Tajikistan: plenty of passes and where central Asia meets middle east

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!

Highlands

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.

Waking up to snow at 3000m

Waking up to snow at 3000m

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!

Breakfasting in front of the altitudes to come with Rude Jonas from the Swiz Taliban

Breakfasting at 3200m with a view of the altitudes to come. Accompanied by a very rude Jonas from the Swiss Taliban

Looking down at mini tornadoes

Looking down at mini tornadoes, approx. 3900m

Multicultural m8s: Hitesh, Jonas, Carmen, Vivek, Vienne

Frozen lake Karakol

 

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.

Descending from 4650m to 1300m caused the bottle to squeeze

Descending from 4650m to 1300m caused the bottle to squeeze

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.

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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.

Kipping at Akbaytal pass, 4655m

Kipping at Akbaytal pass, 4655m

Enjoying the colours

Enjoying the colours

Lowerlands

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.

A Tajik house

A Tajik house


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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.

Chilling out at the Pamir Lodge, Khorog

Chilling out at the Pamir Lodge, Khorog. Jonas, Hitesh, Vivek, Karl, Nico, Joe, Carmen, Vienne

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.

Washing up

Washing up

Ubiquitous plov but now served with herbs and chickpeas

Ubiquitous plov but now served with herbs and chickpeas

Locals

Locals

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.

Cliff track

Cliff track

Carving a track using dynamite and by pushing rocks off

Carving a track using dynamite and by pushing rocks off

 

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.

 

Getting the truck outta here

Getting the truck outta here


 

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.

 

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Kyrgyzstan Part 3- Bishkek to Osh

We’re back on the road again, hurrah! After waiting and waiting in Bishkek for our Chinese visas, we realised that whatever the ‘problem’ was, it wasn’t getting sorted out any time soon and so decided to go on a trip across the border to Almaty to try our luck there instead. It turns out the problem is confined to Kyrgyzstan and after ten more days of waiting in Kazakhstan we were staring at the visas pasted into our passports in disbelief, checking they were real. It was a pretty enjoyable wait as well- we stayed with a couple of different couch surfing and warm showers hosts, one of whom took us hiking/scrambling up the mountains around the city.

Climbing to 3000m

Climbing to 3000m

Panorama Peak

Panorama Peak

With the elusive Chinese visas firmly in hand, we went back to Bishkek for a few days to get ready for the next leg of our trip. This isn’t actually directly to China, as if we entered straight away we’d hit South East Asia at the height of the monsoon season, which doesn’t sound fun on a bike. First, we decided to have an adventure in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, and then on to the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan (the second highest road in the world)! We persuaded two French cyclists, Nico and Vienne, who we met in Almaty to come with us, along with our friend Jonas, a hardcore solo Swiss cyclist who was also sitting out the winter with us in Bishkek. After a stress-free day getting the Tajik visa (thank you Tajik embassy), we found ourselves gathered in the rain the next morning in the middle of the city, waiting to leave it for the very last time…ever. It was a good feeling.

We lost Jonas on the first day. He wanted to try an ingenious ‘shortcut’ over the mountains on a dirt track through the snow over 3000m high (I mentionned he was hardcore) so we agreed to meet up with him again at lake Song Köl, if he made it to the other side alive. For the time being at least, we’d be taking the main road towards Naryn.  The first few days were repetition for me and Joe, as we’d already ridden to lake Issy Kul the previous month, so it was exciting to turn off to the south on day three into new territory, with the whole of the previously inaccessible (due to snow) south of the country laid out ahead of us. It felt like summer had finally arrived as we got into the relaxing rhythm of camping again, and in a group every evening was more of an occasion- campfires, radio, cooling off in lakes and rivers after hot days of riding, congnac (I blame the French)… On Nico’s birthday, Vienne even baked a pretty decent birthday cake on the fire! I didn’t know that was possible. Wild camping is so easy in Kyrgyzstan- nobody seems surprised to find you, and often the local shepherds will join you for a chat in the morning.

