The large region making up the eastern part of Tajikistan known as the Pamirs, meaning the “Roof of the World”, is characterised by mountains, deep river canyons and rural villages of farmers and nomadic herders. Our time spent here would be one of extremes – the highest altitudes we’ve cycled at, the longest and steepest climbs, the toughest roads and the lowest temperatures. Having been charmed by the beauty of Tajikistan’s nature and welcomed with open arms by its people, we look back on a memorable month in and around the Pamirs.
15th September – 13th October 2018
It was as if the border between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan had been drawn exactly along the imaginary line on which the flatland ends and the foothills of the mountains start. As soon as we had crossed into our third Central Asian country, we found ourselves going up and down rolling hills and admiring mountain views in the distance. The Zerafshan Valley was offering a magnificent glimpse of what was to come during the following weeks. Like in previous countries, there were children in every village we passed through, shouting “Hello!”, waving and giving us high fives, but these welcoming gestures reached a whole new level in Tajikistan. Barely an hour passed without several groups of children excitedly running out onto the road to greet us and stretch their hands out to meet ours. People in cars would randomly thank us, presumably for us visiting their county. The road was great, we were cycling past beautiful fields and everyone seemed incredibly friendly – we were going to like it here.
Soon the gentle rolling hills made way for steeper gradients. Especially after our time in the desert, the mountains looked more beautiful than ever and we didn’t mind the climbing. Halfway up one of our biggest continuous ascents yet – gaining about 1500 metres of altitude over a distance of 20 kilometres, a similar elevation gain as from the middle of Uzbekistan up to this point, a distance of about 800 kilometres – a car stopped next to us, the window was rolled down and the driver insisted on giving us a whole, huge honeydew melon. We tried to explain there was no way we could carry that up the hill we were just climbing, but to no avail: he told us that he was a Tajik police officer, implying we had no choice but to accept the gift, so we stopped by the side of the road and wolfed down as much melon as we could.
At the top of the climb awaited the five kilometre long Anzob Pass tunnel, also known as the “Tunnel of Death”. It had been awarded this unofficial title for the lack of lighting and ventilation, as well as dangerously bad road surface including – so we had heard – large holes with metal rods sticking up at the bottom of them. Luckily, the surface has been replaced and lights have been installed, meaning it’s now only a five kilometre long tunnel without ventilation and scarcely any room for overtaking lorries. We arrived at the top of the hill at six in the evening and saw dark fumes coming out of the entrance which made it impossible to see more than 50 metres into the tunnel, despite the presence of lights. Most cyclists hitch a lift through the tunnel, but we had, through a WhatsApp group we were in, heard from two who had cycled through a few days before us and had found it unpleasant, but not overly dangerous. So we pulled our buffs over our mouths and noses, turned on our bike lights, attached all of our other possible lighting to our bikes – head torches and camping lamp – and were about to head into the thick darkness, when a machine gun carrying soldier guarding the entrance told us we wouldn’t be allowed to cycle through, we could however camp near the entrance and go at 5 in the morning. So we did just that.
When we set off around daybreak, there were no fumes and we could see much further into the tunnel. It took us around 15 minutes to reach the other end, during which only a handful of cars and lorries passed us in either direction. It was an eerie experience, but not unpleasant or dangerous – making for a similar sort of thrill which one might hope to gain from watching a horror film. It was a surreal sight to approach the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, with a huge mountain face opposite the exit getting closer and closer, seemingly warping into view while the eyes tried to make sense of the scene after having focused on the dimly lit road ahead of us for fifteen minutes. On the other side, amazing views of snow-capped mountains and 70 kilometres of downhill to the capital Dushanbe awaited us.
