The night before we would leave for the start of our cycle along the Pamir Highway we stayed in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe with Vero, a host on the website ‘Warm Showers’. Vero has become something of a legend in the cycling community, due to the fact that, well, she is a huge legend. For five months each year Vero and her young son Gabe open up their home to large numbers cycle tourers passing through on their way to traverse the Pamirs, a high plateau region that offers a remote, beautiful and at times challenging route for cyclists. Her charming garden immediately welcomes you, strewn with Nepalese peace flags, tents, and people from around the world tinkering with their bikes, packing up their panniers or preparing communal meals together. After our last night’s meal, Tim and I sat down to watch the first draft of a short adventure film shot by an impressive young cyclist called Ben, documenting his time cycling in the Arctic Circle. Following the film Ben was talking about the way films could ignite ideas in people and asked me what had inspired me to go on our trip. I had to think for a while about it, but then I remembered vividly. Tim and I were in our flat in London, lying around feeling tired after working late, staring at my laptop. We were looking up cycle touring clips on YouTube and we found a series of videos by a British couple who were cycling across Tajikistan. I remember thinking how normal they looked, with their friendly smiles and not a whiff of lycra and yet what they were doing seemed anything but normal or familiar. At that time the whole of Central Asia was a big blank in my mind, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan… I couldn’t point them out on a map let alone picture the landscapes. There were a number of images that stuck in my mind from their film, as they cycled along the border with Afghanistan and toward the Pamir Highway. They went through a villages flanked with green trees and were passed by a young smiling boy on a donkey. They scrambled up rocky paths across moonscape vistas. As the temperatures soared they kept smiling, enchanted by the people they met and the landscapes they encountered. I immediately realised that I wanted to be cycling along this road more than anything. It’s amazing how powerful images can be. Fast-forward eight months and I was lucky enough to be here, days away from the very same route. Yet at the same time, my belief in our ability to successfully cycle across the Pamir Highway was at an all time low. If anyone has stumbled across this blog and is considering cycling this route my advice would be this; do not read too much before you go! Looking up ‘cycling Pamir Highway’ is a bit like googling your symptoms instead of going to a GP. After the umpteenth blog you will have convinced yourself that you will eat nothing but rice, suffer from continuous explosive food poisoning/ nauseating altitude sickness, almost freeze to death as temperatures plummet to minus two million and ultimately get stuck in a snowstorm - if you don’t get eaten by the snow leopard that is stalking you first, that is. As a result of my stringent research we spent our only day in Dushanbe running around like headless marco-polo sheep arranging a lift to Khalai-Khum (in order to beat that sudden icy front that was clearly lying in wait), haggling over two extra military style sleeping bags, buying gloves the size of oven mitts and furry winter boots from the bazaar, clearing the pharmacy of hydration salts and antibiotics and making repeat trips to the supermarket (‘not enough noodles! We’ll starve!’). Vero did talk some last minute sense into me over dinner, dispelling countless myths about the road, which she and her nine year old son cycled just fine by tandem last year
Last night communal dinner with Vero and gang
Early morning departure from Vero's
It was an early start the next morning to meet our 4x4 driver who strapped our bikes safely on the roof. We soon realised that was the grumpiest man in all of Tajikistan and also determined to chat angrily on his mobile phone for the entire journey. Each time he answered it the car slowed and started to drift out into the middle of the road. Eventually I lost it a bit and he seemed to get the message. From then on everytime the phone rang we all stared at it in silence like a hot potatoe. He drove us for 240km and after the first few hours the road climbed and worsened and plumes of dust rose from the tracks of the cars in front, obscuring the view. We started to wind alongside the river that cut a deep line between a sharp valley, with sheer rocks either side. We stopped for some roadworks and I, of course, scampered off for an opportunistic wee and as I was weeing it occurred to me that I was looking out over the river at Afghanistan, a fact that struck me as strange and novel. For the first four days we would cycle along this river, which marks the border of the two countries, our eyes drawn to the narrow path that traces along the Afghan side, the small villages below it and the mud houses perched high above, the boys playing in the river and the women washing carpets on its bank. We continually asked ourselves why Afghanistan felt so novel and why we were so drawn to it. Many countries on our route were new to us, so what made it different? Was it the country’s tortured past and complex present, or our own country’s involvement in stoking war and causing suffering? Was it because of the media coverage of Afghanistan, or because visiting the country seems so difficult? Possibly it was for all of these reasons, but also because it appeared to us like nowhere else that we had travelled and because it really was beautiful. It certainly wasn’t threatening, unless you are frightened of small children waving at you over breakfast. If so, avoid camping along the Panj river.
