Monday, 18 July 2016

The Pamir Highway (M41) and the Wakhan Valley

Where do you even begin to describe a place like the Pamirs?  The sights and sounds, the people, the experiences and the emotions…

It took us six days to cycle from Osh to Murgab, a distance of about 430km.  We reckoned it would take us another 8 days to cycle from Murgab to Khorog via the Wakhan Valley and then 6 more days from Khorog to Dushanbe.  It’s more common (a relative word!) to cycle in the opposite direction to the one we went in because the wind is more usually at your back and the gradient is slightly easier that way.  But, we’re travelling westwards, so we cycled the pamirs backwards!  Having done it, I now understand that the wind really is a game changer. We cycled into a very strong headwind almost immediately after leaving Murgab and we battled it more or less the whole way to Khorog, which in the end took us 9 long days.

The initial climb up to the plateau begins quite quickly out of Osh, and after about 60km you find yourself at a pass of 3289m – the highest we’d been to yet.  The scenery was stunning though, more died-and-gone-to-Kyrgyzstan kind of scenery, so that made up for it.  It wasn’t a particularly steep climb anyway and there was a fantastic 18km fast descent afterwards to a town called Gulcha, where we stayed that night.

The next night we stayed in a yurt as part of a homestay initiative partly funded by Estonia. The family were the same amazingly hospitable people we’d grown accustomed to in Kyrgyzstan.  Nick saw the daughter heading outside with a bucket just before dinner and followed her out, hoping she was going to milk the cow.  She was, so we asked could we have a go too! We weren’t very good at it, surprisingly enough, but the cow was very patient and didn’t seem to mind two giggling eejits tugging on her udders.  Although, she did swipe Nick in the face with her particularly unclean tail!

I started writing this in Murgab, where we took a day off after 6 of the toughest, most spectacular and most rewarding days on the bike yet.  It wasn’t easy. At that point we’d already been up and over a 4655m pass, been caught in sandstorms, rained on, camped in minus temperatures, survived on food portions much smaller than we’d like to, dealt with some of the worst roads imaginable, been sun burnt and wind burnt, been freezing cold and roasting hot, frustrated, out of breath, hungry and tired.  But we’d also cycled some of the most spectacular roads imaginable.  We’d seen skies so blue that looking back, it’s hard to believe we haven’t fiddled with the saturation on our photos, and mountains that looked like drawings or artist’s creations.  Some that looked like they were just made of sand, the remnants of a fire maybe, ashen in colour and soft looking in texture.  Some that were a deep rusty red with streaks of grey and khaki in them.  All of them massive, but with no other people around for so much of the time, the scale was virtually impossible to compute.

We stayed in people’s homes, and were fed and watered, waved at and smiled at.  We laughed at the stupidity of it all when faced with a headwind so strong you can hardly cycle, or a road so bad that you’d be faster if you crawled. Moments where if you didn’t laugh you would probably cry, and often times I cried anyway! But neither of us would change a second of it if we could.  What we’ve seen has been utterly breath taking, awe-inducing, humbling. It’s so isolated and remote up there that at times it seems like a dream.  Were the colours really as vivid as they are in my memory?  Were the mountains really as imposing as I remember them to be?  Was the sky really that blue? Did people really live in these harsh conditions and not only survive, but thrive.  Yes, yes to all, and our photos show it.  But they cannot show the experience of pedaling yourself, and your worldly possessions from 1000m up and over 4600m, for hundreds of kilometers, the pride and the sense of achievement you feel, the tears of joy you shed, the smiles shared with passing locals, and the endless cups of sugary tea needed to do it all!

For more of an accurate idea of what it was like on a day by day basis I've included my dairy entries below -->

Day 1:  Osh to Gulcha (at 1540m). 87km, 6 hours cycling/ 7½ hours on the road.
Climbed up to 3289m (Osh is at 2000m) and then flew down the far side to 1540m in 18km.  A tough day, made tougher by all the days off in Osh I think but stunning scenery, more died-and-gone-to-Kyrgyzstan type stuff. Passed a big nomad settlement near the top of the pass.  Both of us shattered by the end of the day, I think we didn’t refuel very well in Osh!  Also, had a late start (after lunch) which meant the day was all go go go and we didn’t take many breaks.  Plus it was hot! Still though, very exciting to be on the road again at the start of this section.

Almost at the top of the pass. Daylight disappearing. Good thing it was a fast downhill to Gulcha!

