Andy & Alissa and their XT660R | Columns | Gassit Garage
Riding Tajikistan’s legendary Pamir Mountains was supposed to be the ride of their lives. But trying to get out with a snapped frame and no suspension wasn’t what they had in mind
We’re so close to escaping. We can almost taste Kyrgyzstan’s snowy peaks in the distance. But the arid desert to our left and China’s barbed border fence to our right remind us that we haven’t made it just yet.
We’ve come too far to turn around now. We have no choice but to keep going and sneak out through Tajikistan’s back door. Maybe then, once we’re out, Tajikistan will stop throwing everything it can at us and leave our poor Yamaha alone. But first we have to reach the high-altitude pass, push through No-Man’s Land and cross the border.
The closer I get, the more the asphalt disappears. The altitude pass road has been replaced with mud and biblical holes pepper the ground. Tajikistan caught on…
I snatch the front brake and veer towards a cliff edge to avoid the rim-wrecking crater. It’s no use, the front wheel goes in and I wait for the inevitable crunch from the rear. The crack is loud and the subframe snaps. There are already two fractures in the main frame and the back tyre’s rubbing on the undertray. There’s no fluid in the rear shock and it has felt like riding a kangaroo with an engine for the last 500km off-road.
I take a deep sip of 4200m high 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 miles ahead. Other than them, there’s no one out there. I’m now alone in No-Man’s Land, stuck between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in thick slushy mud with a frosty top.
Our Yamaha XT660R has had enough. It takes once last heavy breath before cutting out, just as the wind starts to thrash and the sky darkens. Well… we nearly made it.
I slump down beside the bike, which now looks like black ball of cable ties and gaffer tape, and wonder if Alissa and the French guy have made it to the Kyrgyz border. The last I saw them, the rider was sliding in deep mud while Alissa walked beside him; and they’re still faster than me and my broken bike.
Sitting in the mud and watching the sky darken, I bite into my chocolate bar and think back to the day we entered Tajikistan in search of the Pamirs. At least it started well…
From flats to peaks
We couldn’t wait to cross the border from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan. The Tajik border guard stamps our passports, waves us through and we can’t believe our eyes. We’ve been riding through the baking, desolate deserts of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for weeks. Flat, dry and empty for 2000 rough kilometres. But as we roll into Tajikistan, we can already see pretty peaked silhouettes in the distance. We race towards them and the legendary Pamir Mountain range.
In an excited daze, we spot seven blue pearls on our map and decide to chase them first. The ride to the Seven Lakes is more addictive than buying bike parts. Each blue body of water is more mesmerising than the last. At the final lake we meet a group of Tajik men outside a yurt. Within seconds they grab us, shove us inside and force feed us cakes and tea. Bloated and full of sugar, we make our goodbyes and carry on to the Pamirs.
I’ve been dreaming of riding here since I first slapped an L-plate on my Gilera Coguar 125, 15 years ago. Once part of the legendary 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 which marks the start of the Pamir Highway. The road changes fast, flitting between loose gravel, sand and rocks. We planned on having two motorbikes by now, but as the sale fell through, we’re trying to make do with just one until Japan. No matter, I still can’t help but smile like a lunatic as the front judders over washboard ruts and the rear flirts with crumbling cliff edges. This is an adventure rider’s dream. It’s raw, visceral riding in a rugged land with hundreds of miles of spectacularly fun off-roading.
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 fluffy clouds until they puncture the sky. Little twirls of gravel tracks wind their way up them in the distance – luring the bewildered.
We get sucked into a trance, soaking up this otherworldly kingdom – until the bike pulls violently to the left and we nearly smash into a giant 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 few cable ties while I search for more chocolate. We’re not worried, we had all our breakdowns at the start of our trip in Europe and Turkey. We were soaking wet, cold and somehow still managed to set fire to our luggage on our very first day. And it got worse. Turned out January wasn’t a good time to ride in Europe. We blasted our way through France as Storm Eleanor hit the coast. We nearly flew off the motorway in 100km/h winds and rode for a month through continuous rain, ice and -15C. We also ran out of fuel, hitchhiked, snapped the exhaust, broke down and had to wait three weeks for new parts in Slovakia while it snowed heavier every day.
But we had our sights firmly set on Central Asia’s Silk Road and no amount of wind, rain or fire was going to stop us. Besides, it wasn’t like anything else could go wrong – the rack must have just been a fluke.
People who live in places like this are self-reliant by nature. We stumble across a friendly welder who stitches it back together and makes a new bracket for our ripped off sump-guard – all for $3 (he got a big tip).
Welcome to the Waken
But we didn’t come all this way to ride the tarmac Pamir Highway M41, so we slip off the main road and head south to chase the 300km majestic 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 rough track with cliffs to our left and Afghanistan to our right.
But there’s no day-dreaming here. We’re now a stone’s throw from Afghanistan and there are Tajik military checkpoints everywhere. But they don’t ask for cash like in the stories we heard, they only want to share watermelon. Instead of getting stopped for bribes, we’re constantly flagged down by inquisitive children running out into the road and asking for nothing but high fives.
