Skirting the Afghan border along Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway
SAYING goodbye to a warm bed and a hot shower is tough. Knowing three (4000+) mountain passes and 320km lie between you and your next one is nothing short of heart-breaking.
And so it was (pathetically) with a heavy heart and sluggish legs that we began the slow push uphill out of Khorog after two days of rest. To add to the good ole “leaving my comfy hotel” blues was the fact Barry and Richard were buggering off to cycle a different route sparking all kinds of insecure feelings. Suddenly passport checks seemed more sinister, truck drivers seemed more dangerous and the going seemed tougher.
Hugging the river on the road north from Khorog
I knew I was feeling the nerves of our 10 day deadline to make the border but my stomach wouldn’t stop gurgling and my energy levels had plummeted
Khorog sits at 2000 metres and over the next 100 kilometres we would climb to 4300 up what promised to be “fairly good” tarmac but still my legs rebelled against the revolutions and my tummy churned.
By lunch time the feeling of lethargy still plagued me. We’d hugged the sapphire river for just 30km, pedalling slowly through quiet valleys and tiny villages and while the going had been easy I felt as though I’d gone nine rounds with Ali. In a leafy town we hauled our bikes into a ditch and after munching half heartedly on bread a father and son interrupted our rustic lunch to invite us back to their home
Posing for a picture with the son of our host
It was that famous Pamir hospitality we’d heard so much about but as Murphy’s Law would have it the though of eating made me feel ill. We nevertheless accepted but after an hour of soups and stories I was sweating, trembling and inches away from hurling up the contents of my stomach.
Something was wrong, very wrong, and after attempting to pedal just five kilometres further down the road lunch reversed spectacularly.
Even pushing my bike exhausted me and we had little choice but to find somewhere to camp. We needed to average 65km a day to make the border in time but I couldn’t have cared less.
Scott found the perfect pitch behind craggy boulders and set up the tent in record time but already I was a wreck. Both ends exploded for seven hours and by midnight I was a shivering mess of dehydration and exhaustion. By the early hours I managed to keep down a sip of water and by the following morning, an antibiotic, but the damage was done. I wasn’t cycling anywhere and we had little choice but to stay in our hidden camp spot for another day and night as I recovered my strength.
Sarah emerges from the tent after two days!
Truth be told the experience terrified me and it also seemed we’d slashed our chances of making the border before the cut off.
The following day I managed to keep down breakfast and we again hit the road. The beautiful tarmac stayed true to form and the gently rising road allowed us to push out 60km through beautiful terrain before calling it quits in a quiet valley for the night. Scott too had begun to lose his appetite and after a pitifully small meal we retreated, exhausted, to the tent. I was beginning to feel better but as Murphy’s Law would again have it, my other half wasn’t. Scott woke with a roaring headache and immediately threw up and while we were camped at just 3500 metres it seemed the first signs of altitude sickness had struck.
Canyons and rivers!
We made it just 20km further down the road before he collapsed in a heap and it was my turn to find the camp spot and put him to bed. It had taken four days to make a pitiful 110 kilometres and the truth suddenly struck home. We were not going to make the border in time meaning we would miss the last 200km of the Tajikistan Pamir route and the biggest and most spectacular of its passes.
Somehow I didn’t feel disappointed. What we’d seen and done so far had deeply impressed me and with a couple of days left until we reached the high altitude town of Murgab I knew there was still plenty more to see.
The canyons end and the plains open up
Spectacular snow capped mountains dotted the horizon and the valleys opened up to jaw-dropping planes as we pedalled further up the pass and by early afternoon the GPS revealed we were just 10km from the 4300 metre summit. Water, other travellers had warned, was hard to come by on the following stretch and with serious reluctance on my part we loaded up an extra five litre bladder each onto the bike before tackling the tough climb to the top. By 3pm we’d reached 4000 metres and with it came a wind that felt as though it was brewed in the bowels of the Arctic.
Long stretches of road that lead up to the pass
The lonely road in Tajikistan
The road had disappeared again, replaced by our old arch nemesis “rock and gravel” and the gradient rose sharply as we ploughed on. With two kilometres to go we were off and pushing while growling at the Chinese trucks who hurtled passed us. By 4.30pm the summit was in sight and a barren moonscape of rocks and tundra opened up. It was too cold to do little but take a quick picture and bugger off in search of a lower altitude campsite but the continuously crap roads and seemingly endless plateaus made the search almost fruitless.
