Come hell or high water: Solo bikepacking through Tajikistan’s Bartang Valley
Central Asia has become something of a bikepacking destination in recent years. The likes of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have proven increasingly attractive for intrepid cyclists looking for adventure in the wild heart of a sparsely populated and jaw-dropping region. Writer and photographer Matthew Crompton is one such cyclist. What follows is the story of his four-day, 300 km ride through Tajikistan’s rugged Bartang Valley.
That a road exists through Tajikistan’s Bartang Valley at all is frankly astonishing. That its passability varies hugely – depending on the vagaries of weather, climate, geology and sheer luck – is far less so.
After passing for a day or more across the high barren wind-whipped Murghab Plateau in Tajikistan’s far east, the track into the Bartang Valley plunges more than two vertical kilometres through the steep-walled Bartang River gorge, the swift grey water there crashing along like some mythical hydraulic hammer fit to wash the mountains themselves from the map.
Yet for all the countless tourists who come each year to cycle Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains (and believe me there are heaps), very few attempt the Bartang Valley route across those mountains. This makes sense of course: the Bartang is 300 km of remote, rim-breakingly-bad road, often sandwiched between an unstable landslide slope on one side and an unprotected drop to the river on the other. Add in the crossings of countless side-streams and rockfalls — and even the mighty Bartang itself when it overflows its banks — and you see the wisdom of simply staying on the Pamir Highway.
Stories of panniers (and even whole bicycles) lost in the Bartang abound. I began my time in Tajikistan with a very different kind of hazard, however, in the lakeside town of Karakul, just over the border from Kyrgyzstan, by accidentally sneaking into a Tajik military base.
Look: I’ve never found barbed wire a particularly effective deterrent. So a garland strung up between some gaps in the crumbling walls of what looked like (and may well have been) the husk of an unfinished hotel across the highway from the town seemed to me less like a warning than an invitation to explore. And that, ducking my head beneath the wire to enter the shattered complex, was exactly what I did.
When, wandering the broken rubble, I came upon an ancient armoured personnel carrier behind a high dirt berm, I might have taken it as an indication. Yet what military would inhabit this more-than-half-destroyed fortification, I thought, or defend it from incursion with such apparent insouciance? So I continued on, moving deeper into the complex until, poking my head around a corner, I heard voices. And there, a moment later, a soldier in olive drab with a carbine slung across his shoulder crossed my field of view.
I quickly ducked back behind the wall and quietly made my way back outside the perimeter. Strolling back along the highway like a person with nothing to hide, I walked around to the front of the complex. Sure enough, even though I hadn’t noticed before, there a soldier stood on guard beneath the Tajik national flag. Eek.
The next morning I rode off down the M41 highway against a boiling headwind that scoured the dry brown earth and sent the dust whirling into ephemeral dervishes. Twenty kilometres down the road, where sand was blowing across the tarmac in sketchy snaking lines like spindrift, I hit the pin marked on my GPS map and turned west off the M41 onto the bare earth of the plateau itself. And then, in that great wind and emptiness, 4,000 metres high with the sun shining like a silver-white Christmas tree star far above me, I was alone.
For hours I fought the wind, pedalling southwest across the pan. Low ridges loomed and I skirted them and at a river I dismounted and tested the depths and then pushed the bike across through the cold slow silty current. In the evening, following another small clear-flowing river, I stopped to make camp on its green banks, the wind fit to flatten my tent as I pitched it against the heavy blow.
In my little fabric house the wind howled in the deep freezing night around and I burrowed into my bag and I felt the secret heart of the world beating inside me, coterminous with and encompassing my own heart, the witness at the centre of grandeur that was what made that grandeur grand.
In the calm bright mild morning I packed again and rode out across the high desert, cutting overland atop the hardpacked dirt, trending toward the gap in the hills that would lead me to the edge of the plateau. Yet a while later when I came to that gap, six men – irregularly attired and generally creepy as hell – emerged from a crude mudbrick hut and stood staring at me with unsettling stone faces.
