The soldier used his index fingers to make two pointed ears and said one word.
He didn't invite us into the safety of his checkpoint hut so we set off, the darkness beyond our headlamp beams suddenly menacing.
Then two noises exploded from the night. An awful, savage baying then, seconds later, a scream of terror so visceral I thought Jack had been torn off his bike.
He would later tell me the scream seemed not to come from his body, like an involuntary reaction to a primal threat.
I turned and the wolf's immense form and open jaws loomed metres from my bike, its coat shining silvery white in my torch beam. Jack yelled "Go, go, go, go, go, go!" and we pedalled like the clappers, both bellowing without making the decision to do so, as if prompted by some primitive instinct. I didn't look back.
Jack did, he thinks the wolf chased us for about 100m before falling back into the night.
We cycled feverishly the final kilometres into Murghab, a small town in the Pamir mountain range of Tajikistan, our breath finally slowing as houses grew denser and the safety of the town enveloped us.
It had been over a month since my brother, Jack, and I set off from Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on bikes and carrying all we'd need to survive for the roughly 2500km to Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek. Although I'd happily never again look a wolf in the eye, it was my intention in cycling this corner of the world to seek a more raw connection to the wilderness; to experience the Silk Road as the ancient explorers did.
Our starting point, Samarkand, has been a crossroads for foreign visitors for thousands of years, although those before us sought power (Genghis Khan) and silk, gold and spices (Marco Polo), rather than our comparatively frivolous adventure-for-the-sake-of-it.
Brutal conqueror Timur, whose reputation for slaughter was matched only by his love of art, made the city his capital in 1370.
His efforts to beautify the city are still apparent today in the intricately tiled shrines and teal domes of mosques that reflected the early sun as we cycled out of town.
After months of planning, it was liberating to finally roll towards the lands I knew only as contour lines and unpronounceable names on a map. I wanted to feel small in an unfamiliar wilderness and to test my mettle, to find my body's capabilities. I liked the idea of a place that was so foreign to Kiwis that listing the countries we were to cycle through was met with blank stares. I liked that I knew nothing of this place, other than it had lured explorers for millennia.
We left Samarkand and crossed into Tajikistan and the Fann Mountains, where Soviet-era billboard-sized mosaics espoused the glory of labour and long tunnels left our faces blackened with dust and exhaust. A landslide slithered across a road and as cars backed up, we shot through the shrinking gap over fresh, wet rock, afraid to look up.
If the road through the Fann Mountains was our starter, the main course was the Pamir Highway. It departs Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, in a civilised manner but as it unfurls south it turns feral, a patchwork of repair efforts undone by earthquakes and landslides.
For weeks we hugged the Panj River, a ferocious torrent that acts as a border with Afghanistan. Its gorges are so high that we could barely see the peaks above when craning our heads back.
At intervals along the opposite riverbank were dotted small villages, their neat fields and gardens acid green against the stark mountainsides. There were glimpses of life – little pigtailed girls taking a treacherously narrow track to school, women laying colourful rugs in the sun to dry, a man on a motorbike who lifted one arm to return our wave.
We'd pass groups of soldiers on patrol, fresh-faced and with AK47s slung over their shoulders. Once we paused to fill our water bottles at a stream and a soldier approached, formed a cross with his arms and pointed to the other side of the bridge. We understood - it was safe to gather water on this side but on the other there were landmines.
Despite this, and the proximity to a country ravaged by conflict and synonymous with danger, we felt safe, our campsites peaceful.
After Khorog, the only city in the Pamirs, we veered south into the Wakhan Valley, where the river spreads into braids hemmed in by the Pamir and the Hindu Kush mountain ranges. The Wakhan has a kind of infamy among cyclists. Known as a rugged alternative to the main Pamir Highway, it inflicts hundreds of kilometres of bike-jiggling washboard track alternating with deep sand that swallow the tyres.
One day a man working in a field called out to us, "doma, doma". The Russian word for home, this translated as an invitation to stay.
