Bloody stupid in the desert

The prospect of spending two days in Murghab, a remote Tajik border town high in the Pamir mountains, waiting for the yearly horse festival to start was a bleak one.

It’s a graceless border town, eight hours from both the Kyrgyz and the Chinese frontiers, offering nothing by way of attractions or things to do.

But I’d been told of an adventure.

It started as backpacker tips tend to: as third hand information (sometimes, the third hand info is the same news you told someone else a few weeks ago but with a few modifications). An Israeli girl in Bishkek told me of two French guys who said they’d hired some bicycles in Murghab and ridden a two-day, 100ish kilometre loop through the desert, staying at a yurt on the way.

It sounded like a good way to kill two days in the middle of nowhere so I conned an Australian couple into coming with me.

Dave and Fi were at the tail end of a six month trip from India and Nepal, to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Dave brought the bike skills – handy since we had two flat tires and a slow leak, while Fi brought the Chinese language skills we didn’t know we needed.

We found three bikes that mostly worked (one had marginal brakes and one other only had first gear), and set out with water, four chocolate bars, half a jar of nutella, a three-day old loaf of bread, three squashed tomatoes and three capsicums.

We started from Murghab about 1pm, promising ourselves that if it wasn’t enough time to get far enough around, we’d turn back.

20120726-110603.jpg Premature – this how we’d feel the next day.

After four hours of leisurely Sunday driving we ended up at a truckstop perhaps 30km along our route. It catered to truckers driving the highway between China and Tajikistan.

A Pamiri girl back from university in Kashgar translated via Fi in Chinese that staying the night was fine and the food was excellent.

After the best meal we’d had in a very long time (the bread rated a definite six, maybe seven on our bread scale), and the start of a joke that has refused to die when the owner asked Dave if he was travelling with his wife and girlfriend, we bedded down on a chaikhana table in the small, cosy restaurant.


The next day none of us wanted to go back way we’d come so we decided to forge ahead. The only problem was water: the truckstop owner told us the night before that there was no herders remaining in the desert, no water, and no food, and we’d discovered a Chinese mine was pouring its tailings into the water upriver.

The battery-powered steripen removed the bugs, but not the heavy metals.

We were out by 8.50am, and I got the first puncture at 9am. Thankfully, it was near the mine and a doddery jeep full of Tajik workers with their Chinese engineer pulled out an electric air pump.

Five hours later, after another puncture, many consultations of the map, swiftly decreasing water supplies and worsening physical problems due to the altitude, we were demoralised and starting to disagree on the quality of the map and whether the route we were taking was correct.

Fi mentioned that the Chinese engineer told her we were crazy for attempting this.


Dave suggested a deadline: if we hadn’t reached the top of the pass in an hour and a half – by 3.30pm – we’d turn back and seek safety at the truckstop. Fifteen minutes later I sighted the observatory at the top of the pass and we felt like we were saved.

We pushed the bikes to the top (it was short compared to the many kilometres of low gradient uphill we’d followed, but very steep) and hooned down the other side, coasting for kilometres as the lie of the land gently drifted downwards.


We were exhausted but happy: we’d made it through the barren wasteland on the other side which even the shepherds had left weeks ago, we found a clear stream to refill the water bottles, and guessed that we’d be back in Murghab by seven, maybe eight that night at the latest.

The joy of sweeping through the deserted valley and then speeding down the sealed main road sustained us for a few hours, but as every corner revealed another stretch with no Murghab in sight and the effects of heat, altitude and tiredness began to overtake us, the jokes slowed and the stops became fewer as we began to grind through the pains and exhaustion in order to get back before nightfall.

Twelve hours after starting out, we arrived at the house where we’d hired the bikes.

We were mentally drained, our knees ached, our bodies were wrecked and it hurt to breathe. Dave, a nurse by trade, reckoned later that we were all suffering from pulmonary oedema, or fluid in the lungs, and a typical symptom of altitude sickness.

Worst of all, the nutella, forgotten in my bag, leaked over the bottom of my pack. And yet, it won’t be an adventure I’ll forget in a hurry.


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