A cold celebration at the top – almost 4300 metres
After just half an hour we’d descended a pitiful 150 metres and I was shaking so violently it was tough to stay on the bike. There was no shelter to be found and we simply hauled our bikes off the gravel road onto the windswept plane and threw on our winter layers at record speed. The wind had reached almost gail force as we attempted to put the tent up and the temperature had again plummeted to below freezing. Like a true deviant I told Scott I would pump up the mats while he started on dinner in a blatant attempt to escape the cold and the roaring wind.
By now we’d learned that sleeping at high altitude was a crappy and sometimes bizarre experience (we barely got more than a couple of hours sleep that nevertheless included some pretty psychedelic dreams) and so there was little to do but huddle in our sleeping bags post dinner and wait for the sunrise.
Frozen rivers on the bitterly cold plateaus
The next morning the small nearby rivers were frozen and the snow gleamed on the mountains and we emerged from the tent feeling like Arctic heroes. We scoffed down porridge and ploughed on, making 30km and another gravelly and steep pass before lunch.
We attempted to leave a note for Barry and Richard at the meeting point of their road but alas they missed it!
The small village of Alichur lay another 25km away and we pushed on to hopefully make it there in time to get supplies and camp on the other side. But then the temperature dropped and our inner princesses emerged. Villagers throughout the Pamirs have cottoned on to the small but steady stream of tourists and every second man and his dog has opened up a “homestay” to give visitors the true local experience. Considering there are few hotels to rival them this is about your only option for a roof over your head on most parts of the M41 highway and with the thermometer again below freezing we decided to take up an Alichur family on their offer.
It looks sunny on the plateaus but the wind makes for a chilly companion
The house, like all others in the rustic town, was small, crumbling and basic and we were quoted $10US each for dinner, breakfast and board. I asked rather optimistically if this included a shower but after a puzzled look was told they could organise a bucket if I needed. In a fit of panic I asked if they had a toilet and the kind, English-speaking host, assured me that yes, they had a very good loo and that she would proudly show me. I was led to the village long drop where two planks of wood sat over the hole (there were also two long drops side by side which I guess negated the need for a newspaper as you could chat with your neighbour). Considering this town didn’t have plumbing and electricity I reasoned that it probably was a very good toilet indeed and at the end of the day we were still getting a warm house to rest our heads. Dinner was potato and gristle and the tea was never ending and soon our eyelids were drooping as we geared up for sleep in the family living room.
Yaks on the outskirts of Alichur
We left the icy town of Alichur at 8pm the next day and stopped just on the outskirts to pump up our tyres. Mere moments before jumping back on the bikes a bulky figure emerged on the horizon and became a layered up bicycle tourer. Vince was from Amsterdam and had pedalled away from his doorstep about half a year ago with his wooden giraffe Slava zip-tied to the back. He was bold, fearless and exceptionally good natured and we were stoked to have a companion for the last leg to Murgab. Having pushed the pedals hard since home Vince was also feeling the lethargy and had decided, come Murgab, he would officially end his cycling adventure and take a taxi to Osh and then a plane home from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.
Celebrating the top of our last Tajikistan with Vince
Proving cameras can lie and make you look as though you can actually jump
From Alichur the road was again a beautiful picture of smooth tarmac and despite a last, tiny pass, it was also largely downhill. To add to the already top cycling conditions a brisk tail wind nudged our bums and by 1pm we’d covered 50km. With only 50km to go until our final destination we decided to push on and by 4pm we were just 15km from the end. A small yurt on the side of the road advertised meals and while the end was in site we indulged our fantasies of staying in the nomadic accommodation.
The beautiful nomad yurts
The inside of the yurt was an intricate pattern of handmade beams and the woman and her shy daughter piled blankets and pillows down while stoking up the fire. It was already bitterly cold outside but it felt as though we’d hit sauna settings inside and we happily munched down soup, tea and potatoes before sinking into a fitful sleep full of high altitude weirdness. Unfortunately for me the high altitude lice also enjoyed one of their best meals in months and I woke up looking as though I’d come down with Chicken Pox.
