RTWPaul: Bartang Valley, Tajikistan…Do You Have Enough Fuel?

As we pull into the fuel station in Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan, a man comes from behind a door, looks our bikes up and down and states one word, “Bartang?”

We nod and he hands us the nozzle to fill our tanks, as we are doing so, he’s circling us looking very closely at our bikes, and more specifically the tanks. 

When we are done, he takes the nozzle, puts it back in place, and then comes over to my bike and pats my 27-liter tank on my KTM that has grown over time to about 30 liters, he smiles and gives me a thumbs up. He turns to look at Dave XT660Z, then looks back towards me and makes a hand gesture that I take as ‘maybe’!

We pay for the fuel and head for the border some 40 km away, exiting Kyrgyzstan is a quick and easy affair and the officer speaks a little English which makes the process happen efficiently.

We wander outside with our exit stamps in our passports in place, and he follows us to the door, he asks “Bartang?” We both nod, he points at my bike and nods reassuringly and says “lots of fuel, good.” Then gives me a thumbs up, but looking at Dave’s bike he makes the same hand gesture, we again we both take to mean ‘maybe’!

Smiling, “No problem, Karakul, home stay, and benzine, good!” He goes back inside.

Before we put our helmets on, we both agree that because I have a translucent tank and you can see the fuel moving it makes it appear, which it is of course, I have a lot more fuel that the XT, and the reassurance that the next town just 50km away has a fuel station…how wrong we could be.

A few km’s later after riding through no-man’s land between the two countries we at the Tajikistan border post. It feels like the remotest place on earth and as we take our helmets off it begins to snow, it’s August 14th, we are at 4200 meters.

We are welcomed inside to do paperwork, a little laughing and joking to get it completed as we have no way of understanding each other, but eventually its completed and we are on our way to Karakul for the night.

With “HOME STAY” painted on the wall it was hard to miss. Shown to a yurt where we’ll sleep for the night and informed dinner will be in two hours. A few other motorcycles from Europe are in the parking lot, so we go to find the riders and ask where we can buy fuel.

“I have bad news”, a Belgian rider tells us, “it seems there is one man in town who sells the fuel from his house, two days ago someone came through here and bought every single drop he had. 

He hasn’t had a chance to go and get anymore, and probably won’t go for a few days because snow is expected tonight, sorry! If I can tell you anything positive its mostly downhill from here, you should be ok to reach the new gas station at the other end in Rushan.”

The Belgian was headed to Kyrgyzstan and hoping he had enough to make it Sary Tash where we’d filled up earlier.

In the morning we were greeted by snow, but everybody assured us we’d be complaining of the heat by late afternoon.

We headed out with 100km ridden so far from the last fill up, time to forget about that and enjoy the ride.

Initially once you take the turn to the Bartang Valley after a small water crossing you are just riding flat land in the valley between the mountains, it’s very scenic and luckily we had a tailwind most of the day.

As we started to descend in altitude we had to stop for a while to let a mixed heard of goats and sheep pass by us on the track. The Shepard offered to cut up a lamb for us so we would have meat for our journey, we declined the kind offer.

Dropping down to the Bartang Valley floor and its expansive views we spotted a small settlement, not holding out too much hope we still asked for fuel but there was none. 

From here the riding became a lot more interesting, the track was rougher and before long we had arrived at a massive landslide about 2-3 meters high across the track. We had heard about it and been told to divert down towards the river at the bottom and there was a way through.

The track was reasonably easy in most areas, the views incredible and not a soul in sight anywhere.

Eventually coming to another settlement of a few buildings called Gudara we were welcomed by a few kids running up to us to give us high fives as we rode past. In the doorway of one of the buildings a man stood waving, so we approached.

He greeted us, and said “speak English?” We both nodded and with that he gestured for us to stay put and he ran off. A few minutes later he returned with a few other men and one was an English teacher, a local Tajik or as he described himself ‘Pamierie’. 

“I am a teacher, I go from school to school to teach a few words of English to the local kids, this month I am in the Bartang Valley. We are from Pamir, this area, and all the people here in this part of Tajikistan and on the other side of the river in Afghanistan call themselves Pamirie” 

“Is there anything I can help you with or translate for you?”

Not to miss an opportunity to maybe get some good information, our obvious answer was “do you have any benzine here?”

“No, sorry they don’t, but when you reach a little settlement below Sarez Lake I have a friend there who has a vehicle, and he will have some for you.”

We breathed a sigh of relief and he could tell, “now come and meet my friend’s children so they can speak to you…in English!”

The first man we’d met shouted something neither of us understood and a door opened and child after child came out, every single one of them said, “hello, how are you? My name is…”

That was about the extent of their skills but the boys pointed to the bikes and smiled, so we made their day, and probably their month and let them sit on the bikes and rev the engines.

As is customary in these parts, we were offered tea and while we sat and drank one of the men sat and played an instrument for us.

We bid our farewells, the teacher told us a good place to stay in another little village called Savnob was not too far away, if we didn’t want to camp as it looked like rain was coming.

“There is a lady there who has a home stay and a man in the village who speaks better English than me.”

An hour or so later we pulled into the village and again we were warmly greeted by a lady holding her baby and a man approached us asking if we wanted a place to stay. He pointed, “this lady can offer you a room for the night, its free, but maybe you can give her something…I’ll let you decide what that is, and she will feed you too.”

The village was very quiet, we were told there was a wedding happening, I wished we could have gone, but were told it was a very private affair.

The views from the village towards Afghanistan were nothing short of spectacular and the following day we would be very close to the border. Today’s ride from Karakul to this point was around 165km and 265km since we had filled up.

I didn’t have a fuel gauge but could see my fuel level and I was more than half full, according to my GPS there was maybe 150k or so to go. My fears and concerns were gone about finding fuel when the English-speaking man told us the fuel station was open all the time and never ran out.

Dave on the other hand didn’t look so settled, “I’m on one bar, and I’ve been there for a while!”

In the morning the man came back to make sure we were ok and pointed us in a direction that disagreed with our route on the map. 

“There has been a minor landslide that way but if you go up there you can get around it”, and he pointed upwards to a very steep track looking like it ended in the clouds.

He moved his hand like revving a throttle and then holding it wide open and laughed. We took his advice and the day started with a hill climb, a very steep one, and in minutes  we were high up looking down at Savnob.

In the late morning once again, we met another local speaking English who was a guide for Sarez Lake, by coincidence it was her father who owned the vehicle we had heard about, but he wasn’t here and wouldn’t be back for a month.

“…but maybe we have some spare fuel.” Dave smiled and they went off together, returning a few minutes later with maybe 5-7 liters, enough to get him to Rushan.

Not long after on a section of the track there was a big blue sign that for some reason, we both read as ‘ROAD CLOSED’ but we carried on and the track went into the river for a short while but nothing to be concerned about. We found out later is basically meant ‘road damaged.’

Afghanistan and its Pamir mountain range were directly in front of us as we rode to the end of the Bartang Valley Road, the track had become much easier now and before long there were sections of paved road, then an intersection with a stop sign. All of a sudden, we had reentered the 21st century and in the distance a fuel station.

We filled up; I could see I still had a few liters left in my tank, but Dave was riding on fumes and put 22.8 liters in his 23-liter tank. It was 397km from fuel station to fuel station.

We grabbed a cold drink and watched the local kids playing soccer with Afghanistan in the background across the river and talked about adventures to come.

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