One of many camping paradises

One of many camping paradises

Vienne proudly displaying her cake

Vienne proudly displaying her cake

Some guests to our camp one evening

Some guests to our camp one evening

We never actually made it to lake Song Köl. After struggling with the rocky track leading up to it for a few hours and making slow progress, Jonas called to tell us the road was closed further up due to a huge blockage of ice. He’d had to turn back from his crazy path for the same reason and had checked with the CBT about getting to the lake. It was hard to believe it was still winter up there when we’d spent the past few days baking and trying not to burn in the sun. So that was a demoralising day, especially as the call came just after we’d enjoyed a steep downhill section, which we then had to crawl our way back up. The day continued with rain, headwind and a puncture for Nico, so by early afternoon we were sheltered under a roof doing bike repairs and drinking tea and biscuits, without much enthusiasm for getting back out there.  Luckily for us, that’s when we were found by a local old man who addressed us all as ‘sportsmen’ (I like this term) and instructed us to spend the rest of the day and night with him and his wife in their house. We didn’t need to think twice about it. A few hours later we were almost delirious with the luxury of being able to use their ‘banya’- basically a stone room with a scalding hot water tap on one side and an ice cold one on the other, with buckets to throw it over your head. On a rainy day and after washing in rivers and lakes all week, it was heaven.

Our home for the evening

Our home for the evening

Friendly hosts

Friendly hosts

Our experience of warm local hospitality continued the next afternoon after climbing the 3000m mountain pass leading towards Naryn (no snow at the top of this one). Halfway through the stunning descent, we stopped for a second on the outskirts of a small village to debate having some lunch, when a boy appeared and, in really impressive English, invited us to come and be guests at his village picnic to celebrate Victory Day. We turned to see a long table laid out on the grass, with about forty people sat around it, beckoning us over.  The next few hours were spent feasting on homemade bread and salads, drinking tea that magically refilled the second you put down your cup, and talking with the villagers through our young interpreter. This was followed by a scary adaptation of volleyball, where some unfortunate soul has to crouch down in the middle of the circle and try to avoid being knocked out by the ball. As soon as Joe got the camera out, it was a mad rush as everybody wanted to have their picture taken. One of the most enjoyable lunchtimes of the whole trip.

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The 95 year old village elder sitting proudly at the head of the table

The 95 year old village elder sitting proudly at the head of the table

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This kid liked the camera…a lot.

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To get to Osh, which is where the Pamir Highway starts, we’d already decided to avoid the main route from Bishkek, as we’d already cycled a lot of that road when we arrived in the country in November and wanted to see a different area of Kyrgyzstan. This meant that we’d be spending the next week on what our map described as a minor road, taking us across from Naryn. The asphalt disappeared on the second day, and we immediately realised it was going to be very slow progress. Nobody minded however, as it was clear as soon as we turned onto this route that we were now travelling through a part of the country where very few people venture. I could count the number of cars that passed us each day on one hand; there were more people on horseback than in vehicles.  The landscape amazed us every day, from the deep crevices in the land around the river Naryn (which looked completely insane from our viewpoint as we climbed switchback after switchback to get over the mountains) to the rich green valleys in between snowy mountains.

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This bumpy road was also where we saw our first genuine yurts, which was exciting. We were invited inside one for a cup of kumus- possibly the most stomach-churning drink in existence, made from fermented horse milk. Even the smell is enough to make you turn green. I politely feigned an allergy. As the road continued, the yurts become more frequent than houses, and it was really interesting seeing whole nomad families driving in wagons with their dissembled yurts to new spots, ready to build them all over again.

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Inside a yurt, confronted with the horse milk

Inside a yurt, confronted with the horse milk

The one worrying aspect to this amazing road was the fact that it ends in another 3000m pass to get from Kazarman to Jalalabad, but being a minor road, just like the one to Song Köl, we were beginning to have our nagging suspicions that it would be closed due to snow. People in villages further back had told us it would be no problem to cross, but as we got closer, the locals became less and less enthusiastic about our chances. Many people enforced their point with arms dramatically crossed in an ‘X’ sign across their chests, heads shaking furiously. Not too encouraging. We decided that we’d come this far, we might as well get to Kazarman and find out there, hitching a van back the long way round if it was closed (but we really, really hoped it wasn’t). Turning back would mean that in order to get to Jalalabad, which was only about 100km away, we would have to backtrack and then take a huge spiralling route for almost 1000km just to be able to get through the mountains!  Luckily, our worries were ended when we met a man on a motorbike who gave us two pieces of good news: firstly, the pass was open as of a few days ago, and secondly, he’d ridden past Jonas earlier that morning- confirmation that he was still alive and well and not too far from catching us up!

