Editorial Editor I Brice Minnigh Photo EditoR I David Reddick Art Director I Shaun N. Bernadou managing Editor I Nicole Formosa assistant photo Editor I Anthony Smith gear Editor I Ryan Palmer Web editor I Vernon Felton
photography dan milner
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By Brice Minnigh I Photography by Dan Milner There aren’t many places left on the planet that haven’t been explored by bicycle, even if only by an intrepid few. Apart from the polar ice caps and the major shifting-sands deserts, most of the world is accessible by at least some sort of road or doubletrack artery that can be navigated by motorized transport. This is not the case in Afghanistan’s remote Wakhan Corridor—a desolate, high-altitude sliver of nothingness sandwiched in between the world’s highest mountain chains. This inhospitable confluence of desert and glaciers has naturally been cut off from the most basic modern conveniences, with no running water, electricity, roads, motorized vehicles or even bicycles. But what this mountain-choked region lacks in modern conveniences, it more than makes up for in primitive singletrack, with rugged ribbons of trail tying together the corridor’s most distant corners. Honed over the centuries by human feet and the hooves of mules, horses and yaks, these often-treacherous paths have formed the essential lifelines for the weathered nomads who roam this oxygendeprived vastness. As mountain bikers who live to explore the earth by singletrack, it is only natural that we would leap at the chance to ride our bikes in this unique place where tire rubber has never come into contact with dirt. And to be able to join the salt-of-the-earth movie makers from Anthill Films, who were making a documentary-style short film on a worldfirst bike expedition through the Wakhan with Matt Hunter, one of our sport’s most inspired adventurers. Here is our story, in pictures and words.
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After landing in Tajikistan, we began our multi-day road trip from the capital, Dushanbe, to the remote border crossing into Afghanistan. In the valley of Badahkshan, the river makes a natural border between the two countries.
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Lugging our bike boxes and gear from one border checkpoint to the other was a surreal experience—but perhaps not as surreal as the landscapes we were soon to encounter.
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Once on the Afghan side, however, the roads were arduous, the vehicles were unreliable and the river crossings were abundant.
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As one might expect, the combination of steep terrain, rocky trails and lung-busting altitude conspired to keep us off our bikes for many of the biggest climbs. And for the bulk of these efforts— such as Minnigh’s solitary slog here—our bikes were actually riding us.
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River crossings were regular and mandatory realities of our route, with summer snowmelt from the surrounding glaciers transforming into often-raging torrents that could become impassable toward the end of each day, when the afternoon-high temperatures caused the runoff to reach critical mass. Many of these crossings were serious affairs, with the water flow carrying sizeable rocks that periodically landed on the tops of our feet, causing us to temporarily lose our footing. Some of the crossing points were frighteningly close to intersections with major rivers, where falling would mean being swept into angry whitewater that would lead to certain death.
Clockwise from top left: Tom Bodkin, our British ‘handler’ from Secret Compass, forges a smaller stream crossing on his own; high above the river valleys was mile after mile of narrow singletrack.
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Matt Hunter has never been known to pass up an opportunity to milk a descent for speed. And eating his dust was a necessary evil in bone-dry sections of the Wakhan.
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Clockwise from left: Chasing each other on the open plains would always lead to severe shortages of breath; despite a debilitating arm injury, this Wakhi boy easily came to grips with the Sony Action Cam; on the high plateaus of Central Asia and the northern Subcontinent, the mighty yak is the king of beasts—and man’s best friend.
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Where sand and snow mingle: Other-wordly vistas are a dime a dozen amid the Wakhan’s dramatic landscapes. And scree fields of stone slabs couldn’t stop Hunter from enjoying them at speed.
Clockwise from top left: Bridges are few and far between in the Wakhan, but the few that exist are monuments to the make-do-with-what-youhave ingenuity of the Afghan people; constant exposure is the name of the game in the Wakhan’s many gorges; the bounty Hunter.
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For the hardy Wakhi herdsmen, stone structures like these provide shelter from the Wakhan Corridor’s frequent snowstorms; we were thankful for four walls and a fire, yet couldn’t help but feel guilty about the comparative warmth our down puff jackets provided over the textiles worn by the nomads.
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Silhouettes in the sky: As we ventured into elevations well over 16,000 feet above sea level, pushing and carrying our bikes up the steep grades became the only viable options.
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As in many parts of Afghanistan, caves provide a natural base for cooking and sleeping shelters in the Wakhan Corridor.
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Put in our place: The Wakhan’s humbling vastness made us painfully aware that we were insignificant specks of protoplasm awash in a sea of superiority.
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Kyrgyz country: By the time our team had crossed over a series of glacier-covered passes that eventually gave way to the high-altitude grasslands of the Big Pamir, the rustic yurts of the Kyrgyz nomads felt like the luxury of a five-star hotel. Anthill cinematographer Darcy Wittenburg gives his Kyrgyz host a glimpse of the world through his glasses.
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Circular reasoning: Huddling up in a circle is the best way to hammer out the group gameplan; for one of the expedition’s most grueling mountain crossings, we put four of our six bikes on the backs of horses, but the snow proved to be too deep for them and we were forced to retrace our steps and find an alternate route (look for the November issue of Bike for the full story).
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Contemporary caravan: Our two-wheeled traverse of ancient segments of the storied Silk Route was merely a modern twist to a time-honored trading tradition.
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After days on end of sleeping on the cold, hard ground, a night of slumber on a carpeted floor was nothing short of blissful.
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Back in the saddle: Hunter feels the need for speed on his two-wheeled steed.
Desert drift: As we gradually started to descend our way out of the corridor, the opportunities to get fast and loose were endless.
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From top left: The entertainment value of a long lens should never be sold short; with few trappings of the modern world to distract them, the Wakhi people are still tightly focused on family closeness.
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Moondoggle: After a dozen days of hard-fought progress, Hunter and the crew were confident that they had earned their turns.
Final frontier: Though none of us are ever likely to travel into outer space, we certainly got our share of wide-open space in northern Afghanistan’s wild fringes. The author heads for greener pastures.
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With a world-first expedition in the bag and increasing amounts of oxygen in our lungs, we felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment as we descended toward the border.
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Published on Aug 7, 2013
Afghanistan isn't a place for the faint of heart. But that didn't stop Matt Hunter and the crew from Anthill Films from making the trip whil...