Coates in Charge

We had all made it along the Wakhan, though not without some mishaps, various falls had meant we had a couple of people with sore ribs but no serious damage to bikes or bodies. The final village is the sleepy settlement of Langar. Last year’s group had got this far only to find their exit out of the gorge not accessible due to a landslide which had left a gaping crater. They’d had to retrace their steps, back to Khorog over a hundred miles away to then get around.

Taking my newfound responsibilities seriously, I ensured everyone was safe and settled at the homestay – or at least as safe and settled as those afflicted with sore ribs, dodgy diarrhoea and potential altitude sickness can be. I headed off to do a reconnaissance of the steep track leading out of the valley, taking my trusty Forest of Dean sidekick with me. The track was as I remembered it from two years ago, a couple of dicey steep curves on gravel with snarling dogs running alongside but basically it shouldn’t present a problem and most importantly I got confirmation that the route was clear all the way through to where it met the other road.

Our evening meal took place outside with the mountains around us and I did a briefing for the track ahead, basically advice of “steady eddy” riding and everyone should be fine. We’d also be travelling on highest road so far – the 4200m mountain pass at  Khargush though I didn’t envisage any problems, I recommende that no-one lingers at the highest point due to the inevitable altitude headache and the redcution in concentration due to the reduced oxygen. One thing we shouldn't have problems with is other vehicles, it's the most remote road I’ve ever travelled, last time we’d encountered just one vehicle on its entire 100 kms length.

This time there were quite a few more trucks

There was a fall at the first curve; I’d suspected this one might prove a problem so I’d waited to see everyone through it safely. The BMW R1200GSA is a bloody big bike and it’s pretty heavy. I somehow managed to lift it single-handedly off the rider whose leg was trapped underneath it. A couple more falls at the next tricky curve, but nothing serious and everyone got through.

At 4000m the surroundings are particularly bleak, very little vegetation grows, and there’s almost no sign of life. We came across a pair of French cyclists, who had ridden all the way from Shanghai, they enquired about the road ahead, we tried to put a positive spin on things but basically it’s gravel and nothing else for a long way we told them.

A military checkpoint near the pass where we all had to wait while our passports were checked acted as an impromptu rendezvous, and we caught up with each other and how everyone was progressing. This was followed by the highest point where I could feel the lack of oxygen giving me a headache and so I pushed on, descending a few hundred metres before pausing again just after the worst stretches of sand to check everyone managed to pass these difficult stretches.

Further on there was a huddled shape on the gravel, it was a Golden Marmot (known by some as a monkey) dead in the road and looking fairly fresh. Later it transpired that it had actually been run over by one of our group – he’ll remain nameless but he comes from the same country that gave us ABBA. Witnesses agreed with him that it had been a kamikaze-style rush across the road by the marmot and he hadn’t been able to avoid it.

The gravel and sand track seemed endless and then suddenly there was the Pamir Highway ahead of us and “Oh what bliss- it was tarmac”

Some jumped off their bikes and kissed the tarmac, it had been a gruelling section. We now had almost 100 miles until we reached our destination for the day, the Wild West town of Murghab. A tea and refreshment stop, at the only settlement along the way meant that I was able to catch up with a family I’d met last time. I was shocked to find that the girl who’d been my Pamir {petrol Helper was now a mother herself. The family were delighted to see me; I gave them photos from my previous visit and took more, promising to call in next time I passed this way.

So, the road surface had improved however although it’s tarmac; it’s not tarmac as we know it.

Extremely poor quality, very bumpy, and with random sandy holes in it – I discovered the culprit, a masked man who was walking down the road shovelling piles of sand into all the potholes he came across. It looked like a sinister attempt to upset all the motorcyclists riding this stretch of the Pamir Highway, but in reality he was just a government employee doing his job.

We were also encountering our first yaks of the trip, some of them obligingly crossing the road in a very docile and photogenic manner which pleased those who managed to stop their bikes in time and had their cameras at the ready.