Frozen in Time: Riding Tajikistan’s Bartang Valley

2019. It feels like an entirely different timeline at this point. For months as the Coronavirus has shifted the focus of our lives, I sat on these articles covering the rest of my time in Asia, wondering if they felt relevant at a time like this. Or when the next time would be that I’d see a photo that reminds me of when kind-hearted villagers would invite a random weirdo like me into their homes with open arms and not find it as bitter as it is sweet.

Well, I have yet to totally reach that point, but I still find myself scrolling back through these photos or following along these roads on google maps on a weekly basis, remembering all of the small villages and interactions from our time there. While it may still sting a bit to feel like half a year has gone by and we don’t seem much closer to de-social distancing, hopefully these photos and stories can make a few people excited for a day when avoiding all humans is no longer high on your daily priority list.  (Well, to be fair, even if you prefer to avoid civilization, Tajikistan has plenty of that to offer as well)…

As fall began to tighten its frigid grip on Central Asia, we said goodbye to Kyrgyzstan’s Alay valley and set out on the famed Pamir Highway toward the border of Tajikistan. A few untimely illnesses in our last few weeks in Kyrgyzstan meant that time was running low for us to have a chance to complete the route we had been aiming for before snow would inevitably render portions of it impassable.

We climbed the gravel road toward Kyzyl Art pass in awe of the colorful mountain peaks swelling around us. Amongst them, the majestic 7,134 meter (23,405 foot) Lenin Peak was nestled. The wind slowly picked up steam as we grew closer to Tajikistan’s high plateau, often in the form of a gusty crosswind that likes to use your frame bag as a sail and toss you around the road while filling all of your crevices with a fine mist of projectile sand. Chrissa and I reminisced about when we met in Bolivia a couple of years ago, in a place that bears a striking resemblance to this one. Thankfully, the road here isn’t filled with an onslaught of deep sand and washboard that plague Bolivia’s altiplano. And thankfully she’s not on 32mm tires anymore!

As we made our way around the eastern shores of Karakul lake, our destination for the night slowly came into view in the distance. But why would anyone live up here? It’s so barren and sparsely vegetated that it seems like raising animals nearby would be next to impossible, and I can’t imagine how the weather is in the winter with nearby Bulunkul Lake having previously recorded a temperature of -63°C (-81.4°F). To make things even more confusing, after spending the night in town, we were told that despite being 50 kilometers inside the Tajik border, everyone in the village is actually Kyrgyz. This is also the case in the nearby town of Murghab and even in China, where many ethnic Kyrgyz are living inside borderlines that were drawn by politicians in a big city somewhere, far away from life in these mountains.

If you’re interested in a little side reading, check out this article about the challenges of life up in the Pamir Plateau.

Making our way out of town, we cruised along the short-lived pavement, looking for our turn-off toward the mythical Bartang valley. Tales from other travelers on the road painted a picture of idyllic villages frozen in time, chunky roads hugging cliff walls, and raging rivers that occasionally engulf the road entirely.

While the Pamir highway is a classic touring route that undoubtedly sees way more cyclists every year, the rugged Bartang is so devoid of vehicles that it feels like it is made just for bikes. So much so that I am pretty sure we saw more cyclists on this road than any other vehicles, as very few drivers are looking to get stranded this far away from help should something come up.  

While I expected to be most blown away by the admittedly insane scenery that covers this 280-kilometer road from top to bottom, I didn’t realize that the highlight would be the incredibly warm welcome that we received from the locals. Each small village seemed to be even more picturesque than the previous, and while it’s not uncommon in other parts of the world for kids to jump up and shout “hello!” with a big smile when you pass through on a bike, I’ve never seen so many people of all ages drop what they’re doing just to show kindness to a random passerby.

If you pause for even a moment in one of these villages, you’re sure to gain at least a few invites for tea, and you’ll likely have people coming out of the woodwork offering up various treats from their gardens. Apples? Walnuts? Apricots? At a certain point, we were carrying at least two dozen apples between the two of us!

Unlike most villages in areas like this, there is no shop filled with kids buying candy and soda. The random shop that does show up every now and then seems to exist only to supply passing cyclists with their daily required Snickers intake. The locals don’t rely on getting shipments in of packaged food, instead each village grows exactly what they eat. Nothing more, nothing less. One day we stopped for lunch at a small homestay, they asked us what vegetables we liked, then proceeded to pick them straight from the garden to prepare. In the age of supermarkets and Amazon Prime, where anything can be acquired at a moment’s notice, the Bartang valley is a sharp contrast and a reminder of what life was once like.  

As we descended further into the valley, the river grew stronger and the valley cut deeper into the rocky terrain. In late-spring, this route can be tricky to traverse as the water level rapidly rises and often makes passing sections of the road impossible in the afternoon. Even in Autumn with the river being comparatively low, there were still times that it crept up over the road surface. I can only imagine how it would be at full-force.

Nearing the bottom of the valley, we had started wishing it could continue on forever. If there weren’t so much left in Tajikistan to see I’d be wholly content with riding up and down this road until my visa ran out and they booted me from the country. Alas, we arrived at the border with Afghanistan where we’d hug the Tajik side of the Pyandzh river for the next 350 kilometers or so and have a glimpse at this mysterious part of Afghanistan.

To be continued…