“Injection” the nurse said intently.
“Ummmm…I don’t know” answered Morgan uneasily.
But the nurse wouldn’t have any of it. She waved him off and started digging through a plastic shopping bag, spilling unmarked bags of pills and wads of gauze across the floor. Thankfully, the needle she produced was in factory-sealed plastic, so it looked safe enough, but it was huge. The mean glint of steel made Chris and the Navrishorev family lean in closer. In rural Tajikistan, no one was going to look away while a grown man got a shot in the butt—especially an American. For a small dairy farming family in the Pamir Mountains, the moment amounted to primetime entertainment.
The Navrishorev parents suppressed their smiles, then gingerly left the bedside so Morgan could rest. They were a wonderful family. We met them quite by accident.
Two days earlier, after cycling the first 30 miles of the Pamir Highway out of Khorog, we realized we were too sick to continue. Morgan was hit with a flu Chris had battled briefly in Khorog, and both of us felt a rude resurgence of dysentery that had plagued us off and on since Dushanbe. A haughty practice of not filtering mountain stream water had gotten the better of us.
We were also mentally exhausted. In Khorog, we’d been slammed with the unexpected news that Chinese embassies across Central Asia are no longer issuing tourist visas to foreigners. Our Paris to Shanghai journey faced a serious roadblock: China wasn’t going to let us in. The anticipated ‘rest days’ in Khorog were spent scouring the internet for cheap flights and stressing over which options least hemorrhaged our bank account. We went back and forth for days before finally deciding to join a number of other stranded backpackers in a risky gambit: we’d express mail our passports home. Once family members in Los Angeles had obtained the Chinese visa for us, they’d send it back to Krygyzstan and we’d be on our way to Kashgar.
By the time we reached the Navrishorev’s home, however, China seemed a long way off. Morgan was pale and vomiting off the side of his bicycle. We stopped and asked some goat herders along the highway where we might find a pansion, a local homestay. When we came across the bright red and yellow striped tent in the Navrishorev’s yard, we thought it was for tourists. It turned out to be nothing of the sort – just a tea canopy – but it belonged to the charming family who would take us in for nothing.
The Navrishorevs live along the M41 highway in a simple, mud-walled dwelling set deep in a canyon of craggy peaks. The parents live with two of their grown-up children, George and Sabrina, who help raise the family’s three cows and sell herbs for 75 cents a bundle at the Khorog bazaar. Money is tight; the majority of the family’s income comes from remittances from their two eldest children who work in Moscow. The youngest son, George, was moving to join them soon.
Our interactions with the family were modest, limited to 30 words we knew from our ‘Easy Russian Phrase Book,’ published 1958. But the parents took care of us like sons – they filled us up at every opportunity with bowls of hot milk and freshly churned butter from their cows; they made our beds; they soothed our stomachs with herbal concoctions of local mountain flowers. For two days, they nursed us back to health.
We desperately wanted to repay them somehow but they refused our money. So we did our best to add to the cultural exchange, showing them pictures of our trip and families back home. It still didn’t feel like enough. Finally, we realized something they might remember us by. On the day of our departure, we gifted our fold-out map of Central Asia, a personalized message of thanks scrawled on top. The Navrishorevs were delighted, pointing to different city names and reading them aloud. It was a unique item to have in the village; clearly there weren’t many maps around. We had to show them where their home was located.
Of course, the only drawback of our gift was that we were map-less ourselves for the rest of the Pamirs. The night before departing the Navrishorevs, we studied it intently, memorizing distances and names and elevations. We noted that the first major pass, a grueling, unpaved 12% incline to the Pamir Plateau would begin about 50 miles past the Navrishorev’s home.
Yet somehow, distances and names and elevations never quite live up to the real thing.
“Morgan, can we rest up a moment?” said Chris, gasping for air.
The pass was difficult, taking us over 14,000 feet on a road so loose with rocks that our wheels slipped each time we stood on our bicycles, or applied too much torque on the pedals. After the tentative recovery at the Navrishorevs, our bodies struggled with the steep bends, willed forward mainly by belief that each blind turn might be the top.
