In the Shadow of the Fann Mountains

(Note: This story took place before the pandemic)

Following our ride along the Tajik/Afghan border, Chrissa and I paused for a few days in Tajikistan’s capital city of Dushanbe to soak up the local culture and stock up at the grand bazaar. Even in the biggest city in the country, the outgoing personality of the Tajik people comes through. Where in a typical city of this size the locals would mostly keep to themselves, here it was very common for people to stop and chat with us on the street, asking what brought us to their country and giving us tips about places to visit in the city.

The days remaining on our visas were dwindling as fast as the final weeks of fall and we had one of our most challenging routes of Central Asia still to tackle, so we pedaled away from the comforts and warmth of the city and into the cold embrace of the Zarafshan Range.

One gets pretty spoiled by cycling the empty roads of Central Asia, so after some time here it’s even more jarring when you find yourself hugging the edge of a truck-filled canyon road while trying to escape a populated city. How can I put this nicely? Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are well known for their warm hospitality but they are definitely NOT known for their patient and attentive driving… All of my time back in Los Angeles had somewhat desensitized me to riding in traffic at one point, but days like these remind me of just how much that effect has worn off.  

Thankfully, after one rough day of that, we reached a fork in the road where we could finally bid farewell to the traffic and enjoy the quiet twists and turns of the all-but-abandoned M34 highway. We were back to the life of inching our way through quaint villages along picturesque Tajik countryside and all was right in the world again.  

We climbed out of the Kalon valley atop broken asphalt, soaking up the sun, as freshly snow-draped peaks slowly unveiled themselves the closer we got to the 3,350-meter summit. While the Pamir range to the East gets the vast majority of the hype when it comes to tourism in Tajikistan, the terrain in this region is no less visually striking.

We arrived at the summit to find that the other side of the pass, which is shaded for much of the day at this time of year, was covered in a blanket of snow from storms that came through a few days prior. Aside from the bone-chilling temperatures, it was no huge deal here as we’d plummet below the snow-line pretty quickly, but I couldn’t help but think about the next pass on the agenda, which rose higher than this one and was merely a glorified goat path. Nevertheless, the stunning peaks of the Anzob valley quickly took my mind off these problems, which were still a couple of days away.

Amazing mountain views and spectacular roads exist in many places around the world, but the thing that really sets the experience of riding a bike in Tajikistan apart from the rest is the people. Perhaps it’s beating a dead horse at this point, but Tajik’s take hospitality to a whole other level, and this is never more apparent than when you spend a night at a village Homestay.

A Homestay is kind of like an informal “hotel” where you sleep in one of the spare rooms in someone’s house. Often they will not be marked as such, but a quick ask around town either ends up in a direct invite into someone’s home or a recommendation on where an established homestay can be found. Hearty soups, traditional bread, an assortment of homemade jams, and of course copious amounts of tea are offered up while a bed of stacked heavy blankets is prepared on the floor to sleep. I enjoy nights in the tent as much as anyone, but will happily forgo those in favor of the unique cultural experience that Homestay’s offer any day.

After a couple of days of homestay hopping, we started the climb into the Fann Mountains for our last true test of Central Asia. We knew that once the road ran out and we met the trailhead, the push to the pass would be tough. The first 3.5km of the trail saw us rise 810 meters in altitude, which works out to an average gradient of about 23%. What we didn’t realize was that this was actually going to be the easy part.

As we were making our final push toward the first “false” summit of the pass, I glanced at the elevation profile on my phone with excitement, “It’s basically 2km of flat-trail after this last hill until the descent! We’ll be pedaling again in no time!” I naively thought to myself. 

It wasn’t until I got to the top of that hill that I realized this “flat part” I was so excited about “riding” was actually a steep-sided slope high above the valley below, which almost never gets sun at this time of year and was, of course, covered in snow.

To make things worse, the sun was already starting to dip toward the horizon and there would be nowhere to pitch a tent anywhere near this area so we had no choice but to go for it now. In hindsight, perhaps this was a good thing. When you’re left with no other options, it dramatically simplifies the task at hand. All you can do is focus on what is right in front of you. Don’t think about what will happen if you drop your 100-pound bike down this snowy slope or what awaits around the next bend. It’s just about making it one step at a time. Cross the next bridge when you reach it.

By the time we finally reached the pass, both of us were mentally and physically drained. Our shoes and socks were soaked from the snow. We quickly snapped a couple of photos and both agreed that we’d pitch the tent at the first opportunity.  

After dragging our bikes down a few switchbacks, we spotted it. A perfect place to pitch the tent, on a perfectly calm evening, with one of the most perfect views we’d seen in all of Asia. It was all worth it in the end, right? RIGHT?! 

Well, for a few hours at least…
10:00 pm- A light breeze starts coming down from the pass. No big deal.
10:30 pm- The light breeze is mixed with some moderate gusts. A little annoying to sleep with, but whatever!
10:45 pm- The breeze turns to a strong wind and the gusts are heavy enough to bow the tent under pressure.
10:50 pm- We start building a small wall out of nearby boulders to protect the tent as much as possible.
11:30 pm- After the gusts continue to escalate we make the painful decision to pack everything up to find another campsite.

At midnight we finally hit the trail with all of our cold-weather gear on, our headlamps alight, and we began to descend the steep and technical terrain. It didn’t take too long before the wind diminished in the lower part of the valley, but there were still no flat spots in sight, so we continued boulder-hopping our way into the darkness of the valley below.

Shortly after 1:30 am we reached the valley floor where the wind was calm again and there were plenty of opportunities to pitch the tent. We could finally return to our glorious sleeping bag cocoons for the rest of the night.

The next morning the sun broke through the clouds and we made our way through the final stretch of trail before hitting the road toward the border with Uzbekistan and the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand. Our days in Central Asia were over for now, but these mountains and the amazing people that inhabit them will no doubt be luring us back for the rest of our lives.

Shout out to our buddy Justin Bill who clued us in to this amazing route.