“Yeah, nah”, I thought, and kept riding. ‘Permit!’ one man yelled, ‘Ten dollars!’ And while it was true that this was in fact a national park, $10 was not in fact the cost of a permit, which I would purchase for $3 in the official park office several days later. That wasn’t even the point though, which was simply that I did not like the look of these men one bit. One gave chase and at a distance from the others I gave him a piece of paper with my name and passport number on, telling him I’d buy a permit in Khorog. I then quickly rode on, glad to be away.
Thirty minutes later I hit the sharp edge of the plateau, a vista of the wide grey roiling waters of the Bartang opening before me in a huge bend a thousand metres below, the sense of deep space and vastness there an instant hit of the natural sublime. The jeep track dropped hard south, steep and twisty and occasionally exposed, and I rode it as fast as my confidence would carry me.
Past the switchbacks the road was of very rough broken stone and it gradually lost elevation. A half dozen times meltwater streams cascaded in from above and I crossed them carrying the bike, water surging in little hydraulics up to my thighs. Hours later cresting a rise I came to the village of Khudara, the most remote settlement in the Bartang, spread on a green plain beside the river below. All through the village people waved and smiled and called to me to stop for tea – the hospitality and friendliness of the Bartangi people being legendary – and though I stopped to chat, I soon continued on and made camp alone in the rocky hills downriver.
Riding the river road there the next morning the hours blurred. Tan earth and the roiling grey water, the track climbing and descending the hillside all day long. Tiny villages appeared, with fields of golden grain and green vegetables fed by the snowmelt streams that cascaded down from snowcapped mountains high above.
At several pinch points along the track, sandwiched between the high cliff walls and the river pounding crazily on below, landslides had blocked the road. Men with shovels and ancient bulldozers worked to clear the way. I halted and hefted and carried and tiptoed my bike over and around the collapsed slope and the machinery operating there, the violent water of the river just below focusing my mind to absolute clarity as I moved.
In places now the swollen water of river itself also overlapped the road, swirling in eddies around my tyres as I pushed on. At the village of Basid in the lower valley that evening I slept in a homestay where I was fed fresh apricots and bread and jam and tea and fried potatoes until I was stuffed beyond satedness, and in the morning my hand was shaken with enthusiasm and warmth and I started off down the road for my final day within the valley.
Here below Basid the road was more and more frequently washed-out, and often deeply submerged. I waded the bike at times for hundreds of metres through coursing water that even at the margins of the river rose occasionally to my groin. I passed jeeps and motorcyclists heading upstream and they asked about the conditions ahead and hearing my report they shook their heads and turned around, leaving me feeling the cyclist’s particular pride at the suitability of his chosen vehicle.
The lower I drew into the valley the better the condition of the road became until finally, in the late afternoon, almost at the valley’s mouth, it was suddenly paved once more and, just like that, I was done. I emerged onto the M41 at the town of Rushon, four long elastic days after I had left that highway behind, two vertical kilometres above, the Bartang miraculously finished.
Days hence I would begin cycling the Wakhan Corridor, Tajikistan’s current ‘It’ cycling route, passing a narrow strip of land bordering Afghanistan on the country’s southern border. That road was beautiful, true, but as I rode it amidst the regular traffic of trucks and cyclists I found myself missing the days and nights in the Bartang.
‘We do these things not because they are easy,’ JFK once said of a less terrestrial pursuit than this one, ‘but because they are hard.’ And though he spoke then of course of the moon, the feeling applied equally well for me to the Bartang Valley: a thing not just done with difficulty, but actually cherished for it.
About the author
Matthew Crompton is an award-winning writer and photographer preoccupied with bikes, hikes, and the mystical solitude of the way-out. His latest project was a 29+ fat-tyred expedition from the Tibetan Plateau through the mountains of Central Asia. You can find more of his work at his website, on Instagram and on Flickr.