The Pamir Highway

I had enjoyed cycling with David and Ignace, and it had been great to have company while cycling in the remote valley. But for (most of) the rest of the Pamir Highway I was looking forward to riding at my own pace and on my own schedule.

I was all packed up and ready to start cycling just as the others were waking up at 6 AM. We said goodbye and I set off into a headwind. There was a short fairly gradual climb to a pass at 4100m and then a descent. I stopped to put on some sunscreen and as I was doing so a Brazilian couple cycled past. They had camped nearby and were aiming for Murghab today. We cycled at very different speeds so I set off along, enjoying racing down the tarmac descent.

As I approached Murghab the scenery changed. In the blink of an eye I went from barren desert to fertile river valley.

On the way I sent messages to some people who I knew had stayed in Murghab late night. They were having lunch at the Pamir Hotel so I headed over and was reunited with Karl, Adam, Tom, Ross and Pax. Having already done 80km that morning I decided I could slow down for the afternoon. Karl was feeling a bit unwell and decided to take a rest day, but the rest of us soon headed off for the desert.

While in Murghab I managed to buy some sausage and fresh bread, a great relief as my peanut butter was running low!

It was a nice afternoon’s cycling on a very gradual climb. The roads were extremely straight and the surroundings barren with rocky mountains on both sides. The main downside was the horrendous mosquitoes which swarmed us whenever we stopped or slowed. This meant we took no breaks and just cycled along chatting.

Adam had felt a bit unwell a couple of nights ago which he put down to altitude sickness. He therefore sensibly decided he didn’t want to camp above 4000 metres tonight. We were approaching that point when we saw a nice sandy spot next to a rare stream and with a little bit of wind shelter. We all thought stopping here was a good idea.It was before 4 o clock when we stopped but due to the mosquitoes we were all soon diving into our tents.

The next morning I once again set off alone just as the others were waking up. I rode into a headwind, climbing gradually at first towards the Ak-Baital pass, the highest on the Pamir Highway. Oddly the summit sign came about 3km before the top, marking the beginning of the steep section. Unlike in the Wakhan the road here was paved and there was no issue with traction, so it was simply a matter of very slowly turning my pedals in my lowest gear.

I made it to the top of the pass at 4,655 metres, put on some warm clothes, and began to descend steeply on a road that was now dirt of reasonable quality. As I looked around me at all the amazing views and thought about where I was, I laughed – I’m very happy and very lucky to be living the life I do.

Dirt gave way to gravelly washboard and I saw ahead of me the familiar shape of a cyclist. I caught up quickly to Tobias, a German with a lightweight bikepacking setup. We chatted quickly before continuing on in single file – the road was too bad to ride side by side. After a couple of kilometres I looked back and he was gone. He’d spoken about stopping to eat soon so I figured that was what he’d done.

Before long the road was back to tarmac and I met some more cyclists, an Australian and a French couple. They warned me I would soon have strong headwinds. For the next couple of hours though I mostly had tailwinds and rode quickly to the village of Karakul. It seemed abandoned. There were many buildings but a majority of them seemed empty.

I saw some people in the street who owned what could barely be called a shop. They had some chocolate bars, Fanta and Coke. I picked up a Fanta and tried to get some water from the pump. This proved impossible to do alone so I left the village and collected water from a river.

From here on the headwinds started. I’ve read them being described in another blog as “hurricane headwinds,” and that’s what they felt like! I made very slow progress towards the next mountain pass.When I finally reached the pass it was a very challenging climb. It probably wasn’t too steep but the headwind was so strong I could barely cycle.

The combination of wind and shade made it very cold so I stopped just after the pass at an abandoned house – protection from the wind was a necessity tonight!

The next morning was a cold one; there was some ice in the first stream I crossed. It soon warmed up as the sun rose and before long I was stripping off my warm layers. As I approached the border the road ceased to be paved so it was back to washboard once more.

A small pack of dogs came running towards me, unusually aggressively by regional standards. As luck would have it, this was at the same time I saw the first traffic of the day: two soldiers, armed with AK-47s, one on a donkey and one afoot. The walking soldier ran towards the dogs, scaring them off. As I rode past he introduced himself and welcomed me to Tajikistan.

This welcome came just as I was about to leave, however! A short climb brought me to some customs buildings where I was soon stamped out. I climbed a little further to the mountain pass where I reached the official border crossing and entered Kyrgyzstan.

On the way down from the border I met several cyclists. First were a Canadian and French couple, followed by a pair of British guys. The Brits had bikepacking setups like mine so we chatted for a while about that. We also swapped SIM cards, exchanged money and gave each other information on the roads ahead. A productive meeting!

Not long after that the road became paved again and I soon reached border control. There were a few people already waiting and it took half an hour or so for me to get stamped in. From there I was rolling quickly along the tarmac road. The scenery had already changed from Tajikistan. Now there was green grass populated by herds of animals owned by people living in white yurts. Quite a contrast to the arid landscape with concrete buildings that I’d ridden through over the last few days.

I rode into the village of Sary Tash, which lies nestled at the base of a mountain range. It had been quite a while since I’d experienced some of life’s luxuries like having a shower or sleeping in a bed, so I decided to call it a day and stay at a guesthouse. It was only noon at that point so I enjoyed a restful afternoon of lazing about. A pair of French cyclists arrived later, riding an interesting bicycle – it was a tandem, with the front seat being a recumbent and the steering done by the rider at the back. I offered some advice as they were heading towards Tajikistan.

I was up and away at the break of dawn the next morning. I wanted to try and reach Osh, 190 kilometres away. I packed up and set off while wrapped up in a few layers of warm clothes.

A view of the mountains from Sary Tash at sunrise

I was soon getting hot as the day began with a climb up a small pass. I went about removing as many layers as possible. I can remove my coat while riding, and of course my gloves. I pushed my leg warmers down to my ankles and pulled my jumper up around my torso. I must have looked quite silly but I didn’t want to stop! Besides, I’d be descending soon so I’d have had to stop a second time to put clothes back on.

This pass was in a saddle shape, a first pass followed by a small dip and a climb up to the second summit. From there a very long descent began. For about 100 kilometres I followed the path of the Gulcha river until I reached the eponymous Gulcha town.After a short stop I began the day’s second climb. I was feeling a bit tired and not too motivated so I was making slow progress. I eventually reached the top of this 1000m climb and then had another long, fast descent to the city of Osh. This marked the end of the Pamir Highway, a route I’d long looked forward to and greatly enjoyed.

July 12: 119km

July 13: 124km

July 14: 68km

July 15: 187km

2 thoughts on “The Pamir Highway

  1. What really happened to Tobias? Did he really stop to eat? Will you see him again?
    Amazing adventures Sam. Keep on pedalling!


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