Rivers Run Through It
Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor by Mountain Bike
Words and Photos by Dan Milner
In celebration of the launch of the brand new Sidetracked Volume Seven, we’re releasing one story online from each of our previous issues. In this story from Volume Four, Dan Milner was part of a pioneering mountain bike traverse of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. Following only horse trails, they looped 250 Km through one of the most remote and inclement areas on the planet, crossing three passes above 4900m and camping every night in temperatures down to -10C.
We watch the pack animals cross first. The river is a sooty-black mass of chaos, cutting through mounds of loose rock. The horses have no problem, but the donkeys refuse. I watch as our six Afghan porters unload the gear from each donkey and physically manhandle them across a steep, foaming torrent, the air around me a thundering cacophony pierced by the yells of Afghan men. We pass bikes across the human conveyor belt of grabbing hands amidst a barrage of man-shrieks.
Then it’s our turn to cross. The angry, spitting water is only thigh deep, but the cascade of baby head rocks tumbling beneath its surface pounds my feet, bruising my ankles, and threatening to sweep away my already insecure footing. It’s a test of nerve and agility – something like a painful game of ten-pin bowling with human legs as skittles – and only the first of many river crossings we’ll face on this twelve-day mountain bike exploration of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor.
What our group of seven western mountain bikers is attempting here is ridiculously ambitious. Though our planned ride is only 250 kilometres long, nothing comes easy in this wild, unforgiving corner of the planet. Yesterday Tom Bodkin, the brains behind this trip and our guide from the expedition company Secret Compass, spread a 1980s Russian topo map across dusty grass in the village of Sarhad and calmly cited rivers and snow-covered passes as if reading from a shopping list. Once we crest our third high pass, the 4,895-metre Showr Pass, we’ll descend into the culturally distinct, Kyrgyz-controlled Big Pamir valley. This is our objective, Tom said. By then though I’d lost count of the rivers we’ll have to cross. Any one of them has the potential to turn us around.
As I sit and massage some sensation back into cold, wet feet after the river ford, it dawns on me that during my months of mental preparation for this trip the challenges of crossing rivers never entered my mind. Sunburn, being kidnapped by a Taliban warlord, or adhering to my vegetarian diet in mountains inhabited solely by semi-nomadic shepherds occupied my thoughts, but river crossings? Not so much.
Inevitably, attempting to mountain bike across part of a country predominantly known for endless war raised the eyebrows of family and friends, but in truth the Taliban threat is negligible in this region of Afghanistan. The Wakhan Corridor – a panhandle jutting between Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan – sits outside the Taliban’s sphere of interest and can actually be found in the pages of a handful of niche trekking company brochures.
But nobody has tried to mountain bike across it until now.
After the drive in, I understood why. It takes us four days in jeeps with bald tyres, cracked windscreens, and leaky radiators, navigating desolate roads from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, just to reach the village of Sarhad, the starting point for our ride. At an elevation of 3,400 metres, at the end of the lone dirt road that penetrates the Wakhan, we strike out, heading straight up a climb to the 4,250-metre Dalriz Pass and a view across the Little Pamir valley.
The angry, spitting water is only thigh deep, but the cascade of baby head rocks tumbling beneath its surface pounds my feet, bruising my ankles, and threatening to sweep away my already insecure footing. It’s a test of nerve and agility.
Riding bikes into uncharted territory like this is fraught with challenges that demand dogged resilience and a willingness to simply take what comes, knowing that before too long the pain will end and sunshine or warmth or a mighty sense of accomplishment will follow.
After our maiden river crossing, and subsequent three hours of pushing and carrying bikes, summiting the Dalriz pass feels like a very real accomplishment. Against a backdrop of the Hindu Kush’s towering peaks, we exchange inevitable high-fives, emit whoops of joy, and devour energy snacks before mounting our bikes for a 700-metre descent. The trail is loose and off camber and scarily exposed in places, but we relish every inch of it, sure in the feeling that the pleasure will be short lived. It is. The descent delivers us to the bank of our second river, and on the opposite side begins another 500-metre climb to our night’s campground. By the time we reach it, it will be dusk.
Pedalling is what this trip is about, or at least it’s meant to be. But riding bikes into uncharted territory like this is fraught with challenges that demand dogged resilience and a willingness to simply take what comes, knowing that before too long the pain will end and sunshine or warmth or a mighty sense of accomplishment will follow. Or at least you hope it will follow. It’s a perverse and fragile balancing act, a see-saw of emotions, and it’s drawn us here from three different countries for this pioneering traverse.
