The road was flat and a gentle tail wind pushed us along as we approached the Tajikistan border in Uzbekistan, yet Angela couldn’t manage more than 10 km/h. There was obviously something very wrong with her. She made it eventually, exhausted and weak, and after about an hour spent working our way through the two customs we were finally in Tajikistan.
We approached the taxi stand to find a lift to Dushanbe and within seconds were surrounded by Tajik drivers elbowing each other and shouting ridiculous prices in dollars. I’m never sure how the process of elimination works and how you end up choosing one driver over the others, as they all offer more or less the same price (which by the way is most of the time double what the locals pay). In our case I imagine we just chose the one with a car that would be big enough to fit both our bikes. There aren’t many cheap places to stay at in the Tajik capital but the Adventurer’s Inn let us camp in the garden for five dollars a night. First thing on the agenda was to sort out my Kazakhstan visa. Our friends Kath and Andrew had had to wait almost ten days before theirs was ready so I wasn’t too optimistic as I entered the consulate. Imagine how pleased I was when the lady behind the glass window told me to come back in two days! The next task was to finally find out what was up with Angela. Following some tests at the little clinic run by a German doctor the diagnosis was a relief: Basically Ange had never really recovered from her heat stroke in Uzbekistan and her electrolyte levels were very low, causing her to feel exhausted all the time. Nothing a few days of rest and some medication could not fix. But this also meant that we would have to stay in Dushanbe longer than expected, giving us less time to cross the country on our bikes.
I liked Dushanbe. It was still quite hot but not as bad as the Tashkent furnace. It had a nice laid-back atmosphere, with wide tree-lined streets and plenty of good restaurants. At the guesthouse we once again met many interesting and friendly travelers. Sarah, a cyclist (and great pancake cook) from Canada, was waiting for her boyfriend to finish riding the Pamir Highway. Together they had cycled most of China. We also met Athena, a Kiwi who had cycled solo from South East Asia and seemed totally burnt out by the time she arrived in Dushanbe. Others, like Xavier and Patrick, were backpacking and trekking in the mountains of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. We also bumped in to Ernest, our favourite Swiss moped-rider, for the second time after meeting him in Tashkent. John, a friendly Canadian who had arrived at the guesthouse half-way through our stay, didn’t have that much time in the country and had therefore booked a 4×4 to take him across Tajikistan and back. It was clear to us that we wouldn’t have time to ride through the Wakhan valley and the Pamir Highway all the way to Kyrgyzstan considering the days off we had to take for Angela to get better, so we asked John if we could tag along with him for some of the way and share some of his travel costs. A few days later the three of us left Dushanbe and headed towards Khorog.
It was an enjoyable journey, and it felt strange to be watching the scenery from the inside of a car. A part of me felt guilty that we were “cheating” our way through, but I knew we didn’t have the choice if we wanted to exit the country before our visas ran out. And to be honest, considering the state of the road leading up to the Shagirdasht pass, deep inside both Ange and I were glad that we were seating comfortably inside the 4×4. By the end of the first day, during which our driver had had to bribe the police at least ten times, we had reached the town of Kala-i-Kum and could see Afghanistan on the other side of the Panj river. The landscape was beautiful and it felt surreal to be there, a stone-throw away from such an internationally feared country. On the second day we headed south and followed the Panj river all the way to Khorog, bumping into Ernest once again! Throughout the journey in the valley we were surrounded by beautiful high mountains, some of them still covered in white snow. The road on the Afghan side of the river, which passed many picturesque villages, wasn’t sealed like the Tajik one but seemed a lot better maintained. It was wide enough for a car in most places but would suddenly turn into a small path or disappear altogether when the side of the mountain became too steep.
