Split by the Panj: Riding Along the Tajik-Afghan Border

After our ride through the Bartang Valley, we arrived at the mighty Panj, a 921-kilometer long river that forms a significant portion of the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Our next stretch of riding would take us along the river on the Tajik side for roughly 285 kilometers as we gradually climb through the lower Wakhan valley back up into the high Pamir mountains.

Starting from the Pamir capitol city of Khorog, the first signs of winter were starting to creep in. Overnight storms brought a dusting of snow to the high peaks towering above us. We’d have at least a couple of days of riding through the valley before inching up into high country, so for now, it was more of a visual reminder of what was to come than anything.

The lower Wakhan Valley provides a unique glimpse into life in the remote North-Eastern corner of Afghanistan. Small Afghan settlements dot the route, sometimes no more than a stone’s throw across the river. Every now and then someone on the other side would look up from going about working in their field or washing clothes in the river and we’d exchange waves or try to shout hellos over the roar of the rushing water. You can’t help but wonder how strange we must seem, riding our bikes through the mountains for fun while so many people around the world are just trying to get by. Our privileged lives have become so easy in comparison that we must actively seek out ways to challenge ourselves.

Even in the context of this one valley. Those born on one side of the river have very different challenges than those born on the other. Despite this part of Afghanistan being fairly geographically isolated from the endless wars and fighting that has consumed the country since the 1970s, they are not immune. Just as we were leaving Khorog we heard of a Taliban attack that occurred less than 10 kilometers from the border. On the Tajik side, locals mostly have access to power, internet, and modern materials to build their homes, but the Afghan side offers a stark contrast. Most structures are made of simple mud and rocks, and things like electricity are a luxury.

After passing through a couple of military checkpoints, we made it to the other major border town of Ishkashim, which has a sister city on the other side of the river with the same name. Typically this town is home to a weekly market that allows those from both sides of the river to meet near the border and trade without worrying about visas or the legalities of border crossings. However, because of the recent attack, the market had been temporarily shut down. In some cases this has been shut down for long periods of time, making it far more difficult for those in Afghani border villages to acquire essential supplies. It can also close off family members from each other entirely, simply because of the side of the river they live on.

As the road on the other side of the river paralleled the one we were pedaling, I couldn’t help but wish to have a chance to spend even a few days riding through that side at some point. A chance to see a side of Afghanistan that won’t show up on the evening news, because I’m sure like anywhere I’ve been, the people are warm and welcoming despite the challenging circumstances they were born into.

Eventually, we climbed steeply away from our final Wakhan village, heading back into the sparsely-populated mountains. The regular military checkpoints we’d seen previously slowly began to thin out. All that remained were a few random soldiers with rifles slung over their shoulders, smoking cigarettes while walking up and down the dirt road.

The trees from the valley below gave way to barren rock and the open views we’d grown accustomed to during our previous time in the high mountains. From here, the mountain peaks of Pakistan were visible beyond the slopes of the Wakhan valley. The wind picked up and random flakes of snow began to rain down from above. In an attempt to stay out of the harsh winds, we quickly set up our tent in the walls of what seemed to be a popular daytime hangout for local goats. I know this because we became slightly light-headed from the overwhelming goat-poo fumes we were inhaling all night. Perhaps the accommodations were underwhelming, but the view certainly was not!

The next day we’d split from the Panj River and spend most of the day climbing over Khargush Pass before descending down to the Pamir Highway in near-darkness. Not content with simply taking the beaten path of the Pamir all the way back to Khorog, we quickly split off to head up to the more rugged and wild Roshtqal’a Valley. The wide, truck-laden road turned quickly to a double-track jeep road that was a bit more our speed. Views of the towering Karl Marx and Engels Peaks made the extra effort well worth it.

Soon we found ourselves gradually winding through yet another long and pristine Tajik valley that was adorned with perfectly placed villages tucked between its slopes. The leaves were changing to their golden hue as the canyon walls narrowed. The sun graced us with its warming rays for only a short time each day, before quickly retreating once again behind the rugged mountainside.

The beauty of bike touring is being able to see places you’d likely never have an excuse to visit otherwise. A chance to learn from a culture that couldn’t be further from the one you’re used to back home. For me at least, it helps me appreciate every privilege that I have, and every moment I get to spend in places like these even more. There’s nowhere that rings more true than the Wakhan.