Welcome to Freewheeling across the Himalayas

Le voyage est un retour vers l'essentiel (proverbe tibetain)


My name is Celine Soulard and on July 2010 I will embark on a 7 month cycling journey from Tajikistan to Nepal. This adventure will take me to some of the most challenging and beautiful roads in the world. I am also undertaking this journey to raise funds for the Mary A. Tidlund Charitable Foundation in support of the Ladakh Project (Health inc). I encourage you to subscribe to my blog to follow me in this great adventure. I will share with you in this blog stories and photos on a regular basis and hope to inspire you to contribute to the Ladakh Project.

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August 24, 2010

Brinji, Naan and chai (rice, bread and tea) – An Afghan adventure

While cycling along the river Panj on the Tajik side for seversal days we were very attracted to visit the Afghan side. This part of Afghanistan is the Wakhan corridor and so far has been a part of Afghanistan that is safe to visit. Pierre had with him the Aga Khan foundation trekking brochure and also the Russian topo maps of the area. It was very helpful to plan our trip to the Afghan Wakhan. While I was planning my himalayan journey I had in the back of my mind to visit the Afghan side of the Wakhan but I didn't want to make a decision until I was here and had local information and also I didn't want to "alarm" friends and family on a potential visit to Afghanistan!

One of many "wet" passage! (photo: Pierre Payet-Burin)

Learning Wakhi word for "teeth" with the locals (photo: Pierre Payet-Burin)

River crossing - Afghan trekking (photo: Pierre Payet-Burin)

With the situation in the rest of Afghanistan there are very few people who visit the Wakhan corridor and also it is a very difficult road and one need permits. It was the highlight of my journey so far. It was a fantastic experience. These days it is difficult to go places where there isn't too many tourists. Tajikistan doesn't have a lot but I think the Afghan side of the Wakhan gets at the most 50 travellers a year and of course maybe only a couple on bicycle if any!! Most cyclists stay on the Tajik side. There are some fantastic treks to be done in the area with amazing view of the famous Hindu Kush mountains (border between Afghanistan and Pakistan). Given our Tajik visa expiry date we could only do a 4 days trek but I have my mind set on a 25 days trip for the future. This would be done with donkeys (easy to buy one here!)and also done in August-September. In July the water level of certain rivers is very high. Now that I know my way around I hope to have the opportunity to come back.

Afghan Village scenery
The first step to go to Afghanistan is to get a visa! This was an easy task done in Khorog. It cost $50 and takes about half day for a 30 days visa. With our Afghan visa on hand we left Khorog for Ishkashim a two days bike ride where we will cross over to Sultan Ishkashim, Afghanistan. From there the plan is to hire a jeep to get to Wazit(140km) where we will do a 4 days backpacking trip and then bike back to Sultan Ishkashim and back to Tajikistan to continue our cycling adventure from the Wakhan to the Pamirs mountains. After couple days of rest in Khorog doing laundry, bike maintenance, blog update it was nice to get back on the road again.

Getting Permits - a bit of a painful process. All done manually!

We were all very excited about our coming trip to Afghanistan. On the way to Ishkashim we had the absolute worst mouton soup so far in Tajikistan. The lady said that mouton soup was very good for the joint...I smiled and thought that I would rather suffer joint pain than eat that soup! Most of the time mouton soup has a "strong" taste but I can manage (hungry cyclist can eat almost anything) but that one was truly repulsive! The border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan doesn't have a lot of traffic. Maybe few vehicles per day except on Saturday where there is a Market in the "no man's land" between both countries. Apparently this is where the Opium deals between the Afghan and Tajiks are negociated! It was pouring rain when we arrived at the bridge and we had to wait for half hour before the armed guards were given the order to let us go to the immigration office. It is a small wooden building with couple desks and chair. Everything is done by hand. They checked our bags, passeport, wrote everything down on a big book and finally stamped our Tajik visa with the exit date. On the Afghan side same scenario. Things went pretty smoothly except for the immigration officer asking all of us if we had "gift" for him!! Unfortunately all he got is my travelling post card. I don't think he was too impressed!! As soon as we crossed the border someone came to us and tried to get us to pay for "bike permits" we knew about the scam so we just ignored that person and kept on cycling to Sultan Ishkashim under the rain. The road was in terrible condition and the sand just about ate my break pads in about 7 km of riding. We arrived in Sultan Ishkashim late afternoon and as we cross town to go to the guest house I immediately notice the total absence of women. Of course everyone was looking at us but in a friendly manner. As soon as we got to the guest house we were well taking care of and few minutes later a English speaking man named Wafi came to let us know that he would "help" us to get our permits to travel the Wakhan corridor but that tomorrow being Friday (day of rest in Muslim country) we would have to wait until Saturday. We all had the same feeling about him. We didn't like the man's face at all. Later that day we took a stroll in town and found someone else to help with the permits for a lesser cost and ditched Wafi!

