- Dushanbe (Tajikistan) to Sary Tash (China/Kyrgyzstan border)
- 12 August 2016 – 8 September 2016
- Highest mountain pass Ak-Baital pass (Pamir mountains) 4,655m
- Total ascent – 31,093 metres
- Best yoghurt I ever had in my life – Qalot…homemade by a local woman and her cow who invited us to her home
- Highest campspot – 4,237 metres
- Coldest camp temperature -5c
- Largest cycling group – 9 people 🚴🚴🚴🚴🚴🚴🚴🚴🚴
So after an unscheduled return to England…feeling a little bruised still from having my dream of circumnavigating the world in one go with only pedal power (ok except sea crossings 😉) taken away I returned to Uzbekistan ready to take on the infamous Pamir highway on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan! I made a decision not to dwell on what had happened…you can’t control what happens to you… all you can do is deal with it. It cost me a big chunk of my budget and left me a little demotivated for a day or so but that was the situation and for me the choice was an easy one…I’m privileged I have that choice…it could of been a lot worse! To cut a long story short (for visa and timing issues) it was not possible to go back to Tehran and I had to fly back out to Uzbekistan and begin again in Dushanbe. I was so excited once I finally boarded that plane…the pamir highway is the part of the trip I had dreamed about…this was the highlight and finally I was there 👏😁!
It’s been many months since Tajikistan and as I sit here thinking about it I realise truly how amazing it was…I put it in the top two highlights of my trip so far! I’d spent the night flying and not slept a wink on the plane and had so many things to prepare, people to talk to and was so excited to be here I didn’t sleep all day and setting off the next day was a big mistake and I paid for it down the road…but fuck it…I was there…it was awesome…I cycled with some amazing people and that’s all that mattered! The Pamir highway is the Mecca for cyclists…it’s what every ‘adventure’ cyclist dreams of and Dushanbe was full of cyclists getting ready to give it a go…people fly here from all over the world and there was probably 10-15 other cyclists there getting ready to set off. Mike, the Australian guy I had cycled with before, had arrived in Dushanbe the day before me and I set off with him and three other guys…Tex and Max from Belgium and Francessco from Switzerland who I had first crossed paths with back in Croatia!
My expectations for Tajikistan were dangerously high and I was nervous that I’d be disappointed…but not in the slightest! It was funny getting thrown back into Central Asia from England and I had to get used to the constant attention again…you don’t get left alone for one minute…back in England for the past three weeks no one had really given a shit about me 😂 But out here people want to talk to you, look at your bike, give you something or sometimes just stare (very intensely for as long as they like 😂). I was so excited as we set off from Dushanbe but I think the combo of the weather, jet lag, no cycling for the past 6 weeks and still feeling ill from Iran took its toll and I was nigh on pathetic at cycling…but minus the feeling of beingfucking useless I loved every minute of it! The first stage from Dushanbe to Khalaikhumb was tough going…a small gravel, sand, rocky road leads to Saghirdasht pass at 3,250 metres elevation…the highest pass I had climbed so far.
It was the first time I had cycled with a group of people…and I really loved it…we had a great laugh…cooked together, entertained each other around the campfire and helped each other out when we needed to. We set off from Dushanbe as 5 and arrived in Khorog a week later as 3! After 6 weeks previously cycling with Mike, the Australian guy, we all woke up one morning to find his tent gone and I have never seen or heard from him since…really weird…but he was pretty weird and ‘cest la vie’…goodbye 😂
The only negative thing I have to say about the country is the lack of food…my god…things are sparse in Tajikistan like…in terms of infrastructure, agriculture and industry they got shafted when the Soviet Union was split up! We stocked up in Dushanbe best we could as we knew there was only a few small shops scattered along the way and supplies were very limited! I survived on a diet of boiled rice and instant noodles but we worked hard at the locals to get bread, eggs and veg whenever we could and I think we did pretty well with what we had! Shops were few and far between and the remoteness of the area reflected the stock!