The main road across the Pamirs is called the M41 and we followed this from the small Tajik village of Khalai-Khum. The road was patchy and winding and we shared it with the occasional Chinese truck, which usually passed by at a slow pace with a friendly toot-toot, and the occasional 4x4, which usually passed by at breakneck speed without giving you any space leaving you with a cloud of dust in your face and a good dose of thinly-suppressed rage. A man we met in Khalai-Khum had told us that he saw 6 cyclists heading off ten minutes before us, leaving us so hopeful that we’d catch them up that every time we saw a flock of sheep or group of rocks in the distance we convinced ourselves that it was them and broke into speed. The first cyclists we met were going the opposite direction and sadly informed us that we were at least 100km behind the group, who they had bumped into days before.
We were hardly lonely, in any case. At each village we passed through we were greeted by the people living there, most notably groups of small children who ran up to us shouting ‘hello!’ ‘what is your name?’ repeatedly, then ‘goodbye!’, which we assumed was our queue to leave, but was actually followed by ‘hello!’ again and then the whole thing would repeat. Three children who had introduced themselves as 4 and 5 years old then helped to push us up a steep hill which was greatly appreciated.
At night we would pitch our tent as darkness fell, drawing back the curtains on the most beautiful sky of stars. I have the weakest bladder in the world and wake up every night needing the toilet, but on these occasions my curse became a blessing as I was treated to nature’s light display and numerous sightings of shooting stars. On our first night we pitched our tent by the river and a man who saw our torchlight shouted out across at us. Tim then lay awake for hours convincing himself that we would be snatched away by the Taliban. In the morning he felt pretty sheepish as a group of women called across to us and waved for about five minutes - more fool us. There was no shortage of places to camp along this route, and on the one night we cycled into the dark unable to see far enough to find a suitable spot we knocked on the door of a small house in a village and were invited to pitch our tent in the garden of the family living there. The population in the Pamir region is notably young, and as we sat talking with the family in their living room we counted about 10 babies dotted around the room. One of the most common questions we were asked by the people we met was whether we had children (perhaps they thought we’d tucked in into one of our pannier bags) - when we answered no, we received some concerned and surprised expressions, especially when we revealed how old we are.
Getting a helping hand from the local children on our first day from Khalai-khum
Cycling along the narrowing M41 towards Khorog with the panj river for company
Our first night camping across from an Aghan town next to the Panj river
We rode as fast as we could these first few days, which was challenging as the narrow road gave way constantly from asphalt to loose gravel as it wound and rose. Arriving again in a village after nightfall an old man ushered us into a garden by the river to camp. In the morning, the views over the river toward the Afghan side were utterly beautiful with the towering cliffs reflected in the wide flat water. A woman was grazing her cow nearby and came up to offer us some apples. Her name was Rosa and she casually mentioned that this was her garden, seeming completely unperturbed to find two cycle tourers setting up home in it. In fact, she invited us to stay inside the next night though sadly we had to push on. The scenery grew even more charming around the town of Rushan as the landscape opened up into green fields with flower filled trees, passing stretches of crops and sandy riverbanks. Once we arrived in Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan region that we were traveling through, we headed to the Pamir lodge a popular sleeping choice for cyclists. We immediately recognised Vera who we had been ‘following’ on instagram and, overwhelmed with excitement at finally seeing another cycle tourer, ran up to her calling out her name which must have been a mildly terrifying experience, though she handled it well. We chatted away with Vera and her partner Cyril, also known as Team Oufti, and found out that they had been delayed here a week with parasites. This seemed to be a common experience, as the whole place was like a hospital ward filled with recovering cycle-tourers. Unfortunately for us, the showers and toilets were barely separated by thin wooden walls - I’ve never showered so fast in my life (and I’d been looking forward to one all week.) Moving around the lodge I caught snatches of conversation; ‘how was your night?’ ‘pretty eventful’... ‘it struck me around 3am’... ‘did you eat at the curry restaurant?’... ‘I wouldn’t go in that toilet… you know…’ We left as soon as we could the next day, fearing for our stomachs.