Shop Keeper Sultan Ishkashim

Center street - Sultan Ishkashim

Not sure what is in the bag but it is VERY heavy

That night we went out to one of the two restaurants in town. Of course Anne and I were the only women in there but we felt welcome even though we could obviously feel the constant stare at us. In Afghanistan I wore a scarf over my head and long sleeve which was more than enough. The food was great at the restaurant. Rice with raisin, bread and of course tons of Chai tea. This was going to be pretty much out diet in Afghanistan for the next 12 days with yogurt from time to time.

Daily scene in Sultan Ishkashim - everyone is friendly

The next day was spent the day in town. It was amazing. Men were very friendly and I soon find out that Afghan people love to have their picture taken (women are more reserved though). This came to me as a bit of a surprise. In most of the country I have travelled photographing people is always tricky and I always ask permission before but in Afghanistan some people were asking to have their pictures taken!!! I was glad I had bought a nice 50mm 1.4 for this trip. Only one problem, they don't smile while I photograph them. I am not sure why. They laugh and smile before and after but as soon as the camera is pointed at them they are very serious. In few occasion some people took photos of us with their cell phone. That was cool to share! During my time downtown I only saw few women and they all were wearing burkas. Most women wear their burka to come downtown but when they return home as soon as they are out of downtown they remove them. In smaller villages we didn't see any women wearing burkas. All shop keeper are men. I sat with the carpet shop owner and had tea for a while trying to communicate. Now that we have some basic Tajik vocabulary I need to start from scratch and learn some Farsi...the most important sentence is "Farsi no me famam" (I don't speak Farsi!!!). We resolved the language issue that night while having dinner. We arrived at the other restaurant in town a French fries restaurant and since the place was full the owner directed us to an adjacent shop. I was disappointed thinking we were going to be "alone" to eat dinner....15 minutes later a bunch of locals came and sat with us and took care of giving us "Farsi 101 crash course" it was so much fun and very useful for the rest of our time in Afghanistan. I found most Afghanis are very eager to talk to us and welcome us in their country. Later that day I took my bike in town to go buy some scarfs and as soon as I stopped to visit a shop 30 people gathered around my bike but no one would touch anything. Afghanistan felt VERY safe to me. When I came back they were all smiling and talking about the bike (and probably saying that one need to be crazy to bike here!!). The very few person with basic English would spontaneously come to talk. It was great. After half day in the country I felt very comfortable. One young boy with some English came to talk and explain he had just been on a 6 hours car ride to come to Sultan Ishkshem to get some photocopies done because it wasn't possible in his village...luckily there is two places to make copies in town. One was close because the generator wasn't working and the other one was open!

Ladybug(bike) attracting the crowd!

Women wearing burka in Sultan Ishkashim

Buying bread

Woodworking shop - Sultan Ishkashim

Better mean of transportation than bicycle in Wakhan
The guest house we stayed at as adjacent to the Central Asia Institute office. The CAI was founded by Greg Mortenson this American climber who after a failed attempt to climb K2 in Pakistan spent the last couple decades working with communities to built school in Pakistan and in the Wakhan corridor on the Afghanistan side. If some of you haven't had the chance to read his book "Three cups of tea" I strongly recommend it. Along the Wakhan corridor we saw many of the CAI school. Without the work of the CAI most children would not have access to education. While waiting for our jeep I had a chat with Sarfraz Khan who is the operation director of CAI for the Wakhan region.

