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The Pamir Highway – Learning to love the Stans

The Pamir Highway – Learning to love the Stans

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The Pamir Highway

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan… riding across one of these is an adventure. Riding all of them can be life-changing.

This is the story of my trip through along the Pamir Highway and my encounter with a Kazakh drug dealer. It was runner-up in the Bike Magazine travel writing competition.

Standard for the Stans

Kazakhstan, August.

It wasn’t Igor’s size that made him intimidating, being made more of beer than of muscle. Instead, it was the way every person in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, would bend over backwards to make sure Igor went away happy, even the police.

I guess that’s the level of respect you command when you’re a well-connected crime lord in a remote backwater famous only for Soviet-era nuclear weapons testing.

Igor manhandled a heavy black bag into the back of the 4×4. It was about the size of a human body.

Dave and I exchanged a nervous look. Igor shuffled by in his flipflops, passing our pair of XT600s and what was probably the only BMW HP2 Enduro in Kazakhstan, and rooted around in the cupboards at the back of the garage.

He returned to throw three more items into the car.

A blowtorch. An Axe. A chainsaw.

Was this getting weird or was it our imaginations running wild? Igor’s hospitality and last night’s partying had been epic but what the hell was going on now? I’m sure I’d seen a shovel in the boot before the body bag went in…

Yesterday we’d stood here laughing while Igor showed off on his HP4, popping wheelies past the compound in his customary shorts and vest, but his fearlessness was now causing more concern than amusement.

He motioned for us to get in the car and we obliged, fearing it may be impolite to say “No thanks, we think you’re a criminal”.

He gunned the engine and, as we pulled away, the big iron gates at the rear of the compound automatically closed behind us. At least he hadn’t told us to get in the boot. We turned onto the highway and began heading out of town.

“Massage my head, bitch”. Fortunately this was directed at the beautiful but submissive Yulia who sat behind Igor.

Igor spoke Russian I couldn’t understand, but from his tone that must have been what he’d said. Yulia was girl-next-door pretty, about 20 years old to Igor’s 40-something. Just one more perk of being a drug baron.

Yulia obediently began massaging Igor’s bald head.

We turned off the highway into the car park of a mini-market and stopped near another expensive 4×4. One of Igor’s friends raised a hand in greeting. Igor spoke to him before approaching a kiosk selling un-refrigerated fish under the blazing sun. Something changed hands, and my imagination told me it was drugs. 

Another car with blacked out windows arrived and joined us to form a convoy that sped past the decaying remnants of communist industrialisation and on into the countryside.

Yulia was singing along to the Russian bubble-pop from the radio when Igor suddenly turned off the potholed tarmac and the 4×4 lurched onto a dirt track leading into the woods.

It quickly got dark under the canopy, and any visual link to civilisation was lost. The track became rougher and as we bounced around in the back seat, I looked at Dave, and Dave looked at me, laughing nervously at the turn of events, still not quite sure whether we should be thinking “Oh shit….”

Whatever happened next, I couldn’t regret how I got here.

When I first read Jupiter’s Travels and decided to ride around the world, I  didn’t even have a bike licence. Cue five years of learning to ride, on every terrain.

Now in the second month of riding all day, being on the bike felt natural, like standing on my own legs. I knew every vibration.

It was my home, my transport, my life support. It was everything I owned, and it was giving me this experience of a lifetime.

I remembered three weeks earlier, when we’d been in Kyrgyzstan, camping in a grassy area with views across the river valley.

Pasta for dinner, this time with wine, the first since Georgia. It was Angelina Jolie wine. It was disgusting. Thick, sweet and dark red, with Angelia’s face on the label, and a claim of 17% alcohol on the back.

All the wine round here had celebrities on the labels. Eva Longoria, Jessica Alba. I suspect it wasn’t an official endorsement…

Thunder made us retreat to the familiar comfort of our tents, to watch rain and lightning across the wild landscape with a plastic cup of wine and a bar of weird tasting Uzbek chocolate.

