The Pamirs have been one of my cycling goals ever since I found out about it. The idea of riding along the Tajikistan/Afghanistan border, on a 4000m plateau, surrounded by 6000m and 7000m meter mountains sounds epic.
The Tajikistan visa is kind of like a limited time offer. When you apply, you have to give them a fixed entry date. As we got this visa in Tehran a good 2000km earlier, we had more or less guessed when we would arrive. Surprisingly, we were only 5 days off. As such, when we left Uzbekistan we were in somewhat of a rush. Our Tajik visa had already started and would expire within a month. From Duschanbe, we wanted to ride the southern route along the Afghanistan border, the Wakahn valley, back up to Murghab and north to the border. We estimated that to be 1200km of some of the roughest roads we’d seen yet. The kind of ball crushing, wrist jarring, rim destroying gravel roads reserved for mountain bikes and downhill bikes.
So when we arrived in Duschanbe we didn’t plan on staying long. I had to get my visa for Kyrgyzstan, and Sabine had to get a second one. She’d originally picked hers up in Swiss, but it turned out it would expire before we got there. That’s the difficulty of predicting things months in advance. Surprisingly, getting this visa was trivial. For a nominal fee of only 100USD, we had our visas within an hour. That’s a big difference from Uzbekistan where I’d payed the same fee and waited nearly three weeks until it could be picked up. However, the Kyrgyz visa was more or less to get overland transit into China. There is no Chinese/Tajik border crossing open to foreigners. Seems kind of a pity to spend 100USD and only spend 3 days in a country.
We also had to spend some time at the former KGB office getting special permits for this part of Tajikistan. It was a bit of a long wait to get our passports back…
A GBAO permit is required and we jumped through the necessary hoops to get it. It turns out we weren’t asked for it once. There are so many traveling cyclists through these parts, I don’t think the police even care anymore.
The five of us also spent some time sorting out our food situation in Duschanbe. We knew that there would be little food along the way, so we conspired to buy all of the supplies we needed prior to leaving. We’d met a NZ girl, Athena, who had come down the same road the other way and she informed us. Athena bought all of her food in Osh (Kyrgyz), and carried it with her for the entire 1,300km. I’m still not sure what she ate… instant noodles everyday?
Our departure from Duschanbe was tampered with sickness for the first couple days. The first day we left, Sabine fell ill and we only made it 40km from the city. On the second day, Ian fell ill and Sabine got a bit better. Thanks Dr. Maboob for giving me those diarrhea pills. They work a wonder.
Meanwhile we met a lot of travelers along the way. Some Germans on motorcycles stopped to chat with us for a while. As we were chatting, a car full of Tajik youths pulled up and began chatting away. We told him we were going down to Ishkashim along the Afghan border, and he offered to sell us a pistol. Kind of taken aback, I kindly refused his offer. In hindsight, I should have seized that opportunity.
Around 150km east of Duschanbe the fantastic scenery we had been expecting began.
The roads in the vicinity also began to live up to their expectations.
Ians sickness continued for another day and he bravely powered through it. The road had now become unpaved and very rough. Riding when you’ve got the shits on a really rough road is hard. When we arrived at the next small village of Childara, we were just about to climb the largest pass of the Pamir. The pass is at 3255m, with a killer gain of 1600m on that unpaved goat trail of a road. We decided that it would be best for him to hitch a ride over the pass and meet us on the other side. We put him on a large truck hauling fuel, crammed in the front with two non-english speaking Tajiks. He was lucky they were devout Muslims, as they stopped to pray quite often. Recounting this experience to his friends, Ian called this update “They pray, I spray“. We believe he may have inspired a new jihad.
The pass was truly a long tough climb. It went on for 25km, with three false summits. In the beginning, there was a rather entertaining river crossing. It was only about 15cm deep, just a little too deep to try and ride across.
