Part 3- The Pamir Highway
This is incredibly late, as I am still very much alive albeit in Singapore. But please be grateful that I spared you the earlier drafts that were far duller than this one (hopefully this is not hard to believe). This account is awash with place names that will probably mean little but basically this edition starts in Tajikistan and ends in Kyrgyzstan (a country that I still struggle both to pronounce and spell).
From my initial research and through discussions with the cyclists that we passed along the way through Central Asia, I was convinced that Tajikistan was going to be the cycling highlight of our trip. So convinced was I, that even when Jonathan expressed hesitation due to its proximity to Afghanistan and appearance in the Australian government’s cautionary travel warnings I was not dissuaded.
The reason for my Tajikistan enthusiasm was the Pamir Highway. The road that winds its way through the spectacular Pamir mountains and forms part of the Silk Road connecting Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan. With a promise of challenging climbs and incredible mountainous scenery, I had decided that it could not be missed; even if it meant that I no longer had a travel buddy! (Jonathan went to Korea instead so we’re still trying to establish exactly who abandoned who….)
So, having farewelled/been abandoned by Jonathan, I set off from Tashkent, Uzbekistan alone in the hope that I would find some other cyclists along the way. Crossing the border from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan this hope became closer to reality when the border guards failed to react to my present with much surprise. Instead indicating that they had seen a cyclist earlier that day (or at least that’s what I could ascertain with my VERY limited understanding of Russian!)
With this knowledge in mind, I increased my cycling pace and was rewarded when I caught a glimpse of a fluro clad cyclist ahead the following day. As it transpired, Eric a Frenchman had also been ‘abandoned’ by his cycling partner in Tashkent and was heading in the same direction as I. While communication would prove somewhat of a problem due to the addition of yet another foreign language I didn’t speak, I was definitely relieved to have someone to talk to!
From our first meeting we cycled together, climbing the first serious mountain pass I would encounter and managing to navigate two 5km tunnels (fortunately no longer unlit and filled with water as previous cyclists had encountered).
While a passing motorist that we would later meet in the hostel in Dushanbe described me as looking ‘very determined’ as we cycled up this pass, I was already beginning to have doubts. I had started to question exactly what I had committed to, given the incredibly steep gradient, heat and promise of many (many) more climbs! However, these thoughts were quickly dismissed (as they always are) during a long and winding descent.
Dushanbe to Khorog
Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan and a name that I still struggle to pronounce, proved a fairly unremarkable city. Boasting what is apparently the world’s second tallest flagpole (Saudi Arabia stole the title in 2014), it is perhaps only memorable to me for being the place where I encountered a large group of Australians- the first for the trip. Who, upon recognizing my presence tried to draw me into a discussion of Australian house prices. Horrified, I fled the room, my tenuous break from reality well and truly shattered!
So, after several rest days in which I avoided aforementioned Australians, searched fruitlessly for cafes and interrogated other cyclists heading in the opposite direction about the route, we headed to Khorog. The starting point of the Pamir Highway (M41) and possibly the last chance to stock up on supplies and glean information from other cyclists about the conditions ahead of us.
On the unmaintained roads it took seven days to cycle the 500 kilometres from Dushanbe to Khorog. It was hot (no surprises there) but this provided a good excuse to stop and chat with the other cyclists and locals that we encountered and to take post lunch naps in the shady gardens of restaurants. Initially we cycled through green fields and we were greeted with the first glimpses of snow capped mountains as we neared the top of the first mountain pass at an altitude of a mere 3253m. (In comparison Mt Kosciusko, Australia’s highest peak is 2228m and Singapore’s Bukit Timah Hill is 163m!!) After a rather terrifying steep and patchy descent we arrived in Qalai Khumb, a small town that is most memorable for the beers that it provided, the deafening roar of the Panj River that flows through it and for my realization that I could see Afghanistan from my bedroom window!
After fixing the first of what would be innumerable flat tyres we departed the following morning. The route took us along the dusty and rocky road that winds its way along the Panj River, a river that separates Afghanistan and Tajikistan. From this vantage point we were able to watch the Afghani villages go about their lives on the other side of the river (when we were not struggling to stay upright among the rocks of gravel!) This part of the route was also scattered with small villages and communities. Resulting in shouts of “hello, hello, what is your name? Where are you from?” from the hoards of children who seemed to know just when to appear. Stopping to drink yet more Coca Cola or consume a mostly elusive ice cream, we would soon discover that these two ubiquitous questions, delivered in perfect English were as far as the conversation could progress.
While the river itself was mesmerizing and these greetings a joy, the road conditions proved to be some of the most difficult I had encountered. As we negotiated rocky ascents more suited to mountain goats than a touring bike with fully loaded panniers, I did again wonder whether this was something that I was actually capable of! I also wondered if it would be useful to engage the services of donkey….But, on a positive note, I did become much better at getting my feet out of my cleats each time I found myself teetering between large rocks or the edge of the mountain!
Finally, after a welcoming sand storm on the edges of the town we arrived in Khorog. While not a beautiful town by any standard, filled with cyclists, hiking boot clad backpackers and the ubiquitous white land cruisers of the various NGO workers who ply the region, Khorog contained a sense of energy, the promise of interesting company and information about what was ahead.
