WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS LOTS OF METRES
We decided to take a leisurely detour via Tajikistan in order to avoid an early monsoon-ridden entry into South East Asia. But before being able to cycle along the spectacular narrow valleys that border with Afghanistan and take up the numerous warm offers to stay with locals, we first had to tackle the extra-terrestrial-like Pamir mountain range and its famous high altitude “highway”, the second highest in the world in a country where 50% of land is above 3000m.
Looking at the map I noted that we were about to tackle seven passes. 2408m, 3615m, 4336m, 4232m, 4655m, 4314m and 4272m (1000m=3280ft). Surely if we failed last week’s 3062m pass that had a 10m high corridor of ice carved by JCBs at the top, how on earth would we make it to 4655m, let alone camp in the numerous 3000m+ townships?
And then there was our failed -20C attempt last winter in Kyrgyzstan which saw us having to hitch a ride at the 3000m mark, just 184m short from the summit. The cold there was unbearable and we found it hard to imagine what any life above 3000m would feel like or even look like, particularly from the comfort of lowland temperatures in excess of 30C.
There was even snow at the top of Austria’s 1788m Solkpass when we climed last JUNE! 1788! SNOW! JUNE!
Approaching the Sary Tash pass in Kyrgyzstan, it already began to feel cold around the 3000m mark. But with the sun out, we felt warmed and camped up for the night, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. To our delight, we woke up in the morning surrounded by snow, making for a beautiful photo and further confirming my thoughts that indeed anything above this level was going to be another world.
Somehow ascending to the border-crossing pass at 4336m revealed no snow and all seemed relatively normal as the several days of sun had warmed the area. Passing over the switchbacks and into Tajikistan was an instant change of scenery. Desert-like and alien-looking with impressive rock formations; beautiful in its own respect. The sensation of whizzing with a tail wind at 40kmph on a flat and 72kmph downhill towards frozen lake Karakol was exhilarating. Here we caught up with friends who had got ahead in a brewing storm over the previous day’s pass, so now we were seven cyclists. From a high vantage point we observed the spectacular display of mini tornadoes forming around the plain below us where the lake sat. The weather around us was micro-climatic so whilst on one side you could see interesting and localised cloud formations, a clear day was being rendered on the other. This place really did feel like another planet.
That evening we camped up by the stunning frozen lake, joined in numbers by a further two Breton cyclists going the opposite direction; our camp was now nine big!
We found any altitude above 3000m quite hard at times. Doing anything such as walking a short distance or blowing up the mattress would put us out of breath and lethargy overcame us at times. Head, neck and back aches were to become daily occurrences for me. One night we were constantly waking up unable to breathe. Hardly surprising considering that our respiratory system has to compensate for such altitude changes as those shown visually in my mini-science experiment pictured below. It shows a squeezed bottle at 1300m, after having previously sealed – unsqueezed- some days earlier at 4650m.
Carmen got sick from exhaustion on our first day in the country so we sat-out the following day in a guesthouse. I spent the day slowly ticking off a list of chores.
Chores by high altitude standards: find some vegetables, find some cola, find some bread and clean the dishes. It took me most of the day to achieve them, crossing the village numerous times to find which house sold what, all with recovery rests in between. It’s amazing that despite finding no fresh produce nor electricity, you can still easily find an old guy in his mud house selling SIM cards, who then is able to advise on the best internet-tariff plans and then connect you up to the services via SMS codes and service phone calls. I spent the rest of the day surfing the web. Internet? Da. Apples? Niet.
The combination of freezing winds and constant sun meant that head gear and down jackets were required. Heavy wind and sunburn could be seen in the faces of locals. The wise ones wore black terrorist-like balaclavas, leading to a somewhat strange and confusing signal as they greeted us warmly into their guesthouses and cafes.
It was a slight concern I suppose that only on day one of Tajikistan, Carmen had fallen victim to exhaustion with our highest pass yet to come the following day.
This pass ended up not being so bad actually. We paced ourselves down to about 40km a day and took the pass slowly. We didn’t have much choice in that matter though seeing as the track was awfully corrugated with huge rocks everywhere, resulting in our brains rattling inside their skulls. After the very slow snowy switchbacks to the top, we had a nice kip, all the while feeling out of breath. The scenery changed on the downhill- reds and yellows began to appear in the soil, with white snow peaks and blue skies contributing to a formidable palette of colours. An impressive storm hit us in the middle of an open plane with lighting bolts just above us, leaving us feeling particularly vulnerable and exposed.
It was the first time we’d had rain for a while, which reminded us that we were traveling south and therefore to warmer climates, where altitudes had different meanings. It was strange arriving into Murgab that evening and feeling like we were out of the alien and moody high altitude lands, despite the fact that the town lays at 3650m.
The next pass at 4314m to face us two days later pissed us off too much so we decided to hitch. Head winds the afternoon prior as well as all day up the pass made us impatient. We had made it over the pass, yet the gradual slope down still saw us travelling at a lame three. kilomeres. an. hour. For us, it was pointless. For others that enjoy the challenge aspect of cycling the Pamirs just to be able to say that they cycled the Pamirs, I guess less so. We hitched downhill and over the next pass in a couple of articulated lorries.