There are two popular routes for cycle tourers from Khorog - to continue along the M41 which is beautiful and mostly well paved, or to take the Wakhan valley route that continues to border Afghanistan and eventually rejoins the M41 after a large pass. The latter is more challenging, but has less traffic and allegedly more beauty, with glimpses of the Hindu Kush mountain ranges. This route decision can leave many cyclists scratching their heads but in my opinion, you can’t make a bad choice. We went for the M41, still aware that we were cycling late in the season with adequate though not particularly good gear. Cyril and Vera had left that morning, so we waved them off expecting to catch up that night - which led to many more ‘is that them… no, it’s a rock/ bush/ sheep/ yak’ etc. etc.
The road was great to start and went through several small villages before things became increasingly remote. The first night we camped behind an abandoned house near a rest stock for trucks. We peered out of the tent as they switched off their lights, and slept to the occasional sound of truck engines winding down, like a weird multi vehicle sleepover. The next morning was my birthday, the big 3-0. No pressure, I told Tim, but I’m far away from home and it’s down to just you to make this one special! Well, it certainly was, with beautiful cycling past vibrant green rivers, a birthday lunch complete with stale sponge cake, and a perfect camping spot in a farmer’s field surrounded by towering mountains. My mum also messaged me to say my friends had made a special facebook group full of birthday videos - the only glitch being that facebook is banned in Tajikistan after someone used it to insult the president. But the thought of their kindness warmed my heart (as did the whisky I drank that night below the stars).
The view from Rosa's gardrn
Filtering water on the road to Jelandy
The next days took us into higher altitudes and colder weather. We began to camp early before night fell, zipping into our double sleeping bags and wearing every item of clothing we had packed. One night, at 6pm, we heard the crunch of footsteps approaching our tent. Outside was a rather concerned looking woman bundled up in winter gear. Her name was Shakira and she had come to invite us into the warmth of her house next to the village school where she taught. We declined her kind offer but agreed to come past after breakfast. Shakira lived with her uncle and we sat around their central stove drinking yak milk and dipping fresh bread (made communally in the village) into warm yak milk. I’ve never felt so revived in my life, by the food and by their kindness. She told us about a hot spring at the next village of Jelandy, where we found ourselves directed to a local house. Knocking on the door we were led through a greenhouse of trussed tomatoes (the first vegetables we had seen growing on this high plateau) and into a room with a huge hot pool where we soaked our cold and tired muscles. Onward and upward, we stopped in search of a food and were led to a small shop selling snickers (yes!) and met a young woman there who gave us a huge loaf of bread for our travels. We scoffed it down by the river whilst we filtered water. Cycling in such a remote area brings new challenges in self reliance and we were carrying a week's’ worth of food with us from Khorog, but water sources are never scarce as the Pamir region is well fed by water from the glaciers melting above.