At the Pamir Lodge in Khorog we met the Portuguese cyclists Tanya and Raphael again, having last seen them at the Bahodir B&B in Samarkand. They had been cycling together with Francesca and Sam, an English couple from England, since meeting them on the road in southern Uzbekistan and had struggled nine days to get from Dushanbe to here. Unfortunately they were having bike problems and could not carry on cycling until the problems were fixed. Sam and Francesca, on the other hand, were heading in the same direction as us and after a few more rest days at the guesthouse the four of us left together, cycling south towards Ishkashim where we were hoping to arrive in time for the Afghan market. Riding through the Wakhan Valley was a great experience: we continued to follow the Panj River, winding our way through the dry and rocky landscape and occasionally crossing lush green villages, where we would get water and food or find a homestay to sleep at. The further south we went the higher the mountains surrounding us became. We arrived in Ishkashim the evening before the market with a “Welcome Brit cyclists, you made it!” sign on the gate of the guesthouse we were planning to stay at. John, a British travel- writer and photographer who we had met earlier during the day, had been kind enough to reserve two rooms for us when arriving in Ishkashim. What a legend. The Afghan market the next morning was smaller than we expected, but its location on an island in the middle of the Panj River surrounded by tall mountains made it rather special. I very much enjoyed walking around the stalls and watching the locals bargaining with the Afghan merchants wearing their traditional turbans or pakuls.
Shortly after Ishkashim the tarmac road turned into loose gravel which slowed our progress down significantly. But it didn’t matter, because the Hindu Kush Range on the Afghan side was simply stunning. Every gap between the mountains in the foreground revealed some 6000m high (or higher) magnificent white peaks, most of them marking the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. After going for a dip in the boiling hot Bibi Fatima Springs and visiting the Yamchun Fort high up on the flank of a mountain we arrived in Langar and found a nice homestay to spend the night at. For some reason I was feeling truly shattered at that point and could have done with rest-day. As it turned out we were forced to take that day off as Ange and I got pretty sick that night. The next morning we said goodbye to Sam and Francesca, who had to leave to get to the Kyrgyz border as quickly as possible, but were pleased to see Ernest the Swiss moped-rider walk through the front door of the homestay! It had become a habit to run into him in random places and the three of us enjoyed a nice evening together, talking about music, movies and travels. Since Angela still hadn’t properly recovered by the morning of the second day we stayed another night and finally managed to leave in the afternoon of the third day.
The ride that afternoon was one of the toughest ones I have ever had to do. We were at about 2800m altitude and knew that we had to cycle up to the Kargush Pass at 4300m before rolling back down towards the Pamir Highway. We also knew that the hardest part of the climb would come right at the beginning: from the moment it left Langar the road curved and swerved up the side of the mountain and disappeared into the distance. We managed to cycle the first kilometre or so, thanks to some local kids who helped us up the slope but after that we were forced to take turns pushing the bikes up… It was such hard work and at that altitude we would get out of breath very quickly and would start panting like a dog in a Chinese restaurant. Occasional shepherds with their flock of sheep and goats passed us by, probably wondering was in earth we were doing. By the time the sun started setting we had only managed to cover 10km and climb 500m… We felt shattered and a bit depressed but soon forgot all about it when we realised what a great camping spot we had just found and how amazing the mountains looked in the evening light. The next day started like the previous one ended: having to push the bikes up steep switchbacks. Luckily after one hour of hell we suddenly heard engine noises coming from the road further down and sure enough three big empty trucks were coming our way. One of them responded to my upwards-turned thumb and before we knew it we were sitting in the front cabin, admiring the last views of Afghanistan (sometimes so close we could have simply jumped across the narrow river for an illicit visit). We asked to be dropped off just before the top of the pass and cycled the remaining 25km past some beautiful salt lakes all the way to the junction with the Pamir Highway.