Tim unfortunately couldn’t quite enjoy that morning’s ride, as he had to learn an inconvenient truth: One does not simply go to Tajikistan without getting the shits. As had last been the case in Turkey, he felt weak, a little dizzy and shivered his way down the road despite wearing all of his clothes, trying not to fall asleep at the handlebars – only another 60 km of rolling until he could lie down in a hostel bed, only another 50 km…
At the hostel, he recovered within a couple of days. Green House Hostel is a hub for cyclists, motorcyclists, hitchhikers and other overlanders heading into or coming from the Pamirs, so we socialised with new like-minded people as well as reunited with Katie and Anna, who had arrived a couple of days before us. We also went to a visa office to acquire a permit to visit the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), the region in which the Pamirs are located. The GBAO, created within the USSR in the 1920s, covers 45% of Tajikistan’s area but only accommodates around 2.5 % of its population. We could have bought the permits online along with our e-visas, however this would have cost us $20, compared to 20 Somoni – about a tenth – when doing it in Dushanbe, although exposing ourselves to any sort of in-person bureaucracy in this part of the world bore a certain risk of wasting a lot of time. Luckily, the process was pretty straightforward and after about one hour of knocking on several windows at the visa office and hoping our request had been understood, going to a nearby bank to pay our 20 Somoni, going back to the office with our receipts and nervously waiting while being unsure if anything was happening or if we were expected to bribe someone, we held our permits in our hands. We stayed with a lovely South-African family for two more nights through Warmshowers before hitting the road towards the Pamirs, which would be the hardest but also arguably most beautiful part of our journey so far.
On our way east from Dushanbe, our efforts climbing some steep hills were rewarded by fruit sellers on the side of the road giving us bags full of grapes for free; making it through another long tunnel was rewarded by amazing views of Nurek Reservoir. One of the spots we chose to camp in turned out to be next to a local man’s fruit and vegetable garden, so naturally he urged us to help ourselves to anything and our dinner and breakfast were supplemented with fresh tomatoes, peppers, figs and pomegranates.
On a downhill, we came across a memorial for the four cyclists who had been murdered here in an attack barely months prior, by a group of people who after the incident pledged allegiance to ISIS. We had first learnt of this attack while in Turkey and were shocked, saddened and worried by the news. We and other cycle tourists heading exactly that way had to have a long think about what this would mean for our plans, but eventually decided that we would treat this as an isolated incident, unless we were to hear news of subsequent attacks, just like one probably wouldn’t cancel plans to visit Paris a couple of months after the 2015 attacks. Since before we even left the UK, cycling the Pamirs had been a more integral part of our planned route than most other sections which we decided on along the way, so we weren’t going to let the terrorists take that away.
One hundred metres after the memorial, a car pulled over next to us and the driver opened his boot which was filled with grapes. Upon showing him that we already had a bag full of grapes we had been given the day before, he emptied said bag of somewhat sad looking grapes onto the side of the road and filled it with his obviously superior grapes. Later that day, we were given several of the biggest tomatoes and apples imaginable, a loaf of bread, and, after having been invited to stay in a room belonging to a car garage, a honeydew melon and a watermelon – as one type of melon naturally wouldn’t have been enough. The events of the day made one thing abundantly clear: an act of terrorism on one hand, however scary to those planning a visit to a country that usually doesn’t feature positively or at all in the Western media, and the way we were treated by the actual inhabitants of that country on the other hand couldn’t have posed a starker contrast and one does in no way represent the other.
After passing through Kulob, which despite being Tajikistan’s third largest city feels no bigger than a provincial town, we had to negotiate another long continuous climb and took a break at a water fountain halfway up. A 4×4 Lada stopped and three men stepped out: a young man in a fashionable suit, a middle-aged man in casual clothing with a big old-school video camera, and an old man wearing a traditional hat and a suit jacket over an old-man jumper. The man with the camera first filmed the mountainous scenery, then the young man who had taken to some dancing to the music faintly coming out of the car’s stereo, and finally us. What a curious bunch, we thought, having no idea what was going on. The arrival of two more cars cleared up our confusion as more dressed up people and eventually the bride, in an outrageous pink dress that resembled an upside down cupcake, joined the party, dancing in the street, now accompanied by loud music blasting out of one of the cars, while being filmed by the guy who was presumably the official wedding cinematographer. They departed again after a few minutes, only for another wedding to arrive shortly after and the whole spectacle of dancing in the street while being filmed was repeated. Driving over the Pamirs in a convoy and stopping at this very fountain for a few minutes to dance seems to be the thing to do for any respectable Tajik wedding party.