With our route now definitely open, we battled our way towards the pass on a road that seemed to deteriorate with each new kilometre. It took all of our concentration just to stay on the bikes. By this point, it was just me and Joe again, as Nico had got sick so they decided to meet us in Osh. The road was so demoralising that (now that nobody was watching us) we contemplated just hitching over the pass, but we were given a fresh morale boost by a German couple who passed us in their 4WD having just driven that way. “Oh don’t worry at all, the road gets much better and it’s only 20k to the top. It’s not steep at all and yes maybe a bit muddy but on bikes it would be easy”.

They lied. (But they did give us a Snickers bar, so we forgive them). If I was making a new map of this area, I would mark this pass with a skull and crossbones. Due to crazy storms, we only reached the switchbacks by the following afternoon but, based on their positive assessment, assumed that we’d be at the top in no time. Two hours later, we found ourselves doing pushing relays with the bikes against the wind and the rain, on a road that now consisted of sticky mud and rivers running off the mountain. Every bend we turned revealed even more switchbacks, and the top of the pass seemed to get further and further away. There was absolutely nowhere to camp as the road was literally carved into the side of the mountain, and so by 4pm we were beginning to wonder whether we’d still be pushing into the night. It was pretty bleak. Even the arrival of an old man on horseback offering us schnapps through grinning gold teeth wasn’t much comfort.

Doesn't look too bad from here...

Doesn’t look too bad from here…

OK, now it looks pretty bad

OK, now it looks pretty bad

Anybody for schnapps?

Anybody for schnapps?

As always happens in these situations, somebody arrived to save the day. As soon as we saw the big blue truck trundling its way up the snaking track towards us, we whooped with manic relief (we hadn’t seen a single vehicle all day) and were already waiting with our biggest pleading eyes by the side of the road when the friendly driver drew level with us. Moments later, we were warm and cosy in the front cabin, experiencing the Pass of Doom from behind a reassuring glass window.  To be honest, it was still a pretty nail-biting experience doing it in the truck. The clouds were all around us so visibility was terrible, and in the slushiest parts, it took three of four attempts to get past certain sections of road. With the sharp bends and sheer drop on one side, we really hoped the driver had done this sort of thing before. The top was incredible, with a ten metre high wall of ice on each side of the road, and other parts that looked like they could avalanche at any moment. Whoever declared this pass ‘open’ seemed to have been using a very loose interpretation of the word.

Welcome to the Pass of Doom

Welcome to the Pass of Doom

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Luckily the driver knew what he was doing and we made it to the other side in one piece, taking advantage of our warm ride through what was now torrential rain to get all the way to Jalalabad city and a relaxing guesthouse for the evening. From there it was a day’s ride to Osh, back on the main road through lively towns and green lowlands. We needed to fix our tent (yet again) as the zip had broken inside so I’d had to partially sew us in to avoid sleeping with the beatles. It was a good excuse to spend a day and a half in this lively city, with its sprawling bazar on either side of the river. In this bazar, it seems, anything can be fixed, and often using equipment that looks like it’s come straight out of the museum.  After completing our fixing to-do list of: a tent, a bike wheel and a shoe, we indulged in Osh’s lively and inviting atmosphere for a couple of evenings. (After all, we were about to go into the ‘wild’ and spend the next month pushing ourselves at dizzying altitudes, so I think we were entitled to our little party wekend…). There are a lot of Uzbek people in this part of the country, and in Osh their liveliness is immediately striking in comparison with the much calmer, quieter nature of the Kyrgyz areas.

Now we have been reunited with the French and Jonas, and are ready to start our long ascent onto the Pamir Highway. I wonder who’ll be the first to get altitude sickness…

Team Kyrgyzstan

Team Kyrgyzstan

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Our new friends outside their home

Our new friends outside their home

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Nico- very proud after his 2km

Nico- very proud after his 2km

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Happy cyclists

Happy cyclists