From Gudara to Karakul
Days on cycle: 4
Kilometres: 150 km (plus 25 km on tarmac to Karakul)
Cold: Crazy cold!
Did I burn my clothes? No
Road: Decent when not washboard, but a lot of washboard.
Previous Parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Recap: Our bumbling hero Pritam, and the wise Gandalf-in-this-story Jonny are at Gudara. After many conversations in the previous village with a untrustworthy character called Daler and a lot of contemplation about the snow, extreme cold, and death or even worse, frostbite that await them on the plateau a kilometer higher than where they currently are, they have decided to — as the British say — give it a decent go. When they are in a brave mood, they do understand that a more realistic what’s-the-worst-that-could-happen is just that they have to cycle back the way they came.
The family we stayed with in Gudara tried to refuse to take our money. “But you may need it when you get to Karakul”, the father exclaimed. We convinced him that we had enough cash to survive, and then with a few loaves of non (bread) gifted to us by the mother, we set off.
The road just after Gudara was not bad, relatively speaking. It was a gentle climb on not-too-gnarly gravel. We met some people collecting wood after a few hours. One of them spoke English, and was really happy to talk to us. He told us they were collecting wood for the village school. Winter was almost here, and collecting wood was only going to get more difficult.
He invited us to stop for tea, food, advice, and photographs. He told me that I was actually the first Indian he had seen cycling on the Bartang route. So readers, kindly note: silly though it may be, I am proclaiming myself to be the FKI (First Known Indian) to have cycled in the Bartang Valley!
On a more serious note, he also told us that there was snow on the way to the pass, maybe a few centimeters to a few inches. It would be really cold on the plateau, but we could stay in stone huts the next two days. These were huts used by the shepherds in the Summer when they took animals up to the plateau for grazing. The shepherds were all already back down to the villages for the winter, and so the huts would provide some shelter, and one of them even had wood for a fire! As we left, we had to refuse an offer of more non.
Exactly as predicted, it was very cold over the next three-and-a-half days, maybe colder than I have ever been. It was -20°C (or less!) at night (I actually don’t know this for a fact, but lower altitude towns with weather stations were reporting even lower so I’m going with that number).
We actually found huts on all three days, though the last one was probably a bad choice (it had no wood, and it was actually colder inside than outside). Every evening, the first priority was to make the evening warm, which meant collecting wood for a fire. Once, I walked about a kilometer to the river bank, climbed down a sketch stretch of sand and mud, and all I returned with was kindling. Another night, we decided that the stakes marking the boundary of the hut were fair game, provided that they were already on the ground and not close to the perimeter (Sorry shepherds, it was for our survival!). By the time we got back to civilization, my body and clothes were infused with smoke.
The days were of course warmer, but still well below zero. Things that were frozen stayed frozen. Nutella became hazelnut chocolate. I had to use my teeth every time to open my water bottle. Peanut butter….actually, peanut butter magically stayed smooth, and condensed milk too. Water was half ice flakes.
Once, I filled water from a stream wearing my waterproof gloves. I put them on the back of my cycle on top of the tent so that they would dry as I rode, but instead they became stiff and unusable (a fact that caused me some discomfort later at night!) because the water froze!
The river crossings that so many blogs had talked about as being dangerous and through fast-flowing water had by now become balancing acts on ice. We had no idea of how thick the ice was and whether they would hold the weight of a person plus a bicycle, but somehow I confidently started walking across every time. I think it was on a camping trip in California three years ago: a local fishing on a frozen lake had told us that 6 inches of ice was enough to drive over. How thick was the ice here? Don’t know, didn’t care.
Terrifyingly though, the ice beneath my feet shattered once as I was taking delicate steps and pushing Cycle along. For a millisecond (or a little more), my shoes were in the water underneath. I was certain that I would fall in, but thankfully the rest of the ice held up on both crossings.
The ice crossings were on the third and fourth days, while on the first day there was snow. As the nice local guy had told us (and unlike what Daler had told us), it was between a few centimeters and six inches deep. Going uphill, it was impossible to ride, so we pushed and huffed and puffed our way to the top of the pass. After the pass, and down to the plateau was a fun ride where I learned to be comfortable with the back wheel skidding every few seconds.
The road itself was as bad as expected. There was snow, ice, mud, stone, water, and gravel, all of which I was already used to from riding in Tajikistan the last few weeks! The worst was the washboard on the final day. If — like me before this trip — you’re not familiar with washboard, this is the label applied to an unpaved road with relentless bumps on it, almost like little ripples of terror. In a car it’s mildly uncomfortable, but on a bicycle it’s the worst; it’s like your soul itself is vibrating and your arms are going to shatter at any moment. Looking back though, it was all good fun!
The beauty that I saw on this ride is hard to describe. In the valley, people were even more friendly than on the main Pamir highway. They had that cheery hardiness that I always see in the people of the mountains. The scenery was astounding everywhere you looked, even more so because we were very lucky with the weather (not the temperature, just the clouds!).
The four days on the plateau were spent in an unbelievably expansive landscape. There were snow-capped mountains in every direction. The night sky — with the milky way a bright streak through it — was dotted with a million stars. The peaks glowed a happy orange as the sun set, and then again on the other side at dawn.
There have not been many moments in this trip, or over the last three-and-a-half years that I’ve felt that I’m doing something really adventurous, but that’s exactly what I felt during my time in the Bartang, especially on the plateau. Part of the adventure of course, was in the beauty and the terrain, but like all such things a big portion was the uncertainty and excitement about what lay ahead: how the weather would be in the afternoon and in the night, how much snow to expect, how bad the road would be, whether we would find wood at night.
I feel incredibly lucky, and also very grateful to have been able to do this. However, part of me also feels that I should have come to Tajikistan after more cycling experience; maybe I would have appreciated it even more!
We reached the tarmac early afternoon on the fourth day, and then it was an uneventful and smooth (I actually felt bored!) 25 km ride to Karakul. We covered in one-and-a-half hours a distance that had taken us the better part of a day on the plateau.
From Karakul, I had to make my way back to Dushanbe (I hitchhiked), and then to Uzbekistan (I rode). That stretch had its own share of adventure and fun, and that’s what’s coming up in the next post, so stay tuned!