Between a Rock and a Hard Place

A group of adventurous mountain bikers go in search of singletrack in Afghanistan.

“His name means ‘soldier’,” says Yaar Mahahammad, our translator. Yaar is talking about Askarkhan, a 13-year old boy who has been hefting rocks into the foundations of a new hut with the kind of ease that would put my own strength to shame.

Askarkhan peers at us with piercing eyes from beneath 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 4305 metres altitude amidst the swirls of a snowstorm in the Wakhan Corridor, Askarkhan is far from the war and troubles that have tragically become synonymous with his home country, Afghanistan.

Here the best weapon for survival is resilience not a rifle. Guns are only useful against marauding wolves, but resilience will see Askarkhan brave the short, eight-week summer of herding yaks and sheep high on the mountainsides. Resilience will arm him against the cold of night, the snowstorms (possible on 350 days per year), and the thin air. 

I have a lot to learn. 

All in all, it’s probably the harshest place I have ever been, so why the hell are we trying to ride bikes here?

Askarkhan (right) pictured as part of the support team about to climb the Karabel pass.

The snow buries our six bikes and tents alike. Above us, hidden in fog sits the way ahead, the 4809m Karabel pass, the second of three high passes we have to brave during our 12 day pioneering ride through the Wakhan. 

Navigating each pass means a 4am start, to give the luggage-bearing pack animals a good chance of crossing while the snow is frozen hard. Each climb will require dragging ourselves from warm sleeping bags to force on frozen bike shoes hours before any sign of breakfast. But each, we hope, will deliver another brake-searing singletrack descent. 

A summer blizzard pins the team in camp and delays the ascent of the Karabel pass.

As far as adventure-bike trips go, it doesn’t get more adventurous than this. 

Applying the term ‘adventure’ to trips outs them outside the normal remit for whinging; after all, if the going gets tough, then that’s just part of ‘adventure’. But even after 30 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’re paying excessively in Afghanistan. 
There has been nothing easy about our trip so far, from the four-day, rough, overland approach from neighbouring Tajikistan, to the massive temperature swings that deliver 30 degree Celsius heat one day and snowstorms the next. It’s day five when we meet Askarkhan.

We have seven more to go. 

I’m tired, my feet are wet and my hands numb.

One of the drivers pictured in his personalised Toyota during the 2-day drive across Northern Afghanistan.

Five days earlier we strike out from Sarhad, the village at the end of the only boulder-strewn, washed out jeep track into the Wakhan Corridor. It’s a road we travelled in Toyotas with bald tyres and broken windscreens, taking 14 hours to cover the final 150 Km of Afghan soil. After that it’s good to be on the bikes despite riding straight into a 600m climb. 

We leave behind us any semblance of vehicles, toilets or cell-phone coverage. 

For 12 days 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 the Pakistan’s Hindu Kush.

“So we have three possibilities,” explains Tom Bodkin about our route options, laying out a patchwork of old 1980’s 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. Tom runs adventure travel company Secret Compass and is the brains behind the whole expedition we’ve signed up for. He’s realistic and spells out possible problems that might arise during our 250 Kilometre long ride. As if adding items to a shopping list he methodically points a number of snow-melt swollen rivers and high, snowy passes, any of which might prove un-crossable and cause our retreat.

Canadian rider Matt Hunter tails the local support team down a valley.

For all of the assembled mountain bikers, including pro-rider Matt Hunter, Anthill film cameramen CJ and Darcy and expedition-veteran Brice Minnigh, the lure of riding bikes here is not about kudos or dubious bar-talk bravery of ‘surviving Afghanistan’. 

It’s the enticement of the unknown, of what lies beyond the usual boundaries of daily routines. It’s the magnetic appeal of hard-earned singletrack rewards that has brought us to this unforgiving landscape. It’s true that no-one has ridden, pushed or carried bikes through here before, but the Waki people welcome about 100 trekking tourists each year, each safe in the knowledge that the Wakhan sits beyond Taliban interference.

Incredible unspoilt beauty envelops Sarhad, the expedition start point.

The jaw-dropping beauty of our surroundings is not lost on us, and we have plenty of time to appreciate them. Hauling the bikes onto our backs for regular 500m vertical ascents, the rugged mountains around us become a distraction from the task of kicking steps into a loose, sandy hillside. The pattern of climb, descend, repeat is set on day one, right out of the gate. By the end of this first eleven-hour day on the trail, we’ll have crossed two passes and waded through two ice-cold rivers before crumpling in a heap at camp.

Pushing up another steep climb looked over by Pakistan's Hindu Kush.

We ride off-camber, loose, narrow singletrack, perched precariously above thundering rivers brown with meltwater silt. Getting the trail surface dialled is a steep learning curve, but having Matt in front is as good a lesson as anyone could ask for. 
He leaves me for dust. 

Each of us deals with the exposure factor, as with myriad other challenges differently, each according to our experience and confidence, but it’s the river crossings themselves that become the great leveller.  They humble us all.

At each river we stop, regroup and collectively plan a way across, and for good reason. Every river is a raging torrent of ice-cold meltwater, formidably dark with silt, and each is so powerful it could whip you from your feet to transport you downstream to a larger frenzied powerhouse of rapids in wait. Carrying bikes becomes a genuine game of nerves and balance. Numb feet become the targets for bowling-ball rocks, rolled along the riverbed by an angry current. Meanwhile an enthusiastically grabbing Afghan support team beckons from the far bank, their wild shouts over the roar of water adding to the drama. And then we have to get the donkeys across.

The local support team help pass bikes across another thundering snowmelt torrent.

