I call the section between Kyrgyz border and Wakhan Valley “The high part of Pamirs”. This is the part which I would not cycle if I picked a shortcut via Qoolma Pass. This was the best adventure I had in the Central Asia. Lets me describe why.
Pamir Highway is called a highway probably mainly due to its location high in mountains. The road surface is either average or bad and I do not remember even 1km of a good asphalt. And this is perfect. If I wanted to have a good surface, I would pick Austria not Tajikistan. The surface on most parts is asphalt but it has many potholes and is uneven. There is no tarmac on most of the passes. It is a challenge when you get over 4200masl, you feel lack of air and additionally have to deal with gravel. It meant that on rare occasions I had to push my bike up the hills. It is also a challenge on downhills when you try to control 45kg bike cycling 45km/h on gravel. The gravel is not flat. It has a shape of waves made by breaking trucks. Imagine that you are sitting on the drill. This is exactly the experience of cycling on Pamir gravel sections.
The wild camping site
In Pamir, you can sleep wherever you want. You see a nice spot, you stop, pitch your tent and go to sleep. There are no wild animals, at least not close to the road. There are no people. The only users of the road in May where truck drivers, motorcyclists, few inhabitants and me. The trucks are transporting, among others, wood from Kyrgyzstan, because there are no trees in Pamir (fuel for heating). It is easy to hide from the road, because it’s built higher than the level of terrain. Finally, it’s flat. Pamir is the roof of the road, the wast plain cut by mountain passes and surrounded by mountain chains.
Cycling through Tajikistan
After crossing the border on Kyzyl-Art Pass, I cycled down and hit the road deformed by breaking trucks. Cycling was very hard. Suspension and wider tires are recommended in this part of the world. The road took me through the next small pass and straight down to the Karakul Lake.
On the western bank lays village Karakul. I arrived there in the evening and found only one shop rather scarcely stocked. I was still happy they had some European food. I ate a pretty cheap, tasty and big dinner at the homestay.
The owner insisted on me staying for the night. You can expect to pay ca. 10 dollars per night pre-season. I refused as wild camping was for me the best part of cycling through Pamir. I pitched my tent just 3kms south to the village, near the frozen lake.
Next day, I met the first motorcyclists on the climb to the Ak-Baital Pass (4655masl), the highest Pass on Pamir Highway. I was forced to push my bike on the parts of the final 300m of climb. I was followed by the small truck which was moving only a bit faster than me and overtook me maybe 40 minutes after the first eye-contact 😉
The top was covered with ice. I did a very short break for a photo session and quickly started descending to the warmer plain. In total, I had ca. 80kms of constant downhill, first pretty steep, next of maybe 1-2% gradient. Another motorcyclists from Lithuania passed by me. It was the most pleasant cycling section of Pamir HWY. While cycling, you either suffer for satisfaction afterwards, or you enjoy. The sum of suffering and enjoying is constant – its either one or another.
In the evening, I met inhabitants in a truck and shortly after, I enjoyed the sunset while cycling. I arrived to Murghab in the night. Murghab is the biggest town in high Pamirs, it is a place where you can make a turn and, through Qoolma Pass, get to Tashkurgan, a Chinese border city at the Pakistani border. I was there 10 days earlier. Last 10 days was so amazing that I was again grateful, I did not take a shortcut and took the route around.
On the way to the town, I passed by an airport. If it was not described on the map, i would never say there is an airport there 😀
In the Murghab hotel, I met two Polish guys. There were Jehova Witnesses and one of them was on a mission in this Muslim country. Brave guy 😉 I finally could speak Polish.
Simple life in Tajikistan
Jehova missionaries told the story of an old man from a small Tadjik village that they have met. He had a wife. The wife got heart disease. He decided that it is not worth for him to keep her as wife. He took a divorce. He was complaining that he had lost a lot of money on the wedding with her. Now, he has a romance with another young girl, but will not accept her as a wife, because she is not a virgin. She lost her virginity with him. Next summer, he will go to Russia to earn money and then he will afford a new wife. No feelings. Cold calculation. CRAZY!!!
End of Simple Life story
The next day, I planned to cycle further. First, I bought a local SIM card and, then, it turned out my family made a lot of mess because there was no contact with me in China. I had to stay in Murghab for another day to explain to the world that I am alive. On one hand, I am grateful that they were worried. On the other hand, they pulled too much strings… Always remember to set up a VPN while in China, otherwise, you may end your trip quicker than you thought…
Next day, I could finally cycle out of Murghab. It was the hardest day in Pamir, if not the hardest of the trip. I started cycling with pleasure through beautiful Pamir and, at some point, started climbing a small Pass. 100m below the Pass, the weather was wonderful. I thought “it is going so easy”. A few minutes later, I was fighting with the front wind, cycling 3kmh (it was hard to keep the balance) in below zero temperature in short sleeves. I decided to open my panniers to wear warm clothes. Bad idea. Soon I was running to catch my clothes easily flying along the road pushed by the wind. Shortly after cycling down the Pass, I pitched my tent, cooked something and went to sleep. So good to be warm again! In the morning, it turned out that I pitched the tent on a very wet ground. It sank. My sleeping mattress saved my comfort.
Next day was much easier. I followed Pamir HWY with surprisingly good surface on that section. At some point, I passed a small village, Alichur. I stopped there for food. There was no meny, you either eat what they prepared or you do not. Pamir is not Paris. There were few truck drivers at the restaurant who admired my dynamo USB charged calling it “advanced technology”. Maybe… I was approached few times by people asking if I want a homestay. There are no tourists in Pamir in early May, so they had free rooms. Wild camping rules!
Shortly after leaving Alichur, I passed by a beautiful lake, Sasykkul. It looked really awesome, especially that the weather was turning into bad again.
I passed few Passes with a snowfall, this time prepared for a drop in temperature and the wind, and arrived to the turn into Wakhan Valley. Here, I decided to pitch a tent. Bad idea. If I cycled 500m further behind the turn into Wakhan, I would sleep without wind. I decided to pitch before a turn, and it was the windiest night of my life. It took me 20 minutes before I realised how to pitch my tent which behaved like a big kite. In the night I woke up at least 7 times, or maybe I did not fall asleep at all. It is hard to realise what is going on when 100kmh wind tries to fold your tent 😉
Next morning, I turned to Wakhan valley and maybe 30 minutes later saw a beautiful lake surrounded by slopes. Sleeping here would be so much better…
40kms section connects Pamir HWY and Wakhan Valley. It is a gravel climb after which you can see Afghanistan. This name makes an impression 😉 The entry to the Valley is controlled by a police checkpost. It was empty when I was there, so I had just cycled through. Shortly after, I met the first inhabitants – livestock and a dog watching after them.
Wakhan Valley in the next episode…