I decide to ride the tire as is to the next village, hoping they have some sort of tire shop for a repair. My plan is to pull the tire, stitch up the tear to keep it from spreading and patch the inside sidewall. I’m fairly certain it’ll work and worse case scenario, the tire would be stitched and I can use my tube without risking another puncture.
The next village is about 150km up the Pamir Highway on the same busted up paved surface. I stop several times on the route to check the tire condition and see that it isn’t getting any worse and still holding air. I pull into the town around 10 and find a guy who patches tires. I let him know my plan and I get a firm “no” from him. I go through a couple different translations to make sure I’m communicating properly and the response always comes back the same. He is unwilling to help as he doesn’t think the repair will work. During the conversation, I come to understand there is another person in town with a tire machine, so I search him out and go through the same motions. At this point, a man comes up who speaks English and helps with the translations. Unfortunately this doesn’t help, the language barrier wasn’t broke – he doesn’t think the repair will work and is unwilling to do it. What I get out of the conversation – is that if its already lasted 150km and hasn’t broke, it will be fine. Basically – “if its not broke, don’t fix it”. I was going for more of the preventative maintenance route, but if they’re not willing to patch the tire after I stitch it, I’m SOL.
I let the English speaking man know where I’m headed (Bartang Route) and was looking for a little info. He states he’s been through the route 3 times this year in his car, the road is in good condition and is about 150km to the next village for fuel. I’m a little surprised he’s been up it 3 times, as from everything I’ve read, its kind of a superhero cycle ride. Maybe there’s been some maintenance over the last couple years?
The route begins with a meandering road up through small villages in the bottom a canyon. As usual, all the village kids come out to the road to wave and hopefully get a high five as I drive by. About 50km into the route, I meet a German couple who is volunteering their Dr. time in a small village; the lady gives me a disapproving look when I tell her where I’m headed, and all she says is that “it isn’t a road”. Ok, so maybe the route does live up to it’s superhero status? Two very conflicting reports.
Not long after the meeting, the wide dirt track narrows up to what isn’t much wider than a small car (or UAZ van – think old VW mini van with 4×4) and drops into a very narrow canyon with a large river at the bottom. The canyon walls are vertical for the most part, with some areas having a slight incline. The downhill side of the track is the same, with an “off” being certain death in some parts and best case scenario in others being the loss of the bike.. I decide to ride the uphill side of the two track as it leaves a little room for error. I continue on this way for another 40k or so, gripped, but in control and enjoying the focus the ride brings.
At some point, I came around a blind corner, still in the uphill track and I feel a massive smash on uphill side the bike and in an instant and completely disoriented and the only thing that goes through my mind is, “this is it, the bike is going to shoot off the bank and into the river – I need to jump off the right side or I’m going to die”. As all of this happens in a split second; the smash on the side of the bike, the bike shooting toward the river, and me throwing myself off the bike on the uphill side. I remember holding onto the bike for a second or two, hoping I may pull it over before it flies off the cliff bank and into the river. There must be a few seconds of memory lapse, because the next thing I remember was getting up and frantically looking for the bike. I see just the rear wheel off the cliff bank and run over to see what’s happened. The bike has somehow miraculously stopped on a pile of rocks just off the side of the track and didn’t flip down the bank into the water below. Literally, less than an inch more and I would’ve lost the bike for sure into the raging glacial river. I look back and see one of my side panniers lying on the ground along with a very large rock. I’m guessing the rock was sticking out of the uphill bank and I caught my right side pannier on it, which caused it to rip off and simultaneously for me to lose control.
I have a good self-recovery kit with me in one of my panniers and quickly open up the ripped off pannier hoping it in there. I luck out again and find my recovery kit. I double I would’ve been able to get my other pannier off the bike without dislodging the machine from its precarious perch. I quickly establish an anchor point in the rocks above and tie off the machine. Now what to do…. ? There isn’t anyone around, and I haven’t passed a car for 75km. My only two options are to leave the bike as is and wait for someone to come along who can help, which could be days; or to try and self recover the bike, which if I make an error, the situation could go from bad to worse and I could lose the bike. I access the situation for a good 20 minutes and come up with a plan for self-recovery.
I’ll need to set up a pully and lower the bike off its current position, further down the bank to a larger rock. From there, I will set up another anchor point and connect my winch and pull the bike forward. After some rigging and re-rigging, I grab my rope and simultaneously start pulling with the winch, after ½” of movement, the rear come free and I’m holding the bike in mid air. My anchor is holding and my pully system is working as planned (keep in mind, the bike weighs around 600 lbs). I lower the bike down and it’s now resting firmly on its side lower down the bank. I start up the winch and quickly find out it isn’t powerful enough to pull the bike up the almost vertical bank. I decide to re-rig the winch with a pully system as well, to increase the pulling power. Another attempt and I’m now having some success. Understanding the consequences of the situation, whether it be a miscalculation on my part, the winch line breaking, or my anchor pulling loose all means that I lose the bike; I proceed inch by inch moving the bike up the bank.
After some winching, re adjusting, winching, re adjusting, I crest the bank and get the bike back onto the track. Wow, I’ve done it! I give the bike a quick once over and see there is no major (un-rideable) damage. I pack up and with some very shaky legs continue up the track.
Within a half-hour, a warning light on my dash comes on showing “low pressure – rear tire”. I get off and take a look and see a small gash on the rear; shit, I’ve now punctured my rear tire and am losing air quite quickly. I pull over at the next semi flat spot (which are few and far between in this steep river valley) to set up camp and work on the necessary repairs. While walking around looking for the best location for my tent, I see a small gravestone, then another, and another. I’ve pulled over at a rudimentary cemetery. Could my day be going any worse? Not having much of an option and hoping the spirits don’t hassle me, I decide to set up camp with the deceased. What a weird parallel to the end of the day – I’ll be sleeping in the spirit world.
I eat, crawl into my bag and lay there taking personal inventory of the day and reflecting on all of the different outcomes that could have happened. All in all, my worst fear was almost realized and luckily, every best possible outcome came through. Now….about proceeding tomorrow with two questionable tires and an increasingly difficult and remote track.
The start of Bartang Valley