Such spontaneous invitations were extended to us almost daily; for chai, for vodka, a bed, a bag of nuts or apricots. We pitched our tents next to their patch of spring onions and carrots. Five children watched as we ate cross-legged on the floor, their father telling us that in winter the snow reaches 2m, a miserable prospect in the basic, concrete block house.
It's common here for families to invite weary travellers in for a bed and simple meal, as Pamiri people believe providing hospitality earns a blessing from God. They'd never demand payment but it's unthinkable not to slip them some money when the strain of life is so plain to see.
Later, using the longdrop-style toilet, I caught sight of a neat stack of torn-out pages from the eldest daughter's textbook. The generosity is ubiquitous, even from those who can't afford toilet paper.
We soaked in a tepid spring on the roadside next to a hut peppered with machinegun holes while goats clattered nearby, searching for weeds poking from the hard ground. We climbed out of the Wakhan, away from the Bactrian camels grazing on the riverbank, away from a friendly guard who let us cook inside his hut, rejoining the Pamir Highway as it glides silently under mountains cast in jagged shadow.
Several days after the wolf encounter we camped near the top of the Ak Baital pass, the Pamir Highway's highest point at 4655m. It was well below zero and the lack of life was matched by almost complete silence.
Toilet trips outside the tent were preceded by a torch-lit scan of the darkness before a hasty scuttle in and out. We never saw another wolf.
The Pamir Highway is described as the "roof of the world", an unforgiving place that breathes a sort of tranquil spirituality. Days from Bishkek, feeling the gnawing anxiety provoked by our imminent return to normal life, we took a back road through the mountains that we could find no reference to online, its length unmarked by crowd-sourced camping spots. It felt risky, exciting; one final blast into the unknown.
That choice resulted in the most gruelling section of our entire journey; over a distance of 200km, we gained 5km of elevation.
One morning, I rode my bike for 50m before the gradient forced me off to push. Crawling up and down deep valleys on roads cut from vibrant red earth, we barely had the energy to lift our heads, but the exhaustion seemed to heighten the euphoria when we'd finally reached a ridgeline.
Each day I was sure I couldn't physically make it and each day my body proved me wrong. Our lives were pared back to the routine of getting somewhere, making food and sleeping.
It enhanced our appreciation of simple things; sharing a melted Snickers bar, washing underwear in a river as the frigid water soothed our tired legs.
And even in these isolated hills, we found friendly faces. An elderly couple invited us into their yurt and we drank kumis, booze made from fermented raw mare's milk that's fizzy and slightly sour. We sipped and tried to avert our eyes from the horse skin flask it was poured from.
"Pretend it's craft beer," Jack muttered.
The next day a man asked Jack, "Is that your wife? Got any cigarettes?" Whether I was Jack's wife or if I had a "muzh" – Russian for husband - was a common question. We passed them a crushed packet we had in case the need for bribery arose, and they were dolled out among the men who sat on rocks and puffed contentedly.
From horseback, one offered vodka in a cup fashioned from a coke bottle. The group of shepherds gaped as I slugged back the drink, then Jack and I tried to assume a guise of sobriety as they watched us cook dinner, the vodka having coursed through our empty stomachs.
Five days after we chose the back road, our food and water supplies exhausted, we rolled into a village, bone-weary but elated. Only a few hundred kilometres of our journey remained - soon we'd be dismantling our bikes into cardboard boxes ready to leave Central Asia.
It was sad to think about no longer waking up and cycling. We'd grown so used to the comfort of slinging a leg over the saddle, the satisfying weight of the frame carrying everything we needed.
We remembered the windswept plateaux and deep valleys and how we'd felt – tiny, vulnerable but self-reliant. Civilisation beckoned but we returned knowing we could live without it.
Doma, a film about Isobel and Jack Ewing's journey, is playing at the New Zealand Mountain Film Festival and is available to stream online. Go to mountainfilm.nz