Coming down the other side of this hill, we approached the river Panj – a tributary of the Amu Darya we had previously followed in Uzbekistan – for the first time and soon reached a checkpoint at which our passports and permits were checked and details entered into a book: We were now in Gorno-Badakhshan, and with it, the Pamirs.
For nearly two weeks, we would follow the course of the Panj, which marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. We had been on the shores of border rivers, looking over to a different country on the other side, several times before – the Elbe between Germany and Czechia, the March between Austria and Slovakia, the Danube between Romania and Serbia – and we would always eventually cross into the country on the other side. This time, however, the other side would remain elusive, the only way we could experience it through watching the landscape and mountains roll by – at first from afar, during later parts of our journey, as the valley got narrower, from only a literal stone’s throw away – as well as villages and their inhabitants, who would sometimes, just like their Tajik counterparts, shout friendly “Hello!”s and wave to us. Being so close to Afghanistan, a couple of times a day we saw young soldiers in groups of three or four patrolling the border on our side, usually looking unhappy with their presumably dreary task of walking along the same road for hours, days, weeks, maybe months, as part of their compulsory military service.
We joined the main road connecting Dushanbe with Tajikistan’s eastern territories – the M41 – after the town of Kalai-Khumb. Built by Soviet military in the 1930s, the M41’s surface nowadays varies in quality from good asphalt to corrugated pavement and gravel sections, with the stretch from Kalai-Khumb falling into one of the rather poor categories. Still, the scenery more than made up for the slow progress and dust being whirled up and blown into our faces by occasionally passing 4x4s – the only form of public transport in the Pamirs – and lorries carrying goods along the New Silk Road.
After Khorog, the administrative centre and largest town of Gorno-Badakhshan, the M41 is known as the Pamir Highway. Here, we had to make a decision that had been on our minds for weeks: to continue east by staying on the M41, i.e. joining the Pamir Highway and following it across a bleak plateau, or to detour and take the more scenic but much more challenging route through the Wakhan Corridor – once a designated buffer zone between Russia and Great Britain in the late 19th century to separate the empires and reduce tensions between them at the end of the first cold war between the East and the West known as “The Great Game”. The latter option promised stunning views of the Wakhan Valley, continuing along the river Panj and eventually climbing up to the plateau at a much later point on infamously bad roads. After taking a rest day staying with a Couchsurfing host, we decided we would accept the challenge of cycling the Wakhan.
The scenery along the valley of the Panj was at first, unsurprisingly, similar to that before Khorog. After the town of Ishkashim however, when the river takes a bend towards the east, the mountainous views become more dramatic: Looking ahead, we could see Karl Marx Peak and Engels Peak in the Tajik Shakhdara Range, 6,723 metres and 6,507 metres high, respectively; looking to our right across the river, behind the Afghan mountains, the even higher peaks of the Hindu Kush in Pakistan were coming into view, including 7,140 metre high Udren Zom, one of the highest peaks in the world located outside of the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges. Small streams running down the mountains were lined with stunningly colourful autumnal trees.
As we ventured deeper into the valley, villages became scarcer; still in every single village we passed through, several children would greet us with their “Hello!”s and parents would whisper the greeting into the ears of those too young to remember it by heart.
While the road had been mostly manageable for the first three days of our time in the Wakhan, we knew from another couple’s blog post describing the road conditions along the route, and because of the village’s memorable name, that conditions would get very challenging after Shitkarv. From here on for about 60 kilometres, it was mostly deep gravel, only occasionally interrupted by broken up asphalt up to the town of Langar, so we spent most of our time wrestling with the front of the bike to keep it in a straight line, the back wheel spinning in the gravel. Once you stop, starting again is an impossible challenge.