Day 2: Gulcha to Aktala.  66km, 4½ hrs/ 7hrs. Homestay at 2470m
I could’ve slept all day today!  Hit snooze quite a few times but we were on the road by half nine. Stopped at 2pm for lunch just as the skies opened.  It didn’t look like it was going to end so we put on our wet gear and got back out into it.  It didn’t last too long though which was great, and the skies brightened again. A kid stole a reflector off the back of Nick’s bike while we were having lunch.  The kids, and people in general, seem less friendly in this valley, hostile even.  They are noticeably less well off and we can’t help but wonder if they’ve been completely overlooked by the recent influx of tourism to the area.  Osh has lots of tourism, as do the Pamirs, but this stretch in between is just a place people go through.  There are no homestays, official or unofficial.  We had stones/rocks thrown at us three times today, by both adults and kids, and each time they shouted ‘tourist, tourist’.  Not pleasant at all.  Makes me nervous approaching towns.  Such a huge change from the hospitality and friendliness we’ve been experiencing up to now.  

Stayed in an official homestay run by a mum and her two kids.  We were looking for a camp spot and saw the sigh so went in, and I’m really glad we did.  They were lovely, really welcoming, it was a great end to the day, and meant we wouldn’t leave Kyrgyzstan with a bad taste in our mouths.  We milked the family cow, then turned the milk into cheese for dinner.  I did some weaving on a traditional loom and we slept in a yurt.  The daughter took a bit of a shine to me and gave me a hug that threatened never to end when we were leaving the next morning! A lovely goodbye to a place that has been an unexpected highlight of the trip so far.

Having a weaving lesson at our homestay.

Day 3: 63km, 5¾ hrs/ 9hrs. Camped at 3400m
Started climbing immediately from the homestay.  Up to 3615m.  A tough climb with a lot of cut backs, and incredibly strong winds at the top of the pass. So windy we didn’t even have time to get a photo, just threw our jackets on and legged it! Met two couples cycling the other direction today – John and Bee from Bristol and two Dutch retirees. There was a second pass (3541m) immediately after the first and then it was a fast steep downhill to Sary-Tash, the last town before the Tajik border. We stopped for food and the mum of the family from last nights homestay was in there too! Almost didn’t recognize her.  After Sary Tash we got hit with a strong headwind that made it slow going and tough, although flat. Camped. Put the tent up and was asleep about ten minutes later!

The start of the climb to the pass

Almost at the top...

The top of the pass - a quick snap before getting out of the wind as soon as possible. The girl in the photo, and two of her friends, were up there with their cows and gave us flowers they'd picked.

Second pass of the day

Downhill to Sary-Tash

Say-Tash and our first real glimpse of the Pamirs ahead of us

Pamirs, here we come!

Day 4: 77km, 7½ /12hrs.  Homestay at Karakol (3950m)
Left Kyrgyzstan about 5km from where we camped and entered into 20km of no man’s land before Tajikistan. Stunningly beautiful.  Crossed a 4282m pass before Tajikistan. A relatively easy climb except for the last two kilometers, which were brutally steep. On a recommendation from other cyclists, we wanted to make it to Karakol to sleep, and did, just about. A really long, tough day. Arrived shattered. Caught up with Tom, the German we’d cycled with before who left Osh a day ahead of us. We’d thought it was going to be all down hill from the pass…how wrong we were. Lots of up and down, strong winds, sand storms and awful road (12km of washboard after the border entry post) The last 20km to Karakol was downhill but into a strong, cold wind. Homestay was lovely. Good food, big portions and a lovely stove in the room. Fell into a coma-like sleep immediately after eating. Incredible scenery all day today that changed around every corner.

 The scenery so far has been out of this world. The scale is very hard to comprehend because the mountains are so big, the plains endless but no houses or anything to compare them to. Everything is massive and the colours are so bright and strongly contrasting. Blue skies like you’ve only seen in kids cartoons, mountains with reds, greens, greys, blues in them. Brilliant white clouds and snow topped mountains and virtually no signs of life. No animals, no buildings, no cars (one or two cars pass us a day). Despite the immense beauty it’s a very bleak, harsh environment. I can’t understand how people ever came to live in these areas. Sometimes there is one house/one family and that’s it for 50 or more kilometers, no community, just them and the animals they keep.

The sun is so strong up this high. My face and lips are so dry and cracked. The leathery faces on some of the locals is pretty scary. We’re lashing on the factor 50 in a bid to do as little damage as possible. The tarmac is melted in lots of places, it feels like cycling through toffee, but the wind would cut you in half it’s so cold, and once the sun sets the temperature drops immediately. There is often ice on the tent in the mornings but we’ve always been toasty inside. Very glad we bought such good sleeping bags, they were expensive at the time but worth every penny, them and our puffa jackets – absolutely invaluable, money well spent.
Almost at the Kyrgyz border and the road started to deteriorate - a sigh of things to come!

No man's land - 20km of it between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

The first of many river crossings on the trip

Almost at the pass...

We made it! 4282m!

Looking back to where we'd come from.  A very satisfying view!

Leaving the Tajik border entry post behind, this was the scenery waiting for us...

...and this salty madness!