The next day we climbed our first major climb over the Khargush pass, which left us stopping every 50 metres to regain our breath and strength as the air thinned. It didn’t seem as bad as we had expected and we tucked into our celebratory snickers feeling extremely self-satisfied - until we realised that we hadn’t reached the pass yet and had several hundred metres still left to climb. The road deteriorated as we cycled back down the other side, but we were rewarded with views unlike anything we’d seen before. It was a little like cycling on the surface of the moon, hazy chalky colours and wide blue skies, not another vehicle in sight. We finally made it to the village of Alichur in the dark, cold and tired but fueled by thoughts of a warm homestay. The sprawl of this small village with its squat whitewashed houses emerged bizarrely from the barren empty landscapes we had become accustomed to. As we pedalled in over the river I heard a shout in the night but thought nothing of it - later we found out it was Cyril, who was staying at a homestay at the start of the village and had seen our headlights emerging in the night. We stayed with a young family, sleeping on mats in their spare room. There are a number of these homestays along the Pamir route and afford the weary cyclist a nice warm sleep and often a cooked meal or two, all for around $15 per head paid to a local family. We were told that these families, during the harsh winters in the region, will all move into one room of the house, with a stove constantly burning for warmth. Alichur had one sparsely stocked shop, a school and a well. We couldn’t get our heads around such remote living, nor imagine what the long winter months would entail.
The next day was beautiful riding and ended with a long downhill stretch. By this time we had given up on catching Cyril and Vera, when some shouts snapped us out of our cycling reverie and we turned to see them both, wrapped up warm and waving from the side of the road. We joined them at their well-scouted camping spot and chatted around a fire of yak-dung. It was a short ride from there into Murghab, though we hit a sandstorm that left us disoriented and unable to see each other as I called out dramatically “TIMMMMMM!” - I fear he was simultaneously savouring the temporary reprieve. Murghab is a significant sized town of 4,000 with a hotel and market of shipping containers stocked with fruit and vegetables and snickers for hungry cyclists. We took a rest day at the hotel, which was close to setting up shop for the winter, and visited the small and friendly hospital as Tim had submitted to the dreaded traveler’s tummy. In Murghab we also met a big group of cycle tourers and enjoyed beers, plov dinners and shared stories from the route. We cycled on from Murghab with Cyril, as Vera went ahead in a 4x4 after over a month of feeling unwell and suffering from the altitude. She looked quite pleased with her decision, having heard from a fellow traveller that a hotel with a bath (!) was waiting in the town of Osh.
Celebratory photo at the top of our first pass
Cyclying the Khargush pass, 4200m
The long way down towards Alichur
Creative water hunting, Alichur
The quest ends: Cyril and Vera finally found!
Battling the elements on the way to Murghab
Cyril was fantastic company for us and kept our spirits high as the roads rose higher. Camping became increasingly challenging and we woke to find our water bottles frozen over. But the cold was never unbearable. Together, we pushed up the highest climb of our trip, Ak-Baital pass at 4,655 metres. As I wheezed up the last bend I saw Tim and Cyril high-five at the top and I felt a little tug of emotion and the prick of tears behind my eyes. We celebrated in the customary style - and I’ve never known a snickers to taste so good. The cold forced us to keep moving and whilst the downhill path was surrounded by beautiful dusky mountains, the cold was biting much harder now that we weren’t cycling uphill and the road condition had worsened to the point that I was starting to curse. It was a long and arduous ride to reach Lake Karakul and as we drew closer we met a cruel headwind that sent Tim and I sheltering peloton style behind the wings of mother-goose Cyril. When we finally arrived at our homestay we fell into a heap on the floor as the elderly couple who owned it brought us reviving tea and fried potatoes. They asked where we had come from, ‘Ak-Baital pass’ we gasped. They look mildly surprised and we realised that they must have vast numbers of cyclists passing through this route, though few must look as destroyed as we did.