We stopped there and took a swim, avoiding the large trucks that saw no apparent need to slow down. Some of these guys were flying across at 30km/hr, necessitating our immediate removal from the pool.
We’d met two Germans, Rolly and Chris, heading the same way and we decided to ride with them for a while. Their third riding partner had become sick and decided to hitch when he saw Ian fly by in a truck. Apparently it’s common to get sick here too. They climbed all the way to the top of the pass with us. I turns out that I don’t have a picture of Chris, but I do have one of Rolly.
And finally… the top, 6 hours later.
The descent from this pass was much more scenic than the ascent. Rolling green hills, sharp cliffbands, and a road that seemed dangerously cut into the side of the mountain in some places.
Despite the loss of nearly 2000m of gain, it still took a bit of time. The road was so bad that we could really only move at 15km/hr. Any faster would mean either a flat tire or a bent rim. Soon after we arrived at Kalaikhum. The rushing mountain whitewater and the lush green trees make the place feel like a paradise. People came out of the woodwork to great us as we rolled into town, children yelling “hello” from every direction. After accomplishing such a big pass, this made us all feel like heroes for a day.
We found Ian quickly. Apparently, he hadn’t been there long. His “praying and spraying” adventure in the truck had taken him 13 hours to arrive. It took him just as long in the truck as it did for us to ride it.
Kalaikhum sits on the shores of the river that divides Afghanistan and Tajikistan. We followed the Penj river for several hundred kilometres all the way down to Ishkashim. The road followed the river the entire distance. From this vantage point, we could take in some of the Afghan landscape. We passed many small villages where live was winding it’s normal course, and the occasional Afghans cheered at us or shouted hello.
Very very scenic.
The valley in which the river ran was very steep in many places, with lack of arable land. There were fields on any small ledge of the mountains, and any place the rocks could be cleared away. I was particularly awestruck by the landslides that had been cleared away to make space for pasture. The toil required to do this boggles the mind.
There are few wild camping opportunities in the valley, as the mountains are very steep along the river. Occasionally, we stayed in homesteads. I don’t mind it at all, these people are very poor. They need the money. Most of the time these homestays cost 50 som, or about 10 dollars a person. We once were invited in by the locals and were able to camp in their back yard.
It was a very nice place to stay. The river was right beside us, with a sheer 500m cliff on the Afghan side that lit up under the full moon. A very nice place to stay indeed.
There were several sections of the border that were mined from the Soviet times. They were not a good place to wild camp.
There were always children along the road in every village. Some of them wave and say hello.
Some of them sell you mulberries by the kilo.
Some of them hold rabid dogs at bay. My personal favorite.
Some of them run alongside you as you ride by, pushing you uphill if you need it.. It’s wonderful. They’re wonderful.
Before long, we’d arrived in Khorog, one of the larger cities on our journey. We were able to stop here at the bazaar and stock up on some much needed supplies. We continued and planned to take a day of rest at a hot spring 40km south of the city. Khorog is a stepping stone to some of the treks in the Pamir, and some of the hostels were packed full of trekkers. While not bad, the city itself was not all that spectacular. We decided to continue and take our day of rest at a hot spring 40km down the road.
Arriving at this hot spring, we found a cheap motel to spend two nights in. The place seemed built out of cardboard…. the walls were paper thin. As there was no kitchen, and the surrounding restaurants were suspect, we decided to cook in the motel room. Fond memories of Rogers pass here.
Midway through our meal preparations, the hotel manager bursts through the door. Oh shit, busted. He kind of stops, with this puzzled look on his face, and continues with: “well ok, be carrrrreful.” Hah, ok… sure.
The place was made classier with the implementation of the multi shitter. Say hello to your neighbor, discuss current events, even exchange phone numbers. It’s better than sending an sms while you’re doing your business!