The thing to watch out for (aside from steep drops off perilous cliffs) are wild dogs. They hear our XT coming from miles away (so does everyone else because we lost our exhaust baffle somewhere in Turkey – don’t ask). We hear them barking in the distance and see them flying over fields, saliva flicking from their snarling jaws, hatred in their eyes – only to be met by the heel of my Altberg boot. We met bikers who had worse experiences with dogs biting their legs, jumping in front of their bikes and causing bad crashes.
In and out off Afghanistan
We lost our 160kay-a-day plan somewhere in a sand trap. Now somewhere between 50-100km 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 our tent in the evening. We only visit towns for supplies. As we pull into the town of Khorog for fuel, Alissa spots an Afghan flag, marking an embassy.
We leave Khorog three days later with two shiny Afghan visas in our passports. But we’re not going in alone. We met Didier, a wild Frenchman living in Australia, while we were in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe. Didier’s riding his KLR650 around the world and also fancies riding into Afghanistan, so we all agree to go in together.
We cross the border not knowing what to expect. The guards open the gates, guns clenched in hand. Within minutes they’re pouring us tea and taking selfies with our motorbikes. Our time in Afghanistan is incredible. The roads through one of the world’s most remote landscapes into the Wakhan Corridor are awful, but worth it to ride ‘The Roof of the World’. After 4000 selfies with the military, 800 phone calls to get through checkpoints, two trees of paperwork and a hundred AK-47s later, we’re in and out of Afghanistan… a story for another time.
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 precious hydraulic fluid leaking from the rear shock. Five kilometres later and it’s bone dry. No more rear suspension. Luckily, we’re still with Didier and Franck (another Frenchman, riding a Royal Enfield to Mongolia). With incredible kindness from the duo, Didier straps Franck’s luggage to his bike and Alissa jumps on the back of Franck’s. We wouldn’t have a chance without them. But it’s not over yet; we all still have days of riding, 560km of rough terrain, fierce sand storms, freezing snow storms and thick fog to go.
Days pass by before we reach and pass through the Tajik border and into the treacherous no-man’s land separating Tajikistan from Kyrgyzstan. The dogged little XT plods on despite all the damage. The jets are clogged and the fuel filter hates me. We’ve got a slow puncture, 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 the smile off our faces. Not even the 20km of slippery sloshy mud in ahead.
I finish my last bite of chocolate, start the XT, stroke her near-empty fuel tank and promise her there’s only one more day before we make it to civilization and a garage in Kyrgyzstan. I click into first and wobble down the mountain, away from the Pamirs and the most memorable ride of my life.
Have a go
Fancy a crack at the Pamirs? It’s not as tricky as you might think and you don’t need to overland half the world to get there either! Just catch a flight into Kyrgyzstan, head to the MuzToo garage in Osh and rent an XT600E for around $100 a day (with discounts available for longer rentals). Load up and head south, cross the border and you’re inches away from the Pamirs and some of the world’s most incredible riding. Visit www.muztoo.ch or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
5 things you ought to know about riding in the Pamirs
- You don’t need to be a Dakar racer. A couple of days here will transform anyone into Toby Price (well, probably not, but you get the idea). Just sit back, let the bars go loose and apply heaps of throttle. We met people riding the Wakhan on Honda Cubs and even a lunatic on a Harley!
- Paperwork. Getting into Tajikistan is easy peasy. You need an E-visa with a GBAO permit, quick, easy and simple to do online and you’ll get an email the next day. Just print it out and voila! No embassies or sending off your passport, just take the print out with you.
- Don’t worry about the cops. The Tajik police are a lot more relaxed on fines than they used to be. If you’re stopped and you know you weren’t speeding, then just stand your ground. If you have to cave in then don’t fret, a fine in Tajikistan is a million times cheaper a fine in Melbourne!
- Mileage. Depending on your route, you will need to calculate your mileage for fuel, food, water and lodgings if you don’t want to camp. Don’t worry if you run out of fuel. Someone will come along and call their mate’s brother’s friend’s dad who will turn up with a bucket of petrol.
- Relax. It’s a beautiful part of the world, filled with some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. You are going to love it.
Rental bike route
If you’re going for a rental bike then you’ll be starting in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. You can cross the border with a rental bike no problems. Just head south to Tajikistan, up-and-over No-Man’s-Land and keep going. Choose between the tarmacked M41 West route over the Pamir Highway or south along the Wakhan Corridor border. Either way, end up in Dushanbe and take the North or East route back to Osh.
Their route so far
We started in the UK and made a dash through Europe to escape the cold. We headed into West Asia, took the ferry across the Caspian and rode through Central Asia. Then it was into Mongolia, up and through Siberia and on another ferry to Japan (where we are now). From here, we’ll fly the bike and ourselves to Nepal and ride through South East Asia to Australia and New Zealand. Then it’s to Alaska, down to South America, over to Africa and up into Europe. Well, that’s the plan anyway!
Who are Andy and Alissa?
Andy and Alissa left their lives behind in the UK to travel the world on their Yamaha XT660R indefinitely. To follow their adventures, visit www.madornomad.com
Words Andy Davidson Photography Alissa Potter