Wakhan valley kids

To go trekking in the Wakhan we needed a permit and a letter for the checkpoints along the way. In theory the permit is "free". It is provided by the ministry of tourist but the way to get it is to basically hire a middle man (translator) to take us to the 3 or 4 offices...tourist office, tourist office chief, police, area officer (not sure about that guy's title!!), etc....that process took half a day and one of the police officer had a big argument with our middle man because we didn't hire Wafi (he more than likely get a cut on Wafi's client)....we were a little worried that we were not going to get the letters but in end everything worked out. So finally we were all ready to go Saturday at noon so we had a Jeep in which we crammed 4 bikes and all the gears. First I noticed the completely worned out front tires. The driver accepted to change the tires before we go. Needless to say it was full and even more when we realized that the driver was also taking an extra passenger (a kid from his village)!!! At some point on the road he also took some extra stuff to deliver to other village (political posters, boxes of soap, mail, etc)....the road to go to Wazit where we start our trek is about 140 km but with the road condition and the wait at the checkpoint it took us one day and half to get there. YES 1.5 day to go 100km!!!! The first day we only made 20 km. Given the water level some of the river crossing can only be done in the morning so the first night was spent in the family of the driver in Kazideh. At first annoying not to be able to go directly to Wazit it turned out to be an incredible experience. Anne and I were taken to the women area of the house and had the chance to spend great time with the women, taking pictures, picking up fresh apricots and laughing trying to understand each other. We also learned that there is no official mail system in the Wakhan. Mail is delivered by the few drivers going back and forth on the road.

Having fun with our great host (driver's mother) (photo: Pierre Payet-Burin)

The next day we made it to Wazit. One of the checkpoint took almost two hours. We sat on the floor in some guy's office and Anne and I fell asleep while waiting...it took him forever to write us the letter for the next checkpoint! At some point he was talking to our driver and the words "Pakistan, Al-Qaida, Taliban, Baroghill" caught our attention!!! We think he was worried that we might have the intention to try to get to Pakistan since we didn't have an official guide and was concern about letting tourists roam around....this is pure speculation but it sure woke us up and got our attention!!! The Baroghil Pass(trail) is a way to enter Pakistan but we were still far from it. Locals travel through this pass but this is not possible for foreigners.

In Wazit we left all our cycling gears at the guest house to switch for our trekking gears and off to the mountains we go...finally! First we had to cross a river. We were helped by some locals. The water coming down from the glaciers is very cold and most crossings were tigh deep with strong current. We had to be very careful not to get camera and down gears wet! It was nice to do something different than cycling after almost one month on the bike. We climbed up to 3800 meters to sleep the first night. The next day we reach the Wazit Pass at 4600m. We all suffered from mild altitude sickness but we got down at 4000m to sleep. Views were stunning and as we got at higher elevation we had a great views of the Hindu Kush range. One the way to the first pass we were greeted by couple family of Wakhis herders living below the pass for the summer. We spent few hours with them. It was a great experience. Lots of fun and laughs as they milked their goats. The next day we were invited for Chai a couple more times. One of the group werecliving in Yurts. Trekking is great because all of itcis above treeline, not much to worry about in terms of animal and the views are amazing. Basically the trail are herders trails on the edge of the mountains. In the Wakhan corridor people speak Wakhi which is different than Farsi so we had to "learn" a third language in only few weeks! That is a lot. Ricky worked really hard on learning the language and he almost became our "translator"! He has a very strong natural talent to communicate with people. We were 4 of us still and we had a great time on the trek....just too short!!