After Langar, the Panj splits up into the Wakhan and Pamir rivers and the toughest section begins. Incredibly steep hairpin bends on loose gravel had us crawling uphill at less than walking speed for two hours before, exhausted, we decided to make camp in an abandoned hut. We wouldn’t see another town or village for the next 130 kilometres, a distance which we would tackle in one or two days under different circumstances, but which would take us four exhausting days in this case. Steep uphill climbs on stony dirt roads and deep gravel made for painfully slow progress of brief bursts of pedalling or pushing, frequently interrupted by breaks of catching our breath and hoping our hearts wouldn’t jump out of our chests from beating so vigorously. As we reached higher and higher altitudes, the air became thinner and breathing more difficult, making the surface and gradient even more challenging.
We departed from the Pamir river and the proximity to Afghanistan on our shortest day of the whole trip in terms of distance – although by no means in terms of duration – we put up the tent after only 21 kilometres of pushing our 30+ kg bikes up gradients of 10 percent and panting our way up the hill, gasping for air every 50-100 metres. Of course, it never looks as hard in the photographs as it is in reality. While Tim found fulfillment in the challenge and proclaimed there was nowhere else he’d rather be, Linda found it hard not to lose her will to live.
While the days were still warm, the temperatures at night fell to below zero and one morning we woke up to icicles on the banks of the stream we had camped next to, but our sleeping bags were keeping us warm. Finally, we made it over the Khargush Pass at 4,344 metres and after some downhill on still terrible surface, at last we reached the M41, the Pamir Highway. The sight of asphalt and the feeling of moving at more than slow walking speed had never been so elating, and despite disagreeing about whether the detour had been worth it or not, we could agree on having accomplished something to be immensely proud of.
The following 120 kilometres to Murghab, the highest town of Tajikistan (and, at the time, of the Soviet Union) and the only significant town in the eastern half of Gorno-Badakhshan with a population of about 4,000, felt like a walk in the park, another 4,000+ metre pass we had to cross on the way there was barely noticeable in terms of effort.
We had a rest day in Murghab and stocked up on whatever we could find at the bazaar made up of shipping containers before tackling yet another very hard section of our route: climbing three mountain passes on the way to Kyrgyzstan, the first one being the one that makes the Pamir Highway the second highest highway in the world.
For the most part, the climb was fairly gentle and the road good, which was lucky considering Tim was just getting over Episode III of his Bowel Wars – the annoying travellers’ illness had hit him again just before entering the Wakhan Valley; fortunately Linda had mostly been spared. For the final 2 kilometres to the top of the Ak Baital Pass however, climbing from about 4,400 metres to 4,655, the road turned to gravel, increasingly covered by patches of snow. Once again, the combination of the altitude and the surface of the road made riding difficult to impossible and we had to push most of this section, frequently interrupted by breathing breaks. From where we had camped the night before it had been 27 kilometres to the top, we had estimated it would take us about three hours but had joked that it might take five – we eventually reached the top of the pass after nearly six hours.
Coming down on the other side, the road was covered in snow, but the texture of it made it possible to slowly roll down without too much sliding, until we reached the snow line and continued on washboard gravel (a quick succession of deep horizontal ripples, i.e. the bumpiest cycling surface imaginable). With frozen fingers but happy to have completed another challenge, we continued to a homestay where we were welcomed by a young man and his mother, as well as two Italian cyclists also spending the night there, whom we had, from a distance, seen go past the abandoned building we had camped in the night before and who had subsequently arrived at the homestay a few hours before us. Warming up by the stove while eating a large plate of pasta, exchanging stories and finding connections with the Italians – “Oh, you met Ramon in Tajikistan? We met him in Kazakhstan before he took a train! Oh, you’re the Italians that the French guy going the other way told us were a few days ahead of us when we met him in the Wakhan!” – was the perfect end to a strenuous day.