We took a rest day here, and strolled down to the beautiful vast lake that was created by a meteor. The town was surrounded by snow capped mountains and had a remoteness and eery beauty to it. That night, as arranged, the group of cyclists we had met in Murghab joined us at the homestay bringing our group size to 9. Cycling together the next day we felt a true sense of camaraderie, with no one left behind as we climbed a small pass, cooking lunch together at the top with views of the majestic Lenin’s peak and finally pitching our tents in a huddle as we had our coldest night yet. The condensation from our breathing froze inside our tent and I woke up to it melting and dripping on my eyes - the only part of my body not bundled up in clothes and bedding. We continued to have clear skies as we climbed over our final pass the next day, the descent was breathtaking but bumpy, I can’t even describe the shades of blues and greens in the rivers we rode alongside. We crossed easily into Kyrgyzstan and rode together into Sary Tash, glancing back over our shoulders at the snowy mountain ranges behind. We had to battle a sudden headwind for our last stretch into the village, a parting gift from the mighty surrounding mountain ranges perhaps.
Sary-Tash marked the end of our Pamirs adventure. Together with Chloe and Will, another British couple cycling on a tandem bike, we checked into a room at the hotel. Here we met Lou and Charlie, British twins who we had been in touch with on instagram. The hotel didn’t have showers, but for a small price we could take a bath. I was told that we would have to wait an hour, before the hotel owner ran into our room and ushered Chloe and I out the gate and round to a neighbouring house. She instructed us to go and get the boys, and quickly. Chloe went looking for them whilst I jogged on the spot to keep warm, asking if I could go ahead and enter the bathhouse - it became clear that this wouldn’t be permitted until we were all assembled. Once all four were present we the door was flung open, startling two small girls who were finished up inside and ran out the door at the sight of four shivering Brits. Through another door we found the washing room, with a big steaming tub of hot water and several small pots with which to douse ourselves with it. We quickly stripped down to our undies (Will to his birthday suit) and got to work cleaning the last week’s dirt away. It was, to put it lightly, quite the bonding experience.
The next night we all moved to a homestay in the village where our other cycling companions had found the only internet in Sary-Tash. The whole group sat shamelessly around the living room table glued to various devices, sipping tea. That night we shared dinner and beers before the group split the next day, with one half heading north toward Osh, and the rest of us east to the China border. I was so happy to have met such a kind and fun group, and felt so lucky to have had the opportunity to cycle through such a remote and beautiful part of the world, where the local people made us feel welcomed and safe. We were saddened to hear from another tourer that the two cyclists who inspired our trip had died in an accident later on in their journey. We didn’t know them, but would have liked to thank them for sharing their videos and planting the seed that would grow into our own adventure. Their blog is still up and running, inspiring intrepid explorers to get out there and make their traveling dreams into a reality. For this we are extremely grateful.
Reaching Lake Karakul with mother goose Cyril
We made it!
From Sary-Tash we cycled on as a group of seven: Vera, who had rejoined us from her rest in Osh, Lou and Charlie, and Josh, a brave solo cyclist from the UK who was en route to Pakistan. We didn't have any particular expectations for this part of the route and it turned out to be stunning. The weather was fresh and crisp, the road surface was good, with very few cars and the whole ride was fringed with endless snowy mountains. We had a surprise pass to climb, but as the road wound down we didn't know which way to look - at the frost dusted scenes to our right, or the vistas of dusky hued mountains to our left. Tired after a day of winding and climbing we arrived at a village just before the Chinese border around dusk. We asked a woman walking back from the well if there was a place to sleep and, for the grand sum of $1.50 each, she provided us with warm rooms, duvets a plenty and some food to fill our growling tummies. The next day was a relatively quick cycle to beat the Chinese border guards' long lunch break. The border crossing felt militarised and somber, juxtaposed by the ping pong table placed right next to the passport control - possibly the oddest game of table tennis I've had. You are not allowed to cycle the 100 + km from the border to customs control at Uluqqat so we nervously strapped all seven bikes to the back of a truck. From Uluqqat we jumped on our bikes and let the realisation - that we had made it to China - sink in. We felt childishly giddy, high-fiving, unashamedly selfie-snapping and chatting away to the local people who approached us. We didn't really think that we would make it this far, but here we were, in the mammothly sized hugely populated culturally diverse country that is Chi-na.
The unexpectedly stunning cycle from Sary-Tash towards the border with China