In the darkness, a horseman and his herd of horses came by, paused for a while, then whooped and yelled before galloping off. His shouts and the ghostly shadows of his horses were quite spooky and another reminder that we were now in a very different culture. 

The roads in Kyrgyzstan were as stunning as the un-spoilt countryside. The most fun I’d ever had on a bike came when we rode up a mountain pass like the Stelvio on dirt.

At the summit, as I sat disassembling Dave’s carburetor again, parts spread out over a plastic hi-viz survival bag, a solitary eagle swooped and called overhead.

A thousand miles later and we arrived in Semey, our last stop before Russia, and a place we feared we might never escape.

Full of mismatched buildings in a worse state of decay than the roads leading there, it was grimy and Soviet. Smoke billows from industrial units that look like prisons and an acrid smell fills the air, but fortunately there are wide highways cutting across the dystopian horror, if you can avoid the aggressive drivers.

We’d planned to find a hotel, but in a quick roadside conference we agreed to just get the hell out and camp. Thirty seconds after setting off, we saw a hotel sign on the roof of a building that looked so new we changed plans again, and pulled up at some tall iron gates.

I pushed the button on the intercom. Nothing. Then an old woman appeared. Short and fat, with an apron and a headscarf, she carried a sweeping brush made from twigs. She said something in Russian, to which we offered our default reply: “English?”

“What you want?” It was more like telling us to get lost.

“Hotel?” I suggested.

“What you want?”

She waved us away with her sweeping brush.

Just then Igor and Yulia arrived in a Landcruiser, the gates opened, and Igor gestured for us to come into the compound.

Igor didn’t speak English but gave us a tour, showing off his BMW HP2 in the garage.

The place seemed brand new, the rooms looked like they’d never been used. Upstairs there was a bar, a billiards table, a sound system and a massive home cinema screen on the wall. We realised that this wasn’t a hotel, it was Igor’s party pad, and a front for something a little less honest.

The luxury of the place was very welcome. We weren’t just given cold beers, but shown where the fridge was so we could help ourselves, and the beautiful Yulia sat with us and used her laptop as translator.

That evening, Igor put on a party for us, with Yulia and an assortment of friends.

We were treated to pizza, vodka and beer in a room that was labelled “restaurant” but was clearly just the place Igor did his entertaining.

And probably his dealing. Igor showed his motocross photos, we showed our trip photos. The vodka flowed freely, each glass downed after a toast.

Music played, we shared a shisha pipe, the laughter was continuous. After a while the vodka became too much for me, but our hosts had only just started and carried on into the early morning.

The next day we found ourselves hurtling out into the countryside down dirt roads through fields and forests, stomachs churning from the excesses of the previous night, minds racing with paranoid expectations.

We arrived at a river and started to realise that we weren’t being brought to the slaughter, but to a picnic. This was not normal behaviour for a hotel owner towards his guests, but was somehow “standard for the Stans”. Still, I kept a close eye on Igor as he pulled the chainsaw out of the car.

When the chainsaw burst into life, the people at the next clearing glared over to see who the hell was disturbing the peace, but quickly sat down when they saw Igor.

The axe, chainsaw and blowtorch were used to cut down a tree and start a fire on which to roast chicken for our picnic. That’s just how they do things in Semey.

Dave and I could only laugh when Igor opened up the “body bag” and produced an inflatable boat with outboard motor.

Cue an afternoon messing about on the river, beer glass constantly refilled, our host thrusting food into our hands. Igor always seemed to have a litre can of Baltika in his hand, and the pile of empties grew rapidly.

We feasted on chicken, all the while trying not to let Igor catch us admiring Yulia’s perky, ahem, “personality”.

The further you get from home, the friendlier people are. You set off with suspicion but as you travel you come to understand that most people want to make friends.

Tajik children will run across fields to say hello. Hotel owners will invite you to park in their lobbies. Parties will be laid on. Russian farmers will give you bread instead of kicking you off their land. People will go out of their way to help you, and you have to be open to it.

Soon we’d be in Mongolia, then Siberia.

We were having the time of our lives.

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