Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent puts prejudice aside as she travels to the Pamir Highway despite reports of terrorism.
I’m usually fairly blasé about the scaremongering reports of the media, but this felt different. Marley and I were off to Tajikistan for a two-week ride on the Pamir Highway, one of the wildest and most scenic roads on the planet. Legendary for its thrilling riding and formidable landscapes, it promised adventure, dusty tracks over distant mountains and the chance to be as close to the edge of the map as it’s possible to be these days.
But, in June 2015, it also smacked of danger. IS was gaining ground in the Middle East, there were strange reports of an unholy trinity of IS, Al ’Qaeda and Taliban militants massing on the Afghan-Tajik border and rumours abounded of Tajikistan becoming a fertile recruitment ground for Islamic militants.
For the first time ever, we seriously considered changing our plans. Was rural Tajikistan going to be a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalists? Were we risking being kidnapped, tortured, or worse? Were we taking an undue risk for the sake of adventure? After several days of reading websites, FCO warnings and news reports, we decided to go and to judge the situation once we arrived in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital.
Our fears were quickly proved unfounded when, as dusk fell as the end of our first day’s riding, a blow-out saw us stranded on the edge of the remote, and clearly very poor, Pamiri village of Dasht-i-shar. There was no guesthouse in the village but a family, three generations of whom lived under one tiny roof, unhesitatingly agreed to take us in for the night.
Pamiris may be amongst the poorest people in the world, neglected by their government and largely dependent on aid, but here, the guest is king. Nina, the wizened matriarch, fussed around us, laying on an impromptu feast of non, bread, potatoes, eggs and salad, intermittently holding my hand and calling me her daughter, whilst around us green-eyed children and gold-toothed adults excitedly watched our every move.
Passing villagers, unused to foreign visitors, stopped and pressed their faces against the wire fence; smiling, saying hello and beckoning us into their houses for tea. It couldn’t have felt further from our pre-departure concerns. When it came to bedtime Marley was pointed towards the tapchan – an outside raised platform common in Central Asia – whilst I was bustled into the master bedroom to sleep with a young couple, their baby and a dummy-sucking toddler.
Before lights out, the three young women of the house came and perched on the floor beside me, eagerly asking about my husband, children and home, giggling shyly at my faltering Russian answers, all the while the toddler eyeing me curiously through the bars of his cot. I was a total stranger from what might as well have been another planet, but here I was sharing the marital suite with a family I’d just met. I struggle to imagine the same scenario happening in England. What an unexpected, humbling and heart-warming end to our first day on the road.
The following ten days took us through an ever more dramatic landscape of deep valleys, snow-streaked peaks and blustery mountain passes. By now the M41, as the Highway is officially known, had deteriorated to a gravelly track and we were up on the pegs, bumping over stones and weaving around potholes.
At times the road would twist through vertical gorges of immense depth, great fortresses of rock rearing above, turquoise rivers churning below. At others it slung us through wide, lunar valleys where silvery peaks framed the horizon and Chinese trucks lumbered through the sand, enveloping us in dust as they passed. It was a savage, visceral beauty, the likes of which I’ve never experienced before.
For five days we hugged the Panj River along the Afghan border, at times the gulley so narrow I could literally throw stones into Afghanistan. At the regular police checkpoints Tajik policemen, tummies straining at buckled belts, laughingly pointed across the river and said ‘Taliban, Taliban!’ But not for a second did we ever feel in danger.
The environment may have been harsh, but the endless warmth and kindness of the Tajik people was the defining feature of our ride. Smiles as warm as a summer’s day beamed at us from every weather-worn face and I rode, grinning, through villages of shrieking, waving, excitable children. But it’s wasn’t just the children. Everyone, from bent old women leading their donkeys in at dusk, to young men selling apricots in the shade, greeted us with a cheery wave and a heart-lifting smile. I must have waved, smiled and said Salaam, hello, hundreds of times a day.
In one of the homestays we stayed at, the grandfather insisted on sleeping in an old bus beside our bikes, out of respect for us, the guests. Not that anyone would have considered stealing them, let alone been able to ride them. I’ve travelled to more than fifty countries, and nowhere have I experienced such ubiquitous kindness, warmth and genuine hospitality.
We live in uncertain times, drip-fed by the media on a diet of fear, political uncertainty and religious intolerance. And for this reason, travel has never been more important. It breaks down cultural barriers, dissolves differences, makes the world a more connected and compassionate place, and shields us from subscribing to the bigoted views of certain newspapers.
Without travel, it’s easy to sit at home and be brainwashed into believing that Abroad is a dangerous and dirty place, populated by extremists, villains and rapists. As Mark Twain once said – ‘travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice and narrow-mindedness,’ and how very right he was.
The Pamir Highway
The Pamir Mountains are situated on the western slopes of the Himalaya and run through China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. They’re sandwiched between some of the world’s wildest, and most dramatic mountain ranges: Tianshan in the north, the Karakoram in the south, the Hindu Kush In the south-east and the Tibetan Highlands in the east. The Pamir Highway stretches for approximately 500 miles from Mazari Sharif in Afghanistan to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, with the bulk of it crossing Tajikistan’s High Pamir mountains.
Famed for its fantastic scenery and difficult terrain, it once formed part of the old Silk Road and with an average altitude between 3,000 – 4,000m altitude, the highest pass is the 4,655m high Akbaital Pass. Food and fuel supplies in the area are sparse. You’ll need to get your hands on a GBAO Permit in order to travel the Pamir mountains. You can apply for a permit with your visa at the Tajik embassy in the UK. For travelling through the former Russian and the ‘Stan countries, you do not need a Carnet de Passage.