Tim and I were the first to check out the hot spring the following day. There were travertines that looked similar to those at Pamukalle in Turkey, only it was filled with rather suspect patrons. We observed that most of the men in the water had rather large skin blemishes. Burn victims? No. They all looked to have symptoms of some kind of skin disease. My god Tim, we’re bathing in a leper colony! Suddenly it occurred to me that I’d seen some doctors walking around in white lab coats, and the place we were staying was actually a sanitarium. The Germans sitting next to us shied away from the water and were shortly gone. “Oh what the hell Tim, let’s go for a swim”. We overcame our fears and jumped in. I kept my hand with open wounds out of the water, with the lepers looking on at us with simple curiosity.
The following days from the spring down to Ishkashim were more or less a blur of amazing scenery and relatively easy cycling. Everything about it was stunning.
There were hot spring along the side of the road.
We took a swim in one of them. There’s nothing like sitting in a warm pool in the middle of nowhere overlooking the mountains of Hindu Kush.
There was amazing mountain scenery.
Ibex horns, everywhere.
I even had the pleasure of wrapping my odometer around 22,000km in one of the most scenic places in the world.
The glorious Hindu Kush range in Afghanistan shadowed us to the south the whole time.
There were however some hard stretches of road. Some of the gravel sections had a lot of loose rock and sand. Pushing the bike quickly became a viable option… or really the only option.
The last village we would find for a while was called Langar. We were in desperate need of petrol, which we could not find. The guy working at the homestead offered to drive me in his jeep to get some. Now I understand why we couldn’t find it. It was hidden away in a shack in USAID containers.
The road north of Langar cut north along the Ishkashim range, and would put us back on the main road. We had low expectations of this road, as we had heard it was slow going. It took us 2.5 days to cover 100km. It was worth going slow.
There was a pass of 4330m on this section of road. I felt it was an accomplishment getting up there on such rough terrain.
The other side of the pass was just as amazing. Unfortunately, we didn’t bring much water as it’s extra weight on the climb over the pass. It’s a disappointing feeling to run out of water when all of the lakes around are saline.
When we finally got back on the main road it was easy going. Smooth pavement has never felt so magical.
It didn’t take us long to reach Murghab and stock up again. Nothing spectacular about this town. We met a Swedish couple on a cycle vacation here, they were pretty cool. It was their second cycling trip in Tajikistan.
The largest pass we had to climb was north of Murghab. We’d been building ourselves up over this for a while now, mentally preparing to ride over 4650m. I’ve only once been that high and that was not with a fully loaded bike. The climb ended up not being as bad as anticipated. We camped just before the pass and had only a gain of 400m in the morning. Here is a photo of the road winding up to the top.
It was also easier than I’d anticipated, as the gain was mostly very gradual and it was paved all the way up. The other side of the pass was the furthest thing from paved, and would have been a slog coming up. I still had to stop every hundred meters to catch my breath for the last kilometer. Just like mountain climbing, it’s a glorious feeling when you get to the top.
Our final step in Tajikistan brought us to Karakol lake. It’s the second highest lake in the world, formed by an asteroid crater. The photos don’t really do it any justice. It is a beautiful place.
We had high hopes of getting some supplies in Karakol, but there really isn’t much there. The village is very poor and your shopping options consist of stale candies, cigarettes, and old candy bars. It was still a nice place with kind of an odd ghost town atmosphere.
Shortly thereafter we crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan. There’s a range of awe inspiring peaks that sit on the border. One of them is peak Lenin, the easiest 7000m in the world. I guess I’ll have to come back another day for that one…
That about sums up the Pamir highway. It’s a difficult road, but definitely worth doing. Very epic.
At present, I’m about to leave the hostel in Kashgar for Pakistan. We’ve come to refer to the hotel as “hotel california”, as the Pakistan border has been closed for the last 2 weeks. A least I’m not stuck here alone. The border has re-opened today and I unfortunately have to take the bus as the Chinese haven’t been allowing people to pass on bicycles. The reason they are closed?
Yup. Ran out of stickers.
Now that it’s open, next stop Karakorum highway!