It felt great to ride onto the tarmac of the Pamir Highway, after many days spent struggling in the gravel and sand, but it was too early to get down our knees and kiss the road, as we first wanted to visit the remote little village of Bulunkul, at the end of a dirt road a few kilometres off the Highway. In the village we met Sam, Francesca and Patrick again and were also told that Ernest had been here too the day before. Bulunkul is supposed to be the coldest place in Tajikistan, but I imagine that it’s because it’s the only inhabited area outside of Dushanbe that actually regularly records meteorological data! Our homestay’s only toilet facilities consisted of a little wooden shed isolated away from other houses on the edge of the village. As I was woken up that night by an urgent bowel movement and made my way to the shed, I noticed how clear the sky was. I had never seen so many stars shining so vividly before. So as I crutched down do to my business I left the door of the shed open and watched shooting stars fill the sky. This was certainly the most beautiful crap I’ve ever taken…
Back on the Pamir Highway (after getting a lift in Sigi and Peter’s camper-van to skip the terrible dirt road) I suddenly felt the urge to scream at the top of my lungs! I was so happy and excited to have finally reached this famous and mythical road! Officially of course we had been on the M41 since Southern Uzbekistan, but Khorog was the point where the “real” Pamir Highway started, the second-highest altitude international highway in the world, the one that I had been dreaming of every time I thought of Central Asia and a part of the journey I had been looking forward to the most. High-up on a plateau, the Highway is black and smooth, stretching in straight lines into the distance, desolate and empty. It is hard to describe but it is simply magnificent. The photos I took aren’t even close to depicting the grandeur of this region… We were making good progress again and managed to reach the town of Murghab in two days. At the homestay we saw Sam and Francesca’s familiar faces again, as well as Patrick and Rosa-Maria and Reto, two older Swiss cyclists that we had first ran into in Khorog and then Bulunkul. They were both lovely and interesting and as per usual in those parts of the world we spent our evenings chatting away with them about many aspects of life. Although it’s the biggest settlement in the east of Tajikistan, Murghab is still something of a hole full of animal carcasses. We spent most of our time walking and shopping around the market and eating yak burgers at one of the shoddy restaurants. After three rest-days it was time to head north towards Karakul, the last settlement on the Highway before the Kyrgyz border. As we left Murghab the wind was blowing strongly in our backs and we were averaging about 27 km/h for the first two hours of riding. But as the road turned north-west after about 30km, so did the wind, now blowing directly in our faces… Our pace slowed down dramatically and the next 20km took forever. As we fell asleep in our tent that night, knowing that the Akbaikal pass, the highest point of our whole journey, awaited us the next day, we prayed for the wind to die down.
Of course in the morning the wind was as strong, if not stronger, than the day before. We set off and fought our way up to the bottom of the pass, taking many breaks to rest our tired legs. We had just about 5km left to the top of the hill, we could even see the top of the pass, yet it still looked soooo far away. Although the slope wasn’t that steep, the strong wind made cycling impossible. We pushed our bikes again, all the way to the top, feeling exhausted and cold. Damn head wind! Having reached the top we took a break to appreciate the fact that we had actually reached 4655m, 155m short of the top of the Mont Blanc, just by the power of our legs, but unfortunately couldn’t hang around very long as the wind up there was mighty strong and cold. We quickly rolled downhill on the other side and pushed on, stopping and camping 10km before Karakul. We covered the short distance left to the settlement in the morning, early enough to get breakfast at one of the homestays, where we stayed two whole days. Karakul Lake, formed about 25 million years ago by a meteorite impact, was quiet and beautiful, surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Pamir Mountains. Although it was even smaller than Murghab, I enjoyed our stay in the settlement. I especially liked standing in the middle of the dead strait Highway, looking far away in both directions, waiting for cars, trucks or even bicycles to materialise in the distance…
We left Karakul very early in the morning for what we hoped would be our last day in Tajikistan. We had about 60km left before the Kyrgyz border, but that included two more passes, the first one at 4260m and the second at 4285m. It was another sunny day and the visibility was excellent, just like every other day we had spent on the plateau. As we reached the top of the first pass we both glanced back for one last look at the massive blue lake, and carried on towards the border. The climb to the second pass was another tough one, forcing us to push the bikes up from times to times, but we reached the Tajik customs rather quickly. Our passports checked and stamped, we cycled the last few kilometres to the top of the pass, the actual physical and natural border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. From what we could see from the top, a whole different scenery was waiting for us on the other side!
– The remoteness of the Pamir Highway and our pride of having cycled it!
– The views of the Hindu Kush Range whilst cycling in the Wakhan Corridor.
– Meeting so many interesting travelers, among which many cyclists.
– The friendliness and generosity of most of the locals we met and talked to.
– Having diarrhea almost the whole time we spent in the country.
– The condition of some of the roads… But that could be counted as a “good” since it is part of the remoteness of the region.
– Meeting Ernest so many times along the way!
More Tajikistan photos can be found here!