a bat out of hell, in order to reach the home-stay before the storms broke out, and the journey had ended with a terrifying ride, without a working headlight, in the dead of night, and torrential rain.
In any normal circumstance, I would have simply gone to a local mechanic, bought a new battery, and hit the road once again. Unfortunately, the idea of a new battery in the depths of the Pamir’s, was laughable; not only were we miles from any city, but in the middle of a valley, which no mechanic in their right mind, would attempt to get to, over the mountain pass, in order to help.
Having said this, I have not yet encountered a problem in Central Asia, which the local lads fail to fix; there always seems to be a way in this part of the world, and so despite a niggling worry that I would be stuck on the roof of the world for good, I remained hopeful. Having performed the usual game of charades, in an attempt to explain the problem to the owner of my home-stay, I was bundled into the back of his car, and driven to what seemed like the middle of absolutely nowhere, at which point, I have to admit , I was becoming a little skeptical about this particular venture, and considered perhaps the idea of a mechanic, had been someone lost in translation, and we were in fact on route to a long lost aunt, for Yak tea and shaslyk.
Sure enough however, 10 minutes later, we wound up at a small hovel, where a family sat eating watermelon under a colorful canopy, and a chap who appeared to have seen at least a century, hobbled out of the house, took the battery from my hands, and without a word, began melting the plastic to seal the seams. He then poured in what must have been an equivalent to the sulphuric acid, and handed it back to me triumphantly. Amazingly the battery worked, Grettle fired up, and I was good to go once, again.
I travelled through the Pamir’s, and on into the Wahkan, with, and without, John; the Welsh cyclist I had met in the deserts of Uzbekistan, formerly referred to in a previous post, as my husband, who had begun his journey in Cardiff. We had reunited in Dushanbe, and set off together. I say together, but John was riding a bicycle, and so the routine became that I would scoot ahead, find a pleasant camping spot, buy a picnic, and wait for him to arrive early evening. I would often place messages in bottles, blown up balloons, or piles of plants, on the side of the road, tied to the bushes, as a signal as to where exactly I had set up camp. This method worked rather well, until the point when John got fed up with his mode of transport, and began to hitch hike with his bicycle; as I was crawling at snail’s pace up a steep mountain path, he would steam ahead of me in a 4x4, and send me a series of warning texts. Despite the good intentions behind these, they became really rather of a worry, and I almost rathered remain oblivious to the several river crossings, and landslides, that I would soon have to tackle, single handedly with little G.
Having said this, it certainly made for a pleasant, and fun change to solo travel; we would cook pasta on his stove in the evenings, gaze at the stars, and more often than not, discuss how on earth we would fix Grettle the following morning.
Not far past Kalaichum, on route to Horugh; the next large town, and the gate way to the Wahkan Corridor, I passed a cyclist heading in the opposite direction. He informed me that there had been a disaster flood on that road, that no vehicles could pass, and advised me to turn back, saying rather red faced and flustered, that the entire area was in a state of collapse, and that he was relieved to be heading out the other side. I had no time to turn back to Dushanbe, and shuddered at the sheer thought of having to tackle the last mountain pass for a second time, so I rang john, who was in hot pursuit on his bicycle, and we decided to scoot a little further down the road, and see for ourselves, the colossal damage that the flood had caused.
Hundreds of people were stuck either side of the valley, and heaps of diggers were at work, attempting to make some form of a bridge over the river. The tsunami sized wave had climbed an incredible 300 meters at least, and one could see the mud covering the houses perched at the top of the valley. Two motorcyclists approached me as I arrived, and they, along with many others, had been camping for two or three nights, waiting for the road to become passable once again.
By the time John had rolled up on his bicycle, fights were beginning to breakout, the army had arrived, and the entire scene was mayhem. After an hour or two, when it appeared the mud and rubble bridge, would be passible, or at least good enough to hold Grettle and the bicycle, John and I seized the opportunity to scoot down the valley, wiggle past the diggers, and made it to the other side, before the traffic, and mounting road rage, hit its climax.
We spent two wonderful nights camping before reaching Horugh, where it transpired that G’s problems, lay a little deeper than the battery itself, which by this point, had been strapped together by band aid from a first aid kit, placed in a make shift plastic Tupperware box, and glued up several times. In fact, it was a problem with the alternator, which overcharged the battery, causing the acid to boil, the battery to overheat, and the explosions to take place time after time.
And so along-side the river crossings, the sand pits, and the waist-high mud of the Wahkan, I was forced to stop every 20 km or so, refill the battery, let the engine cool, and picnic with the donkeys, before continuing on my way.
Having left Horugh, a couple of days passed, before I came across my next obstacle. Yet another landslide had trapped people on either side of the road. John was waiting for a lift from Ishkashim, but two other motorcyclists I had met previously turned up at the blockage, and came to the rescue, not long after I had arrived. Having tested out the deepness of the colossal mound of mud, and sinking up ourwaist lines, we decided there was nothing for it, but to attempt to heave the bikes over the steep cliff, to the side of the mud mound, and over the heap of boulders, which lay scattered, and nerve rackingly unstable, in the aftermath of the landslide.
The few travelers at the scene, had decided to camp for the night, and again, wait for the diggers to finish, but with only 3 days left until my visa expired, I had no choice but to attempt the cliff. Grettle was selected first as the scape goat, since she was easily the lightest vehicle out of the three, and with the help of a total of around 10 local kids, we began to heave her over the mountain, and through the rubble. Any wrong move, would have ended in disaster, and she would have certainly fallen to her death. And so I was amazed, relieved, and exhilarated, when about an hour later, we finally succeeded in getting her down the other side, where she was greeted by a round of applause, as the first, and it later transpired, the only, vehicle to have crossed the landslide for some time afterwards… She even found herself an interested buyer!
I had aimed to reach Ljangar that evening; the only village on route, where there was said to be a home stay, but despite the exhilaration I had felt in getting G over the land slide, the final hour of driving, had me on the brink of tears. I was exhausted. It was dark, cold, and I had been at it all day. On top of this, as I approached every little cluster of huts , guard dogs would begin to chase Grettle, and without a working headlight, would drive us headlong, and blind, into the floods and sand pits, which were becoming increasingly frequent, as we disappeared into the depths of the Wahkan Corridor. By the time I eventually reached the little hovel of a homestay, night was truly upon us, and I collapsed, soaking wet, muddy, and exhausted, into bed.
To be continued....