Fri 8 Aug: Khorog (2080m) Garm-Chasma (2560m) (48km, 895m ascent)
We spend part of the morning registering with OVIR and are glad to leave town on the empty rolling tarmac road. Across the river is Afghanistan, obscured by the dust haze. Colin reports that he isnt feeling well: evidently something he ate didnt agree with him.
We stop at a Choikhana beyond Pish for Tracey to eat lunch and Colin to lie down.
In the afternoon Colin throws up repeatedly. Tracey suggests Garm-Chasma as a suitable place to stay (junction at 42km), but the road heads steeply upwards and Colin doesnt think he can manage it. He stops several times to rest; Tracey pushes his bike part of the way; and after a couple of km the gradient eases off.
At the village Tracey asks where we can camp, and the person she speaks to leads us to his house higher up which functions a homestay.
Sat 9: enforced rest day
Colin lies groaning on the floor while Tracey explores the village and enjoys what turns out to be the best homestay food of the trip. The family say we should go back to Khorog and they call in a doctor who threatens Colin with an intravenous drip.
Note: More enterprising visitors than ourselves speak well of the springs at Garm-Chasma, which have an outdoor pool and a super-hot waterfall. The Bibi-Fatima hot spring further up the valley is said to be more enjoyable still.
Sun 10: Garm-Chasma Malvoj (2420m) (55km, 590m)
Colin is still weak, but we set off cycling with Tracey carrying most of the weight. It is very hot, though haze masks the views. The road surface is worse than previously, but there is less climbing. We stop for a snack in a bus shelter to escape the sun, and then a little after Barshor find an idyllic picnic spot by a stream.
In the afternoon we ride on to Malvoj, where we have to ask for water which we carry back to a campsite a little before the village.
Note: although Malvoj lies at a stream mouth all the watercourses were dry when we rode through. The next morning there was plenty of water. During the course of the day streams are diverted into irrigation channels, so that the fluctuating flows may give an impression of shortage.
Mon 11: Malvoj Darshai (2700m) (72km, 885m)
The same opaque skies. 17km from Malvoj a gorge opens to the left; at its foot is a small café/hotel (perhaps not functioning). After another 9km you come to Iskashim with a petrol station and a largish market: unfortunately we saw a lad walking away with its entire stock of tomatoes. A further 15km take you to Namadgut where petrol is available. The café a couple of km later is in fact a poorly stocked shop. We make our picnic by a stream 56km from Malvoj.
Tues 12: Darshai Langar (2830m) (72km, 900m)
After 10km we reach Shitkarv with a couple of good shops; unfortunately it marks the end of tarmac, and the road takes out its suppressed malice by imposing a vicious 160m climb. There are wheatfields and villages wherever streams join the Panj, and the peaks of the Hindu Kush can definitely be perceived. We stop for lunch at Vnukut, looked over by a silent Pamiri girl.
In the afternoon we plod on to Langar, not reaching it until around 6. Weve been told that there is a homestay attached to the museum, but it isnt evident, and the first person we ask says that it isnt so, and that the homestay is his house. But we have no complaint because the place he offers us is quite comfortable.
Note: Langar has small shops, the last you will see before Alichur.
Weds 13: Langar eastern foot of Matz pass (3370m) (33km, 910m)
Immediately after Langar the road climbs steeply, at first in a set of 6 hairpins, then following the trend of the hillside. Four boys lie in wait at the foot of the climb to give tired cyclists a helpful push (naturally expecting compensation). Dont disdain their assistance: you have plenty of other claims on your strength.
Its a strenuous climb, gaining 600m in the first 12km. After about 20km the road reaches a sidestream valley, and makes a deep notch away from the Panj (this is clear on the Hauser map). At the apex of the notch there is a subsidiary stream which is a good source of water, and also a disused building. This is the natural stop for lunch. We shared it with four Swiss cyclists, travelling as two groups of two.
The afternoons continuation is uneventful, with fine views of the Afghan mountains. We were aware of a distinct lifting of the haze. The road drops 150m to rejoin the Panj valley at the confluence with the Matz stream. There is a junction with the road from the Matz pass as the descent begins.
Where you meet the valley a meadow provides a good campsite, overlooked by a couple of derelict houses. The Panj now carries much less water than below Langar, receiving a greater volume from the Wakhan than from its own upper reaches. You could wade across it.
The next morning a young shepherd couple come past, and when we have trouble with our remaining matches (our spares having been stolen) kindly give us their own.
Note: with two boys per bike, we thought 1 somoni a fair price for each boy for 6 hairpins.
Thurs 14: Eastern foot of Matz pass Khargush camp (3890m) (36km, 723m)
After 25km the road turns sandy and very bad and leaves the river. Wed hoped to reach camp by lunchtime but the poor surface impedes progress, and we stop in the middle of nowhere for an improvised lunch relying on the water we have to hand.
We negotiate the checkpoint (3850m) in the early afternoon and set up camp 1½km above it. A young herder from the farm passes with cows and his donkey, and returns with his donkey and a gift of yoghurty milk, much appreciated by Tracey. We give him some dried fruit in return.
The haze is definitely lessening, but in order to be replaced by cold dark clouds, rain and occasional hail which spoil the next few days. We get some good views of the mountains in the broken cloud during the transition.
Notes: there is no water for the last 10-15km to the checkpoint.
At Khargush the grass margin by the stream is campable for about 6km above the checkpoint. There is a farm at 2km which soldiers from the checkpoint occasionally go to for supplies, so if you camp above the farm you are less likely to receive unwanted visits.
It wasnt until wed returned from our trip that Colin learnt that the Panj was the Oxus of the ancients.