In this feature story, originally released in the first issue of our printed publication, The Bikepacking Journal, Steve Fassbinder pedals and packrafts his way across Tajikistan in search of a better understanding of freedom. Read on for his story of traversing spectacularly rugged landscapes, connecting with local people, and finding a renewed faith in humanity…
This story originally appeared in the first issue of The Bikepacking Journal, our biannually printed publication, in October 2018. To read more stories like this one – in the full glory of print – join our Bikepacking Collective. We need your support. By doing so, you’ll receive two beautiful journals packed with the best bikepacking stories and photography from around the world delivered to your doorstep each year.
August 1, 2018—I found myself alone in an abandoned mud hut on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. I was only three days into my nearly month-long bikerafting tour, and I had already shit my pants as many times. Soiling my only chamois was the final straw, causing me to “swallow the bomb” and begin a course of parasite-killing antibiotics called Azithromycin. To say I hadn’t yet hit my stride in Tajikistan would be a gross understatement.
Something about setting out on a solo bike trip has kept me at it since the days when Mom said I just needed to be home by dark. Back then, the neighborhood was mine to roam. If memory serves correctly, I experienced my first taste of something like freedom shortly after the training wheels came off. I pushed the boundaries of this newfound gift by learning to ride no-handed, then found the edge by trying to ride down a hill near home with my eyes closed. That one didn’t end well.
I covered longer distances as I grew older. I eventually got a 10-speed that I would ride like a hellion into town to spend my piggy bank on candy. From there I’d pedal out to a quiet lake, climb a special tree that overhung the water, and chow down on my sugary loot. It was on one of those solo candy romps that a bald eagle landed on an adjacent branch, completely unaware of my presence, and began devouring its own fishy catch. The piercing look it gave me as it calmly dropped off the branch and opened its six-foot wingspan, swooping gracefully away, spoke volumes about solitude and silence. I cherish the moments when I’m caught off guard by nature. Over the years I’ve been lucky to experience more than a few of them.
I haven’t always ridden alone. I’ve been blessed with lots of great riding partners. But many of my most memorable and influential trips have been without companions. I think this has to do with the heightened awareness required to keep myself safe in the backcountry without a partner to rely on. When I’m on my own, there’s no back and forth. It’s just me and my head and the junk that may be getting in the way. Solo trips have a way of clearing all that mental static, allowing me to fully experience and appreciate primal needs like food, shelter, and rest. It’s alone that I’ve found the clarity and raw experiences that I’m compelled to seek out now and again. And that’s how I ended up shivering and sweating in a little mud hut on the edge of the Wakhan Corridor, feeling like a snake shedding its skin.
Tajikistan is a culturally diverse country with a complicated history and a very young government. Crime is low, but corruption runs rampant. I was traveling mainly in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, GBAO for short. This heavily mountainous and sparsely populated region makes up 45% of Tajikistan’s overall land area but is home to only 2.5% of its citizens. Life in the GBAO is very basic, with little reliable electricity, rough roads, and only two disparate urban areas. The people there live mostly subsistence lifestyles. Despite having very little, their custom of being gracious hosts to foreign travelers is widely known.
People in the GBAO commonly speak five languages, none of which I have any grasp on. I had to resort to hand motions for most of my interactions. One gesture that we regularly used was the international sign for tea. It looks like someone drinking an invisible cup of tea by delicately lifting the cup repeatedly to their mouth by its little handle. But chai means so much more than just tea in Tajikistan. Children and adults alike would pop out of any structure that I passed, shouting “Chai, chai, chai!” to invite me in for tea, which always included a mix of bread, fresh yak’s milk, yogurt, butter, and an insistence that I get some rest or stay with them for the night. This overwhelming kindness, without any expectation of payment, took some time to get used to. Fortunately, I had heard about Tajik hospitality prior to my departure and came prepared with my own gifts to share.
In addition to my standard digital photography kit, I packed an instant film camera so that I could give little portraits to the people I met along the way. I didn’t realize how much joy these tiny portraits would generate until I started handing them out. At first I hesitated to use the instant camera because I had no idea how to tell people that I wanted to give them a picture that would magically pop out of this little plastic thing. But hand signs seemed to work fine, and before long I got more comfortable using the camera.
I could see on my maps that the Alichur River dropped about 25 feet per mile, which for a small, clear flowing river in a relatively open valley would be a pretty safe bet for paddling with a bike. Although I found the river and its small rapids to be fast at times, nothing was too rowdy. But my attention ticked up as I rounded each blind corner, and I constantly scanned the horizon for day-wrecking obstacles like barbed wire and low, rusty bridges. By late afternoon the temps were cool enough, and a small road ran alongside the river, so I got back on my bike, my wet clothes drying quickly as I rode toward Yashikul Lake and the terminus of the Alichur River. The dusty track soon turned into a sandy mess, and I was forced to push across a short no man’s land.
