I grab the front brake to avoid another rim-wrecking crater, but it’s too late. The front wheel drops in and I wait for the inevitable protest from my overloaded and overworked XT660. There’s a loud crack, and the subframe snaps and dumps me onto the back tyre.
There are two fractures in the main frame and the tyre’s rubbing on the undertray. Oh, and there’s no hydraulic fluid in the rear shock (it’s been like riding an old pogo stick for the last 300 miles off-road).
I take a deep breath of 4200-metre air, dig in my bag for cable ties and have a bite of chocolate. My girlfriend, Alissa, is on the back of a Frenchman’s Royal Enfield a few miles ahead but other than them, there’s no-one out here.
The wind is strengthening and the sky darkening, and the XT, clearly seriously hacked off with me and this whole adventure, cuts out.
I slump down beside the bike, which now looks like a black ball of cable ties and gaffer tape, and wonder if Alissa and the Frenchman have made it through the high mountain pass to the Kyrgyz border. The last I saw them Franck, the Frenchman, was pushing and crashing in deep mud while Alissa walked beside him; and they’re still faster than me and my broken bike.
As I finish my chocolate bar I think back to the day we entered Tajikistan in search of the Pamirs and my dream ride.
The Tajik border guard stamps our passports, waves us through and we can’t believe our eyes. We’ve been riding through the baking, arid deserts of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for weeks. Flat, dry and desolate. But as we roll into Tajikistan, we can already see pretty peaked silhouettes in the distance. We race towards them and the Pamir Mountain range.
I’ve been dreaming of riding here since I first slapped an L-plate on my Gilera Cougar 125, 15 years ago. Once part of the Silk Road, the Pamirs were the link between China and Persia for ancient merchants. It lies amidst the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Himalayas and Tian Shan mountain ranges; all whispering to and luring adventurers for thousands of years.
Bridge to another world
We sit on our rumbling XT gazing at the rickety old bridge and the start of the Pamir Highway. The road changes fast, flitting between loose gravel, sand and rocks. We’d planned on having two motorbikes by now, but as the deal fell through we’re trying to make do with just the one until Japan. No matter, I still can’t help but smile like a lunatic as the front judders over washboard roads and the rear flirts with crumbling cliff edges. This is an adventurer’s dream; raw, visceral riding.
I’m so busy staring at the track that I completely miss the magic in front of me. Gargantuan mountains burst out of the ground, their serrated edges slicing through cloud until they puncture the sky. Little twirls of gravel tracks wind their way up them in the distance.
We get sucked into a trance, soaking up this otherworldly kingdom until the bike suddenly pulls to the left and we nearly smash into a rock. We pull over to find we’re lopsided. Our pannier rack snapped and we nearly lost our luggage to a hungry mountain drop.
Alissa fixes it with a ratchet strap and a handful of cable ties. We’re not worried, we had all our breakdowns in Europe and Turkey; a long list including getting stuck in -15°C Slovakia for three weeks waiting for parts, a snapped exhaust, dead batteries and luggage on fire. It’s not like anything else can go wrong.
People who live in places like this are self-reliant by nature. A hundred miles later we stumble across a friendly welder who stitches it back together and makes a new bracket for our ripped off sump-guard. All for £2.50 (he got a big tip).
Welcome to the Wakhan
We didn’t come all this way to ride the Pamir Highway M41, so we slip off the road and head south to chase the 200-mile Panj River route, which acts as a border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. As the roads disintegrate beneath us the scenery becomes even more spectacular.
We straddle a track with cliffs to our left and a drop, a river and Afghanistan to our right.
But there’s no day-dreaming here. As we’re now barely more than a stone’s throw from Afghanistan there are military checkpoints everywhere. But they don’t ask for cash like in the stories we’ve heard, they only want to share watermelon. Instead of getting stopped for bribes, we’re flagged down by inquisitive children running out into the road and asking for nothing but a high five.
The thing to watch out for (aside from steep drops and rough off-roading) are wild dogs. They hear our XT coming from miles away (so does everyone else because we lost our baffle somewhere in Turkey). We hear them barking and see them flying over fields, saliva flicking from their jaws, hatred in their eyes; only to be met by the heel of my Altberg boot. We met folk who had worse experiences with dogs biting their legs, jumping in front of their bikes and causing crashes.
We ride all day, stop for tea with villagers in the morning, run away from dogs in the afternoon and set up tent in the evening.
In and out of Afghanistan
We lost our 100-mile-a-day plan somewhere in a sand trap. Now 30 to 60 miles a day is our new magic number. We ride all day, stop for tea with villagers in the morning, run away from dogs in the afternoon and set up tent in the evening. Our next town for supplies is Khorog. As we ride in Alissa spots an Afghan flag, marking an embassy. One week, miles of the worst roads we’ve ever ridden, 4000 selfies with the military, a million phone calls, two trees-worth of paperwork and 100 AK-47s later we were in and out of Afghanistan; a tale for another day. While we now carry some of the best memories of our lives from Afghanistan the XT doesn’t feel the same way.
Despite leaving the bulk of our gear in Tajikistan to be as light as possible, the XT has still come out battered. A slow puncture and a snapped spoke are just the start. We reach the top of a Tajik pass, I jump off to shake hands with a guard and come back to see Alissa staring at a puddle of hydraulic fluid leaking from the shock.
Three miles later it’s bone dry. No rear damping. Luckily, we’d been riding on-and-off with Didier (heading to Nepal) and Franck (heading to Mongolia). Didier took Franck’s luggage and Alissa jumped on the back of Franck’s bike. But it’s not over yet; we’ve still got days of riding, 350 miles of rough terrain, biblical sand storms, freezing snow storms and thick fog to go.
Days pass before we reach the Tajik border and into the no-man’s land between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The XT plods on despite all the damage. The jets are clogged and the fuel filter hates me. We’ve got a slow puncture and missing spokes, the chain guard just fell off and the back tyre ate the number plate, bursting the Scottoiler and covering the back of the bike in a gloopy mess.
The bike’s broken, probably beyond repair, but nothing’s taking this smile off my face. Not even the 12 miles of sloshy mud up ahead. I finish my chocolate, start the XT, stroke her near empty tank and promise there’s only one more day before we make it to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, civilisation and a garage. I click into first, wobble down the mountain and away from the ride of my life.