Khorog to the Wakhan Corridor
After two days in Khorog, I set off with a Turkish cyclist for the Wakhan valley. Leaving Eric, the Frenchman, as he required weeks of rest due to a saddle related injury that I was far too squeamish to discuss. The Wakhan valley/corridor is narrow strip of land that follows the river between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. And while I had been hesitant about taking this route at first, the cyclists traveling in the other direction reassured us about its safety and gave high recommendations or perhaps were unwilling to admit that it had been a terrible, terrible mistake.
That said, the Wakhan valley was indeed spectacular; even just for its remoteness and plethora of ever changing landscapes. This sense of isolation was reinforced by the lack of shops and villages- requiring us in some areas to carry enough food for two to three days. Even when we came across villages their single shops often contained nothing more than stale biscuits, noodles, pasta, tomato paste and the occasional old snicker bar.
While we did have to battle yet more unpaved roads with various surfaces not limited to sand, gravel and rocks the scenery itself was truly spectacular. I really did feel that I was ‘in the wild.’ And while the road surfaces made the 300km route into what felt like a six day test of endurance, the challenge itself was not so much physical as it was mental. It was (and still is) difficult to push my bike up yet another rocky slope or through sand and not feel very very embarrassed! So, the cycletouring became not about the distance that we could cover each day but simply about appreciating where we were and how fortunate we were to be there. Although to avoid sounding too noble I should admit that I also spent a significant amount of time mulling over whether I would take the train or another mode of transport if it were an option.
Alichur to Murghab
Eventually the ‘road’ through the Wakhan valley rejoined the Pamir Highway. This brought with it asphalt, a restaurant and a warm yurt to stay in for the night courtesy of Alichur. While expecting myself to be overjoyed or at least a little proud of what I had achieved by this point in time I just felt exhausted! But, the next day brought with it the realization that despite facing yet another mountain pass the now (almost) continuous asphalt would enable me to cycle the last 100km in one day to Murghab, the next major town and rest point.
So, leaving my fellow cyclist to complete yet another isolated (and in my view unnecessary) route through the Pamir mountains I set off alone. The morning provided sun, a mild headwind and an opportunity to admire the mountains on the other side of the border with China. In contrast, the afternoon brought rain and wind as I neared the pass. And to make matters worse, unable to find my rain jacket quickly, the poncho I donned soon became a sail. But my initial concerns about how silly I looked to passing trucks were quickly overtaken by the fear that I would be found days later, frozen on a mountain top! A passing 4WD, carrying the bikes of those who had presumably given up/been too sensible to continue woke me from these overly doom laden thoughts. So, filled with what could have only been a slightly misguided sense of superiority to anyone who didn’t believe that cycling was the best mode of transport, I propelled myself across the pass from where I seemingly sailed, grinning, down the other side to Murghab. Where dinner, a shower (albeit from a bucket), partial electricity and a warm bed awaited.
Murghab to Lake Karakul
Comprising of a series of mud brick houses perched on a dusty hillside and a bazaar assembled from shipping containers; Murghab is not exactly picturesque. However the ‘homestay’ (basic accommodation, usually with a family where dinner, breakfast and copious amounts of tea are included) provided the perfect rest spot- even if I did have to sneak my bicycle inside so that I didn’t have to go outside to check on it during the night!
From Murghab I cycled over the Ak-Baital pass, which at 4655m is the highest point of the Pamir highway. This rather rocky ascent was followed by a rather rocky descent that was then followed by a rather freezing night camping on the side of the mountainside.
In between the shivers I did wonder whether I was over reacting, but the ice I found in my drink bottles the next morning confirmed that it had been a rather chilly night! Insult was added to injury the following morning upon my discovery of a homestay, just 200 metres away!
Having learnt my lesson, after a full day of cycling, I spent the next night at a homestay on Lake Karakul. Seemingly devoid of other tourists or for that other people, I spent the afternoon admiring the startlingly blue lake ringed by snowcapped mountains. And while I was tempted to swim, the lake’s 3900m elevation had created some seriously chilly water!
The next day brought with it the last two unpaved mountain passes with the latter marking the border to Kyrgyzstan. Reaching the top of the final pass I was ecstatic and definitely a little pleased by the looks of incredulity on the faces of a group of mountain bikers who stood at the top, waiting to descend! Finally I was in Kyrgyzstan, well I thought I was, but as it transpired I still had 20km of ‘no-man’s land’ to cross to reach the checkpoint. This situation gave me more than enough time to start wondering if I had somehow missed the guardhouse. So I was more than a little relieved when a small cluster of buildings made their appearance!
Busy with a carload of backpackers, the guards gave my passport only a cursory glance before stamping it and sending me on my way. Soon, I was riding through picturesque farmland dotted with goat herders and numerous yurts. As dusk descended and the wind increased I arrived in Sary-Tash, the first town across the border. I then spent the night in a hastily chosen guesthouse; eager to get out of the cold. Filled with watermelons and children it definitely wasn’t the best choice of accommodation but I was happy to be inside!
The following days brought with them more mountain passes although they were rendered far less daunting due to the drastic improvement in road surfaces that Kyrgyzstan provided. It was then with much excitement that I arrived in Osh, the end of the Pamir Highway, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan and the home of at least one decent coffee shop!