Lake Karakol in the distance, and our destination that day.

Day 5: 51km, 5hrs/ 6½ hrs. Camped at 4240m
Camped just before Ak-Baikal Pass (the highest point on the Pamir Highway). We left Karakol in a very cold headwind. Strong sun (melting tarmac) again but with a bitter wind. Lips cracked and bleeding. The altitude is making everything difficult (just swinging a leg over the bike makes me pant, never mind pedaling). Wind died down after two hours but after lunch we had about 35km of washboard. Incredibly frustrating surface. I thought I hated wind the most on the bike but pretty sure a bad road surface is worse. Constant rattling, banging, bumping and painfully slow progress.

Ak-Baikal Pass - 4655m - highest point on the Pamirs and no sign post to mark it.  Surprisingly anti-climactic getting there to realise there's nothing to mark the point!

The view from the pass...

Here was the sign, 15km down from the pass...but still!

Day 6: 83km, 5hrs/8hrs. Murgab (Pamir Hotel) 3620m
Started early to get up the pass and to make it to Murgab by the end of the day. Washboard road again until after the pass. The climb itself wasn’t too hard until the last kilometer or so, and even then still not as hard as the one before Sary Tash or the one before the Tajik border. Amazing scenery again all day.  From the pass it was 50km of downhill to Murgab through spectacular scenery. There was no real wind (thank god!) and it was lovely and warm with a decent road surface.  A good day!  Arrived to Murgab and had a shower and two dinners! Delighted!

Murgab! And the promise of a hot shower and chocolate!

Day 7: Day off, Murgab (Pamir Hotel). Lots of chocolate! Also, we’ve decided to take the Wakhan Valley route instead of sticking to the M41.

Day 8: 62km, 5hrs/ 8½ hours. Camped at 4020m
Left Murgab late-ish and had a head wind all day.  Didn’t make it as far as we’d have liked. Camped just after the 4137m pass.  Met two Swiss girls going in opposite direction. They came via the M41. Conflicted, again, as to whether to take the Wakhan Valley detour or not.  A local tour guide told us to come to the Pamirs and not go to the Wakhan is a shame.  She also said the road isn’t corrugated/washboard there, but that it’s not sealed either for the entire 300km of it. Decisions, decisions. Just wait ‘til we get to the turn off and see how we feel?

Day 9: 44km, 3½ hrs/ 6 hours.  Alichur (3880m).  Homestay (Shackruna)
Woke up to a gorgeous morning. Just as we were getting packed up,, a massive thunder and lightening storm rolled in and brought with it the biggest hail stones you’ve ever seen.  We had to crouch down behind the bikes for protection. They we really sore where they hit you! The hail finished but the skies were still dark but we set off anyway, cycling into the rain and with a strong headwind (surprise, surprise!). Most mental weather we’ve cycled in yet. Road was mostly flat bit we were only averaging 10km/hr for most of the day.  The Swiss girls yesterday day had recommended a homestay in Alichur so we headed for that and have decided, finally, to go to the Wakhan Valley. Maybe it’ll mean getting away from this headwind! It’s worth the risk anyway we figure!

Shakruna, the daughter of the family we stayed with, performing a traditional Kygryz dance for us

Day 10: Day off - Alichur.  The homestay is so nice we decided to take a day off here and recover from the horrible winds and hail stones of yesterday!

Day 11: 64km, 6¾hours/ 11¾ hours. Camped at 3820m
25km after Alichur we turned off the M41 and said goodbye to tarmac until we reach Khorog in about 300km’s time. There was an immediate change of scenery, much more lush with wild flowers growing everywhere. Both of us were delighted with the decision even though the road is pretty bad – stoney and sandy but not washboard so it’s ok! The pass at 4344m (Khargush Pass) was hands down the toughest climb yet. The last 7km to the top took nearly 3 hours. The road deteriorated rapidly and it was really steep. We had to do some of it in 50m bursts. I thought my lungs were going to explode! After the pass it was downhill to the river, The Panj, which is the border between Tajikistan and Afganistan, where we passed a passport check. Cycled until we were out of sight of the check-point and pitched the tent, almost totally dark at this stage. Shattered.  Saw an Afghan Donkey Caravan on the far side of the river!

The last few kilometres on the M41 before turning off into the Wakhan Valley

Chinese Trucks and Nick!

The sand we'd been hearing so much about....

Just after Khargush Pass and a view to the Hindu Kush. The scenery just kept wowing us

The road did too...!

Day 12: 28km, 4hrs/8hrs. Camped at 3540m
Camped by a river.  There was a small house that looked derelict just beside a big grassy patch by the water and as we were pitching the tent a man came out with a big bowl of pasta and a loaf of bread for us. Amazing! After such a tough, slow day neither of us felt like cooking so these guys made our day!  The sand, gravel, rocks that make up the road got to me today in a big day.  I had a bit of a road-side meltdown at one stage, with a few tears of frustration/exhaustion. Already looking forward to getting to Khorog!!