When we did reach that turn, however, the pain evaporated in the face of the spectacle before us. Over the crest, we saw the most beautiful vistas of our lives.
In what Marco Polo once dubbed the “Roof of the World,” we witnessed the majesty of Tajikistan’s high deserts. It was a surreal environment, with peaks rising only a couple thousand feet above the valley floors, like foothills, but appearing jagged and snow-capped. It looked like the tops of the Himalayas or Alps had been chopped off and placed flat upon the sand.
The desert wasn’t completely lifeless, though. On the second day we reached the Alichur Valley, a wide grass speckled basin where Kyrgyz goat herders sat perched above flocks and temporary yurt dwellings they’d moved to the higher elevations for the summer. They waved to us with the familiarity of having seen many bicycle tourists before. Indeed, up on the plateau, other cyclists were among the little traffic we encountered along the highway until we reached Murghab.
Murghab (population 8,000) was the largest ‘city’ marked upon our road map, but it more closely resembled a post-apocalyptic colony. Its downtrodden buildings straddled the highway with crumbling walls fighting a losing battle against the desert sands. They underscored how unforgiving the area is most of the year – many leave the plateau during the harsh winter months, and the region isn’t developed for tourism beyond a few modest homestays in three or four villages along hundreds of miles of road.
Lack of infrastructure meant we had to be careful about supplies. We carried multiple days of food with us at a time, bags of rice and instant coffee and crackers we scavenged from the meager village stores. They still felt like luxuries when we were camping.
“Chris, you’re on pot duty tonight,” said Morgan with a wink. He quickly retreated into the warmth of the tent.
Because it was so cold, we alternated who sat out in the wind and cooked dinner each night. Above 14,000 feet, the temperature dropped below freezing as soon as the sun died. The ends of our rides became races to don every layer of warm clothing we had, and in the mornings we awoke to a tent covered in frost. Morning coffee was the only thing that could entice us out of our sleeping bags. It got colder each night as we got higher.
On the fifth day after leaving the Navrishorev’s, we reached the top. At 15,270 feet, the Ak-Baital Pass is the highest point on the M41 Highway (and the second tallest international highway crossing in the world behind the Karakorum). When the road leveled out, we found ourselves perched above the clouds, surrounded by a vast glacier.
We were elated, punctuating the thin air with a celebration of fist-pounding and victory photos. We’d been daydreaming about the moment for months. For Chris, it was highest elevation he had ever been.
Then something curious happened. As we were riding down the other side, a change came over us. Having conquered the top, we stopped noticing the vistas as much. Even though there were still a few hundred kilometers and tough passes to ride until Osh, our final days on the Pamir Highway passed by in a blur. The truth is we were mentally done. Months of riding from the Caspian shores in Kazakhstan weighed upon us. On the last stretch of the Pamir Highway, we fixated on just reaching the end.
The night of our arrival, we snapped out of the daze. After our first shower in weeks, we collapsed into a booth at a restaurant and ordered the biggest plate of Shashlik – meat kebabs – listed on the menu. As meat filled our shrunken abdomens and beer floated to our heads, we started rattling off memories from the previous two and a half months. It seemed like ages since we’d been hunting down visas in neo-futuristic Baku, or huddled under our tent for shade in the scorching Kazakh Steppe, or sneaking into monuments in Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities by posing with European tour groups. In that time, we’d come a long way; in mileage, our journey through Central Asia was the equivalent to bicycling across the United States. Through bad roads and language barriers, we had encountered unforgettable landscapes and fascinating cultures; we had survived each other’s constant company, and had learned why crossing Central Asia is considered such a trophy among the world’s bicycle tourists.
But as the evening wore down, we became more contemplative. What did it all mean? Now that we know what’s in Central Asia, what are our takeaways? What could we impart to our readers and our friends back home?
We fell silent and stared down at the floor for a few moments, thinking.
“Well…” Morgan said finally.
“It was hard.”