Before long, I needed to use the boat once more to cross the Alichur River delta. Just as I pushed my bike across the last of the sand bars and stopped to set up the packraft, several military vehicles crested the hill on the opposite side and swiftly descended the track, deploying about 20 young men who came rushing to the river’s edge. Three guys jumped into a little boat on the shore and began vigorously paddling out toward me. Well, I’m fucked was all I could think. I tried to act natural and nervously continued blowing up my boat to cross on my own terms. Then I realized they had stopped mid-river and were simply checking their nets and hauling in some pretty sizeable fish. That’s right, 20 guys in humvees and full regalia just to catch dinner.
Relieved, I prepared to blow their minds by paddling my tiny kit across the river and riding away into the sunset. There was much staring and pointing in my general direction as I quickly rigged my bike on the boat and began paddling across the deep channel. Once I reached the shore, the first in command and his second came right up to me, both wanting selfies in the boat. Ice broken! About a week later, I ran into these same young men at a bazaar in Murghab, and they recognized me right away. We shared a strong “this-guy-is-okay” kind of hand shake in front of the local meat-grilling spot. Apparently, freedom can be impressing a group of soldiers with your packraft.
After paddling another remote river near the intersection of the Chinese, Pakistani, and Afghan borders, I ran into two young boys riding donkeys. They changed course to intersect my path as soon as they spotted me, waving vigorously and yelling “stop, stop, stop!” They were stoked to see someone on a bike, and the older boy immediately dismounted and gave me a tiny handmade Tajik flag on a short piece of copper wire. He helped me rig it to my handlebars, where it lived and served as my wind gauge for the remainder of the trip. They called the canyon that I had just exited the Istyk River, and we spent a few minutes racing donkey against bike. They gave me candies, and I gave them magic pictures from my little plastic box. We shared only a few words in common, but our conversation was fully engaging. When it was time to go, they galloped off into the barren landscape as I rode away in the opposite direction.
The rest of my day included too many miles of bad roads, headwinds, and less friendly soldiers blocking me from my intended route. Yet I had this amazing tattered flag and memories of little kids on too-big donkeys riding off into nowhere. The world outside of these tiny interactions has a tendency to harden us, but these young boys had countered it all with a simple gesture. This is what I had come for.
The Pamir Highway, or M41, is the main artery connecting Tajikistan to the rest of Central Asia, and it’s clearly a popular route for bicycle tourists from around the globe. I met many of these dusty riders on the short stretches of the M41 that I traveled. Although the sections I rode were quite nice, they certainly weren’t where I found the solitude and Tajik culture that I’d gone in search of. So instead of riding the Pamir Highway, I chose a lightly traveled route through the Bartang Valley for the last part of my travels back toward the Western Pamirs and my final destination of Kali-I-Khumb. My route crossed beautiful, clear creeks that raged toward the Bartang Valley and the cold, silt-laden waters of the Ghidara, Tanimas, and Kokubibel Rivers.
Not to be outdone by their fellow Tajiks, the people who I met throughout the Bartang Valley were profoundly welcoming. I captured an abundance of portraits along the 150 miles of rough track I rode there. Unlike its dry, barren neighbor, the Western Pamir was lush with fruit-producing trees, and clear, cold water poured out of every tiny fissure in the endlessly fractured mountainsides. I could pick apples and apricots without even getting off my bike.
As trips always do, this one eventually came to an end. Before long I was making my way back toward home. News and work emails started to filter in, and I began to refocus through the lens of fresh travels. I find this transition period to be particularly reflective, as the new experiences I carry with me often challenge my prior notions of what the world back home means to me. On the last day of riding out of the Bartang Valley, I crossed paths with four young riders on an extended tour across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. We finished the day together and spent a wonderful night camped in a yard in Rushan, where we found cold beer and the first wifi in weeks. Sitting in the shade of the local market’s lush garden the next day, we “checked in” over small glasses of beer and copious piles of junk food. It was here that we heard the news of Aretha Franklin’s passing, a true American hero and voice of the people. In perfect ironic serendipity, a track from The Blues Brothers soundtrack was cued up, and we all joined Aretha as she belted out “Freedom” from tiny crackling cell phone speakers.
Countless people asked me why I chose the Pamir Mountains for a bike trip. It’s a spectacularly rugged, harsh, and expansive landscape with few people. Riders tackle high elevations, sparse resources, and relentless wind. My honest answer is that I came for exactly those things. I can’t find the raw, soul-scrubbing experiences from behind the confines of a car’s windshield or while lying on the beach with a beer in my hand. Harsh landscapes are where I prefer to shed my skin and renew my faith in humanity, and the seat of a bike is where I have always found my freedom.
About Steve Fassbinder
Steve (Doom) Fassbinder has a disdain for labels and strong affinity for exploration by bike. Based in Mancos, Colorado, at the foot of Mesa Verde National Park, Steve’s diverse backyard provides the perfect training ground for human-powered adventure and photography. As an early adopter of Alpacka Rafts, he’s pushed the limits of where bikerafting can take you, such as new routes in Tajikistan, Arctic Alaska, and countless places in the Southwest. Find Steve on Instagram @republicofdoom.
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