American Brice Minnigh, and Canadians Matt Hunter, Colin Jones and Darcy Wittenburg have, like myself, heeded Bodkin’s rallying call for adventurous mountain bikers to accompany him on this expedition. As bike industry insiders we’re all experienced riders, but this trip will give us all chances for our resolve to crumble. We each have strengths – from the timely wit of CJ, to the unfaltering positivity of Bodkin, to Hunter’s unbelievable bike-handling skills – and we all have weaknesses, too. At some point, we will all hit ‘the wall’.
For some the 4 a.m. starts to portage bikes over snowy passes higher than Mont Blanc take their toll. For others it’s the torment of pulling on bike shoes frozen rigid overnight by sub-zero temperatures. My feeling of defeat comes mid-afternoon on day seven, in a swirl of sleet, while pushing my bike across a half-frozen bog. It’s understandable: my feet are numb again, the weather is stacked against us, and we are eight hours into a full eleven-hour day of physical duress. I don’t so much dispel my doubts as have them chased out by group momentum and the positivity of those who’ve already battled their own demons, or haven’t yet had that dubious pleasure.
But whatever our strengths on and off the bike, it’s the river crossings that become the great leveller. Numbingly cold from June snowmelt and churning ferociously in their gallop down the mountainsides, the challenges of crossing Wakhan’s rivers humble us all. The approaching roar of another angry runnel collectively spikes our adrenaline and sets hearts pounding. A slip in one of these tributaries would mean a battering at best, and at worst losing a bike or even a life into the heaving mass of the Wakhan River below.
Fortunately the Afghans we’ve hired – animal handlers, a cook, and a translator – have our backs. We’d be nowhere without them. While the Wakhan is isolated from the dangers associated with the rest of war-torn Afghanistan, its unruly, changeable weather and formidable terrain devoid of natural shelter make it a place to not come unstuck, and the locals know this. When we pause too long on day nine to photograph and re-photograph riding a spectacular section of trail glowing beneath a setting sun, we lose sight of our Afghan team. Faced with multiple junctions in the trail, the very real possibility of being lost hits us – until we spot Aman Beg, our cook, running back on foot from camp to find and escort us to safety. When he finds us, his look of relief mirrors our own.
Against a backdrop of stilted communication, made possible through the limited English of our translator Yar Mohammad and our own efforts at sign language, we realise that our safety is of genuine concern to our support team. They may be surprised to find us trying to ride bikes through this wild land, but they will do everything in their power to help us succeed. They offer shoulders to lean on during perilous river crossings. They debate strategies to escort us across snowy passes, delivering their verdicts via Yar Mohammad’s broken English. They help pitch our tents before hastily erecting ad-hoc stone walls behind which they’ll sleep in freezing temperatures.
At the Karabel camp five days in, we desert our own tents to huddle with them inside stone shepherd huts, filled with the acrid, choking smoke that drifts upward from a yak-dung cooking fire towards a chimneyless hole in the roof. Outside, snow blows horizontally, drifting against our tents and bikes, and stalling our attack on the 4,860-metre pass above. We laugh with them as they each try riding our bikes – their first bike experience ever – and we try riding their horses. Inevitably it is humour that most easily slices through the cultural and language barriers between us.
Twelve days is a long time to be riding bikes through the Wakhan Corridor. Even longer when you are pushing and carrying, too. Our international group of mountain bikers is united in its appreciation of this incredibly beautiful, untamed landscape, and in our wonder and disbelief of the arduous lives of the inhabitants here. We hike over snow, through sleet, and across peat bogs. We summit passes and drop into vast glaciated valleys. We ride braids of dusty, loose singletrack hewn out of tussocked hillsides by centuries of animal traffic.
When we finally descend into the Kyrgyz lands, we’re welcomed into yurts to drink sour tea and consume rancid yak yoghurt and sleep alongside our six Afghan porters. For the first time in days we escape the frenzied flapping of tent flysheets pitched at the mercy of the Pamir’s incessant wind.
We are nine days into our ride. We have three more to go before we will exit these mountains to face the four-day drive back to the lives we know. It will be another three days of incredibly rewarding experiences, but also three days laced with more physical and mental demands heaped on already tired and weather-beaten souls. For the moment, I sip my tea and welcome this slice of hospitality in one of the most remote and harshest places I’ve ever ridden a bike. I relax. For now I am safe and I savour the sensation. Tomorrow brings more rivers to cross.
This story was originally featured in Sidetracked Volume Four
Dan Milner is a British photographer with a degree in marine biology. Realising that not everyone can become Jacques Cousteau, he has spent the last seventeen years as a photographer of some of the world’s more diverse and demanding adventure locales. His passion for experiencing the world has led him to assignments in Elbrus, Russia, and the polar bear-inhabited Svalbard archipelago. But his underlying passion is bikes – riding them, photographing them, and using them as both an excuse to travel and a very real tool to break down social barriers in whatever exotic place he pedals.