Oh one more negative…getting ill…it’s Inescapable and really grim…every cyclist I met had problems…some so severe they had to return to Dushanbe and fly home…we were lucky…none of us were that bad but I had some grim days in there 😷🙈😷
The thing I loved about the Tajikistan landscape was that constantly for 28 days it was beautiful…it doesn’t just have its sweet photo spots…the whole time you’re surrounded by the most amazing scenery…the biggest settlements (beside the city’s of Dushanbe an Khorog) are maybe 20-30 houses and an odd store here n there…it feels untouched, unspoiled and it is just how it is!
After dropping down from the pass again to somewhere around 2,000 metres elevation we began to follow a river…this river also happens to be the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and its funny how, regardless of whether we want it to the media completely consumes and formulates our opinions and states of mind. I felt a rush of adrenaline the first time I arrived at the river…(in fact in all honesty I was shitting myself 😝)and began following it along…for hundreds of kilometres I was within 100 metres of Afghanistan…here in Tajikistan in the middle of nowhere I felt completely safe and just over there a mere 100 metres away also in the middle of nowhere felt frighteningly different! We were told not to camp so close to the river but after a day or two it didn’t seem so dangerous anymore and some of our best campsites were a stones throw from Afghanistan! It was like looking back in time looking over the river…dusty, rugged landscape, sparse dusty houses, donkeys and locals in traditional clothing!
Mostly there was nothing to see on the other side…it was very quiet…but a few times people on the other side saw us and we were only ever greeted by smiles and waves…hardly news worthy stuff but good to be reminded of the reality of day to day life for these people. I was extremely curious what I could learn if only I could be on the other side of that river…next time maybe!
We made it to Khorog in just over a week and I was relieved to get a day off! I spent the day repairing my bike (after breaking a spoke) and stocking up on some more supplies for the upcoming Whakan corridor, the most remote Part of the route. August also coincided with travellers taking part in the mongol rally… a trip starting out in London and ending in Mongolia by car and the only hostel in town was pretty busy with these guys. Most of them were dousche bags but there were two micras came bobbling past us on the bumpy Tajik roads one day with 6 older ladies from England inside…all between 65-75 years old and the sight kept me smiling for the rest of the day 👵🏻👵🏻🚗🚗👵🏻👵🏻
Leaving Khorog you have two choices…stick to the M41 (shorter and not quite as remote) or keep following the Afghan border through the Wakhan corridor…I decided on the latter option. If you take a look at a map you can see a finger shaped piece of land protruding from Afghans north east corner towards China…with Tajikistan along its northern border and Pakistan to the south. In the late nineteenth century this land, known as the wakhan corridor was defined as afghan territory to create a barrier between Russian and British empires and has awesome views of the Hindi kush mountain range.We left Khorog as a newly formed group…me, Cesco, Kevin (French), Charlie and Sam (dual Brit/Aussies). I was really enjoying travelling in a group and it was great to cycle with another female…as much as I loved cycling with the guys the constant talk of shitting was sending me over 💩💩💩 I felt good after a days rest and I had also dumped 8kg of luggag…I could redeem some self respect after my pathetically slow first week 🐌🚴!
I wasn’t sure what to make of the locals in all honesty…sometimes they were very kind and would give us fruit and bread and even offer us a place to stay in their homes…but sometimes they were very harsh and frosty when we tried to ask them questions. In all fairness life was really hard up there…resources were scarce, much land was not fertile (because of the alititude), people were very poor, most villages had no electricity or running water, men drank a lot of vodka and winter time was extremely brutal.
The children were very friendly and happy to see us…smiling, waving and endless high fives. The older kids could be a little intimidating at times when you were alone and they were in big groups! one day a kid threw a big rock at me which came whizzing inches from my head and Cesco’s front wheel…he gave chase…likely to the kids delight! Also sometimes they would ask for money which is really frustrating.
A few days after leaving Khorog as we were packing up our camp one morning we met another cyclist, Jin from South Korea…a solo female cyclist…5 years on the road…she was awesome and I struck up a real good friendship with her for the week or so we cycled together!
As we got further along the Whakan corridor the roads got worse and worse… food, water and people were pretty much non existent as we made our way towards the pass…there was three days of nothing! We were as prepared as we could be with stocks of food, water filters and warm clothing. The landscape was amazing…I have never seen such amazing mountains, rivers, waterfalls and completely natural landscapes before. We had some pretty fierce winds at times and it was pretty scary inside the tent…a couple nights it was sooo loud and I could feel the tent being lifted from the ground…I pegged it down as strongly as I could and used big rocks to help hold it in place but it was impossible to sleep!