The Panj River - the natural border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan

The view from our camp spot

Day 13: 34km, 4hrs/ 8hrs. Langar (2820m). Homestay (with hot water and a sit down toilet)
Had a slow morning this morning. Took hours over brekkie at the river and then made two pots of coffee. Such a gorgeous place to wake up. Arrived down to the valley proper today. Amazing scenery dropping down into the valley. So green and lush. Insanely bad road, not sure it would be cycleable in reverse, so steep and rocky that the wheels jump all over the place.  So much mental concentration needed. Stayed in a lovely (but expensive) homestay with a hot shower!

Downhill to the valley floor at Langar.

Day 14: 30km, 4hrs/ 6½ hours.  Homestay at 2790m
Awful road still. Words fail me totally trying to describe it. Incredibly frustrating and tiring. Strong headwinds in the afternoon so going to try to be on the road before 6am from now on. Still not covering much ground. Starting to get pretty fed up with the road, not sure that the beauty of the valley makes up for the effort.  When you’re cycling you can’t look around at the beauty of the place anyway, you have to be totally focused on the road.

Day 15: 43km, 5½/ 10 hours.  Homestay at 2720m
On the road at 6:30am in an attempt to beat the wind.  Stopped at 10:30 for roadside eggs, bread and coffee at a tiny little shop/café. Much needed fuel.  Met an American biker, Tim, who stopped too, going the opposite direction.  Later, met a Swiss-Italian cyclist, looking for a garmen cable, then two German cyclists closely followed by two Dutch, all going the opposite way.  They’d already covered 62km from Ishkashim when we met them because of their lovely tail wind.  The frustration at our slow progress really set in. So hard to stay focused on the positives (the scenery, the experience, the trip of a lifetime type vibes etc) and to not let others’ speed and progress get to you. 

A road side cafe, what a treat!

Day 16: 69km, 6hrs/ 11hrs. Camped at 2430m
Met a Northern Irish / British duo today– Mudd Life Crisis.  Really nice guys. Had packed in 20+ year long careers at the RAF to motorbike around the world for 2 years and were visibly high on life and their new found perspectives on everything. Great to meet people from ‘home’.  I’d been having a tough morning – road-side tears, again – and they brightened me up no end. Such a shame we hadn’t met at a town where we could’ve all stayed the night and chin wagged the night away.  As it was we were probably stopped road side for about 2 hours! Cycling away from Steve and Piers I realised I was enjoying myself and that I really hadn’t been for the past few days.  Amazing the difference great people can make to your mood and attitude.  While talking to them, Dan from North Dakota, who we’d met briefly in Murgab, caught up with us and we cycled with him to Khorog. A really nice guy, and good easy company.  It being the 4th of July today, he cooked us up chips when we set up camp.  A windy afternoon again today but I enjoyed the day for the first time in a few days, instead of just wishing it done.

Nick with Dan, from North Dakota, and Tim from New Mexico

Almost at Ishkashim, where we heard there was a set of traffic lights.  High hopes for some tarmac too.  Hopes dashed pretty quickly!

Day 17: 79km, 7hrs/11hrs. Khorog (2140m) (Pamir Lodge)
A long day but we made it! We’ve been hearing about an Indian Restaurant that’s here for days now.  Can’t wait to have a curry and then a huge sleep tomorrow!!

Even though we were pretty close to Khorog at this point, the road was still in terrible condition.

Day 18 & 19: Days off, Khorog

Day 20: We took a jeep with our bikes today, all the way to Dushanbe.  The road from Khorog to Dushanbe is apparently the worst section yet and although it’s only a distance of about 550km it seems to take people on average 9 days to do it.  We just didn’t have that time.  We need to apply for our Uzbeki, Turkmeni and Iranian visa’s in Dushanbe and we need the time to do that before our Tajik visa expires.  We got to Dushanbe after 12 hours of some of the mentalist driving I’ve ever witnessed, but our bikes made it unscathed so it was grand.

We’ve been in Dushanbe for a week now and have successfully got our Uzbeki and Iranian visas.  They are relatively straightforward to get.  The Turkmen one on the other hand is notoriously time consuming, and even then, not guaranteed.  We’ve to go back to the embassy on Thursday and it should be issued to us then but we aren’t holding our breath…we’ve heard plenty of horror stories and loads of people that have just give up on it and re routed instead.   If we don't get it our only option will be to fly over Turkmenistan which we are not particularly keen to do!  Just thinking about boxing up the bikes for a flight gives me a headache, so fingers crossed we get the visa and we'll be back in the saddle on Friday!

If you want to see more photos, please check out our Facebook page or click on the link below -->
BBH - Tajikistan

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