Our tummies were also performing alarming acrobatics but we packed up and pushed on for the last glorious 15km to Murgab. Vince savoured every kilometre of what was to be his trip’s final and as the last downhill dumped us onto a wide open, barren plain a smattering of flat houses revealed the northern “city”. Fantasies of a huge feast were dashed as we pedalled past shanties but I was just relieved that we’d officially finished our Tajikistan stint.
The final stretch to Murgab
An hour later, after checking into an overpriced guest house, I was back on the toilet losing everything I’d eaten and more while wondering what the bloody hell was wrong with me. Scott was a couple of hours behind and to make matters worse Bertrand, a charming French cyclist and friend of Vince’s also turned up with a roaring case of Tajik Tummy. Between the three of us the hotel’s one toilet got a work out that would ultimately break it and suddenly the end of Tajikistan couldn’t come soon enough. While bolting to the outside loo at 3am in well below freezing conditions is hell on earth to be fair there was one side effect we were loving. I’m going to sum it up us the lean mean Tajikistan Diet. Thanks to 25 days on this revolutionary diet we’d shed our Iran fat and for the first time in a long time my pants were loose and I had proper cheek bones. (Side note: all you need for this 100 per cent effective diet is a country with a god-awful cuisine, shops with absolutely no groceries, a nice long case of Giardia and a month of brutal mountain cycling).
We spent just three nights in the Murgab guest house but it was enough for us to be reunited with Barry and Richard (who had to catch a taxi for the last 100km as Richard’s stomach troubles rapidly worsened). Prolific cyclists Robbie and Lucy also rolled in, looking battle weary, as well as Polish trio Ola, Pavo and Stasiek. The three friends were keen to take a taxi straight to Osh and so joined what was to be a mass exit of ill cyclists from Tajikistan. Barry and Richard were also calling it quits and so with the help of our Russian speaking Polish friends (not to mention Vince and his outstanding negotiation skills) we procured a couple of 4x4s to get us out of the country and back into civilisation.
Robbie and Lucy (alongside Aussies Paul and Leiset) were battling on by bike but as we drove out of Murgab with piles of bikes loaded onto the racks we couldn’t help but feel relieved.
Tajikistan had been a vibrant, wonderful mix of raw, jaw-dropping scenery, rustic, friendly villages and amazing culture blends of Russian, middle-eastern and Central Asian but it had also been a hot bed of Giardia (the illness we contracted), seriously crap cuisine and some of the worst roads in the world.
Snowy passes on the road to Kyrgyzstan
As the cars bounced along the M41 to the Kyrgyzstan border the temperature plummeted and the rivers became frozen while the ground seemed to be coated in permafrost. Mid-morning we passed Robbie and Lucy at the foot of the 4600m pass wearing every layer they possessed and looking as though they were pushing through the cycle of their lives. The pair had been forced to camp at 2pm the previous day owing to the icy winds and low temperature and while they made it over the pass and to the border they would soon after be brought to their knees by a blizzard, forcing them to hitchhike the rest of the way to Osh.
By 7pm the gleaming lights of Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest city came into view and soon we were racing past modern pharmacies, burger joints and even bars.
It felt as though we’d been whisked back into the western world due to the stark contrast and we relished guest houses with actual wifi, inside bathrooms and even toilets.
I felt as though I could rest in Osh for a year and for the first two days I did little but vomit, sleep and trawl the Net.
We spent another six days recovering and when our appetites returned (with a mighty vengeance) we wiled away the hours in shiny restaurants that served lattes, pizzas and cheesy burgers.
I already felt reluctant to leave and while we still had three months left on the continent (with plans to cycle the scenic route to the nation’s capital – Bishkek – then onto Kazakhstan before the epic China leg) our hearts were already in North America. I had to force myself to live in the moment and relish where I was and what I’d done to get there but it was still a battle.
To boost our energy levels we would set off from Osh in a party of five (Bertrand, Richard and Barry) and largely thanks to Bertrand’s proactive attitude we’d also applied for our Chinese visa. It’s a cumbersome and expensive process that would only give us 30 days in the enormous country but we’d been promised the ability to renew it once there and so there seemed little to do but get back on the bike.