We were joined by another cyclist, Yatsu from Taiwan and we were now a large group of 7 and it was great fun cycling with so many people but progress was much slower which seemed to get to some people more than others…for me it was fine..the visa is 45 days which is more than enough time to make it to Kyrgyzstan so what was the rush?! It was getting extremely cold as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. One afternoon it began to snow as we made our way up a long ascent and at the top as we waited for Yatsu she appeared over the brow of the hill and began sobbing with her hands over her face…I felt uncomfortable and pretty concerned and it took her a good minute to explain that this was the first time in her 37 years of life that she had experienced snow…’it’s so beautiful’ ❄️😂🙈 I couldn’t fucking believe it 😝but it was pretty nice to see someone so overwhelmed and appreciative of simple/natural things! Despite the high altitude the sunny days were usually warm enough to ride just in a t-shirt but at nightfall the temperature seriously dropped! we woke up to our tents covered in snow on a couple of occasions and Yatsu soon took back her ‘it’s so beautiful’ crap 😂We made it up and over the pass which was over 4,300metres elevation on really tough roads…the landscape was amazing and we were so glad we did it but we were looking forward to seeing tarmac again! A few of us were affected by the altitude…I was paranoid my lungs were going to fill with fluid…I’d had a nasty bark for a few weeks but were willing to pay the small price for what we were rewarded with.
It had been 5 days since we had seen any Tarmac and once we hit it we flew the 50km to Alichur where the first shop and small cafe we had seen in days! No heating, no running water and nothing fresh to eat bar a few potatoes and onions if you were lucky. we ended up meeting our Dutch friends in the campervan again…they kept appearing every few days from nowhere…and decided to take a rest day playing cards and doing a bit of hiking…but we hadn’t quite acclimatised yet to being at over 4,000m altitude and it was hard on the heart and lungs.
The next day we had 100km to Murghab and it was a stunning ride at that…even by Tajikistan standards. We had three other cyclists join us, Doug from England and Christian and Isa from Denmark and now we were a group of 9 but luckily we still managed to make it to Murghab before sunset. Murghab is the largest town in Eastern Tajikistan and regrettably but truthfully one of the most depressing places I have been…I was secretly fuming when I saw it…I’d been imagining a little semi-civilisation for a few weeks now but I guess I’d have to wait. Electricity was often cut off…for months at a time. Spending a day resting here made the poverty and lack of resources very obvious.
Leaving Murghab we began to climb again and it really started to get cold, especially at nights camping at altitudes over 4,000metres…it can be pretty tough! I had to stuff my sleeping bag with batteries, water filters, phone, water…basically anything that could be damaged by the freezing temperatures. The mornings were fun trying to drag ourselves out of our warm sleeping bags and out of the tent to pack up the frozen gear…at points I thought I might lose a finger ❄️🙈 but early morning cycling just as the sun comes up is the best 🚵♀️🌄
The border separating Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan consists of yet another mountain pass…Probably the steepest one to date. I was sweating and freezing at the same time and felt extremely sad to be leaving the Pamirs behind. This had been the most demanding leg of the journey so far but it had also been the best experience of my life and I didn’t feel ready for it to be over…but I was ready for Chinese food!
The descent down to the Kyrgyzstan border was awesome as we lost around 3,000 Metres elevation and the view looking back on the Pamirs was incredible! Unfortunately I didn’t get to see much of Kyrgyzstan as the window of opportunity for cycling the Tibetan plateau was shrinking every day the closer to winter it got and that was another place I’d been looking forward to from the beginning of the trip.
I’m not sure my words can do this place justice…those that can, please go out there and see it for yourselves. If you want adventure, challenge and beautiful landscapes this is the place for you. This part of the trip was probably the longest time I’ve spent without internet, electricity, running water, clean clothes, fresh food but let me assure you…it was made up for in leaps and bounds through happiness…and for a change…shared happiness ❤☺🚴🚴🚴🚴🚴☺❤
Some final photos to inspire you all here…