On the way to Wazit

Trekking - day 1climbing up a canyon
Wakhis herders living in yurts forthe summer
Having lunch with locals herders
Pierre taking pictures
Nice views of the Hindu Kush
Kids on a Yak

4 days later we were back to Wazit and converted to cyclist one more time. We knew that the road back to Sultan Ishkashim was going to be VERY challenging with the bike as we drove it already. Basically it is more a mountain bike road than touring bike road. Major river crossing, sand, mud, section of big rocks etc. We managed to ride about 30km for the first two days! I was very worried to break my rack of bike frame but the Ladybug hold it very well. My brake pads were almost totally destroyed but that is fine. It was pretty hard going with the loaded bikes. For the river crossing we had to carry the luggage (couple of tripss) then the bike. We were lucky to be with Pierre and Ricky who helped a lot with river crossing. But even with the difficult biking condition we were still happy and it fell like a privilege to be there. It was great to bike the Wakhan road. It was a great opportunity to meet with the locals along the way. One morning I was ahead of Pierre and Anne and few kids started to run along my bike so I slow down and we all giggle. Then we picked up more kids. By the time we arrived to the village I had 20 kids running on both side of my bike. I stopped for few minutes at the school for the usual greeting to the English teacher. Later that day I was riding on my own and met two women walking with a scarf full of apricots on their head. They were very nice. We stopped, sat on the side of the road, ate apricots together, exchange few words and lots of smiles. These are the moments I really enjoy and travelling on the bike allow these spontaneous moments to happen. I really wish I could speak a little more Wakhi or Farsi.

Pierre going over a landslide

Kala-i-Panja fort
Keen sandales - great for mud riding!
Sand riding!

These moments would not be possible if I was travelling in a jeep or if I was part of a group. I have never had any desire to travel in organized group and I don't think I will ever do. Along the road women work in the fields. They are all dressed with colourful dress and scarf. Everything is done manually and donkey are used to transport the crops and all goods (flour, etc). Each day we meet men with their loaded donkeys. The road is a lot more appropriate for donkeys than bicycles! Maybe next time I visit the Wakhan I could buy a donkey. They only cost $80!!!

Entiere village came out to visit
Crossing over a bridge under construction with the help of some locals
More water!

On top of the rough road we had the "Afghan wind" for 4 days straight. It is a strong and constant wind coming up the valley. Nothing to help us!! One day we got to a small village at about 6PM and ask if we could find a place to stay. Within minutes we were taken to a house and taken care of. Afghan and Tajik hospitality is phenomenal. That evening we ended up playing volley-ball (with a soccer ball) with the kids of the village and had a great time. It is a lot more fun to stay with family than "official" guest house. Again this is an advantage of cycling, we can stop wherever we want (or whenever we can't push anymore!!!)

Below are few portraits of the wonderful Afghan people we met on the road and during our trek.
Old man in Kazideh
Woman and her son
Young girl from a herders village
Young boy from herders village
Wakhi herder
Inside a herder's yurt
Man and his young son
Young girl herding goats
Beautiful young Afghan girl
Beautiful eyes
Lady who gave me fresh apricots
Woman with amazing eyes

We finally made it back to Sultan Ishkashim and worked really hard all day to try to cross toTajikistan that day but the border close at 4PM and we arrived in town at 4:15 so we had to spent one more night in Sultan Ishkashim. While going back to the Guest House we met Willi from Switzerland who works in Kabul so that night we share dinner with him and it was very interesting to hear him talking about life in Kabul. Back in Tajikistan we took half a day to clean and fix our bikes and of course enjoy a hot shower (very rare in this part of the world!)

The next 5 days will be spent cycling the Wakhan but this time on the Tajik side and climb the Kargush Pass to finally reach the Pamir Highway and the Pamir high altitude plateau. I really hope you will enjoy this update and that it will inspire you to consider a contribution to the

Ladakh Project. Leh and Kashmir has recently been hit by big flood. I have received news that Cynthia was ok but there are lots of damage in the area so your support is even more important now given the situation. I will forward more information on the situation in Ladakh later.

Thanks for your support


Note: All pictures can be seen on my flickr stream (link below). Only few selected photos were included in the Blog. To view photos select "slide show".


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