We were dropped off by our friendly truckers late at night in a spa village down at 3200m. We had dinner together and they bought us beer before we went off to relax in boiling natural pools and checking into the trucker’s guesthouse for the equivalent £2.50 each- a welcome contrast to the high altitude rates of $15 each. In the morning we put our clothes in a luxurious and natural 60C wash and made for the rest of Tajikistan- pleased to have no more passes to conquer, and in theory only downhills.
Experiencing this part of the country was a big contrast; ditching the terrorist look for hot summer attire, plenty of villages with shops and vegetation everywhere and, Tajik hospitality. Our first lazy day into this new country saw us stop early and take up one of the numerous (free) offers of food and bed. Until we met the truckers, we were travelling through Kyrgyz part of Tajkistan. So it was here that we experienced the spirit of Tajik people: friendly, smiley, genuine, warm and hospitable. It’s exactly how Iran is described which is probably no coincidence as Tajiks are Persian in both ethnicity and language.
Heading further south east we entered Khorog: the liveliness, the Indian-like women’s dresses and the fact that there was a curry house made the place distinct from any other central Asian town. We were very excited to see such changes after having spent seven months eating the same food and seeing the samey Soviet towns. The vegetable curry we had was supreme so we visited twice! We stayed in mountain lodgings for three nights, catching up with many friends we’d made along the way, drinking beer and celebrating birthdays. The place was made more relaxing by the fact that every evening the local Ismaeli Muslim prayer house would sing beautifully into our garden. Everyone seemed to speak excellent English in Khorog and we temporarily ditched Russian.
This town definitely felt like where central Asia meets the middle east. With Afghanistan now across the narrow river from us, these very parts of the world played stage to a long lasting battle between two great spheres of influence: the British and Russian empires.
Following this river border over the next 250km of gorge was exciting. Always within wave-able distance to the friendly Afghans, we admired their beautiful villages stretching up vertically into steep mountains, with high waterfalls and covered in green. These villages would show up every few kilometers, with nothing but a simple track carved out through daunting vertical mountain drops. Completely inaccessible and cut off from the rest of their country. How they managed to build these paths I don’t know.
The whole area from the start of the low lands onward lies within areas susceptible to natural disasters. Every few kilometers we would see a sign informing of a foreign aid agency reinforcing, rebuilding or improving various elements. GEOHAZARDS RELIEF PROJECT II read the UKAID signs, while Japan and a handful of other countries were rebuilding bridges, roofs, improving water supplies etc. Not that water was ever in shortage, quite to the contrary- water is a major feature of the area and with the channelled improvements from aid agencies, beautiful waterfalls and water features lie all around you, all naturally perfectly clean and drinkable.
Our side of the border was equally spectacular but it occurred to me that the village folk in their respective countries have probably never seen their own village from the opposite vantage point. The region we were in, Badakhshon was historically once included in the current Afghan side Badakhshon region that we looked at across the river. To this day inhabitants of both sides speak one language- Pamiri which is a variant of the Persian Tajiki. It was the British and Russians in the late 19th century who carved up the region into its current delineation.
Although the Taliban are still present in Afghanistan (only 25k away while we were there, according to one knowledgable guide), they are always circulating and being chased off. So it came as a surprise one evening whilst cycling in the gorge that my senses became violently arrested by six consecutive explosions fifty metres away from me on the other side of the river. I stood in disbelief for a few minutes and watched as the dust clouds from the cliff fizzled away as I contemplated my next move, searching for explanations. It was with mixed horror and delight that I saw high up in the cliff some men pushing broken stone off the edge into the rapids below. Luckily, they weren’t the Taliban about to enforce Shari’a law upon me but path builders. No sign of health and safety, just lots of courage and I guess skill.
Goodbye central Asia
The most desirable exit route was surrounded by rumour and lack of any official information regarding its opening to tourists. Travelling west when our destination was east was psychologically difficult so whenever the road got bad (often) we would quickly lose patience (often). We had been in central Asia too long and hearing of Chinese and south east Asian food and culture from our friends whet our appetites too much. We just wanted to be in China. Our quickest bet to achieve this was sadly to return the exact same way we came back in- via the seven passes, which sounds crazy but really was the best option.
So off we went 400km back on ourselves, but in order to make this bearable we hitched in trucks. Although at times hideously bumpy, it was a pleasant way of seeing the Pamirs and its magnificent scenery in reverse angle and from the comfort of the bed in the cab.
Of course we stopped off for a curry and a hot spring on the way back, as well as the final free ride back down into Kyrgyzstan and then to the international border with China (though not without another day of climbing), where we exited from seven months of central Asia, with a bloody great big diploma in CYLING PASSES in hand.
Click anywhere below to load the extended picture gallery. A Flikr image gallery of our trip so far is also available by clicking on the photos menu on this blog.