The next day, we passed Karakul Lake and the town of Karakul, after which another stretch of 100 km without any towns or villages awaited us so we would have to be self-sufficient for however long it would take us. We passed the second of the three mountain passes on the way to Sary-Tash in Kyrgyzstan on good asphalt while the landscape surrounding the road was increasingly turning into a winter wonderland with snow-covered plains and mountains of the Alai Range towering over everything on view. That night, as we pitched the tent on a snowless patch surrounded by white, we wore almost all of our clothes – three layers of socks, leggings, base layers/fleeces and two down jackets each – as we crawled into our sleeping bags and watched the temperature drop to minus 10.
One more pass, the Kyzylart Pass, and about 55 kilometres were separating us from the town of Sary-Tash, which we were hoping to reach the following afternoon. On the way up, once again we had to pedal through washboard gravel, above a certain elevation this was covered with snow which evened out the surface and made riding a little bit more pleasant. When we reached the Tajik border post and a little later the top of the pass, we thought the hardest part of the day lay behind us – we could not have been more wrong.
What followed was about 20 kilometres of no-man’s land before the Kyrgyz border post, all on a steep downhill road that nobody seems to feel responsible for to maintain or clear of snow. Unlike the snow coming down from Ak Baital Pass, the snow after the top of Kyzylart was compacted, icy and slippery. Our cold hands cramped up from clutching the back brake while slowly and carefully sliding down metre by metre with our feet as auxiliary brakes, pushing through deep snow and down hairpin bends, before the snow started to be intersected with puddles of muddy, icy water which we sometimes had to subject our non-waterproof shoes and therefore feet to.
Eventually, we made it to the Kyrgyzstan border post and after another couple of hours of riding across a very windy plane on somewhat better roads but with blocks of ice for hands and feet, we arrived at a guesthouse in Sary-Tash after dark. Behind us lies a month that filled us with a sense of true adventure and memories of nature’s beauty; ahead lies one more mountain pass on the way to a huge country, the entry into which has silently crept up on us: China.
* * *
Thanks to our hosts in Tajikistan: The Dekkers in Dushanbe and Daler in Khorog.
|This stretch||Whole trip|
|Distance cycled||1,500 km||Tim: 11,500 km, Linda: 11,000 km|
|Average distance on cycling days||65 km||86 km|
|Average day-to-day spending||4.70 €||5.43 €|
18 nights camping
5 nights paid accommodation
4 nights with 2 Warmshowers/Couchsurfing hosts
1 night invited to stay at a garage
|66 nights camping/empty buildings
46 nights WS/CS/friends
19 nights paid accommodation (hotel/hostel/guesthouse/homestay)
13 nights invited into people’s homes/places of work
3 nights ferry/train/plane
|Punctures||Tim: 2, Linda: 0||Tim: 6, Linda: 3|
|Bike and equipment problems||– We had our wheels trued, hubs and bottom brackets serviced and new chains put on in Dushanbe. There hadn’t been any problems with these parts but we thought it would be a good idea to have everything in top shape before hitting the roughest terrain, and we hadn’t changed the chains since Istanbul. We would normally change the chains ourselves but as the mechanics were already working on our bikes, we figured we might as well ask them to do this as well. 1,000 km later, after Linda had thought the weird sound her chain was making was due to it needing oiling or some other problem, she realised that her chain had actually been put on wrong by the mechanic and had been rubbing on a metal plate the whole time, so took it off again and put it on the right way.
– On the bumpy roads, two of Linda’s bottle cages broke where they were attached to the frame but could luckily be re-attached using a second hole.
– Tim had a pannier rack bolt break which is still stuck in the rack and needs to be drilled out once we find a garage or bike shop that has an electric drill (we briefly tried one with a hand drill but stopped the mechanic when it looked like his efforts would break the frame rather than get the bolt out; fortunately the rack also has a second hole with which it can be attached to the frame), lost another rack bolt and his rack broke in a luckily non-load-bearing place.
|Things we thought were cycle tourists from the distance||A boy on a donkey; an old woman in a flowing dress, inexplicably stood by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.|
Also check out our Stats page for more up-to-date figures.