In truth we’d be going nowhere without the local support and their pack animals to haul our camping gear and food. 
In this forgotten land, where winter lasts eight months of the year, we are a valuable source of income for six locals, including Amin Bek our cook, Amin Ali his helper and Yaar Mahammad our translator. Yaar’s English is basic at best, and it’s clear he doesn’t understand much of what Tom tries to convey to our horsemen and cook. But without him we’d 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 to meet us at the Tajik-Afghan border crossing at the town of Ishkashim. One of them had travelled two days to pitch his service. 

Where we stop each night to camp is dictated by water and grazing needs of the pack animals, rather than by our own abilities. The distances we cover aren’t big by any standards but I’m thankful for that. 

Starting out at 3264 metres we rapidly climb to over 4200 metres and remain above 4000m for much of the trip. Only time will allow us to acclimatise.

Side-hilling off-camber singletrack high above the raging Wakhan river.

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 break into the magnificent rolling hills of the Little Pamir, and follow a solitary horse trail up valleys and over passes. Spirits are high and group cameradery building, but the physical and mental challenges will take their toll before long. Each of us will suffer a low point in the trip, when energy and morale is lacking.

It hits me on day eight, during a 40 Km ride that starts with a morning of flowing singletrack but descends into a freezing slog across boggy ground into a headwind of swirling snow. 

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’ll be glad we did, but by the time we reach camp at dusk, we will have been on the trail for 12 hours.

Big days, big mountains, huge challenges. The remote Wakhan is not to be taken lightly.

Our camp spots vary, sometimes in open, exposed meadows surrounded by boulders etched with petroglyphs, sometimes squeezed into steep-sided river gorges. While there are no permanent villages in the Wakhan, we camp wherever a shepherd’s hut can be found as shelter for the Afghans, and when the snow starts blowing, we join them in these chimney-less shelters for as long as we can endure the thick, choking smoke from the yak dung fire. 

Respiratory complaints are common here. 

None of us have met such a hardy, tough people, and resourceful too. The night before the first high mountain crossing, the Afghans sit melting the soles of their shoes on the campfire to stick on patches of fabric. The ad-hoc crampons that result will help their grip on the snowy hike ahead. 

Nearing the 4867m Showr pass.

The high passes become our biggest obstacle physically. 
Higher than any peak of Europe they become a challenge for fitness and lung capacity alike. 

With a 4 am, sub-zero start each becomes a race against time, trying to cross before the snow softens too much. On the Karabel pass we lose the race; our horses flounder in the deep snow. We have crested the pass but further progress is impossible without risking hurting an animal. We beat a retreat knowing that tomorrow we will have to go the long way around instead to reach our staging post for the next pass.

Our assault on the final pass of our route is a camp at 4400m, pitched beneath an enormous hanging glacier.

It’s possibly the most spectacular camp spot I have ever seen, but I am too tired to truly appreciate it, and too tired to chew my dinner. I just want bed. Just six hours later we are up and hiking icy scree again to reach the 4867m Showr Pass, the gateway to the Kyrgyz controlled Big Pamir mountains. The achievement is as much mental as physical. The descent is an eclectic mix of riding snow, mud and rocky singletrack, weaving between boulders and around bogs. The riding is as wild as our surroundings.

Hunter pushing lungs capacity on the climb to the Showr Pass.

The landscape opens up into a wide glaciated valley, and we roll through it dwarfed by the scale our surroundings. 

For the next two nights we are welcomed into traditional Kyrgyz yurts, sleeping alongside the six Afghans we have in tow. Protected from the incessant wind, the rug-adorned yurts are a high point for all. We are as captivated by yurt life as the Kyrgyz are by our bikes hauling. They laugh when we struggle to down the rancid, sour yak yoghurt that accompanies our tea.

The comfort of a yurt overnight, out of the wind, courtesy of Kyrgyz nomads.

The Kyrgyz are the masters of horsemanship. In the Pamirs horses and yaks are the only mode of transport; being of little use, bikes have never made an appearance —until now. 

As we descend the valleys, working our way back out of the big Pamir, our bikes become the objects of fascination. 

Some would think it crass that we are riding machines worth more than a local could earn in a decade, but their value has no meaning here. All that matters is that it has wheels and looks fun to try to ride. At one village the local teacher disappears on one of the bikes for 20 minutes, holding up our departure.

Hard as it is to imagine, it’s apparent that the kids here have never handled a wheel, let alone try to ride a bike. The marvel that is the simple wheel is something that lights up in a dozen faces as Matt hands round his spare wheels to a handful of local kids. They hold them up and spin them laughing.

The universally shared joy of the wheel.

After 11 days the routine of ride, wade, eat, sleep has become our lives. With the rivers too cold for anything more than a token dip, personal hygiene has gone by the wayside, and despite the daily challenge of covering distance, of climbing snowy passes or riding rocky, technical singletrack, life has become simple. 

Exiting the Pamirs.

As I push my bike across another traverse too cluttered with fist sized rocks to ride, I remind myself of the value of this simplicity. 
The frustration of pushing a bike is something I have become accustomed to.

I'm privileged that in a few days time I’ll be boarding a plane bound for the luxuries of Europe. I can’t pretend that I’m not excited about the prospect of sleeping in a real bed, or turning 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 those same exact experiences again. And so for the moment I smile, revelling in the traffic jam of emotions that are clogging my senses right now. 

This traverse has been the toughest thing I’ve ever undertaken, but I love it. In this wild, harsh corner of the World, where mere existence is a challenge, I realise I am between a rock and a hard place; Metaphorically and Literally.

Yak dung fires and cooking pots: life in a Wakhan shepherd hut.

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Note: This story was produced before the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in 2021.

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